Last night, author Jon Bauer (Rocks in the Belly, Scribe) launched the sixth Sleepers Almanac and the new Sleepers literary app at the Bella Union Bar, Trades Hall, Melbourne. I thought his speech was wonderful, so with Jon’s kind permission, here it is for you all to read:
Have you ever had that moment on a dance floor where, mid-boogie, you look around and think, what the hell are we all doing? I had a moment like that when I was thinking about tonight. All these have been designed, printed, bound, cut, driven thousand of kilometres around the country; put online, all for short stories. The Minister is here. There’s one, two, three, ten thousand people…
So since it’s why we’re here, what is a short story?
In 2006 I’d been writing just two years. My family and friends were pushing me to submit my work but I was waiting. Mostly I thought I wasn’t quite good enough yet. But sometimes I wondered if I might just be scared of rejection.
Nevertheless, I was writing story after story as a way of practising. Not caring if they were perfect, caring only that they had a line, a paragraph, an idea in them I could be proud of. And all stories have that.
As a naive writer I wandered round the outside of the Melbourne writing world, wondering how you got in. I found and devoured a Sleepers Almanac, looked at the submission guidelines and sat back at my writing desk, and thought, at last.
It was another year of hard work before I did finally send my first story off, to the New Yorker.
Which is perhaps the first thing a short story is, it’s ambitious. Getting a narrative off the ground, up to cruising altitude, and safely back down again on such a short airfield is Top Gun hard. Short stories are the wafer thin Swiss watch of the writing world. All the mechanisms of a novel but in a triumphantly elegant package.
Not just ambitious, a short story is also hopeful. If you’re doing it right, you’re taking a truth of your own, turning it into characters, putting those characters in a plot unlike your own, but trying to have it all still resonate the bit of you that sat down to write in the first place. A bit like redecorating your front hallway through your letterbox, that.
Which must make a short story a marker of perseverance, or perversity. So important to you is that truth that you resist all the easy distractions of modern living. You work at this literary contortion act alone. You send it out along with all those other competing truths in the world, foolish or courageous enough to ask an editor-stranger if, out of all the others, they could please love it too.
And who could possibly love your story like you love it. Blind to its frailties. Loving it the way your gran wants you to love her incontinent poodle; like your dad loves his crusty towelling dressing gown; like your brother’s guitar playing or your girlfriend’s parallel parking.
And so in that way, a short story is a bridge – between the disguised innards of its author to the innards of a reader. Because if you get it right, and we only manage that from time to time, you get to plant your insides in another person. So much so that they recognise your truth as their own.
I had a woman tell me on election night that she plans to have a line from my novel tattooed on her body.
But short stories are mostly unrequited, foolish, devil-may-care. Because you can’t be sure if they will be accepted, often they’re not. They get sent back to you with scabby knees and grazed elbows.
Or if accepted, readers flick over them. They miss your truth – mangle your plot. You had a story in the last Almanac didn’t you? they say at a party. It was about talking dogs, wasn’t it? Sleeping horses, actually. Yeah, I read half that one.
After the New Yorker rejected me, the Almanac was next. Mainly because since attending one of their launches and looking at their submission guidelines it became clear to me that what I would be submitting to was a fresh-faced meritocracy.
What can be more important to our writing ecosystem than something which says to a burgeoning writer, there is nothing stopping you being published but what happens between you and your writing. Not your name. Not your CV. Not your reputation. A proper publisher which says if you write a great story, we’ll publish it. Actually, we’ll champion it. All a writer need do then is practice. And god knows you need that struggle to be all there is, because that struggle is struggley enough as it is.
Without the sense that merit alone is enough, a writer looking to climb the ladder will see only one rung, the top one. Who would begin climbing?
I wouldn’t be writing now if it weren’t for strategic encouragement when I was beginning, and I wouldn’t be writing now if I didn’t have a faith in writing that is sometimes just as blind as Grandma’s love for her poodle – if I too didn’t mind that while licking my face, my story’s tongue might stray into my mouth.
And I might not be writing now if there weren’t an Almanac – a precious combination of reputable and fair.
I got my first ever acceptance email whilst on holiday in Turkey. Me and my then girlfriend were travelling the awful Black Sea coast – her driving was driving me up the wall; people on the filthy beaches would finish their drink or cigarettes and throw them in the sea; at the day’s end we’d try to find an unsqualid place to camp, and howling wolves would wake us terrified in the night.
But for three weeks after that email telling me Sleepers had accepted my story, I was transcendentally happy. The Black Sea coast became an eccentric heaven. We weren’t down and out, we were free. And was it me, or had her driving improved?!
And so the definition of a short story is not a short story. They’re an opportunity to practice quickly a craft that takes years – a lifetime – to never quite perfect. They’re an opportunity to let out that which brims painfully or deliciously full inside you. But, more than that, if you’re in here, it means you managed to really capture that feeling, that brimming. Here it is translated into print, where this physical artefact of your uncertain toil makes a very certain sound indeed.
But more amazing still, it means that what sat you down to write and rewrite will make its way into others. In the comfort of their own anywhere, people will be able to pat your inner poodle.
And so on a night like tonight a short story is a community. A celebration. No wonder there’s ten thousand of us gathered. I salute all the writers in this edition; all those who’ve been published here before; but most of all, those of you who will be one day. In whatever form.
As for Sleepers. Amazing design. An amazing eye. PASSION. Pioneer spirit. The decency to be decent in the way you carry yourselves and your trade. The guts to run a meritocracy even though a more cynical approach could sell you more copies. The courage to choose this over a safer career.
Sleepers is already a benchmark in this country, I recognised that years ago. I also recognise that this wonderful rung on a difficult ladder is rising fast, but not losing its values along the way. It’s taking Australian literature up with it.
You make it seem possible. You make it seem worthwhile. You make it feel amazing. For that, every aspiring writer should thank you. And so will every reader.