Canine Mathematics was written for the second official night of Children in Need in November 2007, in response to the prompts Dog and After seventeen pints of lager. Under its original title of Dog Mathematics, it was chosen by popular vote to be third equal overall out of all the pieces written for Children in Need.
Under its new name, Canine Mathematics was published in Issue 52 of Smokebox in April 2008, which was also my first ever magazine publication.
Along with Advice re Elephants, this is another popular live piece that I've read many times. The first was at Sparks in Brighton on November 3rd, 2009.
So where do stories come from? Good question—glad you asked.
I’d like to answer that by taking you through the process of developing one particular flash. The reason why I’ve chosen this one is that the process of creation took place over a very short time span (under an hour), so I can be quite precise about what was going on at the time.
The piece in question, Canine Mathematics, was created as part of a charity event held every year in aid of BBC Children in Need by Alex Keegan's Bootcamp. I’ve never been a member of Bootcamp (it’s not my kind of place), but I joined in with this as a visitor in 2007, basically because it seemed like a good opportunity to hang out with some of the cool kids in the playground. Canine Mathematics eventually got published in Smokebox (I wasn’t even aware of EDF back then). As it happens, it was my first-ever piece published on the internet, so I’ve got a lot of affection for it.
The way the Children in Need event works is that you are sent a series of around 40 prompts every hour, and you then have an hour in which to produce a piece inspired by one or more of them. The event takes place over 30 hours, from Thursday at 6PM through to Friday midnight, with some people (sadly not including me) ploughing on right through Thursday night. There are also a couple of practice nights leading up to this, so by the time Friday evening comes along, I’m getting the idea of how it all works, and I’ve already produced one or two pieces that have worked reasonably well, although there are a whole load of others that have crashed and burned. So at 20:00 on Friday, having eaten well and drunk a glass or two of Italian red, I scan the incoming e-mail and choose “Dog” and “Seventeen pints of lager” from the prompts offered to me. The thing about the kind of time pressure that events like this put you under is that you don’t have the luxury of planning. So you start writing with whatever the right (creative) side of your brain comes up with. And what it comes up with is that after seventeen pints of lager, you’d be in a pretty bad state. And that a dog would probably treat you with a fair amount of contempt. So here are the first couple of sentences:
The dog stared at me with what seemed to be disgust.
“Look at the state of you,” it said.
And I’m off. From here, the right brain is still making most of the running, and the next thing it comes up with is – literally – what you might come up with when you have drunk seventeen pints of lager (apologies if you’ve just eaten.) But the next question is what can you do that’s interesting with a pool of vomit? Well, for one thing, you can analyse its shape, and this is where my previous life as a student of mathematics unexpectedly comes into play, as it seems entirely sensible for the main character to be a mathematician himself.
All this time, the left (logical) side of the brain has been struggling to catch up – a bit like riding a tiger. But at this point, it actually manages to seize control and it starts to fill in some of the gaps. Who is the MC? Is he a student? Or is he a professor, perhaps? Why is he out getting drunk? The answers are that he’s a professor of sorts and he’s been out getting drunk because he’s in trouble with his research funding. Then the right brain chips in by suggesting that the dog can help him with this.
Easy. The dog’s a mathematician too. And then the right brain pulls out its masterstroke, by remembering some long-forgotten principle of Wittgenstein (and I’m paraphrasing here) that if a lion could speak, we still would not be able to understand him. So the dog can solve the MC’s problem, but can’t communicate his solution to him. Left brain is uneasy but has no choice but to go along with this, and fills out the narrative a bit with the arrival of a further dog and a cat who discuss the first dog’s findings, making minor corrections, and then bring the main part of the narrative to an end. I am now around 670 words in, and I have about a quarter of an hour to go to bring this to a tidy conclusion. I have no idea how I am going to do this, but I have to keep writing. Right brain is out of ideas by now, so left brain sketches out a coda to the piece, where the MC is now sitting in his office, reflecting on the encounter. But we’re still looking for a punch line. Finally, right brain has a second wind and remembers the old joke about the man who comes across a dog who tells him all about his exploits in the CIA. He tells the owner what an amazing dog he has, but the owner merely scoffs and tells him not to believe a word the dog says. And an adaptation of that joke steers the story to its final destination.
All I did before submitting it to Smokebox was clean up a few bits of slightly mangled writing, and reduce the alcohol consumption from seventeen pints to seven or eight. Even in my student days, that was about my limit, and bad things usually started happening well before then.
So, the message? Don’t be afraid to let the right brain off the leash. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike—start writing. And if all else fails, bring on a talking animal.