Tag Archives: inspirations

Candlemaker Row by cyocum, under Creative Commons license

Umbrellas of Edinburgh

Umbrellas of Edinburgh (Freight Books) is a new anthology of poems and stories about Edinburgh, including my short fiction ‘Candlemaker Row’. Here’s the story behind the story…

The city of Edinburgh has been thoroughly explored in literature, and to write about it is to enter unavoidably into a dialogue with a lineage of authors from James Hogg, Robert Fergusson, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, through Muriel Spark and Norman McCaig, all the way up to the present day and Ian Rankin, Candia McWilliam, Irvine Welsh and Alexander McCall Smith. The city is a literary palimpsest, the opposite of Alasdair Gray’s Glasgow:

‘Glasgow is a magnificent city,’ said McAlpin. ‘Why do we hardly ever notice that?’ ‘Because nobody imagines living here,’ said Thaw […] ‘Think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or golf course, some pubs and connecting streets.’

– Alasdair Gray, Lanark, A Life in Four Books (1981, London: Picador)

 

By contrast the ideas and images of Edinburgh as a split city – its towering heights and its great depths; its clean, wealthy elegance and its dark, seedy poverty; its convenient embodiment of Calvinist notions of good and evil, and the dualism that’s strongly associated with Scottish fiction – have become so familiar as to verge on cliche.

And yet … they’re strongly present in my direct, lived experience of the city; they are woven through my perceptions, shaping my imaginative response. When I tried to write about the place I’ve lived for twenty years, the ghosts of so many literary Edinburghs created a very specific anxiety of influence: it seemed there was no part of Edinburgh that hadn’t been imaginatively claimed; literally, no space for a fresh response. I realised I would need to find a way to create this space, if I was to write a story that offered anything unexpected, any kind of new perspective.

To achieve this, I employed two strategies. The first was destructive: razing the city in an unspecified disaster, I thought, would clear the ground and allow me to imaginatively reconstruct the city afresh. The second was more subtle: privileging smell as a sensory response to place, rather than the more usually dominant sight and sound, held the possibility of creating a different map of the city. The story that emerged was of a specialist in the technology of virtual smells, working on a project to recreate the lost city as a virtual reality – an idea inspired in part by Kate McLean’s ‘smellmap’ of Edinburgh.

In the early stages of writing this story I knew I was exploring the idea of home, but other, interconnected ideas quickly emerged – of what we mean when we talk about the ‘real Edinburgh’; of one small part of a city so much reproduced that it comes to stand for the whole; of the validity and veracity of the imaginative reconstruction of a city based on second-hand source material – a copy based on copies; of ownership of place. All of these layers of story can be read as illustrative of my initial difficulties in writing about Edinburgh. In another way, too, this is a story about the process of writing creatively, since in writing the city I was engaged in the same kind of imaginative recreation as my narrator: both of us rendering a physical place in code (binary or linguistic) and employing sensory detail to create a convincing setting for a future participant (virtual reality user or story reader).

Perhaps any story about Edinburgh must be built on unsettled foundations, since it could be argued that the city itself is uncanny: the Old Town embodying the city’s dark, haunted past, surmounted by the order and rationality of New Town but refusing to remain hidden, persisting instead as central to representations of Edinburgh. ‘Candlemaker Row’ turned out to be a double ghost story: haunted (perhaps) by the narrator’s lost lover, a literal ghost in the machine of the virtual Edinburgh; and by a disembodied city that’s ‘built from code and light’, an Edinburgh raised from the dead.

Umbrellas of Edinburgh is available now from Freight Books.

 

Image illustrating ideas

How to have ideas

Over the years a number of people have told me how they’d love to write a book – only, they don’t have an idea to write about. I used to be fairly dismissive of this. My view was that if someone doesn’t know what to write about, they don’t want to write but rather (lord knows why) to ‘be a writer’.

The longer I teach creative writing, though, the more sympathetic I’ve become to this attitude.

We are born creative creatures – as children we know how to play, how to make-believe. If you’re lucky, you’ll have encouraging parents and a good teacher or two; if you’re lucky, your creative instincts will survive and even thrive into adulthood. But for many of us, creativity is something that is not nurtured, is not developed. Pressures on schools to deliver academic results above all mean creative subjects are often sidelined (and sometimes, as by UK Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan, actively discouraged). For many, by the time they leave secondary education, those creative instincts that were once so strong have been all but forgotten.

So when someone says they want to write but they don’t have anything to write about, they’re voicing a genuine need – an urge toward self expression which, carefully supported and nurtured, might well develop into an ability to write for a wider readership.

When I run creative writing sessions, my work often centres around helping participants to rediscover their creative skills – and when it comes to generating ideas, there are plenty of techniques that can help. Some of the activities I use involve striking two dissimilar things together (a snippet of overheard conversion, for instance, with a childhood memory of a place you once visited) to make new sparks; freewriting, using the prompt ‘I don’t want to write about…’ (this comes from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones); asking ‘what if?’ questions (What if London was flooded? What if a computer virus became conscious? What if sugar was banned?).

Even reading widely and noting what catches your eye can be a useful approach. In a recent series of workshops on creative writing about science and technology, we used copies of the New Scientist as source material. We selected interesting stories and news items, and made notes about possible themes that might emerge from this material (for instance, a theme of watching and being watched emerging from a news item about surveillance technology) along with any personal experiences that connected with our chosen material. By the end of the session the room was buzzing with scores of promising ideas.

Of course, some people have the opposite problem: they want to write, but they have too many ideas and can’t decide which to pursue. What then?

One option is to combine them all in a single project (probably a novel, since that form is stretchy enough to contain all kinds of disparate ideas). In her guide to novel writing Monkeys With Typewriters, Scarlett Thomas describes how she uses matrixes to harness all the ideas that are currently interesting her.

Or there’s another option, one I prefer: with each idea you have, pay close attention to your own reactions. I find this helps me distinguish between a promising idea that might be perfect for another writer but is just not for me, and one that feels like mine. If I can practically feel my pupils dilating, my mind’s eye focusing, I know I’ve got something worth exploring. In Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, Adam Marek describes how he experiences this particular sensation: ‘It’s a feeling a bit like delight, a bit like surprise, a bit like weightlessness.’

Once you’re attuned to this sensation, it becomes far easier to recognise an idea that really resonates with you, and to become generous with all those ideas it feels like anyone might write. You can become profligate: spread them around, give them away … and what you give you shall receive, tenfold.

Cover - Underworld, Second Toughest In The Infants

Music to write books by #3

Underworld’s second album, Second Toughest In The Infants, has just been re-released as a super deluxe four-disc box set, and I’m pretty sure it would gain a place on my Music to write by playlist. The original version was released in 1996; compared with its predecessor dubnobasswithmyheadman, it took me a while to get this album. Now, it makes me think of brutalist architecture: abstract, uncompromising and starkly beautiful. And it’s ideal listening when you need to concentrate fully and write fast. The vocals are sparse and fragmented enough not to hijack your train of thought, and the first track ‘Juanita / Kiteless’ is filled with a building, nervous energy. The skittering, snapping snare and tight beats kick in straight away, grab you by the collar and say: enough procrastinating. Get on with it now.

So – what are you waiting for?

Het Lab - three dancers

Get over yourself, stop worrying, and persevere

I’ve just published the latest artist interview in my This Is How We Make It series: choreographer Erik Kaiel is an articulate and generous interviewee, and his reflections on pursuing creative work have applications far beyond the world of dance.

With four interviews now online, covering performance, writing and visual arts, I thought I would pull out some of my favourite thoughts from Erik, Iain, Viccy and Jayne.

On why we make things…
‘There’s something that doesn’t exist in the world that needs to be out there, and even after you’ve made a piece it’s there a bit, but it needs to go further, like it’s not present enough. There’s something that keeps you going, that need to make and to put out into the public space.’

On the value of teaching…
‘I think teaching is returning to learning, and deepening your practice and your understanding. And I definitely think those years of teaching, even though I didn’t want to be a teacher, I wanted to be a dancer and a choreographer, it made me better at those things.’

‘I get a lot back from it. It energises me I suppose – and because making work can be a selfish thing in a way, so with teaching you feel like you are giving something back a bit to people, and passing on your skills.’

On how to make good work…
‘If you really want to be an artist, you have to not say, what does everyone else do? Not say, I need to have this and that and the other thing; or, I need a two-week vacation and then if there’s time over I will make art. Instead you say: I need a place to sleep, I need to eat, and I need to support my art-making – and then organise the rest of your life around that.’

‘If I want to have a good day I know the first thing I need to do in the morning is focus on the work.’

‘Winning prizes is important in giving me motivation, and that incentive to carry on … I rely on entering competitions to confirm that what I’m doing has some worth.’

On opportunities…
‘I like risks, saying yes to things and seeing where they go. But when I say I’m good at taking risks, I’m good at having things in place to take risks from.’

‘Basically everything I’ve done has come from a period of volunteering or doing little bits and pieces, and that developed into something more.’

‘Residencies have been key to inspiring new ideas, and developments in technique. Time away helps you to make leaps in your work, to move it forward.’

‘If you’re an upcoming comic artist and you’re not on Twitter then you’re making a mistake.’

Advice for our younger selves…
‘Advice to early-me: probably, get over yourself. So, as soon as you think you’re doing something because you’re a writer – oh, I stay up late, I don’t get up in the morning and write cos I’m a writer – or anybody who’s resistant to editing, get over that romantic view that you write and that’s it done.’

‘I used to worry more when I was younger about other people, about being current, and contemporary – but as you get older you start to think, actually, I’d rather just do what I’m interested in.’

‘Just because you can’t draw as well as artists in the comics you like, you can still make comics.’

‘I wish somebody had said, it’s important to keep going. I’m a great believer in, if you keep plugging away at it… I know you’ve got to have something there, some talent or something, but I don’t think talent is the half of it sometimes. It’s perseverance. I wish somebody had said don’t give up at the slightest rejection! You’re going to be rejected, probably over and over again, but then within that you’ll have some successes.’

You’ll find lots more words of wisdom in the complete interviews – read on here.

Jane Alexander 26 sestude

26 Children’s Winters

What is it that prompts you to really pay attention to an object in a museum, rather than letting your gaze skim across the surface? It could be a well-written label – or perhaps it could be a story, an anecdote or a poem…

26 is a not-for-profit organisation made up of writers, editors, publishers and others who work with words. It pursues its aim of ‘inspiring a greater love of words, in business and in life’ through all kinds of activities, the most visible of which is a series of exhibitions and books that ask writers to respond to objects, places, artworks, stories and more.

26 Children’s Winters is the latest 26 exhibition, currently on show at the Edinburgh Museum of Childhood; I was one of 26 writers invited to respond to a specially chosen object from the museum’s collection. Each of us was asked to create a ‘sestude’: the signature literary form of 26, this can be a poem or a piece of prose, but must consist of exactly 62 words. It’s quite a challenge – especially when your allocated object initially fails to inspire! I’ve written here about the process of creating my sestude.

The end result took an unusual form that made things tricky for the exhibition designers – but as you can see they did a great job of accommodating my awkward piece:

Jane Alexander 26 sestude

And here’s one of my favourite sestudes, by writer Lucy Harland:

Jigsaw Piece sestude by Lucy Harland
Jigsaw Piece by Lucy Harland

The project will raise money for It’s Good 2 Give, a small Scottish charity supporting children and young people with cancer.  The sestudes are a really engaging way of encouraging people to look closely at each object, and prompting memories and personal associations – and you can see them on show until 31 March 2016.

I'm Scared Too But We'll Make It by Christopher Cotrell

Introducing ‘This Is How We Make It’

For years I’ve had a geeky fascination with how creative people work: how they organise their days, how they make a living, how they’ve managed to carve out a career of sorts – so it’s partly to indulge my own nosiness that I’m publishing a series of interviews with writers, artists, musicians, actors and creative people of all kinds.

For people who choose this kind of work there are no set career paths, no annual appraisals or HR  support; instead, we need to learn from each other – about making opportunities, coping with difficulties and how to keep going. So in addition to giving me the chance to talk to all sorts of interesting people, the hope is that This Is How We Make It will grow into a useful resource for anyone who’s pursuing a creative passion, or dreaming of doing so.

Read the first interview now, with painter Jayne Stokes – and look out for the next interview with writer Viccy Adams, coming soon.

Music to write books by #2 – Now Wakes The Sea

Holy Songs was a Christmas present, and it’s made its way straight onto the Music to write by playlist. You can probably imagine roughly how it sounds from the ‘things we like’ section on the NWTS website – a list that includes spring reverb, dub, John Betjeman, tape loops, Kurt Schwitters, Musik aus der DDR and The BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Obviously, it’s going to be brilliant. It’s the sort of music you hear when you lean your  head against the window of a moving car or train, all drone and loose, circular melodies. There are vocals buried in there somewhere, but the words are so indistinct they’re no distraction. It’s perfect writing music. The only problem is it’s not on Spotify – instead I’ve added the only NWTS track I could find – but you can stream or buy it from Bandcamp.


Also worth checking out, if you can find it: Addressing the Haggis, an excellent lo-fi collection of Burns songs from 2013, featuring my favourite ever version of ‘Charlie Is My Darling’. Music to drink whisky by!