Writing and Wabi-Sabi (Brighton Creative Writing Sessions No. 2)

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic based around the imperfect, impermanet and incomplete. It is something that fascinates Ellen and I, and was the basis of our second Brighon Creative Writing Sessions workshop on Sunday.


Wabi-sabi focuses on the ephemeral and neglected, and their charm: 'where ugliness begins to crack and shows beauty'. One of the morning exercises was to write about something ugly. This produced some grotesque and striking language. We were then encouraged to write about the same thing, but describing it as beautiful.

Ellen explained how she wanted everyone to learn a new way of looking at the world, of appreciating things that are often overlooked. Wabi-sabi might sound depressing, but I also find it life-affirming, a way of enjoying things for what they are, not for what one thinks they should be.

Other exercises looked at memories of places and things in the past. Ellen set the mood with video, poems and music, including Into the Great Silence,and Amanda Palmer's ukulele cover of Fake Plastic Trees.

Over lunch, everyone collected small items they found it town: scraps of paper abandoned on the street, feathers, small stones and leaves. These were then stuck into booklets alongside snippets of writing produced during the day. Some of these booklets can be seen in the photograph at the top of the page.

Thanks once again to Jake Spicer for providing the venue. We have two more events in this season. On Saturday 2nd we're doing a workshop inspired by the Beats, and on the 9th we have a short story workshop. We also have a free flash-fiction writing workshop in October.


Abbie Hoffman and Levitating the Pentagon

A few months ago, I read an oral biography of Abbie Hoffman, Steal this Dream. Hoffman's story is a sad one. After his deliriously creative period in the sixties, Hoffman's life fell apart. He moved into drug dealing, a career he had little talent for, resulting in a bust. He spent several years on the run, where his bipolar condition worsened. By the end of his life, Hoffman was a sad, broken figure.

But during the sixties, Abbie Hoffman was incandescent. He was central figure in the Yippies, and one of the 'leaders' of the 1968 Chicago protests. He brought a manic freshness to protest, including an attempt to levitate the Pentagon. Hoffman was able to use the media, producing spectacles such as throwing dollar bills onto the floor of the stock exchange. These protests also demonstrated publicly that there were other ways of looking at things to the conventional. The attempt to levitate the Pentagon was absurd, but part of its success was that it was taken seriously in some quarters:

"Sal Gianetta: The two meetings I knew of, one in New York, and one in Washington, were probably the best examples of Abbie's brilliance. There were some Washington representatives and there were two military representatives. It started out that no way in the world was there going to be any activity anywhere around the Pentagon, which was the fucking Basilica of the United States, no fucking way. Right away, Abs says "Fuck you, we'll levitate the fucking thing high enough you won't be able to get in. Then what're you going to do with your fucking Pentagon?" They actually responded. That was the first inkling he had that he might be able to suck them into this…

At the other meeting I was at Ab threw the levitation on the table, right for openers. Ab was adamant that the building was going to go up twenty-two feet- because someone had told him except for fire-ladders, you can't get a ladder that's twenty-two feet. So he was willing to negotiate. If the fucking building went up twenty-two feet the foundations were going to crack, so there was discussion about foundations and cracks, it was fucking unbelievable. That meeting was two and a half hours or so and probably 20 per cent of that meeting was devoted to this fucking serious talk about levitating the Pentagon. This is our military, right? I swear to you, Ab came down from twenty-two feet to three feet, the military agreed to three feet and they sealed it with a handshake. That's how Ab was, he could capture you in that fucking bizarreness. Oh, it was joyful!

Looking back, the Sixties seem like a crazy time, when things could have changed forever. Imagine the scene at the Pentagon: American Indians, shamans and people burning yarrow, all gathered to exorcise demons from the building (with Kenneth Anger sneaking into the building to lay curses). I wish that same craziness and possibility was around today.

Lives as a single day: Kurt Cobain and William Burroughs

Imagine human lives considered as a single day, all those events compressed into the hours between rising at 7 and sleeping at 11. 16 hours of wakefulness. 

Take Kurt Cobain: each hour was twenty months, the time sweeping past. Nirvana formed at 6pm, and released their first record almost an hour later. At 8pm Cobain met Courtney Love. It was almost 9:30 by the time Smells Like Teen Spirit was a hit. Kurt and Courtney married just before ten pm, when the day was almost over. At eleven, Cobain put an end to his life.

William Burroughs died at 83. Each hour of his life was more than five years. At 2pm he shot his wife Joan Vollmer, when Cobain was 11 years old. He released his first book, Junky, at 2:30pm. Kerouac died at 5:30. At almost 8pm, Burroughs lost his son. His final novel, the Western Lands, was published at 9pm. 

Cobain and Burroughs met in October 1993. Years of real time separated the two, but if you consider their lives as a single day, it was 10:40pm for Cobain and 10:12pm for Burroughs.

Imagine a world where you knew how long you had left. What time is it now? What do you still need to do?

Writing From Life (Brighton Creative Writing Sessions No. 1)

How can your writing be influenced by what you see? How do you use images in your work?

On Saturday, Ellen de Vries and I held the first of our Brighton Creative Writing Sessions events. These are a series of playful, experimental creative writing sessions held in Jake Spicer's studio (also home to the Brighton Life Drawing Sessions). The studio proved to be a fantastic home, providing a more inspiring environment than a classroom-style venue.

Ellen and I did a lot of planning but were a little nervous before the start. How would people respond to what we were trying to do? It turned out that we had no reason to worry. The attendees were enthusiastic and both Ellen and I had a fantastic day.

The session started with a clip from Wild At Heart: "My dog barks some. Mentally you picture my dog, but I have not told you the type of dog which I have. Perhaps you even picture Toto, from 'The Wizard of Oz.'". This set the tone of the session.

We had a number of exercises and discussions examining the relationship between words and the visual world. We gave everyone blank paper to write on, urging them to think beyond writing in neat lines. As a warm up we used some timed visual prompts, similar to what we do for the our Not for the Faint-Hearted sessions, but using Jake's paintings:


Jake joined in with the exercises, and hearing him respond in writing to his own paintings was fascinating. In another exercise, people wrote about their non-dominant hand, producing some tremendous self-portraits. We also had some discussions, including Jake talking about drawing as a visual language.


For me the most interesting part was when we introuced a life model as a prompt. She made a series of three costumed poses.


For the final two poses we used easels to hold the paper. Obviously everyone had to stand for this and we all found that writing while standing gave the act a different energy.


It was this exercise that I found most valuable, and I produced one of the most exciting pieces of writing I've done in years. Jake's recent Catalyst Club talk urged people to experiment with drawing, and I tried mixing my (admittedly poor) drawing skills with writing. I tried to capture the shape of Frankie's hair with the shape of my text, adding a few lines to suggest her face and outfit. While the prose was not perfect, I found the experiment inspiring. I can't wait to try building on this.


For me, it was a rewarding afternoon. The attendees were friendly and gave the session a lovely relaxed mood. The next session is on Sunday 26th, on Wabi-Sabi (tickets available here):

This is a miracle-worker for writer’s block and for loosening up to generate new ideas. Wabi Sabi is a Japanese tradition which celebrates broken and fragmented things, things coming into life and dying things. It lends itself well to writing from landscape; it’s a new way of looking into the cracks in the world around you. "Just lean into the crack / and it will tremble ever so nicely. Notice how it sparkles down there". Bjork.

Thanks to Jake Spicer for providing the venue. Below is a postcard he produced in response to one of the exercises. I love this piece!


Miscellany: Gentrification, tennis zombies and serendipity

Not for the faint-hearted workshop No. 4

On Wednesday, Ellen and I held the fourth of our Not for the Faint Hearted Sessions. The aim is to write stories or poems inspired by images, with a short time limit. Once the time finishes, everyone takes turns to read some, or all, of what they've written. We have a rule that you aren't allowed to apologise for your work before reading. It might sound imposing, but the workshops are a relaxed, friendly event.

This time, Ellen tried an experiment in the second half. Rather than use a picture as the prompt, everyone was given a slice of cake, which they ate during the ten minutes. There were some fascinating stories in response to this strange prompt. We're hoping to do some more experiments in the future sessions.

We used creative commons images from flickr for the event. The photographs used were:

As usual, the delight was seeing how many different ideas emerged from the same image. It's a good exercise in latereal thinking, and it's very rare for someone to produce work that isn't fascinating or amusing. This time, I found it hard to settle in the first couple of rounds. In the first two minute session I wasted a minute, but managed to come up with something I liked for this image, from Dean Ayres:

Dressing Room Only

"The clowns gasped as the image was revealed to the court. No decent clown would let himself be seen making-up in public. The sentence was the worst available, beaten to death with squeaky rubber mallets. It took two days."

We also had an outbreak of limericks during the session including one a serious one from Graham Sutherland. It was surprising to hear a light form used in a different way. There's a lovely write-up of the session from Louise Halvarddson here, and a brief discussion from Tom Hume here.

Thanks once again to the skiff for hosting the event. Details of the next Not for the Faint Hearted event will follow soon. Meanwhile we're running the Brighton Creative Writing Sessions starting from tomorrow. Leave a comment if you'd like more information on that.

Photos of Brighton – September 16th

I like to think of Brighton marina as a JG Ballard theme park:


But there are also homages to other writers, such as this cthulhoid horror:

 An approaching storm:

 Walking past St Bartholemew's, the light caught the building in just the right way that the windows glowed:


An abandoned door:

This inventive plant-pot is in the garden at the bottom of Trafalgar Street:


Further delays to Brighton’s i360


Back in April, I wtote a long post about delays to the i360 project. Brighton's i360 was originally supposed to open in Spring this year and it now looks as if the project has been delayed to the second half of 2012, at the earliest. Today's Brighton Argus includes a story headlined 'Brighton Eye to miss 2012 target' about the ongoing problems (no online version as yet). Marks-Barfield, the developers, are now trying to sell sponsorship of the tower's name "in a bid to close the funding gap".

Tony Mernagh of the Brighton and Hove Economic Partnership is quoted in the article saying "I would expect a business whose core market is young and trendy would be attracted to this, someone like a fashion label, or maybe an alcohol brand… We could be talking about the Smirnoff Tower in a few years' time." Nice.

The i360 is still no closer to completion. I'd still like to see it finished, preferably without a tacky name, but the continued delays and threats to the project make the vandalism of the West Pier seem even more shameful.