What would I rescue?

There were more pictures on the news last night of another area in Australia inundated with flooding.  Yet more people have been told to evacuate their homes, and there were images of laden vehicles clogging the roads away from the water.

If you know the chances are that everything you leave behind will be destroyed or lost, what do you decide to take with you?  How do you choose?

You’d want practical things like food and water, and a change of clothes; but what other things would you select?  Things with intrinsic value, or those with only sentimental worth?

What do those choices say about you?

In Amy Tan’s short story ‘The Joy Luck Club‘ (The Granta Book of the American Short Story, 1998)  an old lady tells a story of fleeing to escape the invading Japanese, and dragging her valuables with her, but as she tires and the straps cut into her hands and the weight bears down on her shoulders, she gradually discards first the heavy things, and then the valuable, and even her children.

This story is repeated among all the others fleeing as the treasures accumulating at the side of the road increase in value the further from the city they go.

It is a story of tragedy told in four paragraphs, speaking through practicalities which we can understand, even though we have never had to make those terrible decisions.

Similarly, in the story ‘The Things They Carried‘ by Tim O’Brien (Granta) the story of a platoon of US soldiers in Vietnam is told through the lens of the things that they have with them; the army issued kit and the small personal items.  Their past narratives are told through their possessions; but it is the burning and abandonment of precious letters at the end of the story that reveals to us the human cost and the harsh effects of the war on the Lieutenant.

An actor friend has told me that she always imagines what her character has in her pockets, and in her fridge, when she starts on the process of creating her performance.  It is not something that the audience ever needs to know, but it helps furnish a complete person in her own imagination, because it creates a back-story.

It’s a technique I’ve found helpful in story telling too; sometimes the details creep into the writing, sometimes not, but they all inform the scenery in my mind’s eye.

So what would I grab if my home was on fire?

Probably my phone and my laptop.  The phone because that gives direct contact with friends and family; and the laptop to save my novels and stories!

What about you?

Spinning and Weaving

Where is the best place to generate ideas?

And if I can identify it, shouldn’t I spend all my time there?

My friend Gillian says a particular set of traffic lights does it for her.

To my horror, I’ve recently noticed that I’ve been getting ideas for these blog posts while I’ve been sweating and peddling through my spinning classes at the gym.

So let’s get it clear straight away, there is no way I am going to increase my level of participation in what, on the timetable, the gym calls ‘group cycling’; it’s far too much like hard work.

I’m sure there’s some physiological theory that would cite the increase in blood flow to that little bit of my brain that deals with creativity, as the fuel for the ideas; but it’s hard to believe at those moments mid class when I feel particularly oxygen deprived, and bombarded by the percussive volume of the thumping music that accompanies the class.

Being entirely occupied with challenges of survival seems to allow my mind to wander.  Maybe it’s similar to thinking about something else to overcome the frustration of not being able to remember the word or name that I’m trying to find.

A further challenge, after coming up with an idea, is to retain it until I’ve got home and have the wherewithal to write it down, as, because of my aversion to locker rooms, the only things I take with me are a bottle of water and my house keys.

Not every idea is a good one, but I need as many as I can garner in order to meet the postaday2011 challenge; so I’m slowly developing a system of writing a headline as soon as I can, and then when I sit down to write a post I expand and embroider the ones that appeal at that moment.

Sometimes I stay on the track I originally had in mind; sometimes I wander right off piste, and it’s a relief that either outcome is fine for the moment.

Still no clue, though, as to how to handle my pavlovian reaction to one of the spinning music tracks creeping up on me in restaurants and bars.

Three characters in search of a story

I used to travel into central London early each morning during the working week.  Setting off before the main rush hour shortened the Tube journey time and gave me more time to sit over my coffee in Starbucks or Costa, watching the world, before dragging myself to the office.

For those of you who have never experienced it, New Oxford Street can be quiet at 7:45 am.  But I was not the only one with an early morning routine.

Most days I would pass middle aged twins walking in the opposite direction, at approximately the same spot outside the umbrella shop, at approximately the same time.

I know they were twins because they were both petite and neat, with their bleach blonde hair styled in the same style short at the back with a  curly back-combed fringe.  They wore identical tight stonewashed jeans with sparkly appliqué down the seams which glinted as they clipped along in their black stiletto boots.  And their faces were indistinguishable from each other.

Every time I saw them and our eyes met briefly I would wonder where they were going, where they’d been, and especially why two adult women would voluntarily dress exactly the same as each other all the time.

I would say to myself,  there must be a story there.  And then the moment later, I must be able to make one up.  I’ve tried, but so far I’ve managed nothing more than a few unsatisfactory paragraphs .  The twins intrigued me, but somehow not enough to come up with a story for them.

After passing the women, I would sit in the window in Starbucks and watch as the morning activity in the street multiplied, as the deliveries arrived and the queue for coffees grew.

Among the ebb and flow of the crowd I noticed the street sweeper, carefully running his broom along the edge of the pavement making small piles of dirt and cigarette butts spaced evenly in the roadside for his return to gather them up.

I noticed him because of  his methodical approach to his work and for his pristine appearance: his overalls and gloves were clean, his baseball cap was clean and white; and he was listening to something through earphones.

Not only did I want to know his story, how it was possible to keep his clothes so clean while doing such a dirty job; why would he choose such a job?  Was he driven by the desire for cleanliness to endlessly sweep the midden that is the bottom end of Tottenham Court Road? And most of all what was he listening to?  Radio 4 or hiphop?  Opera or pop?

I wish I knew.

I have a lingering sense of failure.  Maybe one day I’ll find their story; in the meantime, maybe you have one?

Getting the words out

I went to see ‘The King’s Speech’ at the cinema last week.  Leaving aside the excellence of the performances, the film set me thinking about how many ways it is possible to get stuck while trying to communicate.

I don’t know very much about what can cause a stutter; but the implications of the movie were that there are both psychological and physical aspects, which are most likely different for each sufferer.

To be honest, I wasn’t much interested in the cod  psychological explanations for George VI’s problem that were offered by the film; it was sufficiently clear that standing over him and shouting ‘Spit it out, boy,’ wasn’t going to help him speak fluently, nor indeed would cigarette smoke relax his throat.

The interesting thing about the story was the relationship as portrayed between King and therapist, and the apparent silliness of some of the exercises used in the therapy.

What was very striking, and moving, was that even at the end of all the speech therapy sessions, the King was not cured; instead all that had been achieved was that he had been equipped with techniques to overcome the worst of the barriers that afflicted him.  Along with all the fresh air and breathing exercises he learnt ways to trick himself into enunciating problematic consonants, singing some phrases, leaping into the K of king from a springboard of a short a before it; thus, a-king.

There are surely parallels in trying  to force out written words when you feel constrained or fearful that it’s not going to go well.  Maybe I have to trick myself by finding the right little springboard.  The blank page requires a first sentence, by applying the pressure of thinking that first sentence has to make exactly the right impact I can render myself incapable; maybe the best place to start is in the middle, and write around the centre from there.

So I started drafting this blog post here.

In a different life, some years ago, I had to attend a course in process management.  The only thing I remember about it was a quick case study illustrated with comical little sketches.

There is a bottling line in a factory; the penultimate step in the process is the placing of a metal cap on each bottle. Every fourth lid comes out of the machine crooked.  What is the best way to address the problem?

Option 1: Assign a man to stand beside the conveyor belt, equip him with a hammer and instruct him to bang each of the crooked tops until it is straight.

Option 2: Stop the machine, find out why it is malfunctioning on every fourth bottle, and fix it.

On the day, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that the correct answer did not involve the man with a hammer.  I’ve often thought of this analogy when I’ve watched people do things in a way that I, from my rather superior vantage point, have thought was particularly  inefficient.

But I am on the verge of discarding it as an appropriate metaphor for writing. Sometimes it might be unhelpful to go back and try to fix everything from the beginning; it might be better to develop a few quick and dirty techniques for dealing with the lumps and bumps in the early drafts, and stop worrying about it.

Either that, or stand back for a moment and admire the crookedness of the caps.

Is there a schedule?

One of my friends from my life in the business world has asked me if I will be posting on line at the same time every day.  If I did, it would make it easier to follow me.  Now that, on the one hand is extremely flattering, that it might be worth scheduling me into a busy diary.  On the other hand, it fills me with anxiety.

Not only would I, a novice blogger, be committed to the postaday2011 challenge, I’d be committing to a daily timetable.  Isn’t the whole point of ‘opting out’ not to have to obey irksome conventional norms?  Can’t I be one those arty types that float about doodling for a bit, being generally flaky about punctuality?

Probably not.

Years of education and professional experience have made me goal orientated – give me a deadline and I’ll meet it.  I am however much less good with promises I make only to myself; I need the risk of someone else’s disappointment to keep me focussed.

I had the great good fortune to be mentored last year by Louise Doughty.  One of the first things she told me was that I had to organise my writing time and commit to it; essentially rephrasing the aphorism about the art of writing being the the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.


I’ll give it a go (at least on weekdays)

And now my mind is racing ahead, writing to do lists and consulting my diary to check next week’s appointments.   One of the consequences of aiming for ‘on time publishing’ is that I will need to build up a little store of drafts, a couple in my back pocket and one behind my ear, which can be brushed up swiftly and posted.  Maybe I’ll need a daily alarm on my phone; writing sessions deep into the night; a Gantt chart to manage the process……Stop!


One day at a time…..

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