BHDandMe in his English Derby....

BHDandMe in his English Derby….

Picking up on last week’s blog, H.E.Bates goes on to say, in his introduction to Country Tales, that he found it easy to write his ‘early’ short stories. They were a ‘breakfast to lunchtime’ job, and written by – quoting Edward Garnett – ‘the facile devil inside.’

He goes on to say that to achieve his later stories required much harder work. He cites The Kimono and The Mill among others, as representing these later, deeper stories. I’m not a great fan of the former, but the latter is gritty and powerful without doubt, and my favourite, certainly in my top ten of all short stories, let alone those by English writers, The Little Farm, is one of these later attempts.

Conversations with fellow writers, and my own experience tells me that we all come to these change points in our writing lives, but whether we get through them, or think we have, into something significantly better is the test case. In fact, we probably go through several evolutions if we persist long enough.

A question might be, and I’ve raised this before in the blog, but it’s one of those questions you can ask over and over again, because the answer is always provisional, that of have we really got better, and even if have, will we be recognised for having done so? Perhaps, if we’re convinced, that doesn’t matter!

In poems and stories alike, I have often found that there are groups, sometimes widely spaced in the writing, over years, that hang together. Often this is to do with subject matter – content – but sometimes it is to do with the type of poem or story it is – form. Perhaps these represent attempts at moving to something better, or at least different.

Tom Pow, my tutor on the M.Litt course at Dumfries for a time, passed on to me advice given to him, which was, always, to ‘go deeper.’ Whether that’s deeper into content or into form, or into both, it’s got to be good advice, and it’s got to be the problem we’re always confronted with.  Working with students, and I see myself very much as a student in the context of writing, I tend to articulate the problem as one of having found out – to some extent – what you can do, but of having still to discover what you intend to do with it.

Reading through contemporary magazines (and my own stories), I find too often that what has been neatly expressed does not yet convince me of the necessity of it having been expressed, and certainly not of the necessity for me (or anyone else) to have read it. Even in anthologies like Hensher’s The Penguin Book of British Short Stories we can find stories that at first glance don’t seem worth reading, and at second glance don’t seem worth having taken the second glance! Just because something’s ‘good’ is doesn’t mean you’ll like it, and just because you’ve heard of the author doesn’t mean you should. We can get away with this purposelessness to an extent. Even a pot noodle, so I’m told, tastes good, though it might not feed you; and some dishes, taken cold or not, we can erroneously believe will do us good, by virtue of who has fed them to us. Yet there is no equivalent to nutrional value in a story, and way we say there is we’re using a metaphor. Stories are as good or as bad as what we find in them, though we may well often agree on what that is, or isn’t. Where we differ, our own sensitivities might have come into play, and our experience of own lives. I try to stop myself these days from making statements about how ‘good’ or  not stories are, and to recognise that all I know about them is whether or not I enjoyed them, and perhaps if so why, and if not, why not – I don’t always succeed. It’s good to think that someone might happily pass some time with one of your short stories, but it’s better, surely – don’t call me Shirley – if they have done more than that,