If only I could show you the fabulous blue sky outside at the moment. If only. But I have no camera, and even if I had a camera I’ve no idea how to hook it up to this computer-thingie (I’d probably accidentally create a black hole, or something). Let’s just say, it’s a gorgeous morning here, blue from edge to edge, and my garden is sparkling in the sunlight.
I’m in love with this day.
“i thank You God for most this amazing day:
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is Yes…” (E.E. Cummings)
It’s incredible how much difference a bit of sunshine can make to the nation’s mood. On the radio as I write, the DJ is asking for people to do a shout-out for the sunshine, to share their joy at the beauty of the world with everyone they see. To be fair, I can see how that might backfire, depending on the grumpiness level of the person with whom you’re sharing your joy, but I also think it’s a wonderful image – a whole country full of people yahoo-ing and high-fiving one another just because the sun decided to shine.
It’s also helping my mojo, in a major way. It’s probably no secret to you, if you’re a regular reader, that I’ve been feeling a bit (read ‘a lot’) uninspired for the last while; I’ve been having the whole ‘palpitations and heartburn’ thing going on, elevated stress levels, the whole lot. Since yesterday, though, I’ve been starting to feel better. On this beautiful hazy blue day, I can appreciate that part of my anxiety may have been connected with the weather, but it was mostly due to the fact that I felt like I was looking down into a big black pit of nothing, listening to it whisper ‘your ideas are all gone! You might as well give up, right now!’
Well, take that, big black pit of nothing. Are you ready for a revelation? Take a deep breath, now…
Yesterday, I wrote a story.
Yes! I sat down, an idea in mind, and wrote a story that seemed to just appear on the page. I printed it and read it over once I’d finished it, and then I left it sitting for a while as I busied myself with other things; finally, I revisited it, pen in hand. I did make some changes, mainly with descriptions and paragraph breaks, but it remained largely the same from draft 1 to draft 3.
Yes, captain. I, too, was flabbergasted.
This is a cause for celebration because yesterday morning, as I tried to get the writing ball rolling, I ended up doing the classic ‘staring at the flashing cursor’ thing. My brain felt like a slab of ice, and I realised I was starting to get the shakes, such was my terror that I’d never find so much as a single letter to place on the white page in front of me. After a while, I couldn’t take it any more and so I got out for a walk, I did the dishes, I pootled around for a bit, all the while tossing ideas around in my head. Everything seemed pointless.
Then, my beleaguered brain remembered something. It was sort of like throwing a rope to a person hanging by their fingernails – the last straw, of sorts. The whole day was going to go to waste unless I got things under control, and so I did the only sensible thing I could – I listened to myself.
Here’s what my brain was whispering: Shirley Jackson! Read some Shirley Jackson!
I have a tiny Penguin Popular Classics edition of five Shirley Jackson short stories (entitled ‘The Tooth’ – recommended) among my books; however, I hadn’t seen it in months before yesterday morning. Within seconds of my brain’s SOS call, though, I had the book in my sweaty fist, and I did what I’d been told. I sat down. I read the book, start to finish, all five stories in a lump. As I read, my mind started to slow its whirring, and my heart thumped a bit more gently, and eventually my shakes came to a stop. Reading these stories was the best thing I could’ve done.
In case you’ve never heard of her, Shirley Jackson‘s work was amazing. Another author who died far too young, she was a master of the short story form, and one thing she did really well was suspense and gently creeping horror. She wrote stories which seem somehow weird as you read, but you don’t really know why until you get to the end, when your jaw is left hanging at the words on the page before you. Her story ‘The Lottery’ is one of my favourite pieces of short fiction, ever, and I couldn’t believe it had been so long since I’d read it.
And so, once I’d finished reading, I sat down and wrote my own story, straight through without stopping; my story is, of course, nothing like a Shirley Jackson story, but the important thing is this: it came to me after I’d filled my brain up with all the lessons her stories teach. Suspense, hinted-at horror, excellent dialogue, descriptive touches, deft flicks of colour and detail, sensations, unease rooted in the body, making the everyday seem somehow strange and different – all these things soaked into my dried-up brain yesterday, and resulted in me breaking through a block I’d had for nearly a week. Reading her stories made me realise what a short story should be, how it should work, and the power it can have. As well as that, it gave me back my conviction that writing stories is important, meaningful and worthwhile.
So. If you’re having a hard time with your words, perhaps try taking inspiration from the classics. Of course I recommend Shirley Jackson, but there’s also Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Ray Bradbury, Maeve Brennan, Emma Donoghue (not sure she qualifies as ‘classic’, since she’s still alive!), and so many others.
Go outside into the sunshine, and bring a book, and read it. And then add your voice to the chorus, and never listen to that black pit. The ideas will always be there, if you’re quiet enough to hear them calling.
Have a lovely Thursday!