As we get ready for our Haunted event in October, writer and First Draft producer Abi Hynes reflects on the stories that won’t leave us alone, and why…
There’s a running joke amongst the friends who read my writing regularly: ‘Abi writes water stories’. And it’s true. It started out as a deliberate theme; I was thinking about putting together a little collection of sea-themed short fiction. That collection never came to be, but, somewhere in that process, I have to admit that a bit of an obsession took hold.
I am fascinated by bodies of water. I suppose part of it is that I’ve been influenced by some of my favourite novels that use them as a setting; whether it’s Jeanette Winterson’s magical Venetian canals or Iris Murdoch’s visions of sea monsters. Water, as a choice of landscape, is tempting for its motion, for its ability to change mood and take characters and readers along with it. The bottom of the sea still holds secrets that humanity hasn’t discovered yet. On the one hand, I feel defensive of my water stories, because the nature of our relationship with water feels like inexhaustibly fertile writing territory.
‘In this mercurial city, all things seem possible…’
Jeanette Winterson, The Passion
But, on the other hand, I’m aware that sticking water into my stories is becoming a bad habit; a writer’s tick, if you will. It’s not just the ocean; my characters take a lot of baths, I notice. They get desperately thirsty, they swim to freedom if they’re imprisoned, they get drenched in the rain waiting for their lovers. It’s become a bit of a go-to trope that I pull out whenever I want to illustrate something about the human condition; desperation, tenderness, vulnerability. It’s lazy, sometimes, and it’s cheating – to pull the same trick every time. But it’s a theme that just won’t leave me alone.
And so, with the arrival of the latest First Draft prompt, I’ve been thinking about the stories that we, as writers, keep coming back to – the ones that haunt us. It’s been said that each of us tells the same story, over and over in different guises, until we get it right. I don’t really know if I agree with that. I think perhaps we’re all too ready – trained from a young age in English Literature classes – to look for recurring themes in well-known authors’ works. To follow them like clues that will lead us to some over-arching preoccupation, like some magical key that unlocks a great truth about the writer’s inner life. Maybe, sometimes, that approach illuminates an idea that a writer really was haunted by. Other times, perhaps they were just lazy, or even unaware themselves that they’d reused the name Emily in different stories, just because they liked the sound of it.
So, does it matter whether I keep writing about water, or try and kick the habit? The desire to dump it as a theme for a while comes partly from a sense that I want to strive for originality – but that, of course, is a tricky concept. There’s a fine line between inspiration and all-out plagiarism, for example. I’m increasingly aware of the creeping influence of other writers on my own work, and not just famous ones, but also the creative friends’ whose work I’m regularly in contact with.
And I know I can’t be the only one who’s spent hours hunting for a phrase or an idea that’s popped into my head so perfectly and satisfyingly that I’m sure I must have heard it before. When we haven’t outright stolen something, these ideas that feel familiar to us, often turn out to be our most successful, precisely because they feel familiar. Because – like popular music – they tap into a thought or a feeling that most people have in common, and are, therefore, to some extent predictable.
So how much originality do we really want, then? My favourite teacher at school, when coaching us in essay writing, used to remind us to plant the seeds of our conclusion early on. Nobody, he told us, likes an essay (or a story, or a song) in which Superman flies in right at the end to save the day (Surprise!). We like our art to tap into things we recognise. That twist we ‘never saw coming’ will make us feel cheated if it doesn’t also, somehow, feel inevitable.
We are collectively haunted by a core set of human desires and fears that raise their familiar heads in myths and legends and folktales, often spanning cultures and time periods. If it haunts you, it probably haunts somebody else, too. In the sharing of it, perhaps we briefly get to lay these ghosts to rest.
Throughout October, we want to hear from creative folk of all persuasions in relation to our ‘Haunted’ theme. If you’re not one of the fab people already on our line up to perform at the event itself, we’d love you to contribute by responding to our prompt, whether it’s with a story, a poem, a song, a piece of artwork, an essay, or anything else we can publish on our blog.
If you’d like to take part, send it over to us and we’ll share it over the next few weeks.