In order that I don't spend my entire life in the classrooms at work or in front of a screen at home and as a way to network occasionally with the likes of local writers, I joined the Brighton-based Write Club last year. It's an informal network of local writers that meet up from time to time to chat about writerly stuff and perhaps share the odd idea or two. The informality of it is one of the attractions, I think.
Every now and again, members of the network organise events and I went along to one last night. A workshop that might fit into a category of 'live flash fiction', 'fiction slam' or 'fiction jam' (pick your label of choice), the event consisted of a series of images and short deadlines within which attendees were tasked with writing a piece of short fiction/prose/poetry based on whatever thoughts the images triggered off, which would then be read out to the assembled crowd. It was subtitled 'Not for the faint hearted' and I must admit that I was slightly nervy about the prospect, to the point where I'd rehearsed a range of possible character sketches and rough plotlines that I could dip into should the need arise. In the end, it turned out that coming with a blank mind was a better bet and none of my characters ended up making it into any of the pieces that I wrote.
It was actually a fascinating exercise in writing under pressure and I ended up writing something for each picture. It seems that images out of context can make great triggers for writing from. Although they may not work at all now without the context of the original photographs, I thought I'd reproduce here the brief works that I came up with. They are all untitled, as I was trying to make the best use of the time available and I find that titles can come better later.
The first picture was of a series of paintings leaning up against a wall down on Brighton beach as the sun was setting. We were given 15 minutes to write, the longest stretch of the night. I came up with the following refugee tale:
It was a surprise, yes, but not in a bad way. We'd been through so many others that had been such negative experiences that it felt good to have the kind that creeps up behind you and throws its arms around you in a welcoming embrace rather than the kind that hits you forcefully between the eyes.The second picture was of a sign that boldly misspelled 'No Technology'. This time, we were given only three minutes. For some reason, it reminded me of the Korean border, even though the signs I saw there were probably erected by the Americans and mainly read things like 'Danger: Landmines':
Getting out of Freetown alive had been a surprise. Although it had got us here, the journey by boat, somehow sneaking in to Spain, the shocks of life on the road in France had all been sucker punches in their own ways. The stories we'd heard about how people like us get treated once we arrived in England were little electrical shocks, each tale tripping off a tremor of fear.
When my sister and I finally ended up in this coastal city, away from the madness of London but with its own, slightly softer sense of crazy, Amelia lost her bag on the beach. All the photos we'd carried with us, the two of us together at a birthday party, Mum and Dad in happier times, disappeared.
It was a surprise then when a week later, we were walking along the beach letting the setting evening sun tickle our skin, and two faces jumped out at me from a canvas leaning up against a brick wall. The two faces, both wearing a sense of African sadness, were ours. Somebody must have found her bag.
'Didn't you do anything while you were in Seoul', he asked with a grin on his face. 'I thought you were supposed to be teaching them English'.After the break, we were shown a picture of three people standing against the force of a huge wave that crashed over one of the stone jetties near Brighton Pier. I pulled out a memory of a hotel I once stayed in near the sea and imagined one of the people coming in at breakfast time. We were given 10 minutes this time:
'I did', I replied with a smirk to return his. 'But the Korean Luddite League wouldn't listen to anything I did with a computer. Should have used a pen and paper'.
The bell at the top of the door tinkled merrily as it ushered another guest into the hotel. This time there was no tapping of heels on the hardwood floor or the soft pad of Hush Puppies with which to build a picture of who I might be avoiding the stare of over breakfast. Instead was a 'swish, swish', like two pairs of sodden jeans hitting each other on a clothes line in the wind. The footsteps stopped and were followed by a persistent dripping - a tap with a worn out washer behind a closed door.
With a sharp inhalation of breath, a man walked into the breakfast lounge looking as if he'd just been dragged from a birthday party in the open ocean.
The hotelier nervously shuffled up to him with her papers and a clipboard.
'Can I help you?' she cautiously enquired.
'Yes. Four white towels please' was his booming response.
Another three minutes image came on the form of a pair of ladies shoes cast aside on the pavement. I remembered the exhilaration of my first visit to Shinjuku Gyoen in Tokyo and of discovering one of the city's green lungs - the overwhelming need I had to get a little city out of my hair:
She was desperate to feel the grass between her toes. So desperate that as soon as she left the skyscrapers, the metro, the gliding traffic behind her, she kicked off her shoes and ran towards the lush green carpet. The paving stones that preceded it merely served as her launch pad.
Two minutes this time and a picture that I might have taken myself when the seafront was covered in snow last winter - the only time I've ever seen snow on Brighton beach. The picture was of a snow-covered fishing boat:
Vessel like whale jaw
With dandruff coating
Beach as dusted
But no-one's boating
The final image, and I think another two minuter, was of a couple of kids sat at the Dolphin Derby game on Brighton Pier, with an array of stuffed toys over their heads:
'If you throw one hard enough', he said ' you can bring the whole lot down'.
'All I want is an octopus', I replied. 'It's all I've ever wanted'.
All in all, it was an enjoyable evening, I got to meet some new people that I probably wouldn't have met otherwise and came to understand that one doesn't have to spend ages faffing around worrying about what to write. Sometimes it's better to just put pen straight to paper, give yourself a tight deadline and see what flows.
Comments welcomed if you like or dislike any of the tales that ended up flowing out last night.
**UPDATE** The original post did not contain any of the pictures used in the event. I've since found them and included them in the post. I think it helps to connect image with words. Thanks to James Burt for the links to the photos (and for organising/hosting the event).