Tag Archives: William Faulkner

Some thoughts on the short story…..

I have an addiction which I have already owned up to in public: I’m addicted to quotations, to the bon mot. I love reading what others have written/said about form, style, narrative, content… I collect ‘sayings’, advice to writers, and reflections on a form. Although I’m primarily a playwright, I also write in different forms and for different media (radio drama, film) and when working in a particular genre, I avoid reading for pleasure in that style. There’s always a fear that unconsciously I’ll absorb or be influenced by what I’m reading, so I mix it up – read creative non-fiction when writing plays, short stories when screenwriting, poetry when digging deep into prose. Influence and inspiration may of course follow, but at least if I’m trying to write short stories, I’m not going to come out sounding like Raymond Carver.

When I’m really flat-out and focused on completing a project, I by-pass it all and read about reading and writing. So in celebration of this literary nerdiness, here are some quotations from Lorrie Moore to William Faulkner about that robust but most delicate of form, the short story:

“Find the key emotion; this may be all you need know to find your short story.”  F. Scott Fitzgerald

“One has to imagine, one has to create (exaggerate, lie, fabricate from whole cloth and patch together from remnants), or the thing will not come alive as art… A story is a kind of biopsy of human life. A story is both local, specific, small, and deep, in a kind of penetrating, layered, and revealing way.” Lorrie Moore

“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” Edgar Allan Poe.

“The novel…creates a bemusing effect. The short story, on the other hand wakes the reader up. Not only that, it answers the primitive craving for art, the wit, paradox and beauty of shape, the longing to see a dramatic pattern and significance in our experience.”  V.S.Pritchett

“A good [short story] would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.” David Sedaris

“Short stories do not say this happened and this happened and this happened. They are a microcosm and a magnification rather than a linear progression.” Isobelle Carmody

“A short story is the nearest thing I know to lyric poetry… A novel actually requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has.”
William Faulkner

“A short story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.” Lorrie Moore

 

Thoughts before lift off

On the eve of flying out to Taiwan to begin work on The 9 Fridas for The Taipei International Festival, some inspirational quotations seem apt:

The first from the ever encouraging Kurt Vonnegut, reminding me we need to take risks creatively, trying the new, the unknown, with no guarantee (or safety net):

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

The next is from another personal favourite, the intense and pertinent William Faulkner:

 “Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” 

The final thought is a surprising choice for me – not a woman, not a writer, but Steve Jobs:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

I don’t know if it’s just people in our profession who find strength and succour in the ‘Patience Strong’ aphorisms of others… Maybe it’s because it’s such a lonely and difficult path we follow, without guarantees of success, financial reward or even personal satisfaction. To create seems such a vital compulsion, and one fraught with difficulties. It can be soothing to find like minds – or even words to live by.

More anon, from Taipei.

 

“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do.”

 

I was in a conversation recently with an essayist, scholar, and poet about ‘the two kinds of writer’: the prevaricating would-be who is always waiting for the perfect time to make the work, and the driven over-achiever who is always working and never really living.

Our conversation boiled down to those who do too much and those who do too little – and both were problematic.

This isn’t one of those posts where I present polar opposites and then ask ‘A or B: Which one are you?’ There is a plethora of ways of working (or not working) and these can differ day to day, if not project to project, with a whole host of challenges, approaches, and excuses in between for the individual writer.

The one thing I can confidently say about my working day is it will be unpredictable. Sometimes I’m up at my desk before I’m fully awake, head full of the next section of the project. Other days are slower, when I need to read and re-read everything I’ve written to sink back into the work through a process of what feels like hypnosis or osmosis. I can hope to make progress and will try to create the best conditions for a satisfying day of writing and thinking, but I’m ultimately not in control of my environment, especially here in Berlin (I usually live in the country). If the car alarm on the street is going to keep screaming at five minute intervals, or the children in the apartment upstairs are going to keep racing drunkenly around the hard floor in spike heels swiping at each other with socks full of heavy change (well, that’s what it sounds like), and the street musicians from the local market are going to play that addictive ‘I want to dance around and pretend to be an imaginary Edith Piaf in Paris’ accordion music in the five minute intervals when the car alarm isn’t screaming, well, there’s not a lot I can do about it, except go somewhere else or block it all out.

Some writers are lazy, some writers are workaholics, but most writers beat themselves up a lot.

So in an attempt to gee-up the slackers and cut slack for the over-achievers, here’s two quotations I came across this week:

The first, from the great writer William Faulkner:

“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”

 

This is another one of those quotations I want to hang above my desk to keep me focused. I like the fact that although on first reading it appears competitive, on closer reflection it reminds me in my work I am really only in relationship to myself and my own notions of ambition and success.

This next one is from Dinaw Mengestu, Guardian first book award winner and one of The New Yorker‘s ’20 under 40’. This  goes out for all of those disturbed by stiletto-wearing wailing children dancing flamenco on your ceilings:

“The older I get, the fuller and more complex my life becomes with family, friends, students, and above all children. I’ve learned now not to be precious about the conditions I work in. I’ve learned not to wait for the total silence, which on the vast majority of days, will never, ever come. And so forget about hoping to find the proper weather, or the light that pleases you best of all colours (to steal a phrase from William Carlos Williams). Abandon the desire, masked as need for perfectly pressed coffee. Write in crowds, in alleys, in the back seats of crumb-filled cars. Steal time from the crowded world even if it’s only a few minutes, or a blessed hour. Take being tired and emotionally exhausted as an excuse to take excessive liberties with language, with your imagination.”

 I love that – whatever the condition, humour, weather, or situation – take excessive liberties with language and imagination…….

And enjoy!

 

Talent is not the most important thing… William Faulkner.

“At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that — the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is … curiosity to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got that or not.”

 William Faulkner. University of Virginia, May 1957.

I’m currently deep in revision – not for an exam (or is it?), but reworking a would be novel. In the midst of this process, for solace and encouragement, I’ve been looking over my collection of quotations from the great and the good.

This Faulkner quotation, above, is refreshing, especially in the light of recent debates about talent and whether writing can be taught (and, yes, I’m talking about you, Hanif  Kureishi  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/04/creative-writing-courses-waste-of-time-hanif-kureishi)

Faulkner’s assertion seems both generous and also insightful – we can train and teach ourselves. It spurs me on to edit, to question, to wonder, to mull…to try and to try and to try until it comes out right.

Something to put on the wall above my writing desk, I think…

Reflections on the short story on World Book Day 2013.

writing desk

.

.

.

.

.

I have an addiction which I have already owned up to in public: I am addicted to quotations, to the bon mot. I love reading what experts have written about form, style, narrative, content… I collect ‘sayings’, advice to writers, and reflections on a form.

My previous series 150 ‘rules’ about writing fiction was very popular, and extended from its original ‘100 rules…’ When I reached number 149, I decided enough was enough, I couldn’t extend it again, but have had such a strong response from readers when I posted the last entry, I decided to continue, but in a more focused form, hence Reflections on the short story...

Although I’m primarily a playwright, I also write in different forms and for different media (radio drama, short film). I’ve contributed to various anthologies  (The Phoenix book of Irish short stories, and by Welsh independent publishers Honno and Parthian). I haven’t written short fiction for some time, but I read collections and am constantly fed by this most robust yet delicate of forms.

Short stories seem to be going through something of a renaissance. More collections have been published recently than in previous years – and the success of competitions such as The Sunday Times/EFG Private bank short story award (first prize £30,000) suggests that the often proclaimed death of the short story has been somewhat premature.

As Neil Gaiman put it: ‘Like some kind of particularly tenacious vampire, the short story refuses to die, and seems at this point in time to be a wonderful length for our generation.’

So in the spirit of this and World Book Day, here are some quotations on the short story from Raymond Chandler to Haruki Murakami, from Alice Munro to Eudora Welty, and hope you enjoy;

“My short stories are like soft shadows I have set out in the world, faint footprints I have left. I remember exactly where I set down each and every one of them, and how I felt when I did. Short stories are like guideposts to my heart…” Haruki Murakami

“The particular problem of the short story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible…The type of mind that can understand [the short story] is the kind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.” Flannery O’Connor

“…writing stories was always a bit like falling in love with a stranger and running off to Marrakech for a long weekend. It didn’t have to be successful to be thrilling.”  Ann Patchett

“The novel…creates a bemusing effect. The short story, on the other hand wakes the reader up. Not only that, it answers the primitive craving for art, the wit, paradox and beauty of shape, the longing to see a dramatic pattern and significance in our experience.”  V.S.Pritchett

“A short story is the nearest thing I know to lyric poetry… A novel actually requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has.”
William Faulkner

“It’s possible in a…short story to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things–a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring–with immense, even startling power.” Raymond Carver

 “I believe that the short story is as different a form from the novel as poetry is, and the best stories seem to me to be perhaps closer in spirit to  poetry than to novels.”  Tobias Wolff

“The first thing we notice about our story is that we can’t really see the solid outlines of it–it seems bathed in something of its own. It is wrapped in an atmosphere. This is what makes it shine, perhaps, as well as what initially obscures its plain, real shape.
” Eudora Welty

“Anecdotes don’t make good stories. Generally I dig down underneath them so far that the story that finally comes out is not what people thought their anecdotes were about.
”  Alice Munro

“…The literature of individuals is a noble art, a great earnest and ambitious human product. But it is a human product. The divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story…. Within our whole universe the story only has authority to answer the cry of heart of its characters, that one cry of heart of each of them: ‘Who am I?'”  Isak Dinesen