On writing ‘Wasps’ – Jane Fraser

‘Wasps’ is one story of twenty-three that form a collection of short fiction entitled The South Westerlies recently submitted for my PhD. The collection is experimental writing functioning as research in an attempt to know place. The place is my home patch of Gower: latitude 51 degrees north, 4 degrees west, an administrative part of the City & County of Swansea, south Wales, and the UK’s first area of outstanding natural beauty. All the stories are unified by the geographic location of Gower and the tone of the prevalent rain-laden south-westerly wind which blows across the peninsula.

The stories reflect the rationale of the American academic and short story Lorrie Moore who once said that in her short stories she wanted ‘to create something that doesn’t exist exactly in the real world, but exists in a kind of parallel to the real world.’ I think that too, and so my stories though obviously not real, or indeed autobiographical, are rooted in the reality of personal experience.

The stories have most often started with a walk, an object found, a memory stirred, a conversation overheard. They have arrived half-formed, on waking from a dream, captured in early morning short-hand on scraps of paper on the bedside table. Portends, sharp-beaked and evil-eyed, they have come rapping at my bedroom at dawn; and as messengers of joy, they have held my gaze with their heart-shaped faces and amber-eyed stare at dusk. They have started with a word, a phrase that won’t go away until it’s written away. An image that ignites the spark and burns in the imagination: the maggot-crawling carcass of an old grey mare in a meadow, the partial eclipse of the sun over limestone cliffs, the old furniture that holds the past in its grooves and scratches, and the wasps; always the wasps. Sometimes the right story’s been there right in front of me in drafts, but I couldn’t see it. My stories have been borne out of loss. They have been borne out of grief. They have been borne out of longing. They have come with birth. They have come with death. And near death.

For there was a catalogue of personal trauma on my PhD journey. Above all, there was the sudden loss of my mentor, the much-missed Welsh poet and psychogeographer, Nigel Jenkins; but there was more: my daughter lost many more babies than she gave birth to, my son-in-law-nearly died in a skiing accident, my husband fell off a ladder and injured himself badly, and I was involved in a near-fatal car accident in my own garden which resulted in an airlift to intensive care in Cardiff and a three month deferral of PhD studies to recuperate. All part of life’s rich tapestry and all ultimately contributing to my creative experience of short story writing.

I came to understand that death is life’s only certainty and so death itself is not dramatic. This understanding when transferred to writing has shown me that the short story is about tension rather than drama and that its ending is often uncertain. As the Welsh writer, Cynan Jones, says of the genre: ‘The short story is about what it leaves behind.’ For apart from death, life, like a story’s ending is uncertain. And what is the short story if not a mirror of life?

During my time of re-emergence from trauma, I returned to what I had learned from the wonderful Irish short story and novella writer (and teacher) Claire Keegan who was an instrumental presence on my PhD journey. I remembered what she had once said in the fiction clinics I had been fortunate to attend: that most of the drama is over before the short story begins. I didn’t quite understand this until I had the experience of working on a story about my accident. I had wrongly presumed it would make a good story. Keegan had also said that writing about the near-past was the most difficult to write about as you don’t know how you feel about things when you’re so close. My shifts in personal landscape and my drafting of the story entitled ‘Wasps’ illustrate that she was right on both counts. Stories are about feelings and conflicts and fall-out from events. Tension rather than high drama. Suggestion rather than statement. Showing rather than telling. And writing short fiction should be an art, not catharsis.

The first three attempts at what I termed as ‘my accident story’ did not make the cut for the collection. The first was written on the premise that my accident was one waiting to happen as in real life, on the morning of the accident, I had stood in our studio gazing at the Gower landscape and wished out loud to one day see Gower from the air. Later that day, I had my wish granted courtesy of the air ambulance, though saw nothing of Gower as I was horizontal in immobilising boards. This was the extract which encapsulates the sense of premonition we sometimes have in life:

I was rooted in the present tense, there motionless on the gravel: it could have been hours, minutes, seconds, all time, past and future, melded into the nowness of the moment. As I heard the distinctive whirr of the rotating blades of the approaching air ambulance, I heard again too, my mother’s pronouncements of old. It seemed she was still so right about most things: Be careful what you wish for, young lady. [Draft 1]

Written in the first person past tense, I was the central character in my own ‘fiction’. It was no more than a recount, a retelling with little narrative drive or development, or character conflict. It was a poor memoir. Yet, there were interesting pointers to a shift in perspective that might be offered by looking down from the helicopter, perhaps a development of tragi-comedy. The melding of time during trauma also surprised me as a writer. I had lots to work on.

The second draft aimed to distance myself from the ‘reality’ of the incident by employing a third person omniscient narrator, getting close to various perspectives in turn, using the idea of metafiction, with the accident being an unfolding story in a village where the villagers all had a skew on the event that had happened as shown here:

The Tesco driver of the ‘you shop we drop’ van was only a young boy. He was shocked to be the first response of sorts, quicker than any of the emergency services. He wound down his window and just took a momentary glance at some sixty-something woman lying motionless in the drive, before speeding along the lane to the turning space at the end where the tarmac surface petered out. He then retraced his route without saying a word to her or Rob, stopping with his groceries at Cock Street Farm, Mary and Rob’s next door neighbours, a couple of hundred yards away. He did his drop and was off away from the inconvenience of the scene that had shattered his Thursday afternoon. [Draft 2]

I abandoned both drafts and let time pass. With the distance that time affords, I became detached from my own involvement and could see potential in developing a story if I adopted a different way of considering it. By that time, I was beginning to understand what Keegan had meant and by the essence of story being about the impact of the dramatic event itself on the relationships of those involved. The third draft therefore became a tragi-comic story from a dead, first person narrator addressing her husband in conversational tone using the second person ‘you’. The narrator, now very much out of place, looks back with love on her husband, still in place in Gower:

Do you know, there was such beauty in those last moments. I would never have thought impending death could make life seem so beautiful; so intense. There was you holding my hand and telling me it would be alright and how much you loved me. And I knew then you did; and that is comforting. And there were the gulls above. Despite us living in our home by the sea for all those years, I’d never really taken notice of them before, not really taken notice of them I mean – the way they soared above me on the thermals, their strange squeal splitting the silence of the afternoon. [Draft 3]

Though I was more satisfied with the third draft, the story was not suggestive enough as the fictional ‘I’ was still too close to the real ‘I’ and too close to the real drama. I finally ‘made’ the story ‘Wasps’ (as published in this edition) taking the ‘victim’ out of the Gower of the accident one year later to France where the protagonist and her husband had shared great times in the past. All was the same. Yet all was different. The distance of time and space afforded new perspectives. The story uses the conceit of a swarm of wasps as the ‘unsaid’ and the uncharacteristic rise in temperature to mirror the rising tension between the couple, illustrated in a physical and metaphorical storm building around them.

It has been a satisfying experience to finally work through the great trauma in my life not simply cathartically, but artistically, even though it has not been without challenge. But, as Keegan says, “The story’s there in the draft. You only have to look.” In conclusion, through the writing of “Wasps”, I learned that writing needs to be considered not simply in terms of editing and redrafting, but in the true meaning of revision. Re-vision. Seeing again and seeing anew. And sometimes seeing from afar.

You can read ‘Wasps’ in Issue Eight of The Lonely Crowd.

Jane Fraser Writer in Gower. PhD in CW Swansea University. Short story collection, The South Westerlies, seeking publisher. Done OK so far in short story competitions.

© Jane Fraser, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.