As I write, I’m going to do something I used to occasionally do, when I did a lot of public-speaking. Make it up as I go along. I remember in the early 1990s, when I was speaking every couple of nights at anti poll tax meetings. There were hundreds of people at lots of those meetings. During the day, I was working 10-hour shifts in a textiles factory, and then I’d head out at night to speak. It was a Hilltown meeting that night, if I remember rightly. I had no time to prepare anything to say, or find my old notes, so I had to improvise. By then, I’d done a lot of meetings, and I knew quite a lot about the poll tax, and how unfair it was. I knew some of what I should say, but – I was tired, and to start with I was struggling to remember things. So, I thought – I’ll just build up to it slowly and then I’ll remember what I should be saying. I started speaking about walking down the street to the meeting, and feeling tired, and I said that maybe we’re all tired – tired of politicians lying about the poll tax. And gradually, I remembered some facts and figures and I carried on.
I thought I’d done quite well, making it up as I went along. A good friend, who is sadly no longer with us, Andy Armstrong, came up to me at the end of the meeting, as the crowd was streaming out of the old church hall. I knew by the way Andy’s eyebrows were raised and his grin, that I had said something stupid. “Hmm” he said, grinning at me in a way that was uniquely Andyish, as if he could see the idiot at the heart of my soul. “I was walking down the road, blah, blah, blah.” There was no point making an excuse. I laughed instead, and he did too, shaking his head at me, as we both knew that I had sort of got away with not knowing what I was talking about, to start with.
On other days, in smaller groups, I have made things up with some pride and encouraged others to do the same. In writer’s groups. Firstly, in a group called Hilltown Horizons, which met in a community centre. Around 10 of us would sit in a circle and read out bits of our work – poems and stories, and sometimes just fragments. I met three superb Dundee dialect writers there: the performance poet Mark Thomson, author of Bard Fae thi Buildin Site; and the playwright, poet, factual author and musician Gary Robertson, whose books include Gangs of Dundee and Pure Dundee; and Kevin McCabe, whose powerful prose-poems can be found in a book called Inside Oot. We used to sit in the group and make up short fragments of writing. We would begin with some prompt: maybe an object, like a gas mask; or a few words on scraps of paper, chosen at random. It was amazing what came out of it all. Stories and poems about struggles of single parents, or dreams of the countryside found their way into that room. We surprised each other and ourselves. It was magic.
Later, I set up another group at another centre in Dundee. I followed the same techniques to encourage members to write and read their work, and we all gave each other encouragement and support. After just over a year, I moved to another job, but a few years later I was over the moon to find out another worker had kept the group going. Perhaps the same magic continues today. If not in that group, then elsewhere. From time to time, I’ve noticed online writer’s groups which do something similar. As yet, I’ve not found any that seemed to have the same magic as the real magic ones. But maybe that’s just me.
Yesterday, while walking up the Hilltown, I bumped into a young woman I know. She told me that her mum, who I also know, had died a few weeks ago. I offered my condolences and walked home feeling hollow. It is always sad, or course, to hear of people dying, and this seemed even more wrong because the mum and daughter were happy and laughing the last time I’d met them, just a couple of months ago. Sometimes, despite all we hope for and live for, we lose people and it is too soon. I know, from losing people very close to me, something of what it feels like, and how important it is to grieve, and then to celebrate their lives, and then – simply to remember, without feeling too sad.
Making things up as we go along can help us cope with life. It is something we do in our heads all the time. Telling ourselves stories to try to make sense of our lives. It is also something children do, it’s a way for them, for our younger selves, to learn about the world and discover the value of memory and imagination.
One of the lessons we learned from making things up in writers groups is – how wonderful it can be to have a choice of where a story goes, towards adventure or comedy or a once-in-a-lifetime sunrise; or, what kind of moment we can reflect in a poem, so that we can return to that moment again and again, and see the red rose or a white cat, flying up a tree like the blur of a ghost. Try it. You may be surprised, when you make it up as you go along.