A postcard from Chelsea

So, the last three weeks have been busy.

This is an understatement.

Let’s start with geography. I have once again left Velcro City behind me. Yes, this was rather sudden, but a shift of situation was followed immediately by the sort of opportunity that it would be madness to pass up on. When the wind blows favourable, you hoist your sails, right? So, long story short: I’m now living in London for the first time in my life.

And not just any part of London, oh no; yours truly is rockin’ an SW3 postcode, lodged like a lonely cigarette butt in the sumptuous banquet of oblivious privilege that is Chelsea. I’m used to standing out from the crowd a little bit, but when I walk down the King’s Road to the shops, people stare like I’m leading a troupe of tap-dancing zebras by chains made from links of fire and lost languages. To be fair, I do some staring back; there’s no shortage of eccentricity around here. It just expresses rather differently, y’know?

Historical ironies abound, also; maybe a few minutes walk around the corner from my new abode, an Indian restaurant occupies the King’s Road shop where – way back when, around the time I was born – Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood acted as manipulative and Machiavellian midwives to the subculture that came to be known as punk. Gentrification’s apogee, ladies and gents; even the sanitised contemporary mutations of punk would look out of place in this neighbourhood. Walk a few minutes northward, and old chaps in colourful trousers (cravats optional, but still popular) stagger in and out of the Chelsea Arts Club; along the Fulham Road, boutiques decorated in earthy tones are staffed by willowy hungry-looking young women who look utterly uninterested in selling the ludicrous clothing that they label with ludicrous prices. Make no mistakes, I grew up with a port-side deck-chair on the SS Privilege… but the folk round here mortgage the damned boat to the cruise company, so to speak. I tend to feel at least slightly out of place pretty much anywhere I go, but the sense of being an interloper here is very tangible. It’s also quite fun. I’ve been doing a lot of cheery grins and how’d-you-dos to people I pass on the pavement. Politeness is a highly hackable protocol.

Alongside new digs, I’ve got new duties: my new Research Assistant post is getting interesting very fast, and there’s plenty of work to be doing. Ironically, considering I thought I’d successfully beamed off of Planet Webdev, a lot of this week’s work has involved thinking out a methodology for building a wiki for one of the projects I’m working on… and you can’t have a methodology without an information architecture, which means my inner librarygeek has been getting’ his taxonomy on, too. Guess all that talk about transferable skills means something after all, eh? Feels good to be stretching my brain around some real challenges.

And speaking of new challenges, I’m three weeks through the first semester of my Masters. The first two modules are going well; just about managing to keep on top of the reading lists and assignments and critical note-taking and what have you, and learning a lot in the process. But the biggest challenge of all attends next semester’s module on writing the novel, in that I need to have written a 90,000 word first draft of one… by January 9th.

In some respects, that’s not as bad as it first sounds; the challenge was set at the start of this semester, leaving the best part of three months to complete it. Nearly ninety days means you hit the goal by writing just 1,000 words a day. It may sound a little blasé, but a thousand words a day is easy; I probably do twice that wordcount most days, anyway.

But writing ninety discrete thousand-word lumps that all fit together and make a novel? That’s a totally different receptacle of ocean critters. We were ordered to start afresh rather than reboot an old or half-written project, so I dragged out one of my little idea nuggets from Evernote and got rolling… only to have become bogged down in the muddy verge. A third character/strand/scenario has been stubbornly refusing to cohere for the best part of the week, and at the lower right-hand corner of my monitor the date keeps changing with a sly, sleazy wink.

The whole point of the challenge, so far as I can tell, is to put us in a position where we don’t have time to think too hard about what we’re writing; we just have to write. This is a very alien position for me to be in. I am not what I think of as a “process writer”; the physical and mental act of writing itself, when I am conscious of it, is deeply unpleasant. It’s only when I cease to be conscious of the process that the decent stuff comes out, at least with non-fiction material; the leap to that higher quantum brain-state is not under my conscious control. Very rarely, it’s there first thing in the morning*; more often it takes two or three hours of battering the keyboard for the keyboard to disappear and the words to start stringing themselves through my mind like fairy lights. Some days, it just doesn’t turn up at all. Those are the days when this job is just typing, a joyless mechanical process that doesn’t even have the consolatory nigh-meditational oblivion provided by assembly-line work or physical labour.

Hark at me whining! One of the shibboleths of writerdom is that the writer who hates writing should do something else. Well, screw that. I hate writing, sure… but I love having written. Having written is the strongest, subtlest drug I know of. I suspect that I’m not entirely alone in this. Furthermore, I suspect that better writers than I have come to love the process for the same reason a junkie loves the needle’s kiss: the high comes after the pain, and – after a while – the association becomes established, a sort of Pavlovian tropism of the intellect. The prospect of a by-line rings bell-like in the hallway, and the imagination starts to salivate… but the reward lies at the far side of the minefield of your own insecurities.

And so it goes. It’s alarming and instructive to see how losing the momentum with which I started has allowed the daemons of of defeatism to raise their voices. You can’t pull it off, they mutter, it’s a step too far; you’ve done OK with non-fiction, but did you really think you could write a novel? Even a ragged first draft, with cardboard characters and plot-holes that could hide entire planets? Even if you can, it’ll probably suck.

Well, that’s the thing I’m trying to cling to, perversely enough. If I tell myself that, yeah, it’ll almost certainly suck, then somehow it doesn’t matter that it will suck.

No, I have no idea how that works, either.

Still, this psychological self-hacking ain’t gonna fix the more tangible and immediate problem, namely the lack of a third character where I need one to exist. Only one thing’s gonna fix that, and that’s me sitting down and writing until someone or something reaches out and tells me where they need me to send them… so it’s time to leave aside the tempting displacement activity of blogging (which, in reference to my claim further up the page, has already seen me assemble over a thousand words into something approaching order this afternoon) and do that thing where I try to press the keys in the right order: the order that makes them – and everything else in the room, maybe even the whole universe – disappear.

So, to work.

[ * Clarification: I adhere to the Warren Ellis definition of “morning”, namely (and I paraphrase): “the first three hours after I get out of bed, whatever the lying bastard clock says”. ]

Standing on the verge of getting it on

When I was at college back in 1992, there was a guy in my tutor group who played trumpet and was bang into his classic funk – James Brown, Parliament, Funkadelic, all that stuff. I remember him explaining one of the core structural components of the genre, which applies to a lot of other musical forms as well, most notably anything dance-orientated: it is called, simply enough, “The One”.

The One is that moment where a whole bunch of repeating riffs and figures of different lengths – a one-bar bass hook, a four-bar drum pattern, an eight-bar bridge, a sixteen-bar solo – all reach their loop point at the same moment within the tune. The One is the sound of something cohering, of an emergent higher order. It’s the point in the tune where everything comes together, that single first-beat-of-a-bar where everything strikes together, the moment when even the most grooveless of listeners feel the urge to to move.

I think I just hit The One in my life.

Most of you already know that I’ve just started my Masters degree in Creative Writing; my first seminar is this evening, in fact. In the last year I’ve sold pieces of writing to magazines that I’ve been reading since before I even considered writing as a career choice; I’ve just started writing a proper column at LitReactor, and other commissions are fluttering around in my in-tray. But not only that: today also sees me starting a new job with a title so cool you’ll think I’m making it up. As of this morning, I’m a telecommuting employee of the University of Sheffield’s Civil Engineering department — a Research Assistant in the Future of Infrastructure.

I’ve put a post over at Futurismic that goes into a little more detail about the job and what it means to me. Here, I’m just going to remark on the weird way my life has suddenly cohered into something strange and exciting and new, like I finally found a path I never realised I was looking for. These moments of synchronicity aren’t without their negative threads, of course; my uncle died the weekend before last after a few years of declining into dementia, and thanks to the timing of my first seminar this evening, I’m missing the funeral. I don’t feel great about that; the guilt is compounded by the knowledge that funerals are horrible things to have to attend at the best of times*, and that this one occurs at the same place we buried my old man back in 2002. I wish I was going, but I’m also quite glad I’m not, while simultaneously resentful of that spark of personal relief. Such are the contradictions of the heart that keep us awake at night, I suppose.

One of the great novelistic fallacies of the human condition is born of our instinctive need to stitch a narrative out of the cloth of experience and chance. We often speak of fate, or simply feeling that something was meant to be, even though we know that nothing is determined, and that even history shifts its meaning depending on where you stand to look back at it. Caught in the fragmentary slice of silence before the bass bounces back to the root note and the horn section stabs out a fat major chord, I find myself glancing back and wondering how I got here from there. In some respects it seems almost beyond belief, a daft tall story that a teenaged me would have scoffed at; in other ways it seems like a fortunate yet inevitable confluence of all the things I’ve been doing for the last decade, if not my entire life. Both stories are equally valid; neither of them are strictly true. The truth is in the telling, maybe. Or in the reading, or the ending.

Either which way, the page turns; one chapter ends, another begins, and a new act begins to play out. In the orchestra pit, feet and fingers twitch in an anticipation of rhythm; the audience, small as it may be, waits patiently for events to unfold.

Let the beat drop; bring on The One.

[ * I’ve come to the conclusion that funerals are a little like placebos, in that an understanding of their true function lessens said function’s effect. Funerals are for the living, not the dead; I don’t need to be there to make peace with my own mortality, but I wish I could be there to support the rest of my family. And so it goes. ]