Disneyland with Books


Welcome to Kells

WELCOME TO KELLS. (Picture courtesy of the Hay Festival, Kells.)

Last year I volunteered at the Hay Festival in Kells and was lucky enough to be assigned to St Columba’s Church for the weekend.  How do I describe the church to you? Think old country churchyard. Now age it a couple more centuries. Add the remnants of four eleventh century Celtic crosses and a round tower from the same period. Now, you’ve got it.

It’s Ireland in less than an acre.

Kells, County Meath

Kells, County Meath

Into this serene scene streamed our guests: the speakers and the listeners.

Some of the visitors hadn’t planned to attend whatever event happened to be on at the time, but the location drew them in. Come for the tower, stay for the books. Could you blame them? The discussions on offer were fabulous. This is a small place, peaceful, so we didn’t have the rock star writers like Joe O’Connor. They were at the bigger venues, like the Headfort Arms. Instead, we had the poets and the historians, as befits so ancient and elegiac a site.

Being a volunteer, I sat at the back, keeping an ear out for people wanting information or looking to buy tickets, and all the while I listened to the experts talking about the difficulties of writing poetry in a minority language, or Ireland’s part in the First World War, or researching the historical background to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. Each was a revelation and a joy.

There was a family from Kent who were on holiday in Dublin and drove up to Kells for the day. They enjoyed themselves so much they stayed for the whole weekend. Oh the scenery is spectacular, and the books are magnificent, but it’s the people. You know?

I do.

Everywhere you went there were happy volunteers in bright blue tee-shirts giving directions, suggesting events or places to eat, or just sharing the joy of the occasion. You couldn’t walk down the street without hearing laughter or a book being quoted. (That’s my definition of Paradise, right there.)

A man wandered around the worn old tombstones in the churchyard and stopped to ask what event was up next. A discussion about the JFK assassination? Sounds interesting. So he stayed for that and for the lecture that followed too. Later, as a soft evening fell, he shook my hand and thanked me. Like I’d done it all myself: the tower and the sunshine and the books. “It’s been a day,” he said. He had that peaceful look of a man who’s just enjoyed a long massage. “This is some event. I’ll be back next year.” Then as he stepped down the path he turned and said, “It’s like Disneyland with books.”

The Hay Festival returns to Kells on June 25th to 28th.  You can get the full programme and tickets from www.hayfestival.com/kells . Tickets are also available in Kells from the Kells Chamber Office (Carrick Street) – 046 924 0055 – open from 9.30am to 5pm from Monday to Friday, and from Antonia’s Bookstore in Trim, County Meath on 046 943 7532.

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Beyond Talent and Technique


Let’s say you have an eye for design, colour, and composition. Friends and family all say you have plenty of talent. You’re too modest to admit it out loud, but, yeah, you know they’re right.

You spend a few years in art school, you’ve mastered your craft, and you’re ready to claim your prize: the biggest stakes in the arts’ world. But here’s the question: Are talent and technique enough?

No, not necessarily. The problem is even if you have innate talent and the sort of focus that means you spend years committing to the subject of your passion, there can still be factors that can hinder your path to success. What other components are essential not just for good artists, but great ones?

What lies beyond talent and technique?

Here are a few elements that I believe lie outside those things:

10,000 Hours

In his book Outliers,  Malcolm Gladwell posits the 10,000 hour rule. In a nutshell, this ‘rule’ says that excellence in any endeavour, whether it’s playing chess or sculpting in marble, requires a phenomenal amount of work before the individual achieves some degree of success.  “Achievement is talent plus preparation,” he says, and that’s a hard point to argue. Gladwell lists a number of examples and it’s hard to dispute his findings despite the lack of scientific research to back them up.

Genius needs technique, sure, but it also needs practice.

Thomas Edison, no mental slouch himself, was right when he said,

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.

Risk-taking

A couple of days ago, I watched a Sky Arts about the importance of failure in art. A lot of the examples cited had to do with talented painters taking chances. It didn’t always end well. Some of Da Vinci’s work started to erode during his lifetime because of the chances he took with new materials and techniques. Many of the Impressionists were derided because their work looked so slapdash. James Joyce shocked the literary world with much of his writing. (“Snot-green sea,” anyone?) But just slavishly following what went before may be clever and technically competent, but is it art? Is risk-taking a component of talent, or something beyond it?

Curiosity

The artist must be willing to experiment, to try new things, to ask questions and refuse to accept trite answers. School systems, at least in my experience, seem more invested in telling students “the facts”, rather than encouraging them to seek their own answers. My first day in university when I was told a third-level education was about research and discovery rather than fact gathering, I knew this was what I had longed for all my life.

I have read any number of interview with famous authors in which they have said, “I wanted to know more about XX, so I wrote a book in order to research it.” I’ve done it myself. When I sat down to write A Biased Judgement, I was curious about London society in that period where Victorian society was waning, and the modern world was starting to emerge. Likewise, a recently completed short story, The Ghost of Lincoln, was written because I wanted to know more about what happened after the president’s assassination.

Scientists experiment. So do artists. Writers play with ideas and language. We ask ourselves those “what if…?” questions and see where they lead us. Even if we end up at a brick wall, along the way we’ve had…

Fun!

Artists know how to enjoy themselves. I don’t mean shooting up or getting drunk (though I admit, those things are not unheard of in the world of creativity), but the really talented enjoy their work. OK, we may gripe and moan about hours spent at the keyboard, or at the easel, but there’s nowhere else we’d rather be. If you’ve read Ulysses, you’ll know it’s hilariously funny. Look at the paintings of Magritte or Dali and tell me those guys weren’t enjoying themselves. Watch Bruce Springsteen perform before a live crowd: These guys are having fun! The aforementioned 10,000 hours is nothing when you’re learning something new, living on the edge, and enjoying yourself. Really, it’s a wonder more of us don’t do it. Perhaps it’s because of…

Fear

On the road to fun you have to live with the chance of  failure. This comes with the risk-taking, of course. Think about it:  You spend years of your life toiling on a project with nothing but faith and hope keeping you going. You release it, the book, the song, the painting, and it’s greeted with derision. After his death, people discovered that JMW Turner had left many canvases that he never exhibited. The gilt of his reputation had oxidized and the public decreed his later work was that of a man in ‘senile decreptitude’. Only when the Impressionists appeared on the scene were Turner’s later works reevaluated and deemed to be works of genius. Shame that reversal came after his death.

Have Something to Say

Art exists within the confines of time and space. Yes, I know that’s obvious, but it’s amazing how many people seem to forget it. Blake painted and wrote about the changes he saw in the landscape as a result of the industrial revolution. The Impressionists responded to an increasingly electric world. More recent artists address the precarious nature of our modern society. Artists generally paint what they see around them. Would Lowry have succeeded if he’d gone to Arles? Would Van Gogh have made anything of Manchester? What if you sent El Greco to Norway? The same issues apply to writers and musicians. I’m not saying you have to make overtly political statements, but your work should reflect something of your town, city, country. Jane Austen famously ignored the French Revolution in her writings, but she wrote about her time and place nonetheless.

Concentration

The artist’s ability to focus on the project at hand is fundamental. You cannot write a novel, or even a piece of flash-fiction without being able to keep your eyes on the task. The same goes for painting, sculpture, and music.

Preparing a Fertile Ground for Creativity

Some things even the most talented artist cannot do without:

Tools

Imagine having the talent to be a great sculptor, but never having access to the materials or tools. Imagine having the potential to become one of the greatest concert pianists of all time – but you don’t have a piano and don’t know anyone who owns one.

This is a long way of saying, you must have the tools to do the job.

Time

You also have to have time. Time to concentrate, time to focus. I find that any break from writing making it extremely difficult to get back to it. Days of trying to hush my brain down, to relearn how to focus. It’s very hard for mothers of young children to succeed as artists. Single parents. People whose circumstances demand they hold down 2 or 3 jobs. How can you create when you’re exhausted, or frazzled, or both?

Solitude and Privacy

A room of one’s own, as Virginia Woolf said, is essential to being an artist. Yes, Jane Austen seems to have managed without, but most of us need space to create, to make our mistakes, to swear at the keyboard or the canvas. Being able to shut the door and close out the world is essential, at least some of the time. Art does not thrive in the presence of backseat artists or writers.

Good health

Yes, Degas sculpted when his vision failed beyond his ability to paint. Virginia Woolf wrote despite the emotional demons that plagued her. Freda Kahlo painted her pain and suffering onto every canvas. All the same, the artistic life is hard enough without adding infirmities into the mix. Not saying it’s impossible, but try sculpting if you have intractable back pain.

Desire

If you had to distill success in art–or anything else, really–down to one element, it would surely be desire. You must be driven. You must be willing to pay the price, to work through the pain, the isolation, the doubt. You must want this more than anything.

The heights by great men reached and kept
      Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
      Were toiling upward in the night. — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
There’s no doubt, the creative life can be a very hard one. So why do we do it?

In his book, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that, “Most of the things that are interesting, important, and human are the results of creativity.” He further suggests that creativity, “when we are involved in it, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.”

So, if you’re thinking of becoming an artist, as long as you have talent and technique, you will probably do be fine. Well, give or take 10,000 hours.

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Seeking the Bubble Reputation


2017 is the 130th anniversary of the publication of A Study in Scarlet, the first recorded adventure of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson.A Study in Scarlet

What an amazing journey it’s been! In addition to the pitifully few sixty tales originally presented in The Canon, published between 1887 and 1927, there have been literally thousands of additional Holmes adventures in the form of books, short stories, radio and television episodes, movies, manuscripts, comics, and fan fiction. And yet, for those who are true friends and admirers of the Master Detective of Baker Street, where it is always 1895 (or a few decades on either side of that!) these stories are not enough. Give us more!

In 2015, The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories burst upon the scene, featuring stories set within the correct time period, and written by many of today’s leading Sherlockian authors from around the world. Those first three volumes were overwhelmingly received, and there were soon calls for additional collections. Since then, the popularity has only continued to grow. Two more volumes were released in 2016, and this the first of two planned for 2017 – with no end in sight! The thirty-five stories in this volume – now bringing the total number of narratives and participating authors in this series to well over one-hundred! – represent some of the finest new Holmesian storytelling to be found, and honor the man described by Watson as “the best and wisest … whom I have ever known.” All royalties from this collection are being donated by the writers for the benefit of the preservation of Undershaw, one of the former homes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

MX Vol VII’m delighted and honoured to have a story included in this anthology. Not just because the cause–the preservation of Undershaw–is one dear to my heart, but because it’s such a thrill to be included in a volume with the likes of Derrick Belanger, Hugh Ashton, Marcia Wilson, Tracy Revels, Molly Carr, David Ruffle, David Marcum, Tim Symonds, and so many others of my heroes.

My story The Bubble Reputation was inspired in part by a conversation I had with editor David Marcum. He likes my Sherlock Holmes novels but, purist that he is, takes issue with my having the temerity to give the great man a wife. I decided to have a little fun and the story begins with the following:

Over breakfast one late May morning, I peered through the pages of The Pall Mall Magazine and released a loud snort. “Well,” I said, “this is one of the most preposterous stories I’ve read in a long time.” I handed the journal to Sherlock Holmes.

He chuckled. “Well, as someone once said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” He skimmed the offending article and tossed the journal back to me without further comment.

“It is outrageous, Holmes,” I cried. “You should sue.”

“Tut, Watson, you make too much of a trifle. The story is ludicrous, to be sure, but there is no harm in it.”

I was, I confess, irked that he did not share my sense of outrage. It galled my sensibilities to see the press circulate a story that was an utter fabrication. Insinuating my friend had a secret wife; indeed, a string of female companions. Outrageous! As I attacked my kippers, I reflected that Holmes had been the subject of a number of preposterous rumours since I published my first story about him. My Study in Scarlet made him a hero in the eyes of many, and that image was enhanced by subsequent tales. I suppose I may have had something to do with creating that impression since it was a view I shared. Despite his vices, he remained in my estimation the very best of men. Suggesting my friend was an opium addict, a Don Juan, or a government spy seemed beyond the pale…

The story that follows continues in the same tongue-in-cheek vein. Do check out the new MX anthology. You can find more here.

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Group Soup


Recently, a few of my writing friends and I got talking about writers’ groups and our experiences with them. Some of us have been members of a variety of similar organisations and assemblies over the years, and we agree that finding one that works can be tricky. All the ingredients need to be there, and in the right amounts.

What Works

It should be the right size:

In my writers’ group, we have about six regulars with about 3-4 others who come when they can. Too few people and the gatherings become predictable and monotonous. Too many and people don’t get heard. You also need a group that fits the venue. You don’t want to be too cramped together, but neither do you want to hear an echo when you talk. What can I say? Size matters.

A safe and nurturing environment:

We don’t have any harsh critics in our group, thank goodness. Feedback is positive and constructive. We have all learned over the years that just one nasty individual can shatter your self-confidence, which for many writers is a fragile thing to begin with. Of course, it is important that feedback is  honest, but how that feedback is delivered is important, too.

Variety:

Sometimes we write short exercises during the evening, but not always. Sometimes I offer instruction on something related to writing: developing character, planning a plot, word choice, and so forth. As the professional writer who has, incidentally, taught creative writing classes, the role of tutor usually falls to me. I don’t do this all the time, though. For one thing, I don’t always have time to prepare, and also sometimes I prefer to be just one of the gang rather than the leader.

If someone has just written a piece, we encourage them to share it. If they are struggling to get a story finished, we’ll offer suggestions. It’s lovely seeing everyone trying to help a fellow writer. The point is, we try to keep things lively and slightly unpredictable. Just enough to make it fun. Creativity does not flourish in a routine and predictable environment.

Engagement:

Getting everyone to participate can take time and no one should be coerced into participating. By the same token, no one should be ignored, either. Some would-be writers like to listen to what’s going on for a few sessions before they are ready to share their work or comment on the writing of others. Until they’re ready to read, we try to encourage them to participate in the discussions, but there’s never any pressure.

Democratic:

Although I often facilitate, I’m happy to let someone else lead. If a decision needs to be made (about attending a function, for instance), everyone’s voice is heard and majority rules. I believe this works because our newest members seem very happy, and heard. It’s easy in any group situation for the old timers to dominate. We’ve been here longest so our opinion counts the most, seems to be the attitude. In fact, new people often inject new energy and ideas into any situation. Why would you want to stifle them?

Information:

My group meets in the library and the staff are great about keeping us up to date about local events or competitions we might enjoy. The members also share news and updates. Bringing our work to the outside world helps us stretch, gives us deadlines and objectives, and serves as a reminder that writing is meant to be read. We also share articles about writing and writers and the world of publishing.

All these elements–and I’m sure you can think of many more–make for a dynamic and supportive group. However, speaking broadly, here are some things that can scupper even your best efforts.

What Hinders

Cliques:

Listen, it happens. Friendships are fine, but beware of power struggles and hidden agendas.

Lack of focus:

Although my group sometimes takes forays into poetry away from our usual fiction, we never wander too far afield. One of our members reports that his previous group shattered when a few members decided they wanted to focus on poetry exclusively, thereby alienating the fiction writers. Our general attitude is, if you want to write it, we’re willing to read it and offer suggestions. That includes memoirs, articles, and plays. We are, however, a fiction group and that seems to suit us.

Hyper-sensitivity and hyper-criticism:

As a member, it’s important to accept criticism in the spirit intended. Only rank amateurs insist they need never rewrite anything. A good critique is the greatest gift one writer can give another. As noted above, the way criticism is delivered requires tact and a positive attitude, but how its received matters, too.

Why you need a writers’ group

Companionship:

Writing is a lonely job. Hearing only your own voice (or imaginary voices), can be limiting. Being able to bounce ideas off your peers is hugely helpful. It’s good, too, to remember there are others toiling late at night just as you are.

Motivation to keep writing:

It’s so easy to just give up. This is the comment I hear most frequently at my group: Without ‘homework’ to do, many fellow writers would have stopped writing ages ago. They also see how their writing grows and develops as a result of the feedback they receive. Sometimes, too, seeing the mistakes others make can show them how to avoid making those errors themselves.

Even the greats swear by them:

It’s not only amateurs who find writers’ groups helpful. Ursula K Le Guin, Chuck Palahniuk, and Louisa May Alcott all belong, or belonged, to groups. JRR Tolkein and CS Lewis formed Inklings. There are many other examples. Look for a writers’ group in your area. Or if there isn’t one, get one started. Just make sure to bring the right ingredients.

typewriter-holiday1

 

 

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Take It to the Limit


In last week’s post The Second-Trickiest Question to Ask a Writer I briefly pondered this question: does art have limits? There are no easy answers, perhaps no answers at all, and I wanted to savour it a while. Over the past week, I’ve returned to it several times. I still have no answers, but I don’t think big topics necessarily demand answers. What matters is we think about them.

One of the reasons this specific question is so hard to answer is because it’s hiding behind an even bigger topic: What is art? After all, you must be able to define art before you can decide if it should be limited, right? Or do you limit art merely by defining it?

Some visual artists have challenged our concepts by offering up a urinal (Duchamp),

Related image

Banksy’s unframed art

spattered paint (Pollock), or an unmade bed (Emin). This is art, they say, and the ‘experts’ seem to agree with them. Then again, there are artists like Banksy who scoff at the galleries’ concept of art by taking their work to the street. Literally.

There’s an adage that health care workers learn on day one: “Pain is what the patient feels.” By the same token, you could argue that art is what the artist claims it is. If I fling the contents of my dinner plate onto a canvas, it’s art if I say it is. Right?

Let’s take it in a different direction. Think of the most chocolate-box type of painting you can. Thomas Kincaid’s pictures come to mind. Now, is that art? I’m not asking if you like it, only if it meets the criteria of art. What about music? I think most of us would agree that Beethoven’s symphonies are art, but what about the Beatles’ “Hey Jude”? What about rap?

When Ravi Shankar played at the Concert for Bangladesh, the audience applauded after he finished tuning his sitar. Shankar said, “If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.” What was the difference between the tuning or the playing? Was it simply the inexperienced ears of the mostly western audience that misled them? Which brings me to another question: who gets to decide if something is or is not art?

Many artists would insist that they alone have the right to make that determination. On the face of it, that would seem only fair. After all, who else knows the heart of the artist but the artist himself? Then again, that sets up the art-appreciating public to deal with a hell of a lot of, yes, rubbish. What about the professional critics?

Former Sotheby’s chairman Peter Wilson said: “You have to covet art to appreciate it.” Being willing to spend money on a piece does seem to shift its importance in our minds, and give it a value, albeit a monetary one. We are far more willing to defend a piece as ‘art’ if we’ve coughed up some dough for it.

Visual arts tend to be granted more latitude than the literary variety. A painter can fill a canvas with muddy stripes and get paid a fortune for it, but were a novelist to produce a book that contained one word repeated 80,000 times, she might feel justified in calling it a novel, but I can’t imagine many people would agree.

But what about our original question: Should art have limits? My opinion is a decided… it depends.

The no limits argument:

Art should not be hamstrung by convention, by public taste, or by censorship. An artist must be free to explore the universe and their own hearts without fear of retribution. Furthermore, who is better placed than the artist himself to declare what art is? The audience–like the people who attended the Concert for Bangladesh–can hardly be considered insightful critics.

The “But art needs limits” argument:

There are some things you cannot, or should not do, even in the name of art. Art doesn’t give you the right to harm other people, for instance. Snuff films may be deemed by their creators as all sorts of good, but if the cost is a human life then I don’t know what it is, but it ain’t art. Spreading hate and bigotry have no place in art (or anywhere else), in my opinion.

Art thrives on limits. History is replete with examples of artists who had to work within the confines of ill health, mental illness, poverty, and a disdainful public. No, these aren’t ideal circumstances in which to create, but a true artist will not be held back by them.

Artists can get away with breaking some rules, but surely they need to follow some. Failure to do so will baffle the reader, listener, audience. The artist may sneer and cry that the audience is too stupid to understand their vision, but surely the artist bears some responsibility for ensuring their message gets across. Shouldn’t art communicate? Or am I limiting it by suggesting it do so? What do you think?

Absence of Limitations

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The Second-Trickiest Question to Ask a Writer


Cheever QuoteThe first is, of course, the tedious, “Where do you get your ideas?” But the second is almost as tricky: “Who do you write for?”

This is the question that separates the goats from the sheep… Or the professionals from the amateurs.

Most successful writers have given this subject careful thought. Why? Because the professional knows how important it is to have a focus for their fiction. Many writers have a demographic in mind: middle-class, 30-45 years of age, mostly female, etc., but some have created one specific reader and can describe him or her with the sort of detail a forensic psychologist would envy: His name is Geoffrey with a G. He’s 49, divorced, with two children. He is a podiatrist and he’s tired of all the foot doctor jokes. His favourite colour is burgundy and he drinks Bud Light. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia and is a registered Democrat…

The non-professional writer very often has no idea who his reader is. The very question of readership leaves him perplexed, even uncomfortable. They don’t understand the point. Art is just art, right? If I write for myself, other people will get it. In fact, some writers will claim that having a specific audience in mind limits them. Limiting yourself is bad, they claim. Art should have no limits.

Let’s think about that for a moment. Art should have no limits. Is this true?

I could meander down a convoluted avenue of thoughts here about the nature of art and the dabbler versus, say, Jackson Pollock. Best mate Jane would say Pollock is a dabbler. Plebeian! But for the purpose of this article, I want to stay focused on writing and the intended reader. (I’ll return to the subject of art and limitations at a later date, though.)

Writing is communication which, by its very nature, requires more than one person. Your dotty Aunt Agatha who talks to herself when she walks down the street isn’t communicating. Now, you may argue if someone interrupts the flow of Aunt Agatha’s monologue and starts a conversation with her it becomes communication. True. But you must see that it only becomes meaningful if a second party is brought in.

When you sit down to write a letter, you’re thinking of the recipient, right? That’s true even of emails. When a screenwriter pitches a movie or a TV series to a production company, she has to know who’ll be watching. The whole idea behind, “This is Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the 21st century….” suggests the intended audience is the same demographic who loved Buffy. When Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to Desilu Studios, he described it as “Wagon Train to the stars.” He was suggesting that people who loved the old western series would thrill to see the same themes–exploration, survival in a hostile environment, etc.–in outer space. Again, it’s the same demographic.

So, why does it matter? Think of it this way: If your usual reader is a very conservative woman from the bible belt in her sixties; she’s probably not going to care for your kinky bedroom jokes. Then again, if you’re writing for hip boys and girls who are exploring their sexuality, they may not like your hero being a 50-something fire and brimstone preacher.  The audience matters. Don’t kid yourself otherwise.

Last week at my writers’ group I asked the question: “So, gang, who do you write for?” The question resulted in lots of staring at the floor and shuffling of feet. Then a few moments later, one of our older members started talking about her childhood of self-harm, depression and despair. She began to write, she said, because the alternative for her was suicide. Her admission unleashed a stream of similar confessions. A man who has only been with us a few weeks revealed he had gone through a period of mutism as a child, and writing literally helped him to find his voice. Another admitted that writing was so essential a part of her life she no longer tried to explain it. She just knew she needed it. Writing, it seemed, was a lifeline for almost everyone.

None of these answers were what I expected. I didn’t return to the original question because what emerged and the subsequent conversation were far more interesting. Still, I would have liked an answer. I asked the question, not because I like ruffling feathers (well, much), but because I was genuinely curious and because I wanted them to think about the subject. I’ve noticed even in our little group there is a widely diverse attitude towards the craft. There’s the man who writes witty tales and poems, but cannot be bothered to rewrite. He doesn’t care about being published. He just likes being with other writers and having us laugh at his pieces. Then there’s the woman who sees the writers’ group as a social event. If we were knitting or painting teapots it wouldn’t make much difference to her. One writer is also an artist and she sees writing as part of her creative journey.  The primary thing most of these people have in common is that connecting with an audience is of less interest to them than unraveling the knot inside themselves. The only reader they are interested in is themselves.

But of course, all of their answers didn’t really answer the question. I didn’t ask my little group why do you write; I asked, “who do you write for?” Their replies made it obvious they write exclusively for themselves. What’s curious is not one of them ever seems to have considered the reader. Now, obviously, the writer’s first audience is herself. We write the books or stories we want to read. But the professional never forgets that eventually strangers will read his or her work.

In a New York Times article, author and Nobel Prizewinner Orhan Pamuk said,

Writers write for their ideal reader, for their loved ones, for themselves or for no one. All this is true. But it is also true that today’s literary writers also write for those who read them. From this we might infer that today’s literary writers are gradually writing less for their own national majorities (who do not read them) than for the small minority of literary readers in the world who do. New York Times

Pamuk’s comments about why we write are as insightful and eloquent as you can imagine. In fact, don’t imagine. Go and read what he has to say. I promise you, the time will be well spent.

For me, the line, “writers also write for those who read them,” is one of the most meaningful. We may write for ourselves first and foremost, but we want to be able to share our work with others. Perhaps that’s your mother or spouse or members of your writing group, but we need that validation to keep going.

Sometimes new writers are urged to imagine their ideal reader. For me, this is someone who is intelligent, has good taste, and reads carefully. She (or he) gets my jokes, loves my writing, but always wants me to strive for greatness. My ideal reader has an eye for the carefully-crafted sentence, but also appreciates the big picture.

Alas, as Pamuk concludes:

There is no such thing as an ideal reader, free of narrow-mindedness and unencumbered by social prohibitions or national myths, just as there is no such thing as an ideal novelist. But a novelist’s search for the ideal reader – be he national or international – begins with the novelist’s imagining him into being, and then by writing books with him in mind.

There may be no such thing as the ideal reader (though best mate Jane comes close), but we still need to imagine such a person. Writing is a solitary activity and requires the writer to be in their heads most of the time. But the thing we write has to connect with other people. As John Cheever says, it’s like a kiss. It needs other people.

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The Small Bang Theory


Prayer

Prayer: GJ Schear pastel on board

Some time ago, we talked about dead or seriously ill projects. Today I want to look at the other end of the process: how are stories born?

You’ve no idea how badly I’d love to jump up and say, “Like this!” Alas, no one knows. Not really.

There are theories, of course. I’ll give you the high points of a few, but this isn’t intended to be a psychological treatise. If you want to know more about the theories that follow, please refer to the original authors.

  1. The psychological theory. This suggests that creative people are conditioned by their circumstances or repressed emotions. A troubled past can be parlayed into a creative present. All the biggies of the psychoanalytical world liked this one – Freud, Jung, Adler, etc. All the same, I’m not sure I buy it. While it’s true many people with troubled backgrounds have become writers or artists, it’s also true that many creative people are well adjusted. By the same token, a great number of troubled people become criminals or politicians. Just because you’ve had a ‘troubled’ childhood, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll become a creative genius.
  2. The mental illness theory suggests you cannot become truly creative unless you possess some form of mental illness. Briggs, Eisenman, Goodwin, etc. were keen on this notion. I’ve known some mentally ill people in my time, but very few of them were truly creative. Destructive, yes. But creative? Not so much. As with pretty much everything else, there are exceptions.
  3. Psychosis: You can thank Eysenck for this notion that a creative person exists somewhere between “normality” (whatever that is), and psychosis. This theory doesn’t have many adherents. It doesn’t have a clear definition and the only test for it was devised by Eysenck himself. Psychologists tend to be sceptical of theories that have no clear cut impartial tests to support them.
  4. Addiction: This idea suggests that the artist is inspired by drugs or alcohol. At least up to the moment they overdose or die of cirrhosis. In fact, most pharmacologists say that the creative process is actually inhibited by chemical substances. The addiction theory is supported by Lapp, Collins, etc. I have to admit, there are a fair number of creative people whose lives suggest there is some truth to this theory. Hemingway, Brendan Behan, Ken Kesey have all subscribed to the “better living through chemistry” notion. At least up to their premature deaths. Then again, Arthur C Clark, Anna Quindlen, and Franz Kafka are / were all teetotalers.
  5. The Humanistic Theory, which follows Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs and is broken down by Maslow into three components: Primary Creativity (a simple release of energy in spontaneous drawing, singing, etc.); Secondary Creativity (requiring more thought and planning); and Integrated Creativity is the combination of the spontaneous and the planning. I would suggest that most of the great works of art, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, any of Beethoven’s concertos, Michelangelo’s Pieta were the result of integrated creativity. Maslow, Rogers and Fromm support this theory and it does seem to appeal to me more than the others. Maybe I just resist the idea of being mentally unbalanced or an addict.

There are dozens of other ideas, such as gestalt–see Max Wertheimer (1945), for instance–and Grof (1988) sees divine inspiration behind the artist’s spark of creativity.

That said, none of these theories tells us where our spark actually comes from. Is it just the way our neurons fire in our brains, or is there something else going on?

Scientists tell us the universe was formed as the result of a ‘big bang’. I’m going to suggest that the genesis of any creative endeavour begins with a small bang. A squib, almost.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY A CREATIVE SPARK?

I am hugely fortunate to have been inside such moments. I know what it’s like to have an idea burst open in my brain, showering me with golden images. If you’ve never experienced anything of the sort yourself, the nearest I can come to explaining it is it’s like love at first sight. One minute, you’re getting on with your day. Everything is both hunky and dory, then BAM! This vision captures you and you are spellbound. Or, to put it another way, it’s like the beginning of The Wizard of Oz. Everything in Kansas is black and white, but once we get to Oz we’re in technicolor. Being inside the creative moment is technicolor.

It’s not always like that, of course. In fact, that sort of Oh, Wow! moment is incredibly rare. Most of our creative energies are sparked in a far more prosaic manner. The “What-if” questions that generate possibilities. There’s still a mysterious alchemy at work, of course, it’s just not quite as showy.

We’re not just talking about the next great novel or a magnificent painting, either. Such creative sparks can come when we are problem solving. One of the most famous moments of brilliant insight is in the story of Archimedes. He’s sitting there in his bath trying to figure out how to determine the weight of gold and silver in a wreath made for Hieron, and the answer comes to him in a flash. Or, more accurately, in the displacement of water in his tub. “Eureka!” he cried (probably the ancient Greek form of “Bingo!”) and went running naked through the streets. OK, the story is probably apocryphal, but my point is creativity takes many forms and sudden insight is earth-shattering, ground-breaking, and volcanic. The reason the Archimedes story has lasted for these last several millennia is because it feels true. And amusing, but I digress…

PREPARING TO ACCEPT THE SPARK

We may not be able to say where that spark comes from, but we can probably draw a few conclusions that may help you next time you’re trying to generate an idea or solve a problem:

Answers and ideas come from the subconscious mind. Its workings are indeed mysterious, but there are ways to access it without resorting to the chemistry set.

Fix a routine

If you show up at the same time on a regular basis looking for answers or inspiration, your subconscious will start cooperating with you. I know this may sound a bit airy-fairy, but it really does work. Try it for a month. Sit for 30 minutes every day for the same time and write down whatever thoughts come to your mind. Paint or doodle or pick out tunes on the piano or your guitar. Just showing up is half the battle.

Try to be consistent about your environment

If you can’t find a quiet space at home, then use the park or the library or your garage. OK, I’ll grant you getting your piano into the park may require a bit of effort… The important thing is you are in a relaxing environment where you can listen to the voice in your head. NOT the one telling you to put rat poison in your colleagues coffee.

If possible, find a group of like-minded people that you can meet on a regular basis

Writers groups and art clubs can offer inspiration, encouragement and advice. Be aware of the dangers, though: Don’t mistake such groups as an alternative to your own work, don’t hang out if the environment is toxic (ie full of people who mock you or put down your efforts), and move on if the group is purely social and doesn’t focus enough on the artistic side of things.

Diversify

If your primary interest is writing, try to take up a paintbrush or a guitar. If you paint, try music or photography. Many famous actors also write or paint; da Vinci designed gadgets and studied anatomy. Exploring other areas of the arts can fire up different parts of your brain and may well stimulate your own area of interest.

Lose the guilt

Don’t let anyone try to tell you that your work is without value or that your pursuit of the arts is something to be ashamed of. Writer /Singer / Actor Kris Kristofferson was disowned by his family for following his dreams. He was inspired by the writings of William Blake:

< Blake> was such a passionate artist and he believed that it was his duty, because God made him that way, to be a creative poet. He said “If he who is organised by the divine for spiritual communion refuse and bury his talent in the earth, even though he should want natural bread, sorrow and desperation will pursue him throughout life, and after death shame and confusion are faced to eternity.” So for a young guy who wanted to be an artist it was a perfect inspiration.                                                                                                                                                                     — KRIS KRISTOFFERSON

Find your inspiration

We are all inspired by different things, the trick is to identify those things that make your heart pump a little faster. Wordsworth swooned at the sight of daffodils (so he said), and Blake was inspired by social injustice and the evolution of the industrial age. The point is, find that thing that makes you cheer, or cry, or shout. Find it and nurture it. Passion will find its outlet eventually.

I’m lucky in that I get inspired pretty easily. I know that I am inspired by other artists. Every year at the Hay Festival I discover any number of story ideas. Being in a creative environment stimulates me. Excellence in others, whether it’s an extraordinary painting or a piece of music or a novel, jangles me and makes me hungry to get to work. The more exceptional the talent, the greater my thirst for creation.

I should confess that hosts of daffodils, be they ever so golden, do nothing for me. I’m seldom inspired to write an ode about the sunrise, or the sunset for that matter. Chaim Topol singing Sunrise, Sunset… well, that’s another matter.

Understanding creativity is a fascinating topic. Well, to me. If you are curious and would like to know more, here is a short list of books that are worth exploring:

Arieti, Silvano, (1976). Creativity The Magic Synthesis. New York: Basic Books.

Barron, F., (1988). Putting creativity to work. In Robert J. Sternberg (Ed.). The nature of Creativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Dacey, John S., (1989). Fundamentals Of Creative Thinking. Lexington Mass: Lexington.

Grof, Stanislav, (1988). The Adventure of Self-Discovery. Albany: State Univ. of New York.

Harman, Willis, & Rheingold, Howard, (1984). Higher Creativity. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher.

Koestler, Arthur, (1964). The Act of Creation. London: Arkana.

Mahler, M. S., Pine, F., and Bergman, A. (1975). The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant. New York: Basic Books.

Maslow , Abraham H., (1962). The Creative Attitude. San Jose Ca.: Psychosynthesis Distribution . (Reprinted from The Structurist 3, 1963. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: University of Saskatchewan, 8th National Assembly of the Canadian Society for Education Through Art)

Maslow , Abraham H., (1968). Toward A Psychology of Being. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

May, Rollo, (1975). The Courage To Create. Toronto: Bantam.

Perkins D. N., (1988). The possibility of invention. In Robert J. Sternberg (Ed.). The nature of Creativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Taylor, C. W., (1988). Approaches to and definitions of creativity. In Robert J. Sternberg (Ed.). The nature of Creativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University. 118-119.

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Coming to your senses: How to use sensory input to enhance your fiction writing


Albert Einstein Senses Quote

Stop. Close your eyes. Breathe. Now, listen.

What do you hear? Listen. Really listen. What are the closest sounds you hear? Conversation? Birdsong? Rainfall? What sounds are further away? Children playing down the street? The hum of traffic?

Now, inhale. What do you smell? Your own perfume? The flowers in the garden? The coffee in your half-full cup? Keep breathing and inhaling. Like sounds, scents have layers. What is underneath the top layer of odour to what lies beneath?

With your eyes still closed, reach out your hands and see what they touch. The smooth surface of glass or your desk? The wool of your jumper?

What is the taste in your mouth? Toothpaste? Coffee? Cigarettes?

Now open your eyes and look at whatever is in front of you. Don’t look to the side. Just focus on the objects immediately in your line of vision. Now close your eyes and picture what you saw, the colours, dimensions, and placement of each thing.

What does all this have to do with writing, you ask. Well, it teaches you something about being ‘in the moment’, something all writers should know.

Now that you have spent a short time using your senses, try to describe each of your observations in words. How do you relate the texture of sounds to a reader? Or the way something feels?

Take it to the next step. Go for a walk and try to make the same observations. When you come home, write about what you saw, felt, tasted, touched. Write about the way rain feels on your face, or wind in your hair. What does chocolate taste like? Describe the sound of running water.

Of course, your senses function differently depending on your emotional state. The way you observe when you are sitting in your living room, relaxed and peaceful, will be very different from a walk in the town with a friend or hike through the countryside when you’re upset. Likewise, a person in love will be hypersensitive to sensory input while a person who is angry blots out almost everything but the object of their anger.

What matters is you make your writing personal to you. Make it real for your reader. And anchor your characters in the real world. One that occasionally smells bad, tastes funny, or, sometimes, blows you away with its grandeur.

Get used to noticing. Get used to turning those observations into words, into pithy, unexpected phrases. Go on. You know it makes sense.

 

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