Working Story

I originally posted this way, way back in August 2012. Yes, I’ve been putting up posts since then! Did miss a year in the middle, though.

This week though, as the first of my writing groups starts again, and I’m thinking about structure, I revisited this post, and decided that I liked it enough to share it all over again. Sometimes, when I think the story has worked, I don’t want to retell it in any other way.

Cath Humphris

One of the first handouts I was given at University was a list of seven points that defined the short story.  It had been compiled by Dilys Gater, in her book, Short Story Writing*.   At last, I thought, learnable theory I could apply in my writing.  Better still, someone else had worked it out for me.

Yet, for several weeks after that I was unable to finish a story outside of class-work. I never lacked ideas, my writers diary was crowded with characters, scenes and fragments of conversation, but they remained notes. I told myself not to worry, I was completing our set exercises on the mechanics of the simple linear plot, and that was what counted.

Until I took my results to the tutorial.

‘It’s got no life,’ my tutor said, handing back my assignment.  ‘Start again.’

‘All this work?’

She waved aside my folder of notes and handouts. ‘Count it as background,’ she said. ‘Forget…

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The naive narrator.

I picked up Kit de Waal’s Six Foot Six while I was waiting to pick up Ray, because I’d given him a lift to work and although it was time to go home, he was still talking to students. There were no magazines in the lobby, not even tatty ones. But amongst the donated books by the coffee table was a slim paperback from The Reading Agency.

I’d heard about this project to encourage new readers. Penguin commission well-known writers from a variety of genres to produce short texts. My literary head whispered, novella, but I knew publishers don’t like to use that term, so I shushed it.

Inside, the font size was larger than I usually buy. I liked the look of it. There was no knowing how long I’d be waiting, and by skim-reading I might finish it. If not, a few pages would give me a flavour of Kit de Waal, who I’d not read before, and an idea about how Quick Reads work.

I told myself it was professional interest. I like to believe I’m efficient, and put my time to good use. Much better to claim professional curiosity than admit I’m forever losing myself in imaginary worlds.

Besides, I wasn’t intrigued by the cover. The blurb said a young adult would get involved with a desperate builder, and have to ‘collect money from thugs‘ which didn’t sound promising. It was not something I expected to invested emotion or imagination with.

I liked the opening paragraph though, which ticked four of the orientation boxes for creative writers: who, where, when and why – while raising all sorts of sub-questions at the same time.

Timothy Flowers stands at the corner of Gas Street and Yew Tree Lane. It’s the third of November and it’s Friday and it’s fifteen minutes past eleven o’clock in the morning. In a few minutes, Timothy will see the number forty-five bus. It will be the new Enviro 400 City Bus with the back-to-front design. It’s electric. You can get the internet on the new Enviro 400.

The precision of this information, and the detail about the bus was intriguing. Although it’s third person narration, by the end of the paragraph I knew it was focused through Timothy’s consciousness, and that he thought in short, simple sentences.

The second paragraph confirmed that syntax: ‘Timothy has seen the new bus before. Once.’ Using third person narration allowed de Waal to control the content, and include some background information. It was, we are told, Timothy’s twenty-first birthday, and he was as excited by that as about seeing ‘the new Enviro 400 City Bus‘ go past.

This repetition of the bus type could, I first supposed, mean Timothy was the road equivalent of a train-spotter. Then I thought not.

I realised I’ve seen him on the corner of a road I take to work, watching the traffic pass. It’s a busy road, and I’ve wondered about him, and worried about his vulnerability.

When Timothy was accosted, at the bottom of the first page, with an, ‘Oi, mate!‘ I worried for him, too. Timothy’s mum, the narrator told me, ‘…says that sometimes, when his brain hasn’t had enough rest, Timothy gets confused, so she makes sure he goes to bed by nine o’clock.’

A man in the basement of a derelict house across the road kept calling to Timothy, who knew he should ‘never ever talk to strangers.‘ I worried. The man kept intruding. ‘As well as shouting, the man is pointing at Timothy and waving. ‘Yes, you!’ he says. ‘You! The Longfella! Here, down here.

When Ray came out of the office Timothy had crossed the road to talk to the man, and I couldn’t leave them like that. I bought the book.

Naive narration is a tricky voice to maintain. It’s easy to unintentionally slip in explanations, or anomalous vocabulary.

There is a deceptive simplicity about this short novel/long story. The events of Timothy’s birthday are logical and straightforward: each triggers the next.

However, because Timothy’s understanding is limited to what, where and when, it was me who supplied the how and why aspects of the situations, and all to often, I later had to admit, I miss-judged them. This was one of those reading experiences where not only had the protagonist experienced a change through the course of the story, by the time I turned over the last page, I too had learned something new and important about Timothy’s world.

Who was the author, anyway?

Can a writer be unravelled from her writing? I’ve been discussing Elizabeth Taylor short stories again, this week, and as she was getting published at a time when another Elizabeth Taylor was regularly in the headlines, this has involved some investigation into the writer’s life.

The role of the author was one of the questions we examined when I was at University. I’m remembering in particular, the 1967 essay, Death of the Author, by the French critic and theorist Roland Barthes.

Barthes argued that reading with an awareness of the experiences and biases of the author, limits our experience of the text. He suggested that it is only when the text is anonymous, that we can see multiple layers of meaning drawn from “innumerable centres of culture”.

He went on to propose that the reader was more important than the writer. It’s a useful thought for a reading group, from an essay that was intended to raise debate.

If ever there was an author who seems perfectly fitted to this warning to read the text without expectations, it’s surely Elizabeth Taylor. Here was a woman who looked middle-class, was married to a successful businessman, had two children and lived in a large country house. A lot of her stories involve just such women, and a lot more don’t. Yet somehow she came to be seen as a writer who was always looking back. Worse, she wrote about domestic situations, so in Britain, she became known as a woman’s writer.

One way to counter this narrow approach might be to read Nicola Beauman’s biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor. It contains some surprising revelations about the life of the woman who in 1953, told The New York Herald Tribune:

I am always disconcerted when asked for my life story, for nothing sensational, thank heavens, has ever happened.

Our idea about how this statement works depends on the definition we assign to that word sensational. But put that aside, because even if you decide that Elizabeth Taylor was being evasive with her answer, reading the biography still returns us to the question of ‘so what?’, in terms of how we read her fiction. Do the unexpected aspects of her life mean her writing should be read in a specific way?

Perhaps we should turn to another author to think about this. In 1986, her friend Robert Liddell published a memoir about his friendship with Elizabeth Taylor and Ivy Compton-Burnett.

“Later we were  both shocked (as Ivy was) by the betrayal of Rose Macaulay by her literary executor, who published some of her intimate correspondence, and Elizabeth remarked how coy and silly letters could look when seen out of context.  We both detested Katherine Mansfield and her whining, coarse letters, and we were aware that our private jokes and Ivyisms would look no better to outsiders than her Dickensianism and her ‘my strikes!’ […] in the course of the years, there were some letters that were painful, and meant for no other eyes: and no other eyes will see them.

Elizabeth and Ivy by R Liddell

How tricky it is to hold true to the wishes of the dead. I might condemn John Middleton Murray for going against his wife’s bar on publishing her private letters and diaries, but I’ve read them. I claim it was background for my reading groups, as I do all the material I’ve looked at for Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Gaskell, Somerset Maugham, T.H. White, Kate Atkinson…

I’m left with the question that I keep taking to my reading groups: does knowing more about the lives of writers inform us as readers, and/or writers, or is story enough?

The book I lent came back…

…and I was glad to see it. I’d missed its presence, not daily, but more than twice in the six months since I’d forced it on Phillip, who said he’d not read poetry since school.

‘This is a useful anthology,’ I’d said, pulling Penguin’s Poems for Life off my shelf.

‘I’ll give it a try,’ Phillip said. ‘I do want to know more about this writing lark.’

I hadn’t realised how much I’d taken the book for granted, until it was gone. So many of my favourite poems are in it. While I have collected works, and pamphlets from various authors, sometimes only an anthology will do.

Oh, I know we can look up any poem on the internet, and I do stumble across new gems there. But reading on the screen is not the same as riffling through pages, or being provided with a well-thought out selection.

Sometimes I know roughly how far into an anthology a particular favourite is and the book, having taken shape from my visits, falls open just where I wanted it to. One natural parting place is Adrian Mitchell’s tribute to Phillip Larkin’s This Be The Verse. In three short stanzas he mirrors the rhythms of the original, and reverses the emphasis, having simply swapped a T for the F.

They Tuck you up, your mum and dad,
They read you Peter Rabbit, too.
They give you all the treats they had
And add some extra, just for you.

If I’m looking for a theme, I browse the index. The categories range from Birth and Beginnings; Childhood and Childish Things and on through the stages of our lives, to Mourning and Monuments.

What I like in an anthology is variety and range. With that, I’m likely to stumble across a poet I’ve not met before. I’m a dipper in, rather than a page turning reader of poems.

Amongst the old familiars and favourites in this selection I recently discovered Ann Bradstreet, talking of how it feels to watch her children grow, in 1659.

I had eight  birds hatched in one nest,
Four cocks there were, and hens the rest.
I nursed them up with pain and care, 
Nor cost, nor labour did I spare,
Tall at the last they felt their wing,
Mounted the trees and learned to sing;

How can there still be so many early writers I should have heard of? The other day, somewhere, I saw a suggestion that an early eighteenth century reader could expect to have read every fiction written. Perhaps that’s true, if they had no other activities to occupy them.

I don’t think I aim for that. There are books, and poems I’ve given up on, and some of them are classics. For me, reading and writing should be about enjoyment.

‘Well,’ said Phillip, handing the book back. ‘You know me, I don’t really read. Poetry’s a bit difficult, isn’t it? I think you need a key, and I never really liked it at school.’

Mostly poems charm, challenge and fascinate me, but I know that’s not the effect they have on every other reader. I put the anthology back into the slot it had vacated, one shelf above a copy of The Sport of Queens that I was loaned more than a decade ago, by a friend who knew I enjoyed Dick Frances thrillers. ‘You’ve got to read this,’ he said. ‘It’s all about how Frances rode the Queen’s race horses.’

I think I may have read the first page, but the truth is, it’s not really my thing.