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Writing Ideas and Inspirations (7)
So here we are at the 7th instalment of my thoughts and musings, reflections, ponderings and completely unbiased opinions about where writing inspirations come from. This time I'm going to focus on that old idea that all writers only really write about themselves. The adage 'write what you know' is pretty true to some extent, because if you have experience, or knowledge of a subject, it must be easier to write about it. But is it a conscious thing to focus on our own lives for inspiration, or does it just come out that way?
Writing the Self
When I was at uni studying drama, my final year dissertation was partly about how we display ourselves on stage and whether the 'acting' is truly a 'pretence' ie invented, or is merely a reflection of ourselves. Or something like that. Anyway, my point is that whatever creative pursuits we follow, there must be some flavour of 'us' in whatever we create, and writing is no different.
As part of my final year work at uni, I opted to do a performance of some kind, and the nature of third-year drama students being what it is, that generally meant I had to do something by myself that explored an 'issue'. Examples of student shows at the time included performances about sexual abuse, self harming and schizophrenia.
I wrote a one-man show called 'Oh What a Lovely Wardrobe' exploring sexual stereotypes. The main point of the show, however, was for me to be on stage by myself, performing something I'd written, that would force me to be truly in the spotlight. Being on stage with no-one else to rely on is pretty scary, but it made a huge difference to my confidence.
However, while the show was about me to a certain extent, ninety-per-cent of it wasn't. Most of it was made up, sad or funny stories designed to get a laugh, prompt a few tears or to shock the audience in some way. Here's an excerpt:
He had a way with words.
He was dressed all in black shiny leather.
Well, he wasn't. Not that night.
'Cos it was Thursday and he was playing darts, but usually...
You see, 'Flash' wasn't really a Leatherman.
But he had a bit of a fancy for M.S.
It's like S.M. but it really hurts.
Telling the Truth
For a long time I would happily deny my writing was in any way a reflection of my own life, actions, history etc and instead declare that because I am a writer, I simply use my imagination. However, I did once write a piece as part of my play 'No Phones on Planet Pluto' that was very much based on my own experience, concerning a bout of depression I went through in the late Eighties (you can read about it here).
Looking back on it, I can see that (even though I say so myself) it was a fairly accurate account of how I felt at the time and though it naturally had some added dramatic tension, conflict and some great one-liners, I don't think I could say it was 'invented' in any way. I think the piece showed more of me than I'd ever shown before, or have shown since.
"It was like walking into the 'Slaughtered Lamb' on Werewolf Night."
Half-Truths and Other Lies
After writing the mental-health piece, I did begin to think a bit more about just how much of myself might be in my work. At the time, I was mainly writing stage plays, so maybe it wasn't so obvious, but looking at some of my stories and novels, I can see bits of me poking through.
Before I got properly into writing short stories, I wrote a children's novel called 'The Devil's Porridge Gang'. (Available as a free download from Smashwords). It's about a gang of kids who discover a kidnapping plot and is set around the time of the moon landings in 1969. I placed it very firmly in my native Northumberland and used (rightly or wrongly) quite a bit of regional dialect:
Mam came in with a tray of tea and biscuits. “What time d’ye call this, then?"
Sam glanced at the clock on the mantle piece. “Ten past ten, Mam.”
“Aye, very funny. Your sister’s up and out already, you know? Ah would’ve thought ye’d be away off wi your pals?
Sam sighed. “Ah’m away now.”
“Not without something inside ye, you’re not,” said Mam. “And by the way,” she took hold of Sam’s shoulder and leaned down to him. “What time did you get in last night?”
Sam looked up at her. “Oh, Ah divvent knaa…aboot nine…?” he ventured.
“About nine?” said Mam. “You weren’t in your bed at nine.”
Sam knew this was a bluff. Mam always went to see her friend Sadie on a Monday night and was never home before half past ten. “Ah was reading,” he said. “Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. It’s aboot these huge plants that take ower the Earth. It's really good.” Sam gave her a wide grin, but he knew Mam wasn’t convinced.
More Half-Truths and Other Lies
While there was definitely something of my childhood in that first novel, it's in my short stories that I can quite clearly see reflections of my past. In terms of inspiration, I think it's fair to say that on some occasions I have undeniably been thinking quite specifically about some aspect of my own life when I started to write. However, what I end up with is something completely different:
The smell of sweat-damp wool hung in Tom's nostrils. He sniffed hard, trying to clear his throat. The shed floor was littered with wood shavings, scattered tools and discarded items of clothing. The woman who lay in his arms breathed slowly, regularly. Lifting his head slightly he noticed the vertical channels of pale light which poured through the dark shadows of their unexpected intimacy. Tom closed his eyes. "Jesus..."
In this case, I had a very strong image of a garden shed in my head when I was writing this particular section, but I'd started the story with a completely different idea. Although the story ended up being called 'The Shed' (and the image I have of it is a very specific shed from my childhood), the story isn't about that at all and it just kind of popped up at the right time.
In my flash fiction story 'The Hermit' I began writing on a day when I was feeling a bit down, and this came out very clearly in what I ended up with:
No, she isn't a solitary person at all. She has, for instance, a very healthy Facebook account and her Tweets are almost continuous on certain days.
In 'Girlfriend, Interrupted' once again, I couldn't escape the feeling I was writing about a particular person, someone from my past who I felt had hurt me very deeply. While the story isn't about her (I keep telling myself), it was incredibly difficult to make the leap of imagination that I usually make, when the truth is left behind and make-believe takes over. But I suppose, you can't win 'em all:
Three days after she told him she didn't want to see him anymore, she called. He was surprised, of course, and more than a little apprehensive, since what could she possibly want but to apologise, beg forgiveness, claim insanity?
But no, none of these.
In 'His Dead Mother' I started writing about something that happened when I was a kid, without really thinking that it was a story (and I'm not really certain if it is a story). A friend of mine's mother had died, but because he never mentioned it, I naturally focused on that very thing, and always wondered what had happened:
Like a series of old photographs, I can see Tony's house and its contents quite clearly, though I know it was most likely completely different. I remember the living room, with its solid, central dining table dominating the space, as those sort of tables did in those days, when families still ate together. I was never invited in, but left on the doorstep while he took a lifetime to find a coat, a scarf, or a football. And often, in those few quiet moments waiting at the half-open door, I'd peer along the gloomy hallway and see his father at the table, or standing in the kitchen, chubby fingers toiling with some unfamiliar routine, a melancholic smile telling of his grief.
The Best Lie of All...
The best lie, of course, is to tell ourselves (as I do), that we aren't writing about ourselves, that the story really isn't about us, that it's all just fantasy and bears no resemblance to anything in our dim and/or distant past. After all, we're writers, aren't we? That's what we do.
But then again, maybe it isn't.