The Thrill of the Chase
I once heard a poet describe standing in a field and hearing a poem race towards her. She knew she only had seconds to reach out and grab it, before it overtook her and disappeared. To anyone who is not a writer this sounds completely crazy. But to those of us who straddle the real and imagined worlds this perfectly describes the random and unexpected nature of the onset of an idea, and the magical intensity with which it first reveals itself.
Three years ago I was watching late-night TV, something I do when I need to numb the churning of my brain. It was a documentary about life in the ocean and I was entranced by the incredible diversity and oddness of the creatures shown. Out of nowhere, a stream of words started to take shape in my head. Authoritative words, mythic in their vibrational tone: We had been waiting for millenniums, watching the humans lie and cheat and kill our kind. But there came a point when we could no longer bear such pain and, after much discussion, we decided to act . . .
I turned off the television’s sound and ran for pen and paper. Scrawled it down. And still more came: We didn’t want to destroy them, but in the end they left us little choice; we had our children to consider, and we could no longer allow love to be overrun by hate . . .
Five paragraphs I scrawled down, before I felt the words dry up. I sat there looking at my notebook thinking, What the hell was that? This wasn’t the first time I’d been ambushed by words out of the ether; as a writer I have learnt that these are the gifts of my subconscious, and it was now my task to don my detective’s hat and go in search of the story that the words inspired.
It was bad timing. I had another book rearing to go. But it seemed I was to have no choice in the matter, for once I had put the question out into the world, additional clues started to accumulate. The next day, in a break during the six o’clock TV news, there was a promo for another documentary, this time focusing on whales alone. As I watched a blue whale slide across the screen the hairs on my arms rose up and I could hear the echo of those same voices once again inside my head. Okay, so it was something to do with whales. Interesting . . .
The next day I went to visit a friend I hadn’t seen in a good six months. As she opened the door, the very first thing she said to me was, ‘You have to read this amazing book I’ve just finished – it’s about whales.’ It was, in fact, Philip Hoare’s marvellous book Leviathan.
So I read the book, and all the time I was thinking, What the hell is the story in here? I had no problem with the mythic, but experience has taught me that there has to be an emotional core, a human story.
I continued to ponder but nothing more came, and I awoke one morning to the decision that I should set this story free. That very day a sperm whale washed up on the beach near my house, the first in many years. I couldn’t go see it until early the next morning, just after its jaw-bone had been chain-sawed off by the local iwi. It was a deeply tragic sight, this huge magnificent creature now reduced to no more than a lump of earthbound flesh. Was this somehow the story I was supposed to tell? Despite turning it over and over, I couldn’t make a story connection that felt just right. I decided, once again, that this was one idea I needed to let go.
A few days later I went to visit another friend. Out of the blue she handed me one of the whale’s teeth, given to her for safe-keeping while a dispute over rightful ownership was settled. I sat there with this relic of a living soul in my hand and knew it was a sign to keep chasing, that eventually this story would come.
Another week on and I was in the middle of another late-night TV vigil, when on a channel usually dedicated to home renovations (one of the few things I can watch without the political/analytical part of my brain firing into action) a documentary came on about a small abandoned orca seeking out human company. It had created such a stir in the small fishing settlement in Puget Sound that there was a national battle to return the orca to its pod. Here was my human story! My drama! Abandonment, spiritual and tribal issues, politics, community engagement and the magic of this dear toddler orca, desperate for the comfort of touch. By the end of the documentary I was in tears, but I finally knew how to tell this story; how to seat the mythic with the real, how to build something that could comment on the foolishness and arrogance of human attitudes and actions to other creatures on this globe, and how to write about the power of a community when they band together to make a difference.
This story now sits at the core of my book Singing Home the Whale, the drama transferred to a small fishing community in the Pelorus Sound. As I wrote it, the treasures I had been gifted continued to be delivered up. The whale voice would whisper to me; connections would appear as if from thin air.
This is the magical, indefinable thrill of writing; of truly allowing one’s imagination and subconscious to bring forth the treasures hidden in our depths. So the next time you hear a story or a poem rushing at you, grab it and hold onto it, and ask it sternly what you need to know. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. And I guarantee, if you open your mind’s ear to it, you’ll hear a story that will resonate with the riches that reside deep within your heart.
Mandy Hager is currently Writer in Residence at Waikato University, discovering the many delights of the ‘Tron’. She is a doting new granny, a Twitter addict, a political junkie, loves baking cakes but tries not to eat them, and considers swearing essential for verbal punctuation. Her book Singing Home the Whale was recently awarded the Best YA Fiction Award and the 2015 Margaret Mahy Best Book Award at the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.