365 Words for 365 Days - James Robertson at Edinburgh International Book Festival

THE delights and frustrations of writing a different 365-word story for a whole year were set out by author James Robertson at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in an event supported by The Open University.   The author of The Land Lay Still and The Professor of Truth was discussing the self-imposed discipline involved in his latest book 365 Stories, to write and post online a short story every day during 2013, each matching the word length of the collection’s title.

The inspiration, he said, came from working on creative writing with school pupils. In attempting to have them produce a piece within the time constraints of classroom, Robertson had placed a strict word limit of just 300 words, often forcing the pupils to edit their work down from 500 words.

Turning the exercise on himself, the author said that he had initially tested the concept on himself during January, before committing to project for a whole year.  The process, he said, was as challenging for him as it was for the pupils he worked with. He said: “This is a very basic constraint, the number of words, but what I found was that, invariably, I would write, like the 15-year-olds, 500 or 600 words, and would have to squeeze it down 365, which again would challenge me to try and leave in the important stuff but cut out all the extraneous material, and it was hard work at time, especially when I realised I basically had to cut a story in half.”

He said that the constraint itself was both “an aid to creativity” and had brought home the importance of editing to him.   “The editing process is where I find the creative process really kicks in,” he said. “Robert Louis Stevenson once said, ‘Oh, if I only knew how to omit’, and it seems to me that is the basis of really good writing: knowing what to leave out.”

Beyond word length, coming up with enough ideas on a daily basis was a strain. The writer said that he relied on a small notebook of undeveloped plots to keep the project going, though this was not always enough.   “Sometimes the idea wouldn’t work when I tried to flesh it out, so it was quite a challenge,” he said. “I reached a point in June, and I began to think ‘Oh, god!’, but by this point I was committed to it and I couldn’t stop. But then I got to September, October and I thought ‘I’ve only got two months left!’ but I kept having ideas for stories that I wanted to put in. So it was quite weird, the closer I got to the end of the project, the more I thought that there was still a whole load of stories that could come out.”

Robertson added that while he would not repeat the project, it had taught him some valuable lessons about the “power of storytelling”.

“This whole exercise proved to me was the fundamental importance of storytelling, not just to me as someone who makes a living from it, but to all of us as human beings,” he said. “It’s a basic human characteristic, it’s actually what makes us human, we don’t know what other species do, we don’t know how they pass on information from generation to generation or amongst themselves, we suspect they have ways of doing that. But the human ability to pass stories not just between individuals, but over generations and through civilisations is quite astonishing, and I just think that is the most important thing.”

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