Thursday, August 29, 2019

Short Stories

I had a bit of a flurry of getting short stories published a few years ago, but nothing in the last year or so. Strangely the last story I had published was picked up for Best British Short Stories 2018. I think I've lost the thread of who is publishing what, but doing a bit of writer's admin, I've found I've got about half a dozen completed ones that are on the publishable (i.e. short) side. A couple of these I've sent out to competitions but they're not really competition stories, as they're all a little downbeat, introspective and philosophical. I seem to have a few unnamed protagonists, in faceless towns, and perhaps that's too colourless for some.

Going back a bit, my short story writing has never fitted into a particular theme or groove or even single voice.

There are some commonalities. I write a lot of two-handers, where two characters (usually, but not always, two male characters) are interacting with each other in different or unusual ways. I'm interested in the way that men interact: as something more than acquaintance, but not quite friends. One of those male traits that seems to be undervalued is how often we rub along together, finding some commonality - drink, football, or simply the group - where personality wise there wouldn't be much in common; or even a certain symbiotic relationship. I realise this isn't exactly a radical theme, how many stories are about the master and the pupil for instance? but its interesting that I draw back to it. In a reversal (or confirmation) of Alison Bechdal's Bechdal test (two women in a scene talking about something other than a man), its rare that two men in my stories would talk about a woman. In "The Good Citizen" which was published in VLAK magazine, two Asian men become wary friends, as they live in the same rooming house. The one is trying to keep his head down, the other is becoming entepreneurial, the misunderstanding is the tragedy at the heart of the story. In "Life Grabs" (from Best British Short Stories), the two men have only a business relationship - the man whose son went missing, and the man in the computer shop who helps him piece together what happened. These easy/uneasy friendships are at the heart of how many interact, its transactional as much as anything. When I meet an old friend we talk about old friends we have lost touch with; its not that we were ever really close, but we want to pretend that the transactional friendship meant more than it did.

Another theme of my stories has been the hidden, or mysterious - something on the edge of believability. Sometimes it has a Borgesian text (as in The Four Hills of Manchester, which also acts as the title of a book extracted from in the story), other times its the location (as in Last Testament of a Lighthouse Keeper, where the protagonist is on an island, alone, his past a mystery.) In The Cat (from Unthology 4) its left open whether the cat of the title is real or a metaphor. Perhaps its both. Occasionally its been deliberately fantastical, Aliens landing in Ashton IKEA in The IKEA in Ahston Can Be Seen From Space, or a drone that is personified in Dear Papa.

Longer stories have used real events or have a parallel with what's going on in the world. Finding a way into writing about contemporary politics I've often approached things from a different angel  - here it is the structure of the story that helps. I've often talked about stories having a slow reveal, where the truth about the story has been there from the start but its approached sideways.

But more recent stories have been more introverted I think: the character is often alone, and the thing that is happening to them they are unaware of. They are less plot, more philosophical. I think perhaps I need to improve their saleability by developing the plot a bit more. Part of the problem is how Manchester has changed - it used to be a city I could easily write about, but increasingly I find it hard to describe - there's nothing memorable about its sleek glass towers, its chain bars and restaurants.

So here I am, writing about writing, rather than writing... procrastination of the highest order!

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Art Thoughts

I've been thinking of doing more visual art for a while, and finally having a space of my own where I can set up a "studio" has led me to do it. Not being an "artist" I wondered why I was wanting to do this as well as my writing and music. Here are a few thoughts.

I am not an artist.

Or rather I haven’t the skill of an artist, even if I have the sensibility.

My other art forms – poetry, fiction, music – are informed by a very visual sense, conceptually, and in execution.

What I can do is create stuff, using whichever tools are to hand.

Collage is my perfect medium. Collage is part of my artistic practice going back thirty years.
I like the physicality of the collage.

Juxtaposition gives meaning.

Art is not just about a literal meaning, but a non-literal one.

As Frank O’Hara writes in “Why I am not a Painter”, his artist friend includes a sardine in the picture because “it needed something.”

Abstract art has value.

Abstract art comes from something that is not abstract at all – a concrete need and desire.

Rendition or representation is in itself a questionable task

In the age of mechanical reproduction there is value in the non-repeatable, the random chance. In the age of digital reproduction the physical object has its own meaning and value. 

Constraints are good.

Constraints enable you to make decisions confined within certain parameters.

You have to start somewhere.

I’m interested in the fragile; and I’m interested in the reproduction

Is the art the original, or the print?

There can different levels – so that an original work can be photographed, can be amended on the computer, can be placed somewhere, and can then be a new original work.

I’m interested in the sculptural, the space, the room.

We live inside boxes. Rooms, houses, cars, offices. That seems significant. 

The modern world is cramped.

Pictures speak easier than words and with more clarity.

I don’t know if I want to represent a thing, or the thing to be simply the starting point because “it needed something.”

It feels good to be released from the need for a narrative; or am I just attempting to apply a narrative to another artform? 

Scissors and glue takes us back to childhood; never a bad place to go for revitalising our wonder at the world.

Art is recycling. 

I'm some way off having something that I can explain in "art speak", that is a good thing. 

Maybe I can exhibit this some time; who knows?

Learning new things by doing feels good. 

I think I am working towards something, but maybe that's less important than the single steps on the way. 

Creative people need to be creative - and sometimes that means changing what you do. 

"Only ever doing what's expected of you is a tragedy." (This is the title of my next music project.)