Sometimes you just need to set your writing on fire and stamp it to death in the street

I don’t know what I was expecting when I signed up to Frances Taylor and Charlie ‘Ultraculture’ Lyne’s new writing venture Burn Night. It certainly wasn’t writing something that I was really proud of. And it definitely wasn’t watching someone set fire to it half an hour later.

I met Katie Khan of Awkward Situations for Girls fame at Charing Cross and we trudged over to Pall Mall to the wildly arty ICA, the pair of us carved out of a wildly unarty wool and waterproofs combo. Katie just started the Faber Academy course and will likely be on your Christmas reading list come 2014, but as I’ve done nothing since October apart from 3hundredand65 and transcribing all the voice memos I make on the lovely winding route back home at night, I needed to do something.

(You can tell we were keen because we were a) out at night b) out at night in winter c) out on a Sunday night in winter and Katie was missing her mum’s roast dinner.)

The 40-odd people piled into the Studio had applied to take part, and there was some joshing around at the beginning, literally, about a poor chap who’d written in but had just missed the cut. Charlie and Frances made a poster apologising.

sorry josh pappenheim burn night

Well. If anything is going to make you feel a bit smug around the edges, it’s hearing about people who missed the cut. IF ONLY WE’D KNOWN.

We were given a load of A4 paper each and a theme to write on. From the groans and cries of “But…but what?” from around the room, they were about as inspiring as mine:


I know absolutely sod all about how paper is made. There are trees? At some point pulping happens? What is pulping exactly?

But then again, the joy of having a prompt and a deadline means that whatever you think, your brain is totally concentrated. You can’t fuck about going “But what if I go in that direction? Or…or what if the main character is actually just a made-up dream from that character I haven’t actually thought of yet, but probably has really lovely hair?”, you just have to think of an idea and go for it.

So I wrote a story about a teenage American tree who was bored out of his wits living in the same boring area of the forest with his parents. He wants to go somewhere else – anywhere else – but can’t. He’s resentful about the fact his brother died through not growing properly. He fights with his dad. And eventually, he gets his wish, because his desire to go somewhere else is so strong that some paper-millers come and cut him down.

I finished my story and felt that tentative relief of having written something good in an hour. We folded up the paper and handed them in, and Charlie gave us a new story to read. Confusion bells started ringing when he said that only one person would read it, but whatever. I trust teacher with the implicit trust of someone who went to a very bossy secondary school. I really enjoyed the one I had, a very po-faced, funny bit of autobiography about why the author only likes bland food, and occasionally, crisps. It had some great lines in it. RIP crisp story.

Afterwards, we got our stuff together, left the ICA , and followed Charlie and Frances to one of the swish streets around the back. A very, very quiet swish street where Charlie proceeded to hand out matches and lighters and tell us to set fire to the story we were holding.


I don’t know whose story this is. I don’t know if the person who read mine liked it, or even finished it (it was seven sides of A4) but we burned them. A disinterested security guard watched us from down the street. At one point there was a little bonfire of stories. Then Charlie opened a bottle of Champagne to toast the engagement of Picturehouse’s Sam Clements and we walked back to the ICA. No explanation. No Charlie’s Final Thought. We wrote something in an hour, and then set fire to someone else’s.

As disappointed as I am not to have that story, it’s probably a good thing. I don’t need to read it and see the horrendous flaws, or pick it apart. Jilly Cooper left her first Riders manuscript on a bus, and eventually re-wrote it even better. And it reminded me that I can write something with a deadline. In fact, that I need deadlines to write. And if I’m ever going to deliver this book to an agent this year, perhaps what I need to do is to give myself 30 prompt lines, one per chapter, and an hour to write as much as I can. And then perhaps I can go from someone who would quite like to be a novelist, to someone who actually is.

Still, a Sunday night is a Sunday night. I left everyone in the bar and went home to see the cat who I’d adopted from Battersea that afternoon. But that’s a story for another day.


4 thoughts on “Sometimes you just need to set your writing on fire and stamp it to death in the street

  1. My mum’s roast is now famous!

    My slip of paper said “Write about something that finished at the wrong time.”

    I wrote a Melancholia-inspired piece about a slightly paranoid, psychotic bridesmaid who breaks up with the best man rather horribly a minute before his speech.

    Afterwards I was chatting to Sam Clements, of ‘just engaged’ fame (above), and mentioned I’d written a story about a wedding at Burn Night. ‘Inspired by you,’ I said, embellishing a little. ‘Inspired by AN ENGAGEMENT.’

    ‘Really?’ He said. ‘That’s weird. The story I read during the evening was about a wedding.’

    ‘Oh?’ (Oh dear. But surely… There’s no way… Would it be?)

    ‘Yeah. It probably wasn’t yours though. Because this wedding went horribly wrong, and the girl in the story was a bit of a nut job…’

    Ah. There you go – write what you know. ‘Right. That was mine, actually. Yeah. Err… Sorry. Happy engagement though! Happy news. So… who’s your best man?’

  2. Pingback: The saga of Cat Brown « Exotic Maypole

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