Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 18 September 2008


Where do stories come from? Where do stories come from? I wish I knew. I really do. I'd up roots and move there. There are some where I know exactly where they've come from. Take my story 'Zeitgeist' foe example, I was sitting on a bus coming back from work when a colleague said, in his very broad Ayrshire accent: "Ma wife says Ah'm too serious" and I went home and wrote a story that began with those exact words which I presented to him a few days later mainly to see if I'd got the accent and phraseology right; it's a little different to the Glasgow accents of which there are several.

'Jewelweed' was a completely different story but in some respects still the same. I've heard Harold Pinter talk about the evolution of his plays and there have been times when he's begun only with a voice, or voices, not knowing who was speaking or to whom or what about. In an interview he said, talking about his work as a director, "I work much as I write, just moving from one thing to another to see what's going to happen next. One tries to get the thing…true." That I can understand. That was how my novel Milligan and Murphy began. I was walking across the blue bridge that crosses the Clyde – we had a nice flat in the Gorbals at the time – and I 'heard' in my head the words: "Milligan and Murphy were brothers," and that was it. I had no idea who they were or anything like that or how they could have different surnames and still be brothers. I certainly had no idea who was doing the talking. No, all I had were those five words. By the time I'd crossed Glasgow Green I had a paragraph but I was still none the wiser.

'Jewelweed' had just been published in Static Movement but just bear with me before you rush off to read it. I'll put a link for you right at the end. For the moment I'd simply like to examine that very first paragraph, all four sentences of it, and then you're free to have a shuftie. Okay?

'Jewelweed' didn't begin like either 'Zeitgeist' or Milligan and Murphy. I sat down at my computer with a blank screen and a blanker mind and wrote the first thing that came into my head:

One would have thought that a prerequisite for being a primary school teacher, even before one starts to look at qualifications and experience, might be a fondness for, or at least not a total loathing of, children.

Okay, it might not have been as clean as that, but that was the gist of it. So where did that come from?

I'm not one who spends an awful lot of time looking back. I'm always struck by how much Carrie can remember about her various schools – and she talks about them often and with affection – but I don't. I remember the schools I went to and the names of a lot – though not all – of the teachers but considering how much of my life I spent in those classrooms I'm really surprisingly hazy.

I first walked through a school door with my mother in tow in August 1964. It's not there any more. All that's left is the back gate. I remember the first day reasonably clearly. We were all given toys to occupy us. I got building blocks and, being a bright kid, after about three minutes I was bored. Some time later the toys were swapped over but somehow I got skipped over. I raised my hand to inform the teacher of her oversight. She listened but I was told just to get on with what I was doing. Now I think back it was probably her first day too – she must only have been just out of uni or maybe even teacher training college.

But we are talking about the Scottish school system of the 1960s. We learned by rote and the belt was used liberally. Although some of my teachers were nice enough I do remember an atmosphere of fear being prevalent; the headmaster was a tall, stern figure, old-fashioned in his ways, with a face that looked like life had given it a good tanking. My father had cause to have words with him once – I forget over what – and this singled me out and I was convinced he hated me more than the rest. Fortunately I was a good boy and never had to be sent to his office but I always expected if I ever was my punishment would be disproportionate to my crimes. The deputy-headmistress was only marginally better but, oddly enough, I always felt she had a soft spot for me.

I guess this brings us to the second sentence in the story:

This, strangely, has never been the case and I’m sure your childhood is replete, as is mine, with wicked old spinsters who just happen to have ended up responsible for entire classes of innocent children.

I only received the belt once at Primary School. I do remember that clearly because I believed it was not deserved and the teacher – one, up until that moment I had been quite fond of – would not listen to reason. THAT was an important life lesson and I've always had an aversion for the kind of people to strike first and ask questions afterwards. Lines I got more often, in fact in Primary 4 the teacher gave me lines daily. Her expressed logic was to improve my handwriting which, to be fair, was poor but lines are lines – it felt like punishment.

Anyway, you get the idea. I really couldn't tell you why on the day I wrote that sentence or why any primary school came to my mind because, as I've said, it really isn't something I think about very often and I tend only to talk about it in response to direct questions. But I had what was in effect a writing prompt in front of me and I needed to do something with it.

As a kid I did used to wonder about the private lives of teachers. It wasn't until first year at the Academy I even saw a teacher outside of school. It was one of the art teachers and I bumped into him coming out of a library. Strange, he looked as embarrassed as me and he was attached to a wife and kids and he just didn't look right. We were both out of context. I was only once in a teacher's house. I'd entered a poetry competition and received an honourable mention and I went round to my English teacher's house to give her the good news. Did she not invite me in and offer me booze. Now that was an interesting experience. I must have been fourteen at the time. Oh, I forgot to mention she was about a hundred and seven so drink was all that was on the table. (I think I need to end this paragraph now).

Here's the third sentence:

Of course, they’re never what we believe them to be, they have lives and loves and hopes and fears just like the rest of us but they seem a breed apart, not like the rest of us, caricatures, the butt of many a joke, sketch or skit on TV.

Fine, fine fine. Everything was going just fine up until this point. And then I went and wrote this sentence and set the direction of my story in stone:

Vivienne never cared to be reduced to a stereotype even if there was some basis for the reduction.

For the record I have never had a teacher called Vivienne. Okay, I might have had a teacher called Vivienne and not known it. Teachers in the nineteen-sixties were not big on first names; they relaxed somewhat in the seventies. In all honesty I've never knowingly known anyone called Vivienne inside or outside the teaching profession.

I know a lot of writers struggle with names for their characters. I can't say I ever have. I usually jump at the first one that comes to my mind. It's not out of the bounds of possibility that I'd look up the meaning of a name to see if it was appropriate to the character – Vivienne is of French origin and comes from the word Vive, which means to live or alive – but I tend to do that before I write further. I've only once that I can remember doing a global replace on a character's name and I was never happy with the change; the original name had attached itself to the character in my head and that's what she'll always be to me, but it was the right thing to do for other reasons and she was only a minor character.

'Jewelweed' is an interesting story for another reason: it's about something I know nothing about, i.e. horticulture – and I got there in paragraph two. Someone please explain to me how that happened. Thank God for Google. Actually it might not have been Google in 1999. I'm not sure what my search engine of choice was back then.

I'm going to leave it there and let you read the story. Here's that nice convenient link I promised you a while back. By the way the character of 'Tommy Stephens' is very much me. That's what happens when you leave a precocious five year-old with building blocks. Ah, payback.

Oh, and for the record, this is my wife's favourite story.


Frances said...

Its always fascinating to see how other people get their ideas and material. Fascinating post Jim.

Jena Isle said...

I like how you write our stories Jim, they come out as you- just thinking aloud (of course you are)

The ideas come sometimes like a rush of inundating waves or like drops of water in an arid desert. Yours come steadily like rain.

Thanks for sharing.

Jim Murdoch said...

Frances, pleased I managed to fascinate you.

And Jena, I'm from Glasgow - we know about rain.

christine said...

Hi, Jim. You visited my site and commented about American Sentences, and now I'm returning with a link for you, from a writer from the UK:

A handful of stones

Hope you like it.

Your discussion of how your ideas for stories come to you is interesting. I like to pop random words into my stories as I write them to see which way they will go.

How admirable to write a novel. I don't know if I have the perseverance for that kind of writing, though of course I love to read novels.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, Christine, and the link. This, of course, is only one story and when I was writing the post it struck me how little I've ever really thought about the mechanics of how I write a short story. I just sit down and write. I listen to some writers go on and I wonder what they're going on about. You sit down, you write. This is not to suggest that writing is easy for me because it's not but at the same time I don't like to make too much of it, to over-analyse it. I'm a writer. I write. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

I'm afraid it was the same with the novel. I sat down and wrote a novel. I didn't think about what it would take to write the thing or even what I was writing would become - a novel was the furthest thing from my mind - I simply wrote till the words stopped flowing and there it was, the best part of a novel.

If you want to see a more in depth analysis of one of my stories have a look at this link.

Dave King said...

The whole business of how stories come about is fascinating to me. Like poems, I find they come differently on each occasion. It can be literally anything that pulls the trigger.
On the matter of being unfairly accused at school, I do remeber our son being completely incensed because he and a few friends had been punished for pushing on the stairs. He had been at the front, the first in the line, "So how could I have been the one pushing?" he wanted to know!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Dave. I love the comment about your son, so typical of the logic of the young. As for the geneses of of writing, yes, I too find it fascinating, in particular a story like this where I literally sat down and wrote the first thing that came into my head and took it from there.

Dave King said...

Completely forgot the main thing I wanted to say: great story!

Jim Murdoch said...

I can live with 'great story', Dave.

Ken Armstrong said...

I think stories are everywhere, like air, it's only the writers who can see them.

People are always saying to me - 'how come you do so many stupid things, make so many mistakes?' I don't really think I do, I just tend to see the story-potential even as I'm taking the prat-fall. :)

(Tues is all arranged)

Off to read the story now - you told me not to 'til the end.

Jim Murdoch said...

You're quite right, Ken, you can make a story out of anything. The point I wanted to make about this piece was the whole fear of the blank page/screen that some writers have. Personally I never have. I could sit down as soon as I've finished this comment and begin a short story without any problem. Whether it would be any good is another thing but beginnings have never been a problem for me - never.

netta said...

i very seldom plot out a story before i write it. i consider myself an "organic" writer, and most of the time i have no idea what i'm going to write until i sit down and start it.

stephen king likens it to excavating a story, and it's the writer's job to get as much of it up as possible. sometimes i see it that way. i figure my subconscious is busy macerating away, and when it's ready, i'll write it.

loved the story. very nicely done.

Jim Murdoch said...

Netta, 'excavating a story', yes, that's an excellent way of putting it, especially in this case because I was digging into my own past even though the biographical elements are negligible. And as for our minds 'macerating' away in the background – love that word by the way – of course, if fact I've just written a wee guest blog on that very subject (assuming the blog owner likes it) so I won't say any more on this topic for just now.

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