Sunday, May 22, 2011

Claire Keegan workshop

As part of this years Auckland Writers and Readers Festival (May 11-15) I attended a workshop run by multi-award winning Irish short story writer Claire Keegan. (She has published two collections of stories, Antarctica and Walk the Blue Fields, as well as the long short story, Foster.)

I found her teaching style stimulating, even bracing - it was obvious she didn't suffer fools or pander to the punters, and she definitely didn't like tricks, gimmicks, or shallowness - and good on her for all that. I was glad of her honesty and sincerity as well her intelligence and admired her ability to put a stake in the ground about writing fiction.

The workshop was entitled How Fiction Works and one of the things she empahasised was the importance/centrality of time, particularly as a way of thinking about structure. I'm still mulling over all the ideas she presented and the points she made but below are some of my (rough)notes from her comments and discussion about time.

Start by making an incision in time; mine this piece of time; consider and reconsider time

Before and after a story are often unstated

Not everything is told in a story so you need to choose what moments in time to show; let the reader join those moments into a whole

Think about what to include, what to leave out and how much silence there should be

In your second and third drafts think about whether you have chosen the right slice of time

The language of a story begins at a certain point of time

Write what happens over time through the point of view of a character - follow the gaze of the character and stay inside their vocabulary

Transitions in time follow the desire of the character, what she or he wants, doesn't want or has lost.

I like her phrase 'incision in time' very much and I'm finding it a helpful way to think about different possible points of entry, exploration and exit - much more helpful than being told to have a beginning middle and an end. This way of looking at story structure at least offers no pretence that beginnings, middles and endings are easy, obvious or transparent.

Keegan also spoke about 'show don't tell' in an interesting and fresh way:

Good writing works on the level of suggestion

Don't make statements - e.g. she was happy/sad - or analyse, summarise, tell anecdotes or make explanations

Take care of the person/character you are writing about; don't make a point of them, i.e. don't use them to make a point

The internal thoughts of a character follow the gaze of that character.

There was much else besides what I have just mentioned in the hour and a half workshop. It was a treat, and a steal at $40.
Congratulations to the organisers of the festival for re-instating the workshops.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The dark tunnel

One of the things I find hardest to achieve when I’m writing a story is developing an effective structure, one that supports both movement/action and character. It’s hard enough to do in a short story but particularly daunting in a novel.
I guess one of the reasons I find it so difficult is because I like reading and writing in emotional rather than chronological time. I’m sure this indicates I favour character insight and development over plot or, to be more accurate, internal over external plot. Of course, in reality this means that I need to find ways (other than just resorting to simple flashback) to work with both.
Exploring time, history, memory, and different realities and perspectives, is one of the main reasons I’m driven to write, but learning how to transition from one time or reality to another, as well as finding ways to balance them, is something I find very difficult.
It’s not that I have anything against starting at the beginning, moving to the middle and finishing at the end, it’s just that I often have no real idea what the beginning, middle or end of something is, either in ‘real’ life or when I’m drafting and redrafting a story. It seems to me there are endless possible beginnings and endings even when we are simply (orally) recounting something from our lived experience: we emphasise, leave out, gloss over, skip forward and backward in time, surmise, exaggerate, interpret – often this is done almost, or even completely, unconsciously.
Given how easy it is to reconstruct experience into ‘story’ orally in everyday situations, you’d think it would be much easier than it is to sit down and consciously construct a narrative with a character, a particular point of view and voice, and then to layer their feelings, experiences and actions in a way that is coherent and meaningful for the reader, rather than only for the writer and character.
Recently, while doing some background research on dream interpretation, I came across what seemed to me to be a classic/traditional story structure. Andrew Samuels (1999, pp 232-3) mentioned that Jung believed dreams have a typical structure: exposition; development; culmination; solution. Noticing and understanding how specific dreams conformed to or deviated from this structure was/is part of the art of interpretation (or of finding meaning).
Jung’s typical dream structure made me remember another possible (short) story structure, that of Alice Adams (quoted in Lamott 1995, p 62): action; background; development; climax; ending – ABDCE. Fascinating that this structure is so similar to Jung’s one on dreams.
I read a quote somewhere (attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, I think) that said writing is like crawling through a dark tunnel on your hands and knees with a crayon in your mouth.
I’m not sure if he was talking about short stories or not but that pretty much sums up how it feels trying to write and structure a novel.

To be human...

It was once said of Ralph Waldo Emerson that he was the 'Sage of ordinary days.' I was reminded of this while watching English director Mike Leigh's new film, Another Year, which is an exploration of the lives of a small group of friends over the course of 12 months. Here is the cinematic trailer.

Leigh's films have a total absence of fanfare or cinematic slight-of-hand, but still achieve a grandeur. That grandeur however, is not so much up on the screen, it's a realization in the mind and heart of the viewer, as Leigh's characters, always allowed room to flourish beyond mere scripting, show us not just who they are but who we are.

American screenwriting teacher Robert McKee, writes of the same principle and effect, in his book, Story, p.123.

'A great work is a living metaphor that says, 'Life is like this.' The classics, down through the ages, give us not solutions but lucidity, not answers but poetic candor; they make inescapably clear the problems all generations must solve to be human.'

'Another Year' is about a small circle of friends and family around the characters of Tom and Gerri, a couple close to retirement age whose main passion is their garden. Their house is a hub for the wheel of core characters around them. During the course of the film in fact their friend, Mary, becomes the key character and emotional talisman. Mary, a lonely middle-aged woman is consumed by that loneliness, to the point of desperation. That desperation, exacerbated by heavy drinking, drives people further away from her, spiraling her deeper into loneliness. Actress Lesley Manville plays her with empathy and ragged depth, managing to show from the inside out a character we all know, but without going into stereotype. It's a characteristic of Leigh's films that he elicits strong performances from actresses, playing characters lost in familiar surroundings, being both of their domestic world and alienated from it. Mary, who is aching for human warmth and affection, attracts only an older man, Ken, who is further along the road to emotional oblivion than she is. Their scenes together, and her total rejection of him and his cloying advances, crackle and singe. Perhaps she recognizes herself in him, a view of her endpoint so shocking she can't be anywhere near him. Perhaps her conscious self doesn't or refuses to recognize their similarities, but some part of her does, and that horrifies her.

There's no real moment of redemption for Mary, as Mike Leigh isn't interested in the shallow and deceptive promise of big victory, but she glimpses a corner to turn by her unexpected connection with another man, Ronnie, whose wife has just died. Their non-conversations, almost wordless, stand tall by the fact they don't attempt to push each other away, but allow the other to exist close to their space. People seared by grief showing their humanness by what they don't do, by not pushing each other away. It's about as big a victory as this film promises. It is also riveting cinema, as close to McKee's 'lucidity...and... poetic candor' as you're likely to see on film this year.

Leigh's films, which in a strange way speak of what 'reality TV' could have been if not dumbed down to moronic level, show us ordinary lives, people facing trauma we have faced, trauma we will face. It is cinema as mirror, honest, often raw, compelling in its sharpness of detail and nuance. His stories make a mockery of stereotypical Hollywood film structure, with its focus on setting the character a goal/problem to solve, then putting antagonists and obstacles in their way until they triumph in a moment of glittering glory. His characters aren't heroes, nor even anti-heroes, but they are heroic, in a meat-and-potatoes way. In the way they wake up in the morning and just go on. Sometimes that's all we have. 

It's difficult to categorize Mike Leigh's best films as masterpieces, because the term almost forces you to think of epic sweep of scope of ideas and physical boundaries. This film, and indeed Leigh's other great movie 'Secrets and Lies' are too smart for such things. They look to show the world in a postage stamp, almost a pinprick. Almost everything of any meaning explored in a couple of houses, a single street. This film, to revisit McKee's quote does not give me answers, but it does ask enormous questions, and sometimes, like Mary who gets up in the morning and just goes on, that's all we have.