24. Inner Voices – where do stories come from?

I almost didn’t write this particular blog. And that was the clearest signal that it might be important to do so. I felt, and I still feel, there might be something perilous in it.

The topic is simple – where ideas for stories come from. The peril is more complex – the danger of playing the author, that of being thought fey, but perhaps most of all the fear of transgression. But it has interested me this week, and so it might interest you too.

An idea has been coming to me. It has felt powerful, so much so that I’ve roused myself from half-sleep to write notes, which are often incomprehensible the next morning. I think the thing that fascinates me is that I still have no clear sense of what the idea is. There’s a powerful sense of mood, and glimpses of a few scenes. See what I mean about the danger of being thought fey? I’m not a mystic, and I’m not subject to visions. But that’s what it sounds like when I try to describe the process.

The idea is strongly connected with an untrustworthy narrator, something I’ve been intrigued by for some time. The narrator conducts the reader through the story with godlike omniscience. But what if the reader knows the narrator is not to be trusted, because he’s a fool, a liar, or clearly deluded? How do they make sense of the story then? Can they form an independent judgement of the events the narrator is confusing? I don’t yet know who the narrator is, or what the plot is. But I know it has something to do with the way we spin stories to make sense of our world, or to create an impression of ourselves we want others to have. So the theme is something to do with the idea that we are stories we tell to ourselves and to other people. The structure is one of stories within stories, each mirroring the same tale. I know also that it has something to do with time, and with luck. I’ve had glimpses of a winding alley in a souk somewhere, in which sit two vendors, one selling time and the other luck.

Here’s where the danger comes of playing the author. I would like to be able to say “my characters appear to me, and whisper their stories in my ear” – that sounds so authorial. But it’s not quite like that for me. What comes first to me is an idea, a world if you like. The plot and the characters emerge out of the idea, sometimes only after quite intense interrogation of what the idea means. Somehow that seems inferior. It shouldn’t. Indeed, when I read what I’ve written here, it sounds as if should be quite authoritatively masculine. Nonetheless, to me it’s not how I imagine the act of writing. But, it’s the way I create, and there’s nothing I can do about that.

And I’m intellectually fascinated by the way this story is coming to me, in moods, in fragments. As if the story isn’t mine, but is something out there that I’m catching glimpses of. And this is the third danger, that of transgression. If I’m impatient, if I close on my prey too soon, I fear destroying it. I will give it words which are not its own, but mine.

You know that image of the writer who has struggled for ten years with his book? He spends hours at his typewriter (it’s always a typewriter not a computer). He types furiously, then tears the paper from the rollers and crumples it into the bin. He tears his hair. The words are not the right words – he searches for the perfect words. After ten years, his novel is one page long. At the top of the page is written “Chapter 1” and then a carriage return and then one word, “The”. I identify with that story.

That’s not say that I have writers’ block. Quite the reverse, I write quite fluently. I have a compulsion to write. What I identify with in that image of the writer is the concern not to transgress, not to distort the idea with clumsy inelegant words and sentences of grotesque shape and colour. Close your hands too soon, and the real story will vanish between them like fog.

For the moment, I’m able to be patient. I’m letting the idea come to me. I’m transcribing my handwritten night scribbles into computer files, and resisting the temptation to put too much order on them. I allow myself to believe that eventually they’ll form a pattern I can recognize as a plot, and that from the scenes will step the characters who alone could have performed those actions or had those thoughts. But patience is hard. The temptation of transgression is always there.

I’m holding the temptation at bay with the aid of other writers. At the moment, before I sleep, I’m reading a little bit of Songs from the Laughing Tree by A.U. Latif. A style less like mine would be hard to imagine. His imagery and confection of words is rich and more for tasting than reading. The prose doesn’t flow linearly but is wild as an enchanted forest. In other moments, in other moods, this might irritate. I could imagine being wanting to get on with the plot, and casting the book aside. But at the moment, it’s just right. I’m reading it less as a story than as a tool for exploration. Nightly, I slip into his world, and plunder my own subconscious with snares wrought by Latif. Perhaps, he is writing my story too. I know for sure that I’ve already purloined from him the merchant who sells time.

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