The girl from the chainstore ~or~ ‘How to start writing again after taking a break’ – 7/3/2016

Christmas Eve
Tired Salesgirl on Christmas Eve, Norman Rockwell, 1947

Okay, firstly, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – there is nothing like the sound of a noisy keyboard. In this age of silenced iPhone clicks and shallow laptop keyboards, I love hearing the old PC keys being angrily bashed on, typing quickly and furiously. Or equally when writing to your sweetest beau, hearing your thoughts thumping out when typing up a 20-page love letter (or today’s equivalent, a really, really, er…. really long email) with a noisy keyboard, makes one feel like Carrie Bradshaw sitting at a desk with a Manhattan view. I remember the days when people were still typing with two fingers – maybe that’s why the cacophony of tapping keys sounds so good – it’s the sound of success.

I’m currently re-working a play I started to write back in August, a play that is being performed in front of actual live people on 3 June in Ipswich. The play, Fitting Room, was performed as a rehearsed reading back in November but will now show at Pulse Festival in Ipswich as a reworked, revised version, with the backing of regional theatre company Eastern Angles (big up).

So obviously the best way to deal with this information is to say – “June?! Pnnnah! That’s ages away!” and go about my daily life, kicking dustbins and painting my nails. But when that gets  boring, the panic sets in as I suddenly think: “Why is it so difficult to pick this up again??” When I wrote the first version I was an unstoppable machine of  words – words were flowing out like bloody endless rain into a paper cup, for Christ’s sake!

Although perhaps they weren’t – hindsight can be deceiving. When I look back truthfully, every writing session had some sort of hurdle. One time I had to order pizza and sit in my shed with just a notebook and pen to get writing, such was the allure of Wi-Fi, spending hours cooking something complicated and, when the Wi-Fi was turned off, Minesweeper.

Now I’m in re-draft stage. When you’re re-drafting something, how much do you change? Do you meddle with only the parts that you didn’t like, or do you take it in a completely different direction? Do I have enough battery left in my laptop? Did I forget to buy teabags?  

What I haven’t been doing, and it’s something I know has been the downfall of re-draft Phase Two, is writing. I’ve had so many ideas, endless streams of “Maybe I could do this”, and “It’d be great if she did this instead…” but haven’t been writing them down as anything more than notes on old bus tickets. The mammoth task ahead of me has, at times, started to become quite overwhelming.

The thing is, I know there’s nothing to worry about, and I’m so excited about working on this more, it’s just that once your mind has wandered into crippling doubt, you quickly fall into a hell-hole of irrational pessimism.

I did write a page of A4 though yesterday, so I feel able to write about this a little more. Last week I was totally perplexed as to how to get my brain cogs whirring.

How I got to make the first steps again, to write that page of A4, was by being kind to myself, not getting severely aggressive at a blank document, and giving myself some headspace to think about it. After that, and most importantly, I didn’t think about it for a couple of hours, and it was only then that I was able to start again and write that extra page.

It sounds kind of obvious, but you can sometimes get your head wrapped up in a project so much that it’s constantly playing out in the back of your mind. Of course the problem is is that when you look for things you can never find them. And that becomes exhausting, and then writing isn’t fun. And writing’s the funnest thing in the world ever! That’s why taking a day or two off it (if you have that luxury) can give you the break you need to come back to it feeling excited again. 

How I filled those couple of hours was by driving to the library and getting two art books out: One that related to the subject at hand, and one that didn’t whatsoever. The first is a book called ‘New England: The culture and people of an English New Town during the 1970s and 1980s’, a book of photographs taken by local paramedic Chris Porsz over the course of these two decades.

I’ve scanned in a few of them here, which I hope he doesn’t mind me doing. I love all of the photos so much; it’s a gorgeous collection in a beautifully published book. Please go and look at his website here.

My play is about my hometown, Peterborough, and that point where you have to decide whether to leave or stay in the city where you were born – and what that means for different people. Lots of my parent’s generation have stayed in Peterborough, but almost all teens now jet off to university at the first instance and might return after graduating as a second and not-so-preferable option (this is a huge generalisation but hopefully you get where I’m coming from).

Peterborough has this rep of being ‘the place where you change trains’, and ‘where the passport office is’, but with a population of 188,000, it has 118,000 stories to tell. The city has been, and remains to be, a place of rapid cultural change, and I think these photos really encapsulate those changes.

1. Out from behind the curtains, Chris Porsz


2. This heart-warming and priceless photo taken outside the Guildhall in Cathedral Square (for all the Peterborian readers):

image (4)

3. Wahiwala, Chris Porsz


I like this one so much because it reminds me of my favourite ever photograph taken by Garry Winogrand in Forest Lawn Cemetry, Los Angeles in 1964 (ruined only by the glitter stuck to my scanner):

glitter photo

3. Dressing Up, Chris Porsz


And this (!) – the image of a Peterborough ‘retail girl’ that I am astonished that I found. I went into the library thinking “I need a book about teenagers living in Peterborough working in a clothes shop” – and here it is – the money shot. (The Rockwell painting at the top of this post also made my giggle – the tired, stockinged feet are all too true. Also note the OTT ‘sensible’ shoes of the girl in the photo above).

In his afterword, Chris Porsz apologises to his family for “roaming the streets for hours trying to satisfy some creative urge”. This made me laugh out loud, because the amount of times I’ve walked around Pbo with a camera or notebook, begging to ‘be inspired’, is too real.

I also found this book in the Local Archives section that made the trip to library worth it alone. So camp.

photo (3)

When stuck in a writing rut, taking an unnecessary journey on the bus or sitting in a cafe can sometimes be all you need to hear a golden nugget of dialogue that can inspire you to start writing again. The minute you go into freak-out mode and say you haven’t enough time to write is not going to help you to write. You won’t be able to write anything at all – or nothing that good, anyway. Be kind to yourself, take your time, and read something completely different – something you wouldn’t normally do. It might offer you that slightly different perspective you’re after.

“Why she’s a girl from the chainstore
Her name was written on her coat
Her life was a miserable anecdote”

– Why She’s A Girl from the Chainstore, Buzzcocks

  • I’ve written something about writer’s block before (excuse the irony of the ‘plethora’ of work about not being able to write), which you can read here.

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