I was on a writing retreat at Varuna attempting to finish another draft of the manuscript that would go on to become See What I Have Done when day four arrived and I lost the will to write another word from Lizzie’s point of view.
I still had three days left of the retreat ahead of me. I needed a way to procrastinate without feeling guilt. One of the writer’s at the house was working on a short story collection and had told me, ‘Short stories are like the easiest thing to write.’ Sounds perfect, I thought. That’s exactly how I’m going to spend the rest of my time here at the house.
Here’s a tip I’d like to share with you about short stories: they’re not easy. They are their own art form and can take just as long to write as a novel. Sure, you could write a 3,000 word story in a single sitting but to get it right, to make it look like magic-ease takes drafting and time. They’re not for everyone. Hell knows they’re not for me. I’ve literally got one published short story to my name and that’s probably the extent of my career as a short story writer.
Let’s leave that moment at the retreat where it is for now and come to the future:
I am often asked where I get my ideas for writing and when I say I usually dream them, most find this unsatisfactory. And I don’t blame them: I sound like a complete wanker. But I think what people are really asking is how do you take small ideas or random thoughts and turn them into something sustainable for a short story or a novel or something else altogether?
It’s not easy to answer this question. Every writer I know has a different process but I think it’s safe to say that a guiding point of reference for all of us is that we cling to the ideas that are utterly irresistible, that speak to us on a particular level. Basically: write the ideas and stories that you are passionate about.
As I’ve said before, most of my best work happens when I sleep. But this is a fraction of the truth. Most of the time I’m observing everything around me, listening to stranger’s conversations, reading newspapers, going to a gallery or museum, looking at old photographs, sitting in nature…just waiting for a little spark that I think I might be able to use for something.
The most obvious and shortest example I can show you is how I came to write my short story, The Dolphin. And so now we need to go back to the Varuna, back to the day I decided to try my hand at a short story.
A few months before I went to Varuna I had dreamt about a woman driving to the Blue Mountains with a decomposing baby in the back seat of her car (sound familiar? That’s right, the second novel). The only thing I really knew about this woman was her name, Eleanor, and that she was in her twenties during the early 1970s. Then I went on retreat. At that stage of my life I’d begun having thoughts about becoming a parent, wondered what that might be like even if I only experienced it once. I’d always loved children but was never overtly maternal, never grew up desperately wanting to have children of my own.
So I tried my hand and around this time experienced the first of many miscarriages that would occur over the next few years. Given my body’s inability to accept a pregnancy, it was natural I began thinking about the role of parents, the role of children, especially as I was writing about a dysfunctional family. Then I started thinking about the dream I’d had and what that might mean on a psychoanalytical level. The first thing that occurred to me was that the dream was probably about the anxieties of parenthood. I won’t bore you with the other revelations I had (no, no. Instead you can read all about it in book two. I know, I’m very generous like that) but suffice to say these were the background thoughts I had while at Varuna.
On the day I could no longer write Lizzie I went into town to a bookstore. And I found this gem:
I absolutely adore shit like this and often spend hours and hours flicking through them partially out of curiosity, mostly looking for something that might spark a narrative idea. I didn’t even open the book. I bought it sight unseen. My gut instinct told me that between those pages was my short story.
Back in my room at Varuna I randomly flicked the pages, stopped to take in the photos from the 1930s to ’50s. I then closed my eyes and flicked once more. I opened to see this photo:
I was completely taken by the image, not least because this was taken a few years after WW2 and the image of a smiling woman with a breathing apparatus reminiscent of gas masks worn in war painted a disturbing image and feeling in my mind. And that’s when I thought of my dream, of Eleanor. I started writing what I saw in the photo and as I sketched the image out, tried to give a reason why this woman would be at the beach with this apparatus, I realised that she was deeply unhappy. And she also had a secret. Over the next three days I wrote a rough draft of The Dolphin and had a kernel of something bigger: a woman in an unhappy marriage goes on her annual summer holiday with her friends and husband only to commit suicide later on.
I knew after the first draft that on its own, this wasn’t a very interesting story. And yet. I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman who I’d named Eleanor and her husband, Braun. I didn’t know it then but this was the first version of two characters who would never leave me and would end up in my second novel years and years later.
After the retreat I went home and started draft two. I began thinking about why Eleanor had such an unhappy marriage and wondered if she’d ever tried to leave it. A few weeks later I was pregnant again and again I miscarried. Then I heard a woman’s voice in my head whisper, ‘You’re lucky you got out of that.’ It was Eleanor. In that moment I knew more about her and her story than I had before: she’d been coaxed into being a mother and then one day she’d decided she no longer would be one.
It took months of drafts to develop the story, to invent a world that felt complete and true for this character but I was completely obsessed with Eleanor and this situation and I would keep going until I had it right. Unfortunately I had no idea how to write a short story, so each draft was also a discovery of how to tell a story, the patterns you could use and so on.
A year after the initial idea, I had finished The Dolphin. It remains one of the most difficult things I’ve ever attempted to write.
So to go back to the question, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’
Well once I had a dream, found a photography book, had a miscarriage and thought about what it might be like to be a parent, to live in a world that might require you to need a breathing apparatus.
You can read an extract of that story here:
Eleanor, dressed in her bathing suit, appeared taller than she was. The beachgoers had laid her flat on the short blades of grass by the side of sand dunes and waited. They watched her. They did nothing. Her face might have been considered pretty if it wasn’t for her swollen cheeks and bruised skin. A time passed. They continued to wait and watch, and eventually they realised she was dead. By her side was a mask with a long rubber hose connected to an oversized bag, which could fit easily over one’s shoulder. The rubber hose was wrapped around Eleanor’s bony shoulders; attempts at strangulation. Everyone on the beach had one: the entire length of sand was lined with men and women lying in the sun, skin cooked or raw, their faces buried behind their masks, hoses running the length of their middle-aged bodies. They called the contraption The Dolphin: a new era in personal life-saving and fresh-air apparatus. Everyone had one. This was summer living.
The day before Eleanor died she had spent the afternoon drinking cocktails with her friends. They all wore The Dolphin. It clashed nicely with their red sundresses. They said to each other, ‘I am so glad that we decided to bring them. Don’t you find it’s been getting harder to breathe?’ and they all agreed. Especially Eleanor. She had worn The Dolphin all summer. Her husband, Braun, had bought it for her. If Eleanor had been honest, and she knew she shouldn’t be, she would have admitted to the others that The Dolphin hadn’t helped at all. It had only made breathing worse.
The group of friends had stopped telling the truth a few years ago.
They were drinking Old Fashioneds. They liked Old Fashioneds. They were drinking Old Fashioneds wearing The Dolphin, enjoying themselves. They sat around the table and watched each other through masks. They always came to this beach for summer. Their husbands were around somewhere. If she was being honest, and she knew she shouldn’t be, she would tell her friends that she was more than happy that Braun left her alone. She had gotten used to it. The friends had done everything together the last few years and sometimes it felt like they were the same person. They looked around the table at each other, sipped and smiled. The afternoon moved slowly. Eleanor looked at her watch. Conversations were had but were unimportant. They had all become unimportant. Eleanor was tired of them.
After a time a waiter came to the table with another Old Fashioned and smiled.
‘Oh goody,’ they said as he placed the glass on the table. They looked around the table and admired each other.
‘You’re wonderful. And you’re wonderful.’
Nothing was better than a compliment. They sipped.
‘This has turned out to be a delightful afternoon.’
‘Oh yes, very delightful.’
Eleanor looked at her watch. She let herself think of the end.
Later that afternoon, the friends decided to take a walk along the beach. Arms linked, they walked slowly and spoke of their respective daughters, Chelsea.
‘Chelsea did well in the swimming competition.’
‘Chelsea always does well in swimming.’
‘Chelsea is taking ballet classes this summer.’
‘Chelsea will be good at ballet.’
‘Chelsea is growing up so quickly.’
‘We’re all proud of Chelsea.’
Chelsea had become a problem for Eleanor. If she was being honest, and she knew she shouldn’t be, Eleanor would have admitted that daughter Chelsea was suffocating her. Just like the last time.
After the walk Eleanor went back to her room leaving the women behind her. It was quiet. Braun was nowhere to be seen. She sat on the bed and removed The Dolphin from her face and held it in her hands. She tapped the plastic visor. It made a shallow sound. She held the rubber hose up to her ear and listened closely for the hiss of oxygen but nothing came. The room was very quiet. Eleanor’s arms lowered and her shoulders sank. Her breathing was laboured. She let herself think about the past week. Then she let herself think about the past year. The past two years. All the years before that. Now that she was alone she realised that she hated it all. Most of all she hated the other women. She felt the Old Fashioneds swim through her blood. She hated that, too.
When Eleanor was young her mother had told her that hate was a strong word to be used sparingly. Eleanor agreed. It was a strong word. It perfectly described how she felt about her life. Eleanor wasn’t sure what exactly she hated the most. She thought. She thought that perhaps she had gotten her feelings wrong, that it was dissatisfaction that she felt. Braun would say she was dissatisfied. Chelsea would say that she was dissatisfied. Chelsea would say anything. Chelsea had died when she was very small.
Eleanor thought. She was right. It was definitely hate.
The wonderful people at Overland published this story in journal #207 which is also online as archive. The rest of the story can be read over there