splitting apart: some background notes

Here are some notes on a talk at UOW given in 2012 on the research into the writing of Splitting Apart.  They were previously on a Tumbla blog but that has faded away. I’m reluctant to dwell in the past too much, but this was such a fun adventure I do want to share it.

Putting It All Together 

Monday 21 May 2012, 9:30-10:30, UOW Rm 25-150.

Slide 1

Introduction

greeting;

(Slide 2) I’m talking with you today about the short story cycle, and I have been asked to do this in the context of my master of creative arts prose creative work which I completed last year.

Merlinda was my supervisor for the year;

This work was a short story cycle called ‘Splitting The Scene’. You will be relieved, I don’t plan to tell you the story, but I will be talking about the writing of the story, so I will need to share some context.

I am talking about the short story cycle from the viewpoint of form and structure. Merlinda has asked me to also talk about my work from some of the key writing modes which I will introduce further below:

This is a personalised and subjective account of the process, but the intention is to share some experience so as to inform your own creative writing projects, be they short stories, novelettes, novellas, or novels.

I intend to talk till 10.15 and then we have time for questions and comments.

if we have any time left, I have a few comments in reserve on how the aspects of writing we discuss today in relation to those longer forms of prose may also apply to the short form of the sentence;

I don’t intend to define or theorise about the short story. I remember Shady covered that in our second year prose. However, from a writer’s viewpoint, one observation I wish to make is that often when writing a short story, the focus is on reduction and cutting back of material, so it’s all directly relevant;

That’s certainly what I faced again and again in this creative writing exercise;

However, in a novel the movement is more often one of elaboration and expansion;

This leaves us to ponder what the ideal prose form.

The target for our major work was 25,000 words. My penultimate draft was 28,000 words and I worked hard to get it down to under 26,000 words;

(Slide 3) My initial proposal, lodged in the November of the previous year, was very open, a plan to write a collection of short stories;

my original expectation was to write about ten stories, all in first person and  loosely inter-connected through character and location;

what I was hoping to achieve through this creative work was to develop better skills in the way I handle  point of view and voice, let’s say it was a more in-depth interrogation of these aspects of writing than what I did at the undergraduate level;

The finished product was a collection of six short stories, the stories are told from the first person POV by six different characters. For your information, all these people work in the one government office in Canberra; together the stories qualify as a short story cycle, a term I was not familiar with at the start of my project;

As we often hear, it helps writers starting out to write about what they know, and I have a background of working in government;

(Slide 4)

In brief, the characters were as follows:

Taz, 23, a guy fresh from university, who loves playing soccer with his mates, his father is a union delegate;

Wes, 30, a dreamy fellow but brought up by his mother, recently married, and trying tp put his online gaming addiction behind him;

Sammy, 32, a transgender character who now identifies as a man, though was born as a woman, has a daughter at home who used to call her mummy and now calls her daddy;

Quinn, 35, an ex-musician, whoe father was Russian, drifted up and down the eastern seaboard of Australia as a musician before joining the public service;

Vic, 40, an ambitious woman who grew up in Melbourne and worked for the government in Paris, and wants another overseas posting;

Nev, 59, migrant born in UK, with an army background, and hidden unlawful past;

The story is set in 2019, and these people who are working in the same office in Canberra, are given the task of providing an urgent report to their mythical Minister for Homeland Affairs;

Starting Point (Slide 5)

starting point A:

I want to share with you a sense of where I was at the start of the project, in terms of my goals for writing prose, voice and themes;

in the undergraduate theory strand on modernism, I was particularly impressed by the achievement of Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying (published in 1930) with his strategy of multiple first person narrators to tell the story (59 chapters, 16 voices);

This sharpened my interest in the potential of writing in the first person;

As I say, coming from a government background, where I wrote reports and legal decision records day after day, where my muse was a high court judge demanding objective, factual and correct, I had very little experience with first person POV in writing.

I decided I wanted to come up to speed with writing in first person and explore and wrestle with the issues involved in this mode of writing;

first person POV offers the benefit of the narrator being inside the story, there is a stronger feeling of connection and its more direct, even in language;

Of course, if you write in the present tense, your narrator has to be present at every step of the story, sometimes a challenge;

One thing I realised, is that a potential pitfall with third person is the temptation for hyper-control, like hyper-parents, where authors over-intervene, whereas writing in the first person POV we are offered the challenge of giving more freedom to our characters and their voice, We first need to get to know them, and then there’s a process of allowing and releasing going on, rather than controlling;

To sum up, my interest in first person POV and voice were important starting points for this project;

Starting Point B:

(Slide 6) As far as themes go, I have long been interested in the question the way humans perceive the world, as we all are;

part of my early intention of writing my collection of  stories was perhaps to focus on one or two common events and let the six characters interpret those events each in their own way, even to the point of that event meaning very little to them;

what I see as the project’s theme only became clearer towards the second half of the year, about change as a subjective experience. During any process of change, it’s hard to see inside that process from the outside; and it is hard to see outside the process when you are inside, and this goes for another person’s experience;

Many years ago, I studied philosophy, and though I have intentionally forgotten a lot of what I studied, a few core issues have stayed with me;

In philosophy one of the perennial questions is the   relation of object and subject, and is closely linked to relationship between self and other which a lens commonly used in postcolonial theory and in fact a lot of modern writing theory;

I can only highlight this question today;

But, I believe we can be too easily trained into a mechanical view of world, where we imagine the world as an object is out there, in the shape of atoms and molecules, and building blocks, and us as perceivers are over here, and there is an over simplification of the relationship between the subject and object;

Perceptions are sometimes seen as just our senses simply registering the reality out there, whereas there is a strong argument that we are all interpreters of that reality;

The next question is how do our beliefs influence our interpretation of reality, because it could be that if we have two people with different belief systems, then when they look at the same thing they will see something different, which makes us wonder why anyone would bother even arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong about a lot of things;

we see this in politics, where people love to be one-sided;

we see this in the workplace, and also in inter-personal relationships. Many opportunities for us all to study this philosophical question in our lives;

(Slide 6) A book that has stayed with me for many years is Robert Browning’s dramatic verse novel The Ring and the Book (published in 1868);

it’s about a court case over a murder in Rome in 1698;

it’s made up of ten chapters where each chapter is told by a different court witness;

I have heard that this book is used in law schools to demonstrate some of the difficulties with conflicting human perceptions, and how it relates to establishing facts from evidence derived through our senses;

A contemporary work with a similar theme is Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (released in 1950). A story of a death told in four parts by a bandit, a samurai, samurai’s wife, and a woodcutter;

such examples drive us to ask questions like about how personal and social realities merge;

so here are a few works I cited in my original proposal;

Theory Overview (slide 7)

Besides the creative work, the MCA year includes a stream of coursework, covering research into prose techniques;

We focused on four distinct areas: theme, voice, structure, image. We made an early decision to subsume style under voice, and our time would be best spent on these four key areas in our course. (The point is when it comes to style everyone has their own style of where to place it);

each person in our class was asked to choose two of the four elements, and prepare a presentation of how they related to their major creative work;

I intend to relate to you some of the research into these four elements about my creative piece;

It’s only when you try to isolate these elements that you see how they are so inter-connected, and while it is a bit artificial to isolate them, though there is some value, as a writer in clarifying our craft;

if we consider these elements to constitute the four walls of our room of creative writing, it’s the corners that perhaps become most interesting as points of intersection;

Image/Theme (slide 8)

I’d like to explore the interface of image and theme as it relates to my work;

So for some background, during mid semester break in third year, I visited Moscow, to see some friends I once worked with, and one weekend went out to a dacha, visit a guy, Sergei, who headed a bank in Moscow in the 90s. His family lived in a high security compound, pine trees, sunshine, dogs etc. We talked a lot about Russia. This guy said, on the subject of politics, for sure, that in the next 20 years, the Russian Federation will break up.

let’s start with some facts about Russia;

Russia is made up of 83 regions;

That firstly made me ask the question of why the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, but the Russian Federation stayed together;

So why does he think federated states of the Russia would break up now?

no idea, but good to ponder, I say few have any idea;

I had this vague image of a large scale break apart;

Image/Theme 2 (slide 10)

to give clearer expression to this image of breakup, I went to the Chinese Classic, Yi Ching, or Book of Changes;

a Chinese classic, 5000 years old;

Karina was in my Y3 theory tute where I introduced the Yi Jing from a Barthes persective;

sixty four chapters based on the series of six either broken and unbroken lines, tells a story in six steps;

I knew from memory it has a chapter called Splitting Apart, chapter or hexagram 23;

we think of these six lines inter-acting to create an overall story;

In this case: The dark lines are about to mount upward and overthrow the last firm, light line by exerting a disintegrating influence on it. The inferior, dark forces overcome what is superior and strong, not by direct means, but by undermining it gradually and imperceptibly, so that it finally collapses.

basically it’s a story of the process of disintegration told line by line;

since I had six characters, I decided to allocate a line to each character, and work the imagery associated with each line into each story;

so this helped me build my image, and now also structure;

As an example line 1, says: Six at the beginning means:
 The leg of the bed is split. 
Those who persevere are destroyed. 
Misfortune;

Taz is in a bed, a link to the commentary;

Just as the first scene of the first story starts with character in a bed with broken arm and leg;

So to sum up, the work began with an image of break up and fracture;

and a form began to take shape;

The next step was to give each characters their own splitting apart scenario;

Tas

Wes

Sammy

Quinn

Vic

Nev

so to sum up, a lot of scaffolding was set with theme and image, and now structure;

Voice (Slide 11)

Now I will come back to voice. As mentioned, my initial intention, in this exercise, was to explore point of view and voice;

Another book that came up in theory was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (published in 2004). A masterpiece. Again a book in six parts with totally different voices, but enough subtle hints that they are reincarnations of the same person, ie tattoo in the same spot;

As an exercise, I analysed and logged what made up each of Mitchell’s characters: their education, their personal interests, their occupation, their social milieu, their moment in history; to see how it influenced their voices;

My first characters came from the assignments in WRIT312, got good feedback from Merlinda on Nev, a story of him getting busted as a dealer outside a Led Zepellin concert in the 70s in Birmingham.

Structure (Slide 12)

now let’s talk more about structure;

As the project began as a collection of short stories, ‘loosely’ connected by character and location, for my presentation, I went away to do some research into theory of the short story;

Came upon some writings about the short story cycle

(slide 13);

Forrest Ingram, ‘Short Story Cycles of the 2oth Century in Reid, The Short Story, p 47

—‘A book of short stories so linked to each other by their author that the reader’s successive experience on various levels of the pattern of the whole significantly modifies his experience of each of its component parts.’

cycles can be linked by families, character, location, theme.

Sherwood Anderson, Winesberg Ohio (published in 1919). A series of sketches of people living in a small town. Originally called ‘The Book of Grotesques’. The one common observer of George Willard who works as a reporter for the Winesberg Eagle (like the Bargo Times). Anderson rounds the collection of stories off with a decision to leave the town and head to the city to find work;

This text is recognised as a paradigm for the short story cycle;

Anderson commented that the didn’t want to develop his work into a novel structure, because he wanted to maintain the ‘looseness’ of each of the characters in the individual stories, because that captured something of the experience of these isolated individuals in the town;

One set of short story cycles I was drawn to study in more detail was Frank Moorhouse’s Futility and Other Animals (first published in 1969);

Frank is currently on the short list for the Miles Franklin award for his novel Cold Light so he’s a timely writer to discuss;

It seems the title Futility and Other Animals  references the work of another writer, Gerald Durrell, a naturalist and writer who lived on the Greek island of Corfu with his family for a some years and wrote an autobiographical account called My Family and Other Animals;

Contrary to so many cycles written in regional settings, Moorhouse’s are set in urban environments;

What’s interesting about Moorhouse is his theorising of how the short story cycle serves his writing, how the structure reflects theme and content;

his themes are often about the discontinuous nature of society, and he uses a structure he feels reflects that theme.

He says (slide 14):  ‘These are interlinked stories, and although the narrative is discontinuous and there is no single plot, the environment and characters are continuous. In some ways the people are a tribe, a modern, urban tribe which does not recognise itself as a tribe (Reid,1977,49);

For the two stories I shared with you, ‘Lou Shouted Hey’ and ‘Futility and Other Animals’, my first question is to consider the similarities and differences between these works;

Differences

Point of View

Structural linearity

Age of secondary characters

Imagery gun vs concept truth

Urban/Rural

Ending

Similarities

Futility

Trust

Deception

Truth and Honesty

Question 2 is whether you think they seem to fit into the same collection?

For Moorhouse, not only narrative discontinuity, but also discontinuity of style is an important statement;

Moorhouse does have this strategy of bringing children and babies into his stories, as a way of highlighting the state of society as opposed to the pre-social naturalness of children;

Karen Weekes has written a paper about postmodernism in women’s short story cycles. Her position is that this is a form which reflects contemporary existence;

While she says earlier modernist story cycles reflected the fractured nature of society and tradition, the postmodernist cycles, with the strong focus on identity, reflect the fracturing of self;

(Slide 15) These interlinked stories, which require readers to identify unifying characteristics and assimilate the works into a meaningful whole, model the creation of postmodern identity from its many fractured parts and disparate influences Karen Weeks Postmodernism in women’s Short Story Cycles p97 in ‘The Postmodern Short Story Forms’ and Issues ed by Iftekhharrudin;

This is only speculative, but I wonder if all this talk of fracturing, is a pathway to a new reintegration, and if short story cycles are but a stepping stone to something more integrated. I see how Joyce’s Dubliners collection of short stories, eventually led to Ulysses, and also Frank Moorhouse to write a huge trilogy on Edith Campbell Berry, starting with Grand Days;

But my point of talking about the short story cycle is to illustrate how structure can inform theme;

Consider the example of Merlinda’s Fish Hair Woman (published in May): 86 chapters structure serves to reflect and reinforces the image of the hair, the multi strands of hair. She told me her earlier drafts had a different chapter structure, so theme, image and structure come into close alignment;

In summary, I decided that the short story cycle suited my theme of splitting, I didn’t need to have a narrative continuity through the short stories, if I have chosen to write a novella or a novel, but there was still a connection;

Conclusions

I would like to make three comments

I appreciate how these elements of theme, voice, image and structure work so well together;

I found the background research and getting these elements in place, enhanced what I got out of my project, because, with Merlinda doing such a close reading, I was best able to capitalise on her editorial comments, the way she could ask some key questions particularly on making each of the stories a unified whole;

 

I discovered how theory can be fun, because it’s about seeing what other people have done and are doing and because you choose who and what you study, and so it’s always relevant to your own work;

the node is an important tool. I see potential to apply the node, through both image and theme. After finishing last year, I continued with the work, building it from 25,000 to 80,000 words, a lot of it by interrogating the node points of image and theme to see how to grow the narrative.

Final Comments

 

I want to make some more lateral comments on structure;

these are largely inspired by the writer and critic William Gass;

he occasionally collaborates with his wife who is an architect to write articles of aesthetics;

he links and compares disparate art forms like buildings and sentences;

he known for his attention to sentence structure;

Before my coursework presentation on structure, I was ever on the lookout for innovative aesthetic models for a collection of short stories;

Milan Kundera who wrote ‘art of the novel’ writes how his novels are inspired by musical compositions;

(Slide 16) brought to mind, Chekhov, one of the father’s of the modern short story, had a holiday house in Yalta, on the Black Sea. The design of the house is interesting as the writer of collections of short stories;

(Slide 17) Another interesting model for writing is the Sun Yat Sen Memorial in Nanjing;

it is a huge walk up stairs to a shrine;

This walkway is interesting

designed so that when you look down, you see eight platforms;

When you look up, you see a series of steps which are continuous.

if you have time, have some fun exploring how may be able to relate theme, image, voice and structure of your work with other art forms, and maybe even to the making of individual sentences;

but I think this is enough for today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

189 Spam Comments Blocked so far by Spam Free Wordpress

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>