Sunday, 19 June 2011


Here, you’ll find a smashing little creative writing course at Warwick University. The podcasts, delivered by David Morley, focus on various aspects and elements of the writing process. One in particular has caught my attention. Entitled ‘A Mental Switch’, it begins with Morley stating very simply that, “...there is writing – and there is not writing. And ‘writing’ is a zone.”
I’ve been stuck far too regularly of late in ‘not writing.’ I’ve been thinking about writing; I’ve been sketching out plots and assembling post-it festooned wall charts; I’ve been tinkering with character traits and even – preposterously perhaps – drawing maps of imaginary prisons. But writing? Not much.
Morley’s use of the term ‘zone’ to describe the writing process is an interesting one. A place; an area. It brought to mind the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (more about him here). I know a fair bit about this guy but rarely mention him in public on account of not having the slightest clue how to pronounce his name. I once mis-pronounced ‘Goethe’ at university and got laughed out of a seminar; I make it a rule nowadays to avoid being laughed out of any enclosed space-of-learning. Thankfully I have found support in the confessions of a friend – for the purposes of this post we’ll call him Argyle – who thought ‘misled’ was pronounced ‘myzled’, and for many years pronounced ‘pseudo’ to rhyme with ‘play doh’.
Anyway, Mr Csíkszentmihályi is a psychologist, just in case you care, who developed flow theory after studying extensively the process of intense immersion achieved by sportsmen and women during competition. His studies took root, appropriately, when he witnessed artists capable of getting ‘lost’ in their work for hours at a time. He began by observing that athletes and artists, when interviewed, often compared these elevated states of concentration to being carried along by water – thus the ‘flow’ metaphor.
But there’s a temptation inherent in this turn of phrase; that creativity is somehow passive. That we’re ‘carried’ along, unable to create these states of concentration and restricted to simply waiting for them to happen.
That’s where the flow grid comes in. And it’s a cracker:
This is more like it, right? The implication here being that we can ‘measure’ our current state of mind, and adjust the challenge or skill required to push ourselves towards the top-right of the grid rather than waiting to be carried along.
And I suppose the lesson for me at the moment is simple – if you want any river to sweep you up, you’ve first got to get into it.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

'The Domino Machine', or 'Fletcher's Law'

There was this time I was half-running a creative writing group; that’s to say, we’d all turn up but the teacher wouldn’t. So we’d make things up together and hope he showed the next week. There were ten or so of us. A right old mixed bag it was – young guys with big, earnest fringes; ex-plumbers with the grime of the day job still under their nails, super-chirpy extroverts with glitter pens and brand new jotters, and me.
We invented the Domino Machine one night in Wigan of all places, in a badly insulated temporary classroom held together by chewing gum and graffiti.
It started when a bright young kid in a Verve t-shirt scribbled this on the top of his pad: God picks up the phone. It’s the devil making a prank call. We had a laugh at this, and he playfully suggested how difficult it would be to get that sentence into a story.
We made up some more silly sentences – goofing around, wasting time, thinking about maybe going to the pub. Then this idea emerged – I recall it being mine, but then I can’t be trusted, having one of those memories that’s convinced it’s the source of a constant stream of criminally overlooked successes.
“We generate a whole bunch of these lines” I said, my audience awed by my brilliance the way I remember it, “and we each choose three. One represents the problem; one the conflict; one the resolution. We stitch them together into a whole anthology of mad stories.”
I thought I was a real big shot, though I later learnt this is a pretty standard activity – the stuff of creative writing groups up and down the country; so often the way with my ideas. We generated 33 lines on the first go. Someone suggested we call it the Domino Machine, though I can’t remember why.
What I do recall, though, is unravelling those screwed up strips of paper to see what I’d got. Flattening them out against my notebook. The room was full of laughter. People grinned or groaned or spontaneously shrieked at the stupidity of it all. There was a real joy and pleasure to be had in the collisions that happened when your lines revealed themselves. There was a lot of jovial “Who the hell wrote this one?” and “What does this say?” or “What’s this word mean?” and so on.
I remember well some of the lines people had to work with that night; ‘There’s a bear in your garage’, ‘At the bottom of a well, an object glinting in the dark’; one woman in particular puzzled by ‘A fit lad gives you a wedgie’ (“commonly featured in popular works as a form of low comedy” says Wikipedia.) And I recall too that my story had to open with a preposterous scene in which ‘A block of frozen urine falls from the sky.’ The writer had helpfully added in brackets, ‘It’s from a passing airplane.’
That story wasn’t one of my better efforts. But I remember the Domino Machine with some fondness nevertheless. Media types often refer to Chandler’s Law, coined from Raymond Chandler’s oft-repeated advice; "When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand" – an idea very much in the spirit of the Domino Machine.
And for the record - I’d like us all to think of the frozen urine thing as Fletcher’s Law.