True Stories as told by Damien Wilkins

Damien Wilkins, photo by Greta Wilkins

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.

True Stories
‘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.

Famous People, with Lawrence Patchett.

Lawrence PatchettWhen I opened The Exercise Book I went straight to Gavin McGibbon’s ‘Famous Person’ exercise. There were two reasons for this: firstly, Gavin’s thinking on story has had a strong influence on my work, not so much through direct advice but more through the atmosphere of story nous that seems to surround scriptwriters from the IIML. Secondly, I was attracted to the title of this exercise because many of my stories touch on—trade on, mess with and manipulate—famous people and famous lives.

The exercise involves taking a famous person and having them fall into or opt for a very different way of life—Albert Einstein becomes a boxer, John Key joins a gang. Without forcing some easy transition, the writer has to tell the story of this ‘gigantic change’, in such a way that it seems convincing and natural, and we believe it every step of the way.

The final step is to scratch out the name of the famous person and substitute another, made-up name, this new person becoming the protagonist of your story, script, or novel.

This appeals to me because it forces the character to go on a journey that takes them far, far away from their existing sense of themselves. As they leave their comfort zone, the character is forced to ask themselves: Who am I? How do I become my opposite?

This is a recipe for BIG story ideas, because it’s forcing the deepest kind of character analysis and character change. It’s asking the character to leave the place where they know everything, and step into the borderland where they know nothing. You can’t help but generate big stories out of that journey.

And perhaps I’m attracted to the test that is posed in this exercise because it’s analogous to a test that I often ask of the famous people who populate my stories: What is this character’s worst nightmare? What happens when he or she is forced to confront it?

I find that when my stories don’t have a clear vision of this nightmare, and the character’s journey towards it, the character and their motivations remain foggy, the central conflicts never arrive, and the story quickly dies on the page. In this graveyard lie many good ideas for stories about famous people (well, I thought they were good at the time): Billy Corgan wakes up in an Ashburton apple-orchard; Norm Kirk is kidnapped by students.

These seemed to be cute ideas for stories, but never got beyond that territory of idea to becoming a testing problem for characters. It would not be a nightmare for Norm Kirk to be kidnapped by students (they probably all voted for him in the first place!), and Billy Corgan’s ‘poetic’ ego would probably cope quite well with semi-rural solitude, using the time to write yet more anguished lyrics about the toe-staring grunge-rock lifestyle. These characters have not been forced to go through Gavin’s ‘gigantic change’, so we remain trapped in our existing understanding about them. Norm Kirk is friendly with young folk from the left—who knew?! Billy Corgan (creatively) mopes a lot? Ditto. No new and previously unknown aspect of the famous person’s character is brought into the light. There is no cataclysmic change, no nightmare, and no story.

Conversely, when characters can articulate that nightmare and come face to face with it, they can begin to deal with it, and by the time they have finished doing that, they’ve often changed considerably, or perceived a need to change. Not quite into their opposite, perhaps, but at least into someone who can glimpse that other—opposite—version of themselves.

Lawrence Patchett’s first story collection, I Got his Blood on Me: Frontier Tales is published by VUP and will be launched by Laurence Fearnley at Unity Books, Wellington on Thursday 7 June, 6pm.