Updated: Jul 25
During the second UK lockdown in the January of 2021, an email was sent out around my school's year groups informing us of the Rotary Young Writer's Competition. The idea was to write a story no longer than 500 words based on the prompt, "My Happiest Day."
I'm not going to lie, I've never been the biggest fan of prompts. Though they tend to spark ideas, writing competitions don't tend to use prompts for the kind of whacky, out-there stories that I love to write. This one was especially tough. My Happiest Day. A fairly common phrase, rather optimistic. Quite a bold statement too. I mean how can anyone really be sure what there happiest day of life is? What if you had multiple happy days? Or what if you're yet to have your happiest day? How do you decide?
Okay, now I'm being pedantic, but the point is I really struggled to come up with a story that felt organic, genuine (here's the other downside to prompts, they can run the risk of the author producing a story that doesn't speak from their heart, I know I've made many like that) and would stand out from everybody else's. So I got thinking. When would somebody reflect on their happiest day? Well, when could somebody truly objectively look at their life, at all the days spread out like a photo album, and pick which day was the best? Their death bed, of course.
Aha, an idea that resonated with me (if you've read Circle of Saints, you'll know I have a connection with themes of death and grief, most likely due to some past experiences which I won't get into here (also sorry for the brackets (and brackets within brackets, hehe), writing a blog really has this feeling of a train of thought that goes on all these mad tangents, I ought to reign it in a little bit)). I would write a story of a man on his death-bed, reflecting on the happiest day of his life. And who better to reflect on it with him than Death herself.
There have been many interpretations of Death in fiction; my personal favourites are the Death from Terry Pratchett's Discworld and the Death that narrates the Book Thief. For this story, a Gillian Anderson-esque figure came to mind. I say Gillian Anderson-esque, it was Gillian Anderson. Don't ask why, maybe I'd seen too many episodes of The Fall around the time of writing, but I'd long had the notion that the Grim Reaper would be a well-organised, punctual businesswoman. It just made total sense to me for some reason, nothing more to it.
So I started writing the interaction between them, and it was at this point I had the amusing notion that, if there's a physical embodiment of death, why wouldn't there be one of birth. I think I'm way too proud of myself for that one. Anyway, as the conversation continued between these characters (and the word count went up) I quickly realised that this story wouldn't have time to reflect on the man's happiest day, a superlative that I'd struggled with from the start anyway, but instead would reflect on human mortality, loss, and moving on. Again, this was something that really resonated with me, and it was really interesting to see what my character of death had to say to Larry's constant interrogations (often characters speak for themselves instead of me putting words in their mouths - maybe I'm crazy to write that but I don't think I'm the only author to have ever found this).
And now I had to link all this back to the prompt. And better to do that than a deep metaphor to sum it all up, one that the reader might remember when they think of the story, or when they hear those common three words come up in conversation. I admit this statement from Larry was a little contrived, but I think it had the right effect.
So I cut the thing down and sent it in, before completely forgetting about it for months. Turns out I won the local round of the competition which was fun, though I only ever got the "thank you for taking part" certificate for the round that followed. But what was more fulfilling than that was the response from some of the close family and friends who read it. I won't say their names here, but it was heartwarming to hear the effect that the story had on them, sometimes bringing them to tears or reminding them of their own experiences. One family member said it reminded her of a near death experience she'd had not too long ago, and felt the message of it really resonated with her.
So I guess what I'd take from all of that is this. 1.) Prompts aren't bad, so long as you transform them into something you want to write that comes from your heart. 2.) That at the end of the day, the thing that matters most is the effect your story has on others, even if that's just one person. If you can move just one person in one moment of their life with something you've written, then I'd consider that a better success than any certificate, review or prize.
That's all from me for now. Happy reading, happy writing!