Time was when I loved to travel, although now I much prefer to stay at home. But I have lots of cherished memories; I even have a stack of travel diaries I could use to check my facts. Charli’s prompt sparked off a stream of reminiscence, of thrills and spills and moments of, if not quite terror, some pretty dodgy stuff. Were I better raconteur, my travels would make for some great dinner-table storytelling, but my adventures have made only a rare appearance in my fiction and, when they did, I got confused as to what was memory and what imagination. When it came to my 99-words I was overwhelmed with possibilities, yet none seemed strong enough to demand their moment on the screen.
Charli²: But it’s fiction, you’re allowed to make things up!
Annecdotist: Yeah, but somehow I don’t want to this time; I want a story that stays faithful to the things I’ve seen and done.
Lisa²: Ha ha, you’re being converted to memoir.
Annecdotist: Only for this particular topic.
In the end, an idea bubbled to the surface and I grabbed it before it could sink back down again and another take its place. I don’t know why it chose me, but here it is:
I was scared as you were, believe me, but I smothered my anxieties with thoughts of tulips, van Gogh and canals as we bedded down with the down-and-outs in a dusky recess of the shopping mall.
A perfect plan in daylight: a lift halfway to Amsterdam. We’d pass the early hours in the waiting room and catch the first train out. No-one mentioned that the station closed its doors at night.
The police beamed torchlight across our faces. I thought they might relax the rules for two sisters, strangers to the city, but they ushered us into the night.
In exchange for half a crown³, she handed over the leather bridle and we trooped off to the field. We positioned ourselves with outstretched arms and edged towards the pony, clicking our tongues and crooning, “Come on, Champ.” He broke through our ranks a couple of times, but we caught him in the end.
I wasn’t brave enough to slip-slide downhill on his back but, once on the flat, I had my turn.
Beyond the harbour, families were sunning themselves on the rocky beach. With nothing else by way of entertainment, the kids began queueing for a ride. At sixpence a go, it wasn’t long before we were in profit. Enough for ice creams all round and to repeat the exercise next day.
Back at the farmhouse, she snatched the bridle from us. We couldn’t understand why she told us never to come for Champ again.
I was struck by how different it felt to write these two pieces and curious as to whether you think that’s reflected in differences the quality of what I’ve produced. Once I’d picked my topic, I found the second one much easier to write. Of course, having 150 words to play with is bound to feel less pressured after the discipline of reducing the first to 99. But I also felt less invested in the pony-ride story and less concerned about making every word count.
I was surprised at how disturbed I felt while writing the first piece (though perhaps I should reassure you that nothing untoward – beyond lack of sleep – happened to us that night). I feel the travel-flash is the better piece of writing but I’m also aware that, because of my deeper emotional involvement, it’s much more difficult for me to be objective about this one: it might be absolute tosh.
I’m interested in my determination to hang on to the first ten words, especially as my original version was about eleven words over the limit and I could have saved myself a bit work by chopping the opening. It’s not essential to the story, yet crucial to the memory that sparked it … and my residual guilt. It seems to me that the fiction writer needs to be able to let go of her story much more than the memoirist, to allow it to exist as something separate from herself. I don’t think I managed that here.
I don’t think there’s any harm in being emotionally affected by one’s own writing – and I think this can happen when writing fiction as much as memoir – but we also need the capacity to step back from it in order to edit and improve. I’m guessing such emotional distancing would be harder to achieve with memoir, but perhaps not for those who have a stronger affinity for the genre?
¹Okay, not secret any more.
²Fictional characters who, by sheer coincidence, have the same names as the bloggers who set these challenges.
³An obsolete British coin to the value of five times sixpence.
What do you do when you have a surfeit of ideas? How do you choose which stories you want to tell? How do you think your emotional involvement impacts on the quality of the writing?