For my course starting at the Hagley Writers’ Institute in February, we students have been advised we need to build a portfolio of work to be presented by the end of the course in October. The portfolios that do the best, our teachers explained, are the ones with a mixture of short stories, novel excerpts, and poetry (at the least). Some have even thrown in a play or film script for good measure. And no, we can’t use previous works in the portfolio, even if they do fit in with what we are hoping to achieve.
I love listening to albums where there’s a story or a theme or some sort of “through line” running through the album. The artist takes her listeners on a journey, almost like a novel can, from start, to middle, to finish. This is, for me, what separates the amateurs from the professionals. And sometimes, it makes a mediocre artist (judged on their previous work) into an extraordinary one as their writing style and editing and song choices for an album mature as they learn their craft.
In the last few years — probably even during my Advanced Fiction Writing course at Massey University in 2014 — my mind has mulled over fame. Not only the story of an ordinary person becoming famous, but also the tales of the ordinary people swept along in the riptide of someone they know becoming famous. These people on the wings: what is their story?
One story I wrote, The Replacement, was a story I worked on for many, many years. One day, after reading about passion in one of my readings for my Advanced Fiction Writing course, the story finally fell into place. And, after it all started to snap together in my mind while I was in the shower, I came out to our dining room table, laptop at the ready, and I typed out the entire story in a few hours. The words flowed from my mind into my fingers and on to the screen. It was a very moving, very satisfying, very scary, and very tiring experience. I would even liken it to being guided by the Holy Spirit if I was more religious.
The feedback I received from that story was very positive. And yes, I did have to revise it for the class, which I did, and it became something bigger. But what people (including my teachers) liked was that it was a personal story. A college-level football player, on the brink of being drafted, starts a relationship with a guy a few years younger who is trying to help him pass his final classes for his degree, and they are both not out. The threat isn’t “oh, what happens if the coach finds out”, or any external threat. The threat is internal, between the two of them: one on the edge of glory, fame, and fortune, the other pulled along by that riptide of fame.
Incidentally, the story is told from the point-of-view of the guy stuck in the riptide.
Another story I wrote, After the Sky, was inspired somewhat by the Sondheim musical Into the Woods. Like the previous story, it dealt with a type of fame. Jack, after the beanstalk, returns to all the bullies and assholes who kicked his ass day-in and day-out in his small little backwater town, but they all now want to be his friend. Life is boring. Everything is boring. He’s had this massive adventure, and no one else understands him or what that experience did to him: not even his own mother.
My own experiences influenced this later story. Moving halfway across the world, experiencing new cultures and new places my friends had never had the opportunity to encounter — New Zealand, Australia, the South Pacific, Indonesia — and then, after a few years of hopping around that part of the world, coming home to find everything was pretty much the same. Same stories, same friendships, same rivalries, even the same friends arguing about the same stuff they were arguing about before I’d left four years earlier. But it was home and they were my family and friends, and you could and can never replace that.
I’m not finished with these types of stories. A few years ago, watching the news, I saw an item about a family and village in the Middle East where a suicide bomber had come from. The reporter interviewed his grandfather, and you could see the pain and anguish and disappointment and confusion and the loss all inside that man. Others interviewed were the same. It made me think; this young man somehow became indoctrinated in a cult-like radicalized wing of his religion and committed the most heinous of acts in that wing’s warped ideals. Amongst his fellow cult members, he became a martyr, almost like a type of fame, for what he did.
Yet again, his family and his friends, the people from his small village, were swept along in that riptide, but in this case, a riptide full of shame and questions and confusion.
Shifting back to now: I want to explore the issue of fame in my writing more.
As a matter of fact, I’ve thought about the name of the anthology — Fame, I know, how unoriginal… Or maybe even The Fame Monster, as a tip of the hat to Lady Gaga — and what I want to include in it.
Poetry will be the most challenging of all the writing styles for me. I dislike rhyming poetry. For me, there’s this element of immaturity to it. By that, I mean it’s like when we had to write and read poems as children. There’s a certain pattern, and a certain way our voices start reading and inflecting the words in a rhyming poem, and that (for some reason) irritates me.
I do like the rhythm and cadence of words, as if in a song, though, even within stories. Words can create a melody even if they’re not in a song.
Watching Amanda Gorman read her poem The Hill We Climb at President Biden’s inauguration a few weeks ago was an inspiration, yes, but it also smacked the fact into me pretty hard that I need to do a lot of work to even get remotely close to that level of amazing poetry. As I keep telling people, Ms. Gorman has more talent in her pinky finger nail than I have in my entire body.
It will take quite a bit of work, and a lot of research and reading and exposure to good poetry, to make that part work. Then again, maybe inspiration will come over me again, and I’ll crank out several good poems. You never know. (But I think the safer bet is to research and read.)
So the poems I am thinking about — and I have already picked out titles, which might be a bit presumptive of me — will deal about someone swept along in that riptide. Each poem, I am hoping, will detail different, short, “snapshots” of experiences. That’s the plan, anyway.
With stories, I have had a few of those floating around in my head as well. One idea is around two young men who were friends before a televised competition of some sort (think American Idol), where they both make it to the final stages, but one falls the the wayside while the other one wins the competition.
Years later, the first man is back home so visits the winner’s mother at home, and that’s what the story revolves around. He struggles with moving on, and this “fracture” in his life. I haven’t really fleshed it out very much as I’ve found that writing what comes to me as I am writing it sometimes is the better bet these days.
I have a few more titles written down but actually I’ve forgotten the ideas attached to the names.
Another idea revolves around a play where two people who once were on a reality television show bump into each other backstage during a convention somewhere. Again, one has become very famous, and the other has become more of a hermit. I think the dynamic between them is the hermit came out after he left the show, and that affected his popularity, while the famous one is straight. But their friendship was a lot stronger while they were on the show, and they discuss this. (It would be a short play I think.)
So I do have some cohesive ideas around the portfolio to ensure it “flows” correctly.
I just hope I’m not painting myself into a corner planning stuff out this early!
Time will tell.