In my last blog post, I wrote about the phenomenon of children ‘birthing’ writers and how the ups and downs of motherhood prompted me to once again ‘pick up a pen’ after decades of not writing creatively at all.
In this post, I want to talk about births of a different kind – the birth of story ideas. This is a question which all writers will face at some point. Readers are fascinated by ‘the spark’ and tend to pose the question on the assumption that there is a secret ‘well’ of ideas, accessible only to writers. This is not true. Or, if such a well does exist, it remains secret to me too.
The truth is that humans are fish, and we swim every day in an ocean of story. We just can’t see it. As the saying goes – fish don’t know they’re in water.
To view life as a narrative requires a particular way of seeing the world. The antenna must be ‘up’. Connections, not immediately obvious, must be made. Observations noted. Ideas must be tested – not all of them are good, I have learned.
How do I know good from bad? Well, the good ideas grip me. My brain, almost subconsciously, starts to join dots. When I write, it will feel as if I’m capturing truth and not simply ‘telling a story’.
I’ve been lucky enough to have four stories appear in Margaret River Press anthologies, each one with a very different genesis. Here’s where they came from:
‘The Life in Her Hands’, published in The Trouble with Flying, and other stories (2014). A young mother is at her whit’s end. The baby won’t stop crying. In desperation, she takes the child to the beach where a crowd of young people has gathered to celebrate their end of their schooling. One of them, a boy, notices the mother and for a moment, her identity is restored, but when things on the beach take a dramatic turn, she is forced to make a choice between her baby and her old life, which is not really a choice at all.
The events of this story are not autobiographical, but the emotions certainly are. ‘Write what you know’ is such a hackneyed piece of advice for emerging writers and yet, as with most clichés, there’s an element of truth. This was the third short story I’d ever written, but it was the first to encapsulate the dual feelings of hope and hopelessness that I’d experienced in the wake of my first child, and the sense of having irrevocably changed identity.
The setting was based on a small coastal town in which I’d holidayed a number of times and seemed to mimic the alternate feelings of beauty and lost opportunity that parenthood also evokes.
‘Glory Season,’ published in Lost Boy and other stories (2015). A young woman travels to far northern Australia to hang glide ‘the morning glory’ cloud, in tribute to her dead father.
Walking in Sydney’s glorious Centennial Park is a near daily part of my routine and has been the source of inspiration for many short stories. In the days before podcasts, I used to listen to the ABC radio. One morning, there was a report about ‘the glory cloud’ – a natural phenomenon in the Gulf of Carpentaria where, every September, a barrel-shaped cloud rolls like a wave across the sky and gliders come from all over Australia to ride it.
This was my spark, but the initial incarnations of my story were unsuccessful. A literary editor told me ‘this isn’t a great story, but it’s also not done.’ The language was too ocker. The story swapped points of view for no real reason. After three significant rewrites, the story found its home in Lost Boy.
‘Le Farfalle’, published in Shibboleth and other stories (2016). The ‘spark’ for this story came during a casual dinner where a friend who’d migrated in the 1970s from Armenia to Australia related a story of an insect collection he kept as a child – a collection he lived in fear of losing. Other relatives couldn’t understand his emotional attachment.
From there, I posed the question – ‘what if?’ – and allowed my imagination to take over. The child became an Italian migrant of the 1950s with a butterfly specimen collection that his father decided to give to a fellow migrant family. This is the first and only of my stories to contain an element of magical realism – as the specimen ends up taking flight into the darkness and serves as a metaphor for the migrant experience.
‘Habitat’, published in Pigface and other stories (2018). Last year, my husband and I took our three daughters to the Gold Coast. It was 24 years since I’d last visited as a ‘schoolie’. We visited the theme parks and my daughters did handstands up and down the sand. I couldn’t get over the contradictions of the place.
One glorious, sun-filled morning on the sand, we saw dolphins, threading freely up the coast. By lunchtime, we were watching them do co-ordinated jumps and tricks at Sea World. My daughter got to pat one. Both were brilliant experiences, but it made me wonder about our contradictory connection with animals and environment.
The story I ended up writing is about a family that moves to the Gold Coast. The father works in a mine, the mother gets a job at a theme park, their daughter gets a rescue dog, and the story revolves around the mother’s unease in their new environment.
I wrote and re-wrote this story many times, unsure what I was trying to say. Initially, it felt like the opening chapter of a book. I cut one thousand words and took it back to the key moments of conflict, back to the initial spark – my inner unease – that secret place from which so much good fiction originates.
Cassie Hamer is a Sydney-based writer whose short fiction has been published by Black Inc, Margaret River Press and Mascara Literary Review. Her debut novel, After the Party, will be published in 2019 by Harlequin. For more, go to CassieHamer.com.