Quite a long time ago, when I was trying to work out how to spend less time crying and more time being awesome, I decided I’d like to write more. Last night I took part in the Manchester Flashtag Short Story Slam. Here’s how it happened…
One of my friends, who organises various literary events around Manchester, posted about the Short Story Slam on Facebook. Contestants read short stories in pairs, and the audience decides which they prefer, with the winner going through into the next round. The stories are *short* – 150, 200 and 250 words respectively. I like a challenge, a deadline, a competition and motivation to do something interesting. I also believe I like standing up in front of people and talking. Well, until about an hour before I have to do it. So I entered.
And then I tried to write something, and realised I have nothing interesting to say and 150 is really not many words, and messaged my friend suggesting that perhaps they would be better with participants who can actually write. He said of course they could find someone else, but the previous years’ winner was a newbie. I said I’d think about it.
Lying in bed that night, an idea came to me. I wrote it down. The next day I did some re-writing. And some editing. And it was ok. That night, another idea: ‘Once upon a time…’. More writing, more editing. Game on! My third story was a little trickier – not so much an idea as merging a couple of experiences. And then some more writing and editing, underlining words I was unhappy with and scowling at them, willing them to change into something good; reading my story aloud and trying to work out why I hated it quite so much; wondering if they would make any sense to anyone existing outside my brain; knowing that no matter how ok I thought they were, five minutes before reading them in public, scales would fall from my eyes and I would see them for the dire drivel they were, and yet I would still have to stand up and read them to a critical audience. Finally, on Monday night, taking the one story I didn’t like, trying to work out what it was that I didn’t like (there was no real story there and the ending was rubbish – minor flaws, I’m sure you’ll agree) and which three words needed adding (labyrinth, rapacious, ravenous) and then, finally, I was happy. That sense of relief, that I had done everything I needed to, that even if everyone in the audience hated them, they were mine and they were ok.
So I went to the event and I felt terror and despair, but the other contestants were lovely. And I listened to them read their stories, and I read mine. Sadly I fell at the first hurdle, and didn’t make it through to the second round. It’s a cruel world. But the atmosphere was great, and people were kind, and, once I’d stopped sulking and started drinking, I enjoyed the rest of the event. The standard of writing was incredibly high. I learnt a lot: performance and delivery matter. People like funny stories more than serious stories. And what I really discovered is how much I like writing, and how much I really really want to do this again.
So, here they are my three stories…
I lie awake, making a zombie survival plan: how to escape with my daughter. Through the attic onto the roof? Into the garden? I could put her in the pushchair and run. But where would we go? There would be no buses. We’d run out of nappies. And what if the pushchair gets stuck?
The zombies stagger down the street, closing in on all sides. I wrestle with the pushchair straps. Shaking, dizzy, blood thumping in my ears, I look for somewhere to escape, yanking at my baby, panic mounting, weeping with fear and desperation. And that treacherous thought, that perhaps I can save only one of us. As I feel their groaning breath on my neck and their fingers on my scalp, would I choose my daughter?
I lie in bed, breathless, listening for the shuffle, shuffle, shuffle of undead feet in the street below.
This is a library of stories: every story which has ever been written, some stories which are yet to be written, and some stories which can never be written. No-one knows where the first story came from, or where the library ends.
Readers enter the labyrinth of shelves seeking answers. Everyone approaches the library with a need. No-one returns unchanged: some do not return at all. Some find the stories they need; others the stories they deserve. Readers seek tales of heroism, legends to give courage, stories to change the world.
But there is a price to pay for these stories which nourish and comfort you. As you read, the library’s tentacles drift through your mind, looking for delicacies to feed the next searchers, memories you won’t miss until you realise they are gone. You can’t remember your daughter’s first words? Or the pain of a broken heart? (Though you will never forget what he said, the sting is somehow gone). Your story has been extracted, consumed and digested, added to a book somewhere, coalescing with other stories to feed the ravenous, rapacious library.
During bath-time my phone rings. I listen to the voicemail later: “Hi, it’s me. Sorry I missed your call earlier. Hope you’re ok. Give me a ring when you get this”. I stare at my phone, confused. My call? Maybe – I check my call log. My son, playing with my phone.
I wonder how you can call me like this, so lightly, as if nothing has changed, when I have not heard from you at all this past year. This terrible year, when my life fell apart. When I needed all the friends I could get, and you were not there.
I heard, through friends, that you ‘did not want to take sides’. Funny, because I never asked you to. How could I? You never contacted me. Would asking how I was have constituted taking sides? Asking me if I needed any help, with my two children under two and my lame and limping, devastated heart – would that have been taking sides? Yet meeting his girlfriend, making friends with her, the girlfriend who replaced me remarkably, indecently quickly: apparently that was not ‘taking sides’.
Right now, I only trust the people who are willing to make a judgement, have an opinion – apparently not you. So I restricted your access to my Facebook profile. But I couldn’t bear to unfriend you. It’s ridiculous really: a tiny thing. But I felt I had lost enough already.
I pause. I listen to your voicemail again. I delete it.