Real Time Short Stories

Capturing Snowflakes

Posted on: May 31, 2011

After the emotion of the weekend and the discussion of the incendiary lyricism and revolutionary influence of Gil Scott-Heron, stepping back into the park bench and coffee shop world of the short story might feel like being doused with freshly-squeezed whimsy. In a publishing culture that regards the short story as the Huggies Pull-Up to the novel’s Calvin Klein boxers, it would appear an unlikely detour. Moreover, if we’re taking the Gil Scott-Heron suggestion, from Delta Man (Where I’m Coming From, to “put a little revolution in your life,” surely our first thought should be for the kinetic energy of the spoken word?

Here is the short answer: no art form, genre of art form or single work of art ever changed the world. Art has influenced consciousness, educated and agitated; it has provided rallying points, anthems and eloquent critiques, and sometimes it’s said things like “a change is gonna come” that, when those changes did come, seemed like the argument that had finally won the day. But we know that the process of change is more gradual and complex than that. Let’s be honest: if everybody knew that you could create a work of art, any art, that was guaranteed to make a radical change to the world you’re living in, Hitler would have stuck to the painting and Margaret Thatcher would have learned to play the banjo.

And yet…when our warm breath hits the cold air, there is a change. Whether we regard Sheherazade as the poster girl for the performative act or the short story, her bedtime tales fulfilled an agitprop function of keeping her alive, which is as radical a change as you need to make when there’s an axe being sharpened on the other side of sunrise. Incrementally, the bigger change – calling off the threat of execution – was achieved. When I first began performing poetry, the attainability of these incremental changes was a large part of the appeal. It was self-evident that more could be achieved in fifteen minutes in front of an audience of 50 than over several months of attempting to have one piece of work accepted by a publishing outlet. That my perspective has changed over the last twenty years can be attributed to any number of personal and historical factors, but the point I wish to tease out from this sketch of my personal development is one of technique and it’s relevant now while our thoughts are on a giant of spoken word.

The question is whether there is an area of short story technique that can give a printed story the kinetic properties of the performative moment that are routine within the spoken word format, and it’s one I’ll be contemplating as the blog continues to develop. What I’m interested in is the idea that there is something peculiar to short fiction that can work performatively. I’m inclined to discount first person narrative because, while this bears obvious characteristics of performance, being located in the oral storytelling tradition, it’s as suited to the novel as the shorter form.

Where we may begin to detect a technique that’s both a crucial strength of short fiction and a parallel to the molten energy of the live performance is in this blog’s regular fixation: the rendering of life in a sort of real time, whereby we can see, in the emotional choreography of the characters, a performance of what it is to be human. This is mimesis, whereby we experience the narrative, rather than having it relayed to us. When the topical issues have rolled on by and the world has not changed, other than in minor increments, we still need to deal with forces that act to reduce or refuse our common humanity, so the ability to place your reader within the emotional and sensory world of the characters is not just good writing, it’s an act of radicalism. The reason we keep going back to Chekhov is because he understood this. His writing captured snowflakes. It held in place for our inspection the moments of inspiration or heartbreak, and it lifted out of the fleeting the lives of the ordinary, the unconventional and the disappointed. So a story, in which love realises far too late that it ever had the potential to be requited, gives us a depiction of what it means to let life happen without taking action and it’s as political as a clenched fist salute:

Ilovaiskaya did not say anything. When the sleigh started moving and was going round a large snowdrift, she glanced back at Likharyov, looking as if she wanted to say something to him. He ran after her but she did not say a word, and just looked at him through long eyelashes, on which hung snowflakes…
[Anton Chekhov, On The Road]

The intimacy of those snowflakes work like the flecks of spittle that fly from a performer’s lips onto the front row of the audience. This writing is alive.

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