Thoughts on recycling for writers

Re-reading old diaries, fragments mostly, I cringe and promise myself that one of these days I will have a bonfire.  One of these days?  Why wait? The ground is dry and I’ve other garden rubbish that needs destroying.

Well, there are environmental considerations.  I try to be responsible about my carbon footprint, perhaps the diaries should go into the compost bin.  It’s probably not so romantic an image to think of them slowly being eaten away by the microbes, worms and slugs who process the weeds and peelings we generate, but it’s practical.

Let’s pause a moment, and imagine harvesting the carrots, cabbages and flowers that have been boosted by a creative compost.  There’s so much energy in my old diaries that they’re sure to improve the productivity of my veg plot. Hah, I’ll cry, take that you plant-whispering, foliage-fondling (yes, there is a theory that stroking leaves improves a plant’s growth), moon-phase-sowing radical gardeners, as I sweep the board at the local garden show.  Only you and I will know the secret of my success.

Stanley Spencer paintingCan I bring myself to do it though? While I don’t want anyone else to discover the mundane or angst-ridden moments of my life, let-alone discover the unedited ramblings littered with comic-book punctuation, the diaries are a writing resource.  I haven’t exactly logged weather, politics and the latest fads or fancies, yet they’re there, implied by the activities and pre-occupations I’ve written about.

Reading them time-slips me back to those moments.  There are things I’d forgotten about daily routines, visits, the dynamics of family, friends and neighbours, that when re-read evoke how I felt at that time. Add to that the advantage of distance, which allows me to recognise an alternative shape for some of the stories I’ve recorded, and I am reminded of a favourite quote by Hilary Mantel:

I have sat, at moments of purest heartbreak, in mental agony, and put my thoughts on paper, and then I have taken those thoughts and allocated them to one of my characters, largely for comic effect.

So, I’ll hold back from destruction just now, and dip into them for some inspiration.

I wonder though, should I put a clause in my will?  Perhaps I’ll revive the custom of grave-goods.  If there is an after-life I’d like to give myself a head-start in ‘the writing game’ (as Katherine Mansfield called it).

And, the gesture would be in-keeping with the tendency towards gothic-melodrama that my diaries reveal I’m prone to.

 

*Illustration: Sunflower and Dog Worship, 1937, by Sir Stanley Spencer. 

Travel log: scenes and stories

Usually, taking holidays in September we strike lucky with the weather.  This year however, we arrived at Gower in a gale.  The blast coming in off the sea buffeted our stone cottage fiercely.  Upstairs, as I drifted into sleep, I felt as if I was on the top of a bunk-bed with a restless sleeper below.

It was cosy though.  The under-floor heating was generated by a ground-source-heat-pump, so I felt a little virtuous about the luxurious warmth.

wind on rhossiliLike all the best storms, it had pretty much blown out by morning.  Though as Ray, Rusty and I made our way down the cliff path the sky was still overcast, and there was a gusty wind.  It was cool enough that when we reached the sand I didn’t consider taking my wellies off.

shipwreck 7I suspect we did the thing that everyone arriving on Rhossili beach for the first time does, when we headed for the main shipwreck. Yes, I did say shipwreck, and no, not recent.  The Helvetia grounded in November 1887, and is now a partial skeleton deeply embedded in the sand.

No diving necessary to look at this wreck, no pieces of eight either: the vessel’s cargo was timber.  There’s treasure here though.  It’s in the worn oak posts, and the large twisted iron nails and bolts that are slowly being eaten by the weather, the sand and the sea.  shipwreck closeup

The Helvetia was lucky: other ships lost lives as well as cargo, on the long shallow beach or against the rocks below Worms Head.  Don’t be misled by the earthy nature of that ‘worm’, this name derives from Wurm, the Viking word for Dragon.

It makes sense as a visual descriptive, and as a warning.  Imagine the stories to go with that naming.  It’s figurative language. It’s the imagination examining, explaining and dramatizing.  Even when the sun came out I could see how it had earned such a name.

 

rhossili beach.and the worm 2. jpg

 

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Story Generators part two

Following on from my random low-tech post two weeks ago, here’s another idea if you’re looking for inspiration – museums.  It does need a little more effort than my previous suggestion, but I promise you, it’s worth it.

at-bristolOn Saturday, we went to At Bristol – and no, that is not a grammatical error.  At Bristol, or @Bristol as it is also known, is a science museum full of interactive exhibits, and packed with stories.

I’m not just thinking of the stories of human development and biology, of space exploration, food production, physics, engineering and chemistry, or even the animations section where every aspect of devising, creating and producing films was being practiced, although there is plenty of material in any portion of that.  You could, of course, look up many of those facts from the comfort of your armchair.  What you get when you visit a place, is something basic and obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway – an opportunity to people watch.

at bristolSo why a museum?  Because they’re places where people behave differently.  In the traditional style ones everyone has to be ‘hands-off’ and that can provide some interesting situations.  But when it’s hands on, people of all ages engage with things.

What I liked was watching how much braver children are than adults.  Whether they understood what they were doing or not, they moved water, drowned ships, made music from plastic spheres, built landscapes in sand, models in giant lego bricks, weighed brains, did psychological tests… and sometimes studied the accompanying short explanations.  If I met something out of my comfort zone, I started with the instructions, and followed them faithfully, or nurdishly enjoyed the short theories presented and made notes to find out more.

Children just launched in.  They pushed, pulled, and pressed without fear of consequences or inhibitions.  Every so often when I stopped playing and watched, I saw that the barriers and boundaries between adults and children were dissolving as the day progressed.

I’ve come home with a lot of ideas.  For some of them I’ll need to do some research, but the human parts of the stories have been generated by that wonderfully basic creative writing tool, people watching.

bristolcardiff013

What makes an artist?

I went out on an errand yesterday and left the radio on.  I was only supposed to be gone a minute or so, but gave in to gossiping, so by the time I returned my provincial play had been replaced by an American voice I vaguely recognised.  Time to get back to my paperwork, I thought, heading for the off-switch.

‘I had no idea what kind of composer I wanted to become,’ the man was saying. Kerry Shale, I thought, can’t mistake him.  But who is he being?  Fact or fiction?  It was a fatal hesitation.

Mahler-Symphony-9-Grant-Park-audition‘My study of the orchestra’, he continued, ‘came through a time-honoured practice of the past, copying out original scores.  In my case, I took Mahler’s ninth symphony as my subject and I literally copied it out note for note on full size orchestra paper.’

I was hooked.  One of the little cartoon characters racing round in my head gave the attention bell a resounding ping.  Musicians did that too?

Shale continued, ‘This is exactly how painters in the past studied painting.  Even today, some can be seen in the museums, making copies of traditional paintings.  This business of copying from the past is a most powerful tool for training and developing a solid tool for orchestration technique.’

The cartoon character in my head stopped ringing her bell and turned to cartoon character two. ‘You see?’ she said triumphantly. ‘You see?  Isn’t this what I’ve been telling you all along? It’s not just painters who need to keep a sketch-book: all artists learn by studying the work of previous generations.’

‘He didn’t say study,’ objected character two.

‘But you must see that’s what he was doing,’ said character one.  ‘How could an artist copy out a work of art and not learn something about the means of its construction?’

‘Sounds like plagiarism to me.  And what about innovation?’

‘Surely that comes from an understanding of the past.’

‘Well,’ said character two, ‘I don’t want to have my writing infected by someone else’s style and ideas.’

‘Mmm,’ said character one.  ‘It’s not an exercise that suits everyone.’

Meanwhile Kerry Shale read on, and I looked up the schedule to see if I’d correctly guessed the author.  I don’t know much about music, apart from whether or not I like the sound of it.  But I do know a well shaped story when I hear one.  It was the memoirs of Phillip Glass, Words Without Music.

Time I widened my musical horizons, I think.

 

 

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)

Watching Marlon Brando: thoughts about story.

Saturday evening I watched a documentary about Marlon Brando.  The program, presented by Alan Yentob, used a lot of private Brando footage as well as the usual publicity material and film excerpts.  He was a more reflective man than I’d expected.  I suppose what I remember, aside from the iconic films, are the flamboyant marlonbrandomj096ftnews-stories that surrounded him.

I’ve never really thought about the human side of his life-in-the-headlines, until I listened to what he had to say, not only about his private life, but also about his acting.  What I heard were doubts and fears I could identify with.

It wasn’t one of those destructive, feet-of-clay shows that revel in demonstrating how flawed our best-loved celebrities really are.  This felt more like the rounding out of a character that I’d never quite been able to see.  At the end I had insights into a way of life beyond my usual experiences, and sympathy for a lifestyle that I’d viewed as shallowly flamboyant.  Those ideas may or may not be accurate: what matters is that my perceptions shifted…perhaps widened?  I hope so.

I didn’t stay up to watch On The Waterfront that night, but I will go back to some of his films.  I have an idea that knowing more about him will affect the way I view them.

I’m reminded that at the heart of most good stories is character, flawed, to lesser or greater degree.  What dictates where the empathy of the reader, or viewer, will be placed is how the story is presented.  Thinking about fiction particularly, aren’t some of the most interesting, and memorable characters the ones whose behaviour we find challenging, even scary – or offensive?

One of the theories about why we read, is that we read to understand.  I like that, both from the angle of writing and reading…both work for me.

marlon_brando_gallery_12

 

The joys of a Treasure Hunt

Once, these were the staple event of children’s birthday-party games.  Remember?  The simplest, youngest, versions took place in a sitting room, with an adult directing us:  ‘Hotter, hotter, no colder, freezing-colder … that’s better, warming up…’  I know it wasn’t just me who got excited, because that game was always followed by: ‘I think we need to calm down now.  Let’s play statues.’

It disappeared from the party menu long before pass-the-parcel or charades.  I suspect it was too stressful, both to organise and, to watch as the carefully tidied party-house was usually dismantled in the process.  Hide-and-seek was an easier replacement.  It was fun, but lacked the sense of story that a true treasure hunt has.

enid-blyton-illustration-famous-fiveI think the hours I spent with Julian, George, Dick, Anne and Timmy gave me high expectations, because although I’ve never told anyone before, I’m ready to share my certainty that one day a treasure clue would come my way.  I wasn’t sure I’d be as clever and brave as the Famous Five, but I lived in expectation of adventure.

Long John Silver had shown me what a real treasure map looked like.  There was no sign of one in any of our books or boxes, and believe me, I looked.  So one summer afternoon my friend Jane and I created our own treasure map.

It took hours.  This was no casual project.  It was paced out, checked with a compass and taken through several drafts before we made our best copy.  There were landmarks, written clues, and a large scarlet X to mark the spot where we had buried a carefully wrapped ladybird book for our brothers to find.

The final document was drawn on a heavy fly-leaf that I ripped from an old book.  I hope it wasn’t anything precious, even then I don’t think I would have damaged a book unless it was already in a bad way.  But if I did, it was worth it.  I can still remember how impressive the finished article was.  We artistically ripped the edges, then aged it with cold coffee before rolling it up, tying it with a red ribbon, and hiding it in a jar.  Then we handed out the first clue.

Much later I created treasure hunts for my niece’s birthday parties.  Each one reminded me of that long summer afternoon.  I don’t know what we did with that first map.  Perhaps it’s still tucked amongst the paint pots in Dad’s shed.

pirates-of-the-caribeanThis year my grown-up nieces asked me to create another Treasure Hunt, for Boxing Day.  It was fun working it out.  This time the map was in my head: the clues were anagrams, puns, allusions and poems that I secreted along a footpath to a distant field, then back again.  While the family were out of sight, I snuck into the garden and set a final leg that led them round the house, to finish with a hoard of chocolate coins hidden near where they’d started.

And you know what?  It was a creative buzz.  In this story I had real characters to work with.  I’d set them a journey that I hoped they would be able to pull off, but I wasn’t sure.  I climbed up on the picnic table to watch for them.  Was it too easy?  Was it too hard?

Oh, the relief when they came into view.  Keeping out of sight, I watched them track the next clue, then gather to read and discuss it.  I sneaked closer, and eavesdropped. Even when I saw that it was working, I couldn’t walk away.  This was story, and I was in it too, a flawed, but omniscient narrator.

 

 

The deadline of Dead Lines is not always what it seems.

I wrote three-hundred and forty-two words on Wednesday, in a hurry to meet my self-imposed dead-line.  I know, that was one hundred and fifty-eight short of my stated target, but hey, who’s counting?  I set words on the page this week, that’s what matters.

facesThey were not good words, but they weren’t bad.  Taken individually, I used some lovely ones.  Yes, I have favourites…’seriously’, ‘draped’, ‘however’, ‘softly’, are some of my current ones.

Thursday morning, I took out all those favourites plus a few more, to see if I had the beginnings of a story.  My word count shrank to two hundred and ninety eight.

I’d love to tell you that I discovered something worthwhile, but my phrases lacked an essential for successful storytelling, plot. I had a static character drifting around a landscape.  Where was the tension?  Nowhere.  What was at stake? Nothing.

Pah, I thought, spinning the page onto my personal slush-heap, so much for deadlines.  It was time I returned to Middlemarch.  People to see, actions to judge, ideas to question: to hypothesize.  This writer sculpted layers with her words.

Time passes.  Time….passes. (Do you see that?  Do you get it?)  Words, love ’em.

Later, in the crow black, slow black night, I dreamt.  (Sorry, told you I have favourites.)

Dawn, rosy fingered warning of storms ahead (okay, a little bit of poetic exaggeration here) and inspiration, because I wake with a thought.  A fragment of story was lodged within those words from Wednesday, and now I know what is at stake.

Good old subconscious, world within worlds within us.  Keep throwing in the material, and who knows what will come out.

More thoughts on saving drafts

I write, I write, I write…what a buzz when the words flow.  The story unrolls under its own momentum.

Okay, in the cold light of the next day there may be changes to be made, that’s fine: that’s good.  It’s part of the process.  Do you know what?  I love that too.  It’s a different way of working, a honing of story and meaning.

scissorsHowever, let me put in a warning, a statement of the obvious, if you like…it’s fine to take those virtual scissors to your electronic document and snip your words into shape, but don’t – please DON’T – throw them away.   Okay, it seems like you’ve finished with them.  Despite the fact that some of them were beautiful sentences, you’ve concluded that they don’t fit.

Resist your minimalist instinct to be tidy: practice hoarding.  Make a copy of your draft, whether you’re working on paper or on a word-processor.  Make copies of each of your drafts – yes, I do think there will probably be more than one.  Because, if you see your words differently after a twenty-four hour break, imagine how it will read if you leave it for another week or three.

henri-matisse-travaillant-a-des-decoupages-geants-nice-1952-photo-helene-adant-1The thing is, in two or four weeks, when you look at your work again, what if you decide you shouldn’t have cut those lovely words from your first draft?  In my experience, if they’ve been destroyed, they’ll haunt you.  You’ll never quite feel that you’ve managed to recreate them, no matter how many hours you struggle to.

Time will pass, and your temper may fray.  This scenario can cause a writers-block.

Think what happens if, on the other hand, you can go back to that first draft.  There is your deathless prose, ready to be reassessed.

I learned the hard way, but it is now second nature for me to save my drafts. In case you don’t, I’m recommending it.

matisse-cutting-paper

*Photographs, Henri Matisse making paper-cut-outs.

Taking a closer look at the magic of Star Wars

star wars 1Three months ago, when asked what he would like to do while he was staying for a long weekend, Brandon’s face lit up with hope. ‘Have you still got all the Star Wars movies?’  In the mayhem of settling him and his two sisters in, it wasn’t until the next morning that we discovered he’d forgotten his hay-fever tablets, and by then, he was suffering.

We bought some replacement tablets, but with the oilseed-rape in full bloom we could only encourage him to sit indoors, with the windows shut and wait for the antihistamine to work.  So it was hardly fair to make the usual ‘square eyes’ comments when Brandon opted for watching tv, rather than chasing around outside with Samantha and Breanna.  Anyway, it was supposed to be a fun, nag-free break.  Brandon pulled the curtains and settled for Episode One: The Phantom Menace.

By the next day Brandon’s hay-fever was under control, but he was in the grip of a tremendous force.  Although he emerged from his viewing-room for meals, and trips out, we weren’t convinced he’d left the world of the Jedi behind.

By the time he got to Episode Seven: The Force Awakens, four days later, the rest of us were with him, hooked by the fragments of story that we’d caught while checking he was okay.  We’d started with brief recaps: ‘So is this the one where they defrost Hans Solo?’, or ‘Isn’t Yodo in all of them, then?’  Soon we were talking about the plot.

‘What is it you like?’ I asked Brandon.  He couldn’t pin it down.  ‘Maybe it’s just nostalgia,’ said the fifteen-year-old.

‘Good versus evil,’ said his grandfather, ‘and heroes, action and technology.’

Star-Wars-Shared-Universe-MoviesIt’s worth a writer thinking about the formula though, if they’re looking for broad appeal.  We forgive the errors with plot, some anomalies, convenient lucky escapes (the First Order are frequently shockingly bad shots at crucial moments for The Resistance), and some incredibly clunky dialogue that at times suggests we’re too daft to figure out what is happening, or why.

It works, because although the good-guys have their backs to the wall, they are determined to fight the dark side.  The central characters are flawed, experience serious doubts, then comes a crisis.   Worlds are at stake. If the heroes fail, they lose everything. They take up the challenge, and we’re gripped. We expect them to win, but the odds against that are stacked so high it’s hard to foresee how that can come about.

Winning can’t be easy.  We want heroes who, when faced by an enemy of phenomenal power, get themselves out of trouble.  The Force is always there, we just don’t always understand how strong and clever we are until we face that blank page.