Thoughts on writing.

I’ve been reading novels, light reads, because classes finished, and I wanted to unwind with something that only required me to jump on board and follow the action.  If, after a few pages, I’m not engaged with the story, I close the book. It’s taken a lot of training for me to be able to do that.

BOOKSHELFGenerally I’ll take in any words on view, from cereal packets to old magazines and notices in waiting rooms.  I do the same with fiction, going from trashy novels to heavy classics to comics as they come to hand.

This eclectic approach means I’m fairly widely read, so I don’t regret it.  However, I’m glad that I got to the point, with Moby Dick, where I couldn’t face another graphic description of the killing and dismantling of a whale.  I needed a classic novel to make me understand I did not have to, and would not be able to, read everything.

I used to think that there was a list of fiction that well-read people knew, and I imagined it as covering, perhaps, two sides of A4 paper.  What I’ve come to understand is that there are lists of all kinds in circulation, mostly much longer than that, and they’re constantly taking account of new writers, and re-discovered writers, from the ancient to the nearly modern.

In case you haven’t noticed, let me tell you that there’s an awful lot of fiction available now.  With all the different ways there are to become published, it feels like we’ve come round to the heydays of the pamphlet all over again.  That means good opportunities for readers and writers.

My reactions to fiction are not fixed.  Some old favourites no longer work in the same way when I go back to them.  I enjoy them, and admire the writing, but my experiences of life, and other literature have all impacted on my responses.  So, that favourite-reads list is not just expanding, it’s also in a state of continuous flux.

When I decide not to continue reading something I’m not saying the writing is no good, I’m recognising that at that particular moment, it does not work for me.  On another day, this might be different.  What I had to remind myself was that reading should be about entertainment.

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Gone, but not forgotten – reading short stories: a recommendation.

V.S. Pritchett, anyone remember him?  One of the great British short story writers of the twentieth century, but he’s not much read now.  Which is a shame, because there is still plenty to love in his short stories.

RSL_Pritchett-illustration-from-formIt’s not just for his fiction that I value him, though.  He thought and wrote about the processes of writing.  One of my favourite quotes is:

I should like to think that a writer just celebrates being alive.

That seems as good a reason to be putting words together as any other that I’ve come across, and if you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll have gathered that I am a collector of wise-writing-words.

Pritchett died in 1997, and for the general reader apparently drifted from general consciousness soon after that.  Perhaps that seems natural.  There are an awful lot of new writers appearing all of the time, and we can’t read everyone.

But pick up an anthology of short stories produced in Britain, in the twentieth century, and the chances are it will contain a Pritchett story.  But he had other hats too, writing essays about literature, and teaching in American Universities.  He also edited the 1981 Oxford Book of Short Stories.

His stories are Chekovian.  He specialised in character studies: characters caught in a moment of stress, and explored, usually for comic potential.

The great thing about the short story is the detail, not the plot. The plot is useful, but only for supplying the sort of detail that is not descriptive but which pushes the action forward.

How does that work?  Well it’s not a formula.  Each situation demands it’s own delivery.  Here’s the opening of one his 1977 stories, A Family Man:

Late in the afternoon, when she had given him up and had even changed out of her pink dress into her smock and jeans and was working once more at her bench, the doorbell rang.  William had come, after all.  It was in the nature of their love affair that his visits were fitful: he had a wife and children.  To show that she understood the situation, even found the curious satisfaction of reverie in his absences that lately had lasted several weeks, Berenice dawdled yawning to the door.

Compare it with the opening for On the Edge of the Cliff, the title story of his 1979 collection:

The sea fog began to lift towards noon.  It had been blowing in, thin and loose for two days, smudging the tops of the trees up the ravine where the house stood. “Like the breath of old men,” Rowena wrote in an attempt at a poem, but changed the line, out of kindness, to “the breath of ghosts,” because Harry might take it personally.  The truth was that his breath was not foggy at all, but smelt of the dozens of cigarettes he smoked all day.

Don’t both of these exemplify what is meant by ‘show don’t tell’?  Here are not just scenes set, but also tone, and although you cannot know it on first read, everything you need is there.  To me, Pritchett epitomises the ‘never a word wasted’ premise for short story writers.  He sculpted more meanings from most of his words than I can grasp with a casual read.  Most of his stories deserve a second read, and will repay that attention by revealing missed nuances.

If you haven’t tried him before, he’s one from my recommended reading list, and if you like slapstick, you might go first to The Saint, which I think is one of the funniest stories written.

And then, for the writers amongst you, there’s the V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize, which was set up by the The Royal Society of Literature (RSL), and is one of those prestigious awards to aim for.

Ten reasons for reading Pamela, by Samuel Richardson

  1. Because it’s a good read, with a heroine who has worked hard to improve her pamela by richardson. 1 jpgcircumstances.  Pamela shows physical and moral fortitude in the face of relentless attempts at seduction made by her employer – as well as an admirable ability to write letters and journal entries in some very, very trying circumstances. Pray for me, my dear father and mother; and don’t be angry, that I have not yet run away from this house, so late my comfort and delight, but now my terror and anguish.  I am forced to break off hastily.  Your dutiful and honest Daughter.
  2. How many other texts could get away with this quantity of exclamation marks in one small section of text? Indeed, my dear father and mother, my heart is just broken! I can neither write as I should do, nor let it alone; for to whom but to you can I vent my griefs, and keep my heart from bursting! Wicked, wicked man! I have no patience when I think of him! But yet, don’t be frighted – for – I hope – I am honest!
  3. Richardson is wonderfully ingenious when it comes to creating cliff-hanger-situations: ‘My dear mother, I broke off abruptly my last letter, for I feared he was coming; and so it happened.’
  4. If you’ve any interest in social history, then this account of a servant voice from 1740 is wonderfully revealing.  Pamela’s writings not only provide information about the running of a Georgian household, but also gives some ideas about the family circumstances of servants. In his reply to Pamela’s first letter, her father says, We are, it is true, very poor, and find it hard enough to live, though once, as you know, it was better with us.  But we would sooner live upon the water, and, if possible, the clay of the ditches I contentedly dig, than live better at the price of our dear child’s ruin.  pamela by richardson. 3jpg
  5. Because it demonstrates the value of feedback: Richardson asked his wife and her friend to read the developing manuscript, and he used their domestic knowledge to create a ‘true’ picture of Pamela and her circumstances.
  6. Read it because it is an epistolary novel, and can remind us of how entertaining a good letter can be, whether fictional or not.
  7. Because,this novel offered, for the first time, a fiction in which (as Margaret A Doody puts it) a character speaks ‘for herself in her own manner’.  Pamela is a voice from the working-class who, by standing her moral ground, challenges the moral-standards of the day, and examines the balances of power between the sexes. “Honest, foolish girl!” said he.  “But is it not one part of honesty to be dutiful and grateful to your master?” 
  8. Because the ‘voice’ of Pamela is convincing.  Initially, Richardson hid his authorship, and allowed the public to assume Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded was an autobiographical account of a real event.
  9. Because even classic novels have flaws, and thinking about what doesn’t work, and why, is a useful way to focus our attention on our own writing.
  10. And finally, because having read this one, you could be tempted to try a contrasting, and loosely related comic novel by Henry Fielding, called, Joseph Andrews.

There are, of course, many other reasons for reading this novel.  Please don’t be put off by the nearly three hundred years that have passed since Richardson published it .  Although there are some differences in the way we use language, and a few words that we might have to look up, if you read, or write, historical fiction, I recommend this classic novel.  pamela by richardson. 2 jpg

The things we save.

This week we discovered squatters in the roof.  By the mess, they’ve been there some time, but the night before last they decided to party, and they seemed to be wearing heavy boots.  Actually, I think I’ve been aware of their slippered-presence most of the winter, but inertia was easier than sorting out the loft ladder and torch, and I couldn’t imagine that there was much up there to interest them.

How wrong I was.  Mice, it turns out, will chew anything.  They’ve stripped the insulation off the water pipes, and shredded holes out of some spare carpet-underlay I had stashed away.

Amongst the debris though, I salvaged some oddments, one of which was the project-book we infants made, after a trip to the zoo.  It’s a tattered remnant, but I’m glad our guests hadn’t got round to feasting on it.

Our village school was small: so small that it was closed-down around the time I left senior school.  Because there were only half-a-dozen or so children in each year, I had no trouble putting faces to the names on the brief reports and drawings of our day out.  Besides, I have a photo of our class with our teacher, Miss Johnson… somewhere.

The project also reminds me of my last few days in the Junior school, when the flimsy collection resurfaced from the back of the school stock-cupboard. ‘Who would like this?’ Mrs Gwatkins asked, after we’d flicked through it, laughing at the artwork.  A few of us put our hands up, so she put names in a box, and mine was drawn out.

It couldn’t be said that I’ve treasured these pages, tucked away amongst my old diaries in the roof.  As you’ve seen, it came perilously close to being a mouse-nursery.  It’s possible I wouldn’t have missed it greatly, like those other fragments of school-life I thought I’d kept, but haven’t seen since I can’t remember when.

pelicanOn the one hand, the project is just a collection of shaky calligraphy examples and scrappy drawings. On Monday we went to Birdland and we saw some Pelicans, I wrote, capitals and long letters touching the line above as well as the line they were resting on.  And, We saw some pennies in a glass tank and there was some penguins swimming in a glass tank.

On the other hand, that repetition, and that,‘was’, was my six-year old voice, and, this project is able to link me back to the rain outside the mina bird house; the feel of my school uniform, and the way I felt as we crowded in to the small room where the Myna bird whistled, and recited, Sing-a-song-of-sixpence.

So for now, I’ll tuck the old folder into the bottom of a drawer, out of sight and mind.  It’s resurfaced so many times, that I can’t help feeling it’s not finished with yet.