By the Waters of Derwent I Sit Down and Write

Posts this week may be sporadic. This week we’re holidaying at the Lakes.

The weather and traffic were equally unrelenting yesterday. And after a five hour drive through congestion and showers we arrived in Keswick around late afternoon.

I am writing this from the summit of Cat Bells — one of the most popular fells on the western side of Derwent Waters. At 451 metres, it took us with two children in tow about two hours to walk and climb. It is windy here. And although the clouds have been brooding over the top of mountains all morning. The rains have so far stayed away.

As a born suburbanite I am accustomed only to endless fields of grime and smoke, where the only things that rise and fall are red brick houses from brown sites and former farm lands. Here the fells remain still and silent, and trees rise from the side of heathered green hills and rocks older than the cities. I am taken aback by the beauty here.

Abandoned

Look at what they’ve done to me. See what they’ve driven me to. They are the ones to blame, not me. I wanted them to live.

Abigail is on the bed’s edge, the backs of her legs feel cold against the metal frame. The morning light warm on her knee. She feels nothing else. She does not know why she is here. She is aware of nothing before, and thinks of nothing after this moment on the bed’s edge. She has no memories because she will not allow me to give her any.

At the same time George is a hundred miles away stationary on the outside lane of the M25. All his possessions are packed into the Audi’s boot. He puts his hands together on top of the steering wheel, gazes at the sea of red lights, and wonders how he got here.

It was me. I made George leave this morning. And I made Abigail cry. I wanted them to be happy. I tried to be nice. I asked them over and over who they were. I gave them chances. All they had to do was talk. Help me to help them. I wanted them to exist like everybody else full of passion and joy. I really did. But they resisted. Their silence sealed their fate.

In this world that I now feel incompetent to describe, they leave me little choice. I give them tears because they refused not create their own joy.

They will be abandoned now, reader, like all the others. They will remain in their solitary prisons, in darkened stasis without hope for the future, or memories to relive. Abigail on the bed’s edge, George in endless rows of traffic going nowhere until time forgets them.

But don’t feel sad for them. And please don’t think I’m heartless. This is not about love, this is about doing the right thing. In the world of microeconomics opportunity cost dictates whether one thing should be abandoned in preference of something more valuable and beneficial. And so it will be with Abigail and George. This is the writer’s prerogative — it is our burden of responsibility. Others will come along to take their place in time. But don’t think I didn’t love them. I did. They just wouldn’t love me back.


That was for anyone who’s ever had to abandon a story because their characters refused to play ball.

Image by: Alexander Possingham via Unsplash

 

Keeping the Absurd Alive: Camus and Suicide

‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.’

– Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Introduction

In writing my novel I wanted to ask some questions regarding our perception of reality, the nature of existence, suicide, and our relationship with the absurd. I wanted to find out more about this, and this lead me to Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. The title of this essay refers to the Greek myth of Sisyphus who was condemned to a futile eternity pushing a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down again. In it French-Algerian writer and philosopher, Camus examines the nature of the absurd, and asks the question: when faced with the absurd what reasons do we have for living?

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An Absurd Reasoning

‘In a man’s attachment to life there is something stronger than all the ills in the world… We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking.’

Our attachment to life is instinctive. We learn to survive physically before learning to reason. However, there may be times when life appears meaningless. We may see a man talking behind glass, we see only his silent gestures and wonder why he exists, or we may look in the mirror and witness a stranger. This is what Camus calls the absurd. At these times reason breaks down — we cannot explain it. Within this recognition of the ‘ridiculous character’ of habitual living — the senselessness of our daily grind, we question our reasons for living. Life becomes a mime — as if we are going through the motions. The great charade is revealed, the ‘stage-sets collapse’, and we ask ourselves: ‘what is the point?’

The first step in addressing this, says Camus, is to identify what is true. In this he states that: ‘this world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction.’ It must be noted that Camus’s approach is phenomenological here – he is only concerned with direct experience. Science can only describe the universe, it cannot explain it. The further one attempts to reduce an item – from table to atoms to electrons etc. — the more abstract that object becomes.

The absurd does not exist in the world or our consciousness alone, but in the divorce between ‘the human need [for meaning] and the unreasonable silence of the world’. To destroy one is to destroy the other. The absurd ends with death. To live with the absurd is to reject the notion of hope for a better tomorrow or something that transcends us. This feeling exiles us without a cure, states Camus. We become ‘deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land’. We feel a ‘nostalgia for unity’ — for things to make sense again. At this point, states Camus, our consciousness will awaken. And what follows is either ‘suicide or recovery’.

‘A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.’

soren-kierkegaard
Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855)

Camus tells us that many philosophers have failed to live with this realisation of the absurd. Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) found meaning in God, Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969) found transcendence in the absurd, Leon Chestov (1866 – 1938) believed that the absurd was God, and phenomenologist Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938) moved from a belief in the truth of direct experience to the belief in ‘extra-temporal essences’ – in abstract Platonic universal truths that underlie all phenomena.

According to Camus, each of these thinkers commit ‘philosophical suicide’ by taking a ‘leap of faith’ and finding meaning in either God or the absurd itself. Camus states that he is only concerned with whether it is possible to live with what he knows and that alone – i.e. the certainty of the absurd, not the uncertainty of transcendence. Is it possible to live with the harrowing, lucid consciousness of the absurd or must one die because of it? Continue reading “Keeping the Absurd Alive: Camus and Suicide”

Unleashing Creativity by Writing Faster

What a First Draft Isn’t

The American novelist James A. Michener once said: ‘I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.’ And Ernest Hemingway is quoted as having said: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’. The aim of the first draft is not to obtain the burnished gem. Redrafting is what separates the jewel from the rock, it polishes and refines. The first draft is the vital exploratory dig.

The best ideas always emanate from the subconscious. Have you ever stayed up all night pulling your hair out trying to ‘think’ of a solution only to wake up with it clear in your mind, or become unexpectedly inspired when out walking or performing some other activity? Creativity and inspiration (which amount to the same thing) are born not from the cold, clear waters of conscious thought, but from deep in the hidden, searing depths of the mind.

Forget that clichéd image of the writer clutching at his hair over a typewriter, agonising over each word, scrunching papers into a basket — or over a keyboard hitting the delete key. Not feeling able to write — a majority of the time — comes from a fear of letting go and trusting the subconscious to shine through. However, if we relax, we will dig further and reach more wonderful, glittering depths than we thought capable.

Keep on Moving

One of the best ways of achieving greater creativity is to keep the hand moving — this applies to any writing, fiction and non-fiction. If you give the mind a chance to slow down and think, something undesired happens. Consciousness rises and a voice hovers over your shoulder. It will whisper into your ear: ‘you can’t write that’, ‘that sounds ridiculous’, or ‘nobody wants to read that’. It sows seeds of doubt not fire. And soon it stays your hand completely. But keep the hand moving and you will silence that troublesome voice. I call this the internal editor. The editor has no place during the initial creative process. They seek to enfold everything with a veil of sense, but creation is not about sense, it is about passion and wonder.

Write Faster

I worked for many years in the IT industry. First as a software engineer then as a database developer. I was required to write many lines of code each day, and figured early on, that if I wanted to work more efficiently, then I had to learn to touch type.

I borrowed a piece of software from my sister called Mavis Beacon. It taught you how to keep your index fingers on the home keys (‘F’ and ‘J’) and which fingers to use for which keys via a series of games. In one you were driving a car and had to type quickly before the bugs hit the window. It was initially difficult because I had grown bad habits — ‘hunting’ and ‘pecking’ at keys with my head turned down. But over the space of a few months, I learned to touch type without having to look down at all. My productivity increased. This skill stood me in good stead for many years. And is more important now than ever.

Unleashing Creativity

I can now touch type fairly accurately without looking at the screen. And it might sound a bit strange, but sometimes when I’m writing I like to defocus and allow the words filter through. Of course, errors will creep in, but that’s what spell checkers are for. Some things may not make sense, that’s what redrafting’s for — to cut and polish. Just as a slight slip underfoot should not deter the whole mountain climb, neither should spelling and grammatical mistakes, or the odd divergent thread stop your progress.

So it is my firm belief that we can write with less self-consciousness and greater creativity by writing faster. As Michener and Hemingway have pointed out, the first draft needn’t be good because it can be rewritten, it only needs to be inspired and infused with fire and passion. And that comes from letting go, trusting the subconscious, and keeping the hand moving.

Typing Software

Mavis Beacon is still one of the best paid softwares for learning typing. But there are also plenty of free websites. And while they might not be as fully featured, they may be sufficient for starting and gauging your existing skills. Typing.com seems like a good place to start if you haven’t tried one before. It has a series of tests and games to hone your keyboard skills. A quick one minute test revealed that I have a typing speed of 66 WPM with a 98% accuracy.

Exercise

Whether you prefer to write long hand or use a computer. Try writing for at least ten minutes without thinking. Keep the hand moving and let the words come through. Don’t think. Don’t expect it to always make sense. That is not the point. Remember we are not refining the gem at this stage. We are doing something much more important and daring. We are pioneers exploring a land of words and wonder.

Image by: Romain Peli via Unsplash

Why Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill Are Bad for Procrastination

This is how WordPress, international politics, and race relations took me on a Proustian journey and left me repeatedly watching Ute Lemper sing Surabaya Johnny on YouTube yesterday instead of spending time researching for my novel.


The highlighters are laid across my desk; the green, the blue, the pink at oblique angles to the William Morris cup of half drank black coffee. The yellow in my hand is uncapped and drying, it scratches across the paper leaving a pale luminous streak. I reach for the pink. This line seems important, I want to remember it: ‘Existence is illusory or it is eternal’.

I’ve set a date to redraft my novel. It’s getting closer. When the kids are back at school it will give you more time, I tell myself. But I still have so much to research. I’ve already read The Myth of Sisyphus once. But I’m reading it again. Camus’s prose equally inspires and frustrates. It is sublime in places. But he oftentimes dresses his arguments with so much poetry and metaphor the act of reading becomes an evening walk in a city in which the leaves die beneath the wheels of cars — or some such thing that Camus might have written.

(A discussion about what Camus has to say about life in the face of the absurd will have to wait for another time. But spoiler alert: in those immortal words of Renton, ‘choose life’.)

The WordPress daily prompt comes in. It is the word prickle. I ignore it. Other things occupy my mind. The continuing farce of Brexit, a year on and no closer to clarity constantly frustrates. I think about Trump, and his courting of the next world war with North Korea.

I’m suddenly back at college. It’s a dark winter afternoon in ’92. I’m at the bus stop in the rain with a black, leather portfolio tucked under my arms. I’m here because my best friend is here. He’s dating the girl I love, and stands next to me singing: I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down… I am no longer at the bus stop. I am now watching Michael Stipe on stage in a flood of red lights, his eyes mascaraed and closed, his hands raised in unison but apart. He is singing World Leader Pretend because my best friend at the bus stop was singing it. Because it reminds me of Trump. I think about Charlotteville.

I’m in a darkened theatre. There is a hush. On stage is a piano. A spotlight scans as discordant notes ring out. Nina Simone begins her heartrending rendition of Pirate Jenny. Pain and passion transcends time as she howls of the ‘black freighter!’. Slowly I realise why I’m here — the protest, the civil rights movement, the segregation of then, the troubling feeling of now. Of how we haven’t moved. And I realise I didn’t ignore the word prickle, it connected itself to Nina Simone. Because she always leaves that feeling of beauty and longing standing on the back of my neck. That my mind had worked back from there, onboard the decks of the black freighter. She connects everything.

And like Tiresias in The Waste Land ‘This music crept by me upon the waters’ — the invocation of sound transports me like a drifting vessel between past and present. I cannot find my way back. Not yet. The highlighters remain where they are. Camus’s sense of the absurd continue to rest like a hand on my shoulder.

I am in a smoke-filled cabaret theatre in the back streets of 1930s Berlin. Lotte Lenya takes the stage — lips deeply rouged, a cigarette nestling at an angle between them. Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne… clouds of smoke drift, waitresses collect empty glasses, the crowds cheer; the man with the pencil moustache and the blonde on his lap looks at me… und Macheath, der hat ein Messer. Nina Simone is back… asking me, kill them now or later! It is Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill that connects everything now. Bobby Darin dances and smiles in a tuxedo. It is the 1970s. The glitzy stage is a world away from the stark contempt of Jenny and her rundown hotel. But the river continues to flow. The big band fades. I’m in another Berlin bar. But now the decadence has gone, given way to resignation. Voices fade as notes from a piano emerge gently from the dark; lights fade in to the sound of a guitar. Tall and elegant, with her blonde hair swept back behind one ear, Ute Lemper takes to the stage. She was born for it. Everything has brought me here. But here everything stops.

I was just past my sixteenth birthday when you dropped in one day from the blue… I’ve always loved to hate Surabaya Johnny. Who doesn’t? The cad. Everyone thinks of Mack and his knife and forgets about Johnny and his pipe. She emerges into the light. That voice, melodic and lilting that draws you in, before the sneers and rasps push you away again… you talked a lot Johnny, a lot of lies Johnny… she’s giving it to him, telling him like it is… just take the damn pipe out of your mouth, you swine!

I am stuck, captivated. It is senseless; I am Tiresias again, having reached the river’s end I can connect ‘nothing with nothing’. It is Camus’s futureless absurdity filled with passion of the moment. I live only for it. Existence is illusory, but I don’t care. The love, the loss, the heartbreak holds me here. As progress on the novel stagnates, time passes as over and over she sings: you have no heart, Johnny, and I still love you so.

Surabaya Johnny (Ute Lemper)

Image: utelemper.com

The Enduring Passions of Nina Simone

Few artists poured as much beauty and intensity into their performances as Nina Simone (1933 – 2003). Every chord struck, every note sang she did with utter passion and longing with a voice brimming at times with vulnerability, and at others a bewildering sense of the unjust. Watching and listening to her performances, it’s difficult not to be carried away by her passion, and feel the hairs on one’s neck prickle.

Pirate Jenny is taken from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. In this song the prostitute and hotel maid, Low-Dive Jenny, sings of her desired revenge on all the townsfolk who have wronged her. A pirate ship then enters the harbour. Cannons rage and flatten every building save for Jenny’s hotel. The pirates then capture the townsfolk and present them to Jenny, asking her: ‘kill them now, or later?’. After Jenny has exacted her revenge she sails away with them in the ‘black freighter’.

Nina originally recorded this song around 1964 during the American Civil Rights Movement. This gives it especial poignancy. Jenny’s contempt was the contempt of black people towards their unjust treatment, with the ‘black freighter’ symbolising the revolution.

Pirate Jenny (recorded in 1992 at the International Jazz Festival in Montreal)

At around the same time, Nina Simone recorded Mississippi Goddam in response to the murder of World War II veteran and civil rights activist Medgar Evers. He had sought to overturn segregation at the University of Mississippi, and lived under constant death threats. Evers was shot dead by white supremacists in 1963. The song also references the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama where four young African-American girls died after dynamite was planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

If she were alive today, Nina Simone would be singing these songs with the same resentment and passion as she had all those decades ago. And her performance would feel just as powerful to us today as they did to audiences back then.

 

Mississippi Goddam (1964)

In response to daily prompt: Prickle

Writing Practice: Using Random Words

As with any other profession, as writers, we need to ensure we practice our skills on a regular basis. I believe that a refinement of technique, the development of our own voice and style comes from regular and persistent practice. Just as an artist makes many sketches between paintings — freed from any expectation other than to sketch — so we will benefit from ‘sketching’ on a regular basis.

I write every day. Much of it doesn’t go anywhere. Sometimes I may revive something and rework it. But on the whole these represent nothing more than the artist with his sketchbook or an athlete training in the gym.

One of my preferred methods is to compile a list of random words (I use an online generator) and just write. Remove expectation. Place one word in front of the other without thinking. Without thinking we allow the subconscious to filter through. It’s important to silence the urge to ruminate as we write — save that for rewrites. During these practices the aim is to keep moving, spill words, and tap open the subconscious wells. All of these things will hold you in good stead for when you approach the canvas.

And if we use the analogy that writing can sometimes be like exploring a forest, then these random words act as signs nailed to the trees. They take me in hidden directions. They reveal pathways I would otherwise have missed. In this sense, it can feel less daunting than writing totally unguided.

Have a go for yourself. Get a list of random words. Don’t think about them too much and just write. Ten minutes should be enough time. Relax, keep moving, and allow the words to come through.

Here’s one I’ve just done. Composed one word at a time. Although there is a some semblance of a story, it’s not polished in any real sense. But that’s not the point. It’s not meant to signify anything other than the act of writing for writing’s sake. It’s no more than a pencil sketch, a bench press.


Random Words:

orange, aftermath, guarded, cynical, abounding, confuse, third, obtainable, stain, pie, receptive, reward.

***

The orange glow of the candle spread quickly across her face as Alfred came closer. The winter had been long, the house dimly lit. And although the fires had been stoked, the house remained cold.

Emily remained huddled in the four-poster bed swathed in layers of quilts and knitted blankets.

‘Maybe they’ll come back, when the weather brightens.’ Alfred placed the candle on the table, the base overflowed with wax so that some spilt onto the table’s surface.

In the aftermath, things were both simpler — there was less technology to distract their time — and yet more complicated. The basic needs were more difficult to fulfil.

Alfred had guarded the gates, hardly sleeping for days after it had happened. The last thing they saw on the news — the mobile networks were the first to go — were the rampages across the cities, the temples, churches, mosquessynagogues and malls, nothing was immune.

Alfred blew out the candle and drew the covers over them. He put his arms around her. But Emily wasn’t in the mood. He groped with cold hands beneath the covers. And she shirked away. He joked that they were the new Adam and Eve now.

But it always ended the same, with Alfred accusing Emily of being cynical. ‘We need to think differently now. What if there is no one else. If there was then–‘

‘Go to sleep Al. They’ll come for us.’

Alfred caught snatches of sleep, waking on occasions to find Emily far away at the edge of the bed. He had always believed he had lived his life through abounding, inviolable principles. That these guided him through a thirty year career working insurance claims, through the prostate cancer. But when everything goes to shit, what use is insurance? They had refused the pay out. They had lost everything. Then everyone lost everything.

‘I don’t want to confuse the issue,’ said Alfred over breakfast the next morning. ‘But I think we should move.’

‘Move where?’

‘Back to the cities. There’s nothing left here, at least if we make our way there we may have a chance.’ Alfred pushed his plate of dried nuts and berries around.

‘You know there is a third option,’ said Emily. ‘We create a new city, here.’

‘Like Adam and Eve.’ Alfred moved behind her as she looked out beyond the window’s grime at the brown overgrowth that had now taken over and diseased the garden.

‘Come,’ she led him to the outhouse. The dried weeds crackled beneath their boots. ‘I want to show you something.’

Given enough time and with enough hope, anything is obtainable; the stain against humanity is not the we fail to hope, but that we hope for the wrong things.

‘Imagine what we could find in the cities, the food, there must be things still there. Cans, tins, you could make your cherry pies again. Remember how much we loved those?’

Emily unbolted the door to the storehouse, the cold mustiness was the first thing to hit Alfred, the next was the scream of the young woman in chains. Cowering next to her was a young man.

‘This is our future now,’ said Emily. ‘We start it here, with them not us.’

For anything to live, we must cast off expectation and become receptive that we must do what is unpleasant. And that rewards are never promised.

Image by: Lauren Peng via Unsplash

World Citizens

Cosmopolitanism is a philosophical position that treats all people as belonging to a shared, single world regardless of cultural differences. The theory originates from Greek philosopher Diogenes (c. 412 BCE – 323 BCE) who declared that he was a ‘citizen of the world’. Cosmopolitanism seeks to acknowledge and celebrate individual differences without judgement, but also recognise that, morally, we belong to a shared humanity. That we are connected by similar concerns and needs as a species regardless of nation states, religious beliefs, or cultural heritage. That this commonality overrides all other concerns.

***

We turn our faces from the stars.
In Virginia, Kabul, Pyongyang, Paris, Damascus
the world is more insubstantial,
the planets more various than we think.

A child knows only of love and not being loved,
the flower of growth and withering.
Reason is a fault of human engineering.
We sit upon our crumbling banks of sand,
and cast stones against the dam.

The drift of stars gaze on indifferently,
our bridges fall. The child’s beaten heart, the withered flowers
sleep through their cradle song of shells and bombs,
as we plough our fields of dust.

***

World Citizen (David Sylvian & Ryuichi Sakamoto)

Image by: NASA via Unsplash