I checked out a short video put out by Bare Fiction recently, on short story, and how to write it. Briefly, and perhaps obtusely, it seemed to me to be built around the idea that the writer ought not to know what he was writing about; merely to have an inkling of where to start. This is very like Pritchett’s ‘poetic impulse,’ but I sensed a significant dichotomy.

Is that poetic impulse one that leads you, as writer, into a search for something, or is it an impulse that is by way of a sudden insight – a knowing, rather than a not knowing? Either, presumably will serve, but they are quite different. Hemingway writes about the ‘iceberg’ of knowing that underlies the told story. Is the journey of writing one of finding that submerged iceberg, or about finding its tip, or indeed both?

The writer as explorer sounds to me more like the novelist than the short story writer, and this is because the novel is about that journey. The short story is about the destination, and the unexpected, often shocking crossing to it. That ‘poetic impulse’ is, one way or another, the sudden perception of the possible crossing. It is not a search for the route.

The writer’s metaphor for the short story was ‘a date’; not the stoned type – then again – but certainly not the fruit! Mine has become ‘the crossing.’ If nothing else the disparity between the two views suggests the potency of the metaphors we find for what we think we are doing.  My analogy, or metaphor for the novel is the cruise, by the way. And if for the writer it is a ‘date’, what will it be for the reader? Dangerously like someone’s holiday snaps?Or worse  – I  had this really interesting dream last night! (20 minutes later): Oh, no, you didn’t!

Picking up on the metaphors, both routes and crossings, they will be, for the reader, journeys of exploration – at least on their first readings – but they need not be for the writer. In the case of the short story, could that impulse be the finding of the crossing, leaving the writer to create both the destination and the point of departure? Or is it more like finding the crossing to a destination, and being surprised by the point of departure? The potency of a short story is in the connexion between the rest, and the ending. There might well be a beginning, and the end of a beginning, but the beginning is a function – to get the reader attached to the story. The end of the beginning might well be the beginning of the end, and thus the whole of that ‘rest.’ This is why short stories often begin, as a writing task, with their endings already in mind. Our poetic impulses might well get us there in ways that if replicated for the reader would be unconvincing. An example from my own experience would be the story ‘Rat Run,’ performed a couple of years ago by Liars League in New York. The story tells of an illicit, adulterous meeting in a roadside lay-bye. The poetic impulse was seeing two cars, parked nose to nose in such a lay-bye. I could have turned to the person travelling with me as we drove past and said, look, those two cars could contain an adulterous meeting of two lovers. The story I created was, I hope, a little more entertaining, though arguably no more thought provoking than the simpler narrative would have been.

There’s another element to the exploration/known destination dichotomy which is important to what we think story is, and what writers ought to, and can be. That is about whether or not we are communicating our own epiphanies, rather than sharing our holiday snaps. There has to be something about what we have perceived that makes us think it’s worth the effort of telling, and the time of listening – unless of course we’re at a loose end and writing to fill our time, and to waste our reader’s. Finding out whether or not we have a story to tell is a good thing, I have no doubt….but unless we have a story to tell…….Robert Frost’s advice, apparently, was, don’t write unless you have something to say…..with the addition of, and if you don’t have, go and get it!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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