5.2 The Next Story – Adam

The Next Story

Part 1

How long has it been since I have written anything from start to finish?

Too long.

Far too long.

“Post Marked Piper’s Reach” was published in July this year. It was written seven years ago.

What has happened in-between? Between 2013 and 2018, the grounds lay fallow. I started a verse novel. Began the drafting and ideas for a novella. Started collaborating with Jodi and Rus on a novel. At the end of 2018 I finished the draft of a novella that will exist in the Piper’s Reach world but be separate from it. It’s now awaiting an edit. And in-between all of this, I have penned scraps of sentences and handwritten pieces for Instagram, and random poems for Twitter and Facebook.

I have not sat down to write for a variety of reasons: moving house, ill health, work commitments. Other personal reasons. I read books. Kept a record of what I had read and challenged myself to improve on it. Kept adding to the compost heap.

But nothing complete or completed.

Looking back on the past few years it appears I’ve been throwing manure on the compost heap in the hope something other than tomatoes will sprout from the pile of grass clippings, vegetable scraps and garden trimmings. At some point you have to turn the soil, keep turning it, shovel it around the base of an idea and see what grows.

Those works in progress mentioned above have sat idle but I return to them occasionally, turning the soil and adding more thought to them.

Part 2

The question is always of, “What next?”

This year was a focus on getting Piper’s Reach into the world and to an audience. Publication was the end of the cycle and a new cycle has to begin.

But where to begin with that new cycle?

In my head, and in my planning, it is the novella, followed by the verse novel and working with Jodi and Rus to finish our collaborative novel, plans for a collaborative novel with Rus, and thinking of another collaboration with Jodi.

Left to my own devices I have to think about the next story. Snippets of sentences and half-formed paragraphs are easy. Bringing them to fruition is difficult. I write better in collaboration as iron sharpens iron. But I had to prove to myself I can do it by myself. The novella was the first step. My verse novel will be the next step after that. For myself, I am unsure. The horizon is a long way off.

Part 3

But I see a way forward. Beyond plans for completing and finishing, there is the desire to write again. I have felt blocked lately in writing but I think I have a way forward: writing my way into it.

I’ll start by writing anything.

With abandon.

With reckless care for sense or understanding.

To write without fear or favour.

To play with language and experiment with words because no one else will see it.

The freedom of not having eyes to cast a glance and question the structure or word choice.

Part 4

But there is something else that sits with me in terms of thinking about the next story: Why do I want to tell this story?

This is what is pushing me lately. I have a couple of unfinished works on my computer and I circle back to them from time to time to ask why do I want to tell this story? Have I worked out what the story is in order to tell it? The same question applies to my novella and verse novel because the question will help frame the narrative and edits in the future.

The “why” will be the driving force to keep me throwing compost onto the heap and tilling the soil.

The next story will always be there.

5.1 The Next Story

I have been plotting the next story (or stories as the case may be here) since June last year when I decided I wanted to invite a small number of friends, former collaborators, readers and creatives into an intimate group which I ended up calling The Belief Trust. I wrote to them all and asked them if they could provide an energetic net of support for me while I worked out how to be a writer again. It was an enlightening process — handwriting the 13 handmade bi-fold postcards — which helped me to better understand what I was actually asking for.

This year when I wrote my update, I included a blank handmade postcard; these postcards were the backbone of my FireStarter Project. I asked each member of The Trust to send the postcard back with a set of prompts: a song, a year and a socio-political-cultural event. These would be the catalyst of a new set of short stories.

A week later, the Australian cards began to land in my post box: my next stories were arriving!

I was so excited reading what I had been sent. And then nothing else happened. The prompts flatlined.

I am being a little bit of a drama queen. They didn’t so much as flat line but were given a number and asked to stand in the very, very long line with other stories waiting their turn at the counter.

As it turns out, it has not been such a bad thing. The slow maturation of these postcard prompts is allowing something far juicier to emerge.

In 2014, I wrote a short story for the Strange Little Girls anthology. It didn’t make the cut and when I shopped it around, one of the rejections I got said I had to make the story shorter, or longer; at the current length of 4500 it didn’t work. I knew I could not make it shorter and I was at a complete loss at how to make it longer. Sometimes you have to be patient across years and wait for a homemade Velveteen Rabbit postcard to arrive with the year 1961 and Wanda Jackson’s Funnel of Love nominated on the back, to know what to do with a story.

And I loved that the first song I was gifted was Funnel Love as it is on a playlist I made for The Starling Requiem (the cover from the Only Lovers Left Alive). Little moments of synchronicity like that light me up.

When I get to my next story is debatable because while The FireStarter project is my next story in spirit, I first have to complete the current revisions of my birthpunk novella ahead of passing it to Rus for editing mid-month and its publication in December. Then there is the completion and editing of The JAR Story novel, ready for March 2020 publication. Plus Rus and I are both seriously drawn back a story we started in 2017 called The Glass Marionette.

However…

There are no tumble weeds rolling through my creative life. There haven’t been for a quite while. My creative life is the most fertile, expansive and actionable it has (perhaps) ever been. I look forward (rather than backward) knowing that everyone has their time and my time is now and there is never a time that is not now. The Next Story is really this: living my best creative life every day with the JAR Writers’ Collective at my back, making it all possible.

4.3. Deny No Part Of You

In 1987, a college professor and mentor gave me a book written by Hugh Prather called Notes To Myself: My Struggle To Become A Person. In it, there was one particular verse that struck me immediately:

There is a part of me that wants to write,
A part that wants to theorize,
A part that wants to sculpt,
A part that wants to teach….
To force myself into a single role, to decide to be just one thing in life, would kill off large parts of me.

Kill off large parts of me? As a young man fresh out of college, I thought: Why in the world would anybody want to do that?

When I first read these words, I felt as if I had just been given license to be myself, and not who everybody else wanted me to be. Not seeing the irony in my ways, I kept that epiphany a secret for a long time. I felt that if I told anyone about all of these different “parts” of me, they would tell me how foolish I was being.

“It’s not the domestic model,” they would say, “so you’d be a fool to stray too far from the plan that you – and we – have had for you all along. Such distractions are unnecessary.”

Sometimes, I feel like those of us who were coming of age in the eighties were the last generation to feel tied to the rules and mores of the past. We were still too eager to honor and please others, and we felt tremendous guilt if we strayed.

But maybe it’s wrong of me to brush such a broad stroke. Perhaps it is just in my character to please, to resist the disappointment that I feared I would feel from others.

And, maybe, still fear.

Yeah. that’s probably all on me.

I remember my friend Ginny telling me about her father, who was quite the artist,  and how he had kept that part of him inside all his life because his wife would not allow him to live fully as that artist. Ginny said to me that the artist within him was too strong, and no matter what anybody did or said to suppress that artist, it was going to manifest in some way to leave his body. In this case, it was cancer. And it took his life — and his art — swiftly.

I mull over Ginny’s words often.

Earlier this week, in Jodi Cleghorn’s The Daily Breath, she writes:

When you stand in your authenticity and truth, you make space for others to do the same. Especially those closest to you.
What rebellion are you trying to enact?
Inner?
Outer?
Or that place between?

After I let those words sink in a bit, I realized that, ironically enough, one of the things that stands in the way of our authenticity is social media. I’m reminded of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and how so many of us keep wearing that face that we keep in the jar by the door. The only difference is we’re wearing those masks for the world to see.

Behind them lies the individual desperately seeking authenticity and truth – not to mention validation – in all the wrong places.

On days like this, when I am pondering the balance I strike between the artist and the domestic, I go back to Prather’s words and remember what it was like as that 22-year-old kid feeling liberated, but keeping it all a secret.

I’ve been balancing that irony all my life.

The path less trod for me has been an internal journey, and I know that I am speaking for so many others as well. I’m talking about people who are just like me who have lived a quiet, creative life, suppressing so much of who they really are, for the compromise of a safe, domestic life.

Is it too late to change any of that? Of course not. Do I have the courage to do it? That’s an entirely different story.

So I believe this to be more like the path more trod, because I think that many of the people reading this will identify with that struggle to become a person.

So what do we do? We carry on with the rules we have established for our lives; we don’t wallow in some melancholic waters of what we have not done (but honestly, how soothing is that!). We continue to fuel the parts of us that want to write, to theorize, to sculpt, to teach. We do what we are doing here at The JAR Writers’ Collective. We create portals for our creativity to flow more freely.

And we stand as best we can in authenticity: for ourselves and for others, as we continue along our paths more or less trod, but our paths nonetheless to call our own.

4.2 Sand People Ride In Single File To Hide Their Numbers

Part One – Literary Allusion

Robert Frost was a tricksy bastard.

The road not taken? The path less travelled by? More like trolling generations of poetry students and Instagram influencers.

There were always two paths.

There was always at least A path.

It just so happened he happened to take the one with more leaves on it.

Others have been there before you.

Someone has always been there ahead of you.

And that’s ok.

I’m definitely ok with that.

You don’t have to hack your way through uncharted territory because there wasn’t a way there before. There’s probably a really good reason why the path doesn’t go that way. The path of least resistance is a good starting point as a writer. Why make it harder for yourself?

I walked a writer’s path starting out with brief sentences and paragraphs. It was where I wanted to learn how to craft something. I spent a year writing flash fiction and getting feedback via a writers’ website. I wrote blog posts, worked collaboratively on projects, before feeling comfortable to write alongside someone and work on a novel. Still feel like the novel is beyond me whereas a novella is more in line with where my writing sits. A novel could be further down the path.

If I lay out my current projects on the table, what path would I take? Can I come back to something or will it be left behind?

Part Two – Personal Anecdote

There is a creek down the street from where I grew up, and where my parents still live, and I spent many hours down by the water either by myself or with my younger brother and our dog.

A dirt track ran beside the creek and we would often follow it until we could go no further. Then we climbed down the rock faces and kept boulder-hopping down the creek.

No phones. No recourse should we get injured. Mum said she wasn’t worried unless the dog came home alone.

I had the freedom to walk the same path over and over and over again: through summer heat keeping an eye out for snakes (this is Australia, after all), winter coldness, and during and after rainfall when the trickle of a waterfall turned into a brown rush.

It was my querencia of solace and familiarity. This was my happy place as a solitary explorer. I could walk the path over and over, knowing where I was at each turn and curve even, as storms and nature put obstacles in the path or branches hung lower. There was always a path visible, even when it was overgrown and almost forgotten about.

I used a setting from one area of the creek in a short story, The Cicada Clock, first published in Tincture Journal.

I took my daughters down there recently, and it was the first time I’d been down there in perhaps fifteen years, maybe even twenty years. We walked the path, at times hidden by long grass or fallen trees, and explored together. For me it was revisiting a space I inhabited so much as a child and teenager, and a chance to introduce my girls to a location meaningful to me. I lead and they followed. Or one of them would go ahead to see what was around the corner or over the rise or behind the tree.

We shared the path.

We may never return there.

Part Three – Comic Juxtaposition

One night a man had a dream. He dreamed
he was walking along the beach with the LORD.

Across the sky flashed scenes from his life.
For each scene he noticed two sets of
footprints in the sand: one belonging
to him, and the other to the LORD.

When the last scene of his life flashed before him,
he looked back at the footprints in the sand.

He noticed that many times along the path of
his life there was only one set of footprints.

He also noticed that it happened at the very
lowest and saddest times in his life.

This really bothered him and he
questioned the LORD about it:

“LORD, you said that once I decided to follow
you, you’d walk with me all the way.
But I have noticed that during the most
troublesome times in my life,
there is only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why when
I needed you most you would leave me.”

The LORD replied:“Sand people always ride single-file, to hide their numbers.”

Part Four – Personal Application

Standing on the shoulders of giants involves learning how to climb their backs; to scramble up the terrain of their legs, back and shoulders, and clamber around their head to get a good seated position. Only then can you see further.

I’m not a leader, an innovator, an intrepid explorer; so many others have been there before me. Instead, I will follow. I’ll be following you on social media, making notes of your wisdom and insights. I’ll ask questions on occasions; watch your mistakes and know I’ll probably make them myself. I’ll be the one tagging along, just a little behind and looking over your shoulder (when I’m not perched on it), to work out how it’s done.

And while we’re travelling along the path, whether it’s a dirt track, a paved footpath, a broad highway, there is always a place to leave graffiti. Footpaths, overpasses, highways, tunnels.

But on my path, I learned a valuable lesson. I learned to say, “Yes.”

Yes, to making the decision to write.

Yes, to writing pieces of flash fiction.

Yes, to writing a blog.

I said “Yes” to opportunities.

Yes, to writing a blog for a writers’ website.

Yes, to contributing to thematic anthologies.

Yes, to the idea of an epistolary novel.

Yes, to another collaborative novel.

Yes, to a writing cooperative.

Yes, to trying something a little different through our writers’ collective.

Not all opportunities are correct. Sometimes it is important to say, “No” or to let a project be relegated to the rubbish.

Every writer’s path is different. The best we can do is leave notes along the way to say, “This is how I, or we, did it. It’s up to you to work out your path.”

Choose how you pave, forge, or ignore the path.

And give a knowing wink to Robert Frost as you cross paths.