A mad hat, a simple poem

I went to Oxford’s new Story Museum last week for the launch of the 26 Characters exhibition. It’s the product of a great idea: photograph 26 children’s authors dressed as their favourite fictional characters; ask 26 other writers to create short poems inspired by the photos.

I was part of the editorial team that pulled the poems together. And I wrote one myself – inspired by Shirley Hughes dressed as Lady Bracknell from the Importance of Being Earnest. I took my cue from Shirley’s extraordinary hat.

The inspiring hat (on the right)

The project led to a booklet created by Design by St. It includes all the poems, each one illustrated by a different artist. In my case, by French graphic designer Jean Jullien. We had a great write-up in Design Week.

Here’s my poem, which I left untitled. Like all the ones in this project, it is a sestude – 62 words exactly.

Victorian snobbery
flowers quite naturally.
For it’s a fact unarguably true
that I was born better than you.
And my breeding you plainly can see
just look how I imbibe my tea.
Put simply, I simply have class
whereas you are all muck and no brass.
My father was a Nabob of Gujarat.
This hat was a gift from his favourite cat.

The museum people also asked me to write a short essay about a favourite fictional character from my own childhood. I chose Robinson Crusoe. You can read that here.

Jean Jullien’s illustration of my poem


Me reading at the launch

Me reading at the launch

Stories from the festival writing shed

Sometimes it’s worth making a plan, if only for the fun of ripping it up

I spent a lot of time thinking about how I would spend my time as a “writer in residence” at the Lounge on the Farm music festival. I experimented beforehand with new technologies. I spent ages downloading apps and trying to get them to work. I wanted my iPhone to be a pocket-sized multi-media publishing hub.

But I abandoned most of what I’d planned to do within maybe 30 minutes of arriving on site. There were so many actual, real-life walking, talking and partying people to interact with. I wasn’t that bothered about tinkering with my phone or reaching out to a virtual audience.

Instead, I went analogue. My creative tools became sharpened pencils, 3×5 cards, paperclips and string.

I accosted passers-by and asked them to reveal their most and least favourite words. I strung these together, hung them in the breeze, and made a story out of them. I wrote flash stories on my 3×5 cards and gave them to people as they queued for burgers or sipped their tea – “Would you like a fresh piece of fiction with your Earl Grey, madam?” Nobody said no. I wrote provocative lines on cup-sleeves for the owners of a coffee stall – their customers loved them, they reported later.

I sat in my writing shed – shared with the rest of the brilliant ReAuthoring team – and answered endless questions from curious people: what are you doing? why? are you really a writer? like, properly?

I learned how easy it can be to slip a little literature into someone’s life – just a scrap of paper and a few words will do the job. And how varied, surprising and pleasant the effects can be. Ten words in the right order can make someone laugh, call over their mates, stop, laugh again, then go away “for a bit of a think”.

I’m a writer in residence again next week, this time in Whitstable, where I’ll be taking over Oxford Street Books for a day. I’ll be writing on-the-spot flash stories and other literary morsels, inspired by the customers and the books they browse, from 3pm to 5.30pm. Drop by and I’ll write something for you.

A quiet moment, writing outside the shed
A story left on the grass for anyone to find

A coffee customer enjoys his shot of words
A line on a coffee cup
Fun people enjoy a story I wrote for them

One of the many lines I pinned to the shed

A performance with a touch of menace

This week’s reading at the Komedia went well. “You had the audience in the palm of your hand,” one of the organisers said. That was reassuring, as I couldn’t tell how the audience was responding. The stage lighting was blinding; once up there I couldn’t see anything. Look at the stripe of intense light across my nose in the photo: I look like Adam Ant, or Charlie Sheen in Apocalypse Now. I had a stinking cold, too, as you can tell from the red eyes. There’s a bit of menace to this story, so maybe the fact I looked rather strange added to the effect.

I have photos of this reading because there were friends of mine in the audience. That was a first. It isn’t because my friends don’t want to come and see me do my thing. It’s because I’ve never invited them. That might seem like an odd strategy. Secretive, even. But I prefer reading to a room of people I don’t know, or who know me but only as a writer.

Maybe that will change now. My friends came along because they were invited – not by me, but by a mutual writing friend who was also reading. They really enjoyed themselves, and said I was excellent. So they are welcome back. I like to think I’d reach the same conclusion if they thought my story was rubbish.

A bit of rejection can do you good

Here’s another piece of good news I want to mention. I’ve finally had a story accepted by Metazen, the international literary magazine based in Canada.

I say finally because they’ve rejected two of my stories so far this year. This is a case of third time lucky.

Having a story turned down is never pleasant, but in this case their kindly worded rejections inspired me to try harder. When I sat down to submit the original draft of the piece they finally accepted I took a last look at it at realised that, no, it just wasn’t quite good enough.

The story was solid and people had already said some kind things about it. There was a strong central idea, the right degree of cleverness, all that sort of stuff. But the language just wasn’t working as hard as it needed to.

There were weak metaphors and sections that dragged. I started editing and began to notice other flaws; and there wasn’t enough room for the reader to step in and do their share of the work. I ended up rewriting most of it.

I’m particularly happy that the story they’ve decided to publish is Eggbox Eyeballs.

This is the piece that I performed as street literature recently. I worked with a group of other writers to find a way of presenting this piece live: knowing I’d be sharing the story with them was another reason for revising that inadequate first draft.

It pleases me that one short piece of writing can appeal to bemused pensioners on the streets of an English seaside town and literary connoisseurs on the far side of the Atlantic.

The story will be out in November.

Competitive story reading success

Well, I have now taken part in my first ever competitive story reading event, part of the Electric Lantern Festival. The exciting news, for me, is that I came second. I’m rather happy about that.

It was an odd experience. I arrived at the Trinity Theatre in Tunbridge Wells, was allocated a number and told where to sit in the auditorium – in the front row, with all the other writers. There were seventeen of us taking part. We took the stage in turn, did our stuff and sat down again. I was number five.

There seemed to be a real mix of first-timers and seasoned performers. Everyone gave a good reading of their work and the standard was very high.

When it came time for the judges to announce their decisions, it didn’t occur to me that I might have placed anywhere. I was confident in my story, and the reading went well enough. But would anyone else like it? I didn’t have much humour in my piece; there was no twist in the tale. And it was very short – 90 words or so against a limit of 250 words.

The third prize was given out and then the judges began to talk about the story that came second. I should have taken notes here. They said something about excellent metaphors, tight writing, building sense of horror, a “proper short story”. I remember thinking, that sounds like a good piece. And then they said my name.

Winning a prize was a wonderful surprise, and I need to think of an interesting way of spending my £25 (yes, that’s £2.50 a word!). It was nice, too, to meet some other writers and hear them say positive things about my story.

But it was particularly pleasing to meet a man and his young son who had come along for a tour of the theatre and were nothing to do with the flash event. When they heard there was going to be some sort of story reading competition, they decided to hang around and listen. They sought me out afterwards and I had a great chat with them both about reading and writing.

The judges made diplomatic comments about how hard it was to choose between my story and the one that took first prize, but when I say that I’m pleased Ellie Stewart won it’s not just an effort to be gracious in defeat. She is a really talented writer and poet. You can read her winning story, Zombie Ward, on her blog. I’d also recommend Witch – telling a fairy tale from the perspective of a minor character is a common workshop exercise, but Ellie does it just brilliantly. Her poems are also wonderful, especially the ones about her mother.

As for my story, it is about to be published in the excellent Flash magazine, so I don’t want to put the text here just now. But you can hear me reading it in this short film.

Blimey, it’s my competitive story reading debut

My journey to find new ways of making a fool of myself enters scary territory this coming weekend. I will be taking part in my first competitive story-reading event.

On Sunday, I’ll be on stage at the wonderful Trinity Theatre in Tunbridge Wells, a participant in “Flash Factor”.

The boards that I shall tread

This is X-Factor meets short stories: me and a bunch of other writers read our flash fiction; the audience and a panel of fearsome judges will…. Well, I don’t know what they’ll do: cheer, boo, throw stuff? We’ll see. But at the end of it all, there will be a winner.

On the panel will be writers Sarah Salway, whose work I love, and Danuta Kean. I hope they are kind. My main worry is that, while there is a 250-word limit on stories, my two (not chose which to read yet) only come in at about 100 words. Too short? Or maybe less is more?
Writing this now, it occurs to me that the Trinity is where my journey into writing short stories began, many years ago. I used to live in the town and signed up for a “so you want to write fiction….?” course that was held in the theatre. Seems such a long time ago.

I remember in the second week reading three paragraphs of a story – my first – and nearly suffocating with fear and nerves. I hope to do better on my return.

Finding a new audience for literature and stories

Normally, you’d get yourself in trouble if you broke an egg on a stranger’s trousers. But such behaviour is fine when one is performing live street literature. Then it’s just part of the act.

I learned this interesting lesson on Saturday. I was on the promenade of Herne Bay, an English seaside town, “performing” – and I use the term loosely – my short story Egg-box Eyeballs as part of the rather excellent Herne Bay Festival. The action concluded with me smashing an egg on the floor in dramatic fashion.

In my one rehearsal I used a tennis ball rather than an egg, so as not to make a mess in the church hall where the piece was conceived.

Doing it for real on Saturday, I was surprised at how far an egg will splatter if you chuck it on hard ground. You can see just how surprised in the short film of the event below. Fortunately, my audience/victims took it all in good spirit.

Getting ready to go

How did I get myself in this situation? A lovely group of creative people called the Reauthoring Project told me they were looking for five writers to present work at the festival. Would I like to be one of them? they asked. Yes, please, I said.

Their challenge was a simple one: each of the five writers had to take an existing piece of their work and find a way of presenting it to the public in a way that didn’t involve the traditional author reading. Our stage would be a beachfront shelter; our audience would be whoever happened to be passing.

The five writers produced a fascinating mix of work. Apart from me barking away and chucking eggs about, there was interactive poetry, two sound installations and a “found” story experience on the beach. The people of Herne Bay were open minded about it all and showed a remarkable willingness to watch, listen and take part. I hope they enjoyed it. I know I did.

But why agree to a challenge so rich in possibilities for creative disaster and public humiliation? Fellow writer-participant Peggy Riley gives a good answer on her blog. The aim, she explains, is “To bring text and writing and writers out into the open, to let words breathe in air.” Peggy continues:

“With paper-based writing the writer is not a part of the reading – unless we hover or stalk, we do not know when a reader rejects the writing, when the page is folded down or the cover is closed. Live literature asks readers to engage with writing in a way that is live. It is unexpected and unrehearsed. It is authentic. It is raw. It is an offer made in a public space. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, and it is all the more exciting for that, as a writer.”

Exciting? Yes. Raw? Totally, especially the eggs. I learned a great deal about how to engage an audience and I realised the folly of thinking that I can control how people experience a story. I also challenged a lot of my stereotypical assumptions about the kind of people who might enjoy my writing.

We went to the pub afterwards to consider how we might do this kind of thing again. All very exciting.

Taking literature to the streets, man

It’s good to step outside of one’s comfort zone occasionally, and I will be a very great distance away from mine next week.

I’m “performing” a short story at the Herne Bay Festival. That is not the scary bit. I have done a few readings before and enjoyed the experience. But in the past I was mainly talking to an audience of arty writerly types: they knew what to expect from me; I knew what to expect from them.

It will all be very different in Herne Bay. I’m working with what is euphemistically called a “found audience”; I’m doing my stuff on the pavement, for however many passers-by I can persuade to listen. They might enjoy it. They might stand and jeer. There might be no audience at all.

My piece is called Egg-box Eyeballs. I describe it thus: “A man plans to bake the special cake that will make his girlfriend love him. At the supermarket, shopping for ingredients, he finds a new pair of eye balls in an egg box. He uses them to see everyone’s secrets, but sees more than he wants to.”

I’m working with a group of brilliant local writers as part of the Reauthoring Project. If you’re in the neighbourhood, come and check me out. I need all the support I can get. I’m doing my thing on Saturday August 27 at 12pm, 2pm and 3.30pm.

The photo above shows me at a workshop to devise my performance, pondering what on earth I’ve got myself into. (That’s a tennis ball at my feet. I found it kicking around on the floor and it became the creative spark that unlocked my performance idea)

And here’s me checking out the “venue”: a wooden shelter on the seafront at Herne Bay.