Creativity on rails

You try so hard, so damn hard to think of new things, to write new things. And then something like this happens. Actually, this particular thing happens to me so often that I honestly find it a bit frightening.

Say I’m editing some complicated audio or video and at the end I need to run off a version to send to someone. The process is easy but it’s rather harder to come up with a name for the file. It’s got to be something clear so that your recipient knows what it is. It’s got to have something saying it’s from me so that they can always track me back down if there’s a problem.

I’ve also got one eye to the future and another on just how many of these bleedin’ files I’ve got on my preposterous number of hard drives. So the name needs to be clear to me, too: it has to be so clear that I can recognise it two years from now. It also has to be so clear that when I need to search for it, the words that will find this file are obvious.

I really think about this, I mean I really do. Maybe the most creative thing I do on a given day is come up with a short filename that does all this. Wait: I forgot to mention short. It has to be all this and pithy, too.

The problem is that I’ll come up with this masterstroke of creative thinking, I’ll type that name, hit Return and immediately get: “file already exists”.

All that honestly hard-thought creativity and I’ve done it before. Precisely the same way. Truly, it scares me: I wonder if all my creativity is down precise lines, if I can never break out of previous patterns of thinking.

And then there was this week. Most of which was good.

I read a short story of mine about time at the Birmingham Literature Festival. Then I performed a different short story of mine about time at a book launch, also in the Festival. And on Wednesday I performed yet a third time story in a recording session for Brum Radio. Lastly, very late one night, I flopped down onto our couch, I had a chocolate mini-roll with my name on it – and I didn’t eat it for two hours because I’d finally cracked another short story idea and had to write it down. My hands and arms shook as I typed, I was writing so fast.

It was also about time.

Okay, so maybe a distressing proportion of my creative thinking is spent on this one obsessive topic but I’m fine with that, that’s not the problem. Nor is how having written what turns out to be a fifth story about time, I had an idea for a sixth.

It’s a really good idea. I promise you it is. I’ll even tell you the title: it’s The Pointless Time Machine. I don’t usually write about time in the sense of time travel and science fiction, more in terms of regret and anguish, but here I’ve got a time machine – and, more importantly, the character who makes it – and this machine is pointless. I won’t tell you why, but it is.

Only, give me some credit here, I had an inkling that I may have thought of something vaguely like this idea before. Obviously not the same idea, obviously not the same pointless time machine, doubtlessly not the same character, but the thing that is pointless about it is something that I know tickled me before.

Yes.

In 2012, I wrote something approaching 2,000 words about a story quite a bit like the one I’m working on now. Weirdly for me, that was not 2,000 words of story, it was all my groping toward an idea. Making notes of the things I liked, that tickled me, trying to see what pressures I could put my characters in. And I had quite a few characters. All of them bore me now and from 2,000 words of notes, plans and pondering, I think I’ll maybe take one possible setting.

So that’s all good, that’s all fine.

But, yes.

The notes were saved under the filename The Pointless Time Machine.

To make a short story long

If you look at writing from a cold, commercial view then you know that short stories don’t sell. But a great short story can have an impact on its reader and I’m learning that they can have a bit of a wallop on the writer too.

For you know that Facebook has this thing now of dredging up things you said one or more years ago. Today it showed me one from 2014 that was about a short story of mine. Unfathomable that it’s two years ago. But Roz Goddard commissioned me to work with a reading group in Combrook to come up with a short story for them. Each year several writers work with several groups and the job is quite clear: find out what each group enjoys and write them a story that fits.

I think there were six writers and six groups in my year and that would mean five got it right.

For I’m afraid that I rather betrayed my group and the principles of the entire project as instead of writing a story for them, I wrote a story about them.

Well, let’s be clear for personal, creative and definitely legal reasons: it wasn’t about them per se. But it was.

They’re such a good group of people, I had a delightful evening working with them, but despite the torrent of ideas and thoughts and laughs, there was one fact that I could not get out of my head. This group was in a beautiful village – you want to move there, you do – but that village actually had two such book groups.

That’s what I called the story: The Book Groups, plural. I imagined all sorts of rivalry between them and I am slightly disturbed by how some of the real group tell me they identify with certain of my imagined characters’ actions. Maybe you don’t want to move there after all.

What happened that evening two years ago is that I read them the finished story. I remember asking for a seat near the door in case they didn’t like it. But it was a happy evening for me, a privilege to be in that group for a spell. And I’ve read the story a couple of times since.

Once was to my mother who I didn’t think was particularly listening until I reached a key moment and she jolted. “What?” she said. “Read that bit again.”

Then I got to perform the piece at the Library of Birmingham. And this is where the short story becomes a long-lasting thing for me because I’m back there tonight. Alongside the very many events in the Birmingham Literature Festival, there are a series of extra readings and performances and I’m doing a new story, Time’s Table. It’s written for this evening, it’s partly set in this evening.

But then on Sunday there is the launch of an anthology of short stories, What Haunts the Heart, at Waterstones’ in Birmingham and it contains one of mine so I’m performing there too. Time Gentlemen Please is therefore my second published short story after The Book Groups.

Two published short stories in two years. It’s not a lot and I don’t know the word count but even together they can’t add up to a significant fraction of the number of articles and books I’ve done in that time. But they’ve been a huge wallop for me.

Separating the boys from the mentoring

A couple of years ago I did some work mentoring a teenage writer. He’s still a teenager but he’s just come back as a writer/producer – and he’s hired me for an event.

I’d say that this feels inexpressibly wonderful, except actually it’s that special kind of wonderful that is shot through with terror: what if I let him down?

He’s George Bastow and my event is one of an entire day he plus three teenage colleagues have programmed. I also love that one of the other three is a particularly strong writer I work with at a regular group session in Rugby.

Even if I didn’t know her and even if he hadn’t commissioned me – seriously, I just got all the paperwork from him and I can’t remember the last time I ever got anything like proper booking forms from anyone – I’d be thinking this event is wonderful. Actually, if I didn’t know her and he hadn’t commissioned me, I’d be free to think it expressibly wonderful and without the slightest fear.

What they’re doing is Teen Takeover Day at the Birmingham Literature Festival. The festival runs from October 6 to 16 but Sunday 9 October belongs to this group. Everything that happens on that day is down to them. I presume they were let in on the planning for the rest of the festival but as I understand it, the brief they were given consisted of two sentences: “It’s 9th October, here’s the budget. Good luck.”

They’re spending some of that budget on me.

This gives me pause.

Anyway, this is the first time that the Birmingham Literature Festival has handed over a day to teenagers or to anyone at all. It may be the first time any festival has done something so nutty as to fold their arms and tell anyone to get on with it.

You’ll forgive me if I tell you first about the event I’m doing, won’t you? Sunday 9 October 12:00-13:15 at the Studio Theatre in the Library of Birmingham: Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs. Young Adult writers Juno Dawson and Nicola Morgan come together on stage to discuss fiction and specifically how mental health issues for young people are and are not dealt with in novels.

I think it’s a coup for the Festival to get these two and I’ll be chairing the discussion with them.

But then afterwards there’s The True Identity of Comic Books Revealed and there’s an evening of poetry and spoken word with Hollie McNish.

Here’s how made up I am about this: I’m performing at a book launch in Waterstone’s, Birmingham at 14:00 on the same day and I’m telling you about Teen Takeover first. Plus I’m reading a new short story at a Room 204 pop-up event on the evening of Friday 7 October. As West Midlands regional representative of the Writers’ Guild I’m also a bit involved in a great event on Saturday 8 October: we’ve got the creators of The Bridge and Hinterland on stage with Lisa Holdsworth. How about that, eh? Saturday 8 October at 19:30.

Oh, just do what I’m going to do: move in to the Library of Birmingham for the whole ten days. Here’s everything that’s happening.

But back especially to Teen Takeover Day. You and a pal can come see the entire day for £10 – together, not each – with a special Teen Takeover Day pass. Quote TPASS241 when booking to get this deal.

Place and time

Maybe you can create a space, a place, a venue. I know you can build a building and I know you can run events but I’ve said before that you can’t just decide that this place will be special, that you can’t predict what venues will start to have a life of their own. But I could be wrong there because there’s a spot that has done this and not by accident. Last night I was at Waterstone’s bookshop in Birmingham and realised that it has genuinely become an arts venue.

This is mostly great but that thought last evening came in tandem with one that isn’t so good. This bookshop now has the same life and impact, it has become the same kind of hub for my working and social life, that the Library of Birmingham used to be. It knifes me saying that: I was so in love with that Library and it was so instantaneously important to the city, but then they halved its opening hours, cut its staff, immolated the place.

I had thought it remarkable that within weeks of it opening, so very many things I do revolved around the Library of Birmingham. I’ve spoken there, researched there, eaten there, had very many coffee meetings, it went from nothing to surely having always been there.

And now I pass it often and I regularly see tourists pulling on the door, perplexed why they can’t get in.

Anyway.

Across the city, there is this branch of Waterstone’s and over the years I’m sure I’ve bought many books there but to me it’s always just been where the old Times Furnishing building used to be. I can’t conceive how long ago that store closed and I refuse to look into it for fear of how old I’ll feel, but I walk into Waterstone’s and somehow I can still see the old store. The bookshop is all light and welcoming and I remember the furniture shop being dark, but the walls are where they were, the distinctive steps up to each floor are where they were.

This Waterstone’s was refurbished and reopened last November and earlier this year I went to pitch a vague event idea to the manager, Stuart Bartholomew. By the time it became less vague, by the time it became a poetry and prose event I performed at and co-produced with Charlie Jordan, it became a fair miracle that we could even be fitted in. This store runs events constantly. Take a look at the current schedule on its official website.

I can speak as someone who’s run one of these events: it buzzed, it was a success, there was great wine and chocolate. There was also Grace, who manages the events and didn’t criticise my shoving aside anyone who stood between me and that chocolate, yet whose surname I clearly didn’t bother to learn. Well.

But I can more speak as an attendee. I’ve been to talks there, I’ve been to see authors talking about their new books and last night I was at the launch of the Birmingham Literature Festival. The event is in October but the programme was revealed last night and you can now buy tickets. Perhaps ironically, I don’t think any of its events will be at Waterstone’s and I know very many will be at the Library of Birmingham. But Waterstone’s is running pop-up bookstalls at the Festival and last night it hosted the launch.

I am doing bits in the Festival but last night I was watching so many happy people near chocolate. I had to skip out early, I’m in London today running a workshop, and do you know it felt wrong leaving? Going from the verve and life of this event to a deeply long and boring train ride and a midnight slump into a Travelodge. Just wrong.

This bookshop is an important part of Birmingham’s literature, writing, arts and poetry scene. It’s become so in less than a year. I think it’s obvious that this is a direct result of the effort of Stuart, Grace and the rest of the staff but this is becoming an advert so I’ll just say that really it’s down to the chocolate.

 

What writing gives you

One thing that writing and being a writer has given me is that I got to speak at the launch of this year’s Birmingham Literature Festival – and I got to say something that matters to me. I got to explain why the same company’s year-round programme of Young Writers’ groups gets me invigorated and just a wee bit passionate. Some of these groups are for 8-12 year olds, some for about 14-16 and with two minutes to describe what they were all like, I got to say it like this:

Just let me say that first that I feel privileged to be the one who gets to talk with you about this tonight. With 21 groups, that means there are 21 professional writers like myself running them, then there are 21 assistant writers plus everyone at Writing West Midlands. Each month we must work with something like 300 kids between us.

We all do it differently but we all want the same things and – actually – we get it.

We want young people to be able to explore writing and reading. We want them to express themselves. Sometimes we’d like them to be a little less exhausting.

Two of my Burton kids told me – about a year after we’d started – that they’d been afraid it would all be like school.

It’s not like school.

In our sessions they write underneath the tables. They write while actually running around the room. They write stage plays that we then stage. Really, we get in actors and we stage them. Forget the kids: can you imagine how exciting that is at my age?

They write film scripts – that we all then film. They write books, poetry, short stories.

They write.

No exams, no Ofstead. Writing. Creating. And talking. So much talking.

I want to give you one example. Well, actually I want to talk to you all evening but I am allowed one example. I worked with such a quiet, shy little girl once. Eight years old, very scared. Wouldn’t speak. Wouldn’t. If she ever did, you could barely hear her.

Yet a few sessions along… The last time I saw her, she was on her feet, calling across the room, horsetrading with other kids: I’ll write this bit if you write that. Imagine this: she was the shyest little child I’ve ever met – talented, I think, but shy – and I watched her say… No.

No, she said. I’m not writing that bit, I’m writing this bit.

So proud of her. And I do hope she becomes a writer. But whatever she does, writing has given her this. The Young Writers’ Groups have given her this.

Confidence, expression. Now you can give her that too. You can help the next shy little girl or shy little boy. In fact, you can help the next kid who is just like you and me: interested in writing and only needing a little encouragement to bloom.

The Young Writers’ groups are by Writing West Midlands, a charity which you can – and I do – help by becoming a Friend. This is a particularly good time to do it if you’re near the West Midlands, too, as you also get discounts for events and October’s Birmingham Literature Festival is replete with performances, readings, workshops and countless things happening.

Plus if you’re nowhere near it and can only dream from afar, bung Writing West Midlands some cash specifically to fund these Young Writers’ groups. Text WWMS15 £2 / £5 / £10 to 70070.

Pride cometh before Autumn

I have a problem with the word pride. As one of the things you shout when a large number of lions are rushing toward you, fine. It’s also fine when it’s about you.

I completely get the idea of having pride in one’s work and more than getting it, I also get it: I have that pride in what I do. It rarely lasts, I am a writer after all, but at the moment I deliver it to you, I am proud of it – or I wouldn’t deliver it to you. That’s all fine as well. And I would especially hope that you know this kind of pride too.

For that matter, I would hope that you quite often feel proud of yourself. It’s you. Of course you should.

My problem is when I feel it about other people.

It’s not that I think it’s necessarily a bad thing to be proud of someone else, it just feels odd. What right do I have to be proud of someone else?

As I write, this Autumn’s Birmingham Literature Festival is nearing its end and it has been a very good year for it. Last year I actually did an event in the Festival and I still think this year’s is better. I’ve also had an interesting perspective on it because while I have done nothing and have attended lots, I’ve been half- or quarter- or a fifth- involved in bits. The Writers’ Guild has had a couple of events and I’m on the Guild’s committee so I had a fingernail in organising them.

The most I did was get a speaker to the Festival. There isn’t a pixel of the Festival that I could claim pride for myself but going to so much of it and having these tiny peeks behind the curtains, I am proud of the Birmingham Literature Festival. Proud that it happens in my city, proud that it is in the Library of Birmingham.

Thoroughly, delightedly proud of how successful it’s been. After I did my doings with that speaker, I left the green room to go find Angela. The queue for this event was so long and so full of people I’ve come to know in part through simply having gone to the Festival a lot, that it took me twenty minutes to get to her. Walking down that line, I got into four conversations. “Really got to go,” I’d say, then walk down ten paces and “Oh! Hello!”.

That was a Writers’ Guild and Birmingham Literature Festival event: the Guild’s Tim Stimpson interviewed Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. Full house. Queue snaking along the length of the Library and having to double back at one end. I did feel proud but the word I said at the time was just “Cor”.

I don’t think you can be in Birmingham and not be proud of this Festival. I’ve worked with many of the people doing it, I’ve had this tiny glimpse backstage, I’m a fan.

But.

There were many, many events where I at least vaguely knew the performers. That’s a funny thing to explain: I don’t know the poet Liz Berry at all but after you’ve seen her perform, you feel like you do. Tremendously, startlingly powerful poetry from someone so personable that if you ran into her with a friend, you’d introduce Berry to your pal like you’ve known her for years.

I want to introduce people to you, I want to list people that I actually do know and who were on full form in this Festival. But there are just so many. I do love that there are so many that I fear forgetting one. I don’t love that I’m going to chicken out. I’m not proud of that.

Only…

There was this one event. The launch of a book called A Midlands Odyssey: it’s a transplantation, a transformation of Homer’s Odyssey into tales of the Midlands. I could’ve just bought the book, and I did, but I wanted to see Elisabeth Charis, who produced it. I wanted to see Jonathan Davidson, one of its editors. Charlie Hill wrote one of the tales, Lindsey Davies whom I’ve met before did another, Elisabeth wrote a tale too. It’s published by Nine Arches Press and I really like the company’s editor, Jane Commane.

But then the first person who got up to read was the author Yasmin Ali.

I knew she was nervous because she’d told me. But in that theatre, under those lights, she strode up to read an extract from her piece and she looked like she did it every day. Read with style, got great laughs, if it had been you reading, you’d have been very proud of yourself.

And I told her afterwards, I told her truthfully: I’m proud of her.

But I don’t understand what right I have to be proud. I had nothing to do with her event or her story or her book or her. I didn’t have a damn thing to do with anything, but what I felt was pride.

Yet nuts to the word and the oddity of feeling it, if you went to the Festival or you are connected to Birmingham, you feel proud too.

If you didn’t go or you’re not connected to the city, then get yourself a sliver of a taste of a pixel of a moment of the whole event on BBC Radio 4. This coming Sunday’s (12 October, 16:30) Poetry Please was recorded there and features four Midlands poets – Liz Berry, Jacqui Rowe, Bohdan Pieseki and Stephen Morrison-Burke. And then in the following week’s edition you can hear me. I get to request a poem that always makes me weep. Please listen and picture poet Jo Bell squeezing my arm as I wept through the reading.

I’m fine with how I’m clearly not a hard, tough man. Possibly even a bit proud of it.