Friday, March 27, 2009

Beginnings: The English Stories (A Cynthia Flood Post)

A pig. A question. A filthy fingernail. A bead of ice. In the early 90s these four met each other in my head and reported that they could start a story going. It turned out to be "Country Life," the second in The English Stories.

How does that happen? Alice Munro has somewhere described how a single image or action or word can be a magnet, pulling other story elements to itself. That's a familiar process for many writers, though not always fruitful. The disparate things can just stay that way. Or they may only adhere for a bit before collapsing, especially if the writer gets antsy and tries to force other things into the mix.

My four however got on well, and led me deep into a district of memory I'd hardly visited in decades: two years in England when I was 11 and 12. Naturally then I'd focused on the girls in my year at school or on the kids of family friends. In middle age I focused just the same way, and all the middle-aged people from that period walked out of the background to meet me.

Not boring, after all.

Eccentric? At first they seemed so. Then they began to make sense, partially, but I was annoyed at them for not Doing Something about their lives. After a while I started to feel sad for them. Sadder. Later, admiration started. It grew, and imagination worked on the priceless gifts those people gave me, and new characters appeared. Miss Lucinda Jones in "Country Life" is no one I ever met or heard of, but her principles, her attitudes are illustrative of many people encountered during those English years.

After "Country Life" was finished I saw that again I had written about characters who embody particular ideologies -- not consciously or explicitly like the politicos I've lived among for years, but in their daily doings, their choices in life, their habits of mind.

I didn't expect to write further about my English years. "Country Life" was just another story. I'd enjoyed writing it and was happy when it won the Western Magazines Award.

As for those items -- the pig lived on a beautiful farm, a heavenly farm I visited as a child in England. The arithmetic questions came at me from an old family friend. The dirty nail was Struwwelpeter's; he was a wicked boy in a book behind glass doors at a Toronto neighbour's. The beads of ice, on pussywillows set to adorn a dining-table, I never saw. That was my mother's story.

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