Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Activity 3.1/Tutorial 1 - You're just jealous cos the voices aren't talking to you...

Week three's chapter started with a (seemingly) simple task. All we had to do was write down our response to the following advice: 'write what you know.' Literally, we just had to write down the first thing that popped into our heads. Here's what I wrote down: 'The problem is, I don’t want to write my autobiography. I want to write fiction – so how do I speak in voices that don’t sound like the one inside my head?'

It is a tricky one. While, obviously, I want to develop a distinctive voice within my writing, I also want to be able to develop distinctive characters who don't just sound like me waffling on (like right here, for instance). Turns out, it was a pretty apposite question, as we've also been busy working on our first online tutorial this week. This involved writing a basic description of someone we know quite well, then asking some 'what if?' questions about them (i.e. 'what if they were secretly an alien from outer space?'). From these ruminations, we did some clustering and freewriting, including the example below:

Andrew carried his anger beneath the skin, a seething virus coursing through his veins. Often he could simply ignore it, the heat and prickle fading into the background, doused by the minutiae of everyday affairs. The weekends were the worst. With nothing to do, he would find himself prowling round the flat, bristling with tension, seeking desperately for a distraction from his mind’s automatic checking and re-filing of the tattered remnants of his memory. Usually he would last little more than a couple of hours before he traced the familiar route along the walls, skirting the assembled bookshelves, running a hand along the exposed spines until a stray title grabbed him and he could thrust his overheated mind into the old search for familiarity.

After this, we then imagined this character taking a walk and meeting someone, either a child or an older person. We then wrote a description of this scene from the point of view of a stranger:

My bloody umbrella broke earlier. The wind turned it inside out and then that turned the heads of three really cute girls, who did that stupid giggly thing lasses do, linking arms and tripping off in their heels. Put me in a properly bad mood. Now I’m soaked through from this feeble, misty rain and my fag’s only surviving ‘cos I’ve got my hands cupped round it. Wish the professors inside would hurry up and finish so I can pack up the hall and get out of here. One’s just come rushing out but I reckon he was just bored, ‘cos all he’s doing now is leaning against the railings, getting wet. Think he’s waiting for someone, he keeps looking in all different directions and checking his watch. Looks a bit nervous but he keeps grinning to himself, like he’s excited about something. Maybe he’s got a hot date. In your dreams, mate. Seriously, you should see him. This guy’s got to be mid-thirties but he’s got his hair in a ponytail hanging down to his arse like a little girl. He’s dressed in the worst suit I’ve ever seen, brown with the legs hovering above his ankles. Christ, he’s even got a pair of Velcro shoes on. He’s meant to be one of these brains and he can’t even tie his laces? Fucking hell.
Think he’s just seen whoever he’s waiting for, he’s straightened up, practically pointing like a dog. Yeah, there’s some old guy coming up to him. Skinny, grumpy-looking type with a bald head and another bad suit. Probably not a date, then, though you never know. They shake hands and exchange names. Look like a right pair of conspirators. Heads together, now the prof’s got some papers out of a folder and they’re reading them over. I’d reckon they were a pair of spies if they weren’t dressed like such saddos. Suppose they could be undercover...

Finally, we rewrote this scene with one difference - this time, our original character was to be keeping a secret and we were to see what sort of effect this would have on the scene:


My bloody umbrella broke earlier. The wind turned it inside out and then that turned the heads of three really cute girls, who did that stupid giggly thing lasses do, linking arms and tripping off in their heels. Put me in a proper bad mood. Now I’m soaked through from this feeble, misty rain and my fag’s only surviving ‘cos I’ve got my hands cupped round it. Wish the professors inside would hurry up and finish so I can pack up the hall and get out of here. One’s just come rushing out but I reckon he was just bored, ‘cos all he’s doing now is pacing around in the rain like some big twitching insect. He looks completely freaked out, keeps stopping still, rubbing a hand over his face, then setting off again. They’re such weirdos, this university lot. Seriously, you should see him. This guy’s got to be mid-thirties but he’s got his hair in a ponytail hanging down to his arse like a little girl. He’s dressed in the worst suit I’ve ever seen, brown with the bottom of the trousers hovering above his ankles. Christ, he’s even got a pair of Velcro shoes on. He’s meant to be one of these brains and he can’t even tie his laces? Fucking hell.
Think he just saw someone he knows. Yeah, there’s some old guy coming up to him. Skinny, scowling type with a bald head and another bad suit. Not happy to be there, by the look of him. Handshake like a punch. Maybe he owes the professor money. They look pretty intense, anyway, haven’t even bothered to get out of the wet, the old guy’s just leaning against some railings, letting the prof talk at him. Hang on, it’s going a bit weird – the prof’s standing over the old guy, looking pretty threatening. Now he’s got some papers out of a folder and he’s waving them in the old guy’s face, who’s looking like he’s about to scarper if he can. I can hear them now, the prof’s talking at this guy pretty loudly:

“Would you even have come if I’d told you who I was? I wanted you here so I lied. I’m not sorry. Now, we’re going to the police or we’re going to your place to see that research. Decide.”

Bit full on for a pair of brainy-types. Seems to work though, cos the old guy sags like the professor’s just given him a good kicking and jerks his head off back the way he came. The prof looks pretty pleased with himself, tucks away his folder and they set off together, hands in pockets, shoulders rising suddenly, like they just realised how crap the weather is. Entertainment over, I guess. Better go inside and see if the rest of the professors have died of boredom yet.
I think what was most interesting - and surprising - about this task was the amount of time and effort I put into nailing the voice of the narrator, rather than capturing the details of Andrew himself. In fact, it was kind of frustrating keeping a lot of what I already knew about him back but it suited the scene and the POV so much better to hold those things back. However difficult it was though, this tutorial was really productive and I was pleased to see how the character and plot unfurled in my head, particularly in light of that question I had at the start of the week.

Activity 2.5 - Haiku

A haiku, for those who don't know, is a traditional Japanese form of verse, which is arranged in three unrhymed lines of a specific number of syllables - 5-7-5. Originally, haiku dealt in scenes of nature, attempting to capture a brief moment or impression, however Western haiku writers have often strayed from this natural subject-matter.

For our next activity we were encouraged to spend some time composing haiku. Not a problem - I've always loved haiku and find them very fun - and strangely relaxing - to write. Though you can be the judge of whether any of these are any good!

Damp grey rain, the days
Are overcast but we have
Beautiful evenings.

Melting sun, shafts of
Light slide from beneath shadowed
Clouds, the earth glowing.

Bump and clatter, bag
On the ground, bend and scrabble,
Eyes meet. ‘Sorry.’

Inside my head a
Scream grows, high and wailing. I
Am so very bored.

Misting rain hangs and
Settles, soft gauze over the
Ground, leaves glossed dark green.

A sailor’s trousers
All the blue I can see from
This tiny window.

Muscle ache, twist and
Grind, drag across the mattress.
Well, I am alive.

Light shading grey, soft
Pastel sky woven from blue-
Grey wool and cream silk.

Ribbons of roads stream
And flow triple-reflected
Above and around.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Activity 2.4b - The Stunner

As a grace note to the exercise below, we were asked to write a paragraph on a piece of work that had moved and dazzled us. Mine is predictable but I don't care!

I was looking at the many books that line my shelves (carefully alphabetised, of course) and had pretty much decided to write about either Crime and Punishment or Jackie Kay’s Trumpet. Or A.L. Kennedy’s Paradise. But the truth is, the only thing I could really write about here is Shakespeare. I don’t honestly remember falling in love with his plays. Sometimes it feels like I came out of the womb knowing about iambic pentameter and five-act structure. I did my sixth-year dissertation on Shakespeare. And my degree dissertation. And my masters degree. It’s fair to say he’s my favourite writer. And of his plays, whilst I think Hamlet is his best tragedy, Twelfth Night his best comedy (don’t make me choose between them), it’s probably Romeo and Juliet that I love the most. I love it for the way it asks us to believe in the power of young love at first sight and doesn’t give a monkey’s about believability. And for its deft shift from comedy to tragedy. Its cruelty. Its turn on fate and chance rather than hubris. Its gorgeous language (especially that last couplet). Its strong female characters. Its pace and rhythm. Its complex use of light and dark imagery (night is good, day is bad but Romeo and Juliet lovingly describe each other in terms of light). Its filthy jokes. It is archetypal, definitive and iconic and it continues to stun me every time I read it.

Activity 2.4 - Childhood Reading

(For this activity we were asked to write 300 words - I've got over double that! - about our early reading history.)

There are too many, far too many many. I bet you all feel the same. I can’t remember a time when books weren’t an integral part of life. From the first I can remember (Fungus the Bogeyman) to the last I finished (A Room With A View), reading is simply the most natural, the most obvious thing in the world. It is something I have never had to try at; it is one foot in front of the other, breathe in and breathe out. Every room of my home has always been full of books (even the bathrooms, where their leaves intermingle with the pages of magazines, set aside until the next brief stop), particularly novels, which Dad and I used to refer to by pet name – ‘chapter books’. I’m not sure when I started reading for myself but my parents tell me it was very early and I have rarely been without the security of a book since. I can accomplish most tasks one-handed, defence against the necessity of putting down a book at an exciting moment. I sleep when the next chapter is at an end, not before.

My personality tends towards the obsessive and this has always shone through in my reading matter. As a child I would become very involved with long series of books or a particular author. I read as much Roald Dahl as I could get my little hands on (I admit, I tried more than once to move objects with my mind, a la Matilda). Complete insanity, pinned on the page and bursting with colour and music and gorgeous new words and weird, wonderful, fantastic and complex characters. One of my most treasured possessions is a first edition of Esio Trot, despite the stains and the dog-eared pages. The Famous Five also loom terrible large in my past. Even now I’m not sure I could put into words exactly why Blyton held me in such thrall, particularly when I couldn’t stand The (so-similar-she-must-be-taking-the-mickey) Secret Seven but perhaps it was simply that their summers, which were so full of adventure, helped to elevate my own annoyingly normal and lovely childhood. I always longed for life to provide me with the kind of breathless fun and life-changing experiences that were thrust upon fictional characters all the time.

When adolescence hit (to my eternal shame) my allegiance switched to... deep breath... Sweet Valley High. This was, in my defence, liberally mixed with 101 Dalmations, The Hobbit, The Secret Garden, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Peter Pan, The Railway Children, Charlotte’s Web, The Borrowers, The Worst Witch, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (and the rest – obsessive again),The Doll’s House, What Katy Did (and what she did at school, and what she did next), Alice in Wonderland... Nevertheless, it was those blonde twins who were forbidden to me, whenever I was in need of a punishment! Alright, it was shallow and silly but what eleven year old girl doesn’t want to be blonde, beautiful, popular and smart. Nor did it hurt that I could easily finish one in an hour! Plus, Liz (the sensible twin) was a writer.

So was Jo March. Little Women is probably the book that most lives with me from my childhood. This is partly because it is achingly romantic without being sappy and sentimental (though some will disagree, I suppose), partly because I wanted to fall for someone like Jo’s (and then Amy’s) Laurie, partly because it is about a close group of sisters (three of us Boyds to the four Marches and not dissimilar personalities – I’m 50/50 Meg and Jo, in case you’re interested). Mostly, though, it is because Jo is still my model for how a writer is. Consumed by words, thinking in paragraphs, alive to the world and how it works, tough and determined and ambitious. So many of the characters I hold close to my heart are writers, but Jo is the one I still hope to resemble.

Activity 2.2 - Dichotomy

For this activity, we were asked to use Somerset Maugham's portrait of one woman's contrasting traits as a model for our own sketch of conflicting character traits in someone we know. I used the girl I shared a room with for part of first year at university - a girl I couldn't stand and was glad to see the back of! Though I have exaggerated her somewhat, I do think this captures her quite well. Here she is in all her glory:

I was born two hours away. From here it takes forty-five minutes to drive to my parents’ house. No way around it, I’m a local girl. She comes from the sun. From the States. Warm beaches and palm trees. She has worked for Vogue in the summer and her parents have money. She is foreign and exotic. She is self-possessed and confident. Head high, hips swinging, perfectly put together. She flits across the cobbles, unfazed by the rolling, broken street beneath her designer heels. Jogs in the morning, clad in form-fitting, perfectly matching sportswear, sleekly ponytailed hair swinging behind in perfect time as she bounds, breath falling and rising. Sharp red streaks down her legs, golden highlights around her face. She is early-rising, late-dancing, never tired, always fresh. Knows intimately places I have never heard of. Commands men who don’t register my presence. She has glamour.

She drinks while she dances. Watched closely by the owner, then clutched and steered past the doors by a bouncer. She brings men back after a few hours. She cries, confused, when they do not call. She has me hold her, two in the morning, grey-faced and depressed, denounced as a drunk and a whore. She is surrounded by cackling hordes, ranged around the bar, swapping sexual details of men whose surnames they never knew. There is something vulgar about her.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

My Day At School

Allow me to apologise upfront for the length of this post. Please feel free to bale out at any time.

Dear me, I’ve realised all of a sudden that it’s a week since the day school and I haven’t written anything about it yet. For those who don't know, the A215 course includes two face to face tutorials (day schools) which the whole tutor group is free to attend. Mine took place on Saturday at Napier Uni's Merchiston Campus in Morningside, Edinburgh. Of course, I was late. I hate being late and do my absolute best to avoid it at all costs but I got a bit lost (inevitably), almost ending up at Ikea before I finally got there. Fortunately a classmate was at reception just as I walked up and so we got to make our entrance together. Missed most of the introductions but everybody looked pretty non-weird and friendly. First we brainstormed a cluster on where we get ideas from – during which I failed to say a single thing. Takes me a while to get warmed up, fortunately everybody else came up with great ideas. This led on to a discussion of writing habits and particularly which times of day people write at (just for the record, for the last week I’ve been trying morning writing and I just can’t do it with my cotton-wool-stuffed morning head. Course I’m sitting here at 1.40am, wide awake, perfectly lucid and in just the right frame of mind to write. Sigh. Oh well, it’s in the a.m., maybe that counts...).

At this point, or thereabouts, our tutor produced a basket full of interesting objects (a brief selection: a teddy, a ball of string, cranberry sauce, very pink nail varnish, an onion...). She asked us to pick an object and then close our eyes and take hold of it, feel it, smell it... and then cluster it! I chose a pebble as it reminded me of childhood holidays at the seaside and did my best to let my mind wander.

Once we had all got something down on paper, we were asked to share our thoughts. It’s truly amazing the different things that a roomful of people can come up with when faced with fairly mundane objects. I can’t honestly remember what anyone else came up with but my own (slightly pathetic) thread was pebble>beach>sea>salt>waves>sand>worms. See – so obvious. The only interesting thing is that my memory threw up an image of my sisters and I, down on the beach in the early morning, searching for the worms that had left their trails across the sand.
Next, we were asked to use this cluster as inspiration for a character – and cluster them! (Sense a pattern?) Then we spent a few minutes producing a piece of writing based on these two clusters. My own scribblings follow:

Living with the water not half a mile from his house was Sam’s strangest choice. After the stay in hospital, his friends watched with distress as he packed himself into boxes and left for the coast. He told himself it would bring him pleasure. Perhaps he did take some perverse joy in this self-punishment. I never could persuade him to leave. I think he needed the water, still, even though the days of laps and dives and medals were past. It seemed to be the only thing he needed now, his daily pilgrimage to the water. His friends eventually gave up on him and his pathetic claims that he would get back in a pool again. Even I could not bear to see him so often after a while, his hair spattered grey, face still meticulously clean-shaven – ‘I won’t look like some common beach bum’ he said.

More reading out. Then: another cluster and a letter, written by our newborn characters on the subject of something they are passionate about. For me, there was only one thing that suggested itself:

4th October
Mr Sam Merton
4 Woodside
PA12 0CE

Dear Doctor Blake,
I hope you will remember me as the patient whose arm you removed last month. Perhaps not. Perhaps you remove dozens of limbs every week. Perhaps each poor fresh cripple looks the same to you. If so, you are blessed. I wish I could forget, just like you but you have left me with this souvenir, this reminder, this stump.
However, I think this letter will give you cause to search that oh-so-full-up brain of yours. I believe you and that chattering clan you call a staff are guilty of negligence and I will be making a formal complaint to your superiors. Furthermore, I am writing to inform you that I am taking legal advice on how to bring a malpractice case against you.
I suppose you are surprised at this, believing that you gave me the best medical care possible. Doctors, you are all so short-sighted. Who were you to take my arm without permission, without warning? You will say, I suppose, that I would have died without your actions. That you saved my life. My life. My career. My future. My happiness. Oh yes, you saved my life and left it a miserable, hollow thing. It should have been my decision. What can I do now this thing has been done to me? You, doctor, surgeon-god, don’t you have an answer for me? No, I was just a piece of meat and the butcher is done with me now. Well I am not done with him.
Sam Merton

More reading out. Lots of black humour. Lots of anger. Lots of intrigue. All good, all very interesting. At this point, unfortunately, I had to duck out for a bathroom break in the middle of the final exercise – a scene depicting the recipient of the letter and their reaction. Damn my bladder – I would’ve liked to finish but at least I got to hear more of everybody else’s creations. I think that was the best part of the day, just the feeling of potential for so many different stories and the fun of writing for its own sake. I really enjoyed myself.

In fact, it would have been a perfect day, were it not for one small problem. On the way home, the (shoddy) map I was following pointed me the wrong way down a back road and on eventually turning back on myself, I got so turned around that I went the wrong way down the bypass! Of course, I had no idea I’d done this and so I trundled down the motorway, getting increasingly panicked as my turnoff didn’t seem to be appearing. Eventually, I dived for Fort Kinnaird, as somewhere I at least recognised, which was fortunate because otherwise I would’ve ended up in Musselburgh and completely lost. Somehow, I made my way through the other end of Edinburgh, past Meadowbank, up to Calton Hill (which was the first point since my wrong turn that I really knew where I was!), along Queen Street and eventually back to the Queensferry Road where I was meant to end up in the first place! Epic, no? Seriously, I have no idea how I managed it and I’m just glad that my ultimate tactic of following signs for the city centre was successful. Bright side, though, I ended up getting to know Edinburgh very well and will never again have any qualms about getting anywhere again!

And the moral of the story is? Go to day school, it’s really fun and productive and your classmates will probably be lovely. But use a decent map to get there.

Activity 1.3 - Clustering

Hi - sorry for the delay between posts. The spam bots mistakenly shut me down for a while (nothing to do with the dildo - honest!) but normal(ish) service should be resumed now...

Urgh. Why is it my best writing time tends to be between nine at night and two in the morning? I like sleep. In fact, I love sleep, it's just that my brain doesn't want me to have any. Anyway, I have been clustering like mad, trying to get my head around it. I think it's starting to work, it's just that I find it hard to let go of the central concept and freewheel off into tangents. It's that whole 'answer the question' thing I had drilled into me at school, I suppose. See what you think, anyhow. I've included the thread I was working from at the top of each part.

P.S. Apologies for the fairly naive political nature of the last piece. Hope it's fairly obvious who I'm referring to but the thread will make it obvious.

1. fame>freedom>boundaries>danger
I think that most people go hunting for fame – and it seems to be a major part of so many people’s career plans these days – because they are looking for attention. When I say this, I do not mean the type of fame that comes as a result of a great talent. Indeed, with that kind of celebrity, there seems to be a fairly even split between those who welcome the attendant fame and those who shun and shrink from it. Of course, the key word is ‘attendant’ – it is not the dreaded fame for fame’s sake that those blighted denizens of reality tv and talent shows ache for but the natural result of being good at something that other people enjoy watching (hearing, reading, tasting etc.). Where the Orwellian masses have a void at the centre of their purpose, such individuals as these have a true, solid skill to anchor them. And yet, I think both these groups, having achieved their fame by whatever route, discover a far more thrilling result even than the adulation of those left in the gutter. What they find at the back of the lightbulb flash and the saucer-eyed stares is an overwhelming, intoxicating rush of freedom. Loose their bounds from the 9-5 ebb and flow, the supermarket procession and the communal traffic jam prayer, such boundaries are hazy memories to our idols.

2. mirror>me>flipped>stranger>trapped>blind spot
The person in the mirror. Is that me? She’s looking back at me with the same dazed expression I can feel smeared across my own face, eyes bleary, hair scattered in all directions. She’s the only image I’ll ever have, I suppose, this reflection, flipped in space and picked out by bouncing light. I have no other perspective on myself, save perhaps the closed-in, compromised view of my shoulders down. But that tells me nothing more than I have a stain on my t-shirt and odd socks. I am trapped in that space behind my eyes where my soul resides, afforded a glorious widescreen, Technicolor view of the world around but only a squinting, peering knowledge of my own body. My whole face is a blind spot.

3. spiders>Pepper>hunter>Sarah Palin>alpha female>destructive>hateful
I’m not a fan of spiders. Crawling black wall-huggers. My cat used to hunt them, stalking the little creepers with fascination and then snaffling them in one mouthful, their legs waving with doomed frenzy. Good cat. His nature was to hunt other animals but he adapted, hunting domestic pests instead. Much like his owners, designed to hunt antelopes but evolved to hunt down b.o.g.o.f.s in Tesco. All except the traditionalists, of course. The sport-hunters. The deer-stalkers. The ones who decorate with bear skins and then run for office. Can’t stand that woman. The first time she appeared on the news I could feel my hackles rising, my lip curling in a sneer. Such a physical, visceral reaction. The usual Pavlovian response to an alpha female, later compounded by her creepingly simplified rhetoric and the destructive notion of a woman gaining unprecedented power with such insidious ideals. Hateful woman. I’m not a fan of hers.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Activity 1.2 - Freewriting

So, the course is now a week and a bit old and I have mostly been continuing with the freewriting. Below, for your delectation, are some of my better efforts, so far, with this technique. Feel free to comment as honestly as you wish (ok, yeah, I know no-one's actually reading this but I live in hope/delusion).

1. Coffee, toast and three paracetamol take the edge off the too-early morning but have little effect on my mood. The night rattled and shook with anxiety, half-formed worries, limbs in the wrong position, pillow hot and lumpy, cold sweat, hot room. Deep breaths, in and out. Dad taught me this, for growing pains that made me cry. Relax muscles, start with the toes and move up. Never get higher than the tummy, either fall asleep or get frustrated. Never count sheep. Times tables sometimes. Six, eight, or twelve and above. Anything else is too easy. Used to be scared of the dark. Vampires for a while. Death. Size of the universe. Now I’m more mundane – money, love, the future. If there were a burglar in the house, who would stand in front of the others? Eldest first? Who would I die for? Is it okay to be a coward? Are heroes just unimaginative? What will death feel like? Not the afterlife, but the moment when life leaves you. Or you leave life. Would drugs help me sleep?

2. There was something unbelievable in the desk drawer... an enormous black dildo. Not black like a man’s flesh but deep, pitch, inky black. Smooth and shiny, like patent leather. Like an oil slick. Would it be cold to the touch? It looked like an insect, crouched and folded away in the dark, ready to strike if disturbed by an intrusive, searching hand. Nested in amongst the froth of lacy lingerie and odd socks, bold black centre of the swirling colours. A threat? A replacement? A fantasy? A secret or something to be drawn out, raised eyebrows, suggestive smile? Slam the drawer shut. First things first.