Wednesday, 24 December 2014

A Journey with John Clare

The woods are always poetic

I only really became aware of John Clare after a visit to his cottage in Helpston a few years ago, thanks to New Networks for Nature. When I went looking for an edition of Clare’s poetry, I discovered that another poet I like, Paul Farley, had edited a new Clare collection, which comes with a lovely and illuminating introduction. At the time I bought it, I was living near – and spending lots of time rambling through – Epping Forest, where Clare was cooped up in the mental asylum at High Beach for some time. Clare was a passionate pastoral poet, and it added another dimension to my love of those woods to imagine him wandering amongst the same ancient trees, taking inspiration even as he clung to the belief that he had been both Byron and Shakespeare in previous lives. Epping Forest contains a multitude of strong and strange atmospheres, thanks I suppose to its sheer age and history. These are quite intense even for a (mostly) sane writer, but for Clare, it must have been an even more magical place, in both good and bad ways.

I’ve also long been fascinated by the poem/song ‘My mother said I never should/play with the gypsies in the wood’. You can read the full version (as I recognise it) here. What appears to be a warning, or moral, tale, unravels into mystifying confusion and seems to deliver the opposite of what the opening line promises. I recently started re-reading it, trying to pick it apart. When I reminded my mother of this poem, she told me about seeing the Gypsies passing through her home town when she was small, and her own fascination with the Gypsy children, riding with feet dangling on the backs of the caravans. Already writing stories inspired by Lorca’s Romancero Gitano, or Gypsy Ballads, I decided I wanted to think more about this old-fashioned English romance of running away with the Gypsies, and see if a story would come out of it.

Days later, luck (and a friend) meant that I got to see a live version of Andrew Kotting’s By Our Selves, a film about John Clare’s walk from Epping Forest north to his home (about 80 miles). The film was created as the actors and production team undertook the walk themselves. There is a clip here and a longer version has been funded through a Kickstarter campaign. The beautiful and discombobulating footage of the forest was accompanied by words read from Clare’s account of the journey (which you can read here), astonishing live singing and sound effects, and it was through this performance that I learned about Clare’s encounter with the Gypsies as he made plans to escape the asylum. Sadly for Clare, when he returned to the camp to take up their offer to hide him, he found only ‘An old wide-awake hat, and an old straw bonnet, of the plum-pudding kind', an image as arresting as the strange ideas in the poem ‘My mother said I never should’.

Feeling that fate was helping me out already by tying together poetry, Gypsies, woods and Clare, I went searching for more. What should I find but a collection of sonnets by David Morley, called The Gypsy and the Poet. This series of poems illustrates a conversation between John Clare and the Gypsy Wisdom Smith. Each sonnet is introduced with a quote, many of which are lines in Romani dialect, as a result of Morley’s Romani heritage.  Others are lines from Clare’s own writing. Nestled amongst this feast of poems is one called ‘Ballad of the Moon, Moon’, directly inspired by a poem from Lorca’s Romancero Gitano

Morley’s sonnets have floored me, and will keep me preoccupied for some time, I know. To watch connections emerge between things I love is wonderful but also indicates to me how many other people desire and find these same connections. Whatever is at the heart of the romantic notion of running away with the Gypsies, it seems to be in many of us.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Greek drama has it: David Vann on our ancient programming for story structure

Protagonist/Antagonist: one is the other's shadow

What makes a satisfying story? Neil Gaiman’s answer to this question (given in the introduction to a short story anthology he edited) is: one in which the reader constantly asks, ‘what happens next?’ For others the essential feature is the ‘story arc’, though what we mean by that has become hazy – to say a story lacks an arc is often just a way of saying it didn’t satisfy. Another definition is given by Kurt Vonnegut in this now famous youtube video.

David Vann’s explanation of what makes a satisfying story is that, in Western culture at least, we are programmed to expect a structure laid down by the ancient Greeks. In the masterclass he gave for the Word Factory in November, he argued that Greek drama – tragedy in particular – epitomises the shape our minds seek when we engage with a story. When, as a writer, we do not follow Aristotelian dramatic conventions, we are going to disappoint our readers, unless we compensate in some way. This compensation might take the form of stylistic fireworks, or humour.

Some of the key ideas Vann discussed, in relation specifically to short stories, were the following:

Unity of action: focus on one dramatic situation, with no need for subplots.

Unity of place: the action ought to be fairly contained in terms of location, thus forcing characters to confront one another without relief.

Unity of time: the story should take place in a limited amount of time, again to force confrontation of the crisis. Back story, if it has to be there at all (which in theory in shouldn’t), should be limited.

Protagonist/Antagonist: often these are versions of the same person, which is why the latter so frustrates the former. The protagonist’s problem should come from within, rather than being entirely external, even if it is activated by a stranger or a situation.

Taboo: some sort of social rule – however minor – is broken, creating crisis or insight.

One observation from Vann that I found particularly interesting was around the inherent problem with beginning a story in medias res – starting in the middle of the action and then backtracking to describe how this point was reached. This is currently quite a fashionable way to begin both short stories and novels – how often are we told to begin right in the action? However, the backtracking part thus becomes ‘slack’, in Vann’s opinion. The reader is bored, waiting to get back to the essentials of the story. 

This in medias res approach is just one of many that buck the classical idea, and what I have thought about most since this masterclass is the huge range of short stories that do not obey the classical rules, and yet are absolutely brilliant. Of course, Vann was only giving us one way to make stories satisfying, and his comment about needing to compensate when you break the rules stuck with me. 

It seems that, for many short stories, what is truly great about them is how far they are pushing that compensation – providing gorgeous writing, profound psychological insight, instinct-prodding strangeness, absurdity, sheer beauty – to create marvellous things that break the rules. Many modern short stories are not complete ‘stories’ in that they tell a tale, start-middle-end. I am not the only writer/reader who loves playing with ambiguity and unresolved endings, for example. But thinking about these aspects of story-writing as tricks that better compensate for the lack of a classical story really made me consider how well they better work, in order to still satisfy the reader. Otherwise, they can be a way of letting yourself off the hook as a writer, telling yourself, ‘but not all stories have definite endings!’ 

Vann said he believed that the classical story structure is in us all, which is why, when we write without thinking about it, that is what we will often produce. However, his case for learning about the theory is that, by planting it in your mind, you may bring good story shapes to the surface, and hit them sooner, rather than digging for them. This struck me as the best argument for learning about literature whilst also trying to write it that I have ever heard.

Thanks, Word Factory and David Vann for such illumination. For interested readers and writers, there will be a new programme of masterclasses up on the Word Factory website in the new year.

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure – C D Rose Interview

This lovely brown book presents insights into 52 literary failures: histories of unread, unpublished, unfinished and sometimes unwritten great works, collected by C D Rose and retold with both care and wit. Every single one made me laugh, and I don’t just mean with schadenfreude or a dry resigned croak at the common fate of so many writers. As unlikely as it sounds, I found this book immensely cheering. This I put down to the treatment of this delicate subject by C D Rose, who is interviewed below.

Z: Writers often shy away from looking closely at other failed writers, perhaps for fear of infection. What made you dig so deep into this world? Was it one literary failure in particular or a general fascination?

C: I should say that I have been driven to write by an unnameable internal compulsion, a desire to translate into words that which I have seen, felt, or thought.  I should say that I have an innate desire to tell stories, to captivate, enthral or thrill.  And yet, I have to admit that one of the things that attracted me to being a writer was a description I once read of a day in the life of Ian Fleming: an early rise followed by a swim in Oracabessa Bay, a large cup of strong Blue Mountain coffee, a cigarette, a plate of lightly scrambled eggs perhaps, then two to three hours of writing before having a pre-lunch cocktail.  Going to lunch with friends, then returning for a nap before spending another hour or two editing that morning’s work, then dressing for dinner…This, I thought, this would be the life for me (though, needless to say, it has never yet happened.)  But taken from a biographical point of view – what boredom!  Fleming had lived enough life to draw on to make his stories interesting, but who would want to read endless pages describing a life like that?  There are, of course, the successful failures, Hemingway for example, or Dostoevsky, but their stories have been well and often told.   

Failure, I believed, could not infect me, as I had so far managed to fail perfectly well all by myself, so the chance encounter with a few unfinished, tantalising stories – perhaps inevitably – drew me in.  Fearing I could fail no more myself, I would gladly join their ranks.

There’s something somebody once said about not staring into the abyss for too long, for fear it should stare back into you.  I was happy not to stare, but to jump. 

Z: Another common characteristic of writers is a tendency for self-sabotage when success becomes an actual possibility. How do the writers you have uncovered fit into this pattern, if at all? 

C: I don’t believe any of the writers in the book ever consciously self-sabotaged, but there again, who does?  Ellery Fortescue who spent her writing life in bed, Stanhope Barnes who left his work on a railway station, Kevin Stapleton, the travel writer who developed an acute case of agoraphobia, Ernst Bellmer, who couldn’t help eating what he had written or Chad Sheehan, who has begun many promising works, but has been unable to get past the first line, may all seem to be indicative of this strange psychological block.

Works of art, it has been said, are never finished, only abandoned.  Perhaps it is not success that writers fear, but completion.

Z: It strikes me that a complete dictionary of failed writers would be an awful lot bigger than a dictionary of all successful ones. Given the sheer number of unpublished writers and unfinished manuscripts, indeed unwritten works, out there, how did you decide when to stop this research?

C: It was tied to time.  I had a year to tell these stories.  One a week, for twelve months.  I knew fifty-two had to be the limit.  There are indeed many others out there, some of whom we nod to in the BDLF, but without a strict limit I would have gone madder than I already am.

Z: One curiously consistent detail in many of the entries is the brand of typewriter the author used. How were you able to ascertain this kind of information? Has it inspired you to avoid typewriters for fear of failure?

C: Writers are superstitious creatures.  We have heard of some writers who will wear only yellow socks, others who will not change their underpants for the entire duration of a writing project, still others who swear that if they do not spend at least an hour drinking tea and checking their Twitter feed before starting work they will produce nothing of worth.  Typewriters, in their (approximate) hundred year tyranny over the writer became a strange talisman.  (I, for example, have recently had to acquire a new laptop, and have not yet written a word on it because the keyboard is, well, just, off somehow.)   

For a period, during the writing of the BDLF, I started to collect typewriters, finding them among the many abandoned dwellings and remote junkshops that were our research libraries, and wanting to give them a home.  Then I realised they were staring at me threateningly, their empty barrels a complaint against the very writers who had once loved them so.  I had to move out, and left them all in the house I, too, abandoned.

Z: Through the successful publication of this book, the exposure you’ve given to some of the writers in it may result in a renewed interest in their work – perhaps even some new work or completion of work in progress. Would you then feel compelled to create a second edition omitting the writers that had become a success since the first publication of BDLF?

C: It would certainly be rewarding to see Otha Orkkut’s work finally translated, or Veronica Vass’ deciphered, or to read a reprint of Lysva Vilikhe’s Guide for the Curious Traveller. However, we feel – and not without regret – that this is unlikely.

Z: If you could choose how to fail (if you had not already been a success), which of the methods in BDLF would you choose?

C: I have already tried several of the methods described, none of which I found satisfactory.  That which remains most tempting is the route of Wilson Young, who has never stopped travelling, and knows he cannot begin a story until his journey is complete.

Z: A certain Squattrinato has contributed several unreliable testimonies to your dictionary. How did you come to meet him and acquire these? Is he also a literary failure?

C: Ach, Squattrinato.  I did realise that the publication of this volume may bring him a degree of exposure, but could not in good faith ignore his contributions (however dubious).  I don’t want to go on about Squattrinato, as any more mentions of his name will only serve to further inflate his already over-inflated ego.  Suffice to say that I met him during my sojourn in Italy, under circumstances best left obscure.

Z: I hope this volume inspires other dictionaries of failure – scientific, inventive, other kinds of artistic perhaps.  What is next for you in your research? Can we look forward to further investigations into obscurity or are you going to risk it with some fiction of you own?

C: The best fiction often is an investigation into obscurity. A journey into the darkness, an attempt to set the darkness echoing. Fact? Fiction? Art or science?  History or literature?  True or false?  Who can say what is true and what isn’t?  Can you?

Thank you, C D Rose, for this insight into the marvellous Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure.
The book is available here. If you like stories and things that make you laugh, or if you know someone else who does, I strongly advise you to buy it.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Are writers the only - or the best - readers of short stories?

Pigs are not the only connoisseurs of truffles

‘Good short stories are not always "easy" to read; you certainly can't skim them or read them only for plot. The fact of the matter is, short stories are more appreciated by other writers than they are by non-writers.’

This is a line from a post by Charles C May on his brilliant blog, Reading the Short Story. He goes on to discuss his response to prize collections of short stories in the US, but the issue he raises in that opening paragraph is one that has been exercising me of late.

I write short stories, I read them a lot, I am doing a PhD on short stories. However, I didn’t read short stories for adults seriously until my mid-twenties. Even then, discovering them, I read too fast, gulping them down without pause. It took me a quite some time to figure out how much I was losing by reading too many at once. I remember likening reading an Angela Carter story (‘The Erl King’) to eating figgy pudding, so rich is it, but at the time I was alluding to the opulence of language and image. However, I see now, that all really good short stories, even ascetic, simple, realist ones, should be treated like rich desserts, to be pondered over and definitely not followed by every other pudding on the menu. Otherwise, all those complex flavours are lost.

It only hit me recently that this attitude to reading and appreciating short stories is something I have learned over time, and then had hugely reinforced by hearing fellow writers express the same. It is reinforced further when critiquing a story – really poring over it, searching it for meaning and structure – turns out to be such an enriching experience. So now, this attitude smacks a little of connoisseurship, which of course implies a kind of elitism. If you have to instruct someone on how to interact with a piece of art before they can appreciate it, my instinct – with visual art at least – is that something has gone wrong somewhere. Should the same apply to short stories?

I should be clear that I am talking about literary short stories. This category can encompass a certain amount of genre-ish fiction, and I’d include the best of science fiction, surreal and horror short stories in this. Even these need not always be read only for plot, as May says, and I think this is where short stories come apart from novels. A short story can be absolutely brilliant, but contain very little in the way of action. These kinds of stories can seem deeply unsatisfying to the ‘uninitiated’, yet be deeply resonant and fulfilling for the short story connoisseur, the ultimate connoisseur being that explorer of the written form: the writer.

Talking to a writer friend about this problem – that a lot of short story writers are being read only by other writers – he pointed out to me that the situation is even more acute for poets. Of course, a few make it into the wider literary consciousness, but for the huge majority of poets, their main audience is other poets. These people are often writing very accessible poetry, and some poets in all ages have done so, but for the novel-chomping majority, they remain invisible. 

A good poem, like a good short story, has a kind of fractal effect on the mind upon rereading, slower reading, reading aloud. A world just as deep as those created in novels is there for the taking; it’s just that a lot of us either don’t, or won’t, take it. We desire story, which of course a lot of poetry does not deliver. However, finding the ‘story’ in what we call ‘short stories’ is not always as straightforward as trying to find and follow a plot. Many of the best short stories satisfy with only a jolt, or even less – a shift in perception, perhaps – but readers need to understand that, and such understanding only comes through extensive reading, or better still, writing.

I regularly expose my short stories to a critique group composed of novelists. These are published writers, who read a lot and know the literary world. They give me invaluable advice about how I might shape my overall short story collection. When they do this they are imagining a book, which will be read cover to cover as one would read a novel. Part of me wants to retort that this is not the way to read short stories: one should dip in, read, rest, without concern for order. But the part of me that remembers not knowing ‘how to read short stories’ takes heed in the hope that one day, a story I write might be read by someone who is not also a short story writer. This difference in perspective reminds me just how embedded I have become in the world of short story writers and readers, and the comfort that comes with knowing they will read my work in the way I want them to. We all need to acknowledge that the reading majority are not in our little bubble of short-form appreciation.

You don’t have to be a writer to enjoy great short stories. I think you just have to understand what they are. They are not chapters extracted from novels; they are not extended jokes. Importantly, they are often not tales, and perhaps this is where expectation and product come apart. I love tales, I read them and I write them, but contemporary short stories are rarely aiming in that direction. Perhaps what we need for the literary short story genre is a new name, which removes the implication of rampant plot. Or maybe, we could get away with one little instruction: read these slowly, one at a time, and then think.