The value of a good introduction.

penguin british short story coverFor the last month I’ve been  discussing two stories a week from Volume One of The Penguin Book of The British Short Story edited by Phillip Hensher, (phew, that’s a mouthful, isn’t it) with one of my creative-reading groups.  It’s been a revelation, and I speak as the owner of a long shelf of some excellent short story anthologies.

This book takes such an historic view of the form, that we’ve only just reached the point where the term ‘short story’ is beginning to be used. The anthology opens with  Daniel Defoe’s pamphlet, A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs Veal, written and published in 1706.  Yet Hensher says:

The term ‘short story’ only occurs towards the end of the nineteenth century, although it is difficult to be quite sure when: the OED‘s first citations, which are from 1877 and (Trollope’s autobiography) 1882, seem to use the phrase as an established usage.  To a surprising degree, authors of the time do seem to regard it as a much newer form than the novel.

His twenty-six page discussion on the reasoning behind this anthology, is one of the texts that I would recommend the collection for.  It covers a lot of ground, and for the writer or the reader, provides some interesting ideas about, for instance, how short stories can work:

One of the very striking aspects of the British short story, as revealed by the experience of reading through weekly news-orientated journals, was its capacity to react immediately to events of the most public order.  Novels seem to take a few years to ruminate over the news, to develop the impact of social changes or dramatic public events on lives.

I’m a late convert to introductions, and like any transformed personality, I’ll grab any opportunity to share the results of my epiphany.

So, let me start by suggesting something radical: despite its title, you don’t have to read an ‘introduction’ first.  For novels, I generally leave them until later, and then find myself dipping back through the pages to track down the intriguing references and compare the writer’s conclusions with my impressions.

And that brings me to my next point.  We don’t have to agree with the introduction.  It’s all too easy to feel that because someone’s ideas are printed in the front of the book, they’ve got the definitive view on what the main text says, or does.  Not so.  In the same way that two people looking out of the same window (or three, four or more, come to that) will observe the view in distinctively individual ways, no two readers will understand a piece of writing in precisely the same light.

Our tastes and histories colour the way we understand stories.  This becomes clearer to me with every creative-reading session that I share. Even when we’re discussing a text that I’ve covered with another group, or groups, I discover new responses to the readings.  That’s exciting: it’s challenging.  I like the idea that stories speak to a wide audience on a variety of levels, and that they don’t have to be short-lived, disposable artefacts.

Some, though, are.  That’s fine, I read and enjoy those too.  What an introduction can do, is provide me with a little guidance, if I want to look deeper.  If someone else is giving hints about hidden depths, I’ll go back to stories that I might otherwise have passed by just the once, and opening one of those up is my idea of a treasure hunt.

From all of which thoughts, I’m lead to the interesting conclusion that introductions to story anthologies are the opposite of spoilers.

Tom-Gauld-Penguin-Book-of-the-British-Short-Story-cartoon-650x391

Tom Gauld Cartoon.

On Leaving School

He grew strong on the farm.
Was handy shovelling on the right side
or the left.
‘Worth a bonus, that,’ old Fred said,
as they emptied the pigsty,
‘if we were navies.’

Best of all he liked tractor work,
sitting in the cab with a fag
and the radio.

His world was the turning of turf,
a shiny plough-share slicing a neat row
from hedge to ditch.

Years disappeared that way.

I belong to a poetry group

Does that sound like a confession?  Maybe it is.

If I don’t make every meeting it’s because sometimes I’ve not caught up with myself.  Otherwise, one evening per month should be achievable, and it’s etched not only in my diary, but into my memory.

miki-byrneI look forward to my two hours with Miki Byrne, and the gathering of local poets she hosts.  Some are published, some are not.  It doesn’t matter which any of us are.  One of the best things about the various writing groups I’ve been to is that our interest in writing creates a common ground, and a safe space to experiment in.

I think of myself as a prose-writer, but I do love poetry.  There are poems that I go back to over and over, at critical moments, or for reflection, mood, and inspiration.  Want to write with economy, depth and precision?  Here’s a  form of literature that demonstrates some of the most intriguing and exciting ways it can be done.

In the poetry group we share the risk of words.

And I do mean risk.  My adrenalin flows.

I go to be challenged.  A topic is introduced.  I start with nothing, but a warm-up writing exercise soon provides ideas.  As the exercise progresses, I untangle the threads of my thoughts, take up one of them and follow it.  I don’t know where it’s going, or what I’m going to say, but along with everyone else, I’m writing myself into a scenario.  Images are forming, building, becoming something I’m intrigued by, linking into ideas that matter to me.

We’re all in the same boat, with the same supplies, yet we each produce something individual.  Yes, these pieces are rough, but they’re first, or at most, second drafts.

We read them out, half-made as they are.  That’s not about bravery, it’s a chance to get some instant feedback.  This is not the time for in-depth critiques (that happens at a later stage), the audience and I are hearing my words, as I will hear theirs, for the first time.

Sharing gives us some ideas about important questions, such as:

  • Does it flow?
  • Does it say something?
  • What did I like about it?
  • Which part caught their attention?
  • Where might I expand it?

Everyone reads, maybe initially that’s because everyone else reads.  But ultimately, in my observation, they read because not to read is to miss-out on a vital part of the process.

The poetry group is giving me a portfolio of ideas to work on, ideas that I might not have stumbled on, drifting along on my own. Some may not go anywhere: but I go back to most of them, sooner of later.

Grand writing

There’s a risk, when putting words on the page, of drifting so far from the rhythm and style of everyday-speech, that we alienate potential readers.  Just to be clear, by speech, I don’t mean dialogue, I’m talking of general prose, and writers voice…like this piece, for instance.

Although I’m addressing you in the first person, we both know you can’t interrupt, raise a query, or set me a counter argument.  This page is my podium, and the rule I’m exploiting is that only I can speak.

Consequently, I’m using words in a way that I wouldn’t in conversation.  A lot of us prosy-people like to do this.  It’s partly because of my enjoyment of language, and using precisely the right word to convey my meaning.  That’s good, that’s desirable.  But, why did I need to begin this paragraph with ‘consequently‘?  And I could have said, ‘I love words, and like to use them accurately.’ – it’s to the point: it’s just as true.

It’s not so impressive, though, is it?

I seem to be a narrator with an ego.  I try not to be, but LOOK, I’m writing, and you’re reading.  You are reading every word, aren’t you?  I want you to, but what I really want is that you enjoy these words so much you follow their route all the way to my final full-stop.

So how can I keep you?

Well, Chekov said, “Good writing is like a windowpane”.  I take that to mean that my words should not get in the way of what I’m trying to convey, whether that’s fiction or fact or something that straddles them both.  Turned the wrong way round, language can become more about the writer than it is about story.

I’m not trying to claim that all fiction should be written in the same way.  This isn’t about the vocabulary we choose, it’s about our syntax – which the Oxford Dictionary defines as, “the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences”.  Sometimes it pays to think about whether that arrangement creates a tone that overpowers our content.

It’s easy to slip into a writing-style that borders on archly-academic – or do I mean, academically arch?  But be warned, using the type of prose that ‘feels’ writerly is instantly dating (don’t you think?).

pierre-bonard-painting

Pierre Bonnard, Young Woman Writing.  1908

A collaborative writing task.

So, the traditional image of the writer hunched over a solitary desk, or keyboard, is what most of us believe in, isn’t it?

For the most part, it’s a fair description.  The words…no the idea, is in my head, and I need to translate it into a readable form.  It will be a good story, maybe even great, one day.  It’s mine.  I’ll sweat every word out onto the page, the right ones and the wrongs, dragging them from the nearest and farthest corners of my brain.

If you’ve read some of my other blog posts, you might have begun to recognise my ‘written-voice’.  The way we record our ideas is idiosyncratic.  The vocabulary we use is filtered through the mesh of experiences that are our past, as well as our imaginations.

So sometimes it’s interesting to see how collaboration affects our thinking.  Sharing ideas has been happening in screen and script-writing for a long time.  Check out soap-operas, sit-coms and films to see the benefits of working with a script team.  Even if they’re not your usual choice of entertainment, it’s worth tuning in occasionally and thinking about how the plot developments, characterisation, and dialogue work.

krimmel_villagetavernThe principle is similar to the old parlour game, Fortunately/Unfortunately.  You know how it works, a first line is set, for instance: ‘It was a dark and stormy night…‘  Someone finishes the sentence, then the next person adds a sentence to continue the story that begins, ‘Fortunately…‘  The person after that adds another sentence beginning with ‘Unfortunately…‘ and so it goes on.

The results can be bizarre.  That depends on the participants and their intentions.

Set this up with an agreed cast list, setting and situation, and there is the potential for the working out of a challenging storyline.  Fortunately/Unfortunately is a simplistic model for a story, but this exercise is not about the writing, it is a limbering up of the imagination and an opportunity to practice some lateral thinking.  Now that’s something you don’t find easily.

 

 

*Painting, A Tavern, by John Lewis Krimmel (1787-1821)

Discovered: Pietro Grossi, writer.

fist-by-pietro-grossiI begin with a big THANK YOU to Fiona, who passed Fists on to me.  Fists being a book of three stories by the Italian writer, Pietro Grossi.  Not, I hasten to add, in the original language, but in a translation by Howard Curtis.

Having just finished the final story, I feel I’ve been to Italy.  Not skimming across the surfaces that tourism offers, you understand, I’ve experienced the world as lived by three Italian men, and it wasn’t what I expected.

Yes it was macho, there was boxing, there were horses and blood-letting, but there was also variety and insights.  I found passages I wished I had written.  Look at this, ‘He was like a Greek statue in motion, with the same rigid still perfection.’

I wasn’t sure which centuries all three stories were describing.  Horses might have been in the last one, or maybe the one before that.  It didn’t matter, I was in that valley accepting that the most technological innovation mentioned was a shotgun.

In these versions of Italy the women were mostly shadowy, even when exerting power.  Seen from a male perspective, maternal influences are questionable, maybe a challenge.  Yet, in the absence of a mother, what happens to two small boys and their father?  What kind of men will the boys turn into?

Reading Boxing, reminded me of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch.  Despite the fact that I know only as much about either football or boxing as any media savvy person absorbs by accident, I read every jargon-laden word of both texts.  Why?  I think it was the enthusiasm of the narrators, who not only hooked me, they swept me along with them.  I’m still not a fan of either sport, but I’d be happy to read both again. Besides, don’t make the mistake of imagining either story is entirely about sport, both are character driven.

Here are the opening lines of Grossi’s short story:

Let’s get this straight: I really liked the whole boxing thing.

I don’t know what it was, whether it was the sense of security or the awareness that I was doing something the way it should be done.  Maybe both, maybe also the terrific feeling that there was a place where I had what it takes, where I could fight on equal terms.

It quickly becomes apparent that our narrator is a nerdy adolescent boy.

One day, I told my mother I hated the piano.  Music was fundamental, she said, it gave you discipline.  Discipline.  Why discipline?  I was the most disciplined child in the world.  I was so disciplined, I’d almost vanished from the face of the earth.

Before you start guessing about the significance of this domineering mother, read this segment:

Six months later, I was dancing in that ring like a ballerina and scattering straight lefts like summer hailstones.  It was undeniable: even though no one had ever seen a boxer with a more unsuitable body, it was as if I was born to be up there.  And since I’d started training, my piano playing had improved, too, and I was even starting to like that bastard Beethoven.

fists-by-pietro-grossiAt this point there are forty-one pages of story still to be told.  They’re full of incident, detail, character development and introspection.   I forgot I was reading until I turned the last page and found myself musing over the last line.  I put the book down, feeling a little lost, now that I had to leave ‘the dancer’ behind.  I needn’t have worried, as you can probably tell, I think he’s staying with me for a while yet.

Before I pass this book on to it’s next reader, I may revisit those three stories.  Meanwhile, I’ve added Pietro Grossi to my list of authors to look out for.  If you haven’t come across him before, maybe he’s someone for you to look out for too.

 

 

Domestic details in fiction.

Oh the subtle wickedness of Elizabeth Taylor.  Could anyone who classifies her as cosily domestic have really read her, I wonder?  Nothing much happens, some say.

This week, I began to feel that I’d been written by her.

It started after I’d been discussing one of her short stories, The Blush, with my current reading group.  We up-turned a few ideas, and by reading between the lines, set some subversive ripples into play.  I confess she’s near the top of my crowded list of favourite writers, so I like to feel I’ve made fresh readers go back to her for another look.

Returning home, I shifted some of the books smothering the kitchen table to my office.  The tidying impulse infected me, and I put some effort into the heaps that had formed around my desk.  That was when I finally found At Mrs Lippincote’s, the Christmas present I’ve been searching for since the beginning of January.  It was in the useful, large, lidded box that I’d temporarily stashed under my desk.

It is now the first week of February, and that box has been blocking access to my workspace since around boxing day…have I an excuse for this implied absence from my writing place?  Well, it was warmer in the kitchen, and seemed more economical to heat a shared space.  So can I mitigate with some green credentials?  I probably shouldn’t.

Along with the novel were several other oddments I’d half-forgotten, but would have been looking for shortly.  Beneath them was the detritus that seems always to manifest in corners, those inexplicable drifts of dirt and fluff.  Where does it come from?

spring-cleaningMore to the point, is it only me who doesn’t manage to control it?  I’ve always marvelled at those fictional characters who inhabit huge immaculate houses.  In classical fiction, of course, the space is maintained by servants.  But in modern fiction, all to often the houses seem to maintain themselves.

My office is minute, yet I don’t seem to have the skills or interests to keep on top of the debris.  As I read of Julia’s struggles to manage the house she and her family are renting from Mrs Lippencote, I caught mirrored glimpses of myself.

The disintegration of the house resulted from neglect, from the accumulation of jobs to be done to-morrow.  Cupboards and dark corners there were which Julia avoided, which she felt she never could clear out.

How can a reader not recognise the importance of describing someone who is forced into the woman’s traditional role when they are so clearly not a natural domestic?

Written in 1945, at a point when women were about to be directed back to their homes, after many had tasted the freedoms of the workplace, At Mrs Lippincote’s is beautifully, subtly, subversive.

Discussing the schooling of his daughter with Julia, the Wing Commander says, ‘They will try to stuff her head with Virgil and Pliny and Greek Irregular Verbs.’

‘All Greek verbs are irregular,’ Julia murmured.

‘I think it nonsense.  What use will it be to her when she leaves school?  Will it cook her husband’s dinner?’

‘No, it won’t do that, but it will help her to endure doing it, perhaps.  If she is to cook while she is at school, then there will be that thing less for her to learn when she’s grown-up: but if she isn’t to learn Greek at school, then she will never learn it afterwards.  And learning Greek at school is like storing honey against the winter.’

‘But what use is it?’ he persisted.

‘Men can be educated; women must be trained,’ she said sorrowfully.

How can anyone not feel the tiny crack that Taylor creates here?  I wish I’d learned Greek.

Valerie Martin, describes Taylor as ‘the thinking person’s dangerous housewife,‘ and I can’t think of a better way to think about her writing.

 

Together

Read the poem, then watch the video. Feels like a good contrast to so much of what else is happening. Hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

a nomad in cyberspace

Trying and failing to resist a double whammy of jet-lag and sleep deprivation – it seems like only the young fall asleep easily on long-haul flights in economy class! Will catch up on what other people have been posting when I recover …

In the meantime here’s a quick acrostic response to the current Daily Prompt which is, er, Resist.

R eject
E ach label they try to
S lap on you and
I nstead become
S omebody who can
T ick every box.

This wonderful little film captures the idea much better than I can:

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Fat-Free-Literature, the quick way to kill a reading habit.

This week a statistic was given claiming that 10% of people in the UK have no books.   Really?  Not even something technical, about cooking, or a car manual?

Well, so the Aviva insurance company say.

I have friends who don’t own books, but most of them have kindles.  Some other friends keep their books under the stairs, or tidied away in cupboards.  There’s no reason why we should all be the same, and yet…stories.

bookshelfWe can’t live without them, can we?  Do you know anyone who will not tell you the story of what they did, an hour, day, week, month or year ago?

To not own a book does not necessarily mean an absence of fiction.  Stories come in so many media that we are surrounded by them.  85% of 8 – 15 year-olds own a game console.  Most games are interactive stories.

On Sunday morning I was listening to Will Self’s,A Point of View, broadcast on Radio 4.  He was talking about ‘Teaching to the Test’.  Amongst other worries he had about how education works, he discussed the teaching of literature.  Children are no longer expected to read whole texts – so they, the children, claim.  Teachers give them summaries of a novel and tell them which sections will contain the best quotes.

One of my nieces did this with Wuthering Heights, a few years ago, and recently another niece did the same with Jane Eyre.  I tried to persuade both that it was worth reading the whole novel from beginning to end.  ‘There’s no need,’ they said. Both were/are attending good schools, one a comprehensive and one a grammar, so I can’t blame a single teacher.  Which means this must be the system.

Somewhere though, if we trace this system back, was there a teacher with simmering resentments against books?  I can’t think that anyone with a love of literature would have created a system that seems designed to belittle the joys of immersing one’s self in a fictional world.  We don’t have to love all books, but surely we need to be exposed to full novels when we are young.

To be taught that all we ever need is a summary, is to reduce story.  Wuthering Heights unfolds through a series of questionable narrators, leading us to form judgements about actions and consequences. We get to know and understand what, how and why they respond to their situations as they do.  I didn’t ‘love’ Jane Eyre, but by the end of the novel, I understood her world, and I believe my world was a little broader for having done so.

Show us how to read whole books, and we’ll go on to read more, and more widely.  We’ll read with and against the flow of society.

Dumb the reading process down, and you reduce our ability to explore.  If the Bronte’s seem too out-dated for modern minds, why not set some texts that young adults can identify with?  Don’t, for goodness sake, spoil the immersive experience of discovering the gothic and other wonders of our past.  Leave them alone.  Eventually a keen reader will stumble upon them somehow.

For women, one or the other of the Bronte novels usually seems to speak to us: only to us.  How can that be possible with a book that was written in 1840s?  You’d have to read the whole thing to work that out.

upside-down-bookshelf

Designbuzz.com

 

 

 

A narrative tree

I recently got introduced to the narrative tree, and I’ve discovered what a useful tool it is for developing back-story.  This is not story planning, which I’ve never managed, my characters stray from their route as soon as I start writing.

The narrative tree, in my version, is a kind of mind-map for developing an idea.  The trunk is formed of basic story information: character, setting, situation etc.  After that, every action has to be mirrored by an alternative action.  So from the top of the trunk there are two main limbs that will split, to form another two, each of which will split to form yet another two.  Each new branch creates an alternative line of narrative.

I don’t use this technique all the time, or even most of it: I see it as an occasional inspiration booster.  For instance, here’s a very simple narrative tree for updating the story of Cinderella.

narrative-tree-demoThe original line of narrative still makes up one branch of the tree, but now I’ve also got a selection of alternative scenarios that I could develop. It might be that this is still part of the incubation process, and I’ll wake up in the morning with an even fresher idea.  The unanswerable question is, whether I would have reached that without going through this process first…

In fact, now I think about it, you could say that the information on the trunk is the end of another story, so with a sheet of paper taped onto the bottom of this, you could create a set of narrative roots, too.

The logical conclusion of this process is that it has parallels for gardeners.  You could sever a segment of story from root or branch of a narrative tree, set it on a fresh page, and let it grow into a new set of stories.

c2009-nancy-lovering-rosemary-cutting-in-water

C2009 Nancy Lovering: rosemary cutting in water.