Got a short story, ‘Halva’, published in a newspaper in Krasnodar, a beautiful city in the South of Russia. I grew up there and I consider it to be my hometown, even though I was born in a place called Rostov, and moved to Krasnodar when I was four. I still remember the train journey and our cat Foka – don’t laugh, that really was his name! – who had to travel in a bag. Krasnodar is hot in the summer, and gets snow in the winter. It was nicknamed Our Little Paris by a famous Russian writer Viktor Lihonosov and the tale goes that when the cossacks were first building the city, they based it on Paris, with its Champs Elysees.
The story is about homecoming, which is, I have realised, one of the main themes of my writing. I have always had to settle in a new city. First when I moved to Krasnodar and even at such a young age already felt foreign. Then when I moved to London for a few years and eventually to Manchester. So I am always curious about the process of coming home. About the people we leave behind, about our old selves that we abandon, about the barely noticeable changes in us as we start a new life somewhere else that accumulate and eventually make us into a completely different person. I always wonder what my life would have been like, had I not moved from one place to the next.
A couple of years ago I went to Krasnodar for the first time in ten years. There were many things that I discovered, many things that I had wanted to see and that had disappeared. I saw a few friends, walked a few streets I’d missed. I realised how different I had become, how English, in a way. Having spent ten years feeling homesick for Krasnodar, I was now longing to come home to Manchester. And then it struck me that what I was looking for wasn’t there anymore, but that it had always been inside me and I could take it anywhere with me. So now when I feel nostalgia, I go to a middle eastern shop which reminds me of the markets in Krasnodar, or I buy some Halva or I make some Armenian style dish, or I just put on some music like Zemfira and I feel happy, not sad.
I’ve been thinking about the novel I’m supposed to be writing for my MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. I say ‘supposed to be’ because for the last few weeks I’ve been writing a lot of short stories and flash fiction, but no novel. I can’t say I’m blocked, quite the opposite – I’m writing more than ever and I’ve been asked a lot why I look so glowing. But the novel has been resting. The last time I worked on it I realised that every time I write it for a period of time and then leave it, the next time I come back to it I sound different. As if the protagonist has multiple personalities. Which might be the solution. You might say, don’t leave it, keep writing it every day. But that’s the thing – I write and then I feel as if I have emptied my tank of thoughts and sentences and I have to leave it while I re-fill.
With my self-imposed One Story A Day challenge I don’t feel the need to not write. I like the freedom of short stories, so that must make me commitment phobic when it comes to novels. To make matters even more complicated, I’ve been avoiding reading novels too. I just don’t want to commit. What if that writer’s style influences my thoughts too much! And now the guilt feelings come flooding in: does that all make me a bad person? A bad reader? A bad writer?!
It is as if being just a short story writer – at least for now – makes us somehow worse than ‘real writers’ – the novel writers. The fear that publishers would not want to take me on without a promise of the real thing in the future. That writing short stories is just a preliminary step, sort of like being a trainee writer. That’s quite similar to relationships, I think. If you only have flings and one night stands, society would generally think worse of you than if you are in a committed relationship. And if I am in a commited long term relationship (engaged, as it is), then why can’t I commit to a novel? And should I?
In the meantime, I’ve been reading short stories and my favourite for this morning is World Enough and Time by Linda Mccullough Moore (The Sun Magazine).
Well, it’s Monday! I have just listened to the New Yorker podcast with Daniel Alarcon reading a short story by Roberto Bolano called Gomez Palacio. I loved it and I plan to find his other stories and novels and read them. So that’s part one of my challenge done for the day. Although I will probably end up reading a few more today. And as for part two, well, I was already reminded this morning – thanks Steve Galbraith! – to write a story today, so I wrote a flash. I’ll leave it to rest for a few hours so that I can re-read it and edit it with fresh eyes tonight.
I’ve been feeling slightly nervous at the challenge I’ve set myself. What if one day I’m not well? What if my mind is blank? What if the kids have one activity after another and I don’t get a chance to write? What if… The one thing I know about myself is that I am very competitive. In a good way. So if anyone wants to take up the challenge with me, I will be very happy. Any takers? Come on Steve, I know you want to!
I really am. I have even started downloading podcasts from places like the Guardian short story podcast and the New Yorker onto my i-pod and then taking it to the gym to listen to while I’m pushing weights.
What I love about short stories, both writing and reading, is how sneaky they can be. They don’t require the same long-term committment as a novel, but once they grab you, that’s it. The strength of their punch knocks you out. The images stay with you forever, often even the ones you didn’t like that much.
It’s a bit like agreeing to have a coffee with an ordinary guy, thinking that it would never lead to anything and not even bothering to dress up or wash your hair, and then boom, and he somehow turns out to be your guy. Although of course I always wash my hair. Every day.
As you know, I get bored easily. I get passionate about things, I fall in love with places, people, bright colours, new ideas. And then I often burn out and change focus and all my opinions. And that’s where the short stories are great. I have read about the one short story a day challenge for a year on Dan Powell’s blog and I think I’ll try that starting from tomorrow. It’s a good time to start, a Monday. I will probably end up reading ten on one day and just one on another.
And to be particularly cruel to myself, I’ll make my challenge harder: I dare myself to read AND write one short story every day for a year. I’ll keep you updated so that you don’t let me give up.