Every January, I take part in a project called Fun a Day Dundee that happens every January. There is no specific brief: you can write, draw, compose music, dance, or whatever your skillset us. The timing is designed to fill the void that artists often experience after the Christmas rush.
For the first time in a long time, we were able to meet up in person on Sunday. As I’d already arranged to do something else that day. I was only able to come along in the last 15 minutes, but it was great to see everyone again.
When I first started Fun a Day, my work was strictly writing, creating one new poem or story for each day of the month. One year consisted of writing a number of words each day that would combine to form a single sentence.
I’ve edged slowly into drawing, inspired by the other participants, and I’ve developed a style that includes recycled materials. Sometimes I use the recycled material in the work, other times I shred what I’ve created.
At the beginning of this year, I looked back at popular culture between 1998 and 2001, and writing was still an integral part of my projects. I kept a handwritten diary of my thoughts as I created each piece.
I don’t yet know what form this year’s project will take, but I know the title, and I know I’ll continue to log my thoughts in a notebook as it progresses.
I wrote the first draft of this entry in Camperdown Park in Dundee.
It’s a place I visited many times when I was young, often for the playpark or the boating lake, or sometimes the zoo. Its 400 acres leaves plenty of room for a large expanse of grass and – until last year – a golf course. But I chose to sit beside the duck pond, tucked away between the trees.
It’s hard not to compare my memory of Camperdown from childhood to how it currently appears. On the whole, the whole area is recognisably the same, although some parts don’t appear quite as massive now. I do feel the playpark has suffered from the loss of the pirate-ship climbing frames, even if the new modern equipment is less of a death-trap.
The chances are that most people reading this won’t know where this park is or my connection with it, and frankly, won’t care. Yet memoir and biography are two genres that consistently sell well, so it must be possible to draw the reader into someone else’s nostalgia.
In my experience, the key is to give as much context and description as possible, and tell it as if it were a fiction story.
In this case, I might expand upon specific memories, like playing a golf game on my GameBoy near the duck pond or becoming annoyed with somebody who deliberately splashed me on the boating lake. I’d also look a little wider, perhaps that a school friend lived nearby or how we’d often visit the Little Chef while in the area.
Even when writing fiction, I find it useful to base made-up places on real ones, as it helps to keep the description consistent. If I ever need to set a story in a zoo or on a climbing frame shaped like a pirate ship, I know where I’ll use as a model.
Last Monday, our open-mike night for writers moved back to its old venue after a refurbishment. We had an excellent turnout and enough material for more than two hours, not including the two 15-minute breaks. A couple of the staff also said they enjoyed meeting us.
Then on Tuesday, it was our NaNoWriMo meeting where we sometimes write and sometimes chat and always exchange ideas and maybe fill in each other’s plot holes. After that, I spent a little time at a playwriting evening called Scrieve where playwrights get to hear their work performed by volunteer actors.
On Thursday, I was with my poetry group Wyverns where we each presented our poems about Frankenstein on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel. There is a local connection as she acknowledged in an essay that the grim Dundee climate inspired her creation. Our poems have been published in a slimline booklet.
Saturday was when we had our second NaNoWriMo meeting of the week, and despite not starting until the afternoon, it was one of my most productive days so far with 2,500 words written. However, at the end of Sunday, I only had 35,482 when I needed 41,666 to stay on target. If I don’t pull my finger out soon, I’m not going to manage the 50,000 words, but dear diary, you can tell anyone I admitted this.
Over the past week or so, I’ve had a lot of time to write while travelling on trains. In fact, I’m writing this from a hotel room in Birmingham that reminds me of an old-school Butlins chalet. That’s not a criticism; I think it’s marvellous.
Unfortunately, while writing, I haven’t had much time to write about writing. I only started this entry at 5:30pm and it’s due to be published at 6pm.
Douglas Adams is known for saying, ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’ I know he was trying to be funny, but I can’t get behind that mentality. To me, a deadline needs to be met, even if it’s a self-imposed one.
Last week, a friend needed a reference for a job application. I hadn’t read the e-mail properly and didn’t realise it needed to be done on the same night. I wrote it nonetheless on the grounds that the employer might be flexible. My friend agreed, so I submitted it the moment it was proof-read.
My top tip for meeting deadlines is to use a paper diary rather than a phone calendar; I favour a Moleskine. The pages are much larger than a mobile device allows, so you can see a week at a time, and you can refer to it while you’re speaking to someone on the phone.
Last year, I completed an MLitt Writing Practice and Study degree. For the dissertation element, I had to submit a creative piece for 80% of the mark and a reflective piece worth 20%. In the reflective part, two references are juxtaposed:
Samuel Pepys and others, The Diary Of Samuel Pepys (London: Bell, 1970), p.xi.
Peter Doherty, The Books of Albion (London: Orion, 2007), pp.322-324
The first book was written by naval administrator Samuel Pepys who lived in the 17th century, and the second is by the musician Peter Doherty from The Libertines who’s yet to reach his 40th birthday.
But the reason they’re referenced so closely together is that they both kept detailed diaries. My creative dissertation piece was in diary form and I used both books to figure out how I was going to structure my own work; for example, whether I should use exact or rough dates, how formal or informal the language should be, and so forth.
It was Doherty’s volume that I find particularly interesting since he uses it in three ways, sometimes on the same page: as a notebook for poetry and lyrics, as a scrapbook for pictures and paraphernalia he likes, and as a diary to document where he is and how he’s feeling. It effectively tells the story behind his work.
At the time of writing the dissertation, I was also trying to convey the story behind my own creative piece, albeit in more academic language.
I was reminded of this last week while listening to Creative Chit Chat Dundee, in which the dancer Gemma Connell was being interviewed; I’ve known her for a couple of years now. Out of a dozen subjects discussed that I could have picked up on, the one that interested me most was that she likes to keep a journal of her process.
During National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I’ve been journaling in a limited fashion. My own notes were functional, mainly reminders or suggestions for the story, but I was also interviewed by the woman who helps me run our NaNoWriMo region, so she has a weekly record of my progress. I’ll report back when I listen to it.
With journal-keeping at the forefront of my mind, I’m going to experiment with the practice for my next major project. I’m planning to take the Doherty approach. The journal won’t be online; it’ll be handwritten and kept separate from the material I’m writing for the project. Once it’s finished, it’ll be interesting to look back and to see how the endpoint compares to the beginning.
Until a year or two ago, I didn’t do much writing on a notepad. It generally went straight into a computer unless one wasn’t handy.
I began to use a pad extensively for two reasons. Firstly, my small laptop has only just enough RAM to run Windows and was a pain to use. Secondly, I type extensively in my day job and my fingers began to hurt, whereas holding a pencil was a sufficiently different motion and it didn’t hurt.
Using a pad is also a different experience from typing: It slows down your thoughts so you become more focused on what to say next. It also looks less like a finished product and I’m more inclined to edit it. Furthermore, it’s easier on the eye to read paper than a screen.
My fingers aren’t nearly so bad now, but I’ve kept up another habit I fell into during this time. I dug out my printed dictionary and thesaurus. Online references generally focus only on the words searched for, whereas flicking through a book can throw up possibilities from other pages. The trade-off is that paper references go out of date – mine are over 25 years old, but I rarely need new-fangled words.
On Saturday, it’s the 37th birthday of one of my influences, Peter Doherty. I feel compelled to point out that he prefers Peter over Pete. Last year, I bought The Books of Albion, containing writings from his many notebooks. I expected to read drafts of his poems and songs in there, and I wasn’t disappointed.
But he also includes a lot of diary entries, many of them with the dates on which they were written. He talks about what’s happening to him at the time, whether it be relationship problems, a budget trip to Germany, or his first professional poetry gig.
I stopped keeping a diary when I was about 20, and started a blog on the relatively young LiveJournal. Almost overnight, my style changed from private and unguarded to public and slightly more guarded. I still have some of the diaries but they’re unlikely to be available in the shops any time soon.
By contrast, Doherty’s diaries start when he was about 20, so there’s a maturity in them that mine don’t have. Yet it’s still clear he never intended them for publication, and it’s perhaps this honesty that makes his writing so compelling.
Initially, I found myself thinking back to what I was doing around the time he was keeping his notes. Then I began to wonder whether I could experiment with bringing back my pre-LiveJournal days and writing the occasional dated diary entry in my current pad. It contains mainly poem and story drafts, yet true events are at the heart of many literary works.
I would then have some events to draw upon when I need ideas.