Quite a responsibility on our shoulders then. And of course, my own eye goes straight to ‘writers’; my brain inserting ‘fiction writers’.
‘Fiction is the most humane and magical of acts – it’s healing, restorative, exactly because it shows us a way across those chasms. We can never know what it’s like to be someone else, ever, except through fiction. People always talk of fiction as if it’s an escape from the world, but it’s not that, or not just that. It’s an escape out of ourselves and into the world, too.’ (in All the Beggars Riding by Lucy Caldwell)
We all know what it’s like to be immersed in a good book; in a totally different place; feeling the emotions and thoughts of someone else. If we let it, this absorption can offer us insights which in turn help us to empathise with other people, understand another point of view, maybe be more tolerant, more afronted, readjust our moral compass, be better equipped to support and help. To be more specific, my own novels take the reader inside the skin of characters grappling with some of life’s big questions and issues. Fiction allows us to do that in an enjoyable form, and I do believe that if we all allowed ourselves to truly walk in other people’s shoes before judging them, the real world would be a kinder, gentler and more peaceable place. The kind of world I want my grandchildren to inherit.
In my academic life, I always said I wanted to go out on a high, not fizzle and fail, and now I’m a novelist, I have to ask myself periodically, when will it be time to quit? Every end of year I take stock. OK. And this year? Well, I’ve decided I should continue writing fiction for now, the compulsion is still there. I have two books on the go at the moment; I’m keen to finish them. I’d be bereft without this driving force in my life. So watch this space …
But for the moment, in this the first blog of a new year, I want to say a very big thank you to all of you who follow my posts, and especially those who get back to me with comments and reactions – by any route. The discipline of writing something every week does me good: it keeps my writing and editing muscles toned; concentrates the mind; makes me think through issues/arguments; allows me to share writerly and occasionally personal experiences. Knowing you too gain something from it is a real thrill. So, it only remains for me to wish you all an excellent year 2017, joyful, peaceful, healthy. And if life is tough for you at the moment, I hope you’ll find the strength, courage and determination to overcome.
One of my most exciting Christmas presents this year was a dress circle seat for Scottish Ballet’s production of Hansel and Gretel, at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh on 19th December. It was utterly fabulous – costumes, music, story telling, dance, everything. And I appreciated it all the more because I’d looked at all the videos about what went on behind the scenes; so much vision, so much expertise, so much talent.
Returning to my own Christmas production, Herr Doktor Schrinkenfeldt and Friends, was something of an anti-climax. But then I don’t have a vast team of experts at my disposal; I personally double as scriptwriter, artistic director, costume designer, scene setter, makeup artist, sound effects technician, Uncle Tom Cobley and all – master of none. Which is entirely appropriate given that our audience is limited to nine people, the budget is low and it runs for one day only.
This year the story/play (performed yesterday) revolved around four cousins who find themselves invited to visit a house full of monsters – well, 6 actually – allegedly friends of their Great Aunt Olga, all of whom have wisdom to impart and fun activities to offer.
Along the way the children tasted de luxe sandwiches, made soup from revolting ingredients, adopted fairy companions, painted ceramics, sent magic lights 40 feet into the night sky. As they met each monster, they also learned that they themselves are uniquely special, strong, brave, compassionate and talented. And that parents aren’t actually monsters erecting barriers to communication.
Suddenly after months and months of preparation, my seventeenth Christmas story/play for the grandchildren is over. How does the artistic director of Hansel and Gretel feel as the curtains close for the last time, I wonder? Exhausted but satisfied, I imagine. And already thinking of his next production.
Christmas. Time to make contact. Time to appreciate friends. Time to give gifts. Time for a little gentle reflection …
You’ve probably seen the posters:
Comparing what the season means to us here in the fifth richest country, (foreign visitors please substitute your own ranking), with what it will bring for those people caught up in world conflicts and humanitarian crises, it’s all too easy to sink beneath a burden of injustice, maybe even guilt, isn’t it? We see the horrors everyday on our screens, in our papers; our contributions feel all too meagre. Today, however, I don’t want to dwell on the depressing aspects of our global inequalities, rather I want to send out a positive message.
Let’s go back to the beginning of my thinking … I read somewhere (can’t now remember where) that David Cameron is charging £120,000 per hour to give talks about Brexit. That’s £2,000 per minute. Hello? He was only getting £143,462 per annum when he was running the country! – OK, I know, I know, that was his basic salary; he had sundry other substantial incomes alongside that. And don’t get me started on the obscene salaries sportspeople
earn rake in, or models, or … Yes, yes, you get the picture.
Instead, let’s turn to face in another direction, and consider the unsung heroes in our society; contrast their incomes with £2,000 per minute.
The average wage for a carer patiently looking after our elderly and demented relatives, is £7.25 an hour.
A school teacher educating our precious children gets a starting salary of £19,600.
A qualified nurse with our lives in her hands can expect to take home £21,692 a year at the start of her career.
A fully competent trained fireman putting his own life on the line will get £29,345.
I could go on.
They aren’t on the front cover of glossy magazines, they aren’t being pursued by the paparazzi for celebrity shots, they aren’t winning Nobel prizes, they aren’t wowing us with their luxury homes/yachts/cars/handbags/jewels, they aren’t attracting mega bucks. No, but they are helping to create/preserve the caring society I want for my children and grandchildren. They are making the world a better place. Indeed many of them will be looking after our relatives and friends instead of being at home with their own loved ones this Christmas. I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by such people, ordinary folk doing extraordinary things, and I see at first hand the extra miles they go, the difference they make, the quiet satisfaction they get from a job well done. I want to take this opportunity to comprehensively salute them all and wish them joy and contentment, not just at this festive time, but every day.
As Tiny Tim would say, ‘God bless them, every one!’
Let’s all resolve in the coming year to truly value excellence, dedication, selflessness and service.
It keeps cropping up, year after year, doesn’t it? – the banning of objects or activities or statements, lest certain people take offence.
‘Offensive’ includes, not just way-out books and films, but long-standing statues of the Virgin Mary/Jesus Christ/nativity scene, classics like To Kill a Mocking Bird/The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Hallowe’en, scarves, crosses, prayers, peaceable religious folk who refuse to compromise on their principles … the list goes on.
I’ve seen the hurtful effects of narrow, rigid intolerance up close, and it’s not a pretty sight. Nor is it edifying to anyone. For me it boils down to arrogance: I’m right; full stop. Ergo, everyone else who holds a different opinion is wrong. Hello? By whose divine decree? Never mind ‘your’ rights, what about those whose rights you’re denying?
There’s far too much talk of rights nowadays, in my opinion. Wow! Only last week we heard that frozen embryos are suing their mother, actress Sofia Vergara, (who?) for the right to life! They’ve even been given names – Emma and Isabella … don’t get me started!
But seriously, in the humdrum everyday world, with rights come responsibilities. And our planet would be a kinder place if everyone tried to put themselves into other people’s shoes, esteeming them as better than themselves. And adopted the ‘Judge no man till you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins‘ principle.
Why am I writing about this on a blog about ethics and books? Well, of course, kindness and justice and rights and interests and conscience all play a part in deciding what’s good and right. But something more specifically triggered these ruminations. Let me explain.
I spend a lot of time listening. And over the years I’ve become increasingly aware of older people confiding that they’ve secretly had doubts about many things they were once sure about, but they haven’t liked to voice them for fear of being reprimanded/corrected or of upsetting others. And as the day of death approaches, they can be much exercised by the consequences of their wavering beliefs. What a damning indictment of the rest of us. How have we managed to create a society that means these vulnerable fellow-citizens must worry alone and afraid? And let’s not lose sight of the fact that, when you live alone, largely inactive, with few distractions, such misgivings can assume quite overwhelming dimensions.
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I had an absolutely amazing conversation with a wonderful elderly lady with advancing dementia. Quite how we got onto the subject I can’t now remember – we roam from topic to topic as the mood takes us – but suddenly she was talking about assisted dying. She had a personal and an intellectual stake in the subject, but had never before talked about it (or so she alleged). Why? Because most people ‘wouldn’t be interested’ in her views, and those who would ‘might not approve’ of her position. We had a brilliant hour and a half together and I’ve seldom left a discussion on this subject more exhilarated. Deep inside this ageing brain, parts of which are definitely scrambling, was a coherent and thoughtful mind that could still argue a logical case and hold a defensible personal viewpoint. My respect and admiration for her is immense. And how sad that a beautiful intellect like that is being slowly but inexorably diminished by this disease. I am doubly resolved to keep her sparking on as many cylinders as possible for as long as it’s feasible.
Oh, and speaking of approaching death … did you know that researchers have found evidence that creative people worry less about mortality because their artistic works will live on after their demise – a kind of existential security. Well, that’s the conclusion drawn from the findings of the people at the University of Kent, reporting in the Journal of Creative Behavior, anyway. Hmmm. We’ve lost a large number of iconic figures this year, haven’t we? Were David Bowie or Leonard Cohen or Victoria Wood or Carla Lane or Ronnie Corbett comforted by the lasting cultural legacy they were going to leave behind? Did it motivate them to keep creating? Rumours abound of highly creative people being riddled with angst, frequently depressed, constantly worrying whether their next work will be a success, whether they are still up to snuff. But, hang on a minute … the Kent study wasn’t done with celebrity figures; it tested psychology students more or less inclined to creativity. So, is it a matter of degree then? OK, I’ll need to think on it. Maybe I’ll talk to my clever friend about it while I still can.
I came across an amusing and intriguing story this week.
Writer, Adam Nathan, saw an interesting quote by Alexandra K Trenfor and posted it on his blog:
The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.
Neat, apposite and thoughtful observation, yes? You can see why he quoted it. At first nothing in particular happened, but after a couple of weeks, to his astonishment, search engines suddenly started routing the keywords ‘Alexandra K. Trenfor’ traffic to him. He was intrigued and started to ask, who exactly is Alexandra K Trenfor? And he drew a blank.
The question then became, is she real? Does she exist? Is this a pseudonym? Other people started to research the name. All drew a blank.
The only other adages attributed to her, I can find are:
Be loving. And if you don’t feel loving, then simply be kind. Kindness is just love in her daily clothes.
Youth is wasted on the young – and wisdom on the old.
But who really wrote them? Any of you knowledgeable readers and amateur sleuths have inside information? A delicious mystery. Can you help us solve it? Triggers the germ of an idea for a novel, huh?
(I used to be a researcher in a former life, so I know all about the deadly sin of quoting other people’s work without referencing it accurately. Makes me uneasy even writing about this weird situation.)
Hmmm, this is all mightily inconvenient. There are monsters to create, gifts to wrap, cards to write, garments to make … but the new novella (working title, Listen) has taken over my brain, lock, stock and barrel! No more uninterrupted nights for me. No peaceful journeys. No relaxing with hobbies or other people’s novels.
The main protagonist has got her passport; found her birth certificate; she’s travelling! I’m trying to keep pace. She’s on a rail journey from Aberdeen to Penzance knowing a major crisis awaits her at the other end. Diversions along the way take her – and me – off at a tangent, but the train thunders relentlessly towards that endpoint. Tweakings, refinements, reorderings, present themselves at all hours at nobody’s convenience. That’s the writing life.
But of course, at this time of year, concerts and charity sales and visitors wait for no man. I dart between kitchen and study, exchange wooden spoon for keyboard … ahhh, yes, an analogy in the making. At this stage the story’s a bit like a main meal almost ready to serve; all the component parts present, but every time you taste it, there’s something not quite perfect …
A little more seasoning, maybe?
Something to give it a lift?
A sweeter ending perhaps?
No time to linger here, I’m afraid. Can’t let it all go cold!
Eebie jeebie! Life’s on a steep slope and gathering frightening momentum this week. Where are the brakes …? Anyone seen the safety nets?
Outside, hard frosts have made works of incredible beauty out of ordinary spiders’ webs around here, and I couldn’t help but feel an affinity with them. Unbelievably strong, amazingly intricate, yet so fragile if touched carelessly. A bit like the ideas the brain conjures up in creative mode. So, why is the writing life more than usually frenetic at the moment?
Well, to begin with it’s Book Week Scotland; I’m doing a couple of author events locally for that. Lovely to go out there and meet real live people who read my books, and want to know about why and how I do what I do, and wonderful librarians who are so enthusiastic and dedicated to their task of encouraging reading, but space needs to be found to prepare mentally for each one.
I’m also writing not one, not two, but three books simultaneously right now. Three, do I hear you shriek? Yep, three. Completely unprecedented, as regular followers will know. Madness, probably. So why break my own rules?
Well, Christmas is fast approaching, so I absolutely MUST complete the grandchildren’s annual story/play due to be enacted on 28 December to a full house. I need to order props and make costumes before then, and allow for postal hiatuses, so first I have to finalise the text to be sure about what I still need/want. In spare moments, and by way of light relief, I’m also making monster heads – details are top secret (suffice to say that hair and glitter and strange white particles linger stubbornly in the warp and weft of certain carpets). And one whole room is definitely off limits to all, no exceptions.
Then my ongoing novel, Killing me Gently, mustn’t be allowed to lose momentum. Pleased to say I’m still with the thriller genre on that one. However, as a safety valve, I’m letting the back burner dictate the pace of this book at the moment, only sitting down to actually commit words to the document when they’re too insistent to ignore, or jotting down thoughts that wake me in the night.
And the third book? It’s brand spanking new, jostling for attention at crazy o’clock, keeping me at the desk long past the witching hour. It’s got a working title of Listen and is designed as a shorter story in my usual vein (contemporary fiction set in the world of medical ethics) which can be offered as a free download to give potential new readers a window into my books. I’m having a ball writing this! It’s about a Professor of Medical Ethics who goes on a train journey from Aberdeen to Penzance where a crisis awaits her … I now know some amazing statistics about high speed trains! And about atrocious experiments performed on black people in the 50s in America. Intrigued? Watch this space.
I keep reminding myself … this is all entirely self inflicted!
I’m one of those irritating people who can’t function in a clutter, and that’s nowhere more apparent than in my writing life. I need to clear up any unresolved issues and outstanding tasks before I can psyche myself into the creative zone.
This week I’ve been flitting from an intriguing system for finding new readers (yawn, yawn), to consolidating material for the children’s Christmas story (great fun!), preparing for forthcoming author appearances (mmm, lovely communication with real live people), and delving into the ethical dimensions behind ongoing medical questions (round and round and round, we go). Oh, and a little bit of digging into the past in our family and communicating with archivists – related to Remembrance Day and my Uncle Harold who died on the Somme a hundred years ago this year. All in all a very raggy kind of week. And definitely not conducive to serious stints of writing.
So, I’m busy tidying up loose ends to put me in a calmer place. Not exactly headline news, not remotely interesting to anyone else, indeed, so I’ll just share one activity with you that closed – nay, more like permanently deleted – one of the many open files in my brain.
In my stack of ideas for possible future novels I have a wallet labelled ‘HIV/AIDS’, so when I saw a review of Tell the Wolves I’m Home I just had to buy a copy. I read it over a year ago but somehow never got round to writing about it here. This seems like a good moment to rectify that omission.
It’s a debut novel by Carol Rifka Brunt, an American writer now living in Devon, who was selected for the New Writing Partnership’s New Writing Ventures award, and funded by the Arts Council to write it. Lucky woman, huh?
Essentially, it’s a well written tale of love and compassion, secrets and prejudice, forbidden relationships and the legacies left by bittersweet memories.
The narrator is a fourteen year old girl, June Elbus, the younger sister of the slimmer and more beautiful Greta. June is a curious mixture as she hovers on the brink of adulthood: still fantasising about the Middle Ages and wolves, playing like a child in the woods, one minute; showing a maturity beyond her years as she faces death and loss, tortured by her own inappropriate longings, the next.
The girls’ Uncle Finn is a famous artist and he’s painting a picture of the sisters, hoping to complete it before he dies of AIDS. June is obsessed by Finn Weiss, who is also her godfather – in love with him in fact – and his death devastates her. But Finn has made provision for her grief in the shape of his hidden lover, Toby, who materialises unexpectedly at the funeral and becomes very much part of her secret world. Gradually June gets to see the impact Toby had on the uncle she thought she knew.
The Elbus family are riven with tensions arising from Finn’s fame, his illness, Mom’s reaction to it, Toby’s part in it, Greta’s insecurity, the parents’ ambitions, sibling rivalries. Jealousies, conflicts, and divided loyalties drive them to re-examine their lives, their strengths and weaknesses. Greta is not the confident, popular older sister June thought she was. Finn is not the man June thinks he is. The painting is not revered as a masterpiece should be.
In a former life I actually carried out empirical research in the early days of HIV/AIDS, and Brunt’s portrayal of the family’s reaction to the illness rings true for the time. It’s sensitively and sympathetically wrought. So too are the dynamics of the Elbus family. I liked the way the author gradually unravelled the characters and showed us their true selves – cleverly done through the eyes of an adolescent first person narrator. It’s a multi-layered book, successfully weaving and merging many threads until the tale is told. A worthy winner of a prestigious award.
But the time for writing a novel on the subject myself is passed; all my books on the subject can be consigned to a good cause. That potential novel can be crossed off my list. Result? Space on my shelves and in my brain! Wahey!!
It was enough of a shock coming from 28 degrees in Portugal last week (and yes, the sky really was this blue) to snow on the Pentlands here this week (currently in the minuses).
Then, as if the Brexit vote wasn’t bad enough back in June, this week the unthinkable, the unbelievable, has happened on the other side of the Atlantic. A staggeringly unqualified, openly racist, xenophobic, mysogynist has been chosen as the next president – yes, chosen! – to lead the world’s most powerful nation. I felt so despairing yesterday morning when I woke to this news I had to tramp the streets and divert my attention to doing something practical to help the aged and lonely and disadvantaged amongst us. No mood for writing anything more exacting than the annual Christmas story for the grandchildren.
So nothing erudite today. I’ll just share with you something I came across during the week. As you know, I’m still considering writing a thriller this time around, so my attention was instantly caught by Doug Johnstone’s five tips for writing an unputdownable novel.
In essence they are:
- Start the novel in the thick of the action with your central character. No preamble, no prologue.
- Cut all the extraneous detail to make the language crisp and sparse. No gentle musing or scene setting.
- Give the reader breathing space, a moment of respite from the fast action, to give the story emotional punch. Allow the characters to reflect on their experiences occasionally, but keep it brief.
- Vary sentence length. Mix staccato statements with longer poetic flowing passages.
- Use dialogue but sparingly. Arrive as late as possible to the conversation and leave as early as you decently can.
Hmmm. Interesting, and slightly different from other advice I’ve read. Sounds good, though, and lots of food for thought in my case. As soon as I’ve recovered my equilibrium I’ll be testing out the wisdom of these tips.
In the meantime, let’s just pray for the American people and world peace, huh?