Finding the Art in Phuket
Ink on Paper in the Digital Age
Anthony S Cameron
I have written close to half a million words in the last five years, and most of them have involved ink landing on paper. That’s right people, these neatly ordered words you are reading now started their brief life as scratchings on a coffee stained piece of paper. With these short pieces for the astonishingly brilliant Trouble magazine, the scratchings aren’t much more than a few key words, maybe a phrase to get things rolling and the obligatory doodle. Then I get the laptop out and fire away until the words run out or the idea I was chasing trips and stumbles or simply comes to a natural conclusion. With the novels, the whole bloody thing gets scratched feverishly into paper, surrounded by detailed doodles, notes in the margins, underlinings, biscuit crumbs and the ubiquitous rogue grey hairs that cascade off my body with alarming regularity.
I love the way ink stains a page. I love the smell of paper and the way it curls up when you write hard and fast. I love the way ideas embed themselves in words, bleed into the page and form clusters in their desire to be understood. Ideas can often be found lurking behind the words or just out of reach, which is nearly always better. And sometimes they are a nice surprise to me, too.
With the novels the ideas have much more room to move. They can stretch out and put their feet up, test the feel of the pillow before succumbing to the full body massage I am about to perform. Or they can sit up like attentive puppies, wagging their tails and pissing on the floor until I remember, too late to let them out. With the short stuff you rip through the gears and then scream to a halt, which can be exhilarating, and can make the words almost leap off the page in their urgency. With the novels it is a totally different feel. You open up the throttle slow and steady and hope the engine will make it through.
I leave little clues for myself as I scrawl, which I use later when I am typing the scattered, loose pages into the laptop, doing the first ‘cull’ as I type. These are little clues that I can use to get to the heart of the creative moment it came out of, like the doodles around the words, often an abstract series of markings that resemble the work of a demented tattooist on mescaline. Or how many times I went over and over the words with the pen, embedding in ink the emphasis I might forget about soon after I wrote it. I follow arrows that career off a sentence and land on the back of the page, attached to some hastily scrawled correction or turn of phrase that didn’t quite fit on the page.
Like a musician tuning up before a show, I find myself reading the last couple of chapters I have written before staining the page with more. It helps get my eye in and reminds me where the fuck I am going with it all. In my head I hear the drummer counting me in and if I land on the first beat, then I am in for a good day. If I don’t then I am in for a lot of wall staring, foot tapping, pen flicking and unnecessary eating.
A good day can mean 10 or so pages. I think my record was 22, but I edited the shit out of those later, so I guess that doesn’t really count. If I find the rhythm early those ten pages can be written by lunchtime. If I don’t find the rhythm, they can spread themselves over a whole day and leave me feeling strangely exhausted and somehow cheated.
A lot of those half a million words have been about this place where I live: Phuket, a bizarre place on the best of days. Phuket, some say, is reality with the volume turned way up. A million stories on every street corner. Extremes of every kind. It is hard not to write about it. All I have to do for inspiration is sit somewhere and watch the human spectacle unfolding in its beautifully haphazard way. Art is all around us.
I love to throw my characters into this mix of human possibilities and see how they fit. Or don’t fit, as is the case with most of the characters that interest me. Instead, they are left to dwell in the exquisite netherworld of the misfit, neither a part of things nor apart from things, a spectator and a participant all at once, dizzy with expectation and with the thinnest of cultural blankets to sustain them.
For me, that’s when shit gets interesting.
By the end of it, the pages are like overweight children in ill-fitting clothes: eventually you’ve got to take them to the big boy’s store. Inside the store, the words are turned into 1’s and 0’s, given page numbers, formatted and spaced for your reading pleasure. The ideas that were falling off the edge of the pages bursting with good intention are now trapped in the digital world, long enough, hopefully, to make some kind of mark.
In the digital world, all that is left is the words. All other signs of human habitation have gone, all the tactile joys removed: the chocolate stain smeared on a page, the torn edge that perplexed you for what seemed like hours, the sound of a loose sheet joining the pile; the way your handwriting changed randomly or had an almost clinical precision for page after page; the perplexing and slightly worrying doodles enveloping the words. And most of all, the way it told you things you needed to know in the moment. A moment that brushed past you on its way to a climax you haven’t even written yet.
Welcome to my world. Feel free to spill coffee wherever you like.
Anthony S. Cameron is an Australian ex-pat living in Phuket, Thailand, and the author of two novels, Driftwood (2014) and Butterfly on Bangla (2015). Born in Melbourne, he escaped in his early twenties to central Victoria, where he designed and built a sustainable house and raised two sustainable children. His books are available on Amazon here. You can find his sculptural furniture on Facebook here.