The Postcard Story Project 2015

Author Jan Carson on 'the great exercise in concision, imagination and perserverance' that sees her writing and posting micro stories to friends

Writing is possibly the loneliest of all the art forms. I spend most of my evenings sitting in the corner of a coffee shop, talking to myself with my headphones on. People tend to give me a wide berth. I don’t blame them. It’s impossible to write and be social at the same time.

However, I like people. I like talking and hearing their stories. I couldn’t, despite my best intentions, be one of those hide-yourself-away-in-a-garret kind of writers. So, I’ve done my best to collaborate with other writers, musicians and artists, to take part in as many readings as possible, and try to find new ways to involve others in what I do and create.

During the autumn of 2014, I traveled through around a dozen American states, reading and carrying out research for a novel. Each day I wrote a short story about something I’d seen, heard or experienced and posted it home to a different friend. It was a great way of keeping my imagination ticking over, ensuring I was constantly looking for stories everywhere I visited.

I was often surprised by what I might ordinarily have missed if I hadn’t been so intentional with these postcards. Returning back to Belfast, I found I’d collected my own little archive of the adventure but, perhaps most importantly of all, I felt as if my friends had been able to share a little of the journey with me. I couldn’t believe how many people appreciated receiving even a small postcard through their letterbox instead of the usual mish mash of bills and junk mail.

In January 2015, I decided to begin the Postcard Story Project again. I was half way through an enormous novel and feeling a little stuck for ideas. I needed an incentive to make my imagination work for at least a small part of every day. So I asked friends from all over the world to sign up to the project, and have been faithfully writing postcard stories every day since January 1 and mailing them out to exotic places like Hong Kong and Berlin and Dundonald.

It’s been tough to think of ideas some days. Belfast on a wet January afternoon isn’t always the most inspiring place to be. On other days I’ve had three or four potential stories to deliberate between before lunch. It’s been a great exercise in concision, imagination and perseverance and I’m pleased to say I haven’t missed a day yet.

Best of all though, I’ve been delighted to see how these little stories have strengthened connections with people I love and don't get to see as often as I’d like. I’ve had so many people write to say their Postcard Story has made their day or provoked a desire to create something themselves.

One friend, inspired by the project, has begun making pen and ink illustrations on the back of postcards and mailing them out to friends. Another English teacher friend in America has been creating postcard stories with her students, and over the last few months I’ve received, stories, art, letters, photos and all manner of letterbox-sized treats in return for my postcards.

My postcard stories aren’t polished or possibly even fit for publishing, rather they are daily exercises in ensuring my imagination doesn’t get too rusty. They are the means of teaching me how to be mindful of all life’s details and how to capture those details in words. They are small attempts at ensuring other people continue to be part of my writing process. I am thoroughly enjoying the challenge.

All the postcard stories so far are available to read on my blog, but here are a few that I found particularly satisfying to write and post.

The Postcard Story Project

January 1, 2015 – Written in Portballintrae Harbour
Recipient: 
Susan Featherston

Every New Year's at midday we meet at the harbor and cast our ghosted bodies into the sea. We are no longer seventeen and, over the years, have progressed from last night’s underwear to trunks and t-shirts and finally, oil sleek wetsuits, straining to contain our spreading guts. We are, like soldiers returning from the Front, fewer with each passing year. This morning we are two and a handful of bemused children sheltering beneath their anorak hoods.

Afterwards shivering, we say, 'same time, next year?' and mean, as our fathers must once have meant, 'all good things come to an end, even the sea.'

February 25, 2015 – Written in Lower Old Park, Belfast
Recipient: 
Bernie Mc Gill

All the grander houses were demolished to make way for peace, and peace walls, and streets, as yet unnamed. For weeks they sat empty as open-mouthed children on the edge of their own peculiar end. Youths came and left through their windows lifting smaller items such as keys and plates and framed Bible texts. The adults and older youths came later, putting a shoulder to the door, they lifted beds and sideboards and other antique furnishings for the bonfire.

'For badness,' she thought, and three times crawled though the back window of John Hewitt’s house, finding no piano, no picture, no left behind poems to lift for a good story; finding her own echo louder with each empty visit.

March 22, 2015 – Written in Amsterdam
Recipient: 
Emily Dedakis

In cinematography the Dutch angle is a type of shot where the camera is set at an angle so the image on screen appears tilted/slanted/slightly skewiff. The Dutch angle is one of many cinematic techniques used to portray psychological uneasiness or tension in the subject being filmed. The cobbled streets of Amsterdam contain more Dutch angles than any Hitchcock movie you’ve ever seen. And, while Pisa has its tower and in Belfast the Albert Clock leans South like a half cut sailor, these are isolated incidents; the only two buildings thus inclined in otherwise upright cities. Almost every house in Amsterdam is angled against gravity. They line the streets and the side streets like dominoes waiting to tip each other into the canal. Just passing these Dutch angles on bike or foot reminds you that the world itself is far from straight. You are not sure if this feeling equates to psychological uneasiness.

March 1, 2015 – Written in Connswater Tesco, East Belfast
Recipient: 
Kate Walshe

There are four medium sized dogs tied to the litterbin outside Connswater Tesco. Two are terriers, the third, a poodle and the final dog, a mongrel of unspecific breed and temperament. It is beginning to rain and, under the mistaken assumption that they have been abandoned, all four dogs are howling at once. The noise of them is children keening in a barrel. They tug this way and that, leads crossing like maypole ribbons. The second of the terriers is tangled in the first. If they all chose to pull at once, in the same direction, no litterbin in East Belfast would be bold enough to restrain them. They could run away to Newcastle or rush the meat aisle of Tesco, mad for minced beef and pre-packaged cocktail sausages.

April 29th 2015 – Written in East Belfast
Recipient: 
Lois Kennedy

The last power ballad on the planet did not realize it was alone until it was too late. Behind its wet drums and its synthesizers and its particularly triumphant bass line it was impossible to hear anything else.

The last power ballad on the planet featured love and air punching and not giving up and everything being alright in the end. (In this, and other features, it was rather similar to all the other power ballads.)

Listening to itself at high volume, in its own bedroom, the last power ballad on the planet began to feel its self-confidence return. It chanced a saxophone solo. This looked particularly good in the wardrobe mirror. It followed up with a key change.

'Nothing’s going stop us now,' thought the last power ballad on the planet and then remembered that there was no longer an ‘us’ in power balladry. This was too sad for synthesizers. There were not enough acoustic guitars in the world to compensate for its loss.

May 5, 2015 – Written in the Ulster Hall, Belfast
Recipient: 
Cat Anderson

Today we’re searching for clues in Alexander Hogg’s black and white photographs of 1912 Belfast. We are using magnifying glasses and felt tip pens, post-it notes and our imaginations, which are still dozy from yesterday’s Bank holiday. We are trying to provoke the social conscience in ten year olds.

'Look,' we say, 'shoeless children in April, and it the cruelest month. Note the houses like boxes without windows, the pollution (again the pollution), and each child strong enough, carrying another, as Sinead Morrissey so deftly puts it.'

It’s not like the ten year olds can’t see what we see. It’s just that they are distracted by the novelty of wielding a magnifying glass and the sign for Cadbury’s chocolate enlarging itself behind the lens like a loudspeaker yelling, 'look, see, we weren’t so different, even then.'