Maura McHugh came to Kells on Saturday to talk about writing for the visual media. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. When you think about it, it’s a topic as broad as it is tall. In fact, it wasn’t until Ms McHugh launched into her theme that I had a sense of just how vast the subject is.
Her stack of diplomas and degrees and MAs speak to her passion for the many facets of her subject. She has covered film studies and screen writing and history and, well, you get the picture. Pun intended. Likewise, she has dipped a toe into a vast range of visual-literary media from essays to films to comics. She is a self-confessed geek and you can only imagine what The Big Bang Theory gang would make of her leggy blonde brilliance should they encounter her in the comic book store. She was one of the first people ever to blog about technology, and it’s obviously something she still enjoys.
Her topic for the day was how integral the visual is to modern story telling. She started by reminding us how traffic signs communicate ideas, and then went back to prehistoric cave art. Then, moving through history, she demonstrated how the image has always had a place in storytelling.
Storytelling is an essential part of our lives. We are compelled to communicate because we are afraid of death and are awareness of our own impermanence. We may only have three score years and ten, but a story can live for centuries, or even millennia. She cited the Akkadian-Sumarian poet Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE) who is credited with creating the paradigms of prayers, poetry, and psalms that set the framework for parts of the bible. Ms McHugh quoted the following:
“Funeral offerings were brought, as if I had never lived there./ I approached the light, but the light scorched me./ I approached the shade, but I was covered with a storm./ My honeyed mouth became scummed. Tell An about Lugal-Ane and my fate!/ May An undo it for me!/ As soon as you tell An about it, An will release me.” — Enheduanna
Gorgeous, isn’t it? “My honeyed mouth became scummed.” Wow. If you want to know more about Enheduanna, start here.
We could have lingered there awhile, but there were centuries to cover.
Moving on through history, Ms McHugh spoke of the evolution of ‘sequential art’. Initially, these were connecting images that came without words, but over the passage of time, words were added and formed the basis of what are now comics. These are a logical progression in communication. Ms McHugh cited Marshall McLuhan, “Reading is an activity of rapid guessing because any word has so many meanings,” and, “The medium is the message.”
She concluded with a word of caution about collaboration in the arts. Once you bring in more people, you have less effect. Obviously, though, most comic book writers have to work with illustrators. Even those of us mere mortals who write novels have to contend with publishers and editors (I’m very lucky with mine, I’ll say no more.)
Maura McHugh is funny, smart and possesses a wealth of knowledge and experience. Her passion for her subject makes her an engaging speaker, especially when she goes off script. She made a very good stab at condensing an 8-week series (or even a whole PhD programme) into 50 minutes. She did what the best speakers do, she made you care about her subject and want to learn more.
Every year when the Hay Festival rolls around, I decry all the events I wasn’t able to attend. I’m glad this was one I didn’t miss. If you did miss it, I’d urge you to try to check out some of Maura McHugh’s work for yourself, or check out her own blog: Maura McHugh
In the meantime, I hope I did some justice to her dynamic presentation.