She filled the kettle and glanced out of the verandah doors into the garden. The grass had grown. He always cut the grass. The kettle boiled, and she poured some boiling water into the teapot, swilled it and poured it out. Then she placed an Earl Grey tea bag in the pot and filled it with just enough water for one mug of tea. Last, she put a tea cozy over the teapot.
Each year, just before Christmas, the Original Writers Group organises an evening of festival stories. This year I wrote in the style of Cormac McCarthy. I think next year it will be in the style of Jane Austen. So, here for your entertainment:
No Country for a 500-year-old man
There is nothing more depressing than writing a post about Trump, so I won’t. Having said that, reading the papers and watching the news reminds me of the first time I remember being told a lie.
I was four years old, and it was Christmas Eve. My parents, sister, cousins and I were staying for Christmas with our grandparents. There was a crackling log fire, a Christmas tree glittering with gold in the candlelight, and singing of carols. When suddenly all went quiet and we heard a sleigh bell ringing outside, and then a knock on the old oak door. The door swung open and standing there, snow swirled around him, stood an enormous jolly man, dressed all in red, with a white beard, with a coat edged in white fur.
I have been reading about ma, the Japanese word for negative space. The empty space that lies between the action. Those moments of reflection and quiet that don’t push the story forward, filled with inconsequential details.
Last night I watched Kaneto Shindo’s horror movie Onibaba, a film set set in a field of susuki reeds. The reeds moving in the breeze give a patterned texture to the film. It is quite the most beautiful horror film I have ever watched.
In a way it is similar to Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story. I watched this film last week and was struck by the last scene that shows the father Shūkichi sitting alone in his sitting room, looking out across the rooftops to the river. Not a word is said, and none are needed.
I like the idea of slowing down the action till there are no words to say. It is as if the characters see a world beyond their action. Ma is the artistic interpretation of empty space. It can be the space around individual flowers as in the art of Ikabana or the distance between the fighters as in martial arts like karate or kendo. It exists in complex relationships between every living thing.
How can I use silence in my writing? How do I put silence into words? Maybe I must listen when the world is still.
I don’t why, but I think it will snow in London this winter. Will it be as extreme as the snow in 2009 when we made snowmen on the pavements.
So this morning I looked at the garden. The jasmine is no longer in bloom, but the foliage lies thick and heavy on the fence. The timbers are bowing and the fence wobbles. It is not a robust fence. A heavy fall of snow might collapse it.
So I picked up my hedge shears and got to work. I started at nine and finished at three. I worked at cutting and then curling the long vines into black bags and sweeping up, and just like that I realised I wasn’t writing. Can I keep writing even after a full day’s work in the garden? So I make sure that I write this night another post for this blog.
The Original Writers Group went online before London went into lockdown in March. Gal and I started early rather than wait for the government to make a decision on how to manage the pandemic as we have several members who, like myself, are in the older category and more vulnerable than our younger members...
What we hadn’t expected was how things would change when we went online. We used to meet just twice a month at the Battersea Arts Centre. Now we were all stuck at home. So we decided to meet once a week, every Tuesday evening from seven to nine.
We had things to do. In September 2019 we set a writing challenge to write and submit a short story for the Royal Literature Society V.S. Pritchett Short Story Prize. It wasn’t about winning. We won just by entering. Whatever the judges decided, everyone who entered still had a finished story.
So after we entered the V.S. Pritchett Short Story Prize, we looked around for other short story competitions. There were many, and we picked just two: The Costa Short Story Award and the Daily Telegraph Short Story competition.
Forcing myself to enter these competitions had unexpected consequences. First, I had to finish. Now that sounds simple. Why wouldn’t I finish a story? You would think I had a hundred under my belt, having run the Writers Group for fifteen years. But the opposite in true. I have hardly any. All too often I read a story at the workshop, got feedback and did nothing. So, the need to submit focused my attention. I had forgotten how productive it was to have a deadline.
The deadline had other benefits. It stopped me over-thinking the stories. Our lead-up time from September to July for the V.S. Pritchett Short Story Prize was way too long. Let’s be honest here: I didn’t start writing till ten days before submission. I had committed to write a short story in front of a roomful of writers. Even if they didn’t remember, I did. This meant I was duty-bound to enter, even if I had given myself no time.
So when I finally got down to work, I allowed the story to dictate itself. And that is how I continue to write. I like Benny Andersson’s quote of writing songs for Abba. To paraphrase, he said something like, ‘Once I had written one pop song, I knew I could write another.’ That’s the way I now feel about writing short stories. Once I complete one short story, I just move on to the next.
I will end by mentioning how lucky we are to have so many writers in the Original Writers Group willing to read our stories and offer feedback on spelling and grammar mistakes, omissions and lapses in story logic. This is a team effort. Who said that writing was lonely?