New year, and a fresh opportunity to hone our short story writing craft on the penultimate workshop of the Leeds Comma Press Short Story Course with author SJ Bradley. This week we returned to the concept of brevity – focusing specifically on Raymond Carver’s work and how he creates a world.
The pre-course reading of ‘Why Don’t You Dance’ sparked a lively discussion that at times, as Carver often does, polarised opinion. We spent a lot of time discussing the opening paragraph alone. The stark simplicity of the central premise – beginning with the abstract scene whereby a bedroom has been perfectly recreated in the protagonists yard – prompted some fascinating insights into the meaning and intention of the writer; as another participant put it, “His insides are out”. That single paragraph teaches us just how much we can show from so little, what the writer doesn’t say but implies and what he leaves out entirely. SJ also raised the idea that the set up – Where is his wife? Why is everything in the yard? – is enough for a short story and boiling things down to a couple of core questions is something I intend to experiment with in my own work.
We picked apart Carver’s choice of language – his often repetitive use of words creates a sort of ‘matter of fact’ style but also with potential depths i.e. does the repeated reference to the cartons represent something emotional as well as something practical and ‘mundane’? We then went on to look at the role of character and perspective in Carver’s story in detail, for example the relationship between the young couple which also potentially mirrors the relationship between the man and his absent wife, both in the distant and more recent past. Carver doesn’t actually tell us at any point what has happened, or where she is – is she dead? Has she left him? There is an ambiguity throughout about who is ‘nice’ and who is ‘nasty’ and no clear-cut route to navigating this, which made it all the more satisfying, for me.
We also entered into a discussion about the only female character, “the girl”, the one in the relationship with the young man and it was interesting to hear how differently people perceived her role in the story – partly down to a degree of ambiguity and issues around ‘power’ that the writer plays with. I found the ending particularly poignant in this regard – the girl appeared to me to be trying to understand a point of connection or empathy with the man (whilst on the surface ‘making light’ of the incident). Others read it as her having had an (unwritten) sexual encounter with the man that she was then trying to process. I wondered about the tension the writer creates and how this fed into our different interpretations – as another participant pointed out Carver creates an almost voyeuristic atmosphere – “Now and then a car slowed down and people stared […] Lights came on in the houses up and down the streets” – that is mirrored in the experience of the reader, ‘watching’ the scene unfold.
Changes of perspective was also a distinctive stylistic choice within this piece and one which, for me, worked in some places better than others (partly due to the reprint not containing the original paragraph breaks). We talked about Carver as ‘the master of realism’ and how the spareness of his style appealed, or didn’t. We also discussed who his ‘minimalism’ really belonged to and SJ told us about the extensive edits made by Carver’s then editor, Gordon Lish. (I’ve since ordered library copies of both What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and of Beginners – Carver’s restored, unedited version of the same collection. Will be fascinating to compare them.)
This rest of the session focused on the related skill of self–editing, the importance of which, said SJ, cannot be over-stressed. She invited us to whittle down a chosen story or idea to a ‘mission statement’ – a single sentence that tells you what the story is about. With the piece I chose I was struggling to construct one, which was telling. SJ recommended writing two statements, which might mean separating it out into two stories (or choosing the stronger one?). It’s an approach that requires a certain amount of ‘crudeness’ but I can very much appreciate it’s usefulness.
We then recapped on the previous week’s discussion about textual editing – being mindful of one’s use of adverbs/adjectives (making sentences shorter if necessary); showing not telling; making sure tenses and perspectives agreed (if not intentionally switching, as Carver does); and keeping dialogue tags simple. We looked at starting our story ‘in medias res’ (literally in the middle), removing any unnecessary preamble and preferably going straight in at a point of ‘action’. We then tried to find a new first sentence (already within the story) that reflected that intention. Harder than it sounds!
Really challenging and useful stuff for me, this session – the graft involved in editing my own stories usually coincides with me starting a shiny new story (hence all the unfinished, unpolished stories languishing in a drawer). SJ’s recommendation that stories actually benefit from being put away for a while allows me to indulge in some time away procrastinating with a new idea, returning to edit and rewrite the ‘cooled off’ story (repeating the process several times if necessary). Crucially, though, I now have some tools with which to approach the editing process – and a commitment to persevering.
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/