Monday, 30 November 2009

A215 TMA 01

Tutor-Marked Assignment

  • Task 1: Focused freewrite, of 200-300 words, based on one of a search,learning to swim, a scrapyard, hearing a piano, a bunch of keys.
  • Task 2: Proceeding from that prompt, write 750 words of fiction, autobiography, or biography.
  • Task 3: Write a 300-word "commentary" about the techniques used.
  • Due date: 30 October 2009
  • Mark: About 80%? (Actual mark temporarily unavailable on a dead hard drive.)

This is my first piece of creative writing since childhood. Despite facing a memory I'd all but repressed for thirty years, the process was very satisfying - cathartic, even. I'm still pleased with the final product. It should be noted that Rolf Harris's exposure and trial occurred after this piece was written.

1. Focused freewrite based on the prompt “learning to swim.”
Spitting out chlorinated water. Red eyes. Traipsing for hour after lonely hour across the pool and back, clutching a polystyrene rectangle and wishing it actually helped. The instructor was a bald guy who didn’t smile when you caught his eye. Just blew a whistle and barked orders. Not so much a swimming lesson as aquatic parade square drill. The pool was beautiful. Even as a sulky 13 year old I appreciated that. Victorian with a gorgeous glass roof and attached to a medium sized stately home at the end of a long drive and I never saw it in daylight. Dad and I used to go swimming on Saturdays and one of my strongest memories of those sessions is how ravenously hungry I used to be afterwards. We usually had steak and kidney pie and milkshake in the leisure centre cafeteria afterward. Only two memories of the actual pool itself: First is being in the shallow end, standing on the bottom, and hearing a youth ask my dad how deep the water was and he replied “About three feet I think.” Never knew what  a foot looked like before that but for ages afterwards used the line between my nipples as a 36” datum upon which to base estimates of length. Other memory is of a rare excursion to the deep end. Pratting about having a laugh with Dad and accidentally swatting his glasses in my exuberance. And he left me suddenly alone and doggy paddling for my life, clutching at people anyone and being shrugged off and fuck I’ve been conscious of this memory for thirty years but never allowed myself to dwell on it before now. By God, that was a traumatic episode.
[Word count: 285]

2. A passage of autobiography.

Title: Trusting a man with a beard

When I woke on 30 December, 1974, I didn’t know how to swim.
In those days my father looked quite a lot like the television celebrity Rolf Harris. They had the same style of beard and the same style of glasses. They both owned one of those little electronic organs played with a stylus. In between making TV commercials for his Stylofone, Harris appeared in a public information film, extolling the virtues of having buoyant children.
‘Teach ‘em to swim,’ the infant-festooned Aussie had said, ‘It’ll be fun!’
So, in between being ribbed by his children for his resemblance to Mr Harris, my father tried it with me. It was on my birthday.
The drive to the pool probably took about forty minutes. As this was a Men’s Day Out, I could sit in my mother’s seat in the front, feeling as cool as it was possible to feel while wearing a cissy seatbelt.
Being six years old, I wanted my swimming lesson to consist entirely of fooling about in the shallow end, so it was only under protest that I allowed my father to carry me into deeper water. The pool was crowded; the shouts and screams of the bathers echoed off the glass ceiling in one continuous sixty-minute roar. My nose was permanently wrinkled against the continual splashes. When he was chest deep, my father started the Tickling Game, a singularly unfunny pastime which involved him jabbing me in the ribs until I couldn’t breathe. I howled with involuntary laughter, torn between the urge to wriggle free and the need to cling on. My arms twitched as I squealed and in a moment my father’s glasses were swatted from his face.
And Daddy is gone.
I stand on tiptoe to see where he’s gone. But there is no floor and I am not standing. I am sinking and the water comes past my face and the echoes abruptly stop. The transition from frolicking to drowning is so sudden that I haven’t even drawn a last breath; I’m submerged and utterly airless. I am kicking against a bottom that isn’t there, clawing at the water with my fingers, desperately trying to climb up the very water.
My head breaks into air. Daddy isn’t here. A scream punches its way past the foam in my throat. It’s a short scream, made of the one tiny packet of stale air I had in me. It’s a scream that nobody hears. Now I’m gasping, heaving in air and choking on spray of my own making and my face dips again and my legs thrash and my arms windmill. My hands grope for something – anything.
It’s not fear that drives me into air a second time. It’s Fear. The Fear a field mouse feels when it sees a hawk’s shadow. I’m not so much keeping my face above the surface as doggy paddling so frantically that a small trench opens in the water in front of me. I’m tiring though. The sides of my trench are caving in. My spastic leg movements are slower. I become aware of other people. Huge grown-ups all around, close enough to touch. I’ve gone under for the third time when my flailing hand touches something. I grab and slip and grab and heave and pull myself up again.
And now I really am screaming.
The woman whose swimming costume I am grasping glances down at me with disdain, shrugs me off and moves away. My breathing is steadier now. I can inhale a mix of air, spray and liquid without gagging. And I can scream.
Kick – splash – breathe – scream. And repeat.
I’m getting weaker. The effort required to keep every ounce of me from sinking is massive. A man’s glistening back towers over me and my fingers slide down it without finding purchase. I don’t even know if he’s aware of me. My arms are numb and I’m clawing at people that don’t even know I’m drowning.
I am exhausted and I have no screams left inside and hands grip me and it’s Daddy and his glasses are back on his face and it’s Daddy and he’s got me.
As he carried me to the poolside he was telling me off for knocking his glasses from his face. I don’t think I heard a single word. On the way home I sat in the back seat.
When I went to bed on 30 December, 1974, I still hadn’t learned to swim; I’d just found that I could.
[Word count: 750]

3. Reflective commentary

Freewriting is new to me. Initially I found it difficult to get a flow. That reproduced above is the unedited final section of a longer piece which only gained momentum towards the end. I admit to having held a sceptical view of the claims that freewrites could “bring up uncomfortable material.” (The Open University, p.15) and take me into my “deepest ideas, feelings and memories.” (Anderson, 2009, p.23) However, some of the material in my freewrite was deeply disturbing to me induced a kind of writer’s block as I came to terms with being abandoned, albeit momentarily, by a father more concerned about his spectacles. The block lifted once I decided to avoid writing judgmentally and to concentrate upon making the reader live my experience.
The subject matter is a minefield of clichés. I tried to balance language that dealt with the mechanics of staying afloat with description of the subjective experience, rather that yell at the reader “I’m gonna die!”
In a nod to sensory description, I spliced in sounds I remembered from later pool visits, as my recollection of the day in question is rather blinkered.The Workbook suggests “you will not betray the truth of any particular memory by failing to stick steadfastly to certain details,” (Neale, 2009, p.54) I cheated slightly by condensing two memories into one narrative. The birthday swimming trip was actually a separate one which passed without incident. I did this for two reasons: First, if an infant is going to drown, doing so on his birthday is obviously more poignant. Second, I preferred subtle yet specific exposition to the blunt and vague “It happened when I was six.”
I hadn’t read Glaister’s “Memory” when I decided to switch tenses to pull the reader from the comfort zone of reminiscence.For research I reviewed the Rolf Harris film online (YouTube, 2007) and checked The Elements of Style (Strunk and White, 2005, p.57) to see how I should write the date.
[Word count: 310]