Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Generating ideas

Last night's writing class involved a brilliant idea-generating exercise! We had a big box of random objects and the idea was to pass each object in turn around the class. As each object arrived on your desk, you had to scribble down the first thing that popped into your head.

Some of the lines I ended up with are wonderfully surreal... here's a sample:
  • Tinkle like a gypsy bell
  • Bleach the skull of Jefferies
  • An English shade of blue
  • Hedgehog by air mail
  • Crushed beneath a marble shell
  • Call yourself when young
  • Snap the slate of life

After all the objects had been passed round, we all ended up with a lovely long list of random lines. We then chose one of the lines to use as a basis for a poem. I'm still a kid at heart, so I chose the item that generated the "Hedgehog by air mail" line, namely a tobacco tin bearing this picture:

Christmas hedgehog postman by Molly Brett

We then had to write a list of ten facts about the item we'd chosen. Here's mine:
  1. The postman is a hedgehog.
  2. The hedgehog is wearing a dark blue hat.
  3. Birds are perched all around, being nosy.
  4. The hedgehog is delivering parcels to a family of rabbits.
  5. There are three kids in the rabbit family.
  6. There are three parcels being delivered, so presumably that's one per rabbit kid.
  7. The hedgehog can drive.
  8. It's a bright sunny day.
  9. It's been snowing. Lots.
  10. The entrance to the rabbits' burrow is *huge*.

... and then we needed to write a list of five feelings we got from the item:
  1. Pleased for the young rabbits, because I'm assuming the parcels are their presents.
  2. Hopeful for the hedgehog that this is his last job of the day. (He looks a bit sleepy, poor guy.)
  3. Worried the rabbit children may bicker over their presents (e.g. the green parcel's a lot smaller than the yellow one, which might cause a bit of jealousy).
  4. Amused at the birds being so nosy.
  5. Impressed how the hedgehog has managed to drive his little van over a snowy field (there's no sign of a road).
  6. (Bonus feeling! 6 for the price of 5!) Worried the rabbit construction workers have not considered how easy it would be for a fox to fit through the massive entrance to that burrow.

The final part of the exercise was to write a little piece about what the item would say if it could speak. I forgot to do this bit (oops) but I'm sure Postman Hedgehog would be unable to speak as he climbed that hill - he'd be all puffed out. The rabbit children are, no doubt, squealing in excitement, and the parents are whispering to each other about how they're hoping Amazon hasn't screwed up their order.

So with all these facts and feelings and ideas, it was time to write a poem. Come on Brain, let's hear it! Give me assonance and alliteration! Give me consonance and rhyme!

Actually, no, not rhyme. We weren't allowed to rhyme. Sad face :-(

Brain rummaged in its poetry suitcase and decided it didn't know what to do. So it gave me this:

The blue hat
of the hedgehog
is dark.
Here is a line
Line breaks show you're good
at poetry.

Thank you, Brain. I will print that out and put it on the wall... as a reminder not to try and write poetry any more.

Brain then decided it wanted to rhyme (it really likes rhyming), so off it went and I was forced to follow along:

The postman is a hedgehog!
Imagine, if you can,
Him dealing out his presents
From his bright red van.
The rabbits in their burrow
Peer delightedly
Out at Mr Hedgehog
Coming round for tea.

Thank you, again, Brain. I asked for something deep and you gave me something daft. And why is the hedgehog postman suddenly coming for tea? Was that just to make the last line rhyme? Yes, I thought so. Sigh.

I think that's enough poetry for now. Brain, go back to sleep.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

I don't understand poetry

It's time for another writing class update! Tonight's lesson was an introduction to writing poetry. I've always assumed I'm only capable of producing daft poems (which are apparently better known as "light verse")... while posh poems (the ones that use clever words and imagery to talk about feelings) are probably not the sort of thing my brain can cope with.

One of the poem we read was "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams. It's very short, with lots of line breaks. Here it is:

So much depends

A red wheel

Glazed with rain

Beside the white

Whenever I read something like this, I imagine it must be full of deep, meaningful, wonderful things that I'm simply too dumb to understand. Other people think it's great so I can only assume I'm missing something. The poem's considered one of Williams' most important works. It has the honour of having its own wiki page (!) and was recently used as a title for an episode of Homeland so it obviously still resonates with modern writers. What I never understand about poetry like this, however, is why it's been picked out as something for literary types to point and nod intelligently at, while other poems (that sound similar, to my ears) are dismissed as "trite". In this respect, as someone in the class pointed out, poems like this are a lot like Jackson Pollock's splatter paintings: the arty types tell us they're amazing, but there will always be someone (probably me) standing there saying "a five year old could do that." Perhaps it only counts as "art" if you're the first person to get noticed doing it?

So what do I get from "The Red Wheelbarrow"? I'm not a literature student so I don't know what to say, but here's a few thoughts:
  • I can see the poem paints a very specific picture, and I'm guessing most readers will find their mind conjuring up much more than just the wheelbarrow and the chickens (because it's not a huge leap from that image to seeing the entire farmyard). Any writing that creates a strong image in the reader's mind is definitely doing a good job... but I can't help feeling it would be nice if something actually then *happened* with that image. What holds the reader's interest after he/she's looked at this pretty little farmyard scene? Is the wheelbarrow full of human skulls? Is one of the chickens hiding a Kalashnikov under its feathers? Where's the action?!
  • The line breaks are interesting, I guess... they change the meaning as you read, e.g. you see "the red wheel" and your imagination conjures that image, then you reach the next line and have to adjust your mental image to "the red wheelbarrow". But does that count as clever? Or is it just odd?
  • The first line is a good way of making you read on, and I suppose you're left wondering why the wheelbarrow is so important. So is that the secret to good poetry? Leaving everything open-ended so that literary types can sit and discuss meaning/symbolism for hours on end?

Anyway, the lesson was fun and I think I learned something... but I'm still very confused!

The chickens are confused too

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Austentatious and Eric "big balls" Hamilton (Mrs)

Mrs Mumbletoes and I had a fun time watching Austentatious last night (an improvised comedy play in the style of Jane Austen). The play is based on a title chosen from the audience's random suggestions. Sadly my title didn't get pulled out of the hat and used in the actual show, but I was very pleased to get mentioned as their "top unused title"! Does this count as being published?

[EDIT: It turns out the lady pictured, Alison Thea-Skot, is an old school friend... of the sister... of a friend... of my wife. Only Facebook could make such a random connection!]

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The random man's arse

I received some random text messages from a friend today:

A random man on the tube called me a f***ing smartarse this morning
This is very true
A random man on the tube called me a f***ing smartarse this morning
Because I touched his shoe

Maybe it's just me, but this sounded like a daft poem. My brain immediately decided it had to try and join in. I didn't really get a choice in the matter - my brain just seems to like daft poems.

The random man’s arse was not so smart
It hung below his knees
He swung it up between his legs
To give a cooling breeze
I asked him not to swing his arse
But he ignored my earnest plea
Instead he swung it round his face
And said he could not see
To try and stop that swinging arse
I grabbed a-hold his shoe
I tied it to its neighbour
With a clever knot I knew
He tripped and fell upon his arse
(still wrapped around his head)
He cursed and yelled and bawled my name
And me... I turned and fled.

Apparently the original messages weren't meant to be a poem - the repeated line was just my friend's phone screwing up. Thank you, friend's phone, your mistake gave me another daft poem to add to my collection. And that brings to mind a Neil Gaiman quote I kinda like:

I hope you'll make mistakes. If you're making mistakes, it means you're out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful. I once misspelled Caroline, in a letter, transposing the A and the O, and I thought, "Coraline looks like a real name..."

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

An introduction to playwriting

Shakespeare's autograph

CLARE: Hey Mumbletoes, are you still doing that writing course?

MUMBLETOES: (Brightly) Damn straight I am. It's good fun.

CLARE: What was tonight's subject?

MUMBLETOES: We were learning about playwriting. I've never tried it before. It's kinda fun. There's no need to fuss about with description which means you focus on the dialogue more.

CLARE: Sounds good. Did you write any plays?

MUMBLETOES: I made a few attempts. I'm not really sure about them though.

CLARE: Go on then, share.

MUMBLETOES: No. (Looks down at his hands) I'm shy.

CLARE: Oh go on. (Flutters eyelashes) Let's hear them.

MUMBLETOES: Okay then, but remember this is just a first attempt. 

  • SIMPKINS is a very small boy made of marshmallow. He is very nervous and tends to run away from anything even vaguely threatening.
  • MAVIS is a sweetshop owner. She regularly kidnaps marshmallow children by tricking them into following her to her shop.

CLARE: Hang on, that sounds really dodgy. Are you really sure you want to go with that?

MUMBLETOES: Good point. Okay, let's scrap that idea. Want to see my next attempt?

CLARE: Yeah!

  • DARREN is a writer stuck for an idea.
  • BORIS is a dancer who lives with Darren and enjoys helping to fire-up Darren's creative side.

Scene: Student bedroom. An early morning in summer. Sunshine pours in through the windows and the skylight. DARREN is sitting at his desk, looking stressed, his pen hovering over the paper although he hasn't written a word. BORIS enters, clad in bright pink Lycra, and spends the entire scene contorting his limbs into a series of bizarre stretches.

BORIS: (Full of the joy of a new day) Morning! (Starts stretching)

DARREN: (Irritably throws his pen into a metal bin making it clang like a funeral bell) Do you have to do that in here?

BORIS: What?

DARREN: Stretching. Can't you practise somewhere else?

BORIS: I like it in here. More sunlight. Sunlight makes me bendier. (Lifts one leg and puts it up against the wall)

DARREN: (Annoyed) Great. (Takes a new pen from the pen holder on his desk and holds pen ready to write, but doesn't write anything)


BORIS: What are you writing today?

DARREN: (Throws pen into the bin) Christ, Boris, I have no idea. We have to write a play and my mind's gone completely blank. (Takes a new pen from the pen holder and again holds it ready to write, but doesn't write anything)

BORIS: (Grunts as he sinks into a new stretch) Why don't you write about a butchers shop? You could have a mad old bat come in and get upset when the butcher offers her tripe.

DARREN: No, no, no. That's just the example we were given in my writing class. You're only saying that because you're a figment of my imagination and all your suggestions come straight from my memory. (Throws pen into the bin and puts head in hands) Just kill me. Kill me now. I'll never be a writer.

BORIS: Oh don't be ridiculous. You're just being fatalistic. (Sits on floor and reaches out to touch his toes) Surely you can come up with something?

DARREN: Like what?

BORIS: Anything, mate. Just start writing. That's how your brain works. You won't have any ideas until you start writing.

DARREN: OK, how about I write about... (Grabs a new pen from his pen holder) ... about... about...

BORIS: A pie shop.

DARREN: Pie? Why pie?

BORIS: (Leaps up and stretches as high as he can) Because pie is amazing! Everyone loves pie. That's a great way to draw your reader in. Set your play in a pie shop and straight away everyone's head will be filled with images of warm pastry crust soaked in rich brown gravy. (Licks his lips and holds his stomach) God, I'm hungry.

DARREN: Okay, pie it is. (Writes manically) How about this for a beginning? Pie shop. Interior. Arnold Clutterbucket stands behind the counter. He's wearing giant glasses, has a plaster over his nose, and he's holding a dead rabbit. In walks an eagle.

BORIS: Hang on. An eagle?

DARREN: (Still writing) Yes, an eagle. Do you want to hear this or not?

BORIS: One sec. (Moves to the door and uses the doorknob for support as he goes into a backbend) Okay, fire away.

DARREN: (Staring at Boris) That looks painful.

BORIS: Is that what the eagle said, or are you just talking?

DARREN: Just talking.

BORIS: Less talking, more reading. What did the eagle say?

DARREN: It makes a joke.

(PAUSE while Darren looks uncertain)

BORIS: Go on then. What's the joke?

DARREN: I don't want to tell you.

BORIS: Eh? Why not?

DARREN: You won't laugh.

BORIS: Yeah I will.

DARREN: Really?

BORIS: Of course.


BORIS: Well?

DARREN: It's been too long now. (Throws pen into the bin) There's been too much build up. The joke won't be funny.


CLARE: Aargh, you can't end it there! What was the joke?

MUMBLETOES: I don't know. I was hoping to come up with an amazing pun about eagles and pie shops, but I couldn't think of anything.

CLARE: Hmm, tricky. (Thinks for a moment) Something about rabbits, maybe? Okay, what else have you got?

MUMBLETOES: Just a short scene. This one has a joke. 

CLARE: A real joke? Not one that you just hint at and then never come out with?

MUMBLETOES: Yep. Well, it's not a great joke. It's a joke that would probably work best as a radio play.

CLARE: Let's hear it.

  • STANLEY is a mild-mannered employee.
  • COB is the intimidating boss.
Scene: Cob's office.

COB is heavy-handedly typing at his computer. STANLEY knocks timidly on the office door.

COB: (Irritably) Come in!

STANLEY: (Nervously peers around the door) You wanted to see me, sir?

COB: (Preoccupied with computer screen) Yes, yes, come in.

(Stanley comes in, knocks over a hat-stand, picks it back up again, then nervously hovers by the door.)

COB: Come in and sit down, Stanley, for Christ's sake.

STANLEY: Yes, sir. Of course, sir. (Sits down on the floor.)

(PAUSE while Cob realises he can no longer see Stanley)

COB: On a chair, Stanley. On a chair.


CLARE: Oh dear, poor Stanley. So, Mumbletoes, have you got any more playwriting attempts?

MUMBLETOES: I think that's enough for now.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The bright-blue helicopter

The writing exercise on my course tonight was “partner writing”. We partnered up and told each other a quick real-life story.

Here’s the story I was told by... well, let’s call her Susan.

Susan was driving down the M4 having just returned to the UK from a holiday trip to New York. The car was a Ford Ka – little more than a go-kart with an engine. She was overtaking a truck when suddenly the car went into a skid. After a terrifying few moments of scraping along the central reservation, Susan came to a halt facing the central reservation. Thankfully the motorway was pretty much empty at the time. Shakily, she got out of the car, and stood in the gap between the two barriers that make up the central reservation, wondering dazedly if she could call the police. And then from nowhere the motorway was suddenly full of traffic. Three lanes, all completely chock-a-block. Susan had no idea what to do. All of a sudden, someone came up behind her and gave her what felt like a hug from behind. She was grabbed and pulled all the way across the motorway to the hard shoulder. “I think we got you just in time, luv,” came a voice. At that very moment the car exploded. Pieces of Ka flew all over the motorway. The resulting pile-up was horrendous but thankfully the only injury was one man with a broken leg. The police later told Susan there had been a diesel spill, which is why the car skidded. Her saviours – the men who had grabbed her and pulled her away from the car just before it exploded – were two guys who had seen the accident, stopped their van, and then bravely ran across three lanes of traffic (and back!) to grab her and pull her to safety. Susan called them her guardian angels.

The exercise was to take your partner's story and play around with it, changing it as much as you wish, to create your own short story. We had about 15 minutes for this task.

I tried to think of something serious to write but as usual my mind rebelled and insisted I write something daft. So here goes.

The bright-blue helicopter

[EDIT: Oh no, where's the story? It's not here because I'm trying to get it published! Sorry!]