Oh. Em. Gee, you need to read some Lucia Berlin

So, Lucia Berlin’s “A Manual for Cleaning Women” (Picador, 2015) was another of the pile I picked up during my Shrewsbury Book Binge a few weeks ago (#Waterstones you’re awesome)! Never heard of her, but the New York Times calls her a “literary genius” and according the blurb, she’s been compared to Raymond Carver, Alice Munro and Anton Chekov– put any author in the same sentence as Master Carver, and I’m gonna give ’em a poke.

Berlin is a short story writer who seems to blend memoir and fiction, blurring the line between narrator and author to the point where you accept it as real or not, and don’t mind either way. She’s also, and how can I put this without upsetting the M.A in Creative Writing Set– (Yes, I know you’re there, I can hear you breathing. Stop angsting, I’m not having a dig, honest)– Although she’s clearly highly educated and did actually teach Literature, her stories don’t inhabit that world. There are no polite, well-spoken olive eaters (that was also not a dig at my fellow Lefties, BTW). Berlin sets her stories in launderettes and hospitals and seedy motels with brown walls and grubby sheets, her characters are blue collar, don’t eat well, and drink too much…

And, frankly, it makes a nice change. It kind of feels like we have too few working class, or even lower middle class protagonists out there in Reading World. It’s crap. It means I can’t find characters I relate to (I’m ex-retail, ex-call centre; I live in a 2 up 2 down terrace and drive a £500 car), I want to see more people like me in my fiction, without having to read police procedurals all the time, ta v. much).

So, anyway, what else to tell you…

Lucia Berlin’s writing has a way of getting under your skin, so that her stories, while seeming simple enough on the surface (a woman in a launderette on a Saturday, running out of change for the machine and having to lug her wet bed sheets home, for example), seem to stay with you.

It’s a bit like Carver, but less studied, more effortless. The impression I have of Carver is that each word has been precisely chosen because of its meaning. Berlin is equally precise, but the whole thing feels more fluid– the full impact doesn’t hit you with the final page, but half an hour later when you’re in the bath with your one Big Wine Glass (the other one got smashed and you’re still picking the glass shards out of the bathmat two months later…), and you lie there with the water going cold, thinking, “holy bananas, that’s IT! That’s totally how that feels!”

I could sit here, describing one of her stories to you, but I couldn’t do it justice, and it would sound rubbish, so you’ll just have to go read her for yourself. Now, where’s that Big Wine Glass gone…?

What can I blog about?

So, in my never-ending quest to find Unique Things to Blog About (since cats, politics and #amwriting are all largely taken), I’ve had a bit of a brain wave: short stories! My reasoning being: they’re what I read, and also, (therefore) what I write.

So, here we are, my newestmostfavouritistthing (at least, till I get bored) is What have I been reading this week?!

Part 1: Mariana Enriquez’s “Things we lost in the fire”.

Never heard of her? Well, no, me either, actually, not till I was sloping about in Shrewbury’s branch of Waterstones  a few weeks back and spied it. And this is why bricks n’ mortar book shops still rock, isn’t it? If I’d been trawling through a certain online bohemoth’s virtual shelves, I’d have just been bored with yet more meh! I’ve already read enough of….

So, anyway, I took one look at the cover, saw the words/ phrases, ‘gothic’ and ‘psychological terror’, thought, that’s right up my street, and the rest, as they say, was cliche….

Let me tell you about Enriquez. She’s gothic (duh!), in all senses of the word. There’s an other worldliness to her, partly because her stories are set in Latin America, so the landscape is very different  from the average Crap Midlands Towns that I’m used to: her characters are preoccupied with fears I’ve never had to entertain (personal violence, grinding misery…), the myths and urban legends are new to me, so reading her is like dipping into some strange Lonely Planet Guide of fiction.

But, is it ‘psychological terror’? Well, I’ve not had to sleep with the light on or anything, but I have been left with an unsettled feeling- haunted by all of the horrors she’s left unsaid. Because, that’s what Enriquez does with her writing, she doesn’t take you to monsters, plonk you in front of the big scaries, she more guides you to the room where they’re hiding, let you hear their monstrous scratching, and then abandons you there, and from the door jamb, you might peek and be scarred for life, or you might just decide to turn back having not looked, scuttle away and put the light on instead. But, you’ll still know what you heard and what it could mean. Enriquez is Eraserhead, not the Ring: you’ll feel bothered by it on some level but you won’t be able to explain why.

Another day another competition entry

So, my (latest) cunning plan for World Domination (read: get people to read my stuff) is writing competitions. It’s brutal. Almost as brutal as magazine submissions. In fact, even more so, since you pay for the privilege of rejection.

Last night, I attended the High Sheriff’s Cheshire Prize for Literature 2018, and upon listening to the two winning entries, thought to myself, hm…. W-A-Y more literary than my entry (damnit)! Today, I’m working on an entry for Reflex Fiction’s Quarterly International Flash Fiction Competition- by which I mean, today I am finding other things to do to put off the pain of the final edit. Of course, as I sit here, avoiding edits, I’m starting to realise that this may not be the best thing for me just now…

In case you’ve not started down this particular road, let me tell you what it’s like to enter a writing competition.  You find a competition and research it by reading past entries, and you think to yourself, okay, well, some of this is almost-sort-of-not-quite-but-maybe-similar to what I do, and then you rummage through your hard-drive looking for a story of the right length and then spend the next week or two frantically editing and worrying and obsessing to get it just right. Then, you send it off up the chimney and resolve to put the whole thing out of your mind and get on with the collection you’re meant to be working on. Except you don’t, do you? No, you wait, and wait. And while you wait, you obsess. And then you dream…. Oh the things you could do with £1,000 prize money…

And then you don’t see your name on the Highly Commendeds, or the Runners Ups, and you sure as s*it don’t see it on the Winners List, and a little bit of you kind of dies inside. You sit down at your desk, pushing your current Work of Strange and Subtle Genius around like peas on a plate, while your brain tells you (in a whisper that sounds just like THAT maths teacher you had during your GCSEs) that you’re rubbish. And, because you’re rubbish, you put the Work of Strange and Subtle Genius away and go and do something else instead, just to silence your maths teacher’s voice, and distance yourself from the embarrassment of having mentally won and spent £1,000 of glorious recognition. And, because you’re a sensitive little flower, it takes you a good week or so to put yourself back together again- just in time to start all over again.

So, no, that’s enough now, my poor fragile ego won’t cope. Doing well in a literary competition might do wonders for my writing career, but just now, writing will have to be its own reward. So, no more competitions for me.

…After I’ve sent this last story off, of course!

After David

 

I spend a lot of time in the coffee shop at the local swimming baths. I sip from a bottle of mineral water since I can’t stomach anything else, not with that chlorine cramming its damp fist into my throat, not with that muggy heat.

I sit at the baths because only here can I be sure not to run into any memories of David. It’s what I do: avoid memories of him, us, what we’d been.  The memories encroach, of course, catch me out and I have to pause, force my way past like you would a growling dog, a giant spider. Hurry past, cold heat on my back, waiting for it to catch up. His voice, the way he’d say my name. Pressure of his hand on my back.

The humidity sits on me, heavy and dull, the sounds a swirl. How do  people bear it? You always think of swimming as cool and blue and clean, and yes, the first dive is a relief, but there’s still the wall of bodies and breath to fight through first.  I can never stay long, not with all of these people, all these voices, not anymore. David was right, of course: without him I am nothing.

You see, that day I had washed my hands until the water ran clear. I’d felt strangely numb, as if it had happened so long ago it no longer mattered, as if somebody else had done it to him.

I’d washed him down the plughole, and resurfaced, my lungs gasping.   Then, the weight of it had pushed me back under and I had known, I would always carry him with me, on my skin, in my veins.

Now, even though I know I won’t escape for long, I still head to the pool, each day. I wriggle and worm through the hot fug of the changing rooms to the mercy of the tiled edge.  The lengths spread out, endless, before me: stroke after stroke of warm, pristine green, washing my sin away, and David is just an echo, choked by the chlorine.

 

(Runner up in The Potteries Prize for Flash Fiction, 2017: https://librariesonline.stoke.gov.uk/iguana/www.main.cls?p=7d3d1c0a-3760-11e5-bfe1-03ba06ef7900&v=7518f5d3-ff5a-471d-8974-6943ec4607d5)

 

This job’s too hard!

It’s Sunday afternoon. I’ve done the requisite barest minimum amount of housework (i.e. feel free to eat your dinner off the floor, but don’t blame me if you catch something) and I’m Working on My Blog. This is capitalised because it just strikes me as one of those Herculean tasks I know needs doing, but I put off because even Hercules would get his arse out about making WordPress work…

This wretched site has actually been live (but hidden) for the last 2 years, but has never really worked properly, with posts disappearing, links going nowhere and me sitting in front of it, moving the mouse around desultorily before slamming the laptop shut and going off for a sulk.

So, now The Chap (who, typically, speaks Tech/ Geek/ Pooter) has has intervened and fixed it for me (don’t ask me how, it’s all Dark Arts to me- there was even chanting)! I actually have something I can work with, and I’ve even got Twitter hooked up to it! ( I think, I hope- I did that bit myself, so if it’s not working, tell me).

There are a bunch of (old) blog posts stored on here, and I’ll probably chuck a couple of short stories on here if I can’t find a publisher for them, so pop in and have a look.

So, here we are, I’m starting to act like a Proper Writer. Next up, those little business cards that every other writer seems to have on them. Oh, plus writing! I should be doing that too…. Damn!

On the benefits of a broken telly

Our television is broken, or, rather, it’s not completely kapputt, it’s just a bit knackered (the volume stops working when we change channel, so we have to switch it off and on again; the aerial’s a bit wobbly as well, so if it’s raining, we can only pick up ITV and some rubbish Freeview channel).

I should buy a new one, in fact people beg us to, and one friend, who cannot live without his 40 inches of flat screen action (heh heh)!, night after night, keeps offering us the 36 inches he has just replaced with the 40 inch monster goggle box, for free.

While I’m at work, dog could sit in and bulk watch Homes under the Hammer and Jeremy Kyle all day instead of distributing the contents of the bathroom bin all over the stairs, destroying the butter dish and snagging the defrosting bread off the counter to scarf.

On nights when I’m home alone, I could while away the lonely boredom with a documentary on BBC 4. With a working telly, we could stream box-sets from Amazon, enabling me to keep up with water cooler conversation about the latest season of zombies/ gangsters/ bikers/ fake-medieval fantasy. So far, however, I’m resisting, and the reason is this; I don’t like losing time.

Time is a strange beast, it moves with the agonising slowness of a snail at some points, and yet at others it can rival a roadrunner for miles eaten up. My working days are sloths but my evenings and weekends are cheetahs on kawasakis, particularly when there’s a TV involved. What is it about the television that enables us to pause thought, feeling, consciousness (until the ad break or the end credits, at least, and even then we’re not quite free and can be pulled right back in by the next thing on, even if it’s rubbish)!

On days when I’ve watched the news, then left the telly on in the background for an hour because X-Files (or, whatever) is on at nine so there’s no point switching it off, I go to bed feeling wired and when I arrive at work the next day i feel as if I’ve only just left, I haven’t done anything in between, I have been like a toy, switched off at the power button until I am next needed, held in stasis.

Conversely, when it’s raining (or windy, or the snow is of the wrong type), and my TV aerial is sulking, I do strange things, like pick up a book, maybe my journal, even. I poke around at ‘that’ story I wrote last year but which has never worked but fixing it always looked like too much like hard work. I play a CD I’d forgotten about and am transported back to when I last heard it and it sparks something in my brain. Or even, I just lie on the sofa, feeling spare, and boredom is, I think, the key to writing.

So, the telly is staying broken. I am forever destined to shout ‘don’t spoil me!’ When work conversation moves from office gossip to last night’s episode of whatever I’m three seasons behind on. It’s better than the alternative.

(Originally published August 2016)

Oh, the horror! The horror! (Or, meeting The Editors)

So, I’m writing a book. Well, no, actually I’m compiling a collection of short stories to make into a book. It’s a whole new world of terror, my friend.

I’ll probably be able to blog endlessly about this heroic journey, but today I’m going to tell you about the first of the terrors: my first editorial meeting. It’s held, as I’m sure a great many small press editorial meetings are held, in a coffee shop. My editors who I will call Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg had already read through the twenty or so stories I planned to include in the collection and were there to give me their initial thoughts.

Now, I’m no stranger to critique: I’ve had well-meaning friends tell me nothing happened in my stories, but that they didn’t know how to fix them; I’ve had pages and pages of edits emailed to me by shadowy internet beta readers; I’ve been a member of Renegade Writers for almost two years, and believe me, those guys don’t mess around! But, until now I hadn’t ever been faced with the tough love of a pair of editors, and it is tough, let me tell you. A combination of uncomfortable  school open evenings, job interview feedback sessions, that moment someone tells you you’ve been walking around with your skirt tucked in your knickers; the oh god, find me a shovel and help me dig embarrassment of learning that the boy you’ve been unsubtly throwing yourself at just isn’t that into you…

I came home, curled up on the sofa and wailed ‘I’m a hack! I’m never writing again, take this pen off me now!’ at anyone who’d listen. Fortunately, no one did and so I’m now working slowly through my homework- my list of editing tasks:

Story 1 finishes too abruptly

And so does Story 2

And Story 3.

Story 4 is crap, so bin it.

The logic of story 5 makes no sense.

There wasn’t enough texture to Story 6

Or enough conflict in Story 7.

On the face of it, fixing all of this is pretty daunting. But then, as I work, I’m starting to realise, the stories in need of the most work are the earlier ones, the ones I’ve never really looked at after that initial draft, never edited properly myself or brought to the writing group. Actually, when I look at it objectively (or as objectively as I’m able when it’s my babies being criticised, damn it!), once I’ve got past the personal sense of embarrassment at getting something wrong, that editors meeting was not like looking in a mirror: I don’t always like what I see, but overall, it’s nothing a bit of work won’t fix, nothing I can’t live with. Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg were just facets of my own good sense telling me what I already knew but didn’t want to face. Everyone should have a set.

(Originally published September 2015)