Anatomy of a short story: Part II – Concept

crocuses in the snow

We’re all part id, part super-ego and part ego: we’re all sometimes ‘me’, sometimes ‘we’ and sometimes ‘I’. So I decided that my story would consist of three parts.

It begins with ‘me’: with the id.

The main character (who remains unnamed) lies in bed, in the first stages of wakefulness, suspended between the worlds of sleep and waking. This is a realm controlled by the id.

The world outside my window is alive with wild little sounds in the early-morning, when humans are still in bed and fantastic creatures can creep through the dew, safe from prying eyes in the dazzle of the white, new-born light.

My senses stretch out until my shadows goes creeping away under the light from the window, then down and down the small, dark space behind the drainpipe to touch the salamander, basking in the fire of the light on the edge of the wall, where the red peony and the marigold will soon be an inferno.

And now my shadow throws itself huge and wide against the wall, reveling for a moment in the light, then surging upwards, returning to me: racing back up in the cool, sweet shadow under the drainpipe and in through the window to join me, lying languid in the sheets.

The reference to the shadow is a nod towards Forbidden Planet, while the focus on magical creatures hints at The Tempest and Caliban’s control over the natural world.

The technical challenge here is to write using only the pronoun ‘me’ (with the related possessive ‘my’) to refer to the main character, never ‘I’. It’s harder than you’d think: not quite a task for members of the Oulipo school but edging that way. (The Oulipo school, in case you’re wondering [and I would be too if my PhD supervisor hadn’t been an Oulipo enthusiast], is a group of writers and thinkers who believe that creativity is set free by constraints. So, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, they consider it a Good Idea to write books without using the letter ‘e’. While I admire and applaud their puzzle-solving ingenuity, I can’t help feeling there are bigger and better issues for a writer to worry about. But each to their own.)

So, back to the story… Next, the bedroom door comes flying open and in rush the kids and suddenly the narrative voice adopts the pronoun ‘we’ (with the related possessive ‘our). The children, and their father, are sometimes ‘he’ and ‘she’ and ‘they’ (and even ‘I’ when they speak), but the narrator is never ‘I’ or ‘me’.

Half an hour later, we’re in the kitchen, spilling orange juice and dropping egg yolk on pyjamas and arguing over who’ll get the last of the strawberry jam, and yawning and wondering where all the hours of the night went and how morning has come so quickly.

… Before that, we have to brush our teeth and our hair and get dressed, and clean up the kitchen and stack the dishes and feed the cat and pick up the stuff strewn all over the family room. And it’s ‘Did we manage to get petrol yesterday, darling?’ and ‘Mummy, I can’t find my hat!’ and ‘Mummy, can you fix this?’ and the cat yowling as it winds around our ankles, neglected in the rush.

Sometimes I use the pronoun ‘it’ (mostly in the form of it’s = it is) to disengage what is being done from the characters, almost as if things are happening of their own accord: the washing up ‘gets done’ (passive voice) rather than ‘Mummy does the washing up’. This hints at the fact that the use of ‘we’ is (at least sometimes) ironic: ‘Did we manage to get petrol yesterday, darling?’ This is a theme that becomes more prominent as the story continues.

We spend lunch flinging peas about the kitchen, watching them bounce off cabinets and roll behind the toaster while we’re trying to remember where they’ve all gone so we can fish them out afterwards, before they end up squished and mouldering and sprouting blue toadstools behind the tea-tin.

The middle section of the story (the ‘we’ section) is a bit too long but I don’t yet have the distance from writing the story to make the necessary cuts. I’m happy with the writing, but the point being made is be-laboured: there is too much detail. Some is necessary to the story, but not all. Hopefully the odd hints of humour help to leaven the heaviness of the flab that I’ve yet to cut away.

However, to put this in context, the whole story is just over 1900 words: 525 for the ‘me’ section, followed by 1030 for the ‘we’ section, ending with ‘350’ for the ‘I’ section. The balance is probably right, give or take, as I’ll discuss below.

One of the reasons that the middle section is (relatively) long, not to mention dense and breathless, with long run-on sentences, is that it’s intended to catalogue the enormous number of big and small tasks that the woman accomplishes, all the time referring to her actions in caring for her family as being performed as a group: as ‘we’. Touches of humour (or at least attempted humour) interject a note of wry self-deprecation to (try to) enhance the impact of the irony implicit in her use of ‘we’: it’s not that the woman is unaware that she’s the one doing all the work, but she doesn’t see herself as a martyr and she’s certainly not sorry for herself. This is just the way it is in families sometimes. There’s sometimes a degree of frustration (and quite a bit of tiredness) but the emphasis is on the fact that she’s too busy (and not necessarily unhappy about it) to dwell on the fact that her needs are all phrased as ‘we’ but those of the rest of the family are often expressed individually.

About two-thirds of the way through the long ‘we’ section – just when this part might seem to be getting too long, too ‘same-y’ – I drop a hint of the tension that will propel the story towards its climax.

But, oh, there are crocuses out in the garden. Snowdrops under the hedges. But we’re hunting for jackets and scarves and hats discarded by our visitors instead of going out to look.

This is the first real sign that the main character’s wishes diverge from those of the rest of the family. Here, she speaks to the reader in a voice that might as well adopt the pronoun ‘I’. Then the story dives back into the ‘we’ narrative until the day finally draws to a close. The children go to bed. Their father retreats to his study.

And there I am in the kitchen, with the washing machine rattling against the cabinet and the water slopping around inside as if to say ‘Shh, shh, shhhh!’ and it’s dark, all dark, outside in the garden. I press my face to the glass but the snowdrops don’t glow in the moonlight.

Alone for the first time since the children threw her into full wakefulness (thus ending the ‘me’ section at the beginning of the story), the woman can disentangle her view of the world from that of the other members of her family. And instead of sitting down and whinging quietly to herself about how put upon she is (and what a drip we’d think her if she did), she slips into her husband’s wellies, grabs a torch and giggles her way down the garden path in the dark to look at the crocuses. Here is a woman who may often be caught up in looking after others, but she’s got no lack of self-determination: no lack of drive to fulfill her own desires when time and space allow. When she falls into the ‘we’ of the middle section of the story, we can now see this as a choice: it may be an altruistic one, but it’s no less what she wants for that.

… and there, in the harsh white light, are the snowdrops and the crocuses… But, oh, they look so wet and sorry for themselves as they cower away from the light: it strips away the depth of their colours and flattens their shapes so they look drab as rotting fabric listing out of plastic stems and calyxes.

The story ends with a reflection on the fact that perhaps just a little more balance is needed in her life. It’s not that the woman feels that being part of a ‘we’ is a problem or that she wants more ‘me’ time, only that there’s not quite enough of the ‘I’ in her life: that bridge between the ‘we’ and ‘me’, between altruism and selfishness. Hence the title of the story: ‘Somewhere In Between’.

And there we go. From theme to concept to smaller choices about structure and shape, and from tension to technical issues and word choice, that’s how I set about writing this story.

If you’re still with me and would like to read it… please watch this space! Or, if you’re feeling helpful, perhaps you’d consider commenting with some suggestions about magazines or journals that might publish it…

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