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  • Jacci Gooding

When small is often beautiful

Jane Austen wrote of ‘the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush’. This has always summed up for me the art of the short story – that miniature canvas on which a writer has to sketch so finely... so says guest writer, Gabrielle Murllarkey.

1. Big versus small

For some female artists, that wasn’t always their first preference. Sixteenth century sculptress Properzia de' Rossi chose to work in a profession that was regarded as a male preserve, longing to make it big (literally) by doing things on the same grand scale as her male counterparts. Understandably. But while she created reliefs and busts in marble, she’s probably best known for carving fantastically intricate work onto peach, cherry and plum stones, often filched from the kitchen midden. Those that survive are beautiful – while also evidence of the small-scale intricacy expected of female artistry.

2. Writing with constraint

Arguably, while Jane Austen wrote novels, she didn’t have it a whole lot easier – working at a table in a draughty household thoroughfare, required every few minutes to leave off scribbling and knock up a mustard poultice.  Austen’s experience suggests that discipline as much as necessity was the mother of her invention. Possibly, the constraints she wrote under fostered good habits of not wasting a word, a minute or a space – of carving a world onto a plum stone.

Nowadays, thankfully, you don’t need a Y chromosome to chisel an Angel of the North or have to root about in the compost to release your inner Barbara Hepworth, just as many of us are lucky enough to work in ‘a room of one’s own’.  

But equally, many of us still love writing the short story form because of its discipline and demands...

Carved Cherry Stone Pendant (1510-1530) by Properzia de Rossi

3. Time is a trickster

And whatever form you write in, there’s a flipside to female artistic emancipation: if you do enjoy the luxury of time, space and support, you begin to panic that you’re not using every second wisely (side-tracked making coffee, watching rubbish telly or following the antics on the bird feeder. Or is that just me?)

In fact, ‘first world’ women today – we’ve got it all, haven’t we? The vote, biscuits that don’t break off at the first dunk, our own wifi in the garret… If I can flip the flipside for a second, making frenzied use of every precious moment carries the risk of burnout, so all hail niksen, the Dutch art of ‘doing nothing’, which is another story altogether (and possibly an oxymoron).

For now, give thanks to the gods of temporal serendipity and the women who blazed a trail – and go write something!

Words: Gabrielle Mullarkey

Photos: Unsplash


Gabrielle Mullarkey is a novelist and short story writer who also teaches creative writing. Read more at and @authorgabrielle


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