Who am I?

Last week I picked up a piece of old clay-pipe in a field gateway.  I thought it would make the subject of my next blog-post, so I placed it on the side of the laptop and began to type.  If you’ve read my previous entry, you’ll know that the pipe never featured.

If you know your bird-lore you may now be ‘picking up’ on why I wrote about magpies instead, and what that implies about the state of my coat pockets.  What might not be so clear is what the clay-pipe looked like, or what I mean by ‘old’.

Since I’ve shifted back to magpies, perhaps that won’t matter.  The purpose of this piece could be to tell you about how, or why, I pick up broken things that other people have thrown away.  Although put like that, it does sound as if I’m just a collector of rubbish.

Let’s try for a positive spin.  ‘Collector of rubbish’ suggests a strong civic conscience.  Perhaps I like to tidy up litter. If that’s so, why pick up a piece of clay pipe, and how come I put it on my laptop instead of the bin? This spinning is harder than I expected, and we’re back to the composition of that pipe again.

Let me call it a shard, then.  You’re taking a kinder view of my habit, aren’t you?  It is, after all, a word with gravitas.  You’re likely to connect it to museums and galleries, places of serious study.  Perhaps I’m an amateur archaeologist, following an ambition to build up a cabinet of curiosities. *

Cabinet_of_Curiosities_1690s_Domenico_RempsI do like drawers and boxes.  I’m not so good with labels though, still working on the one for that pipe fragment.  Once we start to think about pipes, even clay ones, there are so many possibilities.  I didn’t want to set out with a huge descriptive passage, but now I realise I should have done.  You’ve probably already pictured it, so whatever I say will cause a fracture in the imaginative bond we’ve formed, and I can’t help feeling that the pipe is, after all, important.

What if you think it was a piece of drainage pipe?  My stopping to pick up something like that would certainly affect the way you view me.  It affects the way I view me, anyway.

Let’s be clear about this, the writer provides the only clues a reader has to go on, and I found my piece of pipe at the edge of a field: it’s reasonable then to assume an agricultural connection.  In this area, old land-drains can be made from red or yellow clay, and you’ve yet to be told that my piece was creamy-white, or that it was small.

This is starting to feel like a series of cryptic clues.  If only I’d said from the outset that I picked up a segment of old clay tobacco pipe.  I could have been more precise, and told you it was the junction where the bowl meets the stem. Then, instead of meandering along this maze of suppositions, we would have reached somewhere very different by now.

Painting: Cabinet of Curiosities by Domenico Remps  (1620–1699)

Photos: Left, my pipe fragment; right, Clay pipes at Bedford Museum, photographed by Simon Speed.

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

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

Thinking about building short stories.

‘I’m not happy with the ending of this one,’ said Anna, preparing to read out her story.  I glanced down at the sheets of paper she was shuffling together.  There seemed a lot of them, and they looked to be laced with far more words than the five-hundred limit I’d set.

The Reader by Irving Ramsay Wiles 1900Before I could frame a question, Anna was reading.  She began well, introduced three characters, provided nicely balanced dialogue that moved the action forwards, and delivered ambitions, and a situation.  It was only as Anna flicked over the page that I realised her story was printed double-sided.

I eyed the sheaf of pages, and began to multiply them by minutes, but after a paragraph, Anna left page two, and moved to page three.  As she flicked past that page after a couple more paragraphs, I realised that her redrafting had been printed out in the story.

The heap of paper was diminishing fast as Anna picked out solitary paragraphs from amongst the text.  The story picked up pace and jumped a few decades of time to round off in a neatly comfortable conclusion.  There was a murmur of approval.  ‘That was fun,’ said Emma.

‘I’m not sure,’ said Anna.  ‘It seems… unsatisfactory.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s not in your usual dark style, but the ending fits.’

It did.  ‘There’s a clear dramatic arc,’ I said, ‘and the characters are interesting and distinctive.  But, why that conclusion?’

‘I thought I’d be cheery for a change.’

‘Ah,’ I said.  ‘What about all those words you didn’t read out?’

Anna fidgeted with the edges of her pages.  ‘The story kept going wrong, drifting off.’

‘So you had that end in mind from the beginning?’

‘A happy ending, yes.’

I said, ‘You were writing against your instincts?’

‘Well, yes.  I wanted to write a happy story, for a change.’

I nodded.  ‘You’ve done that, and we enjoyed it, despite you trying to put us off before you started.  But maybe that other, darker story, is waiting to be told, too.’

*    Illustration: The Reader, by Irving Ramsey Wiles (1900)

life intrudes

It’s Sunday morning.

Last night I went to bed with a head full of stories, and today, woke to real-life horror in London.  At that moment, fiction seemed trite.   How could I be thinking about writing a blog when our emotional levels are raised to this pitch?

Yet here I am, at the laptop, tapping in words and preparing to post them into this public space.  Do I really need to say anything?  Should I say anything?  Do I have anything to say that is not already being said, and felt?

Journalists are busy responding all around the world.  That’s not who I am, or what I do, usually.  Any account I give can only re-process what they tell me, which makes this third-hand, as a piece of news.

So, perhaps I should ask myself why I am writing.

On the radio, some journalists and commentators are talking about democracy, and freedom of speech, human rights and civil liberties, not just here, but in those other countries who have recently suffered attacks.  They’re thinking themes, and that’s important, it’s part of the picture I’m responding to, but it’s not what I’m trying to say.

Then the eyewitness accounts come on.  These are everyday voices telling us of what they saw and heard : said, and did.  I don’t just listen, I stop.   Although I am staring out of the window, I’m not seeing the garden.  I’m restless.

The emergency services were efficient and brave, but so were the civilians caught up in this.  Some people tried to stop the attack.  Some stopped to help the injured, some ran towards the scene, not away.   Taxi drivers gave lifts for free, beds were offered to the stranded, strangers invited into homes.  Despite the fear, there was a need to help, to give, not take away.

I think about the hospital services in Manchester, who this week went on the radio to say thank-you, but we don’t need more blood-donations for now, the banks are full.

By the time this blog goes out, there will have been a tribute concert.  Artists seem to have queued up to perform.  Tickets sold out minutes after they were put up for sale, despite the awful possibilities of this Critical Threat Level.

Communities are pulling together, not apart.  Good or bad times, what we do best is empathise.  This, I think, is why I’m writing, because I need to hold onto this.

A breath of fresh air.

I’m sorting through the papers on my desk when the office door is slung open, and in walks my mentor.  ‘So, is this what you call writing?’ she says, nudging at the heaps of notes.

I put a saving hand on the avalanche.  ‘Just clearing a space,’ I say, ‘sorting it all out.’

‘Course you are.’

‘I can’t think in this muddle.’

Mentor leaves the doorway and leans past me to throw open the window, drawing in a gust of wind that scatters my tidying across shelves, floor and my lap.  All that’s left on the desk is my brand-new notebook.  ‘Look at that,’ she says.  ‘You haven’t even creased the spine yet. What would Ruth say?’

‘I would have found it.’

‘After you’d read everything on top of it.  Then what?  Lunch, I suppose, or do I mean tea?’

‘It wouldn’t have taken me that long.  Anyway, I’m saving this notebook,’

‘For something special?’  Mentor scuffs her walking boot through the drift of words on the floor, crumpling and creasing.

I wince.  ‘Do you have to?’  I say.

Mentor snorts, and turns abruptly, scrunching more paper, then exits, leaving the door and window open.

window

The value of a good introduction.

penguin british short story coverFor the last month I’ve been  discussing two stories a week from Volume One of The Penguin Book of The British Short Story edited by Phillip Hensher, (phew, that’s a mouthful, isn’t it) with one of my creative-reading groups.  It’s been a revelation, and I speak as the owner of a long shelf of some excellent short story anthologies.

This book takes such an historic view of the form, that we’ve only just reached the point where the term ‘short story’ is beginning to be used. The anthology opens with  Daniel Defoe’s pamphlet, A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs Veal, written and published in 1706.  Yet Hensher says:

The term ‘short story’ only occurs towards the end of the nineteenth century, although it is difficult to be quite sure when: the OED‘s first citations, which are from 1877 and (Trollope’s autobiography) 1882, seem to use the phrase as an established usage.  To a surprising degree, authors of the time do seem to regard it as a much newer form than the novel.

His twenty-six page discussion on the reasoning behind this anthology, is one of the texts that I would recommend the collection for.  It covers a lot of ground, and for the writer or the reader, provides some interesting ideas about, for instance, how short stories can work:

One of the very striking aspects of the British short story, as revealed by the experience of reading through weekly news-orientated journals, was its capacity to react immediately to events of the most public order.  Novels seem to take a few years to ruminate over the news, to develop the impact of social changes or dramatic public events on lives.

I’m a late convert to introductions, and like any transformed personality, I’ll grab any opportunity to share the results of my epiphany.

So, let me start by suggesting something radical: despite its title, you don’t have to read an ‘introduction’ first.  For novels, I generally leave them until later, and then find myself dipping back through the pages to track down the intriguing references and compare the writer’s conclusions with my impressions.

And that brings me to my next point.  We don’t have to agree with the introduction.  It’s all too easy to feel that because someone’s ideas are printed in the front of the book, they’ve got the definitive view on what the main text says, or does.  Not so.  In the same way that two people looking out of the same window (or three, four or more, come to that) will observe the view in distinctively individual ways, no two readers will understand a piece of writing in precisely the same light.

Our tastes and histories colour the way we understand stories.  This becomes clearer to me with every creative-reading session that I share. Even when we’re discussing a text that I’ve covered with another group, or groups, I discover new responses to the readings.  That’s exciting: it’s challenging.  I like the idea that stories speak to a wide audience on a variety of levels, and that they don’t have to be short-lived, disposable artefacts.

Some, though, are.  That’s fine, I read and enjoy those too.  What an introduction can do, is provide me with a little guidance, if I want to look deeper.  If someone else is giving hints about hidden depths, I’ll go back to stories that I might otherwise have passed by just the once, and opening one of those up is my idea of a treasure hunt.

From all of which thoughts, I’m lead to the interesting conclusion that introductions to story anthologies are the opposite of spoilers.

Tom-Gauld-Penguin-Book-of-the-British-Short-Story-cartoon-650x391

Tom Gauld Cartoon.

I belong to a poetry group

Does that sound like a confession?  Maybe it is.

If I don’t make every meeting it’s because sometimes I’ve not caught up with myself.  Otherwise, one evening per month should be achievable, and it’s etched not only in my diary, but into my memory.

miki-byrneI look forward to my two hours with Miki Byrne, and the gathering of local poets she hosts.  Some are published, some are not.  It doesn’t matter which any of us are.  One of the best things about the various writing groups I’ve been to is that our interest in writing creates a common ground, and a safe space to experiment in.

I think of myself as a prose-writer, but I do love poetry.  There are poems that I go back to over and over, at critical moments, or for reflection, mood, and inspiration.  Want to write with economy, depth and precision?  Here’s a  form of literature that demonstrates some of the most intriguing and exciting ways it can be done.

In the poetry group we share the risk of words.

And I do mean risk.  My adrenalin flows.

I go to be challenged.  A topic is introduced.  I start with nothing, but a warm-up writing exercise soon provides ideas.  As the exercise progresses, I untangle the threads of my thoughts, take up one of them and follow it.  I don’t know where it’s going, or what I’m going to say, but along with everyone else, I’m writing myself into a scenario.  Images are forming, building, becoming something I’m intrigued by, linking into ideas that matter to me.

We’re all in the same boat, with the same supplies, yet we each produce something individual.  Yes, these pieces are rough, but they’re first, or at most, second drafts.

We read them out, half-made as they are.  That’s not about bravery, it’s a chance to get some instant feedback.  This is not the time for in-depth critiques (that happens at a later stage), the audience and I are hearing my words, as I will hear theirs, for the first time.

Sharing gives us some ideas about important questions, such as:

  • Does it flow?
  • Does it say something?
  • What did I like about it?
  • Which part caught their attention?
  • Where might I expand it?

Everyone reads, maybe initially that’s because everyone else reads.  But ultimately, in my observation, they read because not to read is to miss-out on a vital part of the process.

The poetry group is giving me a portfolio of ideas to work on, ideas that I might not have stumbled on, drifting along on my own. Some may not go anywhere: but I go back to most of them, sooner of later.

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.