Sunday, 19 April 2015

Working to write


My favourite writing place - home!

I am a writer because I write.  I don't call myself a professional writer, because I don't write for a living.  At least, I do, but within the context of the work that I am expected to do as a property manager - which does have it's occasional and welcome moments of creativity.  I have great admiration for those who have taken a decision to make writing their career, whether as jobbing journalists or copywriters for a publication, freelancers or novelists and so on.  Unhappily I do not have the courage nor the conviction that I can succeed that is necessary to give up the day job and dedicate myself to a career as a writer.  Perhaps that is partly due to self-confidence although a large measure is down to having no option but to earn a reliable living in order to raise the kids.  And there are many writers across the decades who have had to write in their spare time and yet have published successfully.

Work - uninspiring and constrained - or a route to inspiration and success?
Photo "Business Image" courtesy of Pong at www.freedigitalphotos.net
But having to work for a living and try to find time to write creatively is not necessarily a bad thing.  The world of work can bring its own inspiration and its own opportunities.  For some, this means taking advantage of perhaps a marketing campaign to develop advertising copy for their employing organisation - useful experience and a useful skill.  For others, it might be working on an employee handbook or developing instruction manuals for items that they manufacture.  A myriad of possibilities that can be added to the CV and perhaps used to find "writing jobs".

Or perhaps, as in my case, work provides the opportunity to observe people and situations, to use snatches of dialogue to inspire stories, or characteristics to blend together to build characters, or situations which can either inspire whole stories or poems or help unravel and episode in a novel.  It also disciplines me to use the little time I have to knuckle down and be productive.


Work places vary - as do characters and story lines.  Work can provide ideas for stories.
Photo courtesy of "Construction Building with support frame" by Keerati www.freedigitalphotos.net

As a property manager for many years, I have seen things and heard things that  curl the toes, bleach the hair and curdle the milk.  I have encountered odd and unusual people and have become a very firm believer - despite being a reader of fantasy novels - that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.  In fact, it is unlikely some of the situations I have encountered could be replicated in a novel because it would stretch reader believability just a bit too far.  But it is  possible to develop ideas: what if that person were like this?  What if the boiler had burst and flooded the apartment below - again?  What if no-one had answered the door and the police had to force entry and a decomposing body found?  What if that mild-mannered secretary turned out to be a lap dancer at the weekends?  

Workplace inspiration has struck and won me second place in a competition a couple of years ago with the story "Predictable Me", which I've set out below - hope you enjoy.

Perhaps the moral of this piece then, is not to let the frustrations of having to spend day in day out at work instead of creating a literary masterpiece slow you down:  use it to keep the ideas flowing and the literary masterpiece will come.



PREDICTABLE ME




     “You’re going to love not coming to work anymore,” says Emily.  She places my cup of coffee exactly in the centre of my coaster.  The coaster is old now, edges curling, a perfect circle marked in its centre from the countless cups of coffee placed there by a parade of assistants over the years.
     I try not to cringe.  Eight years of Emily’s gunpowder-strong concoction and I have never complained.  And I shan’t today, of all days.
     The telephone’s bleeping jars the peace of the morning and Emily scuttles.  What a ridiculous statement.  Half a century of crusty offices, whinging clients and cringing clerks; of course I’m delighted never to have to come in again.
      I sip at the coffee, shudder and leave the rest.  Emily has her back turned and is taking painstaking notes of her telephone conversation.  Whoever is talking to her must be desperate with frustration.
      I sigh and flick a switch.  Despite the early hour the heat is suffocating. The air-conditioning groans into action and then buzzes like bluebottles around carrion. Within hours the sounds that will come to my ears will be the sizzling of cicadas in the day and the grunt of marauding lions at night.
     “Here early as usual,” says Michael, his round, shining face appearing round the edge of the door.
     “And why wouldn’t I be?” I ask.  Michael is flushed and the pink of his cheeks contrast with the bland grey and magnolia of the office, a colourless place that drains life.  I ease myself into my chair.  My hips ache slightly and remind me that my aging body welcomes retirement.
     “I thought you might take it easy today,” he grins and enters the room, a slim file in his hand.  He’s my boss.  A clever lad really, half my age with appalling taste in ties and generally a bit of a fool. A sickly yellow number hangs from his collar this morning. Perhaps he thinks the girls will like it.
    “I’ll be answering emails and then tidying my things off my desk,” I reassure him.
     “Great, and please take a quick look at this file,” adds Michael, “we’re going to miss you.”
     The hell they are.  By tomorrow lunchtime they will have forgotten I exist.
     “Just leave it with me,” I say.  He breezes off, whistling.  I cannot help but shake my head.  In a place where the boss blows air through pursed lips in tuneless sounds there can be little hope for achieving professional success. 
     “So, have you booked your sessions at the golf course yet?  Wouldn’t want to risk getting bored, would you?” roars Mr Fernandez a little later.  Emily hovers, smoothing down her beige skirt, although it would be better if she made an attempt at smoothing down the beige skin of her face.
     I attempt to smile at Mr Fernandez’ jollity, aware I only manage to lift a corner of my lips, which must give the impression of a snarl to the man who lauds himself for introducing the arbitrary corporate performance reward scheme I hold in complete contempt.  I put down my pen.  I have finished with Michael’s file and have added a note which he will find later: ‘to an idiot from a fool’.  I ignore the gold issue; where I’m going, I won’t be playing.
      The day wears on and as I empty my desk of the insignificant symbols of years at work, I contemplate just how vacuous my professional life has been.  The shareholders grew immensely rich on the back of the drivel I typed and I managed to buy a flat.  Home ownership of a leaky apartment was all the rage for a while.
      At the end of the day there is a little speech and a gift: a pair of silver cuff links.  Also not needed where I’ll be going, but I am too decent, or dull, to say.
     There’s a ripple of half-hearted applause and the pop of a cork from a bottle of supermarket Cava.
     “So, come on, let’s know your plans,” urges Mr Fernandez, with a self-satisfied smile.
     “My plans….,” I pause. I glance out of the window to the street beyond and catch a glimpse of my car.
     “Don’t tell me,” giggled Michael, “you’re going straight on a cruise?  You’ve always been predictable.”
     Perhaps I have: predictable, dependable, reliable Francis.  But it’s not really me.
     “I’m going away, to Africa…” I begin.
     “An African cruise?” says poor Emily.
     Something about her featureless face, the clothes that would have better adorned a woman half her age, the inanity of her comment chaffs at my frustration.
     “Try not to spend your sorry life being ridiculous,” I say.  The sudden silence simmers.  My mouth dries and my throat tightens.  I look at the car again.  Kim, my woman, waits for me there, black skin smooth and oiled and glistening, her breasts pressing against her light dress.
     “I’m going to Africa with my lover.  Marta and I are divorced.  We wanted to keep it quiet,” I press.  Even the motes of dust that have circled the office for the past fifty years pause in their drifting.  “I’m spending a few years in Ghana helping set up small businesses with micro-finance.  Kim is a doctor and setting up a clinic. The idea is to help women take control of their sexual health, avoid AIDS, death in childbirth and so on.  We might even be able to reduce the trade in sex slavery.  Ambitious, maybe….and not very predictable.”
     They stare at me, mouths slightly agape, but they are no longer important.  They probably never were.
      “You see,” I carry on, compelled to explain myself, “no-one is too old to change, no-one can be dependable for ever.  We all need meaning.”
      I step out into a blaze of afternoon sun and breathe as if I had just been born, leaving the stagnation behind the office door.  From the car, Kim smiles and waves.  I hurry onwards.  There is much to do.


Sunday, 5 April 2015

Walking to write



Spring morning in Ocean Village, Gibraltar


Easter Sunday and here, in Gibraltar at least, it has been one of those perfect spring days: sunny skies, brilliant blue sea, a warm calm pervading the lushness of the upper rock, the lazy drone of a sleepy bee and the chirruping of young birds in the bushes and trees lining the road.  Not too hot, not at all cold.  Perfect for strapping the lead to the dog, shepherding reluctant teenagers out of the door and walking.  Just walking.  Not walking with a purpose except to fill lungs with reasonably fresh air and get away from electronic games and flickering monitors.  Not even walking for fitness or burning of calories, fat cells, cellulite or improving lung function.  Just plain walking, the kind of walking that lets you take in things you might see day to day, but somehow don't register - there's an old chap hobbles about with his equally ancient dog near where I live, I probably walk past him every morning, but wrapped up in daily worries, I rarely actually see him.  Today was for walking, and seeing, and breathing, and creating.


"Morning Walk" photo by Arvind Balaraman courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net

To write is to create. That walking helps the creative process is now well-established and there are many examples of writers who have worked out their plots or found their inspirations from walking: think of Wordsworth walking the Lakes, for example.  Henry Thoreau once said "the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow."  A Stanford University study, reported in 2014, found that there was a link to creative thinking and walking, although not necessarily to focused thinking - you might be able to develop a brainstorm of possible solutions to a problem (such as how to untangle parts of your plotting) but you might not be able to quite work out your son's GCSE practise trigonometry question that's had the both of you puzzling for hours.  

But for writers, walking is perfect.  An hour or so away from the mundane tasks that can so easily distract, the blood flowing, oxygen flooding into the brain to freshen it up and get it working that much better can do wonders to your plotting or character development.  Which means it's best to leave the mobile phone behind. There's also the chance to clear up all that clutter in your mind.  While you're walking, your mind drifts.  You may dwell on some of your domestic or professional problems, but the release of positive hormones that exercise brings means that you return ready to approach the rest of your day in a much more positive mood, and I'm not stepping onto the soap box of health benefits except to cite Hippocrates who put it thus:"walking is man's best medicine." Without a doubt, walking is good for you.

"Sunday Walk" photo by Simon Howden from www.freedigitalphotos.net

Walking also gives you a chance to observe and sharpen those powers of observations that are so essential to a writer.  You can focus on sounds, on smells, on what and on whom you see.  Walking is a time I can work out the next steps in a story.  It is the time of quiet that I can use to plan ahead, to straighten things out in my mind.  Sometimes I am struck by something I see to the extent that the words that spring to mind at the time might turn into the opening lines of a poem.  Other times, I walk like a child, with quiet and inquisitive mind, absorbing what is around me.

"Young Child Walking Alone in Forest" photo by chrisroll courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net
There are writers who never go out without a notebook, and I frequently have a notebook and a pen or two on me, but more recently I have just walked and avoided even the physical act of writing.  This is because I have been so busy with work and family that I have not had much time to think, so I think as I walk, and what I want is to see things and have my imagination sparked off, to hear things and let those sounds develop into ideas in my head.  There's a tramp who from time to time spends a night on a bench outside the hospital - he turned into a character in a short story I wrote some weeks ago.  The slurping of the sea against the revetement at Waterport in the dead of night became something black and sinister that slinks out of the ocean to consume every living thing it meets.  The stench of the fumes belched out by the bunkering in the harbour was written into a poem.  Walking imprinted those impressions without having to even think them through.  And it has meant I could allow myself that extra chocolate egg this weekend!

"Easter Eggs in a Basket" photo by Mister GC courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net

Monday, 10 November 2014

Between the land and sea


Winners of the Gibraltar Poetry Competition 2014 with the judge, Mr Durante, and the Minister for Culture, Mr Linares
The Gibraltar Autumn Festival is in full swing and once again the poetry competition took place and attracted over 200 entries.  Among them mine, a poem inspired by the sea, an ever-present feature in my life.  I was delighted when this was chosen as the overall winner, and no less delighted if truth be told, when my son won his age category with a poem called "Over the bridge" which was inspired by the strong emotions provoked by exams -  he has his mock GCSE exams looming this month.


Me, receiving my prize from the Minister and looking embarrassed - I hate photos!

The competition judge, Charlie Durante, spoke in his introduction to the award ceremony about the breadth of themes touched on in this year's entries, including war poems.  I guess this year, marred as it has been by some conflict or other around the globe and the threats that ideological extremism pose to any lasting peace anywhere, joined by the memories of the First World War so strong this the year of this war's centenary, the theme of war cannot be far from our minds.


My boy, David Anderson, surprised and delighted at winning his category.

It is always interesting to browse entries and see what others see around them, what inspires them to make an observation, write it down and record it for posterity. Poetry opens a single window to the poet's thoughts which in a poem are expressed in a deeply personal way, a unique way which cannot be echoed by anyone else.  So in reading some of the winning entries which we are lucky to read in the Gibraltar Chronicle, sponsors of the event, we are able to dip into insights to the world about us.  David kindly allowed me to reproduce his poem below and I was surprised that he (usually to be found nose to screen in the depths of some computer game or other, communicating in binary code or peculiar adolescent grunts and trading in bit coins - whatever these are) demonstrated such a sensitive view of how it feels to sit at a desk in the exam room, waiting to turn that question paper round, knowing your entire future is at stake, and perfectly aware that any conscious knowledge of the subject you might have had escaped your over-worked brain over breakfast that morning.  His poem is about the tension of crossing that chasm of fear and tackling those exams.  Maybe although I never seem to catch him with a book in his hand, the boy is literate after all.


Mother and son, proud moment

My poem was sparked by a photograph my very talented photographer daughter took of her son last year on a beach.  The sense of wonder that a two-year-old displays in his face as he looks around the infinite spaces of sea-shore and horizon beyond borders on the indescribable.  When I look at my grandsons and recall how my own children looked at the world around them with insatiable curiosity, absorbing details, thinking about what they see, working out their world and what might lie beyond the horizon, I see the child-like wonder that adults have usually lost.  That we should also view the world about us with the same sense of non-judgemental curiosity would be a wonderful thing itself.  

And there was a third family entry.  My 12 year old daughter, Carmen added her thoughts to the event and came up with a poem expressing her feelings and fears about the shadow cast by the ebola epidemic, which even in the twenty-first century awakens the horrors of plague and disease experienced for generations.  I am a very proud Mum at the moment, needless to say.

Congratulations to all the winners and runners up - many poems were terrific.  I also congratulate all who entered, because it is not without a little courage that you put your intimate thoughts out for the world to see.


Over the Bridge by David Anderson

It’s a darkness,
A cloud, dense and purple,
That threatens to engulf my world,
To choke me,
To clasp me to its icy chest
Till my ribs snap
And I breathe no more because
It hurts when I breathe,
And I’m standing
In the yellow stains of school-room lights,
Waiting-
Gagging breath clogging my throat-
Just waiting for that one bark;
Start.

And then there’s light,
Blinding bright till my eyes smart,
Shining from the sheet
That lies on my desk,
Neat and clean and blank,
Like my sorry schoolboy mind.
And there’s a chasm there,
A yawning gap
With red, raw rocks,
Like hunting teeth,
That want to tear at
The thin threads of knowledge
My teachers tried to weave;
Except, there is a calm voice
In the flood of alarm
That leads me to step
Across a swaying rope bridge,
From cliff edge to mountain top,
Across the gorge of ignorance.

And I step, trembling,
Nib of pen shaking,
Fog thinning and clouds lifting,
And I edge,
Word by word,
Over the bridge.


Between land and sea by Jackie Anderson 


Between the land and the sea I stand,
By lace-frilled shore,
On strip of sand,
A beach that to my tiny frame
Stretches like the stretch
Of time that passes slow,
Time that only just has been and
Time that without fail is yet to come.

With fingers still to find their strength,
I trace the shapes of paths
That reach the lapping waters
And seek to reach beyond,
Beyond the edges of the blue,
Beyond the reaches of my childlike mind,
Further than those places where
The crooning, soothing sea touches sky.

I pace the shore,
Toes deep in tiny grains
To anchor me to the earth
And hold me close to all that I hold dear,
To ground me to a haven.

And yet I gaze and seek
To reach beyond the blue,
And take the magic of the sun
In the palm of my hand,
Hold the rainbow in my eyes
And breathe the mysteries that lie

Where sand and sea and child touch sky.


Catch me if you can by Carmen Anderson


I travel
I race
I leap
Through sky and sea and fields.
I’m coming for you,
Closer and closer every day.
But I don’t understand;
You have technology,
You have computers, cameras, phones,
But you can’t stop me,
You can’t kill me,
You can’t cure my work.

I thunder through towns
I rampage through cities.
I terrify.
I destroy.
I devastate.
And you can’t stop me.
You are to busy,
You are too rich to care,
Too complacent in your comfort.
You don’t think that I’m going to catch you.
But I will,
Unless

You stop and think and change your ways,
You dedicate time
To stopping me,
To killing me,
To curing me.

The thing is,
You have to do it
Before it’s too late
You’re smarter than me.

But I’m fast,
Catch me if you can.
Because I will catch you.





Sunday, 12 October 2014

Place as source of inspiration

Gibraltar Harbour - has inspired stories and poems

I'm one of those people who are never short of ideas for writing.  Not that I'm blowing my own trumpet here, there's nothing special about that, and because writing is not my job, I am not forced to come up with ideas and angles and article selling points day after day - if I were, then I would have written a very different first sentence to this blog and I have infinite respect for those who achieve publication after publication under the pressure of deadlines and still find ideas for success. 

I often find that my ideas come from location, from places.  There is a good deal written about the importance of location and setting in writing - who can ignore the threatening presence of the windswept moors in "Wuthering Heights" or the architectural landscape of "Gormenghast"?  

What I have been finding in recent months is just how much the places I live in or visit can have an impact on my writing.  For example, the ancient graveyard of Newington Church on a frost-bitten evening was the perfect setting for my short story "To Hear an Angel sing"; 

Newington Church, Kent, image by Sonia Vallejo

and following on the Christmas theme, crossing the new Sheppey bridge in Kent and driving to Sheerness in the pouring rain helped to inspire another story: "Home for Christmas".  

The back streets of old Gillingham and Chatham, steep hills lined by rows of terraced houses that were the homes of the dock workers in the early part of the twentieth century, leading down to the dirty grey waters of the estuary inspired another story: "Please stay for Christmas".  The fact that all these are Christmas stories is neither here not there - I spent many Christmases in the Medway towns, where I grew up, and despite having lived away for over 6 years now, Christmas and Medway are inextricably linked in my mind.

But every place, I am certain, has its inspiration, whether for its beauty, the majestic  nature of its landscape, the architectural wonders displayed, or the closeness to nature.  I personally like looking beyond the picture postcard.  I like to look for the story within the place, rather than just the story inspired by the place, and doing this can sometimes bring about a storyline that just has to be followed, or characters that simply beg to be created and developed until their stories are told.  In this way, when I recently visited the lighthouse at Gibraltar - for the umpteenth time because I lived here as a very young child and still walk here with my kids regularly, a place so familiar to me I can easily visualise it, yet a place where I see something new each time I visit - I found myself thinking about what it must have been like, in less technologically - advanced days, to be a lighthouse keeper.  And that led me to thinking about what it might be like to be a redundant lighthouse keeper, one too old to look after the lighthouse any more.  And those thoughts led to my most recent poem, a section below.  Location for inspiration.

The Lighthouse Keeper

His fisherman’s fingers are
Blackened from mending nets
On wind-swept, sun-burnt beaches,
And from the oil, the working of the wires,
Night-long fires, generator,
Guano-stained glass that must be cleaned each day,
Like a constant wife he’s
Tending, nursing, birthing light

To burn the length of night.

Image courtesy of Little Lenses Photography

Thursday, 11 September 2014

R and R


Finding time to drift with the tide of imagination

If finding a space for writing and time for writing is often difficult, getting into the right frame of mind for creative writing can be even harder.  On the odd occasion I manage to eke out a spare hour or so between tasks at home which I can actually dedicate to progressing my latest project, I often find myself dawdling about, distracted with this and that (Facebook or Twitter, more often than not) and just generally finding thoughts of all sorts popping into my head except, sadly enough, the thoughts I need about plot, or character, or mood, or setting, or rhythm, or imagery that I need.  All too suddenly, that spare hour is over and it's back to the housework, or kids, or getting ready for work.  And there's never the space in an overworked schedule to relax.



Relaxing by a waterfall is a perfect place for creative thinking

In fact in the last six or so months, I have found it almost impossible to concentrate on anything for long enough to create anything, except a tangled mess of words.  My attempt to co-ordinate meetings for Gibraltar Writers fell apart because I could not find time to make it to the meetings I had arranged. My attempts to blog were disorganised and lacked any direction.  And the characters in my work in progress suddenly became elusive creatures that could not be pinned down in my mind let alone on the page.

Then a spate of illness forced me to do the one thing that the creative mind, I believe, most needs to be able to function.  Rest.  After months of working long hours, I suddenly found myself forced to be at home resting.  It took a full fortnight or so to start to be able to think thoughts from beginning to end without getting into a muddle.


Or a lakeside break - perfect for peace and quiet and time to think

Rest and relaxation.  Maybe that's why some of the best ideas come to us in the shower, or bath, or while working out at the gym, or walking.  In fact, walking has often been a favourite pursuit of many a writer - think Wordsworth or Woolf.  Rest and relaxation releases the  mind and allows it to wander, it allows thoughts to penetrate which are not necessarily logical or pertinent to the moment.  These are unfocused thoughts, derived perhaps from the subconscious.  They are the thoughts that day dreams are made of.  And those are the dreams that one day can blossom into that special novel, or poem or play.


Or a city break - just to get away from the routine.  This was the entrance to 2014's Love Festival at London's South Bank

So if I have a tip for the month, just as summer draws to an end and we enter the bustle of autumn, a new term, the return of co-workers from holidays, and head towards the rush and clamour of Christmas, it is to make sure to take enough rest, to find those times to relax and allow ourselves to dream.....and write.