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I was asked to look after a friend’s house for a couple of months. He lived in Cambridge, a city I had never been to, and he had a garden full of vegetables that needed harvesting. I had been reading a biography of Hemingway, a writer I was obsessed with at the time, and had heard the term ‘apprenticeship’ used to describe his years in Paris. I was at the end of my first year of university and had nothing else to do so I decided to look at a brief relocation and a garden full of vegetables as an opportunity to begin, in earnest, my own apprenticeship.
I packed a suitcase full of clothes and paperbacks, enough notebooks to last the summer, my typewriter and an old bicycle and headed up to Cambridge. I had whole days with nothing to do but sit and write and read. A few days in, I had a system. I would get up and write for two hours, then cycle into town to walk around, go shopping, drink tea and read then head back to the house to write until my girlfriend returned from work. It was a good system and it made me quite prolific; I averaged one story written, one edited and about 20 pages of notes each day.
I used to write full stories in one sitting but after a few weeks of nothing but time, and enough brain space to cope with it, I found I was composing several stories in my head all at once. So I began writing them all at once, in fragments as they came to me, a process that has served me well ever since that summer. I wrote stories about young girls and old married couples and teenaged boys who thought they were cooler than they were. All of these stories had sprung from little observations I would witness in my hours walking around Cambridge.
The main story of the summer however came from an observation I made before I left for Cambridge. Someone had left some water in the bath and there was a moth floating in it. That simple, slightly sad, sight started a story about a little girl finding a moth in the bath and, thinking it was swimming, watches it die. The story follows the father’s reaction to his distressed daughter and the two of them organise a burial for the moth, which in turn causes the father to remember his own father’s funeral.
After finding the moth myself, I had begun noting down some ideas about a girl finding a dead moth and being sad, but it was in the time and space once at Cambridge that this story evolved into the one above. With this story in particular I also honed my method for writing that accompanied my fragmented approach. I began writing and rewriting each sentence or paragraph until I was happy with it, independently from the rest of the story; sometimes it would be right first time, others it would take up to 30 rewrites.
I spent about three weeks working on the moth story, moving phrases and changing words only to change them back again. Once it was finished I sent it off to a magazine and waited…