‘Write what you know’ is one of the most repeated and most tedious pieces of writing advice, though you’ll find plenty of good writers and teachers of writing who recommend the opposite and say ‘write what you don’t know’. I don’t think that’s quite right, either. The very best fiction, and especially the best short fiction, comes neither from what is observed and understood nor from what is wholly imagined and dreamed-up, but from somewhere in-between. It’s the snatch of conversation, the glimpse of a child pulling his hand out of his mother’s grasp, the old woman who slips a lump of cheese into her coat pocket in the supermarket thinking she has not been seen that sets the story on its way. You might say it’s the twilight world between the real and the imagined that makes for the story, but I’d argue it’s the oblique angle that does it. It’s the way the cheese-stealer caught your eye, the expression of defiance there that you need to capture. Seen face-on life is beautiful, ugly, plain and colourful; it’s all those things and more. But picking the strand of the story out of all that light and clamour is hard. You have to wait for the angle, the sharp relief to find the precise moment that triggers the story. Every story is an explosion: the observed is the fuse, your imagination is the dynamite.
Fuses and dynamite
My notebook is full of jottings from the observed and overheard on trains, buses, in the street. (Incidentally, you will already have noticed that I seem to be quite a fan of public transport. I’d say to any aspiring writer ‘by all means spend time and money on a good writing course, maybe even a Masters, but please-oh-please spend plenty of time on buses and trains.’) Amongst my notes is the woman wearing odd shoes carrying a viola case; the possibly misheard ‘he married his brother, for God’s sakes’; and an argument between two clowns evidently unhappy to discover they are on their way to the same child’s party. All real incidents, barely glimpsed. My story RAGBABY NUMBER TWO (see under ‘short stories’) was written after I half-saw something lying in the road and genuinely thought it was a baby. It turned-out to be a small pile of baby clothes, but the image of a baby lying on a wet road on a dark night would not leave me and led to what I have been told is a very strange story. Ah well. Odd how a dead badger is but a dead badger, but a heap of baby clothes thrown from a car is an eternal mystery.