The worst aspect of sitting in the Surgical Assessment Unit is that all these other folks come in, you end up hearing the bit where the doctor tells them what's wrong and what will happen next, meeting their family who - this being Sheffield, of course - will start chatting nonsense about where they used to work or David Baldwin's fish and chip shop (or whatever), conspiring with them to smuggle in a bacon butty, getting all set up for the first bit of the story, then they disappear off elsewhere in the hospital and never come back. That is all to be expected, of course, but there's a bit of me that just wants to hear that Peter's hip is fixed, or that George finally did get that bacon sandwich.
It's not that long ago that these stories would have washed over me, and I would have left the hospital broadly unaffected. I suppose when the stories were about people that I directly cared about, people that were related to me in most cases, I would feel myself start to invest myself in them, but it's only relatively recently that the full force of thinking about someone else's life, its beginning and middle and inevitable end, has hit me. Perhaps that is why I have taken up writing, to try to channel that new experience into something worthwhile. Although I suppose it is a bit ambitious for me to claim that my writing is worthwhile. All the good bits of my books and most especially this website are pinched from someone else!
What's the point of all of this? Well, trying to derive some sort of value out of the whole experience (beyond the absolute confirmation that the people who staff these hospitals, from the orderlies up to the surgeons, but mostly the orderlies and nurses are great), I set to thinking about these stories that I was missing such a large part of. I've always had a rocky relationship with intentionally short fiction, generally because a lot of it is self-indulgent rubbish (of a piece with what I write on here!). That's two exclamation marks in two paragraphs, which ought to be a sign of some kind, by the way, but I'm not sure what it signifies. I suppose since one was inside a bracket I can absolve myself. Short stories always struggle to create a complete world, for me. I've tried it, and the only way I've ever found to execute them convincingly is to embed them, almost as though the short story is just a scene from a longer one. But I'm a writer of limited skill, and with an equally limited range of things to say.
One of my big complaints, I think, is that a short story is often a vehicle for a writerly trick, a sleight of hand or a deliberate misleading of the reader, and I don't really enjoy being misled as a reader. And I think over the course of a novel, if you're planning on executing a similar move, you've got a lot longer to charm me into it. Short fiction is also often a way of excusing plotless writing, where there is an event or a scene, but no actual movement, no change. I'm quite happy with that in itself, because I'll happily read a whole chapter of character sketch in Scott or Dumas, but when it is merely an exercise, something done because the writer could, not so much. And there we go, I think. I have revealed my prejudice. Short stories always end up seeming to me to be written for the writer, not for the reader. But when it comes to novel-sized books, I find the idea that someone would have thought about their reader (instead of their plot, characters, their writing) and used it to drive the writing of the book quite unattractive. So there we go. A bundle of contradictions. And just to add to the bundle, I'll post a couple of short stories on this news feed.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought