Time to Share

I don’t normally share or reblog posts but today I want to encourage you to have a look at my friend and colleague, Ben Brooker’s, new blog, Kate’s Words, and then go over to Brevity and see what they’re up to.

Ben is a respected critic, essayist, playwright and author of many published short stories and poems. Several of his reviews are featured on his original blog, Marginalia. Given his interests, Ben’s writing style is invariably precise, rigorously researched, and intellectually subtle and balanced. In Kate’s Words,  Ben plans to slough off scholarly strictures and relax his writing muscles. I’m eager to see what his blog produces and very tempted to follow his lead. I also like the premise – have a friend send you a word and free write on the word to see what emerges.

Because I cannot find a definition of  ‘free writing’ in my normally trusty Oxford English Dictionary (Grrr, OED) I have to resort to Wikipedia, which defines free writing as

a prewriting technique in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time without regard to spelling, grammar, or topic. It produces raw, often unusable material, but helps writers overcome blocks of apathy and self-criticism. It is used mainly by prose writers and writing teachers.

This article gives you a deeper idea of what freewriting is and the angst often connected with trying to do it in the classroom. I admire Ben’s willingness to share his free writing because I am usually a bit ‘precious’ about what I write. As Peter Elbow writes in his article,

I’m a bit ambivalent about shared or public freewriting. On the one hand
I tend to avoid it in favor of private writing. For I find most people’s writing has suffered because they have been led to think of writing as something they must always share with a reader; thus we need more private writing. On the other hand I love the sharing of freewriting – for the community of it and for the learning it produces. It’s so reassuring to discover that unplanned, unstudied writing is worth sharing.

Peter Elbow
‘Toward a Phenomenology
of Freewriting’, p 52.

So, Ben, if you’re reading this, send me a word and I’ll try to be brave enough to share one piece of unplanned, unedited, raw work.

This allows me to segue into the second blog I wish to share, Brevity,favourite of mine because it features (carefully edited) short creative nonfiction, sometimes known as narrative nonfiction. Brevity recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and it’s currently running a series of fascinating blogs where, as Shane Borrowman the editor of The <750> Project explains, four authors

return to a previous publication and take on the task of either shortening their piece or expanding it.

Asking writers to modify a previous article is a bold move, and the writers are to be admired because of their willingness to do so publicly. It is also a brilliant way to help beginning writers, indeed all writers, improve and enhance their practice. I hope you take the time to check it out. The first example can be found here.

In the meantime, over at Elixir’s sister blog Concise, I have stuck to my routine of writing and posting a piece of flash fiction every two days. I’ve posted five stories and there’s two more to go; I cannot continue the project indefinitely because running two blogs and sending other pieces to competitions is about as much as I can handle at the moment.  I have, however, really enjoyed the exercise and I hope you’ve enjoyed the stories.

Your Comments:

What do you think of Ben’s method for loosening up his writing? What is your favourite writing prompt or activity? What do you think of Brevity’s <750> Project? Have you ever tried to shorten or lengthen a piece of writing? How did it feel and what did you learn?

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On Fulfilling a Challenge

Have you ever set yourself a challenge? Something long-term and personally meaningful, something that, when completed, surprised, delighted and satisfied you?

Back on the 4th July 2015, around the time I decided to retire, I set myself such a challenge. Aaron_BurdenI had another five months of classes to prepare and teach, but I was eager to start my ‘new’ life as a full-time writer. I always found it difficult to maintain a regular writing routine while teaching, so I knew ‘writing ten minutes a day’ wasn’t, at that time, going to work. I had to find something else that would prepare me for the rest of my life.

I decided to immerse myself in one aspect of my art: short stories. I set myself the challenge of reading one short story a day, every day, for twelve months.

Reader, I did it. Ten days ago, on the 4th July 2016, I read Kate Chopin’s ‘Regret’, the 366th (yes, I added an extra) story, thus ending my challenge. I have to say it was the best thing I have ever done. Not only did reading a wide selection of short stories inform my writing, I think it made me a better person.

I tended to stick to stories and collections written by women; it was my challenge and so I could follow my inclinations and biases. I discovered, during the challenge, writers I didn’t know about and rediscovered writers I had enjoyed years ago. In the case of the latter, reading Kerryn Goldsworthy’s wonderful Australian Women’s Stories: An Oxford Anthology K_G_Bookfelt like walking in to a roomful of women, many of who were old friends and many others I wanted to learn more about. Barbara Baynton’s ‘The Chosen Vessel’, from that collection, is an Australian short story classic. I have read it several times and, yes, this is a cliché, but it never fails to move me. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do so straight away.

Another collection I read was Contemporary Canadian Short Stories, edited by Michael Ondaatje. My reaction to this was mixed; I enjoyed most of the stories but was perplexed by the inclusion of several others. I learned, however, a lot about Canada’s history and its people. I have always wanted to visit Canada and this book fed that ambition. I’ve also decided to read a more recent collection of Canadian short stories; if you have a favourite, please let me know.

Another discovery was The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.   Davis_lydiaI’d known about flash fiction before finding this collection but Davis’ book has strengthened my interest in short, short stories. I am astounded by how she says so much in such a small form.

All in all, I read from about 21 collections (many of which I bought, putting, in the process, severe stress on my budget). I only read four of them from cover to cover, preferring to cherry pick from the others and expose myself to as wide a variety of writers and genres as possible. The bonus is, I still have many of these collections to complete, so I’ll be working through my short story collection for many years to come.

I also strayed into creative (or literary) nonfiction, those mostly erudite gems whose facets include truth, dialogue, characterisation, setting and plot. This is one of my favourite genres and something I want to work on so Helen Garner’s recent book, Everywhere I Look felt like a literary benediction. I read each story slowly and I didn’t want it to finish.

I also discovered podcasts. This was in the latter months of 2015, when I was still teaching and struggling to stick to my resolve of consuming a story a day. Every time I caught the bus to work I set up my mobile, put in my ear plugs and clicked on to New Yorker: Fiction or New Yorker: The Author’s Voice. Oh, the joys of being read to again.

Regrettably I only dipped into one short story magazine, mostly because purchasing them would have stretched the budget too far. As a writer, however, reading as many magazines as possible is a good idea, especially when I’m considering submitting a story.

Another happy discovery was Wild  Ways: New Stories about Women on the Road.  WildWays It was given to me by a friend who was clearing books from her personal library. This friend is much travelled and I suspect she gave it to me because I’m just the opposite; I’ve been overseas once. I loved this collection. It was full of funny, feisty, adventurous women and while I was reading it I wanted to get on the first plane to anywhere.

I learned so much from this challenge, although only a little in terms of how to write a short story. Back in 2004 I studied short story writing in depth, when I returned to university as an undergraduate. This is not to say I know everything about writing a short story, far from it. Three months into my challenge, I found I was immersed in the world of short stories and the short story writer and I had started looking beyond the different elements that make up a short story. I think I developed a more nuanced awareness of the intricacies and complexities of the short form. I absorbed, I believe, a deeper understanding of how the genre works and why it is so important. If I chose, I could probably bash out an academic essay about each element of story writing, but a good short story is more than a clever arrangement of those elements. Having read 366 short stories in a year, I think a good short story is like a tree in the forest, the one you come across that makes you stop. The one that holds your gaze because, even if its branches are askew, its leaves withered, and its roots knotty, the pattern of light and shade that tree affords, the interaction of that tree with the earth and the sky, is so inspiring, so fascinating it doesn’t need to be perfect. All that such stories need is the brush of your breath on the page, like the wind that brushes through the leaves of a tree, to complete it.

I read so many short good stories it is impossible to list and discuss them all. More importantly, the ones I like may be the very stories you’d reject. Yes, there are classics, universally loved tales that most people agree have all the elements perfectly arranged, but over the last year I stepped into several beautiful forests, I was arrested by many single trees whose branches embraced me, who revealed in their pattern of leaf and twig, a different sky, a further horizon.

I miss the routine of sitting down each day and reading a story, although the truth is I didn’t manage to do it every single day. In late 2015, essay and exam marking meant I never quite found the right moment. Christmas and New Year always chews up my days; who would want it any other way? I always caught up though, and I learned to love missed days because it meant I could sit and catch up on two or three stories at a time.

Every so often, in the last ten days, I have stopped what I’m doing and wondered what is missing. Then I realise I haven’t read a short story and I remember; my challenge is over. Except it isn’t. I’ve set myself a new challenge, only this time I’m not going to work on it every day; I want this challenge to be more leisured and measured. I am going to read Shakespeare: all the plays (some of them for a third or fourth time), in the order he wrote them; all the poems and all the sonnets. NortonI’ve started with ‘The First Part of the Contention’, which, it is assumed, is his first play. I’m up to Act III Scene i and I can’t wait to read more.

I’m not sure how long it will take me to complete this challenge, and I’m not sure I care. What I can say is, in the process, I’ll learn a lot about drama, about writing and about the human condition. That’s why I read; it’s one of the best ways to understand our fellow humans.

WHAT challenges have you set yourself that you’re still involved in? What challenges have you completed? What did you learn about yourself and others while doing the challenge? What kind of challenges would you like to set for yourself and why?

References

Davis, Lydia. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.
Daly, Margo, and Jill Dawson. Wild Ways: New Stories About Women on the Road. London: Sceptre, 1998.
Garner, Helen. Everywhere I Look. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2016.
Goldsworthy, Kerryn. Australian Women’s Stories: An Oxford Anthology. South Melbourne, Vic: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Ondaatje, Michael. The Faber Book of Contemporary Canadian Short Stories. Faber, 1990.
http://www.newyorker.com/series/fiction-podcast
http://www.newyorker.com/podcast/the-authors-voice/introducing-the-authors-voice-new-fiction-from-the-new-yorker

(Edited 17/7/16)