Inside a Writer’s Mind 24: A Thief’s Tale – 501 Prompts

Read ‘A Thief’s Tale’ before finding out about my creative process and thoughts writing the story.

Just recently, I’ve learned about Kōans, even though I heard some of them before without their context. A Kōan is a very short story, sometimes in the form of a dialog, a question, or a statement to teach about a specific aspect of Buddhism, philosophy, and life. They aren’t absurd by design, instead try to spark an idea to get one step closer to enlightenment. They aren’t that different from a classical Fable.

I’ve read several Kōans before deciding to go with ‘The Moon Cannot Be Stolen‘ because its imagery spoke to me. There is much to unpack in this short story. Leading a modest life, being hospitable even to guests you didn’t invite, looking beyond materialism as a sole focus in life, and that some things we have to experience by ourselves to really understand them. I’m sure there’s even more to it.

My planning stage used to be a giant mess.

I took a vague idea or concept into my writing session and tried to figure it out while writing. Don’t get me wrong, there is a certain creative value to that method and most of my writing is still just like that.

But I’ve noticed that actually thinking about the point of the story, and importantly writing it down, helped me to come up with new ideas a lot. It sets my story on the path I want it to go, and from there, I’m free to explore as much as I like in my writing. I don’t have to worry about getting lost at sea anymore.

Prompt 22: Catch-22 was written around the moral of a fable, while Prompt 23: The Journey was a reimagining of some kind.

For ‘A Thief’s Tale’, I wanted to continue the story of the prompt. I saw three different angles to tackle this idea:

  • POV of the thief – how he finds enlightenment and redemption
  • POV of the monk – telling about hardship and suffering
  • An absurd tale of someone trying to steal the moon

I liked all of the 3 ideas and could see them going somewhere exciting, but I chose to tell the thief’s tale. At that point, I hadn’t written any kind of redemption story yet and wanted to try to play around with that particular arc.

Plus, the Zen master and the thief in the Kōan are on polar opposites in life. It looked like fun to me to try and bridge that gap between them. What would it take the thief to understand the master? That’s the question I kept in mind when writing my first draft.

Let’s take a closer look at the story.

The narrative voice of this story feels different to me to how I usually write because I tried to mimic the tone and development of the koan in some way. It meant limiting myself in a certain way and gave me very little dialog to work off of.

I tried to include different callbacks to the source like when the lord talks to the thief in a similar way to the master but with a vastly different outcome. And of course the talk with the master about the moon at the end.

To start the thief’s journey to redemption, I first had to give him a name. It seems minor, and I contemplated not doing it, but I think there is an essential element about naming in this particular case.

In the koan, he didn’t have a name because he didn’t need one. In that story he was just a device to emphasize the message. But he would be central to my story. Besides, I think it’s easier to sympathize with anyone when you know their name.

I don’t have any special magic to come up with a name. Usually, I take to a random name generator, punch in some filter options and reroll the names until I find one I like. That’s how I settled for Kuroki. There’s no deeper thought to it as of now.

Then I needed to give him a home, hint at his intentions, life’s goals, and character. Nothing too fancy: money and power at the cost of others who he perceived as weaker. Just then, I could force him to change.

Kuroki gets beaten up pretty bad and he feels the need to leave his home. One experience is rarely enough to make a person change though and he reverts to his old habits, this time getting caught red-handed and brought to the local lord to judge over him.

At that point, he’s more spiritually broken than changed. Just when he got into more trouble, and the people’s perception of him changes, he finally starts to change too.

At first, he is somewhat forced into a certain role but grows into it the more he practices. How society around us influences who we are and how we behave is a theme that comes up a lot in my writing. A little encouragement can go a long way and help discover a side of you you didn’t even know was there.

When he finally gets back to the Zen master, he is a changed man, humbled by life.

This segment still feels a bit like poking in the dark to me. I don’t really know if anything I write and muse about is actually interesting or helpful to anyone. Is there something you enjoy about my reflections? Is there anything you want to know more about?