Real Time Short Stories

Archive for the ‘The writing’ Category

I grant you, this idea of blogging my recovery scores low on originality,  and negligible on cultural significance. It’s also turning  me from a model, compliant patient to a pain in the arse who can’t leave his phone alone. More weak Baubyism in the comparative hassles of winking at a speech therapist for each letter and of spigoting the thoughts I have through the single thumb and predictive text method I have to use.

Generally,  Minor Writer Makes Slow Recovery isn’t going to have them rushing to the hospital gates, holding out cheese pasties and Peperamis like sacred hosts for when I’m fully back on the solids. It’s not as if I’m Chekhov, drinking the last glass of champagne, brought to the room by Raymond Carver’s sleepy bell-boy (from the story Errand; read Janet Malcolm’s charting of how Carver’s fiction crept into official Chekhov biographies in the brilliant Reading Chekhov) – well, because, it’s not as if I’m Chekhov.

But there’s a part of the problem of being a writer that makes a stretch in ICU or something similar…let’s not say appealing, let’s leave the idea hanging like a distended scrotum after hernia surgery. It’s something to do with being monitors for suffering.

One of the things I noticed about all the brilliant contributions to Beta – Life was how optimistic mine seemed in comparison with the dystopia on display in pretty much every other piece. Now, this work was human, compassionate and there wasn’t an absence of hope from writers like Lucy Caldwell, Zoe Lambert or Adam Marek. And my story’s relative neutropia came about when I asked Francesco Mondada about whether he was optimistic (optimism having been a major response in my reading of Sara Maitland’s Moss Witch). Francesco was very dubious about progress coming without more powerful strides taken by commerce and military. So for a gentle family story involving writing and robots to happen in 2070, something had to have gone right.

So there is a context for my lack of dystopic gloom but…it doesn’t make you one of the cool kids. So that’s going to sound like I’m now catching up on the horror in order to get in that way. Maybe this is just a case of: Minor Writer Finally Finds Time To Write.

And that’s all the cultural significance I need.

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I’ve found that people who’ve read stories by Roberto Bolaño tend to have stories to tell about Roberto Bolaño. These stories are inevitably about ourselves, our own life stories and the stories of those in our lives.

The first time anyone ever told me about Bolaño was when I had a chance meeting with my friend K, on Bold Street, which anyone in the Liverpool art scene knows is the street on which chance meetings are inevitable, so not really chance at all, and it’s really the only place I see K these days. K is a Glaswegian former Situationist, a playwright and DJ – at the legendary Eric’s in the punk era and on Toxteth pirate radio stations in the 90s, which is when I got to know him well, though our paths had first crossed as adult literacy tutors in the back end of the 80s. He set up the annual African and Latin American music festival in Liverpool and I’m used to him recommending artists to me whose names sound like songs – Orchestre Baobab, Oumou Sangaré, Lisandro Meza, Zaiko Langa Langa – and, to be truthful, the words “Roberto Bolaño” similarly washed over me as a melodic statement rather than a name to follow up. What did stick with me was that there was a buzz about a novel by this writer, that the work was unfeasibly ambitious and certainly messy but, K told me, “some of the things he does with prose” justified the hype. Slightly closer attention to the susurrus from the literary salon told me that the novel was Bolaño’s five-part, posthumously published 2666, so I got hold of a copy. In the spring of 2009, I began reading it in the café of Liverpool’s World Museum while waiting for a meeting about the Charles Darwin-inspired Evolving Words workshops I would be facilitating there over the summer.

The story of how I came by Bolaño now becomes a different story, not really a story about friendship and meetings and work and time, but a story about writing; it’s about reading and it’s about being a writer; it’s about being this writer and not being that writer. That’s why I am using these stories as a preamble – in case you were losing faith in my remembering the title of this post – to talking about Bolaño’s short story, A Literary Adventure from the similarly posthumous 2008 collection, Last Evenings On Earth: because any story I tell about Bolaño should rightfully mention the story about when I was reading 2666 and my head spun round in a complete circle.

I began reading with thoughts of K’s paean about the quality of ideas in the prose. For eight-and-a-half pages, I was conscious of the lack of spectacle. The writing was fluid, engaging, and the story was interesting. I don’t know what exactly I was looking for – I had the experience built up as something akin to a first hearing of a musical revolutionary like Sun Ra or Ornette Coleman, but what might that be like in prose fiction, with words on the mortuary slab of a page? If a work of prose is like a building, then in these early few pages I was still in the hallway of the prose, able to admire only the basic masonry and door hinges of the text. Then, on page 9, a character called Liz Norton, an English academic in an Oxford college, began reading a novel by an obscure German writer, Benno von Archimboldi:

She read it, liked it, went to her college library to look for more books by the German with the Italian name, and found two: one was the book she had already read in Berlin, and the other was Bitzius. Reading the latter really did make her go running out. It was raining in the quadrangle, and the quadrangular sky looked like the grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness. The oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park, but it would have made no difference if they had slid up. Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs, or the briefest crystallized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote.
[translation by Natasha Wimmer]

And that was when my head performed a 360.

The willingness to perform prosal trapeze acts is the facet of Bolaño that first grabbed me but even the rococo stylings of the above passage give indications of some of the staple concerns in his writing. There, creeping in at the last in the reference to peyote, is the Latin American sensibility, one that is dropped – here via the Englishwoman reading the “German with an Italian name” – into a European setting where such identities drift, maybe disappear, maybe re-settle, often co-ordinate themselves in a foreign place around a sense of artistic belonging, yet are always in the grip of home. Bolaño was 20 when, on September 11th 1973, General Augusto Pinochet’s CIA-backed coup deposed the government of Salvador Allende and proceeded to brutalise the Chilean people for the next seventeen years. As one of the exiled, Bolaño carried into his writing the certainty of impermanence – endings rarely provide closure – and the sense that somehow life is a thing that’s already been lost. As liver failure led towards his early death, aged 50, this must have darkened the shadows under each tender observation of the artistic existence.

Nicanor Parra

The disposition towards melancholia related to exile and to illness but it was there in Bolaño’s essential literary condition, that of the lesser known poet. From the passage quoted, you can see that poetry underpins his prose. Fiction was also the strategy he turned to in order to achieve a modicum of financial success – to support a young family – of the kind poetry had never been able to provide him. Key to the first story you are told about Bolaño is his intended structuring of 2666 as a series of separate books to be released as posthumous publications over successive years, ensuring a regular dribble of revenue. When the time came, the decision instead to polish up the working draft of the fifth book and publish them all in a single volume was vindicated by the subsequent Bolaño fever, which in turn made his previous writing viable again. He even started to be recognised as a poet. As a commentary on this writing life, it was a very Bolaño-like plot development. Wry observations on literary fortunes, bordering bitterness, run through much of his writing. How could he have had success as a poet? He was a Chilean poet in exile and the world had already placed Pablo Neruda in the single occupancy vehicle that was Chilean poetry in exile. Bolaño’s own idol was Nicanor Parra, a pricklier presence in Chilean poetry, in whose lines (as below) we can get a sense of Bolaño’s own poetic disposition:

I Take Back Everything I’ve Said

Before I go
I’m supposed to get a last wish:
Generous reader
burn this book
It’s not at all what I wanted to say
Though it was written in blood
It’s not what I wanted to say.
No lot could be sadder than mine
I was defeated by my own shadow:
My words took vengeance on me.
Forgive me, reader, good reader
If I cannot leave you
With a warm embrace, I leave you
With a forced and sad smile.
Maybe that’s all I am
But listen to my last word:
I take back everything I’ve said.
With the greatest bitterness in the world
I take back everything I’ve said.

[Nicanor Parra; translated by Miller Williams]

It’s possible that a story like A Literary Adventure, translated by Chris Andrews, might seem a meandering tale of obsession, a more loosely-structured take on Edgar Allen Poe’s seminal shadow-chaser, The Man Of The Crowd but without the pay-off of Poe’s final, frustrated confrontation. This is more than a case of Bolaño spinning a shaggy dog story: the marginalised writer moves with a shambling gait through most of Bolaño’s stories, whether as stand-ins for the writer himself, or personified by the almost mythic figure of Archimboldo, or emerging from the pages of forgotten literary journals picked up in thrift shops by the characters in the short stories. It’s not difficult, as a writer, to relate to such figures because we all have our sense of marginalisation; of being overlooked in favour of other lesser, or if not lesser then luckier, or if not luckier then simply younger talents; or of – whatever level of satisfaction we may have with our own relative status – griping that there is insufficient regard for what we do because the public is misdirected as to why, how and what to read. For the most part, these miseries can be absorbed, comfortably and productively, into a world-view laced with a generous and genial scepticism but Bolaño provides catharsis because he never absorbed that stuff: it bounced straight onto the page.

Osvaldo Soriano

Benjamin Samuel, blogging about literary feuds, cites Bolaño’s pronouncement on the Argentinian writer, Osvaldo Soriano: “You have to have a brain full of fecal matter to see him as someone around whom a literary movement can be built.”

It’s in this context of affronted ego mixed with wounded self-doubt that A Literary Adventure takes shape. As elsewhere in his short stories, Bolaño’s protagonist is simply identified as B. There is an antagonist, as unwitting a nemesis as the suspicious-looking old man trailed by Poe’s narrator, referred to as A. These may well be substitutes for Bolaño and a specific contemporary, but they are archetypes as well. A is:

a writer of about B’s age, but who, unlike B, is famous, well-off and has a large readership; in other words he has achieved the three highest goals (in that order) to which a man of letters can aspire. B is not famous, he has no money and his poems are published in little magazines.

I know I’m a B; to my friends and acquaintances and Facetwitter whatever whatevers, if I’m more in the A category to you, then I beg your forgiveness but, you know, you should get out more because there are some real As out there and each of them considers his or herself a B in relation to someone else again. The details that inject this story with the pain of a chord played by Victor Jara are phrases like the “in that order” ranking of writerly aspirations, or the heartbreaking diminuitive “little magazines”. So personal disappointment is fused with a righteous sense that success is lavished on the undeserving, or that it corrupts. B notices “a sanctimonious tone” appearing in A’s writing as his recognition grows and it’s this pomposity he attacks when creating Medina Mena, a thinly-veiled representation of A, for one chapter of a novel he is writing (presumably because poetry isn’t paying). The novel is picked up for publication and sent out for reviews. A is a reviewer – an influential one, at that – and he loves B’s book. While singing its praises, he appears not to recognise, or at least publicly to acknowledge, the satirical version of himself B has written.

The story revolves around the moral crisis A’s enthusiastic review triggers in B’s conscience and imagination. The layering of speculation upon assumption here is an utterly believable depiction of B’s mounting paranoia:

He’s praising my book to the skies, thinks B, so he can let it drop back to earth later on. Or he’s praising my book to make sure no one will identify him with Medina Mena. Or he hasn’t even realised, and it was a case of genuine appreciation, a simple meeting of minds. None of these possibilities seems to bode well.

Neurosis makes for great, bleak comedy and there’s a Picaresque feel – B as a hapless Gulliver in the land of Spanish literature – to the way the plot spools through B’s efforts to get to know A and thereby get to the truth of exactly what he felt about the Medina Mena character. There is the publication of B’s second novel and A’s equally warm, though suspiciously swift, review of that. There is a party in which a meeting with A seems about to take place in a dark recess of a garden which Chekhov might have fashioned to represent a soul in torment. And there are phonecalls made at inappropriate times, visits planned, voices overheard, all of which seem to be inching us towards a resolution.

But B’s identity as a writer must leave agonies like this unresolved. This story isn’t what matters anyway: what matters are the stories that happen in the corner of your eye while you’re keeping watch on something you should ignore. When following A but deliberating on whether to try to speak to him, B goes to a restaurant and, for a few minutes as he eats, we sense a respite from the literary frustration that’s eating away at him. Could the story have been here instead?

B sits down next to the window, in a corner away from the fireplace, which is feebly warming the room. A girl asks him what he would like. B says he would like to have dinner. The girl is very pretty. Her hair is long and messy, as if she just got out of bed. B orders soup, and a meat and vegetable dish to follow.

The next sentence – “While he is waiting he reads the review again.” – sucks him back into his grim quest but in that sliver of life in the restaurant, that moment of survival and possible hope for more than mere survival, we glimpse the beauty of Bolaño’s storytelling. We get that his stories and our own swim around one another, with beginnings that are impossible to trace and no resolution in the endings, just these moments that happen on the way to the end.

My good friend O, a songwriter, guitarist and drummer, was another Chilean who left the country after youthful struggles against Pinochet. Before he arrived in Liverpool, he spent some time in Spain, where A Literary Adventure and other Bolaño stories are set. He hasn’t read Bolaño but he has a story he wants to tell about the beautiful Madrileña daughter who recently stepped out of his past. I want him to read Last Evenings On Earth as he sets about writing down his stories. Because he’s in Bolaño’s stories and because Roberto Bolaño is in his. Because that’s the way Bolaño’s writing works: it’s intravenous. I read Bolaño and I glimpse beauty in small moments of survival but I read Bolaño and I feel the volume of self-doubt that’s in all writers’ libraries easing itself off the shelf and dropping onto my lap. And that’s too overwrought a metaphor, isn’t it, making the process sound like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And I’ve made this blog too long so readers will probably cut out after they click on the Sun Ra link I inserted earlier, so then that’ll be yet another thing to add to the list of all the other things.

It’s been marking season, blending into the new teaching semester at the various universities in and out of whose payroll I flit, leaving this blog short of even the single hand it normally occupies. If I had three wishes, it would be for a few extra days each week to remember the life that one’s work is meant to support and supplement. However, the story I’ve been using for teaching purposes this week has taught me to be wary of wishes.

W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 macabre masterpiece, The Monkey’s Paw, was Hammer horror back when cinema was old enough only for the PGs. That it’s an object lesson in how to while away a cold, dark night, when a fearsome wind is gathering, is evident by the adaptations, copycat narratives and Simpsons Halloween hommages it has inspired over the years. Jacobs, a whimsical Londoner whose stock-in-trade as a writer was humour, had a light enough touch to issue stagey winks to the gallery while ratcheting up the terror:

Mr. White took the paw from his pocket and eyed it dubiously. “I don’t know what to wish for, and that’s a fact,” he said slowly. “It seems to me I’ve got all I want.”

“If you only cleared the house, you’d be quite happy, wouldn’t you?” said Herbert, with his hand on his shoulder. “Well, wish for two hundred pounds, then; that’ll just do it.”

His father, smiling shamefacedly at his own credulity, held up the talisman, as his son, with a solemn face somewhat marred by a wink at his mother, sat down at the piano and struck a few impressive chords.

“I wish for two hundred pounds,” said the old man distinctly.

A fine crash from the piano greeted the words, interrupted by a shuddering cry from the old man. His wife and son ran toward him.

“It moved, he cried, with a glance of disgust at the object as it lay on the floor. “As I wished it twisted in my hands like a snake.”

“Well, I don’t see the money,” said his son, as he picked it up and placed it on the table, “and I bet I never shall.”

It’s the stuff of spoof sketch shows, when Bernard Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock’s Psycho plays while a young woman takes a shower: as the music builds, so does her anxiety until with a shriek she pulls back the curtain…to reveal a sheepish string quartet. Herbert White’s ironic piano tells us that this is no primitive discovery of the spine chiller but a knowing piece of writing, whose three-act structure enables the hermetic space of the small parlour in Laburnam Villa to waver and warp like the minds of poor Mr and Mrs White after Sergeant-Major Morris offers them a furry fist-pound.

The story’s three acts work in the manner of a stage illusion. We have the pledge in act one, locating us in the type of story this is, with enough eye-catching vagary to stop us looking too hard: the ghostly ambience (but what part really does the foul weather and remote location play in the events that follow?); the traumatised visitor with the harrowing tale relating to his mysterious gift (why has he not burned it himself? why does he give it to them? what happened to him?); the first, modest wish for two hundred pounds, the equivalent of the sort of money that, on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? would do very nicely, Chris, to pay off the debts and maybe get a little holiday. The third act, the prestige, tells us what the illusionist has done: in this case, have the Whites – or the readers, or all – believing in magic monkey paws engineering freak fatal workplace accidents and bringing mutilated zombies out of the ground to bang on front doors, but answering no questions as to what actually has taken place.

It’s the middle act, the turn, that deserves more attention for its writing sleight-of-hand. In narrative terms, the point of this section is to show us that, when the Whites wish on the monkey’s paw for two hundred pounds, the consequences were that their son, Herbert, was tragically and horrifically killed (“Caught in the machinery” of both factory and plot – a zeugma so satisfying, Jacobs makes sure it’s repeated in the dialogue), the compensation amounting to the very sum for which they wished. It’s a development that could have been reported in a couple of sentences but instead Jacobs gives a bravura display of dramatic irony, heightening every moment as the contentment built over a shared lifetime is cut away from the Whites like the paw from the monkey’s arm, and shredded like Herbert on the Maw and Meggins’ factory floor.

We’ve bolted down the jovial family breakfast, laughing off the silliness of the previous evening before Herbert takes his comedy routine off to work with him, but when, later, Mrs White is distracted by a strange, well-dressed young man at the front gate, Fate shudders to a halt and turns, slowly, gravely, to set off on its new direction:

His wife made no reply. She was watching the mysterious movements of a man outside, who, peering in an undecided fashion at the house, appeared to be trying to make up his mind to enter. In mental connection with the two hundred pounds, she noticed that the stranger was well dressed and wore a silk hat of glossy newness. Three times he paused at the gate, and then walked on again. The fourth time he stood with his hand upon it, and then with sudden resolution flung it open and walked up the path. Mrs. White at the same moment placed her hands behind her, and hurriedly unfastening the strings of her apron, put that useful article of apparel beneath the cushion of her chair.

There are so many joys in this paragraph. We’ve earlier learned that only two houses on the road are let so why paying a visit to one of them should be the cause of such uncertainty is beyond me. Of course, the reason for the young man’s dithering is to stoke Mrs White’s anticipation – she senses money in the young man’s dress – and foreboding. Note how the phrases are stretched out like pizza dough: “a silk hat of glossy newness” rather than a new silk hat; the absurd but brilliant aside about the apron – “that useful article of apparel” – as its strings are unfastened (ever tried doing that in a hurry behind your back?) and it’s shoved behind a cushion because you don’t receive visitors looking like you’re in the middle of the housework. Even when he’s inside, the visitor is given a quick inventory of everything in the house that’s not as spick and span as it ought to be, and when he starts to tell them about Herbert, he stammers, hesitates, and throws in a really bloody helpful riddle, about how Herbert is not in any pain, before getting round to the terrible news. Mr White’s reaction is beautiful:

He sat staring blankly out at the window, and taking his wife’s hand between his own, pressed it as he had been wont to do in their old courting days nearly forty years before.

In this instant, the two of them revert to a time when they were filled with hope for the future, that has since come and is now gone; they are back to when it was just the two of them, as it will be again from now on; and they are reminded of being the age Herbert was until the machinery got hold of him. It’s immaculate use of a detail whose humanity would be stunning to encounter in any story, let alone one with generic supernatural trappings. The subject of compensation comes up and Mr White’s reaction is again one to cherish, a true ‘is this your card?’ moment as he recognises the trick that Fate has played on his family and

His dry lips shaped the words, “How much?”

When you see the naked simplicity of that phrase – no artificial guesstimate of what his face might be doing or what particular omens the tone of his voice might carry; no he asked, worriedly, he asked with an anguished grimace, he asked but knew the answer already – and realise that the fussiness of the “silk hat of glossy newness” phrase was not archaic over-writing but a deliberate and mischievous effect, you should recognise why Jacobs’ story endures. The grand illusion of the monkey’s paw is a durable narrative, no doubt, but – especially in the second act, there is close-up magic in the writing.

The picture here is misleading. This post deals with stimuli for short stories and the picture may, in this context, seem to suggest that a visit to the world-famous Gents’ toilets in Liverpool’s Philharmonic Pub provided me with the inspiration for the central character in one of my stories. This would be nonsense. They don’t have attendants in the Phil’s toilets: there’s no room. There was, however, one on duty in the barely more spacious Gent’s at the Alma de Cuba bar in town, when I was in there for a drink a few years ago. I had occasion to tell this story at the recent Merseyside Polonia event mentioned in an earlier post. The young African man manoeuvering himself around the tight space to offer me a squirt of aftershave – maybe a student, maybe a migrant worker – found his way into the story that appeared as Scent in Comma’s 2008 ReBerth anthology.

Those who stop to hover over the bottles never ask his advice as to which scent they should wear. He would recommend that they find the one they came out with, not attempt to mask the new smells they’ve acquired from the drinks and the smokers’ doorways, with something even more pungent. He would suggest that these layers build to give a fragrance that stiffens the air they move through. He worries about what it does to the water; wonders what a squirt of Hugo Boss will do to the ancient mating rituals of the eels that find their ways into the estuary. The men, when they speak to him, call him ‘mate’; they call him ‘lad’. Two or more of them visiting the toilet together will stand either side of him to continue their conversations, like neighbours on adjoining balconies.

The experiences that go into a story – like the aromas of the drinkers – are built, layer upon layer, so the image of this marginalised figure in an unpleasant service industry job gave me a character and a way into his psychology. The narrative I gave him, though, came from my own experience nearly 20 years earlier, when my unfurnished housing association flat, in which I had only managed to install a single bed, was suddenly equipped with chairs, desks and cupboards worth far more than the £50 cash I paid. My Magwitch-on-wheels lived across the corridor but, as in the story, he was in a hurry to get rid of the furniture, move out and leave town using the nominal fee I was paying. The reason he gave for his departure; the items of furniture; the window that had to be opened to get the enormous seventies couch in; and the neighbour’s trademark chariot races up and down Princes Avenue on a skateboard pulled by two dogs, the stuff of local legend: all details were lifted from real life and placed, more or less intact, in the story. Elsewhere, a scene in which the main character discusses jellyfish with a small boy and his father, at the Albert Dock, came first from the excitement of spotting the jellies with my own son on a visit to the Dock, then from research after I decided that the main character would have some expertise in marine biology, in its turn a layer suggested by the commission’s call for stories relating to the water and the edge of land.

We are so many of the characters in the stories we write. When casting about for narratives, remember what you’ve glimpsed and what you’ve lived. Having dragged this discussion into the toilets, I’m going to stay there for this thought on how an incident devoid of real narrative substance can, with some aftercare, set you on the path to a story. In a different bar at a different time – on this occasion for a 40th birthday party – but once more in the Gent’s, I met Jed (centre), who used to be in the band, The Stairs. After the initial how’re-you-doing, we admitted to each other that, though we’d both known the birthday girl since we were all teenagers, neither of us knew her surname. Subsequently, I’ve considered that it’s equally the case that I wouldn’t know Jed’s surname without the aid of Google, and he would probably have the same problem with me. Nothing much to report here: it doesn’t matter to anyone, this long-term, arm’s length sociability. But what if it did matter? What if the recollection of an old acquaintance’s surname was the difference between safety and danger? What kind of story would we be telling then?

Or what if Jed and I had met in the toilets of a venue in which there were two 40th birthday parties taking place in separate rooms? That he was talking about one Sarah, whose surname he didn’t know, and I was talking about another? The thriller of the earlier scenario becomes surrealist farce or Kafkaesque dystopia.

I have in the past week or so, renewed my acquaintance with, or newly encountered, groups of creative writing undergraduates charged in the coming weeks with overcoming the tyranny of the blank page. It’ll help them to remember that stories can start to appear if they took a look at their real lives, picked up a memory – that encounter, that image, that could-have-been that almost turned into a what-now? – and just added a quick squirt of what-if? to freshen it up.


Each of us, it would seem, orbits one another across ever-widening tracts of space. Is it that society, community, is what takes place in the furthest hinterland of our consciousness, or is it each one of us who is at the periphery of the larger narrative? Can writing, that adventure in solipsism, cope with the understanding that none of us was ever the story?

Even fiction, which has long since ceased to be based purely on the mythologies of Gods, Rulers and Heroes, can’t cope with absolute democracy. In any piece of fiction, characters will be central, secondary or peripheral. This even applies to stories told over several years, with dozens of characters engaged in hundreds of storylines: for a quarter of a century, on BBC TV’s Eastenders, whenever a major character has been called away to attend to a plot development, Tracey [played by Jane Slaughter, above] has covered for them on their stall or in their shift behind the bar of the Queen Vic. In NBC’s The West Wing, in a belt-and-braces expression of periphery, Renée Estevez – a member of the Sheen acting dynasty who wasn’t sent to assassinate Marlon Brando, wasn’t in The Breakfast Club and isn’t the internet’s own Charlie Sheen – held down, as “Nancy”, a desk job in the Whitehouse during seven seasons of the drama about the Presidency of Jed Bartlet, played by her father. She greeted members of the staff and guests going in and out of the Oval Office and had not one moment of plot devoted to her life or work. This was in a series in which there were fully-fledged peripheral characters (economic advisers Ed and Larry; personal assistants Carol, Bonnie and Ginger) who also had no plots of their own but they at least got to engage in significant dialogue and do the occasional trademark walk’n’talk scene with the lead actors. Nancy said “Good morning, Mr President” and opened doors, and that was it. As viewers, we follow the lights that shine most brightly but, as writers, if we look to the shadows, to the lives of the Traceys and the Nancys, that’s where we can find our narratives.


Writing in The Guardian in May about Tracey Emin
, Ali Smith – one of the key voices in contemporary short fiction – referenced a 1935 quote from Gertrude Stein in which she discussed how centuries of use in poetry had gradually sapped the “excitingness of pure being” from words which had once held tremendous resonance: “they were just rather stale literary words.” Narratives, too, grow stale and we need to pay attention to the ways in which storytellers will circumvent the glaring and the obvious. I’ve discussed the Simpsons Plot Detour previously, in reference to the way a typical Simpsons episode might embark on a narrative and then veer into a different story altogether after about five minutes. We can identify this as a device by the storytellers but it could also be a recognition of how the audience responds to narrative.

On our right, we have the 1947 painting, La Naissance de Vénus by the Belgian surrealist, Paul Delvaux. It’s a depiction of an event, a happening, and therefore it’s a story. And, in keeping with the narratives that our ancestors used to define and order our societies, it’s a story about a Deity. We can recognise Venus from the positioning of her hands and the tilt of her head but even a quick glance to our left at Botticelli’s canonical Birth of Venus shows us that Delvaux is drawing our gaze elsewhere. Delvaux’s goddess is not centrally located and is foregrounded to such a degree, she almost acts like a pillar blocking our view of part of the action at a sports ground. Almost immediately, we start to look past her – to the expression of exquisite sorrow on the face of what seems to be the maid to the right, to the naked bathers, the figures in the middle distance, the ghosts of giant faces suggested in the rock in the far distance, the ship which appears to lack a crew but must be piloted by someone…I’m guessing it’s Tracey from Eastenders.

In this late age for storytelling, the most effective route to a story may be to look to the edge of the crowd. The sense of what makes the world has changed to such a degree in the past century, we now have no doubts that, in society as in literature, the margins can reinvigorate the main page. Evolution tells us we’re all part of one sequence of molecular oscillation so no one story carries a ‘better’ truth than any other. Short stories must recognise this, because they rise and fall with the momentary, the illusory, the peripheral and the incidental.

Here’s an exercise for you: the recent story about the legendary French actor, Gérard Depardieu, urinating onto a CityJet plane’s carpet when refused permission to use the toilets prior to takeoff, was never going to be struggling for narrative potential. Like the appearance of the legendary footballer, Paul Gascoigne, at the fatal seige of a serial killer last summer, the nexus of spectacular human drama and a particular category of larger-than-life celebrity figure, immediately appeals to the sense that this was exactly what we used to expect of the ‘silly season’ and exactly what we used to expect from celebrities. The initial act, and the subsequent manner in which the story has played out in the media, may titillate or outrage us as consumers but needn’t concern us as writers. A fellow passenger’s eyewitness account of Depardieu’s actions on being caught short, in which she explained that “it all happened with courtesy,” is far more encouraging to our peripheral vision…

Consider that mood of courtesy. Look past the embarrassed superstar, peeved cabin staff and bewildered passengers. Move down the aisle. Pause for a moment at the woman paying close attention to the scene, noting the levels of courtesy and preparing the statement she’ll make to reporters. Think about her spreading this observation back through the plane so that those, who were unable to see the kerfuffle or hear the splash into and out of an inadequately-sized Evian bottle, have acquired a sense of having been there, of having been privy to the courtesy, and part of the story. And then there’s one passenger for whom none of this has an impact. For this passenger, the famous man, his bladder, the plane’s carpet – that’s all the periphery. What is this passenger’s story?

Attempts by writers of short fiction to break into the news cycle might seem to have the makings of the most genteel heist movie since Getaway Driving Miss Daisy but, since BBC Radio 4’s decision to reduce from three to one the amount of short story slots in its schedule, this real time narrative has developed.

As previously discussed here, a petition, launched by the organisers of National Short Story Week, was signed by writers, listeners and broadcasters. In what was seen as a partial U-turn, Radio 4 announced that, in the proposed shake-up, the Sunday evening short story slot – hitherto used for repeats – would feature new stories. Now, the Society of Authors, Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and actors’ union Equity have come together to send letters to the Chair of the BBC Trust and the Director General to urge a further climbdown. The letters call into question whether the decision to cut back on the commissioning and broadcast of short fiction “[is] in breach of the BBC’s Charter and, in particular, its duty to stimulate creativity, cultural excellence and its duty to monitor the delivery of public services.”

Let’s consider the proposed change. At its root is a decision to expand The World At One, currently in the 1.00-1.30pm slot, by 15 minutes. This is, of course, a recognition of the broadcaster’s burgeoning impulse to deliver more and better news programming, allied to the world’s capacity to provide it and the audience’s appetite to consume and indeed participate in it. It’s a symptom and product of rolling news formats and the sleepless news buzz and spectacle from the Twittersphere. We know the news doesn’t stop, and the ways in which traditional media outlets have had to adapt their once eternal fixities is now itself an engine for yet more news; it’s the “epiphenomenal” shift Will Self discussed on a star-studded Newsnight broadcast on the day the News of the World’s closure was announced. Like that newspaper, the short story’s weekday afternoon interventions in the business of the world, as brought to us by the BBC, seem also to be falling into the tectonic fissures.

As many of the petition’s signatories pointed out, however, reducing short stories on Radio 4 is not just a denial of work to writers and actors – as disheartening and damaging as this is, it’s not the platform for a compelling case when there are Hell-in-a-Handbasket roadsigns popping up all over the country – but also a needless assault on what should be a perfect symbiosis of form and medium. Radio is considered an ideal medium for short stories: naturally, because the culture of spinning a tale derives from the same oral traditions that inform speech-based radio. Furthermore, radio is enhanced by the nature of the short fiction it broadcasts. Each story in the Afternoon Reading slot occupies twelve minutes of airtime, and that translates as roughly 2000 words. In units of short story measurement, this makes the broadcast story a vignette. Even this is too rigid a definition, though, because these are no decorative contemplations of the passing moment, as a vignette is often entitled to provide. Narrative and pace matter in a Radio short: when I wrote The Prisoners for its eventual broadcast in March 2008, I found it helpful to organise the story into two-minute movements, each taking the characters and listeners deeper into the story. The sense is of a journey of regular progressions, even if, as with an M.C. Escher staircase, that journey leads us nowhere in particular.

As a sidebar, The Prisoners has since been re-edited for my Flax online chapbook, a signal that short stories may be taking some of the tricks learned for the radio into the world of Kindle and the iBookstore, where beguiling but bite-sized may prove the order of the day. There is scope to think back to another epiphenomenal moment, this time contingent on the arrival of radio, when the three-minute pop song emerged towards mass consciousness.

What we’re dealing with, then, is a moment to reflect on the way creativity copes with formatting, and the socio-economic agendas that govern the formats. The modern novel, for instance, has been a fluid entity since what’s accepted as its first incarnation, Cervantes’ Adventures of Don Quixote, which appeared in two books. In between the publication of the two, an errant author had attempted to pass off his writings as the next instalment of the tales of the errant knight. Cervantes used the introduction to Part Two to articulate what can only be described as his “beef” with the imposter, trashing his efforts in a manner later adopted by Ice Cube to diss Eazy-E. So half of the first modern novel became an assertion of authorship over the other half. Just as the novel then developed through serial form, via pulp fiction and the impact of the paperback, to the charming, extended treatments for films already in the pipeline that we enjoy today, the short story has taken shape within a different folio, in which magazines, radio and now the e-book have helped align the creases. This means we can – and should – argue as to the value of a short story’s ability to put the handbrake on a busy day and take listeners out of the remorseless nowness of it all, but we can’t pretend this isn’t a call for licensed subversion. We can argue that the BBC’s Charter is, in these terms, a mandate to subvert the hegemonic imperatives of the market and that’s why it is routinely under attack, but we know we still approach it as part of The Establishment, hence the satisfaction when our words get to be heard on its airwaves.

It comes down, in terms of this particular spoke in the news cycle, to the impact of 15 minutes. Each minute is prized territory in a medium and on a station in which a few seconds of silence would create a vignette of panic, while a whole minute of silence would stir nuclear submarines from their berths. Maybe the outcome of this will be an acceptance that there are fewer minutes to spare but that short stories matter enough to make sure they keep filling them. So we look to the formats within this form of writing: Hemingway floated the idea of the six-word story; flash fiction formats of 50 and 100 words, not to mention the 140 characters of a single Tweet, may often be too flimsy to satisfy, but they offer challenges to writers; and could the broadcaster find new ways to make use of the short story’s capacity to surprise and subvert, rather than simply to pleasantly divert?

We don’t know how this will end, so we stay tuned in.

I met with some writers yesterday. There is probably a dubious statistic – much like the one I heard when on a coach passing through Luxemburg in the 80s, that there was one restaurant for every four Luxemburgers and one brothel for every five; you wonder if the dishes ever get done – about the number of novels-in-progress per capita across the population of Liverpool. It’s a city of storytellers and the Windows Project monthly Writing Advice Desk in Larkhill Library gives some of them the opportunity to tell the story of the book they’re writing to a professional and gain some guidance. Also, as one gentleman pointed out, writing can be a lonely business so it’s good to have the chance to get out and make some human contact.

Yes, but if it’s lonely for you, sitting there in your café, wishing you’d gone for something more substantial than a macchiato, or at your computer with the world’s dramas playing out beneath your fingertips – – with a cast of characters of such oddball diversity it makes Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 look like an episode of Button Moon, think for a moment about the characters for whom you have responsibility and over whom you have authorial control. There they are, straining every unobserved sinew to act out the fabulous ideas you’ve constructed, to break free from the overbearing influence of the friend or former acquaintance who inspired them in the first place, to throw off the burden of expectation placed on them by that high-powered first chapter or opening paragraph – and what do they get back from you? Plot, plot, and more plot. They get angry, they get sad, they get tough and they get going but, increasingly, it seems you don’t get them. Writers will often find themselves with – or fail to notice they’ve created – a pivotal character who just carries out the necessary functions of the current scene in order to get to the next one, without ever seeming to come alive. Your character needs downtime, space to breathe. You need to give this character a tea-break.

The Cup of Tea Exercise is one I give to students ostensibly to drill them in the skills of 3rd person objective narrative. If you click on the link to the Wikipedia entry on this narrative voice, you’ll see mention of it as a “camera lens” approach. It’s therefore relevant as we start to consider the synergy between short stories and film. In either medium, it’s the principle of show-don’t-tell writ large. If you can describe a scene and track the action, allowing the narrative to be experienced mimetically – as it’s happening to the character(s) – you can tell any story with intensity, clarity and coherence. The exercise is flagged up as a way for students to appreciate detail (an element touched upon here). Notice, for example, how unadorned with character motivation is this line from Chekhov’s The Lady With The Dog:

On the table was a watermelon. Gurov cut himself a slice from it and began slowly eating it. At least half an hour passed in silence.

Yet this could be the most celebrated moment in the last 200 years of short story writing. This is the anti-“Reader, I married him.” This is, “Reader, he shagged her, cut himself a slice of fruit and then realised he’d lost interest in both.” The line tells us all this without spelling out any of it. Understanding why this precise piece of imagery works is easy: understanding how to make your characters so real to the reader that their unconscious gestures and acts will be interpreted as contributory factors in the narrative is, as many of my students discover, not so easy. It’s essential in a short story to get this type of detail right but it’s important to consider when working on your novel as well. Simply this – listen to your reader: If I don’t care about the character when he or she is making a cup of tea, I’m not going to care when s/he’s saving the world.

It’s this aspect of characterisation that is the true source of the Cup of Tea exercise and here, in the most concise terms possible, is what it involves:

Your task is to get to know your character better by having him or her make a cup of tea. The action starts with filling the kettle (or equivalent) and ends with taking the first sip. What happens in between is governed by the following –
We must never read the character’s thoughts. We can only view his or her actions.
– No back-story is allowed in the form of narrative that addresses the reader. You must not directly explain the context for anything you present in the passage. This includes not giving a separate introduction to your passage to explain who your character is meant to be. It should all come out in the process of making the tea.
– No speech or dialogue is permitted that deals with anything that is happening outside the making of the tea. So, if there is another character present, comments or action between the two can only relate to the process of making the tea. Ideally, the character should be alone or any other characters should be very much in the background.
– The character should not do anything that reveals his/her back-story that takes place away from the making of the tea. The information we receive about your character should be gleaned entirely from the manner in which the tea is made. So the character can’t, say, leave the tea to brew and pick up a letter/gun/gift that will tell us more about his/her life. But if a gun is moved to get to the sugar, for example, you’re fine.
– Description is therefore paramount. The approach to making the tea and the tea-making facilities; the physical appearance of the character; the room in which the action takes place; even sounds and smells if they can be put across via the outward demeanour and behaviour of the character – all these are acceptable as details to include. But remember not to tell too much: if you character has a scar, then s/he has a scar – leave it to us to interpret where this scar might have come from.
– Coffee/cocoa are allowed, but the act of making the drink has to be a process involving a number of different stages. No opening of Coke tins.

What often shocks students is how much subjectivity there is in their writing voices. And why shouldn’t that be the case, since most of us come to the idea of writing as a means of expressing our personal intellectual, emotional and imaginative thoughts? Yet it’s exactly this part of the process that should help you understand that writing isn’t that lonely after all. There are others involved – and they in turn depend on you. Just try to give them a break from time to time.

This isn’t an invitation to bombard me with passages of writing, but if you do have a go at the Cup of Tea exercise, let us know how you got on. And don’t forget to keep checking the Twitter feed in the sidebar for Real Time miniatures, news and random witterings.


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