What I like about creative pursuits – any creative pursuits, is that they make you view the world in a different way.
For a short period in my life when my children were little I dabbled in watercolour painting. For the same reason as intricate adult colour-in books have become popular the gradual building up of layers of water colour took my mind from the fraught world of child-rearing to only what was on the palette before me. This self-imposed therapy was deliberate but what I wasn’t prepared for was the difference painting made to my visual perception. I began to see shadow and shine, light and shade that had previously gone unnoticed. I registered the sharp shadow on the inside of a cup that would require a straight-edged swath of grey paint or one side of a softly sunlit leaf translated to an area dabbed with white.
I went walking with my friend the other day and her particular form of creativity is photography and scrapbooking. We came across a colourfully graffited wooden gate which I would have passed without a thought. But she immediately saw the juxtaposition of the bush and the gate and its potential for a cool photo-shoot with her two teenage children.
In the same way writing has changed my perception of the world. Outings, emotions, conversations actions, interesting objects are potential grist for the mill. Scenes play out in my head as I drive the car or sit in a café. This heightened awareness is not always present but when it is it can add depth to even the mundane. After all what is more interesting sitting in a train carriage mentally giving everybody relationships, occupations, goals, or just seeing them as a faceless crowd.
Story possibilities are everywhere, you just have be honed to recognise them – then extrapolate. I’m not always switched on to be ultra-observant but sometimes it is interesting to be forced into this situation. This was perfectly demonstrated by an exercise I did in an Australian Writers Centre course some years ago. The presenter asked the class to write a mini story about an event that happened the day before. She was strict about this – it had to be from the day before the exercise. The results from my fellow students amazed me. Even those, like me, who thought their lives were basically boring and uneventful. There were poignant stories of family relationships and atmospheric road trips. In one story a simple act of baking a cake became a moving tribute to the writer’s mother. I wrote about my son’s apparent failure to gain entry to local high school advanced class. He had previously been assured that he would gain placement by a teacher at the school who’d looked at his results, so this was an unexpected blow. As it turned out later in the day we found out he did get in – it was a clerical error. The ups and downs of emotions that day made for the basis of a story. Furthermore a family discussion about other times clerical errors have sold us short led me to extrapolate to a fantasy element. So in my story there became a curse on our family name which made it disappear from lists and people’s consciousness. I’d never have thought of this if I hadn’t been forced to retrospectively look at my day with the eyes of a writer. That exercise only involved ONE DAY in our lives how many story ideas could we mount up if we did that exercise every day.
By listening to interviews with great writers I have often noted they are masters of extrapolating small observations. An example which always sticks in my mind is presented in an interview with Irish writer Colm Toibin on Selected shorts (see link below). He introduces his beautifully written, subtle story ‘A Priest in the Family.’ This is a short story set in a small Irish town told from the point of view of the mother of a disgraced priest. The whole idea for the narrative originated from a mere single image that came to Toibin. This was an image of a priest pulling up his socks. Now a picture like this may flash through the minds of us mere mortals without a second thought. In more finely tuned minds small acts can become nuanced with greater meaning. As in this story the town’s Father pulling up his socks becomes a symbol of unspoken truths, discomfort and the need to set things right. Listen to interview http://www.selectedshorts.org/search/blog?s=a priest in the family (almost worth it if for Toibin’s lilting accent alone) Unfortunately the story itself is no longer available to listen to online but I would recommend Selected shorts as an good podcast for those interested in adult short fiction http://www.selectedshorts.org/podcast/
Have you ever had a small observation expand into a whole narrative?
In the next blog post I will explore methods to facilitate your imagination and record it.