As long as a piece of string…

“As long as a piece of string.” This was the answer my high school history teacher always gave when someone asked her how long our essays should be. She stared at us intensely over her intimidating black-rimmed glasses and, in her raspy smoker’s voice, always gave the same answer.  I am not sure why we kept asking. Perhaps we hoped she’d give us a straight answer one day, but I am sure the closest she would have got to that would have been: “As long as a plank of wood”.

I had opted to take French as one of my matric subjects and just before we had to make a final decision, she said to me: “French is good, it’s a new language, but history will teach you to write. It’ll teach you how to enrich the language you already know.” And for that piece of advice, I will always be grateful.

As a child, I loved reading and writing. My dad bought me books, all kinds of wonderful fairy tales, and read to me every night. When I was about eight years old, I wrote a story at school (in South Africa) and spelled flavor without the u. My teacher marked it wrong with her aggressive red pen and I argued with her.

“In the books my dad buys me, that is how you spell it,” I said defiantly.

“Show me,” she said.

The next day I brought her an Archie comic and diligently turned to a scene at Pop Tate’s diner where Veronica ordered a strawberry-flavored milkshake. My father got a little note that afternoon suggesting he stop buying me comics as they were negatively affecting my English. He never listened, thank goodness.

My mother also had a big influence on my writing. She was and still is a spelling guru. My mom knows how to spell anything and everything, including flavour. She still helps me with proofreading my writing and in fact, she will have proofread this blog post before you got to read it.

I am also lucky to be married to a part-time writer, who understands my desire to write. Unfortunately, that is what it sometimes amounts to – a desire. I am kept very busy with my fulltime job and other commitments, but when I do find the time and head-space to write, he is always encouraging.

Right now I’m focusing on writing short stories, but my long-term dream is to write a novel. The illusory novel has been harassing me constantly, daring me to give birth to it and berating me when I don’t. But when Alice Munro, a celebrated Canadian short story writer, won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, I felt vindicated.  I made peace with my nagging novel and concentrated on my short stories.

Annie Proulx, award winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, sums up perfectly how I feel about writing short stories: “I find it satisfying and intellectually stimulating to work with the intensity, brevity, balance and word play of the short story.”

In a 2012 interview with Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, in Publisher’s Weekly, Stein tells us that if you think short stories are dead, you aren’t paying close enough attention.  

He says: “Short stories bring you up short. They demand a wakeful attention; a good one keeps you thinking when it’s over… The short story offers something else – a chance to pay close attention – and have that attention rewarded because, for once, every little plot twist, every sentence, counts.”

In this digital age, where we are constantly bombarded with information and every link leads us down a different cyber pathway, our attention spans are short and our free time even less. Perhaps the short story, if written well, provides the answer. It’s short enough to read in one sitting, but demanding enough to hold our attention and focus – a skill fast retreating into the digital chaos,  arm-in-arm  with handwriting.


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