Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday 28 October 2007

Ants in the wind

I read an article a wee while back Why Blog Post Frequency Does Not Matter Anymore, and it made me think. Actually everything makes me think, but not everything I think about is something I necessarily want to write about. Trust me, not everything needs to be written about.

With the rise of the internet there are more people committing their thoughts to "paper" than at any other time in history. This should be a writer's utopia. Why then do I get the distinct feeling that there's trouble in paradise?

The first thing I discovered when I dived headfirst into the wonderful world of the World Wide Web was that there were people all over the globe that were exactly like me (and some were even female which was fantastic). Suddenly I wasn't alone, there were others who did this writing thingy and considered it not only perfectly acceptable to drop whatever you were doing to get those words down on a paper, it was expected. There was just one word came to my mind: home. That was twelve years ago. A lot has happened since then.

These days I'm drowning in words. I get advised of new blogs every day, several times a day, thousand upon thousands of words. I should be – to quote Larry the Cable Guy – happier than a tornado in a trailer park. The problem is that most of them aren't worth the pixels they're using up. I have to dig through stuff I've read time and time again to get to the tasty bit. And I'm tired of it.

It's assumed these days that most people browsing online are as focused as a fart in a storm but I suspect this is not the problem in itself rather than actually a symptom of a bigger problem. Let me clarify: I think that this level of impatience is learned. Those few kind (euphemism for discerning) people who have subscribed to my blog have come to expect something and, if I fail to deliver once or twice they're not going to drop me like the proverbial hot potato BUT if I keep it up they'll start simply scanning my blog before skipping it completely. And I suspect that is what has happened to the Web. People aren't willing to wade through crap any more because there is too much crap to wade through. They expect it. I know I do but I am SO delighted when I stumble upon something even half-decent in my inbox.

Customer expectation is an odd creature. In his blog, Filling Reader Expectations: Why Readers Keep Reading, Terry Heath makes a few interesting points. I would recommend you have a read at his article but it seems to have vanished. Basically his line of advice to bloggers, if they want to keep their audience, is to give them what they've come to expect. He has a point but that is also why a lot of pop groups in the past have died a death, because they basically re-issued the same single over and over again. They didn't grow and their audiences tired of them. I still like to be surprised and I like to surprise.

What worries me most is the fact that my novel, Living With the Truth, the one I'm going to be plugging online in a few months, commits an entire chapter to setting the scene before the protagonist's foil arrives and turns his world upside down. His entrance is a total surprise to the hero and should be as much of a surprise (and even more of a delight) to the audience – IF they have the patience to survive that opening chapter. What chance do you think I've I got?

The world is changing (euphemism for going down the pan) and there's not much point whinging about it because it would be like a middle-aged ant roaring at the wind; it ain't gonna stop blowing just because li'l ol' me is feeling the draft.

Thursday 25 October 2007

Warning: this blog is not inspired

Whilst working on my entry for Nothing Binding one of the fields asked for my sources of inspiration. There's no easy answer. It's not that I haven’t thought about it before, why one piece of writing is only okay while another one rocks. It's nothing to do with intelligence or ability. They're factors in the equation, more constants than variables. The critical issue is often to do with inspiration, but we'll come back to that.

First of all, what is writing, I mean beyond scribbling words down on scraps of paper? Why do I have to write? Why is writing the answer the thing I naturally gravitate towards when something affects me? Why don't I curl up in fœtal position or simply bang my head against a wall?

Okay, let's have a stab at it:

Creative writing: NOUN, a delayed sympathetic reaction following an emotional response to specific external stimuli expressed in words.

Not perfect but not bad. (Please feel free to have a go yourself.)

In others words, a red rag gets a bull's dander up and he charges. Writing is that charge and once the energy has been discharged (converted into words) that's it, you need another red rag. The catch is that, with the bull, the same rag will work ad infinitum – bulls are daft – but it doesn't work that way with inspiration. Inspiration is a one-off fix and you better damn well come and get it while it's hot. Think of it like a joke. Why does the one about the chicken crossing the road not work these days? It is still a joke but it's simply not funny any more.

I can think of numerous things that have been a catalyst in the writing process, for example, the death of my parents. I wrote a couple of excellent poems after my mum and dad passed away but not right away. In my father's case it was a year later; in my mother's, a whole five years elapsed. And that's something I've noticed: there's invariably a gestation period.

What do you do though when you're not inspired? Do you go looking for inspiration in alcohol or drugs? There's a whole whean (Scots: a good few or quite a lot) of writers who have and I can fully understand why. When I look back at my very best work and remember how it felt to write down those words, I'd do pretty much anything to get that feeling back if it worked; there's nothing like it. But I don't drink and I don't take drugs and that's not simply so I'm a good example to my daughter, I am scared that I do something that screws around with what's going on in my head.

There's an old expression, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, but I've always thought about why I write quite differently. I think the best writers are broken, generally not so badly that they can't function in society, but they are nevertheless not quite right. They're like the robot in Asimov's, The Bicentennial Man; if he got "fixed" then he would lose his creativity.

This blog is not inspired. That doesn't mean it is bad writing. Inspiration is good and there is a definite buzz to working while inspired but it is one thing to rattle down an eight-line poem during that high – a 50,000+ word novel is another beast entirely. When I was young and all I wrote was poetry, I got used to hanging around waiting on my muse-of-the-moment getting her act together but nowadays, though I freely admit I may not be in full control of the direction my writing takes, I can't afford to wait.

Monday 22 October 2007

And your point is, caller?

The following was, for a long time, the opening paragraph to my fifth novel. I clung on to it for dear life but it simply refused to fit with the tone of the book. I had to scrap it – along with the next 9830 words. Ouch! The thing is, I still like the point it has to make.

Write about what you know. It’s the most patently obvious piece of advice budding authors get presented with, more often enough by non-writers. Sage advice it is, too, up to a point. It’s like recommending that an art student draw only what they can see and best start with something that keeps relatively still – how about a nice bowl of fruit? I really shouldn’t pass judgment on anyone who feels moved to toss any beginner a scrap or two of encouragement; advice is free which is why it’s so easy to turn ones nose up at it and that is the voice of experience talking here, believe you me. That said, being without a single solitary artistic bone in my body, I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I have no practical counsel whatsoever to lay before any aspiring artist, but I do have an alternative topic for the novice writer to consider: write about what you want to know – you may find that you already know more than you think.

When I look back on my many years of writing there have been precious few instances where I have attempted simply to record something for posterity. When I did, it was never my best work. Everything I’ve tackled has basically been investigative, trying to find the point to the piece, a reason to keep writing.

In my first book, my point turned out to be that, by the time we learn the important things in life there's precious little time left to benefit from that knowledge; in the sequel comes the rider that ignorance, although not automatically blissful, is often a better state of mind than being confronted with a truth we're not ready to face; Milligan and Murphy have to come to terms with the realisation that “there are no reasons for unreasonable things” and, in The More Things Change, it's the big question: Where do all the characters go when the book is over?

The problem I'm having with the new novel is that I started with the intention of exploring something I thought I understood, the nature of loss. What I've been forced to accept is how little I know. When each of my parents died, I recorded the event by way of a poem (this is not the time to share them) but I can't say I dealt with their deaths. The practical details were attended to, property disposed of, creditors paid, money divvied up and that kept me at arm's length from the emotion of the situation; I went through things without fully experiencing them. And now, after all these years, I feel a bit daft trying to grieve.

The new book is about a daughter who travels home to wind up her late father's estate. She has been living down south for years and they'd grown apart. Each of their lives has been uneventful, unremarkable – this is especially important – they've not had any spectacular falling out. Now, she wanders around his flat trying to connect with the man, but she can't. Rather she winds up taking stock of her own life and feeling guilty for not feeling the loss of her father more deeply. I had never considered the term "midlife crisis" as applying particularly to a woman – very sexist of me – and yet this is precisely what the daughter finds herself going through and yet nothing in me is remotely willing to consider changing the gender of my protagonist.

I've mined my life for ideas before. I once wrote: "Writers don't have real lives, they have ongoing research." Quite true. A part of me would love to escape the past rather than wallow in it but that's a problem, my past is the sum of me. What do I expect then of the future – to compensate me in some way for an unspectacular life lived so far? And the same question is being asked by my character.

I don't have a single line yet that summarises the theme of this book, but I suspect it will be Nietzsche's, "When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." There was nothing further from my mind when I started and we'll have to see where it all ends up. Probably in tears.

Thursday 18 October 2007

Poetry under glass

When I returned to Glasgow in the mid-1990s, after living with the teuchters up north for a bit, I settled in the West End of the city, as it transpires a bit of a haven for artists, writers and students. It wasn’t a part of the grand plan but I wasn’t complaining. The West End is peppered with book shops, galleries and wee out-of-the-way knickknack shops, but it was a small concern on Byres Road, run by a family of Asians, that caught my eye, one that sold bags, shoulder bags, hand bags, travel bags – you get the idea.

It’s common in that area to find adverts in shop windows, especially ads for bed-sits since Glasgow University is only a few minutes walk from there, however, in the window of this particular shop was simply a “daily poem”. I read it – it was suitably dire – and thought no more about it. But the next time I was there, I made a point of checking in again and this became a regular thing for me. I started paying particular attention to my fellow shoppers; I wasn’t alone, people would go out of the way, even cross the street, specifically to have a look at that poem. And here I’d thought that poetry had pretty much had its day.

The poems were a mixed bag it has to be said; some were pure drivel, rhymes-and-whines, but not all. Every one had been handed in by members of the public. After a good few weeks – spontaneous I am not – I thought, well why not, and ambled along with my own humble effort only to discover that the shop had closed its doors. In the window was the final poem but, rather than the usual A4 sheet, the whole window had been devoted to the last poem along with a thank you to all those who had contributed over the years.

I felt a bit lost. I wasn’t alone either. Others made their way to the shop. I tried to gauge their reactions. On the whole it was hard to tell. I think most people look sad most of the time. The closest image that comes to mind is that of a dog wandering over to its bowl only to find it empty and there’s no one for it to fuss over to fill it.

For the record, here’s that poem no one ever got to see.


Every day I come and look
(every day I can)
at the poem in the window

to see if it's changed
(and it always has)
but it's never more than a poem.

Every day I'm drawn
(it's an act of faith)
but there are never any answers.

April 23, 1996

Monday 15 October 2007

New fashioned values

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

I like the environment. I use it on a daily basis and often recommend it to my friends. The thing about the environment is that it directly affects me and it is something I can have a direct effect upon. Without having to nip someone’s head to put an end to human trafficking or the spread of AIDS, I can do something worthwhile every day. After a long delay our local council has now provided a collection service for recyclable paper, plastic and metal products (nothing for glass yet) and I’m very conscientious about recycling every scrap of paper down to the last bus ticket. I only print what I really need to and use e-mail wherever possible. The latter is easier said than done, so many businesses and agencies shy away from encouraging e-mail correspondence.

The big problem is I’m a writer and if there’s one thing a writer will do, given half a chance, is use up paper, reams and reams of the precious stuff, just to see stacks of his blasted book with garish ‘three-for-two’ stickers on their covers at the front of Waterstones or Borders. And in that regard I’m as guilty as the next writer.

My wife bought me an e-book reader a few years back, however, and I have to say I did like it. The issue I had with it was quite simple. I’m a stingy bugger. I rarely buy new books or DVDs or CDs (Pink Floyd would be the exception there) except as presents. How do you buy a used e-book, eh? I have an iPod-thingy too – again, thanks to my wife – but, to date, I’ve only downloaded three things that aren’t available on disk. Why? Have you seen my shelves with all the hundreds and hundreds of CDs and tapes? I like how they look, like little books. I like all my shelves full of books and DVDs too. And I doubt I’m going to change.

That said, there’s a new generation out there that is changing, that regard portable media players as de rigueur, just as I might have viewed the ghetto blaster back in the seventies. If the technology were cool enough, kids would start to look for books in that format. Just think of the impact J K Rowling could have had if she’d stopped chopping down rain forests and only issued her epic novels as e-books or DVDs or some other new fancy and cool (cool is so important here) format?

Okay, she could have still produced a fuddy-duddy grownup print version for the likes of me who are never, ever going to be cool. (I can do lukewarm on a good day).

Change will come. How often do you see a real book on Star Trek that’s not on a stand? And they have cool replicators. Old-fashioned values are all fine and good, but ‘value’ is the key word there. Will the next generation value books or knowledge? What’s a tree worth? I’m afraid I won’t be around long enough to find out.

Thursday 11 October 2007

What God knows about TV drama

My first experience of Samuel Beckett the playwright was in 1979 when I caught a broadcast performance of Waiting for Godot recorded for Open University students. I got up at the crack of dawn on three occasions to watch it but I didn’t own a video recorder at the time and I’ve never seen that interpretation again.

When Beckett died in 1998, the BBC dusted off a few programmes and gave them an airing. This time I was prepared and made VHS tapes of everything, but after moving house several times, God alone knows who got custody of them. One thing’s for sure, they’re not in my collection now and I doubt they’ll ever be transmitted again.

When, in 2000, Channel 4 announced it was to air all Beckett’s stage plays I got dead excited but they dried up and the only way I eventually got to see them all was to fork out over £100 for the boxed set because God alone knows when, if ever, they’ll get round to showing them again.

Fortunately, I managed to catch the BBC4 recording of Harold Pinter in Krapp’s Last Tape earlier this year and I kept a copy on DVD for posterity. God alone knows when it’ll ever be broadcast again.

Actually, as God is also probably very well aware, this blog is really not about Beckett. It’s about television reruns.

Back in the 1970s, television drama was a lot different than it is today. A lot of things were. I was not your typical teenager (you didn’t honestly imagine I was), but I was a teenager nevertheless with a teenager’s limited life experiences and perspective. That didn’t stop me watching grown-up dramas – unless my parents deemed them inappropriate – but I didn’t always get the subtleties of the plays I was watching.

Strands like commercial television’s Armchair Theatre (1956-74) and the BBC's The Wednesday Play (1964-70) and Play for Today (1970-84) all supplied a steady stream on one-off dramas, a format that has all but died a death on television these days.

During this time, these series premiered plays by the likes of Dennis Potter, Alan Bleasdale, David Mercer, Ken Loach, Nigel Kneale, Mike Leigh, Jack Rosenthal, Willy Russell, Alan Bennett, Malcolm Bradbury and Stephen Poliakoff along with classics by Sartre, Turgenev, Ibsen and others but nothing, I’m sorry to say, by Beckett. And then, God alone knows why, it all stopped.

Granted some of these have been repeated since: Abigail’s Party, Cathy Come Home, and most of Potter’s work – praise the Lord! – but showings are rare. I would love to see these plays again because I was simply too young to fully appreciate them at the time of initial broadcast. I can easily pick up a copy of any book I didn’t quite get when I first had a go at it, but, when it comes to television drama, I’m wholly dependent on the powers that be deciding that there’s a market and that annoys me.

I believe it should be the responsibility of broadcasters to treat quality TV drama with a degree of respect. Why does the BBC keep ramming serialisations of Dickens and Jane Austin down our throats to the exclusion of all else? Oh, and if the tape has been wiped – as the BBC was wont to do back then – then why not remake these dramas for today’s audiences? Good drama doesn’t date – look at Shakespeare. Hollywood certainly has no problem re-imagining the films of its past so why should TV be any different?

In March 2006 the BBC indicated that there was going to be a revival of the single play format for BBC1 and granted there have been a few more of these popping up in the schedules but nothing to get really excited over. The soaps, sitcoms, series and serials are still there, some good (e.g. Jekyll), some not so much (don’t get me started).

It’s now October 2007 and I don’t quite feel the arrival of a second golden age of TV drama. God alone knows if I ever will, but he’s not returning my calls.

Sunday 7 October 2007

When is a poem like a dog?

In 2005, Stephen Fry, the author/actor/acceptable-gay-face- of-middle-England published a book, The Ode Less Travelled, where he, as one reviewer put it, “turned his considerable firepower on contemporary poetry” and he did not miss his mark. He focuses on three areas he maintains are sadly neglected by today’s poets: meter, rhyme and form. A poem, as far as Fry is concerned, should conform to certain rules and contain specific things.

I haven’t read the book but having heard him wax loquacious on the subject and after reading reviews in The Observer and The New York Times, I’m pretty sure I know where he’s coming from. And he has a point – but only up to a point.

Let’s just consider form today. It all boils down to definitions. What exactly is a poem?

Spike Milligan’s ‘Oojah-ka-Piv’ is a poem, as is E E Cummings’s, ‘l(a’ as is Philip Larkin’s ‘Poetry of Departures’ – check out the rhymes and half-rhymes.

It’s a fair question. My daughter writes poems – at least she used to do before she found happiness – and vehemently resists any criticism of them holding the view that “it’s a poem because I say it is.”

Another question: Why are Chihuahuas and Great Danes both dogs? Because they wag their tails when they’re happy, they can look both dumb and lovable at the same time and because they head straight for your crotch the moment they meet you. Oh, and they’re all members of the Canidae family of the order Carnivora.

There is evidence to substantiate Stephen Fry’s claims that much of the poetry being written these days is chopped up prose at best or “arse dribble” – his expression – at worse. But this is nothing new: it took me 450-odd attempts to produce anything resembling a half-decent poem but that didn’t stop me trying to get them published. Are you telling me no one ever wrote a crappy sonnet back in the day?

I said I’ve not read Fry’s book but that doesn’t mean I’ve a closed mind. I do own a well-worn copy of Geoffrey Leech’s A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry, a far more scholarly work, and one I have often recommended.

For the record, I don’t write sestinas or sonnets or villanelles or odes. I have (haven’t we all) dabbled with haiku and once I wrote an extremely dark nursery rhyme but that doesn’t mean my poetry lacks form. Consider the syllabic structure of this little mongrel:

Everyone's a Critic

So we got3
this writer and this reader -7
seems like a match 4
made in heaven -4
the catch is, 3
the writer keeps writing things 7
the reader doesn't want to read8
whilst the reader insists on reading stuff10
the writer hasn't a clue how to write.10
Go figure.3
But they're stuck with each other,7
joined at the hip.4
Think about it.4
one day the writer's had it: 7
"So what the fuck should I write then?"8
The reader doesn't even miss a beat:10
(well maybe just one) ... "You got a pen?"9+1 for the beat

Does it matter if you don’t notice the underlying structure? The form is just there, like a skeleton; necessary, yes, but it knows its place. Always, the words come first and then I look for any structure but it shouldn’t overpower the content. That is simply not the case when it comes to more conventional forms:

Some time walking, not unseen,4+3
By hedge-rows, elms, on hillocks green,1+4+3
Right against the eastern gate, 4+3
Where the great sun begins his state.1+4+3
(from L'Allego, Milton) 

Look where the emphases fall and try reading the verse without putting the stress on ‘the’ in the last line. It’s unnatural. But it’s still poetry.

As the Dali Lama put it, “Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.” Take Picasso: he could paint perfectly well in a ‘traditional’ way but he chose to move beyond that, to invent new rules for himself.

A final cliché: take a moment to look back before you decide to head forward. You might learn a trick or two worth making your own.

Wednesday 3 October 2007

The untimely death of the short story

There are certain questions that refuse to go away, questions like: But why do you love me? Do aliens really exist? Did you just fart? and Is the short story dead?

There does seem to be a growing attitude that the short story is something an author moves through – a step up from the angst-ridden poems of their plooky youth – on their way to churning out the next great British/American/(enter your own country here) novel.

I wrote two-and-a-bit novels before I started on short stories – they’re hard. I’m reminded of the time I first started programming. I had a ZX Spectrum and, even with the expansion pack, you only had 48K to work with but it’s amazing what you can do when you have to. Nowadays we have memory up the kazoo: get it done and out into the marketplace. One wonders if J K Rowling’s massive tomes are a kind of literary bloatwear, not that I have anything against my fellow Scot even if she is an ‘Edinbugger’. (Cultural note: there is no love lost between ‘Weegies’ (Glaswegians) and Edinburghers (residents of Edinburgh)).

My wife reminded me of a quote by Blaise Pascal which translates, “I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter.” Winston Churchill similarly said, "If you want me to speak all day, I’ll begin right now. If you want me to speak for twenty minutes, it will take me a week to prepare."

I blame the marketers and their damn demographics. If you're a 'name' like Jeanette Winterson (whose short story collection, The World and Other Places, I’ve just finished re-reading) you can get away with it because it's now her name that sells the book, a bit like Picasso signing a napkin that transmogrifies into art. Besides, it's a bone to toss her fans which will still make a few quid/bucks/(enter your own country's currency here).

I own quite a few short story collections and I actively seek them out in second-hand bookshops. Maybe the short story is dead as a moneymaking literary form, but I doubt it will lie down and take it. Let’s face it, in 1992 it gave birth to a whole new form: flash fiction, at least in name. The 1997 translation of Thomas Bernhard’s, The Voice Imitator (albeit written in 1978), is a fine example – 104 stories in 104 pages – though you should also check out Margaret Atwood’s, Murder in the Dark, from 1994.

Neither, I’m afraid, has anything to top this gem by Richard Brautigan:

The Scarlatti Tilt

"It's very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who's learning to play the violin." That's what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver. (from The Revenge of the Lawn)

Fashions come and go. Poetry didn’t die with Byron. The Chinese poet Gu Cheng was being mobbed by fans at his readings in the 1980s. The same was true of Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. When he returned to Poland in 1981, he was mobbed by literally thousands of well-wishers, and a 150,000 volume run of his poems sold out almost overnight. And, of course, there’s Leonard Cohen – it’s easy to forget the fuss that was made over the young Canadian back in the sixties before he became even more famous for his song-writing.

Then again who would have believed a few years ago that films about pirates and very, very long books about wizards would sell, let alone rake in a profit? All we need is a figurehead, someone who can write and digs his or her heels in. One wonders how the short story would be viewed today if that’s all Ian McEwan had kept handing over to his agent?

Log on to, type in "short stories" and you’ll see that there are still loads of places out there still interested in the form. It’s not all about money.

Ping services