'No one can teach you how to write, or how you write or how you could write better – they can assist you in various areas, but the way that you learn how you write, the way you really improve, is by diving in and reworking, taking apart, breaking down, questioning, exploring, forgetting and losing and finding and remembering and generally testing your prose until it shows you what it needs to be, until you can see its nature and then help it to express itself as best you can under your current circumstances.'
This was A.L.Kennedy writing recently of her experience as a Creative Writing lecturer, and having just finished reading her collection of short stories, What Becomes, I'm mindful that she may have made something intrinsically difficult look very easy, and she has something to say about that too
'And don't remind me of the
conversation I once had with a prominent academic, who intended the
phrase "But it's so effortless …" as an adverse comment on a novel. I
simply couldn't rant convincingly enough to ensure that particular book
could win a small but useful prize. The narrative's illusion of ease –
and just you try creating an illusion of ease, matey – was too
convincing. A parallel idiocy might involve refusing to applaud Derek
Jacobi at the end of a performance, because he looked as if he wasn't
So what exactly are the requirements of a good short story?
There's probably a checklist somewhere about content and structure and narrative but forget all that, what I want is the Japanese water flower effect. Something contained but only barely contained within its boundaries, something that expands and blooms with ideas and memories when its planted in my mind, thoughts that hover and stay there all day as the story continues to explode with possibilities.
I want them to expose my own prejudices, perhaps make me read about things I don't normally like to read about but can cope with for ten pages, make me look at something from another point of view, walk those pages in someone else's shoes.
Try and imagine the other side of the story because there always is one.
There is absolutely only one best way for me to read a collection like this and test it for excellence and that's to read one story a day, preferable early in the morning and on consecutive days so that I can see if it gives me enough to think about all day and through however many days there are stories.
Will it flit into my mind at odd moments during the day and hang around for a while?
Will their be connecting threads, might the story on day eight trigger a memory from the story from day two?
Will I suddenly happen upon a new and startling insight as I'm driving into town or shoving the washing in the dryer; out of the blue will something amazing strike me dumb and I have to sit for a few moments and think about it?
How can ten or twelve pages of writing be quite so powerful?
Add them together and you have the 200 stunningly good pages of What Becomes and perhaps be prepared as you proceed, to slowly interpret that clever cover design as I did. That precarious grip on a superficial, glittery world to big to contain; when it crashes to the ground that glitter ball is not going to bounce back unbroken, it's going to smash into smithereens and you can only wonder how on earth it will be put back together, if it ever will.
Despite the fact that these are very twenty-first century stories riddled with present-day anxieties and damage done, they are also timeless, the moments people have agonised over since forever, all those things people are so good and clever at concealing often out of consideration for those around them.
How do people stop themselves at the edge of the abyss and why do they?
In the words of the song, what does become of the brokenhearted?
There's too much within in each story to detail each one separately, but take Wasps as an example.
The wife and her children and the travelling part-time husband with perhaps a mistress in every town, who knows. Her fear and anger exude from the sons who can legitimately give voice to the injustice in the way that adults can't and A.L. Kennedy pins the entrapment down against the glass just like those dead wasps on the windowsill...and why wasps?
Perhaps the parasitic insect that can repeatedly use its sting...
Or As God Made Us, the camouflage of bravado and extremes of laddish masculinity concealing the post-traumatic anguish of the returning soldiers, the amputees as they take their regular swim at the local pool, but the schoolchildren are in too and this is all too real, the schoolteacher has to say something. I had to gulp and blink as the full impact of this story hit home.
Saturday Teatime and the lifelong impact on a child exposed to the fear of domestic violence; the adrenalin's insistence on that decision between fight or flight when a child can do neither can have a long-lasting impact, a life built on shaky foundations is perfectly exposed and just how can those memories be dealt with.
Just three of the twelve, the other nine stories pack the same punch.
There's no denying it, the grim, harsh realities of life stalk these pages in many guises but so profoundly explored that each story has seared an image into my mind. Re-opening the book over a month later feels as real as that day when I started my daily read of these twelve stories.
Final word from A.L.Kennedy to her students on the subject of rewriting and perfecting,
'But why wouldn't you want to express your voice, your story, your nature more deeply, more beautifully, more effectively? Fretting and worrying at something you made up, an intimate product of your hopes, enthusiasms, passions – it's bound to feel odd, unnatural, but it's also deeply rewarding. In time, you will willingly, if not always happily, put invisible hours, days and weeks of effort into offering someone you don't know and who will probably never thank you something that will appear to be "effortless".
Not quite the final word in that case, I don't actually know A.L.Kennedy, but I can most certainly thank her.