A turning point at the seaside

I have decided to draw a line in the sand.

Running with my dog one morning this week, I thought more about what I might have learnt on my Dark Angels course in Spain. Having made such a big investment – both in time and in cash – in my development as a writer, shouldn’t I be seeing a few changes?

Mr Turning Point
Looking for an answer, I thought about George Orwell. I reread ‘Homage to Catalonia’ as a kind of pre-Spain warm-up. His journey to the country was a huge turning point. When he got home, he drew a famous ‘line in the sand’. Every word of ‘serious work’ he produced thereafter, he said, was “written,directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.

Orwell’s experience was a bit different to mine. He was in Spain fighting in a civil war; I was writing sonnets and drinking too much red wine. But even so, I liked the idea of drawing a line in the sand.

I do feel like I’m on a bit of a threshold, actually. I’ve got a few big changes happening behind the scenes. Good ones. Really exciting ones. So I thought, yes, Spain will be a turning point for me, too. I will also draw my line in the sand.

Now, I was going to leave it there. I thought I might blog about this turning point moment, but that would be it. I’d need a photo of a line in some sand to illustrate it, but a Google image search would do the job. But then I felt I was missing the point. This wasn’t just a metaphorical turning point. I needed a real line in real sand.

So I put the dog in the back of the car and drove to the seaside. Our nearest beach is Camber Sands. Midweek, it is empty. The tide seems to go out for miles. There was plenty of sand. I wandered around a while, found the perfect spot and drew a line with my finger. I took a photo and walked down to the water line to reward the dog with a swim and to reflect further on my achievement.
Me admiring my first line

Then I realised that I hadn’t actually crossed the line that I’d drawn.  This bothered me. I’d gone to all the trouble of driving to the beach, but hadn’t completed what I started. I walked back to my line, so I could take a symbolic step over it, but couldn’t find it. So I drew another one.

This time I was determined to make the crossing of the line properly meaningful. I reflected for a while about what the act I was about to perform meant to me. I wanted this to be something that I could look back on in five or ten years’ time and say, yes, that was a turning point. I came up with a form of words and spoke them aloud (remember, the beach was empty). Then I took a deep breath and stepped over the line.

The line I actually crossed. Oh yes.
The line I made for public use

I must say, it felt very good. So good in fact that I drew another line, for public use, in case anyone else came to the beach that day and wanted to create their own turning point. The tide will have washed it away by now. But blog readers, I urge you: give it a go.

The one where I interview myself

Oh the narcism. As part of the writers’ collective 26, I’m working with the V&A on a project about british childhood since 1948. Part of my role is to run the project blog, on which I’ve been publishing interviews with other writers. Yesterday I got to interview… me. You can read the results here.

Dark Angels in Spain

I’ve just come back from a writing workshop in Spain. This was the “advanced” version of the Dark Angels course I took in Scotland last November. When I came home from Scotland, I wrote a long blog post about what I’d learned there. So, what did I learn in Spain?

It’s hard to say. Dark Angels isn’t the kind of course that has learning outcomes. On the second evening we sat around the dinner table and took turns to share what we hoped to get from our five days in Andalusia. My answer was simple: Scotland had been fun, I hoped Spain would be too – and hotter.

The lovely pool
Writers “at work”
Fun it was. I ate a lot, drank a lot, wrote a lot, laughed a lot and talked, talked, talked. By the end, I was sick of the sound of my own voice (oh God, it’s him yapping away again.) I made friends, and got to see myself as others see me, which is always revealing. People said I was driven, focused, committed, tall (really?), sporty (I wish), bitchy (in a fun way, I hope) and funny.

But for this to be a tax deductable expense rather than a holiday, I needed to learn about writing, creativity and business communications. Yesterday I sat down at my desk, back in my study, to write about what I’d learned. After 30 minutes of nothing, I took my dog for a run instead.

Out in the muddy fields, I was reminded of something that I literally took away from that first Dark Angels course. On the final morning in Scotland I gave our two tutors – John Simmons and Jamie Jauncey– a card each on which I’d written, “The one thing Neil needs to do when he gets home is…” I asked them both to complete the sentence. I’m sure they can’t remember what they wrote, but it has proved very valuable over the last year.
I thought I’d repeat the exercise in Spain. This time we had three tutors – Stuart Delves was there, too – so I’d get even more guidance. Excellent. But when we were waiting for our airport taxis, I decided not to get my cards out. It might have been that they were too busy, or the moment wasn’t right, or I didn’t want to bother them again. But I like to think there was a deeper reasoning taking place (I like deep reasoning).

I got a sense of what that might have been when I was running with my dog, thinking about Spain. One moment came back to me. Jamie was setting up an exercise as the course neared its end. He finished explaining what we were supposed to do and all the other students got out of their chairs to make a start. I remained seated, and asked for a small detail of the activity to be clarified. Jamie laughed. “Neil,” he said, “you are always waiting for instructions.”

Stuart, Jamie, John and Me
That was a little light bulb moment for me. In Scotland, I got a better sense of where I was in my life and in my writing (both creative and commercial), but perhaps I expected other people to tell me what to do next. In Spain I realised that I don’t need to be told. I’ve got a good idea of where I want to go. Of course, it may turn out to be further away than I think, and there will diversions along the way, but I don’t expect someone else to draw me a map. Advice is still appreciated, especially from people who know the terrain so well, but I shouldn’t expect instructions.

So maybe that’s what I learned.  Or maybe that’s just a load of sentimental tosh. I don’t know.  Maybe I’ll decide next week that what I really learnt in Spain was how to make chorizo. But I take comfort from number 11 of Brenda Ueland‘s twelve rules for writers: “Don’t be afraid of yourself when you write. Don’t check-rein yourself. If you are afraid of being sentimental, say, for heaven’s sake be as sentimental as you can or feel like being!”

Brenda, how right you are.

And if you don’t know Ueland’s rules, here are the rest. They are from “If You Want to Write”, one of my favourite books about writing:

Brenda, honorary Dark Angel?
1/ Know that you have talent, are original and have something important to say.
2/ Know that it is good to work. Work with love and think of liking it when you do it. It is easy and interesting. It is a privilege. There is nothing hard about it but your anxious vanity and fear of failure.

3/ Write freely, recklessly, in first drafts.

4/ Tackle anything you want to- novels, plays, anything. Only remember Blake’s admonition: “Better to strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”
5/ Don’t be afraid of writing bad stories. To discover what is wrong with a story write two new ones and then go back to it.

6/ Don’t fret or be ashamed of what you have written in the past. How I always suffered from this! How I would regurgitate out of my memory (and still do) some nauseous little lumps of things I had written! But don’t do this. Go on to the next. And fight against this tendency, which is much of it due not to splendid modesty, but a lack of self-respect. We are too ready (women especially) not to stand by what we have said or done. Often it is a way of forestalling criticism, saying hurriedly: “I know it is awful!” before anyone else does. Very bad and cowardly. It is so conceited and timid to be ashamed of one’s mistakes. Of course they are mistakes. Go on to the next.

7/Try to discover your true, honest, untheoretical self.

8/ Don’t think of yourself as an intestinal tract and tangle of nerves in the skull, that will not work unless you drink coffee. Think of yourself as incandescent power, illuminated perhaps and forever talked to by God and His messengers. Remember how wonderful you are, what a miracle! Think if Tiffany’s made a mosquito, how wonderful we would think it was!

9/ If you are never satisfied with what you write, that is a good sign. It means your vision can see so far that it is hard to come up to it. Again I say, the only unfortunate people are the glib ones, immediately satisfied with their work. To them the ocean is only knee-deep.

10/ When discouraged, remember what van Gogh said: “If you hear a voice within you saying: you are no painter, then paint by all means, lad, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working.”

11/ Don’t be afraid of yourself when you write. Don’t check-rein yourself. If you are afraid of being sentimental, say, for heaven’s sake be as sentimental as you can or feel like being! Then you’ll probably pass through to the other side and slough off sentimentality because you understand it at last and really don’t care about it.

12/ Don’t always be appraising yourself, wondering if you are better or worse than other writers. “I will not Reason & Compare,” said Blake; “my business is to Create.” Besides, since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of Time, you are incomparable.

Bespoke stories, written on the spot

A simple question can take you to some very interesting places.

I had my second outing as a writer in residence yesterday. This time I was in Oxford Street Books, Whitstable, writing stories inspired by whoever came into the shop. To make life more difficult, I decided to try and write these stories – brief flash fictions – on the spot. Give me the inspiration for a story, and you can take the resulting slice of literature away with you. Now.

Partly, I wanted to demystify the process of idea generation. I wanted to show people – and myself, too – that ideas can be found anywhere, and that the writing process can be very quick, when necessary. I also felt that I, like many writers, spend a lot of time hanging about in the shadows, eavesdropping and observing, finding small details that could form the beginnings of a character or a story. I wanted to be more open about this process, I wanted to thank the people who inspired me, and show them what I had produced as a consequence – even if it was rubbish.

So armed with my now familiar toolkit of 3×5 cards, BlueTac, paperclips and pencils, I set about my task. I picked customers at random and said something like this: “Excuse me, but I’m a writer and I’m working on a special project here today. I’m writing stories inspired by the people who come into the shop. Would you inspire me please?”

This question tended to generate a nervous laugh, a look of terror or just blank incomprehension, so I quickly followed up with a simple instruction: “An easy way for you to inspire me would be to tell me your favourite word. What is it?”

Now, the answer to this question wasn’t very important at all. But it opened the door to further probing. It was remarkable how quickly I could go from a simple question (“So, why is peace your favourite word?”) to something much deeper (“So, do you feel that your life is in a dark place at the moment?”) I had no idea these brief conversation would be so revealing.

I’d furiously scribble notes and when the conversation seemed to have run its course – and people wanted to talk for a lot longer than I expected – I would ask them to browse the shelves while I wrote something for them. Every time I sat down to look at my notes, I had no idea what I would write. But I always managed to produce something. I would give the result to the customer, and stick a copy to the wall or a shelf for other people to read.

It was an exhausting, but inspiring day. Massive thanks to the great people at ReAuthoring who – yet again – made this all possible. Here are some photos (be kind – keep in mind, each piece of writing took about 90 seconds! And apologies for the handwriting):

This is Anne, reading “Anticipation”, which she inspired

Anticipation, inspired by Anne
Start Counting

This guy had a great attitude. He inspired Start Counting

Brilliant Brian – he owns the shop and makes great tea

Jane enjoying “On the Edge”, which she inspired 

On the Edge

Some of my stuff, pinned in place

The Woman Who Married a Parrot

Wendy with “The Woman who Married a Parrot”

The poster I put up in the window

Poster for inside the shop

I wrote stories on the reverse of these “thank you” cards

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

In my tent, I reside

I’ve wanted to be a writer in residence for ages. Next weekend I finally get my chance, though not in the circumstances I imagined.

What I had in mind, I think, was an august yet innovative institution – maybe a university or an arts organisation, a theatre. I would have a comfy office, a grand title, a small but welcome stipend. I would “say a few words” when called upon, and graciously accept whatever plaudits came my way. I might potter about in slippers and be a little eccentric.*

Instead, I will be in a field, sleeping in a tent. My great wish is that it doesn’t rain. Actually, rain is inevitable; I just hope it won’t rain too hard or too persistently.

I will be at the Lounge on the Farm music festival in Kent, just outside Canterbury (July 6-8). I’m a member of the LoungeStories team. There will be five of us working shifts. My task is to wander around the festival site, talking to people, eavesdropping on occasion, taking in the experience and then using it all as inspiration for fiction – stories, poems or maybe just an interesting line or an arresting image.

We’ll be publishing and even performing our work on the spot, for festival-goers to read and enjoy. They might even recognise themselves in writing they inspired.

To get the words out, we’ll be using a wide range of social media – Facebook, Instagram, Audioboo, Tumblr and others. There’ll be old media in the mix too, I hope, even if it’s just the odd haiku on a Post-It note.

The idea is to experiment – with how we find inspiration, what we write and how we make it available. I have no big plan for how I’ll use my time, just a willingness – perhaps a determination, even – to make a bit of an arse of myself.

It should be fun. I will report back.

* On reflection, this sounds like the kind of writer I might be in 40 years’ time, but not just yet

The weather will be like this, won’t it?

Why I love my typewriter

I am writing the first draft of this blog post on my new typewriter. It is a Brother AX-100. Later, when I write the second draft on my very lovely MacBook Pro, I will add a photo of my typewriter, and perhaps some links to some information about it, and where I bought it. But not now. Now I am just focusing on writing down some words.

And that, of course, is the reason why I love my typewriter. It does what it does, and nothing else. It has no means of distracting me. There are a few functions that I might tinker with one day. I can write in single-spaced lines or double. I can change the “pitch” from 10 to 12, whatever that means (I’ve tried it and can’t see any difference). There are a few other controls to do with tabs, I think, and margins. They hold little interest.

I’ve wanted a typewriter for such a long time. I don’t know why I’ve not bought one sooner. Partly, I think, it’s because it seems such a step backwards. I love technology. My iPhone, iPad and MacBook give me great pleasure. They are the kind of devices that I dreamed of owning as a child. When I ask Siri questions, I am Captain Kirk.

Like many writers, I hate Microsoft Word with a passion. Every new version of it seems worse than the one before. My laptop, with all its gigabytes and megahertz, takes as long to open a simple document as my Mac Classic did 15 years ago. And when I work in Word, it crashes just as often. I use Scrivener as much as I can. It is simple and aimed at writers. But it still invites me to fiddle with fonts, window arrangements and such like. And anyway, it’s not just the simplicity of a distraction-free writing environment that I crave.

A typed manuscript is a beautiful thing. Words bashed out mechanically onto a scrolling sheet of paper, the criss-crossing of edits, additions, deletions – ideally in different colours. I find the result of typing aesthetically pleasing. And when I am done, when I reach the end of the page, I have made something physical, an object that did not existing in the world previously. I have not simply rearranged bytes of data. I like that.

I like to write with pen and paper for the same reason. I will continue to do so. The typewriter is not meant to replace another writing technology, it is just another tool weapon in my armoury.

Oh, and I just love the noise it makes: whirr, clack, clack. By contrast, the near-silent hum of my MacBook’s whispering fans, the click and shuffle of its hard drive, I find infuriating. No, the noise of the typewriter is a good noise. I can sit here now, at my desk, with the window open, a brisk breeze bending the sycamore trees and barging its way through the tilting fields of rape seed and feel connected to it all in a way that I wasn’t previously.

Ah, I’ve reached the end of the page.

What a beauty

A tapestry, a story

This tapestry has hung on the wall at my in-laws’ house for at least the twenty years that I’ve known them. But it was only last weekend that I had a close look at it. My daughter and I sat in their kitchen and tried to decode the story that it tells. We struggled.

It begins clearly enough. A man feeds a goat – presumably with some kind of poison? – and then feeds the goat to a crocodile. The crocodile dies, and the man shows its body to a group of other people. He then sets off on a journey that seems to involve him recruiting a lion to his cause. There is a lot of finger pointing and bargaining along the way.

I don’t know where the story is set. One drawing features what looks like a pair of pyramids. The script that captions each frame is, according to Twitter sources, almost certainly Amharic. That would put us in Ethiopia.

I do know a little bit about how the tapestry came to be in the family. My father-in-law did a lot of work with Oxfam in its early days. When its staff went overseas, they would often return laden with gifts and curiosities, which they auctioned to raise money. He bought this at one of those auctions, in the early 1970s, I think. It cost about £70 – or about £700 in today’s prices. That seems rather generous, but perhaps this is a priceless artefact – who knows.

I’m not sure why this tapestry has suddenly piqued my interest. I suspect it’s that my father-in-law, who I’m sure would have known its provenance, died recently. This could be the first of many “I’ll ask George… oh no, I can’t” occasions.

And so if I want to unlock this particular puzzle from the family’s past, I’ll have to find the answer on my own. That’s something I’ll need to get used to.

A close up of the mysterious text

Writing that inspires

Things have been a bit quiet here lately. I’ve been investing all of my blogging time in 26 Treasures of Childhood, part of a project I’m working on with the Victoria & Albert Museum.

But it’s a public holiday here in England today, so I have a little bit of spare time. Here’s a short video of the brilliant Etgar Keret reading a story from his new collection, Suddenly, A Knock at the Door (thanks to Dan Powell for the video link).

I’m just about to buy the Keret book on Amazon and here are two others that I’ll be slipping into my shopping trolley, new collections from writers Nik Perring and Tania Hershman. I’ve bought their books in the past and really enjoyed them. Best of all, like Keret’s work, it’s the kind of writing that inspires me to write.

Tania’s book has got its own trailer…..

The joy of knowing positive people

A good blog post is supposed to have a clear focus, a single point. But I’d just like to ramble on for a bit about what a wonderful week I’ve had.

On Wednesday, I was off to the Museum of Childhood in London to help kick start an exciting new writing project, 26 Treasures of Childhood. On Thursday, I built and wrote the blog to explain what that project is all about. On Saturday, I was down in Whitstable for an excellent writing workshop with Vanessa Gebbie, who I’ve read and admired for a long time, but not met. And today I’ve dug my vegetable patch, cooked lunch and read a stunning short story in the sunshine.

In between the gaps I’ve talked to people about some great projects, including running a festival of words and organising some kind of street literature experience.

Best of all, I’ve met and worked with some wonderful people. I’m thinking particularly about Rhian Harris and Stephen Nicholls from the Museum of Childhood; my inspirational colleagues on that project – John SimmonsFiona Thompson and Emily Bromfield; Malcolm Blythe; the Wordstock gang (Sara Sheridan, Elen Lewis, Elise Valmorbida); and the Whitstable writers, especially Peggy Riley, who gave me the honour of letting me scribble for a while inside her beautiful writing shed.

Other parts of my life have been giving me a bit of grief this week, so on this lovely sunny afternoon I’m going to focus my thoughts on the joy of knowing and working with some very special, positive, creative, generous, friendly people who make good things happen in the world.

And I’ll especially savour the fact that Vanessa Gebbie said I was “brilliant”, Sarah Salway said she’d like to work with me one day and John Simmons said I’d “made something beautiful”.

And there concludes my love-in.

Writer, grow a beard

Every writer should grow a beard (females excluded, I suppose). That is what I conclude from a seven-month journey into the world of facial hair.

I stopped shaving at a music festival last August. My Dad grew a beard when he was my age, as did my father-in-law. I’d always felt I’d try it one day – a field of dancing campers seemed the ideal place to begin.

Yesterday, I decided to bring the experiment to a close. I fished out my razor this morning, lathered up, and off went the stubble.

Writers are always told to “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange”. A beard does the job remarkably well. Your most distinctive feature – your face – becomes unrecognisable.

The process occurs over a few weeks when growing the beard. But when you shave it off the change takes place in seconds. It’s quite a shock. I feel pink and fleshy. My chin looks enormous. I don’t recognise myself.

I messaged a photo to my wife. “You look very strange!” she replied.

I feel very strange.

Imagine being able to achieve that with words.

How to be a successful writer (and how to fail)

I went for a haircut yesterday. I seem to have arrived at the point in life where I have a Stylist. I’m not sure if that is a consequence of age or income. Her name is Louise. She likes the fact that I’m a writer and a “creative”; it’s what we talk about as she snips away. Yesterday we discussed artistic failure.
I told her how I always find writing difficult, even though I’ve been at it for 20 years. Writing fiction is particularly hard, I said. I invest so much time in work that I usually regard as a failure.
It’s not that I’m too harsh on myself, I explained. I like some of my stories. Some of them I like a lot. But the problem is, they never turn out how I want them to. I might look on them kindly, but I always see their flaws, their potential for improvement.
Not my Stylist; it’s Tara Fitzgerald
“It’s the artistic temperament,” Louise said, snipping away. “Never satisfied.”
It could be that, or it could just be that I was having a grumpy day. But I thought about her words again when I read an interview with actress Tara Fitzgerald in the Guardian this morning. Asked, “What does success mean to you?” she replied:
“If you measure success by money, then your achievements are easy to calculate. But if you’re a creative person and you measure your achievements by how you feel about yourself, I can’t believe you ever feel successful. I just don’t think the artistic temperament allows it.”
So maybe Louise was right.
Writing about it now, I’m reminded of what Twyla Tharp says in her book, “The Creative Habit“. Every creative person has to deal with failure, she argues, because failure is inescapable.
Tharp isn’t one to romanticise failure, but she provides a whole chapter on its benefits. “Believe me,” she says, “success is preferable to failure. But there is a therapeutic power to failure. It cleanses.”
She then lists six ways a creative person can fail:
Failure of skill. You have an idea in mind, but not the skills to pull it off. “This is the cruellest, crudest, most predictable form of failure,” says Tharp. How do you fix it? Work harder, get the skills you need, she advises.
Failure of concept. You have a bad idea. You keep banging away at it, hoping you can make it work, but you never will. Nobody could. Solution: “Get out while the going’s good,” says Tharp.
Failure of judgement. You leave something in that you should have taken out, maybe because you ignored your gut feeling, suspended your judgement, tried to please – or not hurt – someone else. Solution: “Remember at all times that you’re the one who’ll be judged by the final product”.
Failure of nerve. This is the worst, she says. “You have everything going for you except the guts to support your idea and explore the concept fully.” Solution? “I wish I had a cure for this,” says Tharp.
Failure of repetition. Don’t cling to your past successes. “Constant reminders of the things that worked inhibit us from trying something bold and new”. Solution: follow you instincts and passions, wherever they might lead.
Failure of denial. A painful one. To protect yourself from the risk of being laughed at, ignored, or rejected, you pretend that the audience doesn’t matter. That can be useful, but it leads to failure if you refuse to fix problems on the grounds that nobody else will notice or care. “This is bad denial,” says Tharp. “You won’t get very far relying on your audience’s ignorance.” Solution: she doesn’t suggest one.
I could list more – failure to focus, failure to finish, failure to even start – but I’d rather think about success for a while instead.

Learning how to write, all over again

Our household has gone a bit China mad lately. For the two youngest children, China is their school topic this term. They have been drawing dragons, writing about the artist Ai Weiwei, making kites, and such like.

I’ve been involved, too. Alongside its China topic, their primary school is trying to get its children more interested in reading stories set in other cultures, as a way of understanding how life is different elsewhere on our planet. To combine this with their China work, they commissioned me to write a “traditional” Chinese folk tale, which they would then use to spark ideas in school.
I accepted the challenge and became utterly engrossed, quite possibly obsessed – but in a good way. After scratching around for a while, I took a story-form rooted in Yugur culture and put my own spin on it. My tale is about Sheep – one day she leaves her flock to live a new life on Heavenly Mountain, where the grass is sweet and green. Along the way she meets Wolf, with whom she strikes a bargain.
The school liked the story and asked me if I’d come in and read it to an assembly of all the children. I agreed, unsure what they would make of it. I thought the older children might enjoy it, but I worried that the smallest ones – some of whom are barely five – wouldn’t get it at all.

I needn’t have worried. It went down well, especially the parts where I leapt around wielding a bamboo cane in the air – something you’re not really allowed to do in school these days.

After the reading, I took a workshop with some of the older boys, trying to get them to write their own creative responses to the story. This was hard going at first, but once they realised that they were allowed to make stuff up and have fun with words, they really got into the idea. There was a beautiful moment, about half and hour in, when they all had their heads down and were scribbling away and I really felt like I’d achieved something.

I’m not sure that I taught them to become better writers – I was only with them for a few hours. But I think I helped them to realise that they could generate ideas, and that their ideas were as good as anyone’s. I hope they can keep that thought with them.

In the afternoon, I went to read my story to the school’s youngest children. Concerned that the full story – and its themes of naivety, selfishness and redemption – might be too much for them to grasp, I had written a shorter version of about half the length, with the language simplified and the narrative complexities removed.

Sitting down to read this to them, I asked a few questions about what they’d made of the morning’s reading. I was amazed at how perceptive they were. Most of them had a good recall of the main plot points and characters; several of them could quote back sections of dialogue – well, almost.

I quickly realised that the “dumbed down” version of the story wasn’t needed. I should have had greater respect for this young audience. There’s a lesson for me there.

Amid all this creative activity, I’ve been writing about China for a client – or trying to. I’m supposed to be writing about how the global economic downturn is making it harder for Chinese companies to raise finance. It’s interesting, but I’m struggling to find my way into it – after the Christmas and New Year break, I’ve lost some of my rhythm. I want the words to flow effortlessly, but they won’t.

Really, I ought to remember what I told the boys in school: if you find it hard to write, just start; if you find you want to stop, keep going.

I had no idea what to write about when I opened the Scrivener file that became this blog post, just one word: China. Now I have 670 words. That’s how writing works sometimes – and it’s as true for me in my study as it is for those boys in their classroom.

Apple, Siri and Found Poems

I was reading today about the Siri app on iPhone 4s. Basically, you can ask your phone a question, or give it a task to do, and it will understand what you mean and respond. It recognises natural language instructions, and apparently does a rather good job of it.
Googling around for information about how it works, I found an official Apple list of some of the stock phrases that Siri can understand.
I feel there is a strange poetry in these questions and commands. They seem to say something about the always-connected lives we lead. So, with no editing from me, apart from deleting an “s” and shortening the titles, here are a few “poems” from Apple….
Where’s Jason?
Where is my sister?
Is my wife at home?
Where are all my friends?
Who is here?
Who is near me?
Read my new message
Read it again
Reply that’s great news
Tell him I’ll be there in 10 minutes
Call her
Remind me to call mom
Remind me to call my mom when I get home
Remember to take an umbrella
Remind me take my medicine at 6am tomorrow
Remind me to pick up flowers when I leave here
“Friends” is my favourite, I think.

Rubbish writing makes a connection

I’ve spent a lot of time editing other people’s short stories this week. It’s not something I’ve done before and I’ve learnt a lot from the process.

I’m part of Throw Away Lines, an inspired project from 26, the organisation that celebrates creative business writing. Andy Hayes is the evil genius behind the venture. He’s a writer obsessed with scraps of paper that he finds on the streets of London, and he has quite a collection.

Each piece carries some scribbled words or, in one case, a drawing. Some are evocative – the first draft of a will. Others are banal – a random list of chocolate bars. The project: take 26 writers, give each of them one of Andy’s scraps, and tell them to use it as inspiration for a short story of 1500 words or less.

My job is to edit seven of the stories. This was a worrying prospect: what if someone sent me a real stinker? What would I do with it? Luckily, the quality has been incredibly high. I’ve been able to spend my time helping authors to improve stories that were good to start with.

A question I’ve asked some of them is: what are you trying to achieve with the story? Now, as a reader, that’s not a question you get to ask. The story is what it is; you like it or you don’t. You can’t ask the author to explain anything, they aren’t around. But as editor, I get an Access All Areas pass, a peek behind the scenes. I get to look at how the writer is trying to make a connection with me, the reader.

Exploring this “connection making” process has been fascinating. There have been stories I’ve loved, but for reasons the author didn’t intend. One piece involved a passionate affair, or so I thought. But that character imagined all of it, the author told me. Does that mean I misread the story, or that it failed? No. It just means the story is ambiguous, and that’s one reason it works so well. It allows different readings; readers can connect to it in different ways – in their own ways. That’s a good thing.

Efforts to pin down meaning, to control the way a piece of writing connects with the reader, are often futile. Every reader will make their own connection to the story, based on who they are, how they’ve lived, what kind of mood they’re in.

When I read the first of the published Throw Away Lines stories, Eating for Two, by John Simmons, I thought of a stone cottage on a windswept highland, a wood-burning stove, a roomful of sozzled writers. None of that is in the story, but I heard John read his first draft in that room, with those writers, when I was away on his Dark Angels writing course, in Scotland. Reading the story connected me to that evening.

The second story in the series, The Coming, by Linda Cracknell, reminded me of John’s fellow Dark Angels tutor, Jamie Jauncey, for the peculiar reason that it contains the line, “You’ll have had your tea?” In the same stone cottage, or maybe in London a fortnight before, I heard Jamie conclude an anecdote with those words, which he spoke in the voice of an inhospitable Scottish landlady. It connected me to the songs Jamie sang us after dinner most evenings.

Those two connections are mine alone. The authors of those stories couldn’t have known they would speak to me in this way. It might annoy them: you’ve missed the point entirely, they might say. But their writing allowed me these connections, and I enjoyed it all the more as a result.

I find it easier to write, and to make my writing available to readers, when I accept the fact that they will connect with it in their own ways, they will make of it what they will. For a story to work in the way I want it to, I will try to guide them down a particular path, but if I am behind them pushing and shoving at every corner, that’s when the writing fails.

I’m wondering what this tells me about my business writing. The corporate world is terrified of the unexpected connection, of leaving readers space to bring their own meaning. There must be a clear message, the conclusion of a logical argument. It’s as though every reader has the same tuning fork inside their head, and all we need to do is hit it hard enough. So meaning has to be nailed into place, with plain, unambiguous words. I know that’s what we need sometimes, perhaps most of the time, but surely not always?

Dark Angels: What I learned in Scotland

I’ve earned a living as a business writer for over twenty years and written fiction for almost eight. But throughout that time, a dividing wall has kept my “corporate” writing separate from my “creative” work. The former pays the bills, the latter nourishes the soul, and never the twain shall meet. That used to be my attitude.


Two years ago an event in my life put a crack in that wall. A depressed friend killed himself. His action was a reminder that life is precious and must not be wasted.  It made me reflect on my own trajectory. Was I being true to myself, leading an authentic life, making choices that I was proud of? Or was I denying an important part of who I wanted to be – not just a writer for money but a creative artist, a phrase I still type with trepidation?

I decided that the wall that kept my writing personas separate needed to go. It was built, I think, out of fear. But fear of what? Embarrassment? Failure? Was I worried that business clients who heard I wrote short stories might think I was some kind of oddball? Probably. And did I suspect fiction editors would take me less seriously if they thought I sold words by the yard? Yes. It’s not rational, but fears often aren’t.

Whatever my concerns were, I needn’t have worried. When I’ve let slip to business clients over the last year or so that I write fiction, they’ve always been impressed – if not with the results then at least with the ambition. And whenever I’ve discussed the difficulty of earning a writing income with my fiction friends, they’ve congratulated me on my commercial acumen. “Coming out” in this way has been good for me.

But it has remained a tentative process. Even as I’ve chipped away at that public wall, in my mind these two areas of writing activity – corporate and creative – have remained separate. They required different skills, had different objectives – they were ineffably apart.

Moniack Mohr

Now, I’m exaggerating a little for effect here. One reason why I’ve been successful as a business writer is that I do sometimes use the tricks of the fiction trade to help with the “day job”. I know that a sprinkling of personal anecdote here, a dash of metaphor there, can liven up the dullest corporate assignment. I know, too, that finding ways to “muck about” with words can make the work more enjoyable, and that when I’m enjoying myself I write better and faster. Most importantly, I know that when I dip into the fiction toolbox I produce writing that makes a better connection with readers – and that, of course, is what it’s all about.

The dividing wall has been a real one nonetheless, and the chinks I knocked out of it were only small. So at the start of the summer I decided to demolish it for good. My chosen wrecking ball was a course called Dark Angels, run by two writers whom I admire greatly: John Simmons and Jamie Jauncey.

I first heard about Dark Angels in, I think, 2004. John has written a book of the same name, which was published in that year. His book talks about the need to bring creativity into business writing. Not because it makes the chore of grinding out business copy more bearable for the writer, or because it makes their words more effective – although it achieves both.

No. The real benefit is that writers who try to be more creative often have to rebel against corporate jargon, marketing mumbo-jumbo and organisational double-speak. They have to change the way people think about the world of work. They have to insist on the value, the necessity, of writing that treats its readers as thinking, feeling human beings – not constituents of a stakeholder group or marketing category. They have to become rebels. I like rebels. I liked the idea of becoming one.

Chapter five, Recreation and Retreat, tells the story of how John and his colleague, Stuart Delves, held a week-long workshop at Totleigh Barton, in Devon, where they helped fifteen other writers to work in the spirit celebrated in the book. The workshop was also called Dark Angels; it sounded, to me, like a week in heaven. Seven years after reading about it, I finally decided to go.

The view from my window in Scotland

So what did I learn from my week in Scotland, at Moniack Mohr? I can get extraordinary amounts of work done if I turn off my Blackberry and shut down the WiFi. I can chant in Latin and find it enjoyable. I can drink vast quantities of whisky without getting a hangover, but only if it’s Aberlour a’Bunadh and has a dash of water. People are like books, you can’t judge them by their covers. Polyphonic harmony sounds lovely. Some people can’t bear listening to praise. You can learn a lot from crumbling a stone between your fingers. Bird-spotting guidebooks are strangely reductive. Beatles songs can be more musically complex than they seem. I am a better writer than I realised. Everyone is a better writer than they realise.

Did I get what I wanted from the course? Other participants said the experience had transformed them: “I’m not the person I was on Monday,” one reported. That didn’t happen to me; I was a little envious. I left for the airport feeling that I too had learned a deep lesson, but I wasn’t sure what is was yet.

The day after I got home, we drove down to Devon for a holiday, renting a house in the South Hams with another family, old friends. One morning we visited the famous craft centre at Dartington Hall. Outside, in a small wooden shed, a man in faded jeans and a grey t-shirt was giving a glass-blowing demonstration. I stopped to watch. He put the finishing touches to a small shot glass and then started to make another, talking to his small audience as he worked.

His name was Ian Hankey. He has worked with glass for twenty years, he explained. I noticed the parallel immediately: I have worked with words for the same length of time. “How long did it take to learn?” asked one of the spectators. “I’m still learning,” he said with a smile.

I meant to stop for a few minutes only, but I watched Ian work for an hour and a half. Listening to him talk about his craft was like looking into a mirror. He made a wine glass next, moulding, stretching and reheating the glass, always changing it, adjusting it. Like a writer working on a first draft, everything was provisional. He was controlling the glass, but allowing it to find its own flow, the shape it needed to be. He was never quite sure how the piece he was making would turn out, but that didn’t seem to worry him.

Ian Hankey at work


At one point the wine glass cracked. There was a palpable sense of tension. Ian was worried that an hour’s work was lost. But he found a way of rescuing it.

I peppered Ian with questions, as I am wont to do. Do you ever burn yourself, I asked? He laughed and pointed to several burns on his hands and on his arms. But these are all from cooking at home, he said. The kitchen is a dangerous place, anything could happen. But in the workshop, he is in command. There are no accidents.

Indeed, as Ian chatted to us and worked the glass, it became clear he had other senses at work. He just knew, at one point, that the furnace had become too hot. He could tell when the glass was about to break. Skill like this can only come from working with raw materials, from hours of practice and experimentation and failure; from trying to make something, understanding why it is going wrong, and working out how to fix it. This is what I do all day, but with words.

These are tacit skills, he believes, and they are hard to learn because they are hard to articulate. You can’t record them in any book of instructions. He teaches glass work to college students, but tacit skills can’t be taught in a classroom, he said. They can only be assimilated by working alongside an unforgiving taskmaster, an opportunity few young glassmakers have now that production has moved overseas. But that’s exactly how I started to write, I thought, hammering away at a knackered typewriter with a ball-breaking editor breathing down my neck – and that old editor’s industry, newspapers, is dying too.

As Ian worked there were sometimes bubbles, tool marks or other “flaws” in the glass. These can be removed, he said, but nowadays he leaves them be. They are evidence, he explained, that the piece has been made by hand – only an industrial factory produces perfect work. These human traces are not only testament to the provenance of a piece, they add to its quality: you never get bored of looking at something “flawed”, he said: it has individuality, it is unique.

And here I had another “ah ha!” moment. This, of course, is what I had been learning to do in Scotland: writing in a way that allowed for individuality, understanding how the “flaws” that the overseers of a writing factory might want to eliminate – those metaphors, memories and other traces of humanity – were actually what made a piece work, what gave it enduring appeal and fascination, what enabled it to connect with readers.

Listening to one man talk about his craft told me so much about my own. So I asked him the question that I had taken with me to Scotland: if you enjoy working with glass so much, and are so skilled and experienced, how can you be content making simple wineglasses? (I expressed it in more polite terms: which do you prefer making: functional objects or art pieces?)

Ian’s answer was a wise one. Expressing your creativity through glass is a wonderful thing to do, he said, but function also has its beauty. Producing a well-made, attractive, functional wineglass, and then making five the same so the customer can buy a set, is a very challenging and satisfying activity, he said. And I knew this to be true, because I’d just watch him do it.

The students Ian teaches at college can all make glass sculpture, he explained, but ask them to blow a simple Christmas bauble and they struggle. They don’t have the craft skills, the technique, to make anything that someone would actually pay to use, they can’t sustain themselves as working craftsmen. So if they want to have a life working with glass, they need to connect with both art and craft – the two are not separate. Likewise with me and my words. That is the lesson I learned with the Dark Angels.

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.

Back on stage at the Komedia

I’m reading again at the lovely Komedia theatre in Brighton on October 2, part of Story Studio‘s Feast and Fetish evening. My story comes under the “feast” half of the theme, in case you were wondering.

I had a brilliant time reading at Komedia earlier in the year. Hope this one goes as well.

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.