A month ago a writer friend posted about a challenge that she and other friends were taking: to develop at least one story idea a day for 30 days. Some great and all good ideas, and more than that, the perspective of seeing the exercise as one of ‘opening up a window’ in the mind to the possibility and potential of ideas all around you. (That age old question: where do stories come from?)
Her list was inspiring, as was the process. So I decided to give it a go as well. Some of my ideas came in spurts, however. Rather than do one a day, I sometimes had four or five in one day, and then none for a few days. That in itself was a learning point. The days when ideas did not ‘come’ were not days of blankness, but rather days when, as Marion Milner might put it in her book on creativity, On Not Being Able to Paint, my attention was ‘narrow and focused’, rather than ‘wide and waiting’. Her writing, in 1950 (and her books before in the thirties) pre-empted the psychological and neuroscience research we now have regarding ‘flow states’ of creativity as well as the benefits of daydreaming and absent-mindedness to creativity and ideas. (Freud got their first, of course. Or, as the now discredited Jonah Lehrer once put it rather beautifully if not totally correctly, Proust was a Neuroscientist).
My writer friend and her group tweeted each day on the hashtag #30days30stories. The discipline of getting the story kernel into 140 characters was also, clearly, very helpful, although that wasn’t a thing I took up on, as I was doing this for myself and my practice of bridging the connection between inner and outer worlds, the dream.
Rather, I took the opportunity to flesh out the ideas as I was going along, but what I did do, as much as possible, was stick to the formula that is at the heart of John Yorke’s Into the Woods and is known, if not understood, by writers everywhere, and is summarized by Cheryl Moskowitz as ‘every story has three components: a setting, a conflict and a resolution’. My friend’s list was really strong on this: simple pitches for stories that held not necessarily a beginning, middle and end, but certainly a setting, a conflict and the suggestion that it need a resolution.
And so I worked on the process of keeping my mind open to stories as I saw people in the street, read books and articles, overheard conversations (“So what if God has OCD?”) and listened to my own internal chatter but not to get caught in fantasy and rumination but to let those thoughts channel themselves into stories. It was a process of being story-minded, I guess.
And then, something happened.
I sat down to write one of these stories, one of them that felt like a very strong idea to me, and something that spoke to me and began to develop in my mind. It was also, I thought, something that would be recognizable and ‘wanted’ by the outside world and that I could enter into the Manchester Short Story Competition at the end of August. It was the story about the encounter on the Newcastle-Sunderland metro with an Islamic man. This part was the kernel, that one day I was sat opposite this very well dressed young Muslim, reading the Koran, most probably on his way to study at my university. The story idea came regarding what must happen, what has happened, many times, regarding the prejudices that Muslim people face when travelling on public transport. I imagined some sort of encounter between him and ‘proud, white, English’ people, and then some sort of twist. The story is below. Number 10.
But then I sat down to write it. And I spent a couple hours to begin with. And then I fell out of enthusiasm for it. I could not keep, as Milner suggests is necessary, “your mind totally concentrated on the excitement about the object, not split into two.”
I wondered if this was the usual problem with writing; that is, a first draft is always rubbish, and never lives up to the ideal story-image you have in the head (more on this below). It is only after re-writing and re-writing and re-writing that stories ever come close, and sometimes then not at all, but can still be good enough and acceptable. I wondered if this was to do with, as Ira Glass says, the gap between taste and craft that all artists begin with, and which is the work of practice to close.
But then I thought something else. A couple of things. I thought, first of all, that my first efforts were in a voice I was not comfortable with. But second, and I think this is important in relation to one’s values and one’s loves, and where it now touches upon the 21 Soul process of thinking not just in terms of a social self, but a soul self and an ecological self, I wondered if my enthusiasm for this story waned so quickly because it did not meet the needs of all three of those selves within me (and some of which have been more neglected than others).
That is, really, when it comes down to it, this story spoke of nothing to my ecological self, and perhaps only a little to my soul self. Yes, I could have a good idea for a short story that would, I felt, be recognised and liked in the world… but the story of racism, class and prejudice and human moral choices in relation to these things is so very important in addressing and writing about if we want our world to be a more compassionate, nurturing place. But they are not my stories. I think this is really important. I don’t know if I am speaking a negative thing here. But, for example, would I write the same books (the same stories) as Alice Walker: about women, race, Africa, myth? No, I would not.
It is something I have really struggled with in finishing my novel: that my novel was a novel that really fed the social self more than the soul self, and much more than the ecological self. Does my writing have to feed all three? I’m beginning to believe that the creativeness to which you dedicate your life, if that is what you wish to do, needs to nurture and speak to the things you are most passionate about, the things you love. Otherwise how will you sustain that concentration and enthusiasm?
These are thoughts really, and I’m not coming to any answer here, actually more questions. But as a useful next step, I thought I’d look at the list in this light, and think about how each of these stories might nurture the different parts of myself, or actually help me fully integrate those parts in producing creative work that I could be happy with, and intensely focused on. So here’s the list, and then below it, a little table (I do love tables! The rational mind is not unnecessary, after all) pulling together the stories that meet the needs of the different selves.
My Current Story list (the big novel ideas I’ve been living with for a while)
A: The Fire Bible: a young man David tries to keep his animal sanctuary safe while law and order begin to collapse, slowly, in the collapse of civilization as water and oil become scarce; when it is raided and the animals are stolen or slaughtered, he and his partner, Esther, leave their sanctuary to go on the road and find some safe community where they can again rebuild their (really his) animal sanctuary. Along the way they try to take care of the animals (David) and people (Esther) they meet, all the while David learning he cannot heal the suffering of the animals without attending also the suffering of the people, with whom they share the world. So David begins to find a way to heal himself by writing a new bible, The Fire Bible, with four elements instead of Gospels, which he hopes to be a guide to the new civilizations coming through the collapse. Theirs is a quest and a road trip story towards a goal of safety and community and balance but it is beset by the struggle against the dissolving world? Will they reach a safe community, will David write his book, and what will become of it?
B: My Father’s Debt: a young man Adam tries to find his father who has disappeared, and in doing so discovers all of the debts that his father has left behind, financial and emotional and practical, many of which Adam then has to contend with as he discovers not only his father’s story along the way, but also his own. The subplot is his dissatisfaction with his current life as a senior civil servant working for the MoD on the trident replacement, and his secret blogging and his move over to work for the Campaign Against the Arms Trade and falling in love with his contact there, Laurie, and their relationship as it builds.
C: The Kiss: a grizzly old Edwardian landowner tries to recreate the fraternal Greek demos in Lewes, Sussex, and has as its centerpiece commissioned a lifesize copy of Rodin’s The Kiss to sit at the centre of his imagined vision of brotherly love and philosophy, which all crumbles around him as World War I breaks out. A story of hope and tragedy and his final understanding and compromise of his beliefs to find not the inner vision of some nostalgic past but some new thing, some compromise that is good enough in this violently changing world. (Based on the real story of The Kiss coming to Lewes just before WWI.)
D: Obelisque (completed): a British psychoanalyst moves to Paris in the 1930s and opposes the famous Portuguese neurologist Antonio Moniz as Moniz plans to perform the first ever lobotomy at the hospital where they are both working; things become even more urgent for our hero when a patient of his, Marine Cizeau, gets entangled with Moniz and may be the first ever patient to undergo this new and dangerous surgery. Will Ben be able to save Marine in time, or will his own radical methods of using physical encounters in analysis put Marine at as much risk as Moniz’s new operation
+ 30 Stories
1. 16/7 An analyst who wanted to be a painter takes on a famous artist as a client and her deep desires emerge. Her ethics are challenged as she has to admit if she is getting more from the analysis than her client. Her painter has stopped working but has a major show, can analysis help him or will it destroy both of them?
2. 17/7 A retired sailor takes on a troubled youngster in the rebuilding of a boat as a means for both to reach their dreams / redemption and escape – will they overcome their prejudices and problems to succeed or will the obstacles keep them from their achievements (background: ecological collapse, sailor’s life, boy’s troubles)
3. 18/7 the life story of an artist who gives up his art and struggles with life even more until he takes back up his art; contrast of friends or brothers or lovers, one who gives up the illusion (or too much of it) and one who does not (not enough of it?) working on the premise of these two characters being part of the same split self. Will they find some mutual exchange and love and acceptance, and will they ‘succeed’ in what they hope to do in life, or will they never be able to compromise?
4. 19/7 A politician’s sense of self is deeply changed by a brain tumour, effecting his decisions before the operation and his personality and whole life afterwards. Can he regain his sense of self, even if that is of a new self, or will he lose all sense of self and also his power, family, world?
5. 20/7 Dear Heather… her life story and how she. A sick woman receives the book ‘The New Diary’ and starts to record the story of her life and discovers the person – and the sickness – she thought herself to be/suffering are not what she expected.
6. 21/7 Son’s father disappears/suicide and the son needs to decide if he will take on the farm and the community and the whispers of what happened. Will he find himself/father/purpose?
7. 22/7 A naturalist has to turn politician, activist and leader and schemer to protect a wildlife haven he loves in a time and war and change (future?). How much will he compromise and how much can he save and what will his actions lead to in the end? (Children of Men style UK future; long saga, historical stretching over life)
8. 23/7 Jonathan has had a run of bad luck and then sees someone in a fleeting glance who he absolutely believes will transform his life and makes it his obsession (when he sees this person again accidentally on purpose) to work out how that transformation will happen (but not stalking… think Chris Kraus, I Love Dick)
9. 24/7 A boy grows more upset by the growing level of road-kill and sets out to reduce the impact on animals, so challenging all the standard beliefs of this place in which he lives about prosperity, community, progress, living; will he change people in the village or will he fail against the wall of their death ears and of capitalism?
10. 24/7 Man goes to sit next to Muslim on train/tube who is being attacked, steps in, only to later find, when the police come to his door, that the Muslim was later arrested over the manslaughter of another person, not the one who attacked him on train, and in this it is discovered, or so the police suggest, the man was a terrorist and has a history of fundamental ideal… man thought so, looking at the Muslim’s burnt foot in his sandals… Man comes to stick by his story, ends up being seen as defending this Muslim terrorist, loses his own friends and moral position, feels he is being pilloried and hated for doing a kind thing… Then begins to question his actions, and what the Muslim in fact did, was it self-defence? Story unravels to point where man is challenged and needs to decide what kind of person he is.
11. 27/7 A man obsessed with obsessions finds a man obsessed about Bugs Bunny to write a book about, and becomes entrapped in his own obsessions.
12. 29/7 A young boy who becomes obsessed with William Blake as a way to overcome the tragedy and heartache of losing his father. Will he overcome or will he slip into the same pattern of tragedy that all men in his family have succumbed to, going back to… not Blake, but a contemporary, someone unknown or little known who could have been Blake, knew Blake. The books is called: Firm Persuasions. (My Father’s Debt?)
13. 1/8 A guy whose passion for X (‘the good life’ manifested in X) is thwarted all the way along (unknowingly, by his own behavior, which he projects outwards) his path, until he almost gives up and when he is at the very lowest point he comes to see, through the forced engagement where he is made to do something good for others based on his skills that he has but doesn’t want, because they are not what he believes he wants to be good at, and so finally sees the compromises he is offered, and at first refuses, as a chance he can finally can/must make to fuse together inner and outer reality, which he had been unable or refused to do before, therefore always failing to either succeed or to live happily. X is writing, X is money? X is recognition.
14. 2/8 A woman who is so depressed she cannot get out of bed and tries to kill herself but fails (face down in plant pot etc) discovers a new drug that changes her life and she becomes dependent and then addicted on/to it, has the high life, until she realizes she is losing the ability to feel anything at all, which in her life/career (as a writer with the task of writing a biography of a failed artist) is putting everything even more at risk…
15. 5/8 A man withdraws from his life and normal world after giving up on society only to be beckoned back to engaging again with society when his new home and new community (animals, mainly, and one or two people, a love affair, and a child) are threatened by capital development, e.g. fracking.
16. 6/8 Young inner city black boy wants to break world domino run record but no-one will take him seriously. He tries but is ignored. Then during the London riots he steals dominoes from Woolworths and Toys R Us, friends think he is nuts as they are getting trainers etc., he is confronted by security guard but the conversation develops into one of mutual grudging respect. On way home sees police knocking over some black boys…. He keeps the dominoes and sets up a run but of course doesn’t break the record but it kept him out of major trouble and he can go on to live a better life than those who stole for gain rather than for passion/desire.
17. 6/8 The Life of Rainbird. The life of an artist who only painted love even as all his love affairs failed, until he stopped trying to paint love, and instead began to paint…
18. 9/8 A group of young literary types create a new magazine (The New Era) in the shadow of the impending war that is coming and in doing so and failing tragically and beautifully their lives are set on new courses, each discovering the compromises they must accept to achieve a life worth living.
19. 9/8 A man goes under cover in a slaughterhouse for his job in an animal investigation agency and at a worst point of witnessing abuse intervenes only for the animal-abuser to be seriously injured, and the man’s life unravels. He is prosecuted but runs away, hides, becomes an animal activist, takes on an alternative identity, but his past then is always trying to catch up with him…? Hmm… no, is he proud of the past or is he hiding it?
20. 9/8 Two lovers who end up trying to murder the other one (metaphorically) because of a belief in the means of personal growth, each blaming the other over their relationship for their own failures not to grow, and both realizing, in the end, that they are blaming the wrong person. (Eigen: too bad we murder each other to grow)
21. 10/8 An analyst tries to help a successful violinist who is caught in a three way pull between his violin career, his passion for sculpting (at which he is quite bad) and his desire to change the world and be more activist, set against the backdrop of a quickening collapse in the food system. The violinist has begun to doubt his ability to ‘love and work’ when he is commissioned to compose a new piece and loses his ability to work and faces the challenge of re-finding the ability through a separate commitment – the teaching of a group of students who have barely composed before. This is really about the question of how to continue to live creatively and autonomously in producing art as the world moves towards crisis and collapse.
22. 12/8 A boy has a dream life that overtakes his real life throughout. Rather than be seen as mad somehow he creates a life for himself that is always on the verge of being lost but somehow the fact that he goes by dreams manages to keep him safe and successful and growing. A bit like William Boyd’s ‘Any Human Heart’ as a full life story but more fantastical and set slightly into a grim future (like Steve Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming.) the conflict is with the world that tries at all stages to get him to live a more rational life rather than one based on dreams.
23. 12/8 A philosophy discussion group has one last chance of staying together after being banned from venues all around town for their argumentative and aggressive behavior. Will they be able to find a happy home and a compromise between their positions or will they disband?
24. 12/8 Two lovers go on a Nietzsche tour holiday in the German and Austrian alps as a misguided attempt to rekindle and save their relationship. Will they leave together, or not at all? (Ha.)
25. 12/8 A visiting university professor of French language and literature while working in an unsettled middle-eastern country sparks a riot amongst students for giving too low marks on a test, and struggles to come to terms with his academic and ethical position in the ensuing chaos, to claim a grip on his principles and own ethics in light of the bigger picture when the army crackdown on the students leads to one of the ringleaders and students in his class being killed. (he has earlier tried to play it all with a straight bat and it led to the marks not being increased… also reading Wittgenstein, able to retain facts but not the big picture, also Russell, Cambridge philosophers… Read one sentence and ponder it for day)
26. 12/8 A scientist unwilling to see the implications of his work even as his life crumbles around him is given a final chance to counter his own work and redeem his being. The conflict is a person’s battle against their unconscious forces by which they are lived, holding to the logical ego even when the evidence of that approach fails, finally finding a path to self-surrender and creativity.
27. 17/8 Short piece diving straight into the life of an island commune and the path that it takes (through idealization to struggle and conflict and then to resolution, even if this is dissolution)
28. 19/8 A man survives a suicide attempt but with permanent (brain?) damage and has to live with the consequences of knowing just enough about what he has done to himself without really having, to begin with, the ability to deal with or change what he knows. Must learn to accept, and does so through the new relationships he begins as well as the old ones challenged (or in some cases renewed) by his act. Was urban and intellectual, but begins gardening therapy as well as coming to much greater understanding and compassion with nature and with himself. The conflict is with whether or not he is willing to face up to the things that drove him to suicide and to overcome them.
29. 20/8 Story of a man who loses the ability to speak and finally finds his voice in relationship to the things he loves and hates, his loneliness and liveliness, as he slowly loses the ability to speak and has to come to terms with this new life. Conflict is whether or not he will accept what is happening to his body and whether he can accept his voice or not.
30. 21/8 A short piece on removing the re- from all words, (e.g. words like removed) and is essentially about language, new beginnings, turns and most of all about writing. But is also based around the Dactyl and all the mythology that comes along with that. It’s about the idea of newness and not returns, so about present moment and not childhood, about seeing the world anew, not renewed, is about how we deal with now without (re)lying on the past.
Now this table is a bit of a rough methodology, and I guess the actual writing process itself feeds my soul self. But, as I think Fiona Sampson persuasively argues, writing generates text – it is both process and product, even if that product does not draw an audience. So I am looking at the content: the stuff that I will have to sink into to write these stories effectively and richly.
All three selves integrated
A: The Fire Bible
9: Boy and Road kill
Soul and Social
B: My Father’s Debt
C: The Kiss
1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 20, 21, 22, 26, 28, 29
Soul and Ecological
Social and Ecological
2, 7, 15, 19, 27
10, 23, 24, 25
Well, that was quite an interesting exercise. I went with my gut. Only two stories felt as if they were fully integrating all parts, and that there would be a bridge between inner and outer realities to reach some sort of fusion. So many of the ideas don’t touch upon the ecological, and that, I think, is a realization of where and how I am living my life, and the areas from which I draw thought and inspiration. That is: spend more time in, with, working with, the world. Getting hands dirty and caring for animals. But also, how cut off from our ecological selves we are.
Some stories were quite easily ‘only’ soulful and social, and much of the soulfulness coming from the medium – that is, writing literature. Such as My Father’s Debt… which sort of has elements of environmental / collapse setting in it, but is not really about this (it’s about the story of a son who tries to find his missing father and finds along the way his father’s debts to people, but also his own ‘debt’ to his father and mother).
But there was a sort of shadowy, grey floating area just below the fully integrated area, where I felt stories could go, if they were developed a bit in this direction. So, for example, the stories of the retired sailor and boy, the naturalist turned activist, the withdrawal story, the slaughterhouse story, could all move in this direction… maybe…?
Anyway, a very long post. Thanks if you’ve read the whole way through. But a really interesting exercise, one I must thank my friend for.
Now, a question. I’ll send this post link to a few people, and I’d be very interested to hear from you, from what you know about me, which stories you think sound most like the ‘me’ you know. Looking forward to hearing what you think – and no pressure, but my next few years could be spent on a project depending on your answers! (Only kidding. Sort of.)