Life's lucky dip
I’m getting fed up with this. Or as my friend Marilyn wrote on Facebook recently: “I’m done”.
And I am ‘done’. I’ve had enough of not knowing when this pandemic is going to end, and when I’ll be able to have friends for dinner safely. I’ve had enough of worrying that I might be asymptomatic and putting those I do come almost into contact with (no hugging) at risk. This morning in the shower I found myself comparing how I’m feeling to desperately searching in a ‘bran tub’ for hidden treasure.
Are you familiar with the ‘bran tub’? Some call it a ‘lucky dip’. When I was growing up I’d love visiting to local village fetes on a summer Sunday afternoon when locals would man stalls such as the coconut shy, the ‘bash a rat’ and the hoopla. My favourite game stall, without a doubt, would be the ‘bran tub’. I’d pay my sixpence, or whatever, and wait in line to be able to bury my arms past their elbows in a deep, dry, gritty barrel of wood-shavings, until my grasping fingers landed on a prize. A worthless, plastic prize most probably, but finding it would make feel like the luckiest girl in the world. You’d always want to get to the bran tub early in the afternoon, because the earlier you visited the more prizes were buried in the bran and the greater your chance of striking oil.
So, this morning, as I squirted Aesop body wash into my palms, I got to thinking how life, right now, after 130 days of lockdown, feels like scrabbling around in the bottom of a bran tub in the late afternoon, hoping against hope that there was still something worth having lurking there.
Writers get most of their ideas by ‘getting out there and doing stuff’. I’m endlessly inspired to write by the places I visit, usually overseas, and the people I meet, the conversations I have and the things I notice when I am ‘out’. At a time like this the opportunities to do the things I need to do in order to feel ‘writerly’ are limited. It’s hard to come up with new things to write about. It’s scraping the bottom of the barrel.
What’s left then when the new places, people and experiences have shrunk to nothingness? What’s left to get those creative juices flowing? Well, I have noticed that what’s left, what is always left, is how you feel about it. The emotion.
When I teach people how to write with SPICE (Specifics, Place, Incident, Character and Emotion) in order to create compelling stories, the easiest three to master are S, P and C. During lockdown we have less I, but even now there is never any shortage of E. We have loneliness, boredom, frustration, confusion, sadness, bitterness, anger, sure. But we also have what I call ‘pockets of joy’, the times when you realise life has slowed down enough to allow you to notice the lingering scent of geranium long after your Aesop body wash has been placed back on the shelf. The bliss of being able to sit outside a café again with a flat white and how you eat the tiny cookie in the saucer in four bites rather than stuffing it in whole, noticing it was chocolate chip today.
I have a book beside me on my desk called The Poetry Pharmacy. In its pages there are poems designed to help you through the toughest of emotions: depression, lack of courage, obsession, displacement, grief, losing the spark. But even here, in a sad poem, there is joy to be found in the way it resonates, how it makes you see the situation a little differently and, importantly, how this emotion was the catalyst for something of great beauty – a poem.
I challenge you, today, when you too feel that life’s lucky dip is getting old and dry, to examine what might still be left there at the bottom of the barrel after all – how you feel.
Now go write about it.
Spot the difference
There is so much to notice that’s different right now and yet, I believe, if we don’t make the effort to write about the changes they’ll seep into the subconscious and this moment will be lost forever.
Take this photograph, taken at the Tempelhof airport in Berlin over the weekend. Yes, yes, we just ‘went somewhere’ for the first time since the coronavirus changed our world and made it suddenly so much smaller. Built by the Nazis in 1927, Tempelhof was once one of the 20 largest buildings on earth but closed in 2008. It’s a desolate yet imposing place where silence echoes in the abandoned arrivals hall, the corridors and the hangars. That the departure board showed no departures and no arrivals was no surprise. That the 20 of us taking a guided tour had been asked to used hand-sanitizer and don our face masks on arrival felt stifling and strange in the airless indoor spaces thick with summer heat. I found it challenging and hated how breathless it made me and how flustered. I frequently had to lift the metal strip at the top away from the bridge of my nose and let the heat escape. Unless I was careful to arrange my glasses so that they sat onto of the cloth they’d steam up. Every now and again I’d check no one was looking, turn my back on the group, and pull my mask away from my face for a few moments to remind myself how to breathe normally again. I felt wicked.
In the Netherlands, where I live, facemasks are currently only compulsory on public transport. In Germany they must be worn every time you go inside a café to pay or use the loo, in shops, service stations, museums and galleries. Dropped facemasks litter pavements like hastily removed g-strings; they hang from bicycle handlebars and rearview mirrors and drape from the branches of lime trees. I noticed them because this is currently a new phenomenon but soon these discarded cloth masks will become so normal they become invisible. Like we no longer notice how plastic bags litter the roadside, that graffiti now decorates the trains and that Mars bars are much smaller. Everyone has a facemask to hand over there and as we sat at pavement cafés for every meal, we were no longer startled by having to scan a QR code to see the menu, to fill in a form with our address for contact tracing purposes or that the wait staff wore masks while the customers were spared.
In the beginning each time you encounter the handgel, the masks, the duct tape dividing lines on the pavement and the signs on every shop door declaring whether you need to take a basket and how many people are allowed inside, your heart picks up the pace. You learn to live with a heightened level of anxiety and panic rises each time you realise you rubbed your eye without washing your hands first. But soon it won’t be like that.
It’s too easy to take elements of ‘the new normal’ for granted. I have become used to queuing outside the supermarket and never using cash. But it won’t be long until the day I leave the house without wearing my face mask like a necklace will make me feel strangely naked and I’ll be mortified.
So write about it in your journal, scribble a poem, write your own Life in The Day account of your typical working day. Be mindful of what has changed. Pay attention. Notice things and please write them down while they are fresh. Consider what the discarded facemasks look like, take photographs, keep a record. That’s what writers do.
Ten things I learned from a re-reading Big Magic
I recently joined a business book club and last month saw me hosting the circle and picking the book. In the end Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert was chosen and I was pretty pleased at the choice because I’d already read it. Result, I thought. I don’t need to read it again. Only I did. There was no way I could get away with devising some appropriate questions without doing so.
The number of times I have read a book twice can be counted on one hand. I’m way too lazy for that, so this was a novel (excuse the pun) experience for me. Well, well, well, what a revelation! Who knew that reading a book a second time could be so fruitful? For a start I read it with a pen in my hand so I could underline sections that leapt out at me. Second, I read it carefully and slowly. Creativity is part of who I am and so I had to do a good job.
In the end, I was so blown away by this second read-through that I determined to share the most ‘bigly’ magical elements with you in this month’s Inspirer, so here goes:
Re-reading Big Magic was a big deal for me, with the excellent points seen more clearly than ever. I hope you have enjoyed my brief round-up of the biggest bits of magic in its pages and trust that you will be curious enough to go and read it for yourself.
Curiosity --> Inspiration --> Creativity
How to write better with TA and the 4 Cs
Sounds like a rock band, doesn’t it?
Well, here we are again at The Inspiring Bit. Another month of lockdown has gone by and an increasing number of people are, like me, starting to recognise what really matters in life and what they want to do. For many that includes getting writing at long last!
So, I was delighted to be interviewed by Louise Wiles of Thriving Abroad (that’s the TA) for her regular podcast series about Writing Through Challenging Times. You can watch the interview above (if you're reading this via my Monthly Inspirer email you may have to click 'view email in your browser' at the the top to display the video) or just listen to it, along with many other fascinating episodes by subscribing to the podcast.
The 4 Cs are something completely different. Here goes:
Jo’s 4 Cs for better writing
Write clearly and know your reader’s reading level. I’m always harping on about being accessible, writing in short sentences and short paragraphs so that what you are saying is easy to digest. The easiest way to see if your writing is clear is to read it aloud. If you stumble over the text as you read then the reader will stumble too – yes, even if they are reading it in their head.
Readers are not stupid. You may have been told at school to “tell them what you are going to say, tell them and then tell them what you said,” but that can be boring to read. Some of the ropiest tabloid newspaper stories do this. Keep your writing short and to the point. Don’t bog the reader down in overlong descriptions, just give them one or two details to hang onto so they can picture it and move on. Keep it simple. Keep it short. If you want to hammer a point home then do that like this:
For years I have been asking my students to ‘paint a picture with your pen’. Show the reader your characters, your settings, your feelings. Make your writing come alive. One of the best ways to do this is with dialogue. A page that contains dialogue looks more interesting. Lines that start with the inverted commas (“) that indicate the start of speech always pique my interest.This looks like a fun page, I think. Dialogue allows you to show character and to move the story forward. People make your writing colourful. Carefully chosen specific details do too.
For a piece of writing to make the reader want to stay with you on the page, it must retain their interest. Keep your writing lively. Vary sentence length, make your vocabulary match the mood, move the story forward and your writing will have pace. Pace and plot make a story compelling but so too does ‘voice’. Voice is the way you write. Your natural writing style. A style that shows your personality, is authentic, unforced and fun to read. One of the best ways to find your writers’ voice and settle into it is to join a writer’s circle. Why not join my Friday Speedwrite Live events, do some writing and then share it and get feedback from the group? Trust me, it’s one of the best ways to find your voice.
That’s it then, if you want to get writing and think you may have run out of excuses then watch my Thriving Abroad interview, remember the 4Cs and join a writers’ circle.
And, now, every month you can join my monthly Life Story Jar Live webinar, have a short lesson, do a writing task, share and get feedback.
For more inspiration and live events go to www.joparfitt.com/virtual-events.html
If you miss an event you will be able to catch up via the Tools for Writers tab on my website.
A few weeks ago, back in the world where we were allowed to go to the cinema, Ian and I went to see Lowry and Son starring Timothy Spall as the painter and Vanessa Redgrave as his bedridden, stifling, mother. Laurence Lowry was a rent collector, like his father before him, and lived in an industrial town in Lancashire, called Pendlebury. Often accused of being a Sunday painter, Lowry retaliated with the words, “I am a Sunday painter who paints every day of the week.” And paint he did, in the candlelit attic of their bay-fronted, redbrick Victorian terraced house. Few appreciated his talent, least of all his mother, and he saw little success until after she passed away.
“I paint what I see,” he said and he did, repeatedly churning out painting after painting of the urban landscape in which he lived and worked. He was famous for his meticulous renditions of swathes of brickwork and hundreds of drab mill-workers, scurrying home, bent by wind or drizzle, their eyes fixed to the pavement. These became known as matchstick men, somewhat derisively but, you know, that was exactly what he saw.
Read the way he once described the Acme Company and notice how his words paint a clear picture:
“I saw the Acme Company’s spinning mill: the huge, black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows standing up against the sad, damp-charged, afternoon sky. The mill was turning out hundreds of little, pinched figures, heads bent down... I watched this scene – which I’d looked at many times without seeing – with rapture.”
These are the words, not just of a painter, but of a writer.
For many years my students have heard me ask them to ‘paint a picture with your pen’. I also share the inspiration of the British actor and painter, Antony Sher, who wrote in his memoir, Beside Myself, that "a drawing is just a piece of writing that has been tied up and a drawing is just words that have been untied." Lowry endorses this theory.
As I write this, much of the world is being forced to stay home and self-isolate because of the devastation COVID-19 is wreaking on us all. If, like me, you find yourself gazing longingly out of your window, pick up your pen and describe what you see in such detail that you create a vivid word-painting. Write so that someone else, totally unfamiliar with where you live, might picture it too. Lowry usually put people in his work. When you write your piece please endeavour to add a person, a bird or other living thing, to your writing too. People interact with the landscape, adding an extra layer of meaning.
“I wanted to paint myself into what absorbed me,” wrote Lowry.
Your challenge is to write yourself into what absorbs you, whether your view be of fields, factories or the street outside. Let us see it and then, if you would like, I invite you to add your writing to the comments section of my blog at www.joparfitt.com/inspirer-blog.html and I’ll be glad to give you my opinion.
Jo Parfitt's Monthly Inspirer