To ponder a whispering spirit

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

I think about words a lot, and I think a lot about words. My favourite word at the moment, is kintsukuroi, which means “More beautiful for having been broken,” and I apply it to people, as well as to objects. “Whisper” is also a nice word, having many meanings in various contexts, but also suggesting a whisper, or one who whisps…

Lonely Robot
Matt Dixon

My family name is Laker: one who fishes on lakes, as opposed to a Fisher, who might fish streams or rivers. At primary school, I had one matron-like teacher who called me “Ponder”, and she was on to something. I just spent the first 42 years of my life not thinking about it, which is quite a paradox. So too is my departed aunt, to whom Cyrus Song is partly dedicated.

My mum’s sister Margaret, was spirited away in 1993, aged 51, by that bastard cancer. The even more tragic thing is, she’d have loved the modern world, for all it could do for her. She’d have doted on my children, and taken an interest in what I’m doing. And the funny thing is, I believe she’s doing all of those things right now.

My belief that the human soul survives the body is all over this blog. I believe we’re all one day free of our physical bindings, to explore the universe as ethereal beings for eternity (therein lie personal heaven and hell, covered elsewhere on this blog), that what we call ghosts are all around us, in a form we can’t always see, and that Bowie was right: Knowledge comes with death’s release.

Although I didn’t realise or appreciate it at the time, my auntie was just like I was when I took on the role of adopted uncle with all those young people at the squat (also on this blog). She was slightly radical, realising that a 14-year-old boy (me, her nephew) was likely to be bored when visiting his nan and aunt (they lived together, in a war memorial house). So she rented me what were then X-rated (horror) films on VHS. She was wicked, cool and sick, as the kids would say.

Margaret was hugely into royalty and royal history. In her day, her research and reading was through books and libraries. In later life, I’m fascinated by the subject myself, like my aunt tapped on my shoulder. What might she make of the internet? How is she, being a part of it? She has a supporting (and linking) role in my next book.

After much debate, I’ve decided how I’m going to write (to present) my brief history of a family. The intent has always been to give my parents an everlasting gift, made with the hands which they made for me, and which I eventually found out were for writing. Even that has an interesting anecdote behind it: When I began to favour my left hand over my right (in 1971), my mum’s health visitor (as we had in those days) advised tying my left arm behind my back, so that I would somehow realign as “normal” by being right-handed. This was common practice in the day, when being left-handed was considered some sort of sinister curse (thank fuck they weren’t all over gender and sexual identities back then, I’d have been drowned). In later life, I’ve been grateful of my “defects”. I feel kintsukuroi.

As a further aside, when I was at school, around 10% of the population were southpaw. When I was married and taking the kids to school, I asked the head teacher what the percentage was among pupils. It was around 40% (let’s say 42), demonstrating that there were once many potential lefties.

In a funny way, my left-handedness has been linked with my life. Where once I ran companies, voted Tory and was generally a right-wing capitalist arse (and drinking heavily), now I’m a impoverished writer, but a happy one, having found all that’s left-wing, joined the Labour Party and embraced wider communities, where I’ve identified myself (and smoked weed). I’ve written in my stories about fallen angels with broken wings, mainly misunderstood characters, learning about themselves, and it’s always the right wing which is broken.

But back to the book, written with the left hand, which has a heart tattoo on it: It’s the story of two people, who would always be little-known, because no-one had written about them. I was only a part of the story from 1970, and the book will be about the places we lived as a family, and where my parents worked (large country houses, and a couple of schools). With all of the research material conveniently within reach, I’ll just be the curator of the story, putting my fictional character skills to use in bringing the real-life characters in this book to life on the page (given my plaudits, I should be able to pull that off). It is of course of somewhat limited interest, but both mum and dad have their own interests and hobbies, so the story will be sprinkled with QI-style factual stories and anecdotes from periods of history which my two characters saw (at least one of which has a royal connection), and they’re inspiring people, as others will see. And of course, such is the democratisation of writing through digital self-publishing, it’ll be a proper book, with an ISBN and all that represents (a copy filed at The British Library etc.)

As a writer, I can create immortality, for my vain and insecure self, wanting to be heard one day, and for others. I somehow feel I’ll be getting in touch with my auntie Margaret more, like I should’ve done when I was younger. She’s a spirit guide, because she was there in the background too, along with others, some still with us and others no longer. But my belief in immortality and of gaining knowledge permits me the comfort of knowing they might all appear in the book, as characters with depth, not because there’s a part of me in them like my fictional characters (although I’m in there biologically), but because it might feel sometimes like they’re guiding me too. It’s a quiet story, a whisper of the blood.

I’m really going to enjoy this busman’s holiday into a new genre: The sci-fi, horror, and sometimes children’s writer, off to speak with the dead. To ponder and whisper, to think about fish in a pond, and to whisp.

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Of hamsters and pink robots

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The best laid plans of mice (men had nothing to do with it, of course) sometimes work out in unexpected ways. Those of a religious persuasion might attribute these strange happenings to guidance from God. Other, broader thinking individuals, would say it’s simply a matter of being connected.

Pink Robot

It’s the weird coincidences which writers are sometimes accused of using for convenience (“Suddenly, a trap door he’d not noticed before, provided a potential escape…” might be something you’d read in a Dan Brown novel), but which do happen in real life. There are few pure coincidences in my fiction, and I make it all at least plausible through background research.

My last published story (‘So Long and Thanks for all the Animals’) was inspired by Douglas, and a song. My next one (‘The Long Now Clock’, out this weekend) came about because of something I heard on Ancient Aliens. A future story, about two hamsters called Hannibal and Lecter, was for a young friend, test reader and occasional literary muse, who has a pair of Roborovski hamsters named after her favourite film character. Given they sound like Russian cyborgs, I couldn’t resist.

It was my latest completed story which relied most heavily on real-life coincidences, not to make the story work Dan Brown style, but a series of things which shaped the way I told the plausible story.

I wanted to further explore sexual alignment and identity (in an asexual story), and the interface between humans and technology, as we become more merged, and the (rather worn) concept of sentient IA, as the lines between human and technological species blur, so I wanted to be original. I wanted to convey feeling and thoughts, from different perspectives, and I wanted to do this with flash fiction. The latter wish, was to make what turned into a bit of an experiment, effective through speed of delivery (a bit like a cartoon).

So I was looking for a lot of meaning in not many words. Having been encouraged by my writing peers to not be embarrassed to be proud, I’m rather fond of what I’ve come up with. It started when I heard something about ‘The Zeigarnik Effect’, so I researched it.

In psychology, the Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In Gestalt psychology, the Zeigarnik effect has been used to demonstrate the general presence of Gestalt phenomena: not just appearing as perceptual effects, but also present in cognition.” (Wikipedia). That became:

People are better when remembering the actions they didn’t complete. Every action has potential energy, which can torture its creator when stored. Release is the metaphorical pressure cooker letting off steam, a camel’s broken back, or a reject pink robot with Tourette’s…

My protagonist is a small pink robot, whose AI has a defect. She’s from the Pink Ladies range of assistant droids and she’s called Frenchie. She came about when I watched a documentary on Grease, with a greater emphasis on the play which preceded the film (my stories are littered with references, tributes and nods, to films, people…), and someone texted me. A conversation of some length followed, after which she was able to look at something in a different way, and a problem became a solution.

Most of all, I wanted to write a story about the way the mind works, in all its sometimes cracked ways; about how understanding can change attitudes; and of how that can be achieved simply by looking at things differently. And all I have is words on the page, just text.

The result, is a flash fiction story (about 750 words), of Frenchie and her depressed friend (Sandy, another robot), serving tables at Zeigarnik’s Kitchen. The facial expressions of the androids are conveyed with pre-emoji ASCCI emoticons, and thoughts in something similar to hashtags. An editor thinks it works too (“An interesting experiment. I don’t think we’ve ever had a robot with Tourette Syndrome”), so it’s out in a couple of weeks.

It is true that many stories use the well-trodden path of throwing up gradually more challenging obstacles, then for these to be overcome in a denouement (“Then he woke up”, not being one a fiction writer would get away with), and the story of my life is one such example.