Dirty Laundry #11: Writing Process

I started drafting this story in Samantha’s flat in Brooklyn, her large-screen laptop on the chair next to me and my little Macbook air on the table in front of me, both showing the photos up on the Cargo website. Samantha herself was in the room behind me, working on an initial mock-up of how the images and text from the whole Dirty Laundry series could be put together in an app.

Samantha working on mock-ups

It was December 2012 and I was in New York thanks to an Arts Council/British Council International Artists Development Grant. When I sat down to draft, I’d seen these photos but I hadn’t looked at them. And mainly i’d seen them in the tiny, grainy thumbnail print-outs i’ve been using to create a physical edits board.

The edits board

I put my headphones on and try to block everything out. Yesterday was the photoshoot for Dirty #12. I’m having to work really hard not to second-guess the photos Samantha will be choosing from that, to focus in on these photographs. Not to jump a set. I have a half-hour or so in the schedule today to capture an outline of my initial thoughts on Dirty Laundry #11 before it’s back to intensive discussion and editing on the series as a whole and the future progression of our collaboration.

I’m intending to work towards and outline, not the full story. My first impression from scanning the photographs as a whole is that it’s a fortune teller on the night before her wedding. Or her friend’s wedding. I get the idea of the wedding from the manicure- there’s a preparation there for something outside o the photographs.

In the first picture I see: Hair. Red lips. Gypsy hoop earrings. The top of a sleeve tattoo, the green in it picking out the green in the background which might be houseplants. A cardigan- perhaps- hung on something in the background that is mottled and out of focus in a way that makes me thing of snakeskin. Necklaces, several lockets. Armour. Her focus is down, out of shot. Head tipped to one side, contemplating. The individual strands of hair.

In the second picture I see: the table she is focusing on down in the first picture. Photographs. Needles. A long darning needle. Tweezers. Embroidery scissors. A rock candle light. The light catching a pearl-headed long pin. A white pencil- tailor’s chalk? Black paper: black pattern paper perhaps? The clearest photograph is of two people, their backs to the camera. Her fingernails are beautifully manicured, with french tips. She is stitching something. Again, the emerald green in the background. Is there a thread running out of her nail?

In the third picture I see: The tropical greenery of the background. The cardigan from the first picture is a black and red crochet rug, slung on the corner back of a chair. She is inside. Lampshade reflected in the window. Curtains. Bosomy. I wish her eyes were shut rather than open- there’s a direct confrontation that makes it harder to work with, it sort of screams out ‘NOW’ in a narrative sense. A cup with astrological symbols on it. It is dark outside. Night. Waiting.

I rethink from fortune teller to some kind of voodoo. There are no candles, no incense. Is this a house or a workspace?

Before my time is up, I have started writing. The lines that starts it off, that pulls the story out of the photographs is the opening one of the draft, ‘Hanna stitches their lives back together’. Then I shut the notebook and turn my thought back to everything else. I fly back to the UK. We’ve agreed the priority is re-editing three of the previous stories rather than writing the story for DL#11 (hence my need to set an outline down), so that we can create proper paged mock-ups and set the word count limits. Samantha comes to visit, I edit the other stories, the photos from DL#12 get posted.

Notes to draft for DL 11

It’s March. I fly back out to New York. I arrive in the evening and we have dinner with Samantha’s family. First thing the next morning she leaves for work at half six and I get up, jetlagged into feeling as though it’s already lunchtime. I open up the notebooks and find almost the whole story is there, something much more delicate and fleshed out than I remembered. I had expected to sit down and write, but instead I find myself typing up- tidying up and giving a more rounded ending. I think that because I’ve been editing down the other stories, I’m writing looking for something already encapsulated, something more of a scenario than a full story, to match the other pieces.

The thumbnail – what we’ve started conceptualising as the ‘titles’ for each of the pieces – has changed since I last worked with the set. I don’t use the thumbnails much- they’re so small when i access the sets on my phone, and even my macbook air screen is pretty tiny. I’m drawn to words and impressions, so it doesn’t occur to me to zoom in and explore details of a photo by rote, only when something particularly strikes me- but also the thumbnails can’t be zoomed into. In our conversations as part of these funded trips that’s something that seems to puzzle Samantha, who is used to interpreting the world through visual details, in the same way that it puzzles me that she doesn’t automatically read and absorb every written sign we pass on the subway. It has been strange to discover that something that feels so natural and fundamental isn’t shared by someone close to you.

Screenshot of thumbnails

Writing this story is to be writing with a different purpose than for the other stories. At this point in our R&D for the final digital version I have an idea of the length of the piece (between 4oo and 1,000 words), the Point of View (3rd person direct, focusing on the figure in the photographs as the protagonist), the style (dreamy, unusual, scenic but hopefully still telling a story rather than just being a descriptive piece), and also the visual relation of the photographs to the text, which will not be as it is on the Cargo website where it’s impossible to view all the photographs and the whole story together, legibly. I also know that i’m writing for indented paragraphs, rather than the sectionalisation of the blog style.

It’s easier- there’s much less pressure all of a sudden. Now I’ve edited down the other stories they each have their distinct personality, so I don’t have to worry about repetition, especially since they’ve been edited for consistency of POV and length, as noted above. I’m no longer experimenting to see which style works best, I’m saying ‘this one does, and incidentally I’ve already produced and polished ten of these’. The advantage of the shorter length is that I can encapsulate my initial impressions in it, rather than pushing to find a narrative that goes far beyond the photographs  I’m trying to tell a story i’ve found from a slanty angle of the photographs.

 

FIRST DRAFT

Hanna stitches their lives back together. The wool is pulled in crinkling hoops out of the Saturday morning picnic rug. The stolen moments are photographs from their trip to Paris. She uses Maria’s own hatpin, delicately withdrawing it from the felt cap without disturbing anything.

The air in the front room is cold and expectant. Back in the den, Hanna imagines she can hear the living greenery creak as it stretches out to fill all the corners. She cranks the heater up, takes Maria’s crocheted shawl off her shoulders and leaves it on the back of the chair.

Maria’s cousin has piled all of the plants from the front room in here, out of respect he says. As she pulled the black veils over the mirrors in the hallway this morning she caught him making the sign against the evil eye behind her back. He and his wife left soon after that, reluctantly agreeing not to return before the following lunchtime.

‘Really, I need more time.’ Hanna’s throat had felt unlikely, separate. She half-expected to see the words as things floating in the air. She repeats them now to the empty room. More time.

Under the still-immaculate manicure she feels the ends of her fingers tighten. She loops the wool and begins filling the tapestry curve of a clockface on the black paper. In the exhibitions they were called Los Libros de Los Muertos, the books of the dead, but Hanna still calls them by the action, not the product. She pulls a knot into itself. Le Vinculación de Los Muertos, the tying of the dead. Part prayer, part remembrance, each one made in the presence of the dead body.

The citrus of Maria’s perfume is still hanging in the air in odd places, catching Hanna out when she leaves the table and stretches her legs. This is her first book not made for a stranger. She keeps stopping to cross herself, touch the amulets round her neck. Touch her own skin and feel her pulse. The sherbet lemon caches in the flat make her think of sugar on lips, cold sunshine in the Spring. She pulls the shawl close round the tops of her arms and holds it there, eyes squeezed shut, until the memories flatten out.

Her grandmother’s voice whispers in her ear For one who’s alive, nothing’s quite enough, while for one who’s dead anything’s too much. Hanna opens her eyes and listens harder. If there’s a cure for your problem, why anguish? She sets her hands over the Vinculación-in-progress and lets the weight of her memories pass down through her body. And if there’s none, why worry?

*

The shawl has fallen to the floor long enough ago that her arms are gooseflesh again. There is blood on the corner of a photograph where her hand lay over an angled pin.