TALES FROM MY STREET: THE CURSE OF BELIEVING THAT YOUR THOUGHTS ARE REAL

Nige is looking pensive and I don’t think it’s about the half-empty pint of Kronenberg under his chin, on the bar counter. I order two more then say, “What are you thinking about?”

“Thinking,” he says.

“Yours or other people’s?”

His gaze snaps up. “That’s exactly it, Tel!”

“You’ve been thinking about other people’s thinking?”

He finishes his pint in one go, no doubt steadying his approaching stream of consciousness.

“Mostly,” he says, “there’s just you and the world what you interact with. In my case, that mainly means patchy, mouldy and generally drama-scarred walls what by my brickie magic turn into smooth planes of uninterrupted colour, mostly variations on beige it has to be said these days.”

“And you aren’t thinking of much other than thinning ratios and drying times while this transformation is taking place?”

“Actually, I’m usually thinking of some conspiracy or other that I’m into. Well, I say ‘conspiracy’ but most of it is out there in plain view for those what want to see; like the way politicians no longer even pretend they have any evidence for their views, they just repeat a lie over and over until we all give in to it through sheer boredom. But I digress.”

He pauses to stare into the distance above Janine, the bartender’s, head, where only little used optics and philosophical quandaries normally lie.

“I’ve spent years,” he goes on, “looking into the details behind conspiracies to prove they’re real. But, as is my wont, I was missing the bleedin’ obvious all along.”

“That everything’s a conspiracy?” I say. It’s probably my writer’s natural scepticism that prompts this.

Nige just frowns slightly impatiently before continuing. “No, what I’ve been missing is the simple fact that just about everyone believes what their thoughts are telling them. That constant nattering what goes on in our heads: we actually believe it’s telling us the truth. Hence, everything everyone thinks is unreal.”

“Didn’t I just say that?”

“You said everything’s a conspiracy. The truth is nothing is a conspiracy because everything everyone thinks is true. At least they believe it is.”

“If so, why do we bother thinking anything at all?”

“I’m not sure we do. Thoughts sort of think themselves, don’t they? Try stopping them any time and you’ll end up biting chunks out of the walls, while thinking about said walls in the process. The mistake we make is taking our thoughts seriously. That, and the opposite, which is not taking anyone else’s thoughts seriously, not that we should because they’re just as untrue as our own.”

As is my wont, I find myself thinking – or my thinking finds me – about how this relates to writing. “So, if I’m putting thoughts in the head of one of my story characters, is that the same as him or her just having the thoughts themselves?”

He frowns. “No, of course it bleedin’ isn’t. The author is God, ain’t he? That’s why we prefer stories to real life, because the author can make his characters think interesting stuff instead of the aimless crap we think in real life.”

“His characters can think the things we’d like to think we think when we think in real life?”

“Well, when I wake up in the morning, my thoughts go something like: Where the feck am I? Oh, in me lonely old bedroom again. Should get that window fixed. What’s the time? Right, have to get up, have a crap, wash, feed the cat – no, the cat died didn’t it. Must remember to buy some bog paper on the way home tonight. Bogs – reminds me, that sewage vent needs looking at. Otherwise Bill next door is going to vent his wrath at me again. That’s weird – vent means air getting in and out but is that what you do with wrath? I mean, do you have to vent it in order to prevent the build up of toxic gases. Speaking of which, I need a crap . . . But you authors can have your character waking up and thinking: It was the best of bleedin’ times; it was the worst of bleedin’ times. To be or not to be. In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit. Give peace a chance . . . etc.”

“Characters in stories are better than characters in real life, in other words.”

“Well, duh, Tel. Of course they are. Unless they’re characters in EastEnders, that is. They’re actually worse than characters in real life.”

“I thought you said the author is God.”

“He is until he’s over-ruled by the BBC’s assume the public are stupid policy.”

I do know what he means. I’ve always believed characters in stories should be better than we are in so-called real life.

“I think it’s a shame,” I say, “that so many films and books these days are directed by the fans.”

“For once, I agree with you, Tel,” he says. “I reckon fans are frightened of mental intimacy. They believe their own stupid thoughts and don’t want anything challenging them. Therefore, they want to be able to control the characters they read about. No surprises. They want their characters to have thoughts that are as equally stupid as their own.”

“Which means neither the fans nor the writers ever really inhabit their characters, then change their thoughts to be interesting and challenging. They stay on the outside, controlling them.”

“When’s the last time Doctor bleedin’ Who had a thought you couldn’t see coming from the other side of the universe?”

We’re nearly at the end of our pints. I want to think about all this some more. Or do I mean I want my thoughts to think me about it some more? For now, I say, “Authors who pander to the fans are the same as anyone who believes their own thoughts. Real authors don’t listen to their thoughts; they push past them and take a creative jump into the unknown, grab what’s there and bring it back to surprise everyone with.”

Nige raises his glass, smiles. “I’ll think to that,” he says.

The Necessary Inner Friction of the Older Writer

The way it’s supposed to go is that when you get older you become more satisfied, because you’ve got the things you’ve been trying all your life to get. As a kid, you were educated in how to find a job that pays for the things you’re also educated that you must have. You must have a family, a house, a car, money in the bank, a favourite holiday spot in Italy with the means to go there more and more, especially in retirement; to pick up a little of the language; to knowingly kid yourself that Roberto who owns your favourite restaurant on the harbour sees you as one of the family.

But what’s going on if in old age you’re thoroughly dissatisfied, even when you have all the things you’ve been told you want? Is it that those things ought to be bigger, better, replaced, more valuable? Is it just that you’re unforgivably ungrateful for all that the world’s provided you with?

Or is it that the things you really want were nothing to do with the stuff you were told you wanted in the first place? Things like understanding the world better; being more aware, perceptive, wise?

Has a point come when, with a spiritually subtle horror, you’ve realised that the kinds of esoteric things you wanted don’t even run in parallel with the stuff you can buy. They actually run in the opposite direction.

So it is that as you get more of the obvious stuff, it just highlights how little of the real stuff you actually have. That 55 inch 4K TV with 300 channels seems to watch you like a giant eye of irony, mocking the fact that while you can just point the remote at it, switch it on and bring the world into your living room, you don’t even have a clue where to find the on switch where your understanding of life is concerned.

Along with being educated into running the smooth path of work-money-things, you weren’t taught that getting the spiritual stuff is not so laid out and clear. And you were certainly not made aware that spiritual stuff is not even something that you can ‘get’.

A great irony can be that you realise finally that pursuit of the spiritual is nothing like the material. It starts, perhaps, in childhood with simply being open to all possibilities in oneself, and how they connect to, come from and feed back into nature. The irony being that after a lifetime of pursuing easily quantifiable stuff, it may be too late to suddenly open the doors to the unknown.

Writers, too, are educated to get things. To write a book; then to get it published; then to make money from it and receive good reviews; then to write another book, and another – all with the same kind of branded covers. Where the spiritual’s concerned, it may be better for the writer to fail. That way, his creative bag never clicks into the treads of the baggage carousel of acclaim; he never keeps on getting the things everyone tells him he wants; never becomes just another thing to get.

Getting older can be the best time for a writer, if he uses the friction caused by his material comfort moving in the opposite direction to his spiritual dissatisfaction. This friction in itself improves insight; will cause him to question everything. The man who’s only ever wanted a nice house and a classic car or two, and gets them, doesn’t question anything. Instead, he attends endless dinner parties and golf club events, practising his fake humility, while lapping up the largely imagined envy of his peers. If anyone ever questions him, like his oddly but probably only temporarily, rebellious teenage daughter, he’ll punish her a little, but with love, because he knows that eventually she’ll come round, will ultimately want the same things he does and when that happens he can feel warm and useful in helping her to get them.

The older, friction-driven, writer can produce wonders. He has experience of the world but then so do most people his age. The wonders come when he goes full-time. Not full-time as a writer, but full-time as a spiritual seeker, with material comfort almost an irrelevance (although he’s thankful to have it).

The wonders-seeking writer will go out for a meal with friends, and will happily apply himself to making the evening work. He’ll listen to people’s stories, and put himself out to be funny and interesting. All the while, he’ll also notice the comfort moves everyone makes without being aware of it. The subtle steering of a conversation into the warm shallow waters of social-cult agreement whenever there’s the danger of real disagreement ahead. The views that sound so logical but when you lift the mind cover slightly, it’s easy to see that they’re really the views of the work-money-things community, the largest in the western world. The conversations that sound spontaneous but are really just self-aggrandisement commodity trading for the most part.

And he will go home and lie awake, frustrated, sad, angry, deeply wishful that it could be different one day; that he could sit down with people who were open and fascinated by the world like children are but with wisdom and experience to make some magical sense of it too. Of the spiritual.

And if he’s a real writer, he won’t wake up in the morning thankfully having forgotten the night before. Instead, he’ll go to his desk and write about it.

 

WRITERS ARE DETERMINED BY WHAT THEY AVOID

As everybody knows, writers like to find ways to avoid writing. The standard cliché about this is that writers have the cleanest houses around. This isn’t actually true, however, because writers are also lazy so their avoidance mechanisms are more likely to include daytime television and internet surfing while their Polish cleaner hoovers in the background.

In any case, these kinds of easy to see distractions are small scale. The really big distractions are hiding in plain sight.

For literary writers the main big distraction is teaching. In the UK the real purpose of taking a degree in creative writing is not to produce novels, it’s to get work teaching how to write novels. Actual writing would be a distraction from the main distraction, both in terms of time and ideology. Literary creative writing teaching is all about encouraging students to spend long periods of time re-writing what they haven’t actually got round to writing yet. ‘Writing is re-writing’ they say. But this is not quite the truth. What they really mean is ‘Writing is a state of mind that promotes oneself as a writer which takes precedence over the production of actual writing; revision, contemplation, studying the masters, outlining, drafting are all non-writing activities but should take precedence’.

In the Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror field, the big distraction is perhaps more subtle and possibly more effective. It encourages actual writing to an extent, but ensures that the writing never really improves. It’s called critiquing. In speculative fiction, it never stops. Right now, somewhere, probably in the USA but possibly also in the UK, a group of 15 or so writers are sitting in a circle, each taking two minutes to give a critique of a story by the author who has to sit and listen in silence. His fellows have read his story twice, made copious notes and now give him a summary. He listens intently, or at least makes sure he looks as if he is; then later he will go through all the notes and . . . well, in theory, improve his story. But remember that this process is really about avoiding writing. What actually happens in a critiquing circle for the most part is that views are split between positive and negative. Which is perfect for the author since it means he can split himself about his own story, which in turn allows him to spend several more months working on it. ‘Working’ as in letting it stew in the background while he gets on with those smaller scale distractions we mentioned earlier.

There are exceptions, of course, to both these scenarios. With literary types, there is the fiercely determined person who never intended to be a writer in the first place. They always wanted just to be a writing teacher, therefore they are in a sense being true to themselves. And there is the SF author who loves the idea of self-improvement, even if he never actually publishes anything. But these are of course rare.

The fly in both distraction ointments is, of course, the readers. Because they also have their avoidance mechanisms. Mostly, this takes the form of reading. Many people somehow believe that reading books is good for you. Any books. Not comic books, mind you – clue is in the name. But any other book is, apparently, the sign of an improving mind. This holds as true for someone reading (and understanding)’Finnegans Wake’ as for someone reading (and not understanding) ‘Fido the Farting Dragon’.

Reading may at one time have been about improving oneself, on the whole. But today it’s more about having one’s need to escape into repetitive reassuring mind mulch fulfilled. Which increases the dilemma of the avoiding writer. He used to be avoiding writing stuff that might change the world, but now he’s avoiding stuff that he should be able to bang out as quickly as it takes to read.

At least before, he was avoiding something important, profound and necessary. Now, he’s only putting off the puerile. Before, staring manfully at the ceiling with hands poised over the keyboard like a patient praying mantis was the sign of an existential struggle with the very fabric of meaningful fiction. Now, everyone knows it means he can’t even raise a dragon’s fart’s worth of hot and smelly fan-based air.

And this is the same for both literary and genre writers. Because no good literary fiction is produced much any more, the standards of what constitutes ‘literary’ have fallen considerably. Now, you can write voluminously about say the people who live down your street and as long either they’re middle class or you condescendingly describe them if they’re working class, and you make sure you use reasonably erudite, albeit half-dead, language you can, well, win the Booker. Which means literary fiction writing tutors who are more intelligent than the writers they now teach face a similar dilemma to the genre reluctant dragon fart inhalers. They need to dumb down their avoidance mechanisms.

There is an old saying: the intelligence of the avoidance mechanisms you adopt is governed by the intelligence or lack of it of the work you are avoiding. It’s one thing to avoid producing a musical on the level of ‘West Side Story’; quite another to be putting off producing something Lloyd-Webber might have dragon-farted into existence whenever his bank balance needing topping up a bit.

The only up-side to the drop in intelligence level of modern day avoidance mechanisms is that it may be better for your health. Avoiding literary fiction that rips into the very meaning of existence, or genre fiction which posits a future world in which all hope has been lost to the domination of corporate culture, inevitably pushes the writer into drink, drugs, despair and the need to let off intellectual steam in-between rounds at his local pub’s quiz night. Avoiding Fifty Shades of Shite, on the other hand, allows the author to happily join in with the pub quiz and completely forget he’s even supposed to be a writer by answering questions about other writers who are not shite.

It used to be said that you become what you think about. Today, a writer becomes what he avoids.

 

TALES NOT FROM MY STREET: THE THREE LEVELS OF CREATIVE RESPONSIBILITY

I should have been going out for a drink with Nige tonight but something’s on my mind and I don’t think he can help.

I’m trying to work out what it means to man-up for real. Nige is a direct kind of guy, good at cutting through middle-class wishy-washy thinking. If I needed to make a decision about, say, whether to buy an electric car, he’d be perfect for an opinion, one that would probably contain directions for where to plug in my re-charger.

But I’m not worried about buying a car. Or getting a new hair cut, diet, religion, or even way of writing. I want to know what manning up really means. As first thoughts, I can see there might be levels to it:

1)   Facing up to danger/trouble/responsibility when it comes calling

This can often take courage and determination. Most people avoid it at all costs, even if that means selling out their nearest and dearest. Some take it on, even though they know it could cost them dearly, even their life.

But, like war, it comes at you, forcing the choice.

2)   Looking for and facing up to responsibility

This is very different. It talks about a fundamental attitude, rather than a reaction to trouble when it turns up. Whereas 1) can be time-bound, and once it’s been dealt with that’s the end of it, this level is never-ending.

2) is about possessing the attitude of taking responsibility in every situation. It doesn’t for example, mean apologising for being leader of an event that has gone horribly wrong but by way of blaming everyone else (a politician’s specialty). It means taking on the blame for oneself. Except that if you possess this attitude, it’s unlikely that you would have launched a war on the basis of false information about weapons of mass destruction in the first place.

This attitude is very difficult to attain and we see very few examples of it in the modern world. And yet . . . I think there is a third level beyond this, one that’s very different in nature to the first two.

3. Creatively manning-up

When a writer’s writing, his mind is either playing creative catch-up or he’s flying with the magic of being in creative control.

Creative catch-up is like 1) above. He’s trying to negotiate his creation, his story, dealing with the issue of whether or not it’s creative only when he has to. In this mode, for example, he has to establish the lead character in the first two pages; he has to bind all the plot strands into the climax; he has to provide a neat and tidy resolution. But it’s also easy for his creative writing responsibility to never get ahead of the demands of the story, like a harassed parent who never has time or energy to do more than just make sure their child is fed, dressed and at school on time.

Many, many writers have made a fortune doing nothing other than play catch-up with their stories. A lot of readers like the result; they can empathise with it.

But the creatively manning-up writer isn’t interested in his readers, at least not as a means of control.

If we go back to responsibility for a moment, 1) and 2) are both linear and cause-and-effect driven, even if someone in 2) is looking for cause more than someone in 1). But what does creative responsibility look like in 3)?

Well, that’s why I’m writing about it, to try to find out. It’s something I’ve felt recently, perhaps because of the various responsibilities I’ve taken on, but I’m not sure exactly what it looks like, how it needs to be fed, where it will take me.

Intuitively, I think one feature of 3) is that a person joins the various elements of the responsibility he’s managing, rather than sits outside of it, trying to control its effects. A writer, then, would join his story, his characters, rather than manage them.

This would be mental fantasy and moral escapism perhaps, in 1) and 2), but in 3) it’s simply logical. In 3) the writer would see no point in creating a story if he couldn’t be part of it. No point in creating a character that isn’t him. Or a conversation that isn’t him speaking, on both sides of it. Again, for a writer to do this in 1) or even 2) the results would be, well, unreadable. It would be like a father joining his child’s play because he feels it’s the responsible thing to do. Which can of course only dismay the discerning child. In 3) he is the play; it’s what he wants to do most in the entire world.

Most blockbuster writing has no place for 3), either for the writer or the reader. Because the reader, too, faces the choice of participating in 1), 2) or 3). If a writer writes from 3) and a reader reads from it – well, at a guess, the world changes! And nobody wants that, of course.

I believe there was more of 2) around for writers and readers up until about thirty years ago. That’s when the corporate world took over publishing; and of course, when everyone’s in 1), consumerism is much easier to control. Writers write books that come their way from the demands of the sales world; and readers need do nothing but absorb them and allow their shiny, instant comforts to temporarily soothe the need. Before buying another. In 2), readers would not just let books happen to them; they’d always be looking for the ones worth reading.

It’s my hope that the corporate world will go too far; signs are that it already is. When it does, the relative innocence of 3) will develop the means to fight, not in defence of but in support of creativity in responsibility: a combination that the corporate world can’t even imitate, let alone achieve. It can do sincere; it can do funny; it can do ironic; it can do brand love. But it can’t do the joining of the real self to its products because those products are inherently without creativity. Or responsibility, come to that.

My last thought on this for now is that a lot of writers believe they can go straight from 1) to 3). They can produce work that simply comes their way – prompted by other people’s work or by their publisher/agent putting it in front of them – then suddenly switch to creative responsibility. But I don’t think it’s possible to go direct from only ever reacting to your world, to flying through it with creativity.

This is clear to see in music. Many of today’s pop stars seem happy stuck in 1), without even being aware that another two levels exist. If one of them suddenly discovered Scott Walker’s later work, for example, and was inspired, he’d probably try to go straight there himself. But Scott Walker had to go through the stage of choosing his battles before doing exactly what he wanted. He had to sing Jacques Brel songs on mainstream BBC Saturday night television, for example; write his own songs that weren’t just about love; turn his back on the corporate world.

And yet, I don’t know for sure if Scott Walker is the example I’m looking for. I don’t know what’s inside his head when he’s making his very experimental music.

And perhaps that’s part of this mystery: that if you get to 3), only you know what it looks like, and only you can work its particular way in your world; it won’t work for anyone else.

 

 

 

TALES FROM MY STREET: STORIES TODAY – MORE BROADCAST BUT LESS TRACTION

“How was Wales?” I ask Nige.

He takes a long contemplative swallow of lager. “You know how we get our stories from the telly and books?” he says. “Well, I’ve just been staying in a place where stories are kind of unsegregated. They just roll around town, turning up anywhere they damn well please.”

“Where was that, exactly?”

“Place called Penderyn, on the southern edge of the Brecon Beacons, as they say on Country-soddin’-file. Trying to have a holiday. Booked into a nice B&B in the hills, a couple of miles from the village. First night, I went into this pub called the Lamb.”

“Sounds like a scene from ‘American Werewolf in London’.”

“The problem with that particular scene is that it might be funny but it ain’t really true, Tel. It’s the usual suspects’ – middle-class writers, that is – view of what rural working class people are like.”

“You being about as rural as Nandos. So, what happened in the Lamb?”

“It’s really just a one-room pub,” he says. “When you walk in, it’s like you’ve appeared on stage. It’s obviously not changed since the 70s and it doesn’t care. The guy who owns it stands behind the bar and you can’t not meet his eyes as you go in. He and the pub and the drinks and you are all part of the show. You can’t not be. It would be plain rude if you just took your drink and sat in the corner with a book or your phone, ignoring everyone.”

“You broke into song, or what?”

“No. We all told stories. Not like Shakespeare or Salmon bleedin’ Rushdie. But about life and people you know and where you’ve been, and it all weaved into this kind of communal non-stop tale that you were real glad to be part of.”

“I can just about remember when this pub was a bit like that, thirty years ago.”

“Yeah, but since then it’s been bought by a brewery, ain’t it? And somehow people round here don’t feel so inclined to tell stories so much. And no one would look up from their mobiles anyway even if you did. Anyway, the next day, I decided to go for a walk in the hills. The landlord told me to start at the triangle of chickens. And there really was a triangle of muddy land in the middle of a housing estate full of chickens. I was standing there, wondering which way to go when this old guy turned up.”

“Did he own the chickens?”

“No, his nephew did. And he got talking somehow about Lewis Lewis who’d led a working class protest against the lowering of wages, who started a riot in Merthyr. He got caught and was sentenced to death and was held overnight in the Lamb. His sentence was commuted to exile to Australia where he became a wealthy and respected citizen. Thing is, he didn’t tell me that this all happened nearly two hundred years ago; and he mixed it in with stories from last week as if they were part of Lewis Lewis’s tale, and in a way they were because in his mind it’s all just the place he lives in.”

I go to the bar to get more drinks. I think about Nige’s story about stories. When I go back, I say, “Story-telling has become partitioned off in the modern world. People called writers hide away in their rooms and write A Story. Then they present it to strangers all over the place. Go back to their room and write another one.”

Nige looks at me oddly. “Ain’t that what you do, Tel?”

“Yes but I’m not sure it’s natural. It’s like when we were younger, everyone was a bike mechanic, but now you take your bike to The Bike Mechanic.”

“Not sure it’s the same thing. Surely, if you write a brilliant, mind-expanding story, it’s better to share it will millions rather than just Dai and Bryn in the dusty old Lamb. Not to mention you’d make more dosh that way.”

I laugh at his naivety. “That’s the stupid thing. Most published stories only get shared with a handful of people anyway. Probably less than in Penderyn, and you don’t even know who they are.”

“More broadcast but less traction,” he says. “Any idiot can broadcast any stupid story about his stupid cat what doesn’t like Whiskas but will kill for Felix and potentially it’s going to millions around the planet. But even if it does somehow reach tons of other idiots, it ain’t got no traction. It’ll be forgotten in no time.”

“Whereas they’re still telling the story of Lewis Lewis two hundred years on in Penderyn.”

“And you can’t hide in the Lamb,” he says. “You can’t sit in the corner and send your story electronically to the other side of the world without anyone seeing you. You have to tell it direct to other people’s faces; which means if it ain’t any good, you find out straight away.”

“Before TV and the internet,” I say, “you had to go out and find the stories, too. Go to the pub and wait for them to turn up; or visit the library and develop the knack of finding great books. Not just sit in your room and open up whatever the internet trough puts in front of you.”

“You used to have to woo a woman, too,” he says. “But now you . . . actually, I don’t know what you do now. Like them on Facebook?”

Stories are as old as the human race. But the human race has changed. It’s become impatient, with less ability to concentrate. Whether this is because of chemicals in our homes or the speeding up of social media, or both, I don’t know.

“I think stories have to go back inside for a while,” I find myself saying. “Before, people led more concentrated lives, so their stories had more substance, more inner depth. Now, we’re more like battery chickens; all the same, replicas of one set of chicken genes owned by a faceless mega-wealthy corporation.”

Nige stands, his glass already empty. “Another?” he says.

“You do realise lager’s full of chemicals that play havoc with your ability to perceive the world accurately.”

“As a matter of fact, Tel,” he says, “I’m counting on it.”

 

 

TALES FROM MY STREET: THE PROBLEM WITH READERS – EVERYTHING IS THE SYSTEM

“The system is taking over,” says Ben, smiling, aware of the cliché.

We’re sitting in his back garden; it’s around eleven in the evening; warm, a near full moon overhead; rich dark hulks of bushes and trees fill our vision from the decking where we’re drinking whisky and talking about the world of books. His bookshop is still struggling, which may be why every time we meet he has a new theory for what’s wrong with the publishing business.

“Wasn’t it always?” I say.

“This is worse than the man, he says. This is the men, and the women, and the kids too.”

“Do you mean everyone’s finally been taken over by the system?”

“No, I mean everyone is the system, and now the system eats itself.”

“This isn’t going to be about how the man lost control for just a brief time in the 60s but is now more in charge than ever, having learnt his lesson?”

“Not quite. Leaving aside the commercial hacks who’ve always been around, the way it used to work with the good writers was that they just wrote. And when they’d finished writing, they gave it to their publisher who published it. Then the reader read it. End of story. So to speak.”

“Like Philip Wylie.”

“Yes! He was driven by ideas and passion and challenge. Remember that book he wrote where all the men on the planet disappear and in parallel all the women disappear. Right in the middle of it he sticks this thesis about men and women; says to the reader, you can skip this bit if you want but it’s why I wrote the book.”

“‘Generation of Vipers’ – an all-out attack on the American Mom.”

“And he created Superman without hardly noticing. Of course a couple of hacks stole the idea, sanitised it and made millions.”

“And Wylie wouldn’t get published today?”

“It’s worse than that: he probably wouldn’t write today. In his time, readers weren’t a system. They were the great unknown mass of unconnected individuals without a voice. There was no internet; just letters and mostly only two people ever saw those. Readers got what the writer wanted to say and the writer hardly ever knew or cared what the reader thought. Wylie wasn’t writing for readers. He was trying to smash a way through the system.”

“There’s that time his doctor told him to take a cruise as a break from writing but he spent the entire trip shut in his cabin writing a hundred and twelve thousand word novel.”

“Doctors are part of the system. And they want their patients to join the system, to do as they’re told, to take their medicine. Supplied by the drug companies which run the bigger system that controls the doctors’ system.”

A neighbour’s cat creeps onto the decking like a lateral thought. We hear the gentle tinkling of cutlery from the house backing on to Ben’s.

“In Wylie’s day,” says Ben, “the publisher’s system was sandwiched between two unknown non-systems: the writer and the reader. But now the writer is outnumbered because the readers have become a system that works in tandem with the publisher.”

I know what he means. I think about recent writers’ workshops I’ve been on where intelligent people, stuffed with craft and story instinct, are often bowed down by the requirements of a system that wants more and more of the same, with just a little twist of different.

“The worst thing that happened to writers was the creation of interconnected fans,” he says. “They’re demanding and powerful and full of cash so they now dictate what appears in books or screens. They love Sherlock Holmes and Batman and the X-Men and Doctor-Bloody-Who but they love them their way. And publishers and producers are too artistically spineless to tell them to go screw themselves, that they’ll get what they’re given and take a chance on expanding their creative comfort zones whether they want to or not.”

“Even Stan Lee . . . ” I begin.

He laughs. “Even Stan Lee! Even Stan Lee, commercial genius that he was, could create characters outside of the system. The comics system wasn’t as inflexible as it is now so he could dream up all kinds of outlandish new superheroes and Marvel would just give it to their readers.”

“But, hey, you and I are old farts out of touch with the world. I bet if we had a bright teenage comics fan here, he’d tell us there’s all kinds of interesting stuff going on outside the mainstream.”

“There probably is, but it won’t be denting the sales of the commercial giants, and most people won’t have heard of it. Which the system can accommodate easily enough. It even gives it authenticity: it can claim there is more variety in comics and books today than there ever was.”

The whisky takes me back to when he and I were younger, and we’d sit up all night talking about the universe and where it ends, or why grass is green. Now, we know too much about what’s wrong with the world to let the wonder out very often.

“Does it really matter?” I say. “Even if there’s just one great book that says something real, and only one person who reads it, and gets changed by it – doesn’t that mean the world’s a better place?”

I think he shrugs; it’s hard to tell in the dark. “The other problem with systems today,” he says, “is that they can edit the truth faster and more effectively than ever. I was watching this BBC programme the other night, all about pop stars who grow old. Because it’s a programme made for the system, it has to have a simple message. So it had a succession of old sixties artists who are still singing the stuff today they sang back then. Why not? the programme says, if the music’s good.”

“Well, they’ve got a point,” I say, “especially when you think of One Direction.”

“But their nice neat system of organising the sixties’ singers didn’t have a place for Scott Walker, so he wasn’t even mentioned. He had massive success back in the day but you won’t catch him singing the bloody sun ain’t gonna shine any more at the Albert Hall any time soon.”

“I nearly had a nasty accident the other day because of Scott Walker,” I say.

“Come again.”

“I was in the bath, listening to his latest album for the first time: ‘The Childhood of a Leader’. A lot of it is very orchestral and fairly normal for him. Anyway, I was enjoying it when suddenly there was this rasping, hacking, ugly sound. I thought the washing machine was about to blow up. So, I jumped out of the shower, slipped, and bashed into the door frame. Which was when I realised the horrible noise was part of the music.”

We’re quiet for a moment, musing over the thin line between art and the seriously bonkers. Then Ben says, “Well, you won’t knock yourself out listening to Olly Murs, that’s for sure.”

I know he’s right about systems, and how they’re more in control than ever, yet in the west at least, disguised much better than before. Increasingly, however, I’m seeing that there really is no choice. Even if it means I never publish a story again, the duty of an author is to avoid complying with systems with everything he’s got.

He points his iSomething device towards the living room and we hear a great swelling of orchestral music, at a galloping pace, followed by that great baritone voice.

And if one day I should become, a singer with a Spanish bum, who sings for women of great virtue . . .

Which of course is one of the greatest songs ever about breaking out of the system.

Though I’d be drunk as I could be, still I would sing my song to me, about the time they called me ‘Jacky’.

 

TALES FROM MY STREET: THE PROBLEM WITH READERS – THE PLOTLESS SOCIETY

“What’s up, Tel? You look like you swallowed a banana sideways.”

Nige sits opposite me, puts down his glass which is already half empty. The Farmers is quiet tonight; because it’s hot, most of the clientele are out back in the garden, swathed in fag smoke which obscures their view of the mildewed concrete floor and the weird shadows moving across the fuzzy glass windows of the undertakers next door.

I shut my laptop, the page still blank anyway. “I’ve been bothered about something for a long time now.”

“Richard’s manure heap that’s walking around on its own at nights?”

“No, the fact that so many successful books and movies these days just don’t have plots. Or at least not logical ones. And no one seems to care.”

He thinks for a moment. “I see what you’re saying. So, why don’t the writers put in a plot? They must know how to, don’t they? I mean, it’d be like me not bothering to fit a U bend under a sink, just sort of hoping the water’ll find its own way somehow into the waste pipe.”

“That’s what concerns me. They obviously could in a plot but they don’t; and it doesn’t stop them making a pile of cash anyway.”

“And you reckon they should do it for their own pride, even if the punters don’t care?”

“Oh, I think a few punters care a lot. They’re the ones that write very funny and detailed one star Amazon critiques of plotless junk like Prometheus but they’re outnumbered hundreds to one by the five star fans who loved it anyway.”

“Okay, but if they added a plot, wouldn’t that get the thinkers on board too and the fans will still be there anyway?”

“You’d think so but it just doesn’t happen. I’ve given up watching most TV because the lack of causal linking between scenes gets me too worked up.”

“Bar pause,” he says. He picks up my glass and heads to the counter to order two more pints. I’m actually keen to hear what he says when he returns. A curious quality of Nige’s is that his brain works best following a pause. And he pauses a lot. He pauses several times a day for tea while painting and decorating; and he often pauses during a tea pause to take a doughnut run pause. He also pauses frequently between pints although it has to be said that the lager itself doesn’t pause that much on its way to his stomach.

“You’re coming at this all wrong,” he says, sitting again. “You think the problem’s the writers but I reckon it’s the punters – the viewers and the readers.”

“Tell me more.”

“Okay, you’re often banging on about how the creative world ain’t controlled any longer by the artist. The punters shout loud about what they want; the sellers take note and tell the publishers what to publish, and the publisher tells the writer what to write. Right?”

“Well, it’s not quite that black and white. There’s always been a commercial imperative but these days it’s just got all-conquering.”

“Yeah, right, okay. But you’re missing the point.”

He smiles, rather like a civil servant who’s just been given a promotion for twenty years of doing the bleedin’ obvious.

“Hit me.”

He nods over his right shoulder.

“Paint fumes given you a head tick, Nige?”

I look over his shoulder and see a couple, both looking at their phones.

“Well, that’s nothing new: a couple who’d rather communicate virtually with their virtual mates than talk to the real person sitting opposite.”

“Yeah, but what has Tweeting, Facebook and texting got in common?”

“Sore thumbs?”

“They’re all plotless activities. Just one random scene followed by another. And people do it so much, they ain’t just avoiding plots, they’re scared shitless of bumping into one.”

I look at the couple. To anyone who didn’t know what the small plastic panels in their hands are for, the obvious conclusion to come to is that they don’t want to look each other in the eye.

“Real life is full of plots,” I say. “Marriage is a beginning, middle and an end. Every event in your life is the same, or it should be.”

Nige is nodding, white paint streaked hair falling into his lager glass. “Plots mean making decisions. Opening a video of a cat playing the piano, commenting ‘Aw, it’s SO cute!’, then passing it on to someone else, doesn’t require any decision-making.”

I remind myself again that I rarely see Nige with a phone in his hand, and while I know he has a computer at home in order to stay connected with all his conspiracy mates around the world, I’ve never heard him mention Facebook or Twitter other than in derogatory terms.

“So,” I say, “publishers and movie-makers have sussed that people don’t want plots in their lives, including in their entertainment, so they’ve replaced them with bright shiny isolated scenes?”

“Well, that would certainly explain Dr Who and Sherlock. But I don’t think it’s quite that nice and neat, Tel. I reckon the writers are probably suffering the same reality-avoidance as their fans.”

Suddenly, I feel defeated. I know he’s right. Even amongst what could be called the more serious writers today, I’ve noticed that many have trouble ending stories satisfactorily.

“Do you think there’s a particular fear of endings as well?” I say.

He snorts. “Well, Facebook never ends, does it?”

“So what’s a proper writer supposed to do?”

“You know that one-coat paint you can get these days? Well, it may save you time but it won’t ever produce the depth of finish you get from undercoating then applying several layers of thinned-down paint.”

“You think I should carry on undercoating anyway?”

He shrugs. “I just do what the punter pays me to do. The point is I can produced a deep and satisfying finish if I need to.”

I turn my attention to the pint of richly-hued American IPA beer in front of me, a third as much again as Nige’s lager.

“How come you just drink that cheap crap?” I say.

He nods at my pint. “Alcohol’s alcohol, whatever fancy froth you dress it up in.”

It’s late and I’m tired. I really don’t know if he’s still giving me lessons about writing. But I think he’s right that we live in a largely plotless world.

 

 

HOW TO WRITER – 4: SET BUILDING IN ONESELF

For a few years I worked as a props maker in the Welsh National Opera. It was one of the best jobs I ever had. At the time, I had no fixed abode, just travelling around the country, visiting friends and doing whatever work turned up. In Cardiff, a friend who was an assistant stage manager at the Opera asked me if I wanted a job in Props. I said, “Yes,” without even knowing what Props was.

When I went to the Props Department, I opened the door and a severed head swung out of the air to stop within inches of my face. Throughout the next few days I became inured to the screams of various visitors. For my first job, I was asked to make a marble bench with a griffin at each end. For the next job I had to make a full-sized tree. I also made hundreds of mackerel, piles of files with desks stuck on their tops and lots more, mostly out of foam, paint, wire, latex and wood.

I attended the dress rehearsal for every new opera, because we had to see if the props looked right. One of the effects of this was I realised for the most part I hated opera. If I’d stayed in Props for any longer, and perhaps moved up towards management there, I don’t think this attitude would have helped. As a worker/builder, it probably didn’t matter too much if I liked and understood Billy Budd in order to manufacture dozens of realistic-looking mackerel. But if I was responsible for whole sets’ worth of props, then love and understanding would be essential.

Love and understanding means you invest your soul into what you make, and you do so on the production’s terms, not your own. I don’t see it to be any different for a writer building his story’s sets.

However, what he also has to do is take into account every element of what makes up a set. The only difference between all the elements of an opera company and a writer is that in the latter they’re all inside one person.

So it is, then, that a writer has to fully accept into himself the following (not an exhaustive list):

  • Class differences – in the Welsh Opera, the singers and producers drank in one pub while the props-makers, electricians, costume-makers drank in the pub on the other side of the road.
  • Irritating people you hate and wish would not keep ruining your perfect set-up.
  • People who are irritating because they’re cleverer than you.
  • Genius artists who keep going off plot.
  • Working people who are often brighter than the people they’re working for but less ambitious.
  • The ever-disrupting flow of non-company people, especially the audience/reader.

You’ll notice that the only set components I’ve listed here are people, not objects. This is because I believe the first and most important aspect to internal set-building for a writer is how he includes other people in his work, both his made-up characters and the people who will read it or advise on it or criticise it.

 

In life, we have a tendency to select those people to take seriously based on little more than whether or not we like them. It is fatal for a writer to do this. Also to do what is often done in life when a disliked person can’t be avoided, which is to smooth over their rough bits in our minds and make them digestible.

It occurs to me now that these are the qualities which a writer must have if he or she is to build convincing sets:

EXPERIENCE

COURAGE

INSTINCT

In football, a player can be a well-paid professional without much creativity. A central defender, for example, is probably going to be more successful if he’s good at anticipating the moves of the forward he’s marking, rather try to be creative and presume said forward is going to move in X or Y fashion, when he’s actually going to do Z.

But the crowd doesn’t really pay to watch central defenders. Most of them pay to see the forwards or the creative midfielders. Who generally get paid more than defenders.

A central defender has experience, it’s true, and he usually has courage. He also has a good instinct. However, all three of these qualities tend to be reactive. Whereas a creative forward also has these qualities but for him the first two serve as a platform and propellant for his instinct. And when his instinct is fully switched on, well, that’s when the magic happens.

I think I’m saying that set-building a story takes place within oneself as the writer. It’s mostly about how you view other people – not personally but as part of the whole world of your story, both its fictional being and the effect it has on those who experience it. Next, the set has to be enacted. I realise that sound strange: surely a set is stationary, sedentary, solid thing? Well, maybe a real street is; maybe a real bus station is; but fictional sets have the potential to embody the life the author and his characters give them.

So, just as an opera set is not really meant to be realistic but more a reflection of the characters and their emotions and the composer and his/her emotions, I believe the best story sets are constructed from similar materials.

How to writer this? Well, I don’t think there’s any trick as such. You have to invest yourself, your love and understanding, into your sets.

 

HOW TO WRITER – 3: OBSERVATION PART TWO, INTERPRETING BETTER

The Science Fiction and Fantasy world is awash with awards. This may be partly due to its generally collegiate nature; for instance, it’s also awash with writing conventions and workshops. But given that it is also awash with markets, at least for short fiction, it’s difficult to see who has time to read the many nominees, let alone judge them.

Whatever, which of the following two views would you say is the most accurate interpretation of what such awards actually constitute:

  1. They’re a great way of recognising writers’ achievements, across a wide range of experience. They add to the inclusive and friendly nature of the genre. They help writers build their careers.
  1. They encourage derivative, crowd-pleasing writing with the result that writers’ work becomes like Frankenstein’s monster: a patchwork of bits ripped-off from other writers, barely functioning but sort of noticeable.

This is interpreting through the choices offered to you. However, another perhaps more expansive interpretation would be to say that neither of these choices is relevant to me. I write because I’m trying to firstly connect to an idea, emotion, theme, quality, character, and secondly to put it into a story that will inspire, amaze, rapidly remove socks, etc. If someone wants to give me a prize for it, fine, but I’m going to carry on doing it whether it wins awards or not.

This is interpretation by values and it exists in a different vector to black and white choices.

If we go back to ‘seeing’ for a moment, what you actually see when you see is obviously determined by whether or not you’re restricted to the choices on offer. For example, if you watch a stranger walking towards you, they present to you a range of physical elements that you can ‘see’. Their clothes, for example; their body; their hairstyle; their skin colour and so on. And you can interpret these. If you’re Sherlock Holmes you can interpret a lot of facts – at least what should be facts – from these physical details. If you add in, as Holmes would, the physical way in which the person walks, you’ll interpret even more about them.

However, let’s say the stranger walking towards you is beautiful, according to what you find beautiful. Then, as she draws nearer, you experience that shock to the nerves upon seeing that her facial features match exactly that template in your heart for ‘the one’. Even better, as you see her eyes for the first time, you interpret the smile/shine there as a sure-fire indication that she possesses exactly the right mix of intelligence, warmth and sexiness that confirms you and she are going to fall in love.

Somewhere in those last moments, however, interpretation may well have given way to romantic extrapolation. It might not matter to you, especially if she agrees to go out with you. But it has to matter to a writer.

A writer who produces work that is more than sum of its parts is only concerned about his own created world, not anyone else’s. But that created world, while hopefully exciting and stimulating and surprising to his readers, comprises an exact combination of accurate observation and insightful interpretation.

I once attended the Fortean Times ‘Unconvention’. The Fortean Times is a monthly publication which continues the work of Charles Forte. Forte collected information that was in his words ‘damned’ because it couldn’t be explained – like raining frogs. He said: “I conceive of nothing, in religion, science of philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear for a while.”

I was sitting in the audience, witnessing a presentation by Ken Campbell who, amongst other things, was once called, “A one-man dynamo of British theatre.” And it was a great show he put on at the Unconvention, covering a vast range of topics. At one point he talked about why ‘Anne of Green Gables’ is such a favourite with the Japanese – because it was given to Japanese POWs in the US and they loved its message of redemption. Campbell used it with UK prisoners too and said they always blubbed. (After the show I read it and blubbed too.)

Anyway, at one point, the man in front of me turned to his girlfriend and said, “Welcome to the wacky world of Forteana.” This made me cringe, partly for its crude attempt to impress by association. But also because it implied the man was speaking from his own created world. He wasn’t; he was just wearing the T-shirt of somebody else’s. The irony in that situation was that Campbell clearly was not working out of anyone else’s world – including Charles Forte’s – but his own.

So, the effectiveness of our interpretation is directly governed by the integrity of our own created world. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to writers. But for a writer who wants to be more than the sum of other writers’ parts, it’s a vital consideration.

For now, I believe these are some key ingredients in effective observation and interpretation:

  • Observation founded in seeing things as they actually are, not the way we expect them to be
  • Observation that builds a platform for the instinct to find the truth behind the purely physical
  • Observation that has a purpose, e.g. understanding characters better

Which leads to:

  • Interpretation based in considering your characters as they consider themselves, not in the way you consider yourself to be
  • Interpretation that opens the door for your characters to do surprising but believable things
  • Interpretation that extends the wisdom of the author which in turn expands the intelligence of his characters which in turn elevates the reader

 

 

 

HOW TO WRITER – 2: OBSERVATION PART ONE, SEEING BETTER

I believe there are two main elements to observation for writers:

  • Seeing better
  • Interpreting better

Seeing Better

At age 18, I went to art college. Without any training, I was pretty good at drawing and painting, or so I thought. Good enough to win some competitions and get my A level in Art. Fortunately perhaps, the art college I attended was old school. While students at Chelsea Art College a few miles away were writing poems about Coke cans in the gutter, at North-East London Polytech we were going through art boot camp.

One of the first things we were taught was how to see. Obviously, we knew how to see in terms of getting from bed to studio without walking under a bus. But, we were told, we didn’t know how to see with an artist’s eye. And this was true in two areas at least: spatial attention and tonal determination.

An exercise we did for the former was to paint a person but to work on all the shapes around her, not concentrate on her. In everyday life – indeed in movies too – we tend to automatically focus on what we consider to be the main object of the moment. For example, if someone is talking to us, we’ll look at their eyes, mouth, nose, and so on. We may glance away out of embarrassment but not to check  what surrounds the person and what that might say about them. In fact, we would probably tend to think there isn’t really a particularly meaningful relationship between person and their surroundings.

But of course, in truth, what surrounds a person often says more about them than their actual words/body language. For instance, if they’re sitting in their own living room, while their current state is reflected in their face and speech, their more permanent self, possibly their more true self, is reflected by the objects, choice of colours, etc, that they’ve surrounded themselves with.

Where tone is concerned, we painted pictures entirely in one colour, using only tone to distinguish shapes. Prior to this, we had to paint a tone wheel: first three prime colours – red, blue and yellow; second, to paint several shades between each but with each tone changing exactly the same amount. Harder than it might sound. What blue is exactly just blue and nothing but blue?

In terms of improving a writer’s observation, what constitutes the important surrounding detail and what is tone?

Well, where artists are interested in the visual truth of a scene and how that reflects more universal truths, writers could be said to be most interested in the story of a scene and the tonal truths behind it. As said earlier, this means for instance taking as much notice if not more of the objects surrounding a person, including their clothes, and the story they portend. Often, this will be in direct contrast to what they’re actually talking about in the moment.

It means listening more to the way they say something than what they actually say. Because the meaning almost always lies in the background, under the surface, hidden behind a smile. The path to meaning is perception but we’ll talk about that more next time.

Another important element of what surrounds a person is their community, culture, place. In the modern western world, we’re obsessed with individualism and like to think that it’s more powerful than culture and community. So much so that modern people tend to think their ‘I’, their essential self, exists inside their heads. But anthropologists have shown that if you ask tribespeople where their ‘I’ is based, they’ll tend to point at the surrounding forest.

This possible disconnect between modern person and self/surroundings is great for writers. It means you can show the reader truths about your characters that they may not be aware of themselves. Or, you can show degrees of knowing perception in individuals which tips off the reader that they may be more clued-in and therefore worth paying attention to.

It’s often said that you can tell a person’s character from what they wear – and, to extend that, to what they fill their house with. However, I believe for the purposes of really convincing fiction, a writer has to understand that this truth is modified in direct relation to an individual’s degree of self-awareness, which supplies in turn their degree of choice.

One time, Kenny Dalglish manager of Liverpool Football Club was on the touchline during a match. He was looking at the same event as the thousands of fans around him. But when he was asked by someone what he was looking at, he said, “Next Saturday’s match.” It’s doubtful many fans were looking at the next match, or even if they were, would be seeing the same things Dalglish was. And you would have to realise this if say you interviewed him after the match. Because in speaking about how his team performed today, he’d be describing how they need to be next week. Without you ‘seeing’ that, you probably won’t understand his answers, even if you think you do.

A general rule of writing is that the reader should be seeing the story with at least as great a perception as the most aware character in the story. And if there is nobody in the scene who’s particularly perceptive, the writer needs to ‘see’ the surroundings of the characters for the reader’s eyes. This is another level of the Show Not Tell rule.

I’m aware this piece is a bit of a patchwork. Perhaps that’s a property of ‘seeing’ as opposed to seeing. Someone who only sees, tends to find what they expect to see and focus on it, even if it’s not quite what they think it is. Someone who ‘sees’, enters a room, a street or a scene in a story and glances around at everything, looking for the links, the patterns, the hidden clues.

Which leads quite naturally to talking more about perception.