Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Long story short - and good

Creative writing can be deeply enjoyable and satisfying…when it works.  When it doesn’t, it can lead to hair loss and hard liquor.  As my own attempts at writing short stories typically fall into the latter category, an event like ‘Long Story Short’ that brings together three accomplished writers of short fiction to share and discuss their work both soothes my scalp and makes me excited about what I might learn.


The evening unfolded in two parts.  First, each author in turn read a selection from one of their short stories.  Miranda Hill shared part of an allegorical tale about a baby girl acknowledged by everyone as perfect, quite unlike her older brother.  Nadine McInnis recounted a budding relationship between a volunteer and a patient in a hospice for the dying.  Steven Heighton painted a relationship at a crossroads subjected to the stress of armed robbery.  Each read very well, pacing and pausing in such a way that the listener was quickly drawn into three interesting tales that were by turns mysterious, threatening, funny, and mildly bizarre.


The second part of the evening saw the authors take the stage together to respond to a range of questions from both the event’s host and the audience concerning the literary form of the short story, its relationship to the Canadian context, and the creative process.  One question of particular interest was what limitations, if any, might exist on taking on voices of the other (i.e., those who differ from the author in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.) and whether authors shied away from taking on certain voices out of fear of criticism.  Steven Heighton responded that the key issue was whether or not the author could do it well, and that to attempt to take on alternative perspectives was key to further developing as a writer.  Miranda Hill agreed, adding that authors might not take certain voices for many reasons, including that they simply do not feel drawn to it.  Nadine McInnis offered that there were no hard and fast rules, but that thorough research and dramatically entering into the other voice was needed for it to work. 


The authors’ discussion of the creative process was also fascinating and very enjoyable.  They shared thoughts on their approach to writing, incorporating autobiographical elements, the pleasures and challenges of the short story form, and how they addressed such things as pacing, rhythm, and editing.


All of their particular responses and reflections were interesting in themselves, but much of my considerable enjoyment of this event was on a different level.  It was simply a pleasure to watch all three artists engaging one another, their host, and the audience in a free-flowing, articulate, thoughtful, and mutually-respectful discourse on their craft.  They responded frankly and directly to good questions, and were even willing in small ways to be publically vulnerable.  A gift from them to us, and a welcome one at that.