Tag Archives: ideas

The places stories come from (and take me to)


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…


The first 24 hours…

Week one

88 days began around 20 hours ago. I started by thinking about inspirations. People, ideas, countries. And so…

A theme for week one: Inspiration

So who inspires me? I asked a couple of friends, and all of them needed a little time. Actually, Linda gave me a couple to start, then retracted. I did the same. Should it be someone who’s directly affected my life choices? What’s the difference between aspiration and inspiration? Do heroes count?

Is it more likely to be people closer to home, people I can share a beer with? I’m slowly getting to know a guy, a guy who Hunter S Thompson once described as ‘sinister’. He lives in New Plymouth, plays guitar, and once ran a vegetarian cafe in Guatemala with his wife and kids. When this gent nods his head sagely at something I’ve said, or laughs at one of my jokes, I feel better about myself. Maybe he’s a truer choice than say…Hemingway?

And it isn’t just who, is it? Everything I write starts with an idea. A seed, a catalyst. Inspiration. I’m writing this paragraph in a rural cafe, perched at the edge of a busy (for New Zealand…) motorway. Unusually, there aren’t any coffee sacks on the walls. What’s the story with those sacks? Who makes them? What do the markings mean? What of the sack maker’s family? Community? The needle she sews with, the light he sews by, their dreams for their children.

So maybe inspiration can be found in an absence. Or in nuance, minutiae, seeming trivialities. If the devil’s in the details, then maybe him (should that be gender neutral?) and I are about to become firm friends.


A muse for week one

Last week I listened to two interviews with an American author who’s now in her mid 80s. She was forthright, opinionated, and yet gracious. I could imagine her putting Hemingway in his place, if they’d ever sipped bourbon in the same bar, and he’d gotten a little salacious with a waitress.

Ursula K Le Guin lives in Portland, Oregon. She believes in the power of the imagination. She can be commandingly forthright, but apparently balances her targeted tirades with gentle humour. Any of which draws me to her already.

So I’ll be hunting out this Californian octogenarian’s story, and looking into how she might inspire me. What she might teach me. Whether she hosts writers in residence, I hear Portland’s got quite the craft beer scene…


Finally, my tasks for week one:


1. Write a letter to someone who inspires me

Someone once told me how important it was to thank the people who inspire you. All of them. She explained that it seemed to be a relatively rare thing, even for people you expect would be almost burdened with kudos. And I imagine it is a wonderful compliment, a warm affirmation.

So I thought about the people who inspired me at the time, and then I went and worked another bake shift. But the idea got caught somewhere inside, like bubblegum in the carpet of my mind. And now it is time to follow through. After all, the same person convinced me to start writing again.


I need to do this one in the first week, to have any chance of receiving a reply by week thirteen. Am I even right to be hoping for a response? Ego check.


2. Find community

In my experience to date, writing is a solo pursuit. Lonely isn’t the right term, because I don’t miss company when I write. And yet somehow I find the presence of other people useful, comforting. I like to sit in a cafe, and focus on the page or screen. There, away from the lawns, the house bus, the Internet, my distractions are different. Someone’s pose, or tone, or half-heard conversation. Maybe the way they wear their sunglasses, or nibble at their bagel, or berate their child, that gets stored, or absorbed.

But there’s also that people-need of mine which isn’t writing specific. That desire to share and exchange notes about purpose, about vocation. One of the best parts about working in a busy kitchen, was the banter, the competition to craft the best shepherds pie, the nicknames for customers, the high-fives in recognition to a particularly well curated morning playlist. I need to find a writers kitchen.

I live in a tiny town, so people are a limited resource. Maybe I need to look online. Or do a few more trips around the country to do interviews with novelists, journalists. Or perhaps it’s as simple as finding out who the other person is who buys the German rye bread from the supermarket down the road.


3. Set long-term writing goals for the thirteen weeks

I need to have some longer term goals, and I need to set them early. I also need a range of interesting tasks lined up, so that there’s always a new challenge.

At the moment I’m hoping to achieve the following over the next 88…87 days, but I need to understand whether it is aspirational, underwhelming, or madness:

  • Write twice a week about the process, my experiences etc.
  • Write and submit a short story, and start another one
  • Write a feature story and submit it for publication
  • Re-read the manuscript of my first novel, then decide whether I move forward with it, or start a new one
  • Determine what part writing will play in my life, from day 89


Ok, I’ve got a craving for rye bread. Peace out.



Below the fold

This section is for trivia, photos, links, ideas. Non-essentials. Because often what we cast aside can be as useful as the things I cling to.

Muses I considered and then discarded for this week: John Pilger (old skool investigative journalist), Ira Glass (public radio story sponsor), Ernest Hemingway (American author), Colleen Patrick-Goudreau (compassionate vegan).

I discovered the website of the “Poets & Writers” magazine last week, as they host a stupendous list of publishers. It gives me hope of finding a partnership, if not a fortune:


One of the photos I considered for this posting, then rejected, because I couldn’t find any way in which it was relevant:

uni cxamo






The potency of ideas

reclaimed_world_v_by_reganbarsdellWhen we talk with people, frequently the conversations are about people or things. But a friend pointed out to me that the most enjoyable and unforgettable conversations, the ones that keep us up until 3:00am with light in our eyes and a music in our voices, they tend to be about ideas. I love these freeform explorations of theories about life, about love, about the games people play and how sometimes we just want to stop playing. We chase down possibilities and implications for hours, and as the sounds of a new day penetrate the haze of weariness we slip off to bed with dry mouths and happy hearts. And occasionally the ideas echo in our dreams and become part of us.

Of course ideas are often humble, ephemeral, things. I might have an idea that tea smoked sweet-potato might work well with a pork and cider casserole. The world doesn’t shift. But at their most potent, ideas can change lives, families or even the direction of the world. The distribution of confidential files via WikiLeaks, the creation of Braille for the visually impaired, the recording of Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’, these things were not accidents, they were all the result of ideas. The idea that there should be ways for anonymous sources to distribute important information, the idea that the sense of touch might replace that of sight in reading, the idea that there was room for an aggressive shift in UK dance music. The fundamental power of ideas is in their ability to transform, to invoke or contribute to change. Sometimes that results in a new flavour of crisp, occasionally it spurs a significant shift in global politics.

As a writer, I’m far more likely to attract people to my novels if I can raise interesting ideas. A novel is four hundred blank pages in search of an engaging concept. I want a night spent with my books to leave the reader feeling invigorated, excited, occupied, just like I do after an engaging conversation with friends. So I spend time reading of wolf hunting in old Russia and imagining what might happen were this tradition brought back to the rejuvenation zone around Chernobyl. I’ve spent the last few days trying to track down a Rabbi with whom I can discuss Judaic ideas on how to start a modern cult. I’ve started outlining a story set inside the hope bubble that ballooned in the second half of 2008 as the world held its breath as votes were counted towards Barack Obama’s election to presidency. The more I work with ideas, the more I understand of their potential.

But it was quite recently that I realised the impact that my own adoption of ideas had on directing my path through life. From ‘I need to visit a new country every year’, to ‘outrageous behaviour is my best hope for engaging with others and combating shyness’, ideas have long been the sub-conscious authors of my destiny. And with this realisation I began to understand ways in which I could take a more active role in plotting my own story. I examined my ideas about myself and the world, and I dropped a couple of them, and took on a couple of others. So now I have a few guiding ideas, they’re a little like beacon fires lit on distant mountains, they’re reference points for when I’m feeling a little lost. If I’m not sure whether I should pack in my office job and move to the country, I look to those ideas for an answer. If I’m not sure about whether I should begin creating my own alcoholic bitters to sell at local weekend markets, again my ideas can offer enlightenment.

Of course this means the ideas I choose to adhere to become very important, as they’ll influence decisions on everything from relationships, to careers. I’ve become even more reluctant to take on someone else’s ideas. If I come up with a new idea myself then I have a chance of understanding of its genesis, but if I opt to take on someone else’s philosophy, then I owe it to myself to examine it carefully first. What are the costs and benefits, for myself and others? What evidence is there that it will lead to improvements for me, for my community, for the people I care about? I owe it to myself to analyse ideas before I choose to adhere to them. Thank goodness for those people who love long conversations over mulled wine or cider.

Nine years ago an Irish tour guide described to myself and a room full of backpackers his most recent journey. His description of the El Camino de Santiago, a 500 mile walk across the north of Spain with an ever-changing cast of characters, was enticing in itself. But it was the idea behind the walk that seeped into my sub-conscience, and eventually resurfaced a couple of years ago, after another set of long conversations. Last night as I wondered about the best way to deal with blisters, I listened to a Galician woman express one of her ideas about the Camino. She explained that many of the pilgrims started the journey with a pack heavy with the weight of their fears. They carried extra shirts against the fear of their own odour, medicine kits against the fear of illness and injury, and chemical repellents against the fear of insects. But quickly they come to understand the burden of this extra weight, and they begin to shed their baggage. And within a short time they travelled lightly, for distances which stretched beyond the end of the trek.

In three weeks time I won’t just be setting off on a long walk, I’ll also be embracing a new set of ideas.

On trying ideas on for size

Happy hour 1

I read somewhere that most people over the age of thirty never buy music by a new artist. I don’t ever want to stop trying new things.

I’m at an age where many of my friends have begun reflecting on their lives, as changes in circumstances affect their understanding of mortality. For some the onset of a middle age is unbearably significant, forty is so much more of a hurdle than thirty. Others watch the decay of their most solid relationships, too scared of what might lay beyond to end them with any sensible haste. And some simply find that their careers had been chosen to fulfil a society’s ambitions rather than their own, and it dawns on them that upgrading their BMW generates feelings of smugness rather than happiness. This is where I begin to understand how much my hodge-podge approach to personal development has helped me to transcend the fear of change. I still become broken down by the ending of beautiful relationships, and I wobble a little when I see a work position coming to an end.  But I have frequently taken opportunities to purposefully make big changes in my life and this ability to drive my existence in new directions has built a belief in my ability to endure.

Happy hour 2

Over this first half (ever hopeful) of my life I have drawn myself into other cultures, dwelt in foreign lands and passed through jobs as varied as chainsaw sculpting and mushy-pea making. I’ve chased any opportunity to widen my understanding of the world, and no doubt my progress through life has looked somewhat haphazard to others. But I’m now beginning to realise the advantages of being so open to new ideas. One of the most significant of these is that I understand at a very deep level that mine is not the only world view. I am far less likely now to deride someone for their beliefs, no matter how incompatible they may appear with my own. I’ll voice a counter opinion, but I’m quite happy to have that opinion modified or undone. I cringe when others use blanket statements like ‘men always’ or ‘women never’, because I’ve talked to so many of each, often with such varied personal and cultural stories. Open mindedness is a great counter to prejudice and stereotyping.

Happy hour 3

So often it is the challenging conversations with others that draw me on to new adventures. I made one of my greatest ever friendships last year with a woman who explained that after growing up in California, and then living in Germany and the Netherlands, she had found her true home in a trailer park in Colorado. So I flew to Boulder and experienced a small slice of this existence with her, and then we went and lived in a castle in Ireland because there’s an excitement that comes with stark comparison. And of those two living spaces it is the cluster of static caravans at the base of the Rocky Mountains that I miss and hope to emulate. Without acting on my curiosity I’d never have discovered just how small a living space I needed to be happy, as long as I could step outside into nature rather than concrete. Then at the end of last year I met a new friend, and her life decisions have led me to confront my understanding of vegan and vegetarianism as reasonable choices. I still don’t think I’ll ever give up oysters or cheese, but I’m building a better understanding of why some people do, and how destructive and disruptive it is to be dismissive of their ideas.

Happy hour 5

And so I begin another year wondering what new twists will be inspired by my reading, my encounters with others and my restless spirit. I frequently fail to consider how fortunate I am to be able to consider options out of want rather than need. I get to dabble in a thousand pastimes, a dozen careers, a hundred hobbies. The offset though is that I’ve become competent at a number of tasks and yet masterful at none. And in typing that sentence I realise that I’ve just gone against the advice I gave to someone recently. She talked of having no real singular talent, and learning to be ok with that. I pointed out that it might be our somewhat tight Western definition of talent that was at fault, as she has an ability to draw forth deeper thoughts and intensity from people. She’s a magnifying receptor for people’s hidden emotions and I see that being at least as important as nailing guitar intricate solos or being one of Mexico’s foremost free runners. So maybe I too just haven’t yet recognised my truest talent.

Another issue born of a constantly evolving life is that I’m over-aware of impending ruts. This leaves me less capable of gently slipping into contentment, to relaxing into a year or two of simple repetitive rhythms. For my sanity I need to continue learning, for my creativity I need to continue expressing. I find stretches of days spent in offices on repetitive tasks whittles away at my creative drive, and even my self belief. I need to counter this by plotting new goals and reminding myself of just how much pleasure can be drawn from the little things. That being said I’m finishing a contract and boarding a plane for Bhutan in a couple of weeks and when I get back from the Land of the Thunder Dragon I’m going to be investigating getting council permission to build a yurt. Leopards, spots, etc.

I see great value in continuing to learn for life. To consider each hope or dream as a real option is to be on the look out for improvement. I think it is when we run short of ideas that we can become trapped. Ideas are hope, they are the path to continued emancipation. If we’re caught up in an environment which limits or causes us to limit our ability to implement ideas, that’s where we can become buried under life. I found the United States to be a nation in which dreams were still a viable currency, there was still enough pioneer spirit in that enormous land to enable (or at least fail to interfere with) creative living ideas. I returned home to New Zealand with a head full of goals and found a country which has allowed itself to be choked by an ever-evolving colonial bureaucracy. Our government has become many of the things that Americans fear theirs is becoming, the most interfering of states. I’ll need to work hard to find others here who have learnt to circumvent boundaries, to gather support in order to further my ideas.

A few months ago I spent a morning in the Buffalo Bill museum reading of all that this adventurer had accomplished. At first I was embattled by feelings of inadequacy, of having never achieved greatness in any one field let alone a dozen. But then the self-flagellation gave way to my desire to advance, and I wondered how long it would take to learn to use a lasso. I love taking those feelings of doubt and converting them into inspiration. Maybe there is something in that, perhaps my talent lies in turning feelings of inadequacy into fierce inspiration, and in helping others do the same.

Happy hour 6