Day# 11964 – Self Assessment (2016)

I had a lot of fun writing in 2016.  I completed six stories which I will try to find a home for elsewhere (once they are absolutely ready to go) but I also really enjoyed trying things out and putting one word after another.

Reviewing the work I posted to Digestive Press in the last twelve months, some themes crop up – absurd notions, simple ideas with anticlimactic endings, pieces in which I tried to use vagueness as a tool not an obstacle.  I have also been making a conscious effort to use simple language and as few words as possible.  These intentions are, I think, demonstrated in the pieces I have picked out below  – these are my favourite things I put up last year:

Firstly, this poem from January, in which I had some fun resenting having to get up in the mornings: Smash The Snooze Button

Then in April I wrote this piece on the same day I demolished the shed.  It was an attempt to write a conversation in which something fantastic could be happening, but isn’t: But Not Which One

A couple of pieces from June.  Firstly, this classroom drama:  Notes On The Texture Of

And then this poem, written in Summer but thinking of Winter: Enter Your Email For A Chance To Win

In July, when the football was on, I imagined a bizarre – yet plausible – scenario: Numerous Zeros

And this one from the same month – only 52 words, but I was pleased with the effect achieved: Seems

Finally, from September, a thing that I suppose is about exactly what it says in the title : How Badly I Wanted The Hat

 

 

Writing About Something

They warn you pretty early on against ending stories with the sentence, “and then he woke up and it was all a dream,” but sometimes that’s what happens and there is no escaping it.  And sometimes what you want to write about is the feeling you have on waking, a feeling that might be intangible like a conspiracy theory, but important like a house falling down.  The kind of thing that follows you around all day, but on which there is no narrative structure you can hang this feeling, the way you can hang a coat on a chair to dry.

Day #11944

As someone who writes pretty much in isolation, sometimes it feels like the me that writes stories is an alter ego of the day-to-day ‘real life’ me.  (Hi, if you’re reading – hope your day is going well.  Remember to get some milk while you’re out there please).

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I felt this disconnection even more after disappearing from my normal life for a week in October to attend, for the first time, a week-long Arvon course.  The course was entitled Short Stories: Towards A Collection and involved me being one of sixteen students spending five days with two tutors – the writer Michele Roberts and Jim Hinks, an editor at Comma Press (who publish Adam Marek and Hasin Blasim and lots of other great stuff).  This all took place at The Hurst, a lovely old house in the Shropshire Hills which was previously owned by the playwright John Osborne.

Without rambling on too much about it, I can tell you that it was an excellent week spent with a group of lovely and talented people.

It is difficult to explain or describe being there because it was a bubble we inhabited for a short time, and a kind of infectious mania slowly took hold – which skews my memories of the week somewhat.  Parts of each day were spent writing in workshops, then there was time to write alone and some time spent reading work aloud.  There were a lot of conversations about writing and more specifically about writing short stories – conversations I don’t usually have.  Plus, the house had a fantastic kitchen and a fantastic library, both of which we were free to enjoy.

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My instinct was, of course, to take some pictures of The Hurst before I left, but then I decided against it, to keep it just in my memory.  Hopefully I will have chance to return in the not too distant future.  I did take one picture however:

This strange ceramic bird stands in the entrance hall – a kind of totemic welcoming party.  I identified it as a cassowary, but have no idea if this is correct or not.  Nevertheless, one of my course-mates issued a challenge in response to my picture – a 500 word story about the cassowary.

Another of my course-mates, Valerie, responded with a beautifully realised little piece of work about John Osborne’s relationship with the cassowary.  Encouraged by other members of the group, she forwarded the piece to one of the coordinators of the centre.

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In this blogpost, Natasha Carlish, who had welcomed us to The Hurst on the first day of our visit, published Valerie’s cassowary piece, and reflected on the challenges she had encountered in her first three years of working at Arvon.

What I liked about this blog post was Natasha’s reaction to Valerie’s sharing of her piece – it took me back to the final night of our time at the centre, in which each of us read some of our own work to the group.  There were – of course – some nerves, but slowly an event that had been approached with trepidation revealed itself to be a vital and victorious ending to our little week-old community.

In short, it reminded me about why we share stories – to try and make connections between our own separate realities.

I Don’t Want To Worry You

You looked worried but I worried that if I asked you about it, you might be more worried – sometimes when you are worried you don’t like to think about your worrying worrying me, but this means I worry that you are worrying about something and not telling me about it, because you worry so much about my worrying about you.  I want to tell you this, because I’ve been worrying about it, but I don’t want to worry you.  I do not want to worry you.

Day #11929 – Goodreads Updates: Short Story Collections

PondPond by Claire-Louise Bennett

Are these short stories or a novel? Nobody seems quite sure what it is, so I think it would be best to just categorise under bloody good writing. Reflecting the rhythm of idle thoughts, these tales – or tale – of a young woman living alone in a house in Ireland is a peaceful read, not a difficult read, but all the more thought-provoking for it. Strange, new, beautiful.

My DocumentsMy Documents by Alejandro Zambra

The title of this collection refers, of course, to the name of the file on a personal computer and, fittingly, this is a selection of what feel like quite autobiographical stories. Computers play a part in a number of these stories too – for example one tells the story of the human protagonist but only over the lifespan of a certain computer he owned. Zambra writes with a confident, unshowy style which leaves you wondering quite why you are enjoying reading him, though it is clear you are enjoying reading him – maybe because of his honesty and his insight, little poetic touches.

For Esme—With Love and Squalor, and Other StoriesFor Esme—With Love and Squalor, and Other Stories by J.D. Salinger

I read a lot of Salinger this summer – pretty much everything that isn’t ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ – and found that pretty much all of it is pretty great. My favourite of his short novels about the fictional Glass family was ‘Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters’, in which Buddy Glass finds himself in an awkward situation at a wedding gone wrong.

The first story in this collection is ‘A Perfect Day For Bananafish’, which features Seymour Glass – subject of much hero worship in the other Glass stories. This seems to be Salinger’s most famous short piece, but the two I want to concentrate on are the titular piece and one called ‘Just Before The War With The Eskimos.’

The appeal of that second story is difficult to explain – it revolves around some chance encounters which Salinger shows us, and whilst not a lot happens, so much is hinted at. It feels like we are seeing just a small portion of these characters’ lives and that the references they make and the things that seem important to them are intriguing.

The story ‘For Esme – With Love And Squalor’ is a miniature masterpiece in two parts. In the first, an American soldier stationed in England during the war is engaged in conversation by a teenage girl, for whom he promises to write a story. As they part, she tells him: “I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact.”

Inevitably, when we catch up with the narrator again, the war is over but his faculties are not intact. This, he explains, is the squalid part of the story. Between the two halves, it encapsulates so much of Salingers work – gentle encounters, with a sense that crisis always awaits around the corner.

The Not-Dead and The Saved and Other StoriesThe Not-Dead and The Saved and Other Stories by Kate Clanchy

For reasons that must only be commercial, novels are expected to last around 250-300 pages and so short story collections seem to have to be about the same size, which is ridiculous and a shame because they should just be as long as they need to be. And if this had been about 150 pages long it would have been perfect because there are that many fantastic pieces of writing here, but then there’s some that just aren’t as good and it distracts from the great stuff. The titular piece, which won the BBC National Short Story Award, is a poetic, intense, funny tale of life, illness and death, and stands out as a highlight.

What We Talk About When We Talk About LoveWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

I kept getting told to read Carver and eventually I gave in and got a copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. This is a set of spare, terse little encounters which nevertheless do not have the air of careful cultivation you might expect from something so minimal. These moments feel very real – none of the characters are happy, quite, they are just trying to get by, none of the endings are happy either, but then they don’t feel like endings. Clearly life will continue once the story ends.

No One Belongs Here More Than YouNo One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

These stories are bright, funny, weird – like tales told by a high school friend when you catch up with her years later and she is just as odd as she ever was. E.g. ‘Majesty’, in which the protagonist’s dream of an encounter with Prince William has a profound effect on her. She describes, “that day I carried the dream around like a full glass of water, moving gracefully so I would not lose any of it.” She imagines that the best way to meet him would be through her role as an earthquake safety expert. “Last year a little boy asked me what made me the expert, and I was honest with him. I told him I was more afraid of earthquakes than any person I know.”

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Awry [sketch]

Halfway through, what it becomes is a block of rough grey on a pale yellow background, but then it swirls away to get made – through some invisible process – in to a neat new suit.  “It needs taking in, just a little.”  “How long will that take?”  “Only a few days, call in at the end of the week.”  Adverts for running shoes and running kit and running and running and the joys of running.  A little plastic figurine popped out of a packet, played with, lost in the sand, eaten by the sea, bon voyage, bon apetit.  The pleasure of writing things down, tippy tappy tippy tappy, getting somewhere.  A block of rough grey on a pale yellow background.  A neat new suit.  “No, I would say that fits you perfectly.”  “Perfect.”  The calm rolling in of the year like a ball in to the pocket of a snooker table.  No ending where there’s supposed to be an ending.  An elbow jigged, a drink spilled, a stain slapped across a sleeve.  “Oh, I’m-“  “It’s nobody’s fault.”  Still.  Feet pounding, running, running, the joys of running.  A rough little shape, hard and difficult, lodged, impossible to get to go anywhere.

Collective Failure

“I love my hair in the winter,” she says, when it’s daylight outside, flinging it about.  It’s so cold.  “I can’t get the taste of soap out of my mouth,” he says, and he doesn’t even know where it came from.

Two in the afternoon and it was uncommonly dark with big grey clouds filling the sky and when people talked about it, making dulled observations to one another (“it’s so dark, you wouldn’t think it was two in the afternoon would you?”  “no, it’s like the middle of the night!”) , there was something in the tone of their voices to suggest culpability – as if to acknowledge their own part in chipping away at the world.

And when the rain fell there was hardly anything hard for it to fall on, so it fell softly on everyone and everywhere that was bundled up, covered in the protective layers that seemed necessary.

Time Spent In A Certain Café

Busy times are breakfast and lunch, that is when the café is full.  Then people start to notice and they aim instead for mid-morning and the point halfway between breakfast and lunch becomes a busy time.

This same couple always come to the cafe in either the gap between breakfast and the breakfast-lunch midpoint, or the gap between the breakfast-lunch midpoint and lunch.  They have a favourite table and, coming to the café when they do, they get to sit there nine times out of ten.  They always sit at a table for four, occupying just two of the seats – the two next to the window, so they are facing each other, and they always sit the same way round – he occupying the position facing the counter, she with her back to us.  They have a distinctive look – he is tall and pale, with fair hair and clothes that are tight against his body, she is short with long black hair and usually wears loose-fitting, flowing dresses.

There is one more thing.  When they come to our café, they always argue.

The kind of café we run is not one where we make friends with our regular customers, so we do not automatically start making their drinks when we see them come through the door, not that they always order the same thing anyway.  We might give them a quick smile of recognition as we take their order, but we don’t make small talk with them or ask how their day is going.

They always argue in the same way – quietly, tersely, their heads close together, as if their disagreements are about the fine details of their arrangements, negotiations, not big thematic decisions.

You have a theory.  “Maybe they only argue when they come here.  What if this is their one place where they can argue, it’s like a rule they have.  Maybe it stops them arguing anywhere else.”  You seem convinced.  I’m not so sure.  We have a rule – we never argue in the café, in front of the customers.  There is a little store cupboard just behind the counter, which is the perfect size for two people.

If everything is set up properly and run well, this is a steady business to be in.  It’s a good profession if you like things to go on for a long time.  There is no coffee season or tea close-season, there is no time of year when people stop talking to one another and sharing cake.

After a while, the young couple stop visiting the café.  There is no explanation for it, but then, why would there be, we cannot expect a letter of resignation whenever regular customers cease to visit.  We just don’t see them anymore.  You worry for a while that we might have done something – it is as though they are children for whom we should feel somehow responsible.

When the tall young man with the fair hair enters the room, the short, dark-haired young woman closes her notebook and places her pen on top of it.  He asks what she has been writing about and she tells him nothing much really.

He says he fancies a nice cup of coffee, tells her they should go out somewhere, how about that nice little café they used to go to but haven’t been in such a long time?  She scrunches up her face, then unscrunches it as she suggests a different place.

He doesn’t understand why recently she hasn’t wanted to go to the place they used to frequent regularly, a very nice little place where they had a favourite table and a quietly friendly relationship with the owners.  But he agrees to her counter-suggestion, it’s not a problem.

The short, dark haired young woman tells the tall young man with fair hair to give her a few minutes, she just needs to finish what she was doing.  He leaves the room.

But soon after that couple quit our café, this other young couple started coming.  They were more precise in their timing – they always came in the gap between the breakfast-lunch midpoint and lunch, in fact they were always in the gap between the breakfast-lunch midpoint and the breakfast-lunch to lunch midpoint.  

They too consist of a tall young man with fair hair and a short young woman with dark hair, but to us they appear inferior copies, like actors who have replaced the original actors in a favourite televison program.  And they don’t play the roles right, they chat in a relaxed manner and gaze lovingly at one another.  There doesn’t seem to be anything to them.  We start to resent their presence in our establishment, but there is no way we can ban them or fire them from their roles as café attendees, and no way we can write to the previous couple to invite them back.