Recently, I have tentatively started writing short fiction again. Apart from occasional poetry, most of what I write is nonfiction, often around history and place. This is partly because nonfiction is my preferred genre (both as a reader and as a writer) but also because of something that happened when I was seventeen.
I have written before on this blog about the creative writing A level I did in the 1980s, which included both poetry and short fiction. The poetry element was fine – I enjoyed it, was good at it (so much so that my work was published in a volume of examples by the examinations board) and I got a lot out of workshops with poets including Gillian Clarke. Fiction, however, was another matter altogether.
Like most children, I had always written stories. I was also an avid reader, often of books well beyond my age group. The town where I was at school at the time also housed the county library, and I spent a lot of time browsing the shelves, often discovering books which had not seen the light of day for many years. One particular find was a volume of ghost stories by M.R. James, which according to the date stamp had last been issued in the 1950s. James was a revelation – obviously, I’d come across ghost stories before, but what I particularly liked about his work was the ambiguity. His stories did not have tidy endings, they did not provide explanations for what the characters had experienced, they left possibilities open for the mind of the reader to pursue.
Fresh from reading M.R. James, then, I took on the challenge to write a short story for my portfolio. My English class had recently gone on a field trip to the graveyard of a local chapel, which had resulted in my writing a poem (‘Churchyard on the Hill at Salem’). It also gave me an idea for the end of my story.
I no longer have the manuscript, but the story went something like this. Told in the first person, it concerns a teenage girl who is gradually losing her ability to judge what is reality and what is her imagination. Strange things appear to happen to her in her ordinary life of home and school. She thinks that a procession of men visit her mother when her father is away on business, but as she becomes increasingly detached from her own life, she wonders how much she can trust her own judgment. She plays truant, and find herself wandering through the churchyard. Finding herself drawn to one particular headstone, she brushes away the ivy with her hand to reveal the inscription. It is her own name, and the date of death is the following day.
I was rather pleased with this story. I felt I had managed to evoke a mood of dreamy unreality, create an unreliable narrator, and write an ending with supernatural overtones but with, to me, pleasing ambiguity. I submitted it to my English teacher for comment.
Two days later, my teacher kept me behind after the lesson. She had ‘concerns’, she said. She had spoken to the deputy head with responsibility for student welfare, and they had decided to speak to me before referring the matter to the Social Services department of the County Council. Was the story, she wanted to know, in any way autobiographical? Was I having suicidal thoughts? Was I living in a household that was, effectively, a brothel?
After a few seconds of stunned silence, my first reaction was to laugh – the idea was hilarious. My mother had always made it quite clear that she didn’t like sex, that it was a necessary evil which had to be endured to have children, and that once the menopause precluded me having any siblings, sex was something she was relieved no longer to have to do. The idea that she would have more sex than was essential for procreation was, frankly, hysterically funny. I tried to explain this to my teacher, as delicately as possible. She looked doubtful, but accepted my response. My second reaction, though, was bewilderment. The assignment was to write a short work of fiction. I was using my imagination – both in terms of the home scenario, so different from my own, and also the supernatural element. I was juxtaposing the mundane contexts of home and school, and weaving a story from the results of letting my brain freewheel. Surely that was the nature of fiction – that it wasn’t a true story? So why were they – the teachers – assuming that it was autobiographical? Why did they think that my brain wouldn’t be capable of making that jump from what is to what might be? Why was I getting into trouble for doing what I had been asked to do – using my imagination to create a fictional world with fictional characters and events?
Evidently what I said reassured the teachers, because Social Services were not brought in. But the remaining short fiction I wrote for my portfolio was anodyne, tame, safe. I made sure I didn’t give any cause for concern about my safety or my mental health. A family goes on a daytrip to the beach, eats sandwiches, plays ball, swims, comes home. Someone goes for a walk in the woods, sees some animal tracks and wonders what has made them. The stories I wanted to write were very different – a family goes on a daytrip to the beach, and play with a lone child in an old-fashioned style swimming costume. When the family swim, the child disappears. They summon the lifeguard, there is a search. The child isn’t found. Cut to an Edwardian newspaper report of a drowned child on that very beach. Or, someone goes for a walk in the woods. They see animal tracks, and follow them. Gradually the tracks morph into human footprints. In a clearing, they come face to face with the creature they have been following. But I didn’t write those stories – I played it safe. Got a good grade. The teachers stopped watching me. I had learned that to write fiction that explored the possible, the unexplained, the dark places where the mundane meets the unthinkable, was a Bad Idea and would Get Me Into Trouble. I never wrote fiction again.
Until this year. Perhaps because I have felt unable to read fiction in the dystopian reality of Covid 19, I have started to think about writing it again. I am dipping my toe into the dark pool of my imagination and am writing short stories set in the everyday, about the past, death, the unexplained, with supernatural elements and enigmatic endings. What I didn’t know, aged seventeen in my provincial small-town school, was that an entire genre of weird writing has been around since the Victorian era – there is even a ‘thing’ called women’s weird – which nowadays is celebrated. Three decades and more later, I know that having an imagination that enables me to dream up weird writing doesn’t make me weird, and this time round I hope that exploring my imagination will not Get Me Into Trouble.