“Words That Stung”

Yes, it’s come to this: in desperation I have printed off a list of Interesting Personal Essay Ideas. Sigh! And this was on there – the title, not the wasp, or wapsie as Canadian sister used to say when little, several millennia ago. I know why the current lack of inspiration: things have been happening in my life as usual, but for various reasons nothing I can actually write about here. This always stymies me, since my usual method is simply to ask myself What am I obsessing about/ ruminating over/ pondering/ remembering right this minute? And however unlikely the subject is, I sit down and ‘splurge’ about that.

I usually avoid internet lists of essay titles. They mostly seem to be aimed at schoolchildren and involve school, teenage crushes, dreams and plans for the future, lurve or parents – none of which I have, in any useful sense. Note of gloom creeping in here – buck up, do, you old misery!

Words That Stung – hmmm, we all have some of those, don’t we? And how not to turn a feeble attempt at an entertaining Monday Morning Post into All The Nasty Things People Have Ever Said To Me. Let’s just select a few, then over to you for your examples.

There was the time my mother told me I had to keep my face still when we were out shopping, because some lady had said What a pity your little girl has St Vitus Dance, or words to that effect. My mother explained that St Vitus’ Dance was when your face kept twitching, kind of grotesquely. I wonder who St Vitus was? Somebody who danced, obviously. Will have to look him up.

There was the time Canadian Sister and I entered a children’s writing competition in the local newspaper (Uncle Mac’s Corner). The title was something like Why My Mummy Is The Best In The World. I wrote it really, but sister provided some enthusiastic input. She was probably too young to write at that stage. I was so proud when it appeared in Uncle Mac’s Corner the next day, and expected Mummy to be pleased (chocolate cup cakes for a week, I imagined) but she wasn’t.

Instead she launched into a – to me, at seven or so – inexplicable and hysterical rant, to the effect that I sent that to the newspaper, secretly, for all to see and laugh at, and I could write all that but I could never tell her to her face. It was true that I had never told her to her face. It had never occurred to me because what kid goes up to their Mum and says all that sugary, embarrassing stuff? And anyway writing was my telling, my speaking, my confiding – was then and has remained so.

And then I had to walk to school, with my face all red and puffy, hiccupping, and get teased and stared at all day for the mess I was in. I maybe understood a bit better when I got older, but I never forgave her.

There was the time – no, I can’t tell you that one. Or…that one, either.

And then there was the time a supervisor told me the ‘bosses’ regarded me as some kind of slightly addled old hippy – nice, but vague – or words to that effect. I wasn’t actually nice, and I wasn’t actually vague, and if only I had been a hippy.

There was the time a visiting financial advisor remarked that of course the root of all my problems was a) insufficient income and b) all those cats. The sensible thing, he said, will be to dispose of all, or most of, these stray cats. I wondered whether he had children, and how many of them he would dispose of in times of financial stress, and which of them he would choose.

There was the time the doctor told me my bad back would get better if I lost some of the excess weight when actually I was just bundled up in an old winter raincoat with the belt bunched up funny round the waist (à la little Meghan’s posh white coat in her official engagement photo, but nobody said she could do with shedding a few pounds because it happened to be a chilly day and her belt was tied sort of funny!)

On similar lines, and talking of fat, these Stinging Words are not mine, but were related to me by a colleague. She said she had gone to the doctor one Winter’s day wearing a puffy anorak with her woolly gloves poked into the pocket, and he had asked her how far along her pregnancy was – when she wasn’t. Mind you, she was a bit chunky.

And one from my sister, when she and her husband were trying unsuccessfully for a baby, who kept receiving pamphlets in Air Mail letters from her mother-in-law, about female infertility. Her husband had been trying to intercept the post on his way out to work, to fish out any pamphlets before my sister saw them. But that’s not so much a Stinging Word as a Stinging Action or a Stinging Assumption.

Have any Stinging Words (not too painful to share at this distance in time) remained indelibly seared into your memory over the years?

Strangeness

I occasionally attempt to write about subjects randomly generated through a subject generator website. It rarely ends well.

The idea, of course, is that one tends to get bogged down in one’s little domestic world – feeding the birds, tripping over the cats, visiting Mum in the Home, memories of stuff there seems no particular reason to have remembered and even less reason to inflict on anyone else. After a while, you begin to get bored with yourself, or the sound of your own written voice. You start to suffer from bloggers’ angst with angst-ridden questions drifting randomly through your mind, like

Who on earth is going to want to read all this old gubbins anyway?

Should I do everyone a favour and publish something useful, such as ‘Yet more recipes for cleaning stuff with baking powder and lemon juice’ or ‘How to look after your terrapin’?

(Does anybody know what a terrapin is? I have a feeling it’s something that lives in an aquarium.)

Anyway, this afternoon the Random Subject Generator has flung this one back at me:

Strange experiences, that can’t be explained rationally.

Oh dear. The trouble is that although I am very interested in spookiness and strangeness – as a one-time drippy hippie, why wouldn’t I be? – spookiness and strangeness never seem to have happened to me; always to other people.

For example, my younger sister went babysitting over the road, in the company of the (admittedly fairly strange) girl next door. They had not been in the house long when shrieking started and stuff got thrown around. The (admittedly fairly strange) girl insisted that it must have been poltergeists. The owners of the house seemed more inclined to believe that my sister and the (admittedly fairly strange) girl next door had decided to throw a wild teenage party in their absence, and that was why the house was wrecked. However, considering that the girls were twelve or thirteen at the time and knowing my sister’s placid and gentle nature I am more inclined to believe it was poltergeists.

Ex told me a story once, and Ex wasn’t one for fanciful tales, in fact he was compulsively and depressingly honest. No point asking him ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ He would have said ‘Yes, in fact it does’ and wouldn’t have understood why that was the wrong answer.

He told me that he had been visiting a school-friend at a remote farm in the Weald of Kent. Again, they were young teenagers. His friend’s parents were out on the farm somewhere so they stayed indoors, chatting. All at once a cabinet door flew open and shelf upon shelf of glass objects was hurled onto the floor, as if an invisible arm had swept along the shelves. Here’s me with all this imagination, and Ex with his pragmatic, down-to-earth seriousness yet he’s the one who witnesses the smashing glassware.

But why didn’t those poltergeists happen to me? I deserved them, surely, and I’d so have enjoyed them. I spent endless hours babysitting and not once did I encounter a ghost of any sort.

Maybe strangeness has happened to me, but in a different way, expressed through found objects or chance happenings that could easily have be explained logically, but which seemed to have a special significance, for me. In a way, these objects/events have felt like half-memories; clues to something, or perhaps to a whole series of somethings, long since forgotten and maybe irretrievably lost.

When I was a child I picked up a smooth stone in the middle of a piece of waste ground. It was almost buried in the pathway through some brambles so that I had to pry it loose. It contained a perfect fossil of something like a jellyfish, with clearly-defined legs and suckers and such. That stone got lost again. I don’t know what I did with it. I always felt I should have hung onto it, and that things started to go wrong when I let it go.

Many years later, at the end of my marriage, beachcombing mournful and alone (à la Princess Diana) in a little cove in Yorkshire I found amongst the pebbles a piece of white bottle glass worn away into a battered, lopsided heart.

One night, on a train, I found myself alone in the carriage apart from a young soldier. Talk to me, he said, please talk to me. I’m off to Northern Ireland tomorrow. At that time Northern Ireland was a kind of war zone and he might well have been going to his death. I don’t think I did talk to him, much. I think I was too frightened to. He got off the train at the next stop and I never saw him again.

Write what’s on your mind

Even after a year and a bit of blogging (and many more years before that of Writing Stuff) I still haven’t learned to relax and trust the process. There is still the occasional day when I wake up and think Aaargh – nothing to write about!!! This instantly translates itself, via black and white, catastrophic thinking into Aaargh – there will never be anything to write about again!!!

Sometimes it then progresses into Aaargh – there never was anything to write about, I was deluded, I only thought there was, all my life therefore I have been wasting hours and hours in writing stuff that was totally worthless and uninspired!!!

On really bad days this progresses into My life itself is worthless, I am worthless, nobody loves me, nobody ever loved me, what is the point of me? Sorry, sorry sorry…!!!

No doubt I am not alone in this.

Most of the time I can retrieve the situation by reminding myself of something Pamela Frankau, a long-dead and mostly-forgotten novelist, once wrote of inspiration:

The tanks take longer and longer to refill… I cannot believe that I shall write another book. I remind myself that I have written thirty. And although, at fifty-two, I have far more to say than when I was young, I seem to have far less to say it about. At this gloomy stage, I am certain there’s no new subject for a novel and that, even if there was, I wouldn’t find it.

Then, mysteriously, I am past that stage. I am awake and prowling. The tanks have refilled…

And that is how it is. There are gaps, sometimes uncomfortably long gaps. Then, like London buses, three ideas come along at once.

Pamela is also why even now I have to weed out superfluous commas, inevitably missing some. She caught me at an impressionable age and her writing style became mine for a while. I now feel that by and large experienced readers can be trusted to know when to pause, and breathe. Less is more.

Often I convince myself I can’t write because I’m busy worrying about something, ie there is no space left in my head for inspiration. Recently it has dawned on me that what I’m busy worrying about is exactly the thing to write about. You have to catch – even recognise – thoughts while they’re still raw and unprocessed. It’s kind of ring-fenced but you have to unfence it.

So, ever since Saturday morning, like the Bunyip, I have been sitting-on-a-hypothetical-log biting my fingernails over a sum of money accidentally transferred to the wrong people by my solicitors. In truth, there was no urgency. No need to imagine a whole chain-reaction of worst-case scenarios. It’s me. I’m OK at this sort of thing, and can override Panic Mode if only I can act at once to put it right. Unfortunately, offices being closed over the weekend I couldn’t make the necessary telephone call until Monday morning. I just had to wait. Me and waiting (waiting and I?) don’t mix and the result was no fingernails and two sleepless nights in a row.

Nowadays when I find myself awake at 3 in the morning I get up, make a cup of tea and turn on the TV. Distraction is the only thing that helps. Unfortunately I only have to set foot on the top stair and the cats start charging about, assuming they are going to be fed even if it is pitch black outside.

If you’ve never suffered from insomnia you may not know what rubbish there is on television in the middle of the night. I watched the News, but it was the same news it had been several hours before. No unexpected celebrity deaths, no military coups, no presidential debates happening as yet; the elephant, and something that looks like an armadillo only prettier, whose name I have temporarily forgotten, may begin with K – urgh, commas again – are still endangered species.

I watched and I watched and I watched, wondering why it was perfectly easy even for a too-tall lady to fall asleep on a too-small charity shop sofa during the day, yet in the middle of the night the sofa seemed to shrink, and develop very hard arms. I watched Australians being just as pretentious as Brits on their own version of Grand Designs, and then I watched a programme about what could be done surgically/prosthetically for men who had had their prostates removed and were having trouble

The last thing I remember was some horrible thing being inflated

At least I got a little sleep.

How not to write a short story (and write it anyway)

Any writer with any common sense would sit down and make a plan. I mean, what a dumb thing to do to publish part one of a story – admittedly a story you only imagined would take up one- two at the most – posts – without making a plan? Who would start off with four characters in mind and have absolutely no idea what they were going to get up to?

Me, I’m afraid. I should it be ‘I – I is afraid’ or even ‘Afraid, am I’? After you’ve been exploring the boundaries of your linguistic abilities for a couple of hours, you begin to think, and write, like the small green furry with the sideways ears, ie:

yoda.jpg

I just thought you might like to know how one story kind of… happens, in spite of the incompetence of its writer.

So I got this idea for a short story, but not the short story in question (The Obedience of Brother Odhran). The short story I got the idea was a kind of fantasy/horror item involving Jane Eyre and… That one was/is, probably going to be a long one for submission to an online magazine. That one might make me some money.

However, I thought – (some) people seem to like it when I put short stories on the blog. I don’t want to not write short stories for them. So what if I use the same skeleton of a plot but kind of drape a different story over it. And make it shorter. Much shorter. You do go on a bit, I told myself.

So I typed out a page of notes, which were… (and this is a trade secret I’m handing you here)…:

The work of a young illuminating monk does not meet with the approval of his master. The master agrees that his artistic talent is prodigious but he makes costly mistakes because he does not understand the Latin well enough. He gets bored easily and starts drawing in the margins or on scraps of vellum. The master knows that this may be a sign of his gift, but he needs to learn to be scrupulous.

So he sets him a task, to decipher a dusty old Latin volume – one of many. He is to refer to Latin text books as he goes along in order to produce a perfect translation. The master does not tell him that this same task was set to him, in his youth, and probably to other monks before him. The text is obscure/untranslatable – and the aim is to focus the youth on a single aim – discipline through denial, since he cannot draw until he has completed the translation. The master fully intends to relent, after a year or so. The youth will then be so grateful to return to illustration, and so much better at Latin – that the purpose will have been achieved.

This is the first half. No point in spoiling the second (as yet unwritten) half of the story by publishing the plot. Only a silly billy would do that.

Then I spent a pleasant hour or so rummaging about on the internet for images to go with the story. That’s the fun bit. Anything that’s not writing is fun. It’s not easy with fantasy/horror stories, though. Although there are a lot of lovely fantasy/horror pictures on the internet there’s a limited supply of free-to-download ones. You can’t just snitch them so you have to be a bit creative in your choices – do a bit of lateral thinking.

And then I spent maybe a couple of hours (I lost track, as always when I’m writing – I know it got dark at some point) writing part I. It was quite good, I thought. And then I hit the button and published it. This is not the correct thing to do, ladies and gentlemen, for three very good reasons:

a) you are then committed to writing the rest of the damn thing and there is nothing like having to write something to make you not want to;

b) you are also committing yourself to writing by the seat of your pants/trousers/plus-fours, pantaloons or whatever they call them in your country. This is scary, but also… exciting! I don’t get much excitement nowadays. The thing is, when you get onto part II you tend to realise that something or other in part I wasn’t right – and then you’re left with a choice. Do I go back and change part I, which isn’t really cricket, or do I skew the whole plot going forward in order not to change it? In part II I realised the nasty Abbot was not in fact of Norman lineage but a Roman. It was a single word, so I went back and changed it.

c) you need to take into account that writing a story gets harder as it goes along. The first instalment is always easy but the further you go with pushing this knot along to the end of the piece of string, building this wall when you are only an inch away from it, etcetera, the more complex it gets – the more plates you have to juggle, the more you have to keep in your head. And the characters will keep messing around with the plot, they keep inputting. For example, I was schlepping around in my dressing-gown this morning, feeding the cats as always. I checked my shopping list. Did I need soap?

And suddenly Brother Odhram was whispering in my ear: ‘When I fall, I make a black shape against the white sky, like the shape of a letter upon paper.’ He hasn’t fallen yet, by the way, and he may not fall. By the time I get to that part he may have decided to pack up and become a sheep farmer in Patagonia. How would I know?

More of this later, maybe.

O Rose, thou art sick…

I’ve just wasted three quarters of an hour trying to decide what Philip Larkin meant when he said, famously: Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth. I mean, what does that even mean? Larkin himself didn’t seem to be deprived of much. For thirty years or so he had a good job, admittedly in a grim Northern town (Hull). But then he did choose to stay in the grim Northern town in spite of having a good enough degree (a First from Oxford in Language and Literature) to have taken him anywhere he wanted to go, and the library was part of the University of Hull. And he didn’t seem ill-fed. He had as much booze and as many fags as he wanted and no fewer than three mistresses, who attended at his death-bed in a complicated shift system. It’s not the traditional picture of a poet, starving in a freezing garret and eventually poisoning himself with… arsenic, or  whatever.

merman

Arthur Rackham: A Crowned Merman

Larkin was certainly quite glum and dissatisfied, but then that’s English. We don’t do jollity. And he seemed to thrive on it; his best poems came out of it – which is perhaps what he means. Wordsworth’s daffodils were an inner treasure-trove of inspiration, a dancing, golden image to recall in those moments when he was feeling a bit down or there wasn’t  a lot else worth thinking about. Golden… treasure… etc. And possibly Larkin, in his gloomy English way, was careful never to become at all happy in case the ability to write poetry deserted him – as indeed it did, later in life. Only then did he allow one of his long-term mistresses to move in with him. After all what did it matter, now that there was nothing for her to distract him from?

I can’t think of one happy poem (at least, not one that’s any good). Can you? But gloom is so fruitful:

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

William Blake: The Sick Rose


Call her once before you go.
Call once yet.
In a voice that she will know:
‘Margaret! Margaret!’
Children’s voices should be dear
(Call once more) to a mother’s ear;
Children’s voices, wild with pain.
Surely she will come again.
Call her once and come away.
This way, this way!
‘Mother dear, we cannot stay.’
The wild white horses foam and fret.
Margaret! Margaret!

Matthew Arnold: The Forsaken Merman

 Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Philip Larkin: This Be The Verse

Shepherds sorted, Wise Men plotted

Done – my Shepherds story for my new Angels & Other Occurrences sequence, which I’m scheduling to start on  1st December. The Shepherds should come in on the 7th.

Also – in the bath – along with driving, my best place for plotting – I suddenly ‘received’ the plot for my version of the Three Wise Men. Typed it out quick, before it disappeared. I looked at this plot outline thinking – that’s bizarre. That’s really weird. Can I really write something that weird? Yes, I think. If anyone can write something weird it’s probably me, and it’ll take my mind off the endless merry-go-round of upsets and complications that seem to breed in my family around Christmas.

Sometimes it pays to procrastinate, I’ve found. If you resist the temptation to start writing at once, often – it’s that Synchronicity thing again – see previous post: Synchronicity in Writing – a tiny new bit of information comes along and it’s that tiny new bit of information that the whole plot ought to have hinged on. Then of course you have to rewrite the plot but that’s all part of the fun.

This morning I was watching Countryfile and Adam Whatsisname, the handsome red-headed farmer chappie, was doing a piece to camera. He was telling us that, sadly, his father had passed away a few weeks earlier and this had reminded him of the Lock of Wool superstition. Once upon a time, he said, a Shepherd would be buried with a Lock of Wool clasped in his right hand; when he arrived at the Pearly Gates the angels, seeing the Lock of Wool, would let him in. They would know that a shepherd couldn’t get to church of a Sunday. He said he had done this for his Dad.

I was thinking, what a lovely story, and then I thought – I see – now I see how my Shepherds post is going to work, and how the Lock of Wool will be central. I see the characters, I see how many of them there are, I know their characters and their tragedies and why they are out on that hillside; I see who or what it is who will tell them…

That’s the joy of writing – sudden inspirations. More of a battle when the time comes to get them down on paper!

Shadow Play Pencils

The old inability-to-write-when-others-are-around problem has kicked in. My sister has been staying with me since Sunday, and I was feeling quite pleased with myself for having managed two brief posts since then. But now writer’s block is setting in, dully, vengefully, that dreary constipation of the soul. Why is it when the other person is downstairs, making a fuss of the cats and watching a repeat of Saints and Scroungers on TV whilst contemplating making a packet-mix lemon sponge, which would mean making a second trip to the village shop for eggs since there are inexplicably none in the fridge, that I still can’t write? Even shut away upstairs at my computer?

Yesterday, S and I drove to the town where I used to work. Whilst S was off exploring the shops I snuck back to the car clutching an illicit bar of chocolate, a new giant writing pad and a special tin of new pencils. These pencils are called Shadow Play. They are grey with black tips, and are really intended for sketching. There are six of them and they go from B up to 6B. I love B pencils, even 6B which are virtually pure smudge. Normally new pencils or new paper of any kind will magically set me writing.

But not this time.

So I sat in the car park, chocolate gobbled and the messy wrapper melting on the passenger seat shortly to be occupied by S; noting how the quality of sunlight changed as the day wore on; observing the frenzied activity on the Ring Road: school-kids flouncing home along the pavements; a starved-looking silver birch tree opposite, the breeze just starting to rattle it’s leaves – a sign of rain to come; a single sparrow diving into this single tree on some kind of kamikaze mission. Winding down the driver’s side window, I listened to the now-unfamiliar sound of rush-hour traffic and human voices. Hot air rushed out from inside, and back in from outside. Low-level, late-afternoon sun burned my right arm where the sleeve was rolled up.

In desperation I tried free-writing. I never normally need to resort to this amateurish writers’ group trick – it’s more a case of keeping a grip on all the bizarre the ideas churning around inside my head for long enough to get some of them down on paper, by which time sentences positively gush forth, often fully formed.

Not this time.

Failing that, new pencils or, if no new pencils, newly-sharpened pencils.

Not this time.

And then it occurred to me that these Shadow Play were the wrong new pencils. They needed to be those moss green ones, with the texture of crocodile skin. Artist’s pencils. German, most probably. German pencils are always of perfect quality, and inspiring, whereas Chinese pencils are always broken, randomly, all the way through, as if dropped from a great height. There is no point in even picking up a Chinese pencil. And never bother trying to write with a pencil with one of those silly eraser things on the end. The very presence of an eraser is enough to defeat the muse.

Fifteen minutes before I was due to meet sister outside the Post Office. Just time to detour to WH Smiths, to look for green, crocodile-textured, German, artist’s pencils.