Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘poetics

Zoe Lambert’s debut collection, The War Tour, places horror and banality in uncomfortable proximity. The title suggests this: if we are not the direct participants or, for the sake of greater moral comfort, the victims in warfare, how do we stand in relation to the horror? As tourists, turning the bloodshed into a photo opportunity? As writers, notebooks and dictaphones poised so we might appropriate the voices of those who were actually there? The book is not designed to offer a settling response to this queasy feeling that we are somehow implicated in the actions that shape Lambert’s narratives.

In her opening story, These Words are No More Than a Story About a Woman on a Bus, Lambert deploys the second person narrative voice – “you” – to place the reader inside the crawling skin of a suited, briefcase-wielding commuter latched onto by an elderly Lithuanian woman, keen to share her memories of her country’s invasion by the Russian army. “You’re not sure what to do with this story,” the narrative tells you. It’s a pertinent observation. The woman’s story does not belong to us – none of these stories does – so what is going on when we take possession of them? Lambert acknowledges that her literary ventriloquism could be interpreted as an unwarranted, even imperialist, intervention. The collection ends with a chapter of Notes, in which Lambert responds to (her own, as much as anyone else’s) concerns that her approach risks being seen in terms of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak‘s objection to the well-meaning idea of “speaking for” the disempowered. The Notes then snake away from the theoretical question to give an illuminating picture of Lambert’s poetics. She considers the notion of appropriating the voices of historical figures by considering the diaries of the imperialist Captain John Hanning Speke and the botanist Charlotte Manning. The diaries serve as fictions – not everything is told or understood by their writers; they remain versions within which Lambert weaves her own imaginings as a writer, experiencing the process as a profound collaboration. If appropriation is taking place, that’s because that’s what writers do. I’ll do it to you if we ever met, and I do it to myself every time I write.

I do, however, find truth in Spivak’s point when reading a story like Road Song, by Joanne Harris, which appears in a 2010 Vintage collection, Because I Am A Girl, for which seven renowned authors spoke to young girls in different continents in order to represent their stories and situations. The proceeds from the collection support the charity, Plan, which aims to support self-empowerment in the developing world so the stories can be accepted as an elegant stump for a worthy cause. However, in a passage like this, set in her character Adjo’s local market, I find the prose Harris constructs less of a vehicle for the young girl’s cultural experience and more a giddy, exotic rickshaw ride for a tourist sensibility:

Adjo likes the market. There are so many things to see there. Young men riding mopeds; women riding pillion. Sellers of manioc and fried plantain. Flatbed trucks bearing timber. Vaudou men selling spells and charms. Dough-ball stands by the roadside. Pancakes and foufou; yams and bananas; mountains of millet and peppers and rice. Fabrics of all colours; sarongs and scarves and dupattas. Bead necklaces, bronze earrings; tins of harissa; bangles; pottery dishes; bottles and gourds; spices and salt; garlands of chillies; cooking pots; brooms; baskets; plastic buckets; knives; Coca-Cola; engine oil and sandals made from plaited grass.

Lambert is not concerned with the thrilling wordiness of her diverse subjects: she is concerned with character. What bothers her, as a short story obsessive, is the problem of collapsing War – that emesis of human struggle, conflict, which shatters life in half a second and hangs onto lives for years and through generations; that pitches your street against mine in the next block along and then follows us across oceans and sets itself up in a new continent – into the tidy sealed boxes we call stories. The collection takes its cue from Trotsky’s assertion that “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Though there was a point when I was wondering how many more ways Lambert could find to write the sudden explosion or hail of gunfire that seemed to arrive like a narrative epiphany in a succession of the stories, the collection as a whole examines war – and shows how war examines us – from many more angles than just direct armed conflict.

The characters, conflicts and locations manouevre around one another in the stories. Two stories cross paths on Manchester’s Langworthy Road: in From Kandahar, squaddie Phil returns from a tour of duty, decorated but unable to reconcile his hero’s status with the knowledge he has acquired; in We’ll Meet Again, Rwandan care home assistant Leon leads an ordinary life yet it is one consistently shadowed by genocide. As a Manchester writer, the setting and therefore the stories are available to Lambert; she also allows the reader to detect an autobiographical veracity in the snapshots of the squabbling interrailing couple, Yvonne and James, traipsing around central Europe’s ancient and recent war zones in the title story and Our Backs To The Fort. If Lambert’s city and travel history have Hitchcockian cameos in these stories, it is the level of research, the desire to bring to light hidden, forgotten or sidelined stories of war, and the willingness to showcase her writerly concerns that form the basis of Lambert’s personal hallmark.

The effect can be polemic. There is, in 33 Bullets a welcome if shaming illustration of the conditions in which failed asylum seekers are detained in Britain, and the intractable barriers they face during the appeals process. This would not work if the characters were ciphers for a political argument. As it is, the central character of 33 Bullets, Devrim, is one of the most compelling in the book, an academic of insufficient standing to be considered at risk should he be returned to Iran, desperate to finish and publish a study of the Kurdish poet, Ahmed Arif, in order to demonstrate his credentials:

No-one understood that if his work was accepted by a journal, he might get a book contract, and when he was recognised as an authority on Kurdish literature he might get special dispensation to stay in the UK. ‘With this,’ he said, holding up his work, ‘they won’t deport me!’

Japhet [his cellmate] frowned. ‘Deport,’ he said. ‘They deport you…me… ‘ He gestured around the room. ‘Tout le monde. Est-ce que vous comprendez?’

Ultimately, Devrim finds a purpose in his futile paper-chase, influenced by Japhet’s steely pragmatism. There is a conversation between Arif’s words and Devrim’s attempts to write about them (“Poems are necessary to survival. We all make them out of the words we have.“) and there is a conversation between the words already written and the words Lambert is trying to find to map and make sense of these experiences. It’s a bold writer who works in full acceptance of the inevitable failure of her project, but failure in this case is also the most honorable and necessary response: to completely understand the workings of people’s minds in wartime would demand from us madness or monstrosity. We encounter Japhet again in When The Truck Came, a tense and powerful rites of passage from the schoolboy stumbling into and then through the ranks of a militia to being one of the personal bodyguards of the unit’s leader,’The General’, a figure who will, from this week on, inevitably bring to mind Joseph Kony. Here’s where the gap with full understanding comes in, though. What we now know of Kony exceeds even the sickening demonstrations of nihilism to which Japhet is privy, just as, in From Kandahar, Phil’s existential turbulence couldn’t compete for horror with the latest news of British casualties in Afghanistan. War is interested in you, but it’s more interested in excising the pus from its own scabs, using a rusty nail, than with attending to your emotional bruises. And Lambert is attempting to take on neither Andy McNabb nor Sun Tzu here: as the collection progresses, the observation of how a writer finds points of contact and communication with her subjects becomes increasingly engrossing.

Some of Lambert’s characters offer easy skins into which a contemporary British writer may slip: both Senka, the Serbian narrator of Turbofolk, and Phil, disembarking the bus on Langworthy Road, are every prodigal child returning home after growing to adulthood elsewhere, and having to deal with overbearing relations and hometown ghosts. Without experience of the Balkan conflict, we still can recognise Senka’s response to her mother’s anxiety over the post-war recriminations directed at journalists seen as having supported genocide – journalists like Senka’s seriously ill father:

I really want to lie down, drink some beer, check my email. But I sigh and pick up the print out of the article: ‘Media Warmongers Should Face Prosecution at the ICTY.’

Even more ambitious are the stories based on primary source material from major episodes in the lives of two women who would have been extraordinary figures for their work alone, but are all the more so because each was operating in a male-dominated environment. One of the pioneers of nuclear fission, Lise Meitner, struggles to emerge as a proactive character in Crystal Night, though dynamism and resolve must have been facets of her personality. The period covered by the story, though, is when Meitner, an Austrian Jew in pre-war Berlin, was belatedly forced into exile having, by her own admission, been so wrapped up in the work that she failed to respond to the Nazi regime’s growing menace. Her disconnection as a character has therefore some consistency. More rounded is the characterisation of the German revolutionary Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, in The Spartacist League. This captures her during the momentary promise of a sweeping social revolution in Germany, following the end of World War One and the removal of the Kaiser, which was brutally put down by the government of erstwhile radicals, the Social Democrats. I confess that my view of this story was tinted by the memory of the theoretical arguments I used to stage when I was studying for my History degree in the 80s. The debates would pit Lenin against Trotsky – and Luxemburg would always win, nipping in with a tract from The Mass Strike, so I felt oddly starstruck to be in her company during the story. Lambert’s methodology – when she wrote what she wrote, this is the scene I see – is clear in this passage, where we can feel history trickling through the cracks in the woodwork:

It is nearly 2a.m. and Rosa is working in the attic room on Friedrichstraße. She is sitting at a large desk with an oil lamp burning beside her. She picks at a plate of cheese and rye bread, which Mathilde bought a few hours ago. She will ironically call the article: ‘Order Prevails In Berlin.’ The tone must be defiant and angry about the Ebert government’s so called victory when even now she can hear gunfire on the street.

The War Tour offers repeated encounters like this, between the intimate bodily experience of war and the remote writer’s imagination about its characters and situations. It is the nature of a themed collection that larger narratives are hinted at. In the short story business, we need a strong cadre of the willing to fight the cause. The novel-writing careers of Ali Smith or Michel Faber are developments I’d only ever praise through gritted teeth. Yet it’s possible to detect in Lambert, despite her dedication to the short form, the novelistic skills of research and organisation of her material that would serve her well should she ever decide to abandon the virtue of concision.

The War Tour by Zoe Lambert is published by Comma Press in paperback and for Kindle.
Reviews of short story collections are a new, occasional feature on Real Time Short Stories. Authors and publishers are invited to get in touch to arrange reviews of new work

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L is for C.S. Lewis’ 5 Tips for Clear Writing

I was reminded of this list when it was posted on a Facebook page for creative writing students at Liverpool John Moores University, where I’ve been luxuriating in short story pursuits since the end of September. The notable thing is not just how much good sense there is in each of these tips, but that Lewis was directing his advice at children, the assumption being that writers will then reach adulthood having dispensed with the bad habits counterposed here. Either they’re starting adulthood a lot later these days or the message needs to get louder:

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
2. Always prefer the clean direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
4. In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.”
5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

M is for Mr Benn

On holiday in Madrid and Toledo in 1996, only the second time I’d been abroad since moving to Liverpool over ten years earlier, my writing brain started finding points of connection with David McKee’s fancy dress time-travelling adventurer. I was writing predominantly about cultural identity at the time, for performance poetry and for an MA, and the pivotal narrative mechanism in each Mr Benn story – he changes his clothes; steps through a doorway and becomes embroiled in the dramas of a strange foreign environment; changes their lives; then he gets reminded who he really is and he returns with only a memory – seemed to offer a loose parable for the co-mingling of ‘otherness’ and belonging experienced when a second generation immigrant becomes a British tourist abroad. The thoughts found concrete expression when I introduced a Mr Benn twist to the story of San Miguel de los Helados, written after going for an ice cream in Toledo and representing the first time my increasingly prose-shaped poetry took off its bowler hat and donned the apparel of a short story.

Aside from the delightful stories, brilliant illustrations, the iconic cartoon it spawned with Ray Brooks’ narration and a soundtrack by some of Britain’s finest jazz musicians of the time, Mr Benn provides handy shorthand for a number of narrative tropes and archetypes. Festive Road is a terraced row of pathetic fallacy, in which the mood of the street and its inhabitants echoes something in the fantasy world Mr Benn will find. Our hero may as well be carrying a loaf of bread in his briefcase, sitting in the park all day feeding the ducks, and then going home at 5 o’clock to tell his wife (if we’re allowed to speculate that he has a wife) he’s been hard at work, when in reality he was laid off months ago: what does he do in his bowler hat, suit and tie other than take it off in the fancy dress shop? But this sense of him being as escapee from office and suburban humdrum is a huge part of his appeal. The device of the shopkeeper popping up “as if from nowhere” is, at first glance, textbook deus ex machina but this is a text in which Mr Benn too steps out of a machine to resolve the crises he encounters. His role is typically that of a Dr Who bringer of knowledge from other worlds or a mellower version of the ghostly inspector in J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, forcing the community to examine itself. The shopkeeper’s intervention, then, is not to impose an artificial or divine solution but to represent reality’s yoke, leading Mr Benn back to that terraced treadmill.
Don’t get me started on the psychosexual undertones in Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea!

N is for Pablo Neruda

from I’m Explaining A Few Things

You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?
I’ll tell you all the news.

I lived in a suburb,
a suburb of Madrid, with bells,
and clocks, and trees.

[…full poem here…]

And you’ll ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
The blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
In the streets!

O is for Osiris
Because when you’re in the world of words and stories and ideas about words and stories, you sometimes need a purgative, a palate-cleanser, and joining in the chorus of this funk monster should do the trick:

P is for Periphery
What’s everybody looking at? That’s not where your story is.

Q is for Quite
Or fairly, a number of, several, a few…

The trouble with omniscient narrators is that they think they know it all. No, actually, we think they know it all, we depend on that – it’s what we trade our hard-earned suspension of disbelief for. So when the narrative tells us that a place is “quite far away” or that there were “a few” people in the bar, there’s got to be a pretty good reason why we’re not being told the precise distance or number of customers. There was a pretty good reason for me using “pretty” to modify good in that last sentence – two, in fact: one, because it gives the tone of the blog the sense of motivational speaker urgency that seems to go down well; and two, because it sets off a little Larry David in my head, saying “Pret-tay, pret-tay, pret-tay good!” and that makes me smile. All these weak adjectives have their place, of course, when you need an adjective to express a personal attitude towards a quality or quantity being described, but if you want to give your reader information, and you want them to pay attention to that information, then if it’s quite important that it’s quite accurate, you’re diminishing your intended impact.

R is for Rainy Day In The Park

Bruce Robinson’s 1987 film, Withnail and I, ends with this, the moment Richard E. Grant will carry with him as evidence when he’s claiming a comfortable seat with which to see out the afterlife. Forget everything you know and have ever quoted from this film. Go to that park, stand in that rain, see that man with the umbrella, hear him shouting, and then listen to what he’s saying – your story starts where this one stops.

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E is for Emotional Choreography

A line I’ll often throw out to students facing the construction of their first ever short story is to think of as simple a plot as possible, then make it simpler. If someone is telling you the summary of their short story plot, by the third or fourth “and then…” alarm bells are ringing out. Any short story, even the most fleeting vignette, requires a plot, whereby the characters do things, or things happen to them, or things are revealed to the reader, in a particular order – it’s just not always helpful to try to break it down in those terms. The idea of emotional choreography can be more useful when talking about a story in which little takes place in the way of external action or happening but we are witness to a shift in the internal state of the character(s), and the writer’s job is to arrange the steps by which they experience this shift. In Mansfield’s A Dill Pickle, the action can be summed up in terms of Vera unbuttoning and then rebuttoning her coat, with a conversation in between, but the emotional choreography is worthy of Gene Kelly.

F is for Forbrydelsen

In 1995, Steven Bochco’s Murder One unravelled a single murder trial over 26 hour-long episodes. In a TV world in which the biorhythm of any crime was that it should be solved with time for a bit of banter at the end within the space of one hour, where the feature-length deliberations of Morse had seemed an impossible luxury, Murder One‘s progress towards the truth, led by Daniel Benzali’s Teddy Hoffman – the shaven-headed, ursine embodiment of Raymond Chandler’s line “Down these mean streets a man must go who is himself not mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid” – seemed more in keeping with the complexity and level of commitment we’d expect from a novel. When novelistic TV series, like The Sopranos, began to roll out of HBO and the other US networks, Bochco’s innovation receded into fond memory. Once high production values, narrative complexity and mumbled articulacy had become familiar to drama viewers, the crime-solving drama moved towards being the type of quality pulp that enabled you to switch your brain to autopilot without feeling you’d surrendered it to a tribe of reality show producers.
First airing in its native Denmark in 2007, but only reaching the UK when it was shown at the start of 2011 on BBC Four, Søren Sveistrup’s Forbrydelsen (The Killing, but the poncey insistence on the Danish also serves to differentiate it from the patchy US remake) took on the police procedural genre. While crime, in general, and police procedural or criminal psychologist narratives, are staples of the fiction bestseller lists, as well as the TV ratings, and while “fiction bestseller” equates to novels rather than short stories, it’s also possible to argue that the Whodunnit is a pertinent model for short fiction. Getting to the truth, or a good enough truth to enable us to move on, is as much a short story reader and a Chandleresque detective-figure can hope for over the course of a story. Forbrydelsen‘s first series ran for 20 episodes, but each episode represented one day of an investigation into the murder of a teenage girl, and one day at a time in the grieving process of her family. So, while it had a similar novelistic scope to Murder One – and in Sofie Gråbøl’s Sarah Lund, a shrewd, sensitive, tunnel-visioned Sam Spade for our times, and for the future series of the drama to come – it often carried itself like a short story. As one example, Lund’s relationship with chewing gum is a crucial aspect of Gråbøl’s performance but it’s one never given overt reference in the script: we just see her chewing her way through the barriers – bureaucratic, emotional, political – that hamper her progress towards the truth. The correlation between her chewing and the stress tells us enough so that when the frustration piles up to the extent that she bums a cigarette from her colleague, Jan Meyer, an arc, reaching back to way before we knew any of the characters, is completed.

G is for Gil Scott-Heron
For all the reasons discussed here, and for the story told in a lyric like that for Pieces Of A Man:

Saw my Daddy meet the mailman
and I heard the mailman say,
“Now, don’t you take this letter too hard now, Jimmy,
‘cos they’ve laid off nine others today.”
But he didn’t know what he was saying.
He could hardly understand
that he was only talking to
pieces of a man.

H is for Hunger

“Cig?”
“Come on.”
“Bit of a break from smoking the Bible. Eh?”
“Oh aye.”
“Anyone work out which book is the best smoke?”
“We only smoke the Lamentations – right miserable cigarette.”
“Nice room.”
“Very clean…”

Hunger is Steve McQueen’s 2008 depiction of the 1981 IRA hunger strikes and dirty protests in the Maze prison, culminating in the death of the IRA prisoners’ Commanding Officer and newly-elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). The film, drawing on McQueen’s background as a Turner Prize-winning video artist, deploys the essential short story technique of observed detail to extraordinary effect, so much so that the genuinely harrowing scenes of filth, brutality, a shocking assassination and Sands’ lingering demise acquire a perverse luxury through the beautifully patient storytelling. The heart of the film, for which co-writer Enda Walsh deserves credit, is a 17-minute dialogue between Fassbender’s Sands and Liam Cunningham’s Father Dominic Moran. With just one change of shot after ten minutes, we are able to focus on the dialogue’s humour, tension, tragedy and politics, not to mention the relief – for us and, we can empathise, for Sands – to have this break from literally wading in shit. This clip is just the first chunk. There are breezeblocks of exposition in fiction – and then there’s this expositional sculpture:

I is for iPadding
Nothing at all wrong with first person narrative. Nothing wrong with streams of consciousness nor with charismatic narrators who are the stars of their own stories. Writing what you know: tip-top advice. We often enter into the process of writing short stories as an act of self-expression or memoir; we come via the poetic statement that’s acquired a narrative; via the anecdote; via life’s epiphanies or forks-in-the-road. And when I say “we”, we write “I”. “I” in fiction can be a Nick Carraway or a Charles Ryder, the unremarkable foil to the Gatsbys and Flytes that absorb the light throughout those novels. But “I” can also be an obstruction to any given scene or story. A writer can wrap themselves around every detail so every piece of information about place, action or other characters comes to the reader already evaluated and filed under a particular conclusive emotion. It can make for a narrative effect similar to having someone sitting next to you, talking all the way through a film you’re trying to follow, not only drowning out the dialogue but explaining the plot as well. Simple(-sounding) solution: get “I” to step back and allow us to see the sunset, the actual sunset and not just what “I” thinks about the sunset – we know “I” can see it, otherwise we wouldn’t have it narrated to us, so we get very little from “I looked across to the West and saw in the sky a beautiful sunset.”

J is for Johnny Cash
When you can sing a song like this, you’ll get a great reaction from any audience, but when you’re stuck in Folsom Prison or, as the crowd is here, in San Quentin, then the visit of a country&western superstar, singing songs about the life you used to lead and the one you’ve got now, will be a story you’ll be telling each other every day until your release, and every day thereafter. Confinement is a key to short fiction. One night in a cell might get you enough material for a short novel, if you’re Roberto Bolaño (By Night In Chile), and a train journey might provide you with a murder mystery novel, but you’d beter hope that train’s the Orient Express: for the 13.34 from Irlam to Widnes, you’re going to need a short story. A restricted temporal or spatial setting alerts the reader to the idea that what happens here and now matters: what’s being described is not leading you to anything or anywhere else more important so stick with it, pay attention to every clue and, eventually, you’re going to find that sonofabitch that named you Sue.

K is for Stanley Kunitz
His last published poem, written and performed here at the age of 100. “What makes the engine go? Desire, desire, desire.” This is a poem that anyone, but especially each and every writer, needs to “remind me who I am” and this video is a short story in itself:

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There’s no bettering Kurt Vonnegut when it comes to articulating the nebulous pursuit of a philosophy of writing. The objective of this series is to express nothing as grand as a writing philosophy nor as self-defeating as an attempt to pin down the ingredients of my, or anyone else’s, fiction. This is just a glossary that will gather together a series of creative touchstones in order to locate a system of shorthand for “the things I mean when I say the things I say that make you say ‘I guess you had to have been there’ when I say things about short story writing.” It’s not a reading list, because it’s clear that continued, wide and deep reading offers its own best system for understanding how writing works, but it rounds up some of the other stuff: the not-always-literary, bespoke moments that become the mantras.

In some of these, I’ll be reprising ideas I’ve floated in previous posts but shall include here so you can cut the pixels from your screen and reassemble them in a handy binder to file next to your Oxford English, your Roget and your dutiful copies of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please

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A is for Albert Brooks in Broadcast News
It’s for everything he does as Aaron, the flop-sweating, unrequited, intellectual pinnacle and moral centre of Taxi creator James L. Brooks’ 1987 TV newsroom satire-cum-romcom which, if it didn’t directly influence Drop The Dead Donkey, recent BBC drama The Hour and Aaron Sorkin in general, must have slipped something into their water supply. But it’s mainly for this contender for both the Film Speech You Most Wished You’d Written and The Line You Most Want To Come Out With In Real Life, namely “Don’t get me wrong when I tell you that Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the devil.” An object lesson in how to make an enduringly salient point about capitalism and managerialism within an act of romantic emotional grandstanding, and it even finds a way to reference the subversion: “How d’you like that? I buried the lead.” If you’ve never been Aaron in this scene, you have no place at my table. If you’re Tom, see you in every workplace in the land next week; don’t forget the twee bloody biscuits you insist on bringing to the team meetings.

B is for the Bridge in A Night In Tunisia

Charlie Parker on A Night In Tunisia performs a precarious highwire act to get from the tune’s main theme into his opening solo. It’s one of the most famous “bridges” in jazz history. The composition of fiction can have a fractal quality as you visualise the story in discrete moments or plot points. Crossing the bridge from one of these moments to the next needn’t be as spectacular as Parker makes it but without a successful crossing, the coherence of your piece may never recover. There isn’t a single method for crossing your story’s bridges: sometimes it’ll be a compact, unfussy, functional action or description; sometimes you might want to elaborate. But knowing that you have these crossings to make can be the important first step.

C is for Cup of Tea
We’ve been here before: 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.

D is for dice and women and jazz and booze

Beale Street by Langston Hughes

The dream is vague
And all confused
By dice and women
And jazz and booze.

The dream is vague
Without a name
Yet warm and wavering
And soft as a flame

The loss
Of the dream
Leaves nothing
The same

And D here dovetails with another significant inspiration from Langston Hughes, his narrative for the Charles Mingus jazz piece, Scenes In The City, a pitch-perfect portrait of low-rent bohemia, chiseling out a recipe for survival from a life of struggle, shortage and disappointment: “And with the blues, whether I like it or not, I love the idea of living.”

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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.

You might believe that the couple – a man, older, upright but with a hint of the debonair; and a woman. elegant, reserved, much younger – with the nine-year-old blond boy, are on a family visit to London Zoo. In fact, we’re bearing witness to a growing dysfunction. The boy, Philippe, is the near-forgotten child of diplomats whose only friend is his parents’ butler, Baines. Yet the zoo trip is no expression of surrogate parenthood but a subterfuge so that Baines may spend time with his extramarital lover, Julie, as well as safeguard Philippe’s silence, after he interrupted a previous assignation between the two.

The London Zoo sequence in Carol Reed’s 1948 film, The Fallen Idol, is an embellishment of a passage in Graham Greene’s short story, The Basement Room, in which Baines takes “Philip” to attend his rendezvous with “Emmy”. As our first Reel Time Short Stories study – and thanks to Steenbeck for the comment that inspired the reading and, after many years, second viewing – we’re looking at a short story adapted for the screen by, in this case, the story’s creator.

Greene seems to have understood cinema and in Reed he had a collaborator adept at reflecting the poetics of the original. Much is retained: Ralph Richardson’s Baines is a slippery fantasist, breezy with a charm and confidence that evaporates by the end, leaving him with, in the words of the story, “his old soft stupid expression”; Philip’s mantra of “This is life”, as he ventures into the London streets and towards adult life, is made real for us in Reed’s choreography of the city, something of a mid-point between the Vienna of another collaboration with Greene, The Third Man [left], and the alternative London presented in his Oliver!

For two-thirds of the film, give or take the fleshing out of characters or scenes, we could be watching the straight, stylish rendering of the short story’s narrative. Gradually, though, Greene the screenwriter transforms his downbeat Greek tragedy into a black comedy of misunderstanding and romantic redemption. In adaptation, Greene can tug at the heartstrings but find room for acidic asides – Dora Bryan’s prostitute’s happy declaration to Phile that she knows his dad – whereas in the text, his curmudgeon bleeds through even the naive POV with withering observations on the flailing ambitions and alienations that make up a society:

Philip had never seen the girl, but he remembered Baines had a niece. She was thin and drawn, and she wore a white mackintosh; she meant nothing to Philip; she belonged to a world about which he knew nothing at all. He couldn’t make up stories about her, as he could make them up about withered Sir Hubert Reed, the Permanent Secretary, about Mrs. Wince-Dudley, who came once a year from Penstanley in Suffolk with a green umbrella and an enormous black handbag, as he could make them up about the upper servants in all the houses where he went to tea and games. She just didn’t belong. He thought of mermaids and Undine, but she didn’t belong there either, nor to the adventures of Emil, nor to the Bastables. She sat there looking at an iced pink cake in the detachment and mystery of the completely disinherited, looking at the half-used pots of powder which Baines had set out on the marble-topped table between them.

While Greene manages to alter the plot and some of the tone in order to engage the film audience’s sympathies – and it’s true that Baines and his lover are more passionate and appealing in the film, and Mrs Baines more malevolent – we can detect examples of the short story approach carrying through into the film. The resolution of the narrative within a self-contained or claustrophobic space is a short story characteristic, as we’ve discussed previously, and it’s worth noting that there are differences between the way London is used here and the way the action is played out against the city backdrops in the two celebrated Reed films I mentioned above. Here, we glimpse it in passing or look over it, like the Lady of Shallot, from a remote tower. Philip/Phile in his desolate principality, swallowed by the enormous staircase through whose banister teeth he views life; Baines and Mrs Baines in their loveless marriage; Emmy/Julie in her hopeless fixation on a man offering her no real future: these are familiar inhabitants of a short story and the film resists the temptation to let them taste a world beyond this captivity.

Finally, it comes down to the detail, as it must in short fiction. As Philip/Phile uncomprehendingly bursts in on Baines and Emmy/Julie in their erstwhile secret café, the lovers part in hurried and harrowing fashion. The film makes more of this, with an almost comically overlong 3rd person conversation about the plans of Julie’s “friend” to leave the country. That sequence, though, is rounded off by a visual detail that any short story writer would love to have depicted: Richardson, as Baines, disappears behind a clouded glass partition and we see his silhouette slump and the shadow of his hand reach to clasp his mouth. When he collects himself and returns to the table where Phile is still munching cake, the platitude he comes out with (“The cup that cheers”) is taken directly from the story, an ironic epitaph for a broken afternoon in lives where nothing certain will remain in one piece:

“Who is she?” Philip asked. “Is she your niece?”
“Oh, yes,” Baines said, “that’s who she is; she’s my niece,” and poured the last drops of water onto the coarse black leaves in the teapot.
“May as well have another cup,” Baines said.
“The cup that cheers,” he said hopelessly, watching the bitter black fluid drain out of the spout.

It’s time to find stories. As discussed here, the process through which a story is found can be a gradual evolution. We can talk in terms more familiar within the poetics of the food and drink industry: slow cooking, filtration, distillation. Yet there is a far more straightforward dynamic every writer should recognise, that comes about when witnessing a scene or living through an experience and hearing the mantra: “There’s a story in this.”

Below is an example of the sort of image that may set me thinking about a potential story – can you isolate a moment or image that might do the same for you? Comments welcome.

The awkward intimacy in a one-two between two adult men having a kickabout with a small child. The inter-generational passing triangle at its highest narrative potential would feature a grandfather, a father and a young son. The boy kicks to one and receives from the other. In order to fulfill his role, one of the men must pass to the other. It’s redundant as a tool for developing motor functions and the weight and placement of each pass has no bearing on how either men imagines his life will turn out, whereas the boy’s ability to stroll around, unleashing pinpoint 10-yard balls to feet or controlling wild, bobbling passes from team-mates, has him aspiring to nothing less than a Champion’s League medal for Barcelona. When the focus is on the child, the men are able to maintain a jovial participation. When he becomes preoccupied in something else, though, the guiderails disappear and the grown-up son and father are left knocking the ball back and forth to each other until the triangle can be restoreed. Did they ever do this when the younger man was his son’s age? Is this a reminder of a relationship they always enjoyed or that they never had? Without the decoys of mothers, wives and children, is this clumsy back-and-forth the only communication they are able to have these days? As the minutes break down into years, a writer will start to ask these questions and begin to find a story in the answers.

Further thoughts on this isolated moment in Cafe Short 2: Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”


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