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

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

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3. Wahiwala, Chris Porsz

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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):

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3. Dressing Up, Chris Porsz

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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.

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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.

10/9/2014

Last night my best friend told me I should write something, so I scowled at her (on Skype), doing my best Skype scowl, and was like, ugh, tsch, writing!!?! No way! Then just before bed I picked up a pen and wrote a letter to my dog, as it would have been his birthday next week. *clears throat*

We knew something was up when we didn’t have to turn the Tesco advert off before it got to the ‘DING!’ at the end. The scramble to get to the remote, to mute or change the channel before ‘DING!’ and then chaos, shouting, slamming doors. We were going to write a complaint letter, so shrill and distressing was the noise. Then, a few years ago, you just stopped doing it. We thought maybe they’d changed the frequency, but then again, we didn’t really think much of it at the time.

I realise now that you’ve gone how much you meant to me and my family. First, there is my mother. She often looked at you disapprovingly, but I think you knew that she (within her caring nature) – would always be the first to realise if you were sick, and couldn’t bear to see you in pain. She was the bravest to make the choice, in the end.

My brother loved you, right from the day he met you. You were his, after all. My parents got you because my brother never got on with your sort before. You probably didn’t know that.  And now, the sighs when he catches a glimpse of my phone wallpaper. Oh. He probably cried the most.

For my dad: you really were the world. You were for all of us, obviously, but you two would hang out all the time. Then he started lying to us, and you must have seen it all unravel; (this one is partly your fault, you were always the indoors sort.) We still fed you at 6 o’clock every evening, regardless of everything else losing it’s structure. I’m sorry he kept you awake at night, you must have been very sleepy after your long evening walk.

As for me, well. I am writing you this letter. Is that enough? People would laugh but I’ve often had long conversations with you about boys, fall-outs, how my day went. We didn’t ever speak about the v-e-t, and in some ways now, I wish we had. I wish I’d let you know before how nice it would be to have so many people looking after you, right until your last little steps, and those who had never met you before could always see how much joy you brought into our lives.

It started with the indigestion, which, laughably and often was cured with a Rennie- an absurd idea from my mum that my friends would always laugh at. You developed a limp, dragging around all those secrets. You got slow and tired and drowsy, so I’d nap beside you.

Maybe we can have a real Christmas tree this year, as you won’t piss underneath it.

During an insignificant July evening this year, we sat around our kitchen table and had a chat. I can’t remember if you were in the room. A few days after, Dad moved out: so I went out drinking too much, my brother locked himself away in his room, you were unnoticed and lonely, Mum kept trying to keep everyone going, and your organs began to fail.

I loved you the most the last day I saw you. You were in your little box at the clinic, and when we came to say goodbye, you stood up for us all. Not much, I know, but you hadn’t stood up for a week, and your kidneys were working at 10%. You stood up for us, and licked my hand. We all cried, sharing the same tissue. It was strange, everything that had happened in the past month, the affair, the break-up, living in two houses, trying to give everyone equal attention; yet here we were, as a family, crying over the loss of our little white dog. Thank you for that. As much as I want you as my pup forever, you brought my family together for the final time. I don’t think you could cope with us not as we were. I am sorry for that, but I equally couldn’t bear for you to have all that tension and deceit take its toll on your old bones.

I’m glad they changed the Tesco ad. I don’t think I could bear the silence that would follow.