Posts Tagged ‘inspiration’

Sweating the small stuff

March 4, 2011 4 comments

Sometimes it’s the small stuff that causes the most problems.

I’m doing 1000-1500 words/day on a big project and other stuff as well. What I’m hung up on, though, is an invitation to write a piece of flash fiction, 300-500 words. It’s taking me longer to get that together than I’d normally take to write a short story – in fact I’ve written one short story and part of another on the fly, 3000-plus words, in addition to other stuff, since I started to think about the flash piece.

Why am I having this difficulty? Well, part of it is that I’m writing on a theme suggested by someone else. Sometimes I can do it, sometimes not. This particular theme is a politically hot one at the moment which seems to be pushing my imagination in a direction I think isn’t all that helpful. And part of it is that I’m starting from a point at which I have half a dozen ideas, but incomplete ones – words, phrases, ideas or images that have come to me from various sources (TV, conversations, things I came across while looking up references, dreams). Often when that happens, such things suddenly link together because my unconscious works on them and integrates them. On this occasion, not.

So I’ve been falling back on Plan B, which is the one Douglas Adams once described as ‘looking at a blank screen until your eyes bleed’.

I have one trait that is sometimes a disadvantage, but in this case may be helpful – what my parents, when I was a kid, described as a ‘grasshopper mind’. I’m usually writing three or four things at once, often skipping between them as an idea in one context suddenly seems more applicable in another. So for the moment I’ll just let the ideas sit and sweat. If I keep pushing on the other projects something useful will spark off in the back of my brain, I suspect.

It may come too late for the thing I’ve been invited to submit for, which would be a shame – but what the hell, once it’s done, it’s done, and I can use it elsewhere.


On being creative and discovering resources

February 9, 2011 Leave a comment

If you’ve seen some of my older posts about finance and creative work, you’ll be interested in this: Art of Hustle’s post ‘Baller on a Budget: Turning Resources into Riches’, which expands on and exemplifies themes similar to the ones I’ve been preoccupied with for some time.

Headline details: as a creative person you sit on a number of resources – ones that are yours (skill, networks, imagination etc.) and ones that are part of your network (places you go, things you do, people you know). You may not even recognise those things as ‘resources’, but that’s what they are. Equally, ‘folks aiming to equally give and receive can build lasting partnerships, expanded patronage, and repeat business’. So there’s a creative business model there, and the post is a detailed working through and example of how to put it in motion.


Ionesco and me: the quest for meaning

January 22, 2011 1 comment

Eugène Ionesco (born Eugen Ionescu, 1909-1994), was a Romanian/French playwright, known particularly for his 1948 play ‘The Bald Soprano’ (La Cantatrice Chauve).

Wikipedia describes the background to his writing of the play, which came about from his experience of learning English:

At the age of 40 he decided to learn English using the Assimil method, conscientiously copying whole sentences in order to memorize them. Re-reading them, he began to feel that he was not learning English, rather he was discovering some astonishing truths such as the fact that there are seven days in a week, that the ceiling is up and the floor is down; things which he already knew, but which suddenly struck him as being as stupefying as they were indisputably true.

This feeling only intensified with the introduction in later lessons of the characters known as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. To his astonishment, Mrs. Smith informed her husband that they had several children, that they lived in the vicinity of London, that their name was Smith, that Mr. Smith was a clerk, and that they had a servant, Mary, who was English like themselves. What was remarkable about Mrs. Smith, he thought, was her eminently methodical procedure in her quest for truth. For Ionesco, the clichés and truisms of the conversation primer disintegrated into wild caricature and parody with language itself disintegrating into disjointed fragments of words.

I came across this Wikipedia entry for essentially random reasons while researching something else. But it triggered a memory. A little over 20 years ago I started to learn German, using a series of workbooks with audio tapes. I ended up speaking a reasonable amount of German though these days I probably couldn’t do more than order a coffee or buy a train ticket.

The relevant thing is, though, that the workbook and tapes started with a German family – father, mother, son and daughter – who were returning to Germany after many years in Argentina. They rented an apartment, went to the shops, bought stuff and went to tourist locations. I don’t remember them having any visible means of income. There wasn’t any reason given as to why they’d returned to Germany, or what their plans were. Similarly, when their ‘uncle’ who was an ‘engineer’ arrived to visit them, it looked quite suspicious. Whose uncle was he, exactly? Since he was an engineer, that gave him licence to look at architecture, railways, and other facilities, but there was no indication of why he might have been interested in those things. Also, he had a number of packages in his luggage that weren’t easily explained.

So what was going on?

My imagination started to fill in the gaps. The parents might have been war criminals who’d emigrated to Argentina and lived a double life. Or they might have been part of some organised crime crime group, or terrorists. I was, after all, listening to the tapes only a few years after the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof group, while there were also stories circulating at that time about attempts to recover lost artworks looted by the Nazis.

So, I thought, they were returning to Germany with some nefarious scheme in mind. The fact they were a ‘family’ was just a cover, and they had to keep reminding each other of everyday details in order to keep their story consistent. The uncle was probably a minder, or handler, or courier, there to deliver items or have some part in whatever secret plot they were involved in.

And so it went on. My fantasy became far more elaborate than this and filled in many of the gaps in the language course ‘narrative’, to the point that it seemed the material in the audio tapes and workbooks were clearly there to mislead the reader about the real intentions of these characters.

This meant I learned a lot of German vocabulary that wasn’t in the language course, but ended up not paying a great deal of attention to the course itself… To this day I’m not sure whether an active imagination was a help or a hindrance. Possibly both, in equal measure but in different ways.

Unlike Ionesco I didn’t write a play about my experiences. Or even a short story. But since the Wikipedia entry triggered the memory, I might still write something about it, someday…

Anyone else have similar experiences?

JG Ballard on writing

December 30, 2010 Leave a comment

There’s a lot of it about. Quite why the end of the year should prompt a lot of people to find appropriate quotes I don’t know – maybe to sum up this year and look forward to the next? But I thought I’d follow the trend for once rather than try to buck it.

James Graham Ballard (1930–2009) was, as many of you no doubt know, an English novelist and short story writer whose work was often thought of as science fiction although this would be a very limited description of the range of work he published, much of it not fitting neatly into any genre pigeonholes. He will probably be best remembered for Crash (1973, which later became a controversial film by David Cronenberg), and Empire of the Sun (1984, an account of his childhood that was also made into a film by Steven Spielberg). However he wrote 18 novels and probably hundreds of short stories, and among many other things was a major influence on a whole lot of British musicians from the 1980s to date. And much of his work influenced my own younger self.

Enough of that. Things he said about writing:

  • Any fool can write a novel but it takes real genius to sell it.
  • Given that external reality is a fiction, the writer’s role is almost superfluous. He does not need to invent the fiction because it is already there.
  • Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.
  • Sooner or later, everything turns into television.

(I’ve never been sure if that was just an ironic comment or a warning!)

  • In the post-Warhol era a single gesture such as uncrossing one’s legs will have more significance than all the pages in War and Peace.

(I guess the implication is: write short things, not long ones…)

  • Fiction is a branch of neurology: the scenarios of nerve and blood vessels are the written mythologies of memory and desire.
  • Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.

A warning there about how what’s imagined and  written today becomes the reality of tomorrow?

And finally:

  • A lifetime’s experience urges me to utter a warning cry: do anything else, take someone’s golden retriever for a walk, run away with a saxophone player. Perhaps what’s wrong with being a writer is that one can’t even say ‘good luck’ – luck plays no part in the writing of a novel. No happy accidents as with the paint pot or chisel. I don’t think you can say anything, really. I’ve always wanted to juggle and ride a unicycle, but I dare say if I ever asked the advice of an acrobat he would say, ‘All you do is get on and start pedaling’.

Yes, I’m still pedaling…

I haven’t given detailed sources but if anyone’s desperately interested, the quotes are all google-able.


August 4, 2010 6 comments

I’ve pretty much always had a drum or two around the house, either bought on holidays or bought for me as presents. But I rarely do much with them. This is the current one:

Small djembe drum

A small djembe

(The pic, by the way, is courtesy of Chris Cafferkey – it is my drum, but the background is a Seminole-style patchwork quilt she made a few years back).

I ended up doing a bit of drumming round the fire at a pagan gathering a while ago – where I was doing the fire stuff you’ll see in previous blog entries – and when I saw an ad for a local drumming workshop, it piqued my curiosity.

See, here’s the thing. Being a writer, I spend about 110% of my waking hours in front of my computer, writing stuff – or researching and preparing to write, or editing. It’s all very right-brain, word-based, analytic stuff. I write some things that look like stream-of-consciousness, but when they get fitted into stories it’s all carefully manicured and tailored to the plot… And the idea of crossing over to the ‘other side’ and doing something more physical, more visceral, perhaps, appealed.

So I went to the workshop. And learned a lot in a short space of time.

First, I’m crap at drumming. That much I already knew. But I could keep a simple beat going, at least. Apparently if I bothered to practice every day for say three months I could get pretty good.

Second, I learned some basic technique. For djembe this is essentially the bass slap, the higher-pitched ‘tone’ when you hit towards the edge of the skin and the ringing tone you can get from a glancing blow on the very edge. Yes, there are many more techniques. I said I was a beginner and these are basics. I found my own way of working out a rhythm, running it to a lyric in my head. Actually I already knew that one from years back, but doing it again was a challenge. And I learned I’ve very right-handed, struggling to lead into any beat with my left hand.

Third, and most importantly, I was impressed by the teaching/learning style. I guess I’m used to ‘learning’ being a case of discussing something, working it through in a conversation of some kind, and then putting it into practice. Almost every type of learning I’ve done, from academic to shiatsu to first aid, follows this general pattern. This, however, was very different. If you want to learn to drum – you drum. You see and hear what the workshop leader is doing, and try to replicate it, and then he goes off into something else that makes the beat more complex or interesting, and you keep going, and then he comes back to the basic beat and takes you off in another direction. It’s a whole lot more intuitive and I found I was using my whole body, almost doing a sitting-down dance, in order to keep time.

Which takes me to a fourth observation, which is how stiff my body is from all the sitting-down-thinking-and-typing I tend to do.

Lots more as well. I noticed how the drum I was playing was reverberating to the other drums, for example. And how loud a drum really is when you go at it (which at home, with neighbours, I almost never do). And I’ve decided I need a bigger drum because the 8-inch diameter is basically the whole length of my hand, which makes a bass slap tricky.

I’m going to keep going. At home, and not necessarily in that particular workshop because it’s Afro-Caribbean based and that’s not my particular thing, but maybe there are other groups elsewhere. But the more left-brain, intuitive, rhythmic side of me needs to come out from wherever I’ve been hiding it. And it’s a good upper-body workout as well… It must have been inspirational because I’ve started randomly hitting and slapping things just to see what they sound like and whether I can copy a rhythm – the rhythm of the dishwasher as its working, for example…

I’m sure there are more ‘analytic’ sides to drumming; but for the moment that’s not how I’m engaging with it. I’m seeing it as a counterpoint to the other stuff I do, not a replication of it.

In other news, I’m planning on going to a music event of a totally different kind, Stench, at Fabrika, Leicester on Saturday (they’re running Sunday as well, but I’m not sure I can make it then). This will be home-made electronic music, the kind where people have fiddled and rebuilt and customised various electrical appliances to make interesting sounds. Should be fun.

And for now, it’s back to the sitting-at-keyboard-thinking-and-writing thing…

Stories from the grave?

June 9, 2010 2 comments

I was in Glasgow some while back, and in a free moment went wandering round the Necropolis – the large cemetery on the eastern side of the city centre. You may have seen it on TV as the location for a couple of wildlife programmes, since deer live there; you may, at some point in the future, see it as the basis for a location in a story – especially since one of the tombs looks for all the world like a Victorian Gothic space rocket.

Walking around the Necropolis, I got to thinking about someone I know on WordPress who specialises in writing novels based on Scottish settings. Because you’d think, wouldn’t you, that a Scottish setting would imply Scottish characters – and indeed many of those residing in the Necropolis were pillars of Scottish society. Quite a few tombs were inscribed with the person’s name and dates, and a legend such as ‘Merchant and Protestant’.

But one tomb set me thinking, and then investigating. I spotted it because it was well tended, with fresh flowers and candles in small glass containers. It belonged to someone who died in 1832. And it was inscribed to someone as (I’m writing from memory, I didn’t make a note at the time) ‘Lieutenant in the late Polish Army, died in exile, Greenock, 1832’.

I don’t know this particular person’s story. But one part of it at least has to do with Polish history. By 1795 the Polish state (what was then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) had ceased to exist, most of the territory of Poland having been partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria. For a number of years there were periodic changes in the control of various bits of territory and semi-independent vassal statelets, but the only part of Poland that might be thought of as ‘Polish’, in that nobody had actually annexed it, was a coastal area around Krolewiec. This state of affairs led to the ‘November Uprising’ of 1830, a challenge principally against Russian control that was quickly repressed.

From 1831 onwards, there was a ‘Great Emigration’ in which Polish combatants, political elites, and many of the Polish intelligentsia (including, for example, Chopin) became refugees. I’d assume this Lieutenant also was a refugee, and died a year or two after arriving in Greenock.

Whatever he did in Scotland when he arrived, did it involve fathering children? Has he created a Polish/Scottish family that continues to remember him? Why were there flowers and candles? And how did he come to be buried with the great and good of Glasgow in the Necropolis, rather than in a local Greenock cemetery?

There are, when I think about it, plenty of other ‘foreigners’ who’ve been involved in Scottish history (apart from the English!) – French, obviously, but also people of Italian descent mostly from the period from the 1890s up to World War 1, Lithuanians, some (principally Lithuanian) Jews who became a distinct population subgroup in the 1700s and so forth.

And I’m sure there are plenty of other places in the world where wandering in a cemetery would leave you thinking ‘how on earth did this person come to be living in this part of the world?’. But probing this story gave me a little more insight into European history. And for a writer, that turns out to be worthwhile at a number of levels beyond passing curiosity.

For one thing, a novel based on Scotland would probably be enriched by having characters such as an emigre Polish lieutenant in it. For another, the twists and turns of Polish history, the uprising and the Great Emigration would make an amazing setting for a historical novel (or, suitably adapted, a science fiction novel).

So anyway… whoever remembers this lieutenant and tends his grave, thank you for leading me on a bit of a journey of historical exploration that was interesting on its own terms, whether or not I ever incorporate any of it into my fiction.

Fertile but febrile

May 12, 2010 Leave a comment

So how have I been these last couple of days?

Fertile to the point of being febrile would be a good description. I’ve had a few days where almost anything that happens – dreams, books I read, snatches of TV, overheard conversations, even the bloody pencil on my desk, spark off trains of thought that could be either new stories or elements within stories i want to write. I have a working file of notes – i.e. one-liners, a sentence or two of description, a couple of sentences from a TV or radio news item or book quote, each of which captures an idea I want to use at some point. And the file is 13000 words.

And actually this is a bit of a problem because what I’m trying to do at the moment is (a) write a story that’s already mapped out in my head, (b) rewrite a rejected story that’s a bit too Dennis Wheatley-ish in tone and feel so it’s more gritty and urban, and most importantly (c) carry on working through writing a distance learning module – currently this involves an overview and discussion of the occasionally complex links between ethics and law, which will enable students to make sense of the readings they’ll be required to on the topic. Being fertile and febrile is not a good state of mind for this, it’s too distracting.

While I think about it, I’ll also mention that as part of the distracted state I also wrote 1000 words last night diarising some conversations I had with a friend of mine who’s having a very hard time. Looking back at the things that have happened to him in the last month, it reads more like a horror story.

Sample (these relate to April: there’s more from May I have yet to write up):
– Some low-value items including a jar of loose change was stolen from his flat by visitors.
– Was assaulted coming out of a nightclub resulting in a short hospital stay for bruising, laceration and suspected concussion. He’d been at the club with a friend who tried to make out with another guy’s girlfriend; the guy initially attacked his friend and then him. This was caputered on CCTV, the offender arrested but later cautioned.
– As a result of stress (including threats made against him by dickhead lowlifes for fairly trivial reasons) had an episode in which he lost the plot and self-harmed resulting in outpatient treatment for severe cuts to a finger.
– Was threatened with eviction due primarily to complaints about noise from his flat, which admittedly has been an ongoing thing. He’s had a long-standing problem with some people he does know coming round with people he doesn’t, who know he’s easy to bully and want to use his place as a drinking den. Some of the disturbance was them; some of it was him trying to prevent them busting into his flat.
– Had a toothache which he refused to see a dentist about (he has a longstanding phobia of dentists). Eventually he went to the dental department at the local hospital which confirmed three abcesses, prescribed DF118s for the pain and told him to return next day for treatment. Instead he drank (why do young people always think they’re immortal?) which was an extremely bad idea due to the interaction between DF118s and alcohol. As I understand it he want into a kind of manic state during which he threw a bottle through the window of the people he believed had stolen from him. For this he was arrested and cautioned, and missed the hospital appointment.
– His flat was burgled a few days later. Not much stolen, because he doesn’t have much. But a window was smashed for entry and some other damage done.

The bottom line seems to be that if you live in a not-so-good area and don’t choose your friends with care, you end up in a situation where others try to exploit you; stuff that happened a while back can haunt you; small problems can turn into huge problems; you don’t have the resources to cope with small problems when they’re small, let alone when they become big; stress kicks in and you make bad choices; and you’re much more vulnerable to random bad stuff when you’re stressed. That’s not to deny that mixing DF118s and alcohol is an extremely bad idea, of course, not least because it could have been life-threatening and in that sense he was lucky. But there’s also the existentialist side of it – in some situations hell really is other people.

So maybe my own issue with getting distracted isn’t such a major thing after all…

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