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Archive for the ‘observation’ Category

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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“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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Flighty

For now, I’m living alone in Edinburgh. There are a lot of observations to make about this style of living, the first of which is this:

I can’t seem to settle into one single task or pastime. When I’m watching a film, I wonder whether I should be reading a book instead. When I’m reading  a book, I realise I should maybe check my emails. When I’m checking my emails, watching a film seems like a good idea. It’s taken me all week to get two hours into Gone with the Wind. Seriously – I’m watching it in 20-minute chunks,and not on purpose.

This type of flightiness has always been part of me, but when I’m alone it’s magnified. I suppose this is because there’s no one else around to encourage me or motivate me to stick with just one thing. I’m sure I’ll calm down as time passes, and begin to just enjoy what I’m doing at the time.

Soon, I need to do some writing. And that’s one of the only things which can actually absorb me totally for hours.

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For me, the best writing identifies something absolutely true and right, but which I’d never realised before. When I read it, I think ‘Of course! I knew that. I always knew that.’

Some writers can highlight a fact you hadn’t previously consciously processed, but which always hovered on the edges of your consciousness. When you read their work, you feel like they’re showing you the whole world for the first time.

They’re not huge, life-changing theories, but tiny little observations and comparisons that I feel like I’ve known instinctively all my life, but which I’d never be able to coherently write down.

Does anyone know what I’m talking about? I can’t think of any examples right now, but as soon as I come across one I’ll write about it.

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