My stories often have their origin in something that actually happened – an incident, a memory, something heard. (In this case it was the leap out of a plane at 12000 feet – one of the scariest things I’ve ever done). It’s then a case of finding a voice, letting characters take shape, coalesce round the incident. Then I see how they deal with it, where it leads, and in the process I figure out what the story’s really about. (Usually it’s mortality, that great resounding bass note that’s always present in our lives).
So writes Alan Spence, award winning poet, playwright and author about his short story Long White Cloud, and what a story it is, a sketch descending at terminal velocity from personal experience, a death-defying, fear-facing leap from a plane evoking cloud covered memories of other lives lived, lake surface below reflections on mortality and what may lie beyond.
Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen, Spence clearly knows from cover to cover the topic he teaches. He takes the stuff of personal experience—a trip to New Zealand, a leap from a moving plane—and gives it voice, clothing, personality; characters and narrative germinated from the seeds of emotion and memory, a flower beautiful to behold, story compelling to read the final, blossoming result.
“The kind of thing that had happened to him before. Memories that were not his own. Once in Japan, he’d looked at himself in the mirror, seen someone else entirely looking back at him, a Japanese man with the intense gaze of a warrior. Someone else, and yet.”
Reincarnation, memories of past lives, visions of samurai warriors encountered in a 12,000 foot plunge into nothingness and empty space? Not so far-fetched when your next life is getting closer at 200 kph, and not so far-fetched when the airbourne author runs a meditation centre—the Sri Chinmoy Centre in Edinburgh—where presumably he practises daily the cross-legged, back upright and breath relaxed equivalent of descending from the heavens at a rate of knots. “All paths lead to Rome”, as Sri Chinmoy himself once said, “but one may get us there a little quicker or easier.”
In his mid 50s, Spence writes as if he is the same age as the students he teaches every day, as if 50 is the new 30 as his opening lines muse, energetically merging lyrics from a song by Blur and prostrate checks with meditations on mortality and the vapid thrill-seeking of youth, as if the author’s practise of meditation has infused his writing then spilled beyond, branched out from the meditation cushion and taken root in every life and situation met.
His most recent long player, The Pure Land, “a modern epic, at once a rattling good adventure, a heart-wrenching love story and a journey of the spirit”, was translated into 19 languages and his most successful book, but if this recently written short story is any indication, Spence is warming up, building momentum for an even greater work.
Read the short story: Long White Cloud by Alan Spence.