2017.

2017.

Of all the flaws I have (and am aware of), there are two in particular I need to work on this year: optimism and discipline.

I’ve never been an optimistic person – either because the books and films and music I’ve always been drawn to haven’t left much room to skip through psychic meadows throwing flowers, or because my brain’s chemicals just decided that the inside of my skull looks better in black. I have my moments, though, sometimes, where I allow myself to look forward to something and believe that it won’t all be that bad. Post-Brexit and -Trump it seems like the “maybe it won’t be so bad” refrain is just willful head-burying, but there has to be a reason to keep on keeping on. It may be the new stack of books I brought back from my Christmas visit home that I now have to read; it may be the rediscovery of books I loved before (like Slaughterhouse Five, which I am already rereading); or it may be the possibility that the novel I started in November will actually be finetuned and reworked and chopped up and turned into something I’m not completely ashamed of, finally. One of the good things about visiting home again is that it gives me valuable fiction-fuel (besides obviously spending time with my beloved family and just consuming heroic amounts of turkey and Jack Daniels). A lot is happening, and I feel good about this story. 

Which brings me to the second problem. My discipline is through the floor. Whether I’m reading or writing, my commitment to anything that’s not actual paid work is shameful. I am long out of the structured world of academic deadlines, and as such the only thing forcing me to write is my own vague desire to have written. I pick up books and read two or three pages before moving on to the next one. I’m halfway through at least five movies. I have four or five stories that have been incomplete for three years or more. The novel I’m working on now has been in progress (mentally and in handwritten notes at least) since before I moved to Hungary. I drop things and kick them away where I don’t have to look at them, and nobody ever has to know they exist. And I wonder whether I even want it at all, if my motivation is so low.

So on top of other things that I’ve started and want to keep up – mainly climbing and eating fewer takeaways – there are a couple of things I want to actually commit myself to in the event that 2017 doesn’t finish the job 2016 started:

  • Cheer the fuck up
  • Write more and keep writing 

*

I at the very least want to read more this year. I finished Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle today after attempting to get it over with before the end of the year. Now I’ve started, and am already a sizeable way into, The Sellout by Paul Beatty. I don’t know whether to set myself an actual target of, say, a book a week, but we’ll see. It took me forever to read Murakami so it may be that I get through two whole books this year.

There is no way to tell.

December

December

All writing is autobiography


Few people actually asked what I was writing this last month, either through lack of interest or because they know me well enough to know they wouldn’t get a straight answer. People who did ask got a variation on: “it’s about some guy who goes to the city because the village is too weird/boring.” Which itself sounds cripplingly dull, even to me (especially to me). I’ve never been able to summarise my stories well; not because they’re complicated necessarily, but because I never know what’s important or interesting enough to include. Besides which, even though this story is far more developed than anything I’ve written in years, I still don’t really know what it’s about. It’s about a guy who moves from the village to the city. There are other characters in it. At some point he goes back to the village. He learns valuable lessons, probably.

There is a theory that all writing is autobiography, which I have resisted considering the kind of things that I’ve previously written. But it makes a good point. It’s only natural that when writing for something like NaNoWriMo, the stories that flow the most easily are born from the experiences that I’ve had. I don’t want to be preachy or elitist but I probably am. This story has been the perfect opportunity to vent my frustrations about how petty life in the village is: primarily old ladies looking out of their windows at passers-by, scowling from behind curtains at how disgraceful everything is. Gossip and more gossip; everybody knowing everything about everybody else; secrets broadcast to the rest of the village over fences and coffee tables. High Halden was never that toxic, but the idea of there being a place with no connection to the outside world besides one bus every hour (that sometimes didn’t turn up at all), preserved in a fog of boredom, was a good starting point for the kind of story I wanted to write. I never hated it at home, but it was just shit enough to motivate me to leave forever. The village in the story has to be a hyper-exaggerated version, but I imagine that everybody who ever grew up in the countryside will recognise something about it: boarded-up corner shops, graffitied bus shelters with shattered windows, teenagers smoking on rusty swingsets, that pub where only the same four people ever drink. Living in the countryside now, besides being a little more technologically-advanced, is still basically like Jude the Obscure, with (hopefully) less child suicide. There is still the feeling that you are going nowhere.

What I have of the story so far is basically two brothers, one of whom leaves home at a young age, while the other one doesn’t, probably ever, with both of them tormented by the road not taken. And yet I haven’t decided really if I want either of these people to carry the main plot. I don’t know how interested I am in City vs. Village, compared to the only other solid character I have in mind: the neighbour lady who lives to possibly hundreds of years old and is haunted by pigeons and the ghosts of all of her former husbands. Which is not exactly writing what I know.

The title of the novel, I have almost definitely decided, is The Concrete Heart, although so far the only reference to this in the story is that it’s the name of a pub, which may or may not also be central. The shame of it all is that I missed the wordcount and ended up at the end of November with only 37 thousand words, but I can justify it to myself by continuing to give enough of a shit to keep writing anyway.

Update3

I last tried to churn out this kind of thing just under 4 years ago. My last year of university; back in Canterbury, still drunk on Prague. Where most people were doing final exams, I was taking creative writing instead, thinking it would be an easy pass. My dissertation topic was a short story, and in retrospect I definitely should have just done an exam, or a literature assignment, or really just anything else. 

I got cocky. I was reading Beckett and Joyce and Eliot and Woolf, so I figured that I could write 10,000 words over a weekend in a style that would be obscure but secretly brilliant, as per the greats, without any research beyond scraping through the old memory banks and hoping for profundity. Beckett got “What is the Word” anthologised; Tender Buttons had its audience; why would I go to any great lengths to say something when I could splurge some abstract nonsense onto a page and celebrate my own cleverness? 

What happened in reality was that I spent that weekend spread out on a sofa beating myself with a pillow around the head screaming at myself that I couldn’t write for shit. I ended up submitting a half-finished story that still, perversely, got a passing grade. See Dead Souls or The Castle or The Pale King for other examples of how to not finish a story and still get away with it. 

The NaNo update is that I’m on 30thousand words with 4 days to go. I have a shell of an idea of where I want things to go from here, but I’m not too clear on how I’m going to sit the fuck down to write 5000 words a day to get where I’m going. The likelihood is that there will be some David-Lynch-dream-sequences going on and some characters with an irritating compulsion to repeat everything they’re saying twice or even three times, on top of the already-overstated isn’t memory funny theme that is by now disappearing so far into self-indulgence that I want to dig up Proust and bitchslap him for ever giving writers this stupid idea in the first place.

I have complained to those who’ve asked that I’m too far behind to reasonably expect to catch up now. But I know I’ve submitted worse shit than this before under more demanding conditions, so I guess we’ll see.

25k update.

 

img_5123

Delete/Rewrite/Repeat

… I wasn’t sure I’d make it to the halfway mark. But I don’t consider it a testament to my own strength of spirit or anything that I actually did. It is a point reached through trickery – but then I suppose it has to happen sometimes. I tricked my way to where I am today. And I suppose that is a moral lesson for our age: trickery can get you to a lot of good places.

So I reached 25000 words, halfway through the month, which puts me on schedule. For a couple of days I didn’t write at all, for which I have had to forgive myself. There were moments where writing was not enough of a distraction from the real world, and I had to allow myself to stay in bed watching remix videos of dogs, because reality was too fearsome a villain. The good news is, I believe there is some shape emerging to the story. Some characters have developed into what look like supporting beams – characters that were born out of random chance in a frenzy of typing, but now might even prove essential. This is not to suggest that things will not change again. I still have no idea what I’m doing, but there are passages I’ve written that I genuinely like. It is likely that the editing process will be harshest to those, which is good. Kill your darlings, and all that. I don’t know anything about style. The quality of the writing seems to have been informed by the last couple of books I read, which is always true all the time – World’s Fair by EL Doctorow, and, as always, Infinite Jest. There may be something of The Book of Daniel in there too. I haven’t really decided on what I want this story to be yet, other than something including village and city life, and the awfulness of both. Another good thing I suppose is that writing this forces me to remember small stories from my own childhood, and use them. Like getting a bollocking for falling in the pond and coming home dripping with mud; like finding a dead bird in the car park and digging it a grave; like learning to swear properly for the first time, and finding out later that one of the old ladies had overheard me, and told my parents how terrible it was to hear that kind of language.

The hard part, predictably, is trying to smother the inner editor. I am a better editor, I think, than I am a writer, and I am too critical of myself. A lot of this month will be spent deleting, hoping that the backspace key doesn’t feel pain.

Anyway, I am on track, which feels good. I’ve discovered new music (Songs: Ohia), which hasn’t happened in a while, and I’ve had that on in the background pretty constantly while grinding my teeth trying to figure out what happens next.

NaNoWriMo ’16

NaNoWriMo ’16

For the uninitiated, that’s National Novel Writing Month. And I completed it twice, in the three or four years that I’ve promised to do so. 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s not impossible, but very demanding, and tends to lead to an outpouring of absolute unreadable trash (in my case at least). I don’t expect this year to be any different.

The problem is, I’ve had the same idea in my head for a few years and so far I haven’t had the motivation to do anything with it. I’ve written already about the notebooks half-filled with false starts and underdeveloped characters, abstract philosophical musings, aborted attempts at profundity, and sketches of a childhood I barely remember chopped up and reseasoned into something fictional but not really. But I keep telling myself that one day I’ll be a writer of some sort, even if nobody reads or understands a word of what I’ve written. And it sounds to me like a good idea worth pursuing, and I have some colour and texture to add, and some things that might end up being worth writing about.

My first ‘completed’ attempt was in college in 2008, a year that sounds recent but isn’t. I was 20 years old, and two months into a fresh attempt at full-time education, after catastrophically failing my A-levels and being forced into an MoD warehouse for a year and a half, counting screws. It wasn’t good writing. It was miserable, bitter, and try-hard, like I was trying to put the world back on the rails and prove that I was better than a faceless storekeeper who’d just had a lucky but temporary escape. Mostly I wanted to prove I was clever, which I wasn’t. I was reading things like American Psycho and Naked Lunch and anything by Chuck Palahniuk. So in trying to replicate those, picking up the casual nihilism and the visceral horror-type stuff and missing the punchy writing, I ended up with something as sophisticated as Papa Roach lyrics on a school notebook. I didn’t keep it. You can’t read it.

I last finished the following year – the year I started university. A group of us formed through a dedicated forum and we met at Costa in Canterbury once a week and took our laptops and wrote together. The coffee came in huge mugs that took 2 hours to finish and we made each other laugh at the absurd things that we padded out our stories with. In-jokes developed that a few of them might still remember. The writing wasn’t good, but it didn’t matter. At least, not to me, who wasn’t much of a writer anyway and was just happy to finally be getting something down. There were others with far better ideas and more commitment to seeing them through the gruelling post-November editing process. Now that I’m a paid proofreader and closer to 30 than 20, I like to think I have the inclination and technical head to review my own work, as well as the experience to actually have something to tell, even with far less time than I had at Kent, where classes were 5 hours max a week. The difference between then and now is that at least when I was 20 I felt I had something to prove, and would have filled pages and pages with moany shit without embarrassment, rather than, as now, talking myself out of finishing anything because it’s not good enough. Revising and deleting endlessly, empty of sound and fury, trying to signify something important, and landing only on the guilt of having not cultivated a skill I almost had (what a tortured reference).

Anyway, I tried again two years ago and got nowhere. I don’t think I even managed a day before I gave up. Last year I don’t think I even registered that it was going on. But NaNoWriMo 2016 is a week away, so I’m gearing myself up to attempt to try to motivate myself to take a half-assed stab at it. We’ll see.

Updates to (maybe) follow…

nitehacks

nitehacks

-…real enough to me…

         – really? this doesn’t creep you out in any way?

                  – c’mon mate, I’m standin’ right here you know…

                                   – m e   t o o  // wHy you ha  gotta b e. be like that, baby?

         -fuck me

                                    – o O o o il i k ethat. 

– I said real enough, not real. I prefer it like this, honestly…

                  – well I mean this is just the test phase. I did wanna tinker a bit.

– god, why? if it gets any realer I might as well just get a real one.

          – I thought the point of this … thing was that you can’t get a real one.

                                    – h e y getre. reeeeaal get real.

          –

                  –

– she does sound a bit like my sister.

          – she?

alright, it then, what does it matter?

          – if you could change the voice at least…

                  – hey this is the best I could do without someone coming and reading lines. And this is kinda…

          – dodgy.

                  – … delicate.

                                     – hey boyy can your sister dDo thiiii/

          – I heard she can.

fuck you. 

          – I’m guessing mass production isn’t on the horizon then? no public shareholders?

                  – well I won’t be closing the bar any time soon, no. Unless a bus of Japanese teenagers comes in here right now and pays for it all up front…

          – hope springs…

– hey did you hear that in Japan they have vending machines with used knickers in them?

          – trying to figure out where your sister’s went?

          – because I have them. 

                                     -HHhH

          – so where’d you get the dress John? Hope it’s not used…

                  – nah, shop dummy across the road. Found it in a skip.

                                      – Jon.Ni it’s byeeautifulImgonnatryiton now

          – only the best, right?

– the hair feels real…

          – God I hope it isn’t.

                                     – Ii Im all real honey. Come see for yourself.

– what can it do?

          –

                  –





[At the NYESZE conference last year (2015) I attended a lecture called The Art of Words by a David A Hill, recommending ELT teachers to use art in classes. An example he used was Paolo Uccello’s Saint George and the Dragon, a not-very-good painting of (obviously) Saint George, looking asleep while spearing a dragon through the neck in front of a bored princess. There was also a poetic response by U A Fanthorpe, ‘Not My Best Side’, written from the perspectives of all three characters. The point is to inspire students’ creativity for the purposes of writing exercises, and I’ve used both the painting and the poem in more than a few classes since. But I’ve never actually tried it myself. So anyway, I like Hopper’s Nighthawks and, well…]

A Portrait of the X as a Y

A Portrait of the X as a Y

I want to think that old photos reveal something. I read parts of Barthes’ Camera Lucida, from which the gist I got was: old photos reveal things. And War and Peace is about Russians.

The truth is, I don’t really. I’m drawn to old photos, but I’d be fooling myself to think that I could see the spark of something developing in my eyes, here, or that my distaste for/allergy to cats is betrayed in my holding this one like I’m trying to squeeze the life out of it. Old photos like this are uncovered and pored over when someone kills a lot of people and newspapers need a picture of the murderer as a child; any other value is debatable. If you think you can read personality from a portrait, you probably thought that about the person already. The things I can read from this photograph are: (a) that I never had eyebrows; (b) that (a) makes my forehead look comically big; (c) that my head is kinda big anyway; and (d) that all of these things combined with the cat make me look like the villain of a Saturday-morning-cartoon prequel series to James Bond.

I do remember this cat. We had her and her ‘twin’ sister: the one pictured is Tammy, the other was Tabitha. I always preferred Tammy, because she seemed a little more affectionate and Tabitha – while my grandmother maintained that they WERE twins – was more of a grey colour, which made her an old lady that I didn’t want to play with until she was the only one left of the two. Somewhere around this time period (memory is a flighty and unreliable woman) we got another cat, Alfie, when the neighbours moved away.* Alfie was basically James Dean, or Mister Darcy, or some other aloof figure who couldn’t have cared much less if anyone liked him, and would have smoked if he’d had opposable thumbs. He swept in when I was about 10 and for a while we competed with the bed for his attention, and then gave up and left him to disembowel other large animals. Tammy and Tabitha got old and sick and started doing what old sick cats do when they can’t be bothered any more; and within a couple of years of each other they were taken to the vet and not brought home again. I would say at this point that those cats were the only constantly reliable figures in a childhood that was punctuated with therapy visits, temper tantrums, and desperately futile attempts at homeopathy† – but I’m not Dave Pelzer. I had some other reliable figures (shoutout mom, dad, the academy, jesus), but I do miss those cats, enough almost to want to fictionalise them into something magical that lifted a boy out of his inexplicable moodiness/depression, and took him on wild hallucinogenic adventures. But they weren’t dogs, and even one dog would have been better than two cats.  

Note also the pattern on the armchair that young me is sitting in. When you’re a youngish couple (mid-30s by this point I’d guess) and you have two kids who can’t stop fighting and throwing food at each other, you don’t buy furniture that looks nice. And if your son acts out as often as the clock-hand lands on a one-or-two-digit number, you don’t buy nice things at all. My dad tells me they revisited the Kent Show recently; my memories of past events recalled, I don’t consider it too dramatic an overstatement to say that they’re only now ready to show their faces there again.‡ I was an embarrassing kid, which I never properly apologised for, and I know that in a situation where I might have to deal with a kid in any way similar to myself from, say, 6 to 16, I would leave that kid in a ditch with an outdated paper map and the clothes on his back, so I owe it to my parents that they didn’t snap and just pummel me senseless. Therapy sessions were a last resort that nobody was really committed to: a parade of ineffectiveness led in the first place by a hippy with a cupboard full of sculpting clay; then a Santa lookalike who gave me essence of cactus-water (for some stupid fucking reason); then somone whose face I can’t remember but who had an office where I could actually sit down in a comfortable chair and not have to draw anything, by which point I was already a teenager and more interested in sleeping for 20 hours and eating and playing Final Fantasy° for the remaining 4. Fortunately for everybody involved, the problem seemed to just go away by itself at some point. It’s not a particularly inspiring story of overcoming life’s hurdles, and I don’t expect to be selling the rights for an animated retelling any time soon, but that’s what happened. 

This is far from the worst childhood picture of me, by the way. There is one of me fully-painted in blue, wearing little curled-up slippers like the genie from Aladdin. Plus several from a period of teenage bloat, behoodied in black and more black, the logos of nu-metal bands I’d rather never admit to having liked across my chest. I hope that they reveal nothing about me, and that if I am ever in the news (for positive or negative reasons), they just don’t bother with the pictures.

__________________________________________________________

*That house, as far as I know, is haunted. Not one family lasted more than a couple of years while I was growing up. Perhaps it was haunted by our living next to it.

†Advice based on first-hand experience: Don’t bother. Really.

‡ If I had to summarise what the Kent Show is, I suppose I could do worse than ‘agricultural expo’, because that’s the kind of place Kent is. My dad’s Facebook photos of #KS2016 are mostly of tractors and more tractors, with some nostalgic buses thrown in because why wouldn’t they? I have memories of one of these events or similar, and it’s best not to go into too much detail. In my defence, it is unusual to see anybody there under 40 enjoying themselves, who isn’t the son or daughter or close relative of a farmer. To give a very broad overview of the event in question, there was a milk stand there that I wanted to sample some milk from, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. If you know my parents, refer to them for the full colour commentary.

° IX, which I played through again recently and honestly, fuck therapy because that game is too amazing to put down.