Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Shrink to Fit

I have a folio of writing to hand in on the 15th of December. It's not quite ready yet and this week I am working away at it: polishing the syntax, trying to find better words, cutting.

I have four very short stories; a longer short story; two long narrative poems and the first scene of a half hour radio drama. The very short stories are inspired by those American writers sometimes referred to as minimalists. In particular Raymond Carver, Dave Eggers and Amy Hempel. Amy Hempel is a new discovery and has been especially inspirational. Here's one of her stories:


She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, "French film, French, film."

This is so short it's like a snippet of conversation overheard. I desperately want more: who is this woman; where does she live; how old is she; does her husband know about this? And that’s just for starters. Though, it’s true, there is something about her that bores me, 'sad cow,' I thought at first, and dismissed her. But something got a hold of me.

I kept going back to this story, and every time I did I got more out of it. I began to fill in the gaps myself. The phrase in parenthesis: 'for whatever was left to her of that day,' along with the word 'exploit' seem to suggest that her days are not her own, she isn't in control of her own life, but she’s trying. She grabs what she can but she’s so wasted that all she can do is chant ‘French film.’ Why French, why not Italian or British? French being italicised, thus emphasised, suggests that the frenchness of the film is important. So I began to think about what makes a French film distinct, and I came up with all number of possibilities. In fact, now I’m thinking about it again, I’m still coming up with them. All Hempel's stories have a similar effect on me: they make me think. By juxtaposing a handful of features that lurk in the shadows of everyday life she invites me to reinterpret the landscape in which I live. And I find this really exciting. Hempel seems to have hit on a way to use fiction to show how precarious, not to mention multifarious, our perspectives are, and in the most egalitarian way. So with my own very short stories (not nearly as short as this) I have tried to do the something similar, and add to the debate. I have tried to provide just enough to get the reader's imagination going. I've done this by juxtaposing two (or more) small blocks of text (as Hempel does too in other stories), almost like the verses in a poem, separating them with a gap, and hoping that the gap, by providing a space for the reader to think, says even more than the prose. Here's an example:


She was oiling the wooden counter. For this she used a viscous hybrid oil that she had to order from Denmark. It was a job she had been attending to, daily at first, now weekly, for almost a year: layer over layer, each one taking twenty four hours to dry, the room rendered unusable. Ensure the area is well ventilated.
She poured it onto the soap clean surface and massaged it in with her bare hands, as if it were a Kobi beef cow. Her fingers pushed and pulled in circular motions until all was even and gleaming.

In half an hour she would remove the excess, as per instructions, with the old silk camisole: once the pride of her underwear drawer.

The idea is that there should be a spark between the two ‘verses,’ a relationship but not a too obvious one. I've recently changed that last sentence from 'the old silk camisole her groom once slipped from her shoulders.' I realised that that narrowed down the possible interpretations. I do have a tendency to place rather heavy sign posts in my work that say 'this is what it's about,' which is incredibly boring of me, and as Jimmy McGovern once said 'I'd rather be confused for ten minutes than bored for five seconds.' This means that the editing process is mostly about cutting stuff out. I have to read my work over and over again to try and ascertain what can, what needs to, be taken out. Though not always.

My longer story, being a different type of thing altogether, needs stuff added. Writing the very short stuff has changed the way I approach fiction writing. My actual thoughts seem to be edited down to the bone. I start off the way I always have: with an image, but now I seem unable to answer my own questions: 'why is she doing that?' 'what's driving her (or him)?' In this case I have an image of a woman out shopping who chooses clothes that she feels make her look like certain film characters. She rejects a dress that looks fabulous on her because it reminds her of her war bride grandmother. I've got myself all tangled up as to why. The back-story is the story, but I can't write it. It's driving me nuts. I either need to strip it right down and leave it up to the reader or I need to explicate. I suppose I could do both and see which works better, but I'm running out of time. Time can be such a bastard. Sometimes lack of it can spur you on, but at other times it can paralyse and that is what it's doing to me at the moment.

The other pieces fit more with the very short stories, are much more about cutting out superfluous material. The two narrative poems both started out as prose pieces. One a story of my own that my tutor suggested turning into a poem and the other an Inuit tales, also at his suggestion. It’s bad enough cutting out my own words, like cutting up favourite dresses that no longer suit the times, but doing it to someone else’s feels truly presumptuous. There’s no way I’d have tried if Tom hadn’t made an explicit request. And if I hadn’t read Christopher Logue’s War Music in which he reworks Homer’s Iliad I don’t think I’d have been able to continue. Logue gave me the added permission that I needed. If someone can mess with Homer, I thought, then perhaps it is OK for me to mess with this. And I’m so glad of this because it was such fun seeing the poem come alive, feeling that I could do it, and although I don’t think it’s perfect yet I am quite pleased with the result. It is now a completely different thing to the original story, in the same way that a film of a novel and the novel itself are quite distinct, the translation – for that is what it is – requires new words and a new approach. Hopefully this brings something to, if not the original itself, the conversation it is part of.

The final piece is the radio drama. This came about because we were asked to write the blurbs for three possible novels and when my tutor read one of mine he said, ‘this is a ten minute radio play!’ So off I went and had a look at the BBC website on how to write a radio play and had a go. I was rather bamboozled by all the stuff on radio drama, for example: ‘Radio is not about sound, it is about significant sound.’ I had no idea what that meant, but gradually by listening to plays on the radio and to what radio dramatists have said, I got into it. Dialogue is that last thing you must think about. First you must imagine the scene and translate it into sound. My scene is the household of a woman, suddenly single with two young children, whose brother, a born again philosophy student, keeps phoning her and quoting odd existentialist phrases. She is confused and has lost control of her life. So the sounds are of pots and pans clanking and boiling over, oven timers going off, the phone ringing, the brother’s voice, and children trying to get her attention. This has been enormous fun to do. I did, of course, begin with the dialogue but the more I thought about the other sounds the more I was able to cut from the chat. It’s now about fifty-fifty stage directions and dialogue. I’ve still only written the first scene but I have bits of the next one on index cards and hope to get time to do more over Christmas.

So that’s my third folio nearly completed. Next semester will be totally different, more of which later.


Conan Drumm said...

Really interesting, Eryl. I've come to believe myself - as you allude to when you say "I realised that that narrowed down the possible interpretations" - that most forms of art allow the reader/viewer latitude to project their own meaning/interpretation on to them. Hence all the paring away.

Now I'm left considering the importance of that last comma in the Amy Hempel story. The housewife's single touchstone becomes two. So I ask myself, does she need two handles to keep her grip?

Eryl Shields said...

God you're good, Conan.

And, yes, I agree: craft becomes art when it causes/allows some sort of mental action in its audience.

Conan Drumm said...

I don't know about that, Eryl.

I was struck by it being one sentence. Then looked at where the breaths are, and the glance back at herself of "for whatever was left to her of that day".

It is so much harder to see and to edit what one has written oneself, I find.

PI said...

I wondered if the comma was a typo.
I think you have lots of bright green shoots coming up there.

Kim Ayres said...

The way I met our ex-Moffat friend, Mary, was because we both entered a Flash Fiction competion - I can't remember if it was under 200 words or under 50. However, I loved the idea of trying to convey as much as possible in as short a space as possible. It subsequently effected the way I've approached many of my blog posts too - especially the short ones, or conversation snippets. Keep paring down, remove anything that's unnecessary, try and create a bigger and bigger picture, hinted at outside the frame.

However, it's screwed me up for being able to write anything longer than a blog post...

scarlet-blue said...

Hello Eryl,
I'm a fan of flash fiction. I enjoy reading and writing it. I think it utilises the reader's imagination and makes the reader do most of the work.
I liked the old silk camisole.
At the moment I'm working on a film adaptaption of one of my short stories for my OU course.. it's tough.. I'm working on visuals. It's all to do with the power of visual suggestion..
Good luck with the radio play.

Eryl Shields said...

Conan ~ I find it just about impossible to edit my own work, it takes a long, long time. But your advice to me once, to read out loud, has helped enormously.

Pat ~ I just had a check of the original to make sure, a comma in such a short story makes all the difference, as Conan has shown.

Kim ~ I know what you mean, I have to work really hard now to write anything longer than a thousand words, I'll be delivering blank pages soon!

Scarlet ~ Hello! A film, gosh, I haven't tried that yet. Good luck with it.

savannah said...

i read this entry twice, but with a few days between readings. the first read was too quick for form a proper respond and now, this reading is leading me off to the bookstore to find amy hempel. your problem with backstory almost overtaking the actual story is a situation that is familiar to me, but for another reason (other than writing)having to do with advertising and surprisingly, with economic development. you've started me thinking about a whole new approach to a new project. xoxo

Eryl Shields said...

I'm intrigued Savannah! XXX

Kanani said...

Amy Hempel and Carver both workshopped and were edited by Gordon Lish.

I spent 3 years working with a minimalist teacher through the creative writing program. You take the good with the bad, and once you get out --ah, the journey of finding your true voice begins.

Mary Witzl said...

It's so important to try and make every word count -- and to take out the ones that don't.

I come to this after a day of trimming down my WIP. I keep finding extraneous bits that I was sure were great stuff. The more I take off, the better it looks. God -- did I just write that? You know I mean words, right?

Eryl Shields said...

Kanani ~ 3 years, crikey!

Mary ~ Actually, I'm glad you clarified that, now you're living in such a warm climate and all.

PI said...

A successful writer once told me the parts you are most proud of are most likely the ones you should cut.

Conan Drumm said...

Hope all goes well with the work delivery today!

Eryl Shields said...

Pat ~ I've heard that too, those apparently clever little lines that sparkle at you but dominate and don't fit the whole.

Conan ~ Thanks hon, I've tied it up with string and am about to drive it to its destination.

The World According To Me said...

I love the ‘sound’ of your radio drama! I’d like to hear it.

‘I'd rather be confused for ten minutes than bored for five seconds.' I’ll remember that when I suspect I’m being confusing. And then I'll think to myself, at least I'm not boring!

Eryl Shields said...

World ~ I thought that too, about not being boring that is.

PI said...

Have a happy holiday Eryl - don't work too hard and I hope 2009 will be rewarding and happy for you on all counts.xox

Conan Drumm said...

Happy Christmas Eryl, and best wishes to you and the family for 2009.

problemchildbride said...

Happy Christmas to you, Eryl

Eryl Shields said...

Pat ~ Same to you dolly and thanks, XXX

Conan ~ You too. I'm sitting here, now everyone's gone to bed, puffing on my present: a pipe; can you believe it!?

Sam ~ And you darl, and you X

Kim Ayres said...

Hope you all had a great day :)

scarlet-blue said...

Merry Xmas to you too!
Have a good one!