There is nothing quite like being asked about your writing to make a writer feel quite so writerly. Which is funny, because the last time I was asked, the best I could manage was a string of artful ‘ahhhs,’ ‘ehhhs’ and, of course, the informative ‘ummms.’
You’d think, given the amount of time I spend pontificating to an imaginary Sinead Gleeson about what my stories are really saying that I would have been more prepared for the real thing. However, it turns out that these questions are a lot harder to answer in real life than they are in imaginary interviews.
“Oh, Sinead, you’re too kind, but seriously, what even is a genius? You think it exists in the pale silent gaps between each of my masterfully placed words? Oh stop it.”
But the reality is something more like, “Where did you get the idea for the story?”
A simple question on the face of it, one so simple that I had never bothered to consider an answer. So, when my eyes flit up and off to one side, scouring my brain for a serviceable response, I am surprised when the best it can manage is a series of monosyllabic grunts.
This is why I am so grateful to John Lavin and Valerie Sirr and to everyone at The Lonely Crowd magazine for allowing me to formulate my thoughts regarding my short story, ‘The One That Feels Good.’
Given time, and no small amount of imaginary discussion with Sinead Gleeson, I’m sure I can manage something a little meatier than ehhs and umms.
I wrote the first draft of this story at work, in an email and sent it to myself to be tidied up later. For me, when I get an idea, I try to get it down on the page as fast as I can before it evaporates. My ideas can be slippery things. They insinuate themselves into my subconscious via dark magic and stealth, and will only reveal themselves when I am not looking directly at them. And like dreams they are quickly forgotten, leaving only a vague sensation of loss.
Sometimes, I’ll send myself messages on my phone with little scraps or fragments of ideas.
I get them on the toilet; “Everyday life, only interesting” is an example of the kind of helpful prompting I often find in my inbox.
I get them while grocery shopping; “Chocolate apocalypse. The Road / Charlie and the chocolate factory. ”
Or even when I’m out at the pub with friends; “Man sprays down room full of writers with fire hose. You know why.”
Some of my ideas, admittedly, are more fully formed than others. But that’s how they come to me, out of the blue while I’m off doing something else. Of course, when I make a conscious effort to sit down at my keyboard to come up with something new, there is nothing but static in my head. So, when I do get my ideas, I try to get them down as quickly as I can, even if I’m at work.
The basic Idea for ‘The One That Feels Good’ was to be a cataloguing of the various stages of drunkenness.
The story started with a bar tender explaining the effects of the different types of alcoholic beverages available to a customer. It grew from there. The alien thing seemed like a convenient vehicle for this kind of blunt exposition. It seemed to me that only someone living on another planet wouldn’t know the basics of alcohol consumption. Thinking back on it, it could have just as easily been a Mormon or some isolated tribe’s person. Of course, as the story progressed it became about more than just booze.
Themes, for me, come after the fact. They are something to be coaxed out in later drafts, and doctored to appear as though they had been there all along, as though they were the seed for the whole story and not just the pretty leaves on the end of the branches. I’d be lying if I said I was consciously trying to work in isolation and loneliness as a theme in my first draft. But isolation and loneliness often go hand in hand with excessive alcohol consumption, so the theme was always there really, waiting under a dusty layer of narrative, hoping to be stumbled upon in the edits, exhumed and polished to a fine sheen.
Not a very writerly thing to admit that half of your story is a stumbled upon accident. Luckily, I have this opportunity to contrive some artistic intention toward form where none existed before.
I liked the alien aspect in the end. It added to the poor fella’s sense of otherness. This persona non grata vibe he had been cultivating within himself. He felt like an alien. Sometimes I feel like an alien. And of course in the finish, it turns out that sometimes we all feel like aliens.
The ugly wart attached to the glorious nose of human existence is the irrevocable fact of our complete and utter separation from each other. And even though we do our best to convince ourselves otherwise; no amount of hungry kissing, or desperate clutching, or beer soaked hugging in the small cold hours of a Tuesday morning can obfuscate the irrefutable fact of our own aloneness.
It is at this point in my practice interviews that the redoubtable, yet still imaginary, Sinead Gleeson would always interject.
“I think you’re full of shit, Sean. Also, you don’t read enough women.”
There is nothing worse than being found out by Sinead Gleeson live on an imaginary Radio show.
“You’re right, Sinead,” I will be forced to admit. “The truth of this story is that I don’t really know where it came from, or why I wrote it, or why I even write in the first place. I just sit down and start typing with a vague idea in my head, and one sentence follows the next until the story is done. That’s not my most writerly explanation, but it’s the truth, or at least as close as I can come to articulating it.” Then I will shrug and smile depreciatingly.
But this false humility is but a smoke screen, a convenient Segway to my ‘writer as mystic’ soliloquy.
“Some people say you should think of the writer as a mystical being, plucking words from the air like some kind of literary Jedi, ideas and images snatched directly from an ethereal life stream which permeates the whole universe, but only a select few are sensitive to. Or stories beamed directly into our sacred domes from unknowable dimensions for unknowable reasons. Or pried from miasmic consciousness as they float too close to our scholastic clutches. Some people even believe that stories are more than just words on a page, but are closer to spirits that roam the multiverses, unspoken until they find the right vessel to announce themselves. Some people present the writer as some kind of high priest, communing with these holy visions, giving voice to shining effectuations that would otherwise remain hidden. Ambassadors to glowing visions. Living conduits for the glory of–”
Sinead signals a throat cut to her producer to put an end to my make believe interview. She’s heard enough.
“Or Maybe!” I’ll splutter, playing for time. Sinead cocks her head as if to say, last chance bucko.
“Maybe it’s just a story about an alien who walks into a pub, and maybe I thought that was a fun idea.”
Sinead sits back, relaxed now that I’ve stopped lying to her.
“You thought it was a fun idea?”
And here I will meet her gaze, and even though it is an imaginary gaze, it pierces me still, but I hold her eyes, because you can do that when you tell the truth.
“Yes. I thought it was a fun idea. That doesn’t sound very writerly does it?”
“My dear child,” answers Sinead, smiling for the first time in our interview, “It’s the most writerly thing you’ve said all day.”
Born in 1984, Sean Tanner has been a campsite warden, chicken farmer, warehouse hand, Ferris wheel photographer, trampoline operator, telemarketer, and a man of general labour. His myriad occupations served to fund his globetrotting adventures. Having successfully misspent his youth he returned home to Cork to make babies with his wife. His work has previously appeared in The Irish Times where it was awarded the Hennessey New Irish Writing first fiction award for 2017.
You can read ‘The One That Feels Good’ in Issue Seven of The Lonely Crowd.
© Sean Tanner, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.