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.

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.’

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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

The Importance of Titles or: The Most Excruciating Part of Writing

When it comes to writing I would like to think I handle things like characterisation, dialogue, and plot well enough. A title however is a different matter. I suffer from chronic titlitis — a debilitating condition that renders one unable to think of titles. I mean I once wrote a story called The Blades of Change. You think that’s bad? Wait till you hear the excruciatingly titled Memories Are Bad for Your Health. I mean, seriously. What is wrong with me? For me a title is an afterthought — after much frantic panicking. It is a black hole staring back at me across a void, an incomprehensible object I cannot name — a thingamajig, a doodah, a whatchamacallit. Suddenly when it comes to titles I fall to pieces. And yet a title is so vital. It’s no trivial thing. It needs to say so much with so little. So much hinges on it. Much will be judged by it. So how do you even decide something like that?

My current novel-in-progress is provisionally entitled Flat 21. It’s been called that since inception a few months ago. I don’t like it. It was only ever meant to be a working title. And yet I’m struggling to think of another. It is meaningless and insipid. It signified something back then. It signifies nothing now. Things have moved on. I have no idea what else to call it until I redraft and refine my themes. For all it’s worth, I may as well call it Madness and the Uncertainty of Being, Punishment, and Reality as that pretty much sums up this hotchpotch of ideas I’m calling a novel.

This all got me thinking about how and where titles come from. Ray Bradbury in his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, suggests making a list of nouns invoked by a walk through the unconscious sounds and smells of childhood. And then use these as a starting point for stories. That may work if you write from titles. I don’t.

So I looked at other sources of inspiration writers have used. These have included using references to:

  • ProtagonistsThe Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov), Emma (Jane Austen), Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz), The Dice Man (Luke Rhinehart), The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje)
  • DatesNineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell), 1Q84 (Haruki Murakami), August 1914 (Alexander Solzhenitsyn), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Arthur C. Clarke)
  • ThemesCrime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), Atonement (Ian McEwan), Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad), The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Carson McCullers), Nausea (Jean-Paul Sartre)
  • PlacesThe Old Curiosity Shop (Charles Dickens), Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie), Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons), The Castle (Franz Kafka)
  • Music: Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami / The Beatles), Girlfriend in a Coma (Douglas Coupland / The Smiths)
  • Shakespeare: Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace / Hamlet), Under the Greenwood Tree (Thomas Hardy / As You Like It), The Fault in Our Stars (John Green / Julius Caesar), The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner / Macbeth), Pale Fire (Vladimir Nabokov / Timon of Athens)
  • Poetry: As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner / The Odyssey, Homer), A Handful of Dust (Evelyn Waugh / The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot), Tender is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald / Ode to a Nightingale, John Keats)
  • The BibleBy the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept (Paulo Coelho), East of Eden (John Steinbeck), The Wings of the Dove (Henry James), In a Glass Darkly (Sheridan Le Fanu), The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)

As you can see titles can be inspired via a variety of sources. How and when you link the title to your story depends on many factors. Sometimes themes and characters may not emerge fully until several drafts. While others may choose a title first and work from there.

Whichever way you work, I hope this gives you some ideas on how to navigate the unnerving quandary of choosing your own titles. Personally, I’m off to plan my next novel — working title: Thingamabob.

Image: Clem Onojeghuo via Unsplash.

Spiritual Practice for Depression: On a Scale of 1-10, How Effective is Mindfulness Meditation?

An insightful article on what mindfulness is and isn’t. And how it can be used to effectively treat depression.

Mollie Player

Mindfulness isn’t what I had in mind. Here’s what I mean.

Right now, as research for this site, I’m reading Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zin for the first time. Now a modern classic, this gives one of the more detailed, systematic (even medical) approaches to mindfulness meditation. It’s based on the successful hospital classes led by Kabat-Zin many years ago, with more recent additions in the revised version I’m reading. I’m also reading several books by Thich Nhat Hanh right now, and listening to an Eckhart Tolle audiobook. I didn’t think of Tolle as a mindfulness meditation teacher, but I’m seeing now that he is (though he might not appreciate the label).

Previously, I viewed mindfulness as a sort of bland, unoriginal approach to spirituality. I mean, it’s just so popular, right? Even non-spiritual people are doing it. After doing the above reading, though, I changed my mind.

Mindfulness…

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Sliced Oranges

We met at a wedding. We sat next to each other, both lost in a sea of colour and celebration. Me in an oversized Hugo Boss suit, and a gingham tie; she in a simple black suit with a white blouse. When the bride and groom came we both toasted them with a shared smile. The last thing we ate was sliced oranges. I spat the pips out politely into the red napkin, and scrunched the napkin into a ball on the plate.

Our mothers decided to attend the nearby casino for the night. We decided to make our own way home. But it was too early, so we agreed to catch a movie instead. As we walked together through the city streets, all I could think of was drawing her black hair over her ears, kissing her there at the point where the lobe meets the neck, and on her lips, touching her hand, taking mine and exploring her skin beneath her woollen jacket.

We sat at the back of the Odeon, two nervous teenagers with elbows glancing — my tie now stuffed in my breast pocket. Back then you were allowed to smoke in cinemas. But I didn’t have any with me. So I sat and breathed in the heady mix of drifting second-hand smoke and her ambivalent perfume in the reflected glow of the screen, thinking how and when to seize my moment.

We would communicate later with letters — there were no text messages or emails in those days. They would arrive weekly. I would read them twice in my room before sealing my desperate, messy reply and running to the post box. We exchanged gifts. She sent me a little purple book full of friendship quotes. We spoke on the phone, had meetings over coffee. Neither of us committing to anything. I guess she was just as shit scared as I was. This was all before they diagnosed me with anything.

We didn’t speak for months. But I thought about her every day. Then one morning I called her from the psychiatric ward. The phone’s black coil extending from its yellow body rested against my bandaged wrists as I told her I was sorry I didn’t call earlier. I stood in the hallway holding the mouthpiece close so she would not hear the passing trolley being pushed by the white-haired woman with the swollen ankles, afraid the rattling cups would somehow give me away.

She said it was okay, she was at university now, and things were going well. But I didn’t know what to say. Should I have said that I just tried to kill myself and fucked it up? That it wasn’t her, it was me? That it was life and all the bastards who had ruined it? That it was mom and dad who fucked it up because somebody had fucked it up for them? That it was everything that had preceded that moment over sliced oranges at the restaurant, or that movie in the smokey dark; before the friendship quotes, and before the kiss that never happened? That the only kiss I really desired was Death’s. That I obsessed over its sweet, cloying taste; that I longed for its everlasting intoxication, and wanted nothing but to sleep a dreamless sleep of eternal nothingness? I didn’t know how to tell her any of that, so I just said I was happy for her. And that we must stay in touch. We never spoke again.

Image: Slices by Lindsey Turner / CC BY