Tag Archives: Fiction writing

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.

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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.

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?

Making ‘Fiction’ Fiction.

When you stop and think about it, writing is actually quite a silly thing to pursue. It’s down to logic. Why write about something that isn’t real? Or even better, why continue to agonise over something imaginary? If we measure our behaviour towards productivity, then writing is something that doesn’t fit. To be purely logical, why should anyone spend time that could otherwise be spent on facilitating some sort of material gain? Is there any value we can actually place on stories apart from emotional ones? It’s hard to find an answer. Financial inventive might work, but its rare to find any author who began writing for financial gain. It further collapses when you realise stories only sell because people invest emotionally in them. Quite simply, people buy stories because they like them.

As we grow up, we’re increasingly exposed to pressure that determines what we should and shouldn’t do. As such, the focus on imagination and unrealities dies off in favour of logic and reality. It’s why English classes go from having exercises in creative writing to writing analytical essays about works of literature. ‘Literature’ itself rarely includes any works of fantasy or science fiction. Those are populist, low-brow, sensationalist and therefore not high-brow. The irony is that many ‘classic’ works of ‘literature’ actually were criticised in their times for those same perceived faults. We only have to look back so far as to Modernism to understand that novels in themselves were criticised for lacking intellectual weight. The result is that even within the literary world, writing both struggles to and rigorously attempts to justify itself. There still is no answer.

Why is it then some of us continue to imagine the unreal, and therefore write?

This isn’t a post about defending writing, or trying to legitimate the process. Quite the opposite, I believe writing actually suffers from trying to legitimate itself and justify its place in society. The question shouldn’t be why you are you dreaming, but in fact asking those who asks such questions why they don’t dream. Imagination is key to being a good writer, so you shouldn’t try and legitimate your writing by neglecting it. Quite simply, this means where you should write where your imagination first takes you, and not where your head takes you to. As such, perhaps writers should not focus on writing fiction about our current reality, but instead write fiction that is truly fictitious. That is, it is not set in our reality, in our time. Instead, it dares to be imaginative, to deal in created worlds, rather than based on the one we’re already writing in.  In this way, you make ‘fiction’ fiction.