Small things

“The guy who lived downstairs didn’t have a nasty bone in his body. This made getting around difficult.”

(Unpublished, unfinished short story).

I’ve been reading “Sing To It“, a new collection of short stories by Amy Hempel, her first in over a decade. She doesn’t write many, but when she does they are extremely good. They don’t take long. There is no time for an arc as such, not easy to say for sure what happens to her characters either side of the text. If there’s a moral to these stories, it’s ambiguous. Some stories are only a page long (and the font is obligingly large).

Chuck Palahaniuk, who, if I knew him, would presumably hate me to refer to him as the author of “Fight Club”, said this about her:

“Every sentence isn’t just crafted, it’s tortured over.”

So I got into Amy Hempel simply because someone who I think is a great writer recommended her, and sometimes you want a doctor’s opinion about who should take your kidneys out.

I also like that quote about torture, I can believe it.

Short stories are the shrugged shoulder to the raised pointy finger of the giant literary work of genius. There is not much to look at except the sentences, their melody, little observations shaped into something more than simply what is being said. More than the person saying it and more than what they stand for. Something outside the visible, something you could look at and not see the writer.

I wish performing was a bit more like that but it isn’t always, and it especially isn’t always now. We all want to know who made everything and how, and why, perhaps so we are tempted to think we could do it ourselves. We want to see the evidence, check with our eyes that what we are experiencing is authentic, that we are justified in feeling something.

My opening sentence remains, the vertical blinking cursor daring me to add to it. Perhaps I won’t. This blog is already too long, and by the time you read it I probably will have shortened it still further.

One thing shorter than an Amy Hempel short story is a tweet, originally the sole preserve of anthropomorphised songbirds, now a popular vessel of communication amongst humans that customarily lacks the musical quality of the feathered variety.

Reading short stories helps me recover from time spent on Twitter. So it’s not just the brevity then.

(Sorry that was a bit of a moralising ending. Writing well is hard. Baby steps……)

Advertisements

In defence of journalism…

The first trick is to lure people in with a headline.

I’ve had my fair share of rants about journalists, public and private, as if they were all peas out of the same pod, and I’ve since regretted it. Writing blogs, rolling around in that vanity publishing utopia, has made me realise a few things.

And one thing’s for sure. I’m not a Writer. Not because I can’t do it, but because I often can’t think of anything to write about. It’s not easy. I wish I could simply shunt sounding things together, end to end, without it needing to be about something. This seems to work with music, but words need to hang on something, they must describe. We can’t all be EE Cummings.

Journalists, it seems to me, are in the trickiest position of all. They are obliged to write about the world as it is, or as it seems to them. The priority is to get copy out. Then they get censored (sorry, “edited”), squashed, collated, chopped. What’s left might be an opinion that is no longer quite their own, flapping like a dying fish on the deck of a sailing boat.

I’ve tried writing about music I like, and every time I try and describe what I think goes on, I often feel like I am just adding needless bumf to what is already there, like draping tinsel over a Ming vase.

It’s not easy. Dead heroes and heroines are easier to write about, because you miss them, so you write about that loss. The strange jolt of death that catapults an artist from forgotten to iconic for a few days. That’s readable. But it all reminds me of that film of Jackson Pollock painting with his turkey baister, crouching over a huge canvas. The action is all in his head, the spatial and textural sense, you are witnessing creation but not seeing it. Stravinsky sits at his desk with a pen and glasses, and out come the masterpieces.

So I’ve come to terms with the necessity of writing about the stuff “around” the music, the people writing and performing it, the people they in turn are seen to represent and reflect. Maybe music itself doesn’t quite fit on the page? Maybe audiences have to come out and get it themselves. Perhaps a tasty headline or a well doctored picture helps a bit, but in the end the horse and the water are still locked in timeless battle.

So, men and women of journalism everywhere, I hereby endorse the frankly worrisome task of writing about my upcoming album. My dad would have said “cheque’s in the post”. “I’ll BACS you” doesn’t really cut it, but thats all there is. I’m no poet, that’s for sure.

I Don’t Care What I Think

Blah blah blah.  We are all broadcasters.  Online, every passing thought quickly caught, laid  endlessly out with the wise words and vapid platitudes of the population .

And here I am, adding to it.

Among the Twitterers I follow are John Cleese, Aristotle and Egg Dog, as well as various economists, comedians and people I have actually met or want to meet.  All of their opinions, proclamations and promotional gubbins are reduced to a tide of epigrams where the late Kurt Vonnegut delivers his wisdom from beyond the grave, comfortably sandwiched in my feed between Belfast City Airport and the Tweet Of God.

And most of it is in the first person.

The Internet is the safe haven of the confessional and the friend of the attention seeker.  Amongst other things, it is full of people voicing precisely that grievance.  I don’t mind saying I sometimes find it bewildering, brainless, stupefyingly dull.  I sort of love it, being something of an attention seeker myself.  But this horror about “The Me Generation”, it doesn’t quite feel right.

Ok, so write about something.  Anything.  What’s the first thing you would choose?  Well, back in school, maybe it was “What I Did On My Summer Holidays”, anything  just to get the kids to put pen to paper.  Later, if ever writing beckoned as a hobby or as a profession, the advice was always, above all…”write about what you know.”  For most people, that means write about onesselves.  As onesself, you are a ready made character that, by definition, must be plausible (it’s something to aim for at least).

Well, I have a new category of weariness that rivals Compassion Fatigue, Metal Fatigue and the rest.  I’m tired of Me.  First Person Fatigue.  I don’t mean I hate myself….it’s more of a….of a stylistic thing.  My opinions, my descriptions of various occurrences and events, my taste in whatever.  I don’t mind them, and don’t feel the need for anyone else to agree with them.  If I did I would get religious, follow the money.   But as a subject, they bore me.  I don’t care what I think.

I started this blog partly as a way of “broadening my audience” (“widening” doesn’t look right somehow) to satisfy the requirements of a touring grant, but I ended up enjoying the words more than the opinions.  The sounds of them, how they go together or don’t, they were something to play with like notes and sounds and gestures in music.  I just think I ran out of steam with Me.

But I do like writing.  It’s still fun, a hobby.  I still find that some ways of saying something sound better to me than others, and trying to find those ways is enough.   The thing doesn’t matter.  And I know I did it again (look how many times “I” and “me” comes up in this blog).  Baby steps though; it’s hard to do this kind of U-turn in one go, like changing your golf grip or your favourite drink.  And really, it’s almost enough to just do this for my own amusement.  But that “share” button is so shiny and attractively coloured, it’s so damn pushable……and….I am hopeful that Sonny Rollins, The Great Gatsby and Egg Dogg might follow me back.

An eye for a bargain.

“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”  Matthew 7:12, The Bible (King James Version).

Heady words indeed.  Put yourself in their shoes.  And so, with this in mind I have embarked upon an online course in photography.  Part of my daily life has involved the infliction of teaching, the battering of knowledge into poor, defenceless students.  I thought it was about time I had done unto me whatever I was doing unto them.  Obviously as a teacher I can’t afford the three million pounds a week that learning costs these days, so I went for an online offer that knocked 90 percent off.  A whole series of videos for twenty quid.

I have tried this before with golf.  I made the mistake of thinking that a good teacher can turn you into something you weren’t before.  I was not a golfer and, after several weeks and at great cost, I remained lacking in that area.  He was not a great teacher, being a golf professional who had never quite made Ryder Cup status and found himself in a field near Chingford talking about the specific trajectory of the wrists in a golf swing to someone who had no idea where his arms were unless he was looking at them.  I had enough physical coordination to walk and to use opposable thumbs to an intermediate level.  I had no ability and I wanted to know if I could gain some.  I realise now that it was not his to give.

So, back to photography.  I bought a camera some years ago, and have dabbled a bit, picking up bits of information here and there, making lots of mistakes and coming up with the odd good photograph.  I suppose I’m at that stage where every time you learn something, you increase your knowledge by fifty percent; somewhere near the bottom, comfortable, occasionally excited, salivating at equipment I can’t afford that I still believe will take a good photograph for me.  I know enough to have an idea that a photograph is good, and not enough to know that it could be better.  It’s just a bit of fun.

So, full of all of this, I eagerly log on to my first lesson.  A voice says hello, and welcomes me to this course in photography basics.  Straight away, he sounds like he doesn’t want to be there.  He isn’t there, it’s a recording.  But he sounds like he doesn’t even want to be that.  He sounds hungover, irritated at the thought he has to go over the relationship of aperture to shutter speed again.  It’s as if he has to be there every time someone plays this video, he has to struggle out of bed after a night out with his photography friends who already know about the effect of light on a landscape, about the Rule Of Thirds, about a raised hand too close to the lens that distracts and clutters.

This is not irritating at all, just vaguely amusing.  And after a few episodes, I am getting to like this guy; it seems that the longer we spend time together, the more he is warming to me. He understands that I am keen to learn, and that hearing the basic tenets of his craft explained again and again in slightly different ways is hypnotising me into understanding them.  Sometimes he gets into arguments with himself, and starts to bring what seem like like aspects of his life experience into the monologues;

“…it’s all about direction, it’s up and down and left and right and forwards and backwards.  You can’t just look forwards.  Believe you me, I know people in life who only look forwards, never to the right or the left, and especially never behind them.  And it’s unbelievable.”

This is totally irrelevant, and almost completely non sensical, but the message is getting through.  As I type this, I am distracted by the bookmark that says “photo course” in my browser, I can’t wait for the next instalment.  There is a lot of stuff I already know.  But to know it again is to know it better, as if repetition has its place in learning as well as in practice.  And occasionally he will tell me something that changes everything and declutters my brain, something is demystified.  But it’s importance often goes seemingly unnoticed, maybe it’s one sentence in the middle of a rant about light (only a photographer could have a rant about light) or a casual aside about diagonal lines receding into focal points.  But what is happening is that I am starting to trust this guy, or the voice of this guy, whose name I can’t remember.  I can see beyond the gravelly croak of his despondent delivery into the world of his visual imagination.  The surface of a person is such a resilient and persuasive advertisement, it’s catchy and attention grabbing, but the real stuff is underneath.  The real stuff is the number of times he has picked up a camera and done something with it that works, minus the number of times I have done that.  The shortfall is the reason I am persevering with it.  That and the twenty quid.

I think it’s useful to be taught something if one is teaching others.  I think I was looking for some kind of salutary lesson about how difficult it is to learn, how people who teach don’t understand their students and the obstacles that the gaining of knowledge and experience present.  Instead, I realised that as a student, it’s often your engagement with a subject that makes the teaching effective.  You have some ability already, and the teacher brings it out, directs it, sometimes enhances it.  I suppose i knew this already, but to experience it directly is a good lesson.   It’s easy to throw tennis balls at people and blame yourself for the fact that no one catches them.  But they have to jump.  And they might realise that the jumping is the fun bit.  Obviously, there are some people that just aim for the head and throw as hard as possible, in which case the lesson is to duck.

I think I’ve got enough mileage out of that analogy for now, maybe it’s time for a creative writing course.  When I find one I’ll skip to the chapter on endings.

Merry Christmas.