You are a prolific short story, flash fiction and poetry author and have co-edited and co-authored several anthologies of creative work. How has the editing process informed your own work?
What an interesting question! First, I have to say that it’s far easier to spot things in someone else’s work than it is in your own. What I do when I offer suggestions on someone else’s story is to remember to come at it from within what the writer wants to do, not how I would write that story. And that there are almost infinite ways to write the same “plot”, and the choices we make – point of view, tense, at what point to start telling the story, where to end it – can completely change the story you are telling.
I work as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at Bristol University, offering science students help with their writing, and I spend quite a lot of time suggesting that the most important thing is not to hand in a first draft, but to let it lie, for as long as possible. Only then can you even start to see your own work with fresh eyes. What I learn from looking at other people’s stories is that there is no such thing as the “short story”, there are endless permutations and innovations, each great writer makes it their own and does what only they can do. There’s no formula, and I try and write the sort of thing I love to read. And then let it lie, sometimes for months, or even longer.
Before focusing on creative fiction, you were employed as a science journalist. How difficult was the move from formulaic journalism to the creative sphere and what informed the decision?
I blame Ali Smith! I went for the first time on an Arvon residential writing course in 2006, in great part to meet her, one of my favourite writers and one of the reasons I started writing short stories. She said what you always dream your favourite writer will say: You can do this, you’re the real thing. Give up your day job. So I gave up being a journalist – it was hard being a freelance writer and also trying to work on fiction, my head didn’t have enough compartments – and devoted myself entirely to short stories. I do miss journalism, though – I met such interesting people who were excited about their research, their new technologies, and were always grateful that I wanted to know about it and pass it on. But, as you say, it was formulaic and it didn’t allow me to express myself in the way I want to, through fiction and poetry. I love what I do now – writing, teaching, editing, performing – teaching on Arvon courses myself – and can’t quite believe I am “allowed” to do this for a living!
Which genre (short story, flash fiction, poetry etc) do you prefer to write in and why? Do you feel that the genres work on each other or influence your writing process?
Ah, no, you’re not getting me to pick a favourite child! I love them all, the passion for each is different, they feed me in different ways. Flash fiction I often write quite fast and what emerges tends to be very surreal; short stories can take a great deal longer and I now know, after many years of screwing it all up, when to stop and wait for the next part of the story to come, rather than force it. Poetry has become a joyous way for me to document more directly what I see and feel, what is happening around me, as well as using the shape of words on the page as additional effects, and poetry I write aloud, whereas prose needs my fingers moving on the page or keyboard. Everything affects everything, it’s not really possible to extricate one from the other. I am working on a book for my PhD which is very hybrid – prose morphs into poetry and vice versa, I love to break down genre boundaries, play with context, mess with a reader’s head.
Where do you find inspiration for your work and what is your process for generating ideas?
I find inspiration everywhere, far too much for me to ever use it all. Science has always been something I have used to spark my imagination and still do – now I actively scour my copy of New Scientist every week, looking not just for interesting stories, but for “facts” that I can use in poems instead of coming at a subject head on, to let me sneak up on it, tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson said. The way I work changes all the time. Right now, I will be contemplating something, a situation in my life, a topic, but if I try and write it as it is, it won’t be enough for me, for the sort of poem I want to write. Science often gives me a way in. I also like to collide ideas – I have a poem that resulted from a collision of two articles I had read, one from New Scientist and one from the New Yorker.
An interesting discovery I made over the past 18 months as I started writing poetry more seriously and prolifically is that, whereas I had banished all my inhibitions when it comes to fiction-writing (that took around 10 years), a brand new Inner Editor emerge to tell me that what I was writing wasn’t a poem, was utter rubbish…! So I’ve had to find new ways to silence this voice. But the thrill of trying a new form is something I highly recommend, to shake yourself up, to renew.
As founder and former managing editor of The Short Review and curator of ShortStops, what do you think makes a good short story or flash fiction piece and why?
I’m often in the privileged position to be asked to judge or pick my favourite pieces, for a competition or literary magazine, and it really is so subjective. When Courttia Newland and I co-wrote Writing Short Stories: A Writers and Artists Companion, published by Bloomsbury, we actively fought to avoid all rules, all “shoulds”. There is no formula, only that you grip the reader from the start and don’t let her go, don’t give her a moment’s pause to think, Shall I keep reading? This doesn’t necessarily require bells and whistles, car chases and explosions, it can also be done so so quietly, with very little happening at all. Personally, I am enthralled by the voice of a piece, be it the main character or a narrator. As well as a love for language. Hook me with these two aspects and you can take me almost anywhere!
If there was anything I wanted to do through The Short Review and now ShortStops it was to demonstrate how many things a short story can be, how many people out there do love to read them, and to write them, perform them, listen to them. The variety is the thing – brevity not as constraint, but to liberate. Not “Look what this writer’s done despite the word count” but choosing and using the small space of the short story to do what only short stories can do.
What inspires you to continue your dedication to the short story/flash fiction form? Do you feel short fiction is an enduring form (why/why not)?
It’s not really for me to say what is enduring and what isn’t. There are too many articles on both the demise of the short story and its renaissance, we are all rather fed up with these – it’s not dead, it’s always been very much alive! And no, it’s not ideal for this apparent age of short attention spans, because the short story – like the poem – requires all of your attention, albeit for a shorter amount of time. I see so many new lit mags and live lit events springing to life now, ShortStops’ lists are ever-growing, which is a very good sign. I can only say that I love short stories, flash fiction, poetry, non-fiction, anything made of words! Reading is what feeds me, each form in a different way. I don’t think I would survive without it, so I need writers to keep writing for me – and for themselves, of course.
Finally, what advice would you give aspiring writers?
Read. Read everything you can get your hands on – not, as I mentioned, to see what a short story, flash fiction or poem “should” be, but to open yourself up to everything they can be. Then do it your own way. There are no rules. If you surprise yourself, move yourself, make yourself laugh and cry, chances are you will experience that miracle when something you’ve written reaches beyond you and speaks to one other person, someone who is not in your head. It doesn’t get better than that.
Author of two short story collections and co-author of Writing Short Stories: A Writers’ & Artists’ Companion, Tania Hershman’s poetry chapbook is forthcoming in 2016. She is curator of ShortStops (www.shortstops.info), celebrating UK & Irish short story activity, a Royal Literary Fund fellow, and studying for a PhD in Creative Writing. www.taniahershman.com. Listen to Tania read her work.