Who tells the story? Not always the point-of-view you expect.

gwnWe had a lovely evening at the Gloucestershire Writers’ Network writing competition award, last week.  It’s an annual event that happens at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

The theme for the festival and the competition, this year, was East meets West.  It drew in some lovely pieces of poetry and prose from writers across Gloucestershire, and most of the authors were brought together to read them for us.

‘What did you think?’ I asked my friend Louise, when we caught up six days later.  She’d had to rush off to another event just as that one finished, and we’d not had chance to compare notes since. ‘How did you find your first time at a reading?’

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘it was good.’ She paused. ‘And interesting: aren’t poems quick?’ Louise fronts a band. ‘One minute they were stepping up to the mic, the next it was over.’

‘It felt like a lifetime when I did it,’ I said.

Louise laughed and shook her head. ‘They all read really well, though, and the stories were excellent. I did like the one about the shawl, by the woman from your writing group.’

‘Lynda’s,’ I said. ‘It is a lovely story.’

‘I’m looking forward to sitting down quietly with the anthology,’ Louise said. ‘It was a really subtle approach to the theme.’

‘It was perfect,’ I said, ‘a lovely piece of flash fiction.’

How do you tell a grim story without dealing out graphic detail?  Lynda did it by giving voice to a scarf. ‘I remember,’ she begins, ‘how she held me up to the window and I delighted in the way the sun shimmered through my rich magenta and green folds, throwing rainbow patterns across the tiled floor.’

The scarf can observe and remember, but has limited understanding of the events that disrupt it’s soft, perfumed life: that’s left for us to interpret.  This is where the power of words becomes clear. It’s not just a question of finding the specific order that describes a picture, the other side of fine writing leaves spaces that the reader cannot avoid filling.

Dust seeped through the bag and cries and shouts accompanied the endless days of trudging. Later it became quiet and the cold crept through my silky sinews.  How I longed for the warmth of that sun…

What does it mean to be a refugee? Lynda provides us with a sense of it in around six-hundred words.

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Whose soap-box is this, anyway? #writephoto

‘I do have opinions,’ said the man in the blue suit,  ‘but I try to keep them to myself.  It’s so easy to upset a client.’ He sipped at his coffee and eyed the plate of chocolate biscuits on the table.

‘Do have another one,’ said the client.  She nudged the plate towards the man in the blue suit, who had begun to tidy the heap of papers nearest to him. ‘It’s the same with writing stories,’ she said. ‘That’s what Hemingway believed.’

The man in the blue suit, with a crisp white shirt, concentrated on the biscuits. ‘Hemingway?’

The client nodded. ‘Yes.  He said it’s not our job to judge, just to understand.’

‘And do you? Understand, I mean?’ said the man in the blue suit, snapping a biscuit up in two bites before bumping his sheaf of papers and sliding them into a glossy folder.

The client smiled. ‘Not even close, I’m afraid. The poor man would be turning in his tomb, if that actually happened.’

sue vincent photo challengeThe man in the blue suit passed the folder across the table.  ‘You need to keep that,’ he said.  He took another biscuit.  ‘Are you saying you don’t really need to understand?’ He began to straighten his own papers into a neat stack.

‘You say that as if it’s something black and white – as if there’s only one answer to any situation.’

‘Well of course, I didn’t mean it that way.’  The man in the blue suit opened his briefcase and slotted the papers into a pocket.  He paused and looked at the client.  ‘Ah, I see.  If you don’t provide answers…’

‘…the reader can. Exactly.  The stories I like best are subtle, the bones of the story are fleshed out with metaphors, symbolism, allusion and ambiguity so that I can go back and read them over and over again.  That’s how I want to write.’

The man in the blue suit leant forward and considered the last biscuit. ‘Sounds tricky.’

The client eyed the shower of crumbs cascading down the blue suit and the dazzling white shirt front. ‘It’s a bit like laying clues,’ she said.  ‘They don’t always work.  Sometimes they’re too obvious, sometimes too subtle.  That’s where remembering Hemingway comes in – or Chekov, Mansfield, Pritchett, Taylor, Marquez… pretty much all the writers, past and present, I’ve read and admired have said much the same thing.’

The man in the blue suit flicked his lapels clean. ‘I see, same way songs work.’ He closed his brief-case and stood up, dusting the last traces of food from his shirt and legs.  ‘Well, I think that’s all I can do today.  I’ll work the figures, and get back to you with some ideas on Monday.’

‘Thanks for calling in,’ said the client, shaking his hand.  ‘I should have looked into this years ago, but you know how it is, there’s always something else to do.’

The man in the blue suit nodded, lead the way to the door, then turned back to the client. ‘I’ve got a few thoughts already, but I want to crunch the numbers, so I can give you a full picture,’ he said.

The client shook his hand, and waited until he was through the gate.  It was only as she started to shut the door that she glanced down and saw the slightly tattered bluey-black feather on her doorstep.

sue vincent photo challenge.png 2

*Photos from Sue Vincent’s Thursday writing prompt challenge:#writephoto.

What else is there to know?

‘Are you teaching the first world war now, then?’ said Eric, as he helped me gather up the papers I’d scattered across his kitchen table while I was child-minding.

Book cover‘Well I was,’ I said, ‘earlier in the autumn… in a way.  We were discussing short stories about the first world war. It’s a course I don’t get to do very often, which is a shame.  It’s such a great anthology, and I can’t seem to persuade many groups to do it, even though next year will be the anniversary of the armistice.’

‘I suppose,’ said Eric, ‘there are so many books and diaries from those times that there’s not much need to read more on the subject.’

‘Oh, but stories aren’t exactly about the knowable facts,’ I said.  ‘We don’t talk individual battles, or much about the trenches.  These are imaginative responses to experiences.’

‘Everything’s been said, though, hasn’t it?’ said Eric.

I paused, as always struggling to find a way to explain the joys of cracking open a short story, when not actually discussing a specific example.  ‘Do you think so?’ I said.  ‘There are so many ways it impacted, not just on the people who were at the front, but at home, then and later.’

‘Maybe,’ he said, as he walked me to the door.

I know that ‘maybe’.

Eric reads a lot.  He likes history, biography and novels and I share some of that taste, so sometimes we swop books.  He’s not a great talker though.  If I ask, ‘What did you think?’ he uses one of three basic responses: ‘it was okay’;  ‘that one was a bit of a struggle’ or ‘I got a couple of pages in and couldn’t be bothered’.

Flax Golden Tales

Dermot Hayes, on Postcard from a Pigeon, invited me to join a story challenge this week.  Check out his blog for the story behind his project, and to see the flash-fictions it has inspired others to write.

book cover

Below is mine:

Maxine tests for the freedom of the road.

Maxi is at the locked side-gate of Cherry Close, a private housing complex. She’s been there ten minutes in the hot sunshine, with a parcel for S Jenkins, number eight.  The gateman, seated on the other side of an open window, has checked his computer, and Jenkins is in, but he’s not answering his buzzer.

‘Come back in an hour,’ the gateman suggests.

‘Then I’ll be late finishing. It’s my first day, and this is the last drop. Can’t you just take the parcel?’  Maxi smiles, trying to feel friendly towards this lump in a crisp blue shirt who’s leaning back on a swivel chair, basking in the breeze of a large fan. ‘I really need this job.’

The gateman shakes his head and looks Maxi up and down. ‘Show us some ID.’

The Courier badge she hands him is plastic, and has the company logo, and her name. He glances at it and waves it away.  ‘How do I know this is you?’

It’s a fair point, she doesn’t have a high-vis jacket, or a van with a logo, just a pushbike. She’s wearing the tidiest clothes she owns, but it’s hot, even without cycling four miles in the last two hours, through heavy traffic. Her black tee-shirt is sticking to her back, and her trainers are scuffed.  Maxi pushes her fingers through her shorn scalp.  The feather-cut was supposed to look cool and efficient, but the sun is burning the back of her neck, and her reflection in the side window shows flattened helmet hair.

‘Look,’ she says to the gateman, lifting up the brown paper parcel that feels like a small book. ‘There’s his name, and that’s the address. Could you just sign and give it him later?’

The gateman shakes his head. ‘Can’t do that,’ he says.  ‘It’s not legal, accepting someone else’s post.’

Course it is. ‘What’s not legal is opening it.’

The gateman sucks in a deep breath. ‘What company is it you say you work for?’ he says.  ‘I’ll ring them and check you out.’

‘I’m supposed to be proving I can do this,’ says Maxi. ‘Give us a break, can’t you?’ She looks through the bars at the semi-circle of identical doorways across the paved courtyard. Andy had said don’t bring anything back on the first day.  Leave it with a neighbour, even if there’s no instructions.  Get it delivered.

Fine, but she can’t even get to the neighbours. What’s she supposed to do, climb over the gate?  Get in.

She points at a door. ‘Is that eight?  I can run across and ring the bell.’

He snorts. ‘More than my job’s worth.’

‘I won’t even be out of sight.’

The gateman creaks sideways on his chair, he’s reaching for the window. ‘My job is to keep people like you out,’ he says as he slides the glass window across, then he gets up and walks away, through a door into the back.

Maxi’s head is starting to throb. People like her?

She turns the parcel over. What if she just stuffed it through the gate and left, what would he do, the moronic gateman?  Surely he’d have to take it then.  But what if he returned it to the office?  He would, she could tell he was that kind of bloke.  Her hand clenches round the parcel.  She’d like to fling it right through his bloody window, except it isn’t heavy enough to hurt.  If only there were something else lying about.

She rams the parcel into her backpack, and hears paper creasing, tearing. Tough, serves the stupid git right if it’s damaged.  The houses are small, how could S Jenkins not have heard the buzzer?  He was ignoring it.  That was it, he was sitting behind those blinds, too bloody idle and selfish to think about what his indifference meant.

Because Maxi is stuffed. Whether she takes a parcel back or she’s late, she’s failed.  Andy can’t help any further than this.  He got her the trial.  ‘Don’t blow it Maxi.’  Well she hasn’t bloody Jenkins has.  A book, a soddin’ book, she’s sure that’s what it is.

She sits on the curb by her bike and tips the bag up. Shakes it.  The parcel and her receipt list board fall into the gutter.  It’s a clean gutter.  No dust, or litter.  Not even leaves from the trees on the other side of the street.

There’s a small rip along one corner of the brown parcel. It is a book.  There’s a cartoon of two kids and a dog.  She tears the paper off: poems.  It’s not even important.  Not something to lose a job over.  She’s put weeks into getting this trial, saving for the bike, fixing it up,  learning the A-Z, taking her test, talking Andy into putting her name on the list.  Everything was going right.  Everything was good.

This is not fair.  She rams the book back into her backpack, gathers up the wrapper, and her receipt board.

The list is crumpled now. All the care she’d taken to keep it neat, noting the time, writing each surname carefully.  She smooths the paper.  The signatures are just squiggles.  Not even pretending to look right.  Most didn’t even hold the pen properly.  Anyone could have written them, anyone.

It’s a position of trust, that’s what Andy said.

 

Looking for a quick smile?

logo4%20copyCheck out today’s post on Paragraph Planet, The Barrister.

This lovely piece of concise writing is by way of a boast, since Martin attends my writing classes, so I feel I can garner some reflected glory.

Paragraph Planet is a lovely challenge.  Why don’t you give it a go, too?

Martin has also been published on the letter project.

Watch this space for more.

Quick news:

Paragraph Planet have just published a second 75 word flash fiction of mine.

Not heard of Paragraph Planet?

Check out: http://www.paragraphplanet.com/  They publish a new paragraph everyday, so I’m not just publicising mine, have a go.

It’s an interesting exercise in brevity.  But be careful, it can be addictive.