Creative Writing

Figuring Out Phyllis

The inescapable reality of a being writer is that the words aren’t always there. Usually when you need them most. To write on demand is a unique skill; to write well on demand is damn-near impossible. Sometimes the stars align but often, at the moment of need, words are strewn about on a break, too busy finishing coffee or puzzling over a crossword to actually do the job you need them to. Typical.

This happens to me all the time. Particularly now I’m at uni. Creative Writing seminars thrive on this sort of brain-freeze. You get a brief: ‘twenty minutes to write about… and then we’ll come back and share with the group.’ On the outside, you’re nodding; you’re experimental, you like a challenge, this is what university is about and you’re ready for it. Then the time starts… and you have nothing.

A few weeks ago, I inevitably ended up in this very situation with no new inspiration, flitting between a dozen congealed ideas, each as unappetising as the last. We’d been tasked with writing about ‘distraction’, having just read Kafka’s Metamorphosis, where the narrator is transformed into a cockroach but spends the opening pages persistently distracted by hard-hitting issues such as the layout of his bedroom, the pictures on his wall, the time on his alarm clock. Personally, I think Gregor Samsa needs to re-evaluate his priorities. As a reader, I wasn’t so much intrigued by the comedy of Kafka’s meandering, just pissed off that he couldn’t get to the damn point.

My irritation probably didn’t nurture creativity.

Knowing I didn’t have long left to think, I eventually conceded to the old stand-by: I’d steal something I’d already used. Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t very fond of the piece that ensued. I wasn’t saying anything new; it was all recycled, regenerated and stale.

         I decided to use a story I had already vaguely planned out in my mind, with characters I knew, and I invented a scene to suit the task. In this version, the narrator arrives at the funeral on time (which is something she’d never do, because she is one of those people who can never get anywhere on time, through no fault of their own). Having not missed the service, she was going to sit at the back watching the distraction of others and get distracted by it, while the main point of a funeral – the dead man – was skirted about. At least that was the idea.

And I couldn’t quite pull it off. I didn’t feel subtle or wayward; the change of attention was palpable and obvious, like a magician waving his arms about while the glamorous assistance tap-dances off stage.

         To start with, I was fundamentally unhappy with the setting. Everything I built up from it had the pre-fabricated quality of the extension on the side of our student house – empty and freezing-cold. No matter what I wrote, I couldn’t distract from the fact that the narrator wasn’t meant to be there. Everything I wrote felt wrong, as out-of-place and as uncharacteristic as her punctual presence. But I pressed on, terrified of being picked on later and having nothing to read.

I settled on one consolation: all my despair for the setting was diluted by absolute determination that I should pinpoint these fleeting characters with Dickensian clarity. And even that didn’t work. I knew the characters that should have been there but, in the moment, none of them presented themselves to me. Instead, I ended up with ‘mad cousin Phyllis’ – possibly the most cliché personality I could have conjured – and her pineapple flower arrangement that was a desperate theft from Dibley. Then, ‘the suits’ like pop-art with black glasses and ear pieces and so painfully incongruous that my irritation – now borderline tearful – was transferred from Kafka to the Men in Black reunion in the front pew. Finally, I remembered the solicitor: the first character I actually intended to be there. He presented himself quite inexplicably with a streaming cold, although I forgave him that as it was meant to be February and churches are always freezing.

With the installation of all these mysterious characters, it was at this point I realised I’d populated the church with people pulled off the street, and all of them – I was fairly convinced – had never met the man in the box.

So, to summarise: I had a dead man in church full of people he didn’t know and one person he did know who shouldn’t have been there. I half-heartedly tried to console myself that funerals can be like that. There was always at least one person who nobody knows or recognises. And this person is subtly gravitated towards by all other attendees in some massive, unacknowledged game of Guess Who.

Abandoning the people, I begrudgingly turned back to the beginning to see if I could salvage something of the train wreck that was my opening sentence. I invented one that was worse and tagged it on; if it was going to be appalling, I concluded I might as well set the tone and warn my readers early on.

Then I got caught on an expression I’d scribbled two sentences in, comparing heads to ‘buoys on the Black sea’. I was genuinely surprised with myself, wondering how I’d never before likened a crowd of mourners to the tide. Because that’s exactly what it is, the body of lethargy like a sweeping wave, bearing on the coffin. And I started thinking of my own experience, of sitting in church aisles and watching everyone else, each time slightly too young to understand the significance but getting carried along by the current.

That description was the singular gold nugget of the entire piece, a mercifully short 246 words of which five were genuinely decent. I’ve since circled them in red pen just to make myself feel better whenever I accidently open my folder to that dreaded page, which is typically almost every time.

At this point, my seminar leader called time and I deftly tried to avoid his eye while he asked for volunteers to read. I was unlucky. I’ve mostly repressed the incident, largely with success, aside from the jarring moment when I mentioned the pineapple and knew my Mrs Cropley-ism had been spotted by at least two grinning peers.

In all honest, this reflection has been my attempt to reconcile one of the worst pieces of writing I’ve done in a while. I always write reflections about pieces I’m proud of so I thought it would be a nice change, as well as cathartic, to have a rant about something I can barely bring myself to admit authorship of, let alone like. Having said this, I don’t see why it still can’t be useful. Even though I maintain it would be put to best use in a ritual burning, with hindsight, I also concede that it was quite successful. Ironically, what had kept me from articulating the mundanity of Kafka-esque distraction was distraction itself. And it still drives me up the wall to this day.

P.S. It has come to my attention that I may have piqued interest in the piece of writing that forms the subject of this reflection and I could include it for reading. But I won’t. I’m not that cruel.


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09/02/2021

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Georgia Harris


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