Six memorable stories: in five words?

This week I’ve been gently challenged by Ola, who, in tandem with Piotrek, blogs about her reading, on Re-enchantment of the World. They recently described some Favourite Books in Five Words. This idea has, it seems, been circulating for at least a year, so I’m late – again.

I wondered whether the inspiration for this owed something to Hemmingway’s six word story. Once I’d made that connection it was inevitable that my list would be short fiction. I decided to limit myself to six that I’ve found unforgettable.

I begin with Mary Mann.

‘Who?’ you say.

I’m not surprised. She is a writer who has been shamefully neglected, so let me stretch the rules a little, and put her into context.

Mary Mann, born 1846, in Norfolk, was a merchant’s daughter who married a yeoman farmer in 1871. They had four children. Yeoman, by the way, means he farmed his own land. Many farmers were/are tenants. It has been suggested that Mary’s writing helped her transition from town life to an isolated rural community, and was a necessary supplement to the family income during the agricultural depression of the 1880s.

Women O’Dulditch, by Mary Mann (1908)

Dinah and Car’line’s ideal husband?

Bliss, by Katherine Mansfield (1918)

Revelations at Bertha’s dinner party.

Hills Like White Elephants, by Ernest Hemmingway (1927)

Listening for what’s not said.

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1955)

Fate, reverence and a circus.

The Blush, by Elizabeth Taylor (1958)

Mrs Allen listens, watches: sees.

Puss in Boots, by Angela Carter (1979)

Sex, lies, rats and love.

There could, of course, have been more. On a different day of a different month, there would have been other choices.

Six degrees of literary separation: from Atonement to Demon Lover.

This week I’m joining in with a reading meme run by Kate, on the booksaremyfavouriteandbest blog. What is a meme? The dictionary says:

an image, video, piece of text, etc, typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.

I’ll let Kate explain:

The meme was inspired by Hungarian writer and poet Frigyes Karinthy. In his 1929 short story, Chains, Karinthy coined the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’. The phrase was popularised by a 1990 play written by John Guare, which was later made into a film starring Stockard Channing. Since then, the idea that everyone in the world is separated from everyone else by just six links has been explored in many ways… And now it’s a meme for readers.

On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

Here are the rules:

6degrees-rulesThis month’s starter-title is, Atonement, by Ian McEwan.  I’m adapting the rules, and creating my chain from short stories.

borden-600x445My first link, is ‘Blind‘, by Mary Borden. I came across it in The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, but it was originally published in 1929.  Blind draws from Borden’s behind-the-lines nursing experiences.  In it, the nurse narrator treats a soldier with a serious head wound.  It reminded me of Atonement so strongly, that I had to skim through the novel again.  Sure enough, Briony Tallis experiences a similar situation, though with contrasting outcome and intention.

Bayswater Omnibus, George William Joy 1895Mary Borden had been a suffragette, so too was Evelyn Sharp.  Link two is her story, ‘In Dull Brown’, written in 1896.  It describes a flirtation between a ‘modern’ working girl, and a professional gentleman.  Imagine yourself into the historical context, and it is a subversive and involving argument about the obstacles faced by respectable women who wished to have a career.

On first glance though, ‘In Dull Brown’ is tame stuff (hence the title), just like, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel‘, by Katherine Mansfield.  I remember reading it when I was about fifteen. I’d heard Mansfield was an amazing writer, but I couldn’t understand the story. Why did it end like that?  What was it saying about the death of their father? Years later I tried again, and found an old, and previously undervalued friend, waiting for me to catch up.

Thinking of loss, and friendship, takes me to ‘Friend of My Youth’ by Alice Munro. The anonymous narrator tells the story of her mother’s relationship with Flora, using letters, dreams and memories.  It pushes us to consider how far we can ever know anyone.

As does, the penultimate title in my chain, Elizabeth Taylor’s, ‘The Letter Writers’. Can a man and a woman be friends without becoming lovers?  Read this one too fast and you’re liable to miss the layers.  It’s subtle, and wry.

My final link involves letters and a former lover, or rather fiancé.  Elizabeth Bowen’s, Demon Lover sends a shiver down my spine every time I return to it.  To say more, would give too much away, you need to read it.  Coincidentally, like a large part of Atonement, it’s set in London, during the second World War.

Six degrees from Atonement and I’m close to the place I started from, where, I wonder would you be?

A couple of useful Short Story Quotes

Book coverFor those of us trying to understand how short stories work, Barbara Korte’s introduction to The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, seems pretty useful to me.

She theorizes that it was through the writers who were experimenting with short stories during this period, and Katherine Mansfield in particular, that…

…the short story acquired the reputation of a form congenial to the modern condition.  Its emphasis on isolated moments and mere fragments of experience, its art of condensation and ambiguous expression seemed ideal for capturing modern life with its hastiness, inconclusiveness, uncertainties and distrust of traditional beliefs.  For the same reasons, the short story was deemed to have an affinity to the first fully technological and industrialized war, which exploded extant norms of perception, interpretation and representation.  Its aesthetic seemed highly suitable for articulating the experiences of the front with its moments of violence, shock, disorientation and strangeness.

She quotes Edmund Blunden, who wrote in 1930:

The mind of the soldier on active service was continually beginning a new short story, which had almost always to be broken off without conclusion.

It’s an anthology well worth a look through, if you’re looking for a reading recommendation.

What do I know?

I’m back to thinking about weather again.  You might remember that’s how I started out last week, but I quickly moved on to other things.

So let’s try again.  Remember September?  I notice in the diary I’m about to put away that for the first five days of that month I wrote, ‘hot’.  This week I am, as I type, toasting next to a well-stoked woodburner, and my old Fahrenheit thermometer in the corner reads seventy.  So this room also, you might say, is hot and perhaps that covers the subject adequately.  After all, we’ve all experienced all kinds of temperatures and the writing rule these days is less is more, especially with descriptions.

We could be satisfied with memory and perhaps some photographs or pictures to trigger them.  That’s good, it’s what imaginations are for.  We take what we know and embellish it, recreate our own versions of events, scenarios, situations according to our own designs.  But, and there is a but, beware the chances of falling into cliché.  I’m not talking of language now, rather I’m thinking about how far the things that remain with us are universal.  Take summer time as a topic, for instance.

summer holidaysLet’s think about writing a description of a British family beach holiday.  You might include the sensations of being dried with a sandy towel, or the texture of gritty ice-cream, the call of seagulls, the sounds of fairground rides and the smell of fish and chips.  They’re all good, valid approaches, but what makes them specific, applicable to one particular place in time and space?  More importantly, how do you make the description your own?

Okay, you could just tell us, this is Bournemouth, Barmouth, Tenby, Yarmouth, Brighton or Blackpool.  Then again, perhaps the geography doesn’t matter.  If you’re writing a nostalgic piece, perhaps you are looking for common experiences. Fine, but surely you still want lively writing.  You want to intrigue your reader, to engage their attention.

Small children know the trick of that.  It’s the unusual, perhaps even the outrageous behaviour, that causes adults to turn from their conversations to what the child is up to.  That’s a good principle to remember when writing, because unless they’re related to us, most readers do have to be won over, by the power of our words to transport them from the present into another world.

I am on a beach.  I don’t know where – Southwold perhaps.  I am very small and wearing a blue ruched swimming costume, which scratches the tops of my legs and fills with bubbles of water when I go in the sea.  But I’m not in the sea.  I’m sitting on a big striped towel, shivering.  My dad is sitting beside me and I’m thinking how hairy his legs are, like gorilla’s legs.

So writes Leslie Glaister, from memory, in an essay for The Creative Writing Coursebook.  I don’t know about you, I’m hooked.  I both identify with this image, this moment, and am intrigued by the way she gathers together these so specific images to make them clearly only hers.

Sometimes, our recall can be precise enough for us to create something as specific as this.  Or as lyrical as Katherine Mansfield’s, At The Bay.

Very early morning.  The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist.  The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered.  You could not see where they ended and the paddocks began.  The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them; there was nothing to mark which was beach and where was the sea.  A heavy dew had fallen.  The grass was blue.

I’ve never been to New Zealand, and yet the precision of these details makes me feel that I might have.  It also reminds me of other early morning views.

In both of these pieces specific, telling, details create convincing prose worlds.  It may be that you also are able to evoke a sense of specific place in your writing without too much effort.  How does it happen?  I think it’s through having an eye for detail, and here’s the bit where I link my train of thought back to the start.

I think I could write about a hot week in September, not because my memory is special, or my creative ability any better than the next person’s.  The notes made as I waited in a car outside a Portsmouth house on a Sunday afternoon are enough for me to recall the affects of that unexpected heatwave.  For a moment I forget the woodburner, and that it is evening.

It’s not important that I’ve identified a specific date, what worked was the process of keeping a writers diary.  It focuses my attention.  I observe my surroundings more closely, and instead of passing on, I’ve learned to record it.

My notes are rarely lifted word for word from the diary into a text, they’re a draft to be worked on.  What they give me are ideas and inspiration to translate into stories, or blog entries.

And that’s it.  Here endeth the lesson on Writers Diary keeping.  If you’ve not started one yet, I hope this might have helped convince you to sit down now and start by writing about the weather, whatever manifestation it appears in.