In the movie ‘It’s a wonderful life’, George Bailey says that the three most exciting sounds in the world are ‘anchor chains, plane motors and train whistles’. I agree completely with George’s sentiments and, although ultimately it’s an uplifting movie about being grateful for the life you have, I’m always struck by the tragedy that George is destined never to leave Bedford Falls.
George spent years growing the idea of a journey in his imagination: he read leaflets about interesting jobs in exotic locations and had picked out in his mind just the type of suitcase he’d want to take with him. But it was only the idea of a journey, without all the detail that would bring it to life. And in the end, the journey that George took was of a very different kind: into what life would have been like without him.
Close to my home, there’s a working river and international port. Every evening at the same time, I can walk to the end of my street and watch an enormous passenger ferry sailing by, as though levitating across the end of the road. Often, the air is filled with the hoot and buzz of ship’s horns, sounds that always make me long to be on the sea. Often, we visit the port to watch the ships berthed there. I never imagined that the world was filled with so many unique designs of ship: the sleek passenger ferries and cruise ships; the sturdy pilot and tugboats; the flat cargo ships piled with rusting containers; and the futuristic sub-sea construction vessels. I’ve taken to researching those that are particularly strange in appearance, to discover their purpose. Sometimes, I’ll look up lists of expected shipping: Sapphire Ace, Star Comet, Havla Phoenix, Pleiades Spirit, Ice Crystal – these are just some of the evocative names of ships shortly to arrive.
All journeys begin with an idea, but all journeys are a trip into the unknown. Even the short trips we take every day can become filled with unexpected events. I didn’t travel abroad until I was 21. Before I ever left the country, I yearned for travel, devouring travel programmes, collecting travel books and studying brochures. I planned trips and developed many ideas of journeys, just as George did. But they are only ever ideas of a journey – often seen from someone else’s perspective.
On the first trip I took, to Italy, I could never have imagined the reality of the journey, both good and bad. I couldn’t have predicted the coach breaking down in the Swiss Alps and the motion sickness I was stuck with long after the journey. Nor could I have anticipated the emotional reaction I had to the wonders of Rome, when I’d always imagined it was too familiar from TV and movies to inspire me with any kind of awe. But then that’s the wonder of a journey – you look forward to it because you think you know where you’re going, but the real excitement is that you don’t know at all.
For me, the idea of a journey is glamorous, exciting, full of anticipation and wonder; but there is also a touch of fear and the sense that I don’t want to leave the familiar environment of home. Often, once the trip is booked, I have a reluctance to discuss it and make any kind of preparations. This, I think, is because of the ambiguity I sometimes feel about the journey: longing to go, yet not wanting to go at all. The idea of the journey is much more comfortable than the journey itself.
Starting a story is similar to starting a journey. It’s still the idea of something, but you can’t imagine the ways it will develop on the way. There’s the same sense of excitement, of thinking that anything is possible. And there is also the trepidation – the fear that the words won’t come, that you won’t be able create the vision you’ve shaped in your mind. You may have a plot or characters, or both, but there’s always some part of the story that’s out of your control.
I never believed those authors who said that their characters did unexpected things, as though they were alive and decided to do the opposite of what their creator had planned. How could it be possible that something you’d created yourself was outside of your control? But then my own characters began to do things that were unexpected. My plots meandered off in surprising ways. And most startling of all, was that these unforeseen changes seemed to make the stories come together, as though they’d always been meant to be that way.
So you begin to write as you begin a journey: starting with an idea, which is an idea of how the story might go. But part of the frustration and part of the excitement of writing, is where the journey eventually takes you and what happens along the way.
Does the idea of starting a journey inspire you? Have your characters taken on a life of their own to change the direction of your story?