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Archive for January, 2017

What the Tide at Lindisfarne Has To Teach a Creative Writer

During my visit to The Holy Island of Lindisfarne last year, I sat on the shore by the Lindisfarne Causeway and watched the tide come in and cover the road.20160821_150524

Here are my insights – and a few images – from that experience.

Sitting at the end of the causeway and watching the tide come in is one of the activities suggested for you here Give Yourself a Retreat on Holy Island by Ray Simpson.  It has many benefits and can be quite amusing as you watch cars driving along the road well outside the safe crossing time, and wonder whether they’ll soon be floating away. This too can be a good prompt to reflect upon the quality of patience.20160821_151028

It’s also a challenge to your ability to sit quietly for an extended length of time and meditate; to some it can become boring. We sat with several other people, some of who left early, but we stayed till the water was surging across the road.

I found myself thinking of the High Tide of God; sometimes it comes flooding in over the road and then you may not pass. At other times, it is out, and your way along the road is free.20160821_165105

Of course, you can interpret the tide differently, reversing the meaning.It all depends upon the viewpoint you take; whether you see yourself sitting on the shore, or whether you see yourself as a boat, or as a bird skimming the waves.  Instead of equating the tide with a signal that you must patiently wait, you can equate it with a time for fruitful action. That is how Shakespeare interpreted it when he wrote:  There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune. 20160821_165650

So even non religious people can sit here at the end of the causeway and take from this their own reflections on life.

Whichever way you view it, the whole experience is full of symbolic meaning, which you can also explore in this book: Sacred Spaces by Margaret Silf.20160821_170245

My personal reflections for my own life, work equally well when applied to the current world scene.

I believe, with Tolstoy (see my previous blog post here) that “the times produce the man”; and currently, those who voted Trump in as President hold the moral responsibility for elevating him into a major role in their society. The tide in the affairs of men, that Shakespeare referred to, has thrown up this situation… and though many hold different views, perhaps we must just wait for the tide to recede, taking with it all the flotsam and jetsam.20160821_172909.jpg

Curiously, you can apply this principle to the writing of novels too. Sometimes you find you have a major character in a minor role, and vice versa.  This can underlie problems with story-writing when you get stuck, and perhaps you can’t initially work out what you’re doing wrong.

And also you can equate creativity with the tide; the high tide of ideas. As the tide surges in, so can our ideas – but only if we get to work.

And lastly we, as writers, can see the tide as Shakespeare did: a tide of fortune. Are we boats, or birds, or perhaps merely foam on the crest of the waves? We may be a beautiful beached fish, just waiting for the tide to sweep us up again.  However we see it, we can learn many things from sitting patiently at the end of the causeway, and waiting and gazing.

 

Staying Focused as a Writer: Learning From Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy, the author of the novel widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest, War and Peace,  not only crafted characters we love and  care about – Pierre, Natasha, Anna Karenina, and many others – but was also fond of sideways excursions into his theory of history during the course of a novel. war-and-peace-bookSo during War and Peace he gives us his theory of the rise of Napoleon on the world scene.

Some may read War and Peace and skip those passages but when I read the novel as a teenager not only did I love and identify with Pierre, and become emotionally engaged with his hopes and longings, his mistakes and wrong choices, but I eagerly devoured those passages of historical and philosophical theory.

In one of them Tolstoy, writing about Napoleon, states that the times produce the man. This observation, incidentally, is borne out by the situation  we find right now; the times have produced the man, Donald Trump, to lead the so-called ‘free world’ – as it is currently known, but may not be for much longer. Individuals may choose to be outraged that the American public has voted a man of Trump’s moral character to be their leader. But they are discounting the tide of history, and the spirit of the times. However my purpose here isn’t to discuss politics but to discuss Tolstoy’s impact on me as a writer and to show how this applies universally to writers.

Tolstoy takes as an example our inability to sense earth’s motion. He wrote that on learning of and accepting the laws that govern the movement of the planets in space,  we had to say, “True, we are not conscious of the movement of the earth but if we were to allow that it is stationary we should arrive at an absurdity, whereas if we admit the motion we arrive at laws.” Likewise in history we must say “True, we are not conscious of our dependence but if we were to allow that we are free we arrive at an absurdity, whereas by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time and on causality, we arrive at laws.”

Just as we have had to “surmount the sensation of an unreal immobility in space” and “recognise a motion we did not feel, …. so in history the obstacle in the way of recognizing the subjection of the individual to laws of space and time and causality lies in the difficulty of renouncing one’s personal impression of being independent of those laws.”

So with the tide of events in human affairs, and in our lives,  it is similarly necessary to “renounce a freedom that does not exist, and recognise a dependence of which we are not personally conscious.”

I first read those words as a teenager which was when I first read War and Peace, and they have stayed with me over the years, as words from a truly great writer do.

I think they apply specifically to the writing life and also to life in general. We may feel very isolated as writers, especially “indie” writers; and yet every so often we recognise that we are not alone, and instead are part of something much bigger. I believe individual freedom is a concept much abused and misunderstood; we are dependent on a tide of events in the world.  (I’ll come back to this subject in at least two later blog posts, when I’ll consider the concept of Small is Beautiful, and when I reflect upon the tide at Lindisfarne sweeping in to cover the causeway).

Meanwhile, may I encourage you to read War and Peace if you haven’t already, and not to skip the passages when Tolstoy reflects upon the tide of history.

The Gatiss/Moffatt Post-StoryTelling World of Sherlock

We’re familiar with the phrase postmodern and more recently with the notion of post-truth. benedict-cumberbatch-as-sherlockBut now I think, for writers, it is true that there is a post-storytelling phenomenon – which moves beyond and over-turns current rules. And it’s illustrated in the scripts that Steven Moffatt  and Mark Gatiss create for their TV drama series Sherlock.

It is now becoming more and more acceptable for audiences, on first viewing, to be confused by a story, but to stick with it for the sake of their love of the characters. This is certainly true of the most recently aired Sherlock episode: The Final Problem  which presented a great challenge to the brilliant acting skills of Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Mark Gatiss.  Clues as to what is or might be going on are planted in the current or the previous episodes, and because audiences can now view the episode many times, story-tellers are exploring new territory to take advantage of this.

Moving seamlessly between what’s in the mind and what’s actually happening in the physical world, Moffat and Gatiss break genre expectations (for which I here use the word rules – for so long as they can be deemed to exist) to involve their characters in events in the physical world whilst they remain free of the natural consequences, by some means which is not clear – other than through the clues I mention above. The popularity of the story of the modern Sherlock Holmes and John Watson itself seems to justify the transgression of the rules – or the pushing of these rules to their extremes – just like the characters themselves.

We saw Moffatt and Gatiss work brilliantly with a terrifying metaphor – a little girl the sole conscious person on board an aeroplane in mid-flight, needing to be talked into landing the craft. This was very archetypal and the stuff of nightmare, and a powerful metaphor for a small child under stress. But it’s not clear until the very end that this scenario is not happening in the physical world, but it is a metaphor, and in the mind.

However in one respect the story-telling remains strictly true to the original Conan Doyle stories – Sherlock’s ability to take things to an extreme pitch of personal danger to himself and to those closest to him, and then to emerge from it calm, self-possessed and in control. He does that in Conan Doyle’s original story The Adventure of the Dying Detective, where Watson is convinced Holmes is dying from a dreadful Asian disease, but when Holmes has secured the villain’s confession, and Inspector G. Lestrade has walked in, the “dying” Holmes suddenly transforms to his normal self and says, “All is in order, and this is your man.”

I remember well how I felt when I read that story – I was every bit as gripped by that as by watching the latest Sherlock episode on TV. So the Moffatt-Gatiss Sherlock is true to the original in this respect. Moffatt and Gatiss are replicating this factor using very impressionistic stylistic techniques made possible by today’s film/TV technology.

The very essence of Sherlock Holmes’ intellectual genius is his ability to make cool, measured calculations based on reason, whilst in a situation where the majority of people would be undermined by tumultous emotions. But right at the centre of The Final Problem, is Sherlock’s discovery not of his intellectual genius, but of his heart. The appearance of Lestrade at the end and John in the blanket is so reassuring and comforting – “order is restored, John’s in a blanket just as Sherlock was in the very first episode of all,  A Study in Pink…. and Sherlock has saved him through supreme reasoning powers allied to his loyalty – and he has told Molly he loves her (twice, and sounding genuine).” So Sherlock has a heart. If he had a choice to live without John’s friendship and loyalty, or to live without Mycroft’s power and intellect, he would choose the second; and when no words could be used to communicate with his profoundly damaged sister Eurus, he alone communicated with her – using his violin.

I read a very telling admission in an interview with the two writers: they say of their character Sherlock “everything he has worked towards, everything he has tried to get away from in himself and deny about himself, is what makes him strongest.”

All in all – on first viewing we are confused, but still electrified – and we love and care for the characters more than ever.

 

 

 

How Many Books Do You Read in a Year?

Recently I thought it would be fun and interesting to ask this question of fellow-writers on our own dedicated Facebook group, having just learned from Goodreads that I’d reviewed or  rated 28 books this year. a-reader

I made a fascinating discovery.  Annual reading achievement varied enormously. I thought I was doing quite well at approximately 30 – and I learned via an online search that a “voracious” reader may get through 30-50 books a year but across the general population it is a very different picture: “According to a YouGov survey, the mean number of books read for pleasure by adults in the UK is around 10 each year, and the median is around 4.”

The answers I received from fellow-writers  took me by surprise: and not least, because I was humbled and impressed by how the majority of these individuals managed to fit in so much reading alongside writing their own books!

“78 – less than two books a week, which doesn’t seem very much at all to me.”

“No more than 5”.

“In 2016 I read 69 – years ago I might read up to 100 a year. One month I notched up 19 books.”

“About 36.”

“About 12.”

“49 and some other started but not finished.”

“Over 100.”

“120 last year – as at 8 January this year I’ve already read 7.”

“55 from the library alone so probably nearer 70 or 80.”

“Going back through my Kindle orders, 54 not including ones I gave up on or old books I re-read.”

“32 according to Goodreads.”

“Between 15 and 30.”

“Probably about 12-15.”

“175 last year and above 150 for each year since 2011 when I started tracking on Goodreads.”

“55.”

I love to read a book which is a totally absorbing page-turner, a book which you can’t wait to get back to. It’s one of life’s greatest joys. I’ve just finished reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry and I found it a real struggle to read, it’s so slow-paced and (I think) self-consciously literary. I bought it in Waterstones, attracted by the beautiful cover and the interesting blurb. I was determined to persist with it to the end because I’d spent good money on it but felt cheated of that wonderful “must get back to it as soon as possible” feeling with a good book.
When I mentioned this on Facebook, I liked this response:
Books like that become loo books, read a page or two at a time. A friend sent me a non-
fiction title I’d expressed interest in and I can only stomach it a few pages at a time. I’m only persisting because it was a gift and because there is some useful info amid the dross but it’ll get a scant two stars and the fact that I’m only reviewing as a warning to others taken in by the blurb.”
What do you think? Do you know how many books you read in a year? And what’s your view of “fast” and “slow” readers? Does it matter? and does it impact upon the quality of your response to the story, or your reviews, if you do review books (or discuss them at a book club). I’d love to have your comments!

Dark TV Drama for Christmas 2016 and New Year 2017

This year darkness seems to be the keyword for some of our best drama offerings on TV: from Agatha Christie: The Witness for the Prosecution:cast-of-the-witness-to-the-prosecution

through Jonathan Creek: Daemons’ Roost;alan-davis-as-jonathan-creek

Sherlock in The Six Thatchers.benedict-cumberbatch-as-sherlock and the Bronte Family in To Walk Invisible.
the-3-bronte-sisters-in-to-walk-invisible

In Sherlock we discovered that Death had an appointment – with Mary Watson in the London Aquarium. Maybe London is Sherlock’s city and he knows the turf. But he was still unable to keep Mary safe, as he had promised. In the Agatha Christie drama, we were drawn in to the personal tragedy of a detective who was finally outwitted by the criminal; in Jonathan Creek we saw our lovable main character largely responsible for the horrific death of a villain; and in To Walk Invisible we were shown a tough and bristly Emily, a Branwell totally lacking in inner resources when things go wrong, a bossy and controlling Charlotte and a rather ineffectual Anne: and all of them powerless against tidal waves of blind misfortune.

I read in an interview with Toby Jones (star of the Agatha Christie episode, and also due to appear as the next villain in Sherlock) that Ten or twenty years ago, Poirot and Miss Marple were cutting edge. But the viewer’s brain processes genre faster now.

I feel this sums up well the challenge facing today’s TV drama writers, screenwriters and novelists.  We can no longer get away with anything that approaches transparency or simplicity in plotting or tone or characterisation; especially if we write crime, suspense or thrillers, we have to be at least two or three steps ahead of the viewer / reader. For us, “the game” of which Sherlock speaks has to be the game we play with the reader’s expectations, which are now razor-sharp. In our books we can only get away with characters like Mrs Hudson saying things like “I’ll just go and make a nice cup of tea shall I?” if there is some kind of double or even triple irony bound up in the package of words and character and context.

Against all this perhaps, the Outnumbered Christmas Special was refreshingly light, unless you count the darkness of 1) being led astray by a mischievous old man, now deceased, to travel a long distance to scatter his ashes in a random beauty spot 2) the abrupt discovery that your son plans to disappear off to New Zealand long term, and 3) walking away defeated from a car accident having trashed your car, totally unaware your daughter has obtained evidence that the other party was completely at fault….

All of these dramas, though, are essentially English, and all are about life, and we love them, together with their characters and situations. The darkness in some way is cathartic for us; we identify, we exercise our powers of empathy as we are drawn into the tragedy and horror and irony of the characters’ experiences… and this is why drama, and fiction, is a gateway to truth, and so profoundly important in our lives.

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