It’s that time again. Last year, I cribbed together some resolutions. Looking back at them now, I’m quite pleased. The Hollows didn’t go according to plan, sure, but I’ve already talked about that, made my peace and moved on. I finished both Marrow and The Year Of the Whale, and I performed at Verbalise, Sprint Mill, Dreamfired, Bad Language and the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam. The only thing I didn’t tackle at all was writing and submitting more short stories. There simply wasn’t enough time on top of the chaos of everything else. Indeed, 2014 actually marked the first year since I started that I didn’t write a single short story, but that’s OK. I’ve been kinda busy.
People can be pretty disparaging about resolutions, but I’m coming to quite enjoy the process of making and sharing the things I’d like to do. Writing them out makes them more tangible, and leaving a record of what I’d like to do makes it more achievable. So here are some resolutions for 2015.
I kept last year’s resolution, and started climbing again. Not all that often, I suppose, but more often than never. I’d like to do more of the same this year. I’ve started going for a few hours on Monday afternoons, after I’ve finished work, and that’s been a perfect fit with my week. My fingers are slowly beginning to toughen up, week on week, and those little successes feed into each other. I’ll take my climbing shoes to Thailand to do a little bouldering on the beaches, and I hope to get out on some Lakeland rock this summer – the Langdale boulders won’t exactly be quaking with fear, but they give me plenty to aim for.
Yup. Again. It doesn’t stop, does it? This year, my writing ambitions are twofold. Even then, the first part is for fun: I want to release another flash fiction collection, which will possibly be called Real Life. I’ve been doing a night class in graphic design, and that’s really helped with the various processes involved. Making books is fun, and it’s addictive. A lot of the stories are ready, but my flash fiction took a back seat in the second half of 2014, and I want to tighten up the whole collection. Even then, though, I mostly want to direct my flash fiction for reading aloud, which is where it works the best – there are dates in my diary for 2015, and I’m already looking forward to stomping my way through some stories.
The second thing is bigger. I’d like to finish a first draft of The Hollows. I had the same ambition last year, and it didn’t happen for a bunch of reasons I’ve moaned about already. But this year is different. I’ve cleared most of my film jobs, I’m not going to work on other big writing projects (unless someone pays me a lot of money, which seems unlikely) and that gives me the space to be a bit more structured with my writing time. In the unlikely event that everything goes to plan, then I’ll get a solid two days a week from February to start finding my way again.
The Hollows is proving exactly as tricky to navigate as the swamp I initially wanted to write about. My head is a zoetrope of ideas, all glass pots and ghosts, ashes and blackened timbers, lost keys and tarot. Mon and I are going on honeymoon this year – we’re going to Thailand with Dora – and I’ll be taking my notebook and my fountain pen. Spending some time away from the internet, away from screens, away from everything except the people I love best, will give me space to work it out with pen and paper. At the moment, I’m not even sure if I’m dealing with one book or two. I’m orbiting the right story, peering down between the clouds, catching glimpses of what it’s going to be… but I still don’t know what it is.
I use a lot of metaphors for talking about writing. The weaving of a tapestry, the nurturing of some unknown seed, the orbiting of a strange moon, the navigation of a swamp. It consistently amuses and baffles me how I find it easier to clarify my thoughts on writing using almost anything other than writing itself. The act of making marks, in ink or pixels, is excruciatingly simple. But getting them in the right order? Damn. That bit is hard.
Dora is learning to write. She knows her letters, and she’s trying to form them all the time, trying to construct a sense of meaning. She can write her name, and if I help, she’ll try her hand at anything. The other day, she wanted to write ‘moose’ against her picture of a moose. I spelled it out for her – M – O – O – S – E – but she ran out of room, so went back to the beginning for the last letter, so the final word looked like ’emoos’. I tried to show her the correct way to spell it, but she wasn’t interested.
There’s probably a metaphor for writing in there, too, but I can’t make that out either.
Resolutions, like word counts and climbing grades, only matter to the person who makes them. And – like word counts, like climbing grades – they only matter if you push yourself within them. That means weaving a tapestry – nursing a seed – orbiting a moon – navigating a swamp – or, sometimes – making a mark that matters to you, even if you get it wrong.
Happy New Year, folks.
Just a quick note to say that I’ve added an events page to the top of the blog. Hoping to keep this ticking over – I’ve really enjoyed spending so much time this year with Flashtag, Bad Language, Verbalise, Dreamfired and book groups. Good peoples, one and all.
Last month, at Dreamfired, I saw storyteller Fred Versonnen perform the amazing Elephant Story. The next morning, I attended his clowning workshop in Arnside. This had almost nothing to do with the stereotypical idea of clowning – no silly noses, no silly shoes – and was essentially a 101 on delivery, performance and body language.
Fred warned us at the start of the session that it might take us to some uncomfortable places. I didn’t believe him, but he was right. It’s taken me this entire month to process some of the things that happened in that class. I’m not sure I’ll ever totally get to grips with it, but at the same time, I no longer think I need to. I just wanted to record a few thoughts on what clowning means to me.
I’m not going to talk about the specific activities Fred led us through. They were plentiful, varied, invigorating, intense and brilliantly useful, but they will mean different things to each person who attended, and I don’t feel the need to dissect the actual workshop. I want to talk about what I learned.
I learned that I’m frightened of embarrassment. Most of us are, probably. During the workshop, we performed tasks specifically designed to undermine dignity and strip away the topmost layers of self-respect. I found myself trying to rationalise the embarrassment by imposing a narrative upon it, but every time, Fred forced me to confront it.
‘For a clown, embarrassment is a gift,’ he said.
In this way, I learned that clowns are truly fearless.
I also learned to wait.
In a world consumed with noise and signals, the clown is silent. She waits, absorbing everything, and then she waits some more, until the wait itself becomes excruciating – until the pause itself becomes the embarrassment – and then she responds. In that pause, the clown is naked. Every part of her is laid open for the world to see. The clown waits long enough for the audience to connect, to project their own feelings onto the situation, to drown in empathy, to cringe in anticipation. Every part of them is laid wide open. This is the tragedy of the clown, and the triumph. It has nothing to do with face paint or comedy trousers. Laurel and Hardy are clowns, and Pennywise is not.
I couldn’t live that way, but I’m trying to bring some of it into in my own readings. At the Flashtag story slam, I made myself pause, and wait, then wait some more. I took a stupid hat onstage for my final story, and I forced myself to wear it. I tried to share anticipation of what was coming next with the audience. It was, without a doubt, the happiest I’ve ever been with my performance – the best I’ve ever read my stories. For everything I learned, I’m not sure I’ll ever know how to apply it properly. But I think I understand, now, that not knowing is itself part of clowning. It is Zen – pure action, without thought. I think too much.
At the start of this post, I said that the workshop had nothing to do with silly noses. That isn’t entirely true. At the very start of the session, as people were still arriving, we gathered in the kitchen to wait. Fred began to ransack the drawers, looking for props to use in the workshop. He found an orange ping pong ball. In a single, fluid motion, he spun to face me, bringing the ball to his nose, and he grinned. Just as quickly, he replaced the ball and closed the drawer. But in that second, or half a second, he’d become a clown. His face changed, his body changed – with the sheer, magnificent, wondrous joy of finding a ping pong ball in a kitchen drawer.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to articulate what happened in that workshop. I don’t need to articulate it, of course, but I want to; and that is why I will never be a true clown. A clown wouldn’t need to analyse it, because they wouldn’t be scared of it. A clown would simply shrug, smile, and turn to embrace the vastness of this mad, sad, glorious thing that we call life.
After a wild and wonderful night in Manchester, I’m bowled over to report that I somehow managed to win the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam. It’s still sinking in, but I’m delighted.
It was something of a journey – we left Dora with her grandparents, and drove down from Cumbria in the afternoon. Mon and I met friends Steve and Clare in the Northern Quarter, ate in the revelation that is V Revolution, then headed across the road to Gullivers to scope the venue: a brilliant space of worn floorboards and ornate plaster ceilings. The stage was bathed in blue and red light, creating corners from which the writers would prowl to read their stories. For the first round, competitors were paired off at random, with names plucked from a bowl and a coin toss to decide who read first. Once each writer had performed their story, the audience voted blue or red to decide a victor, and that writer continued to the next round.
It started ferociously, with the amazing Joy France reading an intimidatingly strong story about cleanliness (and willies). Her opponent was good, but that story would have annihilated all comers. I was very, very glad I hadn’t been drawn against her. She was duly voted through, and set the bar for the rest of the night. The stories were consistently excellent. Hand on heart, there wasn’t a bum note. Mark Mace Smith and Mark Powell, Joe Daly, Abi Hynes, Sarah Stuart, Geraint Thomas, Trisha Starbrook, Thomas Jennings and Ailish Breen all read absolute belters.
My name was drawn in the fourth bout. I read a piece called What I’ll Do To Be In Love With You, about a boy who turns into a harmonica. I was anxious, as always, but I’d been practicing, and I made myself take the time to enjoy it. My opponent was Thomas Jennings, who read a brilliant piece about the end of the world as experienced through last orders in a MacDonalds. It was a funny and affecting story, and I would have been happy to lose to it; but I scraped through into round two, where I was paired off with Mark Mace Smith. Mark is a vivacious slam poet who often performs under the name Citizen Mace – check out his stuff here – and he made for another tough competitor. I was up first, with a story called Charlie Loved The Circus. This is a 200-word nasty about why you shouldn’t be mean to clowns. Mark’s piece was a sweet wee story about a man falling – literally – for a girl. Another close vote, but I made it to the third round.
In the final, I read against Mark Powell and Joe Daly. Both are stalwarts of the Manchester literary scene – Mark runs Tales Of Whatever, and Joe is one half of Bad Language – and their stories were excellent. I was last to read, and went with a story called The Jubilee Best Bake Competition. I always planned to read this with an accent, but bottled it at Verbalise. So I bought a frumpy hat onstage. It’s made of green wicker, has a broad brim and is covered with flowers. Once I’d donned the hat, I couldn’t back down from the accent; and so I launched into my idea of what happens when the village baking competition takes a turn for the worse. The audience (joined, at this late point, by three exceedingly stocious men who thought they’d come to a boxing match) kindly gave me some laughs, and that helped me relax into the story. The hat helped, too.
The vote was tight again, but I sneaked it. I’m still thrilled, delighted and surprised – as well as humbled and happy to have shared my stories with such an amazing crowd. We stayed for a couple of hours after the slam, happily chatting away with the Flashtaggers, audience and contestants. It made me wish, once again, that I’d made more of the astoundingly vibrant Manchester literary scene when I actually lived there; then again, I’d barely started writing when we lived in Withington.
It was after 11 when we left Manchester, and we drove a deserted motorway in the dark. The journey gave me time to think. I’m over the moon to have won, but there are two things that burn brighter. Firstly, I won’t forget the sense of community I experienced at the slam; it’s a real thrill to share my love of stories with friends and strangers, and events like the slam are a howl of affirmation that stories are alive and people are hungry to share them.
Secondly, and quite honestly, I would have been proud to have been knocked out at any point, from round one onwards. This is because, for the first time, I read my stories the way I want them read. I used to gabble or murmur my way through a reading. A year or so ago, I set out to be better. I haven’t shaken the nerves, but I’m learning to manage them, and I’m coming to trust my stories. I’m not a confident person, but running a gauntlet of open mics has given me some confidence in my work.
Back at home in Cumbria, I tiptoed in to see my daughter. She snuffled in her sleep, and buried herself in the blanket. All journeys, no matter how big, are measured in stages and steps. For all the things I would change about myself – to write more often, to be more focused, to perform better – I wouldn’t change a step of the path I’ve taken to where I stand now.
Here’s a picture of me with a cheesy grin and my cheque for £1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. I’ll be cashing this tomorrow, Flashtag – if there’s any trouble at the Post Office, I’ll be back with my bat.
On Friday night, Fred Versonnen performed ‘The Elephant Story’ at Dreamfired, and it was magnificent. The open mic night was as interesting as ever, but one of the scheduled performers couldn’t make it – and so Fred agreed to do another 10-minute spot before the interval. Fred is Belgian. He started by apologising for his (obviously excellent) English, and then announced that he was going to sing a nursery rhyme – ‘A song in my own language,’ he said, which is a phrase I’ve been unable to shift. And then he sang.
I don’t know a word of Belgian, but in that minute, or maybe two, Fred managed to generate genuine laughter and even a sense of the bittersweet, entirely through action, expression and body language. It was remarkable. I later discovered the song was about the birth of seven cats – six big and one very small – and all the mice running away.
He then performed a story I’d heard before, about a young monk who goes out into the world, tasked with discovering the meaning of life. Although I’d come across it before, Fred piled farce upon farce on the poor monk, earning howls of laughter from the audience – again using expression, the shape of his body, and most especially – pauses. (I’ll have a lot more to say about Fred, and pauses, and Fred’s pauses, when I’ve finished thinking about them, but that’s for another post.)
After the interval came The Elephant Story. This was my first experience of storytelling that did not have conventional myth or fairytale at its core; from Emily Parrish performing Loki, to Peter Chand’s Punjabi Grimm tales, to Kat Quatermass and her queer fairytale city, all the amazing storytellers I’ve witnessed have drawn at least a little something from our shared bank of generational stories – the lexicon of myth that has been passed around firesides and whispered over cribs for centuries.
Fred’s story was different. His background is in clowning and the circus, and the story was a love letter to a way of life long gone. Set at the start of the 20th Century, the story follows a little boy called George ‘Slim’ Louis, who falls in love with elephants and runs away to join the travelling circus. Over the years, he experiences cruelty and compassion, cutthroats and camaraderie. His story is remarkable, but made amazing by the way Fred ties it to the stories of the elephants themselves – anecdotes of their strength, and intelligence, and suffering, and occasional violence. There are moments of unbearable barbarity and tragedy, and moments of hysterical joy. The Elephant Story is a parable of all animals in captivity and a truly exceptional show.
Fred is a very physical storyteller. I don’t mean that he moves around a lot, but rather that his movements are measured and completely organic in developing, exploring and reinforcing the power of the story. His ability to hold a neutral expression conveys extraordinary meaning to his words, and that gives an audience space to reflect, savour, empathise and drown – in sadness, in humour, in understanding.
The next day, I attended Fred’s clowning workshop. It was held a hall in Arnside. By some dumb coincidence, there were elephants in the windows. I learned a great deal in the workshop, though I also found it very challenging. I’m going to write about that another time, because I’m still making sense of the things I learned, still processing some of the questions it raised. For now, here’s a picture of a boy and a circus elephant.
On Saturday, I had the guest headline spot at Verbalise at the Brewery. It was an amazing night, for all the squirming terror I went through in the days before the show. It’s strange to get so nervous before a reading. As a teacher, I address large groups all the time, but everything changes when it’s my writing under the microscope. Usually, it goes like this: in the hours before a reading, I feel a pain low in my stomach, and then my throat grows tighter as those hours dissolve into minutes. When I walk onstage and begin to read, my heart pounds in my larynx. At last, around halfway through the reading, or halfway through my second piece – whichever comes first – something changes. In a matter of heartbeats, the nerves are gone, I calm down and enjoy the stories, enjoy the sound of my own words. My grail is to achieve that sense of enjoyment at the start of the reading, rather than the mid-point, and Verbalise was a big step in the right direction.
Before I talk about my reading, I want to sing the praises of the open mic. It was an absolute cracker, kicked off by flash fiction guru Brindley Hallam Dennis. I’m a huge fan of Brindley’s stories, and it was a thrill to see him performing again. He started with another of Kowalski’s Assertions, then read a gem of flash fiction called The Right Words, which looks like this:
After Brindley, I was doubly delighted that my photo challenge sparring partner BigCharlie Poet came north for his first Verbalise open mic. He read two of the poems from our challenge series – Cathedrals and Graffiti – which were even better in person than on the page. He was so good that compere Ann asked him back to headline later in the year. Another future headliner was at the open mic, too, in the glorious form of Joy France, and it was a wonder to witness her at work – she performed a wicked little flash piece and this scintillating poem:
The open mic also featured ace local poet, journalist and painter Helen Perkins, who read her poem for the Drowned Villages competition. South Lakes poet laureate Kate Davies performed a sinister piece about a caul-shrouded something that nipped at children and crunched their bones, and Luke Brown read a twisted tale of flooding and infanticide. Friend Harriet Fraser read three poems, including the exceptional ‘Michael’ from her project Landkeepers. This brooding piece sees the departure of an experienced farmhand from a remote Cumbrian valley, much to the regret of the farmer who worked with him – set against the Sisyphean job of plugging holes in drystone walls. It’s a beautifully bittersweet metaphor.
Finally and brilliantly, one of my best and oldest friends, Steven Malcolm, had come up for the weekend as well. Steve is a wonderful writer, but had never performed his work before. Verbalise marked his first ever open mic. He read two short stories – the first about a bystander struggling to process the accident they’d witnessed, and the second about a man who married a Volvo. They were dreamy, dark and very good.
After the interval – oh, lawks – it was my turn. I gabbled my way through a hapless introduction, and then I started reading stories from Marrow. For all the fear I’d endured throughout the day, I found my groove fairly quickly. I started with The Black And The White Of It, then read Hutch, then new piece The Jubilee Best Cake Competition. I’d originally planned on performing this last piece with an accent, in the style of a well-to-do Yorkshire dear (more like Alan Bennett, probably) but I bottled it at the last moment. I’ll try and summon courage at my next open mic. Maybe. After those three stories, I made a rare switch to poetry. I read Was I Scottish, which is about the dissonance I feel at being Scottish/English/British/whitever, and then my own entry for the Drowned Villages competition, which is called Coffin Routes. Both seemed to go over quite well. (Curiously, I found the poems much easier to perform than the stories. I’m still not sure why, given how fundamentally unsure I feel about my poetry. I’ll brew on this a wee while longer.)
After the poems, I went back to Marrow. I performed the title story, which I’m pleased to say elicited palpable disgust in the audience, followed it with Circle Stone, then finished with the elegiac After The Rain. I garbled something about my book and my blog, and then I fled the stage. I sat in my chair and stared at the floor for many minutes. I struggled to swallow.
Here’s the thing. I think it was a good set. But I have no idea of the passage of time for the duration of the performance. I have no idea if I was up there for three minutes or thirty. Quite sincerely, I cannot comprehend how much time went by. My brain eliminated the tick of the clock, sacrificed to a balance of performance, finding the microphone, reading the book, reading the audience, judging myself, monitoring my breath and not falling over. I needed to recover.
Afterwards, still calming down, I nattered with friends old and new. I discovered that the event had sold out, which is most excellent – the Warehouse was over capacity even before a few more folk snuck in to stand. I also sold eight more books. A quarter of my hundred copies have gone in the first week. (If you’d like one, wander this way.) Even better, compere Ann The Poet has asked me back to headline again in 2015.
Despite the terrors of anticipation, I had a good time. The expansive open mic and the positive response to my own work left me feeling great about stories and writing. I still wish there were more events and open mics in South Lakes – I look to the scenes in Glasgow and Manchester with envious eyes – but what we have in Dreamfired and Verbalise is pretty special.
Here’s a picture of me juggling a pint, a poem and my copy of Marrow.
Last night was my third Dreamfired storynight, and my second reading in support. It was a wild and windswept night in Brigsteer, but a decent crowd of thirty or so had battled through the rain and sleet. The open mic is always good fun, and I was absolutely delighted to see Trev Meaney again – he’s a dazzling slam poet who I’ve seen in action at Lancaster’s Spotlight. He combines breakneck delivery with great comic timing, and his quick-fire poems never fail to impress. Last night he performed several pieces, including the excellent confessional ‘Lancaster to London’, which looks like this:
I was the last of the support acts. For the first time, I was reading from Marrow (because yes! The books turned up on Thursday. I’ll write more about that in the next post). I read The Black And The White Of It, Hutch and After The Rains – sad, dark and joyful, by turns. It seemed to go quite well – I didn’t fully relax until the second story, but then I started to enjoy it, to really take my time with the words. If I can get to that place at the start of a reading, rather than halfway through, I’ll count that a success. I’d love to perform with Trev’s confidence and flair, but I’m still learning to walk. Running comes with time.
Kat Quatermass – who runs Dreamfired – was the headliner. She performed a startlingly original sequence of contemporary fairytales, couched in feminism and queer culture. It was an excellent show. First she painted a modern city, with an abandoned fairground, pebbledash tower blocks, supermarkets and a polluted river – then she populated it with modern kids, kids looking for ways to fit in, ways to escape – ways to survive. Kat then sent her cast of disaffected adolescents into the gritty, fantastical city, where their stories intermingled with talking foxes, golden birds, the months of the year and Hungarian hag Baba Yaga. The stories chop and change and intermingle, played out in a carnival of urban fairytales. The show was equal parts Neil Gaiman, Brothers Grimm and Arcade Fire’s LP ‘The Suburbs’. Kat’s city made me think of my short story Vanishings – that sense that anything can happen in cities when the lights go down and no one’s looking. She explained that this was a work in progress – she plans to refine and develop the show over the next six months. If last night was anything to go by, audiences are in for a real treat over the lifetime of the show.
All in all, another cracker from Dreamfired. Next up, my 20-minute guest slot at Verbalise…
To finish, here’s a picture of Baba Yaga’s hut, which walks around on chicken legs, because Baba Yaga is awesome. This is by illustrator Bojana Dimitrovski: