‘Icy short story’ could feature a crime, an arctic setting, or a scientific experiment – even cryogenics.
These skilled stories heard by the packed audience at Story Fridays in Bath, UK. My own icy story explored the ultimate chill in a relationship.
There’s a growing popularity for short stories as performance art. Story Fridays, A Word in your Ear, in conjunction with Kilter Theatre, is the creation of the talented playwright and short story writer, Clare Reddaway. The event occurs every second month inspired by a theme. The most recent is theme was ICE.
I was very happy that one of my short stories was chosen: A Fragment Retained, and thrilled that it was read by talented actor,Kirsty Cox.
Sometimes it’s better not to read your own story when it’s written in the first person: the association with the writer/reader can distract the audience from the writing itself. More importantly, my story was delivered far more effectively by Kirsty. Why read a mini drama yourself when you can have a professional? You can judge here how brilliantly Kirsty performed the story of a woman trapped into an unplanned conclusion.
This icy story is a mid-point gasp in my (mostly humorous) collection of satirical short stories, Me-Time Tales: tea breaks for mature women and curious men. (The companion volume, Curious Men, follows later this year). The story has another name in the book. I tweaked it for performance. It’s often a good idea to make adaptations for stories heard, rather than stories read silently.
Last time I had a story in Story Friday I also enjoyed the advantage of a very skilled actor performing, (Olly Langdon). He memorably brought my character, a WWI POW to life, which would have been difficult for a woman to achieve.
It is nice to connect with an audience through something you’ve written, reading it as if written especially for them. I enjoy doing this when the story is a narrative, but these two stories had a single distressed character and they benefited enormously from the actors’ magic touch.
Stories for performance need such decisions – personal connection with the audience, or making a character more credible?
The recent TV production, VICTORIA, enchanted viewers in the first three episodes thanks to the girlish, if skittish character of Jenna Coleman’s princess. The appearance of the awkward and distant Albert added drama, if not as much attraction, as riveting Rufus Sewell, Lord Melbourne.
I discovered that the ridiculous hair style of Albert was no TV concoction when I visited the Chateau de Compiégne, Picardy. There the wonderful portraits of Franz Xavier Winterhalter (known for his true-to-life painting) formed a special exhibition.
Winterhalter became one of the royal pair’s favourite painters. It seems that Victoria praised his truthful representations, so we must accept that her own portrait is as she was, with bulging pale blue eyes, plump arms and stocky little body even in her youth. Whereas Tom Hughes is near to a spitting image of Albert, Jenna Coleman’s Victoria is very much beautified.
It may be that the scriptwriters came closer to the couples’ personalities. After all, clashes between two strong spirits is the stuff of drama. If one were portrayed as wholly sweet and cooperative, the series would fall a long way short. In my own case, I preferred the image I had concocted from history books to Tom Hughes, but sadly his lisping portrayal of the penniless prince was probably near the truth.
Have you written a character close to truth of someone you’ve actually known, while another you’ve deliberately beautified? Readers are left unsatisfied when excuses are made for the protagonist with unblemished features and unstained character, whereas the antagonist’s redeeming elements are ignored. Such black/white characters are termed ‘cardboard’. It’s surely the shades of grey that grip a reader, so don’t beautify your characters.
History is far more interested in what Victoria really looked like, not how beautiful a painter could make her. The same is true of writing.
Writing stimuli. What gave you that sudden idea that made you urgently scribble it down? It’s worth exploring.
The power of olfactory stimuli in activating memory is well known. But it’s much harder to ‘dream up’ a smell that might affect the character in your story, than it is a sound or sight.
When we’re stuck for ideas for a visual stimulus, Art can provide perspectives, narratives, symbols to enrich our writing. For auditory stimuli, theatre and radio present us with ideas and emotions through sound patterns, speech or music. There is no equivalent for smells.
So having found the right sound or sight stimuli to cause your hero to pale with emotion how to find the right smell/scent/perfume/stink to cause emotional impact? Leave aside the obvious triggers: magnolia, blood, excrement, cabbage (who wants to write hackneyed stuff?). Will the character stop short as spinach fumes enter his/her nostrils, or candy floss? What particular scent might have been recorded in his/her long term memory?
You can prepare for that blank moment. How about noting down your own strong reactions to any smell, pleasant or unpleasant? List the source for each. This will make you rack your brains, and may well summon up incidents that you can use in your story. Add any smells that you already know act as powerful reminders for you – and write down why.
A scent for one person may be a stink for another. One perfume might raise very different memories for two different characters. Identifying that memory can enrich your story line. For instance, the whiff of musty clothes in a charity shop reminds Kara of a great aunt, but Debra of pass-me-downs when she was young. The scent of aloe vera takes Anna back to the birth of her baby, but reminds Dan of a little lane in Almeria where he was set on by teenage thugs. They find themselves quarrelling . . .
With such a list of smells, you can google them to add any interesting facts to their source and the memories they evoke for you. Strengthen your writing with that detail that enthralls readers and brings them right into your story.
This is the camera lucida. I came across it when visiting the Fox Talbot museum at Lacock. Although the museum is about the birth of photography, the link between artistic forms of making images is not ignored. The original design of the camera lucida was by William Hyde Wollaston in 1807. It used a four-sided glass prism whose angles allowed all of the light from the object to travel to the eye. The light from the paper can still pass through the prism to the eye, allowing sight of the action of the pencil on the paper. A small peephole is placed just above the prism to force the eye to the optimum viewing point.
The illustration of an artist using it, above, show that his left eye sights through the microscope enlarging his image, while his right remains on his work. You might be able to detect that he needs to anchor the paper so that it cannot move.
How interesting! I emailed a microscopy artist about this, thinking it would be a valuable aid, an alternative to the present practice of using the microscope and drawing/painting alternately.
If you are suddenly gripped with a desire to have a camera lucida, Apple, of course, have an app. Essentially your ipad hangs over the edge of a table focussing on the image on the floor while you busy yourself at recording it on the table. Alternatively, you can shell out and buy a modern version of it here. Camera Lucida
In learning about this device, my thoughts were, as usual, about how this might relate to the novelist’s writing process. One eye on the detail, the other on the work as a whole. For instance, in crime writing the detail in an early chapter can be crucial in the denoûment; the fine detail of a character’s movement may highlight his or her personality. Working on the detail has to be relevant to the whole novel – we don’t want to read the inner label of someone’s raincoat, its colour and shape if that character is never to appear again and is pretty incidental to the plot.
A novelist including a detail is indicating to the reader ‘this is important.’ A novel with broad brush strokes and little detail is usually unsatisfying.
I liked the concept of the work being anchored so that it couldn’t move. Writers do need to keep theirs constantly in mind, which is why many entomb themselves from diversions until the heavy work is done.
Another interesting thought: the artist or writer is working simultaneously with input and output. The input is noticing the detail in the first place. The artist has to put his eye to the peephole. The writer has to turn his eye to the movement or setting that others might miss.
It’s a matter of detail. The output should be enriched by that silent activity.
A final point for writers: the original use of the Camera Lucida was to allow the artist to gain the correct perspective in his drawing of an image such as a building. Writers have much more freedom in the use of their perspective. Aren’t we lucky!
About a holiday taken with others. If you want to choose exactly what/where to visit, go alone or become a dictator. There are some wonderful art galleries in Belgium and the most beautiful riverside areas. No, I didn’t get to many, as I’d predicted, for I was holidaying with 7 others, including one engineer, one planner, one shopachocaholic and three teenage boys, one a football fanatic, one hyperactive and the other uninterested in the world outside the ipad. (The story of the engineer’s day will appear on this blog at some point.)
Bear with me. There will be a writerly message in this post. The philosophy is that writers should be open to all new experiences. There is always something to be gained, and I did.
This diversion en route to Maastricht to admire a transparent church in the middle of a field was the brainwave of our planner. Yes, it was difficult to find. The satnav, using the postcode, brought us to a small, uninteresting village. As we trekked around in 37 degree heat, with nothing likely in view, there were numerous complaints in tenor voices. After all, there was no shelter from the sun and we were delayed from a much more important stop to photograph a football stadium to add to the list of visited stadiums by our fanatic. The church wasn’t visible from any of the surrounding roads.
Isn’t it great that continentals have learned to speak English? Very sensible of them, given our own language limitations. One local directed us to the remote lane that led to a field of maize.
Shopachocoholic spotted the faint steeple outline hidden behind a water tower. We walked between fields of pear trees and maize until it came better into view.
The walk wasn’t really that long in the heatwave. And it was exciting to spot an apparently rusting edifice afar, at least for our planner, such that the remaining over-heated 6 considerably cheered up.
The design of the structure imitates the village church standing not far across the landscape. It was designed by Gijs Van Vaerenberg and built in 2011 by Belgian architects Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh in conjunction with the art museum Z33.
Is it transparent? Yes. When viewed directly from any side of the church, its walls appear to be roughly see-through. Is it substantial? Yes. If you see it from the right angle, the building seems like a solid chapel.
We approached the solitary church to find that it was amazing cool inside. The strong sunlight hit the ground fragmented in an intricate design worthy of a photograph in its own right. Planner provided one.
We all but one stayed inside and admired the construction. 100 layers of stacked steel forms create the semi-transparent walls.
Each layer is separated from another by over 2,000 squat steel columns. It weighs over 30 tons. By the time we had absorbed half of this, Monsieur Hyperactive had climbed to the top of the spire. From his point of view, the church had been built with flat layers for just that purpose.
Planner was photographing his find; engineer was closely inspecting construction and metals used; shopachocaholic and co. were ready for the next excursion; hyperactive was circling the cross on the top. I’m a writer so I was making associations and thinking of allusions. Could writing perspective be as thought-provoking?
The different perspectives allowed by the structure considerably change the outlook, and that changes according to the direction of focus. Of course I thought of narratives that change according to point of view, and how the author can alter again by redirecting his/her focus.
The unexpected cool of the interior on this hottest of days made for a dramatic in/out contrast. It reminded me of the heat or being inside or the cool of being outside a situation.
What was the purpose of this church, clearly not designed in any way for services or ceremonies? Effectively a giant optical illusion, it makes a number of statements and these are relevant to the writer.
I believe the architects’ intent was to show the permanence of architecture in relation to the landscape dependent upon weather and man’s use of the land, and the steeliness of church institutions against all onslaughts. The creation of a quiet place of reflection so far from other buildings means that a visitor is both removed from and exposed to the outside world.
The church is called Reading between the Lines. The landscape is read between the lines of the walls, depending on direction of viewpoint, but so is the temporary view of that world. My greatest pleasure in reading is when I surmise something that is not stated, or when it is stated but needs decoding.
Most tellingly, these artists of construction dreamed up a way that the visitor would be both absent and present in the landscape, as indeed the artists are. When I read fiction I don’t want to be aware of the author. S/he can let his readers invest in his characters, not in himself. He is wise to refrain from presenting himself as informer about the plot or background. However, he is the creator. The writer is both absent from the current scene, and always present.
Some writers complain of writers’ block. Perhaps they are due for pollination from other sources.
I’ve written before about how cross-fertilization within the arts is something to seek out and to treasure. A writer, performing artist, teacher, does him/herself no good by constantly giving out and never feeding the self. Exposure to other art forms stimulates unexpected associations that would not otherwise occur. Learning the techniques involved in these arts achieves even more than just appreciating the painting, dance, acting or exposition. You can imagine the reception of new stimuli neurologically: neural pathways highlighted and speeding like electric sparks across the cortex. For a writer, new associations, especially unexpected ones, enrich the language that later emerges under the pen.
This post results from participation in a wonderful watercolour workshop arranged by Pelisande courses near Stroud.
An original idea for a botanical painting workshop, Bugs and Botanical provided two outstanding tutors with complementary skills to tutor on the topical subject of pollination. 15 participants learned from RHS gold medal-winning botanical artist Julia Trickey (plants) and Cath Hodsman, ASB, Natural History Museum wildlife artist (insects).
The two artists chose aquilegia as the flower to examine and paint because of its unique method of pollination. The nectar lies in the tip of the curled spurs, coyly tucked away at the furthest point from the seductively displayed pollen on the pistils.
Aquilegia, a beast to paint, is like an unfaithful wife. It can be approached for its nectar from the front (by humming hawkmoth) and from the rear (by bumble bee). The hawkmoth zooms into the front entrance legitimately, showing off its tremendously long proboscis (as long as its body). The aquilegia meanly keeps its nectar as far away from its front entrance as can be, but the hawkmoth can reach it, hovering humming-bird style at the flower’s mouth.
Here is Cath’s painting, showing the hovering wings and proboscis’ tell-tale golden cache, post-visit, held away from its body.
Under the microscope the fluffy body is more like a loofah, quite rough in texture. The wing has minute overlapping segments like the tessellation of a Roman mosaic.
Not to be outdone by the moth’s super-long proboscis, the bumblebee, displaying no shame about its lesser member, flies straight to the back of the flower and drills through the tube, filling its sac with nectar. This means it gathers no pollen on its furry body, a job carried out unwittingly by the moth. For its efficient pollination work on most other flowers, the bee is the ultimate in hairiness, even its eyes have hairs.
Under the powerful microscopes, the worthy bee, post nectar-gathering, is weighed down by its enormous load, carried like panniers either side of its thorax. Its complex eye has a surface like a fine metal grille. Not enough to say ‘I have eyes in the back of my head’ it has enormous eyes, comparable to the cheeks on a pig, plus three simple eyes, in the middle and either side of the top of its head. It must never stop looking.
Cath demonstrated her technique for painting every detail in the microscopic accuracy for which she is acclaimed, and is used by Kew Gardens as scientific illustrator. Her painting is a matter of many painstaking layers, very fine brushes, a steady hand and tiny movements: dots for the bee and dashes for the moth. Her drawings are the amazing result of reproducing what is seen when enlarged very many times. When a writer can portray a character or setting in that detail, readers can feel they are truly entering the lives of those in the narrative.
It was a privilege to listen to Cath’s extensive knowledge of wildlife, and equally to watch the exquisite painting of flowers by Julia. Under her hand the complex form of the aquilegia came to life, petal by petal and not just with great attention to accuracy but with incomparable interpretation. Before painting, Julia examines the plant in detail so that its structure is as clear as the light and shade on its form.
Painting wet on wet, Julia’s not so small brush delivers a touch of colour that slithers into place, The brush comes away leaving a perfect petal behind it, immaculate edges, veins, light, shade and shape. Note the plate beside her. It indicates how little paint she uses; she uses the cloth in front of her as often. Julia has videos of her techniques, as well as her beautifully illustrated books so that those who attend her courses can follow her techniques at home. http://tiny.cc/76n1yx
During the 2 1/2 day course, participants worked intensively on their own attempts at both flower and insect, straining their eyes to capture the details that make the difference between a cursory and an informed detailed illustration. Fortunately, Pelisande courses include delicious food. Participants went home enriched in mind and body, if cross-eyed.
The humming hawkmoth pollinates jasmine, honeysuckle, gardenia, pittosporum, plumeria, oleander, star-jasmine and flowering tobacco amongst others. Writers would love to think that their words were that widely imbibed.
Among most species that breed in water, the males and females each shed their sex cells into the water and external fertilization takes place. Ideas and images in our environment are cast out in different artistic forms. They are absorbed, then mentally reworked into the receiver’s mental system. In the case of fiction writers, a story emerges mostly many years later.
Among terrestrial breeders, fertilization is internal, and the parallel for the writer might be the unconscious adoption of behavioural tendencies that can come from early relationships. These then enrich the development of characters in the writer’s stories.
In reproduction, by recombining genetic material from two parents, a greater range of variability for natural selection to act upon, increases a species’ capacity to adapt to environmental change. So in writing, by reworking imageries from different art forms, something new can emerge that has greater meaning to readers than the unpollinated material that went before.
Last night I saw a French Canadian film, Monsieur Lazhar. It was one of those films that immerse you completely in the watching, and fails to leave you for many hours, perhaps days afterwards.
Lazhar is an Algerian who sidles into an unexpectedly vacant teacher’s job. The Head is pretty desperate and has no applicants, so that when he presents himself, obliging and immediately available, she takes him on. His class of 11-12 year olds in this small primary school in a suburb are trying to adjust to the suicide of their teacher, found hanging in their classroom by the scamp of the class. They quickly take him to their hearts and their grades go up as he stretches them academically. We realise he hasn’t the teacher training to rely upon. He starts with a dictation from Balzac. However, his total commitment to the children pays off.
The plot unravels to reveal why Lazhar needed the job and his especial sensitivity to the children’s feelings. We also find the effect the suicide has on the different children in the class and their various perceptions of events. The teachers, the Head, one of the children gradually reveal what caused the suicide.
It is a beautifully written and directed film (Philippe Falardeau) with memorable acting from all actors, including the children. It was good to see how each child was individually portrayed, not as a class mass. The quality of acting gained from two of the children was exceptional. I also enjoyed the clever and amusing small part of the drama teacher making a play for Lazhar. The scene where she hopefully has him to dinner was delicately and subtly managed.
The themes of this film are far bigger than expected. What should we say or not say to children who have witnessed a terrible event. How should we deal with their distress and possible misunderstandings? The film shows the tension between the ‘Let’s move on, help them to forget it’ and the opposite view. One child uses her oral presentation assignment to throw the whole subject open, putting a very different slant on the event.
Bigger still, and a subject that badly needs much public re-think, is the zero tolerance policy for touching of any sort. The sports teacher has the children running in circles (literally) because he cannot help them climb, or mount the ‘horse’ any more. The other teachers reflect on the impossibility of disciplining or restraining students. Lazhar, never having been trained as a teacher, taps the back of a child’s head for throwing an object at another child. (Sackable offence?) Ultimately, we learn what happened when the dead teacher comforted a boy who was crying.
The outfall for good will and love is undeserved punishment, but the last shot of the film makes its emotional point.
The Dalai Lama advised that tenderness is vital for a child’s healthy development. How sad if teachers and others must withhold what they see is sorely needed.
Ballet teachers are in difficulties; no longer can they correct a body position, such as a leg in arabesque, (“higher, turn it out”) with a push or point at the part of the body needing fine adjustment. This kind of touching, often not gentle, was formerly regarded as a sexless and necessary part of communication.
On the wider front, nowadays, it is felt that children cannot be allowed to trust automatically. Unknown adults must be mistrusted automatically.
For this reason, as well as the wonderful direction, acting and literary feel of the film, I hope ‘Monsieur Lazhar’ will gain a wider audience. We all need to re-think.
Perhaps it is down to writers to help things along. Falardeau has certainly done his bit.
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