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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:

 

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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.

Robert Frost famously, well, perhaps not famously but certainly reportedly, in the biography of him that I read a few years ago, advised his students not to write ‘unless you have something to say.’ I’ve cited the quotation before, but I come back to it again and again. It has a rider that changes what you might have thought of as its rather unhelpful finality: if you haven’t got something, he would, apparently, add, ‘go and get it’.

Having something to say seems to me to be an entirely laudable reason for writing, and trying to get it said might well be a long job, involving many attempts that either end up saying not quite what was intended, or failing completely. But there comes a time, I’ve found, when, only occasionally, one finds oneself, or to put it more bluntly, when I’ve found myself feeling that I have said what I had to say, and that consequently the tank is dry, the larder empty, the cupboard bare, and all other similar metaphors.

It’s an unpleasant place to find yourself, especially after that moment of euphoria when you first begin to think that you’ve nailed something (other than your literary thumb). I’ve experienced it in a couple of genres, I think – one can never be sure about these things – and certainly in poetry. It hasn’t stopped me writing poems, but it sure did slow me down. It was nearly ten years ago when the drowning of three boys in Ullswater challenged me to be a poet who wrote about something that mattered, or not. The Ullswater Requiem took several months to evolve, and I’m sure I’ve told the story elsewhere. But after it was finished, far from being the spur to a flurry of other poems, it created a sort of hiatus. I came to a stop. What else was there to say that I could say that would stand up to comparison with it?

To feel like that didn’t require anybody else to endorse my assessment of UR. It was, I knew, whatever reception it got, or whatever anybody else thought about it, simply the best thing I had written; the best thing that I had conceived of writing. I still feel like that about it, whatever level the poem stands at in relation to other people’s best or worst. It took some time to recover any sense that it was worth me trying to write anything else.

A similar thing happened to me on the way to this blog post. Nearly two years ago now, I wrote a couple of flash fictions, and then a short story (short enough to be regarded as flash fiction by some definitions) which had a similar resonance for me. One of the flash fictions (perhaps the starting point, and the least developed) has been published. The other pieces still have not, and, I suspect, might be impossible to place for a variety of reasons. A good friend and valued critic panned absolutely the one that I see as the pinnacle of the trio, yet, yet, for me it remains a high point: the high point when it comes to what I might have to say.

I’ve suggested to students before now that success as a writer is something that has, or has not, already happened when you put down the pen, or close the keyboard. Public, or private approbation, publication, is only the recognition of that already accomplished success. Success in sales, or celebrity is an entirely different matter, as Gerard Manley Hopkins or Nathaniel West might testify.

So.

At the moment I’m wondering what to write that will advance what I perceive as my writing trajectory. I’d be tempted to say that it is ‘no easy place’, but I said that back in 2004, in a poem that provided the title of a now out-of-print 2005 collection (the poem, In My Claude Glass, was included in the Maryport Writers anthology New Stories for Old Stones).

I’ve just finished reading Karen Blixen’s short stories, The Diver, and The Ring, two of the five stories in Babette’s Feast & Other Stories in the Penguin Modern Classics series. The back-cover blurb tells me that they were among her late stories.

They have the assuredness of stories by a writer who knows what is being done. Mythical, magical is a word that both the blurb and foreword use, and complex the stories, like the woodland glade in The Ring seem at the same time specific and diffuse.

A heightened, perhaps archaic voice, though it’s hard to tell with translations, if that’s what they are, emphasises the mythic, medieval quality, creating a sense of timelessness though, rather than of any time in particular.

There was no good reason to read these two side by side. One opens, and the other ends the collection, and I’d read Babette’s Feast much earlier. Perhaps, yes, certainly, it was because of the remaining four these two were the shorter, and more suited to a snatched half hour.

Yet, as stories by the same writer, at the same period of their writing life might be expected to do, they resonated with each other, despite the superficial differences. The Diver purports to be a Persian tale, beginning in Shiraz and reading like a folk tale, until it reaches a line break, just before which a first person narrator is revealed, and in which the statement ‘ “This,” said Mira Jama, “is the first part of my story.”

The sudden presence of the narrator surprises, though the story opened with ‘Mira Jama told this story:’ Which does not make explicit that he is actually telling it in the present moment of the reader reading!

That first part has concerned a young man of religious fervour who has created wings by which men might fly among and meet with angels. This has frightened the old men of the city, who have contrived a trap for him: the beautiful dancer Thusmu, who seduces him, passing herself off as an angel, but who then falls in love with him and confesses her deceit.

The second part of the story is not directly about the young man, but about Mira Jama himself, who finds him in later years, a happy man, who has come to great wealth, though he has lost his faith, at least in angels. He tells Mira the story of his life, and of his wealth, gained as the eponymous diver.

Whereas the first part of the story has concerned birds, and flight, this part concerns fish, and the idea that they are the perfect expression of God’s work, for they are ‘supported’ in all the dimensions of their environment. The story ends on the ‘maxim’ ‘apres nous le deluge’, which some of us will surely recognise from our school-days’ history as the prophecy of a French king. I confess to finding this a weak joke at the end of a strong story.

That strength, in part, lies in the conversation between Mira and the man, which touches on stories, and myths, and in particular on the shock that Mira experiences on discovering who the man, the diver not so much is, as had been. For Mira has sought him out as a source of story, not knowing that he is the same man who made the wings in what Mira thought was a story he had made up. This conundrum, like the impossible tangle in a time-traveller’s tale, where past meets future, is a knot at the heart of The Diver, and just before that final quotation it has been touched upon as the core of the fish’s philosophy, which has been told to the man telling the story to Mira: ‘Man, in the end, is alarmed by the idea of time, and unbalanced by incessant wanderings between past and future. The inhabitants of a liquid world have brought past and future together…’

Had Blixen ended her story there, might it, I wonder, have been the stronger story for it?

In The Ring there is no such false note.

Shorter by a half this is a simpler story, but it still has that segmented structure. A young, newly married couple stroll through their farmland to see the sheep. All seems idyllic, but ‘all the time one knew one was playing’. The husband is a farmer and ‘had studied sheep-breeding’, but his young wife thinks ‘what an absurd person he is, with his sheep!’

The cracks appear swiftly, after the opening page of married bliss! Worse to come, the two hear a story of sheep-stealing by a wolf-like thief, and Blixen makes sure we jump to the right image: ‘She remembered Red Ridinghood’s wolf.’ While the farmer and his shepherd discuss the sheep, and that savage thief, Lise walks slowly home, and looks for a secret place in the woods that she has stumbled on before. More than that, she is conscious of being alone for the first time, and when she thinks of that wolf ‘a pleasant little thrill’ runs ‘down her spine.’

She of course encounters the man: filthy, desperate, armed, injured, and having made himself at home in her special, secret place. His right arm, the hand holding his unsheathed knife ‘hung down straight between his legs’, and when he sees her ‘he bent the wrist and slowly raised the point of the knife till it pointed at her throat.’ The sexual symbolism may be implicit, but it is unmistakeable.

She drops her handkerchief which he wraps around the knife blade before re-sheathing it. Blixen makes a feast of this, ending with ‘it went in’. By this time Lise has taken off and dropped her wedding ring, and he has kicked it away. When she leaves the dell to re-join her husband her marriage is over, at least in her mind.

She tells him, rather than confesses, that she has lost her ring, and he, in a sort of denial, babbles on about replacing it, but it is the ending of the story that strikes the most powerful note. Asked if she has ‘any idea’ where she lost it, she replies ‘I have no idea at all.’

In contrast to The Diver this story takes place over what is in effect only a few minutes, certainly within an hour or two, yet it has the same mythical reach, and her answer implies a length of time that stretches back long before the week of their initially idyllic marriage.

Time is one of the elements, it is said, that short stories writers are, and perhaps have to be, adept at manipulating, and we see Blixen doing that in both these stories. In the first, it is the long time of a man’s life encapsulated in the space of the telling of a story, itself held within a story. In the second it is the decision of a lifetime, or rather a realisation, experienced within the moments of a chance meeting.

And both have that touch of certainty about them, not only in the characters presented, but in the voices of the storyteller. There is an assuredness that comes across in the telling, that asserts the truth of the stories. They are not told as speculations as to what might have happened, but, despite their logical absurdities – in The Diver it is a fish with horn-rimmed spectacles that tells the man who tells the story to Mira about the truth of God and fishes – both have the tone of absolute conviction. They are not doubted by their teller, nor, perhaps, by us.

Writing about stories written by someone else is a curious business. What is worth saying? Writing about our own stories, the answer is obvious. Nothing is worth saying. But with other people’s stories there’s a more complex answer. Should we tell readers what the story ‘is about’? After all, that’s the question we’re likely to be asked when somebody catches us reading a story. Should we try to say how it has been written? That’s what interests other writers, perhaps. And if we do either of those things, aren’t we actually getting in between the story and a potential reader, rather than helping that reader get closer to the story? And is getting someone closer to a story something we should be trying to do anyway?

What we can do is point out what has caught our attention in a story, and by doing so strike a chord of recognition – of similarity or difference, it doesn’t matter – in another reader, in another human being.

What caught my attention in The Ring was Blixen’s portrayal of the fragility, and falseness, and the spontaneous potency of the relationships that can be entered into, managed, mismanaged and lost between individuals.