When I’m intensely aware of a moment, like right now, sitting in a café, with clatters and murmurs, and there’s a sense of bustling around me and within me, it echoes with other moments I’ve lived through. I see myself sitting in other cafes, or on a park bench in London, or on a plane to Sweden, with Isobel. And I’m not only aware of things happening in that now and in this now. I’m also aware of things waiting to happen. Like waiting for a blog idea to arrive in my mind. But there’s a reduced service on the blogging bus route today, and I’ve been sitting at this stop for what seems like ages. (In fact, I’ve only sat in the café for two minutes.) I know I should never try to rush writing. If I try to make something instantly, out of thin air, that won’t work. I need to be patient, and watch and listen, inside and outside. When you are open that way – open to noticing moments fluttering around you like butterflies, some kind of writing may form. Yet, if you try too hard to make it up before it comes your way, then all the butterflies you glimpsed may vanish. You might get lucky, and see one tangerine-gold wing, glowing eerily for a few seconds. But – because you tried too hard to see it and it alone, the wing and then the whole butterfly and whatever story it was a part of vanishes.
When someone gives me a subject, it can be easier to get started writing. Like when I asked readers of this blog to suggest subjects. So, I wrote a story about ‘racism and the future’, here and here; and I wrote about ‘words and mental health’ here; and this post started off being about – the third top suggestion readers picked: ‘memories – the tricks they play on us and the games we play with them’. Then it morphed into also writing about writing. But I think that goes along well with thinking about memory.
I have a vague memory of being asked by a teacher at school to write about what I did in my summer holidays. I looked right through the empty lines on the sheet of paper on my jotter, and I saw tiny tracks of voles in mud by the side of the Dichty burn, and I heard again the soft trickling and tinkling of the water, as it flowed by where I sat, and I saw that the burn was carrying little now-and-gone stars, on its way to join the vast blue River Tay. But I didn’t write any of that down. Not then, and not for many years. In the classroom, I did not realise that the tale of those moments was telling me what to write. I thought it was just me daydreaming. So, I wrote: ‘In my holidays we did not go away anywhere far this year. I went outside a lot and played football. I went out on my bike. I ate a lot of ice cream but I was not sick.’ Or I wrote something like that. I only wrote what I thought I was expected to write. I didn’t tell anyone about the moments by the river. Or, how it came back to me as I sat in the classroom.
Creative writing is a bit like – what you might do if you spent some time in the opposite of a mental hospital. That is – in a place where delusions are encouraged. But there, the comparison ends. Eventually, if you keep writing, you learn that it’s a good idea, if you want anyone to read your stuff, to make some sort of sense, even if it is a weird, delusional kind of sense. A story, I think, always wants to move from one place to another. If it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s just a bunch of words.
As well as teachers and readers suggesting what you might write about, there’s other starting points. Writing groups often use objects to spark ideas. The skull of a bird. An old Beano comic. A rusty nail. A competition might have a theme: migration, time travel, or happiness. Some publications set different subjects for each issue. ‘Growth’ was the theme of the summer edition of Popshot Quarterly. My story in it is called ‘The Centre’, and it’s about a man who needs to develop or grow out of a deep sorrow to get back to living and being able to sleep again.
A theme or subject suggested by someone else might help you to get started writing, but no work ends with just a beginning. To travel to the end – of writing a poem, a story, or a book, you have a responsibility to keep listening to what the world is telling you. From the sound of a river to the way a man talks. In writing something long, like a novel, as I’m painfully discovering – you may have to listen to several different voices. Do that too often and you may not be able to sleep, because of the babble of voices in your head, and their ridiculous conversations.
Character A: “I wouldn’t say that.”
Character B: “Don’t ye mean: “I wouldnae say that”?”
Character A: “What?”
Character B: “Nah, man. Ye mean “whit?”. That’s what you’d say.”
Me: “Shut up the pair of you. I’m trying to sleep!”
There was once a very long series of moments when I got lost in a true story about spies for about ten years. I was not clearly aware of most of those moments as I lived through them, it was mainly a blur. That was in a time when I felt that all I could or should write was investigative journalism. It was occasionally a dangerous experience, because I was writing about dangerous people, but I learned a lot about research, and writing, and persistence.
Unfortunately, I often forgot or ignored the bits of my life which made me want to write. Moments under Seven Arches Bridge, walking along beside the Dichty. Woken in the morning by the soft prod of a cat’s paw. I forgot that I can never become the kind of storyteller I want to be unless I’m always watching and listening to moments, and remembering the most important things, which are ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Like remembering the first time I saw Isobel, one night at a friend’s birthday celebration in a pub in Dundee. My first sight of Isobel, sitting opposite me at a large, crowded table. She had no name, to start with. A small, beautiful woman, with short dark hair. Looking at her might be a moment that has happened to a lot of people; but not the way it happened to me. How we later sat together all night, surrounded by the babble of other people, but the only words were our words, and we spoke for hours as if we had always known each other, and we floated in a bubble that night, long before pandemic ‘bubbles’ were a thing, and I looked at a gaze I wanted to see forever and her voice was a stream of moments I wanted to always listen to. And it’s still exactly like that, after nearly 22 years.
I’ve a long way to go as a writer before a lot of folk say: “I read that new Harvey Duke book. It was good.” But I hope to write about a moment like that one day, as a memory.