It’s getting wintery up here in Western Scotland. So far our little corner has escaped both floods and snow but not the chill. I haven’t posted for a while, mainly because I am reading and writing mostly poetry now and sadly haven’t really created a place for that here – and also because I am sewing a lot.
During a few difficult years between 2013 and 2015 I began sewing by hand as a sort of therapy and enjoyed it so much I haven’t been able to stop. It is enormously time consuming and keeps me away from so many other things I could or should be doing.
However, I have recently read a book that I have to tell you about. It was published back in 2005 and might not be as easy to get hold of as a new book, but it’s well worth adding to your writer’s shelf.
It’s called ‘Short Stories and their Making’. It is an anthology but one with a difference; an anthology “with interviews”, edited by Paul Mandelbaum, an author himself, who went in search of writers of his favourite stories and asked each of them what he wanted to know about how and why they had written them.
There are 12 stories in the book and Mandelbaum explains that they are “remarkable not just for their overall fineness and the reading pleasures they offer, but also for the exemplary use to which they put one of the following elements of fiction writing: character, plot, point of view and voice, setting, structure and theme.” Two stories appear under each of these headings and each story is followed by a discussion of several pages.
In this post I want to use the first story in the collection to make a few points that I thought would be particular interest. The story is called The Hoaxer and the writer is American novelist, literary critic and essayist, Walter Kirn.
This story focuses on the father son relationship (but can also be applied to any parent/child relationship). Kirn describes this as a “mysterious relationship”, because although it is one of the most important of our lives, it is not one we choose. Many stories centre around relationships of affinity, love and friendship, but the one of parent/child is significant because it is “thrust” at us. Not only that, but one of the parties is in a position of huge power whereas the other is “extraordinarily vulnerable and impressionable”. Kirn describes the childs situation as a state of continual action (from the parent) and reaction (from the child) to someone much larger than himself/herself. Certainly a relationship with someone we haven’t chosen suggests a stack of material to be explored and dramatized.
Kirn makes some interesting observations about family: He says, “our family experiences narrow our options in life. The kinds of behavior and outlooks that we learn and have modeled for us tend to set us on a fairly narrow path…….character will be formed accordingly. Our parents dump a set of preoccupations and predicaments and aptitudes and inaptitudes on our doorsteps which are ours…. Success in dealing with them seems to be defined by how honestly or fully” you are able to achieve this.
Adolescence, he says, is “one of the most dramatic times of life because this is when we move from partial knowledge to a fuller knowledge of who we are… and then we are handed or backpack and told to march with what’s in our bag.“ Adolescents, caught between the various currents that power their lives, “journey through the forest or their parents mistakes, exaggerations and misrepresentations to find the truth.”
To me, these observations, obvious and yet profound, crackle with plot potential.
In discussing character Kirn says that a failed character often results from having simply dreamed up and idea and clothed it. Many beginner writers may be guilty of creating an imaginary person in this way. Kirn says he uses memory to bring to him the habits, dress and behaviour of people he has come across that fit the character he is looking for. If he has a character that has a tendency to lie, he will think of people he has known who have shared this tendency. He finds this helps when beginning to form a character that is more real, more believable.
Again on character, Kirn says, “Every character is a problem and you have to know the problem that drives them” and ask “What is the dissatisfaction or the difficulty that keep them moving?” Most books on writing tell us that our main character has to desire something. Faulkner famously said that character has to desire something even if its just a glass of water. I found Kirn’s way of putting this more useful, more interesting. Not a desire but an inherent difficulty. This is not quite the same starting point. A character may not at first be conscious of a motivating desire but the problem is already there.
This is a wonderful book for a writer of any skill level,
an all too rare insight into the decisions made before and during the writing of a story. I have read all the stories in the anthology and I am now on my second reading of them. I feel one or two more posts coming on from what I have read here; stuff that is just too valuable not to share.