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National Novel ‘Starting’ Month

There are lots of blogs, articles, and opinions out there about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), so I wasn’t going to add to them.

But I felt an unexpected compulsion to share a thought this morning.

It’s just this:

People will tell you what NaNoWriMo is for. They will tell you what it is not for. They will tell you how great it is or they will tell you what a waste of time it is. They will share their experiences of doing, or reasons for not doing, NaNoWriMo.
Some people pick up random snippets of information about NaNoWriMo and think they know that it is all about wannabe writers completing a hurriedly written novel in a month and then sending it straight to a publisher to be – most likely – rejected. Well that may be what a small percentage is doing. But I don’t know anyone who has done that.

What no one can tell you is what you will get from NaNoWriMo. The NaNoWriMo book: No Plot? No Problem! written by NaNoWriMo creator, Chris Baty, couldn’t even tell me what I would get from participating in NaNoWriMo!

Why?

Well because NaNoWriMo like many other ways and implements of writing is a tool. It is something to be picked up, used and taken advantage of in a way that suits the user.

I used NaNoWriMo last year to START a novel. To put aside a month and ask for help from my family to concentrate on getting words on a page, with less outside commitments than usual – just for a month (I couldn’t do this in the summer). I could give them definitive dates that I would stick to. Otherwise every idea I get gets ditched when something else demands of my time. I can manage a short story once or twice a week but can I sit and write out the bones of a novel day-by-day-by-day? No.
I used the recommended daily word count as a way to encourage me to push my story on and out, and worry about editing later (over the next months or years). I used NaNoWriMo as writing permission, a reason, a driving force – a retreat almost. I even had a place I went to (with a t-shirt and a mug!) that was a NaNo-only zone. I had no story plan, no plot, no characters, but by the end of the month I did – I had 50,000 words and a story about a bunch of people doing and saying some interesting things that I think other people might find interesting one day.
One day. After lots of fiddling. No hurry.

I hope to pick up and use NaNoWriMo again for a month on Tuesday – in my own little way.

National Novel Writing Month: It’s just another tool of the job. You may very well use it differently from me. But don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words…

… and insults will slowly and painfully eat me up from the inside.

Before we judge someone – anyone – we should make sure we’re not just being a nasty bastard.

Name-calling
Judgemental comments
Bitching/backbiting
Throw away insults
Unnecessary criticism
Assumptions

They’re all forms of bullying and I hate them all.

We’ve all done it though.
Some more than others.
Before we insult anyone we should make sure we know what we are talking about. Chances are by the time we’ve found out what the people we think we have the right to judge are really like, we will want to withdraw our comments.
And I suspect the comments we make about others are quite often more to do with our own failings than theirs.

I think name-calling and derogatory comments are far worse than swearing. And yet I see people complain far more about swearing.
I think insults are possibly even worse than a single punch.
I was hit once at school. Thrown to the ground by a girl in my year. My arms were full of books and I couldn’t defend myself or even balance myself. So I ended up on my arse on a cold, hard floor. Bruised my backside.
But what really upset me – and still upsets me – are the names that girl called me on a daily basis. Nasty names. Insulting language.
The most interesting thing about it, though, is that she didn’t know me. She really didn’t know me. If she knew me, she would have known that it wasn’t true. She might have seen that she was hurting me, and being unfair, she might even have cared that she was hurting me, and quite frankly talking crap, if she really knew me.
She wasn’t the only one. Other girls made assumptions about me. And even some teachers. Someone even gave me the wrong report once at 6th form college and I was too shy and upset to point out that they’d got the wrong Rachel.

It’s happened a lot to me. I bet it happens to everyone at some point.

And throw away comments about people’s appearance and behaviour, and name-calling those who think differently from us happens far too often in social media.

Before you call someone a leftie-greenie-hippie or a prophet of doom because they care about the environment, or a softie, middle-class liberal because they care about libraries and the arts, or even stupid because their spelling is bad, or scum because they live on benefits, or a grumpy unsocial git because they seem angry, opinionated or moody, stop and think about what you are saying. Do you know that person? Do you have the right to judge them? Are you, in fact, just being short-sighted and narrow-minded? What gives us the right to name-call? When we do this are we not instantly making ourselves a less worthwhile human being?

After all, name-calling is the stuff of childhood, of misunderstanding, of naivety…

Is it perhaps just a lazy way of saying we don’t understand a person or a type of person? And that lack of understanding surely means we actually don’t have the right or enough information to be so unkind.

I think if someone thinks they are wonderful enough to be prime minister then perhaps they are setting themselves up to be called a lizard but what about the rest of us? Us mere mortals?

I name-call. I shout insults at the TV when Question Time is on. I call the government ministers names when they make plans for things that I can see will hurt lots of people and I think they are being ignorant. I have called Margaret Thatcher a cow and Boris Johnson an idiotic prat, but what I really mean is I really have no reason to agree with how they do things and I am absolutely frustrated by the way they see the world. I shouldn’t do it though. It’s cheap.

When I hear environmentalists called ‘prophets of doom’, or people that write about or fight for social justice ‘do-gooders’, or ‘softies’ or ‘liberal whingers’ I think that those throwing away those easy insults are being lazy and narrow-minded. They’re not thinking about what they are saying. People that fight for things, stick their necks out and see a bigger picture outside their own sphere are not soft, they are actually very brave and taking the difficult option in doing something for their fellow humans that risks small-minded judgemental nastiness.

Next time I’m about to reach for the easy insults I will try to remember how it feels and work out what I really want to say.

(I’m going to really struggle whenever Jeremy Clarkson appears on my TV screen, though… )

First person to call me a ‘softie, liberal do-gooder, out-of-touch with reality’ gets a slap 😉

Pink like poison…

Flash fiction from the prompt words: procrastinate, pink and Tiffany.

Her voice was loud. Everyone was a ‘darling!’

No one but Tiffany knew how the almost-mother-in-law secretly killed people with her compliments. The bigger the ‘darling!’ the greater the disdain. And if you received a gushing compliment about the way you looked? Dead. You were the most hated.

‘Oh, pink, darling, pink. I think we’ve agreed amaranth pink. I shall be doing the table decorations and Tiffany’s agreed to let me help with the bridesmaids’ dresses.’ Tiffany could hear the almost-mother-in-law lying so loudly about things they’d barely discussed she would make them fact. She did that.

That’s how they ended up engaged after all, wasn’t it…

She held her head straight, wincing at the way the revoltingly sweet rosé kicked her saliva glands into action on an empty stomach, and eyed James sideways as more people were brought over to him to be introduced. James wasn’t darling. James was ‘James’, ‘My James’. That’s how much she adored him. She watched the almost-mother-in-law stroke his head and loudly announce May as the month they would marry. May for the pink cherry blossom. Tiffany wondered if perhaps she was needed for the wedding after all. Perhaps she’d got it all wrong and James was marrying his mother.

May was traditionally an unlucky month to marry, some old hag was saying. The old woman had better watch out or she might get an OTT compliment about her scarf. She’d already had two darlings and was heading for a third. Tiffany pressed a tissue to where she’d snorted rosé down her nostrils and excused herself to phone her mother. Where was she?
She typed ‘amaranth pink’ into her phone’s Internet browser and stared up at James. He raised one hand, leant his head to one side and half-smiled with only the left side of his mouth. All halves.
Maybe they could get half-dressed and get half-married, thought Tiffany, putting down her half-drunk wine, phoning her mother’s phone and walking into the long entrance hall.
‘Sodding-amaranth-sodding-pink,’ she muttered, waiting as it rang.
But she was here already. There she was striding towards her. Glamorous as ever in a black suit with her thick, long grey hair twisted elegantly behind her head.
‘Mum!’ They hugged tightly and Tiffany indulged in a brief second of escapism, closing her eyes and drawing her mother’s familiar scent into her head. For once she was taller than Tiffany with her knee-length, high-heeled boots over her trousers. The almost-mother-in-law would hate the black.

Maybe they could get married in black.

‘You’re fab,’ Tiffany whispered, squeezing her mother’s hand and leading her into the room.

‘Oh daaaarlings! There you are! You beautiful darlings! Look at them, everyone. Don’t they look exquisite?! The most beautiful women in the room!’

Murdered.

Yes. Black. In January. In five years. Whenever really…



N.B. I read an article by Germaine Greer once where she attacked the colour pink. Although I disagreed with her claim that ‘Nothing beautiful was ever pink,’ I remembered it today and did a search for it. It was written in November 2007. She also wrote, ‘Pink is the colour of hypocrisy,’ and ‘Pink, like poison, must be used sparingly,’ which was where my title comes from.
I wonder if she still stands by everything she wrote that day…
Here’s the article if you want a laugh: Why has the world gone pink mad?

Thank you to @sleepycatt and @simiansuter for giving me the writing prompts on Twitter!

Smoke and Shadows


The headlights revealed a straight tarmac road and level wasteland as far as they could shine. Christina assumed the fine mist collecting on the windscreen was from the nearing ocean. A man was discussing infertile fish on the local radio station, listing toxins in a river, but as she flicked on the wipers his voice faded and, before she could hear the river’s name, the radio went silent. Her mobile phone beeped its no signal warning and she felt claustrophobic pressure at her temples and chest as if being enclosed and squeezed momentarily.
Rather than cleaner, the windscreen appeared smeary so she squirted the screen wash.
And then, as quickly as it had come on, the pressure subsided, the radio became audible again and her phone lit back up. She felt as if the air was lighter and bubbles fluttered in her abdomen.

Christina saw the wall she had been expecting, drove behind it, and stopped.
Motion-sensitive lights lit up a long, glass archway leading to a door. She walked through as she had been directed.

The door opened.

They both stared as if neither was quite expecting what they were seeing. Christina reminded herself that she was not at work and Mrs Cook’s health concerns were none of her business… Even if her left eye looked decidedly low compared to the right…

Mrs Cook? I’m Chris Philpotts.
Mrs Cook took her outstretched hand and blinked slowly. ‘Doctor Philpotts?’
Christina nodded.
Mrs Cook gestured her inside and closed the door behind them. ‘Forgive me – I was expecting a man. An older man.’ She seemed disturbed.
Christina looked around at rooms joined by more glass tunnels. ‘Oh, it’s wonderful. And you designed it yourselves?’
Mrs Cook smiled faintly. ‘Yes. 1976. When we were young and adventurous. There were lots of interesting things happening with angles and shapes, and that glass tunnel at the Pompidou in Paris. Bob’s an architect, you see… Was an architect…’ She rubbed her hands distractedly.
‘Oh, you can tell. Oh, I do love the angle of that ceiling.’

Christina walked to tall, wide windows. A terraced garden was floodlit and the steps down were peppered with built-in lights. The planting looked sparse and structural, and there was a large level lawn at the bottom. Beyond she could see nothing but black night. ‘That looks like a lot of fun for kids.’ She turned around smiling.
‘I suppose.’ Mrs Cooke remained by the hall door, looking uncomfortable. ‘Are you a scientist? A Ph.D?’
‘No, a medical doctor.’
‘You’re not what I was expecting. Do you have a family?’
‘No… I…’ Bubbles in the abdomen again. So soon? Could she be feeling him kick at only 17 weeks? ‘Well… Yes. I suppose I do!’ She grinned and placed her hand where she felt the flutter.
Mrs Cook put her hand to her mouth and shook her head. ‘I’m sorry. This has all been a mistake. You shouldn’t have come. Please go.’
Christina hurried to the door, not wanting to upset the poor woman any further. She would come back another day. Maybe the estate agent could show her around next time.
She turned to thank her. Should she mention the eye? No, she couldn’t.

‘You mustn’t touch the residue on your car.’ Mrs. Cook called as she closed the door. Don’t clean the windscreen with bare hands. Not in your condition. And keep your windows closed!’

Christina drove away, sadly. The poor woman. She seemed so confused and upset. Whatever was affecting her face was clearly affecting her cohesion too. Did she know she was dying? Is that why she was selling the house?

The almost-full moon was clearer as she left but it soon became semi-obscured by mist. Two minutes into her journey her phone bleeped and the radio cut out again, and she felt the same sensation of pressure. She stopped the car, flicked off the headlights. She looked around for the moon, the lights from the house wall behind her. She opened a window and felt a weighty presence in the air. As she turned on the interior light, fine, silvery/white curls twisted playfully into the car, exploring her space, dancing with the light.
It wasn’t mist. It was smoke.
She closed the window and drove away from swirling shadows, with the sensation of coming out of a dark tunnel.

‘I have a Mr Cook’s X-ray, for you, Chris:
“Sixty-Five. Shadows on both lungs. Plays tennis. Never smoked”. How was the house?’
‘Beautiful. Individual. Strange. I absolutely loved it… Ah, Mr Cook. You play tennis, I hear?’
‘Well. I can’t do anything now, but yes. We have our own court. Astroturf though. Couldn’t get the damned grass to grow…’

Writing: the rules

I don’t have time for a well-thought out, lengthy blog post but I wanted to share something that has socked me between the eyes recently.

I have begun a literature module with The Open University this month, and the first part attempts to address the question: ‘What is literature for?’
The first text is Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. It’s my first experience of Chekhov and I was quite nervous so I read about him and his life in the introduction and thought he sounded like my kind of writer: a rule challenger. A bit of a maverick.

I have wanted for ages to write a proper discussion about writing ‘rules’ because a lot of them frustrate and irritate me enormously. It seems, often, that people can follow every so-called ‘rule’ in the many how-to books out there, only to ignore what to me is the most crucial step: to make your writing understood by constructing sentences properly and spelling and punctuating well – or at least getting someone that can to do it for you. Properly. I see link after link to posts about how to write and the rules of writing. I studied creative writing for 2 years and read about some of the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’. It seems we must twist and bend, and force to fit a formula, our beautiful bubbles of creativity that pop from our minds and not share the whole creation if they don’t follow the rules.

Here’s an example:
One of my short stories for my tutor last year was about a coach crash. I wanted to show how incidents involving a great number of people will have several different stories. I knew that I would have trouble getting a reader to grasp several different view-points in a short space but if I could picture it and describe it well enough I could have more than one main character. I don’t always think the good versus bad, or a main protagonist to sympathise with, works. Sometimes things haven’t happened the way we thought we saw them and sometimes there are several wrongs or several rights or several positions that have us scratching our chins. Life is like that.
My tutor’s response was understandably: ‘Just whose story is this?!’ I was expecting that. Even if she liked it the rules were, that in a short story, I should stick to one main point of view.

Imagine my delight when upon reading The Cherry Orchard I found that there was no main protagonist to sympathise with, lots of different characters – each with their own strong story and lots of names and confusion to get our heads around.
I liked this passage in my course book so much, I wrote, ‘Good for him!’ in the margin:
‘None of the characters seems to stand absolutely condemned, or absolutely supported by Chekhov.’ Hooray, hooray, hooray! I may even have clapped.

I think if you want light-hearted entertainment, escapism, something to help you drop off to sleep at night, you never want to re-read a passage because it’s all clear. If you want to have a sense of all loose ends tied up and a feeling of finality when you turn the last page, the message delivered to you by the author, then that’s what literature is for.
Or…
If you want to be made to think about stuff, consider complicated characters, feel as if you have dropped from the sky to visit a world that will carry on once you’ve gone, leaving you wondering what will happen after the final page, have to re-read the odd page to see if you’ve understood correctly, make up your own mind about stuff, then that is what literature is for.
Sometimes we are left thinking about a book after we have read it and have more questions than when we started. I want to write that kind of stuff. I’m so glad I’m delving deeper into literature than I did when I was younger and realising that it’s okay to challenge a few rules and play around with your writing.
If you like obvious beginnings, middles and endings, and baddies, heros and villains that fulfil their conventional roles, then you may not always like my writing. I can write to a formula. But I’d really rather not every time.
My mother said next time someone demands, ‘Just whose story is this?!’ I must reply firmly, ‘It’s mine.’

13 Oct, a later addition. Here’s a brilliant guest post by Mike French on Elizabeth Baines’s blog about the ‘thirst for instant recognition and complete comprehension’: Fiction Bitch – What’s the Story (fiction as art)?

NB I realise the question of what literature is for goes much deeper and people have been discussing it a lot longer than I have – so I shall be continuing to find out more.

Dear Baby

An experimental point-of-view for me, created from the prompt word: apple

To my gorgeous, handsome son (I don’t think I’ve ever used the word gorgeous before!),

I don’t know if you will ever read this. I hope your mummy keeps it safe and shows it to you some day. What I really hope is that I will have the chance to tell you myself, over and over, throughout your life.

I have never felt anything like this before and I am trying to put my thoughts into words. What I feel is confusing but strong. It’s like everything is both very right and very wrong at the same time.

So, what’s right? Well, you. You are perfect and I cannot believe you are real or that it was possible for me to feel so much deep love and pride in an instant. You made me a grown up overnight. The second you were born life seemed so much more real and full of purpose. I saw how quickly I had grown from a boy to a man and how quickly you would too. It made me want to be something, do something with my life to make you proud. I want to set you a good example – show you how to be a decent, strong human being. And that is why I am going.

You see, everything until now has been kind of casual. For three years I’ve worked at a boring job for not much money and spent most of that money on going out at weekends. It was all okay-ish – getting by, being young, having a laugh. This is the stuff that’s wrong.
Your mummy and I came on holiday to see if we could get on. We never lived together – we still lived with our own mums and dads. Maybe she’ll tell you all this. But I’m scared of losing you and I want to get my thoughts down so you can hear my version of things.
I don’t know what they’ll teach you in school but sometimes you don’t have to be in love to make a baby and you don’ t have to be together to be a family. I’m so glad I met your mummy and over the moon that you came along but it is very clear to me – I feel it very strongly – that we can’t live together, Mummy and me. I want to be with you more than I can ever possibly tell you. To look into your big eyes each morning when you smile hello, to snuggle your clean little body into me after a bath, to hold your hands when you take your first steps, to hear your first words and to be there when you are poorly. But you need your mummy more than I need you right now. She is a good mummy, she gives you everything you want, and loves you with all her heart. And that is why it is me that must go. But how I wish I could bring you to Somerset with me.

Right now, you are sleeping in your buggy outside in the sunshine, and I am sat next to you, looking down at you. I feel so totally helpless and sad. The sun is soft, warm and golden, and your little cheeks are glowing like the golden russet apples on the trees all around us. Did you know they mix different varieties of apples to make the best cider? The next orchard grows a really sharp variety that you would not want to pick from the tree and eat! I’ll tell you all about it one day. Inside the cottage that we rented, your mummy is packing her bag and your bag. Soon she’ll take you back to Bedford and I’ll have to say goodbye and you will have no idea. We didn’t even last a week. The minute we arrived she said she hated it and I said I loved it. I picked up an apple from the ground and took a bite, and I saw a look in her eyes that told me we were in trouble.

Although it’s all gone wrong, it was the right thing to do. How ridiculous does that sound?
What sort of parents would we be to stay together and live a lie?
I’m not going to be a dad that is stuck in a dead end job that he hates, and just sending money once a month and bumping into you in town, either. That would be too easy. Too lazy. No, I’m going to show you how much I love you by growing up for you, and that includes showing you how to chase your dreams, and find happiness. One day mummy and I will find love and you will see that we are better parents when we are not together. You will learn how adults must sometimes take the difficult route to make things right. Even when it feels like your heart is being ripped out.
I want to whisper in your ear every night how much I love you, but instead I will whisper it to the stars and look forward to the times we will spend together in the future.

All my love, always,
Daddy

PS Be good for Mummy and Grandma and Grandad,

(Please, Mummy, when you find this note, keep it safe for him.)

The Life Cycle Of A Pair Of Jeans

A short story
Four and a half months after Constance’s birth Mia tried on her old jeans and smiled. The stiff denim felt good after a year of saggy, baggy, shapeless convenience.
‘Hello old friends. I missed you.’ She turned left and right in the mirror, arching her back and caressing her thighs.
‘Wow!’ announced her younger sister, Emma, ‘You look great!’

Two years later, the jeans were hidden at the back of the wardrobe again and the saggy baggies resumed their dominance.
It took longer for her figure to bounce back this time. But, finally, when Willoughby was a year old, she hauled the waistband over her soft, stretch-mark-ridged hips and tugged the buttonhole and the button together across her blancmange stomach.
‘Fab,’ said Carl, slapping her arse as he walked past.

But Emma’s reaction was one of sympathy this time. ‘Oh, you’ve not had time to go clothes shopping for years, poor thing. How about a trip to town and we get you some fashionable jeans? Those are a bit cardboardy. Jeans have more shape these days.’

Mia looked down at the soft, fading-yet-faithful blue and couldn’t see what was wrong but nodded.

The new, thinner jeans, ‘with 5% elastane’ needed pulling up every two minutes, shrank in the wash and lasted five months before they looked as if tiny maggots were escaping from the cloth.

Carl’s team won a match for the first time in two years and Desdemona was born nine months later.

The parents at baby and toddler group were getting younger. Mia felt tatty and exhausted and didn’t recognise the names of the people or places that they talked about. She looked at the other women’s slimfit jeans – worn under long, sexy boots, and as she watched them totter around on heels she felt old, fat and isolated. Emma had moved to Sri Lanka now, and wore khaki shorts every day, and talked about elephants.

She tried to pull on her old jeans, frowned, tucked them back into hiding and ordered skirts from the Internet.

She and Carl both lost their jobs and moved into a smaller house. Before she folded her old jeans and placed them carefully in a bag to go in the loft, she checked the pockets and found well-washed paper crumbs from some sort of ticket from her past. She thought back to when they used to sit in the prickly old seats in the cinema; when Carl took her to endless horror films, and how she was so thin she could curl her legs underneath her and snuggle up to Carl to hide her face in his shoulder as he laughed.
Now though, they ate too many take-aways, never went to the cinema and never encouraged the other to touch them for fear of disappointment.

When Carl left her to live in Glasgow with Denise from the chippy, he took the car with him. Now so plump and swollen Mia couldn’t remove her wedding ring even though she soaked her hands in ice, screaming with the pain and anguish of desertion; the desperation of betrayal causing her to bruise her knuckle until the veins swelled and her fingertip went blue.

She walked the children one point seven miles to school and back every day, and listened to their cries of indignation in the wind or rain or heat, and noted their dazed silence at the gob-smacking cold of winter early mornings. They lived on jacket potatoes and value beans. She drifted from day-to-day with a permanent headache, always leaving the little cheese and fruit she could afford for the children. She didn’t realise how thin she’d become until her wedding ring came off, as she twisted and turned it in hate, whilst waiting at a bus stop in the pouring rain with holes in her shoes.
Desdemona wasn’t growing well. At six she was the smallest and thinnest in her class and her tiny chilblained toes had swelled to such a size she needed time off school.
Although she tried, no one could employ someone who wanted to finish work at three and spend weekends with her children.

Carl phoned his children and cried, and sent useless, made-in-China, cheap plastic things but said he couldn’t afford to send money.

She was first in the queue at 5am for the first-come, first-served allotments. She took her fair share of free Co-op seeds, and went to the almost-empty, closing-down library to buy shabby 25-pence gardening books. She sold her wedding ring and bought four pairs of good, stout, all-purpose boots, and thick socks, and with her final pounds she bought a squeaky second-hand wheelbarrow and a rusty gardening fork.

She fetched the old clothes from the loft and put on her now too-big old jeans. She looped an old scarf through the belt hooks and fondly stroked the strong thick denim.

The other allotment-holders ran to her rescue as she fainted from weakness and hunger on the first day’s digging and clearing. There and then they all vowed to look after each other. Penny, from the now-closed library, brought Mia cheese sandwiches and pasta. John, from the closed down pub, who kept poultry where his beer garden used to be, swapped eggs and chickens for marrows and carrots, and lent Mia his car to drive to Glasgow so the children could see their father.

Her jeans fitted perfectly now. Smattered with holes and sun-bleached, they were permanently off-colour and they creased where she creased. As she leaned against the car and waited to pick the children up, Denise strolled over and eyed her jealously. ‘I see you’re doin’ alreet for yerself wi’ yer trendy designer jeans and yer fancy car,’ she scorned.

Mia looked down, and thought back to the day in 1989 when she’d got her first job and bought the jeans. She didn’t want them to be fashionable; they were far too durable.



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