Book censorship: “bad language” vs bad writing

censorship

A quick scan over the list of books banned by American schools makes for some intriguing reading. Among their number you can find such famous titles as A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, Howl and other poems by Allen Ginsberg, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

As recently as 2011, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 was banned by schools in Republic, Missouri – with copies only available to students who could present written parental permission.

All of these books have been banned for their use of “bad” or otherwise offensive language.

In this way, the parents of American children who seek to ban these books align themselves with the Daily Mail – who have run a number of fear-filled pieces noting that swearing in books could potentially corrupt children’s minds. And they also share similarities with the notorious law passed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2014 that is still in effect today, in which writers can be fined and books banned for including “obscene” or “offensive” language or “objectionable words”, including swearing.

But what impact does banning books for supposedly ‘bad’ or ‘offensive’ language actually have, and what message does it send?

Censorship as suppression

The case against use of swear words or otherwise “bad” or “offensive” language is usually made by those who feat these words either corrupt the language itself or those people reading it. Here, the phrase ‘think of the children’ is frequently heard in shrill cries as concerned parents take a leap of faith in thinking that seeing swear words written down or used by characters in a book may make their innocent kiddos somehow no longer innocent – or otherwise corrupted.

Yet such thought-policing tactics ultimately amount to attempts to control and suppress certain voices and cultures.

Just think of Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting (a book which has three instances of “cunt”, one of “fuck” and one of “fucking” on the first page). Welsh rails against moves to censor literature on the basis of swearing – and explains:

“it seems to be an attempt to erase and/or marginalise certain cultures, i.e. the working class, the ghetto and so on. Language is a living, organic thing. If you try to control that and prescribe what people say, the next thing is prescribing what people think.”

Such concerns of course follow the thoughts of Orwell, who wrote in Politics of the English Language that “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Indeed, Orwell also refuted the idea that one should follow “a ‘standard English’ which must never be departed from” – rather, he said, “correct grammar and syntax are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear”.

What this again illustrates is that to suggest a book is of poor quality because it deviates from the norm or standard, or because it possesses within its pages swear words or other words in which people find offense, is to completely misread such a book, and to misunderstand the point of it all – not just the book; but culture itself.

This is because culture is not standard. It should not, therefore, be contained or controlled. It is natural. It is alive. It flows and changes in various fluctuations and metamorphoses.

The sterility of censorship

Trying to impose censorship on books for their use of language ultimately serves as a form of defence for the status quo against new ideas and inspiration. This in turn prevents marginalised communities and voices from finding expression through artistic means.

This is a clear danger to all writers – aspiring or otherwise – as well as everyone involved in the book industry, including readers – and ultimately anyone who considers themselves a part of a diverse or inclusive society. This is because it limits freedom of expression in such a way as to suppress new ideas from emerging; enforcing the creation of dull and mundane art that all looks the same – for fear of doing anything that might fall foul of the new age thought police.

In 1945, American novelist and diarist Anais Nin discussed the act of censorship and its effect on originality in her personal diary, writing:

“The important task of literature is to free man, not to censor him, and that is why Puritanism was the most destructive and evil force which ever oppressed people and their literature: it created hypocrisy, perversion, fears, sterility.”

As we’ve discussed before, the act of censorship is indeed brutal and even fascistic in its oppression of freedoms. Indeed, it is often a clear act to control the thoughts and creative expressions of others – limiting originality as it does so.

Missing the f*cking point

Scottish author James Kelman – who saw his own book How late it was how late challenged for its use of “offensive language” has himself challenges whether people trying to ban books for their use of swearing really understand how language works.

Kelman writes: “people can use swear words to emphasise the beauty of something – so it’s not really a swear word at all. If you say something is ‘fucking beautiful’, how can it be swearing, because you’re emphasising the beauty of something. If so-called swear words should only be used when appropriate, well what do you mean, ‘when appropriate’? I was in my 20s before I even realised the word ‘fuck’ had to do with a sexual act for some people. It was never used in that way for myself, and none of my community used it in that way.”

Indeed, Willy Maley recognises the range of functions swearing can adopt in Kelman’s work, in his essay ‘Swearing Blind’. Maley writes: “The swearing is integral to Kelman’s power as a writer. It is neither a vulgar and superfluous supplement nor an offensive coating concealing shortcomings in the narrative, dialogue or characterization.”

Were Kelman to have restricted his language and natural writing style to omit certain words, would we have been given such important literary works as he has produced as an author? Almost certainly not. And in this way we as readers would have been denied access to truly original pieces of fiction.

The difference between ‘bad language’ and bad writing

Just because a character in a novel likes to say the word fuck, or because the author of a book uses a narrator unafraid to use expletives in their narration, it does not mean the book you’re reading is bad – and certainly not that it should be banned.

It may seem obvious, but there is a very real difference between a good novel that contains swear words, and a bad novel that is written in fine, puritanical English.

This is because there is a difference between bad language and bad writing.

Bad language, according to Mark Twain, “has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humour is pathetic; its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.”

Anyone who has read Fifty shades of Grey, which contains lines like “My subconscious has found her Nikes, and she’s on the starting blocks,” or anything ever written by renowned author Dan Brown will know what Twain is talking about here.

Indeed, you need only read some of the winners of the notorious ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ award to see just how badly some writers can abuse language – yet even here (perhaps even curiously) there are often no swear words or expletives in sight. In their place you find only misplaced metaphors and “bulbous salutations”. 

Conversely, “bad language” is really nothing of the sort. When writers use expletives – or even deviate from traditional models of ‘standard English’ or spelling and grammar – may well be trying to capture language as it is used by their own community.

With this in mind, how can anyone, after all, be genuinely upset by swearing – words that irrefutably exist and form a crucial element to our language? People so often don’t even swear to be abusive or to cause offense: it’s just how people talk.

Of course, this is not to suggest simply including expletives for their own sake can ever be taken as a sign of good writing or mature writing skill. As legendary writer and editor E B White noted, “vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

When it comes to writing – and protecting your own work from genuine accusations of ‘bad language’ – therefore, the most important thing to keep in mind when penning your drafts is ensuring that every word you use is absolutely necessary. If that necessary word may offend Vladimir Putin or evangelical Christian parents in small US towns and states, then you must keep it in – if anything, in today’s world, it may be more necessary than ever before.

 

 

Advertisements

Donald Trump poetry

Donald-Trump-The-Ugly-Face-of-America.jpg

My name is Donald, no, I’m not going bald; that’s not a toupee, what a rude thing to say.”

Donald Trump’s often bizarre and frequently unsettling use of language has been a source of both amusement and horror to onlookers around the world. Yet, like many egomaniacs before him, his words have a strange aesthetic quality that seems to lend them to the form of poetic verse.

For a man who spins his own fictions and creates his own realities, moving into the world of poetry may not be a surprising career move for Donald (although, considering this is the man who moved from reality TV star and frequent failed businessman to become President of the United States, no career move should really be surprising). Yet it must be admitted that his creative writing ability may be impaired by his extremely limited vocabulary and the fact he thinks he can use “schlong” as a verb.

Within Trump’s crude and simple use of language, however, lies a natural poetic lilt. He speaks in compact, distilled phrases that tell you a lot about who he is – often in only a handful of words. His frequent use of declarative sentences and severe lack of complexity gives both his speeches and his tweets a natural staccato rhythm.

Like a child first learning to write and speak, Trump also repeats words and phrases again and again. While this primitive use of language may amuse many – particularly within the liberal metropolitan elite – these are the same linguistic qualities that give Trump’s words power.

By using simple sentences and phrases again and again – accompanied by sweeping generalisations and categorizing his ideas into simple groups (mostly “winners”, “haters” and “losers) – Trump is in some ways a natural communicator to the masses. People remember what he says and take away messages from what he says in a way they seldom do during the triangulated, euphemism-filled speech of most other modern day politicians.

How do we approach this power? How do we deconstruct Trump’s aggressive, misogynistic, racist, and, ultimately, stupid, turns of phrase into something else?

Well, here the best approach seems not to deconstruct it (spending too much time analyzing the babblings of an unhinged idiot is about as fun as trying to remove an ingrowing hair from your crotch with a pair of rusty tweezers).

Instead; it seems we may be best to reconstruct his words – keeping the same natural structures in his choice of phrasing, but mixing his quotes up, in a form of poetic collage, to create new poems and poetry.

We have done just this, exploring the aesthetic power of Trump’s nonsensical babblings about covfefe, and turning them into new forms.

You can read each of our poems below for free through the following links:

Nothing to hide 

So beautiful

Like, really smart

Humble pie

Thank you for listening

So that was my words

The beauty and complexity of Irish literature

giant's causeway .jpg

If Ireland is seen by some people in the world as some kind of romantic ideal, it must be seen only through the prism of eyes that have not seen news or history of the killings in the North, or how Irish women were considered far too lovely for contraception (and still today too lovely to be given the right to abortions). Ireland, far from being a mystic isle of pure beauty and tribal innocence, is – like so many countries – a land of contradictions and complexities.

Ireland’s greatest litterateurs have embraced these sometimes conflicting differences to create works of fiction that are as beautiful as they are in themselves complex; that do not shy from painting the horrors that have befallen the island at times, but find lyrical ways of expressing these to readers across the world. Irish writers write against their own foolishness and flaws as much as they do against those of their fellow countrymen or those of colonial invaders – and in doing so they find ways of expressing truths that are delightful and intricate and small; and thereby discovering beauty that is real and full of power and significance.

Perhaps the lyricism and beauty of Irish writing is in part down to the tradition of oral storytelling and poetry within Irish history, combined with the suppression of the Irish language itself during the centuries of British colonialism. With the brutal restrictions placed upon not just the Irish people themselves, but the very words and language with which they used to communicate, the British, in a way, created the conditions necessary for new forms of writing to emerge. Irish writing so often seems at times to be born from the fragmentation of old certainties, and the need to say important things in an almost coded fashion, so as to avoid discovery. Fiction and poetry – creative writing in general – play a crucial role in conveying meaning through indirect means (metaphor, allegory, etc.). And so, in the face of an increasingly restricted and complex reality, Irish writers created their own worlds – spun into life in the most beautiful, unique and creative ways.

In this view, Irish writers rise to a cultural prominence in which they are defined both by their creative genius and by their nationality. Their identity is absorbed by their craft, and the geopolitics of it. This is an idea captured by Sean O Faolain – a pillar of twentieth century Irish short story writing – who wrote:

“Irish literature came to its great period of effervescence in a romantic mood whose concept of a writer was almost like the concept of a priest: you did not just write, you lived writing; it was a vocation; it was part of the national resurgence to be a writer.”

In honour of these writers, we have brought together a far from exhaustive list of our recommended Irish books to read at any time; but perhaps most fittingly on St Patrick’s day.

You can read our book list here.

Sylvia Plath on writing, and the complexities of life

sylvia plath reading.jpg

It is It is fifty five years since Sylvia Plath killed herself, in her flat in London, near Primrose Hill, in a house where William Butler Yeats once lived. She was thirty-one. Her two children, Frieda, age three, and Nicholas, barely one, slept in the next room. The details of her suicide are known most likely by everyone with a tangential connection to poetry – the rags and towels blocking the doorway; the oven; the two young children sleeping next door; the glasses of milk she left for them on the kitchen table.

In the months leading up to her death, she had published her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, and completed a manuscript of her influential poetry collection, Ariel.

Both works have rightly contributed to the widely shared view of Plath as a creative genius. Robert Lowell, who contributed a forward, is said to have exclaimed, when he opened and read the manuscript, “Something amazing has happened.”

The feeling that Plath’s work has the capacity to be revelatory to both new and returning readers has never really faded. Yet the near mythicism that is attached to her death – and the frenzied period of creativity that seemed to lead up to it – have contributed to the almost stereotypical belief that all the greatest writers and artists must also be tortured souls who carry their demons with them.

This is an unhelpful view to hold, primarily because it risks diminishing the complexity of other human beings. In the case of Sylvia Plath, it risks simplifying her existence to a simple Wikipedia footnote – the idea that she is simply a tragic figure of creative genius and inner turmoil. But, as with all human beings; Plath is so much more.

sylvia-plath-writing-quote.jpg

While it’s impossible to forget or ignore how Plath died, the question that today has fresh urgency is how she wrote – and how she lived.

In 1975, nearly a decade before Plath’s posthumous Pulitzer Prize, Aurelia Plath, the poet’s mother, edited a loving selection of Sylvia’s letters to her family, published as Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963. Tucked between their lines is the enormity of emotion that animated the poet’s restless spirit.

Within these pages are glimpses of a character and a life so much more than a simplified summary that suits our inclination toward drama and tragedy. And they also show Sylvia as entirely human. For instance, at 17, she expresses such a feeling of invincibility instantly recognisable as that of a teenager:

“Somehow I have to keep and hold the rapture of being seventeen. Every day is so precious I feel infinitely sad at the thought of all this time melting farther and farther away from me as I grow older. Now, now is the perfect time of my life.

In reflecting back upon these last sixteen years, I can see tragedies and happiness, all relative — all unimportant now — fit only to smile upon a bit mistily.

I still do not know myself. Perhaps I never will. But I feel free — unbound by responsibility.”

In other letters, the young Plath speaks of the fears of growing older that also grip so many on the cusp of adulthood:

“At the present moment I am very happy, sitting at my desk, looking out at the bare trees around the house across the street… Always I want to be an observer. I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light and mock myself as I mock others.

[…]

I am afraid of getting older. I am afraid of getting married. Spare me from cooking three meals a day — spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote.”

In other letters, she does express some sentiments of inner turmoil – of not knowing what she wants or if she ever will. But again, here, who has not felt such things? Read on:

“I want to be free — free to know people and their backgrounds — free to move to different parts of the world so I may learn that there are other morals and standards besides my own. I want, I think, to be omniscient… I think I would like to call myself “The girl who wanted to be God.” Yet if I were not in this body, where would I be — perhaps I am destined to be classified and qualified. But, oh, I cry out against it. I am I — I am powerful — but to what extent? I am I.

Sometimes I try to put myself in another’s place, and I am frightened when I find I am almost succeeding. How awful to be anyone but I. I have a terrible egotism. I love my flesh, my face, my limbs with overwhelming devotion. I know that I am “too tall” and have a fat nose, and yet I pose and prink before the mirror, seeing more and more how lovely I am… I have erected in my mind an image of myself — idealistic and beautiful. Is not that image, free from blemish, the true self — the true perfection? Am I wrong when this image insinuates itself between me and the merciless mirror. (Oh, even now I glance back on what I have just written — how foolish it sounds, how overdramatic.)”

Nonetheless, in her fears of the future, she also harbours a clear vision of hope in herself, as well as joy in the knowledge that the future is still hers – is still anyone’s – and that no individual must be entirely bound to any defined destiny:

“There will come a time when I must face myself at last. Even now I dread the big choices which loom up in my life — what college? What career? I am afraid. I feel uncertain. What is best for me? What do I want? I do not know. I love freedom. I deplore constrictions and limitations… I am not as wise as I have thought. I can now see, as from a valley, the roads lying open for me, but I cannot see the end — the consequences…

Oh, I love now, with all my fears and forebodings, for now I still am not completely molded. My life is still just beginning. I am strong. I long for a cause to devote my energies to…”

Even the way she signs off some of her letters to her mother speak volumes of her hope and love, as well as her happiness:

“Honestly, Mum, I could just cry with happiness. I love this place so, and there is so much to do creatively… The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon. If only I can work, work, work to justify all of my opportunities.

Your happy girl,

Sivvy”

In other letters, the subject of Plath’s writing is more mundane and perfunctory. At aged fourteen, she writes to her mother from summer camp:

“I am very busy, but not too much to write regularly to you,” she writes. “Last night I had three big helpings of potatoes (mashed) and carrots for supper and a scant helping of meatloaf as well as 2 pieces of bread and butter, 2 apricots & a glass of milk.”

And in others, she speaks intimately of her innate calling to the written word. In July of 1956, twenty-three year old Plath writes:

“Dearest Mother,

… Both of us are just slowly coming out of our great fatigue from the whirlwind plans and events of last month; and after meandering about Paris, sitting, writing and reading in the Tuileries, have produced a good poem apiece, which is a necessity to our personal self-esteem — not so much a good poem or story, but at least several hours work of solid writing a day. Something in both of us needs to write for a large period daily, or we get cold on paper, cross, or down… We are really happiest keeping to ourselves, and writing, writing, writing. I never thought I should grow so fast so far in my life; the whole secret for both of us, I think, is being utterly in love with each other, which frees our writing from being a merely egoistic mirror, but rather a powerful canvas on which other people live and move…”

What these letters clearly demonstrate is that there is heartbreaking tragedy and despair, it’s true: but there is also wholehearted exuberance. There is the hum drum of daily life and meals and eating; there is the excitement of life changing events; there is fear and there is hope; there is, simply, life.

 

Coming back for seconds

download3.jpg

What happens when you realise you may have written the “wrong” first draft of your novel? 

Here’s the thing about writing a novel: once you’ve done it, you think you can do it again. It won’t be easy, of course, but it will be easier. You now understand the skeleton of a novel. You have already answered ‘but good god, how does it all come together?’ in your moments of bright panic. You’ve done it. You’re out – on the other side.

So when I sat down to write my second novel, I was clear that I would be experimental. I understood how the novel worked, and now wanted to push boundaries with language and style. I spent two years working on the first draft. I did my research, including visiting the personal library of the Maharana of Udaipur and reading some incredible books, developed a complex plot and wove synaesthesia into the voice.

“A well-written, philosophical, carefully structured mess”

davskel

“My novel’s skeleton had its skull on its knee, an arm curving out of its ribcage like a hook and a leg growing up from its neck”

And when I was done, I found I had done everything I set out to do: good language and great research. Except, you know, my skeleton had its skull on its knee, an arm curving out of its ribcage like a hook and a leg growing up from its neck, bony toes wriggling in the air. It was a well-written, philosophical, carefully structured mess.

They talk a lot about first drafts in creative writing classes. Or blogs. Or Twitter. With good reason, I suppose. Getting your first draft out is difficult and the fear of not being perfect paralyses most writers. A first draft is hope. It tells you: this idea has a life beyond your mind or that this idea can find a home in language. It says: you can do it.

And it’s not lying. But very few people talk about the wrong first draft. The draft that is born but is dead. The draft that has the idea you think is the centre of your novel, but is nothing but a decoy. No one tells you about the novel that should be perfect, cherub cheeks and curly brown hair, but who is laughing at you from behind a tree – mischievous and mocking – because you’ve got it wrong, very wrong, and you can’t see it.

Emergency surgery

Because no one told me about the wrong first draft (or maybe because I was too attached to see it), I decided that what my perfect mess needed was a surgeon. Leg rising out of the neck? No problem – give it some surgery. Knee on skull? No problem – just remove it and put in the right place. An arm out of a ribcage can actually be quite useful, a bit like an elephant’s trunk but lower… It’s fine. It’s all there. Of course it’s all there. It’s the first draft, isn’t it? Rewriting is hard work, but it is re-writing; you work with what’s there. So that’s what I did. I sat down and performed surgery.

Except the more I cut and arranged, the more everything fell apart. Sections didn’t want to be moved up. Characters weren’t happy with debuting later in the story. Perfectly good conflict scenes crumbled on themselves when removed from what came before and after – in protest, I am convinced. The harder I tried, the more it became apparent that I wasn’t operating on a skeletal structure at all. The bones turned to mush when removed from their original positions and then into dust. My mess didn’t want to be perfected; it could only exist as the mess.

On the 52nd attempt to write the novel’s first paragraph, I gave up.

“Like being punched in the face because you didn’t see that left hook” 

I wish I could I could tell you this was a peaceful letting go – like releasing your pet sparrow into the wild or some similar poetic image that comes to mind. It wasn’t. It was falling down a cliff face because you’ve lost your grip. Being punched in the face because you didn’t see that left hook, blood gathering in your mouth and the world turning black. Curling up on your bed in a foetal position because you don’t want to uncurl anymore – because you’re not sure you even could.

And it was there – falling, blacked-out on the mat, in that foetal position – that I had to accept I knew nothing at all. I had learnt a whole collection of lessons from the first book and none of them were applicable for this one. I had learnt a collection of lessons in writing this first draft – and none of them were applicable for fixing it. I was lost and I didn’t know how to find my way. I didn’t even know where I wanted to go.

The rescue

I was rescued on a flight back from Delhi. It was on Diwali, so the plane was near empty, which is the closest I have come to experiencing a private jet. I drank rum, played sad Andrea Bocelli songs and accepted that this couldn’t go on; I couldn’t come close to tears every time someone asked so, how’s the writing going? I had to tell my publisher the book was unfeasible.

And, like a moody lover who has realised their playing-hard-to-get may lead to them being abandoned, the writing came. Whole paragraphs wrote themselves in my mind, then whole pages, then the story. It wasn’t the novel, of course; writing is still a moody lover, even when it is giving. But it was a new work and it was alive. I didn’t care about skeletons anymore. I didn’t think, where does this leg go or is this arm functioning? I went straight to creating the heart.

I want to be clear: writing is incredibly hard work. Even with moments like these, there is still structuring, planning, moments of heart-breaking doubt and pruning the whole. But this time it was different. I wasn’t writing for the novel’s structure, I wasn’t looking at how plot unfolded, I wasn’t thinking about story. I kept my eyes on the landscape of feeling beneath the book, the nebulous thing that quivers under the surface of the words, and I listened. I looked at the text, actually looked, and went where it wanted to go. I let it become, even if it wanted to become a mess.

Two months later and the draft is done. It’s a first draft like they always talk about – it’s all there, but will need more work. But it lives.

Hope

And somewhere in those two months, this second novel I’ve been talking about, this second draft that broke me, arrived as well. I woke up to find the first paragraph in my mind, along with the story’s shape and heart. A character was sitting on the edge of my bed and staring at me admonishingly. She was a side character – but, apparently, she wasn’t. She was the book.

So, technically – and I’m aware I contradicting myself but writing is a hard business, okay? – it was all there in the first draft. It was just the wrong story. The real story was sitting behind my choice of voice, perspective and plot, waiting for me to pay attention. I should say that I don’t actually begin this rewrite for a couple of months. So I may be wrong and this book may slip through my fingers again. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t.

But in those ‘maybes’, there is hope.

About the author

dRcLjbx7Tashan Mehta is a novelist based in Mumbai. Above all, her interest lies in form: the shape of a letter, the construction of a sentence, the meeting and parting of two plot threads, or the novel as a whole as it tries to capture and tack onto the mindscape. Or how it fails.

Her debut novel, The Liar’s Weave, has been published by Juggernaut Books in 2017. She is currently working on the second. She was part of the 2015 Sangam House Writers’ Residency and studied at the universities of Warwick and Cambridge, an education that allowed her to prise open and play with language. It also gave her an abiding love for tea.

This is the place to be, by Lara Pawson – book review

thisistheplaceFRONTsmall

Human beings have been reporting on wars and battles almost as long as there have been wars and battles (which may mean they have always been, if you are to accept the idea that mankind has an innate inclination toward violence). The earliest cave paintings depicted our forebears on great hunts; and oral histories of all early human civilisations recount battles and wars in their various bloody guises. Shakespeare, of course, deserves mention here for the means with which he memorialised England’s dynastic wars in his plays.

Yet the idea of professionalising this war reportage into something an individual person sets out to specifically do has perhaps more recent historical trappings. From Henry Crabb Robinson’s early reports of battles against Napoleon for the London Times, through to coverage of the D-Day landings; the French and subsequent American wars in Vietnam; through to coverage of both Gulf Wars; the Troubles in Ireland and Northern Ireland and indeed, conflict across the Middle East, Africa, and the rest of the world – the human desire to seek first-hand accounts of the multiple ways we can find means of killing one another has shifted in tone through our most recent generations.

As times change, war correspondence has changed, also – from the first wide-use of video clips to bring wars into our living rooms, through to the advent of social media, which pummels our pockets with updates from global conflicts.

The sole constant here is perhaps the war correspondent themselves. That person who witnesses war and tells, shows, or tweets their experiences to others.

What does it mean to be an observer to war? Is it possible to retain any semblance of independence as a ‘neutral’ party when one sees what war is so closely? And what do war correspondents do when there is no war to report on? How do people who derive and depict meaning from mass human violence – and how do people who earn a living through their involvement with this – respond when faced with the relative peace of society?

Answers to these questions are hard to come by and are, by their very nature, complex. Yet there is fascinating and powerful insight provided by the exceptional book This is the place to be by Lara Pawson.

Pawson, who worked as a journalist for the BBC in several African countries between 1996 and 2007, grapples with such themes – among many others (including women’s rights, the intrinsic value of language to a person’s identity, and what it means to form relationships with people who exist in a quasi-state of acquaintance; from youths in your neighbourhood to stall owners in your local market).

Reflecting on her time covering the Angolan Civil War, she writes:

“It was an incredibly intense experience, one that influenced me radically. For a long time, I tried to work out how I could retrieve it. I wanted a repeat, like that absurd sensation you get when you first take certain class-A drugs.”

In the clearest of ways, This is the place to be is in essence a written attempt at self-evaluation and rigorous self-critique. Described ostensibly as a memoir, this seems appropriate – given that, as David Sheilds notes in Reality Hunger, “For centuries, the memoir was, by definition: prayerful entreaty and inventory of sins.” Yet Pawson’s novel is not concerned with human sin, per se – there is no attempt to moralise human behavior; instead, the focus is on trying to dissect it. This refers not only to the dissection of human behavior on a societal scale – as a sociologist might – but rather, also on an intensely personal level.

Indeed, the inquisitiveness of Pawson’s prose creates an existential inquisitiveness that balances finely with the author’s inclination toward more descriptive journalistic reportage. Consider, for instance, the scene in which the narrator sees a “woman cut in half by an articulated lorry”:

“I was in my car and as I drove around the roundabout, I saw the head and bust and waist of a woman and then, a few feet away, her lower half: wearing a skirt, her ankles and feet still sticking out at the bottom. At least, that’s what I believe I saw and what I remember I saw. And it’s what I have told many people I saw. But considering the binding problem, I wonder if what I say I saw was in fact fill-in created by my brain. Which bit was real – the upper part of her body, or the lower part?”

Moving from the simple precise description of the scene, the sudden reflection and of questioning one’s own experiences – one’s own sight and memories – opens possibilities for the reader in a way simple reportage of fact fails to do. And it engages with interesting concepts and themes – not least of the which is that of the fallibility of memory.

Nothing, after all, is as unreliable as our recollections of events. We know that our brains reconstruct fragments of things we perceive to recreate wholes; meaning that what we think we saw may not be verified by CCTV cameras (if there are CCTV cameras to counterbalance against our memories). As Patrick Duff, from The Brink of Oblivion, notes: “Our memories are filled with gaps and distortions, because by its very nature memory is selective.”

The fragmentary and selective nature of memory is itself reflected in the very structure of Pawson’s book.

Of course, fragmentation as a structural form within literature is not new, yet Pawson builds on its modernist origins and takes it to somewhere new and unique (and, as she does so, skillfully avoiding becoming simply “post-modern” or unduly self-referential about it all, as other writers sometimes tend to do).

Indeed, while fragmentation was employed by some of the modernist writers of the 20th century to help them capture how the (then) modern world overloaded the human mind (think of Dubliners, by Joyce, for instance); Pawson’s This is the place to be also helps create this sense of sensory overload caused by our ‘modern’ existences – and how it can lead to fragmentation of thought and feeling. But it goes a step further because it does not seek to necessarily imply that the world is fragmenting the mind; but rather that the mind (being fragmented itself) seeks to make sense of the world through analysis of fragmented episodes, which, though they may seem unconnected and disassociated from one another at first glance, in fact share a much greater commonality.

To dwell on this for a moment longer: what is interesting about the use of fragmentation in Pawson’s book is the careful balance between unity and disunity that comes from structuring the memoir in this way. On the one hand, the chosen form enables the reader to starkly experience the horrors – and mundanity – of war, and also the mundanity – and horrors – of modern, perhaps sedentary, ‘western’ life. The disunity between, say, the tension of the author finding herself in rebel held territory, arriving at a scene of an ambush moments after a massacre, are fraught with such tension that it is a genuinely affecting experience to read. Yet contrast this with a friendly relationship with a market stall owner in Walthamstow and at first glance the impression is one of a real disconnect. However, explore the text as a whole and suddenly contrasts become comparisons and quickly similarities – jokes shared with market stall owners transpose themselves as jokes shared with the pilots of old airplanes and army vehicles, even high ranking government officials or colonels. This fragmentary sense of broken unity, or conversely, of united disunity, is surely in its own way so recognisable to ourselves as readers, because one of the fundamental truths about the human condition – of human life – is how full of simultaneous contradictions and similarities it is and can be. We are defined in so many ways by the united, harmonised parts of ourselves, even when those parts, when looked at individually and of themselves, can seem so at odds with one another under the microscope.

Speaking of microscopes can invoke a sense of forensic exploration and what This is the place to be does well is avoid any sense of intense introspection. The reader is never told what to think or how to feel, simply shown and left to bring their own meaning to the scenes they are presented with.

This style of writing is ultimately a true indication of Pawson’s great ability as a writer. After all, to write about subjects as intense as war carries with it a weight of expectation. Think, for instance, of Vonnegut’s quasi-autobiographical narrator in Slaughterhouse 5, who remarks he “thought it would be easy to write about the destruction of Dresden, because all I would have to do would be to write what I saw” – yet finds quickly that this is impossible, because the subject is “too big”. Simply writing about war is not simple at all, it seems.

In his essay, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek explores how we react when “the unimaginable impossible happen[s]”. To many (most?) of Pawson’s readers, the thought of finding ourselves in the midst of a civil war is just that: unimaginable. Yet by balancing the unimaginable with the extremely relatable (Angola vs Walthamstow, etc.), Pawson counterpoints two very real – but very different – realities in such a way that the world we cannot picture becomes more accessible; while the world we perhaps think we know becomes that little bit more strange and alien.

We live in a time when so many people now express the sentiment of “not recognising” the country or people they live with. This is true in the UK, from hard-right brexiteers who complain of non-white people working and living in their towns; through to liberal and metropolitan ‘remain’ voters, as well as left-wingers, who can’t believe hard-right brexiteers and racists seem to be in control of the UK government. And it is true of the USA, where Donald Trump was able to re-use Reagan’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan to such affect precisely because it tapped into a sentiment raging across America’s deep (but superficially hidden) divides of people who felt that ‘their’ country somehow wasn’t “great”. Similarly to the UK, Trump’s election has also shaken the self-belief of the USA’s ‘metropolitan liberal elite’, who thought that Obama’s election may have finally signalled a key change in direction for the country. That they now, in their eyes, have a misogynistic, self-proclaimed sexual harasser, blustering bigot, egregious egomaniac and would-be demonic despot for a president is, to use Žižek’s expression, “unimaginable [and] impossible”. Yet here we are.

In a world that seems so unrecognisable to so many – we need books like Pawson’s This is the place to be that shows us how to recognise things we think we cannot imagine; and reflects our feelings of uncertainty about the world and things we think we know and understand. Our worlds can so easily become so small and narrow and defined; This is the place to be helps bridge the divide between our social bubbles and the rest of the planet and reminds us, ultimately, of our place within it.

 

To purchase a copy of Lara Pawson’s This is the place to be, visit CB Editions – http://www.cbeditions.com/pawson.html 

If language is a drug, Sci-Fi is crack-cocaine

 

8th emotion

Peacock IV (2016), by Victoria Stothard – cover designer of new speculative fiction project, ‘The 8th Emotion’ 

“Science-fiction [is] the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug.”

            — Arthur C. Clarke, “Of Sand and Stars”, 1983

First off, apologies for the title. It’s a shameless piece of provocation. Obviously, crack destroys lives, and I wouldn’t want to equate it – in all seriousness – with an addiction to spaceships, lasers, and aliens. Nonetheless, the title sounded good, and it does get at what I want to discuss.

Sci-fi is not as narrow a set of parameters as perhaps many believe. It is not really just “lasers, spaceships, and aliens”, although I imagine this is what comes to most people’s minds when they hear the term.

Culture shock

Sci-fi, if anything, is about culture shock. It’s a form that implicitly dictates that something new be brought to the table, whether it’s a new world, a new species, a new technology, a new psychology… you get my drift. Some sort of breach with our everyday reality, our everyday culture, is required. Therefore, it is a form which, at its core, is built on the notion of a culture shock.

At this point, I’d like to make a distinction between the Arthur C. Clarke quote with which I began this article, and my own belief (although his wording is probably just a by-product of his time). I believe ‘speculative fiction’, though a tad clunky to say, is a better term to use when considering the most potent type of mind-altering fiction, encompassing as it does science-fiction, fantasy, and everything in-between. ‘Science-fiction’ – to me at least – has a degree of prescriptiveness: it’s exotic worlds, final frontiers, and advanced technology. ‘Speculative fiction’, as long as it’s a break from our current world, can be anything. It has a less restricted sense of what a story can be. And as the most drug-like, visionary fiction can come in a variety of guises, that seems like the safest term to use here.

So, to my original point, now amended – speculative fiction relies on culture shock. It can incorporate any genre within it (see the beautiful romantic plot thread in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, or the noir detective elements in the Blade Runner franchise) but it must always, even in a very watered-down form, contain this key ingredient.

blade-runner-2049

Speculative fiction can incorporate any genre within it – including the noir detective elements in the Blade Runner franchise. 

However, this isn’t quite the culture shock we get when we go on holiday and think, “oh, so here the steering wheel’s on the other side”, profound though that is. Culture shocks in the real world occur in a state of flux: we’re being bombarded with from all sides by ever-changing, multi-sensory stimuli; incessant distractions that diminish each other and compete for our attention. Prose is very different: it’s a very controlled reality, experienced moment by moment, word by word. With a painting, you can look around the canvas, your eye roving across the detail in whatever order it pleases; an order that is unlikely to be the same from one person to the next. Prose is the only truly linear experience of reality I can think of. As a writer, it lets you specify the exact stimulus for a brain at any given moment (through a word-form), and precisely how that flow of impressions should be arranged. It’s a very effective and finely-tuned means of interacting with another human consciousness.

“Prose is the only truly linear experience of reality […] it’s a very effective and finely-tuned means of interacting with another human consciousness.”

On a broader level, purely verbal communication is as close to telepathy as we’ve got. It’s mind communing with mind, the whole material world stripped away, leaving just information: the best rendering of our thoughts that we have. And in my opinion, the better the thoughts, the better their drug-like effect when expressed. Trite thoughts, captured in words, dull the mind. Numb your senses. High-grade thoughts can excite and elevate you, sharpen your mind, make you see the world in a whole different light. This is euphoria. And, at an extreme end, they can even produce physiological side-effects – but I’ll come to that in a second.

Really, it’s the thought, conveyed from one person to another, that is the drug. The language is just the necessary packaging; the means of transmission.

The power of language

There are two stand-out instances in my life that drove home how powerful language can be. The first was the most physiologically striking: it was after I’d been to see a live performance of Alan Moore’s spoken-word piece Unearthing, which was accompanied by music and a photographic slideshow. All these components worked in synchronicity, informing each other, vying for pole-position in your awareness, impossible to follow in their totality. I had to leave the event two-thirds of the way through, rushing to get my coach home. I remember sitting on it, staring at the passing traffic lights: they were glowing slightly but distinctively brighter than usual, like psychedelic blurs of luminosity. I felt stoned. And exactly like someone in that condition, I barely blinked for the first forty minutes of that trip.

(Later, when Unearthing was available to download, I listened to it again, this time the entire way through. Again, I felt stoned, unblinking, although here the effect lasted for more like three minutes. I imagine familiarity wore away some of its impact, as did the lack of a multi-sensory presentation.)

This is probably the peak version of language-as-drug: when it works in tandem with other art forms (like henchmen backing up a criminal mastermind) to overload your senses and mind.

The other stand-out instance utilised words alone. I was in a café, above a bookshop, in a busy central area of London. A long-term friend and I had been talking, for a couple of hours or so, about concepts like time and the quantum world. Then, in the space of a few seconds, reality got strange. I felt light-headed, trippy, as if I could happily stare at any part of the world; as if it was all full of fascinating detail. It also felt like I could sense the atoms that made up the table we were sat at, their energy; and consequently, I had the bizarre impression – while knowing it was false – that I should be able to pass my hand, ghost-like, through that solid block of wood. Between its atoms.

Like I say, this only took a moment to kick in. I asked my friend if he felt it, without specifying what ‘it’ was. He said he did. Switching back and forth, without – as far as I can recall – any leading comments, we described what we were feeling. It seemed to be identical; more than that, it had been induced synchronistically during our conversation.

Obviously, this may all sound crazy. And although, certainly on that latter occasion, it felt like I was in a heightened state, I’m not saying there was any objective validity in my sensations. But you can’t deny that’s pretty trippy.

(And no, smart-arse, I hadn’t taken any drugs that day, or even that week, and at neither event was I sat in a fug of second-hand marijuana smoke. Otherwise, these anecdotes would be rubbish).

As I mentioned, similar effects have happened to me at other times after some sort of intense interaction with language; but these are the two most pronounced cases. And what’s great when this state hits is, unlike with conventional drugs, you retain full cognitive and motor facilities. It feels like you can put the energy you have to much better use.

So if language operates exactly like, or at least has the capacity to be a drug, as these experiences have pretty firmly led me to believe, then there’s an immediate implication for prose. Seen as a psychedelic chemical compound, with words forming the atoms of the overall substance (work with me here) then the less extraneous words there are to dilute the compound, the purer and more intoxicating the final result will be. Think of it as an alcohol with a higher proof. This would fit in with the Hemingway school of writing, where you pare away every unnecessary word until the minimalism almost drives you mad (there is a daily holocaust of adverbs in his name).

Where this perspective cleaves away from that orthodoxy is in the potential of chemicals, mixed correctly, to trigger fizzing and spectacular reactions in each other. So while the spare approach of Hemingway may state that sentences should be short and sharp like a gun report, with all floridity excised, this drug metaphor would argue – and I’d agree – that words can have some of their most exciting effects when the unfamiliar collide. Three adjectives where one would do? Yes, cut that down. But three adjectives that you’ve never seen together before, which spark off one another in interesting ways, like James Joyce’s description of a woman’s body in his short story The Dead as “musical and strange and perfumed”? Keep it. That’s up there with the best of literature.

What this means is that the dictums ascribed to Hemingway and Orwell aren’t the be-all and end-all of prose style. There’s a wider palette of possibilities on offer.

However, what I’ve just said applies to all writing. And I know what you’re thinking: I began this essay in good faith expecting to learn about sci-fi and where I can get a fix of crack cocaine before midnight. Cut to the chase already!

Okay. Geez. I was just about to get there.

The other key thing that the conversation in the café above the bookshop implies is that, for language to get you into a trippy, altered mind-state, this comes easiest when you’re discussing big ideas. Ideas that feel bigger than your brain; like it can’t contain their magnitude. The concepts of time and the quantum world were the examples in that instance, but there are plenty of alternatives: space; the ancestral path and all the DNA matches that, after millennia, led to the creation of you; parallel universes; how different the universe would be if light only travelled at 30 mph; what the psychology of a deity would be; what the ramifications would have been, big and small, if that pivotal historical event had never happened/gone the other way.

All of these notions involve a large sense of scale regarding either time or space, so maybe that’s the key to spinning out your own mind with concepts alone. What they also have in common is that, though such ideas could appear in any genre, they are very much the province of speculative fiction, with them and their ilk having formed the basis for countless stories in that ideas-obsessed narrative field.

A genuine, mind-altering drug on the page

Speculative fiction is where such concepts are literalised, are given concrete form so that the reader can have – on an imaginary level – a visceral engagement with them. It is where such abstract, mind-altering notions are brought to life.

Although most speculative fiction may not reach the giddy, psyche-warping heights I’ve expounded upon here (perhaps a lack of finesse in the prose; perhaps a failure of sustained intensity of imagination) I believe this area of literature, more than any other, has the potential to do so. And the evidence is plentiful and wonderful.

There is the cosmic, puzzle-like world building of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, whose grandeur and intricacy dawns on you like a creeping madness; the fecund neologisms and innovative typography of China Miéville’s Embassytown; the screaming, horror-drenched, pioneering and unmistakable purple prose of Lovecraft; the magisterial and idiosyncratic visions of William Blake. And hopefully, in a hundred years, these authors will be seen as the mere vanguard of what was to come.

Speculative fiction is where you can unite the experimentalism of the modernists (form, language, story content, narratorial and character voices, imagery, setting, etc.) but justify it for narrative reasons, and tie it into a ripping yarn. It can be a genuine, mind-altering drug on the page.

It is, I believe, where the next level of literature lies.

About the author of this post

FullSizeRenderAttempting to practice what he preaches, Josh Spiller has written his own speculative fiction novel, entitled ‘The 8th Emotion’. He is currently trying to fund it through Kickstarter, and you can check it out – as well as get your own signed first edition – here.

 

 

 

 

 

The changing language of nature

ae9df5c2fc02497d08531feca36d059f.jpg

Is the language of the countryside is being replaced by that of the digital era? Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images

Over the last decade, the Oxford Junior Dictionary has cut a suite of words from the natural world, including “buttercup”, “acorn”, and “mistletoe”. They have been replaced by the language of the digital age – “broadband”, “cut-and-paste”, and “blog”. A question that surely arises from this is what effect such subtle changes in our curation of language will have on our future writing – and even the way future generations perceive the world, and interact with it.

If it is the priority of a dictionary to state the obvious rather than to encourage learning, then it may be argued that something has gone drastically wrong with our approach to life and – even more worryingly – with our relationship to the countryside.

In an open letter to Oxford University Press, 28 leading writers, including Margaret Atwood, penned an open letter urging the publisher to reinstate the words of nature. They wrote:

“We base this plea on two considerations […] Firstly, the belief that nature and culture have been linked from the beginnings of our history. For the first time ever, that link is in danger of becoming unravelled, to the detriment of society, culture, and the natural environment.

Secondly, childhood is undergoing profound change; some of this is negative; and the rapid decline in children’s connections to nature is a major problem.”

They add:

“All our dictionaries are designed to reflect language as it is used, rather than seeking to prescribe certain words or word usages. We employ extremely rigorous editorial guidelines in determining which words [can] be included in each dictionary, based on several criteria: acknowledging the current frequency of words in daily language of children of that age; corpus analysis; acknowledging commonly misspelled or misused words; and taking curriculum requirements into account.”

[…]

We recognise the need to introduce new words and to make room for them and do not intend to comment in detail on the choice of words added. However it is worrying that in contrast to those taken out, many are associated with the interior, solitary childhoods of today. In light of what is known about the benefits of natural play and connection to nature; and the dangers of their lack, we think the choice of words to be omitted shocking and poorly considered. We find the explanations issued recently too narrowly focussed on a lexicographical viewpoint without consideration for the social context.”

vagabond-countryside-logodaealus-1

Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images

In riposte to digital language

How might we counter the encroachment of the digital era on the language we use to describe the world – particularly the natural, ‘real’, world?

For decades the leading nature writer Robert Macfarlane has been collecting unusual words for landscapes and natural phenomena – from aquabob to zawn. His curation of such natural lexicons pulls together nine glossaries of terms taken from 30 languages, dialects and sub-dialects around Britain and Ireland. They all describe aspects of weather, nature and terrain.

Many of these words are dying out, slipping out of conversation and forgotten by those who once spoke them freely. They are being – and in some cases have already been – lost. By rediscovering them, Macfarlane offers a clear riposte to the move by Oxford University Press to replace words of the natural world with those of the digital one.

In an excellent interview with the brilliant Rowena Macdonald – whose book, The Threat Level Remains Severe, has been longlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize – Macfarlane describes two of his favourite rediscovered words:

“One is this lovely Cornish word ‘zawn’, which means a wave-smashed chasm in a sea cliff – it’s so evocative of that gaping mouth, and the power of those places,” he says. “Another is this soft, Gaelic phrase ‘rionnach maoim’, the shadows that clouds cast on moorland on a windy day. There’s something about the poetry of that, the precision and the need to compress that phenomenon down into that gorgeous soft phrase.”

Macfarlane is convinced the importance of words that describe or engage with the natural world extend beyond being simply of interest. By enriching our vocabularies, Macfarlane believes, we can change the way we interact with our landscape:

“We increasingly make do with an impoverished language for nature, a generic language: ‘field’, and ‘wood’, and ‘hill’, and ‘countryside’. It’s a very basic way of denoting, and that’s fine, and sometimes we need to speak generally,” he says. “We can’t always speak absolutely precisely. But I’m fascinated by details and by the specifics of nature, and its particularities – and language helps us to see those.”

Why should the loss of such words matter? And why should we be so enthused by Macfarlane’s work? Simply, it matters because language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we deplete our ability to denote and figure particular aspects of our places, so our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. To quote the American farmer and essayist Wendell Berry – “people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularising language, for we love what we particularly know.” Or as the author Mark Cocker puts it, “If acorn goes from the lexicon, the game is up for nature in England.”

ee4049f1bf874f66be81ea91dbe03061

Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images

Chasing the sublime

The Victorian and Romantic poets found in nature something beyond superficial human understanding or meaning: that sense of the sublime. In Peri Hypsous or On the Sublime, a work of literary criticism by the Greek author pseudo-Longinus (1st century BCE), sublimity refers to ‘excellence’ in language and to whatever is elevated or noble in the human spirit. That it has been so intrinsically bound in nature – and some of our finest examples of writing and usage of language tied in turn to this – speaks to the enormous importance of the natural world to inspire our creative minds in myriad unexpected and beautiful ways. Standing beneath Mont Blanc, Percy Bysshe Shelley found “the everlasting universe of things” and “the source of human thought”.  If we are to begin eradicating the language of nature – however slowly, or by however small degrees – we also begin to eradicate our ability to see, through nature, something that exists beyond our superficial and tenuous experiences and understanding of reality and human knowledge.

Perhaps it will one day be possible to encounter the sublime within blogs, emails, and social media. But for now it seems the likeliest way of elevating our consciousness remains in the countryside, surrounded by the beauty of the natural world.

Writing vs self-doubt

large_writers_write_meme__2_

For writers, artists and creative spirits alike, the issue of confidence – or lack thereof is as important as it is complicated. The way in which creatives align their relationship with their own work, and whether they feel confident in it or doubting, can be said in many ways to define any successful creative endeavor.

Reflecting on his poem, friendly advice to a lot of young men, Charles Bukowski explains the issue adroitly:

“The problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt. So the bad writers tend to go on and on writing crap and giving as many readings as possible to sparse audiences. These sparse audiences consist mostly of other bad writers waiting their turn to go on, to get up there and let it out in the next hour, the next week, the next month, the next sometime. The feeling at these readings is murderous, airless, anti-life. When failures gather together in an attempt at self-congratulation, it only leads to a deeper and more, abiding failure. The crowd is the gathering place of the weakest; true creation is a solitary act.”

In a way, then, self-doubt offers an antidote to the arrogance that produces most mediocre art. And this is perhaps a good thing, too, since self-doubt is likely a familiar state to many who attempt to create artistic representations of their inner lives into the outside world.

Of course, to be aware of the propensity to feel doubting in ones work is relatively healthy, as it requires a level of self-awareness and consciousness necessary to keep oneself grounded in that unique space between reality and creativity. Though of course, to be too keenly aware of it, or feel too great a sense of self-doubt, can paralyse any artistic work, as the late, great, David Foster Wallace explains:

“There’s good self-consciousness, and then there’s toxic, paralyzing, raped-by-psychic-Bedouins self-consciousness.”

The inherent problems with self-doubt means it isn’t something we readily or heartily embrace. Instead, we often run from it; we judge it, and we hedge against it using a range of coping mechanisms, many of which backfire into self-loathing. This is to be avoided: “Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt,” Zadie Smith advised in her ten rules for writing.

Few people have captured this exasperating dance with self-doubt better than Virgina Woolf. In Orlando: A Biography, Woolf captures the anguishing self-doubt with which all artists tussle along the creative process:

“Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”

How many of us have similarly spent entire nights awake at keyboards or notebooks, frantically writing word after word in what seems such an intense creative burst that everything that is put to the page must be worth something, only to look at it once the ink has dried, and we have slept a touch, to find ourselves left cold by the words on the page, and feeling a strange sense of disappointment that even in the most intense creative moments we create something that feels lacking in substance or truth?

sylvia-plath-writing-quote.jpg

We doubt ourselves because it is natural to do so; yet while awareness of an artist’s tendency to doubt themselves is healthy, it must always be balanced with a dose of self-esteem.

This is not to encourage over confidence in one’s ability, or to suggest it valuable to ignore feelings of self-doubt in one’s work. Nobody should seek to become one of the boring, over confident writers reading to each other in lonely bookstores as Bukowski warned. Yet Self-esteem for creative people is important because it helps you organise yourself and others around an idea, so that you can take it from just that – an ephemeral thought – into something real and actualised. Human beings have more ideas than we often know what to do with; to make them real takes consistent, persistent application of energy toward that idea. Self-esteem is the foundation from which this persistent application, this driving force, can emerge.

In the constant battle between writing – and re-writing (which requires an ability to revisit work you may find lacking and empty) – the crucial antidote, then, is determination. Just as the long-distance runner must repeat the same process of exercise again and again, we must bring the same commitment to writing; turning up day in, day out, regardless of weather, or whether we feel “inspired” enough; and sitting down at our desks and putting word after word and sentence after sentence, just as we place one foot in front of the other out on the road.

The writer and artist Anna Deavere Smith captures the importance of determination exquisitely in a section of her fantastic Letters to a Young Artist – a compendium of counsel addressed to all of us seeking to engage with the world through art and creativity. On the subject of creative endeavour vs self-doubt, and the importance of determination built on solid foundations of self-esteem, she writes:

“Confidence is a static state. Determination is active. Determination allows for doubt and for humility — both of which are critical in the world today. There is so much that we don’t know, and so much that we know we don’t know. To be overly confident or without doubt seems silly to me.

Determination, on the other hand, is a commitment to win, a commitment to fight the good fight.”

 

 

 

An ancestral yearning: why do writers love the ocean?

sunset-2015533_960_720

“I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world,” Herman Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, explains in the opening chapter of Moby Dick. “It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating circulation.”

There is, undeniably, something about the ocean and the sea – the “watery part of the world” – which draws human beings toward it. For millennia, we have found an affinity in these places, with their sense of the sublime – as Melville writes, we are enraptured by “times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin.” Creation myths across history and spanning a multitude of different faiths begin in the sea – as though our ancestors somehow knew, inherently, of our origins as single-celled amoebas drifting in the primordial soup of the earth’s first ever oceans.

So it is perhaps understandable that this natural human connection with the oceans can transform into something of an obsession among writers and artists. The beguiling, ever-changing nature of the sea moved TS Eliot to write: “The sea has many voices / Many gods and many voices […] we cannot think of a time that is oceanless.” Michel Foucault, meanwhile, observed that “In civilisations without boats, dreams dry up.”

Since Juliet first told Romeo: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite,” Shakespeare’s lines have been whispered for centuries by star-crossed lovers stealing his words. And the bard’s love for the sea is almost as infinite as Juliet’s for Romeo – the word ocean appears well over 200 times in his plays.

From birth to life

The Australian novelist Tim Winton has nearly drowned several times; yet he, too, comes back again and again to the ocean, both in his writing, and in his general pursuits (he plays a key role in the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s campaign to protect the ocean from overfishing and pollution). The reason for this obsession, Winton believes, is simple:

“Let’s face it, you do nine months as a free diver in your mother’s womb; you belong to a planet that’s mostly water; your body is mostly water,” Winton says.

“I don’t think there’s any mystery why we would be drawn to it – I think there’s some kind of ancestral yearning. We all came from water. It feels like home.”

Perhaps this sense of homecoming was what English poet Percy Bysshe Shelly was searching for during his days with his piratical friend Edward Trelawny, who recalled Shelley jumping into a river and sinking to the bottom, as if seeking his amniotic origins – once again returning to the womb as an unplugged foetus.

Shelley, of course, would drown before his 30th birthday. And while his death was an accident, there is a connection here that spans the centuries between both himself and another literary giant – Virginia Woolf.

That Woolf would commit suicide by drowning mirrors a deep connection with water and the sea found in her writing. In her most elegiac work, The Waves, the sea is fundamental both to the structure and themes of the book, and also to the characters themselves.  In a passage auguring her author’s own fate, Rhoda imagines launching a garland of flowers over a cliff, to “sink and settle on the waves” and her body with it, like the suicidal Ophelia. “The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling me over the waves will shoulder me under.”

A scientific hypothesis

Such intense connections – or obsessions, depending on your point of view – with the earth’s watery bodies, can possibly be explained scientifically.

In 1984 Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard University biologist, naturalist, and entomologist, coined the term “biophilia” to describe his hypothesis that humans have “ingrained” in our genes an instinctive bond with nature. He theorised that because we have spent most of our evolutionary history—three million years and 100,000 generations or more — in nature (before we started forming communities or building cities), we have an innate love of natural settings. Before that, our biological connection to water (human foetuses still have “gill-slit” structures in their early stages of development) extended for millions of years as our early ancestors evolved in the earth’s oceans. Like a child depends upon its mother, humans have always depended upon nature for our survival. And just as we intuitively love our mothers, we are linked to nature and water physically, cognitively, and emotionally.

This, perhaps, is the reason that human beings simply like to see the sea. If you hand photographs and paintings of natural landscapes to people and ask them to rate the ones they find most attractive, and which they felt more positive towards, respondents gave the highest ratings to the pictures containing water.

While humans were developing an evolutionary preference for a certain type of water-containing landscape, the human brain was also being shaped by environmental demands. Indeed, according to molecular biologist John Medina, the human brain evolved to “solve problems related to surviving in an unstable outdoor environment, and to do so in nearly constant motion.” Because water has been crucial for our survival – both as source of food, and in more recent years as a source of money through trade and maritime industries – our brains have become neurologically wired to seek out the sea.

Waves of inspiration

Perhaps, however, writers are drawn to the sea because it possesses the same infinite and impossible qualities of the imagination – and of the task of writing, or creating any form of art. Just as the sea exists in a state of constant change, can lie tranquil and calm for a seeming age before suddenly erupting into the most enraged and energetic storm, and has the power to both lift you up and drag you under to dark and fathomless depths, so too must the writer grapple with the instantaneous changes that take place within the mind and imagination; and struggle with the challenge of putting word after word to paper consistently, fighting the various afflictions of writers’ block, distraction, and self-doubt. Writing, when the words are flowing freely, has the ability to lift you up and make you soar – the adrenaline rushing in your bloodstream. But it also has the ability to make you weak, and take you down some twisting rabbit holes as you uncover the secrets of your heart.

Joseph Conrad wrote that “the sea has never adopted the cause of its masters.” Neither has the act of creative writing, which is no formulaic act that can be mastered in totality. It is perhaps this enigmatic and uncontrollable quality that so enamours writers – and human beings – and also brings them back time and time again to stand at the shore of the sea, and sit before the typewriter, blank page, or computer screen, and grapple with the frightening and exciting infinite possibilities of both the sea, and of artistic endeavour.