“Too much statement and not enough suggestion”

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This is what many writers are getting wrong, according to Irish short story writer Claire Keegan who passed through Bern this week. Keegan, a woman of strong convictions and deep thoughts, gave a talk and read from her award-winning story Foster.

I couldn’t believe my luck to hear that such a well-respected author was in town and that I could manage at the last minute to go along and listen to her. For Keegan, it is clear that writing is not something to be taken lightly. She spoke passionately about life, love and literature.

Foster is a story, about a poor young girl sent to live with more prosperous relatives for the summer. Written from the child’s point of view in the present tense, the story manages to convey that gulf that exists between children and adults and the disadvantage that children have in their inability to understand what’s going on in the adult world around them. It’s all the more poignant in Foster because the girl comes from a neglectful home and she is being looked after in a loving way for the first time.

As Keegan pointed out: “Love can come from anywhere, it doesn’t matter where.” The author sees herself as a critic of her society. Foster, set in 1970s rural Ireland, is in part a commentary on the plight of families forced, because of religious dictates on contraception, to have more children than they could love.

As I writer I was naturally curious to hear what Keegan, who has lectured in creative writing, had to say about the craft of writing.

The first thing that surprised me was that she goes through about thirty (!) drafts before she considers her stories finished. More proof that writing is rewriting!

During this process, Keegan does not give her work to anyone else for feedback, although she did admit she would like to have someone who would look at her manuscripts as closely as she does but from another perspective.

She explained that having spent decades reading attentively and developing her own taste, she trusts her own taste. A good place to be.

On the subject of what new writers are getting wrong, Keegan was very precise. In her view there isn’t enough priority given to the story, to the point that the story can be completely buried by the writing or even missing altogether.

Keegan is quite a purist when it comes to storytelling and confessed that she mostly preferred reading “dead authors”. For it to be a story something has to happen in a defined space of time, something irreversible that the character would take back if they could, she said.

Nowadays there is “too much statement and not enough suggestion”. Readers have to endure pages of analysis about the character before they even have a chance to go through something with them. In other words the analysis has not been earned.

Keegan is a great believer in “turning down the sound” and observing what people do with their hands and feet and eyes. That’s where the truth is, she said, and that is what she writes about. She won’t tell us someone is miserable and proceed to tell us why over many pages. She will show that misery and the context and let the reader reach their own conclusions.

Finally I liked what Keegan had to say about the elegance and efficiency going hand in hand in good writing. Not something that can be achieved in every blog post, but a good standard to aspire to in fiction.

The event was held under the auspices of the Swiss-British Society, Bern and SATE (the Swiss Association of Teachers of English).

10 thoughts on ““Too much statement and not enough suggestion”

  1. It sounds so easy: “Something has to happen in a defined space of time, something irreversible …” And I would add, something irreversible and important. I suppose it is easy if you’re writing a murder mystery or a story that would fit on “Law and Order.” But many of us struggle getting that basic kernel of a story.

    I suppose one of the reasons writers include too much statement and not enough suggestion is that they have a hard time trusting the reader to “catch” what they’re trying to get across.

    1. True. Reminds me of George Bush, ‘It’s the economy (story), stupid’. Looking at my work, I know I am sometimes guilty of the crime of analysis.
      But the most important thing I am discovering on the latest rewrite (really hoping it’s my last but by Claire Keegan’s standards I have about 24 more drafts to go!) is to put the story at the centre of everything, to ask for every character and scene – how is this relevant? How does this move the story forward?
      Hard work.

  2. Great post, Clare. Of course she’s right, but we’ll always find someone who doesn’t get the way we’ve expressed it. I prefer understatement, but it is hard to judge. I’ve had experiences with my writing of being surprised both by people not understanding what I’m getting out and by people connecting really easily when I’ve only hinted at the story.
    I don’t know if you’ve seen but some others are experimenting with 99- word micro fiction with Charli Mills:
    http://carrotranch.com/2014/05/29/may-28-flash-fiction-challenge/
    I’d never have thought I could write something so short – or want to read anything either – but it’s really interesting how it’s panning out. No room for analysis here.

    1. Hope to read your short stories in a collection someday Anne.
      Micro fiction, that’s a new one on me. Must check it out. I just entered a flash fiction piece for the Bridport Prize – 250 words and I thought that was short!

  3. I think she’s right. Maybe all of ust start out over-writing, so thrilled with this great character we’ve created that we want to pour out the inner workings of their soul to the readers. It isn’t necessary. Souls are best left private. After all, we’re not privy to the secret thoughts of our best friends but we still manage to know them pretty well. I hope I’ve got sparser, more sparing with the detail. It strikes me as more ‘grown up’ as a style 🙂

    1. Not only that, the material becomes so familiar you can’t read it with a critical eye anymore. I doubt there’s a novelist who could manage that many drafts.
      Thanks for stoppping by Simon!

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