Hi, this is the first in a shortish, time-limited series about How To Write. It’s a follow-up to the course of that name, which I created for The Idler Academy.
I’m calling the series Write To Change The World (WTCTW) because the subject of “how to write” is vast, and needs to be contained somehow.
I’m containing it by looking back ten years to the summer when I wrote How To Change The World (Macmillan/The School of Life). I’ll be sharing how I went about it, and what I might do differently if I were to write it now.
To begin, a little scene-setting…
It was 2011, a summer of riots in London, where I live – hence the picture above1 – which were followed by the charming #riotcleanup movement, in which tens of thousands of Londoners used social media (and that hashtag in particular) to co-ordinate street cleaning.
Here are some of them, in Camden, near where I live:
Back then, the mayor of London was Boris Johnson. Now, he’s prime minister. When Johnson visited Clapham just after the riots, he was greeted by cries of “Boris, where’s your broom?”2 Yesterday, in parliament, he received essentially the same message – though without the light-hearted overtone – as MPs gathered to debate the mess in Afghanistan.
As I wrote that last sentence, I was conscious that you might be reading it long after I type it. You might think, “What mess in Afghanistan? And who is Boris Johnson?”
Timely v. Timeless
This is one of the difficulties facing any writer: how to be up-to-the-minute and also relatively timeless?
For most of my writing life, as a journalist, I’ve known that editors only really want me to include what is new. As an author, the pull is (often) in the other direction: to write something that will endure.
In 2011, as I worked on writing How To Change The World, I wrestled with this problem. Riots followed by #riotcleanup would have made a wonderful case study – but would they seem, with hindsight, terribly dated?
Another thing that worried me was this: I actually knew the man who started #riotcleanup, Dan Thompson3. And because I knew him, I thought #riotcleanup might be too parochial to interest readers far away. I didn’t know then that Dan’s idea, and the movement he inspired, would become very well known. Looking back, I wish I’d made more of it.
For what it’s worth, #riotcleanup did inspire me to create some kind of a memorial – to internalise it by doing creative work.
I think we all tend to do this, when something is important to us. Sometimes the creativity is elaborate, sometimes we merely express a few words. We tweet about it, mention it to somebody on the phone, or (in times long past) write about it in a letter to a distant relative.
Me? Don’t ask me why, but I turned #riotcleanup into a version of the Willow Pattern plate. In my plate, the three figures crossing the bridge became:
- somebody in a hoodie
- a police officer
- somebody waving a broom
The traditional pair of love birds became a plane and a helicopter watching buildings below, which are on fire / have broken windows.
The pattern around the edge of the plate includes the Union Jack and the London Transport symbol.
I don’t have the plate, but here’s a preliminary sketch:
As I thought about writing How To Change The World, I gathered examples of people who have actually done that. Then I looked for patterns in how change happened.
Instinctively, I sensed that it would help if I combined examples that are current and local with others far away from me in time and space.
I think that instinct4 was right, because if you zoom out of the particular situations I’ve mentioned already (riots in London, Taliban retaking Kabul), you see a pattern:
- People draw attention to a problem
- Somebody has an idea to resolve it
- Idea is shared
- Idea is acted on
- New problem arises: Aaaargh etc
This is also the pattern of classic stories: incident, ongoing adventure, resolution. We hate stories to be unresolved, which is why it’s so ghastly, today, to feel uncertain about the fate of (particularly) women in Aghanistan under Taliban rule5.
And as it happens the same pattern applies to me (and you) as a writer.
There’s almost always some kind of Aaaargh, even if it’s the pleasant Aaaargh of being commissioned to write a book you will enormously enjoy writing. After a while, you get used to feeling Aaaargh, and accept it. Fear is the flipside of excitement: you can’t have one without the other.
With writing, as with changing the world, sooner or later somebody will come up with an idea to resolve the problem.
It may even be you.
Tip for writers
So much for what was happening out there in “the world”, in the summer of 2011. What was happening in my own life – particularly my life as a writer?
To remind myself, I opened up Photos on my computer, and scrolled back to pictures taken that summer.
And I found this one, of me with a group of others training in theatrical improvisation with the great Keith Johnstone (seated centre, with devil’s trident). I’m at the back, with the yellow balloon which (believe it or not) was a very important prop:
By this time, I had been a writer for more than 15 years, but training in impro was transformative. As I have written elsewhere, it was like being given X-ray vision, because it opened my eyes to much I had previously seen but not really understood, about everyday life. It was a boost to my self-confidence standing in front of people. But the reason I mention it here was that it added massively to what I already knew about storytelling.
And one of the things it taught me was the usefulness of reincorporation.
When you are improvising you have no idea where you are going. You are like a person walking into the dark, and naturally this can be scary. What I learned from impro was to build a framework as I went along, using whatever I have used already.
To give an example…
Once upon a time, there was a fisherman, and he lived in Margate, and when he was walking down the street in Margate he bumped into a fellow who was carrying a broom…
I wrote that without any idea where I was going. I haven’t edited it. If you look at it, you’ll see that my mind was drawn back to the #riotcleanup.
That’s no surprise to me: we’re pattern-making creatures, and our brains instinctively seek to make sense of random inputs.
Now, allow me to talk you through, in slow-motion, what happened as I typed that fragment of story…
I began with a fisherman (God knows why). And because he was a fisherman, I knew he had to live by the coast. (Mind you, since I’m going in slow motion: I had a fleeting idea that it might be “funny” to have him live inland, but instantly abandoned it.) The first coastal town that popped into my head was Margate. Why? Because my friend Dan Thompson lives there
(or did till recently, haven’t checked). You see! Again, my brain insisted on making a pattern.
And because Dan came into my head, he had to be carrying a broom.
Now, let’s imagine that I carried on writing in this manner for a while. It’s entirely possible that I might have done so without mentioning fishing – or fish, boats, thick woolly sweaters, storms, the sea – not for ages.
What impro taught me was that if I take my time, if I don’t panic, I will remember what I’ve already used and I’ll feed it back in: I’ll remember that the fisherman is a fisherman, and I’ll have him chased down Margate High Street by a giant whale (or something).
Why is this important?
Because the audience, at some level, is expecting it. The audience notices that I mention a fisherman, and tucks away that bit of information, assuming that it will be relevant to the story. In exactly the same way, cinema audiences notice when a character puts a gun into a desk drawer at the start of a movie; and gets tense whenever somebody walks near the desk, wondering if the gun is about to be used. If nobody uses the gun, the audience feels short-changed. In the same way, if my story never resolved to being about a fisherman (as such), my audience would feel strangely let down.
As I said: to do that, you have to take your time, not panic, which is extremely difficult on stage, because naturally you worry about boring your audience.
(And not only on stage: even typing at a desk, writers worry about boring an audience. It’s just more intense on stage.)
So, circling back to the writing I’m doing right now: impro taught me to trust myself to get started, knowing that I can always reincorporate. I don’t know if it was the “right” decision to start this series with something about the London riots, #riotcleanup and my impro training. But what would be right? I don’t know yet. But I do know that if I don’t start somewhere, I’ll never finish.
My best hope is that I will, at some point, reincorporate some of this material about riots, cleanup, Dan Thompson, willow pattern plates, Keith Johnstone, giant whales etc – and you’ll read it and smile, thinking: “Gosh, this chap Flintoff really knows what he’s doing, how clever to have set it up like that.”
4 Note to self: Instinct is a so important to whole topic. Write something about it! ↩︎