“How The Short Story?” Gerard Woodward says “…it starts with memory”

Gerard Woodward has an instinct for the kind of brimmingly charged image that short stories depend on…” says The Guardian. As part of our ongoing Conversation Among Writers, Gerard takes on the question: “How The Short Story?”

Gerard: I think it starts with memory. In fact, I think everything starts with memory, even the present moment, even the future. When you think about it, there just isn’t anything else. The present moment is so infinitely small that it flashes by too quickly to comprehend, and we are left with the aftershock. We trail in the wake of the present moment, enjoying its ripples and savouring its breeze, while it hurries on ahead, always slightly out of reach. That’s how I feel about it, but perhaps I’m just slow-witted. Situated as I presently am, on the top of a skyscraper with a wonderful panorama of downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan visible through all-surrounding windows, I can feel wonderfully immersed in the present moment, but really it is just a blur of light and colour too vast to take in. If I do a drawing to try and capture it, by the time my pencil touches the paper, it is a memory. A very recent memory, but a memory all the same. What I’m trying to draw is not what is in front of my eyes, but what my mind has made of what is in front of my eyes. And the resulting drawing will be of a memory. Even more so, if I tried to write a poem or story about it.

So memory is where it starts. Recent or distant, something that happened just now, or something that happened forty seven years ago, (which is just about as far as my memory will stretch, on a good day). But that is only the beginning.

I should say that there are probably two other points of origin for stories, which are still memory-based, but at one step removed. That is – things we have been told, and things we have read. In a sense, the things we’ve been told, (and I include the deliberate tellings alongside the accidental tellings – that is, things we’ve overheard), are memories just as much as things we’ve experienced, but they belong in a category that could be called extended memory – the shared collective memory of people you know – friends and family, as well as strangers whose path you’ve crossed. Similarly, the things we’ve read (and I mean ‘read’ loosely to include everything kind of reading from ‘reading’ a painting or a movie, to listening to a song, along with the more conventional reading of newspapers, journals and – yes – short stories), are also things we remember, but perhaps belong in another slightly different category, you could call it archival memory – another form of extended memory that includes all the bits and pieces of things you’ve read and the other cultural jottings that you might, for instance, gather together in a notebook.

The notebook is important. Memory and extended memory offer a bewilderingly, near infinitely vast amount of potential subject matter. There can never be any excuse for not having anything to write about – writers’ block is just a kind of narcolepsy brought on by an inability to deal with the vastness of one’s extended memory, either through fatigue, lethargy or depression. It is vital to have a way of sifting and sorting and capturing the material that is floating around in the extended memory. Relying on ‘mental notes’ is not enough. I know that, no matter how good an idea occurs to me, if I don’t jot it down within ten minutes, it’ll almost certainly be lost for ever. It may come to the surface again in ten years time, but on that occasion I might not notice its story potential. Its qualities might no longer resonate with the self in the way it did ten years ago. There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes an idea will present itself so strongly that I couldn’t forget it if I wanted to, and stays at the top of my thoughts for days on end, and in fact won’t go away until I’ve written it down somewhere. Then one has a wonderful feeling, that in a notebook somewhere (as long as I can find it) is an idea so strong that, when I go back to it, I’ll be taken over and be in the grip of a narrative so potent that it will almost ‘write itself’ as they say. (It’s an annoying term, because stories definitely never write themselves).

So I’ve said where I think ideas come from, but the other question is what makes those ideas special – what sort of memories make their way into the notebook as potential stories?

Often the starting point is a dilemma or problem. What would happen if someone fired arrows at you in the open street? What would happen if someone stole your caravan while you were alseep inside? What would happen if your ex-partner set fire to themselves in your front garden? I would then start building characters around this idea, then places for it to happen, and so on. The story then would take this central problem and play with it – I very rarely have any idea, when I start writing, of where it will go or what the ending will be. Sometimes it will go nowhere, no matter how hard I push it or how many different turns I take. In which case it is put aside (never thrown away) to puzzle over later, or maybe never to see the light of day again. But with practise I think you develop a way of identifying ideas that could be good stories – and that ability to identify is one of the crucial skills – similar to the stereotypical idea of the journalist having a good nose for a news story. And it’s a very personal thing. Something in the dilemma or problem interests you for personal reasons, they resonate with you, you feel all sorts of other experiences and memories pinging off one another when you think about it.

Finally, the idea of whether you are using the story or the story is using you, is an interesting one. The thing about memory is you have very limited control over it. You do not choose what to remember, and you do not choose what to forget. Sadly, we tend to forget pleasant experiences while bad experiences stay fixed in the mind. I suppose if the opposite were true then all the world’s problems would end instantly. Though probably not – there are good evolutionary reasons for remembering the bad (it reminds us not to repeat mistakes, it helps us readjust our concept of ourselves and perhaps be nicer to people). If humanity could only remember good things it would soon die out (from forgetting that fire was dangerous, for instance). However, this lack of choice in what stays in our minds is crucial when we think about what subjects drive us to write about them. Some subjects do choose themselves – or that’s what it feels like anyway. We might resist (for various reasons – perhaps because we just don’t want to go there, or because we might write about things that will offend or upset people we love), but should we? I’d say no. As long as you are not setting out to deliberately hurt, insult or defame (in which case you probably deserve to be under some sort of restraining order), you should follow the subject wherever it takes you, and bear the consequences with gritted teeth.

But this is just the very beginning of the process, before one even puts pen to paper (or finger to key). What happens after that is rather more complicated, and perhaps should be left for another time.

→More responses to come from Vanessa Gebbie, Dennis McFadden, and me, as well as the results from the Favorite Short Story Survey. Yeah, I know I said that I would have published those results by now, but I keep getting new answers from very smart readers. Soon, I promise…←

One Reply to ““How The Short Story?” Gerard Woodward says “…it starts with memory””

  1. Fascinating post. Really made me think, as this terrific conversation is doing in spades.

    I wonder what other words there are for ‘memory’, in the context of ‘that place from whence the seeds of both inspiration and impetus to write’ come from? Accumulated experience over a lifetime? Learned responses, Pavlovian, to life? Something buried, not as clear as actual memory, stirred by that something seen, something overheard, a jangling juxtaposition that ‘means something’ but we don’t know what so we have to find out?

    I don’t think we ‘forget’ much. It just sinks out of sight. Perhaps it all ends up in our bones. Literally. And in our obsessions.

    Good luck for the STA.

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