Sunday, 10 June 2012

A Writer's Journey In Pictures

Yesterday I attended The Literary Consultancy's conference on Writing in A Digital Age conference, part of which saw selected literary agents and publishers having to do a 7 minute, 21 slide presentation & talk on their professional life and loves. I thought this was a really neat idea and so have nicked it for my blog, albeit with text rather than voice and 15 images rather than 21. But then hey, I'm a writer, although I nearly didn't choose that path...

I can't remember learning to read. I have absolutely no recollection of the process, whether it was secured through a combination of my parents and early schooling. One of my twin sons taught himself to read by the time he attended nursery school. But I don't believe he inherited that gene from me.

Yet learn to read I must have. Though I wasn't a child fan of reading. (even today the notion of Young Adult literature is utterly alien to me). I was more into playing sports in the garden. What little I did read as a child were the picture books Asterix The Gaul and Tintin. The only books I read without pictures were those I was made to read at school, all of which I have burned out of my memory other than "Stig of The Dump" and "Cider With Rosie" which I loathed.

One other thing I did read was the "Just William" series, after my Dad presented me with a family heirloom, his original 1920s editions of the books that he had inherited from a family member. I did read and enjoy these, though I wouldn't say I devoured them. I have subsequently handed them to my own bookworm son who has utterly devoured them. Sadly nearing 100 years old they are looking the worse for wear now.

If I wasn't sneaking my torch under the bedclothes to read, it was because that cache was taken up by a small transistor radio. I used to listen to DJ John Peel's radio show from 10pm to midnight as he broke punk rock and reggae to my tender ears. Books never even got a look in as even today (how very undigital of me) I can't read with music on. My first aborted novel paid tribute to this well worn adolescent prostration before the shrine of Uncle John Peel.
Music and reading finally coalesced at age 14, when an older cousin of mine suggested I listen to The Cure track "Killing An Arab" and then read Albert Camus' book "The Outsider". I dutifully did both in the quest for coolness points to spread around school, always fed to us by older brothers and relatives. I was blown away by the book and voluntarily, that is of my own free will, got Camus' "The Plague" out of the library and tore into that. Reading wise it means I have never looked back. Literally, since to this day I still have not read the vast majority of the Classics written in the nineteenth century.
Somewhat surprisingly to me even, I plumped for doing A-Level English Literature, despite my complete lack of any grounding in the canon. Shakespeare was okay, Chaucer was a linguistic chore but sufficiently cheeky to be tolerable, Milton's "Paradise Lost" was cool cos it gave me ideas about Devils and monsters to feed into being a Dungeon Master hosting games with my mates (yes we were sad pre-Geeks), but Jane Austen, Sylvia Plath and Tom Stoppard really didn't float my boat. I attained a very middling Grade B.
And then comes the great turning out. When you raise your head above the snail shell of domesticity and start confronting/engaging with the world. I got into politics, mainly through the increasing volume of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as American airforce bases on UK soil took root and politicians talked of neutron bombs that killed people but left property standing as they blithely considered mutually assured destruction. I wanted to be in a band, not that I could play any instrument. I was going to be the singer and therefore began to write cod lyrics, protest songs about MAD and even worse poetry. But they were quite conceptual. Early seeds...
I was so disillusioned with my experience at University, I was ready to walk out. What saved me was the fact that there were lots of free theatre stages and a plethora of wannabe actors and directors among the student body. So I wrote plays and could experiment with no fear of consequence. Having written a single 30 minute play, that year I went up to the Edinburgh Fringe festival with two new plays which I'd written in about 2 months. Crazy! 
When I left college, being a professional playwright struck me as a great way to avoid the rat race. I blagged my way into an exclusive reading card for the British Library on the basis of a paper I was delivering back at my old college on the punk and football subcultures, which needed, um research. For three years or so I read all manner of material in this amazing library. Under the Cupola dome and wondering if I was sat in the same seat as Karl Marx did (hope not as he had boils and piles), this was the most conducive space for learning and research that I've ever experienced. I haven't been in the new british Library, but I can't see how they could recreate the atmosphere of learning. On a couple of occasions I ordered what were considered naughty books, (one bizarrely was a history of the Tarot) and had to go to the special Reading Room where you were under strict observation. Alexander Trocchi's book "Thongs" was another such book that sent me there. 
Where did all that research lead? To a few productions of my short plays, and particularly my week long run of my full-length play "Walking With Mr Brownstone" at the Southwark Playhouse. A play about a fetus addicted to heroin in utero, which played with notions of reality and inner and outer. I became really interested in form and movement on stage rather than the words.
I had hoped the play would get picked up and transfer for a longer run. At the time my wife was pregnant with our twins and the actress playing the fetus who did most of the show on gymnastic parallel bars also found out she was pregnant during the week run. Must have been odd for her to be pregnant while acting a fetus spinning round on the bars. End of run and when my twins came along, end of theatre career as I couldn't really spend the time hanging out in theatre bars.
After finally emerging from the fog of rearing two babies through sleepless nights, I was ready to resume my writing. But writing what? I turned to prose as I set about an idea that had been gnawing at me for a while but which could never have been done as a play (apart from one scene which actually appears in the novel as a mini stage play). I have no idea where the idea came from, but its world was derived from watching those MTV programmes through the baby-rearing night such as "Ibiza Uncovered" and "Holiday Reps". The British behaving badly when they go abroad as tourists.

I self-published that debut novel and then took 6 months off from new writing for marketing it. Part of that did in fact involve new writing as I discovered the joys of flash fiction, stories of 1000 words or less. I could find time to do one of these a week, post it to the blog and keep up some level of visibility and traffic. After a year of this, I found that I had my second book title ready made, 52 flash fiction stories. Marketing turned out to be fun and creative after all. 

When I do live readings, I like to try and work out why I'm reading that piece to that particular audience at that time. This often means dressing up in costume, or as the photo above at Art Jericho in Oxford, performing in a style that fit exactly with the work itself. Here I'm slowly covering myself in the pieces of paper with my text while lying down as the narrator in the story is. I think I have quite a dull reading voice, so I like to put on a bit of a show to make it more interesting. There's nothing quite beats reading live to people. You can feel the atmosphere in the room change with your text.
I am a self-taught writer. I have attended no creative writing classes and as shown above, have read very little in the classical literary canon. But through my voracious appetite for contemporary fiction, plus maybe with my background in playwriting, I have a different approach to notions of story. The worst thing you can say to me is you have to abide by the rules of writing. The next worst thing, is that you have to know the rules before you break them. I have some very different ideas on certain established elements of literature, around story, character, character arcs, hero and the nature of fiction itself. I'm not trying to establish these as a definitive new set of writing rules, they are simply ones I'm interested in exploring through my writing. That's the future course of my writing life. Wonder what images it will cast up.

Thanks for reading.


Helen A. Howell said...

I loved reading this, so interesting was your journey. I laughed out loud at this line '(one bizarrely was a history of the Tarot '(one bizarrely was a history of the Tarot)' having been a professional member of the Tarot Guild of Aus - no longer now) - did you like it?

I also nodded my head at your first sentence of your final paragraph 'I am a self-taught writer. I have attended no creative writing classes and as shown above, have read very little in the classical literary canon' as that's about it for me, although I've only been writing for 4 years now.

Thanks for sharing - it was a nice start to my day. ^_^

Adam B said...

What a brilliant idea. I shall be appropriating it at a later stage. And now I want to get a hold of the Asterix and Tintin books.
Adam B @revhappiness

Dan Holloway said...

wonderful - did you get to say hello to Nicola at the TLC event?

Sulci Collective said...

No, she was there on the Friday, I was there on the Saturday. interesting day it has to be said. Got involved in a long convo with digital maister of Mills & Boon about book trailers & YouTube1

James Everington said...

Great post - ta!

Yasmin Selena Butt said...

Really good to see some John Peel love being shown. He was awesome wasn't he? Such broad taste in music and he never lost his passion for it. The first CD single I ever bought was called Geek Love by Bang Bang Machine and I heard it first on his show : ) Nice blog post x