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The Reader Becomes the Writer

Phil Olsen is currently studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at The University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing. Phil will be guest blogging for Bluecoat throughout our Comma Press Short Story course. 

Comma Press short story course - Workshop 3: 'The Lyrical Story', 2 March 2016

After last month’s Epical tales with a twist, this third workshop focused on more open-ended narratives as we explored Lyrical Stories. These tend to follow less of a beginning, middle and end structure; instead relying on the reader to do some interpreting of events (or non-events, as the case may be).

Splitting off into smaller groups, we gave each other feedback on the stories we’d written since last time. As we get more comfortable with sharing our work, we also become more critical – after all, “I really like that” isn’t going to help us with our re-drafting. In my critique the consensus was that I needed to instil a greater sense of panic in my protagonist. The feedback was fair – I’d put him in a field with a bull and yet he didn’t seem too bothered.

The Lyrical Story often takes an image as its starting point and works outwards in no obvious direction from there. Plot is not the priority. The goal here is rather to provoke emotion in the reader, and the best way to achieve that is to leave room for more than one idea of what it all might mean.

Is that all clear? No? Good. I was aiming for vague and ambiguous.

A key story we looked at this month was 'Why Don't You Dance?' by American master of the short form, Raymond Carver (from his 1981 collection'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love'). Carver conjures a striking scene of house furniture all set out on a front lawn. A yard sale perhaps, or an eviction? A messy relationship breakdown? We don't get answers, just more questions... What makes it a more surreal scene, is that things are plugged in and switch on-able, including a bedside lamp and record player.

Open ended stories would appear to span the ages - we flew back to 1922 for Katherine Mansfield's 'The Fly', a tale of pondering death and putting ink and blotting paper to misuse. And then we front-crawled it to the recent past of 2011 for Jon McGregor's sea swimming yarn, 'We Wave and Call'. We learn enough in each to know what is going on, but the reader ultimately gets to decide the fate of the characters (insect or human). Nothing is spelt out and nothing is definite. Where epical stories deliver a reveal at the end in which everything clicks into place, lyrical stories plant a bunch of seeds and then take their leave. 'We Wave and Call' certainly lingered in my mind long after I finished reading it.

Comma Press author Sarah Schofield (pictured) set us a writing exercise similar to the game of consequences, or exquisite corpse, whereby we each wrote down an object on an index card and then passed it round the table, then we described the object we'd been given in three words before passing the cards on again. And this became the starting point for a story. How did that object make us feel? Where did we picture it? My card read 'Keyboard: yellowing, chipped, but still tuneful', and I was immediately transported to a childhood loft of insulation foam, a dripping water tank and half built Scalextric track. The writer of the word 'keyboard' and the writer of the words 'yellowing, chipped and tuneful' would both doubtless have had other images in their minds. But that's the beauty of a lyrical short story – the reader becomes the writer, fills in the blanks and paints part of the picture.

Some lyrical stories are available to read online for free, including a couple of the tales mentioned in this blog.

Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Fly’

John McGregor’s ‘We Wave and Call’

Alice Munro’s ‘Some Women’

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