Inside the mind of a writer www.scskillman.co.uk

Posts tagged ‘psychology’

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.

Books That Shock, Move and Change Their Readers

I have loved many books in my life, but the ones that stand out for me have three ingredients: archetypal themes, emotional charge and X factor. And they are the ones which can indeed change the way you see the world.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

My three nominations will be grouped under the headings of the power they exerted upon me, the reader:

1) The power to shock and move

Shusaku Endo’s Silence, set in the 17th century, is the story of the persecution of a Jesuit missionary sent to Japan. It has been called “Endo’s supreme achievement” and “one of the twentieth century’s finest novels”. In this book, the Catholic Endo explores the theme of a silent God who accompanies the believer in adversity. It was greatly influenced by the author’s experience of religious discrimination in Japan, racism in France, and tuberculosis. During the years that have elapsed since I read this book, I have never forgotten the image of the Japanese Christians being tied to a stake at the sea’s edge, and forced to endure the sea rolling back and forth over their bodies, and singing: We are going to the temple, going to the temple of God. Somehow for me this stands as an image of a race, whose native religion is so different from Christianity, assimilating Christian theology into their own belief system, and expressing a faith which transcends personal suffering. How has it changed me? It has informed my understanding of the way human beings adopt different faith systems ever since.

2) The power to change your view of human nature

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is considered by some to be the greatest horror story ever written. When I finished reading this story I felt “scoured out” emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. This tale of how one man’s soul can be destroyed through the devious manipulations of another, is summed up in a terrifying image: the portrait that reflects the creeping corruption of a man’s soul, and whose destruction must result in the death of its subject. I felt the real villain of the piece to be Lord Henry Wotton who first stirs up the artist and persuades Dorian of his beauty, thus sewing the seeds of his eventual destruction. Beauty, and our perception of it and response to it, lies at the heart of this masterpiece. Since reading it, I have never seen human beauty with the same eyes.

3) The power to give new insight into human psychology

Dostoyevsky’ s Crime and Punishment

Another unforgettable moment is provided by this great novel, which tells the story of impoverished student Raskolnikov who determines to rid the world of the grasping old woman money lender. He persuades himself that his actions are benevolent, for the greater good of the community, and thus he has a high moral purpose. But when he is forced to kill the old woman’s half-sister, innocent Lizaveta, then his conscience starts its work. Again one moment has remained with me: when Raskolnikov is eventually compelled to give himself up to the police who have been long hunting him: It was I who killed the old woman and Lizaveta. This profound novel, once read, stays with you forever. And this indeed sums up the power of a novel which will change how you see the world.

What about you? Have you read these novels? Do you share my feelings about them, or disagree? Or perhaps you can suggest another  novel, which is for you more powerful than any of these? Let me know! I’d love to know your choices!

Mystical Circles, Emotional Charge on the Spiritual Journey – How Life Itself Inspires an Author

Over the last few months, some readers have been asking me, “What inspired you to write ‘Mystical Circles’? And, as I have just issued a revised edition of the novel on Kindle with a new cover design, I thought now would be a good moment to answer some of those questions.

"Mystical Circles" new revised edition published on Kindle June 2012

“Mystical Circles” new revised edition published on Kindle June 2012

The story evolved out of a number of different influences & experiences covering several years of my life. I was inspired for the setting by the strong contrast between the calm beauty of the Cotswolds landscape, and the complexity of the emotions and psyches of the fictional characters I imagine living there.

And although the characters are a composite of many people I’ve met, there’s also a little bit of me in every one of them. The setting and events of the story arose from my own experiences:  a writing course at a college in Kent; a symposium on “religious renewal in the modern world” at Hawkwood College, near Stroud, Gloucestershire; a Buddhist retreat in a school on the south coast; a poetry course at Totleigh Barton, Devonshire farmhouse owned by the Arvon Foundation.

Inspiration came too from people I met at the Relaxation Centre in Brisbane, Queensland, and courses I attended there on “The Centre Within”, “Personal Growth” and “Dream Yoga”.

Additionally, I learned new things from the sannyasins who followed the guru Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh, when I spent a couple of days observing activities at their UK-based community, especially their practice of Dynamic Meditation. And I drew, too, upon my experience with the local community mental heath teams in Leamington Spa.

And why did I eventually settle upon the genre of mystery romance to tell this story? Firstly, the very nature of mystery is to unravel human motivation. And romance because I’ve often found that a key charismatic figure stands at the centre of any body of teachings. The language used by such a person excites, moves, inspires, and arouses the emotions; the personality of this leader is a powerful influence; and – in my experience & observation – love, romantic/sexual feelings, and emotional charge cannot be separated from the spiritual journey.

I hope that has answered some of your questions. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve had your own experiences on the spiritual path. Or perhaps you  have very different views of this. Either way, please leave a comment!

Mental and Emotional Byways, Complexes and Hang-Ups in Fictional Characters

Having just read an interesting blog post about depression,  I was led to reflect upon how easy it is  to allow your own “principles” to override compassion, empathy and honesty about the reality of human life. This applies to all of us, but there is a special challenge here for those of us who write stories, and need to create convincing characters.

 We won’t get very far as writers if our fictional characters come over as wooden or contrived or artificial. To guard against that,  authors needs a basic understanding of psychology. That can come either through study, or through personal experience, or through observation. As I’ve mentioned before in posts on this blog, I feel that a knowledge of Jungian psychological concepts is useful. Here for example is Carl Jung’s theory of Complexes.

A complex, as developed in the writings of  Jung, may be defined as “a core pattern of emotions, memories, perceptions and wishes in the personal unconscious organised around a common theme such as power or status.” The notion of a “complex” may even be misused in common speech: we may too readily hear of someone described as having an inferiority / guilt / martyr complex. But this can be fruitful for a creative writer; though it has to be handled with care.

1. An inferiority complex may lead your character to interpret everything in the light of this set of notions: “I’m not good enough,” “my opinions don’t count”; “I’m afraid to put myself forward”. Take P.G.Wodehouse as an example; see Jeeves and The Inferiority Complex of Old Sippy among numerous other stories. Here we often meet shy young men attempting to battle those who are louder, bigger, better-looking, more powerful and more self-confident, to win the girl they love.

2. Often,whether a fictional character displays a certain complex can be a matter of interpretation by the reader. I suggest a martyr complex may be behind the outlook and actions of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Tess behaves like a heroic martyr sacrificing herself. Many readers may feel Tess casts herself in the role of victim.

3. The guilt complex is used extensively in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Many characters experience intense guilt; but the exception to this is Smerdyakov who murders Fyodor yet does not blame himself; though he’s the only character technically guilty, he feels the least liability for it. Thus the author sheds light on some of his own religious questions and doubts.

So there’s plenty of inspiration here for fiction writers, as we  develop characters who will inspire love, pity, fury or even soul-searching in our readers. Our job is to create characters we know and care about as much as ourselves. As crime writer Martin Edwards says in his article on “Developing Characters and Their Relationships”,  “characters in books don’t exist in a vacuum, just as real people don’t. To create characters that seem to live and breathe, taking care over how they relate to other people in the story isn’t just a sensible idea. It’s absolutely vital.”  And if we try to let “principles” stand in the way of compassion & empathy, we can be sure our own stories will find us out!

The Novels We Love and Carl Jung’s Theory of the Collective Unconscious

Among his many theories, Carl Jung includes “the Collective Unconscious”. This “collects and organises personal experiences in a similar way with each member of the species.”  If we consider a book to which millions have responded in a similar positive way, for instance Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, we may then see that the story touches upon areas of human experience which are universal. This may be described as an author “touching the Spirit of the Age.”

Recently (and probably through the workings of synchronicity!) an explanation from Quantum Theory fell into my hands, from a scientist who told me he spent a lot of time in the past with a group of fellow-scientists discussing “Life, the Universe and Everything”.  He concluded that we have free will but are limited in what we do; using the analogy of a chess game, each piece has a limited freedom of movement. We are not aware of the existence of the laws which infuence our every action, and each individual in limited in a unique way.  Tolstoy understood this principle perfectly, reminding us in “War and Peace” that when we  learned the earth orbits the sun we had to surmount the sensation of unreal immobility in space. In just the same way he says, we must renounce a freedom that does not exist and recognise a dependence of which we are not conscious.

How can we see this working out  in some well-known stories? Let me suggest a few examples from my own fiction reading. 

1.  A thirst for truth – as exemplified by Winston Smith in George Orwell’s novel 1984. Winston Smith is a clerk in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth; truth is the central issue in this story and the reader instinctively knows it is being subverted. And that is why Winston Smith’s struggle to undermine the Party’s monopology on Truth has struck such a deep chord with so many.

2. A craving for intimacy – the 5-year old boy narrator of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room shares an intimacy with his mother which is ultimately broken after their escape from captivity. To me this paradox is central to the power of this novel.

3. A fear of death or the unknown: It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more, says Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter. It is worth noting that JK Rowling said she could never have written the Harry Potter books if it wasn’t for the fact that she loved her mother, and her mother died. This was clearly a persistent theme throughout Harry’s story.

I believe authors achieve this kind of power in their stories by working with the limited freedom of movement in their own lives and trusting themselves to the unconscious.

SC Skillman

How Can Carl Jung’s Theory of Complexes Help You in Your Creative Writing?

Among the writings of Carl Jung, we find the psychological concept of  “complexes”. A complex may be defined as “a core pattern of emotions, memories, perceptions and wishes in the personal unconscious organised around a common theme such as power  or status.”  Many of us have probably heard someone described as having an inferiority /  guilt / martyr complex.  And this can be fruitful for a creative writer; though it has to be handled with care.  

1.  An inferiority complex may lead your character to interpret everything in the light of this set of notions: “I’m not good enough,” “my opinions don’t count”; “I’m afraid to put myself forward”.  The comic writer P.G.Wodehouse makes good use of this complex in his stories, for example  Jeeves and The Inferiority Complex of Old Sippy. Those of us who love Wodehouse’s stories are well-used to the shy young men attempting to battle those who are louder, bigger, better-looking, more powerful and more self-confident, to win the girl they love.

 2. Often,whether a fictional character displays a certain complex can be a matter of interpretation by the reader. I suggest the martyr complex may be illustrated in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Tess behaves like a heroic martyr sacrificing herself. Many might feel, in reading this book, that Tess casts herself in the role of victim.

3. The guilt complex is used extensively in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Many characters experience intense guilt; but the exception to this widespread guilt complex is Smerdyakov who murders Fyodor yet does not blame himself; despite the fact that he’s the only character technically guilty, he feels the least liability for it. Thus Dostoyevsky sheds light on some of his own religious questions and doubts.

4) The power complex may operate in any area of life where someone is at the top of a hierarchical structure.Take, for example, pitiless schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times, who uses his power over young minds to fill them with facts and to stamp out all colour,adventure and magic from their lives; or even Aunt Reed in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, as she exercises what little power she finds in her life, over her vulnerable young niece.  

So there’s plenty of inspiration here for fiction writers, as we create characters who inspire love, pity, fury, fascinated horror, or even self-searching in our readers.   But be warned. Not too many characters with complexes, please (unless you are of the calibre of Dostoyevsky).  These characters must be balanced with at least one person who is calm and centred – in the interests of giving your novel authenticity!

SC Skillman

How Can Carl Jung’s Theory of Archetypes Help You in Your Creative Writing?

Among his many theories, Carl Jung includes “archetypes”. An archetype may be defined as “a universally understood symbol or term or pattern of behaviour”.  If you read Robert McKee’s Story, you will find that the key to writing a great novel lies in “building archetypal elements into the story.” So what exactly are these “archetypal elements”? And how exactly can they help creative writers?

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