In the last six months I’ve sold three short stories, written three more and have two more and two novels on various spinning plates and have taken a break this evening to watch I AM COMIC on Netflix.
I spent six years playing in the open mic night amateur scene in Calgary and with one or two exceptions I wrote all my own material. I’m watching this documentary about the writing of jokes and the business of comedy and the pain the comics go through when they put themselves out there for the audience to love or hate, and I’m having flashbacks of the best and worse kind.
As a comic I would watch the entire world just beyond my finger tips, looking for weird shit and finding a way to comment on it and make people laugh. I’d hear a conversation between two teens that his mother is spreading rumors that her father got the mother pregnant. The boy said “I know, sorry about that.” It would have been simply interesting eavesdropping except that the two teens were boyfriend/girlfriend. The kids were dating and their parents were screwing!
I saw a sign on a subway car advertising the benefits of seeing the local philharmonic live. The poster was a bunch of middle-aged philharmonic fans posing like rock concert fans with ‘Rock-on’ hand signs (looks like the sign for ‘bullshit’ with the thumb sticking out) and screaming faces. The word on the top was “LIVE”. It was a cool ad until I shifted my position and saw it reflected behind a woman sitting on the train. Because it was backward in the reflection, the word “LIVE” became the word “EVIL” and the rock-on hand sign became finger-shaped horns behind this woman’s head. Was the universe telling me she was evil? Maybe. Will I use it in a story? Read on.
My point is, the joke that came out of it didn’t get a lot of laughs (most of my audiences preferred jokes about dicks) but the incident became integral to the concept behind my short story “Shut Up and Drive“, about a man driving a bus full of relief aid workers who turn out to be demons when he sees them in the rear-view mirror.
My novel, The Broken Shield, in part came from a moment I shared with a complete stranger while I was driving a bus (the day job). She was waiting to cross the street and she looked up at me the moment I looked down at her. Then we both smiled, not because we were flirting, but because we somehow knew each other and had known each other for centuries. It was a “Oh hi. There you are” moment. And then she was gone, never to be seen by me again. I can’t explain the reality behind it, but because I was so used to grabbing at moments for my comedy, I remembered the feeling and the moment and gave it to my characters to play with. I asked “What if”.
I was at a meeting of the Imaginative Fiction Writers’ Association (IFWA) last week and the guest speaker for the first hour was poet Bob Stallworthy. He was fun and entertaining and talented and then my epiphany moment occurred. Even though my book of poetry, The Cynglish Beat sold only two copies, the work that went into the writing of an entire tome of cynical, beat poetry has coloured my fiction writing as I break the prose rules and write for the emotions and not for the brain.
I have writing friends who have been working on the same short story for two years or more. Yes, I have stories that sit unfinished or unpolished, including a fantasy novel I started in 1981, but I have written novels and screenplays and short stories and self-help guides and poems by the pound since that first novel. At any given time I can find three things in the world around me and at least find a premise for a short story in there. Sometimes an entire novel springs forth, or a twist to a project already under way. I can’t wrap myself up in my own little world and expect to produce anything without lifting my head up from the keyboard and actually seeing what’s out there and then thinking about it like a comic, a poet or even as a photographer, which I am.
Great writing does not happen in isolation. Writers of every ilk must be sponges, absorbing whatever the universe throws in our path at that moment. Like all writers I get asked “Where do you get your ideas?” The simple answer? They find me. And I’m waiting with open arms.
That’s it for this evening. Thanks for coming along for the ride.
Ciao for now,