I recently submitted a story to a magazine competition on the topic of ‘War’. Given the significance of the year this is a topic that is getting a lot of attention right now. I had a story already written that complied with the limited word count – a result of a Story A Day in May some time ago – and decided to ask my writing group to critique it so that I could tighten up the text and make the twist at the end really pop.
My writing group were unimpressed.
They fed back an honest appraisal of how many stories written this year, on the topic of war, would be exactly the same as the offering I’d just read out. Perhaps not with the same twist – although that was hardly original – but certainly with the same feel and emotive content. If I wanted a winning entry, that wasn’t it.
Putting aside my disappointment and realising that, if I wanted to enter the competition, I’d have to start from scratch I shared with my writing comrades the other idea I had that I hadn’t tackled because it scared me. How can a story idea scare you? Well, it can be led by a controversial current topic that would be challenging enough to write about, not least within the limits of a 1,500-1,700 word count. I know why such a sensitive theme had settled itself into my mind, but I had no clue how to tackle it within the confines of a short story, nor how to get what I wanted to say about it condensed into such.
Let me share with you the topic that my muse had latched onto: the role that beheadings take in war.
Given all the recent press about the horrific executions of individuals by terrorist groups and the fact that I was working on a project in my regular job about the history of conflict and how museum anthropological collections were gathered by soldiers and brought back to the UK – which included skulls of their enemy – it’s possibly not surprising that this gruesome act was on my mind.
But how on earth could I write about this without it seeming gory and sensationalist? My writing group were supportive, encouraging me to tackle the difficult task and trust in my ability to strike the right note. I had two weeks before the next meeting, which was only three days before the submission deadline for the competition I aimed to enter.
I had thought about using the setting of a museum to tell the story – because I determined early on that the historical context of beheading was a significant aspect that I wanted to explore. Especially when a colleague informed me that LIFE magazine ran a picture of an American woman writing to her boyfriend in the Navy during World War II to thank him for the Japanese skull he had sent her – with the skull proudly placed next to her as she wrote. But museums were too sterile; the glass cases creating a barrier between the emotional content I wanted to inject and the terror of the act itself.
So I created a character that had witnessed a beheading during his time at war. I crafted a story around him using the current newspaper stories about the atrocities and the impact that would have on his memory of witnessing that terrifying act. I chose to portray the victim as already dead, so as not to shock too much, but I also focused on my character’s reaction to the act rather than describe the act itself – which my writing group commented worked very well.
Still, I didn’t think it was enough. It was a story that reacted to a current event, still occurring after thousands of years of history, and yet did not explore the true fear of it. It was static in time with no consequence for my character. So I upped the stakes. I gave him a grandson who was a soldier and a nightmare of this young man being the monster that beheaded another soldier. I wanted to flip the fear that the nation was feeling about their citizens being the victims of this crime and remind us that, not so long ago, we were also the perpetrators. In the end I wanted to suggest that war makes savages out of all those involved; it simply depends on which side you are on as to who you believe the ‘monsters’ are.
When I read this story out during my writing group the reaction was, in the first instance, a stunned silence. Singular words then emerged as reactions; ‘Emotive’ and ‘Powerful’. And then I asked if it was too controversial given the current circumstances surrounding beheadings in conflicts as they are unfolding right now. In the end we all agreed that it is the role of a writer to react to these issues, to construct narratives around them to make those who read our work more able to construct an understanding of such happenings. That it is, in some ways, the responsibility of a writer to explore these themes in order to make sense of them.
That said, we also agreed that, if the situation in a couple of months – when the winning competition entry is published – remains the same as it is now there is a possibility that my story would be too ‘risky’ to publish; that it could be construed as inappropriate, despite the careful writing and that it may just touch too close on the fears of those suffering.
Whatever happens I’m proud of myself for writing this story. It was not an easy process. It took more research than I usually do and it was quite emotional to write. I feel I was able to say something by the end of it, that there was a message – if you choose to see it – and that the pace and setting complemented the atmosphere I was trying to create. It wasn’t an easy choice, to write this story, but it felt like the right one in the end and, as a result, I already feel like I’ve achieved something, even I don’t make the short-list.