As long as a piece of string…

Posted: February 2, 2014 in General
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“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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Burning woman

Posted: December 7, 2013 in Short stories
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Afrikaburn, or Burning Man as it’s known in the US, must rate as one of the most amazing experiences ever. I have attended four times and it has never ceased to astound and inspire me. It is truly an ‘Alice down the rabbit-hole’ experience and I cannot imagine what it must be like to find oneself there inadvertently. In fact, we met a few people who did just that during our last trip.

So, when the Short Story Day Africa 2013 competition theme was announced as the fairly bizarre, Feast, Famine and Potluck, what better setting for a story than Afrikaburn. My story, Burning Woman, was shortlisted as one of the top 6 entries and appears in the SSDA 2013 anthology, described as a dazzling collection from across the African continent and diaspora.

Food is at the centre of stories from authors emerging and established, blending the secular, the supernatural, the old and the new in a spectacular celebration of short fiction. Civil wars, evictions, vacations, feasts and romances – the stories we bring to our tables that bring us together and tear us apart.

You can buy a hard copy or an e-book. All of the info can be found here.

A reviewer on Goodreads.com wrote:

“Stand out stories for me included Chicken by Efemia Chela, On Time by Achiro Patricia Olwoch, 44 Boston Heights by Catherine Jarvis and Burning Woman by Michelle Preen.”

And the anthology was listed as one of Unsung Stories’ best books of 2015.

Whispers from the wild

Posted: December 3, 2013 in Short stories
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One of my passions is visiting game reserves. Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to spend about 12 days camping in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a massive park straddling South Africa and Botswana.

My story, Whispers from the Wild, was inspired by, amongst other memories, another such trip – this time to Addo Elephant Park a few years back.

Here is a short excerpt from my story:

How I had hoped and prayed that the stimulation of this new environment and the sight of these strange creatures would trigger a vocal response from Katy. But so far, it was not the case. She was clearly excited and amazed by the experience, but not enough to actually say anything. Katy had not spoken since the incident. And maybe she never would again.

It’s published in an anthology called The Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story!, a collection of short stories and poems celebrating Short Story Day Africa 2012. This collection, published by Black Letter Media, features voices from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Nigeria.

Humble beginnings…

Posted: September 13, 2013 in General
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My husband inhabits the world of websites and website marketing, and he strongly recommended I name this site my name. I wanted to come up with something quirky and clever, but I bowed to his superior web wisdom, and so I introduce my blog, ‘michellepreen.com’. I did, however, sneak in the byline, the write(r) side.

Currently when you search for ‘Michelle Preen’, virtually every reference is to ‘Michelle Obama dressed by Preen’, so let’s hope that I now climb the Google ranking ladder and outdo the first lady and her fashion designer. One day, I hope to see ‘Michelle Preen read by Michelle Obabma.’

I have subtitled this blog the write(r) side because besides being convinced that this is the right path which I have chosen, it is only a small part of what I do. I wish for it to be a much bigger part, but right now I will have to make do with writing fiction in my spare time.

I currently work full time in the field of environmental communications and media, which means I get to write, just not fiction. You can read a bit more about me and my writing in the ‘About’ section of this blog.

I imagine this blog will be a base for my writing – a place to hone it and to home it. It will provide an address to which I can send people if they express an interest in reading what I write. I know, for one, my mom will love to send people here!