Finding stories is fundamental to being a writer. It’s all very well to have ideas, but converting them into narrative is crucial.
Following on from A story to tell‘s first pearl of wisdom, in this second pearl from artist and writer Richard Holt he shares how he looks for the story in everything — even a rice cooker. Richard’s main message is don’t let yourself not write. Keep notebooks. Use sensual or environmental prompts. And never ever assume that an idea isn’t good enough.
Watch this nine-minute video to explore the depths of Richard’s narrative excavation and discover your own ways to generate so much material that you’ll never face a blank page in the same way again.
Doing that whole exercise was like saying to myself for the next year writer’s block does not exist, you know, you don’t have it, you can’t have it. And so, at one point I was sitting in a room with a computer being my blank canvass staring at me, taunting me and all I could do was look around the room. What I love to do with objects, characters, situations and this is my strategy for finding stories, is just say to myself “What is the story in that?” There is a story. I don’t know what it is, but what is it? Let my head go and try and find it.
In this instance all I could see was a rice cooker and so I asked myself the question, “What is the story in that rice cooker? I am going to sit here and write the story of that rice cooker and I’m not going to leave this computer until I’ve got it down.”
And so I wrote the story of the rice cooker. As it turned out, the rice cooker wasn’t in the room I was in, the rice cooker was in a department store and there was a young man who wasn’t interested in the rice cooker or cooking rice or anything of that sort, but quite interested in the sales girl who was selling the rice cooker. Hence the conversation and a little bit of whimsy and that was the story. But there it was. I had to ask myself “What’s the story” – it wasn’t a great story but there was a story there. Yes, excavation – narrative excavation.
The blog is still up but hasn’t had a lot of published stuff to it recently. Periodically I do publish stuff there, so that’s that small stories aboutlove.wordpress.com and there are some other stories at bigstorysmall.com. So those are the two blog sites that I’ve published the stories to.
One of the things about publishing online like that is that there are some publishing opportunities that don’t want stories that have been published online. I sort of was aware of that and I was willing to cope with that, but now I’m keeping a few stories back to pitch in other ways.
I’ve got loads of material, but there’s still some good stuff there and I love that very short fiction form. I think probably particularly in Australia there’s a long way to go to really explore that format. Magazines like Seizure are doing a great job with very short fiction and Spineless Wonders, out of Adelaide, are publishing a whole lot of really good stuff. But it seems to be still flying below the radar for the major literary magazines that don’t seem to have explored that form at all. It means that you’re getting a lot of stuff online which is great, but it also means that there’s a lot of fairly undeveloped stuff and you know, having published 365 of those things in a year – there’s plenty there that could have done with a bit more work. There’s also some real gems there as well.
I have print outs of all 365 but one of the difficulties I have at the end of that project is that I can’t find stories. There’s that many of them and I forget what I’ve called them. I think to myself I want to do something with that plot I had about the tree coming down and I’ll do a word search through a compilation of 365 stories and it can be a bugger of an exercise finding the actual story I’m looking for, which is a good thing. This story is called The Swimmer. This is a draft of a piece that was published in ‘Stoned Crows and Other Australian Icons’, which is a compilation put together by the Spineless Wonders.
So The Swimmer:
One morning while running, Ollie Perovic, thought he spotted a swimmer momentarily within the featurelessness of the new day’s grey but he couldn’t be sure. There was no colour, no contrast, no light or dark, no horizon. Later he thought perhaps he heard a distant voice calling but as it was early spring plenty of boisterous groups were using the foreshore – boot camp warriors and football clubs, so he thought nothing of it. No-one past as he trudged uphill to the beacon and over to the footbridge. Only later that day as he headed back to the office from Soup King did Ollie recall the two possibilities: the swimmer and the voice, each as uncertain as each other. The coincidence of these memories brought about the kind of dread that stuck with him all afternoon. He was unable to concentrate on the Pathways Report and found himself checking online news sites every few minutes. Though the media reported no-one missing his brooding uncertainty persisted.
A week later as he shuffled along the sand of Eastern Beach in the thickness of another fog he imagined he heard a call from the direction of the waves. With barely a thought, he pulled off his running shoes and t-shirt and leapt into the water. He was a better swimmer than runner and had put 300 metres between himself and the shore before he realised the icy conditions were getting the better of him. His limbs began to cramp. An all-over shiver ran through him. Looking to the shore he could just make out a figure on the beach-side path jogging in a heavy plodding gait that seemed familiar. Ollie Perovic called without hope across the waves with all that was left of his flagging strength.
That one I know exactly. I was sitting in a café one of those mornings where – a beach side café where the horizon completely gets lost and there’s no distinction between the water and the sky above it. It’s just all flat plain of grey and I was watching a fellow swimming and he swam out to a point where I lost sight of him. It was one of those classics where there’s sort of environmental prompts that just said – you know, so when I said to myself, “What’s the story there?”, it came fairly readily. It was one of those ones that just had a twist at the end. We’ve got all these things happening. We’ve got the location, he’s heard the voice but there’s still more of the story. You keep interrogating your story to find out what the ultimate story is, I guess.
I actually think coming up with a strategy like that is worthwhile. It’s a bit of just imposed discipline which I’m not always good at so I needed something probably more extreme in order to set myself a task and stick to it. But the other things, I think, you know, I love – the sort of prompts I like are prompts. Sensual prompts. One of my favourites is smells. Recall a smell go from there – sounds, smells. You know, sights – things that we see aren’t as full of stories as things that we smell, I think, or things that we even overhear.
I try all sorts of strategies myself and I think you have to be flexible and sometimes the usual thing about keeping notebooks or just files on the computer, if you’re keeping stories as a blog, use the drafts function and throw ideas into your drafts. Rifle through your drafts and say here’s some more ideas. Get online and have a look at the starter exercises that various writers suggest online. Get a hold of a book – all sorts of writing – books that have suggested writing exercises.
In the end don’t let yourself not write. Never assume that an idea isn’t good enough. It can be just the tiniest thing and see where you can take it and stockpile them. There are times when I have too many ideas and some of them are pretty daft. I’d rather have too many ideas than not enough. You know, I can pick and choose and say, okay, “Today I’m going to work on this particular piece” and it’s there, it’s waiting for you. Have the pieces waiting for you as much as you can. If you get up in the morning face that blank piece of paper or blank screen and then start scratching your head, you’ll start looking around for other things. Good advice: have something ready to go.
To connect with Richard and his work go to: