How To Write Like Katherine Mansfield

How To Write Like Katherine Mansfield

When writing short stories you’ll want to develop your own style, not ape the style of anyone else. Nonetheless, I have collected a number of pointers from a short story great. Mansfield borrowed from those who came before her and we may do the same. In fact, it’s inevitable. It pays to know our own influences, if only so we don’t mimic them too closely.

HOW TO NARRATE LIKE MANSFIELD

Mansfield is known as the first to bring modernist short stories to the West. She took her cues from Chekhov (who was Russian). She read early English translations of his work.

(If you want to narrate like Katherine Mansfield, you’re also narrating like Chekhov, and many other stylists who came after.)

  • Mansfield was a pioneer in interior monologue.
  • Mansfield generally makes use of shifting viewpoints, never settling on one character in particular. Because the ‘camera’ never settles, we expect her to shift viewpoints. That means you can’t settle in one head for too long. “Prelude” and “The Doll’s House” are examples of this. Other stories remain with a single character, in close third person narration. Examples are “The Tiredness of Rosabel” (until the final sentence, considered by some to be a writing mistake), “Miss Brill” and “The Wind Blows“.
  • Language is succinct, both at a sentence level and at a scene level. The prose is akin to lyric poetry with much thought given to prosody and scansion.
  • Mansfield wrote about a relatively narrow range of material: children exploring the world alone, children reacting to adults, lonely women in a hostile world.
  • To finish off a story, Mansfield sometimes switches point of view to that of another character who hasn’t had much airtime until now. (“The Escape”, “The Doll’s House”)

Katherine_Mansfield

STORYWORLDS OF KATHERINE MANSFIELD

  • Though Mansfield expressed disdain for her home country of New Zealand, as she approached death, her thoughts returned to her homeland and her last, most accomplished stories are all set in and around Wellington.
  • Some of her settings are ambiguous, such as “A Dill Pickle”, which is almost certainly London, but set in a cosmopolitan cafe which could be many places.
  • Mansfield lived in France and is now buried there. A number of her stories are set in France.
  • Others are set in Germany. Her collection In A German Pension is set in Germany, though Mansfield later said she didn’t like those stories.
  • Mansfield wrote contemporary tales, which means they’re all set in the late 1800s, early 1900s.
  • World War One (and events leading up to it) makes an appearance in some of her stories, if only to underscore how unimportant world events are to her characters, who must go on with their own small lives regardless. (“A Dill Pickle”, “The Fly”.)
  • Mansfield knew how a well-to-do, moneyed household worked. Her New Zealand natal family went by that exact description, and because English immigrants were still very English in their custom, she knew how that class of English people lived, too. Bertha of “Bliss” is presumably English born, but she’s no more English in character than the young fictional women who grew up in New Zealand.

HOW TO STRUCTURE YOUR STORY

Tiny, quotidian moments make for sufficient plot:

  • Being late for a train then losing your parasol off the cart (“The Escape”)
  • Going home after work to fantasise about a brief encounter you had with another young woman’s beau (“The Tiredness of Rosabel”)
  • Sitting on a park bench at the gardens, voyeuristically listening in to other people’s conversations (“Miss Brill”)
  • Riding the Picton Ferry with your grandmother, in charge of looking after her umbrella (“The Voyage”)
  • Preparing for a party (“Bliss”, “The Garden Party”, “Sun and Moon”)
  • Killing an irritating fly in your office after a former employee drops in with some news (“The Fly”)
  • Showing two classmates your new doll’s house even though those girls aren’t allowed in the yard (The Doll’s House)

However ambiguous Mansfield’s stories seem after a first reading, they’ll make sense to the careful reader after a second read-through. Symbolism is King. In common with writers like Joseph Conrad and Annie Proulx, Mansfield’s stories are about ‘delayed decoding‘. That’s a fancy way of saying the reader doesn’t know what’s happening until later, and often not until after a second read.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Get the mood first, and focus on the psychology of the characters. Some of your stories will require a cast of characters who are all equal as ‘main’ characters, because the themes are about the problems in a community:

  • Families, especially those with lots of money, are nicely dysfunctional for narrative purposes (“Prelude”)
  • Isolated women such as Beryl of the “Prelude” trilogy, “Miss Brill” and Rosabel from “The Tiredness of Rosabel“. These women tend to be fantasists, escaping regularly into their own fantasy worlds to compensate for lack of affection in real life.
  • Overbearing businessmen fathers (“The Fly”,  the Comical Stanley Burnell from the “Prelude” trilogy)
  • Adolescents or women young beyond their years (“The Wind Blows”, “The Tiredness of Rosabel”)
  • In stories which include children, there’s a division between the adults and the children, with emphasis on how the adults’ behaviour is affecting the children as easily influenced little people, with reader empathy lying firmly with the children. We also realise these children will turn out exactly like their parents.
  • And where there are young children there is often an elderly character who Mansfield aligns them with. (“The Voyage”, “Sun and Moon”.) This has the effect of making the reader view a lifetime as a package all at once, and a life in terms of snapshots in a photo album, rather than viewing the very old and the very young as completely different creatures.
  • Older women tend to live with their younger, extended families and although they play an important role in the household, they are without much power. (“New Dresses,” the “Prelude” trilogy)
  • Young women have been taught that the most important thing about them is the way they look. They’ll probably love the way they look, aesthetically, when trying on a new hat in the mirror, but judge others harshly for their imperfections, especially imperfections of skin. This will lead some readers to conclude narcissism, but we are reminded that narcissism is borne of deep insecurity.
  • A main weakness of many Mansfield characters is that they absolutely love party preparation and even the parties themselves, but that after party clean up period (even though there are usually maids to do it) tends to remind them of death and decay. They can’t bear the flip side of carefully managed perfection. (“The Garden Party“, “Sun and Moon“)
  • Many of Mansfield’s characters have trouble with the falseness, ostentation and the sterility of modern life — especially characters from the upper classes.
  • Though Mansfield isn’t well known as a ground-breaking feminist writer, women in her stories are often at a disadvantage due to gender roles of the time. (New Dresses, “Her First Ball”, “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”.) “A Dill Pickle” is an obvious display of white male privilege, and the tough decision a white woman must make — does she marry an ass and gain some social status, or does she continue life as a middle-aged single woman?
  • Mansfield created characters with weaknesses designed to explore ‘the irreconcilable cleavage between the rich potentialities of live and the inescapable brutalities of human experience which must evoke despair.’ – Berkman
  • In many of Mansfield’s stories she’ll compare a character to a bird at some point. She uses quite a wide range of birds, though. The Kelvey girls are chickens in The Doll’s House, to underscore the motherly nature of the older Kelvey girl. “The Birdcage” is the ultimate example of a character as bird.
  • If you really want to immerse yourself in how Katherine Mansfield viewed people, you probably want to read Principles of Psychology by William James (brother of Henry James). James was what psychologists call a ‘vitalist’ (alongside Henri Bergson). James believed that behaviour influences emotion, whereas previously it was thought that a person’s emotion influences their behaviour. We now know that it’s more of cycle than a cause and effect kind of thing. James also came up with the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’, which describes modernist authors (a phrase which had entered literary criticism by 1918). Vitalism affected how modernist writers viewed ‘character’. Beforehand, the self had been understood in terms of a single transcendent ego, but modernists put it to their readers that ‘self’ was not only multiple, but also mutable. The self is not one single, never-changing thing. We change from moment to moment, as situations change. (Bergson added to this theory by making a distinction between superficial personality and deeper consciousness, which is exactly how storytelling gurus tell writers to create characters today.)
  • Vitalism also probably encouraged Mansfield to question the nature of time. She does all sorts of interesting things with time in her stories. She achieves The Overview Effect in “Prelude” and links children to the elderly. She picks symbols (e.g. the aloe in “Prelude“) for their interesting relationships with time. According to Henri Bergson, these separate selves don’t begin and end (I guess the would make it multiple personality disorder), but each personality extends into another. It’s impossible to respond in exactly the same way to a single thing twice in succession. That’s because you’ve already had one reaction, and that will inevitably influence all subsequent reactions. It’s impossible to remain the same person, even from moment to moment. This is why so often Mansfield’s characters seem to be high on something one moment — the next downcast. e.g. Beryl in “At The Bay“, first viewing herself as a ‘lovely, fascinating girl’, then ‘All that excitement and so on has a way of suddenly leaving you’. (She has become aware of a nearby ‘sorrowful bush’.)

DESIRE

Characters must all have a surface desire which connects to a deeper one. The surface desires tend to be quite shallow, such as getting from point A to point B, or finding a hat suitable for a party, but the deeper desires include:

  • To repress difficult emotions by focusing with determination on pleasant, surface things (“Bliss”, “The Fly”)
  • To view oneself as a valued member of society (Miss Brill)
  • To avoid dwelling on one’s own mortality (“The Fly”, “Miss Brill”, “The Garden Party”, “Her First Ball”, Sun and Moon)
  • To pretend nice things will always be nice, and to deny the fact of entropy (The Garden Party, “Sun and Moon”)
  • In true Freudian style, dreams (and daydreams) are significant insights into a character’s longing. They are supposed to tell us more about who characters really are, and their deeper, subconscious desires. When the husband in “The Escape” slumps into a daydream, he wishes to be away from his marriage, at least for a little while. In “Prelude”, Linda dreams of birds.

OPPONENT

Characters don’t necessarily even know who their opponents are. Opposition a Mansfield story is very low grade (compared to a war battle), but has devastating consequences for the main character.

  • Mother and daughter form opponents in New Dresses to the point where the adults are causing their daughter serious psychological damage. And all because the mother wants her daughter to look clean and tidy and presentable.
  • Rich and poor make for natural opponents. Both rich and poor have already learned their place, even when the characters are children, as in The Doll’s House. No one’s trying to climb outside their designated social rank. They’re trying to live within it, as best they can. “The Tiredness of Rosabel” is another example.
  • In stories about couples, lovers make for natural opponents, because they are in and out of love with each other at different times. (Bliss, “Prelude”) In the Prelude trilogy, Linda both loves and hates her husband at the same time.
  • Sometimes the object of one’s affection doesn’t even know it. (“The Wind Blows”, “Bliss”.)
  • An emotionally mature character is a natural opponent for an emotionally immature character. (For Mansfield, maturity has nothing to do with age in years.) (New Dresses, “The Fly”.)

BATTLE

  • The battles in Mansfield short stories are very subtle and often entirely inside a character’s head. The kitchen girl in “Prelude” regularly has arguments with her employers which take place only inside her head. Her witty (unsaid) comebacks make her feel much better.
  • Mansfield would often make use of the language of battle as proxy for an actual fight. “The Wind Blows” is an excellent example of that, in which the language of a fight is used to describe the adolescent brother and sister’s evening walk down to the seaside, where they will see the boat.

SELF-REVELATION

The experience of an epiphany is a key aspect of modernist writing: Virginia Woolf and James Joyce also tried to articulate flashes of realisation, revelation, insight and understanding. Woolf described these as ‘moments of being’.

  • Epiphanies are experienced in many of Mansfield’s stories, although they do not necessarily lead to complete comprehension. Rather there is awareness, intimation and possibly just a glimpse of something beyond a character’s everyday perceptions. Miss Brill thinks she’s realised something amazing as she sits on her park bench — that everyone is an important character in some kind of play. But her real realisation, though she doesn’t fully understand the reason behind her sudden downcast mood, is that she is old.
  • Mansfield makes much use of symbolism in helping the reader to understand more about the character than the character knows about themselves. The fox fur in “Miss Brill” is a great example of that.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

  • Some of Mansfield’s characters seem to have a revelation then we’re told they’ve forgotten all about it. This is why Mansfield’s work is referred to as ‘Freudian’, drawing upon Freud’s theories of suppression and repression. (“Her First Ball”, The Doll’s House)
  • This repression might be provoked by something trivial which causes some glimmer of hope. (“Daughters of the Late Colonel”)

OTHER TECHNIQUES

  • Make heavy use of pathetic fallacy — whatever a character feels, everything around them will seem to feel like that, too. An aloe tree or a pear tree (“Bliss”) might make a character feel buoyantly happy, but for another character (“The Escape”), a beech tree will make him feel suffocated. (Nothing inherently to do with the tree.) Miss Brill feels sad and lonely, so her fur fox (or stoat, or whatever it is) also looks sad to her.
  • Feel free to use the three dot ellipsis when ‘ending’ a sentence.
  • You may repeat words, to make the rhythm of the prose work more like poetry.

Fake Gender Equality In The Christmas Chronicles

The Christmas Chronicles

The Christmas Chronicles is this year’s tentpole festive family movie from Netflix. Directed by Clay Kaytis, the script is written by another two men, David Guggenheim and Matt Lieberman.

The nice thing about The Christmas Chronicles is that a few of the old gender tropes have been inverted. Instead of an adventurous younger brother juxtaposed against a surly teenaged older sister, we have an adventurous younger sister juxtaposed against a surly teenaged brother. Instead of killing off the mother, they’ve killed off the father to allow the kids to go out on their own Christmas Eve jaunt completely unsupervised.

But as I have said before, inversion doesn’t equal subversion. Continue reading “Fake Gender Equality In The Christmas Chronicles”

At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield

Wellington 1893 Lithograph

“At the Bay” (1921) is considered one of Mansfield’s best short stories, by a writer at the height of her powers. This is one of the three about the Burnell family, who also star in “Prelude” and “The Doll’s House”.

Read “At The Bay” at the Katherine Mansfield Society website.

“At The Bay” is an interesting case study for writers, for so many reasons. Notably:

  • The way Mansfield creates her characters in pairs, to compare and contrast them. If one character goes visiting, so does her counterpoint character.
  • This is an example of a story in which no one has any big self-revelation. Like Mad Men famously achieved, the characters go about their own lives, continuing to make mistakes, learning little, and that is how life really is. This is the ultimate realism, though it can feel to the reader like ‘nothing happens’. We tend to say of these stories, ‘It’s not got any plot’. Or, it’s an ‘anti-plot’.
  • But apart from the lack of growth, “At The Bay” does conform to classic story structure, and even the lack of Self-revelation is replaced by characters who suddenly change their emotional valence, either because they are practising ‘opposite action’ or because they suddenly become scared or whatever.
  • Mansfield’s scenes each feel complete in their own right because the emotional valence changes from beginning to end. Linda starts off with no emotional affect, but ends the scene beaming at her baby boy. Beryl starts off scared with Mrs Kembers than feels jubilantly free for a second. Stanley rushes into the water triumphant to be first and is immediately irritated to find he is not first after all. Mansfield’s emotions swing from one extreme to the other. If we find our own scenes emotionally flat, a read of “At The Bay” should set us back on the right track.
  • Mansfield also has a real affinity for children. She recreates play scenes and child interactions so authentically, without glossing over the fact that the hierarchy between children can be brutal. There’s nothing mawkish about these children.

Continue reading “At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield”

Good Morning Mr Pancakes by Chris McKimmie

Good Morning Mr Pancakes

I first heard of Australian author illustrator Chris McKimmie on Children’s Books with Kate De Goldi.

Listen also to the interview between Kate and Chris at the Adelaide Writer’s Festival.

One of the secrets to success as an illustrator is having an instantly recognisable, one-of-a-kind style. McKimmie’s various book covers will give you a glimpse of his style.

The naive style of art also works really well to encourage children in their own illustration. The Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey, and the treehouse books by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton do the same thing. Kids look at these pictures and think, you know what? I can do that. It doesn’t have to be realistic. Realistic art is sometimes confused for ‘good’ art.

Art is ‘good’ when it makes its audience feel something. That’s the only criterion. In picture books, art also tells a story.

Two Peas In A Pod Continue reading “Good Morning Mr Pancakes by Chris McKimmie”

Prelude by Katherine Mansfield

Prelude Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield wrote “Prelude” in 1916 then revised it the following year. “Prelude” is the first in a trilogy of interlinked short stories. The other stories starring the Burnell family are “At the Bay” and “The Doll’s House“. Although “The Doll’s House” is populated by the same characters, the themes and motifs of “At The Bay” are so closely aligned to “Prelude” that these two stories might be considered a diptych. “New Dresses” is thought to have explored an earlier version of the Burnell family dynamics.

For me, “Prelude” is chiefly about all the various ways in which people live in their own fantasy worlds. Each of the characters in this story has a different relationship with reality, whether it’s make-believe games or pranks played by children, a romantic fantasy played out by a young woman, the slightly crazed imaginings of a ‘desperate housewife’, or the delusions of grandeur enjoyed by the man of a busy household.

Read “Prelude” online at The Katherine Mansfield Society.

Plotwise, “Prelude“, stars the Burnell family, who is moving from the city of Wellington into the nearby country. Mansfield’s own family made a similar move when she was a child, perhaps to escape a bacterial infection which was killing lots of people in central Wellington in the late 1800s. She probably drew on memories of that time. Mansfield called her house in central Wellington ‘a horrid little piggy house’. It was small and plain compared to the house they moved into. (If you visit this original house in Wellington today, you may be surprised at how small it is by modern standards.)

Mansfield originally called “Prelude” “The Aloe”. An aloe (which flowers only once every 100 years) makes a symbolic appearance in this short story, as a beech tree is symbolic in “The Escape” and the pear tree is symbolic in “Bliss“.

The aloe plant has a tall, thick, swollen stem with long, sharp thorns.

Linda looked up at the fat swelling plant with its cruel leaves and fleshy stem. High above them, as though becalmed in the air, and yet holding so fast to the earth it grew from, it might have had claws instead of roots. The curving leaves seemed to be hiding something; the blind stem cut into the air as if no wind could ever shake it.

In this story it has been said to symbolise:

  1. Separate things merging together: past and present, Kezia and Linda.
  2. Linda’s sexual fears
  3. Thorns represent the destructive powers of sex and the dominant role fulfilled by the male head of household.
  4. Power (for Linda) to escape (corresponding with money for Beryl)

In her revision, Mansfield also made her plot less ‘obvious’, leaned more heavily on symbolism to suggest and, in short, turned the story into something far more muted than before. Between revisions she had lost her brother in the war. In the revision, Linda is now pregnant with a male child. Some readers have speculated that this is perhaps in honour of Mansfield’s deceased brother.

What Happens In “Prelude”

Continue reading “Prelude by Katherine Mansfield”

Outrage News Is Powerful Storytelling

outrage cat

Recently I played a form of mixed doubles tennis in which the final point is served from female to female, or male to male. At our small club, when it comes to tennis skills there’s no clear division along gender lines. A number of the women can outplay the men.

So I mentioned maybe we could ignore that rule, depending on who’s playing. I’m also mindful of being gender inclusive. The distinction between male and female has been shown — across different disciplines — to be nowhere near as binary as previously decided by culture. Our club may, in the distant future, seem sufficiently liberal that a gender non-conforming player joins in for the occasional hit. That’s my goal.

But my politically conservative tennis partner, who vociferously voted against marriage equality in Australia last year, chortled at my suggestion and said, “Don’t you know there’s 33 different genders now?” (Subtext reading: Once we get started down that line, where do we stop? How are we meant to play a fun game of mixed doubles with 33 different genders!) Continue reading “Outrage News Is Powerful Storytelling”

The Tiredness of Rosabel by Katherine Mansfield

The Tiredness of Rosabel Katherine Mansfield

Outside school magazines, “The Tiredness of Rosabel” was Katherine Mansfield’s first published story (1908, when Mansfield was 20 years old).

Already we can see features that the author became known for:

  • The ability of a character to impersonate another
  • Daydreams/fantasy used to reveal deeper desires
  • Three time levels are used simultaneously (past, present, future)
  • A central theme throughout Mansfield’s work: ‘fastidious feminine recoil from the arrogant male, conflicting with a romantic idealism and resulting in disillusionment’ (Alpers).

Continue reading “The Tiredness of Rosabel by Katherine Mansfield”

Sarah Marshall Has A Stalker, For All The Receptionist Knows

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a silly, fun film, designed to appeal to an audience of teenage boys.  The film was produced by Judd Apatow. The script was written by its star, Jason Segel. Some critics have applauded the film for turning the ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ trope on its head.

(Inversion does not equal subversion.)

I don’t aim to review the entire film because then I’d have to watch the entire film, but I’d like to offer a single scene as an example of storytelling which can have damaging real life consequences, depending on what the audience brings.

In common with all Judd Apatow movies, beautiful young women are found at every turn and they all seem to find the underdog Joe Shmoe lead attractive. A classic male fantasy, it would seem.

The problem with this scene, even as fantasy: Jason Segel’s character appears before the receptionist as a stranger. He ‘just so happens’ to be holidaying at the very same resort. Next (as shown in the clip) he makes an awkward (but also really creepy) ironic joke about coming to the hotel to kill his ex-girifriend. Then he laughs, because OBVIOUSLY, that’s just a joke, right?

Any intelligent woman in Mila Kunis’s position would hear alarm bells. She already knows he can’t afford the only room available. She would back away from the desk and hope he leaves soon.

The statistics around stalking and real world intimate partner violence should shock us all. The most dangerous time for a woman — the time she’s most likely to be killed — is when she has just left a man who was formerly an intimate partner. (Rachel the receptionist knows exactly when this pair of strangers broke up because she’s just been told.)

Stalking is still not illegal in many countries, but this is slowly changing. Stalking became an offence in England and Wales in 2012. “About 120,000 victims, mostly women, were stalked every year.” Here in Australia, stalking laws were first introduced in the 1990s, but it has always been very difficult to prove someone’s behaviour constitutes stalking. “Stalking, as a discrete concept, is a surprisingly recent phenomenon, relatively unknown until towards the end of the 20th century.”

In Western society, we have a very strong cultural belief in the romance and intensity of unrequited love as a narrative that conveys magnificent emotional intensity of which humanity is capable. Whether this narrative ends in the object appreciating and reciprocating the love, or the subject dying nobly through loss of this love, the general theme is one which has gained cultural reification across the centuries, enough to be celebrated in literature, performance art and the continuation of historical accounts.

ALC.gov.au

(For more on stalking in storytelling see my post The Ideology Of Persistence.)

The audience of Forgetting Sarah Marshall knows that Jason Segel’s character is not stalking his recent girlfriend. We know it’s a complete coincidence that he’s at the same hotel. There’s even a storyworld reason given for the coincidence.

But sometimes, in real life, like the receptionist in that scene, we encounter someone desperately looking for a family member. “Have you seen this woman?” he asks. “I’m so worried about her. I haven’t seen her in a week. I’m worried she may have done something stupid…”

If you ever encounter someone asking you that, I want you to use Rachel from Forgetting Sarah Marshall as your negative role model.

Never give details of a woman’s whereabouts to a man who is looking for her. She may have left him for a damn good reason. You can’t tell whether a man is dangerous from his affable Hawaiian shirt, his underdog sob story or his everyman looks. If you’re in attendance for an estranged couple’s encounter, do what you can to keep the woman safe. Maybe don’t check in her former boyfriend if you’re running a resort… because statistics.

It’s also possible a woman doesn’t need help in keeping safe. The backstory might be completely different. But that’s for the authorities to work out. In this scene, the look on Kristen Bell’s face offers more than enough information about her discomfort, and an empathetic character such as Rachel the receptionist would have picked that up.

I haven’t forgotten that these are fantasy women, written, directed and produced by men.

And if everyone watching that scene understood all of that about women and who tends to stalk and murder who, I might accept Forgetting Sarah Marshall as pure entertainment. Instead I worry that movie scripts function as subconscious real life scripts.

Story is powerful.