I’ve been enjoying the London Olympics far more than I expected to. Before the Games started I’d feared, like many people, that the commercialisation of sport had got out of hand, that the traffic was going to be a nightmare, that anyone without a Visa card would be effectively banned from spending money, or that the Olympic courts were going to stock our prisons with people who’d gone out in the wrong type of shorts. But since Danny Boyle’s bizarre magical-modernist opening ceremony (topped by the trompe l’oeil of the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter), my disbelief has been suspended. When it comes down to basics, the Olympics, despite the marketing men’s best efforts, is still all about the sport.
And sport, as it hardly needs saying, is about competition. It creates a space in which the rules are tightly defined and referees and invites people to prove their worth on equal terms. To beat your opponent you must be faster, stronger and more skilful (yes, the developed nations have an advantage in the more technical sports involving bikes, boats and horses, but the athletics stadium is still one of the few arenas in the world where people from every continent line up as equals). Competition in this sense is not merely about winning. The men’s 100 metres, one of the events that draws the greatest number of athletes to every Olympic Games, featured no more than four athletes who genuinely had a chance to win the gold medal. Under the ‘winning is everything’ mentality that is gaining ground, the others might as well not have bothered to turn up. Yet still they did. The final was memorable not just for the heroics of Usain Bolt, but because he had to overcome seven athletes, who in turn had risen above thousands of other aspiring sprinters in every country of the world, all of them pushing themselves to their limit.
The Olympics is a world of stories. For a writer who likes sport, it’s like spending two weeks in Disneyland. In the early days I enjoyed the variety of events and the chance to watch sports that never otherwise catch the spotlight. The downside of the British team’s success has been the diminution of the television coverage to a relentless parade of homegrown success, eclipsing everything else. I don’t find it offensive, just inadequate. Much as I’ve enjoyed the feats of Jessica Ennis, Bradley Wiggins, Sir Chris Hoy and all the rest, it misses something essential about the complexity of sport. Other competitors have become increasingly incidental, so that at times it was difficult to remember that anybody else was in the race. When the British men’s sculls pair narrowly lost a nerveless battle with a Danish crew, there wasn’t a word of acknowledgement of the achievment of the other team, only a misplaced apology for the viewers back home who had been deprived of their fix of British Gold. Increasingly I started to drift away from the BBC’s straitened coverage to seek out other strands of the narrative. There was the remarkable semi-final in the women’s football in which Canada went ahead three times, conceded a late penalty and then saw the United States snatch a winner in the last seconds of extra time. The turbine-like power of the Dutch freestyle swimmer Ranomi Kromowidjojo, who two years ago was in hospital fighting off meningitis. The astonishing solo run of the Kenyan David Rudisha, who broke the world record in the 800 metres with the graceful ease of a flock of geese in flight. And the brilliant twist in the final of the 400 metres hurdles, as the former champion Felix Sanchez reignited a career that seemed to be in permanent decline with a run of dazzling fluidity.
Sanchez would go on to have a far larger influence on my experience of the Olympics than I could possibly have imagined. I knew he had been untouchable for a few years on the running track, winning the 2004 Olympic crown in 2004, before injuries and poor form brought him down. It was widely assumed he would never hit those heights again and was simply winding down his career. Yet like every Olympic competitor, he was still driven by the desire to do better – perhaps more so, having a memory of what it was like to be the very best. And on Monday night he vindicated all those efforts, stopping the clock in exactly the same time he managed eight years before. Track athletes are in the business of running in circles, but eight years to get back to the same point must be some kind of record.
I don’t care much in general for national anthems. The worst thing about the British success has been the endless playing of God Save The Queen, a plodding dirge whose lyrics equate happiness with imperial conquest. There’s been a debate going on in the UK about whether athletes should sing as they collect their medals, as if this were somehow the true measure of achievement. When Felix Sanchez stood on top of the victor’s podium and reflected on the previous eight years of pain and frustration, he wasn’t singing either. Instead he cried, tears of joy mingled with relief, as the sounds of his country’s anthem rang out through the stadium. And the tune itself was a pleasant surprise, like a flower in the desert, strong and delicate at once, a thing of rare and unexpected beauty. On the spur of the moment I sent a Twitter message of appreciation:
At the time I didn’t think medal ceremonies were much more than a courtesy to the winners, an epilogue, a chance to bask in the limelight after straining in it. As I began to realise in the next few days, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The words I’d written chimed with the sense of pride resonating around a nation which had rarely tasted success in the Olympic arena and was determined to savour it. A trickle of messages became a flood; in three days I gained 600 followers from a Caribbean nation of 10 million people. It occurred to me that, not for the first time, I’d dismissed the resilience of the Olympic spirit.
It’s easily done. We’re encouraged to think that sport is only about winning: that second is nowhere. That true sportsmen and women are possessed by a merciless, almost sadistic desire to dominate and humiliate their rivals. For the most part it’s a poisonous myth. One of my favourite Olympic stories is about Jesse Owens in 1936. Not the one about him upsetting Hitler, significant though that is. It’s about the German long jumper, Lutz Long, who saw the American struggling in the qualifying rounds and went over to help him with his run-up. Owens qualified with his final leap and went on to win the gold medal. Under the ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality Long’s action was unforgivable, more or less an act of sabotage. But the German was simply adhering to the basic code of sportsmanship. He wanted to win but win properly, by proving his mettle against the strongest competition. Victory in Owens’s absence would have been diminished. Instead he won (or “settled for”, as we say these days) an honourable silver.
Sport verbroedert, as the Dutch say: sport forges brotherhood. True sportsmanship implies respect for the opponent. I find it revealing that tennis, one of the most starkly individual of sports, generates some of the closest friendships among its players. When Novak Djokovic visited Scotland recently, he turned off from the A9 to visit Dunblane, the home town of Andy Murray, and then sent his bitter rival a picture to prove he’d been there. It’s heartening to know, when Djokovic and Murray are bursting every vessel to outscore each other on the court, that underpinning their rivalry is a sincere appreciation of the other’s crafstmanship. It’s because your rival is so good that you want to beat them. Sport isn’t just war without the shooting: it’s the civilisation of the warrior instinct. It brings people together across boundaries and conflicts and makes them compete according to an agreed set of rules, on a basis of mutual respect. To win you have to know your opponent intimately, and once you’ve learned to appreciate an opponent’s qualities it’s much harder to dehumanise them.
I discovered in the next few days that Quisqueyanos Valientes, the national anthem of the Dominican Republic is more than just a fine tune. The lyrics, by the lawyer, teacher, politician and poet Emilio Prud’Homme, convey the pain as well as the pride of a country whose history contains a long and bitter struggle to free itself from slavery. To raise itself up, in the same way that Felix Sanchez climbed back to the top of his event after years of struggle. It was supremely appropriate, in the same sense, that Usain Bolt’s triumph should coincide with the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence. Nobody would wish to return to the days of colonial rule, when the aggressor nations believed it was their God-given duty to humiliate on the rest of humanity. The Olympic spirit is the antithesis of that. Its proper context is the clean fight in which the winner is first among equals. The glory of victory comes from the drama of the contest, from overcoming opponents of the very best calibre, from the respect and kinship that true competition engenders.
When the Games started I feared that the Olympic values were being corroded: that commercial exploitation and the blinkered focus on results were crushing whatever nobility was left in sport. But by accidentally tapping into the national mood that swept around the Dominican Republic in the wake of Felix Sanchez’s victory, I discovered that the Olympic spirit still exists where it matters: in the hearts of those who take part, whether as athletes or spectators. One gold medal, one flying lap of the track, made ten million people on the other side of the world rejoice. And when that rarely heard jewel of a national anthem filled the stadium, the whole country could share in Sanchez’s triumph, and the whole world could share in the country’s story. That turned out to be the inspiring moment of the Olympics for me, because I was lucky enough to have a part in it. A moment when a few hundred Dominicans helped me discover the truth of that Dutch motto, sport verbroedert.
My New Year’s resolution to write every day is currently working out at somewhere between five and six days a week. Not an unqualified success, but a great improvement on last year, when I could go months without writing a word and didn’t start a single new piece of work. The rule I created for myself of writing for at least half an hour each time solved a crucial problem that I didn’t know I had: I’d failed to adapt my writing goals to my lifestyle. I used to work in intensive spells of an hour and a half to two hours, once or twice every couple of weeks. Having two demanding children as well as working full-time means I rarely have the luxury of such unbroken spells of time. So I began to perceive that I ‘had no time’ to write, when in fact I just needed to divided my time differently.
Writing in shorter, more concentrated spells has also taught me another thing about myself as a writer. Take the last few weeks, which I’ve spent revising a short story I first drafted about three years ago. In that time I’ve taken the story up from just over 2,000 words to almost dead on 3,000. Yes, that’s right: 14 days of tinkering increased my word count by a colossal 1,000 words. That’s an average of about 75 a day. And I worked hard just to keep up that level.
So in addition to changing the way I allocate writing time, this is the second thing I’ve learned to accept: I’m a naturally slow writer. Specifically this means I’m a contemplative writer. I’m deeply envious of people who can slap down 2,000 words in an hour and bash it into shape in a couple of revision sessions. But I just can’t do it – at least, not when it comes to fiction. As a former agency journalist I can hammer a keyboard like a ten-year-old playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon when I need to. If anything, though, that only increases my tendency to pick over words when I get the chance. If I can’t get a sentence right I either sit and wait until the words fall into place, or go over it constantly once it’s on the page until it fits. And even then I’ll go back over the words again and again, paragraph by paragraph, section by section, until I’ve run out of ways to improve it. And in between writing sessions I like to dwell on developments, map out the next stage in the plot and fill in loose bits. Shorter sessions in some ways suit this more contemplative approach, because it gives me more opportunities to pull back and study the full picture, rather than becoming sidelined in the minutiae.
I’ve heard the advice that you should plough through the first draft without editing or looking back. Like much writing advice, I’ve opted to ignore it. It doesn’t suit the way I write. The best thing about writing every day is that I’ve got a much better sense now of how I build stories and weave plot, character, theme and language. What I find is that they all influence each other and develop in tandem, in the same way that a tadpole doesn’t grow its head, legs and abdomen in sequence, but all at once, evolving as a complete organism. If I concentrate on one element of a story to the exclusion of the rest I end up with a malformed, one-dimensional, unsatisfying piece of fiction. Of course, I might end up with that anyway, but it won’t be for lack of trying.
In the past my writing has ground to a halt not for lack of inspiration, but for lack of structure. I have so many different ideas going that I don’t know where to begin, or I idly start to speculate on one story, only to break off and switch to something else the moment I hit a snag. It’s much easier to start something new and bursting with promise than to grind on with a story that’s already 4,000 words long and riddled with narrative holes that need to be plugged. There is an inevitable point in every piece of writing where it ceases to be a creative act and becomes an exercise in plumbing. At this point the seductive power of those unvarnished nuggets of inspiration is almost irresistible. Writing in short, frequent spells has helped to inoculate me from it. It forces me to focus on the pile of half-formed, leaking stories, pick something out from it and give it a more coherent shape. And now and again I find, partly by sheer force of will but mainly because I’ve run out of alternatives, that I’ve actually finished something. I may never write fiction by the bucketload or tear through three novels a year, but I’d rather have the sense of completion that comes from the production of intricate miniatures. Slow progress is still progress, as long as you keep it going.
In a windowless, low-ceilinged courtroom in the basement of Glasgow Sheriff Court, a quiet experiment in justice is taking place. The drugs court, set up in 2001 as an attempt to change the way the courts deal with long-term drug addicts whose dependency leads them into crime, rarely makes the headlines. That could be seen as a measure of its success, but it may also reflect the fact that this is a very different environment from the adversarial jousting of the criminal courts, as I discover during an hour in Sheriff Lindsay Wood’s courtroom.
Drug treatment and testing orders were introduced in 2001, pioneered in Glasgow and Fife, as an alternative to custody for people with long-standing addictions. They typically last for 15 or 18 months and are aimed at those who show a sincere wish to break the cycle of crime and drug dependency. Scottish Government data has shown that nearly half of those who complete a DTTO avoid reoffending for at least two years afterwards.
The first thing to say about the drugs court is that it’s tiny. The offenders and their companions are crammed into two rows at the back of the courtroom, with the kind of legroom offered by budget airlines. The lawyers and court officials sit at a narrow table directly below the bench, papers covering every inch of space. There is an intimacy about the proceedings, but it’s not of the comfortable or cosy kind. When the sheriff speaks directly to an offender – which he does, sometimes at length – there is a gap of no more than ten feet in between, which means there is no escaping his gaze.
At 2.15pm the side door opens, everybody stumbles to their feet and Sheriff Wood glides into the room. He takes a minute to cast his eye back and forth across the two rows of people in front of him, nodding slowly. Everybody who attends in his court is well known to him. Over the course of an order he often gets to learn about their families as well: their parents, their children and partners. Drug testing and treatment orders work on a system of regular review: every three weeks, or six weeks if things are going well, the offender is ordered back to court to report their progress to the sheriff. He speaks to them informally, without the barrier of courtroom language. The first question is usually: “How are you?” Offenders are tested regularly for banned substances and get words of encouragement when they manage to stay clear of drugs. If they veer from the prescribed path, on the other hand, they can expect short shrift.
Sheriff Wood bats through sixteen cases in almost exactly an hour. His manner throughout is kindly but stern, and mostly encouraging. He never needs to raise his voice, which is another advantage of the close-knit courtroom. At times he has the demeanour of a motivational coach, repeatedly instructing the person across the room to “think positive” or “keep smiling”. This is never more obvious than in an exchange with one young woman who has been brought down from Cornton Vale prison. Dressed smartly in a grey pullover and woollen scarf, she is grilled by Sheriff Wood about a recent motivational lapse.
“What’s this about a running club?” he asks.
“I’ve been doing jogging for a while, but I stopped going,” she says.
“Why did you stop going?”
“I don’t know.”
“Were you bored with the route or something?” the sheriff asks, apparently referring to something in the case file. “Do you think you’re some kind of Olympic runner?”
There is a coy silence from the other side.
“You should be exercising at your age,” he continues. “It might be hard and boring doing the same route every time, but it makes you feel better. You think about getting back into that again. Give yourself a wee target.”
Many of the conversations go like this, setting “wee targets” that make the grinding process of coming off drugs more manageable. Sheriff Wood reads the case files assiduously, and over the course of 18 months he builds up a picture of people’s often fragile circumstances that fosters mutual respect and understanding. He asks one young mother about her “bouncing” baby son. Another man is caring for his terminally ill father, who has recently suffered a heart attack: “I hope your father comes through this,” says the sheriff. “I trust you,” he tells one offender who is nearing the end of his order, which elicits the reply: “I trust you too, your honour.”
Things don’t always go so well. A woman appears in front of the sheriff, dressed formally in a two-piece suit and frilled blouse. Her lawyer discloses her drug test results have come back positive.
Sheriff Wood asks her when she last took drugs. She mumbles a vague reply and he retorts: “Don’t come out with any nonsense.”
She tries again with a date of January 10. “It should be out of your system by now,” the sheriff says. “So who’s kidding who here? I’m anxious that you’re honest and don’t try to tell me stories.” He dismisses her with a sharp warning to make sure there are no drugs in her system when she comes back to court next month.
Another man presents the sheriff with a different problem. He is coming to the end of his DTTO, but in the process of coming off drugs he has lapsed into alcohol abuse. Like many people who appear in the court, he also has a number of criminal charges hanging over him which the sheriff must deal with before discharging him. Strictly speaking, the alcohol abuse isn’t the court’s concern. But Sheriff Wood says: “I don’t want to let you go. I want to get you through this. I kind of care.”
A little later he adds: “If you’ve got no care order, you’ll just do what you want. You’ll end up dead.”
“I don’t want that,” says the man.
“No,” replies the sheriff. “Not many people do.”
He concludes the treatment order and orders the man to return to court in three weeks’ time. He lets him know he is considering a probationary sentence for his offences, so that he can keep an eye on his progress. The man steps down and leaves the courtroom. This is what much of the work of the drugs court comes down to: small, difficult steps towards rehabilitation, and the sense that somebody in authority is looking out for you. Not a great deal, perhaps, but a great deal better than being dead.
When I first started out on Twitter I was obsessed with the retweet button. I looked enviously upon people whose tweets were constantly reposted and fantasised that one day I would compose a 140-character message loaded with so much semantic gunpowder that it would fly around the world and light up computer screens from Inverness to Invercargill.
After about 18 months I reached the holy grail of seeing ‘retweeted by X and 100+’ people underneath one of my pearls of wisdom, but I’d long realised that this was a pretty shallow ambition. There is a game element to Twitter, but it’s not the main objective, any more than the main point of sex is to shoot out as many dancing tadpoles as possible. So I gave up chasing retweets and started talking to people. It was far more rewarding.
But then a strange thing happened. This afternoon, just after three o’clock, I tossed out a one-liner that had been dimly forming in my head since Saturday, when Simon Hoggart mentioned satnav jokes in his Guardian column. Over the weekend I’d tried, in my idle, feckless way, to come up with one, and at about the same time a Bonnie Tyler song turned up on YouTube, and somehow the two concepts mashed in my head and gave birth to this:
“I once bought a Bonnie Tyler satnav. It was rubbish. Kept telling me to turn around, and every now and then it fell apart.”
I occasionally chuck out jokes on Twitter, for no good reason except that they’re better out of my head than in, and perhaps because I secretly like watching people cringe. Mostly they die on the vine. This one got a good handful of retweets in the first couple of minutes. And then some more. And after that my activity stream went ballistic.
I still don’t really know what happened, but in among the retweeters were famous folk like Stuart Maconie, Rob Brydon and Caitlin Moran. Between them they have umpteen gazillion followers. Suddenly my throwaway tweet was spreading like bubonic plague in a field hospital. I got tweets telling me I was a trending topic in cities where I’ve never set foot, spawning the map you see above. In about six hours I picked up as many new followers as I usually gain in a year. My WordPress site (here) had one of its busiest days even though I didn’t publish anything. And my mentions column was in meltdown. It was all very surreal.
I’m not much of a one for New Year resolutions these days (see this post for evidence). For years I resolved faithfully each January to get a short story published. It might have helped matters if I’d actually written a few. And now I have – written a few, and had a smaller number rendered in print, or distributed on somebody else’s website. I imagined for a long time that this would constitute some kind of breakthrough, when in fact it was just the first step on the ladder. And the only way to get up a ladder is to keep climbing.
So my resolution for 2012 is a simple one: write every day. No exceptions, no excuses. Including the days when I don’t feel like it, or I’m sick, or hung over, or travelling, or in a coma (though in that last scenario I may permit myself to take mental notes and type them up later). There need to be a few ground rules, clearly. It has to occupy at least half an hour every day. It can be original writing, it can be revising, or it can be editing. Thinking is fine too (thinking about what should go on the page, that is, not whether there’s enough milk in the fridge). But it can’t be making lists about what I should be writing, or tweeting, or hanging out at The Write Idea. Those are secondary writing activities and must be done in their own time. It can’t even be blogging, which is both the best and worst of all displacement activities. There must, in short, be focus. Even if it makes my eyes bleed. To this end I have already divided the year into Days When I Have Written and Days When I Have Not Written.
The score is currently 0:366. Happy New Year!
I’m delighted to have a story in this year’s Federation of Writers (Scotland) anthology, Tracks in the Sand. As well as being a tapestry of good writing from these parts, it’s put together by people who evidently care about what gets shoved between the covers. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence around that the quality of editing is plunging as publishers cut costs and I’ve seen a few egregious examples at first hand. Yet a good editor is a hugely reassuring presence for both writer and reader, even if readers usually only notice them by their absence. My contribution, a short story called The Year of Discord, was conscientiously edited by Alan Green and the result is a much more refined piece of work, for which I’m duly thankful. If you’d like a copy (£7.99 each), send an email NVPCommerce@aol.com.
One of my favourite pieces of writing advice comes from Raymond Chandler: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” In a similarly succinct vein there’s what’s evolved as the first unwritten rule of Nanowrimo: “If all else fails, have ninjas burst through the wall and attack someone.” To these we should perhaps now add Gale Martin’s rule of opera-based novels: “If a work of fiction contains homage to classic opera, you can pretty much bank on some sort of supernatural influence… Either that, or a fat blonde in braids and a horned helmet.” A prolific churner of words in the blogosphere and elsewhere, Gale is in the middle of a helter-skelter blogging tour to promote her novel Don Juan in Hankey, PA, which tells the story of a small-town operatic society’s endeavours to put on Mozart’s classic opera in Pennsylvania. At once a slick farce and a homage to amateur dramatics, it juggles the sublime and the ridiculous at a pace that never drops below allegro. I caught up with Gale on her blogathon just long enough to hurl a few questions her way:
You started writing relatively late. What was your motivation?
I began writing in my 40s though I had been an English major in college and a lifelong reader. I think writing creatively is more than anything a matter of readiness. I wrote marketing and communications stuff for a living for a couple years, so I learned how to churn out copy. As silly as this sounds, one of my good friends from high school had a niece who published a bestseller. At the time, I didn’t really know any published writers of mainstream fiction. I thought if she can do it, so can I. I had a story to tell so I began writing a novel. It wasn’t very good, but it was instructive, like learning to play the violin in public.
Was it hard to get a novel about opera published? Why do you think it’s not an attractive subject for fiction, given that the two share so much source material?
Honestly, this book is about love and sex and longing and rejection—all universal feelings and emotions. It just happens to use classic opera as a backdrop. That being said, it was definitely hard to get an agent’s attention. Let me rephrase that. I got their attention. I just didn’t get their representation. I got dozens of requests for manuscripts—partials and some completes. I think you are correct, that opera is not generally considered a great hook for fiction though it was an agent at Foundry Literary who encouraged me to write a story with opera as a backdrop—I didn’t think of it myself. For opera to be accessible in contemporary fiction, I don’t think it should take itself too seriously. I remember enjoying the first few pages of Murder at the Opera by Margaret Truman for just that reason—the narrator cracked a few jokes about opera and put me at ease. I thought to myself, I’d be wise to do the same thing, right from the get-go.
Opera seems to combine high culture with a healthy dose of absurdity. Did you write this dynamic into your novel?
Compared to many folks, I’m a relative newcomer to opera. So I absolutely did and sometimes still do react to that unique blend of high culture and absurdity you refer to, i.e., the dying man on death’s doorstep can still sing an aria full voice for the next eight minutes that contains nine top C’s. Because opera storylines have to conflate whole novels to three-hour long operas, they conflate events in order to capture the complete storyline, and the results are sometimes ponderous and preposterous. For me, whenever I watch La bohème, as beautiful as the music is, Mimi’s downward spiral happens so quickly over the course of the opera, I’m laughing inside while others are weeping. So, yes. I have definitely created some absurb moments and events in this partly because my mind loves to go there and also in homage to classic opera.
You’re famously prolific across all kinds of platforms, especially blogging. What keeps you going?
Famously prolific? I like that. Well, I love my Operatoonity.com blog and my Operatoonity Twitter page. There’s abundant content to post, Tweet, RT. I’ve made made some good friends and connections through those platforms, so I suppose it’s the people who comment, whom I interview, who enjoy what I post that really make social media click for me.
How much fun did you have sourcing those Pennsylvania-Dutch names?
Hmm. Well, I didn’t have to look very far to find them since I grew up in Berks County, Pennsylvania and now live in Lancaster County, the heart of PA-Dutch Country. There’s a Longenecker’s hardware store in the area. And of course, Rohrer is a famously PA-German surname. Once I take to a name, it infects me like a tapeworm until I am able to roust it onto a page or into a story.
What’s next for you?
I’ve been trying to finish a suspenseful novel that I started in 2008. I’ve gotten great help with it in my writing group. I only have a chapter to go, and then it’s time for some revisions. Right now, Booktrope is looking at an earlier novel I wrote, also humorous commercial fiction, to see if they want to publish it. They have been really great to work with—they really want writers to succeed. Everyone there is as helpful as they are talented. I’m also considering a series to build on Don Juan in Hankey, PA, that features male icons “in Hankey, PA.” But that is as far as that series has gotten. Because I really have to devote my energies to selling this book. So, I really appreciate the exposure, Gordon. As they say in the cinematic world of opera, grazie mille!