Monday, January 24, 2011


I heard an Aboriginal proverb the other day that has echoes for the writing experience.

Traveler, there are no paths, the paths are made by walking...

Short Stories - on ongoing investigation

I was asked recently on the Story Bridge forum about the structure of contemporary short stories. That is a large and complex question which I'd like to examine in more depth over coming posts, analyzing the style and structure of some significant contemporary short stories.

Perhaps the most significant developing in short story style is the growing use of emotional and psychological time, as Trisha notes in her post here. I too have heard (and shuddered at) the advice sometimes given that beginning writers should stick to only using straight chronological time. I think that is reductive and doesn't credit writers with the nous to explore other forms of managing time in storytelling. Our minds work very well in psychological and emotional time, and always have, due in large part to the fractious relationship between our conscious and unconscious.

For now, here's my take on contemporary short story structure and where and how it differs from more traditional styles.

Contemporary short stories of the last 25 years or so have been an unraveling of traditional short story structure. In the 19th century the traditional structure was that of a tale, almost a novel in miniature. It started with exposition about the main characters, some background, some statements, often baldly expressed about their emotional and psychological state, then developed through an inciting incident, added complications, conflict, to a climax and resolution.(For examples, see the work of Anton Chekhov (The Lady with the Dog), Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlett Letter) Guy de Maupassant (The Necklace) and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

The majority of contemporary short stories don't do this. Instead they take one of the following forms.

1) A single scene - where an incident is described, with little reference to past or future. Any character backgrounding comes out in their behaviour in the scene itself, with clues to their emotional state and backstory. This form is a moment suspended at a single point in the continuum of a longer story which is left for the reader to speculate on. There is no onus on the writer to resolve any conflicts that come out.

2) A slice of life - which may be a single scene or several scenes chosen to be representative of a character, a theme, a relationship. The writer may choose to resolve conflicts or not, in the story itself, or leave any resolution to be enacted in the mind of the reader.

3) An illumination of a state. The state can be a mood or a character's psychological or emotional state, which is the legacy of an event. The event may or may not be detailed in the story itself, or the story may just be an exploration of the fallout from the event. What plot is there is often in emotional or psychological time, with events coming and going as they appear to the narrator/protagonist, not in some kind of chronological order. This is a complex style and structure - here is a good example. Wheat, by Tracey Slaughter.

I'd like to revisit the subject of short stories in more detail in coming posts. Watch this space. 

Life Writing

One of the areas of writing that has grown considerably in recent years is Life Writing. I was thinking while introducing the review of the new book about American Folklorist Alan Lomax, that Life Writing is a form that allows people to be their own Folklorist. Individual collectors of narratives not just of their own lives but their own times and places.

Where this differs from traditional biography and autobiography is those forms focus generally on people who are already well known as subjects. Or someone with a particularly dramatic true tale to tell. Life Writing is more a stick placed in the sand, a statement that 'I was here, these were my times.' So the field of Life Writing by ordinary people in New Zealand becomes a storehouse of our collective folklore, in the way that folk music and folk art does.

There are many reasons people wish to record their lives:

  •  as a legacy, for family, for those that come after them
  •  to tell of a time and/or a lifestyle now past
  • as a cathartic experience for the writer, and perhaps for the reader
  • to write of a particular issue that has perhaps been recorded from a limited perspective that the writer can enlarge upon

When I was researching and writing my first novel I found some official military histories (from the early 1920's) which were no help at all. They were a catalogue of troop movements and maneuvers from an exalted position way above the ordinary soldier. Fortunately there were some beautifully written and compiled collections of personal narratives to refer to.

Life Writing should be not only of the writer but in the writer's voice, as that captures their essence. I'd shudder at any attempt among those teaching or editing Life Writing works to attempt to 'normalize' the voice, or flatten or universalize the perspective. If we follow Hemingway's maxim that 'What is most personal is also most universal' then someone's story (behind the text) already has universal elements. We all know love, loss, guilt, the need to try and rebuild. The job of the Life Writing teacher or editor or compliler could then be described more as one of arrangement, of getting the proportion right to allow the writer to be able to bring both the personal and universal elements of their story out. 

The fundamental building blocks of effective storytelling (including Voice, Point of View, Character, Narrative Structure etc...) apply in Life Writing as they do in other forms of non-fiction and fiction.

One of the great opportunities e-publishing will give is it dramatically increases the opportunities for people to get their own stories out into the community.The value of this cannot be overstated. Whereas publishing a life story with a traditional publisher has always been extremely difficult, e-publishing will give us far greater opportunities.

It is crucial to the health and history of any community for stories to be told from the ground up. Not just from our 'leaders.'And our written histories should never just be a catalogue of the famous. Living in Auckland is a constant reminder of a city has torn down its historic architecture all too easily, often via decisions made away from the public. We need to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to us.

There are courses offered in Life Writing in most communities. Keep your eye out for one. Bear in mind that your story has its own validity. Because you were here, these were your times.

Alan Lomax - American Folklorist

One of my favourite people from the past is Alan Lomax, who traveled around rural America recording traditional folk and blues artists, often for the only time in their lives. He understood that theirs was an underground narrative in history, part of what Frank O'Connor, the short story critic referred to in Trisha's post below as writers speaking out of and through a 'submerged population.' A new book is just out about Alan Lomax and the battles he faced getting traditional artists recorded and heard and the tremendous legacy that left of a time whose historical storytelling would otherwise be left to politicians and historians often cast by politicians.

Lomax is usually given the beautiful designation of Folklorist. I especially like the quote from Alan Lomax that his vision was to 'Bring 'em back alive, all the voices.'

This review of the new book about Lomax comes from the Wall Street Journal, (by reviewer Eddie Dean. You can read the entire review here.

Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World
By John Szwed
Viking, 309 pages, $29.95

In his barrage of strategies in which folk music could be used to inspire a united fighting force, Lomax paused to take a jealous swipe at a hit record that had won over a nation primed for patriotic fervor: "I need not overstress my opinion that 'God Bless America' and Kate Smith are both extremely dull and mediocre," he wrote. "They have both been elevated to an artificially astronomical position by the power of mass advertising and the star system." 

Smith's operatic bombast had little to do with what Lomax called "real American music." For him, real American music was performed by rural people such as Texas Gladden, a mother of nine who Lomax recorded a year later in her southwest Virginia home, in a capella, bare-bones renditions of "Gypsy Davey" and traditional songs handed down for generations. "Texas sings her antique ballads in the fashion of ballad singers from time immemorial," Lomax said. "The emotions are held in reserve: the singer does not color the story with heavy vocal underscoring; she allows the story to tell itself." 

Capturing such performances and the stories they told was a lifelong obsession for Lomax, who wandered America and the globe in search of the sounds of traditional music endangered by the very technology he used to record them for posterity. His travels took him from his native American South to remote outposts of the Caribbean and across the ocean to the British Isles and the fishing villages of Italy and the mountains of Spanish Basque country. His work spanned six decades, from the Depression all the way to the 1990s. (Lomax died in 2002.) He began his career gathering songs with a 300-pound disc-cutter in the back of a Model A and ended it using hand-held video cameras for backwoods documentaries. No matter what the gear, Lomax never wavered from his mission—to find evidence that the world's poorest places offered some of the richest cultural treasures.

An illustration of a reel-to-reel tape machine graces the cover of "Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World," the first biography of the renegade folklorist who, says John Szwed, "changed not only how everyone listened to music but even how they viewed America." The drawing shows the type of portable, hi-fi recorder that made possible Lomax's most influential fieldwork, like the 1959 recording of a Mississippi prison work gang that later appeared on the soundtrack for the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000).

"Po Lazarus"—rendered by black convicts chopping wood and singing in unison—is vintage Lomax in its utter fidelity (sonic and otherwise) to a world where the grace of artistic expression can rise from the depths of misery. The song is part of the vast Lomax archives. They include more than 5,000 hours of sound recordings, which have been mined by artists from Aaron Copland and Miles Davis to Bob Dylan and Moby, a fitting legacy for a visionary outlaw who believed, says Mr. Szwed, that "folk culture could become pop culture."

The staggering output came with a heavy cost, dooming Lomax's first marriage and other relationships as he followed his collecting compulsion, often working himself to the point of physical collapse. A charmer and a bully, an antiacademic who depended on educational funding, a man equally at home in a straw hut in Haiti and at a White House reception, Lomax was a controversial figure, often accused of exploitation and grandstanding. He made enemies well beyond the field of folklore, not least the FBI agents who trailed him for years on account of his radical politics. An early file report depicts "a very peculiar individual in that he is only interested in folklore music, being very temperamental and ornery. . . . He has no sense of money values, handling his own and Government property in a neglectful manner." Even so, Lomax had fiercely loyal supporters in high places, ranging from Margaret Mead to filmmaker Nicholas Ray, and he has been a revered mentor to several generations of historians, including Mr. Szwed.

As a biographer of Miles Davis and Sun Ra, two notoriously difficult and singular characters, Mr. Szwed is in thorny but familiar territory. He is a reliable if at times overeager guide along the Lomax trail, one that is littered with miles of tape and mountains of paper. Mr. Szwed is especially helpful in establishing the explosive dynamic between Alan Lomax and his father, John, who set the often wayward son on his life's journey.

The author of a landmark 1910 anthology of cowboy ballads, Texas-born-and-bred John Lomax was a towering force in American folklore circles by the time a teenage Alan began accompanying his father on song-collecting trips in 1933. The material they sought for the Archive of American Folk Song broke from the norm. Instead of merely transcribing song-texts, in the tradition of European scholars, they made recordings of performances, mostly those of rural Southern blacks from the work fields and prisons, whose culture was deemed lowlife and unworthy of collecting, much less studying.

If Lomax shared his father's love of this music and an appreciation of its enduring worth, he had his own epiphanies that went beyond aesthetics to ideals of social justice. He wanted to break free of the prejudices of his conservative, Southern-patrician father, with his Stetson hat and cigar and superior manner toward the folk he recorded. The father-and-son road trips featured a lot of quarreling, culminating in a blow-up over John's patronizing treatment of Lead Belly, the black songster and ex-convict whom the Lomaxes had recorded in prison and helped gain parole and fleeting fame back East. The elder Lomax also engaged Lead Belly in an ill-fated business arrangement that included Lead Belly performing duties as John's chauffeur.

The Lomax Legacy
The colossal scope of Alan Lomax's recorded legacy, housed in climate-controlled stacks at the Library of Congress's John Adams Building and widely available in a steady torrent of releases, can humble even the most adventurous listeners. Here are three of the best, from an introductory compilation to an eight-CD box set, which convey the astonishing range of what Lomax captured in his quest to "bring 'em back alive, all the voices."

--Eddie Dean

—Mr. Dean is co-author of Dr. Ralph Stanley's "Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times" (Gotham).

The entire review can be read here

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


In the video below Natalie Goldberg says 'I never think I have a gift for writing, but I practice, and I keep showing up.' For me those are wise words. Don't spend too much time analyzing this 'gift' you may or may not have (and who is to tell?) but keep working and most of all, keep learning. Seek out more ways, new ways, old ways that can breathe new life into your work.

Creativity is a process, it's a 'doing.' The best gift is one you bestow upon yourself, perseverance and a mind open to learn.

Natalie Goldberg - Writing down the Bones - Interview with the author

Monday, January 17, 2011

Summer time

Happy New Year – summer holidays always make me feel philosophical about how we experience time and one of the things that interest me about writing (and reading) is the way in which we employ, manipulate and experience time. Some of the ways we do this are quite obvious and others take a bit more thinking about.

On an everyday level, there is the common experience of being so caught up in a story (either reading/viewing/listening to it, or writing it) that we become unconscious of time, we are in the zone, totally absorbed, and an hour or two can go by without being aware of anything other than the story itself. We are inside the space, time and emotion of the story itself. This ordinary experience is usually considered to be an ideal state for a reader, one that denotes an excellent book, movie, play etc.

A second aspect involves how writers use time as a technique to ground, develop and enhance a story. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of listening to Owen Marshall talk about handling time in fiction, once in 2005 and again in 2009, and some of the issues and challenges he discussed included: the use of tense, e.g. using the present tense rather than the past, or using both past and present tenses; flashbacks and flashforwards; the acceleration, abbreviation or expansion of time; cuts and transitions; and conflation of time where the past is brought into the present, or the present into the future. If my memory serves me right, Marshall said that Annie Proulx’ story “Brokeback Mountain” ( on which the film was based) is a textbook on the use of time and that William Trevor is an expert at conflating time in his stories.

A third area that interests me is the use of, and the difference between, chronological and psychological time in a story (Mike Johnson in a fascinating talk on short stories to Auckland NZSA members in February 2008 used the terms, vertical and horizontal time). A great example of a short story structured by psychological rather than chronological time is Wheat, by Tracy Slaughter (which won the Katherine Mansfield Short Story Competition in 2004).Vertical or psychological time disrupts chronological time, transforming it into what is emotionally linked or meaningful and more closely resembles the way memory and everyday internal experience are linked to emotional triggers. I’ve often heard it said that beginning writers should stick to the more simple technique of using chronological time to structure their stories but I’m inclined to disregard such patronising advice, believing that, at least since James Joyce, psychological time is more relevant and more interesting, although admittedly harder to pull off.

Another aspect I’d like to find out more about is around the differences between how time is used in novels versus short stories. Frank O’Connor (The Lonely Voice, 1963, p 103) suggests that, "The short story represents a struggle with time – the novelist’s time; it is an attempt to reach some point of vantage from which past and future are equally visible…" Easy to think of many of Raymond Carver’s stories as meeting this criterion. I wonder what Charles May would have to say on the subject?

And finally, for a while now I’ve been ruminating on a quote from Margaret Atwood in her book, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (Cambridge University Press, 2009). This book is a collection of the Empson lectures Atwood gave, and in the second lecture she uses the metaphor of Alice in the Looking Glass to discuss the idea that when we write we call on two, sometimes complimentary, sometimes conflicting, aspects of the self: the ordinary flawed, everyday person who possesses no special wisdom or insight (Alice looking into the mirror) and the artist, (Alice looking back from mirror at real life and the ordinary person). She says: “…here is my best guess, about writers and their elusive doubles, and the question of who does what as far as the actual writing goes. The act of writing takes place at the moment when Alice passes through the mirror. At this one instant, the glass barrier between the doubles dissolves, and Alice is neither one thing nor the other, though at the same time she is all of these at once. At that moment time itself stops, and also stretches out, and both writer and reader have all the time not in the world.”[my italics]

I like that: all the time not in the world.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Happy New Year

Happy new year everyone and very best wishes to you and yours for 2011. Big year ahead. I have a couple of books to (finally) finish and a fair bit of teaching to do. The summer weather here has been scorching so far, and it's only early January. February's going to be a challenge.

Good to see more members have joined, remember to leave a comment, or let us know if you have some thoughts to contribute by way of an article or post.

Also any links to interesting storytelling related sites.  

For now, feel the need for some more time by the sea...