On Learning To Read

thoughts on reading & writing from a writer-in-residence at the University of Nottingham

The title of the story, ‘Wires,’ is taken from the Phillip Larkin poem of the same name.

When I was fourteen, a girl in the next town to mine was murdered, her partly-clothed body found face-down in a pond in the woods. She was the same age as me, and looked a little like one of the girls in my class at school. She would be the same age as me now, if whoever strangled or suffocated or beat her hadn’t dumped her body where it wouldn’t be found for a week.

I say strangled or suffocated or beat because I can’t quite remember the details: it was the first woman-killing I remember really noticing, because she was so close in age and because I remember thinking that it could have happened to one of the girls in my class, or could still happen. But the details have blurred with time, as the other terrible murders of women and girls have piled up in my memory; strangled, beaten, suffocated, scalded, burnt, run-over, thrown down stairs and out of windows, stabbed, shot, punched and kicked. All these ways that men have of rubbing out of the lives of women; all these men who do these things to the women they are supposedly closest to, their partners, daughters, sisters, cousins.  And still, with two women in the UK being murdered every week by a partner or family member, still we have men (and women) in positions of privilege and safety talking about feminism being old-fashioned or redundant or no longer relevant to the lives of women today.

I wasn’t thinking about all this when I started writing ‘Wires’, but I was thinking about it by the time I finished. As it happens, I’m fairly confident that nothing awful does happen to Emily Wilkinson while she’s waiting by the side of the motorway for the police and breakdown services to arrive. But that’s not really the point. The point is that it could have done, and her realisation, later, that something could have happened is, for her, the moment from the Larkin poem when she “blunders up against the wires, whose muscle-shredding violence gives no quarter.” And next time she breaks down on a motorway and a man offers to help, we can imagine that she’ll lock the doors and wave him away. She has, in that moment, crossed the border between young and old: “Young steers become old cattle from that day, electric limits to their widest senses.”

Women are trained in this behaviour from a young age: not to go off on their own, not to talk to strange men, to keep their phones with them, to pre-book taxis, to carry alarms, to always tell someone where they’re going. For most women, most of the time, these precautions are unnecessary. But the wires - in the form of news stories, rumour, and fleeting personal experiences - are always there.

None of what I’ve written above is contained in the actual story I’ve written, besides the use of the title, ‘Wires’. That title, and the two direct references to Phillip Larkin in the story, are supposed to draw the reader’s attention to his poem, and to the theme of his poem, and to thus inform a thematic reading of the story. (The poem is about a shocking learning experience; the story contains two shocking learning experiences; perhaps the thematic connection is deliberate?) Suitably informed, I imagined a reader considering the ending in this light; not ‘what happens next’, but ‘how does Emily respond to this shocking learning experience’? Does she become one of Larkin’s “old cattle”, stunned into docile silence and never straying “towards purer water”? Or does she continue to push up against the “electric limits”? And how does her experience with the two men reflect on her experience with Marcus? Is she able to relate the threat of sudden physical violence which they apparently pose with the more insidious threats of control and disdain which he holds over her? Will she see that his electric wires are also of muscle-shredding violence? These were the questions which I imagined a reader being left with at the end of the story, having been nudged towards them by the focusing lens of Larkin’s poem.

And the question I’m left with now is the question which writers always face: how much do you tell the reader, and how much do you let them work out for themselves, and how do you work around the fact that some or many (or in this case all, I suspect) readers won’t work some key aspect of your story out at all?

It’s pretty much the central challenge of story-telling, I think, and it’s one I may have failed to tackle on this occasion. But it’s also one of the challenges I most enjoy about writing. I’ll write some more about it at a later date; I may even refer to Barthes, and his notion of the writerly and readerly text. I may not.

 

 

  • 4 October 2011
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