Matt Pucci - This is Barcelona

An Exercise In Perception

All, Barcelona, Sitting, Words, Writing

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 c t 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…”

Watermelon Daiquiris

All, Teaching, Words, Writing

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.]

Watermelon?

“Yep.”

“Ooh, that’s a bit different…”

“Bet they were lush.”

“They were…”

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.

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.

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.

Dear Writing…

All, Hate, Sitting, Words, Writing

Dear Writing,

Don’t take this wrong, but… well… sometimes I really hate you.

For a start, you force me to get me up, every morning—way earlier than anyone in their right mind would want to get up—sniff through the pile of clothes by my bed, get dressed and walk to a nearby café, where I’ll spend the next few hours in your company. You make me sit down, which is bad for my health, apparently. You make me drink coffee, which stains my teeth and sends me a bit loopy if I have too much. (Okay, you don’t make me do that, and compared with the other vices on which other writers depend, coffee’s hardly the most malignant). You do make my back ache though, as I become more and more engrossed in you, forgetting about the importance of sitting up straight and maintaining correct posture…

Damn you, Writing!

It’s bad enough you made me commit career suicide—not just once, or twice, but three times. You had me leave a stable, well-paid job, with prospects and a pension. And for what? Now you keep me awake at night, as I try to find solutions to problems you’ve created, teasing me with new ideas when I haven’t even finished fleshing out the ones you gave me last time. Oh, and that thing you do, when you wake me up in the middle of the night, to tell me, Hey, that sentence you were struggling to put together earlier today? Well, here it is. Cheers, mate. I mean, not to sound ungrateful or anything, but do I have to hear it right now? It’s three a.m…

You bastard.

My memory’s a little hazy sometimes, but I’m pretty sure I was doing fine before you came along. Now you distract me from other, more worthy endeavours, such as swimming, making money, having sex, and checking Facebook. And yes, you’ve taken me to some interesting places—literally and psychologically—but they were places I really didn’t need to go. Uncomfortable places. Places that have allowed me to discover who I am. Worse still, you’ve given me a sense of purpose—a goal, an ambition—when all I want to do is sit on my arse and watch old Simpsons episodes, or whatever’s on Sky Atlantic HD. On occasion, you even—whisper it—give me a sense of hope, when, really, we all know that hope is futile, and that we’re all doomed. And for that, I really hate you.

But I think the thing I hate most about you is that you know, in spite of my desire to do other things, and my dalliances with other art-forms and creative outlets, that I’ll always come back to you. No matter how many dead ends you lead me down, how many rejection slips you get me, how many glazed looks of disinterest you’d have me receive. You know I’ll be back…

Oh, Writing, you smug old git.

So, yes, sometimes I really do hate you. Savage Garden-style—truly, madly, deeply. Lifelong-partner-style. For all the early mornings, the backache and the deteriorating eyesight. For all the pain you cause me. But the truth is, I wouldn’t have it any other way. No siree. Not in a million years. Because—to paraphrase the great Mr. Gregory Porter—even the worst days with you are better than the loneliness I’d feel without you.

Yours (hatefully)

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.

A Writer’s Shame

All, Barcelona, Book stores, Books, Bookshops, Reading, Writing

La Central bookshop in the Raval district of Barcelona is fast becoming my hang-out spot of choice. Not only is it air-conditioned and quiet—making it a safe-haven from the brocationers, flashpackers and multigens that descend upon this city in droves during these unbearably sticky summer months—it also houses a wonderfully diverse selection of reading material, which includes a pretty decent English language section. Here you’ll find everyone from Paul Auster to Zadie Smith; Vladimir Nabakov to Chuck Palahniuk; Jane Austen to William H. Gass… whatever your tastes, be they classic, contemporary or cult, this place has something for you.

Before I start sounding too much like a company representative, it’s worth pointing out that, for me, browsing the shelves of a well-stocked bookshop triggers a whole bunch of emotions—and not all of them positive. On the one hand, it’s great; I love it, being surrounded by so many inspirational works of literature, and indulging in fantasies of one day seeing my name up there as well… on the other, I hate it, because I get what I call writer’s shame. That realisation that there is a serious number of key works of literature I still haven’t read. And many of them, I really should have read by now, shouldn’t I? Books that every writer worth his salt has read. When I look up at the numerous titles by the likes of J.G. Ballard, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison and Tom Wolfe, I hear a voice inside my head—and for the record, it’s not my voice, or any one particular person’s, but rather a composite of all my better-read friends and family members—asking that horrible, rhetorical question; “What, you’ve never read [insert title/name of immeasurably important novel/author]? And you call yourself a writer?” My response to this tends to be something along the lines of: “Hey, I’ve been busy. Working… Eating… Reading other books—books you haven’t read and probably should have, so shut up, yeah?” And then I get all pissed off and walk out, deliberately knocking over the display of Paul Coelho novels on my way.

Then I calm down and remind myself that I’ve actually read a shit-load of books, from a whole range of genres, and that they were all important, because I came to read each one of them for a reason, and each one has helped me on my journey as a writer in terms of finding my own ideas, my own style, and my own voice. And yes, there’s a shit-load more to read, and it’s good to stretch yourself, to diversify, but goddammit, there are only so many hours in the day. So, I select just one of those Terribly Important Works of Literature, or one of those books that someone has recommended—or even one that I’ve never even heard of but just like the colour of the dust jacket—and I take it to the counter and pay for it. And then I head back out into the sunshine and promise myself that next time—next time—I’ll buy Empire of the Sun… or As I Lay Dying… or Beloved… or The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test…

Going Pro

All, Editing, Words, Writing

So, I’ve recently taken the plunge and gone pro with this whole editing malarkey.

When I say gone pro, I mean I tell people that’s what I do now. As in: that’s my job. As in: that’s how I earn a living. Pay the rent. Feed my addictions. It makes me feel good, telling people that, because I really enjoy the work and what’s better than doing what you enjoy and getting paid for it?

The truth of the matter is, only a man of very modest needs would be able to live off what I’ve earned from editing thus far. In fact, the only paid gig up to now has been a sub-editing job on a young adult/romance novel, written by a long-time friend of mine from the States. (More on that another time, but suffice to say it’s very, very good). Other than that, it’s all been freebies and favours—writers helping writers—while I try to make the last lot of the wages from my job as a primary school teacher stretch as far as possible.

And that’s okay… for the time being. Like I said, I enjoy the work, and even if I’m not being paid for it, I take pride in offering a professional-level service. For example, I’ve just finished working on a short story written by a young author from Dundee. It’s the fourth or fifth piece I’ve read by this author, and although I enjoyed those others and felt that each story had its strengths, this particular piece really grabbed me—a funny, touching scene about an ex-RAF fighter pilot who decides to stand up to the young ruffians (or as he describes them, “mullipuffs”) that have been terrorizing the passengers on the local bus route—and I felt it represented his work at its most complete. After an exchange of emails, in which I offered a few suggestions—including an alternative ending—and a number of line edits, the author came back with a revised version that read much more smoothly. And though he chose not to follow all of the suggestions I’d made, the net result was a piece with which we were both happy, and one that will published shortly. Job, as they say, done.

Of course, the time will come when I have to say “no” to doing it entirely for free. That’s going to be hard, because it’s always hard to refuse another writer help (and in all honesty it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever flat-out reject a fellow writer’s request for assistance). But a man’s got to eat—and besides, a large part of going pro is having the self-belief to say I deserve to be paid for this. I’m good enough, dammit. Not everyone’s going to feel the same, but those that do, those that put their trust in your abilities… well, they shall be rewarded handsomely.