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SHORT STORY HEROESLUCIA BERLINMargaret Wilkinsonanalyses the work of noted short story authors – and suggests thingsto try in your own writingThere are 43 stories inA Manual for Cleaning Women (2015), an acclaimed posthumous collection reflecting Lucia Berlin’s amazing and often chaotic life. She was married and divorced three times,raised four sons on her own, and struggled with alcoholism. She had a messy life but she used that life to create glorious stories that have been compared to those of Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver and Grace Paley.Like Raymond Carver, many of Berlin’s stories deal with alcoholism, exploring bleak settings and marginalised characters. But her style is not as spare, or restrained as Carver’s. Unlike his tight-lipped characters who suffer in silence, Berlin’s characters are garrulous. Even in those stories that have nothing to do with drinking,the characters often tell great tangled stories, flitting from event to event, talking over themselves, revising, backing up, fast-forwarding, starting again, getting distracted, as in stories told by a drunk. Unlike Carver, Berlin is intimate, confessional. She exudes compassion. In ‘Her first detox’ Carlotta, a supply teacher, recalls her first experience in the county detox ward finding commonality with the street winos there:‘Carlotta liked it best at the end, when they all held hands and she said the Lord’s Prayer. They would have to wake their buddies up, prop them up like dead soldiers in Beau Geste.She felt a closeness with themen as they prayed for sobriety, forever and ever.’Berlin’s stories are darkly funny, wry, sharp, then heartbreaking. Her emotional range is very wide indeed, and the tone can vary within the same story from bleak to funny, ugly to tender, hopeful to depressing. Therefore, the process of transformation which is so characteristic of a short story, is often realised with a last-minute reversal of tone, rather than a plot development.Many of the stories are narrated by women in menial jobs who are also erudite, challenging social stereotypes of such workers. In the title story, ‘A manual for cleaning women’, the narrator, a streetwise and tough cleaning woman, gives advice on how to do the job, then suddenly reveals a different side. ‘Every Wednesday,’ she says, describing the only really filthy house she cleans, ‘I climb the stairs like Sisyphus into their living room’. Sisyphus? That single word changes the reader’s assumptions.Like Grace Paley,Berlin’s stories are short, autobiographical, sometimes seemingly plotless, and oftenuse a conversational voice. Moreover, like Paley, she frequently comments on theact of writing in her stories, making us very aware of the author’s presence – or that of her writerly avatar.In ‘Silence’, a story about a difficult young girl who loses her best friend and stops speaking, Berlin talks directly to the reader: ‘I exaggerate a lot and I get fiction and reality mixed up but I never lie’. (Or is it the first person narrator who’s speaking?) This approach is at the heart of Berlin’s success in turning her life into fiction. Clearly in her hunt for emotional truth, facts may be sacrificed for meaning. ‘See,’ she tells us later in the story. ‘I’m trying to justify what happened.’Perhaps Berlin most resembles Anton Chekhov: notLUCIA BERLIN (1936-2004) was born in Alaska and grew up in various mining camps in the Western US and Chile. As an adult she lived in the American South West and Mexico. Largely ignored inher lifetime, Berlin’s short stories were sporadically published in small presses. She lived mostly on the margins, working at various menial jobs until, near the end of her working life, she was offered a visiting writer’s post at the University of Colorado.in style, not in subject matter, but in the overwhelming compassion she feels forher characters. In ‘Here it is Saturday’, told from the point of view of a prison inmate who signs up for a writing class, Berlin treats her flawed characters with the utmost tenderness, often describing terrible people and places as if they are beautiful:‘The ride from city to county jail goes along the top of the hills above the bay. The avenue is lined with trees and that last morning it was foggy, like an old Chinese painting. Just the sound of the tires and the wipers. Our leg chains made the sound of Oriental instruments and the prisoners in orange jumpsuits swayed together like Tibetan monks.’The writing tutor, who we realise is Lucia Berlin herself, gives the prisoners/students a new assignment: ‘Okay, soBerlin treats her flawed characters with the utmost tenderness, often describing people and places that are terrible as if they are beautifulTRY THIS► Write a story based on a memory of yourself as a child doing something wrong. Show great compassion for this less than lovable child.► Experiment with tone. Write from your own experiencewith tenderness (or beautiful description) about a time you were dumped by a lover or betrayed by a friend.► Add various authorial comments to the text of a story you have written. Speak directly to the reader about your technique.► Or try Berlin’s own exercise and write a few pages leading up to a dead body: ‘Don’t show us the actual body. Don’t tell us there’s going to be a body. End the story with us knowing there is going to be a dead body. Got it?’mslexia Mar/Apr/May 2017 69PHOTO: ESTATE OF LUCIA BERLIN


































































































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