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

Posts tagged ‘truth’

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

Review of “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green

I’ve just finished reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

The Fault in Our Stars book cover

The Fault in Our Stars book cover

This story of two young cancer “survivors” is a story that eats into your marrow. And if you haven’t seen the film or read the book, and would like to, don’t read on, for my review contains plot spoilers!

Even though I had already seen the film, and knew what was going to happen, I found the book itself utterly compelling. Two young people facing death every day with no religious belief in a conventional sense, told through the honest, sharp, hard-hitting viewpoint of Hazel Grace, a 16-year-old girl living on borrowed time, is very strong.

To me the most interesting character, however, is Peter Van Houten, the ghastly novelist who’s written a fantastic book and won the admiration of millions, yet is destroying himself with alcohol, throwing away all the value of what he’s achieved.

And the message within that particular subplot: don’t expect an author to be like/worthy of the book he/she writes.

The Fault In Our Stars also makes me realise how profoundly annoying sentimental pious language can be to non-religious people, especially in the crises of life; and that leads me to reflect on the power of language itself, and how words can build bridges or destroy, or create wars – as we constantly see in the history and in the current state of our world.

How powerful it was for Hazel to receive Augustus’s letter at the end – and how critical it was that they were Augustus’s own words, and not Peter Van Houten’s. That at least was one decision Van Houten made that was right – even out of his alcoholic haze.

And the story also poses the question: how true is Hazel Grace’s outlook on the world, from the point of view of a young person living with imminent death every day? Her cynicism is a refuge for her, a way of dealing with the pain and the horror of her situation, when even saying things that are horrible, is comforting.

Another thought arising from the story: in our Western society, we all talk so much rubbish around death, it’s frightening. There seems to be a conspiracy of not saying what you really think and feel – especially at religious funerals for non-religious people.

One of the saddest moments for me in the book and in the film was at Augustus’s funeral when Hazel decides to say all the anodyne things she knows her audience will like to hear, instead of saying what she truly feels and thinks about Augustus and his death.

I really do think religious language used carelessly and thoughtlessly at the most critical times of our lives can be a tyranny – when we use it as a mask and a means of self-deception, instead of a way of communicating the truth.

At the end of the story, what is left is love: the love Hazel and Augustus felt for each other despite knowing they had no future. That must be the single most important message of the book – the one impossible fact of love in the face of death.

The Fault in Our Stars and Poignant Reminders of Short Lives on Milverton Hill

Recently I went to see the film The Fault in Our Stars with my two teenage children. Based upon the book of the same name by John Green it was about two teenagers both diagnosed with terminal cancer, who form a relationship at a cancer support group, try to avoid falling in love because of their life-limiting illnesses, and then do fall in love, before one of them dies.

Old Milverton Churchyard 27 June 2014 (photo taken by SC Skillman)

Old Milverton Churchyard 27 June 2014 (photo taken by SC Skillman)

Abigail with Jeni the dog near Old Milverton Churchyard 27 June 2014 (photo taken by SC Skillman)

Abigail with Jeni the dog near Old Milverton Churchyard 27 June 2014 (photo taken by SC Skillman)

 

 

Along the way, many wise observations are made about life and death and mortality, and the way we handle death in this society, and our failure to speak the truth or be “real” in the presence of life-limiting illness.

This was such a poignant film, especially the scene in Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, where both are brought face to face with another teenager whose life was also cut short – for a very different reason.

Ruby Johnson's memorial plaque at Old Milverton Churchyard 27 June 2014 (photo taken by SC Skillman)

Ruby Johnson’s memorial plaque at Old Milverton Churchyard 27 June 2014 (photo taken by SC Skillman)

With this film in my mind, we recently made a walk up Milverton Hill to Old Milverton Church, near my home in Warwick, where there is a memorial plaque to Ruby Johnson (one of my daughter’s former fellow-pupils at school) who died of leukaemia in 2009 age 13.

Walking up this hill to Old Milverton Church is always poignant for me, because I now associate the summit of that hill, and that quiet churchyard, with Ruby’s lovely and touching memorial.

 

 

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