The places stories come from (and take me to)

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Writing fiction, wow. After several months of writing from my own experience, you know, facts, I’m now free to write anything.

Of course “anything” could also be a little intimidating. Like “infinity”, or “Welcome to Subway, what are you after today?” So one of my tasks, lately, has been figuring out how to locate ideas, and then turn them into stories.

Over the past five weeks I have used a few lunch-hours (I’m still working two days a week to cover coffees and bills) to come up with a list of thirty-seven short story ideas. Of these single paragraph descriptions, I chose eight to start fleshing out into stories. And of these eight, I’ve so-far completed three. As in I’ve started soliciting feedback on them brought them from others.

So why these three stories? Where did they come from? And where did they take me?

 

Story one: The pub quiz

I posted the first couple of pages of this first story a couple of weeks ago. It starts with a man whose ambition and joy for living has slipped away so gradually hadn’t noticed. The story picks up momentum (and hope) when he meets a woman who might offer him a chance to rewrite his future. Is he still capable of taking it?

I love those magical moments in life when I meet someone new, and there’s this powerful frisson, this trembling, vibrating understanding that they could represent a significant, positive transformation. Occasionally though, I’ve found this feeling being almost immediately tempered by a wave of self-reproach. “Why would they want to be friends/tag-team-wrestling-partners/lovers with me?”

I’m intimidated by the degree of feeling they generate, and I start thinking about how much more terrible rejection feels, when it comes from those people I choose to raise above me. And then that lump forms between throat and heart, and self-doubt begins to eclipse hope.

Sometimes I want to make a part of myself transparent, so that this person might see the parts of me of which I’m most proud. But translucency means they get to see the shadows as well.

Writing this story allowed me to characterise that part of me, to give it a name, Gavin. Then I got to create the person who evokes that astounding feeling in Gavin. I named her Alice. Then I put them at a table at the Red Lion, on a busy quiz night, and I let them decide where the story went.

 

Story two: The list maker

The second story I completed is about a treasure hunt, and it is about Alzheimer’s, and it is mostly about the degree to which we let a select number of our memories define who we are. It puts the reader inside an older man’s head for an afternoon, as he attempts to solve a gentle mystery.

It was an opportunity to tell what is essentially a very sad story, but tell it from the largely positive viewpoint of an endearing old gent. It was a chance to remind myself of the importance of living life as engaged as possible. It gave me a reason to ask myself some important questions. What are the moments that I believe define me? Who will be there for me if I begin to lose aspects of myself? Who do I want to be there for, if they find themselves struggling for definition?

 

Story three: The first and last hours of Hector Fuego-Salamanca

I was listening to an interview with an author a couple of weeks ago, and she pointed out that there was no reason for short fiction to stick with a single character, or be restricted to a short time period. Just because you only have a few thousand words, there’s no reason you can’t tell a story from multiple viewpoints, or utilise something other than real-time. That got me thinking:

“What if I offered the first few hours of someone’s life, and then the last? And this became an opportunity for the reader to fill the gaps between?”

And so my third completed story describes the first and last few hours of Hector Fuego-Salamanca. Hector is born under difficult circumstances, birthed in the back of a stolen four-wheel drive, which is parked on the edge of an ancient New Zealand forest. Hector’s last few hours are hardly less arduous, most of them are spent blindfolded and tied, in the back of a stolen army vehicle.

The fun thing with this, is that I am a strong believer in self-determination. And so I wanted to start with an evocative (if you were raised in New Zealand) name. Then I wanted to add a sprinkling of facts, a description of a person for whom the odds have been stacked against. I wanted the reader to start telling their own story. And then I wanted Hector to transcend expectations. What would he need in order to do this? What is it that we use to fight fate, to reverse expectations, to counteract a dearth of privilege?

The short story offers an opportunity to experiment with new characters every day. Maybe I’ll spend the morning with a man peering through windows as he falls from the top of a thirty storey building. Measuring his reasons for jumping, against what he sees in the faces of those he glimpses during his descent.

Perhaps I’ll then choose to spend the evening in the moonlit company of two teenage girls as they quietly construct a series of crop circles on farmland in Cornwall. I get to listen in on their stories, their observations, and then I get to see what happens when their creative efforts attract an unexpected visitor.

Yes, endless possibilities can be intimidating. But my imagination is my most treasured of all my gifts. If shit gets dark, if I find myself at a fork in the road and I feel that either direction will lead me to a place I don’t want to go, then my imagination helps me forge a new path.

Writing fiction is yoga for my imagination. Hmm, maybe there’s a story in the naming of downward facing dog…

Better ways to deal with rejection

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Some days I think I’m starting to get all grown up and wise and shit. Then I fail to make the cut in an art contest.

In the aftermath, in the flux and shift of a post-rejection funk, I had to sit myself down and give myself a talking to. The easiest thing is to chew discontentedly on the acid taste of sour grapes. To make a new Facebook profile and drop scorn on the selected pieces. To write bad things with a sharp pen held in a clenched fist. But I’ve tried to channel myself away from cynicism for four years now. And so I told myself to instead use this experience as a test of my resolve.

It isn’t easy though, to maintain happy, harmonious Buddha-balance in the face of disappointment. But I know I’d feel a more cutting disappointment for a lot longer, if I haven’t tried. It is a lot harder though, to have never tried. And so this morning, rather than pissing on the embers of a dying hope, I’ve been placing newly cut kindling over them and gently blowing.

Sigh.

88 Days, one month down

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Speyside, a great place for contemplation, whisky drinking, and admiring the rain.

I’ve been walking the perimeter every couple of hours today, clearing the gutters of leaves and coffee cups, watching the waters flow. Inside I listen to Biblical levels of rain hammering the roof above. I think of Noah, of epic stories told to convey an understanding. 

What were the Bible makers striving for? To write a bestseller? To influence a society? To replace still older stories?

What did Margaret Atwood hope for from A Handmaid’s Tale, back in 1985? Did she imagine the poignancy it would hold as it was retold in the wake of Trump’s ascendance? Did George R. R. Martin grimace as he signed off on publishing rights to A Game of Thrones, thinking of the string of newborns that would have to beat the weight of names like Daenerys and Tormund and Cersei?

Can great writing still make a difference? Do I dare hope that the pen is still mightier than the sword? 

Again I’m reminded that one of the greatest enemies of writing (like any work-from-home occupation) is distraction. But conversely, the right kinds of distractions can be a blessing. If I scan through my list of story ideas, I see an ecological ghost story, a gentle tale about a treasure hunt inspired by an old man’s Alzheimer’s, a fable about a mother and daughter in the desert, standing before a great wall. The seeds for each lay in a diversion of some sort. 

But my purpose for writing this afternoon, is as an opportunity to reflect on the first four weeks of my 88 Days of Creativity. And after a little meditation, it seems the first third of my sabbatical has been about three things:

1. How capable am I of finding inspiration?

I can answer this one with an emphatic “yes”. An empty page holds no fear for me. I can find a question begging to be answered on a tombstone, or in a shared glance, or under torrential rains. Of course understanding at first glance, or paragraph, or maybe page, whether the idea deserves a whole story is another talent…

2. Is writing something that I really want, or is it just a story I want to tell about myself?

I have to approach question two with a little trepidation, I’ve lied to myself before.

I mean today I feel like a story-teller. I love the places writing has already taken me. I feel better about a day if I write. I’ve learnt more about myself through writing than through anything else I’ve ever stuck with. But it took me years to fail as a painter, as an artist, largely because I was afraid of soliciting feedback on my work. And so there’s a little anxiety in my answer, because for me, the real answer to this question, is tied to the answer of question three.

3. Can I write things that other people want to read?

This is the big one. Last week, a waiter in a cafe said he’d overheard one of my conversations on writing. He explained that a friend of his is trying to become established as a writer. He asked if I’d mind calling or emailing him, to offer advice, or to simply talk.

At first I wasn’t sure what I would have to offer. But today I understand that my advice for this man is the same I am giving to myself. It is time to engage an audience. To have the courage to put your work in front of someone who will critique it, and then to learn from their feedback. 

If I was passing through customs and immigration today, and filling in paperwork, in the space next to “Occupation” I don’t think I’d be lying to myself if I filled in Writer. But my goal is to be able to fill in that space with the word “Author”. And so month two begins.

 

Tools for being human, part nine: Cooking and eating with others

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In my childhood, meals were consumed eye-to-eye. The family sitting, circling the table, forks and knives hovering under conversation. Even Friday-night fish and chips were elevated, the hot paper-bound bundle of deep-fried all-sorts steaming the glass table-top. Tomato sauce allocated in five small dollops. Buttered bread in a leaning tower. No TV, no radio, no tapping sly LOLs to mates under the table.

In the warmer parts of the Mediterranean, an evening meal with family might last for two, three hours. In our house it was usually forty-five minutes. Three-quarters of an hour of noisy retellings, prompting questions, and arguments over who had found the most chunks of toffee in their ice-cream. Then at around 6:48pm Mum or Dad would check a watch, and table clearing would begin, just in time for the marine weather forecast.

Food was the thing that unfailingly drew us together as a family, but in many ways it was the winds that were responsible for what ended up on the table. My father loves, loves, loves the sea. He worked any number of jobs, but his default workplace was between lapping waves and sandy seabed, hunting out the ocean’s bounty. So between 6:51 and 6:57 there was a communal silence as predictions were made. Light variables, Southerlies dying out overnight, squalls,  gusts and gales.

If the conditions were favourable, my brother, sister and I knew we’d be bundled up in the back tray of the Land Rover, sliding back and forth amongst the fish boxes and dive lungs. Most of the seafood limits were on a per person basis, so the three of us plus Dad meant twenty-four crayfish. I ate a lot of crayfish as a kid. Fortunately Dad knew a lot of the Greek and Italian families that had been drawn to Wellington’s rugged south coast. And seafood to them, was like cigarettes to the imprisoned. So after a day in the sand we’d park up outside garages and kitchens, having our cheeks pinched by enthusiastic Nonas as the trades were done. Prosciutto for cod, baklava for shellfish, wine for scallops.

If say an eighth of my early years were spent on beaches and bays, then another eighth must have been spent in the kitchen. My father was trained as a chef, in a fancy hotel, by men who ranted in French. It was only natural to him, to spend time with us in the kitchen, teaching us to make pastries, sauces and casoulets. He had a library of faded French cooking manuals, but he taught us that the best meals were made from simple ingredients, drawn by hand, from land and sea. Fresh mushrooms from an absent farmer’s fields, cooked in cream and thyme. Butterfish cooked on an open fire with a little butter and a few capers, as the tide creeps stealthily away.

My first experience cooking in a commercial kitchen was beneath an 800 year old church in Cambridgeshire. I worked, ate, drank and played with a mix of central Americans, Europeans, Australians and Brits. A delicious blend of accents, cooking traditions, and ways of interpreting the world. We all cycled Cambridge’s narrow, cobbled streets to work, our wheels juddering madly as we swept past colleges and chapels. We’d lock our bikes to the church gates, beside boxes of early morning produce, which we’d haul into the larder, flanked by hundreds of shelved ingredients.

There’s something visceral about catering. There is the short time-frames of production. Menus were clipped to stainless steel walls at 6:00am, the first batches of scones and breads lined the counter at 8am. There’s the physicality, the great dance, flashing knives, swooping trays, fast marching waiters, swinging doors. There is heat and cold, the spin up of enormous ovens, the gentle shudder of cheese fridges. And of course there is the end product, the gentle stacks and swirls on the plate, the scents and tastes and colours of the season.

I know I’ve never worked harder, but I’m also pretty sure I’ve never laughed more. The various roles are all so tightly interlinked: the baker, the dishwasher, the cake decorator. No failure is independent, no success singular. We’d picked each other up, wiped one another down, and limped across the finish line as one, coated in flour, drizzled in sweat and thirsty for a pint. It’s the sort of teamwork that can build great fellowship. And of course, produce the occasional drama.

After catering a wedding, or a bell-ringers dinner, we’d sometimes set off on our bikes, for a chef’s basement home. There we’d drink Suffolk ciders and Speyside Whiskey, while one of us cooked food from the homeland. Pierogi, Coca Cola pork, tea smokes mash. One of my greatest ever meals was wild boar sausages, in banana beer batter, at 2:00am, eaten to the sounds of our Welsh head chef playing Alice in Chains tunes on his jet-black guitar.

Since then I’ve cooked puddings at Scottish festivals, supported by spliff-rolling Spaniards. I’ve whipped up dishes from the gardens of an Irish castle, and I’ve woken in the early hours to help bake bagels in Jewish delis. But many of my favourite memories are set in my Sister’s kitchen, under her backpackers home in Derry. Whenever I spend time there we end up cooking a slow meal, maybe a course each, starting some time in the mid afternoon. By the time the hot trays are drawn from the stove, the heavy wooden table is surrounded by people from all nations, wine from New Zealand, and throaty laughter.

 

For me, cooking allows me an opportunity to create, to interpret, to participate in something universal, something which transcends linguistic borders. It is an endeavour of creation which always finds a grateful audience.

So thank you Dad, for teaching me that if I dedicate myself to my passions, then there are fewer gaps in my life. Thank you Mum, for being the one who taught us the value of communion and companionship, and for occasionally letting us eat our steak in slabs of soft, white bread. And thank you to all of you that I’ve shared a kitchen with. You helped me expand my creative boundaries, diversify my cultural understanding, and extend my range of curses.

Bon apetit!

The pub quiz

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Time for an excerpt from one of this week’s works. While Nick Cave’s been helping out with my ghost story, this other tale I’ve been writing might better be accompanied by Pulp.

I’ve got a love-hate relationship with quiz nights. I think there’s a certain irresponsibility in summoning armchair-experts into a nice warm boozer, and then plying them with alcohol. The atmosphere can border on grisly by the end of round seven, so what better place to set a simple story of inspiration and hope?

This is just the first few paragraphs from “The Pub Quiz”, a work in progress. It introduces our protagonist, Gavin, as he waits for his night to begin. It stops before we’re introduced to the woman who will force him to challenge his ideas of himself.

 

The Pub Quiz (extract from first draft)

The usual suspects mill the crowded floor-space between bar and tables, sending last minute texts. Celia and George Heffer, secondary school teachers, specialist subject: The price that terrible home at number 53 sold for. The noisy crew from the engineering firm down Crow’s End, specialist subject: Answers for laughs, not for points. Charles “Fisty” Cuffs, who works as a barrister in London, but unfathomably makes the journey back each Wednesday to take part in the Red Lion’s Quiz Night, specialist subjects (equally unfathomably): Daytime soaps and 80s hair metal.

Gavin shakes his head, sips ineffectually at his pint, and glances at his own phone. None of his team’s arrived yet. If he ducks out for a piss or pint now, it’s gone, draped jacket or no draped jacket. Besides, there’s a quantifiable time period for which one can hold an entire table when a pub’s this fucking busy. A time period which is very nearly up. He taps his mobile rhythmically against the table, avoiding looking any of the wandering pairs and threes in the eye.

Finally he spots a familiar couple up at the bar, craning their necks. The Moncrieffs. Mary the librarian, Mark the one-time BBC Sports Commentator. quiz team from heaven, marriage from hell. He waves them over, trying to engineer things so that Mary takes the seat nearest. But she’s passing the big man her glass, shuffling off in the direction of the toilets. Cunt-stubble. Mark takes the stool beside him, the scrape of wooden legs on slate tiles smothering Gavin’s poorly suppressed sigh.

“Alan texted, he’ll be late, something about the Ring Road” Mark announces, setting glasses to table with loud clunks. Gavin dips his head in greeting, which Mark appears to take as concurrence.

“Poor planning. No excuse for it” Mark continues. He raises his pint, gulps back a mouthful of bitter, eyebrows raised, waiting for a verbal response.

Gavin wants to shrug, but Mark doesn’t like fence-sitting, or neutrality. Or the Swiss. Or Pakistanis. Or pillow biters, The Irish, welterweight boxers. So Gavin grunts out something that might be agreeance, and then floats a diversionary tactic.

“New grandstand’s coming along” he says, tilting his head toward the South end of town. The terraced end. The money end.

Mark draws a low, slow breath, the sound of a lit fuse in a gassy shitter. Gavin cringes inwardly, remembering the construction has meant a single lane down the Moncrieff’s street for the past week. And dust. And unobjectionable loitering by shovel-wielding clusters of working class. Fuckfuckfuck…

There’s a loud, muffled tapping sound above the hum of the crowd, and Gavin hears Mark’s breath being released over the head of his pint. Saved by the quizmaster.

[To be continued]

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What do you think? Any feedback gratefully received.

Later this week I’ll catch you up on how the first 14 days have gone.

 

x Regan

 

 

The Haunting

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Week two is about atmosphere, about mood.

I want to complete first drafts of two short stories this week. The first is meant to be a dark, melancholy story, but it is set on a beautiful if remote New Zealand beach. The second is a buoyant stale of hope and charity, but it is set in a dark, dank English pub. So how do I haunt the golden, sandy seaside, and let the light shine amongst horse brasses and shuttered windows?

I woke early and went for a walk in the earth’s shadow yesterday. As I moved through desolate streets, between darkened homes, I let Nick Cave set the mood. He sang to me about summoning the unfortunates of the world, and I imagined spirits trailing me in the dark woods, old men of dark deed watching me from the low fields. My pace quickened.

Mr Cave’s a master of evocation, this week he’s going to be my muse. I’m going to start with his song lyrics, and see what they reveal. I think he’s also worked on screenplays, maybe written a book or two? I’m sure amongst all the slow piano and gravelly murder ballads I’ll find a few moments of levity…

So by the end of this week, I will have two roughly written tales, each around 2500-3000 words. I’ll also be looking for people to read some of these shorter pieces, and offer feedback, so message me if you’re interested.

Ok, time to research whaling stations, Nordic ghost stories and companies who create pub quizzes.

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Beneath the fold: What’s in a name?

One of the first issues I encountered while writing a first draft of my manuscript, was naming my characters. I searched baby name lists for hours, and I began to realise what a huge descriptor a name can be. Who’s more likely to cover up a murder, Tom or Ash? Is Celeste going to be the wicked step-mother, or Griselda?

By the end of last week, I had a list of 17 short story ideas. That’s a lot of names. So I went for a walk in the local cemetery for inspiration. I roved between stones seeking ideas, and trying to avoid an old woman adding new flowers to old memories.

Amongst the Corona and Jim Beam bottles filled with flower stems (hello small town New Zealand…) I found elaborate names, solid names, even vampire names. Lorna and Charles Pompey. Thomas Hossack. Victor Hamilton-Hyde. But in general I found that the fields of the dead in a very young country, are very, very localised. Fine if I want to set my story in rural New Zealand in the 1960s. Not so much for labelling Viking chieftains.

So the hunt continues. Someone on Reddit mentioned looking at the Immigration and Emigration lists from the countries you’re interested in. Another suggested war memorial sites, lists of the dead. Morbid, yet interesting…

 

 

Sounding the drums

Colour writing

It was half day through day one that I felt a ripple of relaxation shift through me. When the same thing happened the next day, I understood its source. I had given myself permission to write.

This three months of creative productivity  wasn’t an easy thing to commit to. It has meant dropping out of full-time work, and a consequential drop in my income. I’m not money-focused, so the numbers aren’t important. But I place a huge value on harvesting experiences, some of which consume cash. Particularly the ones where I board a plane with a belly full of anticipation, and a thousand dollar ticket.

And of course I have bills to pay, a share in both a forest and a house truck to pay off. So I’m working in an office two days a week to cover all of this. And coffee. But parts of me have had to be put on hold.

I live in a country which is not given to celebrating the arts. Our statues are rarely of philosophers, or novelists, or painters. The result of this is that patrons are few, novelists are rare, and “suffering” for your desire to create isn’t generally understood. And so the decision to simply write takes a combination of self belief, considerate friends, and a supremely understanding partner.

So as much of a thrill it has been to let my imagination draw me forward, I have also had to plan to make my writing a business. It’s a confronting realisation. As much as this 88 days is going to be about generating stories, it is going to have to equally be about self-promotion. I don’t have an agent, nor a publisher. I don’t yet have a track record of works printed in The New Yorker, or Granta. I need to earn my own reputation.

Writing is a quiet pursuit. Me, a keyboard or notepad. Maybe birdsong, or Lorde’s new album on a lower volume than it deserves. The world has no audible or visual clue idea that I’m unfurling scenery, painting characters, summoning mythology. For all they can see, my brow might simply be furrowing in lieu of Tinder responses.

When you practice with your heavy-grunge band, the world is alerted. A couple of beers, a wall of amps, and the wail of feedback, there’s no denying your output. When I painted murals around walls, an audience was assured, commentary was inevitable. But my words threaten to lie cold within the cage of my laptop. Colourless without a mind to project them, silent without a consciousness to voice them.

I heard a wonderful quote this week, though I failed to make note of the origin. Or the exact words. But it was something like “what a joy it is to remain hidden from the world, but what a crime it is, never to be discovered”. For five years I’ve remained largely silent about my stories. It’s time to start beating a drum. And over the past seven days, I’ve started to understand that I shouldn’t be beating it just for myself.

One of my tasks in week one, was a hunt for community. And what I’m finding, is that I need to be that community, as much as to find it. Once I find inspiration in someone’s talent, or tenacity, or imagination, then I need to make some noise for them as well. I can’t write as part of a band or troupe, but I know I can be an enthusiastic member of other people’s audiences.

So I sit in the shade of the seventh morning, listening to the thudding of my heart. I’m preparing to work not just on the foundations for my own success, but also to begin  contributing to the elevation of others.