Seamus was a small lad who lived with his Mum and Da and his little sister Sarah in a three-room cottage in a country village near the forest. Each morning he would be the first in his family to wake, and he would get up quietly as he could, slip on his clothes, tiptoe to the door, and step outside to greet the morning.
Process Reflection: Let me say right here that this is what I don't do. I've written hundreds of essays, hundreds of poems, lots of blog posts, a great many book reviews, thousands of journal entries, and, to the best of my memory, in my entire life, maybe three stories. Storytelling does not come naturally to me. I am often moved to start writing, or to begin a drawing or collage, but I almost never have the impulse to sit down and write a story. So when I was sitting at my desk tonight thinking about what might make for a new departure in this 64-word series, the thought occurred to me that I might just start out with "Once upon a time…" and see what sort of story I might lead myself into. I got over the 64-word limit right off, so as I started compressing and trying to become more specific the intro phrase got dropped and the character who started off as "a small boy" became Seamus. The whole Irish overtone was not something I really planned, but I've been reading Tana French and James Kelman lately and so maybe there was some leakage there. So now I've got a character and a setting, and presumably, if I had any aptitude for this sort of thing, I would now be able to make something happen to Seamus which would be of interest to me and potentially to someone else.
There is a story I heard somewhere (I've tried to track it down but have never been able to do so) about a famous writer of novels who was asked how he was able to be so prolific. He said that he had a foolproof formula that he used every time. Once he finished one novel, he would open his phone directory, run his fingers down the list of names, a stop somewhere at random. He would choose that name, and walk about his study saying the name over and over out loud to himself, and trying to imagine the circumstances of that persons life: where they lived, who they lived with, what they did for a living, what they liked and disliked, and so on. Once he was able to imagine his way into that person's life, he would ask himself "What could happen that would change that person's life?" Once he knew that, he was on his way.
Faulkner's report on his own compositional method is not so different:
It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.
So I've got Seamus up on his feet and moving, and if I were to continue, which I may wind up doing, I would wind up spending enough time trotting along behind him to get to know him, at which point I'd need to figure out what was going to happen to change his life.
One of the things that I like about James Kelman, especially in his short-story collection Greyhound for Breakfast, is that he is nothing like so programmatic about his stories. Often it's just a voice, or a moment, or a conversation that the story gets built around. Some of his stories have a traditional narrative arc, many do not. Here, for example, is "The Good Intention" in its entirety.
We had been skeptical from the very outset but the way he set about the tasks suited us perfectly. In fact, it was an eye-opener. He would stand there with the poised rifle, the weather-beaten countenance, the shiny little uniform; yet giving absolutely nothing away. His legs were bandy and it produced a swaggering stance, as though he had no time for us and deep down regarded us as amateurs. But we, of course, made no comment. The old age pensioner is a strange beast on occasion and we were well acquainted with this, perhaps too well acquainted. In the final analysis it was probably that at the root of the project's failure.
We're given enough information here to start drawing us in, but enough information is being withheld to generate questions: Who is "we"? Who is "he"? What are "the tasks"? What was the project? How does the business about the old-age pensioner fit in? On the one hand the story, short though it is, does feel whole. On the one hand, what's here feels like it could be either the first paragraph or the last paragraph of a longer story, which, since it is not being told, we will have to imagine for ourselves. Kelman is a lot like Lydia Davis in that it feels like each time he's off into a story he's flying by the seat of his pants, inventing a whole new way of proceeding. There is no formula, no pre-set assumptions about how to proceed. The challenge for their readers is that you have to come to each story prepared to re-invent yourself as a reader. That's something that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But I think it's how we grow.