blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Artist, fireman, traveller; 2017 in books

books_congerdesign
congerdesign via pixabay

In 2017 I kept a simple writing diary to track my progress, as described in my earlier post Footprints in the snow . In it I recorded stories written, blogs posted, submissions made, and pieces published. Each entry got a colour coded spot. Published pieces got a gold star, because it’s important to celebrate success.

It was the first year using my Very Easy Tracking System™ and I’d call it a success. I kept it up for the whole year and it was motivating to look back and see what I’d achieved. Together with teeny tiny goals, I managed to write every week as well as posting here. For two months I wrote every day, but a weekly goal fitted better with life.

I recorded the books I read

I am a reader and writer of fiction above all, but not exclusively. So I read some books about creativity, because I like to be meta. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp spoke to consistent practice and careful preparation as the foundations of creativity. Tharp’s life is one of success through dedicated hard work.

Steal like an Artist by Austin Kleon illuminated a new way of thinking about creating, exhorting us to do the work we want to see done and to be boring in order to get it done. His ten rules make sense. My favourite? Creativity is subtraction. So make it, then take some away. The work will always be better for thoughtful editing.

Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth was a totally different kind of book. For a lover of language, it is a fascinating meander through the history of words, and the way in which the English language enlarges, stretches, twists and bends to bring us the words and phrases we use today. And it’s funny too.

In fiction I first watched the film and then read The Martian by Andy Weir. Both were enjoyable, and I appreciated the firm grounding in real science, leavened by an engaging protagonist. The stakes are high from the very first page, literally life or death. Humour contrasted with the serious work of survival against the odds by methodical problem solving.

Somehow despite being a confirmed Ray Bradbury fan, I’d never read Fahrenheit 451. The writing style is a little dated, but the ideas remain scarily prescient. Video walls, TV characters that feel more real than actual relatives, the coarsening of societal attitudes and loss of true emotion all ring sadly true, sixty-five years after it was published.

But the book that made me think, that stayed with me long after I finished, was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. A Pulitzer Prize winner made into a film would not be a natural first choice for me, as I find most prize winning novels are dull duty reads that few people actually finish. This story is very simple. A nameless man and his young son walk through American landscapes burned by an unknown disaster to reach the coast.

Their world is carefully evoked; the despair, danger and deadness of a nuclear winter where no sun shines and nothing grows. The question is, when we have lost everything, what keeps us moving? Why should we live, how should we live? Despite the bleakness of the setting, this book has at its centre a message of hope. The writer achieves a lyricism not usually associated with post-apocalyptic settings, avoiding sentimentality with his spare prose.

I read more books of course, and the TBR pile grows daily. But The Road was the number one for me last year.

Give it a try

Track your reading this year, and think about what you take from each book. Jot a few notes about it in your diary or journal. It may be only one idea, but it might be just what you need to move forward on your own creative journey.

audio, blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, poetry

Imperceptible

a poem

sunset-orange_kordi-vahle
kordi-vahle via pixabay

Listen to this poem:  

A certain shade of vulnerability
Dark smudged beneath a weary, teary eye
Faint fingerprinted hip where passion turned angry
A shadowed brow, but not like this
The place where things slid from binary
Into uncertain gradations

When did day surrender, when did light flee?
Night now, but let your eye adapt
And catalogue dim fractions
Pupils stretched wide until all the darks are one
Swallowed ghostly whole entire by dusk
Obscuring every boundary and line

You think you’ll know when
You think you’ll see it
But the shift is imperceptible.


first published in Poets Unlimited on Medium, 10 January 2018

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, short story, writing process

Haven

a 100 word drabble on ‘the comfort of strangers’

cottage-seaside_Free-Photos
Free-Photos via pixabay (edited)

A fierce storm rolled in as I scattered John’s ashes. No chance of a ferry back to the mainland. I sat in the empty terminal building, truly alone.

A kindly old woman approached me. “Might I offer ye a bed for the night?”
I followed her home, hiding my grateful tears. Sleep came easier than I expected.

The morning dawned clear as she waved goodbye. But when I described her to the Ferrymaster, he looked baffled.

“You’re mistaken surely. Morag died twenty years ago, and Cameron’s Cottage has been empty since.”

My blood ran cold. My name is Margaret Cameron.

Commentary

This piece was written in collaboration with Gordon Adams during a meeting of Northants Writers’ Ink. This writing group meets regularly and collaborative writing is always an enjoyable event. This time we were tasked to come up with a drabble of exactly one hundred words, on the comfort of strangers.

We considered a number of scenarios around chance and fleeting encounters. This story would take place in a transient environment where people come and go; waiting rooms, airports, bus stations, vending machines. Frequently these are also places where lives change in an instant, surrounded by a rushing humanity that seems not to care, taken up with its own drama. Yet, flashes of kindness do appear, sometimes when they are sorely needed.

Packing a story into such a small space is a challenge. Once we fleshed out the action, we began writing, and then cutting to shape. Like poetry, every single word must earn its place and preferably do double duty.

Writing is usually a solitary pursuit. It was a real pleasure to bounce ideas off someone who got my drift and contributed to the process too.

We had a time limit of about forty minutes, and the ticking clock also forced us to get on with it. Like so much in life, done is better than perfect! I prefer to write poetry, but this short form has a lot to recommend it.

 

audio, blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, short story

On Goodbye

Skitterphoto_cropped
Skitterphoto via pixabay

 

Listen to this story: 

I never said goodbye to my mother. By the time we realised she was leaving, we found that her body remained but her soul was already on the train. Her eyes were fixed on an unknowable, distant destination. We waved when the whistle blew, but she never looked back. Worrying away at that loose thread, I believed that goodbyes are important. So when I heard that he was going into the hospice that day, I went.

It was one of many such days. Endless activity, calls to action, demands to be met. But this call was my own, and not to be deferred. He smiled when I told him that I had to come before he left. In between pauses to catch his breath, he told me how much he valued our friendship.

In turn, I thanked him for his advice, freely given and always useful. We reminisced about past times, while afternoon sun bathed the room in a warm glow and a ticking clock provided a constant rhythm in the background.

He said he didn’t want to burden his wife any more, and shushed her murmured protests. This was the right thing for both of them, he said.

She was a strong woman, and she did not cry. She watched him with love and she smiled, because he needed to see it and she had to give him whatever he needed, now that all prayers were useless. Pain would be borne later, in private. She offered tea, but I could not delay my commitments further.

He coughed and wheezed. Joked that he sounded as if he had been on twenty a day, and I responded that life just wasn’t fair sometimes. It’s never been fair, and we shook hands.

We had spoken the truth, but we ended with a lie.

“See you again,” I said.

And he replied with a smile, “I hope so.”

We parted with a final, double-handed handshake, after which I held back my sudden impulse to hug him. It would have felt like surrendering to the inevitable. When all seems lost, the tiniest shred of hope is the only thing left to us, and we cling to it lest we drown.

He was tired of fighting, and he faced his future calmly. Intangible and yet absolutely present, the word we would not say hung in the air like smoke.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, short story

Snow angel

bubble-snow_rihaij
rihaij via pixabay

There are two kinds of people. Some wake to a pristine world of white and rejoice, while others groan. Some love the look of untouched snow in all its cool perfection. They smile as they view it from the warmth of the house, hot chocolate in hand. Some wrap up and race outside to catch snowflakes on their tongues, press prints into fresh snow with boots and sleds and make their mark on that blank canvas.

Two kinds of people. Those who observe and think, and those who engage and feel. I don’t know if one group understands the other, really.

Lumi is my little angel. After years of painful disappointment, unanswered prayers, procedures and doctors and emptiness, along she came. Making a new life is a mundane miracle that is also somehow transcendent. Lumi brought light to our lives, turned me from a have-not to a have overnight.

She had pneumonia that first winter. She was not yet a year old and so small. David and I sat either side of her bed, trying to breathe for her, hardly daring to breathe for ourselves, so afraid. Snow was something to scrape off the car and trudge through on our way to and from our darling girl. We hardly noticed it. She pulled through, and we gathered her close.

She’s tugging on my sleeve, turning her face up to scrunch her nose at me. Brown eyes sparkle and she points outside, through the glass doors.

“Look, mama, snow! Can I get wellies? An’ stomp the snow? Please mama.”

I look down at her dark curls flying as she bounces with excitement. The snow is perfect, and I picture cold air stealing its frozen tendrils into her lungs, wrapping her veins with ice. I don’t know if it’s safe.

She coughed all through her second winter, though no snow fell. I wrapped her up and kept her inside. I didn’t want her to fall ill again.

She’s still pulling at me, asking, good-humoured and adorably enthusiastic. Outside the sky is arctic blue, and low sun reflects off snow-covered branches. A robin hops by, leaving tiny tracks behind. She laughs and points at the birdie, asks me what sound it makes. I’m not sure I ever knew. Still I hesitate.

A fresh page, a clean slate holds limitless potential. Before you make a mark all the options are there, branching off in infinite directions. Anything could happen. After the decision is made, it’s spoiled. Infinite possibilities discarded in favour of just one.

There are two kinds of people, the confidently proactive and the anxious, paralysed by fear of making the wrong choice.

I think I did everything right. Perhaps I was too careful but a mother only wants the best for her child. I thought fate wanted the same.

“It’s very cold out there, sweetheart. You’ll have to wrap up and you don’t like wearing a scarf.”

“I will wear my scarf an’ my boots though. I get them now.”

And she’s off, giggling, to dig through the cloakroom for her knitted hat with the white pompom, and pink gloves with sequins on the back. I hear her singing a Disney song.

Once we’re wrapped up against the frigid weather, we will build a snowman. I picture my ski gloves and snow boots, relics of a different life, pushed to the back of the shoe rack. All at once we’re outside, laughing, kicking up white flurries.

She lies down to make a snow angel and I wish I had my phone to snap a picture of her joyful face, with her glittery wings spread wide. Twisted through the lens of grief, I can’t rely on memory these days.

I can’t tell which is dream, which is nightmare, which is real life. I should have let her play outside, and played along with her. Now I stand here looking out of my window at the silent snow that blankets everything. Maybe there is life beneath, but I’m too numb to dig myself out.

Lumi skips along and the robin hops behind her, orange breast vibrant against all that white. They’re singing but I can’t hear them, and they leave no tracks on the snow.

There are two kinds of people. The ones who think they have more time, and the ones with regrets.

I should have let her make her mark on the world while she could, before snow made me cry.


(first published in Creative Cafe on Medium, 16 December 2017)

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, short story

An ending

rose petal red_malubeng
malubeng via pixabay

 

I sat at a window table in the coffee shop waiting for my perennially tardy friend Clare. I’d come to expect the text saying she was running late two minutes before we were due to meet. I didn’t mind though. I got the first round in; a large latte for her, apple and elderflower tea for me, and millionaire’s shortbread to share. She’d be along, and I could people watch while I waited. Usually it was a chance to daydream with the hum of early Saturday morning as a soundtrack.

The slam of a car door outside rang through the entrance as a patron came in. The dark haired woman stormed off, pulling her shoulder strap over her head. Her blue bag bounced on her hip and she dodged other shoppers with grace and speed. As she approached the coffee shop her frown was obvious, dark brows lowered and jaw set.

Her companion caught up in a few long strides, grabbed her wrist. She spun round, shook her hand free. I sipped my tea and watched the back and forth. She waved her hands, stabbed a finger at his chest in accusation. He shook his head, clenched his fists at his sides. One or two passers-by glanced at them but they paid no attention, fully absorbed in their moment of drama.

My phone buzzed again. Clare was running really late, so I finished the shortbread. We could always get another. Meantime this silent altercation had drawn me in.

He opened his palms, placatory. Her shoulders slumped, eyes downcast. There was a brief pause. In movies, that would be the pivotal moment. He’d beg forgiveness, she’d realise what she’s losing, and they would fall into each other’s arms. Roll credits.

She walked away. He watched her go, then called out. She hesitated and stopped. I held my breath. She turned back and I saw her face clearly. She bit her bottom lip, nodded fractionally and walked up to him. The wind tugged at his light hair as she cupped his face between her hands and brought him down for a soft kiss. The tension in his shoulders relaxed and he reached for her at the exact moment she stepped away. She gave him a small, sad smile before leaving without looking back.

The man still stood rooted to the spot, touching his lips as if to hold on to her. He returned to his car and sat for a while before driving off.

I was still wondering about them even after Clare rushed in, describing her own little drama of lost keys and a broken heel. At least that could easily be fixed.

Maybe truth is stranger than fiction but life is not a fairytale. Sometimes it ends with a kiss.