Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Passing the ball: football, music and writing

 Yesterday I loaded my cello into the car and set off to play Haydn trios for an hour or so with a couple of friends.

That's not us in the picture - we were too busy playing to take a picture. It's the Duke trio, and they're playing Hadyn too.

Anyone who plays this kind of music will realise that my friends were being kind by choosing Haydn - they picked the simplest, most predictable music, the kind where if you get lost it's entirely possible to guess your way back.

Haydn's perfect for me because I'm not much of a musician - but even with my skills we could make good music together.

 I love making music with other people because of its immediacy. You sit down, tune up, and play, and there it is - music!

I remember talking to a wonderful cellist about creativity - and he said that he wasn't creative in the way that a writer is, because he simply plays the notes that someone else has written.

What he said is true, but there's more to it. When he plays, he stirs my soul - he brings his own tone, phrasing and understanding to the piece. When I play with others, it makes me happy to follow that route through the music together. We're creating something that wouldn't exist if we didn't pick up our bows and make a noise.

In lots of ways, playing music with others is a bit like playing football. You need technical skills, you need to understand the rules, you follow a pattern, and you have to play as a team - there's some room for stars, but mostly it's down to collaboration. Great teams have a sixth sense that tells them exactly what the others are doing and what they're about to do.

A game of football or a Haydn trio can be a mess of indivuduals failing to pass, or it can be a beautiful synergy - wonderful to play inside, and almost as good to watch. And it's a thing of the moment: when the players leave the pitch, it's over.

Writing, though, is different. I spent yesterday morning editing one story and beginning another. I'll spend weeks on each before I send them out. I  choose every word on the page afresh, one by one, every time I begin a new story. There are patterns, yes, and there are games I can play, but there's no one there to bounce the ball back, or play the harmony. I'm on my own. But when I've finished, there's a story. It's still in the room after I leave.

That's why I like playing trios, but it's also why I love to write.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

A Slice of Tongue

Now here's a strange thing - today I received requests from two English undergraduates in the US for more information about my story, 'A Slice of Tongue'. It appeared in Paraxis in 2011, and it seems they're writing dissertations on it.

I'm honoured and rather fascinated to know what they make of it.

They asked for links to reviews of the story but of course there aren't any, so I can't help there. They also wanted a bit of biographical information and some 'tips' as one of them put it. So I sat down to think about what made me write the story, and though I've no idea if this is helpful, here's what I came up with - simpler to put it here, I thought when the second request came in, than to email people individually.

I live in East Sussex, which is a rural county in south east England, and it's where I grew up - the landscape and places around me often play an important role in my stories.

I wrote my first short story, 'The Swimmer' in the summer of 2010. It was published in The Warwick Review, a UK literary print journal, and spotted there by Nicholas Royle, who picked it for Salt's Best British Short Stories 2011.  'A Slice of Tongue' was one of four stories I wrote in the summer after this (the others being 'All Fall Down', 'The Flotsam Cafe', and 'A Job Worth Doing').

'The Swimmer' was essentially realistic: it's highly descriptive and the river is recognisable to anyone who lives near me; its plot is grounded in reality too. In the stories that followed it, by contrast, I allowed myself to write almost by instinct, and all four have some degree of fantasy in their plots.

I wrote 'A Slice of Tongue' for an issue of Paraxis that had libraries as a theme. (Libraries are a political issue here, as many are threatened with closure through government cuts.) As with almost all my writing, the location was important in the genesis of the story. It began for me with a mental image of the inside of my local library, into which someone introduces an item of food - a forbidden thing in a place where everything is dry and organically dead - but in fact full of life in the stories on the shelves. Both the library and the butcher's are real places - I worked in a butcher's shop at weekends as a teenager, and spent hours in the library directly opposite it, but I gave myself the freedom to follow my gut feelings about both places, rather than the more prosaic reality, and the story is the result.

It feels rather strange to be writing about my own work - I don't think I'll make a habit of it. I'd prefer readers to make up their own minds, to have a personal response to the words on the page. But I'm rather thrilled that people are studying the story, so I hope this has helped a little.