AUDIO FILE: Short Story: Shiver/Sugar (with thanks to Dr Merrie Snell)
Creative Practice research presented in September 2022 at Vicarious Vocalities: Simulated Songs 2nd Biennial Conference: Voices in and out of Place; Misplaced, Displaced, Replaced and Interlaced voices. ICMuS at Newcastle University, UK.
One of the advantages of being a fiction writer in this digital age is that through writing it is possible to dissociate from the languages of online textual noise, and reconnect with the nostalgic role of the storyteller: to write in the language of stories, for anyone who wishes to read. One of the disadvantages of being a fiction writer in this digital age, is that getting people to deeply engage with written texts for long durations of time is problematic. As the ways people read are changing, due to a rapid “transition from a literacy-based culture to a digital one” (Wolf 2018, 3), the ways stories are told also need to be explored.
My short story, ‘Shiver/Sugar’, is a retelling of the Grimm brothers’ version of ‘The Girl Without Hands’. The narrator of my version is the handless girl who is now telling her story as an adult. Because she doesn’t have hands she can’t therefore type or hold a pen, so the story focusses on how she might go about recording her story verbally. After writing the first draft I considered the story’s oral origins (Aarne-Thompson Tale Type 706) with regard to this narrator’s voice. Was it possible to transform my written first draft (of a narrator’s spoken voice) back into an oral story and then take it further – back into a written form again, using contemporary tools? What would happen to the language during these processes? After considering which tools a narrator who has no hands could use to tell their story, I experimented with recording my voice speaking the first draft into a malfunctioning talk-to-text app.
Using this process, the mis-represented words became nonsensical, yet there were several ideas and phrases worth using. Language was being mistranslated into sound-alike words:
‘Shiver’ became ‘sugar’.
Removing a word from within its visual context of a linear sentence, changing the way a word appears, inventing new words, or recontextualising them within non-grammatical sentences can enable us to ‘see’ text differently.
‘Bandage’ became ‘bondage’.
When a word appears to be strange in some way, our perception is challenged and we might take more time to examine it. Compound words, use of dialect, concrete and visual poetry, textual collage, cut-ups, blackout/whiteout poetry, redaction and neologisms are just a few examples of some transformative practices which involve text being perceived as strange, or ‘defamiliarised’. The Russian Formalists’ approach to literary theory centred around literariness (what made a text ‘literary’) and they emphasised method – analysing texts in terms of their literary ‘devices’: the writer’s processes were thus brought into focus. In discussing defamiliarisation as a literary device which counteracted life-deadening ‘habitualisation’ in his famous essay, “Art as Technique”, Shklovsky stated:
The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. (Shklovsky, 1917)
It is worth also noting Bachelard’s statement:
Imagination is always considered to be the faculty of forming images. But it is rather the faculty of deforming the images, of freeing ourselves from the immediate images… (Bachelard 1971, 19)
Once one method of defamiliarisation becomes familiar, another must replace it. Words form images, and are also images themselves, especially when you look at them for long enough.
‘Spell’ became ‘spill’.
As a writer who has an artistic background my writing practice is heavily focussed on methodology / process. I would argue that any evolving writing process which causes the writer to maintain interest is beneficial to the text, whether this manifests in the text being perceived as highly original, or thought-provoking, or slightly odd. When a text becomes ‘habitual’ or dull to write, it will be equally dull to read. However, to intentionally aim for an increased ‘difficulty’ in the textual form might result in ‘literary’ texts which seem deliberately complex, wordy, or overly ambiguous. This could potentially disrupt the reader’s attention (in pursuit of information or due to disinterest in the writer’s ‘authority’) away from the fictional narrative.
‘Arms’ became ‘islands’.
However, when the story is a retelling of such a familiar narrative as a fairy tale, the increased ‘difficulty’ in the language has the potential to cause us to look closer, to see the tale afresh. When we trace the origin of fairy tales back as far as we can, they seem as elemental as air. They alter as they spread and disperse, whether told orally or in written form.
As fairy tale scholar, Cristina Bacchilega explains,
Tales mingle with one another, anticipating, evoking, interrupting, and supporting one another in unpredictable ways that have to do with each teller’s and the storytelling’s situation and purposes, the teller’s story chest, the various discourses in which the tales participate, and the narratives that listeners/readers/viewers bring to them as well. (Bacchilega 2015, 79)
‘Led’ became ‘loved’.
I used some of the sound-alike words from the malfunctioning talk-to-text app in the next draft of the story, to explore the space between written and oral storytelling in a written form.
‘Bright’ became ‘broad’.
In the beginning of the story, the malfunctioning app was set up as a device, so the reader anticipated some incorrect words. To give the narrator’s voice a sense of immediacy at times, present tense was combined with first-person narration. With the ‘I’ pronoun and present tense, the reader is placed inside the character’s mind in the moment the story is happening. This is a particularly intimate way of hearing their voice.
‘Hurt’ became ‘heart’.
The voices used to create this story are multiple: the writer reads a fairy tale which already exists as multiple versions. They write another version in a new narrator’s voice, then speak it into an app. The app predicts sound-alike words, getting many of them wrong in a new iteration of the story. The writer takes these sound-alike words and incorporates them into a new written story. And on screen, the use of a computer ‘read-aloud’ / accessible voice offers the potential to take this story one step further, transposing the most recent written version of this story into yet another unpredictable digital voice. If ‘live captions’ are also enabled, the story can be seen as well as heard.
‘Severed’ became ‘silver’ or ‘severe’.
Bacchilega, Cristina. 2015. “Fairy-tale Adaptations and Economies of Desire.” In The Cambridge Companion to Fairy Tales, by Maria Tatar, 79. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bachelard, Gaston. 1971. On Poetic Imagination and Reverie. Spring Publications, Inc.
Barthes, Roland. 1967. Taylorfrancis.com. Accessed February 28, 2019. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9780429818875.
Rice, Philip & Patricia Waugh. 1996. Modern Literary Theory. London: Hodder.
Shklovsky, Viktor. 1917. “Art As Technique.” muratgermen.files.wordpress.com. Accessed March 14, 2019. https://muratgermen.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/art-as-technique.pdf.
Wolf, Maryanne. 2018. Reader, Come Home The Reading Brain in a Digital World. New York: HarperCollins.