A Little Drop of Blood

I’m not a great one for dishing out writing advice.

There’s no real reason why I should be anyway.  It’s not as if I’ve scaled the dizzying heights of Broadway or Hollywood or been buried in Poet’s Corner or anything.

Still, I’ve been writing and thinking about writing for most of my life so you could be forgiven for thinking I might have something to offer.

Some little thing…

But I don’t, not really.

As far as I’m concerned, this is no bad thing.  I sometimes feel there is quite a bit too much writing advice abroad in the world as it is.  Everybody-and-his-Cousin-who-Once-Wrote-a-Birthday-Card seems happy to dispense their version of the ‘Writing-Meaning-of-Life’ with enough earnestness to fill a small bath.

I treat writing advice in much the same way as I see if pasta is cooked.  I tend to throw writing advice at myself and see if it sticks. If it does, it’s good.  I will pretty-much listen to anyone who has anything to say about writing but, if I find I can’t use what they’re telling me, it will just slide off me and onto the floor.  The few bits of advice that actually stick will be left in place until they are crusty on my T-shirt and utterly irremovable.

But back to little old me, writing and writing.  Surely I must have something to offer, something of my own.

Okay then, I do.

In order to extract this piece of writing advice from my reluctant self, I have had to invent a scenario:

I’m eighty-five years old and I’m dying. Not next week or tomorrow, I’m dying right now.  There I am, fastened into my deathbed by my far-too-tight sheets, which I am too weak to put even a ripple in.  I have just finished doing my own rather croaky version of ‘My Way’ (complete with extra verse about being allergic to cats) and now I am at peace with the world and ready to shuffle off my mortal um_ thingie.  (I’m dying, what do you expect, accurate quotes?)

There is a tiny tap on the door and a girl peers in.  She might be twenty or twenty two.  I’ve never seen her before in my life.  She approaches my death bed quite tentatively.  I might, after all, be contagious.

“Mr Armstrong?”
“I’m sorry to bother you, on your death-bed and all…”
“S’all right.  ‘Judge Judy’ is finished.”
“I just wondered if I could_”
“Speeeeeak, my time is short!”
“Jesus, you scared me.”
“Sorry. What is it that you want?”
“I’ve admired your writing,”
“Have you?”
“Gosh, where have you been all my life?”
“Oh yes, ‘The J-Seat’ was a fine radio play and ‘The Moon Cut Like a Sickle’ was instrumental in stopping me from my street-racing ways.”
“Nice to hear, ta very much.”
“I just wondered…”
“Anything.  (coughs)  Anything.”
“I wondered if you had just one piece of writing advice to offer an up-and-coming nubile young writer, what would it be?”
“Nah, I got nothing.  Writing advice is like pasta_”
“I know that one, I’ve read your ‘Collected Blog Posts’.
“Have you?”
“Yes.  There must be something else.”
“There isn’t.”
“There must be.”
“Leave me alone, I’m dying here.”
“Please… (please).”
“All right then.  Give me a sip of that Lucozade.  Thanks.  Listen, if there was one piece of advice I feel I could add to the lexicon of writing advice… it would be this;”

The Little Drop of Blood
Everything you write.  No matter how big or small.  Prick your finger and squeeze a little drop of your own blood into it.

“That’s it?”
“That is, indeed, it.”
“It’s a Metaphor, right?”
“Do with it what you will.”
“…I like how you underlined the title and all.”
“Could you, you know, expand on it a little, perhaps?”
“I’m dying here.”
“So, what, there’s someplace else you need to be?”
“… point taken.”

To Expand a Little
For years I wrote like it was a technical exercise.  I plotted stories and created characters and chucked a bit of fancy-pants dialogue in and thought it was fine.  But there was nothing of myself in there and this showed in the hollowness of the end-product.  Somewhere along the line, I seem to have learned that a piece of writing will struggle to be any good unless you insert at least the tiniest piece of your very ‘being’ inside it.  The great trick with doing this is that this ‘drop of blood’ is at its most potent when it can’t be seen by the reader.  It needs to be like some herb or spice going into a stew, totally assimilated, never to be seen again, but still flavouring everything.

“Wow, long speech.”
“Could you possibly repeat it one more time so that I can scribble it down for posterity?”
“Mr Armstrong? Mr Armstrong?

Pedestrian (Not) Crossing

Two minutes is a long time.  Well, in certain situations it is anyway.  Like standing at my local pedestrian crossing light.  Two minutes there is a very long time indeed.

Our main road is a very busy road.  Cars whiz by in either direction in great quantities for eighteen hours of every day such that, if the lights weren’t there, you’d be hard-pressed to ever get across the bloody road at all.

And this light used to be fast.  Okay, I’ll admit it, it used to be  too fast.  The instant you pushed the little stainless steel button, the light would change.  Not a second’s warning.  Cars would grind to a shuddering halt or, as often as not, whiz through helplessly unable to react in time.  It was actually quite satisfying.

But somebody must have complained.

They came and adjusted the timing on the light.  I saw them do it one morning as I nipped briskly across the road.  They bumped it up from zero seconds to 120 seconds…

…and, boy, do I feel the difference.

Two minutes is a long time.  You probably don’t think so, I wouldn’t blame you either.  But try standing and doing absolutely nothing at all for two minutes.  Try it in a cold place - no, try it in the rain.

I try to walk whenever I can.  Walking suits me and I like it a lot.  This does mean, however, that I can be faced with this pedestrian crossing for, on average, eight minutes every day.  I stand there and I watch all the cars sailing past and I stand and I stand and I stand…

And, well, you know me.  It is inevitable that I would think a bit while I am standing there.  I tend to think about what all this means.

As I often do, when I have too much time on my hands, I have started to compare my experiences at the newly-reset-pedestrian light with my overall life experiences and, valid or not, I have concluded that the pedestrian light is a microcosm of my current life.

So, you know… brace yourself.

The pedestrian light has effectively hobbled me.  I can no longer move as fast or as freely as I want to.  I am held-up and at the mercy of elements outside of my control.  Meanwhile, I have to stand and watch others shooting past, fast, totally on-track, heading straight and unerringly for their destination.

Sometimes the people look out at me as they rush along their way.  I can see in their eyes that they would quite like to stop and let me across, to get me out of all this ‘standing in the rain’.  But they can’t.  If they even slow for me, the cars behind will simply careen into the back of them.  They mustn’t stop, ‘cos, if they do, they might end up like me.

Some don’t even stop when the light finally turns in my favour.  That’s when anger falls on me and I shout my frustration at the injustice and inequality of it all.  The people in the cars don’t understand my passion.  All they did was nip through a red pedestrian light.  Who are they hurting?  Who, of any importance at all, would ever care?

Yes, the light is showing me my life, how it has changed over the past three years, since the recession hit and the banks failed and we gave up our economic sovereignty to Europe.  I won’t colour-in the comparisons, you’re not fools.  I know you’ll get it.

It's just here I stand, waiting for my light to turn green again, hoping it will someday.  Watching the world careening by, from my vantage point in the cold and the rain…

(All right, so I coloured it in a little bit after all.)

…and, as I stand, my only wish is that they’d speed my pedestrian light back up.  Not back to being as fast as it was before.  I don’t need that, just a tad quicker than it is now.

I wish it would happen soon.

Because I need to find myself a more up-beat analogy.

The Moon Cut Like a Sickle

Given that this is the week when my little play 'The Moon Cut Like a Sickle' gets its third production, I thought I might just write down a little bit about it.

The full dress rehearsal is today.  It’s being filmed by Dermot Tynan of Claddagh Films, which makes me very happy then, tomorrow, we embark on a fast run of six shows at the Linenhall Arts Centre in Castlebar, all of which are now practically sold-out.

My gratitude to Do You Playhouse for reviving the play, well, it knows no bounds.  I wrote the play with them specifically in mind (more on that later) and they have delivered a remarkable new production which I really have the highest expectations for.  

Donna Ruane and Oisin Herraghty are the team behind Do You Playhouse.  They are both theatre professionals who deal expertly with teen casts.  I have seen theatre everywhere and I firmly believe the work they do with teens is of the very highest standard.  Try and see them sometime.

The production also owes a huge debt of gratitude to the Road Safety Authority of Ireland who have got behind this new production of the plays with amazing enthusiasm and encouragement. 

A lot of stuff fell into the writing of this play.  I wanted to write about young men and cars and driving (and girls) because I slowly moved from one side of the fence on this subject to the other as I got older and I think I can see the landscape clearly, still, from both sides.  

When we were teens, we borrowed our parents cars and we finally got to understand the thrill of being able to move quickly.  Up until then we had been effectively grounded, relying on buses, bicycles or plain old walking to get us around.  The sheer novelty of propelling oneself at speed was heady and addictive.  There was also a less-tangible but possibly even-more potent aspect to finally having a car.  There was a huge amount of romance in having the ability to get away from a place whenever you wanted to.  It sounds odd, I know, but it’s true.  Being able to ‘quit this scene’ with the turn of a key brought freedom and weaved mystique around those who could do it.  Like I said, ‘less-tangible’.

Now, as an adult, I watch young guys drive cars with reckless abandon and I despair of the likelihood that they will come to harm or (much more likely) cause harm to some innocent third party.  I have seen, at close range, great damage enacted out on the road.  More than I can ever coherently speak about.  So, instead, I chose to put it into a drama.  Maybe that’s why I’m so proud of this little play, because it hurt so much. 

Knowing I wanted to write about all this stuff – and do it in fairly simple terms (as I generally do), some other elements quickly fell into place.  I knew I wanted the cars to be ‘Real’ rather than mere props or imaginary references.  I have always been greatly taken with the play ‘Equus’ by Peter Shaffer and particularly the staging wherein the horses were played by actors.  So, the three cars in my play ‘Soup’ ‘Bess’ and ‘Dark Car’ are all played by girls.  This works well visually, I think, and it also plays up on the conflict and, perhaps, jealousy of the real girls regarding the boy’s infatuation with their motors.  The cars are almost like the ‘dæmons’ in the Northern Lights trilogy by Philip Pullman – moving in co-operation with their owners, inextricably joined to them.

The centre of the play is provided by lovely ‘Lysistrata’ by Aristophanes.  In that Ancient Greek play, which I saw in London back in the Eighties, the women vow to withdraw their sexual favours until their men stop going to war.  In my play, the girl's ‘kissing, hugging and general ego-boosting’ is withdrawn until the guys agree to slow down.

These things were quite deliberately added into the mix as the play was being written.  Other things seemed to appear quietly and almost without my knowing.  There are quite a number of references to ‘Grease’ in the play and the teen-testosterone and car racing elements now seem to clearly evoke ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ but this was really not deliberate.  I find that some of the many films I have watched in my life seem to poke their heads into my plays here-and-there all of their own accord.  I kind of like that.

 I mentioned earlier how I wrote the play specifically for Do You Playhouse.  I had seen a number of their productions before I wrote for them, or knew them, and, in a very real sense, they lit the way for me.  I had written for teens before but I was convinced that my writing, which I always now try to make honest, was simply too adult for a teen cast to actually perform.  I couldn't, in all honestly, shy away from the bad language and sexual innuendo which were a part of my teen years (and in which I believe I was not alone).  I had a play called 'Paul's Talent' which had won an award but which had never been produced.  I was sure I needed adults pretending to be kids to be allowed to do it.  Then I saw Do You Playhouse doing 'Doghouse' by Gina Moxley and they didn't pull any punches.  It was a revelation for me.  I could write for teens as I needed to and the teens could do it.  I am grateful for this epiphany, it has coloured my writing from that day to this.

So, here we go again, into the darkened theatre.  I get nervous and I reckon I know pretty clearly when it’s 'breaking a leg' and when it’s not.  God knows, I’ve seen enough theatre both ways.  I’ve seen this play quite a few times too and, thanks to everyone involved, it has broken a leg.

My fervent wish is that we break a leg this time too. 

 Having seen the months of preparation gone into it, I do believe we will.

But Trust Me on the Twitter

Hello there.

I’ve been using Twitter for so damn long now that I’ve started to feel a bit like ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’

I started to wonder if all my time spent tweeting has resulted in me having any useful insights which I could share with you.  Have I got any titbits of advice which I could offer?  Not the basic stuff, (“try to keep your tweets below 140 characters or they will not work”) more the subtle guidance that the Old Man would have after years bobbing about on The Sea, piddling over the side of his boat when necessary.

In case you’re wondering, I’ve already written my obligatory little love-letter to Twitter.  You can peruse that by clicking here if you wish.

My twitter avatar was created by @twistedlilkitty, who knows I don't look as good as this, bless her.

So, do I?  Do I have some brilliant thoughts and insights into the Beast that is Twitter?

Do I?

It turns out that I don’t.  Not really.

This is really all I have:

1) Treat Your Twitter Timeline like a Hedge:  You have a hedge in your garden called Twitter.  It’s nice and pretty and it provides shade and nurture for all the creatures of the… (relax, Ken) … sorry.  Hedges are great but they grow up to be shaggy and unruly and obtrusive if you don’t attend to them from time to time.  You have to trim them back.  Need I say more?  You’re smart people, you know where I’m coming from.

2) Please Don’t Follow Everyone Back:  This is a bit divisive, I know.  Many people see following as a reciprocal thing, an “if you’re kind enough to follow me, then the least I can do is follow you back” type-of-thing.  I did it myself at first.  Here’s a couple of quick reasons why I think we shouldn’t do it.  Twitter is a network.  A network extends little branches and links throughout the world and can become really powerful and useful and fun.  When everybody follows everybody else… well that’s no longer a network, that's what’s known as a ‘crowd’.  In a ‘crowd’ everybody is hearing what everybody else is saying but, actually, they’re hearing little-or-nothing except a hubbub, a babble.

Also, if I followed everyone back who ever followed me, my timeline would be full of Double Glazing, Social Networking Gurus and Breast Feeding Advice… not all bad but not my key interests… well… (clears throat, moves on).  I wouldn’t see the things I really want to see in among all the glut of things I really don’t want to see.

You may rightly say that this doesn’t fully address the point.  Don’t follow the bots and the salesmen but follow all the real people, yeah?  This is an excellent point and if that works for you, I’m pleased.  Unfortunately, I’ve learned over my years and years at sea chasing the beeg feesh… sorry_ on Twitter that I have a limitation.  If I follow more than a certain amount of people, it gets messy and Twitter stops being fun for me.  I have chosen to follow the people I interact with over time.  My ‘hedge trimming’ means there’s always space for someone new and exciting but not for everyone.  See the next point if you abhor my way of doing things.

3) Other People will Do Twitter Differently, They are Not Wrong and Neither Are You:  The truth?  It took me a little time to learn this one.  Twitter isn’t any one thing.  It’s just a different kind of blank page to write on.  But we get defensive of it, as if it needs us to stick up for it.  It doesn’t.  Live and Let Live on there, if you don’t like how someone uses it, get over it.  If you don’t like what they are saying… well, that’s different.  It’s your choice how you deal with that.  It is, after all, your Twitter.

4) Sometimes, It’s Good to say ‘Goodnight’:  A silly little tip.  If you are up late Tweeting and it’s time for beddie-byes, there are two benefits to saying goodnight.  The first is obvious, If you say goodnight, one or two people may say goodnight back.  It can pack you off to bed with a warm community glow about you.  The second is perhaps less obvious – a simple goodnight, leaves your twitter account tidy.  It means that that last tweet, before you went, is not a rant against some poor minority or a filthy joke or a swearing session.  If anyone glances at your account, they will see a nice goodnight rather than some possibly-inflammatory thing which may jump up and head butt you when you return to Twitter the next day.  I told you it was silly.

5) #FollowFriday is not about getting followers: 
It’s really not.  Follow Friday is a neat-enough way of paying somebody a compliment, it's you saying, “I think you should follow this person, they’re great.”  You get to say someone is cool and they get to feel good that you said it.  They might get a couple of followers as a result, two or three maybe but, unless you’re Graham Linehan doing the recommending, that will be about it. This tip creates a useful converse:  Don’t bust your hole doing zillions of followfridays and thanking everyone individually for the few you might get.  Use it sparingly and move on.  Oh, and if someone who you think is cool is kind enough to do a followfriday for you, then watch carefully the few who come to follow you right after that – they are often Good People.

(I realise I’m breaking my own Tip 3 with my Tip 5… ah, well.)

6) Don’t be Hurt when People Don’t Reply all the Time:  I like to reply to people.  I rarely miss someone out but, sometimes, the sheer weight of replies means that it's not practicable to reply to everyone.  I’ve been on the receiving end of unresponded-to-tweets and I remember (from early days) how they can sting, “what did I do wrong?” “how puny and insignificant am I in their eyes?”.  It’s rarely like that.  Twitter rattles along quickly and, sometimes, tweets get left behind.  Take it on the chin and keep moving along with it.  And, hey, if someone is serially-ignoring-you, maybe they are telling you something.  If you’re a new follower of somebody, consider not replying to every single tweet the somebody makes.  It can look really terrifying and ‘stalky’ if you just turn up and start to do that shit.  I know it’s easy to do when you’re new and only follow a few people but think on.  Someone who just appears and has something to say about every tweet… it's a bit freaky, dude, okay?

7) Don’t Steal Other People’s Tweets and Pretend They’re Your Own:  Come on, guys, fuck it, give credit where it’s due.  It’s not hard.  And remember, even if you saw it on Facebook and brought it over, you still didn’t make it up, did you?  And people will think you did and think you’re great… for all the wrong reasons.  You don’t want that, do you?  Oh.

8) You, Too, Can Switch off Horrible Retweets: It’s surprising how many people don’t know this and it is a little gem.  You follow someone and you like what they tweet but they also retweet tonnes of complete drivel and it's killing your hedge/feed.  You don’t have to unfollow them.  In their twitter web page, beside their name, there’s a little green circle.  Click that and you won’t see their retweets no more.  It is sheer bliss and they’ll never bloody know you did it.  People who circumvent this button by using things like ‘via’ as their retweet format.  Well they're so clever they have left me no option but to unfollow them. 

As if I would do that!

That’s it for now.  Perhaps, if you have an advanced Twitter tip from your own experience, you might mention it in the comments section on this one.  Then we can all have a definitive online document which we can refer back to, again and again, in times of need…

…or not.

I See Floor People

When my mind finally cracks, and after they come and take me away in a rather challenging strapped jacket, I like to think that someone might look through my various blog posts to try to spot the moment when the Great Collapse actually began.

I think perhaps they may pause over this post and decide that this, indeed, is it.

I’ve started to see people, you see…

… people in my floor.

We have a cork floor in our bathroom.  Old fashioned, I know, and not very Glam but it’s warm underfoot and I like the retro nostalgia of it.  

I’m also far too lazy to do anything as proactive as replace them with newer, brighter, tiles.  I’m all about the Status Quo, me.

I’ve been looking at these cork tiles for over ten years now.  Well, I say ‘looking’… they have existed as part of my life without being in any way remarkable or engaging.

Then, one morning, while shaving, on the periphery of my sleepy vision, there, on the floor, reflected in my steamy mirror, a face emerged from the cork floor tiles.  And ‘emerged’ is exactly the right word.  We are not talking here about a two dimensional cloud-like illusion of human characteristic.  Laws no, this was a rounded, recognisable face, somewhat smaller than full-size, lifting itself wearily from the intricate weavings of the cork. 

I swung round to look directly at the thing but whatever angles in the mirror had created the apparition no longer applied when inspected full on.  There was no face, only flat cork tiles - a bit dated but, like I said, warm underfoot.

Back I went to the mirror, replicating the previous angle as best I could and, no, still no face.  A silly sleepy illusion, not possible to retrieve.

But it started me off on something, I think.  Subconsciously, I must have engaged myself in looking for faces in the cork tiles on my bathroom floor.  Over subsequent weeks and months, my eyes must have slipped into scanning the surface, trying to find another friend hiding there.

And they are there.

There are many, many faces in my cork floor.  Some are flat and distant, some are bold and lift right up out of the ground as you study them.  It amuses me to seek them out and bring them to life for a few minutes before letting them slip back down into the world below.  Sometimes it unnerves me a bit too.

Who are they, these people in my floor.  Are they the souls of people who died on this spot in ages past, finding a crack into this world via the chaotic perception of a natural pattern?  Are they a reflection of a stain on the surface of my brain?  Are they… anything at all?

I have always felt that bathrooms are an optimum place to go mad.

Have you ever been a little bit pissed, in a bar or night-club, and have you ever retired to a toilet cubicle to at least collect yourself.  Have you found, once the toilet cubicle door is closed, how much drunker and incapable you suddenly feel and, when you emerge again, how recomposed you become.  There is something about being behind a secure door that encourages a person’s madness to blossom.

Locked in with yourself, on your own (apart from the faces in the floor) there can be a moment to drop the defences, to let the insanity leak in.  Someday, perhaps, it will not leak back out.


Enough with this Flight of Fancy.

Of course I know what they are really, these faces in my floor.  You need not worry about me and my friends in the bathroom for, deep down I totally know the truth.  The faces are nothing to be afraid of, neither are they a cause for any concern about my mental health.

Not at all.  Quite the opposite, I think.

They are, simply, my Imagination.  One of my very best assets, I think.  Have a look at the photo which goes with this post.  I can see people in there – not just one or two but lots of them.  That’s good.  I can still make up something out of nothing, just like I have always seemed able to do.

We will continue to celebrate that as best we can...

...my bathroom buddies and me.