The Story Behind the Story

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.

English: Image is from H.B. Wheatley, ed, The ...
English: Image is from H.B. Wheatley, ed, The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Pepysiana (London, 1899). Book editor died in 1917. Samuel Pepys died in 1703. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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Let’s Push Things Forward

There’s a group of ageing Hollywood actors who appear to have given up learning their craft. They might have been a hot ticket in town 30 years ago, but now they turn up in forgettable films, probably thinking only of the paycheck.

For as long as I write and perform spoken word, I never want to slip into this mentality. I always want to be able to look at other poets – and folks in other creative fields – and take something from their work that hadn’t occurred to me.

To chart my progress so far, I need to go back to the Millennium, years before I began writing. This was when I first heard the Gil Scott Heron track The Revolution Will Not Be Televised on the radio.

Gil Scott-Heron
Gil Scott-Heron (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d never heard anything like it, this relentless and repetitive stream of consciousness with cultural and political references I only half understood. It opened my eyes to what can be done with words. I eventually bought the whole album on vinyl, and it’s of an equally high standard.

Another early influence was Original Pirate Material, the debut album by The Streets, and its follow-up A Grand Don’t Come for Free. I was at university at this time and whenever I listen to these, I’m transported back there.

Looking back, I can now spot weak points in the lyrics, but I particularly admire the concept album structure of the latter. There are two other major releases by The Streets that followed these, but I’ve never liked them as much as the first two.

These days, I continue to be influenced by those I’ve seen and heard: the humour of John Cooper Clarke, the forthrightness of Andrea Gibson, the politics of Alan Bissett.

I recently attended two performances by my friend Gemma Connell, who’s a dancer. But as well as movements, she made prolonged eye contact and even brief physical contact with members of the audience. And last week, I once again saw Luke Wright, who gave an energetic performance of What I Learned from Johnny Bevan. I’m now asking myself how can I make an audience feel the same way as I did, but using my own words.

Of course, there comes a point where I can have too much creative input and I think I’ve reached that stage now. So I’m going to let it settle, then start writing my own original pirate material.

Gavin’s improv chums.

On Thursday, I was asked to take part in an event at short notice as one of the poets was unwell. Flow! is a project by Gemma Connell where a poet is teamed up with a dancer. The dancer knows nothing about what the poet will read and has to react spontaneously. The best way to explain it is by watching part of Thursday’s event:

The first poet in this video was the fabulous Amy Gilbrook. She performs most of her work from memory and makes excellent use of internal rhyme. I’d met her before, but I wasn’t acquainted with the dancers.

There are challenges to complete throughout the night, including a section where audience members are invited to writes phrases on pieces of paper. The poets then must assemble these into a new poem, then read it out there and then.

Each dancer and each poet is allowed to take part in no more than three Flow! events, so there’s a potential to take part in two more, and I would happily oblige.

However, it occurs to me that I’m neglecting someone. Prose. When I started out, she was the one I followed, the one I allowed to infiltrate my body of work. But along the way, Poetry surfaced, showed me her possibilities within her boundaries for which Prose has no equivalent.

Now it’s time to go back and find a balance between her and Poetry. Yet there will be no grovelling; there will be the knowledge that Poetry bestowed upon me: how to stretch myself, how to structure, how to affect an audience. And I’ll approach Prose with a renewed enthusiasm, a new sense of purpose, and challenge her to help me produce something to make Poetry jealous.

To that end, I’m going to worship Prose tonight at Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers. Anyone can come along and read out their work – or even that of a published author – with no judgement or criticism. If you happen to be in Dundee tonight, it’s at the Burgh Coffeehouse on Commercial Street, and the readings begin at 7pm.