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In The Modern Short Story from1809-1953, in his chapter on A.E.Coppard, H.E.Bates complains at Coppard’s use of snippets gathered into notebooks, from observations in the field – literally and metaphorically – and pressed into service as parts of his shorts stories later.

It seems a strange thing to make a point of denigrating. Why shouldn’t a writer record what he has observed and find a use for it later? Part of the answer may lie in Bates’ attitude to his own writing. I recently got hold of a 1938 collection of Bates’ short stories: Country Tales, ironic in its name considering Bates’ comments about Coppard’s use of the term, published by the Readers Union. An unexpected bonus was that in addition to the thirty stories, was an essay by Bates himself, on his own writing processes. Dismissing a description of himself as ‘a writer with a carefully polished style’, Bates insists that he wrote ‘easily. Quickly and light heartedly, often between breakfast and lunch’, and, quoting Edward Garnett, with ‘a facile devil inside’.

But that devil, allowing Bates to write ‘quickly and happily’, might be much nearer to those notebooks than is immediately apparent. Isn’t it the case that Garnett’s devil is really a metaphor for the unconscious memory – the mind’s storehouse notebook, accessed automatically in the moments of creativity? We may not know specifically where our phrases, images and metaphors have come from, but surely, they come from our recollections and interpretations of what we have seen and heard, and read, over the years of our lives? The way we access those memories may be more mysterious than the way we might consult a notebook, but is it essentially different?

I am a notebook user myself – which perhaps explains to some extent my instinct to defend Coppard’s practice – and I know from experience that the mere act of writing down a phrase or a scene may be enough to lodge it in what we might call a ‘ready access’ memory from which it will be retrieved without the need to actually re-read it!

This is more than just a weighing up of two means of producing a story. It has implications for the reader too. For the words evoked by my memories will not necessarily evoke similar memories in those who read them. Indeed it may be that they necessarily will not. Groping to re-live our experiences we write down words that will evoke in the reader memories of theirs.

Striving for precision in our use of language, as writers and readers, we ought not forget that the meanings of words are not as fixed nor as narrow as our dictionaries might suggest. Even where we can pin down to a single moment in time, and place, the origin of a word, we cannot pin down its meaning to the next person who uses it, and look at convolutions lawyers have to go through, to frame laws and documents that are intended to achieve such pinnings.

Meanings and words are quite different things, and we try to couple them as securely as we can, but its worth remembering that the story – or tale – that a reader, or listener is experiencing is never likely to bear more than a passing resemblance to the one that the writer intended to create. This is what gives the telling and receiving of tales its symbiotic quality, linking both writer and reader in a joint act. Neither does it require a death of the author to bring it about. The process of interpreting the words, both in their writing, and in their reading, or hearing, does that.

Watching a film, by comparison, is an act of mere observation and analysis. What you get is what you see. There is little to interpret, and no call upon memory to supply the images that words demand. By comparison, live theatre is something of a halfway house, with its ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.

Here we are, back again, at ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ – and the difference between how we process what we are shown, and what we are told. Language, by its very nature, is an interpretive process.

Coming back to Bates, he goes on to say, in his introduction to Country Tales, that he needed to move on from being a writer who sucked ‘the significance out of trivialities’, to one who wrote stories ‘drawn directly from life and not from imagination’. That would be, I suspect, life as remembered, or jotted down in notebooks.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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