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Reading Between the Lines

A tale, fictitious or otherwise, illuminates truth.  Jalaluddin Rumi

Reading is fundamental to living in our society, to meeting the demands of everyday life and to discovering the magic contained within books. Yet in this increasingly fast paced, hi-tech society we run the risk of losold booking that magic. We have become impatient, finding ourselves drawn to abbreviations rather than elaborations. Facebook and twitter reduce our news to paragraphs and sentences respectively, micro-fiction is blossoming, the pace of our stories is increasing, as is the speed with which they are delivered, until there is little time for contemplation, for pausing over a beautiful passage in a story, for allowing stories to seep into us and change us from within. And yet stories are vital. More than mere entertainment, they tell us who we are and they help us to find ourselves.

As Ralph Waldo Emmerson once said, ‘I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.’ Each of us is the product of the stories we tell ourselves, the stories our culture, our society, our family, our friends, our teachers, our filmmakers and our authors tell us. Story is what forms our identity and our opinions. But stories can do something else too. They can be truly revolutionary. When we read heroic myths, or novels which tell of the coming of age of a character, then we find that these stories can also help to free us from an identity that has been constructed by others and to see through the ideology in which we are immersed. Reading can and should help us to learn how to live as individuals within society, by encouraging us to reach inwards and explore ourselves and showing us how to reach out and connect with others. Continue reading

Head or Heart: A Response to the Crisis in our Education System

At a time when subjects such as art, music and creative writing are under threat in secondary and tertiary education, there is much debate about their value in education and, in the case of creative writing, whether they can or should be taught. Currently young people are being encouraged to move into the sciences, perhaps because there is a perception that this will lead to more job prospects, and perhaps too because the sciences are seen as subjects with right or wrong answers – easier to crcuriousityam for and less likely to suffer an arbitrary change in the marking criteria. Education is shifting from learning to cramming, from creative thinking to purely fact based thinking, and in the process breadth of study has given way to ever narrowing exam based curriculums that discourage curiousity. Society is not encouraging our children to become themselves but rather to become carbon copies of the models it holds up for them to emulate – carbon copies who it hopes will continue to reinforce the status quo. Ironically though, more and more employers are bemoaning the lack of curious minds and creative thinkers, attributes that are increasingly required for success in the modern world. Continue reading

New Stories For Old

‘In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted – knowingly or unknowingly – in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.’

Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free

A few months ago I gave a paper, entitled New Stories for Old, at a conference here in Aberystwyth, in which I explored the need for new stories and the role fiction writers might play in their creation.  I’m currently adapting that paper for publication but in the meantime I thought I’d summarise some of the ideas it explores and clarify that a discussion of new stories should not dismiss myths or fables, or the stories of ancient spiritual traditions, for many of these are timeless teaching stories which carry within them the threads of the ‘new’. When I speak of casting out the old, I mean those stories which condition us, trapping us within their conforming limitations. When I speak of new stories, I mean those stories which help to liberate us from our conditioning, enabling us to see through the ideological constructs that imprison our thinking.

We live in a world in which humanity is struggling to find a way through a range of crises, a world in which the old stories are leading us deeper and deeper into inequity, a world in which corporations rule governments and countries. This is an Orwellian world of heavy surveillance, where Doublethink is rife and Newspeak is restricting our ability to think outside of the box. It is a world where ‘whistle blowers’ are persecuted and tax dodger companies rewarded. This is the old world – the result of stories we have come to accept as given. A consensus if you like, a reality created by communal acceptance, and a reality that is normalised in our media day after day. To change that reality requires more than just a re-costuming of the old ways, for as Idries Shah points out in his book, Sufism, ‘enlightenment cannot come through a rearrangement of familiar ideas, but through a recognition of the limitations of ordinary thinking’. Shah’s view is echoed in Sacred Economics, by writer, speaker and ‘degrowth’ activist, Charles Eisenstein who writes, ‘In all realms, from money to ecological healing to politics to technology to medicine, we need solutions that exceed the present bounds of the possible.’ And it is echoed again by novelist and poet, Ben Okri, who, in response to the crushing realities of the old world, writes that ‘the only hope is in the creation of alternative values, alternative realities . . . Which is to say that in some way or another we breach and confound the accepted frontier of things.’ Continue reading

The Editing Process: Taking Our Stories to the Next Stage

The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.

Terry Pratchett

While editing is not a particularly inspirational topic, it is no doubt a useful one. It is also a topic that is on my mind as I recently completed a first draft of my novel and am about to embark on the long process of editing.

Lots of people despise editing, some fear it, others enjoy it. I belong to the ‘enjoy it’ camp. Editing is part of the creative process but there is less uncertainty involved. It’s safer because the outcomes are already known, though inevitably with the safety comes a reduction in the magical process that unfolds in the first draft as we find our story. The roller coaster ride of the first draft becomes a merry-go-round in the second draft and I find this a welcome chance to catch my breath after all the excitement.

When I am writing a first draft, I politely ask my Editing Self to leave the room because it inhibits the writing process by undermining finding the storymy confidence and forcing me to stop and start as I check for imperfections. My Editing Self requires me to question too early the value of a scene rather than trust that it is there for a reason. And it insists that I get caught up in the intricacies of vocabulary and sentence structure instead of concentrating on the broader sweep of theme and story and character. For me the writing process is predominantly intuitive and I follow my nose, allowing one scene to dictate the next, one character’s actions and reactions to lead the plot and a theme to emerge and then weave its way through the story I discover along the way. Continue reading

Taking Off With Our Stories

birds treeThere is a saying that in order to fly you must first be willing to fall. Some time ago I saw this illustrated first hand in a row of terrace houses just behind the castle ruins and the busy promenade in Aberystwyth. With the sun bright in the sky and the sounds of children splashing and squealing in the water it was hard to believe that a life and death drama was unfolding in the form of a fledgling crow learning how to fly. I have watched it flapping its wings awkwardly, only to find itself sliding down roofs, bouncing into bushes and eventually sleeping exhausted on the tops of parked cars, while mother and father crow shout their warnings from rooftops and fly down in quick forays to nudge their baby back into action. For a few days I was woken at 4am by harsh cries as the parents fought pitched battles with prowling neighbourhood cats that are always on the lookout for an easy catch. Then one morning all was quiet and when I looked out of my attic window I could see the fledgling crow perched proudly on a rooftop before lifting gracefully into the air, delighted by its new found skill.

There is an art, or rather a knack to flying.  The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. 

Douglas Adams, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxybirds 1

Whether it is learning to fly or writing a novel, starting a business or choreographing a dance, the creative process demands risk and good timing, openness to discovery and a lot of hard work. As Stephen King wrote, ‘amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.’ He is right of course but inspiration is important too, the first step in a much longer process that requires a constant and often unconscious shifting back and forth between intuition and intellect, heart and head. Inspiration is the mystery behind the creative process, the spiritual element that is such an important balance to the practical slog of day-to-day work. It is a gift, the spark that sets our creative juices flowing, the moment when an idea descends and we know beyond doubt that we can bring it to fruition if only we could find the courage to step into the abyss and spread our wings. We must hold onto that moment because almost immediately the doubts will surface, niggling away at our confidence so that it can become a battle against ourselves just to begin, let alone to finish.

‘Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.’

Leonardo da Vinci

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Making Ideas Happen

Moving from being inspired by an idea to actually acting upon it is not always easy but any successful creative entity must be comfortable alternating between these two creative phases: ideation and execution.

Scott Belskymaking ideas happen quote

After a year of struggling to prioritise my writing over other duties, a couple of months ago I bought a time management book called Making Ideas Happen:Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality. I have to admit that I was not expecting it to make much of a difference to my life and I also felt slightly embarrassed by the idea of time management; as if I had anything to manage, as if I was a CEO or some sort of entrepreneur with a busy meeting schedule. And anyway, my days were already so full I couldn’t see where to squeeze anything else in without letting go of something – paid work, exercise time, family time, or even sleep; all of which I treasure. I was desperately tired and was already pushing myself too hard, ending each day with a feeling of failure because I hadn’t achieved everything I set out to do. Each day I wrote a to-do list and each day it grew longer. Write novel was always somewhere on that list but rarely was it crossed out. Once again my writing had been put on the back burner, becoming an increasingly distant dream, and unless we’re lucky enough to make a good living out of our writing, this scenario is most likely a familiar one for many of us. As Philp Roth said, ‘The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.’

So I bought Scott Belsky’s book and sat down with a cup of tea and a good dose of skepticism. Within minutes I was hooked, despite the fact that for the most part, the world Belsky described did not resemble my own. Nevertheless, the ideas were practical and useful and possible to achieve. According to Belsky ideas only happen with organization and prioritization. In a sense this is pretty much stating the obvious but like most of us, I had never thought of the obvious. Belsky successfully tailored the obvious into practical applications that made it possible to begin making changes. I was already familiar with motivational material  – books by other writers that invariably inspired and enthused me temporarily but I had never been able to translate this ‘just do it’ inspiration into just doing it.

In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm… in the real world all rests on perseverance.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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