Tag Archives: writing

88 days later

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This morning I sat in the Sugar Plum cafe, talking with a playwright. As we discussed ideas on creativity he paused for a moment. He told me he had heard from a friend that there was a writer in town, “a real one, someone who actually writes…” It was me, the writer who actually writes.

Four months ago I might have felt undeserved of the description, awkward, deceptive. But for three months now I’ve been living on a low-income, avoiding distractions, and working hard to not be someone with a dozen unfinished stories in a drawer, or on a laptop.

I wrote every day. I found short fiction, a way by which I could test stories, characters, ideas. I started sixty one stories, so far I’ve completed five. 

I wrote about poor choices and brutal pasts, and how difficult and yet essential it is to move beyond them. I wrote stories about being human, and one about being an Oak tree, and another about being a magic spell. I wrapped myself in imagination, and tried so, so hard to steer clear of distraction.

And now I have one story in front of a magazine publisher in London, and two more about to go to local organisations, and hopefully find their way to readers. There’s another too, a story of Alzheimer’s and what it means to care enough to help someone hold onto themselves, in spite of their forgetting you. I’ve yet to find a home for that one.

My 88 Days is up now, but I have two more weeks of freedom in which to set the next course. First though, I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to offer feedback, and criticism, and edits. In the end I want an audience for my writing, and all of you have helped me build the courage to offer up my work. Without you I’d be an untuned piano, with you, I feel I’m ready for the concerto.

It is so, so important for me to test myself, to forge my own future. But it is also important that I take the time to focus on others. Writing can be a lonely pursuit, as can living in a small town amongst paddocks and poverty. This summer I’m aiming to spend more time with more people. To surf beside strangers, and then share a beer with them as friends. To commune, to be communal, to dance and sing and celebrate. Physicality, that’s what I need. And sunshine. And maybe fresh oysters.

For now though, for the spring, the results of my toil will sit with editors, making decisions on the fate of my tales. I won’t though sit idle, there’s plenty more tales to be told, plenty more stories to unfurl.

 

 

 

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Spring (AKA the day the sun came back)

Sun

Today was shaping up to be a dozen things. It began with a long walk in the morning frost, steps towards removing the hibernation band that’s appeared around my waist over winter. Then it was time spent on another short story. This one’s about the descent of a man, about the stretching of time and the perspective that offers as he falls twenty-four storeys to the earth. And after crafting a fiction about the plummeting of a fragile soul, I had to shift head-space and finish writing an application for a grown-up job in the big city.

All the while the sun beckoned. It stroked my cheek as I hung washing on the clothes line. It slipped between the tilted blinds behind the computer, casting venetian shadows on the teal wall behind me. And it played along the drift of incense smoke that drifted from the mantlepiece, charming the strands of burnt sandalwood, teasing the wisps of charred Dragon’s Blood.

The call of outside was too loud. I clicked a “Send” button, then lifted my speakers on my way out to the car. I lowered all the windows, tapped a playlist, and drove towards the steeply stacked shoreline and wooden boneyards that define Turakina Beach. As Katchafire replaced Coldplay (don’t dare judge me…) I grinned out the window to the blue skies and suckling lambs of almost-spring.

The neighbouring west coast beaches tend towards dark sands and isolation. As I wound between low sand dunes I slipped my shoes from my feet and slowed, letting the earth’s warmth ease my long-stowed toes. There was a single vehicle parked high on the sand, abandoned and empty. The low tide exposed long walking options north and south. I chose to head northward, clambering over bridges built of china-white logs and mammoth’s tusks, to where the green paddocks of ocean-side farmlets crumble like shortcake, into the blue-green sea.

I slipped headphones over ears and set a soundtrack to my meander. I let the beat run through me, I dropped my jersey and hat in a dry-beach stack. I danced in the shifting line between states of liquid and solid. I leapt from logs, pirouetted with my shadow, and let the narratives of past and future slip away. And as I span in gentle circles, there was no one to judge, no whispers, no giggles that weren’t my own.

At the moment I spend the majority of my week alone, installed in my 88 days of thoughts and words. But within this oasis my head is rarely resting within a moment. Rather it’s shuttling back and forth, between past and future. The one exception is when I’m inside the head of a character. A man bound to himself with cable-ties and determination, a girl trying to interpret dinosaur footprints, an oak tree trying to interpret a young boy’s pain. Then I’m inside their moment.

But I need to remember to make time to spend with myself. With a tune, in the sun, with my shade and my light. My heartbeat is a rhythm, and while it beats I have to remember to make time to dance.

The places stories come from (and take me to)

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Writing fiction, wow. After several months of writing from my own experience, you know, facts, I’m now free to write anything.

Of course “anything” could also be a little intimidating. Like “infinity”, or “Welcome to Subway, what are you after today?” So one of my tasks, lately, has been figuring out how to locate ideas, and then turn them into stories.

Over the past five weeks I have used a few lunch-hours (I’m still working two days a week to cover coffees and bills) to come up with a list of thirty-seven short story ideas. Of these single paragraph descriptions, I chose eight to start fleshing out into stories. And of these eight, I’ve so-far completed three. As in I’ve started soliciting feedback on them brought them from others.

So why these three stories? Where did they come from? And where did they take me?

 

Story one: The pub quiz

I posted the first couple of pages of this first story a couple of weeks ago. It starts with a man whose ambition and joy for living has slipped away so gradually hadn’t noticed. The story picks up momentum (and hope) when he meets a woman who might offer him a chance to rewrite his future. Is he still capable of taking it?

I love those magical moments in life when I meet someone new, and there’s this powerful frisson, this trembling, vibrating understanding that they could represent a significant, positive transformation. Occasionally though, I’ve found this feeling being almost immediately tempered by a wave of self-reproach. “Why would they want to be friends/tag-team-wrestling-partners/lovers with me?”

I’m intimidated by the degree of feeling they generate, and I start thinking about how much more terrible rejection feels, when it comes from those people I choose to raise above me. And then that lump forms between throat and heart, and self-doubt begins to eclipse hope.

Sometimes I want to make a part of myself transparent, so that this person might see the parts of me of which I’m most proud. But translucency means they get to see the shadows as well.

Writing this story allowed me to characterise that part of me, to give it a name, Gavin. Then I got to create the person who evokes that astounding feeling in Gavin. I named her Alice. Then I put them at a table at the Red Lion, on a busy quiz night, and I let them decide where the story went.

 

Story two: The list maker

The second story I completed is about a treasure hunt, and it is about Alzheimer’s, and it is mostly about the degree to which we let a select number of our memories define who we are. It puts the reader inside an older man’s head for an afternoon, as he attempts to solve a gentle mystery.

It was an opportunity to tell what is essentially a very sad story, but tell it from the largely positive viewpoint of an endearing old gent. It was a chance to remind myself of the importance of living life as engaged as possible. It gave me a reason to ask myself some important questions. What are the moments that I believe define me? Who will be there for me if I begin to lose aspects of myself? Who do I want to be there for, if they find themselves struggling for definition?

 

Story three: The first and last hours of Hector Fuego-Salamanca

I was listening to an interview with an author a couple of weeks ago, and she pointed out that there was no reason for short fiction to stick with a single character, or be restricted to a short time period. Just because you only have a few thousand words, there’s no reason you can’t tell a story from multiple viewpoints, or utilise something other than real-time. That got me thinking:

“What if I offered the first few hours of someone’s life, and then the last? And this became an opportunity for the reader to fill the gaps between?”

And so my third completed story describes the first and last few hours of Hector Fuego-Salamanca. Hector is born under difficult circumstances, birthed in the back of a stolen four-wheel drive, which is parked on the edge of an ancient New Zealand forest. Hector’s last few hours are hardly less arduous, most of them are spent blindfolded and tied, in the back of a stolen army vehicle.

The fun thing with this, is that I am a strong believer in self-determination. And so I wanted to start with an evocative (if you were raised in New Zealand) name. Then I wanted to add a sprinkling of facts, a description of a person for whom the odds have been stacked against. I wanted the reader to start telling their own story. And then I wanted Hector to transcend expectations. What would he need in order to do this? What is it that we use to fight fate, to reverse expectations, to counteract a dearth of privilege?

The short story offers an opportunity to experiment with new characters every day. Maybe I’ll spend the morning with a man peering through windows as he falls from the top of a thirty storey building. Measuring his reasons for jumping, against what he sees in the faces of those he glimpses during his descent.

Perhaps I’ll then choose to spend the evening in the moonlit company of two teenage girls as they quietly construct a series of crop circles on farmland in Cornwall. I get to listen in on their stories, their observations, and then I get to see what happens when their creative efforts attract an unexpected visitor.

Yes, endless possibilities can be intimidating. But my imagination is my most treasured of all my gifts. If shit gets dark, if I find myself at a fork in the road and I feel that either direction will lead me to a place I don’t want to go, then my imagination helps me forge a new path.

Writing fiction is yoga for my imagination. Hmm, maybe there’s a story in the naming of downward facing dog…

Better ways to deal with rejection

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Some days I think I’m starting to get all grown up and wise and shit. Then I fail to make the cut in an art contest.

In the aftermath, in the flux and shift of a post-rejection funk, I had to sit myself down and give myself a talking to. The easiest thing is to chew discontentedly on the acid taste of sour grapes. To make a new Facebook profile and drop scorn on the selected pieces. To write bad things with a sharp pen held in a clenched fist. But I’ve tried to channel myself away from cynicism for four years now. And so I told myself to instead use this experience as a test of my resolve.

It isn’t easy though, to maintain happy, harmonious Buddha-balance in the face of disappointment. But I know I’d feel a more cutting disappointment for a lot longer, if I haven’t tried. It is a lot harder though, to have never tried. And so this morning, rather than pissing on the embers of a dying hope, I’ve been placing newly cut kindling over them and gently blowing.

Sigh.

88 Days, one month down

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Speyside, a great place for contemplation, whisky drinking, and admiring the rain.

I’ve been walking the perimeter every couple of hours today, clearing the gutters of leaves and coffee cups, watching the waters flow. Inside I listen to Biblical levels of rain hammering the roof above. I think of Noah, of epic stories told to convey an understanding. 

What were the Bible makers striving for? To write a bestseller? To influence a society? To replace still older stories?

What did Margaret Atwood hope for from A Handmaid’s Tale, back in 1985? Did she imagine the poignancy it would hold as it was retold in the wake of Trump’s ascendance? Did George R. R. Martin grimace as he signed off on publishing rights to A Game of Thrones, thinking of the string of newborns that would have to beat the weight of names like Daenerys and Tormund and Cersei?

Can great writing still make a difference? Do I dare hope that the pen is still mightier than the sword? 

Again I’m reminded that one of the greatest enemies of writing (like any work-from-home occupation) is distraction. But conversely, the right kinds of distractions can be a blessing. If I scan through my list of story ideas, I see an ecological ghost story, a gentle tale about a treasure hunt inspired by an old man’s Alzheimer’s, a fable about a mother and daughter in the desert, standing before a great wall. The seeds for each lay in a diversion of some sort. 

But my purpose for writing this afternoon, is as an opportunity to reflect on the first four weeks of my 88 Days of Creativity. And after a little meditation, it seems the first third of my sabbatical has been about three things:

1. How capable am I of finding inspiration?

I can answer this one with an emphatic “yes”. An empty page holds no fear for me. I can find a question begging to be answered on a tombstone, or in a shared glance, or under torrential rains. Of course understanding at first glance, or paragraph, or maybe page, whether the idea deserves a whole story is another talent…

2. Is writing something that I really want, or is it just a story I want to tell about myself?

I have to approach question two with a little trepidation, I’ve lied to myself before.

I mean today I feel like a story-teller. I love the places writing has already taken me. I feel better about a day if I write. I’ve learnt more about myself through writing than through anything else I’ve ever stuck with. But it took me years to fail as a painter, as an artist, largely because I was afraid of soliciting feedback on my work. And so there’s a little anxiety in my answer, because for me, the real answer to this question, is tied to the answer of question three.

3. Can I write things that other people want to read?

This is the big one. Last week, a waiter in a cafe said he’d overheard one of my conversations on writing. He explained that a friend of his is trying to become established as a writer. He asked if I’d mind calling or emailing him, to offer advice, or to simply talk.

At first I wasn’t sure what I would have to offer. But today I understand that my advice for this man is the same I am giving to myself. It is time to engage an audience. To have the courage to put your work in front of someone who will critique it, and then to learn from their feedback. 

If I was passing through customs and immigration today, and filling in paperwork, in the space next to “Occupation” I don’t think I’d be lying to myself if I filled in Writer. But my goal is to be able to fill in that space with the word “Author”. And so month two begins.

 

The pub quiz

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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

 

 

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…