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The hardest thing to write, I sometimes think, is a story with a happy ending, which is a good reason to have a go. Here’s one I wrote earlier, brilliantly performed by Mushtaq, at Liars League Hong Kong’s September 2018 bash….

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

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I recently watched the 1968 film, The Swimmer, starring Burt Lancaster. It’s based on a John Cheever story of the same name, published only a few years before. I’d read this about a decade ago, and much of the detail in the film was totally absent from my memory, not surprisingly, as it turned out, when I got another squint at the text.. The premise, and plot, is simple. Set in a vaguely dated America – filmed in Westport, Connecticut – the hero, without much introduction, and already dressed for the project, suddenly decides to ‘swim home’, by using all the pools in the gardens of his wealthy neighbours.

In both original and adaptation, that’s what, simply, he does, and as he passes through the lives and parties of those neighbours, little shafts of light, metaphorically, fall on his backstory, so that by the time he arrives home, weakened to the point almost of collapse by his journey, we are not quite surprised to find that the home stands locked and empty, the ironwork of its garage doors (in the told tale) and its gates (in the shown one) rusted.

As always, similarities and differences between the told original and the shown adaptation fascinate me. Why have such changes been made? Why have they not? Sometimes it is to do with the differing agendas of the producers of that adaptation. The First Blood adaptation, and its follow-on franchise is a good example of that. But here, with Cheever’s story, filmed in the same few years as it was written, the differences seem to be more to do with the nature of the medium into which the story was being re-cast.

The movies, as the name might imply, are about moving pictures. The short story, written down (or even remembered) is about words and what they mean to us. Movies favour action, and actions, whereas short stories favour meanings and significances.

In Cheever’s story the descriptions of the actual crossing of the pools is almost perfunctory. In one paragraph near the beginning he crosses five in as many lines. In the film the camera follows him stroke for stroke, in close up, in long shot, medium shot, trick shot, and sometimes, repeated shot! A sequence in a horse ring shows him and another character – not present in the short story – leaping the jumps over and over again. In the written tale, the ring is by passed ‘overgrown’ with the jumps ‘dismantled’.

The film is a wordy showing of the story. The original, an almost wordless telling of it, at least as far as dialogue is concerned. At several pools people do exchange words with him, but the conversations are fragmentary and hardly ever developed, passing into reported or recalled speech, dissipating into further narrative. In the film, conversation dominates, often beginning with the written story’s openings, but taking them further. Much of the narrative is retained, but re-cast in the mouth of the protagonist himself, either addressed to other characters, or as if in monologue.

Several new characters are introduced, and existing ones are examined a little more fully. Notably the twenty year old girl -in bikini, of course- who accompanies him on a section of the journey, until his interest in her becomes frightening, is a pure introduction. And so is the lonely boy with the flute, at the drained swimming pool of the Welchers.

A told story takes as many words to tell as it takes to tell, but a shown one has to run for long enough to justify the ticket price of the bum on the seat. That alone might explain the additions, and perhaps the bikini. And the told story, in this case, seemed almost like a thumbnail sketch, a hurried tale, skipping over the landscape, and barely dipping into the pools, with the conversations as truncated as the descriptions. The film, by comparison seemed slow, with its endless repetitive images of Lancaster swimming, leaping, walking down tunnels of trees. Filled out with montage shots of woodland, water, leaves, flora and fauna, none of which, to echo Hemingway’s concerns, ‘belong to the story’, the film struggles to fill its minute count.

The hurried narrative of Cheever’s tale is packed, not only with barely described actions, but with questions posed to the reader. Why does Ned Merrill do this? Why do that? What does he think? What has he forgotten? And beneath it all hangs the question of just what is his backstory, and his future? The film is a little more forthcoming, providing a hot-dog trolley that he has made, now being used by his neighbour who bought it at a sale. In both versions we get the growing inkling that not all is as it appears, that he is not what he seems to be; that his popularity is based on a past that has gone, and has worn thin to the point of antagonism for some of those he encounters.

There’s an essay on Cheever’s story in The reference Guide to Short Fiction, published by St,James’ Press, in which comparisons are made with the mythic Odyssey and later versions of it. Film struggles to do internal reasoning, the posing of questions, and speculation as to their answers. The short story can excel at it. Here’s the root difference between the two, even when the story they are both trying to convey is essentially the same. The film, being more explicit in this, loses some of the density of the short story, but even the short story, respected as it is, left me wishing there were a more tangible context for the dislocations I sensed.

BHDandMe was (were?) at Keswick’s TBTL (Theatre By The Lake) a couple of afternoons ago (one of the privileges of being an old tosser) on a trip to see Sense and Sensibility.

I’m a bit of a Jane Austen virgin. I might have read Pride and Prejudice (but I’m not sure I have – if so it was sooo long ago). I have, of course, seen umpteen TV versions of it, which no doubt capture the events, but don’t, I imagine, do anything for the language…and even the facial expressions of people today are mirror images of the faces of their own time, not of the period in which the story was set, and written.

So I came to the adaptation of S&S without a clue what, or who it was about – and yes, TBTL has won me over to reading the book. If the adaptation can be this good, the original must be, well, even better.

And the adaptation was, is good. If you get a chance to go and see it, take it.

The cast was uniformly convincing. I never doubted they were who they pretending to be even for a moment. And what a clever story..though, having encountered several hundred (possibly thousand) stories over the last few years I kinda guessed one of the ‘surprises’ that the plot springs on us. It is a clever plot though, and the play brought that out. I liked the way there was a sort of graded version of ‘love’ on display…the sort that hits you like a hurricane, the sort that grows on you (like roses….?) and the sort that you miss by a long whisker and regret forever. I suspect most of us have tried two out of the three, and possibly the full set (age, now!)

My wife, who has been a professional textile designer, wasn’t too keen on the shiny fabrics – but hey….take a look at the TBTL website here, then go take a look at the play there!

On the subject of plays BHDandMe (well, Me really, with writing buddy Marilyn Messenger) have a small play on in The Studio at TBTL on Saturday, October 20th. It might be worth going along to take a look at that too (but Jane Austen it ain’t). It’s called Telling, and is paired (or rather trio-ed) with two other short dramas. Marilyn and BHD did a collection of short stories together a while back:

 

Here’s a thing…I didn’t realise this was going to pop up…but Reflex Fiction have kindly published BHD’s short story (call it a flash fiction if you will), Caught In Timehere

Or should that be, Reading as Writers? While not the opposite ends of a telescope there’s little doubt that writing can help you to become a better reader and reading, to be a better writer.

Mike Smith is running a six week course, starting on September 11th (7.00pm-9.00pm) at Darren Harper’s Carlisle Philosophical and Literary Society (Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Carlisle, UK), called Reading As A Writer. Using extracts from published texts, we’ll look at ‘close reading’ and what we mean by it, and examine how single words, sentences, paragraph breaks and chapters in longer works do their jobs, and what those jobs might be. We’ll also consider how the passage of time in fiction tries to re-create in words the experience of time passing in real life – and how different storytelling forms differ in their handling of time.

Course Fees:

£54 full

£43 over 60

£27 students/benefits

Booking via info@philandlit.org

 

BHD recently had a story accepted for an online magazine. They’ve taken a few of his over the last couple of years (.Cent was the magazine by the way, and when you go looking for it, remember that prefatory .!) This one, just before submission, was given a last-minute trim, or rather, a last minute change. It was only one word, but it was close to the last word, and it was changed from ‘said’ to ‘thought’.

The line, in its final version, went: ‘Me too, I thought’. The actual ending continues ‘and I knew the game was on again.’

The difference is profound.

The story is a first person reminiscence of a conversation, about literature, and sex. That conclusive line, a spoken line in the original version, a thought one in the published, is supposed to reveal something about the narrator that has not been revealed in the rest of the story. In fact, the story is the context for that revelation. But if spoken it is revealed not only to the reader, but to the other character in the conversation. By making it a thought the reader is invited to speculate about whether or not that other character has an inkling of the thought, and if they do, what is their reaction to it.

Other options have subsequently occurred to me. What, for example, might be the difference if the story ended: ‘Me too, I might have said.’

The key is in that ‘might’. Does it imply that ‘Me too’ wasn’t said, but could have been – which implies also that it was still thought. And what if it had ended, ‘Me too, I may have said.’? Doesn’t that add the further possibility that it had been said, but that the narrator has become vague in his admission, perhaps reluctant even?

Four options, and I’m still not sure which would be the best one, but the fact that there are four – and probably more – reminds me how important every single word is, and perhaps more so the closer it is to the end! It reminds me too, that the nuances of writing are dependant for their success not only on the finesse of the writer, but also on the discrimination of the reader.

You can read more BHD stories in Other Stories and Rosie Wreay.

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

I first read John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down about a decade ago, in one of the guest rooms of a posh hotel near Salisbury. It was a slim volume, dated to 1942, the year of first publication, and I suspect it had sat on the shelf unread for many of those years.

I’d never heard of the book, having got no further into Steinbeck than seeing the movie versions of Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Those opening lines, though, did the job that all opening lines are supposed to do, and hooked me from the beginning. It’s the directness, and the simplicity I think, that compels:

 

‘By ten forty-five it was all over. The town was occupied, the defenders defeated, and the war finished.’

 

The story stayed in my mind for years, though I forgot the title, until, that is, I was recently given a copy of the Penguin The Short Novels of John Steinbeck. A second read proved to be as enthralling as the first had been, but a lot of reading, and a lot of thinking about the short story form had passed under my bridge by then.

The story is as simple as the telling, and, considering the date of publication, so, perhaps, is the intention behind the book. The un-named town, in the un-named country, experiences occupation by a foreign invader, and far from being ‘over’, the story is only just beginning. Betrayed by a prominent businessman, the local Mayor and his entourage, along with a few named locals are put through the trials that Americans already knew were being suffered on Continental Europe. Similar, in some ways to Cavalcanti’s Went The Day Well – based on a Graham Greene short story – or the later SS GB and The Eagle Has Landed, it’s a story that can be seen as part of a genre stretching back into the nineteenth century and The Battle of Dorking and beyond. These are stories that warn not only of the new ways that wars might be fought, but of the consequences that will follow from defeat. Steinbeck’s tale though is not merely a warning to those at risk of invasion, but more specifically than in similar stories, to those who are doing the invading.

While the Mayor’s party suffers suppression, execution, forced labour and starvation, his invaders too suffer. The fight they think is ‘all over’ has only just begun. Resistance builds slowly, and they learn that chopping off the head of a ‘free’ people, increases, rather than ends it. They learn too, that what they have been told about being ‘victors’ is lies, and the truth of their ultimate defeat sinks in slowly and surely as the story unfolds. Its ending has the Doctor, who has acted as a sort of commentator throughout, and who is about to be executed, saying ‘the debt will be paid’. He is answering the Mayor’s quoting of Socrates’ reported last words, which were that a debt was owed to the God Asclepius. It is a promise that we know will be kept. (Mind you, it didn’t work after 1066). Steinbeck was sending a message to the Germans as well as warning his fellow Americans.

What struck me on this second reading was how like a short story, rather than a novel, it is. The collection’s introduction refers to it as a ‘novelette’, another of those vague terms like ‘novella’, that reveals a doubt rather than expresses a certainty. At ninety pages it seems too long to be a short story, but I ‘perused it in an hour or two’, which Poe said was the hallmark of the short story. There have been much shorter stories, and I’m thinking of D.H.Lawrence ones, that I have felt were more like novels even though they are in his Collected Short Stories. But wordage is not the key. Steinbeck’s tale has that directness, and drive, the focus, and unity that we associate with short stories. There are sub-plots and minor characters, but they are bound closely to the main story, and linked to the main characters so tightly that we never experience the diffusion or the breadth of vision that the novel demands. The town and its hinterland are never a world in which the characters can move in different directions, but always remain the pool of light thrown by a spotlight and around which the rest of the world stays in deepest shadow. The story runs like a tank, along its own tracks, laid down before it. Its ending too has the quality of a short story ending. There is no tying up of loose ends, nor the telling of what happened to other characters, but only the Doctor’s grim quotation as he and the Mayor prepare for their fate.

Definitions are often impossible – try ‘mug’ and ‘cup’ and I guarantee that whatever you come up with you’ll still eventually find a clear example of ‘the other’ that exactly fits it! But they are useful attempts to know what it is we think we are doing when we make whatever it is we are trying to define. My definition of the short story evolves as I read, and write, more of them. Currently it has more to do with how they work, than what they say: ‘a story that gives context to its own ending, enabling us to recognise in that ending a future, present or past state of being’ might be close to it! But Poe’s hour or two of perusal hasn’t gone away.

There are more essays on short stories and their writers in Love and Nothing Else.

It might surprise you to learn that I think of Arthur Miller (the playwright) as one of the best short story writers of his time.

It’s an opinion based on two stories in his 2009 Presence, Collected Stories. The volume was put together after Miller’s death incorporating earlier publications with as then unpublished extras. Of the sixteen stories the two that stand out for me are The Misfits and Fitters Night. Both are from the earliest collection (I don’t need you any more, of 1967).

The Misfits is better known for the film version, for which Miller wrote the screenplay. It was the last film made by Marilyn Monroe, then Miller’s wife in what was a disintegrating marriage. It was the last for Clark Gable too, who died only a couple weeks after filming finished. He did, though, see the rushes, and thought it the best thing he had ever done.

Compared to the originating story though, the film is lightweight. The difference is encapsulated in who gets to ride off into the sunset, and with whom, and why. I wrote about it in Love and Nothing Else, the second in my series of readings for writers.

Fitters Night, so far as I know, hasn’t been made into a film, though I suspect it could be. It’s the story of a man who finds his sense of self-worth. It’s a coming of age story really, because even though its hero, Tony, is a grown man, he is not a fully matured one. Set in a wartime shipyard, Tony, schemer, idler, adulterer, dreamer and malcontent, finds himself risking his life to repair the submarine defences of a naval escort vessel, due out on the next tide. The work is arduous and risky, and despite having and knowing all the wrinkles and scams that would let him off the hook of having to do it, Tony finds that he has an integrity that enables, perhaps demands, that he should fulfil his role in the war effort.

What lifts this story above a simple personal victory for me though, is that it seems also to be a story about what, presumably, Miller thought about America. Tony’s self respect grows out of the recognition that the young captain whose ship it is, is prepared to go to sea unprotected to do his duty, and that he takes Tony’s initial prevarications as the simple truth. The captain extends to Tony the respect that he assumes he is due, and by doing so calls that self-respect into existence.

It seemed to me that this was a story that could not have been written about English, or even British men in a similar position. There is no equivalence, that I am aware of, in the equalities between Tony and his Captain. I can imagine a situation in which a British Captain could confer something similar on a British fitter, but not one in which he would assume it to be inherently within him.

As so often happens, for me, Fitters Night is one of those stories that makes me want to re-write it, for my own culture, just to find out if I could make it work. So. There’s a project!

There’s a new essay by Me on Rudyard Kipling’s philosophical story The Eye Of Allah now showing on the Thresholds website.

 Other essays on short stories and their writers can be found here (or by clicking on the image).

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.