Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Where do you get your ideas?

by Bill Kirton

It’s the question we’re always asked and, sometimes, it’s very easy to answer. My first radio play was broadcast on the BBC many years ago but I still have a very clear recollection of how it came about. It didn’t have just the one source but two. It was only when they came together that the idea formed.

The play was called An Old Man and Some People. The main substance of it came from an incident which happened when we were at a friend’s for dinner. This was many years ago. I was young and, astonishingly, drinking and driving didn’t seem mutually exclusive. The friends lived in a new house on a fairly posh estate but one which still had houses being built on it. We’d eaten and drunk well and there was a knock at the door. It was a policeman asking whether the grey van outside belonged to any of us. It was mine.

The policeman was very polite. He just wanted me to park the van around the corner off the main road. Apparently, the night watchman on the building site had ‘reported’ it. God knows why. There were no parking restrictions or anything. In fact, he was just doing his job. But when the policeman left, I was angry. I was all for going out and telling the man what I thought of him. It didn’t help that our hosts said he was a nosy old bugger.

But the following day – sober, of course – I was ashamed of the way I’d felt. I was young, having a good time, eating great food and swallowing litres (probably gallons in those days come to think of it) of wine. He was old, alone, stuck in a hut on a building site. And I wanted to go and shout at him. I disgusted me.

Then, several months later, I was looking through some newspaper cuttings. I clip out things which seem out of the ordinary, absurd, sad or anything which makes them stand out. This one was in the tragic category. A man was accused of the manslaughter of his wife. She’d been terminally ill for a while and was always asking him to finish her off to stop the pain. He couldn’t do it. Then, one day, she fell and was just lying there, so he took a pillow and held it over her face. Then he phoned the police and told them he’d killed her. The irony was that he was acquitted because the autopsy showed that his wife was already dead before he held the pillow to her face.

That awful image of the poor man, after months of suffering, ‘suffocating’ his wife’s body had haunted me but I’d forgotten about it. But now, suddenly, by making it a part of my night watchman’s past, I had a play which wasn’t just a petty subjective record of my unreasonable anger and consequent shame, but something which worked at a different level. Its resonance was wider, its conclusions less facile and it might involve listeners at a deeper level.

As I said, it was the first play I had broadcast. I still think it was possibly the best I ever wrote, too.

(PS. I realise that this begs another question. What’s the morality of me using a true, tragic story to give substance to my writing? Not an easy one to answer.)


Jean Henry Mead said...

A lovely post, Bill. I see nothing immoral in using past experiences and the tragedies of others as long as the victims are not identified. We never know when something we've written will help others.

Jaden Terrell said...

What a poignant story, Bill. I agree with Jean that there is nothing wrong with using the experiences of others in stories as long as we take care not to hurt them in the process.

Orson Scott Card wrote a beautiful short story (later a novel) called THE LOST BOYS. It's about a couple who loses a child, and he did such an incredible job of depicting it that many readers assume he has lost a son and offer him their condolences. One woman was very upset when she found out that he had never lost a child but had written about it; I think she felt betrayed because she had lost one and had felt such a strong connection with Card's story that she thought he must have been through the same thing she had.

But it was a beautiful and sensitive story. I think that's what writers do--find meaning in what would otherwise be random tragedy so we can all, for a little while, learn how to walk in another person's shoes.

I'd love to read that story.

Bill Kirton said...

Jean, I hope you're right (and I think you are) - treating such tales with sympathy and compassion may help those who've suffered similar things to realise that they aren't alone.

And Jaden - that's the critical thing - we must do everything we can to make sure we don't hurt other people - not just in writing, in everything..