I wrote this little essay for a project I created back in 2013, with long-time friend and fellow writer, Sandi. We asked a handful of really good Australian writers to write a short story in the style of a writer they admired. I chose Colette, a woman who could paint a scene with words, so very deftly and at the same time, richly colourfully. Reading her – and I didn’t come to her until my mid-twenties – was a lesson in how I could write about the world.
This year, as with every year, the desire to write more and write better, is present – the goal of another collection of essays is one I am determined to kick in 2019. I have always used this blog as a tool, and it’s one of the most valuable I have as a writer – a place to write, a readership to write for and the constant gentle push to write for the sake of writing and not to fit a brief. Here I practice the deftness and the strokes of colour.
So, to Colette.
(The short story I then wrote, to match this essay, I might publish here later – if you’d like to read it.)
Colette came into my life at precisely the right time. I think she did it on purpose. I had just moved to Europe and was somewhat overwhelmed. So many things were happening, days were turning somersaults and yelling at me to keep up and I didn’t, I couldn’t, get it all down on paper in a way that felt solid, weighty, full. Commissioning editors seemed to want Top Tens and How Tos but I wanted to write stories. Indeed, I had moved to Europe in search of stories and, although I didn’t quite know it at the time, needed to learn how I really wanted to tell them.
A couple of months after I moved to Germany, an old friend visited me on her campervan travels through Europe. She cooked spaghetti Bolognese and we opened our tiny kitchen table up and put it in the foyer, so we could all fit around it. We ate, we drank, we re-told our favourite stories from school. We shivered in the sleet at the Christmas Markets, warmed by hot Glühwein and big woolly hats and when the time came for her to leave, she left something behind. It was a rather weighty tome, a collection of short stories with a painted woman on the cover. I added it to my sparse bookshelf and put it at the back of my mind, as I too often do with writers I know I should read.
A few months later, I needed something to read on the bus, something to break up a recent crime fiction binge, something classic, textured, brilliant, something that didn’t involve me mapping out an entire plot after reading the first page. Hell, something that wasn’t purely plot driven. Something that gathered great armfuls of words like wild flowers and lay them down, side by side, to create beautiful, rhythmic patterns. Something that valued polishing moments like gem stones and presenting them, sparkling and complete, beautiful in and of themselves. Something that didn’t forsake beautiful writing for ‘moving the plot’ forward. The weighty tome with the painted woman on the cover was plucked from my shelf and shoved in my bag and my morning bus was caught, as usual, by a whisker.
And so it was on the bus, driving to work one wet, dark, winter’s morning, I first became really acquainted with Colette. The bus sluiced through inky, oily puddles as, page by page, splendidly crafted sentence by splendidly crafted sentence, she warmly reassured me it was quite alright to let words paint nothing but a lovely picture, if that’s what I wanted to do. That two pages, quite without a beginning, middle or end, about an evening, an instant, a meeting, was fine. More than fine. That a snippet of sharp detail, of sensory stimulation, of evocation and colour is as worthy a piece of literature as the cleverest of plots and heart-hammering action.
When it came to choosing a writer for Sincere Forms of Flattery, I was all but certain my writer of choice would be a contemporary British one. Nick Hornby, say, or Sue Townsend. Not a French one, born in the 1800s. But the more I read of Colette, the more I saw so many things about her writing that I not only admired – nay, loved – but that I also naturally gravitated towards as a writer. I saw something familiar in Colette’s stories and in the way she told them. Colette liked what I like. She dwelt on things I like to dwell on, she looked inside things I like to look inside. Colette was the first writer that seemed to say to me, ‘write what you see, what you smell, what you hear, what captures your imagination – the rest is immaterial.’ Colette gave me a free pass to simply take pictures with my words and let that be the story. As I went about collecting the minutiae of living abroad, of adjusting to a new culture, I kept thinking, ‘do what Colette does, make word-photos, that’s enough.’
My short story, The Park, is an attempt at gathering all of what I love most about Colette’s writing and working it into a story. Entirely fiction, something not all of Colette’s work was, it is a bag of pick ‘n’ mix, some confection from Colette jostling about with my own. It isn’t entirely Colette – how can it be? Rather, it pays homage to key elements of her style, incorporating my favourite things about her writing into an original story. And what were these things? Two things struck me as I read Colette. The first was her unashamed focus and curiosity and precisely how she put herself into the dynamic – the interactions, the relationships – she was relating. And the second thing, was her words. The way her they were ripe, the way her descriptions were so full, sensual.
In the introduction to Colette: The Collected Stories of Colette, Robert Phelps writes, ‘Essentially Colette was a lyric poet, and her basic subject matter was not the world she described so reverently, but the drama of her personal relation to the world. Her injunction to those around her was always ‘look!’ and her capacity to behold was acute and untiring.’
The Park relies on both sensory description and human interaction – combined, they are both the story’s flesh and brush-strokes. And I like to think these two elements allow it to stand alone, with or without a twist. The Park also includes succinct dialogue and keen observation – bordering on voyeurism – of a classic human moment. The plot was of little concern, a twist, should it come, immaterial. Giving the reader a photograph of what was happening in that park, at that moment my narrator was sitting on her bench, bearing witness to one of thousands of moments in another couple’s relationship, was. In accordance with one of Colette’s signature moves, I placed my narrator at the forefront of the story, thus creating a focus on the relationship between the narrator and the world she is describing. The narrator lets you in, opening the door on her own life now and then, for brief moments. What she does, what she thinks, little bits and pieces of her own history that have combined to produce her thoughts on whatever matter it is she is commenting upon.
The Park represents both a lesson learnt and an affirmation; it is not vastly different to what I have written before, instead it affirms my own style, my own voice, one that has found both a mentor and great reassurance in Colette.
Now I know how I want to tell my stories.