BBC Short Story Award Workshop

Clare Wigfall photo - Walker Books
Category: Writing

Clare Wigfall is a writer who, in her own words, writes ‘as a means of escape’, and this is what attracted me to her stories in the first place. Her collection, The Loudest Sound and Nothing, features a far-flung range of characters, from a Scottish island dweller to a Berlin zookeeper.

The wide range of voices leads you to wonder what her take is on the oldest of mantras, ‘write what you know’. As our writing workshop begins, Clare explains that normally she never writes about places while she is living in them. Her latest story, a specially commissioned piece for the BBC proms, marks the first time she has actually written a story set in the city she currently lives in.

This idea of transporting yourself away from what you know seems to be at the heart of the exercise we do in the workshop. Clare hands out photographs to each of us, asking us to examine them and then answer a series of factual questions about who we think the character might be. We then extend this by jotting down words to describe both the character and the general mood of the photograph.

It’s a hugely effective exercise. I used to teach secondary English, and sometimes did this with pupils – doing the exercise myself is an eye opener to its effectiveness. The range of characters produced by people round the table stretches from a member of a travelling theatre group to a Michael Jackson-obsessed mother. I was handed a photograph of a teenage girl wearing an ill-fitting, garish dress, and immediately possibilities began to suggest themselves. Does the dress belong to her? Where did she get it? Is she the type of person who normally wears that kind of thing?

I found that having a photograph opens up much more about a character than their physical appearance. The ill-fitting dress immediately suggested the girl’s alienation from the situation around her. And Clare’s advice there would probably be to say nothing about alienation in the story and just describe the dress: the reader will get it, if you do it well enough.

Clare pointed to the example of the main character in her award-winning story The Numbers. In this story, a young, single woman who lives in an island community describes her fondness for numbers, the way arithmetic presents facts plainly and unambiguously. As an example, she does a few sums and works out that there are only three (fairly unappealing) single men on the island, expressing her respect for the plainness with which arithmetic presents this fact. As Clare says to us, a weight of masked emotions and unspoken thoughts lie behind this: you don’t need to come out and tell your reader how your character is feeling. Instead, you show them, through other means.

Clare is encouraging, enthusiastic and clearly passionate about helping people express themselves creatively. She is noticeably unassuming, and tells us that she never wrote with publishing in mind. Maybe this is the way to write honestly (Margaret Atwood seems to suggest as much): Clare is adamant she would continue to write even if no one read another word of her writing. That said, we leave the workshop feeling positive about sharing work, having let a bunch of strangers in on our character creations, and inspired to repeat the experience in a writing group somewhere soon.

Chris Leslie is the Learning Resource Developer for Scottish Book Trust