Ideas are easy. Making you cry was the hard bit.
I’ve been making a study of writing for a few years and there are three recurring and heavily emphasised pieces of advice that creative writing texts and courses invariably proffer;
* Keep a notebook
Of the three, reading is the most important. If you don’t read you won’t be able to write. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t internalise that simple message then you will fail as a writer. Simple. When I read Raymond Carver I marvel at his characters talking past each other—I tried that idea when Florence and Eddie answer each others’ questions out of order. When I read Lorrie Moore I laugh out loud and then am thrown emotionally by a profound piece of rhetoric that smothers me in her maudlin humanity. She can make me laugh and cry within a sentence. It’s miraculous and I want to do that. My story ending’s metaphor of life’s tattered blanket is my attempt at emulating one of the greats. When I read Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, I become physically breathless reading the first chapter as the pace is incredible. Short sentences. Single words. Alone. His genius in using sentence structure to get the reader reading as quickly as the action of the men deciding whether to hold onto a rising hot air balloon is staggeringly effective. So I copied the underlying technique. Shamelessly.
The notebook ( or electronic equivalent) is useful. Into that goes anything that the artist in you notices. A snippet of conversation, the way autumn light falls through a canopy of orange, tan and bronzed leaves. If the poetry of life strikes you in those unexpected moments—write it down—it might come in handy in a year or two.
Inside my notebook were two unrelated (in time and space) snippets which knitted together well. (1) I was on a Turkish beach, very early in the morning. Hungover. I watched the small waves paint their darkness on the sand. It immediately seemed a good metaphor for persistence, tenacity, and perhaps futility too. (2) I saw a play some years back in Dublin—/Stones in his pockets/ by Marie Jones—In the play a man is witnessed entering a river weighed down with stones. It stuck with me as an image - I’ve no idea why, except the play is a marvellous tragicomedy.
But my story isn’t just a jigsaw of half remembered tidbits and plagiarised techniques forced into action on a theme of my choosing. No, the freewrite chose the theme. Freewriting for those that don’t know is simply the action of writing without stopping (in my case 15 minutes) and not worrying about anything - punctuation, spelling, gibberish output and general nonsensical whimsy. The pen must not stop writing—that’s the only rule. When I freewrite, the output (devoid of that internal editing critic that we all have) is invariably melancholic—that seems to be the way I’m made.
Usually within the free write output there is a nugget or two of an idea that is asking to be developed. I will then freewrite around that idea and keep going until I have enough on the page that I’m able to craft, cut out, add to, and edit for techniques and rhetorical effects.
So, my nutshell: Mine your memories and jot them down somewhere, copy the techniques of writers you read (and read widely), and get words down on paper with a free write.