One of the most common questions asked of any writer must be where do you get your ideas from? My instinctive response is anywhere and everywhere but I’m aware this evasiveness is awkward and sounds oddly self-important although it is by no means meant to be.
My less opaque reply (see FAQ!) is an attempt to touch on the infinite sources and routes that an idea can come through. As a writer of social realism within a contemporary context, day-to-day exposure to all this potential raw material could be overwhelming.
A more rigorous but trickier question might be – what makes a particular idea stick? What is it about this idea amongst all the others which urges me to experience, feel, understand it more? My answer is not necessarily more concrete but it feels real: there are issues and themes that I might repeatedly return to and there are some which catch my eye and then gather strength, burrowing deeper once I’ve allowed them houseroom.
For every piece of writing, the experience is different and the underlying concept can swerve and contort, almost beyond recognition sometimes, as the process of writing happens; yet that initial idea remains, even when fragmentary, its essence.
When Honno contacted me to see if I would be interested in writing a story for their love-themed collection, My Heart on my Sleeve, I happened to be reading Couples – the truth by Kate Figes as research for a novel.
In her chapter, September Days Figes explores relationships in older age. “We need that gentle kindness of intimacy most in our later years when we are fragile and vulnerable …” Figes says, and yet this is a period of our lives which brings great challenges.
Ageing in our society is an issue that fascinates me and I was particularly interested in how Figes talked about the way ageing can blur the boundaries of gender. Women can become more “independent, feisty, assertive, outspoken and less constrained by conventional notions of femininity, while the machismo of men tends to soften.”
For my short story I wanted to explore how a woman’s growing strength might show in her adaptability to a changing society and, how the man’s ‘softening’ might lead to a distrust or rejection of such changes. I wanted to explore how a couple’s marriage provides a foundation of continuity and security but how the individual and their role within the marriage can be tested by the aging process.
This initial idea remained steady throughout the writing of Leaves and Geese and is the core of the story. The husband observes his wife going on an everyday errand from a window in their house. “Each day the world seems to me a little more complicated, a notion more unfathomable,” he thinks. His fears manifest themselves in an over-protectiveness towards his wife. It is her willingness to engage with the ‘outside’, together with her understanding of what lies behind his anxieties that give her the strength to provide the tender comfort he needs.*Cancian, Love in America: Study quoted in Kate Figes compassionate and fascinating study, ‘Couples, the truth.’