The pub quiz

Image-1 (1)

Time for an excerpt from one of this week’s works. While Nick Cave’s been helping out with my ghost story, this other tale I’ve been writing might better be accompanied by Pulp.

I’ve got a love-hate relationship with quiz nights. I think there’s a certain irresponsibility in summoning armchair-experts into a nice warm boozer, and then plying them with alcohol. The atmosphere can border on grisly by the end of round seven, so what better place to set a simple story of inspiration and hope?

This is just the first few paragraphs from “The Pub Quiz”, a work in progress. It introduces our protagonist, Gavin, as he waits for his night to begin. It stops before we’re introduced to the woman who will force him to challenge his ideas of himself.

 

The Pub Quiz (extract from first draft)

The usual suspects mill the crowded floor-space between bar and tables, sending last minute texts. Celia and George Heffer, secondary school teachers, specialist subject: The price that terrible home at number 53 sold for. The noisy crew from the engineering firm down Crow’s End, specialist subject: Answers for laughs, not for points. Charles “Fisty” Cuffs, who works as a barrister in London, but unfathomably makes the journey back each Wednesday to take part in the Red Lion’s Quiz Night, specialist subjects (equally unfathomably): Daytime soaps and 80s hair metal.

Gavin shakes his head, sips ineffectually at his pint, and glances at his own phone. None of his team’s arrived yet. If he ducks out for a piss or pint now, it’s gone, draped jacket or no draped jacket. Besides, there’s a quantifiable time period for which one can hold an entire table when a pub’s this fucking busy. A time period which is very nearly up. He taps his mobile rhythmically against the table, avoiding looking any of the wandering pairs and threes in the eye.

Finally he spots a familiar couple up at the bar, craning their necks. The Moncrieffs. Mary the librarian, Mark the one-time BBC Sports Commentator. quiz team from heaven, marriage from hell. He waves them over, trying to engineer things so that Mary takes the seat nearest. But she’s passing the big man her glass, shuffling off in the direction of the toilets. Cunt-stubble. Mark takes the stool beside him, the scrape of wooden legs on slate tiles smothering Gavin’s poorly suppressed sigh.

“Alan texted, he’ll be late, something about the Ring Road” Mark announces, setting glasses to table with loud clunks. Gavin dips his head in greeting, which Mark appears to take as concurrence.

“Poor planning. No excuse for it” Mark continues. He raises his pint, gulps back a mouthful of bitter, eyebrows raised, waiting for a verbal response.

Gavin wants to shrug, but Mark doesn’t like fence-sitting, or neutrality. Or the Swiss. Or Pakistanis. Or pillow biters, The Irish, welterweight boxers. So Gavin grunts out something that might be agreeance, and then floats a diversionary tactic.

“New grandstand’s coming along” he says, tilting his head toward the South end of town. The terraced end. The money end.

Mark draws a low, slow breath, the sound of a lit fuse in a gassy shitter. Gavin cringes inwardly, remembering the construction has meant a single lane down the Moncrieff’s street for the past week. And dust. And unobjectionable loitering by shovel-wielding clusters of working class. Fuckfuckfuck…

There’s a loud, muffled tapping sound above the hum of the crowd, and Gavin hears Mark’s breath being released over the head of his pint. Saved by the quizmaster.

[To be continued]

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What do you think? Any feedback gratefully received.

Later this week I’ll catch you up on how the first 14 days have gone.

 

x Regan

 

 

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The Haunting

Haunting

Week two is about atmosphere, about mood.

I want to complete first drafts of two short stories this week. The first is meant to be a dark, melancholy story, but it is set on a beautiful if remote New Zealand beach. The second is a buoyant stale of hope and charity, but it is set in a dark, dank English pub. So how do I haunt the golden, sandy seaside, and let the light shine amongst horse brasses and shuttered windows?

I woke early and went for a walk in the earth’s shadow yesterday. As I moved through desolate streets, between darkened homes, I let Nick Cave set the mood. He sang to me about summoning the unfortunates of the world, and I imagined spirits trailing me in the dark woods, old men of dark deed watching me from the low fields. My pace quickened.

Mr Cave’s a master of evocation, this week he’s going to be my muse. I’m going to start with his song lyrics, and see what they reveal. I think he’s also worked on screenplays, maybe written a book or two? I’m sure amongst all the slow piano and gravelly murder ballads I’ll find a few moments of levity…

So by the end of this week, I will have two roughly written tales, each around 2500-3000 words. I’ll also be looking for people to read some of these shorter pieces, and offer feedback, so message me if you’re interested.

Ok, time to research whaling stations, Nordic ghost stories and companies who create pub quizzes.

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Beneath the fold: What’s in a name?

One of the first issues I encountered while writing a first draft of my manuscript, was naming my characters. I searched baby name lists for hours, and I began to realise what a huge descriptor a name can be. Who’s more likely to cover up a murder, Tom or Ash? Is Celeste going to be the wicked step-mother, or Griselda?

By the end of last week, I had a list of 17 short story ideas. That’s a lot of names. So I went for a walk in the local cemetery for inspiration. I roved between stones seeking ideas, and trying to avoid an old woman adding new flowers to old memories.

Amongst the Corona and Jim Beam bottles filled with flower stems (hello small town New Zealand…) I found elaborate names, solid names, even vampire names. Lorna and Charles Pompey. Thomas Hossack. Victor Hamilton-Hyde. But in general I found that the fields of the dead in a very young country, are very, very localised. Fine if I want to set my story in rural New Zealand in the 1960s. Not so much for labelling Viking chieftains.

So the hunt continues. Someone on Reddit mentioned looking at the Immigration and Emigration lists from the countries you’re interested in. Another suggested war memorial sites, lists of the dead. Morbid, yet interesting…

 

 

Sounding the drums

Colour writing

It was half day through day one that I felt a ripple of relaxation shift through me. When the same thing happened the next day, I understood its source. I had given myself permission to write.

This three months of creative productivity  wasn’t an easy thing to commit to. It has meant dropping out of full-time work, and a consequential drop in my income. I’m not money-focused, so the numbers aren’t important. But I place a huge value on harvesting experiences, some of which consume cash. Particularly the ones where I board a plane with a belly full of anticipation, and a thousand dollar ticket.

And of course I have bills to pay, a share in both a forest and a house truck to pay off. So I’m working in an office two days a week to cover all of this. And coffee. But parts of me have had to be put on hold.

I live in a country which is not given to celebrating the arts. Our statues are rarely of philosophers, or novelists, or painters. The result of this is that patrons are few, novelists are rare, and “suffering” for your desire to create isn’t generally understood. And so the decision to simply write takes a combination of self belief, considerate friends, and a supremely understanding partner.

So as much of a thrill it has been to let my imagination draw me forward, I have also had to plan to make my writing a business. It’s a confronting realisation. As much as this 88 days is going to be about generating stories, it is going to have to equally be about self-promotion. I don’t have an agent, nor a publisher. I don’t yet have a track record of works printed in The New Yorker, or Granta. I need to earn my own reputation.

Writing is a quiet pursuit. Me, a keyboard or notepad. Maybe birdsong, or Lorde’s new album on a lower volume than it deserves. The world has no audible or visual clue idea that I’m unfurling scenery, painting characters, summoning mythology. For all they can see, my brow might simply be furrowing in lieu of Tinder responses.

When you practice with your heavy-grunge band, the world is alerted. A couple of beers, a wall of amps, and the wail of feedback, there’s no denying your output. When I painted murals around walls, an audience was assured, commentary was inevitable. But my words threaten to lie cold within the cage of my laptop. Colourless without a mind to project them, silent without a consciousness to voice them.

I heard a wonderful quote this week, though I failed to make note of the origin. Or the exact words. But it was something like “what a joy it is to remain hidden from the world, but what a crime it is, never to be discovered”. For five years I’ve remained largely silent about my stories. It’s time to start beating a drum. And over the past seven days, I’ve started to understand that I shouldn’t be beating it just for myself.

One of my tasks in week one, was a hunt for community. And what I’m finding, is that I need to be that community, as much as to find it. Once I find inspiration in someone’s talent, or tenacity, or imagination, then I need to make some noise for them as well. I can’t write as part of a band or troupe, but I know I can be an enthusiastic member of other people’s audiences.

So I sit in the shade of the seventh morning, listening to the thudding of my heart. I’m preparing to work not just on the foundations for my own success, but also to begin  contributing to the elevation of others.

Tools for being human, part eight: Owning my age

pigs head

My age was a defining characteristic right from the start. Actually, probably before the start, measured really from the moment of conception. Once I was freed of the womb, it was a scale against  which my progress was judged. “Oh, so he isn’t crawling yet? Never mind, maybe he can be a conservative.”

It soon became part of the way I defined myself. “My name is Regan, I can draw an airplane and tie my shoe laces and I am four-and-three-quarters”. It became a ranking system in social situations. The five-year-olds got the toy rifles, those under five made do with sticks or finger-pointing. Though I did learn to draw that Remington two-finger pretty damn quick.

It was age-division that was my first experience of segregation. Specifically the great adult-child divide. At celebrations us children got a lower table, fewer items of cutlery, and higher sugar-content foods. The adults had the taller tables, more complicated social rules, and decisions to make on who would have to drive. I also learnt that certain behaviour, activities and ideologies were restricted to each side. Alcohol, untruths and high-impact cursing were strictly for “the adults”. Imagination, playtime and brutal honesty were the domain of children.

And yet my memories of childhood are largely of sunlight and adventure. I didn’t undergo any of the maturity summoning transformations that some of my peers had to face. My parents never divorced, I didn’t have to raise my siblings, I was neither abused nor abandoned. I got to be a very thorough eight year old, building fortresses from cushions, mown-grass, and imagination. I was a competent ten-year old, earning my scars by playing games of “policemen versus protestors”, riding my BMX off cliffs, and hurling adult-branded curses at bullies. And I became well-versed in the dark arts of teenageism. Blushing around girls, arguing with Dad about the length of my hair, and replacing judicious portions of my parent’s darker spirits with tea.

When I look at a photo of myself on my 21st birthday, I realise that I largely matched society’s age-expectations. I had a peer-inherited (and media enhanced) disregard for authority. I had long hair, and a tattoo with an ungracious story. I left university classes early to play bass guitar in a metal band named Shocker. And I had a Rainman-like ability to calculate the best alcohol-by-volume-by-price in a bottle store. Yip, 94% age-appropriate.

Social pressure remained relentless, if not always overt. I understood that by the age of thirty I should have been married, with a house, and maybe a child on the way. I rebelled. It wasn’t until thirty-one I had a wife and a house. And horses. I had a good, steady job that paid well, but I’d demoted fantasy and imagination, replaced some of my dreams with wants. As a result there was a tension within me, a pull between society’s expectations, and my buried needs. At thirty-three, I imploded. House, home, relationship, job. I didn’t have the emotional maturity to deal with the aftermath. So I boarded a plane.

For the next few years I put myself in situations where I lived, worked and danced with people ten years younger than me. People who labelled their hopes as certainties rather than impracticalities. People who looked for their options on a wide horizon rather than down a narrow tunnel. Ok, some of them pissed in the laundry, shat in the shower or offered loud advice from places of ignorance. But by now I knew that age was no antidote to foolishness. I started to realise that elucidation had to be earned, not granted. So I paid attention to my surroundings.

One of the greatest things about immersing yourself in an unfamiliar community, is that you have a chance of developing empathy, appreciation, understanding. Ageing is an opportunity through which we can build comprehension through experience. What it is like to sit in your first maths lesson. What it means to be afraid of the dark. What it means to be struggling with teenage ideas around gender. Imagine what we might gain if had to live through a range of ethnicities? Or if over our lifetime we gradually shifted gender? What insights and understanding might we draw?

And yet such opportunities might well be squandered. At thirty I believed that the people I could best relate to, were those of my own age. I thought that we’d been born at the best possible time, and that we shared things no other age could understand. Hair metal, misogyny, The Goonies. Besides, society frowns at the idea of inter-age mingling. It represents it as insidious, or inappropriate, or sad. At thirty-three I began to undo my prejudice. As a consequence I spent the next ten years learning my most consequential lessons in humility, creativity, and the development of wisdom, from yoofs.

One of those world-shakers was my girlfriend for much of that time. She taught me the importance of honesty, and honour. Of forgiveness.The difference in our ages wasn’t a problem until a biological alarm shifted her world. Fortunately she’d also taught me enough about self-reflection to avoid immolation, and so I began hosting couch surfers in order to fill a number of voids. And I was surprised to find that one of the most spontaneous, creative and inspirational was a woman just a little older than me. She had endless stories, she’d made beer for years, and she lived in Boulder, Colorado. Like Mork and Mindy (kids my age will get it…). I booked another flight.

She introduced me to a range of wonderful people, people who at forty, or fifty, or sixty, who still had an eye on the horizon. People who didn’t let their age dictate who they should be. People who rather than giving up on their dreams, had chased them down, and then found new ones. And since then I keep finding older-aged heroes.

Ageism is a powerful prejudice, one which build barriers and promotes ignorance. Our societies should promote kinship, not division. And as with anything societal, it is up to me to be part of any change.

So I choose to see age as a choice, not a curse. I can choose to age poorly. Choose a diet designed to challenge my heart and bowels rather than befriend them. Choose to define functional alcoholism my pointing to the one gunt in the pub that’s more pished than I am. Choose to tell myself that a sore back, a beer belly, and a mutually damaging relationship with a girlfriend I’ve taught myself to hate, are all symptoms of too many years, rather than my own poor choices.

Or I can choose to learn every day, to rewrite my prejudices through experience. Choose to summon the vigour and hope of my teens and wrap this around the compassion and care I’ve taken on in my forties. Choose to measure people by the depth of their hugs, the warmth of their smile, and their capacity for enjoyment, rather than the country of their birth, the number of candles on their cake, or their possession (or lack of) a Y-chromosome.

I choose to make (as much as possible) my own choices.

The first 24 hours…

Week one

88 days began around 20 hours ago. I started by thinking about inspirations. People, ideas, countries. And so…

A theme for week one: Inspiration

So who inspires me? I asked a couple of friends, and all of them needed a little time. Actually, Linda gave me a couple to start, then retracted. I did the same. Should it be someone who’s directly affected my life choices? What’s the difference between aspiration and inspiration? Do heroes count?

Is it more likely to be people closer to home, people I can share a beer with? I’m slowly getting to know a guy, a guy who Hunter S Thompson once described as ‘sinister’. He lives in New Plymouth, plays guitar, and once ran a vegetarian cafe in Guatemala with his wife and kids. When this gent nods his head sagely at something I’ve said, or laughs at one of my jokes, I feel better about myself. Maybe he’s a truer choice than say…Hemingway?

And it isn’t just who, is it? Everything I write starts with an idea. A seed, a catalyst. Inspiration. I’m writing this paragraph in a rural cafe, perched at the edge of a busy (for New Zealand…) motorway. Unusually, there aren’t any coffee sacks on the walls. What’s the story with those sacks? Who makes them? What do the markings mean? What of the sack maker’s family? Community? The needle she sews with, the light he sews by, their dreams for their children.

So maybe inspiration can be found in an absence. Or in nuance, minutiae, seeming trivialities. If the devil’s in the details, then maybe him (should that be gender neutral?) and I are about to become firm friends.

 

A muse for week one

Last week I listened to two interviews with an American author who’s now in her mid 80s. She was forthright, opinionated, and yet gracious. I could imagine her putting Hemingway in his place, if they’d ever sipped bourbon in the same bar, and he’d gotten a little salacious with a waitress.

Ursula K Le Guin lives in Portland, Oregon. She believes in the power of the imagination. She can be commandingly forthright, but apparently balances her targeted tirades with gentle humour. Any of which draws me to her already.

So I’ll be hunting out this Californian octogenarian’s story, and looking into how she might inspire me. What she might teach me. Whether she hosts writers in residence, I hear Portland’s got quite the craft beer scene…

 

Finally, my tasks for week one:

 

1. Write a letter to someone who inspires me

Someone once told me how important it was to thank the people who inspire you. All of them. She explained that it seemed to be a relatively rare thing, even for people you expect would be almost burdened with kudos. And I imagine it is a wonderful compliment, a warm affirmation.

So I thought about the people who inspired me at the time, and then I went and worked another bake shift. But the idea got caught somewhere inside, like bubblegum in the carpet of my mind. And now it is time to follow through. After all, the same person convinced me to start writing again.

 

I need to do this one in the first week, to have any chance of receiving a reply by week thirteen. Am I even right to be hoping for a response? Ego check.

 

2. Find community

In my experience to date, writing is a solo pursuit. Lonely isn’t the right term, because I don’t miss company when I write. And yet somehow I find the presence of other people useful, comforting. I like to sit in a cafe, and focus on the page or screen. There, away from the lawns, the house bus, the Internet, my distractions are different. Someone’s pose, or tone, or half-heard conversation. Maybe the way they wear their sunglasses, or nibble at their bagel, or berate their child, that gets stored, or absorbed.

But there’s also that people-need of mine which isn’t writing specific. That desire to share and exchange notes about purpose, about vocation. One of the best parts about working in a busy kitchen, was the banter, the competition to craft the best shepherds pie, the nicknames for customers, the high-fives in recognition to a particularly well curated morning playlist. I need to find a writers kitchen.

I live in a tiny town, so people are a limited resource. Maybe I need to look online. Or do a few more trips around the country to do interviews with novelists, journalists. Or perhaps it’s as simple as finding out who the other person is who buys the German rye bread from the supermarket down the road.

 

3. Set long-term writing goals for the thirteen weeks

I need to have some longer term goals, and I need to set them early. I also need a range of interesting tasks lined up, so that there’s always a new challenge.

At the moment I’m hoping to achieve the following over the next 88…87 days, but I need to understand whether it is aspirational, underwhelming, or madness:

  • Write twice a week about the process, my experiences etc.
  • Write and submit a short story, and start another one
  • Write a feature story and submit it for publication
  • Re-read the manuscript of my first novel, then decide whether I move forward with it, or start a new one
  • Determine what part writing will play in my life, from day 89

 

Ok, I’ve got a craving for rye bread. Peace out.

 

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Below the fold

This section is for trivia, photos, links, ideas. Non-essentials. Because often what we cast aside can be as useful as the things I cling to.

Muses I considered and then discarded for this week: John Pilger (old skool investigative journalist), Ira Glass (public radio story sponsor), Ernest Hemingway (American author), Colleen Patrick-Goudreau (compassionate vegan).

I discovered the website of the “Poets & Writers” magazine last week, as they host a stupendous list of publishers. It gives me hope of finding a partnership, if not a fortune:

https://www.pw.org/literary_magazines

One of the photos I considered for this posting, then rejected, because I couldn’t find any way in which it was relevant:

uni cxamo

 

 

 

 

 

88 Days

Manuscript

One of the world’s greatest forces is a sense of direction. My best days are often the ones that start with me being dragged from the sleepy tendrils of my dreams by a sense of purpose. And so one of the most satisfying things I can do for myself, is to ensure I set goals.

Around five years ago, I woke to a cold morning in Cambridgeshire. I crept downstairs and slipped outside, drawing boots onto my feet, and a hat over my head. I walked to a set of allotment gardens at the end of the street. There I watched the sun crawl into the sky, lighting frosted leaves, coaxing steam from shed roofs. I made a promise before the small, neat rows of vegetables, to write.

I have produced several hundred thousand words since that sunrise over Huntingdon. Articles, stories, a manuscript. A religious text. But most of them are still hidden away. Unseen. Untested. Unjudged. I’ve probably published 5%.

Today I am setting myself a challenge. I am allotting myself 88 days in which to confront my fears around sharing my work. I’m creating a list of tasks: interviewing a hero, getting a short story published, showing the world passages from my first book.

I’ll investigate the opportunities avaibale for writers in a digital world. I’ll look into ways  I can market myself, and the places I can go for help. I’ll introduce the people and services that assist me along the way.

And each week I’ll nominate a new inspiration, someone who I hope will help me learn something new. Maybe it’ll be Gordon Ramsey, or Tim Burton, or Katey Perry. Whoever or whatever it is, they’ll be my Muse of the Week, an excuse to look at things from a new perspective.

I’ll write all about it here. The good bits, the sketchy bits, the triumphs and challenges. Soon I’ll introduce my first muse.

So. 88 days. Starting…now.