The Yes-Yes Board: adventures in ouija world.

‘Twas a dark and stormy night in the year of our Lord 1989, a time before such fripperies as the internet, the mobile telephone, and the ironic hashtag; a time when the only inspirational memes were on fridge magnets, and nobody – but nobody – photographed their dinner. ‘Twas an age without youtube and iPhones, when teenagers had to make their own entertainment. And, for some peculiar reason, the entertainment we chose – in my neck of the woods (we’re humble country folk) – in the autumn of 1989 was… the ouija board.

Step AWAY from the ouija board, children.

Step AWAY from the ouija board, children.

You can’t grow up in the Mormon church (as I did) without generous helpings of fear-mongering on a regular basis: while lots of this mongering (is that a word?) had to do with the perils of burning in hell for the rest of eternity for so much as a cheeky fondle, a lot of it also had to do with ouija boards. If the Mormon church were in charge, every Scrabble set would have come with its own hazard warning: Not to be used for Satanic purposes. There were tales about babies upstairs in their cribs being smothered by curtains – while downstairs their decadent Scrabble-abusing parents were drunkenly communing with Lucifer – and tales about devils appearing in mirrors, and demons seen perching on ouija-loving people’s shoulders, etc etc etc.

One day, religion will cotton on to the fact that warning sixteen year olds not to do something is one of the surest ways to make them do it.

So do it, I did.

To this day, I’ll never be sure if one of us was pushing. We sat down, the three of us, in the lounge of my friend Kim’s big old barn conversion (by which I mean her parents’, of course) out in the poorly-lit sticks, with a circle of Scrabble tiles laid out in front of us and a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ in the middle on two scraps of paper. We upended a wine glass. Her parents were out for the evening, her little sister asleep in bed. When the glass started moving we laughed. It seemed funny, this clumsy old thing that was shunting its way from one tile to the other. It liked to make jokes. It called one of my former boyfriends Mr Long (a not wholly appropriate nickname, it has to be said) and when asked: ‘Where are you?’ responded: ‘behind…’ (comedic pause, in which we all hunched a little further forwards) followed by ‘[name of absent friend: by which I mean ‘friend who had opted to stay at home that evening’ rather than ‘dead’]’. Cue telephone call (landline, naturally) to said friend, to make sure she stayed well away from the curtains.

It stated correctly the date on which I’d lost my virginity, a fact unknown to everyone present but me, and insisted that Toby read the poem he had in his back pocket (a poem declaring his love for Kim), which, thinking about it, Toby may, of course, have engineered (although the pure fear on his face when he had to walk to the bus stop later, alone, in the rural darkness, suggested otherwise). Kim’s little sister woke up and came down: ‘Little one, go back to bed’ the board insisted. By this time the clumsy old glass had gone all Formula One on us. We’d stopped laughing by then. ‘It’ was claiming itself as the ghost of a boy in our school who’d committed suicide, which was far from amusing. When, later, we asked for its name, it began to spell: L-U-C-I- Shit, we all thought. Kim ran upstairs for a cross and a Bible. We read a few verses aloud. Several hours had passed by this time, and we made some kind of bargain (I can’t quite remember) to get ‘it’ to leave: doing ouija boards is weirdly addictive. We could have gone on all night, I think, if we hadn’t got so scared.

Keep away from the curtains.

Keep away from the curtains.

Weeks later, we tried the same experiment with a sceptical German exchange student whose German, non-believey energy must have killed the vibe because, damn it, no matter how much we wished it to, the glass wouldn’t move. (It occurs to me now that Toby wasn’t there then. Hmm.)

A couple of years later, bored one night at uni, a few friends and I (once again, no Toby) decided – as you do – to set up a ouija board on the kitchen table. This time the ghost was a six year old girl. She complained that she couldn’t move properly on the sticky top of the table (this was a student hall, remember), so one of us laid out record sleeves to smooth her way (that’s something you can’t do with an iPod, kids…). ‘Where are you?’ we asked. ‘In heaven,’ she said.

‘Who’s there?’

‘Only children,’ she said. ‘And animals.’

‘Is there a god?’

She said, ‘yes’.

‘How did you die?’

‘I drowned.’

And then, people, she went on to tell us the borough of London in which her death was recorded. She told us her full name. Her full name. And now, of course, in the age of the internet, in a matter of seconds I could google those details and know whether our little girl ghost really did die of drowning, aged six, or was only ever a figment of our teenaged imaginations. There’s a reason, of course, that I’m not telling you that name or the borough of London, the same way I won’t tell the friends who keep pestering me for the information. It’s a long, long time since I believed in ghosts (a long time, too, since I believed in God), but there’ll always be a niggle, I think. I am happier not knowing. When things go bump in the night I’ll continue to know that it’s only the furniture creaking and settling.

Or is it…?

Mwa ha ha! Happy Hallowe’en.

How to be interesting.

Today on ye olde twitter I’ve been a-tweeting some quotes about writing a novel from the artist formerly known as the Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes. tweetTedHughes1 TweetTedHughes12 As you see, I’ve been hashtagging the quotes #NaNoPrep (and thinking, as I write this, how kinda ugly hashtags are – sorry if that’s hashtag-ist – and recalling the chill in my heart, many moons ago, as I watched a web address appear at the foot of the screen on a BBC – yes, BBC – telly programme without a capital letter as if the whole world had gone e.e. cummings crazy: ‘ugh,’ thought I, ‘well that‘ll never catch on.’ I thought the same thing about the Spice Girls, incidentally. I have my fingers in many proverbial pies, but never, as I learnt long ago, on the pulse of the nation.)

Where was I? Ah yes, #NaNoPrep. If you read my last post you’ll know that by NaNoPrep I’m referring to preparation for ‘NaNoWriMo’ (National Novel Writing Month), and if that means about as much to you as Fermat’s Last Theorem, or an episode of Golden Balls, or some other unfathomable thing, you’d be best off (a) reading that last post instead, or (b) switching off the internet and doing something less boring (one for the 70s kids). There’s a reason these quotes are especially apt if you’re planning your November novel; and here’s one that is far too long for twitter, but is probably most useful of all:

‘Now when you are writing a novel […] you are constantly thinking of what is coming up next, and there occasionally arrives a time when it seems to you that nothing comes next – you dry up, you run out of ideas. This is the commonest difficulty among writers who write long stories. Even if they are the sort that plan out every incident ahead, they are sometimes brought to a stop, and their next incident somehow will not go, it will not come to life, it no longer seems the right thing, and they are stuck. This is a sign that the story has led them outside their genuine interests, it has lured them over the boundary into country that they have no real feeling for. It is as if their brains said: “We have nothing to say about this, we don’t know anything about it and we don’t feel anything about it and it bores us.”‘ (Italics mine. This is from Poetry in the Making: A Handbook for Writing and Teaching, which I heartily recommend to all writers.)

In spite of being on Team Sylvia, I've always been slightly in love with Ted Hughes.

In spite of being on Team Sylvia, I’ve always been slightly in love with Ted Hughes.

I have spent about two years so far on my novel and during those two eventful years I have stubbed my poor toes on the wooden furniture of a bad idea more times than I care to remember. And what I can say, hand on heart, is that Ted Hughes is right. There are days, or at least the beginnings of days, when your sentences ramble for England (I’m picturing un-herded sheep as I write this); you can’t find your rhythm; you fill your basket from the adverb aisle of the word market. None of those things, however, is fatal, so long as you’re writing about something that interests you. It might all be tangled and muddled and, damn it, the thing in your head is too complex and too beautiful to ever be pinned down in words, at least by a dufus like you, but hurray-with-bells-on if that’s the case: because, if it’s beautiful in your head, then you’ve been there, and done it, and seen it, and felt it, and even perhaps smelt it, and all that’s left now is to find the appropriate words to describe it (and if you don’t really enjoy finding words to describe things, then might I humbly suggest that ‘writer’ is possibly not your calling in life?). I don’t mean to be glib about this: it is incredibly bloody frustrating to argue all day with yourself about whether a non-existent object is ‘ointment pink’ or ‘sulphur yellow’, with all the particular repercussions and connotations each entails, but it’s sort of fun too, right?

Pesky sentences being all untidy. Image at https://www.travelblog.org/Photos/2350258

Pesky sentences being all untidy. Image at https://www.travelblog.org/Photos/2350258

Sometimes, though, no matter how lovingly we nurse it, our scene, or our chapter, or perhaps our entire novel, is on life support, being fed through a tube. In their white coats the doctors are circling, avoiding our eye, mumbling something in sombre tones about making decisions, and brain death, and needing the bed for new patients. As you try to ignore them your prose gets a straw-clutching case of the ‘Suddenly She‘s, (I do love the word ‘suddenly’, sparingly used, but as a substitute for genuine surprise and/or tension it’s a giant no-no); you wonder if somehow your head has a leak in the back, where the hair is, and all of the words you once knew – the good words – have seeped out… And the ones you still know (like suddenly, and realised, and almost, and sort of) lie flat on the page, like words, and refuse to transform into images, sounds, and textures… in that case it’s time to stop blaming the sentences. It isn’t your sentences that have rambled too far (we’re back to the sheep again now): it’s you. Without knowing it, you’ve crossed the border into country you ‘have no real feeling for’.

It is a dark place. It is forlorn and empty, peopled with mutes made of cardboard, and ‘shutter stock’ images straight from a film you once saw, and dialogue made entirely from cheese. Cue Harrison Ford to writer-director George Lucas (on the set of Star Wars): ‘You can type this shit, but you can’t say it’. And, likewise, you can type as much shit as you want (far more than the 1667 words a day that will claim you NaNoWriMo victory), but if it’s all written in ‘don’t-care country’ then what, pray tell, is the point? Let’s forget about sheep for a moment and turn to horses: more specifically, the flogging of dead ones. (Not to mention the leading to water of horses who’ve already had quite enough to drink, thank you very much.) Writing ‘interestingly about something that interests you’ is an ongoing concern from the very first ‘ch’ of chapter one to the ‘d’ of the End, and you have to refresh that interest again, and again, and again. Back to Ted:

‘The difference between a fairly interesting writer and a fascinating writer is that the fascinating writer has a better nose for what genuinely excites him, he is hotter on the trail, he has a better instinct for what is truly alive in him. The worse writer may seem to be more sensible in many ways, but he is less sensible in this vital matter: he cannot quite distinguish what is full of life from what is only half-full or empty of it.’

If you’ve signed up for NaNo this year, or you’re thinking about it, I hope you won’t only be thinking of scene arcs, and plot twists, and points of no return, and inciting incidents – as much as those things are important, yes – or ‘thinking it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic’ (Ted again). I hope you’ll be seeing and smelling and touching the scenes you are writing about. And I hope you’ll be noticing what is alive in your writing – what makes it yours, just yours, and nobody else’s – and, most of all, watch where you’re walking. It’s scarily easily to spend the whole month of November in ‘don’t-care country’ and end up with something that’s fit for the bin.

In other words: ‘Don’t think, feel,’ as a wise man once said. ‘It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you’ll miss all that heavenly glory.’ Full marks if you get the reference before watching this clip!

How to be interesting? The answer is: be interested. Remember that, fellow WriMos. And the very best of luck.

A Novel isn’t just for November.

Remember, people: a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. And although (I sincerely hope) it won’t take the whole of your life to write a novel, it will certainly take you a wee bit longer than 30 days. (Dear Calendar Gods: if NaNo gets much bigger, you might consider bumping November up to 31?) images-4

For the uninitiated, I’m talking about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, as it’s known by the initiated, or just plain ‘NaNo’ if you’re really well acquainted). It’s been running for 15 years (as I learnt last night at my local chapter’s inaugural meeting: more about NaNo’s history here if you’re interested), in which time it’s snowballed from local and folksy to a global phenomenon with more than 300,000 participants. Those participants sign up to write ‘a novel’ – or at least 50,000 words of one – in the month of November: that’s 1667 words a day: Twitter users who find the #amwriting hashtag slightly sick-making may find they have steam coming out of their ears by 1st December as word counts, and coffee consumption, and sample sentences are relentlessly tweeted. We all have a novel inside us, as the old adage would have it. And November is the month you get to regurgitate it into the cold, cruel world.

As tweeted by Scott Dykes (@Scott_Writing)

As tweeted by Scott Dykes (@Scott_Writing)

First off, some facts from that cold, cruel world: most novels are around 80,000 words, so ‘National Two-Thirds-of-a-Novel Writing Month’ would perhaps be more honest. Any novel genuinely written in a month is unlikely to be one I’d care to read (with the exception of those by my ex, who could churn out an entire series of YA novels while I sat deliberating over the placement of a comma in my opening sentence. Bastard!) As I said in a previous post, there are no short-cuts to writing a novel, although some people seem to make lighter work of it than others (I am of course among ‘The Others’). It isn’t difficult at all to write 50,000 words in 30 days: what’s trickier is writing good ones. Ideally, in the run-up to ‘NaNo’ you will have done 1 to 2 years of #NaNoPrep (as twitter has it). You might think I’m joking, but no. ‘Fraid not. The majority of novels take 3 or 4 years on average from initial concept to completion. I first started ‘composting’ mine (you might prefer brewing, or fermenting) about 2 and a half years ago, when a yellow-haired girl appeared in one of my notebooks, pushing a bicycle. I ‘did’ NaNo in 2012 in an effort to sketch out the world of my book (as I blogged about here), before finding myself on the Arts Council’s Escalator programme in 2013 and receiving a grant for the writing of said novel, now called Madder Hall. In its many, many, many incarnations, the book has had characters called Morag, Arthur, Hestia, Dickon, and even Mr Horn (fnar fnar): all of which are now resting in peace in the graveyard of my imagination. I’ve slashed and burned the majority of my cast. I’ve turned the structure upside down and inside out. I’ve gone backwards in time (from 1989 to 1979), and forwards in time (1910 to 1939). I had lots of dead 12 year old girls: I have none now. The book as it was in 2012 bears so little resemblance to what I have now that I’ve thought about calling it (sorry, poor joke; can’t resist) Renee Zellweger.

By now you may be wondering, in the style of Edwin Starr: ‘NaNo… HUH… yeah… what is it good for?’ The answer is not, I’m happy to say, ‘absolutely nothing’. (But, NB, war is still useless; no change there). NaNo is good (in my humble opinion) for the following things:

Solidarity: It’s a lonely business, writing. And although NaNo can’t, and won’t, detract from the I’m-so-ronery  aloneness of it all (only click that link if you’re A-Ok with the F word, by the way) it does provide you with a virtual world full of shoulders to cry on (outside of the month of November you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who gives two shits). There’s a Blitz-like ‘all in it together’ sort of spirit. No, we’re not being bombed – but we might be bombing, quite hard. And a kind word from a fellow bomber can lift you from the doldrums long enough to get you writing again.

Permission to write badly: ‘The first draft of anything is shit,’ as Hemingway said. Nonetheless, there’s a common tendency for one’s inner editor to step in from the very get-go. You type your first sentence and out of the ether (with snakes in her hair) she emerges: ‘You think you can write? I’ve seen two year olds with a crayon in each fist compose sentences with more verve’, etc, etc, etc. The great Christopher Isherwood (creator of the Sally Bowles stories that became Cabaret, and writer of one of my favourite autobiographies: Christopher and his Kind) excreted first drafts of such abysmal awfulness (allegedly) that he’d never show them to a living soul.

How DARE you use an adverb in my presence?

How DARE you use an adverb in my presence?

When you’ve got to write 1667 words a day, no matter what (and, let’s be honest, some days you’ll be writing 3334 because yesterday, meh, not entirely sure what happened to yesterday) your snake-haired inner editor is required to piss off, please and thank you, and let you get on with the sketching of your novel. Because that’s what it is. An outline. Don’t whatever you do waste perfect prose on your very first draft, because changes will need to be made, and sentences perfect as neatly-crossed pairs of kittens’ paws are so much harder to brutally murder than passages with the prose-style panache of a bag of spanners. Trust me on this.

I said CROSSED paws, god-dammit!

I said CROSSED paws, god-dammit!

Permission to write at all: This, folks, is probably the single, most valid reason for NaNo’s existence. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that anyone writing a novel, unless paid to do so, is (a) sadly deluded in the manner of 97% of X-factor contestants, (b) a decadent, work shy lay about, (c) not really serious, surely, and (d) ought to bloody well get off that computer now and feed the kids/take the bins out/mow the lawn (delete as appropriate).

In order to write you need time. And in order to carve out that time you will need at least 97% of your nearest and dearest to give you permission to tappity-tap at your keyboard, no matter how futile it seems from their perspective – and probably, often, from yours too. (Underestimate at your peril the power of raised eyebrows to make the amateur writer die a tiny death inside.) I think NaNo is good, huh, yeah, for precisely this reason: the artificially-imposed deadline (common to so many TV shows) that allows you to say ‘I’ve got to write, sorry, so please go away’. Permission to write? Permission to come aboard the Good Ship Writer, and sail far away from the land of raised eyebrows. At least, until December.

The Moving Image.

Hemingway wrote naked (allegedly); Agatha Christie wrote anywhere – even in the bath. Kerouac lit a candle before he began (and blew it out again once finished). Simone de Beauvoir drank tea first, writing from ten until one. Murakami (Haruki this is – not sure what Ryu gets up to) puts her laziness to shame: he gets up at 4 a.m. to start writing (and spends his afternoons running). So too does Barbara Kingsolver (wake up at 4, that is). Kurt Vonnegut interspersed words with push-ups. Truman Capote wrote lying down. Stephen King even writes on his birthday. James Joyce was fond of blue pencil. Finnegan’s Wake was written with crayons on cardboard…

And so it goes on. How do you write? Naked, with crayons, immersed in water? Perhaps you have to be facing east, or wearing your favourite knickers? Perhaps, like Agatha, you can write anywhere (washing dishes, she said, was a great time to think about plot). What inspires you? What gets you started? When I teach beginners’ classes, I always give prompts for my students to write from, and I make those prompts as concrete as possible: the smell of wet washing; the itch of head lice; the tap of a footstep. The thing is, no matter how ‘pro’ you are, as a writer, you’re always responding to prompts, though it might be that you don’t even notice the prompt anymore, that you don’t even realise you heard it, or saw it: with practice, it gets to be natural. Writers go out in the world, like Frances in Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, and recharge themselves ‘like a battery’.

A couple of weeks ago I gave a reading at the Sound and Vision festival. If you’re going to read Gothic fiction, it might as well be in a candlelit mediaeval church (named for a saint who was roasted alive on a gridiron, no less) and it might as well be followed by a showing of Nosferatu (you can watch it here), a masterpiece of German expressionist cinema from 1922 (and memorably remade by Werner Herzog 57 years later), with a live, original soundtrack courtesy of Minima (a taster of that available here.)

They don't make 'em like this anymore.

They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

For me, the first ten minutes didn’t work. The music jarred, the story was duller than I’d remembered it, the church was very cold, my wine was almost finished. And then, just as suddenly as my brain had begun to complain it was bored, I was sucked in – hook, line, and sinker – by both film, and music. A searing cello solo worked like a charm. The sepia faces were beautiful. There were shots unafraid to be long, to be lingering – unashamedly arty (if the concept of unashamed artiness in cinema existed then; I’m not sure) – and, above all, too, we were watching a film that is 92 years old as I write (although maths has never been my strong point; do correct me if I’m wrong). We were watching a 92 year old sunset, captured forever (thank god for the last surviving print) on celluloid. We were watching young children, and adults, and animals. We were watching the dead.

Greta Schroder in Nosferatu.

Greta Schroder in Nosferatu.

I’d been vaguely unsatisfied with the reading I’d given (I’m getting to realise that ‘vaguely unsatisfied’ is a common complaint among writers), and thoughts of the ‘shall I give up?’ variety had been crossing my mind… and then this. This extraordinary film. This extraordinary testament to the point of continuing to make art. And it wasn’t a flawless film, of course: but, fleetingly, it was brilliant. It reached in and spoke to my soul. (And I say this as an atheist.) On this occasion, the moving image was truly moving. It said things to me about the human condition – and that, ultimately, is what I’m always looking for. It is very strange indeed to be alive. It is stranger than strange. And, of course, I like blockbuster rubbish that makes me forget that I’m going to die, one day, but I also like art that reminds me. Nosferatu recharged my artistic batteries, as if Murnau had risen, somehow, from the grave to say: ‘Lynsey, don’t give up. What you’ve written today may be Scheisse, but what you may write tomorrow – well, that might be wonderful.’

As I write, I have owls on my desk: not real owls, naturally (although that would be great), but one made of stone, and one made of clay. And those owls (barring accidents) will outlast me. (Their eyes have an especially penetrating quality as I contemplate this.) Being mortal – bio-degradable, you might say, like an eco-friendly shopping bag – every particle of myself will be gone from this earth at some point in the future. I’ll see my last sunset, I’ll write my last sentence, I’ll watch my last film. It would be nice, I think, to leave something behind, like those flickering, yellow-tinged images that we watched, sipping wine, through the candlelight. The literary equivalent of a 92 year-old-sunset. Or, at the very least, a stone owl.