|Writers spur each other on at Arvon's Lumb Bank|
Adam Marek, Julia Bell, David Vann, Alison Moore, Deborah Levy. This is a list of names that might make up a major literary prize shortlist, and one to make writers – and in particular writers of the short form – salivate. This is why I decided a two-day intensive course run by The Word Factory, with sessions from all these writers (and a Q&A with literary agent Carrie Kania) was not to be missed, and I am still happily digesting four days later.
The experience is worth sharing here, as I do think something happens in the head on these kinds of courses, even short ones, that is hard to believe in if you have not been on one. It happens on Arvon weeks, for example, even if you are not ideally matched to your tutors. Partly it comes from sharing time and space with other writers; another large chunk is the result of letting your mind follow somebody else’s tracks for a little while. For me, it is as if my campfire of beech branches is burning low, and I keep building up over the same structure I began with, then somebody comes along and shows me that oak, ash, chestnut, birch and hornbeam are all around me for the taking, and also that there are a hundred ways to build a fire with them. My campfire changes, and keeps changing, for several months afterwards.
I now find intermittent exposure to other writers very important for developing my writing. All the above writers gave me something valuable during the Word Factory master class, but delivered it in such different ways.
Adam Marek began the first day with creative circuit training. If you think you’ve got it sussed as a writer, this is precisely the kind of exercise that can surprise you. Writing to film soundtracks, writing to pictures, writing to accommodate random words thrown at you, each for ten minutes, may not result in your best ever work. However, it shows you what can happen when you loosen up, or when you combine ideas gleaned from around you instead of within. This was the most effective session for getting out of a rut and finding a new way to tell a story.
Julia Bell gave us exactly the kind of exercise I would never force myself to do, but will from now on. This was to pick some recent event, and then describe it from the following viewpoints: five minutes before, during, a minute after, ten minutes after, one week after, six months later, a year later, ten years later. It was an extremely effective way to watch the shift between showing and telling, from immediacy to nostalgia, and to find – in less than twenty minutes – the best way into a story.
David Vann plunged us into close reading of text, right down to rhythms and word choices and the way these can create cohesion, much as they do in poetry. He also discussed what he avows is the golden rule of short fiction: that there is always a subtext, or second story. This in itself was food for thought, given the many ways in which subtext can show through. Just as enlightening was David’s admission that he had spent ten years trying to write fiction using a learnt approach, only to finally ditch this and find his voice by writing another way entirely. Every writer needs to be reminded to have faith in themselves and their methods now and again!
Alison Moore wanted to get us thinking about the role details play in a story. At first I thought this would be about making stories come to life and feel real, but it was really about atmosphere and priming the reader’s subconscious. Alison writes notoriously dark and unsettling stories, and when she read out her story ‘When the Door Closed, it was Dark’ I was stunned by the amount of portentous and symbolic detail that I had not picked up on when I had read it before. Things that seemed so obvious when you looked for them had not registered in my conscious thoughts, but clearly had hit the subconscious spot because this story had made me feel sick with doom (a good thing!). We then tried doing the same thing for ourselves, which proved to be extremely difficult, but taught me that I can afford to be a bit heavier with the hints in my writing sometimes.
Deborah Levy, I suspect, may actually be the goddess of charisma, masquerading as a human to teach us all some useful things. This she did, in her inimitable way, by reminding us how language has taught us to be polite and encouraging us to explore what happens when we ditch learned modes of expression. She finished by asking everybody to shout their main weakness and strength as a writer. This sounds silly, but in a group of 25 or so the admissions were fascinating, reassuring, and surprisingly varied. Deborah’s responses to them included great recommendations; when I boomed that I was afraid of endings, and therefore rushed them, she suggested I begin a story with the sentence ‘I am afraid of endings’. This I will do.
I choose to spend my wages on things like this, but I know not everybody has this option. Here are some wonderful free resources to inspire and make your writing mind work differently:
Thresholds Short Story Forum – join to watch interviews and master classes, read features and reviews, use writing exercises like those above, and best of all be in touch with other writers.
The New Yorker fiction podcasts, (also free on itunes), let you listen to a writer read out another author's short story and then discuss it, like a high-powered virtual reading group.
Writers on Youtube – for starters try Kurt Vonnegut on the shape of a story, and search on from there.