So I’ve entered this fiction-writing contest. Not sure why – I just thought it might be fun, challenging, etc. Hey, it might even kick-start me into a career of literary genius. You never know. I say kick-start because the thing about this contest – the catch, if you will – is that whatever we write has to be finished, polished and turned in within twenty-four hours. I don’t really know how to feel about that time limit. Maybe that’s a lot of time to invent a story, or maybe it’s not much time at all. I don’t know, since I’ve never done this writing thing before. Maybe I should find out how long other people (like, famous ones, I mean) have taken to write things. Writers do research, don’t they? Sure they do. Wikipedia should be good for that. Gonna take a look.
Did you know it took James Joyce seven years to write Ulysses? Granted, that book is 933 pages long, so I guess it would take awhile. That works out to, well, about eleven pages per month, which doesn’t seem like much when you think of it that way. I could write eleven pages in a month, for sure. Well, I think I could. By contrast, it only took Stephen King a couple of years or so to write his first novel, which isn’t a judgement of quality or anything – just an observation. I’m doing research here, after all. There’s also this thing where apparently you have to write an entire novel within the month of November. Egads, I can’t even imagine. People actually do that by choice! Talk about stress. Anyway, I should avoid potential stress of my own and get going on this thing. Just need to check something first. I’ve got a couple of eBay auctions getting close to finishing, and I figure that if I’m going to be sitting at this computer for a good part of the next 24 hours, I might as well keep an eye on that Wii Fit I’ve been bidding on.
I’ve got four hours left on the auction, so I should be able to get most of my story done by then. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? Once I get some characters figured out, I’ll just give them something to do and it’ll all just flow from there. Alright then, here we go.
OK, so I got a little distracted because my friend texted me and wanted me to help her test-drive this car she’s been looking at – the latest of about five that she’s had her eye on. She drives one, she falls in love with it, she wants to pay far too much, etc., etc. So now I finally have her convinced to give me a call when she’s ready to sign on the dotted line, so that I can at least swoop in there and try to delay things for at least the time it takes to drive around one more time. I mean, I’m not saying I’m any big car expert or anything, but if I’m even a little bit skeptical about the gas mileage or the smoothness of the ride or something, it usually makes her calm down and begin to see reason. She just needs someone to do that, you know? I can understand that. And I think she appreciates that I can be that kind of friend to her – just as much as I appreciate her buying me dinner after our little test-drive. Getting a meal out of the way is good, because now I can just focus on writing the story all night long with no distractions. We tried to think up some good plots over our large pepperoni, but I’m not so sure I can write about a superhero whose main power is that he can turn pillows into hats. Don’t ask: it’s a long story, but I’m sure that now I’ve actually got all distractions out of the way I’ll just get right down to writing.
Something weird has happened to the word-processing program on my computer. For some unknown reason itès not allowing me to type any contractions. Whenever I do it sticks an extra E in there. I canèt…see what I meanÉ Argh, now I canèt type question marks either! Why is this happeningÉ I donèt have time for this! I have to write a *$*(*ing story before tomorrow! Èèèèèèèèèèèèèèèèèèèèèèèè ÉÉÉÉÉÉÉÉÉÉÉÉÉÉ
This is ridiculous. I need help.
So I tried to fix the letter E problem and ended up screwing up other things, so then I had to call my friend Marcus, who just spent the last half-hour trying to fix my computer. He mucked around with things and swore at me and made me promise to always call him before attempt to repair anything, but now I can contract and question again. This saves me from writing a story full of extremely formally-worded dialogue where no one ever wants to know anything, and for this I remain forever grateful to Marcus. Which is what I told him, with promises of beers at some point in the future, as I politely kicked him out so that I could get down to business here.
And that’s just what I’m going to do. Maybe if I make a list of potential plots one will jump out at me and I can just run with it straight to literary fame and fortune. So what kinds of plots can I think of?
- Someone’s trapped on a desert island and tries to get off. Sigh…how is that different from any episode of Lost I’ve ever seen?
- Someone holds a grudge or has a conflict with someone. That covers action movies, westerns, war movies and any other “good guys vs. bad guys” story ever told, which, even if I tried one, would just turn into the last movie I remember seeing. Next?
- Someone has a personal crisis and sees the world differently. Man, I can’t even start writing a short story – how could I ever write about someone’s entire life and be done in 24 hours?
- Science fiction, horror, fantasy, romance…it’s all been done before! This is harder than I thought. How do writers ever think up anything original? Do they go for it and just hope they’re not ripping someone off? I don’t know what to do. Maybe I need a snack.
Dammit, dammit, dammit! I missed my eBay auction deadline! How could I have forgotten that? I guess it happened during the time Marcus was here trying to send my letter E’s back where they belong. Well, no Wii Fit, I guess. There goes that attempt at fitness. And now I feel even guiltier about those nacho chips I just ate…and the half-hour of Youtube videos I watched while I ate them. Well, I can’t eat and write at the same time, can I? And I was looking for inspiration – which I would have if I could figure out how to write a story about goats yelling like people. That clip sure is funny, though.
I think I should try out some opening lines, to see if I can go anywhere with one of them. Let’s skip the cliché stuff: no “dark and stormy nights” or “the best/worst of times.” I’m thinking I need something truly interesting, attention-grabbing – or, let’s face it, not easily traced back to its source. I decide to open a few books at random to see what other, more published writers have come up with to start their narrative gears, in the hopes of finding something I can build on and hopefully take in a new and exciting direction:
- “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive…” Ya, well that one’s right out. Nothing untraceable about that opening line. Also, everyone knows how the story turns out and I’m sure I can’t improve on it. Maybe something just a little less, well, ubiquitous?
- “My suffering left me sad and gloomy.” Buddy, I can relate, but what kind of depressing story would spring forth from that opening line? Trudge forth, more like it. Plod, even. And since it’s already depressing enough that it’s way past midnight and I haven’t written anything yet, I’d at least like to be happy while I wrestle with words all night long.
- “This time there would be no witnesses.” Oooh, that has potential. A murder mystery or something. I know: marauding serial killer bursts in and murders struggling writer in cold blood! At least then I wouldn’t have to finish the story; it would be finished for me, in more ways than one, which, I’m sad to say, doesn’t sound entirely unattractive at this point. I’ll think about that idea for awhile as I keep looking through a few more books.
I hear voices outside the window. I swear for a second I got the cold sweats, which is what thinking about serial killers (even in passing) will do to you. I’d been going through my bookshelves looking for more opening lines and I admit I got distracted by some books I’d forgotten I had, or forgotten I’d read. I’ve gotten into the habit of underlining passages that strike me as significant while I’m reading, which is fine at the time, but it gets a little confusing if you flip back a few years later and see something like “Everything takes forever” underlined (Yeah, no kidding. Especially this story).
Anyway, back to the voices. It sometimes happens, especially in the summer, that the people who live in the various apartments that have been carved into the big house across the street come home from whatever bar they’ve been at and continue the party on the lawn or, if everyone else on the block is lucky, inside the house itself. This bothers my neighbours quite a bit, but I try not to let it affect me. I’m quite often up anyway, and they’re usually not too loud for too long. I like to live and let live, truth be told, and I suppose I get a bit of a vicarious kick out of overhearing things about others’ lives and problems.
This was one of those times. I don’t know all my young neighbours too well, but this particular guy and girl I’ve seen a few times. He seems like a pretty laid-back guy, prone to puttering around in the yard and tinkering with the beat-up car that is constantly in the driveway. The girl is a little more high-strung. She’s a tiny little thing, but she’s got a temper, and one day I heard her screaming “F*(& the army!” from the doorstep at the military vehicles that were trundling by obliviously on the street outside. So there’s some passion in their relationship, I’m guessing, and it was certainly on display at this moment. She seemed to be yelling at him about something he’d lost or ruined or misplaced somehow – I couldn’t really hear specifics, just a lot of swearing and accusations of incompetence from her, and vehement denials from the other side – and the item in question must be something important because the argument went on and on, long after I lost any interest in it and just wished they would shut the hell up so that I could get to work. On whatever the hell I’m working on.
But it wasn’t until they had actually stopped disturbing my creativity that I realized the story I wanted to write had been happening right outside my window. You’re supposed to write what you know, right? Well, I didn’t really know these people, but even the little quirks of their personalities that I had seen would surely give me something to work on. Finally, after almost a whole night of procrastination, I hunkered down in front of the computer and began to write.
Man, I’m tired. And stiff. This writing stuff is not easy, let me tell you. I’ve been working constantly (without even shifting position, hardly) since about 2:30 am, and at best I have only the barebones of a story about my two semi-fictional neighbours. Here, I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version:
Boy meets girl when they’re both tree-planting out in northern BC. This would be about 2 years ago, I’d say. They fall in love, spend their free time enjoying each other’s company and the nature around them, blah blah blah, but also the girl starts learning how to make hemp jewellery. Bracelets, necklaces and stuff – you know, the kind that are sold by various scruffy hippy-looking kids at festivals or craft shows. You’ve probably seen some of them. So she gets pretty good at it, and they make these elaborate plans to go into business together and travel around the country the next summer making a living by selling all this jewellery. Typical idealistic post-adolescent dreamworld stuff. Anyway, because of her love for the guy and her appreciation for his support of her jewellery hobby/future business, she saves a bunch of her hard-earned tree-planting money and buys these beautiful and expensive beads she found in a craft store in, um, Prince George or somewhere, and she makes him this incredibly intricate and complicated piece of jewellery (either a bracelet or some kind of choker thing. I can’t decide which would be more manly), all made with love and all that. She gives it to him, he loves it, says he’ll wear it and cherish it forever, etc. It becomes the symbol of their relationship, and of their commitment to each other.
Then they end up in this town somehow (not sure how that’s going to happen yet), and one night when they’re out at some bar they run into another girl from the tree-planting days, who is also around here for some reason I also haven’t figured out yet. Our jewellery-making girl is not entirely overjoyed to see this former acquaintance because there’s a history between her and the guy in question (of course), and all night long she’s fighting paranoia about this new girl’s motives, even though new girl is being really nice and admiring the jewellery, etc – especially the choker (ya, I think it’s a choker) that is of course the one thing jewellery girl is most proud of, for many reasons.
But anyway, she gets through the night somehow, controlling her temper with a huge effort, and they’ve said goodbye to new girl and taken separate cabs, and then when the two of them get back to the big house with the old car in the driveway and the exhausted writer across the street, the girl notices that the choker she made is not around her boyfriend’s neck, and that’s when she loses it. Even though he denies it repeatedly, she from that moment on believes that he gave the choker to the girl they’d met that night (because she was admiring it, after all), which of course means that he didn’t really care about it as much as he said he did, which in turn means that he doesn’t really care about her as much as he says he does, and that means she can’t believe ANYTHING he says and that her life is completely destroyed. Cue the yelling, screaming and swearing, and that’s where I’m at. I think I’m going to have them make up in a few more paragraphs, but before I fall asleep on the keyboard I think I’m going to go out for a little walk.
A little fresh air always used to help me pull off the study or paper-writing sessions back when I was in university, so I’m hoping it will still work for me now. I decide to do a couple of brisk laps around the block before I head back in to finish up. That should keep me going.
The air is completely motionless right now, and there’s no activity on the streets either. Man, I’ve been up all night, I realize. Pretty soon the birds will start up like nature’s alarm clock – louder in the stillness of early morning than at any other time – and then that kind of chalky surreal kind of light will start spreading from the east, until you realize you can actually see the things you couldn’t just a few minutes before. This is what was happening when I rounded the block at the end of my little jaunt, and that’s why I could see there was something lying on the sidewalk outside the big house across the street. It was small, but it looked like it didn’t belong there, and so I was curious. When I got closer I picked it up, and saw that it was a hemp bracelet or choker of some sort, very intricately made, with beautiful blue-green beads that looked like they were expensive. I stood there holding that actual thing that I’d thought I’d just made up, in the growing morning light with the sounds of birds, and thought about all the potential in this moment: for this new day, for the girl and the boy and for relationships real and imagined, for the future and for writing, and for me.
There’s gotta be a story in there somewhere.
I walk everywhere. Rain or shine, cold weather or hot, I am a perennial pedestrian. Although I have a valid driver’s license (and more merit points than most people, I’d wager), I have never owned a car, and it’s possible that I never will. Although it’s a little inconvenient at times, it is possible to navigate one’s life in a car-less state, if you live in a city that is small enough to traverse in under two hours.
People usually think I’m crazy to live like this. They can’t understand why I would choose to inconvenience myself, when owning and driving a car seems to be just a fact of life for almost everyone in this part of the world. My reasons are financial, environmental and personal, but one thing that being a lifelong pedestrian has afforded me is the opportunity to notice small details of life around me that people in their cars invariably miss. Sure, it may take longer to get places, but I can literally stop to smell the roses – and I do, whenever possible. I’ve also found all kinds of unusual discarded items lying on the sidewalk, anything from money (fifty dollars on one occasion) to abandoned grocery lists, and even – one day last winter – a toothbrush, poking forlornly out of a snowbank like a dejected little beacon of abandoned dental intentions.
One particular instance of discovery stood out for me, however, and its significance has made me relive and retell the experience numerous times. A couple of years ago I entered a writing contest, where a requirement for all the short stories produced was that they contain a character that did not or could not sleep. All writers had twenty-four hours from the moment this crucial element was revealed to craft a story and hand it in to the bookstore owner who was sponsoring the event. For reasons motivated more by fear of writer’s block than a desire to be trendy and/or postmodern, I chose a meta-approach, and wrote a story about a character who was up all night, because of computer problems and other distractions, writing a story that had to contain a character that could not sleep and that had to be written in twenty-four…well, you see where I’m going with this.
Anyway, one of the distractions I created in the course of my composition was a late-night argument the writer overheard through his open window between two of his neighbours, who were fighting over a hemp necklace with a pendant. This item had great significance to one of them, and the other had lost it or given it away to someone else, or something. The details were vague because, after all, it was just an overheard conversation in the middle of the night, right? And because my author character couldn’t hear all the details, it was unclear what the kernel of the argument was, but even creating the shell of this conflict helped me flesh out my story and I was happy to have thought of it and included it in my creation. In fact, the conclusion of my story involved the writer going outside for a walk in the chalky shadow of the pre-dawn, just to get some air and stretch stiff limbs a little, and coincidentally finding what must have surely been the necklace in question, lying innocuously on the sidewalk for someone much less invested in its significance to find and scoop up. And that my tired writer did, holding this little talisman incredulously “in the growing morning light with the sounds of birds, and thinking about all the potential in that moment: for this new day, for the girl and the boy and for relationships real and imagined, for the future and for writing, and for me.” It was a suitably poignant way to end my speed-story, and since I didn’t have a whole lot of time to refine or reconsider, I went with it and handed my work in, happy just to have made the deadline.
Then, the next morning, as I made my customary trek to work, I noticed something lying on the sidewalk. I had already walked a couple of steps past it when I realized what it was, and the serendipity of that realization made me go back, partly to verify my suspicion and then, incredulous, to pick up the item in question. Because there, lying on the sidewalk, was a hemp necklace with a pendant – pretty much exactly like the one I had imagined as the crux of my previous night’s fictional creation. And, exactly as the character I had imagined had, I stood on the sidewalk holding a little piece of homemade jewellery, not quite believing the coincidence of this particular discovery at this precise moment in time, and I felt like I was being given a message from the universe that I should do…something. Keep on writing? Keep on walking everywhere? Both? Regardless of the meaning of the message, it was an inspirational find for me, and it’s moments like this that keep me happy to be both a pedestrian and an aspiring writer – even if people think both are a little crazy. Because, either on the street or in your own imagination, you never know what you might find.