FEELING UNENTITLED

There’s usually an “aha” moment when you find the right title for a story, or it finds you.

With “Repossession”, which appears in the latest issue of The Lonely Crowd (a bumper issue of the Welsh journal celebrating five years in existence ) this moment never came, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s still a story in search of a title.

“Repossession” is about a middle-aged couple who buy their dream house at a knockdown price because it’s been repossessed from the previous owners by the bank. Shel, the wife, begins to suffer odd mental distrubances once they move in, which she suspects are linked to her scruples about benefitting from others’ misfortune, but the reader may not be so sure the two are linked.

Over numerous redrafts, the story’s title morphed into “Onset”, “Slippage”, “Drunkard’s Island”, and then with a kind of weary resignation, I went back to its original title, which by then had taken on the feel of a compromise. 

This was odd because it was this linguistic twinning that combines a ghostly haunting and property speculation in the same word – repossession – that prompted me to write the story in the first place. (Thankfully there’s no copyright on titles because as I was writing it, I discovered Lionel Shriver has a story of the same name in her collection of short stories, Property. Superstitiously, I haven’t read it.)

For some time, I had wanted to try my hand at a ghost story.  At the time of writing, I was teaching the ghost story genre to an undergraduate writing class and we had read Rose Tremain’s marvelously ambiguous story, ” Is Anybody There?” – a title that itself has echoes of that spooky poem of our childhood, The Listeners by Walter de La Mare.  (‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveler/Knocking on the moonlit door;)

Knocking is the portal to the uncanny in Tremain’s story too, which is from Tales from a Master’s Notebook. Stories Henry James Never Wrote. (Vintage Classics), a wonderfully varied compendium of short fiction from ten writers (including Colm Toibín, Amit Chaudhuri, Tessa Hadley and Joseph O’Neill) who were asked to trawl through the notebooks Henry James left behind after his death and choose one of his unused ideas as a starting point for a new fiction.  

James spent 30 years filling his notebooks with thoughts and story ideas, anecdotes from dinner-parties and newspapers, things noticed on his travels. which formed the “germs” of stories for the future. As the collection’s editor Philip Horne remarks, some of James’s ideas read like “a good Hollywood pitch” : –

Couple Asleep – Woken in Night – Husband Nervous – So Wife Goes Down – He Hears Voices – She Won’t tell Him What Happened.

Man Has been Brave By a Fluke – Lives in Terror of Having to be Brave Again.

Young Man in Mid-Western Industrial Town Fills his Room with French Culture – Refuses the Chance to Go There.

Betrayed Wife Must Have Affair to Get Revenge – Can’t.

Wife Has Long Affair – Husband Dies – They Can Marry – What’s the Problem?

Tremain’s “Is Anybody There?” is about two elderly women living side by side in a small English village, one of whom has a dark secret from childhood. When we discussed it in class, we realized how ambiguous the reality of the story is.  We weren’t sure if anything we’re told happens in the story actually does. We didn’t know who the secret belonged to – the narrator or the neighbour?  Was the story a means for the narrator to tell her own story? Were there even two women at all?  Was one the figment of the other’s imagination?

Something about that slipperiness went into “Repossession”, I hope. As readers we’re encouraged to view Shel as flakey because of how the world perceives her.  There are hints of some old trouble – substance abuse, a mental breakdown? Even her over-scrupulous conscience is considered suspect by her husband. But the real kernel of the story for me is the experience she describes shortly after having moved into the new house.

“. . . I woke early in the morning and had the strangest sensation of not knowing who I was, as if I didn’t recognize the inside of myself. You’ve no idea what an odd sensation it was, like a kind of unmooring, a slippage.  I had to get up quietly and tiptoe around the house to find a mirror.  I found one leaning against the wall in the spare bedroom. Once I saw my face, I knew of course.  It wasn’t like being lost, I knew where I was, I just needed my reflection to tell me who I was.”

My godmother, a woman in her 80s, described exactly this sensation to me shortly before she died.  She was of perfectly sound mind and I remember being struck by the existentialist panic of this moment for her – waking up and not knowing who she was.  The only way she could “come back to herself”, she told me, was by looking in the mirror.   

I remember taking a note of it.  Like Henry James, I have dozens of notebooks where ideas can fester for a long time, and often die from lack of writerly oxygen. This one sat there for eight years waiting for its story to come along, but my godmother’s experience haunted me and was something I revisited in my thoughts.  What would it be like not to “know” yourself?  And to be aware that you didn’t.

Which brings me back to the title conundrum. Here are the ones I discarded and why.

Calling the story “Onset” I thought might unfairly emphasize what is a singular experience in the story.  It would skew the reader’s expectation towards a narrative of dementia.  Shel’s “episode” might foreshadow further “unmoorings”, but equally, it might not.  I’m imagining many of us have experienced similar instances of momentary self-estrangement.

My second title option, “Slippage”, also radiated from this moment in the story. But as a title it has broader connotations. It suggests the general sense of displacement Shel experiences when she moves house – not only in terms of location, but in her grasp of time – for example at one point, history, or the fruits of her historical subconscious, opens up in front of her. But it seemed to me that this title depicted the story’s atmosphere rather than its content.

“Drunkard’s Island” is the name of a real place in west Limerick which I salted away in a notebook 30 years ago and have always wanted to use. The trouble is, as a title, it fails to signpost anything for the reader beyond, perhaps, exciting curiosity. (Not a bad quality in a title.) But it tells you nothing about the narrative, so I jettisoned it.

Unsatisfactory as it is, “Repossession” is probably the title that steers the reader least, and in a ghost story I think that’s important.  It’s a genre that thrives on uncertainty. This title does what it says on the tin; it’s a story about a house that’s been repossessed.

But still I wonder.  Is the perfect title for the story still out there somewhere?

You can read ‘Repossession’ in Five Years: Issue Twelve of The Lonely Crowd.

Igniting sparks

 

Where do stories come from?  Most of the time, superstitiously, we don’t ask. And usually, it’s hard to say, because the process is so chaotic when it’s happening, and in retrospect seems too random to catalogue.

But in the case of  my story, “Lockjaw”, which appears in the latest issue of The Lonely Crowd magazine, the genesis was very clear. (The crowd at Lonely asked me to write a piece about how I wrote the story, and this produced a kind of diary of its making.)

I teach creative writing at University College Cork and several years ago came across a classic writing exercise in American writer John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction. This was the brief: Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.

The aim is to write a passage that achieves effect by being indirect.  In other words, you know what you want to say and then very deliberately you don’t put it on the page.  It’s about restraint, about the power of leaving things out – a power on which the short story is built. The exercise is also about investing description with undeclared emotion.

The result, Gardner said, should be “a powerful and disturbing image, a faithful description of some apparently real barn but one from which the reader gets a sense of the father’s emotion; though exactly what that emotion is he may not be able to pin down. . . No amount of intellectual study can determine for the writer what details to include. If the description is to be effective, he must choose his boards, straw, pigeon manure, and ropes, the rhythms of his sentences, his angle of vision, by feeling and intuition. And one of the things he will discover, inevitably, is that the images of death and loss that come to him are not necessarily those we might expect.”

I don’t like to ask student writers to tackle exercises that I haven’t tried to do myself so I wrote along with them.  The description of the barn which appears in the opening of the story is almost word-for-word from the original exercise. I liked the way the prompt forced me to be inventive, made me use language to get around a narrative obstacle. Restriction can often be the mother of invention.

Because it produced a kind of density of description, I was loathe to let the piece sit there as a fragment and in time I developed it into a story breaking all of Gardner’s strictures in the end, since I go on to mention the son, the war and death.

Other threads in the story came in the usual magpie fashion. Because I wanted to keep the war element in the story from the Gardner prompt, I turned to the Irish Army’s peacekeeping missions in the Lebanon, the only conventional war I had a connection to   – not counting the Northern Ireland troubles, that is.  That dictated the time period of the story.

The hurricane – so eerily topical at the moment – belongs to that era too (August 25,1986).  It came unbidden into the story because I have a very distinct memory of  the night Hurricane Charley hit. I was on the graveyard shift as a newspaper copy editor and got to say those immortal words – stop the press – so that we could update readers on the worsening conditions as the winds howled and the rain beat against the office windows.

At the time of writing the story, a friend of mine had gone into selling stoves in her barn so she found a place in the narrative too.

And finally the photographer, who was a late addition to the story, comes from an unease I have about the artful photographing of abandoned places, particularly people’s homes, with all the poignant mementos of their lives still in place. While loving the images, I distrust my pleasure in them because they seem, somehow, avaricious, feeding off authenticity to create a kind of beautiful-looking artifice. And as I write this, I realise it could be a description of writing itself; so perhaps I’m berating myself in the story at some level.

So. . . not a very coherent process even when remembered in tranquility. Except for John Gardner, that is, who provided the igniting spark.

Gardner was a novelist and essayist (probably best known for his 1971 novel Grendell, based on the Beowulf myth) but he’s remembered more now for his books on writing and the creative process.  He graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1950s and was a creative writing professor at several US universities, including Detroit, Southern Illinois and Binghamton.  He was admired as a creative writing professor, and a tough mentor of young writers.  (Gardner died in a motorcycle accident aged 49 in 1982.)

In 1978, his book of literary criticism, On Moral Fiction, caused much dissent in the US literary community because it included bracing judgments of contemporaries including John Updike and John Barth.(So many Johns!)  It also controversially demanded that fiction should distinguish between right and wrong, a notion I’m not sure I agree with.  However, there is something flinty about his certainty of vision.

“Almost all modern art is tinny, commercial and immoral,” Gardner declared, “Let a state of total war be declared not between art and society but between the age-old enemies, real and fake”.

Which, almost 30 years on, has a distinct resonance in the Trump era.