On Roles and Pigeonholes

In 2016, I graduated with an MLitt Writing Practice and Study degree from the University of Dundee. At the time, I was in the mindset that I wanted to write in as many different styles and formats as possible.

This wasn’t a problem until it was time to pull together all my work into what the syllabus described as a ‘unified dissertation’. In other words, the whole document had to flow, but my pieces were too dissimilar to achieve this easily. With the help of two tutors, we eventually solved the problem, but I still didn’t like having to adopt one role or to be pushed into one pigeonhole.

I only began to change my stance earlier this year when a friend posted a video of a TED talk about sugar addiction, which inspired me to start writing a spoken-word show about the struggles I’ve had with my weight. And for the first time, I felt as though I’d found a niche that I enjoyed occupying, and that I had plenty of material to fill.

That said, I’ve lost a lot of weight since starting to write that show. This is an achievement, but I feel as though it’s defeating the point of the narrative.

Notebook in which I log my weight every week
Notebook in which I log my weight every week

On Saturday, I went to my first Edinburgh Fringe shows of the season, all of which reinforced my dedication to sticking with my niche for as long as it takes.

The first two were by people I know, and could only have been written by them. John McCann has a deep understanding of politics in Northern Ireland and has penned a monologue called DUPed, all about the Democratic Unionist Party. Meanwhile, Amy Gilbrook in Nutshells touches upon her experience of not fitting in. And while I don’t know Alan Bissett personally, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else emulating Moira Bell in The Moira Monologues or More Moira Monologues.

These shows are playing on selected dates throughout August.

Despite my promise to stay in a niche for the foreseeable future, I realised this week that some of my favourite novels have one thing in common. I’m attracted to those one-off stories where a sequel is unlikely because the story is so self-contained, such as A Clockwork Orange or The Bell Jar.

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Drop the Dead Entry.

When I talked about short-form writing last week, I failed to mention the My Two Sentences blog, where Edward Roads writes a complete story in that number of sentences. Most recently, it’s a timely argument around the Christmas dinner table.

Speaking of few words, it’s been another busy week and I haven’t had much time to think of an entry built around one theme, so let me give you a few.

On Friday, it was my office party. I always think it’s a good idea for a writer to have a ‘day job’. It started me thinking of a particularly brilliant piece of writing on this theme: the last episode in series two of Drop the Dead Donkey. The first half focuses on the party itself while the second deals with the aftermath the next morning. The episode is available on 4OD, and it quite rightly won Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin a BAFTA award.

Yesterday evening, I was listening to playwright Alan Bissett on Pulse 98.4, a community station broadcasting from East Renfrewshire. I’ve seen him live a couple of times, and he likes to put issues and controversies on the stage, so I half-expected the conversation to turn to politics straight away. It did, particularly regarding the question of Scottish independence.

English: Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna...
Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight, I’m seeing the classic It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen for the fourth time. This will be the black and white version, which satisfies my inner purist, although the artificially coloured version I saw is incredibly well done. You might not be aware how many films are based on short stories, as filmmakers can still extract almost as much as they can from a novel. Total Recall and Brokeback Mountain are two such examples, and the source for Frank Capra’s masterpiece is a story of 4400 words.

Later in December, I’m off to see a stage adaptation of James and the Giant Peach. I haven’t read Roald Dahl’s book since I was a child, so I’ve forgotten much of the plot and I’m looking forward to being surprised.

Someone asked me recently which authors I liked to read when I was younger, and I could only name him and Enid Blyton. With a little thought, I added Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series. I did used to read quite a bit, but from all over the place. My grandad used to take me to the library: I would pick books I liked the look of, and I can’t remember any of the authors’ names. I’ll report back if that changes.

I’m With You In Rockland.

WordPress informs me that I’ve been writing on this site for exactly a year now. Thank you very much for joining me over the last twelve months. I’d like to start today with a little more recent history.

Two weeks ago, I watched a TED lecture about the techniques anyone can use to improve their powers of recall. It seems that humans are kitted out with excellent spacial and visual memory, and it’s much easier to remember something when it’s associated with a journey or the layout of a building. TED lectures themselves are traditionally delivered without notes.

You might remember that I discussed plausible and implausible coincidences, but it so happens that I was walking home that evening when I decided to listen to Allen Ginsberg‘s iconic poem Howl for the first time. His recordings are available on Spotify.

I’ve read it several times but that is the first and only occasion I’ve heard the recording so far. Yet a fortnight on, I can recall the journey.

Allen Ginsberg cropped
Allen Ginsberg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I remember where I was when
I heard the best minds of his
generation destroyed by madness.
I remember where I was when
the saintly motorcyclists appeared.
I remember where I was when
Moloch! appeared over and over.
I remember where I was when
I was with him in Rockland.

One piece of advice often given to writers is to keep a notepad by the bed for good ideas. I’ve done this for years and I can still count on one hand how many flashes of inspiration I’ve had at 2am. What works for me is being active, particularly going for a walk.

I think the spatial memory concept is part of the reason why walking works wonders for ideas. As you amble, the brain is observing everything around you, which makes associations and triggers off memories. Please do ask for a second opinion about that theory from someone who’s qualified in these matters.

One of the great elements of being a poet – or indeed a prose writer – is that you aren’t normally expected to memorise your work. A rock musician doesn’t look at the chords as he’s performing to Wembley Stadium, a dancer on the West End stage doesn’t refer to the steps in her hand, but a poet is permitted to read from the page.

I have seen poetry recalled successfully from memory many times, but the occasion that stands out most was Alan Bissett. He not only performed two or three pages of a play without prompting, but acted out both parts by just the tone of his voice. Last place goes to Labour Party leader Ed Milliband MP, who forgot to mention immigration or the deficit in a recent speech.

I know only one of my poems by heart, but it’s the manageable length of eight lines with eight syllables each. My longest poem is a 120-line free verse piece called Anatomy of a Party.

In the first draft of this post, the last sentence of that last paragraph was, I could, and probably should, learn it using the Memory Palace technique as described in the TED talk, but there seems little point as I’d usually have it in front of me. But then I took a second thought. There’s an event on Friday where I plan to read Anatomy of a Party and two much shorter pieces, time permitting. I wonder whether I could memorise one of the shorter pieces for that day.

I offer no guarantees, but I think I’ll make an attempt. I’ll report back next Monday.