A couple of weeks ago I looked at how stories die. Since then, I’ve been pondering the other end of fiction’s existence: its conception.
Where do stories come from? If I could answer that, I’d probably get rich. It’s one of those questions that wannabe writers always ask: “Where do you get your ideas?” And most of us reply, “I haven’t a clue.” Of course we may dress that answer up in academic theory and a few quotes from Harold Bloom or Carl Jung, but this is the truth of the matter: We really don’t know.
Last week I finished writing a new short story. Since then I’ve been thinking about where it came from and I arrived at this conclusion:
Stories are soup.
By that I mean stories come from a variety of elements and, whisper it, influences. Like soup, fiction isn’t made from one single event. Even chicken soup contains more stuff than, well, chicken. You need garlic, salt and pepper, a carrot or two. Oh, ask your Jewish grandmother. She knows.
My new story is called And Righteousness Shall Look Down. You probably guessed that there was some biblical influence from the title, but I’d mislead you if I said that’s all there was to it. This is the recipe:
- The juice of 2 friends
- ½ bible verse
- 1 song
- 1 quote
- 1 life, shredded
- Several ccs of bitter tears
Mix all together. Season with memory and pepper with frustration. Allow to ferment for a couple of weeks. Bring to a boil and serve piping hot.
Wouldn’t it be great if it were just that easy? At this point, I realise many cooks are laughing their heads off at the idea that balancing ingredients is easy. Hey, you choose your art and you accept the challenges.
Of course writing this story wasn’t so simple and clear cut. It owes its existence to ideas and moods and a plethora of other things I may never be able to identify. This is the mysterious alchemy of creativity. I have managed to isolate a few of the elements though.
My first conscious hint that there was a story ready to be cooked came with half of a verse from Psalm 85.11:
Truth shall spring out of the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
This verse ripened in my brain for weeks. It kept me awake at night and followed me wherever I went. I don’t know why. It’s a funny old place, the inside of my head. (Yes, yes, the outside, too. You’re hilarious.) After a while I was left with the image of a garden and some ideas about the word ‘righteousness’.
Somewhere in the middle of these musings I got thinking about a couple of people I used to know. One was a relative who had a terrifying talent (if talent’s the word) for holding grudges. The other was a friend I made when I lived in the US. The two women never met and were polar opposites. I took a lot of liberties with their personalities, but the characters who emerge in the story reflect aspects of them… With some tweaks.
“He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.” ~ Francis of Assisi
All of this seems fairly straightforward, but art isn’t art without heart.
A few weeks ago I happened upon a Kris Kristofferson quote about William Blake. Specifically, Blake’s pronouncement that if a person has been touched by God with the gift of creativity he or she has a duty to live up to that gift. In an interview, Kristofferson was asked what it was about Blake that “set him on fire”. He replied:
He was such a passionate artist and he believed that it was his duty, because God made him that way, to be a creative poet. He said… “If he who is organised by the divine for spiritual communion refuse and bury his talent in the earth, even though he should want natural bread, sorrow and desperation will pursue him throughout life, and after death shame and confusion are faced to eternity.” So for a young guy who wanted to be an artist it was a perfect inspiration.
Thus inspired by Blake, Kristofferson risked everything by walking away from a glittering, sky’s-the-limit life (literally: he was a helicopter pilot) in the military in order to be faithful to his creative calling. Not surprisingly, his choice was unfathomable to his family and friends. Kristofferson characteristically responded to their “lonely frustration” by writing a song. Called The Burden of Freedom, it contains this chorus:
I need to go back a step.
As all these thoughts and ideas were fermenting in my feverish brain, I was smarting from an event that had occurred at my writers’ group a few weeks ago. (I discussed it here: They Walk Among Us). Although I thought I dealt with the matter in a calm and rational manner, underneath I was burning with anger and distress. I felt that my artistic integrity had been challenged and my work devalued .
Just in time came Kristofferson’s reminder that the creative life is a duty and is often painful. Some people will never get it. The quote and the lyrics enabled me to take my feelings of anger and frustration and turn them into a story. I didn’t realise I was doing that at the time; it only became apparent in hindsight. Now, a few weeks on, I can acknowledge how distressed I was. Moreover, I can see how those feelings flavour my story.
This is art.
This is what we do.
These are the things in my writing that I can identify, but as with a cordon bleu meal, some of the ingredients are too unexpected or too exotic to be easily recognised. There are fragments of the plays I’ve read (there’s a lot of Tennessee Williams in this story), the thousands of short stories and novels I’ve read, the music I’ve listened to, the people I’ve known, my whole life experience.
Timing is a factor, too. That is, my mood and my life experience at the moment I sat down to write this particular story dictated its development. If I wrote the same tale a month later, it might have turned out very differently. Perhaps I wouldn’t have written it at all.
Oftentimes, you don’t even realise you’ve been influenced by something until later. Sometimes much later. A film you saw as a child, a bedtime story, music, photographs, art, a shopkeeper… For the artist, it’s all valid. Just don’t forget to bring the heart.
Does it matter where your influences come from? Probably not. At least, not if you’re a legitimate artist. For me, And Righteousness Shall Look Down sprang from a diverse range of ingredients, some I can identify, others I may never recognise.
Of course, being influenced by the greats is not the same thing as slavishly copying. Literary critic Harold Bloom suggests that new poems originate from old poems, and that the primary struggle of the young poet is against his old masters. Only strong poets can overcome what he calls “The anxiety of influence.” Minor artists become nothing more than derivative flatterers. See The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom.
In the arts, saying of someone, “He’s an original,” is considered the ultimate compliment. We all aim to be unique. To blaze a trail for others to follow. That’s a fine ambition, but in a way it’s deceitful. Art, like everything else in the world, does not exist in a vacuum. No one is truly an original in the sense that we all live in the shadow of that which went before. In A Man’s a Man, Bertold Brecht said, “If you name yourself, you always name another.” Isaac Newton, another man whose trail-blazing cannot be denied, once famously said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
What I hope will be clear from my comments is that the true artist borrows from a variety of sources and adds his or her own life experience. The more widely you read, the greater your range of influences. The greater your range of influences, the better your chances of creating art that is uniquely you.
It seems only fitting to end with Kristofferson:
Tell the truth. Sing with passion. Work with laughter. Love with heart. ‘Cause that’s all that matters in the end.