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.

Writers and the Sapir Whorf hypothesis

I don’t think I’ve ever quite said this to you before but I regard it as a treat and a privilege that we get to chat. And I am especially conscious of this now as Self Distract has been dead for a month because of website problems. Oh, my lights, but it’s good to be back.

Now that we’re on speaking terms again – thank you A Small Orange internet service provider for rescuing the blog from the debris – I do of course want to talk to you about writing. It’ll just take a while to get there and I think along the way we’re going to explore something that applies to everything and everyone. Certainly to you and I.

At least certainly if you spend as much time thinking about words as I do. It’s not healthy of us, it really isn’t.

But one word that I particularly like is the German one ‘heimat’. There’s a famous German television drama of the 1980s called that and I never got around to watching it. What I learned about it, though, was that strictly speaking the word heimat means home. And, more importantly, that it really means much more than that – which English doesn’t have an equivalent to.

Then there’s the quote from Cervantes which goes something like this: “Reading a translation is like looking at the back of a tapestry”. Isn’t that wonderful? Such a vivid, instantly clear, instantly obviously right way to explain that you can get the pattern but you cannot see the colour.

Only, this is a favourite quote of mine for one specific reason: Cervantes originally said it in Spanish.

So as much as I believe I understand the thought, as an English-only speaker I am perhaps only looking at the back of it, at the pattern of the meaning instead of its full colour.

It’s thinking about this kind of stuff that means I heard of what’s often called the Sapir Whorf hypothesis a long time ago. If you only recently heard of it, that’s because you’ve just seen the film Arrival. If you’ve never heard of it before right this moment, please go see Arrival. (The screenplay is by Eric Heisserer and based on a short story by Ted Chiang. For once, I urge you to see the film instead of solely reading the screenplay but right now that script is available online. It won’t be there for long: it’s online as part of awards season and will be taken down in a few weeks. If you miss it, tell me: I lunged at the screen to save a copy for myself.)

The film exaggerates or at least takes this hypothesis on further than Edward Sapir or Benjamin Lee Whorf did and apparently many people think their idea is bollocks anyway. I’m fine with a film using a bollocks idea and taking it to somewhere as gorgeous as Arrival does, but I also think the hypothesis is right because of Heimat, because of Cervantes – and actually because of radio.

Writ very short, the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is that the language we use affects how we think, how we see the world. In Arrival, this is the start for a simply beautiful story and one so delicately drawn that it made me want to rip up all my own writing and start over.

But in Arrival and in the full Sapir Whorf hypothesis, the point is very specifically about a whole language, an entire language and not just a phrase book. If you speak French then your very thought patterns are subtly different to the way you think if you are a German speaker.

I am sure that’s true but I don’t know because I solely speak English and can’t compare anything. Yet I still think there’s something key about this idea even within my one single language. For instance, I suspect that writers think differently to, I don’t know, chefs. I was talking to someone once, for instance, who visibly could not grasp whatever small-talk subject it was until we found a way to translate it and use an example from his industry. That was an odd and somewhat long hour.

I am also entirely certain that I think the way I do because of radio. Tell me if this is you, too, but I can see that I’m shaped by having worked in radio. Specifically that my sense of time is different. There’s the time passing away for all of us but there’s also the time that you plan out for a show, that you plan out like time is a physical space.

So for instance even though it’s years since I worked in BBC radio, I still think in the terms top and bottom of the hour. I think of the first half of an hour as being an easy, downhill-fast run while the second half is an uphill climb. I can rationalise that by how you’re doing a show because you have something you’re excited to say and so naturally you want to get to it quickly. The start is easy because you want to rush in. The end is tough because you’ve got to pace out the piece, you’ve got to be sure you’ve included everything. But still, sod rationalisation: I think this so deeply that the top of the hour feels fast and easy to me, the bottom of the hour feels hard.

You do this in radio, I do it still in producing events and workshops, but I also just do it all the time. Like, all the time.

I do this and then I also think in terms of hard and soft items.

A hard item, if you’ve not heard it described this way before, is one that’s already prepared and has a fixed duration. Watch The One Show, for instance, and you’ll see a mix of interviews in the studio and little films, sometimes called VTs, sometimes packages. (VT is from videotape, when these things were played in to the show off a prerecorded tape. You’re too young to remember videotape and consequently I hate you.)

These video packages are hard items and the studio guest interviews are soft ones. It’s nothing to do with whether one or the other is hard-hitting, gritty journalism or light, cheery frippery. It’s that the hard one can’t be stopped where the soft one, the interview, can be as long or as short as you like if things have changed. You can wrap up an interview when you’re running out of time where you can’t stop a film package.

Actually, of course you can. I’ve not worked in this type of television but in radio you would distressingly often have to come out of a package early because something happened or you’d mis-timed when you should’ve started playing it in. Stopping a package early while not sounding like you just fell over the fader took skill: you had to listen live and listen for the right instant, the right moment when actually the presenter only paused but it sounded like it could be the end. Then you slam that fader shut and you start talking as if that were the end.

It’s called potting. You pot a package. Language is wonderful. The reason this is potting instead of, say, slamming-fader-ing, is that before radio desks had faders, they had round little knobs. They looked like teeny upside down pots. You can still see a million of them on music studio recording desks.

I think of potting, then, the same way that we talk about taping a TV show when really we mean marking it to record on our Sky or DVR box. We talk about videoing an event when we mean digitally capturing it on our phone.

More than the terms, though, more than the words I think in, knowing what potting is and having done it, I can always hear what I can only describe as a pot point. If I’m watching the news, I know when they could pot the item and move on. Sometimes you wish they would and that’s about time too.

What we do shapes us, that’s certain. What we have to think about shapes us, I’m sure. I’m conscious that I’m now thinking about this in obsessive detail because that’s what writers do, or at least it’s what I do as a writer. But having finally got us back onto the topic of writing, I offer this: Sapir Whorf gives us an insight into characters.

Knowing this, or at least believing it, has got to help us see into the characters we create and inhabit in our fiction and our drama. See how they think and you’ll know what they’ll do, you’ll feel what they feel.

Amongst everything else about this, I believe that the practice of trying to think how other people do is a good, hopeful and maybe optimistic thing in a time when we need all of that. Whether it’s the Sapir Whorf hypothesis or just my own special kind of bollocks, I think it means that we can change how we think by doing and talking and thinking about something new.

Listen, I’ve been waiting to discuss this with you for a month. Let’s go get a tea and maybe watch Arrival. Waddya say?

Perspective

A friend was telling me of someone he knew whose young daughter in America was grabbed between the legs by a young boy in their school. And – I’m afraid you know this is coming – that the boy said it was okay to do this because it’s what the President-elect does.

This is not the first such event and I’m ill that it won’t be the last, but I don’t think we’re ever going to get inured to it. We’re never going to become so used to it happening that it doesn’t feel sickening. I’d like to do more than shake and vomit but most of me doesn’t know what.

There is a part of me that I’m hiding away from that has an idea, though. It is a writing idea, since I am a writer, and while I’m trying not to think about it because it falls into this area of 2016dom, there’s more. I’ve been trying not to think about it because it is too hard.

Follow. Ever since I heard the story of this boy, I’ve been wondering what I would do if he were my son.

I don’t have children. I do have characters. So the next step in this chain I’ve avoided is to wonder what I would do if he were one of my characters.

I want to say I’d delete him and start again.

But he’s a human being and a character of mine who did this would have to be a human character. I mean human as in a full person, not a cipher or someone in the story for plot exposition, someone there to be the easy target of the foul, numb bile I’ve got.

And that’s where it’s hard.

That’s where I fail as a writer.

No, strike that: this is one area where I fail. If it were the only one, I’d take that and be happy. Well, reasonably happy. Well, miserable.

As a writer, I need to be able to write a character like this and make him real. I could do a fair job of convincing you I’d pulled it off by having a character do certain things, say certain things, but it would be a front. Ultimately you wouldn’t be convinced. I need to have him say and do things, yes, but the inner workings have to be right before the movement and the dialogue is both real and worth it.

I have to understand the character from the inside. Which means I actually have to find a way to like him. No, truly: we all think we’re right, that boy thinks he’s right, and we all find ways to justify what we do. Everyone else is a bad driver but it’s fine if I drink because I can handle it.

I have always, always had difficulty with the fact that I piddle about with text while in the real world women are being raped. So far I’ve managed to hide back inside that text but that’s just harder and harder now.

Even now, even here, even saying this to you, I’m conscious that this is a form of piddling about with text. I’m effectively saying that to become a better writer, I need to get inside these abhorrent characters. Like it matters to the world whether my writing improves. It matters to me, it matters so much, this talking with you matters so much, yet there must be something we could actually, actively do to counter 2016dom.

Except of course there is. I think there is. And it’s piddling about with text. Understanding abhorrent characters is a writing goal but understanding abhorrent people is maybe the only way we can change things for real.

Writing to ourselves

This is a tough one because I can’t quite form the thought that’s bubbling but I want to try. It’s clearly about the little local difficulty this week, that tiny of thing of Trump getting elected. And it’s also definitely about the disconnection between most things I read beforehand and what a majority of the US public must’ve read.

But other things keep popping in. Like the photo of a spray-painted sign that went went around social media this week. It’s so peculiarly spaced that you have to think for a moment but what it’s trying to say is “Make America White Again”. Forget that it’s an inexpressibly painful statement and instead if you see the photo, look at the symbol between the words.

Here’s someone doing the America-for-Americans crap but he – it’ll be a he – uses a German Nazi Swastika symbol. That symbol had a life long before the Nazi Party but that’s over, that’s gone, that’s erased: this logo is forever Nazi and German. If the painter knows this, he’s just broken his own ambition of building a wall between the US and ‘foreigners’. If he doesn’t know, then he’s even more ignorant than you already think.

Yet here’s an ignorant prick turning to writing. Writing matters. It reaches people: even his hateful message got widely circulated and I’m part of that. We couldn’t be more different, this man and I, yet he wrote something and I’ve passed it on to you.

Usually, though, it is true that we write and read within our own walled gardens. This has been an issue with the rise of Facebook and Twitter where if you don’t agree with someone, you can just remove them from your social media life. It’s definitely a big issue now as the result of the election was a surprise to pretty much all of the media writers. No question, they believed they were right and no question, each article condemning Trump backed up their view.

Only, I don’t think the walled garden idea is entirely fair. At least part of the problem with media coverage of the election is that people lied to them. People knew that it was bad to say they supported Trump, so they didn’t say it. The more they didn’t say it, the more the accepted view was that you couldn’t support this man so the more they didn’t admit it.

Obviously they knew they were lying, obviously they chose to lie, and it follows that they did so because saying they backed this foul man was socially unacceptable. It isn’t any more. He won. So the haters feel they’ve won too. Even if we didn’t have the evidence from Brexit here and even if we weren’t already seeing it in the States, you could predict that hate crimes would rise, that the darkest sides of people would come out into the light. Because they think they can do it, because they know it is socially acceptable to enough people, because their President is truly theirs.

That makes me shake. That’s a walled garden where the people in it have just discovered each other and are crowing about it.

It’s horrible but it’s not new. Even though Facebook and Twitter have exacerbated the walled garden idea, we have always had this exact same thing. Think back to when newspapers mattered: you didn’t see very many dinner dates between a reader of The Sun and one of The Guardian.

Go back even further, no, further than that, keep going, still more, nearly there, here you are. Pre-industrialised society. Whatever were the generally accepted norms in your village could be very different to what was thought right in the next. Back then the barrier was a physical problem of separation, now it’s more human response.

And I’m afraid it is human. We are born into one tribe and even if we leave, we seek out others. Writing has enabled us to leave sooner and spread further, yet we still and always will gather in similar groups. Aaron Sorkin once had a character say that if you’re dumb, surround yourself with clever people and that if you’re clever, surround yourself with clever people who disagree with you. We won’t.

I don’t write to you because I consciously think you’re in my tribe, I write to you because I like you. My Facebook friends are people I like, or people I’ve worked with, or people I’m pretty sure I know even if I can’t quite place them at the moment. Amongst them, there’s been a lot of talk about blocking and unfriending people who are pro-Trump. It is tempting but I’ve resisted because I do want some gristle, I do want to learn and grow and persuade and be persuaded.

But I accept that in the main, I am in a walled garden and I am writing in one. I also accept that this is bad and that we should do what we can to break those walls down.

Only, there is a part of me that thinks this isn’t the problem. If Trump and Clinton supporters are in walled gardens, if Brexit’s Leave and Remain sides are in walled gardens, we probably can’t change that.

What we need to do is make our walled garden bigger than their walled garden. And we’ll do it with writing. You and I.

The twelve-word writing lecture

You didn’t notice but I borrowed you about twenty minutes ago. I was asking your advice about a writing thing and I just went off into the most tedious and even poncy side points. As we talk, you see, I’m in a rather posh club in London waiting to deliver a couple of workshops for Equity. It’s a really nice club. I could and did go on about it. But your time is more important.

And I do want to sound you out on something. Next week I’m due to give a talk on the Life of the Writer at a university. I asked if the writer could be Alan Plater or Emily Dickinson, I did. But it has to be about me and since there is no way in the world I can stand talking about myself for three hours, I’ve got to think of something.

It’s for students on a writing degree and I didn’t study writing, not at university or ever, so I can’t charm them with tales of debating Proust in the bar. I could, but they’d see through both my points and that I only drink tea and Pepsi Max on the rocks.

They have asked me to read from my writing, so I’ll do some of that. But what I’m thinking is that because they’re students, they probably don’t yet know what it’s like writing for a living. I presume some will be mature students so they may well know all about it, but on balance, I’m probably safe to stick to that. Safe and hopefully best.

It’s where to start, though. And how to fill three hours.

I do know that I absolutely, definitely, completely do want to stop people writing three very similar words in a row for emphasis. Also that for everything else that writing is, it’s a job. If you do the professional stuff professionally, you get to do the artistic stuff artistically.

There’s also that yes, there are very definitely harder jobs than writing. But there are also easier ones.

I think I’m going to end up saying that you need to take writing seriously and to get on with it. That’s it. Twelve words. Given that our general speaking rate in English is three words per second, I’ve got two hours, fifty-nine minutes and fifty-six seconds to fill.

I’ll make sure I read from my longest book.

Competence porn

Perhaps you already know this one but the term ‘competence porn’ is new to me – and it’s given me a little bit of hope about a long-standing bugbear hobby horse of mine. Alternatively, it’s given me a little ammunition if I ever need to argue about dumbing things down for audiences.

My grumble is with clever people in television drama. You need someone smart to solve a problem, to move the plot on, to get characters out of a dull situation. But usually that clever person cannot be the hero, cannot be the lead character. Moreover, the actual lead will mildly mock them for being a geek. Mock them while being completely dependent on their idea.

What that’s supposed to do is let the audience know it’s okay that they, the viewing public, are not very smart. I don’t like that any more than you do. But I especially don’t like being patronised because apparently I, as a viewer, genuinely am smarter than the writers and more often producers or networks who decide to do this. For I can see and you can see both that it’s annoying and that what it really does is make the hero look like an ass.

But now we have this thing that is apparently called competency porn. It means we like watching characters who are good at what they do. Sherlock is the first example that comes to my mind. The Doctor in Doctor Who is another, usually.

Allegedly one reason we like Darth Vader as a villain is because of how professionally ruthless he is at the beginning of Star Wars. He’s caught the Princess, he casually kills somebody-or-other and we’re impressed. That’s more surprising when you think that nothing else he ever does in that film works out for him.

I think of the opening of Grosse Pointe Blank where we meet a hitman. He’s precise and focused as he prepares to kill someone, even while he’s also on the phone reciting bank account numbers to his assistant – he has a PA, this guy is professional and busy – and then he does this thing of aiming a rifle at someone far away. The hitman is in a corner hotel room, the target is a cyclist out on the street, and our guy takes aim through one window, then walks to another, tracking along where the cyclist will be, before shooting from the next window.

I know the hitman is John Cusack but he’s just killed someone and, bizarrely, we’re impressed. We’re on our way to liking this character.

One last example from where I heard this term competency porn. There’s a US drama called Leverage, a con/crime series very much like an American version of Hustle. As much as I like it, every episode does follow a set path and one early part is where this team of criminals – the good guys, by the way – have a briefing. Here’s producer John Rogers talking about a 2009 episode called The Fairy Godparents Job:

“Good Lord, how we agonized over spending so much time in the briefing scene in this ep. Ironically, this episode arrived just as we were collating feedback off the ‘net and found, stunningly, you people love the briefing scenes. For we writers, it was always X pages of pipe we tried to make as entertaining as possible and move past to get into the plot. For the audience, watching competent people banter and plan was a big part of the appeal. ‘Competence porn’ as we started calling it.”

There is a spectacularly and quite wonderfully dumb character in the remade Ghostbusters: I’m not saying everyone should be smart, I’m saying nobody should be dumbed down. And they don’t have to be.

Time for something new

I want to make a case that there is nothing new and also that everything is new. Follow.

This is on my mind chiefly because I was in a Facebook discussion last night where writer Iain Grant said that he and co-writer Heide Goody were looking at a time travel idea for a novel. (If you don’t know their work, take a gander at their website.) He wanted to know if it had been done before.

I knew a few examples that were close and others had more that were similar, some had ones I’d not heard of but are apparently pretty much the same.

Now, one of my more annoying but uncontrollable habits is that if you tell me an idea, I might well wince and say no, it was done in Upstairs, Downstairs or The A-Team. This is specifically the reason I can’t get through Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom: as good as it is, he has stories and characters that he’s used so often. There is a part of me that wants to see how The Newsroom handles a particular storyline that was beat for beat the same in Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but chiefly because I’m fascinated by how it was romantic in the former but creepy in the latter.

Wait, I suddenly remember having a little row with a script editor who argued that just because I’d seen something done often, that didn’t mean my audience had. That didn’t sway me. I couldn’t write the scene the way he wanted.

Yet in that discussion last night, you could sense Iain beginning to think that nope, he and Heidi should skip it and I really don’t want him to. Nor does anyone else in the chat. And I think it’s for this reason.

Yes, at least parts of the idea have been done before, but it hasn’t been done by Iain Grant and Heide Goody. Until they’ve done it, you can’t know that it would be written better than the previous versions but you can know that it would be different.

I’m not sure why that’s enough to make me urge them to write it and yet not enough to let me do the same. For me, if I know that an idea has been done before then, so far, I’ve been incapable of doing it. This could be why I never ask on Facebook whether something’s been done before.

Only, there is another reason for this being on my mind today. Earlier yesterday I was on a train reading an unpublished novel that I wrote. Funnily enough, it was about time. Unfunnily enough, it was appallingly bad. So bad that I truly gaped when a search on my Mac happened to turn it up: I had written 70,000 words in 1994 and erased it from my mind immediately afterwards. I’m not sure why I didn’t erase it from my Mac. I might. There’s still time.

A day on and it’s already evaporating from my mind but I did remember how struck I was by one core idea that ran through the second half of the book. Because while the details are different and the relationship is different, it’s otherwise the same idea as in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. There’s even a part of it that is the same idea as River Song and the Doctor’s out-of-sequence relationship in Doctor Who.

The Time Traveler’s Wife was published nine years after my novel wasn’t. River Song first appeared in Doctor Who in 2008, fourteen years after my novel didn’t.

There’s something appealing to me about this timey-wimey issue, that two separate time discussions are leading me to how there were at least two great ideas within the novel I wrote. It’s less appealing to me how ferociously bad my writing was in 1994.

I often get pupils in writing workshops asking if they can do something slightly different to what I’ve asked and the answer I’ve grown is always this: yes, if you do it brilliantly.

Maybe that’s the bit I should be focusing on: work at being brilliant instead of working at whether this catalogue in my mind recognises an idea from somewhere else.

I mean, at one point in that novel I wrote the words “a myriad of”. I was young, but I’ll understand if you never talk to me again.

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.

Depth perception

I’m not going to name someone here because I don’t want to embarrass them. But also because I think it might apply to you and I’m hoping it does to me.

It’s about how we see ourselves and how others see us. Let me give you the example that prompted me thinking about this, that prompted me to want to talk to you about it.

I ran a pair of workshops last Saturday, back to back things all day with mostly the same writers across the two. All sorts of writers, all sorts of experience, but every one of them professionals. And afterwards we got into a topic that for some reason is a recurring one in this job: the discussion over when and whether you can call yourself a writer.

I don’t know why we have this: maybe it’s an arts thing as perhaps it happens with painters too yet there’s no engineer who’s ever been in doubt what their own job title was. It’s a tough world, there probably isn’t an engineer who hasn’t doubted whether their job would continue, but they knew what it was called. When asked on a form they don’t have heartbeat’s hesitation over what to write as their occupation. Writers do.

I used to. These days I’ve come to accept that I’m unemployable in any other field.

But there was this one person on my workshop who was talking about this and about the genuine relief that she’s recently felt able to call herself a writer. There’s a deeper issue here about identity and I think also self-worth but this particular writer saying this particular thing was a jolt.

She’s not only published, she is a publisher. She has a poetry imprint, she runs events, she runs workshops. Now, to me that’s all writing: she disagrees, she calls them writing-related jobs and of course she’s right but to me it’s all the one thing. You use the same muscles in producing an event as you do writing anything: there’s a lot of actual writing, for one thing, but also you’re communicating, you’re persuading, you’re trying to inform and to do so entertainingly. You’re trying to learn, too, which is a big thing in this lark.

A year or two ago, a mutual friend asked me to meet with this same writer to tell her how to do a particular thing – and I laughed. The notion that I could tell her a single thing she’d hadn’t already done and wasn’t already doing. We did meet, we did have tea, I had a good time and fortunately there was something she hadn’t happened to have tried. Or so she said. She may have been being kind.

But the fact that it’s only recently she has felt able to call herself a writer means she didn’t think it when we met that time. There is absolutely not one single question that she wasn’t a writer then, that she isn’t now: she’s a writer and she’s a pro.

I’m glad and relieved that she now accepts it but I’ve been thinking about this workshop conversation all week. The disconnection between how she was seeing herself and how I was seeing her. I’ve been going around impressed with her and she’s not seen why.

This isn’t exactly a new thought in the world but it resonates me with me this week: if she could be so wrong about how good she is, perhaps we all are. Even you.

Maybe even me.