Grammar rules and how to break them: the run-on sentence

rules-where-were-going-we-dont-need-rules

Breaking rules are what all the cool cats are doing these days (and have been doing for years, to be honest with you – it isn’t something that goes out of fashion). Even though new writers may find themselves drawn to the myriad number of ‘rules’ for writing that exist on the internet, there are a lot of writing ‘Dos and Don’ts’ that were made to be ignored – so long as you do it right, of course.

Chief among these are often rules of grammar, syntax and punctuation. Not least because attempts to standardise language and the written word often leads to the suppression or marginalisation of communities and peoples.

Grammar rules do exist for a reason; yet learning when and how to ignore certain rules can enhance your writing.

To give you an example, in this article we’ll look at the run-on sentence – and show you how you can throw all conventional wisdom out of the proverbial window in order to write one hell’uva good story.

Cool runnings – an introduction to the run-on sentence

First things first; the basics: run-on sentences, also known as fused sentences, occur when two complete sentences are squashed together without using a coordinating conjunction or proper punctuation, such as a period or a semicolon. Run-on sentences can be short or long. A long sentence isn’t necessarily a run-on sentence.

What’s the problem with using a run-on sentence?

A run-on sentence lacks the correct punctuation to tell the reader where to pause or to signal that a new idea is being expressed. The reader may be confused about the meaning of the sentence or have to make their own decision about where to pause.

Correcting a run-on sentence can help your sentences read more smoothly and should help your reader understand what you’re trying to say more easily. The independent clauses help the sentences make sense and they are much tighter and concise by comparison to the run-on sentence structures.

Breaking the grammar rule

Now, we’re not advocating ignoring the rules around run-on sentences completely: you can’t use them for everything you write, constantly. But if you understand how to conveniently forget about the grammar rule around them from time to time, you can help bring some new-found life and variation to your stories that will leave your readers gasping for breath – and gasping for more of your writing.

In the spirit of one of the most frequently touted rules of writing – we aren’t going to tell you how to do this; but rather show you, by using examples from some of the greatest writers who didn’t think twice about what grammatical rules they may or may not have been breaking.

First up – and perhaps not surprisingly – we have James Joyce’s Ulysses, which  famously concludes with Penelope, or Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy, which has 24,048 words punctuated by two periods and one comma. Here’s a part of the final episode:

“…I suppose he was thinking of his father I wonder is he awake thinking of me or dreaming am I in it who gave him that flower he said he bought he smelt of some kind of drink not whisky or stout or perhaps the sweety kind of paste they stick their bills up with some liquor Id like to sip those richlooking green and yellow expensive drinks those stagedoor johnnies drink with the opera hats I tasted one with my finger dipped out of that American that had the squirrel talking stamps with father he had all he could do to keep himself from falling asleep after the last time we took the port and potted meat it had a fine salty taste yes because I felt lovely and tired myself and fell asleep as sound as a top the moment I popped straight into bed till that thunder woke me up as if the world was coming to an end God be merciful to us I thought the heavens were coming down about us to punish when I blessed myself and said a Hail Mary like those awful thunderbolts in Gibraltar and they come and tell you theres no God what could you do if it was running and rushing about nothing only make an act of contrition the candle I lit that evening in Whitefriars street chapel for the month of May see it brought its luck though hed scoff if he heard because he never goes to church mass or meeting he says your soul you have no soul inside only grey matter because he doesnt know what it is to have one yes when I lit the lamp yes…”

If you find this difficult to follow, you’re not alone. At the time of writing, this soliloquy contained the longest sentence ever written at 4,391 words, which made it the master of all run on sentences.

Nonetheless, while you might not want to go quite as far as Joyce, you can see how ignoring conventional grammatical wisdom can enhance the intensity, voice, and style of your writing. It helps your words to flow freely, adding life and vigour to your writing.

For our second example, we’re turning to another literary great, David Foster Wallace. His short story Incarnations of burned children was first published in Esquire magazine and you can read it online for free (do it now).  The story consists of only nine sentences, and yet is 1100 words. The breathless run-on sentences intentionally lend to a panicked, anxious reading, a messy and somewhat incoherent babble as neither the narrator nor the Daddy nor the Mommy can slow down and think rationally.

Here are the first three sentences of the story, to give you a flavour of how Wallace breaks traditional grammatical rules to such devastating effect:

“The Daddy was around the side of the house hanging a door for the tenant when he heard the child’s screams and the Mommy’s voice gone high between them. He could move fast, and the back porch gave onto the kitchen, and before the screen door had banged shut behind him the Daddy had taken the scene in whole, the overturned pot on the floortile before the stove and the burner’s blue jet and the floor’s pool of water still steaming as its many arms extended, the toddler in his baggy diaper standing rigid with steam coming off his hair and his chest and shoulders scarlet and his eyes rolled up and mouth open very wide and seeming somehow separate from the sounds that issued, the Mommy down on one knee with the dishrag dabbing pointlessly at him and matching the screams with cries of her own, hysterical so she was almost frozen. Her one knee and the bare little soft feet were still in the steaming pool, and the Daddy’s first act was to take the child under the arms and lift him away from it and take him to the sink, where he threw out plates and struck the tap to let cold wellwater run over the boy’s feet while with his cupped hand he gathered and poured or flung more cold water over his head and shoulders and chest, wanting first to see the steam stop coming off him, the Mommy over his shoulder invoking God until he sent her for towels and gauze if they had it, the Daddy moving quickly and well and his man’s mind empty of everything but purpose, not yet aware of how smoothly he moved or that he’d ceased to hear the high screams because to hear them would freeze him and make impossible what had to be done to help his child, whose screams were regular as breath and went on so long they’d become already a thing in the kitchen, something else to move quickly around.”

Protect your voice

If we were to ‘correct’ the work of Joyce and Wallace (to name just two authors who ignore the run-on sentence rule), we may make them conform more closely with standardised English language; but both works would lose something fundamental in doing so. They would lose their energy; they would lose their voice.

Since a writer’s voice has more to do with what meaning is or isn’t conveyed to the reader than the grammatical rules and syntactical structures we place upon our written language, these stories would have their fundamental essence rearranged and, ultimately diminished.

So, if you find yourself locked in a burst of frenzied writing energy and wake the next morning covered in raw coffee beans and ink (we’ve all been there) to find that your prose is riddled with run-on sentences; don’t worry. Sit back, re-read what you’ve written, and remember the timeless (though slightly paraphrased) words of Doc Brown from Back to the Future: “Rules? Where we’re going, we don’t need rules…”

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Creatives in profile: interview with The Ultra

d20188987445f363cfd44e8282f153eb

The Ultra. Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images.

In the latest of our ‘Creatives in profile’ interview series, it is an honour to introduce you to Joel Alexander and Paul Dogra – the duo behind independent rock/electronic band, The Ultra.

First founded in East London, The Ultra is a band that likes to experiment and create interesting emotive music that captures memorable hooks and melodies. To date, The Ultra have two EP’s and two videos out, as well as a write up in in the popular local magazine The E-list. They also have their debut EP ‘When The World Turns Out Its Lights’ signed to Platform Records and recently had their track ‘Universe In Two’ used on a trailer for a new computer game called ‘Die Young’.

You can check their music out here  and follow them on Twitter @UltrabandUK. We hope you enjoy this detailed interview…

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourselves, where you live and your background/lifestyle?

THE ULTRA

Joel:

We are Paul and Joel Aka ‘The Ultra’, and we met and started creating music after meeting through a musician’s site in London.

I am originally from all over the south of England as my parents liked to move around. Later I was actually living round the corner from Paul when we met, which was convenient. I now live with my partner in Copenhagen, Denmark and fly back regularly to work with Paul. My background has always involved singing in bands and writing lyrics.

Paul:

I am originally from London and studied in Brighton.  I currently reside in East London to be near my 5 yr old daughter who delightfully absorbs my time when I am not writing music.  My life revolves around my daughter and music – these are both what make me content and purposeful in life.

I have been in various bands over the years that were more guitar based and played many gigs in the late 90s and early 00s in London.  I have worked with other musicians over the years on a variety of projects, but more in the background.  There came a point in 2014 when I rediscovered dance and electro based music again, and so I started to write with this in mind, with the primary focus of forming a duo with a co-writer/singer.

INTERVIEWER

Is music your first love, or do you have another passion?

THE ULTRA

Joel:

I would probably say yes, as I have grown up listening and being very passionate about music, probably also due to my parents playing a wide range of music when I was a kid. I also enjoy travelling very much and – of course – spending time with my partner, Ida.

Paul:

Music has always been my passion and it is how I express my emotions and inner most thoughts.  I use music almost as a form of meditation – to help forget my worries and concerns.  My other passion would of course be my daughter, Orla, who I adore and is my absolute world!

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

THE ULTRA

Joel:

I have been inspired by great bands from Depeche Mode to Pearl Jam, Peter Gabriel and Dire Straits. I am also inspired by people who have overcome great hardship.

Paul:

The main artist that inspires me musically and spiritually is Depeche Mode, also the U2 period 1991 – 2005.  I am also inspired to write music to enable my daughter in years to come to admire my creative side and be proud of what I achieved.  I guess its about wanting to leave a legacy of music for her.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

THE ULTRA

Joel:

I guess it was the music I listened to as a kid, Eddie Vedder was a great teacher from afar. I have worked with vocal coaches over the years too, some good, some not so good. When you find your true real voice it gets more straight forward.

Paul:

I am fan of U2 musically and lyrically.  Their songs taught me how to approach writing a song in terms of dynamics, textures, and creating atmosphere.  I was heavily influenced by the guitar style of The Edge to play a minimalist yet effective guitar sound.  Depeche Mode obviously too.

INTERVIEWER

How would you describe your current sound?

THE ULTRA

Joel:

I would say electronic with rock elements, experimental and atmospheric.

Paul:

I would say it is electro/alternative and experimental.  We like to challenge ourselves to create emotive and interesting music that hopefully captures people.

INTERVIEWER

As primarily a community of writers, we’re keen to learn about your creative songwriting process. How does a song usually develop – do you first start with the lyrics, melody, chord progression, or something else?

THE ULTRA

Joel:

Paul will normally send me over a melody idea and then I will start writing to that, after we have the rough lyrics and a guide vocal we will then build the track around that.

Paul:

It starts in various ways – sometimes a drum loop or beat I have found, or playing around with synth sounds – this then creates a mood with which to build upon.  I’ll then put down a basic template of chord progression and sounds. Then I will send this to Joel who will work on melody and lyrics.  When Joel feels he has a basic idea, we will record vocals and work out what does and doesn’t work. That will then provide a template to build upon with more sounds and instruments.

The exciting thing is that I wouldn’t have heard Joel’s ideas until he records a draft vocal – I always look forward to this.  As always, Joel will complement the music ideas I have so well.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a favourite place or time that you like to write?

THE ULTRA

Joel:

Not really – when I sit down and decide to write. I generally get lost in the track so anytime works.

Paul:

I am at my most creative at night and like to write and lay ideas down then – usually with a glass or two of red wine!

INTERVIEWER

Where do your ideas for songs originate from?

THE ULTRA

Joel:

Current feelings I guess, also what may be happening in the world at the time or something I have seen recently that sticks with me.

Paul:

From a certain emotion, thought or mood I am in at that time – that could be about my personal life or something I have heard or read in the news.

INTERVIEWER

Does a certain emotion trigger your songwriting impulse?

THE ULTRA

Joel:

Often feeling reflective, full of questions or if I really feel I need to get some words/emotions out.

Paul:

Yes, usually an emotion of sadness, hurt or doubt.  Certainly I know that Joel’s lyrics complement the basic mood I try to write from a music perspective.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think is the relationship between lyrics and poetry?

Paul:

Yes, I would say there is a relationship, but I do not know if Joel approaches his lyrics in this way.  My favourite lyricists are Bono and Martin Gore, who I feel have a sense of poetry in their writing.

Joel:

Lyrics are poetry to music.

INTERVIEWER

When putting together a new song, do you tend to work in long stretches, or short bursts?

THE ULTRA

Paul:

It depends on how creative I get when writing.  This can mean long bursts because I am determined to get a basic idea down.

Joel:

We spend a long time crafting the songs once we have the idea down, it is a nice process.

INTERVIEWER

When creating a new song, how do you maintain motivation through the whole process – from the initial idea, to writing the lyrics and music, playing, rehearsing, practising, editing, finally recording and then releasing to the public?

THE ULTRA

Paul:

This can depend on song the song(s) we are working on.  From my point of view, when I have an initial idea (and if it is really inspiring) then this will increase the motivation and workflow.  If I have an idea that I think is really good, I will want to get a very basic template down and then send to Joel for his thoughts and suggestions.  Joel will then work on his melodies and lyrics for the song.

When Joel feels that he has good ideas we will co-ordinate dates to record draft vocals in London.  Once these are completed this will motivate me to work more crafting the song with layers and sounds based on Joel’s melodies.  Once we are both satisfied, then we set a date for final recording of vocals.  We have a very dedicated and intense recording workflow.

I then spend much time editing the song which involves more dynamics and textures.  I know at times Joel can get frustrated as to why a song takes so long to have a final mix!  I guess I am in my element when I am mixing and editing away on a song – sometimes I do need Joel to say “come on mate, don’t over do the song now!”.  Setting deadlines is how we tend to motivate ourselves, which we discuss in detail.

Joel:

The belief in the songs and the excitement I get as they develop keeps me          motivated for sure! But, yes, as Paul says I think it is important to set deadlines as to not let the song stagnate.

INTERVIEWER

A number of songwriters have spoken about the power of music to change the world. In these turbulent political times, what role do you think music has to play in putting forward new ideas, or challenging existing ones?

THE ULTRA

Paul:

Certainly I would suggest that music is an ‘escapism’ from the reality of the turbulent times that surround us.  I guess music and lyrics can help define a mood, thought, or worry a person has and ‘hide away’ from the worries at that time.  Lyrics most definitely make a statement about the times we are in.

Joel:

Yes, I think you can get a strong message across through music and this has been done many times over the years. Whether the people who can actually do something listen is a different story.

INTERVIEWER

In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher speaks about the catch-22 situation some musicians find themselves in, where “a protest against MTV is the only thing guaranteed to get you airtime on MTV”. How do you perceive the relationship between new or independent music artists and the corporate music studio corporations and power structures?

THE ULTRA

Paul:

This really resonates with us, because we are independent and self-financing musicians.  The corporate music studios and power structures hold immense sway in getting music heard on radio stations and promoting artists. I think that there is a ‘battle’ against the independent artist and the big corporations for exposure and to make an impact.  Unfortunately, the independent artist does not have the same money or influence as the corporates, so this is so frustrating when all we want to do is ‘get our music heard’ and play decent music venues.

Joel:

It is difficult as an independent artist trying to get your work out there; but I think when things happen for you it is all the more rewarding. It is a shame there seems to be such a big divide these days. I can’t remember last time I heard a new experimental song in the charts. But then again I don’t listen to the charts often anymore.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as musicians and artists?

THE ULTRA

Paul:

Yes, in terms of honesty. In my personal life, I would like to think I am ethically responsible in my everyday life of how I treat people.  I am aware that I have a young daughter who will be on this planet for years to come and so from an environmental point of view and how to behave, I like to think I am ethical.

Joel:

Yes I do, I think how we as artists come across is very important and it is also important to stick to one’s beliefs.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the music industry? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining?

THE ULTRA

Paul:

Certainly it is much easier to be able to ‘put your music out there’ for people to hear and watch, and the power of social media is clearly evident.  However, there unfortunately is still an element that the big-label players have the connections to elevate your music and contacts for air/video play.

Joel:

I think a shake up needs to happen sometime. Spotify is a big one where the artist has control of their music and can get it out there and earn money from it without needing support from a label.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

THE ULTRA

Paul:

We have a live performance video of our song Incognito in final editing at the moment, which we will then promote.  We are also working on new ideas and hoping to look towards targeted live performances with a drummer later in the year.

Joel:

Exactly what Paul said, we have loads of stuff coming up!

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

THE ULTRA

Joel:

The world spun then went numb.

Paul:

This is impossible!

 

Faking Lit feat. Nothing in the Rulebook: a serious discussion about Dinosaur Erotica

Faking Lit1

Would you be averse to a velociraptor opening your door handle at night? Have you ever looked at a picture of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and thought they’d make a great CEO of a large financial firm? These questions – and more – have been both raised and answered in the latest issue of the acclaimed podcast ‘Faking Lit’, in which five rising comedians get together to talk about books they may or may not have actually read.

Nothing in the Rulebook were thrilled to be invited onto the show to discuss the intriguing world of dinosaur erotica – where humans and dinosaurs get all kinds of jiggy with it.

Sitting within the wider genre of ‘moster book porn’, dinosaur erotica has proved to be quite the explosive phenomenon. Some of the best-selling authors behind the books (usually self-published) have earned so much from their craft that they have been able to quit their day jobs. With these books ranging in size from one to fifteen pages, and featuring titles such as ‘Taken by the T-Rex’ and ‘My billionaire triceratops craves gay ass’, the team behind Faking Lit had just one main question: just how hard can writing dinosaur erotica be?

Check out the podcast below and find out more about the quite frankly insane world of dinosaur erotica through the following helpful resources:

Watch Faking Lit live

On Thursday 29th March, the Faking Lit podcast team at Waterstones Tottenham Court Road, London, in a live Easter special of the podcast, as they work together to unlock the mysteries of Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel of Jesus secrets, The Da Vinci Code.

Check out the podcast

The podcast is available on Soundcloud, iTunes,Tunein and Stitcher.

Follow Faking Lit on Twitter via @Faking_Lit_Pod

Creatives in profile: interview with Helen Rye

bio photo

The world of a short story may be more condensed than the world of a novel, but its emotional impact can be as wide-ranging as a novel’s. Indeed, whether you want to call it micro-fiction, sudden fiction, smokelong lit, short-shorts or flash fiction, writing short stories requires dedication, skill and applying new techniques to make them zing. But, when done right, these pieces of fiction can offer a true – albeit fleeting – moment of literary delight to both writers and readers.

With booksellers reporting a surge in the popularity of the short story, Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with one of those writers brave enough to embrace the short story as their form of choice.

Helen Rye has arrived on the short-story scene with quite the onomatopoeic splash and bang since her debut short story was nominated for the 2016 Bridport Prize – with her stories variously winning or being shortlisted for a number of other prestigious short story competitions since.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview…

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

RYE

I live in Norwich, UK, a beautiful city packed to the seams with talented writers, due in part to the legendary MA creative writing programme at the UEA. I don’t have an MA, but I have benefited via a sort of trickle-down effect from some brilliant classes and writing groups run by people who do.

My main work background is in homelessness and drug work, but I’ve also been a lab technician, a classroom assistant, a cleaner, an admin worker, a voluntary theatre company director and an underqualified parent. I’ve wanted to be writer since I was eight and was encouraged by a couple of English teachers to pursue it seriously, but I dropped in and out of school as a teenager. After being told in sixth form that there was no way to study creative writing beyond school, I ended up leaving to work in a science lab, studying physics part-time at a tech college.

I was always writing in my head, but too afraid to put it down on paper for such a long time in case I turned out not to be any good at it after all. For years I kept telling myself that soon I would write, until I was staring down the barrel of a milestone birthday and decided it was now or never. I took a couple of courses and joined a writing group, where I was introduced to flash fiction via a Kit de Waal story. I REALLY wanted to learn how to do that, so had a stab at it, and that story – the first thing I’d ever subbed anywhere – ended up being shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. That gave me enough of a confidence boost to try writing some more and (I know this sounds incredibly jammy), the next story I sent out won the October 2016 Bath Flash Fiction Award, out of 700 entries.

I’ve since had other stories published in various online and print journals and anthologies and went on to win the Reflex Fiction Prize in the summer of 2017, as well as unceremoniously crashing and burning in other contests. Confidence is such a strange thing, isn’t it. I’m still really reticent about sending stuff out, and am fairly brutally aware of my shortcomings as a writer. The last few months have been a particularly busy and difficult time in my life, but I’m hoping now to press through this hesitancy – basically, to get over myself and get subbing.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

RYE

No, it’s writing. That’s my thing. I also love music, though, and I have been part of an improv comedy troupe, although I’ve come to the conclusion that my brain just doesn’t work fast enough for that. I do love the creative, collaborative nature of music and of improvised theatre, though, and the incredible sense of teamwork and connection that comes with both – I get that from the writing community, too  – the flash fiction writers are my lovely dysfunctional extended family. We get each other in a way that nobody else does, beautiful obsessive weirdos that we are.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

RYE

Oh, gosh. Well everyone who can write a beautifully constructed sentence that takes my breath away with its emotional impact, and anyone who can produce a flash story that shines with heart and poetry. So many writers. My mentor, Tania Hershman – as well as being a wonderful, joyful writer, she is a shiny, glowing human full of life and encouragement. One or two of my closest writing friends who would probably be embarrassed if I named them, but they know who they are. People who give so much to the writing community in editing journals, helping other writers develop, writing incredible stories themselves. People who always make time to workshop your story twenty minutes before the deadline you forgot you had. People full of kindness, humour and humility who are willing to slice open a bit of their heart and lay it on the page, make themselves vulnerable in order to say something worth saying. These guys keep me sane and keep me writing with their support and encouragement.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

RYE

I had two dedicated and (here comes that word) inspirational English teachers at school who both said they were keeping stuff I’d written because they thought I’d be a famous writer one day. Sorry to disappoint you there, guys. But thank you so much for your encouragement – I definitely wouldn’t have tried to write at all if it weren’t for you. Then in more recent years I did some creative writing courses with former UEA people Lisa Selvidge, Stephen Carver, Andy McDonnell and Ian Nettleton. They’re all utterly fantastic teachers, genuinely.

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to flash fiction?

RYE

Flash is everything that’s best in writing, to me. It’s closer to poetry than it is to longer fiction, I think – the condensing of ideas and feeling, the need for single or pared down imagery and language. At its best (i.e. other people’s) it’s a laser-cut jewel of perfect shining prose. It can break your heart in pieces in such few words. I love poetry too, but I don’t understand it well enough to write it well and I relate better to the clearer narrative of flash. A great flash story will make me feel something, and that’s almost the whole reason I read. Writing it lets me work out and express what I feel or think about something better than anything I know. I’d trot out that old line that it’s faster to write flash than longer fiction, but for most flash writers I know that’s not actually true. When you have few words to tell a story you try to get every one of them right. I hope there’s no function on my computer that can tell you how long I’ve spent per word on a given story – I’m sure whole novels have been written faster and better.

INTERVIEWER

How easy do you find it to move between different writing forms/mediums – can you balance writing a novel with crafting flash fiction or short stories?

RYE

I’m focussing on trying to get better at writing flash at the moment, but have accidentally written some hybrid pieces that stray towards prose poetry territory. I have begun thinking about returning to the shambolic collection of scenes on my laptop that I’ve sometimes described as a novel draft, and I have a couple of children’s fiction drafts and ideas I’m wanting to find the time to return to. How easy I’ll find that shift, I’ll let you know when I try it!

INTERVIEWER

How do you maintain your motivation for writing?

RYE

The crazy obsessive in me can’t let it be. It’s how my brain works, I think in terms of stories and eccentric language and metaphors, and it’s one way I try to make sense of the world. If I didn’t keep writing now I’d probably develop some other, more self-destructive habits, so I need to keep it up, I think. And the support and encouragement of writer friends. I’d be weeping under a duvet without them.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel writers should feel any ethical responsibility in their roles?

RYE

I don’t think you can divorce ethical responsibility from anything you do. Nobody wants to read preachy writing, but sometimes what drives us to write is an unbearable sense of injustice, or the suffering of other people. And maybe occasionally a story will make someone think – or rather, feel – deeper – who knows. Doing our absolute best not to be a part of endemic racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism etc is everyone’s responsibility, and that extends to art.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write?

RYE

No. Maybe I should, I don’t know. I kinda just write and hope it might end up beautiful in some way, say what I want it to say, and that someone somewhere will read it and not completely hate it.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry (if we can call it thus)? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining?

RYE

I’m a mum from Norfolk and I’ve only been submitting stories for about 18 months – I’m not sure I’m aware of general trends within the writing industry… I think flash is becoming more mainstream, maybe? There seem to be more opportunities for chapbooks and collections to be published commercially than a year or so ago, which can only be fairly wonderful. Maybe the literary world is catching up with us flash writers, here at the tiny but sharpened cutting edge of short story writing…

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

RYE

I’ve just joined the editorial board of Ellipsis Zine, a fantastic online flash fiction magazine, and also been asked to act as fiction editor for another print journal. Both of those are incredibly exciting for me. I have a back catalogue of mothballed flash stories in need of editing and sending out and I’m hoping desperately to find the time and confidence to do that now. I have that half-written and possibly very bad novel hidden in a dark corner and I need to brush the beetles off that and see if it’s worth working on. I also have some children’s picture book texts I’m trying to psych myself up to send to an agent. And an idea for a children’s novel that’s been occupying a small space in my head for about a decade. What I really need is someone to prod me with sticks until I get over myself and just do this stuff because who knows, hey. It’ll definitely never get anywhere if nobody ever sees it.  And that’s what writer-friends are for.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

RYE

No.

Kidding, but they’re so hard! Ok, erm…

Whiteness would have made him bulletproof.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Lunar Poetry Podcasts

DavidTurner_ThomBartley

David Turner, founder of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. Photo credit: Thom Bartley 

It’s no secret that the team here at Nothing in the Rulebook are always looking out for new and exciting creative projects. So when we stumbled upon the work of the exquisitely excellent Lunar Poetry Podcasts, we immediately wanted to introduce all our fine readers to it, too.

Founded in October 2014 in south-east London, Lunar Poetry Podcasts features discussions, interviews and live recordings with poets in the UK and further afield.  Now based in Bristol, the podcast recently agreed a deal with The British Library which will result in the entire series being archived in their audio archive.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview with the founder of this fabulous podcast, David Turner.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

TURNER

I was born in London, went to secondary school in The Fens and rejected a job offer from The Royal Signals before serving an apprenticeship as a Bench Joiner. This opening sentence can be read, equally, as an explanation and/or an excuse for not having any formal background in Literature.

After my most recent stay in a secure psychiatric unit, in 2014, I founded the online series Lunar Poetry Podcasts in lieu of a place on a creative writing course. In 2018, along with my wife, I founded a second podcast series, a poem a week – as I definitely didn’t already have enough to do!

I’m a poet, though widely unpublished, drawing on my working-class upbringing and experiences as a frequent user of the mental health services, both in south London and the south of Norway.  I can often be found standing in solidarity alongside the good folk of Poetry On The Picket Line.

My ethos? – If the door has been opened for me then I’ll be holding it open for others… or kicking it off its hinges.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

TURNER

Anyone living with a mental illness in the face of social pressures to present themselves as a survivor.

LPP new 2500x2500

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about Lunar Poetry Podcast – what inspired you to first set the podcast up; and how has it developed from then?

TURNER

In the summer of 2014 I began writing reviews of live poetry events for Lunar Poetry Magazine and even with a generous word count of 1500 words it was impossible to cover all of the topics that I wanted to discuss. In the autumn of that year I suggested to the editor, Paul McMenemy, the idea that I could record and publish three conversations with poets and see how popular they proved. My first three recordings were with Pat Cash (founder of Spoken Word London), Helen Mort and three spoken word artists in Stockholm.

Very early on I was attracted by the idea of building a platform that would provide a space for writers who weren’t afforded that space by other mainstream outlets, to talk about their creative process.

Since 2014, the series has developed from a series of interviews conducted solely by me into a series involving guest hosts guiding conversations with editorial autonomy on subjects they feel are important.

INTERVIEWER

What does it take to pull together a literary podcast?

TURNER

At the beginning you only need a basic understanding of what a podcast should be; this knowledge will grow over time and will be specific to the podcast that you’re making. In terms of making a literary podcast my advice would be the same as if you want to be a writer… read. Read. Read.

Basic requirements: a mic, a recorder, a hosting platform. I started off recording into my iPad Mini using a Blue Yeti mic and uploading to YouTube – this isn’t technically a podcast as YouTube doesn’t offer the opportunity to download and doesn’t produce a RSS Feed.

I now record into a Zoom H6 recorder, usually using Røde Lavalier mics, I edit in Reaper (cleaning the audio with iZotope Audio plug-ins), and host all episodes on Soundcloud which then shares with iTunes, Stitcher Radio and Acast.

Pulling together a literary podcast also includes emails… millions of fucking emails!

INTERVIEWER

How do you plan and prepare for each new episode?

TURNER

This has change a lot since 2014. I used to make extensive notes, even going as far as writing loose scripts for each episode. With time and gained experience, though, I’ve come to trust my instincts and ability to guide a conversation and I tend now to go into recordings with few or no notes. I like to be familiar with any collections that may be discussed in interviews but not to the point where my opinion of the work becomes the main focus.

When producing episodes with guest hosts most of my prep involves gauging how confident they are and either reassuring them that everything will turn out fine or simply giving them an outline of how I want the episode to shape up.

On the day of the recording I try to make sure I eat beforehand and stay hydrated as suddenly feeling faint during an interview is a horrible experience.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any other podcasters you listen to regularly for new ideas? Or any like-minded websites that you’d recommend checking out?

TURNER

Page One Podcast is a beautiful insight into the reading habits of a huge number of writers and artists. I absolutely love the Radio 4 podcast, Only Artists. I tend to listen to podcasts as a break from the literature stuff and the four podcasts I’m currently listening to regularly are – The Adam Buxton Podcast, Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Podcast, Imaginary Advice and The Wire: Stripped… you know, because I’m a 36-year-old white man.

Websites? And Other Poems, Proletarian Poetry and Hotel.

INTERVIEWER

What does the average day look like to you?

TURNER

Up until last week I worked full-time in a caravan factory, repairing damp caravans but I mutually agreed with the employment agency that that particular zero-hours contract wasn’t working for either of us. I’m now on an endless battle to not lose myself on YouTube while I look for part-time work that will allow me to pay my rent and produce the podcast.

A day of editing involves: coffee, a run-through of the audio (usually 90 mins total) on Reaper which takes around three hours, lunch and then another run through the audio on Reaper (another three hours). I’ll do this twice for each episode before reaching the point of wanting to dig my eyeballs out with a teaspoon.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a podcast should be for? Why are they important?

TURNER

I’m really trying not to sound like a knob here but a podcast should fulfil whatever the expectations are of the listener. If the listener wants to be distracted or find some form of escapism then that’s what the podcast should deliver. Similarly, if the listener wants in-depth engagement with political debate then this should be the producer’s goal.

I don’t believe that podcasts are inherently important, though what they do that is different from the radio, for example, is allow producers to focus on niche subjects in a way that isn’t available to mainstream media channels. I suppose this in itself is what is important, and a number of podcasts have proven that there is a desire from listeners to engage with nuanced and focused programming.

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the way we communicate. What role do you see podcasts playing in this new “digital era”?

TURNER

I understand very little about this digital era outside of the very narrow thing that I do so can’t really answer that. I think, in general, podcasters aren’t very good at answering that question as what most of us do is force an analogue process out through a digital platform. Two people who certainly could answer this question more deeply (or at least have the experience to think about it properly) are Matthew Plummer-Fernandez and Alison Parrish.

INTERVIEWER

When there are so many podcasts, and so many different voices speaking at once – how do you try to make your voices heard – how do you cut through the babble?

TURNER

This is probably the point at which social media and promotion are at their most important. Trying to identify where there may be opportunities for cross-promotion, for example. Did the conversation cover mental health issues, and would mental health charities be interested in sharing the episode? Did your guest talk about their class identity and would specific unions or organisations be interested in promoting the discussion?

I was also lucky enough to be invited to record four live interviews at this year’s Verve Poetry Festival. Presenting the podcast series to a live literature audience was a wonderful opportunity and I saw a definite spike in listening numbers immediately after the festival.

I’m also hoping to have a table at this year’s Poetry Book Fair with the aim to just hand out loads of fliers and chat to visitors about the series.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the main challenges you face?

TURNER

Raising awareness of podcasts in general and getting other literature/poetry organisations to realise the value of series like LPP.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

TURNER

The ability to negotiate a way around the question, “why the fuck am I doing this?”

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for the podcast? Any exciting projects or episodes in the pipeline?

TURNER

I’m currently in the process of negotiating a paid mentoring project in which I’ll support some young literature producers, here in Bristol, in developing and producing their own podcast focusing on BME poets in the UK.

2018 will see me continuing to archive LPP’s entire archive within The British Library’s Sound & Drama Department. This is a really exciting opportunity as it’s still unusual for podcasts to be archived in this way, and I’m really happy to have enabled over 200 poets to get recordings of and discussions around their work housed in an internationally famous institution.

There’s another brilliant project in the pipeline which I can’t talk about just yet but has so far involved compiling a list of poets in sort of a fantasy poetry league-style team sheet before emailing them all an invitation. More on this over the next couple of months on our website.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

TURNER

It’s certainly possible, though ultimately pointless.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring podcasters?

TURNER

  • Join the ‘Podcasters Support Group’ on Facebook
  • Remember that you will never feel ‘ready to start’
  • If you can’t afford your own mic/recorder then ask someone if you can borrow their equipment (while they supervise). Podcasters are a very friendly bunch.
  • Your podcast artwork needs to be 1500×1500 in size in order to be accepted by iTunes.
  • The best way to record a remote/skype/international interview is for your guest to record themselves and then send you their audio. It is an unnecessary stress to rely on two internet connections for a clean recording.
  • LISTEN TO YOUR GUEST. LISTEN TO YOUR GUEST. LISTEN TO YOUR GUEST.
  • Make the podcast that makes you happy.

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.

10 books to read on St Patrick’s Day

St_Patrick's_Day_2012_in_Moscow.jpg

Curling up with a book (or doing anything with a book, for that matter) may not be how you would first think to spend your St Patrick’s Day.

A national holiday for the Emerald Isle which has been adopted by peoples across the world with no connection to Ireland but a keen desire to use any excuse to drink a lot and have a party, St Patrick’s day is perhaps more often seen as an obligation to drink Guinness and Whiskey than get au fait with some literature.

Sure, it can be a great lark to don some light-up shamrock earrings and drink your own weight in alcohol – but it’s also a fine idea to explore some of the country’s greatest books, both from the literary titans who shaped the modern novel, to those writing today (and all those in between).

If you’re feeling lucky this St Patrick’s Day, why not check out some of these crackin’ Irish books below:

1. Reading in the dark, by Seamus Deane

Reading in the darkIn strikingly lucid language and scenes fired by a spare, aching passion, Reading in the Dark combines the intimacy of a memoir with the suspense of a detective story. Seamus Deane’s poetic inclinations shine through in his debut novel, perfectly illuminating a coming-of-age story of an unnamed narrator in Northern Ireland. Deane captures the underlying, subconscious fears present throughout the course of the ‘troubles’ – where people live as “if they might explode any minute” and can be “disappeared”. Yet this is a pervading background to an essentially familial story, which contemplates love, religion, innocence, love and truth. And while answers to the novels questions come in bits and pieces, by the turn of the last page readers lives have been illuminated, washed in an elegant, graceful and forgiving prose.

2. Dubliners, by James Joyce

dubliners.jpgFrom (arguably) the king of the modernist movement, James Joyce’s Dubliners plants the reader in the heart of – you guessed it – Dublin. This collection of short stories explores everything from sexual awakening to loss in an attempt to depict the paralysis of the city he loves.

Rejecting euphemism, Joyce’s prose reveals the Irish in their unromantic reality – with fifteen stories offering glimpses into the lives of ordinary Dubliners.

Ultimately, Joyce’s genius is proving to all readers that Dublin is so much more than a tour of the Guinness factory (even if it is Paddy’s Day).

3. A Girl is a half-formed thing, by Eimear McBride

half formed thing.jpg“Definitely a genius” according to Irish writer Anne Enright, Eimear McBride transports you directly into her narrator’s mind and heart, making this experimental, award-winning novel totally unforgettable. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing tells a sensitive and brutal story about the relationship between a young girl and her brother, as they navigate experiences of sexual violence, family crisis, and mental and physical illness.

In edgy, hazy, stream-of-consciousness prose, McBride introduces us to a host of well-drawn characters that appear taken directly from the streets and fields of Ireland – ranting, Catholic mothers, difficult brothers and a pervy uncles.

4. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

gullivers-travelsIn this epic fantasy yarn of a shipwrecked traveller, Swift directs a satirical fury against almost every aspect of early 18th-century life: science, society, commerce and politics. Second, stripped of Swift’s dark vision, it becomes a wonderful travel fantasy for children, a perennial favourite that continues to inspire countless versions, in books and films. Finally, as a polemical tour de force, full of wild imagination, it became a source for Voltaire, as well as the inspiration for a Telemann violin suite, Philip K Dick’s science-fiction story The Prize Ship, and, perhaps most influential of all, George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

5. Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

brooklyn.jpgA beautiful coming-of-age tale set in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis Lacey in America, she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind. Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to establish her life in Brooklyn, devastating news from Ireland brings her back to Enniscorthy. Eilis is forced to choose between America and Ireland–and two men who embody these places–in the midst of the sweeping economic and social changes of the 1950s.

6. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne

tristram.jpgAnother classic of Irish literature, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy ,Gentleman is a meandering satire of the life of antihero Tristram Shandy — a Don Quixote-type character who finds himself in one amusingly dire straight after another, and who somehow cannot seem to finish a story once he’s started telling it. The result is a kaleidoscope of storytelling, digressions, and characters as vividly imagined as those in any great fairy tale.

 

 

7. Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett

godot.jpgOkay, so this is technically a play rather than a book – but you can still buy it in a book form, so it still counts!

Two homeless old men wait in a bare road with a single tree. They are in no particular time or place – nowhere and everywhere. Over two days they argue, get bored, clown around, repeat themselves, contemplate suicide, and wait. They’re waiting for the one who will never come. They’re waiting for Godot.

Vivian Mercier wrote in the Irish Times in 1956 that Samuel Beckett had “written a play in which nothing happens, twice”. This is still happening today – and it happens every time you pick up the book/play and read it, or go to watch it performed.

Beckett’s genius lay in creating a work that, more than half a century on, still speaks to audiences, particularly in troubled times (and boy, do we have enough of those today).

A perfect way to spend your St Patrick’s Day afternoon while you’re waiting for your friend to come back from the pub.

8. Young Skins by Colin Barrett

young skins.jpgAn exquisite portrait of post-millennium small-town Irish life – this short story collection features largely rudderless, misfiring young men as the principle protagonists, alongside young women cut adrift by society or circumstance.

Communities muddle through. Longings go unexpressed – and sometimes a fierce and jolting awareness flares up like wildfire on a damp rock on the edge of the north Atlantic.

 

 

9. The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien

TheCountryGirls.jpgBanned when it was published and burnt by the natives of O’Brien’s village (a question – how did they get enough copies to build a bonfire of books if it was banned?), The Country Girls has a purity to it that is only matched by how compelling it is to read. Simple in the extreme, it tells the story of Kate and Baba who have made it to Dublin from the deep and damp parish countryside and find that, in all the excitement, hypocrisy remains a constant. With Irish women on both sides of the border still struggling to fight for their rights, this remains an important book everyone should read regardless of what day it is.

10. The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story

granta.jpgA bit of a cheap win this one, as it holds within its pages some of the finest Irish writing from some of the greatest Irish writers of the last century. Lyrical, dark, comic and iconoclastic, the short stories encompass both the richness and the innate contradictions and challenges of Irish life.

 

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.