Tag Archives: non-fiction

Love

It may have a lot to do with the shortcomings of the English language, but love remains an unspeakably tricky subject to talk about, in fiction and non-fiction alike. Sex is fairly easy to write about, because there’s plenty of describable stuff going on there – your main risk is that it will get dull. Sex described on a page can be startlingly un-erotic. The emotional side is a lot more awkward. Rare is the occasion when you can get away with ‘and then they fell in love with each other and that was all good’. Where love features in fiction, you end up trying to convey what it’s like, and here commences the problem.

Pretty much the only way to talk about love, is to talk about what it’s like. There’s very little direct language available for that heady rush of sentiment and the cocktail of chemicals underpinning it. In non-fiction you can talk about oxytocin, endorphins, bonding processes and other sensible sounding things. Readers of romance tend not to be impressed by this, not that I write romance very often…  So we talk about what love is like, borrowing the language of any activity that makes sense to us. “Your passion’s the furnace, her body’s the coal, and love is the steel to be tempered and pressed,” is a favourite of mine, from an Archie Fisher song. Mostly we talk about love only by talking about something else entirely. When talk about divine love depends on reference to human sexual love, that can all get decidedly weird…

With the non-fiction hat on, it’s possible to talk about what love does – how it affects our choices, interacts with compassion, inspiration and ethics. With this approach we don’t talk about love as an experience, but we may think about what it means in terms of what we do.

Poetry can get interesting, not least because it invites certain assumptions. A poem about love always looks like a poem about a person you are in love with, not an expression of the experience. I’ve had a few rounds of people assuming I’d written things about Tom that are much more about me. It is all too easy to mistake the inspiration of love for the experience of love. Whatever is inspired within me, is mine, and I have learned not to lay that on other people too much. At the same time, without someone inspiring me, certain kinds of inspiration do not happen at all. Inspiration and love run close together for me, and on the whole inspiration is much easier to talk about.

Our capacity for love underpins our capacity for co-operation, which in turn makes much of what we do possible. It’s allegedly an almost universal experience, and yet we have no easy way of talking about it.


Reading poetry

Reading is a skill that goes far beyond assembling symbols into sounds and letter clusters into words. Being able to infer and read between the lines, and also knowing when to take the words at face value. Placing historical context from language, assessing characters from speech – I think we learn how to be better humans by learning how to be better readers. But then, I’m an author so I’m probably biased.

In the last few months I’ve been trying to become a reader of poetry. That’s brought up a number of challenges. I’ve got plenty of great poetry – that bit was easy. How to approach a book of poetry? If I sit down and read page after page, as I might with fiction, or non-fiction, it doesn’t quite work. I need to pause more often, at the very least. There’s usually no continuity between poems, so there’s no momentum to move one to the next, none of the ‘page turning’ effect so popular in genre fiction. A lot of poems I end up reading two or three times – something I seldom do with sections of prose writing. Sometimes, having read them silently, I feel the need to read them out loud.

I find it isn’t possible to consume poetry in the same way that I would other writing. It requires me to slow down, to think, to sip rather than gulping. I have to think differently as well. There is no scope to lose myself in a plot or an alternative reality for any length of time. I don’t read much epic poetry, and I find shorter work draws me back to the moment and requires me to think a bit more about how what I’ve read relates to everything else.

We expect fiction to make narrative sense and provide us with recognisable characters who are doing things. Non-fiction is equally required to offer coherence and also clear meanings. Poetry is not obliged to do any of this. There may be meanings to discover, obfuscated by layers of symbolism, and metaphor. Sometimes those aren’t apparent. Sometimes it is the experience of the sounds and words that seems to matter most, the emotional impact of the moment, not an intellectual unravelling of clues. In this way, poetry is a lot more like life than other forms of writing. Life seldom announces its meanings or intended direction.

How to do it? How to set aside the right amount of time to read a poem or two well, and not fall into the trap of trying to read a poetry book like any other kind of book. How to make that part of life? How to engage with these words without trying to gobble them up? How to slow down enough. A life with poetry in it is clearly very different from a life without poetry, and learning to be a reader may be going to take me a while.


The life of a book

No two books happen in quite the same way. However, people who don’t write, and people who are trying to can have a lot of unhelpful misconceptions about what they, and others, should be doing and how it *should* work. This is true for any creative form, and also for spiritual paths. What we get, is our own journey.

Last summer I started thinking about a book. I had a working title (Her Other Life) since abandoned. It was going to be a Steampunk Time Travel novel. (It isn’t.) I had a few thoughts about characters. Then I moved house, so no actual writing happened.
In the autumn I read Molly Scott Cato’s fascinating book ‘The Bioregional Economy’ and that got me round to thinking more about dystopian futures. A prompt from Theo had me thinking about technology, and some actual technology developments confirmed this for me. Not a word had been written.

I handwrite all of my first drafts for books. However, I’m fussy about my notebooks, because a poor paper quality or a bad cover can be off-putting. I therefore can’t start a project until the right notebook turns up. In October, I found the perfect notebook for a non-fiction project I had also been pondering, so I started work on that one.

About half way through November, with others stacking up their NaNoWriMo counts, I found a nice purple notepad and realised I could start. As I was handwriting, I can’t say anything about word counts. I brought the non-fic book to a point of needing to do something different, so I had space and wrote intensely on the novel. Early December was productive, then the festive period knocked me out.

Around then, I was asked to write twelve short stories for an audio project. I switched over to doing those. No sane author passes up an opportunity to get work out in favour of the unplaced work in progress. Along the way, I also had to spend time touting the new books (Hopeless Maine vol2, and Spirituality without Structure) I had books to review and blogs to write and some business possibilities to chase. I also, outrageously, had some time off.

We’re past the middle of January now, and since Christmas, I have added a single paragraph to the novel. I am entirely untroubled about this. I’ve gone back to the non-fic project, which is more on the boil now, and nearly finished the audio. I’ve just promised to get my attention back on a co-written project. The novel will happen, as and when bits occur to me, fitting in around the rest of life and the more immediately paying gigs. Write one in a month? I don’t think so. Having this drawn out, shambolic approach gives me time to mull and ferment. New influences come in, my ideas grow and develop, and I enjoy the process more. I hate writing books under pressure. Other people thrive on deadlines and writing things to order, but not me. I can write short things to order, but that’s a very different process.

Professional creative people have to be business people. That means balancing the paying gigs against whatever it takes to sustain you creatively. There’s no point writing five novels a year for peanuts if after two years you’ll be so burned out you can’t function. There’s also no point writing epic, self-indulgent books that no one will ever buy. If you’re doing it professionally, you mostly end up cobbling together a strategy based on what’s available and what suits you. No two of us end up with the same way of working, and that’s fine. If you’re doing it as a hobby, it’s a case of balancing it against the rest of your life, in whatever way turns out to make sense.


The silliest job imaginable

This week, I read an Alain De Botton book about work. What I found most interesting was the author’s evident belief that work was something he would have to observe other people doing – author, academic and philosopher not being normal or ’proper’ jobs. There was some comfort to be had in knowing it’s not just me who angsts over this.

I can make a case for the not-fiction work being useful. Not least because every now and then, someone comments to precisely that effect. I suspect a fair amount of time though, I am preaching to the converted – I think those of you who read my stuff already have a predisposition towards wondering and questioning. I may offer useful things to throw at that now and then, but you were already much of the way there. The difficulty is that so many people are not – especially those with material power. I am never going to get whole governments or business leaders to sit down and listen to my ideas, and therein lies the problem.

Most of the time, writing fiction feels like the silliest job imaginable. The fiction author invents that which never was and probably never will be, and spends many hours on this. Once thrown out into the world, the novel, (or other written forms of amusement for that matter) will entertain its victims for a few hours and then, for the greater part, will be forgotten, having done nothing more significant than used up a modicum of paper and time.

And yet… according to Neil Gaiman, China is now seeking to develop a fantasy and science fiction genre. Forms that had previously been banned (too decadent and bourgeois, I assume) are now required. The Chinese have made a link between the presence of speculative thinking, and the presence of innovative industries. They want the latter, therefore they conclude that they must have the former.

Fiction has a capacity to get in under the radar. It can prompt us to think and feel in unfamiliar ways, precisely because we do not take it too seriously. In many ways, a fiction work has more potential to change the world than a non-fic, because it can sneak in and travel further. Consider the relationship between Frankenstein and genetically modified food. Consider how a culture of space-opera-adventure feeds our collective desire to reach for the stars. Think about how Disney taught us to equate beauty with virtue and ugliness with being evil. Consider how JK Rowling has gone some way towards reversing that. There is power in those unreal things.

Religions are made of stories – often quiet implausible ones at that. All aspirations for the future are stories we tell ourselves, and we process the past into coherent narrative form, too, turning the chaos into meaning. We are story telling creatures, and we respond to narrative. So while writing fiction often feels like the most pointless, ineffective thing I could try and do, I also know that it is the thing I do with most potential for real impact.

I did not aspire to be an author because I craved fame and fortune. As a child and young adult, I wanted to write because I wanted to make a difference and I believed in fiction as a medium for delivering ideas. The trouble was that at that stage I didn’t really have any ideas, I didn’t know enough, hadn’t lived or thought or felt or empathised enough to have any clue at all about what needed saying, much less how to say it. For a while I stopped believing that I could write a book that would touch people. I lost faith in the process when I should have just recognised that I was too young and inexperienced to pull it off yet. I’m still probably too young and inexperienced. But I’m starting to think it may be possible after all, to do something meaningful that is made of fancy and impossibility. I’ll keep you posted.


Supporting Judith O’Grady

The odds are that you’ve not previously heard of Judith O’Grady. She’s a pagan author, of the book God Speaking, published by Moon Books. (pre order info here – http://www.amazon.com/Pagan-Portals-God-Speaking-Judith-OGrady/dp/1780992815) I think it’s a very important book, which is why I’m going to be putting in some effort trying to make sure it gets into people’s hands. The trouble is, Judith isn’t famous already. She doesn’t have a TV program, or a movie deal. Most people have never heard of her. This means that most physical book stores will not automatically put her books on the shelves, and most people will never even encounter her book, and this sucks. So let’s not have it be like that.

God Speaking tackles head on that problem about mental health versus religious experience. We live in a society where to hear voices, is to be crazy. Most Pagans sidle carefully around the subject, wanting to claim personal experience but at the same time not wanting to sound deranged. This book explores the issues in a witty and compelling way. Judith O’Grady is a person with a lot of valuable insight to share, and a really accessible writing style. She deserves and audience.

I think a lot of people outside the book industry imagine that what happens when you are published, is that the world magically beats a path to your door, you become wealthy and it’s all good. What really happens is this. Something like 250,000 books are published every year. Many barely sell at all. Something like half the books printed end up in landfill. Most authors, you have never heard of. Most books, you have never heard of. Most will never get into bookshops, or libraries. JK Rowling, Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey represent wild anomalies, not the normal authoring life. Which is a pity really, because there’s a lot of good stuff out there deserving of far better sales than it gets.

Most publishers simply don’t have the huge international marketing budgets needed to compete with film, TV, computer games, internet, phone aps and all the other things you may spend your disposable income on. Moon Book certainly cannot buy Judith the visibility she deserves. These days even the big houses fail to manage that. Books depend on word of mouth. That means you.

I want there to be good books. I am very bored of lightweight, predictable, derivative writing, and that’s what dominates the mainstream. I am desperate for substantial, engaging, well written and original material, fiction and non fiction alike. Therefore, if I find something good I am going to shout about it. The thing is, if no one buys an author’s books, they get depressed and demoralised. They maybe can’t justify the time and energy it takes to make another one. They maybe don’t see any point. I’ve been dangerously close to that myself, and this is part of my solution to that problem. If we could establish that there is a market for good, ground-breaking, original, surprising stuff maybe the mainstream publishers and bookstores would not focus so much on the celebrity crap, the obvious rip-offs and all the rest. I want nothing short of a revolution in the industry.

So here’s what we need to do, in this case and in others. We need reviews of Judith O’Grady’s work in as many places as possible. If you have a review site, can review for a publication or have a blog with a LOT of followers, see if you can get a review copy from the publisher. I think people who read this book will be convinced of its merits. I’m doing this purely because I read the book and was really inspired by it. Or, if you can take a blog post or an article, or something of that ilk and put it online and tell people about it, step up. If you leave a comment here I can get your email address from it and pass it to Judith. She’s not really an internet person, but she has a lot of ideas and opinions and will happily write you some content. Also, if you blog her stuff, tell me and I will tout the hell out of that post as well.

If you’re reading this and thinking ‘I know a book that deserves this support’ then get the word out. If you think I can help, tell me. Review on goodreads and amazon. Mention it on facebook. For one, authors do notice this stuff and it really seriously can mean the difference between feeling there is a point to what you do and keeping going, or feeling all is hopeless futility and quitting. One good word. One person who understood and was inspired. That’s honestly how marginal the creative life can be. So if you value something, talk about it.


Unpicking the myths of inspiration

In theory, part of druid life is the quest for inspiration. For followers of the bard path, inspiration is necessarily intrinsic to what we do. I was grumbling on facebook the other day because a subset of people respond to the fact that I write by assuming I am in desperate need of subject matter. In the past, a few people have been really pushy trying to get me to take up what they thought were great ideas. They were only trying to help, but it wasn’t at all helpful, more irritating. I’m conscious that for people who are not perpetually questing after inspiration, the whole process may be a mystery. I also don’t think it needs to be. I write almost every day – here, and creating works of fiction, and non-fiction. So, where do I get my ideas from?

This morning I listened to half an hour of news, which included a number of provocative ideas. What I saw on the school run I could lavishly describe. On facebook, I caught up with friends and heard some exciting personal stories. It’s not 10am yet as I write this, and already the day has offered more raw material than I can use. I have all of the internet to play in, radio stations, books, friends, outdoors… and anything that I encounter could potentially be the seed from which to grow a story, a poem, or a blog. The problem is not finding inspiration. The problem is considering all the many possible sources of inspiration and choosing which ones to work with. I can’t use all of them. Some of them will undoubtedly be more powerful than others, or more relevant to projects already under way.

I begin by thinking about what has the most personal resonance – what has provoked the most thinking or feeling, or both, in me. Some days that’s enough to focus me down. However, I always pause at this point to ask what might be relevant, or resonant to someone else. Bleeding on the page may feel cathartic, but that’s about all it’s good for. So there’s a process of working with the raw responses, imagining an audience and trying to guess what someone else might get some useful mileage out of. That usually gets me to a blog post.

The longer works are more complex because I’m dealing with a theme, a narrative, and something already set up. I can’t just pluck ideas out of the air and shoehorn them in. They have to fit with the ideas already in use. I may be reading and researching to support a project, in which case I’ll be sifting for resonant ideas as I go. I may be drawing on content I’ve already explored. However, I never plan too much in advance. I get bored too easily. If I plot out a novel or pin down the exact content ofa  book, the chances of my finishing it are slim. For novel, I have a shape in my head, and for non-fiction I’ll have a structure of title chapters laying out what ground I mean to cover, but that can change. Working this way allows projects to evolve organically and lets me bring in inspiration as it comes.

I spend a lot of time working on books when I’m walking, cycling or being domesticated. If I have nothing practical to do, staring out of the window is good. This is the time I use to sift through what I know, what I think, and imagine, and work out which bits hang together, and resonate with each other. I’m looking for exciting juxtapositions, ways of relating ideas to each other, things I can knock against each other to create something new.

Every moment of life has the potential to inspire us. The raw material is everywhere. The experience of awen for me, is less about perceiving the individual things that might inspire, more about finding a flow and rhythm that brings ideas into relationship with each other. That’s where the magic happens. It’s a deliberately sought and worked-for magic. It has to be fed. Being open to experience and aware of all the things that could inspire, is essential. But it’s the flow that turns random experience and disparate facts into something both new and meaningful. Seeing how to weave threads of ideas into a new fabric. It’s no good grabbing the first couple of ideas for a book that come passed. I reject far more ideas than I use. I have enough material in my head to create a novel most weeks. I don’t, because I’m not merely trying to write, I want to write the very best that I can.

I love it when people share experiences, ideas and inspiration with me. But please, don’t look round your living room frantic for any small thing that can be fed in. It’s not necessary.