Tuesday, 24 April 2007


In Boot Camp someone posts a set of 10-30 prompts every day, their purpose to spark a story where otherwise there might be no story. Sometimes, after doing so I write a story that uses one prompt word-for-word, or a few prompts, or I write a story which has been triggered by one or more prompts but merely by the idea, not the words themselves.

In late 2005, at least three times, "for fun" or as a challenge, I tried to use ALL the prompts, forcing my writer psyche into some dark alleyway where my conscious and unconscious would do battle. Surely, though, this could not possibly produce art? Surely I could not write a coherent story that was publishable?

I know I did this three times, because three of those stories won first prizes in short-story competitions. How can it be that such an unpromising set of conditions, such "ridiculous" constraints, can produce worthwhile writing?

The stories were: The Point-Two; An Old Man Watching Football After Sunday Lunch;A for Orses. They could hardly have been more different. The first was about four war-disabled men running in the London Marathon (and flash-backs about a dirty African war), the second was about a grandfather watching his grandson play football for a useless coach, running on, stealing the ball, and scoring. The third was about a man, a serial cuckold who thinks this time maybe he has found Mrs Right.

I can't find those old prompt-lists but this week, again I had a long, lost list of prompts…

In this case, I didn't set out to deliberately use the lot (and in fact I missed one by accident) but the story has received the best set of marks I've had in BC in the last twelve months. The question is WHY?

These were the prompts. Read them, read them again, savour them, play around with them. Now, before continuing, ask which prompt or prompts "tweaked" you. Why do you think that might be?

Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows
Cat, Microwave...
For I have known them already, known them all
This was Mr Bleaney's room
He was a pederast, but discreet
After the novels, after the tea-cups, after the skirts that trail along the floor
Fond of bananas
She kept her songs, they took so little space
These with a thousand small deliberations
The acidity of milk
Slowly the women file to where he stands
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn
The note you hold, narrowing and rising
My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad! Stay with me.
Home is so sad, it stays as it was left
And the night fires going out, the lack of shelters
All afternoon, through the tall heat
And I was traveling lightly, barefoot
And the money he gets from wasting his life on work
Hard to believe him when he trundles in, scrubbed up and squeaky-clean
The large cool store selling cheap clothes
They set about him with a knife and fork
Strange to know nothing, never to be sure
Anyone here had a go at themselves, for a laugh? Anyone opened their wrists with a blade in the bath?
The leaves fall in ones and twos
Blessed are dogs, for they shall run over buses
On the third night, footsteps in the attic-space
When it comes to nailing down the lid
I rate myself as a happy, contented person
The minute in the phone box with the coin
Prompts come from a wide variety of places. I use titles, news items, I even used an electricity bill one time. Here most of the prompts are from famous poems, (Larkin, Armitage with inserted "break-up" words to change the response.

So from where came my inspiration? WHY did it come? What touched me? WHY was I touched?


I liked the prompts (after all I'd culled them from poetry books so maybe I had somehow pre-selected them, choosing me-tweakers)

Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows
Cat, Microwave...
For I have known them already, known them all
This was Mr Bleaney's room
He was a pederast, but discreet

Cat Microwave had arisen recently in some forum, or over a glass of wine. Scrawl is a very sick on-line group. Lines 1-3-5 are from poems. Line six just popped up.

I know I was "tempted" by line 1 ("swerving") but almost instantly I was drawn to Mr Bleaney. (I had not read the Philip Larkin poem, then, just the opening line. It "felt right" and had an ache. It reminded me slightly of an old story of mine that appeared in The New Welsh Review: Blood Red Walls, Gleaming White Dado.

This was once Miss Honeybone's bedroom, a cheap fawn carpet, walls cream but dirty, smeared with age.

Without any conscious thought I wrote:

Mrs Thomas tells me, "This was Mr Bleaney's room. He was a pederast, but discreet. Never one of those, here, excepting Mr Bleaney, himself."
I tell her I'll take it.

I simply KNEW that the next line was going to be the swerving east quote, but why had I put 'Mrs Thomas' there and combined with pederast but discreet? How did I know it was Wales, and, for that matter "up the valleys?" I just did. Something in the voices of the various parts, the sensibilities of those authors, something there "sang" to me, connected to me, a part of me that could easily go and hide in some small terrace in AberNoTuesday.

And "pederast" a near-archaic word? I'm not sure, but I remember, ever so vaguely, the word coming from an official when I was 12 or so. The idea of homosexuality was very "distant" then (in my childhood a gay male was called a "Benson", I presume after a locally-notorious man?) Note how my childhood (hidden) memories are suddenly spiked, hooked and brought to the surface.

Mrs Thomas, in an instant gave me a place, a voice, a situation, a back-story, an attitude, (semi-posh, bigoted, "chapel" and she absolutely must have permed hair, a piano in the parlour…)

Frankly, the story will be easy now. I don't know it, I don't know where it will go, but I know its sense its music, its ache, and, because I've started:

Mrs Thomas tells me, "This was Mr Bleaney's room. He was a pederast, but discreet. Never one of those, here, excepting Mr Bleaney, himself."
I tell her I'll take it.

I know that the main is running away and that the whole will relate to memories, maybe death, the slightly seedier side of things. I simply KNOW this.

That nearly-opening part now slots straight in:

I have arrived, swerving east, from rich industrial shadows, traveling lightly, as if barefoot, the faceless Booker man, lost like Christie, hiding, after the novels, after the tea-cups, after the skirts that trailed along the floor, after the wrong woman died.

Without effort or thinking, without planning or control other prompts just gravitate. I just instinctively make the main a faceless writer of a Booker prize-winner (there are many) and by spontaneously 'remembering" when Agatha Christie disappeared I open up other connections. At the same time yet another poetry prompt gives me his womanising nature, but one which is clearly slightly sad.

And so it goes.

I am still feeling my way into the story but look how much I know. A man, a writer, a womaniser, messed up, has run away to South Wales. There will be women there of course.

The women in the valley, I won't mind, won't bother, for I have known them already, I have known them all. These pale women, each with their thousand small deliberations, living in the shadows of Druids and the echo of the thundering deacon. They'll be no trouble to Evan, back, down from London, isn't it, had a breakdown they say.

Here I was just "following the voice" with the proviso that I was going to use some of the prompt-lines (there are two in this paragraph). The paragraph "writes itself". I take a breath, so where "am I" exactly?

Not exactly "home" so where?

I am a valley away from my home, an awkward drive, down and across, or a wet-boot walk over the top, but it's not for going there, home, so sad it stays where it was, left, abandoned for fame and glory (let them think I don't care, it's easier.)

The paragraph placed "me" close to home but avoiding it (and gives "me" another dimension. The story feels so obvious now, just sitting there waiting to be mined.

And there are prompts about not finding the safe haven you hoped for… So I write a paragraph about the false or romantic images of Wales:

I thought this country was something once, but what was it after all? Bright red at the Arms Park, Eisteddfodai, Male Voices? Was there ever anything else or was it all made up, by the half-English and Americans?

That's just instinct, but maybe a current writing competition about how Wales has changed has made me think like this.

and then:

This is where I thought I would find succour. Instead I find the night fires gone out, the shelters empty and stinking of teenagers piss. But it doesn't matter. I have a case full of books, pen, paper, half-bottles, and there is a pub two doors up, an off-license two doors down. Full breakfasts thank-you, I have told Mrs Thomas, then I will be out from under her feet all day (and in The White Hart until closing.)

Now, if you recall earlier, the "I" character is here because a woman died. What's more natural now than to think of her? And there was that prompt about she kept her songs inside…

She was a singer if only she would sing, a poet if only she would write. But she kept her songs inside, they took so little space, and her poems were written in invisible ink. For she had me, she said, and she doted, suffocated, until I was no longer a writer. Me.

And I've talked about a doomed relationship, and already indicated "womanizer" so why wouldn't the main reflect on himself ironically?

Oh, it is so unfair! To give him the looks and the voice of Burton, dark and brooding, a Thomas turn of phrase (but not a drunk) and slowly the women file to where he stands. The more he shrugs his shoulders, the more they throw themselves before him. They set about him with a knife and fork, gobble him up, which is fine so long as it is transient, fine as long as it's celebrity sex, a fair exchange – dunnit with him, I did, and for him the sad sinking, the heat, the quietly closing hotel door.

Two more prompts just ease themselves in, but note that the story has used the reader's memories/emotions of Agatha Christie, the actor Richard Burton (and by association, Elizabeth Taylor, Shakespeare and maybe Tennessee Williams), and Dylan Thomas, alcoholism and death, the sounds of Wales, Male Voice Choirs and Eistedfoddai, and there's a sly reference to two of the most famous "advertisers" for Wales, Cordell & Llewellyn, neither of whom were Welsh!

Of course, artificiality, loss, the darker side, all come from the opening feel.

But we are here now, so why not talk about here, the time, the weather, what the main character is doing?

It's summer now, valleys apologetic, where the sun seems only to show up the seediness and make everyone want to leave for the Gower. He (me) goes out into the dust, all afternoon through the tall heat. He drinks too much at lunchtime then walks it off, scrambling over the top to where he can look down at the house. Up top he scribbles in his notebook, scrawls his rubbish (he never was a poet), sketches (he never was an artist) then creaks upright and takes the long walk back down. His pint of dark is pulled as he walks into The White Hart.

As well as using two more prompts and pegged the season I've set up a daily pattern for the main, slowed time, put him back in that pub…

After Summer?

In Cardiff parks, the leaves fall in ones and twos, then the trees are bare and the top way is too exposed, too cold, too changeable-wet. He (me) goes up even earlier, gets muddy, cold, comes back to Mrs Thomas's, takes off his boots and raincoat then has a hot bath.

I can sense now, a year will pass on the pages.

He tells them, yes, up top, four-five hours, but they say it's hard to believe when he trundles in to The White Hart scrubbed up and squeaky-clean every late afternoon so smart he might be English. When December whips in and he has to leave the B&B under the brown fog of a winter dawn, be up there when the other valley is blind-hid under weather, he wonders if he is finally mad, not merely grief-struck and ashamed.

Two more prompts, another season passes!

When the women start to seek him out – the teacher, the woman who ran a large store selling cheap clothes, the solicitor, the mature English student who knows his work but not his face – he would always tell them the same story: I rate myself as a happy, contented person. When it comes to nailing down the lid they'll say, "Not a trouble in the world, lucky sod!"
And two more… It all just flows off the pen now…

And he tells them, I tell them, as far as love goes, he's completely bad news, he loves, leaves and will be cold, he simply doesn't want…
And they hear him but don't believe him. He is sexier for it. One by one they try him on for size and he uses them like a medicine which alleviates but does not cure, always their place of course (one night in a Swansea hotel) as Mrs Thomas has a thing about sheets.

I mentioned the seasons, time passing… (and two more prompts)
The time passes, grey and wet and dull until we begin to forget. Strange to know nothing, never to be sure, and as it fades, the guilt, we begin to need the women more than they need us. We resort to his stories: My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad! Stay with me. I need body-unto-body. It's not the sex. I just need the warmth.
I've arrived, had summer, autumn, winter, so…

It has been a year, though he knows it not, or we pretend it's not. The women have run out long since and now the dreams. He cooks a cat in a microwave, records its last scream, narrow, rising, and the cat's milk, unlapped, turns to acid, then some kind of cheese. The tin-scraped liver is eaten by rats who turn and stare. Footsteps creak in the attic, huge dogs run buses down in the High Street. He is in a phone-box, and she is on the other end of the line: Hello? Hello? But he has forgotten to press Button A and it all fades to black.

For me this is interesting. This paragraph could be called "a cheat" because I've written the equivalent of a dream sequence and squeezed in seven prompts. (Incidentally, in the process of thinking I remembered a drama from at least forty years ago where the foreign person is in a British telephone box, hears the people at the other end but doesn't know he has to press button A…
But I'd argue that the paragraph comes at the right time and place, follows the emotional unfolding and "fits".

My story feels like it's coming to an end. I see it now. He has escaped, been away the best part of a year, slept in Bleaney's bed for a year, been with various valleys women, but without love or hope. And of course he's been living cheaply, so when he checks to see what state his bank account is in, he's better off than he was a year ago, the crap is calling him back:

He makes a telephone call. He is richer than he was when he came here. The money he has made, wasting his life writing faux journeys of the soul is swelling up faster than he can drink it down. He needs to make it all go away but can't without blowing his cover.

I just know that "something has to give" and I have enough characters:

The Friday night he gets legless. He wants the literature student, but she cries when they do it to each other, so she doesn't do it for a few months each time. Now he's desperate but she goes home without him. He's badly pissed, and stands up in The White Hart, slurring:

And so I finish, with a moment that threatens violence, a moment that shows "his time is up" and an utterance which reveals the past, exposes his soul, and really does 'finish him off'

"Anyone here had a go at themselves, for a laugh? Anyone opened their wrists with a blade in the bath?"
They look away.
"Well?" he says, "Ave yer? Ave yer fucking ad a go?"

This is what she did, she who kept it all inside.

I would argue that the feeling in those poems gave me a lot of the voice, a lot of the musicality and tone. My choices were Brits, and the poems sad and between us we found this man, the guilty widow.

I keep thinking now of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Though there was no intent in the writing of this to "illustrate" their lives and Sylvia's death it is interesting that I feel this is one understanding. If another reader senses various resonances, thinks of those other people alluded to semi-obliquely, grand, that's how life is, how thought is. It doesn't have to be absolute.

But in the writing I can sense my love of my country (but it's very mixed feelings) my admiration for some of its artists, my love of the world of words (and of women) and my possibly slightly unhealthy predisposition to write around death sex and dying.

In other words, my soul is all over this. I connected to it by choosing to look at accidents, the scatterings from the souls of others.

3,090 words

1 comment:

Lexie said...

Fascinating. Thanks.

I'd read this prompt list up, down and sideways, but I didn't see them at all when I read the story. Seamless.