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A good journalist never reveals his sources, they say, and the bad ones certainly don’t! But fiction writers, poets and playwrights are always getting asked, where do you find ’em?
And there isn’t always a simple answer, in my experience. With my latest offering to CUT, though, (Contributory Culpability) I can throw a little light… A walk on an abandoned railway track in the north east of England threw up an old guy in an oil stained cap, who told me a story about the railway we were standing on, and how, with the last passenger train of the day, the engineer (or driver) and the fireman, would leave the train simmering at the nearby halt while they popped into the pub for a last pint. (I’m reminded that in my home town, where there were miles of Brewery Railways, a man used to wander the site, officially, offering pints from a small barrel -firkin perhaps? – to all and sundry, even those operating machinery!) I transposed my oil-stained cap man’s story to West Cumbria, changed trains and added some consequences…. but did I do it right? Only the reader can tell.
Here’s a link to the story on CUTalongstory: MY ebook entitled Contributory Culpability
BHD’s salacious story of dark veined Cubans and smooth skinned Connestogas (cigars!) Hecho A Mano is among Liars Leagues’ TOP TEN STORIES of all time (well, their first 10 years!)…. You can vote for it too….on the link below! Hecho a Mano, by the way, means – roughly translated – a hand job!
You’ll often hear it said that ‘people-watching’ is an endless fascination. Sit in a cafe, or on a platform, or even just out in the street – there’s a sort of plinth outside a city centre clothing store towards the top end of Glasgow’s Buchanan Street that I’ve spent some time watching from, and, I think, being watched. I even wrote about it in a Kowalski story.
And that’s unusual, because however fascinating it is to people watch, what you see rarely translates into what we might call a short story. That isn’t to say stories don’t spring out of the details of such observations – we might even note them down in notebooks and use them later…the practice that H.E.Bates called ‘compiling’, and castigated A.E.Coppard for using!
But it’s rare, in my experience to get a whole story played out before your (astonished) gaze. It’s turning points we’re on the look out for, and starting points, and endpoints. Somebody ending a conversation and walking away…somebody stepping up and beginning one…somebody examining a scrap of paper – we can’t quite make out what it is – and deciding to discard it in the waste bin.
V.S.Pritchett wrote that short stories make ‘explicit’ what real life only implies. Yet many stories seem to describe, in detail, tedious sequences of events, intricate foibles of character, forensic examinations of place, that not only don’t make explicit, but seem not to imply anything either.
Perhaps the readers who enjoy stories like this are really people-watching in the comfort of their own armchairs, instead of on the bum-freezing seats of the inner cities. Reading, perhaps, to find stories that the authors of the texts they are reading haven’t even considered, rather than to find out, what the those authors might be trying to tell them..
Of course it might be that such stories are merely too subtle, or too finely wrought for someone like me to perceive. But if they aren’t, then it might be a similar conundrum to that in the art world, of the splash of paint, or the pile of bricks? Who creates the Art? The splashers and pilers, or the people who look at them and imagine. (We know who has to pay, and who gets the money).
To what extent does our writing have to communicate something to someone? Anything to anyone? To what extent does a failure to do so reflect on the writer, and on the reader? To what extent must we be prepared to accept that some people are too stupid, lazy or ignorant to be successful readers of our stories, or, and it pains me, we to be their writers?
Have you checked out these guys yet? CUTalongstory
It’s not something specific to short stories, but to the short story it is critical. Short stories are in the lineage of anecdotes and tales: they predate the written and printed story, and are told – not shown – by somebody, to somebody else – to several somebodies simultaneously perhaps.
There are several implications to that telling. That the teller has a purpose (never travel without a porpoise – Lewis Carroll) is probably the most obvious, and possibly the most important. Another implication is that the teller will have a time and place in mind for the telling, and an appropriate voice – think Hyacinth Bucket’s phone voice. They might also, I think, match the story, and the telling to the imagined listener or reader.
But there’s another factor, easily forgotten, behind this created narration, and that is we ourselves. The author, masked, rather than killed off, remains the person who has imagined – or remembered- it all: narrator, telling, story. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that how the author does that gives us a mirror image of what he, or she, truly is. Ultimately, we are the ones who believe the story is worth telling, and who have at least an inkling of why that might be.
BHD’s collection of longer (for him!) stories The Man Who Found A Barrel Full of Beer is available here.
I’ve spent a lot of time considering the changes that adaptation can make to stories, but of course editing, even slightly, can have similar effects: sometimes changing the focus, or even the implied intent of a story.
Last weekend Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom was shown on terrestrial TV here in the Untied Kingdom. I’ve mentioned it before, and particularly the very short sex scene: as the two runaway children go into a clinch, he says, it’s hard, and she replies, I like it. This pithy analysis of sexual attraction resonates with more than just the characters of the film, but in the context of the film makes explicit what might otherwise be left implicit, and thus subject to being ignored, denied, or even not noticed.
And yet, and yet, the ratfinks and fuckwits who put out this stuff saw fit to remove that scene, and what’s more they did it professionally (i.e. for pay!). Wouldn’t it be a good idea, seeing as we can’t stop these people committing this sort of butchery on works of art, couldn’t we at least insist that they include a real time insert of blank screen where the intended content has been excised? Then we would get to see, not what was missing, but at least that there was something missing, and we would know that we have been sold an adulterated product.
And while I’m at it, I thought it must be may age, being unable to make out what was being said by the ‘Archer’ character in SS-GB…relieved to read that others – younger than me – had trouble too! Good novel. Shame about the adaptation (which looked like a good storyline. Never thought of using the subtitles, but wouldn’t have anyway).
Local writer and Creative Writing teacher, Darren Harper, asked if he could interview view me, in BHD mode, for a film to be made by film-maker Phil Hewitson of Toliver Productions. That put me on alert to think about what I might want to say, and to be seen and heard saying, about the process of writing short stories.
I found myself looking for the metaphor I’d use to describe what I think I’m doing when I’m setting out to write a story. I’ve used, and written about, such metaphors before. A favourite, which I use to explain the distinction I see between the novel and the unrelated short story form, is that one is a cruise and the other a crossing. But I was looking for a metaphor to capture what the process might be, rather than the product.
One that might suffice, is to describe the writing as analogous to climbing a mountain. Mountaineers will often say, when you ask them – bemused – why on earth they do it, that it is because it is there; and there might be a similar passion behind the writing of stories. Each one, for me at any rate, is an attempt on something – to capture a moment of perception, to reveal the hidden depths in something glimpsed, overheard – rarely imagined. Getting the story down, and making the capture, or the revelation, is like scaling the peak, reaching the summit.
And publication then becomes something like having your photograph taken on the top. The photograph isn’t the point of the exercise, only evidence that the point has been achieved. Publication isn’t always the point of the writing, nor its success, only a record of it having been done.
Of course, publication might be the point of some other endeavour, to which the writing is merely contributory, but then, perhaps we’d have to look for another metaphor.
I’ve just been reading the terms and conditions for a short story competition. Should I tell you its name? It carries the logos of various Arts organisations and is glowingly endorsed by a well known media celeb and purveyor of language.
There are no prizes, but the winner gets an award (endorsed by those organisations) and twenty or so runners up get published alongside it. But what does the writer have to pledge to win this prestigious approbation? Perpetual, exclusive rights to everything you can think of (and clauses including that which hasn’t yet been thought of), without remuneration, I should add, including the right to hack, mutilate and transform the piece – into whatever those organisations want it to be….
Is it really worth it? The piece you submit will have to be (at least according to their lights) pretty good….and you won’t get anything except the kudos, ever; and you might have to suffer the indignity of being associated with an agenda quite at odds with any espoused by your original text…a few words changed, even only the word orders, can subvert many a story.
Perhaps what made it so pungent for me, was that I had been reading Dickens’ letters (in the single volume edition edited by Jenny Hartley and published in 2012), including several about his outrage at the way American publishers were pirating the works of English (and other) writers during his lifetime. Dickens was a long time campaigner for copyright protection. I wonder how he would have viewed these terms and conditions? At least no one has to involuntarily accept them, but only might be seduced by the possibility of being associated with the names of those offering them.
.Cent magazine has one too……(a story by BHD ….hasn’t he been busy…sheesh!)
Here’s a Christmassy sort of story from BHD, along with BHDandMe’s very best wishes for the festive season: have a cool Yule!
A Winter Tale
Rav had watched through the window of his shop all morning, putting down his book every few paragraphs, and staring across the road. It was a beautiful day. The sun was blazing down, making the snow and ice sparkle like Christmas decorations. Curves of frost stuck to the corners of the glass, like the ones he’d sprayed on from a can in previous years.
He was watching pedestrians come round the corner from Market Street into Bank Street. It was as they made the turn they slipped, and as each one did so, Rav felt his muscles tighten, as if he were the one who might be about to fall. Of course, they didn’t all fall. Most of them just wobbled, threw out an arm to one side, two arms, one to either side, and righted themselves, and his muscles would relax again; but every now then one would go down, and Rav’s muscles would contract, and he’d grit his teeth, almost feeling the impact as they hit the pavement.
He had watched four already this morning fail to make the turn, crashing down onto their sides, feet briefly showing above the snow, shopping bags spilling their contents. People came to help them of course, seemingly able to run across the very ice that they had slipped on. They had helped them to their feet, picked up their fallen shopping, repacked their bags, and sent them on their way. At least no-one had been seriously injured yet, although the day before, when it had not been sunny and the snow had still been falling, an ambulance had been called to take one victim away.
They really ought to get these pavements sorted out, Rav said.
I know, Bev said, examining her nails.
Rav was picturing the shovel they kept at the back of the shop. Not really a shovel, more of a scoop. They used it for the ornamental gravels. But it was made of metal, and was the size of one of those old fashioned shovels you’d use for coal. If you got down to it, and put a bit of shoulder behind it, you could quite well clear a few yards of pavement without too much trouble.
In fact the pavements had been cleared already, technically. The council workers had been around and had shovelled a person wide gully through the snow down the centre line, with offshoots to one side where there were shop doorways, and the other where there were pedestrian crossings. But since then there had been a slight thaw, and melt-water had run out from the piles of snow and had frozen again, leaving a thin and very slippery coating of ice.
I should go across and clear it, he said. Obviously, it was that patch on the corner that was causing all the problems. People were managing perfectly well on the straight. It was when they came to change direction that they experienced difficulties.
It’s not your pavement, Bev said, looking up.
That was true. It was the pavement outside the sports shop. Quite clearly so. Anybody could see that. Rav could see it; but he could also see the people falling over on it.
But I can see it, Bev, he said. In fact he doubted whether his motives were entirely altruistic. The tension of watching, his heart thumping in his chest as people made the perilous crossing around the sports shop corner out of Market Street was doing him no good. He wondered if perhaps it was for his own benefit that he felt the need to take responsibility.
An old lady jerked and jolted around the corner, making him wince. She steadied again and walked on safely. Rav blew out a long breath and sucked in another.
I cannot take much more of this, he said.
Don’t look, Bev suggested, peering at her nails again.
Don’t look? How can I not look, when I know it is going on outside my own front door?
I bet they’re not looking at the sports shop, Bev said, prodding carefully at a cuticle.
That was true too. She was undoubtedly right. In the sports shop they would not be looking. They would be watching their large television screens, upon which they showed endless films of people climbing mountains, and surfing, and hang gliding, and sliding down steep slopes on toboggans and skis, in the snow and ice. Why would they want to look out of their window? Besides, the sun did not favour them the way it favoured Rav, when it came to looking out.
Perhaps, he reasoned, if they did look out, and saw what was going on they too would want to do something about it. He weighed up the situation. To go over there and to tell them what was happening would be presumptuous. It would imply that he believed there was a fault on their part. They would be either insulted or embarrassed, and he had no wish to cause either embarrassment or offence. Yet, to carry over the small shovel and to begin clearing the pavement under their very noses would be an equal insult, an equal embarrassment.
What if, seeing him work, they came to a sudden realisation of the situation, and of their failure to react to it? Mortification. He would be giving them no chance to rehabilitate the situation. Every time thereafter that he saw one of them unlocking the shutters in the early morning or locking them up again at night or passing on the street on some errand they would feel an unspoken reproach that he did not bear towards them, yet which he could not mention, as that would in itself imply that he had cause to.
Yet, he thought, as another spasm of splaying arms attracted his attention, there was an accident waiting to happen, an accident that would happen outside their shop, and within sight of his own. A further thought occurred. People would say of him, Rav, that he had stood and watched and done nothing. They would be thinking that he had watched in the hope of seeing someone fall, much as people are said to watch car racing in the hope of seeing a crash. What sort of person would that make him?
Resolve hardened in him, and he turned away from the window.
Bev, who like Rav, thought more than she spoke, had the little shovel in her hand already and offered it to him.
I have a better idea, he said, waving a finger at her, one that will save all embarrassments.
He had been reading The Wooden Horse, a wartime escape story, in which a secret tunnel was dug, out under the wire of a prison camp.
I am going out for a moment, he said, and he helped himself to a five-pound note from the till.
Rav emptied his trouser pockets into his jacket, and made sure he had the little penknife with him. Then he set off at a careful pace, across the road, past the sports shop and taking great care at the corner, into Market Street.
Good deeds, he believed, should be done unostentatiously. The merits within them were lessened, he thought, by the discomforts they brought to others, who might have perfectly understandable reasons for their own inactions. He would clear away the ice and the people in the sports shop would not even know it had been done.
He bought two small bags of salt from the mini-market on Market Street, pierced them with the penknife, stuffed one, slit down, into each of his trouser pockets and set off back towards Bank Street. In the book the escapees had been faced with the problem of what to do with the soil that they had dug out of their tunnels. Clearly they could not leave piles of it lying around for the guards to see. So, they had distributed it all over the sports ground at the camp, by dribbling it from the pockets of their trousers.
Rav was thinking with pleasure of this when he arrived at the corner and realised that he had not cut holes in his pockets through which to dribble his ice-busting salt. Perhaps that was why, when he reached the corner, he was struggling with both hands in his trouser pockets. The people in the sports shop saw him wobble briefly and then disappear from view below the level of the window-sill.
Ay up, mate. You all right?
Yes, thank you. I am fine, Rav said, looking up at the sports shop manager.
You’ve dropped something, the man said, bending down beside him. The two bags, from which the salt dribbled slowly, had slipped out onto the ice. They’ve split, the man said, trying to stop the flow.
Salt, Rav said, fearing the man might think it something worse.
We could do with some of that out here, the man said.