November 8th marked the halfway point of the Leeds Comma Press Short Story course and it was well worth navigating the frenzied festive crowds that had congregated for the Christmas Lights Switch On and brought our great city to a standstill. Yes, it gets earlier every year and yes, I’m a Grinch pre-December.
I am partial, however, to some pre-course cheer, having just received SJ’s critique of the short story I’d written following Week 1. Her positive comments sent me into this latest workshop with some professional encouragement under my belt and, like all good feedback, also pointed me towards improvements. In other words – Writers’ Gold.
Workshop 3 focused on allegory and allusion – how we hint at something rather than saying it explicitly. The inspiration for our discussions was our pre-set reading of Amy Hempel’s brilliant short story, In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried. We started by unpicking some of the recurring themes and motifs – images or themes that are not (strictly speaking) part of the narrative. For example, a monkey (or a story within the story about a monkey) represents themes of disobedience, lies, grief, parenthood, love and is the motif that ties the whole story together, literally beginning and ending it. Other themes included the weather (particularly earthquakes), fear (of flying, of death itself), truth (“Did you know that when they taught the first chimp to talk, it lied?”) and trivia (“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting”) and we looked at what these motifs stood for, how they interconnected and what the author might ‘really’ be talking about. As always, the depth of insight that came out of the group contribution to these discussions added so many layers to my own perspective.
We then compared how this story differed from the Chekov story and there was general agreement that Hempel’s story was less linear and more layered. The discussion about the structure revealed things that I hadn’t been aware of, or rather not so aware of the significance, for example, one of the group observed that the deliberately fragmented style was true to the narrator’s state of mind. The characters and their relationships were also much more central in Hempel’s story than in Chekov’s – interesting and complex rather than ‘ciphers for a philosophy’ as another of my classmates rather eloquently described the characters in The Bet.
We then looked at how Hempel tells the story of the central relationship. The writer switches between scenes where the narrator is actually with the friend and their own private reflections evoked through imagery. The story is voice-led (SJ used the analogy of ‘someone sitting close to you’, telling you their version of events and – inevitably and crucially – leaving bits out) and later uses a change of viewpoint, when the narrator starts to ‘see’ the friend, as an observer, to move the story towards its conclusion.
As always, the second half of the session took the form of an exercise – I love the discussions but also welcome the change of gear, where learning is linked back to practice and instinct. During one of these exercises, we were given some cuttings to share from magazines and newspapers – stories and headlines, some funny, others curious, some downright bizarre – and invited to work some aspect of them in to our existing story. I really enjoy a wildcard and could have run with so many of them (except, sadly, ‘Trapped Under a Filing Cabinet for 28 hours’ – a compelling but unlikely scenario in my very-small-galley-kitchen-based story). One of the stories in particular and an unrelated image seemed to work really well with what I already had, so I’m looking forward to developing that and seeing where it goes.
We were sent away with the ‘homework’ of continuing this process of developing our stories and thinking about where we wanted to leave the characters at the end, whilst also physically keeping them in the space – a really useful way of homing in on psychological change.
I also left this session with a sense of something having shifted. Sometimes fiction can connect so closely with your own experience – in this case, of loss and the emotional confusion and internal conflict that can accompany it – that the story really can change you, or at least change your way of thinking about something. The writer’s ‘sideways look’ at these issues through allegory and also her decision not to use names, invites us into the characters’ shoes and makes the subject more accessible. So at the only point in the story where she spells out the narrator’s feelings – “I felt weak and small and failed. Also exhilarated.”- it is all the more powerful and easier to bear.
Monica Dickson is a short fiction writer from Leeds. Her work has appeared in Salomé, Firewords, The Cabinet of Heed, Riggwelter, Ellipsis, Spelk, Dear Damsels and elsewhere. She tweets @Mon_Dickson and blogs at https://writingandthelike.wordpress.com/