Creating a Text – Elizabeth Baines
What phases are involved in the creation of a text?
A journalist just asked me the usual question: Where do I get my inspiration? Do I get it from the people I see in the street? Do I get it from the buildings in my neighbourhood? (She was a journalist on a local paper, wanting to promote the neighbourhood – as a literary quarter, maybe.) As if the inspiration is something out there, waiting, for the writer only to find and pick up. She didn’t like my answer: that it’s not like that, that there has to be something brewing inside you already – the germ of a story, or a vague idea, an obsession or even just a strong emotion – before an outside stimulus sparks it into the beginnings of a text.
Take my story Compass and Torch (which will appear in my forthcoming collection Balancing on the Edge of the World). It describes a little boy setting out on a camping trip with the father he hardly sees now because his parents are divorced. I don’t mind telling you that the scene described here is based on one I witnessed when I too was walking in the Welsh hills. But I’ve walked a lot in the Welsh hills, I’ve witnessed lots of people parking their cars and setting out on Welsh hill trails. Why did this particular incident become a story I wanted to write? Because of children I had known in similar situations and who had affected me deeply, and because of childhood experiences of my own. Frankly, it was a story waiting to happen, and let’s face it, it came from inside me, and quite possibly the real boy and his dad weren’t estranged at all and had quite different emotions. It came from my own experiences and emotions, into which that scene, those little figures of the man and the boy on the vast purple landscape, the ghost-like ponies, all happened to feed. It is true that the moment (later in the day, actually) that I became conscious of the connections – and when the concept of the story came to me – felt like ‘inspiration’, something ‘given’ to me (and that, I find, is how it always is), but the fact is that there had been years-long stages in the creation of this story. And because those stages are so personal and psychological, and lie right outside the actual writing, you can’t provide a formula for the creative process or ‘getting inspiration’.
As for the actual writing: once I get to that stage, because my gestation periods have been so long, I usually write very quickly and with very few drafts, but there are still stages involved of course. You can talk about drafting and editing, but there are still other less tangible processes which I’d say are psychological and less in one’s conscious control. I find that that ‘sparking’ moment described above is the moment I move into what feels like a ‘receptive’ psychological state, when everything coheres and seems to ‘speak’ to me, when I keep reading and seeing things which feed into what I’m writing. My concept of the story I’m writing will develop or adjust as a result. In fact, if I’m writing a novel or a longer play, life will then become a thrilling series of moments of seeming ‘inspiration’ (which is why I guess so many writers are only happy when they’re writing and so miserable when they’re not).
So ultimately it’s all down to the writer’s psyche, I’d say (and so there are no easy how-to-write formulae). On the other hand, I’m about to challenge my own theory by writing a specially commissioned interactive blog story, What Would You Do?, for the Manchester Literature Festival (http://manchesterblogstories.blogspot.com/). Responding to outside stimuli will be the most important part of the process: readers will vote weekly on potential plot twists and I’ll have to write accordingly. Wonder what I’ll be saying about all this then?