Dirty Laundry #4: Writing Process

It’s a relief to read Samantha’s last post, because guilt at missing deadline for the 4th story has been an issue for me. As usual, S has not nagged me or put pressure on me, but I feel that i’ve disappointed myself through letting the delay slip along for so much longer than the original ‘it’s going to be a couple of days’ apology email I sent her. A couple of days ago a friend asked if DL was on hiatus over the summer, which made me realise how important the fortnightly exchange was not only to the two of us, but as a contract with our audience (yes, that’s you, whoever you are – friend, family, stranger – reading this now). I’ve been thinking a lot about how the deadlines affect me and affect Samantha, but hadn’t even begun to think how there might be further expectations, and the effect of not fulfilling them. So, apologies to all.

This time round the first thing I did when i saw the 4th photoset was to note my initial impressions. The plastic knife and the hands stood out for me, and I felt that the lighting was brighter than in the other stories. I felt that the three photos were very closely linked together- almost different angles of the same situation- rather than the same narrative movement of sets 1,2 and 3, which meant that a strong single image and idea came to me of the character and how I could work with that. A few years ago I wrote a short story about a misfit teenage boy enacting minor, barely noticeable misdemeanours and i’ve been meaning to re-work it, and I wondered if there might be a tie-in. In the end I didn’t go down that particular route, but I think I used a similar narrative memory-wandering voice.

I knew the photos were up because S had sent me a message, hence checking them out-and-about on the iPhone screen. Interestingly, I ended up starting the story shortly after that whilst at the Star & Shadow cinema in Newcastle, killing time before a performance of Breakfast Triad. Again, I was working from the iPhone screen which meant i became vaguely obsessional over whether the flowers were red roses or red carnations. That led me to wondering what it would be like if my only contact with the photos was as large, wall-sized projections. We have a certain control over digital media- to zoom, to return, to resize – even as we are limited by screen size, resolution, and light quality (it was dark. Previously i’ve looked at the photos in direct sunlight and had glare issues).

I wrote down thoughts as they occurred to me and let my mind play over the images and my memories of the images and I started to ask myself questions about the character’s motivations, trying to tie them into the details available via the tiny screen. I totally missed the bugs thing.

By the 4th page of notes, I found the background to the character which seemed to fit. I’d been wondering if Samantha was picking up on a detail in the First DL photo/story where the character is sent headless flowers by a suitor (were you, S?) and wanting the break away from the relationship between flowers and romance. By page 5, I was starting to write sections of prose rather than notes, several of which made it into the finished piece.

Ditto page 6. Then it was time for the performance to start so i closed my notebook and told myself I just needed to find a couple of hours to write up the story which was now clear in my head. Hah. So much for that. Day-job, commission pitching, teaching prep, actual teaching, packing… but no DL time. Ironically, it wasn’t a lack of time to think about the story sitting in my head (bus journeys, walking to work, shower-time) but spare time in front of the computer to actually get it written up and shaped, digitally.

So, this time I ended up writing in the cafe of the Pleasance Dome in Edinburgh, working from my notes-notebook into my teaching notebook, which has a larger page- thus allowing me to visually see how the piece hung together. I really enjoyed having the opportunity to translate from one page to another as it mimicked the longer time-lapse I usually prefer to use as part of the editorial process.

I wrote everything apart from the very end, and I also managed to look at the photos on a larger in screen again in the light of the details i’d been thinking about. The ending came at the point when I typed the story up – between teaching writing workshops and seeing my students for one-to-one sessions – and although I still feel I’d be interested in re-working the story at a later date (to expand it, and add in more back story about the financial situation. I hope readers understand it’s a florists sent out of business by the opening of a supermarket, but I also know that most of those details are stil in my head and, as usual, what has actually made it to the page is somewhat oblique).

Expanding the stages of thinking, noting and drafting has made me a lot happier with the final version. I’m also starting to develop techniques that allow me to use processes to replace large amounts of time away ‘forgetting’ the story. Thoughts on that in another post (eventually).

see photographs and stories at cargocollective.com/dirtylaundry

 

FIRST DRAFT

The cut petals crushing under his forearm give a faint, stale scent at odds with their vivid red. Carnations: a durable, underwhelming flower best suited for unimaginative funeral wreaths and dusty café vases. He uses the lettuce knife to dice the heads, running with the principle that the plastic blade will prevent the edges from browning although tomorrow no-one will care – he won’t even care – about that level of detail.

 

How will it feel, the tarmac under his head? Will it be dark and cold with rain? Or will the weatherman deliver on his unseasonable promise and leave the ground tar-sticky with slow heat?
These are the same long-bladed scissors his mother used to cut the bright, crackling squares of cellophane for wrapping the bouquets. When he locked up this afternoon for the last time, he came upstairs with this armful of red carnations and – held carefully away from his body, blades pointing down – these scissors which have never, to his knowledge, been more than a metre from the counter before. The shears, the pruners, the knot-biting clippers were collected this morning by the apologetic-faced man with the small briefcase and the computer-print-out checklist of items. It felt wrong to use these long, wrapping-paper scissors to cut the buds from the stalks, but they were the only ones left, hidden in the secret counter-drawer under his sweaty palms, alongside the final roll of twenties.

He stops chopping for a moment and observes how the blood has run from his knuckles where they wrap the handle of the lettuce knife. He forces himself to let go, release, relinquish the pain before he strains something. His hands have always been such an asset to the business – long and palely elegant with perfectly almond fingernails: a direct inheritance from his mother, whose black-lined cat eyes and high hair has made even the Michaelmas daisies exotic.

His father had square, red, short-fingered hands which left wipes of lily pollen on the wallpaper and were permanently stained green under the nails. They looked awkward, so everyone assigned his mother the credit for the delicate window displays and declared the ‘woman’s touch’ to be obvious. He remembers how in her later years his mother would dress herself in colour combinations painful to behold, then stand and wait while his father fussed over here with those meaty paws, changing her outfit until it was aesthetically acceptable. After they retired it was – did she go downhill so very quickly then? Or was she doing it on purpose to keep her husband busy, active, engaged.

Discussing the discrepancy between his father’s artist’s eye and butcher-shop hands with his aunt last year – after the second mortgage, before the third. Before the foundations of the shopping centre were laid on the edge of town – he asked about his mother’s hands, wanting to know if her colour-blindness had been a display of contempt or an ingrained condition.

‘Wandering,’ said his aunt, ‘Like her eyes.’

Then his uncle cut in with Ruth in a particular way, and the bottle of brandy disappeared and he was hustled to the spare room and left to lie alone in the dark, trying to trace the shadows of his hands with blind eyes.
It’s over: finished. Done. The last of the flower-heads have been turned into blood-red confetti. He tips them from the frosted-white bowl into the brown envelopes from the lawyers. He puts the envelopes into the fridge, next to the last post of yoghurt. He clears the stray stalks – long, green, bare – from the floor and ties up the binbag, putting it by the front door to be remembered in the morning.

The click of the light-switch echoes around the room and it takes him a moment to recognise that it is the absence of curtains, the absence of sofa, of armchairs, of coffee table, of thick woollen rug underfoot that he is hearing. He stretches out in the yellow shadow trapezium from the street-lamp and tries to stay as still as possible to prevent the camp bed from creaking. He thinks about the morning and how the road in the centre of town will smell when he is pressing into it. He wishes the carnations smelt of more than old paper. He imagines the automatic swoosh of the supermarket doors will sound like waves on a beach. He will lie there, trying to prevent himself from trembling, blanketed in red petals.