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.