READING ALONE TOGETHER: PART FOUR

This time next week, GUTS will post the fourth instalment of Reading Alone Together, a short story reading series led by Esmé Hogeveen, an English student living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

by Esmé Hogeveen

Next week, Madeleine Braun and I will be discussing “Writ” from Ali Smith’s collection The First Person and Other Stories. Smith is a Scottish expat living in Cambridge, known for her novels (which include Hotel World, The Accidental and There But For The) and short story collections.

A free version of “Writ” can be found here (beginning on page 68).

Since reading The Accidental during high school (I remember feeling out of my comfort zone, but also eager to read an author I so badly wanted to understand!), I’ve been telling friends about Smith. While her manipulations of form and narrative voice position her as the ultimate writer’s writer, the strength of her characters and creative scenarios mean the writing is never gimmicky. Yeah, Smith knows she’s clever, but just when you think she may have gone too far—used too many puns, elaborate framing devices, experiments with tense, or pagination ploys—she sucker punches you with a moment of incisive emotion.

The more Smith I read, the more dazzled I am by her ability to simultaneously create vivid characters and commentaries on writing itself. Maria Russo describes this ability in a New York Times review of The First Person:

[Smith]’s got a paradoxical, original style. Her preferred mode is meta- and stream-of- consciousness, a perspective attuned more to the inner life than to big-picture social reality… In this collection, she’s also exploring the compressed nature of the short story and testing its limits. Characters tell stories that unfold into other stories or spin off into lit-crit-ish textual analysis. Smith seems convinced that the act of telling and retelling the most seemingly insignificant story can chart a course toward personal freedom in an oppressive society.

Smith’s ability to marry social criticism and literary analysis through her writing of deeply personal short stories is evident in “Writ,” a story in which the middle-aged female protagonist returns home one day to find her fourteen-year-old self. Among other things, “Writ” is about the way we envision and relate to discrete versions of our “self,” and the way in which female community begins at a self-contained, personal level.

Outside of diaries or keepsakes, are past versions of ourselves (and even future versions) always lurking at the corners of our consciousness? Judging us? Cheering us on?  “Writ” begs the question of how much how our relationships with ourselves affect our relationships with others. Is friendship with oneself a microcosm for interpersonal dynamics? Can perfect honesty exist at an individual level?

Some other questions to think about:

  •  When we make decisions for the future or reflect on the past, are we looking for approval from a continuous version of our selves? To what extent do we take for granted that we are “consistent”?
  •  Do you think you-in-the-present would be recognizable to you-at-age-fourteen?
  • How do you interpret the narrator’s efforts to legitimize her life to her fourteen-year-old self? Did the story feel realistic, depressing, hopeful, or perhaps some combination of these?
  • Do you think Smith does a good job of representing the private conversations we have with ourselves? And do you think that using an externalized past self was an effective way to illustrate this kind of internal conversation?
  • How does a relationship with one’s self inform one’s relationships with others?

 

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