I’ve been a bit glum. It’s been a while since I’d felt any urgent impulse to write and without my fingers on the keyboard, I feel incomplete. Just biding my time. Kate Pullinger understands: ‘Many writers write because they feel compelled to do so; because if they don’t, they aren’t happy.’ https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/sep/20/katepullinger.writing.fiction
After I’d bored everyone with my complaints and worries about never writing again, the Muse, fickle thing, reappeared and stood behind me while I wrote two new short stories. 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 rolling up my sleeves to clear out a cupboard. I have to wait until I glance something waiting in the wings. I have to creep up and see if it stays with me or runs off. Where does writing come from?
I’m not the only writer to ask this question. Many interviewers ask the same of authors: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ Niel Gaiman used to give the flippant reply the question maybe deserved until he decided to be honest instead.
‘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.
My two new stories begun as words spoken by women I knew well. When a close friend’s mother died, she faced the task of dismantling her house and belongings. It took her a year, through 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 based on what really happened. I won’t give away the ending.
More recently, another friend, newly retired and unhappily restless, told me that from her dining table she can see the E3 red buses on the home straight, heading for her flat. 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. It’s become a blackly funny joke in our emails. I ask her what she’s doing. ‘Watching the E3 buses go round the roundabout,’ she emails back. What a metaphor. My short story fits a woman’s life into that bus loop.
My debut novel, White Lies, started with my elderly, widowed father, a soldier all his life, recounting his war memories over and over until I was sighing with impatience and boredom. Yet I understood that at the age of 97, those years of active service were the adrenalin-charged high points of his life, his days of purpose and glory. His family life seemed to have faded away leaving him forever young, purposeful, armed, at war. He talked about his sand-filled days in Libya as a Desert Rat in World War II as he fought Romney. He has a thing about being clean shaven and told me he would use the dregs of his one cup of tea a day to make sure his chin was smooth. Yes, even while fighting Germans in the Sahara he had to shave.
At other times, he told me about the different and often unfathomable guerrilla warfare of the Mao Mao uprising in Kenya when he and his troops tried to track down the Kikuyu in the dripping dark forests of the Abedaire Mountains which the natives knew like the backs of their hands. He told me about being on armed patrol at night while my mother barricaded herself with us, her two small daughters, in her bedroom, a chest of drawers rammed under the door handle, a pistol on the bedside table. Yes, I too remember that. My sister and I live with the legacy. We still sleep on our right sides. Then, according to our childish logic, if a black warrior broke his way in, his knife stabs would not penetrate our hearts.
Unable to listen to the stories I knew by heart without fidgeting or cruelly changing the subject, I suggested he dictate them while I typed. A soldier’s memoir. By this time, he was living a two minute walk away where I could keep an eye on him and take him shopping and to the library. And regularly to the barber because short hair ranked up there with being clean shaven. Twice a week he turned up with his words and his memories. I’d make him a cup of coffee, just how he liked it – milky, very hot, two teaspoons of sugar – then we’d settle to our task. In the spells between writing, he’d clearly been reliving his memories because more details emerged, bolder and more emotionally coloured. With his vivid, embroidered stories came my own questions about the truth of his version of that period of history and of colonialism. I read about ancient tribes losing their territory, their way of life, their dignity as they were forced to become labourers for rich white farmers, without rights, without medical care, without hope. A novel was born. Yes, the soldier, David, is based on my father. His wife, Mary, and the Intelligence officer who really knows Africa are fiction. My sister and I inhabit the pages only as ghostly voices.
However, the idea or image or string of words that triggers a piece of writing is only the starting gun. Whatever it is that captures my attention and emotions has to hang around and 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.’ brainpickings.org/2014/11/21/ursula-k-le-guin-where-do-you-get-your-ideas/
I have an image of planes carrying starting points circling above an airport until one of them is called down and lands. .
I agree with Niel Gaiman that writers are often day-dreamers who spend their time tuning in to thoughts that flicker on and off inside their heads. I own up. Walking the dog, weeding the garden, under the shower, the ticker tape runs. Most of it hits the bin afterwards but I must listen or I might miss a glimmer. My ideas come as fragments and scraps. 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.