Category Archives: fiction

A Westfield Carol

“It wasn’t even supposed to happen to Henry at all. Fate had other things in store for Henry. But so it goes: Jamie changed his shift, which meant that Daniel had to change his, which of course meant that Captain Emo changed his as well, and Henry found himself working the Christmas graveyard shift, the last night before the shops shut and everyone goes home to their families and turkeys….”

The Big Ideas podcast presents A Westfield Carol(mp3), written by me and read by Robert Kingham, with original composition by Rich Cochrane. The Big Ideas podcast (or use this iTunes link) is well worth subscribing to.

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Me, me, me

I’ve been writing about old British films and old American terrorists; I’ve been talking about kiwi earthquakes and banging on back at BIGI. Time for a lie down.

South by Southwest

I don’t realise how much London attitude I’ve got till I’m in the Hourglass Inn and spot a youngish barman sporting a tufty ginger beard and another youngster in a trilby: I’m cursing them already for the sheer affectedness of it all before I remember that this isn’t 93 feet east and sometimes people just wear beards and hats.

Phew. The next morning I find out that in Exeter you can pay what you like for a book, but the bookshop staff don’t get paid (“it’s in the constitution” says the dreadlock on the phone), and that culture exists outside the M25: Spacex have a pretty excellent Cory Arcangel show on.

I’ve been dying to play I Shot Andy Warhol, for a while… it’s based on an old NES game, Hogan’s Alley, one of the first to be played with a light gun. The cartridge has been physically hacked (the plastic sawed away, the chips removed, reprogrammed and soldered back in) to replace the baddies with Andy Warhol, and the don’t-shoot-’em goodies with Flavor Flav, the Pope and Colonel Sanders. Keep shooting Andy, and eventually you start to feel like Valerie Solanas. As a bonus you can also blast ricochets off spinning Campbell’s Soup cans.

In Sans Simon, Arcangel edits Paul Simon out of a 1960s Simon and Garfunkel performance with his hands, interjecting their shadow between a projector and the wall, which is then refilmed. In Colors, the top line of pixels of Dennis Hopper’s cop drama of the same name is stretched downwards to fill the whole screen, so the soundtrack plays to a rippling curtain of moody greens and purples. The Bruce Springsteen Glockenspiel Addendum takes the few tracks on Born to Run which don’t contain glockenspiel, and adds the missing instrument. The format is a giveaway CD. The track lengths remain unchanged: pop it in a drive and the CDDB will read it as the original. Put it up as a torrent, and the unauthorised version will spread, an invisible virus.

The centrepiece, a couple thousand short films about Glenn Gould, reassembles the first of Bach’s Goldberg variations from the single notes of thousands of YouTube musical performances. Twin screens play separate melody lines, synchronised with simultaneous frame grabs from the amateur movies. For my money, Oliver Laric did this sort of thing better with his ICA piece Under the Bridge in which renditions of the Chilli Peppers’ ballad were similarly stitched together note by note as single frames accumulated in rows filling a four-times-normal-width screen. That piece had something about fandom and guitar-devotion in it that Arcangel lacks.

As media art, Arcangel’s stuff is about the usual clever media art things – the ubiquity of video, low-tech techniques in a high-tech age, the accidentally aesthetic qualities of everyday media. But more importantly, it’s very funny – watching Paul Simon trying to sing from behind Arcangel’s hands, the crappy eight-bit sound as Warhol takes another direct hit, the fact that many of the instruments in the Glenn Gould piece are being played by cats and hamsters: each time, it’s a giggle.

Also made from what’s found, Virgil Widrich’s Fast Film, playing on the closing night of Animated Exeter, takes the archetypal Hollywood chase and projects it onto virtual origami. As the basic forms of the chase scene are animated with the folded-paper forms of racing train carriages and paper planes, each surface has embedded into it carefully-picked scenes from the entire array of movie history. Bond walks along an underground passage: as he passes behind pillars he ripples from Connery to Moore and back again. A woman is fiendishly manacled, but her head rotates on a lever-operated disk: here’s Janet Leigh emoting anguish – click – now Tippi Hedren. The cumulative effect, like that of Cremassticparkinator 3, is to demonstrate how alike films are not only in their plot and structure but also in their gesture and manner. The kiss, the punch, the laugh: all repeated a million times.

Films about other films are fantastic, and it took reading Dubravka Ugresic to make me realise that one of the simple and unpretentious pleasures of postmodern literature is reading books that are about other books. At seventeen, studying it for A-level, much of the emotional impact of The French Lieutenant’s Woman was missing from a work of literature that’s all about other literature. Visiting Lyme Regis for the first time goes some way to exorcising the ghosts of that spine-bent paperback illuminated with dayglo marker pen. However, it’s not the 1860s but the 1970s that are most immediately evoked: there’s a shop where you can still buy backjacks and fruit salads for a penny each.

In fact what’s most striking about the place is not the cobb (crowded, slippy and a bit short) but the long Jurassic cliffs stretching west. Here was once shallow seawater, teeming with spirally little ammonites dutifully dying, falling into mud and getting lithified into cute fossils. Tectonic action has lifted the resulting near-perfectly horizontal strata out of the sea and into cliffs of shale from which the fossils can easily be pried. Carl says that the creatures found in higher levels show clearly higher levels of morphological complexity than the creatures in lower levels, an irrefutable demonstration of the thesis of gradual evolutionary advancement.

How could the heart of a fervent atheist be gladdened further? Sadly, these days it seems to take more than overwhelming evidence for the scientific theory of evolution to prevent even the most po-faced bishop-basher to declare that they like getting Christmas presents anyway. Thankfully, the beauty of mere nature prevails: on the drive back to Exeter, we drive into the most gorgeous of sunsets: a burnished orange glow, filtered through the naked branches of windswept trees.

Self-promotion round-up

Recently I’ve been getting poetic at nthposition; reading at writLoud and at Decongested; and talking memory at Big Ideas.

What they don’t teach you in creative writing class

I used to go to writing groups, in Brighton, more than ten years ago. Some were fiction, some were poetry; some just workshops, some long-running. They were emphatically not writing classes: no teacher to teach you anything about writing: you were there to express yourself and get feedback from others. There was usually somebody responsible for the organisation of the group (keeping the keys to the room where we met, setting a schedule) known as a ‘facilitator’. Sometimes the facilitator of a workshop would be paid, and paid for their writing-specific expertise, but their job would be to set and organise an exercise rather than give informed feedback. We generally paid something to belong to the group or attend the workshop, but the fees were well within reach of a parsimonious unemployed or badly-paid person.

The ethos of the groups was egalitarian; the underlying principle that everyone has a story to tell and a right to write (there were, of course, always unspoken intellectual hierarchies within this). Feedback on your work came from all other members of the group, and nobody would tell you that they didn’t like it or it was rubbish. Comments, in poetry especially, would concentrate on the feeling and mood of a piece rather then technique. The kind of writing and writing practice that resulted from this was mixed: at best, you read stuff that had both personal meaning and decent technique; at its worst, the work was sloppy and self-indulgent, therapy-writing.

Though the umbrella organisation under which many of the groups sat was oppositional, and saw itself representing a counter-culture against the world of a few well-known authors and many unknown readers, some of the people working within the milieu inevitably saw themselves as ‘proper’ writers trying to ‘make it’. But I’m not sure how much the groups led to improvement in our writing. A year in a poetry group certainly made me happier with what I was capable of producing as poetry, but mostly through practice and feedback: the group offered discipline and organisation rather than instruction or inspiration.

For the past two years I’ve been studying a ‘proper’ creative writing certificate course offered by a London university. The course fees are not trivial, but not beyond reason either: the annual cost of a modest holiday, perhaps. For two and a half hours a week, thirty weeks a year, we have a class led by a teacher, marked work, grades and termly; individual tutorials. A first year divided into a term each of prose fiction, poetry and drama is followed by a year of specialisation in one of these. The certificate’s credits work within the overall national scheme of continuing education. It’s about as legitimate as you can get.

Nevertheless, in many ways it’s not too dissimilar from the writing groups. Explicit or unspoken ground rules prohibit direct assessment of any work’s overall value; constructive criticism is encouraged. Despite the fees, usually the most useful feedback on your writing comes from your fellow classmates, who act as a kind of well-informed mirror for the work – if most people in the class don’t get what you’re writing, you’d better redo it, because no-one else will get it either.

Students look to the tutor for expertise, but expertise of a particular kind. When it’s time to scope out next term’s tutor, or make a choice for the second year, what students tend to ask is ‘how much have they published?’ Given the lowly status of the certificate course (the MA is where the action’s really at), it’s often surprising how much some tutors have published: a lesson already to those hoping to ‘make it’. The actual teaching ability of the tutors, however, is both widely variable, and certainly not related to the quantity of their output, just as high profile research academics do not always make good teachers. One tutor in particular implicitly relies on her own ‘success’ as a writer to avoid justifying their answers to questions about method (how best to draft, and edit, etc), just telling us that one way ‘works for her.’ Some make clear their disappointment at having to teach to support their writing.

When it comes to prose fiction, one of the course’s unspoken assumptions is that what we are all writing, or trying to write, is essentially literary fiction, which isn’t very well-defined. Some people’s personal styles are on the edge of pulpy, but few people are committed to writing ‘genre’ stuff (science or detective fiction for example), and it’s always noted when a piece looks ‘genre’. Most of us speak about ‘page-turners’ with derision, and though few would deny any dreams of making it professionally as a writer, if you wanted lessons in how to produce hack fiction you’d have to look elsewhere.

Consequently, the course concentrates on getting the traditional attributes of lit.fic. right: consistent point of view, developed characters, credible dialogue, tight description, etc. To some extent, the tutors succeed in teaching this, discussing not only how to punctuate dialogue properly, but how to avoid over-explanation; little exercises in character profiling to produce rounded, believable protagonists; pacing the relationship between action and scenery.

What isn’t discussed much is storytelling. Perhaps it’s like a life drawing class: you’re expected to actually learn to draw elsewhere, or to have the innate talent. One of the greatest surprises was to find that the drama module, rather than being ‘good for writing dialogue’ as everyone had expected, turned out to be best for discussing the actual mechanics of storytelling. Narrative was broken down into scenes and characters without the support of appearance or interior monologue: character objectives, arcs and story resolution were discussed in a way that would have seemed almost obscenely functional in the prose fiction module.

It can be socially awkward talking about doing a creative writing class, and not only because stories are where you put it on the line, expose yourself the most. Like drawing, many people’s attitude is that it ‘can’t be taught’, that if you knew how to write you would be writing; if you’re going to a class you’re just an optimistic failure. An Arvon course might be permissible if the ‘nov’ is already underway, but not much else. This might be more common among my generation and/or people I know who consider themselves ‘creative’; many members of the class itself have no problem reconciling the personal enjoyment of writing with the social enjoyment of the class.

Myself, I like both learning or being taught (I’ve got a few more problems with being taught badly), and I think I’ve got something to learn. Grades can be encouraging, if not inherently wholly trustworthy. The combination of scheduled submissions to class and group feedback is valuable: it’s all about the practice, and I wouldn’t turn up, let alone pay, to hear any of my tutors’ ruminations on character and location alone. Being part of the course also opens up a network of formal and informal opportunities for you: publication in the yearly journal (which can even attract the passing interest of a literary agency) and reading series open to course students only: from there it’s easier to start submitting to other reading series and publications. That’s when you begin to seriously think about what it’s like to have an audience for what you write.