The Lipogram Challenge

My second year here in Winchester is now in full swing, and until Christmas, Thursday will be the busiest day of my week. Last Thursday, from 11am until 2pm, I was in the first seminar of my Telling True Stories module, the one Lara and I are both expecting to enjoy the most this semester. Eventually, it will require us to choose, research and write about any person or event we like – the idea must be big enough to theoretically fill an entire book. At such an early point in the term, though, we haven’t started thinking about that just yet, and a large part of that session was just devoted to what would be expected of us over the next twelve weeks.

When we did get around to writing, I definitely found the exercise to be an intriguing test of our abilities. Through an example shown to us by our lecturer, we were introduced to the lipogram – a piece of writing in which a particular letter, or group of letters, is avoided. As you might expect, we were soon asked to write our own, and we were given the choice of either creating something original, or adapting one of the lecturer’s two chosen news articles. You can see the story I chose to work on at The Guardian‘s website here. I found it tricky to decide on what I would exclude from my piece, so I turned to the person sitting next to me and asked them for their opinion. They opted for the letter ‘C’. Deciding that there were enough synonyms in the world for me to make that work, I got started, and what you can see below was the result. The nature of the lipogram meant that the original story ended up somewhat condensed, but rather than limiting me as a writer, I found that it opened my mind and really made me think about how I could get around the obstacle facing me. Surely that means that it’s worth trying again?

“Parisian onlookers were astounded on Saturday evening when a young man braved the outside of a building to save the life of a boy about to fall from an upper floor. He is being referred to as the “Paris Spider-Man” due to his selfless and remarkable show of strength, now widely available in video form. Following the heart-stopping event, 22 year-old Mali-born Mamoudou Gassama was personally thanked by Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, who said that it would be “very keen to support him in his efforts to settle” in his new homeland. He will also be honoured for his valiant deed by the President this week.

The boy was home alone at the time of the episode – his father was held for questioning and is due to appear before a jury, but his mother was outside of Paris.”

Mason

Five Seven Five

When my Winchester flatmate Sam and I cross paths, often in the kitchen at odd times of the day or night, he’ll frequently ask what I’m writing at the moment. In the last few weeks, with no academic work to do, the answer has tended to be “nothing much”. Even when I’ve prompts in mind, nothing has been fruitful, but one very small thing has suddenly helped to change that – and I could find it rather useful over the coming months at home.

When I saved and submitted my poetry portfolio at the beginning of last month, I assumed that I was letting go of the last batch of verse I would write in a while. I’d had trouble gelling with the module, and – excluding one on song lyrics – I haven’t chosen to take any poetry modules next year. That was that, or so it seemed. Just the other night, using the pen and notebook Louis bought me for my last birthday, all it took was three lines to reveal that perhaps I have unfinished business with it after all. In a haiku, I have a simple outlet for all of those fragmented thoughts and emotions I’m keen to express. It’s also good for the ideas I have that aren’t quite big enough for me to expand on substantially, those that start out as words, phrases or images. If I get them down on paper in this way, I’m shifting my writer’s block and expanding my portfolio, albeit more gradually than I would like.

As I’ve said, it could come in especially handy over the next few months while I’m back in Somerset for the summer. It’s fair to say that I’ve been more than a little bit apprehensive about returning from Winchester and facing numerous questions about what I plan to do with myself. I’ve been embarrassed about admitting that right now, there are no plans to speak of – but I’m hoping that writing and the ideas I have will help to ease that as I work on making some. It doesn’t matter whether they manifest themselves as bigger things or smaller ones, or in three lines or more.

Mason

 

Steak And Chips

Henry sprayed himself with his strongest aftershave once again. A thick cloud rose up and he coughed as it filled his throat. In the mirror, he saw that his fringe had already collapsed under the weight of his hair gel. Great! Producing a toothpick, he began prodding about in his mouth. “Lettuce. Ham sandwich. Pringle,” he thought. They couldn’t afford to stay there.

He was convinced that something was sabotaging his date with Emily before he’d even been on it, and he was insecure enough already.  He and Emily would be having a meal; he was pretty confident about eating. But he didn’t know how to greet her, how to say goodbye, or what to talk about in between. “Do we kiss? Do I hold her hand? What are her interests?” He felt pressure from some anonymous force to be someone he wasn’t, and he desperately wanted to impress this girl naturally.

Unfortunately, Henry overthought every possible worst-case scenario. Last night, the latest in a long line of nightmares manifested themselves. He tossed and turned in bed as hazy images of spilling a drink on her dress, and kissing her with garlic breath, swirled in his mind. But as scary as those more trivial things seemed, there were other aspects of a potential new relationship that terrified him even more. He looked around at the paper strewn across his desk, and his overflowing bin. “What a shithole,” he thought to himself. “She’d hate this, wouldn’t she? What would her parents think? How fast would things move? Would she get bored of me?” He’d tried to fix his wonky hairdo, but there was only so much a careful comb could do. Accepting that it would probably collapse again soon, he took his keys and wallet and left his flat.

The short walk to the restaurant where Henry would be meeting Emily seemed to go on forever. Even as the town filled up with pubgoers in the twilight, he studied himself intently. He rubbed furiously at a stubborn stain on his shoe. Something he couldn’t identify that he tried and failed to rub off of his jeans. “Toothpaste? Mayonnaise?” All of the possible suspects entered his head. His eyes widened at another. “Bird poo?!”

He felt his shirt collar. It was wonky, so he promptly straightened it. He’d noticed himself sweating more now, and his hands were trembling. He quietly clenched a fist, just to confirm that he did indeed have increasingly clammy hands. He’d sniff his armpits again later on, even though he had already applied deodorant five times. Was that a spot he could feel on his nose…? Whatever it was, he removed his hand quickly, to avoid aggravating it.

“Get a grip,” Henry muttered. His friends had all told him that nerves before a first date were only natural. “It’s good to be nervous, it means that you care,” they would say. But Henry thought that being this nervous was borderline ridiculous. Surely all he had to do was be himself, and he’d be fine? Breathing in, then out again, he tried to relax his shoulders. The more Henry considered it, being himself seemed awfully cliched. He was neither outstanding nor awful, just average, and these days it seemed as though that wouldn’t cut it with anyone. There was so much pressure on so many people to look good and achieve great things in their lives. Life was presented like a race, in which nobody could afford to finish last – and as things stood, Henry was definitely finishing last. His mind flashed back to his modest room. He couldn’t help thinking that the odds were stacked against him, and his mindset didn’t improve when the restaurant appeared in the distance, modestly lit by the lamppost outside.

Henry thought about his bank balance as he patted his back pocket, just to ensure his wallet was in there. He couldn’t afford to splash the cash too much – his parents had always been very clear about the value of money. What would happen if he ordered something small? He could practically see the look of disgust on Emily’s face as a modest bowl of soup and a crusty roll faced up to rump steak and chips. “If I see her nose curl up,” he thought, “the ground may as well open up and swallow me whole.” He needn’t have worried.

With considerable trepidation, Henry slipped quietly through the door, and Emily watched as he approached. She was sat at a table surrounded by older couples who’d left the kids at home with the babysitter, and the last remnants of refracted daylight through the window almost formed an orange halo around her date. It made his skin and hair shine together; he was the physical embodiment of a deity and a dream, and she was totally at ease. All of a sudden, she wasn’t so worried about split ends or getting something stuck in her teeth. Even so, she fumbled in her bag, just to make sure the toothpicks were there.

Minutes earlier, Emily had been wiping the sweat from her brow in the toilets, such were her nerves. She had to laugh, because she’d been sweating when she first laid eyes on him as well, sitting in that university taster session.  The next time she met Henry, six months had passed, but the chemistry had been as magnetic as the attraction. She remembered having a drink outside, as the September sun made them squint and giggle as they discussed their hopes and fears. Just as she had been then, she found herself looking deep into his hazel eyes, hanging on his every word as he hung on hers. They may have been relatively new to each other, but conversation flowed like they had known one another for years. Some of those other couples looked over at them, fondly recalling the way things used to be when they were young. Who said romance was dead?

Oh, and they both got steak and chips.

Mason

Flarf Poetry

I’m now in the midst of my Easter break back at home – although, to all intents and purposes, my first year at university ended just over a week ago. I’m going back anyway, but for the next couple of weeks, I’ll focus on getting the last four assignments for the year done, while looking at what I’ve already accomplished with a great deal of pride. My marks this year have been very consistent (although nothing counts until Year 2) and I have learnt much and grown creatively. Approximately 7,000 words in total lie ahead of me during this break, and I hope can be as pleased with those as I am with what has gone before. Having such confidence in my work is very rare, since the self-doubt almost always kicks in once something is finished!

I’ve now submitted my poetry portfolio, and in time you may well see the whole thing here. For now, though, I just want to show you the poem that concludes it, as an example of flarf poetry. In class, we were told to think of two completely random words and enter them into Google so that we could write something using its search results. I chose “grassy brick”, which meant that I swiftly came across a set of instructions on how to grow grass in an old brick. I adapted these into stanzas – with some artistic licence – and I ended up with a simple and surreal final poem that didn’t take itself too seriously. I wouldn’t have ended the portfolio any other way. It’s called “Gardening For a New Generation”, and it goes like this:

“Gardening for a new generation.

Plant a seed in an urban jungle.

What will you need?

A brick, glazed, strictly non-porous;

Nothing else will do.

 

Blow away the dust and the cobwebs,

The ghost of a hardened hand.

Make it wet, soften the stone to sand,

Eat that pie on the windowsill;

You’ll need the tin tomorrow.

 

Half an inch of water will give new life.

Bless the brick with more,

As it sits in its bakelite bathtub.

Watch the cheap seeds sprout;

You’ll like grass, it’s hardy.”

 

Mason

Blackout Poetry

Two writing worlds collide! As my poetry portfolio of 150 lines is nearing completion, I’d like to show you one of the poems that will feature in it. I wrote it over the weekend, and although it is untitled at the moment, it serves as an example of blackout poetry. This is created through taking a larger piece of text – perhaps a page from a book, or in this case a stand-alone piece of non-fiction – and isolating totally unrelated words and phrases to use in the poem. I used Charles Simic’s “Dinner At Uncle Boris’s” to write this, looking carefully at different parts of the text to see what could form something strangely cohesive and intriguingly surreal. It will appear as the penultimate poem in my portfolio – I hope you like it as much as my workshop group did yesterday!

“The four of us, out of water glasses,

Eating through our second helping of fly.

I’m full of shit, with a bit of fat underneath.

No guts.

 

The old guys are reminiscing about the war.

‘You were very good at it,’ my father assured him.

We are all composite characters.

We survive that somehow, the incredible stupidity of our family.

 

Orgies of self-abuse, our family is a story of endless errors,

Making us all in turn say ‘aaaaaahh’ like a baby doctor.

Of course, we can barely keep our eyes open.

For the moment we have run out of talk.”

 

Mason

A Heart Full Of Hope

Here we are, folks – my very first post for 2019. I can safely say that 2018 was a corker of a year for me, and although I spent the last few hours of New Year’s Eve alone at home, I did so with a belly full of pizza and a heart full of hope, so I was more than happy. I used some of that quality time to continue reading a book Lara bought me as a Christmas present, Agatha Christie’s Evil Under The Sun, which features none other than Hercule Poirot himself. She got it upon hearing that I’d never read any of Christie’s work, and told me that I’d find it very easy to become immersed in the story. She was absolutely right – as I write this, I am 93 pages and seven chapters in, at a point where many probing questions are being asked of every potential murderer. I got there in no time, and my enjoyment of this new book in my spare time has subsequently increased my excitement for what lies ahead at Winchester even more.

Of course, nothing by Agatha Christie is on the reading list, but a few other books are, and two of them arrived yesterday. I am yet to look at them properly, but both are works of non-fiction – and as you might have gathered, I’m rather fond of life writing. The opportunity to read about the experiences, trials and tribulations of others is always tantalising, as is the opportunity to write straight from the heart about my own. The prospect of so much creativity from that and my other modules – including one actually called “Creativity”, and one on poetry, which I have always enjoyed – makes this January much more inviting, since I can’t yet tell what new ideas will manifest themselves, or how. I don’t know what will happen outside of my work either. The world is once again my oyster and as always, the unknown is very exciting. I can’t wait to go and see what it’s all about! Before that, though, I have another very precious fortnight left here at home – and before that, there is a brand new episode of Doctor Who for me to enjoy coming tonight. I fully intend to make the most of both.

Happy New Year to you all!

Mason

Doors Opening

Over the past three months, I’ve spent a lot of time travelling from floor to floor in a lift, and every time those gleaming steel doors slide apart, I never quite know who I’m going to find on the other side. I don’t always know where they’ve come from, where they might be going, or why. They just depart at the end of our journey and – in most cases – I never see them again. If I do, I certainly don’t recognise them. It was after a few weeks of such mystery had passed that I started to wonder if it could lend itself well to a story of some kind. I would picture myself waiting for the lift as usual, before the doors parted to reveal a sprawled corpse lying within. A lift could be good murder mystery territory, mainly because of the questions it instantly raises – especially if you’re travelling alone. Who could the culprit be? How could they commit their crime in a sealed and cramped space – and how could they do it in the mere seconds that pass between departure and arrival?

If I wanted to introduce more confusion, I could have the occupant vanish into thin air without explanation. It would be even harder for someone to do that in a lift, after all, and it would allow people to ask where they had actually gone as well as how. I love how there is the potential to do so much with so little, and I think that with the right characters and motives, the idea could work well. In any case, it was one I was eager to record here before I could forget it – so you could say that this post only consists of me thinking out loud. Then again, which one doesn’t? It could arguably have made good material for a podcast to follow my previous one, but I have swiftly concluded that my energies are much better suited to writing than to broadcasting! With that in mind, if I write something that I approve of as much as what I have already showcased here, it may well appear for you in due course…

Mason