Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #3: An Interview of Sorts

This week’s assignment was to interview someone, summarizing what we learned about them in 300 to 500 words. Here goes.. Image by Clint McKoy on Unsplash

***
R was hunched over his phone typing furiously when I pushed the door open and walked into the restaurant, one of the many that dot the roadside on this corner of the seaside boulevard. I was three minutes late but he, ever the most punctual of people, had arrived early and was in the middle of typing an acerbic note to me.

In the 11 years since I first met him, six of which were spent cooped up in the same office space, memories of questionable banter and several meals and evenings out; a veritable tour of brews – and the uninhibited honesty that comes with having those – and cuisines are a large part of what remains. That we opted to do this over food was entirely in keeping with that shared history, particularly given the reasons: he opted to retire a year ago, I am on the cusp of moving on from the organisation that was part of our lives for all those years. It thus felt right to catch up properly before I headed out.

Selecting a main took more time than usual as it was our first time in a Turkish restaurant, the choice between the varieties of kebabs, casseroles and koftes somewhat overwhelming. For drinks, though it was more clear cut, ‘an EFES* for the young man’ he declared as he waved his hand in the manner of one holding court. Over food, our conversation turned to the subject of our time out here in this grey corner of Scotland, more than 30 in his case.

‘It’s the longest I’ve been in one place’ he said and then proceeded to reminisce on his life before the ‘Deen. Madras, Delhi, Goa, Aden, Perth in Australia, London, Perth in Scotland were a few of the places he mentioned, all of which he’d spent five or less years in, thanks to the somewhat itinerant lifestyle of a father who was in the diplomatic corps. I was curious as to why he hadn’t taken the opportunity of being retired to move somewhere else, warmer perhaps. ‘Aberdeen feels like home now’, was his response. All that is left elsewhere are tenuous links to vaguely familiar extended family members – “Our fathers have all died”, he said. “Us kids didn’t bother to stay in touch, we’ve all made other connections.”

In the tone of his voice, I sensed a faint nostalgia, once I know only too well. It is the burden of the prodigal to go out into the world – to a far country – to seek his fortune. At the best of times, that home can become a distant memory, at its worst home can become nowhere.

* a Turkish beer, settled on because in a few weeks time I’ll be working out of a ‘dry’ country…

Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #2: On Detail and Deduction

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG186

Last week’s assignment was to take a look at an image and attempt to deduce and interpret what it is about from the details one can see. I went for the image above, Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of Arnolfini. Here goes.

***
What strikes me the first time I look at the picture is how young and frail she looks. With eyes looking downwards and away from his face, as though in deference, one gets the impression that she feels entirely in his power, her demeanour almost apologising for intruding into his space. He, on the other hand, has that stance that screams importance, eyes forward, looking towards the one who has crafted the scene, seeming to declare that he owns everything in sight. I am here and in charge. All this is mine, notice me!

From the rich green of her thick dress, and the fur that lines its neck, hem and sleeves, I imagine they are well off. The pet resting in the foreground of the image suggests daily sustenance is not a problem, as do the finely decorated bed, the ornate chandelier,an exquisite rug and what seems to be solid oak floors; all trappings of luxury. The folds of her dress bunch together, held by her hand which seems to protect what looks like the beginnings of a baby bump. In the mirror behind them a woman lurks, her gaze matronly, a hint perhaps of motherly pride in her eyes at the scene which unfolds before her. She is not the only one looking on, various religious inscriptions adorn the rim of the mirror, suggesting this is a devout house, perhaps one that has unfettered access to the parish priest and is a patron of the local assembly.

I imagine all of this is the crafting of the man who hides in the shadows in the mirror behind everyone else, the signature on the wall the only thing that identifies him. If The Man is his patron, perhaps this is the artist’s gift, his art offered up to the service of the one who gives him sustenance.

Week Two

Between a super busy week at work and beginning to pack up my life for an upcoming move, I made slow going of studying this week, hence the lateness of this week’s wrap-up. A highlight was receiving largely positive feedback on my first assignment, an exercise in people-watching which took me to a city centre Burger King.

This week’s learning focus was research; tips and tricks for getting beneath the skin of a place to understand the wider context behind the story we’re trying to tell and to ground it in facts and truths. Memory being as fickle as it can be, there was rightly a focus on building systems for capturing details about the people, places and things we write about. Upon reflection, some of the great essayists who have inspired me on this journey have documented their own systems for doing just this including David Sedaris and Ryan Holiday (both of whom have inspired Austin Kleon) to name a few. Also introduced this week were a number of tools: brainstorming (a la mind maps of ideas around a central topic) and foot stepping, physically visiting the area one wishes to write about to absorb its very essence into one’s mind. That I suspect will be very useful over the next few years as I travel more.

More imminently though is the small matter of the next assignment, to apply the tools discussed over the course of the week to observe an object in great detail to see what deductions one could make about it from that… Hopefully, I find enough time in these last few weeks to deliver on that…

Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #1: People Watching

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Last week was about thinking about the underlying reasons for writing, this week was starting off on the journey towards sharpening our powers of observation, the idea being to hone our ability to find stories in the quotidian.  A city-centre eatery late one night was my muse.

***
It is a little after 8.30pm when the smell of French fries wafting in through the door draws me in. The first thing that strikes me as I stride through the door is how empty it looks, the bulk of the two-storied structure being cordoned off, with only the small section to the right of the counter open for use. I find the emptiness surprising given it is next to a major bus station and right in the centre of town. As I wait for the chance to order, I find myself behind three people, all decked out in the garb of people dressed to brace the cold, with the brightly coloured logo of a food delivery service gracing the insulated bags they hold.

A few feet away from the space I find for myself and my tray are three men with youthful faces, chattering away in a language which is not English, possible South East Asian if I were to hazard a guess. Their half-eaten burgers suggest they’ve been here a while, given how much of their time is spent in conversation interspersed with raucous laughter. When they are finally done, one of the three gathers up their trays and proceeds to empty them into the bin and then they leave, taking their mirth with them. Clearly close friends, or people connected by a shared lived experience I suspect.

Apart from them, the only other people in the room are a group of much older people – 2 men and 2 women occupying the central tables and someone sitting alone, sipping from a cup looking out onto the streets. Of the four, the woman who looks the oldest is slouched in her seat, hands folded together in her lap, two shopping bags beside her, listening it seems. Across from her a younger man with hair the same ginger colour as hers sits, leaning in, several discarded sachets of milk at his elbows, gesturing wildly. Between the accent and my hunger, I can barely make out what the subject of their conversation is but the name of the suburb to the south of the river comes up several times. Maybe a family squabble then, or given the reputation the small town has for being a difficult place, maybe an appeal to the matriarch of the clan for an intervention. All I can see of the fourth person are feet clad in streaked sneakers, the upper body obscured by a heater.

When I steal a glance at the group on my way out, I find the fourth person is fast asleep. Maybe, I have misread the situation after all.

2020: Delve Deeper

One of the biggest disappointments of 2019 for me was interviewing at a company across town and failing to land a job there. It was a company I had admired for some time, the role itself was to be the team leader for a small group of technical specialists overseeing a North sea portfolio and the pay was better; an added incentive. The interview itself started off well I thought but somewhere around three-quarters of the way through, it delved into territory I wasn’t overly familiar with. Part of it was a failure of preparation; I hadn’t taken the time to get intimately familiar with the company’s portfolio and thus prepare for any potential curveballs. The more I mulled over the disappointment, and let time do its thing, the clearer it became to me that this had ultimately been a failure of depth. I knew enough about my subject, had built a reputation in my locality and knew enough about the company to give the perception of competence and suitability on the surface. It was when the screws were turned and the veneer was stripped back, that a lack of depth – somewhat dodgy foundations if you like – proved my undoing.

In the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, Jesus tells a story of two folks who build houses, one on the sands and the other on rock. When the winds, rains and storms come, the house on the sand – without depth – falls flat whilst the one on the rock survives. The parable’s primary purpose is to exhort listeners to hear and do the words of Christ. There is however a wider principle at play here I believe, everything worth its salt will be tested, the only ones which survive are those which have depth and are inherently resilient. It is an idea not too dissimilar to ones raised by Nassim Taleb in Skin In The Game when it comes to assessing the credibility of others.

All of the above is why my focus for 2020 is Delve Deeper. To delve is to reach inside hidden spaces and search for and extricate something. Implicit in this is the expending of energy, which has opportunity costs. For this to not be an exercise in futility therefore, these hidden spaces have to contain something of value which is the focus of the search. For 2020 the search will be for deep knowledge in the various domains across which my life intersects. The wider objective is not knowledge for knowledge sake, it is using that knowledge to build systems and routines that can stand the tests and ravages of time and life and can deliver lasting value in my various interactions. It is not a focus I expect to be fully developed and understood in 2020 alone but one that might just guide me through the 2020s (coincidentally my forties).

For all its warts, 2019 wasn’t the worst of years, not least because the biggest disappointment of 2019 is mitigated by a work opportunity at the end of Q1 this year to look forward to. That said, being intentional and tracking a host of data points over the course of the year helped identify a number of life domains which are good areas to kick off this process of delving deeper with. 2019 was the year I finally managed to put words to the feeling of spiritual malaise I have wrestled with over the past few years, spiritual homelessness. My finances are another area where I need to build a level of robustness in. Several big projects over the last decade, and a few failed (Nigerian) investments, meant I haven’t derived as much value as I could from my earnings over the past year. That is something that needs to change, particularly given I am now ten years closer to retiring. The third domain I believe needs focus in the near term is my relationships. Most of the past decade was spent insulating myself from people, focusing on myself sometimes to the detriment of real-world relationships and friendships. In continuance of one of my themes from last year, engaging the friends and people in my life better is something that needs focus this year.

How does this translate into real-world action? Three main behaviours to change/implement:

  • Question my answers: My existing outcomes in the domains I have identified for focus are the result of years of learning (both positive and negative) and ingrained habits. Real change can only begin by identifying what those underlying answers are, questioning them and then looking to arrive at better answers, iteratively. I started a Codex Vitae, a book of life, inspired by Buster Benson. This is something I hope to return to again and keep updated over the course of the year.
  • Build Systems: Two of the books which influenced me the most in 2019 (James Clear’s Atomic Habits and Drew Dyck’s Your Future Self Will Thank You) highlighted the criticality of systems (things broken down into repeatable, routine activities) for effecting change. As knowledge from digging deeper comes to the fore, the focus would be to break down any required actions into daily routines to ensure they get properly embedded into my life going forward.
  • Implement a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle: One of the changes implemented in 2019 was to build a dashboard which tracked my performance against a few key metrics in each life domain. Its usefulness became abundantly clearer as I pulled my year-end review together. I plan to implement this fully in 2020, incorporating a weekly review process into the system to ensure learnings and opportunities to tweak things are picked up as early as I can.

To a Year of Delving Deeper then! Happy New Year friends and readers.