Dirty Laundry #2: Writing Process

I’ve just posted up my written response to the second Dirty Laundry photoset, so I thought I’d be virtuous and get this blog post written ASAP also, mainly because I haven’t spoken to Samantha for several days now and I want to get this posted so I can read about where the crazy donkey-man photo idea came from and then call & chat with her about it.

That’s definitely proving to be the hardest part of the collaboration for me so far, not being able to talk to Sam about the work pre-emptively. Normally when writing I’m the only person invested in it at the level I am, but with this collaboration we’re both equally invested, and it sucks to not be able to talk it through. Although I do  appreciate the need for it in order to preserve a certain artistic integrity and also because of potential artistic-anxiety influences and also just as an exercise in discipline itself. It’s a bit like being at the start of a new relationship where the temptation is to rush in and perhaps end up somewhere it’s awkward to pull back from. That came into this story actually, the diary entry at the beginning of the second section comes from that place of thinking about whether what you want to do is the same as what is emotionally healthy, or what you really want and so forth.

So, I finally got to look at the photos on Friday (see my previous post about why I hadn’t been looking at them prior to that) and they made me laugh. I didn’t want to rush into anything: having to chart my thought processes has made me think a lot more concisely about my methods of approaching new ideas. But I did have an instant response that Samantha was using at least two different perspectives in the photographs: there’s the external shot which is quite separate, almost standing back and looking at the crazy umbrella-wielding donkey-masked man. Then the other two photographs are much more intimate, but one is through glass and one is directly up against the skin. So I had a starting point of at least three narrative voices, each one with a different take on the situation. Then I let myself have a couple of days thinking about that.

Sunday afternoon I sat down and did a meditation exercise. I’d set the photos as my desktop-loop (something I did with the other ones too, actually. Probably should’ve mentioned that in a previous post…) and I’d shown them to a few fiends over the course of the past 48 hours. But I started the exercise without re-looking at them in detail. Instead I tried to build up a picture in my mind of what I was seeing: locate myself within the memory of the photographs. What came out for me was a very visceral false-memory of the smell of slightly rotting vegetation, the feel of cold, wet window glass and the setting of just after dawn on what was going to be a really hot day. As soon as that came, I had a really clear idea for two of the three perspectives and began sketching them out. Then I went back and looked at the photographs and decided I definitely wanted to use the third perspective also.

Hopefully the story is self-explanatory enough as to what the three perspectives are. I don’t know how Samantha envisaged the set-up, but in my head there’s some bizarre logical progression that a man has been at some kind of Bacchanalian party, wandered lost across the garden, and is trying the door of an old shed. Inside the shed sits an old woman, writing in a diary. I know there aren’t any direct reasons for the old woman being there (but, with that internal perspective looking out at the man through the glass, Sam must have envisaged a someone), and then the CCTV footage man for the third perspective was because I saw this moment of intimacy with the shot of the bare chest and I wondered what it would be like to be someone who always has to watch and can never touch, but not in quite so voyeur-porn way as that sentence sounds now I come to re-read it.

In the opening paragraph, the comment about Gabrielle the hostess and her sister Muriel comes from a moment earlier in the week where I was trying to explain the grammar behind adding apostrophes onto the word ‘hostess’. In the original version Muriel was wearing a feather-boa, not a shawl. Apart from that, the only prompting came from the photos themselves. However, perhaps I shouldn’t discount the fact that I spent the hours prior to sitting down to work on the photos reading Less Than Zero by Brett Easton-Ellis.

Having made a set of notes, I then slept on the idea. I had a lot of potential starting sentences in my head. When I woke up this morning I realised that I really wanted to work with the photos in a different order: I didn’t want the reader knowing what (who) was in the the garage when the man outside didn’t. So I mentally worked on them in the order B/A/C. I’m interested to know if Samantha puts any strong significance on the order in which the photos are up: if she saw a narrative trail that started inside the shed and moved outwards. Again, I wrote straight onto the computer. Being more aware of the technical requirements of posting, at the end of each section I went back and changed the usual paragraph flow into something I could copy & paste directly into the Cargo Collective blog format.

Emotionally: I still want to sit down and write something separately about the impact of external emotional changes on the collaboration. But for the record I just wanted to say that again I found the photos to be rich in detail and I found a story in them really easily. I actually found a whole world in this set: last time round was all about the character for me, this time round it was really situational-based. Having gone through the anxiety-of-influence discussion with Samantha over the last set, I knew I wasn’t going to post anything up until the whole piece was ready. I also felt more secure that if i went off-piste she wouldn’t take it as offensive… but in my head everything with the old woman and the diary inside the garage comes so intrinsically from the photo that i’m almost puzzled there aren’t also photos there with a pale figure slipping into a hedgerow, a man’s face lit-up by row upon row of computer screens, and an old lady writing a diary in a cold garage.

see photographs and stories at cargocollective.com/dirtylaundry

 

FIRST DRAFT

(i)

Before they drew the curtains he saw the pale figure flitting past the hedge and disappear. He was sure it was female – the dark mass of hair, the thinness of the arms – and the purity of the figure’s fast movements made him ache to be a teenager again. 

‘Sounds like Muriel,’ they told him. ‘Gabi’s sister.’

But there was Gabrielle, playing at being hostess while her sister flirted with men twice her age, spilling wine down their lapels and brushing it away with the edge of her shawl. Changing tack, he described the figure as a boy and was met with indifferently pursing lips.

‘We can get you a boy,’ they said. ‘How young?’

He felt his chest flushing and worried they would misinterpret embarrassment for excitement. By candlelight familiar faces wavered and he accepted the chalice again and just before the wavering faces melted completely someone drew their fingernail down his spine and he woke up into the evening’s dream.

Some time later he found himself walking through a room of exhausted limbs. A man’s mask was pushed up from his face and he recognised the face of a minor sitcom actor. The man’s lips were swollen to the point of grotesqueness and one eye was beginning to purple. He looked down at his hands and saw that he was wearing someone else’s watch. The hands ran backwards, faster and faster, and he sat down on the polished mahogany floor to steady himself but instead found himself rolling over and over and the plastic of the mask over his own face crushed into the floor and he could taste his own sweat on his lips and something a little unfamiliar – spices? – and then he sat up and one of the curtains had been pulled back and outside the shadow of the day was falling and it had rained heavily and he knew he should sleep but then he remembered the pale figure and he stood up and nobody else moved as he left the room and walked and walked until finally there was an unlocked door which led into the garden.

On the patio outside the unlocked door lay a black umbrella. He took it, looking once more at the watch: the watchface was smashed. The weight of it on his wrist began to feel comforting and he experimented with lifting the umbrella up and down as the rain began again and the pattering noise calmed his heart. The grass underfoot became increasingly muddy as he followed the line of the hedge down towards the corner the pale figure had disappeared into. There was a thin gap and as he pushed his naked body through the wetly rubbing twigs he was hit with the dank smell of old-cut grass and the heat of the day began to penetrate from behind the rainclouds and he knew that it would thunder later.

There was a small concrete garage, half-overgrown with budding rhododendrons. He tried the handle but the door didn’t even rattle. The windows were dark and edged with insect trails and condensation. When he lowered the umbrella, he realised the rain had stopped some time ago and now the ground was starting to steam as the skies pulled the moisture back up into a sweaty embrace. He began to feel aroused again, flashbacks from the evening playing through his mind and then as he reached down to touch himself he saw the watch properly for the first time and remembered the inscription on the back and felt a little sick and the plastic of the mask slapped against his face as he shook his head to make the memories stop. The mask began to chafe against the shaving graze just below his cheekbone and then it began to feel mundane that he was here, naked save for a mask and an umbrella and – damn it – a broken watch, creeping round a near-stranger’s toolshed in search of something that was probably just a trick of the drugs.

(ii)

What feels safest is really the least stable thing in the world, so transitory these emotions, so fragile. My heart calls you a homecoming but you’re so alien, so unknown, that I do not trust myself barely to think it, let alone tell you how I feel, in case the act of speaking the words out loud destroys the illusion I’ve built up for myself and turns the world back into a hole of disappointment that I’m burying myself in over and over and over and over and…

 

Looking down at the table, she lets a stream of smoke escape from her nostrils, then grinds the cigarette out in the middle of the diary. The door goes again; the muted, meaty thump of the naked man’s shoulder as he tries once more to force it open. She narrows her eyes a little, then throws the still-smoking butt at the back of the door where it hits and skitters, finally coming to rest by a pair of shears; a thin trail of smoke rising for a moment to mark the place.

She will be stuck here for hours now, when all she wants to do is pick her way back into the main house, bypass the leftovers of the bacchanal, and sleep the day away in her attic retreat. Coming down here had been a calculated risk: the curtains were always pulled around nine, the doors never locked until quarter-past. She had not felt that sensation of being watched by unseen eyes that sometimes checked her, made her retrace her soundless steps back to the discreetly-ivy’d side-door. Perhaps it had been a disoriented mistake; they often take the guests through the old maze and sometimes they break free, losing their way rather than their inhibitions. So far there have been no fatal accidents.

Outside she hears the man begin to sob or choke loudly. She pushes back her chair, taking pleasure in the grate on metal on concrete and brushes the ash from the diary before slamming it shut. Her pencil rolls off the small wooden desk and she bends to pick it up and when she straightens – her back too stiff to stay here until the groundskeeper comes to collect any strays, surely, and she really must get a phone installed in case of emergencies – there is a face at the window. The eye-holes in his plastic donkey mask are dark and the painted muzzle is impassive.

Standing still would have been pointless, she felt seen already. Nonetheless, when she moves the mask starts back and she wonders if he had thought her a grey statue or a ghost. As she approaches the window the mask comes back until they are both pressed up against the dust-streaked pane and she raises her hand to meet his and the glass is cold against the growing, prickling humidity of the day and she almost thinks that she could feel his pulse.


(iii)

If he were to take these tapes with him – leave right now, get protection through one of the news agencies – then he would be so rich. So very rich. These thoughts occur to him sometimes as he sits here and watches rich people falling over and laughing and thinking themselves all that. Perhaps it is this time spent with the exposures of the very rich that has numbed him to the financial gains from such an action: the lack of imagination they show in their excesses strikes him as more than a little depressing.

When he gets home he will kiss his partner on the cheek and tell him that nothing happened. His partner knows he is a security guard and doesn’t have the imagination to think that he might see something other than a break-in, that the rumours about this part of the countryside might be true after all and again he will think about leaving him and finding someone who understands that the times he says he is fine and the times he says that nothing has happened are really the times he needs most to be held and listened to.

There are only two more hours of his shift left and in a half hour or so he will take a break for a piss and maybe see if the coffee in his thermos is still warm. But some of the bodies on the screen are starting to stir so he needs to watch and see if they settle back into an uncomfortable, sprawled unconsciousness, or if he needs to place a call and have the staff bring round the first of the cars. This time of morning is what he will one day describe as the unpredictable hour where the differences in metabolism and mentality begin to surface. One person will wake-up still locked into the inducements they have taken, another with a terrible clarity which stutters on the wrong side of sobriety and it is his professional duty to play God and send appropriate help, based on the conclusions he can draw from this bank of small but sharply pixellated screens.

Every fifteen minutes he counts them, once this unpredictable hour begins to stir. They can end up in the strangest of places, slipping out from under the room attendants’ heavy eyes, working in those moments when his eyes skip from one screen to another or he is scratching that insect bite on his ankle. In ten minutes time he will see that one of them has gone MIA and then he will stare at the screens until he finds the key – the door slightly ajar – and tracks the MIA by the wet brush of his feet showing up as dark patches in the grass.

Next week – when he shows up with exactly five minutes to spare before they call his replacement because he has forgotten there will be bank holiday traffic – he will be called into the office. His hands will tremble and he will pull them up into the long blue sleeves of his uniform but then it won’t be his supervisor after all. The small, thin woman behind the desk must be eighty of she is a day and he will find himself saluting her automatically. She will ask him if he remembers the MIA and he will say he does and she will ask him to find her all the footage he can of that particular guest from that particular evening and he will agree and salute again.

It will be something which he will not write about in his memoirs because there was an odd intimacy to the moment and when he watches the footage himself he will see that the MIA by the garage had been standing there without moving, his hand pressed against the glass of the window, for about an hour before anyone arrived to collect him. He will always wonder if this is why the old woman was weeping when she asked him for the tapes.