Emma Ashmere

writer | author | novelist

Category: Short Stories

Writing Outside Youth: Two Uneasy Pieces by Janet Frame and Ali Smith

janet frame PortraitBlogMay2016 121 (2)

A few months ago I was asked to choose a favourite piece of writing that captured ‘the essence of youth’. This got me thinking about being a writer of a Certain Age who occasionally writes younger characters, and the process of drawing on – or strategically remembering and forgetting – the ‘other country’ of my youth. The young characters who grip me in fiction are usually outsiders, so I turned to two of my favourite writers to see how they do it.

Ali Smith’s short story ‘Writ’ dazzles because it’s about being young and old – literally – at the same time. In Janet Frame’s short story ‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’, the protagonist is probably younger than ‘youth’, but there’s a link between the two stories – the moment these characters discover they don’t fit in and are forced to make a decision about what that means.

Here are my thoughts on these two uneasy pieces.

‘Writ’ by Ali Smith

There’s a razor sharp exchange about the vantage point of age in Ali Smith’s short story ‘Writ’. A middle-aged woman finds her fourteen-old self scuffing about her book-lined house, lolling in front of the blaring television, perfecting the art of looking needy, bored, and beautiful. There’s so much to say – and not say – to this girl as she smirks, shrugs, advances, and retreats.

For a moment they find a patch of common ground when they talk about the Romantic poet John Keats whose writing she’s/they’ve studied at school. But the chasm soon opens up again. ‘He did die unbelievably young, you know,’ says the woman. The girl fires back, ‘No he didn’t … He was twenty-five or something.’

This is trademark Ali Smith, snapping the elastic of time and place, thrusting a two-way mirror between the other and the self. Just when you think she’s writing about the hopes, anxieties, limitations and freedom of know-it-all youth – you begin to suspect it’s more about the hopes, anxieties, limitations and freedom of know-it-all middle age.

‘Writ’ appears Ali Smith’s 2009 collection The First Person and Other Stories.

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‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ by Janet Frame

When it comes to crystallising the tensions between individuality and conformity, belonging and alienation, loyalty and betrayal, I can’t go past Janet Frame. In her story ‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ a girl learns her place in the world during a visit to her ‘Cultured’ cousins.

The cousins have ‘good trellis work’, a garden full of flowers, and fine lacy clothes. For the girl, it’s an ‘alien world’ where nobody fights, or yells, or sings dirty little rhymes. Her mother seems ‘far away’ and ‘high up’ as she perches at the aunt’s ‘white and ready’ kitchen table. The girl watches how her mother begins to say ‘really isn’t that just so fancy’ about everything she sees.

The girl feels ‘sad and strange’ as she stares at the cooked turnip waiting on their plates. She wants to go home, where she can run wild in the fields and yank turnips out of the ground, and eat them raw under the friendly gaze of ‘an approving cow’. But then she realises. She is the poor cousin. She must do as her mother does – hide her ignorance, oddity, and shame. So she eats her cooked turnip, shows interest in her cousins’ fine lacy clothes, and begins to say ‘just so fancy’ to everything she sees.

‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ appears in Janet Frame’s 1983 collection You Are Now Entering the Human Heart.

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For more recent short story collections exploring the tricky terrain between various worlds and (not necessarily) fitting in, I heartily recommend Paddy O’Reilly’s Peripheral Vision, Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil.

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Emma Ashmere’s short stories have appeared in The Age, Review of Australian Fiction, Griffith Review and Sleepers Almanac. Her debut novel The Floating Garden is published by Spinifex Press and was shortlisted for the 2016 MUBA prize.

 

New short story in the Review of Australian Fiction

I am very pleased to have a new short story published in the latest edition of the Australian Review of Fiction. It’s a great opportunity for newer writers – as the editors pair an established writer with an emerging writer. The much-published local RAF_VOL16_ISS_5Lisa Walker has her story ‘Romantic’ in this edition, along with my story ‘Seaworthiness’ which is based on the last sailing ship to carry wheat from South Australia to England in 1948. You can see the stories here: http://reviewofaustralianfiction.com/issues/volume-16-issue-5/
Happy holiday reading!

On short stories: Make every word count

On short stories: Putting the right only words in the right only order

Short story writers are often told to ‘make every word count’. But what does this mean? And how can we identify and winkle out those sluggish words, clichéd ideas, and flaky images that once seemed so vital, original and essential in our own first drafts?

Mark Twain allegedly lamented to a friend he’d wanted to ‘write a shorter letter but didn’t have the time’. If the single defining element of the short story is its brevity, then precision is everything. And like any finely-tuned motor skill, precision takes practice and patience. Of course longer forms also depend on exactitude, but there are simply less places for dead ends or missteps to hide in a more concentrated hit of words. According to Mel Campbell ‘anyone can noodle on for 10,000 words, but it takes creativity and discipline to express oneself within word limits.’

Word count can be both friend and foe. A 500 word cap challenges the writer to keep on track, but that track still must offer an arresting glimpse of life, relationships, the world etc. On the downside, enforced limits can cramp your style. When a piece balloons over its allotted space, there are probably only two options. Keep it for another occasion when word limit isn’t an issue. Or cut.

Ali Smith talks about needing to find your own ‘balance between instinct and edit’. For some stories less will be more. For others, less really is less. Multiple ideas, extravagant details of setting and mood, the number of characters, or quirks of voice might be the very elements you’d hoped would hook and haunt the reader. Lose those hard-wrought surprises and idiosyncrasies, and the story risks diluting into ordinariness. If a story keeps buckling against the word limit, there’s no going wider. So go deeper.

Kurt Vonnegut said every sentence must either ‘advance the plot’ or reveal something compelling about the character. If I think a story is worth redrafting, one of the most useful questions is: ‘do I need this?’ First lines, last lines, dialogue, heavy-handed or colourless titles, characters’ names, favourite phrases – nothing is safe from the scalpel. Openings must act as irresistible invitations to read on, however Jennifer Mills warns against ‘strong beginnings’ petering out. As for endings, ‘a short story doesn’t have to have a neat ending, but it should turn – it should show readers the moment something changes.’

Priscilla Long suggests making a list of ten things you want to include before you start such as objects, feelings, colours, places, people, events, particular phrases. Even if you haven’t done this, go back and see what’s survived the redrafting knife. Is this still the story you wanted to write?

After fine-combing through several times, the words that kick-started the piece might suddenly seem clunky. Some will be worth refashioning. Others won’t. Check every word is working as hard as the 499 other pistons hopefully chugging away in the engine room keeping the story ticking over. Even the seemingly insignificant ones such as ‘the’ and ‘and’ must pull their weight.

Reading aloud can help detect stumbles, flat spots, unintended repetitions, clumsy rhythms, clanging notes. Try to imagine you’re sitting on the other side of the editor’s desk, listening in. What would make this story leap straight over the ‘no’ pile and into the ‘yes’?

Some pieces will never amount to more than exercises. But the act of writing is never wasted. Set them aside for awhile, then revisit and try to see what you’d change in them now. Some pithy lines might even be salvageable for recycling elsewhere.

At this year’s Byron Writers Festival, Jeanette Winterson talked about the benefits of having a wood-burning stove in her study. Apparently she feeds it regularly with paper and ink. She also said that good writing of any length means putting ‘the right words in the right order’. Later, this was refined slightly. Good writing is about finding ‘the only words’ and putting them ‘in the only order’. No multiple choice. No ‘and/or’. There’s only one right word, or 500 right words. And it’s every writer’s job to pounce on them and place them where they can chug away, unfettered, at full capacity.

This article first appeared in the Northern Rivers Writers Centre’s newsletter northerly, November 2014.

Emma Ashmere’s short stories have appeared in The Age, Review of Australian Fiction, Griffith Review and Sleepers Almanac. Her debut novel The Floating Garden is published by Spinifex Press and was shortlisted for the 2016 MUBA prize.

Portrait or Landscape

Read Emma Ashmere’s short story Portrait or Landscape here or  at http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue17/Ashmere.pdf

The Ends of the Earth  

Read Emma Ashmere’s short story The Ends of the Earth  by visiting  https://griffithreview.com/articles/the-ends-of-the-earth.

Polar Bears in Sydney Harbour

The first time I went to Sydney, I went with my mother. One morning we climbed onto a bus full of people who said ports instead of suitcases and pronounced school as if there was a curl in it. The bus driver was wearing long white socks and short grey shorts and told us there was a convenience at the rear of the vehicle. Read the rest of this entry »