Thursday, May 30, 2013

Art Pact 266 - Routine

He shouldn't enjoy it, but he does - the brief sting of pain as the tweezers find purchase and the rogue hair is plucked out of his eyebrow. He examines it carefully, brushing the base of it and feeling the wiry texture. He wonders why they grow like that, when it started. That's being old, he thinks to himself: when even your hair forgets what it's supposed to be doing. Thick beard-like hairs growing out of your eyebrows, sharp black hair in your nose, tufts of white frosting your tragus.

His evening face, in the mirror, is the one he remembers when he's out and about. He looks better in yellowish lighting - night handsome, his brother used to call it, half an insult half a compliment. When he's talking to people this is the face he imagines he has, softly lit and slender. His morning face is deadly, pasty white skin lit by the unforgiving daylight and puffy through lying down all night so that the tides of his body have the opportunity to spread out.

"You're an arsehole," he tells himself experimentally. It does not sting. Not the way it did when she said it. He feels that this is wrong somehow - that insulting yourself and tickling yourself should not operate under the same rules. Self-insults should be more powerful than those coming from others. Perhaps it's because I don't truly believe it, he thinks, although the very thought serves to make him feel like more of an arsehole. He's so out of touch with reality, so self-obsessed, that he can't even bring himself to see how awful he is.

Perhaps it's the routine that damps it all down, he thinks. There's a sort of machine-like Zen calmness to the whole process of getting ready for bed. There are no decisions required - none more complicated than whether to pluck out a rogue hair, that is. If his work was so clear-cut he'd skip out of bed in the morning and straight into the office.

When Geraldine walked out, he couldn't help staring at her legs. That, surely, was the act of an arsehole - to be called out for your behaviour and to skip immediately to some equally gittish way of being. What did it get him? There was no point in thinking about the legs of other women. It wasn't going to make him happier, wasn't going to resolve the situation between him and Chrissie. He stares at himself in the mirror again, at the pleasant evening face, purses his lips, puffs out his cheeks, lets his eyelids droop until he thinks that he can see himself as other people see him - grim-faced and unattractive, stern like a judge. If only I could see myself talking, he thinks. All the time, a mirror over my face or some sort of camera feed. When everyone has those glasses with cameras in them perhaps that will be an option - to see yourself from the point of view of the person you're talking to. He shudders, thinking what a horror it would be to have other people seeing what he was looking at. Geraldine would certainly have stopped then, turned and called him an arsehole again.

He brushes his teeth, vigorously on the top teeth and the left ones, gently over the ulcer beside his right lower pre-molar. When he's finished he spits out the paste, cups his hands under the taps to rinse but then remembers what his brother told him - that you aren't supposed to. He pours a capful of the mouthwash, swigs the burning liquid around his mouth. It's painful in his cheeks, under his tongue, and when he risks gargling it stings the back of his throat and causes him to choke for a second - pink liquid erupting from his upturned mouth like a volcano and splattering on his cheeks, his chin, over the surface of his glasses. He coughs, spits it all out into the sink and then pulls of his glasses to clean them, feeling like an idiot.

Without his glasses the evening face in the mirror is still more handsome, soft-focused out of all its imperfections, the scars of his childhood acne completely invisible, his eyes larger and friendlier. There is another solution to his problem, he thinks. He needs to ensure that everyone he talks to is short-sighted and has lost their glasses. That should be his thing - stealing glasses when people take them off for a moment. Quite lucrative, he thinks, remembering the cost of the frames when he'd last got a new pair.

He splashes a little water on his face to clean off the worst of the mouthwash, then puts his glasses back on and grimaces in disappointment as the normal evening face reappears in sharp focus. It's still better than the morning him, but contrast is everything. He thinks about Geraldine's legs, about the stinging silence as she walked away. It was as though her outburst had exhausted the air, rendering it incapable of carrying any new sounds. The other people in the bar weren't really watching him, he knew that intellectually, but it had been hard to avoid feeling like the horrid centre of attention. All of those people seeing his evening face looking like it had been slapped.

"You're an arsehole," he says to himself - more forcefully this time, as though he means it. And again: "You're an arsehole." He embellishes: "You're a fucking arsehole. You're a solid-gold dick, a cast-iron fuckwad."

None of it works. He can't replicate the sensation of being attacked to his core, of someone generating a truth that is a little too close to be withstood. The apartment is empty, his neighbours unlikely to be home yet from whatever strange job it was that led them to come home all chatty at two in the morning, so he lets his voice go a little louder: "ARSEHOLE!", but all that does is catch in his throat so that he coughs up the alcohol-mint smell of the few drips of mouthwash that had escaped into his lungs.

If there were more routine to go through he thinks that he might be able to get there - to reach that orgasm of autoinsults, that peak of literal self-abuse. But everything is done - a piss, handwashing, plucking, teeth, mouthwash, there is nothing more in the machine's to-do list. He glances through the open doorway from the bathroom into the bedroom, where an irregular but straight-edged section of the bed is illuminated, hills and valleys on the duvet cover thrown into sharp relief like the end of a day, the electric sun setting on the dust mites that must live there. He imagines them lining up in their twos, holding hands and sitting on the sides of one of those hills, staring at the yellowish glow far in the distance. Perhaps my face is like the moon to them, he thinks: pasty, pock-marked, remote. But they are all moonwalkers, no doubt. The uncomfortable juxtaposition of his own apparent cleanliness and the reality of the millions of microscopic creatures ready to crawl all over him makes him shudder violently, so badly that he almost cricks his neck when the spasmy wave reaches the back of his head.

He might sleep in the spare bed, he thinks for a moment, but then that is no less likely to be covered in the harmless little animals. Perhaps it's for the best. Perhaps I need something to concentrate on, to worry about, to take my mind off Geraldine.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Art Pact 265 - Interruptions


"There was once a man who mistook his wife for a-"

"Hat?"

The storyteller stared at me, his eyes narrow.

"Hat?" he asked me.

"A hat. You know, there was a book about it. The man who mistook his wife for a hat. By - I mean, I want to say Jamie Oliver, but obviously it wasn't him. Something Oliver."

"Oliver Something," said Besson. "Not Something Oliver. Oliver Sacks."

"Oh, right. Yes, Oliver Sacks."

The storyteller looked from Besson to me and back again, and clucked his tongue. The sun had begun to set behind him, and from where I was sitting it now looked as though it was sitting neatly on the top of his hat. I closed one eye and then the other, causing the red orb to leap on and off the flat platform at the tip of the fabric frustum.

"Are you quite done?" asked the storyteller. I stopped winking.

"Oh, sorry."

"Then I will continue, if I may be allowed the honour of addressing two such erudite scholars."

I nodded graciously, since I was only ninety-five percent sure that he was mocking me and I did not want to appear ungrateful in the event that it was a real compliment.

"Thank you. Now, there was once a man who mistook his wife for another woman. This man, whose name I will not reveal lest you one day meet him, was a butcher."

"Is that likely?" I asked. The storyteller looked for a moment as though he were about to leap up from his chair and tear out my throat, but he swallowed and composed himself and raised his eyebrows in inquiry.

"Is what likely?"

"Oh, wait - no, I'm not impugning the probability of your anecdote. I just mean, is it likely that we'll meet this guy? This butcher? Normally - I mean, I would expect that a story that begins like that: there was once..."--I shrugged--"well it might as well be once upon a time. Is this a real story, I suppose is what I'm asking, and did it happen so locally in both time and space that I'm likely to stumble upon the subject of the narrative in my everyday life?"

The storyteller sat quietly for a moment, stroking his chin. The sun's gory circle had merged at its edge with the fabric of his unusual hat, so that it now resembled a demonic halo. It hurt my eyes to look at it, so while he considered his answer I looked around at the other faces in the group. Besson, of course, was waiting for the answer as well. Leat was still working on her sketch. Her eyes flicked up and down from the storyteller's face to the charcoal drawing in front of her. There was something odd about it - otherworldly, almost - which eluded me until much later, when I realised that she had taken so long over the drawing that the light had completely changed, so that parts of the storyteller's monochrome face were rendered with different shadows from the rest. Her fingers were blackened, and there was a single dark smudge across her forehead where she kept reaching up to brush away a rogue lock of hair.

"If I answer," said the storyteller, "I give away more and more of the man's identity. You may or may not meet him. He may be too far in the past for you to ever meet him directly, but his descendants may yet live. This information about information is itself information, do you see?"

It sounded like gobbledygook to me, but I could see I wasn't going to get anything more useful out of him at this juncture. I nodded - then, when he didn't seem satisfied with that as a signal, I gave him the thumbs-up.

"Good. Now then, put such thoughts out of your mind. Here was the man, the butcher, walking down the street one day when he saw in the distance a silhouette he had not seen for many years, of a woman he had once been in love with. She had spurned him - so he thought, because of his profession. Now, he-"

"Brian." said Besson.

The storyteller sat with his mouth open, as if the words had literally been snatched off his tongue.

"Brian," said Besson again. "Why didn't you just call him Brian? I mean, that would have been just as uninformative about his real identity without drawing our attention to it. I don't know about anyone else, but now that I know I'm not supposed to know who this is, I really want to know."

I nodded.

"What if his name really was Brian?" asked Leat.

"Come on, no-one's called Brian."

"Plenty of people are called Brian," said the storyteller. "It's a perfectly common name."

"My point exactly!"

"That's the opposite of what you just said," Leat pointed out.

"I mean it's a perfectly common name. It's the sort of name that everyone has, but no-one has."

"You seem to be mistaking a koan for an argument. Either too many people have this name or not enough. Is there an over-abundance of Brians, or a tragic lack?"

"What I mean is that no-one of consequence is called Brian. It's a name without any historical weight. Why do you think the Pythons picked it? Because no-one important can be called Brian. No-one in a story is called Brian. If this guy was called Brian he'd be the most uninteresting person ever, and we wouldn't feel the need to go delving into his past."

"Well, except that that's the whole point of the story, right?" she gestured to the storyteller, appealing for his support. He was not forthcoming. "It is. If we listen-"

"If!" the storyteller sighed, rolling his eyes.

"-we'll learn something about the past of this butcher. The anonymity isn't to protect his past, it's to protect his present. Or rather, his future, since his present is now and he's not here at the moment."

"As far as we know," said Besson - and now it was his turn to narrow his eyes, looking suspiciously at the storyteller. By now the sun had descended yet further, reaching under the edge of the hat to cradle the storyteller's head and transform his ears into jug handle silhouettes.

"This man - whose name was not Brian," the storyteller said forcefully, "was walking along the road one day when he saw the silhouette of a woman he once loved. She was talking to a man - also silhouetted - and the butcher remembered why he had loved her. There was a vivaciousness to her actions, so that just to watch her reach up and put a hand to her fellow shadow's cheek was to feel a little more alive in yourself. He stopped walking, struck with a painful nostalgia, with the mind-twisting vertigo that can only come from staring down into the abyss of the past. Should he talk to her? It seemed too much - to walk into the light himself, to touch her on the arm, to greet her. Would she remember him? She should, of course, they knew each other well in the old days. Or did they? Of course, he thought, she did not know him well at all, and perhaps he did not know her. But they had spent a lot of time together, enough that she should still know him after all these years."

"How many years?" asked Besson.

"Twenty," snapped the storyteller. His hands were clasped, and I could tell that he was on the cusp of a decision - whether or not to continue telling us the story, I assumed. He opened his mouth.

Art Pact 264 - All The Little Gods

It's sad when people haven't found their god, but there was something more sad and Kelly and I agreed on that - it was when someone found their god and it was something pathetic, like a cardboard box or an ant. I think an ant would have been the worst god, because how would you know it from all the other ants? They run around like crazy, you'd be standing their calling down to your god to do you a favour or to find out whether it was hungry or not, and there would be lots of other ants running around like mad. You'd never know which one was yours. What if your ant god lived in the same nest as someone else's ant god? You'd have to be very careful who you were talking to.

Then again, that's not the worst I've ever seen. The worst was on a TV show about it, about people who'd found their god in unusual places or where their god was something unusual itself. There was a man whose god was a roof tile. Just one roof tile on a house. It wasn't even his house! They showed him standing outside in the rain, looking up at his god and trying not to look like he was peeking into the windows of the house below. The people in the house were sick of it, you could tell. I wouldn't be surprised, with some random looking up at your roof the whole time, you'd think he was a burglar. But they couldn't shout at him to go away because it was his god up on the roof, and that's something you have to be respectful of. You can't stop people from talking to their god. I suppose it would be different if some gods were human people, but none of them are. That's the only rule about what a god can and can't be. It can't be a person. I know that because my own god told me so when I was asking it about the man with the roof tile.

"That's to stop people being confused about who they should listen to," my god explained. It was sitting at the end of the bed, on the little shrine I'd made for it. My god is a mouse, a sort of small brown mouse that came up to me in a park one day and introduced itself. At first I didn't really know what was going on. I'd got by with just my dad's god most of the time (and sometimes my mum's god would give me advice), I knew there would come a day when I found my own god - I just wasn't expecting it to be so soon. I thought there'd be more time to prepare, I suppose. It's not a terrible thing, finding a god at that age, and in some ways it's better than the opposite, being old when your god finds you (or vice versa), but I sometimes wonder if it wouldn't have been better to have a few more years without a god. My god tells me that's perfectly natural - to wonder, I mean, to go through what-ifs and might-have-beens. It's part of living to have things that might or might not be regrets.

"When you just know things," it said to me, putting down the bit of cheese I'd got for it, "you just know them. Like I know that I'm your god and you know that you're my human. But that's only overall, you see. You don't have that certainty all the time, because you're not a god. You can't worship me the same way that I rule you. I have godly powers. You're just a man. For the moment, I mean."

My god likes to add those little cryptic bits to the end of his prognostications. Then I know what it's talking about, because that's when I have a little bit of doubt about whether it's a god at all. I mean, it can talk - and normal mice can't talk - it knows about all my past and all my future (I have to take its word on the latter, mind), and it has all the other powers you'd expect: invisibility, supernatural strength, and so on. It's easy to believe that it's god usually, just when it pulls that stuff it sounds like an elder brother or something: I know something you don't, something big, but I'm not going to prove it. You'll just have to wait and see.

The man whose god was a roof tile was kind of pathetic in and of himself. I mean, it wasn't like when a god is a mouse, or a dog, or a radio. You can hear when they're talking to their worshipper. You can't hear what they're saying, obviously, but you can tell that they're saying something. If you listened to this guy talking to his god you'd think he was just some crazy yelling at someone else's house. Like sometimes when he was asking perfectly normal questions, it sounded like he was talking to someone inside, a lover or someone.

"Tell me what to do!"

"You just to imagine the word Louise on the end of every sentence," Kelly said, when we were watching the program. "Like that. Tell me what to do, Louise! Tell me how to love you!"

Kelly's funny like that. She laughs about flippant things, then gets very serious.

"Don't go all mad on me like that," she told me, taking my hand and staring into my eyes super deep. "If we break up, you have to forget all about any chance of getting together. There's nothing more pathetic than a man crying outside a woman's window, begging her to give him another chance."

"I won't have to beg," I said. "You'll give me like a million chances."

"Oh I will, will I?"

"That's what god told me. It's very clear on that fact."

Kelly doesn't get on too well with my god. She's a little freaked out by it, I think.

"It's the way it moves," she said once, at breakfast. "A lot faster than you'd expect from a little thing like that."

"All mice are like that, though."

"Yeah, but at least with other mice you get to remember that they're going to die soon. That thing is never going to go in a mousetrap and get its back broken, is it? It would just disarm the trap, or you'd find the metal killing bar bent into the perfect shape of a mouse's back in the morning, where the bar had just closed around it."

I didn't mean to tell my god about her wanting to kill it, but it's very good at winkling that sort of story out of me. I suppose it knew it all already, like a lawyer - it only asks questions it already knows the answer to, and since it's omniscient about my life, it would have known the minute she said it that Kelly was a deicide (in spirit, if not in practice).

"Well, there's nothing she can do about it," my god said. It scampered to the edge of the table and mimed throwing itself off, then splatting on the ground. "Even I can't do it. Even the other gods wouldn't be able to. That's the way it is. Maybe you should ask her how she'd feel, though."

"What do you mean?"

"How she'd feel if you wanted to kill her god, obviously." It wiggled its whiskers.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

One Million Words Day


On January the 3rd, 2010, spurred on by an unfinished NaNoWriMo novel, I decided that I would write a fixed amount every day - 500 words, which seemed to me like reasonable progress to make. I kept it up until April, when I finished the novel. Then I kept going - just writing little scenes, something every day to keep my fingers limber and my brain generating ideas. I did it every day - one holidays, when I was ill, on Christmas day, and so on. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes it was hard, but I kept at it.

When January 3, 2011 came around, I felt comfortable continuing - I increased the writing load to 750 words a day. It was difficult to start with - 250 words extra doesn't seem a lot, but stitched onto the back of another 500 suddenly it seems like a surprise extra mile tacked onto the end of a marathon. Again, though, I got to the end of the year without missing a day. On Jan 3 2012, I started writing 1,000 words a day, and then a year later, this January, I began 1,250 words a day.

There's a saying among NaNoWriMo writers (attributed sometimes to Ray Bradbury, but as always take that with a pinch of salt) that you have to write a million words before you get to the good ones. So, writing at this rate, when roughly do I get to my million word mark?

Well, I got there today (give or take).

Actually as part of this program today is roughly 970,000 words in, but if you include the fact that every November I wrote at least 1777 words a day to hit my NaNo target, I figured out a few months ago that today would be the day.

So... am I at the good words yet?

A tricky question - what I'm really asking, I suppose, is whether I think this has been good for me as a writer. Are my writing skills improving as a result of this constant productivity?

And the answers are - I'm not sure, and perhaps no?

One measure of writing success is whether people are interested in reading what I've written, and the simplest way to judge that is by stories sold - because if someone likes something enough to pay to put it in their magazine or on their website, they must actually like it.

I have sold precisely zero stories since I began.

But it's worse than that - because of the constant pressure to think of ideas and do my writing, I have actually written fewer whole stories. On the plus side I've written a lot of scenes, and I think my creative powers probably have waxed slightly - thinking up a new idea every day and writing 1250 words on it is hard (even harder if you factor in now thinking up serious ideas every week for He Goes She Goes), and you can't do hard work for that long without growing your brain muscles a bit. But I feel as though I've lacked the mental space to let stories sit around in my mind for a long period.

I said to myself that when I reached the million words mark I might stop, if I thought it wasn't helping. I'm still unsure whether that's true or not. Perhaps it would be good to give it a rest. On the other hand, I'm looking forward to the point in November 2016 when I start NaNoWriMo and find that my daily target for that is lower than the number of words I'd be writing anyway.

I guess I'll write 1250 words tomorrow and see how it goes...