Aspiring writers often mistakenly think that in order to write fiction they must go out and get real-life experience so that they will have interesting things to write about. However, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez has one of his characters say, "Stories only happen to those who know how to tell them," suggesting that it is not the event that makes a story, but rather the story-telling technique.
Creative writing teachers often tell their students to write about what they know best, and that is sometimes good advice. However, just because someone knows an experience well does not necessarily mean that he or she will be able to create a story about it. Inexperienced writers may indeed write about experiences they know well—experiences that have had powerful emotional impacts on them—such as the death of a grandparent, the divorce of a parents, or the loss of a friend--but if they are not familiar with how stories work, the experience they tell may be just a series of events, one thing after another, with no point of significance.
If you ask professional fiction writers what they know best, they are most likely to answer "stories," because they usually have read a great many stories, so many in fact that they have internalized and made the devices, conventions, techniques, and themes of those writers whom they have read their own.
It is a common legend that Ernest Hemingway was a great writer because he engaged in many interesting experiences—fighting bulls in Spain, hunting wild animals in Africa, and catching big game fish in the ocean. However, Hemingway knew that what made him an effective writer was the fact that the studied many other writers and spent a great deal of his early writing career learning how to describe things and how to recount events in such a way as to give them meaning. Stories, therefore, do not come merely from life, they also come from other stories, and because writers know stories probably better than anything else, they are often likely to write stories about stories.
However, it is not merely because writers known stories well that they often write about storytelling or draw stories from stories they know. Many modern stories are about the nature of storytelling because of a basic philosophic shift that took place in the late twentieth century—a shift from a realistic, common-sense assumption that reality is merely "out there" waiting for us to stub our toe on it. If we accept that reality is as much a result of our point of view as it is of mere external existence, then we may feel that reality comes from a sort of fiction-making process. Writers who accept this may, in their desire to write about true reality, write about the fiction-making process itself rather than about some solid stuff out there in the external world.
"The Faber Book of Adultery."
A number of stories in Best British Short Stories have this so-called "self-reflexive" characteristic to them. The most obvious one in the 2014 volume is Jonathan Gibbs' "The Faber Book of Adultery." We know we are in for a story about writing fiction right away when we find out that the main character, Mark, is a writer who, at a dinner party, takes Richard Ford's mediocre collection of fiction Women With Men out of the bookcase. When he asks Elizabeth, a woman he knows, if she has read the book, she says it is often difficult to distinguish between the stories because of the endless adulteries. This leads to a brief discussion of adultery and the short story and Mark's whimsical notion of editing a book called The Faber Book of Adultery. It also leads Mark to think about flirtation, which he believes is all about "the navigation of invisible boundaries and contours."
In the weeks that follow the party, Mark thinks about adultery in fiction more and gets out his Oxford Concise Dictionary, as "he felt an idea coming, beginning to take up residence in the part of him that wrote, that made him a writer." He begins to think about how a story about adultery might work, especially in the world of smartphones and itemised bills. He wonders if he were going to have an affair with Elizabeth, how he could make it happen
When he goes to Elizabeth's house for a babysitting swap, he goes to the bed room and begins his research by fondling her clothes, giving himself an erection. "This is what he did, he thought, he vampirised other people's lives, sucking up incident and detail and squirrelling it away."
He begins to write about having an affair, describing the curves of Elizabeth's backside, but crosses that out and writes about the "downward curve of her back" which once again arouses him. When Elizabeth comes home, he follows her into the kitchen, still mentally writing, but he says whereas he can do dialogue and drama and introspection, these transitional moments he is not good at. Getting a character into a room or out of a car is laborious, self-conscious work.
When he risks a kiss with Elizabeth, he continues to transform his actions into writing. Once again getting aroused, he feels something like the power he feels when he is writing and it was going well, "the words revealing themselves one after the other on the screen, the text shifting up, line by line, to accommodate him." Later when he watches the material of her dress "shift to accommodate the flow of the anatomy beneath it," he recalls that he has already used the word "accommodate," which he thinks of as a horrific, unforgivable word.
As she stands on tiptoe, her hand on his waist, he shifts his stance to stop her getting near the pages of his story—"not a story, not yet; just notes, really," this brings the front of his jeans in contact with the front of her, and he searches for a word settling on "the declivity of her."
The translation of action into language becomes more emphatic when he pushes harder against her, "hating himself, but wanting above all to find some way of expressing himself, his intentions, his delicate reservations, past history, world view, thoughts on the nature of signification, the problem of endings, Wittgenstein, Kelly Brook, the de Stijl movement, the novels of Michel Houellebecq and Christ Cleave, any or all of this."
As the encounter becomes more intimate until she has unzipped his pants, he sees hundreds of books, none of them his, but all full of adultery, even the ones entirely free of it, and he thinks "This can't be what it's like."
The story is an interesting play with the relationship between reality and fiction as a writer obsessively sees experience in terms of its potential for fiction, and, even as he engages in an activity, transforms that activity into language. The question of whether the actual experience is like a language construct of that experience, raises, albeit whimsically here, a basic issue about the nature of fiction itself.
Tides: Or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told"
Elizabeth Baines' "Tides: Or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told" suggests its self-reflexivity in the title and the first paragraph. The narrator thinks of a scene that keeps coming back to her of herself and partner as two figures in a tableau--the hero and the heroine of the story to be told; the scene is the focus of their story, "the point from which the tale could go backwards to all that happened before, and forwards, beyond that night." Then she says that although she sees this scene, she cannot decide how to tell the story or where to go from that moment of the two of them together at a wall by the sea.
Because the narrator is a writer who is trying to figure out a way to tell the story, she feels distracted from the story of the couple by the sea by other stories—the historical context of stories—of Roman invaders, and Celtic monks, the Norman king who built castles there. She then thinks of her childhood stories when she lived nearby featuring custard made from powder and canings at school—"which can be a jovial realist tale or a misery memoir," depending on her mood.
She gets back to the day by the sea and recalls earlier that day in the town when she saw a young mother struggling with a pushchair and kid, as her own mother once did. "And I couldn’t' decide if it was a bad end to a story—a culture and a language swamped, in spite of the educational and heritage initiatives, by the Englishness sweeping down the new roads and the TV channels—or actually a good one, riddance of the differences that crated old enmities." But then she shifts from this Welsh/English social issue to the possibility of telling the story of when she ended it between them. "I could make it a feminist re-telling of a fairy tale: the waking princess kicking the prince away from the glass coffin."
She sees a teenage girl and thinks of herself at that age when "all the narratives were open" and she could not imagine being here with a man she almost lost once because he nearly died, thinking she could tell that story also—a grim, realist tale: "the symbolic slam of the ambulance door, the ice-rink of the hospital corridor." She ends thinking: "Would I mention my sense then that nothing had meaning and that my life after all was no story, or would I lie, since he recovered, and make those symbols fit a narrative arc with a happy ending?"
A thoughtful story about a writer dealing with the so-called "reality" of her life the way writers do when they write fiction—making choices, determining generic approaches, using narrative technique to make meaning how of their experience.
Philip Langeskov's "Barcelona" is the longest story in this year's collection. At about 13,500 words it is almost the length of Melville's famous "Bartleby the Scrivener." Because it was published separately as a single volume, it has been called a "novella" by some reviewers. I have written about the novella form in other places on this blog.
The story is about Daniel's plans to take his wife Isla to Barcelona where they spent their honeymoon for their tenth wedding anniversary. Because the hotels are full, he must make plans to stay at the home of Josep, an old boyfriend of his wife years ago when they were students. Although at first Isla says she cannot go because she has a conference to attend, she changes her mind.
At the last minute before they leave, Daniel grabs a copy of Graham Greene's collected stories which a colleague had lent him months ago so as to have something to read on the plane. Once on board, he looks through the book to find the shortest story in the collection, which turns out to be "The Overnight Bag," about a man named Henry Cooper travelling from Nice to London with a carry-on bag about which he is very particular. When he puts it on the seat beside him and secures it with a seatbelt, a woman sitting beside him asks why he is so particular, to which he replies, "It's a matter of respect" because it contains a dead baby.
Langeskov summarizes the entire Greene story, including a comic conversation with a cab driver who drives Cooper home, and his encounter with his mother during which he tells a tale about finding a severed human toe in a marmalade jar when he was dining. The Greene story ends with Cooper going to unpack his bag. Langeskov notes, "There is no further mention of a wife, a baby, and the true contents of the bag are left unresolved at the end of the story."
Daniel is still thinking about the story as he and his wife land and go through passport control He is troubled but cannot say precisely why the story bothers him. "The obvious thing to think would be that it was the suggestion of the dead baby, that this in some way hinted to an unspoken sense of loss within him regarding the decision he and Isla had taken—long ago, before they were married—not to have children." The more Daniel thinks about it, the more he thinks the story is offensive. "Some coldness at its heart had made him shiver and he was not grateful for the effect." He wishes he had never read it.
As he thinks more about it, he realizes there is no baby in the story, nor a wife for Cooper, which makes his distaste ever worse. He knows the baby and wife are constructs of Cooper's imagination. He thinks it is this duplicity that troubles him and he cannot understand why except that it was as if he has been introduced to some quality in himself that he either had not known about or had chosen to ignore or worked hard to suppress."
Later, Daniel is annoyed that Cooper never got his "comeuppance," feeling that he invented the baby, creating for the woman and the taxi driver a trauma that had not taken place. "Cooper's just deserts, Daniel realised, would have been to find himself suffering precisely the traumatic experience he had called into being for others." Still after he still has the image in his mind of Cooper unpacking his bag while his mother sets out a shepherd's pie.
When Isla gets a pain in her abdomen, he is concerned and thinks he cannot imagine life without her. Later he watches her come toward the hotel with groceries and panics when he sees her stumble to catch her falling sunglasses. The story suddenly shifts to a completely different story of a man named Luis who receives a call from his wife Penelope that her water has broken. He jumps on his motor bike and on the way thinks of their choice to give up one kind of life and choose this one with a child. Ahead he sees a woman walking across the street stumbling to catch her sunglasses, but he is travelling too fast to stop. By some instinct he manages to shift the bike and miss her by the narrowest margin, and then speeds on to the hospital "towards his wife; towards the woman who had transformed him."
It's a long story and seems to be filled with many trivial details that add up to nothing. Although the Graham Greene tale, which critic Walter Allen once called "no more than a good macabre joke," takes up a great deal of the story, its relevance not clear. Obviously, however, whatever "Barcelona" is about, it is inextricably tied to the Graham Greene story.
In an interview that appeared in the Journal of the Short Story in English, Graham Greene said he did not feel at home in the short story because some of the charm of writing a novel is that you don't known everything that is going to happen, whereas with the short story he said he had not found the method of surprising himself and therefore reviving his interest.
When the interviewer, Philippe Sejourne, asked Greene if he felt the short story had to deal with something extraordinary, Greene said no, noting that the stories of Chekhov, V.S Pritchett, or James Joyce did not do so. When Sejourne said he was thinking about the extraordinary event in "The Overnight Bag" of a man who brings back the body of his little son in a plane, Greene, said, "Oh, there is nothing in his bag. He is not really bringing a child back in his bag. It's in his imagination."
However, to say that it is in his imagination suggests at least two different possibilities: that the man purposely invents the baby in the bag to shock others, or that in his imagination there is a baby in the bag. The character Daniel in "Barcelona" obviously believes the former and is angry at the fictional character Cooper for his duplicity and angry at the story for not creating some "poetic justice" for the man, making him suffer the discomfort the woman on the plane and the taxi-driver experienced. The appropriate poetic justice would be to have Cooper believe something that does not really exist and be disturbed about it.
The issue about fiction the Greene story raises is that even though the reader knows there is no dead baby in the bag, he or she cannot think of the bag without a dead baby in it. The French interviewer obviously felt this way when he cited the story as being about a dead baby in a bag and Greene had to remind him that there was no dead baby.
I pulled out my old collection of Graham Green stories and read "The Overnight Bag" a couple of times. And I cannot now think of the bag as empty, even though I know it was empty, even though Graham Green has told me it was empty. Something that is not there affects me as if it were there. That, of course, is one of the key elements of a fiction.
"Barcelona" is filled with events or actions that seem to happen or are going to happen, but that do not happen. At first Isla says she cannot go on holiday with Daniel because of a previous engagement, but then decides she will go. Daniel suspects that Isla's old boyfriend has something to do with her not going on holiday with him, but finds out that is not true. When they arrive, it seems that their luggage is lost, but then it is not. When Isla develops a pain in her abdomen, Daniel worries about her, but then it goes away When he comes back to the hotel, he finds Isla missing and feels the ground crumbling beneath his feet, only to find out that she has simply gone out for groceries. Finally, when it seems that she is going to be hit by a motorbike on the street (a sort of deus ex machina that appears out of nowhere in the story), the bike misses her.
What is the quality Daniel thinks that Greene's story has introduced in himself that he did not know he had or that he had ignored? Well, surely, it must have something to do with creating a fiction and acting as if it were a reality, which is what writers do. Or believing that something is real when it is a fiction, which is what readers do.
"The Overnight Bag" and "Barcelona" are both stories about things that fill us with fear or shock or horror that do not really exist. If they do not exist, there is nothing we can do about them, except disbelieve them. But once we believe them, how can we disbelieve them? The result is to be like Daniel—to be suspicious, to be afraid, to doubt, to be anxious. Only to understand finally that what we thought happened did not happen, except that in some very basic way, it did—the mysterious power of fiction.