You know what I mean.

I must begin with an apology: sorry for titling this post with what has possibly become the most repeated phrase in the English language, but lately I’ve been thinking about how far we own the words we put on a page, whether poetry or prose.

classical_literature_Wallpaper_mtm4yI’ve been researching for the close-reading groups I’ll be running this Autumn, which means I’m gathering ideas and theories that might interest, intrigue, or just straight-forwardly challenge us.

As I type, I’m listening to Mariella Frostrup discussing Why We Read, on radio 4, which is well worth a listen again*.  She’s interviewing all sorts of people who are saying interesting things about the benefits of reading fiction – what an excellent set of justifications for settling down with a book.  Not that I am ever short of excuses.

The radio discussion has raised all sorts of angles to investigate, but what I’ve been particularly conscious of lately, is ownership.  In part this is because I’m working on George Elliot’s, Middlemarch, and I’m trying to think about the differences between my style of reading and all the decades of interpretations that have gone before me.

But lately, I’ve been thinking, and talking to the writing group, about what happens once we hand our words out for reading.  Let me pass you over to Margaret Atwood:

A book may outlive its author, and it moves too, and it too can be said to change – but not in the manner of the telling.  It changes in the manner of the reading.  As many commentators have remarked, works of literature are recreated by each generation of readers, who make them new by finding fresh meanings in them.  The printed text of a book is thus like a musical score, which is not itself music, but becomes music when played by musicians, or ‘interpreted’ by them, as we say.  The act of reading a text is like playing music and listening to it at the same time, and the reader becomes his own interpreter.

from, Negotiating with the Dead: a writer on writing.


I’ve taken this out of context, and I’m deliberately missing part of the point, because Atwood is looking at this in a more complex way than I aim to do.  I just need to remind myself to be prepared for readers to not always get my point.

The real purpose, surely, is to entertain.  Beyond that, does it matter if my audience, no matter how great or small, draws a reading from it that I hadn’t intended?

One response to thinking about this must, surely, be to take care about the way I use words.  The less sloppy I am, the greater chance you’ll see what I am trying to say.

thinking it out

* No, I don’t count this as multi-tasking.  Sometimes I need backgrounds to tune in and out of – particularly if it tones-in with the wavelength I’m working on.

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.

The Story of Two.

Do you remember this?DSCF4810

Once two is two,

Two twos are four,

Three twos are six

Four twos are eight

I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s how I learned my tables.  I think of it as one of the many poems I learned in infant class.

‘No,’ says my father. ‘It’s not a poem, it doesn’t rhyme: it’s maths.’

‘True,’ I say. ‘But what about the rhythm and repetition?’  I begin to recite, ‘Once-two-is-two…’ and behind me, I hear the echo of my infant classmates.  I have a flashback of our terrapin classroom, and remember how the waves of heat drifted up through the wire mesh guard around the storage heater; the runnels of rain dribbled down the outside of the windows, and Miss Johnson, in her pink tweed skirt and beige frilly shirt, bounced a wooden ruler along the rows of chalked squiggles on the wooden blackboard, keeping us in time.  Was it really always winter when I was in the infants class?

‘That’s just a chant,’ Dad says.

‘Can’t a chant be a poem?’ I say.

Our discussion goes round familiar circles that draw in the proper poetry Dad grew up with.  He’s not a big reader, but he knows what he likes, it’s what he calls traditional.  He has an anthology that he can dip into and find a suitable response to anything I offer.

I argue that rhyming in poetry is actually quite modern.  ‘It probably didn’t get to England until 1066, and not everyone approved of it. Even a couple of hundred years later there were people saying that proper poetry shouldn’t rhyme.’

‘Ah, but all the best poems do rhyme.’

I like discussing poems with Dad. I’m never going to change his mind, or he mine. That’s not why we return to our topic now and again. We stretch each other, coming, as we do from different standpoints.  Sometimes we like the same poems, but not for the same reasons.

For one thing, I approach poems in much the same way I do a story.  The ones I like best can be unpicked to reveal not just how they work, but  when something else is going on, just below the surface.  There might be a build up of symbols, of images or ideas.  There might be tricks going on with vowels or consonants, clues that have been embedded in the text by the author.   A story or poem that seemed one thing on the page might transform when heard.  Sounds replicate or reflect each other, emphasis can shift, repetitions resonate…The variations are as limitless as the ideas and interests of their authors, and then the readers.

One of the first rules I learned about short story was the same one that poets understand: Every word must count.  Each must work for its place in a text, not just because of its part in creating a sentence, but in the whole story.

Except that there never is a complete story with a piece of good prose. Each individual who reads or recites a text understands it in their own way, according to their experiences.  For me, the joy of poetry and story is that the rules are never quite fixed.  Yes, rules are important, and it’s a good idea to understand them, but if they become a formula, doesn’t the resulting text risk becoming as predictable as Once-Two-is-Two?

Working Story

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 the rules, just write.’

There was less than a week to my deadline.  Simmering with resentment I returned to my desk.  I had no idea what to write.  All I had was my main character.  I began a fresh description of him.  After all, I had to hand something in.  As soon as I started to write him, things began to happen.  They were not the situations I had planned, these were exciting.

Ideas flowed off the end of my pen. I had no time to worry about theories, but I was aware, for the first time, that I could see the story shaping as it evolved.  I knew how the events were building, even thought I was not sure where they would go.  Something wonderful was taking place, I was creating a linear plot as I went along.  I was flying.

I understood then that my best writing could not be created using a formula, but knowledge would help me to get the best from my ideas.  I recognised parallels to essay writing.  Without training I could not have collated my notes into an academic argument.  Yet, when I wrote essays I was not consciously following structure, I was following a line of related thoughts, and with practice, that same process would work for fiction.  All I need do was concentrate in the right places.

*Short Story Writing (The “Writers News” Library of Writing) published March 1993