series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Al Riske, author of Precarious (Luminis Books), discusses his writing process.
For the most part, the writing process remains a mystery to me, even though I've been doing this for a long time now. My first story was published when I was 10 years old. On a mimeograph machine. By my fourth-grade teacher. (Everyone in the class got a copy, and I signed each one.) I've written a lot of stories since then, including the fifteen in Precarious, but the process is never the same.
That first story was in response to an assignment: Write a story about anything you like. I wrote about a baseball game with an unlikely ending. (I had cast my two best friends as the captains of opposing teams and couldn't decide which should win, so I had an escaped elephant interrupt the proceedings.)
Much later, when I started to get serious about writing, stories came to me in different ways. I didn't have to write them, and yet I did. Looking back, it seems almost as if I had no choice. The ideas never came easily to me. Well, never and always. I couldn't turn out a story at will. I couldn't just decide to write one. But then a story, or the beginnings of a story, would suddenly take shape in my mind. It was easy if I wasn't trying. The story might be inspired by a photograph in a magazine, a song on the radio, a snippet of conversation overhead at lunch. Or it could come, seemingly out of nowhere, in the form of a first sentence.
I almost never know where I’m going with a story. In fact, most of the time, I’m not even conscious of why I’m writing it, unless it's simply to find out what will happen. Invariably I get stuck and don't know. Have no clue. Can't figure it out. The remedy is usually a long walk, a hot bath, or a good night's sleep. In extreme cases I've been forced to leave a story half finished for years, as was the case with both "Taken," which was inspired by a photograph, and "Dance Naked," which was inspired by a true story.
The phrase “inspired by a true story” should always be regarded with suspicion because you never know how much is true. Very little, in this case. But years ago, as a newspaper reporter, I had the chance to cover a murder trial and that’s where I got the idea for “Dance Naked” — two guys fighting over one woman and how ugly that can get. But it’s a much different story than the one I covered. I made up 99.9% of it. And it doesn’t end the way I thought it would.
In some ways, I think, my process is probably similar to what an actor goes through to get into character, drawing upon his own memories and emotions in order to empathize with the person he's portraying—only I get to play all the parts: The hero, the villain, the man, the woman, the faithful friend. On the page, I get to act out lives unlike my own. Not that I consciously think of it as acting. My process is largely unconscious, and a lot of my best stuff comes to me as I'm waking up in the morning, as if from a dream. It's just there and I don't know where it came from.