Where the People Are

This Week’s Bit of String: Three kids and a saw

Visiting my parents’ New Hampshire town several summers ago, my husband and I wandered down the pre-re-vitalised Main Street. In front of a once fine, colonial-style house now leaning and peeling, a little boy stood barefoot on the drive, twirling a rusted coping saw. Two small girls watched from the weedy front lawn, their expressions grave.

A scrawny mum in a nightdress shouted at them to get inside and watch TV. My husband and I exchanged looks. Were these the Small Town Values politicians always banged on about?

Trees at dawn, towering over traffic lights
The Leafy Suburbs.

What bothers me about the Small Town Values spiel isn’t that it writes off the city as immoral; morality is irrelevant. (How dull would our writing be if everyone were moral?) It’s that it abets the impression that small towns are idyllic places where nothing bad ever happens. It minimises the challenges faced by those living there.

It’s the same on this side of the ocean. I worked in one of the biggest secondary schools in a large county, but our school was populous mainly because it drew on twenty-something ‘feeder’ primary schools, some from very small towns. Government inspectors seemed dismissive of our students’ issues because we were based in ‘the leafy suburbs.’

However, our area is also classed as one of ‘rural deprivation,’ with an exceptionally high incidence of substance abuse and mental disabilities. These places are still riddled with real people, living hard stories.

Finding the Ideas

In my writing, I like setting longer projects in small towns, or at least not very big cities. Yes, my life experience has been gained there, but also it’s easier to tie threads together. You get added layers when your characters already know each other, or at least pass each other by with some regularity.

Blackboard outside pub reading: Vacancy, Customers Required...
Also the Leafy Suburbs.

For shorter projects, though, the city is magic. Every person is a puzzle, and the way they brush by creates a range of potential interaction. It’s easy to find surprising juxtapositions: A mobile lingerie fitting shop setting up next to some well-jacketed, buttoned-up Jehovah’s witnesses and their pamphlets. A vegan Indian food stall next to one selling leather goods. Everyone is a stranger and capable of surprise; a twist here can easily be summed up in a sentence or a symbol.

I’m currently reading Flaneuse, Lauren Elkin’s tribute to women who don’t just explore the city, but absorb it. I picked this book up inspired by a recent Women Writers Network Twitter chat (see other great recommendations here) about women writing the city. Our reasons for celebrating this are best summed up by Sarah Waters in The Paying Guests. “She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she walked, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery, to become charged. Yes, that was it, she thought as she turned a corner: it wasn’t a liquid creeping, it was a tingle, something electric, something produced as if by the friction of her shoes against the streets. She was at her truest, it seemed to her, in these tingling moments–these moments when, paradoxically, she was at her most anonymous.”

It’s possible that the more our selves diminish, the more our surroundings gain stature, free to sow new ideas.

With their relentless array of sights and sounds, urban areas are perfect for very short, or “flash” fiction. A flash piece is a kernel of story, minute and representative of possibility. The best ones are so tightly packed, you can’t unfurl them without damage. All you can do is peer at the coiled layers from the outside, maybe roll it on your tongue to taste the bitter or the sweet, never daring to crunch.

Bristol Flash Walk

I recently had a piece featured in Bristol’s Flash Walk, an event with flash fiction stories read at different points between the Harbour and Bedminster. All provided fascinating, quick glances into city encounters—past, actual, or merely longed-for. We strained over traffic and alarms and rivers and inquisitive children to hear each story, and this added to the excitement.

Bristol Harbour reading
Actor Christopher Ryan reads “The Prodigal” in the iconic Bristol Harbour, with Colston Tower in the background.

My contribution hovered dangerously near the maximum word count of 400 and was called “The Prodigal,” about the famous slave trader/ Bristol benefactor Colston. The opening line launches right in: “When Edward Colston revisited the city of his birth some three hundred and eighty years later, he saw his name etched blood-red across the sky.

After the reading, which met with great laughter and applause at the right places, my husband asked me, “So where did Colston appear from? The afterlife?”

“Oh, I don’t know. You don’t have to, with flash fiction.” I could be totally wrong about this. But to me, that’s what suits flash fiction to city writing. You don’t have to look too deeply because something else comes along. I don’t know if I could finish a long project based in a city; I’d become distracted, I’d sink beneath the weight of all the what-ifs.

Escape to the Country

I tend to leave a city with a handful of kernels as well as some possible story-seeds. If I transplant a person or scenario from a more populous area to a smaller town or to a rural spot, it has room to grow. I can also gain a little control over other affecting factors and narrow down plot ideas.

Tail to tail, the swans fortify their nest.
“No luck hatching them swans, then?”

When I polled Twitter, more than half respondents (58%) said countryside wanders were better than city ones for gathering ideas. I love the countryside, but I often need an idea already germinating in my mind for these hikes to be fruitful in terms of story development.

I just can’t invent things without people to base them on. Though it’s lovely walking with no one else around, I find myself assigning human psychology to my surroundings anyway. The other day on a canal walk, I wondered if the young swan families at different points along the journey receive news of each other. Does Mrs. Stratford Park Swan know she’s the last one waiting for her eggs to hatch? Do Mr. and Mrs. Dudbridge Swan know the Eastington cygnets are only just learning to dive, and that the group has dwindled to 4? And do any of them know the whereabouts of the missing Ebley Swans? I imagined cunning mallards passing these tidbits on. Possibly trading gossip for a prime beakful of algae.

I don’t know if this shows a lack of imagination in me, or a surplus of projection. But this is how I tend to work: tugging bits of string out from the city and puttering with them in as close to the wilderness as I can find. Or, in my daily smaller-town life, suddenly realising that the customer or bus passenger I keep seeing is a massive multicoloured spool of thread just waiting for my mind to get tangled in.

Short Stuff

This Week’s Bit of String: Though she be little…

When I was a teaching assistant, most of my students were taller than I was. During my first year, I supported a particularly boisterous Year 9 class, and as I was trying to settle them one day, a very tall boy who later got expelled for bringing brass knuckles to school loomed over me with a grin. ‘Miss, you’re small.’

‘Yes—but mighty. Sit down!’ And would you believe it, he did. For a little while.

Statue of a 'Muse' from Roman times.
Also at the Louvre: Roman statue of a Muse. Finally found her!

Any fans of art and literature will know decreased size doesn’t detract from power. At the Louvre, I was struck by how small the Mona Lisa was—seemingly no bigger than a standard A4 sheet of paper. Meanwhile, on the opposite wall hung a massive depiction of the wedding at Cana, Jesus’ first miracle. Which does everyone remember? By creating a small portrait, Da Vinci drew focus to just one figure, and the nuances of her expression. With large-scale pictures of entire scenes, it’s hard for viewers to settle their attention.

Beginning, Middle, and End

So it can be with short stories versus novels. I’ve written previously about the implications of each literary form, but I’ve been doing more short story research lately. I covered Raymond Carver and Alice Munro, since they’re seen as greats in the genre, and I read a volume by Annie Proulx, because I loved The Shipping News. As someone always seeking story ideas (knowing that many of those ideas will turn only into notes, snapshots, or vignettes rather than actual stories), I enjoyed studying these works and wondering, What was the starting point for this story? How did the writer make it work?

Certainly the hardest thing for me in turning an idea into a story is ensuring development; pinpointing a beginning, middle, and end. The short story is more flexible than the novel. Equal attention need not be paid to beginning, middle, and end—one or more can merely be implied. Munro likes starting stories with a little anecdote that happens later, or with someone looking back to a seemingly random detail. And a few of Carver’s and Proulx’s stories left the endings ambiguous.

Mountainside view of the Swift Diamond River, bordered by pines, in New Hampshire
Ah, the mountains, rivers, and woods of home…

My favourites were a couple of Carver’s stories, “Cathedral” and “A Small Good Thing,” both stories that realistically but surprisingly diffused tension between very different characters with warmth. I also loved Annie Proulx’s “The Unclouded Day,” not just for its great title and the description of my native New England wild places. There was its completeness, and humour with just enough insight into the protagonist to sense good intentions. Again, there was warmth in this story.

That’s my personal taste: a story can narrate a bleak event (for example, the death of a child, as in “A Small Good Thing”), so long as there’s an element of kindness between at least a couple of the characters. And yes, I do like a decent arc, no matter how short: you don’t have to give me the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but I’d jolly well like an idea of where the colours lead.

Short Story Round-Up

On Twitter, I asked about other writers’ favourite short stories, and their own criteria for a great one. Stephen Tuffin, who recently judged and hosted a fabulous new event, The Squat Pen Rests championship in short fiction, provided a thorough endorsement of Truman Capote. I have to agree; his “A Christmas Memory” is my absolute favourite in the festive season.

Stephen also tweeted about what makes a great story: ‘A great short has to leave me with an afterglow. As if I’ve been gifted something meaningful and relevant. Great shorts need more reader input but the effort is rewarding and leaves me feeling I’ve been shown another world, different but the same as my own.’

The short story volumes on my bookshelves
Shelfie from my short stories section

Fantasy author Grace Crandall recommends Ray Bradbury’s stories. I had actually read “The Foghorn” just the other week, when a friend at a discussion group provided it as an example of a great, atmospheric tale. Grace says, ‘‘‘The Rocket” and “The Beggar of O’Connell Bridge” are two of my favorites of his. I think a big key to short stories is having a conclusive emotional arc, and he’s such an expert at delving into human nature and feelings.’

Science fiction writer Madd_Fictional, curator of celebrated writing hashtag #SlapDashSat, recommends Harlan Ellison: ‘Nothing like a good speculative fiction short story that presents a left-of-center theme, laced with poignant social commentary that usually features protagonists who are morally ambiguous.’ Sounds good to me!

Finally, Laurie Garrison of the invaluable Women Writers School pointed me toward Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” because it portrays ‘a whirlwind of emotion in just a few hundred words. And there’s such brilliant irony to it.’ It’s another perfect little complete tale.

What are your favourite short stories, and have you encountered any particular challenges in reading or writing them?

The Most Important Things

This Week’s Bit of String: X marks the ballot

On election day last week, a diverse crew of Labour supporters gathered outside our office, wearing red and waving signs, grinning and rallying the passing cars to vote Labour. Their children picked wildflowers from the abundance sown alongside our building, and adorned the letters of the company sign. Some drivers responded with quick, ecstatic bursts from the car horn, while a few leaned on their horns for the whole of the roundabout, sounding more angry than excited. Tories, perhaps.

It was a high-stakes election, and all sorts of communication went into it. Politicians prepared statements and debate answers; reporters wittingly or not, justly or not, influenced the result. I was riveted by satire writers, meme tinkerers, and ordinary people who composed heartfelt social media posts or acerbic ripostes, finally culminating in a single cross on a ballot.

In the grand scheme of world events, that x could be the most important letter they ever wrote. Even after the votes are counted, we can’t be certain how the outcome will colour our local and national politics.

Labour supporters in Stroud during the general election
Rallying support

I didn’t get a say in this election. I’ve lived here almost thirteen years but haven’t purchased citizenship yet (it doesn’t come cheap). However, I did plant my x on absentee ballots for the American primary and election last year, and although it’s sometimes tempting to feel voiceless in that result, too—who can say? The current American president, the supposed leader of the free world, lost the popular vote by millions. Our x’s must be eating away at the administration, necessitating defensive action from the start.

We can’t possibly realise the full impact of what we write. So how do we judge its importance?

Defining Importance

Firstly, we don’t have to. Our writing doesn’t have to be important, or epic, or historically significant. We can write whatever we want, a vast array of things that can be anything to anyone, or just to ourselves.

But I think we are driven, as human beings and not just creative people, to impact the world, or our immediate circle, in a positive and lasting way. The striving for significance, or ‘generativity,’ is the pinnacle of various psychological theories on personal development. I tell myself, maybe my writing will foster empathy somewhere, will convince a few people to listen to each other and be slower to judge.

I may never know if that’s the case. Still, I’ve come up with four qualities of importance:

Longevity: The piece of writing has lasting consequences, and/or invites repeated readings.

Believability: The writing expresses something we can connect to and accept as truth—even if that truth becomes outdated, e.g. a love letter from an ex. You know it was true once, and that gives some comfort.

Motivation: It induces reader(s) to change, or gives them the strength to keep holding on.

Possibility: An important piece of writing will at least hint at hope. It’s the foundation for all the rest.

* Things an important piece of writing doesn’t have to be: long, formal, or public. *

What About You?

What’s the most important thing you’ve ever written? I started a little Twitter discussion on this, and loved reading people’s answers. Please do comment with more!

Sunlight shining onto woodland path
Illuminating the path

YA and SciFi writer Kathryn Alton wrote a short story about postnatal depression. ‘It was the only way to bleed the darkness out of my head and battle the demons in the light.’ She has kept it private for the time being, proof that the written word’s power does not depend on publicity. Sometimes the process influences us as deeply as the result.

Stephen McGrath, author of Enso and Bound in Neon, mentioned his personal statement for law school as his most important piece of writing, because it was ‘a rare time when I was unapologetically me.’ The paper asked him to write about a personal journey, and he took his chance. ‘Did it affect anyone? Me. One hundred percent.’

These answers take me back to why we write. We write to make sense of the world and clarify our path in it. There’s nothing selfish in writing something personal. It could be the work which strengthens us to write something that changes other people’s lives down the line, but it all starts within.

Andrea Stanford is Twitter’s ‘c00lestmom,’ and I can personally vouch for the accuracy of her handle, which is reflected in the incredible coolness of her kids. She considers her speech for her sister’s wedding the most important thing she ever wrote. ‘I’ve never poured myself into anything like that before or since.’

What a coincidence. Giving a toast at my brother’s wedding three weeks ago occasioned the ponderings that led to this post. I mentioned last week it was one of the most important things I’d ever written. Not because of trying to teach some kind of lesson, but because it was a chance to convey an inkling of what someone dear means to me.

When each election seems explosive, leaving us drained and slightly adrift, maybe the result we most desperately want from our writing is to illuminate where we stand on the issues confronting us, or to assure our loved ones of their value.

What’s the most important thing you’ve written?