The process of writing is something that fascinates me. I do it every day. I’m doing it right this minute. I wouldn’t say I even think that much about doing it. Mostly the words just flow. I take it for granted. Writing is more than just getting thoughts out of your head onto the paper though. That’s the first bit, usually the easy bit. Fine, get it out of your head so you don’t have to worry about forgetting it. Then read what you’ve written and ask yourself if what you’ve written is what you meant to say. But just what goes through our heads when we write?
I came home yesterday and wrote the following sentence in Word:
I then had my coffee and a . . . actually I forget what I had with it, probably a chocolate digestive, and then I went back and started to write the following article. The first thing I did was change that opening sentence:
I will forever associate reading Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch, with the colour red; the colour red, so called. I say “so called” because although “red” is the term popularly used to describe the colour I have in mind it is not remotely accurate even though it falls within that section of the spectrum. I suppose there must be a single spectral wavelength that can be designated as “red”, perhaps the colour of fire engines or pillar-boxes, but the red I have in mind is a more natural red although not red like poppies.
|Wavelength ~630–740 nm, Frequency ~480–405 THz|
The red I have in mind is redheadedness although I have never seen anyone with truly red hair that didn’t come out of a bottle. No, the redhead I have in mind had ginger hair. Even that is imprecise because ginger hair varies from a deep orange-red through burnt orange to bright copper; it can be russet, auburn, copper or even rust-coloured.
I was reading my book whilst on a bus in the centre of Glasgow. The incidence of redheads, so called, is considerably higher in Scotland than in any other part of the world; about one in every eight Scots will be some shade of redhead. There’s a woman on the TV right now reading the news and she’s a redhead. I’m a redhead although I’m nowhere near as redheaded now as I was when I was a little boy. Indeed what little hair I have left on my head ranges from the darkest of browns to silver. Perhaps this is why I like my beard which is still more red than grey. While I was reading my book a redhead got on the bus and sat down in front of me. She had long hair, three or four inches below her shoulders, and, as she sat down, she tossed it behind her – presumably so she didn’t sit on it – and, in doing so, threw it over one of my hands, a not entirely unpleasant experience although one that immediately brought about a pang of guilt for enjoying the sensation more than I thought I ought and for not immediately rearranging myself so that my hands were out of her reach.
After a bit she turned and glanced behind her although not directly at me and really not looking for or at anyone. As she did so her hair slid off my hand and hung tantalisingly in front of me. She had the kind of pale skin that tends to go with being a redhead, no freckles to speak of although she did sport a small pin in her nose; the pin had a blue stone in it which did not match her colouration. She was pretty but not beautiful and perhaps eighteen years old.
Her hair more than made up for any other ways Nature or poor fashion sense might have let her down. I stopped reading, stared at her hair and for a few seconds I was speechless. Actually throughout the entire experience I was speechless and so really what I should have said was that I was thoughtless only that’s not the right word because that suggests I was careless which I was not. What I mean to say is that nothing coherent went on in my head for several seconds. No words, no memories, nothing but the image of this hair which was only interrupted by the girl turning her head to look down the aisle; that broke my concentration because then I started to think about who she looked like.
So, if I’m being honest, I should associate “red” with stopping reading Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch, however, I have no doubt that whenever I pick up the book from now on I will be confronted with the colour red or at least what I have decided to call “the colour red” despite the fact the expression clearly is woefully inaccurate.
She sat in front of me for perhaps ten minutes. Ten minutes out of her life and a corresponding ten minutes out of my own, ten minutes during which she stared out of the window and during which I tried to read and not stare at her hair. I have no idea how many pages I tried to read whilst not looking at her hair – eight perhaps, let’s say eight – nor do I have any idea which eight pages these were. I know when I alighted myself some twenty minutes after her I placed my bookmark in between pages 48 and 49 but everything else would be guesswork.
I don’t remember what I was trying to read while the redhead was on the bus with me. I think it was something about the narrator’s preoccupations with certain girls at school and certain female cousins but that might have been before or even after the girl was on the bus.
The girl got off the bus at Anniesland and walked away from the bus stop down Glencoe Street. I didn’t know the name of the street. I looked up the name on a map. I watched her as she walked away getting smaller and smaller. She looked younger from a distance, perhaps fourteen, although to be fair most fourteen-year-olds could pass for eighteen these days, and her hair was noticeably less stunning. I felt bereft.
Now I can barely remember her face at all. I’ve decided that she looked a bit like a girl called Amber Sparks. I saw a photograph of this girl, a poet who lives in Washington, D.C., and I think the girl on the bus looked something like her. She probably doesn’t but when my mind searched for images to connect with this particular experience that was the one that came to mind. The photograph of Amber Sparks was a black and white one and so I have no idea if she had red hair when it was taken. I found the photograph again and now I really can’t remember what the girl on the bus looked like. It’s completely gone. Why do I remember Amber Sparks anyway? The name for one. It’s a lovely name – memorable. But she reminded me of someone I was friends with for several years who wasn’t a redhead. Do you ever do that, meet someone who looks like someone you’ve known from the past and immediately take a liking or a disliking to this new person solely because of how you felt about who they remind you of? Now I find a fondness creeping into my recollection of the girl on the bus. I’ve decided she must be a nice person. She probably is. Most people are.
In the book I was trying to read the narrator talks about how he assembled the looks he ascribed to certain characters in books he read as a child sometimes ignoring the descriptions as written and imposing his own, specifically one called ‘Aunt Bee’ to whom he assigned the face of an old nun he once was taught by, so it seems appropriate that my image of the girl on the bus should be part-fiction. She was real. My memory of her is not. Memories don’t exist in isolated little pockets in our brains. Likewise her hair. The term ‘redhead’ doesn’t cut it and ‘ginger’ is appalling – it has such negative connotations. I looked up ‘amber’ in Google and found this picture. Now that is the kind of colour I was thinking about. It is a piece of Lithuanian amber from the Baltic coast. Amber is, of course, not a colour; there are lots of colours in this lump and the same goes for hair, especially in sunlight.
It’s hard to say what will or won’t happen in the future. I have no reason to remember the girl on the bus, no explicit plans for her. I expect I will remember her for some time especially now I’ve decided to write about her but whether I remember her or not will ultimately have less to do with what I want than what I am capable of. I don’t have a good memory. Perhaps that is why I relished this experience at the time realising that it would soon be lost to me. Because I have become used to not being able to return my memories with ease. I have no doubt that the memory will remain and every time I read this it will jog a semblance of that memory. I may remember. There is no guarantee I will.
It’s also inaccurate to say that I will remember this forever. I don’t expect to live forever. I could say that I may remember this for as long as I live but I suspect that even that is being overly optimistic.
I never thought about what the girl was doing on the bus, where she had been or where she was going. Amos Oz would have. He would have constructed a whole life around her. I don’t do that so much but, if I did, what would my redhead be like?
People with red hair are assumed to have bold personalities and short tempers, and they are frequently thought to be adventurous, unafraid, and mischievous. While these characteristics are pure assumptions, they lend mystery and desirability to red hair. – lovetoknow.com
It’s not true you know. When you think of red hair who jumps to mind? Gillian Anderson, perhaps? Or what about Julianne Moore or Geri Halliwell (that would be ‘Ginger’ Spice) or, if you’re of a certain age, perhaps Lucille Ball? All feisty women. Surprisingly I can only think of one redhead from when I was at school, a boy, ‘Big Nell’ – so much for 13% of the population having red hair, eh? Of course, by “red” they’re counting everything from honey blonde upwards.
I expect the girl on the bus was going home because she got off the bus in a residential area. I don’t need to know. I will probably never see her again. I do pass her bus stop occasionally and perhaps the next time I pass her stop, or the stop on the other side of the road, I’ll think about her but most likely not. I could write her into a story, her hair anyway, or a poem. I could give her hair to a girl – it need not even be the main character – just a girl on a bus, feisty or not. Her hair would look good in anyone’s story.
What I think I should have written is:
For some time to come whenever I pick up or think about Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch, I imagine that will call to mind hair the colour of Lithuanian amber.
It’s a bit cumbersome but more accurate. The real question is: how precise does one need to be? I personally think one can overthink a sentence. Did the girl have hair the colour of Lithuanian amber or have I overwritten the image in my head? It would be nice if she had. Even if you never had a picture to look at just the sound is lovely. I had a look online at some of the similes people have used to describe hair, not just redheads, and there are a few beauties:
hair the colour of...
- strawberry jam
- spun gold
- hatred (good one)
- Heinz Tomato Soup (I kid you not)
- sun-bleached straw
- a ripe wheat field
- Hayley William's in the decode video (typos not mine)
- hay in a prairie dawn just as the sun hits the first stalks
- the yellow flag iris which grows by summer water
Perhaps I could say that the girl on the bus had hair the colour of amber sparks. Or am I trying too hard to meld these two ideas together in my head? That would okay actually because amber is just a lump of fossilised tree resin whereas this girl’s hair was alive. If I write “amber sparks” I’m suggesting movement, not of her hair, which swished very nicely thank you very much, but the way the light reflected and picked out different shades. It didn’t so much sparkle as shimmer. (Christ! What did people ever do before thesauri?)
Main Entry: shim·mer
Inflected Form(s): shim·mered; shim·mer·ing \ˈshi-mə-riŋ, ˈshim-riŋ\
Etymology: Middle English schimeren, from Old English scimerian; akin to Old English scīnan to shine — more at shine
Date: before 12th century
intransitive verb 1 : to shine with a soft tremulous or fitful light : glimmer
2 : to reflect a wavering sometimes distorted visual image transitive verb : to cause to shimmer
It’s not quite right, is it? What about ‘glimmer’?
Main Entry: glim·mer
Function: intransitive verb
Inflected Form(s): glim·mered; glim·mer·ing \ˈglim-riŋ, ˈgli-mə-\
Etymology: Middle English glimeren; akin to Old English glǣm gleam
Date: 15th century
1 a : to shine faintly or unsteadily b : to give off a subdued unsteady reflection
2 : to appear indistinctly with a faintly luminous quality
Better. But this is becoming hard work. No one other than me will ever know the exact colour I have in my mind so why bend myself out of shape trying to find the perfect expression when no such expression exists? Maybe all I need is:
From now on, whenever I pick up or think about Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch, I’ll think of a girl with red hair on a bus.
I might also change it around and say:
In the future when I notice someone with red hair I expect to think about Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch.
I imagine that will be so for a time because it needn’t be hair precisely the same shade as the girl on the bus. It doesn’t even need to belong to a girl. It’s not saying the same thing as the very first sentence I wrote but it’s safer. It makes more sense. There are loads of people with red hair that I’m likely to see but how many copies of Barley Patch are there in the UK? Not many I suspect. So I think I’ll go with that. My readers will be more able to relate to that despite its inaccuracy. Forget Amber Sparks, Lithuanian amber and ludicrous similes. Forget trying to be precise. There’s ‘precise’ and there’s ‘precise enough’ and, as my good wife is very fond of saying, that’s “close enough for government work.”
So, what’s that, about three and a half hours to get one sentence right? Assuming I stick with it. Which is unlikely. I don’t really like ‘notice’.
Yes, writing’s easy ain’t it? You just sit down and write. Right. Of course you do.