I am hopeless at finding my way anywhere. I can read a road map but I'm talking town plans here. Have you noticed how many streets in city centres no longer have name boards? It's all right for the locals. They know where Hallows Street is. According to the map it's the left turn off London Road just after the chapel and opposite a car-park. Only you find the car-park was replaced by a supermarket that the chapel was turned into a carpet warehouse years ago and that there's now a roundabout - and guess what, no street names. I can spend hours wandering around a busy city centre like that. Many writers are like that, especially when they start out. Where to go, which road to take? Would I do better with poetry or should I write the biography of that feisty female explorer who has always fascinated me...or then again isn't erotica all the rage today? I might have a stab at that...
This may seem a bizarre way to start a review of a brilliant new collection of short fiction by Tania Hershman but please bear with me because I'm now going to talk about runners. If it hadn't occurred to you before you watched this summer's Olympic Games, that different running races require a different sort of athlete. Just compare and contrast Usain Bolt and Mo Farrah. Although Mo is known for his terrific bursts of speed in the final stages of a 10,000 metre race, there's no way he could win a 100 metre race. His physique, his training, his expertise are all geared towards long-distance racing.
This picture also fails to show Bolt is a very tall man and er...Mo isn't, although both have long legs. I could play this game all day.
It's the same for writers. There are the Jessica Ennises of the writing world who can turn their hand to a multiplicity of disciplines: journalism, essay, biography, fiction, both long and short as well as poetry. But most of us settle on what we find we're the most comfortable with and can accomplish with confidence. I have dabbled in both short stories and novels and have found I find my style suits the novel better: not any old novel but the historical novel about made-up ordinary people in their own times. Not for me Lady Jane Grey, although I would have written about Mary Anning had Tracy Chevalier beat me to it in Remarkable Creatures and far better than I ever could have. Whatever I begin to write that's how it invariably ends up when left to my own devices unless I am trying desperately hard to write against type.
But then we are encouraged to write out our comfort zone. As you know, I have been learning about writing flash fiction. Whilst I have found it a refreshing change, I realise I am not a natural. I struggle to distil what I want to say in less than 800 words. As for 300; well that gives me a headache because, for me, it's far too difficult. As the famous quote goes (attributed to Pascal): Forgive me for sending you this long letter. I did not have time to write you a short one.
I have also read about and examples of flash fiction recently, in order to fully understand it. And I made a discovery. I was reading it all wrongly. Very short fiction is closer in essence to poetry than longer short stories and, of course, the novel and that you need to read in a totally different way: not as a story to get your teeth into, but to inhale the images and feelings it conjures up in your mind as you read. You don't look for meaning even though, perversely, by not looking for a meaning you often find it instinctively. Flash fiction may look quick to read but don't. Read it slowly. You need to stop after each one and think or dream rather than rush on to the next. (Wouldn't it be a good idea to present flash fiction as a box full of cards you can read them in any order one chooses? Please tell me if that's already been done.) Flash fiction is liberating for the reader as well as the writer - and, to me, the most brilliant example of short fiction writing is what springs from the fertile mind of Tania Hershman.
Many moons ago I reviewed her first collection The White Road on a blog I no longer use. And now Tania has a new collection out: My Mother Was an Upright Piano.
Unfortunately my woolly, long-winded prose is struggling to explain her writing, but here goes. This anthology is stuffed full of delights, exploring relationships and emotions. Tania's use of language is precise and yet lyrical. I particularly love the soft and moving Under the Tree. (Incidentally, a recent blog post shows how she developed this story, learning to remove cause and effect. Some stories take metaphor and psychology and play with it, extending it, twisting and forming it into new patterns like a cat's cradle. Thus a woman, who was always punished for being 'dirty' learns to accept dirt and eventually to revel in it. Here, dirt becomes a metaphor for all life experiences and memories, even of things that never happened. It might not even be about physical dirt at all.Other stories are threaded through with the surreal (or rather, show you new ways of looking at life.) We Will Be There, to me, distils the essence of love. Tiny Unborn Fish is a story of jealousy set in a laboratory. Tania always combines art and science in such tantalising ways. I could write about every story but I have gone on long enough.*
I am sure that everyone who reads this collection will see different colours, shapes and meanings from the ones I have discovered. But isn't that the point? These stories are what the reader brings to them. Reading Tania's fiction is like a being overwhelmed by wave on a deserted January beach that takes you to places you never imagined. Stunning.
PS: If you download the Kindle edition, you'll get an extra 'secret story' not in the print collection.
* You can see why I struggle to write very short fiction.