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Are stories made, or found?

Published 11th January, 2018 in Writing

Part One: A writer is someone who writes, right?

In my teens, I kept notebooks which recorded thoughts and feelings and the ‘goings on’ in my wild, rock ‘n’ roll life as a nerd. I thought that ‘writing out’ problems would help me fix them, or purge them, or at least understand them—and I hoped such notes would provide ‘material’ for stories (being bookish I, naturally, wanted to be a writer). I also used those notebooks to do ‘freewriting’ exercises because I’d read that this was what ‘real writers’ did. For some reason, I wrote about everything except myself in these exercises. I was pursuing the relief and wisdom of ‘outsight,’ rather than the oppression and delusions of ‘insight’—though I didn’t understand that then.

As I got older, I noticed that, though my notebooks were piling up, my completed stories were not. I’d begun to wonder if writing about personal stuff just rutted problems into the mind, entrenching dubious narratives that were exceptional in one way only: exceptionally boring. What sort of ‘material’ was this!? Even I didn’t want to read it, and it was about my favourite topic: me! Luckily my freewriting exercises were much more interesting: within the scrawl glinted compelling images and weighty phrases, whilst snatches of alien voices could be heard singing—or was it drowning?—in the dross. But what was I meant to do with these intriguing scraps? I began to suspect that my notetaking was a substitute for ‘real writing,’ an active avoidance of the phenomenal time, work, skill and blind faith needed to build something whole and meaningful from scattered parts. And so…? I stomped on my suspicions! I kept taking notes—because I liked taking notes, and it was easy taking notes. I wasn’t ready to bite the bullet.

After a few years, I moved houses. I gazed at the mountain of notebooks I’d dragged with me, and then I rifled about, searching for the few magazines I’d been published in. Slim pickings indeed. I tasted the bullet and—finally—I bit it. Ouch! Who was I kidding? I was getting old. I was going nowhere. I didn’t quite know where I was meant to be going but I sure hoped I wasn’t destined to become ‘a professional writer-of-notebooks,’ or a fleeting TV-star on Hoarders: because that’s all I was doing—hoarding words.

I gazed at my beloved tomes for the last time, and I admired them for their stealth—for what could be a sneakier means of avoiding writing than writing itself?! Then I torched them. As I watched them burn, I thanked them for their service. They’d fostered a daily writing habit in me. They’d given me a safe place to play with words and gain confidence about my own ideas, values and voice(s). They’d proven to me that stories do not spontaneously materialise from notes and ideas. And they’d shown me the powerful magic of freewriting.

‘Freewriting’ is really a misnomer. There is nothing romantically ‘free’ about the instruction to ‘keep your pen moving’ for a set period of time. There is nothing romantic about a dogged belief that inspiration comes from perspiration. And there is nothing liberating about my particular agenda to write in the pursuit of ‘outsight.’ Of course, the personal prompts—and is prompted by—such writing, but the writer’s job is to keep stretching the personal away from itself until it snaps and connects, via the imagination, to the rest of the world. These moments—when the conscious collides with the unconscious, and subjective experience collides with objective reality—are when the personal enlarges into the universal. These moments are what stories are made from.

This pre-story stage of the writing process is, as I well know, potentially addictive because it’s so exciting: anything is possible! This stage can also be stressful, not only because it’s hand-crampingly, brain-fryingly intense, but because it’s uncomfortable having no idea where you’re going—all the while knowing you may be sweating your way to no damn place at all. Well, sometimes discomfort is good, because it’s telling you that you’re going somewhere new, somewhere you can’t even—yet—imagine.

As my notetaking days taught me, though, means are not ends, and travelling is not arriving. My next article will show how I’ve used freewriting to both find—and build—my short stories in The Worry Front.

H.C. Gildfind lives in Melbourne and has published short stories, poetry, essays and book reviews in Australia and overseas. Gildfind has also researched interwar Australian literature and history, has been mentored by novelist Andrea Goldsmith, and is currently working on a novel. Margaret River Press published Gildfind’s short story collection, The Worry Front, in April 2018.

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