Stewart Lee and Lydia Davis – linguistically related.

I think the American International Booker prize winning writer, Lydia Davis and the British comedian, Stewart Lee are linguistically related in their approach to writing short pieces. They each often turn words and sentences round and round to make a point. This is illustrated in the following clip from The Comedy Vehicle, Lee’s 2013 British TV. Here he riffs on a sentence he has heard in a taxi driver’s cab:  “These days, if you say you are English, you can be arrested and thrown in jail”. He reports the ensuing conversation with the taxi driver, repeating this sentence again and again with different emphases and variations until the taxi driver is worn down. What’s so great about the piece is that, as a listener, you get worn down by the repetition too – a brilliant tiny short story. It’s worth listening to the entire half an hour show to get a further variation of the taxi driver sentence right at the end. Stewart Lee’s performances are master classes in showing not telling. And this is a perfect example.

Lydia Davis’s flash fiction ‘A Mown Lawn’ does something similar.  She plays on the two words ‘mown lawn’  until as a reader you are almost sick of the repetition but quite enthralled. In the process, she says a lot about the state of America, just as Lee, in his piece,  points out the state of things in this country regarding immigration and prejudice.  Neither of them have said anything overtly.  I’m excited to find a clip of Lydia reading this story. Click here to listen.

The Freecycling Writer

I’ve been giving away  furniture on the Bristol freecycle site. Freecycling is great in all sorts of ways.  Everyone is pleased – people get things for free which would otherwise go to the dump and they come and take away stuff almost immediately, an amazing bonus. A lovely, cheerful guy spent ages dismantling a monster Ikea bed which a tenant had left in the house. A mother and daughter patiently took a sofa apart to get it through the door, two strong women hauled out a heavy washing machine. A woman whizzed in and filetted a battered leather sofa of its cushion stuffing. She’s making her own sofa from pallets and is going to send me a picture of her creation when it’s complete.

Freecycle is brilliant for writers who are looking for stories.  If you scan the daily digests of wants and offers, you get a window into people’s lives, those telling details that bring characters alive. Yesterday I saw a post from someone wanting a futon or old sofa. He said the sofa bed needed a firm mattress, enough to support a weight of ten stone.  Not really that heavy, you’d think. But in this case it was for his ten stone Great Dane who needed a comfortable new bed!  I do have a futon to shift, so maybe I will get to meet the man and his dog.

Last week there was a brilliant post from a man wanting to freecycle a surf board. I include it here with thanks to its author.

“Offer: One old and quite mangled green foam surfboard. It is approx 8ft, old school shape, single fin and made of soft foam, which is falling to bits. It’s probably just about surfable and guess it would be ok for messing about in the waves but not going to be great except for a laugh. Could possibly be repaired, but probably not worth it, unless you are desperate, or need a challenge. Would be good for fancy dress, or a theatrical prop, or some kind of strange project like some people seem to be doing.”

I like the idea of a story about a desperate surfer wanting a challenge, or a person involved in a strange project. I should write this story perhaps – a desperate older woman surfer in need of a new challenge in life…?

 

Listening as a writer

I worked for over twenty-five years as a Gestalt Psychotherapist and became an extremely good listener.  To listen well, you need to bring as much as yourself as possible to the encounter with another.  You shuttle between your own emotional and physical experience in response and notice how a person is speaking, as well as attending to the content.  The whole body and being are involved.

As a writer, when I create characters, they live and breathe in my imagination. I picture them moving around in their world, the sound of their voices, the expression on their faces. I ‘listen’ to them to understand their motivations, empathise with their situations and guess what they might think, feel and do. I am sure most writers do this.  Often, writers say their characters begin to have a life of their own – do surprising things.  But in order for those characters to stay convincing in their actions, it is necessary to pay them close attention.

Gestalt therapy is primarily concerned with raising awareness, and the Gestalt therapist’s focus  is to help a person become more aware of their experience – thoughts, feelings, sensations – in the present moment. In that way, change happens. Of course, there is a lot more to Gestalt therapy theoretically, (read more here) but the practice of awareness is something I always enjoyed.

Being immersed in awareness practices for years, doesn’t make it any easier to write. Sometimes I am only minimally aware of my bad writing habits. For example, I have just edited this blog and altered  clumsy sentences. I am sure there are others. If I look  carefully at my prose, read it out loud and listen, I can have moments of clarity.  One simple question I used to ask as a Gestalt therapist was: ‘What are you aware of right now?’  You could ask yourself the same question about your writing – eg. ‘What am I aware of about my writing style?’  Or ‘What am I aware of about the process of writing?’   Listen to the answer. For eg. I asked myself this question and became more  aware of constructing awkward sentences. I can’t explain the grammatical errors but if I refreshed my knowledge of grammar and understood what I was doing, it might help my writing in general – now that’s a new awareness.

When I was a psychotherapist, I sometimes used to read a poem or a short story before I started work, because it would put me in a different frame of mind and allow me to be aware of something different in myself or in the person I was working with. Reading before writing is a good practice to adopt.  Like a dream, the story or poem will feed your imagination, shift your awareness and help you listen to your characters in a different way.


 

Learning from prize anthologies and magazines

Today, the postie delivered not only the latest issue of The Stinging Fly – I’ve just subscribed–but also five copies of Fish Anthology 2014. I was so excited to see my runner-up flash fiction, ‘The Lottery’, in print that I ate six apricots one after the other.  Both books have absorbed me most of the day and it’s been fascinating reading such a variety of sparkling prose and poetry.

I began writing Flash Fiction after the short story writer and Arvon Tutor, Tania Hershman led a session on Flash at Mr B’s Emporium, Bath a couple of years ago which we organised at Writing Events Bath. I learned that Flash stories are one thousand words maximum and fifty words, or sometimes less, minimum. There are many different names for the form –smoke fiction, short shorts, drabbles, prose poetry, to name a few. Carrie Etter, a poet and senior lecturer at Bath Spa University, writes prose poetry and teaches the form. Her new collection,’Imagined Sons’ is written as a sequence of prose poems. In  a short conversation I had with her, she suggested that flash fiction works well if you write a scene with one or two characters with the action taking place over about ten minutes.

My story ‘The Lottery’, follows that structure, but it’s interesting to see that the winning fictions in the Fish anthology sometimes use  longer time frames, and a variety of structures. Robert Grossmith in his story ‘First’  achieves this by the use of  headings followed by short descriptions of events from a whole life. Roisin O’Donnell’s  powerful story about a man who blew himself up, is in three numbered sections, each one from a different perspective – the mother, wife and child. The time frame ranges from immediate to an unspecified time in the future.

In The Stinging Fly magazine, the flash fictions are longer and more expansive as a consequence.  Alison Fisher writes an historical tale  set over several years and develops a strong lead character in under one thousand words. Danielle McLaughlin, in a similar number of words,  writes a  strongly evocative piece which encompasses a short time span, but successfully includes a flash- back sequence.

It’s been a great reading and learning day. I recommend buying both books.

Emerging Characters

I sometimes co-run ‘pop-up’ writing events in Hall and Woodhouse Cafe, Bath with my writing friend and co-founder of Writing Events Bath, Alex Wilson. We run similar sessions in four week blocks at Bath Central Library. Last week we ran a pop-up session, focussed on developing characters. These sessions are designed to get participants writing. We devise exercises and people write for five or ten minutes then share in pairs and often read out their pieces to the whole group. It’s always amazing to see what can be produced in such a short time.

During the session, we were considering how characters change and develop as you write and how it is necessary to show several aspects of a character in order for them to be interesting. Obvious stuff, but staying with the obvious is always important. Who likes a nicey-nicey character anyway?

I used to be a Gestalt Psychotherapist and one of the theoretical concepts from Gestalt Therapy suggests that we do not have a fixed ‘self’. The self is fluid and changes according to the environment or situation. For example, if you are talking to your MP at a local surgery, you will be different from when you are talking to your best friend in the Boston Tea Party.  A different aspect of your self is called for. With the MP situation, you might surprise yourself if you have never been to a surgery before. If your MP is Jacob Rees-Mogg, like mine, you could  suddenly discover a barely contained rageful self (or character). We won’t go into the finer distinctions between definitions of  self and character here but I think the Gestalt Psychotherapist, Irving Polster, did say that the character is ‘the one who wears the boots.’

So as a writer, if you are not sure how to deepen your character, put them in a different situation and a different part of them will emerge. (Or a different aspect of you, the writer, will emerge?).  The different situation can involve another, or it can be a different environment.