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Ah! A beer in Vetters Bar in Heidelberg, just off the Haupt Strasse at the Cathedral end. Bliss.

The Reading As A Writer course moved up a notch, from individual words to sentences, at the last session.

A seventies’ English Grammar split the language into two basic forms: Messages and Labels. It’s an interesting, and useful approach.

‘Shit-hot businessman’ is a label. ‘He was a shit-hot businessman’ is a message. It’s the verb that makes the difference. You can find examples of both everywhere – even in Dickens. In fact, the ‘montage’ that Dickens bequeathed to D.W.Griffiths and the modern film can be found all over the place. A sequence of Labels inserted among the Messages of all sorts of prose. In fact, that faux sentence you just read, was one of them – a label, I mean, whereas this one – you’re reading now – is a message, or as we might more conventionally say, a sentence.

There are two types of sentence too. There are those that add to what we know, and those that add to what we don’t know, having to wait for a key piece of information to unlock the meaning, and significance of all the previous components. Some sentences are both at once, changing from the first to the second type or vice versa, and even back again.

In narrative fiction the first type, which I think of as ‘open’, adds speed and clarity, but risks becoming a rather tedious list. The other type, which I call ‘closed’, adds the tension of our not quite understanding, and the drama of the eventual reveal. It risks the problem of losing the reader, who must cling on to phrase and clause after clause and phrase of what doesn’t quite make sense, until that key element is reached. That element, as you might have guessed, will be the verb that turns the labels of those other components into a message, perhaps a multiple one.

A banal example might make it clear:

‘Leaving the shop, turning left down the street, and passing over the bridge, beneath which the dark waters swirled, John vanished from her life.’

‘John vanished from her life, leaving the shop, turning left down the street, and passing over the bridge, beneath which the dark waters swirled.’

Each segment of that second, open version of the sentence could form its ending and the thought would be complete, but in the first, closed version, none of it means anything, even though we can clearly visualise each segment, until that final piece completes the jigsaw.

Mix ‘em up as you like, you’ll find that everything you write is made up of these two types of message, along, of course, with those incomplete fragments, the labels. Curiously, that movie connection I cited can be applied more widely. The messages, with their ‘main’ verbs, drive strings of words like a moving picture, whereas the labels, with incomplete verbs at best, are like a series of still shots inserted into the movie.

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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…..

 

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

 

You might not have noticed, but the British Government is running a TV recruitment add for Her Maj.’s Armed Forces. It involves a young man telling us that he was ‘born in Carlisle’, but ‘made’ in one of the services. What makes it more than usually interesting, is that he speaks with a strong north-eastern English accent. Carlisle, England, in case you didn’t realise, is a city in the north-west of England, and has its own regional accent.

It turns out his story is true, and his is the face we see, but the voice has been dubbed by an actor, with a different regional accent. The reasoning behind that decision must be fascinating. The implications too, are worthy of speculation: that no one who matters will care that two English identities have been mis-represented, and that no-one who cares will matter.

Writers, of course, always care about voices and who they speak to (and even to whom), and with what attitude and inclination.

Voices in plenty here:

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

Recently I’ve been reading John Steinbeck, and in particular his short story (included in a collection of ‘shorter novels), Of Mice and Men. A level students in the UK might well be familiar with it, but in the stage-play format, and there are two movie versions, from 1939 and sometime in the early 90s. It’s one of those stories from which we get the chance to look at storytelling over several genres -where the story stays the same (or the changes give us opportunity for speculation), but the telling differs.

In the written story everything happens in our heads, triggered by what the words mean, and, make no mistake, by what they mean to us as individual readers, which will not necessarily, in fact will certainly not be exactly the same as they do to the writer. With the adaptation for the stage, much of that triggered meaning will be presented to us by the appearance of the stage, the props, lighting, sound rigs and, not least, the actors. The willing suspension of disbelief that I was taught about when I was a student – our suppression of the knowledge that what we are looking at is not real sky, and real landscape, and real buildings – leaves us to imagine and fill in what the theatre has to leave out. With the further adaptation into film, much of that unreality is made real, and real in a way that might quite different from what those original words conjured in our minds. Disbelief, when we’re talking about movies, might suffer more of an irresistible overwhelming, than a willing suppression.

Which brings me to documentaries on the TV.

Have you noticed, how even when apparent facts are being given, by erudite and enthusiastic presenters, we are being nudged into responding to them in a particular way, not only by the back-scenes – Neil Oliver’s lovely hair blowing in the wind, for example – but by an entirely unnecessary musical soundtrack, a subtle, insidious, almost subliminal indicator about how we ought to feel about what is being said….? After all, these people aren’t telling us something so that we can make our minds up about it. They are recruiting us into the mindsets that they have already adopted.

Back to the original written word.

How do the writers, without the enhancement of emotion-tugging violins, or rousing drums, achieve the same sort of influence?

You might have seen my prize-winning essay on the word ‘Vaach’ in Anton Chekhov’e short story, Rothschild’s Fiddle. It’s in Readings for Writers volume 1 along with essays on several other short stories and their writers.

In that piece I wrote about the way the word -not even a word really, though definitely an utterance – dominated and seemed to sum up the entire story. Unusual, unexpected, and unknown words often crop up in short stories. A.E.Coppard’s The Higgler gave me the word ‘mogue’, which one dictionary described as a word used by ‘low people’, citing tailors as an example. Coppard’s father, curiously, was a tailor. My spellchecker doesn’t like ‘mogue’, but then, I guess it’s not a low spell-checker. The word means, by the way, to trick or deceive someone and can be used as a verb.

Recently reading John Steinbeck I cam across another word I’d not heard before (or rather had heard, but forgotten). That was ‘Bindle’. It’s not in my OED (shorter Version, of course), nor in any of the half a dozen other dictionaries I have going back to 1659. I don’t have a Funck and Wagnall, but I bet it’s in there! It’s in Eric Partidge’s sanitised dictionary of slang, but as a 1907 English word meaning ‘a howler’. He guesses it to be a blend of Swindle and Bungle, and maybe it is. But it isn’t Steinbeck’s American word, which means a blanket roll.

He uses it in the story Of Mice and Men, leading to the wonderful expression, ‘Bindlestiffs’, used by Curley’s Wife in the 1992 version to describe George and Lennie. Bindle and Mogue, and Vaach, come to that, have something in common, with each other, and perhaps with many other words, known and unknown, that we encounter unexpectedly for the first time: the contexts gave us the meanings, even if not directly, and that’s something important about language.

Wickipedia suggests it might come from the German, or Yiddish ‘Bundel’, which might have given us Bundle.

Words belong to us as individuals. They take their resonances not from the dictionary definitions alone, but from the contexts in which we first, and subsequently, and sometime traumatically, meet them on the road. Yet they remain in joint ownership, and their use is influenced by the contexts in which they were encountered, and subsequently used by others. That fact alone puts us on our guard to see beyond the narrow confines of our own understanding of them.

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

Global Fixation System? No.

Someone on Twitter a couple of months ago called Nigel Farage a ‘gammon faced shitflute’. I liked the sharpness and originality of the language, and could imagine it sitting well in a story, however presented, but I despair of the application to living people, or dead ones for that matter, however odious we find their beliefs, aspirations and actions.

I distrust personal insults as a means of argument. Of course they aren’t a means of argument, merely an expression of dislike. It doesn’t matter whether or not one likes this or that politician, or any other person. What matters is why we come to the beliefs we hold, and whether or not those who disagree with us can give us a good reason to change our minds. Fear of what they might do to us is not a good reason – though it may be a potent and compelling one.

Calling Farage names doesn’t help anyone, though it may make many feel good. It’s a great phrase though, and called forth praise from an American tweeter (not Trump, btw).  It’s perhaps worth considering that people who believe there is only one way to see the world, and that it only can be seen  from the place and time in and at which they stand have a vested interest in belittling those who witness other perspectives, of demonizing them, and, ultimately of eradicating them.  Curious also, not how often such people believe they are right, but how often they believe they are civilised too.

I remember a northern Irish politician many years ago referring to ‘Republican Scum’…. I couldn’t help but think of American friends who are, well, republicans…(rather than Republicans, if you take my nicety). I’ve written about scum on the blog before, and how it often floats to the top. We hear very little about English Republicans (or republicans for that matter). British Republicans would, I should think, be seen as oxymorons (or at least some sort of that ilk) the Unionist position being by default a Royalist one.

All this speculation about words has reminded me of the American Poet Jonathan Williams, some forty years ago, puffing cigar smoke in my direction, and asserting, poetry is about words, son! Poetry is about words! 

I’ve got that now, Jonathan…sorry it took so long, and so much smoke.

I’ve been an aspiring poet for so long that I’ve begun to wonder if I’ll become an expiring one before I get there; and after that, perhaps, an inspiring one. Which made me wonder if there are any other spirings to be done. Dispiring, for example, which might be connected to despairing. And then there’s the matter of Church Spiring. Did the word come after the structure, or was the structure named for the word?

There is of course, spiralling, which is usually associated with destruction, but surely could be upwards too.

The only answer was to look it up. I’m still in the Age of Paper when it comes to looking things up, and have a collection of dictionaries going back to 1659 (Blount’s Glossographia (of hard words)…which, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, has in the case of my copy the word GLOSSOP in gilt capitals stretching half-way across the spine. The gilder, presumably recognised his mistake and decided to quit while he was behind…How he would got GRAPHICA on anyway I have no idea as he was already more than half-way across. Perhaps I’m being sexist, with that ‘he’, but surely a woman would have plotted it out more effectively to begin with?

Aspire obviously wasn’t considered a ‘hard word’, but Aspirate features with breathing, aspiring or influence.

From the sublime to the correctly lettered, I turned to the Shorter Oxford. Here were spires in abundance, and some of them, seemingly quite disconnected from each other. A thread of the two pages of entries…from Spiracle to Spirituous gives enough ideas, metaphors, similes and straight meanings to fill a small thesis; but at its core, I sensed the connection of movement, through breath, towards creation:

 

So here’s a creation from many years ago, not about spires, though perhaps touching on inspiration, but about that Age of Paper, and other ages, that might be passing:

 

A Premature Obituary

 

Poetry’s finished, he said. Yeah! I heard that.

And the wheel. The wheel’s off the road.

And fire’s out. Fire’s dead in the water.

But flint knapped blades are in, and obsidian.

Great for cutting meat. Useless with paper.

But paper’s done. That’s another thing off the books.

 

Don’t get me started on food. Sugar’s passé,

Sweetie. Fat’s in the fire, or would be

If that weren’t ashes. Salt’s old hat. We’re through

With that. All art and culture’s for the vultures.

It’s all gone out with the ark: obsolete.

Not a spark of intelligentsia left.

 

But some dodo, you can depend on it,

Even as we speak, ’s writing a sonnet.

 

(Mike Smith, c2007)