How Corinna Chong wrote the story that won the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize
You can read Kids in Kindergarten here.
Originally from Calgary, Chong lives in Kelowna, B.C. and teaches English and fine arts at Okanagan College. She published her first novel, Belinda's Rings, in 2013 and is in the final stages of revision of her second novel, Bad Land. Her short fiction has been published in magazines across Canada, including The Malahat Review, Room, Grain and The Humber Literary Review.
Chong wrote Kids in Kindergarten as she wanted to write a story that could navigate in an empathetic way the nuances of pregnancy loss and the struggle to talk about it.
She spoke to CBC Books about how she wrote her winning entry.
Starting with a single line
"I usually start a story with a single line. When I'm putting down that line I have a sense of the feeling or the mood that I want the story ultimately to evoke. There's layers built into that single line from the beginning, so often I'll just let it sit for a little while. Sometimes it goes in a completely different direction and sometimes I keep that same kernel from the beginning and just build around it.
"It was summertime of last year, that the line from Kids in Kindergarten came to me and I wrote it down. I started a dialogue in my head and I wrote down the first couple hundred words at that point. I left it — as I wasn't sure where it was going to go from there. Then I was reminded about the deadline of the CBC Short Story Prize. I remembered I had this document which I'd started, so I decided to try and finish it.'
With a short story, everything has to be so economical and the first line has to pull the reader in.
"With a short story, everything has to be so economical and the first line has to pull the reader in. I think it has to be multifaceted, it has to have implications, it can't be one-dimensional or straightforward, otherwise the readers are just not going to commit to it."
A moment of truth
"One of the things I'm always trying to do when I write is offer a moment of truth or something that readers can identify with, even if they haven't had that experience. One of my favourite writers, Alice Munro, does this for me all the time. I'm reading her work and, out of the blue, I read a line that makes me feel like I didn't know that was true until I read it. It was like an experience that I had, but never been able to articulate.
"With Kids in Kindergarten, I wanted it to read true and to resonate with people who had had similar experiences. But I also wanted to illuminate the complexity of this experience for people who had never gone through it before."
Exploring a core idea
"I think writing short stories are about exploring a core idea that has to do with some kind of internal conflict. I often gravitate toward conflict for characters that involve secrecy, repression and struggling with problems in isolation.
I often gravitate toward conflict for characters that involve secrecy, repression and struggling with problems in isolation.
"I use the story to figure out how that conflict could play out in a particular situation. I think I pay more attention to language in stories, because I have to be more selective with the words that I choose. That's maybe changing over time too though. The more I practice writing short stories, the more I apply those skills to novel writing as well."
Being selective about language
"My tendency is to sometimes overwrite, and I always have to fight that. I get a lot of joy out of being more selective about my language. It's something I'm really working on and learning as I develop my craft. 2,500 is a huge challenge for me when it comes to writing a story, usually I tend to write stories that are around 4,000 words. It really did force me to boil everything down to essentials.
"When I submitted Kids in Kindergarten, I thought that if I'd had the luxury of more words, I'd have written more, for sure. But I think it turned out to be a better story in the end, without those extra words."
Corinna Chong's comments have been edited for length and clarity.