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The Facets of Fiction course in writing short stories kicked off last week at Carlisle’s Phil and Lit Society, and threw up an interesting moment.

I had the group doing one of my favourite exercises: putting back together a short story that I’ve cut up into paragraphs – or groups of paragraphs. The purpose of the exercise is to remind us just how much we know about short stories already. The process of reconstruction draws on, and brings to the fore, our in-built ideas of what the beginnings, endings, and middles of stories ought to look like. Of course, individual stories often fool our expectations – whilst at the same time conforming to them. In retrospect, even if we’ve got it wrong, we can see that a story has done what we expected, but not quite in the way we expected.

Even if we don’t manage the reconstruction we do spend time focussing on the story in question in a deeper way than we might if we were doing what Edgar Allen Poe told us the short story was for doing: ‘perusing in an hour or two’!

The story we were looking at in Carlisle was L.A.G.Strong’s The Seal. This is a remarkably simple story, at least as far as ‘events’ are concerned. A woman goes to a beach, sees a seal, and sings to it. Her husband, a galumphing, insensitive sort of chap, blunders down the dunes to join her, driving the seal away. He does see it though, briefly, as it flees, and noisily enthuses to her, as if she might not have seen it at all.

It’s a story about their relationship, of course, but as we discussed it, it became apparent that there were different areas of interest on which we might focus. A single word in the story, used to describe the seal, had led me to one interpretation, but another course member had seen a much more specific reference in it.

For me, the core of the story was that relationship, and specifically the insensitivity of the husband to the wife. For my colleague, the seal represented the child that the marriage lacked, and, implicitly, would not produce. The two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, but on reflection, I favour hers over mine!

What was revealed, though, was not merely about the story, but about the agendas we bring to story as readers. I had focussed on the relationship, and in particular on what the story was telling me about the husband. My colleague was more alive to the woman, and to the lack of a child in the marriage.

Curiously enough, part of the discussion, of short stories, rather than of this particular one, had revolved around the issue of what stories mean to their writers, and what to their readers, and which is more important, and to whom. Here’s a good example, I think, of a story being important in different ways, to different readers, whatever its importance might have been to the writer. It’s worth remembering that we read, at least in part, and perhaps in the most important part, to see more clearly ourselves in the ‘mirror of art’, rather than to see an author. Put another way, what we’re stuck with in stories, is our own limitations as readers!

The picture below, by the way, is of a beach not a million miles away from the one that Strong might have had in mind, from a clue in the text!

Eigg on my Seascape

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