Posts Tagged 'Writing'

As Good As It Gets

Encouraged by some friends I have been writing some fiction. When I say ‘encouraged’ we are talking about it in the male friendship sense of ‘get on with it you stupid bastard’. They are now asking to see what I’ve produced but I’m waiting to rewrite a couple of the stories. Like curries, writing is best left in the freezer and returned to after a few days.

Writing is hard for lots of reasons. It’s easy to get discouraged, especially when you enjoy the good writing of other people. Dipping into Raymond Carver can be dispiriting if you are trying to write a short story. But it works both ways. I wrote one story after reading a particularly poor effort by a guy called Michel Faber. I’d been recommended one of his books by my Kindle, which is a marvellous thing in a number of ways, not least in getting me to look at what it is possible to get published. (Not all of his stories are badly written. But some are).

I’ve also been trying to avoid formulas, but then again a formula is not necessarily a bad thing if you can bring something fresh and interesting to it. I had one of my regular insomniac episodes last night and ended up re-watching As Good As It Gets. It’s not a promising film when you look at its elements. It appears to be a formulaic rom-com with all that entails; a love / hate relationship, apparently unlikeable male lead, troubled female lead, gay best friend, wise mother, thrown together by circumstances, each on a journey, crisis in Act Two, falling in love after all, knowing reference to Edward Hopper. Bish bash bosh.

It is also blatantly emotionally manipulative, not least in its use of a sick child and cute dog. But what lifts it beyond the formula is the script and the performances. It gets away with using a formula because also has an edge. A spoonful of medicine to help the sugar go down. It gets away with the sentimentality in the same way that It’s  A Wonderful Life does, by having a dark heart.

So I am encouraged and the next test will be to see what other people think.


Bulwer Lytton

Baron Edward George Bulwer Lytton was the Victorian novelist who gave us Snoopy’s favourite opening line to a novel; ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ He is also the inspiration for the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest, the most recent results of which can be found here

Studs Terkel


Studs Terkel was a particular hero of mine. I liked his name, his style and his look but also the way he wrote about things. When I was editing a magazine on work and workplaces, I was often inspired by his interviews with ordinary Americans about their jobs and how they felt about them. He did lots of other stuff but that was his work that was most relevant to my own.

What is especially striking is that he saw himself as a chronicler of other people’s lives rather than a commentator on them. The voices of others come across very strongly in his writing, especially in his book Working.

He stands in marked contrast to Alain de Botton, whose latest book on the same theme was launched recently. De Botton’s book has been backed by a very good PR campaign that has seen the new book forming the basis for feature articles in a wide range of newspapers and magazines from The Times to Management Today.

But in many ways de Botton is the main protagonist in his own book. The lives of other people are there as the grist to his mill. I’m not especially knocking him for this. He’s admirable in many ways and he is a product of our times. But like many of us nowadays he fails Lenny Bruce’s injunction to see ‘what is, not what should be’.

That is not something you could ever level at Studs Terkel. He was something that has been lost in the modern sea of opinion, an oral historian. Not trying to change the world, but record it.

Taste sensation

bennetI think we have experienced a great homogenisation of taste in recent years. One reason why is that we’re surrounded by people guiding our tastes in everything from cars to wine, food, clothes, house design, office design, restaurants, holidays, language, art, music, books and film.

The problem with a universal acceptance of what we mean by ‘good taste’ is that it acts as a brake on change and innovation.

Alan Bennett once made the point in typical style. ‘Taste is timorous, conservative and fearful,’ he wrote. ‘It is a handicap. It stunts. Olivier was unhampered by taste and was often vulgar; Dickens similarly. Both could fail and failure is a sort of vulgarity; but it’s better than a timorous toeing of the line. Taste abuts on self preservation. It is the audience that polices taste. Only if you can forget your audience can you escape.’

A load of old Barnum

barnumPlace your hands on the screen and let’s see if I can gain an insight into what sort of person you are.
Here we go.
You have a need for other people to like and admire you, yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable yet largely hidden strengths that you have still to turn to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be slightly insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you always make the right decision. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept other’s statements without satisfactory proof. But you think it can be unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
Sound familiar? Well it should because that is how most people see themselves. You are not alone in feeling this way. Far from it. While we all harbour some fantasy of ourselves as completely unique, the kind of people who peddle this sort of tripe – astrologers and psychics among them – have always known that most people have far more in common with everybody else than they’d like to believe. What makes you genuinely unique is your relationships with others.
In fact, the above passage is largely made up of ‘Barnum Statements’, which most people think are true of themselves but not so true of others. Coupled with people’s generally poor grasp of the laws of probability, this creates a fertile spawning ground for psychics, astrologers and spiritualists.
You can pull a similar stunt when you’re writing about particular professions. If you regularly read the trade magazines for civil servants, lawyers, marketeers, accountants, architects, designers, engineers, consultants, call centre managers and people in IT, HR, FM, PM, QS, CS and BS*, you’ll daily come across an editorial making a fairly common sort of point about the way in which that profession sees itself. We can Barnumise it thus:
What you do is of significant strategic importance, yet you do not receive the recognition you deserve. You tend to be under-represented at boardroom level where you could add significant value to the organisation. Unlike those bastard architects/surveyors/accountants/project managers etc, when it comes to major issues you are not consulted early enough so decisions are made on the basis of bad information or no information. As a result the organisation invariably screws up big style. And just guess who’s going to have to put it right? That’s right- muggins. You’re not paid enough for the great job you do, either. And another thing: people have got completely the wrong impression of you. You’re not geekish/ difficult/ socially inept/ arrogant/ closeted/ unattractive/ middle aged (delete as appropriate). You’re the nice guys.
The fact that everybody thinks this about the job they do makes life a little bit easier for two groups of people. Editors of trade magazines can repeat this sort of stuff all they like and probably win awards for it with the thanks of a grateful profession. Suppliers can also use it as a key part of their marketing message. For a start, it offers an easy PR opportunity for those vendors keen to show how much they empathise with their customers through a ‘we-feel-your-pain’ piece in an appropriate journal.
As an extension of this, there is a tendency for professions to demonise each other. For example – and it seems to be difficult for both sides to discuss this out in the open – there’s an undercurrent of bad feeling between facilities managers and architects. Facilities managers in particular seem to resent the fact they have to manage the results of the creativity of other people, feel they aren’t involved in the creative process soon enough and possibly resent the high profile enjoyed by architects.
I’ve always seen the difference between building design and FM as the difference between conception and parenthood. One is an act of creativity that takes a relatively short amount of time to complete (speak for yourself, I know) but which people think about a lot. The other is an act of responsibility that never really ends and which people may talk about a lot but nobody else is really all that interested in. There’s a reason why Channel 4 televises the Stirling Prize and leaves the BIFM Awards alone. What seems to make all this harder to bear for FMs is that they are often in loco parentis, so are often managing a building not of their own making.
So my point is this. The ideas and feelings that unite us both as individuals and as professionals are far greater than the things that divide us. We may think we’re all one-offs, but any uniqueness we may possess is apparent mostly in our relationships with others. Worth remembering when the guy from IT is getting on your tits.

*I made the last one up. I think. If you’re a BS, you’re not alone.

May 2018
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