There is one question I never fail to encounter on school visits—from where do you get ideas for your stories? I usually say from incidents in my own life, from stray remarks, newspaper items or even random happenings on the roadside.
When I narrate the real event that led to my short story “Fire” the excitement is almost palpable. It’s the forest fire that is as absorbing, I can see, as the broken friendship and the moral dilemma that resulted from it. But how many such experiences does one have to draw on, almost like a ready-made story?
That’s why I like to share something else, something I read about the creative spark behind Arnold Bennett’s well-known novel The Old Wives’ Tale—the sight of a fat old lady with grotesque gestures he caught sight of in a Paris restaurant. He states in his introduction that he began to reflect: "This woman was once young, slim, perhaps beautiful; certainly free from these ridiculous mannerisms. Very probably she is unconscious of her singularities. Her case is a tragedy. One ought to be able to make a heartrending novel out of the history of a woman such as she."
Arnold Bennett is not widely read today, and I must have been around fifteen when I read this book, but for some reason I’ve never been able to forget those words. And marvel that the mere sighting of a ridiculous looking woman could be behind a work considered a classic.
I did not realise it at the time, but I sensed Bennett’s deep empathy towards another human being. That’s what left such an indelible impression. As he says further…“Every stout, ageing woman is not grotesque—far from it!—but there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind. And the fact that the change from the young girl to the stout ageing woman is made up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only intensifies the pathos.”
There is no dearth of ideas for fiction. We also encounter occasional moments of drama in our lives, which possess the potential to be turned into a gripping story. But in the end, I feel, it’s a writer’s ability to glimpse the charming young girl in the grotesque old woman that leads to the creation of a masterpiece, her/his sensitivity to the pathos inherent in the transformation from charming young girl to grotesque old woman.