…write without fear.
…write without fear.
And then there was the time we hid under my parent’s bed so that she wouldn’t have to go home. I don’t know why I remember this now, particularly. There are children playing hide-and-seek in the house (not our children, not our house). I guess somehow that makes me think of this one afternoon, a long time ago. A friend of mine had been over for the day, and now her mother was coming to pick her up and we did not want this to happen. Somehow every time a friend was picked up by a parent, it seemed like it would be the last time we would ever have such a chance to play and be carefree. I remember tears and tantrums; perhaps it was a manifestation of only-child loneliness, perhaps simply a particular quirk of character, a shimmer of the anxiety and self-doubt that was to come.
But this friend (another only child) seemed to understand; and then her mother arrived, and it all seemed too awful. I can’t remember who suggested it first but suddenly we were under the bed in my parent’s room. I don’t know where our mothers were; perhaps they were in the living room, having a coffee and a chat, oblivious to our plan, thinking we were playing quietly in my room until the very last moment when we would have to be parted. But I know that after a time they called for us, and we didn’t come, and that was okay; most of the time, children don’t come the first time you call. But then they called again. And then, eventually, they scoured the house for us, and then in panic they ran out into the street and began to ask the neighbours, have you seen our daughters?
And the more we could hear their panic the more frightened we became of revealing ourselves. We wanted to crawl out from under the bed, but we couldn’t. We couldn’t face the shame. We would be in so much trouble. We had done something so very wrong, and out of such an innocent motivation. We scarcely knew how it could all have become so complicated so quickly.
We were in trouble, of course. We suffered both the wrath and the relief of our parents. Then, after awhile, we weren’t in trouble any more. After awhile we were older and after awhile longer we were living in different cities and hardly even knew each other any more. But still, we’d done something very foolish together once.
And now here I am in a thatched English cottage, thinking of that day. Things are funny.
I’m no longer just your average blogger/wannabe writer. I am now the official runner-up of Oxford’s very first Literary Death Match.
Oxford’s very first what now? Literary Death Match. Half crazy, half brilliant (isn’t anything worth doing a little bit of both?), cooked up by Opium Magazine‘s Todd Zuniga, the ultimate goal of the Literary Death Match is “to showcase literature as a brilliant, unstoppable medium”. I’m willing to get behind that.
And get behind it I did. Along with fellow competitors Megan Kerr, George Chopping, and Jake Wallis Simons, I read an 8-minute long piece of writing to a friendly audience and a panel of judges, including award-winning poet Kate Clanchy, author and Idler editor Dan Kieran, and songwriter extraordinaire Ben Walker, at Oxford’s Corner Club. The lovely and talented Badaude, meanwhile, did a series of live sketches (including the one I’m holding at the top of this post!), and Xander did his producing thing.
After our readings, the wonderful Mr. Chopping and I were selected to go head-to-head in the final competition: a grueling game of musical chairs. Yes, musical chairs. With teams pulled from the audience, we danced round and round a series of chairs to the sound of Ben’s guitar. My team put up a good fight, but ultimately the hard-earned medal (and yes, there really is a medal) went to George (whose reading was, as always, superb).
It felt nice to be surrounded by so many talented, supportive friends and strangers. In particular, all the contestants deserve appreciation. It’s a nerve-wracking experience, reading aloud–even more so when the setting is competitive. But the mood was relaxed and gentle and the room was full of talent. Hopefully this was only the first of many Literary Death Matches in Oxford. In the meantime, I’m clinging to my title with pride and brushing up on my musical chairs tactics.
And, for the official LDM Oxford write up, visit this page…
For a few nice images of the evening, check out Garrett’s photos…
Finally, here’s what I read. Some of you may recognize it as being related to my posts on Devon and Dorset from September…
Fish, Chips, and Fossils
We head south, past Stonehenge, into Wiltshire, then Devon. Like Withnail and I, I think, only with slightly less booze, and a girl in the back seat, and two guitars, and several laptops, and lots of sunshine.
It’s slow going near the standing stones but otherwise we make good time, and by late afternoon we’ve started to move through villages with funny names—this is how you know you’ve reached somewhere rural, when every place becomes a pun.
We decide we’re lucky not to live in Chard, which is as bland as its vegetable equivalent, though the sunlight renders it almost poignant. We drive through Lower Sea Fields, pass car dealerships and pubs, a petrol station simply called “POWER”, a street called “The Street.” We say how glad we are to live in Oxford, with its literary ghosts, its haunting spires; but then, we’re trying to escape, aren’t we? We’re young and running away from jobs we hate. We think a few days near the coast, away from the ghosts and the spires, will fix us. The Musician, the Man, and me. We’ve found a couple in an East Devon village with a cabin for rent. We think a cabin sounds quaint.
In Musbury, we turn up into the hills, onto a single-track road lined with hedges and gates. We’re met by our hostess, who wears fishnets under her shorts, tells us she’s celebrating 35 years of marriage tonight, and shows us how to turn the hot water on. On the bookshelves are various slim, brightly-coloured volumes with titles like, It Shouldn’t Happen to a Missionary and How I Fell In Love With The Church and Out Of Love With Communism. A sign near the toilet forbids us to do various things. Do not dye your hair. Do not bleach your hair. Do not smoke. Do not flush tampons down the toilet. Do not deep-fat fry anything.
We buy pasta and red wine for dinner at the village shop, and then that honing device buried within the heart of every British male switches on and we’re heading towards the pub.
“How do you know the pub is that way?” I say.
“It just is,” my companions tell me.
They’re right, of course. And inside it is a miracle; it is 1956, minus the fog of cigarette smoke. We sit outside in the sun watching the pub sign swing on an evening wind.
We linger until the light wanes. Heading back up the hill to the cabin, we pass a cat lying in a lane, watching with intense concentration what appears to be an enormous pile of horseshit. We take a photo of the cat watching the horseshit.
In the morning I wake and sit on the swing in the garden. A few apples drop down behind me. There is a curious braying in the distance, like children or cows. Then, gradually, the sound of hooves, and a bugle. The hunt glides past. Over the hedge we see bowler hats. We hear a man shouting “Wendy! Wendy! Come HERE, Wendy!”
Is Wendy his wife or his hound, we wonder? We ponder this for some time, over coffee and bacon. Wendy is probably the name of both his wife and his hound, we decide.
We set off for a local festival. We’re greeted by a cider tent and a queue six miles long. We join the queue, which isn’t moving, and has, as far as we can tell, no actual purpose. From our vantage point halfway up a hill, we can see that the line of humans simply peters out.
“What are we queuing for?” someone—a novice—asks.
“I don’t know,” someone else says cheerily. Nobody moves.
Presently we decide we’ve queued pointlessly for long enough, so we stroll through the gates. At the centre of everything is a red-and-white striped tea tent, serving cream teas, home-made jams, and complimentary cordial. A few suicidal bees dive into the jam; isn’t it a bit early for that? I ask them. But parents are already sucking on their cups of cider, and infants are writhing and laughing, and one particularly excited little girl is simply running around in circles like a puppy chasing her own tail, so why not, I think.
My attention is arrested by the “Border Collie and Duck Display” near the tea tent; we watch for awhile as a lithe young border collie attempts to guide a gaggle of very upright black ducks into a wooden cage and fails. We watch the ferret races. Or at least, we watch one ferret make its lazy way to the end of a very short course while the other two sniff around at the starting gate and refuse to move. We join another queue for lunch (this is the great English pastime!). “No, you can’t just push to the front darling…” one mother tells her hungry toddler. “…we’re British.”
The next day we go hunting for fossils. Past the endless stream of caravan parks in Charmouth, we reach a rocky section of the Jurassic Coast renowned for its ammonites. They’re common as pebbles, all the signs and brochures promise. You’ll be stumbling over them.
But we don’t stumble over anything. We sift through the rocks; we scrape them with our feet and sometimes, to make ourselves feel as if we’re doing something, we actually pick up a rock and split it open against another rock, then sadly discard both halves. I find what might be Fool’s Gold, what might be a tiny ammonite, and a smooth amber-coloured rock that feels good in the palm of my hand.
On our last full day, we drive again to the coast. We start with Seaton. Sleepy doesn’t even begin to describe Seaton. It’s comatose. And, like Alex Drake in Ashes to Ashes, it’s woken up in an alternate-reality version of 1981. Handwritten signs saying “RIP Seaton” are plastered on windows all around town. There are shops selling antique tat, shops selling general tat, shops selling general tat and also some old records, a grocery store and a chemist. There are two pubs, both on the verge of falling over. And there are 495 fish and chip restaurants.
So we decide we’ll have fish and chips in the wind on the beach. At “Fry-days”, we order and then watch the diners slowly finishing lunch. We are the youngest people in the room by at least 50 years, and everyone appears to have ordered the exact same thing: cod and chips, followed by weak, sugary tea. They all chew at a glacial pace; one woman nods off midway through a bite of peas, is startled back to sentience by her husband’s warbled plea for the vinegar.
We take our boxes down to the edge of the water, nesting amongst the rocks with our backs against a concrete wall so that we don’t have to look at the town itself. From here it’s almost beautiful: the beach is open and bland; the sea pale and windswept. My fish drips with oil and the mushy peas are especially mushy (pre-masticated, perhaps, for the benefit of the toothless).
After, we lie back exhausted on the stony beach, as if it’s been a great effort just to consume so much fat. I wash my hands in the sea. Our minds are heavy with sleep and our hearts drooping with a strange kind of sorrow for this dying town, and its dying population.
We make our way back to the car via a few shops. One sells jewelry, old tables and chairs, fossils, used postcards, model cars, glass bottles, old beer mats. I buy an edition of Browning’s poetry, a collection of essays, a volume of Modern English Usage from 1926. We find a book entirely devoted to the Dewey Decimal System, which once, a stamp inside informs us, belonged to the Sexey Boys’ School.
We don’t hold out much hope for neighboring Beer. Surely the novelty of the town will merely be in the name–but we feel we must go, anyhow, so that we can make all the requisite puns, so that we can say to our friends when we return that we had a beer in Beer, ha ha ha.
Beer turns out to be a handsome village tucked into a hillside, with a steep ramp leading down to a beach teeming with fishermen and boats. We buy two fresh plaice and spend a few minutes making plaice jokes (”looks like we’ll need plaice mats tonight,” I say).
We have a cup of tea in a garden overlooking the sea, and remember our awkward youths. We were uncomfortable, geeky kids: black painted nails, Doc Martens, computer games. I recall with some chagrin a photograph of my 14-year-old self, in fishnet tights and dyed-maroon hair, staring seriously into the camera on the Fourth of July.
We drive back through Axminster. The sky is ripe for stars. The Chinese restaurant gives off a sickly glow and the pubs with their heavy lidded eyes yawn, dispel a lonely customer, take an even lonelier one in. Ah, these half-dead English towns, I think. These beautiful, tender, half-dead English towns.
I’m about to be a part of something really cool. Next month, I’m going to New York with Xander and Ben for a sort of tour 2.0-type thing. We’re calling it Man (hat on). There’s even a logo (and the likelihood of t-shirts). No, I’m not a musician. My misguided adolescent foray into the world of string instruments is likely as far as I’ll ever go, musically. But it doesn’t matter. Because–although there will be music involved (provided mainly by Ben, obviously), this is really a tour about freedom, and doing what you like, and creating things.
We’re playing with this idea of “sustainable creativity”, you see. It’s about using communities and ideas to sustain yourself, so that you’re able to do what you love doing. It’s simple, on paper: if you’re a writer, you find a way to write. If you’re a musician, you find the support you need to play gigs and write songs. If you’re someone without a clearly defined path, someone who just likes to play with ideas—it means finding a way to do that.
It sounds easy, but it isn’t. Creative output takes a lot of time, energy, love, and support, not only from the creator, but also from his or her community. The problem is that many of us are saddled with a lot of extra baggage. We have bills to pay and debts to pay off. We have social and professional obligations that rigidly divide our days. Very likely we’re burdened with a “real job”—which we may find intellectually dull and emotionally empty, but necessary nonetheless (I mostly babysit photocopiers and answer telephones grumpily, for instance).
And in an era where time is money, how do you justify spending a few hours every day on your craft? How do you find a few hours every day? It’s impossible to underestimate the negative power of financial constraints. If you constantly spend your time thinking, I should be making money, not fucking around, you quickly become creatively impotent.
So suppose we make things easier for ourselves. Suppose, to start, we surround ourselves with other, similarly minded, creatively charged people, and become a kind of micro-community based on the idea of mutual inspiration. This removes a number of barriers, and in their places, provides us with a number of opportunities. It gives us an automatic audience, a built-in sounding-board, a kind of creativity support group. It allows for collaborative effort and means that even an ordinary trip to the pub can result in a great idea. In a way, it combines the social aspect of our lives with the creative aspect, thus gaining us time as well as emotional backing.
Well, that’s good. That’s a source of motivation and stimulation. But we’re still stuck with that bland job, those pesky bills, all the worries that get us down. Even if we have a micro-community of like-minded creatives, we’re still not going anywhere. Not yet.
The next thing to do, then, is to give up the rock star dream. Forget, for a moment, that you want to be the next superstar of the rock n’ roll, or literary, or art, or whatever world. And remember why you started singing, or writing, or drawing, or playing with ideas, in the first place. Innovative solo bass player Steve Lawson writes prolifically, and very well, about this: “I no longer need to pretend to be a rock-star. The mythology of rock ‘n’ roll is nowhere near as interesting as the reality of creativity.” And, Steve adds, “The 80s dream of everyone becoming Stadium rock stars has faded, and more and more musicians are looking at fun ways to get to play music in a financially sustainable way.” And what we’re trying to say is: not just musicians. Anyone who wants to make anything should be listening to Steve on this point.
It sounds cheesy, but this is an idea about survival and satisfaction, not about making a profit, not about constantly striving, clawing your way up the celebrity hierarchy. This is an idea about how you can do what you love doing—what you would be doing anyway–and earn enough from it to justify doing it as something more than a hobby. To earn enough from it to recoup your costs, eat a meal or two. Eventually, to earn enough from it to pay all those bills, to live comfortably, to buy a new pair of boots (or the male equivalent) when you need to. But to start, it’s only about getting by.
Luckily, that built-in creative community—even if it’s just a group of two or three people—is the key. Gone are the days when any artist can continue to cling to the alcoholic outcast myth and hope that her lonely genius will be discovered. There’s just too much stuff out there for that to be a viable tactic. There are literally thousands of other musicians writing songs and putting them up on the Internet. Thousands of other filmmakers uploading clips to YouTube. Thousands of other writers with blogs. Thousands of other painters with thousands of canvases stacked up in their basement. And every single one of them can publicize themselves, advertise themselves, with the click of a button. Passivity and sheer luck may work for some; but the only way to guarantee a sustainable, creative life is to actively seek one out.
So you start with a tiny community. A few friends. Maybe you start at the pub, where ideas can flow unchecked by the ordinariness of daily life. And you realize that actually, there’s a lot of overlooked potential in the world. You buy some tickets to New York. You decide that you’re going to prove this theory by living it.
So we are three people, with different skills and ambitions but a common goal of creating things and doing cool stuff, taking a week off work. We’re going to pack up our guitars, our laptops, our brains, and head across the Atlantic, where we’re going to do what what love, and what we’re good at, and find a way to survive. We’re going to stay cheaply (with friends, on couches). We’re going to earn just enough to recoup our travel expenses, and hopefully have enough left over for a few beers at the end of the day.
There are, of course, one or two things that anybody sensible might want to ask. Or maybe not. Anyway, there are some things that I had to ask myself as I wrote this all down:
But isn’t hunger/poverty/whatever a good creative motivator?
Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t (see my post on this here). But this isn’t about “making it” as an artist, necessarily (though it certainly could be); it’s about literally surviving off your own work. It’s not about becoming great whilst (or even as a result of) stealing bread and sleeping on the street, but about using whatever greatness you already possess to buy bread, pay your rent, and get by. It’s simply meant to be proof that you can, if that’s what you want to do.
Okay. But by making it as much about money as the creative output itself, aren’t you somehow tainting your work? Aren’t you basically selling out, on a minute scale?
This is really where the word “sustainability” comes in. This whole idea is fundamentally about sustaining yourself, as a creative-type, so that you can create more. Ultimately it’s always about the creative output, and the act of creating, not about the money; the money is simply what allows that process of creation to occur unfettered.
This is all very theoretical. What’s the end result?
The end result is whatever you want it to be. In theory this is a limitless idea. That’s the beauty of it. In practice, it may have more limitations than I currently anticipate. But we’re going to find out, and we’re going to let you know. In the meantime, please check out the Man (hat on) site, and follow our progress, and be a participant in this crazy idea.
A cloud of witnesses. To whom? To what?
To the small fire that never leaves the sky.
To the great fire that boils the daily pot.
To all the things we are not remembered by
Which we remember and bless. To all the things
That will not even notice when we die,
Yet lend the passing moment words and wings.
From “A Fanfare for the Makers” by Louis MacNeice
Yet once it was the busiest haunt,
Whither, as to a common centre, flocked
Strangers, and ships, and merchandise
–From Queen Mab by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I’ve got a cold. Outside, the world is soggy, and inside, my spirits have been dampened by my own self-pity. I tried to turn my phone on today and couldn’t. It appears to be hibernating; no longer interested in being the vehicle for my pathetic communication with the world, no longer interested in alerting me to text messages from 02 and phone calls from the bank, no longer interested in taking snapshots of autumn leaves. If it does decide never to work again, it will be a shame in more ways than one. I depend on the device; more than I thought I possibly could. All my photos from Dublin will be gone; speaking of which, with what will I express my photographic creativity? How will I wake up in the mornings, now that my alarm clock has gone to sleep itself?
But that’s not the point, really. The devices we rely on are replaceable (though expensive). The point is that I’m in self-pity land, sniffling on the couch, feeling a million miles away from everyone else. There’s a funny thing that happens when I’m ill; suddenly, even as I’m walking past the pub on my way to the shop to buy some soup, I have a sense that I can’t connect with anyone. There’s a wall, or, more accurately, a screen, a pane of fogged glass. I can see out into the world but I can’t interact with it, not wholly. I can smell the warmth and the spilled beer from the pub but I can’t go in.
All of it is self-constructed, of course; none of it is serious. But here I am, barely through October, already longing again for summer. I haven’t enjoyed the crispness of the air this year as much as I usually do; I still feel that it should still be August. This isn’t so much to do with the damp English summers as it is to do with my calender for those precious few warm months. Being that busy made the time pass too quickly; I still feel as if I’m trying to catch up with myself, with the days and months which marched doggedly on. I’m connected to everyone, everywhere, all the time; I spend hours on the internet, can email my parents in California or send a message to a friend around the corner in the same amount of time. But somehow I’ve lost a sense of being connected to myself. At a certain point today, cycling home–and maybe this was just the cold speaking–I actually had this sense that I was floating along, that my tires weren’t really touching the asphalt.
Mostly, I just need to write, which I haven’t done in too long. And until I do, I’ll probably continue to pump out these anthems to my own frustration, so I hope, for your sake as well as mine, I sort it out soon.
I didn’t win a free trip to Sydney. I’ll write more about that soon, but for now the details are unimportant. What’s important is this: on Thursday, after the news was announced, we decided to un-celebrate with a pint in the Rusty Bicycle. Some people might call it “drowning your sorrows”, but I was in a celebratory mood. After all, it had been several months of hard work and anticipation, and good things (including a hamper full of Australian junk food) had come of it. Moreover, it’s Autumn, and there’s nothing nicer on a chilly October evening than to have a glass of cider by the radiator in your local. There’s something about the slow and inevitable descent of these months into darkness and ice that makes me want to play with time–I feel constantly as if I both want things to speed up and slow down, as if I need more hours in the day and to rush through the damp mood that comes over me when the leaves start to fall. The only appropriate place to think thoughts like that is at the pub.
When the pub closed we walked the 20 yards home and invited a friend in for a pre-bed cup of tea. But by the time we’d got to the kitchen we’d all decided we didn’t want tea. The only other option was the bottle of elderflower champagne I’d bought in Devon to celebrate the successful completion of my MA. The problem with buying a bottle of booze for a specific reason, of course, is that you then let it sit around, certain that no moment is special enough to warrant opening it. And here we were, a month later, the unopened bottle on the rack reminding me of the uncelebrated occasion; here we were without a free trip to Sydney, with time doing dances around us and the trees in the garden getting naked.
So we opened it, for no good reason. Which in a way is the perfect way to celebrate. On cold Thursday night, after midnight, with your alarm already set for work and no particular worries or ambitions weighing you down. In coats and hats we sat outside and drained our glasses, and of course the elderflower champagne didn’t taste as delicious as it was supposed to, but made us deliciously light-headed anyway. Then we ate the rest of the sausages I’d made for dinner, and spread cheese on stale Ryvita, and plotted and planned.
Could I have arranged a better way to mark the completion of a degree than this? Elderflower champagne, autumnal chills, conversation, creative energy, and the birth of a potentially very exciting idea. How’s that for an un-celebration?