A Certain Confusion

Thoughts of a writer of sorts

Story-telling

Tuesday and roses and coffee and a chance encounter near a sewing machine where my moustaches drooped that time and you said I was weird and I decided you meant quirky and then I held that word – quirky – against you.

I work in a team of nine people – editors, copyeditors, writers, an art director – and we are currently trying to work out exactly what it is that we want to offer the business we work for. We all have our particular skills but when we all work together, it tends to be in the service of creating compelling narratives about or for our employer. Stories, in other words.

The key

What do you open? A door, of course; an ordinary door, an unimportant door that leads to a walled garden of roses, opened only on Wednesdays.

We had an away day recently to talk about what stories we want to tell and how we can best make use of our combined story-telling skills. Part of the day included a writing exercise in which we first wrote for a minute or so, I think – just writing, anything that came into our heads. My minute’s worth is at the top of this post.

Who owns you? A woman and a man and the door, I suppose.

Then we had to choose an object from a collection of things on the table. We had to come up with three or more questions to ask this object, and then we had to provide its answers. I chose a key.

What are you worth? I am not the only key – I have a number of twins or triplets or clones. If one of us is lost, nothing much changes. If all are lost, the garden is closed, the roses unsmelled, the thorns unblooded, the path untrod, the relationship neglected. The walls would eventually crumble and only the locked door would remain, keeping no gate, defining no boundary.

Revolutions, 1-7

[#2] Waves in the rattle like faces in clouds, or patterns in science, or attempts to communicate only through listening. Tuning in, tuning out. Time abandons us to the mechanical murmuration of an as yet unrevealed metallic larynx, a pea in a tin, a screw in a washing machine drum, the ticking over of some empty percussive space. Only the skips and disjunctures of the sound remain and I can’t remember how this one started or how long ago. Rhythm upon rhythms, a constructed mystery – but what am I listening for?

I am underneath the McDonalds at Guy’s Hospital in London for another Points of Listening. Dawn Scarfe is playing seven pieces that each use scientific instruments to produce noise, sound or just music. She conscientiously controls the revelation of information about the instrumentation involved, the artists and their motivation. It feels like a quiz – guess the source if you can. It turns out that at least a few of the audience are familiar with some of the pieces and are better placed to play the game than I am, unfamiliar in all respects. But that also seems to work against their enjoyment of the sounds as sounds and potential attempts to visualise the performances that could have generated them, to construct a material counterpoint to the audio, to reconstruct the artistic process that created them.

[#2, cont.] More spaces, something slowing, the rhythms disperse, sounds dissociate from the din, isolate, each one stopping and threatening at last to stop the entire piece. As stopping becomes a possibility again, time intervenes, holding out hope, reminding me that it will have to stop. Irregular regularity. Until just one sound is left, one hand clapping, and perhaps, I think, this was a machine of thousands of parts, wheels or switches, each one stopping in its own time, perhaps calculating, like Turing’s machine, and then coming to a stop.

[#4] A breath, a wind blowing, blowing what where? A shiver. Within the wind, other currents haling over glass bottles, evoking landscapes, vitreous humours of distant worlds. Deep-throated whale song and the tinkle of chimes, chimes with whatever it is you are trying to say.

[#5] Tones upon tones, trilling harmonics between the ears, between these apparently electronic tones. Synthesised banshee. What science is this?

In between the pieces, Scarfe shows us images of scientific instruments – most from a bygone era – or reads to us from the artists’ descriptions of their practice. How they relate to each piece is tacit but seems clear enough. Resonance with the environment; emotional distance of the scientific method. Fur trappers used to make a mental catalogue of the sounds around them before they went to sleep so that their subconscious would wake them in response to any new sound, such as a bear.

Instruments revealed so far and yet to come include: a radiometer, 100 metronomes, cloud chambers, sine wave generators, a Helmholtz resonator – musicalised instruments of science, apparatus of the imposter.

[#6] Deeper, throbbing, wavering, wobbling tones. Extraneous tones of people outside this room break the spell from time to time, reminding me that we are sitting in a rough semicircle of three or four rows of plastic chairs, directing our parabolic focus on two speakers in front of a white wall. This tone is too contrived, manipulated, orchestrated. No natural phenomenon would be this considered toeing the line between interest and boredom to make the boredom seem interesting. The voices outside the door vie for attention. They sound as though they are on the radio, a faint signal beaming through the noise of this piece. Have their voices been conjured out of the resonating tones? I doubt it, but it has become a possibility through the superposition of waving electrowaves.

[#7] A pin drop explodes and fades like an amplified tuning fork. Pebbles in an aural pool. Arbitrary decisions betray the composition at work here, perturbing the soundscape. Time accepts the composer’s challenge and dares them to go on. But what now am I listening for? What resonance emerges between these pieces? Between my ears? Is it alive…is it a live performance, with its tiny wet electrical kisses and the scuffing clicks and burrs of a microphone being moved? A choir of electronic tones interrupted by vitreous percussion and the scrape  of chairs in McDonald’s above.

The spatial nature of sound; a process of reduction; sculptured integrity. The Grand Tonometer has 692 tuning forks, ranging from 16 Hz to 4096 Hz. I wonder if the withholding of revelation turns the revelation inwards…

#1: Cassiere – Crooke’s radiometer
#2: Ligeti – poem for 100 metronomes
#3: Partch – cloud chamber music
#4, #5: Scarfe
#6: Lucier – sine generator and clarinet
#7: Chartier – the Grand Tonometer

 

Sharing is caring

As a writer who often finds that he has nothing in particular to say, it pains me to accept that content trumps style in this world. This is why the ability to get to the nub of a story, distill it into a one-line pitch and sell it in to either your editor or your reader is the most important skill for a journalist. But I am not a journalist, and I prefer to try writing where the story is important, yes, but the way the piece is written is also relevant and potentially informative. That’s what I’m trying to do with some of my pieces at Mosaic, anyway.

So when people share stories through social media, it’s interesting that many express opinions about the writing that seem to refer to style, yet perhaps relate more to the content and how it fits with their existing viewpoint – that’s my suspicion (or paranoia), so I’ve constructed a little guide to the words people use to describe articles that they share and what I think they might really mean. Feel free to add more definitions in the comments!

  • Good = I agree with this article.
  • Great = This article agrees with me.
  • Nice = There’s nothing I can disagree with in this article.
  • Interesting (1) = I haven’t read this article yet, but I suspect I’d agree with it.
  • Interesting (2) = I’m not sure what to say about this article: it’s the kind of thing I usually agree with but I can’t quite put my finger on why I’m reluctant to describe it as “good”.
  • Important = This article is on a topic in which I have an interest, probably a professional interest, but I wish the writer had done a better job of it.
  • Useful = I already knew what is in this article but if you read it, it might help you learn to agree with me.
  • Thoughtful = This article responds to something I wrote without calling me an idiot.
  • Excellent = This article quotes me.
  • Excellent (if the person sharing works in PR) = This article quotes my boss.
  • Must-read = Why does no one listen to me when I try to make this point?
  • Totally nails = This article is written by a friend of mine who clearly listened when I bored everyone else to death at that party, and has now published my stream of consciousness as a reasoned argument.

All kinds of dangerous things that give our life meaning

1. Your Aunt Jane has died. For 20 years before her death, she worked tirelessly on a book about the butterflies of East Sussex, but the manuscript is not quite finished. You were not close to your aunt, but you are her only living relative so it has fallen to you to decide whether to leave the book, or to work with the publisher to make it ready for publication. The book is not particularly innovative, it doesn’t add much to our knowledge of the butterflies of East Sussex, and no one would miss it if it were not to be published. The only issue at stake is whether Aunt Jane would be harmed if you decided to bin her manuscript. What will you do?

2. A woman in her 80s has been admitted to the hospital where you are a junior doctor. She has severe problems with her bowel and it is clear that she is dying. On rounds, you and your colleagues don’t bother going in to her room any more, instead just asking the nursing staff if there has been any change overnight, or if she is in any distress. The patient dies peacefully with her family around her. Did you do the right thing?

3. I am in a pub in Cambridge having just finished my finals. I meet a man who says he is ready to die. Not actively seeking death, but he is content with what he has achieved in his life and has no unfinished business. Twenty years later, I worry that the morning after our encounter he might have started work on a book about the butterflies of East Sussex. Would he still be ready?

4. A 33-year-old single mother has breast cancer, which was diagnosed while she was pregnant with her fifth child. She decided to wait until after the child was born to start chemotherapy. The cancer has now spread – she shows you a new lump on her abdomen and realises she is going to die. You ask what her priorities are. She says she doesn’t want to be in pain when she dies. You ask what her fears are. She says she is afraid of dying alone. You ask what her hopes are. She talks about her children. She declines treatment for the cancer, moves to a hospice and dies three weeks later. Did she do the right thing?

Note: These texts were inspired, spoken or unspoken during Death: clinical, historical and philosophical perspectives on dying, an event that formed part of King’s College London’s 2014 Festival of the Humanities.

Anonymous

In Cambridge, walking down lanes with memories. Piss Alley (Kings Lane), the way to my old college. Round the backs. Is that the house where…? I remember wandering about like this on the morning after the one May Ball I ever went to, and a picnic on the green patch of island across from the Mill pub; long-forgotten, I would never have remembered it without coming back here. I drank in the Anchor because I lacked imagination and friends, except for that time after Finals when I drank in the Eagle and met a man who was ready to die. I never cycled in Cambridge. I got a 2.2. I was never named in reviews of plays. Anonymous boy. Anonymous man. Nothing changes. The river still flows.

Despite the tone of this, which I wrote on Saturday night on my way to a drinks reception, I had a very pleasant weekend in Cambridge, staying in student accommodation at Christ’s College and attending a workshop on the Uses and Abuses of Biology.

I wasn’t entirely anonymous at the workshop – I introduced myself to a few people, had some enjoyable chats and learned a lot from the speakers. But there are always those moments at lunch, or having drinks, when I am on my own without a good idea for how to not be by myself in the crowd. Now, I don’t mind at all being by myself – until I think someone else thinks it is odd. And maybe it is odd. And that’s when I start to think of ways to mask my public isolation. Which only draws attention to it. Which is when I get most awkward. But people are often nice and sometimes come up and break me out of my exhibition of introversion. For which I am grateful.

A point of listening

If a tree doesn't fall and there's no one around...?

If a tree doesn’t fall and there’s no one around…?

When I was 15 or so, I had to do work experience. Clearly my only experience of work till then had been teachers, so I ended up helping in a class at my old primary school for two weeks. There I met William, a 5-or-6-year-old whom I was asked to read with because he was struggling a bit. Every time William encountered a word he didn’t know, he would say something instead. “The cat sat on the something.” “The ball something over the something bridge.”

That’s all I remember about William, if his name was even William, but I remember him every time I try to read a French book in French, which is something I do considerably often considering I am not very proficient in French.

I was reminded of all this today at an event called Points of Listening 6. I had not been to any of the previous five, so was not sure what to expect. What happened was really lovely. Daniela Cascella performed a reading of various texts – written, cinematic, acoustic. We were at the London College of Communication, and had been led through the building, around which students were strewn like fashionable throws or functional objets d’art, to a small, rather warm room with three arcs of seats and the curtains drawn.

Cascella began with film and sound of a gang of motorbikes being ridden round a (presumably Italian) city, their engines recapitulating the undulating monotony of televised Formula 1 races. Then we heard the sound from the opening credit sequence of Kiss Me Deadly. Then we saw the opening credit sequence of Kiss Me Deadly and understood more or less than we had understood from the sound alone.

The piece was called ‘Borders’, and from this opening position of credits marking a boundary of sorts between not understanding and understanding a situation, Cascella defined, developed, decayed, regained and recycled a sequence of cyclical themes to the end of the world and back.

In amongst it, she said she had read a 500-odd page book by a seminal French anthropologist; a self-anthropology, if such a thing is even possible. But to add to the monstrosity of the tome, she revealed that she does not read French very well and there is no English translation. So, she took it to the British Library and sat with it, reading, sometimes without understanding but still able to enjoy – perhaps more so – the objectiveness of this text. “Le chat s’assit sur le something.”

Talking to aliens

In the Q&A afterwards, Cascella mentioned that she had been discussing recently the topic of talking to aliens. Without going in to details, she told us the conclusion she and her interlocutor had reached was that we are always talking to aliens.

And then I put up my hand and spoke.

This never happens. It’s not that I don’t have interesting thoughts when listening to talks and performances, and it’s not that I am not grateful to the speaker or performers who inspire those thoughts. It’s just that I have this internal damping mechanism that suggests it is enough to have the thought or feeling: maybe jot it down in a notebook somewhere; expressing it would serve nobody well.

Alcohol has been known to override this mechanism but I had not been drinking today. Perhaps it was the opportunity afforded by being granted honorary alien status that enabled me to speak.

I was at another conference on silence last week, since which it has occurred to me that you have to listen in order for there to be a silence. An unheard silence is just another tree not falling in a philosophical wood. Perhaps, then, you also have to speak in order to listen.

So I spoke and made a point or two.

Points of listening, I hope.

The case of the demented Labyrinth

Having succumbed to self-pity last time, here’s a more constructive response to my Alzheimer’s feature: the short story version!

Image: Hephaestian Studios

Image: Hephaestian Studios

I don’t know if I was born in it or brought some time later, but my first memories – all my memories – were in the Labyrinth. Alone, but not lonely, and there were myriad opportunities to step outside or look out of the windows and interact, talk to others, fall in love, create, have effects on the rest of the world. Equally, as I grew older, I liked to retreat into the cool depths of the maze, clear away the cobwebs and do a cryptic crossword or read a detective story. Poe, Dickson Carr, Takagi – classic locked room mysteries were my particular delight.

But at some point, daylight withdrew and my comfortable corners became too dim to see. It became harder to navigate the Labyrinth and I reached doors and windows less often. The paths had become overgrown with fibrous masses. I tried burning them away but nothing worked. They constricted my way, eventually blocking off whole sectors of my inner life. Glimpses of the outer world made little sense now, though I strove to make connections, even if they were absurd. A kind of nausea gripped my head, not my stomach. I stumbled around, often with my hands over my eyes, forced to take torturous routes around the obstructions, missing the comforting familiarity of my old ways, until I would curl up in a ball with my head in my hands despairing of it all.

I saw faces I recognised – my parents, or my children, perhaps – and wanted to speak to, but the only way to reach them would be to turn away and search down some forgotten pathway for a secret passage and when I turned my head I began to doubt I had even seen them at all and would be taken along another path to a distant memory or a fragment of degenerate fantasy. There were paranoid flickers of others, too, unrecognised; ghosts in my Labyrinth trying to find me, perhaps. I would find scraps of thread crudely woven from the overgrowing fibres and discarded as useless, not mapping the way out but compelling all the same. I would follow some of the longer ones for a while, hoping, while traces of music led me on, but whether to the outside or deeper towards the centre I wasn’t to know.

At last, I stopped trying to find an exit. It brought me only grief.

When I came to the centre, there was the Minotaur, its breathing ragged, an upside-down A on its forehead, a double-headed axe in its hand. The brute looked like death. We raised our axes, each intent on destroying the other, but when my axe fell, it struck only glass. My reflection shattered the mirror and sealed my fate.

Pimping the Minotaur

mosaic-alzIt was Dementia Awareness Week last week, which would have been a good time to promote my Mosaic feature on Alzheimer’s disease, except that I failed to spot the opportunity. A shame, as my piece is languishing as the least-read piece on the site when I had hoped it would by now be giving people a genuinely useful new way to think about what dementia really is.

I’ve probably said it before, but I struggle rather with the need for self-promotion. I recognise that the quality of writing doesn’t matter one jot if no one starts to read it, and so marketing is as important to a piece’s success as the writing of it; I just don’t like that that’s the way of the world. It leads to vicious/virtuous circles, whereby a piece that is marketed well gets more readers, increasing the chances – if it is decently written – of people recommending it through the various channels we have to do that nowadays, bringing more readers and so on. Whereas a less overtly marketable piece gets fewer readers and fewer opportunities for word-of-mouth promotion, even though it may be very good despite (or even because of) its lack of marketability. So the judgement of what is marketable becomes key and I don’t seem to fulfill the criteria.

It’s difficult even to broach the subject, because I don’t dare to assume that my writing is good enough to warrant marketing, even if it were considered marketable. There have been nice comments about my Alzheimer’s piece, and it was the first Mosaic article to be republished by Pacific Standard, but reader numbers are the yardstick we use to assess success and I am bottom of the pile – for whatever reasons. Maybe it just wasn’t good enough.

Understanding through stories

It’s a shame, because I was trying to do something useful with my article. I found out it was Dementia Awareness Week last week when John Humphreys mentioned it on the radio this morning. In his introduction to the segment, he repeated what is in danger of becoming a cliche: that dementia is frightening because we understand it so poorly (‘we’ being the general public, patients and their families, as opposed to the scientific ‘we’ of the doctors and researchers, who also understand it pretty poorly but more than ‘we’ ever did before). Well, my piece was an attempt to address this and give people a handle with which to comprehend what dementia means beyond a diagnosis, beyond practical, clinical descriptions of mental decline.

An ambitious goal, perhaps, but I felt I had found a suitable metaphor, one that resonated with early 20th century attempts by Freud and his ilk to comprehend psychological conditions through mythological narratives. Joining the Oedipus Complex and so on in the popular conception of psychological disorders, I saw (in my hubris, perhaps) the ‘Minotaur Complex’ as a metaphor for dementia. Read my piece to see why I thought it could – assuming I communicated the thought successfully, that is.

The only trouble with my description of my aims here is that they applied retrospectively, after writing the damned thing, which languished drafted and edited and fact-checked and sub-edited for months prior to publication. So what I have here declared to be my motivation for writing the piece did not motivate the writing of it. Which may explain why I (and the rest of the team) find it hard to promote – there is a germ of a potentially useful idea in it but maybe it leaves too much to interpretation, and the interpretation of a very particular reader (ie the writer, ie me), to become readable in the published text.

Well so be it; I have to move on. It was a first attempt in many ways, and I hope with future pieces I can realise (in both senses) my aims during the writing rather than after it. And hopefully that will make them more marketable, and more read. But while “The Alzheimer’s Enigma” remains my only published Mosaic feature, I can’t seem to leave it alone; I keep worrying away at it ineffectually and wishing it would, somehow, find its market share of readers and switch the circle from a vicious one to a virtuous one, giving more people the chance to understand the spectre of dementia through the familiar story of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth.

Milwaukee April 2014

Milwaukee, April 2014

Milwaukee, April 2014

As well as India, I’ve had the pleasure of a trip to the States this year: I flew from London to Chicago, then drove to Milwaukee, then flew to Boston and from Boston to London – all in the space of three days! By Boston, I was feeling pretty ragged, so only pictures (6) of Milwaukee here….

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India, Feb/Mar 2014

Looking over the rooftops of Bhumihin camp, Delhi

Looking over the rooftops of Bhumihin camp, Delhi

I’ve been travelling a bit for work so far this year: India and the US were the big trips researching stories for Mosaic. While I work on the draft of my India piece (about migration and health), I thought I could at least post some (8) of the photos I took. I am no photographer* but they give you a sense of what I went to see.

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* I was accompanied to India by Ben, our fantastic in-house photographer, so the pictures to accompany the feature will be so much better than this!

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