Thursday, February 03, 2011

Find Your SELF

On using and abusing prompts, on finding stories, on finding yourself, on being lazy, on being like everybody else.

Most short-story writers BORE me. How many stories do you remember? How many stories still sit, burning in your gut? If you answer “a hundred” I will be staggered, stunned. Isn’t it probably less than twenty? Now think, in a year how many shorts would you read? In your life how many have you read? Have you read a thousand short-stories? Almost certainly. I suspect I have averaged AT LEAST two stories per day since 1991. 20 years, x two stories x 365 days a year. That is 14,600 short-stories.

Seriously, I think of:

Saul Bellow’s “A Silver Dish”,

Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”;

Lawrence Sargent Hall’s The Ledge”

Carver’s “A Small Good Thing” and “Cathedral”

Barry Targan: Harry Belten and the Mendelssohn Concerto

And I start slowing down. That’s CRAZY!

OK, so if I worked on my memory, drag down the books from the shelf, flicked through Best American Short Stories of the Century, there’s 85 stories. Can I add those? Well, actually, no I can’t.

I am sure I could produce a list of two, three, four thousand “fine” stories, stories that were beautifully crafted. There are probably upwards of fifty-thousand such “excellent” works in print.

But how many HIT me, hurt me, entered me, changed me, made my universe shimmer as if something came from nowhere and became a part of me?

I’m older now, more pathetic. I suspect if I got into the groove I could reach 50 stories like that, maybe 100, but I would be shocked if I ever got to 200. Yet I have almost certainly read twenty THOUSAND stories.

Does that mean I don’t read, don’t absorb, don’t EAT fiction, or does it mean that these stories don’t have that true sensibility, that extra, that depth, that power, that finesse to really, absolutely MATTER?

I’ll return to this subject but right now I want to turn to flashing, using flash-prompts and creating stories that matter.

Someone in Boot Camp posted yesterday that they “read through” (think SKIM) a set of prompts and if they are not immediately BITTEN, if a prompt doesn’t instantaneously leap out and grab them by the throat, they read on, move on.


And then they end “just using one” (which sadly means THINKING) and they end up disappointed, with a flash that “just feels like work”.

This writer thinks that a story just comes “given” in an instant, without work, just sitting there, nestling in a short phrase. But IS THAT the case or should we be doing work to find the story (and this, most definitely does NOT mean that dreaded activity of THINKING)…


If I am sat on the toilet, driving my car, writing a flash, a short, a page from a novel, I’m “thinking”, that is my mind is doing stuff. I am writing this right now, and barely thinking (about what I’m writing) but I am also “thinking” (I need another word) in a very uncontrolled, casual, peripheral, spontaneous way about other things which may or may not rise to full consciousness.

I know for example that I am thinking about The Beatles, going to Starbucks later to work on a novel, thinking (very, very loosely) about that novel, which makes me think of my parents (both dead) about my sisters scattered around the globe, about my brother in Australia, about being a father, my exes, my kids going on, the Senghennydd Pit Disaster, where exactly Abercarn is, about my tax returns, about Reading Football Club (and truly a hundred, a thousand other things).

The more I consciously LOOK at any of these things, the more (a) I will become obvious and unsurprising and (b) the more the other things will be attenuated. Put simply, there is “THINKING” where we concentrate, use our education, language and experience, apply logic, begin to intuitively compare and contrast, FOCUS (meaning turn off the other, richer, wilder things) and basically remove the angelic and replace with the worker ant.

Right now I need to choose words to distinguish TYPES of thinking, but right now I can’t be arsed, because if I do I will turn on my left brain (already it’s happening and this article is in danger.)

For now, bad thinking is deliberation, study, repetition, note-taking, analysis, conscious thought about how we might combine X and Y, and maybe use Z. It’s the kind of thinking where you could mutter aloud about your process, if you chose.

What matters here, what is wrong here is that it’s 99% likely that when you BADTHINK any story or poem you create will be something created outside of you where you PRETEND to move inwards. It’s 99.9% the brain, at least 90% left-brain, and if anything of your soul is on the page, it’s accidental.

There is nothing of your soul, your gut, your sex, your hidden self (and I don’t have to mean secrets)… what appears on the page is (more-or-less) the same old stuff, stuff I can read almost anywhere, with just (maybe) a small influence that is your voice, your background, your reading, your religion, your education.

The “same-old-stuff” pejoration is two-fold. First it’s the same-old, same-old that “anybody” can write. There is nothing to amaze. Secondly it’s the same-old YOU. Again nothing surprises us, nothing therefore moves us.

That is, (a) you write the same stories that we see hundreds and thousands of times from others and (b) You write that story in exactly the same way with 99.9% of your angelic state turned off. Thus you bore both yourself and me, your reader.

Back to prompts. I once posted a set of prompts. One was “My brother’s habit is annoying”, another was “Blue Apples”, another was “Kingfisher” and there was one about a dairy, or an ice-cream factory. I think there was one about a car or a van and another about a cat.

Now just think of “My brother’s habit is annoying”. BADTHINK.

We could write about two brothers (duh) and one picks his nose, or always rings at a bad time, or can’t hold onto his money… and the other is pissed off having to see that disgusting habit, or forever having to bail the other brother out.


But totally natural, totally reasonable.

We worked “naturally”, thought “loosely” (so we thought) and came up with “scenarios” any of which we MIGHT be able to turn into a “half-decent” flash.

Burn it. Use it to burn down the offices of every womag company. We get one shot at LIVING, or being, of expressing, of opening up our soul to the souls of others. Why then do we REPEAT the shit of others and pretend we are being original?

Express yourself.

Your SELF is your soul, it’s the real you, the you in a quiet, empty house nursing a glass, the you deserted, the you in love, the you discovering you have breast cancer (or testicular cancer, guys). What is your ESSENCE?

Why do we sometimes love people we dislike?

Why do we sometimes like people even though some of the things they do or are could not be further away from our set of values? I have a good friend who is so racist it makes me laugh (maybe why we are friends). If he was LESS racist I would probably not be his friend.

We connect, or should connect at the level of the soul, the gut, the sex, pheremones and nuance, not crude, same as everybody else stockness, cliché, and stereotype.

Get away from repeating the work of others. Start talking to your self. Note your (space) self.

When I read that “habit” line I let my brain go and got a story in an instant. How?

I surprised myself!

My brother's habit is bloody annoying. He’s Friar Tuck and I’m running as Maid Marion and we are only four miles into the London Marathon and the swish-swish-swish-fucking-swish is driving me crazy.

In an instant I had a rhythm, conflict, and a route through the story. I’ll return to the story itself later. It turned out to be a story about ex-soldiers who became mercenaries then were changed by a single incident and afterwards become volunteer mine-clearers. They are all missing a body-part and running in The London Marathon to raise money for their charity.

Where THE FUCK did that come from?

It most certainly did not come, AND NEVER WOULD HAVE COME from BADTHINKING.

Today’s prompts are below. (I don’t like them much, my brain is not good at the moment.)

Not treading on cracks

A train, moving slowly

Winter sun rolls up the slopes

West Side Story

The child speaks before words

Joe Sweeney is dying

Cardboard offices, plastic restaurants

I may have actually sorted my tax

How good is it sometimes, to just close your eyes

A woman I have never seen before, not seeing now

Menopause. Just one word.

Trust me, I'm a doctor

Like boys playing on thin ice, waiting for their tragedy


What's in a name?

It is only love; let's blunder on

Letter from Outcast 17

Clingwrap my bleeding, aching heart


Boy, you gotta carry that weight

It's neither pink nor cerise, but it isn't black

He didn't drop the paper round, his car was cold

Wash then, like Pilate


A nice, gentle, simple cup of tea

Jim Reeves

It is so easy (and stupid) to read from top to bottom, NOT be hit and give up. There are 26 prompts. You can read them top to bottom, bottom to top, in alphabetical order, and combined.

Combing them into pairs you have 325 combinations. That’s 351 prompts. Enough?

Sometimes two ordinary prompts combine into an explosive mixture.

There’s a train, it’s moving slowly through the back-streets, careful not to tread on the cracks.

What the F---? A train thinking about its luck? A superstitious train? You think I could ever sit down and DECIDE to imagine a superstitious train?

Look how easily It is only love; let's blunder on // Clingwrap my bleeding, aching heart // Rawhide (I was thinking of the TV show, but RAW-HIDE? Goes with bleeding heart dunnit?)

And A woman I have never seen before, not seeing now

And maybe How good is it sometimes, to just close your eyes and perhaps the one about a child?

It’s EASY.


My story “The Fucking Point-Two”, the one that started with Friar Tuck, was written in about half an hour, 1,845 words. It was a long time ago, but for sure it took a lot less than an hour. It went straight out and won a first prize, not in a flash competition (though it was written as a flash) but in a story competition.

I didn’t write it. My unconscious did, with a little help from my soul. The story contained ALL the prompts from that day.

Take off the straitjacket and let your self emerge.


Neil said...

"But how many HIT me, hurt me, entered me, changed me, made my universe shimmer as if something came from nowhere and became a part of me?"

If you are only interested in such a specific kind of story, surely that's bound to limit the percentage that you find memorable?

What about stories that amuse, tease, fascinate, confound, or generate any other kind of aesthetic response. Don't they count? Why be so prescriptive?

Alex Keegan said...

My point is that the vast majority of published short stories are transient, trivial.

Why the hell would I want to be faintly "amused" or "teased a little"?

I think shorts should be a lot more.

If I read a poem I don't want to think, "Cute! Neat!" I want it to MATTER to me.

Ditto short stories.

And PS, this is not just me. If I ask at writers conferences or in Boot Camp, or authors that I meet it's quite a shock to discover how few stories REALLY mattered to them (and that they can remember)

I don't read for "entertainment", I read to understand something about being alive. It might be that you could apply the word "entertainment" to my experience, but it's a poor word.

I don't get "amuse me"

I don't get "fascinate me" (what dopes that MEAN?)

I don't get "tease me". I don't want to read some author flashing his intellect, showing his cleverness.

I don't get "confound me". WHY would you want to confound me? Why would I want to be confounded? I want understanding, a truth approached. What exactly would be the purpose of this "confounding"?

What other kinds of "aesthetic responses"?


Neil said...

"Transient" and "trivial" in your terms, I guess. If you only like lemon sherberts, every sweetshop will be a dissapointment.

Alex Keegan said...

Explain how an "amusement" or a tease can be anything other than transient.

Sweet Shops in toto are a disappointment.