Who Owns Stories?

With NaNoWriMo just around the corner, I’ve found myself reading a lot of the accompanying articles, the sentiment of which ranges from No One Wants To Read Your Novel, to How To Write A Novel Without A Plot. Some of the most basic advice for writers is to carry a notepad and jot down the day-to-day occurrences that might one day make up the dialogue and minor events in your novel.

My question is, where do we draw the line at stealing other people’s stories? I’m not talking about ripping off the plot of the latest best seller, I’m talking about reusing a story you overheard in a coffee shop. Is it wrong to steal those stories? And what about using your friends as inspiration? If a friend told you a hilarious anecdote, would you have any qualms about repurposing the events to up the comedic ante in your short story?

 

The Social Writer

When did writing become a team sport? What happened to the well-worn image of the writer as a recluse, sitting in a darkened room brooding over an oversized glass of wine and just sort of hating the world? I have enough to feel insecure about without the added pressure of having to be part of a clique.

Manchester is a particularly intimidating town to live while also trying to establish yourself as a writer. There are literary nights cropping up all over the shop, playing host to a cast of usual suspects. They all know each other. They all promote each other’s work with seemingly genuine enthusiasm. And it feels like the cool table at school all over again.

Literary nights enforce the idea that good writing has to be shared, and that good writers have to be confident performers. I’ve attended one or two, and been vaguely inspired by a few of the pieces shared, but overall it has always felt like a forced affair, offering validation to those confident enough to get up and read. And it’s not just literary nights that make me feel like I’ll never be part of the in-crowd. Sites like MacGuffin only serve to remind me that there’s another platform out there that could be great for my development, but that I know I will I never be a part of.

In this article by Meghan Tifft, she shares her troubled relationship with the writing community, and her own “titanic hypocrisy” she feels every time she promotes a book to the same community she doesn’t show any love for.

“The purpose of all this is to enact the larger mission of the writing and arts communities: We want to transfigure the market demands of self-promotion into something inherently more valuable, to say yes and no to those rites of passage offered to us by the powers that be. We want to do all we can to promote our writing—and good writing in general—but sometimes the rituals by which we put ourselves out there can seem empty and exhausting. And if we choose to reject them altogether, we can feel like we’re not being good team players or doing our part.”

I’ve never been a team player, and I can’t imagine I’ll start now. Am I setting myself up for a future of failure if I’m completely unwilling to take part?

I’m curious… how do you interact with writing communities?

September + October In Books: DeLillo, Groff + Guthrie

Now I’m back in Manchester, I can take full advantage of the wonderful library just at the end of my street. If you haven’t spent a half day gazing up at the domed ceiling of the reading room, put it on your to-do list right now.

September’s reading list was an emotional rollercoaster, starting with Don Delillo’s Point Omega. Complex and beautiful at every turn, it was a short read that stayed with me for a long time after I put it down. I consumed it while jet-lagged, often in the middle of the night, and it seamlessly intertwined with my artificial melatonin-soaked dreams. The pace is jarring; it begins with a description of Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, and then takes us to a desert, “somewhere south of nowhere”. The final act offers a heart-wrenching twist and throws up as many questions as it answers. Highly recommended.

Next up, to ease my soul, I picked up Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking; this one will hit you right in the feels. I’m ashamed to say this is my first encounter with her writing, and it was quite the introduction. The ‘magical thinking’ she is referring to is the idea that if one hopes and wishes for something enough, those thoughts might become a reality. It’s a road map of grief and an intimate tale of what happens when you’re the one left behind. The final few chapters had me fighting back tears.

Although I would say I identify as a feminist, I often struggle to articulate why when pushed for answers. It always seems that the answer should be obvious – who wouldn’t want equality? – but when cornered on the subject, I often come up short. So I was relieved to discover Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, a highly readable collection of essays that somehow organised my thoughts on the subject into neat categories. I feel better equipped to tackle the feminist bashing.

I was recently introduced to Lauren Groff after reading an extract of Fates and Furies in The New Yorker. I immediately added her to my list of girl writer idols – she now makes up one-half of the list alongside Jennifer Egan. I decided to tackle her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, and devoured it in a weekend. Mythical monsters mix with real-life monsters in this quirky homecoming tale that manages to tell the story of a twenty-something fuck up without making me want to roll my eyes. Not once.

Heading South, the next novel on my list was Woody Guthrie’s House Of Earth, weirdly edited and introduced by Douglas Brinkley and… er, Johnny Depp. Though I can appreciate the merit of such a piece of work, I struggled to get through it. It was dense and clunky, and although there are glimmers of beauty in the prose, it was largely frustrating. This frustration may have been intentional, as Guthrie paints a grim picture of rural poverty, where there is nothing to do but pay your bills and, well, fuck.

Determined to read everything Lauren Groff has written before tackling Fates and Furies (alright, I’m waiting for it to arrive in the library, whaddya want from me?) I also read Arcadia and Delicate Edible Birds, in that order. Arcadia revolves around the incredibly likable character, Bit – named for his pocket-sized stature – raised in a hippy commune in upstate New York. We see Bit at various stages in his life: as a young child observing the construction of the Arcadia community; as a rebellious teen, starting to understand the flaws in the system; as an adult, raising a child alone; and finally as a carer to his elderly parents. Delicate Edible Birds is a collection of short stories that could serve as a 101 tutorial on everything the short story should be. Groff’s intimidating master of the craft is evident throughout, and she never has to try too hard to make a point.

Up next month: Ulysses, The Leopard, The Final Act Of Mr Shakespeare and Dubliners.

Dear husbands and boyfriends of lifestyle bloggers…

As Halloween draws closer, the prevalent theme in my Feedly is couple’s Halloween costumes. Believe me, I get it. Being able to request/demand a co-ordinated effort is one of the perks of being in a solid relationship. Perfecting the art of rocking up at a party as the corpse bride and groom is a rite of passage – and you get to put makeup on your boyfriend!! Doing this as a normal, non-lifestyle blogger person is one thing, but it takes on all new hues of crazy when we add a popular lifestyle blog into the mix.

So I have to ask, husbands and boyfriends of lifestyle bloggers, did you even want to be a part of this? Did you wake up this morning and think: “hey, I think I’d like to be photographed wearing a tin man costume today and then have it posted online for all my coworkers and friends to see.”

I know, you probably can’t say anything, because then you’re not being supportive of your partner’s unconventional career path, but your eyes say it all.

Blink twice if you need help.

Are you sure you’re cool being crammed into a mad hatter costume and forced to pose on the streets on Brooklyn, where there are actual people? And it doesn’t stop with Halloween.

Annie Spratt
She brought you breakfast in bed… but you’re not allowed to touch it just yet.

Husbands and boyfriends of lifestyle bloggers, do you ever just want to, y’know, cook a meal and then eat it without going through the ordeal of holding the stepladder and lighting rig so your partner can capture it from every angle? That Thai green curry does look good, but it probably would have been tasted better when served warm about 45 minutes ago. And wouldn’t it be great if just once, your partner could decide this meal would be best paired with beer, instead of a homemade lime and elderflower spritz?

And the coffee! Whether you drink it in the coffee shop or get it to go, do you ever get tired of the endless latte art snaps? Be honest, has your partner ever consumed an actual piping hot beverage?

Janelle Ball

I can tell you’re not fond of the ever-growing collection of succulents on the coffee table, or the jars in the bathroom that hold only seem to hold cotton balls that no one ever uses. Wouldn’t you just love it if you could crawl into bed at night without getting a splinter in your foot from that fucking reclaimed palette bed frame? Wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t get splinters from any of your reclaimed wood furniture?

Be real for a moment – have you ever just wanted to find a Playstation game under the Christmas tree, instead of another DIY leather man bracelet and hand knitted fucking snood? In most houses, it’s traditional for everyone to just unwrap their presents in a child-like frenzy, so I feel for you that you’re stuck taking photo after photo of your lifestyle blogger partner unwrapping hers. But you do it because you’re a good man. And it’s important for her stats.

Husbands and boyfriends of lifestyle bloggers, I have to commend your effort and dedication, because you guys are always there. How come you guys never break up? In the face of almost certain involvement in the next craft project, you guys just suck it up and embrace the glue gun and sequins. I’m going to crack open a cold beer tonight, and I will raise my bottle to you, husbands and boyfriends of lifestyle bloggers. You’re doing all the ambitious DIY projects, so I don’t have to.

I kid, don’t get all bent out of shape. I’m sure no husbands or boyfriends were harmed in the making of your lifestyle blog.

Don’t Drown, and other life lessons

Learning To Swim

I have never been a swimmer. I learned “don’t drown”, but beyond that, it was always one big mystery. In order to ‘not drown’ I stayed in the shallow end, never got my hair wet, and avoided all social activities taking place in, on or near water. Swimming was something confident girls could do, and since I was shy about how my ears would look when my hair was wet – seriously, these things kept we awake at night – I could never be a swimmer. I was jealous of girls who could swim under waves at the beach, or dive into pools. Looking back, I find it strange, but not really all that surprising, that I would deny myself the opportunity to even figure these things out.

Until this summer just gone, I didn’t even know it was possible to stop water from shooting up your nose when cannonballing into the deep end. I just assumed having water up your nose was something you had to learn to deal with. After misjudging the depth of a pool at the end of a waterslide during a family trip to France in the mid-90s, I swore I’d never swim again. I took a deep breath in when I should have been exhaling, and water flooded my nose and throat. I can still remember it with bright blue clarity, a streak of red and yellow marks the slide. Why would I put myself through that kind of discomfort? Water went up my nose!

I recently told my boyfriend that I didn’t want to learn how to swim any better than I already could because I hate having water up my nose; a legit concern. He kindly explained – after 10 minutes of uninterrupted laughter – that I am an insane person, and that he would teach me how to swim like a not-insane person.

It started with my face in the water, blowing bubbles out of my nose, the stuff they teach babies pretty much as soon as they pop out of the womb. I missed Face Bubbles 101, and so I took the refresher course in Summer 2015. We soon moved on to Getting Your Hair Wet, and then, Surfacing Without Screaming. By the end of the summer, I conquered my fears and jumped into a lake teeming with giant, sucking catfish and tiny sunnies. The only place I wanted to be was underwater.

Spurred on by the fact that I had conquered something – for once in my life, FINALLY – I decided this was something I should be good at, or at least not terrible at. I started taking lessons, and it’s going swimmingly. For one hour every week I shed all my insecurities about my body, my hair, my ears, and my ability, and I allow myself to be bad at something. It’s getting better.

Book Report: The Invisible Circus, Jennifer Egan

I first became aware of Jennifer Egan in 2012 when I tore through her Pulitzer prize-winning novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad in one afternoon. Her offbeat style and complex narrative were an immediate draw; it was just the kind of brain good I was looking for. It wasn’t until browsing the library shelves a few years later that I came across her debut novel, The Invisible Circus.

The Invisible Circus Jennifer Egan

The story follows, in a more or less linear manner, an eighteen-year-old San Franciscan struggling to make sense of her older sister’s death. After leaving for a whirlwind trip to Europe, periodically updating her family with hastily scribbled and cryptic postcards, older sister Faith commits suicide in Italy. In an attempt to make sense of Faith’s death, younger sister Phoebe follows in her footsteps and sets out to replicate the trip using the postcards as a reference point. Oh, and it’s set in the late 70s, as the hippie mentality is slowly fading and losing its grip.

For a debut novel, the writing is intimidatingly good. The pace never lags, and the writing never feels clunky. Egan doesn’t feel the need to over-explain anything and always allows a good amount of brain space to mull things over. She depicts an acid trip gone awry with such skill that will leave you wondering what the heck happened to Egan during her travels through Europe. Although the ending felt a little spacious, and perhaps too neatly tied up, it is without doubt an unmissable read, and the perfect companion for travelling.

Next up: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me.

Here’s What I Don’t Get About You, America

You know when life throws a curveball and you end up living in South Jersey for the summer? Well, that’s my life right now. For reasons I won’t go into right now, I’ve found myself living The American dream for the summer. And by ‘living The American Dream’ I mean ‘eating vast quantities of pork roll and hoagies’. I’m getting to grips with the local lingo and know my ‘down the shore’ from ‘up the wazzoo’; and although most things translate well, there are some things about this country that I just cannot wrap my head around…

For starters, how can you call that news coverage?

My new favourite game is to wait until BBC News is covering something MOMENTOUS, and then switch over to Fox News to see what nonsensical drivel they’re sprouting. In the 24-hour news spin-cycle, no one is too concerned with checking the validity of their statements, or the legitimacy of their words. And I mean, of course, sometimes they aren’t using REAL WORDS. How can anyone be expected to have level-headed opinions about the world when they have such easy access to goofy news coverage? Stop it, Fox. I mean it.

Trump means fart in England

Which is fitting, since listening to Donald Trump “do politics” is like listening to one long, drawn-out fart. Sure, it’s funny at first, but after a while you start to worry that it might go too far and someone is going to have to clean up the mess. Gross fart jokes aside, you can’t seriously be considering letting that goober run your country, right?

What’s up with your bathrooms?

A slight change of pace, but still just as important. What’s up with the giant gaping hole in bathroom doors? For my first two weeks in the US, I avoiding peeing in public bathrooms because I was convinced all the doors were broken. I figured no one in their right mind would sit down to pee when there’s even the smallest the possibility they might make eye-contact with a stranger, mid-wipe. I’ve now come up with a system for artfully draping my bag, coat or sweater over this gap, and then I just stare at my shoes until the ordeal is over.

What’s up with your doors?

While we’re on the topic, what’s up with your doors? Or more specifically, your locks. And even more specifically, the button lock. How am I supposed to test if my door is locked if the mechanism for testing the lock also unlocks it?! This is a particular source of anxiety when the door is more than an arms reach away, and would result in an Olympic-length lurch, should it transpire that the door lock fails, mid-pee.

Why do you put corn in everything?

I love corn, and I love cornbread – I’ll even tolerate cornflakes. But why does everything I eat have some form of processed, mashed up, dried or partially inverted corn in it? Is that what makes all your food so delicious. And is that why I’ve put on 2kg since arriving? It’s like you don’t care about me, America.

And why do you like fireball?

This one pains me. Because I have tasted fireball. But for some reason Fireball whiskey is popular round these parts. STOP IT, SOUTH JERSEY!

Fireball South Jersey

Ad Hoc Fiction

My blog is still giving me the stink eye. It’s my fault. I don’t blog for 2 years and then come back and expect everything to just be normal. Not cool, Howarth, not cool.

My blog’s hurt feelings aside, I discovered Ad Hoc Fiction the other week and would highly recommend it for anyone who is sort of thinking about writing, but is also petrified of sharing it with anyone. I submitted a piece last week (30A) and could sure use a vote or two if anyone still reads this…

Ad Hoc Fiction

And since it’s free, I would also recommend that everyone enter and feel good about themselves when their writing is displayed on a website, all professional like. You only need to string together 150 words. And the winning entry gets a free entry to the Bath Flash Fiction Award (normally £9 for non-members), and the winning entry from that wins £1000.

Don’t tell me you couldn’t use an extra £1000.