Make the Ordinary Extraordinary; Birmingham Post Short Story Challenge Master Class No 3: Be Inspired

The Birmingham Post (England), November 10, 2001 | Go to article overview

Make the Ordinary Extraordinary; Birmingham Post Short Story Challenge Master Class No 3: Be Inspired


In the third of our short story master class articles, Jackie Gay looks at the craft of American writer E Annie Proulx. Born in Birmingham, Jackie Gay travelled in Europe, Asia, the Far East and Africa before returning home to write. Her first novel Scapegrace was published by the city's Tindal Street Press last year. With Julia Bell, she edited TSP's prize-winning anthology Hard Shoulder and also the collection England Calling, published by Weidenfeld in July this year. E Annie Proulx lives in Wyoming and was 56 when her first novel Postcards was published in 1991. Her second novel, The Shipping News, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and her collection Heart Songs (1994) established her reputation as an inspirational short story writer.

Alice Munro, who has been hailed as the 'world's greatest living short story writer', articulated the standard a short story should aspire to - to 'see the world in a quick, glancing light'.

To me this means that a short story - whether set in Sparkhill or Siberia, encompassing ten years or ten minutes - can, if the writer is good enough and makes careful choices, illuminate aspects of human nature; bright flashes of emotional truth from the hairdressers, factory or isolated farm. It is not easy though: many expert novelists find the short story form challenging, including Annie Proulx, whose collection of stories Close Range I am going to use as a model.

The stories in Close Range are all set in the 'tough and unforgiving' wilds of Wyoming and the collection was initiated when the US Nature Conservancy asked Annie Proulx to contribute something to a proposed collection of short fiction in which the stories were to be inspired by a visit to a nature conservancy preserve.

Ms Proulx's publisher then 'allowed her a side trip' and she wrote a collection of short fiction set in the state, the idea of which 'seized her entirely'.

This is important: be passionate about your subject matter. If you don't care about it, how can you expect your reader to? As well as the inspiration of the landscape - 'The wild country, indigo jags of mountain, grassy plain everlasting, tumbled stones like fallen cities, the flaring roll of sky . . .' - Ms Proulx drew on her collection of regional lives and events; folktales, Wyoming history and even a visit to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, as source material (of which I am profoundly jealous).

She talked to musicians, songwriters, painters, ranchers and bar proprietors with names like Buzzy Malli - as brilliant as those she chooses for her characters - and went for 'gripping' plane rides over the landscape.

So, what inspires you? Is it particular characters or relationships, places, events? Never underestimate the stories close to you - none of the characters in Annie Proulx's book would imagine they are subjects for fiction, it is her writing, her vision which makes the ordinary extraordinary.

Witness this brief description of Leecil (God save the one who said Lucille), a rancher in the story The Mud Below who has come into town looking for help with branding some cattle:

He winked his dime-size eyes. His blunt face was corrugated with plum-colored acne and among the angry swellings grew a few blond whiskers. Diamond couldn't see how he shaved without bleeding to death. The smell of livestock was strong.

Leecil becomes even more vivid when he speaks.

'It's just work. Git the calves into the chute, brand em, fix em, vaccinate em, git em out.'

'Fix em?' said Diamond.

Leecil made an eloquent gesture at his crotch.

Or perhaps you're inspired by an image or metaphor which seems, to you, to sum up a situation you want to explore. In A Lonely Coast Annie Proulx uses an image at the start of the story which immediately sets the tone - and drama - of the story about to unfold.

You ever see a house burning up in the night, way to hell and gone out there on the plains? …

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