My Forty K Challenge

A while back, a famous local artist came to me with a challenge. Write a story about one of their artworks. More than one actually.  Anything I wanted.

Actually, there’s a little more to it than that. They were doing a portfolio, fifty or sixty pieces of art, full of surreal images and scenes, glimpses into a strange otherworld, both Buck Rogers and profoundly abstract. Here were the rules of the game.

There would be four writers, working independently:

  1. Write stories about the artworks and the artworks only.
  2. No cheating, no going by artwork titles, or by the artists sequence, no asking the artist, no talking to each other, no inside knowledge, outside knowledge, nothing.
  3. No limits – write about as many or as few pieces of art as you wanted. Write as much or as little as you wanted, for each artwork and for the whole. Write anything you wanted. You could write a hundred words on a single drawing, or a hundred thousand words on all of them. Write it any way you wanted.
  4. In six months, send it in.

That sounded like a blast. It was definitely working without a net. Of course I said yes.

So here I am, a week ahead of schedule, and I’ve delivered – thirty stories and forty thousand words.

That’s a hell of an investment of creative capital, of intellectual effort. I feel happy. I’m happy that I’ve finished, and I think it’s a good body of work.

I’m a little worried, possibly intimidated. Ultimately, I’ve got three colleagues doing the same thing, so I’m wondering how I’ll measure up against their work. I’m wondering what I’ll make of it when I see it. Or what they or the artist will think of mine.

I feel a little exhausted. Doing a novel is one thing creatively. You have one idea, or maybe a few ideas, and you just follow it to the end. You may write 80,000 words or 250,000 words, but it’s just that one idea, and just elaboration. Doing stories is different. Each story is a creative idea, a creative impulse in itself. Do thirty stories? That’s thirty ideas, thirty visions, thirty points of view, thirty beginnings, middles and endings. Thirty twists. That’s a lot more work, it’s a lot more challenging.

It’s exhausting.

And working within these narrow confines, working with the restrictions and the absence of restrictions in this quixotic way, took a lot of creative energy.

So here I am reflecting on the experience.

What was it like?

A lot of staring. I scrolled through the images again and again. I printed them off and then shuffled them like a deck of cards.  I stared at the artwork, trying to figure them out. What were these things? What was that thing? What did it mean? Figures and shapes appeared again and again. Things that were clear and recognisable, even commonplace, appeared. But in these strange artworks, was the ordinary really ordinary? Geometry. Buck Roger elements. Strange figures drifted in and out. Perspective was distorted.  Their meaning had been carefully shielded from me. I had to create the meaning.

There were no humans in the art. Or if there were, they were barely suggested, tiny figures indistinctly glimpsed. I think that was my first artistic choice. That I would write from the perspective of human beings in this world, human eyes looking out over these scenes. It would be the voices of people, like and unlike us.

Maybe it was my only meaningful choice. Who knows?

My second decision? That was history. These were static artworks, some of them depicted objects in motion, transit and transformation. But it was all snapshots. Everything I looked at, I struggled to see a past and a future. Objects in motion. Objects with purpose. Events.

And strangeness. That was the next decision. If the observer, the mind, was a human mind, it was gazing out onto strangeness, onto alien-ness, struggling to understand, to come to grips. It would be stories of strangeness, searching for meaning, imposing their own meanings, sometimes searching for themselves.

My first success was stringing together a series of images with a related component, at first just a couple, and then visualizing a story. That this component was coming from somewhere, was different in that early phase. And going somewhere, different in final step. There was an adventure, a story, something with a beginning a middle and end, and with that story, I could populate it, enter people in it, reach into a Buck Rogers aspect, and build a twist.

Bits filled themselves in. Pyramids? What if they weren’t ordinary. What if, here in this world, pyramids just grew by themselves, and once they were big enough, they just floated up into the sky, where they’d decay into translucent outlines? What about beelines? Everywhere were beings. What if no one really understood them? They might be alien people. Or statues. Or robots. Animals. Or just random products of this world’s physics, like dust devils or snowdrifts.

A world took shape. But fundamentally, I was intrigued by the notion of an unknowable world. People would see things, but they would each see it differently. They would take different meanings. The unknowability of the world extended to the people trapped in it. Who were they, where had they come from, what did they mean to themselves? The past became as ambiguous as the future. Could we trust each other? Could we trust our memories? Our very identities?

I found I was influenced by Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, a Russian literary Sci Fi novel about scientists confronting a living world-ocean. By Peyote. By surrealism like Jodorowsky’s El Topo. Hunter S. Thompson, and his breathless gonzo reporting, both clinical and surreal.

Here’s a really interesting thing. The choices I was making in a story, would stick around and inform other stories. Visual elements, characters, ideas, these would reoccur.  With no well to draw on, I built my own well and drew on it.

I’m not sure if that’s interesting to lay people, but as a writer, I find it interesting to reflect upon. I think I was aware as I was doing it. Obviously, I would have to be aware. But looking backwards, I’m rather intrigued by the process.

I created characters, and then these characters came back. Often one note in a particular story, another story would give them a different note. Subtle arcs were alluded to.

They were all stand alone stories independent of each other. But just by the nature of the art, the artists style and themes, and the fact that I was building a well, the stories were all in a single world, with overlapping characters.

In the end, what I fell in love with was the idea of strangeness, of a world we could only vaguely grasp. Each story offered a different take on what was going on in this world, what things meant and what the consequences were. I loved the idea that the protagonists were again forced or struggling to understand, to guess at the meaning. And I loved hinting or suggesting, that they were wrong, in the story itself, or through other stories, or through the world.

It deepened. You know, sometimes, if you’re underwater, diving, sometimes you lose your sense of place, of up or down, there’s a moment where you are lost and without referents. What would it do to humans living in a strange world, would you lose your referents? Could you lose yourself? Who are you  when there are no fundamentals, when everything shifts.

I introduced characters who didn’t know what a rainbow or a dog was. I had a military commander born without any genitalia, who had lived their whole life without gender. A mad scientist with a positronic brain. An auditor who was a refugee. A scientist who had become a poet, interpreting a language that didn’t exist. Another who became an artist trying to communicate with a void. I wrote about people struggling to hold themselves together as their identities slipped away, and people who found freedom abandoning their sense of self. I embraced a universe as a god, and a universe as clockwork. I invoked meaning upon a meaningless world, but also implied meaning that we couldn’t comprehend. As much as my characters struggled to understand and failed, I depicted an alien universe desperate to understand and communicate, and failing to bridge the gap. I imagined predatory universes at war with each other, alternate earths, dead earths. I imagined that earth never existed. I invoked H.P. Lovecraft, and did him one better.

In this world of strangeness, where nothing was certain, not even identity, I placed humans. And over and over, the only anchors they find, the only truth they really know, is in each other. I think that was, for me, the most interesting part. The way the characters reached out to each other, built pasts and presents, had relationships or friendships, however awkward.

It’s all done. I’m pleased with it. I’m exhausted, but pleased. I have no idea what comes next. I don’t think I’ll ever do something like this again. But I’m glad I did it.

So what happens now? It’s with the Publisher and Editor (gasp) and they may do stuff with it. I may be asked to edit, to rewrite. I assume somewhere along the line, it’ll be merged with the artwork somehow. Some of the stories at least. And maybe published? I might get paid?  Who knows? Sky’s the limit.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.