Category Archives: Just Write

Riffs and variations on Abba, Dark Souls, charity shops, and bad analogies for grief

“It is not about Agnetha’s sexual awakening.”

“I didn’t say it was Agnetha…”

“Okay, then,” said Jen. “It is not about either Agnetha or Anna-Frid’s sexual awakening, no matter how much you might wish otherwise.”

“We’re just going to have to disagree,” replied Pete. “The whole song is one extended metaphor for learning about sex. All that stuff about being under a spell, finding new horizons, riding on the breeze. Spreading my wings. Spreading. C’mon, it’s not subtle.”

“Really? Learning about sex? It’s not that at all. It’s just Abba doing a 70s stoner anthem. Benny and Bjorn – probably Benny, he always looked like he liked a smoke – stayed up one night wired to the gills and wrote a song about soaring with the eagles. Maaaan. They even made the girls emphasise the ‘high’ in the chorus. You’re right that it’s not subtle but it’s about drugs, it’s not about sex.”

“You’ve got to view it in the context of their broader work,” said Pete.

“How so?”

“Name Of The Game. All that ‘I’m a bashful child, waiting to grow’ stuff. Does Your Mother Know. Possibly underage girl propositioning older man. Gimme Gimme Gimme. Frustrated, repressed desire. When I Kissed The Teacher. Do you need me to go on? They had loads of songs about young women being shepherded into womanhood with the help of an older man…”

“I don’t agree on Eagle but you’ve got a point about some of the others,” said Jen. “To be fair I don’t think you could release Does Your Mother Know now.”

“It hasn’t aged well. I know it was the 70s but…”

“Which one was your favourite?” interrupted Jen. “Agnetha or Anna-Frid?”

“Agnetha, obviously. Mostly for her voice. I barely noticed her blue eyes, blonde hair, or her perfect behind in those purple jump suits.”

“Now we’re getting to the bottom of your sexual awakening…”

“Boom and indeed tish. Very good,” acknowledged Pete. “She can’t lay claim to that though. I was too young. Maybe something stirred in my sub-conscious but it was really Jenny Agutter in American Werewolf In London that made me a man.”

“It was Simon Le Bon for me. Maybe Nick Rhodes. Maybe the thought of both of them together. Possibly on a yacht.”

“Easy tiger.”

“I was never the same after that ‘Wild Boys’ video,” said Jen.

“Georgie hated Duran Duran,” said Pete. There was a pause as there often was at mention of her name.

“Yeah, I know,” replied Jen. “After we first met it came up, I can’t really remember how but I presume we were drunk. She said she hated them but I used to put on ‘Planet Earth’ sometimes when we came home from the pub when we lived together and she knew all the words. I think it was like me pretending to hate house when she got into that.”

“I’ve still got all of her records, back from when she was DJ’ing a bit, a load of limited edition, white label, 12 inches that I don’t recognise. They’re with all her stuff. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it.”

“I think I can understand that. I don’t think she’d have wanted them to stay unplayed though. She always loved it when she could fill the floor and she wasn’t too snobby about what she played to do it, Duran Duran notwithstanding. In fact, speaking of Abba, didn’t she used to occasionally slip Mamma Mia in? Said it used to tip the night into a mess – place would go insane or everyone would go to the bar but either way it ended up in a mess,” said Jen.

“Yeah, she did. Maybe you’re right, maybe I should get rid of her records at least. She’d want someone to be making a mess with them if they could. Where’d you get shot of stuff like that though?”

“Charity shop?”

“Not much chance round here anymore, they’re hardly ever open to taking things now,” said Pete. “I think people were just dumping stuff off on them all the time. It was like middle class fly tipping: great piles of Dan Brown books, Fifty Shades Of Grey, three quarter size guitars that little Harry didn’t take to after all, Friends boxsets on VHS, twice worn tuxedos that used to fit, and stacks and stacks of CDs long since replaced by Spotify playlists.”

“I guess you could trek over to Notting Hill, see if the Record & Tape Exchange would take them?” suggested Jen.

“That would involve leaving the house and visiting a place we used to go to together. It’s been three years and I still don’t know if I’m ready for that. Every time it feels like it’s getting a little easier I trip over something and I’m right back where I started.”

“Two steps forwards and one step back?” offered Jen.

“It feels more like one step forwards and two steps back most of the time,” said Pete.

“Sorry, I guess it was the wrong expression.”

“It’s okay. There’s no way to get it right in words,” said Pete. “I think I’m going to write a book called ‘Bad Analogies For Grief’. I’ve been collecting them. The ones people offer by way of condolence, the ones you pick up in counselling, the ones you come up with yourself. There’s no proper way to express how overwhelming it is so you come at it from an angle, think you can pin it down and force it to make sense if you can put it into some sort of words… Want to hear my latest one?”. Jen didn’t fill the pause and so Pete continued. “I was pulling a glass down from a cupboard last week and it slipped, fell, and broke on the floor. Pieces everywhere. And the first thing you do after it happens is that you don’t move, because if you move you’re probably going to get cut. You freeze. And then you notice the big pieces. So you pick those up first because you know they’re going to hurt like hell if you step on them. But broken glass is hard to handle and even when you see a piece that looks like it broke clean it’ll sometimes surprise you with a sharp point and the more you pick up the more you start to notice that there are fragments everywhere, small diamond slivers scattered across the kitchen floor. And then you remember it’s the kitchen floor you both used to walk barefoot across in the morning. And you remember something stupid like making coffee and toast and taking it back upstairs to read the papers under the duvet on a Sunday morning. And then, as you’re remembering, you stand on a piece of glass you hadn’t noticed and the shock of it, the pain, makes you step again without looking and before you know where you are you’ve stepped into more and more unseen pieces. Each one a tiny broken fragment of the perfect, whole thing that you remembered. Just the smallest splinter, the tiniest memory, is enough to start it. Enough to bring you back to a halt.” It had come in a rush, Pete’s words tumbling over themselves. Neither spoke until Pete finally concluded. “That’s my latest one. My new analogy. The breaking glass one.”

“God, Pete, you know I don’t know what to say,” offered Jen apologetically. “I guess I’m supposed to say that eventually you sweep up most of the pieces?”

“Yes, you are,” said Pete. “Only grief doesn’t work like that. It’s like there’s a new glass dropping on the floor every single day. Maybe you’re supposed to say that eventually you go a day when a glass doesn’t drop. All I know is that I haven’t had one of those yet.”

“But you will.”

“But I might. That’s my best guess. Right now I think I’m getting a little better at spotting the shards even if I can’t stop the glass falling,” said Pete. “I guess I need to git gud.”

“You need to what?”

“Oh, sorry.” Pete laughed. Some of the tension on the line dissolved, eased. “It’s from Dark Souls. Video game I’ve been playing a lot instead of having to interact in the real world. It’s a really hard RPG where you die over and over again and when you get stuck and look up advice online people tell you that there’s no short cut to it, just that you have to git gud…”

“Get good?”

“Yeah. But spelled g i t and then g u d.”

“Why don’t they say ‘get good’, then?” asked Jen. “What’s with the ‘git gud’ thing? Doesn’t sound very nice either way.”

“I don’t know where it came from,” said Pete. “Gamers with too much time on their hands. The funny thing is that it doesn’t sound very nice but there’s a weird kind of community in the game. If you get really stuck you can ask other people to come into your game and help you out – online obviously, you don’t literally invite them into your house or anything.”

“There you go. That’s a ready made metaphor or analogy if I ever heard one. You need to add a chapter to your book – maybe a post script – about ‘Bad Analogies for Help With Grief’.”

“People helping? I hadn’t really thought of it that way but I guess you’re right. There have been moments, stupid as it sounds, when some random character popping up in my game and getting me past some impossible boss fight has been the highlight of my day.”

“I like the sound of this game,” said Jen. “I thought all those online things were just people trying to shoot each other and shouting abuse about getting owned.”

“I feel bad for spoiling it for you and wrecking the metaphor but people can invade your game in Dark Souls and just randomly attack you too. It’s all a bit arbitrary and chaotic.”

“Like I said. It’s a ready made metaphor. Analogies aside, Pete, are you alright?”

There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same exchange before the line went dead.

“This is just like Dark Souls, Jen. Repeating the same thing over and over again until you’re strong enough to move on. No. I’m not alright. Not today. I need to level up. But ask me again tomorrow. What about you ?”

“No. Me neither Pete. But ask me too.”

 

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The needle and the damage done

I can find my old scars easily enough, trace my way to the points where I used to break my skin, catch a vein. Places, mainly, that wouldn’t show. I was fussy about that, especially to start with when it was all just supposed to be a temporary diversion whilst my dealer sorted out his supply of coke again. I liked coke the way Stevie Nicks liked coke. It was precise and clean and cut through all the distraction in my head until there was just me, pin sharp in the room. I liked that it felt like I was the center of every party I went to, even as the invitations slowly ran dry. Fuck ‘em. Seattle wasn’t really a party town by then anyway. Anyone with six strings, bad complexion, and a story about their abusive childhood had hitched their wagon south and headed for LA to swim in the shallow end of fame with the remnants of a hair metal scene they claimed to despise, other wannabe plaid shirted grungers, and an endless stream of film makers pitching something, anything, to get noticed. Yeah, it’s like Pulp Fiction meets Romeo & Juliet. The Luhrmann version. Edgy. It’s for Generation X and alienated kids from the suburbs. It’s got something to say. Well, guess what Seattle? I had a whole lot to say back then if you’d all stuck around to listen. Coke’ll do that to you.

Between my toes now there’s spiders’ webs of scars, spun by the most seductive spider you ever saw. They made me write stuff like that in rehab. Acknowledge what it was about the drug that made you try it in the first place. It was kinda confusing with half the facility getting me to ’embrace the dark beauty’ and the other half calling it junk and showing me pictures of the night the paramedics pummeled my heart back to beating, Johnny nodded out on the sofa next to me, a film of crusting vomit leaking down my cheek into my hair. Apparently they were so sure I was dead that they took the pictures to preserve it as a crime scene; Johnny got seven years and I got kick-started back to life. Yeah, it was like Pulp Fiction meets Pulp Fiction. The Tarantino version. Edgy. I was nobody’s idea of Uma Thurman but Johnny was sure no one’s idea of Travolta either. Not even old Travolta when Quentin dusted him down and made him cool again. It’d be neat and tidy at this point to say that rehab dusted me down and made me cool again but life’s not that neat and tidy. And besides, I’m with Neil Young on this one: every junkie’s like a setting sun.

I spent a long time in rehab and I spent it in California so I know I can lapse into a particularly vacuous form of West Coast therapy-speak. The younger me – and, hey, we spent a lot of time together in therapy, me and younger me – would have hated it. But then the younger me would never have figured that she’d end up smacked out on her back chowing down on her own spew with a syringe jammed into her arm because she’d given up the vanity of shooting up between her toes for some easier access thrills. The only thing she’d have recognised would have been the tourniquet: a pale purple satin scarf that she used to wear tied loosely round a wrist. Stevie would never accessorise like that, I liked to imagine her saying to me. No, dearest, but Stevie could afford to stay on the coke and I couldn’t afford to leave Johnny: so when he ran out, I took whatever else he had.

The root of it was in leaving England. It’s funny because I was only there for maybe six months, seven months, but it was the most settled I felt in my life. I knew none of us was ever the same after mom died and I think in some ways I knew as well that dad kept moving us because he couldn’t keep still. That if he kept still then everything he was running from would catch him up, pin him down, and force him to face into all that loss and grief. I think I was ready to stand still when we moved. Maybe it was shifting country but it felt different to the other High School hops that marked my teenage years: your formative years were characterized by a permanent sense of displacement as my therapist put it, snappy as ever. I didn’t fit in but I didn’t fit in anywhere else either so that didn’t bother me. I even got close to someone towards the end. Sure, it was my weird kind of close where I’d sit for hours on end explaining why Heathers kicked Dead Poet Society’s ass and you’d nod uncertainly because you really related to Ethan Hawke’s character, the one who killed himself, but you didn’t want to say anything in case it set me off on another rant. That kind of close. Yeah, I guess it was like Heathers meets Dead Poet’s Society. The one where I was Veronica and you were that wan faced, floppy fringed sensitive Ethan Hawke dude. Edgy. You used to say I looked a bit like Wynona Ryder. I think that was the nicest thing anyone ever said to me. Shame about all that stuff with the shop lifting later in her life but I guess we all make bad choices sometimes.

You just used to listen, that was it, really. Johnny never listened unless it was an order for more drugs or an offer for more sex. Or both in what became our dirty little form of barter. I thought they all listened when I was holding court, saucer eyed on blow, laughing all the way to the emergency room. They weren’t laughing with me. But you used to and I don’t think I realized how important that was. Someone who’d listen and someone who’d laugh.

 

Cellar door

Mark had run to catch up with the others, held back by Hobson over some minor imperfection in his trigonometry workings. He didn’t want to miss his bus and, more importantly, she might be at the stop. He definitely didn’t want to miss that. He slowed to the rest of the group’s walking pace as he came up behind them.

“That’s what she said, I’m not making it up.” It was Cooks – Jason Cooks but just Cooks to his friends – spreading his arms in sincerity.

“Seriously ? It’s that easy ?” said one of the others.

“What ? What are you talking about ?” asked Mark, still slightly out of breath.

“Cooksey’s sister. Apparently they’ve been doing something in English that’s got the ladies of St Benedict’s all excited.” This was Johnson – David to his Mum but Johnson in present company. St Benedict’s was the local girl’s school: a place that was equal parts magical, mysterious, and terrifying for Mark’s friends

“So ? I don’t get it ?”

“Exactly, you don’t and never have. But this just might mean that one day you do.” The others laughed. Mark continued to look confused.

“I mean that they get really – really – excited”. Johnson raised his eyebrows meaningfully. Mark shrugged. “Jesus, Marky boy, I mean more excited than when they had that supply teacher who’d done that modeling for Topman.”

“Ah, right…” a kind of comprehension dawned on Mark’s face. “So what’s got them all worked up then ?”

“Phono something” started Johnson. “Phono… what was it again Cooksey ?”

“Phonoaesthetics” declared Cooks, looking pleased that he’d remembered it. “They do it for A level but the 5th formers won’t know about it yet”. On this point he looked particularly pleased.

“Yeah but what is it ?”

“From what she told me it’s something to do with the sound of words” said Cooks. “But the important bit is that some words, apparently, sound so beautiful that they’re almost hypnotic. Especially when you’re, you know…”

“You know what ?” said Mark.

“When you’re chatting to girls” said Cooks. “I’m telling you, like I told the others, it’s what she said. She reckons some of the girls were practically in a trance when they heard them”.

“What words then ?” asked Mark. “The only sound I can hear right now is the sound of bullshit”.

“What do you mean ?” said Cooks defensively.

“What words give you these Jedi powers over girls ?”

“Well not Jedi for a start mate. Don’t start talking about Star Wars. No wonder you never get anywhere.”

“No, no, I know that.” Mark looked away, less sure again. “But come on then, let me in on it. What words ?”

Cooks smirked, his authority restored. “She gave me one phrase that I think sounds pretty good.” He paused until he was sure he had everyone’s full attention. “Cellar door…”. It hung there whilst everyone contemplated it.

“Selador ? What does that even mean ?” asked Johnson.

“Cellar door.” corrected Cooks. “You know, the door to a cellar.”

Everyone stopped and looked at Cooks. His great reveal was met with a mixture of derision and disbelief. “I know, I know” he said, trying to pacify them. “It sounds ridiculous but it’s true. This phonoaesthetics isn’t about what the words mean, just what they sound like.”

“Phono arse pathetic more like” said Johnson.

“Don’t believe it if you don’t want to” protested Cooks. “It works though. I’m definitely going to try it.” He suddenly looked conspiratorially at Mark. “Maybe I’ll use it at my sister’s party at the weekend. She knows that Caroline Jenkins. I bet she’s coming. She’s in the 5th year so she won’t know about it yet.”

“Don’t do that Cooksey” said Mark. “You know I like her.”

“Well do something about it then. I can’t have this secret weapon and not use it now, can I ?”

“I will, I will” said Mark.

“Ask her now or I’m using cellar door on her” said Cooks abruptly. The others were interested now, waiting to see what Mark would do. “I’m giving you first go Mark – you can even use the killer phrase if you want.”

Mark took a deep breath in and rubbed nervously at the back of his head. “Alright” he declared. “Alright. I’ll do it. I’m going now.”

They’d all started walking again and as they approached the bus stop a group of girls, uniforms emblazoned with the crest of St Benedict’s, noticed them and began whispering to each other. One of them turned from her friends and acknowledged the boys.

“Alright little brother.”

Cooks grinned cockily. “Less of the little. Just been telling the boys about that thing you did in English.”

“Oh really ?” his sister smiled back before briefly turning back to her friends who were all struggling to suppress giggles.

“Yeah” said Cooks, slightly less certainly. “In fact Mark’s gone to try it out right now on Caroline Jenkins.” He nodded his head towards a figure that was now marching with grim determination towards a pretty girl stood with her friends at the next bus stop along. “He’s been wanting to ask her out for ages.”

The older girls couldn’t contain it anymore and burst into hysterical peals of laughter. “He’s not going to use cellar door is he ?” asked Cooks’ sister.

“Yeah. Like you said. The most beautiful phrase in the English language. So beautiful it made you all…”

“Made us all quite giddy with excitement” she finished for him. “Practically unable to control ourselves. Ready to do whatever anyone asked”. She span around in delight. “That was it little brother, wasn’t it ?”

“Something like that” muttered Cooks. “What’s so funny ?”. He looked anxiously over at his friend who had now reached the object of his affections and had begun talking. Caroline Jenkins didn’t look like she was in a trance. She looked slightly scared. Cooks didn’t have much experience in this sort of thing but he was pretty sure scared wasn’t a good sign.

“Turns out I had it wrong” said his sister. “Turns out the most beautiful word in the English language is something different.” With a flourish she turned back to her friends. “What was it again girls ?”

“Gullible” they chorused together.

 

……

This is the fourth story in my series of 42 shorts that I’m writing to raise money and awareness for Mind, the mental health charity. Please share if you liked it. If you’re interested in donating to a great cause then please visit my fundraising page: https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/

My 10 rules for writing

It was the last class of my local writing group on Monday, a long break for the summer until we reconvene in September. I’ll mop up a couple of loose ends later in the week but, for now, here’s my homework from the previous week. The brief was “10 excuses for not doing your homework” which I altered a bit, inspired by the memory of a corporate, motivational, change-your-life style speaker I saw last year at a work event (guy called Jim Lawless who has a book out called “10 rules for Taming Tigers”). That day is a story for another time…

So here, not entirely seriously, are 10 rules for doing your writing homework. The only other things you might need to know are that Sally is the name of the person that keeps our motley crew in good order and leggy blondes are a standing, group in-joke.

  1. Write it. Just write it. Scribbled on a napkin, scrawled in a book, typed neatly on a page – it doesn’t matter. Just put words down on some kind of page in some kind of order. Grammar is optional. Spelling is for spell checkers. Write.
  2. Ignore the instructions. Sally won’t mind. If no inspiration comes based on the instructions then ignore them in deference to rule 1.
  3. Don’t count words. Make words count.
  4. Take inspiration from wherever you can. Sometimes this may involve stealing stuff and making it your own. I must have stolen number 3.
  5. Don’t measure the worth of your work against other people’s. You’re probably not going to write “Hamlet” but then Shakespeare might not have done either. Marlowe always seemed quite plausible to me.
  6. If you get stuck just write something else. Edit later. Research later (or possibly earlier). They’re different things.
  7. A leggy blonde will always help any story. And so will the marvelous people at your local writing group.
  8. No one can really tell you exactly how to do it. Whilst this may seem disheartening it also means no one can really tell you that you’re doing it wrong.
  9. You’ll probably be your own harshest critic. Let someone else read what you write and you might be pleasantly surprised. If you’re not pleasantly surprised then defer to rule 8 and ignore them.
  10. Ten rules seems overly complicated for what is essentially a process of making stuff up and writing it down. So ignore all of this. Except the first one. Write.

The moon and shadow

Just Write (belated catchup): June 9th

I have been somewhat slack in typing up any and all output from recent writing group classes so back to the meeting from the 9th. We spun together a story based on a three stage trigger – a set of three top-of-mind nouns, an imagined landscape, and a character we’d never really thought about before. So, here’s what came of that:

……

Lana jumped on the the back of the mech-bus as it began to move, her umbrella pulling itself shut automatically behind her. She didn’t much notice as the mirco evaporators briefly flared, harvesting and stray water molecules from the umbrella’s surface. Damn pilots she thought. Since they put through that AI upgrade you might as well forget the timetables. Behaving like those real drivers she’d read about from the past, coming and going as they pleased.

She sat. It was only five minutes to the University but she’d been out in that downpour for a while and the seats had the same tech as her umbrella. Weather was getting worse. More extreme even here. God knows how people coped near the equator now, those that were left anyway.

The windows facing her were all running ads. She realised that she’d forgotten to turn her pers-com to private and her presence had been registered. A sequence of commercials tailored to her began to run, isolated on the window in front of her. A set of texts for her study to be sent direct to her personal logs. A bag that matched her umbrella. So far, so predictable she thought, remembering why she ordinarily held her settings as private. Then the window filled with a desolate, grey expanse of rock. A voice: “ever think of starting again ?”. You’re not selling this, she thought. The shot panned to a solitary footprint in the dust, then up and away from the print to an American flag, firmly planted in the ground. With a start she realised this place to start again wasn’t here. It was the moon. They were trailing the colony program again. But why her ? She knew, or thought she knew, enough about the algorithms in the ads that tailored content and messages to individuals. Why did they think she would want to go there ?

……

In case you’re wondering my three nouns were umbrella, bus and University. I had intended to write about the moon but it somehow turned into a pre colonisation story (or the start of one at least). I enjoyed putting it together in the class and could have quite happily spent much longer in 2100 or thereabouts although I’m not sure there’s much new in the final result. Anyway, homework was a stripped back version of the exercise in the class in that each of us gave the person to our left a single word as the trigger for a story. Mine was “shadow” which resulted in this:

……

“Your father lives in shadow.”

“But he lives ?”

The question echoed around the chamber, bouncing back from unfurnished stone. The tomb was cool and still, the question remaining unanswered by the dead. Varane asked it again of the living.

“He lives ?”

“Aye, he lives boy. If dwelling in the shadow can be called living.”

Varane turned. Only Zamar would dare address him as boy, especially in this place amongst generations of his line. Zamar met the boy’s questioning look, narrowed his eyes as if silently appraising him, before speaking again more softly.

“When a man crosses to the shadow Varane he is lost to us. None has ever been reached, none returned. He may dwell there a day, a week, a year – your father is a strong man – but eventually we will lay him here.”

As Zamar spoke Varane paced the tomb, every couple of strides taking him past another generation, names from the past, names and deeds he’d been learning since he could read. He paused at the far end of the room and brushed dust from a name etched into the largest and oldest stone coffin: Ombrager. He lowered his head and whispered:

“How many ?”

“My liege ?” asked Zamar.

Varane lifted his head but did not turn. “How many Zamar ? How many of them…” he raised his arm gesturing at the row of coffins. “How many of them were lost to shadow ?”

“Varane…” began Zamar advancing towards the boy. “It is not yet time to know. You are still so young my liege.” There was a note of kindness in his voice.

“Not time ?” Now Varane did turn. “Not time ? My father lives in shadow and it is not time ?” He strode towards the older man jabbing a finger accusingly. “It is past time Zamar. For all you call me boy it is well past time. Ten generations lie here. How many Zamar ? How many were lost to it ?”

Zamar didn’t move and the two stood face to face in the middle of the chamber, neither breaking the other’s gaze.

“Ten my liege” he said flatly.

Momentarily Varane’s eyes betrayed his shock; a flicker that spoke of incomprehension and a touch of fear. Just as quickly it was gone and Zamar could discern nothing in his grey eyes beyond implacable resolve.

“All of them. Every Ombrager Varane. Some young, some old but all lost to shadow.”

“And none ever reached ?” asked Varane.

“None” replied Zamar gently. “No man passing to shadow has returned.”

Abruptly both men looked back up the tomb, the door had been shoved open and a slight figure stood silhouetted in its frame, light streaming around it. The figure stepped forwards into the tomb, planted hands on hips and grinned.

“Zamar has you right brother” she said. “No man has lived in shadow and returned. But I have.”

“Aurore ? Is that really you ? How… how can this be ?” Varane stepped tentatively towards his sister.

“It’s me little brother” she said. “I lived in shadow and I have returned.”

……

I may return to this (although that would entail working out actually what the hell the shadow is beyond some vague allegorical ideas) as I quite like it. I would change the names as the first couple were nicked from the French football team as I was watching them play in the World Cup at the same time as writing… the latter ones (Ombrager, Aurore) had more of a point relevant to events when translated. Sacre bleu. 

Dear diary…

Just Write 19th May: Diary

It’s impossible for me to write the words “dear diary” without it calling to mind “Heathers” which remains one of my all time favourite movies. So many brilliant lines (the clip above has at least two belters in 90 seconds – “are we going to prom or to hell ?”, “my teen angst bullshit has a body count”) and wickedly funny. However, this post has nothing to do with “Heathers” other than the fact that my writing class this week was concerned with diary entries as a potential route in to creative writing.

Starting with the homework from the previous class… We were tasked with keeping a diary for the week but I didn’t do that, or didn’t do that quite as briefed. Inspired by the session on first lines from a fortnight ago I decided to just do an opening line for each day. This in no way reflected the fact that I had left the whole thing until an hour before the class began. No way. Don’t dare insinuate as such… Here ’tis:

Tue 13

I’ve kept a diary since I was 13 and know days that aren’t worth recording: today is one of them.

Wed 14

My new boss fixed me with another stare and leaned in close: “I was a combat soldier for 10 years so I’ve seen people struggle with similar things”.

Thurs 15

“The bomb disposal team are now investigating the car” intoned the voice over the tannoy as we descended another flight of stairs, walking past a sign that ominously declared: “no refuge beyond this point”.

Fri 16

A lovely surprise as one of the bands I had blogged about shares my post on their Facebook page and my blog stats go berserk. (By berserk I mean I get about 200 views in the week which qualifies as berserk relative to my usual stats.)

Sat 17

It doesn’t matter how long I’ve lived here, riding up The Mall in the back of a black cab, watching Buckingham Palace recede through the rear window, still feels magical: like the opening credits to your own movie, the script as yet unwritten.

Sun 18

Nikki is claiming she will never drink again; I am silently congratulating myself on ducking the cocktails in favour of a humble beer.

Mon 19

Decide to start my homework two hours before it’s due which, if a diary is supposed to be an insight into character, is a pretty telling insight. Spend some time debating with myself whether it’s technically cheating to just write first lines for each day in a cunning attempt to splice together the task with something we were doing in the last session. Spend so much time debating it that a first line becomes as much as is realistic in the remaining hour.

I actually thought this worked out pretty well although it helped that some genuinely interesting things happened to me in the week – notably being evacuated to the sub vault of the Bank of England during a bomb scare. Perhaps I should try a one line diary over a longer period of time.

The class itself was a really enjoyable one with a nice mix of character profiling and some subsequent writing based, in part, on the diary idea. The character profiling involved writing up some basic details that we associated with a couple of random selected photographs: name, age, significant others, enemies, current problem etc. In so doing myself and my partner for the exercise came up with a slightly convoluted story about two Americans – Dr Chuck Brody and Charlie Wright and Chuck’s struggle to be honest about his sexuality. It wasn’t entirely serious and wound up a bit like an episode from “Days Of Our Lives”, the soap that Joey from Friends stars in as Dr Drake Ramoray. Anyway, part one of the exercise was a diary entry from, in this case, Dr Brody, about one of three scenarios we were given – in our case, fortunately, one of them was “having an affair” as we’d already made that part of the story up in developing the characters ! Part two was supposed to be more of a show-don’t-tell piece of prose just after the moment at which the affair had become known to both parties. Make of it what you will:

Trouble again today, I can’t keep this from Charlie for much longer. Met up with Milton as planned, the usual pretext for Charlie – we’re just catching a game of tennis after work. Went to that new place down town, La Scala. Figured she wouldn’t know, besides I think she was trying to sort things out with Grace tonight. But Leyton was there. Man what are the chances ? He saw us. We spoke for chrissakes, I made something up about double booking the court but did he see how close we were ? It’s not so strange, two guys catching a bite to eat and Leyton’s met Milton before so why am I freaking out ? It’ll break her, this on top of the custody battle. What was that joke she keeps making ? You’re number two Chuck, this has gotta work out – I can’t be a divorce lawyer with two divorces on my watch.

……

Leyton called the waiter over to get the cheque and then froze, fingers raised in the air. It was Chuck and Charlie. He was about to turn his raised fingers into a wave to attract their attention but hesitated. Charlie had quickly taken her seat leaving Chuck standing, a puzzled look on his face. She had already picked up a menu, raised in front of her face like a shield. Chuck sat down opposite her and studied the table in silence. Hadn’t he seen Chuck in here last week ? With that guy ? Milton. That was him. They’d been sat together, maybe poring over some documents he guessed, shuffled up close so they could both see. He’d said hello but they’d seemed offhand and Chuck had dashed off. Strange he was back so soon, he must have rated this place. Charlie was still buried in her menu but, briefly, it lowered as she let it slip from her fingers. It was hard to tell across the room but Leyton could’ve sworn she was crying.

As mentioned it all came out far soapier than planned. I think we’d set up a comedy (even with daft name gags – Milton Keynes and Leyton Buzzard) which I then didn’t really commit to in what I ended up writing so it sort of fell somewhere between a not very funny farce and a not very convincing drama. Ho hum. Lessons learned… and I guess that’s the point.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Just Write, Monday 5th May: First lines.

I have been a little remiss in posting updates following the last couple of writing class sessions so I’ll try to redress over this post and next to cover the 5th and 19th (we didn’t meet on the 12th). As my first line suggests we spent some time a fortnight ago covering, ahem, first lines. From a relatively straightforward prompt – man and woman meeting for the first time – I had:

She only realised she was still alive as he pulled her dead husband off her.

“I can’t believe it meant that little to you. It’s me, Sophie !”

“Hi, are you Michaela ? Thanks for filling in – I usually throw the knives from here but just relax, I’ll let you know where to stand”

Notably none of them will be troubling this post’s title as killer openings (typing this up I note that I’d scribbled “it is a truth universally acknowledged…” in the margin of my notebook, possibly as inspiration, possibly as an ironic nod to the limits of my efforts). However, I don’t entirely hate the slightly gloomy first one and the last one works alright in a light, knockabout way.

The main exercise expanded from a prescribed first line and, as usual, involved a quick five minutes of free writing. Opener was “why did you do that ?”

“Why did you do that ?”

“I don’t know.” I was pleading now, an urgent catch in my voice. My head was swimming and I tried to slow everything down, tried to make sense of it all.

“Come on !” he barked. He’d been growing ever more impatient, striding around the small holding cell, and now he leaned in close. “You must know Mr Reynolds. You do know.”

Silence hung between us. He didn’t move away and I held his gaze for fear that to look away might hint at guilt, might give him further cause to doubt me. Eventually he strode back across the room, his back to me.

“You withdrew £200 Mr Reynolds, on each of your three cards. Yesterday we have a witness statement that says you bought a new mobile phone but you were still in contract on your old one. You erased the contents of your hard drive.”

“I just don’t know…” I trailed off.

“And today, Mr Reynolds, we pulled your wife out of the Manchester canal. So I ask again: why did you do that ?”

I am tending to find that I’m producing work outside of the class – either as part of the homework or unrelated – that I’m more satisfied with and this wasn’t an exception. I like the discipline of being thrown a start point and having to produce something but it’s rare that it produces anything I’d necessarily keep. In this instance I was reasonably happy with the mood of the scene and the premise was okay (man genuinely not aware of what he may or may not have done despite large body of evidence against him) if not especially original. I suspect, however, that a terse, tight thriller is not going to be my calling…