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….
Friends
Where’s Jason?
Where is my sister?
Is my wife at home?
Where are all my friends?
Who is here?
Who is near me?
Reading
Read my new message
Read it again
Reply that’s great news
Tell him I’ll be there in 10 minutes
Call her
Reminders
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.