The Ice Breaker

Picture this: day-one at the Imaginative Writing BA.  It’s a mid-September morning, there’s a slight mist, but it’s warm.  I follow my A-Z to a quiet street of big old terraced houses three turnings behind the Cultural Studies school.  Up five stone steps and through a narrow pair of doors are glass fire-doors.  Ahead of me are two narrow staircases.  The left set goes up, the right down.  Because they are fitted into a tight corner of the hall they turn shortly, both seem dark.

I hesitate, reading the numbers on the two ground floor doors and am crowded.  People appear from every direction, greeting each other extravagantly, laughing, chatting or looking confused.  I’m fairly sure they’re all students, some because they are so young, others because of their clothes or their confusion as they check their handbooks and look on the building plan for room numbers.

The noise levels increase, a piano starts up somewhere below us, playing a bright, nippy run of scales and a nice baritone follows the lead.  I hear a round of applause, and laughter.  This is the drama school, then.  Seems more like a TV show.  Can this really be where I’m meant to be?

I’m not sure, but it’s too late to change my mind.  I’ve rented a room, given up my job, signed the enrollment forms and have just heard a woman ask for directions to the same class as me.  I follow her past the stairs and along a narrow blue corridor.

We gather, sixteen of us, in a room with no windows, dim lighting and a sloping wooden floor, that was not a result of subsidence, it was designed that way, and yes, there was a reason, but I’ve forgotten it now.  The centre of the room is empty.  There are no tables, only stacks of metal framed chairs around the painted-brick walls.

Small groups form around the edges of the room.  Most of the class are in the same halls and have spent freshers week together.  They chatter about parties and shops and wonder if they’ve come to the right place.  Good, I think, it’s not just me.DSCF5124

It’s not.  In a moment the door opens again, and Edmund comes in.  ‘Welcome to Imaginative Writing,’ he says.  ‘Sorry about the accommodation.  We’ll be moving in a week or so.’  He takes an orange out of his bag. ‘Meanwhile, I think we’ll start by getting to know each other.  Catch the orange, say your name and throw it to someone else.’

The orange did the rounds, two or three times, then we unstacked chairs and did a class.

You’re thinking that as ice-breakers go, this doesn’t sound so bad, aren’t you?  In fact, as tasks go, this one probably seems quite fun.

Lesson two.

Round one:    ‘Catch the orange and say the name of the person who has just thrown it.’

Round two:     ‘Call out a name and throw the orange to that person.’

I loathed that game.  It seemed designed to prove to me and my classmates how bad I was at remembering names.

‘As soon as we have a hundred percent success, we’ll stop playing,’ Edmund said.

We never were sure if it was the same orange that came back for that second lesson.  Perhaps we would have been able to work it out if we’d needed it for the third.  It certainly looked like it had been around for a while.  When we asked Edmund about it later, he said that he’d got the idea from a book about business management.  They specified a tennis ball.  Edmund hadn’t got a tennis ball.

Over the next few weeks he set us more bizarre tasks.  Edmund had innovative ideas about what Imaginative Writing meant.  The title of the course was not accidental, he assured us, he meant us to use our imaginations in order to discover creativity for ourselves.

More than a decade later, I look back to that orange with affection.   It did force us to learn each other’s names in a short space of time.  It also got us talking, outside of the group, and became part of the story of our three years together.  I bet, if you were to mention oranges to any one from that group, and probably every other group that came after, they would soon be reminiscing about their time as IW students with Edmund Cusick.

And no, I never repeat the orange in my teaching.  It was an Edmund thing.   But having experienced it made me appreciate how useful a tool the icebreaker task can be.  I’ve invented my own sets of devious and twisted exercises for getting to know classes.

Stories That Matter

…every story that matters to a reader – every story that hums with a meaning greater that the sum of its words – was once little more than a risky act of faith for the writer.

Alison Macleod, Writing and Risk-taking,

From, Short Circuit, a guide to the Art of the Short Story (Salt 2009)

I think there are as many kinds of short story as there are writers.  So when I’m feeling insecure about spending so much of my life writing stories, and trying to get them published, somewhere, and the words won’t flow, I read.

Out of the reading I’ve been doing this week it’s not a story that stands out, though I’ve read a few good ones, it’s an essay by Alison Macleod.  Sometimes, I need to be reminded about how stories matter, and to think about my approach to writing them.  Discovering what other writers say about their processes is one way I do that.

“…the short story, though obviously short, is big.” says Alison, which is about the most succinct summing up of what a writer might aspire to that I’ve come across.  I like it so much that I’ve added it to the post-it quotes I keep on the door by my desk.  Yes, I think, those are the stories that matter, the ones that are so much bigger than their words that they stay with me.  And those are the ones we long to write, aren’t they?

I don’t care if you’re writing realism or fantasy, the principle is the same.  Listen, our words imply, I’ve got something to make you laugh, cry, think, feel…to forget for a few minutes where you are and what is around you.  That’s good.  I even feel I may be a little noble to aim so modestly.

The thing is, my modesty’s not strictly true.  What I, and I therefore assume we, hope for – secretly or blatantly – is to be noted: better yet, discovered.  I don’t want to be writing disposable prose, I  want someone to be intrigued enough by a story of mine to look for more of them.  That’s my reading pattern, after all.

Stories that matterNow that’s a big ambition: an inhibiting ambition.  I can no more write when I’ve one eye on that than I can read when I’m keeping a check on the time.  The type of stories that keep me in the chair when Rusty is ready for his walk need adjectives like ‘engaging’, ‘surprising’, ‘intriguing’.  How can I possibly set my imagination free if I’m continually questioning the value of every word and action?

I can’t.  What I need to focus on is ‘the risky act of faith‘.  Alison Macleod is not just talking faith in self, she’s advocating RISK.  Writers, she reminds us have to let the story lead us.  Writers, she says, ‘need to move beyond polite conversation.‘  Yes, I think, that’s what so often pulls me up, when I’m writing, ‘What will my mother/father/neighbour think if the story does that?’

Risk is hot: it’s action and excitement. It’s not writing for effect, shocking or safe, it’s about allowing the story events to play out naturally, even if that means letting go of the idea I began with.

A Sense of Place

iron age round houseI was invited to a meeting at a neighbour’s house this week.  I went, partly, because I’m nosy.  It’s a big house, a designer construction, with high glass walls held up by steel RSJs (pillars).  It was the sort of building project that gets followed on TV design programmes, and starts people writing to their local paper with questions about whether it’s suitable for it’s location.

How do you live in a house with no blinds or curtains?  That’s what I’ve asked myself each time I passed it, especially at night, when the interior is lit.

A lot of us must be fascinated by house interiors, there’s so much of it in the media.  That kind of thing is meant to be aspirational, I suppose.  Being more of a muddler, when I flick through those magazines in waiting rooms, I like to imagine the householder dashing about gathering up and rearranging their belongings before the camera arrives, than to believe in either the immaculately clear surfaces or the artistically displayed clutter.

Pieter Janssens Elinga, Perspective Box.  1660 - 1680

Pieter Janssens Elinga,
Perspective Box. 1660 – 1680

Here’s the question I’ve been asking myself since my visit to the neighbour’s though, Isn’t where we live as significant an indicator of personality as the clothes we wear?

Okay, so most of us probably will never have a chance to express ourselves in such solid terms as my neighbour, but we all occupy a space somewhere.  How much of our lives we devote to our surroundings is one part of our stories.  What we do or don’t do to the fabric of our homes is another, whether that is in terms of cleaning, repair, decoration or even shifting furniture around.

We might not all realise it, but our homes are a tangible indication of our personality.  It’s all too easy to brush over this detail, and yet for most of us, mortgage or rent is a defining aspect of our lives.  It can dictate what we do for a living, and what we don’t do, especially with a recession on.  High-rise, semi, designer, bedsit or mobile home, these aspects too can be defining characteristics.  Do we conform to expectations, or not?

116So here’s a question to my fellow writers, when we’re writing about a character, do we think about where and how they are living?

I’m not advocating a broad digression  from your story with this.  Probably the facts won’t even make it into your final draft, but I were to ask you why your character lives where or as they do, could you tell me?

As for my neighbour’s decor, it was, of course, nothing like I expected.  I think I’d have been disappointed if it had been, after all, she’s not the character I’ve written into her house.

Changing Stories

So, earlier this week I was trawling around on You-Tube, and yes, that was meant to be writing time.  A friend had sent me a great link to five men playing a piano, and after that I got a bit carried away, but it all worked out in the end, because I found this:

I hope you’ve played and enjoyed the clip.  I loved it so much I’ve replayed it to myself several times since, besides insisting that the family and a couple of visitors share it too.

Now I have to put my hand up here and say that Wuthering Heights may well be my all time favourite book, and Kate Bush’s homage, is one of my favourite tributes to it. However, that doesn’t mean I love every spin-off from the story.

How many have there been?  More than I could list here, even if I wanted to.  Check out Wikipedia, if you want to see a few of the art-forms that reference it, but don’t imagine you’re seeing a definitive mapping of work that was inspired by the story. Not included are the authors who’ve tried to emulate Emily Bronte’s masterpiece more directly with varying degrees of subtlety and success, perhaps the best known of those was Mary Webb, with her novels, Precious Bane, and Gone to Earth, and the wonderful Stella Gibbons, in Cold Comfort Farm.

More recently, there have been ‘mash-up’ rewrites of the novel published.  For those of you who haven’t met this phenomenon before, a ‘mash-up’ is the literary equivalent of fusion cooking (the combining of elements from different culinary traditions).  The usual combination is to take a well known classic novel and add elements of horror into it. So, alongside the other well known titles that have been hybridized, you can now buy versions of Wuthering Heights that include vampires, werewolves and zombies, as if it weren’t Gothic enough already.

At the other end of that rewrite scale is the abridgement.  Yes, someone has decided to produce a version of Wuthering Heights that is considered suitable for children.  I admit I’ve only read one page of one abridgement, but I think I said enough about my feelings on simplifying classics in my earlier discussion about Alice in Wonderland.  So I’ll cut this line of thought here and go back to where I started, with that re-worked Kate Bush song.

You’ll remember that I implied that finding it had seemed to me to justify my surfing through songs instead of writing.  I’ll admit that I was already in prevarication mode, having run out of steam with two stories I’ve got half written, and with my mind already on what I was going to blog about this week.

Well I don’t know what happened to you when the song started going, but for me it was as if a veil lifted.  Kate Bush transposed the book into music beautifully, capturing the gothic, mystical elements with her eerie, lyrical rendition, and fixing a good sized segment of the British population into her mode of music for life, it seems.  Did any of us ever imagine a cover version could do more than palely imitate her?

Isn’t this what Aristotle was getting at when he said that there were only seven plots?  Because even though the names and setting remain true, and even rely upon our knowledge of the original, here the change of tempo affects everything, tone, intention, and mood.

Wuthering Heights has been transformed into a different story, something that is modern, despite its rhythm coming from the jazz age.  This is story as it links back to the oral tradition, something that the tellers adapted to suit their audience, and as I watch and listen, I’m thinking of the story I’m trying to write at the moment, and this song infects me with a fresh surge of inspiration.

I don’t feel any less affection for Wuthering Heights, its various textual hybrids or the original song because of this new version.  If anything, my enjoyment of the originals increases, but I have now to add The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain’s interpretation of the story to my list of great adaptations.

Write What You Know.

‘It’s just like Tetrus, really,’ my eldest niece, Fi, said, turning a straw bale sideways and fitting it into the gap that I’d just decided I would have to leave.DSCF5043

I had to smile.  Who would have thought that an electronic game would apply to something as mundane as stacking bales in a barn, a job I’ve been helping with all my life, and never managed to master.  Set me on a trailer and I’ll square the load up, or throw the bales off, according to need.  Neither job requires too much thought, or even, believe it or not, much muscle.  That side of the job is about stamina, and lifting techniques.  I’m just happy to slog along, settling into a rhythm of work that tones up my muscles in the fresh air while setting my mind free to roam.

Building a stack in the barn that will stay square, and be safe enough for someone to clamber about taking bales away from over several months without needing to wear a safety harness, that’s a skill.  Perhaps the reason I never mastered it was because it meant concentrating on each bale, and really I’ve never been keen on building, even with lego blocks.

The kit I owned as a child was for a bungalow.  I remember seeing it completed once, but I don’t think it was me who did it.  I generally got distracted before I reached the roof stage.  In fact, the most distinct memory I have is of discovering that most of the tiles had gone missing the one time I achieved gutter height.  I expect my younger brother, who had all my share of interest in lego, had incorporated it into one of the massive projects he was always building.  The aircraft that he constructed bore no relation to any kit I’ve seen, then or since.  How he managed to make squared blocks into cylindrical bodies is still beyond me.  But that’s another story.

Generally, I tended to try for so many windows in each wall of my bungalow that the brickwork could only be constructed as pillars, which always bowed out before I’d got them finished.  I faced up early to the fact that I was never going to be a bricklayer, and was not disappointed.  I left the lego indoors and returned to climbing amongst the bales where it always smelled like June and August.

I love haymaking and harvest time.  I could give you a lyrical turn of memories about sunsets, trailer rides, the camaraderie and the joys of an icy beer after a long day, that spans back several decades. But the thing is, for something like that all my senses go into overdrive.  My need to paint the picture accurately overtakes all else, especially that thing I’m always aspiring to, economy, and generally that’s not good for story.write what you know

So I prefer to take my nostalgia and apply it to a character, a fully rounded personality with their own set of drives and desires and responses in their own setting.  The scent of mown grass; the way the leveret squealed when Fi picked him up from amongst the bales and carried him to the hedge; the dry heat in the top of the barn and the sight of the children running to catch a lift on the empty trailer, these things I can transfer to another time and place with a little imagination and a willingness to let go of some of what I remember.

As for Fi, despite being good with lego, and Design Technology, she’s not planning to be bricklayer either, just another casual volunteer for the fun side of farm work.