Having been delayed by heavy snowfall six weeks ago, the Fun a Day Dundee exhibition finally took place Friday to Sunday. This is a challenge to produce creative pieces during January.
The exhibition featured dozens of artists working in different media: plastic, paint, photography, wire, ceramic, &c. My pieces were almost entirely made of ink on paper. Most of them were displayed in a ring binder, but a few were hung on the wall by the organiser Sam Baxter.
I was only able to be there for the Friday launch and the tail end of Sunday, but I tried to keep away from my work as much as possible. I wanted to observe how people interacted with it, particularly the centrepiece, a sheet of Amazon packing paper inviting visitors to write their stories of corporate waste. Another exhibit comprised a sealed envelope emblazoned with ‘PRIVATE – DO NOT OPEN’ that was opened within 20 minutes of the public entering.
It felt strange to present my writing in such a manner. A writer mainly sees written feedback on finished pieces, often from publishers. Here, on the other hand, was the possibility of instant reactions on rough drafts. The feedback I heard was largely positive, though.
Two of the other artists I liked were David Kendall who produced works within cardboard boxes, and Yasmin Lawson‘s tiny but monolithic tower blocks.
As the name of the project suggests, I found it fun to take part. I intend to be involved next year, perhaps with something completely different.
I’ve written several novels, all of which remain unfinished and unpublished. In 2011, I drafted my second one, about a man who takes part in a challenge to win millions of pounds. Since then, I’ve periodically revisited the manuscript, but it never quite shaped it into a form I like.
The most recent attempt was over the bank holiday weekend. I sat down and fitted the key events into a structure that resembles a Hollywood screenplay. There are five major turning points that occur at set intervals during the narrative.
On the face of it, this sounds rather restricting, but for the first time in a long while, I’m actually excited about the project.
One stumbling block was a scene where the main character is taken to another country and left to find his way back to the UK. Having the structure to follow helped transform this rather long and dull trek into a series of shorter journeys, each part ending in a cliffhanger and raising the stakes a little higher.
Every so often, you’ll hear a novel or a film described as ‘formulaic’. This is usually caused by the writer making the structure too obvious. The turning points ought to be invisible to the casual reader or viewer, but they will be there, shaping the story into a form that audiences subconsciously expect.
Last week, I talked about how I hadn’t been reading very much. By contrast, I’ve had a lot of time to read over the last seven days, thanks to a six-hour train journey to Stockport and the same coming back.
Today’s entry isn’t just about reading, but reading out loud.
A friend mentioned last week that he didn’t like hearing back recordings of his own voice. I sometimes forget that most people feel the same way. I’ve long been accustomed to hearing mine through volunteering at student, community and hospital radio stations. I’d often listen back to shows and figure out how I could improve them.
I don’t recall exactly when I stopped paying attention to how I sound to myself, but it’s a useful skill to develop. When I play back my work, I can focus on the words, the timing and the structure without distraction.
I sometimes say on this blog that reading your own work out loud to nobody is a key step to refining it. On top of that, the ability to listen back can be just as useful.
A good example is The Purple Spotlights EP, which I released almost exactly two years ago. When I listen to it now, I can hear that I focus too much on the technical quality of the recording and not enough on the performance. When I release my next EP, I’ll aim to correct that balance.
One piece of advice commonly given to new writers is to read widely: to read within and beyond their genre, read classics and airport paperbacks, read Western authors and works in translation.
It’s great advice. The more books an author is exposed to, the richer their writing will probably become. Exciting things can happen when two styles meet; I’d read two Chris Brookmyre titles before I found out they’re supposed to be crime novels, not comedies. But lately, I feel as though I’m doing anything but reading.
I’ve been to see a couple of documentaries about Hedy Lamarr and Michael Caine respectively, I went to the StAnza poetry festival, I’ve seen I, Tonya and Lady Bird, I’ve played bingo, I’ve been to a lecture about the Higgs boson particle, I’ve seen a production of Spring Awakening. In short, I’ve been having a ball – and that ball was on Saturday two weeks ago.
I don’t think there’s such a thing as a wasted experience. In fact, there are some authors whose real-life experiences are inseparable from their written work.
Andy McNab first came to prominence with Bravo Two Zero, an account of an SAS mission in the early 1990s. He’s since gone on to write fiction that draws upon his knowledge and skills. PD James worked in the criminal justice system and the NHS for a long time and infused her expertise into her books.
It probably doesn’t hurt if you don’t read as much as you’d like. There are experiences everywhere, just waiting to be written about.
A friend of mine has a phrase: ‘Better felt than telt’. The last word is the Scots way of saying ‘told’, and the phrase means you can gain more insight from being somewhere then reading about it.
This blog is updated every Monday at 6pm. To the reader of any regular publication, it should seem as though the content trickles out on a predictable basis. But that rarely happens in practice.
In my case, I’m sometimes able to plan two or three entries ahead, or I have difficulty deciding what to leave out. Other times, I’m still deciding on a subject or writing an entry a few hours before it’s due to be published.
This week has fallen firmly into the second category, bringing little writing news, other than a rejection e-mail that simply said: ‘Gavin. Clever, but not quite what we are looking for.’
So rather than swerve off-topic for the sake of making an entry, I was going to leave this one here and think about next week’s content.
That was until I learnt that my friends at The Beans Podcast had a worse week than I did. They’ve lost an entire episode.
On Saturday, I made my annual trip to StAnza, the poetry festival in St Andrews. And what better way to start than Breakfast at the Poetry Café with a pastry and a panel of four poets, namely Sara Hirsch, Jan Baeke, Esther Mijers and Luke Pell. They talked about the inclusion or exclusion of the self in their work, with an extensive discussion on pronouns.
I then moved on to the 12 Showcase, featuring some of the women who collaborate and respond to each others’ poetry via a shared Google document. Dispensing with introductions or explanations, they formed an almost hypnotic chain of verse full of back references and tangents, infused with their individual styles.
Past & Present saw Oli Hazzard speaking about John Ashbery, then W.N. Herbert speaking about W.S. Graham. It’s often difficult to know what to leave out when speaking about a prolific figure, but in their respective 25 minutes, each poet gave a broad sense of their subjects to the packed audience.
StAnza’s theme this year was Going Dutch, ‘shining a spotlight on the poetry of Flanders and the Netherlands in Dutch and Frisian.’ There were Dutch poets peppered throughout the event, but Five O’Clock Verses was the first time I’d heard anyone speak Frisian, the language most closely related to English.
When Tsead Bruinja performed in the language, I was reminded of a childhood memory. In Scotland, there used to be five minutes of Gaelic news shown every evening, and I’d be able to pick out borrowed words such as helicopter. In Bruinja’s case, the most outstanding term was double-D, referring to the bra size. Although he set a high standard, Tara Bergin was able to match it with her absurdist poetry, all delivered in English.
Poetry Centre Stage is held in the main auditorium of the Byre Theatre and is always a must-see. I’ve heard a lot about William Letford, but I don’t recall seeing him before. Half of his 40-minute set was devoted to a story cycle about a family who go to live in the forest. It sounded a lot like prose, but it was written in a wonderfully poetic manner. I left before Liz Lochhead’s appearance because I wanted to prepare for my personal highlight.
The StAnza Slam gives two and a half minutes to 12 participants, all eager to impress a panel of judges. Four of them would then progress to a second knockout round, with three minutes allowed.
I’m pleased to report that I managed to enter the second round with a piece called Sir Madam that’s proved popular at previous events. However, Jo Gilbert deservedly walked away with the prize after a poem about cake.
Although slam competitions are by nature competitive, they tend not to be ego-driven – at least in my experience – and I think that’s great.
For the last decade or so, StAnza has complemented the Dundee Literary Festival, which has traditionally been held in October. While StAnza appears to be stable, there might not be a Dundee event this year as we’ve normally been given news by now. If it doesn’t happen, Dundee writers might just have to pull together and hold an unofficial one of our own.
In the middle of last week, the UK was hit by an exceptionally strong gust of snow. My area was given a rare Red Warning, and that led to some cancellations and closures.
On Thursday, for instance, my office was closed and I was excused from doing the ‘day job’. I instead used the time to send work to a publisher. On Friday, I was supposed to be exhibiting my Fun a Day pieces created during January, but that’s been postponed. In fact, the one event that went ahead as normal was partly outdoors.
So on Saturday, I visited the Botanic Gardens in Dundee, whose volunteers are compiling an anthology of written and visual work inspired by the grounds. To this end, they’ve organised Focus Days where writers, photographers and artists are given a tour of the trees and plants to generate ideas. In this instance, the tour was restricted to the heated glass houses, although the participants seemed willing to go out in the snow.
The tour was followed by a lively discussion about the work that should appear in the anthology and how it should be created. Some of us shared our existing work; I read a piece I’d already submitted for consideration and three of the other members inferred religious symbolism where there wasn’t intended to be any.
Frustratingly, no consensus was reached about the anthology as a whole, but we reconvene in three weeks and we’re looking to take it forward from there.
If any new work was generated by Saturday’s visit, it’ll probably be infused by the ambient conditions. Some writers use it almost as a character in its own right and, done well, it can enhance a scene without distracting the reader. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee invokes sticky summer heat; Kirsty Logan steeps The Gracekeepers with a cold sea chill.
Even when you’re trying to create a fictional universe, of course, nobody can escape the weather. Shooting began on the first Star Wars film 42 years ago this month in Tunisia, a location chosen for its desert landscape. On the second day, the country was hit by a rare winter rain that hadn’t been seen for 50 years, destroying sets and damaging equipment.