Category: fiction (Page 1 of 2)

The last great White Elephant

In 1986 or thereabout I bought the Carver stories above from a shop in Plymouth whilst visiting my sister. It was the start of my obsession with all things ‘Americana’. I moved on via Granta’s Dirty Realism collection to a whole series of American authors including Lorrie Moore, Bobbie Anne Mason and then backwards towards the Deep South ( a title of a Paul Binding book I still own). Along the way stopping off in a whole number of places revealed to me by these authors. My mental map of USA is formed by them as I have only actually been there once for three days for a conference in New York City.

The subject in a lot of cases were outsiders, renegades..working class trailer trash. The characters who in the last few days have stepped out of ‘wilderness’ America and into all our front rooms as led on by the new Barnum they tried to occupy the centre-ground. The warriors of the marginalised wilds.

Trump’s misguided revolution is a drive-by shooting or a mall massacre on a huge scale. Every misfit and shamen of the dispossessed risen up like a biblical flood not forgetting the Jim Crow preachers and snake oil hucksters and medicin men waiting to profit from the carnage.

Watching this unfold like a sequal to a new series of Justified complete with guns, white supremacists and jingoistic cops leaves a hollow feeling…..

Art imitating life or the other way round?

The American Dream seems somehow tawdry and washed out right now….the idolisation of small town freaks and clowns somehow deeply compromised by their depiction.

There are many predictions of further unrest but frankly a United States Marine against spear carrying shaman is fanciful…..armed highly organised militia with military background far more realistic. Hopefully the above the sideshow to Barnum T’s assault on democracy but who knows what tigers he has in his circus cages or skeletons in the Pentagon…..the next few days will tell.

Hopefully it will be Trump’s Skeleton history stands in line to see not democracy’s….

Southern Writers at NC 1: Flannery O’Connor’s Visual Imagination

The self-portrait and the state official version..

 

http://www.nottinghamcontemporary.org/event/study-sessions-women-writers-us-south

The first session in Nottingham Contemporary’s season of Southern Writers organised by Graham Caveney was excellent and not only was it a pleasure listening to Richard H. King speak about Southern Writing but there was the added pleasure of meeting the crime novelist John Harvey and his daughter too (John was a American Studies student on M.A. back in the day as they say).

I did not know Flannery O’Connor’s work although I had purchased her Complete Short Stories many years ago..it had languished on my very full and very unread shelves.

The session was a revelation and I have since been working my way through her ‘Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose’ collection which is wonderful. I always knew that one of my favourite writers Raymond Carver had referenced her as a major influence but it only now I seeing why. Her observations on ‘Creative Writing’ courses and their effectiveness made me laugh out loud (see her lecture ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’) ….she speaks of what she knows having been an early Iowa Writers Workshop student where she met John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren.

Here her major works in contemporary covers which shows how she was an illustrator’s dream commission… which leads on to yet another revelation..she was herself a budding cartoonist whilst at College!

 

The Signature below combines her initials into the form of a bird on her lino-cuts (her chosen medium).

 

 

Flannery O’Connor, Cartoonist

Source: http://infox.gcsu.edu/content/georgia-college-publishes-collected-cartoons-flannery-o%E2%80%99connor

Source: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/comics/article/51455-how-flannery-o-connor-s-early-cartoons-influenced-her-later-writing.html

Here some examples and what interesting is there is some stylistic similarity with another Catholic writer/artist Eric Gill possibly somebody she familiar with through Catholic journals. There also a sense of W Heath Robinson too….who possibly she saw as a child..

My favourite photo is this one of her on the veranda at her family farm in Andalusia with one of her beloved chickens ( a interesting connection with fellow Southern writer Alice Walker)

There an interesting blog published by the Museum that the farm has now become:

http://andalusiafarm.blogspot.co.uk/

Source: http://www.emory.edu/EMORY_MAGAZINE/issues/2015/winter/features/oconnor.html

Source Wikipedia! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flannery_O%27Connor

When she was six, living in a house still standing (now preserved as the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home), she experienced her first brush with celebrity status. The Pathé News people filmed “Little Mary O’Connor” with her trained chicken[3] and showed the film around the country. She said: “When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathé News. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been an anticlimax.”[4]

What I have responded most strongly to in her writing so far is the confluence of regional identity..humour and this particularly visuality which I shown above.

John Huston’s film of Wise Blood seems embedded with Flannery’s visuality which may be why it seems so sharply drawn from the ‘directions’ in the text. We ‘see’ her world very sharply through her pen in an almost Dickensian sense…I have not read any criticism linking the two but I sure she would have been familiar with Dickens especially ‘American Notes’.

Here the trailer of the 1979 film….welcome to Milledgeville 🙂

 

Finally a modern comic version of ‘A Good Man’ that brings things full circle – image copyright Philip Rex Huddlestone

I will post my reaction to the second session ‘Alice Walker’ by Sharon Monteith now at Nottingham Trent University in due course.

Back to the Future: Off the leash or fishing for words?

My favourite Carver photo on Russian River 1972

As I mentioned in last post the last three years have been difficult…that an understatement. After my Fine Art M.A. I tried to disengage with art school research and politics and reset my compass entirely to reconnect with my writing past.

I was lucky enough to be published by Salt in 2010 but the majority of the poems in that slim volume (now OOP) were poems I had written in my exciting debut back in 1992 and through my Scottish phase up until 1996.

Between 1997 and 2007 my output slowed from a drip to nothing but in my head I was still writing.

Last Farmer – Salt Publication (Selected 1992-2010)

 

This culminated in a brief and not entirely fruitful term on the NTU Creative Writing course which I left after a miserable first term..I simply wasn’t ready to break the art school connection then. I can now see that this was the start of three years of depression which I now can at least recognise and treat.

I failed the first assignment as I was struggling to complete my first ever paid poetry commission for RIBA…..
I managed to complete that but the course suffered……

That essay tried to lay the ghost of my possible grandfather (see Coppard essay below) and I was gone…

With a final diva-like flourish I delivered the Fiction module short story…..I was too good for them I convinced myself burying the mental block once again..

David Belbin (standing in for the recently deceased Graham Joyce) was kind and marked it rigorously with his editors pencil and announced it a good ‘tough’ story which made me smile as I deliberately imitated the hard-boiled approach and dirty realism we both admired and played up to his stylistic tics. I put the story away in a draw until today..metaphorically it available online all the time here….

I think it good now I re-read it after nearly three years. I was going to change the detail of letting off the leash which I now know you can never do with a ex racing greyhound but the story still works because it suggests the woman and dog have a trust beyond its training and it could be read as the man provokes the running away….so I have not re-edited at all.

 

My First Short Story

Little did I know that far from opening the floodgates of a irrepressible new fiction talent it was closing the door….since then I have struggled to ward off depression whilst dealing with circumstances of a personal nature that to be frank almost overwhelming.

But I have come through and part of my dealing with the mental block, the lack of an occupation ( I resigned from academic lecturing in January 2016) and my wife’s concurrent illness has meant that I now ‘re-engaging’ with the writing world.

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a workshop led by academic Richard H. King on Flannery O’Connor where I met again John Harvey himself ( the person who published my very first poem way back in 1992 in Slowdancer thus starting my literary ‘non-career’ ) and Graham Caveney who has taken a similarly circuitous route back to writing as me and shares a love of obscure musical knowledge and the band The Feelies 🙂

It feels like everything has come full circle…maybe just maybe this time I can keep going but as I known to my cost it never easy.

As Carver writes in a wonderful essay on writing here …

A Storyteller’s Shoptalk

http://www.nytimes.com/books/01/01/21/specials/carver-shoptalk.html?mcubz=1

Ambition and a little luck are good things for a writer to have going for him.

Too much ambition and bad luck, or no luck at all, can be killing.

There has to be talent.

The strange case of POSH Mark Haddon…

haddon

Part of my new found ‘freedom’ is the ability to find bargains ( both cost me 50p which at 25p each makes it the cheapest pair of books I bought all week) and secondly having the time to actually read the damn things…

So not only are they like buses but I have read both ..the novel yesterday and the poems today although I did not read every poem to the end. I have not read anything else by Haddon which not surprising as he published oodles of kids books and just three ‘adult’ novels including this one…which more a crossover all ages job.

First impressions? Well very cleanly written and pacy as you would expect from a children’s writer. A couple of token f-words and one c word to I suppose tick the ‘adult’ box. The story is fairly innocuous ( will not spoil it ) but the dog stays dead. The interweaving of Conan Doyle and what seems like a Brian Cox series on the galaxies is deftly handled and the illustrations are amusing. As I am not a mathematician I did not check the sums at the end but the Aspergers trait of having to have it as an addendum was a nice touch as was the list of various locations ..Sunderland, Caracas, Swindon etc from throughout the novel a ice touch towards the end.

I enjoyed it but on reflection it did feel a bit like an exercise that pretty much wrote itself once the prescription written. It also felt like it owed a lot to Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole too……only with more facts. Whether it totally accurate re. Aspergers I not sure. It certainly reminded me of high end autism that I have worked with so giving the benefit of the doubt there.

It seems churlish but there were some bits I not so happy about although name-checking my home town as Didcot Parkway was a nice touch and puts Haddon in a small club of writers who have mentioned Didcot in their writing..which includes myself, Amy Clampitt, Marina Warner and Javier Marias..I kid you not…

( It is also 17 minutes on a Great Western 125 from Swindon to Didcot so full marks for accurate train spotting there Mr Haddon although I doubt you spent your weekends trainspotting on Didcot platform like me your family were probably in the Algarve.)

No what I felt a little uneasy with was the characterisation of the ‘adults’ i.e. they haven’t got any..character that is. The token ‘working-class’ father routine and ‘smelling’ was a little hard to believe. I was right.

A swift trawl of web soon established that Mr. Haddon has an MA in English Literature from Merton Oxford ( That means he got a B.A. they give you an MA automatically because they reckon it equivalent of other Unis BAs ..yeah bollocks) and previously at Uppingham Public School..so his experience of work probably from a bus window….like fellow Uppingham alumni like Stephen Fry , Rick Stein and Johhny Vaughan..a toff who also adopted the vowels of the poor for broadcasting…. we not talking heavy labour here. A smart move in career terms though for both.

So he is erudite, smart and lives in Oxford in a nice big house with his wife who a Fellow which in Oxford means silver spoon waiting ( I know I served there). In other words he hasn’t got a care in the world.

The novel is ok but the poetry is pitiful….a poor man’s Armitage. The Oxonian/Uppingham man comes to the fore so his first (and so far last) poetry tome includes various references to Greek Gods and Horace…as well as some utter bollocks disguised as prose poetry which gives Armitage’s recent explorations a run for its money in terms of lightweight and fatuous.

Sorry but if Poetry Review published this then it must have been because he so jolly nice and knew someone. It would not have been published in the real world but then Oxbridge publishing isn’t the real world. Their recent appointment as Professor of Poetry proves that.

So having trashed the poems what about the kid’s stuff..probably great..for kids…end of.

After this experience I have been reading C.K.Williams for some adult entertainment.

Cleans the palette wonderfully old boy.

Let’s go to Sacramento…Diesel on Gravel again

OK so this is news that stays news as they say…

In 1963-4 Raymond Carver left the Iowa Writers Workshop..he drove to Sacramento. I have just metaphorically done the same only I don’t have a car and cannot drive (his was a battered Chevrolet not a Cadillac by the way).

I hinted at this news in previous posts but now as the paperwork almost complete I can say it.

I have left the NTU Creative Writing course. I completed one term.

The previous Fine Art M.A.was too recently completed. Too many personal politics and career questions clouded my decision-making (a hangover from various complications within the School of Art and Design). Most of all I simply couldn’t face yet more modern educational tick-boxing (we call it learning outcome grids, I know I have written and marked hundreds of them) when all I wanted to do was write and make stuff. I didn’t feel like I had left work at all and I was paying for it.  Not a good feeling. I really enjoyed David Belbin’s rigorous ‘prose poem’ classes and most of the core lectures.

I simply made a mistake by pursuing yet another M.A. within my own institution but this decision was shaped by practicalities and mostly financial considerations to do with travel. I originally looked at Sheffield University and Hallam and even Lincoln. I didn’t consider Nottingham University because I felt that would be undermining NTU to go there.

In the end I simply didn’t feel comfortable in a class mostly 30 years younger to be honest. I was swimming upstream in muddy water from the get-go a bit like one of Carver’s fish ( see a poem below written in 1989 before most in class were born!). I wish all the class and their tutors every success and look forward to the Anthology launch:-)

The experience has helped me determine that I am not an ‘academic’ poet. Never was and never will be. I may be an academic art researcher we shall see.

I now attend monthly poetry sessions at the Nottingham Writers Studio and feel far more relaxed and creative. In all other respects things have been going very well and I could not be happier.

I intend to create as much ‘stuff’ as possible in the next few months I have left on ‘career break’ before returning to NTU SAD in July 2015.

There more than one way to catch a fish after all…

The image above is a cover of a self-made booklet of poems I made in 1990 when working at The London Poetry Library it is in their collection it is titled ‘Diesel on Gravel’

diesel

Its title and its contents reflect my discovery of Carver in 1985 through his book ‘Fires’. It contains a poem ‘Searching for a tomb’ which relates directly to the A.E.Coppard story told in another post here
http://www.shaunbelcher.com/writing/?p=1071
Neither of us knew who that particular fish was then…

The one thing I have done properly whilst on the course, even if it made for a ‘bad’ essay, was excavating and confronting the Coppard ‘legacy’ if there is one. It was good for me to do it. I finally discovered new facts about him and read his work properly. That ghost is now laid to rest somewhere in an Oxfordshire graveyard.

Time to move on…

Which wraps everything up nicely.

Here the poem:

 

Searching for a tomb 1989

Sun shone warm on the bonnet
as we pulled up the gravel drive.
The old rectory stood deserted.
The congregation had been dwindling
these five years and twenty.

My father’s wellington’s flap
as he strides off through the wet grass.
I have a photo of him
sitting in his stepfather’s arms
holding a team of horses
pulling a plough aged about ten.

Here we are
Two figures caught in the open.
Standing in a churchyard.
Little Wittenham, Oxfordshire
On a frosty November evening.

My father is circling the headstones
and green iron crosses, looking.

A flock of doves twist and jink
in the blue air above us.

We stare down like two men on a bridge.
Staring into clear and shallow sunlit water
searching for the shadow of a fish.

The father he has never seen.
The grandfather I will never meet.

 

 

My First Short Story

grey

 

My first ever short story.

The Leash

We cannot start from what we do not know we can only start from what we know…

The leash to the greyhound tightened around her red raw hand. Across the river the lights of the car factory flickered and bounced in the water and she finally let go. The dog hesitated,then was gone, streaking off across the frosty ground toward the derelict bandstand that was disappearing in the dusk. She watched the dog circle the bandstand and head back across the icy grass. She suddenly thought of the family car her father drove when she was a child. The memory of warm leatherette seats and chrome trim around the dashboard vividly came to mind. Sometimes it smelt of his mistress. A sweet smell that was different to her mother. She wondered about the furtive kissing and hasty meetings that must have happened in that old car. She thought of his hand resting on the back seat on another cheap night out holding a cigarette. There was always a cigarette. Most times the car just smelt of the stubbed out butts in the ashtray. She remembered the ash swirling up and over her when the door opened once and her angry mother brushing it off her party dress.

The dog bounded away then returned. She always did. Her sides panting with the exertion of a few laps of the park. One time the dog had just kept going. She went home and had taken the back of Jimmy’s hand when she told him. He told her off for being ‘so fuckin stupid’. The two of them spent hours in another twilight looking for the pale grey dog. They were about to give up when she suddenly appeared from some bushes. Her right paw was dripping blood and leaving red paw marks on the tarmac path. It was probably caused by a broken bottle left in the undergrowth by the drunks that used the bandstand during the day or one of the teenagers who collected there of an evening. Jimmy said he’d never trust her with the dog again. A class dog in its day so he said,so he’d be walking her now. Just him. It didn’t last long. After a week he gave up walking her every night. He preferred the pub and his mates after a day as a plumber’s mate. So here they were again, her and that dog, circling the same dumb riverside park. The council estate behind them ricocheted to the sound of joy-riders cars and helicopters overhead as usual on a Sunday evening. She’d always liked the dog, more than Jimmy if she was honest. The dog was gentle and curled up at her feet when Jimmy shouted at her or showed her the back of his hand.

She bent forward and just managed to catch a hold of the collar. Felt the studs scratch the back of her hand as she struggled to attach the lead. Finally it was secure and she tugged the dog gently back towards captivity. They started the slow walk back down the side street that led home from the park. She watched the frost on the chain-link glisten. It was almost festive. The moon and stars above were fast being hidden by cloud as rain clouds came in. The quarter-moon above flashed and then disappeared like a coin in a drain. A woman in high heels and a tight dress careered into her, obviously in a hurry. The stupid woman almost fell over the dog’s lead. She shivered, just a little, then heard the first siren. Then another and blue lights flashing in the bay windows of the houses at the top of their street. Distant foreign and English voices merged as they echoed down the street toward her. She heard crying. Loud men’s voices shouting. Then she saw the van. Jimmy’s van. It was parked at a weird angle, half on, half off the pavement. She felt confused. It wasn’t time for him to be back from the pub yet. Every Sunday evening he’d leave her cooking mid-afternoon to watch the football and be back by seven. Always. It was half past six. Then she saw him sat on the pavement head in hands, not moving. Sat on the frosty pavement with a police-woman standing over him speaking into a radio. The police-woman’s hand on his shoulder half in sympathy, half restraining. As she got closer the voices became clearer but the foreign accents still confused her. The dog sensed Jimmy and started tugging hard on the leash. She wanted to go to him but held them both back.

Then she saw the bundle of rags under the front wheel. At least that what she thought it was until the shape of a small child’s shoe became clear. A paramedic was cutting the clothing from the child’s legs. The body was so still. She was now close enough to see a dark pool of what must be blood. Shone like a patch oil in the headlights. A woman in a long dress was being held back by a large bearded man. Other men were arriving or coming out of a local house. There was a lot of shouting in a language she did not understand. She had never talked to the people down the road. Jimmy said they were immigrants, or worse asylum seekers. Jimmy wasn’t the type to mix with anybody he didn’t know let alone their sort. He locked his tools away each night just in case after they had moved in. He’d heard stories down the pub. She stopped and could now see things clearly. Nobody seemed to see her or the dog. Jimmy’s van door was open. She could see the mess inside. Empty beer cans, empty sandwich wrappers. She stopped dead. Heart racing. The dog dragging at her outstretched hand which was now raw from holding on. Clouds still scudding across the quarter moon and the pavement glistening white under the streetlights. She could hear Jimmy sobbing now. Something was being said to him. A policeman got out of a second police car and pushed a breathalyzer at him. Head down at first Jimmy didn’t see it. The sobbing was making his body rock like the dog panting earlier. She’d never seen him cry. He was the tough guy. Always. The big man when out with his mates. He did things his way always. She just stayed out of the way. Most evenings she’d spend in that dimly lit front room with the telly on. Sometimes she’d light a cigarette from one of Jimmy’s smuggled packs even though she was trying to give up. Occasionally if lucky she’d treat herself to a single glass of cheap white wine from Tesco. She never got to join in the lad’s nights outs. ‘Girls was not allowed’, that was what Jimmy said. Most nights it was just her and the dog, watching Eastenders or some shit.

All of that had just changed. A third police car passed her and an ambulance pulled in behind. She couldn’t quite take it all in but like the clouds above her things were changing and moving on. The dog still tugged hard on the lead trying to join in the action. Suddenly there was a burst of activity and the child was lifted into the back of the ambulance at the same time as Jimmy was finally pulled to his feet and led to the second police car. There was a small bundle of rags left on the pavement soaked in blood. The second car disappeared with Jimmy. The ambulance left and there was just the first police woman inside her car now talking to her radio. She got out and started winding blue and white tape around Jimmy’s van and up on to the pavement.

She felt like she’d been watching T.V. Nothing seemed quite real. This was not the kind of thing that happened to her. Everything had a dull routine. Now this. She eased the tight lead on her fingers to try and get some circulation into her frozen fingers. The dog continued to pull at the leash. It was getting agitated and started to bark. She had to do something. Instead of walking past the police woman she turned and hauled the dog back towards the darkened path and the park where they’d come from. The dog sensed something had changed. She did too. She tried to take it all in. She wanted to be in their front room as if nothing had happened. Back in that dimly lit space with the dusty cheese-plant, the dodgy video player and the telly. She walked back around the park in the exact same pattern as before. She even pulled the lead off the dog but she just stared back at her and didn’t move. She shouted ‘go on…off you go’ but nothing. She gave up knelt down and held her tight and re-attached the collar. She could feel the dog’s heart pounding through its bony chest. She knew things like this happened to other people but she still couldn’t relate it to her and Jimmy. She remembered her mum used to say….’you don’t know what you don’t know’. It had never made any sense before. She started crying. She led the dog towards what used to be home.

She started to think about the child. Was it dead. Was Jimmy in really big trouble? What was happening? She was shivering from being out in the cold too long. Turning into their street again she saw the police woman driving toward them leaving the blue and white tape flapping around the van. She summoned up the courage to walk past on the other side of the road. The bundle of rags was still on the pavement glistening with frost under the street-light. She started to feel sick. She passed the house the people had come out of earlier. All the lights were on and she saw men talking in the front room. There were even more men than she remembered and more people arriving as she got to their front door. The key turned easily for the first time in months. She usually had to wrestle with it. The door swung open. The main light was on. Jimmy must have been back whilst they were at the park which was odd. Suddenly she could smell stale ash and the sweet smell of sex just like in her father’s car. Maybe she was imagining it. There were a couple of empty beer cans on the table. She didn’t remember them being there earlier.

She felt sick and let the dog go, still on its lead, then ran to the bathroom and vomited into the toilet bowl. She looked in the mirror. She wiped the blur of mascara from round her eyes and rinsed the taste of sick from her mouth. She stood there listening to the familiar sound of the dog lapping water from its bowl downstairs. She’d left the front door open and could hear foreign voices from down the road again. A siren could be heard but far away. Somebody else’s problem. Finally she went downstairs and closed the door. She sat for what seemed like ages looking at the cream plastic receiver on the wall. It never rang. Suddenly she went to the kitchen and fed the dog, grabbed some packets of crisps from the kitchen cupboard and went back upstairs to the bedroom. It took ten minutes to cram her few clothes into her old holiday suitcase. Grabbing her thickest coat she started explaining to the dog why they were leaving. She picked up the trailing leash and pulled the dog after her. They passed the blue and white tape, the frosted van, and the now stiff and frozen bundle of blood-stained rags and were gone.

Thanks Ray….and Tess.

 

 

 

 

Get in, Get Out: Writing the Short Story ‘The Leash’

‘Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.’[1]

These words are from Raymond Carver’s 1985 collection ‘Fires’ which was a starting point for my own engagement with the idea of writing short stories. Apart from a few false starts, which were closer to prose poetry than the traditional short story, ‘The Leash’ is my first attempt at the form. From the 1980s onwards I was drawn to the works of Thomas McGuane, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Bobbie Ann Mason and Jayne Anne Phillips. I became familiar with the concept of ‘dirty realism’ as defining American fiction from this period. The notion of ‘Sudden Fiction’ (the title of a 1986 anthology[2] also known as ‘Flash Fiction’ or ‘Short Short Fiction’) appealed as it related to song-writing in its brevity. It was a style I felt familiar with both artistically and politically and it connected to the kind of music and lyric-writing I was engaged in. I wrote poetry but did not consider myself a prose writer. I have found the process of starting from zero in fiction very difficult. Far more difficult than I expected. Having lost the connection to writing poetry until recently and not reading fiction I found myself a complete beginner again. Apart from the Americans the most important writers to me historically were Chekhov (discovered through Carver) and Scottish and Irish writers. I did not and still do not consider myself as part of a particularly ‘English’ scene or style.

To ‘jump-start’ so to speak the learning process I read as many and various short stories as I could in the first term. The emphasis in class on constant reading producing writing made perfect sense to me and it was the reading that I lacked. I read as many short stories as I could including Rick Bass, Raymond Carver, Margaret Atwood, John Burnside, Matthew Licht, John McGahern, Arthur Machen, Mark Strand, Joy Williams, John Romano etc. I liked some, hated others but used each reading experience and published an online critique for each as ‘Daily Shorts[3]. This experience was really useful as it started me analysing exactly what I might want from the fiction I wrote. The writers I selected were sometimes deliberate e.g. poets who wrote fiction like Carver and Burnside and other writers which outside my comfort zone like Machen and Romano (a scriptwriter). I found the experience both pleasurable as I reacquainted myself with past heroes like McGahern and Carver and also troubling as I struggled with more contemporary short story writers like Gaffney and Licht. My age was a factor that also coloured my experience here and in class as the generational changes in writing fiction, the new ideas of what fiction was or could be and the emphasis on generic styles like fantasy and historical fiction helped to challenge my ‘older white male’ literary boundaries. I have now completed two 2000 word pieces of fiction. The first of these in hindsight was where I made most of my mistakes. Leaving aside the number of ‘as’ or the over long sentences I now feel that jumping in at the deep end with a pseudo-historical Zeppelin spy novel with embedded images in the manner of W.G. Sebald [4]may have been a tad ambitious. However just the physical act of creating 2000 words was a major achievement for somebody who had not got past 1000 words of any fiction before. My bizarre version of ‘Riddle of The Sands’ set on the Norfolk coast received the feedback it deserved and although there were good ideas embedded in the piece it has gone into the bottom draw for now.

‘The Leash’ is my first short story. It is just under 2000 words and the statement at the beginning is a reminder to myself of what I trying to do which draws on both A.E.Coppard[5] and Jonathan Taylor’s introductions [6]concerning the ‘orality’ of specifically short fiction.

We cannot start from what we do not know we can only start from what we know…

It is simply a note to self….do not run, walk. Craft before imagination. Get in and get out. Write about what you know first. Written in one go no editing it relates to how I write poetry now. As a young man I constantly rewrote pieces to the point of destruction. I employed similar techniques in painting often losing work because of over working. Having hand-written it (important to me as this how I write best) I then re-edited a couple of times on the laptop. This feels right to me. I have read many descriptions of writing technique and this what suits me best others may have different approaches. I am happier with the story. It relates to a poem called ‘Greyhound in Frost’ written in 2002 but takes a completely different approach to the mid-1990s subject matter. It is my first attempt to write from a third person narrator point of view about a female character which means it not completely ‘authentic’ but I did my best. I still struggle with the idea of dialogue. It may form part of a sequence of short stories to be called ‘The Oxford Stories’. I think it is the first time I have found a ‘voice’ that like my poetry in fiction. Political, realist, working-class it is definitely not academic, historical nor particularly English in terms of influence. I have more in common with James Kelman than any Oxbridge writer…..hence the greyhound in the story is a tip of my hat to all of that.

Endnotes

[1] Raymond Carver, ‘On Writing’ in Fires (London: Collins Harvill, 1985) p.22.

[2] Robert Shapard and James Thomas, Sudden Fiction:American short short stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986)

[3] Shaun Belcher, ‘Daily Shorts,(2014) < http://www.shaunbelcher.com/writing/?cat=49 > [accessed 5 January 2015]

[4] W.G.Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (London: Collins Harvill, 1998)

[5] A.E. Coppard, ‘Foreword’ in ’The Collected Tales of A.E. Coppard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951)

[6] Jonathan Taylor, ed., Overheard: Stories to read aloud (Cromer: Salt Publishing, 2012)

Bibliography

Coppard, A. E., ‘Foreword’ in ’The Collected Tales of A.E. Coppard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951)

Taylor, Jonathan, ed., Overheard: Stories to read aloud (Cromer: Salt Publishing, 2012)

Carver, Raymond, ‘On Writing’ in Fires (London: Collins Harvill, 1985) p.22.

Sebald, W. G., The Rings of Saturn (London: Collins Harvill, 1998)

Shapard, Robert and James Thomas, Sudden Fiction: American short short stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986)

First Assignment – Influence?

DSC00443

 

 

My poetry bookshelves..about half the collection built up over 25 years....

I am really struggling with the simplest thing. The first assignment for Creative Writing M.A. is straightforward enough :

Identify one writer whose work has been in some way influential to the development of your own creative writing practice. Discuss one or more pieces of their creative work, ask and/or their process, explaining what you have learned from it for your own writing. You may refer to extracts of your own writing (to be included in an appendix) but this will not be included in the word count and will not be assessed.

However it also states:

There will probably be many writers of many different genres who have influenced you, but rather than asking you to survey a broad range of writers, this assignment offers you the opportunity to think critically about a single author’s work, and to discuss, in depth, what you have learned from it for your own writing. This means thinking about the decisions the author made in constructing a particular text or texts, and reflecting on your own writing practice in light of this.

If I had two months instead of a week to finish this I would submit an honest essay which detailed all of the the range of influences which can be seen in list below. ( It wouldn’t get a good mark but I would find it more useful). This ties in with the annual most important book grid that I took from Andrew Taylor’s lecture.

http://www.shaunbelcher.com/writing/?p=803

Here in just about chronological order the writers who influenced me..mostly male and mostly poets. Those in bold the most important by far. Those in Blue the most significant per decade.

Which would mean Heaney/Murray/Sebald. They all deeply entwined with a notion of a ‘sense of place’ and quietly political which what I really influenced by. There something in this notion…but that another essay..not this one 🙁

1980s

Seamus Heaney
William Carlos Williams
W.H.Auden
Raymond Carver
Ted Hughes
Tony Harrison
Philip Larkin
Thomas Hardy

1990s
Maura Dooley
Simon Armitage
Giles Goodland
Richard Price
Les Murray
Al Purdy
Canadian Prairie Poets
William Neill
Norman McCaig
Sorley Maclean
Stewart Conn
Tess Gallagher
Charles Tomlinson

2000s

W.G.Sebald
Patrick Keiller

Iain Sinclair

So there you go how do I choose from that list…..and should I?

I am 55 years old. I have written poetry since 1981. I have also written several thousand song lyrics which do not count for CW.

My ‘writing’, and here I am deconstructing the assignment deliberately , ground to a halt in 2007 just as I started teaching web design at Nottingham Trent University and ceased altogether in 2011. So being logical and as no poems written since 2011 at all until the Edwin Smith commission I should concentrate on the most recent ‘pamphlet collection’.

‘Drifting Village’ poems 2001-2014.

village

 

 

The assignment exercise as given draws on Dorothea Brande.

To read effectively it is necessary to learn to consider a book in the light of what it can teach you about the improvement of your own work.

(Brande states ‘a book’? I question this immediately can anybody learn anything from a single work or a single writer unless it The Bible ?  I believe that writers should be magpies. There are certain core assumptions of modern day creative-writing that have become almost written in stone…this probably one of them. It links to the obsessive attention to process rather than inspiration that ALL creative-writing instruction displays these days. I have heard no mention of content at all apart from genre..surely all good writers cannot be separated from their content too? )

I will look at ‘Drifting Village’ in a new light then submit it for the Smith/Doorstep Pamphlet competition. Maybe I can narrow down to one writer to fulfill the ‘brief’.

 

Barns and Stars…..aiming at the stars?

barnsandstarsFinally got five minutes to sit down and catch up with myself and all the threads I have started off…

I have not had a chance this week to read and critique a short story as I have been doing because of so much else going on. Busy is good but not when it gets this busy.

Today I managed to record a version of the Edwin Smith poem for RIBA. Still have no idea how they going to use it. Perhaps as a board and a pair of headphones in the show?

I also recorded a bonkers new song as the recording studio set up. This song ‘Dark Grey Clouds’ (see below) I wrote Wednesday and shows the fiction classes having an effect even if not directly on my fiction. I struggling with the fiction work-shopping as I feel I have a lot of ground that I probably will not make up as most of the other students either been writing fiction for years or are straight off Creative Writing B.A.’s. As a beginner in this area at least I learning. The whole point of doing this course has not been to get another M.A. ( I have one already that enough) but to generate the necessary pressure to do something rather than sit on my arse for a  valuable year off.

That it certainly doing. Happenstance gave me the Edwin Smith commission in week one which upset my studying a bit but been thoroughly enjoyable and produced what I think one of my best poems. When able will share.

I have now been asked next week to perform ‘visual scribing’ (live cartooning) at a Product Design Research workshop…basically drawing ideas for vacuum cleaners:-)

The money handy but again distracting. I also in early stages of drafting a PhD proposal for the NTU Vice Chancellor’s Bursary in Phenomenology of Drawing’ which logically builds on my art and design research. It a snowball in hell but just writing it makes a point after this summer’s events. Again I will share full story when able….

I have also this week made first tentative steps towards two projects alongside Creative Writing ( I hope over next two years to produce at least one book of poetry tentatively entitled ‘The Dark Horses’ and get one short story published as I said I a newbie there…) and an LP/CD joint/collaborative or solo called ‘Barns and Stars’ (see above and below).

Finally I started to plan a solo painting/drawing show late 2015-2016 that rounds up the work shown at Drawology/Nottingham Open and make me paint again as the studio sitting there waiting….

That’s all folks….I ain’t getting a wage but I happier than been in years as long as I keep the light/heat on Emma happy and if I win lottery I agreed to buy her a horse.

So on we go….so here a little tune of Lo-fi weird americana…Jim White without a band Skip Spence on a suburban lawn..David Lynch’s Berkshire cousin…

He He

 

 

 

Daily Short: Raymond Carver – ‘Nobody said anything’ from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please.

Boys_on_Russian_River_l972

First published in 1973 as ‘The Summer Steelhead’ (Seneca review, Vol. 4, no. 1 (May, 1973) and later as ‘Nobody said anything’.

Smudging was widespread practice amongst Yakima fruit-farmers. Pollution stopped crops being frost-damaged. (Source: Carol Sklenicka: Raymond Carver – A writer’s Life 2009.)

In the original story the final lines are different referring to the half-fish:

“He looked silver under the porch light. He was whole again, and he filled the creel until I thought it would burst.. I lifted him out. I held him.”

In the version I have read from the collection Will You Please be Quiet, Please? (‘The stories of Raymond Carver’- Picador 1985) the story ends:

“I went back outside. I looked into the creel.What was there looked silver under the porch light. What was there filled the creel.
I lifted him out . I held him. I held that half of him.”

Despite Carver’s insistence that this not autobigraphy the details (all except the fruit-farming’) match his upbringing and he admits to several incidents that patched together form the story.

1973 was the year he took up ‘full-time’ drinking and also three years before the publication of the short story collection this comes from.

The change in title and ending may reflect the influence of Gordon Lish whom Carver had met by now.

The change of ending maybe reflects the bitter realism of his relationship with his father who had died in 1967. The ‘half of him’ may relate to the broken relationship and the pain of his childhood.

As he says in a memoir:

Then he died. I was a long way off, in Iowa City, with things still to say to him. I didn’t have the chance to tell him goodbye, or that I thought he was doing great at his new job. That I was proud of him for making a comeback.

       From My Father’s Life

the last line of Photograph of My Father also brings the two painfully together.

But the eyes give him away, and the hands that limply offer the string of dead perch and the bottle of beer. Father, I love you, yet how can I say thank you, I who can’t hold my liquor either, and don’t even know the places to fish?

To me the poems and short stories are two sides of the same coin. The poems have been criticised formally but they are more interested in ‘saying’ than the formal concerns of language.

To me this is essential Carver. Male narrative at its best. Undertones of ecological miss-handling serving as ‘burners’ under the male indiscretions, foolishness and blind stupidity.  Carver is all about how men fail and why they fail and why they cannot be saved from that failure.

He says in an interview that with this story he felt he had ‘tapped into something’ that something was the poetics of failure raised to a fine art.

Male egos as divided selves pulled apart by domestic bliss and terror as in his own life. Drink was the fuel for that burner and he doused himself in it for 4 years and almost succeeding in extinguishing his own flame just like his father. That he managed to stop the fires is a miracle.

I love Carver but I do not want to be him and write from that smoky place.

Keeping the Aspidistra Flying – Self Promotion

aspidistra

Will Self paraded his verbal skills with a reading at NTU on Saturday which proved that there is some content behind the bravado, solipism, debauchery and sheer profligacy. Looking at SELF’s career it hard to find an entry point such is the sheer weight of verbiage trundled ad nauseum across every promotional page available. The key to SELF is he a metropolitan journalist’s nark…forever providing copy whether the journos need it or not ( indeed his wife is a celebrated journalist which rather apt) although even she must tire of the SELF promotion.

The evening was a success and interviewer Georgina Lock who an able inquisitor stood up to the verbal battering-ram. SELF proved that his latest novel ‘Shark’ is an entertaining if rambling tale of drowning shark-food and the big theme of psychological trauma being associated with BIG events i.e. wars. A entertaining if not completely proven thesis based on what looked like a fair amount of internet-trawling and digging deep into R.D. Laing’s historical record. In case we missed these allusions Mr Self flagged them up for us and we mostly swallowed it apart from one punter doing an impression of Groucho era SELF who declared it all ‘horse manure’ which a little out of date surely shit would have done. I will definitely pick up a copy when it remaindered and top marks to the designers for wrapping it in a parody of a SELF cover from 1998. Lest we forget this is the second part of a very important trilogy which redefining modernism/postmodernism and the kitchen sink before the death of the novel in 2019 (SELF). As SELF said it the only trade he has banging out the old tome and full marks for keeping going young man..sorry middle aged man.

Now where this all gets truly unctuous is in his recent attack on Orwell….now I don’t give a shit for his arguments but I do disapprove of such obvious crap profile-raising being launched via the BBC which was the location of some of Mr Blair’s finest work. That and the weaselly way the tirade launched just in time for Xmas oh sorry just in time for the book launch tour before Xmas….it stinks like some of the dialogue did on Saturday but that another matter.

SELF isn’t the best novelist in Great Britain let alone Ireland but he is a master of SELF-seeking attention grabbing in that he a clear master. I came to Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying by chance through some separate research and remembered reading it fondly..

 

let Eric Blair have the last word…note to SELF…could do better….

Keep the Aspidistra Flying 1936 page 2.

But it was the snooty ‘cultured’ kind of books that he hated the worst. Books of criticism and belles-lettres. The kind of thing that those moneyed young beasts from Cambridge write almost in their sleep–and that Gordon himself might have written if he had had a little more money. Money and culture! In a country like England you can no more be cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club.

Coda: SELF grew up in Hampstead…did PPE at Oxford smashed out of his tree and got a third.. sailed back to fame in the environs of Greek Street and Fleet Street yup you got it..spoilt rich kid now lives in oppulant surroundings of Stockwell not Vauxhall as ‘downmarkedly’ claims but then as he said he lies a lot.

 

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