When There is No Fresh Juice
I recently returned from a short break in Berlin where the weather was depressing, where I didn't feel too good, and where the creative impulse seemed, for whatever reason, to have been expunged.
I returned and wrote on my blog about how empty I felt. Certainly I didn't imagine writing new material today, and if I was to write anything, surely it would be rubbish?
So, should I sit back and wait for the muse, or clean my desk, or go for a long run? Maybe I could go to an internet "writers site" and spend dizzy hours there chatting about inanities, or get into a flame war, or maybe (on the writing site) begin an earnest hot-stuff discussion sans faits about Iraq or the price of fish…
One thing I didn't do was cook breakfast, not even a cup of tea or put the percolator on. I didn't dress, didn't shower. I came down-stairs, sat in my office, and even though I didn't feel in the zone, I placed my butt there!
In Boot Camp there was a notification of a competition, ah-hah, and I had an email from a colleague mentioning the same. Surely, this friend said, I had something right for it?
Yes, I did, but the stories I had were too long, or too short. Not to worry, maybe there'll be another day, another competition, and another excuse? Beside I needed to post some prompts for the Boot Campers. THEY at least were going to write today (there's a story deadline tomorrow.)
For prompts, I often visit letters (I love Martha Gellhorn's, for example) or poetry, or story openings. Letters are voiced, full of passion. Poetry is voiced too, but it often echoes, resonates, opens windows and doors. A single line from a poem can set off a chain reaction of words and ideas, driven by the soul, a gut reaction.
I left Martha alone this morning. Instead I visited an anthology from Bloodaxe Books (ISBN 1-85224-588-3) edited by Neil Astley and called "Staying Alive." Incidentally I strongly recommend this book and its sequel "Being Alive."
I opened the book at a random page and it appeared to be about a sense of place. (When I go word-divining I don't even, necessarily, start at the poem's title, or the author-name.) By chance I fell into a psychic space, a source, a hundred muses waiting) where the writers, knowing I would one day pass this way, had written these words. The editor, knowing my need had collected them together, the publisher, understanding me, where I am from, my inadequacies, had printed the book, specifically for me. I only had to read a few lines to know this.
The first poem (I think) began Language is the house with lamplight in its windows and the image immediately hit me, that sense of finally seeing the house after a long, long journey. I wonder if some pain-pleasures like this one are still available to us now we have routine transport, now we rarely get cold and wet. I remember, when I was in my late teens, an Air Force friend hitch-hiked from Norfolk to South Wales to meet up with me: a totally miserable trip, freezing, wet, and my mother warmed up some stew for him on the stove.
Those stews (always New Zealand Lamb) had so much fat in them that when the cooled they formed a thick white crust. I remember how we'd put on the gas, and break through the fat-crust, how it would then melt, dissolve into fantastic flavours.
I met this friend about a year ago, almost forty years on. He always says two things to me when we meet. First my RAF number, second, "Jonesy, your Mam's stew." He swears to this day that it was the best meal he ever ate. How curious, that despite two lives (three if you include my mother) the cross-roads of whatever we are have this huge sign overhead saying "Irish Stew!"
I remember, in military training, having to carry two men's gear for a twenty-mile route-march. I was timid, quiet, an outsider in this group, desperately unhappy, and genuinely hurting, with bleeding foot blisters, a red-raw back, totally soaked through, cold. When we finally "made it!" into camp we set up our two-man tents (me on my own) and crawled out of the rain. Then, half-an-hour later the cook clanged that it was time for food. I have a gag-and-throw-up aversion to celery and the food was a steaming bowl, of, yep, celery soup. I forced it down me, didn't throw up, and I knew, categorically, that day, that there was a God, and that he hated me, that he had singled me out for special treatment.
That single line (from a sequence by Anne Michaels) has reminded me of my mother, of my best friend, given me back the smells of a working-class kitchen, reminded me how thirty-forty years ago it really was a lot tougher. And of course it made me think of my mother (dead twenty years) and peripherally, my father. It makes me think of how the food we ate then, was laced with fat and flavour and I don't think we were all keeling over with heart attacks. It makes me think that when I holiday in Cornwall some of the meals are gigantic and probably just as fatty, and yet there are all these old people…
I began to realise that all the poems I was looking at made me ache (and remember I'm almost poetry-blind) but why did I ache? I flicked back to the beginning of the section to discover it was called "My People." All the poems were people looking back at what home means, what country means, what it is to be Welsh, watching the rape of the fair country, to be Irish and occupied, to live in a city divided by a wall, to be a Jew.
Diamond miners have to cut through rock and when they find a diamond it's still rough rock. Yet we can "mine" a poetry book and the diamonds have been discovered, dug from the earth, polished and given away free!
Here are the lines I copied:
My people pass through gardens untouched
that's why, so freely, we call it our own
there are places in Wales I don't go
She makes a quiet breakfast for herself
Yes, that is the door, and behind it they live
lovers seek refuge in succulent flesh
music, on fat-bellied instruments
collops of dog, gobbets of pig
teenagers fleeing to their rooms
of the forests, smashed faces, of the farms, stone trickle
open a map of middle-England
he seemed a hollow oak-trunk, covered with ivy
coffee steam making the van windows misty
old damp soaks through the wallpaper
Dai K lives at the end of a valley
and the road runs down through the empty gate
though you'd be pressed, exactly, to say where
I place my hope on the water
One morning early I met armoured cars
we worked nights as machine operators
the square where they burned books, it is beautiful
we will know where they are by their absence
language is the house with lamplight in its windows
there are moments when it seems to me, I've squandered my life
what are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
he walks briskly, out to infect a city
our dogs, silent, moving like shadows on the wall
comets, eclipses, tremors, forest fires
My people pass through gardens untouched…
OK, your nation, or your students, what gardens, what does this mean by untouched? Could you not start a story with this line? Could you not simply hear that voice and let it take you on a journey? Maybe you could add: That's why, so freely, we call it our own – notice the way the pauses change the meaning, add voice, colour, texture, make us dwell, dwell on the words, dwell in them.
There are places in Wales I don't go.
How did they know I was Welsh-Irish but born in Wales, brought up there, ache for my childhood? How did they know I would read this line two weeks before a short-story competition about how Wales has changed?
She makes a quiet breakfast for herself
was a line from the second stanza of the lovely poem 'A Summer Morning' by Richard Wilbur. Interestingly I didn't "see" the opening stanza, but this line just wanted to be copied. It reminds me of my mother and how she would sometimes, in later life, simply stand at the kitchen stove and wonder.
Yes, that is the door, and behind it they live:
and this, why does it aches so much? How many stories does it promise (and what if we combine ideas, the hearts and aches of poems from different times, different countries?)
Lovers seek refuge in succulent flesh:
I dropped an adjective or adverb there. I think it was "plump" not sure. I wonder why? Is the omission itself somehow significant? Looking at it, this one could almost be cliché.
But could Music, on fat-bellied instruments be clichéd?
How might we use that line, the thought, the voice, the direction? Could it combine with "Lovers seek refuge in succulent flesh" (for all I know it might be from the same poem. Without checking I don't know. What I know is that these lines, their ache, the way they "hang" and resonate, the way they set off connections in my head (or more, my soul) is near magical.
Collops of dog, gobbets of pig.
Do you even care what this means? Listen to the sounds, the feeling. Collops can mean slices (as in of meat) and relate also to roasted over coals. Right now I can't remember which poem that was from, but I do know that the two phrases buzz inside me.
Teenagers fleeing to their rooms.
This one is interesting. A single teen-ager fleeing to her room (or his room) well, that would be cliché. So why is this not? But I can feel how the plural idea would form itself around other ideas, would help me build a poem or a story.
Of the forests, smashed faces, of the farms, stone trickle.
Now I cheated here. I can't remember the original line or lines but I know I condensed the prose somehow.
But again, the point is, this "swells" makes me think, makes me want to write, makes me want to do something. When we find these things happening we should ask why, either directly or by writing to discover.
Open a map of middle-England.
I remember this a little, the poem, it was about how middle-Englishness seemed to hold such old values, merely in the village names. I can't tell you if, in fact, the poem has a bitter core or uses the idea subversively or turns it upside down, but what I can say is that the very idea seems to connect with me and I think I know what the author means. There is something so core-feeling, so fundamentally 'safe' and real about a quiet English village. Even though that safety is probably mythical, the fact that I can even imagine it matters and should be enough for a story.
He seemed a hollow oak-trunk, covered with ivy.
I'm sure I recently read somewhere (probably Ruth Padel's book) about the poet Seamus Heaney climbing into a hollowed tree and thinking how his being there altered the world he looked out at. But again, feel the words, their textures, the way they roll out, their warmth. Could you not start a story with that line? Would it not have its own grace and direction?
Coffee steam making the van windows misty.
So where are you now? Are you thinking 'Steamy Windows' the cliché, the Tina Turner song perhaps, or remembering days way gone by before air-conditioning and central heating (remember frost on the inside of windows?) or a café where she said she would meat you but failed to show? Merely reading this sentence I can generate half-a-dozen stories.
Old damp soaks through the wallpaper.
Another sentence which maybe, standing alone, looks a little bit cliché, but do you not now smell the room, see the two people not quite making it? Maybe it's "Cathy Come Home" or something 'kitchen-sink' from the sixties. Maybe just thinking 'the sixties' makes you wonder about the differences between black-and-white and colour memories… and when we remember is there colour? And wasn't life simpler, more naïve then? And remember those pompous, patronising talk-over voices on Pathe News? Were we really that stupid, that easy to manipulate?
Everyone hates the English, including the English.
The first bit, OK, the second bit much better, but the edge created in the pairing of the two could easily drive another poem or a short. You can substitute another nationality if you like, but curiously, interestingly, would "Americans" work? I don't think so:
Everyone hates the Americans, including the Americans.
I don't think that second bit would hold, do you? So what does that say, what stories are there?
Dai K lives at the end of a valley.
I rattled through this poem, "Synopsis of the Great Welsh Novel" by Harri Webb and it "had me going" being Welsh and occasionally writing in that vein.
I sometimes think of The Taffia (as in Mafia) and how "real Welshness" is like some middle-class educated secret (and magic key) passed round by some Druid inner-circle (probably worse now the MAs have started and are taking root.) Do I have any story ideas? Only about nineteen.
And the road runs down through the empty gate.
This line from an Irish poem I think, reminds me of a line in an old story of mine, and countless grainy black and white films, probably all cheesy, "How Green Was My Valley" being at the top of the list.
Why is it that memories of childhood are both vital to us and horribly cliché at the same time? Do those people who had an easy childhood have any idea how they mistreat those whose memories are clichés by glibly rattling out the Monty Python put-down, "We lived in a box at the top of our street…"
But the look and feel of that sentence, makes me want to write something. I just have to avoid the obvious lines.
Though you'd be pressed, exactly, to say where.
Hmmm, that looks plain now, but when I copied it, it felt a lot more. Perhaps the context mattered more than I realised. To what did it connect. What in it connected to me? And f I combine it with another line, what happens?
And the road runs down through the empty gate, though you'd be pressed, exactly, to say where, but it is there, it holds me, black and white, real.
There's a story lurking.
I place my hope on the water.
I love the line. I just wish it didn't set off "Smoke on the Water" in my head. It feels like a line from the last paragraph of a story, rather than an opener… I still wish I had written it.
One morning early I met armoured cars.
Wowzer. I fancy this would be better, in a wild and abstracted, surreal story, but whatever, what a great line, and what a prompt!
We worked nights as machine operators.
Ordinary? Maybe. But I can imagine it sparking a story. I get a sense of the people represented by the "we" almost instantly. And "night" and machines are always good for meaty stories.
The square where they burned books, it is beautiful.
Oh, this wasn't a line from a poem. It just came to me while I was typing, presumably triggered by something in the poems.
I'd read The Book Thief recently, and read in there about Nazi book-burnings, then, while on a bus tour of Berlin in the rain (this week) I saw the square, immaculate, manicured, and that felt incongruous.
Other things discovered in Berlin also felt incongruous, like people arrested by the Nazis and freed by judges for lack of evidence. Really?
We will know where they are by their absence.
I cheated here. The line was the absence (of trees) but I could probably write three or four shorter short stories directly from that as an opener.
Language is the house with lamplight in its windows.
We've been here, but I bet if I wrote about this now another set of hooks from cues would emerge.
There are moments when it seems to me, I've squandered my life.
Another line that now, coldly seems either a bit cliché or at least "stock" or "telly" but it's an easy start to a good story, and if you really think the opener is too "easy" well change it!
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
This is from Waiting for the Barbarians, and I'm sure I've read it before, somewhere. But for some reason I thought it was a fairly modern poem not a translation from Ancient Greek (did they think the barbarians were The Romans?) but can you not generate a short-story from the mere idea of everyone waiting?
He walks briskly, out to infect a city.
Almost immediately I get the idea of a virus, biological warfare, like some snippet of "24" or that Dustin Hoffman film. Damn those cheap thrillers, that wasn't what I wanted to think, wasn't where I wanted to go!
It must be that word "infect". I think the poem (if I can find it) had a different intent. What hits you?
Our dogs, silent, moving like shadows on the wall.
That first word "our" makes it all quite different for me. I love the long pauses created by the commas here and the whole image is fantastic, and would grace any story (Steal! Steal! Steal!)
Are they dogs?
Comets, eclipses, tremors, forest fires.
This was from "Death by Meteor" (George Szirtes) I think, a simple idea. If we knew the meteor landed at, say, midnight, and there was nothing we could do about it, what then?
The mere idea can give us a whole tranche of stories. The cheap ones will be simple "Science Fiction" what-ifs, but what else might we write?
I had to go out earlier (maybe a thousand words into this little essay) and detoured into Borders on my way back. Browsing the 3 for 2s I found two books on the resistance to the Nazi movement.
When I was in Berlin this had struck me as a very interesting subject, one I knew absolutely nothing about. How would I have fared under that regime? Badly, I think. I doubt I could have had the courage to stand against a state.
I failed to find the right books while in Berlin, yet here I am, a random moment, a random stop-off in the local American-owned bookstore and two jump out at me. Why?
Is this Big G showing off again, God leaking? Is it really mere coincidence that these books appear, mere serendipity?
Is there a story here?
Of course I bought the third book to make my three up, and then drifted into a second three. Then I remembered Tom Conoboy had suggested I look at a crime book by Xxxxxxx, so I picked that up, went for a coffee upstairs and read some. Then around me I realised it was almost all mothers-with-kids as if someone had picked the lock on the local institution, and…
And I bought some more poetry, for the poems themselves, for the poetry itself, for the inspiration, but also, for the connections there are always connections.