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SHORT STORY COMPETITION
Try these ideas to revitalise a story you’re not satisfied with:
■ Give your main protagonist a makeover by changing their religion, political persuasion, body weight, age, day job...
■ Broaden a character’s personality by giving them a surprising or paradoxical hobby (lap-dancing, bread-baking, stamp-collecting...). Consider using ideas, terminology and images from the hobby to add a further layer to your description
■ Treat your existing story as a prequel or sequel to the even more compelling story you are really going to write. Use the same scenario and characters, but propel them forwards or backwards in time
Devised by Margaret Wilkinson
◊ Closing date: 18 March 2013
◊ Enter the competition
Rachel Cusk introduces her selection of narrative nonfiction
It takes a particular kind of courage to write memoir. All writing – all creativity – involves self-exposure, but in memoir the exposure is twofold. The self is both subject and author, and as authors we are duty-bound to treat our subjects with the greatest possible objectivity. Is it possible, or even desirable, to be truly objective about oneself? And what value does that objectivity, if achieved, have for the reader?
Exposure invites judgement, and about this, too, the memoirist has to be brave. If objectivity is her goal, she may be obliged to show herself in an unflattering light. A willingness to do this is sometimes given the morally ambiguous name of ‘honesty’, but in fact it is more than that. Being honest involves the systematic disclosure of what one personally feels or knows: that disclosure, while true on some level, remains a subjective kind of truth. It is, as we know, not always kind or helpful – not always right – to be merely honest. The memoirist has to make it her goal to attain something beyond personal honesty, to represent something – using herself as the template – that is true not just for her but for everyone.
In this sense, writing memoir is not the ‘easy’ option it is sometimes held out to be. A good piece of memoir writing uses the techniques of fiction to represent that most mysterious and complex thing: individuality. A good memoir does not simply say, ‘this is what it is like to be me’; it expresses the notion of selfhood itself, evokes the foundational condition of being, which is to be one autonomous entity among others. Those others, and the world they occupy, must be shown just as clearly as they are in a novel; places, objects, rooms and landscapes must be just as intricately described; the human drama must be enacted, only with the author as one of the actors. And the end result must be that the reader, taking it in, knows not just what it is like to be the author but what it is like, in fact, to be alive.
There’s an argument, then, for saying that memoir is the hardest kind of writing to get right; and the hardest, too, to produce, because the material that goes in to memoir is often of a very pressing personal kind. One writes memoir out of a desire to dispense with artifice, because the things one wishes to relate are too real to camouflage as fiction. There is a part of human nature that relishes stories, but there is another part that recognises the irreducibility of true facts. Very often these facts relate to trauma of some kind: when reality is at its most urgent, the flight into fiction becomes impossible. This urgency is the effort of the self to understand what is happening to it, and as such, the spectrum of what I have called trauma becomes very broad. Many of the pieces submitted in this genre detail the anxiety attendant on certain life events and on certain phases – particularly childhood – in which great portions of the world remain shrouded in mystery. Sometimes this anxiety can be recollected with composure, sometimes not; but in either case, the author’s task lies in making what was very real to her equally real to the reader.
It follows that the more personal that experience of reality was, the more difficult it is to externalise it. This, again, is why memoir is hard to write well. The best submissions were those whose authors were able to make the ‘world’ of their recollections real; to describe its objects, its atmosphere, its characters in ways that made them recognisably true. To do this requires great self-discipline, for it involves containing the very feelings that have asked the memoir to be written. In order to describe herself, in other words, the author first has to describe what is not herself, to create touchstones in a shared reality, to give the reader something to recognise. The writer has to demonstrate her objectivity before her subjective world can be believed in. And this is how a piece of autobiographical writing moves from being simply honest to being true.
Given the great difficulty of achieving all or even some of those provisos, the standard of submissions was startlingly high. As someone who has judged a number of literary prizes, I found more to interest me and move me and impress me in these pieces of writing than I often have in the boxes-full of published novels I am sent on such occasions. As I read through them, the sound of the contemporary female voice got clearer and clearer: candid, often radical, alive to human bonds and tensions and with an undiminished sense of what constitutes the feminine experience in our world; yet at the same time rigorous and self-disciplined in its apprehension and grasp of form. This quality of rigour – one could almost call it a kind of disinterestedness – is what struck me most forcefully, for the reason that women’s writing, and most particularly women’s autobiographical writing, has always been so vulnerable to the accusation of subjectivity. There has been a sense that women, when they write, write about ‘their’ world rather than ‘the’ world; and in these true and brave stories, again and again I was brought up short by the feeling that this distinction was being elided before my eyes.
It was hard to single out a handful of pieces from this fascinating, poignant and often hard-hitting array. What distinguished the chosen writers was indeed their ability to render the concrete world – the fact, the object, the social milieux – with exceptional particularity and precision. It is this particularity, this labour of rendering what is objective and exterior, that defends the emotional core of memoir-writing. These writers make themselves invulnerable by surrounding their subjective experience with a fortress of hard fact.
In ‘Please forgive me, Mr Frankson’ by Ronne Randall, the story of a child’s first experience of guilt and fear of punishment is transformed into something beguiling, funny and smart by the portrait of Jewish family life that frames it. A young woman’s discovery that men are predators rather than protectors is brilliantly evoked in ‘Trying to get myself raped and murdered’ by Paula McGrath, an account of her experience tending bar in an oil field worked by Samoan labourers. In Lisa Matthews’ piece, ‘A tiny kind of meanness’, a small girl’s perception of marital discord is concretised through a succession of palpable objects, from her grandmother’s collection of wigs to a heavy pair of scissors, that symbolise and broker the child’s perception of adult mysteries. All three of these pieces are rich and affecting elaborations of the personal into the universal, and I salute their authors.
But there were others that deserved recognition too: ‘Skipworth Street’s Bonfire Night’ by Sindi Fiona Gordon, a fresh and vibrant evocation of childhood with all its subtle tensions, along with more brutal experiences of regionalism, gender, colour and social class; ‘Something beautiful’ by R E Matthews, a subtle exploration of mid-life with its compromises and occasionally bruising revelations; and Heidi James’ ‘Party’, a vivid and angry account of alienation, self-realisation and despair.
I came away from them with the picture of the modern female writer as strong, unafraid of reality or of naming her place in it. To be a woman writer remains a radical identity: it is good to know there are so many of you out there willing to take up that challenge.
RACHEL CUSK is the author of seven novels: Saving Agnes (winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award), The Temporary, The Country Life (winner of a Somerset Maugham Award), The Lucky Ones (shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel Award), In the Fold, Arlington Park (shortlisted for the Orange Prize) and The Bradshaw Variations. In 2003 she was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young Novelists. Her nonfiction books are A Life’s Work, The Last Supper – and Aftermath, a searing memoir chronicling the breakdown of her marriage. She teaches creative writing at Kingston University in London.
All the stories and poems mentioned are published in the current issue of Mslexia. To read New Writing in full subscribe now.
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