Monthly Archives: January 2014

And the pot of gold goes to…

Pot of goldWhen I was very little, perhaps four or four years old, I was fascinated by rainbows; and, mercenary little so and so that I was, what fascinated me most of all was the promise that at the end of the rainbow lay a pot of gold.

It seemed to me that this was something I would rather enjoy possessing. So when one day an April shower had been followed by a particularly brilliant spell of sunshine, I was thrilled to see a perfectly formed rainbow with one end very clearly resting in a field some little way from our house. Unfortunately for me, getting to this field meant walking along a main road, something I knew I was not allowed to do on my own. Being of a practical turn of mind, I therefore announced to my father that I wished to go and collect the pot of gold, and asked him to take me to its location.

I recall dad attempting to explain that this was not as easy as it looked – the rainbow would move the closer we got to it. I was not to be put off by this kind of defeatism, however, oh no! Poor dad was urged to leave his cup of tea and set off immediately before the rainbow – and my valuable reward – disappeared.  Ever the good sport, he complied, and we both trotted off down the lane, dad carrying the shovel used for cleaning out the grate and which I’d insisted he bring along so that we’d be able to dig up the buried treasure.

Well, it must have taken all of five minutes to discover the unfortunate truth. We’d barely walked ten paces before it appeared that the rainbow had moved. Dad pointed out that its end now lay in the middle of the road. Clearly, this presented a problem: not only did the new location raise some Green Cross Code related difficulties, but digging up the tarmac would probably require something with a bit more heft than a fire shovel.

But I refused to give up that easily – if getting the pot of gold was simple, after all, there’d be troops of people dotting the landscape after every light shower. Keeping tight hold of dad’s hand, I pressed on, eyes fixed to the treacherous rainbow. It made no difference: a few seconds later it had moved again, now appearing to rest half way up the side of the mountain. At that point I was forced to concede: there would be no pot of gold that day. With a patience I’m confident I wouldn’t have been able to muster with any child of my own, dad attempted to explain to me how a rainbow was formed. Most of it, I’m sure, passed me by, but I did take the words “optical illusion” into my heart from that day on. I wouldn’t be fooled again.

This Sunday changed all that.

Returning to London from a visit to the self-same hero of our tale, the skies had opened up for their customary celebration of our motorway driving. The day was dark, the roads were wet, the radio was playing its usual rubbish.

And then it happened.

A rainbow appeared on the road before us. It was bright. It was beautiful. And it ended at our car.

I looked.  I looked again. I exclaimed and alerted the Husband.  There was quite a lot of pointing.  Some jiggling in my seat may have been involved.

Clearly not a frustrated rainbow hunter himself, the Husband failed at first to grasp its significance.  But the rainbow didn’t care.  It stayed where it was for ages – well, three minutes at the very least – shimmering and glittering and very decidedly ending on our bonnet. The Husband said something uninteresting about headlights; then, rousing himself in an unsubtle attempt to humour his jibbering spouse, put forward the rather sweet theory that this made us the proverbial pot of gold.

I’m not buying it though.  Since an exciting looking casket had sadly not materialised in our boot by the time we reached home, there can be only one possible conclusion: this is an omen! I’ve bought the lottery ticket.  Roll on Saturday…

UPDATE: Lottery ticket unsuccessful.  Perhaps the rainbow got the week wrong? Will try again next Saturday…

Malevich, Danielowski and the Importance of Form

At the tail end of the horrid throat infection (I’ve been ill – have I mentioned?) Husband and I had run out of crap telly to watch and were searching for something to do that didn’t involve leaving the house or, ideally, the sofa. Given that we’re past that kind of thing except on high days and holidays – and besides, I was still infectious and revolting – we turned to the obvious option: the board game. Well, not quite a board game as there wasn’t actually a board, but a game involving cards and stuff, nonetheless. It was called “Psychogames” and was a Christmas stocking filler I’d bought my psychology graduate spouse a couple of years earlier but had never made it out of the box. It contained a series of quizzes, questionnaires and so on intended to give you an insight into your “true self” – and who doesn’t enjoy that?

Well, we worked our way through the first few, and they were entertaining enough (“which image of a garden reminds you most of your relationship?” was a particular highlight); and then we came to the pictures. No photos or Old Masters here, and no Rorschach ink blots either: these were all abstract art prints. We were instructed to talk about what we thought of them – did they remind us of anything, how did they make us feel? – and then to turn over the card and read the text on the back, which would help us consider what our responses told us about ourselves.

Now I’m not very good with abstract art. Occasionally I come across something I like – I’m capable of appreciating a Kandinsky on a purely aesthetic level – but spend time considering whether that line might be running either in front of or behind that circle, and what that’s allegedly saying about the duality of life and the impermanence of matter? No thank you. So I struggled here, feeling ever more of an unimaginative dolt as we went along. The text pretty much corroborated that conclusion. To summarise: appreciate the line/circle/duality of life metaphor and you’re a risk-taking, adventurous creative type (or to put it another way, “better”), think it all looks a bit of a mess, you’re an over-cautious, uncreative pedant (or to put it another way, “FAIL”).

Evidently sensing he was onto a winner, Malevich painted at least four of these.  And a red one.

Evidently sensing he was onto a winner, Malevich painted at least four of these. And a red one.

Increasingly desperate to prove that I did have an artistic bone in my body, I found myself looking ever closer at the images, wracking my brain for something interesting to say. Which is why, when we came to Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square (surely you know this one, daahling? Don’t you know it’s a seminal work?) I found myself squinting at the – er – black square, and wondering aloud whether the faint network of creamy coloured lines I could just about make out on its face was there by design or the result of age or damage.

It turns out it’s damage – the square started off pure black and the paint has cracked over time (see Philip Shaw’s commentary on the painting http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/philip-shaw-kasimir-malevichs-black-square-r1141459). But that made me think: if you can spend time pondering a black square and its failure “to represent this transcendent realm” which apparently “serves ‘negatively’ to exhibit the ‘higher’ faculty of reason, a faculty that exists independent of nature” – why not spend as much time on the cracks that have appeared there as a result of “nature” itself? Why, in fact, would anyone spend any time at all looking at a black square of paint and thinking anything of the kind? Any more than they’d spend time looking at – I don’t know – a blackboard against a white wall and considering what it has to say about the meaning of life?

Some of the goodies in store for you in the House of Leaves.  "A meditation on the way we read" according to Peter Beaumont of The Observer.

Some of the goodies in store for you in the House of Leaves. “A meditation on the way we read” according to Peter Beaumont of The Observer.

Which brings me to one of the books I read over Christmas: Mark K Danielowski’s House of Leaves. It’s a remarkable novel for many reasons – not least that a publisher was persuaded to make what must have been a significant outlay on a debut author, producing pages with the text at funny angles, loads of blank space, facsimiles and maps and photos, and a doorstep sized volume.  It’s a sort of Blair Witch Project in print, purporting to be an academic book on the supernatural events – partly documented on film – at a particular house, written by a man who is now dead, to which copious notes have been added by some chap who’s come across the book as a series of unsecured pages, post-its, maps etc and is attempting to piece it together, whilst apparently being targeted himself by supernatural forces. It’s not easy to describe, and it’s not a walk in the park to read either – footnotes all over the place, footnotes on footnotes, appendices by the armload. However…

And there's more...

And there’s more…

I read every word. I read the long, long, long, list of architectural styles and notable buildings that formed a single footnote running down the side of about six pages in what must have been eight point font. I read every single appendix (though I was relieved when I turned to the one that the “editors” then informed me had been “lost”). I looked at the sketches of the black interior of the subterranean structure of the house – not a million miles away from Malevich, now that I think of it. Some of it was interesting, some of it was scary, and quite a lot of it was really dull. But I read it all because I didn’t want to miss anything important. I read it with more attention than I would ever have given a bona fide academic treatise because it was a work of fiction.

It's even got it's own black square. Take that, Malevich!

It’s even got it’s own black square. Take that, Malevich!

I have to conclude then, that despite my irritation at being asked to stare at a square of black paint, there is something about the medium that commands attention; something about the intention of the artist or writer that elevates a work from its material form.  It’s because he or she produced their work with a purpose, trying to communicate their ideas, that it’s worth spending time on our response. Perhaps after all, even if it’s not my thing, it’s only polite to reciprocate the effort?

I can’t help though, but feel a faint distrust of the particular kind of abstract art – Malevich’s squares, pretty much anything by Rothko – that looks as if it could have been dashed off in approximately eight minutes. I can’t rid myself of the creeping suspicion that that is precisely what the artist has done, and is laughing up his sleeve at the idiots spending hours planted in front of his canvas, declaiming its fascinating insight into the “principle and passion of organisms” (in case you’re wondering, that was Rothko on his own work), the only real principle at work that of the emperor’s new clothes.

That, at least, is something it’s nigh on impossible to pull off as a writer of novels.  No matter how much blank space Danielowski incorporates in some of his pages, it must have taken him ages to put together House of Leaves. And it’s undeniably well written.  The characters are utterly believable, the story is intriguing, the whole reading experience feels unusual and discomfiting. I suppose you could say that, as a reader, you feel a faint echo of the discomfort of the characters, adrift in an alien environment.  It certainly gives you plenty to think about.

Even so, I don’t think I’ll be rereading it any time soon. And I won’t be making a weekly pilgrimage to the Tate Modern either. But perhaps, next time I’m confronted with art that makes me uncomfortable, I’ll try not to get irritated by the implication that I’m not clever enough to understand it. I’ll try to recognise that the artist is seeking to communicate ideas, in a way that makes sense to him or her even if it doesn’t make sense to me. And I’ll try to spare a bit more time to hush the internal sceptic and think about what those ideas might be.

Something wicked this way comes

alarm clockOn this day in six weeks’ time I will be reintroducing myself to a sound I have learned to ignore over the last six and a half months: the garbled blaring of the radio alarm. No longer will I turn over with slight and fleeting sympathy as the Husband drags himself from his duvet nest and stumbles to the bathroom. From 3 March, I shall not ask for whom Capital FM tolls: it will toll for me.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a civil servant who looks forward to returning from leave is a Treasury tag short of a paper trail. That’s not me, dear reader, and after spending more than six months away from the daily grind, I have to conclude that I have missed the open-plan blandness not one teeny tiny iota.

I haven’t missed the erratic heating, nor the staticky blue carpet, nor the plasticky desks, nor the crap canteen, nor the cold, depressing reception area, nor the lackadaisical lifts with the scratches at the edges of the doors that give the uneasy impression they’ve had to be crowbarred open on more than one occasion.  I haven’t missed the sheer bone-numbing knackerdness of those mornings of untangling myself from the still-dozing cats, feeling as though it’s as much as I’m ever going to be able to do just to get myself vertical and it’s still only Wednesday.  And most of all, I haven’t missed that ever-present knot of anxiety, the stress of the current crisis, the foreboding about the next one, the corporate bollocks, the emails, emails, emails…

I could go on, but if I do I’ll have to throw myself out of the window.

Still, having failed to land my six figure publishing deal/ lottery win, there’s only one thing to do from here – back to the Rat Race I shall go. Ee aye ee aye ee aye sodding oh.

I think I can, I know I can, I think I can... oh God, I feel sick.

I think I can, I know I can, I think I can… oh God, I feel sick.

In the interests of avoiding the Slough of Despond, I have decided to take heed of the words of the great Monty Python and attempt to look on the Bright Side of Life. So with that in mind, here are twenty, ten, five, three reasons that going back to work will be A Good Thing.

1. We will have more money.  This is not to be sniffed at. The house needs various things doing to it. We found a roof tile in the front garden yesterday.  And we’ll be able to afford more exciting holidays.  Not a big deal for me at the moment – what do I need a break from? – but the poor Husband is stressed to the eyeballs and could do with more than a weekend on a freezing campsite.  Which brings me to…

2. I will appreciate holidays more.  The downside of not spending every day anxious/frustrated/depressed is not needing an escape from it!  Now I can recapture that blissful moment of shutting down the PC for the last time after a week of working even longer hours than usual to buy myself a break from the office.  Hurrah!

3.  I will have a renewed sense of urgency about my writing.  Book Two will gain new status as My Potential Way Out.  Okay, I won’t spend so much time on it.  This blog may have to hibernate (besides: what will I actually have to talk about when anything juicy will have to be censored?). I may not get along to so many readings/ book club meetings/ writing workshops.  But hey, that will just motivate me even more!

I’m sure there are other benefits too. I just have to find them.

Wish me luck.

 

 

 

Not plot? What rot! Or not?

“You way wonder where plot is in all this. The answer – my answer anyway – is nowhere… I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless…; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I’ve been puzzling over this passage from my Christmas reading for a few weeks now.  The Master clearly considers plotting a waste of time, veritably inartistic in fact.  As someone who spent months faffing about with storylines, character summaries and even a spreadsheet of scenes before attempting to make a start on the actual business of writing my novel, this is somewhat disconcerting.

Most definitely a plot.

This one’s most definitely a plot.

King is very clear that he sees “story” as paramount and plot as something altogether different, which – slap me around the face with a wet kipper for never having done a creative writing course – is something I’d never thought about before.  And annoyingly, he doesn’t explain what he sees as the difference between the two – presumably because he believes it’s so basic he doesn’t need to.

In the hope that I’m not the only one sitting at the back looking shifty and avoiding eye contact at this point, I thought I’d do a bit more digging into this question of plot versus story.  In other words, I googled.  Here’s a summary of the explanations I found:

A story is a chronological sequence of events; a plot is the causal and logical structure that connects them (http://www2.anglistik.uni-freiburg.de/intranet/englishbasics/Plot01.htm, drawing on EM Forster’s Aspects of a Novel). Example of a story: “The king died and then the queen died.” Example of a plot: “The king died and then the queen died of grief.” Hmm – not sure this makes the story very exciting.  Surely that can’t be what King – the one who’s alive – meant?

Plot is your protagonist’s physical journey; story is your protagonist’s emotional journey (https://www.udemy.com/blog/tips-for-writing-your-novel-difference-between-plot-and-story/). This is quite neat, isn’t it? But then, a story that’s only about emotional change doesn’t seem quite right either. Surely you have to know what’s actually happening to elicit those changes for a story to make sense?

Turning now to Yahoo Answers, the “best answer”, we are told, is that “You can think of the Plot as the map that the story follows, or as the skeleton of the story… The STORY is the…details of things that happen along the way. All that stuff…the details that make quests stories different from each other. The “skin” on the skeleton (plot).” Notwithstanding the erratic use of upper case, this feels right to me – but isn’t it sort of the opposite of the king/queen Forster definition?

Oh, and that thing about there being only 7 or 12 or 15 or 39 stories, or whatever it is?  I’ve found some people saying this refers to plots, not stories at all. And let’s not even get started on narrative.

Confused? Join the club.

Apparently, “you have to know when you’re telling a story or elaborating on a plot. A work of fiction … that only has a story will be flat and boring.” (http://ladylovelace.hubpages.com/hub/The-Difference-Between-Story-and-Plot). Disaster! I’ve written 100,000 words without knowing any such thing! (Though Lady Lovelace? Really??)

Never fear, however.  Just as I was beginning to despair, I found this nugget of hope: “Some critics even claim that the distinction between plot and story is artificial and of no practical use in the analysis of literature (Wenzel 1998: 175).” Sadly, there was no biog at the end of this piece (University of Freiburg again), but whoever this Wenzel person is, I could kiss him/her.  So it turns out we needn’t worry about this anyway.  Sorry for wasting your time.

Even so, I can’t help feeling rather uneasy at the continuation of my imperfect understanding.  If you’ve got a view on this whole story vs plot business, I’d be very pleased to hear it.

 

 

 

The Special Chair – or the Psychology of Writing

Monday 13 January – and thanks to a rotten throat infection, the first day in 2014 where I feel healthy. Things can only improve from here (did you hear that, Fate?). Not that I’m fishing for sympathy, you understand. No really, not at all. Have I mentioned I’ve been ill?

But the streptococcus-induced hiatus has left me champing at the bit to get back to the old keyboard. It turns out, these days I really do miss writing when I’m prevented from doing it for a while. Surely that means I’m now fully qualified to drink from my new Christmas mug – “Keep calm, I’m a writer”? (Though in all honesty, I’m not sure that “writer” is the number 1 professional you’d be calling for in the implied emergency. “Keep calm, I’m a doctor,” yes. Or a firefighter. Or a plumber. But a writer? I can see it now: “Just keep your finger on that split in your downpipe, love; I’ll just compose a bit of flash fiction and we’ll be right as rain.”)

That’s not to say that the laptop and I have been completely separated over the last couple of weeks. I’ve been reading a manuscript for a friend; I did manage a blog post for the New Year; and of course, with my return to the day job approaching with indecent haste, there have been one or two visits to the National Lottery website. But this has all been done from a semi-recumbent position, propped up against pillows or sofa cushions. How could I possibly write anything serious when I wasn’t sat in My Special Chair?

My Special Chair sits – as you might imagine – just in front of My Special Desk. Both items of furniture were upgraded to their current status when I started my unpaid leave, retrieved from their old spot in the smallest bedroom and swapped with an armchair in front of the window of what the estate agent described – with some hyperbole – as our “sun room”. This was to be my work space, the place in which I would finally complete The Novel, unlock the mysteries of Twitter, and work out what this blogging malarkey was all about. And so on day 1, and every weekday I’ve been at home before the throat infection struck, this has been the place I’ve come to write.

Over the last six months, it’s become strangely important to me. Besides the desk and chair, there’s just enough space for a small bookcase, a plug-in radiator, and a basket for whichever of the cats gets there first. It catches the morning sun, gently lifting my mood as I sip a cuppa and gradually acquaint myself with a new day. And it gives me a view out over the garden, allowing me to keep track of any incursions by The Lynx (annoying and enormous Tomcat who enjoys regular missions to harass our own furry girls); and beyond the garden fence to the street beyond, where the passage of the occasional car and pedestrian satisfies my rampant nosiness.

The great Stephen King at work. Will you look at the size of that phone?!

The great Stephen King at work. Will you look at the size of that phone?!

It doesn’t, it turns out, entirely fit the Stephen King criteria for an efficient writing space as set out in his excellent book, On Writing. My desk is against the wall, it’s true – which, given the diminutive size of the sun cupboard, as good as places it in the corner (where King states your writing desk should be as a reminder that “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around”). But the view out of the window isn’t the plain wall he calls for as a means of avoiding distractions. Instead, it reminds me that I’m here, in my home, looking out over my garden, doing something I love – in other words, most definitely not in the wood veneer monotony of the open plan office.  In any case, Mr King also tells us to avoid having a phone on the desk, despite the cover photo showing him with his feet up on his own desk, scribbling away on a notepad balanced on his legs, with his trainers right next to – you’ve guessed it – a bloody great telephone. This is one of those occasions, it seems to me, when knowing the rules means you can break them.

There are unwanted side effects, though, to the creation of my lovely little writing nest. The addition of an armchair to the smallest bedroom – which already contained a sofa bed and a canapé – means that if you were to stand in the doorway and launch yourself in any direction, you’d almost certainly land on something upholstered. It’s reminiscent of a chill-out room at some 80s rave.  Or possibly a padded cell. I’d always thought this would be a temporary issue, and that I’d replace the armchair with My Special Desk and Chair when I went back to work.  Now, though, there’s something vaguely threatening about that idea. It feels like throwing in the towel, admitting that I’m never going to be a serious writer.  It feels a bit like throwing away my dreams.

Can it really matter, having one particular place where you write?  The thing is, I’ve started to believe it matters to me.  And perhaps that’s all it takes.

 

 

 

 

New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year!

Today I’m hoping to channel the great Pam Ayres, whose new book, “You Made Me Late Again” had me chuckling over my Christmas stocking (thanks Dad!). I suspect I’m a couple of decades younger than the average PamFan – surely that has to be one word? – but I do love her folksy, homely verse, full of irritable cows, waggy-tailed dogs and anxiety over whether or not she’s left her curling tongs plugged in. So today I thought I’d celebrate the New Year with my own attempt at Pam-type verse on a subject that always occupies my thoughts at this time of year…New year's resolutions

 

New Year’s Resolutions

 

Today is January the 1st,

The day this year I’m at my worst;

Because from henceforth I shall be

Improving incrementally

 

This year I’ll lose a stone or two,

Just like the Biggest Losers do

I’ll feel so fit and full of beans,

And slide into my skinny jeans

 

My swearing days are over now

Displeased, I’ll simply raise a brow

Uncouth expletives I’ll replace

With genteel words of tact and grace

 

My bills and papers I’ll keep neat

My handbag cleared of old receipts

Odd socks will once again be matched

Lost buttons found and reattached

 

Oh, I’ll be great by next December!

Problem is, though, I remember

Old ghosts of resolutions past

But this year, I’m quite sure they’ll last…