Issue 003, 16 August 2021
Recently, I’ve been carrying a draft of my next book in the front pocket of my trousers.
It’s made of sheets of A4 printer paper, folded into eight, and roughly stitched together (by me). It gets bulkier all the time, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to carry it this way much longer.
Which is a shame, because I enjoy taking it out every so often - when walking my dog Peanut, or in the kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil - and flicking through it.
The book happens to be illustrated (by me). There’s a picture on every spread. So it’s helpful to me to see the images that will accompany my words. To see how it fits together as a book.
Hi, I’m John-Paul Flintoff, and this is ::Everyday Writing::, a monthly newsletter that will soon go daily for a short series (only for readers who choose).
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The drawings are mostly of people and places in London. Necessarily, they have a variety of different moods:
Sometimes I like to pair an upbeat drawing with words that are upbeat, and downbeat words with downbeat drawings.
At other times, I like to create a contrast, to pull the reader up. Currently one I’m excited about is an upbeat piece about my neighbours, alongside a drawing of a homeless man sleeping on cardboard in The Strand, beneath the word Topman, which I drew yesterday.
The bleakness of the illustration should, I hope, prevent the words seeming saccharine. And the words should sweeten the drawing’s astringency.
You might wonder why I don’t always use that kind of surprising contrast. The answer is that surprise should be rationed: unrelenting surprise is as boring as no surprise at all.
As I flick through the book, I’m also thinking about the flow: the overall drama that might be conveyed to a person who picks up the book and flicks it without reading. What kind of trajectory do the pictures suggest?
And what rules do I set myself, with the drawings? My editor and designer said initially that they would like me to use variety - and selected a wide range of different styles from what I’d sent, and what they’d seen on my website and on Instagram.
But when I submitted an early version of the book, earlier this year, they came back with a request for more of this style, and less of that. So I’m changing some of them.
Yesterday, I walked around London for three hours sketching. I’ll be doing more of that in the next few weeks.
As a journalist writing mostly for magazines, I always had to think about illustration (in the widest sense, including photos), having quickly learned that my editor was more likely to accept one of my story ideas if it had strong visual potential.
As well as thinking about pictures that might illustrate “my” stories, I had the privilege of writing what were, essentially, very long picture captions for pictures by legendary photographers. (One that comes to mind is a series of portraits of people with Aids, shot by Don McCullin, but there were many others.)
It’s such a useful discipline to think about pictures, and how to work with them / against them (as in the example of the homeless man, above). It always reminds me that the reader is not experiencing a static object but a process.
He reads this paragraph, then glimpses at that photo. She stares at this photo, then refers to the caption.
Or a picture pulls him into the story. The words compel her to look more closely at the pictures.
And so on.
Sometimes, I would write about a particular picture that for some technical reason couldn’t be fitted in. Perhaps the ad department had sold another page, meaning that a five-page story had to be squeezed into four.
I would then have to re-write the story to keep the point I was making (if I found it particularly fascinating) but without actually referring to the picture.
This is such a good discipline. I would encourage any writer to include pictures in a draft, and “write to the pictures” (as I used to call it) and then see what happens if you remove the pictures.
And then put the pictures back. Or put in a different picture instead.
Last year, in lockdown, I worked with writers - by drawing with them. The point was not to create visual masterpieces but to generate detail, and storylines. It was a remarkably successful experiment. I recorded some to video:
If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, you probably share my fascination with process.
Recently I was told that the poet and novelist Robert Graves wrote a book called The Reader Over Your Shoulder. I’ve not read it yet, but love the title, which inspired me to think more about writing as a kind of performance.
I decided to livestream myself writing a blog post, sharing my screen, so that readers could watch over my shoulder to see where I hesitated, what I changed and so on. It was exhilarating to write with the possibility that I was being watched as I did it.
Having done my own livestream, I asked some writer friends if they would record the sound of themselves typing (just audio). The first to deliver were journalists, well known newspaper columnists.
Apart from the thrilling drill of fingers on keyboard, highlights include the placing of a cup on a table (The Times), and a deep sigh (Financial Times).
I don’t really know what to make of this material, yet. But I know it’s going to be useful somehow. Everything always is, if only I wait long enough to find out how.
Tomorrow (Tues 17 August) I’m doing a livestream for Special Projects patrons, in which I’ll show how I have constructed this book I’m carrying around in my pocket, and how I use it.
I’m doing the livestream twice, as we now have members on three continents. First at 8.15am, then at 5pm (UK).
If you’re a member of Special Projects and have lost the Zoom link, please email me.
If you’re not a member, you can find out more about membership here: https://flintoff.org/quotes/join-special-projects/
Exactly ten years ago, I wrote a manual, a practical guide, called How To Change The World. It was to be my most successful book (so far, he added optimistically).
Ten years later (but only nine years after it was published), I still get messages from people who say the book has been helpful. Which is terrific. But when I look at it, I see much that I would change.
So, over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to look back on writing How To Change The World and publish daily emails about it (weekdays only). I’ll only send the emails to people who opt in, and you can stop them any time.
My biggest hope is that by sharing something about the writing process I might inspire you to change the world by your writing.
OK, I realise that might seem grandiose. So here’s a bit of context.
First, you don’t have to change the whole world, just your world. Or a part of your world.
Second, it’s not really about your impact, because that’s not for you to judge. It’s about your intention, your purpose.
Last week, I walked past a nearby building site. Something caught my eye, and I pointed at it, asking a nearby builder what it was destined to be. He said he had no idea - he was just watching the gates.
This made me laugh, and reminded me of a story I heard years ago, and repeated in How To Change The World, about three people at a construction site.
Asked what they were doing, one said he was squaring off stones and moving them. Another said he was working to provide for his wife and children. A third, conscious that he was doing both those things, said he was building a magnificent cathedral for people to workship in long after he’d gone.
Same activity, bigger sense of purpose.
When I started writing this newsletter last week, I worried that “changing the world” might seem impossible to writers of fiction, or poetry. But then I remembered writing in my last newsletter about Soviet writers, some of whom most definitely aimed to change the world by their writing - including both fiction and poetry.
If I look back over the last ten years, I can think of many pieces of writing that have changed the world. I’m sure you can too.
And I can think of others that failed, or were never even written - but should have been.
Such as? Well, just imagine that somebody had written a persuasive argument against cladding tower blocks with highly flammable insulation. Looking back now, we can guess that the people responsible for the deaths at Grenfell Tower would pay vast fortunes to send a writer back in time to write such a thing, and prevent what happened, saving them from a lifetime of guilt.
We can reasonably guess that people now living in high rise homes that they can’t sell would be pleased to do the same.
And that the families of people who died at Grenfell would join in.
I daresay that some people did write against what was being done. But they didn’t reach the right audience; or if they did, their writing was insufficiently persuasive.
I’m not blaming anybody. But what would it be worth to change that?
I said a moment ago that the impact of a writer’s work is not for the writer to judge. We simply can’t know.
If we imagine a counterfactual history, in which somebody did write a polemic that ended the experiment with flammable cladding before disaster struck - well, how would anybody know?
With nobody dead, no fire, it would be hard to believe that a technical paper of that kind had been “world changing”. We know, with the magic of hindsight, but it’s quite possible that the writer might look back on the work and deem it useless, a waste of effort.
That’s why I say that writers can never really know what impact we’ll have. We can only have an intention, a purpose.
If you’d like to receive daily emails about Writing To Change The World (weekdays only), just reply to this email and let me know.
Either way: till next time!