Many years ago, I read an article about the joys and perils of writing groups. I can’t remember the name of the author, or where I saw the article, but it has stayed with me, because it illustrated its point using a story.
It goes something like this. A writers’ group met every week; each week they were given a theme to write about, then they brought their work for comment and critique to the next session. One week they were given the theme of ‘a chair’. They all wrote a story about a chair and read their work aloud at the next meeting. All but one of the participants wrote a story about a rocking chair on a porch: stories that were sentimental and twee. One person wrote about the electric chair, and the story was full of compassion and redemption. The other members of the group turned on the author and castigated him for writing about such a horrible topic, but it was the electric chair story that went on to be published, not the rocking chair stories.
This anecdote was told to warn people that writing groups can have their downsides, but to me it has two further messages for writers:
• Stick to your guns
• Be different
There are many writing competitions that ask for submissions on a theme. How do you avoid the twee and hackneyed (the rocking chair) and find the original and bold (the electric chair)?
Write then Discard
Firstly, write down everything that comes to mind when you think of the theme. Chuck away all your first ideas, as they will be the obvious connections and the ones that the majority of people will write about.
Keep on brainstorming, looking at the theme from different angles, asking questions, and turning the obvious on its head. Keep going until you’re out of ideas.
Quieten the Chatter
If you find it difficult to do this, it could be that your conscious mind (the bit that’s coming up with easy, obvious ideas) is holding sway and needs to be quietened down so your subconscious can come up with more tangential ideas. There are a few ways to let your subconscious come forward:
• Sleep. This technique was used by Milton to write Paradise Lost: he would awake in the middle of the night and dictate 30 or 40 lines of poetry to his wife and then go back to sleep again. If you value your marriage, I don’t recommend his technique, but you could set an alarm for 20 minutes in the afternoon and have a catnap. Start writing the moment you wake up, before the conscious mind has time to interfere.
• Meditation. This isn’t about thinking about nothing, but about quieting your mind so you can calmly watch your thoughts and let them go. Even simply sitting still and counting your breaths will help to numb the chatter.
• Doing stuff with a rhythm such as walking, swimming, cooking or sewing. These activities provide a space where your subconscious can do its thing and push original ideas to the front of your mind.
Go For It!
Once you’ve quietened your conscious, brainstorm as many ideas as you can, digging deeper into the theme until you find an angle that makes you stop and think, “Hey!” Explore that idea from different angles, playing with character, voice and setting, until you get a fizzy, excited feeling and the urge to start writing. That’s your story.
Once you’ve written the story, check that it still reflects the theme. Stories can go off in directions of their own sometimes. If you don’t think you’ve captured the theme adequately, simply send the story to an open competition and have another go at the theme.
Judges often comment that story entries are very dark, and that few humorous stories are entered in competitions. If you can write humour, your story will stand out from the pack. And if you can dig a story out of everyday situations, even better. It’s tempting to throw yourself at the big themes (cancer, miscarriage, death, war), but these get repeated time and again, so find the story in something ordinary and make it extraordinary.
How To Do It
Here’s an example of how I might tackle a short story on the theme of ‘death’.
My first thoughts would turn to the hackneyed and (dare I say it?) done to death: cancer, suicide, World War I. After that it might be widowhood, murder or euthanasia. Notice that these are all ‘big’ themes, and over-represented in competition entries. So digging a bit deeper, I might think about the people who deal with death every day: undertakers, morticians, florists, stone masons, and nurses. And does the death have to be of a person? What about the death of a pet? What about pet cemeteries or taxidermists? Could it be about the death of a language or a way of life?
How would humour work in a story about death? Again, try to avoid the obvious and the temptation to make it blackly humorous, and explore instead if there is a way to tell the story with gentle humour and compassion.
A unique slant on a given theme, told in a compelling and original way – that’s the ‘electric chair’ way of storytelling. Give it a go and let me know how you get on.
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.