Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 46.
Today we’re going to dive into something a little closer to pure play than previous days. We’ve done a lot of exercises that produce straight up prose and while that’s part of the reason we’re here there’s always the danger that you start slyly evaluating what you’re producing against the arbitrary and bizarre standards of published books on your shelves. So it’s very healthy, I think at least, to return periodically to some work that doesn’t resemble a novel at all, so we can set those expectations aside and really train our creativity.
What does it mean to not be able to say something? To not be able to put words to a feeling?
I don’t know if you’ve ever had the feeling of glancing out the window, or walking down the street, and there’s a sudden quality of light, a familiar mood, some suchness in what you’re witnessing that rhymes with an older something you cannot name.
Maybe it’s touched a memory so buried under the detritus of years that all you’re aware of is its resonating in sympathy, like a phone buzzing in a laundry hamper. Maybe some lesser-travelled service tunnel of your synapses fired by accident and now you’re seeing the world with the subtitles switched off, or as if through the eyes of a time traveller sent back to pluck a foxglove before the apocalypse.
But you know it, right? Not quite déjà vu, just this temporary strangeness that exists only in your head and you couldn’t pass on, not even to people in the same room.
I feel like one of the roles we can take on as authors is the Great Articulator – attempting to give shape and form to unnameable feelings like this one, or at least gesturing towards them so that other human beings understand that there are other people out there, gazing at the same moon. Or maybe we invent some new feelings no one’s experienced yet, locate them in an unused part of space and turn readers towards them.
Your writing doesn’t have to be about simply reproducing the world, stapling life’s butterflies to the page. One of fiction’s gnarliest joys is the realisation we can take the apparatus of language, nominally invented for sensible purposes like explaining where the nearest clean water source is or barking orders, and put events and experiences in people’s minds that not only did not happen but perforce could not happen.
In his book Heart Of The Original, one of my favourite authors, Steve Aylett, talks about this potential, quote: ‘You can enrich the stuff of life by bringing together two words which have never, ever been introduced to one another before. Perhaps because they dwell in different contexts or in the jargon of different disciplines, they are never held in the attention at the same time. Yet when put together, their cogs mesh as if they were made for each other and a massive amount of energy is released. This lexical love story is great to be part of – how else would they have met without you playing Cupid?’ End quote.
I really like that idea of word matchmaking. Grabbing a word from here and a word from here and seeing what happens when you combine them.
Alan Ginsberg became fascinated by the juxtaposition of contrasting colours in Cezanne’s watercolours, so as your gaze passed from one to the other you received a little jolt. He called these little moments of contrast ‘Eyeball Kicks’ and he tried to replicate the effect in poetry. Sticking two words together from very different domains and seeing what happens.
To be honest, sometimes the effect is garbage. It sounds like someone trying to be clever, or shocking, or surreal. Ginsberg’s favourite example was ‘hydrogen jukebox’, which is, well, you might feel either way about it, right? Sometimes you split your audience. Some readers find the collocation funny or vivid, other people don’t – maybe because they feel a bit threatened, like you’re trying to trick them, maybe because they’ve trained themselves to interpret anything that doesn’t cohere to existing patterns as a mistake.
You know I can’t believe I’ve left it 46 days to say this, but I’ve got to break it to you: sooner or later, you’re going to have to work out who you want to please. And here’s the bad news: you can’t say ‘everybody’. Doesn’t mean you have to set out to alienate people, nor does it mean you should valorise being wilfully obscure as an act of huge moral courage, just that there is no Archimedean point of absolute neutrality upon which you can stand and lift the world.
Before I lay out today’s exercise I want to quote Steve Aylett one more time, because I think this is really solid writing advice, and it gets to the heart of what I’m talking about today. But with what I just said in mind, do remember: the purpose of this course isn’t for me, Tim Clare, to replicate myself, or my style, or my tastes. It’s not to create people who write like me. So at points in this course, and some of those may have come already, I’m going to give you advice and it might not sit right with you. And it’s okay, it’s healthy – I even want to go so far as to say it’s semi-mandatory – that to an extent you rebel against what I tell you, do the opposite, pervert it, or strip it for parts.
I’m just throwing stuff to you that you can use. How you use it is up to you. Don’t ever censor yourself thinking ‘would Tim criticise me for this?’ Yeah, I might do. But screw what I think. If I want something different I can jolly well write it myself can’t I.
Right so here’s the last abridged quote from Aylett, also from his book Heart Of The Original, that speaks I think to some of what might be going on with the Eyeball Kick technique, playing with contrasts and similar strategies, quote:
‘When the mind has to jump a gap, the spark it ignites can tickle the brain’s surface or ignite unused pathways, depending on the guidelines placed on either side. The musician Theolonius Monk was frustrated that the fractional and hybrid tones he heard in Indian music were not on his keyboard, so he struck the keys on either side to suggest them. Poets use the same dodge by staking images on either side of a feeling they cannot point to or describe directly… Write three sentences and remove the middle one – often the deleted sentence is implied by the remaining material. This is great for satire, as when readers fill in the gap, they think it’s their idea.’ Endquote.
Maybe this is what’s going on when we juxtapose contrasts. Our brain, a pattern-finding machine, tries to find the link between two items – or, more accurately, it makes a link between two items. Zap. Two formerly disparate areas of the brain have a zipwire running between them. Suddenly the botanists are forced to share office space with ibex-headed cultists. The music box fills with cress.
This is brain training par excellence, the cultivation of a spectacularly liberated kind of thinking, a creative mode the vast majority of mainstream Western culture views as useless. And perhaps it is, for conventional values of ‘useful’.
So today’s exercise is basically literary speed dating. It goes like this:
First, you’re going to generate two lists of words. Cool, specific words. One list is going to be nouns – concrete things. Piano, busker, medal, hieroglyph. But even then, when I tried to list four random words, did you notice how each one was subtly linked to the previous one? Like, every time you write a word it evokes a domain, and the reader’s mind orbits that little solar system. Or maybe they weren’t linked at all, but the brain is so good at finding connections that it retroactively created them and now the sequence feels inevitable to me.
The other list is going to be adjectives, or words that can stand in as adjectives: ugly, cinnabar, melodramatic, victorious, Belgian, drowning, illiterate, copper, Soviet, explosive.
You don’t have to even know what a word means. Gable. Carrom. Spline. Idiopathic. Avuncular. Matriculating. Words you just like the sound of are especially great. Some of your favourite words might pop up here. But it would be cool if you could consciously try to grab stuff from across domains – words you associate with different genres, different professions, different eras. Cybernaut. Tiller. Verso. Titanium. Chrysalis. Words that feel good in the mouth. Marsupial. Groin. Jerrycan. Bazooka.
You know you might actually start censoring yourself because part of you worries that your choice of random words reveals some inner part of you, like a Rorschach ink blot. Believe you me, I felt briefly awkward about sharing ‘groin’ and ‘bazooka’ because it felt aggressively sexual. You might start worrying your list is too silly or too self-consciously artistic or pretentious, that your words aren’t clever or worthy enough or insufficiently varied.
Unfortunately I can’t completely liberate you from that kind of self-censorship by saying ‘don’t do it’, but if it happens, it’s a learning opportunity. Try to notice what you’re resisting, and what you’re telling yourself. This can alert you to what your creative anxieties are, and it’s actually a great clue as to the causes of the times you’ve been blocked in the past.
Try to get as many words down as you can. Better to have loads and some of them be crap than to have like, three perfectly formed jewels. I’m going to give you eight minutes, then come back to give you instructions for the final part.
So, two lists. One of cool adjectives – that is to say, describing words. One of cool nouns – that is to say, concrete things. Good luck. Three… two… one… go.
Okay so hopefully you have some interesting words collected up now. For the final two minutes, you’re going to do some textual speed dating. Take a noun from your list of nouns, and experiment with pairing it up with interesting adjectives. You might even try combining a noun with a noun, or an adjective with an adjective. There’s no rhyme or reason to this – you might be tempted at first to find combinations that ‘match’, but really it’s best to just do it at random, seeing which ones sound good together. Ones that when you put them together, as Aylett phrased it ‘their cogs mesh as if they were made for each other’.
Okay, so just write down some combinations. That’s it. That’s the exercise. Two minutes. Ready? Off you go.
And we’re done.
So there’s really no point to this exercise beyond finding satisfying, fizzy new combinations of words. This is the thumping atrial chamber of creativity. To bring something into being that didn’t exist before.
Drowning piano. Cinnabar chrysalis. Ugly bazooka. Marsupial hieroglyph. Titanium illiterate.
If you find some part of yourself recoiling from all this, like we’re all about to start snapping fingers in appreciation of how incredibly sophisticated and arty we are, you might just like to pay attention to that self-censoring impulse. Maybe stuff like this, without an obvious purpose beyond delighting in the sounds and associations of words, makes you feel a bit vulnerable. It’s only pretentious if we imagine ourselves to be superior to others simply by virtue of playing with language. If you just… I don’t know, take pleasure from it, that’s cool, right?
My friend the poet Ross Sutherland does a version of this exercise where, after putting these word combinations together, he gets writers to turn them into metaphors for some of the most clapped out objects of traditional poetry. Death. Love. The moon. It’s his contention that our brains are such accomplished meaning-making machines that you can shove almost any word pair onto the end of one of these concepts and create an image that… makes sense.
Death is an ugly bazooka. Love is a drowning piano. The moon is a cinnabar chrysalis.
You might like to try that with some of your combinations. You can also try framing them as band names or varieties of fungus, or, if you stick ‘The’ in front, they often sound like convincing – if somewhat esoteric – titles for novels or poetry collections: The Marsupial Hieroglyph. The Titanium Illiterate.
All I’m trying to do here, is reawaken you to the joy of playing with language for its own sake. This is a strong spice, for sure. But putting just a pinch of it in your stories can transform them from something standard and undistinguished into a fluxing psychedelic haymaker that phases into existence an inch from the reader’s chin and uppercuts them backwards into a glitch between walls. For many of us, seeing something genuinely new is a very weird experience indeed.
That’s it for today. Sorry for running a bit longer than normal. This was one of the biggies and I wanted to get it right. Tomorrow will be shorter you have my oath. Take care. I love you. See you tomorrow.