I recently read the essay “One Hundred False Starts” by F. Scott Fitzgerald which was published in The Saturday Evening Post on March 4, 1933. It is an interesting insight to his process. The false starts are snippets he’d written down on pieces of paper that floated around him, on his desk, in his pockets. Bits of paper with bits of a story line written on them. Most of the ideas, he claims, he’ll never run down and make anything out of.
Of course, that had me thinking about my own process. There are big ideas, bull-ish ideas that won’t let go until they are satisfied their story has been properly writ. However, when I need a break from the books, I write short stories. Some ideas come to me quickly, but sometimes I skim through my archive of ideas to find inspiration. And my archive of work, it’s pretty large. I have a whole file on my computer dedicated to documents named “just an idea” “idea22” “Idea on a Sunday evening” “Idea 543”. The file folder is bulging with my random thoughts, my angst, and sometimes it seems just writing for the sake of putting words on paper. I also have note books called “works in progress”, the tactile version of my own one hundred false starts. Bits and pieces of paper with ideas jotted down. Ideas that seemed interesting at the time, that seemed like something worth following through with. Like something worth holding onto.
After reading Fitzgerald’s story, I meandered though some of my ideas. Most of them left me scratching my head, wondering what the hell? What was I feeling at the time that made me save the piece of paper? And am I really ever going to follow through? Nicole, why are you putting that piece of paper back in the binder?
Most of these might never become anything, they don’t have me itching to develop them into more, but they deserve some air, a breath of life for a moment. So I thought I would share some of my own false starts with you.
Bobby sue Clement changed her name to Wilhelmina Ethel Marie on purpose when she was fifteen and her great aunt died. She was asked to say a little something at the funeral, so she stood in front of her aunt’s casket, renounced her old name and adopted the new one.
That’s all there was to that one. Not a great start, I don’t know where that was going at all.
Here’s what I wrote as part of an ongoing literary magazine called First Line. As you probably guessed, the first line is given to the writer and the rest of the story is up for interpretation. I thought it was a pretty funny start, but couldn’t get it to move me any further.
Roy owned the only drive thru funeral business in Maine. Hell, Roy owned the only drive thru funeral business east of the Mississippi. There was one in Las Vegas, but Roy didn’t think it counted as most everything in Vegas was drive thru these days. Besides, he had it on good authority that Vegas had copied him, not the other way around.
Actually, Roy credited his wife with the idea. She had been nagging him again, talking incessantly the way she did, her high pitched voice going on and on about what he couldn’t do right. This time the incessant nagging was happening as they drove through McDonald’s to get dinner. As he let his thoughts drift, he found himself thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if he could just kill her right now. Pull up to the first window, sign a slip of paper, let her body be taken by a stranger with a gurney, then continue to the second window where an internet certified preacher would say a few words while Roy bowed his head. Then with a ‘you have a nice day’, Roy could continue his day.
Though, Roy never told anyone the real reason he had come up with the idea, he just lamely said people were becoming increasingly busy and more in touch with their Oprah spirituality side (as he liked to call it), that death was becoming more of an accepted reality, and society needed a quick and easy fix.
In his free time, Roy watched his wife watch Wheel of Fortune and tried to figure out the logistics of a Drive Thru lap dance business.
I don’t know what it is with me an ‘hick’ sounding names. I love em I guess.
Buddy Ray jumped out of the back of the rusted Ford he’d been riding. He pounded on the side of the truck and waved his thanks to the driver. The only reply given was a honk and a kick of dust as the driver pulled away. Buddy waited for the dust to whirl and dance back to the ground. Then he pulled off his shirt, tucked it into the waist band of his jeans and started walking.
Late summer cicadas gave dry calls that reverberated among the dead weeds growing in the fields on either side of the road. The dead fields were his. Land that was as broken down and dusty as the man who owned it. But the land had died when his own daddy had inherited it and Buddy Ray supposed he could get it back to working the way his family always had.
Another car crunched the dirt behind him and slowed as it got closer to Buddy Ray. He glanced sideways to see who it was. Sunny, his cousin.
“Hell’s boy, it’s hotter ‘n the devil’s tit out here. What ya walkin’ like a fool down this old road for? Mor ‘n a mile to your home.” Sunny spit in the dirt after his observation.
Buddy Ray kept his eyes on the horizon in front of him, not in the mood for Sunny and his comments.
“Aw shit, you doin’ that no talkin’ bout again? If yer not into talkin’ just say so.”
This was written on a piece of paper, ripped out of a binder, and the top says “Snow White.” But I have no idea what I was going to do with this or where I was headed and how Snow White was involved.
Farther down, in an insignificant space among the trees, an old woman huddles under meager blankets, shivering against the frosty night. The house is old and cracked, squeaking the same as her bones. For the longest time she has believed herself and cottage had become one. Given over to age and decay. Soon, they would both be overgrown with moss and lost to the battle of remembrance.
This was written on the back of a gas station receipt from 2001.
Keep this muffled just beneath the surface of my skin for as long as I can. Grasping desperately at the fading happiness that the magic of the darkness leaves me with.
And in parenthesis it says (Like Anne Rice). So…there’s that.
I have tiny scraps of paper with only words:
Antimony – Drug early 19th C. See Jack Ripper
Why was this important, why was I trying to remember that?
Calliope – chief of muses
Precipitevolissimevolmente – longest word in Italian language. Means very very fast.
Oh, here’s a weird one. I actually like this one, might make something more of it.
A girl doesn’t wake up one morning and say, “aw fuck it. First thing that happens I’m in.” Of course, when I say that, and buy into it, here comes death looking so…well, so much better than Brad Pitt in that knock off movie about death. He held out his hand, and you can tell under that shirt he’s really fit. And hell, I said whatever happened I was in and I didn’t have much else going on, and the laundry will keep. And that’s it, that’s how I found myself taking the hand of death and crash, bam, fast forward three years later; Mr. handsome is rowing his boat up and down the River Styx, can’t ever remember to pick up milk when I text him and I’m stuck in a three-bedroom townhouse that leaks and squeaks when the tide gets too high and the honeymoon is definitely over and I’m pregnant with our first child and no one will tell me if I’m going to have an actual human or if I need to get my head wrapped around the fact I might have a bat kid or something.
I love pirates and boats. I don’t know that I’ll ever write a full book based on them, but I like starting pirate stories. Don’t have one completed though. This one I was going to call “Hard Storms”. It was a writing exercise where you generated a title then write the story.
“Might go quickly, neare a trouble on the horizon. Might be a rough go. Hard thing to tell this time of year.” The gnarled shoulders of the old man gave a shrug.
Finn glanced at the horizon of the city that was running away from them in the distance and tried not to look worried. There was nothing he could do now, he was entangled in this adventure, this nonsense. Still, the last thing he wanted to do was look worried in front of this crusty old sailor. He swallowed hard and the old man pointed his nose at the horizon as he continued to whittle a deformed piece of wood.
“Is a fine spring, been light weather. Could be Poseidon will wish us well across his realm. Could be he won’t.”
Finn showed no outward sign other than holding tighter to the railing. It was a meow that caught him off guard and he turned to see a black cat, he raised his hand to cross himself but the old sailor snarled for him to stop.
“Not on a boat, lad. This here packet of fur is good luck.” He finished in his pocket and pulled out a piece of unidentifiable meat and tossed it to the cat. “On wi’ you, cheeky. Get to the rats.”
His command was met with a slow turn and a tired wave of tail.
Gods and myths and legends are sprinkled all around my writing.
The gods cried. For the loss of their legends and myths. For the science that no longer looked up in the sky and saw the stories of the gods. The dreamer and the writer began to see like the scientists. And the gods cried, glistening drops sent from a cloud crowded sky. Tears from heaven.
When I lived in Colorado, the hills reminded me of Ireland. Of course, I’ve never been to Ireland, so I suppose the green spring of Colorado reminded me of what I think Ireland should look like. For a long time, mining stories mingled with Irish immigrants. I have a lot of bits and pieces of started stories that came out of that little town in Colorado.
Ghosts float along in the morning mist.
“Ach, no.” Bryna pulled the collar of her coat closed against the cold and dismissed her childhood folklore. Though she often wondered if she should be so speedy dismissing the stories, they were part of the only dowry she would ever have; other than an ancient name inherited from an elderly spinster aunt.
When the moors are covered in mist, ghosts dance.
She pulled at the coat once more and shook her head free of the tales that threatened. There were no ghosts here. She was a lifetime away from the moors of her youth. If such superstitions must linger, then she would tuck them in the corner of her pockets amid the gray balls of lint.
“There are no ghosts here.” She said aloud. No ghosts. Not here. Not in this mining town. Not in Colorado.
Here are some one liners that mean nothing to me now, but I find it fascinating that I took the time to write them on a piece of paper and keep said piece of paper.
The stairs moaned under Samantha’s feet.
Short story title: “The Frosted Window.” Idea will be just like in class.
That’s it, nothing else written. What class was I talking about? What was I supposed to hold onto in the back of my mind with that one sentence reminder?
The cabin was mine, for obvious reasons.
What obvious reasons Nicole? What was that supposed to be?
This one says “story idea in dear diary format.”
Dear Diary, now that I have a pen I don’t need to write in blood.
I could go on and on. About how this is probably a normal writer thing, if Fitzgerald was surrounded with pieces of idea papers, chances are most writers live in the same world. I just thought this would make for an interesting insight today.
So my friends, I’ll wrap it up here, one more idea that might not ever go anywhere.
Early morning, after all the cars sped toward the sweltering city, before mothers began their pestering, when the sprinklers came on: this was my favorite time of the day. I liked to sit on the sidewalk, feel the coolness that had seeped into the cement overnight. Liked to feel the morning breeze kiss my cheek. Liked to breathe and listen to the slow, lazy click click click of sprinklers.
*Note: I was going to put a link to Fitzgerald’s “One Hundred False Starts”, only the one website I found with the full essay seemed rather shady. It is however in his book A Short Autobiography if you are curious.