Category: Chronic illness

A Few Wise Words, and in praise of short stories

I am giving a talk … in a yurt! I am wildly excited about this, having experienced the Wise Words’ yurt as a punter last year.  A Few Wise Words is a mini-festival of words, music and film on the weekend of 4-6 April 2014, with most events taking place in a yurt in Greyfriars Franciscan Gardens, Canterbury.

My talk is Low Energy, High Creativity – discovering writing through chronic illness. It takes place on Saturday 5 April at 11.00 a.m. Find out more and book tickets at £5 on the Wise Words website.

I was at the Save As Awards in Canterbury on Sunday, and was pleased to come away with 3rd prize in the prose awards for my story ‘How Beautiful’. This is available to read on Writers’ Hub. All the shortlisted stories and poems were of a high standard and truly diverse. It was a happy evening, listening to the other writers, plus readings from judges Sonia Overall and Abegail Morley.

I was, however, surprised to hear a comment to the writer of one of the shortlisted stories, ‘I hope you are going to develop this into a novel’. A short story and a novel – you might as well compare an elephant to a pencil sharpener. Short stories are not novel extracts, or the beginnings of novels; they are complete in themselves.

In many ways, writing short stories is harder than novel-writing (this is me speaking as someone who has tried and given up on novel-writing, so I am sure novelists will put me straight). I share below some quotes on the short story, which I gathered for a workshop I delivered on the short story at the Canterbury Festival in 2013.

‘A story is a way to say something that can’t be said in any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.’ Flannery O’Connor

A short story is ‘fundamentally about character. The plot of a short story is nothing more than an unfolding of character, or perhaps the unfolding of a couple of characters. That’s the beauty of the form, the terrific sense of intimacy it can offer us.’ Alison Macleod, from ‘Writing and risk-taking’, Short Circuit, a Guide to the Art of the Short Story (Salt Publishing, 2009)

‘In his essay “A Short History of the Short Story”, William Boyd suggests that its defining feature – namely its length – is the source of its curious appeal. Its virtue is its brevity and its pull. There is no time for the gentle build; the writer’s chance to display his or her gift is as brief as that of the TV talent show contestant … [Boyd] likens Woolf’s comment about the deceptive ability of a photograph to enhance the picture of life to the short story’s capacity to enlarge our view of the world. “This gives us, I think, a clue to the enduring power and appeal of the short story – they are snapshots of the human condition and of human nature and, when they work well, and work on us, we are given the rare chance to see in them more than in real life.”’ Mariella Frostrup in The Guardian, 21 September 2013

I’d also like to add a few words about how a good piece of writing differs from a short story.

A short story has: A BEGINNING, A MIDDLE, and AN END. It TELLS something: it has a point  – why the story is being told.

A short story has a SHAPE – it starts with CONFLICT, builds up via a series of complications to a CRISIS, then a RESOLUTION and a falling away.

Watch this wonderful video on You Tube – Kurt Vonnegut on story shapes.

Join the mailing lists of Thresholds and of Short Stops who are ‘getting excited about short stories in the UK and Ireland’.

Morning pages may not be the artist’s way

I’ve been writing morning pages for several years, using Julia Cameron’s guidelines in The Artist’s Way: write first thing in the morning; three A4 pages (though I use an A5 notebook, and three pages of that is enough for me); and whatever comes out of your head goes on to the page. Then I went to a journalling session with poet John Siddique at the Wise Words festival in Canterbury. This was a chance to get together with other writers in a coffee shop. John led the session with a short talk, then we all wrote in our journals for half an hour or so.

John’s talk turned my thinking about morning pages right around. He had followed Julia Cameron’s advice and had pages of negativity, covering the same ground over and over again. I too have notebooks mostly full of negative and angry stuff as a result of tipping anything in my head onto the page. I look back on these notebooks and wonder who this angry person is. I can do nothing with this material. It does not bring me on creatively.

John went on to talk about how he had been journalling around the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. How he journals about the roles in his life, and how well he is fulfilling them. Some of my roles are mother, wife, friend, sister, grandmother, stepmother, writer, editor etc.

John’s talk changed my thinking and my life. I got hold of the book, read it, and began using my journal in this way. No more negativity or covering old hurts again and again. I spoke to my counsellor about it, and she wondered whether the early morning negativity is to do with the bad thoughts that can invade if you are awake for long periods in the night. I have long-term sleep problems, and regularly battle with this problem. Maybe by writing first thing, these night demons are still around.

I felt angry with Julia Cameron for pushing her way as the best way. As well as the ‘write anything at all’ commandment, there are the write by hand and for three A4 pages commandments. I don’t think my writer friend with severe cerebral palsy would be able to follow this advice, as she can only write using a keyboard. Those of us with fatigue can perhaps write a page, or half a page on bad days.

I have been using my journal in the way suggested by John Siddique for four months now, and there has been a big change in my mental health. This may be coincidental, but I don’t think so.

I recommend The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s mainly offered as a business book, but has a lot of significance for everyone. It has changed the way I interact with people too.

I have added a lot more non-fiction to my reading, and find many of these books spark my creativity in a way that reading other people’s poetry and fiction may not. For example Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. You can watch her TED talk on the power of vulnerability here.

Maybe it’s the recovering Catholic in me – I don’t do dogma. Julia Cameron’s way is not this artist’s way. 

 

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