From Scratch

I haven’t had much time to pull this entry together, but working quickly has very much been the theme of this weekend.

The Netherbow Theatre at the Scottish Storytelling Centre
The Netherbow Theatre at the Scottish Storytelling Centre

I attended a workshop run by poets Jenny Lindsay and Rachel McCrum at the Scottish Storytelling Centre (SSC), aimed at those who have a spoken word show either already written or at the draft stage.

On the Saturday, we discussed such topics as: how the show might be mapped out, technical considerations, and how to attract funding. We were also invited to try a number of physical movement exercises and experiment with using the space.

The next day, the group put together a show from scratch, making sure the running order flowed, discussing lighting requirements with a technician, and ultimately performing our best pieces in the custom-built Netherbow Theatre at the SSC.

I found the group a joy to work with. Jenny and Rachel pointed out there were no ‘egos’ and that we all took each others’ ideas on board. The final show went incredibly well. I usually find among a group of writers that I like many of the others but there’s one whose work I especially admire. This weekend, I found that person and let them know.

As I begin the week, I’m excited to take my project to the next stage, and I’m looking forward to keeping up with some of the other participants.

Relentlessness.

It’s been a busy week for writers and artists in Dundee.

Last Monday, our regular Hotchpotch meeting was held aboard a 19th-century warship. More than 40 people showed up – double our usual maximum attendance – and we enjoyed a fantastic and varied night of writers reading their own work. We even made the local paper. There’s a picture of me dressed as a captain.

Then the Dundee Literary Festival began on Wednesday and ended yesterday. I attended a selection of events, including a play set in a disused jute mill, an interview with Nick Frost from Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, and an investigation into the success of Ladybird books over the last 100 years. There wasn’t an event I didn’t enjoy, but I’m not going to review any of them here. Instead, some of them have already been reviewed by students.

In the middle of the festival, I saw Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous Hamlet with the National Theatre. The live cinema screening was sold out, but it was well worth seeing the recording. I’m glad, however, that I read up on the story before seeing it. I found it a lot easier to follow when I heard the words than when I read them on the page.

And at the weekend, artist studios WASPS held an open house, allowing the public to see how their art is made and to buy it directly from the creator. I went along with a friend to visit artist Jennifer Robson and jeweller Genna Delaney, among others.

Unfortunately, Saturday’s session was cut short by a fire alarm apparently set off by someone using a blow torch. The building was perfectly fine, but the alarm malfunctioned and wouldn’t switch off.

And just as these finish, National Novel Writing Month begins on Sunday 1 November. I’m returning as the Dundee & Angus regional organiser for a second year, and there will be someone else helping me.

The five previous times I’ve done it, I’ve exceeded the target, sometimes by less than 100 words. But one of the messages I always give out is that there’s no shame in not reaching the 50,000 word target. I’ll keep you updated during the month.

Quick on the Draw.

I’m pleased to report that I’ve been asked to respond to the Jim Campbell exhibition currently showing at Dundee Contemporary Arts. Until now, only other artists had been invited to do this, but there will also be poets and prose writers this time. The event takes place on Thursday the 15th, 7pm, Gallery 1; tickets are free of charge.

Something that fascinates me about the creative arts is the ability for writers and artists to respond to each other through their work, often very quickly. A recent example is how cartoonists around the world reacted to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. I’ve previously taken inspiration from the Michael Brown riots in November. In the BBC News report, there was a snippet of a police officer shouting, “Stop trying to turn over the vehicle immediately,” through a megaphone. I responded with a 340-word piece, but only to that fragment of speech, not to the rest of the events in Ferguson.

But it doesn’t always take tragedy to provoke a response. In 2000, Tony Blair lifted his arm at the end of a speech and inadvertently revealed a sweaty armpit. A day or two later, a deodorant company used the image in a press advert.

(((Echo))) at Dundee Contemporary Arts

This isn’t the first time I’ve responded to an art exhibition, although I wasn’t asked to do so last time – I was simply inspired. A friend’s solo show opened on a Friday in summer 2013. By the time I caught the bus home, I was beginning to develop the idea. I spent the weekend typing it up and changing the names to ensure it was definitely fictionalised, and I sent it to her on the Monday.

On Thursday, it’ll be a different type of response. I’ve spent weeks working on it and had time to explore different options such as using props. All I need to do now is keep rehearsing so the response is as fluent as I can make it. Next week, I’ll be offering click save draft my best tips about public speaking.

How Low Can You Go?

Until 25 January 2015, Dundee Contemporary Arts are showing an exhibition by time-based artist Jim Campbell. Whereas a TV or computer screen has a resolution up to about two million pixels, he uses software to reduce the quality of a normal video to no more than around 1000 pixels. The viewer is expected to fill in the gaps; fortunately most viewers are particularly good at this.

Imagine all the triangles…

Look at the graphic on the right, for instance. There are only three small black circles with notches cut out of them, but your brain imagines a large white triangle just from the information it’s given.

Using this principle, his work Home Movies 1040-3 presents amateur footage so the figures are recognisable as people, but the faces are deliberately obscured. Tilted Plane gives the impression of birds or bats flapping overhead by lightbulbs momentarily switching off in sequence. Meanwhile in Gallery 2, pulsating lights reflect the emotion behind the fragments of text displayed around the walls, and those fragments tell a story.

Telling a tale in just a few words is a long-established challenge among writers. One of the most famous examples is attributed to Ernest Hemingway: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. The reader must infer what happened to the baby and why the shoes are being sold. With the advent of SMS and then Twitter, limits of 140 to 160 characters are also popular. My very first writing prize was a £20 Odeon voucher for the following: “Get down from there,” said his mum. For the first time in his life, he listened to her, the noose tightening around his neck as he jumped.

Even with slightly longer works, pulling back the word count or simplifying the action can make for a better story, as the reader has to do some of the work. In one case, I’d written a 1000-word story starting with a man being woken up by a noisy neighbour, him going to the door to investigate and finding the police there, then the police interviewing the woman and her son. The first two thirds of the story just weren’t working, so I eventually removed them. The result was a much tighter story that made the twist ending more shocking as we didn’t see the events leading up to it.

And with all that in mind, I’m going to shorten this entry by letting it end abru

Alt.Format.

Last year, I joined a Life Writing class at the University of Dundee. One week, the tutor asked us to make mood boards to represent the themes of our writing. I didn’t look forward to this at all. As I’ve mentioned in previous entries, I’m not naturally gifted in visual expression.

But having consulted an artist for advice, I acquired materials from a nearby recycling plant, and pieces gradually fell into place. This task led to a short exhibition at the University where most of the class displayed their boards, with explanatory text and a personal story alongside each one.

The mood board in question
In the mood

My mood board came to be titled Bubble Memory, constructed of a 35mm slide holder with buttons and other found materials in each pocket. The photograph shows how it was displayed in the exhibition, which closed on Friday of last week, although we are in talks to extend it. Despite my initial dread, I was pleased with the all-round results.

This is not the first time I’ve experimented with alternative formats. Text-based artist Gerry O’Brien was also a member of the Life Writing class, and submitted a piece of homework on a thumb drive. It contained a PowerPoint presentation that told the story of meeting a man from Honduras in text, interspersed with photographs. The presentation runs automatically at a slow savoury pace, allowing the viewer to absorb every detail.

Inspired by this, another class member created a similar project, speaking about the dolls she makes and collects. And inspired by both their achievements, I converted an existing poem of mine into the format, but with no pictures and no audio. The text is displayed to the reader at approximately the speed I would speak it, but there is freedom on their part to imagine the emphasis and inflections.

I started experimenting with formats a couple of years ago when I took part in the Sketchbook Project at Brooklyn Art Library. I broke down one of my short stories into fragments of one or two sentences, then converted each fragment to a QR code. This is a square barcode that can be read by many mobile devices. When it’s scanned, the device shows the fragment of text.

I then glued each of these codes into the sketchbook in the right order to tell the story, and sent it back to the Library. It was then scanned and placed online, while the original sketchbook was taken on a tour around America. This is the finished sketchbook. The following year, I submitted an apology for the artwork in that first book.

I don’t think I will ever move completely away from text on paper, but the occasional piece in another format or another medium can engage the reader in a different way. I’ll leave you with the story of the world’s first hypertext novels, a form that would be challenging to reproduce on paper.

Happy World Book Day: A Response to @MostlyYummy.

It’s a rare occasion that Mostly Yummy’s blog topics will intersect in any way with mine, but today it’s happened.

I didn’t realise until this morning that World Book Day was such a big deal among the nation’s schoolchildren. They’re encouraged to dress up as their favourite fictional character.

The theory of this is quite sound. A child’s imagination can be sparked and expanded by his or her early reading choices. The other part of the theory is peer pressure. If a child knows that everyone else will be dressing up, they’ll likely want to do the same.

Like many children, I loved Roald Dahl’s slightly twisted novels, but I also enjoyed the stories from Antelope Books. I can’t find any relevant references to Antelope online, so do comment if you remember these guys.

But as Yummy points out in today’s post, the reality of the aforementioned theory can be very different. She tells us how she tried to cobble together outfits for two of her children, while making a valid point that the dressing up can overshadow the intention of World Book Day which is to read.

I must’ve mentioned this before, but being asked to do anything artistic scares the bejesus out of me; even seeing the words Daler Rowney brings me out in hives. I disliked the subject at school since I could never make the final product look anything like what the teacher asked. I did know what I wanted to draw, paint, or construct, but it became lost somewhere between my head and my arm. In essence, I sympathise a great deal with my fellow blogger.

I’ve been upfront from the start that I’m a latecomer to writing fiction. I didn’t pen a single piece between my last high school English class, when it was mandatory, and just before I turned 27. Despite the long gap, I find writing comes naturally to me, although I still had to learn the rules and conventions of the craft, whereas expressing myself with a paintbrush just isn’t me.

I recognise that some people won’t be able to relate to this as they have the exact opposite talents. I would like to learn, as it could complement my writing. Perhaps someone suitably gifted could put together a Complete Ninny’s Guide for me, and throw in a copy for Mostly Yummy.