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.
|The lovely pool|
|Writers “at work”|
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.
|Stuart, Jamie, John and Me|
|Brenda, honorary Dark Angel?|
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|
|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|
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|
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?|
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|
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|
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.
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 Simmons, Fiona 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.
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.
|Not my Stylist; it’s Tara Fitzgerald|
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?
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.
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.