Wednesday 5 September 2012

GB12 Short Fiction: Reading it and writing it

I don't think my talk at Greenbelt 2012 was recorded, and some people wanted to hear it or to read it - so here it is. Below is a picture of me at main stage in the mud.  


Short Fiction: Reading it and writing it

[My story ‘Office at Night, 1940’]

I’m going to start with a quotation from one of my heroes.
From 'the nature and aim of fiction' by Flannery O'Connor:
'I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one. Then they find themselves writing a sketch with an essay woven through it or an essay with a sketch woven through it, or an editorial with a character in it, or a case history with a moral, or some other mongrel thing. When they realise that they aren't writing stories, they decide that the remedy for this is to learn something that they refer to as the "technique of the short story" or the "technique of the novel." Technique in the minds of many is something rigid, something like a formula that you impose on the material; but in the best stories it is something organic, soaring that grows out of the material, and this being the case, it is different for every story of any account that has ever been written.' p67

O’Connor has written many lucid and useful things about fiction. Judging from her collection of letters and lectures, Mystery and Manners, she also met a lot of people who wanted to learn from her. 

Well, Flannery O’Conner I ain’t. This session is simply me gushing about short stories – why I like to read them and why I like to write them. 

Here are some definitions of the short story that I have found:
-   A short work of prose fiction (Encarta Dictionary)
-   A short work of fiction usually dealing with a few characters and a single event (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
-   A short piece of prose fiction, having few characters and aiming at unity of effect (American Heritage Dictionary)
-   A prose narrative of shorter length than the novel, especially one that concentrates on a single theme (Collins English Dictionary)

O’Connor says
'A story is a complete dramatic action--and in good stories, the characters are shown through the action... A story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality.’ P. 90

Writer, William Boyd, in an article about the history of the form, says this about the origins of the short story:
‘The stories we tell to each other are short, or shortish, and they are shaped. Consider what happens in the telling of a tale: even the most unprofessional anecdotalist will find him or herself having to select some details and omit others, emphasise certain events and ignore the irrelevant or time-consuming, elide, speed up, slow down, describe key characters but not all, in order to head—ideally—towards a denouement of some sort. A whole editing process is engaged, almost unconsciously, of choosing, clarifying, enhancing and inventing. The well-told story seems to answer something very deep in our nature as if, for the duration of its telling, something special has been created, some essence of our experience extrapolated, some temporary sense has been made of our common, turbulent journey towards the grave and oblivion.’

I would like to look at these definitions and why I am such a fan. Like Henry David Thoreau said – ‘I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.’

For me, part of the charm is that they are short. I haven’t necessarily got a short attention span, but I know that I have got a limited capacity for consumption. I get full quick. I can usually only manage one short story at a time or one chapter of a novel at a time. With smart phones and iphones, we are all reading more blogs when we’re on the move and short stories are perfect for a stolen moment on the train or on your lunch break. Short fiction is enjoying a revival, because of a lot of hard work by a lot of writers, but also because short stories make sense at the moment.  

I often look at short stories like songs - they can be released as singles or as an album. Music journalists can listen to the same track over and over to get a feel for it – likewise, short stories – if they are good – bear re-reading. Often on listening to an album, I have a favourite song. Often this song is doing One Thing. If it’s a narrative song, it can deal with an incident or a feeling – it’s about One Thing. 

In a story (or a song) the One Thing can be an image, an incident, a speech, an idea, a relationship – there is usually One Thing that sticks with the reader. A single event or theme.
The fist short stories I remember reading were at A-Level and they must have made an impression, because that was some time ago now. We looked at ‘Ping,’ by Samuel Beckett – a stream of consciousness that recounts a feeling and a mood more than an incident; and we looked at ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,’ by Ambrose Bierce – in which a man is hanged from a bridge at the close of the American Civil War. Until re-reading the latter, I could only remember a vague idea of a man being under water for a long time and the thoughts that went through his head. Likewise with other stories I studied at university and read some years ago, I remember the One Thing, but not the name or necessarily the narrative. ‘The Offshore Pirate,’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald was another that I remembered but could not remember the name of (geeky school friends on facebook and the Google box come in very handy – even if ‘Ambrose’ became ‘Ambrosia’ down to auto-correct). 

When preparing to give this talk a made a stack of all the short story collections that I own. I was surprised to find how many I had. I thought I only had half a dozen. It was when I opened the books that I realised I had only read one or two from each collection. This probably says a lot more about me as a reader than it does about the writers. Sometimes one incident One Thing is enough for one sitting. I can sit down, read one story in one go and then I don’t really want any more. For me, a short story can sometimes contain the same amount of ‘goodness’ as a novel. (I am a big fan of novels too – just in case anyone was wondering). Like with my meals, I find ‘little and often’ works well.

Time for an example. I have read or re-read lots of short stories in preparation for this talk and one that startled me and has stayed with me was ‘The Student,’ by Anton Chekhov. A theology student starts up a conversation with two widows – mother and daughter - around a bonfire and likens their situation to that of Peter the Apostle at the Chief Priest’s house, while Jesus is being tried for blasphemy. Andy is going to read an extract now – the end of the story.

I chose that extract, because, that is how I often feel when I’ve come across the One Thing in a story. The One Thing that is clear and clever and that resonates. A frenzy of joy. You might say that ‘the past is linked to the present by an unbroken chain of [stories] which flow from one to another.’

There are so many other stories and works of short fiction I could mention that really struck me ‘The home of the famous poet’ by Muriel Spark is sad and fascinating. ‘A whisper in the dark,’ by Louisa May Alcott is scary and weird and lovely. ‘A pair of silk stockings,’ by Kate Chopin is fun and touching and slightly uncomfortable. I fell in love with Ryabovich, the chap in Chekhov’s ‘The Kiss,’ and felt deeply for Yacov and his wife, Marfa, in ‘Rothschild’s Violin.’ Poe is a must for anyone who likes a shiver and a giggle – especially ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ and ‘The fall of the house of Usher.’ I bought a collection of stories by Willa Cather a few years ago and it’s still pristine because I have only re-read the stories I already know: ‘The Sculptor’s Funeral,’ ‘The Garden Lodge’ and my favourite, ‘Neighbour Rosicky,’ a sweet and rich story about families and compromise.  

‘That Colour,’ from Jon McGregor’s new collection is about ageing and a moment by the window. Andy is going to read you another from his collection now: 

This story is a twitterer’s dream. Inspired by it, Granta launched a tweetable (140 characters) short story competition which Jon judged. 

The winning story by Cassie Gonzales is here :
It was my turn to wear the dead boy’s glasses. 

3RD PLACE went to Sam Thewlis with this:
Cyanide may smell like almonds but it doesn’t taste like marzipan.

This year’s theme is Saving Paradise. I will not say short stories are paradise or that we need to find them or that we are losing them – we all know, I think that stories will continue to be told whatever happens – but they can be very very important. Many stories can suspend time for a bit, or point out to us something that we already know but hadn’t put into words before. They can bring us closer to each other. Of course this can go for any of the arts. Here’s a quotation from one of my favourite non-fiction books, This Sunrise of Wonder, by Michael Mayne. 

‘It may seem as if poetry, the creative arts and the world of the imagination, are useless in the face of so much that is evil and destructive; as Seamus Heaney has said, ‘no lyric has ever stopped a tank’. No; but there are lyrics [or short stories], paintings, buildings, music, that have stopped a person dead in their tracks, amazed at the work of the human mind and hand and eye; seeing beauty, experiencing momentary wonder that they had never noticed, and enlarging their understanding of what it means to be a person.’

Katherine Anne Porter’s short novel, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, takes place over a few days during the influenza epidemic in 1918 in Denver, Colorado. The story begins with an incoherent dream about Miranda’s childhood (detailed in other linked stories by Porter) and follows her short-lived love affair with Adam who is just about to leave for the front. The story finishes with Miranda’s influenza induced delirium. The story is built and plays out perfectly – it’s about death but also, perhaps more about life. The passage I’d like to share is towards the end – this is the section – the One Thing that stayed with me and contains perhaps a hint of paradise.


So I had fun reading (and re-reading) and I will endeavour to put a list of my favourite stories on a blog post so you can find them and read them. It will be worth it – especially now that so many of the texts are available online.
Now, in my blurb, I said I would also talk about writing short fiction. I feel faintly ridiculous following these writers with my own work, but here goes. I have been writing stories for several years now, the first I remember was in year eight (aged 12) – a ghost story sent in rural Texas in the early 20th century – I got a commendation and would love to find it and read it again. The second, I wrote at UEA as part of my Short Fiction class about 12 years later. It wasn’t bad and started me on an ongoing journey writing stories inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper. Recently (I read from these last Greenbelt), I wrote, illustrated and hand-bound a series of three single-story chapbooks. 

Adding barriers, rules or restrictions can give freedom and a clean space to create. For someone who is subtle at best and vague at worst, a small space and a few barriers can make a rambling idea jump into a neat(ish) story. Limited equipment, materials and artistic skills can prompt ingenuity, an enthusiasm to learn and a need for simplicity. So I practised my drawing, and my writing, my design skills have improved too – the exercise has been really useful and it has enabled me to share what I have made. I have had stories published in various places, but to make a thing from start to finish by hand is very satisfying – and I hope creates a very different reading experience. If you’d like more information about my chapbooks listen to last years talk or come and chat to me at the end [email me]. 

More recently I was commissioned to write a 300 word story for .Cent magazine. Commissions are fun, again, because of the restriction and also because of the hint of a theme or topic. For this the theme was ‘Confection,’ and here is the story. Let’s see if you can pick out the One Thing here.

O’Connor’s view on writing short stories is this:

'The novel works by a slower accumulation of detail than the short story does. The short story requires more drastic procedures than the novel because more has to be accomplished in less space. The details have to carry immediate weight.' p.70

I interviewed Jon McGregor recently, for the Church Times – he said that the biggest difference between writing a novel and writing a short story is that you can be fairly certain that your imagined reader will read the whole thing in one sitting. This allows you, as the writer, to be more ambitious. The reader will follow any echoes, allusions and references that you make – these can’t be sustained throughout a whole novel. Stories are much more concentrated which makes them fun to write and potentially more rewarding. 

He also said that for a writer starting out, they are great. Short stories are more useful for developing your writing, than novels, because you keep having to go back to the beginning reinventing the voice, and the register and the character.
So if you are sitting there wanting to become a writer – Jon’s advice and mine, and Flannery O’Conner’s is to just go and do it. Read more and write more. 

One of my UEA tutors, Patricia Duncker said to us, ‘You are in trouble if you don’t know where you’re going to end, especially with a short story. The point is to finish.’ She said that to ‘think through the whole structure is a grown up thing to do – it makes you detached from the story.’ I don’t disagree with Patricia – I wouldn’t dare – but I don’t think writers should be put off from just sitting down and having a run at something off the top of their heads. I would agree that it’s a good idea to think the story through – and work out what the point of it is. What are you writing about? An order I gave myself recently, while working on one of my chapbooks, was to ‘just tell the story.’ I have to order myself to do this often. Don’t try to be clever – just tell the story. Or show the story, more accurately. Make the story. Going back to William Boyd – act as if you are telling the story to a friend – embellish, lie, edit, and build up to the denouement – whatever it may be. And get to the end.

It’s no accident that the extracts I’ve chosen have often been the endings of stories (I don’t think I’ve spoiled them, though). They are often where the One Thing sits. But endings aren’t easy to write. When I started writing stories I would often just miss them out – not knowing what to do and not wanting to tie everything neatly in a pretty bow. But stories are a bit like jokes – they need a punchline, a payoff, a denouement. Not everything has to be solved, it doesn’t have to be a neat pretty ending, but there does need to be an ending. An obvious way to end is to hint at the beginning, but this isn’t necessary. As O’Connor says, there’s no real technique. 

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder follows Brother Juniper as he tries to discover if there is a reason why The Bridge collapsed – why those five people died and if there was a plan involved. He wants ‘theology to take its place among the exact sciences.’ The story’s structure is almost like a scientific paper and it concludes like this: 

‘But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.’

So I’ll repeat that line in the Chekhov story : ‘the past is linked to the present by an unbroken chain of [stories] which flow from one to another.’

I’m going to end there, because I haven’t got a pretty bow.

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