The research is clear: we need to put down our phones and pick up our pens (and our books)

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With 66% of us claiming we don’t have time to read because we’re distracted by our phones, why not put them down and find distractions in the world of books?

“What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity,” so opined Henry Beston in what is a timeless meditation on the relationship between humanity and technology.

Beston was writing in the late 1940s; but his remarks about our relationship with technology – and the potential pitfalls between our ever-closer relationship with it – are perhaps more pertinent today than ever before, especially as new research is published showing the vast majority of us claim to be distracted by near-constant, often idle, scrolling on our Smartphone devices.

This isn’t to advocate the luddites, but simply to draw attention to a remarkable trend that has been emerging in recent years as the use of mobile technology has proliferated among our society. Indeed, since 2012, when for the first time over half of all US citizens owned a smartphone, there has been a rapid change in not only our technological usage, but even in our characteristics as individuals and as a society. A new generational divide has even been seen to open up, as Jean Twenge points out in their work, iGen, which sees the generation born after millennials as being increasingly dependent upon their smartphones – using them to derive pleasure, to communicate with one another, form and maintain relationships, even while use of these devices is linked to poorer mental health and increased feelings of loneliness and decreased productivity.

Few, perhaps, will be surprised by findings that suggest our reliance on smartphone technology has come at a cost. As Rebecca Solnit notes in this wonderful analysis, “Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat.”

Indeed, to build upon this, and to explore why increases in smartphone usage seem to be linked to feelings of loneliness and poor mental health, Soren Kierkegaard – perhaps the world’s first existentialist – explained that “the unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself.” In this, he hints at what lies behind our decisions to constantly reach for the smartphone; for the device that distracts us. It is an unconscious desire to be “absent” from ourselves and from the world: an insidious form of escapism.

The impact of smartphones on creativity

So what does all this mean for aspiring and established creatives out there? Well, apart from ensuring we all do what we can to support ourselves and one another – looking out for signs of depression and doing what we can to protect our mental health and wellbeing (creative types, after all, may be more likely to experience mental health problems).

But it also means making a conscious effort to switch off our phones and minimise the distractions we face from them. Some of this has a simple reason behind it: with 66% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by their phones, and 31% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by streaming services like Netflix (source), and since we know that reading more and widely helps to improve our writing and creative abilities, switching off our phones and picking up a book would likely spur the creative juices needed to produce original pieces of work.

Indeed, this in part is just common sense. As the comedy writer Graham Linehan has said, in an interview for the Guardian: “I have to use all these programs that cut off the internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored.”

In fact, cutting ourselves off completely may be the only way to truly minimise the impact of modern technology. As a study by the University of Texas at Austin published recently in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found, a smartphone can sap attention even when it’s not being used, even if the phone is on silent — or even when powered off and tucked away in a purse, briefcase or backpack. Putting these distracting devices out of sight does not necessarily put them out of mind, in other words.

But perhaps there’s also something more here. A battle not between ourselves and our urges to distract ourselves from reality (perhaps an understandable impulse given our reality is currently catastrophic climate breakdown amid a geopolitical maelstrom of inaction and the rise of the far right); but rather a battle between society and the Tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg who make billions of dollars precisely from our distraction; and in turn a battle between us and the politicians whose interests it’s in to keep us distracted, to keep us disengaged with reality, because they know (and fear) the potential impact a suddenly creatively energised society could have upon the world.

The art of waiting

What this all ultimately comes down to, perhaps, is patience. The patience needed to work with feelings of boredom and frustration, rather than against them. The patience needed between conversations and meetings with friends to appreciate them all the more (and so much more than you can ever appreciate a simple snapchat streak). The patience needed to properly read a book and appreciate it, rather than simply scanning the pages as one might a smartphone webpage or app. As the brilliant novelist Tim Leach has written, “The art of the novelist is the art of waiting. Patience. Stillness. Not the lightning flash of inspiration, but in the waiting for the lightning.”

Perhaps if we are able to put down our phones, the wait for the lightning that changes the system will be shorter than we think.

 

 

 

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Watching your gait: how walking helps your writing

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In 2014, researchers at Stanford university found that walking boosts creative inspiration. They examined creativity levels of people while they walked versus while
they sat. A person’s creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when
walking.

This research builds on studies conducted by other academic institutions, including
the University of Michigan and Illinois that confirmed what many Neuroscientists had
previously identified: that the non-thinking ‘default state‘ of consciousness is key to
creative thinking. Exercise allows your conscious mind to access fresh ideas that are
buried in the subconscious.

Probably the perfect potion for positive peripatetic philosophy

The implications of this research upon writers and other creatives is clear (we should
all be walking more to spur the creativity needed to overcome things like writer’s
block and conjure unique ideas). Yet this perhaps shouldn’t be all that surprising.
After all, writers, artists and other creative thinkers have been extolling the virtues of
physical exercise – and walking in particular – for years.

Indeed, the founding fathers of philosophy – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle – were all said
to use walking as a means of conjuring creative thought (Aristotle’s habit of walking back and forth as he taught earned the Lyceum the name of the Peripatetic School [from the Greek word for walking around, peripatetikos]). Meanwhile, Darwin walked what he called his “thinking path” twice daily while Dickens walked all over London, three or four hours at a time.

And, to make a pop-cultural reference, Lin-Manuel Miranda has said he wrote lyrics
to his acclaimed musical Hamilton during Sunday walks with his dog.

Walking and writing: enriching your soul

Soren Kierkegaard, meanwhile, has said of his habitual perambulations that “I have
walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”

Walt Whitman said walking left him “enrich’d of soul”; while William Wordsworth (to stick with the poets with alliterative, w-led names), said that walking was “indivisible” from writing poetry. Note here a curious calculation by Thomas DeQuincey that Wordsworth walked as many as a hundred and eighty thousand miles in his lifetime
(between 6 and 7 miles a day, every day).

There is a clear suggestion here that to write well, one must also be willing to get up from the writing desk. This is something American writer Henry Miller, fervently believed in, saying: “most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game or whatever”.

How it all works

The reason for this link between writing and walking is perhaps not dissimilar from
that between writing and long-distant running or other solitary physical activity
(check out our article on this right here at Nothing in the Rulebook on this very
topic). Walking – and other solo activities like it – provides just enough diversion to
occupy the conscious mind, but sets our subconscious free to roam. Trivial thoughts
mingle with important ones, memories sharpen, ideas and insights drift to the
surface.

There is also a clear link between the physical experience of walking and the rhythm and beats of our writing, our poetry and our music. This is the rhythm of our bodies, our steps, and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we’re jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion. When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech and our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre.

A life less dangerous: why walk and write?

But the value of walking also extends beyond improvements to our writing and creative abilities. It also helps us, as individuals, escape from a world of distractions – of music pumped into waiting rooms and public spaces, of a life plugged into phones and tablets, where we are constantly on-call, working increasingly longer hours and forced to keep up the appearances of our social media profiles. As Norwegian writer and publisher Erling Kagge, author of ‘Walking: one step at a time’ notes: “Today, you can live a life in a car and behind a screen, and never see the people who live around you. It’s dangerous.”

Creatives in profile: interview with Ben Armstrong

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Ben Armstrong is a poet from the West Midlands, UK, who specialises in surrealist, hyper-real and absurdist pieces. An alumnus of the renown Warwick University Writing Programme, his poem ‘The Year of the Apple’ was featured in The Apple Anthology (Nine Arches Press, 2013), shortlisted for Best Anthology in the Saboteur Awards. His debut collection Perennial is out now through Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, and has drawn praise from a number of right-on poets and publications, including Luke Kennard, George Ttoouli, and David Morley, as well as the magazines Eye Flash Poetry, and Here Comes Everyone (oh, and ourselves, of course).

In the large hadron collider that is Perennial, Armstrong challenges the reader to embrace unpredictability and recognise order within otherwise apparent disorder, in what is an extremely fun, engaging, witty and anarchic poetry collection. Given that we love witty anarchy as much as the next creative collective (it’s among the best kinds of anarchy if you ask us), we were thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Armstrong himself and add him to our community of creatives who have shared their stories and innermost secrets with us.

INTERVIEWER

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

ARMSTRONG

I was born in the Black Country, West Midlands, in the early 1990s and still live locally. We’re famous for our pork scratchings, ale, canals and the steel industry (amongst other things). I grew up in Stourbridge, which doesn’t have so much of an accent – people tend to find it hard to place me unless they’re familiar with the Midlands. I’ve just bought a house with my partner so my current lifestyle is mostly settling in there, working, keeping fit and writing for my next book.

INTERVIEWER

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

ARMSTRONG

Music is my biggest passion although I’m a much more perceptive listener than a musician. I was in a band for a few years recently and I spent so much time listening to our mixes, tweaking my EQ – focusing on the really minute details. I loved designing our album booklet and packaging. I guess a lot of people would find that stuff boring? For me, the beauty has always been in the detail. In this way, my love for poetry and music stem from the same place. They’re both very liberating mediums that I can really get stuck into them on a micro level, whilst still having a finished piece at the end of the process.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you, and why?

ARMSTRONG

On the whole, people who really dedicate themselves to their art. I find that highly commendable, especially in the modern world where money doesn’t exactly come easily for most artists. I’m inspired also by people who have a very strong artistic vision and stick to it, especially across a collection of pieces. We live in quite a quick-fire culture but I still really value full-length collections, records, etc. that tell a story or carry a vibe across a substantial body of work. You can spot these people a mile away and they tend to have long, varied and diverse careers in art.

INTERVIEWER

The structure of your poems is often experimental, while the content blurs vibrant, intricate language with both pop culture references and classical analogy. How do you see the balance or relationship between modern and classical? Are we living in a world of post-post modernism? Or have we simply run out of the terms to adequately express and describe our contemporary cultural trends and styles?

ARMSTRONG

We’re living in an age of pastiche. This is the first time that our entire existence as human beings has become self-referential. It feels like we’re finally letting go of the concept of ‘time’ – the whole thing has just become delineated. Courtesy of technology, the recent past may as well be right now. The distant past is as accessible as what I did last week. People are always creating new art, but the leading trend seems to be recontextualisation. We’re a race of curators, of remixers and remodellers. I think that my poetry and Perennial especially speaks to that. My aim is to make sense of the chaos, somehow.

INTERVIEWER

When writing poetry, can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go from blank page to fully fledged poem?

ARMSTRONG

Nearly always, a line or phrase will just drop into my mind. If I choose to pursue it, I can feel the tangents pulling off from the original seed and urging me to get to a computer or pick up a pen. From there, I write quickly to capture as much as possible and edit as I go. I tend not to move on until I’m happy with a line although if I end up at a dead end, I’ll consider some radical changes to the structure to jump-start the process. I favour using a computer because I can get a better ‘feel’ for the visual element of the poem.

INTERVIEWER

How do you decide when a poem is ‘finished’?

ARMSTRONG

This one is down to intuition. Mostly it’ll be when it feels right, visually. I really champion the visual aspect of the poem on the page – it really steers my decision making throughout the entire writing process. Certain ideas just need to ‘look’ a certain way. Some need to slink down, some appear to me as very horizontal and aggressive, others flutter like a burst bag of feathers. I’m not entirely sure why I feel the need to act on these but I do and it’s a big part of why I love writing poetry. I suppose I’d compare it to how a chef arranges a plate. Certain choices are dictated by things other than logic. Why does the onion need to sit just so? It just does.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve recently published your debut collection, Perennial. Can you tell us a little about the work, and the experience of putting it together? How did you first conceive of the idea, and how did it evolve?

ARMSTRONG

Perennial has been in the works for a very long time now. I started writing poems for it in around 2012 on a coach to visit my uncle in Scotland. It was never intended to be my first collection – it is actually a spin-off to a bigger, larger story – but it just so happened that I finished it first. The collection is a diary of sorts written by an unnamed character who finds himself lost on a strange island. In a narrative sense it functions as a backstory for the character, but it’s a real book within this fictional world, too. Characters from my other poems have read Perennial. The interesting part for me is that due to a complete lack of contextual information, a first-time reader is going to be pretty baffled by it. I wanted to create this underlying sense that its part of something bigger but never really state that outright. The next book will unlock a lot of the secrets in this one.

INTERVIEWER

We live in a time when language is deliberately misused and manipulated – frequently for malicious purposes – to serve and support those in power. This is a time of ‘alt-facts’, an Orwellian landscape in which language is a tool of deception and demagoguery. What role do you see poetry playing in an age of ‘fake news’ and social media trolling?

ARMSTRONG

The reliability and ‘usefulness’ of poetry is always going to be a grey area. I frequently misuse and manipulate language for different purposes. The difference, I suppose, is that I don’t have an agenda. I’m not trying to make you think or feel a certain way, politically or socially speaking. I think modern poetry will continue as it has done for a while – to inspire the few and confuse the many.

INTERVIEWER

Since Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre, poetry has been used as a tool to provide a voice for the powerless and inspire movements and action against the powerful. What are your thoughts on the idea of ‘poetry as protest’?

ARMSTRONG

I think poetry can be used as a tool for those purposes – It’s probably one of the better mediums for it. Of course, it depends entirely on the person writing it, their motivations and the reader’s own interpretation. Performance poetry isn’t really my thing but it’s undeniably effective at bringing together communities and giving people a voice.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any personal responsibility as a poet?

ARMSTRONG

Not as a poet so much as a person writing poetry. We’re all personally responsible for the impact we make on the world.  I write primarily for myself and to do justice to the story I’m telling with each collection I put out. My main responsibility is to let the poems go wherever they want to. In spite of this, I do try and promote the things I think are important through my work, too.

INTERVIEWER

In an age of ‘abject’ incomes for authors and poets, how can aspiring creatives pursue their passions while also making ends meet?

ARMSTRONG

I’d say just do it and keep doing it and keep finding ways to continue to do it. I find it easiest to keep my passions and sources of income separate, but mutually beneficial. I do a lot of writing for my day job, and this keeps me sharp for my poetry.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you and your poetry? Are there any exciting projects we should be looking out for?

ARMSTRONG

As I mentioned earlier, Perennial, is getting a companion collection which should be finished towards the end of Summer. I’m really proud of what I have so far for it; it’s a lot more playful and experimental than Perennial was. Euripides is the biggest influence on it as a whole. I have an incredible artist working with me on the cover design and some internal illustrations too. We’re currently just working on some initial ideas but I can’t wait to pull everything together. 

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite poem?

ARMSTRONG

It would have to be The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot.

INTERVIEWER

Curl up with a book or head to the movies?

ARMSTRONG

Mood dependant! I don’t really read to relax so probably the movie more often than not.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

ARMSTRONG

Cult classic

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated poet?

ARMSTRONG

David Morley. I’m biased because he was my tutor, but in my mind, David stands up against the great pastoral poets of the past. Calling him underrated might be selling him short, but he should definitely be even more known than he is.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated poet?

ARMSTRONG

Because of how widely he’s taught, probably Shakespeare. Not all of his work has aged gracefully and I never had him down as a particularly great poet.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about?

ARMSTRONG

This is a really tough question, given that so many poets are unknown in the greater scheme of things. I’d probably say Jonty Tiplady. I love Zam Bonk Dip, his debut collection. I’m not aware of what he’s done since, but this has inspired me to revisit him! Outside of the poetry world, I recommend that people check out the ambient musician Tim Hecker. His sonic landscapes are just so expressive.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

ARMSTRONG

I’m really good at recalling the specific release years of records. I can also recite Pi up to 50 digits after me and a friend decided to see who could learn it to more decimal places. I’m not even sure why I can still remember it – that was fifteen years ago.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ARMSTRONG

“Thank you”

“Thank you?”

“Thank you.”

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 10 tips for aspiring poets?

ARMSTRONG

Don’t be afraid to write bad poetry, just write something. It can take years to finish a poem. It can take one minute to finish a different poem. Avoid saying things that have already been said because you think you should say them. Try to write without using any similes. Put effort into your book cover. Remember to title your documents. Performing live doesn’t have to be the goal if you don’t want it to be. Revel in your rejection letters. Aim high.

 

 

Nothing in the Rulebook joins judging panel for Adventure Writers Competition

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Adventure is out there as Nothing in the Rulebook joins forces with Adventure Writer’s competition. Photo credit: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

Creative collective Nothing in the Rulebook will this year join the judging panel of the annual Adventure Writer’s writing competition, a contest widely known for being the only pure adventure writing competition available to writers today.

With a US$1,000 prize up for grabs, writers have until the 30 April 2019 to submit their work to the contest, before the founders of Nothing in the Rulebook will join the Adventure Writers judging panel to sift through entries and pick out a winner, who will be announced on 5 October at the Clive Cussler Collector’s Society convention.

Announcing the news, Nothing in the Rulebook’s Professor Wu said: “we’re delighted to be teaming up with the fabulous team behind the Adventure Writers competition and looking forward to seeking out some exciting new writing talent.”

“It’s never easy for aspiring creative writers to get their work out there and recognised, and the idea of sending your prized work with all your innermost secrets and emotions to complete strangers can seem a daunting prospect. But there’s a thrill to it, too – an opportunity to experience your own writing adventures simply by being brave enough to send your story out into the world. To quote a well-known animated movie, adventure is out there!” You just have to go for it.”

Peter Greene, Director of the Adventure Writers Competition said:  “We are extremely excited about the team from Nothing in the Rule Book joining our judging panel.  Both groups have a common goal: to help aspiring writers receive recognition, feedback and validation of their talents and efforts. Having a distinguished judges panel allows entrants to obtain valuable advice and encouragement to aid in their creative writing and careers. Let the judging begin!”

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Martina Devlin

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Back in January, Nothing in the Rule Book had the chance to review Martina Devlin’s tenth book, a collection of short stories, entitled ‘Truth and Dare’. The stories follow eleven pioneering women from Irish history, pulling moments from their lives and reimagining them in fiction. Each story is an invitation into the life of a historical figure but we wanted to know more about the woman behind the book: Martina herself.

A former Fleet Street journalist, Martina was born in Omagh and now lives in Dublin. She writes for the Irish Independent and was named National Newspapers of Ireland Columnist of the Year. Her fiction is ambitious and covers a wide range of genres and themes. From About Sisterland, a dystopian novel set in the near-future, to The House Where It Happened, historical fiction based on the Irish witch trials of 1711, her writing is ambitious and creative, steeped in dedicated research.

Her work has won or been shortlisted for several prestigious several prizes, including the 1996 Hennessy Literary Award and the Royal Society of Literature’s VS Pritchett Prize. We were lucky enough to be able to catch up with Martina a second time, to find out more about her background, her inspiration and her writing.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about your background.

DEVLIN

I’m a child of the Troubles. I grew up in Omagh, Co Tyrone when civil war for a prolonged period was our normal – random bomb attacks, heavily armed soldiers on the streets, roadblocks, no-go areas, dawn raids on houses by security forces, helicopters buzzing overhead and civilians treated as collateral damage in large scale violence. My parents protected us from it as much as possible but violence was a fact of everyday life.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love?

DEVLIN

Storytelling certainly is. I regard myself as a storyteller whether I’m engaged in journalism or creative non-fiction or fiction. As a little girl I was always telling stories to told my family and writing them down in copybooks. I also illustrated my stories, rather badly but with an enthusiastic use of colour. I still have one of my notebooks – it shows no early signs of genius but, rather, a fascination with what my characters were having for tea. Enid Blyton was able to carry that off with picnics and all sorts of foodie high jinks but I wasn’t. However, I realised that research mattered and I used to go to Mrs Quinn’s sweetshop near our house and write down the names of various goodies. Although the shop no longer exists, I can’t pass the building without thinking of all those chocolate animals and jelly shapes I used to buy with a few small coins.

INTERVIEWER

What would you be if not a writer?

DEVLIN

A politician because politics can effect change. The Good Friday Agreement is proof of that. But the whip system is exerted too ruthlessly and I know I’d struggle with that – for me, conscience would always trump how any party leadership decided to vote on an issue. So I expect that eventually I’d be expelled from whichever party I joined. I’ve never belonged to any political party. I’m too much of an outsider, an observer. But I do see that politics is a powerful way of driving change and making a difference in people’s lives.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

DEVLIN

My parents. My father, in particular, had a great respect for reading, learning and storytelling – the power of the story – and he shared that love with me. I remember long car journeys as a child, going from our home in Omagh to my mother’s place of birth in Co Limerick, and both parents passed the journey for us with stories. The oral tradition was strong in our family.

My father never felt hard done by, he had a gentle nature, but there’s no doubt he was a clever man unable to get on in life because of the unjust political situation in Northern Ireland which denied him opportunities. He wasn’t able to vote until he was in his mid-thirties, for example – you had to be a householder but housing was in the control of the ruling majority which didn’t believe in sharing. That’s why the civil rights movement started in 1968. My mother lost the right to vote when she moved to Omagh. Isn’t that extraordinary? Both Dublin and London looked the other way for many decades of Northern Ireland’s existence.

My father had to leave school at the age of 12 to work as a message boy – Grandad was more or less an invalid and the family needed my father’s wage to help them survive. By the time I came along, he was a bus driver and worked very hard to raise seven children – as did my mother in the home – and if I have a work ethic I inherited it from them.

INTERVIEWER

Where do you find inspiration?

DEVLIN

If I knew the answer to that I’d bottle it and keep it on my desk. I honestly don’t know. Reading, thinking, looking, thinking some more?

INTERVIEWER

You describe the women featured in ‘Truth and Dare’ as your heroes. Is there some shared quality that earns them this distinction?

DEVLIN

Their vision and persistence. They recognised injustice and struggled to overturn it. They believed they could bring about change and wanted to make it happen not just for their own benefit but for others. They collaborated to achieve their goals, chipping away at enormous obstacles – both from the system, or the community at large, and their own families. It’s always hard to challenge the status quo but they did. Often, they were demonised for their behaviour but they knew they were right and kept faith.

INTERVIEWER

Is there one woman from the book whose life you find particularly moving or instructive? If so, why?

DEVLIN

Mary Ann McCracken because she was loyal and courageous and believed in the strength of her convictions. In 1798, she walked with her brother Henry Joy McCracken to the gallows – now that required pluck – and took responsibility for his natural daughter after his death, insisting the little girl should be recognised by the family. Also she believed in doing what was right in other ways, for example refusing to eat sugar because of the slave trade. She was a successful businesswoman and ran a muslin manufacturing business with her sister to give employment to poor Belfast people, and the pair of them absorbed the losses during slack periods rather than lay workers off. She wanted children to be educated and helped to support a school, she was part of a campaign to stop boys being used as chimney sweeps and she spoke out about cruelty to animals. Her empathy and energy ranged far and wide. This woman was a rock of decency: Protestantism at its most ethical.

INTERVIEWER

Who did you feel you were writing the book for?

DEVLIN

People who didn’t know much about the women I chose to include in the collection, people for whom they were only names, if that – but who might be intrigued and go off and learn more about them. There’s magic in fiction. I hoped the stories would help to breathe life into extraordinary figures who have shaped the world we live in. Women have pockets in our clothes because of the Rational Dress Movement. We can vote because of the suffrage movement. Let’s not take it all for granted.

INTERVIEWER

Feminism has changed so much since the time of the women in your book – 2018 saw the Irish Abortion Referendum. How does being a woman in Ireland now compare to the lives of women a hundred years ago?

DEVLIN

I’m convinced women from a hundred years ago would be disappointed by the slow pace of change, although there have been improvements in recent years – quotas have increased the number of women TDs. But there are still only four female Cabinet ministers out of 15. As it happens, I brought Countess Markievicz back from the dead in one of my stories (What Would The Countess Say?)  to cast a cold eye over the state of politics today. She’s aghast to discover there’s been no female Taoiseach in the history of the Irish State. It doesn’t look imminent, either, with no female leader of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in the history of either party. When you consider that she was the second Cabinet minister in the world and the first in Europe (back as 1919), we can see the trailblazing ground to a halt. Women of enormous talent, with a real contribution to make, weren’t given a look in.

Incidentally, Countess Markievicz has taken on a life of her own apart from the short story collection and a play based on the story is being debuted at Dalkey Heritage Centre in Dublin on April 2nd – the centenary, to the day, of her appointment as Minister for Labour.

INTERVIEWER

How does writing a collection of short stories compare to writing a novel?

DEVLIN

It’s less of a long haul – I liked the variety of working on short stories rather than the concentrated focus of a novel. Sometimes you can feel overwhelmed by a novel.

INTERVIEWER

Were any of the stories in the collection particularly difficult to write? If so, why?

DEVLIN

The really difficult one was the story about Nano Nagle, who founded the Presentation order, because I struggled to imagine myself as a nun. But I hope I did justice to her and her selfless work for the poor of Cork. The stories are all first person or close third so I had to feel an empathy with those I wrote about. One or two women didn’t make the final cut because I didn’t manage that act of ventriloquism. I was nearly there but the clock was against me deadline wise. Perhaps another time.

INTERVIEWER

What makes you angry?

DEVLIN

The risk from Brexit of a hard border undermining peace in Ireland. I can’t say any more, I might burst a blood vessel. Oh, all right, I’ll just say this. Project Fear was the most perfidious phrase to put into people’s hands by the Leave campaign…it allowed them to avoid dealing with inconvenient facts.

INTERVIEWER

What makes you hopeful?

DEVLIN

The shameless self-interest of our cat Chekhov. When he wants something, he weaves figures of eight between your legs, tripping you up. When he can’t be bothered with you, if you try to stroke him he slinks down almost to his (considerable) belly to avoid your hand. It’s all on his terms. Why does that make me hopeful? Nature gives most of us the tools we need to survive. With cats, it’s winning ways – when it suits them. I admire their indifference to us.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any writers you envy?

DEVLIN

No, everyone who gets published is lucky, regardless of how well or otherwise a book does. I know I’m fortunate and I don’t take it for granted.

INTERVIEWER

To what extent do you feel stories should be morally instructive?

DEVLIN

Ouch! You have to sneak in the moral if you’re bent on having one, and I confess I often am. The minute it’s obvious, though, you and your moral are toast.

INTERVIEWER

If you could go back, what advice would you give yourself as you started out on your writing career?

DEVLIN

Listen carefully to all the conflicting advice you’re given, mull it over and make up your own mind.

INTERVIEWER

What frustrates you about writing?

DEVLIN

The days when nothing comes. The days when I start to doubt a story I’m working on. If I don’t believe in them, who will?

INTERVIEWER

What is the best thing about writing?

DEVLIN

I love the characters who spring from my fingertips. I know this makes me sound like a hapless channel for some external intelligence producing the work. But honestly, sometimes – on a good day – characters just muscle in unexpectedly. And I say to myself, well who are you?

INTERVIEWER

What are you working on next?

DEVLIN

A novel about Edith Somerville of Somerville and Ross fame – they were Victorian ladies who charted the demise of their Ascendancy class even as it was happening. I find them interesting for at least five reasons, if not more. But I’ll spare you the dissertation and stop at five. Number one, because Ross was a unionist while Somerville developed a nationalist position. Number two, because they worked in partnership (dual voices combining to create one memorable voice). Number three because they understood the value of authentic dialect. Number four because of their humour. And number five because they insisted they were professional writers, not dilettantes, had one of the first literary agents and demanded to be treated with respect.

 

 

 

 

Mud, books, and Greek mythology: interview with David Henningham

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David Henningham 

When we first caught up with David and Ping Henningham, of Henningham Family Press, they had just been commissioned to make a major public arts contribution to the Central Hall of Artists in Moscow.

Fast forward a couple of years, and the duo behind this dynamic printing press are once again deep into an exciting new creative project – and getting knee deep in mud to do so.

‘Mud’ is the new book by Chris McCabe, which follows his debut novel, Dedalus, also published by Henningham Family Press (HFP).

The couple have been raising funds to support the publication of the book through a recently launched Kickstarter project. And yet, in typical HFP fashion, this is no ordinary printed book – but rather one that blurs the boundary between art and writing.

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‘Mud’ – the new book by Chris McCabe, published by Henningham Family Press

Described by the creative duo as ‘an Artists’ Book in exquisite handmade and paperback versions’, Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with David Henningham to find out more about the project.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about Chris McCabe’s new book ‘Mud’ – and what you’re planning on doing with it.

HENNINGHAM

Mud is a story re-imagining Orpheus & Eurydice in contemporary London. Borak and Karissa must find a bubble buried in mud, somewhere. Along their way into the Underworld beneath Hampstead Heath, to scour the 24 types of mud, they are followed by their film crew and its odious Director. As they chance upon bones, bricks and talking Moles, they must restrain themselves from throttling each other. And falling in love all over again.

We have begun a quest with Chris McCabe parallel to that of his characters underground; an addition to the conventional editing process. We’ve been collecting different types of London mud to use as pigments and salvaging a half-brick, involved in a car crash, to use as our printing block (the perfect metaphor for Borak and Kar’s relationship). We used the faces of the brick to cast Orphic shapes resembling thresholds, mounds and tunnels of the Underworld.

This process will produce three versions of the book that use the same printed pages:

  • High-quality Paperback
  • Deluxe Hardback, representing a mud type with unique limited edition print
  • Deluxe Hardback, representing a mud type, in solander box with unique sculpture

INTERVIEWER

Why Mud?

HENNINGHAM

I can’t answer that, except to say that the notion there are 24 types of mud has totally changed the way I see the world. I keep spotting muds with extraordinary colour or texture and thinking ‘we missed that one!’ I suspect that somewhere in there, this sensation that language variegates experience of the world is “why Mud”.

INTERVIEWER

In an era of digital publishing, amid the rise of e-books and audiobooks; how important is it, do you think, that as readers we return to the physical value books have and invest in printed copies? Do you see your production of hand-made books to be a revolt against artifice or digitalisation?

HENNINGHAM

No, digital technology makes book production and selling cleaner, quicker, cheaper and easier at every stage, which is the most important aspect to us. Our handmade books are enabled by digital technology.

Ebooks are just a copyright thing, they prevent creative opportunity in my experience, but audiobooks are interesting to us. We love moving texts into different creative forms. I like the fact that our books will be among the best someone will handle, and that there’s something you can only get from the book because that means it is a book that has fully exploited the form. But I’m not interested in dominating anything. If someone thinks books aren’t important to them, I’ll wave them on their merry way. If they don’t like stories, I refer them to a special watch list at the Dept of Culture, Media, Sport, Shopping and Lawnmowers.

INTERVIEWER

In your Kickstarter project, you say you believe artist-Writers shouldn’t just be producing radical words; but also radical means of production and distribution. Can you expand on this – is there a Marxist element to your publishing ethos?

HENNINGHAM

Not Marxist, although I’m sympathetic to the Socialist publishing aspirations of B.S. Johnson you can find in Jonathan Coe’s biography, and admire Marxist friends who find a way to navigate the book Market.

What I mean by it is that, instead of approaching the current system of commissioning and selling books and trying to publish books that will change the world, the system itself must be changed in the process. Take diversity. Rooms full of privileged people are saying “how can we publish more diverse writers?” I suspect it isn’t working because the system is token operated. Not only are the people in the room almost all privileged, they begin by saying “how can we help these people?” The Hogarth Press had a fantastic record on publishing women writers. Because of what it was, not because of any policy. So if you want to make a Press that publishes X kind of writing, you need to make a Press the shape that will produce that writing. Not a mini-Corporate.

INTERVIEWER

How can aspiring artists and writers – or newly established publishing houses – reclaim the means of production and distribution from the corporate behemoths who dominate the publishing (and indeed wider media) landscape?

HENNINGHAM

The difference is between big organisations and partnerships of smaller organisations. Become a member of a group of smaller organisations and work together cooperatively if you want to take on the corporates.

If you simply want to make a few things and get them out there, you just need to find the right printer (production) and attend DIY book or arts fairs (distribution).

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk us through the sensation of crafting one of your books – is there a connection, do you think, between publisher and physical book that goes beyond a desire to sell copies? And where does the line between art and writing collide and/or blur?

HENNINGHAM

When I’m binding I’m very much thinking with my hands. I’m sort of aware of language, and thoughts apparently located in my head, but mostly it’s my hands working almost independently. I also stopped thinking ahead much, I seem to know what to do next without planning.

Afterwards, for me, it’s about getting the fruits of that process as close to readers as possible, but I suspect most publishers aren’t approaching it this way. They have babies, while I’m more of a midwife. Or a sorcerer.

INTERVIEWER

In many ways, the focus your project places on words influencing the physical design of the book – as well as the structure and form – makes this a thoroughly modernist piece of art and writing; yet the source material for the novel is from Ancient Greek mythology. What is the relationship, do you think, between the classical and the modern? And how important are the works of literary figures like James Joyce to informing any such debate on this topic?

HENNINGHAM

Well as you suggest, Ulysses took myth as its structure and embedded it in modernity. We don’t get equally influenced by all world mythologies, though. Some ancient stories are simply bizarre to us. It’s not just that we’re used to Greek myths, there’s something recognisable about the people and gods in them, and the themes, such as metamorphosis, we carry with us.

In the Penelope section at the end of Dedalus (his sequel to Ulysses), I suspect Chris McCabe wrote a kind of manifesto for himself, about writing myth. If so, he’s delivered in spades with Mud.

INTERVIEWER

Can anything ever be truly ‘new’, ‘modern’, or ‘unique’?

HENNINGHAM

It’s interesting to push it to the other extreme; to try making something the opposite of unique. It will always have this stubborn singularity.

INTERVIEWER

What’s been your experience of using Kickstarter to support your project? What role do crowdfunding models have to play in the current publishing and artistic sectors?

HENNINGHAM

We have been able to share our excitement around a project while we are still genuinely excited about it. Marketing afterwards is fun, but it’s more about sustaining that excitement and sharing a finished product. Involving people in the process and having a way of updating them as we make things for the book changes it too. The rewards structure has obliterated the barrier between our trade and handmade versions.  

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Modernism or post-modernism?

HENNINGHAM

Modernism

INTERVIEWER

Curl up with a book or head to an art gallery?

HENNINGHAM

Book

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

HENNINGHAM

Cult classic

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated writer/artist?

HENNINGHAM

Such a contested field! Agota Kristoff? Or I’d like to see Darker With The Lights On by David Hayden (which was acclaimed in the small press world) accepted wholeheartedly by mainstream booksellers and readers.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated writer/artist?

HENNINGHAM

Again, such a contested field! J.K Rowling. So slow and clunky. Magic for people who don’t like to be surprised. Why bother. Ctrl+v Diana Wynne-Jones.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about?

HENNINGHAM

British Viceroy Robert Bulwer-Lytton was a famous poet and responsible for the deaths of between 6 and 13 million Indian subjects in the Late Victorian period.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

HENNINGHAM

Drawing road-markings made Doug’s handwriting taller.

INTERVIEWER

What 5-10 pieces of advice can you give to people thinking of exploring crowdfunding as a means of getting their writing or artwork out there?

HENNINGHAM

  • Get advice and key questions from their representatives or online knowledge base and do everything they tell you to. They’ve done it a million times.
  • Contact 30 committed supporters and get them ready to pledge in the first 48 hours.
  • Involve people in a process. Make sure you are doing something for the project other than talking about money in that 30 days and make daily updates of the work in progress.
  • Have a theme derived from your project and apply it to all your reward names and updates.
  • Make a video. If it’s just you, a selfie stick and windows movie maker, that’s fine. Without it nobody really knows you.
  • Look out for trolls. If someone spends big, have a look at their identity before announcing you’ve hit your target and raise it with Kickstarter if you think they look suspicious.
  • There will also be spam.

 

To find out more about Chris McCabe’s new novel, and to pledge your support for this fantastic project, please visit the Kickstarter page

 

A Writer’s Guide to Dungeons & Dragons

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Pssst… are you playing Dungeons & Dragons yet? In case you didn’t know, it’s not just for ‘nerds’ any more, hiding in their bedrooms with stacks upon stacks of impenetrable lore. These days, D&D has experienced a massive resurgence — partially thanks to Netflix nostalgia machine Stranger Things — and is now the focus of some of the most watched podcasts on the internet, played by stars like Magic Mike’s Joe Manganiello, Daredevil’s Deborah Ann Woll and action superstar Vin Diesel. Groups across the country are springing up and struggling to make room for massive influxes of players.

That’s because D&D is buckets of fun, but it’s also a fantastic tool for writers, allowing them to sharpen their craft without even thinking about it. I started playing D&D around 18 months ago — first as a player-character, and then embarking on a year-long campaign as the group’s dungeon master. The benefit for writers is present on both sides of the screen, whether you’re taking your Level 5 Fighter for a romp through the Underdark or plotting your players’ demise at the hands of Strahd von Zarovich, so whichever way you’re taking part, there’s plenty of opportunity to learn a thing or two.

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D&D has seen a massive resurgence in recent years, partially thanks to Netflix nostalgia machine Stranger Things

But wait, the treasure’s over this way!

As a player or a dungeon master (DM, if you’re being technical about it), one of the first things you’ll need to get down is improvising, and being quick about it. When there are multiple voices at the table, and dragons have gotta get slain, there’s no time for extensive debate. So, if the DM throws in an assassination attempt on your way back to Waterdeep, or your party’s dwarven warlock decides to hijack the party’s boat, you need to figure out how you’re going to react.

That quick-fire storytelling can be really helpful when it comes to your own writing, especially when you find characters wandering off in their own direction, or a plot thread that seems to be steadily gaining a life of its own. Don’t be afraid to see where the rabbit hole takes you; a little improv can take your story in new and exciting directions.

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As with writing, mastering D&D requires preparation – especially if your DM happens to enjoy curveballs (or, indeed, balls of any description)

Preparation is key

 Playing the role of the DM? You’ll need to make sure you’re prepared for your next session. Even if you’re running a module, also known as a pre-written campaign, you’ll need to read through the sections you’ll be handling before your session. It’s often helpful to draft a few pieces of dialogue or something to set the scene, and having that ‘prep time’ in mind can give you the perfect excuse to carve out time in your weekly schedule to write.

It’s also worth remembering that you’ll probably toss out about 70% of what you had planned for the session, based on how your group react, but that’s okay — after all, that’s what editing is like most of the time.

Accents maketh the monk

D&D is also your opportunity to do really, really silly accents. I’m currently playing a Grave Cleric called Gwendolyn who sounds like she’s from Merthyr Tydfil, and while it may seem like an excuse to play the fool, giving my character an accent is one extra level of separation for me. As soon as I start talking like Gwendolyn, I find it much easier to inhabit her shoes, figure out what her motivations are and make decisions that are wholly within her character, rather than what I would do personally — a handy trick for writing difficult passages. The same goes for DMs; giving non-player characters a distinctive accent that’s different from your own voice can help them become more than just Goon #1, and you might be able to build a compelling story around them.

This is our story, nobody else’s

Perhaps one of D&D’s biggest appeals (besides an excuse to hang out, eat junk food and sink a few beers) is the fact that it’s a story everyone can get involved with. Working with other people to effectively create and tell a story is ridiculously good fun, and especially if you’ve been struggling to find the time to start writing, it can help you satisfy that creative itch. Even if you’re playing a classic module, or a campaign you’ve completed with a different group, the story is different every time.

Bardic inspiration

Once you step away from the table and put the d20s back in your bag, the fun doesn’t end there. When I get back from a session, I’m filled with ideas for what might happen next time, and sometimes that even translates into a new story or something to try out in an existing piece of work. It’s thanks to D&D that I’ve felt more creative in those past 18 months than I have in years, whether I’m devising a new campaign scenario or coming up with a backstory for my latest character.

So, where to start…

While D&D can seem overwhelming to the uninitiated at first, the main thing to remember is that it’s a game, with the primary purpose of having fun with some friends. Creating a new character shouldn’t take hours upon hours (unless you want it to!) but should serve as a springboard for your next adventure. Sit back, relax, pick up a pencil and see where it takes you – whether that’s fighting bandits, sourcing magical ingredients or changing the multiverse as you know it.

 About the author of this post

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Robyn Hardman is a writer, blogger and a PR and marketing consultant based in the Cotswolds. When she’s not writing press releases about silly cars, she’s usually in the pit at your local punk show. She tweets as @twobeatsoff.

Creatives in profile: interview with K.M. Elkes

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Writing flash fiction takes skill, precision and – perhaps more than anything – hard work and dedication. When done well, these micro-stories can throw the reader in and out of the human condition in profound and unpredictable ways.

Some have said flash fiction stories are a part of our social media age, our insta-lifestyles, our shortened attention spans, our handheld devices, our micro-making of everything. Yet, in a world preciously short of big ideas, we could do with some of the big ideas contained within these short tales. And we could do with more

Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with one of these writers willing to put pen to paper to bring these short tales – and their ideas – to us.

K.M. Elkes’s short fiction has won (or been placed) in a number of international writing competitions including the Manchester Fiction Prize, The Fish Publishing Flash Prize, the Bridport Prize and the PinDrop Prize, as well as appearing in more than 30 anthologies. His work has also been published in literary magazines such as UnthologyThe Lonely CrowdStructo and Litro. A flash fiction collection All That Is Between Us will be published in paperback by AdHoc Fiction in 2019. He is a short story tutor for Comma Press and his work has also been used on schools and college curriculum in USA and Hong Kong.

Elkes lives and works in the West Country, UK. A recipient of an Arts Council England award, he is currently working on a debut short story collection and a novel. As a writer with a rural working class upbringing, his work often reflects marginalised voices and liminal places.

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

In summary – writer, teacher, musician, traveller, ginger, potty-mouth. Not always in that order. I currently live in Bristol, but my background is rural working-class Shropshire.

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

Writing is one of the things, like making music, that I cannot not do. It’s more complicated than love or passion.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

ELKES

Single-minded people – I’m too ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, so I draw inspiration from writers, particularly women or those from less privileged backgrounds, who have had the singleness of vision to succeed against the odds.
And pole vaulters – their sport is rife with symbolism.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

ELKES

I went to a tiny rural primary school in Shropshire that had about 30 children and two teachers. It was stuck in a 1930s time warp – two classrooms, no inside toilets, dinners delivered lukewarm on the back of a van. But that school and those teachers instilled a hunger for reading in me that has been the catalyst for many things.

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to flash fiction?

ELKES

As a form based around concision, it combines poetry’s attention to language and rhythm with the prose tools of plot, characterisation, dialogue etc. Within that there are infinite colours, moods and stories, so what’s not to like?

INTERVIEWER

One of the joys of English is that, while its huge vocabulary can be deployed in mesmerising Joycean arpeggios, it can just as easily concentrate its meaning in a few well chosen words. In the age of Twitter, why do you think so many people are increasingly attracted to the brevity of short, flash or ‘micro’ fiction?

ELKES

I’m not a fan of the notion that people have short attention spans so they are attracted to shorter forms. Just because something is short doesn’t mean it requires less concentration and effort to read. I would hope more people are attracted to the form because they recognise it can produce genuinely good writing. The rise of social media and digital platforms for writing has no doubt helped.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a story needs in order for it to be a story?

ELKES

Movement. Not necessarily plot, but a sense that something has changed.

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?

ELKES

Transitioning between different forms is not difficult. Writers who claim otherwise are probably just procrastinating. In fact, changing forms is a good way to give the kaleidoscope a shake to find new ideas. What is difficult, sometimes, is the act of writing itself, whatever the form.

INTERVIEWER

How do you maintain your motivation for writing?

ELKES

By reflecting at length on the fact that I don’t have motivation to carry out just about any other form of gainful employment.

Also by dreaming of the day when I can walk into a bookshop and find a section devoted just to short fiction, rather than having to play ‘hunt the collections’ among the general fiction…

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

I don’t think it is ethical for a writer to create ethical responsibilities for other writers – they need to deal with their own shit.

Having said that it grinds my gears when well-established writers phone it in for cash. Such as when novelists supply distinctly average ‘been-in-the-bottom-drawer-awhile’ pieces for occasional short story specials in newspapers or magazines. In this case, maybe the ethical motto should be: ‘Do your best or don’t bother’.

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

No. Except that maybe the fantastic audience who came to a live literary event I did in Bath last year and laughed like drains at my funny stuff and emoted all over my sad pieces. They can come and sit in the room while I’m writing (if they bring their own chairs).

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?

ELKES

The trend to encourage more diversity in writing and publishing is something I would like to see continuing. As someone from a working-class background, I know there are barriers still in place. But I also know I have to check what privileges I have as a white male. Even those at the epicentre of the white, male, middle-class, London-dominated and Oxbridge educated system must acknowledge there’s a better way. Done right, I think more diversity would mean more readers, more books sold, a more robust industry.

Another big challenge is how writers, whose average income from books continues to decline, can earn enough to keep creating. There is an unrealistic expectation in society that creative work should merely be another form of free content.

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

I’m editing a collection of flash fiction called All That Is Between Us which will be published by Ad Hoc Fiction in Spring 2019. I’m also working on finishing a short story collection and starting a novel.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5-10 top tips for writers of flash fiction?

ELKES

  1. Give yourself permission to write crap, then use that freedom to write well.
  2. Read lots of short fiction in collections and online to learn more about what works and what doesn’t
  3. Don’t grab at the first idea for a story, let things brew for just a little while longer.
  4. Write hot, edit cold
  5. Ignore lists of top tips for short fiction writers and write whatever feels risky and surprises you.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ELKES

Instagram and Twitter allow this:  #Thewomandreamedofstrollingdampwintermeadowswithherlatehusbandbefore wakingtofindherloverwashingherfeet

 

 

Beyond the popular canon: things that should be better known

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“We soon learn that Shakespeare, the Grand Canyon and the Bible are worthy of our attention because everyone keeps telling us so.”

If you need a recommendation right now, there will be no shortage of suggestions. The problem is that far too many of them are exactly the same. For instance, in looking for something to watch on a Saturday night, your search for “greatest films” will be answered with an infinity of lists compiled with varying degrees of judgement but surprising levels of consistency. Automated recommendations generally just give you more of what you have already asked for. Critical ones seem to clone themselves, as if unwilling to depart from an agreed line. Citizen Kane is repeatedly right up there, according to the American Film Institute (number 1 film of all time), Sight and Sound (number 2), Hollywood Reporter (3) and Rotten Tomatoes (4). But what if you’ve already seen it, and didn’t even think it was that good? What then?

By adulthood, most of us are aware of the historical figures, places and books represented by what can loosely be categorised as the canon: the list that you were taught at school, that books and newspapers tell you are the best and most important. Sometimes, we agree with them, sometimes not, but we soon learn that Shakespeare, the Grand Canyon and the Bible are worthy of our attention because everyone keeps telling us so. It is supplemented by a popular canon, as expressed by your social media, of more ephemeral, instant pleasures, that may have an unstoppable democratic force, but that does not mean that you always share them.

Any canon is important, as it provides a society with a shared catalogue of experiences and reference points; otherwise, how does one know what to speak about to a stranger? But your curiosity about the world need not stop there. How much more interesting, every so often, to put the canon to one side, and say to someone, “Tell me about a great book that I’ve never heard of.”

My podcast Better Known sets out to ask people what they love that the rest of the world does not seem to value. In short: what should be better known?

People are keen to answer the question, firstly because we all love talking about what we are passionate about, but also because we do not always get the opportunity. Most people have quirks in their tastes that are slightly unorthodox but we rarely get a chance to talk about our obscure preferences, precisely because other people are not familiar with them. Generally, in conversation, most people are looking to have their beliefs confirmed than challenged, and so they may not be in the mood to hear anything new. Instead, much of our social life only covers those topics which we know are popular and thus safe, and so it is easy to live one’s life with others only through the pleasures which the news picks out for us.

Through dozens of interviews, I have heard about the fascinating objects, events and ideas which guests hold dear and feels compelled to impress upon other people. The novelist Joanne Harris spoke about the Child Ballads, hundreds of traditional stories collected in the nineteenth century. Biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett discussed a book which her mother had written about a nineteenth century dinner party of writers and artists. Writer Ben Schott explained why movie posters look the way they do. It has been inspiring to hear and then take up these suggestions of things which I would otherwise have never known about.

For some guests, the obscurity of their choice provides a pleasure. They like the fact that they have uncovered something that others have not. For others, they enjoy the obscurity, particularly of a place, for a more practical reason: if lots of people knew about the place, then its serenity, part of its appeal, would be ruined. But, most of all, they make their choices because we are all individuals, and sometimes what we like most of all may not have officially made the grade, but is nonetheless worthy of their – and maybe your – time.

Each episode aims to bring a person with private obscure passions to an audience eager to learn more about what is best in the world. Each guest selects six things, and so you begin to get a real sense of who they are through the range of their choices without necessarily knowing particular facts about them, their job or their life. By way of contrast, and to ensure we do not drown in positivity, they also get to pick one thing which they think should be less well known and it is frequently a highlight for me to hear someone go from such radiant optimism to unbridled cynicism so rapidly. Picnics, liver and jeans are among those proposed as being overrated. But the focus always then returns to what they like.

It is easy, as an adult, to stop learning anything new, and to exist endlessly off inspiration from the past. If you want to remain curious about the world, and continue to be inspired, you have to make an active effort. Better Known aims to be an entertaining introduction into a world of inspiration that you previously knew little about. You will not agree with all recommendations, but you will hopefully learn something new. After all, how many more endorsements for Citizen Kane does one need?

About the author of this article

IW.jpgIvan Wise presents the Better Known podcast (www.betterknown.co.uk). He is a former editor of The Shavian, the journal of the George Bernard Shaw Society, about which he has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Times Higher Educational Supplement and The Guardian website, and was the expert witness on an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives. He works in the charity sector, for Think Ahead, a mental health organisation that recruits and trains graduates to become social workers.

How jiu jitsu helped me become a better writer

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The handshakes, that’s how I first know I’m in trouble.

I’m at a Jiu-Jitsu class. Wednesday. I’m recovering from the usual winter cold, have even opened my email twice that day to compose an excuse.

Sorry, Kev. I’m feeling under the weather – can I rearrange for next week?

Delete. If I send that I won’t ever go.

Down a coffee. Get in the car. Drive to the gym.

Now, the handshakes. There are ten men and each greets me by gripping my hand and telling me their name – I forget the names but remember the grips. I don’t know if it’s the coffee or the panic, but I don’t feel ill any more.

What followed was like a nature documentary, but instead of Attenborough’s voice putting the gazelle’s death into perspective, it was the sweaty grunting of ten men and me making noises like Kermit with tuberculosis. They choke me out, one after the other but are very polite about it.

I learn a few techniques and try to use them, without much success – still, I am getting better, surviving longer before they politely choke me. I start to figure that it’s about strategy, not just muscle and reflex. I have been using all of my strength and “gassing out,” while these men, some in their sixties, are effortlessly squishing me like soft cheese. Then they reacquaint me with their grips. Around my neck this time.

I stay on for the advanced class and start to last a little longer before tapping out. All the while, there is a strange thought in the back of my head: if these were fights to the death, I would be dead twenty-six times.

By the end it’s more like thirty.

I shake Kev’s hand, tell him I’ll be back for the next class, and leave with a smile. I am sore all over, have burns on my fingers and toes, but I keep replaying what I’ve learnt as I drive home, and later, when I’m lying in bed, I can’t sleep because I’m thinking of how I will improve next time, how I will change my game.

Now, I have been to four Jiu-Jitsu classes. I know nothing. But already, I’m noticing how it affects other areas of my life – my writing in particular. So… why?

Failure. Nothing acquaints you with it better than Jiu-Jitsu. You will be choked. But after a while, that becomes not so scary. And then, once failure is accepted as a necessary step for growth, once it is seen that the only way you learn is through doing something wrong in the first place, there is a feeling of freedom. Get choked. Get up. Go again. You know better this time. If you aren’t afraid to fail, you are willing to try new things, to play risky, to be interesting. Same with writing, and everything else worth pursuing, failure is inevitable – bad drafts, abandoned projects, rejections. Every novelist I know has a project-graveyard file on their computer. That is no source of shame. It is a mark of craft. Lose the fear of losing. A winner is someone who never let loss stop them.

Struggle. We as human beings are not built for sitting on beaches with cocktails. That is nice for a while, but only for a while. We need a target. Something with which to contend. Placing happiness as all important is wrong – better to pursue something difficult, something worth the struggle, something with meaning. Often it isn’t pleasant, but in pursuing that target, you are fulfilled. Do something difficult, just to see if you can. You will surprise yourself. Struggle upwards, towards a goal, and you’ll have something better than brief happiness. It’s why we run marathons, why we climb mountains, and it is why we writers choose to sit and write every day when we’d much rather be somewhere else. We turn up, at the desk, ready to contend. It requires an immense amount of work and effort – the trek out into that hinterland of composition. We are grappling with plot, emotions, ideas, and that greater thing, that unconscious current which dictates the direction we pursue, which word follows the previous. Jiu-Jitsu is just a physical manifestation of that which happens every day at the desk. You are willingly contending with something difficult, and it is often painful, but once it is over, you know it was worth it, and you can’t wait to go again, to see if you will be better. To see what you will learn this time.

A piece of writing is just a by-product of this process of struggle. This contention with the unconscious, the constant working and re-working. If something is jarring with the rest of the work, try something different. In doing this, the process itself will become rewarding – the pursuit of the target. The journey becomes what is important, that process of learning. Like Jiu-Jitsu, if something isn’t working, adapt and find the right technique, be satisfied with the journey, the constant reshuffling of set-ups and finishes. Maybe you will be choked in the end. Who cares? A novel is a by-product of the process of contending with the unconscious, of reshuffling and learning. The process is paramount. The pursuit. You don’t make a sandcastle, you abandon the sandpit.

Tenacity. The most important thing. In my last class, Kev, the instructor, rolled with me for the last thirty minutes. My ribcage is still bruised. At one point I think he just sat on me, but I can’t be certain. What I do know is that I didn’t quit. He asked if I wanted to stop but I caught my breath and carried on. And at the end, after my total annihilation, he called me “strong as an ox.” That felt good. Still, I think Kev could easily choke out an ox. I left that class aching, but proud that I had not given up. It’s rare today to encounter that kind of situation, but its good to know that if one were to arise, you have the ability to survive, the tenacity to continue. This directly correlates to writing – 40,000 words into a novel, it will feel like Kev is sitting on your chest. Be an ox. Kev will still sit on you, but the important thing is that you aren’t quitting.

Aggression. Everyone harbours it, no matter what they tell you or themselves. It’s normal. However, it will manifest itself in other, unwanted, parts of life if not acknowledged and integrated. Jiu-Jitsu lets you channel that aggression, and in doing so, gives you the confidence to integrate that assertive side in your life, when people might try to take advantage, when you need to stand up for yourself. It becomes a tool rather than a hindrance. There are circumstances where being nice just isn’t helpful – that isn’t to say that everyone should be an ass all the time. But for those of us who struggle to say no, whose first instinct is to be agreeable, this integration is life-changing. It’s a confidence. A self-belief. Again, an important quality for writers, who are (myself included) some of the most self-critical people around.

Humility. Try enduring a ritual strangling twice a week. It quickly teaches you humility. Appreciate that you will always be learning, that there are others who know more, that cockiness is laziness. If you are humble you are active, always trying to improve the work, but someone who believes they know everything has given up their desire to learn. Inactive. “There are no egos here,” is the phrase they use like a prayer or affirmation. It is a constant reminder that we are all learning, that we are all on the path – as Ursula Le Guin says so perfectly, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

I am halfway through writing a novel at the moment. Kev is sitting on my chest, but I am not quitting. So, on Wednesday, I’ll be back for another choking, and when I get home, I will write my 500 words.

Both are painful, but worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

About the author of this post

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Christopher Baker is a writer, published in the Writers of the Future 35th anthology and with theatre work that has won The Stage Award at Edinburgh Fringe. He graduated from the Warwick Writing programme with a First Class BA Hons in English Literature & Creative Writing. He has three dogs and is often covered in their hair. His twitter is @CSBker