Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Helen Marshall: Writing as Tourette Syndrome

In the 52nd in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Helen Marshall, author of Hair Side, Flesh Side (ChiZine Publications), discusses the powerful, age-old urge for self-expression.

The difference between essay writing and short story writing, I recently had explained to me, is that there really is no market for short stories—you write them because you have to, because you can’t stop doing it.

There’s something about that I find amusing: short story writing as a kind of Tourette syndrome. You might be sitting alone at a restaurant, struggling with chopsticks as you try to get through your pad thai with the modicum of calm dignity attempts that using chopsticks inevitably attempts to shred, and—bang!—out pops a short story. You are embarrassed. The other patrons stare at you. Small children gape and point. The restaurant owner quietly, firmly asks you to leave.

Maybe short story writing is a bit like that.

The starting place for my collection Hair Side, Flesh Side was in the archives of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. In order to complete the research for my dissertation on medieval book production, I had agreed to spend four months touring various libraries in England and Europe, poring over four-hundred-year-old manuscripts, making notes on handwriting, discoloration, measuring punctuation marks. It’s the kind of work that is both terribly mysterious and terribly dull.

And I was alone.

I was alone in a strange, gorgeous city where gargoyles and grotesques hung from the hidden places of the buildings above me. I had rented a tiny room—so tiny, in fact, that the only place I could fit my suitcase was wedged between the highest bookshelf and the ceiling so that it overhung the bed by about two feet—in Cowley where the students lived. Half the people told me this was a lively, up-and-coming neighborhood; the other half were worried I’d be raped when I went home from the library.

And the truth was that as glorious as Oxford was, as exciting as the work was, I was lonely. So I wrote. And my stories grew out of the work I was doing and the places that I was seeing: Oxford, Siena, London, Croatia—all these places took on a sort of magical quality that leached into the stories. Stories about children receiving the bodies of dead saints from their divorced parents. Stories about women discovering lost manuscripts written on the inside of their skin. Stories about angels debating the finer parts of temporality, omniscience and art. And the stories were all about the things I couldn’t say. They asked questions too broad for me to ask in my dissertation. What is art? What is history? What is memory? And what have people got to do with any of that?

Illustration from The Three Edwards: War and State
in England 1272–1377
 by Michael Prestwich
The thing about reading old manuscripts is that as you flip through pages of Gothic Bibles, sometimes you’ll stumble upon something written in the margins. It might be a simple note about how tired the monk was, then, of copying. How the light was too dim. Or “Now I've finished: for Christ’s sake give me a drink.” This is where monks first began to write in English after the language was suppressed following the Norman Conquest. You see lyrics, fragments, bits and pieces written on flyleaves, on the backs of charters, or in the spaces between Latin texts. Images too. Apes dressed in lady’s clothing, dragons devouring their own tails, pigs on stilts, rats making off with the sacrament—all these fantastical images sketched out in a few ink strokes.

All writing, I think, is like Tourette syndrome.

It burbles out of us. It leaches out of the cracks in our lives. Writing is infectious. Irresistible. Even those monks for whom accurate copying would have been the most sacred duty could not resist the call to articulate their own experiences. And to elaborate on them.

What many scholars have found strange is how many of those images in the margins of Gothic manuscripts are profane. Quirky. Boisterous. Violent—all those arse-kissing priests and squires jousting with penises. I think there’s something in that. Writing is a space for play, a space to subvert, to argue and counter-argue, to attack, to provoke. Look at Chuck Palahniuk. I can’t think of a writer whose short stories more resemble the bizarre, raunchy scribbles of medieval monks than him!

Short story writing, for me, is wonderful because of its brevity. The short story allows you to play God, to construct a tiny universe and tinker with it, compress it, make it strange and startling. As short story writers, we can explode our worlds. We can push them and their inhabitants to the breaking point, escalate tensions, find the greatest sources of discomfort, the greatest moments of passion and zeal. It’s also one of the most confrontational forms because of its brevity. Short stories are like bullets sent out whizzing into the world:


And because of that, the short story lingers in the mind. Like a dirty word. Like a monk’s jutting phallus. They embarrass us. They shock us. They excite us. A good short story finds the humanity in confrontation. It grabs you by the balls. It refuses to leave you unmoved.