Why do we read?
Because we’re curious, about other people. We want to find out how people different from ourselves think and feel and experience life.
As writers, therefore, we are obliged to satisfy readers’ curiosity. How? With imagination.
I’ve always had unruly hair. Long ago (I’m sixty-five now) it was ginger and tightly curled. At the age of eighteen I had the finest Afro of any white boy in the county of Devon (this was long before awareness of cultural appropriation, and I was very proud of it.) At some sad point it began to recede, a joke played by the body upon its inhabitant that has proceeded remorselessly. (I read recently about the exorbitant amount of money spent on research into male pattern baldness. It’s not enough.)
The only option
Anyhow, eventually, like many aging men, a buzz cut became one’s only option. For me, this has to be repeated every few weeks, because the (paltry amount of) hair on one side grows faster than on the other, and gives a mad professor look. The obvious explanation for this faster growth is increased electrical activity beneath the skull in that area. Since the only part of my brain that does significant work is my imagination (while other parts tend towards a more relaxed approach to living, let us say) one may conclude that there lies the site of this vital resource.
Of course, this is fanciful nonsense. The electrical activity comes not from imagination, but from concentration.
Having conducted research, made notes, spent hours/days/weeks lying on the sofa gazing at imperfections in the ceiling, one is surprised by energy and begins to scribble or type.
The story begins telling you
Jim Dodge, American novelist and creative writing teacher, wrote that: “A peak of my artistic endeavours, one experienced by many writers, occurs at that mysterious point where you amass enough momentum that you stop telling the story and the story begins telling you.”
He continued: “I absolutely don’t mean to suggest that the secret to writing resides in simply pushing the pen till the Muses, out of pity or respect, blow you some inspiration, On the contrary, what the Muses seem to favour for getting out of your mind is a concentration so ferocious and total that you seem to disappear.”
That’s all very well, but what is one going to write about, to satisfy our readers’ curiosity?
Personally, for inspiration I read crime reports online or in our local paper, the Oxford Times. A while back there was a headline: Stabbed man who headbutted patient is jailed
The article beneath the headline began: ‘A convicted rapist taken to hospital after being stabbed by a drug dealer has been jailed for headbutting a patient.’
Let your imagination get to work
This is kind of mind-blowing, isn’t it? Miraculous compression. The material for a short story in three lines. In case we needed more, the article concluded: ‘the defendant’s barrister said he was in hospital for two days after the fall-out with his drug dealer, whose attack had left him unable to move one eyebrow.’
When I say inspiration, I don’t mean that I have myself written a story about this nasty person, who not only inflicted sexual and physical violence on others but when it was inflicted upon him – he was stabbed by his drug dealer – he was left not mortally wounded, or disfigured for life, but… unable to move one eyebrow.
No, I’m not moved to write his story, but I’m reminded of the extremes, the craziness, the danger of human beings. Inspired? Maybe liberated is a better word. Find the reality that liberates you, and let your imagination get to work.
Tim Pears is our 2022 Short Story judge