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Are stories made, or found?

Published 6th February, 2018 in Writing

Part Two:  Something, from nothing—freewriting in action

In the first part of this series, I showed how ‘freewriting’ emerged from my adolescent journaling habit as the key means through which I find and build stories. The following shows how I used this method to write the short story, ‘Ferryman.’

Whilst visiting family in Scotland, I was using my spare-time to write. Though I had no specific ideas, I knew from experience that freewriting would let words find their own way. And so, on a ferry and train ride from Dunoon to Glasgow, I wrote very quickly about everything I’d noticed over the past days and weeks.

Two hours later, I arrived in Glasgow with a dozen pages of mostly incoherent codswallop. No problem! I knew I’d find something in the dross worth working on.

That night, I trawled the scrawl, extracting phrases, ideas, and images that struck me. There wasn’t much, but something is always better than nothing: via freewriting, the blank white page had already been conquered!

The scraps I extracted had no obvious connection and included notes about: a crow trying to tear open a garbage bag on the shore of a loch; learning to walk crab-wise on black ice to avoid slipping; the beauty of the town’s war memorial glowing in the snow-light; how this beauty contrasted against the silent horror of the men’s names chiselled into the frozen stone; a news report about a baby who’d been shaken to death and the fact that, though both its parents were suspects, only the father had been remanded.

Watching the ferrymen work against the spectacular backdrop of snow-capped mountains and deep, dark lochs, had also made me ponder such oppositions as: mortal vs. timeless; ordinary vs. extraordinary; natural vs. man-made; individual identity vs. anonymity; dispensable worker vs. essential work; safety vs. danger; real vs. romantic; surface vs. substance. I’d likewise noted contrasts between the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world,’ and wondered what it meant to be an Antipodean in the northern hemisphere.

I’d essentially ended up with two kinds of notes: those focussed on the concrete (potentially the stuff of plot, character, setting and imagery), and those focussed on abstractions (potentially the stuff of theme and meaning). I knew the contrasts I’d observed were promising—for oppositions and contrasts exist in tension, and tension is the dynamic force that propels stories into being. Just as promising, were the resonances that had made those specific notes leap out at me.

Resonance, like an aural itch, is bloody annoying—for, until you find its cause, you cannot ignore it. So, I began to freewrite from, around and between my culled scraps. I found myself writing about the potentially dangerous, always prescribed—and often romanticised—masculine roles of soldier, worker, father. I culled notes from each freewriting attempt, using them as prompts for more writing, until the resonances I’d originally detected morphed into the one thing I needed: a voice. Bingo! From nothing, I’d found—or made?—not just something, but someone.

When I’ve found a voice, I’ve found my path—and the writing process changes. The intense roving of freewriting transforms into the quietness of listening. Once a character tells me their worries, I have the bones of a story. Now is the time for crafting and drafting, fleshing those bones into something whole—my eye increasingly trained on imagined, future readers who must be seduced into the character’s mindscape. This crafting-drafting stage can go on forever, and only ends once I fear that I’m overworking the material. Then I chuck the story away and try to forget about it.

With time’s passage and the astute feedback of my editor, I was lucky enough to revise ‘Ferryman’ for republication. Reading the story anew, I saw that I’d trusted its narrator when I shouldn’t have. Worse, I’d sympathised—rather than empathised—with him. I’d thus failed to recognise that he isn’t just an unreliable narrator, but that he is aware of his unreliability, and that this awareness is a significant source of the anxious tension that drives his story and gives it meaning. I thus set to work removing my covert attempts to give readers answers where they should only be asking questions—especially the major question that the ferryman himself is stumbling towards: What is it, exactly, that patriarchy does to men?

Stories are—of course—both found and made, resulting from an individual’s desire and ability to see, explore and then harness the complex forces that constitute the self in the universe, and the universe in the self. Freewriting is, for me, the key that can open these universes up to everyone.

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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