Make a list, why don’t you?

I recently stumbled across this interesting and thoughtful list constructed by the Reverend Sydney Smith, in early 1820.

To Lady Georgiana Morpeth

(c) National Portrait Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done – so I feel for you. 

1st  Live as well as you dare.

2nd  Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°.

3rd  Amusing books.

4th  Short views of human life – not further than dinner or tea.

5th   Be as busy as you can.

6th   See as much as you can of those friends who you respect and like you.

7th   And of those acquaintances who amuse you.

8th   Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk to them freely – they are always worse for dignified concealment.

9th   Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.

10th  Compare your lot with that of other people.

11th  Don’t expect too much from human life – a sorry business at the best.

12th  Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence.

13th  Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.

14th  Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.

15th  Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant.

16th  Struggle by little and little against idleness.

17th  Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.

18th  Keep good blazing fires.

19th  Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.

20th  Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana.

Very truly yours,

Sydney Smith.

It is, I think, a beautiful list. It says a lot about both the giver and the receiver, and despite being nearly 200 years old, there aren’t many of the suggestions that feel especially dated.

I also like the brevity of it. So I thought I might try something similar, but shorter, on a different theme.

Dear Secret Writer,

Please, do dare. There are stories only you can tell, and we would like to read them. Are you really going to leave all those fascinating ideas buried in a file on your hard-drive?

1st Visit a good play, and dare to dream.

2nd Write long letters to old friends.

3rd Join a writing group

4th Read everything – even cereal boxes, small-ads on the local notice-board and the fly-posters on lamp-posts and hoardings.

5th Sit in cafes, with a notebook and pen, and imagine what you would do next, if you were, indeed, a writer.

6th Read one new poem, every day, slowly.

7th Listen, really carefully, when other people are speaking, for at least a minute at the time.

8th Join a reading group.

9th Practice telling jokes.

10th Practice saying, ‘No, thank you. I’m not available for an hour on those days.’

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A word-play writing exercise

book of wordsThe first entry in The Superior Person’s Book of Words, by Peter Bowler, is ABECEDARIAN.  It has two meanings:

i. Arranged in alphabetical order

ii. Elementary, devoid of sophistication.

Superior persons, it seems, do not ‘fuss-about’ with mundane entries like Aardvarks or other double-voweled list-leap-frogging words, they favour the obscure and archaic.  It’s not a word designed to trip easily off my tongue.  What trick will lodge it on the easily-to-hand shelves of my memory?

book shelvesOh those dusty shelves.  Forget the endless virtual library in my head, I can’t remember how this book came to rest amongst my physical books. Maybe I bought it. I usually remember which books I’ve been given.

But enough digression, it’s time to be purposeful.  Why am I rabbiting on about superior persons when I’m so clearly failing to meet the bar?  Because the second entry in this book is: ABECEDARIAN INSULT.  It means exactly what it sounds like, an insult arranged in alphabetical order. Peter Bowler provides one:

‘Sir, you are an apogenous, bovaristic, coprolalial, dasypygal, excerebrose, facinorous, gnathonic, hircine, ithyphallic, jumentous, kyphotic, labrose, mephitic, napiform, oligophrenial, papuliferous, quisquilian, rebarbative, saponaceous, thersitical, unguinous, ventripotent, wlatsome, xylocephalous, yarning zoophyte.’

Try reading that aloud, it’s a tricky flow.  Only seven words are not underlined by the spell-checker.  I’m not sure how to pronounce most of it.  However, I did like the translation:

‘Sir, you are an impotent, conceited, obscene, hairy-buttocked, brainless, wicked, toadying, goatish, indecent, stable-smelling, hunchbacked, thick-lipped, stinking, turnip-shaped, feeble-minded, pimply, trashy, repellent, smarmy, foul-mouthed, greasy, gluttonous, loathsome, wooden-headed, whining, extremely low form of animal life.’

The spellchecker doesn’t like buttocked, but accepts the rest. I’m sorry the ABECEDARIAN aspect has been lost.

The language is a little antiquated, I wonder if I can be offensively eloquent without using swear-words or obscenities? Don’t take the following personally:

‘Addled basket case! Digest effluent, foul gibbering halibut. I judge knowing liars malignant numbskulls of putrid qualities: retract scandalous talk, undo verminous words. Xenophobe, you’re zero.’

Hmm, maybe I’m a ‘rasorial searcher after words’:

hensRASORIAL: Constantly scratching around in search of food, like a fowl (or a sister’s boyfriend). Pronounced more or less in the same way as risorial (laughter provoking) and rosorial (rodentlike; gnawing). ‘I’m sorry if I sometimes seem ambivalent in my attitude to your mother, Natalie; it’s just that I find it very hard to make up my mind whether I see her as essentially rasorial, rosorial, or risorial.’

I wonder how ‘elementary and devoid of sophistication’ it’s possible to be when creating an ABECEDARIAN INSULT?

I think I could develop this.  Apply some of the ‘5 Ws & H’ to it, and character might grow.  After that, who knows…

  1. Who?
  2. What?
  3. Where?
  4. Why?
  5. When?
  6. How?

I’m beginning to see ABECEDARIAN INSULT as an oxymoron… a word to shelve in the reference section of my virtual library, and dust off occasionally.

As for the book, who knows what other potential ‘warm-up’ exercises are lurking amongst it’s pages?

 

*Painting: William Baptiste Baird, 1847 – 1917

Story prompt #writephoto

I dropped by Sue Vincent’s blog on Thursday and she’d just posted a photo as a writing prompt challenge.  Hmm, I thought, why not?

Below is my take, with the picture.  Click on the link above to see what the other participants did – you’ll find poetry and prose – or to check out the rules and join in. It’s a weekly event.

Title: Conflagration.

scvincent promptThe third album Jan pulled out was called, The Night We Will Never Forget.   ‘What’s this, Aunty?’ she said, placing the heavy book in the old woman’s lap.

Mindy’s gnarled fingers stroked the varnished surface.  ‘Lovely,’ she said.  ‘You don’t get sunsets like that any more.’ She smiled, tracing the glowing clouds that hovered on a dark horizon, and drifted back into silence.

Jan said, ‘Is it somewhere special?’ She raised her voice, ‘Where is this?’

‘What’s that, dear?’

‘Do you remember where you took this?’

‘Took what?’

Jan lifted the album closer to the old woman’s eyes. ‘The photo.’

Mindy shook her head.  ‘Haven’t a clue, dear.  Looks like a lovely book.  What’s it about?’

Cats, apples, Isaac Newton and Carl Kahler.

I have a little book, called 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization.  I consider that a nice title, a real hook for someone who finds felines fascinating – that’s me.  I got the book at Christmas, and liked it also because it perfectly fits the narrowest shelf of my favourite bookcase, and since I was midway through reading some other books, that’s where it’s rested for the last few months.

That top shelf is tricky to fill, let me tell you.  In the past, I’ve layered comatose paperbacks on it, which is just not pleasing.  It’s perfect for audio tapes, but my cassette player is in my car – yes, it’s that old – so I keep my half-dozen boxes in the glove-box.  But I digress.

Returning to my compact gem: Sam Stall has trawled through history to create a collection that is, at times, a little stretched. A cat is named as co-author of a research paper, because it had been written with an authorial ‘we’, at a time before word-processors, which meant the whole thing would have needed to be retyped to replace the ‘we’ with ‘I’.

My Wife's Lovers by Carl KahlerI’m not worried if there is a little exaggeration involved.  This, I think, is one of those pass-along books that are heaped on the bookshop counter at Christmas time.  It’s a stocking filler: it’s a story filler, too.

There are plenty of snippets of information I like. For instance, did you know Sir Isaac Newton invented the cat flap?  His feline companion kept distracting him with demands to be let in and out of the house, so he developed a solution.

This, I think could be part of a new story. It could be that the fit will be thematic rather than the story centre, and I’ve no immediate suggestion on how or where that might happen.  It will though.  Trust me.

Let the idea sink in slowly.  Don’t necessarily try to picture Newton.  Writing about Regency Britain could be a little demanding.  Think about cat flaps. Maybe sleep on it.

Have you heard the story about the woman who returned home from shopping to find her Rottweiler dog choking?  She took it to the vet, who rushed the dog off for an operation.

As the woman drove home the vet called her mobile, and told her to wait in her car.  She pulled up, the police arrived, rushed into her house, and arrested a man they found hiding there.  His left hand was wrapped in a bloody towel. The vet had extracted two severed fingers from the dog’s throat, then phoned the police.

It turned out that the burglar had crawled through the dog-flap, somehow not suspecting why there was such a large access point.

This isn’t a story either, it’s an anecdote. It could be more, though.

Add in that Carl Kahler picture, at the top of the post, and I think I’m beginning to see a way with this.

cat

Free-writing part 3

With a stunning lack of foresight, last spring, when I was arranging my autumn term, I set myself up with four classes that would each be discussing different novels in the same weeks.  Consequently, I’ve recently been on a readathon, and my writing time has been squashed into snatched fragments.

book pileAt least most of my brain space has been taken up with some excellent literature.  How could I have forgotten how brilliant Tolstoy was?  Meanwhile, I’ve been discovering new joys – particularly Dorothy L. Sayers.  Re-reading her carefully, as I prepare class notes, opens up all sorts of literary trails.  I shall definitely be looking at some of her other novels again.

I’m about half-way through Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives Tales with one group, and reminding myself that he is not so dusty as he’s sometimes painted; while nearing the end of Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at The Museum with another.  It’s been a fascinating autumn, but hectic.

So given only an occasional five minutes writing time, I decided the best use I could make of that space was to take my own often offered advice, and free-write.  The result is a satisfyingly expanding notebook.

These jottings are intended as rough drafts: a collection of words I might ‘mine’ for ideastimer at a later date.  No sense intended, only a fancy to free myself from the restrictions of preparing reading groups.    I set the clock for five minutes then let my pen lead the way.

Describing the process is always challenging, so I’ve decided this week to share one of my quicker fragments.

She would always want the things that he told her were unobtainable belonging to worlds that had not yet visited the western leaning curves and when the dog left home without her nothing would stay where it was but electricity sang when the moon rose and bloomed in delightful sequences of song that lifted lifetimes from their shoulders the past disappeared and gravity took years from their faces because the long winded clock gave up they were free, see the sea, shallowing and delightful, played with her ankles drawing her deeper towards a world she had never imagined.

If you’re wondering what I might do with this, I’m not sure yet.

On a previous post, Random ramblings that work I’ve gathered some thoughts on the benefits of using time in this way.

If you’ve never tried free-writing, and would like to have a go, I’ve put a recipe on Writing Blocks – strategy 2.

A random, low-tech, story generator.

Wondering what to write?  Where to start?  Looking for inspiration?

DSCF8123Here’s something simple you might like, and all you need is a scrabble set.  You know those game rules, don’t you?  Shake the scrabble letter bag, take out seven tiles.  What have you got?  Rubbish letters?

Let me make the first move.  Hmmm, I’ve got a rack full of vowels, so I’m going to scream in Bacchic frenzy, and play EUOI.

Euoi is a useful word to know if you play the game regularly.  It allows you to make room for fresh tiles without having to lose a turn.

For writers, it’s an equally useful story starting point.

Bacchus was the Roman incarnation of Dionysus.  That much I know without looking him up.  What else?  He’s connected to wine, taken in excess.  There have been cults that worshipped him at various points, both before and after Christianity came to the fore, usually as an excuse for outrageous behaviour.

His cults can be found in  supernatural and realist stories, historical and contemporary.  There’s a lot you could research, but don’t do that now.  The point of this exercise isn’t to think, it’s to write.

That’s not enough to start a story?  Fine, it’s your turn to play: create a name.  What do you mean, no names in scrabble?  This is scrabble for writers, we adapt the rules to suit our need, don’t we?

So, what names do your letters make?  Notice I used plural there?  I’m going to miss my turn, because I think two characters would be useful.

Now you’ve got someone to react to that Bacchanalian outburst, and you’ve given yourself more choice when it comes to deciding on point-of-view.

My turn, and just to make things interesting I’m going to play two words that you have to include in your story.  I’m putting WAX across the triple word score, because you’ve left that wide open.  Then, because I’m generous, I’m giving you WOOD on the down line.

On the board, besides all of the ways you can interpret the word WOOD, there are a surprisingly large number of words you can put with it.  Add one of those, and you could reach another triple-word score.  Story-wise, I think I’ve been generous too, WOOD is such a flexible word for the literal and the lateral interpreters.

That should be enough pointers.  The point of this exercise isn’t to give you an easy run, it’s meant to be a challenge.  But I like to be generous, so if you’re really stuck, top up your rack and make another word to be included in the situation (always remembering that old adage about what to do if you’re in a hole, of course – stop digging).

Now do the same with procrastinating.  Start with that Bacchanalian cry of impassioned rapture and get writing.

Hearts and minds are in currency.

Have you been looking for a way to both have displacement activities and make time for writing?  Would you like a solution that doesn’t involve a series of complicated spread-sheets and rotas, or the setting up of rigorous rules about how you divide your day?

Well, dare to dream.  This week I was supplied with a solution, and I’m going to share it with you.   Yes you, for free.

We all know how tricky it can be to make time for our writing, well despair no more.  I’ve discovered a simply wonderful gadget that will remove all need for self-discipline, scheduling and juggling of priorities, and not only is it on the internet, all the models are pre-owned, so it gains points on environmental grounds too.

Is there a catch?

Anything this good has to have a drawback, doesn’t it?  The Time Machines of Tomorrow – Yesterday website states that:

…you will not be permitted to buy, own or operate such a device before 26/05/2514. Due to strict continuum and time line regulations it is forbidden to allow technology to be sold before the technology exists.

If you’re interested, and can spare some time to speculate right now, I recommend a visit to the Used Time Machines website.  There are eight fascinating models to fantasise about.

time machineOn the 26th of May, 2514, this Philips Portal will cost – ♥ 12.9.

Even if you don’t have enough spare Bitcoins gathering dust down the back of your favourite chair, or tons of ‘hearts’ to spare  (do any of us, these days?), you could start planning, now.

I’m sure that if anyone can figure out how to overcome this, minor inconvenience, a writer can.

In fact, with so much time available, mightn’t it be worth thinking big, and aiming for the delux version?  The Lightyear 404 is a military model, so it’s big enough to carry a platoon of people.

Remember the old saying that the more we share, the more there is to go around?  This is me passing the message on.  Good luck.  I hope you’ll let me know if you work it out.  If we aim big, there should be room for all of us, shouldn’t there? 

time machine 2

A collaborative writing task.

So, the traditional image of the writer hunched over a solitary desk, or keyboard, is what most of us believe in, isn’t it?

For the most part, it’s a fair description.  The words…no the idea, is in my head, and I need to translate it into a readable form.  It will be a good story, maybe even great, one day.  It’s mine.  I’ll sweat every word out onto the page, the right ones and the wrongs, dragging them from the nearest and farthest corners of my brain.

If you’ve read some of my other blog posts, you might have begun to recognise my ‘written-voice’.  The way we record our ideas is idiosyncratic.  The vocabulary we use is filtered through the mesh of experiences that are our past, as well as our imaginations.

So sometimes it’s interesting to see how collaboration affects our thinking.  Sharing ideas has been happening in screen and script-writing for a long time.  Check out soap-operas, sit-coms and films to see the benefits of working with a script team.  Even if they’re not your usual choice of entertainment, it’s worth tuning in occasionally and thinking about how the plot developments, characterisation, and dialogue work.

krimmel_villagetavernThe principle is similar to the old parlour game, Fortunately/Unfortunately.  You know how it works, a first line is set, for instance: ‘It was a dark and stormy night…‘  Someone finishes the sentence, then the next person adds a sentence to continue the story that begins, ‘Fortunately…‘  The person after that adds another sentence beginning with ‘Unfortunately…‘ and so it goes on.

The results can be bizarre.  That depends on the participants and their intentions.

Set this up with an agreed cast list, setting and situation, and there is the potential for the working out of a challenging storyline.  Fortunately/Unfortunately is a simplistic model for a story, but this exercise is not about the writing, it is a limbering up of the imagination and an opportunity to practice some lateral thinking.  Now that’s something you don’t find easily.

 

 

*Painting, A Tavern, by John Lewis Krimmel (1787-1821)

A narrative tree

I recently got introduced to the narrative tree, and I’ve discovered what a useful tool it is for developing back-story.  This is not story planning, which I’ve never managed, my characters stray from their route as soon as I start writing.

The narrative tree, in my version, is a kind of mind-map for developing an idea.  The trunk is formed of basic story information: character, setting, situation etc.  After that, every action has to be mirrored by an alternative action.  So from the top of the trunk there are two main limbs that will split, to form another two, each of which will split to form yet another two.  Each new branch creates an alternative line of narrative.

I don’t use this technique all the time, or even most of it: I see it as an occasional inspiration booster.  For instance, here’s a very simple narrative tree for updating the story of Cinderella.

narrative-tree-demoThe original line of narrative still makes up one branch of the tree, but now I’ve also got a selection of alternative scenarios that I could develop. It might be that this is still part of the incubation process, and I’ll wake up in the morning with an even fresher idea.  The unanswerable question is, whether I would have reached that without going through this process first…

In fact, now I think about it, you could say that the information on the trunk is the end of another story, so with a sheet of paper taped onto the bottom of this, you could create a set of narrative roots, too.

The logical conclusion of this process is that it has parallels for gardeners.  You could sever a segment of story from root or branch of a narrative tree, set it on a fresh page, and let it grow into a new set of stories.

c2009-nancy-lovering-rosemary-cutting-in-water

C2009 Nancy Lovering: rosemary cutting in water.

 

 

 

 

Random ramblings that work – free-writing part 2

One of my all-time favourite songs probably says an awful lot about my approach to writing.  I can’t find any information about the way Guy Marks wrote this, but Loving You Has Made Me Bananas feels like it might have started out as a piece of free-writing.

 

 

Yes, it is a parody, but the absurd combination of images and malapropisms are what can happen when writing against the clock to a given trigger word or image.  The opening lines feel crafted,

From the Hotel Sheets in Downtown Plunketville
The Publican Broadcasting Company presents:
The Music of Pete DeAngelis and his Loyal Plunketvillevanians!
Here in the beautiful gold, yella, copper, steel, iron ballroom
of the Hotel Sheets in Downtown Plunketville,
Overlooking the uptown section of Downtown Pottstown!
Stay with us, won’t you, and enjoy the sweetest music
This side of the Monongahela River!

but, such combinations can emerge while practicing what some people call automatic-writing. In the rush to get my words on the page I could easily mis-write Hotel Streets as sheets.  And, when following the free-writing rules rigorously, even if I noticed, I would not be allowed to stop and correct it.

Learning to value this kind of experiment helps to ‘free’ us from the restriction of writing-rules.  Rules are good, rules are important.  Grammar, punctuation, all the theories about how writing and plot work, we need to know about, because then, when we break them, we can add dimension to our writing.

I don’t think the great experimental writers were accidentally creating marvellous writing.  When we read their essays or interviews, they usually talk about literary influences.  They knew/know the rules.

I’m not claiming all great writers practice free-writing.  But some did, and do.

Here’s me, rambling along as if you all know what I mean by free or automatic-writing.  For goodness sake, don’t google the second term, click on this free-writing-link, which will take you back to one of my earlier posts.  I just checked on-line descriptions for automatic writing which, according to them, is a psychic phenomena.

I’ll stick with free-writing.  In my version, this is an exercise in freeing us from self-critical thought.

It’s also prone to throw up all sorts of intriguing word and idea combinations.  With practice, it can allow us to write from that area of consciousness that I think of as the area between waking and sleeping: the realm of drifting into or out of dream*.  There, stories happen.  They may be muddled and confusing, but free-writing sets them on the page.  Then you can pick out words, phrases or ideas, and set yourself on a fresh route to creating stories.

The great thing about this exercise is that so long as you write without stopping to think, correct or workout what you want to say, you can’t go wrong.  Whatever you write is right.  Sometimes it will make sense, often it will not, unless you step sideways and take a slant view of it.

After that the choice is yours, whether to lift out fragments and work it into something rational and logical, or enjoy the bizarre aspects of it.  Who knows what you might come up with, a walrus and a carpenter, walking by the sea… or the chorus from Guy Marks’ medly:

Oh, your red scarf matches your eyes
You closed your cover before striking
Father had the shipfitter blues
Loving you has made me bananas.
Oh, you burned your fingers that evening
While my back was turned.
I asked the waiter for iodine
But I dined all alone

Sometimes, sense comes from non-sense.  Maybe loving this has made me bananas, because somehow, when combined with the music, these lyrics do seem to transport me back to wet Saturday afternoons spent watching re-runs of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosbie road movies.  Happy days….

bob-hope-and-bing-crosby

Here’s a Tip:

If you want to push yourself with this writing exercise, aim to get as many words down in the given time as is physically possible.  The faster you write, the less time there will be to form sentences.  This, after-all, is stream-of-consciousness writing.

 

* I know a few people who claim never to dream.  Scientists say that we all do, some of us just can’t remember them.