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.

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Fielding demonstrates how journeys can make a plot.

On Friday afternoon the reading group said goodbye to Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.  The narrator has been a remarkably good host: fun, informative and welcoming. I’m feeling a little lost, a little disorientated, now that I’ve got both feet firmly planted in the present.

But I’ve learned a lot.  Putting aside the insights this novel has given about English History and life in the Eighteenth Century, Fielding’s management of cast and content was, to use a cliché, masterly.

For a reading group, there’s masses to think and talk about.  Writer’s might like to look at some of the techniques he employs.  I want to draw your attention to the way Tom’s journey provides structure.

brown_last_of_england- Ford Madox BrownRoad-stories are a tradition that can be traced back through literary history.  Think, The Odyssey, jump forward to  Don Quixote, and then further forward, Three men in a Boat, The Remains of the Day, or even more recently, The Hundred-Year-Old Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared.  And then there are the fantasy novels, just think about how many of those are based on journeys…

When characters have to move from one geographical location to another some of those important five Ws are instantly set in place:

  • Where from and to?
  • Why?
  • How?

Once you’ve set your character a reason for travelling, and a definite goal, you’ll need to figure out two more of those Ws: when & what will happen along the way?  The possibilities are endless.

And the great thing about journeys is that long or short fiction can put them to effective use.

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*Painting, The Last of England, by Ford Madox Brown

 

 

 

Prevarication, displacements and motivations.

This week, in an odd ten minutes when I went to my office to write, I began to tidy.  Yes, it was a displacement activity, but to be fair, my desk had disappeared beneath an avalanche of papers and books.

The papers had been dumped on my desk when we were expecting visitors earlier in the week, and I needed to clear them off the kitchen table.  What had started on Saturday as a couple of ideas about a lesson on the back of an envelope, had by Tuesday afternoon, multiplied into a phenomenal heap also containing grocery lists, outstanding jobs, appointment reminders, some junk-mail and a recipe book (so that was what I’d meant to do with those courgettes).

edward_collier still_lifeBecause time was short, and there were other aspects of tidying to be done, I weeded the recyclable portion of this heap straight into the recycle-bin, and put the rest on the only surface available in my tiny office, the desk.  In the next few days I added to that.  A couple of writing magazines arrived, then Nancy gave me four paperbacks she’d finished with and thought I might like, and there were several reference books I might need again.

So you must, mustn’t you, agree that the desk clearance was a necessity?  What’s not quite so certain is whether I can justify moving on to the collection of quotes pinned to the inside of my office door.

It’s true most of them are curling at the corners, but obviously that hasn’t bothered me…for years, judging by the way the paper had discoloured.  I twitched the nearest one down but instead of screwing it up, gave it a quick glance, and…

‘…and nobody could write about Danny the way I might if only I had the courage to fail.  Someone no doubt could write it all more perfectly, but no one can say what I have to say unless I say it myself.  It’s the doing that counts…’

Ann Netzke

…the reason I’d kept those words in the first place caught me squarely in mid-procrastination.  I’d stuck them at eye-level to my chair, and then looked above, below and to the side of them ever since.

I can’t remember who Ann Netzke is or was.  I’ve tried an internet search but only found a series of ancestry sites.  It doesn’t matter.  One of these days, now that I’ve remembered where to look, I’ll stumble across her, and think, aah, of course.

But if I don’t, her words are back on my door and this time, I’m keeping them in sight.

And, since I’ve cleared the top of my desk, I’ll need a different set of excuses for further procrastination.

 

*Illustration, Still Life, by Edward Collier 1699.

What is a writer?

This week, for a change in tone, I’m back to reading Graham Greene’s Ways of Escape, his collection of autobiographical essays that I was given at Christmas.  It was published in 1980.

In it, Greene begins by looking back to 1926, when he started to write the first of his novels that would get published.  If you’re wondering about the relevance of such a gap to our digital age, take a look at this extract from the first chapter.

What a long road it has been.  Half a century has passed since I wrote The Man Within, my first novel to find a publisher…Why has the opening line of that story stuck in my head when I have forgotten all the others I have written since?

Perhaps the reason I remember the scene so clearly is that for me it was the last throw of the dice in a game I had practically lost.  Two novels had been refused by every publisher I tried.  If this book failed too I was determined to abandon the stupid ambition of becoming a writer.  I would settle down to the safe and regular life of a sub-editor in Room 2 of The Times…It was a career as settled as the Civil Service…in the end there would be a pension and I would receive a clock with a plaque carrying my name.

Third time lucky then, or was it?  Persistence was required. This speaks of a strong drive to create.

Greene says that the very first novel he wrote, ‘…seemed to me at the time a piece of rich evocative writing…’  the second, I called…rather drably The Episode and that was all it proved to be.

He talks of his influences, of reading the great novelists and of studying the theory.  In Greene’s early years, Percy Lubbock’s 1921 literary criticism, The Craft of Fiction provided him with guidance.  This was the period before literary criticism took much interest in novels, so Lubbock’s investigation into ‘How [novels] are made’ was a key text for understanding writing techniques.

This has chimed with what I’ve been reading in the eighteenth century classic, Tom Jones, where Fielding explores ideas about what a novel is or should be.

I wish…that Homer could have known the rule prescribed by Horace, to introduce supernatural agents as seldom as possible.

This not only tells us about Fielding’s approach to writing, it reminds us that the idea of reflecting on writing goes back to ancient Greece.   Like artists in all of the other media, writers study not only their contemporaries, but also the works and thoughts of those who came before them.

I don’t know of a novel, story, play or poem that has no ancestors.  In my experience, the best reading is a result of the writer’s previous best readings.

There haven’t been many novelists who’ve discussed this so directly with the reader as Fielding does in the course of his fiction.  Generally the approach is similar to Greene’s, a separate collection of thoughts or essays about their writing.  The beauty of that is that it allows me to dip into a few paragraphs of non-fiction at a place of my choosing.  That may be while I’m midway through a chapter of a novel, or at the end of the whole.   You might say, that it allows me to make a buffet metaphor out of them…to fill my plate with a selection of ideas and apply different combinations of approach to my reading and my writing. IMG_0180

Well you have to allow a woman to make a small poetic flourish occasionally, haven’t you?

 

Embracing the absurd.

I’ve just picked up on a challenge laid down for me a month ago, and read some of the absurdist stories of Daniil Kharms.   Thanks Mike, what a find, and how have I missed him before?

Literature is my favourite form of travel.  Think of the efficiency.  No hours on the road, or waiting around for connections.  Step between the lines of a story and I’m away.  The infernal combustion engines might transport us across the geographical world, but I’ve just travelled back in time, and got dunked into Russian culture.  No tourist destinations for me.

OldWomanLucieJansch

photo by Lucy Jansch

These Kharm stories read in a flash, resonate for hours.  They’re ridiculous, funny and dark.  Death slices through the lines of plot, taking out central character after central character.  The early twentieth century Russian landscape is grim, even bitter.  ‘Good people are not capable of getting a good foothold in life,‘  concludes Kharms, in his 1936 story, The Things.  I sense layers of suggestion, of anger, behind the flying dogs and missing legs, the drunken binges and vanishing brothers.  Like dreams, they sketch scenes, distort reality, break the rules.

These characters and their deeds twist my understanding of the world,  my sense of self and reality.  It’s brave, risk-taking writing, and I can’t predict the outcome of any piece.  They stop.

I think on, and see that sometimes writers need to be brave, and leap.

Clout Theatre 2013

Clout Theatre, 2013.   How a Man Crumbled.

 

 

 

 

 

Reading aloud? Encouraged!

In the beginning, there’s just you, the pen and the paper – or the keyboard – and your inspiration.  Words spill out, and if you hold onto that privacy of setting yourself on the page, you can write anything.  That’s how I believe the best writing takes place.

Leonid_Pasternak_-_The_Passion_of_creationThe page is a space of freedom to explore ideas, to experiment with form and content, to imagine; to re-imagine: to remember.  You can chose when and with whom to share it.  Will you though?

That’s a big step, for most of us.  Even handing out a finished hard copy so that someone else can read it, can be nerve-racking, and hopefully we will have chosen our ideal reader carefully.

So what happens if you’re asked to read it aloud?  There are a few competitions around now where the chosen texts are expected to be delivered to an audience, by the author. Do you avoid submitting your work, in case you get picked?  That would be a shame.  Your work might be perfectly suited to ‘telling’.

It’s been a source of discussion in my creative writing group, where we encourage each other to read our homework tasks to the group.  Some people are confident about this, they’re natural story-tellers who know how to pace, and dramatise.  For most of the rest of us though, it’s a steep learning curve.

Between us, we’ve shared a range of approaches, so I thought I’d try gathering them into a list.

  1. Read poems or stories that you like aloud.
    • You can do this on your own, or to a willing and sympathetic guinea-pig, who may then help you to change your style.
  2. If you’ve small children in your life, read to them.
    • Put your mind to making the text entertaining, don’t just deliver the words dryly.
    • Children love silly voices, pauses and dramatic interpretations.
      • Just because you read dramatically with them, doesn’t mean you need to employ those techniques to an adult audience, but knowing that you can loosen up will help your confidence.
  3. Read your work aloud to yourself several times.
    • This will help you to practice timing, and see if there are difficult phrases, or changes needed in the punctuation, so you’re winning on two levels.
  4. Go along to some readings and open-mic events.
    • Don’t just chose the big-name venues, opt for local, room-in-a-pub groups.
    • Enjoy listening, but at the same time, notice how varied the styles of reading are.  Some people are performers, but lots more are good readers.
  5. Try a public speaking coach.  They’ll have a wide range of strategies and approaches to help you overcome nerves and develop your delivery style.

What I find, is that confidence comes through practice.  Nerves are natural, so my list starts small and builds.

miki byrne1

Miki Byrne, performance poet.

 

This week I’ve had enthusiastic emails from two of my regular group who went along to Miki’s poetry workshop & open mic in the bar of The Roses, one of our local theatres.  ‘Poetry night was great,’ said one, ‘we really enjoyed it,’ said the other.

There’s a big writing world out there, and it’s ours, if we just dare…

What else are we going to do with our writing, if we don’t share it?

Readers, narrators and authors.

That I’m reading a memoir this week is either a happy accident  or serendipity, depending on how you view the world. Friday morning, as I was heading for an appointment that was guaranteed to include a waiting room, I grabbed a book off my to-be-read shelf.

After three months of focused studying, I was looking forward to some simple pleasure-reading.  My course paperwork was finished, and ready to post, the new classes would not be starting until mid-April. The long Easter weekend could be given over to indulgence.

I don’t know how I missed knowing that Fever Pitch wasn’t a novel.  If I had, it would have been shelved with the other memoirs that I’ve been gathering as background for the Writing Family Histories course that is next on my list of classes to prepare, and perhaps I’d be writing this post next week.

fever pitchInstead, I was several pages in before my suspicions were roused.  That’s the thing with first person narration of course, when it’s done well, it should convince us that the character and their world is as real as we are, even when we know it’s a fiction.  The thing that tends to give memoir away is usually shaping.  It can be tricky to translate the random, scoincidental nature of life as most of us experience it, into a convincing novelistic form.

Nick Hornby has shaped his life around an obsession with football in such an entertaining way that I’m hooked.  I still couldn’t answer a pub quiz sport question, but he has helped me understand something about the need so many people have to cheer on a bunch of players chasing a ball around a cold, muddy field.  Before this, my most entertaining connection to the game was thanks to Sarah’s Knitted Footballer blog, which demonstrates another approach to expressing passionate interest in a sport.

 

 

 

Appreciating Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.

I heard Phil Jupitus talking about paintings to Susan Calman on Radio 4 this week.  Amongst other sensible and intriguing things, he said that there are some paintings he just has to stand and study, because the details ‘have made me laugh out loud with how brilliant they are.’

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

It struck a chord with me, because I’ve been having a similar experience reading Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.  Have I just been lucky in picking out the best of her writing from amongst the Complete Short Stories volume that we’re using for the reading group class?  Because so far, they’re providing masses of material for discussion.

Take The Letter-writers, which we discussed this week.  It’s about two people who, after ten years of exchanging letters, are meeting for the first time. Most assessments of the story will include the fact of Taylor’s letters to Robert Liddell, another novelist.

‘The correspondence between Elizabeth and me, begun in the autumn of 1948, was to become increasingly frequent and intimate, and it lasted to within a month of Elizabeth’s death, when she was no longer able to hold a pen.’

He lived in Cairo, Alexandria and then Athens, and it has been suggested that this story is a fictionalized account of their first meeting.

The Letter-writers was first published in 1958, and portrays a rural spinster living a quiet, contained life.  You could read it as that and enjoy the details of characterisation:

For years, Emily had looked into mirrors only to see if her hair were tidy or her petticoat showing below her dress.  This morning, she tried to take herself by surprise, to see herself as a stranger might, but failed.

and the descriptions,

The heat unsteadied the air, light shimmered and glanced off leaves and telegraph wires and the flag on the church tower spreading out in a small breeze, then dropping, wavered against the sky, as if it were flapping under water.

However, if you work on the assumption that this is a carefully constructed story, and therefore every word has been deliberately chosen, then you have to look again at how the narration is operating.

Is it just the air that is unsteadied?  Why does the light ‘glance’ off the leaves and telegraph wires?  When I attack the text with my highlighter, tracing patterns, clues within the text, I begin to see an alternative, contrary reading.  I’m reading now from a new perspective, asking myself, why would it be a crisis for Emily to meet, ‘the person she knew best in all the world’?

The theory I’m shaping suggests something beautifully, elegantly, clever.  Can a writer really create something so subtle that it can have multiple, even contradictory meanings?

Consider how Taylor describes Emily’s approach to writing.

Emily, smiling to herself as she passed by, had thoughts so delightful that she began to tidy them into sentences to put in a letter to Edmund.

If you carry the idea of this apparently simple description on into the story, Edmund will tell us how carefully Emily ‘tidies’ her words:

In Emily’s letters, Mrs Waterlow had been funny; but she was not in real life and he wondered how Emily could suffer so much, before transforming it.

Words then are not simple tools.  Writers, like painters, arrange the details of the world they are portraying.  They decide which perspective to show us, arrange the light and shade, and order the components to create a specific effect.  Nothing in a good painting is chance, it is designed.  So I ask myself, was Taylor also transforming some thing, with her story about writing?

At first he thought her a novelist manqué, then he realized that letter-writing is an art by itself, a different kind of skill, though with perhaps a similar motive – and one at which Englishwomen have excelled.

 

 

Thinking about the benefits of reading groups for writers

The most confusing and repeated piece of advice that I was given during the years when I sat on the other side of the desk in Creative Writing classes, was to read, lots.  Not knowing how to fit more books into my days, I decided that my tutors must mean I should be more selective, so I cut back on the thrillers and romances, and looked out for novels that had literary reputations.

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

It was an interesting and eclectic period in my reading history.  I didn’t mind whether a book was a classic or modern; so long as someone had considered it worth mentioning, I’d give it a try. Once I’d entered the first page of a novel I forgot all about my writing tutors.  Well, isn’t that how it should be with a good book?

Of course it is, and that’s fine.  But as I closed the covers on one book I was already checking the shelves for my next read.  What I hadn’t understood then was that having read for pleasure, I needed to take time to think about what I’d read, and how it worked…or what didn’t work, and why.

Some writers seem to pick that up early.  I didn’t get it until I became a mature student, studying Literature and Creative Writing.  Since then, my horizons have broadened with every read, whether that’s with a fresh text or one of those that I first read when in that voracious period.

I’m often asked if that doesn’t spoil the fun of reading.

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

Actually, it opens up a text.  Yes, I can often see the workings, but I like that, because it offers another dimension of story to enjoy.  I like the process so much that I teach it, and the thing I’ve discovered is that this approach is as rewarding for readers as it is for writers. We get into some fascinating discussions about how writing works.

And most importantly, we share ideas on what a story was about.  Think you know something inside out?  Give it to a group of readers and then get into a discussion and see what is revealed, I’m continually finding that the exchanging of ideas opens up unexpected worlds beneath the surface of the words.

Thinking about how readers read has to be a useful thing for any writer, surely?

Making a writing space

I’m still buzzing following a new venture for me, a writing day at a local art museum.  Working with a group of writers in a museum is something special.  I did a half day last year.

Last autumn though, I began to notice how often people in my groups were saying that they found it difficult to make time to write.  The problem?  Those displacement activities that I may have mentioned once or twice before in previous blogs…Check out Writing Blocks, for some further thoughts on them.

Then, early in December, as the last of my classes closed up for Christmas, several students commented on the long gap before our re-start in January.  I decided the time was ripe for something a little different.  I would structure a day for writers who wanted space to write.

DSCF6058 Now in theory, this could have happened anywhere that had tables, chairs, heat and the basic facilities, but, I thought, wouldn’t it be perfect if there was an inspiring backdrop?  After all, that’s part of the key to how the writing residentials have worked.   So, I phoned up Nature in Art and explained my plan.   They said yes.

What could be better?  A lovely historic house, lots of artifacts, an education room we could use as a base, a coffee shop where we could buy lunches.

Some of the group came with projects in mind, others were looking for inspiration.  The group included people who come to my classes now, or had done in the past, and people I’d never met before.  No one knew everyone in the room, but we soon got chatting.

What I provided, apart from some optional writing triggers, was time management & discipline.  I interspersed set writing periods with a variety of complimentary and contrasting activities.

And it worked: we wrote, we took breaks, we wrote.  We wandered through the galleries, we wrote more.  It was more than just a space to write, it was a place to meet others sharing our journey and compare notes, listen to new ideas, refresh old connections and make new ones.

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At the end of the day we got together and discussed our writing: we read bits out.  Everyone had pages to show for their day, including me.