Shooters and Cobblers

I’m thinking about different writing experiences at the moment, and I think they can be often be broken down into either ‘shooters’ or ‘cobblers’. I’m drawing my metaphors here from the several years I spent working behind bars before I went back to school. One job that sticks in my mind was working in a vodka bar, which had a basement bar and an upstairs lounge. The two bars seemed to mostly divide these two types of drinkers – shooters looking to get a quick fix in the basement bar, and cobblers taking their time in the lounge.

Incidentally, in drawing this analogy between drinking and academic writing I’m not suggesting you mix the two, the results generally end up on the cutting room floor. However, one of the things that prompted me into thinking about it was a colleague telling me recently that they found critical reading really difficult without wine – apparently after a couple of glasses they could find the fault in the tightest argument…I can’t vouch for this advice, and there’s a part of me which doesn’t much like the idea of peer review being fuelled by grape and grain, but anyway, I digress.

In the past few months I’ve been required to be both a shooter and a cobbler at different times and for different writing tasks, and it has got me thinking about the many different forms of task that can come under the description of ‘academic writing’ and therefore the many different practices, strategies and skills which we might bring to them.

The shooter, as you will probably know, is a cocktail usually made from 2 or 3 shots of spirits in a small glass, generally disposed of in a single blow. In contrast the cobbler is a long drink served over lots of crushed ice and fresh fruit. It’s a sipper.

I think my default or preferred writing state is cobbling. I think back to my PhD and the way I approached the writing of it, I would have a daily target and the whole day to achieve it, and I would try and stick to particular routines of time and place in achieving it. The relative novelty that writing still represented to me, along with the fact that I didn’t have a clear idea of exactly what I wanted to write before I started, meant that I required such an approach. I needed to sit for long periods of time and really think – agonise even – over what I was writing, and allow it to slowly emerge via many tensions and iterations. It turned out to be an immensely satisfying experience.

However, when writing becomes just one of the things that you have to accomplish in a working day, then cobbling can become a bit of a luxury.

So, shooting, the skill I have had to acquire in the last few months, as I was attempting to publish my thesis as a book. This was an activity which was separate to my day job, and therefore one that had to be fitted in here and there, wherever possible. No longer was it possible for me to sit and hunt the words, I had to learn to sit down knowing that I only had a fixed time to accomplish a particular number of words. Again, I tried to build some routine into this: I would come into the office in the morning and for the first hour would simply open my laptop and start writing. I wouldn’t do any of those other ‘normal’ come into the office activities – wouldn’t turn on my desktop and email, wouldn’t check my messages, wouldn’t even make myself breakfast or coffee (those that know me might understand the kind of stern self regulation this represented). I became pretty adept at it, and in fact, once I had acquired the knack of this kind of ‘plug and play’ approach, I was able to break various bonds of routine times and places and write pretty much anywhere – I started mapping out my day according to where I would be and where best I could find half an hour to get some writing done. This meant that even though I was at that time still quite heavily involved in fieldwork for my day job – unpredictable, demanding, transient, and travel oriented experience that fieldwork generally is – I was still usually able to hit my daily targets. The train became a fantastic ally – as did cafes at train stations – Pret a Manger at Manchester Piccadilly became a second office.

I got so into this rhythm that I was not only able to get the book in on time, but I also managed to submit two papers that had been sitting around waiting for me to submit, or re-submit, for months, but I had just never found the time/place – now these times/places existed everywhere and I just had to be ready to take advantage of them.

Now, I’m back in the offce. I’m writing the research report. It’s odd, but cobbling now seems oddly static. I still find a bit of the shooter in me, that just wants to get as much down as quickly as possible. Then I find I have the rest of the day to try and fill. The challenge is now spreading this energy back out over the day, and breaking it up with other activities, which are productive but which give the writing mind a bit of time to recover and ‘unthink’ – the importance of this is really nicely discussed by Pat Thomson in her blog this week.

I’m not quite there yet at themoment and it’s really frustrating. I’m writing about 1000 words a day, which firstly is not enough for my deadline, and secondly is about what I was writing in an hour or so of shooting before.

Perhaps I should stop writing this blog and get back to the…bar?

 

 

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The Fall. Part 11.

James describes the 48 or so hours that followed as some of the most painful, frustrating, and surreal of his life. Nevertheless, almost two years later the events themselves are still fresh in his mind, in intricate detail, tattooed onto his memory by the force of emotion. So, while this part of the story is written by me, it has been spoken to me by James, they are his words.

Pen and I lay on the bed. We were both in tears. Pen’s hysterical screaming had lasted some time, I don’t know, maybe 5 minutes, but it might have been much less, such a noise, perhaps it seemed like it was going on for longer than it really was. We didn’t say much to each other at first; what is there that can be said in such a moment, all is platitude. Pen’s predominantly pragmatic sense must have taken hold at some point because she quite abruptly sat up and asked what I thought we should do now. Almost as soon as she had asked it, she dismissed it again and said that she needed a drink. We had some beer in the RV but she needed something stronger. So I suggested walking up to the main road where I had seen a liquor store – I offered to go, but she didn’t want to be left on her own so we both went. It was the first time out into the world, post-…what – what should I call this event? Post-Anna. Post-normality. Post-happiness. At the time it was post everything, nothing looked or felt the same, and we didn’t think it ever would. 

So, out into the post-Anna world. I have never been so struck by the gulf that could exist between the internal and external states of this world. How resistant that thin veneer of normality has to be to maintain an external appearance of order, when inside there are so many different things going on, so many indescribable things, things you can’t make sense of, let alone put into words. The simplest interaction with a liquor store owner becomes a matter of total rote, automated being. There is no thought process, your thoughts are buried, they’re down there somewhere, drowning in that mess. Something carries you through, some tacit sociability enables you to smile, be polite, make small talk. As we walked back to the campsite we held hands tightly and did not speak. There could be no pretence with each other. To speak would have been to lose that sense of order, which was keeping us from breaking down in the street. Just had to hold tight to each other. I could feel Penny’s breathing tensed against this emotional threat, I could feel mine doing the same thing. Defending, protecting our outward appearance.

1am local time. Sitting on the picnic tables beside the RV, drinking gin, smoking our first cigarettes in years. The next RV was about 20 yards away, one light still on inside. Looking around the campsite, with the exception of the occasional light on, we felt fairly alone, and this was how we wanted it. This was how we would try and begin to make sense of what had happened and how we were to respond to it. 

Penny poured herself another drink, the first one having disappeared at some speed, and lit a second cigarette. I was struggling a bit with smoking again, the nicotine was turning my stomach, but I persevered, I wanted Penny to do what she needed to and not stop to think about whether or not she should be doing it. Should and should not had gone, they had no place here.

We talked through our options. Though I hadn’t checked I was pretty sure that there was no international airport in Santa Fe, nor did I imagine we would be able to drop the RV there. So, any return journey we made would need to deal with both of these things first. It was now the small hours of Wednesday morning. As I would be in no fit state to drive until about midday the following day, we were at that point looking at probably getting home by Thursday lunch time at the earliest. I guess we had both just gone initially on the assumption that we would try and get back home as quickly as possible. At some point Pen stopped and said that perhaps this wasn’t the best idea. What if we continued – not to complete the whole trip, but to complete what we came here to do; get married. We were booked in to a chapel on Saturday. What difference was another 2 days going to make? We felt like maybe this was what Anna would have wanted us to do.

Getting the laptop from the RV I started trying to work out our options in more detail. Las Vegas was about a 12 hour drive away. We didn’t want to stop anywhere else now, the holiday was over, we just wanted to do what we came here to do and then go home. There was an international airport in Las Vegas, and there was a depot where we could drop the RV. As we could probably make the journey in a day, I suggested seeing if we could move our bookings forwards by a day or two. It seemed possible that we could be flying home by friday – only a day or so later than if we upped and left now. I also checked what it would require for us to leave as soon as possible. The nearest RV depot was Albuquerque, where there was also a domestic airport. The nearest international airports were Denver, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. All this seemed to be pointing towards the Las Vegas plan. However, we were both worried about still having that amount of driving to do. At that point I was so exhausted I couldn’t really think about the idea of driving 12 hours. Given everything else that was going through my head I didn’t know whether I would be able to focus on the task of driving. 

At this point, Penny decided that I should go to bed. She said that she wouldn’t be able to sleep, but that whatever we were going to do would require me to drive somewhere and so I needed to rest. So, we packed up for the night. Penny gave me a sleeping pill, then sat next to me. My last memory of that day is Penny sitting next to me with here legs tucked up, hugging her knees, headphones on, eyes bright and looking ahead of her at the wall of the RV, and beyond, to tomorrow. It felt good, in as much as ‘good’ was at that point possible. It felt like maybe we could do something to honour Anna, by continuing, we still felt like we had a purpose.

I slept. 


The Fall. Part 10.

That evening, James and Penny went back into Santa Fe as planned. They ate a meal in a charming little contemporary Mexican cafe and enjoyed a couple of local beers. Making their way back to the RV by about 10pm, they opened another beer, put a little music on and settled in for another relaxing night, reading and route planning. James was leaning more towards the latter of his journey decisions to take in the surrounding villages between Santa Fe and Grand Canyon. Penny, who observed this growing obsession with affectionate amusement, was happy to be taken wherever and however; a self-confessed control freak, this was an unusual experience for her and she was loving it.

Midnight approached and it seemed like bed time – however, James had discovered that his phone had no charge on it and as tomorrow was a travelling day they would need something for an alarm clock. So Pen turned on her phone, which had been switched off up till that point. She had just turned it on and put it on the table when it rang. Confused, Pen looked at her phone to see her Dad’s number calling. Ordinarily she might not have bothered answering, but this seemed odd. He knew they were abroad, and what’s more, midnight in Santa Fe meant it was about 6am back home. She answered, putting the phone on speaker:

“Hello”

“Penny? It’s Dad…

He paused. He sounded odd, his voice wavered.

…Is James with you?”

“Yeah he’s right here…”

“You’re sure, he’s right there with you?”

“Yeah, Dad what is it?”

“Mum’s died”

“What? Your mum??”

Richard’s mother was 92 and had been in poor health for some time

“The diabetes caught up with her”

“Wait, Dad, who? Joan or Anna??”

“Anna”

Penny dropped the phone and screamed. It was a horrible noise. Pure, hysterical, uncontrollable shock.

They were falling.