On Writing ‘Lockjaw’ – Mary Morrissy

Where do stories come from?  Sometimes it’s hard to say because the process is so chaotic when it’s happening, and in retrospect seems too random to catalogue. But in the case of ‘Lockjaw’, the starting point was very clear.

I teach creative writing at University College Cork and several years ago came across a classic writing exercise in American writer John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction. This was the brief: Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.

The aim is to write a passage that achieves effect by being indirect. In other words, you decide what you’re going to say and then very deliberately you don’t put it on the page. It’s also about investing description with undeclared emotion.

The result, Gardner said, should be ‘a powerful and disturbing image, a faithful description of some apparently real barn but one from which the reader gets a sense of the father’s emotion; though exactly what that emotion is he may not be able to pin down. . . No amount of intellectual study can determine for the writer what details to include. If the description is to be effective, he must choose his boards, straw, pigeon manure, and ropes, the rhythms of his sentences, his angle of vision, by feeling and intuition. And one of the things he will discover, inevitably, is that the images of death and loss that come to him are not necessarily those we might expect.’

I don’t like to ask student writers to tackle exercises that I haven’t tried to do myself so I wrote along with them. The description of the barn which appears in the opening of the story is almost word-for-word from the original exercise. I liked the way the prompt forced me to be inventive, made me use language to get around a narrative obstacle. Restriction can often be the mother of invention.

Because it produced a kind of density of description, I was loathe to let the piece sit there as a fragment and in time I developed it into a story breaking all of Gardner’s disguising strictures in the end since I go on to mention the son, the war and death.

Other threads in the story came in the usual magpie fashion. I have cause to remember the night Hurricane Charley hit because I was on the graveyard shift as a newspaper copy editor and got to say those immortal lines – stop the press – so that we could update readers on the worsening conditions as the winds howled and the rain beat against the office windows.

At the time of writing the story, a friend of mine had gone into selling stoves in her barn so she found a place in the narrative too.

My only contact with a war experience, if you don’t count the Northern Ireland troubles, was the Irish Army’s peacekeeping missions in the Lebanon, so that almost chose itself.

And finally the photographer, who was a late addition to the story, comes from an unease I have about the artful photographing of abandoned places, particularly people’s homes, with all the poignant mementos of their lives still in place. While loving the images, I distrust my pleasure in them because they seem, somehow, avaricious, feeding off authenticity to create a kind of beautiful-looking artifice. And as I write this, I realise it could be a description of writing itself; so perhaps I’m berating myself in the story at some level.

So. . . not a very coherent process even when remembered in tranquillity. Except for John Gardner who started the whole process off.

Mary Morrissy is Associate Director of Creative Writing at University College Cork. She is the author of three novels, Mother of Pearl, The Pretender and The Rising of Bella Casey, and two collections of stories, A Lazy Eye and Prosperity Drive. She has taught creative writing in the US and Ireland since 2000. In 1995 she was awarded the prestigious US Lannan Award for work ‘of exceptional quality’. Mother of Pearl, her first novel, was shortlisted for the Whitbread (now Costa) Award and The Pretender and The Rising of Bella Casey were both nominated for the Dublin Impac International Literary Award. She has over thirty years’ experience as a journalist on three of Ireland’s national newspapers.

You can read ‘Lockjaw’ in Issue Seven of The Lonely Crowd.

© Mary Morrissy, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.