The difference between starting and finishing

to do is not to finish

I wrote last week about how ideas were coming thick and fast, and they still are. Turning them into something that hangs together is actually quite a challenge.

Last week I was given the task of turning on the radio and writing a story starting with the first thing I heard. I had an absolute gift of a first sentence from an obituary programme:

“I heard that he lost two front teeth in a fight, and half a finger in a sledging accident, is that right?”

I wrote something that was more like a character sketch than a story, which I’ve posted separately. It came out of nowhere, in the weirdly uncontrolled way that I wrote about last week. It was obvious to me on reading it back that Thom’s personality is a composite and an exaggeration of different people I know. I wasn’t very happy on a first read-through, mainly because it didn’t seem very finished – we were given the job of writing a 500-word story, and instead what came out was a character sketch. On a second read I was a bit more satisfied, mainly because I realised that it could be a part of something else, and that once written it’s there to be played with and reworked and edited later, so that if I ever discipline myself to finish anything, it could be a fragment of the whole, probably unrecognisable from the original. But for all the crazy momentum that ideas get when you give them free rein, you do need to have some order and structure for all of the things that are boiling over.

The other thing I’ve discovered is that every time I try and write dialogue, I chicken out, because I read it back and it sounds hollow. Passages of description have come easily, dialogue less so. I think this has to do with trying to write in someone else’s voice – or perhaps with liking the sound of my own too much.

It’s also very typical of me to have passing and even fleeting interests in many different things: a jack rather than a master. It’s one thing to give space and time to ideas that bubble up. It’s quite another to catch up with them, knock them over, tame them, and yoke them to some kind of purpose.

Image credit: Sean MacEntee via Flickr Search

Let the radio decide


Turn on the radio, take the first sentence you heard, and then use it as the start of a character sketch…

“I heard that he lost two front teeth in a fight, and half a finger in a sledging accident, is that right?” Simon’s eyebrows were raised in question. I permitted myself an inward laugh.

I hadn’t seen Thom since the argument, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if it was true. Even as a boy, he had always gone around the neighbourhood like a pinball caught between the bumpers, as furious and careless in his movements, a demented marionette. In all my memories of that time, Thom had scabs on his knees, or tape around his glasses. We would return to the classroom covered with mud and grass stains from wild skidding kickarounds, and mum would insist on me wearing my tattiest clothes before Thom came over to play.

Age did not tranquillise Thom. His chaotic energy deepened in adolescence. The essays that Mr Harrington used to describe as ‘quite brilliant’ would be yanked from the depths of Thom’s bag; we all remembered the time that he delved in the bottom of his bag for one of them, and hauled out a ball of scrawled A4 loosely wrapped around a decaying banana skin. With his left hand, Thom underarmed the banana skin halfway across the classroom into the bin. With the inky fingers of his right he flattened out the paper on the table and scraped away the slippery worst of the banana, before presenting Harrington with his work, pushing his glasses back up his nose, hooking one thumb into his belt loop to give his wilted trousers a yank, and sagging triumphantly back into his seat.

He was the kind of person about whom you could believe any rumour. My first thought on hearing about the teeth was not about the fight – the ‘how’ of it hardly mattered – but about his playing. Knowing Thom’s luck, the finger would have been an unimportant one, used only to hold the instrument rather than depress the valves. As for the teeth, I could picture him turning up, bloodied and with two teeth wrapped in toilet paper, grinning a wonky grin at the dentist: “I’ve had thish acshident, could you put theshe back in plashe for me?” He would then have phoned whoever he was standing in with that week, lying and charming his way out of the gigs, telling them that his trumpet had been stolen, or that his mother had died (for maybe the dozenth time), or that he’d been kicked out by a girlfriend – this at least being plausible – or anything else that would get Thom Bishop off the hook.

And that was the thing with Thom: the antics and the scrapes would amuse you, and you’d dress for yourself the thousand tiny cuts made by his inattentiveness, his disorganisation, his forgetfulness. You indulged him, because your own existence seemed sluggish and grey by comparison, and because on some level, you wanted to be him. When you fell out, if you bullied or cajoled him into listening to your grievance, he would make some clumsy gesture of redress; often, these had their own ham-fisted charm. But they never resulted in change, he never learned, and you’d soon be back where you’d started. And after the argument, I no longer wanted to know.

Image credit: Mark Anderson via Flickr search



Creativity comes rushing once invited.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve hesitated and abandoned bits of writing in the past. I loathe setting down ideas that are half-formed: things that have ended up on this blog are usually written in more or less one go. Yes, there’s always editing, but my first drafts are fast, come rushing out, and I have a pretty good idea at the start what I want the whole to say. This means that, on the whole, I tend not to finish things, or write much at all.

The interesting thing about keeping a notebook – one of the central recommendations and requirements of my writing course – is that you have somewhere to store and put down absolutely all and any ideas that come to you. With hindsight, this is obvious, but pursuing the discipline of notebooking ideas as and when they come is not something I’ve really done before, and I’ve been slightly amazed by what has burst forth.

Next time you’re in a situation where your mind is free to wander, try to take note of your thoughts, rather than simply experiencing them. I don’t mean when you’re busy at work, but instead when your consciousness is withdrawn somewhat, like on the bus. Pull out your earphones and put your phone on silent. Observe the world around you and your conscious reactions to it, and see what happens. You might find a constant babble of questions, connections, ideas, and descriptions, as the mind tries to capture and make sense of what it sees. Not all of these are interesting, but some are: for example, the leaps I make from noticing the posture of someone sitting on the bus, to an inference about their mental state, to an implicit question about why they are feeling like that, to the imagining of possible answers to that question. The inference and the answer may bear no relation to reality: I don’t know whether they feel as I suppose they do, or why how. But it’s the process of indulging the imagination, giving it play, that I’ve been so taken aback by.

Einstein is supposed to have said: “The environment is everything that isn’t me”. An urban and technological environment, with its assault of stimuli, doesn’t offer me many opportunities for this kind of indulgence. We have to steal them by defying it, though fortunately the theft is easy once you have the knack.

Hence ‘pull out your earphones and put your phone on silent’. Hence carrying a notebook and having it to hand all the time. (There are even some technological issues here: the notebook I have is too large for a pocket, and so goes in my bag, where I often forget it and don’t use it. I’ve ordered some pocket-sized ones, and have been thinking of putting my phone in my bag, so that my notebook is there instead in my pocket, for playful, idle moments.) I see this as a way of trying to fill some of my empty mind for myself, rather than inviting an unmediated stream of clickbait drivel to colonise my consciousness.

The results of capturing and reading back over some of what bubbles up from my unconscious have been astounding. Not so much because it’s any different, or any better, than what I have written before. There’s just more of it, and it comes so bloody fast. I feel like I did one day when walking two large, very strong, badly-trained dogs which had not learned to walk to heel. They dragged me half-running, half-stumbling, all the way down the hill to the park, their single-minded eagerness to run and chase squirrels as tight and certain as the leads that held them back and choked their progress. I suppose what I’m saying is that once you give space to an idea, it develops a life of its own, and you’re really just along for the ride.

Not all of the ideas in the notebook are worth keeping. They’re fragmentary. But allowing them headspace whatever their lack of polish, and then looking back over them and thinking, ‘what could I do with that?’ is a cycle of positive feedback. Perhaps the existence of so many stimuli prevents us realising that some proportion of our thoughts can be quite interesting. Under normal conditions, if you don’t catch them, the bulk of them become as ephemeral as smoke.