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#50 A half-century (of sorts) of storytelling
My fiftieth post!
Good morning friends,
It’s official, this is my fiftieth post, a half-century. A milestone, I’ll be honest, I doubted I’d reach, and one I certainly thought no one would be that interested in. We’re also about two weeks away from my two-year anniversary of publishing short fiction here - 1/25 of the way to an actual half century.
Rather than post another story, I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect on a year’s storytelling, some of my stories I’ve enjoyed or thought a lot about over the past 12 months and what I’ve learned from doing it (here’s what I wrote a year ago on the same subject).
And, before we get into it, a quick plug. one of the best ways I attract new audiences is by taking part in fiction promos with other writers. If you’re interested in reading other, free fiction, try the following links: The Magic of Pure Hearts Promo; The Is Your Library Fully Booked Promo; and the Selective Bookworm Promo.
And also, please support me if you value my writing:
#50 A half-century (of sorts) of storytelling
Art at the heart of it
The first story I want to revisit is Pine Trees. Before delving into the story itself, those of you who’ve been reading my stories for some time now may have picked up on a theme. Many of them relate to or feature in someway, paintings, photography or some other art form. I believe I’ve mentioned before, but a close friend of mine suggested using art as a prompt for story ideas to help encourage me to write regularly, to engage in the act of writing without worrying too much about story development. Rather than telling stories about the things I see, think and feel about the world in front of me (I mostly save that for novels, given how arduous a task that can be!), using art as a prompt encourages a creativity and a boldness that I’m not sure I’d 100% attempt otherwise.
Pine Trees is a great example of a story that was inspired by a piece of art. Very specifically, the charcoal sketches titled Shōrin-zu byōbu (or Pine Trees), by Hasegawa Tōhaku from the sixteenth century.
Most often, I try to remove the art itself from the story, and just piece something together that speaks to the subject, or whatever I think of as a response. However, sometimes it’s impossible to remove the art from the subject and I felt that with this. Hence, in the story, the protagonist is a man who recalls a very specific memory from a long time ago, prompted by seeing these sketches in a gallery in Japan. It felt fitting to me because that is what art does best: stir feelings that sit right at the core of whoever is viewing it, feelings that are deeply moving, often existential, but ultimately crucial to what that person stands for and believes about the world.
Along similar lines is this recent story, The Portrait that Eluded Death, about a portrait of a woman whose house burns down but the painting survives. It’s a response to this portrait of Baby Almeida, wife of Guilherme de Almeida, by Lasar Segall. It’s worth noting, and perhaps is most interesting about the storytelling process, that prior to writing, I knew (and still know) absolutely nothing about the artist or the subjects. For me, it wasn’t about telling the truth of the painting or those involved, it was simply about looking at the picture and writing whatever I felt like as a result.
The politics of nostalgia, and the power of time
One of my favourite stories I published this year is Abandoned, about a young man, Lucas, who goes to Amsterdam and winds up in a dark, dingy nightclub in an abandoned school. Unrelated to any paintings or works of art I’ve seen, this was inspired by a story a friend told me, where he ended up somewhere like this. Many of the European readers among you, or those who’ve travelled to Europe, will likely know that there are all sorts of curious spots like this across our cities - most prominently on the continent. More than anything, I think they evoke powerful images. Just thinking about it now, I can picture the strobe lights, the sweaty, drug-addled faces, the heavy monotonous basslines, the black leather get-ups with the chain necklaces. Graffiti up the industrial walls, deep inside some old factory or some underground waterway or abandoned metro station or something… The idea that something like this exists in a school seemed, still seems, absurd to me, not because of the actual location itself, but in the irony that some would or could find between what a school represents to societies and communities and the sort of place it had become. That’s not a political statement about whether I support what it’s become (though I do, I think it’s both hilarious and creatively industrious in the best possible way), but signifies, or speaks to, an inherent, unspoken truth about how people grow up, what becomes of them, and the things that influence their development in one way or another. Reflecting on childhood and upbringing is a messy exercise for many because the consequences people often experience are existential in nature: developments that changed the course of their life, memories they feel are better left suppressed, or relationships they no longer have. Ever since I’ve started writing, that’s always been an interesting theme for me, whether consciously or not, and I think many of my stories touch on this in various ways.
Hoarder, is about a senile old man who, after losing his wife, hoards all sorts in his London home for years. One day, a young woman who volunteers for a charity offers to come over and help to declutter his home (many excellent charities I know offer decluttering services in London, to help prevent fires, burglaries (the homes of old people are targeted far more frequently by burglars in London, and the signs are clear: clutter, overgrown gardens, poor maintenance of external features etc.)) He rejects the service thinking, ironically, that she might be trying to scam or con him in some other way. The consequences are fatal.
Circling back to imagery
Alongside my storytelling, I’m also a keen but very amateur photographer - mostly on 35mm film, but digital too. My photographs inspire some of my stories, but mostly I think they add dynamism to my posts and help to bring them to life. If you’ve been reading this year, you’ll notice photographs scattered throughout my work.
To wrap up, here’s some of the photographs I’ve published on Substack this year:
Thank you for reading - see you in two weeks for a new story!
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