Autofiction

Autofiction, perhaps better called autobiographical fiction, has become a genre of writing in vogue. The term was coined in 1977 but the genre is much older. It is fictionalised autobiography, a piece of fiction that draws heavily on the life of the author. It is often written in the first person but can also use the third person. The author him or herself can be the named protagonist or this can be a made up term.

Arguably all writing is autobiographical to some extent. Draws on experience and memory, things learnt and recognised influences. But also unconscious or taken for granted ideas and attitudes and the doxa of the day, within a culture, a social group and a time what in nature and society seems self-evident. So fiction is a mixture of the sociological and the personal, a product of the intersection of the life of the writer with the historical and cultural context of their lives.

I carry within and on the surface of my body the marks of my biography – scars from accidents, infirmities the developing result of those accidents as well as life-style choices, a psychology the culmination, so far, of influences and education, a self-identity shaped by a history of experiences, roles played, groups and social networks belonged to. The result is a person who at any one stage of their life is a sort of collage, a gallimaufry, of multi-person. What I like about the metaphorical notion that a person is like a palimpsest, a document that bears the traces of past writings, is that in a person is in some respects a series of emergent layers. Each of us is like a Russian doll where within us there are earlier versions of our selves – child, teenager, young adult, married person, and so on.

A palimpsest can be a piece of material that has had several unrelated texts written on it. The only thread that runs through the existence of the material is itself and the changing cultural context of the various otherwise unrelated texts that it has had layered upon it. A palimpsest can also have had texts written upon it that are related sequentially, perhaps revisions of the same narrative, or at least influenced and shaped by earlier accounts. It is palimpsest of this type, ghostly stories still existing in the current version, that I see as a metaphor for a life.

If it is the case that all fictional writing draws in some way upon the biography of the writer in that it draws on experience, memory, influences on self identity, attitudes and beliefs – the taken for granted aspects of the world as well as those consciously deliberated and reflected upon – than all writing is a product of the palimpsest that is the author. It is autofiction.

Drawn from life: why have novelists stopped making things up? [A Guardian article]. “Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Edward St Aubyn – authors are using their own life stories in their fiction. Does the boom in autofiction spell the end of the novel”?

Novella-in-flash

New class has started. It is the sister course to the one I’ve done already but is longer established with a more experienced group many of whom are published writers. Unlike the previous course each tutor led session is interspersed with a self-managed session led by one of the more experienced members. This extends the course from 7 to 11 weeks.

One of the topics we will be covering is the writing of a novella-in-flash. I’ve not heard of this before but this article explains it pretty well. It looks as if it will be a format that suites me.

Michael Loveday: Novella-in-Flash 2020 Judge

A flash fiction novella, or novella-in-flash, may be a similar page-length to a novella and generally includes similar features such as a central character (or group of characters), and a sense of story or ‘narrative arc’. But the crucial difference is that the novella-in-flash is broken up into stand-alone sections, each generally functioning as an individual flash fiction – up to the 750 or 1,000 word length that is the typical ceiling for flash fiction, though sometimes as short as only few lines, depending on the type of story.

Each of the novella-in-flash’s stand-alone sections can be a ‘beginning-afresh’ – a new moment in the story, one that’s not necessarily picking up directly from where the previous chapter left off, not in that ‘continuous’ style one gets in traditional fiction. So the novella-in-flash’s sections may restart each time with a different situation, different narrative moment, a different character, or different physical location, say. Often, at the ending of each individual piece, there’s what I call a ‘resonating space’ – some unspoken invitation to pause, reflect and re-read or re-consider. This is exactly as usually happens at end of a one-off flash fiction or with any short story, in fact; but the difference with the novella-in-flash is that overall the individual scenes and moments (and gaps) accumulate into something bigger, something with a suggestion of a single cohesive picture. You can think of it as a process of tapestry and linkage (for both writer and reader), in enabling the individual flash fictions to add up to a whole, even though they can stand on their own too.

The Poet’s Revolt: A Brief Guide to the Prose Poem

When I restart the creative writing class this September I will be joining the advanced group. The first session will be on prose poetry in preparation for those that want to enter a poem for National Poetry Day, Thursday 3 October 2019. The theme this year will be Truth, appropriate I think in what has been called our post-truth age. I’m not that interested in writing poetry although I read and admire the work of some poets. However, I’m tempted by prose poetry as I think the discipline and techniques are invaluable for prose writing generally. The following link is to an article that defines it and gives some useful examples.

This is another useful link that makes some of the same points

The Prose Poem

Michael Borrowdale

I’m currently re-reading The Sea, The Sea, the 1978 Booker winner, Iris Murdoch’s 19th novel. I read it over 40 years ago! Since my recently completed creative writing course I now recognise that it is written entirely in the first person. I’ve written a short piece in this style, below, to see how it goes. It occurred to me as I wrote it that as an exercise and the freedom my chosen story line gives me I could use it as a vehicle to write about all sorts of things however rambling. It could make a valuable compliment to the other exercise I’m doing, a growing document with 15 to 30 minutes random writing in it every day, whenever practicable. This is now 82 pages and 63,000 words long. I’ve been doing this for nearly 4 months and have accumulated over 100 short pieces of random writings some of which have already proven to be a useful resource.


My name is Michael Borrowdale and I am a recovering sociologist. There is more I could, and will, tell about myself but I’m not sure how much and in any case how interesting anyone would find it. This is the first paragraph of a journal, maybe a diary, perhaps a memoir, I really don’t know at the moment. I will be writing this as a record of some sort and no doubt time will tell if it eventually fits any particular confessional or revelatory genre. For the moment it is enough that I write if not regularly at least frequently.

Perhaps a good start would be if I described my surroundings. I’ve been in this house for about two weeks now. It has taken this long to settle in and get some sort of organisation. I have always been a city dweller and the rural location I have chosen to retire to is very different to what I’m used to. The house is detached and quite old, built in the mid-1800s, once a terrace of three cramped farm workers’ cottages but long ago knocked into one to make it a family home. The front of the house, on the northern side of a shallow valley, looks across a landscape of fields and the wooded slopes of distant hills. The remnants of the ancient drystone walls that divide the landscape into irregular oblongs are largely in disrepair, of varying heights where the top courses have collapsed and spread the stones to either side. At a couple of intersections can be seen stone barns, long disused and roofless. In the distance a few other inhabited houses are dotted about, none with close neighbours and none nearer than two miles or so. Behind the house, again wooded slopes but now bearing down more closely, keeping the back of the house in shade for most of the winter. It is mid-summer now and when the sun is up and visible some sunlight penetrates the gloom behind the house in the longer evenings. For this reason, and the view, I intend to live mainly in the front rooms overlooking the broad valley.

I’ll save describing the internal layout of the house for another time. As I said, I have no immediate neighbours. Most of the land I overlook is either over grown and fallow or, further away, used for grazing cows. The nearest village is three miles away and I have visited it three times so far, once on foot, once on my bike whilst exploring the area, and once passing through in my car on the way to the nearest supermarket, ten miles away in what just about qualifies as a small town. There is very little in the village – a small general grocery of irregular hours run by an elderly dame from a back room, a pub that doesn’t serve food and a church that was clearly built to serve a much larger community than it does now. The total population is probably no more than a hundred souls or so and the monthly services are no doubt sufficient. I won’t be joining the congregation. There is no school or post office so a trip to the town is required for either of these facilities. There is however a small post box built into the church perimeter wall next to the lychgate, two collections a week.

It’s a lovely evening, warm with a gentle south-westerly breeze, a clear pale blue sky shading to a deepening purple in the east, a few strung out clouds, cirrus perhaps but some are like a row of small balls of cotton wool, above the distant hills. In front of the house there is a good sized rather overgrown terraced garden, unfenced to the view, with a paved patio area partly shaded by a vine and clematis covered pergola. I’m not a gardener so I made need to get some help with this. The patio has a rusting barbeque in one corner and a few equally neglected iron round seated chairs and a small matching table. These will go and be replaced by something more comfortable. The first small terrace below the patio, there are three levels, has a broken-down picnic table of the sort found in beer gardens. This will be broken up for firewood and replaced with a canopied swing seat of some sort. I will finish writing for the moment and go and sit out with a glass of wine, I think a large sauvignon blanc on this occasion, and watch the shadows lengthen into dusk. Why I’m here and what my intentions are will be a topic for another day

The Art of Memory

We were sitting in an Indian restaurant in Brighton. The party was split over two tables as there was not room for all 18 to sit at one. The parents, grandparents and children sat at the larger one at right-angles and a few feet away from the smaller table, just 6 of us; Julia and I, our old friends Robin and Lesley, and two of Lesley’s friends from her time years before in Brighton, Phil and Richard. The poppadoms and chutneys had been consumed along with the first glasses of wine and we had settled in for what looked like it would be a long wait for our meals. There was no hurry and the early conversation was about how Lesley had got to know them. Phil had been a teacher in the same school as her and Richard had worked with Lesley’s daughter Judy. Like Judy but sometime later, he had moved to Hong Kong to work there for a few years before bringing his family home to Brighton to take up a headship there.

The conversation inevitably got round to writing as I, Phil Lesley and Robin had all been involved one way or another with creative writing – Lesley had written stories, Robin a family memoir, Phil a variety of things including scripts for his stand-up comedian gigs and I had just embarked on a creative writing course as a retirement project. We were talking about the inspirations for writing and I told about how on the course we were doing a series of exercises that were designed to unlock our creative potential and help us get writing.

One of the exercises had asked us to take a memory, however brief and fragmentary, from childhood and develop it into a short story, very short as we were limited to 350 words to be read at the next class. It didn’t have to be true account and the story could be entirely fictitious. The memory was just the seed on which to build the narrative. I have very few memories of childhood, even up to the age of 12 or 13 but I found that any memory, however isolated and devoid of context was enough to start an imaginative basis for an account of a time, a place, and event. What surprised and pleased me is that although I expected to develop a piece of fiction the process seemed to expand the memory in a way that was plausible, even authentic. Aspects of the time, the place and the event seemed to emerge almost unbidden and I recognised them as real. Robin found something similar when writing his memoir. In writing his own memories down in the early stages of his project he, like me, found that other memories came to mind as if they were there all the time but needed the focus of writing to dig them up.

I compared this to the theory that every experience, emotion, thought we had ever had was somewhere in the depths of our unconscious, like the layers of silt and debris that accumulates over the years at the bottom of a pond. The few memories we have later in life, when reflected upon with a conscious effort but without the shackle of trying to remember exactly and objectively what happened, in other words as a sort of reverie, act as a stick that stirs the silt and lets long ago sedimented material come to the surface, first appearing as dark imprecise objects in the middle depths where a little light gets through and gradually coming into clearer focus, more detail and colour, as they rise into the full light of consciousness. Or as if the agitation of reflecting on the fragmentary memory on the surface creates an eddy that stirs the murkier depths and allows some of the debris of the unconscious to detach itself and float nearer to the surface.

It is a similar process to the strategy I used when revising for exams at University. I used to take copious lecture notes, often two sides of A4 per lecture. For revision I would condense each lecture through several stages until I had about 5 or 6 phrases for each one, each topic. When sitting the exam and writing brief plans for the questions I had chosen I found by concentrating on the appropriate phrases I could almost reverse the revision process and remember the entire content of the corresponding lecture. Thinking of the phrases helped me consciously access the original lecture notes which, given my revision had taken place over about two weeks, were not that far from the surface anyway.

Childhood experiences in my case are 60 years ago and I have very few equivalents of the phrases that in the exam that helped the near total recall of what the phrases linked to. Reconstructing childhood experiences on the basis of fragmentary memories 60 years later will inevitably be less reliable and require a deal more of imagination, speculation and creativity. None-the-less it seems to be working for me.

The Eulogy

At our last creative writing class we were asked to read a ‘performance’ piece in the allotted 5 minutes. Our tutor encourages us to take part in open mic reading nights but these seem to be mainly for poetry which is not the focus of what I’m trying to do at the moment. This may change of course.

I wrote a piece of prose about a son reluctantly giving a eulogy for his estranged father. The gist of the piece is that he recognised that the expectation is that it should be a positive and sympathetic picture of the deceased – never speak ill of the dead. On the other hand he had had a difficult relationship with his father and a positive eulogy would be mostly a fabrication. Should he tell the truth about his father? Although the piece hinted at what the truth would be when he came to deliver the eulogy he did what was expected and did not tell the truth.

Julia, my wife, suggested I should have written the story with the son telling the truth. This would have been much more interesting and much more fun. When I read it out it got a good reaction from the class but I think it would have got a better one if the son had told the truth. I have rewritten the piece as Julia suggested and it is much better.

The 5 minutes allowed meant that it could only be about 800 to 1000 words so not a lot of scope to develop it. I didn’t post the whole thing to Facebook as I had with the more lighthearted and shorter The Great Mystico but I did describe the piece and how I had been prompted to rewrite it. The post got a number of comments and suggestions and it is clear there would be mileage in this to extend it into a short story. If the opportunity arises I may give this a go. At least I will develop a more detailed outline and probably post it here.

At the moment I’m thinking of having the son give the positive sanitised eulogy but at the same time conducting in his head a critique with what he was reading and how it differed from what an alternative true account would have been. As this develops he comes to see that his true account was perhaps not doing his father justice and that there were warranted reasons for recognising his father had virtues and that many difficulties in his childhood and in the family were not under the control of his parents. It could be argued they had done their best in difficult circumstances, in fact prevailed against the odds. In the end he finishes the eulogy with much less a feeling of cynicism and bad faith and re-evaluates his father, his relationship with him and his childhood. He had come to realise that his unthinking hostility was very much still the child’s reaction and in his mature years he could and should have the experience, detachment and wisdom to see things differently, in a broader perspective and recognise the ambiguities and uncertainties in life and the frailty of men and women confronted with circumstances not of their own choosing or even understanding. The Owl of Minerva, and so on….

Prose poetry

This was a group exercise to try and list the main characteristics of poetry as a form of writing. This is what we came up with.

It is structured visually on the page
– pattern, shape, lineation, syllable count
– structure, e.g. line endings, used as pseudo punctuation

Stylised use of language
– rhythm, alliteration
– rhyme not necessary but often partial rhymes
– repetition and chorus

Condensation
– multiple layers of meanings, ambiguity, use of metaphors, imagery and associations, innuendo, suggestion, subliminal

Rules, fixed forms
Often emotional and abstract content – passion, a message
Allegory
Alternative syntax and punctuation – often linking words and articles left out.

After this exercise we were given a prose poem by Amy Lowell. We were asked to make a list of the characteristic attributes of a poem that were left out and therefore made it a prose poem rather than just a poem. We were then asked to take the prose poem and rewrite it as a conventional poem sticking to the content and feel of the text as much as possible.

Bath

The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air.
       The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and bores through the water in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It cleaves the water into flaws like a jewel, and cracks it to bright light.
       Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot and the planes of light in the water jar. I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The day is almost too bright to bear, the green water covers me from the too bright day. I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots. The sky is blue and high. A crow flaps by the window, and there is a whiff of tulips and narcissus in the air.

Amy Lowell, “Bath” from The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell. Copyright © 1955 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

The Great Mystico

This was a writing class exercise where we were given 10 words that had to be used in the text – bit, draw, flex, perilous, bubble, corner, rancid, pound, high, open. As this was to be read out in class we were restricted to 350 words although this piece was a little over at 367.


Arthur Dodds sat slumped in a grubby armchair in the corner of his dressing room, nursing a glass of whisky, contemplating his fate. How had he come to this, an ageing stage magician in a fourth-rate northern club? Raising the glass he glimpsed his thin sallow face in the mirror, the surrounding frieze of naked bulbs giving him a corpse-like pallor. A short bitter laugh. He was going to die on stage so he may as look the part. The sweaty air was thick with the rancid smell of old makeup and cigarettes. A nicotine grimed fan hung on a frayed flex.

Tonight he had no assistant. She’d texted him to say she’d had enough of posing and pouting and wiggling her bum to distract his audience. His female assistants were how he got away with his clumsy clichéd illusions though they were tame fare compared to the strippers who were the main draw. Early in his career he’d included knife throwing in the act. Working for him then had been a perilous affair but he did get bigger audiences when word got round he was only a fairly accurate knife thrower. Another swig of whisky and another grim chuckle. After two A&E visits his brief bubble of success burst and he gave up the knife throwing.

He’d continued to pound the circuit but bookings were scarce. He’d tried to build a bit of a comedy routine into his act hoping it would open the door to becoming a resident comedian and compere. He’d been given a trial at a particularly seedy club but he had to change in the gents and buy his own drinks. As markers of status you couldn’t get much lower but, in any case, he wasn’t offered a second chance.

He lifted the bottle to his lips and drained it. He’d made up his mind. This would be his last performance. As he hadn’t got a flimsily clad girl to hide his clumsy incompetence, he would do it himself. He would strip to the buff and wiggle his own scrawny bum at the indifferent crowd. And so would end his long lacklustre career. At least he would go out on a high.

A valley through time

For a year now he had been walking the tow path and exploring the Aire Valley between Apperley Bridge and Kirkstall, a 5 mile stretch of woodland, fields, river, canal and railway. It was part of his physical and mental recovery after the accident that nearly ended his life. While on these walks he found himself reflecting on the fragility of life and the passing of time, his life and what time he had left that he so nearly lost.

Over the months he witnessed the cycles of birth, death and regeneration. Walking through the fragments of the industrial landscape, he imagined himself as a time traveller, moving through the multi-layered history of the valley. As winter brightens into spring the trees come into leaf, the dappled woodland changes colour, the vivid hues of the blue bells and the brilliant white of the wild garlic. On the canal, the arrival of ducklings, cygnets and goslings, frantically following their seemingly unconcerned parents. As the weather warms, at the weekends the dog and child walkers come out in force, as do the joggers and cyclists. The herons reappear, a figure in still life on the riverbank living in its moment or flapping lazily along the canal to take up its sentinel station at the tumbling weir.

Millenia ago there would only have been the river and pack horse trails, then turn pikes followed by the canal two and a half centuries ago and 100 years later the railway. The towpath would have been the domain of horses towing the barges full of coal, grain and limestone rather than for recreation. The medieval woods below Calverley now hide long disused quarries and the overgrown remains of a prisoner of war camp and, nearby, the ruins of a fire work factory that exploded with tragic loss of life. He pictured the bustling camps of the itinerant workmen, the navvies digging the canal and later the railway construction gangs.  He imagined the sounds of their voices and the percussion of their labour floating and echoing across the wooded slopes. Now the hum of distant traffic provides the constant background to his walks through time.

14th May 2019

Class exercises

I have started a seven week creative wring course with the Workers Education Association (WEA). Every week the first half of our two hour class is reading out last week’s homework. The second half, after a short break, is usually a writing exercise, sometimes individually and sometimes in small groups, that is preparation for the this week’s homework. Although not my first choice I find the poetry work quite interesting and useful as it involves, in modern prose poetry anyway, an economy of expression and a concern with rhythm, useful for any sort of writing. Some posts here will be the text of some of the exercises. Others will be descriptions of some of the workshop sessions.

As an example, the next post, The Great Mystico, is an exercise where we had to write a piece 350 words long that must include 10 given words. The required words were: bit, draw, flex, perilous, bubble, corner, rancid, pound, high, open.