Leah Swann’s short story collection, Bearings, tells of the tumult of life, featuring characters who are yet anchored by hope. Her tales have been called ‘perfect little parcels of humanity’. But how did she begin her writing journey? Leah told Killings about her writing craft.
Before I could write, I told stories. Little made-up things about my dolls, or why a blue spade had mysteriously appeared in the sandpit. I told my cousins about the fairies that lived in the empty block two doors up and we collected grass from there (with the fairies supposedly clinging to the blades) in an icecream container. My cousins loved my fairy stories, but their father didn’t. He turned the container upside down and banged out the contents, they told me later.
‘See? Nothing. No fairies.’
I felt accused of lying, but it didn’t stop me. I learned to write my stories, and they became private and delicious. It wasn’t until I had children that I told stories again. It was different to reading; it was somehow pulling the raw stuff from the air, and both my children and I felt it.
My usual method was to retell tales I knew, making up whatever I didn’t remember. But one winter’s evening, the three of us cuddled up in my daughter’s bed, I felt tired out, with barely a thought in my head.
‘Please, tell us a story.’
‘No. Mummy can’t think of anything.’
‘Yes you can!’
My toes were sticking out from under the doona, prickling with cold. I didn’t want to tell a story. Not a bit.
‘Come on, Mum!’
The wheedling went on and I knew they wouldn’t let up, so I forced myself to speak. What came out was:
‘One night, a snow giant came striding down the hills…’
I stopped. I felt like a tight-rope walker without a net.
‘Yes,’ they said, impatiently. ‘What did he do?’
I focused on the giant. He was a massive yeti of a thing, hard packed but soft at the edges. He walked silently over the powdery fields until he came to a town, the moon casting his long blue shadow over the houses.
‘Keep going, Mum!’
There he paused, feeling a harsh wind whipping his back. And as everyone knows, a harsh wind is fatal to a snow giant. All at once it was too much for him and he collapsed, falling over the town, and when everyone woke up it was dark because they’d been buried by the snow giant…
This is creativity at its purest: when there’s only the tiniest bit of tinder – an image, a feeling, a shadowy concept – to fan into the fire that warms the listener and the teller. It’s a bit nerve-racking. There’s often tremendous resistance at the inner effort required.
When I write, I find planning is helpful. I like a map. It gives the restless brain something to hold onto. But the sensation of not knowing what’s coming is the adventure. Something quickens in the imagination, and as writers we step into unknown worlds leaning on words like walking staffs, happily conscious of making something new.
In the best writing, both writer and reader make discoveries. Fiction is not telling lies about fairies; it’s about shaping the events, characters and symbols side by side until they reveal something universal.
Bearings is out now through Affirm Press.