I’m reading Lydia Davis’ short story collection. She certainly plays with form, something I can relate to because my stories tend to jump in time and space from one paragraph to the next. Which proved to be a problem because I couldn’t sell it to popular magazines.
She is highly experimental. One story is just a paragraph. I reread it about three times trying to establish if it is really a story. It doesn’t conform to anything that a story should contain e.g. plot etc. Not that I can see at any rate. It looks like a story, it’s in a collection of stories, but is it a story? It certainly pushes the boundaries of the short story genre to the hilt.
Now that I’m in the middle of the book it appears that the stories are linked. The protagonist in most of them is a woman, not so pretty, who wears spectacles. She goes through a divorce but her ex-husband moves close by to be near their son. She is so enmeshed in the life of said ex-husband and his new girlfriend that she has a breakdown.
She goes into the garage one morning and then she literally cannot move until the evening. She stays there for hours staring at an oil slick. Obviously this leads to her going into therapy. The therapist takes her apart and puts her together in a ‘new pattern’, she says.
But still she doesn’t change her situation. She wants all of them (her, husband, girlfriend) to get along ‘for the sake of their son’, which sees the girlfriend wearing her jacket. She finds her stuff in the pocket. They use her telephone, shower in her house etc.
The theme of most of the stories is: trying hard to be civilized and accept the situation with grace and goodwill and being ill-treated by an ‘unkind’ man. Eish, sometimes women are so obsessed with being nice and doing the best for everyone around them that they destroy themselves.
The authors and texts that have influenced my development as a writer the most are Leo Tolstoy, Lydia Davis, Philip Stevick, Flannery O’Connor, Maxine Chernoff, and the two stories Boys by Rick Moody and Girl by Jamaica Kinkaid. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, one of the first books I read, set me on a journey into the murky ground of relationships between men and women. The isolation and shunning of Anna, the loss of her two children, which leads to her throwing herself under the wheels of a train, contrasting with little consequence for her partner who shares her transgression, made an enduring impression. A quality of Tolstoy I admire in the novel is his propensity to share his opinions about the issues of his day. However, in my own work this still has to be refined.
The collected short stories of Lydia Davis introduced me to an author whose work I hadn’t read before. Davis experiments with different forms. Her stories are known for being short, concise and infused with humour. Having this in common (very short stories, spare style, humour) I embraced her as a kindred spirit. I learned from Davis, a master of the compound sentence, how to construct sentences that could be moulded into saying exactly what I wanted. Previously, having imbibed copious writing advice which advocated simplicity, I’d construct short sentences which left me dissatisfied, rewriting for hours but never quite reaching the desired effect. From Davis I also learned (The silence of Mrs Iln) that in a long relationship a man could encroach so much as to occupy space in a woman’s psyche and that the woman can experience that as heaviness.
Davis doesn’t use a lot of dialogue in her stories. In The Art of Fiction series she states “I find dialogue artificial…” Coming from a background of writing for television and radio, I have an affinity for dialogue as a valuable tool. Davis also says that description is artificial. The lack of description in her fiction make me uncomfortable. I admire Alex la Guma for his wonderfully descriptive prose.
Maxine Chernoff writes in different genres: poetry, short stories, novels, and screen plays. She’s regarded as a master of the short story and writes with the care and attention of a poet. Chernoff writes about women and relationships, something that comes through in my writing time and again. Her humour appeals to the me. In the story Degan dying a man has a stroke. The humour is dark but handled with such a light touch. Balancing light and dark, the idea that humour has to be balanced at all was such an important insight for the growth of my craft.
In a reading presentation, Boys by Rick Moody and Girl by Jamaica Kinkaid were compared along these lines: Compare the role of girls and boys in the two stories. What does Girl say about femininity and sexuality? What does Boys say about masculinity and sexuality? Compare how both stories succeed (or not) in placing men and women in a different social standing and class. It yielded a harvest of insights into this topic.
Flannery O’Connor shows that prejudice is learnt, very pertinent to South Africa. One of her themes is the foolishness of women who trust too easily. I love how she uses words. One old lady is ‘ravenous’ for a son-in-law. Ravenous used in this context arrested my attention. O’Connor has a sly humour. She demonstrates in her stories that nothing is as it seems and pokes fun in a gentle way at the sometimes futile efforts of older people to teach the young.
Underscoring the above has been the ground-breaking book by Philip Stevick Anti-story: an anthology of experimental fiction which describes eight ways of telling modern stories: anti-mimesis, anti-reality, against event, against subject or theme, against the middle range of experience, against analysis, against meaning and against scale. This is crucial for me in my experimental stories.
In conclusion, another author who has influenced me is Cathy Acker. Her novel Blood and guts in high school is like a cold shower, a reality check about the vulnerability of women in society. Initially shying away from such naked anger which has the potential to alienate me as a reader, it acted as a shock into awareness.
My book is currently free on Smashwords.
Click here to get a copy.
I haven’t disappeared or anything but I’ve been busy. In January I started working on a PhD at the University of the Western Cape. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
At last I have progressed enough to have an overview of my thesis. Phew. It has been brutal. I’m writing about slavery at the Cape of Good Hope. Not many know that South Africa used to be a slave nation.
Hope you enjoy the free book.
by Andrea Lundgren
I’ve been thinking about how we humans clean things up. Sometimes, we do it begrudgingly, sometimes compulsively. How we feel (and how close we are to a deadline) usually determines whether our efforts are frantic or methodical. When rushed or pressured, we can get rid of stuff we really should’ve kept, and I think this applies to editing, too.
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by Lauren Sapala
I don’t know if it’s that time of year or what, but I’ve been getting a lot of emails from writers lately about finishing things. This is also a topic that comes up frequently in my coaching sessions with writers. Lots and lots of writers out there are terrified that they will never be successful—or even halfway decent—because they have a lot of trouble finishing things.
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I started working on a PhD this year and it has been a revelation. My observation thus far is: a PhD makes you realize that you don’t know what you’re doing. It makes you realize that you are not as clever as you thought you were.
So the new humble me is ferreting out information and trying to fit it into a jigsaw puzzle (my thesis). I hope I can find my way enough to finish this thing. At the back of my mind is the scholarship that should be paid back, with interest, if I don’t complete it. Jô, I don’t have that kind of money. And dying is not an option, if it kills me I can’t leave that debt burden to my family.
The only way to be me is to survive. That has been my motto these past few decades (ahem – yourl know I’m much older than that nê?). So it’s onwards and forwards. At the end of it I hope to walk across a stage swinging a red cape that reaches to my shoes on account of me being so short, with a cute little tassel dangling down the side of my face.
But first, the hard work.
Have you ever found yourself stranded in Creative Badlands? You know, that parched place where you are just so dry that nothing trickles from your pen? Or what you write is so uninspired that it puts you to sleep?
Sometimes it helps to get away. A writers’ retreat could be just the boost you needed to refresh your writing.
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I enjoyed the insight you gave into the different cultures in South Africa. I also thought your use of different ‘voices’ in your stories captured the flavor of the characters you created. I found some of the stories, such as Akere powerful, while the stories Walking School and Belinda left me a bit baffled. They seemed to end abruptly, leaving me wanting more, or at least wanting to understand the theme of the each story. I thought some of the stories could have been rounded out more, such as Stolen and Shadow Kids. Because of your obvious knowledge of South Africa and what has gone on there, your stories have the potential to illustrate and call attention to situations those of us who don’t live there know nothing about, hence the rounding out and expanding on the themes in some of the stories, such as the ones mentioned above. However, having said that, I found your writing evoked powerful images of everyday people, trying their best to find their way in life, dealing with the relationships they are given or seek out.
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