Saturday, January 30, 2010

Short Circuit: a discussion with Vanessa Gebbie (2)

Okay, so I had a baker’s dozen questions for Vanessa on the new book she has edited, Short Circuit, with the intention of asking them on her stop-off here during her blog tour. But we got chatting and didn’t manage to progress beyond question 2 yesterday. So here’s questions 3 to 7.

TC: There are some other interesting differences in the articles in Short Circuit. A number, for example cite character as the key element – Zoe King certainly thinks so, and so does Alison MacLeod, who says: ‘A short story is language, image and event, but it is fundamentally about character.’ Nuala Ni Chonchuir, however, is much more focused on language. She says: ’Story and character are obviously crucial in fiction too; the language is only the means to tell the story. But when words are used in surprising ways to tell a surprising story, there is nothing more beautiful for a reader.’ Very similar, but there is a subtle difference, I think. Where do you stand on this? Character first and foremost? Or the beauty of words?

VG: I think this, and I’m only echoing Alex Keegan because I haven’t found anything to supercede his views, yet. They seem somewhat incontrovertible.

If a piece of work needs wonderful language it must have it, and if it is not given language, the piece of work will patently miss something. But if on the other hand the piece of work doesn’t need wonderful language, then the wonderful language, if used, would become intrusive, would not fit, would spoil the thing. And would therefore no longer be wonderful language, because language is there to serve its master. The story. Instead it would only show up the writer as lacking.

Example. Imagine A Small Good Thing written in poetic prose. Nah. The very simplicity of the prose pushes the poignancy and the mis-communication into relief. Likewise, the modern translations of The Bible detract (for me) from the experience and strength of those old stories, whether you are a religious nut or not. The lovely old language added weight, beauty, depth.

John Banville. Would The Sea have been as strong without the language??? Wouldn’t it have become ‘just another novel’? To me the language fitted perfectly, because the character demanded it. Superimpose Will Self’s prose, as in How The Dead Live. Or the language used by a contemporary lad-lit writer. Better, or worse??? Worse. Banville’s main character was a language professsional. It just wouldn’t gel. But then we’re talking writer’s craft – and maybe these things wouldn’t even be noticed by someone reading for ‘what happens’?

Nuala notices language, loves language - she’s a poet. Our teacher [Alex Keegan], when he let himself, could get lost in the most stunning language, utterly beautiful stuff... and I don’t mean forced, or overblown. Just the perfect word for the moment. But then I think he may be a poet even more than he is a prose writer when he grows up - but don’t tell him. There’s precious little ££ in poems.

TC: Mention of Alex Keegan brings me to my next question. Alex is, of course, firmly of the character school. In his article he gives a beautiful summary of the TV programme, 24: ‘The first things I remember are the small islands of humanity in the long story. That is, despite all the "bells and whistles", it’s all about character.’ He firmly believes theme in stories comes through character, and you must know your characters in order to write the story. Your brilliant dissection of the process behind the story Words from a Glass Bubble suggests you think the same? The story finally took shape when the characters emerged. Is that right?

VG: Yes – but I need to define ‘emerged’. I needed to feel that the voice was ‘right’. That the character was flowing, the story flowing. I needed to feel right. That I wasn’t pushing the car uphill. I’m not sure it is a brilliant analysis, although thanks for the momentary glow. I think we ought to be able, with distance, to see our own processes clearly. And as always, bugger that man, he puts it so well. It’s the little moments, the islands, that make a character live. Not the great sweeps of narrative. The looks, the touches, the things unsaid.

TC: The other thing that AK is famous for, of course, is writing blind, letting the story flow and develop as it chooses. Alison MacLeod gets it spot-on, for me, when she writes about the act of not knowing where a story is going. Nuala Ni Choncuir calls it ‘free-writing’. It’s the most exhilarating way to write. Yet, when I’ve suggested this to other aspiring writers, talking about ‘writing blind’ or ‘writing drunk’, more often than not I get looks of bafflement. Do you find that with your students?

VG: If I can respond to these last two questions together, a bit further?

The simple answer to the question on character is yes – as far as I’m concerned, if you havent ‘got’ your characters, you are moving puppets about on the page and it shows. But your next question about writing blind begins to look at process – and we are returning to the conversation I had with Tobias Hill - intuitive writing versus plotted and planned writing. Learning to flash-write/write ‘drunk’ (maybe we’d better explain that this does not require alcohol!), learning to access both voice and character almost ‘automatically’ is the highly ‘intuitive’ end of the spectrum. Yes, it is exhilarating - and also one of the most difficult to explain.

But, see, I’m not sure we have to explain it - that is entering into non-intuitive territory. If you go to a workshop, sometimes, you just want to be led. So I don’t explain, up front – I just throw out the challenge to students, provide a prompt, or rather they make them up themselves. I might even shake them up a bit by changing the way they write physically - make them stand up, sit on the floor – anything.
I want to show them what writing like this feels like. Letting go, breaking whatever little rituals you habitually surround yourself with. I will explain the theory, such as it is, afterwards, when the results show.

TC: Is there a tendency to both plot and research too much? And do you agree that this affects a story?

VG: The answer to that is, it depends. If the student needs to plot then let him, I say. Who am I to stop anyone doing what they need to? But if they are more comfortable writing more loosely, let’s say, then I’m fine with that too. I think the important thing is to let everyone experiment – encourage them to experiment, to find out there they sit on the creative continuum between chaos and ‘structure’. To discover that they do not need to plot, perhaps. Or that actually, they do. And to understand that they may shift, too, depending on so many personal factors.

Does a lack of ‘free-writing’ affect a story? Yes, in beginners’ work, it does, when they haven’t settled into their best method and think everything must be planned. Over-plotted work is tight and bloodless. Lacks zip. But then too much drunk writing can end up as directionless waffle. Like morning pages. I’ve just reviewed a short story collection in which one piece is like this – it contains some marvellous connections, images, flights of imagination. But it is also a self-contradicting ramble – full of mixed metaphor and comes over as just dire. We intuitive writers usually need to edit!!! And editing is a conscious, craft-driven skill we all have to engage with.

TC: Apart from lack of confidence, one of the reasons I think writers plot or research too much is because they have too much they want to say. They’ve decided on a THEME and they’re damned well going to get their message across, so they plot and research it to the point of overkill and become didactic. And then the opposite of having too much to say is not having enough. When I was in [Alex Keegan’s] Boot Camp, I always found Theme most difficult to score and discuss, because very often the story didn’t appear to have any theme. It didn’t really seem to have anything to say at all. Why do you think writers have such difficulty getting the balance right and really nailing the theme of their story?

VG: If the theme that underpins a story is something deeply felt that shapes the writer’s view of the world, to the extent that it drove him to write a piece of fiction to illustrate that preoccupation – then why the need to look up anything at all? We know what we believe. If, on the other hand, the writer decides on a premise they don’t know anything about... then they don’t believe it, do they?

The writer researches subject matter, settings, details. Not theme. Discuss…?! Maybe that’s why some stories end up like concrete and others fly? A bit like me being drawn to write about a disabled guy, a semi-recluse who wants to discover where poetry is found. My character decided to get a job in a mortuary. Huh? So I researched what people do in mortuaries, so his job would make sense. I didn’t need to research what it is to be drawn to make words, to really need to find the fount/muse, or how there is beauty in the least likely things – because I live/ believe those things. (I did not know the word cannula, or know much about plastic tubing, or about draining the blood out of the body, or what skin looks like days after death. Now I do!). Not a particularly brilliant story – but well published.

Scoring theme, as per Bootcamp. OK – this was something I found hard. I had to do two things – firstly, understand what it was that the writer was being driven to say, and secondly – understand how good a vehicle he had created for it, how well it got through to me, ONE reader. How on earth to score how well it might work for others?? Because this one, of all the elements, does rely on a subjective value-based response.

I found it very difficult – because to be moved by something, you need to empathise somewhat with the underlying values, to understand the motivating force behind the work. And secondly, you need to click with/understand the vehicle chosen to carry the message.

I do think so much of the reader’s engagement with a piece of work depends on personal factors. Give a story that illustrates some form of frustration at impending death to a healthy teenager interested only in alcohol and clubbing and to a late middle-aged reader interested in philosophy, and they are bound to respond differently to the theme. One will care, because if successful, the story will make them reflect on their own mortality apart from anything else it might do. The other may not care so immediately.

Use a vehicle (subject) that means something or not to the reader, and their response will also change/deepen/lessen. It’s so imprecise. Unscientific.
I don’t think we have to ‘nail the theme’ of the story we are writing, and if we try to, we might interfere with and halt the flow. We may be able to look back once it is written, and identify the theme more easily? And if I’m right – (see above, beginning of this discussion on theme) it will be easily recogniseable anyway. But look too closely, and try to analyse what you are doing, as you are writing - I think it would kill most writers!

Now – lets move on to a stunningly great writer. Sorry, it’s Golding again. He wrote Lord of the Flies BECAUSE he wanted to say something very specific about human nature. He wanted to write a fable, very deliberately, as he was teeming with things he felt he had to say, post his experiences in WWII. But he knew that most readers actively battle against anything overtly moralistic in their reading – so he created something to temper/hide/sweeten the pill (his words). He took the template of Coral Island, and wrote his own version of what was after all a saccharine and two-dimensional look at human behaviour. His later novels look at the same things – they were his preoccupations to the extent that they drive his work throughout. But he is master enough to create something marvellous with his imagination, and knows when to let it run. If you can, read his essay Fable in which he talks about being taken by surprise when the pig’s head speaks to Simon... because it was reiterating the very reason for writing... but said by something outside him.

TC: I haven’t come across that essay. I’ll have a look for it. That scene with Simon and the pig’s head is one of the first pieces of literature that really, really got through to me. I think it was the first time I understood that literature works on different levels. It opened my eyes to what literature can do.

Moving on, Nuala Ni Chonchuir quotes John McGahern: ‘In writing, style is personality.’ As well as the voice of a particular story, which obviously changes (or should change) in each story, is there a deeper voice, that of the author him or herself, the personality, which remains largely constant? If you think of really great collections of short stories, even though individual stories may be radically different, there is still an underlying coherence to them. That’s why I think Peter Carey’s short stories, although very good, ultimately fall short of greatness – I just can’t see any unifying force behind them. Perhaps what I’m talking about is knowing why you write. If I take myself as an example, all the time in Boot Camp I don’t think I really knew what I was trying to say and I’m only beginning to figure it out now. How many of the writers you come into contact with do you think actually know? And does is affect their writing?

VG: Back to the point above, really. Yes. I think for most writers, it does affect their writing. I’m not a grown-up enough writer to be able to do what I’d like. I’m finding this novel absolutely killing to write, because I KNOW what I am saying. But I’m struggling on, and every so often I’m getting a ‘pig’s head moment’...I think its part of the learning curve. Or the learning about how we like to work best, and the fear of doing anything else. Comfort zones...

But (and again, I’m speaking personally here) if a collection of short stories is too ‘samey’ in their thematic delivery (my words), I find it sometimes, a little predictable? Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, for example. A wonderfully written book, which explored the same things very closely, it seems to me, in story after story.

But Petina Gappah’s collection Elegy for Easterly manages to be unified without being predictable. Would be interesting to discuss.

TC: I haven’t read that one. That’s another I’ll look out for. Anyway, enough for now. Back tomorrow for the third and final part of this brief (!!) discussion on Short Circuit.



Hi Tom
Character is KEY in stories, and I'm very much about the character and his/her voice, but my particular slant for the essay in the book was language, as I chose to write my chapter on style.
I do love V's answer to your question and would agree with her.
Nice blog!

Tom Conoboy said...

Hello Nuala

yes, the context in which you wrote that should be borne in mind. I did wonder about that when I posed the question, but as you say Vanessa answered it perfectly anyway.

Thanks for dropping by. I thought your article was excellent, by the way. I think I quote from it more than anybody's in the interview.

Alex Keegan said...

Hi all, in the Boot Camp "gridding" process, language has a PAR mark of 10 whereas opening is 11, character and theme and plot 12, pace 12-13 and ending 12.

Why do I appear to "downgrade" language when I so love it, and occasionally write (myself) in a writerly way?

Because a great story can be great with fairly ordinary language. Adequate, of course, suiting the purpose, of course, and perhaps, though apparently "ordinary" (think Raymond Carver) it is actually very polished language.

In that latter case we score for "invisible excellence"

But beginning and intermediate writers and many well-published authors(and BLOODY BANVILLE) need to understand, as Vanessa says, that language is ALWAYS the servant to the story, never the leader.

In BC we would also have the case that if language par was for a fairly arty, "languaged" style then 99% of BC stories would always be marked as (linguistically) UNDER par and the result would be writers adding bells and whistles to try to gain higher marks. UGH!

No, we first learn to write good stories, led by character and meaning, in whatever linguistic weight/complexity serves us at this time.

We then learn to lose the cliches, the stock phrases, the redundancies and accidental repetition or bad, accidental internal rhymes.

and we slowly attain a gentle flow, a more natural, smoother flowing narrative. BUT this could still be (at first glance) "unlanguaged"

A year or two in we are using a single perfect word where once it was a sentence or half a sentence, and we have learned flow and rhythm, pace and pacing, when to hold the reader's hand to the flame and so on.

But IMO this should ALWAYS be, a natural "emanating" thing and never IMPOSED.

I believe character, voice, tone, plot, AND language should spontaneously rise up and come from us. Every one of my quotable lines was NOT engineered, and 90% of them were never edited.

The ability to XXXXXX the right phrases (I'm trying to think of a nicer word than vomit) does NOT come from trying (this is why I LOATHE Banville's Booker winner as pretentious shit (I'm holding back here).. it comes from EATING

eating poetry (you don't need to understand it or be a poet, eating stories, eating songs, eating adverts, eating photography

eating all the arts and most deliberately trying NOT to work them out but let them work on you.

I am working-class, from a bookless family, missed years of school, left at fifteen, read Mickey Spillane and Dick Francis, never did serious literature before the age of thirty (and then not much) but learning to be open to things allowed me to get a feel for language.

as an aside, Tom, I find your ability to read (speed wise and depth-wise) astonishing and I feel intimidated by your academic abilities!

Precisely HOW that happened I don't really know, but it's something about going naked as a reader, almost allowing yourself to be f----, I mean seduced by the writer.

I know that the unconscious or subconscious is a thousand times the writer the conscious ever will be.

I tell Boot Campers to argue, analyse BETWEEN stories, but then to forget everything when they write. Strangely, each story they write has a small step gleaned when analysing but "erupting" and not placed when free-writing.

If that's random, so be it. My preferred way!


Tom Conoboy said...

Great post Alex. I thought the Banville comment might stir you...

it's something about going naked as a reader, almost allowing yourself to be f----, I mean seduced by the writer.
There's something a little frightening about when you submit to a writer and just let him or her take you on the journey. Going naked is a great way of describing it. It probably doesn't happen that often. Happened to me with The Tin Drum and the last half dozen pages of 100 years of solitude.

I know that the unconscious or subconscious is a thousand times the writer the conscious ever will be.
If ever you want a tagline for Boot Camp, that could be it.

I tell Boot Campers to argue, analyse BETWEEN stories, but then to forget everything when they write. Strangely, each story they write has a small step gleaned when analysing but "erupting" and not placed when free-writing.

If that's random, so be it. My preferred way!

It works. When I get time, I will post the intro to a story I wrote pre BC and one after I'd been there a while. You'll notice the difference...