The Unstoppable March – # bearandhare

November – the month when all the major retailers in the UK begin their relentless sales drive for Christmas. So begins a month where you’re being bombarded with bargains, offers, and deals whenever you’re unfortunate enough to experience an advert break on the TV. Like stuffing a turkey, you’ll have fliers detailing yet more offers crammed through your letterbox, and almost when you think you’re fed up of the pseudo-Christmas that has become November, the shops will start putting their garlands up early, the products you buy will get their festive packaging, and you’ll be hearing the same Christmas songs before December has even begun. You’ll just want some peace and quiet. You’ll be thinking it’s not even December yet, and resign yourself to the yearly conclusion – that every year, Christmas only seems to become even more commercialised, if that’s possible.

Why then am I writing a post about Christmas adverts? Why have I mentioned #bearandhare, the tag for retailer John Lewis’s Christmas advert for 2013? Well, it’s not to single it out as a caricature for an article about Christmas being too commercial – like the adverts we’re subjected too, that argument comes every year, stronger and earlier. We’ve all heard it before, and it would be a waste of time to write about that topic. Instead of despairing at the amount of crass advertising on the airwaves at the moment, I’ve chosen the John Lewis 2013 advert because it does something, so far, that I haven’t seen other companies do. What can I be on about? Let’s watch!

Strange. What have we just watched? An advert for Christmas that doesn’t mention a single price. It doesn’t feature a tirade of products. There’s not a single mention of savings, deals, or offers. There’s not even any of that small print at the bottom of the screen telling you the actual conditions of those seemingly ‘too good to be true’ bargains. Instead, we have a sweet animation about a bear and a hare, with an underlying message telling us to not buy something, but give someone a Christmas they’ll never forget. Let’s take a moment to think about that. Give (not buy) someone a Christmas (not a product) that they’ll never forget.

What? It sound’s unbelievable when you put it like that. If we want to be really cynical, we can perhaps take a guess that the one moment of product placement is the alarm clock that the Hare gives the Bear, but that’s so fleeting it feels like we’re clutching at a straw – not to mention it fits within the story being told. Or you can say that their message of giving a christmas that they’ll never forget implies that you can do that by shopping at John Lewis, and I think you’d have a good idea there. But you can’t deny it, this advert makes you smile. It’s sweet. It’s emotional. I don’t roll my eyes in exasperation because it doesn’t conform to the trend of this time of year; that is the tirade of hyper-commercialised Christmas imagery. Let’s take a look at a different advert.

Oh, the product placement. The assurances that we’ll get the presents we want. The iPad being made by elves, the Coca-Cola that seems to be everywhere. It’s unnerving, isn’t it? The message of doing good is being tied to the product, in the hope that we’ll form an association with the two. This makes me sceptical, because underneath the Christmas message there is the very obvious desire from the company to make us buy their goods. You can even suggest that Christmas is theirs – and it’s an idea you can be forgiven to think, given the company’s long association with Santa Claus.

From 1931 to 1964, Coca-Cola advertising showed Santa delivering toys (and playing with them!), pausing to read a letter and enjoy a Coke, visiting with the children who stayed up to greet him, and raiding the refrigerators at a number of homes.

(Source http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/coke-lore-santa-claus. Accessed 11:58AM GMT 17/11/2013.)

If you’re interested, I recommended giving that article a read, as it details how Santa Claus has been used in their marketing campaigns since the 1920’s through to the present day.  However the implication that Christmas is tied to Coca-Cola is one we already acknowledge. Remember how we say it’s only Christmas once we’ve seen the Coca-Cola truck? Here’s a video with precisely that.

Again, it’s the implication that the “holidays are coming” exactly as the Coca-Cola trucks roll in. This isn’t the only company to try to claim their influence over Christmas, it happens everywhere. Supermarkets are always keen to promote their food for the holiday season, eager to claim Christmas dinner as their own. They compete to be the company that provides the perfect meal, and to do so they fill the airwaves with sensuous displays of piles of steaming and perfectly prepared food.

Yes, Christmas dinner is done the best, but remember you’ve got to “spend some dough to put on a show.” If you’re looking for something that takes Christmas and really encourages you to spend money and revel in consumerism, it’s the above advert. It appears glutinous, certainly encouraging over-indulgence and spending in the hope that the consumer will be driven to recreate that perfect pile of food wonderfully rendered in their advert.

To draw this back to the Bare and the Hare, John Lewis have been making adverts for Christmas in a similar thread for years now. As we’ve seen, plenty of other retailers are keen to carve up Christmas for themselves in their adverts, and subject the viewer to a tirade of products and crass consumerism. They encourage us to spend money, to buy and to indulge in wealth, while at the same time of year many charities begin their appeals for Christmas. What makes the current John Lewis advert so effective? It gives a carefully thought out message – to make a special Christmas someone will never forget. As all the other retailers bombard our senses, this quiet message stands out because it demonstrates a sensitivity that no other retailer has so far been prepared to follow. While the underlying motivation for the advert is to make us spend money at John Lewis, I think it’s good to see a retailer thinking carefully about how it wants to advertise to us, rather than subjecting us to a frenzy of sales. There is a tangible dignity to the advert, and I think that’s the underlying factor that makes it such a powerful piece of advertising. To end, I leave you with the John Lewis advert from 2012, and wondering what we might be seeing during advert breaks in 2014.

 

Immortality – Mortally Stupid

I’ve been silent here for a few months for two reasons. One is that I’ve been struggling to find something to say. The other, that I was too busy enjoying the sunshine enjoyed by the otherwise rain-sodden isles I live in this summer. I’ll leave it to you to decide which factor was overwhelmingly dominant. Either way, I’m back at university – thrust back to thinking ‘intellectually’ if that is at all possible. What follows was sparked off by a lecture on Joyce.

I’ve put (into Ulysses) so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”

(Joyce, Ulysses Annotated).

Joyce is right, professors will be busy for centuries over what he meant, but not that he’s ensured his own immortality. I’m not going to leap in and say everything we do, ultimately turns to dust. That’s a given, and an easy way out. That argument takes time in its entirety, it doesn’t recognise a span of time, just that it will happen in the vastness of time.

The flaw with Joyce’s idea here, is that he can hope to achieve literary immortality. When it comes to reading, there have been plenty of shifts in thinking that deny Joyce his immortality, but the main one is a change in the way we should read a text. Instead of trying to think what the author meant, we read the text purely as a text. It’s reader response, and personally, it’s a great recognition in literary and academic circles that what the reader thinks, and interprets, is important.

But Joyce has some sense of immortality. We’re talking about him. There’s no smoke without fire – and there is smoke here, but I’d say it’s more smoke and mirrors than a blazing pyre.

We’re complex,

Let’s consider death differently. It’s change epitomised. The ultimate change, the transition from life, a sea of constant changes, to death; a change that is such a paradigm that there is no change for those that experience it. Each present moment passes one after the other. Each moment is a passing; a death. I am not the same person, if you want to be really technical, as I was when I wrote the previous sentence. I’m not the same person I was yesterday. Stasis, in that sense, is impossible. Thus, since mortality is change, immortality is stasis. And that isn’t possible. Of course, we don’t change radically from day to day, but it accumulates. We’re not the same person we were ten years ago. Things have changed, we have changed. So how is it possible to preserve some immortality, when change isolates it?

Dreaming of immortality is ultimately, so stupid, because it ignores a clear lexical message. The word itself gives you the clue. Mortality cannot become immortality. Really, I think the ancient Greeks got it right. In classical mythology, Achilles chose to die and become immortal through kleos instead of returning home; nostos. Kleos is not immortality or living forever; it is simply to have great renown, enough that people still speak of him. What survives is the Kleos of Achilles, not Achilles himself. Regardless, Achilles is now a shade anyway. So when Joyce speaks of his immortality, his boast that scholars would be still trying to figure out what he meant, I’d say that’s more Kleos too than actual immortality. We’re not going and seeing a living Joyce when we read his works, or debate ‘him’ critically. We’re talking about something detached from the actual person that lived. What has survived so far to us is the work, not the author. Joyce hasn’t achieved that immortality. He just has renown.

Challenge ‘Literature’ – Write in the Margin

Perhaps one of the most important lessons I think you can learn as a writer isn’t one of technique, or how to come up with ideas. It’s something more subtle, but it affects how you approach writing, and how you feel about it.

Chances are, if you are a writer, or reading this, you love books. For some reason or another, you love books. Bound in leather, paperback or hardback, perhaps even an ebook. You have an appreciation for the written word. The worst thing then, is to be in awe of it. I’ll explain.

I’m a writer, and studying English Literature. I scribble in the books I read. I underline things. I write in the margins, and make notes inside the text itself. Other students give me strange looks. They don’t want to make a mark in the books. Some wish to sell the books on once they’re done. Others, for lack of a better word, think it’s sacrilegious. If you respect a book, if you love literature, you revere it by keeping it free of marks. You don’t write in it, you don’t bend the spine back, you don’t fold pages back. You try and keep it pristine.

However, I think this only creates a barrier between you and books. You can end up making the written word become something sacred. And as such, you unconsciously see it as something untouchable, and unobtainable because you won’t mark a book. Scribbling in margins de-privileges literature. Instead of having a work and solely bears the author’s words, you place your own voice in it. You end up demonstrating that your voice has a place in the bound text, that you have an legitimate right to comment upon it. It is no longer untouchable.

This is important when most fears about writing centre around your writing not being up to par, that your writing is not worth reading.  Writing in a published book breaks down the barrier, the idea that what’s in print cannot be challenged, and what isn’t in print is worth nothing. It challenges your thoughts about literature. It’s no longer authoritative. What’s bound doesn’t dictate how literature can be. You’re free to challenge it.

Consumerism – In itself, it’s just crass.

It’s one of these topic where almost everyone who speaks about possesses a polarised view on the subject. Either you take a look at the world today and see a society that rejects previous methods of being happy in favour of a shallow, crass desire for material wealth propagated by large corporations via the media. Or, you see consumer society as a good thing, a place where a wide range of products can be bought, and with such competition it’s easy to get goods at a bargain rate. From slight variations of these two opinions, the topic never seems to get any further, which I find is lamentable. If you have a look around, the majority of posts on this topic fall into those two broad camps, outlined above, with little room for grey areas.

Consumerism, turning is into mindless zombies!

This problem is reflected even in the definition of consumerism. Source: http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/consumerism

noun

[mass noun]

  • 1 The protection or promotion of the interests of consumers: the growth of consumerism has led to many organizations improving their service to the customer
  • 2 Often derogatory the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods: many people are becoming increasingly conscious of the environmental impact of consumerism

For those of you who love wikipedia, their definition gives a greater sense of this divide. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consumerism

 

  1. One sense of the term is to describe the efforts to support consumers’ interests.[4] By the early 1970s, it was the accepted term for the field and began to be used in these ways:[4]
    1. “Consumerism” is the concept that consumers should be informed decision makers in the marketplace.[4] Practices such as product testing make consumers informed.
    2. “Consumerism” is the concept that the marketplace itself is responsible for ensuring economic justice and fairness in society.[4] Consumer protection policies and laws compel manufacturers to make products safe.
    3. “Consumerism” refers to the field of studying, regulating, or interacting with the marketplace.[4] The consumer movement is the social movement which refers to all actions and all entities within the marketplace which give consideration to the consumer.
  2. While the above definitions were being established, other people began using the term “consumerism” to mean “hih levels of consumption”.[4] This definition gained popularity since the 1970s and began to be used in these ways:
    1. “Consumerism” is the selfish and frivolous collecting of products, or economic materialism. In protest to this some people promote “anti-consumerism” and advocacy for simple living.[4]
    2. “Consumerism” is a force from the marketplace which destroys individuality and harms society.[4] It is related to globalization and in protest to this some people promote the “anti-globalization movement“.[5]

Although the definition varies from source to source (this is why language has no truth, due to no fixed meaning) the latter sums up the problem here in greater depth. Consumerism exists in society as an ‘either or’, where each stance effectively defines itself against the other. To be blunt, it seems you either think it is crass materialism or it isn’t, or you think it either ensures fairness in society or it does not. There is little in between, little grey and if you ask me, it exists little more as a sensationalist term. It’s even trendy to say you’re against consumerism; making you a conforming non-conformist, another fun matter entirely.

What is my point? We don’t allow our thoughts about consumerism to reflect reality. I wonder, how many of you reading this laughed with scorn and thought it a sad state of affairs when people queued overnight for the release of the latest iPhone? How many of us would then actually quite like to own an iPhone? How many of us do? It shows a double standard, where we might mock those who appear to slavishly follow consumerist trends, while at the same time you’ve already done so, since you now own that very product. I wonder, are any of you reading this on an iPhone? If so, you’ll in the exact position I want you to be for thinking about this problem. Even with the above example, we encounter a problem if we peel back our narrow view on the subject.

At face value, this is just crass consumerism.

There are other things we queue overnight for, even camp out for. Back in time, you used to do the same thing for movies at the cinema, ticket sales for festivals, and still today people camp overnight and queue for hours to get tickets at Wimbledon when the tennis is on. But we don’t scorn them, we don’t say they are slaves to materialism. You’re paying for an experience; the ticket gives you access to it. We view watching great sportsmen and women play as something that is priceless, as it is an experience, but when you break that down, you realise it’s still a product. Just because there is no material object involved does not mean it is not a product. Something is being sold, something is being bought. You don’t just pay for an iPhone after all, you pay for the experience of owning one. I can go into an apple store and experience it, but only if I buy it can I own that experience. In the same way, I can watch the Wimbledon final on the TV, but there’s this tangible sense that I don’t own the moment, since I’m not there in person – there’s no physical link, not attempt at ownership by being there.

Are we all just hypocrites then? Have we fallen into some trap where we don’t realise how deeply we subscribe to consumerism? Are we all mindless slaves, driven to buy products without even noticing it? No. That’s sensationalist. That’s deluded. I’m leading you with those sentences towards a conclusion that is another polar extreme, not an actual understanding. I tend to find in artists that we are very often in the camp that rejects materialism and consumerism. We create for our own benefit, we produce (see where this is going – think about why I’m using ‘produce’ here) for ourselves. What do artists produce? Art. Do we offer commissions? Yes. Do we therefore sell our products? Yes. Does art have a material value? Yes. Is art necessary? No. So what do artists do? We create a product that has no real value in terms of practicality, and then we sell it to those who collect products. It’s a more permissive form of economic materialism, but it still is.

So how do we escape from this? We can’t. Don’t be dismayed either; dismay comes from one of the polar extremes. In reality, what happens? Do we mindlessly collect art? If you view art as worthless, yes, if you see art as impractical, yes. But if you see art as something of value? We view those who appreciate art or literature as cultured; we see those things as motifs of “high culture” but what makes it any different to buying a pair of shoes? I might see no value in a pair of high heels, but others do. Does that make the person who buys art and different to the person who buys shoes? No. What’s the issue then? It’s not that you’re buying something, that everything can be viewed as either a necessary product or an unnecessary one. The problem we fail to recognise in our polar attitudes towards consumerism is that it relies on what you judge to have value. Value is permissive, value has no fixed definition. It varies from person to person. What even constitutes value is not fixed. Some define value in terms of how much money it’s worth. Some have defined the value of a product as relational to a sale price and the price of labour in producing it – that was Marx. We can define value as something that is based on necessity. Do we need that product? Yes/No? Then depending on the answer, the product either has value or does not. Need is of course determined by the individual’s circumstances, and even then, what do we mean by need? We’re getting caught in an endless attempt to define. Even simply, value can be determined by whether we like it or not. It can be as simple as that.

Value. Yes, you can buy a car, clothes and work in a job. Or you can have no job, walk everywhere and be naked – because we don’t need it. It’s all about how you interpret value.

If you’re still here, take a breather. I promise we’re almost done.

What this means for us is that we can neither escape consumerism nor can we be part of it. Others can say our purchases are not based on necessity. I can go buy a pair of walking boots, but someone can turn around and say that is not necessary because I can always walk anywhere barefoot. It just gets silly – and that’s what this is. It’s silly to apply one person’s ideas of value onto another. It’s silly to say that purchasing something because you like it is consumerist, because our like of a thing is a measure of value.  It’s silly also to suggest that we should make everything ourselves and therefore avoid money. Some of us will be better at other things, so we’ll naturally trade things, rather than just continue making our own bit of rubbish. If, say we are hunter-gatherers, I might be better at hunting animals, and you might be better at making clothes from animal fur. It would be mindlessly stupid for me to hunt and then make shoddy clothes myself, or you to try to hunt but not catch the right animals. Net result, we wouldn’t survive winter unless I went out and hunted for us both, and you then made clothes from those skins for us both. This is called the division of labour, and you know, Marx said this. Read the German Ideology – it’s in there. Society is basically made up by dividing labour and then trading based on our merits. We are no longer hunter gatherers, but the principle still applies. Have a think. Dividing labour makes sense, and is also efficient. However, the hunter gatherer can also learn to hunt or make clothes, which does throw a wrench in that. I guess that means dividing labour only then works if we don’t have the time to do that all.

So to conclude? It’s foolish to think of consumerism in a simple way. There are complex interactions going on, which can both label us as consumers or not. What is crass materialism to one isn’t to another. Our everyday actions reveal both consumerist tendencies and non-consumerist tendencies at the same time. I for one have commissioned artists. I’m a consumer. At the same time, I’m teaching myself to draw. So with that, I’m a consumer who is not a consumer. Doesn’t consumerism just feel silly now?

 

Total War: Rome II Review

I’ve always been a fan of the Total War series, so it came as no surprise to me when I pre-ordered the creative assembly’s remake of a classic title – Rome Total War. Released on the 3rd of September, this latest instalment from the franchise made some big promises, chiefly that it would have more content that any previous Total War game. Well truth be told, I was extremely sceptical of this latest release. The last Total War game I bought was Shogun 2, many months after it’s release when it comes up in the steam sale. Shogun left me feeling that the Creative Assembly were taking things in the wrong direction. Shogun, despite its gorgeous graphics and improved performance left me feeling that the future of Total War was short, simple arcade battles where X unit counters Y unit every single time and that the days of Campaigns that took whole days to finish were gone. Instead of building your empire from the ground up, it felt that you were meant to rush into every conflict without any pause for strategy because your amount of turns would soon be over.

How far would I go for Rome? At first, not very.

When it came to announcing Rome II, I didn’t hold out much hope. The main games of the Total War series I play are actually Medieval II and its expansion, Kingdoms. Those weren’t the vanilla versions either, but community mods like Stainless Steel and Third Age Total War. All very deep, very well made community mods. I stuck with the title for the reason that the community stepped in to fill the gaps in both difficulty and historical accuracy, stretching the game’s interface further from its simple design. The promotional question, “Who far will you go for Rome?” ran sarcastically in my mind, the answer being getting it on the cheap in the steam summer sale a year later.

However, I’m pleased to say some of the worrying trends have been reversed. In terms of immersion, having historical accuracy is crucial to keeping it feeling like you’re forging an empire. Rome II does an admirable job of doing this, with their mantra of authenticity instead of accuracy. All this means is that it creates a balanced vanilla game that refers to history though not slavishly, nor does it get lost in arcade style battles. I will say, the one, tedious, slightly annoying thing I’ll say is this. Victory Points. Why? In siege battles, this just takes the same duty as the central plaza did in all other Total War games. However, as the defending side in battles on the field, you can be forced to stay next to a victory point that is conveniently the worst place for you to defend from. It effectively kills the advantage of the defender choosing the terrain. However, this did appear only in a battle where the enemy was attacking me in the field while laying siege.

I’ll boil the main good points down. Very detailed units, beautiful campaign map, good AI – I had a siege battle on normal difficulty where the attacking computer constantly tried to find a way around my defences, hanging back from committing all it’s forces into one slog-fest that used to always happen in previous titles. I know some reviewers have had problems with the AI, but I haven’t encountered any in my gameplay so I can’t comment. Back to the list of the good. The campaign map is huge. The way cities are built and provinces are managed is a great step up from previous titles. Armies and recruitment are a lot more streamlined, and the days of the Rebels faction are gone. Every province belongs to a faction, even if it is one of minor importance. This really helps with immersion, as it feels like time has been spent researching the period at large, not just the main, well-known factions.

It really is that pretty.

Downsides? I think there is a horrible spectre lurking in performance. I’m running Rome II on extreme graphics, on a new desktop computer I got only about a month ago. Quick run-down of specs: 4th Gen Intel i7 (over-clocked to 4.3Ghz) , 16GB RAM, Nvidia Geforce GTX 770. However, I think like Shogun 2, they will release patches that improve performance, however I don’t think this is a game that you can throw at a computer that is already struggling. The main bulk of user problems will be down to hardware, so I’d advise against buying it and being disappointed if your rig can’t cope with it. There are plenty of reviews online slating the game for user performance issues – one of which blamed the game even though it was being run on an anaemic laptop where the user had upgraded RAM instead of finding the bottleneck. On balance, performance demands have never been a new thing to Total War.

It gets close, but in reality it probably won’t look this good on your rig.

However, I’m not quite done. After playing for hours, and once the initial excitement had worn off, I found myself asking what will keep me playing this game? It all works very well, it’s all very pretty, but what will make me keep coming back to it? It seems the more you play Total War, the more weary you become of vanilla modes. I’m already starting to get bored with the Spear Levies, the Hoplites and light cavalry. Where are the special, faction specific units? The ones that make you feel like you’re not playing a clone or some mysterious alter ego? I’m hoping from the small unit lists for some factions, more units will be added later. Otherwise, I fear we’ll have the same situation as in Shogun 2 – Katana Samurai beats infantry, Yari beat cavalry…

The verdict? A good, solid game, however Total War fans shouldn’t rush into playing it without asking questions.

Ideas – They Don’t Just Pop Into Your Head

I’d say the greatest challenge for a writer is quite a simple on actually. It’s not writing well, or getting published. Even at a push, I’d say it’s not about staying motivated either. It’s having lots of ideas.

When we think about writing, we have this notion that ideas are the one thing you can’t change. Either you have a good idea or you don’t, either you can think up of many ideas or you can’t. It’s a bit of a naive attitude though, because it relies on the fact that ideas for writing simply stroll into our heads, that we have sudden moments of creative genius that happen outside of our control. It’s sensationalist, and encouraged because of its appeal, but it doesn’t do much good in reality.

If a writer were to say the idea for their entire book just walked fully formed into their head, I’d tell them to stop being overly dramatic. What are ideas? They’re by no means so tidy or obedient even. When you pause to break it down, the idea for a work is more of a single one, a stub, a starting point. One idea might be something very simple, and as you think about it, you come up with more. Whenever I write, I start with a small idea in mind. It’s my goal for what I’m going to do. Then as I continue, I get more ideas the more I think. I don’t just sit there waiting for inspiration to hit me, I ask myself questions about the idea I’ve had. Sometimes I get answers. Sometimes I don’t. But it creates more ideas for you to play with, rather than struggling with just one.

In reality, a story is an amalgamation of many ideas. One idea starts the process off, but then others join it. Some contradict each other, and some turn the story away from your original idea. But as you ask yourself questions, you build up a single, cohesive story. It’s like building a rubber band ball. You start with the first one, and as you add more the ball takes shape, until all those rubber bands behave like a single ball, rather than a pile of them.

So, you can think creatively by asking yourself questions. That’s a start, but it’s still limited in boosting your imagination. I’m not going to launch into a long paragraph about reading other books, because that’s a stock response. I’d say, read a selection of books. Ones that interest you, ones that you know nothing about. Even ones you think you won’t like. Don’t stop with contemporary fiction, but go back in time. Have a dig. Don’t limit yourself to fiction, but look at non-fiction. History is a very good place to come up with ideas, as you ask “what if” questions as you read. What if Rome didn’t fall? You can have some fun with that. Even then, I’d encourage brave writers to read philosophy. Stories will give you ideas for events, and philosophy will give you understanding of different modes of thought, which means, better characterisation.

Life experience is a great asset too. You know how looking back at your past work is almost always something that makes you cringe? That’s greater experience talking. How can you make your work better? By going out and living. Gain experiences, don’t just slave away at the keyboard. You can draw inspiration from the experiences you’ve had yourself, and the great thing about this is that it is free, and it’s going on all the time. If you can travel, then do, but if you can’t try to experience other cultures. Books, encyclopaedias, TV, these will all give you experience.

Ideas aren’t just a solitary affair. Have willing volunteers read your work. Discuss ideas. It’s always good to have friends that are writers for this purpose, and even better if you have a mentor. So in short, there are things you can do to have more ideas. It isn’t just about creativity on its own, because it is extremely hard to pull something from nothing, even if it is in your head. Experimentation is key, and you must not limit yourself by sticking to only what you like.

My question is how do you come up with ideas? Do you struggle, or do you have too many?

Politics – It’s Dead To Me

There used to be a time that whenever someone told me they didn’t vote, I’d think that it was a waste. How could you then complain about how the government acts if you did nothing to oppose it? A vote was a piece of paper that was your say, it gave you power. It’s a naive idea, ignoring the reality of the political system.

When you look at it realistically, what is a vote? Does it give you a say in government? No. It gives you the say in choosing a person to have their own say, or more often than not, to follow and vote for what the party leader says. So every six years, you’re electing who’s going gain power, rather than represent the will of the people. The reality is, you have very little say. There are many recent examples of politicians making promises to gain support in elections and then breaking them. The greatest one for a person my age, is what happened in the last general election regarding tuition fees. The pledge that tuition fees would not go up. Voters gave those MP’s their mandate over that promise. We legitimised their power by voting for the promise they made. Long behind, tuition fees went up to £9000, up from £3000. To say people were angry is an understatement.

It’s examples like these that make me now so cynical to power. My attitude? No one should have power over you. I’m recalling some obscure political philosophy by Locke and Hobbes. To paraphrase, once an assembly gives an individual sovereign power, you can’t take it away from them. We can’t throw politicians from power if they break pledges they make in election manifestos, we have to wait another six years before we have another chance to make a real impact on the political landscape. Whoever we vote in pretty much has license to do whatever they please for that term, often on a mandate they lied to gain.

So how does that vote reflect the will of the people? It doesn’t. So what if you don’t like that candidate, vote for someone else. It doesn’t stand up when the change you’re looking for is not being represented. Then whether you vote or not, you’re not getting your say. So you might as well not vote.

But my question is what do you think of politics? Is the word a synonym for liar to you, or do you believe it carries out the will of the people.

 

Travelling – The Worst Part Is Going Back

For about two weeks, I’ve been out of the country. Away, travelling, on holiday, vacation – whatever you call it. I’ve seen some amazing things, gone to some far-flung places and had my fair share of surprises. That’s what makes travelling great. Everything you see there is for the first time. You learn from it, you make memories and meet new people. You learn a few things too.

And then you’re back home.

Back to the familiar, the routine, the ordinary. Back to a job, back to your life, as if the one you just had on the road was some sort of dream. All you have for those experiences are withering memories in your mind, and photographs that never seem to show what you saw.

You’re back home, and it seems to have none of the life of the place you went too. In some ways, life is being on the move. You don’t want to stay too long in one area, because like a new piece of chewing gum, the longer you chew it, the less taste it has.

You then start to catch up on what you’ve missed. You can read the newspaper, watch the news and get back in the loop with what’s happening. But what you see on the TV isn’t the same as what you saw elsewhere. In many ways, what you experienced while away was realer than what you’ll read now. I never missed reading the newspaper while away, they always seemed to bring bad news. It should concern me, but in reality, does it? Debt crisis in my country? To be frank, there’s nothing I can do about that.

Anyway, what’s your least favourite part about travelling? Lost bags? Cramped long-haul flights? Drinking too much of the local booze?

Responding To Criticism

Oh, this is one of the ‘fun’ bits of writing that should come with a warning. How do you deal with criticism?

Firstly to use an apt cliché, writing is a school of hard knocks. It’s true. You’ve written something, you’re sure you’ve perfected it, and then some person comes and insensitively points out all the things you’ve done wrong. It’s not nice, and there is no softening it. The first time you receive criticism like this, you might cry. You’re very likely to discount it, to push it out of your mind.

So how do you cope with it? We all know that criticism is ultimately good for us as it helps us improve in the long-term, but that doesn’t make you feel any better at the time.

I think the first thing to set straight is your mental attitude. Realise that the reason criticism affects you so is because you care about what you do. You take pride in it, and you’ve worked hard. You haven’t produced some half-baked attempt and tried to wing it. Once you’ve seen the feedback, don’t dwell on it. Try to take your mind off it, go and unwind. It never helps to undertake something when you’re upset. So recognise how you are feeling and don’t do anything until your emotions are in check. Only then will you be able to respond positively and logically.

When reading through criticism, you need to determine what stance the person has taken. Is it feedback, or is it criticism? I was misleading you with the last sentence, because feedback and criticism are the same thing, except we interpret criticism as negative.

Feedback, criticism or critique should mean to you anything that is measured, positive or constructive. It might point out your mistakes, but it should do so in a way that is not a personal attack on you, or treats your work in a derogatory fashion. It should give advice and point out flaws, but don’t mistake honesty as an attack on you. It never helps to read sugar-coated feedback, and sometimes things just have to be said as they are.

But what about the negative, the feedback that clearly is written with no intention to help you? I’ve got a word for that. Rubbish. You laugh, and you leave it. Why? Sometimes it’s clear that the person has no idea what they’re talking about. Other times, it’s blindingly obvious that they’re just trying to hurt and insult you. It’s perfectly legitimate to write some people off – don’t feel obliged to take into consideration everything everyone says.

Now, what do you do with the feedback that you haven’t thrown in the bin? Read it carefully, read it slowly. Be logical and objective. Remember, if this person has taken time to point out the problems in your writing, they want to help you. But what if they aren’t using the critique sandwich? Start with the good points, then move into the problems, and then finish with what was liked. What if it’s just all about the problems?

Well, I’m that type of critic. It’s not because I want to belittle the writer, make them feel bad, imply that there is nothing they did well or even try to impose my own authority upon them. It’s simply because when I read critically, I spend my time writing on what can be done better, not what is already done well. If you’re strapped for time, you probably will do this.

This is a small tangent, but it’s something I think both writers and critics should understand. Sometimes  when you’re giving feedback, you just don’t have anything negative to say. Stop the presses, that’s something a good critic should never do right? Wrong. There is no shame in standing up and saying to someone “you know I’m sitting here reading through your work and I can’t find anything wrong“. In fact, I was asked to beta-read a story for a friend this summer, and while I had a slight pick at the first chapter, I’m waiting until he is online again before I tell him that he doesn’t need me to critique it. It’s good. It doesn’t make you a bad critic. It doesn’t mean you weren’t being critical enough. I believe it makes you more legitimate in your feedback by saying this, instead of proceeding to talk about non-existent problems.

Let’s get back to the main point then. How do you cope with feedback? To summarise, you leave it, you get yourself in order. You then read it carefully. You decide whether the feedback is legitimate or not. Then you act on it.

You should never, never, respond to feedback when you first receive it. You’ll be emotional, you won’t think straight. You’ll misinterpret, and you could go to the nuclear option. That is, you could delete your entire work and say you’ll start again.

Never delete anything you write – that is the cardinal sin as far as I’m concerned. You have the ability to re-draft as many times as you want. So don’t got and delete your work – because all you’re doing is reinforcing negative emotions about your writing and destroying any progress you’ve made.

Deleting an re-writing is not progress. It is not re-drafting. It is undoing the progress you’ve made. It is quite literally, trying to write something perfect from scratch. I need not tell you how silly that is.