NaPoWriMo 2019 Day 22

Ordinary Omens

Thousands of seagulls descended
yesterday on one street corner.
The air was thick with wings,
No-one thought it strange.

We are a cracked river bed
just before it dries out,
water still barely flowing,
leaving rock and rust deposits
snaking down bare hillside.

Lead and mercury storm clouds
appear overhead in seconds.
We dodge and weave between
rains of first generation iPods,
avoid fax machine strikes.

Streams run green with lithium.
We breathe in chlorine and
we are grateful for it.

While we still can, let us lie
in our broken glass gardens and
sing to each other; songs of jetpacks,
cties that float on the ocean
and escalators to the moon.


All the poems I wrote for last year’s Napowrimo are available as a free ebook. Download it here.

NaPoWriMo 2019 Day 19

Spinning

That morning had the clarity of a story,
we whirled and spun around each other,
hypnotised by the orbits we wove
and the stars above us were [Redacted].

Looking in your eyes, perfect models
of the galaxy, with the central black
hole eating all light, I exclaimed
[Redacted- Harm to Ongoing Matter]”

In that moment, everything made sense.
The closest I have felt to epiphany.
You, [Redacted], laughed and replied “[Redacted]”
as spring blossom erupted around us.

The feeling faded, confusion reigned again,
our separate bodies spun on. Still,
the memories of [Harm to Ongoing Matter]
lingered, even in the gloaming, when
the earth continued around the sun,
light faded down, blossoms closed and
my heart was [Redacted].


All of my poems from #NaPoWriMo 2018 are available as a free ebook. Download them here.

#NaPoWriMo 2019 Day 9

Demolition

The bulldozers, with unsmiling jaws,
sneak around behind your street.
Their growling engines go unheard.

They lurk until you go to work
then devour your walls and windows,
chew your garden and rooms to dust.

All they leave is a flat facade,
a movie set illusion of your home,
a blue door with absence behind it.


All the poems I wrote for NaPoWriMO in 2018 are available for free as an ebook. Download them here.

#NaPoWriMo 2019 Day 8

Remnants of Shock

Withered branches, bony fingers,
scrape a sea of forever cloud.
Ash falls in soft snow clumps,
embracing land with quiet tenderness.

Look down, to where knotted roots
erupt from the carpet of grey.
Imperceptible at first, your eyes
adjust: new scattered flecks of green.


All the poems I wrote last year are available for free as an ebook. Download them here.


Making the familiar strange

I though I was a good typist. I’ve written on computers all my life. I type fast. But the truth is half my time is spent correcting errors. I write fast but sloppy. So I started to learn to touch type.

I tried to learn a few years ago but only got half way through learning, not committing to the practice. As a result, my typing is a weird hybrid of hunt and peck and formal touch typing. I didn’t practise enough to embed the muscle memory. So I started again from the beginning. I expect to breeze through the first few lessons but struggled as I relearnt my familiar method. I still struggle with it now, a few weeks in. This skill that had felt so familiar now felt strange and difficult.

It affected my writing as well. The effect of slowing down and making the familiar skill strange meant I thought a lot more about the words I wrote, the construction of sentences and the rhythm of my words. It was a similar effect to writing by hand.

We place too much effort on the routine and regularity of writing. Of course, we need regular times to get the words written. Sometimes it does need to become rote as otherwise long pieces simply wouldn’t get done. bUt I think it’s equally as important to remind yourself that just because you’ve been doing something the same way for ages, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best way to do it. These times between projects are the perfect breathing space to figure out how to change this.

I also think it’s a chance to see the world anew. You make the process strange and in do in doing so, change the way you see the world. Maybe we need more of this. See the world with fresh eyes and make the familiar strange, so we can figure out how to make it better.

Sharp Objects and genre blindspots

Genre fiction is often used to describe science fiction and fantasy, but everything fits into a genre. People tend to dismiss sci-fi as not belonging to the real world and following set formulas. I admit to similar prejudices with crime novels, particularly those with detectives or journalists trying to solve a murder. There are some twists and red herrings, the protagonist gets personally involved due to their issues but by the end of the story it is all neatly resolved and the murderer is revealed. This is the narrow-minded view I have of the crime genre.

Admittedly, I have not read much of it, preferring to focus on other genres. This is perhaps why my view of crime novels is limited in scope and why my view of an entire genre is reduced to the broadest strokes.

However, I did enjoy Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. Well, enjoy is perhaps the wrong word. It’s a relentlessly bleak and grim novel with an oppressive atmosphere that gets under your skin. Even so, it was a book that made me re-evaluate my dislike of crime fiction. Flynn really takes her time to get into the psychology of her characters, so as much as you despise their choices you understand them. Added to a very unflattering view of dangerous small town America, this is a powerful statement that doesn’t so much subvert the crime genre but pushes it to the extremes.

The story of a journalist investigating a small town murder has become a cliche. The town that seems perfect but hides deadly secrets was a trope even before Twin Peaks. But this doesn’t matter in the case of Sharp Objects. Flynn’s writing is powerful and gripping and her characters are seriously messed up. The setting is the perfect place for the story to take place as it has emotional resonance for the characters. We feel the town is a trap and hides dark secrets because we see it through the eyes of the protagonist, who has some very intense issues with the place and with her family. It’s masterfully done.

It’s proven to me once again that’s it’s best to ignore my preconceived ideas of genres and just read books and hope they are good. Good writing and storytelling will shine through in any genre. A good writer will also twist and change genres to tell the stories they want to. Besides, genre is mostly there to find a place for the book to go in a shop. A talented writer can take a repeated, cliched story and breathe life into it, which is exactly what Gillian Flynn does with Sharp Objects.


Thoughts on ‘Annihilation’

For my first book of the year, I sped through Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, the first in the Southern Reach Trilogy. It is classified as science fiction, but in this case it seems to be a catch-all category of “I dunno. Seems weird.” Science fiction isn’t really a good classification for this odd novel. From the very first moments, it is clear that this strange little book is delving deep into horror.

In Area X, the rules of the world we know are discarded. There is only the alien ecosystem subverting every part of nature. Immediately, things go very wrong indeed. The mission is a complete failure and was seemingly doomed from the start. It’s a world where nothing makes any rational sense and what we can perceive is utterly terrifying. People start to die very quickly. Or do they?

One of the delights of this book is how little it explains. We see effects of strange mutations and organisms, and it’s never explicitly stated what is happening. Because the main character becomes part of the system, we can never see it apart from her perspective. For all her scientific rationalism, she has no explanation for what she is experiencing. Words frequently fail her. There’s a huge gap between what is actually going on and what the character perceives and that gap is never explained. It’s the same device Lovecraftian horror uses and it’s very effective.

I saw the film a little while ago and what was striking reading the book is how radical the adaptation was. It has the same basic premise and characters but goes in different directions. It’s a great example of how to keep the essence of a story, but adapt it to a different medium. The film has horrific moments that aren’t in the book, like the bear with a human scream. Similarly, the book has the Tower, which can only exist in the imagination.

Now to read the next two in the trilogy, please.


Recent Published Writing

Stairs
Some funky spiral stairs in Oxford. Irrelevant to my writing but they looked cool.

Recently, I’ve been very lucky to have some writing accepted in a couple of different places.

I am very pleased to have been featured in Neon’ magazines Battery Pack, which features very short stories. I have a story called Debugging report in Battery Pack 3 and you can get it for free here.

I also have a poem in The Martian Wave 2018, called Beyond Darkness. Find that here.

Ten Miserable Years of Austerity

Like the rest of the UK, I’ve been steadfastly ignoring anything to do with Brexit. It’s like there’s a ticking time-bomb hanging over our heads and we are doing everything we can to distract ourselves from the countdown, hoping that it won’t explode if we just ignore it hard enough. Sometimes though, something slips through. This week I saw the chancellor’s comments on how Brexit will probably reduce public spending further.

This is not a post about Brexit. This is a post about austerity.

We are now ten years into austerity in Britain. The financial crash seems like a distant dream and those caused it remained unpunished. This means we have had ten years of the Tories cutting public services to the bone. The NHS is continually in crisis. Public sector wages have been stagnant. Libraries are closing everywhere. Essential council services are being cut, if they haven’t already gone into administration like Northampton. Since I moved from wealthy Surrey to Bristol, I’ve really noticed the drastic impact these cuts have had on people. There are too many people that need to be referred to social workers for drug and alcohol dependency, or who are living rough. They need help but the systems of support are no longer there. The council here is working against massive budget cuts and a restriction in tax, meaning they have to cut back on services. 1

This will all get worse of course, if investment isn’t put back into the system. But the chances of that happening are slim to none. The Tories are in power 2 and if Brexit happens, they will likely cut everything back further. Essential services for the public are going to collapse. The knives are out and they will continue to cut to the bone.

Of course, none of this will affect the rich and powerful in the slightest, despite them being the ones that caused the crisis in the first place. No tax havens will be shut down. No billionaires will be chip in for new hospitals. The systems is rigged in their favour and they will not do anything against that. No, the ones that will suffer, as always, are the poor. Disabled people have to go through ridiculous assessments to claim basic assistance. Lack of adequate libraries and hospitals will adversely affect the poor. People will die from inadequate healthcare. And yes, the poor will be the ones most affected by Brexit as well as food and medicines could be stopped at the border. The rich will be fine. They always are.

This is what happens when a government values profit over people. It’s a selfish manifesto that serves to line their own pockets and nothing more. It has made our society poorer, stripped away essential services and made us more selfish. There’s less to go around because the richer in society are taking it all. There should be a national outrage at this vampiric, vicious policy, yet it hardly ever gets blamed for anything. Usually, it is seen as necessary to reduce our national debt, an excuse that wears thin when the debt is actually increasing.

Instead, the rich and powerful blame immigrants, blame foreigners, blame those on benefits, blame anyone except themselves. They continually blame the ones who need the most help. Over the past ten years we’ve seen the media stoke the flames of nationalism and xenophobia for their own gain. That’s part of the reason we’ve ended up with Brexit.

The sad thing is that none of this was necessary. This horrible situation could have been avoided and so could endless stress and even deaths. But austerity is idealistic. The people who implemented it hate the very idea of the welfare state. They hate the idea that some people are getting things for free and they hate the government giving hand outs to help anyone. So they have set out to destroy the welfare state. The scary part is, they have mostly succeeded.

A government should look after it’s people. It should provide for the weakest and poorest members of society. It should help it’s citizens live healthy and long lives. If that means providing free healthcare to everyone, then it should. The same goes for welfare. The utopian dream of the nineteen fifties still should apply today. We pay taxes to make society a better place for everyone. That’s the bargain. Everyone is in this mess together. If we don’t pay taxes to make society better, why are we doing it? To fund bombs and guns? Help keep one family in big palaces? We do not need selfish politicians in power who want to line their own pockets. It drains our society of the best people, stops others from reaching their full potential and creates artificial scarcity. There needs to be national outcry against this horrible policy before it destroys our services for good. We need to stop blaming the most vulnerable and start holding the powerful to account. If anything, Brexit needs to be the end of austerity.

No Such Thing as a ‘True’ Artist: Persistent Myths That Need To Be Retired

I was inspired to write this post when I saw this image by artist Sean Landers:

It is a deliberately insincere and provocative slogan, designed to wind people up. So I’m going to ignore the joke about suicide and focus on the myths of artistic creation this piece brings up, as I think they are still present in the perception of artists and how they work.

In our society, there is a persistent myth of the great work by an individual genius that changes everything. Many artists and writers fall foul of this fallacy 1, wanting to produce a singular piece of work that will outlive them, wanting to create the best painting that’s ever been done or the most heartbreaking, insightful novel that’s ever been written. The only problem is that this approach is flawed.

Art is entirely subjective. Sure, you get some pieces that change the direction of art, but that doesn’t mean they are the best. Instead, everyone perceives art and books and culture differently. Trying to create the best thing that was ever created is a fool’s errand. because you are never going to please everyone. When Michelangelo’s David was unveiled, I’m sure there were some people who thought Eh? What’s all the fuss about? To use a more familiar example, I’m sure you have had the experience of going to a film that you loved but other people you were with hated. You were sat in the same screen watching the same film but somehow had completely different experiences. You can’t create the single best work of art any more than you can make the best cube of air. Art is messy and complicated and our reactions to it are often confused, contradictory and all over the place. The world is not simple. With seven billion people on the planet, the chances that you are going to get everyone to some kind of consensus is near impossible.

Because of this, the story you thought to be utter genius might be received poorly while something you didn’t think was worthy of attention is lauded. As an individual, you have no way of knowing whether you have reached the ‘peak’. Personally, I don’t think there’s any such thing. I think you work on one piece or one story, make it as good as you can in the time you have, then move onto the next. Neil Gaiman said it best:

Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving. 2

There’s no such thing as the ‘peak’ of creation and no such thing as perfection, there’s just one thing after another. You improve slowly over time and challenge yourself in different ways.

Furthermore, those pieces that change the world and change the direction of art are often decided upon retrospectively. It is only after you look back and see what influenced what can you decide how influential or important a piece of work is. even then, the picture is incomplete and messy. A novel written in the nineteenth century might by change influence a number of writers in the twenty-first, by the whims of fate. As we look back, we get a false impression of these staggeringly important works. There’s no real way of knowing how a piece of writing or a painting or anything will impact people while you’re creating it.

The phrase ‘True Artist’ makes my skin crawl as well. There’s no such thing. If you make art, you’re an artist. As simple as that. If you make paintings and never show them to anyone, you’re an artist. If you write poems and put them on Instagram, you’re a poet. Anyone seeking to claim there is a certain pattern of behaviours that you have to follow in order to be a ‘true’ artist is just seeking to tear people down and make themselves feel important. The same goes for anyone attacking a means of publishing and production. Just look at the attacks the poet Hollie McNish encountered just because she puts her poems up on Youtube and performs them live. This kind of snobbery is sadly usually against women and minorities, seeking to delegitimatize the art they create and the distribution methods they use. This is one positive of the internet, it has started to tear down the gatekeepers and those who decide what is ‘true’ art and who is a ‘true’ artist. Unfortunately, this idea is ingrained in our current society and is very resilient. If you make any form of art in any way, you are a true artist and don’t let anyone tell you differently.

At the end of the day, art is about sitting down, focusing hard for a long time and creating something that didn’t exist before. These myths of the ‘true’ artist and of one singular piece of genius are insulting at best and damaging at worst. If you have the pressure that you have to create something that will change the world, it puts a lot of pressure on you. You shouldn’t try to be the best or follow other’s rules for success. You should focus on what works for you for each piece that create and try to make it the best you can. You will learn as you go on. But knowing when you’ve reached your peak or thinking there are certain things you have to do to be a true artist are just myths that need to be retired. Sean Landers knows this, which is why the wryly sarcastic piece of art retains its power.

The Sound of Silence

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a Quaker wedding. 1 As part of the ceremony, we sat in silence for close to an hour, punctuated now and then by someone speaking briefly, then lapsing back into silence. It was an unusual ceremony. I felt uncomfortable in the silence. I had the urge to speak, to do something to break the quiet. Other people who weren’t Quakers found it difficult as well. Personally, I think I am not used to that amount of quiet contemplation. I was reminded of the famous Blaise Pascal quote: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

We rarely have silence in our lives. Or rather, we have moments of silence, but never moments of stillness as well. To sit for an hour, not doing anything apart from listening to your own thoughts is an intimidating process. Yet it’s something Quakers seek out in their practice. Other religious practices do the same thing, with silent prayer and long meditations. I’m not a religious man, but I have found smaller doses of silence an effective tool to clear out the noise and focus on the signal.

Generally, I think we need to seek out these still moments. It’s important for art and for your own health, even if it’s only for ten or so minutes. The world is only getting noisier and more frantic day by day. If you stop for a moment, you can hear what you actually think. You can hear all the nonsense that churns around in your head day by day. If you do it enough, you might actually realise what you want.

The only problem is that this process is hard and uncomfortable. We crave stimulation at all time and even ten minutes of silence can be too much. Added to the fact that true silence doesn’t really exist, unless you’re holding your breath in the void of space. It seems such an alien thing to do. I struggled with it in the wedding. The silence becomes oppressive and all-encompassing. Time moves slower. The temptation is to say or do something to break the silence.

This process of silence is essential for the creation of new work. You need to be able to listen to the world and listen to yourself as well. It’s often hard to figure out exactly what the interesting part of the work is. Focusing on the work is another issue, especially in the age of constant distraction. If I’m stuck on a piece of writing, I try to put it aside and either sit in silence for a bit or go for a walk without listening to any music. It allows me to figure out what I really want to communicate. By removing audio stimulation, I am able to focus easier.

Wendell Berry said it best in How to be a Poet:

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Please read the whole poem, because it is masterful. I especially love these lines. It shows that poetry and the art of creation is a sacred practice. It should be treated with reverence, like a prayer. It’s communing with your subconscious in a way that doesn’t happen very often in modern life. In this way, we can create something new.

Like all this advice I give, I’m not brilliant at incorporating silence into my life.2 It’s hard to find the time. I feel guilty for not writing or reading in my limited spare time. But I’ve started walking home in silence, not listening to a podcast or music. It’s helped my mind roam and ruminate over thoughts and concepts. Occasionally I write down a line or two, but that’s not the purpose. It’s time to check in with myself and figure out what’s going on.

We need less stimulation than we think we do. We would all do well to sit quietly in a room alone.

Signal Vs. Noise

16 AWFUL THINGS HEADS OF STATE HAVE TWEETED TODAY THAT YOU WON’T BELIEVE! GLOBAL WARMING WILL BE ‘FANTASTIC FOR BUSINESS’ SAYS POWERFUL SOCIOPATH! SOMEONE DID A THING AND PEOPLE ARE OUTRAGED- LIVE UPDATES!

One of the best and worst things about the internet is the amount of freely available information. It’s obviously a good thing, just look at Wikipedia. We can access almost any important information and get a pretty good summary. This is a golden age for progress. The creation of the internet is a bigger revolution than the printing press. It’s like the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy made real, only without the large comforting ‘Don’t Panic’ sign on the cover.

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#NaPoWriMo Day 15

Wilderness

Let vines, grass and leaves
wrap around the concrete,
work fine tendrils into cracks.
Let new life blanket our buses.

Fauna will reclaim the streets,
swallow our bricks and tiles
in a slow, relentless grip,
taking decades for demolition.

This land was never ours to own,
we were just renting these acres.
Let cities be fresh air factories again.
Abandon houses to abundant green.

30 things I don’t know at 30

There’s a certain kind of article you stumble across now and then which consists of important things people have learnt about life. Usually these are linked to a milestone age, like 50, or 10,000 days on Earth. Lists of advice that seems wise and sage and the accumulation of years of study. This is not one of those articles.

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