Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Stephen Irwin on The First Step

Today’s guest blog is from Stephen M Irwin, novelist and filmmaker whose short films have won awards around the world.  He has written and directed TV documentaries and his first novel, The Dead Path, which has been published in many countries, was named Top Horror Title in the 2011 RUSA Reading List.  His second novel, The Broken Ones, was released in Australia to excellent reviews in August this year.  Stephen works as a story consultant for Australian producers, and has a long creative association with beyondblue: the nation depression initiative.

My daughter is about to take her first steps.  She turned one in August, and over the last week or so has gained the confidence and ability to stand for up to a minute unaided.  She still needs an adult’s fingers to lean on as she walks, but we know it is only a matter of days before she starts walking by herself.  And we know, too, that she will only be able to take a few steps at a time before she will fall, again and again, as she learns a skill that will carry her across rooms and paddocks, city squares and sandy beaches, frozen lakes and airport terminals – rocket terminals, maybe.
            As I walk behind her, bent over, her fingers gripping mine, I’m reminded acutely of the description that “walking is controlled falling”.  Perhaps it was on one of the wonderful Lord Robert Winston’s documentaries that I first heard this (it doesn’t matter).  Watching Poppy lean and shuffle and delight in self-mobilisation, I am struck by the similarities between walking and storytelling.  Or running and storytelling (again, it doesn’t matter).  When one first begins writing stories, the first paragraphs – those first steps –  feel perilously unsteady and untrustworthy, and often with good reason.  But with practice and not a few falls the steps grow more confident, and self-mobilisation becomes a possibility.  Journeys become a possibility: storytelling become something achievable, if you can just place one paragraph steadily after the next. 
            But bless the falls, and bless the perils. 

            As a person relatively new to novel writing, I must remind myself not to forget them, because good stories are not safe journeys.  Be they short story sprints, or novel-length marathons, or trilogy treks, they should never be secure and uneventful; quite the opposite: every step must be fraught with the danger of a fall.  And indeed those falls must come, and if the author’s job is done well, the reader will go down the avalanche with the characters, willingly and delightedly. 
            Here is the rub for the storyteller.  She or he must write in such a way that the readers feel in such safe hands they are prepared to go anywhere; the paragraphs and component sentences must be easy to read and solid.  Yet, those very paragraphs and sentences must be ready to betray their subject and the reader, to slide away unexpectedly.  For why else do we read, but to be surprised?  Is there any better reason not to read than to be presented with fresh text and yet know exactly what will happen next?  The storyteller must both know the route and keep it hidden.  The storyteller must be the hands the readers hold, allowing the readers to feel they’re in control while actually guiding them on a surprising path into new places, bright and dark.  Every step must be controlled, yet every step must hold the promise a fall.
            Pacing, of course, is a skill that improves with practise.  The author learns not to place the dramatic moments (the missteps, stumbles and tumbles) too closely together, or to space them too widely, lest the reader become exhausted or (worse) bored. 
            Ultimately, a destination will be reached – the ending.  It may be utterly unexpected by the reader, and that will delight.  It may be anticipated, but if so will hopefully be greeted with a glowing thought: ‘I suspected that might happen’. But if the journey itself has been carefully sown with enough uncertainty, even an ending the reader predicted won’t feel so, and so will satisfy.   The ending is important, but the journey is everything.
            It starts with a treacherous, rock-solid step.


Thanks, Steve. Steve’s website is www.stephenmirwin.com

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