Pictures at an Exhibition: Three

Having pinned up my plans for October, it is time to go into a little more detail.

Symphony

The idea is simple: tell a story using haiku, pictures and with a musical background. It is a love story, because of the running joke that this is all I’m really good at. The #Soundtracking2018 Playlist will be the music that daily accompanies each haiku and picture selection. I’m still debating how to pull the #Narrating2018 selection into this, but there’s an idea… and so next week will be when all the disparate threads are stitched together. It helps that there’s almost 2000 pictures in my Flickr account to use as a basis, but that’s only half the plan.

October is when there will be new pictures too.

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I’ve missed setting a challenge for myself that involves more outdoor work. That’s what this is about, pushing comfort boundaries and putting my various skills to better use. Once I have the final details sorted, it will be time to pick suitable ‘locations’ for my pictures, and the format they’ll take. To mix things up a bit there’ll be composites like the graphic above, separate photos and haiku, and… well, I learnt a lot of good lessons from last year. Plenty of audio and visual media can be utilised for storytelling.

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I’m genuinely excited for October. There’s also other stuff to do, plus a couple of deadlines which need consideration, but there’s enough everything can all be fitted in.

Time to crack on with organisation

EX/WHI :: Part Fourteen

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Consciousness returns unexpectedly: no dreams precede it, yet sense remains of being observed, examined before there was nothing, silence. Chris is no longer outside: this isn’t the cafe they were abducted in either. He can count tables though, re-purposed pieces of wood on delicate, metal legs to his left, stripped wooden floorboards with power sockets sunk into floor level. There’s concern about moving, considering how much pain existed before but everything is better than it was. He’s been completely reconstructed at a cellular level…

That reassurance came before he’d passed out, gentle voice heard somewhere behind field of vision, at the back of a neck which prickles at the memory, skin reacting to warmth and a familiar smell… CK One, somewhere to his right…

‘Wow. You have been busy.’

Disbelief and surprise interrupt Ami, about a metre away. She stands at one end of a long, white wall, on which space of several meters long and a meter high is covered with her neat, organised handwriting. Chris now needs to be upright, scrabbling to sit, already taking in what’s she’s been working on during his enforced absence. This woman’s industry is becoming indispensable, inspiring and frankly impressive. Across the white space is a detailed breakdown of everything that has happened to her since Thursday: it is logical to assume that the blank spaces have been left for him to fill in… but there’s a more pressing question that first needs to be asked.

‘Where did you get the pens?’

‘I asked for them, along with a blanket plus another camp bed for me. I assumed they’d not want us to discuss this, but it would appear that our reactions to experiences are now as important a part of the process.’

‘You know that’s what’s going on?’

‘I haven’t actually asked yet, if I’m honest, I wouldn’t anyway if you weren’t able to take part in the decision making. That’s something we both have to agree on first.’

‘Did they move us together?’

‘No, you disappeared and then I got shown where you’d been taken. I’d like to think all this has been set up because they’d seen me taking notes in the cafe and wanted somewhere in the simulation where I could work our situation unhindered, but that is simply speculation and nothing more.’

‘So, I was just here when you arrived?’

‘There is so much to tell you but I have no idea when they’ll be back, and they could erase this all when they do, so I needed to get started on fixing the timeline whilst you were in stasis -’

‘Stasis?’

‘It wasn’t just unconsciousness, you had this invisible barrier around you. I couldn’t interact at all. I assume it was to fix whatever was damaged.’

‘You’re right, I know they’re not here, because at least one of them was watching me until everything was fixed, then they left. How long ago did the barrier drop?’

‘About an hour by my watch. Are you feeling well enough to join in?’


Previous Part :: Next Part

Write Now :: The Book of Shame

I don’t know how other writers deal with rejection, except that it is something that anyone who writes will encounter the moment they throw themselves into competition. It is the inevitable consequence of attempting to be noticed, belief that one is only worthy when a total stranger decides your writing deserving of a wider audience. The problem, of course, is picking up confidence after failure, then carrying on.

I’m not sure if this is novel or not, but rejection here is dealt with via the Book of Shame.

Ever since I started entering contests in 2017, this is where the stuff is remembered: a copy of my poetry printed out, then stuck in place, with accompanying notes to remind what inspired the pieces, and what was learnt from them. The idea is to try and evolve after each piece or group of poems, alter approach and style to better mach the increasing amount of poetry that is being read, and then finally to transcend the feelings of failure. Shame, in this case, is not a bad emotion. It is the understanding that from failure comes progress, and to recall how that took place is as important as the poetry itself.

It’s easy to print the collections in a tiny format on my shonky printer: four poems to a page of A4 and then they’re cut up and stapled together. One of these two will now have four poems added for a second hit at a pamphlet submission, because I honestly think it is good enough. This is the first time that’s happened, and hopefully not the last. It will only get easier if I do more work, after all, and my workload/schedule is beginning to bear fruit in that regard. Who knew that if you keep writing, things get better?

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In the unlikely event I do hit the jackpot, its where I’ll have lots of lovely background stuff to pull from as what inspired me to write in the first place. Whatever happens, it has become a way of celebrating progress and not allowing failure to consume me.

This Book of Shame is one of the most important things I’ve ever made.

Blue Sky Thinking :: Doubt

[INT; Alt’s Brain. Things have definitely improved since our last visit. Papers have been filed, cabinets are slowly being refilled. The skeleton staff of GUILT and REMORSE are beginning to make some inroads, revealing lavender walls and a dark blue carpet. GOOD and EVIL have their own separate desks, on which are piled roughly even stacks of folders, behind which is a whiteboard with a series of To Do Tasks marked in red and black.

GOOD returns from the coffee machine with two mugs, placing one on her desk before taking the other to BAD, when she stops, face creasing in confusion… ]

GOOD: How many sugars did you say again?

BAD: I’m going to write this on a Post It and staple it to your jacket. Every day is the same: I say two, you repeat it after me, then off you go and forget!

GOOD: I *think* there’s two in there, but the best way is for you to drink it and let me know –

BAD: It’s BLACK COFFEE woman, I can’t drink that now, it’s far too hot!

[DOUBT suddenly materialises between them, dressed only in underpants and a reindeer headband.]

DOUBT: There’s no sugar, you were distracted by Beauty at the water-cooler again, YOU FAIL!

[As quickly as he appeared, DOUBT is gone, leaving the faint whiff of Stilton in his wake. With a heavy sigh, GOOD trudges back to the machine. BAD watches her with a satisfied smile. These shortcomings were always her undoing…]


I tried yesterday to explain what is like when I experience a mental overload. Then it occurred to me that poetry might be quite useful as a descriptor in this situation. This poem’s existed on the hard drive for a while, but never with a confidence to use as explanation. The time has come.

This is my brain, folks. It’ll be here all week.


Doubt

Disparate threads, basic command
thwarted, abortive path untied
slack flax unwoven, memories
playback fast freeze instruction,
coil induction feedback loop
return track, switch back, look out
reload to starting point.

Every action, reproduction
remember how, order direction
exhaustion, normal purpose
fatigue makes it worse, rehearse
varied needs, cover all, enthral
then overload, as brain explodes.
Noise, sound, panic compounds.

Sit, breathe, withdraw, ignore
wait, noise abates with time
blissful calm, relief morphs doubt
I’ll never find my way back out.
To dream, one day, far away
dissonance dim history.
Then sleep, escape myself.


EX/WHI :: Part Thirteen

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Chris is awake, bolt upright from cold, wet grass, looking around in terror, pretty sure that he was dead about thirty seconds earlier.
This will be the second time his heart has stopped whilst in active service: considering where the last one took place, it is considerably less stressful to be alive here trapped in an alien simulation. He looks for Ami: she’s standing, staring at him with a mix of relief and trepidation before moving his side, checking pulse, as body is gently pushed back to fully horizontal.

This time, there is no objection to her actions: on reflection, lying down’s no bad idea.

‘Because I am a stickler for protocol I’m gonna ask you some questions to check for brain damage. Name and Social Security number, please.’

‘I believe I still am Mark Donald Chambers, 075-26-1431 and I was dead, right?’

‘Very much so and I know as a result your heart’s gonna want some time to recover quite apart from whatever else was rearranged in your body. What’s today’s date?’

‘Friday, June 15th 2018 and you need to explain what just happened.’

‘I will but not yet, not until I’m sure we’re not being eavesdropped on.’

‘You know we are now?’

The nod is almost imperceptible: back at the pillar, his partner wasn’t losing the plot, something happened she couldn’t explain. If he hadn’t reacted so strongly to that touch –

‘No more questions, try and relax.’

‘Aren’t you gonna ask me who’s the joke for a President is right now?’

‘At least you don’t have Brexit to worry about. Be grateful for small mercies.’

A backpack is somehow behind his head and Ami’s fatigue jacket across aching chest as suddenly, Chris is shivering uncontrollably: shock. Almost instantaneously air agitates, now familiar movement as reaction to his condition: a low camp bed materialises to their left, something he’d use in combat training along with blankets and a stainless steel canteen. About to try to get up, a sensation of weightlessness negates any effort and he’s literally floating off the ground, moved from concrete to canvas without ceremony. The blankets float up, down to cover his form, jacket gently placed back into Ami’s lap.

Chambers won’t say another word until prompted: Bishop knows they’re being watched, possesses a ton of intel it’s currently impossible to communicate and he is best serving them both lying here, being a good patient. None of this phases any more, their hosts owning total dominance not only of life and death but the laws of physics, yet Chris just wants to sleep for a week. The thought is acknowledged within subconscious by someone out of his field of vision, and this is no longer psychic sensations. Whoever it was who communicated with Ami in her head before he died also understands the need for immediate recovery.

‘I will provide induced unconsciousness to allow cellular regeneration to complete. When you wake, there will be opportunity to communicate with your partner unhindered.’

Chambers is satisfied because they are being referred to as partners and not subjects there is no danger, right before losing consciousness for the third time that day.


Previous Part :: Next Part

Write Now :: Drafting

Sometimes, you are the problem.

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No really, before you go off on one, and I ignore the whole ‘don’t inflame your audience’ rule of blogging, there’s merit to grasping that how we as individuals deal with learning new things. It’s particularly tough if, after years of just doing the same old same old it becomes apparent that to get better, stuff has to change. This has been the harshest lesson learnt via exercise, by some way. Just repeating the same stuff, over and again, will work to a point. If you want to really improve? Time to step out of the comfort zones.

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I am slowly bringing drafting to the table as a means of planning work before writing begins: in most cases this might only be a four or five line synopsis (so there’s an idea of beginning, middle and end) but in the case of my current poetry project? Well, we’ve gone a wee bit further. I did a thread in the week to flesh this out, as this is another means by which I can get a message across in Social media far more readily than is the case with the blog:

The key however to making all of this work best is the process of redefinition, and understanding that what once was good enough is no longer the case. Doing enough will not get work recognised on a wider stage. This is now highly personal subject matter that is being dealt with, but to maximise impact there must be a fluency to language and imagery which won’t happen straight away. The word polish is thrown around a lot as if a quick look-over will be enough, but the level of shine on your work should not be superficial. How you know it’s enough is also a matter of much debate.

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What’s comfortable for Michael is as subjective a response as your reaction to the .GIF. How you feel is enough is not judged by the failure of your work either, you could pour heart and soul into output and it simply never touches the soul of those particular judges. So, how do you ever make progress? In my case it is knowing I’ve done my best and then walked the extra mile. That means drafting more pieces, spending time doing things sensibly, making space to edit. Essentially, I respect my work.

By doing so, it then automatically develops a depth that simply would not be the case otherwise. It also means that when I fail, it is simply the first step in the journey to further improvement. That whole ‘why do we fall?’ metaphor in the Batman films is the mantra that plays out in the back of my head: each time I am rejected, it is a learning process, and up I get, ready to move on. Sure, it is both demoralising and often upsetting, but so is life. If it matters enough? You move on.

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Therefore, the days of being a big old cry baby at not winning stuff is behind me. My success stems from the personal satisfaction gained no only in writing, but producing work to what I consider is a consistently high standard and, if this keeps happening, eventually something will give. Add to that some shameless self promotion and, it’s all good.

It is time to start learning, and move everything forward.

August Short Story :: Lydia

This story was first published in 31 parts via Twitter during August. It is now reproduced now in a complete form, with a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Lydia

The Circus has never visited Anchorbridge before, of that Connie is certain. It’s not even on the map, battered corner store and gas station, collection of huts and tents that the railroad somehow forgot. Why they’re stopping here, now, is a mystery to all the carnies except one. Polari knows why they’re pitched, massive tent hauled to it’s full, imposing height. Sometimes, deviation is their plan because the Cards instruct change matters more than dollars. Connie watches from her caravan as he holds court: showman extraordinaire, Ringmaster of all.

This change transpired the night before, wagons pulled to sudden halt before crossing the tracks. Autumn’s coming: they’re already too far south as it is. To hit the State Line before October’s winds start causing trouble, this is a stop too far for everybody… yet, it’s show-time. 

Connie’s neck and chin have been itching since early dawn, so she combs the coarse, red fibres of her beard as distraction. Body is humming, heat within like late summer sun, harsh and unrelenting. This flesh demands satisfaction, but no man here will touch her. She’ll survive. These muscles intimidate whilst breasts infuriate, which is the way it should be when you’re 100% woman except for the addition of excess facial hair. Gramma Ana had cried the day she’d upped and left, but understood why. Normal folks won’t accept a freak, just the way life works.

Except these folks do, and have. Sure, she’s lonely sometimes, but everyone here is too, in their own way. The relief is companionship, acceptance and understanding. The performance is everything, glue that sticks them together in one glorious, colourful whole… and she’s needed. The Bosco Brothers and the Amazing Almarzanoff can’t get the main tent support straight, it requires a woman’s brutal, muscular touch to complete. Beard grooming can wait, this is a part of the dance Connie secretly loves. Without her, they are less than whole, as it should be.

They’ll do three nights here and then it’s time to pack the wagons to head north for the Winter.


In the middle of her first Strongwoman act, Conni’s aware of being stared at. It shouldn’t be a problem, that’s part of performance, except this time… something is in the air. Tonight has been full of surprises: a lame horse galloping into the ring fully cured, before demanding to be part of the act she’d performed in for over a decade. The clowns’ buckets, normally filled with paper tonight held water: Beppo was not happy at his resultant soaking.

As the sold out, full to bursting tent cheers its acknowledgement of her ability to lift two adult sea lions precariously balanced on plinths, there’s a smile brighter than sunshine from the seats by the entrance. The woman’s tall and blonde, sporting beard the colour of straw. Connie has to stare hard, confirming the truth. Reed thin but still muscular in dungarees and a chequered shirt, this stranger exudes warmth and humour: more significantly, nobody around her seems at all phased by the fact she’s a bearded lady… quite the opposite is the case.

Scanning the crowd, this woman is not alone: there’s a voluptuous brunette in a blue summer dress, elegant goatee plus immaculate handlebar moustache. Twin mousy brown haired, middle aged ladies clap and smile, beards plaited and bowed to match the tailored scarlet trouser suits. The tent is at least a quarter full of beards, sported by both sexes, and nobody seems to be the least bit upset or phased. As the entire audience rises to a standing ovation, Connie’s heart accepts something that previously was unbelievable: she is no longer unique in the World.

There’s also a sudden, overriding desire to take a walk into town the following day: Anchorbridge is suddenly a fascinating place to be pitched at. The Circus’ only Bearded Lady’s already deciding which of many dresses to wear, and hoping she might bump into someone on the way…


The following morning is unusually sunny and warm for mid-September: Connie is having trouble containing excitement as she walks through the outskirts of the town, surprised at how many inhabitants there are living in shacks and tents, in the process of building better homes. Passing these groups, there’s no shortage of smiles or good mornings. Obviously overt single sex families mix with the traditional, one group that appear to be some kind of commune… with absolutely no sadness to be found. Everybody, without exception, appears relaxed and happy.

Her assumption had been there was some raw material being farmed here, or a resource exploited… but the truth is these people are outsiders, with nowhere else to go. Normal society had forced them into the wilderness, and together they were creating their own unique Community. Reaching what passes for Main Street, Connie’s heart soars: there is the woman with the sunshine smile, axe in hand, efficiently trimming a large trunk of its bark. Athleticism is without question, sight of her muscles working as blade strips tree becoming beyond distracting…

‘That’s Lydia,’ says a voice to her right. Turning, a young boy, not yet into his teens, is watching the woman work, as transfixed as she is. ‘My aunt can clear bark off a tree in ten minutes. She’s the best woodworker in town, have you come to learn how to make things too?’

The woman has stopped working, aware of Connie’s presence, and as their eyes meet attraction is both obvious and unavoidable. Lost for words, the Circus’ bearded lady is no longer outsider, or afraid of consequences of her desire. She has already been made better coming here.


This will be the first time Connie has missed a performance since her late teens: she knows Polari will not be angry. In fact, it was him who gave her leave to be here: ‘these truly are your people,’ he’d confirmed before encouraging her not to return for the day’s entertainment. Lying under canvas, Lydia is sleeping beneath crook of her arm. Talking here together, fully clothed, whisper of possibility slowly bound both together. There are two days before the Circus is due to ship out, handful of important choices to make before morning sun finally rises.

It would be so easy to once more drop everything, starting new existence with this family, in a loving community, already instant and accepting home, except… the Circus means more to her than was at first grasped. To leave them would also hurt: there are hard choices lying ahead. What is needed most are Elvira’s cards plus clairvoyant’s unswerving guidance: the distraction beside her must be removed, for now. A note is written, on back of a circus flyer: ‘There are issues that need to be settled, I will return with the dawn.’ before quietly slipping away.

It is a surprise to find a group of friends waiting for her at the City limits: all seven Bosco Brothers impeccably attired in matching suits, Beppo and Alto’s bright scarlet waistcoats acting as beacons in the gloom. Even Polari dressed for the occasion, a faultless ensemble. ‘I know what you seek, but there’s no need. Elvira has told me to follow your lead, that all who yearn must come see this community for themselves. She understands better than anyone what drives both bodies and minds forward. It is time for everyone to stop, think and breathe.’

The look Polari gives is damning, reasoning the Circus stopped here becoming clear: an overridingly female-heavy community, possibility to look past appearance and convention for genuine connection. What mattered most to her as attractive, is different for everybody, after all… As both Boscos plus clowns move as a throng towards town Polari remains, taking Connie’s hand with unexpected gentleness. There is a change to him: not inevitability of losing her to these people, but something far more significant. He is ready to give up existence for her ideal.

‘You have wrought much change since agreeing to stay and became part of our family: I will never be able to thank you for all the lessons these boys were taught, for that is all most of them have ever been. Respect matters, above all else, to build the best of men in this World. There is no point in moving back north, fate dictates this is our home for the winter, perhaps longer. Elvira knew we might lose you, but then grasped greater good that could come from us all taking a moment to stop and think, reassessing where it was that we all belonged.’

Connie will thank Elvira in the morning, no need now to return to the Circus. Anchorbridge has become a way-point, chance of growth for all her friends. What matters most to her is Lydia: cornflower blue eyes, hair the hue of ripened corn, bright bearded future possible together.