where the buttons go.

Tuesday, April 14

Buttons are always falling off of me. I’m always losing them. They are always losing me. Sometimes they dangle for weeks – hanging off my coat like a wobbling tooth until I tug. Snap. And all that’s left is the thread. Sometimes they disappear without saying goodbye. Ping. Pop. Rattle. Bounce. Rolling down pavements, down the gutter. Down and down. Never to be seen again.

There’s a place underground where the buttons go. Buttons and socks and kirbies and rings and keys and shoes and tights and teeth. And that red Polly Pocket I lost when I was five. And the words I forgot in the middle of talking. All the things that I’ve lost. Marbles and dice. And watches and pens and letters and names and needles and doodles and Monopoly houses. And all of those photographs that were wiped from the computer. Quite without warning. Just one day: deleted. The three of us shivering in the pool in the summer. Emilie hopping in the garden, bare feet. That one of me, twelve, in Budapest heat, so small, smiling under the willow tree’s sway. Gone. Gone. Not a pixel left over.

All the things that I’ve lost. All my vests. Those addresses. The person I was until something else happened. The person I thought I was likely to be. All my chewing-gum packets, and hair bands, and scotch tape. The minutes I’ve spent on trains that aren’t moving. The minutes I’ve spent squeezing spots by the sink. All the minutes I’ve spent on the bus, in a queue, on my phone, by the mirror. Or just waiting for someone. All that waiting. And waiting. All the thoughts in my head that I didn’t write down.

That’s where the buttons go. Or so I imagine. They're all there, underground, where the lost things live.

This is a piece that came out of a free-writing exercise I gave my students on the last day of class. I like buttons, so I thought, 'Hey, why not? I'll do it too'. The writing prompt (in case you'd like to do also) is pretty much: 'pick a button, look at it, turn it over, think about what it reminds you of, who it might've belonged to, set a timer for 15 minutes, don't plan, just start writing, and writing, and writing until the time runs out. Just see what happens.' Some people wrote stories. Some wrote descriptions. This is (a slightly edited version of) what I came up with

My Gran kindly donated the buttons we used in class. We spent the Friday evening before, sifting through her button box, looking for the ones with the most 'story potential'. (Thank you, Grannie-Anne.)

the end of term.

Thursday, April 9

For the past ten Mondays, I’ve been teaching a first year undergrad creative writing class. It’s been amazing, and kind of surreal* ...and that’s the semester finished now. [Insert comment about how quickly time passes]. On the final day of class, none of the students stood on their desks to say O Captain! My Captain! (alas). But I quite enjoyed teaching them. Hopefully they learned a few things

The class was on the foundations of fiction, so we talked about things like: characters need to want something (that they can’t easily get) in order to be compelling; stories without conflict aren’t really stories; conflict doesn’t necessarily need to be uber-dramatic, sometimes silence says more than shouting. We talked about setting and how to involve the reader in the world of a story by building a strong sense of 'place' (which doesn’t generally mean: write a ginormous paragraph describing the surroundings in precise geographical detail. More often it means: drop in a few ‘telling’ sensory details – the dust specs that catch in the evening light, the peeling paint on the walls of the bedroom, the metallic heart-beat sound a train makes when it’s rumbling over a bridge – and then leave room for the readers’ imagination to fill in the rest).

‘The job of a writer,’ I kept telling them, ‘is to capture (or try to capture) in language what it feels like to be alive. And to do that – you need to practise the art of paying attention.’

Write down the details. Write down the conversations you hear on the street. The strange words people use. The way light hits the trees on your walk home. Work out what that taste in your mouth is when you hear bad news. Write it all down. Pay attention to it all.

Pay attention to your life. Pay attention to your life.

They probably got a bit sick of me saying that. But that – aside from the unglamorous task of sitting down and just getting on with it – is the most important thing a writer can do, I think** (perhaps one of the most important things a person can do). It’s something I’m continually trying to teach myself. I go on about it an awful lot, but I keep forgetting to do it.



*It was surreal because: it was only five years ago that I was a nervous 18-year-old going to my first creative writing workshop, not imagining that a few years later I’d be up the front teaching one. (When you’re quite unambiguously introverted, standing for two hours in front of a group of twenty students every week is a definite leap out of your comfort zone. But a good leap, I think. I would like to keep doing it).

**Probably the first place I came across this idea – that writing is about ‘seeing’ and ‘paying attention’ – was in an essay on writing by Kate DiCamillo which I read over and over as a young teenager. 
‘What I discovered,' DiCamillo writes at one point, ‘is that each time you look at the world and the people in it closely, imaginatively, the effort changes you. The world, under the microscope of your attention, opens up like a beautiful, strange flower and gives itself back to you in ways you could never imagine...’ 
It’s a really beautiful essay – whether you’re a writer or not. You can find it: here. I read it out to the class before they packed up their bags on the last day.)

Pictures are by Clare Elsaesser. You can find her: here.


Wednesday, April 8

Spring is here. It tiptoed into our lives a few weeks ago (bringing opportunities for eating lunch outside, light jackets, walks without-gloves, birdsong, general happy feelings). And then it snowed. And hailed. And rained. And sleeted. And the sky was grey for a long time. And I caught the cold. And moped around Glasgow wearing a blanket-scarf and hiding my cracked-skin-hands deep inside my pockets. But it's come back and it is quite beautifully golden. Spring is here. It's here. And it is most welcome. What are some of the signs of Spring you've been enjoying?

Picture of: me, on Easter Sunday, in our back garden, looking unintentionally bridal... and in need of a hairbrush.

I will return to this little blog. There is much to write. My head is full of words. For now though, here's a song I've been enjoying: Make it Holy by the Staves (featuring Bon Iver).
by mlekoshi