An evening with Tim Dowling

Tim Dowling stood at the lectern. There was an easy manner about him as if he was enjoying this moment, talking to a hundred strangers at the Guardian Masterclass.

Tim writes a humorous column for the Guardian which he describes as ‘observational writing, a lifestyle sub-genre otherwise known as ‘wonky trolley’ columns, and by ‘wonky trolley’ he means those times in our lives when things don’t exactly go to plan.

What does he write about? His advice is “Don’t try to be anything other than yourself. Writing the column comes with responsibilities, readers don’t like it when you’re settling a score. The point is that you want people to think your heart is in the right place even if you’re making a terrible joke.”

He uses New Journalism techniques popularised by Tom Wolff and his colleagues. That means that he writes his columns using colourful characters, sustained dialogue and vivid scenes. Don’t summarise people in a couple of lines. What’s important is how they relate to Tim, not what Tim thinks of them.

Tim sees the first reader to be a stranger, not a friend. They don’t read to find out what Tim thinks. They come here to find out what they believe. The bargain Tim makes with his reader is that this actually happened. This is not fiction but real life, and so he always reports what is true and always uses straight facts. He does turn up his reactions but is careful not to exaggerate. There is a fine line between irony and farce. It’s always better to underplay the moment; to keep a straight face as you tell a joke. No need for exclamation marks. In fact, an exclamation mark can be a kiss of death.

He often works in the morning lying in bed, letting his mind wander. He looks for a subject – something he can focus on.  He allows his mind wander, looking for the small humiliations over the past week. Maybe he will look to connect the story to events in the news or something he overheard on the train. Tim writes down the ideas as single statements such as “when the wife hired a car” and then does some thinking at the keyboard. In essence, he allows his fingers to do the thinking.

His writing style is confessional and self-depreciating. Sometimes he constructs an argument to test his opinions and then ask himself “What’s funny about this?” He’s only looking for a couple of jokes, but they got to be good jokes.

Here’s Tim’s advice:

  • What gets your creative juices going? Ask yourself ‘What do you think about these subjects?’
  • A good way to find a story’s narrative structure is to tell a friend. Tim said that we naturally impose a narrative structure on a story just by recounting it.
  • There’s always got to be something at stake which is stated early on in a casual fashion. You don’t want highlight what is at stake. Don’t make a big deal of it.
  • The reader is always expecting you to be the expert. So you have to write with confidence – no hesitation, no “maybes” or “possibly” or “mights” – everything happened as you wrote it and you know everything about it.
  • Always remove as many ‘I’ as possible in the rewrite.
  • Write in the historic present to give the piece immediacy. Tim’s pieces are 700 words long with a clear start and a clear sign-off.
  • Pace is important. Top and tail the piece with an anecdote, start with the problem and resolve the problem at the end.
  • If you’re stuck with an ending, check the second paragraph because sometimes you find the answer there lurking in the dark. (Caitlin Moran gave him that piece of advice.)

11 December 2017

Sometimes we need to ‘pretend’

The word ‘pretend’ has a bad press. We worry about doctors who aren’t doctors, builders who can’t build, teachers who aren’t qualified to teach. But the word ‘pretend’ comes from the Latin “praetendo” meaning to stretch forth, reach out, extend. Pretending allows us to believe we can do something new and different.

Pretending allows us to stretch ourselves beyond our reality into our imagination. If we didn’t pretend, would we dare to go after our dreams?

The forgotten art of love letters

Have we lost the art of writing letters? On Saturday 25th September 2017 The Daily Telegraph published some letters that Sylvia Plath wrote to her husband, Ted Hughes.

The power of her writing crosses the years. The intimate words take us under her skin.

Is this the forgotten art of writing love letters?

In a letter written on Monday 1 October 1956 she talks about her sadness of leaving her husband in Yorkshire and returning to Cambridge University:

I am back. The gas fire wheezes and dehydrates my right side, the rain blowing in the open window hydrates the left; I am codeine-numb, dazed, and utterly blissfully insensible. The trip back was hell; I found by picking up my suitcase and letting a noble agonised expression pass immediately over my face, I needed no porter until Cambridge. I stared at the wet landscape en route; it was flat and grey-green. That was that. If there were buildings, they were ugly.

I am very numb and very insensible though I have been unpacking, making huge piles for laundry, cleaners, rubbish, throwing away stacks of letters and scrap, during which I lacerated my thumb on a broken wine bottle; the cream crackers are soggy; the Nescafe is a hard cake; the strawberry jam is rancid. I drank the last of the vinegary Chilean burgundy and I love you. I will live in you and with every thought for you, however, I must smile and be politic with my supervisor and the odd girls here, none of whom, thank heaven, are back yet. But I am all for you, and you are that world in which I walk. I am still eating your dear lovely sandwiches; I felt too lousy on the train to eat, except for the bananas like you said; so I am having hot milk and loving you over those sandwiches now.

And then two days later:

Wednesday 3 October 1956

It is early yet, a clear miraculous guileless blue day with heather-coloured asters, shining chestnuts breaking from green pods (I wait till after dark to collect these) and rooks clacking like bright scraped metal; I find myself walking straight, talking incessantly to you and myself, and painfully abrased by the crowds of people – the motion, chatter and nip and tuck of cars and throngs in Petty Cury nearly drove me home screaming yesterday; I been, for four months, conscious really of only living in and with you, with a great sense of complete contained safe aloneness and protection that grew to mean in my deepest bone and marrow.

I am writing this in my bathroom after a lousy little breakfast of queer tasting honey on white (ugh) toast and Nescafe – regular breakfasts don’t start here till tomorrow; the way I miss you makes that hissing small anaemic word look ridiculous. I have very simply never felt this way before, and what I and we must do is fight and live with these floods of strange feeling; my whole life, being, breathing, thinking, sleeping, and eating, has somehow in the course of these last months, become indissolubly welded to you; it is difficult to describe – sort of as if I had innumerable tender, sensitive tentacles joined to you, and suddenly, except for those in my mind, all were cut off, left wavering loose; now people affect me like vinegar does our lovely poached eggs; I contract, concentrate, withdraw, and not a tentacle is left out; I marvel at how well I can get along without giving anything of myself to anyone.

Click here to be taken to the original article in the Daily Telegraph

What question am I trying to answer?

In today’s Guardian, the scientist Siddhartha Mukherjee writes about his love of writing and tells us the question he asks before he starts to write.

  • My single rule for writing about science is that you cannot know the answer if you don’t know the question.
  • Before I write anything, I ask myself ‘What is the question that I want to answer?
  • When I read a novel or encounter a poem or painting, I ask myself ‘What question is the painting or novel trying to answer?’

To read the full article:

The Most Dangerous Writing App


Last week I discovered The Most Dangerous Writing App.

This writing app is such a simple idea. Type intensively for five minutes or the words disappear. Five minutes is the default. You can change that time for 3, 5, 10, 20, 30 or 60 minutes.

This is a challenge. You can’t overthink. If you stop for longer than five seconds, the words are wiped from the screen.  It’s the fear that keeps you writing. (Sometimes I play around with that fear and deliberately stop, letting the app delete everything. It is good to know what it feels like to lose everything.  And it doesn’t feel that bad, honestly.)

What have I learnt over the past seven days?

  • Five minutes feels like the right period of time. It is long enough to not lose focus.
  • I type 250 words in five minutes.
  • Look down at the keyboard and not at the screen.
  • Don’t worry about spelling mistakes. I’ll deal with that later.
  • Repeating the exercise two or three times on the same subject adds depth.

Altogether a fun way to stimulate your writing.  And it is free. What more could one ask for?

Childhood Stories

Childhood stories are about friendships, laughter, bravado, tears and pain. Ask yourself a few questions to spark those memories.

As a child:
your favourite toy was …
your favourite book was …
your favourite sport was …
your best friend was …
your favourite sweets were …

Stepping back in time

Your memories contain the sights, sounds, feelings, tastes and smells of your original experience. To step back in time, focus on just one sense.

Which sense to begin with? Ask yourself ‘What do I remember first?’ Is it an image, sound, smell or texture? Describe this first moment in detail to begin your journey into the past.