..............commentary  
 

WRITING STORIES

(see also my reflections on short stories I've read)

 
 

 

Writing short stories is a strange and fascinating experience. You have an idea, a scene is set, and off you go. You can, for instance, just launch into it as if enlightening someone to something you witnessed, and let things develop naturally as events take place, one thing leading to another. Sounds easy; and occasionally it is - in fact it usually is if one's imagination is working well. But without certain qualities your story can turn into a dull succession of trivia that would fail to grip even the most determined reader.

So, quite apart from the mystery of 'what happens next' you have to surreptitiously weave in a kind of enthusiasm, as though it really mattered to the person writing it. This means, for me at any rate, that one needs to be in the right frame of mind. Most days when I sit in front of the computer doodling at this and that, trying to start a story, nothing comes of it. Everything I write peters out after a page or two, or else becomes so much drivel. Occasionally something begins to turn into a plausible story, and then after several pages the imagination dries up - or the original idea suddenly begins to evolve into something ludicrous. But when a reasonable story does emerge and take shape and eventually conclude satisfactorily, then I regard it as a lucky strike. Even then, the chances are that when I go back and read it I find fault after fault. It could be problems with logic, boring sections with unnecessary or excessive description, or merely the rhythm of sentences. There could be too frequent use of banal words, which dull the effect; or too many adjectives, an excess of passive words... many things can be wrong. So I start correcting, cutting, augmenting, etc. And when I go back and read it a second time, it's lost all spontaneity - that sparkling quality which often comes from simply spilling out a story in one gush, so to speak.

On those extremely rare occasions - rare for me, that is - when a story seems to write itself, apparently straight from the imagination and out onto the screen so that virtually no correcting can improve it, then one gets a taste of that unique warmth which is the true reward of creating. But even that can be an illusion. The story has to appear equally good the next day, and again the next week. How often I've written a story and felt that sense of accomplishment, only to discover when I read it the next day that it's CRAP! But if that doesn't happen, then it's ready to show around, so then it has to grip others too. Only when that happens can it be regarded, so far as I'm concerned, anywhere near a success.

A few details I try to remember:

If a story starts going in a different direction to that intended, then one has to pause and make a decision: to convey the intended story/message OR just tell a good story - usually you have to be lucky or well-experienced to get both at the same time.  

The direction of a story when you let it develop naturally (without trying to steer it in any particular way) is a 'right' brain phenomenon - it’s where creative energy originates… whereas the ‘intention’ (trying to steer it) is a 'left' brain act – the conscious, and the intellect. So you have to decide: do I make a good story OR write of what I consciously prefer? Both is usually only possible after years (maybe decades) of practice... didn't someone work-out that to achieve full proficiency in any art requires about 10,000 hours of practice - which for most people equates to about 10-years?

Whenever I've bailed-out and not written as the flow of the story is taking me (because it was going towards events I preferred to avoid, or just wasn’t exploring issues I’d intended), I might still have ended-up with a story, but duller than otherwise (probably) - and lacking, in part, that natural flow that emerges when you let a story carry you along as if you're mesmerised by events as they unfold unexpectedly even to you as you write (which is a good part of the secret to writing creatively)! 

I think some of the most successful creative writers have had traumatic childhoods because their work is often horrible – which, curiously, attracts most readers (I guess it’s the exaggerated drama and shock that jolts people away from their routine humdrum lives). I had a relatively pleasant/easy childhood - except school (which I can't say was in any real sense traumatic) so writing horrid stuff like about explosions and war and similar doesn't come naturally to me. Weird things are more my line - for some obscure reason - like sci-fi or some peculiar events as transpired in my story 'Fired' or 'The Bohemian' or even 'The Wild Beach' or 'Travelling' (none of which are sci-fi).

Set (and people) the scene, and just see what happens. If it goes off on an unintended tangent every time, then try adjusting the initial scene, or maybe introduce a powerful character who steers things the way you want.

To write a good yarn, though, you have to practice being a good liar - unless your life is unusually 'interesting' and you can generate some gripping autobiographical tales (many writers' work consists of variations on autobiography... and waking dreams of what could be or have been). Pretend, too, you're telling just one person who knows you and would detect any artifice or attempt to tart-up the language or story. That way it should be more natural. Don't worry about errors or weird sentences till after you've written the story, because then you go back and smooth out the faults and make a good first paragraph (easier once you know the whole story) - so the reader gets hooked straight away and then carried easily along. Sometimes writers work out a story by tracing back from a final key dramatic scene or clever twist, then inventing a first dramatic gripping event that leads to that preconceived conclusion.

* * * * *

I believe it's true to say that literature, fiction at any rate, loses its copyright 50 years after the death off the author. This means that anyone can publish it - which explains the existence of all those cheap Wordsworth classics and the like. Well, I discovered a website created by someone, or some people, who have generously taken a great deal of trouble to publish for us some of the best literature available. The site is: online-literature . See also the vast library available free at Project Gutenberg .

And if you go there you'll find, for instance, more than 200 Chekhov short stories. Some of these, in my view, are amongst the most outstanding short stories ever written. 'The Bet' and 'The Black Monk' are superb and have both been on radio. 'The Steppe' is really a novella, but is excellent in every way. My favourite of those I've read is 'On the Road' (not to be confused with Kerouac's much longer masterpiece of that name) which when I first read it almost 20 years ago had been translated as 'On the Way' (a more apt title, I thought, due to the ambiguous slant in the word 'Way'). This for me is the perfect short story. As I start to read it, before I know anything, I'm present in the room in the tavern, sitting in a corner watching, the wind howling outside and roaring down the chimney of the stove, snowflakes chasing wildly around the window - the whole atmosphere, everything. Then soon, once the characters are all presented to us in no more than essential detail (detail so telling yet so elusive to my own imagination when I attempt a story), we are dished up with an irresistible potted life-history of the co-protagonist, which is set out with such perfection that it seems no-one could improve it either by adding or taking away, or for that matter by any alteration.

However, if you then take a look at 'A Blunder' (672 words) or 'A Chameleon' (1393 words) or 'A Classical Student' (1178 words) - to pick just the first three stories, you'll see that even the great master Chekhov did not always shine. We are lucky to have these inferior pieces to give us the feeling that if that's the work of a genius writer, then there's hope - just a glimmer maybe - for us normal folk who aspire to amuse others with little stories.

But those 'attempts' by Chekhov are perhaps equivalent to the 'hurried' pencil sketches of Turner, for example, and actually contain a lot that I'm unable to recognise. One key reputed quote from Chekhov that helped inspire me to attempt all these weird stories and essays and so on, is:

'... ... only he is an emancipated thinker who is not afraid to write foolish things.'

I might add: 'Or is afraid to write badly.' As I've said, sometimes the ability to write a worthy story eludes one like money eludes the habitual gambler. But at those wonderful exceptional moments when one's frame of mind is perchance in the ideal state - and one can never know beforehand how it will be - a story will fall almost perfect from your fingers in a brief couple of hours, as if - clichés aside - by magic. Effortless, simple and delightful, like making a good cake. If only it worked every time, like the cake.

But I guess that's the unpredictable nature of creativity (however inferior): infuriatingly elusive but poised to spring out unexpectedly at any time. And the law of reversed effort applies as much here as it does to other activities in life that demand spontaneity: ie, sex, sneezing and yawning - to name three (and deliberately avoiding super-deep philosophical jaunts).

I don't pretend I can ever hope to create well enough to get published - that is, to sell. Apart from technical reports I wrote nothing before I was forty-something, so what can I expect? It takes years of practice, like playing a violin well, not so much to learn technique as to mould the brain.

But there's always a chance for amateurs who after just a scrap of experience can, when they're on form, beguile a moderate audience. When I reflect on the fact that I first tried to write stories when I was older than Chekhov when he died (of TB in 1904 at the age of 44), I realise with resounding clarity that I'm starting some 30 or 40 years late. The 'wiring' in my brain is no more oriented to creative writing than to playing a violin - because I did neither in my teens or early 20s. There are two keys, though: First - as I've mentioned before - is Hemingway's 100% shit-detector; and second, the determination to give it a go. As for motivation - that's another issue …

The following story (originally titled 'The Essence of Time') was written in Sept 2001 - according to the date on the computer file properties menu. The title and idea are both entirely Rod's. He gave me a few details for the beginning of the story and then left me to it; it was an idea, he said, that he'd have liked to write himself, but thought I'd make a much better job. I'm not so sure about that, but I believe that if someone has a good story idea they should at least make a stab at it themselves. Anyhow, I listened to what he said and set to work. But quite soon the story begins to veer from where the title implied it should be going. So much for original plans when it comes to story writing and creativity. Even so, I let it drift on, ludicrous as it became, and this is what I ended up with - less gripping and original than if Rod had written it, I'm sure, and maybe he should have given me more to go on of what he imagined, since my imagination is frustratingly limited these days. But, faults an' all, here it is: renamed 'THE MOUSE'


 

 

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