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 cram 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
‘. . . I spend a lot of time in my garden, seeing the larger patterns reflected in the smaller patterns that I, in my small way, help to sustain. There are ponds with lilies, and tadpoles which drop their tails, grow legs and eventually emerge as frogs. There are tall ferns in the shadows, arching their fronds across the sky like wings, and trees that drop their leaves in winter, carpeting the ground and protecting it from frosts. There are bulbs that lie dormant through autumn and winter, then in spring, at some mysterious signal, push their way through the hard ground towards the light. There are flowers that bare their heart to the sun each day, following its path, their petals closing each night to embrace the darkness. There are trees whose blossoms become fruit that ripens and weighs down the branches, sending summer scents into the hot, still air. There are bees that lift pollen from the flowers, winds that lift seeds from their source, worms that labour underground, enriching the earth, food scraps that become soil. Everywhere in my garden are the patterns of life. I have only to use all my senses, to watch and listen, smell and touch, to taste, and to intuit. I have only to do this and I know what I need to know.’ Flight, Rosie Dub
It seems to me that there are two types of patterns and we are bound by both for different reasons – to the first because we carry a responsibility and to the second because we are imprisoned by them. The first are the natural, harmonious patterns that are repeated throughout the universe, as seen in the movement of the planets and the cycles of nature. As Omar Ali Shah writes, ‘Everything is cosmologically related to movement in a harmonious, balanced and equilibrated way.’ It is when we stray from these patterns that trouble begins. We have only to look at the world around us. Wherever there is imbalance it is because harmony has been broken. The second type of patterns emerge from this, the ones that form around a sense of isolation created due to our breaking away from equilibrium – fear, hate, violence, arrogance, abuse of self and others . . . rippling outward as conflict within an individual becomes conflict within relationship, becomes conflict within society and conflict between societies. Paradoxically, stories carry within them both sets of patterns. They explore conflict and chaos but their structure and the journey of their characters hints at something more – a reaching out to the harmonious patterns from which the majority of us have become isolated. Continue reading
Recently the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala, was interviewed by the New York Times and asked to name her favourite author. Her answer? Paulo Coelho. When asked the name of the last truly great book she had read, Malala said, ‘The Alchemist’. She went on to explain that she liked The Alchemist because ‘it is hopeful and inspiring. It tells the story of a boy who embarks on a journey to find a treasure, but as he goes along, he learns from every part of his journey and every person he meets. In the end, he finds his treasure in a very interesting place. His story tells you that you should believe in yourself and continue your journey.’
Paulo Coelho receives a lot of flak, despite, or perhaps because of, the popular success of his books. It’s fashionable to despise both the author and his writing, and an astonishing number of those who do, have not actually read any of his work. Perhaps it is because despite its beauty, Coelho’s writing is not always perceived as ‘literary’, in the sense that many of his stories are told in an allegorical manner. More likely it is because his work is defined as New Age, a term that has been used and misused so often it has become a cliché. Over time the spirit of scientific rationalism has permeated all of society and in the process has defined what is orthodox and what is heretical. Now it has become fashionable to sneer at what is immeasurable or illogical, to dismiss it as New Age, light weight, wacky. . . and in so doing we disregard its potential to provide us with another kind of knowledge. As Coelho wrote in The Alchemist, ‘When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed.’ Continue reading
Despite the fact that I had always carried the knowledge within me that I would one day become a writer, for many years I also believed that I couldn’t write, or at least that I was incapable of producing any writing of value. Not surprisingly, this caused a deep conflict within me and some confusion. Looking for the reasons behind this fundamental lack of faith in my own ability, I could cite low self-confidence or even low self-worth, and to a certain extent this was true. However, the real reason can be found in the word ‘value’. I believed that I could not produce anything of ‘value’ because I was quick to measure my abilities against those authors I read and often loved in high school. My schooling had given me a clear sense of what was valuable and what wasn’t. Maths and Science were valuable, while Art and English were not. And in English, the subject I was most drawn to, some authors were valuable while others were not. At the time I didn’t question these hierarchical constructions. I revelled in the glorious language of the authors I was studying, and in the process became deeply engaged in exploring the underlying meanings of texts and excited by their philosophical and spiritual explorations. Yet, while enjoying these texts I also came to believe that I was not a good writer because I couldn’t match D H Lawrence’s vocabulary, the intensity of his passion or the richness of his descriptions; Shakespeare’s depth of understanding was beyond me, and while the philosophy of Euripides was tantalisingly wise, I was too young to embrace it. Continue reading
The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.
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 my 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
“An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.”
The ideas that come to each of us do so for three reasons. Firstly, we are listening. Philip Pullman said, ‘I don’t know where my ideas come from, but I know where they come to. They come to my desk, and if I’m not there, they go away again.’ My ideas are rarely this polite. Instead they arrive at their own convenience, demanding to be heard and threatening to leave if they are ignored or treated badly. So if we are to capture ideas we must be there, waiting to receive them with gratitude and accept the responsibility for their maturation.
Secondly, we are the one person who can bring that particular idea to fruition at that particular time. In his book, Dreamgates, Robert Moss tells us that according to the Australian Aborigines, ‘the big stories—the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life—are forever stalking the right teller, sniffing and tracking like predators hunting their prey in the bush.’ Each of us has a unique combination of experience and skills, of themes that resonate within us and dreams that draw us onwards and inwards. The ideas that come to us do so because somewhere in the fusion of all that makes up our selves, lies the possibility of creating something harmonious that speaks beyond our limitations. A big story. Continue reading
‘I do not plan my fiction any more than I normally plan woodland walks; I follow the path that seems most promising at any given point, not some itinerary decided before entry.’
Recently I’ve found myself immersed in discussions about the pros and cons of planning a novel before embarking on the writing of it. These days there are endless numbers of story planning tools, maps, checklists and even software designed to help us plan our stories. Many of these tools are no doubt very useful and I know a few writers who swear by them. People write in different ways, according to their character and preference. Some write haphazardly with no story in mind, then cut and paste, creating links between sections until a story emerges. Some plan everything before sitting down to actually write a story, mapping out chapters and scenes, character traits and biographies. Others plan very little and simply trust the process. There are dangers and rewards in each of these approaches. Too much knowledge of a story can set the boundaries so tightly its natural growth becomes restricted. Too little and the story might never be found.
‘Of course, the writer can impose control; It’s just a really shitty idea. Writing controlled fiction is called “plotting.” Buckling your seatbelt and letting the story take over, however… that is called “storytelling.” Storytelling is as natural as breathing; plotting is the literary version of artificial respiration.’
‘The worst realities of our age are manufactured realities. It is therefore our task, as creative participants in the universe, to redream our world. The fact of possessing imagination means that everything can be redreamed. Each reality can have its alternative possibilities. Human beings are blessed with the necessity of transformation.’
Collections of essays by authors are generally intriguing, providing an insight into the mind of the author, their perspective on the world and of course, their perspective on writing. A Way of Being Free by Booker prize winning novelist, Ben Okri is one of my favourites and one that I refer back to whenever I am in need of soul nourishment. It’s a collection of twelve essays, of which my favourites are ‘The Joys of Storytelling’, ‘The Human Race is Not Yet Free’ and ‘While the World Sleeps. Together, the essays explore inspiration, creativity, religion and the power of storytelling in a beautifully lyrical way.
‘Beware of the storytellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art: they could unwittingly help along the psychic destruction of their people.’