Underneath The Orange Trees

All, Barcelona, Creativity, Sitting

“Underneath the orange trees I sit, in the grounds of the biblioteca. Shielded from the midday sun, by the branches of the trees—branches teeming with fruit. Bunches of three or four, clustered together, their bright orange peel mottled brown like the skin of a leopard. No way these oranges would make it onto the shelves of a British supermarket. No way! I’m not even sure they’re oranges. Perhaps they’re tangerines. Satsumas, or clementines, or something else entirely. Perhaps they’re apples. Why not? You can’t be too sure these days. You can’t be too sure of anything.

Underneath the orange trees I sit. I sit alone, but there are other people here. There’s a man, to my left, old and bald, in socks and sandals, with earphones in—the white ones you get with Apple products. I wonder what he’s listening to. Mozart? Or Megadeth? Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, perhaps, translated into Spanish. Over to my right there’s a woman, in a white blouse embroidered with flowers of pink and blue, leafing through papers in a plastic yellow file. Her face is hidden behind the trunk of one of the trees. I wonder what she looks like. I don’t want to know, though. I just want to imagine.

What’s this now? A small child—a toddler—escaped from her parents’ clutches, stands and stares at the fountain a few yards away. She points and smiles, the water dancing and twinkling in the sunlight. More people wander over, take photos on their phones. This toddler, in her pink shorts and little pink sunhat, she’s shown them. She has shown us all. Look, she says—and now I cannot stop. I sit and watch the fountain, spurting and splashing unendingly, the water overflowing and trickling down the sides of the stone bowl. I watch the sparrows come to drink. Dip their heads and tilt them back, and then fly off, chirping. A sign at the base of the fountain says that the water is not for drinking, nor swimming in, and one should not place fish or turtles in the fountain. It seems unlikely that anyone would do that, but I suppose they have to make sure.

It’s peaceful here, underneath the orange trees, like a pocket of tranquillity inside the chaos of the citadel. A place where people can sit and read, or sit and listen, or just sit. Everyone respects the norms here. The unwritten rules. Every so often, though, the peace is broken. Someone enters the grounds from behind me, comes bounding past, whooping and hollering. A guy with a mane of long black hair; his dog—unleashed—jumps into the fountain, and the man yells at the dog but carries on walking and the dog eventually follows him and then they’re gone. Out the other side. There’s always someone wants to disrupt things, bring attention to themselves. That’s okay, though. Perhaps one day I’ll be the crazy guy. Or the old man in the socks and the sandals. Or even the dog. Unleashed. Unbound. Free to roam, and jump into fountains, and chase the sparrows. Go up to strange women and lick their hands…

How long have I been here? Underneath the orange trees. The days go by so slow, and yet this trip will be over before I know it. Soon it’ll be time for me to go… though there’s nowhere I need to be. Just sit a little longer. Why not? This ain’t reality, but it’ll do for now.

The Purple Crisp

All, Creativity, Reading, Teaching, Words, Writing

Greetings…

It has been a while, eh? Yeah, well, I been busy. Weddings, marathons, general elections (all as an attendee and/or viewer, rather than a participant, I should add).

Mostly, though, I’ve been learning about gutter opera, with D. Foy. The whole experience has been fantastic, a lot of fun, and hugely, incredibly inspiring—and so the next few blogs I post will be either posts I wrote for that class, or pieces inspired by the assignments I was given. I hope you like them, and perhaps feel inspired to take D.’s class yourself.

Anyway, there are several things D. has been trying to get us to do during the course of this class. One was to compile a commonplace book, in which you store or make a record of all of your influences. (And by all of your influences, he means all of your influences. Doesn’t matter how random, weird, or seemingly irrelevant.) Another thing he encourages you to do is pay attention to the language around us. Again, by this, he means all of it. Everywhere…

Look around your immediate surroundings and note the myriad types of language you see (e.g., online, print magazines, books, advertisements, mailers, street directions, billboards, airline tickets, bus passes/transfers, take-out menus, and so forth, and so on). Do this often as you go through your day…

Sounds simple, right? It is, but try it and you might be amazed at the creative avenues it opens up.

Take for example, the other day, when I bought a packet of crisps [or “potato chips” for my American readers] and took them to the school where I teach, to eat at snack time. Before opening the packet, I read all the text—and there was a lot of it. Sheesh. Crisps aren’t just crisps anymore. Oh no. These had “BEST OF BRITISH POTATOES WITH ANGLESEY SEA SALT HAND COOKED CRISPS” written across the front of the packet, and then, underneath, “BRITISH POTATOES grown in HEREFORDSHIRE and specially selected for their quality. Our potatoes are thinly sliced with their skins on, HAND COOKED in small batches, and tumbled with sea salt from ANGLESEY to give a delicious and crispy snack.” (All upper casing and italics the manufacturers’ own).

Wow. Tumbled. I don’t think I’ve ever had crisps that have been “tumbled” in sea salt before.

And if I didn’t before, I really wanted to eat those crisps.

Then I opened the packet, and the first thing I saw was… yep. You guessed it. A purple crisp. And it totally threw me. In fact, the crisps were all different colours—red, purple, yellow. Que raro, I thought, but then almost immediately I had an idea for a story-prompt for the boys in my writing group.

The Purple Crisp.

Yes!

Imagine you found a purple crisp in your bag. What would you do? Would you eat it? What might happen if you did? Etc., etc., and so on.

Anyway, I put it to them; they loved it, and off they went. Then a weird thing happened. While the boys were busy writing, I looked at the packet again and noticed that under all the blurb was an image of the Anglesey Sea, serene and blue under a cloud-streaked sky. I must have seen it before, but nothing registered. It was weird, because Anglesey was where I went last November, with a group of mates to commemorate my friend, Warren, who’d died the year before… And it was weird, because I suddenly started thinking about him, and all the stories I wanted to tell. Warren. AKA: Norm. A, er, how shall I say? Bit of a rogue. Yeah. And then some! Oh, boy. The stories I could tell you about Norm… Point is, just like that, there he was, in my thoughts. And I wanted to write about him.

Problem was, I was in the middle of a class. Couldn’t just pick up my pen and start writing about that time he got arrested for shoplifting sausages and gave Stuart Brown’s name and address instead of his own, now, could I? So, I thought, what I’ll do is keep the crisp packet, put it in my commonplace book, and write about Norm later… which is exactly what I did.

Book Review: Disintegration, by Richard Thomas

All, Book Reviews, Books, Creativity, Horror, Reading, Words, Writing

Over the last couple of years, I’ve become rather used to seeing Richard Thomas’s name appear in my news feed. It seems hardly a week goes by without one of his stories finding a home—not surprising, really, given that he’s one of the most prolific and hard-hitting writers out there. Operating primarily within the neo-noir genre, Thomas has put out, to date, over a hundred pieces of fiction, including a novel, Transubstantiate, and two short story collections, Herniated Roots and Staring Into The Abyss. He’s also an extremely skilled editor, a gifted and generous mentor, and as highly respected for the advice he shares in his columns about writing as he is for his own fiction.

The Next Project

All, Creativity, Editing, Words, Writing

Writing, eh? Sheesh. What a rollercoaster…

First, you get an idea for a story, and: Excitement! You start writing. Seat-of-your-pants style, or carefully planned—all storyboarded out, scene by scene. Maybe you workshop it, get some feedback. Edit it. Re-write it. Re-write, re-write, re-write. Late nights, early mornings. Add a scene here, cut one there, edit it again, proofread it, tweak a couple things… until, finally, you’re done. (You’re never done, but fuck it.) Now’s the time. Send it out. Immediately notice a couple of typos. Feel sick. Wait… In the meantime, you work on a couple of other bits. You read. Anything and everything. New stuff, old stuff—stuff you’ve read a dozen times already and only now notice that you’ve basically been ripping off [insert names of several oft-referenced authors here] for the last eighteen months or so. Fuck! Even now, as you write this blog, you think, oh my God… really?

Anyway.

Back to the manuscript. Maybe you get a response or two. “Sorry, but on this occasion blah blah blah…” Maybe not. Maybe they don’t even bother to tell you it’s been rejected, and you only find out by logging into your Submittable account a month and a half later. Whatever. Par for the course. No biggie… Maybe it wasn’t any good anyway (though you have your doubts about that). Maybe you used the word ‘fuck’ too many times. Or maybe it’s because it was another first-person narrative about a bunch of stuff that kind of, sort of happened to you, and the publishing world is sick of that, there’s way too much of it these days. And okay, fine, you get that. You’re still young(ish), still learning; had to go through that self-indulgent-crap phase before stepping out and writing what you don’t know. Still, you’re proud of it. Proud that you actually completed something. Besides, it was good. It had a beginning, middle and end. The protagonist learnt something, was changed by the experience. (Or not—‘cuz, y’know, life’s like that.) Whatever. Either way someone—someone you love and admire, and whose opinion you respect (no, I’m talking about my mum, or my girlfriend) said that it was beautifully written.

Now, though, it’s time to move on. The Next Project. Step up your game—both in terms of output and ambition. Think big. Get excited. And start writing again! Because, really, what else is there? I think it was Tom Spanbauer that said, “I have to have a dream, and for me the dream is the next book…” ‘Course, if you’re Tom Spanbauer, you’ve probably got fairly solid grounds to believe that the next one will be pretty good, and that it’ll get snapped up before you can say earth-shattering masterpiece… You, on the other hand, will have to remind yourself of the chorus to Chumbawumba’s 1997 smash hit, Tubthumping (“I get knocked down, I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down…”) and find strength in those fine lyrics as you press on with your Next Project… because, as Ronan Keating put it, so succinctly, life—or in this case, writing—is a rollercoaster. You just gotta ride it.

Teaching Writing, Part One

All, Creativity, Sitting, Teaching, Words, Writing

For the past three weeks, I’ve been going to a small primary school just outside Bedford and helping one of the teachers with a group of boys who want to improve their writing. It takes me about forty minutes to drive there, and I’m only with them for a couple of hours, one morning a week, but even after just three sessions, I’m psyched about the progress they’re making.

There’s still a lot of work to do, of course. It definitely helps that they’re all attentive, quick to respond and fairly well-behaved. Ahem. Their “problems” vary, from child to child: one boy, for example, has absolutely no confidence in what he writes; another cannot see that what he writes invariably ends up as one long string of independent clauses, completely devoid of any punctuation whatsoever. Rudiger*, meanwhile, is obsessed with the word therefore. He wants to use it all the time. It drives me fucking nuts, and I’ve told him so (minus the f-word, of course, because, er, hello?). I have, therefore, banned him from using it more than once in each piece of writing he does.

By the time they’re in Year 5, most children have had it drummed into them so often that when you ask them what their writing needs to include, you get a monotone chorus of: “Capital letters and full stops… time connectives… interesting vocabulary…” Which is all true and good. But boys—I’ve noticed this, being one myself—can get pretty obsessive, and this often stops them from just getting something down on paper. They’re constantly thinking, I’ve got to use conjunctions. Or, I’ve got to use technical vocabulary… whatever that is. And that leads to a kind of writer’s block, which we all know is worse than anything to afflict mankind in the entire history of its existence.

One of the techniques I use is getting them to free-write. How often do kids get to do that? Not very often, I’ll wager—and it shows. The first time I tried it, some of them really struggled with the mere concept. “But, I don’t know what to write,” they say. And sometimes that’s true. More often than not, however, they’re under the illusion that what I want them to write has to be perfect. Perfectly punctuated, in their neatest handwriting, and no spelling mistakes… the works. Because, somewhere along the line, this is what they’ve come to understand “writing” to mean. And yeah—ultimately, that is what we teachers are after. But not all the time, and certainly not straight away.

Sometimes you need to give them a topic, or a prompt. Sometimes not. I’ve often done it by giving them the opening, “Mr Pucci has asked me to write for ten minutes, but I don’t know what to write about so I’m just going to write about…” Either way, once you get ‘em going, you’ll probably find they use “connectives” and “interesting vocabulary” without even thinking about it. At some point, of course, you have to stop them and get them to look over what they’ve written. To begin what I call the translation process. That’s when we start doing things like reading aloud, checking for repetition or overuse of the same word, and choosing where to put a full stop. (As an aside, it’s interesting how many of these techniques I need to remind myself to use, or encourage my clients to use). For this to work—certainly with a group of nine-year-old boys—you need to establish a culture of trust and respect. Make sure they know we’re not judging any mistakes, but at the same time saying it’s okay to laugh at something that sounds silly. Watch how fast they reach for their pencils in order to make those corrections, or to put in those missing full stops. Thus begins the process of editing and re-writing… but more on that next week.

*Not his real name.

Book Review: The Art of Character, by David Corbett

All, Books, Creativity, Editing, Reading, Words, Writing

There’s a chapter in Chuck Palahniuk’s book, Stranger Than Fiction, in which the author explains how, every year, he finds himself having to re-buy a copy of each of Amy Hempel’s works, having given them all away to friends or fellow writers. In recent years, I’ve found myself doing the same thing with one of Palahniuk’s own books (Choke) along with Mark Poirier’s Modern Ranch Living and all of Junot Díaz’s novels. I now find myself doing the same thing with David Corbett’s The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film and TV, because not only is this book an invaluable tool for all writers of fiction, it’s also an endlessly fascinating read, regardless of any literary aspirations you may be harbouring.

That said, The Art of Character is, primarily, a guide to the craft, and to this end, Corbett kicks things off with a quote from Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon: “A writer should create living people; people not characters.” Easier said than done, right? Fortunately, you’re in good hands. Very good hands indeed. With several novels already under his belt, and a New York Times Notable Author award, it’s fairly safe to say that Corbett knows his shit. Allow him, then, to lead you straight into Part One, titled Conceiving the Character, which focuses on the “examined life” and the idea that, in order to make our characters real—to create those “living people” to whom Hemingway referred—we must look at them closely and determine precisely what they want, what they fear, what they hate, what secrets they hide, and so on. In order to answer these questions, Corbett argues, we must know these things about ourselves… or at least be prepared to find out.

There are several key themes that Corbett revisits throughout The Art of Character. However, one question concerns him above all others. “Who am I?” he asks—or rather, he asks you to ask this of your work, throughout its evolution. A daunting task, certainly, but Corbett guides the reader through this process in a detailed yet clear and personal manner. “Take it in bits,” he advises at the beginning of chapter thirteen, ‘The Tempest Within: The Character’s Psychological Nature’, the longest of the book’s twenty-five chapters. “There’s a lot to consider.”

He’s not kidding. However, as I mentioned, the essence of this book’s appeal lies largely in the fact that it’s so damn readable. As wise and experienced as Corbett clearly is, at no point does he come across as aloof. Yes, his knowledge is vast, and his style forthright, but there is an unmistakeable generosity of spirit in the way he delivers his words. He also draws from a broad selection of key works in order to illustrate his points, and in many instances he goes into great detail in his breakdown of these works. From Macbeth to Breaking Bad via Death of a Salesman and Citizen Vince, these examples—aside from confirming both the central importance of character in all the great works, irrespective of medium or genre, and the universality of the principles that underpin the creation of great characters—provide hooks on which readers of all tastes can hang their hats.

There are few bases Corbett doesn’t cover, but it’s in the Epilogue—subtitled The Examined Life Redux: Our Characters, Our Selves—that he proffers the most fascinating food for thought. Drawing on the philosophies of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre, he revisits the idea of “lack” as a driving force for creating characters. To be an artist, Corbett argues, one must cast aside “the comforting notion of I Know Who I Am”. Be daring, he urges… but not at the expense of alienating those among whom we must live, on whom we depend, and whom we wish to impress. This, for me—and the conflict to which it gives rise—is at the heart of what Corbett refers to as “the writer’s journey”, and why I’ve already given away two copies of this excellent resource.

Matt Pucci

The Thrill of Creative Effort

All, Barcelona, Creativity, Reading, Words, Writing

Tourist season in Barcelona brings with it an abundance of slogan-bearing t-shirts at which to stare as you stroll down La Rambla. The majority of these messages are banal at best, but you’ll always see a few that are truly baffling for their complete lack of logic. I’m not just talking about the badly translated, or grammatically incorrect; sometimes it’s the incongruity between the statement slapped across the wearer’s chest and the age, appearance or attitude of the wearer. Remember the kid on the cover of Fatboy Slim’s album? Mind you, I prefer the ones worn without that knowing irony. The other day, for example, I passed a sweet old lady of around 80 years of age. She was rocking an over-sized, lemon-yellow number telling me: “You were born an original, don’t die a copy.” It made me smile… unlike the “facefuck” one I saw a teenage boy wearing, which made me want to cry.

Every so often however, I see one that stops me in my tracks, because it carries a catchphrase of genuine inventiveness. Admittedly, it doesn’t happen too often, and no doubt I look like a bit of a crackpot as I stare after the owner of said garment, but I always try to make a mental note these little nuggets of inspiration. The last one that made me do a double-take like this was a Japanese kid in a white t-shirt with black lettering that read “The joy of achievement” across the top, and “The thrill of creative effort” across the bottom. I thought it was cool, not because achievement does give joy, and creative effort is thrilling, but because the former is almost always preceded by the latter, so it, like, totally made sense…

Right now I’m chest-deep in the thrills of creative effort. Without giving too much away, or jinxing it in any way—not that I’m superstitious like that—I have a project going on at the moment that started off as one thing, but is slowly becoming something else entirely. I think. I don’t know—nor do I care, particularly. All I can be sure of is that I’m doing it and I’m loving it. To quote the German conceptual artist, Wolfgang Laib, “That is always what is exciting about art: being something that is not yet there. That is not graspable, not yet achieved, that has an open end.” (Try convincing H&M to put that on a t-shirt.)

Of course, it doesn’t always come easy—it requires effort, in the same way as any job does, to get up every morning, to open your notebook and handwrite that next scene, that one you’ve not even got set out in your head, let alone found the words with which to lucidly render it on the page—but with the aid of a strong cup of coffee and a smidgen of self-belief, it starts to come. And damn, it’s a good feeling. Thrilling, even. And who knows? Maybe I’m getting closer to the joy to which that t-shirt’s axiom also alluded… but for the time being this’ll do nicely.

Swing For The Fences

All, Books, Creativity, Words, Writing

I recently took a writing class with David Corbett, a New York Times notable author who’s written numerous novels, short stories and poems, and recently published a book called ‘The Art of Character’. (As an aside, this book is excellent. If you’re a writer, and you’re serious about the craft, you should buy it. Seriously. Now). Throughout the class, David gave me a tonne of great feedback, but there was one phrase in particular that kept coming up in his notes.

“Swing for the fences.”

Swing for the fences? At first, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. Being a Brit, it’s not an idiom I’m too familiar with. But hey! I’m an intelligent guy, and I quickly worked out that it was probably a baseball reference (I was right) which, applied to my writing, meant: don’t hold back. Go all out. Let your imagination run wild… and take a risk or two.

It’s tricky sometimes, when you’re writing fiction that’s based—however loosely—on real events, because you tend to forget that fiction is not real life, and that you can, and should, make things happen that didn’t happen in real life. And those things can be way more fucked up, outrageous or heart-breaking than the events on which they’re based. Up until a short time ago, I shied away from writing anything I thought was too “far out”, and I often worry that my stories won’t be realistic. This is ridiculous, of course, for any number of reasons—not least because what does “realistic” mean these days anyway? You just need to spend ten minutes watching the news, or chatting to one of your more licentious friends, to remind yourself that the shit that goes on in real life is often way more fucked up, outrageous and heart-breaking than the stuff dreamt up by us writers. Unless you’re Chuck Palahniuk, of course. Or Stephen King. Or David Corbett, for that matter. Much like those writers, then, in order to make your story stand out, you need to go beyond the boundaries of the everyday, mundane reality of things. You need—in other words—to swing for the fences.

The other day, I rewrote a scene for the work-in-progress I’d submitted during David’s class. After I was done, I read it back and thought, wow. That’s really something. In fact, I couldn’t quite believe I had written it. I had done exactly as David urged me and swung for the fences, and it had paid off. Granted, it wasn’t exactly Chuck Palahniuk-fucked up, or Stephen King-terrifying, or even Junot Díaz-heartbreaking. But it was pretty far out—maybe even home-run far—whilst also being wholly believable within the context of the story.

And therein lies the key. Another teacher of mine, Jon Gingerich, once told me that while writing stories based on real events is all well and good, one has to be wary of becoming too attached to these events and putting them on the page simply because they happened that way. “Things that occur in fiction always happen necessarily,” he said, “because the writer is using these elements to yoke some deep-seeded meaning out of them. Whatever happens to your characters happens because the story needs them to reflect the thematic ideas you’re putting on the page.”

By marrying up these two pieces of advice, from two very wise men, I feel like I’m making progress…

Watch this space.