What’s that in real money?

My fingers hover over the keyboard, hoping for inspiration.  I’ve got a blog to write, I tell myself.  Ignore the heat, other countries don’t make such fuss about thirty degrees C.  Well no, but what about eighty seven degrees Fahrenheit?  Now that’s a little different, surely.

photo credit: OliBac via photopin cc

photo credit: OliBac via photopin cc

I am old enough to be more familiar with the old degrees-F, and to make instant associations about the ambiance they imply in a way that I cannot for Centigrade.  For instance, at my secondary school we had an outdoor swimming pool where the rule was, if the water temperature reached fifty degrees, (I mean F, obviously) we went in.

Sitting in this sweat-box of an office, that sounds tempting right now, but I remember the icy reality of slipping into that water and after a quick ‘warm-up-splash-about’, standing around getting instructions from the sadists who were in charge of games as our bodies shuddered with cold and our teeth chattered.  There were hot summers when I was growing up, but I don’t remember them ever starting during term time.

Illogical as this may seem, for me, ten degrees Centigrade sounds chillier than fifty degrees Fahrenheit.  And yes, I did do some maths and physics at school, and do have a couple of thermometers with both sets of readings on.  So in theory, I understand that I’m being irrational, yet mention a temperature in Centigrade and I am, for a moment, flummoxed.  I don’t seem to carry a store of associated memories to latch the numbers to.

Why am I writing about this?

Perhaps because we were talking about thunderstorms last night.  One of the men was describing his shock at being asked by another man if thunder really was caused by two clouds banging together.

‘An adult,’ he said, ‘and he honestly didn’t have a clue.  He still believed what he’d been told by his gran.  Can you believe that?’

I could and I couldn’t.  I saw that this was a moment when truth would seem stranger than some fiction, but I also thought that for one adult to ask another, ‘Is it true about thunder?’ implied trust and respect.

Writers often tend to gather up snippets of information on cloud formations, or weather patterns, or theories about the real identity of the Jack the Ripper, and stories and anecdotes told of and by our friends and neighbors.  I’ve been a gleaner of information as long as I can remember.  Some of it is written, a lot remembered and phenomenal amounts have drifted to the back of my consciousness.

I came across this quote from Eudora Welty the other day.

Children, like animals, use all their senses to discover the world.  Then artists come along and discover it the same way, all over again.medium_2636013224

I didn’t admit at the dinner-table the other night that I couldn’t remember how thunder was made either, I waited for the repeat of the explanation that had been given.  Had someone told me before?  I think so, but how much more interesting the information was when it came in the form of a story.


photo credit thermometer: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/olibac/2983779842/”>OliBac</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

photo credit lightening: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/kamil_szewczyk/2636013224/”>kamil.szewczyk</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Displacement activites – building the nest

I’ve rearranged the furniture in my office this week.  The mood takes me every so often to face my desk in another direction.  It’s usually with the idea that I can create more workspace, as if furniture were like words, capable of becoming expansive or concise according to their surroundings.

Feeling a little cramped in here.

Feeling a little cramped in here.

The illusion is heightened, no doubt, because the process naturally involves some sorting and even ditching of the detritus that I accumulate.  I’ve even been known to empty the wastepaper basket, which is normally treated as a rough backup filing system.  I won’t admit here how often I’ve resorted to sorting through the contents for old notes that I’ve had second thoughts on, though.

I’ve been in offices where the waste-basket is emptied with awful regularity.  They look lost notessuper-efficient, but whenever I’ve tried to emulate this effect over-enthusiasm has resulted in the loss of some valuable and unrepeatable ideas or phrases.   Hence the occasional sight of me up-ended in the wheelie bin, throwing out cans and bottles as I sift through the recycling.  Of course, if I do find what I’m looking for it won’t turn out to be the wise gem I thought it was, but at least I’m no longer haunted by it.  However, the usual scenario is that I start to think about those notes at least a day after the recycling lorry came, and even I draw the line at going to the depot and sifting through a district sized heap of waste papers.

I can’t get a bigger rubbish bin for the office, there’s not enough room left, despite my new arrangement.  So I’ve started a new filing system, along the Heath Robinson line.  Take an A4 envelope, scrawl the name of the writing project on it with a marker pen – can’t help but use big letters that way.  Now, instead of putting my used notes in the bin, they are tucked into envelopes.  There’s no other order to this method, which I’m sure would pain the owners of those immaculate minimal offices, but some of us just aren’t programmed that way, and emptying an envelope is much less time consuming than my old paper trail.

So here’s me, seeing the view through the left side of the window today, still blinded by the reflected sunshine off the greenhouse roof around mid-morning, but this time it’s hitting my right eye. You know what, it does feel better in here.  If I just lower the blind a bit I almost think I might get some writing done.  Now which drawer am I storing those enveloped notes in?

Potter, on truths in fiction, and where that takes me…

It’s a function of fiction to tell truths…Documentaries don’t tell truths…they show you what is there, but they don’t mediate it through the truths of all the complications, all the inner subtleties of why this person is like that, why that person is like this.  What drama is for [is] to tell truths.

Dennis Potter, p11, Potter on Potter

Ah yes, Dennis Potter, remember him?  TV dramatist, master of the lip-synch drama, where actors mimed along to popular songs as part of the plot.  His plays were neither classic musical, nor standard play format (is there one though?).  The Potter works I remember best are The Singing Detective, Pennies from Heaven, Lipstick on Your Collar, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus.  In different ways, I found each of them magical.

Blue Remembered Hills by Dennis Potter

Blue Remembered Hills
by Dennis Potter

Want to know why we write?  Watch a Dennis Potter play and see where it catches you: if it does. He was considered controversial, so you don’t have to ‘get’ him, but it’s worth thinking about what he did and how.

To ‘tell truths’ was no idle boast for him.  Much of his material came from his own experiences, and he didn’t mind us knowing that.  Sometimes it was uncomfortable watching, often humorous, occasionally sentimental.  He didn’t stick closely to  events for fiction, though, that’s the thing that struck me when occasionally someone from his past would appear in a newspaper with the ‘real’ story of what had happened.  Potter said, ‘The way you think you know about the past is like the way you remember a dream on waking’.

It’s a useful idea to hold on to, for those of us who create fiction from the stories of our pasts, and these days there seem to be an increasing number of faction writers.  It might help keep us from getting stuck in the rut of, ‘Yes, but that’s the way it was,’ justification when someone queries a story event. That’s never happened to you?  Well done.  For the rest of us, at some point, haven’t we found ourselves in a workshop situation, defending a story rather than looking at why it hasn’t worked?

When you’re writing, it can be tricky to see what’s wrong.  After all, you know what happened, because you were either there, or told about it by someone who was.   You would seem to have a framework to write to, and that’s what most of us wish for, isn’t it?

Clipart-creative caveman chiseling a light bulb, royalty free vector illustration

Clipart-creative caveman chiseling a light bulb, royalty free vector illustration

Well, yes and no.  Sorry to be so imprecise, but it really does depend on the writer.  Some are mappers, plotting things out on postcards or computer programmes and writing easily within the framework we create.  For others, following structure rigidly can lead us astray. Why?

I’m going to be audacious here, and make a sweeping diagnosis of characterisation problems.  Because when our focus is too firmly on touching each event on the way to a given goal, we risk losing sight of who we were writing about, and most stories, even those that are full of action, are really about character.  Each of the Potter titles I’ve mentioned involve complex characters interacting with each other.  The technical term is, fully rounded.

Fully rounded characters are so well formed that you can find yourself writing something other than the well planned plot you thought they would fit into.

‘Hang on,’ I think I hear you say, ‘isn’t that thing about characters taking over their stories a writing-fairytale?’

Not for me.  I’ve had it happen both on the page and when I did a story performance.  And I found that second incident by far the scariest and most rewarding to recover from, but that’s another story.

I think most successful stories build from a fully rounded character.  So we’re not just thinking physical details here, height, weight, colourings, clothes, these are superficial descriptions.  If you’re writing about something that really happened, chances are you’ve built a character based on a real person.  But, how much do you really know about anyone else? I believe that we need to know our main characters at least as well as ourselves, perhaps better.

Do you know what you would save if your home was on fire and you had two minutes to grab something?  Do you know why you’d have chosen that thing?  Do you know what you would do if that thing became lost to you?

A lot of the time we work by instincts, don’t we?  Somewhere in our subconscious there is probably a logic to what we do, but we don’t always need to chase that up.

I’m not advising that you should start psycho-analyzing your character either, but if they are going to act and react naturally in the story, they need to be rounded enough to have their own instincts.  What would they save?  It might not be the same thing that you would, and if you’ve based your character on a friend, I doubt whether you’ve picked the same item they would name, no matter how close you are.

So it stands to reason, surely, that if your fully-rounded character cannot be quite the same as the person who was your inspiration, they might act differently at some point, and therefore, re-direct your neatly arranged plot.  That’s a good thing, honestly.

Here’s another thought too, could it be that those writers who plot everything out in advance don’t necessarily stick rigidly to the original plan?

Keep writing and it should happen.

Writers make Choices.

I’ve been browsing through an old notebook (1997).  It’s one of my favorites, not just because it was a gift from two good friends, but also because each page has a decorative border and a short literary quote.

notebookIt was such a lovely book that for a long time I could not bring myself to write in it.  Did I have anything worthy enough to spoil those pages with?  Especially since they weren’t lined, and without guides I invariably trail off towards one corner of the paper as I go down it.  As for my handwriting, well it’s far from elegant.

I was talking about the difficulties of making that first mark on a page with someone the other day.  She said that she could only write when she felt passionately.  At other times, no matter how good an idea she sat down with, it was impossible to begin.

Luckily, Ruth and Annie made the first mark in their gift for me.  Perhaps because they are both artists, one a poet, the other visual, and they knew me well enough to know how challenging I would find it, they wrote me an inscription inside the front cover.  It says, very neatly, ‘Happy Scribbling – Christmas 1997’.  Thanks Ruth, thanks Annie, without that it might still be tucked away with my two other beautiful pristine notebooks, in a box on top of the wardrobe.

This one looks a little battered these days, but the wear and tear are ‘life-marks’.  Its home is on my shelf of most used books, dictionaries, thesaurus, favourite writers and other reference books that seem to be necessary in my daily writing-life.  I found the perfect use for it, as a place to copy wise writing words, long and short, referenced or not – I try, but sometimes the author escapes me.  In it I’ve stored excerpts of interviews, fragments of interesting writing theories and bits of poetry

I started just under my friends inscription inside the cover, I’ve written, “Writers make Choices.”  Did someone tell me that, or did I read it?  Perhaps you will be able to tell me.

Then again, perhaps you think I’m just stating the obvious.  I say, sometimes we need to be reminded.  That might not apply so much to initial inspiration, but in the working out, and especially the editing, it’s well worth remembering that there are choices to make not just about what happens, but how we write it.

Magic Shoes

1920s ladies evening shoes, shoe ornaments, heels, dress.

1920s ladies evening shoes, shoe ornaments, heels, dress.                                                                (Postcard from The Shoe Museum, Street, Somerset.)

My nephew has a pair of new trainers that flash red lights in the soles when he stamps.  It turns out they’re too big, so his mother tells him she’ll put them away for a month or two, until he’s grown a bit.  Sam’s four.  He gets them back out to show us.  ‘Look,’ he says, turning them over to display a large red silhouette stamped in the treads. ‘They’re dinosaur shoes.’ His eyes are big and shiny, and his mum laughs.  They were the only ones in the sale, ‘Which is lucky, because he’s tried them out so much I could never take them back and ask for a smaller size now.’

I remember the first pair of special shoes I owned.  They were patent black leather, with a narrow buckled bar across the front and broad three inch heels.  I was about thirteen, and they were hand-downs from a more sophisticated cousin, but unlike the spiky court shoes I’d played dress-up in before, these matched the styles I had seen in my Jacky magazines, and they fitted.

My sensible, carefully chosen, flat shoes were cast aside along with all the warnings about broken and twisted ankles. I had a new view of the world, towering over my younger brother and measuring myself against mum.  I could be banned from wearing them to school, or ‘as best’, but nothing could stop me clomping around the house and garden in them.  The fact that nothing else in my wardrobe was suitable to wear with them didn’t matter.  In those shoes, anything might happen.

And lots of other things did.  I was still a child, not a fully fledged teenager, and heels do not suit tree climbing, long country walks or bike-rides.  One day, I was cleaning out the cupboard in my bedroom, and I pulled them from the bottom of it without being able to remember when I’d last seen them.  For a moment I felt the old excitement.  I polished them up with my sleeve, took off my shoes and socks and put them on.

They pinched.  There’s no give in patent leather, after a few minutes I had cramped toes and had to take them off.

As I threw them into the dressing-up box I pulled out some of those old pointy toed shoes I’d shuffled through my younger childhood in.  There were several pairs that fitted, but none that I could imagine myself in.

Soon after that I saved up enough pocket money to choose my own special shoes.  Perched on my wooden platform sandals I regained that view of the world from a different height, and I loved those shoes too, but not in quite the same way that those first, shiny black shoes mattered.

Sometimes important moments happen by accident.  Sometimes the importance of the moment fades within hours and we’ve moved on.  By this time next year, Sam might have forgotten all about the dinosaur trainers.

I don’t think Sam’s mum or my cousin could have guessed how much pleasure we would get from their gift.  Shoes, after all, are pretty much a staple item of clothing in the Western world.  Some of us might go barefoot for the summer, but it would take a hardened sole to survive our colder months, though I’ve seen pictures that suggest in times past they did.

We choose our footwear.  It is part of the outer-expression of our ideas about style, whether we claim to follow fashion or believe ourselves immune to its dictates. These are the basis of first impressions.  If it’s so in real life, how much more in fiction, where characters tend to have more extremes?

There are some lovely shoe obsessed characters, from Fairy tales, such as Cinderella, and The Red Shoes, to modern fiction, such as the stories of  V.I. Warshawski, bySara Paretsky and Carrie Bradshaw (Sex and the City), by Candace Bushnell.  Okay, so you don’t want to create a character-copy.  I didn’t think you would.

I’m just wondering, if I asked you about the first memorable pair of shoes your character had, would you be able to give me an answer?