16 July 2011

Automatic writing for the people

Right. So the other day I did this thing called The Reading, as part of the Not Part Of festival. You may have read about it here. You have three hours to write, in a specified slot, in an art gallery and there are 72 writers in total; each one is given the last paragraph of the last person's story to use as "inspiration" to write a completely new story. A bit like a chain letter. (Bastard, I hated chain letters - they were all the fucking rage in the 70s. Not that I wish to divulge my age, or anything of that sort.)

Right, so, it's a sort of automatic writing - y'know like what the Beats did. Or Oulipo. And I took part in this artistic expression experience on Thursday. It was interesting, if a little difficult. Anyway, I thought I would share with you the culmination of my efforts; tell me what you think. If I were to give it a title, I think I'd call it The Plan.

The paragraph that I was left sprung forth from the genius mind of my mate L'il Dave; without further ado, here's David Hartley's final par and then, after the stars, a strange story by me...

She was faced with the end of the world but she wanted no part of it. If this was collective imagination, then the collective could keep it. Half a mile behind her, blades rotating through the past, Ollie's helicopter was waiting. She took one last look at the roaring future, shrugged her shoulders and walked away.


The past, the future: you can keep them. The present, that's where it's at; the here and now. Take each day at a time - you have no idea what it will throw at you. Just react as it happens. Live your life real time. Look at you now. You're live-streaming your thoughts out into the ether. You don't know why: as if anyone even cares, right?

But someone does, somewhere. They look at the words you spew forth every day on those modern-fangled fancypants networks you love so much. You tell them all about the most inane details of your meagre existence on this planet, God's green earth that is slowly suffocating in front of your very eyes. But you don't care, not really. Live in the moment. That's what you say, you think.

Keep plying your audience with the twaddle they seem to love so much. Look: I'm drinking a can of Coca-Cola. It's the full fat stuff: the taste is better, the packaging is a design classic. See: I'm smoking a Gauloise Blonde. Not a Gauloise Blonde Legere as they're not as strong, and I'm trying to portray an image of myself in a certain way. (Also, you can't have Legeres any more - European law, or something.) Watch: I'm eating a packet of Hula Hoops. I'm putting them on the end of my fingers then biting them off enticingly, one by one.

You're sending out messages. You're not all that sure why, but it's a way of connecting with them out there. Sometimes you even tap out stuff that only certain people will understand. It seems a bit pointless, but you want them to know you're thinking of them perhaps, even if you're only doing this by the power of describing your clothes, the contents of your bag, the book you've taken it upon yourself to try and read. What about Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451? You like a bit of dystopia. Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, maybe? It has a good title.

People relate to that kind of stuff. Stuff. Like the coke, the cigarettes, the crisps. People understand, and those understanding people are the ones who are also living in the moment, like you. Who cares about the past? It's done and dusted, you can't change it, move on. Who cares about the future? You can plan and plan and plan, but it doesn't mean that everything is going to go according to that plan. There'll always be something: a spanner in the works, a fly in the ointment.

Take things as they present themselves. This could be an opportunity. It could be an adventure. It could be a disappointment, it could be a disaster. You can still be prepared - it helps to carry an umbrella in a rainy city, for example. And where would you be without that knife in your pocket, that condom in your wallet, that safety pin clipped to the hem of your trousers? Life-savers are handy when you have a life that needs saving.

And your life now - this life you're living one moment at a time, not making plans, going with the flow - is this life worth saving? Of course: it's fun, isn't it? Yes, but it's dangerous. Yes, but that's exciting. Yes. And people want to hear about it, remember? They're waiting to hear about it. You can't let them down now; you have a responsibility to Your Readers. They need you; perhaps they need to live through you.

Listen: I'm at the art gallery. I'm looking at art. I don't get the art that I'm looking at. Oh, I shouldn't admit that I don't get the art that I'm looking at. But I don't. It's dumb. Who the fuck funds this stuff, anyway? Why don't they give the money to me: I'm a living art experiment, aren't I? Living in the moment and all that. I could use the cash to keep up my body of work, extend my oeuvre, explore new forms of expressing these experiences everyone wants a piece of.

There's your application, right there. Copy and paste it into the online form, quick, before you forget, before something comes along to distract you: a phone call, an important email that Needs Answering Right Now, a meteor smashing into the polar icecaps and setting us all in a tailspin towards the sun, a gigantic spaceship hovering about Manchester Town Hall, demanding an audience with Richard Leese.

But that's not going to happen, is it? You, I and they all know that the aliens only ever put a humungous shadow over New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Johannesburg, Paris and London, at a push. Plus humungous isn't even a word. Probably gigantic isn't either; you can't remember and the dictionary has everything in it these days, colloquial, made up, everything.

You should know, you spend enough time flicking through the good book at work where you edit report after boring report and pretend to be looking up things like "data" (plural? Singular? Does anyone give a toss?) but actually what you're really doing is trying to find as many rude words as possible and testing your own encyclopaedic knowledge of swears against Roget. You usually win; the man has no sense of imagination. You couldn't if you came up with such a complicated cross-referencing system.

So, yeah, live in the moment. Get that funding bid off. Then get on with your next project idea: the one where you catalogue all your favourite naughty phrases using library coding parameters stored on microfiche and displayed on a light box in a darkened room that adds to the suggestive atmosphere. Or you could do a series of Venn diagrams: male bits intersecting with female bits, so to speak; the subset of shared bits including nipples, arses, hard, panting. And then there's the bedtime stories stroke of genius: two writers sat in a bed telling tales of titillation, like the Yoko and John of the literary world. The arts lot'd love that; they'd put on their special voices and extol the talents of the great minds who came up with such a brainwave.

But you're living in the moment, remember? These projects are plans. You don't have a plan. God, it's stressful, not having a plan. Why hadn't you noticed this before? You were trying so desperately to fly by the seat of your pants and cram in as many events and experiences and emotions and other things beginning with e that you've started to lose your way.

So let's make a plan, you and I. Maybe I'll make the plan and I won't let you in on it. Would that work? But then I'd be in control and wouldn't that be like playing God? That's twice now he's cropped up. But I don't believe in God, only extraterrestrials, because there's got to be something out there, right? Just not an old bloke with a beard sat on a cloud surrounded by cherubs playing lutes or lyres or whatever the damn things are.

If I make a plan, The Plan, would that be even more stressful? We're right back at the plans not going according to plan. That was the whole point of this discussion. Perhaps we shouldn't have these philosophical existential theological mental chats in our frame of mind. It's tricky, that's for sure. A proper dilemma. I can't make The Plan - surely that's for the Fates to decide. Leave it up to destiny, eh? But then you have to believe in the Fates and destiny to begin with, I suppose, and I don't believe in anything. Except extraterrestrials, of course. Remember?

But say we did have a plan. Just say. For argument's sake. Work with me here. What would The Plan involve? I can't see into the future, but I want one; the life worth saving, all that. You too, right? The life worth saving, I mean. Trouble is, my idea of the future would probably not be the same as your idea of the future, if you'd for just one minute think about the future and stop selfishly pretending you don't need a plan. Living in the moment, indeed. What kind of student anarchy thinking is that?

So we're getting nowhere with this. I want a plan, you don't want a plan. I don't want a plan, you want a plan. What, you've changed your mind now, have you? That complicates matters. Maybe that's the spanner in the works, the fly in the ointment: you've been pretending you don't want a plan, but actually secretly, all along, you've been squirrelling away thoughts of things that might happen in the future. I bet you've got tons of these thoughts hidden in the recesses of your great mind.

It's probably like one of those books you used to order off the back of cereal packets in the 80s, the ones where you get to the end of a chapter and are faced with a number of options, each one leading to a new set of circumstances. Like a tax return, only with princesses and monsters and pirates and monkeys. There were probably monkeys. So you got to the end of a chapter and had to decide your own fate.

a) Rescue the princess from the monsters and pirates and gallop off on a white monkey into the sunset where you'll get married and live happily ever after. Go to Chapter 2.
b) Don't rescue the princess from the monsters and pirates and save yourself from a loveless marriage and a lifetime of nagging. No one finds out what happens to the monkeys. Go to Chapter 3.
c) Rescue the monsters and pirates; leave the princess to set up a monkey sanctuary and die an old maid but she's content because at least she's put something back into society and you're content because you've got a whole gang of monsters and pirates to hang out with; ain't nobody gonna mess with you now, dawg. Go to Chapter 4.

So we need to think of the options in your head. I guess they're: carry on as is; don't carry on as is; carry on but this time with a plan. Oh, we're back here; I think this is a sticking point. If only we had some monkeys. They'd distract us if nothing else. We'd get caught up in training them to do party tricks; fetch and carry; make cups of tea. We'd be the talk of the town with our troupe of dancing simians throwing down rose petals for us to walk over. Now, that's a plan. (Note to self: look into monkey adoption.)

But let's not lose sight of the important details. The important details are The Readers. We'd kind of forgotten about them, but we'd be nothing if it weren't for The Readers. We need to keep them in new material, you know what they're like. So demanding. If we don't keep feeding them the snippets of information on the minutiae of our life, they'll get all sluggish and slow and eventually stop, like a Furby or a Tamagotchi. Discarded in the corner of the room, staring at the point where the two white walls meet, staring with dead eyes and no purpose in life.

We're the life-savers, after all. We thought it was our lives we were supposed to be saving, but really it's theirs. So let's get on with it; give them what they want, what they need. Words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books, libraries. That's why we're here. What else did you think?

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