Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Golden Arches and Dancing Plants

On Tuesday 14 June we gathered at Rob's to discuss Annie's submission, entitled Yellow Peril and the Green-Eyed Monster.
News: Tony has entered the Guardian Weekend short story competition, the theme of entries being 'journeys'. After changing most of the narrative from first to second person, Annie is entering her short story The Ninth Step for the Bridport Prize. Rob has submitted entries to the Guardian Weekend, the Bridport and the Bristol competitions. I wonder how he finds the time. Linda spoke glowingly about her week spent on a residential Arvon writing course. She received great tuition from a couple of brilliant authors who were both very positive about her writing - as are we at the SVA, but Linda suffers from an entirely unjustifiable lack of self-confidence. After returning from deepest Shropshire she has changed direction and decided to rewrite her novel A Head Full of Budgerigars in the first person.
On my first reading of Annie's short story, I found myself wondering just what the point was of writing a detailed description of a three-year-old girl's fascination with the act of a man (her father) urinating. But then what is the point of writing anything? Perhaps Tolstoy has put his finger on it in What is Art?:
To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having invoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art. Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others the feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.
Annie has done exactly that by reproducing the experience of a three-year-old child, skilfully reproducing all the toddler's curiosity, fascination and bewilderment by deploying the art of what Rob calls "showing, not telling":
'The slapping of liquid on leaves stops me (she writes). His back is to me but something is happening; I can tell. I put down my trowel down and stand up wiping my hands down maroon corduroy dungarees. As I come alongside I see a golden arch making the plants dance. Yellow droplets gather on the long grasses and then slide to the ground.'
On second and third readings, as is often the case, I found the story growing on me. It is a well-written, acutely-observed and charming piece about an unusual subject, described with humour and a child's attention to detail. We had the predictable argument after the reading about whether or not a child's experience can be expressed in such adult language. I felt that it could, and indeed would have to be, for a child of that age is clearly incapable of writing or expressing itself in a way that would make entertaining or even comprehensible reading. The recreation of any childhood experience has to be accomplished by the adult writing about events seen from his or her former self's point of view.
Linda described it as a very poetic description of someone having a wee but wondered why there was no reference to smell. Both Tony and Rob felt that the item was a little too brief for the short story genre and Rob wondered if it might be extended to include the mother's addressing her daughter's distress at her inability to 'wee standing up' like her father by listing female compensations. And we established that there is a hyphen in wee-wee.

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