Writers On Writing / Gretchen Shirm on crafting short stories

“Writing that doesn’t spell everything out, that trusts the reader to make sense of what’s not there but is gestured towards is, in my opinion, the most powerful form of writing, because it invites the reader to help co-create the story as they read.”

Writers on Writing Gretchen Shirm

Writers on Writing is our regular conversation with a writer or industry professional about the writing craft, industry insights, and their own practice. This week, we spoke to Gretchen Shirm about the power of the short story form, and how what we leave out can be just as important as what’s on the page.

What distinguishes the short story from other forms of writing? What can they achieve that other literary forms perhaps cannot?

The length of the short story form is its defining feature, in the sense that because of the length, everything matters. In the novel, there is space to take detours, to examine different ideas, to explore different tones and rhythms; in that way it is a much more forgiving form. In the short story, everything contributes to the whole, and in that way it is a model of narrative in miniature form.  It’s the most penetrating of fictional forms, because the sense of change, of movement, of crystallization is more acute, because it happens quickly, within a short space of time; for that reason the reader’s sense that they have witnessed something dramatic is heightened. 

You say that “endings are often defining of the short story form.” How might writers approach endings in their own short fiction?

I once heard Anne Enright say that in the short story you aren’t writing for the last line, but for what happens in the reader’s mind in the silence after the short story ends. In a short story, the ending should hover over everything that has come before it, and contribute to the meaning of the whole in some essential way. I often think of the ending of a short story as the striking of a bell — a certain resonance is created when the ending is read, and the reader puts things together in their own mind. When the ending of a story is ‘right’, the whole thing thrums and takes on a new meaning.

How does Ernest Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’ theory apply to short stories?

The iceberg theory applies to all good writing, but because the short story is a model of narrative in miniature, it is particularly noticeable in this form. The iceberg theory is about how language can work by implication — how readers can get a sense of things that remain unspoken in the story itself. Writing that doesn’t spell everything out, that trusts the reader to make sense of what’s not there but is gestured towards is, in my opinion, the most powerful form of writing, because it invites the reader to help co-create the story as they read. 

Who are some short story writers that you admire?

My all time favourite short story collection is Helen Garner’s Postcards from Surfers. Garner does something radical in that collection, which is to do with what she leaves out — some of the stories in that collection are just breathtakingly spare, but contain so much emotional heft through Garner’s exquisite and precise prose. Elizabeth Strout’s linked stories are also a real touchstone for me — I love how connected everything is in Strout’s stories, how one person’s interpretation of events can quickly be undone by another perspective. Lauren Groff’s Florida, Anne Enright’s Taking Pictures, and Jennifer Down’s Pulse Points are also favourites of mine.

Gretchen Shirm is the author of a collection of short stories Having Cried Wolf, for which she named a 2011 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist. Her first novel Where the Light Falls was shortlisted for the 2017 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her short stories have been published in Best Australian Stories, Kill Your Darlings, the Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction and Southerly. Her criticism has been published widely, including in The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, Australian Book Review, The Australian, The Monthly, Art Monthly, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Age. Gretchen’s novel in stories, The Crying Room, will be published by Transit Lounge in 2023.

Join Gretchen’s workshop, Crafting Short Stories, Saturday 28 October 2023, 10am-4pm at Writing NSW.

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