I use this exercise in the first few weeks of the MA workshop. By this time we might have done a few exercises which centre around autobiographical writing. This one frees us from the burden of confession and asks us to enter and create other lives. Newspaper photographs, which are often stagey and awkward, can be great prompts for story. Once you have a face and a few facts, it’s addictive to start reading and writing against the grain. Lawrence Patchett’s wonderful stories about 19th Century NZ are a form of this kind of approach – alternate histories made from real sources.
The other reason I like using the exercise is to remind people about the great Mavis Gallant. Her Collected Stories is almost 900 pages and essential. ‘The Moslem Wife’ is a favourite but once you have that one in your system, there’s nothing to do but push on.
‘A journalism student in Germany once told me she was bothered by the fact that the most plain and simple and ordinary news stories could conceal an important falsehood. She gave me an example, say, a couple celebrating their seventieth wedding anniversary. They will sit holding hands for the photographer and they’ve had their ups and downs over the years, but the marriage has been a happy one. The reporter can only repeat what they say. But what if the truth is that they positively hate each other? In that case the whole interview is a lie. I told her that if she wanted to publish the lie perceived behind the interview, she had to write fiction.’
– Mavis Gallant, Paris Review, Winter 1999
Choose a photograph from the newspaper and write a piece of fiction that imagines the lie behind the official truth.
Extract from The Exercise Book from VUP.
In 2013 Damien became the Director of the IIML, having taught in the Masters programme since 2004. He’s the author of numerous books, including six novels. His latest novel Max Gate is published this October.