Always, always, always the sea

I’ve been thinking a lot about the sea, lately — I was lucky to be given several books about the sea for Christmas presents, and then my excellent wife tracked this stunner down for me too —

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The next story I write will be about the sea — the idea fell into my head, perfect as a cowrie, while I was working on the closing chapters of my last book. And although I was planning another novel altogether for my next one, the sea book has overtaken it. I’m excited.

I’m desperately trying to finish off a film edit right now, so bear with me — I’ll write more about the sea another time. For now, I’ll leave you with this — a quick mix I threw together of ocean songs, featuring British Sea Power, Bat For Lashes, Modest Mouse, Frightened Rabbit, James Yorkston, The Waterboys and many more. Enjoy.

Peril

 

This afternoon was glum and rainy as Storm Barbara rattled across Cumbria, so Dora and I made a film starring her toys. The idea was hers. I helped with the technical stuff and a little narrative guidance here and there.

It was the best way to spend a rainy afternoon that I know. Being with Dora, and seeing her play, seeing her imagination expand and explode and take flight — that’s something truly humbling. Human imagination is a ferocious engine, and to witness it in children is to see it pure and whole, before the hooks of self-consciousness and adulthood begin to pluck and nip and pull it down. Picasso was right — every child is born an artist, and the challenge is to remain so.

As anyone who’s met her already knows, Dora is a challenging girl. We’ve never known anyone like her. She is hot-headed and obstinate and fierce and contrary and rude, and there are times when she drives us up the fucking wall. She is also clever, funny, wildly inventive and capable of staggering compassion, and we adore every fragment of her wild and fizzy heart. She lives as much in a daydream as the real world. As her parents, we’ve decided that our job is getting her to adulthood with as much of that intact as possible. At the moment, she’s an artist. The challenge is to keep her so.

A business of wrens

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I’ve been making good progress on the book in the last two weeks, so I’m allowing myself a wee break to write about collective nouns. I love collective nouns. There’s something about them, at once melancholy and sweet — an innocence — that I find utterly beguiling. We all know prides of lions and herds of cows, but the rare ones are better, because they’re strange and odd and upside-down. In his heartbreaking new album Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave sings about a charm of hummingbirds. A week or so ago, researching a story about birds, I wrote of murders and murmurations, wakes and gulps, springs and flings, scolds and pantheons.

A good collective noun needs to personify some characteristic of the collection, rather than simply iterate what the noun is or does. My favourite collective noun is a drift of swifts — the sheer simplicity of the rhyme, the soaring swing of the swifts as they zip around the house in the sheerest of circles.

In the new book, I wrote of a pocketful of jackdaws. I didn’t think a thing of it until reading the chapter back, later on, and wondering where it had come from. Then I decided to ask people to make up some collective nouns of their own. This was only a few days after Trump had been elected, and around a third of the responses were basically ‘a bastard of Trumps’ or similar. Here are some of mine, on the left, and my favourites from the folk who joined in on the right:

A business of wrens
A pocketful of jackdaws
A compass of clouds
A misery of clowns
A duplicity of toads
An orchestra of bees
A clarity of cats
A spindle of witches
A philosophy of starlings
An orbit of angels
A kerfuffle of mice
A haunting of pike
A cathedral of jellyfish
A parley of pirates
A calamity of bats
An ocarina of ocelots
A knot of weasels
A panic of pigeons
A snippet of crones
A juice of pumas
A punnet of fucks
A scuttle of rats
A tangle of sparrows
A sundial of shadows
A shower of seedlings
A murmur of dreams
A wheeze of bagpipers
A choir of carnations
An apprehension of streetlights
A bribe of winkles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were many more — I couldn’t include them all. There’s something in a good collective noun that elevates the noun itself, or reveals another side of its nature. Some of these are so obvious they should fit into daily use — ‘Pigeons exploded in their panics, clattering about the station roof’ — and others are more abstract. There’s no particular reason, for instance, why ‘a juice of pumas’ should work, but somehow, it does — ‘One by one, a juice of pumas slipped from the gloom and gathered near the tracks.’

What are your favourite collective nouns? And what would you invent for a new one?

 

Watershed

verbalise

Last night, BigCharlie Poet and I headlined Verbalise at the Brewery. We’ve known each other for years, and we’ve been working on these photo challenges for almost as long, so to perform together for the first time was a real buzz. Thanks to all the glories of PowerPoint, we also projected the images onto the screen behind us, and hopefully the audience enjoyed seeing how and why we interpreted each picture.

It was a particularly good open mic, with stand-out performances from Harriet Fraser, John Scott, LD Brown, and three poets I hadn’t seen before — Clare Proctor, Louise Barklam and Roland Crowland (sorry if I’ve spelled your names wrong). I had an excellent time, and sold some more copies of Dare. They’re starting to run out, now, so get amongst it if you want one.

BigCharlie and I have now done the photo challenge for Cathedrals, Graffiti, Libraries, Foxes, Scarecrows, Suitcases, New York, Europe and Keys. These last four were the new pieces, and they seemed to go down okay. My stories were called Drums, Murmurations, The Slips And The Cracks, and The Four Things That Happen After You Die. These were the photos — can you guess which image goes with which title?

I’m not going to include the stories here, because they’re bound for another flash collection, probably late next year — that will be called Soup Stone. More on this another time. I might submit them for publication, too, when I work out who’s printing flash fiction these days. That scene changes so fast, and when I’ve been away from it, I struggle to catch up. Suggestions very welcome. (Please…)

The photo challenge always freshens me up as a writer. It breaks me out of whatever ruts I’ve worked myself into, and helps me to look at something new, to consider a story with fresh eyes. As ever, I’ve enjoyed working on these pieces, but I’m also glad they’re done. My head has been stuck in the novel for months, and dislodging myself for this has been a great wee holiday — now I’m ready to get back and get it finished. As if on cue, I woke early this morning, after a fortnight of sleeping in.

I’ve now written over 100,000 words on the book, which is psychologically well past that tipping point where the inevitability of finishing outweighs any possibility of abandoning it. This is the third (and bloody final) time I’ve tried to tell this story, and writing it has become like working with blueprints on top of blueprints on top of blueprints — the ghosts of the last drafts keep drifting through, whimpering for love. That said, with only another 20,000 or 30,000 words to go, the chance of the story evolving reduces with every new word I write, and there comes a point when it’s simply — done.

But I’m not there yet. I have some big scenes still to write, and it’ll need a lot of streamlining when I’m done. I’m trying to keep my head, but in the time I’ve been working on this novel, I’ve seen friends and peers publish one, two, three books, and it’s hard not to get disheartened sometimes about how    S    L    O    W    my progress has been. But that’s also when I need to remember that I’m writing the story for the story — for myself — and that thinking of anything else will drive me demented.

So Verbalise with BigCharlie will be my last gig for a while. I’m treating it as a watershed between then and next. I’m so desperate to focus on the novel and get it finished that I’ve been turning events down, lately — and while I’m reluctant to step away from the readings and the communities that I love, I absolutely need to have nothing else to do. No deadlines, no events, no short story submissions — nothing but novel until it’s done. My blogging has been sparse this year, and will probably become even sparser, but I’m so close to finishing, and finishing it properly — and then I’ll return to the world, and wonder at whatever comes next.

 

The Slump

In the nine years since I started writing fiction, I have completed three novels and a novella. All of them have been written in the first person, and needed me to immerse myself entirely in another character, another world; and so I’ve been a veteran of WW2, flitting between London and Burma; a 17-year-old girl, desperate to escape her Scottish island; an arthritic fisherman walking across Morecambe Bay; and a fortune-teller seeking herself in a world of swamps. My stories are becoming steadily more fantastical. They’re taking me further from myself. That’s fine in terms of what I want to write about, but it also makes it harder to come back. My friend Ali Shaw once compared writing to being underwater, and I think that’s right; the deeper you go, the further you get from the surface.

After finishing each of these four stories, I’ve experienced a few weeks of manic creativity, cartwheeling through handfuls of shorter pieces. Most recently, on wrapping up a first draft of The Hollows, I redrafted and typeset Dare in a week. But then, after these bursts, I’ve always fallen into something of a slump, and that’s where I am now, casting about for what to do, suddenly convinced that all those months of work are worthless.

I’ve talked before about how I write to drown. Over time, that immersion—especially in something as big as a novel—becomes total, until it’s the real world that becomes disorientating. I’m so fortunate to have in Mon someone who understands that stories leave me stoned; she helps me find my way. But returning to the real world feels odd. I’m struggling to get excited about things I should be excited about. I’m distracted and quick to gloom. I suspect that almost all creative work is built on a measure of doubt, and right now that’s all I have, needling and nagging all the time: what if it’s garbage? All of it? Everything I’ve done? The last year was wasted work. What if this year is too? How would I start again?

I would start again, because I have to. But the further I get from The Hollows—and it’s vital, I know, to get some perspective, to put distance between me and it before I go back to redraft—the more that doubt creeps in. Almost everyone I know, and certainly all the writers and artists, struggle with doubt. Carving out and sharing these inside parts of your head is an excruciation. I couldn’t write without that doubt; it keeps me lean, questioning, pushing myself to do better, to be better. Doubt is the compass of when I’m not good enough; and so to cut, rewrite, cut, rewrite, cut. But here’s the crux: when I’m not writing, not working on a story, that doubt—the same doubt I need to write in the first place—has nothing to gnaw on but me. It bites harder than ever after spending so long in another world, and then leaving it behind. That’s the Slump.

So quit wallowing and start something new, right? It’s not so simple. I have several ideas lined up for what I’ll do next, and I’m 2,000 words into my first proper short story in over a year. But from a pragmatic point of view, it’s senseless to start another big project before I’ve polished off the last, and every redraft is distinct and demanding. The Slump goes beyond that anyway. It’s a spiritual anticlimax. It’s hitting a wall after running a marathon. It’s a burn out, an exhaustion of ideas. I don’t really know how to get myself out of the Slump, other than to take heart from the knowledge that I always have before. This morning I played hide and seek with Dora. That helped. This afternoon I’m going back to my short story. That may help too.

Half-a-dozen people have now read The Hollows. They’ve all enjoyed it, I think, and they have all suggested a few things that don’t quite work; thankfully, these things have pretty much been the same for all of them, and they also tie into my own sense of the story, now I’m getting some distance from it. Redrafting would be impossible without that sense of triangulation, which is, in turn, why writing needs community. I’m gearing myself up for potential edits, but I’m not there yet. I think I’ll be ready by the time this slump comes to an end; or perhaps the slump comes to an end because I’m ready. It’s coming closer, but it’s not here yet.

Writing is doubt. Writing is perspective. Passion. Immersion. Empathy—books are empathy machines. Writing is the witch in your kitchen in the corner of your eye. If you spin to look at her directly, she’s gone. Writing is a sideways mirror. Writing is accidents of words, like wind chimes are accidents of music. I don’t know what else to do but play on through it.

john kenn

The sounds of The Hollows

With a first draft of The Hollows finished and sent away, I’ve emerged, blinking, into the light, with pasty skin and mild RSI. I’m still hungry to keep working while I have these little windows, though, so I’ve tweaked and typeset all the stories in Dare, and sent it to the printers; I’ve started thinking about some new flash stories for my guest spot at Verbalise in October; and I’m catching up on some long overdue blog posts, including this one.

When I wrote The Visitors, I had a tight-knit soundtrack to shape my work. This consisted mostly of:

Come On Die Young by Mogwai

Mar of Aran by British Sea Power

Raise Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven by Godspeed You Black Emperor

Just Beyond The River by James Yorkston

…and everything by Bat For Lashes.

In combination, they did what I needed them to do; for me, music for writing needs to hit several things at once. It must be engaging, immersive, transporting; but also neutral enough to let me tune out and play it in the background, and not get too involved. For this reason, I tend to go for records with minimal vocals; or, at least, records (like the James Yorkston and the Bat For Lashes) where the vocal is tonally consistent, drifting, utterly woven into the fabric of the music.

On starting The Hollows, I developed a new soundtrack. Some of the same culprits are there, but with different albums; listening to my Visitors soundtrack takes me back into The Visitors, and I needed to be somewhere very new for The Hollows, which is a more fantastical, more magical place. And I say ‘evolved’ quite deliberately; albums have dropped in and dropped out as the manuscript developed. Ys by Joanna Newsom was a big part of last year’s stumbles, but she gradually shifted down the running order as the story unfolded. Instead, Jonathan Eng’s wonderful soundtrack from the computer game Sailor’s Dream moved in to take her place (thanks in no small part to the wonderful vocals by Stephanie Hladowski). Another video game soundtrack has proven to be extremely good music for writing: Thomas Was Alone is an utterly beautiful game in and of itself, but the score by David Housden stands alone.

The most recent addition is I Want To See Pulaski At Night by violinist Andrew Bird. My friend and colleague Dom introduced me to this record while we were in the depths of a marking slump, and it parachuted into my writing soundtrack next day. Mostly instrumental, Pulaski takes its title from this glorious centrepiece:

The running order is important (to me, anyway – it’s totally cool if you don’t care). Andrew Bird is first on the list, as I Want To See Pulaski At Night is both sleepy and sparky, making for exactly the right way to start the day. Then comes Thomas Was Alone, which takes me somewhere deeper, calmer, more concentrated:

From Thomas Was Alone, British Sea Power take it up a notch with the drive, shift and transporting tumble of their film soundtrack From The Sea To The Land Beyond. Thanks to pal Kirstin Innes, Mon and I were lucky enough to witness them play this live at the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this year. Their performance was magisterial. I’ve now seen the film half-a-dozen times, and it’s a masterpiece: a social history of Britain told through our relationship with the sea, drawing together a century of archive footage from the British Film Institute. Watch it. Watch it again. Tell everyone.

Next up is Sailor’s Dream. By this time I’m ready for something less immersive, and the vocal interludes of the days of the week (this makes sense if you’ve played the game) saturate my head with little magics, thresholds, otherworlds.

Next comes Balmorhea. I discovered this post-rock band last year when friend Jon kindly gave me his old iPod, and I became addicted in days to their sweeping arrangements. There’s a timelessness to Balmorhea’s music that I find completely immersive. They sustain this over several records with different measures of minimalism, but it all works for me. After Sailor’s Dream I go into their album Constellations, but from this point they recur every other album, working up to Live At Sint-Elisabethkirk, which is perhaps the best £5 you’ll spend today, because this:

After Constellations, Mogwai strike back with Rock Action, the follow up to Come On Die Young. Here’s why it’s one of my favourites of their many awesome albums:

Then comes phase two of the mighty British Sea Power, with their short and astonishingly sweet soundtrack Happiness, then Balmorhea again, then Rachels and Remember Remember. I seldom make it all the way to the end, though. After Happiness, I tend to start the playlist over. It’s almost nine hours long, which is most of a working day for me.

Every time I think I won’t find any more music that’s right for me, something always comes along. Dom introduced me to Andrew Bird, and Jon to Balmorhea. I do wonder, looking ahead to next novels, how the soundtrack will change.

Cellar steps

Last night, more or less six months since I started, I gave the first draft of The Hollows to Mon to read, and I sent it to my amazing agent Sue. Mon and I took Dora out to tea, then she started reading. Sixty pages in and she hasn’t ditched it in a flurry of disgust, so there’s hope for me yet.

I thought it would easier to let go of the second book, but I was wrong. I thought I’d feel more confident, more certain. I don’t. If anything, the stakes feel higher. What if I’ve moved backwards? What if no one likes the story, the characters, the writing? I’m happier with this story than anything I’ve done before, but what if I’m wrong? What if I’ve got worse?

I didn’t entirely understand the proverb about not seeing the wood for the trees until I started writing novels. When I’m so immersed in my work, in my worlds, it’s easy to lose perspective on whether it’s actually any good. My own, personal instinct for story is stronger than ever, and getting stronger still; but there’s nothing on Earth to say it’s actually right. There’s no way to triangulate what happens in my heart with the world around me. In that sense, every novel – and I’ve written three of them now – is a first novel, feeling in the dark for cellar steps. Maybe it gets better in time. Maybe it gets easier. But I can’t imagine what that feels like, how that would be. It’s strange to be so terrified of the only thing I want to do. As Mon was reading, I glanced across at her every thirty seconds, every minute: which page is she on? What happens there? Oh lord, is that all right? Does that dialogue work? Do I believe it? Will she believe it?

Dora woke at 4.30am this morning, claiming it was too dark to sleep. I put her back to bed, where she fell asleep in moments, but then I couldn’t because, ahahaha, it was too light. So I’ve been up for hours, listening to songs I love, making a Mogwai mixtape for a friend, catching up on email, gazing out the window and thinking, thinking. There’s no light quite like the glow of dawn. The world is luminous, and then it turns to gold, and it sleeps on into the rising sun. No one knows but foxes, cats and milkmen. I imagined what it must look like on the river Kent between Burneside and Staveley right now, right now, with no one there at all, only the swallows and the martins flitting on the river, vapours coiling on the water, sun sliding sideways through the trees, a hidden valley with half the world in shadow and half the world on fire.

I know what my next four or five novels look like, and I have fourteen flash stories to write. Today, though, I’m taking my daughter swimming. She’ll be Peso the penguin and I’ll be Kwazi the cat, and we’ll look for treasure and help sick sea creatures along the way. Dora loves swimming, but she’s scared of having water on her head – she won’t jump in, and hates being splashed. But today, for the first time, we’re going to see how things go with goggles. Maybe – with some support, some courage, and some curiosity, today will be the day she looks underwater, the day she discovers there are other worlds, other places, other ways to see. Letting go is hard. Feeling for that cellar step is hard. Maybe all of us need to be brave.

To The End We Will Go

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After almost two years of work, I have finished making a film about hay meadows. This has been a huge project for me, both professionally and personally, and it has changed the way I think about the world.

When I come to the end of a project, I usually have a stronger understanding of the subject than when I began. In this case, while my knowledge has increased hugely, I’m left with far more questions than answers. In 2013, I was commissioned by Cumbria Wildlife Trust to make a ‘democratic’ film about meadows, tasked with balancing opposing points of view to create a space for discussion and reflection. Within that brief, I started the project with a sense that hay meadows were something like a set of scales, and if only the interested parties could work together better, then an equilibrium could be achieved between food production on one side, and sustainability on the other. I no longer think that’s possible; and I now think of meadows more like a jigsaw, being made by many people all at once, only everyone has a different picture on the box. Every time you place one piece down, another changes. They are mosaics of demand, shifting with the seasons. All the fundamental issues facing agriculture in Britain can be measured in hay meadows: growth, demand, food, want, waste, profit, biodiversity, sustainability, heritage, science, tradition.

Over the course of the shoot, I talked with school kids, beekeepers, walkers, landowners, farmers, conservationists and a 97-year-old farm labourer who worked in meadows between the World Wars. I left a camera in a barn outside Kirkby Stephen to record a five-month time lapse of a meadow in growth. I learned more about slow motion video, and about macro photography. After ten months of searching, I tracked down an astonishing piece of archive film footage from the 1930s. Halfway through it, there’s a shot of an old tramp simply standing in a lane, staring at the camera. It’s haunted me ever since:

old man*

All this was happening in the build-up to the Scottish referendum. Through the process of making this film, the two became inextricably linked around my realisation that if we are to survive – as a species – then it’s by being smaller. We need to reduce. To be less. Less ambitious, less hungry, less wasteful, less oblivious. We will survive in communities and cooperatives, not corporations. This was one of the many reasons I supported a Yes vote in Scotland. For me, the referendum went a long, long way beyond some petty nationalism. It would have swung a sword through the Gordian Knot of a corrupt, venal Britain. I cried my eyes out on the morning it was No. Being small and being nationalistic are not the same thing. We’ll be better as bees in hives, sharing the meadows. (This analogy does not, for me, extend as far as having Queens.)

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.45.32*

Anyway.

I found out this morning that To The End We Will Go has been selected for the CMAC Rural Film Festival. This will be my first ever festival screening, and I’m really pleased. It’s quietly astonishing to think about people on the other side of the world watching my wee film and spending a few moments in Cumbria. The last shot is a drift of swifts exploding past my window against a purple dusk. I love the thought that an audience in Minnesota will look out of the same window and see African swifts in a Cumbrian sky.

Verbalise at the Brewery

Last night was my third reading in a week, returning to Verbalise in the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal. It was a quieter night, after a couple of busy ones, but I enjoyed it. I read from The Hollows for the first time – a draft piece about exploring something like a haunted house, which was a lot of fun to read. I also brought out a couple of older pieces for the first time. Books Like Grains Of Sand and Tank Trap are both flash stories in Marrow. I’ve never read them before, as I’ve always thought they were too weird, too abstract for performance. But after what happened with Dora and The Sea Tiger this week, I also wanted to draw a line in the sand for myself – to remember that magic and wonder is why I write. I’m not going to be scared of reading those pieces anymore. And in the end, I think they went better than I’d dared to hope. I’ve felt just slightly off the boil with my last few readings, but I enjoyed last night a lot. Dora’s given me courage. 

I also sold three copies of Marrow, which was lovely – I now have fewer than ten copies for sale, so if you want one, get amongst it while you can.

Next gig is at the end of the month in Lancaster – Working Title in The Three Mariners – be great to see some of you hobbitses there.



The Sea Tiger

Dora has a lot of favourite books. We try to keep them on her own wee bookshelf in her room, but as the days and weeks roll on after a big tidy-up, they inevitably gather in a strata by her bed. That teetering stack becomes an archaeology of her favourites. There are all sorts in there, but some books are never far from the top. Where The Wild Things Are. The Gruffalo, Zog, Room On The Broom. We’re Going On a Bear Hunt. The absolutely terrifying Tailypo. Mrs Gaddy & The Ghost. I Want My Hat Back.

Dora’s current favourite is called The Sea Tiger. We spotted it in Waterstones while we were in Scotland last month, and we couldn’t resist. It’s a extraordinarily beautiful book:

The dance

The Sea Tiger is Oscar’s best friend – his only friend. They do everything together. Where the Sea Tiger leads, Oscar follows. They explore, they have adventures, until a point comes where Oscar needs the strength to go alone. It’s a book about being brave.

To celebrate World Book Week, all the children at nursery were asked to bring in their favourite story. Dora chose The Sea Tiger without hesitation. We packed her off for the day, lunchbox and wellies, slippers and book. I didn’t think another thing of it until I came home that night.

‘Did everyone at nursery like The Sea Tiger?’

Dora thought about it, then remembered. Her face clouded over. ‘No. It’s a silly book.’

I was astonished. ‘What? Did someone not like it?’

‘They thought it was silly,’ she said, face scrunched into a frown.

I was dumbstruck. She was repulsed by her favourite book. Why would other kids have disliked it? Too weird? Too odd? Too magical? Compared to what? All the books she loves are weird and odd and magical. Children are weird and odd and magical. All that anarchy, that chaos, exploring and categorising this insane planet for the first time.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say. I’ve been absolutely shaken by my daughter’s first true experience of shame. She was ashamed, ashamed of something that she loved. That’s heartbreaking. Three years old, and another step on the long path to adulthood checked off the list.

I read The Sea Tiger again, to myself. It is everything a children’s book should be. Surreal, wild, enchanting, transporting. It’s a book about imagination and courage. It’s a book about finding your own way. I thought of Robin Williams and that little spark of madness we mustn’t lose. I thought about what I write, why I write, seeking out those kernels of magic and madness and paying them whatever meagre tribute I can muster.

Dora wouldn’t even look at the book last night, but this morning I read it to myself until she came to join me. She was as entranced as ever, thrilled and enchanted by Oscar and the tiger and their undersea adventures. That helped, but I feel very much like it was a finger in the dyke, plugging up an overwhelming inundation of the ordinary, the acceptable, the normal. I hope Dora clings to her spark of madness. I hope she never lets it go. For her next years of play, of princesses and pirates, of dinosaurs and monsters and treasure and kittens, it’s up to Mon and I to nourish it, to feed it, to fuel the fires of her imagination. That is our role as parents: curators, not makers. But then will come the homework, the tests, the clothes, the friends and the not-friends anymore, Dad, the cycles of approval and rejection. When she leaves us, she’ll have to feed her own fires.

I know all this is melodramatic. I have always tended towards extremes, especially in my words, but that’s who I am. I hope we can give Dora both the space and the guidance to be whoever she is. And I hope, with every fibre of my soul, that she stays more a tiger than a princess.