Dirty Laundry #3: Writing Process

Samantha- not taken as a criticism at all: I’m really excited that you picked up so directly on what I was experimenting with: part of my curiosity at trying this was to see if the difference was noticeable by other people.

When I first saw the third photoset I was tickled pink: I instantly recognised not only Juliet but the hat and sundry other items. It felt a little like a private joke- that these very familiar objects/persons were so completely transformed by being used in the photoshoot, and that the end product would never be recognised for that second-level of what I can only think of as domesticity since i’m used to seeing them in your home environment- in fact, their presence there is what makes me think of it as your home, those small touches… I’m glad that perhaps one days someone may read these blogposts and chuckle at the interaction between biography and art.

Something I’ve struggled with a little has been the constraints of time- charting and rounding off as complete a story as possible, given the time limitations imposed by i) the fortnightly posting but also ii) other commitments. For the first and second stories, the issue of using plot was important during the process, and after our conversations about the second story I’ve been wondering if my focus on telling something as complete as possible has been taking away from my attempts to convey the  impressions the photosets have had on my imagination.  So, for the third story I sat down with the intention of simply describing as I went along, without stepping back and trying to craft the narrative into something with a sense of a beginning/middle/ending.

I found that in order to stop writing, I had to introduce something that could work in my head as a kind of ending; in this case it was the narrator leaving the space in which the story was set. But not worrying about how I was going to get the story into a place where the narrative itself ended, or if I’d made the story as clear as possible, was really enjoyable. I didn’t want to take it so far as to be beginning and ended on half-finished/started sentences. I tried to focus on the imagery and description inherent in the photographs, rather than pare everything back into my usual, occasionally underwritten, mode of description. I felt that while this had the result of an elusive piece – there’s no plot context – in terms of the relationship between the description in my head and the description on the page, there was a leap forward.

Reading your post on the process of the third photoset after I had posted my story, I’m so sad you haven’t been able to use the marionettes: I’ll keep my fingers crossed they surface in another situation. I’ve definitely noticed the theme of hands- although I’d noticed that as gloves rather than hands. You blogging about it has made me aware that I haven’t yet used a description of the shape/position of the hands in my pieces, just the actions they have been performing in a more abstract fashion.

I’ve also just realised that previously I’ve posted my story, blogged about the process, and then read your process blog. In this case i’ve posted the story, read about your process, and then written about mine. I think this is actually a better route to take- it means I can respond more directly. Is that ok with you?

Writing the piece started with the the opening image of someone lying backwards and trying to smoke a joint. I wanted to bring across the idea of a person’s world being turned upside-down on a number of levels. I haven’t thought through what the larger narrative of the piece would be in detail, but I think the narrator is a little naive, fairly inexperienced in the ways of the world, and quite easily influenced. They see Katia as exotic and dangerous and get a thrill out of being around them, as though the glamour they perceive might rub off on them. I suppose it’s a classic introduction -to-drugs-and-illegal-activity trope. Were there a larger narrative around it, I think there would be a lot of film-noir references. I’d be tempted to make it into some kind of comedy pastiche, where every time something glamorous was supposed to happen, actually it’d be something really mundane. A bit like the character wanting to be involved, but the only thing they can think to do to help is offer to hoover.

I looked at the photos shortly after Samantha posted them, so I had a full fortnight to think before starting to write. I missed deadline for the first time due to preparing for a job interview- when I contacted Samantha to explain she was very understanding (phew). It’s important for us to have deadlines, enforce them and take them seriously (not to become lax)… but I don’t think certain types of stress are constructive for creativity, so it’s useful to know we can bend the rules as and when we need to.

In her latest post, Samantha asked me ‘from the process side how do you feel the process is affecting the product?’. I think my response is that I’m still finding my feet, I’m still working that out. One of the reasons I love the title ‘Dirty Laundry’ for this project is that essentially what we’re doing is airing our dirty laundry in public- we’re exposing the early stages of learning to work together directly, showing the seams and the stains. One thing we’re learning is the timings involved in each of our processes: I can see the background into setting up a shoot, the time it takes to arrange models, the worries over relying on other people – and object – which can let you down. Lighting. Camera failure. the final product is then very tied to that essential attribute of photography itself- the encapsulation of a moment in time, taken in a moment in time. In contrast, writing is tied only to the materials of production (pen/paper or keyboard/electricity) and the imagination. But for a writer, the first draft is only ever that- editing and redrafting takes time: stories need to lie fallow. I’m wondering if the front-end writing will work better if I follow the fragmentary route, as per the third story, so that there’s the initial response to the photosets. Then rather than having an edits/correction time at the end, we could add a secondary stage where we work together in some way to develop wider narratives- in the form of a synopsis initially – turning the combination of the photoset and the fragment into a wider piece, perhaps as the basis for a script? Just as you can’t go back and add to the shoot, I can’t produce a perfect, complete story in one go.

So, say we end up with e.g.12 photosets, each with their own fragment of writing. Then at the end we discard e.g.4 of them because we think they work perfectly as they are. We try to develop the narrative of e.g.8 of them. Run out of ideas with e.g.3, left with e.g.5 ideas. Maybe one could become a script. Two work together to make a larger piece… that kind of thing. so rather than the focus being on me changing things, it’d be on us working together with the material we’ve gathered to try a different form of collaboration.

In response to your other questions- no, I don’t feel ‘constrained by an expectation to use the elements of the photos directly’: I think that was an anxiety at the outset, but one which has quickly disappeared. I don’t know what my ideal would be as a product- I think i’m starting to realise that it’s the process more than the product which is really fascinating me: learning how i’m writing and working towards changing some bad habits. As per the paragraph above, I think seeing the output at this stage as the first stage in a longer process would be helpful, but I don;’t feel any need to lock-down what the next step would be, but i’m really keen on having some kind of return to the pieces rather than just moving on to the next thing. Thoughts?

see photographs and stories at cargocollective.com/dirtylaundry

 

FIRST DRAFT

‘Try smoking it upside-down.’ Her ice-blue lined eyes narrowed and she exhaled slowly into my face while she spoke. I reached forward and took the joint from her, then leant back into a fall. I tried to make my movements look casual and relaxed, but Katia had already turned away and gone back to the table.

The headrush made me nauseous, so I stayed on the sofa – my neck propped in a half-loll over the edge – while Katia fixed her lipstick and pulled the veil back over her face. The staff-room was littered with the excesses of her night – the impromptu ashtrays, the open-legged scissors, the dregs of the coffee – and the cold wind through the open window kept her arms in a continual prickle of goosebumps. I tucked my bare feet under a worn velvet cushion and tried to think of a diplomatic way of offering help without it sounding like I thought she needed me.

The snip of the scissors through celluloid was soothing: my eyes rolled up and down as I struggled to stay on the right side of awake.

‘Have you thought about what you’ll do when they find it?’

‘Why?’ Katia came and stood over me. Her face ballooned in and out of my vision as she swayed back and forth. ‘Will you be pointing them in the right direction?’

I shook my head and the nausea came back. I shut my eyes and then she rested her cold palm on my forehead and I thought about being a child again and taking the day off school and thinking time would stretch out and wrap around the world and protect me from it forever. Then I felt the colder blade of the scissor against my cheek and all I could think about was: how far will she go with this?

‘It’s time for you to go.’ With my eyes still shut, I couldn’t be certain that Katia was talking to me. Her fingers drummed on my forehead and I told myself I was imagining that I could feel the point of the scissors pressing a little into the empty part of my cheek, just above the bone of my jaw. The nausea felt different now: a clenched sobriety in the middle of my gullet. Katia kept talking but I couldn’t concentrate on her words, not with the silver feeling for metal on skin and the sense of her breathing above me. Her voice and the pellet-beat of her fingertips on the edge of my headache seemed to fade in and out and I wondered if I was asleep after all and treading water in a nightmare.

The pressure on my cheek lifted and I held my eyes shut long enough to register the click of Katia’s heels as she walked back over the scarred linoleum. When I raised my head – slow, stiff-necked – she was sweeping down the table with the flat of her hand, gathering all the end-curls of the unprocessed film into the bin.

‘I could hoover,’ I said. ‘I know where they keep it.’

Katia didn’t reply but when I stood up she waved a pale hand at me – irritably, as far as I could tell from the hunch of her shoulders – so I kept to the far side of the table, emptying ash and coffee out of the window. The scissors were splayed next to the final selection of negatives, closer to Katia than to me. I found my shoes – between a pile of cardboard boxes and the stick-skeleton of a pot-plant next to the kitchenette – and laced them back on. My fingers were numb with lack of sleep and stumbled over the knots. Katia came and took one of the boxes back to the table with her, still without saying a word. Beneath the black veil, her face looked like a parody of glamour, slashed with scarlet lipstick.

‘I’ll be going then,’ I said, standing up and stretching my arms above my head as though yawning. ‘I won’t say anything.’

‘You don’t know anything.’ Katia began putting the negatives into the white envelope, checking each one up against the stream of light from the lamp first. ‘Nobody would think to ask you anyway.’

I knew more than Katia thought I did. I tried to think of something which could negate her disdain, pulling the sleeves of my coat round the right way to buy for time. Katia opened the rest of the windows, then pulled on the heavy leather gloves I’d noticed next to the kettle and I saw my chance. ‘Are those for the fire?’

‘What fire?’ Katia twisted a scarf round her wrist and knotted it.

I tried back-pedalling, with limited success: undone by my desire to show-off: Katia was not the kind of girl I was ever able to impress. ‘They look fire-proof. Bullet-proof. Are they some kind of boxing gloves?’

‘Did you go through my purse?’ She reached for the scissors with awkward, leather-bound fingers. I shook my head again. ‘Whatever you think you know, you’re wrong.’ She put the scissors into the cardboard box and hoisted it on one hip. The white envelope was propped against the urn in the centre of the table, pristine against the scratched, stained surface. Katia waited like that while I left, a displaced silhouette dressed all in black. I offered to carry the box for her – where had she left the bike? – but she waved me off again and I wasn’t strong enough to insist.