In earlier posts I started to describe how some of my pieces of writing started life. This article will look, in more detail, at the motivations for getting writing and some of the starter ideas that set each piece in motion. Each of the following paragraphs sets out the motivation for one of my writings and an outline of where the specific ideas for that piece of writing came from.
As a local government city hall worker there were times when days got ridiculously busy, when documents and reports were taken home to read, when notes were scribbled out on the bus ride each morning. My habit of stopping off for a coffee on the way to work each day was initially used to collect my thoughts for the day ahead. Increasingly, though, the coffee time was taken up drafting emails or editing reports. I wrote and read more than I had ever done – but it was all work-focused. As a way of breaking this pattern I bought a large page-a-day diary and set myself the challenge of ignoring the work in my bag and getting down to 30-40 minutes of writing-for-other-purposes. I used pictures torn from magazines as stimulus and attempted, each day, to fill the page from top left-hand corner to bottom right-hand corner with a coherent fictional snapshot of life. Each morning I produced a fictional study based on some personality trait. I wrote more than a hundred of these. Around seventy were collected into the ebook ‘Made in Birmingham: The Tales’.
Several years ago, a relative recommended National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) as something I might want to look at. This is a device for committing to write at least 50,000 words during the 30 days of November. I have taken up this challenge over a number of years. My initial motivation was simply responding to the challenge just to see if I could reach the 50,000+ goal. Finding the time, day after day after day, to turn out more than 2000 words of reasonable text was hard when I was in fulltime work and is easier now I am in charge of my own time. It has proved a useful way of getting onto paper, in a focused way, the required number of relatively well-edited words to feel that I had the basis of a short novel.
The first time I tried the challenge, it coincided with a suggestion that residents of Birmingham might want to used November 11th each year to ride the full circle of the city’s well-known Number 11 bus route and to write up their journey. I put the two things together and aimed to write 50,000 words in November about fictional deaths that were mysteriously happening on that bus route. That was the starter idea. The way in, for that particular piece of writing, was to imagine a woman passenger, Gail: Who was she? What was her personality; her way of life; her background; her friends? How did she spend her days and what was her connection to that bus route? This gave me a real feel for her and how she would react to things. It led into detailed descriptions of her most important friends (not knowing what role they might play in the storyline). The setting was already determined: The 26 miles, round the outer edge of the city, that formed the Number 11 bus route: with its places of interest, main intersections, variations in housing and people. The story started a short way into the actions: three bus drivers have already died; Gail is disconcerted by these events on ‘her’ bus route; she resolves to get to the bottom of things – and so starts the first day of the storyline of ‘It’s Murder on the Eleven’.
The next time I did the November NaNoWriMo challenge I started with a single character again but didn’t sketch out a whole backstory for the person before starting to write. Who he was, his family and friends, his attitudes and so on all emerged as I was writing. The starting point was the opening sentence ‘It was another glorious day …’. I have no idea where that sentence came from, nor how it changed by the second paragraph from being a real morning to being a morning purely in the imagination of the main character. Once things had got inside the head of that character they lodged there for the whole story. He was fixed in place, all but isolated from reality, and the events were ones in his imagination or from his memory. The need to write a set number of words each day did push me into thinking in terms of a framework of day1 morning, day1 afternoon, day 1 night, day 2 morning.. and so on. This meant having to balance the repetitions across the days with the need to keep the storyline moving (even if there was little change from day to day). It wasn’t an easy write but I quite enjoyed attempting to get the structures right. Again it ended up as an ebook: ‘Another Glorious Day’.
The next November had me starting with the device that had worked well for ‘The Tales’: using torn out pictures of five interesting-looking men’s faces and starting to write about one of them (imagining a name, a job, a period of time (mid 1950s) and a place (Manchester, UK). I had decided that he was stubbornly principled about social values. This set the scene for a set of events that day which demonstrated his personality and social attitudes. The writing flowed quite easily without me knowing what was going to happen to him line by line. He ended up in hospital. This then became the guiding idea for writing about each of the other men. They were going to end up in the same small hospital ward as the first man, each taking their own route to being admitted there, each bringing his own personality, history and attitudes to illness. This tale is in its final edit stage and has the working title of ‘Five Men’.
Part of Birmingham’s contribution to the UK’s National Year of Reading was to see if it might be possible to rapidly produce a reasonable number of poems that would engage the interest of ‘non-poetry people’ in the city (groups less likely to read at all, and certainly less likely to be regular readers of poetry). More than seventy poems were written and tested out with groups of people who referred to themselves as non-poetry types. This was the motivation for producing ‘Made in Birmingham: The Poems’. Where the ideas for each of the varied poems came from will be the topic of a separate post on this site in the near future.
All the above ended up as ebooks available via the Amazon Kindle site. These can be found under ‘Geoff Bateson’ on your local version of that site.
At the same time a large amount of content was being written to be more freely available. Much of this was loaded onto the www.thewordsthething.org.uk site. The motivations and ideas for these are described below.
The ‘History of Castle Vale’ booklet arose out of a doctorate I was doing late in life (My initial degree was in 1966 and was in Chemistry; the doctorate was in 1996 and was in sociology – such was my interesting career path). It was entitled ‘The Social Construction and Reconstruction of Community’ and used the changes in a 1960s housing estate to highlight the varying ways people put together their differing fragmentary meanings of ‘community’. This had meant delving into the long and fascinating history of the area of land that eventually ended up as a local authority housing development. At the end of the day, very little of this was included in the doctorate thesis but it left me with the strong desire to write up the history of that locality. As well as being on my own site it is part of Birmingham City Council Library Service’s local history web-based collection; has been referenced in a number of local history books; formed the basis of a radio interview; and has been used as a lesson resource by pupils in schools in the Castle Vale area.
A latter part of my paid employment work was to manage a large-scale development activity focused on raising whole-city levels of reading, writing and maths across the one million population of Birmingham, UK. Various reports and articles had been produced, based on overviews of what we were doing rather than on specific projects or activities. They range from the factual descriptions of the broad range of ways things were being changed, to the more speculative/entertaining input into Birmingham Book Festival about where all this reading and writing might take people. Towards the end of the work, I wanted to gather a number of these into one place and so re-edited them to go up on the website.
Tucked away in the Place-based Writings section of www.thewordsthething.org.uk, there is a small collection of articles (which is still to be added to) which started as an over-coffee conversation about how little the people there knew about Central Asian countries whose name ended in -stan; about how few famous people were called Stanley; and digressed into the possibility of virtually pulling several famous Stans from history, putting them into a tour group and sending them off on an imaginary visit to several of the –stans (with me writing the fictional report of the tour).
Two other articles on the site are also about imaginary travels round places, but arose out of quite different motivations. One was the result of a writing workshop. The task was to spend a Sunday walking around the city centre of Birmingham but imagining that it was New York (So the main railway station was part of the route but was reimagined as being Grand Central Station; the Grand Union Canal became the great Hudson River – you get the idea). Doing this enabled those on the walk to come up with varied pieces of fiction writing. Two of mine are up on the site as ‘New York: One Final Roadtrip’ and ‘New York Journeyings: A Memorial’. The other article based on an imaginary tour is one describing an imagined walk around Vancouver, with its range of art in public places, entitled ‘Vancouver: Memories, Imaginings and Realities’. Its origins are in a blog that I started (and spasmodically still put postings on to) which was imagined as being written by the main character from the ‘Another Glorious Day’ book described above. At some stage in his life he goes to Vancouver (and describes things), gets involves in producing paintings and drawings (which get incorporated into ‘his’ blog), and so on.
I have a strong interest in how cities work; what is meant by phrases such as Learning City or Intelligent City; and what this might mean for Birmingham UK (where I live and have studied/worked since 1963). This has led me into lots of diverse readings, conferences, conversations etc. I was motivated a while ago to try to bring some of my disparate thinkings into a series of loosely-linked articles. The titles give the flavour of the puzzles that were in my head as I started writing: ‘In what ways might a city need to think differently if it is to get where it wants to be?’ and ‘Cities: Flourishing? Learning? Resilient? Capable? Emergent?’
Continuing that drive to get to grips with contemporary mechanisms in cities, together with my interest in different ways of learning (and how learning can be pulled together from a range of sources), plus some thinking I was doing about my approach to the use of Twitter – all led to a challenge to myself to explore the usefulness of Twitter as a way of learning more about current ideas on cities. The background thinking was written up as ‘Can Twitter be a Useful Way of Learning about Cities?’ and the summary of a summary of a cut-down version of all I discovered was written up as ‘Thinking about Cities: An exploration of contemporary themes’.
The most recent set of writings to be put onto the site were stimulated by an art exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery: Metropolis – Reflections on the modern city. This was a major exhibition which brought together a number of my interests: Contemporary Art, Cities and Writing. I attached myself to the exhibition, in the sense that I committed to turning up on several days, and used the works in the exhibition as stimuli for a variety of writings. Some of the outcomes were nonfiction (‘The Modern City’; ‘The Language of Metropolis’; and an article exploring what I meant by writing ‘in relation to the exhibition’). More were pieces of fiction of around 2000-3000 words – not directly about the content of the art works but using those as a springboard to get to an interesting story. A collection of pictures about estate life on the periphery of French cities led to ‘Paris Life: of sorts, for some’. Paintings of street people in Russian cities led to a fictional piece about a young bureaucrat trying to craft together a report on homelessness in ‘Genocide, Suicide or Neglect: the death of Russia’s metropolitan poor’. Other works in the exhibition reminded me of pictures of crime-scene evidence and led to an old-time New York cop telling his tale in ‘I’ll tell you why I love this city’. Others suggested ideas that were brought together from across several works of art under titles such as ‘I often dream of cities’, ‘Manifesto for Metropolis’ and ‘… but a boy can dream ..’.
If any of the above motivates you to click across to www.thewordsthething.org.uk or to check out the Geoff Bateson ebooks on Amazon’s kindle bookstore (http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=node%3D341689031&field-keywords=geoff+bateson ) , then all the content is there for more in-depth reading.
What might motivate me to do further writing? Certainly I intend to look deeper at ideas and themes in contemporary art and I will remain interested in learning and in cities – so these will continue to provide something of a driving force for my thinkings and writings. There will be other motivations: Visits to interesting places; conversations with interesting people – but one thing is certain: I can’t not carry on writing. There is an inner drive, an urge to write, a self-motivation that keeps me writing.