Writing is a process, just as making a sculpture or designing a building is a process. In abstract, that’s a reassuring fact, one that can make the whole daunting task feel more approachable, less life-or-death. In practice, however, I often find that it’s no consolation at all. The process can hurt.
For me, the first step in writing anything is almost always finding a startling or evocative image to hang the rest of the piece off. Actually, scrap that. The first step is ignoring the first step and searching in vain for a high concept approach, something really clever, funny or both. This is my way of biding my time (and gnashing my teeth) until the necessary image presents itself.
When I was tasked with writing a poem about a randomly assigned object in the V&A's British Galleries for the 26 Treasures exhibition, I spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to get the leopard flagon to talk. Or trying to get its makers (two men from Elkington & Co in Birmingham) to talk. Or trying to get a hypothetical tourist standing in front of the object to talk – offering up some accidental American profundity.
I was listening when I should simply have been looking.
Don’t get me wrong. This object has a fascinating story to tell. Several fascinating stories, in fact. I could write a lot more than 62 words around what I’ve learned about the electrotype process, a patented Victorian discovery that I previously knew nothing about. How this cat came back from the Kremlin as a plaster cast and took a nice long bath in lukewarm cyanide. How the Elkington employees (wearing protective clothing, presumably) hooked up an electrical current to the vat and watched invisible silver particles in the solution begin to magically form a priceless coating across their prize. How they dried it off and burnished its surfaces to approximate the sheen of the original – a sheen that makes the leopard flagon seem to glow, almost golden, under the British Galleries spotlighting.
The leopard flagon does talk. For 126 years, it’s been engaged in a silent conversation with shadows and light. Its upturned eyes, almost invisible until I stood on my toes, were the clue that I needed. They’re like the finger twitch that allows the seemingly vegetative patient to communicate. I followed their gaze and saw what they see, perpetually, a blinding cluster of overhead track lighting.
Sometime later in the V&A café, after my caffe Americano cup had emptied and my notebook had filled up with demoralizing scribblings, that image came back to me as a phrase, as the ‘whole small sky of round electric lights’. At last, I could move on to the next step.
So often, the writing process is like lying down in a room-temperature bath and waiting for someone to switch on the electricity.
I went back to the leopard flagon and had another good look. Any tourist who happened to be passing at the moment I finally peered behind the obtrusive shield (and spotted the overgrown garlic bulb hidden there) could probably write a poem about the sound that spontaneously escaped from my mouth.
For me there’s only one notebook for the times when I need to write things out long-hand (for example, when I’m struggling to crack a creative problem and need to mull it out on the page). It's Muji's super-thin A5.
The size was the original appeal. More space in the rucksack for books and sundries. But it’s become more than that, something akin to ritual. Always the same notebook, always the same ink. Preferably with good quality caffeine. My preferred grey version of the notebook disappeared from Muji’s London shops recently. The sky didn’t fall in, but it does seem to be raining more. Maybe it’s my imagination.
As much as it goes against my primitive, paper-loving instincts to admit this, it happens to be true: these days my most-used notebook is the one that isn’t a book at all. It’s the Notes app on my iPhone. Portability is the key. It’s always there in my pocket, and easy to write in, even while standing up on a crowded train. The new IOS7 font makes my words look fresh and clean, while the smallness of the screen helps keep the mind focused.
Under ideal conditions – a long Tube journey, for example, with no wifi or 3G connection – I’m probably more productive in Notes than I’d ever be on a laptop or with a pen in hand, pensively thinking. Released from the burden and trappings of ‘writing’ something, the words just flow.
Blue jeans, Harley Davidsons, open roads and vintage skyscrapers are all said to be ‘as American as apple pie’ – a phrase that dates at least to the 1930s, meaning all-American. I have to confess I’ve never cared much for apple pie.
Cut open this iconic analogy and you’ll find mostly a lot of nothing. Most people don’t regularly sit down and eat a cliché, even in America, believe it or not.
Here are some words for the pies that some Americans really do eat, though, according to an article in the New York Times this week: cobblers, sonkers, brown Bettys, buckles, brunts, slumps, crumbles and crisps.
It’s poetry, though this is not a vocabulary of pie-ness that many Americans would hold, because most of these words – all essentially meaning ‘a deep-dish pie’ – only get used in one or two very specific parts of the USA.
But these are all deeply American words, all borrowed from somewhere, each linked to heavy cultural things like history, religion, class and race – and lighter things like seasons and flavours.
It’s an example of why America is a veritable wonderland for linguists. And it’s a small example of why American English – whatever that is, and however you try to define it – remains a rich cauldron of linguistic invention and strangeness, much like the country itself.
Obvious caveat: there’s no denying that America has also given us a whole daily lexicon of soul-defeating business terminology. But that’s a different matter. Those aren’t real words. I think most of them were spun out of a computer at IBM.
What I like about these pie words is that they are old, packed with heritage, and yet they haven’t been hollowed out to the point of nostalgia like their common cousin, the proverbial ‘apple pie’. Together, they also stand as a reminder that –despite the up-close view we all get of America now through TV and film (whether we want it or not, often) – there is still a lot that most of us don’t know about America and Americans.
On a more practical level, I don’t know about you but I find it impossible to look at words like ‘sonkers’ and ‘brunts’ without something really quite zesty happening in the way that I use language. Boring business words be damned. Apple pies, too.
Though for the record, before the apple pie was an American icon it was just a food – in England.