I’m not someone who’s generally given to writing about the writing process, firstly because I feel in no way qualified to do so and secondly because there are a million and one other bloggers and their grandmothers doing that already. Breaking that general rule, then, this is a blog about the writing process. Sort of.
Once a fortnight I head off to a local pub to meet up with other would-be writers living in or around my home town of Tunbridge Wells. Showing a disgraceful lack of imagination for would-be writers we call our group the Tunbridge Wells Writers (TWW), and we occasionally undertake group projects working under that collective name. Our last project was an interesting one, with each of us going off and doing our own thing with a remit that allowed for any kind of writing just so long as it was geographically based within or around Tunbridge Wells. This produced a collection of short pieces spanning all genres from kitchen sink dramas through to ghost stories and fantasy fiction, as well as a good handful of poems and monologues and a couple of non-fiction articles about the history of the town and some of the people who have lived here. There was even, heaven forefend, a short one act play in the style of a restoration comedy featuring 17th Century poet John Wilmot and his saucy little minx of a mistress in a pre-breakfast (and presumably post-coital) reflection on the nature of Tunbridge Wells society*.
What was really interesting about this project was the variety of ways in which different people responded to the same remit, producing a range of written pieces that, viewed individually, gave no hint of an underlying theme. This, to my mind, reveals just how personal the process of writing is, and the extent to which writers may be drawn to explore particular themes, styles or genres regardless of the remit offered them. Which is not to suggest, of course, that I/we/they are not capable of writing or thinking outside of the box, but just to highlight that even when doing so there is almost always going to be a degree of “slippage” where the personality, ideology and preferences of the writer indirectly influence the flavour of the end product, and that this is most clearly demonstrated when the writer is given a completely free hand.
I think this is one of the major problems with publishing today; that so much emphasis is placed on writing to specific models – be they of genre, construction, editing or style – that the individuality of the writer becomes lost and the “voice” behind a piece of writing is sacrificed in pursuit of a generic (and largely unfulfilling) everyman narrator. I’ve found over the past few decades that most of the books I get pushed towards by those making decisions about award shortlists (or even the long lists) tend to tick all the right “literary” boxes but are no longer relevant to me as a reader valuing content over style. It’s like the difference between a “boutique” cake shop cup-cake and the ones your mum used to make: while the former might look like a work of art and even taste wonderful there was a richness and depth of character to the singed misshapen blobs yo’ mamma used to pull out of the oven that no amount of butter-cream swirls, silver baubles or edible flowers could ever make up for. Or to put that another way, a taxi will get you from A to B, but a slow bicycle ride with a much loved friend makes the journey itself an enjoyable event…
The next group project for the TWW is a collection of 1000 word short stories based on a single photograph. We hope to produce from this a freely downloadable e-book which we will share via our website for Christmas. Had we thought more fully about that Christamassy aspect we might have chosen a different picture for our theme, but we didn’t so we didn’t. Instead, we are basing our writings on a late fifties/early sixties (?) Napoli street scene in what looks to be early autumn or spring.
We were discussing our individual pieces at our meet up this week, and again one of the most interesting aspects of the project is the variety of ways in which we’ve all responded to the same theme. Some of us have taken the characters shown in the picture, individually or collectively, as our inspiration while others have assumed the role of the “viewer”, focalising from the POV of an imaginary onlooker standing in the photographer’s shoes. Two writer’s (I think) have taken a more literal approach, writing about the photograph itself as an object being viewed rather than writing directly about the scene or characters depicted in it.
At this stage too it has been interesting to hear how people are progressing, some of us having finished our pieces (I’ve got two completed *whistle* and am toying with the idea of a third having been inspired by the angles some of the others have taken) while others are struggling to get out of the traps. Of those stories that have made it half way there appear to be some with missing beginnings, some with holes in the middle and some with yet-to-be-discovered endings, which emphasises just how different we all are in our methodology as well as highlighting that there is no “right” way to go about it, despite anything the How To books might want you to believe.
My own approach, for anyone interested, is generally a very intuitive one. I start with a basic idea or an opening line and just kind of write until I’m finished, often beginning the process with no clear indication of where I’m going to end up or where I might visit along the way. I would love to be able to say this is a reflection of how I live my life – a wandering free spirit who just goes wherever the fancy takes him and makes the best of it wherever he fetches up. Sadly, I’m not like that at all; more a worrier than a warrior and someone who has lost to hesitation far more times than he has boldly gone. Perhaps my approach to writing is some sort of wanky rebellion against that, or perhaps I just lack the imagination, discipline and confidence to make a proper plan and see it through?
Anyhoo, navel gazing aside, this linear, intuitive process was the one by which I wrote the second of my stories, but the first actually came to me as a gift from the story fairy. Having looked at the picture several times over several days I was completely at a loss for any ideas at all, and after a couple of false starts I was beginning to think it wasn’t going to happen. Then I went to bed and the story fairy (a second cousin of the tooth fairy) came and waved her magic wand over my sleeping form, and I woke the very next morning with the whole story fully formed in my head. All I had to do was type it up, and that was all done and dusted by the time I waddled downstairs for my early morning cuppa.
Some might say “that’s the power of the subconscious mind, that is” and who knows, maybe they are right. But then you can’t find a picture of the subconscious and use it as an illustration in your blog, can you, whereas pictures of fairies and books are all over the internet and a couple of minutes in Photoshop will give you a pretty good image combining the two. So thank you, story fairy, and goodnight!
*All these pieces were recorded as part of the 2012 Electric Lantern Festival, and are, for anyone interested, available for streaming or download HERE.