Wednesday, January 6, 2010

In The Mood, or What Lies Behind Those Hanging Plastic Strips

Yesterday was my first day back at work after the Christmas break. Despite my best efforts to be late, I was dropped off at my usual time around 8am, insanely early for a first day back with no managers in until the following week. So I decided to go to New World first and buy a new bottle of water.

I use the water filter at work, but need to refresh my plastic bottle every so often (not so much a fear of leeching carcinogens as a dislike of that fluffy, algal feel older plastic bottles impart). New year, new bottle: it seemed a fitting way to kill the first ten minutes of my working year.

Inside the supermarket, the shoppers were a mix of workers like me, picking up one or two items, and people clearly still on holidays (to the lady wearing a purple t-shirt, gray trackpants with a purple racing stripe, and purple crocs: thanks for the laugh) -- though I cannot fathom why you'd want to go to an inner city supermarket at 8am while on holiday.

Both kinds of shoppers, however, were outnumbered by supermarket staff. They clogged every aisle, it seemed, with trolleys, boxes and step ladders.

Two large men from 'out back' (meaning behind the hanging plastic strips by the deli rather than the Australian wilderness) had a conversation which went something like:
Large Man A: "You put that pallet [loaded with Christmas-themed chocolates] in the warehouse, it'll last a good six months."
Large Man B: "Which won't get it to next Christmas, will it?"

A woman with a large "Visitor" badge pinned to her Bluebird polo shirt fussed along the chippie aisle, straightening packets.

At the checkouts, there were tiny conferences going on at all the manned lanes, so I went the self-checkout route. As I passed the helpdesk, I saw a woman stashing two litre bottles of blue top underneath the counter. In the car park, an older gentleman was washing down the curb with a garden hose.

These activities must be carried out everyday. For the staff there was nothing out of the ordinary. But for me it was a strangely pleasant experience.

Perhaps it was because I had that new year mentality, and seeing the supermarket being refreshed before my eyes synched with this feeling of renewal and recommencement.

Perhaps it was because I was privy to a world that, while not completely behind-the-scenes, goes mostly unnoticed and unacknowledged by shoppers.

Perhaps it is because for one summer while at university I worked in a distribution centre for a supermarket chain, and yesterday morning provided a link back to that kind of labour, and the possibilities that summer.

But it is the experience itself, or the mood I was in which is behind this "strangely pleasant experience"?

Yes, perhaps I was just in one of those moods. I think of them as writerly moods, but I'm sure non-writers have them: those moods where everything is just a skoch more interesting, where everyday items and activities provide a boost which, depending on your outlook, you might describe as stimulation, enthusiasm, comfort, satisfaction, optimism, or inspiration.

As a writer, I tend to fall back on that last term: inspiration.

It's not as if I got home yesterday and scuttled off a short story about a supermarket being restocked. But that experience helped in several ways.

It alerted me to the fact I was in "one of those moods". Not only could I walk about and draw inspiration from the everyday, but ideas would hopefully follow. At lunch time I walked to the library. I saw the fallen stamens of pohutokawa in the gutters alongside the beehive and described this to myself as a "crimson muffle". Now, crimson muffle might be the worst phrase ever concocted in the English language, but I was happy to be concocting.

My experience in the supermarket also gave me pause to actually think about these moods, and how they might be controlled.

If there was a way to harness these moods, to summon creativity and inspiration at the flick of a (mental) switch, I would be well on the way to world domination. But there are some things which tend to increase the frequency of my inspired moods, like travel and good weather. I've done a lot of the first (perhaps too much if my bank balance is to be believed), and I guess you could achieve the second by travelling or immigrating (but then, as I discovered while living in Brisbane, the inspirational nature of good weather follows the law of diminishing marginal returns and, I suspect, also relies on the element of surprise).

Looking back, I've also fallen into inspired moods on the heels of good news. A story is accepted for publication. A nice comment received after a blog post. When I was selected to the Central North Island Debating Team as a sixth former I went home and wrote three poems.

What does this tell me? If I submit stories, be a good little blogger and succeed in my chosen pursuits, I will spend more time being inspired. Sweet. Unfortunately, a base level of inspiration is needed to get the ideas and the gusto to finish the story in the first place…

I may have refined the idea of "one of those moods" a bit more with this post, and what goes into making them, but I certainly haven't happened upon creativity's equivalent of cold fusion. Nor will I. It's a bit like that Mastercard ad on at the moment about skimming stones: Not knowing what goes into a moment: priceless.

All I can do is keep earning those moments (you can't return to work after a holiday without all those days at work; you can't be published if you don't write a story and send it to the right place).

There's one other way to bring on the desired mood which I haven't mentioned yet, because it's a slightly different animal: reading. I'd love to see scans of my brain while reading a great book (or even a great page) versus reading an ordinary book. It certainly feels like there's magic going on up there. Sometimes, before I even close the book I'm thinking creative thoughts (some of which are, no doubt, of the crimson muffle variety), but most often the inspiration arrives in those moments between reading. While working I read at lunchtime and in the evening, which leaves a lot of time not-reading but still involved with a particular book.

I haven't read a really good book in the last two months (an unlucky patch, nothing more) and I've probably been less inspired to write because of it. Or put another way, there's been less magic going on upstairs. *Sad Face*

But what makes a really good book? One that will get my synapses firing even when I'm not turning its pages? The key is perhaps the very moods I'm searching for as a writer.

A piece of writing should place the reader inside the moods which allow us to extract wonder and inspiration from the everyday. Perhaps I should say 'familiar', rather than 'everyday', as a lot of great fiction (especially genre fiction, which is not a bad word around here, capiche?) operates outside the everyday.

If you write a scene set over an evening meal, there better be something about this meal which pushes through the hanging plastic strips to glimpse the mechanics of this ritual and points to the significance of the scene.

If you write a scene about a sentient blue globule from Alpha Centauri, you better say (or show) something that strikes at the heart of what it is to be sentient.

It is one thing to tell the story of a guy walking around a supermarket looking for a bottle of water before beginning another year of work, it is another thing to lead the reader towards that same feeling of renewal, or succour, or inspiration.

And another thing again to take that inspiration and expend it in a groping and overlong blog post.

Happy New Year

1 comment: said...

I'm so glad my purple crocs gave you a laugh Craig the other morning - and as for the Crimson mussle, I have to confess that every year I walk around the bays inventing stories around this stuff that never get out of my head and on to paper - but a friend told me that when her grandson arrived at her house (her car sits under a Pohutukawa) - he asked her why she had decorated her car...
Hey, every girl of a certain age needs a pair of purple crocs... or is it purple hair - I can't remember.
By the way, the Pohutukawas this year are extra gorgeous for some reason - some people say it is their late flowering.