Paper boon.

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.

Kids of the 22nd century: these are called books, which are a bit like websites on paper.
Kids of the 22nd century: these are called books, which are a bit like websites on paper.

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 The trade-off is that paper references go out of date – mine are over 25 years old, but I rarely need new-fangled words.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.

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Immediacy.

Sometimes an idea for a piece strikes after hearing about a topical event. Last week, for instance, I posted a poem I wrote on the day of the solar eclipse. Back in November, I was also inspired to write a short story prompted by the BBC’s coverage of the Ferguson riots. Since last week’s entry was posted, the world has been talking about the Germanwings plane that crashed in the French Alps. That also inspired a poem in the same form as the eclipse one.

Neither the Ferguson nor the Germanwings pieces have been posted online as I might send them to a publisher in the future. I’m afraid you’ll have to take my word for their contents, which I discuss later on.

When writing a response to current affairs soon after they happen, the details are fresh in everyone’s minds as they’re analysed in the papers and on TV. However, the danger is that specific incidents from the wider event are sometimes forgotten as soon as a week after they occur; in some cases, the entire event might not survive in people’s memories. It’s hard to tell which events might stick around and which won’t. The piece you’ve written in response might therefore contain details that need to be explained in future readings.

Regarding the three pieces in the first paragraph, my solution to this problem was not to focus on the incident itself, but the thoughts and feelings generated by it. To find the universal truth, if you will. It’s not necessary to know that the eclipse took place in March 2015, nor that anything happened in Ferguson, nor that a certain plane crashed in a certain place.

The alternative is to make the piece self-contained, giving the reader enough of an insight about the event for them to understand why you’ve responded to it in a particular way.

A good example comes from the Billy Joel hit We Didn’t Start the Fire. In the lyrics, he makes reference to around 100 world events that happened between his year of birth (1949) and the song’s release (1989).

Many of the earlier events, such as Bob Dylan’s career and John F. Kennedy’s assassination, had already stayed in the public consciousness. However, a modern listener might wonder the meanings behind Hypodermics on the shore and Rock-and-roller cola wars in the late 1980s, as these haven’t been widely retained in our collective memories. There’s no way Joel could have known this, of course, nor that the Berlin wall – after having its construction noted in the song – would be knocked down just two months after its release.