In Search of Authenticity: Our True Selves and Our Essential Need for Community

How can we be true to ourselves?

And how can we live in ways  that are true to what  we believe?

And how can we mix up our inner and outer worlds, so we are not compartmentalised like a waffle, but rather, more like a bowl of spaghetti?

These were just three of the questions posed to us at a weekend conference I’ve just attended, as one of 80 from my church, St Mark’s in Leamington Spa, at the Hayes Conference  Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire.

our group from St Mark's in the main conference hall at Hayes Conference Centre Swanwick 29 June 2013 (photo credit: PaulMileham
our group from St Mark’s in the main conference hall at Hayes Conference Centre Swanwick 29 June 2013 (photo credit: Paul Mileham

And in between enjoying the beautiful gardens in the sunshine, drinking in the bar, wandering by the lakes, going kayaking, cycling or walking, we listened to an excellent speaker, Annie Naish from the Lee Abbey Community.

The theme was Authenticity.

Annie invited us to consider how as members of a Christian community we can be “real” with each other,  our authentic selves, sharing our sorrows and troubles, recognizing we are all wounded people, and that we all need each other.

To illustrate our need for community, she played a video clip from the BBC TV documentary narrated by David Tennant, showing the solitary Emperor Penguin in the icy wilderness of Antarctica, who became separated from his community, but struggled on alone until he reached them again – and the life-saving comfort of their body warmth.

Annie Naish (photo credit Paul Mileham
Annie Naish (photo credit Paul Mileham

And just so, said Annie, should we live this out, through our relationships with each other in our community: by showing sincere and practical love; looking for the good in people; putting others first; being willing to be vulnerable; listening; and showing humility and practising forgiveness.

Anybody who ever seeks to understand this life and our place in it, will have to engage with this search for our true authentic selves.

This is the work of a lifetime, and it runs through many religions and faiths, through psychology and philosophy, through psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and counselling.

Annie herself lives as part of the Lee Abbey Community, and every member has to work through their relationship with each other within the community. Churches, said Annie, should be full of wounded people, places where people can weep, and share the tough times they’re going through. The authentic Christian life is  “systematically unsafe”. It’s a risky business, and sometimes it’s like a bungee jump over white water rapids. And she showed us a breathtaking video clip to demonstrate this.

Annie suggested we should be intentional. An authentic Christian faith is a long obedience in the same direction.

And if we are to be authentic in relationships, we have to bring what is hidden into the light. It’s costly, because  we’re vulnerable.

The young people having fun at Swanwick (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)
The young people having fun at Swanwick (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)

Annie gave us practical guidance. We have to listen and reflect before leaping to self-defence. This applies in many situations in life.

Annie called for us to think of everything we do as a task done through relationship.

And the goal for each of us, as Elrond said to Aragorn in “The Lord of the Rings” , is to “Become all that you were born to be.”

the lake at Hayes Conference Centre 29 June 2013 (photo credit: Paul Mileham
the lake at Hayes Conference Centre 29 June 2013 (photo credit: Paul Mileham

The Lovely Bones Film – New Insight Onto a Terrifying Subject

What could be worse than losing someone you love through untimely death?

Poster for The Lovely Bones movie
Poster for The Lovely Bones movie

And what could be even worse than that?

Losing them through murder.

And then worse than that?

Just imagine – the person you love, who is murdered, is a child, with all life and hope ahead of them.

This is the nightmare scenario for many parents.

And I would share those feelings absolutely. For this reason, when I first read about Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones it immediately struck me as a novel to avoid reading.

But I watched The Lovely Bones movie on DVD recently.

Why, you may ask? The reason was because my teenage daughter wanted to see it. She’d seen a trailer and found it appealing; she likes the young star of the movie, actress Saoirse Ronan; and her friend had recommended her to see it.

So I added it to my “LoveFilm” list and it duly arrived a few days ago.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold was a book which has elicited very mixed responses. Although we are told “it  received much critical praise and became an instant bestseller” on its publication in 2002, nevertheless I have spoken to people who have described it as “depressing”.

A young girl is raped and murdered by a serial killer and watches her family fall apart, from limbo.

From my point of view, as a romantic suspense author, I thought this a painful and difficult subject to handle in a novel.

Yet upon watching the movie I was totally captivated. The delicacy and beauty and wisdom with which the subject was handled reversed all my expectations.

Without reading the novel, I had thought the premise of the story essentially flawed. Firstly, telling people in this situation to ‘move on’ for its own sake, seems specious. Evidence tells us that in such cases victims above all desire justice – and until they have seen justice to be done, they cannot ‘move on’.

Secondly, to my mind, telling the story from the viewpoint of a murdered child in limbo, seemed to me a device that changes the subject in an artificial way right from the beginning. In this life, any such tragedy would be instantly rendered less agonizing if you knew for sure the lost person was in fact very close to you, present with you, and also in heaven. And of course the idea of wandering around in “limbo” as part of the post-death spiritual journey, is derived from Catholic tradition, and one of the explanations popularly given for ghosts.

I believe that in real life we never do have such immediate and uncontrovertible assurance – with or without religious faith.

So I thought it a very dubious quasi-spiritual approach to such a theme. And yet, in the hands of a skilled director – in this case,  Peter Jackson – a book can be turned into a movie where these difficulties recede, and another message comes through.

In some respects, the subject invites comparison with the book The Shack.

In this book, too, a young girl is lured to a ‘killing place’ and murdered. The story follows the reaction of Missy’s father to this tragedy, and moves on into an exploration of God which, I dare to believe, hs the power to transform our habitual attitudes.

I felt that in each story a device of separation is used: defamiliarisation. It seems that some of the worst experiences in life can only be truly understood from a distance. This has long formed part of the genres of mystery and imagination.

This was well underscored by the music – slow, languorous and dreamlike behind the “In-between world” and edgy clanging discordant notes as the murderer starts to saw wood and construct his next killing den. The visual effects too were very powerful; shadows moving across rays of light “in the blue horizon between heaven and earth” like images in dreams,  and the creepy dismal gloom of the world of grief which the family inhabit, with the father’s initial denial and continuous refusal to let go. Very striking too was the silence behind the murderer as the blackness slides aside to reveal him sitting in his house.

The words “I knew then even though he loved me he had to let me go ”  restate the theme, as do the words, “I begin to see thing in a way that let me hold the world without me in it.”

Have you seen the movie? Do you believe that a flawed premise in a novel can be transformed by a movie director? Please share your own thoughts, on this, or on the issues it raises.

Why Les Miserables Is So Popular

How is it that the story of Les Miserables has tapped into the emotions of so many?

Les Miserables movie 2012
Les Miserables movie 2012

I first read Victor Hugo’s novel in my late teens/early twenties, and a central idea stayed with me over the years (though not necessarily in the exact words Victor Hugo used):

You have been taken away from evil, and been given back to God.

When questioned, often even the actors and actresses in the movie cannot necessarily explain why Les Miserables has such power.  This may of course be because they’re so close to the story. Ann Hathaway was a recent example. When asked this question, all she could reply was, “I don’t know. It’s just a great story.”

But I’m fascinated by what lies behind this: for Les Miserables is an intensely religous story. And this is a society in which the majority of people would not describe themselves as ‘religious’ (if collectors of statistics are to be believed). And so this begs another question: Why is the opinion I quote below such an uncommon one?

The authors have pared down Victor Hugo’s great wallow of a novel to its dumb, pious moral (Christian forgiveness always wins, though you might not live to break out the champagne).

(David Edlestein)

I would dare to believe that the majority of the 60+ million people who’ve seen Les Miserables as a musical over the past 3 decades do not agree with him.

I believe that part of the success of Les Miserables is due to the fact that it has many hot story moments.

And these are bound up with the archetypal themes of the story, redemption, forgiveness and unconditional love.

As a romantic suspense author, I know only too well how vital these hot story moments are.

For me, the most emotional moment in the movie was when Cosette (played by Amanda Seyfried) sings, “Papa, you are going to live.”

Superficially, this is just a young girl who refuses to believe she is about to lose the dying man in front of her. And for Valjean, this must be his supreme moment when he is given a sense of belonging.

But the power of these words, for me, works on another level; as does most of the movie. Cosette is re-stating the theme; the theme of eternal life through spiritual redemption.

In creative writing, we cannot afford to ignore the different levels on which a story moment may work. For me, our ability to do this is a matter of both mystery and imagination.

Although the characters of Les Miserables are in extreme, unjust circumstances, their emotions are, I believe,  emotions many of us share on the spiritual journey.

Though you might not dare to believe your own deprivations compare with those of Valjean, Fantine and Cosette, being minor by comparison,  we do feel the same.

Over the course of this life, at different times, we too may feel the same wretchedness as Fantine, the same self-doubt and guilt as Valjean, the same obsessiveness as Javert, the same grasping small-mindedness as the Innkeeper and his wife.

I believe that we’d feel the same if we were also visited with a great act of grace; and especially if we were in Jean Valjean’s position, and heard these words: “My brother you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I have bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred, and now I give you back to God.” (words the Bishop speaks to Valjean after he has given him the  silver Valjean tried to steal). When I read the Bishop’s words to Valjean in Victor Hugo’s novel, for me they had the power of a blessing, one which would stand by you throughout your life – as of course they did for Valjean in the story.

Over the past 3 decades Les Miserables has been seen by more than 60 million people in more than 40 countries and in more than 20 different languages.

I believe that Les Miserables shows that many more people respond to themes of spiritual redemption and forgiveness and unconditional love, than would ever call themselves ‘religious’.

These are archetypal themes, and they are written on our hearts.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Men Into Monsters – Spidermen, Octopuses, Lizards and Aliens – Why Do We Love Them in Books, TV Dramas and Movies?

Who’s the most compelling character in a Spiderman movie?

Rhys Ifans as Dr Curt Connors
Rhys Ifans as Dr Curt Connors

For me, it’s Dr Otto Octavius (Doc Ock) and Dr Curt Connors.

As I watched “The Amazing Spiderman” DVD again the other day, it was Rhys Ifans in the role of Dr Curt Connors, that my eyes were on. Rhys Ifans is an actor I love from his numerous movie roles, including that of Hugh Grant’s Welsh flatmate in Notting Hill, and Luna Lovegood’s father in the Harry Potter movies.

This was such a different role – with a pleasant, understated manner, he was just a low-key, decent man… until he was driven to extremes by the pressure of circumstances and by the threatened destruction of his dreams.

Ordinary we may be, but I believe we can relate to that!

We’re engaged by the transformation of ordinary, nice, reasonable human beings, into rapacious killers.

Alfred Molina as Doc Ock in “Spiderman 2” was not only horrific, but moving and poignant. Even more so, because, in his monstrous octopus form, he  still had his own, recognisable face: the same face he wore when he gave up his time to chat kindly to Peter Parker, giving him a sense of belonging. A similar idea was used in the Doctor Who episode about The Lazarus Experiment, when we saw Mark Gatiss’s face recognisable in the alien monster.

Dr Curt Connors in the process of changing into a giant lizard

What is it that makes people change, in this life?

I look at this here, in a blog post about people being elemental.

Books, TV drama and movies, and of course, creative writing,  are all safe places for us to explore our dark side.

I explore this trope in my novel Mystical Circles. Although I’m a romantic suspense author, my own Other Side – exploring strange spiritual and psychological alleys in characters – is always there.

And if, after a lifetime of struggle, our dreams were to be utterly destroyed, I believe that many of us may fantasize about going on a rampage, expressing all our darkest emotions. This may come out through images in our dreams. Of course, the checks and balances present in the psyches of most of us, prevent this happening in reality. And so it stays in the world of mystery and imagination.

Would you dare to believe that, on the spiritual journey, alongside our capacity to evolve and improve and be redeemed, there might run another, dark strain: that our nice and reasonable selves might be changed into monsters?

Do you identify with this in any way?

Please share, if you dare!

The Core of a Successful Novel: The Ring of Truth

Jane Austen's Persuasion, which gave Tom Di Giovanni the idea for his novel
Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which gave Tom Di Giovanni the idea for his novel

Q – What is the core of a successful novel?

A – You can in some way identify with it; you recognise it as relating to your own life experience.

And this doesn’t mean you need to have experienced exactly the same events that the novel describes: simply that you recognise the truth in the story from your own life.

And that goes for all genres, even fantasy or escapist fiction. Somewhere in the structure of that story you recognise Truth.

Such is Tom Di Giovanni’s debut novel “Home”.

I first met Tom at our Church (St Mark’s in Leamington Spa) where he plays guitar and occasionally leads the music group. His love of music and in particular the guitar is demonstrated in this novel.

Tom wrote “Home” during National Novel  Writing Month 2007, then worked on it in between the demands of a full time job.

Edited by Tom’s father (editor, translator and author Norman Thomas Di Giovanni), the novel has now been issued in a limited edition of 35 for  the author’s family and friends. I was privileged to receive a copy, and I’ve now read it.

In simple, graceful, lucid prose, Tom tells a touching story with which many would identify, a story that shows how life offers second chances, with an essentially optimistic message, that affirms we can make the right choice when life gives us a second chance.

Tom took the novel “Persuasion” and based his story on Jane Austen’s – taking it from the male point of view.

The Dell , a small, hidden valley in Leamington Spa where author Tom Di Giovanni saw a girl sitting alone playing the guitar, which gave him inspiration for his novel
The Dell , a small, hidden valley in Leamington Spa where author Tom Di Giovanni saw a girl sitting alone playing the guitar, which gave him inspiration for his novel

28-year-old Martin, an architect, returns to his home town (in England’s West Country) and meets again the girl who broke off their relationship 10 years before. Daisy was persuaded by friends to reject him for being younger than her. But Martin then meets 17-year-old Claire, a talented young singer-songwriter, who has a job in the local guitar shop. Tom’s description of their unfolding relationship is drawn with subtlety and a sure and delicate touch.

Though Tom set the novel in a West Country town he used elements of our own local town Leamington Spa. In particular one scene is set in “The Dell”, a local park, where he saw a girl sitting alone playing the guitar, which inspired him for his novel.

When I read the novel I felt I was reading something that was:

1.  Well crafted;

2)  Had a water-tight structure;

3)  Had integrity in and of itself;

4)  Pointed me to a universal truth I could verify from my own experience.

They say a book must have “wow!” factor to succeed. The “wow” factor of this novel lay in its power to move, its scrupulous attention to detail, and its truthfulness.

The message of the novel is:

That which you believed lost, you can later return to and find again: but only if you meet the challenges the new situation sets; and only if you apply the new insights and discernment you have gained in the intervening years. You will be tested again, and past issues may arise once more in a new disguise.

Tom hopes to find a publisher soon to take on the novel.  So watch out for him!

SC Skillman

Defining Moments of Life: Journey To a University Open Day

road through Cambrian Mountains
road through Cambrian Mountains

The beautiful Cambrian mountains  – spectacular scenery to drive through, to your daughter’s first university open day.

 A misty, rolling, dreamlike landscape – ideal for a journey, but not a place that many find easy to live in.

The route took us from the Midlands through the England/Wales border country, to Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales.

And as with all bittersweet journeys it wasn’t simply the destination that defines the journey in my mind, but the words of the lady who owned the b & b we stayed at overnight.

“My son wouldn’t go there. He wanted to get as far away as possible. He wanted to get out of Wales.”

So she named the university he went to, in England, and then said with a laugh, “And he’s never been back.”

Of course it had a happy note. He’d met his future wife there and now they were settled in England. His Welsh wife would have willingly returned to Wales, but he had no desire to at all.

At Aberystwyth, a lovely, remote but small and friendly community, I thought of the fact that the majority of students come from outside Wales.  And all the Welsh young people probably want to get away from the place.

All around, amongst the crowds of visitors, I saw over and over again, one parent and one innnocent seventeen year old. I thought of how this moment is one of those defining moments in life. Your young person may spend three years here, may meet their future life-partner here, will make choices and decisions here that will impact the course of their lives.

Your young person may go there, and, like the son of the  b& b owner, “never come back”.

Now I understand why attending a university open day can be  a time both when you dare to believe in new directions and exciting opportunities for the future, but also a time when you may understand why the end of all our seeking is to return to where we began.

What defining moments have you had? Consider leaving a comment, and sharing your thoughts with me!

The Writer’s Journey: A Satisfying End to the Story

The way in which a novel ends is critical to its success

A satisfying end determines whether readers will go away and say to their friends, “I’ve just read this fantastic novel!”

I believe that a novel is defined by the way it ends. The theme becomes clear, and the focus of the story shines out.

 So important is the end, that it can spoil an otherwise excellent novel

As a regular Amazon reviewer, I’ve read novels thinking, This is superb. I’m going to give this novel 5 stars. And then I’ve reached the end, and my potential review slips a star.

So how do fiction writers ensure their novels come to a satisfying conclusion?

A novel is an organic thing. Writers may set out on the journey with the goal of exploring what it is they want to say. The theme may be as yet unknown. Only by a satisfying end to the story will that theme reveal itself. Characters can take over and change their creators’ minds. A pre-determined end turns out to be totally inappropriate. A story may have its true conclusion earlier than you had envisaged. Or too many strands are tied up neatly. You need to backtrack, finish the story at an earlier point, leaving some questions still open in the mind of a reader.

A novel may have a closed or an open ending. The end may be happy, sad, bittersweet or ironical. But certainly the end is determined by the way in which the main protagonist has pursued that over-arching desire which is the spine of the story.

Here are 5 questions to ask yourself as you consider the end of your novel:

1) Is there a “deus ex machina” in your conclusion? Or has the ending evolved from the choices made by the main protagonist? Could this ending have occurred if the protagonist had not made those choices – the motivation for which you have developed throughout the novel, folding them through the plot in a skilful weaving of characterisation and action?

2) Have you answered too many questions and tied up too many loose ends?

3) Have you said more than you needed to? Have you failed to respect the intelligence of the reader?

4) Is your ending climactic?  or could the reader have predicted it?

5) Has the outcome been foreshadowed? Could the reader say, ‘Oh yes, of course, this makes sense because…”

Take some great endings as an example.

John Fowles’ novel “The Collector” has a conclusion which penetrates the reader to the core, it is so chilling. And yet it has an organic relationship with the events of the novel and the development of the two characters.

Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece “The Lord of the Rings” is one that satisfies on many levels. One aspect of the ending which greatly satisfies me comes when Tolkien notes that the power of the Dark Lord is reduced and shrunk but not totally annihilated. It is still there, in a corner. It can be reawakened. I found this a profound recognition of the nature of evil in this world.

Finally, a very well-known happy ending is to be found in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”. And yet we are still left with the fact that Mrs Bennett and Lydia and Wickham will all continue to be problems in the future. The problems they pose will be of a slightly different nature as a result of the events of this story – but they’ll still be there, because they are inextricably bound up with those characters.

Have you any examples of novels with endings you love? Or maybe you remember only too well those novels spoilt by an ending which failed to satisfy? Let me know what you think! Leave a comment and tell me about the novels which delivered all they promised, and those who let you down with their endings!

Currents, Backwaters and Muddy Tributaries in Fiction: and the Fascination of the One Star Review

Reading a novel is like going on a voyage down a river.

Whitewater rapids (credit:
Whitewater rapids (credit:

Sometimes the water’s smooth and calm, sometimes rough; occasionally you may find yourself in whitewater rapids; and ultimately it flows into the sea.

If your boat gets ambushed by a rogue current and becomes snarled up among tree roots and rushes in a muddy backwater, that spoils your journey.

But does it make you give up on the book?

That happened to me recently with JK Rowling’s novel The Casual Vacancy.

She’d gripped me, early on, with a vivid description of a social worker visiting the dysfunctional family of an abused child. But then, as I saw the way her narrative was tending, I decided I wasn’t in the mood to read an unrelenting account of numerous people behaving in a particularly unpleasant way.

But as I loved all the Harry Potter books, and admire JK Rowling herself, I decided to put the book aside and return to it at another time, when I may feel differently about her choice of subject.

I believe that the way we respond to novels is a complex mixture of mood, temperament, expectation, and our own experience of  the world.

And when our expectations have been defeated, we might love it – or we might immediately get onto Amazon and bestow a one-star review.

Various factors determine whether we do  the latter – or wait, and perhaps come back to it another time, as I plan to with The Casual Vacancy.

I enjoy reading different responses to my own novel Mystical Circles. Of course, like all authors, I feel happy if I see that the majority have given it 5-star reviews (especially on Goodreads, Amazon & Barnes & Noble).

But the reviews that intrigue me – for any novel – are the one-star reviews. I quite often go to them first, specially to find out what is the worst that can be said of this novel.

But does that put me off the novel? No way! It can even enhance my interest in the novel, by giving it an extra dimension.

I believe the most interesting lessons are to be found in extreme divergence of opinion.

What do you think?