On the Art of Writing Short Stories

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Before I tell you how I came about to write my very first short story, “Conflict Zone Date,” (forthcoming in Consequence Literary Magazine, Spring 2016), I’d like to make a confession.

Up until about six months ago, I never really understood short stories. I just didn’t get it. I tried. I struggled. I bought collections of short stories by authors whose novels I enjoyed, such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Haruki Murakami, but never made it past the third or fourth story. During my BA studies in English Literature, I suffered greatly in class when we read short stories. I couldn’t relate to the very concept of short stories in any way. Everything about the genre just eluded me.

This, of course didn’t mean that I don’t have a “short story” folder. But it was, up until some six months ago, just a forgotten folder among my hundreds of “writing” files. There’s some six or seven word documents in it, none more than 400-500 words in length. But this has recently changed.

In September of 2012, the media reported an incident of violence in Jerusalem. They called it lynch. A young Palestinian man was escorting his Jewish friend home from a party, and he was attacked by a group of young Jewish men, ending up in need of hospitalization. It was a hate crime. He was beaten solely because he is a Palestinian. Hundreds of hate crimes are perpetrated every year here. Most of them don’t even make headlines. Sometimes, a story makes its way into my life, the people involved in it keep tugging at the edges of my imagination. What was their life like before? A week before? On the day of the incident? A week after? What did they do for a living? Were they students? Did they love? What was their favourite color? Did they live in the city alone, with a friend, or in the village surrounded by a big family? Were they lonely or did they have a wild social life?

This young Palestinian man started accompanying me in my imagination while I went around my daily tasks. He would sit down to have a cup of coffee with me in the morning and smoke a cigarette with me. At first, it was annoying. I couldn’t concentrate on the tasks at hand. Eventually, I opened up and started to listen. He told me about the village where he grew up, his mother’s cooking, his nephews and nieces. Then about his apartment in Haifa on the forth floor, overlooking the Haifa bay. That’s when I got suspicious. Wait a minute, you live in Al Quds, not Haifa. He just laughed in my face. I’m just a figment of your imagination, he replied, a twinkle in his eyes. No, you’re not. You were attacked, beaten, hospitalized. It was in the news. It’s real. Again, he laughed. And aren’t you a writer? Aren’t your stories based on reality but with fictional characters? Isn’t your writing basically a fictionalized reality? He took a drag on his cigarette, and dared me. So I wrote down what he told me about his life. Not the attack, but his everyday life. Where he worked, the visit to his home village on a weekend, the difference between village and city life. Then he stopped visiting me, and I abandoned the story. For three years, I didn’t touch it. I would visit it in my mind every few months, but didn’t feel a need to complete it.

Then, one day, in Autumn 2015, he came back. He just popped up for coffee. What’s happening with that story you’re supposed to write about me? Huh? I don’t do short stories, and you’re not enough for a novel, I wave him away. And even if you were, I’m already in the middle of a novel and you don’t fit there. Oh, so you don’t do short stories, eh? That smirk again. That daring. You haven’t even tried. He finishes his cigarette and disappears.

From that point, it took me two more months to complete “Conflict Zone Date,” with the initial title “They Lynch.” Just as I was finishing the first draft and getting ready to start editing and tightening it up, I receive an email from someone from Consequence Magazine: An International Literary Magazine Focusing on the Culture of War. Their 2016 issue will feature Palestinian and Jewish fiction, and they wanted to know if I’d like to contribute a piece. Sure, I said. Let me just finalize this short story I’m writing on and I’ll send it to you for consideration. And so I did.

Then I patiently waited for the rejection email. Because surely I’m supposed to get dozens of rejections before my short story is accepted by anyone. Because surely I must first master the art of short story writing by practising and writing at least twenty short stories before one is anywhere near to being publishable.

Well, the long awaited rejection never came. Instead, the editor contacted me that he’s happy to inform me that my short story will be published in their 2016 Spring issue.

Parallel to the process of completing the short story, I began reading short stories again. Starting with Alice Munro’s Dear Life. All of a sudden, and I can’t explain how this happened, I am beginning to understand the concept of the short story. I am beginning to finally enjoy reading short stories. A friend of mine sent me two collections of short stories recently: The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl, and True Tales of American Life, edited and introduced by Paul Auster. I have designated a shelf in my library for short stories now.

I am working on several short stories at the moment. I realized that some characters don’t want a whole novel. They just want us to get a glimpse of their lives. And that’s what short stories are about, at least to me. I save newspaper clippings of stories that touch me. Usually they have to do something with the conflict, or violence against women. They are portrayed in the news item as victims, they make the headlines for a day, and then they’re gone, to make room for the next tragedy. But we never learn anything about their personal lives. And that’s what I try to give them in my stories. I give them a voice, agency, a life beyond the moment of tragedy.

If you enjoy my writing, please consider supporting my work. To support my art, please visit my Patreon page at: https://www.patreon.com/khulud_khamis?ty=h

 

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