Monday, 28 May 2007

Telling Stories

Sitting beneath my monitor and winking at me is a check from the Association For Scottish Literary Studies. Paid to me for a fifteen minute performance of three stories: my first professional storytelling gig. I don't know whether to frame it or cash it.

My son has just told me that scientists have created a substance that can stop light. It is neither gas nor liquid, but something in between.

When I woke up on Friday morning after running through my stories in my head all night I realised I knew what I had to do: wash my favourite grey t-shirt. It would go with my skinny jeans, my old suede sandals and faithful tweed jacket. That was the outfit nearly sorted. So I put on a wash and mooched around in my dressing gown for most of the day occasionally making an effort to warm up my voice and breathe deeply. I drank gallons of water and ate lunch. Finally I had a shower, properly blow dried my hair and even applied some make-up. I went out to the garden and took my now clean tee from the line, on went the clothes and I was ready to leave.

Driving into Dumfries I did the voice exercises for real and told the stories to the dashboard...

John was a lonely fisherman who lived on the very edge of a small village on the Solway coast in quiet isolation. He lived alone, fished alone, was shunned by the villagers because it was said he was touched by the devil on the day he was born: he had the red mark of the devil down the side of his face. He longed for nothing more than companionship...

I arrived in Dumfries early so stopped at Tesco to get some bottled water as I'd forgotten to bring the tap water I'd meant to. I also got some lavender chocolate as I was there: emergency supplies. Once on campus I took a long draught before walking up to the building. Bracing myself I opened the door, went in and spotted Valentina the lecturer who had organised the proceedings. Paused briefly and went up to her, I didn't quite feel nervous but I am shy so was a little awkward. However she is a very nice woman and was definitely feeling nervous herself. She said she felt like she'd organised a big party and was now waiting for people to arrive: would anyone turn up? She introduced me to the people from the ASLS. After which I found myself in a room full of literary types and the buffet supper. Onto my plate went a tiny stuffed tomato, a mini spring roll and a satayless chicken stick, mmm. I gulped orange juice.

The other performers arrived and we checked out the room: row upon row of seats and a tiny portable stage behind a desk with three chairs arranged at it. There was to be an introductory talk before we were on.

The other performers were Jo Miller a fantastic fiddle player and singer of traditional Scottish folk songs, Cathy Hobcross a traditional ballad singer and Lincum Doddy (apologies to them if I've spelt the name wrong) a group of rather marvellous singers. We organised a programme between us: a round each, a break, another round each. Jo first, then me, Cathy next and finally LD. After the introductory talk, while everyone had gone to top up their glasses, we moved the desk out of the way and brought the stage forward. I got more orange juice. Now we were ready to do our stuff. As Jo was playing and singing I was thinking 'fuck she's good, how can I follow...?' Then I was being introduced and I was up...

It was the time of the great Narwhal hunt. Tuglik was an old woman who lived with her grand-daughter Quajapik. They couldn't hunt and having no man to do it for them they began to get hungry. But Tuglik knew a little magic and one day she uttered an incantation and turned herself into a man. She had a seal bone for a penis and a hunk of mattock for testicles: her vagina became a sledge...

I got up on the stage, my heart in my mouth, introduced my story and began. Everyone sat quietly and listened. I lost my way briefly, began to sweat, got back on track - did anyone notice the glitch? Finished the story then... silence. I was beginning to sink into my chair but then realised that everyone was clapping; one down two to go, but not yet...

During the break I allowed myself a glass of wine and a fag. When I went outside one of my lecturers – an evil smoker too - was also out there and said to me 'well done you, well done you!' and I felt quietly released.

Next round: Jo, first again, had us all singing along, she was just so bloody good, but my nerves had evaporated and when I went up for the last two stories I was much bolder and members of the audience smiled at me as I looked at each one in turn. My last story had everyone in fits at the end and garnered me an enthusiastic round of applause.

...'it was when we were dogs' she said 'but oh! You died a terrible death, terrible...'
'Really! How... what...'
'You ran out into the road, got hit by a car... and oh! Your right shoulder was smashed up, leg over your head and you just lay there bleeding and whimpering. All I could do was stay with you; I barked and howled but nobody came and eventually, as the sun began to sink, you went'

I won't give away the ending, just in case. Though Kim knows it.

So, I'd done it and survived. My first gig as a 'professional' storyteller. How odd! I'd never in a million years have considered the possibility. I just stumbled into a storytelling class to make up my points. This time last year I didn't know such people existed.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Dress Code

This post comes as a direct result of the comments on my last. I had asked what I should wear on Friday for my first paid storytelling gig. Most people advised me to wear something I was comfortable in and this got me thinking about: a) what I am most comfortable in and b) the whole nature of dress and how we can and do use it.

Virginia Woolf said something about clothes being apparently trivial and yet actually important. I used to think that this related to the time in which she lived: now we are much more sophisticated and such things don't matter so much. Yet, witness the 'hoodie' farrago that has been raging. And the fact that in some provincial night-clubs jeans are still not allowed. This suggest that today, still, clothes are signifiers. Clothes speak to us and it is worth learning the language.

As I have mentioned on numerous occasions I tend to wear the same ancient pair of combat trousers. They have paint on them and the bottom part of the left leg is coming away from the top half. What do they say about me? I'd like to think they say 'here is someone so innately elegant and comfortable in her own skin that she can wear any old tat.' But they might say 'here is someone who is old and has lost interest in her appearance'; 'here is someone who is so poor she can't afford new clothes and she may rob us' or 'here is someone whose tatty clothes match her tatty mind.' Or any number of other bad things. And it is true that ten years ago I would never have worn such scruffy clothes with such regularity. There is an element of not wanting my clothes to be more beautiful than I am, and as I've got older and more, lets say, faded, so have they. But since the interaction generated by that last post I've realised that I do, however, use clothes to get what I want. And that what I am most comfortable in depends on the situation.

I have noticed, for example, that although it's been going out of fashion for years black gets results. And I instinctively wear it to create a 'don't mess with me' aura: last week I had to take my husbands car to the dealer because the roof – which folds down – broke. He thought it should get done under warranty and I knew that if they haggled I would lose and we'd have to pay. So I put on my smartest, knee length black skirt, a black top and heels. And for good measure some black eye-liner. I also took my son for moral support but that's another story. I spoke only to ask for the workshop manager and say, later, 'I haven't a clue' to some mundane question about servicing. They checked the car, explained the problem and it was booked in for this week. No questions asked. To be on the safe side, when I took it in for the work to be done, I wore my smart black trouser-suit again with heels and black eye-liner. And again I didn't have to speak, I just handed over the keys and left. When the car was ready they phoned and I went to pick it up. I walked in, the receptionist immediately took my keys off the shelf and handed them to me even though there were two other customers in front of me. I left without a mention of a bill. I wonder if I had worn my combats and old vest top I would have got the same effortless result. Somehow I doubt it even though I like to think I would.

And that's the problem a lot of people, including me, have: we like to think that clothes shouldn't make a difference so we dress like they don't when the fact is they do. We'd be better off exploiting that fact. Nietzsche said that appearance is everything. I don't quite go that far but am beginning to realise that it does count, and more than just a little.

This doesn't mean one has to be perfectly groomed, made-up and expensively dressed. It just means one will get on better if one's appearance signifies what one wants it to. It's about being in control. I'm always hearing the saying 'dress for the position you want not the one you have' with regards to work but it applies to everything. The difficulty comes, I guess, in understanding what one's clothes say about one. I know smart black makes me look a little intimidating, but that's as far as my knowledge goes. For example I'm still not sure what to wear to the storytelling gig. I definitely don't want to intimidate my audience. I also don't want to look like I've lost my marbles. What I am aiming for is to look approachable, inclusive and honest. Like I fit in to the tradition but am also not afraid to challenge. Really I want to look like a slightly nicer and more confident version of myself. Unfortunately I haven't yet worked out quite who, or what, I am.

I've just realised, though, what those old combats say about me: 'here is a woman trying to deny that clothes are important.' No, actually I think they say 'here is a woman who puts comfort before appearance.' Yes that's better. What do your clothes say about you?

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Mind alteration

A couple of months ago I received an email asking me if I would be interested in being part of the evening entertainment at a conference on Scottish literature that was to be held my university. I would be one of three storytellers and there was a buffet dinner in it. I jumped at the chance, never being one to turn down a free meal or the opportunity to hold an audience in my spell. I then forgot all about it and continued with my studies.

Towards the end of last week I got another email to say there would be an informal rehearsal next Thursday if I felt the need. And I do: it's always good to meet everyone beforehand and sort out timing. It's also worth knowing what the others plan to do, what stories they plan to tell and see how they tell them. This email also had attached another from the woman who is organising the whole conference detailing the order of the proceedings and the time we, the entertainment, will start. It also mentioned the fee. THE FEE!! It hadn't occurred to me that I would be paid.

This changes everything: no longer am I to be just a person telling a story to a bunch of folk interested in Scottish literature. Now words like 'professional', 'contract', 'value', swirl round my head; sentences like 'you get what you pay for'; questions like 'they pay you for that?' 'how much?' and 'was she worth it?' vie for attention. Formality has been inserted into the mix. Now I'll have to sound professional, I'll have to look professional, be professional.

The conference is on Friday the 25th of May, less than a week. I'd had a vague notion of telling a blogging story, something about how the internet is a continuation of the oral tradition. Mentioning the many Scottish storytellers I've come across in cyberspace and the fascinating voices they have. But now I find myself pulling books off my shelves with titles like Tales of the Borders and Scottish Folk-tales. My own portfolio doesn't seem good enough, my own ideas unprofessional.

I had planned a cheery week of research, exploration and invention. Now it will be a stressful week of angsty searching for the perfect story and trying to memorise it. There'll also be that 'I have nothing to wear' thing, that 'I need a haircut' thing and that 'I don't have a Scottish accent' thing to contend with.

Money: the greatest mind altering substance of them all. Of course, in a way I'm flattered that someone thinks I'm worth paying for. I'm also slightly enamoured of the notion of being a professional storyteller, travelling the world with a head-full of tales that people pay me to tell. Another dream to fill a pipe with no doubt but it does entertain. And yet... I'd rather do it in exchange for a meal or even a thank-you. For rapt attention and a round of applause. For a conversation; for a smile; for the hell of it.

But, hey-ho, that's not to be, the fee is set, the change has occurred. Nothing I can do to alter it now. It seems I'm on a new course, no point whining about it. So if any of you know of a good story that you wouldn't mind sharing I'm looking for all the help I can get. Also, for any ideas of what a professional storyteller might wear, what kind of haircut would be suitable and anything else I might have missed I would be truly grateful.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Blogger's Block

I haven't published a post for over a week. I keep looking at my page and thinking that I must do something about it. Can't think of anything to write though. I started, on Monday, to write about decorating the attic landing. My son has moved back home and is to use it as a sort of office. We spent the whole weekend clearing, painting and generally rearranging. But after a couple of paragraphs I thought 'why would anyone want to read about my stash of French Grey?' and gave it up.

Then I thought about doing something on voting: my mother-in-law had recently chastised me for not bothering: 'People died so you could vote you know!' But found myself unable to because more thought is needed here. I'm not sure that people died so I could vote. I'm not saying they didn't die and I'm not saying they weren't fighting for universal suffrage, but...

On a similar note there's the new possibility of Scotland extricating itself from the apron strings of bossy England but again this will need sustained thought. Lots of threads to be disentangled, pulled out, drawn together; lots of assumptions to be uncovered; lots of fears and hopes to be explored; many myths to be exploded. I don't quite feel up to it at present. It's incubating though so you never know.

I could continue with my theme of self-exploration but the truth is I'm faintly bored with myself. A change is needed even if it is only a brief flirtation with a new subject in order to illuminate the old. But what new topic to choose? Music? I know bugger all about it; Literature? Studying philosophy means I haven't read a novel in aeons; Art? I only know what I like. Though has anyone heard of Kelburn Castle in Ayrshire? It's thirteenth century and is currently being covered in graffiti by four Brazilian artists. Sounds very interesting and my son and I plan to go and visit on the next sunny day.

Writing that last sentence I've suddenly realised what I need is to get out more. I feel sure that a visit to Kelburn Castle will provide me with plenty of blogging fodder. Remaining cooped up in a room in a house is no way for a writer, wannabe or otherwise, to operate. It's time to liberate my brown leather bag and show it to the wider world, get lost on country roads, sip a latte in a city bar, disco-dance in a sordid nightclub whilst wearing platform sandals, browse in a real bookshop rather than Amazon...

What else do people do when they leave their houses apart from going to work, I mean, which I have no intention of doing?

Monday, 7 May 2007

The Miracle Question

About two years ago my husband asked me this question: If you were to wake up one morning and find that overnight a miracle had taken place and you were now living your dream, or perfect, life what would it look like? Since then my answer has changed and developed but certain aspects of it have remained the same. For ages I struggled to get over the whole waking-up thing. I could imagine waking up in a sunny, spacious room with the smell of coffee wafting in from the kitchen below. The sound of the sea breaking on the shore... And that was it. If I forced myself I could imagine going down to the kitchen and pouring myself some of that coffee and helping myself to a freshly made croissant from a pile on a board. Maybe going out onto the terrace to sit in the sun... But not much more, it wasn't a life I was imagining but a coffee commercial. And the odd thing is I always have tea in the morning, I find coffee too harsh. In order to develop my answer I had to get over that morning thing, I'm not a morning person and I found the morning bit debilitating. So now I have reworded the question to: A miracle has happened, you now live your perfect life, describe it. So much easier.

Interesting, isn't it, how language leads? How the way a question is formulated can make it unanswerable, or make only certain answers possible, precluding others. Barristers, politicians and other professional exploiters of language know all this, of course, and use it to their advantage. I've heard that polling companies can ask questions in a way that guarantees the answers given for those who employ them. Bastards!

I find myself, more and more, having to mentally re-word questions before I can answer them. I know this drives my husband nuts because I seem to go blank for ages 'it's a simple enough question!' he'll say looking slightly pained. But it's not a simple question, like most it needs to be disentangled. Its assumptions need to be uncovered and examined. Where do you want to go on holiday this year? for example, assumes that I want to go away at all. It also assumes that I am aware of all the options regarding not only destination but financial and time constraints. Not to mention where he would like to go, the sort of accommodation available in various places, if visas need to be procured etc, etc. Going away on holiday, especially with someone else, is a mine-field.

So anyway, back to the Miracle Question and my imaginary perfect life. I'd like to be able to say, hand on heart, that it's the one that I'm leading. And mostly it is. But I can't seem to stop trying to make a few minor alterations, for example I wish the roof didn't leak when it rained. And I would rather like to live by the beach and be a real writer, rather than someone who likes to write and has started a novel but not got round to looking at it for a while. I do think I'm lucky, though, that the things I'd like to change are pretty small. This means I don't really give them much thought unless I'm asked such a question.

But now I am throwing the question out to you: If you found yourself living your perfect life, what if anything would be different?

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Obsessive Moi?

Yesterday I had a three O'clock appointment with my dissertation supervisor. This meant I would have to leave the house at about two in order to get there without rushing and have time time to calm down with a cup of tea and a biscuit before knocking on his door. I got up at eleven as usual, loads of time to get organised and leave the house. As long as I got myself into the shower for one o'clock it would be be no problem. So I made myself a cup of tea and switched my computer on to print out my 'bag of scraps' for the poor man to assess. Then I checked my emails, made myself another cup of tea, checked my blog...

I was just thinking of making myself another cup of tea when I realised it was ten past one. No bother, I thought, I'll just have to have a 'quick' shower. So off to the bathroom I ambled, turned the water on and cleaned my teeth as it was warming up. When I entered the shower it was quarter past one and I thought this was plenty of time for soaping, shampooing and oxter shaving before getting out and dry, and putting on some clothes to leave the house. Arriving in good time, I thought, would be a breeze. But when I got out of the shower it was five to two. I ended up blast-drying my hair so it stood up on end. Had to throw on the first pair of jeans I came across on the bedroom floor. And then in my 1.1 Polo, had to overtake everything on the road, and I was still late. What went wrong?

The answer is I have a bit of a thing about rinsing. I never know, can't seem to tell, when the soap has gone. so I rinse and rinse and then do it a bit more just to be on the safe side. And once I think 'that must be enough' I linger and let the water run over me just a little bit longer. You never know, the soap and shampoo might be hanging on in there and I wouldn't want to end up with dry, flaky or even sore skin. I wouldn't want my hair to go all limp and dull with shampoo 'build-up'. I wouldn't want to get dandruff. So until the chances of any tenacious residue clinging on have long passed, I rinse. Never quite satisfied until there is more hair in the plughole than on my head. And it's not just my own skin I'm obsessed with rinsing, it's everything: the dishes, the floors, the tortoises water dish, I'm really bad with the tortoises water dish. The thought of poisoning adorable little Rollo with detergent! But anything that requires soap (or detergent) and water, gets rinsed until it's surface is worn thin. I know this about myself, I realise it's ridiculous, but I don't know how much rinsing is enough. At my worst I've been known to rinse my hair for twenty minutes though I've endeavoured, of late, to get it down to about five. I do this by counting: one to sixty, five times.

I just wish someone who knows about these things would publish a chart: tortoise detergent one minute; shampoo three minutes; shower-gel two minutes, that sort of thing. Then I could take a timer to the sink or shower and I'd be fine.

Thank goodness I live in Scotland where the likelihood of a water shortage is negligible. Though what on earth I'll do if we start shipping water down to south-east England where it seems to have stopped raining all together I can't imagine...