Pilgrimage: A Writer’s Beginnings

by ajanefountas

When I was twenty-seven, I went to live with my Yiayia for four months in a village on the Peloponnese. Along with my suitcase of clothes, I also arrived with a small suitcase filled with books, among them The Granta Book of the Short Story and a blank journal covered in a map of Greece.

I had visited my grandmother four years earlier for about six weeks, and having not spoken much Greek at the time I wrote long letters to friends back in Pittsburgh describing the village and its ways and people. When I returned home after that visit, two of my friends, both writers—one a journalist and the other a musician—encouraged me to try my hand at the craft.

Four years later, I returned to the village to do just that (and also to live the simple life). Having taken umpteen English lit classes in college, I had read mainly novels and plays, but I knew that I was not ready to attempt either of those two forms so I figured I’d start with the short story because it was short. Thus, the packing of The Granta Book of the Short Story.

I had no idea how to go about writing a short story, thankfully, but I knew from my readings that I needed characters if nothing else so I began to study and take notes on some of the villagers that intrigued me. I arrived in the village on June 1, and on July 18, I recorded my first attempts at characterization in my journal:

She is twenty years old and stays inside mostly. Tall with long legs and long hair and a large nose but all is in proportion and she is pretty. She keeps a pack of cigarettes under the sofa cushion and empties the ashtray into a vase when her father arrives unexpectedly and then she sits with a nervous smile. Her mother is dead. When her father is at home she answers the phone with παρακαλω so that her secret boyfriend hangs up presently. She walks around the house in short shorts, does the cooking and cleaning, and her radio is a companion. Her mouth is often in a pout.

I didn’t write a complete short story while I was in the village, but I continued to play around with characterization and wrote some lines and scenes, and by the time I returned to Pittsburgh I had the bones of two stories. The character above not only became the protagonist of my very first short story, written for an introductory creative writing class, but she also came back to visit me decades later while I was writing my very first novel, which I recently completed.

I’m glad I made a pilgrimage to the the village so many moons ago to try to write short stories. Tell us about your beginnings, whichever art you practice, in the comments section.