Under pressure at the 2008 Readers….and Writers…festival
Yikes. The letter from the organizing committee arrived. They confess to thinking I will be worth listening to. I relish such unbridled optimism. But, buried in the 4th paragraph is the bane of my public reading life: All of us…all of we? All of us local writers will be afforded a maximum of twelve minutes. TWELVE MINUTES! It seems, at once, too much and too little. TWELVE MINUTES!!! Immediately I understand…I think. There will be a total of three sessions on three successive days, each an hour in duration. Will it seem like a duration? There will be at least 12 writers reading. Or 12 readers writing. Talk about your 3-day novel writing contest. Denman could have a 12 minute spurt of inspiration contest. That would be some shindig. YOU HAVE 12 MINUTES TO WRITE A STORY…OR POEM…OR PLAY!!!!! It would be exhilarating; Artistically demanding; A bit boring to watch perhaps unless spectators who attend these sorts of esoteric events like to sit still and witness colossal imaginations unwind, coil and spring like rattlesnakes….or, in my case, like an innocuous garter snake.
I am a restless writer. I can barely remain clamped to my chair as I compose. Do I really want voyeurs gawking whilst my creative liquids gush?
For me writing is like clipping toenails. Snip! There, that looks good. Snip! Shoot, got some skin. At the end of either process, I put the finishing touches on the nubs, file them down as it were, and move on.
Writing invariably reminds me of other tasks that need doing. Mundane chores are always nipping at my heels, interrupting my streaks of brilliance. Thank Allah my toes are often smooth and clipped. It’s good to have one finished product. Writing is a lingeringly endless labour of torture; toe nail clipping, conversely, instantaneously reduces the pain, psychic and real, we all feel when those hard suckers burrow into vulnerable flesh.
Enough already with the nails! Though good writing does seem to me to have an in-grown, in-bred quality about it. Or is that introspective?
Smug that I am just a shade more manicured than I was a minute ago, I return to the word processor. The 12 minute deadline nudges back into my mind. Why, I wonder, could it not be fifteen minutes? Is there some kind of artsy deflation happening here? Was Warhol overestimating? He’s certainly had his own bucket of 15 minutes strung together well.
Before the letter came, I was futzing about trying to decide which of my little tales I should read. I’m a prolific writer. I start lots of stuff. I have frequent flashes of insight that usually gets me about 100 words into a tale. Then, the gruelling toil begins. The tough slog slips into gear. Then, sun-stroked by my own questionable brilliance, I invariably wander off into the desert of the day.
I have projects galore but I’ve finished few of them. Most never get completed. How do other writers do this? Find the end? Beats me!
My self- analysis is not helpful. This is not a new experience. As a slothful representative of the invasive gentry class, I have written a number of articles for the Flagstone, Denman’s monthly news and literary publication. Okay, sometimes I call it a journal. No one can argue that it is…at the least a publication. It’s undoubtedly printed…ergo published. Journal may be a tad ritzy.
Why am I so provisional? To prepare for this event, I had a number of my stories I was thumbing through, trying to decide just the right one to read this year. Last year, I read an autobiographical fabrication. Some of it was true; some not. It was about my life in a city commune in the sixties…my slightly altered memory of that time. I was definitely there in the sixties but I was pretty preoccupied with experimentation…turning on…fine tuning in … just short of dropping out. I never could quite take that final step.
Most of what I write is made up…not totally true. ..Fake… Alright…unadulterated lies.
I once had a career…I was a suit…but I often wore shorts. My career demanded I produce accurate recordings; my files were as pristine as a mountain stream. To achieve that, I had to extract myself from the equation. The documentation had to be factual, non-judgemental and, truth be told, slightly mechanical. The recordings had two prime purposes; the first: my superiors would have a way of checking to see if I was doing my job fairly and correctly…assuming I was actually documenting what had happened…the real truth (always an elusive mistress, eh.) . And the second…there was the assumption that the recipients of my labour, kids and families in the snare of Child Welfare, might come back at some future time to see what I wrote about their lives. So, I had a duty to get it right.
I may have written thousands of pages. Never published; always that sense of having somehow perished a little with every entry.
Two years ago I read a satire on advertising specifically written for the Festival. It was as fresh as a brand new baby. I mention freshness because the letter from the organizers says they want me to ‘read something fresh.’ And then they say that it should be ‘nothing previously read in public or published’…This is a high bar they demand. The professional writers attending will most likely read something prehistoric and published. The assumption is that they work hard and that these festivals are sort of like a little getaway. But, aha, the local writers, let’s make them work; make them come up with…something fresh. I am honoured by the requirement. My problem is that, though I am so prolific that many of the projects I’m working on have been percolating for decades. Witness Novel Number One, she with100 different titles and an irritating lack of completion. She epitomizes fresh and stale in one breath.
I am wilting. The sparkle is leaving my body. I need a muse. I Google “12 Minutes”. A pioneering, wired world opens up. It seems 12 minutes rules much of our cosmos.
For example, I learn that, though most job interviews last an hour, a majority of managers make the decision to hire or not within the first TWELVE minutes;
· In 2004 Takeru Kobayasi set the world record by eating 53 and 1/2 wieners in TWELVE minutes. I can’t immediately verify if the record still holds.
· In Sycamore Illinois, you only have to pay a penny for TWELVE minutes of parking
· Windows PC`s without a firewall or anti-virus protection stand a 50% chance of infection within TWELVE minutes
· A company in Glasgow is developing a bus battery that will fully recharge in TWELVE minutes
· You can control your cluttered life by cleaning TWELVE minutes a day…for more information go to www.12minutestogo.com
· You-tube has a delightful site called Kissing a perfect stranger in under TWELVE minutes, part of a larger master plan found at www.seduceinseconds.com
And my personal favourite
· TWELVE minutes to SEARCH RAGE; a 2001 report that warns about the maximum time you should risk spending on a search engine before you blow up.
The internet’s fine but you can spend hours there. And I only have twelve minutes. I`ve already packed way too much into this piece. Before I got the confirmation letter, I was dipsy-doodling between three stories I have written. One, called SAY UNCLE, is about a little road trip I took with my father’s brother in the late 1950`s. Heartrending stuff. But way too long. And I haven’t even finished the last third of it, all about the trip back from Sedro Woolley.
The other two stories are two consecutive chapters about the evolution of a hired killer. Its fiction; Part of a comic novel I am writing about a Denmanesque type Island. Neither chapter is funny. One deals with an attempted murder by children and the second with revenge against a racist.
One was about the right length but the other just went on and on. And who wants to hear about murderous children and racist doings on a hopefully sunny Saturday morning? I sure don’t
I have a huge swack of guilt from last year. My love says I went on for half an hour. Way over my time ration. I think she embroiders. But I don’t know. I was in the zone, that curious cerebral cubbyhole where, as you are sharing the literary fruits of your labour, your words seem to be spouting from someone else. You’re listening and speaking and nodding your own approval of yourself but you are separated from your body, hovering above, critiquing and being slightly mortified. You’re not watching the clock.
A few folks came up to me in the clammy moments after and suggested I had pushed the time envelope. Guilt!!! It sticks to you like tomato sauce after an exuberant pasta party. There I was, wrapped up in exposing my naked creation, my fabrication of communal life, of love, of lust. Not hard to believe I went over my allotted time. Which last year, if I haven’t mentioned it yet, was 12 minutes.
Twelve minutes. For some an eternity; for others the snap of a finger. For me….well, it depends what you’re up to. As a writer, a scribbler, a word jockey, a chest pumped up essayist, well, I wander where the notion takes. I have stories written, stockpiled like fish in a barrel.
Last year, I think I went over my allotted time. I thought I was delivering my oration fairly fast, hustling along to get to the end and trying to not screw things up. I had tried to time myself before the reading but that was really tedious. A couple of people, distant relatives of the organizers, whispered in my ear some time afterwards that I may have run on a bit too long. Local readers need to hear this. I was very appreciative. I wasn’t looking for special treatment. How difficult is it to sum up whatever one might want to say in a set time? TWELVE minutes is reasonable. I accept that. As embarrassing as it might be, I support the use of the hook, that claw-like thing you see in vaudeville and burlesque movies
I feel time speeding along. Funny, because I like to think that I am a devotee of the slow islands movement. For instance, I often drive really slowly as the Hornby traffic races to and fro. There is a danger that they will overreact and pass me but I believe we need to live our beliefs.
The TWELVE minute read almost flies in the face of my slow island philosophy. Why am I putting myself and others through this? I had hoped to tell a story. All I’ve done is examine my life in small indigestible chunks. Have I entertained anyone? I am so “rushing” that I have no idea.
I’m taking the three morning workshop with Jack Hodgins. But there was this time clash. I wanted to read here AND take Jack’s course.
Jack was my High School English teacher. I skipped out of school a fair amount back then. This morning I’ve had to skip out of Jack’s workshop for a few minutes to read my handiwork, as if I was still that skinny, aimless kid. At my 10th high school reunion I snuck out of an assembly to have a smoke. B.S. (his actual initials) looked at me and said, “Engleson, you’ll never change.” Contrarily, at that reunion I was voted “Most Changed.”
This seemed like such a good idea. I have lots of notions which seem good that fall by the wayside. My life partner suggested I approach this dissertation on 12 minutes from a different angle…devote each minute to 12 different ways twelve minutes get the job done. I tried that but lost the thread.
I like Charlton Heston films. I’m not a gun guy but I’ve always gotten a solid right wing thrill from his performances. One of the most blatant exhibitions of chaos in film is Two Minute Warning. What a depressing and aimless chunk of celluloid. Still, it’s a convenient shill to resurrect as I try to fill out this exasperating process. Heston was on film in Moore’s doc, Bowling for Columbine, for about 12 minutes, a teensy amount of time compared to all of his majestic, heroic roles. Yet when I think of him now, all I see is an ancient fellow, slipping into dementia, perhaps already there, defending a right dear to him but terribly out of step with many.
One minute and counting
I feel like I have an explosive device strapped to me. For someone my age, who may be past his creative and or pro-creative prime, this has been an invigorating exercise. I have wasted countless hours meandering the web, lightly landing in a range of universes. I now have a healthy respect for what TWELVE minutes represents. The most poignant TWELVE MINUTE experience I stumbled upon incidentally was a brief tale telling the final moments of one John ZOILKO, a convicted murderer who was rather awkwardly hung one April morning in 1915 at the old Don Jail. To quote Katie Lewis of the Toronto Star, “It took 12 minutes for Ziolko to die. Twelve minutes is a blip of time. Twelve minutes is an eternity.”
Am I under the wire? Who’s been counting? Who’s on first? I wasn’t. And I won’t be the last.