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

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

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

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 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

Writer’s Block

Everything’s off.
In the white heat of construction
thoughts fail.
The computer blinks:
other words beckon,
in books and stories I wish I had written.

But too late, for time works relentless,
tick-tocks like sand particles,
granular time. In time,
on time, outside in the grass
where childhood books were consumed,
pages torn and chewed in my desire
to absorb their worlds.

Old books with embossed covers.

Hand-me-down stories, solid stories
published by Children’s Press or Blackie
and glued to the fly leaves, glossy award plates
named and dated prize pupils
from an age of geometry, matriculation and scriptures.

Their pages were thick and soft.
I got close to those fibres
and the sharp edges of graceful alphabets,
racing from illustration to desert Island
breathless, as footsteps stretched across empty beaches
and bloody cries echoed through pristine glades
the sunshine hot on my neck.

Are you ready? I think I can write, now.

 

*(As mentioned in my last post, a poem read at the festival)

Who and where?

Remember the days when camera’s only came out on special occasions?  We took them to weddings and holidays, and missed thousands of other photo opportunities, because cameras were bulky, fiddly and expensive.

My parents stored our developed pictures and negatives in a shoe box.  Occasionally we put some in albums, but even then, we rarely bothered to identify anything or anyone.  What was the need, we knew who we were, didn’t we?

Shuffling through them only a few years later, though, we discovered how fleeting the importance of those moments are. Who was that fourth child sitting by the sandcastle, in a green anorak?  Where was it taken?  Why were they with us?

red shoesI thought I knew some of the answers.  There was a slice of leg wearing a scarlet shoe in the right corner.  ‘That’s Aunty Deb,’ I said to mum. ‘Remember those heels?  She insisted on wearing them on the beach.  So this must be Gill.’

Mum nodded, ‘We stayed at a B&B in Blackpool,’ she said.  ‘Soggy bacon sandwiches, and the man with the kiss-me-slowly hat.’

‘That was Torbay,’ said Matt. ‘It rained for four days, and Gill cheated in our monopoly marathon.’

‘Did she?’

‘You caught her stealing from the bank and tipped the board up,’ said Matt.

Clive nodded, ‘I remember that.  We’d been playing for two days.  Gill was furious, and wouldn’t speak to you for the rest of the holiday.  The KMS-hat bloke was called Harry, and he had no thumb.  He said it had been shot off by a sniper, in the war.’

Matt said, ‘He told me he’d got frostbite while he was climbing Everest.  He said he was glad of the cold wind, as he was too self-conscious about his missing toes to go paddling.’

‘That doesn’t look like Blackpool beach, or Torbay,’ I said.  ‘Looks more like Weymouth, to me.’

What?’ said Matt. ‘No way.’

Clive shook his head. ‘Definitely not. That’s Barmouth.’

‘Actually,’ said mum, ‘you’re all wrong.  It was Blackpool.  That was the first and last holiday I had with Debs.’

‘Why?’

‘Turned out Harry had followed her.  He took that photo, then they went off to buy ice-creams and we didn’t see them again until five days later as we were about to drive home.’

I said, ‘But I remember her on the beach, in those shoes.’

‘Only on the first afternoon.  It rained for the next three and a half days, and I was on my own with you four children.’

‘Where was Dad?’

‘Posted to Germany for the summer.’  Mum sighed. ‘Poor little Gill.  I wonder what happened to her?’

‘She got stuck in our album,’ I said, as I slotted the picture into place and scribbled our names in the box beside it.

Thoughts on writing.

I’ve been reading novels, light reads, because classes finished, and I wanted to unwind with something that only required me to jump on board and follow the action.  If, after a few pages, I’m not engaged with the story, I close the book. It’s taken a lot of training for me to be able to do that.

BOOKSHELFGenerally I’ll take in any words on view, from cereal packets to old magazines and notices in waiting rooms.  I do the same with fiction, going from trashy novels to heavy classics to comics as they come to hand.

This eclectic approach means I’m fairly widely read, so I don’t regret it.  However, I’m glad that I got to the point, with Moby Dick, where I couldn’t face another graphic description of the killing and dismantling of a whale.  I needed a classic novel to make me understand I did not have to, and would not be able to, read everything.

I used to think that there was a list of fiction that well-read people knew, and I imagined it as covering, perhaps, two sides of A4 paper.  What I’ve come to understand is that there are lists of all kinds in circulation, mostly much longer than that, and they’re constantly taking account of new writers, and re-discovered writers, from the ancient to the nearly modern.

In case you haven’t noticed, let me tell you that there’s an awful lot of fiction available now.  With all the different ways there are to become published, it feels like we’ve come round to the heydays of the pamphlet all over again.  That means good opportunities for readers and writers.

My reactions to fiction are not fixed.  Some old favourites no longer work in the same way when I go back to them.  I enjoy them, and admire the writing, but my experiences of life, and other literature have all impacted on my responses.  So, that favourite-reads list is not just expanding, it’s also in a state of continuous flux.

When I decide not to continue reading something I’m not saying the writing is no good, I’m recognising that at that particular moment, it does not work for me.  On another day, this might be different.  What I had to remind myself was that reading should be about entertainment.

Gone, but not forgotten – reading short stories: a recommendation.

V.S. Pritchett, anyone remember him?  One of the great British short story writers of the twentieth century, but he’s not much read now.  Which is a shame, because there is still plenty to love in his short stories.

RSL_Pritchett-illustration-from-formIt’s not just for his fiction that I value him, though.  He thought and wrote about the processes of writing.  One of my favourite quotes is:

I should like to think that a writer just celebrates being alive.

That seems as good a reason to be putting words together as any other that I’ve come across, and if you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll have gathered that I am a collector of wise-writing-words.

Pritchett died in 1997, and for the general reader apparently drifted from general consciousness soon after that.  Perhaps that seems natural.  There are an awful lot of new writers appearing all of the time, and we can’t read everyone.

But pick up an anthology of short stories produced in Britain, in the twentieth century, and the chances are it will contain a Pritchett story.  But he had other hats too, writing essays about literature, and teaching in American Universities.  He also edited the 1981 Oxford Book of Short Stories.

His stories are Chekovian.  He specialised in character studies: characters caught in a moment of stress, and explored, usually for comic potential.

The great thing about the short story is the detail, not the plot. The plot is useful, but only for supplying the sort of detail that is not descriptive but which pushes the action forward.

How does that work?  Well it’s not a formula.  Each situation demands it’s own delivery.  Here’s the opening of one his 1977 stories, A Family Man:

Late in the afternoon, when she had given him up and had even changed out of her pink dress into her smock and jeans and was working once more at her bench, the doorbell rang.  William had come, after all.  It was in the nature of their love affair that his visits were fitful: he had a wife and children.  To show that she understood the situation, even found the curious satisfaction of reverie in his absences that lately had lasted several weeks, Berenice dawdled yawning to the door.

Compare it with the opening for On the Edge of the Cliff, the title story of his 1979 collection:

The sea fog began to lift towards noon.  It had been blowing in, thin and loose for two days, smudging the tops of the trees up the ravine where the house stood. “Like the breath of old men,” Rowena wrote in an attempt at a poem, but changed the line, out of kindness, to “the breath of ghosts,” because Harry might take it personally.  The truth was that his breath was not foggy at all, but smelt of the dozens of cigarettes he smoked all day.

Don’t both of these exemplify what is meant by ‘show don’t tell’?  Here are not just scenes set, but also tone, and although you cannot know it on first read, everything you need is there.  To me, Pritchett epitomises the ‘never a word wasted’ premise for short story writers.  He sculpted more meanings from most of his words than I can grasp with a casual read.  Most of his stories deserve a second read, and will repay that attention by revealing missed nuances.

If you haven’t tried him before, he’s one from my recommended reading list, and if you like slapstick, you might go first to The Saint, which I think is one of the funniest stories written.

And then, for the writers amongst you, there’s the V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize, which was set up by the The Royal Society of Literature (RSL), and is one of those prestigious awards to aim for.

The things we save.

This week we discovered squatters in the roof.  By the mess, they’ve been there some time, but the night before last they decided to party, and they seemed to be wearing heavy boots.  Actually, I think I’ve been aware of their slippered-presence most of the winter, but inertia was easier than sorting out the loft ladder and torch, and I couldn’t imagine that there was much up there to interest them.

How wrong I was.  Mice, it turns out, will chew anything.  They’ve stripped the insulation off the water pipes, and shredded holes out of some spare carpet-underlay I had stashed away.

Amongst the debris though, I salvaged some oddments, one of which was the project-book we infants made, after a trip to the zoo.  It’s a tattered remnant, but I’m glad our guests hadn’t got round to feasting on it.

Our village school was small: so small that it was closed-down around the time I left senior school.  Because there were only half-a-dozen or so children in each year, I had no trouble putting faces to the names on the brief reports and drawings of our day out.  Besides, I have a photo of our class with our teacher, Miss Johnson… somewhere.

The project also reminds me of my last few days in the Junior school, when the flimsy collection resurfaced from the back of the school stock-cupboard. ‘Who would like this?’ Mrs Gwatkins asked, after we’d flicked through it, laughing at the artwork.  A few of us put our hands up, so she put names in a box, and mine was drawn out.

It couldn’t be said that I’ve treasured these pages, tucked away amongst my old diaries in the roof.  As you’ve seen, it came perilously close to being a mouse-nursery.  It’s possible I wouldn’t have missed it greatly, like those other fragments of school-life I thought I’d kept, but haven’t seen since I can’t remember when.

pelicanOn the one hand, the project is just a collection of shaky calligraphy examples and scrappy drawings. On Monday we went to Birdland and we saw some Pelicans, I wrote, capitals and long letters touching the line above as well as the line they were resting on.  And, We saw some pennies in a glass tank and there was some penguins swimming in a glass tank.

On the other hand, that repetition, and that,‘was’, was my six-year old voice, and, this project is able to link me back to the rain outside the mina bird house; the feel of my school uniform, and the way I felt as we crowded in to the small room where the Myna bird whistled, and recited, Sing-a-song-of-sixpence.

So for now, I’ll tuck the old folder into the bottom of a drawer, out of sight and mind.  It’s resurfaced so many times, that I can’t help feeling it’s not finished with yet.