Christine saw the stencil, tucked into the corner of the decaying billboard that loomed over her on her walk to work. A pair of red lips, eyes and white gloved hands, essential components, presented in primary colours. The lack of art in her everyday life compelled her to seek it out, so she took random photographs on her phone, kept in a folder to amuse her during breaks at work.
There was a caption underneath.
MAY LOVES FORTUNE, WAIT NOT IN VAIN FOR YOUR CERTAIN ATTENTION.
She saved it and kept walking. Ten minutes late and she was summoning the will to affect she cared. The job paid rent and overheads, but left little else. Christine fed her soul from what was around her, but it was an appetite of overwhelming demand. When life was a series of numb grey and mauve washes, she sought sips of brighter feeling.
On her break, she sat in the corner of the room, deleting the last anonymous penis pictures that marked her attempt to find a relationship on the internet. Legions of disembodied genitals, offered instead of purpose and character. One or two had looked threatening. She opened her art folder on her phone, looking to cleanse her soul’s palate with something beautiful.
The writing remained but otherwise there was no trace of the image. Christine frowned and swiped through, wondering if the light had been bad until she saw the next picture. A willow tree, heavy with blossom and there was the clown, stood beneath it and his hand gestured towards the screen.
She shut her eyes to force the image from her mind.
‘Chris, you’re needed back on the shop floor.’
Ben stood there, peering over his glasses and his jowls wobbling with repressed irritation.
The rest of the shift passed in a chill fog of unease. Christine ignored her phone, detaching herself from the shifting unease through the routines of her day. She left off without speaking to anyone, reaching in her pocket to see if it had all been a trick of the light.
He had moved deeper into the folder.
Stood next to a graffiti mural, studying it with a deep interest. He wore a suit, muted and tasteful despite the choices of green and purple. He looked less like a clown each time she saw him.
Sat on the side of the road, watching the carnival parade with a gleeful grin on his face. Clowns terrified her, but he had become more substantial, more certain and less deranged. She slipped her phone away, wiping her eyes with a sudden, feverish panic.
Her flatmates were out, marked by a sink full of dishes, a shipwreck amidst a sea of grease-saturated water. The mundane disappointment of the real world proved to be a panacea to her gibbering imagination.
Her phone trilled and she answered it.
‘Hello.’ she said.
A soft, low male chuckle.
‘So, it’s you I have to thank, Christine.’
Her stomach roiled at the mention of her name. The sole of her shoe stuck against something embedded in the carpet.
‘I’m sorry, who is this?’
He cleared his throat.
‘This was not a deliberate release.’ he said.
A tinge of sadness washed through his words. Christine fought the impulse to apologise.
‘No, I think you’ve got the wrong number.’ she said.
He sighed with a melancholic acceptance.
‘It looks right from the inside here.’ he said.
The hairs went up on her arms and she shivered.
‘OK, I will go now.’ she said.
‘I’m sorry. Could you do me one last favour?’ he said.
She pulled the phone from her ear, looked at the screen. Her number.
‘If it’s a picture of your cock, then no.’
He chuckled and took a deep breath.
‘No, I want you to put me on speaker. Then I am done.’
‘How are you on my number? Why should I put you on speaker? You will not masturbate’ she said.
He met her breathless litany of questions with a sigh.
‘Please, to do such things without a partner is beneath me. Just a press of the button, then it’s done.’ he said.
She pressed the button. He sighed with pleasure, whispered something in another language, rich with endearment.
The call ended.
Christine went to bed, wrestled with insomnia until her eyes burned with fatigue. She dialled her own number, and it went straight to voicemail. Surrender was the best option, so she went with it.
The next morning was bright and full of song. Christine was awake before the alarm, pleased that she would be five minutes late rather than ten or fifteen.
He stood on the corner, in a suit of immaculate tailoring, vermillion and green material. He had washes of greasepaint across his eyes but nothing across his full lips. A battered hat sat next to his feet like a loyal pet, brimming with coins and notes. She stopped and smiled at him.
He mouthed three words from across the street.
She started to walk across the road but he raised his hand to stop her, tapping his wrist with his index finger and giving a mocking frown. Christine checked her phone, saw that she was already late but five minutes made no more difference than ten or fifteen.
Her heart raced at the sight of him. He grinned as she started to walk towards him.
Ok, so I have been writing a little while now, and have things to show for it, some of which are in arenas beyond here. Infernal Ink in April of this year and the For Her anthology in Cleiss Press (release tbc). I have an agent (Kelly Marshall at SMART Talent Agency), a writing practice and I must stress, I’ve written things, other than reams of material about writing advice. It’s a small distinction because the theories and practices of writing can generate a large amount of theories and esoterica related to it but I’ve learned there’s no substitute for doing and failing/succeeding.
Most writing advice offers the idea that you can avoid or circumvent mistakes and you should not do that, nor should you view them as mistakes or failures.
They are setbacks, roads taken and discarded. If you consider how we learn anything, it is through repetition, from walking and speaking through to everything else, then you should apply the same approach to writing. I don’t believe myself to be especially gifted or blessed, other than understanding that there is work and determination involved. What tends to happen is that you enjoy it enough that your brain forgets all the dead ends and you get lovely rushes of dopamine and serotonin when you get it right.
Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, he tried and discarded thousands of variations that did not work until he found the one that did. Look up or around and see a light bulb, it is a tribute to the determination of one individual. See the same with a book or a short story or a poem.
Don’t worry about being good to start with, don’t worry about it at all.
Here’s an analogy I really like, it comes from the bass guitarist Victor Wooten. When you play air guitar, do you play any bum notes?
So the first basic is just to write it, put it down somewhere and go from beginning to end. Enjoy it the way a child would, without expectations or notions of quality. It is the simplest and most difficult notion attached to art, because you compare yourself to those who have been doing it for decades. It will not look like the work of anyone that you admire or even hate, but that’s okay.
The second basic notion is that you are not in competition with anyone other than yourself. The person you were yesterday.
No, note that I am not selling you anything, or even going that deep into it. The basics are there, within you. Flannery O’Connor once said a couple of things that stayed with me.
“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
― Flannery O’Connor
It feels quite bitter that, but don’t let anyone dissuade you. If you enjoy it, then write or draw or paint, because art is healthy. If it gives you a reason to go on, then keep doing it.
If anyone wants me to continue these, let me know. There’s enough of this sort of thing out there, and I don’t disparage that, but I just want to give my version of it, which reflects my experiences thus far.
If you have any questions that might be useful to other writers, please contact me and I will answer them in future editions.
In the gallery
Of your heart
You stand before
Say do not touch
Come to me
From the wall
I come to life
World into mine
A blithe wish
My lips are soft
Sending soft trails
Across your skin
Safe with me
We play as children would
And no one
Knows your heart
As well as i
BOOK OF 2016:
I read a lot, and of the books I’ve read that have been released this year, there are two that I felt warranted particular mention.
THE FIREMAN by JOE HILL.
I have this on audiobook and on the Kindle. Joe Hill has been a writer whose work I will always gravitate towards. He has a powerful voice, manages to combine science fiction, horror and fantasy concepts aligned to strong characterisation, a lovely tone, a wry sense of humour and an earnestness that endears me to anything he puts his name to. The Fireman was not my favourite Joe Hill, that honour probably goes to NOS4R2 but of the books in 2016, this is one that I return to, and find something different each time. In it’s lead Harper, he shows that a protagonist can have doubts and flaws, and can pursue their desire without losing their humanity or morality. The central conceit of the spore that causes spontaneous human combustion is wonderfully realised and the book moves towards a clear-eyed assessment of how people behave in a crisis, and within a group. Some of them become monstrous, whilst others show courage and hope in a situation that strains the capability to raise it. I found myself relating to John Rookwood, the fireman of the title and its a book I have returned to, throughout the year, and found new insights within it.
THE GIRLS by EMMA CLINE.
This is a deceptive book, it captures the ugliness of cult-related behaviour, the rebellion of teenage girls and the cumulative damage of history on the psyche. Ostensibly a retelling of the Charles Manson story from a peripheral perspective, it is a book that took my breath away. It seethes with a clear-eyed, raw honesty and the subtlety of Cline’s prose is that she takes you by the hand into some dark places and you go willingly, before realising that it’s a deeply uncomfortable book awash with ambiguities, and all the more powerful for how spare the prose gets, only to explode into washes of exquisite prose.
GIRLS ON FIRE by ROBIN WASSERMAN.
This serves in theme as a companion piece to THE GIRLS, although more explicit and raw than the other book. It goes deep into the tormented psyches and social rivalries of a pair of teenage girls, skipping between multiple narratives without losing track of the central themes and story. It is a charged, erotic book without feeling exploitative. It has a feral heart and was all the more beautiful for not skimping on the insights. A gut punch delivered with a kiss and certainly one that stayed with me long after I finished it.
I fell in love with the juxtaposition of the Wild West and its inherent savagery against the slightly decaying high tech amusement and corporate intrigue. The performances heightened the quality of the material, notably Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood who essayed characters of complexity and confusion. It never quite fulfilled its promise but with subsequent seasons, I hope that it develops the narrative into something complex and robust. Certainly it is beautifully shot, edited and handles nudity, sex and violence with a mature eye and a calm hand.
I’ve read several books about Pablo Escobar, and this show manages to juggle the sheer comic book scale villainy of his rise and fall with capturing the humanity of the man, much like Breaking Bad managed with a fictional protagonist. It does this through the sweaters that Pablo wears, which is a lovely visual touch. Season 1 was a touch meandering and ponderous but the second season is all pay off, and intense as anything else I have seen this year.
GAME OF THRONES
Oh do I have to? OK, it’s moved on past the books and it manages to work with the constraints of television to great effect. I won’t join in on the call for GRRM to finish the books, they’re massive pieces of work and also he’s not anyone’s bitch, as Neil Gaiman said to great acclaim. Still brilliant, and event television for me. Winter Is Coming, and it’s having a fine time getting there.
It’s had a hard fight getting to the screen but it revelled in it’s underdog status to become the highest grossing superhero movie of all time. Well, at least until M B BLISSETT: CYNICAL ROMANTIC ENGLISHMAN makes its debut, but until then, I loved this film. Breaking the fourth wall, consistently funny and made the use of its limitations to great effect. Ryan Reynolds has been absolved of Green Lantern related sins forever.
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
It’s quintessential Tarantino. Take that as you will.
A simple, claustrophobic thriller that makes the best use of darkness and a limited setting. It ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels and essays itself in a bravura performance by Stephen Lang.
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
I won’t spoil it for you but it was a fantastic thriller that again makes the use of a closed setting and hammers you with it.
CHILDISH GAMBINO – AWAKEN, MY LOVE
A late and overpowering contender in 2016, it is rooted in the socially conscious, dirty soul of the 70s with swooning vocals, sensual, heady instrumentation and a boldness that grabs you by the heart and crotch at the same time. Like being stoned on heartbreak and passion, this album has demanded repeated listening.
Share your highlights in the comments below.
Trials lie in wait
On every corner
I hold within
A spark of purpose
I am earth, air, fire, water
And all things
Each quiet hour
Love to paper
If you would
Find me anywhere