Have you ever set yourself a challenge? Something long-term and personally meaningful, something that, when completed, surprised, delighted and satisfied you?
Back on the 4th July 2015, around the time I decided to retire, I set myself such a challenge. I had another five months of classes to prepare and teach, but I was eager to start my ‘new’ life as a full-time writer. I always found it difficult to maintain a regular writing routine while teaching, so I knew ‘writing ten minutes a day’ wasn’t, at that time, going to work. I had to find something else that would prepare me for the rest of my life.
I decided to immerse myself in one aspect of my art: short stories. I set myself the challenge of reading one short story a day, every day, for twelve months.
Reader, I did it. Ten days ago, on the 4th July 2016, I read Kate Chopin’s ‘Regret’, the 366th (yes, I added an extra) story, thus ending my challenge. I have to say it was the best thing I have ever done. Not only did reading a wide selection of short stories inform my writing, I think it made me a better person.
I tended to stick to stories and collections written by women; it was my challenge and so I could follow my inclinations and biases. I discovered, during the challenge, writers I didn’t know about and rediscovered writers I had enjoyed years ago. In the case of the latter, reading Kerryn Goldsworthy’s wonderful Australian Women’s Stories: An Oxford Anthology felt like walking in to a roomful of women, many of who were old friends and many others I wanted to learn more about. Barbara Baynton’s ‘The Chosen Vessel’, from that collection, is an Australian short story classic. I have read it several times and, yes, this is a cliché, but it never fails to move me. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do so straight away.
Another collection I read was Contemporary Canadian Short Stories, edited by Michael Ondaatje. My reaction to this was mixed; I enjoyed most of the stories but was perplexed by the inclusion of several others. I learned, however, a lot about Canada’s history and its people. I have always wanted to visit Canada and this book fed that ambition. I’ve also decided to read a more recent collection of Canadian short stories; if you have a favourite, please let me know.
Another discovery was The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. I’d known about flash fiction before finding this collection but Davis’ book has strengthened my interest in short, short stories. I am astounded by how she says so much in such a small form.
All in all, I read from about 21 collections (many of which I bought, putting, in the process, severe stress on my budget). I only read four of them from cover to cover, preferring to cherry pick from the others and expose myself to as wide a variety of writers and genres as possible. The bonus is, I still have many of these collections to complete, so I’ll be working through my short story collection for many years to come.
I also strayed into creative (or literary) nonfiction, those mostly erudite gems whose facets include truth, dialogue, characterisation, setting and plot. This is one of my favourite genres and something I want to work on so Helen Garner’s recent book, Everywhere I Look felt like a literary benediction. I read each story slowly and I didn’t want it to finish.
I also discovered podcasts. This was in the latter months of 2015, when I was still teaching and struggling to stick to my resolve of consuming a story a day. Every time I caught the bus to work I set up my mobile, put in my ear plugs and clicked on to New Yorker: Fiction or New Yorker: The Author’s Voice. Oh, the joys of being read to again.
Regrettably I only dipped into one short story magazine, mostly because purchasing them would have stretched the budget too far. As a writer, however, reading as many magazines as possible is a good idea, especially when I’m considering submitting a story.
Another happy discovery was Wild Ways: New Stories about Women on the Road. It was given to me by a friend who was clearing books from her personal library. This friend is much travelled and I suspect she gave it to me because I’m just the opposite; I’ve been overseas once. I loved this collection. It was full of funny, feisty, adventurous women and while I was reading it I wanted to get on the first plane to anywhere.
I learned so much from this challenge, although only a little in terms of how to write a short story. Back in 2004 I studied short story writing in depth, when I returned to university as an undergraduate. This is not to say I know everything about writing a short story, far from it. Three months into my challenge, I found I was immersed in the world of short stories and the short story writer and I had started looking beyond the different elements that make up a short story. I think I developed a more nuanced awareness of the intricacies and complexities of the short form. I absorbed, I believe, a deeper understanding of how the genre works and why it is so important. If I chose, I could probably bash out an academic essay about each element of story writing, but a good short story is more than a clever arrangement of those elements. Having read 366 short stories in a year, I think a good short story is like a tree in the forest, the one you come across that makes you stop. The one that holds your gaze because, even if its branches are askew, its leaves withered, and its roots knotty, the pattern of light and shade that tree affords, the interaction of that tree with the earth and the sky, is so inspiring, so fascinating it doesn’t need to be perfect. All that such stories need is the brush of your breath on the page, like the wind that brushes through the leaves of a tree, to complete it.
I read so many short good stories it is impossible to list and discuss them all. More importantly, the ones I like may be the very stories you’d reject. Yes, there are classics, universally loved tales that most people agree have all the elements perfectly arranged, but over the last year I stepped into several beautiful forests, I was arrested by many single trees whose branches embraced me, who revealed in their pattern of leaf and twig, a different sky, a further horizon.
I miss the routine of sitting down each day and reading a story, although the truth is I didn’t manage to do it every single day. In late 2015, essay and exam marking meant I never quite found the right moment. Christmas and New Year always chews up my days; who would want it any other way? I always caught up though, and I learned to love missed days because it meant I could sit and catch up on two or three stories at a time.
Every so often, in the last ten days, I have stopped what I’m doing and wondered what is missing. Then I realise I haven’t read a short story and I remember; my challenge is over. Except it isn’t. I’ve set myself a new challenge, only this time I’m not going to work on it every day; I want this challenge to be more leisured and measured. I am going to read Shakespeare: all the plays (some of them for a third or fourth time), in the order he wrote them; all the poems and all the sonnets. I’ve started with ‘The First Part of the Contention’, which, it is assumed, is his first play. I’m up to Act III Scene i and I can’t wait to read more.
I’m not sure how long it will take me to complete this challenge, and I’m not sure I care. What I can say is, in the process, I’ll learn a lot about drama, about writing and about the human condition. That’s why I read; it’s one of the best ways to understand our fellow humans.
WHAT challenges have you set yourself that you’re still involved in? What challenges have you completed? What did you learn about yourself and others while doing the challenge? What kind of challenges would you like to set for yourself and why?
Davis, Lydia. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.
Daly, Margo, and Jill Dawson. Wild Ways: New Stories About Women on the Road. London: Sceptre, 1998.
Garner, Helen. Everywhere I Look. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2016.
Goldsworthy, Kerryn. Australian Women’s Stories: An Oxford Anthology. South Melbourne, Vic: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Ondaatje, Michael. The Faber Book of Contemporary Canadian Short Stories. Faber, 1990.