Say it again with feeling

I remember having a short story flung back at me with the comments ‘this character is completely lifeless, I don’t know what she feels or why she makes the decisions she makes, and I don’t care about her.’ Harsh? Possibly. Fair? Definitely.

My character was living alone in an isolated house, and convinced she was being stalked by a stranger she had seen. The character was young and fanciful with an overactive imagination and I wanted to have her feeling instinctively that she was being watched but doubting her feelings as hysteria. It had the potential to be highly charged, full of fear, paranoia, panic, suspicion. Trouble was, I had no idea how to write those things, the only things that scared me were spiders and exams I’d not revised for.

Years later, that story since shelved, how can I get around the problem of writing about extreme emotions without seeming trite or overblown? How do I write about events I have never experienced, without getting it hopelessly wrong? I’m trapped, it seems, unable to write because I felt unable to write convincingly about the things I wanted to write about. I needed to be able to show my reader why my character didn’t just knock on a neighbours door, phone the police. I needed to show, not tell my reader about her sense for the dramatic, her almost willing the stranger outside to be something terrifying. I needed to show that my character felt she was partially to blame for her situation, to show that it was a silly game gone horribly wrong and got out of hand.

Years later, I read about an exercise in a writing book. The exercise was about writing freely and unconsciously, being able to write emotions by actually experiencing them in a (relatively) safe and controlled manner. I say ‘relatively’ because I think it can have a major impact on you, so tread carefully.

I was asked to pick a childhood memory, sit back and visualise it, using each of the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. I made notes using short sentences in the present tense. I wrote for about fifteen minutes and at some point, I ceased to be in my house, sitting at my desk, I was actually inside the memory. I felt the heat of the sun on my face, drying the sea water, the sway of seaweed over my toes and the way the sea was colder on the bits of my flesh my swimsuit did not cover. Gradually, through focusing on each physical sensation, I started to also experience the emotions I had felt at the time- not as memories, or words or thoughts, distant and analysed and thought about, but as real as my heartbeat in my chest. I felt the dread of what was below the surface of the water, the sea creatures threatening my toes. I felt the embarrassment I experienced at being too scared to go deeper into the water, to where my father was standing.

After that experience, I found I could recreate it for my characters.

I’ve not re-read that initial story- that’s one for another time, but I was able to create the sadness, anger and loss a father might feel for his dead child. And when I re-read that section of a story, it finally rings true, without triteness or purple prose.

Try it, but take care: there be monsters…

(Originally published August 2015)

Write what you know

Write what you know, they said. So, let me tell you a story.

One night, returning from the writing group I attend, I saw, through the windscreen, an elderly gentleman keel over backwards in the street. His body hit the pavement with curiously little sound. Thin, silver haired, normally straight-backed; I recognised him from the aisles of my local supermarket. I saw him, my boyfriend saw him and we immediately stopped.

When we reached him, the man was trying to raise himself from the ground. Confused, probably shocked and certainly embarrassed, he tried to wave off our concern. It was nothing serious, just an old injury to his back, his legs– sometimes it came back. He just wanted to get home. He didn’t want us to take him. I had no idea if he was afraid we might try and rob him (unlikely, we’re a pair of Converse-wearing, green-tea-drinkers). But then it occurred to me that he might be worried we’d interfere, cause him bother. I tried to reassure him that if he would allow us to drive him to his street, we would park nearby and we wouldn’t try to come in.

Sitting in the back of our car, his long, silvery hair fanned out around him, his thin shoulders hunched, he was a pitiful sight. He didn’t smell unwashed, boozy, or of anything else unpleasant. His clothing was neat, clean and pressed, and probably dated from some time in the Seventies: a short khaki, belted mac; shiny brown shoes and nylon slacks– possibly even an original pair of Farahs.

I wondered who he belonged to, if he had ever belonged to anyone.

On one of the less salubrious streets in the town, all run-down terraced houses and bumper to bumper parked cars, I knew his house immediately. No lights left on, the net curtains hanging limply, a mouldering colour that had never been white. I knew that there would be no wife and no grandchildren.

We helped him out of the car, his thin legs wobbly from the short ride. As agreed, we didn’t see him inside. We didn’t feel comfortable just leaving him on the pavement, so I asked if it would be okay if we sat in the car and waited until he was inside before we drove off.

‘As you please,’ he said, waving it off like he didn’t care one way or the other. He struggled with his keys, but finally, his door swung open and he shuffled inside.

Perhaps we should have phoned someone, I don’t know. He had been well-turned out and for all we knew, his home might in fact have been a well kept flat in the back, unseen from the road, rather than that dingy looking hole with the mildewed curtains.

I have not seen the gentleman in question since that night, though, and I have no idea how he is faring. I like to imagine his little black and white cat waiting moodily for his return. I like to imagine him making tea with his late mother’s tea service, nibbling on two Bourbons precisely placed on a side plate as his feet find his slippers. I imagine him slipping a record from its sleeve– Martha Reeves, perhaps– humming as he guides the needle into the groove. I imagine him warm and content in a room he papered long ago for his mother: a rambling rose pattern, still holding up well.

I imagine all of this and I don’t dwell on what I should have done differently. I imagine this and I write it down for you to read. Because I am a writer and that is what I know.

(Originally published July 2015)

How not to write

When our writing group, Renegade Writers, decided to start blogging, the original idea was that everyone would have something wonderfully clever to say. When my turn came up,  I hit a bit of a wall. Unlike many of the others in the group, I’m not a published author. I don’t have a pile of completed stories to send out to publishers and competitions, or a folder filled with rejection letters. I haven’t even figured out what genre I’m writing, yet. In fact, the only thing I rank as an expert in is what not to do.  So, here it is, the advice you never asked for.

One: put writing at the very bottom of your ‘to do’ list. Leave it until you have absolutely
nothing else to do. Instead of writing you might do a bit of research, compose some tweets, tackle some editing, or have a bit of a think. If you keep the idea of writing as a wistful daydream rather than a pesky reality, you’ll never fail at it.

Two: re­-draft everything you write. After churning out 40k of trash, don’t go back through it with your red pen and make it better, just start again. From scratch. (With the 40k of trash sitting next to you so you can peek at it, feel like a loser, and go do something else instead).

Three: leave your latest idea for a novel until you’re a good enough writer to do it justice. While you’re waiting for this spontaneous change in your brain chemistry to occur, sit around bemoaning the fact you never have any good ideas; or obsessing over the brilliant idea and how unfair it is you’re such a hack.

Four: since your last story idea was a bit on the long side, you are obviously a novelist, so
there’s no point in trying to write anything else.  If it’s not a novel, no one will read it anyway (Raymond Carver? Never heard of him).

Five: experiment with grammar. It’s a bourgeois concept, anyway.

Six: tell no one that you write. This is the best way to avoid difficult questions, although it will make water-­cooler conversation a bit ‘awkward’,

‘What cha get up to this weekend’?

You can always ‘fess up about what you’ve been doing with your time when you’ve finished your Breath­ Taking Work of Subtle Beauty (having undergone that spontaneous change in brain chemistry I mentioned earlier).

Seven: ignore all advice. You know best, you’re the genius here, damn it!

Eight: give up. Seriously, just stop right there. That tutor on a certain writing course, who told you to go and do something else instead, is an expert­­- he’s been published, after all.

Remember, publishing deal= godlike status.

But anyway, it turns out I do have one piece of helpful advice in my arsenal, and gaining it required Buddha­-like calm, Ninja­-stealth and the dedication of a Jedi knight­­ so pay attention at the back.

Three years ago, I was being intravenously fed with drugs that made me both bald and pukey. And, because injury ain’t no fun without a good insult, these drugs also affected my writing. The words were there on the page, and so must have vaguely resembled the ideas in my head, but they were alien, wrong and about as meaningful as a helping of word­-salad. Honestly, it was as if some strange creature had kept into my head and was controlling my pen hand.

It was that moment in a super­ heroines life when she realises she has squandered her super power, and this super ­heroine had never been more terrified in all her lycra­rocking, crime­fighting, death-defying days.

If I couldn’t write anything, what did that make me?

I lay there (in my slanket) and I contemplated a story-­free life. I would go to spa days and have my nails shelaq’d. I would spend hours wandering around Ikea, and worry what the car I drove said about me.

I would be just like everybody else.

Well, the kryptonite has (mostly) worn off now, and I’m back to having stories in my head, rather than fluffy white light and the sounds of the sea. I’m fairly relieved, and trying to make up for lost time.

So, at least one useful thing has come out of all this meandering. If you write, maybe you can be writer. But nothing lasts forever, so do it while you can.

(Originally published July 2014)