Posts Tagged ‘CW teaching’
Posted October 16, 2014on:
Not simply because it’s been a miserably long time since I last posted here but because of the subject to hand, talking about Sara Maitland’s fusions of science and fiction is truly a long-overdue pleasure. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book of short stories that came across as such a joy to have written. To be frank, the writerly envy Moss Witch and other stories inspires is enough to play merry hell with your entire molecular structure. Having said that, you read a story like A Geological History of Feminism, and you’re very glad that the writer who got to have all this joy was one who can extract from the material a passage of prose as lithe, accomplished and thrillingly quixotic as this:
And one dawn, so bright that the rising run pushed a shadow-Elsie through the waves and the solid, real Elsie seemed to be chasing it, she had felt a deep surge of energy, more powerful and precise than she had ever felt before. It pushed her up and forward, making her want to sing, to cry out for the beauty and freshness and loveliness of the future. Later, peering down over the charts on the cabin table, she knew what it was. She was sailing over the mid-Atlantic ridge and deep, deep below her, through first blue, then green and down into black water, down below where no one had ever been or could ever go, there was new liquid rock welling up, pouring out, exploding into the cold dark, and crawling east and west either side of the ridge, forming a new, thin dynamic crust, pushing the Americas away from Africa and Europe, changing everything, changing the world. A plate boundary where new rocks are born out of the cauldron below.
This is audacious stuff: the story has Ann, the sole crew member of ‘Elsie’, recounting this journey many years later to her niece Tish, to illuminate how deeply entrenched were the struggles undertaken by the early feminists and to illustrate the resolve they needed to bring about the ground-breaking changes taken for granted today. The image of tectonic plates clashing, oceans breaking and continents shifting is more than a metaphor, though – it’s the real thing, and our involvement in story and character is met in equal measure by a head-spinning tutorial in scientific theory.
Each of Maitland’s stories has come about in consultation with an appropriate scientific expert, ranging across the scientific disciplines to include Earth Scientist Dr Linda Kirstein, consultant for the story quoted above, as well as an ornithologist, an astrophysicist, a mathematician, a stem cell researcher, one of the particle physicists at CERN, and the University of Surrey’s professor of theoretical physics, Jim al-Kalili, who’s famous enough to get to pose for photographs in which he ruminates towards the sunset like he’s a bowl cut short of a Brian Cox. How these dialogues have fed into Maitland’s process is explained in part by an afterword, accompanying each story, by the relevant consultant. So Dr Tara Shears from CERN explains Dirac’s equation – “a simple, far-reaching collection of symbols that led to the prediction of anti-matter” – which is the basis for Maitland’s troubled twins parable, The Beautiful Equation.
In her acknowledgements, Maitland thanks the scientists and muses, “I wish I believed they had as much fun as I did.” It’s easy to characterise the relationship between a writer and a scientist in this sort of collaboration – and it’s one I’ve experienced, with Liverpool University’s Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Greg Hurst and very recently with the robotics pioneer, Francesco Mondada – as resembling that between an adult and a very clever child. Most of the child’s questions are easy enough to answer, but you’re delighted at her fascination with the subject – and every now and then, she’ll come up with a fresh insight that goes beyond the limits of the workaday. It might leave the scientist with a warm glow and a pocketful of inspiration – during our work together on the 2009 Evolving Words project, Greg wrote more poems than anyone else – but the impact on the writer is seismic. If I experienced that within either one of my scientific contexts, imagine something similar but fourteen times over and you get a sense of the excitement surging through Maitland’s writing.
The spectrum of scientific disciplines commandeered for Moss Witch is matched by Maitland’s range of storytelling textures. There are trace elements of Jorge Luis Borges in the willingness to converse with the prehistory of the modern short story. Though there are no explicit pastiches, we brush up against Biblical legend, Greek mythology, Gothic dysmorphia – in the beguiling Double Vision, which had previously surfaced in Comma’s The New Uncanny – and the pitch-dark charm of the title story’s eponymous candidate for a belated place in the Grimm fairy tale canon, where we might expect her to beat the crap out of any bold young princes who dare to come riding by:
The evening came and with it the chill of March air. Venus hung low in the sky, following the sun down behind the hill, and the high white stars came out one by one, visible through the tree branches. She worked all through the darkness. First, she dehydrated the body by stuffing all his orifices with dry sphagnum, more biodegradable than J-cloth and more native than sponge, of which, like all Moss Witches, she kept a regular supply for domestic purposes. It sucked up his body fluids through mouth and ears and anus. She thought too its antiseptic quality might protect her mosses from his contamination after she was gone.
Rumpelstiltskin, we can note, was a rank amateur.
This is as much about the discoverers as the discoveries and another storytelling element is the speculative biography, similar to the approach used by Zoe Lambert for several stories in her The War Tour collection. One example of a story containing a scoop or two from a real life is the heartbreaking – but so beautiful it manages to be uplifting as well – The Mathematics of Magic Carpets, about the ninth century inventor of algebra, Abū‘Abdallāh Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī. Maitland’s writing, whether veering towards myth or folklore, biography or contemporary (and indeed future-facing) short fiction, has the ability to charm and cheer even when there is a dark or sorrowful human story to be told. Science is so often the villain in fiction or at best the well-meaning catalyst for a disastrous future (see the James Franco character in the 2011 film Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes as an example of the latter) but Sara Maitland’s collection speaks with a stirring optimism that has been a major influence on my own recent experiments blending science and short fiction. My consultation with Francesco Mondada has produced The Longhand Option, one of the stories in Comma’s Beta-Life: Stories From An A-life Future, launching shortly in Lancaster and Manchester – more details should appear very soon on this blog.
You go weeks, a couple of months, without blogging about a short story so, when you do, you tell yourself it’s got to be a story that gets you right there, between the ribs. It’s got to be a story that walks the planet like an ambassador for everything you believe about writing. And you know the story you want to use. But it’s not your story, not really. It should be the story that first made you understand, made you believe. But the truth is you had no idea it existed until some guy put you onto it a year ago. You hope they won’t notice. But they’ll notice.
So – full disclosure: if this post encourages you to track down Until Gwen, by the writer whose novels, Mystic River and Shutter Island, were made into acclaimed movies, credit must go to my colleague, John Sayle, at Liverpool John Moores University. John introduced the story to first year creative writers in a lecture ostensibly discussing dialogue technique. Certainly, Lehane has a fine ear for the dialogue within Americana’s underbelly, a comfortable fit within a tradition that links Damon Runyan with the likes of Elmore Leonard, Quentin Tarantino and George Pelacanos, joined lately and from a more northerly point by D.W. Wilson. Beyond that, though, the characters come across like you’re watching them in HD after finally jettisoning the old 16″ black & white – you witness them in pungent, raw flesh to the point where it becomes lurid – and Lehane’s dislocated 2nd person narrative propels you into a plot whose most brutal turns are disclosed to you like an opponent’s poker hand.
In quite other ways, and the area I wish to consider here, Until Gwen tells us a story about the writing process that should be instructive to would-be authors grappling with the distinction between having the ideas and making the writing. Dennis Lehane has said that he’d had the opening sentence of Until Gwen long before he had conceived of any of the characters, their relationships or what might happen to them. It’s no wonder, having come up with this line, Lehane knew that someday he’d have to build a story around it:
Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.
The one guarantee is that, having read this, your reader is going to move on to the second sentence, which is also pretty good:
Two minutes into the ride, the prison still hanging tilted in the rearview, Mandy tells you that she only hooks part-time.
We must steer the Dodge Neon around any prospective spoilers but there is no jeopardy in noting that, below its carnival transgressive veneer, this opening contains the lead-weighted certainties of the thriller: when even the hooker is only part-time, nothing is quite what it first seems; we may be driving away from the prison, but it’s still there in our wonky eyeline; the orchestrator of the goody bag of petty crime presented to the central character on leaving prison is introduced to us as “Your father”; and even though we, the reader, have all of this shoved onto our lap, we have no idea who our proxy, “you”, is.
Through the remainder of the story, we discover the endgame from the four years’ thinking, forgetting and remembering time afforded to the young man, whom we later discover, as memory returns, was called “Bobby” by his lover, Gwen, conspicuous by her absence from the welcome party mentioned above. The thriller is played out between son and father, while Bobby’s memories of Gwen reveal a further great strength in Lehane’s prose, his facility for articulating male yearning. Gwen is typical of Lehane’s small town, big-hearted women who recognise something approaching nobility in nihilists like Bobby, who in turn represent hope, escape and salvation and whose relationships invariably collapse with the burden of this representation:
You find yourself standing in a Nebraska wheat field. You’re seventeen years old. You learned to drive five years earlier. You were in school once, for two months when you were eight, but you read well and you can multiply three-digit numbers in your head faster than a calculator, and you’ve seen the country with the old man. You’ve learned people aren’t that smart. You’ve learned how to pull lottery-ticket scams and asphalt-paving scams and get free meals with a slight upturn of your brown eyes. You’ve learned that if you hold ten dollars in front of a stranger, he’ll pay twenty to get his hands on it if you play him right. You’ve learned that every good lie is threaded with truth and every accepted truth leaks lies.
You’re seventeen years old in that wheat field. The night breeze smells of wood smoke and feels like dry fingers as it lifts your bangs off your forehead. You remember everything about that night because it is the night you met Gwen. You are two years away from prison, and you feel like someone has finally given you permission to live.
Until Gwen ends the way it does because it began the way it did. Lehane’s premise of bad men and botched heists delivers an operatic crescendo within the short story format. He has written through the ideas sparked by that opening line and, along the way, found this narrative. The methodology enables the characters and situations to take shape amidst a series of tropes with which Lehane is comfortable. The peculiar and deadly sprinkling of diamonds holding the small town in thrall equates to the child murders in Mystic River or the epidemic of stray dogs in Lehane’s long short story, Running Out Of Dog, which also features a woman as potential salvation-figure, as does another short story, Gone Down To Corpus. Meanwhile, Bobby’s quest for his own identity resonates with the story about identity suicide, ICU, for which Paul Auster’s City of Glass is also a touchstone.
All this expansion, from an anonymous beginning to the process whereby the story becomes embedded within the writer’s broader preoccupations, is significant. The story’s performative narrative plays itself out by resolving its central struggle but there is plenty left unresolved, deferring as it does to life’s natural messiness. I’ve seen readers speculate and debate about the morality of the main characters and the fates of those around them but a fascinating titbit about Until Gwen is that Dennis Lehane came away from the story every bit as curious about the characters as his readers were. The characters, he has written, “kept walking around in my head, telling me that we weren’t done yet, that there were more things to say about the entangled currents that made up their bloodlines and their fate.”
The result, the other prompt for which was a challenge to write a theatrical part for his actor brother, which would allow him to play (against type) a morally irredeemable character, was a short play, Coronado. To go into too many details about the additions and alterations made to the story would once more risk spoilers since the play ties up several of the story’s loose ends. It does so with elegance and in a way that suggests Lehane has created a new puzzle for himself with his first act, and resolved it in the second.
Coronado, the script providing the title for a collection otherwise comprising of Lehane’s short stories, stands alone impressively as a play, the strong-arm poetry of the 2nd person narrative in Gwen sculpted to a somewhat less naturalistic set of voices, emphasising perhaps the operatic strains I picked up from the story and very much at home in the American theatre of Arthur Miller or David Mamet. Yet it couldn’t have come about without the ellipses in the short story – had Lehane been fully aware of his characters’ fates, he might not have written the play, might have left them in the short story and that might, perhaps, have become a novel. This makes me wonder about the ethics of leaving matters unexplained. Do we owe our characters (never our readers, who can never be allowed to override our creative controls) answers? For all that they share storylines and sections of text, I am not sure it’s helpful to place Until Gwen and Coronado too close together in our imaginations, lest one text overpowers the other.
An alternative companion piece to Until Gwen might be Vincent Gallo’s brilliant 1998 auteur effort, Buffalo ’66. There are shades of Bobby’s parole disorientation in the opening scenes of Gallo’s petty criminal, newly released from prison with a full bladder and nowhere to relieve it, eventually kidnapping a young tap-dancer (Christina Ricci) in his frustration (although, if Gallo has a fictional role model here, it may be Patrick Dewaere’s superbly jittery shambles Franck, central to a disastrous heist and the most downbeat lovers-on-the-lam scenario imaginable in the 1979 French film Série noire). Whilst a different type of antagonist to the father in the Lehane story, Ben Gazzara’s Jimmy, the father of Gallo’s character, offers a complementary montage of charm and menace.
Julian Barnes, in a recent Guardian article, ahead of the reissue of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, for which he has written the introduction, discusses how Ford’s quartet of novels has come to be regarded as a tetralogy, with the final novel, Last Post, widely derided and commonly discarded. Indeed, save for a motif of a couple of logs of cedar wood thrown on the fire, Tom Stoppard’s acclaimed adaptation of Ford’s novels for BBC/HBO, which prompted the re-print, brings the parade to an end at the climax of book three. Barnes makes a persuasive case for Last Post but, in doing so, relates Graham Greene’s decision to dispose of the volume in an edition he edited in the 1960s. Greene accused the final book of clearing up the earlier volumes’ “valuable ambiguities.” I find Coronado a soulful re-imagining of Until Gwen, the more fascinating because the author has, in a way, re-interpreted his own work. But Greene’s phrase reminds us that ambiguity is a defining strength of the short story. Whether Lehane had done anything else with them or not, the success of his and many other short stories is that the characters might step out from the text, valuable ambiguities intact, and wander around the reader’s minds for years to come, insisting that we aren’t done yet.
“Would you please please please please please please please stop
I’m going to take heed of what she asks here in the sense that I will attempt to talk about Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 story Hills Like White Elephants without including any spoilers about what the man and the woman are talking about.
I say this in full recognition that taking such precautions for anyone coming to a short story blog to read about a story analysed on probably every Creative Writing university degree course in the English-speaking world, brings to mind the time two women walked into a charity second-hand shop I was in last summer: “Ooh, look, Mum,” said one, pointing over to the music section, “Queen’s Greatest Hits!” I thought, how can that be exciting? There are people who care about music and some of them like Queen; then there are people who don’t care about music, and Queen have them covered too. If you like Queen, then surely to God you’ve had time and opportunity in your life to get hold of their Greatest Hits? Similarly, if you know anything about Hills Like White Elephants, reason would suggest that the undisclosed but “awfully simple”, “perfectly natural”, “perfectly simple” procedure under discussion, omerta may no longer be a requirement.
Nevertheless, I will steer around the matter simply because, having used it in creative writing teaching with undergraduates, I’ve seen that an isolated reading produces a range of interpretations as to the subtext of the central conversation. This, of course, means that two people will have the same words before them yet be reading two completely different stories. We might suppose that the strategy in storytelling is to have the reader understand what that story is. Of course, you may wish to leave certain matters open to conjecture and debate – what explains this behaviour? is the narrator as reliable as s/he would like us to believe? what happens next? – but you don’t expect the plot summary to be a multiple choice.
Actually, I don’t believe there is great room for dispute about Hemingway’s plot here: close attention to the emotional ebb and flow of the conversation shows it not to be a blur of Dadaist abstraction in the least, and further observation of the landscape either side of the railway bar, in which the two travelling Americans drink beer and Anis while waiting for their connecting train to Madrid, should dissolve any mystery. However, the very fact that the sparsity of more definitive signposts leads some readers to very different interpretations tells us a great deal about the remarkable quality of Hemingway’s writing here, working in the 3rd person objective voice he could very well have patented.
We are with these two people for just shy of three quarters of an hour and all we have of them is everything they say. Our reading is therefore a real time activity. We respond as we would if observing and eavesdropping random people in our normal lives. In this way, we can see how the café setting (as, despite the beer and the fire water, we’re entitled to think of it, this being mainland Europe) is fundamental to the authenticity of the couple’s conversational iceberg. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard’s dabbed handkerchief in the Milford station café in Brief Encounter is a good indicator of the sort of protocol into which we’re entering in this environment: a place of non-belonging, in a pocket of restricted time, anonymous but under scrutiny of all those around who have nothing to do but wait and watch, the limits to which emotions can be expressed and truths can be articulated are all too apparent. In the case of the Madrid-bound Americans, there is the additional context that they are locked, together, within a de facto exile’s experience. The place they are in now is not a home, nor a home from home, nor even a destination. The type of relaxation available in the Central Perk model of Third Space establishments – a social space that can intersect with the work sphere; a public space in which to express a suitably modulated private identity – cannot be attempted here. Instead, we have enforced camaraderie and a mutual illiteracy when it comes to reading one another’s signals:
The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the
felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the
girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun
and the country was brown and dry.
“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have
doesn’t prove anything.”
The talk replaces thoughts or one’s talk tramples on the other’s thoughts; in this, they occupy a similar space to Zoe Lambert’s squabbling interrailers in two of her stories in The War Tour. They drink together and the setting gives them a place to do this but those of us who can eavesdrop in both English and Spanish (and, by the magic of Hemingway’s decision to use English when Spanish is spoken, this means all of us) recognise that there are barriers and dependency issues there, as he has to do the talking for both of them:
The woman came out through the curtains with two glasses of beer and
put them down on the damp felt pads. “The train comes in five minutes,” she
“What did she say?” asked the girl.
“That the train is coming in five minutes.”
The girl smiled brightly at the woman, to thank her.
Earlier, Hemingway jump-cuts through the sequence in which the man orders beer and then Anis del Toro and the woman brings the drinks over. He leaves in everything that’s said. Everything else that happens is silence, just as every conversation on every restaurant first date, or during every long-term couple’s rare bout of face time, is suspended when there is a member of the waiting staff hovering over the table. The couple’s conversation is not guarded because they are busy constructing a rabbit warren of metaphors and codes. They talk like this, in the situation they are in, because so would you. And when she strafes him with pleases to get him to stop talking, a nugget of dialogue that, out of context, seems stylised to the point of absurdity, can actually be appreciated as the one moment of unstoppable emotional honesty in the entire scene.
The conversation will pick up again, though, on the train, and then along the Gran Via or wherever they are headed. There is no obvious epiphany for the couple in Hills Like White Elephants. As we polish off the anis we’ve been sure we’ve been drinking, and set to hauling the luggage we just know has been sitting at our feet, the epiphany – that we’ve been drawn entirely into the scene as fellow customers – belongs to us.
Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) makes a valid point. Humour can be highly personal, unpredictable and idiosyncratic. It might, as Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) assures Tommy, come down to “just…you know, how you tell the story.”
On Tuesday 10th April, I’ll be conducting a pair of workshops as part of the 2012 Words Festival, Leigh and Wigan’s annual literary celebration. The theme is Humorous Short Fiction and this is to let you know, if you’re in the area, that there are places available to writers of all levels interested in the fraught business of writing short stories that make readers laugh.
There are any number of examples, from O Henry to a forthcoming Reel Time Short Stories feature, Woody Allen, of writers with comic timing and turn-of-phrase but with those – and many others who may not even have intended to string together gags – what provokes the laughter is the truth in the story. However absurd, the story takes itself seriously. However comedic the characters, they feel real. In Sea Oak by George Saunders, the narrator works as a waiter-cum-stripper in a kinky fighter pilot themed bar, ‘Joysticks’, where employees are not allowed to serve up full nudity so wear outsized ‘penile stimulators’ to wave at appreciative diners, who in turn score them according to cuteness. Here’s how Saunders nails the slappable management speak and the suppresses horror of the man deemed not cute enough to continue to earn a living this way. You shudder as you laugh:
After closing we sit on the floor for Debriefing. “There are times,” Mr. Frendt says, “when one must move gracefully to the next station in life, like for example certain women in Africa or Brazil, I forget which, who either color their faces or don some kind of distinctive headdress upon achieving menopause. Are you with me? One of our ranks must now leave us. No one is an island in terms of being thought cute forever, and so today we must say good-bye to our friend Lloyd. Lloyd, stand up so we can say good-bye to you. I’m sorry We are all so very sorry”
“Oh God,” says Lloyd. “Let this not be true.”
But it’s true. Lloyd’s finished. We give him a round of applause, and Frendt gives him a Farewell Pen and the contents of his locker in a trash bag and out he goes. Poor Lloyd. He’s got a wife and two kids and a sad little duplex on Self-Storage Parkway
“It’s been a pleasure!” he shouts desperately from the doorway, trying not to burn any bridges.
Let this not be true. But it’s true. Come for the laughs and stay for the truths at either of the workshops, whose details are below and can also be found on page 6 of the Words Festival brochure:
1] Humorous Short Fiction
Wigan Cricket Club, Bull Hey, off Parsons Walk
10am until 3.30pm
Booking essential. 01942 723 350
2] Ashton Writers with Dinesh Allirajah
Sam’s Bar, Warrington Rd, Ashton
7.30pm – 10pm
Ashton Writers are hosting an open evening for those interested in humorous writing. Refreshments provided. Free but booking is essential – 01942 723 350.
This week, my lack of knowledge proved costly and, while it’s safe to say that the little I knew about cars has now increased, I regret that the lesson was so expensive. That I should know more about cars seems a self-evident truth but there was something, too, to be taken from all the not knowing. The absence from my life of a raging need ever to sit down to watch Top Gear strikes me as a richness, as does the knowledge that no advert for a car costing half the price of a decent two-up, two-down terrace is ever likely to engorge my glands with desire. As a motorist, I’m also a person; there’s a balance to be found. As a writer of fiction, though, I’m always saving a seat within my consciousness for a character yet to emerge: if one arrives who happens to be a petrolhead, that’ll be another occasion when it’ll occur to me that I ought to know more about cars.
I have a modest facility with languages but one of the many languages I don’t know at all is Croatian. This has rarely seemed a major gap: I may harbour thoughts of holding down a conversation with the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Luka Modric but I suspect that my contribution would be a babble of incoherent fanspeak, irrespective of the nominal lanaguage. From this week, though, my lack of Croatian will be a source of some bother due to the publication of three separate Croatian translations of my 2008 story, Scent. The translations appear, respectively, in Pandemonij, Okreni na priču and Tko tu koga? – as well as in pdf format online here – published by Izdavačka Akademija [The Publishing Academy] which trains young people in translation and publishing. The three publications each takes a different publishing approach to the anthologising of ten short stories, including three from English-speaking writers. Scent is now Miris and it’s a great honour to be included, as well as a warm thrill to know the work is reaching new readers. Still, it’s a curious sensation to see your work in print yet understand virtually nothing of it. It makes me wonder – should the Croatian language be something else I ought to know more about?
The question of what a writer should know occurs to me when I’m doing the rounds teaching Creative Writing to undergraduates. It’s not uncommon for some students to complain that they don’t really ‘do’ short stories. The short story disciplines of editing, economy, crafting a perfect sentences and realising a complete story are too much of a struggle and they honestly feel they’re more suited to the higher form of novel-writing. Of course, it’s a great thing for a person to have a novel inside them and it could well prove to be a great thing for the culture as well. The thought of showing up at University on a Creative Writing degree and bypassing all other disciplines in pursuit of this singular opus might seem strange to, say, a medical student. A student may enter medical school with dreams of curing cancer but I somehow doubt that when James Robertson Justice or Eriq La Salle tries to instruct our medic in how to perform a tracheostomy, they’re told, ‘Actually, tracheostomies aren’t really my thing – do you think I could just go to the lab and work on my cure for cancer instead?’
‘Oh, you have a cure for cancer? Tell me about it.’
‘Well, it’s really just an idea based on something I saw last week on an episode of House.’
I’ve touched on some of the areas of knowledge that might inform a writer’s work in an earlier post when I considered The Physics of Language, Dom DeLillo’s articulation of how language houses and stratifies knowledge. Professional writers will recognise the necessity of research and fact-checking for work that is to appear in the public domain, but aside from this retrospective acquisition of knowledge, is there a level of knowingness needed to become a writer? Can ‘write what you know’ be superseded by ‘know so you can write’?
The study of creative writing at university is by no means the only nor necessarily the best route towards a life in writing but not even Monty Python’s working-class playwright could deny the increased significance creative writing academia has as a crucible for contemporary literary practice. When tuition fees rise and employability becomes the function of, as opposed to a passive yardstick for, university study, creative writing degrees will come under an inevitable pressure to demonstrate their practicality as well as their popularity. Could it be time to move away from a philosophy whereby the skills needed for creative writing are taught in terms of their transferability to suit careers in anything but, towards the serious study of disciplines that could nourish and enrich the writing? I teach students who also learn Japanese or philosophy within combined honours degrees. Any crossover is purely an individual initiative – but what if those twin beds were pushed together to make one double? What if a creative writing undergraduate could spend three years writing but also drawing from research into history, chemistry, architecture, economics, astrophysics – what would knowing about any or all of this do to the words?
I don’t know if I’m arguing towards a sun-drenched ideal or from a bitter basement of despair at the absence of rigour that can characterise this particular form of paper chase, leaving the subject open to the type of ridicule that used to be reserved for media studies (and incubated, paradoxically, within the mainstream media). Maybe this isn’t a discussion any broader than my own narrow range of interests and awareness. But it’s one that will remain current for the foreseeable futute – or at least until the day your car breaks down on the road from Split to Zagreb and you decide to call a short story writer out to take a look at it.
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.
Like the lucky Robert Pattinson, who gets to be pictured above with Sara, a “seat-filler” at some awards ceremony [edit: it has since come to my attention that this isn’t Sara. It is somebody famous filling Sara’s seat while she pays a visit to the bar. I can’t be bothered changing anything else about what I’ve written and, by this stage, would you care either way?], you get to read this post, which simply exists, like the Porter in Macbeth, to occupy space in between the important business of murdering a king and becoming a king – or, in my case, blogging about short stories and blogging about short stories. And just as the Porter’s attempt at humour is an example of dramatic irony, because we know something not very funny at all has just taken place, we have an element of dramatic irony here because what’s keeping me from pontificating on creative writing is having to pontificate on the creative writing of the University students whose work I’m marking most waking hours at the moment. There’s further irony in that the picture of Robert Pattinson will probably earn me more hits than any other post I’ve created since this blog started.
But while you’re here, you can if you wish amuse yourself in the comments section because what I want to know is this: is there a line or passage of short fiction to which you keep coming back? Or, put another way, what is the most memorable moment you’ve encountered in a short story?
When I get me some spare (real) time, I’ll be back with more of the usual…