Stragile and frong.

I think it’s all because I can’t play chess. I have the kind of brain that can’t think ahead.

I want what I want in the moment I want it. So what if (googles frantically) in two moves from now my king will be nakedly alone, on the brink of kidnap? (Not quite how google described it.) For starters, I’m anti-monarchy, and second of all: it hasn’t happened yet, and hence it isn’t life, it isn’t real, it isn’t now. The only thing actually ever happening is NOW. So whatever I want, in the here and now, I’ll just bloody do: and I won’t just bloody do it, I’ll bloody launch myself at it, body and soul, like a bottle of champers launching a ship and it’s no surprise, I suppose, that I often (usually) end up smashed.

It rarely ends happily for the bottle.

It rarely ends happily for the bottle.

It’s the reason I have no ambition, not properly. Someone described me as cat-like a couple of weeks ago (possibly because I’m hairy and love to nap) and, like cats, all I live for are moments of pleasure. Which makes me sound horribly decadent (very hard to be horribly decadent on a low income) and brings to mind something like this:

which is far from the truth. But I do need to keep inhaling happy things to keep me going. Not opium, obviously. But small, nice things. A yellow moon, a compliment, a new lick of nail polish, a perfect sentence. I look for little pleasures every day. The big pleasures are harder to come by. (Or, well, easier, if you… sorry. Smut alert.)

When someone you thought was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious decides to take a swift exit from your life, untouched and unruffled by any aspect of your existence in a way that makes you realise, ouch, you didn’t even leave behind a tiny scuff mark, never mind a hole… it’s sad and disappointing, of course it is. But the thing to do is not regret that you did it. Try not to. At the very least I have a new memory for when I’m old and grey(er) and possibly living on memories (of this nature) the way my poor dad is.

I have a hopeful sort of soul these days. It was hard and fierce and cross a year ago, and it might be forced to harden up again, who knows, if it keeps getting smashed on the sides of ships. At the moment, in light of its recent smashing, it’s trying to calcify and shrink-wrap itself, right now as I write, because it’s scary to let yourself hope for things. I am horribly, stupidly fragile: I sink myself into the moment and nothing else even exists anymore, and that means I get squished when the moment is gone. (It’s a useful technique, though, when you’re reading in public: just live in the words, and you won’t even notice the hundred staring eyes.) But I’m also (I think) pretty strong. So I’m stragile. Or maybe frong. I’ll wobble, but I won’t fall down.

And, once again, if you don't understand the relevance of this picture then you, my friend, are annoyingly young. Image at  http://www.rubylane.com/item/645543-KC-03633/1970s-Weebles-Man-w-Blue-Shirt

If you don’t understand the relevance of this picture then you, my friend, are annoyingly young. Image at http://www.rubylane.com/item/645543-KC-03633/1970s-Weebles-Man-w-Blue-Shirt

So even though the Voice of Reason (yes, I have one) is wagging its finger at me for writing this blog post, because come on, Lynsey, WTF, this is all under your own name and why didn’t you set up this site anonymously, because that would have been far more sensible, I’m going to write it, and publish it, anyway, because IDC, as people say on the internet. It’s something I want to do. I don’t mind exposing my insides (although, stupidly, I haven’t been swimming for about two years because I loathe my scarred legs).

And if you're not singing the Cagney and Lacey theme tune right now, then... you're probably annoyingly young.

And if you’re not singing the Cagney and Lacey theme tune right now, then, once again, you’re annoyingly young. Take your perfect skin and get outta here.

I can’t write anything decent or worthwhile that doesn’t expose me somehow. I want to live bravely and not let my fears or anxieties control me. I think this is more important to me than short-term embarrassment. I want to be a force for good somehow. I don’t know any other way for me to do it except by speaking out about things. And it helps me, too, to write and share: you’ll have noticed by now, if you follow this blog, that I’m fighting a couple of tiny battles these days: the first against the Inspiration Trust; the second against the pesky, melancholic nature I grew up with. Hence, all of my dirty washing is here, on this blog: and if any of it, that I’ve shared, can help you feel solidarity with another human being then, honestly, it’s worth it to me. Helping people helps me too.

So this is what I say to being sensible, and careful, and cautious:

[Literally my favourite ever sentence… 1.21 if it doesn’t do what it should and start there automatically. NSFW!]

And while I’m posting videos, here’s a short film by Percivale Productions about our school campaign, with clips of yours truly not a million miles from a microphone, which is (strangely) a place I’ve found I’m kinda happy being, although watching myself on screen is a much less happy experience. C’est la vie!

The Struggle for Hewett School.

And now I reckon, gauntlet down, my challenge to myself this week is to get my bikini on and go swimming. Scars and all.

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Happiness is a little kid next to a river.

Over the years I’ve thought happiness was a place to get to. Nine enormous lit-up letters, nestling in the hills somewhere like the Hollywood sign. And as soon as you get there: pow, like a comic-book sock in the face, you see stars. Hello, life. You can start now. I’m happy. And happy is how I’ll eternally be. Of course things will go wrong: I’ll forget to buy butter, and cats will still vomit, and Mailer’s Law decrees that every writing class I teach will contain a student who’s hell bent on being a bell end… but once you’ve arrived at Happiness you’ll manage these things happily and all shall be happy, as Julian of Norwich nearly said, and all manner of things shall be happy.

Of course, this is bullshit.

There’s a story about the Hollywood sign. One ordinary Friday evening in 1932, when the sign was only nine years old, a young actress called Peg Entwhistle climbed to the top of the letter ‘H’ and dived to her death down the side of the mountain.

If you go about life thinking ‘happy’ is somewhere uphill and you’ve just to climb to the summit then rest up forever, you might go the way of poor Peg.

That’s why happiness isn’t a place, or a state, or an end in itself. That’s why happiness, I think, is a little kid next to a river. And the bank’s a bit slippery, and he’s not really watching his feet, and his laces have just come undone, and that’s dog poo he’s about to step in, and who’s that weird man in the bushes – are those binoculars he’s holding?

And you, yeah you, are responsible for that kid. If you don’t keep your eye on him, unhappy things are going to happen.

Shit. Where's he gone?

Shit. Where’s he gone?

Happiness, too, has got to be kept an eye on. As any fule kno it looks perfickly lovely from the outside, watching kids play by the river. But under the skin of the outside it’s different. If you’re the one tasked with ensuring that child returns safely alive at the end of the day it’s less perfick and lovely than constantly stressful in small sorts of ways: like a kettle that can’t ever come to the boil but keeps trying to start. (Just been teaching my daughter about systems of imagery for her poetry paper this morning, and boy does this blog post need one…) You can’t close your eyes for too long, you can’t properly read, you can’t talk without having to check, check, check – and each check is accompanied by a squirt of adrenalin and after all, before you know it, this isn’t actually as much fun as you hoped it would be. Roll on bedtime.

That’s life too, right? Sometimes (not always) it isn’t as much fun as you hoped it would be. And then there are days, of course, when it’s downright fucking awful.

Even on downright awful days you can still be jolly.

How, Lynsey?

By deciding to be. By tending to your happiness the way you’d tend a tottering two year old by a fast-flowing river. By looking out for it.

It’s not in the big things: the new job, the fancy house, the lottery win. It’s a known fact that people who break every bone in their body can end up as happy, eventually, as a person for whom the giant sparkly finger said, ‘It’s you!’

As hard as it seems to believe when you’re going through shit, it’s not actually life events that make you happy. Except momentarily, fractionally, fleetingly. It’s a tiny bird hopping beside you when you walk into town, or treating yourself to sugar in your tea. It’s a text from a friend. It’s playing the ornaments in a Chopin nocturne exactly the way you meant to (fingers don’t always do what they’re told, as any piano-playing fule kno). It’s noticing colours, lights, sounds, faces. It’s walking along a warm street lined by trees and remembering that, even though you hate your legs in every cosmetic sense, you’re incredibly lucky to have them. It’s finding the right word. It’s cuddling a person you love. It’s throwing a bobble for your cat to chase. It’s being told you’re the staffroom pin-up in your new job because your students gave you such glowing reports, and that teachers you’ve never met in a school you’ve never been to are supporting your campaign against academisation and know who you are, and think you’re kind of cool.

In other ways the week’s been shitty. Campaigning is scary and stressful. I haven’t been sleeping, and eating’s gone out the window too (even Sainsbury’s knock-off nobbly bobblies have lost their appeal: don’t buy the real ones, people, because: Nestle…). I’m waking at 1.45, or 2.25 if my brain’s being kind, and I re-plump my pillow and pull down my eye mask and try to get back to the dream I was having, but this happens:

Twice this week I’ve been marking at 4 a.m. which doesn’t seem fair or proper for someone so poor she has holes in 87% of the clothes she owns, but there we are. Life is what you make it. You have to keep paying attention: and, yes, your purse has just dropped down a drain with your house keys in it, but maybe you never liked that purse anyway. And maybe you’ll have to ask help from a passing stranger, and maybe that stranger will have a long pole, and it might be the start of a beautiful friendship, etc.

My cat’s on the bed and he’s well cute. I had five hours sleep last night instead of two, so yay me, I’m winning at that, and I’ll bury my face in his floofy belly and not care too much about big things going well or wrong or so totally tits up you can hardly bear to think about it. All there ever is, in life, is this moment. The thing I just wrote? It’s already the past.

So is this.

Now is life.

And now can have happiness in it, no matter what, if you just keep an eye out.

Old Maid

Courtesy of the fab blog In the Media by the fab blogger Naomi Frisby (who is well worth a follow on twitter as well) I came across this collection of spinster cut-out dolls on Literary Hub. This is Edith ‘Age of Innocence’ Wharton, whose quote is my favourite of all:

Spinster_BookClubKit-dragged-1240x958

I am myself a spinster, being over forty and having never married. I do have a daughter and I think I’ll be horribly lonely at first when she goes off to university (and yes, you will go, darling daughter, no matter what you occasionally toss into the conversation about taking a different route through life…) but actually, in terms of needing another ‘half’, I think in fact I don’t. Need one. I feel whole.

Hair is seeping from places that used to be smooth, and stray bits of me (teeth, hair) are dropping off, and the other day I happened to turn my arm over to look at a lumpy scar I’ve had for years and my elbows look really old. I have spots and melasma. I snore. I get really worn out. I hate parties. (Don’t all rush at once for my phone number.)

Perhaps I’ll feel differently one day, but now I don’t care. I like work. I like reading and thinking and walking and watching TV by myself. I like going to libraries alone, and the cinema too, and I’ve got friends (and my daughter, occasionally, when I unstick the glue that attaches her lately to her friends) and I’m not really sure what marriage is for, if I’m totally honest. It seems to be totally fine for some people. For people who want it that’s totally fine. I even tried to join in once, a while ago, but it’s not my forte, I don’t think: marriage, relationships. Oh, I like it at first (I suppose everyone does), but then afterwards isn’t it all a bit hard and upsetting and boring? Either you don’t care enough, or you care too much, and the two of you seem to switch places every so often – caring, uncaring – and what about all of that effort we put into reassuring each other: she isn’t more pretty than you, I promise; I wasn’t flirting, etc? Stay single and channel that effort somewhere more interesting instead.

Spinster_BookClubKit-dragged-2-1240x958

Whether or not I’ll read this book Spinster that everyone’s talking about, I don’t know. I like these cut-out dollies, though. I don’t even mind the word ‘spinster’ although everyone says it isn’t fair because ‘bachelor’ is much cooler. To which I say: really?

Sir-Cliff-Richard-attends-a-press-conference-to-announce-details-of-his-new-album-at-Gilgamesh

ASMR, f*ck yeah!

Fair play to Russell Brand. He gets off his arse and does something, and just lately I’ve begun to understand how difficult and time-consuming and plain bloody admirable that is.

But this week he’s really got my goat.

I was watching a video on his channel (an admirable video) about taking direct action against the sort of buggers who are trying to nick our school (more to follow on this), and just as I was feeling a wee bit mean for linking to Parklife on another post I noticed this:

So, cheers for that, Russell. Have a gratuitous Parklife link in return:

First of all: female porn is just porn. Sometimes it’s porn with a knowing edge to it but it’s still porn. Willies are out and proud and enjoying their usual excursions to all the usual holes. The men tend to be better looking in female porn, but otherwise: tis porn as we know it.

I’m subtly insulted by his olde-worlde implications that women are titillated – yes, in their nether regions – by the mere fact of somebody paying them attention.

Russell Brand on ASMR reminds me of the Living and Growing DVD that convinced a nation of 5 to 8 year olds that feathers were an essential part of sex.

Russell Brand on ASMR reminds me of the Living and Growing DVD that convinced a nation of 5 to 8 year olds that feathers were an essential part of sex.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/vYVJwBkg1D8

Secondly (and here you can imagine me emitting a primal scream) why the red-top headline? Surely, but surely, RB already has enough attention without needing to sex-up (and, hence, smear with the pervy brush) something that’s (eventually, hopefully) going to be a key part of mental health strategy? You might as well call meditation ‘mental masturbation’ and have done with it.

Not in public please, love.

Not in public please, love.

Russell, although undeniably a man of the world, has come blundering into the ASMR debate like a horny cow at the crockery counter.

ASMR, f*ck yeah! Russell Brand liberates ASMR from obscurity in the style of Team America liberating Paris...

ASMR, f*ck yeah! Russell Brand liberates ASMR from obscurity in the style of Team America liberating Paris…

You might as well ask a nun about the ins and outs of tea-bagging as ask someone who doesn’t experience ASMR to ‘explain’ ASMR to his million-plus followers.

So, what is ASMR, I hear you ask?

Er…

All right. Hands up. If you don’t experience it, you will think it’s weird. You’ll think it’s creepy. You’ll want to stay especially clear of Hailey WhisperingRose who is mainly composed of bosoms (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and posts videos in which she ‘snuggles up’ with you:

hqdefault

…or invites you on a date.

Hailey cooks up a feast in the ASMR kitchen.

Hailey cooks up a feast in the ASMR kitchen.

Okay. Wow. I’m really not helping myself here, am I?

Let’s talk about onions. This is my absolute favourite ASMR video.

Unknown-1

This is someone who calls herself Fairy Char. And she cooks caramelised onions. That’s all she does. She begins by lightly stroking the uncooked onions (because people who get ASMR like scratching and stroking noises) but other than that: there is no inappropriate handling of onions. The onions get peeled and go straight in the pan. They start cooking. Her clothes remain firmly in place at all times. She discusses the merits of onions. Perhaps you might like to include them on a pizza topping?

PHWOAR. Right, Russell?

He talks about ASMR as if it’s a fetish.

It isn’t a fetish.

I mean, I like onions, but I don’t like them like them.

ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) has always (we think) been around. I used to experience it years ago, and it wasn’t until another writer said: ‘Hey, do any of you guys get this weird tingly thing when someone talks to you slowly?’ that I realised there was a whole community of tingle heads out there. And I WASN’T WEIRD, because other people felt it too.

I used to get it on first days at work (of which I had several, as a temp in London) when somebody soft-of-voice was explaining, and pointing, and speaking at a certain pace… (And would promptly ‘come round’ afterwards none the wiser on how to work the photocopier.) Now and then a cold caller’s voice will fall into the exact rhythm that triggers my ASMR and I won’t even listen anymore to what they’re actually saying, about double glazing or needing my bank account details as a matter of urgency or whether I’ve heard of business opportunities recently in Nigeria, because all I hear is the cadence of it. And it’s lovely.

The key thing is that people shouldn’t feel WEIRD for experiencing something so fecking fantastic. I’m genuinely sorry for you if you don’t experience it, because it’s kind of like your brain’s in a bubble bath being soaped by velvet hands while angels serenade from on high and nothing matters except that feeling. You’re properly in the moment. You don’t even have to stare at a raisin for a really long time; you can soak your own head in the bliss of mindfulness and watch the world’s shit drift away.

Also, it helps you sleep.

So who cares if you have to keep minimising your youtube window when you work in the library, because sometimes, yes, there is oddness on screen:

The inimitable Tony Bomboni. Credit where credit's due: he's got some balls.

The inimitable Tony Bomboni. Credit where credit’s due: he’s got some balls.

I listen to ASMR a lot when I write, and it prickles my brain and keeps giving me tiny spurts of joy that help me write better, more happily, and I’ll quite often have two windows open at once and some Brian Eno overlaid on the crackle of frying onions because, wow, then I’m in heaven.

The University of Sheffield have a study going. The scientific community is slowly waking up. This is a medication free way for people who suffer stress, anxiety, and depression to lift their spirits for a bit. I suppose, if the women (and men) who ‘perform’ in these vids (ASMR-tists) are easy on the eye that’s because they get so frigging close to the camera (to whisper in each of your ears in turn, using binaural mics) the profession does tend to invite those confident enough about their lack of nostril hair and pustules to actively enjoy extreme close ups.

But that doesn’t make it porn. If that makes it porn, then 97% of the output on mainstream television is porn. Porn is:

‘printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement.’

See, Russell, nothing about onions.

EDIT: I feel duty bound to add an update here. Since posting this, a couple of months ago, I have been fairly swamped (by the standards of this ole blog, at least) by people searching for ‘asmr porn’ and ‘haileywhisperingrose tits’. Not sure what that proves, if anything, but in the interests of full disclosure…

Even Hedgehogs Get the Blues, and Other Bedtime Tales.

Settle down, children, and I’ll tell you a story.

This hedgehog owns a school. It is a large school.

This hedgehog owns a school

She looks happy.

The hedgehook looks happy. That's because she is happy.

But she is not happy. She is not happy because her school has a tiny garden. This is her garden.

Only one tree

She is sad because her garden is shit.

My garden is shit

Whenever she looks at her tree, all she sees is failure. The man in charge of the country says there will be zero tolerance for failure. She is afraid.

‘I am special and important,’ she says to herself. ‘My school is special and important. My school should have a bigger garden.’

So the hedgehog invites her friend to tea.

The tea has not arrived yet because the servants have not brought it. The servants are not achieving at optimum levels. If they are not careful they will be sacked.

The tea has not arrived yet because the servants have not brought it. The servants are not achieving at optimum levels. If they are not careful they will be sacked.

Luckily the hedgehog’s friend is in charge of schools. She is wearing a blue dress because she likes the colour blue.

The lazy servants have brought the tea at last. However they have only brought one cake. When her friend has gone the woman will speak to them sharply.

The lazy servants have brought the tea at last. However they have only brought one cake. When her friend has gone the hedgehog will speak to them sharply.

‘I’m sad about my garden,’ says the hedgehog.

‘I’m sad about it too,’ says her friend.

‘I walked past the village school last week,’ says the hedgehog. ‘Their garden is very big.’

The village school has lots of trees.

The village school has lots of trees.

‘Yes,’ says her friend. ‘It is much too big. Also the teachers are pinkos.’

‘They are really taking the piss with that garden,’ says the hedgehog.

‘Luckily,’ says her friend, ‘the school inspector is going to visit them this afternoon.’

This is the school inspector. He likes arithmetic.

This man is the school inspector. He likes arithmetic.

The village school has only one chair.

The village school has run out of chairs

They asked for new chairs from the woman in charge of schools.

She said no.

The inspector calls. It is a sunny day. The children are playing in the garden with their teacher. Their teacher likes pink.

It is a sunny day. The children are playing in the garden

But the inspector is angry. He takes the teacher into a spooky room filled with shadow.

He tells the pinko teacher off.

He speaks angrily to the pinko teacher. The children have not yet learnt ‘Dover Beach’ by heart! Their school is failing.

Now the inspector must leave. He has an appointment for tea at the school with only one tree.

The servants have not brought the inspector a cup. They are really in the shit now.

The servants have not brought the inspector a cup. They are really in the shit now.

‘The village school is failing,’ says the inspector to the hedgehog’s friend.

‘We must take away their trees,’ says the hedgehog’s friend.

‘Be quiet!’ says the inspector. ‘We must go upstairs.’

‘I don’t think of you that way,’ says the hedgehog’s friend.

‘You are flattering yourself,’ says the inspector. ‘We must go upstairs to talk about the trees or else the pinkos will be angry. The pinkos will say we stole their trees to give to our friend.’

They go upstairs to talk about the trees in secret.

The woman in charge of schools meets secretly with the man in charge of inspecting schools

The hedgehog is definitely not listening at the door.

Later that day, the woman in charge of schools sets off in her motorcar.

Her friend goes everywhere with her. He used to be in charge of schools until the pinko teachers said mean things about him. He was very sad about this.

Her friend goes everywhere with her. He used to be in charge of schools until the pinko teachers said mean things about him. He was very sad about this.

‘Your school has failed,’ says the woman in charge of schools to the pinko teacher. ‘We are taking your trees away.’

The woman in charge of schools arrives

Her friend is hiding in this picture. He does not want to be seen by the pinko teacher.

‘What will happen to our school?’ says the pinko teacher.

‘I do not care,’ says the woman in charge of schools.

You have not learnt your equations. You must give your trees to my friend.

The children say goodbye to their trees. They belong to the woman in charge of schools now. She will take them to her friend.

Now I have your trees

Hurray! Here are the trees

‘Here are the trees!’ says the woman to her friend, the hedgehog. ‘They are yours now.’

‘Hurray!’ says the hedgehog.

The school inspector is hiding behind the trees.

Here is the school inspector. He is hiding behind the trees

He is camera shy.

The hedgehog looks happy. That’s because she is happy.

The hedgehook looks happy. That's because she is happy.

Very happy.

Very happy.

The End.

Sleep tight, children!

Disclaimer: All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons living, dead, or hedgehog, is purely coincidental. 

The year I grew balls.

A book, a chair, a glass of wine. Such are the ingredients for a happy evening.

Add Margaret Atwood to the recipe and you have a properly fantastic evening.

Not just Margaret Atwood, but Margaret Atwood at the Book Hive reading from her new collection of stories Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood shaking your hand, Margaret Atwood telling you inspirational tales of Robert Louis Stevenson’s semi-accidental creation of Treasure Island, Margaret Atwood signing the following on your copy of Stone Mattress:

Margaret Atwood

The reason she signed this was because I asked her to. This is what I do now. I decide what I want, and I ask for it.

People can always say no, after all. (On occasion, they do.) They can also say yes.

Last year, 2014, was my annus horribilis. This year, so far, has been awesome. The fun started just before Christmas, at the tail end of the annus horribilis. I woke up one morning with balls, and decided I’d take a quick punt on tweeting a blog post of mine to the pianist and mental health advocate James Rhodes.

Moments later, this happened:

When James Rhodes retweeted me!!!! Hurrah!

Shortly afterwards, Derren Brown (who probably needs no introduction) posted the link on his Facebook page.:

WhenDerrenBrownlinkedtomyblog!!! copy

As a consequence I got my first ‘1K’ likes:

MyFirstEver1Klikes! copy

And I had the HUGE reward of being told, by several people, that my blog had helped them. Really helped them.

Good things do emerge from the ether sometimes, with no warning, but often – more often, it seems – they are likely to happen to those who go after them: don’t ask, don’t get, after all.

And so, in the spirit of living dangerously (NB by which I mean relatively dangerously: you’re unlikely to see me engaging in extreme sports any time in the next century) I applied for a TV game show (and got through the audition… watch this space!) and managed to land a lovely job teaching narrative strategies (posh name for ‘storytelling’) to animation students at the Norwich University of the Arts. I joined the campaign to save our local school from academisation (as I posted about last time) and ended up, somehow, on my soapbox as the opening speaker at Saturday’s demo.

I’ve set up my own Write Club in partnership with Norwich’s Maddermarket Theatre (beginning on April 11th, Norfolk peeps, if you’re interested) and, probably best of all, I made a guest appearance on the youtube channel of a certain Lucylou:

The awesome Lucylou would probably love you forever if you clicked through to youtube and gave her a thumbs up, by the way…

This time last year I was down in the mouth. I was cross and resentful and couldn’t bear anyone to mention my ex, his new partner or even their two little pugs. But things change. Yesterday, among numerous Mothers’ Day treats planned by the aforementioned Lucylou, we took the puggies to the park together.

And, as you can see, it was awesomely fun. If slobbery. Fun things often are slobbery, though, aren’t they?

So here’s to 2015: my year of living both dangerously and slobberyishly. (And making up words if I want to.)

And, finally, let me make clear that the having of testicles isn’t remotely connected to courage or brass neck or bravery. I just like the word ‘balls’.

Change and the common girl.

I’m having a bit of a renaissance.

When I was fourteen I went to an all-night screening of John Hughes films at the local ABC and, watching Pretty in Pink, I remember despising (strong word, but the right one) the subplot about Iona, the thirty-something record shop owner, and her pursuit of true love.

Why is she even bothering, thought fourteen-year-old Lynsey? She’s so old, it’s too late, let’s see more of Steff (James Spader) leaning expensively on cars.

That boy knew how to lean.

That boy knew how to lean.

I wasn’t a complete idiot, though. This was always my favourite scene, even then (although I probably, yes, definitely used to have a massive heart-swell when OMD played at the prom where Andie and Blane – yes, you are reading those names correctly – were reunited at last over some oddly-sliced pink silk and chiffon. PLOT SPOILER. Oops, sorry).

Iona, the old-timer, is the disturbingly young looking creature in the pillbox hat.

These hastily-assembled teenage opinions came roaring back to bite me on the bum a few years ago when my daughter made the comment (apropos of something I’ve since forgotten): ‘What do you know? You’re thirty-five, you’re nearly dead!’

So, yes, I am now older than the old-timer Iona. Curiously, I have wound up giving that name to a character in The Novel That Dare Not Speak Its Name, so perhaps she had more of an influence on me than I realised.

What I want to say is that it’s fine over here, on the other side. Over the hill. The big hill that, in my imagination, has the numbers 4 and 0 in the style of the Hollywood sign. (The hill that seems mostly to be a part of the female landscape, IMHO, whereas men, perhaps, really understand this particular hill when they’re closer to 50. Or even 60. But I digress…)

The thing about being over the hill is that you’ve climbed it already. So, first of all, you deserve a goddamn cup of tea, in a fancy flask. And a biscuit. Give your old feet a rub. Have a natter with your fellow climbers about watercolour painting and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and admire a passing bird with royal blue plumage.

And then, oh aged one, hoist those binoculars because there is lots still to see on the other side of the hill. And the going is, well, it’s less hilly. One might say it’s Norfolk. It tends towards flatness.

Edward Seago: 'A Norfolk Landscape'.  In hills, it is somewhat deficient.

Edward Seago: ‘A Norfolk Landscape’.
In hills, it is somewhat deficient.

The thing is, you see, that until you’ve climbed the hill you can’t see over it. You can’t see what’s there. The young still milling about at the base of the hill, or a little way up it, can’t peek yet (or possibly peak) because ‘over the hill’ is a place you can only see once you get there.

And it’s freaking awesome! This won’t be everyone’s experience, I know. And it wasn’t mine, either, until a few months ago. All I could think of, sadly, daily, were the things I’d lost. The ways I’d changed. The wrinkly crinkly face I was growing. The strange sudden urge to throw ice cubes down my top every so often. The inability to walk twenty yards without dripping in sweat.

And, yes, those things still happen. I’m still wrinkly, crinkly and, often, incredibly hot (and not in a good way). But, you know what?

Meh.

There’s so much else to be getting on with. So many dreadful and wonderful things have happened in my life already: the dreadful things – well, no matter how dreadful, they’re rarely forever. And as for the wonderful things, it’s your choice to acknowledge them or not. A wonderful thing (as I said in another post, once) can be watching the wind on a stinging nettle, because so many wonderful things had to happen for you to be watching that wind and that nettle: the gift of sight (and it is a gift), the gift of freedom, liberty, aloneness (yes, they’re all gifts too), alertness. Aliveness.

I did a bit of rabble rousing yesterday, at a rally to save our local school from academisation.

Photo by ace photographer Lucy White.

Photo by ace photographer Lucy White.

I even, briefly (and silently) made the local news.

Angry and be-hatted of Norfolk.

Angry and be-hatted of Norfolk.

When I was younger, I wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have bothered, and I wouldn’t have felt confident enough. I was too busy heaving myself up the hill (with a pushchair, to boot). There are lots, and lots, and lots of women in the Norfolk flatlands over that hill who have things to say and do and share. I never particularly thought I was worth it, to quote L’Oreal, because (a) upbringing (we’re kind of mousy in my family) and (b) what if I make an arse of myself?

But so what. It’s no biggie, making an arse of yourself. You always feel better the day after doing something, trying something, than the day after running away from it all.

So, don’t run away, my fellow hill climbers. You already ran up a hill (or crawled, or plodded): the scenery’s lovely, the tea’s hot, the biscuits are chocolate. There’s no going back, and it’s foolish to try. You can no more be 20 again than 11, or 8, or 4… Now is now. You are you. I’ll raise my fancy flask to that.

The Spam Chronicles: an open letter to Angelina from Minsk, Belorussia.

It’s been ages since I was offered a larger willy.

Last week I was hailed as, variously, an Anal Explorer and a Pussy Sensei (my cats attest to the latter qualification). More recently I’ve been swimming in invitations for lifelong love in the arms of young Eastern European women.

Hello friend, I am writing this letter to invite you to this website, with an intention of meeting you there. Maybe you are the Mr. Dependable, the Mr. Perfect and exactly the one I search for. Well I have always wanted to meet foreigners who are so interesting with their gentle and sophisticated nature and stylish looks. My Prince charming should be reliable, loyal, humble and courageous or in other words the perfect man and a dream-come-true for me. I am Angelina and I am from Minsk, Belorussia. Ours is a small country with lots of political problems but we still try to be happy and live life to the fullest. I am a straightforward and humble girl who believes in finding my true love sooner or later. 

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It must be fun writing spam. (Second only to choosing colours for paint shades.)

As it turns out, replying to spam is also fun…

Hello Angelina from Minsk, Belorussia! I received your ‘letter’ with interest. (FYI in English we call this an ’email’.) I confess I am somewhat perplexed. You refer to me as your friend (my apologies if we’ve already met and I’ve simply forgotten)! I must confess I am ignorant on the subject of Minsk (besides knowing that Phoebe’s scientist boyfriend, David, was relocated there in Episode 10 of the famous television show, Friends, entitled ‘The One With the Monkey’. Do you receive this programme in Minsk, Belorussia, Angelina?)

I’m sorry to say I shall not be joining you on the website you mention. 

Allow me to tell you my story, Angelia from Minsk, Belorussia, as you’ve been so kind as to tell me yours. Or perhaps… might I call you Angie? You referred to me by a number of touching epithets: ‘perfect’, ‘dependable’, ‘gentle’, ‘sophisticated’, ‘stylish’. You also referred to me as ‘a man’. Dependable I may be, and one might also make a case for ‘gentle’. Sophisticated and stylish are rather less certain and surely, Angelina, you remember the final line of Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like it Hot?’ Nobody, Angelina, is perfect. 

With one of your assertions, however, I must take issue. A moment’s exploratory foraging in the underpantal region has reinforced for me the pre-existing notion that I am, indeed, a woman. On this issue, as so many others, I’m afraid I must disappoint you, Angie from Minsk. 

Minsk.

I’ve never said that word aloud before. I’m saying it now, Angie from Minsk, as I picture you in your small country with lots of political problems. 

It’s only fair to inform you that you are currently competing for my affections with Yoshiko Centini, location unknown, possessor of ample breasts and butt, and Eugenia, a middle-class girl from Petrozavodsk in Russia, whose upbringing has rendered her free-thinking and liberal. (Amplitude of physical attributes as yet unknown). Poor Eugenia, so busy in the ‘computer labs’ of her software firm that she rarely has a chance to ‘mingle’ in nightclubs. ‘Left behind’ in personal life. My sympathies, Angie, are beginning to drift towards Eugenia…

If I just knew a little more of your taste in literature, Angie. What films do you enjoy watching? Do you have any firm beliefs on God’s existence? Where do you stand on monogamy?

Is this you, Angelina from Minsk?

Is this you, Angelina from Minsk?

I’m wondering, you see, if you’ve thought sufficiently of the day-to-day nature of ‘true love’ as opposed to the fantasy version exemplified by your reference to ‘Prince Charming’? One might say that ‘Charming’ and Cinderella have remarkably little on which to base a lifetime together. For instance, does Cinders enjoy long walks, foreign films, nights out with friends? Does Charming have a good sense of humour? Perhaps he is passive aggressive, controlling. He might be a drinker.

It’s hard to be sure of these things from an evening’s dancing together, abruptly severed at the stroke of midnight. Frogs may turn to princes, in the realm of fairytale, and indeed, in the realm of what we call ‘Real Life’, a prince may suddenly, nay shockingly, unleash his inner frog, so to speak, on possession of his ‘princess’. 

I’m concerned for you, Angie. You’re too pure for this world. ‘Reliable, loyal, humble and courageous’ are certainly good qualities to aim for in your search for lifelong love, but you may find the juxtaposition of ‘humble’ and ‘courageous’ somewhat rare once you move from the digital dating realm to the actual. How ‘humble’, in fact, was Prince Charming in the aforementioned fairytale? I saw no evidence for this. Neither do I feel sufficiently informed to make clear judgement on the issue of his bravery and/or reliability. 

'Charming' is rarely synonymous with the other qualities you profess to be seeking, Angelina.

‘Charming’ is rarely synonymous with the other qualities you profess to be seeking, Angelina.

Let me end this response by wishing you all the very best in your search for love. Had I, after all, decided to pursue the tempting offer of an eight inch appendage with which to give the ultimate in sexy satisfaction all night long, perhaps I could have been your ‘dream-come-true’. Let me humbly, if not courageously, suggest that you search within for the fulfilment of your dreams, Angelina from Minsk, Belorussia. Certainly you shouldn’t count on a prince to fulfil them for you. Indeed, if one can believe the recent revelations with regard to a member of our royal family here in England, it may be a very different variety of ‘happy ending’ that he’s hoping for. 

Yours in sisterhood,

Lynsey

Lynsey’s completely arbitrary, rather silly, possibly unfair Literary Quiz.

It’s Sunday and I’m in a silly mood. I’m also in training for an upcoming audition for a certain ITV quiz show… hence I’m currently boning up on UK PMs and US Presidents and Kings and Queens of England and/or Scotland and even the periodic table.

Which got me thinking…

Q: How come I’ve never had a quiz on this blog?

A: Because I’ve only just worked out how to do them.

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Anyway… For those of you, like me, who enjoy answering random questions of a Sunday morning, here’s my (fairly pointless, just for fun, absolutely no cash prizes) Literary Quiz… I would be tickled pink if you’d post your scores in the comment box!

Come on in, the water's literary...

When I’m Queen (PS this book is driving me fricking crazy)

If words were beans you could feed the whole world with the words I’ve expended in writing this novel.

You could paper the walls of houses up and down the length and breadth of England with the drafts I’ve printed out and chucked away.

If you stood all my sentences end to end they would stretch to the moon.

if you broke them all up into letters you’d need a Scrabble bag the size of Russia to hold them.

And yet… and yet… and yet…

I still haven’t finished it.

That word haunts me. Still. As in: ‘You’re not still writing that novel, are you?’

Another favourite is yet. As in: ‘Haven’t you finished that book yet?’

My face when someone asks about my novel.

My face when someone asks about my novel.

When I’m queen we shall outlaw ‘still’ and ‘yet’ in all public discourse on the subject of printed works and their nearness to completion and/or the duration of time thus far expended with the purpose of completing said printed work.

We shall, in addition, outlaw the asking of these questions by all persons not sufficiently, themselves, acquainted with said process.

Prithee, kind sir, refrain from your impertinent questioning.

Prithee, kind sir, refrain from your impertinent questioning. Instead, bringeth cake.

When I’m queen, those persons who, personally, have no prior, personal experience of the production of a printed work of novel-icular length, shall be disallowed from the raising of eyebrows when excuses are made responses are given. Any and all persons encountered by the person encountering Herculean labours in novel-icular service shall select from the list 7(b) to be found in Appendix 12(f), titled: Soothing Statements. Under no circumstances should comparisons ever be drawn with rocket science or coal mining. In such cases (as indeed sanctioned by the Pope himself) a punch in the face may be forthcoming.

To speak plainly…

I think I may have stuffed up my novel.

Gulp. (And other four letter words.)

So, yes, I am still writing my novel and, no, I haven’t finished yet. Soothing Statements gratefully received.

The Four Horse Pills of the Apocalypse.

A couple of months ago, my doctor prescribed four horse pills every morning.

They’re bloody HUGE. And I hate taking them. Admittedly they’re not as big as lemons… but at least if they were lemons, I’d know to make lemonade with them.

So what do you do, dear readers, when life gives you horse pills?

Answer: make art with them. (On second thoughts, maybe that ought to be ‘art’…)

Handily, I also take other pills of varying sizes (as you’ll see), and I present a few of the highlights here for your viewing pleasure. LOOK AWAY NOW IF OFFENDED BY PILLS IN THE SHAPE OF WILLIES.

Medication giraffe!

Giraffe.

Flower.

Flower. Somewhat denuded. (He loves me, he loves me not, etc.)

One-armed tennis player...

One-armed tennis player…

One-armed ballerina (or stereotypical librarian) holding lollipop.  Of course.

One-armed ballerina (or stereotypical librarian) holding lollipop.
Of course.

Man on Segway looking at a Mondrian.

Man on Segway looking at a Mondrian.

Cigar-smoking Princess Leia.

Cigar-smoking Princess Leia.

One-armed man. Essentials intact.

One-legged man. Essentials intact.

One-armed man semi-impressed by Fifty Shades of Grey.

One-legged man semi-impressed by Fifty Shades of Grey.

Being somewhere else.

We all want to be somewhere else sometimes. We all want to be someone else. When I was fourteen I wanted to be Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend, Sloane, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. 

Me and Ferris.

Ferris and me.

I wrote a fictional diary from Sloane’s perspective. I didn’t want to be the girlfriend of Matthew Broderick (who played Ferris B, for all you people who’ve lived under rocks for the last thirty years), because it wasn’t Matthew Broderick I wanted; it was the atmosphere of Ferris Bueller. It was the blue sky of Chicago mornings, the city parade, the Smiths song on the soundtrack, the kids holding hands in the gallery, the race through his neighbours’ suburban back yards to get home on time.

As I write this I’m watching Don’t Look Now for the umpteenth time, and even though the drowning rips to me pieces there’s something pure and clear about it: the water is watery, the grass is grass-like, her little red coat and red tights have a kind of perfection about them: red as red can be. Later on, I like the Venetian hotel they stay in, the stained glass in the church, Donald Sutherland’s moustache, Julie Christie’s nipples in her brown jumper.

Don't Look Now

Don’t Look Now: awful, horrible, emotional… but somehow perfect too.

I never planned to write this post. I was meant to be posting another post entirely, yesterday, while it was snowing (for all of ten minutes), but something about it was wrong. Fake. Squeezed out of me like the pink goop they use to make Chicken McNuggets. And now I am meant to be writing (The Novel), but failing to write it. I’ve poured a glass of wine, lit candles. I’ve listened to music, Coffitivity, ASMR. Nothing’s happening.

So I’m putting on films for inspiration, much as I’ve lit a peony candle to make the room smell pretty. I don’t really watch them; I soak up the atmosphere. I like the being-somewhere-else-ness of a really good film. And I like to be in the presence of art when I’m trying to make it myself. In particular I like Kubrick films for this purpose: 2001 is the obvious choice, but I’ll often feel quite aggressively arty after watching A Clockwork Orange. Other good atmospheres can be found in:

If… (Lindsay Anderson)
Bright Star (Jane Campion)
Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni)
Le Boucher (Claude Chabrol)

Am I the only writer who does this? When I’m utterly, utterly blocked, like a failed game of Tetris, I’ll take out my notebook and write a description of what’s on the screen. But I’ve got to the sex bit in Don’t Look Now so I think, on reflection, I won’t do that. I’ll return to The Novel, and try to turn the bloody lights out (1970s Britain) without saying they were plunged into darkness. Wish me luck.

Variable 4, becoming westerly 5 to 7 later.

Dear Lynsey,

Whilst blowing an eyelash from your fingertip at 9.42 a.m. on 31/12/14 you radioed a wish for general happiness in the year 2015.

We at the Met Office intercepted this signal whilst sailing the high seas in our yellow sou’westers, scanning the far horizon with our salty binoculars (because this is definitely how we prepare the Shipping Forecast, and don’t let anyone tell you anything different or less romantic).

Owing to God’s absence (which was reliably confirmed by ourselves and our salty binoculars a number of decades ago) and the somewhat vague nature of the ‘universe’ to whom you were appealing, we at the Met Office have stepped into the breach to offer our own predictions for 2015 based on careful assessment of incoming clouds in the Norfolk area and the consumption of a celebratory Bacardi and Coke or two.

Our results are as follows:

Completing the final draft of your novel, entitled Madder Hall: fair, to good.

Sexual intercourse: slow moving with little change.

Defrosting the fridge: wintry showers expected.

Taking more exercise: drifting slowly east.

Submitting novel to agents: rain at times.

Eating less cheese: moderate, becoming poor.

Keeping on top of paperwork: warning of gales.

The general synopsis is moderate, becoming fair, good, poor, then moderate again. But we at the Met Office subscribe to the internet-approved statement that life isn’t about waiting for the rain to finish, but learning to dance in the rain. Here, indeed, is a photograph of a lady drinking tea in the Blitz to illustrate our firm belief in the following: (a) all storms can be weathered eventually; (b) the sun’ll come out tomorrow: a fact on which we have bet our bottom dollar; (c) there are few situations that can’t be improved by putting the kettle on.

Put the kettle on, love.

Put the kettle on, love. (All right, if you think it’ll suit me.)

It only remains for us to wish you smooth sailing in 2015 and beyond.

Yours sincerely,

The Imaginary Met Office.

Found art: a poem in blog posts

It’s nearly the end of 2014 and the world and his wife (or something less egregiously sexist) are blogging about the year just gone. I was reading this rather good blog t’other day, findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com, and I found a cool idea for assessing one’s 2014 through a very specific lens: namely, the first line of the first blog you posted each month.

repent-the-end-is-nigh-ye-must-be-cleansed

So I tried it.

And?

The results were quite dull, to be honest. It turned out I didn’t like having to choose a particular line, by default.

But I did enjoy skimming old posts for the sort of line that JUMPS OUT from the page. So I put my own spin on the game, and I made a found poem with chronological scraps from my blog posts, season by season.

And here it is…

Untitled 2014

Winter

On a day like today there is cake,
Ten seconds of toe-tickling or
an accidental pin-prick.

Dear People of Planet Earth
I’ve grown cobwebs.
Occasional pinholes appear.

Spring

I’m a terrible knitter.

When my daughter was little
(a cup of sweet tea when you didn’t expect it).
But I digress.

What do you do with all this – all this life,
all this shit – if you don’t
write it down?

Summer

Here’s something I hate.

Autumn

By now you may be wondering
how to be interesting.

All the good stuff will happen tomorrow.

The moon has moved on
to a new piece of sky with
hand-stitched lace.

I’ve just been a-Googling and
hey nonny-nonny.

The hairs on my neck must be lazy.
I have fallen through the hole in the
paper. I like the number
eight.

Congratulate yourself. You wait all
day for a pirouette and then
three come along at once.

A little too much about snot.
David Cameron in his underpants.

It’s been a long week.

All the bells and whistles please.
I turned some water into
wine and verily I did drink it.

I’m feeling a little peculiar.

Somebody’s left you a shit in the pan.

Bliss is fragile.

Winter

Everything will probably be okay.
It must be peculiar not to exist.

Don’t neglect your hot meat.

Hot meat and the skateboarding George Orwell: a thing about voice.

‘It’s one of those places that are supposed to be very sophisticated and all, and the phonies are coming in the window.’

So says Holden Caulfield of good ole’ Pencey Prep (still my favourite ever school name; Malory Towers a close second) in The Catcher in the Rye.

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Image source

I’m a writing teacher. Most of the people I teach are beginners. A few have raw talent that just needs the edges hemmed, and a few have a talent that’s medium-rare to well-done (though they still mightn’t have the discipline for the long slog of drafting again and again) and a few are so good I do wonder if they should be teaching the class instead.

But the things I see oftenest, as a teacher of novices (briefly visualised myself as a nun there, just for a second) is writing that’s meant to be very sophisticated and all but ends up being merely phony.

If I was a different sort of teacher (i.e. a bitch) I might award badges.

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But I’m not. So I don’t.

Not least because I’ve been guilty of phoniness myself on more than one occasion and, anyway, these are beginners. You don’t sit down for your first piano lesson and come out with this:

 

But neither can you ‘allow’ people to carry on writing like phonies without at least pointing out that, hey, there’s another way. And that way is actually lots more fun. It allows you to write with your Own Goddamn Voice, as Holden might put it.

‘Never use a long word where a short one will do, said George Orwell very sensibly (and English-ly) in his essay Politics and the English Language (1946). He also said:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
... and he's cross that you wrote cerulean when you just meant blue.

… and he’s cross that you wrote ‘cerulean’ as a fancy way of saying ‘blue’. You dick.

I part company with Orwell somewhat on the word ‘barbarous’, which no doubt was less of a sore-thumb sixty-something years ago when the essay was written. But otherwise:

  • The fewer blankets of snow, and skies of gun-metal grey, and light flooding through windows, the better.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out without spoiling the sentence’s cadence, cut it out.
  •  Use a passive occasionally for particular effect. (Penelope Lively’s Next Term We’ll Mash You has a perfect example: a schoolboy being borne away by a headmistress)
  • Anglo-Saxon all the way.
  • To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, you are free to do whatever you can get away with. But no one in fiction has ever gotten away with much…

Curiously, since these six rules seem ruddy good to me, and fairly inoffensive, Will Self got his knickers in a twist in The Grauniad a couple of months ago, with an article declaring Orwell ‘the supreme mediocrity’.

The comments, of course, are rife with ‘smug git’s and ‘takes one to know one’ and a reference or two to Self’s affliction with the most socially acceptable of the diarrhoea family: the verbal variety. In Self’s eyes, Orwell seems a Michael Gove-like repressor of young minds, rejecting the language’s tendency to mutate, a bit like a virus, and telling us all we’ll be shot in the face if we dare to use words of more than one syllable.

Talk about making a drama out of a crisis. Or indeed a mountain from a molehill (she says, offending against the first of Orwell’s rules). I was reading, t’other day, about something called ‘outrage porn‘: intellectuals enjoy being irritated as much as Disgruntled of Norfolk in his/her letters to the editor of the local rag about disrespectful youths on skateboards, and Will Self has whipped himself into a froth about Orwell in much the same way. What he’s basically saying is:

Oi, Orwell, your wheels are too noisy, you’re going to trip someone up in a minute, and get yourself a haircut, boy.

Oi, Orwell! You're not big and you're not clever and I'll wrap that skateboard round your fecking neck in a minute.

I’ll wrap that skateboard round your fecking neck in a minute, son.

Self can’t subscribe to the Orwellian way of writing because it isn’t his way. And that’s fine. You only need to catch a clip of Self on the telly, talking the talk, to know that Self is naturally verbose, and erudite, and borderline-pompous. That’s his voice. It works on the page, as it works in person. It isn’t quite enough to make you want to shout Park Life! at the end of each sentence

but that’s only because Self drawls and pauses and generally talks at the pace of a snail in one of those dreams where the floor’s turned to syrup and forward movement becomes an impossibility – but Self, like Brand, wears his vocab on his sleeve, and why shouldn’t he? Nothing wrong with that.

But the chances are that Orwell’s ‘rules’ were intended for novice writers. And, speaking as someone who teaches novice writers, there’s nothing wrong at all with encouraging people to write simply.

Hum Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, for instance. (Even if you don’t think you know it, you definitely do.) Watch the green notes in this piano tutorial:

and note how stunningly basic the tune is, moving in steps up and down the keyboard. And yet, how memorable. And how well it lends itself to development…

 

I love a short word, me. I’m Orwell’s bosom bud in that respect. A favourite exercise of mine is to write a scene using words of only one syllable: the result is always tight, clean prose, and it’s most of all useful for those who must first insert a poker into their derrière before commencing the transference of their thoughts from brain to paper, as if they’ve never actually heard themselves speak and have no clue at all what their own voice is like. Of course I understand that certain of your characters may care to describe the lowering of their denim-clad derriere into the ready embrace of a chintzy armchair whilst relieving a curved fruit of its indigestible yellow skin, but ‘she sat down, peeling a banana’ is a perfectly decent sentence and not to be sniffed at.

Tiny words, I salute you.

Tiny words, I salute you.

 

The ‘hot meat’ of the title has nothing to do (thank God) with the contents of Self or Orwell’s trousers. I gave my most recent class of beginners the task of writing a scene in single syllables – and, because it’s Christmas, the scene was ‘cooking Christmas dinner’. Straight off, turkey’s out the window of course. (Not literally. Although that might have been an interesting way to go…) So immediately your brain’s got to find a host of short, sharp words that it wouldn’t ordinarily have looked for. One student (lovely and smiley, and I hope she doesn’t mind me quoting her if she ever reads this) was forced to return ‘the smell of the cooking turkey’ to the Shelf of Mediocrity, and instead wrote the rather joyous sentence:

The cat smelt the hot meat.

Something, of course, that a child could write. But the same argument that applies to modern art (‘I could’ve done that myself!’ ‘Ah yes, but you didnt…’) applies in spades here: yes, a child could write that, but we, as adults, with all our fancy long-syllabled crayons on the table, so often forget that simple can be beautiful. What did the cat do? The cat smelt the hot meat. I understand all those words perfectly, immediately, and my brain doesn’t have to perform an obstacle course in order, BANG, to grasp that image straight-a-bloody-way.

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Red and yellow and pink and green… violaceous and apricot and cobalt…

 

I’m not saying you can’t play with long-syllabled crayons: of course you can. (Occasionally, sparingly, or all the fricking time if that is your natural voice – or the natural voice, of course, of your first person POV… or third person free indirect… yada yada.) But don’t neglect your hot meat either, because here’s the thing: the most beautiful, lyrical prose has to do with the way – like musical notes – those words are joined together, the music they make on the page, in the ear, for the eye. Even Will Self would agree with that. And if he doesn’t… just flip him the bird as you rumble by on your skateboard.

If twitter was a pub.

Welcome to twitter. Please enter quietly, and close the door behind you. We highly recommend the purchase of ale or stout in preference to Babycham or Bacardi and coke, as refusal often offends. The bar nuts may be covered in wee, but avoidance of said nuts will be viewed by the clientele as snobbery (village urine not good enough for you, eh, Londoner?) so get ’em in your gob and swallow, and, whilst we’re on this theme, there’ll be nothing but icy water in the toilet taps and if you want soap I suggest you go back to London. (There may be a morsel of soap, the approximate size of a cough lozenge, under one of the sinks, but the odds are it’s fallen in something you’d rather not touch. It’s a swings and roundabouts situation.)

The best chairs are already taken. The best chairs will always be taken. Contrive to stand artfully, casually, with an arm draped on the fireplace, and await an appropriate moment to join the conversation. The conversation will not stop for you. The conversation does not want you.

Stranger: 'Do you have any hot soup?' Twitter: 'No.' Stranger: 'Do you have any coffee then?' Twitter: 'No.'            Stranger: 'Do you have any, uh, hot chocolate?' Twitter: 'We've spirits and beers. If it's something hot you want, have tea. Stranger: 'Then you have tea.' Twitter: 'No.'

Stranger: ‘Do you have any hot soup?’
Twitter: ‘No.’
Stranger: ‘Do you have any coffee then?’
Twitter: ‘No.’
Stranger: ‘Do you have any, uh, hot chocolate?’
Twitter: ‘We’ve spirits and beers. If it’s something hot you want, have tea.
Stranger: ‘Then you have tea?’
Twitter: ‘No.’

 An American Werewolf in London

Compose your opening gambit with the sort of care otherwise reserved for wedding vows, eulogies, excuses for why you weren’t, in fact, working late at the office when you claimed you were. Charming self-deprecation is the way to go. ‘Tiptoeing onto twitter with all the panache of a geriatric tortoise’, for instance, although it’s possible someone (currently writing a blog not a million miles from here) may have used that one already. At any rate, it’s wise to be inventive with your self-deprecation. ‘I really don’t know what I’m doing!’ or ‘What’s this all about, then?’ have all the freshness of the year-old turd you will find down the back of the gents’ toilet if you poke about for a bit.

Whatever you do, incomer, don’t announce yourself with a pocketful of flyers. It’s advisable to buy the clientele a round of drinks before trying to sell them your book/film/interpretative dance project. Twitter is a conversation. Peruse the word ‘conversation’ in your dictionary. Reconsider your pre-planned material. Respond, instead, to a topic in mid-flow, unless you’d quite like to be chased all the way to the village green by strange men wielding pitchforks and banjos. I mean, picture the scene: there’s a nice juicy chat going on, the beer’s flowing, another few logs have been thrown on the fire… and up you jump, the cuckoo clock of the pub customer, with a frankly shit line from your novel. And picture, too, the peculiar looks you’d earn if you’d brought along your coterie of ventriloquist’s dummies, and every hour, on the hour, one of those leapt up as well with a frankly unbelievable review of your novel. And everyone could see your lips moving.

These things will not endear you to the clientele.

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This is a local pub for local people.

And then, suddenly, before you know it, you are the clientele. You’re in one of the chairs. (Not the chairs by the fire, but still… small mercies.) You’re composing blogs about how to behave in this pub that you think of, now, as your own. You look up, disgruntled, from your oddly-named ale, at the stiff blast of wind when an incomer opens the door. You tut when ‘something white, not too dry’ is asked for at the bar. ‘What’s wrong with the nuts?’ you say quietly. You have long come to terms with the fact that some of the cleverest things you say will slip soundlessly into the ether. You don’t even mind.

Because this is a noisy pub. And on twitter, as in life, it’s not always about you. 

Mine’s a vodka, if you’re asking.

30 Days of Nano: Praise the Lord, it’s Day Thirty!

Am I sad or happy that NaNoWriMo, and hence my 30 Days of Nano blog challenge, comes to an end at midnight tonight?

I’m a mix of the two: I’m shappy.

I didn’t do any writing at all yesterday. I’d already locked and loaded the day’s blog post ahead of time, so I didn’t even write a blog. (Boo! Hiss!)

Statler: I hear they're calling this the Medium Blog.  Waldorf: Well it certainly wasn't rare or well done!

Statler: I hear they’re calling this the Medium Blog.
Waldorf: Well it certainly wasn’t rare or well done!

But the day before that, I finished the first draft of my novel.

I don’t think you heard me.

I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT OF MY NOVEL!!!!!

Oh yeah. Go me.

Oh yeah. Go me.

 

I had my headphones in when I ‘validated’ on the nano site, and was promptly deafened by their cutesy recorded cheers. But I get to call myself a Winner. Hurrah! I like being a winner. Although it’s possible I’m only a winner for the remainder of 2014…

Winner-2014-Twitter-Profile

But at least I’ll have a month off from being a loser!

What have I learnt from this year’s nanowrimo?

We could really do with a Team America montage round about now.

 

Instead, have some bullet points:

  • The more often you write, the easier it gets.
  • Dorothea Brande was right: the subconscious will provide, if you let it.
  • The more you write, the more frequent your typos.
  • The more you write, the less inclination you have to amend those typos.
  • Sometimes, when you’re writing a lot, your brain attempts to reread, reflect, revise with every random thought you have, and this is almost as annoying as an Agadoo ear worm when you’re trying to sleep.
  • An insight scribbled in your notebook at four in the morning is better than two insights in a bush.
  • Two years of planning and writing and failing and writing and failing and tearing up plans and despairing and agonising and shredding and howling at the moon are all worth it when you’re not even writing your final scene: you’re following it, like a child in the Pied Piper’s wake, and you eat dinner because you have to eat dinner (you’re a human being, natch, and human beings need dinners) but you are eating with your left hand so you can carry on typing with your right.

Over the coming weeks and months it will all go pear-shaped. Of course it will. Bliss is fragile. I’m enjoying it now, because I can. I haven’t read my first draft yet. Why would I? I’m enjoying my honeymoon. You don’t go checking your new husband’s internet history when you’re on your honeymoon, do ya? No siree. You leave that for a rainy day in the future.

It’s not raining today (yet). And it’s too soon to go back to it yet. Fireworks and first drafts: leave ’em alone, for the love of God! 

But I have got a nagging awareness of the ‘project notes’ in my Scrivener file, where I noted down inconsistencies as I thunk of them. And I’ve sent Nancy Drew on the case of The Missing First Four Chapters and she’s presently teaming a rib-knit sweater with a pair of capri pants and enjoying a morning coffee with her kindly-eyed housekeeper Hannah Gruen, but she’s made some preliminary observations already:

  • At 8.04 a.m. the chapters were seen to be partially assembled.
  • They seemed not to be written in English, but gibberish.
  • Consultation with relevant sources suggests that it’s easier to write the beginning once you’ve got the end.

So, mainly because I find that I want to be writing today, and every day thereafter, I’m heading back in to the war zone with my dictaphone and my camera to start fiddling around a bit. (NB: Not to read the draft. Oh no. I don’t want to blow my face off with an unexploded rocket, thank you very much.) Expect further dispatches at some point in the future:

Novel is shit stop send reinforcements stop wondering if I should just stop 

And what have I learnt from my 30 days of daily blogging?

  • I should never compose a post in public, because I find myself quite funny sometimes (and that isn’t socially acceptable).
  • Some posts are bigger than others. (As Morrissey almost said.)
  • If I had to blog every day for the rest of my life, I probably could. But I don’t, so I won’t.

I do like blogging, though. And I like it when folk like my blogs.

This is me in the internet pond:

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This is not me:

That's me holding the fish. Kidding.

That’s me holding the fish. Kidding.

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But that’s cool.

Sometimes a few people stop by. They get snagged on some click bait in a tweet I wrote, or they google a search term that whisks them my way, or they (just occasionally) set out intentionally to come here. They put on their shoes, and coat, and gloves and they strap their binoculars round their neck and they brave the harsh winds of the internet in winter to peer through the fast encroaching fog for the faint glow, up ahead, of lynseywhite.com, where legend has it there are comfy chairs, hot tea, fluffy slippers for frostbitten feet, and a roaring log fire full of clichés. Not to mention willy jokes.

Excuse me a second while I just open the door to let these folks in...

Excuse me a second while I just open the door to let these folks in… they’re cold and tired and mightily in need of a joke about members.

Blogging gives me something (an outlet for my lunacy) that I don’t get from fiction – or don’t get so quickly, and easily, from fiction. So, whether or not there’s anyone out in that snowstorm searching, there’ll always be a brew on at lynseywhite.com (tea only; I don’t do coffee). It’s just I’ll be boiling the kettle slightly less often from December 1st…

We’ve had muppets, and fireworks, and insights in bushes, and weary travellers, and tiny fish… and if that ain’t enough confusing analogies for ya, then let me point you to some of my favourite posts from this whole 30 Days of Nano experience:

Day 18: in which Nano comes of age.

Day 10: my homage to Lorrie Moore’s How to Become a Writer

Day 28: on being an older writer. (The internet liked this one the best.)

Day 6: something quite sensible about finding your ‘seed word’ (as Scarlett Thomas calls it).

Day 29: in which nanowrimo reports on my progress. 

December, here we come.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Nine

If NaNoWriMo wrote report cards…

Report Card

In general we are pleased to inform you that Lynsey has worked well this month. She completed a total of 74,435 words, amply achieving her personal monthly target of 70,000 with 24 hours to spare, and as regards the story contained within those words we are pleased to describe the present status as ‘motoring along nicely’.

English

Lynsey has shone in this subject, and frankly, considering what she does for a living, it would be bloody worrying if she hadn’t. 

Biology

Lynsey has demonstrated a thorough acquaintance with the human body, in particular the breasts, buttocks, and genitalia and, indeed, writes so frequently about these three areas that one might even describe her as ‘fixated’.

Chemistry

Lynsey has survived the month with no recourse to illegal chemicals, with the exception of the occasional syringe of heroin for medicinal purposes.

Physics

In general, Lynsey has excelled at battery management as regards the use of her laptop in various cafes, except for that one occasion when she didn’t turn the plug on and, consequently, achieved very little actual writing with the 2% remaining of her battery life. She had to read a book instead.

Physical education

We regret to inform you that Lynsey’s progress in PE has fallen far short of the minimum standard required to maintain the healthy functioning of a human body. Indeed we are surprised she’s still alive at all.

Home Economics

Lynsey has used the microwave this month rather oftener than we’d recommend. She did, however, serve vegetables at least twice, and only once, on a wet Wednesday, did she have recourse to a packet of Super Noodles. 

Mathematics

We cannot congratulate Lynsey on her success in this subject. Indeed we are curious as to who she actually is, having never once seen her in class.

Art

Lynsey spends a long time gazing at images on the internet, and although these fall largely under the ‘fine art’ umbrella, as opposed to the ‘hard porn’ umbrella (and frankly we hope never to see such a thing as a hard porn umbrella), she has yet to exhibit any personal skill with a paintbrush. In addition, she has a tendency to daydream. There are those of us in the art department who strongly suspect she’s imagining future book covers.

French

Zut alors! La plume de ma tante. Etc.

German

Efficiency has risen notably since we, in the German department, refused to participate in these fake report cards.

Information Technology

We are quietly pleased with Lynsey’s progress. She has learnt how to arse around on the internet conduct research via google, how to embed tweets and youtube videos in her blog posts, and how to use the strike-through function with the aim of making said blog posts more amusing. We await the examiners’ decision on the success or failure of the latter point.

Religious Education

We gave up on Lynsey a long time ago, and can only report that she needn’t pack woollens for where she’s going. 

History

We are pleased, or perhaps disappointed, to report that Lynsey has utterly failed, this month, to let history repeat itself. Whereas, previously, she might have sat on her arse all month eating biscuits, this year she sat on her arse all month eating biscuits with one hand whilst typing with the other.

Geography

By and large Lynsey has remained in one spot. All month. Thus proving Hemingway’s dictum that writing broadens the ass as well as the mind.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Six

As Tigger very nearly said: the wonderful thing about writers… is writers are wonderful things.

Er, no. Let’s try that again. (Some of them are wonderful; some of them aren’t. At all.)

The wonderful thing about writers… is that writers are full of wonder. And if they’re not, they jolly well should be.

Oh, look! Turns out writers have something else in common with tiggers... they wish (yes, they do – they really really really secretly do in their innermost souls which are made of slugs & snails & puppy dogs' tails wish they were THE ONLY ONE and no one else had worked out how to do it. Even nice people like Hilary Mantel secretly wish this. Martin Amis definitely wishes it.

Oh, look! Turns out writers have something else in common with tiggers… they wish (yes, they do – they really really really secretly do in their innermost souls which are made of slugs & snails & puppy dogs’ tails) that they were THE ONLY ONE and no one else had worked out how to do it. Even nice people like Hilary Mantel secretly wish this. Martin Amis definitely wishes it.

Who else in this world is full of wonder (or jolly well should be)?

Children.

Aw.

Perhaps, right now, as you’re reading this blog, you are not feeling especially full of wonder. Perhaps you are meant to be writing something. Perhaps you are struggling. Perhaps the stone doesn’t feel remotely stony; perhaps the stone isn’t there at all. 

What you need, struggling writer, is a dose of Childlike Wonder™. You need to be curious about the world again.

How, Lynsey?

Well, the really excellent thing is that you were a child once. And if you stop being a bloody adult for two minutes, you can remember quite a lot of what being a child is like. As the Jesuits famously said, ‘Give me the child for seven years and I’ll give you the man’ (which would, frankly, be a miraculous achievement if that child happened to be a girl, you sexist old so-and-sos) and as Shakin’ Stevens (all the high culture references on my blog, readers!) nearly said : there’s a whole lotta shapin’ going on… in those formative years. (He didn’t say formative years, of course. In fact, where was the shakin’ going on? Was it all just in Shaky’s trousers? Life is certainly too short to google a Shakin’ Stevens lyric.)

I won't, thanks, Shaky, if it's all right with you. (Who knew Shaky was involved in illicit organ harvesting?)

I won’t, thanks, Shaky, if it’s all right with you. (Who knew Shaky was involved in illicit organ harvesting?)

Q: Why is a writer like a child? A: Because s(he) is spoilt, demanding, and self-centred to the point of alienating everyone s(he) knows eternally curious. Any one who’s raised a child, or indeed sat within earshot of one on a bus or train journey, knows that children ask lots of questions. Why is the sky blue? Is the moon following me? Can you please provide, in front of these people on this train, Mummy, the answers to the following: how the train works; why the sun shines; where babies come from; why that man is having a baby; why that lady’s drawn those funny eyebrows on her face. Etc. And so on. Forever.

Funny, but sweary bit from Louis C.K. on the wonders of childlike wonder.

Asking questions is a writer’s modus operandi. The writer’s job isn’t to answer those questions (hurrah!), but simply to formulate the questions ‘correctly’. (Here I’m paraphrasing Chekhov on Tolstoy.) Literature aims to provoke thought, not tell you what to think. We leave that to the school teachers. Bastards.

So, for writers, it’s not what you know, nor even who you know: it’s what you don’t know – but really, really want to find out – that makes for good novels. The writer needs a ‘grain of stupidity’ (said Flannery O’Connor). And a willingness to think about things for a really long time. And perhaps you know that the moon isn’t really following you, but a story in which the moon did follow you might be kinda interesting, right?

The State of Wonder: where all the good shit happens.

Go on, let’s pretend we’re still kids for a minute. Let’s look at some picture books.

Was I freakishly weird, as a child, or did you too sit staring and staring and staring at your favourite pictures until they were seared on your brain? Where the Wild Things Are, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Tiger Who Came to Tea… These are books you may have read yourself. You, too, might have pushed your miniature finger tips into the holes left behind in the fruit by the ravenous – and titular – caterpillar.

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He just wants to get to the page with the lollipop on. (Don’t we all.)

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Perhaps you, too, had a secret longing to feed finger sandwiches to a tiger.

...and he drank all the milk, and all the orange juice, and all Daddy's beer, and all the water in the tap... but fortunately Mummy's wine was left untouched! Hurrah!

…and he drank all the milk, and all the orange juice, and all Daddy’s beer, and all the water in the tap… but fortunately Mummy’s wine was left untouched! Hurrah!

All good fun. But two of the books in our house that I stared, and stared, and stared at were slightly less jolly. They gave me a frisson, a thrill, when I looked at them. The first was the Butterfly Ball: 3534192302_9261e1759c

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and the second was Kit Williams’ Masquerade. 

I have crazy goosebumps looking at this.

I have crazy goosebumps looking at this.

Excuse me while I have A Moment here. Since the internet was invented, I’ve never once thought – till now – to google the Butterfly Ball, and I’m feeling a little peculiar seeing the pictures again.

It's not just me, is it? That's quite disturbing.

It’s not just me, is it? That’s quite disturbing.

Wikipedia tells me The Butterfly Ball was not only a book, but a poem, a concept album and a rock opera. Well, I never. This post has all the pictures, if you’re brave enough… I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that illustrator Alan Aldridge may possibly have been within sniffing distance of a psychedelic drug or two.

Come on, now. At the very *least* he ate some funny mushrooms.

Come on, now. At the very least he was eating some funny mushrooms.

This, I think, was my book porn. Something I felt a bit weird about wanting to look at (like the nudie lady weighing herself on the cover of a ‘health and well being guide’ my parents had… I don’t think that’s a euphemism; you’d have to ask my mum and dad) but, weirdness be damned: I couldn’t quite stop myself wanting to look.

I was nine, I think, when I got my copy of Masquerade, and by then the famous riddle contained within its pages (go here if you’d like to know more) had already been solved, and the treasure (a gold hare) retrieved from its grave, near the Catherine of Aragon monument in Ampthill Park.

Not that I’d ever have solved it in a million years. I’m a numbskull. (It had something to do with fingers, and eyes, and blah blah blah: I couldn’t even concentrate long enough to read the solution, let alone deduce it myself.) But I was very drawn to the pictures. They gave me the goose pimply feeling the insects did in the Butterfly Ball. 

More, importantly, though, they were perfect writing prompts. I was twenty, and finishing up my English degree, when I wrote an odd story inspired by a curious mix of these two pictures:

Tara Tree-tops. She inspired me to make a character fly.

Tara Tree-tops. She inspired me to make a character fly.

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Run, children!!!!!

This one inspired some nightmares.

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And as for this boy gazing dolefully at a jelly… page10

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This mightn’t make sense in a logical way, but I think there’s a bit of this picture – a bit of the feelings it makes me feel – in everything I write, somehow. (I like feeling my way through a story, not puzzling it out like a sum.)

I’ve a theory. It’s this. The things that you see when you’re young, you see forever. We adults – we’re here, we’re there, we’re everywhere: we’ve seen everything twice already and, yawn, it takes something incredibly shocking, or rude, or unusual to make us really see. But the writer must keep hold of, or retrieve, that State of Wonder. Wide-eyed wonder.

You may not have owned the Butterfly Ball or Masquerade. But the odds are you had your own pictures you loved to pore over, and, equally, the odds are you’ll find them somewhere on the internet (if the pesky old paper copy’s gone walkies). Who knows what might inspire a story, a scene, a character?

I’ll leave you with Jan Pienkowski’s Haunted House, and my own realisation that even a pop-up book can seep so thoroughly into a child’s subconscious that she ends up – very slightly, subtly, not so anyone would ever notice – borrowing a little something something from it for the novel she’s writing thirty-five years later.

193px-Jan_Pienkowski_Haunted_House_-_Portada

‘Let yourself in’. Mwa ha ha!

Wake up, dude! There's, like, a ghost in your bed!

Wake up, dude! There’s, like, a ghost in your bed!

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Thirty-five years later and my saw still works. There are benefits to being a spiteful bitch who won't let other children touch her things.

Thirty-five years later and my saw still works. There are benefits to being a spiteful bitch who won’t let other children touch her things.

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Come play with my comments box, children, if you read these books yourself as a kid. Or have weird ‘uns of your own to share…

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Four

A first draft is for telling the story to yourself.

The second draft, and the third, and the fourth… and the twenty-seventh… and the four-hundred-and-eleventh… are for telling the story to the reader. In other words: what to leave in (so that everything is not completely baffling) and what to take out (so that you’re not too patronising) and what to rephrase (because that sentence was aesthetically pleasing as the spiral of cat poop that was left for me in the bathtub yesterday morning – not a joke), and so on and so forth.

I wrote 9000 words yesterday, although large swathes of the day were spent on other things, which seems such a miraculous happening that I think we need a spontaneous picture here of some ‘Assorted Saints’ (that’s what the image is called; again not a joke).

And when, then I'd written my 9000 words, I turned some water into wine and verily I did drink it.

And then, when I’d written my 9000 words, I turned some water into wine and verily I did drink it.

 Image source (if you’d care to purchase some religious wallpaper)

There has been some fall-out along the way. A surprising amount of typos can be made when you’re writing as if the story is a train that you’re racing to catch. I’m aware (as I said in yesterday’s post) (which slightly, old-fashionedly, makes me think I’m inside the postbag, or the postbox, or being squeezed through someone’s letter box) (um anyway…) WHERE WAS I? Ah yes. I’m aware of wanting 70 thousand words, instead of the recommended 50 thousand, from this hectic month of November, but that’s only a back-to-front way of approaching the fact that the story seems to need/want/demand another twenty thousand words or so. (The Story should get together and go on a date with those Markets we’re always hearing about, and have a good chuckle over the power of an abstract concept to enslave humankind.)

Really, I’ll just keep writing until I run out of story. It doesn’t matter if that’s 70K or 170K, and

Unknown-2

 

before you tell me ‘no one ever buys first novels longer than 100K’, because first drafts have their own rules, and one of those rules is: THERE ARE NO RULES! Hurray. Cast caution to the wind

Goodbye, caution!

Goodbye, caution!

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and write your little ass off, as badly – or goodly (erm…) – as you like. You will never, never, never again be as free (with this particular book) as you are now.

Remember those halcyon days at the start of a long-term relationship? When it doesn’t really matter what you’re saying, because the other person isn’t listening: the fact that you’re speaking at all – the fact that you exist – is reason enough for your mouth to be opening and closing, while they gaze at your face through the rose-tinted candlelight and wonder how ever their heart could have bothered to beat in the wasteland of their existence before you – you, oh wonderful creature – walked into their life. And even though you never fart in front of them, if you did it would waft like a squirt of Chanel no 5, because nothing can really be wrong that comes out of your body. You could probably even (don’t take my word on this) have a dump on the ground in front of them – possibly even in their shoes – and get away with it. And they’d still want to snog you.

That’s where I am with the novel right now. It can do no wrong. I think about it constantly. I don’t want to know what other people think: if its breath smells like a month-old egg sandwich, or it once went out in public in a denim hat, or it’s actually a closet Tory, or it wanted to do some really strange things with the last girl it slept with. I don’t want to hear that now! I don’t need to hear it. My story’s on a pedestal, god damn it, and it’s going to stay there.

For now.

After Christmas, when I come out from behind the curtains and sneak up on it, unawares, I’ll have taken my love-goggles off and I’ll see it for what it really is. I’ll cringe when it tells me that anecdote about getting arrested in Prague that it doesn’t remember telling me, already, two months ago – and I didn’t really enjoy it the first time, if I’m honest – and I’ll tilt my head and say, ‘Is that a beer belly under there?’ I’ll stop looking under the sofa cushions for that month-old egg sandwich and start leaving breath mints next to the bed. We’ll be out somewhere for dinner with friends, and I’ll hear my novel braying about privatisation, how that’s a good thing, and I’ll notice the man sitting opposite me at the table, who’s telling his neighbour to boycott Shell, and I’ll think to myself, ‘Now he seems nice. Why can’t my novel be like that? Look, he’s pouring water for everyone else first… My novel’s just taken the last shrimp off the plate, and he’s already had his fair share already and then some… Oh Christ, did he just burp?’

It’s going to be a sad and disappointing time. When I start the second draft, I’m going to think everyone at that table is kinder and sexier and sweeter-smelling than the novel I’ve been lumbered with. And I’m not saying I should stay with that novel forever (god forbid, in fact), but you’ve got to at least try to make it work, right?

No matter how much it stinks.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Two

Which dead celebrity would you most like to have sex with?

I don’t even have to think about my answer. There’s close competition from Jeff and Tim Buckley, and I always had kind of a crush on Philip Seymour Hoffman, but give me Franz Liszt circa 1840 and all others pale by comparison.

Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811–1886). Be honest: you wouldn't kick him out of bed on a cold night.

Hungarian composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt (1811–1886). Be honest: you wouldn’t kick him out of bed on a cold night.

 

(Editor’s note: This is the post that immediately loses me all the new subscribers I picked up yesterday… It’s mostly an extravagant preamble, an Oscar Wilde-style ‘eloquent circumlocution’ if you like, to point you towards my new page – up above – called ‘Music to Write to, which I hope you’ll take a gander at, even if you drop out HERE and read no further…)

Liszt was a rock god before rock gods were invented. Women collected the butts of his cigars and wore them on chains around their necks. They swooned at concerts. They abandoned their husbands for him. They wrote novels about him. I’m certain they’d have thrown their knickers at him if not for the peskily-awkward nature of Victorian fashion.

And did all this adulation turn Liszt into a massive cock?

Well, probably. At first. But he was also (Lynsey pulls sad face) devoutly religious (except for the ‘thou shalt not fornicate bit’; but if you look like Liszt and you play piano like Liszt and you don’t fornicate, you’re certifiably insane I reckon. Even God on his cloud was, like, ‘eh, go on, then, ya scallywag’.) He was a bit of a Big Head, it has to be said: ‘Génie oblige!’ was one of his sayings – nothing to do with a man in silk trousers granting you three wishes, but rather a twist on the ‘noblesse oblige‘ idea that those with money and power were meant to do their bloody bit for others. Likewise, those who were… well, geniuses (oh go on, let him off; he was a genius) were required to step up and… um… share themselves. (All credit to Liszt, he did share himself admirably well.) Génie Oblige finds its contemporary expression in Spiderman’s dictum that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Bet you never thought Liszt and Spiderman would be likely bedfellows, but there you are. We none of us know what life (or, indeed, this blog) will bring our way.

The man in action.

The man in action.

 

All of which is a STUNNINGLY LONG-WINDED way of saying that Liszt played his concerts for free.

For free.

That’s right. Just like the millionaire rock stars of today, who feel they probably have enough money already (how many houses, helicopters, pool tables, swimming pools, etc, does one rock star need?) and they want to thank their fans by…

Charging them as much money as possible.

Lovely.

For years Liszt was nothing to me but a painting on an album cover: a compilation of his Hungarian rhapsodies. Then, one night, I was reading a book about Chopin and, much as I love Chopin, whenever Liszt came striding in he swiped the scene from under Chopin’s pointy nose. While Chopin was pining for Georges Sand and palely coughing, Liszt was charming the copious undergarments from virtually everyone except Clara Schumann (who loathed him) and running away to an island with Marie D’Agoult and being twice as charismatic as Emma Thompson on the Graham Norton Show (and that was a whole lot of charismatic) crossed with Benedict Cumberbum and a side order of Christopher Walken in King of New York. 

In fact, before Madder Hall came along, I was planning a 12-part novel based on Liszt’s Transcendental Études for solo piano… Now, calm down, I know that excites you, but don’t all squeal at once, please: this is an Englishwoman’s blog. I’ll get an attack of the vapours if you keep on like that.

(Heard the oddly-quiffed Evgeny Kissin play this live at the Barbican last year, and practically went into the stratosphere, such was my delight.)

I strongly suspect that everyone’s packed away their pencil case and gone home for their tea now, because you probably all heard the school bell about seven paragraphs ago, while I was enjoying myself on one of my favourite topics. Am I alone now? (As Tiffany nearly sang.) If so, I could literally write anything I wanted to…

Unknown-1

 Image source

Just getting a cat to stroke…

Right, back now. Plus cat.

 

Watch out for the radioactive eyes.

Watch out for the radioactive eyes.

As I said at the start of this L O N G post, I’m in a musical kinda mood because I’ve just stuck a brand new page at the top of the site, and it has lots of musical links you mightn’t have come across before, and there might just be something to tickle your fancy. So do check it out.

And, partly, I suppose I’m trying out ideas for Book Number 2. Book Number 2 is going to be musical. I don’t mean it’ll come with a birthday-card jingle inside (although, hmm, there’s an idea…) or a Jamie Oliver style CD-to-cook-to (could you be any more twee and middle class and faintly annoying, Jamie?). I mean it’ll be about music. (Except it won’t, of course. It will be about having sex and then dying, which I what I always seem to write about.)

It won’t be about Liszt, though. Because Liszt is sort of in Madder Hall. And if you visit my About Me page you can hear me describing the character he inspired.

PS: for those who’re interested, my NaNo word count stands at 43,726. As of 10.04 this morning.

P.P.S. Just realised I told my friend Jon, over coffee yesterday, that this would be about raspberries. (Perhaps it should have been.)

Here's an otter blowing a raspberry. Just for you, Jon.

Here’s an otter blowing a raspberry. Just for you, Jon.

 

 

30 Days of Nano: Day Seventeen

Hi, I’m Liddy. I’m seventeen, and I’m the protagonist heroine of Madder Hall. 

I’m actually right in the middle of something quite important, but Lynsey’s the boss I’m the boss. And I don’t really like what Lynsey’s making me do. It feels like, everything was fine, okay, and then she went off in this really weird direction and something happened that wasn’t meant to happen, and now we’re just, um, what’s going on, Lesley? (We call her that to annoy her. Once, when she was a little girl, her friend’s mum got confused and wrote Lesley on her party invitation, and ever since then it’s weird but whenever someone gets her name wrong they call her Lesley.)

She got this painting off the ‘internet’ (don’t ask, because I don’t know) and it’s got a vibe about it that reminds her of me, she says:

If you think I know who painted this you've got another think coming.

If you think I know who painted this you’ve got another think coming.

Even though I’m blonde, and this girl is a ginger, and I spend nearly the whole book fiddling with my long yellow hair (it’s like she can’t think of anything else for me to do!). But anyway. Lesley says it’s the look on her face that makes her think of me. Who is she anyway? She’s someone out of the Bible. Change the subject, please.

Lesley recommends ‘googling’ (eh?) a character’s physical ‘attributes’ (whatever they are). She says finding the right sort of face can be very inspiring.

I suppose I’ll have to go back to the plot in a minute. I’m meant to be finding a key. I am really, really cold in that house. We keep having power cuts, because it’s a useful plot device it’s the 1970s. I keep stubbing my toes on the furniture. Give me a torch, Lesley! Or just leave the lights on. (Stop saying it’s the electricity board, Lesley. We all know it’s you.)

She’s says it’s 2014 now, when you’re reading this, and people don’t have hover cars or tinfoil trousers, but they do keep really tiny phones in their pockets and the telly’s on all day. I said, can’t you set the book in 2014 with the permanent telly, but Lesley says no, it’s really not possible because it’s a well known fact that modern technology ruins plots it’s an artistic decision that’s crucial to the tone of the book. So, god, it’s 1979. I don’t even know what a deely-bopper is yet. Or a ra-ra skirt. God knows if I’ll live long enough to enjoy the atrocities of the 1980s.

God knows? I meant to say Lesley knows.

On tap-dancing kittens, and why fiction is like an over-thick milkshake.

Since grandly announcing ‘I’m free to write shit‘ I have written precisely nothing. Bupkis. Opened notebook and pen

My thinking, I suppose, is that by blogging more often I’ll gently encourage the flow of words – like an over-thick milkshake through one of those straws with more loops than intestines – and gradually something resembling fiction will find itself slurped from the base of the cup and…

I think may have gone too far now with the bendy straw thing.

But, in my defence: (a) I am wooly of mind this morning, having taken an extra sleeping pill to counteract my daughter’s Tangfastics that I misguidedly ate to stay awake during Eurovision last night (in some bizarre twist on the old woman who ate the spider to catch the fly, etc – and ended up eating a horse and dying – and, no disrespect Haribo, but eating horses is probably far less conducive to nighttime palpitations than sour jellies doused in sugar). And (b) writing good fiction is a bit like sucking a drink through an obstacle course of a straw. Why, Lynsey? 563

Because it’s really hard work.

This has been my annus horribilis so far, to quote dear Queenie, and every time I switch my brain to ‘fiction mode’ there’s a loop or a bend or a blockage beyond which my battle-worn thoughts are just too gloopy to go any further. I don’t want to be one of those writers who grinds real-life axes through fiction (although inevitably, I suppose, things creep in). But, naturally, a writer is present in her or his own work – and, in fact, should be, as I blogged about here – so what do you do if you’re just, well, just not that keen on yourself or your own bloody company at the present moment? I read to escape myself (just finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for the fourth time – please do read it if you haven’t already), but, as Flannery O’Connor once said, writing is no kind of escape at all: if you’re doing it right it’s the deepest kind of self-penetration (don’t think I’ll be tagging this blog with that line…), which sounds vaguely painful – and quite often is.

I do wish I could write about happier things, but I can’t (so it seems). I could plan for a heartwarming tale about tap-dancing kittens, but somewhere – I guarantee you – somewhere amongst all that tapping and dancing the spectres of sex and death would rear their ugly heads and the whole thing would have to end stickily for those showbiz kittens. As Andre Gide said: ‘What would there be in a story of happiness? Only what prepares it, only what destroys it can be told.’ Although in my own case I’ve gone one further: I can’t seem to prepare for it, only destroy it.

Okay so they're not tap shoes. And they're not dancing. But still, they are cute. Image at http://www.freeoboi.ru/eng/wallpaper/8989.html

Okay so they’re not tap shoes. And they’re not dancing. But still, they are cute. Image at http://www.freeoboi.ru/eng/wallpaper/8989.html

As Madder Hall has gone from thought to pen to sprawling metropolis of Scrivener documents, things have got darker. The story has moved in a different direction and, hence, I’ve started to encroach on territory that’s difficult for me. I suppose we’re all drawn to particular things (I think it was Philip Larkin who once remarked that authors oughtn’t to be blamed for what they wrote, because they had no choice in the matter) but as I blogged about here it may be that those things we’re drawn to are leading us down unhealthily introspective paths. Who knows? I don’t pretend to have the answers. When all’s said and done, I suppose I’m a tiny bit scared of my book. Is that silly? Like being scared of your shadow. Your darker half. If stories are milkshakes, then mine are invariably liquorice coloured (ew) and perhaps the loops and bends and twists and blocks are my brain’s way of cowering, just at the moment, from tackling that liquoricey mess.

Bike rides and bunting (and not sweating the small stuff).

Bikes rides. Bunting. Cuddles. Tea. Cocoa. Knitting. Sue Miller. Elliott Smith. Nick Drake. Carol Shields. Alison Lurie. Wallander (in Swedish, naturally). The League of Gentlemen. The Secret Life of Us. The Office. Modern Family. Hilary Mantel. My Mother’s Day card. Secrets and Lattes (on radio 4). Brass Eye… Just some of the things that have kept me going over the last three months.

Aforementioned bunting.

Aforementioned bunting.

And then yesterday… I did a little writing.

Pointless, awful writing. But, still. New writing. New writing that didn’t exist the day before yesterday.

Where’s it all going, nobody knows. I’ve confronted the cobwebby drafts in my notebooks and found lots of nonsense – with one or two pearl-like lines among swine – and (with tea cup in hand) I cracked open the Scrivener file on my laptop where Madder Hall lives and (sharp intake of breath)… of the sections I read, it is mostly dreadful. 

Hardly surprising. They usually are dreadful, first drafts. If I wasn’t already despairing of everything else in my life, I’d despair of the novel. But misery, so it turns out, has its positive side: it does give you a fresh perspective on writerly belly-aching. It makes you not care about agents or book deals. It makes you immune from the sting of those twinges when somebody writes something better than you. So my book’s mostly crap. I don’t care! It’s a shame, yes, that Scissors – a chapter I liked when I wrote it – is wooden and lumpen and filled with the sort of dialogue that can only be written, not spoken. But never mind, eh. Push on, push on. I’m so low in myself that any words committed to paper are worthy of celebration. It’s liberating. (Sort of.) I’m free to write shit, and be proud of myself just for writing at all.

So, to sum up… I’m still in the gutter. But gradually, painfully, starting to look at the stars again.

Me time (85% cocoa).

I ought to have been in an orchestra, really. I ought to have played a more sociable instrument (i.e. not the piano, the sulky loner of the music world) and gone to rehearsals with seventy other musicians and hung out together (I see us all wonderfully stylish in polo neck jumpers) and made sweet music en masse. There’s a lovely sense of solidarity in that.

Instead, I chose writing. And writing, as everyone knows, is the sulky loner of the art world. I’m a sulky loner myself, so it’s no surprise, really, that we found each other. And yet there are times – this is one – when I question the wisdom of two sulky loners conspiring like this. Isn’t writing a thing best done by those with more resilience? Is it good for us loners to really embrace our aloneness? The danger is one that’s befallen me recently: life on your own becomes so flipping normal – status quo – that the world recedes, with the flesh and blood people who live there, till what you’ve got left is a notebook, a Scrivener file, and long stretches of silence. It’s frighteningly easy to get yourself so swept away in a book that the whole of your life becomes ‘me time’. The question I’m asking, then, is this: Is so much ‘me time’ good for the soul? And would miserable writers be miserable whether they wrote or not? Would Virginia Woolf have drowned herself if she’d played second bassoon in the London Symphony Orchestra? Would Hemingway have been happier tooting a horn than exposing the innermost core of his soul? And dear old, mad old Sylvia Plath – perhaps self-examination on a daily basis wasn’t the healthiest way to proceed. Might her tale have ended differently if she’d spent that February night with a gaggle of polo-necked viola players instead of surrounded by rancour-filled manuscripts and an empty flat?

Well, sigh. You’d be right if you thought I was bitter. If blog posts were chocolate bars, this one – I have to admit – would be 85 % cocoa. I’m currently stuck on that hamster wheel of The Road Not Taken, and anyone (musicians, actors, dancers) who gets their arty kicks in a gang of likeminded folks – and not staring, alone, at the screen of a laptop – is garnering my envy at this present moment. God, but it must be so nice – so bloody, bloody nice – to have someone else physically, actually, there when you’re knee deep in doing your thing – and I don’t mean disturbing you (breaking the train of your thoughts with the offer of tea when you’ve just bloody sewn up that sentence at last but you haven’t quite managed to scribble it down); I mean, doing it with you. Collaborating. You actors, musicians, and dancers – how lucky you are.

Footnote

To be fair I should probably mention the fact that I did once play in an orchestra, long, long ago. I was ten at the time. I wanted to play the cello. There weren’t any cellos at school; there was only an oboe.

My playing was so bloody awful I ended up having to mime in school concerts. The whole thing was torture from start to finish. Perhaps I do prefer writing, after all.

A slight left at the Doldrums and welcome to Writer’s Block.

This is one of those hideous times when I daren’t put pen to paper for fear of what will emerge. The inside of my head is a large gaping wound, and no matter how often I numb it with red wine and sedatives, long bracing walks in the wind in my Wellies, and hour upon hour of piano playing (N.B. Philip Glass particularly good for the numbing of mind-wounds) there is no coming out of this foxhole, it seems, in the foreseeable future.

So what do I do? I have work to hand in to my mentor next month, and the dwindling remains of an Arts Council grant in my bank account urging me forwards. My deadline for draft number one of the novel is 22nd April. But more, much more than this, as Sinatra once sang, I’m not sure who I am anymore. I don’t wake in the mornings bursting to write. I don’t fizz with ideas. I’ve grown cobwebs. My soul is as full of stones as the pockets of Woolf’s overcoat when she walked to the River Ouse and drowned. All these hours when I ought to be writing, but can’t. I’ve no spark anymore. I’ve no sparkle.

Here’s something that’s not often said about depression: amongst all the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth it’s just really bloody DULL. It’s like visiting – year after year – the same caravan park (and you didn’t much like it the first time) with pubes on the soap bar, and mould in the shower, and stains that you don’t even want to think about on the mattress. A radio endlessly tuned to your least favourite station and somebody’s bloody dog barking all night.

You had tickets for Greece this year, you were sure of it. Greece, or Barbados, or New York, or Rome. But apparently not. Here you are, once again, in your strangely-moist bed in the caravan, watching the shadows as other unfortunate occupants lurch past your window, alone. When you wake in the morning and peer out your door there’s a sign been erected above it: NIL BY PEN. And the name of the caravan park?

Why, Writer’s Block, of course.

You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps.

If there was one thing I could change about the world, it’s this. (And it comes with World Peace as a BOGOF, you’ll be happy to know.)

I would alter the fabric of time and space so that novels could be written outside of the writer’s regular life, in another dimension, connected by only the merest of threads to this thing we call reality. I’ll call this dimension the Novelling Pocket. The entrance – I’d guess – is a little like Alice’s descent to Wonderland and, once safely inside, two things happen at once:

(a) Time comes to a halt – or, perhaps, more exactly: there is no time.

(b) Your emotional baggage is checked at the door.

If you haven’t immediately appreciated the joys of the Novelling Pocket then you, Sir and/or Madam, are (a) not presently writing a novel, (b) have never attempted to write a novel, and (c) are blessed with the sort of straightforward mindset that (if mindsets were bridges) would vaguely resemble Exhibit A:

Exhibit A.

Exhibit A.

Whereas I, Sir and/or Madam have found myself dogged, for the last thirty years of my life, with Exhibit B.

Exhibit B. Photograph from http://travel-wonders.blogspot.co.uk

Exhibit B. The Rickety Bridge in Nepal. Photograph from travel-wonders.blogspot.co.uk

I think you see the difficulty.

This week (in jolly old reality) things went tits up for me. And so… after two weeks of frantic activity (see last month’s post on blurting) all work on the novel has come to a stop. (And the fact that I almost said ‘come to an end’ shows the ricketiness of my bridge at the moment.) I’m basically fastened together with red wine and string. When I open my mouth (aka pick up my pen) I am utterly mute. I have nothing. I’m empty. I want to dive into the novel and blot out the world, but instead I’m stuck, shivering, by myself, on the top board with a swimming pool of people underneath me, pointing and staring. (Actually, all right, I’m on the sofa eating crisps, but…) Last week I was Tom Daley. This week I’m an effing beach ball.

(N.B. The bridge, thing: that’s so last paragraph. Do try to keep up.)

So you know what I said (roughly 42 hours ago) about two things that happened at once in the Novelling Pocket: the (a) and the (b), and the (a) was time stopping? It used to be reason (a) that I needed it for (most of all), but now, hello, what’s this? It turns out I have shed-loads of time, now I’ve ceased any writing. The hours have magically trebled, quadrupled, quintupled (is that a real thing?), and each individual hour – each minute – seems infinitesimal in its length as I sit here unable to dive.

The profession of writer does tend to be linked with depression (Woolf, Hemingway, Plath) as this article reminds us. And yet – in spite of this blog post’s title – it’s one of the things that’s hardest to do when depressed: if you do write, the odds are you’ll write something twisted and crabbed and polluted – and, while poetry is known for its therapeutic effects, I am wholehearted in the opinion that novel writing is not. And, besides, I’m not Woolf. I’m not Plath. I’m very much more ordinary than that. To quote Plath’s Tulips, ‘I have nothing to do with explosions.’ I want nothing to do with explosions. All I want is to write again.

  

Ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum… or the Music of Prose.

What do you do to relax? I do various things. I read books, I watch films, I take baths. I play Chopin’s Waltz in F major on the piano – delighting my neighbours – and listen to ASMR videos on youtube (and if the latter has you thinking I’m probably mad then you’ll know it for sure by the end of this post).

Above all, though, I write.

Is she kidding, you’re thinking? She writes to relax. I should clarify, here, that I don’t mean proper writing with plot arcs, and meanings, and narrative drive. That’s like juggling whilst riding a unicycle – backwards – and, wonderfully absorbing and rewarding as that is (when it’s working), I’d never describe it as soothing.

Proper writing is like this.

Proper writing is like this.

No, no, I mean something called free writing. You let your pen loose on the paper (or fingers on keyboard) and, well, you just write. You don’t think, you don’t shape, you don’t plan. Your brain flops – I can actually feel it, somehow – and you splurge your thoughts onto the page. Automatically. Writing without really thinking about it. Like jiggling around in a nightclub, say, as opposed to performing the lead role in Swan Lake on stage for a ravenous crowd at Sadler’s Wells.

Free writing feels like this.

Free writing feels like this.

And, NB, when I say this is writing ‘automatically’, I don’t mean to say this is ‘automatic writing‘ – in which practitioners believe they’re communing with spirits: the only communing you’ll do here is with your own brain – your subconscious, specifically – which is far more entertaining (and, just occasionally, more alarming, if you’re currently unfamiliar with its deepest enclaves). The technique has been fairly widespread among writerly types since Dorothea Brande’s ‘Becoming a Writer’ way back in 1934 (which you can read in its entirety here, with an intro by John Gardner, whose own book, On Becoming a Novelist is equally deserving of your time and attention). We free-write in order to access our un- or sub-conscious, says Brande: the most playful – or childlike – part of our brains, that must function in tandem alongside the critical, conscious part (that decides if the plot makes sense, etc.) ‘You must teach yourself,’ she says, ‘not as though you were one person, but two.’

If you’ve never tried free writing before, you’ll find some great prompts here at practice writing.co.uk (choose a prompt that immediately zings in your brain – it’s more likely to resonate with you), or simply write ‘cold’ if you like (let your natural environment prompt you somehow). Back to Brande: ‘The unconscious is shy, elusive, and un- wieldy, but it is possible to learn to tap it at will, and even to direct it.’ The key here is practiceMy students divide into two clear camps: those who groan at the ‘f’ of the ‘free’ (and would rather poke sticks in their eyes than be let off the leash), while the other half champ at the bit to get started (and often have poetry somewhere behind them). You need to keep trying. The older you get, the more likely it is that your brain has erected complex fortification systems – a series of signs reading do not disturb. But a writer must play. I’m afraid it’s essential. You can’t run away from yourself – not forever: this process, for me, feels like switching the light off and groping around in the dark. You won’t know, till you reach out and grab them, what treats you might find. There are all sorts of things in that darkness, believe me, and maybe you’d feel that much safer by switching the light on but don’t, please, I ask you: the best stuff is shy and elusive, remember. It shrinks from the light.

‘But this post,’ you’ll be saying around about now – if your memory is better than mine – ‘was supposed to have something to do with the music of prose, whatever the hell that means.’ Well, yes. I’m now getting to that. It’s not something you’ll hear very often from advocates of free writing, but this is the way do it. Think back to the start of this post (it was ages ago) and you might recall something I said about Chopin? My twin loves are writing and music. The two come together sometimes. Where they meet with the least complication is here, in the dark of that treat-filled room where I do my free writing. The way I relax is to write for the rhythm alone: I don’t care about meaning, or sense, or self-censorship. All I can hear is the sound of the words, the ti-tum, ti-ti-tum, and the ebb and the flow of the language. Rhythm in English derives from a pattern of stressed or unstressed syllables: somehow I reach for an iamb or trochee or dactyl without even knowing exactly what iambs or trochees or dactyls are, but the rhythm entangles me, lulls me… relaxes me. Pushes me into the groove where I do my best writing, and opens the juiciest part of my brain where the good stuff is hiding.

Have you ever read prose that’s so fluid it’s sort of hypnotic? Tobias Hill (a poet as well as a novelist) is great at this; so, too, is his namesake, Tobias Wolff, in this ravishing extract from Old School‘it carried me back to those Sunday teas in the headmaster’s parlour, red leaves or snow or whirling maple seeds falling past the tall windows. The great Persian rug is covered with cookie crumbs. The air smells of the Greek master’s cigar. In the fat corner someone plays ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ on the tinkly upright, fragments of the melody floating just above our voices. We boys stand in circles…’ And so it goes on. It’s just lovely, right? Full of music and assonance. Swoon. (Although, crucially, Wolff breaks the rhythm sporadically: prose isn’t poetry, after all.) I could read it forever. In James Wood’s superb How Fiction Works he describes the ‘mathematical’ perfection of certain sentences; the writer’s ‘third ear’ that hears something beyond mere content. I don’t, by any means, lay claim to excellence as a writer (‘Authors come in two kinds,’ my mentor once told me. ‘Those who are natural storytellers… and, well… you’re the other kind, I think’) but the one thing I would say I’ve got is a fairly good ear for the music of prose. Which is bugger all use, of course, when you can’t tell a story, but, still, in my long writing life I’ve pulled one or two sentences out of the bag that I’m proud of. For me, that’s enough.

If you have too much time on your hands…

…you might like to read the sample that follows. It’s copied verbatim from one of my copious Free Writing files on Scrivener, written without even thinking about it, or stopping, or censoring anything. This here’s the part where you’ll think I’ve gone crackers, but read it aloud – very quietly, when nobody’s listening – and you might find it trips fairly easily (mad as it is) off your tongue.

And you know what? I quite like those card-playing dolls…

The dolls looked alarmed. They were sipping their cold tea from cups made of apples and holding their clenched hands alone on the table in front of them. None of their hands could manipulate scissors. They gazed in the far vacant distance. You never knew what they were thinking. Their eyes were completely devoid of sensation. Their bodies were heartless. They mostly wore tartan, or plaid as the little girl called it, and spoke of their long ago love affairs, over the border, when none of their hearts had been broken by boys, since they had none to break.

Was it good, the girl asked? This doll’s life? They replied that it was, that she ought to come try it. She said she preferred the boom-boom of her own real heart. They were sorry. They sat playing cards for a while. Could she join them? 

The littlest doll had an ace. The fat doll with the wig the same pink as a radish was holding the kings and the queens, and the elderly doll with no eyes had a two and a four. They weren’t sure what the game was, or who was the winner. The time was passed tolerably well in the nursery. Still the clock ticked, and at last when the rabbity hands had advanced to the ten and the seven they sighed and explained it was high time for bed.

If you’ve made it this far, grab your pen or your pencil and write fifty words – without stopping – on owls, or hearts, or cards. Feel the flow of the sentences. Jig your way through them, as if in a nightclub, and reach for a word not according to meaning but sound. When I’ve done this in class I’ve seen students come up with all sorts of ridiculous things, but they’ve often had something – a sort of a spark – that their conscious writing lacked. ‘If you never let yourself go,’ as Germaine Greer (sort of) once said, ‘how will you ever know how far you might have got?’

Exactly.