I’ve spent too long lately staring at a blank sheet of paper.
I was never a great student. I was, as one of my lecturers put it, “the type of scholar who, when entranced by an idea, would pursue it with vigour.”
When I look at that phrase, prominent in the reference he wrote me, and which I could never use, the noises off are deafening.
At the end of my first year of university, as was the custom for an Arts degree, heads of department for competing first year electives would invite students that showed potential for a conversation about specialising. Remarkably (I’d written a good final essay) I was invited for a meeting with the professor of archaeology.
When I’d signed up for archaeology I’d had visions of buried treasure, maps and the rest of it, distorted by too many afternoons in front of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and other movies, with lines like “We made a great team Padre; you had the map, I had the gun” circling in my mind.
Australian archaeology isn’t like that. It’s a vital study of the historical record, but it is largely about creating a map of the past through the examination of middens, clumps of charcoal, bones and shell remains left by wandering indigenous Australians over thousands of years.
As I sat in his office and he tried to persuade me to specialise, I knew already that I was more interested in art history. The twice-weekly lectures in the darkened theatre, decoding the iconography of late mediaeval and renaissance paintings, had snared me. But there I was, politely listening to his unexpected and ill-deserved pitch. How was I going to make him feel ok about this? How was I going to let him down gently?
Part of making sense of things is finding echoes in seemingly disparate circumstances. I remembered skim reading da Vinci’s ‘Trattoria Della Pittura’ as part of my art history work in which he posits, for the first time in writing, the use of tree rings for dating purposes. That is to say, the science of measuring tree ring growth over the years as a means of establishing the date that various things happened.
What da Vinci did was open up a school of thinking and analysis that would help to date many things – from paintings, by virtue of their frames, to old structures, that yes, formed a direct relevance to the work of the man in front of me. I composed my “thanks but no thanks” with what I thought was a kidly allusion to dendrochronology, to give tree ring dating its posh academic name, as a way of saying “thanks and all, and it’s been great, and this is why what I’ve learnt is important and I expect our paths will cross, etc”, but because the source of this insight and reference didn’t even come from my classes on archaeology, it came over terribly. His amazingly smooth pate, which often reminded me of one of the amber skulls that we studied in lectures, briefly wrinkled.
Lately I’ve been emerging from a catastrophic case of writer’s block. The imaginative part of my brain, when not driven by an existential and invoicable requirement, has not been able to dredge up anything fresh.
I’ve stared for hours at a blank piece of paper and nothing has happened. Largely it is, I think, because the world has lost its bearings. The surreal outcomes of manipulated democracy have played havoc with narrative. All rules broken, all norms breached, nothing that we ever knew can be known again.
Through hours of block I often sit with one foot tucked under the other haunch, and then after too long stand up and find that one leg is lost in a fog of pins and needles. As it half gives way, the room rotates.
So yesterday, I thought, prompted by a speaking commitment, that I’d spend a bit of time thinking about storytelling. After all, if I can’t find anything fresh to write about, why not write about how to write? Maybe that will do it.
I looked at the paper, did that thing with my hand which I always do when I’m about to write something (sort of make little shakes of the hand with the pen, a bit like the way a bull scratches the floor before charging), but nothing. I turned the paper over like a pillow. Nothing. I turned it upside down. Nothing.
Then I went back to what I’ve always been taught about writing a press release, the much maligned but, at its best, unrivalled method of expression of a newsworthy idea. I thought about the sharp, clear, engaging headline; the bullets; the opening paragraph; the compelling quote; the subsidiary points; the idea that things are trimmed from the bottom and that you should lead with your best punches; the notes to editors.
Then, and who knows why (that blank paper, I guess), I started thinking about trees: That they play two major gigs a year. One in the spring – the gentle hipster folk tendrils – and one in the autumn – the stadium gig with the light show, the shimmering stained glass and the swirling confetti. I thought about great houses and the way that they have those boulevards of straight trees on the approach and how they are often silver birches and how they are chosen, I believe, because they make approaching guests, even on a lightly breezy day when they are in leaf, feel as if they are being given a ticker tape parade on arrival. The leaves sound like a murmuring crowd and the flickering differential between the colour of the over and underleaf, create a sense of celebrated arrival. I thought about cycling through neatly planted pine forests early in the morning on a still and sunny day and how the air feels corrugated as you move from cool to warm, and the low light, flickering, as you shift from sun to shadow, creates a Super 8 frame rate. The world is the cinema of suggestion.
If you look at a freshly sawn tree trunk, you will read history. The good seasons and the bad. Ring thicknesses are wildly variable. The wide ones are years of plenty: Sun, rain and fertile soil. The dark narrow ones are the bad years. Geographically, trees grow in similar patterns. They share seasons and so, by comparing one with another, you build a record. But they are all part of the same story. The tree’s story.
[As a sidebar to this, I am tapping this into notes on my phone on a platform on Brighton station. The Victoria train has just pulled in, the train is emptying, and I am like a sapling in a torrent.]
The gap in any process chart for telling a good story is the absence of the story itself. Knowing how to arrange something is useful, but it is of no use if you don’t have anything to arrange. For this you need concentric circles.
I often say that the way to look at something is through a set of different lenses. The outer, bigger orbit is with the widest lens. What is the audacious claim? The gradual narrowing of the frame deals with the story at different levels, but all are interrelated. All grow from each other. All of the orbits have decorative or fundamental connection to the others. Slice through all the orbits, like you slice through a tree trunk and the full story is revealed. The origin, the journey, the joys, the hardships, the totality. The only way a tree ring can tell you anything is in relation to other tree rings and other trees. You can only see the story by seeing the other parts of it.
My friend Billy runs a small hotel on the Isle of Skye. I offered to help him to tell his hotel’s story a few years ago. Part of the challenge of telling a story about a small hotel is that there are a lot of other small hotels. You have to find some context, some outer rings.
The day before I was ready to start sending out some information about Billy’s hotel I noticed a post that he’d put on Facebook. Billy had been chopping wood. He posted a few pictures. Here’s one of them:
Billy had given me some potential context. I googled the Isle of Skye. It turns out that a lot of sci-fi movies are filmed there. Prometheus was partly-made there, amongst others. So, I had E.T. (or ‘E-Tree’ as I called it), links to other sci-fi films on the island, and, following a chat with Billy, an understanding that quite a few of his guests come to the island on a sci-fi tour. You see all the rings starting to work here? Popular culture, an unusual discovery, links to sci-fi on the island and a hotel that is keen to be more well known and sell rooms to guests. Suddenly it all knits together. And the meta-payoff, here, is that it actually involves tree rings.
Lots of stories have their ups and downs. In global terms, we’re in the midst of an ‘all is lost’ moment, when the far-fetched is at hand, the absurd is ordinary, disagreement occupies the space saved for cooperation and nothing makes sense. But it eventually will.
Change the lens, pull back a bit, and the story makes sense and is more comforting.
The crucial thing for our sanity is to keep orbiting, to keep turning, to keep making sense of the story, seeing it and living it from all angles. And perhaps use the power of the story, when times are tough, to create important and reassuring perspective.
A rocket scientist will tell you that orbit is relatively easy to achieve and considerably more difficult to maintain. Getting the slender sapling of a rocket to space is about building, pointing and firing. But orbits decay and require maintenance. Most of the fuel is used when the rocket turns its nose to run parallel with the arc of the earth, maintaining a speed, ten times faster than a bullet, that will keep it in the sky. Stories, narratives, require maintenance, relevance and precision. They’re not one offs. The best stories never end – or at least, we wish they didn’t.