There’s a story I’ve been trying to write for a year. I like how it starts, and I like the main character, who is a woman brought out of a refugee camp/slum to serve a function she doesn’t completely understand. Around her the city is drowning, the sea is sweeping in. Nicely atmospheric, but guess what, it stops right there. Doesn’t go anywhere after that rather dramatic beginning.
Sometimes stories just need to brew. Knowing that, I set it aside. This month I have had the good luck of editors asking to see my stories, so I picked up this one, brushed the metaphoric dust off it, and tried to make something of it. No luck. The deadline being Tuesday, I decided to give up on the damn thing.
Then I happened to look at my friend Anil Menon‘s erudite and always enjoyable blog, where he mentions the translation of a story “Sheesha Ghat” by an amazing Urdu writer called Naiyar Masud. I’ve been meaning to read it for a while, so I did. It was very compelling and rather strange, the kind of story that stays with you long after you’ve read it, partly because (like the real world) not everything makes sense. Relationships and events are implied, hinted. It is magical realist but in a completely Indian way — although in a way I haven’t seen before. .
Well, I enjoyed the story, and thought no more about mine. Thinking I would write to the editor who had sought a story from me the next day, and apologize for the non-delivery, I went to bed. I woke up in the morning knowing exactly what I needed to do in order to finish the story. The events and a crucial secondary character just showed up in my head as though they’d been always been there. .
Now my story is quite different from Naiyar Masud’s. But something about ‘Sheesha Ghat” opened the locked door in my mind, behind which the rest of my story was waiting. This has happened before, when I’m stuck. I haven’t figured out what it is about the story I’m reading that resonates with my own story because it isn’t style, or plot, or character. “Atmosphere” is close, but that doesn’t do it either. In fact the stimulus or key that opens the door isn’t even necessarily a story — it might be a song, for instance, or a melody.
I’m just grateful that the rest of my story has been revealed to me. it is stranger than I thought it would be. I still don’t have it completed and I can’t say for certain it is going to be a good story, but it has substance now. Tomorrow I finish the first draft.
Writing is such a mysterious process. It is often a lonely process but at the same time, it isn’t, because we are always haunted by the voices and imaginations of others.