Blog in 01 2014.
Remember Consequences? That game where you’d write a couple of lines of a story, cover up half of it and pass it on to the next person to continue?
We thought we’d bring it back to celebrate National Storytelling Week, which lasts from the 1st to the 8th of February.
We wrote the same beginning on three separate bits of paper and passed them on: one in our New York office; the other two on the second and third floors of our London office.
The results take us from button-obsessed Queen Boreen to a magical wish-granting psychic via a golden, one-eyed unicorn. We’ll be posting all three stories on this blog over the next few days, but be warned: we’ve never seen stronger proof that writing by committee doesn’t work.
Do get along and see American Hustle if you haven’t already. Great fun from the start. Yes, from the start. Good films, books, plays and so on tend to have good openings. ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ (Rebecca). ‘The past is a different country. They do things differently there’ (The Go-between). ‘Are you watching carefully?’ (The Prestige). And so on.
In American Hustle, it’s just a few words on screen: ‘Some of this actually happened.’ But they’re so much better than the usual words that get trotted out in this situation: ‘Based upon actual events’, ‘Based on a true story’, or some slight variation on that snoozy formula. By messing with it ever-so slightly, the film sets us up to expect the cheeky, good-humoured yarn it duly serves up.
And, yes, there’s a lesson for us here in Realityville. Don’t waste the opening words of whatever it is you’re writing. Don’t clear your throat with ‘I am writing with regard to...’. Don’t take a run-up to the main point of your email, report, white paper or letter. Get right into it straightaway. That way, the person on the receiving end is much more likely to pay attention, think what you want them to think, and do what you want them to do.
TICUH TICUH TICUH TICUH TICUH.
For the last minute or so I’ve been secretly listening to Neil typing.
To me, it sounds like TICUH TICUH TICUH. To Mad (important capital) cartoonist Don Martin, maybe it would’ve been something else. You’d have to check this dictionary of all the strange sequences of letters he used to represent sounds.
Here are some of my favourite entries:
BBLLBBLLBBLLBBLLBBLL (man making lip sounds).
HAKKLE SLICE SHLURP BOIL RIP HAC CHOMP COOK EAT TEAR CHOMPITY-CHOMP (Robinson Crusoe and Friday eating food and each other).
KITTOONG, CHKLUNK (brain thrown into Frankenstein’s monster’s head like a basketball).
TWEEN SPWANG (man having pistols shot out of hands).
And now for the sound of me sending this to blogmaster Harry.
I’ll be having my second baby in a couple of months so, in preparation, I’ve been reading the classic Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, by the revered American midwife and natural birth guru Ina May Gaskin. This little passage leaped out at me:
‘In my early days as a midwife, I felt free to change some of the language surrounding birth as a way to help women cope with labour pain… I began to use the word rush instead of contraction. Why use a word that suggests tightness and hard muscles when successful labour will require expansion of the cervix?’
You might be tempted to dismiss this as hippy-dippy nonsense. How about some hard stats, then? The caesarean rate at Ina May’s birth centre in Tennessee is 1.4%, compared to a US national average of 31.1%. And her instrumental delivery rate (forceps or ventouse) is 0.05%, compared to 10% nationally.
Of course this isn’t entirely down to the language she and her colleagues use. But it’s scientifically proven that the environment in which women give birth can have a huge impact on how painful or tricky it all turns out to be. Subtle things like lighting, sound and surroundings can all encourage or inhibit the production of oxytocin, the hormone that speeds up birth and bonds mums to their babies. Words are a small but potentially powerful part of that mix.
The thing is, ‘contractions’ is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unhelpful reproductive terminology. If your labour doesn’t go as quickly as it should, for example, you’ll see ‘failure to progress’ on your medical records. (Which, in your hormonal, sleep-deprived postpartum state, can make you feel – well, like a bit of a failure.)
Or if you have the opposite problem – the neck of your womb isn’t strong enough to hold the baby in until it’s due – you get told you have an ‘incompetent cervix’. Charming.
A couple of years ago, Mumsnet, the Association of Early Pregnancy Units and the Miscarriage Association campaigned to change a particularly awful bit of terminology. The medical procedure women have to go through after they miscarry was called ‘evacuation of retained products of conception (ERPC)’. A lot of families understandably found this term upsetting (I doubt many people think of their lost child as a ‘product of conception’) and the campaign settled for the clearer and more respectful ‘surgical management of miscarriage’.
It all just serves as another reminder – as if we needed one – of how crucial words are. How they shape our perceptions and responses to our surroundings, major life events, and even our own bodies.