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Archive for March, 2013

Over Christmas, in the normal lazy Christmas traditions, I was lolling around in my pyjamas watching wonderful films and drinking excessive amounts of wine, as one does. About halfway through When Harry Met Sally, during the scene where Harry and Sally are singing ‘Surrey with a Fringe on Top’ into a karaoke machine, I had a minor revelation:

Nothing happens in a vacuum.

I am probably stating something really obvious, but if it’s obvious to others, it’s not something I’ve thought about extensively before. There’s the scene with the karaoke machine, when Harry bumps into his ex-wife and her new partner. The purpose of this scene is to show the audience that Harry isn’t over his ex-wife, and that he’s embarrassed to be seen with Sally in this situation.

This scene could have taken place at any time and in any place: Harry could have been walking down the street, alone, on any nondescript evening. But, no: he’s having  a great day with his best friend, and he’s doing something which is a lot of fun, until he sees himself through his ex’s eyes and shrivels up with embarrassment. What’s more, the sheer contrast between the mood at the beginning of the scene and at the end is striking.

The writers have put the characters in a situation which is doing as much work to push the story forward as possible: we learn so much about Harry’s feelings for Sally, his feelings for Helen (and Ira), and the friendship between Sally and Harry, all because the scene takes place within a situation which can draw out these revelations, and showing not telling the audience.

At no point does Harry need to say ‘Gosh, I feel so awkward that Helen has a new partner and I am still messing about on karaoke machines with my mates.’  He doesn’t need to say this because the audience see it perfectly, mainly because of the choices made by the writers.

I think that’s very clever, and I hope to use this little lesson in my writing. Any other examples you can think of?

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A friend of mine sent me a text today which read as follows:

“So your theme for the week is ‘_____’. I would like two brothers and a sister called J___, J____ and J____, everything happens in one afternoon and it cannot be more than two pages. How is that?”

And that, to me, sounds like quite a nice way to get back into the swing of writing. So I wrote a story based on those parameters, then I’ll send it back to him and he’ll respond to it in some way: maybe a song, or a poem, or a photograph. And perhaps we’ll carry on. It sounds like fun.

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“Do you fancy a pint?”

“Okay!”

“What are you doing tonight?”

“Not much, how come?”

The two exchanges above are typical for me. Particularly the “what are you doing tonight?” question. Frequently, I try to set aside time for writing. And equally frequently, when someone asks me what my plans are, my answer is “not much” or “nothing”, despite the fact that I set aside time for writing, or reading, or just sitting quietly on my own and watching a film.

Strangely, it often seems to me that saying “I’m busy” feels like a lie if my plans just revolve around me. If my plans revolve around another individual, I am a lot more likely to stick to them then if it’s just me who is getting railroaded if things change. It feels almost rude to say “Actually, I am busy. I was planning on staying in.” I worry that people hear “I’d rather do nothing than hang out with you,” or “I’m washing my hair.”

But equally, I have observed a common trait in a lot of successful writers: steel. I can’t find another way to put it. It’s in the eyes, just look at AL Kennedy:

Image

There’s a determination there, right?

A lot of writers seem to be able to lock themselves away, work hard, and, most importantly (for the purposes of this post), they’re probably quite able to say ‘no’. It’s not a harsh trait, and it’s certainly not a negative one, but it’s an ability to see your own needs and goals as just as important as those of someone else. It’s an awareness that you can say  no, and that ‘I’m busy’ is not a lie, even if ‘busy’ = pyjamas and ice cream straight out of the tub with a spoon (some of us have to do this as part of the creative process. Honest.)

There is also often a ferocious defence of space, alongside time: an awareness that he or she needs certain conditions in which to write best, and a dedication to maintaining that.

Being away in Belfast for a couple of months certainly taught me that staying in can be very very restorative and actually a lot of fun, and that you’re not necessarily ‘missing out’ if you don’t attend absolutely every possible social engagement.

Perhaps this steely determination doesn’t come naturally to me. It might be hard work. But also, maybe sometimes now I’ll feel like it’s OK to say no once in a while, and that being ‘busy’ can mean anything; it’s not a lie.

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I’ve just spent two months in a new city, where I knew no one except my lovely housemate and colleague, Julie.

My theory was as follows: that my social life in Edinburgh is an obstacle to my writing, and that if I transplant myself to another city where I know no one, I will write loads in the evenings and become uncharacteristically productive. I planned to edit the whole 60,000 diary monstrosity into a lighthearted, humourous and linear narrative worthy of submitting to agents, and I planned to do it all in six weeks in Belfast while continuing to work full-time in a bookshop.

Did that happen? No, of course not.

Here’s what actually happened: I cut down on drinking, stopped smoking, embarked on Jillian Michaels’ 30 Day Shred, waking up at 6.30am every morning to exercise before work, and going to bed at 10.30pm every night in an attempt to sleep for eight hours. I read lots of books, watched lots of films, and did A LOT of much-needed thinking.

I’ve returned to Edinburgh feeling a little bit clearer, and a little bit like my brain has been through a washing machine: it’s a bit battered, but it’s cleaner, too.

Most importantly, I’ve realised that it’s really hard to work full-time hours and write in your free time. I know many people do it, and they manage high levels of productivity and good quality writing. Yes, it’s possible. But it’s okay that maybe I find that tough. It doesn’t make me a terrible, feckless and hopeless writer. I don’t have to feel guilty or useless, I just have to accept that I’m going to have to face some obstacles, and maybe find a way of (job) working which can allow me to write a bit easier. And that’s OK.

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