In Latin America, magic is in our blood. Our history, our days are filled with magic, either for reasons of religious syncretism or for fear of the unknown, or, rather, a great love for surprises. When something inexplicable happens—and in Latin America life itself is inexplicable—that’s magic.
The first thing I saw this morning as I walked out of my hostel was a guy on a bike, riding up the middle of the street on one wheel. Just a kid, sitting back with a big grin on his face, front wheel high in the air. And not just for a second, either. I stood and watched as he rode all the way down the street like that. Brilliant. What a way to start the day.
This is Barcelona.
Four days now, I’ve been back here. The first day I just walked. Alone. Trudged the streets in the baking heat, from the Raval to El Born. Down to the port, where the seagulls are as big as eagles, and dirty as the water by which they strut. Like me, they seemed to be searching for something… Halfway up to Barceloneta, I stopped and sat on a bench and watched a skater in tight black jeans and no shirt doing tricks, while his girlfriend rode behind him on a bike, filming it all on her phone. I didn’t go any further after that. I went back, wandered ’round the Raval for a bit, but called it quits at around two, beaten by the heat and the weight of memory.
Today is different. Today I feel better. I’m back into the swing of things—back into the groove of this city. After watching the guy wheelie all the way down Calle Hospital, I put on my sunglasses, turned left, turned left again, walked a couple of blocks, and there—on the corner—was a café I’d never seen before. A perfect little place, with wooden booths, and sunshine streaming in through the window…
This feeling I have right now, it comes from another place. A place that I seem to be able to access far more easily when I’m here. Here, in this place, I feel more open—more susceptible to the beauty of it all. And it seems to me that by perceiving the beauty of it all, of our surroundings, and of the possibilities they present… well, one can’t help but marvel at it all. The light, the colours—even the little things, like this bowl of sugar before me. Sugar so brown and rich in its brownness I want to pick up the little wooden spoon and eat it straight from the bowl. I don’t do that, though. Instead, I look to my right and there above the bar, above the shelves of jars containing teas and other infusions, is an array of wooden blocks, each one with a letter on the front, and each letter has been fashioned in a different way. Carved into the wood, or stencilled on, the letters spell out the name of the café.
It looks kind of like this:
C o L e c t i v 0.
The people who come into the café, they all say hello. It’s a general hello to everyone—even me. I don’t respond at first, but then I do. “Bon dia…” Do people do this in England? I can’t help but think that the reaction would be less receptive… “Why are you saying hello to me? I don’t fuckin’ know you…”
I want to tell you about what happened the other night. Walking back from the restaurant, cutting across Calle de les Floristes de la Rambla, and two guys passed me. They weren’t running, but they were out of breath, like they had been. Running, I mean. They were talking, muttering to each other in hushed, conspiratorial tones. Anyway, a minute later (less?) I round the corner, into the plaza that backs onto the mercat, and I see a man in construction gear, standing with his neck craned, looking past me. Behind him, a couple—tourists, clearly—and they look distressed. The woman is crying, panting, struggling for breath. Immediately, I understand: they’ve been robbed. I stop. Shit. The two guys that passed me, a matter of seconds before. Surely. The construction worker, he’s trying to help, seeing if he can spot the culprits. What can I do? They’re long gone. I didn’t even see which direction they went. I start to walk over to the couple, but they are already retreating. The woman is literally howling. I hope the guy will hold her, comfort and reassure her.
Today is a new day, though. A good day. Today is all about the light, as it comes through the leaves and branches of the trees. Leaves and branches that make shadows on the stone, and the shadows shift with the breeze, gentle and pleasant. The light here is so bright, that even under the shade of the trees—these giant chestnut trees—sunglasses are a necessity. I’m in Gràcia, now, sitting on a bench in a square. On my way over I saw a notice. Hand-written, stuck on the side of a building on C/ Verdi: “Apartment for sale: a duplex, with three rooms and two bathrooms, 180 square metres. 450,000 Euros.” Cripes. People cross the plaza before me. A family of tourists. A hippie lady with three dogs. One of them cannot walk properly—it has wheels attached to its hind legs, and it scoots along, behind the others. My eyes roam over to the tables outside the café in the corner of the square. There’s a man, watching me. I know he’s watching me, even though he’s wearing sunglasses. In fact, that’s how I know he’s watching me. That’s why anyone wears sunglasses: to watch you as you sit and write about them. Of course it is. This guy who’s watching me, he’s wearing a t-shirt with the name of a band. The band is Flipper. I know Flipper, but I wonder: would anyone have heard of Flipper if it weren’t for Kurt Cobain? I doubt it. So what, though? That’s okay. No-one cares. Not here! This is Barcelona…
I’m now sitting in the exact spot where the guy in the Flipper shirt was sitting. The place is called La Cafetera. On the table in front of me is a bottle of Voll Damm—the double malt beer that comes from the same brewery as Estrella, which the Brits pronounce: “estrella”. As opposed to “es-tray-ah”… which would also be wrong, the way I pronounce it. I prefer Moritz, anyway. Whatever. It’s not important. On the bench where I was sitting a few minutes before, there are two old guys. They’re Spanish (as opposed to Catalan) and one of them strums a guitar with his thumb, singing a song that sounds like that one by the Gypsy Kings. His hair is grey, his teeth almost all gone, and he has a voice that crackles from too many cigarettes. I think maybe he’s Andalucian. His compadre is tall, dressed in a smart shirt and old, ill-fitting blue jeans. He sits and rolls a joint, discarding the cigarettes from which he has just pinched the tobacco, chucking them on the ground. A few yards away, sitting on the stoop of a store with its shutter pulled down, is another guy, smoking a cigarette and glancing across, kinda shiftily. The tall guy starts bawling at him, his voice as throaty and hackneyed as his guitar-strumming amigo. The guitarist cackles: they are taking the piss out of the stoop guy. The stoop guy tells them to fuck off, basically. They laugh. These men remind me of the men on the cover of that copy of Hemingway’s ‘Men Without Women’ that sits on my bedside table back at home. Where do they live, these men? Maybe they live in that duplex. The one that costs half a million euros. What? You don’t know.
You know nothing, Jon Snow…
This is true. Here I know less than nothing. It feels good, though—like being given a clean slate. I can feel my insignificance increasing every day, and with it goes my fear. My worries, my regrets… Oh, but this is a wonderful spot! The buildings, with their tall, rectangular windows and faded green shutters, and the balconies enclosed by iron spears, black as an oil slick. They’re barely wide enough to stand on, those balconies, but still. To live in one of those apartments… fabulous! Luxury beyond luxury. One day, baby. You and me. I watch the guitarist stand up and stretch and smoke his joint, before picking up his guitar and slowly sauntering off. Kinda bow-legged. He nods at a woman eating from a carton of stir-fry, bids her bon profit. She nods in acknowledgement and carries on, hoisting noodles and fried egg and spring onions into her mouth with chopsticks. Mm. I’m hungry.
It’s time to move on…”
Some days you’re just more open to the world around—more attuned to the melodies that play over the rhythm of your everyday routine. Why it happens, some days more than others, I don’t know. Quality of the coffee, maybe. The weather. A really good night’s sleep. Whatever the reason, it’s important to take advantage of those moments—those moments when your sense of wonder is heightened.
Every morning I write my pages. Anywhere I am—in the coffee shop, on the plane. Wherever. The other day I was at a school, doing some support, and having arrived an hour or so early, I sat down in the staffroom to do my pages. (I’m working a new short story, which I’m quite excited about, but I need to nail the ending, so I was hammering out some words and just playing around with different versions.) Anyway, about halfway down the page, three staff came in—all women—and started making coffee and chatting about their weekend. Whether or not they noticed me, sitting in the corner, I don’t know. Maybe they did, and maybe they didn’t care. Either way, they carried on their conversation, and as it turned out one of them had been to Ibiza for the weekend…
“So, how was it?”
“Oh, fantastic. No kids, just me and Chris.”
“Wow, I bet that was nice. Did you party all night long?”
“Yep. Lots of cocktails…”
“Ooh, I like Sex on the Beach…”
“Didn’t have any of those. Had a few mojitos, though.”
“Strawberry daiquiris—they’re my favourite…”
“Yep, had a couple of those.”
“Although, I went to this cocktail bar the other night in Milton Keynes called Turtle Bay, and it really put me off them, ‘cos they just didn’t know how to make ‘em properly…”
“Well, at this one place we went to they made us watermelon daiquiris.”[Cue both the other women basically having kittens.]
“Ooh, that’s a bit different…”
“Bet they were lush.”
At which point, all three now with their mugs of instant coffee in hand, drifted out of the staffroom, leaving me with a big grin on my face. Come on, I thought. That was amazing. You’ve got to get it down…
Writers are often encouraged to eavesdrop, as a means of developing their ear for dialogue. But really, who needs an excuse? Hearing a conversation like that just sets you up for a good day. Which it was: the boys in my writing group all managed to knock out a decent story (well, almost all of them… a half-decent one, anyway) and then, later, for some reason the girl at Pret gave me a free flat white and a discount on a cheese toastie!
So, there you go. Increased awareness. Watermelon daiquiris. And free coffee.
It’s all good.
Let’s get the ranting out of the way first, shall we?
Maybe I’m just getting old, or maybe humanity is getting worse. Maybe both. I don’t know, but this year—more than any other—I’m finding my levels of irritation at the people who spend the whole time taking photos of the band—rather than actually watching and listening to the band—have reached an all-time high. Take this girl who rocks up during Mineral’s set on Thursday evening, stands right in front of me, and takes at least twenty shots of a band she’s probably never even heard of. And then just leaves. I mean, seriously. Why bother?
Another thing that really grinds my gears is how much people talk during the sets. Mostly Europeans, it has to be said, with Italians being the worst culprits. Yes, you speak a beautiful language and usually it’s a pleasure to listen to you parlare. And no, I’m not one for standing in complete silence for the entire performance, but if you don’t have any interest in what’s going on up there onstage, please: piss off and have your conversation elsewhere. By the bar, perhaps, or in that massive, empty expanse of land between the stages—anywhere, in fact, but right next to me, because I’m trying to dig on this guy’s music. This guy, who’s tearing it up like the bastard son of Chuck Berry and Jimmy Page, his name is Benjamin Booker: a Virginia-born rock ‘n’ roll wunderkind, whose attempts to get a round going during ‘L’il Liza Jane’ may fall disappointingly flat—“you guys can’t be cool all the time”—but whom nevertheless confirms his place on my list of this year’s essential acts.
But wait. Let’s back it up a sec. We’re at Primavera Sound. It’s a music festival, held in a huge, purpose-built leisure park just above the seafront in Barcelona. It is good. From the moment you pass through the turnstiles and saunter over toward the Ray-Ban stage, casting your eyes out over the horizon, where one impossible shade of blue meets another, you get a sense of being part of something special. This year marks the fifteenth edition of the event, and my fifth time attending. By the time it’s all over, I’ll be bordering on ecstatic. Why? Well, because for a start I’ll have seen Patti Smith. Twice. Once, performing her 1975 debut, Horses, in full, out on the main stage, and then again, inside the Auditori Rockdelux, where she will forget the lyrics to ‘A Perfect Day’ by Lou Reed, but deliver a set of such raw beauty and righteous fury I won’t quite know what to do with myself. I’ll have seen everyone from Sleater-Kinney to Sleaford Mods, Spiritualized, and Swans. I’ll have danced like a loon to Run The Jewels, stared in awe at Earthless’ guitar god, Isaiah Mitchell, and had my eardrums perforated by Sunn O))). I’ll have shed tears during José González’s set, and declared Fucked Up the best band I’ve ever seen… only to change my mind after Einstürzende Neubauten’s set an hour and a half later. I’ll have survived on a diet of Heineken, veggie burgers, coffee and Tex-Mex, and decided that The Strokes, The Black Keys and Interpol are all massively overrated. I’ll have missed the one band I really wanted to see—Battles—due to their performing on some stupid “hidden stage” for which you needed to purchase separate tickets. I’ll have soon forgotten about that though, along with a bunch of other, great moments… and so, before it all escapes into the mists of time, here are just a few of my highlights of Primavera Sound 2015…
1. José Gonzalez
“Well, it’s one thing to fall in love/ But it’s another to make it last…
Put your hand on your heart and tell me, it’s all over…”
So sings José González, on ‘Hand On Your Heart’. Well, José, as cheesy as it sounds, I can put my hand on my heart and say yours was a truly wonderful performance (Friday, Auditori Rockdelux). Your unmistakeable, haunting voice—fragile yet full-bodied—echoed all the way to the back where I was seated, bathing us all in the warmth of your wisdom as well as the pain of your suffering. I enjoyed every second of your sixty-minute set, which included a spine-tingling cover of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ and—of course—your version of ‘Heartbeats’, by The Knife. It was your own material, however, that induced an unexpected spillage of eye-juice from this otherwise cynical hack: on ‘Walking Lightly’, you manage to turn a simple refrain into a profoundly moving mantra with guitar notes that shimmer like drops of summer rain. Excellent work.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m all for taking children to festivals and exposing them to live music from a young age, but I’m not sure about making them sit through a set by Swans (Saturday, Auditori Rockdelux). And yet, lo and behold, as I settle into my seat down at the front, a quick glance to my right and there’s a woman sitting with a girl of about nine. A little boy, too. Woah! I mean, imagine trying to prepare them for it: “Well, sweetheart, you know those scary dreams you get—the ones you come into mummy and daddy’s room to escape, only to find us making strange noises from under the covers? Yes, well, it’ll be a bit like that. But louder. A lot louder. There’ll also be a guy with no shirt on playing the trombone and a huge gong—oh, and did I mention it’ll go on for over two hours?”
Of course, there’s every chance that little girl was Michael Gira’s own daughter, who sang on the band’s 2010 album… in which case I shall shut my mouth. Either way, heavy music doesn’t get much better than this. My God. There are many words to describe how you feel after leaving a Swans show: purged… liberated… cleansed… deaf. Most of all, however, you feel grateful—grateful that Michael Gira exists and is still making music of such bone-rattling power and savage emotion. Utterly astonishing.
3. Death From Above 1979
The big sexy beast that is Sebastien Grainger—singer and tub-thumper extraordinaire for Death From Above 1979—is dressed in a pair of white dungarees y nada más, by the looks of it. “We’re here to destroy your stages,” he announces, three songs into their set down on the Ray-Ban Stage (Friday). “I hope that’s okay…” The remarkably sizeable crowd indicates that that is very much okay by going a dozen different strains of doolally to the Canadian duo’s dirty bass riffs. It’s quite a sight to behold. Mind you, material from last year’s The Physical World still doesn’t sound a patch on the colossal cuts from You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine—especially ‘Romantic Rights’, which as an absolute choon.
4. The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger
One of the unwritten rules of Primavera Sound is that when a girl asks if you want to go with her and watch The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger, you say yes. Even if you’ve no idea who they are, or what they sound like, or if you think their name is slightly preposterous. You just go. You go, and you watch and you get a bit drunk and you have a good time, because it turns out TGOASTT is Sean Lennon’s band (I think his dad was famous back in Sixties or something) and because the dude can shred, and because their swirling, psychedelic pop makes perfect sense in the baking sunshine on a Saturday evening in Barcelona.
5. Fucked Up
Did Fucked Up play this festival last year, or the one before? Were there always so many people in the band? Why hasn’t anyone noticed that Father Damian’s mic isn’t working? And how can a song whose chorus consists of a cry of “dying on the inside” sound so uplifting? These are just some of the questions that go though my head as I catch the last twenty minutes of the hardcore-progsters’ slot on the Pitchfork stage on Saturday evening. The answer to all the above is, of course, a massive “Who cares?” Especially after seeing Damian squat-walk across the stage with his shirt over his head, or hear him declare that he’s lost “like a hundred and twenty pounds over the last year” solely by smoking weed.
6. Einstürzende Neubauten
Einstürzende Neubauten not only have a name very few people can pronounce properly, they are, surely, the only group who’ve brought along a metal trough, filled it with strips of metal and suspended it above the back of the stage. Famed for creating and building their own instruments, and making use of all manner of industrial materials, Neubauten deliver, hands down, the most captivating set of the weekend—even the group of Italians next to me is silenced. Fifty-something frontman, Blixa Bargeld—resplendent in a three-piece suit of charcoal grey and no shoes—is a model of German stoicism and creepy, gothic attitude, veering between dark, softly-spoken monologues, and screams so high-pitched they almost defy belief; bassist Alex Hacke, meanwhile, is a dead ringer for forgotten Steve Coogan character, Tony Ferrino.
Earthless’ From The Ages, released back in 2013, is an album that’s never too far from my CD player: four tracks of mind-melting psych-jamming led by Isaiah Mitchell’s Hendrixian guitar shreddage, with a rhythm section that features Mike Eginton (Electric Nazarene) and Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes, OFF!). When first I take my place for the San Diegan trio’s midnight set on the adidas Originals stage, the audience comprises just a few savvy punters. By the time first track, ‘Uluru Rock’, is finished, the crowd has quadrupled in size—Mr Mitchell clearly being a modern day Pied Piper of Hamelin, drawing children from all corners of the park. The fact that some band called The Strokes is shambling through their headline slot at the other end may have something to do with it, but whatever led them to arrive here, no-one leaves Earthless feeling anything less than exultant.
I finish this year’s festival by treating myself to a taxi back into the city and walking up La Rambla back to my hostel. It’s three o’clock on Sunday morning, and this is when everything you’ve ever heard about Barcelona is happening, all at once. Police vans and handcuffed street thieves, Pakistanis selling cans of beer for one euro, leathered tourists from Russia, Spain and England, and hookers of all shapes and sizes, plying their wares on the corners of every carrer. Drunk, tired and elated, the dazzling light from the street-lamps that line the entire stretch rendering the whole scene a little more surreal, I smile, drinking it all in, feeling cool and invisible—right up until the moment someone makes a grab for my phone (or possibly my crotch) after which point, naturally, I pick up the pace slightly…
Buenas noches, Primavera! Until next time…
So, my old buddy Ben got hitched. Yep. He and Tahlia finally tied the knot, down in “sunny” Cornwall. It was beautiful, despite the rain. Best man’s duties fell to Jake (Ben’s bru), who is also one of my dearest friends, so I wasn’t at all miffed at missing out on that job. Besides, I really don’t think I could have delivered a speech quite as special as the one Jake did. Oh, boy. No, siree…
Why, I hear you cry? What happened? What made it so special? Well, first of all, he was nervous, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen Jake nervous about anything. He was so nervous, in fact, that he asked me to listen to him do a final read-through an hour before, upstairs, in his bedroom. With the door locked. At the end, he couldn’t quite get the words out without crying. I’ve never seen him cry before, either. I almost laughed. You’ll be fine, I lied, gave him a hug, and we went downstairs, back to the marquee and the one hundred and thirty-odd waiting guests.
Things started off fine. First, he read out some messages from people who couldn’t be there, and it was funny (“Hi Jake… Hm. Bit weird”). Then he began the main speech, talking about all the things he could mention about his old brother… but won’t. His shoes, his hair, his soul patch. There was even a toast to the soul patch. Again, very funny. After that he talked about all the jobs Ben had had over the years and how he’d basically been fired from them all and/or caused the companies to fold… and it was during this part that things started to go awry. Like, spectacularly. Because for some reason, he decided to turn the focus of the speech to himself, about how well his suit fitted, and how good his hair looked, and so on. He returned to these themes later, without warning, and he made jokes about his own jokes—the ones he’d just made—and commented on whether or not he thought they had worked. At one point he told a crying kid to shut up. (He claims he said “chill out”, but whatever). People didn’t really know what to make of it, which made it even funnier.
The whole time, I watched and listened from the back, loving every minute, like I was watching and listening to a member of my own family. Which I was. When he came to the serious part—a genuinely heartfelt tribute to his big brother, who had taught him to snowboard and helped him through some pretty tough times, but adding that he never takes life too seriously in spite of how tough things get—my heart soared, and I willed him on as he struggled to keep it together.
Afterwards, I couldn’t help but think: that’s how to do it. That’s how to deliver a wedding speech. Okay, so he ballsed up the ending a bit, repeated himself a couple of times, and went on for about twenty minutes too long, but for all its imperfections it was all absolutely glorious.
So, here’s to you Jakey. Good job. And congratulations once again to Ben and Tahlia. You guys rock.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.