One of the useful snippets that poet Norman Nicholson passed on when I interviewed him in the nineteen seventies, was that a poem should ‘stand on its own two feet’. It was, he said, like a pot that could be put on a shelf, and used when it was wanted. It shouldn’t need the presence of the author ‘nudging’ the reader into how to react, or how to understand it.

It’s not true only of poetry either. Any piece of art, sooner or later, will find itself out in the big wide world, rubbing shoulders, and jabbing elbows with the rough Arts. And when it does, it’ll have to take care of itself.

Nicholson’s assertion comes back to me every time I hear a poet (or a short story writer) giving us an intricate and involved introduction to the piece they are about to read. In the case of poetry this can sometimes, no let’s be honest, this can often be as long, or even longer than the poem itself. But it rarely does the work a favour, and sometimes, perhaps often, can be nothing more than a distraction, and an irritation to the reader.

We don’t want, and certainly don’t need to be told what something we are going to hear is about. That’s something we want to find out for ourselves, and if the poet or writer thinks we might not get to hear what they want us to hear without that little, or massive prompt, then maybe, yes maybe they’d be better think of re-writing the damned thing.

I was at reading recently. It was unusual, not in the least conforming to that oh so often state of ‘there’s no such thing as a short poetry reading’ – which the MC reminded us of, only half jokingly, at the beginning. What made this reading unusual was that almost all of the poets stuck to the two poems or five minutes whichever is shorter rules that we’d been asked to abide by. Of the few who didn’t, one gave us an introduction that, while it wasn’t really needed, didn’t do any harm, and another gave us a lecture on history so that we’d understand just who the character was that the poem would refer to.

In that latter case I at least spent most of the poem waiting for the reference, which, when it came, I didn’t understand because I hadn’t been concentrating on the poem, only holding myself poised for the name. Of course, it didn’t matter who the historical character was, only the part they played in the narrative, and the poem, I think, told us that.

What’s at the back of these introductions? Isn’t really just a sense of uncertainty that we’ve done the job; that we’ve said what we meant to say, and equipped it with the context in which we though it needed to be said?

This lack of trust in words doesn’t just crop up among writers and poets reading their own work. We see it, or rather hear it when great (or more often merely competent) literature is aired by the media. How often will we hear a perfectly good poem or short story accompanied by sound effects or music designed to tell us how to feel or what to imagine, in case the writing hasn’t done it. It would be easy to say, well, if it hasn’t done the job don’t broadcast it!

But the problem runs deep. Even well know, even great work, is often accompanied in this way: doors squeak, floorboards creak, car engines start or fade into the distance, in case we don’t understand the words ‘creaked’ or ‘squeaked’ or ‘started’ or ‘faded’. Music plays to tell us ‘this is a sad bit’, or ‘this is a glad bit’, as if the words alone, published, praised and sold-best though they may be, were incapable of communicating such feelings.

Curiously though, it’s a bit of a one-way street. It’s words these people don’t trust. Though even a world famous piece of prose or poetry may find itself with some classical music or other sound effect playing in the background, you’ll never hear a piece of classical music with some writer burbling away just above the threshold of audibility behind it; think Holst’s Mars, with Churchill’s ‘fight them on the beaches’ rumbling away not quite subliminally in the background, just so we know it’s about warfare.

At that poetry reading, the fact that most of the poets just got on with it and did what we were there to hear them do, meant that the show didn’t run over time. It was, in fact, that rare thing, a short poetry reading, and by half time, rather than craving the release of alcohol, nicotine, or the drug of your choice at the interval, we were all looking forward to getting back in there and hearing the second half!

Actually, there was one person, a famous academic, practitioner and critic – whose name I didn’t know and whom I didn’t recognise, who was said to have left at half time having finished his bottle of white wine. Perhaps he had a baby sitter to relieve, or a mirror mirror on the wall to address, or thought it was all a load of pretentious middle class crap masquerading as authentic working class angst.

And the second half ended bang on time. And, so far as I know, we have all lived happily ever after.

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Here’s a nice little bedtime story for you from BHD.

Moko The Monkey (and the iron collar)

 

When Moko heard the chicken squawking and saw it hanging upside down, its wings flapping wildly, he was terrified. But when his Master reached down and gently took its head in his hand and twisted and pulled, the squawking stopped immediately. Then there was only the intermittent beating of its wings as they remembered briefly what it had been like to be alive.

Poor Moko. He was so frightened, even when Master smiled at him. How could he be sure, he wondered, that the same would not happen to him? Master said softly, do not be afraid, little Moko, I shall not hurt you. But Moko whimpered and chattered his teeth together – which were big enough and sharp enough to bite off Master’s hand in one snap – because he was so afraid.

Then Master lifted up a dark circlet that hinged open and shut and said, little Moko, if you wear this silk scarf around your neck like all the other monkeys do, I will know never to hurt you, even by mistake. And he clamped the heavy circlet around Moko’s neck, and Moko lived happily, more or less, ever after.

My daughter and I recently settled down to watch the film Arrival. I’ll try not to spoil it for you, if you haven’t seen it, nor the short story on which it’s based, which we tracked down in Ted Chiang’s 2012 collection, Stories of Your Life and others (Picador, 2015 ed.).

The film was intriguing and interesting, and held our attention all the way to the end. It tells the story of an alien encounter and the struggle of two ‘scientists’ to devise a way of speaking to, and with the aliens – who are of benign intent – before the military men initiate an aggressive exchange. Running through this narrative thread is a sort of counter story, of the scientists’ relationship, a story that is told backwards.

The cover of the book carries a sticker that says ‘Now the Major Film ARRIVAL, starring Amy Adams’, which has one truth in it.

I enjoyed the film, but made the mistake of reading through the other stories in the collection on my way to Story of Your Life, which is what the particular story that became Arrival, is called. There is a hallmark to these stories, and it made them all a struggle for me. In fact, I have to confess, that though I read through the entire collection, and finished all the other stories, I’m not sure I actually finished that eponymous one.

At the end of its fourteenth page I made a pencil note no pleasure to read on – a contention which, I confess, I might not have actually verified. I have mixed feelings about that, but having just counted through to the end, and discovered there are 48 more pages, I probably come down on the side of being glad that I have a life.

The written story, or told, as I like to call it, re-orders some of the events, giving away something that the film, successfully I thought, withholds, but in its first paragraph gives a hint of something else that, because it is a shown story, the film is also slow to reveal. This is that Ted Chiang’s story has a sort of emotional deficit.

This is encapsulated for me in the question posed by the ‘dad’ to the first person narrating character and recollected by her: ‘Do you want to make a baby?’ He is, it must be said, a physicist, and she a Doctor of linguistics. Perhaps that’s how they talk. Perhaps that’s how they think. Perhaps that’s how they feel. Perhaps that’s why they do that sort of thing! (as opposed to? -ed)

The blunt question comes at the end of the first paragraph, in which the ‘mum’, who is our narrator is recalling to her daughter, using the second person voice, the night of her conception. This detached, almost forensic approach follows though in the thoughts and actions of all the characters – even the aliens – in the fourteen pages I read, and perhaps was why I gave up reading on. I had a sense, you see, of what to expect, for the stories I had already read had that same almost inhuman detachment.

The film doesn’t quite replicate it, because the characters are fleshed out, literally, and play their parts like human beings rather than robots. ‘Chiang’ a cover blurb says, ‘deftly blends human emotion and scientific rationalism…..in his trademark precise and evocative prose.’

I’m growing old, and may, indeed, one day, ‘wear the bottom of my trousers rolled’. Already my taste buds must be going, for I failed, friends, to detect that emotion in any of the deft blends that I read.

I spent most of today weeding a small, gravel car-parking area. It’s the sort of job, as a writer, I rather like. It’s the length of time it takes, I suppose, that I find most useful. It kept my head down for several hours, and while I was working I was listening to some voices in my head.

They were telling, or rather acting out, a story. They often do, when I’m engaged in long drawn-out tedious jobs in the garden. Sometimes they narrate the stories. Sometimes they perform them. Sometimes it’s the same story over and over again, until I’ve heard it from several points of view, and in several different voices. Sometimes the point of the story changes from telling to telling, from enactment to enactment. Sometimes the actual events come out in a different order, or different characters pop-up. Eventually the story settles down into one that I can think about taking home with me, and writing down.

We all have our processes. That’s one of the useful ones of mine….and at least it gets the gardening done, even when the story’s no good!

Of Mice and Men: the Short Fiction of John Steinbeck

I’ve been looking back over old stories, written over the past twenty years. Twenty years should be long enough to decide whether or not you can write short stories, but that’s another issue.
One of the stories I came across, from about fifteen years ago, wasn’t so short. In fact it was, is (probably) a novel, and stands at just under 48,000 words. Set in the eighteenth century youth, and early nineteenth century old age of its main protagonist, and told with the later period first, and with a Cadenza set in the middle years, it might be called a historical novel.
I certainly did quite a bit of reading around the two periods. It’s also set in Scotland – a place I know quite well, but don’t come from – and America, which I’ve never visited except on Radio and TV and in the movies.
Of course, it doesn’t matter where we come from. None of us have visited 1758 or 1803, or indeed 1774, except in the words and left over artefacts of people long dead and whom we never met, and of others who have passed on or interpreted those sources, second, third and umpteenth hand.
The past, as that oft quoted novel opening tells us, ‘is a foreign country’, and it is one that we are all, at any given moment, the same distance away from.
It’s our ideas about the past that change, and are changed by those accounts though, whereas what we want our stories to be about, even when they are historical, is, I suspect, largely influenced by the responses we have had, and are having at the time of needing to write, to events in our own lives.
Re-reading the story reminded me that though it was rejected a couple of times, I still like it. It reminded me too, that I haven’t given it the repeated opportunities for rejection that a story is entitled to! This last week I spent several hours taking out the speech marks. The fact that they are in there makes it a ‘very old’ story in my popgun (canon – ed.).
The time it has spent sitting unread in my metaphorical drawer has given me some distance. That has produced a mixed result. For one thing I know I couldn’t write it now. I couldn’t re-write it, though I could ‘correct’ it where it seems to veer off from the way it was written back then. Taking out the speech marks led to one or two other tweaks, but it’s not just a matter of style or technique. There’s an underlying narrative voice, and voice is the expression of a state of mind. I could slip back into it, for the purposes of repairs, but it’s a state of mind I don’t live in anymore. Perhaps that is because, when I did, I wrote this story.
So the next question is, do I put it back in the drawer, or do I let it gather a few more rejections? Now there’s something for you to consider.

One of the things about futuristic stories is that so many of them are written in the hope that the real future won’t pan out that way! Here’s another BHD micro-peek into the gloom….

Trading Nations

Clearing out the redundant barn he came across a pile of hardboard placards nailed to old fence-posts, netted with cobwebs, padded with mats of dead leaves blown in from the yard. They dated from a time when his father had been young and radical, and had campaigned against air-miles. ‘Support Your Local Farms’ they said in carefully stencilled black letters which had not faded in the cool dry gloom of the old building.

He gathered them up and carried them awkwardly out to where the old man was using the front-loader to push mounds of rubbish and junk into the heart of a huge bonfire.

I guess we won’t be needing these again, he said.

His father, up there in the cab, couldn’t have heard, what with the roaring of the fire and the crackling of the burning timber, but he grimaced momentarily, recognising what his son was throwing to the flames. Old tyres that really should have been taken to the tip were sending up tornados of thick black smoke and orange sparks were flying out and dying against the pale concrete of the yard.

They had just signed over the farm to a company that would take their whole milk production for sale solely overseas, and which had already contracted both the neighbouring farms.  It was a once in a life-time chance, and would make the family secure for a generation.

It’s been a week or more since I last posted on the blog. Here’s something worth blogging about:

Six of us circumnavigated Ullswater Lake in the English Lake District yesterday. We started at Pooley Bridge at eight in the morning, and arrived back, 21 miles (or 25, according to various mobile devices) and eleven and a quarter hours later. The rain poured only until around four o’clock in the afternoon.

We were doing this as a way of inducing people to donate to the Mental Health Charity MIND. Perhaps it will induce you! Here’s the link to our Just Giving page, Ullswater Mind Your Step.

I’m playing hooky this weekend, so here’s a Sunday short story from about five years ago, that I’m not sure what I ever did with, if anything, or what I might do….

 

Backstories

 

Rose put down the tea cup and reassured herself that they were alone.

The fact is dear, she said, Sylvia needs to be put in her place from time to time.

Marjorie flushed.

Does she?

Well, you must notice, being….Rose stopped herself in time. She had been about to say uneducated, but that wasn’t quite what she meant, besides, it wasn’t entirely true. Unimportant  might seem  rude, and that wasn’t true either, entirely . I mean, she added, she does bang on a bit, doesn’t she?

About what?

Her academic career, that’s what. She’s always reminiscing about her students.

I think she liked them.

Well, perhaps she did. Rose picked up the tea cup, raised it to her lips and realised it was empty. She put it down again.

I shouldn’t have thought that would worry you, Rose, considering.

That me… that Charles and I met at Cambridge?

Yes.

Well. But one doesn’t want to pull rank, does one? Rose delicately pushed her cup and saucer forward a little, and Marjorie poured more tea.

There had been an exchange, in the community shop, between Sylvia and Rose, in which the word ‘redbrick’ had been used. Marjorie hadn’t entirely understood, but she could recognise a put down as well as the next person, even when it didn’t involve home baking. She had poured oil on troubled waters, almost literally, dropping a bottle of extra virgin, which luckily had not smashed.

She had resolved to make sure that Rose and Sylvia did not share stints unless absolutely unavoidable, and she would put Bob in with them as she knew he liked the attendant flirting. Generally, of course, it was not necessary to have two in the shop at the same time, and three was always a pinch, but Bob organised the stock control. He had been an executive and knew about that sort of thing. He was awkward with the actual customers, but with him in the stock room at the back Rose would be reduced to simpering rather than sniping.

I don’t think Sylvia would be upset if you talked more about your old students, Marjorie offered. Rose was remarkably reticent to talk about her university days.

I don’t expect she would, she said.

Milk? Rose nodded a thank you, and Marjorie topped her up. Rose drank daintily, her little finger crooked.

It was surprising, Marjorie thought, how easily Rose had picked up the operations of the till, which all the other volunteers, including Sylvia, had struggled with. She put that down to Cambridge, which, coincidentally, was correct. Yet the image of a younger Rose, seated at the checkout of a supermarket, her bony knees protruding from beneath the hem of a blue overall, her name badge tilted at an acute angle on her prominent bosom, had, unaccountably, popped into Marjorie’s mind from time to time.

We met when Charles and I were both at Cambridge, Rose had announced soon after arriving in the village.

What were you doing there? Marjorie had asked.

Of course, Charles had left school before me and was in his second year when I arrived, she had replied, and then she passed on to complimenting Marjorie on the Dundee cake. Did you make it yourself? Delightful.

Sylvia had taken a different approach.

I used to work with young people, wonderful young people, from all over the world.

What sort of work?

Oh, teaching, you know, that sort of thing.

It had been months before the word university had popped out, and shortly after that Marjorie’s husband had walked in with a battered old textbook he’d found in a local second-hand bookshop, saying, our Sylvia’s a doctor, would you believe?

A doctor?

Not a medical one. She’s a doctor of philosophy. He had handed over the book, splayed open at the front page, with a black and white photograph of a much younger Sylvia peering out.

What a sly old thing you are, Marjorie had said next time they met.

Not as sly as some, Sylvia had replied.

 

 

When I had Leukaemia the haematologist made an interesting comment about how we label diseases. We could, he said, refer to the one I had as a cancer of the bone marrow. It all depended on whether you were labelling it for the similarities with other diseases, or the differences from them.

That’s a useful idea for a writer, and perhaps for a reader. Short stories, for example, must have that something in common with each other that makes us want to attach that label to them. It’s a something we might spend a long time trying to identify and put its own label on, but we know it’s there. Perhaps it’s a single quality, perhaps a particular combination. We instinctively recognise a long story as being either a long short story, or as being a short novel. We might even confuse ourselves a little with that ill-defined shape-shifter, the novella. Only yesterday, at a poetry symposium in Carlisle, the issue of defining flash fictions came up, in relation to prose poems (whatever they are). It wasn’t illuminating.

Digging down, or zooming in (or metaphor of your choice) we can also identify sub-types of short story, in fact of stories in general, and two of them might be, those written as first person narratives, and those not so. There is also a genre of first person accounts that we would think of a stories, but which are not fictions. But how different are they from fictional first person accounts?

It’s not as if one has an author and the other does not. It might not be so different even, from the perspective of the author’s connection to the events in the story. Many a fictional tale – to my knowledge – includes the description and evocation of events and feelings that were actually experienced, or perhaps witnessed by the author and which have been re-ordered, moulded and mixed in with other events from elsewhere and other times.

It’s not about factual accounts or fictional ones having different trajectories, in fact, we might argue that fictional accounts often follow the trajectories of real life as part of their striving for credibility.

And authors of fact, writing in the first person, can often be just as committed to giving a particular slant to the account of a sequence of events, and to the motivations of the characters involved in them as any fiction writer might want to be. Fiction writers, on the other hand, might be taken by surprise at the way their stories develop, just as we in our real lives might be surprised at what pops up next in our own, real stories (see first sentence -Bhdandme).

Reading a first person memoir of a fifties childhood recently, I was struck by a sense of the author not realising quite what had been said. Written as a fond memory of time past, it came over, to me at least, as a devastating critique of the blind-spots and prejudices of those times.

A few years back at popular TV sit-com inserted a real-life charity appeal into one of its shows, causing a flutter of varying responses in the audience. This ranged from enthusiastic approbation to outrage. I can remember feeling uneasy that some sort of line had been crossed, a taboo broken. It wasn’t that the charity in question was in some way undesirable, quite the opposite in fact, yet I had the sense that something had been transgressed by the inclusion in an otherwise light-hearted, but insightful fiction.

Perhaps, though, both that incident, and the response to it, give us a clue about the real difference between the factual and the fictional first person narrative, and it might have nothing to do with the writer, or indeed the writing. Rather, the distinction could be in the mind of the reader, who feels that the invitation being made is different in the case of a memoir to that of a fictional story. However realistic the fiction, however fanciful the memoir, we are being asked to do some different in the two cases when we are asked to read them.

In the case of fiction, in addition to that ‘suspension of disbelief’ we are being asked to speculate and imagine; in the factual account we will understand, and perhaps, inevitably, judge. In fictions we look for and find truths. In facts, we know deceptions and authorial self-deceptions, are hidden.