Earlier this year, the writer Elaine Chiew invited me to read at a social and cultural event for London-based female alumni of Stanford University. It was suggested that I read a story with a female perspective. I chose to read Marmara, from The Syllabus of Errors, the story of a sixteen-year old girl at the end of an ill-starred relationship with a shady older man. The story is set in a seaside town in southern England just before the outbreak of war in 1939.
The discussion about Marmara after the event was lively. I was asked a lot of searching questions. Had I found writing from a female perspective hard? How did I go about this? How did I go about constructing a story that builds to such a crescendo? What was the inspiration for the story? Had I used consciously the literary motif of a woman drowning herself at the end of Marmara? Did I have an opinion on why suicidal women in literature, more so than men, tend to prefer a death by drowning? What is awakened in Rose, the protagonist, after the end of her relationship with Jeremy, the shady older man, if anything at all?
This discussion did get me thinking afterwards and the points it threw up seemed worthy of a series of blog posts. Over the next few weeks, going over journals and drafts, and brooding on just what exactly happens during the phases of a story, I will try to expand upon and continue the discussion about writing Marmara that began at the Stanford event.
Revisiting a story you’ve written a while ago can be a strange (and harrowing) experience. But what often strikes me on the rare occasions that I go over old work is that I can’t remember the writing beyond a sense of the atmosphere of the time (Marmara: the foggy, freezing January of 2008 and so cold in the house that I wrote most of the actual composition, the drafts, in pencil while sat in a café in the early mornings).
Our sense of the story when it’s still ahead of us, out there to be found and formed, often eludes us afterwards. Perhaps we are always only trying to write this story, not another, and hence earlier methods become useless. There’s no learning from experience in this game. Unless you write to a definite formula, and I doubt many short story writers do, or can, how we harnessed our imagination, how the magnet became so charged to attract so many iron filings becomes a lost technology. Starting a new story can feel like remaining in Britain after the Romans have left.
The Picture Show
Marmara had quite a staggered gestation over a few years before I wrote it. A number of moments of realization occurred between the hankering and the commitment to write it.
Marmara is set in a dark, rocky world of cliffs and mansions, fleapit cinemas and war memorials, very English, very drab. The story of the story starts when I found myself studying a colourful, almost abstract painting by Joan Miro, one that provides a complete contrast with the world of Marmara.
In 2006, I was still writing my long novel, Touching the Starfish, and was generally keeping a regime of writing between 7am to 11pm every weekday. I had always written a journal to clear my thoughts before doing any actual writing, but for some reason during the writing of Touching the Starfish I started to add other stages to journal writing, not just recounting and reflecting on events and my thoughts. I’d started to take an art card everyday and busk stories and ideas from it. I started to very much enjoy this process, partly because it made me write about things I wouldn’t usually write about and partly, I suspect, that it took me away from Touching the Starfish. About half of the stories in The Syllabus were seeded in this period.
On 19th October 2006, I drew Joan Miro’s Woman Bathing (1925) from the pack. Initially, this didn’t give me much to look at. A stick woman is standing in the sea. There’s no detail, nothing telling or interactive, and every thing is general and minimal, with only the rather beautiful indigo blue of the sea/sky to draw the eye. It’s a balmy, peaceful image, and balmy-peaceful isn’t of much use to me.
I started off merely describing the image to myself, letting myself jot things down freely: Overwhelming blue and all things are subordinate to the sea. Night swimming. A woman swims at night Half-moon, upper left. After this I made a note about the last time I had swam in the sea: Southend, 1990 (get all the personal stuff down and forget about it).
Later in the freewrite something happened. I started to reformulate the image in 3-D, like I was watching a film that played in my head. A woman is now walking out to sea. This kind of synaesthesia, the ability to experience one sensation as another, often happens to me when I stare at an image for a long time. The balmy beautiful atmosphere that drifts off Miro’s painting was absent and we now seemed to be in another landscape.
Can see a naked woman wade out to sea. The dark night, the silvery ripples of the waves. Moon high. Dark cliffs at the back and the slosh of the ocean. The swell coming up to her midriff. Can see as if I am a camera, low down, eye level with her thigh. She strides out to sea. At night. Why would someone do this?
The image is now a moving image, but what’s not so available is the sense I had of this seascape, these cliffs, being far more northerly, more English than the assumed locale of the Miro painting.
By this point I am not thinking about the Miro at all and am starting to ask a question as to why someone would wade out to sea. It is this turning of the image from representation to question that causes the seed of a story to germinate. I always ask myself after a painting exercise what use the image has or could be. Sometimes it just throws up details I can customise later, or a character’s name (a recurrent sketch for a story called Vostok in my notebooks became only a character’s name in A Short Story about a Short Film). Sometimes the freewrite yields absolutely nothing. The shift into synaesthesic mode here is the crucial thing , the shift from what to why.
I attributed several motives to the girl striding out to sea, all of which seemed obvious, melodramatic or boring. However, I did give it a title (a particularly horrible one), Jessica Strides, and noted that I felt this exercise could become the basis of a story.
Giving the idea a title, even a horrible one, is useful. Every time I had further thoughts about the girl wading out to sea, I noted them in my journal and used a capitalized heading so I could find it later. If I eventually wrote the story, I would be able to find all these notes easily and type them up onto a single document that could be used to further plan. The disorganized becomes organized.
However, over the coming months I had no great inspiration as to what the girl was doing. Everything I came up with seemed clichéd. Don’t know who she is. Don’t know where she’s going. Don’t know where this is. Don’t know what happens.
This all changed when I eventually read a true story. More on this next week.
Marmora is the ninth story in The Syllabus of Errors, published by Unthank Books in February 2013.