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It was reading Stephen King’s On Writing that first put me on to the issue of whether I was a ‘putter in’ or ‘taker out’. I hadn’t been all that conscious of it before then, and the assumption I’d made, I suspect, was that I ought to be a taker out, and probably wasn’t taking enough out.
In fact, once I started to take notice, I soon realised I was a putter in. I do take out as well. Most of us, I suspect, do both, but most of us, I suspect too, do one significantly more often, and probably at different stages in the process, than the other.
I’ve run workshops on self-editing, and they have been based, when I think back, on ideas about what you should look for to take out: unnecessary repetitions, authorial haverings – ‘almosts’, ‘nearlies’, ‘not quites’ and similar litter my first drafts – reassuring explanations of what I’m not convinced I made plain in the words they’ve been added to. But there could be parallel puttings in: repetitions that create an effect, for example, or explanations that signal or imply doubt.
Are the potential puttings in simply mirror-images of the takings out? It’s difficult to workshop self-editing for putters in. With takers out you can simply take a piece (I use my own to avoid the problems of offence, or of workshop members knowing the piece too well to be fooled) and mess it up. You have to chose a piece, of course, that you have good reason to believe is effective as it stands. When I have done this there has been a pleasing conformity about what the workshop members have chosen to remove.
Taking bits out of such a piece, and expecting them to put them back in is, perhaps – that’s the sort of havering I meant – is certainly asking more than asking them to detect superfluous rubbish and remove it!
I suspect that, until our attention is drawn to it, we don’t think about putting in quite as much as we do about taking out. reading about other writers we find far more references to what has been excised, than what has been grafted on. Most of us have heard about the cutting out of Carver’s work; many of the first thirty or so pages of Lord of the Flies being removed, but where are the examples of those vital accretions that made a dull story sing?
What do we put in, if we are putters in?
Well, in my case, it mostly seems to be what I might call ‘manoeuvring’ material: phrases, sentences, paragraphs even, that point up, or prepare the ground for something that is already there, but which seems to lack the punch it ought to have. There’s an old physics experiment, done for young children: three bowls of water, one hot, one warm, one cold. You know the idea. Plunge your hands into the hot, and the warm, by comparison, seems cold afterwards. Plunge them into the cold, and the warm seems hot. Context is all, and nowhere more so when we are telling stories.
I put in contexts that heighten the impacts of the revelations they precede.
Sometimes takers out may be doing exactly the same thing. And there is a third way worth considering that involves neither putting nor taking, but which is simply that of re-ordering what is already there. This too can work at the phrase, sentence or paragraph level; can work, as might the other two, even at the level of individual words.
As with any other technique we become aware that we are using, we can learn to use it better. Or at least, we are likely to find ourselves using it more often and more fully. I have recently been working on a story that I couldn’t get right. Re-titled, re-written about four or five times, its original version was just over one thousand words, the latest, just under two thousand. And when you consider that I must have edited out maybe five hundred as well, that leaves a core story of something like a quarter of the finished product! A definite case of putting-in I’d say!
So, in September 2014 Carlisle will host its own literary festival: Borderlines – Carlisle’s Festival of Reading & Writing
In The Writers Quarter, in the old city, north of the Market Square, on Saturday 6th, there will be a day of writing and reading events at various venues, including Carlisle Cathedral, Tullie House Museum, Carlisle Library, and Merienda cafe/bar. If you follow this blog, I’ll post more details as they become available.
The Writers Quarter is sponsored by LITCAFF
Followers of the blog will know that I have been reading stories from the nineteenth century and earlier.
Why would we read stories by long dead authors? As living writers we want people to read us while we are alive. Does it matter to us that we might be read after our death? The sculptor, Andy Goldsworthy makes sculptures that might last only long enough for them to be photographed. Are the works of dead writers merely dead stories?
Norman Nicholson, the Cumberland poet whose centenary is being celebrated this year, told me once that he wanted his poems to be like a pot – you could put it on a shelf and it would stand up on its own. Performance by the writer, he said, emphasised the personal, with winks and nudges and nods, and tone of voice. Without the writer, there is only the writing and the reading.
The pot analogy is worth pursuing, and not just for poetry. Short stories too can be that pot. Those of us who have heard our work read aloud by others know how different it can sound when it is truly outside our own heads, how different it can actually be. There are obvious elements to this: tone of voice can nuance meaning, tempo and volume will change what is actually heard. Listening to our own words in someone else’s mouth can show us qualities within it that we were previously unaware of.
It would be absurd, I think, to suggest that when the creator of a pot died we should destroy or stop using the pot. The pot outlives the author, and so does the story, whether he intends it to or not, but like the pottery, the words are likely to deteriorate over time. A pot may chip or crack. The glaze may craze, mould may get in behind it; patinas will come and go, precious metal plating might break down and wear away. In words it is meaning which loses its precision, or its potency, a nice distinction. Words themselves may become tainted by subsequent users, by current usages, random! Wicked even. Meaning leaks away. Birds might have tweeted in Dickens’ time, but not in the way they could do today. Metaphors decay the fastest of all, I suspect, needing us to know the qualities and nuances of both sides of the comparison to be effective.
Some pots and some short stories age better than others. They wear well or ill. And, as is the case with our pots, we probably don’t know, or even think about, whether the writers of the stories we read are dead or alive, unless we restrict ourselves to following the fashions laid down for us by the publishers and reviewers of new books, in whatever format.
If Norman’s pot is the right metaphor for the poem, and for the short story, then it is a vessel for the reader’s imagination, and for so long as the pot survives we may choose to drink from it, and as long as the story holds meaning, we may chose to read it, which is to fill it with our imaginations and understandings and to drink of that. Here’s why it is irrelevant how long ago the stories were made, irrelevant when the writers lived, or if they still live, or how long ago they died. Here’s why we would read the ‘old, old’ stories.
We took a trip to Caldbeck, d’ye ken? last night, to the Caldbeck Film Club, a flicks-in-the-sticks set up, where you can watch a movie in the comfort of the village hall without the schlep of being bombarded by advertising, and in the company of like minded folk – at least as far as films are concerned!
The film in the frame was Moonrise Kingdom. I had no idea what to expect, and had to think hard afterwards about what I’d experienced! It was introduced with the remark that Bruce Willis, who more or less stars, doesn’t smirk once, and it’s true. Worth watching for that alone, I’d say.
This film is often described as ‘quirky’, which seems to be shorthand for saying that whoever’s using the term doesn’t know how to call it either. It had the quality of a cartoon in some places, that of a graphic novel in others. Montages and set piece shots looked like the frames in a comic book. The incongruity of the scissors, hanging on a wall in the opening trans-interior pan of the Bishop household was not lost on this viewer, and I’m no eagle-eyed observer. And there was a shot near the climax that was almost a photo-still, where four of the main adult characters are head-and-shouldered in the hatchway onto the church roof.
The two leads, a boy of twelve called Sam, and the undisguisedly older Suzy would, in real-world UK – I know nothing of the New England legal system – end up on both the at risk, and sex offenders registers! Both would be well placed too, to arraign each other for sexual misconduct during their twilight years.
There’s violence too. A dog gets it in the neck, which the RSPCA would take a dim view of, and there are various human assaults causing actual, if not grievous, bodily harm by blade and pellet. Most of which, but not all, is adroitly ignored after the moment of action, by the storyteller. This is quite a profound film in some ways, but it is not profoundly realistic.
By turns it reminded me of Swallows & Amazons, Deliverance, and The Blue Lagoon, with a haunting echo of a C17th century play I saw on TV about four decades ago, starring Peter Jeffries and in which two misfits embark on a course of revenge, and love. I can’t remember the name of it, and am too old (or proud?) to look for it on the net!
Behind the innocence of their sexual encounter – Sam: It’s hard. Suzy: I like it. – there lies at the heart of this film the adult longing for sexual innocence. This is neither a film for, nor about children. At Caldbeck we were a mature audience – none of us I think as young as any but two relatively minor characters in the film. That may have accounted for, after a single aborted clap, the silence which greeted the end of the film. There had been chuckles throughout – intriguingly, not at the same time and from different parts of the crowd – so that silence wasn’t about not having enjoyed the film. Was it, I wondered, that we were pondering the adult sub-texts of this ostensibly childlike film? The last time I experienced such a post-projection silence was after a viewing of The Elephant Man!
For just over a decade, from the mid nineteen eighties to the late nineties, I suffered from writers’ block. I was writing poetry mostly back then, and beginning to get regular acceptances. Best of all I’d got into Jon Silkin’s Stand magazine, and Howard Sergeant’s Outposts. I’d published a small pamphlet with Howard, and he’d included one of my poems in the PEN anthology New Poems 1976/7, which he edited. I would wait more than a quarter of a century for what I considered to be an equal ‘success’ (getting a poem into Acumen‘s 60th anniversary edition in 2012)!
During the early nineteen eighties I worked for the Probation Service, in a residential setting. That was what started me writing short stories, though I had barely written a half dozen before that block kicked in, and looking back at their remains none of them were worth a light
The years of writers’ block were frustrating, unpleasantly so. I never lost the desire to write, and never accepted (certainly not with grace) the fact that I could no longer do so. Notebooks full of first lines that disintegrated into fragments are all that is left of that decade. It was a corrosive period, and I’ve often wondered what caused the rot.
One article that shed a little light (sorry, but I can’t remember by whom – get that M – or where) suggested that writers block is a consequence of boredom. Ennui might be a better word. Disconnection, perhaps even depression, might be the best.
In the late nineties I came back to life, having been threatened, mildly as it turned out, with death, and probably more importantly, having discovered the potential doppleganger identity of my pre-adoption self. Since then I’ve written poetry and prose, along with critical essays and plays. The re-engagement has suggested I am not bored, and also perhaps, that the re-engagement has been built on a focus on content rather than form. The balance between these two has caught my attention in this blog several times over the past couple of years, and I expect I’ll return to it in the future.
I begin to think it’s one of those sheep and goats divides that we rarely straddle comfortably. We may try to get them into balance, and I’m wont to advise students that when you can’t discern which dominates, then a piece of writing has probab;y got it right.
There’s always a lurking suspicion though, that I’m fooling myself, if not them.
I recall a review of that Outposts poetry pamphlet, but the late Geoffrey Holloway, in which he said that I closed a poem ‘with a snap’. I liked that. He’d fingered the precise point. I wanted my poems to snap shut on you, the reader. I don’t do that now. Nowadays I want you to sense the lid inexorably closing, right from the start! Both of those options are to do with form.
With the short story too, I’m still hooked on the sharp ending, though I like a metaphor we came up with in a workshop a few months ago of it being like noticing, finally, a knife withdrawn rather than one being plunged in. Where does content come into it?
I wonder now if that writers block was to do with the detachment caused by the five years of sad stories I lived alongside whilst working in Probation. The people I worked with then were not so very different from myself: they were the other side of a well defined, but often arbitrary seeming line. More importantly they shared the burden of the answer to their problems lying fundamentally in their own hands. The Service, as I saw it at that time, was not wholly believing in this. I remember one lost youth, and not a fool, asking me where he fitted in, having had it explained to him how his upbringing was the cause of all his troubles. No doubt it was, but being assured of that left him somehow disenfranchised when it came to finding the solutions. The incident has stuck in my mind these thirty years, and it was a turning point in my perceptions of what I was engaged in. That writers block, I suspect, may have flowed from the sense of impotence I experienced in dealing with these wrecked lives, against the background of a society, and in particular a media, that seemed wilfully to misrepresent the nature of the problem – fictional crime is glamorised; actual criminals are either demonised. I never bought in to the concept of ‘lovable rogues’.
For twenty years after I left the service I could get very worked up recollected its stories – angry in fact – and it is only in the last few years that I have been able to go back to those events and fictionalise them. The Tab, in Talking To Owls was the first of such stories that I could regard as successful, and I was pleased when a writer friend of mine picked it out as his favourite from the collection.
That the writer walks a line between too great a detachment, and too close a connection might be a cliché, but it is one that assumes, I think, that it is the content, rather than form with which the engagement is made. What we write about, and why, to my way of thinking, even if it is not immediately apparent from the finished product, must trump the way we write about it. For today at least, I’m tipped toward believing that the form is in service of the content.
I heard tell of two researchers, perhaps American, who had questioned whether or not Bob Dylan was a true poet. They’d looked at his lyrics stripped of their music. The conclusion they drew, rightly or wrongly, or indeed pointlessly, was that he was not.
I remembered this snippet recently as I was listening to Lily, Rosemary, Big Jim and The Jack of Hearts, from the Blood on the Tracks album. That’s my favourite Dylan Album, and one of my favourite songs on it. I wasn’t thinking of it as poetry, but rather as short story. I wondered if Bob Dylan might be a short story writer as much as a poet?
So, I stripped away the music, or put another way, looked at the words in my Bob Dylan Song Book. In the back of mind somewhere there was a dim recollection of an Alias Smith & Jones episode in which at least ‘the drilling in the wall’ featured, so a short story adapted for TV too perhaps?
The song is a narrative one without doubt, but could we view it as a short story proper, if there is such a thing? Perhaps I should get out more, but I stayed in, and counted syllables in the lines, to see if they were regular as poetry, and they were not. Could this be prose shoehorned into the musical line? Original research like this doesn’t come easy. I delved deeper. There are 16 verses in the book version of the song, one more than on my cd copy. I counted the words in each, and came to a total of 958. SO, a thousand word story, pretty spot-on for a contemporary short, but not, to my mind, in flash fiction territory.
Reading the text version it’s hard to keep the remembered music at bay. The sentences correlate too often with the musical lines. Maybe, I thought, if I copied it out in paragraphs, with page width line breaks, rather than musical line line breaks it would work differently. Are you kidding? I get out too often for that, but if you’d like to try…..
In the past I’ve inflicted Robert Frost poems written out a la prose on unsuspecting students… and Joycean paragraphs line-broke as poems. They were convincing. Poetic prose. Narrative poetry. The boundaries are fluid, or porous, to use a more modern metaphor, and the labels do the prejudicing.
As far as story structure was concerned, Lily, Rosemary, Big Jim and The Jack of Hearts, has it all. The opening sets the scene. There are little clues that tell us we’re in cowboy country… the ‘mirrored room,’ and ‘set it up for everyone’ do it for me. And everyone turning to watch the stranger enter is a classic bat-wing door moment. There’s a full cast too, with ‘thje girls’ and the ‘Hangin’ Judge’. If you want Judge Jeffries and a West Country revolt, rather than a Western, you’d have to give him back his ‘g’.
I’m stuck on the endings of short stories. I think they, for me, might define the form. L,R,B.J. & TheJofH has an ending that does the job. The last thought it puts in to your head is the one the story is ‘about.’ But there is lot more going on in this story than that which is going on in Lily#s head. It’s a story about The Jack of Hearts too, and about Rosemary, and, to a lesser extent, about Big Jim. And even the other cast members have cameo roles – the Back Stage Manager, and the Hangin’ Judge for example – that make me wonder – not to forget ‘the boys, who are doing the ‘drilling’, and then ‘wait’ by the river – if what we’re dealing with here is more like a novel….
Coppard advises in one of his introductions, to plot your short story through one only of the characters, and I’m not sure Dylan has done that. The title itself alerts us to four, and we explore to some extent, the minds and motivations of all those four. This is a multy-plotted story, with comparisons and contrasts, the hallmark of the novel, not the short story. The plot emerges from the sub plots bit by bit, as the four charactes are introduced, developed, and ‘tied’ off.
Several of the tracks on this album are narratives. There’s a first person one I particularly like, but here in L,R,BJ and the J of H, there’s a traditional third person, omniscient narrator story, which stands up, to my way of thinking, in words alone. The events, and the hopes and fears, memories and aspirations that drive them are every bit as interesting, and enjoyable, as the music that accompanies their telling. Of course, storytelling in song is perhaps the original form of the art, certainly it is a venerable old one, and the distinction is spurious.
Perhaps what we need is a fully funded research project to look at the issue properly…. then again, perhaps I should just keep on listening to the cd…
I’ve been working with creative writing students for the past ten years, sometimes at Cumbria University, sometimes with the Facets of Fiction groups that meet at my house. We’ve talked about, and experimented with the ways and means of creating characters, the methods and purposes of creating the locations in time and space in which stories sit, the development of appropriate narrative voices, and the stringing together of those sequences of events that often seem to be what stories are about.
We’ve looked at Beginnings, Middles and Ends, even though some people insist that they don’t exist. We’ve tried out ambiences and atmospheres, dialogues and monologues, and story threads that rolled forward, flashed back, and twisted themselves like anxiety ridden guts! But one element has received rare attention, though it’s hovered in the background of all our discussions. That is the issue of what stories are for – why they are written, and why they are read.
As a tutor I’ve always taken the view that no-one should be telling anybody what they ought to write about, but that doesn’t prevent discussion of what they have been about, and what they could be about. The whys of writing, and of reading, follow in that train. This might seem to be an issue primarily of fiction, but non-fiction too, and even more obviously, suggests reasons for writing, and reasons for reading.
Talking of poetry, the late Norman Nicholson vehemently asserted that ‘enjoyment’ was the primary function, and that ‘trying to understand a poem without enjoyment’ was absolute ‘rubbish’. My instinct is to concur in the case of fiction too, yet, there are fictions – Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Outer Dark’ springs to mind – to which the word ‘enjoyment’ seems a strange attachment. I read that grim novel with a sort of compulsive horror, and felt at the end that I had learned nothing useful or even revealing about the people around me, though I’ve no doubt there are people such as the novel envisioned, and probably nearby too! What sort of enjoyment could it give though? Eric Lomax’s The Railway Man, one of my five best books to come out of World War Two – and probably top of that list – is a grim read too, but its final chapters are uplifting far beyond the horror of the jourmey to get to them.
The clue to why good fiction is worth reading might be found in that non-fiction memoir. Here’s a true story of redemption; of the victory of the human spirit over the dark side of human behaviour. Fiction can seek to replicate that, or to challenge it. For many years I worked as a bookseller specialising in military history books and during that time read almost no fiction. How could a fiction, I questioned, stand against accounts like Lomax’s?
It is clever writing that evokes emotions through words, yet, even off the page, emotions are regularly evoked by words, and by the voices that utter them. The words carry meanings for us, whether they are fictional, or factual – and by factual I include the lies that are passed off as truths; by fictional the truths that are passed off as lies. The English short story writer, A.E.Coppard, was wont to describe his art as that of the liar.
Just as a bricklayer might construct a wonderful arch, a writer might construct a wonderful story. We might value the skill in the arch, the technique in the writing. Yet, we will value the arch more, I suspect, for its place in the structure it is part of, and its uses, than for the skills alone. Whether or not we do something similar for the story is not quite so clear cut. In fact, the apparent uselessness of stories, and poems, their obscurity, seems often to have become the element in them that is valued most. Most, that is, by those who mediate that obscurity for the rest of us. A.L.Kennedy, in a video showing as part of the Jack Vetriano retrospective exhibition at Glasgow recently, made the point that Vetriano had been despised by the ‘Art Critics’ precisely because he did not need such mediation. The critic is empowered as the ‘lay’ viewer is disempowered. If this is a process that has taken the (visual) Arts, it is one that has assaulted the written ones too. ‘Short Stories’, an introduction to a collection of them says, became popular when poetry became ‘too abstruse’. Short stories, I often think, are going the same way. The bricklayer’s arch is becoming baroque. We stare at it in wonder, not understanding how it stands up, or what purpose it might serve. The bricklayer thinks building houses beneath him, and besides, he would not know how to.
Homely Girl, A Life
This was the title story of a 1995 collection (along with Fame and Fitter’s Night) by Arthur Miller. To begin with it’s an example of those two nations divided by a single language, for the American usage of ‘homely’ has no real equivalent in english English. Ugly is a tad too strong, and unprepossessing too Latinate for everyday use. Our sense of ‘home loving’ is not part of the American package.
It’s also a story that raises the question of what is a short story. It can be ‘perused in an hour or two’, so fits in with that old Poe definition, and it’s nowhere near as long as some of D.H.Lawrence’s shorts, but at 40 pages in the 2007 ‘collected’ edition it is a longer than the average short.
It’s also a story that does what it says on the label. It tells the story of Janice, though we don’t get to know her name until the bottom of the fourth page, and I wonder what that does to a story – what it does to a reader’s perception of it?
Janice’s story begins late in her life, and flashes back to her teenage years. She has an unfulfilling relationship with her ‘first husband’, the glue that holds them together being an idealistic socialism that gets its soft edges knocked off as the thirties turn into the forties and the Second World War intervenes. Janice struggles to become herself, which in turn means separating from her husband. It’s a whole life story in one sense, in that we see her starting out on this quest, and we see her arriving at what she recognises as her destination. Gloomy as it is, and I found it gloomy, it is an uplifting story; a story of victory over life. Gloom and achievement seems to sit well together in Miller’s short stories.
A question it raised for me, was that old one about the balance between form and content, and which of those two are most important. Traditional lit-crit tells me they must be a perfect balance, but that if push comes to shove, form is what makes good writing. As a reader, I know that when push comes to shove, content is what makes good story. Yet, when content is thought to be good, the academics must tell us, it is only because the writing has presented it well. Many books are said to be flawed, and especially among ones that are thought to be successful. But are the flaws we perceive failures of form, or of content? Are they disjunctions between the two?
It was the movement from external to internal that caught my interest. Not only the reader, but Janice too makes this journey as one by one the political enthusiasms that have driven her life are found to be wanting. Ultimately it is her view of herself, Miller seems to be telling us, that offers here hope of salvation. Stories like this are not assessed by the clarity of their prose, or the forcefulness of their arguments, but by the extent to which they chime in tune with our perceptions of our own lives. This must especially be the case where we have lived through, or close after the times depicted. Have we learned the same lessons, and suffered similar disillusions?
Not only the times, but the time scale of the story might resonate with us. Here with have a woman over half a century – itself a rarity in the short story form – and if we have lived for as long a period can we help but make comparisons? Have we made similar journeys from the external to the internal? Have our relationships developed, and foundered, and been replaced, as hers have? Questions like this draw our attention to content rather than to form, but that in itself might not mean that the content has outperformed the form. It might mean the exact opposite. We don’t see the structure of the wood, for the trees.
I confess I didn’t find myself appreciating the purple passage here. There were no paragrpahs that I had to read again because they were so beautiful, no sentences that leapt off the page. I think Miller’s story is perhaps knitted together too tightly for that to happen, or perhaps I am simply a poor reader. Cast into 6 chapter-like segments, themselves internally divided in places by single line white spaces as well as paragraphs, the story remains undoubtedly a single whole. The phases of Janice’s life hang together, rather than form separate stories, and the last sentence, a mere two-liner, seems to me to carry the entire weight of an ending, and most of that, concentrated – for me the true hallmark of the short story form – into its final word.
I started at the beginning, and read through to the end, skipping the longest story, which sits in the middle. The opening story, ‘I Don’t Need You Any More’ tells of a five year old boy’s alienation from his family. Its a self-consciously Jewish story, and as a non-practising aetheist I found some of the issues hard to assess. Seeing through the child’s eyes I wasn’t sure where I was dealing with comic irony, and where with stone cold logic. The outsider has to second guess what the insider is serious about.
This must be a problem to some extent with all stories. They divide or unite readers into those who share, and those who do not, the basic underlying beliefs of the characters, and of the writers. We’re back to that favourite of mine, that what you see reveals where you stand. Yesterday (as I write) was the centennary of poet Norman Nicholson’s birth, and during the celebrations of that landmark I had cause to play a recording of him touching on this issue.
Wordworth, he said, was the first poet to make consideration of his own life central to his poetry. The argument went on that before Wordsworth writers could assume a high level of common belief, and experience with their readers. This was a consequence of the narrow class that was educated, and the narrowness of that education, and ergo of the narrow class to which writers spoke, and the narrow class that listened. Progressively, Nicholson said, that correlation broke down, leaving the modern writer – he told me this in the late nineteen seventies – to rely on their ‘common humanity’ as being the only predictable link between writer and reader.
We are divided, or united in our responses because of who we are, and what has made us that way. I’m reminded too, of Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Tuft of Flowers’ with its elegant reversal, at the end, of a maxim delivered near to the beginning:
‘But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been-alone,
“As all must be,” I said within my heart,
“Whether they work together or apart.”
Which becomes at the closing of the poem;
Men work together,” I told him from the heart,
“Whether they work together or apart.”
Here the poet achieves a positive note, bridging the gap, and seeing unity in division. Cohen, in one of his songs takes a grimmer view, turning ‘I will kill you if I must/help you if I can’ into its more negative opposite.
Back to the Miller, whose work did strike me, and cumulatively so as I read on, as being rather gloomy! Stories had a sort of wistful sadness about them; not the cynical world-weary type of sadness, but more a knowing wisdom, centred on the presentation of human dignity in the face of distress. An old man imprisoned in his senility in ‘A Search for a Future’. Tony Calabrese rising above his own selfishness in ‘Fitters Night’. In another story a famous playwright is mistaken for himself, and in the more famous ‘The Misfits’, Miller ends with a metaphor for the no-hope cowboys who are catching wild horses to sell for meat:
‘From time to time the stallion caught the smell of the pasture..[ ]..but the tire
bent his neck around, and after a few steps he would turn to face it…[ ].. and then
he would come down and be still again.’
Characters in fiction are not like real people, though we gain that illusion, perhaps, briefly. They have no potentials, no hidden secrets. Not merely what we know, but what they wholly are, is the sum total of the words used to describe them. Miller often restricts the negative, and hints at the positive – Fitters Night is probably my faouvrite example of this – so that our sympathies for them are not lost. There’s a silver lining to these gloom-coud characters.
I preferred, marginally, the stories in the earlier segment, published during the nineteen sixties, but reflecting the America of the forties and fifties. Throughout them all though, Miller shows a nuanced grasp of what we like to call the human condition. The situations of his characters, and the mindsets they bring to dealing with them call forth our sympathy, and also perhaps a necessary sense of frustration that they have not behaved differently – the same frustration, perhaps, that we feel for our own inadequacies.
The last story, which names the collection as a whole, ‘Presence’ was apparently the last that Miller wrote before his death, and it seemed to me appropriate, for ending both a collection, and a writing life. I can’t think of a single story of the thousand or so I have read over the past few years with which to compare it in terms of its story content. An old man visits a beach he has known in childhood. He stumbles upon a couple making love – fucking is the word Miller uses. He withdraws (no pun intended), returns later to find them still at it, and skirts around them to the sea’s edge. Later, when they have both gone, he encounters the woman, who has been aware of his presence. They talk, and swim, and she leaves, and I was left – as I think I was supposed to be -with the question of whether it had been his own past that he had recalled. The story is powerful, and unresolved, one of those stories whose job is to raise questions, not to settle them.
‘How strange, he thought, that it mattered so little whether or not they were
actually here if what he had seen made him so happy?’
There are only sixteen stories in the collection. Some sixteen! Dense, moving, and thought provoking, lifted subtly from the ordinary, but never into realms of the fantastic, this really is a good read.
The white page faced me down (it’s been doing a lot of that just lately). Then Eric Robson’s Radio 4 programme, ‘Provincial Pleasures’, I think it was called, came on Radio 4. It was about Norman Nicholson. Mr Robson will be at Bookcase (OH NO IT’S NOT!) in Carlisle on the 8th of January,(WELL WHERE IS IT THEN?) the centenary of Norman’s birth, talking about him. (BEHIND ME? - NO! AT CARLISLE LIBRARY! DOH!) Following (at 4.30pm to be precise) will be Kathleen Jones, whose biography of ‘The Whispering Poet’ has just been published.
It’s an excellent read. An easy-to-read read, though it got less easy for me, as we neared the end. Biographies have to end on endings, and there’s only one type of ending that humans come to, which is their final one! There’s a sadness in reading of Norman’s death for one who knew him briefly that is perhaps not so painful for those who have missed only the poetry.
I don’t know if there are tickets still left, but events at the bookshop will run all day long, with Kathleen’s the last. I’m not sure how many tickets are left for Mary Robinson’s and my little celebration later in the day at The Wordsworth Bookshop in Penrith. We’re kicking off at 7.00pm… so if you are a glutton for Norman, you could come along after the Carlisle events are over!
I’ll be sharing some memories of Norman, along with poems, and comments recorded by him, for me, at his house in Millom during the late nineteen seventies (I’ve made a small number of copies of these for sale). Mary will be talking about his poetry, and his place in the literary landscape. We’ll have a short reading after that, because part of our interest in Norman, and particularly for me, is that he gave encouragement to me as a young writer, and influenced, then and later, the way I wrote, and the way I thought about writing.
Entry to the Wordsworth Bookshop event is free, but please do ring first to book, as space is limited.
The Radio 4 programme covered the ground we have come to expect where Nicholson is concerend: the comparison with Wordsworth; his relationship to and with the town of Millom and its people; his chronicling of the decline of industrial Millom. Already though, the impact of Kathleen Jones’ book could be detected, broadening, and deepening the discussion. Answering Eric Robson, she ventured an opinion on why Norman had stayed put in Millom. I sense that a cosy fudge – there’s a thought – has been drawn over this in the past, but the book explores the possiblity that the outside world was simply too scary, and the nest that Millom had become, too conmfortable. Though not touched on in the programme, Norman’s relationships with several women are put to scrutiny as well, and will surprise many of us I think.
Another area the programme looked at was that of Norman as ‘eco-poet’, a term that did not exist in his lifetime as far as I am aware, but an element in his poetry that I suspect will be progressivley more valued as time goes on.
Running through it all was the issue, contentious in his lifetime, and still relevant, of London versus the Regional, of the metropolitan versus the provincial, of urban against rural. Norman was conscious of it, and fought against it. Being featured on Radio 4 though, isn’t perhaps a victory over it! I think it was Eric Robson (or it might have been Lord Bragg) who rather succinctly said, more or less, well, that’s what you get for locking yourself in your attic for seventy years!
You can hear the programme on fan-dangled replay stuff…you know what I mean!