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The Plan

I’m going to lay out twelve chapters on the arc of a life, a writer's - on the arc of a character - mine and, maybe, yours.  It's a call to arms - write.  I’m not sure which chapter this is right now.  I think it might be number two or three.  But its the first to go out to you… Rough and Ready.

If you find it interesting - please tell me.  If you don’t - hmm.  Be kind.

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Beetroot - Got to enjoy that pain

“Learning is a gift. Even when pain is your teacher.” – Maya Watson

“The past has no power over the present moment.” – Eckhart Tolle

“Happiness is an attitude. We either make ourselves miserable, or happy and strong. The amount of work is the same.” – Francesca Reigler

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The past has no power over the present moment, says Eckhart Tolle.  It is very tempting to rate this comment in the same category as that other most ridiculous proverb, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt me.”

I don’t think there is really that much doubt that the traumas of our past and the traumas of harsh words received in the present moment - generally delivered by someone near and dear to us - are the two most destructive powers in most of our lives.

I’ve had illness, I’ve had physical trauma - both were significant definers of character and the shape of some aspects of my life.  But neither have come close to the influence of emotional trauma caused by loved ones in the past and emotional trauma caused by loved ones in the immediate present tense.

I’m taking a wild guess here that most of you feel the same.

What does this say about us as animals?  I get what Tolle is on about - he is saying, we can only live one PRESENT moment at a time and, irrespective of what has come before, we can CHOOSE to live the present moment as we wish.

Victor Frankl established an entire psychotherapeutic discipline on this basis, Logotherapy, and he famously had survived the German concentration camps of the second world war - losing his parents.  He had just formulated his thoughts and written them down before he was imprisoned; later published as “Man’s Search for Meaning”.  On the first day after his arrest, the Nazis made him change his clothes and robbed him of his master manuscript, and Frankl says he was more worried about the loss of his oeuvre than he was in his imprisonment and possible death.  Writers, eh?

In the death camps, he now had the opportunity to road-test the theory that he had created.  And, amazingly, he found he could, indeed, master his interior life and keep it sacred from the external tests of his torturors.  But he makes repeated testament to the saintly goodness of his wife - her unwavering support of him - the security of her love.  He may have endured one of the most inhumane of external humiliations but his interior life was secure in the hands of a good woman who loved well.  He says.

What about the tens of thousands, millions of us who feel that the greatest tests come from WITHIN our family.  From the treatment, betrayals (as we see it) of our parents, our friends, our lovers, spouses, children?

The greatest tests are, surely, nearly always from WITHIN our family.  How do we navigate those choppy waters when the people we want to lean on most in times of trauma are the same people causing us the trauma in the first place?  This is a near daily test for all of us, surely.  

And we have NO training to deal with it.  Or at least I did not.  We don’t have classes at school in “How to deal with your mum when she screams You are a selfish git at you three times a week.”  Or when in a rare moment of extreme anger, brought on by who knows what, a father strikes his fourteen year old son across the face.

What has this got to do with writing?   Everything!   Do you think we writers (whether writing in our head or on paper) are surfing on a wave of contentment or do we need grit in the oyster to create the pearl?   Check out what the screenwriter/novelist William Nicholson (Gladiator, Shadowlands, Elizabeth, Everest, Unbroken) had to say about the whole damned process when chatting to me and a bunch of other filmmakers, https://www.youtube.com/audio?v=bHU46YVAI4k

“Are we really happy here with this lonely game we play?  Looking for wor-ords to say!  Searching but not finding understanding anywhere.  We’re lost in a mas-masquerade!” heavy key change.  Yup, that George Benson had it down.  

We writers are lost in a masquerade of our own life - but what exquisite joy in shaping it anew as we construct our stories.  If we had our own shit really in order, would we be driven to write it right?  I’m guessing not.  So let’s thank our gods for being so fucked up!  Our traumas are our teachers, our mentors, our guides, our material, but… If we have no perspective then there is no growth.  No attempt at growth, no wisdom.  No wisdom, no angle on life.  No angle on life, no story.   No story… shit, we might as well top ourselves right now.

So, first step, get just a little perspective on your own shit so that you can write wisely about the shit that your characters are going through.  Know thyself or, for christ’s sake, let’s TRY to, just a bit.

Um, I just read back the bit about might as well top ourselves right now.  And, er, if you’re feeling that way inclined, please pause.  There is ALWAYS a story.  And there is the wonderful cycle of it all - good stories connect us to the common centre of all of us and when we construct a good story we feed the growth of others.  When we feed the growth of others we are, finally, no longer lost.

Let’s start a story.  Um, Once upon a time, there was a suicidal man sitting in a cafe.  He was fifty metres from a cliff and he thought he’d have just one last drink before he jumped.  It was an organic’ky type of place - you often find them near big cliffs - did you ever notice that?  Anyhow the guy, let’s call him Pete, chose a roots juice.  “Hold the ice,” he said - he hated it when places filled your glass with ice and you got about a thimble-full of juice to go with your brain freeze.

He sat down and prayed that the juice would be good because it would be really depressing to be falling two hundred metres and have a shitty taste in your mouth.

The juice came - it was red.  It had beetroot in it.  For the whole of his short life - Pete was twenty-two - he’d hated beetroot.   Pete let out a very short wail of frustration.  The only other guy in the place, a late middle-aged bloke with a long face and a short grey beard - looked up and scowled.  

The juice was expensive and Pete had just spent his last two pounds sixty five pence on it.  He wasn’t in the mood to ask them to take it back and when you’re fifty metres from ending it all, it seemed just wrong to walk the three miles back to the nearest ATM to get out another few quid.  It was the wrong rhythm.  He now thought of the twenty five pounds in his account.  Jesus Christ, he thought, what kind of fucking idiot am I?  When I jump, the fucking bank is going to keep it.  I could have given it to, to some worthy cause, like - I don’t know, blind children who, who might like someone to um, I don’t know - he looked out the window at the glimmer of sunlight that bounced off a perfect cloud in the shape of a dog, very similar to the little cocker spaniel Pete had had when he was eight years old and then they had to move country and they left little dog behind with the neighbours.  Pete didn’t like those neighbours.  He had often woken up crying thinking of little dog left with those neighbours.

The silver light bounced off and through the little dog cloud, it bounced across the sky, through the grubby window of the cafe and hit the glass with the red roots juice.  The light pierced the juice, flowed through, and spread across the table in front of Pete’s eyes in fifteen shades of vermillion, scarlet, rose, russet, indigo, titian - this last the colour of a girls’ lips he stole a kiss from on a camping trip, in the semi-dark, when he was twelve.  The memory brought prickles to the back of his neck right this moment.  Yes, thought Pete, that twenty five quid could have paid for someone to describe this light, these colours to a blind kid.  Fucking banks!

He looked back at the red root juice.  Now he felt guilty NOT drinking it.  One, because it was another two pounds sixty five that could have gone to that blind kid and, two, because if you’re not going to try something new before you end it all, well when the fuck are you?  Well, not ever, dipstick!  That’s the point.

So he lifted the roots juice to his lips and he was going to take a small sip from the straw but as the glass rose to his lips, a new emotion flooded through him.  He tossed the plastic straw away with abandon, and took a hefty draught - down, down, down, to the frothy bottom of the glass he went - tilting his head back and shaking the glass to suck the final bloody  bubbles of beetrooty stuff.

Upright, gently, came his head, and with slow deliberation he lowered the empty glass to the table.  

He looked at it.  He ignored the damp moustache of liquid above his lip - though he could feel it .  He felt the aftertaste of the juice on the back of his tongue - earthy - around the inside of his cheeks - sweet - the vegetable fur that coated his teeth.  He swallowed.  And breathed deep.  So that was the last flavour he would have.

(Shall we call this story “Beetroot”?  Maybe).

There was a squark of noise - Pete looked up - the bearded guy pushed his chair away and stood on unsteady legs.  As he stepped away his grubby mackintosh swashed against his untouched mug of tea and the tea spilt on the table and travelled across the red and white checkered oil cloth and cascaded onto the floor with a surprisingly loud SWASH.  The bearded guy heard it but did not look back.  He shuffled towards the door and Pete read his lined face and his suffering eyes and he knew it all.  And the door creaked open, and the roar of the wind was in then out again as the door slammed shut.  And the bearded guy was gone.

“This is a fucking story,” thought Pete.  “It’s a fucking cliche.  So what am I supposed to do?  Get up, go to this stinky bloke and, christ, he pongs, I’m supposed to go to him and hold his hands and say - Mate, I know your pain.  The cliff is not going away, it will always be there for you.  But, do me a favour, come back to the organic-ky cafe and we’ll blag a roots juice, unless you’ve got cash, and then you can buy me a full English breakfast because I’m suddenly, inexplicably, fucking starving.  And I’ll listen to your story and, forgive me, I’ll let you know that you’re missing whole important chapters because, as sure as fucking eggs is eggs, you’ll have your titian-lipped girl and you’ll have your little dog somewhere in your rich and varied life and, fuck knows, there could be moments like that again for you, for… me.”

And it took Pete quite a long time to get through these thoughts because there was a lot of other stuff going on in his head.  But he looked over to the spilt mug of tea and the trail of liquid that dripped ever slower off the edge off the red and white checkered oil cloth.  Fifty metres, thought Pete.  That’s not very far - even for unsteady pongy legs.  One drop of brown tea hovered on the edge, hovered, then fell.  

 “Shit,” Pete jumped up.  His legs were like jelly.  Not now, said Pete.  Don’t you fucking go wobbly on me now.

Pete reached for the door and it took him three goes to wrestle the simple latch open.

At the counter, the serving-girl barely glanced over.  She was reading her instagram messages and her heart missed a beat when she saw that Linda had only sent her one kiss heart after her smiley face when she normally sent two.

Pete pulled the door, it wouldn’t move!  He knew it was something sacred, something to do with a test of his inner child, and he paused a micro-moment and pulled all the chi of the universe into his muscles and HEAVED.  No, the door would not open.  Hot tears started in Pete’s eyes.  He loved that pongy bearded man that could have been his dad, it could have been himself in miserable years to come.  He pulled one last time.  And slumped - defeated.

“Push,” said the serving-girl.

Pete pushed.  The door opened easily.  The wind off the sea was wild and cold and it hit Pete in the face saying, you plonker, didn’t you see you had to push and, now, what is the price of your stupidity?

The cliff was fifty metres ahead - no bearded guy.

Pete ran.  Shit, thought Pete, my legs can work pretty well when they really need to.  But where’s my dad?  He reached the edge of the cliff - put on the brakes, teetered dangerously on the brink.  Nothing.  An abyss of nothing.

White frothing waves pounding rocks two hundred metres below.  Boom, boom, boom.

Pete looked around, across the green slopes that edged the cliff - no bearded guy.

He looked back down to the pounding waves - he looked, slowly up across the endless gray of the sea, the unending grey sea and, above it, the grey sky, one seeping anonymously into the other.  The silver light had gone or nearly gone. The last sliver faded in front of Pete’s eyes.  He felt the earthiness of the juice on his tongue once more, but it was not enough.

He put one foot forward into nothingness.

“Hang up,” said a voice in the field to his left.

Pete froze - one foot in the after life - and tentatively swivelled his head - the years of Sunday morning yoga proved quite useful at this moment.

A head rose from the long grass - a bearded head.
“Pull me up,” it said, “Me legs have completely gone.  Fucking joke, isn’t it.  Pull me up.  Take me with you.”

Pete placed his airborne foot next to his grounded one - and turned.  

He took the old man’s hands in one of his.  The man’s hands were wet and cold.  His eyes pleaded like a child and he smiled a tiny smile of gratitude as Pete scooped an arm around the man’s back and lifted him to his feet.

“You’re strong,” said the old man.

“Let’s go,” said Pete and led him towards the cafe.

“Hey!” said the old man, “You’re going the wrong way!”

“Shut the fuck up,” said Pete.  “I hope you’ve got some money cos homicide seems a bit extreme for a fry-up.”

The old man looked at Pete very worried.  But he was in good hands.

The next day, Pete was in London and he was drinking in a pub, too much, and he staggered down to the horrible cramped dungeon of a toilet and he grappled for his fly before he pissed his own pants and he got it out and he peed blood.

Shit, thought Pete.  Fucking fantastic, I’ve been through all that.  All that, all that that was good and cathartic and was such a wonderful u-turn in my fortunes and I knew, finally, that the gods of the universe WERE there for me, and now I’ve got fucking cancer of the fucking kidneys.  Well thank you VERY much.  Fucking, fucking…

And then he stopped.  And holding his manhood in one hand, he smiled.  He smiled to the core of his being - and felt grounded to the earth for maybe the first time in his whole short life.  “Beetroot,” said Pete.  “Beetroot”.

And there you have a story.  Not maybe the most original and, in fact, there must be a thousand “last day of my life” stories and not many of them are THAT amazing, though Hemingway’s “The Killers” is a beaut.  Got to go read that one  if you haven’t already.  What a beaut.

But it’s only taken me an hour to chuck that little one down - and I’m sitting in a cafe (and I’ve just drunk a root juice and my pee will be red for the next two days) and every cafe is a portal to our other world, is it not, writers?   Get thee to a cafe, physical or figurative, and write yourself a “last day of my life” story.   What does it tell you about yourself?  What does it tell you about your protagonist?  EVERY  story is a “last day of your life” story.  Just, sometimes, the days are a little longer than 24 hours.  But every story is a “what if” about the three acts of a life.  A beginning, a longer middle, an end… that is, generally, not an end, but a new beginning.

Write a little.  Go on - write five hundred words.  Any old shit.  Why not start with the last day of a person’s life.