That tightrope moment in writing when stories either plummet or remain

Any story that’s going to be any good is usually going to change.

Seesaw

I’ve been reading Alice Munro again. There was a point when I suddenly became afraid of the day I’d read all her stories and no more were going to come, so I stopped buying her collections and tried to leave it. But you can’t leave Alice Munro, which is odd because at the beginning I couldn’t get on with her writing at all. This was when I was starting out myself, submitting stories to competitions – reading as much advice as I could about how to create a winning entry: opening with a bang, giving your characters conflict. But that’s not how to write a real short story, something that drifts through your brain so that the sense of reading it is more like an experience than any actual awareness of words being involved, which is why I realise Alice Munro has such a gift.

Trees

Comma Press have some guidelines on their website: ‘short stories are all about their endings. A short story IS an ending. If that’s not in place, there’s nothing there.’

Their advice about the stories they don’t want manages to give a healthy, necessary education as well as suggesting the way a writer might find a way through rules to their own voice.

This is what Alice Munro did for me. It was ‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’ and I remember a blood transfusion of relief, replacing the hemmed-in sensation that the formulaic ways to write a short story had left me with. The grey of denial has been lifted. I could now love Alice Munro’s work and at the same time admit my own limitations – allowing myself a possible chance to finally write the kind of stories I’d always wanted.

I have a feeling of how I want these pieces to be – though I still spend a great deal of time, waiting for the words to come. It feels like skimming off that frothy junk when boiling jam, knowing there is no shortcut or fast forward – you simply have to wait by the pan, watching what comes to the surface, discarding, watching, discarding, watching until finally you can put it in a jar. But, even then, you may have to wait a few months to give the jam its first tasting, and you may discover there’s too much lemon rind, but at least the next time you know to be a little lighter when adding zest.

As Alice Munro says in an interview with the Paris Review:

I could be writing away one day and think I’ve done very well; I’ve done more pages than I usually do. Then I get up the next morning and realize I don’t want to work on it anymore. When I have a terrible reluctance to go near it, when I would have to push myself to continue, I generally know that something is badly wrong. Often, in about three quarters of what I do, I reach a point somewhere, fairly early on, when I think I’m going to abandon this story. I get myself through a day or two of bad depression, grouching around. And I think of something else I can write. It’s sort of like a love affair: you’re getting out of all the disappointment and misery by going out with some new man you don’t really like at all, but you haven’t noticed that yet. Then, I will suddenly come up with something about the story that I abandoned; I will see how to do it. But that only seems to happen after I’ve said, No, this isn’t going to work, forget it.

 Broken down van

Last year, I went in search of Alice Munro. It was a pilgrimage of sorts – I hoped to connect with the spirit of her stories and thus find a way of understanding mine. Walking through Goderich, along the snowy Meneseteung trail (past the salt mines), I journeyed through the landscape, which possibly bore ‘Meneseteung’. This is a story that looks back at the life of Victorian poet Almeda Roth, but also allows Alice Munro a presence as well, giving a sense of a writer’s urge to discover, create – and even a glimpse into that tightrope moment in writing when decisions are made, and stories either plummet or remain.

All notion of form falls away when I’m reading Alice Munro. I’m not looking at a certain way of portraying life, techniques – spotting a use of suspense, or a trick to lure my heart into the story. I am simply looking, passing through. There’s nothing to snag on, no cheap tactics. ‘An editor who thought nothing happened in William Maxwell’s stories, for example, would be of no use to me,’ Alice Munro said. ‘There also has to be a very sharp eye for the ways that I could be deceiving myself.

Her stories are rather like dreams. There is often something significant about the last part because it’s the moment you most often remember – but there is also a strong sense that there is more. Even if you wake at that final second, you are unable to stop thinking about the dream, during the day, about what might have happened – what might still be happening. And just as the way dreams start, so do Alice’s stories: in the middle of an underwater breath: you are working towards surfacing, but are also aware that there was the whole, taking a breath and coming under in the first place.

image

The stories mentioned in this review can all be found in ‘Selected Stories‘ – a gorgeous  collection that is published by Vintage Books.

Many thanks to Eric M. Vogt for awarding my short story ‘The Soft Haze of Mystery‘ the First Cup award. His blog is well worth a look.

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Write of things you love

Three years ago, I spent a week in Shropshire and finally began to write of things I loved. These were memories of the farm I grew up on. For years, they’d been fidgeting as I sat down to work on my fiction, so that it was hard to ignore them. But up until this point, only fragments had slipped into my stories. I wasn’t sure if it was confidence that stopped these glimpses taking centre stage – the thought that my childhood couldn’t be interesting to anyone but myself – or that I wasn’t sure how to work with autobiographical material. What was clear, however, was how happy it made me to return there once more.

image

In the years after we left the farm, I dreamt about it most nights. I still do, though not as often, and the dreams have a murky air about them: gone is the childhood belief that if I wish hard enough I will live there once more; often, I find myself as an adult, standing by the house, which has been ravaged by fire, or discovering that the surrounding fields have now become a housing estate.

Writing about the farm, I’m more in control about how I want it to appear. I can walk across the bathroom’s cork tiles, calling to my older brother who can’t be more than nine or ten. The heat of the day is all around me – a layer I can’t penetrate, which has left me slow-moving.

Let’s put our swimsuits on and wobble in the bath, I say as his head appears round the door, knowing that the two of us have made a world for ourselves in this isolated place, never rejecting the other or sneering at suggestions.

The avocado-green tub was tiny, and yet on those blistering days it became all we needed. I recall the sense of swimming breaststroke for miles and miles, cool and free.

Tree

Last year, I felt hemmed in, living in Oxford – a cramped terrace, my garden overlooked by the whole street. The farm was where I could escape, but the feeling became like viewing happiness down a telescope. I wanted to reach my fingers out and touch something, but my hand, my Self, belonged to another plane.

That week I spent in Shropshire allowed those two parallel worlds to merge. I was on an Arvon Writing retreat, learning all about how to turn life’s journey into prose. I spent an afternoon, wandering through a pine plantation. The ground was cushioned with a thick layer of needles that had dried all summer and left the air clean; not the synthetic fresh of a disinfected kitchen, but the cleansing fresh of air that’s free of man’s trace – full of the scent of the earth alone. The happiness I’d been unable to touch, which had been a too different perspective to my reality, had appeared outside my window. There was no need for the telescope.

 Silhouette

The name for this blog came from my writing group. We were workshopping a short story of mine. My pieces were finally becoming fully autobiographical – writing them, I had a feeling of fascination, a sense of being lucky. There was no panic as I wrote about events of my life, no boastful pride, I was simply travelling through for the pleasure.

After a few moments discussion of the parts of the story that had stayed with the group, the moments they felt were not necessary, or heavy-handed, one of the women reached out her hand. Her fingers moved like minnows in a stream.

There’s a real sense of a journey here, she said.

But it wasn’t just the journey of my eleven year old sense in the story, it was also the journey of the writer, making her way into these memories, investigating, almost testing.

I knew then that I wanted to start a blog. I felt it would be a place of no expectation – not like my short stories where a voice in the back of my mind wonders: will this one be published?

My blog would be a place to simply write about my experience of passing through life, and watching it as I go – not judging, but allowing it to be as it is.

Moss

Now, I find myself back in Shropshire, back at that Writers’ Centre. But this is not another retreat – I am here for good, as the Assistant Centre Director.

For a long time I was angry with the child of my past – I blamed her for my grief at no longer having the bravery and lack of restraint that she’d had, running through fields all day long, wobbling in the bath. I had lost faith in her – having wished to be back at the farm for so many years without fulfilment, and even finding the gift of it in my dreams to have shifted.

But now I can smile at my child, and feel content that I am living a life I have dreamt of for a very long time. On my days off, I walk that pine plantation, which takes me up into the hills. I then descend into an enormous basin where a lake lies silver beneath the sky – a jewel amongst cushions of grass, and not a house, not a soul. In this silence my heart feels able to grow, so much space, so much stillness. Words come now, not in an attempt to recreate a life I am mourning, but as a salute to what lies around.

 Clouds

For a link to The Hurst – Arvon’s wonderful writing centre in Shropshire – and details of all the courses click here

I also write for the Arvon blog…click here

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The soft haze of mystery

The summer Jake turned fourteen, he caught a sudden glimpse of his aunt undressing – a roundness of flesh in between her body and arm as she removed her bra. His head fogged up, but through his blood came a crisp pulse. He backed out of the room, unable to look away, until she turned at the sound of him; Jake turned too, hurrying back down the hall. He had no words to explain why this was wrong in his mind, just the feeling in his body, which he baulked at because of its mystery.

image

That same summer he had to water the garden of a friend of his mother’s. He could feel the tide in him; a hidden, silent moon pulling. He used to set out on his bike to the Henderson’s flat near the common. It was hot enough that everyone was showing something. Skinheads with their shirts off, tattoos green against reddened skin. Girls in shorts, legs bare, tiny feet tucked into plimsolls. The scent, leaking through Jake’s skin, filled his nostrils so that breathing became much more than taking in air – there was feeling and taste there too; warmth.

The Henderson’s building was in a gated complex. Their flat was on the third floor, the block nearest the pool where there was also a pavilion for courses and events. Jake’s mum and Mrs Henderson used to do yoga there. He’d had to go to the class once because he’d finished school earlier that day. It was simpler to find his mum there, rather than sitting outside the house – besides, he was thinking: I’ll just sneak in and get the key out of her bag.

The yoga teacher was in a shiny, fuchsia leotard. She had electric turquoise leggings, put on first so that the fuchsia of the leotard came up tight between her legs. When Jake came into the pavilion, she was bent over. The top half of her body was parallel to the floor, both arms ahead of her, flying. One leg held her up like a flamingo – the other was reaching behind. He could see the pink ball of her foot. Her arse was filled with muscle: a firm, steep semi-circle.

This was another of those moments – that cloudy, luxurious mystery. But with all these other women in the room – fat women, old women, and his mum – it felt horrifying. And then Mrs Henderson called his name so that everyone looked. The teacher stopped and came over so that Jake saw her even closer up, the stretch of the edge of the fuchsia leotard running across the top of her breasts – a hot shadow of cleavage.

Flowers

Mrs Henderson’s garden consisted of a balcony filled with flowers and grasses in steel tubs. It was nothing like the sentimental pots with red and white fluffy petals that Jake’s mum had. Here was a meadow garden, but up high. There were towering, steel cylinders with tall grasses that lazed from side to side in the wind. Bushes of lavender hummed with bees. Some kind of climber had made its home around the French windows, and attached to the rails were boxes and boxes of poppies – bright and yet translucent in the sun.

Jake would go up the three flights of stairs – there wasn’t a lift – and let himself into the apartment: second on the right, at the end of the corridor. He’d heard about the neighbours – the Lehmans – but only to know they were an older couple with a niece who was staying with them while her mother was in the hospital. He knew it wasn’t the regular kind of hospital because of the way his mum talked about it.

Too scary. It could happen to anyone.

Flower

Jake came for a few days, filling up the watering can at the sink and then taking it out onto the balcony.

Mrs Henderson had specifically had him round before she went on her trip to ‘show’ him how to water her garden.

Now, I know you’ll be thinking this is dumb, she said. But you’d be surprised at how people don’t know how to water plants, unless they’ve had them. Mark’s hopeless with them, just a quick flick like this – and she demonstrated, walking with the water running out.

Jake wondered what was wrong with that: she seemed to be watering her plants.

Mrs Henderson laughed – look at you, you’ve no idea what I’m talking about! she said.

He shook his head.

Come here, she said, pulling him over.

You stand, she told him. You stand like this, over one tub, and you pour the whole damn lot. Then you go into the kitchen, fill it up and then – she took a small step to the left – you stand, again.

Jake nodded and she put her hand on his shoulder, leaning in a little closer.

Now, you might start to think, ‘this is dumb’, after going back and forth a couple of times. You might think, ‘hell, I’m going to do two tubs per can-load of water’. But then that wouldn’t be watering my garden properly, would it?

He smiled and she tugged his ear.

So, Jake, do you think you can do it?

Sure, he said.

Plus, look out for next door, Mrs Henderson told him, winking.

Flowers

Look out for next door.

What Jake thought she meant was, like: see if there are any problems. Or, maybe they were going away too, and had asked if she knew someone who could keep an eye on the place.

But why the wink?

Basically, he didn’t know what she meant. But then, when he was on his fifth load of the watering can, he found out. The French windows next door opened, and a girl’s leg stepped out. The movement was nimble and brought a neat body in a pair of shorts through after – tan-coloured hair that blew black at just the moment she went from inside to out.

Oh, the girl said, glancing at Jake. He caught that she was holding a glass, something cold as there were drips coming down on the outside.

She turned and went back inside.

So, that was the niece, with the crazy mum.

He stood there a long time, running those seconds over in his head. He thought about it as he went each time to the kitchen, filling up the can. Every time Jake came back out, he imagined her coming out too, or wondered if she’d be there on the balcony already.

Three days passed and he didn’t see her, but each tub got two full watering cans and the leaves began to turn yellow so he thought he better ease off. Then the weekend came and he wondered what she was doing.

On Monday, Jake saw her again.

She came out in much the same way – same shorts, same clean, light hair.

She looked over, and then waved what was in her hand at him – a book. Then she sat down on one of the chairs the Lehmans had out there and began turning the pages.

Jake watered the plants and watched her read. Sometimes, he imagined it was all a show, put on for him: she wasn’t really reading. But then, if it was put on for him, wouldn’t she have to look up at least once to see the effect it was having?

Flower

When Jake was in his twenties, and his first proper girlfriend broke up with him – she was moving out of the flat they’d been renting together – she told Jake he lived in a dream world.

That ole chestnut, he said.

She growled. Her name was Nina.

The thing is, Jake told her. You’re moving out – why do you still have to say that to me? Do you think I haven’t heard – all these years? Or, are you thinking: just one last time, I’ll tell him to grow up and maybe he will.

You idiot, Nina said.

If that’s what you think, he told her, shrugging.

Do you know what your problem is, Jake?

What? Tell me, what?

You’re still fixated on that girl – that niece – like I said, can’t live in the real world.
They’d fought so much, but it was always the same fight – it wasn’t going to get solved.

The weird thing was, after Nina went, there was all this space: it was just him, nobody else to blame. Jake began to think about whether he lived in the world or not. He wondered where he did live. Was it make-believe, the dream of ‘what if’ – what if he had spoken to the niece?

Bikini

He’d seen her in the pool one afternoon, floating on her back, this little white bikini. Jake imagined her watching him watching her. But he never did anything.

If that’s what he thought she was doing, why didn’t he go down there and say – how about it?

How about what?

That was the problem – having no idea what came next after the tide in your body rose up. He felt what he wanted to do, but there were no words.

The final time Jake saw her, she was out on the balcony as he approached the building. His heart went mad. She was in her bikini. Something had to happen. But when he went out there with the watering can, she didn’t look around. Through the emerald veil of Mrs Henderson’s grasses, he could see her legs stretched out on the sun lounger.

Why did she have her back to him?

He watered the garden – maybe even a few extra cans, risking the yellow leaves – until he thought: this is dumb. It was all beginning to hurt. He came indoors and paced around. He felt like an idiot. He wanted to scream, weep. Finally, Jake went right up to the French windows and stood with the grass between them, just watching.

I know you’re there, she said.

Flower

Jake’s ex-girlfriend was wrong – he wasn’t living in a fantasy world. He was fully aware he’d ducked back inside the Henderson’s flat that day, feeling too much of a fool for running away so that he couldn’t go out there again. All he could do was leave: sulking down three flights of stairs. Only then did he have the guts to turn around – it was the final realisation of what he was walking away from – but when Jake looked up at the balcony, the niece was gone.

Jake wanted to call his ex-girlfriend up and tell her that he wasn’t fantasising about spending the rest of his life with the niece. You don’t get together with your wife at fourteen!

She wasn’t some symbol of the perfect woman either – because he did used to worry about her loony mum, thinking maybe the niece had something in her genes. If Nina thought Jake couldn’t really love her because he was in love with the niece, she was wrong.

Bikini

I know you’re there.

What did Nina ever say to Jake that would ever touch him as much as those words?

The niece had seen him out of the back of her head, with all that grass in the way. You couldn’t love a woman until they were able to see you like that. How could he have cared about Nina when she never noticed his presence in that subtle way, and in that subtlety feel him, the real Jake – a boy desperate to love, but afraid?

 

This is a new short story. I am going to be posting pieces of fiction here each month, and would love your feedback!

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The art of becoming an original writer in three days!

We talk about that first ‘bite’ we get as a writer, the first punch of an idea. Something catches our eye – a painting, or a conversation between two people across the room. We watch. Suddenly we start to imagine what they are saying. We picture what one of them might do next – or what the other has previously done; perhaps something they are now withholding. A story begins to form. But then suddenly Reason asks: how do you know this is the right story?

Rose

In her book, Psychoanalysis: the impossible profession, Janet Malcolm quotes from a letter that Friedrich Schiller wrote in 1788 in reply to a friend who had complained of meagre literary production: the ground for your complaint seems to me to lie in the constraint imposed by your reason on your imagination…It seems a bad thing and detrimental to the creative work of the mind if Reason make too close an examination of the ideas as they come pouring in…

Roses

If we’re unconstrained, we might be able to sit and examine the painting, or watch these two people, chatting across the room. We remain calm. We observe, allowing ideas to take shape. We might imagine to ourselves: a funeral – two people, talking after a funeral.

Two women – sisters; no, sisters-in-law. One touches the hand of the other, so it is the younger of the two, the blond one, who is the widow. Both wear black. Both have been crying. The widow nods and gives a funeral smile before getting up and excusing herself to the kitchen where the sister-in-law follows and they continue to talk.

But now you might find yourself in the kitchen and think: how did I get here; what am I doing?

Suddenly, you’ve gone from familiar surroundings – the room where the reception was going on: the dim chatter, the smell of the food on the table in the bay window that is beginning to heat in the sun, coming through the glass; the sandwiches are forming a crust, even though the crusts have been removed.

But now in the kitchen, with these two women, you’re not sure.

Why did the widow get up? Why didn’t she simply sit there with the hand of her sister-in-law, providing comfort? The hand certainly was providing comfort. You’re certain of that.

Is it that the widow doesn’t want people to make a fuss; that it’s all too much? That she’s not yet ready to let herself go and is busying herself?

The trouble is that at the first sign of the inner judge, the imagination will become knocked about. From its initial meander, careless, aimless, aim-free – it is now aware that someone is watching. It is now aware that there are right and wrong paths to take. It doesn’t want to fail.

 Rose

How, once this inner judge has stepped in, can you carry on with the freedom of imagination? Freud was to liken his process of free association – or ‘allowing’ – to that of the poet, during the act of creation. The patient – or poet – must suspend his critical faculties and say anything that comes to mind, regardless of its irrelevance, triviality, or unpleasantness.

When Reason creeps in, inhibiting the story, firstly acknowledge that you are now no longer in the sitting room, wandering the post-funeral reception. See that you are now in your head, wandering your self – your own memories, your own failings, your own doubts, perhaps your own funeral.

In the introduction to his Collected Essays, Hanif Kureishi says: More or less the whole of my formal education was concerned with enforced inhibition and constraint. I had to unfetter my imagination myself and learn to let it run. It sounds awkward to say that you might train your imagination, but you might learn, at least, to hear what it has to say, and respond.

Hanif, since a period when he found that he couldn’t move forward in his work, has used Freud’s method of free association each morning, which he himself discovered – oddly enough – in a writing manual by Ludwig Börne called: the art of becoming an original writer in three days.

Roses

Return to the story of the funeral – allow. Put yourself in the kitchen. See what comes. A kitchen that you know? You still have something of before to start you off because you can still hear the voices of the guests. Perhaps there were two boys, playing. Listen to their game – their innocent, high notes, rising above the muffled base of mourners who are taking their job seriously.

You can still smell the buffet lunch. But perhaps there is a new smell in the kitchen so that you can transition from one to the other, using the path of your senses. There are new sounds in the kitchen, allowing you to cross the threshold into a new room. How has the light changed?

Keep exploring these impressions and, at every stage, observe to see when you inhabit the character – the widow – and when you are simply standing back as the narrator. Are you illustrating the setting from an authorial distance, or have you stepped further in to describe from within the character?

It’s best not to jump around too many characters. Don’t suddenly panic and jump into the sister-in-law’s head, thinking: I don’t know the widow anymore – I never did – perhaps I’m not her, perhaps I’m this person instead. Of course, investigate, play around – don’t become too rigid. There’s no point starting a story in one character’s head and forcing your way through – ploughing through frozen earth without allowing yourself breathing space.

Investigate, explore, and know that the inner judge will butt in – even into the more sure ideas. It’s arrival it’s not a sign of fault. The inner judge simply interferes when the other senses, the feeling senses, become faint. When the tangible connection to your imagination becomes fragile, then there is space for doubt to enter – see it as the flailing of the mind when the floor disappears.

But don’t think you have to be absolutely on top of your story, crowding it, so that there’s no room for misgiving to enter. By doing this you’ll lose your perception in another way – by writing in panic. Even whilst floating, a connection can be found. Breathe. If you cannot feel the story, you can at least feel that you, the artist, are alive. Sit with that artist – on the sofa, chair, wherever it is you’re trying to write. Sit with that artist and breathe, and rather than carry yourself away in thoughts, admonitions and doubt, notice sensations – how your chest rises, how it falls, how it clenches, how it releases, how it stutters, how is wheezes.

There are so many things to notice that one never need enter back into the line of thinking – the doubt, the ruin. But if you enter that line of thinking, you haven’t failed either, you are simply walking the artist’s path. It’s like being a pinball in a machine: darting about, setting off alarms, lights, buzzers; sometimes winning a prize, sometimes falling down a hole – nothing won at all.

Rose

I spent a very long time, exploring this funeral – and in fact it was a scene that never made it into the final draft of the story, but it was necessary for the process as a whole. The story came about because of a painting I saw in a museum. I was in Ireland for the launch of an anthology a short story of mine had been published in, and was full of inspiration to write another.

To me, this new story was Irish, the sisters were Irish. It was the husband who was dead.

‘The funeral passes beneath a silver sky, but there is enough light to create gentle shadows on the grass. She watches a cluster of men from the village lower William into the ground, and wonders what he will do in there.’

Rose

The painting I saw in Ireland shows a husband and wife, sitting at a table. They have become disconnected somehow.

The painting is called The Consultation, which already gave an idea of a lack of ease and intimacy. But the way the objects are placed suggests it isn’t simply an emotional difference these two people have. It is something greater.

A chair, in the doorway beyond, is empty – conveying absence. Looking at the woman, I felt she was in grief – frozen at breakfast, in her duties. The man is waiting for her, watching. Somehow, although they are separated – by life, by death – although their eyes are no longer level, there is something that has levelled. In this moment, they finally feel love for each other. He, at long last, sees her emotion – the tears – and his heart bursts.

Her sudden realisation is that this breakfast routine, which she’d found so formal, is impossible without him. Even though they never said much to each other, he had always been there, a quiet presence, buttering his toast. She never thought he would leave.

Rose

‘It was him. It wasn’t a memory. He was standing, waiting for her. He was smiling. He was holding out his hand. And she thinks of how she knew what to cook for him after a time, from him leaving small piles of things on the plate, which he had no taste for; never saying, I don’t care for this or that, but in those leavings she grew to know him. She hurries back home, up the path, and bangs open the kitchen door, rushing through, calling, William! William! running up the stairs…’

For those of you interested in reading the full short story – The Courting – which was published by Virago, click here for an online version. The piece is less than 4,000 words long – but I wrote many more as I searched for the thread of the tale. Seen in isolation an idea may seem trivial – but do not reject too soon because it may be made more worthy by another idea that comes after. Freud talked of free association as the ore from which the analyst extracts its content of precious metal. Where imagination has freedom, Reason relaxes its watch, allowing ideas to rush in, knowing that the time for arrangement comes later.

Rose

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Shockproof shit detector: the editor’s perspective

Bridge

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a new kind of fiction, best exemplified by the short story collections of Raymond Carver.

In 1981 his best-loved collection was published. ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ recorded the almost dreary lives of middle America, in language that was frugal and yet commanding.

The metafictions, magic realism and doorstopper Great American Novels of the 1960s and 1970s had been challenged.

Writing was now about minimalism – all show and no tell. Creative writing students on both sides of the Atlantic worshipped at the altar of Carver, pruning and condensing in their attempts to imitate his style.

And then, in 2009, Carver’s wife, Tess Gallagher, published ‘Beginners’ – the original manuscript versions of the 17 stories that make up ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. The true extent of editor Gordon Lish’s cuts to Carver’s work was revealed. The bible of minimalism was apparently the work of two authors – writer and editor.

Minimalism was not a style that dripped so easily from Carver’s pen.

A minor literary tempest followed. The original of the collection’s title story was published in The New Yorker – with Lish’s edits. Creative writing classrooms around the globe quivered with excitement: perhaps the struggle for that perfect, showing sentence was not so unattainable. God had been made man; we could all relax.

Bridges

VS Kemanis’s latest collection ‘Dust of the Universe’ brings to mind many of these debates about editing, K.I.S.S. (‘keep it simple, stupid’), fashion in literature and literary territory.

Kemanis’s ‘territory’ is the American middle class; in this collection, specifically the white-collar, middle-class family (her previous collections have concentrated on ‘women’ and ‘misdemeanour’). And her style is neither minimal nor simple.

‘Dust of the Universe’ sees people on planes, in cars, at home and at work, struggling with the emotional pulls, conflicts and trials of family life. Her characters, most often women, sit at the centre of these domestic dramas, trying, with varying degrees of success, to cope with exterior events while tuning into and processing their interior reactions.

Material then for the minimal treatment. No ground-breaking incidents, magical happenings, or self-referential meta-narrative here. Quiet, limpid prose would appear to be the perfect vehicle for Kemanis’s stories.

Kemanis herself, however, professes an enjoyment of ‘the beauty and intricacy of language’. This certainly shows: she chooses an elaborate style to tell the stories of her ‘everyday people experiencing joys and sorrows’.

Is this wrong? If so, why?

Is it successful? If not, how could it be improved?

Bridges

Literary fashion since Carver remains minimal. The early twentieth-century modernists and the experimentalists of the 60s and 70s provided the raw material for the blooming fields of literary, critical and cultural studies. Literature that discussed literature – and pulled in psychology, linguistics, politics and sociology – gained a strangle-hold on academia and, crucially, alienated a reading public. No wonder that readers were attracted to Carver’s straight-forward story-telling, his focus on character, incident and dialogue, and apparent lack of pre-occupation with any kind of ephemeral ‘discourse’.

So when one reads a story such as Kemanis’s ‘Nothing Intentional’, in which a middle-aged lawyer contemplates an extra-marital knockback and his position in the world, it feels rather over-written. Is this because of fashion – is this because one expects such a story to be revealed through quiet imagery and language? Or is it because Kemanis is a self-published writer – albeit an experienced one? Does this story need a Lish-style edit, cutting it back to its bare, white bones?

Bridge

A comparison with another story in the collection provides some insight: ‘The Zephyr’ records the turmoil an eight-year old girl feels in the face of her reconfigured family situation. Staying alone with her mother in a motel named The Zephyr, and visited on weekends by family members, new and old, she develops a powerful fear of the creature she believes the zephyr is, conflating it with the prematurely developed daughter of the motel manager.

This is probably the best story in the collection. It is the most moving, thematically and symbolically the best integrated, and is executed with great success. What marks it out from Kemanis’s other emotionally astute tales is the difficult literary trick Kemanis manages to pull off: she writes an adult story using the eight-year-old Debbie’s voice.

Writing in a child’s voice does not entail writing childishly or even with Carveresque simplicity; writing from a child’s point of view can be both subtle and sophisticated. In ‘What Maisie Knew’ Henry James sees everything through Maisie’s eyes, but, choosing to write in the third person, he is able to map refined, urbane language onto undeveloped thought patterns. The title of the novel indicates both the novel’s subject matter and its status as a technical exercise; James, creative genius and master technician, combines the two in one of his best works. And anyone who has read a single James sentence knows he is perhaps the ‘anti-Carver’.

Writing from the first-person point of view of an eight-year-old girl is even more of a challenge, but in ‘The Zephyr’ Kemanis manages to avoid both any kind of jejune tone and any overly sophisticated commentary. The author is present, but the reader is only very faintly and pleasantly aware of her because of her choices of observation and image.

Kemanis has achieved this by giving her own work a strong edit. And she has done this, perhaps, without even realizing it – rather, her choice of voice has demanded such precision. In an interview with the Paris Review, Ernest Hemingway famously said ‘The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector’. In ‘The Zephyr’ Kemanis’s point of view choice has turned her detector up to eleven – any sign of age-inappropriate language, analysis or view is absent. She has been her own Lish.

Bridge

Perhaps then, for the self-published writer, the absence of a sensitive agent and a hard editor means being your own Lish and turning up the volume on your shit detector are essential skills.

Kemanis manages this in a number of her stories. To make this a truly good collection, she needs to sharpen her blade and carve out from her quantities of promising material the ideal forms of the rest.

In the title story of ‘The Dust of The Universe’ – a brief, heart-wrenching piece of writing – we do not need to know that Kip is ‘still hard-muscled from workouts at the gym’, only that he is big and his is his wife’s tucked position in bed is un-natural to him. Neither does Kemanis, once she has described Kip seeing ‘thousands of white specks danc[ing] about like atoms at boiling point’ under the covers, need to mention in the next paragraph the ‘boiling atomic particles’. Taking her knife to her prose in this way would increase the power of her imagery and make it serve her subjects even more effectively.

Bridges

Not every writer can or should be Carver. Not every editor can or should be Lish. Lyrical, indulgent language is part of the pleasure of reading – and writing – but to adapt Lish himself, five lush, beautiful words can, by their clarity and precision, be better than fifteen.

Bridge

The Editor’s Perspective features once a month
For those of you keen to have your ebook given a review by West Camel, please leave a comment or pingback below and West will hunt you out!

A big congratulations to VS Kemanis: ‘Everyone But Us‘ is currently a deserved semifinalist in the short fiction category of the 2013 Kindle Book Awards!

Thanks Britt Skrabanek, Chris Barnham and Catherine McCallum, West has been enjoying your blogs and ebooks…but who will be up next?

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Balls, heartbreak and the real Jane Austen

The fire throws its warmth across the room and one of the guests has stretched out on the sofa to sleep. Though Miss Bingley has a book in her lap her attention is on Darcy as he reads his own. Every time she makes some inquiry of him, he responds, but quickly returns to his page. Miss Bingley stifles a yawn at her book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, and declares that there is no enjoyment like reading, watching Darcy for his reaction.

He makes none. Nobody speaks. She throws the book aside.

Now, her brother begins talking of a ball he plans on hosting at Netherfield.

Charles! she says, wanting to know if he is quite serious. She is certain there are many to whom a ball would be rather a punishment than a pleasure.

image

I was 12 when I went to my first ball. I had recently broken my wrist. My unease at going to this ball – aside from concerns about not being pretty enough, and fancying boys that weren’t interested in me – was the cast on my arm.

My best friend suggested I try my dress on to see how it looked. The crushed velvet, elasticised fabric did fit over the cast, but the arm appeared chunky; my hand seemed to be a claw, set in the fibreglass as it was.

We decide to cut it off.

I’ve been in plaster for three weeks and with only one more to go I’m certain it will be fine. After we manage to hack everything away, and I spend a few moments inspecting my pale, sweaty wrist, it begins to throb.

Crap, that was definitely a bad idea, I say.

Flower

I end up back at the hospital, getting another cast fitted. The doctor acts solemn – a deep crease at the bridge of his nose, implying that what I did was galactically irresponsible.

At this age, anything serious makes me think of murder. I feel an awful heaviness. Despite this, I am unable to stop giggling, when no one is looking. Perhaps this is my defence against the solemnity of death – laughing away the cloud that keeps swelling above me.

There, the doctor says – triumphant – adding one final hunk to the palm of my hand, which I cannot close my fingers around.

This cast is nothing like the first one. Originally, it had only gone halfway up my arm – a knitted fibreglass bandage impregnated with polyurethane, which was light and compact. Now I have a plaster of paris club, which weighs a great deal. The cast reaches my elbow, all lumpy and misshapen. I’m certain the doctor has done this on purpose.

The dress still stretches over, but I look like something out of a zombie movie. Even if someone did want to dance with me, I’m not sure I could with this anvil hanging off my body.

Flower

Catherine longed to dance, but she had no acquaintance in the room. Mrs. Allen did all she could do by saying: I wish you could dance, my dear—I wish you could get a partner.

Catherine felt obliged to her for these wishes; but they were repeated so often, and proved so ineffectual, that she eventually grew tired.

image

My friends and I had the same concerns – not being able to approach boys and ask them to dance. At least my two girlfriends were pretty. I knew it would take a stranger the courage of a lion to cross the room and make an offer, and my looks were never going to inspire that. This didn’t stop me, dreaming of having the kind of face that might encourage such an act, searching for the boy who would be the one to roar, bound to my side and offer his paw.

We were dependent on our dates: three boys from school. I was in love with all of them in some way. But my best friend was only in love with one of them, so he had to be hers – not that I had to concede anything to her, beautiful as she was. It was a bit heartbreaking because this boy was the most intriguing of the three, though, I was terrified of him, of passion. The second boy was a mystery. He was sporty and, even though he was a total pin up, he didn’t seem interested in girls yet. But who knew?

Certainly not us.

And then there was the lad I’d grown up with who was always fun to be around.

We wondered if the boys would dance. We were scared they wouldn’t want to, or how it was all going to happen. Would we dance in a group? Or would we all pair up? And who would pair up with whom?

We came up with every scenario: all the boys wanting to dance with the same girl, the wrong boys wanting to dance with the wrong girls. What to do if certain songs came on. What to do if we saw each other dancing with a boy – which song to quickly request. For me it was No Woman No Cry.

How would we slow dance?

How would we dance in general?

We planned humorous things to say, secret signals to make if we needed to be interrupted, or rescued; a time schedule, including moments we would convene, go to the toilet, check in, update.

This is how we wiled away the time. It was our consolation for the agony of waiting; our substitute for the real. Just as it had been for Jane Austen: I hope we shall meet next week to talk this over, she writes to her intimate friend Martha – till we have tired ourselves with the very idea of my visit before my visit begins.

 Flower

I grew up before the advances of social media. There were no mobiles at school, just a noticeboard outside the dining room where you could leave and receive notes. At home, with my friends in the school holiday, talking about boys, we couldn’t go online and stalk their facebook page, we simply had to console ourselves with words, stories, dreams. News was everything.

I shall be extremely anxious to hear the event of your ball, and shall hope to receive so long and minute an account of every particular that I shall be tired of reading it, Jane Austen writes to her sister.

Flower Collage


There has been much debate at the quote (‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading’), which will accompany Jane Austen’s portrait on our £10 because it comes from a devious character – said falsely, merely to impress. But the scene from which it is taken reveals so much. Writers seek ways of showing characters – their temperament, their idiosyncrasies. For Jane, reading was a way to experience a world she couldn’t in person. To be disingenuous about the importance books was a folly she wished to attribute to Miss Bingley. Truly loving a book was a sign of authenticity.

But even Jane recognised that they were not to replace the real thing when the real thing could be got.

You distress me cruelly by your request about books, she writes to Martha. I cannot think of any to bring with me, nor have I any idea of our wanting them. I come to you to be talked to, not to read or hear reading; I can do that at home; and indeed I am now laying in a stock of intelligence to pour out on you as my share of the conversation.

Some have accused her work as superficial, even dull, but although the world of her stories is limited, I cannot fault her meticulous observation. As a young girl, reading her books made me feel less alone.

Flower Collage

Catherine began to feel something of disappointment – she was tired of being continually pressed against by people…all of whom she was so wholly unacquainted that she could not relieve the irksomeness of imprisonment by the exchange of a syllable with any of her fellow captives…

…when at last arrived in the tea-room, she felt yet more the awkwardness of having no party to join, no acquaintance to claim…

 Flower

At some point in the ball, we wonder where the boys are. We’ve arrived, come into the main room where disco lights panic across the floor in various colours. A few people dance at the edges – lucky girls with boys. Soft drinks sit in paper cups on the bar. People lounge at tables, talking. Others stand in nonchalant poses in the hallways.

We decide to see if the boys are outside. No. We search the shadows of the large room. We even look on the dancefloor, thinking: well we’ve been everywhere else, so this is the only place they can be.

We ask boys coming out of the toilets if they’ve seen them, make another circuit, take in the corridors, the entrance hall, and then we say quietly to each other: maybe they’ve…gone?

 Flower

We gather at the payphone and ring them.

The lad I grew up with answers the phone. Nothing in his voice suggests there’s anything amiss – the casual way he says, yes? when I blurt out his name.

But you’re at home! I say.

Yes.

You’re supposed to be here with us at the ball!

Oh, yeah, he says.

And?

Well…it was boring.

But you only gave it half an hour, and you just left, and you didn’t tell us.

Yeah, well, we didn’t want to bother you.

Hang on, I tell him, consulting my friends. We decide that we have to persuade them to come back.

When I get back on the line it’s the sporty boy.

Who’s this? he asks.

It’s me – Gabs!

Surprisingly, something about the telephone begins a new energy in motion. We all take turns talking to each other, going through all the combinations. We grow bold.

Giggle.

We tell them how dumb they were to leave, because now it’s really got going.

It’s gone insanely wild, I say, suggesting various things that are happening in a vague way so that they’ll just have to come and see for themselves, won’t they?

Flower Collage

The company began to disperse when the dancing was over – enough to leave space for the remainder to walk about in some comfort; and now was the time for a heroine, who had not yet played a very distinguished part in the events of the evening, to be noticed and admired.

Every five minutes, by removing some of the crowd, gave greater openings for Catherine’s charms. She was now seen by many young men who had not been near her before.

Not one, however, started with rapturous wonder on beholding her, no whisper of eager inquiry ran round the room…

Flower

We ended up going home early when the boys didn’t materialise, feeling bad for not seeing the ball through; we’d only managed to dance for a few songs – the three of us in a small, self-conscious circle. When I explained what had happened to my mother, she was outraged. The boys were in big trouble.

Although this was pleasing to me, it didn’t resolve anything, or undo anything. Yes, they would be told off, but this didn’t supply me with what I’d wanted.

With all my heart I had longed to dance with a boy under the ruby glow of disco lights.

Gabriela Blandy

Relevant Links

Catherine Morland is the heroine of Northanger Abbey - a useful book to read for Jane Austen’s earlier style, showing more of the self-conscious writer than later works.

For more of my thoughts on characterisation.

My best friend now runs a rather beautiful online shop for bespoke, vintage and antique furniture, which is certainly worth a peek.

Posted in Essay, Memoir | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

The conundrum of being ourselves

During my second term at drama school, we had to face Shakespeare. All the students were frantic as agents from the RSC would be in the audience, scouting for new talent. There were tears after rehearsals. The toilets stank with the remnants of our nervous stomachs.

I was cast as Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. Here I am, entertaining my husband’s best friend, who I feel at ease with: he is jovial, whereas my husband is serious. I am pregnant and suddenly my husband gets it into his head that the baby isn’t his, but his friend’s. I’m put on trial.

My lord you are mistaken, I say.

Each time in rehearsals, the director would shout: stop, stop, you’re being too cautious. Be innocent, not defensive!

But I didn’t know what it was to conduct yourself on the conviction of your heart in the face of an accusation. My whole life I’d been pursued by teachers, headmasters, headmistresses – told I wasn’t working hard enough, or that I was being wilfully disruptive. I had no power against these charges. It never crossed my mind, as a ten year old, to say – but this is me, not naughty, not wayward, simply how I am, trying as best I can.

Instead, I nodded, said I was sorry: I would try harder. When the scolding finished, I staggered away, the muscles in my body, tightening to contain whatever was wrong inside me. I didn’t know how to work harder, or concentrate more. All I could do was to stop being myself.

 Gabriela Blandy

All through rehearsals of The Winter’s Tale, I can’t get it right.

Wait! the director says, her nostrils wide and dark. The friend of your husband is someone you feel comfortable with – relax with him.

I try again.

But don’t flirt! comes the next instruction – you have to simply show great ease and hosting skills.

A deep, historic anger is growing inside me. I begin to hate the director – simply to look at her makes me livid. I want to perform the final show appallingly – even though this is my one chance to act in front of representatives from the RSC.

 Gabriela Blandy

Guiltless! the director shouts, the skin on the underside of her chin, quivering.

Stop trying! she hisses, and I stare at a drop of spit, which has settled on her lip.

Read the speech again! she says, clicking her fingers and I imagine walking right up to her and slapping her across the face, slapping the world for putting me in a box I didn’t belong for so much of my childhood so that now I’m unable to be who I want.

 Gabriela Blandy

The other week, I was bending down to get something out of my rucksack when my back went into spasm. This is often the way it is for me – shaking my hair after a shower, lying down on a picnic rug, suddenly feeling a sharp twinge in the lower part of my spine, above my right butt cheek. It’s like a pod of fear.

What’s wrong with me? it wants to know.

It came at university as deadlines loomed and I feared my coursework wouldn’t be good enough. Suddenly the pressure on the base of my spine becomes too much – it is not simply my upper body that I am supporting, but expectations that are beyond me.

The stage was a place I felt free – a source of happiness.

But at drama school this was shattered.

I had to be true if I was to become a great actress, but I was too caught up in the notion of being something I wasn’t – something more. Once again, I was getting it wrong, but the way I had survived in the past, wasn’t working. I had to be myself, but this was a person I hadn’t visited for so long, I didn’t know how to find my way back.

I tried, as if playing a game, fitting shapes into slots, hoping to find something that fit. This great conundrum.

Hard to understand that being ourselves – which should be the most natural thing in the world, simply a case of opening our eyes, breathing, being – is so difficult. What is it that gets in the way?

For me, I’d grown up burdened with expectations – those of my parents, my teachers. They saw something in my future, but they never noticed the girl in front of them. Only I could see that. But I was unable to decipher what I observed.

Each day at drama school, I was followed by an echo. I took a step, delivered a line, followed an instruction, and the echo was the same: am I doing it right?

I became desperate because of my inability to answer the question. It’s only now that I know the echo is not the real me talking, and doesn’t need answering. Maybe one day it will fade entirely. Though, I suspect that to actively strive for that silence is to follow a wrong path – that of struggling, rather than simply allowing. For now, when the question comes, I remind myself words are not important, only the feeling beneath them, which is where my true self lies.

Gabriela Blandy

When the day of the performance arrived, I finally became Hermione. I felt the audience – their energy, their thoughts, their emotion. It was all in the atmosphere. And just like guiding a seed-head through the air with your hands, I held their attention in my pauses, my gestures. There was this tiny moment where I felt my fear, because the part was so challenging – and the director’s voice was in my head: no, stop, again! but I felt my impulse to open myself up so that I came from my belly, unimpeded.

I was chosen by the RSC scout to come and audition for them.

My head floated up high above my body in a way I never thought it would – feeling for so long that I had been failing at drama school, that I wasn’t the actress I’d been made to believe I was.

Then I discovered that I had to sing a solo for the audition.

I couldn’t sing and already I knew I wouldn’t be chosen.

Gabriela Blandy

When my lower spine went into spasm, I stood up from my rucksack and undressed to my underwear as I was sweating badly. I lay some cushions on my deck outside and tried to relax.

After an hour, I decided to get up, but the pain was so acute I couldn’t even sit. I tried turning onto my side. Fire rushed through my pelvis and I flopped back down, staring at the sky. This bright blue summer we’re having, which has changed the mood of everything. I looked at the branches of the eucalyptus, bowing in the breeze, and I thought to myself: can I really not get up – is it really so painful? For a moment I wasn’t sure who was making the decisions – the real me or the frightened child. Eventually, I began to need the toilet so I tried again. That’s when I knew. Despite really having to get somewhere, I still couldn’t move.

I thought about what I tell my students in my public speaking workshops – all you have to do is breathe. So, that’s what I did. I took deep, long breaths. The pain was there – catastrophic, but I just tried to focus on the breath. I managed to make it onto all fours, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stand. I crawled to the bathroom, and at this stage I was fairly desperate. In the last few moments I dragged myself up, onto the seat, and just about managed to slide my pants to the side so I could pee.

Afterwards, my breath came in shudders, in and out – flames at the base of my spine, in my pelvis, my legs shaking – my chest full of emotion, the ache of tears in my cheeks. Still, I asked myself: is it really this painful?

I moved just an inch to try to stand up – but the pain was so bad I made a long sound, wailing.

I tipped back, holding the toilet seat, supporting my upper body weight. I sat there. Staring at myself in the mirror. Several minutes went by. I thought about the hurt that started in my back when I was at drama school, which contained one word.

Why?

Why can’t I do this?

Beneath that was a whole life of blame – blame for everyone who hadn’t allowed me to be myself, for everyone who had misunderstood my actions. Who interpreted my love of life, adventure, my need to explore, for wilful disobedience. I was so busy blaming and asking why, I didn’t realise that the only way to be myself is to be myself. Nobody is stopping me, but my own misconception.

 Gabriela Blandy

As I sit on the toilet, unable to move, staring at myself in the mirror, I remember the song from that audition – how hard I tried to ignore the fear I wasn’t good enough.

With my pelvis as tense as it is, my belly hardly moves. When I try to breathe, my diaphragm only shifts in miniscule increments so that my lungs barely fill. I pant in short bursts. But I sing. The sound comes out weak, quivering, but I don’t hear what’s wrong. All I hear is the truth, which is that I’m in great pain. Singing like this isn’t about being excellent, it’s about expressing something: agony, the edge of tears, home alone, stuck on the toilet.

If I’d gone to that audition and embraced how I truly felt it wouldn’t have mattered how I sang, because they would have seen someone who knew themselves – able to connect to whatever it is inside them, good or bad, perfect or imperfect. Maybe then I would have got the part.

I was so busy trying to get it right that I never gave myself a chance to say: but who am I really?

I was acting like all those teachers had acted my whole life, expecting something, rather than seeing what was actually there – trusting that would be better than anything.

This is all I am, just this.

I am no more than this.

 Gabriela Blandy

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