Creating and Performing a Story in Six Hours

The tale in this entry happened on Tuesday evening of last week, just too late to be included on the blog.

At around 3:15pm, I received a message from a comedian pal. He was due to debut a new show that evening, but one of his warm-up acts had dropped out. He asked for anything of a spoken-word nature to fill a ten-minute gap.

I have plenty of pieces available, but Tuesday night is also when I lead National Novel Writing Month on a Discord server. Some of the members love to put together collaborative stories, so I gave them a challenge.

Starting with a line from a book, namely Clubbed to Death by Grant Hill, I invited them to add up to three lines of action or dialogue in each subsequent post, inviting them to be as humorous and/or surreal as possible. Subject to minor edits to keep the flow, the story was read out to an audience that very evening.

So here for your interest is the version created after editing.

We also have a recording of how it sounded at the venue; the technical quality isn’t great, such is the nature of live performance. Starting at 4:33, listen out for how I accidentally printed one sheet on top of another, rendering the print unreadable, but didn’t realise until I was well away from home.

Secret Projects Abound!

I’ve recently been asked by a poetry production company to write a letter of support for a funding application. As I’ve spent most of the week composing this, I was going to make it the subject of the entry.

However, once I actually began writing, I started to doubt myself. It’s fine to announce the good news once the funding is actually awarded, but posting details of the application is a much more private affair. I’ve chosen to leave that aside for the moment.

The other topic I’m dying to write about is a non-urgent pet project I’ve had in mind for months.

However, I’ve yet to ring-fence the time to start it and – while I dislike clichés intensely – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was spot-on when he said a goal without a plan is just a wish. The time spent writing about it could be time spent actually writing the project.

So what can I tell you about this week? The answer is a programme of events called Rep Stripped.

In 2019, Dundee Rep ran the inaugural Stripped event. Members from my open-mike group successfully applied to appear in a special hour-long poetry show alongside many other and varied acts. All the restrictions and uncertainty over the last two years has meant that 2022 is only the second edition of the programme.

For the avoidance of doubt, we’re not taking part in the Stripped programme this year, but I know people who are.

In particular, I’m looking forward to seeing Elfie Picket Theatre as I’ve met the owners a few times at their productions. Each ticket allows entry to more than one show, so I’m also looking forward to seeing what surprises are in store for us.

A Summary of Summary

Last week, I made a major edit to a Wikipedia entry for the first time in years. The page in question was about the defunct Roodyards railway station in Dundee. Although no evidence of the station survives, I had a picture illustrating its approximate location, so I posted it.

Back when the site was still a novelty, I used to make contributions on a regular basis. I created my account in May 2006, although I did make edits before that date.

Whenever a page is changed, the person who made that change is expected to leave a summary sentence about the amendment. Some of my early ones include:

  • ‘Removed Stub status, since there is sufficient material regarding this song.’, for the Ben Folds Five track Brick.
  • ‘Corrected spelling of Kaiser Chiefs.’
  • ‘Added Differences from the book section.’ about the BBC series Hotel Babylon.
  • ‘Removed Young Lochee Fleet vandalism.’ after a page was maliciously edited.
  • ‘Made page into a disambiguation page, since the two Dairyleas are separate entities.’ for two companies that have the same name.

I even created a complex word association game called Word Before Last that is no longer popular, but is still a live page. Other users have not only continued the game, but even created extra branches and expanded the rules for clarity. There is robust documentation behind the scenes about the changes made at each stage.

For the last ten years, I’ve been working in jobs where I’ve been required to write reports. Looking back, those Wikipedia contributions offered vital practice in writing summaries of my findings. It’s a difficult skill to teach, but the main question to answer is, ‘What can be removed while still conveying the same message?’

It might sound strange, but that same principle of summary also works for poetry. This morning, the humourist Brian Bilston published a very short verse about a duvet.

He could quite easily have written many more lines about wanting to stay in bed because it was comfortable. In just four lines, however, he encapsulates his thoughts, and there is an effective implication of the comfort without needing to spell it out.

It’s Your Letters

Earlier this month, I received a handwritten letter from my pal Katy. We’ve known each other online for nearly two decades, ever since LiveJournal was the dominant blogging site.

However, this letter was one of the few times our friendship has seeped into the real world. We haven’t even spoken by phone before. I think our last piece of written correspondence was when I surprised her by sending a birthday card to a radio station where she volunteered.

This month’s letter was actually the second one she’d sent recently. The first went AWOL en route from Wales – and has never turned up.

I occasionally speak here about the enjoyment I gain from writing by hand. I keep a particular style of notebook with perforated A5 pages, plus several blue pens of the same type so I can carry on if one of them runs out. Even when I’m working on a non-handwritten project, the first draft is usually done in pencil and only transferred to a computer at the second stage.

I’ll reply to Katy when I have the opportunity. She’s given me eight optional questions to think about, but I reckon I have an answer for each one.

Back on The Slam Wagon

Earlier this month, I visited the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews. On previous visits, I’ve stayed overnight to allow me to visit the poetry slam, which finishes around midnight. This time, because of other commitments, I missed out on what’s normally one of my highlights.

Nonetheless, I did manage to take part in a smaller-scale slam on Saturday just gone and at a more local venue. Unusually, this was hosted and judged by comedians rather than poets, which lent the evening more of a cabaret vibe.

I’d half-forgotten I’d been invited to perform there, so I spent much of Saturday trying to re-learn a poem I’d written about three years ago. But as each performer would be invited to perform at least twice, I had to accommodate for that too.

Plan B was to find a short poem that I could remember, or at least improvise with.

Plan A was more of a risk, but also what I ended up doing. During the first round, I would write clerihews about the performers and the judges, and perform it as my second poem. It’s something I’ve done before at poetry events, but never competitively. Just as actors often take improv classes to improve their skills, I think writers can benefit from timed exercises.

Ultimately, I didn’t go through to the third round. I don’t know how that would have gone anyway, as I’d created a lighthearted atmosphere with my first two pieces, then my third one would have signalled a definite change of mood.

The top honour went deservedly to someone who’d won the StAnza slam just one week before.

Inside the Box

Only in the last 12 months or so have I discovered how much I dislike writing outdoors. I’ve recently been thinking about this, but because of an art lesson rather than prose or poetry.

The task was to find leaves from trees and bushes, then draw them under natural daylight. It did not go well. I set up a table and chair on my balcony, which doesn’t see much sunlight until later in the day. It was freezing, it was windy, and at one point, my pen fell off the balcony. A sunny day can be just as bad, making it difficult to read a computer screen with the glare, and there’s still often a risk of rain.

But more than that, even under the most favourable of weather conditions, I only enjoy writing indoors. When I’m outside, I like to be standing up and moving about. It’s not an environment that puts me in a frame of mind for writing.

This knowledge helps me incredibly. I know if I want to finish – for example – a blog entry at lunchtime, it’s not worth the 20-minute round-trip to the park, and that I’d be more productive sitting on my couch.

Preserving Audience Expectations

About three weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a poet who’s planning a book tour and was looking to promote it later this year, either in an existing event or as a one-off collaboration.

I was rather excited by the idea. This poet is quite well-known on the Scottish scene and to have her along at Hotchpotch would be a terrific boon.

On the other hand, our open-mike night is not set up to place the focus on one person. Instead, everyone who comes along on the night is given equal time and prominence. Furthermore, we’ve already arranged to vary the format in September and November this year to welcome an established company. The question was whether a third time might have been too much.

As such, I made the suggestion of having the book launch before the open-mike. I also urged the poet to contact another organiser whose events do have a headline act.

I then received a message from the other organiser at the weekend saying this person was ‘quite a scoop’ for his event. Although the door is still open for a Hotchpotch tie-in, I still feel it was a good call to preserve the open-mike element and therefore the expectations of the audience.

Wherever this poet chooses to launch, I look forward to seeing it happen.

A Surprisingly Unpopular Event

I received a message from someone local who’s currently working on a community-focused project that launches this weekend. It’s aimed at encouraging people to think more about the clothes they have, the memories they represent, and imagining what might happen when these items are passed on.

One of the proposed events was to bring in local poets to respond to the above themes, but as the organiser didn’t know many poets, she wanted to tap into my connections. I was happy to help out, and I spoke to two of my poetry groups.

After a week, I was surprised to receive virtually no response to my messages, especially as the clothing event was intended to take place in person. As an organiser, I’ve found that people react to staged events more positively, as the public has become weary of so many virtual ones.

I explained this to the organiser but added that I would still like to contribute. My starting point was a T-shirt from 1996 that I still own, and the resulting piece became an exploration of when I met my first girlfriend at age 12, and how my approach to relationships has changed between then and now.

I don’t know whether I’ll actually be able to attend, as something more pressing has arisen, but I wish her all the best with the project.

Thinking Time

My main way to consume novels and other publications is to listen to the audiobook version. This allows me to walk or run or be otherwise active at the same time, so I tend to read paper books only if there’s no other option.

However, I also go through periods of not listening to anything, and I’m currently in one of these periods.

I mentioned in my last entry that I’d been unwell, but that I was able to finish a short story I’d half-written. I’m feeling much better, and I’m back to leaving the house for much longer periods. I’ve been using this time to think about the sequel to that story, and now that’s coming along nicely.

I’ll eventually be ready to go back to the audiobooks, but I can’t see that happening for a little while yet, at least until that sequel is completed. But when that day comes, I’ll be able to pick up from where I left off.

Note to Self – Don’t Call This Entry ‘A Walk Down Memory Lane’

Yesterday, a pal had planned to come and visit me, but she had to call off through ill-health. I used the time instead to go for a long walk, which ended up being more than 11 miles.

I’ve always found walking to be useful for sorting out ideas, but when wandering around certain areas, I also remember fragments of what happened there. Sometimes it’s a conversation with a primary school teacher, or where I first heard a certain song, or a memory of what the place formally looked like. There’s even an area of town I associate with Moby-Dick because I regularly read it on the bus while travelling through.

As I talk about all these memories, it also strikes me that while they’re reasonably interesting snippets, few of them hold enough substance to be an anecdote in their own right.

That’s one of the key differences between nostalgia and memoir. Nostalgia can be as simple as a reminiscence about a happy time, whereas memoir typically tells a story.

One of my favourite memoirs is Toast by Nigel Slater, where each vignette is titled as the food he was eating or cooking at that period in his life. All the stories are strong enough to be self-contained while still sticking to the subject.

That’s not to say my wandering memories are completely useless. If I were in a writing class, and the prompt warranted it, I could pick one of these as a starting point for a poem or a fictional story, just not a biographical one.