I know a glaciologist who spends much of her time deep in ice. Like many of her colleagues, Birgitte has found and measured pieces of the climate jigsaw for herself. She can see how and where they fit in the future picture of our shared home, to the point where she sometimes wishes she knew less.
There’s nothing like willing slavery.
Every week, I set my fiction writing students one, two or sometimes three timed writing exercises in class. I am always impressed by the quality of first-draft work they produce in these short, intense bursts. When I say quality, I am not talking about beautiful sentences (though these can emerge too) so much as powerful raw imaginative material. They produce it because – let’s be blunt – I have forced them to. They have no choice in the matter. I am their creative writing slave-driver. To their credit, none of them gives up and walks out of the classroom. They sit and write, and often we’re all surprised and delighted by what emerges.
But what about those of us (I include myself) who don’t have a slave-driver?
With a little help, you can become your own.
Here is where the Egg-Timer Challenge comes in. Every week for the next few months, I’ll be setting you a 25-minute Egg-Timer Challenge. I should really call it a kitchen-timer challenge because who boils an egg for 25 minutes? But I like the word egg, and always have. Eggs pop up in all my novels: I can’t seem to keep them out. Magical thinking indicates they bring me luck.
How did this idea hatch? And will it grow wings and fly?
Lately, frustrated by how slowly my new gargantuan novel has been coming along, and how ready I am to procrastinate, I began experimenting with the Pomodoro Technique. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato. What’s that got to do with egg-timers? Or avian metaphors? Or writing?
The Pomodoro Technique is a time-management method invented thirty years ago by the Italian Francesco Cirillo. As a student, he had a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato: this is what inspired his system, and gave it its name.
Cirillo’s system is crazily simple, and crazily effective. It is a beautiful no-brainer. You sit down with your kitchen timer and you set it to 25 minutes. Then, armed with your Egg-Timer Challenge Writing Prompt, provided by me, you write non-stop, in longhand or on the computer, until the timer buzzes. And then you stop, even if you’re in mid-sen –
I meant it. Stopping is key. If you continue, you are cheating and you will be sent to the Pomodoro Prison. Here you will be set to work chopping tomatoes all day. Ever wondered, when you bought a can of chopped tomatoes, who chopped them? Pomodoro Criminals.
So when you stop, what? Simple. You take a short break and start again. And that is how your Pomodoro day goes. Intense bursts of writing with short breaks in between.
Hang on, “short break”?
That part is up to you.
I usually take 10-15 minutes (also timed), but much will depend on what else I have on. I keep a boring To Do list for the “in-between” sessions. Some of these tasks will take five minutes, some more, some less. It’s important in this in-between mini-sessions to get away from your desk, even if it means moving the laptop to another surface. Better still, take a walk around the block, or do your shopping, feed the dog or the fish or the gerbil, hang out the washing, make that phone call you’ve been putting off, learn three Spanish phrases, answer those emails, check your social media feed, blah blah blah. And when the timer pings again, return to your desk, set the timer for another 25-minute Pomodoro session and pick up your writing where you left off.
The beauty of this process is the built-in time-limit. You may not be in the mood to begin writing but if you know you’ll be stopping in 25 minutes, the nagging dread, or the feeling you should be doing ten other things instead, or whatever else is creating an obstacle, is neatly excised from the equation. The other advantage is that, having stopped mid-sentence or mid-thought, you’ll have no trouble starting again.
Check out my Egg Timer Challenge Writing Prompts every week on my Facebook page, and experiment with willing slavery. I look forward to reading what you come up with.
Here’s the first prompt:
On a Swiss holiday in 1937, Liz Jensen’s grandmother and 19-year-old uncle had a row. He stormed out and vanished. Four days later, she was found dead. Eighty years on, the family is still in the grip of the mystery
Fourteen years after my kid in a coma first appeared at the kitchen table, the film – starring Jamie Dornan, Sarah Gadon and Aaron Paul – is to appear at last
At 12 and seven my sons were pyromaniacs, puzzle solvers, pond-life specialists and keepers of small, doomed pets. One day in 2002, at the kitchen table that doubled as my writing desk, a third boy appeared. Nine-year-old Louis Drax spoke just like my sons.
“The main character, a kid called Louis Drax, is in a coma. He’s fallen off a cliff on a family picnic. He might have been pushed by one of his parents. His doctor falls in love with his mother. Anyway, the kid does nothing but lie in bed and talk to a ghost with a bandaged head,” I tell my agent when I deliver the novel in 2003. “Which means this book’s never going to be filmed.”
A few months later, the phone rings.
“Are you sitting down?” my agent asks. I hear “Miramax” and “Harvey Weinstein.”
Fast forward twelve years: my family are Miramax’s guests in Vancouver, where the French horror director Alexandre Aja is directing the screen adaptation. It’s an enormously poignant moment, as well as an exciting one. The screenplay is written by Max Minghella, whose late father Anthony was originally slated to direct. And Tim Bricknell, Anthony’s right-hand man, is co-producing. If Max and Tim hadn’t kept the project alive after Anthony’s sudden death in 2008, it might still be languishing in a Hollywood vault.
The location is a former psychiatric hospital, Riverview, rumored to be haunted. Here, just a few decades ago, patients were forcibly lobotomized, sterilized and experimentally electro-shocked. The buildings, set in a vast park, are linked by underground walkways penetrated by tree-roots. It’s freezing cold and raining: thick electric cables worm about as if searching for light, rather than carrying it. It seems the perfect gothic setting for a psychological mystery.
Aiden Longworth, playing the troubled, accident-prone Louis Drax, isn’t just a gifted actor but a chatty, sunny and ferociously intelligent nine-year-old. “I really liked your book,” he says. “I read it with my mom for research.” I’m taken aback. He’s probably my youngest ever reader. He tells us he loves acting, but wants to study robotics one day. We all discuss belugas and jellyfish, and what Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul (aka the TV series’ meth-cooking Jesse Pinkman) is like as his screen dad, before he and my son Matti, a mechanical engineer, become immersed in conversation.
Soon they’re talking in low voices about how hot the stars are.
They do not mean Hollywood stars, or hot as in sexy.
They’re talking nuclear fusion technology.
Over the days that follow, we devour abundant, high-quality meals served from vans, select exotic snacks, chew gum, and watch Aiden/Louis lying in bed with wires coming out of his head. We observe his beautiful screen mother, David Cronenberg’s muse Sarah Gadon, arriving in an elevator in a stunning red dress bearing a caged hamster. We admire Molly Parker’s sharp detective asking Jamie Dornan, playing neurologist Dr Pascal: “Are you fucking her?” (That line wasn’t in the novel, but it should have been.) While not on camera, Jamie Dornan – funny, down-to-earth, and perpetually fidgety – walks around in his white doctor’s coat bashing a blown-up surgical glove.
“That’s the worst hat I’ve ever seen,” says my step-daughter Laura, eyeing the bobbly sky-blue snood I’ve started crocheting for Aiden Longworth. “Couldn’t you just buy him one?”
But I persist, and by the end of the third day, five balls of wool have become ridiculous, unwearable home-made garments which look like the inside- out of my own space-hopping, insomniac mind. On the fourth day I ruin a scene by dropping my metal hook on the floor with a clang.
“Find her a nurse’s tunic,” says Max, diagnosing my plight. “We’ll make her an extra.” I wreck another scene by nodding my head over-vigorously when Max, playing a doctor, pretends to ask me out on a date.
“Too much movement in the background,” my husband hears the director murmur discreetly. “Let’s go again.” It’s mortifying, but Alexandre Aja has the magical ability to make everyone on the set give their best, so even the crazy crochet woman gets it right this time.
In one of the toilets there’s a printed notice above the cistern:
BROKEN. TO FLUSH, LIFT THE PLUNGER AND HOLD IN PLACE FOR 3 SECONDS.
Beneath it someone has scrawled: Livin’ the Dream.
On our final night we really are living it, at a champagne dinner with producers and stars, a multi-tiered seafood extravaganza on the table before us. It’s so preposterously glamorous I imagine an elf with a spray-can of fairy-dust, prepping the scene with actual particles. When the conversation turns to the disposable society, Jamie Dornan offers me, Aaron Paul, and Sarah Gadon a quick flash under the table. No throw-away clothes for him: his Lucky Socks are 13 years old, fire-engine red and in good nick for their age. We agree that they’ve served his career well. By now the evening has become so surreal I half expect Salvador Dali to pop out the seafood tower brandishing his lobster telephone.
Did it all happen?
And now there’s a beautiful, haunting movie to prove it.
And some pretty darn weird bits of crochet.
Click to enlarge photos
The Birth of Denmark’s Most Famous Statue
So he wants sex with a woman who is half fish. But has he thought it through? wonders Eline Eriksen as she pours more schnapps for the visiting tycoon. Carl Jacobsen, founder of the Carlsberg Group and veteran art collector has come to her husband’s sculpture studio on a mission. “I want a sculpture that does justice to Miss Price de Plane’s curvaceousness,” Jacobsen is telling Edvard.
Once upon a time, at the height of the Danish cartoon crisis, I was cycling down a Copenhagen street when I glimpsed something extraordinary on the kerbside: a miniature Danish flag, fluttering in a breeze of car-exhaust, planted firmly in the centre of a fresh dog-turd.
I was impressed. There were various political demonstrations going on all over the city, but this tiny, powerful protest was by far the most the most original I had witnessed so far. The shocking, subversive juxtaposition of the flag and the dog-shit was simple yet enormously evocative. The 3D graffito, probably the creation of some urban warrior artist – perhaps even Scandinavia’s answer to Banksy – was transmitting its message quite literally at street level. As a passer-by, blink and you’d miss the installation altogether. Which was part of its potency as agit-prop. While ostensibly stille og rolig (‘quiet and peaceful’ – a phrase much favoured by beleaguered Danish Muslims), and discreet to the point of politeness, it managed to pack quite a punch.
Energised, I reported the sighting to my friend Helle.
She nodded benignly. ‘You haven’t seen this before? It’s kind of a tradition, you know.’
‘You mean when people are pissed off with the government, that’s how they show it?’
She looked baffled. ‘No. It’s what you do if you see some dog’s mess in the road. You stick a flag in it.’
My guerrilla-art disappointment was turning to outright confusion. In nationalistic Denmark, children’s birthday cakes positively bristle with red-and-white flags, and in private gardens they are raised to mark all manner of occasions from football matches to the births of grand-children. But this was plain weird.
‘To…celebrate it?’ I asked tentatively, still feeling like a stranger in a strange land.
‘No. To draw attention to it. When someone sees some dog-shit that people might accidentally step in or cycle over, they stick the flag in to make it noticeable. It’s a pragmatic solution to dog-fouling.’
‘But why are people walking around with miniature Danish flags in their pockets in the first place?’
‘In case they come across some dog-shit,’ responded Helle, as though I were the loony.
Helle was born into a famously high-trust society. In Denmark, responsible citizenship – often zealously practised – is the norm. It is the only country I have ever been in where it is possible to leave the equivalent of £200 lolling, tongue-like, out of the cash machine for an hour, as a distracted friend recently did, and retrieve it because an honest citizen with a pocketful of emergency dog-shit flags has handed it in at the bank. Even when off his face at two o clock in the morning, a Dane will wait for the little green man before he staggers over the road.
Not for nothing was it a Dane, the philosopher Knud Ejler Logstrup, who came up with the principle of Ethical Demand. ‘It is a characteristic of human life,’ he wrote, ‘that we normally encounter one another with natural trust. Only under special circumstances do we ever distrust a stranger in advance….we never suspect a person of falsehood until after we have caught him in a lie.’ Even today, in a climate where ethnic tension is high, and the immigrant population is seldom given the benefit of the doubt, two thirds of Danes still say they trust their fellow-citizens.
Putting faith in anything else, however, is quite another matter.
‘Put a vish in one hand and a gob of spit in the other,’ my Danish father used to retort when confronted by any expression of optimism. ‘Then decide vhich veighs most. Sink about it! Haha! Hahaha! The gob of spit! Ha!’
This favourite dictum – which he claimed originated in his native Jutland, famous for the epic dourness of its populace – encapsulates a morbid attitudinal trait whose resonant subtext is this: You really plan to put faith in the intangible? Sucker and double sucker! But his attitude was typical of many Danes: acknowledge what’s there, and mistrust what isn’t.
To fathom the Danes’ antipathy to high hopes, one must first come to grips with the notion of Jantelov, Scandinavia’s equivalent of tall poppy syndrome. The idea of Jantelov (literally, the Law of Jante) first appeared in a novel by the Danish-born writer Axel Sandemose in 1933. Set in the small fictional town of Jante, A Fugitive Crosses his Tracks is a satirical savaging of a fundamental Danish mind-set which permeates society as much now as it did then. According to the militant egalitarianism of Jantelov there are ten rules must be followed to maintain the prized stability and uniformity of the town’s citizenship. They are as follows:
1.Don’t think you are anything special
2. Don’t think you are as good as us
3. Don’t think you are smarter than us
4. Don’t imagine you are better than us
5. Don’t think you know more than us
6. Don’t think you are greater than us
7. Don’t think you can do better than us
8. Don’t laugh at us
9. Don’t think that anyone cares about you
10. Don’t think you can teach us anything.
Stern it may be, but Jantelov ensures harmony by fostering a society in which the word ‘ambition’ has only negative connotations and ‘competitive’, as applied to people, does not appear in the dictionary. Free of the tyranny of social aspiration and devoid of any sense of superiority, armed with the insurance policy of low expectations and a set of rules that ennobles mediocrity, the Danes can relax: they know exactly where they stand.
And where is that?
Prepare to cheer.
At the top of the world happiness league tables, that’s where! In survey after survey, Denmark is up there, defying the Law of Jante by being the tallest poppy in the global field!
It seems bizarre at first glance, but there is a perverse logic to it when one factors in three important aspects of the Danish national character. Firstly, the Danes have a self-confessed tendency to be ‘selvglad’. This means smug. Give them a questionnaire about their contentment levels, and they’ll eagerly and patriotically tick the box marked Ecstatic. Secondly, although the Danes do not actually seem to me any happier than any other people (and indeed, their rocketing use of anti-depressants and penchant for heavy drinking indicates they are not) they are perhaps more easily pleased, more inclined to savour and celebrate life’s modest, quotidian joys. Give a Dane a bottle of Carlsberg, a slice of pickled fish, a bit of liver paste, a boiled potato, a thermos of coffee and a flicker of sunshine, and he thinks he’s in Paradise. Thirdly, they are happy pessimists. If you can count on one thing, as a Dane, it’s that your negativity will never let you down. Assume that a thunderous black cloud lies on the horizon, and when a grey one comes along instead, bearing only moderate to light rain, you’ll have instant reason to wave that now internationally-famous flag. Indulge in the ‘vishful sinking’ my father so despised and you are deluding yourself that there is more weight to the abstract concept of hope – to promises stacked high and sold cheap – than there is to the gob of spit in your hand.
If there is a lesson that the trusting Danes can teach the rest of us, I think it must be this: that as a default response, scepticism is – perversely enough – something you can put your faith in.
It may even bring you something you can call joy.
One of my favourite jokes goes like this: There’s an optimist and a pessimist. The pessimist puts his head in his hands and says, “Oh no, things can’t get any worse!” And the optimist replies, “Oh yes they can!”
When I write fiction, I find it useful to apply the structure of this joke to plots. I think of it as the Rule of Cruel Optimism, and its mechanism is simple: You put your central character in a situation where they think their life can’t get any worse, and then you make it do just that.
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