Wednesday, January 31, 2007

William Trevor makes me cry

It is not often I even finish a story in the NewYorker these days, but this story , Bravado, by William Trevor, in the Jan 15th issue of the New Yorker, is just extraordinarily good.

I won't spoil it, but will just say that he has an astonishing talent for easing you into a story gently, circling around, without letting on who the main character is until half way through. His writing is so sure and every word so right that you feel utterly confident that it will all be tied together perfectly, and - generally - painfully.

While he appears to be describing ordinary people and an ordinary town, he also manages to insinuate an undercurrent of threat and un-ease. Perhaps this shouldn't suprise me, it is the small acts of violence that are often more shocking than the grandiose ones. And perhaps I automatically read these themes into the story because I know that Trevor is not a happy-endings kind of guy. But I think this story is worthy of discussion, apparently gentle, not employing fancy words or seemingly striving for any great moral, yet at the end I wanted to weep.

It's fifteen minutes later and I still want to weep.

That's talent.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Creativity, Einstein, Picasso and All is Not What We See

I went to a lecture last night at the science museum on Einstein and Picasso. Now I should preface this by saying that I have a real soft spot for Albert E. I have a large picture of him on the wall of my study saying,

Imagination is more important than knowledge

and am very fond of his relativity theories. When we studied them at uni, we were all so blown away by the implications that the lecturer had to stop every lecture half way through and tell jokes so that we could get our breaths back.

This lecture, by a guy from UCL who has written a book,
Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty That Causes Havoc, was very inspiring to me. To cut a long story short, he is saying that Einstein was THE scientist of the 20th century and Picasso was THE artist, and they had their most creative periods at the same time, 1905-1907. And then he looked at the atmosphere in Europe at the time, the zeitgeist (yes, I can use that word because he did, ok?), and what people were talking about. Well, it was all about the nature of space and time, and so of course both Albert and Pablo picked up on these currents, both of them having a little band of fellow creative and deeply poor men (mostly men) with whom they hung out and chatted about philosophy and literature etc...

He showed how both Einstein and Picasso moved from Perception to Conception, which, I think, meant that they showed us that what you see isn't what you get. You might think that you are seeing two things happening simultaneously, but Einstein showed that there is no such thing as objective time so while for you these two things are happening at the same time, for someone else one event happens before the other.

And Picasso in 1907 unveiled a painting in which he painted several views of one of the women in the painting at the same time. So, if I understood, her face was both in profile and also face on to the viewer. He painted simultaneity, he warped our notion of space and time.

Alright, this is all getting a little lengthy, but I was inspired by how these guys (and let's extend it to women too) took what had come before and gave it a twist, looked at it in a new way. They didn't work in a void, they read and learned about new ideas, and then they applied them in a unique fashion. May we all be so creative.

Monday, January 22, 2007

I am Ubuntu

Do you notice anything different about me? Look closely. YES! I have switched to Linux! If you don't know what that means, then the rest of this post won't mean very much to you. I will attempt to explain. In a nutshell, I have shed Microsoft, waved bye bye to Windows, and gone Open Source. I have changed my operating system to Ubuntu, which is one of the many versions of the Linux free operating system. The word "Ubuntu" means something like

I am what I am because of who we all are

in Bantu. Nelson Mandela said it, or something.

Well, anyway, I finally got so fed up with Windows XP for various reasons and being sort of a techy I decided I had to make the move. So I migrated.

It feels good.

If only for the girly and superficial reason that Ubuntu's desktop colours are swirly chocolate
Nice, eh?

Things aren't quite as easy here as in Windows, but since I am mostly web-based, and for my writing all I really need is a good word processor, which Ubuntu comes with (OpenOffice), I should be OK.

Famous last words.

Any advice welcome.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Stranger than fiction

J and I went to see the film Stranger than Fiction yesterday. For those who aren't familiar with it, it's about a boring tax inspector who suddenly hears a woman narrating his life inside his head. He discovers that he is the main character in this writer's novel and that she (the superb Emma Thompson) is about to kill him off. As a writer, this was a really interesting conceit. I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but I actually found it a very moving idea, that one of my characters could actually come to life. How would I feel if I ran into one of them? Would I feel guilty about what I had done to them in my stories? Who are these people that we write about? I often wonder where the characters come from that pop into my head. Are they out there all the time and I just suddenly pick up their "signal" when I have tuned my brain to the right frequency? Or do I really conjure them up out of thin air? When, as I did on Thurs morning (thanks V & F!) I write an entire 1500 word short story, with a beginning, middle and end, and with at least four characters, where the hell did they come from? And now that they are out there, do they carry on with their lives when I am not writing them?

These questions may not be answerable, but I urge you to see the film. It has left me with so many thoughts about plot, about a writer's duty to her characters, to her readers, to herself. If you found out your main character was real, would you still kill him off?

Think about it.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

traditional vs non-traditional

I have been mulling a lot over the distinction between "traditional" short stories and non-traditional ones, and trying to make some sense of the whole thing. I didn't get a lot of sleep last night so this might not come out very clearly, but I will have a go anyway. Why don't I like the sort of short stories the NewYorker publishes? Because, with a few exceptions (George Saunders, Hariku Murakami) I don't consider them short stories but a whole other form: the short novel.

The short novel has all the elements you're familiar with from a novel: an opening paragraph or five which don't tell you much about what the story is going to be, lengthy descriptions of place, lots of "telling" not "showing", a meandering narrative with digressions all over the place, and an ending which is neither surprising nor satisfying. This is what I am calling a "traditional" story... but perhaps that is wrong, and I look forward to being argued with vehemently.

This is not, in my mind, what a short story is all about. A short story is its own form, it is not simply less words than a novel. It embraces the beauty of brevity, each word is a precious commodity, it conjures up a whole world in the blink of an eye, and it ends with an ending which doesn't not have you turning the page and wondering where the rest is. You know a good short story has ended, and while you may be sad not to be in that world anymore, you know that this ending was somehow inevitable. Perhaps this is the true traditional short story, but it has become the more "experimental" one.

So, that said, I have been wondering whether I should try and write a "traditional" story just to get it into the sorts of mainstream publications that probably wouldn't (and haven't to date) read past most of my first lines. But then I think to myself: If I wrote a story I didn't like much and it got published and noticed by those I want to notice (i.e. agents, editors), and then I show them the rest of my opus, bang goes that idea.

Anyway, just wanted to open a debate about all this. I read a story in another very well-known American mag yesterday (mentioning no names), and while the writer injected some magic and surrealism in there, I was skimming through paragraphs of lengthy description trying to get to the action. And the ending was SO predictable that I rued the time spent reading it. Why why why?

PS I have also noticed the demise of the hyphen. Words that should be hyphenated are left dangling, making no sense. Am I the only one who has spotted this? Is this a grammar revolt? How can I get hold of Lynn Truss?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

New year, new web site

I am coming to realise that having a website is like having a wardrobe full of clothes: every now and then I look at it, think "Oh god, this is just not me any more" , and do a complete clear out and re-design. So that's what I've done, and, ta-da, here is the newly-redesigned, new concept site. Feedback appreciated - but just remember, I haven't quite finished the redesign. But broken link reports and "I can't read this font/colour/size!" comments very welcome.

Addendum No sooner had I posted the above post but my website went down. Not my fault! Technical difficulties somewhere, on some server. Keep trying!

Monday, January 01, 2007

Starting the Year with A Good Read & A Load of Submissions

My year started off well (yesterday actually) with a bumper crop of lit magazines and others arriving in the post.

Tin House

Paris Review

SEED - very cool science mag which has a Fiction contest

Poets & Writers - incredibly useful resource for writers

and - most importantly -

Isotope which I had been looking forward to receiving. It's A Journal of Literary Science and Nature Writing which has a fiction contest to which I have submitted one of my stories. My contest entry fee also entitled me to a year's subscription, and the first issue has arrived! I am dying to know what literary science and nature writing is... will keep you posted.

I was also inspired by my two acceptances last week to fire off a load of stories in various directions: the Lunch Hour flash fiction contest got 4 stories, online magazine Tattoo Highway got another, The Big Ugly Review received three stories for their theme "The Body", JBMB contest got a story.

We'll see if any of those get anywhere, but not stressed about it at all. Just looking forward to another year of STORY.

Happy New Year of Reading and Writing to all!