Today, I learned I won the Heartland short story competition with my story, Fishing the Pungapunga. I’m very pleased with this of course – the prize comes with a cash award and a bit of recognition, both of which I am aiming to achieve more of with this writing and publishing game.
The irony for me is that I’ve never been interested in writing short stories. Whenever I have wanted to express myself in writing, I’ve done so with journaling, including free verse poetry. My goal in writing has always been to produce novels. To me, short stories have always been inocuous curiosities of the English classroom – worthy of study but surely not wholly representative of writers’ literary endeavours. I could count on one hand the number of short stories that impacted me in any sort of artisitc way (For example, Shirley Jackson‘s The Lottery or Kurt Vonnegut‘s Harrision Bergeron).
However, as I’ve marketed my books and been more involved in the New Zealand Society of Authors, I’ve encountered competitions celebrating the short story genre. Motivated by a desire to enhance my reputation and draw attention to my novels, I ambitiously entered the BNZ Katherine Mansfield short story competition, writing a sort of spin-off from Te Kauhanga with The Homeless Men of Mahuika. I added Shiver to their “short short story” competition. I then set out to enter the Heartland competition, hosted by our local Taumarunui Writers’ group, and wrote The Boy at Ohinetonga. This ended up surpassing the 1000 word limit so I entered it into the NZSA Central Districts competition (subsequently receiving a rating of “Highly Commended”). This created the further task of writing yet another story for the Heartland competition – Fishing the Pungapunga.
It turns out the process has been very rewarding and not just in terms of results. I was dubious about writing these stories, not because I didn’t think I could write them, but because I was suspicious of my own motivations. I suppose many writers and other artists ideally want to be motivated by intrinsic complusion, a need to expess what stirs deep within and connect with others with this in meaningful ways – not set out to pen something that will impress a judge in order to win money and perhaps build a reputation or a CV.
I could turn out, if I’m not careful, comparable to a student writing a story to meet assessment criteria or to please a teacher.
And yet, this process was fulfilling (as was having a deadline) and in the end I expressed things that were inside me and fit with the themes and styles of writing I have been developing in my novels. Perhaps it’s true that, no matter the motivation or the inspiration, it’s the perspiration that will lead us to create our best work.
Regardless, I’m now left to ponder my next steps. I’m keen to share my recent short stories with more people and am considering posting them on this blog. However, I am first attempting to publish them with periodicals here in New Zealand. In one sense, it’s yet another attempt to get my name and work out there, but it’s also another attempt to engage in a process that will hopefully bring other unforeseen rewards.
And perhaps I’ll write some more short stories after all, with an aim to publish a collection one day. I’ll just need to see if the short story form continues to draw me in and to draw things out of me.
Antony Millen is a Canadian living and writing in New Zealand and the author of Redeeming Brother Murrihy: The River to Hiruharama and Te Kauhanga: A Tale of Space(s).