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At the end of a short story the reader is likely to be left thinking about one – or more-  of three things. These are the situation at the end of the story, the circumstances that created the story, and what might be expected to follow the story. If story is a journey, we might say that at our arrival we discover where we are, where we’ve come from, or where we’re going next.

Alternatively, those endings could be categorised as the present, the past and the future. In some stories it is quite clear which, and which only, is the outcome. An obvious example is Ambrose Bierce’s The Coup de Grace, in which at the very end of the story the name is revealed of a superior officer who is approaching, and has witnessed a subordinate against whom he has a grudge ‘mercy killing’ the terribly wounded brother of the former, and best friend of the latter. We cannot help but speculate on how it will play out.

In a story like Hemingway’s A Canary For One, a revelation in the last, short sentence  casts all that has gone before into a shocking new light which sends us back through the story, to re-evaluate and re-interpret all that we have read. Is this a case of a story that invokes the past? Or is it one that drives us to a deeper understanding of the present?

In Rudyard Kipling’s ‘They’ much is left unrevealed. This pseudo-ghost story, is one in which the narrator encounters the spirits of dead children, and of one in particular whose coded message, communicated by a ‘little brushing kiss’, brings him to a long, drawn –out moment of reflection and decision, and invites us to consider a back story that we have not at all been told. Only the fact that the ‘mute code’ by which this ghostly visitor communicates is understood by both of them and was ‘devised long ago’ gives us a clue to that story, but it is sufficient for us to wonder at it, and to question what events before those of the story might have led to the story.

Yet this powerful moment is not at the end of the story. More than a page of writing follows, in which the narrator understands what has happened, discusses it with his hostess, the blind woman whose home is visited by these dead children, and comes to the decision about how he must respond to what has happened to him.

The story ends on ‘’She left me to sit a little longer by the screen, and I heard the sound of her feet die out along the gallery.’

This, surely, is another of those powerful ‘minor key’ endings that George Moore said ‘all great stories’ end on. We are held to the narrator’s side, abiding with him as he resolves to put into practice what he knows he must: ‘never (to) come here again.’ This is the profound heart of the story, the image that we leave it on; the image that the story has brought us to. Yet it is not the great emotional climax of the story. That must be the moment of the ‘little brushing kiss’, and the tumble to understanding of whose lips must be delivering it.

Many short stories have this structure, in which the climax of actions is followed, diminuendo, by the anticlimax of reflection, or, as in another case, description.

I’m thinking of A.E.Coppard’s Weep Not My Wanton, a four page gem in which almost nothing happens, save that the family of an itinerant farm-labourer walks across an English landscape. There is a moment of high drama though, where the boy-child of the family, who has been remorselessly bullied throughout the story by his drunken father, for losing a sixpence, takes advantage of that father’s distraction, to pass the sixpence in question to his mother.

The moment arrives without foreshadow, a startling and heartbreaking revelation of the boy’s desperate bravery. Rebuked, beaten and bloodied, he nevertheless holds on to his secret until the chance comes to pass the coin to one who will not squander it on drink. It’s a rural tale, with all the bitter harshness of Arthur Morrison’s East End ‘Mean Streets’.

Yet the tale does not end there, but passes on, through the crisis, returning us to our almost Art Gallery view of the beautiful landscape that Coppard began the story with. Perhaps we remember his caveat to that opening description, in which he warns us that it is a surface illusion of calm and beauty. Again, as in the Kipling, we are asked to contemplate in tranquillity, but in the aftermath of a dramatic crisis.

The ending here might be described as a Post Crisis re-Contextualisation, but in the case of Coppard’s story the climax of events has served as an example of his first undermining of the idyllic picture he presented of Sack Down, not a refutation of it. The story is not really about the family, but about the England in which the stories of such families will be played out against such illusory landscapes. His is an ending that has us thinking about the here and now, in which, as the light fades, we ‘hear dimly men’s voices and the rattle of their gear.’

I’ve long thought of short stories as being, metaphorically, crossings, and of novels as being cruises. In the latter we have many beginnings and endings, and at those intermediate endings we think about the last port of call, the present one and the next. The short story has only one beginning and one ending, but it will enable us to consider one, two, or perhaps all three of those realities.

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V.S.Pritchett describes the short story as springing from a ‘poetic impulse’, which might, of course, be no more than the vaguest of hints that prompts a writer to make a start. Elsewhere he suggested that fiction ‘reveals’ what life only hints at.

C.S.Lewis in his writing on story says something similar. He compares the story to a net in which the writer tries to catch a bird, but in which he can only hope that the reader will see only a ‘flash of wings.’

Hemingway writes of a story needing only a single statement of truth to validate itself – and implying perhaps that without one, it can’t!

The three snippets, as far as I know, were written in isolation, yet for me they resonate. However interesting the events we recall or imagine when writing a story, what will be needed, to give that story traction and value for the reader, will be something within that resonates with their sense of what reality is like. They will be alerted to, or reminded of something that is hinted at, true, or flying in the perceptual skies of their own lives.

The writer might not know exactly which is Hemingway’s ‘one true sentence’, or Pritchett’s revelation, or Lewis’s flash of wings, and neither might the reader, but the contention must be that if it is not there the story will be fatally lacking – though it might fool a generation of readers (and writers); and if it is there, it will be sensed, even if not identified.

Hemingway also wrote about ‘holes’ in stories. He was referring what the writer knew, or didn’t know about the story he was telling. What the writer knows, but does not share with the reader, Hemingway seems to be saying, adds to the story, but what the writer doesn’t know, he is most definitely saying, will be leave a hole in the story that the reader will feel, even if unconsciously.

What is revealed is not necessarily perceived, nor is that flash of wings necessarily glimpsed, and Hemingway’s one truth might not be appreciated – but those three writers, and, I suspect many others that I have not encountered, are telling us that the revelation, and the flash, and the truth, are fundamentally what make our stories worth reading, and worth writing.

Despite having written some masterpiece short stories, even the mature Rudyard Kipling could turn out some impenetrable ones. The Village That Voted The Earth Was Flat I found particularly non-negotiable – though it made it through to the almost recent Hensher’s ‘Penguin’ collection of the allegedly best that ‘Britain’ has produced. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a few fat porkers in amongst the eighty or so ‘uncollected prose fictions’ – why not call them short stories? Even the included fragments, surely, are fragments of short stories? – very recently published by Cambridge.

I also found one that made me laugh out loud, and which seemed to have the hallmarks of what I have found so likeable in many of the later works that were collected.

On Signatures (By——-*) – and that asterisk draws us to the ‘note’ that kicks-off the story – is cited as having been published first in November 1887, with an Attribution in ‘Scrapbook 4’. All that editor Prof.Thomas Pinney can say about it is that it is ‘unrecorded and unreprinted.’ Written in the first person (even that asterisked note is in an ‘our’ voice, introducing the narrator: ‘Our correspondent…), the tale is in the form of a rant, sent, presumably, to the Civil and Military Gazette, in which it was published. The rant, is about the illegibility of the signatures that ‘greets me at the end of most of the letters which I daily receive..’

Kipling has his proxy single out several for our examination, and tells us a little about each of the people he speculates they might belong to. Not merely ‘hieroglyphs’, they resemble ‘three snakes’ tails and a set of triangles’, or ‘a felled fir-tree with a shower of chips about the stump.’ Others include ‘a big black fuzzy caterpillar on a boundless prairie’, and one is signed ‘Bd.Conar Cold Pork’, which the narrator interprets as a Lieutenant Colonel, of an unidentifiable regiment, referred to thereafter as the ‘Cold Porks’.

Kipling is playing on, and with words, and I got the joke, chuckling aloud at several places. Thumbnail sketches of the senders fill out, and perhaps inform, the perceived illustrations. Our narrator’s point though, that the signatures can’t be read, rings true, and especially so to someone of my generation, whose working life was spent mostly in the world of hand-signed, if not hand-written letters. My own signature has attracted attention, of the sarcastic variety, but rarely, to my knowledge, such inventive descriptions. The extent to which any of these particulars might resonate with individuals among his readership, we can only speculate on, but the general resonance is there for those of us who can remember signatures that we recognised, but couldn’t actually read.

Kipling rounds the story off, with the arrival of a letter to which a cut-out example of his narrator’s own signature has been affixed. It has passed through several offices’ from ‘Cherrapunji’ to ‘Aden’ – nine locations are listed – before arriving, and the letter within describes it as ‘the section of a fly’s thorax under the microscope’.

Technically a ‘flash fiction’ – if like me you take the definition of such to be a story that has the flash of only one turned page – the story is built not only around a commonplace frustration of communications before the e-mail,  but also on that very human foible of motes and beams in the way we see ourselves and others. It also has, in that ending, what becomes, to my way of thinking, the very Kiplingesque technique of undermining his own narrators, and by doing so, telling us something it’s worth us finding out about ourselves.

Yesterday I kicked off the lunchtime poetry reading at Maryport’s The Settlement, as part of a weekend celebrating the meeting there of Norman Nicholson and Percy Kelly in 1959.

I came home with the same question in my mind as had been there when I set off (and for a long time before!). That question is ‘what makes you – the writer – think it’s a poem?’

It’s not simply a matter of techniques, like rime, and rhythm, and alliteration, for all those techniques can be used in what is clearly prose. It’s not simply a matter of profundity or any other quality of content. Both poetry and prose can be deep, still and unfathomable; both can be shallow, fast flowing and limpid. Both, to push the metaphor, can be pools or streams.

It’s not simply a matter of the line breaks either……is it? Yet the line breaks are the one obvious marker of the poem.

Perhaps it’s not simply a matter at all, but rather subtly and complexly one; a matter even, perhaps of intention, of what we’re thinking when we decide to put in the first line break, and what we’re thinking in the aftermath of that decision.

The word ‘purity’ springs to mind, with implications, for me, of deep insight, and tight focus, and tighter structure. But I could say the same of prose, where I’d probably add, clarity, and revelation, but also, contradictorily, ambiguity and suggestion. Not helpful is the fact that we can have ‘poetic prose’, and think that an enhanced variety; we can have prosaic poetry – but will probably think that diminished.

Yet, the fact remains, though I have reached no conclusions, that I still, and often ask that question. The late (and great) Geoffrey Holloway once demanded in a poem, that we ‘ask the right question’, which here might be instead, ‘what makes me – the listener, or reader – think it’s poetry?’ But we still might have to put with not knowing the answer!  

I’ve running a course at Carlisle’s Phil & Lit, on how we might read as writers, in order to get some insights into how we might write! It’s not so much a matter of stealing techniques, as of noticing them as we read; of paying more attention than we might if we were reading for fun, and not really paying attention.

Most of what you might say on such a course is a matter of common sense: read carefully, but notice your own reactions to what is being read…and as k the question, why did that particular group of words have that particular effect?

An exercise I’ve used several times is to give students a paragraph or two of writing, and get them to score the individual words: for what they think is the emotional impact of them. Some words have none = 0. Some have a small emotional charge = 1 Some have a big one =2.

It’s a rough and ready exercise, too ragged perhaps to be called a system, but it throws up, nevertheless all sort of interesting facets of the way a piece of writing has been written, and read.

For example, you tend to get clusters of scoring words. They aren’t evenly distributed throughout the piece. Often they cluster at particular places, like drunks on street corners, with highly charged words, and a bunch of lowly charged hangers on at paragraph beginnings and endings. Sometimes it works the other way, with groups gathering in the centre of paragraphs, and leaving the change points bereft.

If you carry out the exercise far enough into a piece of writing, you might start to notice that you’re scoring the same words differently, and perhaps an explanation for that might be that the words surrounding them are enhancing, or diminishing their powers. There’s also the reminder that words, quite simply, don’t carry the same weight for all of us: the strength of their meaning is not set by the dictionary definition, but by the circumstances in which we have encountered, and used them. This is one element of language that the nascent AI might struggle with, and, presumably, might erode or even destroy.

The exercise is one that a writer can carry out on their own writing, of course, and who knows, it might give some useful insights into how they think it will work…..

 

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

 BHD had a story accepted recently. He’d given it up, as far as that particular competition was concerned, but then the e-mail popped in. Long-listed, and to be included in the forthcoming anthology! Well, whadya know, as Kowalski might have said, as BHD might have made him say.

So I re-read it…

Yeah! That’s OK. I remember the story. I remember the little moment that impelled it…one of those ‘poetic impulses’ I might try to convince you, which V.S.Pritchett cited as being the starting point for short stories. For some – including the intending publishers, it might be a ‘Flash Fiction’, but I find it impossible, and unnecessary to make the distinction. A short story is a short story, however short – or even long – it is. It’s a sequence of events that bring us to a statement, or question, or suggestion, what-have-you, that gains its significance from what has gone before.

But that’s not what I’m writing about. It was re-reading it, looking for improvements that might be made (which, though, the would-be publishers might not accept – competition rules often disallow a tinker or two, an edit!).

I found one word, repeated in the same sentence. Clumsy, I thought, particularly when there was a perfectly good alternative. I switched it in my copy. They can do what the hell they like, I thought. It was a minor change.

Then I thought some more. Actually, the repetition, using the same word but in a slightly different context, might actually be drawing attention to that context. It certainly draws attention to itself. My change might make it look neater, smoother, but when that slightly rough repetition snags your reader’s mind maybe it adds something to the texture of the story, rather than merely interrupting it. Sometimes it’s better to leave the thorn to snag the palm of the hand that strokes! (or the reader, to you and me).

When it comes down to single words it might not be so easy, or even possible to see which way the balance tips between two choices.

I was at a public rehearsal of Patchwork Opera’s Footstep a couple of nights ago. A multi-media group, of poets, songwriters and film makers, they had put together a story based in Carlisle (England), and which featured a poem by local writer Kelly Davis. A full performance scheduled for August 29th at Carlisle’s Old Fire Station.

In particular this caught my ear, because it was written in the Valanga form. I devised and named the form about ten years ago, whilst working towards an M.Litt at Glasgow University’s Crichton Campus.

The exercise wasn’t appreciated by my assessors, it must be said, but it served the purpose of allowing me to write a poem I wanted to write in a particular style. I had been looking at the pantoum form, and the way that lines repeat in a sort of ‘ripple’ down the length of the poem. That wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I wanted a repetition that would build, expand, like…I thought, an Avalanche! The poem was called Avalanche (originally, The Avalanche of Emotion…which was too much, and most of it wouldn’t need saying if the poem did its job!). I called the form Valanga, as a bit of a dig at the British (English? Establishment?) preference for Arts that aren’t home grown.

Kelly’s, to my way of thinking, successful use of the form, had resulted in her poem being taken for publication…but the editor had asked for some shortening…saying it was a bit ‘repetitive’. The editor, Kelly told me, was ‘forthright’: a good quality in an editor, especially if you are going to disagree with them!

The use of repetition is traditional in poetry (and elsewhere), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that use must be for tradition’s sake. Repetition can be used in several ways (some of which, I’m sure I’m not yet aware of!). It can render a phrase, clause, or sentence (or even a single word for that matter) meaningless, comic even. It can add emphasis on each subsequent usage. It can fade like an echo, or like someone leaving, or crying in a wilderness. It can explode, like an avalanche, progressively filling our consciousness. It can test a form of words against a variety of background contexts that will give them meanings totally at variance with each other. It can make music, beat, and rhythm.

In poems like Louis Aragon’s Ballade de celui qui chants dans les supplices it can be heart-breakingly powerful, where the opening refrain becomes an assertion of human courage, endurance, hope and intention against the certainty of death:

 

“Et s’il etait a refaire

Je referais ce chemin….”

 

….Which I translate as:

 

‘And if it was to do again

I would do it the same…’

…which I know is not a word for word translation. You can find the poem, with a word for word translation in The Penguin Book of French Poetry 1820-1950, which I strongly recommend to anyone wanting to write poetry influenced by our European tradition.

A similar power, in a quite different context can be found in Josephine Dickinson’s lament for her late husband. From the collection Scarberry Hill (Rialto,2001), comes the profound and moving Instead of Time .

Again it is the opening lines that are repeated, this time with a slight variation to end the poem:

 

Do you not hear the sea?

Snow still falls on your grave

(I threw a red rose)

The wind still blows.

 

This stark quatrain of simple, single syllable words beats like a muffled drum, and I have testified before to feeling the hair stand up on my neck when I have recalled it to mind, let alone read it again. The first time I heard Josephine read it (she stood tall, slim, silent and motionless as a pillar of dark slate) not only did I listen in stillness and in silence, but without breathing for fear of breaking the spell; and that spell was woven to a large extent by the repetitions of these words.

At the other end of the scale, the repetition of a single word or phrase ad nauseam can reduce an audience to hysterical laughter.

Perhaps somewhere in the middle lies that tradition I mentioned, in the provision of choruses to both songs and poems. Choruses bring us back and send us round again, like a merry-go-round fun-fare ride, like a marching song. But it’s not only verse, lyrical or otherwise. I’ve even attempted a ‘chorus’ short story, though it didn’t quite work out that simply (Last Chorus in Burton on Trent, from Second Time Around, 2006). Repetition is a powerful tool of more general oratory. Can you remember Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock asking his members if they were ‘ready for power’, and by that repetition generating a storm of response that some commentators suggested he himself was not ready for?  And what about the Shakesperian repetition that undermines its own ostensible meaning in Mark Antony’s famous eulogy…Brutus is an honourable man…?

THREE NEW CREATIVE WRITING COURSES FROM MIKE SMITH at DARREN HARPER’S CARLISLE PHIL & LIT SOCIETY

for all courses book through Darren Harper  via info@philandlit.org 

 

CREATIVE WRITING led by Mike Smith

Mondays, 7.00pm-9.00pm, 9th April to 18th June 2018. Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Carlisle.

£75 (£60 over 60/ £23 in receipt of benefits)

This 10 week Facets of Fiction course aims to give practising writers of prose fiction a regular input of informed feedback on work in progress.

 

AND

Further Into Fiction – a 10 week Fiction Writing Course

-designed by Darren Harper and taught by Mike Smith M.Litt (Glasgow)

Dates: 12th April to 21st June 2018 Thursdays 10.00am until 12.00 noon

Venue: The Carlisle Phil & Lit Society, Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries 18 Fisher Street Carlisle CA3 8RH

Fees: £75 full  (£60 over 60s/ £23 in receipt of benefit)

Description:

Intended for Beginners to Intermediate. Using a combination of exercises, tutorials and seminars I’ll lead students through an exploration of the elements of fiction writing: Beginnings, Endings, Locations, Characters, Storylines, and Narrative Voices among others.

PLUS

READING AS A WRITER

A 10 week CREATIVE WRITING course starting on 10th APRIL Tuesdays 1-00pm – 3.00pm

£75 (£60 over 60s/£23 students/benefits)

What can we look for in other people’s work?

What moves us; to tears or laughter, anger or compassion. And when we experience those feelings we can go back and see exactly which combinations of words have evoked them.

But that’s not all. We can also find out what can be done, and how it might be done, with plot, narrative voice, locations in time and place, characters and ambience.

 

Carnivale was written after my first encounter with Venice in October of 2016. I found the city amazing, I might even say awesome, if I knew the word. Right down to the window catches and the door latches, it caught and held my attention. What helped, perhaps, was that I was staying – for two nights only – in the north west, not far from the old Jewish quarter. It is an area of workshops and old houses, of decaying brickwork and all the narrative killing description that had to go into the story of Carnivale. The places in the story you could find, with a little luck (and that canal-side bar comes highly recommended), including the costumier’s shop. It was not open on the day I walked past, but the window, both literally and metaphorically, was a window onto another, imagined world: a world for which the word ‘imagined’ seems a pale representation. It was a fantastical world, and the perception that were you to dress in those clothes you would be changed utterly, and the world changed with you, was immediate and overwhelming.

It was that epiphany that I wanted the story to evoke, but also the realisation, that for each of us, as individuals we have to have the wit to see the gulf, and the courage to o’er leap it. (That’s the first time, I think, in sixty and more years that I’ve used the word ‘o’er’).

The Carnivale that you see in the Black Market Re-view, and, potentially in a ‘2017’ collection, intended to be published in 2018, is the 6th draft. It was a problem story right from the beginning – having to decide whether it was about Venice, or about its protagonist for example. And all that detail. It had to be overpowering within the story, but not get between the story and the reader. It had to be readable, yet the images had to be crowded in on each other. I wanted those narrow twisting streets with their four and five storey buildings, and their insistent detail, to crowd in on you – but not to the extent that you gave up on the reading.

Then there was the ending. A much earlier edition was sent out and got a useful rejection slip, with the sort of commentary that tells you it’s worth working on. That editor didn’t like the ending, wanting a more definitive one. I’m all for sharp endings, that stick it to you so you know where and how deep! But here I found myself wanting to leave it unsaid – to let the reader’s disposition tip the balance. Short stories, after all, are about the reader to some extent. How would they feel, think, and act in the situation? What would they expect their partner to do?

Later versions got into Longlists. Longlists can mean everything that was submitted – but in these two cases I think did not, and, like that helpful rejection, they can be an encouragement. Particularly pleasing about the BMR acceptance, was that it was made with so little tinkering required. A missing word here, a changed word there, a couple of re-ordered, rather than re-written sentences. In a 2000 word story (long for me) that was pretty minor – though it shows I could have paid more attention! In fact, reading through the story again did make me pay more attention, which is a curious thing. Knowing that someone is about to publish a story, sharpens the senses more than hoping they might, it seems.

Writing Carnivale came at an important time for me. I’ve been writing short stories for nearly twenty years, and two decades seems to me to be long enough to convince yourself you can’t do it. The last eighteen months or so have been a conscious last push before giving up. In fact, I’ve wrestled with the problem of just how to do that.

There has been a series of stories over that period that have been consciously different, at least in my mind, from those that went before. A series of so called ‘flash fictions’ also began to come to fruition during this time. Getting a higher than average proportion of them into print, with magazines, e-zines and journals, and perhaps into competition shortlist and prizes, might be a last gasp validation, perhaps, of that twenty year undertaking. Yet, the true, and proportionate success must always be that you’ve said what you felt needed saying, whatever anybody else might feel. You can find Carnivale in The Black Market re-View #4, here.

So the BBC had their man interview Tom Hanks yesterday, about his new collection of Short Stories (power to the man!)…but asked him how he felt about becoming ‘ a novelist’. Shades of Muhammed Ali – what’s my name? – but no blows rained sadly.

Today they topped it off with a decent short story on Radio 4 ….and you’ve guessed it….. ‘by the novelist…’

When will these people learn?

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a date for those of you in or near Carlisle, England: At Darren Harper’s Phil and Lit Society, Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Friday, 3rd November 7.00pm-8.30  English Short Stories between the Wars… a talk by Me (with help from BHD), looking at A.E.Coppard, H.E.Bates, V.S.Pritchett and others. (£4.50 members, £6 non-members). Book through website https://www.darrenharper.net/