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Are stories made, or found?

A guest post by H. C. Gildfind

Part One: A writer is someone who writes, right?

In my teens, I kept notebooks which recorded thoughts and feelings and the ‘goings on’ in my wild, rock ‘n’ roll life as a nerd. I thought that ‘writing out’ problems would help me fix them, or purge them, or at least understand them—and I hoped such notes would provide ‘material’ for stories (being bookish I, naturally, wanted to be a writer). I also used those notebooks to do ‘freewriting’ exercises because I’d read that this was what ‘real writers’ did. For some reason, I wrote about everything except myself in these exercises. I was pursuing the relief and wisdom of ‘outsight,’ rather than the oppression and delusions of ‘insight’—though I didn’t understand that then.

As I got older, I noticed that, though my notebooks were piling up, my completed stories were not. I’d begun to wonder if writing about personal stuff just rutted problems into the mind, entrenching dubious narratives that were exceptional in one way only: exceptionally boring. What sort of ‘material’ was this!? Even didn’t want to read it, and it was about my favourite topic: me!

Luckily my freewriting exercises were much more interesting: within the scrawl glinted compelling images and weighty phrases, whilst snatches of alien voices could be heard singing—or was it drowning?—in the dross. But what was I meant to do with these intriguing scraps? I began to suspect that my notetaking was a substitute for ‘real writing,’ an active avoidance of the phenomenal time, work, skill and blind faith needed to build something whole and meaningful from scattered parts. And so…? I stomped on my suspicions! I kept taking notes—because I liked taking notes, and it was easy taking notes. I wasn’t ready to bite the bullet.

After a few years, I moved houses. I gazed at the mountain of notebooks I’d dragged with me, and then I rifled about, searching for the few magazines I’d been published in. Slim pickings indeed. I tasted the bullet and—finally—I bit it. Ouch! Who was I kidding? I was getting old. I was going nowhere. I didn’t quite know where I was meant to be going but I sure hoped I wasn’t destined to become ‘a professional writer-of-notebooks,’ or a fleeting TV-star on Hoarders: because that’s all I was doing—hoarding words.

I gazed at my beloved tomes for the last time, and I admired them for their stealth—for what could be a sneakier means of avoiding writing than writing itself?! Then I torched them. As I watched them burn, I thanked them for their service. They’d fostered a daily writing habit in me. They’d given me a safe place to play with words and gain confidence about my own ideas, values and voice(s). They’d proven to me that stories do not spontaneously materialise from notes and ideas. And they’d shown me the powerful magic of freewriting.

‘Freewriting’ is really a misnomer. There is nothing romantically ‘free’ about the instruction to ‘keep your pen moving’ for a set period of time. There is nothing romantic about a dogged belief that inspiration comes from perspiration. And there is nothing liberating about my particular agenda to write in the pursuit of ‘outsight.’ Of course, the personal prompts—and is prompted by—such writing, but the writer’s job is to keep stretching the personal away from itself until it snaps and connects, via the imagination, to the rest of the world. These moments—when the conscious collides with the unconscious, and subjective experience collides with objective reality—are when the personal enlarges into the universal. These moments are what stories are made from.

This pre-story stage of the writing process is, as I well know, potentially addictive because it’s so exciting: anything is possible! This stage can also be stressful, not only because it’s hand-crampingly, brain-fryingly intense, but because it’s uncomfortable having no idea where you’re going—all the while knowing you may be sweating your way to no damn place at all. Well, sometimes discomfort is good, because it’s telling you that you’re going somewhere new, somewhere you can’t even—yet—imagine.

As my notetaking days taught me, though, means are not ends, and travelling is not arriving. The following shows how I used this method to write the short story, ‘Ferryman’ (PDF).


Part Two: Something, from nothing—freewriting in action

Whilst visiting family in Scotland, I was using my spare-time to write. Though I had no specific ideas, I knew from experience that freewriting would let words find their own way. And so, on a ferry and train ride from Dunoon to Glasgow, I wrote very quickly about everything I’d noticed over the past days and weeks.

Two hours later, I arrived in Glasgow with a dozen pages of mostly incoherent codswallop. No problem! I knew I’d find something in the dross worth working on.

That night, I trawled the scrawl, extracting phrases, ideas, and images that struck me. There wasn’t much, but something is always better than nothing: via freewriting, the blank white page had already been conquered!

The scraps I extracted had no obvious connection and included notes about: a crow trying to tear open a garbage bag on the shore of a loch; learning to walk crab-wise on black ice to avoid slipping; the beauty of the town’s war memorial glowing in the snow-light; how this beauty contrasted against the silent horror of the men’s names chiselled into the frozen stone; a news report about a baby who’d been shaken to death and the fact that, though both its parents were suspects, only the father had been remanded.

Watching the ferrymen work against the spectacular backdrop of snow-capped mountains and deep, dark lochs, had also made me ponder such oppositions as: mortal vs. timeless; ordinary vs. extraordinary; natural vs. man-made; individual identity vs. anonymity; dispensable worker vs. essential work; safety vs. danger; real vs. romantic; surface vs. substance. I’d likewise noted contrasts between the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world,’ and wondered what it meant to be an Antipodean in the northern hemisphere.

I’d essentially ended up with two kinds of notes: those focussed on the concrete (potentially the stuff of plot, character, setting and imagery), and those focussed on abstractions (potentially the stuff of theme and meaning). I knew the contrasts I’d observed were promising—for oppositions and contrasts exist in tension, and tension is the dynamic force that propels stories into being. Just as promising, were the resonances that had made those specific notes leap out at me.

Resonance, like an aural itch, is bloody annoying—for, until you find its cause, you cannot ignore it. So, I began to freewrite from, around and between my culled scraps. I found myself writing about the potentially dangerous, always prescribed—and often romanticised—masculine roles of soldier, worker, father. I culled notes from each freewriting attempt, using them as prompts for more writing, until the resonances I’d originally detected morphed into the one thing I needed: a voice. Bingo! From nothing, I’d found—or made?—not just something, but someone.

When I’ve found a voice, I’ve found my path—and the writing process changes. The intense roving of freewriting transforms into the quietness of listening. Once a character tells me their worries, I have the bones of a story. Now is the time for crafting and drafting, fleshing those bones into something whole—my eye increasingly trained on imagined, future readers who must be seduced into the character’s mindscape. This crafting-drafting stage can go on forever, and only ends once I fear that I’m overworking the material. Then I chuck the story away and try to forget about it.

With time’s passage and the astute feedback of my editor, I was lucky enough to revise ‘Ferryman’ for republication. Reading the story anew, I saw that I’d trusted its narrator when I shouldn’t have. Worse, I’d sympathised—rather than empathised—with him. I’d thus failed to recognise that he isn’t just an unreliable narrator, but that he is aware of his unreliability, and that this awareness is a significant source of the anxious tension that drives his story and gives it meaning. I thus set to work removing my covert attempts to give readers answers where they should only be asking questions—especially the major question that the ferryman himself is stumbling towards: What is it, exactly, that patriarchy does to men?

Stories are—of course—both found and made, resulting from an individual’s desire and ability to see, explore and then harness the complex forces that constitute the self in the universe, and the universe in the self. Freewriting is, for me, the key that can open these universes up to everyone.

H.C. Gildfind is the author of The Worry Front, published by Margaret River Press whom also first published this article.

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