My last blog was a bit down-in-the-mouth, but maybe it struck a chord with some of you. It was a long time since I’d felt an impulse to write and without my fingers on the keyboard, I was frustrated and incomplete. Kate Pullinger understands: ‘Many writers write because they feel compelled to do so; because if they don’t, they aren’t happy.’
The Muse, fickle thing, reappeared as the blog went to press and now I have two new stories in my unpublished drawer. It’s a mystery, this writing business. I can’t say: ‘Today I’ll write the first 500 words of a new story’ because nothing happens. I can’t tackle it head on like clearing out a cupboard but have to wait until I glance something waiting in the wings. I have to creep up to it and see if it stays with me or runs off. Where does writing come from?
Over the decades, interviewers have asked authors, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ Neil Gaiman used to give the type of flippant reply the question deserved:
Then I got tired of the not very funny answers, and these days I tell people the truth:
‘I make them up,’ I tell them. ‘Out of my head.’
People don’t like this answer. I don’t know why not. They look unhappy, as if I’m trying to slip a fast one past them. As if there’s a huge secret, and, for reasons of my own, I’m not telling them how it’s done.
And of course I’m not. Firstly, I don’t know myself where the ideas really come from, what makes them come, or whether one day they’ll stop. Secondly, I doubt anyone who asks really wants a three hour lecture on the creative process.
When a seven year old in a class recently asked him the same question, he tried again:
You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.
My two new stories grew from images which begun as words spoken by others, and stayed with me, demanding my attention. After a friend’s mother died, she faced the task of dismantling her house and belongings. It took her a year, with many tears, to painstakingly sort, store, sell, keep and give away a lifetime’s possessions. A wise, calm woman, she did it with a gentle patience, driving four hours each way to the house where her mother had lived, and returning with a boot full of carrier bags and boxes. She treated every item with dignity, wrapping in tissue paper items whose value lay in what they had meant to her mother. There’s a surprise twist in my story though.
More recently, another friend, newly retired and restless, told me that from her dining table she can see the red E3 buses on the home straight approaching from the far end of her road. They circle the roundabout below her windows and come to a halt on the other side of the road. There they wait for the clock to tick towards the precise starting gun before setting off on the same journey all over again. What a metaphor. My story fits a woman’s life into that bus loop.
White Lies started with my elderly, widowed father recounting his war memories over and over again. In his late 90s, those years of active service were the adrenalin-charged high points of his life, his days of purpose and glory. He talked about his sand-filled life in Libya as a Desert Rat in World War II and about the unfathomable guerilla warfare of the Mao Mao uprising in Kenya. Unable to listen to stories I knew by heart, I sat him down next to me and ordered him to dictate. More emerged, bolder and more emotionally coloured, and with his memories came my own questions about the truth of his version of history and of colonialism. A novel was born. Yes, the soldier, David, is based on my father, but the other characters joined him of their own accord. No, I don’t know where from.
But the idea or image or string of words is only the starting gun. Whatever captures the attention and emotions has to hang around, take on emotional colour, mature, until like a very ripe cheese it has to be consumed. Ursula Guinn explains, taking the lovely word ‘composted’ from Gary Snyder. ‘The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted, before it can grow a story.’ I use the image of planes circling above an airport until one of them is called down and lands.
Linen Press author, Avril Joy, says that Sometimes A River Song began when she heard the voice of Aiyana and it’s that voice – lyrical, sensitive, unique – that carries her wondrously poetic novel. Avril has a strong sense of place and watery places often trigger her stories, but amazingly she has never been to the river in Arkansas where her novel is so convincingly set in all its rich, sensual detail.
I agree with Neil Gaiman that writers are often day-dreamers who spend their time tuning in to images and thoughts that flicker on and off inside their heads. I own up. Walking the dog, under the shower, the ticker tape runs on. Most of it hits the bin afterwards, but I must listen or I might miss a glimmer. My ideas come as fragments and scraps, single memories or haunting images. Some are non-stick, others cling on until I look hard at them and recognise something. A story shimmers in the distance like a mirage. Only when I start to write will I know if it is real.