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.

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.

The Greatest Books You’ll Never Read.

greatest books you'll never readAlongside all of the millions of stories that I haven’t yet read, and the millions more still to be published, here’s a book that offers a tantalising glimpse of what I’ll never be able to read. This collection of essays describes literature that exists only as fragments, or even as rumour.

Imagine that – texts with such an impact that readers have described them in their writing.  Then, future generations, having failed to trace the originals, have also described what they know.  Are these myths about myths?

So, I’ve been reading a book about books I’ll never be able to read, instead of writing my own stories?   Put that way, it seems like I’ve discovered a new level in displacement activities.

But, these aren’t any old lost texts.  The compiler of these forty-four essays, Professor Bernard Richards, sub-titles them, ‘Unpublished Masterpieces by the World’s Greatest Writers‘.  According to his index, the Greatest Writers start with Virgil, and finish at Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  I might be inclined to argue for a few additions, but that’s another blog-post.

When they’re done well, stories about stories are a fantastic resource for the creative writer.  Learning the background to author and text, and putting writing into its historical context, can reveal fresh layers of meaning.

Might Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales be complete?  Put aside the traditional speculations about why he never finished them, tantalising as they are, and what happens to the way we understand them?

Helen Barr, proposes that, thinking about the way the characters arrange and conduct themselves offers another, ‘more plausible explanation’ for the way the Tales abruptly end.

While the Parson’s Tale and The Retractions provide a decorous holy close to the storytelling, the preceding unruliness, purposefully or not, casts doubt on their sincerity.  In a perfect world The Canterbury Tales could be “finished”.  With its interleaving of play and devotional earnest, Chaucer’s narrative delivers a world that is fallen.

This alternative interpretation makes Chaucer’s text seem remarkably, even excitingly, modern.

Is nothing new?

Where an author’s reflections survive, we can learn more.  Italo Calvino said of his unfinished manuscript, Il bianco veliero.:

‘…the heat of inspiration – too thin anyway – with which I’d started out writing it cooled along the way, and I decided to finish the book more out of the pig-headedness of not wanting to leave anything unfinished than because I was really keen on it.

I can identify with that.  But, does all that writing have to go to waste, then?

Well, consider Stephen King.  His fourth novel got out of hand.  He’d started writing about the abduction of Patty Hearst, in 1974, but kept flowing off that plot.

…from the piles of screwed-up typescript pages in King’s waste bin emerged one of his most memorable recurrent characters, Randall Flagg – also known as the Dark Man, the Walkin’ Dude, and the Ageless Stranger, among other names…

ChristineDePisanWriting

Christine de Pisan

So, part of my joy with these essays is the way they offer multiple views on how writers work, and why they work.

 

The other thing, is that dipping into this collection, and I do find it’s a dipping-in kind of book, I learn how many more classic/great writers I still have to read – probably starting with some of their completed texts, now that I’ve had the spoilers.

Or should I say, now that I’ve been given the key to reading them?

 

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)