A Desire for More Cows

Previously on Self Distract… After a month’s enforced absence from you, I ran back last week with a babble about the film Arrival, the idea of the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, and right at the last moment squeezed in how I believe that putting yourself in other people’s shoes helps you write better characters. Or write characters better.

This is just you and me talking, isn’t it? You must’ve told some people, though, because I had a lot of response to all this. Most of it stopped just short of using a phrase to describe someone joins metal together under a hot flame. (“Well, duh.”)

I think all of the response said that whatever your route into thinking about other people, other characters, whatever term you want to give it, you are not a writer if you can’t put yourself in other people’s situations.

So I’m not a writer.

That was a hard thing to say to you. It was a harsh thing to say about me, since it’s all I want to do and I’m effectively unemployable in any other capacity. (Look at my hands. Have these hands ever done anything but type?)

I can’t always see other people’s perspective, though. I can do certain things. I can see certain other points of view. For instance, take the countless number of times that I’ve been in a pub with male friend who’s annoyed. He’s doing that thing of recounting something his female partner did and concludes with: “I mean, explain that. It makes no sense, does it?” And I am required by the script, by politeness, pretty much by civilisation’s very rules, to nod encouragingly.

I can’t actually make myself say I agree because usually I completely understand his partner’s point of view.

In fairness, it’s usually a comparatively trivial issue as if it were bigger, they wouldn’t still be together. Maybe I can just do the comparatively trivial, maybe I am limited in just how much I can understand of other people’s perspectives, of their way of thinking.

For take this as another instant. Recently a friend told me she was heading home one night when a man walked by and called her a slut.

Get inside that man’s head. I am a man, both he and I started off as babies and as little boys, but he went down a line I cannot conceive. Well, I know the same as you do that he got off on saying that. I know that in every sense of the word that he’s a wanker and we both know that he’d have said that to any woman he passed. And possibly did say it to every woman he passed.

You, I and this friend of ours – you’d like her, I must introduce you – also know completely and thoroughly that there was nothing about her that incited or encouraged this stranger.

Yet here’s this smart, vibrant, exciting woman and still when she got home she looked at herself in the mirror and thought about what she was wearing. Some shite of a man affects her enough that she looks in the mirror. I can completely understand her – wait, that’s a bit grandiose, a bit too much, I mean that I believe I can completely understand. I know that I can put myself in her place, I know that I would’ve looked at that mirror too.

I can only hope that I’d do what she did next: she says that she went out the next day wearing pretty much exactly the same thing. She wasn’t saying bollocks to this type of men, but actually she was.

I get that and I’m as proud of her as I am embarrassed by the man. What I can’t get is him. I mean, I’ve said to you that he got off on this and you know he did, but that seems to me like all I can do is label him. I can see what he did and if this were a story I were writing, I could plug him into various situations.

Whereas I can feel for her.

That seems to me to be a huge difference. It seems to me that feeling for her is not a writing exercise, not an attempt to draw a character, it is an involuntary human connection. I do definitely see that I need to make that connection, to have that feeling and empathy instead of a collection of labels if I’m to be a better writer.

And I’m afraid if I’m not just to write about characters who make me feel things, if I am instead to be better able to create characters that make you feel things instead, I have to be braver. For I know that one reason I can’t get inside the head of that man is that I am afraid to.

You have to agree with your characters, even temporarily, even just to an extent. Your characters and that man all think they are right so for them to work, for you to really see them and to see the world as they do, you have to decide that they are right and examine them from there.

I’m never going to call someone a slut but my characters might. And if they do, you have to believe it’s them doing it and not my authorial voice deciding they will because I’ve labelled them as the tosser of the piece. You have to believe these characters are real.

I get very tired of writers being asked where they got their inspiration from as that suggests everything we write is based on something real and so anyone could’ve written it if they just happened to have that same experience. I get very tired of people concluding facts about writers because of what their characters are like. I get deeply annoyed when someone quotes a writer saying something foul when actually it was one of the writer’s characters and the entire book is setup to prove that bastard wrong.

Not everything is based on anything. Not everything is how the writer really feels. But I realise that everything has to be something the writer has felt or made themselves feel. Made themselves examine and explore. No matter how distasteful.

I”m working on it. For neatness and symmetry and structure and all the things that I unconsciously think of when writing to you, I should end now by saying that it’s true, I’m not a writer. I’m not sure I’m brave enough, though. So let me try saying it this way: I’m not a writer yet.

A favourite thing

This is not about Brexit or any politics. And that’s not because I’m hiding from those topics, although I am a bit, but rather because they heightened something good. They made me appreciate something I’d forgotten was a big deal for me: the fact that this thing happened in the middle of that thing, just reinforced for me what I find special.

It’s only this. I profoundly relish being with colleagues late at night and having a drink after we’d done something big together.

Now, it does most definitely work best when those colleagues are my friends but they tend to become so in this late night moment. (It is scary how many friends I make through working with people. How many people I get to know and cherish when they hire me. I was saying to someone this week that she’s dear to me and I’m expensive to her.)

It doesn’t have to be all that late at night, either. I was doing this last night and it was only around 10pm. It was only for a short half an hour, perhaps less, and it is better when it goes on but last night’s was rather perfect.

Then when I said drink you inescapably assumed I meant alcohol and that was true last night. (I don’t drink but we were in a bar.) I do think it’s even better when the drinking is of builders’ tea and you’re gathered around a kitchen table. That’s where I first found this.

I found it many times after a regular weekly late-night hospital radio slot where a group had come together to make something. It wasn’t the most diverse group in ages or genders or anything really, and the greater the differences between the people, the better. There is something glorious about a lot of people coming from different backgrounds, with different hopes and aims, all focusing their every effort on the same thing.

That’s what makes the thing big. Not its size or scale or importance but actually, yes, its size, scale and importance to me. To us.

Last night I co-produced Private Moments, a poetry and prose event, with Charlie Jordan. I’ve known her for years, always wanted to work with her, finally got to do it – and to work with something like a dozen poets and storytellers. It was always going to be good: you just know when someone’s idea is right and will fly. It was always going to be an excellent night because Waterstone’s in Birmingham hosted it. A poetry and prose event in a bookshop. With chocolate.

But there was a point where I thought I would only be able to help produce it, that I wouldn’t be available to actually tell a story or eat the chocolates.

Between you and me, I was glad and hardly at all because I’m trying to lose weight. Instead, this lineup included poets and storytellers I’ve known and admired, it included ones I’ve just admired, and there were something like four former Poet Laureates in the mix. I was chuffed at working on an event that featured Charlie and also Matt Windle, Roy McFarlane, Cat Weatherill, Sarah James, Gary Longden, Jenny Hope, Lorna Meehan, Maggie Doyle and Marcia Calame, now officially my favourite person in the world.

She’s that because of what she said of my performance. Because I did perform. I was available in the end and I did perform and, oh my lights, that great list of names was now a daunting list instead.

I really do want to urge you to do this late night kitchen table tea with friends but I want you to have that same wind at your back. Sitting there like you’ve earned a spot, that you’ve all worked together and you’ve earned that drink.

I did a pair of short theatre plays once, vignettes in a whole evening of performances, and one time I was the star of the night. Really clearly the best writer with the best piece and that post-show gathering was brilliant. The next time I was the worst writer with the worst piece and that post-show gathering was crap.

This is better than both of those. A late night where you can stand your ground with people you do admire but also just really like. No comparisons of quality because you all stepped up. No post-mortem discussions of the evening, just good people and good conversation and your warmly sore back from having worked hard.