Real Time Short Stories

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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.

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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.

The laces. The sole and the heel. The tongue. And the cuff, the counter, the quarter, the welt. The vamp and the eyelets. The aglet, the grommet, the last.

I’m talking cobblers, of course, but some may recognise that this list of the different parts of a shoe is a specific reference to a memorable passage from Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel, Underworld. The passage, which can be read in full here, depicts a young man being instructed to pay attention to “the physics of language” – the names of things:

“Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things. If they weren’t important, we wouldn’t use such a gorgeous Latinate word. Say it,” he said.

“Quotidian.”

“An extraordinary word that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace.”

DeLillo is drawing an important line for us here, between notions of the abstract and the concrete. On the one side, we have the idea and on the other we have the language. I’ve started on this in an earlier post but it’s one of those principles which, like the names of the parts of the shoe in the excerpt, doesn’t hurt to be drummed in via a little rote learning.

An inexperienced writer will often confuse expressiveness and abstraction with inattention to detail. Joan Miró’s art gives us a handy reminder of where to draw the line. He resisted being labelled as an abstract artist:

For me a form is never something abstract: it is always a sign of something. It is a man, a bird, or something else. For me painting is never form for form’s sake

No matter that the art itself may work along abstract lines; no matter how it may express the artist/author’s subconscious and exercise that of the viewer/reader: what is employed in the creation of the work is the concrete detail of real life. This can be a tough line to walk. Am I suggesting the shutting down of the writer’s imagination? Am I arguing against pure, expressive lyricism, or positing a deadening Stakhanovite realism for the 21st century, like the offspring of a queasy union between Thomas Gradgrind and Dave Pelzer? I don’t think I’m debating the direction a writer’s work may take, or the generic and imaginative paths it may follow, but looking more at the building blocks of technique. It’s about understanding that concrete language is suffused with multitudes of meaning that are as readily apparent to a reader as they are to the writer. The abstract nature of emotion isn’t necessarily best expressed through the use of language that feels emotive, that appears to mimic the rage, passion, euphoria of the emotion itself.

This is something inexperienced writers can mistake. Five years ago, I was in Lagos and spent one morning delivering a workshop to a group of local writers. I asked them to represent their city, or Nigeria, in a single concrete image. I was offered a host of metaphors – the one I remember most clearly was that of a butterfly with blood-stained wings – from everyone in the group bar one of the writers, who chose the yellow buses that attempt to provide a public transport service to the second most populous city in Africa. I knew about the yellow buses, having been there less than a week. Every artist in Lagos, looking to sell paintings to tourists, knows to paint the yellow buses. If you’ve only seen Lagos on the television, you’ll probably know about the yellow buses. And that’s why it worked: the poem this writer went on to produce described a scenario that felt real and, consequently, it made more emotional sense than a yellow busload of empty metaphors.

This is not a culturally-specific sermon and this is basic creative writing didacticism: “Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted,” as E.M Forster blogged a century ago. Why is it such a commonplace for inexperienced writers to deal with just the laces and tongue of the prose before showing off their fancy footwork? I think there’s a clue in the phrase, “the physics of language.” It’s too easy for writers to absent themselves from the scientific workings of the world about which they are writing. It’s an abstraction borne out of a devotion to the spontaneity of the first draft. Going back over a text to check, for example, the name of “those black, metallic or plasticky bits on the ends of your shoelaces” may somehow seem a violation of your personal vision. Yet the rigour of inquiry, the determination not to let your language settle for vague stabs at aphorism but to attempt precision where possible, is not only a good habit but can add new dimensions to the work. Once you have the components of a thing, the way a thing works, the name of the thing – say, aglet – you begin to speculate as to how or whether your characters might have this knowledge and this, in turn, makes their hearts beat just a bit more persuasively than they had done before.

This is also why science provides a necessary enrichment of the writer’s process. The short fiction specialist publisher, Comma Press, is recognising this with science-themed anthologies. The Darwin 200 anniversaries in 2009 demonstrated how our understanding of what we are, where we are, what this is and where it’s heading has been, is being, revolutionised by the theories and discoveries of evolutionary biology, DNA and genome research, quantum physics. Scientists attempt to build narrative arcs into the first moment of the Big Bang; they seek to map the subatomic activity that takes place in what appears to be the empty space around our bodies; they discover common threads linking every life form on the planet, allowing us to understand ourselves as primates, molecules, stardust. Science is currently giving us the poetry, mapping the abstract worlds beyond our imagination. Writers have language – that’s our field – and we should rise to the challenge of seeking to understand how it works.

A reminder that some of the intersections between science and literature will be explored this THURSDAY 26 MAY in the Evolving Words showcase at Liverpool’s Poetry Cafe – details HERE


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