Friday, 30 August 2013

Home from Edinburgh*

The Butler (my husband, not the movie) planned to spend August covering his colleagues’ holidays rather than take one himself.  Fine with me, as I had a novel that needed attention.  However.  I didn’t do the responsible thing when one evening he said, ‘I have a few days off.  Let’s go to the Edinburgh Book Festival.’

The process of novel writing is a strange game of what-if.
Neil Gaiman 22/08/13

We took the afternoon train that rides the east coast, one of my favourite trips.  A friend met us on Princes Street, took us to Charlotte Square which had been transformed into a secret village.  There were no passport checks, but we definitely had crossed the border into Somewhere Else.

If you ignore your inside voice, you ignore it at your peril.
                                                                        Mark Billingham 23/08/13

Once inside, there was settledness to the place.  Not the spiritual tranquillity of a religious building, not an ivory tower concept or romantic notion, but the still hum of a thousand intellects invoking the imagination. 
It’s the journalist's business to write about politics.  The writer must write about more important things.  What is important in life is of the world without words.  The writer translates and is above the level of politics.
                                                                        Mikhail Shishkin 23/08/13

They weren’t all well behaved intellects.  Children raced and screamed and had tantrums.  Staff had to pick up litter.  These people got drunk, one woman shouting, ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck photography,’ and sent the Festival photo team skeedaddling.  

We’re inured to violence.  Fiction gets over the issue fatigue, a sneaky bastard that comes at you from the side.
Lauren Beukes 23/08/13

A thick Scottish accent bellowed at us to get in the queue.  Book signings ran like conveyor belts watched over by security.  Inside all of that, though, something felt different.

I imagine Ian Rankin walks around Edinburgh to find a car park to stuff a body.  Kind of like the Easter Bunny.
Margaret Atwood 24/08/13

Our second day there, everyone abandoned me for their sessions.  I grabbed an ice cream and a deck chair, sat down with my manuscript.  Next to me gathered a multi-generational family.  A set of middle-aged grandparents, several thirty-something parents. 

Sometimes people are undone by success.
Stephen Grosz 24/08/13

The grandfather carried a baby, talked to it, explained what the rest of the family were doing.  Nothing significant about this bunch until the other children returned. 

The true inspiration for the writer is the bank manager.
Andrew Grieg 24/08/13

Kids young enough to speed across the square with their picture books were greeted like lionesses who’d returned with food for the pride.  Adults squatted to hear the stories even if the child went through the book backwards. 

I love challenge.  At least I say that to myself before it’s started.  Halfway through, I say, this is the most terrible challenge!
                                    Antonia Fraser 25/08/13

And when the excitement calmed down, ice cream for everyone.  My kind of family, I can tell you.  They know what it takes to raise a kid.  Ice cream and books.

I feel this is an audience full of women laughing and men, not.
Naomi Alderman 25/08/13

El Punko later tweeted, Can we live here?  That’s how I felt, as though I’d found the lost tribe of my native people.  Nothing tangibly different on the outside, but on the inside – if we could do DNA tests on the soul, you’d find something a bit peculiar.

If you want a virtual reality experience that takes you out of reality, read a novel.
                                    Valerie Martin 25/08/13

Between sessions, we sat in deck chairs and read or wrote.  Some of us fell asleep.  We ran into old friends, met new ones, shared writing opportunities, lusted over book after book after book.  Bought way too many.  Ate some of the best cake I’ve ever had.

Zombies are not good on skates.
                                    Margaret Atwood 25/08/13

Sometimes I felt overwhelmed by the intelligence on the panel, both writers and moderators.  Sometimes I felt I’d underachieved.  Sometimes I felt enthused about my craft, couldn’t wait to get back to the deck chair and write write write.  After some ice cream, of course.

Burke and Hare had their good side.
                                    Ian Rankin 26/08/13

At one of Margaret Atwood’s sessions, a man asked her what to do with all the stories in your head, if you weren’t a writer.  She said something close to: Anybody who can write things down is a writer.  Then it’s up to you to become a better writer.  (Take that, all you people who belittle writers who aren’t yet Margaret Atwood.)  

My feeling about her is she’s the perfect corporate wife.  (Lady MacBeth) 
                                    Margaret Atwood 26/08/13

Which is who El Punko wants to be when he grows up.  At first I was surprised he didn’t want to be Neil Gaiman, but then I realised Neil Gaiman hasn’t grown up yet, which is really quite lovely.  I think becoming Margaret Atwood is an admirable goal, even without the writing bit.

A book can be as many books as it can be.
                                    Valerie Martin 26/08/13

My experience of the festival, though obviously limited, was that it lacked the usual hierarchy.  This is a craft and everyone there loved it; some of us in the creation but all of us in the appreciation of it.  So while there was a yurt where the writers could hide, they also sat with their families in deck chairs, stood in line for talks, bought ice cream from the stand without being mobbed. 

Adults have no attention span.  They give up and go away long before you’re finished.  (Having stories read to you.)
                                    Neil Gaiman 26/08/13

That ethos, perhaps, of egalitarianism, reinforced in me the need for writers (and all creatives) to support each other in an honest but positive fashion.  That includes supporting yourself as well, despite people who don’t believe you have something to say.  If Ian Rankin and Mary Talbot and Val MacDermid don’t mind walking among the rest of us, then feck the begrudgers and walk here as well.

We were just talking about Jane Austen’s underwear.
                                    Margaret Atwood 24/08/13

*All writer quotes are as close to what was said as possible.

Friday, 23 August 2013

The Perils of Pillage

My mother is a master quilter.  She has the ability to see, in a collection of fabrics, the intricate wee triangles and squares that will create a balance of colour and motion.  The art of quilting originated from necessity – the absence of a large fabric met by joining small scraps of old clothing. 

Many writers create in the same way, but it isn’t the rag bag that they pillage their bits of colour and texture from.

Most writers I know have an incredible capacity for information.  The whole ‘write what you know’ is set aside for write what speaks to you.  History, art, music, all the behavioural sciences, and just plain old people, we dive into them with the ability to hold our breath for minutes, hours, days if need be to absorb what it takes to feed the desire to know.

In my early days as a pillager, I often confused this subject immersion as a more lasting interest and, as a result, have (to list the less embarrassing escapades) learned to play piano, trombone, tambourine, recorder, penny whistle, guitar, bodhrán, banjo, Scottish pipes, and fiddle.  I’ll pause here to say, I’m not a musical person, so by the time I’d created a main character who played uillean pipes, I’d learned to research the experience with a pen, not pipes.

Here’s where peril begins to happen.  A book or craft or musical instrument, no matter how deep a relationship we form with it, does not respond in kind.  A person is quite different altogether.  There’s a sort of ethics to pillaging from a person.  For instance, regardless how kickass their metaphors are, how powerful their stories, I wouldn’t take one from a client.  The dynamics in that type of relationship make asking an unfair thing. 

Those ethics shouldn’t apply only to a therapeutic relationship, though.  To take a friend’s stories without asking is worse than stealing their cutlery when they’ve invited you over for dinner.  Taking another writer’s metaphor or theme or story is a capital crime.  And most of us know that. 

Unfortunately, there are no ethics in the treatment of writers, and that’s where the peril of pillaging lurks.  There is a type of person out there who can do a real mind fuck on you and you never see it coming. 

A little psych lesson.  The act of creation for a writer, all this pillaging and plunder I’ve been rabbiting on about, it has something to do with ego boundaries.  Ours tend to be semi-permeable.  We can empathise til the cows come home.  Normal people see that for what it is.  A few may think we care more for them than we do, which isn’t to say we don’t care about them. 

But when Neil Gaiman looks up from a book he’s signing, smiles sincerely to a teenage boy who absolutely loves Ocean at the End of the Lane, then says something nice to his mother because the boy’s too star stuck to speak, Gaiman is being empathetic and kind, and probably doesn’t remember the boy five minutes later.

And on some level, the boy knows that.  He’ll show Gaiman’s dedication to his friends, tell them how genuine and real Gaiman is.  Now think about Gaiman’s behaviour.  It only has meaning, it only has power in the context of a famous person taking fifteen seconds to acknowledge a teenager.  If I who am standing behind that teen in the queue smiled at him sincerely, he’d move closer to his mother and break all eye contact.

So we've established normal, at least for us.  Let's go to abnormal.  Hopefully you’re still with me, because here’s where it gets dicey.  This pillaging that you do in order to write, you probably don’t turn it off.  An old guy on the bus strikes up a conversation and if you’re in the mood, you carry your end, ask more questions than answer, learn all sorts of things about him and walk away having given nothing of yourself.


Sometimes, that casual conversation turns into coffee, turns into swapping books, turns into friendship.  Sometimes this person is a bit emotional.  Sometimes you have to be the more understanding person.  Sometimes, if you have a bad day and decide to go caving, as I call taking a break from social interaction, this person calls the police after six hours.  Or your mother.  All your friends. 

And that seems cute.  You feel bad for making that person worry.

But these cute, idiosyncratic moments multiply.  The friendship becomes care-taking becomes hard work.  You think this person’s going through a bad time, it’ll blow over.  Life’s hard.  You’ve been there.  You’ve plundered stories from other lives that have been there.  This person’s your really good friend.  You have so much history together.

And then one day, this person attacks you.  And continues to attack you but won’t let you respond.  Then blocks all access to him, tells your friends what a shit you are, takes some of them with him.  You’re left with the confusion of what-the-hell-did-I-do and the ugliness spilled over all the memories you share with this person.

What’s that all about?

Well, some people out there are really badly damaged.  Their ego boundaries aren’t just permeable; they’re goddam shaky.  They need someone else’s boundaries to hold the amoeba of themselves.  Your interest in this person, your intense, flattering interest means something very different than friendship to them.  Because their ego boundaries have never been properly put into place, your wit and verbal skills, vast information base, creative spark, all the good things that you’ve spent a lifetime building, those now belong to him.

Which is why, if you go caving, they freak out and call the Mounties.  And, when life gets stressful, if you fail to sooth them the way a mother soothes a baby, they will attack and vilify you.

This sort of thing could happen to anyone, not just writers.  It’s why we have stalking laws.  It’s a core of domestic abuse and bunny boiling.  But I think, perhaps wrongly, that because writers have this huge initial investment in new people – we’re curious as hell, ask questions, work to understand because it’s how we create – we don’t see the forest for the trees sometimes. 

The danger of all this is the memory it leaves you with, the learning that life is dangerous and you’re not able to see it coming.  If it happens more than once, then you think you obviously ask for it.  You’re the person who’s not a very good friend and you don’t even know why.  That type of damage done is pretty hard to recover from.  It is, indeed, perilous.

These people are hard to spot initially because when you’re good to them, you’re very, very good.  It seems like a genuine friendship.  Your best defence is your current social circle. 

Listen to what your tried and true friends tell you about the new friends you make.  Look at the new friend's other relationships – are they bizarre?  Are they secretive about normal things?  Think about the stories they tell you, the believability of them.  Real life isn’t lived in dramatic arcs.

Most of all, be aware that your propensity to pillage distorts the boundaries.  Don’t be overly forgiving in the beginning – forgiveness is earned, not a free pass you give to someone who interests you.  Walk away from anyone who wants exclusivity to your time and friendship, who tries to interfere with your established friendships or hobbies or most especially, your caving time.

Writers aren’t formed in quite the same way as non-writers.  Pillage to your heart's content, make new friends, but always, always, always take care of yourself.

Friday, 16 August 2013

The Seriousness of Magic

Mount Grace
This weekend, the Butler and I went to an open air production of Sense and Sensibility set on the grounds of Mount Grace Priory, a National Heritage site.  Mount Grace itself can be seen across the fields on some of Big Nose Dog’s walks; the names of two houses in our village boast of a priory view, now obliterated by mature trees.  

Places like Mount Grace call on us to create magic, I think.  If you’re not sure what I mean, could you walk through these grounds and not imagine what went on there?  That’s our innate ability to be in our minds where our bodies are not.  That has to be magic, does it not?

Butler & Sis in front of chapel
The site’s history that I know, starts with a fourteenth century Carthusian charterhouse that survived only a little over 140 years of religious contemplation.  Then Henry VIII sent Mount Grace on its travels through various owners to the Lowthian-Bell family who gave us Gertrude Bell. 

There’s a woman whose life makes the jaw drop.  Up in the manor's attic, you can see where someone recorded the children’s heights, look at old family photos and listen to staff talk about Gertrude; you won’t be thinking about monks and a fat old profligate wanting a son, although all those things happened here.

Magic.  Imagine putting on open air theatre in such a place.

The Hamper
The Butler packed a picnic for the masses, although there were only we two.  We stowed canvas chairs and hamper and rug into Little Car, had to park in the overflow area, so many people had come, and a few of those on foot.  We claimed a space on a little rise at the back, across from the old Carthusian guest house.

The audience included people from the Point to Point set who brought fold-away tables covered with fabric cloths, dressed in their Dubarry boots and wool jackets and stockman riding coats, although the group to our right put an eighteenth century spin on the dress code.  Here were the considered-successful of the community, some, like the Butler, with serious day jobs, yet the desire for fun, for magic, it sizzled through the audience with childhood intensity

The group next to us
Neil Gaiman writes in his latest book that none of us are adults, rather children inside adult bodies.  Those of us who openly admit our need to create, to imagine and pretend well into adulthood, we’re the ones who put on the period dress, pack two desserts inside the hamper (well, four, if you count the Betty's cakes and how could you not), drink champagne from children's cups.

Humans ache for opportunities to create, whether it’s decorating the house, writing a play, sitting at a National Heritage site to watch an open air performance that helps us imagine another life in another time.  It’s a fine line, though, for those of us who are driven to create.  More is asked of us, perhaps unfairly so.

Because we have the temerity to put our creations on show, we cannot purely create with the abandon of children, nor even stop at thinking about grammar and structure, the indelible dramatic arc.  More important than bringing forth the myths inside us, we’re told the world now wants us to count Twitter followers, blog hits, Likes and RTs.  It’s the high school game of popularity taken to a fiscal level.  Be in, rather than be creative.

For some of you, the two are the same.  For me, it’s hard work.  There’s many a good intentioned person who’s crossed my path to utter several Don’ts about what I write or how I write or even that I write.  

I thank whatever deity who hangs around me, that none of those naysayers actually live in my house, because it becomes harder and harder as I read a blog about self publishing or how to utilise social media, for me to keep the fun in what I’m doing.  If those horrid little voices lived inside the Writing Closet, I’d probably set fire to the  thing and start taking copious doses of Valium.

I don’t want my myths or voice to be critiqued into someone else’s idea of what I  should say. 

The open air performance itself could be hailed as good-enough theatre, an assessment that might disappoint some to hear.  But for me, it was a great success because it was great fun.  Nature graced us with a soft rain during the second half, as well as a serious owl fight somewhere on the hillside; bats kept flitting close to the stage and nary an eighteenth century lady flinched. 

When the play ended, we gathered up our things by torchlight, I stopped between the manor and the chapel just to look, and it impacted me viscerally, what it would've been like to step out the back door at night as a child and see the Priory’s ruins. 

‘How magical it must’ve been,’ I told the Butler.

And it’s that magic that I struggle to hold onto.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Trolls Among the Phlox

There’s a garden outside my window, and it’s had a weird summer.  The cosmos has grown into great hulking brutes of foliage, the dahlias long spindly stems with a few leaves, the begonias tiny hirsute curls close to the ground.  The only sign of colour, the brilliantly pink phlox, usually part of the chorus, now the soloist. 

Whatever balance is needed to do their job, the plants didn’t get it this year.  If you’re a gardener, you may understand what’s happened, but I find it extraordinary.  I’ve watched the Butler incessantly water, feed and weed these ingrates, so what more could they want?  Their picture on a ten pound note?

Ah yes, that’s where I’m going this week.  You see, I really can’t grasp why anyone would bust a gasket over a woman’s picture on the ten pound note.  Whose quality of life is worsened by Jane Austen’s face giving them a fleeting glance as she’s pulled from a wallet and handed over the counter?  Can you imagine women getting their knickers in a twist every time a man’s face appeared on a banknote?

No.  Women don’t often have the luxury of behaving like trolls, although admittedly, trolldom isn’t exclusively male.  Not perhaps because we’re a less aggressive gender but because we’re used to not being top dog.  Society has long been structured to keep women from getting what they need to bloom on their own.  Like the garden in front of me, we have the periodic pink phlox, the anonymously published Jane Austen, the male pen name producing Middlemarch so that the myth of the lesser gender prevails.  And when some woman has the audacity to say, let’s honour our pink phlox, all hell breaks loose.

I could turn to gender theories and sociological essays and psychological explanations for trolls getting stuck in early developmental stages, which would give me an intellectual understanding for what’s happened the last few weeks.  In its bare bone analysis though, somewhere along the way, someone hasn’t been taught to share.  Or learned that it’s wonderful watching someone else open their birthday presents.  Or if my face is on the ten pound note, it doesn’t mean your face isn’t worth looking at.

I don’t confine that lack of learning to trolls.  Our male politicians don’t blush at the sexist remarks they make to subdue their female counterparts.  Our sportscasters openly call women’s games boring.  Our children are raised on Legos for boys, princess slippers for girls.  Male leisure activities are a sublimation of natural aggression waiting in the wings to keep the species alive.  Female leisure activities are well, stupid.

The practical part of my brain imagines a mother overseeing a play date between pre-schoolers.  Her child doesn’t want to share, doesn’t want to play the other child’s game, and if things get too equal, may even give the kid a swat.  The mother intervenes, tells her child to play nice.  Yet every day, that same woman walks through a world that treats her the way she has taught her own child not to behave.  Somehow, that immature egocentricity survives preschool and is directed towards women, people of colour, the disabled, the LGBTQ community. 

That’s where my confusion comes in.  I don’t understand why that behaviour isn’t immediately seen as wrong.  Why do advertisers have to be pressured into withdrawing their money from social media sites before rape jokes and bullying are dealt with?  How can a thirteen year old sexual abuse victim be considered a predator?  Who in their right mind thinks it’s okay to drive the Racist Van through British streets?

I understand that some people are so badly damaged, they’ll grow up to become trolls.  What I don’t understand is why the supposed non-trolls sometimes don’t act any differently.  What I really don’t understand is why, when the supposed non-trolls don’t act any differently, they aren’t carted offstage to where those of us who know how to share, won’t be swatted by them anymore. 

If you’ve got answers for me, I’d love to hear them.

Friday, 2 August 2013

The Fallacy of Altruism

A lot of us were raised on a porridge of self eradication.  Ask not what your country can do for you.  Offer it up for the poor souls.  Other people have it worse off than you.  In other words, suck it up and shut up.  But what are you depriving the world of when you don’t allow yourself to be fully present in it?

Appalachian boreen.  I know, a bit early in the blog this week, but I’ve got a head cold, can’t concentrate and it’s a short cut to what I want to say.  Christmas was big shakes in my family of origin.  Presents all over the floor, decorations everywhere inside and out, cards, stockings, enough food to feed a small village.  So when El Punko, my son, was very young, I relished the lies and deception, the sneaking around and Christmas Day surprises. 

One Christmas morning when he’d grown old enough to think of me as a person, El Punko noticed there were no presents under the tree for me.  He cried.  You see, I was a single mother.  Probably the most important person in his life, and I’d forgotten her.  Or me, as it were. 

If your needs are never visible, you may teach your loved ones that the need doesn’t exist.  You may give them an inflated idea of how important their needs are.  Or you may instil in them a pressure to get it right for you. 

If you’re a writer, you’re denied the experience of receiving love fully.  So how can you write about the vulnerability that is love?  The vulnerability that wants to accept love but may be denied?  The vulnerability that wants to accept love and may actually get it.  And isn’t that the really scary thing?  To find someone who sees you.  How can you write about the fear of being loved, the fragility of love, if you don’t allow it to come out from under the bed and say, Boo!

Being visible in your life, gives you experiences that make you a more full individual.  The closer you come to reaching your potential, the better your life, the better the part of your life you share with others.  Ultimately, the better the gift of yourself.