Ah yes, I remember it well; that glorious ten minutes or so when an opening line which had perplexed me for a couple of years suddenly revealed itself as a fully-formed story. I remember it with clarity because it was a unique experience.
Stephen King says writing stories is like archaeology: we dig and brush away the concealing layers until we can winkle out what is hidden beneath. I guess that extraordinarily successful authors can afford to assume there’ll be treasure beneath the detritus. Myself, I’d likely dig up an old tyre, a bagful of plastic junk, a shoe or two.
My usual writing style involves a Great Leap Forward from a line, a paragraph, a jumble of words (Is there a market for story beginnings? Come and see me – I’ve got a thousand or more for your delight!) into the darkness of the unknown. Within that darkness I hope to land on the bones of a tale, which will support me as I cast around for the flesh to clothe them. More often, my downward plummet will be barely slowed by the fragile notion that “this will be good material in the future”.
On rare occasions those bones can be seen from afar, and I struggle towards them through a mire of sidetracks. “A Single Life”, the story which appears in Joiner Bay and other stories began as a Seinfeldian desire to write about nothing, or as close to nothing as I could achieve, but even nothing requires a jump-off point, and so it acquired a start and a middle and even a deviation along a path which was exercising my mind at the time, namely the uniqueness and intrinsic value of every person’s life, and the moral obligation to respect each person’s right to a good life. Primum non nocere. Before I knew it, there was even a conclusion. Was it the story which had lain buried, awaiting discovery? I doubt it. Ideas present themselves like dreams, and the act of pinning them down alters and shapes them away from their original form, but if they work, if they get through to even one reader, then they have their own legitimacy. That leap forward is almost always towards an as-yet unrecognised destination.
So, archaeology, skeletal rafts, mires of irrelevancies: my mangled metaphors accurately reflect the chaotic process which accompanies every leap. Writing fiction isn’t a science; for me, it’s a glorious, muddled art form in which inspiration and direction can present themselves in the most unlikely ways. Which leads me back to that amazing ten minutes and that opening line. While warming my backside in front of a heater and gazing into space, I saw the structure this story could take: a boy climbs a tree and slowly reveals the perimeter of his world. As I followed him from branch to branch, the characters and events revealed themselves until I gasped in shock. (Yes, truly.) So that’s what it was about! That story, “Climb”, really had been awaiting discovery. It was my first competition win and my first published piece. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Marian Matta began concentrating on the short story format in 2006 after being inspired by Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain and relishing the creative freedom provided by online fan fiction. Grandmother, history tragic, Internet junkie and circus student, she lives in the hills outside Melbourne, and is pleased to call Health Ledger her muse.