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Creative Artists: In the Minority, and On the Outside Looking In

Today on Radio 4, whilst stuck in slow-moving traffic due to an accident on the M40,  I listened to the Midweek programme, in which Libby Purves interviewed four guests – Diana Moran, fitness expert; Jack Thorne, playwright; Dashni Morad, singer and presenter; and finally Omid Djalili, comedian and actor. For the purposes of today’s blog post, I was particularly interested in what Omid Djalili had to say.Omid Djalili

Talking about his own development into a highly successful comedian and actor,  he made the point that throughout his life he has always felt, on every level, part of a minority within another minority… and so on. That has informed his comedy.

I loved him in the film The Infidel when he explored questions of identity as well as the boundaries and prejudices between two major world faiths, Islam and Judaism. He was brilliant in his role of a man who had been brought up an East End Muslim then discovered he was adopted, and really a Jew.

The point he was making in the Radio 4 programme related to the topic of one of the chapters in my new book Perilous Path: A Writer’s Journey, in which I explore the feelings of someone else highly successful in the arts; this time, a bestselling author. And I feel there is a close connection between being in the minority in a minority, and feeling as if you’re always on the outside looking in.

The author in question is Howard Jacobson and he made his remarks in another radio interview, just after he’d won the Man Booker Prize.Howard Jacobson

Here’s that chapter, a taster from my new book:

ALWAYS ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: WHAT DOES A BESTSELLING NOVELIST HAVE TO TEACH ASPIRING WRITERS?

I was listening to a bestselling novelist (Howard Jacobson) speaking on the radio about his success in winning a major book award. Among the many things he said which touched and amused me, I was most impressed by the answer he gave to this question:

 “Now you’ve won this prestigious award, do you feel you’ve arrived? Do you now feel you’re on the inside?”

And he replied,  “No. I have always felt myself to be on the outside of everything, looking in.”

What a wonderful response the interviewer received to this question! And it seemed to me an authentic writer’s response. As observers of human life, this is what creative writers spend their lives doing. Often whilst researching for novels, we are on the outside looking in. We do not necessarily wish to ‘get involved’ or ‘drawn in’, although there are times when we must ‘come alongside’ those we observe, in order to truly understand.

This is especially true of those on spiritual journeys. To be a traveller on this path, you need an open mind and an open heart, and must be prepared to go anywhere and come in on anything. This does mean exploring other spiritual outlooks, other worldviews. This should be no contradiction to a spiritual traveller, whatever religion they belong to. As Rabbi Lionel Blue discovered, ‘my religion is my spiritual home not my spiritual prison’.

The great mystics have transcended religious boundaries in order to experience the presence of God beyond them all. So, how can we always be outsiders looking in? Or is it sometimes necessary to get involved, and come alongside? I believe both can co-exist simultaneously. There is, in fact, never a time when a writer is so fully involved, he or she cannot at some future time stand back and write it. Every experience, no matter how negative or difficult, can prove raw material for a writer because in the act of writing a story you are often drawing upon unconscious material. Novelist Margaret Drabble remarked that fiction writers are good at ‘turning personal humiliations and losses into stories … they recycle and sell their shames, they turn grit into pearls’.

I am particularly fascinated by group dynamics. And in order to learn about those you have to participate. But you can also observe. The truth lies in paradox. Thus the most successful creative people can literally be, in the eyes of the world, on the inside. Of course they have arrived! And yet they can still feel they are always on the outside looking in.

 

 

 

 

A Passionate Spirit and The Cult That Stole Children

A couple of years after I left university, whilst on a spiritual search, I went to a lecture at the Royal Overseas League in London, met, chatted to and  became captivated by an inspirational speaker: a Physics professor who wrote spiritual books. His name was Dr Raynor Johnson.

a-pool-of-reflections-by-dr-raynor-johnsonSubsequently I read and loved all his books, beginning with his latest: “A Pool of Reflection”. I later wrote him a letter, to which he responded with a very kind and encouraging reply from his home at Santiniketan, Ferny Creek, Melbourne Australia.

Santiniketan later became notorious as the first premises Raynor Johnson made available for the use of the then beautiful and charismatic  Anne Hamilton-Byrne, the cult leader, and where she gave her spiritual talks, and started to gather her followers.  At the time, of course, I had no knowledge of this.

I wrote about him and about the cult with which his name has now become ineradicably linked in this blog post: The Curious Case of the Kindly Professor and the Cunning Cult Leader. I also used the story of the cult in my novel  A Passionate Spirit (pub. Matador 2015).

This cult is particularly relevant to my interests in writing A Passionate Spirit, because of the way in which the cult leader uses beauty and charisma to win devoted followers, whom she then indoctrinates with her teachings; and the cult preys upon the young and the vulnerable.  In addition the cult won the support of many intellectuals and people occupying high professional positions. It is a case which is of vital fascination to a writer of psychological thrillers and suspense.

Later I was contacted by journalist Chris Johnston, who has published articles about the cult in  The Age, Melbourne and in the Sydney Morning Herald. He wanted to make reference to my experiences, and to quote from my blog post, in a book he was writing about the cult.

You can watch the story of this cult on BBC TV tonight Tuesday 29 November 2016 in a documentary called:  “Storyville: The Cult That Stole Children.” It is being broadcast at 9pm.

M paranormal thriller novel A Passionate Spirit inspired these remarks from a Net Galley reviewer, CE Gray:  “as Natasha and James started to take hold of both the centre, and the people within it, the story picked up pace and for me became a page turner. I needed to know, were there supernatural forces at work? Was Zoe imagining it? Were Natasha and James just fraudsters? Was this a story about a cult?

I was pulled in, hook, line and sinker, picking up my kindle at every opportunity to find out what happened next and the end was not disappointing.

I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in cults, the supernatural and thrillers in general.

What I especially loved were the author’s notes at the end, talking about her inspirations for the novel, including the Australian cult, The Family, which sent me scurrying off to the google for an hour after I’d finished the book. A great read.

A Passionate Spirit is available to buy online and in bookshops.

Thrilling Holiday Reading: Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit

Looking for gripping novels to fill up your ereader with?A PASSIONATE SPIRIT COVER DESIGN  as used on Matador web page

Want to while away the time at the airport?

Include A Passionate Spirit on your holiday reading list.

If you like thrillers with  more than a touch of the paranormal this is for you!

Janice an Amazon reviewer, took A Passionate Spirit on holiday with her and says I loved it, I was hooked from the very beginning, the characters got inside my head, and I couldn’t put the book down. I was really very surprised at how spooked I felt considering I was on  a sunny beach in Tenerife very far removed from the Cotswolds. Thank you for a great read.

Mystical Circles 2nd edition book cover image 688 by 1000 pixelsAnd why not also download Mystical Circles?

If you do, I suggest you read Mystical Circles first because it may add more depth to the background of some of the characters.

Sue W, an Amazon reviewer, has read both books, and says:  This is something that I like in a book series – being reintroduced to characters at a different point in their lives, without a specific cross reference to the first story. …A Passionate Spirit provokes the reader into reflecting on the motivations of the characters. One that particularly fascinated me was James – remembering him from Mystical Circles, I found myself wondering about how he would have got from his life then, to his life now…. another way of saying that the character was believable in himself and not just a plot device…

But Sue does add that the two books could be read in any order and would still be enjoyable.Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit by SC SkillmanEnjoy your holidays… and happy reading!

“Inner Child” Faces Down “the Perpetrators” at Constellations Therapy Workshop at Hayes Conference Centre

The most powerful workshop I took part in at the conference “Continuing the Journey: Rummaging for Reality” last week was a constellations therapy group run by a therapist who specialises in working with people who have suffered spiritual, satanic and sexual abuse.continuing-the-journey-home Approximately 12 of us took the part of various ‘voices’ in the client’s brain (identity confidential of course). The client had herself, over a long, and painstakingly slow process with the therapist, identified and written down the words spoken by the voices in her head. She had given permission for the therapist to use this material in her workshop with us – and was hoping to benefit from our experience with it.

We all took different roles – in this case, the names of the roles included Me, Body, Sexuality, Inner Child, Anger, Faith, Church, Priest, Nuns, Uncle (the last 4 named roles were all perpetrators). I took the role of Inner Child. As we read out our scripts, and then started to move around in relation to each other, inside the client’s brain, we decided how to interact with each other, and what we needed in order to progress and make changes.  As the workshop progressed, each one of us entered into our roles so strongly we were no longer using scripts. The whole thing became dynamic, and compelling.  I found myself, as Child, being strengthened and supported by Anger; together we were able to challenge and weaken the lies of the perpetrators.  I don’t think anyone who took part in that workshop is likely to forget it for a very long time! I heard different members of the group describing it to others afterwards as “stunning.” For a while during the rest of the conference, when I looked at each person, I found myself thinking of them as the role they had been playing.

I wondered at one point how this experience might play into my fiction. I then realised that even if I were to create fictional characters based upon these different voices in the client’s brain, I would not be able to replicate what happened in the group. For each voice / character needs to be fully rounded in fiction; even if someone is a ‘perpetrator’ and has done terrible thing to a vulnerable victim, we would have to see why that character has behaved in this way. We would need to look into their own childhood, their own background, and would need to understand them from the inside as well as the outside. That we were not in a position to do, within the circumstances of the constellation therapy group.  All I knew was that the voices of the perpetrators had to be faced down.

How this will impact upon my new novel, I cannot yet say as it will take time to process!

 

The Creative Power of an Intense Group of People in the Hothouse Environment of a Writers Retreat

Mystical Circles by SC Skillman

Mystical Circles by SC Skillman

I’ve now finished my series of Cave posts as new inspiration has intervened!

One of my fellow bloggers Lance Greenfield has just opened up thoughts of writers retreats by reblogging this post on the subject by Max Dunbar. Lance then went on to ask his own followers for their responses to Max’s thoughts, and whether it would be worthwhile for him to go on one of the many writers’ courses or retreats that are available here in the UK.

Part of my inspiration for my novel Mystical Circles was an Arvon Foundation poetry course which I attended at Totleigh Barton farmhouse in Devon. My fellow poets that week reflected the wide variety of characters to be found at a writers’ retreat in the UK – and in the story of Mystical Circles.  Among these you may find – alongside whatever idiosyncracies you yourself may bring – several complex personalities; and your interactions with others, and your observations, form an inexhaustible source for a writer. And I believe it’s vital to write about people, no matter how deeply flawed, with love and empathy, never in a detached or critical spirit.

Below I list some of my favourite plays, books and films which have achieved this:

Unnatural Causes by PD James (detective novel set in a literary community)

Peter’s Friends (film directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring  Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie)

Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh (brilliantly developed and improvised by playwright and actors and first broadcast by the BBC in 1977)

Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw (a group of people are invited to one of Hesione Hushabye’s infamous dinner parties, to be held at the house of her father, the eccentric Captain Shotover)

If you’re fascinated by group dynamics and it’s relevant to what you’re writing, then a writers retreat – a small group of intense people in a hothouse atmosphere – may be ideal for you!

 

 

The Psychology of Mother and Son in the Psycho Prequel “Bates Motel”

My daughter Abigail, Creative Media Production student, has recently completed a project on Alfred Hitchcock’s editing technique in Psycho.

Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho

So I’ve watched Psycho again several times recently. And my fascination with the subject led me to pick up the books Abigail had gathered for her project, and read them myself. Editing techniques in film can of course be applied to fiction writing too; what you choose to show, and the way you cut it together, can play a vital role in creating an emotional response in the audience. Hitchcock was the master of this, and profoundly influenced the history of film with his genius.

Over the last week we’ve been watching the DVDs of the US TV series Bates Motel, which is a prequel to the events of Psycho, set in the contemporary world, and showing how Norman developed to become the figure Anthony Perkins so famously portrayed in Hitchcock’s 1960 film.

We’ve now watched 6 episodes of Bates Motel in which the young Norman is played brilliantly by Freddie Highmore, (who looks like a young Anthony Perkins); his mother Norma is played by Vera Farmiga; and an additional character Norman’s older brother Dylan, is played by Max Thierot.

This is the most discerning portrayal of dysfunctional family dynamics. As a writer of psychological suspense fiction myself I cannot help but be mesmerised by the skill with which Norman’s early life is portrayed, and by the clarity and focus with which it accounts for Norman’s behaviour in Psycho. The series is highly focussed in what it says about unhealthy mutually-interdependent relationships, in this case, between a mother and son.

IN particular Vera Farmiga as Norma is outstanding, as she portrays the toxic mix of Norma’s psychological make-up. We watch mesmerised as the pace of events, and the choices she makes, precipitate her into rapid changes between being over-affectionate, unreasonable, controlling, proud and hard, aggressive and emotionally manipulative. Finely blended into this mix, we find flashes of callous indifference, mental cruelty and martyr complex, as she puts guilt on Norman.

Dylan, the older brother is an inspired addition to the gallery of characters, one whom we didn’t see in Psycho. In Bates Motel he represents normality. As he says about Norma: “She’s always got a drama, and she always will. She’s like an addict. And when you have an addict in your life the best thing you can do for them is walk away from them…” “You’ve just got to get away from mum,” he says to younger brother Norman. “She’s just going to bring you down with her.” How prophetic of the events in Psycho.

And as you follow the twists and turns of the plot, you see how Norma has a talent for creating alternative scenarios when things go wrong, which serves only to complicate things further and make them far worse.

Dylan tries to persuade her to “stop making up stories”. As you watch the drama, you just long for Norman to accept Dylan’s offer to leave his mother and go to live with Dylan instead. You start to persuade yourself that this could be the vital moment of choice, when, if Norman had taken this step, he might have been saved from the tragedy and horror of the future as presented in Psycho.

And yet you still can’t help thinking: would that help? How would Dylan deal with Norman’s mental health problem? Would Norman end up killing Dylan instead?

If you’re at all interested in the psychological suspense/thriller genre, do get hold of the DVDs of “Bates Motel” and see for yourself!

Film Review: “Philomena” starring Steve Coogan and Judi Dench

I belong to a Film Club which meets every 2 months and a few days ago our film of choice was Philomena.

I’ve now watched it four times in as many days, and during that time I’ve been haunted by the characters, by the story, and by what it tell us about life and about what it means to be human.

I haven’t read the novel by Martin Sixsmith, but it does seem to me from the Amazon reviews of the novel, that Steve Coogan’s choice to make a film of the story, focussing on the relationship between Philomena and Martin Sixsmith in their search for Philomena’s long-lost son, was an inspired choice, and created something far more powerful, moving and effective than the novel which focused on the life of Philomena’s son Michael Hess (born Anthony Lee).

Our film club group had a lively discussion about the film after viewing it, and we examined different angles, with views expressed that see the events from both sides. I think what I like most of all about the film is that it avoids a black and white view of Philomena’s story, which could so easily be “cruelly wronged woman against evil Catholic nuns” (beautifully parodied by Steve Coogan early in the film when he says, “Evil is good. I mean – story-wise.”) The message of the film is far more subtle and complex than that, and brilliantly conveyed in the dynamics of the relationship between Philomena (portrayed by Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan).

And of course the film contains some incisive dialogue about the Catholic Church. As I consider the message I’m left with this thought; how dangerous the challenges and demands of an authoritarian religious faith can be; leading some along the path of harshness, cruelty and judgementalism, and others into the highest reaches of self-sacrifice, holiness and goodness. It’s almost as if, behind it all, lurks the complexity and unaccountability of human psychology, which we can never ignore.

This Guardian article is the best review of the film that I’ve come across which acknowledges this subtlety and the far deeper observations that are being made about the Catholic Church.

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