Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘vonnegut

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


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.”

E-K L-R S-Z >

[from A Man Without A Country. 2005]

The contention here at Real Time Short Stories is that short fiction occupies a space in between the life of the writer and the lives of the reader and moves in an approximate rhythm with both. I’m talking here about what short fiction can do – and can do arguably better than any other form of literature, though I think music has it beat across all the arts. Even if the story itself takes us completely away from the trappings of daily reality, it’s still the bedtime story, still the ghostly chiller spun around the camp fire, still Sheherazade’s to-be-continued tale of an enterprising storyteller staving off the executioner. And the swinging axe is a motif here, as we’ll see.

What I think of as Real Time Short Stories occur, very broadly, like this:

– the writer lives the life. Just like anyone else does but with more of a debt to Raymond Carver and United Utilities.

– all the world’s concerns that affect the writer in this life then find their way, in some form or other, into the stories. I mean all of them: not just the major concerns but the little stuff – those payments to United Utilities, the damage Angelo Matthews’ injury will do to the balance of the Sri Lankan team, likewise the latest set of injuries to Tottenham’s central defenders, which of Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr or Neil Diamond did the best version of Mr Bojangles, remembering to get sugar next visit to the supermarket.

– the stories, so influenced and often populated by characters with these concerns, then fit themselves into the patterns of the lives of the readers. The story is read just before lights out, on the bus to work, on the toilet, in the coffee shops where, seated across the room is a writer with a notebook jotting down ideas about a character reading a book of short stories in a coffee shop…you see where I’m going with this.

– And in this way, Vonnegut’s purpose is met. The reader may not have gained a telling biographical insight into the writer’s life, but instead there has grown a strong mutual identification. We understand each other’s lives a little better and that’s where we find enrichment.

That idea of processing the concerns of everyday life into writing, rather than simply being distracted by them, is by no means an exclusive trait of the short story writer. If you’re going to write at all, be prepared to respond to any situation in your life, no matter how tragic or ecstatic, with a whispered, “How can I deal with this in my writing?” Actually, joy and pain are – thank you, Frankie Beverley – indeed like sunshine and rain when it comes to writing, part of what makes the setting for any story you’ll tell. The problematic stuff is that which concerns you precisely because you’re a writer and therefore move around in that strange landscape, The Arts, a kind of Martina Cole underworld only with fewer shooters and more SWOT analyses. March 31st 2011 was the day Sheherazade’s alarm didn’t go off and instead the executioner got the early morning wake-up call. I posted this on Facebook earlier but cleared up the typo for here:

As I was saying to another old lag on the arts scene yesterday, reading about the cuts feels like you’ve shown up for your This Is Your Life to watch Michael Aspel garotte half the guests. To cite one cut that directly affects me- in Liverpool, for writers, for community, for education, losing the Windows Project would be devastating: it’s not just the economy, stupid.

Many are thinking about this as the beginning of the dismantling of an arts infrastructure that has provided employment to thousands of people who, were they to be engaged in the same work in the 1980s, would have been doing it substantially as voluntary work, dole fiddling and agitprop protest; that has given the creative arts a strong and relevant presence in school and higher education, the tourism and heritage industries and healthcare; and that played a significant part in promoting the economic regeneration of several of the UK’s great industrial cities. Except it’s not even the beginning. The squeeze on the arts began in earnest in 2007/8. The charity of which I am chair of trustees, Black Arts Alliance (now NBAA) was savaged by a loss of Arts Council funding in 2009 and I can testify that the effort to keep an organisation with a quarter century’s history alive from one month to the next involves such a drain on individual lives, such a letting of blood, I’m looking around me to see if Hakan from Let The Right One In isn’t lurking with a huge jug…

So the portfolio organisations – the one who made the cut, albeit many with depleted resources – will now bear a greater burden to keep the arts as strong as they have been over the last two decades (since Thatcher left office and the ideological shackles on public policy were loosened; the European Union started to address what the last lot of Tories wouldn’t touch in our inner cities; and the good PR needed to safeguard the National Lottery as an income generator for the Treasury resulted in more liberal arts funding) but they’ll start to look around and find fewer partners for their projects, fewer grassroots organisations developing fewer new artistic voices, even more sporadic awareness of creative art promoted in schools and far fewer consumers prepared to pay the price diminished subsidies will add.

Really, for a writer, it’s inspiring: it’s a dystopian future with the flick of a switch. We may have lost our outlets for telling our story but here and now, there’s a story to tell.

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