The Writer’s Life

Prompted by my admiration for Dinesh Allirajah’s work ethic, this blog post contains some of my own musings about what it means to be a writer. Hopefully this will inspire others to write more frequently, help them overcome a block, and pretty much just encourage me to practise what I preach.

Advertisements

It can be hard sometimes, to find that spark that sets fire to your passion. Once you have it, you need all the kindling you can get to keep it going. If, like me, you have experienced prolonged periods of time where all the wood is damp and dirty, it can feel daunting and hopeless; to think you may never write again.

I’m going to tell you something now – you will!

More, you have that kindling within you, you only have to seek it out.

I think each of us in our own way fantasises about what the writerly life would be like. How would it be, for instance, to just sit without a care in the world and to spew out that 300,000 word novel you’ve had mulling around in your daydreams, to have instant success within your genre and be able to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labour of love.

Sounds ideal, no?

Of course it’s ideal – we’re writers, and most of us are idealists. We are the dreamers, the fantasists. Through our work, we can express what others cannot. We see the world differently, often because our perception of it is different, based on our own experiences.

And therein lies the key – experience.

As my blog tag-line notes: Experience is food for the creative mind. To keep with the earlier metaphor, it’s the kindling.

Here’s a tip, from one writer to another: look everywhere for inspiration. It can be found on your morning walk to classes, as you stand in the Starbucks queue, as you listen to each other sharing stories. Pick up a book from when you were a kid, remember what it was it made you feel, made you think… Has your perspective changed? You’re not the same person as you were then.

Listen to your tutors, and take on board what they have to say – they are the ones who know, they’ve got the experience.

Above all, you have to WANT to succeed. If you don’t, then what are you doing if not wasting your life away?

You have to be fearless and persistent in your pursuit of writing. Take the time to figure out what is holding you back, take the time to figure out what you want to write, but write daily. Even if it’s only a throw-away comment that made you think deeply about something – put those thoughts down on paper. If doesn’t matter if it’s a load of hogwash, no one else is going to see or judge it unless you let them, so what are you afraid of? Keep it all, locked away in your writers’ journal – not locked away inside your mind where it can become lost among the hubbub. Found a quote that resonates with you?

WRITE IT DOWN!

Found an author you connect with; whose work you enjoy? Find their creative influences and read those too! Build a database of authors and books, brainstorm themes that resonate with you, go for that drink with your fellow writers… Do the mundane things, like budgeting – it helps to train your mind, keep you focused. Go on long walks for the hell of it.

Above all, you must be selfish. It can be hard sometimes, to find that balance. Of juggling work and social and familial obligations… You have to tell yourself it is your real job. This here, now, the blank page before you. Your job is to turn this page into something magical, for yourself and for others.

This is what you were meant to do with your life, so do it well and shine.

City of God Review

If there is one thing an artist can attest to, it would be the desire to create something that could have the emotional, thought-provoking and politically powerful impact that Fernando Meirelles’ Oscar-nominated film City of God delivers in abundance. Based loosely on the life of a favela-raised photographer – Wilson Rodriguez – as recorded by Paulo Lin in his novel, City of God exposes the harsh realities of life in the slums; poverty and criminality are intrinsically linked, and culture kills.

Meirelles takes us on a poignantly shocking journey spanning two decades, one that – much like the socio-political issues this film tackles – is cyclical, even symbiotic, in nature; violence feeds off misery and neglect, off ignorance… all the hallmarks of poverty. Through the story and work of photographer Rocket, a lens is held up before all the darkness a life of drugs and criminality offers and brings it into stark light and life. Disturbing, haunting and, yet, desperately sad, City of God does not hold back in its honesty and is one that makes you sit up and take notice, for it helps us to recognise the lasting damage these conditions can have on each generation and that sometimes it is almost impossible to escape – a fact succinctly summed up in the film’s tagline: “If you run, the beast catches you; if you stay, the beast eats you.”

In this regard then, City of God is exemplary of the power of the arts to actively impact and push for political change. In response to the high critical-acclaim the film received upon release, the then-President of Brazil vowed to make sweeping reforms in policing poorer communities, and the featured favela attracted the attention of President Obama during a visit to the country in 2009. While we are still a long way from truly understanding how we can completely dismantle the vicious cycle of criminality, it is heartening to see it discussed as a culture that kills, much as we are beginning to see discussions of how mental health kills, through the artistic representation in media.

Scent: The Collected Works by Dinesh Allirajah – Review

Published posthumously in 2016, this beautiful volume brings together the collected works of North England’s very own Dinesh Allirajah, prolific poet and short story writer, in addition to being a highly praised Professor. Within these pages we find echoes of Allirajah’s short-lived yet colourful life; we find it in his often soulful explorations of lives lived at the edges of society; in his witty, insightful social commentary; in his philosophical observations.

Scent: The Collected Works, is split into three distinct areas consisting of over twenty years’ worth of Allirajah’s short stories, poems and a selection of blog posts. It is these articles in particular which serve to shed light on the author’s character and his attitude toward his writing career – a must-read for any aspiring writer who desires to learn how to balance life with their work. The overwhelming sense of an answer is this – to know who you are, to live and to feel. While this comes across in his short stories and poems, it is more apparent in those aforementioned philosophical observations within these blog posts, particularly the story of the old and young waiters. Long story short – listen to the wise old man, don’t make the mistake of the young, impatient man; each moment is precious, don’t waste it wishing for the next.

This speaks to the heart of Allirajah’s outlook on life and is greatly reflected in his short stories, where he intimately explores the private lives of his characters, most of whom are societal outcasts, and opens them up for the reader to share their heart with. It is through these explorations that we as readers, according to the publisher, learn the most about ourselves. It is the process of reading, learning and reflecting… and Allirajah knew this, and knew its value to writers. He practised this, and lived by it, and it shows in his work, and in the way his former students speak of him.

In a blog post on Page to Pixels we find students reflecting on his influence. Among the praises heaped on this larger-than-life author within these lively anecdotes we find he was laid-back, inspirational and nurturing. As a student of the craft, it is pleasing to have garnered this sense of the man from only his fiction writing, and one cannot help but wonder at how much of a person’s character can be revealed through their work. It is both humbling and terrifying to consider, yet given what can be learned from Allirajah the goal should be this: just go for it, be happy, enjoy the work that you do, and live a life worth living.

Moment (2)

Second of the two pieces I submitted for my module assignment. This one is rather special to me; I imagine one day, after capturing more ‘moments’, that I may take a stab at producing a collection of short stories – snapshots of my life – and this would be the title piece of the collection. Partly inspired by listening to a literary podcast in a seminar, I mostly am absolutely emulating Matthew Stover’s – see review below of one of his novels – universe metaphor (artistic pilfering) and have adapted it for my own use.

5am and the world is still.

At least, one part of the world is; for others, the day-time thrum of life is in full stereo, a chaotic miasma of activity and sound, a night-club without music. Here, even my breath is frozen in time, a lazy haze of air hovering before my eyes, obscuring my view of the night sky. I have no concept of time here. I am my own world, my own tiny bubble of existence.

Nothing can penetrate my bubble, a shield from the outside world.

Not at this hour.

Not here, not in this moment.

Outside my bubble, there is nothing.

Pitch-black except for the moonshine and the distant, soft glow of street lights – far enough removed that it does not pollute the night sky’s crystalline-clear lattice of stars. I take a drag, breathe in the crisp autumn air along with the smooth mix of tobacco and weed. I let it linger, filling my lungs.

Waiting.

Breath held.

There.

Was it a trick of the imagination, an hallucination? The dope playing tricks? I could swear I saw something flash past in the vicinity of the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters. Fuck, can you imagine having seven sisters, or brothers for that matter? My eyes linger on the spot before I realise that I am missing the majesty of the whole world’s night sky, too busy focused on one thing I am blind to everything else.

Eyes closed, I shrug, exhale.

It doesn’t matter.

Yet I am not blind to the presence of the bright existence right beside me, one whose collision with my own has brought us here to this moment, much like the originator of these Orionids we seek to observe. We are our own universe, forming a protective hemisphere around one another against the radiation of our own. We are the epicentre of a Venn diagram, the common elements of our separate universes fused together as one.

Just wait; time is frozen here, remember. This is just one moment in time, and we have all the time in the world. There’ll be more opportunities. If not tonight, then the next or the next. Next week, next month, year. It doesn’t really matter when, all that matters is the here and now and that we make the most of what lies before us in its entirety. No need to explain.

No apologies.

No regrets.

We’ll see those burning balls of ice flashing by in the sky, here in our bubble where nothing can harm us. Outside our universe, a thick haze of fog drifts by, shrouding us in its comforting embrace; I am almost apprehensive for the Dementor’s Kiss. Inside our universe, a bonfire kindles warmth to our bones.

We truly are alone out here in the dark, fumbling to find our way home, with only the spark inside our universe to guide us, a campfire to rally around when the fog comes in.

It’ll happen one day.

For now, we are our own universe. Living, learning, playing, growing together. Two individuals locked in one universe, distinct, separate – but together in the here and now. That is all that matters, all that should ever matter.

The moment.

Outside our universe, there is nothing.

Inside, peace.

Chrysalis

This is one of two pieces I submitted for a module assignment. While the feedback for this piece was generally positive, I personally don’t like it all that much in hindsight; it feels stiff and awkward, much like it’s author, and is littered with cliches…. Make of that what you will! Still, I’ve decided to put it out there as a sample of what I write, and my attitude is if it’s not out there it can’t be of any help or inspiration to anyone, and so is an exercise in nothing.

She stepped from the platform onto the train. Navigating the aisle, she spied a clear space at the back of the carriage. As she took her seat, she found she was not alone there. Opposite sat a young man of indeterminate age. Younger than thirty, she guessed. Early twenties? He looked too young to have such deep-set creases in his forehead. He was absorbed in a book, one leg crossed over the other, body slouched to one side against the carriage window and looking for all the world as though he wished to climb inside the pages. Beside him rested a bulging backpack. Bursting with books, she surmised.

“Student, are we?” she asked hesitantly, politely.

The young man slowly raised his head to meet her gaze, looking deeply bewildered. Perhaps he was unaccustomed to people speaking to him.

“Uh – yes,” his voice cracked. He cleared his throat, and his eyes trailed downward to the book folded over in his hand, clearly desperate to escape back to whatever world he had been adventuring in.

A pregnant pause.

“Your mum must be really proud.”

Brow furrowed, he lifted his shoulders and said bluntly, “Why?”

Uncomfortable, she shifted in her seat. “Well, you know, you must be really smart. To be at university… I’m guessing it’s university? My son is at one. Brilliant mind; I can’t understand half the stuff he comes out with. Probably showing my age, now.”

The young man offered a wan, almost sympathetic smile. It seemed to take great effort.

“I think my mum could relate,” he offered. “And yes, uni.”

“I’m sure she could,” she laughed and offered a warm smile. “So, are you enjoying it much?”

“I love my subject… I guess I’m enjoying the experience. I dunno.”

She cocked her head slightly. “You don’t seem so sure…”

The opening was there. The man hesitated, breathed deeply. His eyes looked glassy, watery. She could almost see the gears grinding behind those eyes. Clearly he was uncomfortable with the conversation, but he appraised her and seemed to nod to himself.

“Sometimes I don’t feel like I belong there. I’m intimidated by people most of the time, I don’t understand them. It’s made it hard to fit in, I guess.” He shrugged. “Story of my life.”

Her face fell, but her eyes brimmed with warmth. “You must have friends? Family close by?”

“Sure, I have friends, after a fashion. Family too, yes.” Pause. “It’s complicated.”

“You don’t have to explain to me, honey. Life can get like that sometimes, the trick is to not let it get you down and stop you enjoying your life.”

He laughed self-effacingly. “I wish it were as simple as that.”

“So, how is it?”

He appraised her again. He seemed to consider whether he could trust her, and decided he could with a hearty smile, “How long have you got?”

As it transpired, they had all the time they needed; their destinations the same. So they engaged in a conversation, and she learned of his sad story. In return she shared her experiences, relating to the student her own tales of woe and all the lessons learned from them. Same destination; different path, different decisions, similar feelings, similar solutions.

She could not help but think she was on that train journey for more than just her own reasons, that their paths had converged by no mere happenstance. Before her the boy – for that is all he is, really – was in metamorphosis, a butterfly in chrysalis. She reflected upon her own life, and realised that she was also in transformation, still living, learning, growing. Not a complete person. Not until the end of her days.

No one has all the answers.

The trick is to find your own path.

By the time their journey came to a close, the sun was setting behind the low-rolling hills of the countryside, and both had pearls of tears clinging to their lashes, although their smiles shone through. They exchanged Facebook details and promised they would keep in touch, check in on one another from time to time.

As they prepared to step down onto the platform to go on their separate paths, the boy turned to hug her gratefully.

“Thank you,” he said sincerely. “I needed this.”

The Greatest Lie Ever Told

This is a random piece of insight I came up with on the spur of the moment, no doubt influenced in part by my viewing of The Imitation Game for the umpteenth time, as it was on in the background during writing. I’ll likely come back to this and polish it up at some point, as it is only a first draft; I sense a poem in there, somewhere. It basically deals with thoughts I have about the world and the individual’s place in it and is definitely inspired by my own political and economic views – I long for the day when we have a moneyless society. For further information about that I would recommend checking out The Venus Project.

The greatest lie ever told is freedom.

From the moment of our conception we are trapped in a prison, bound to the limits and laws of nature until we are given permission by forces extant to our pathetic, feeble selves to finally gaze upon the world. We come forth in blood and sweat and tears, wailing, to be greeted by our jailers. It was a trap, you see.

We grow, and as we do we learn about the world around us. We push the boundaries, rebel against society, all in a vain attempt to taste freedom that shall forever be denied. We go to school as we are told, learn what we are told, eat what we are told. Until we are told we are old enough to go out into the big, bad, ugly world and decided for ourselves what our fate shall be.

You can conform, fit in, be the dutiful child. Or reject it all.

You can reject the social structures, of course! You can reject their politics, their democracy, their fascism, racism, capitalism, socialism – all the isms! All the phobias!

Reject them all you like.

You have no choice but to be beholden to them.

You cannot live in the world you want.

You are told to use your vote to make a difference.

Vote for a party, any party. It doesn’t matter; they’re all sides of the same coin.

The coin is the problem.

Your worth is decided by the coin in your pocket. No coin, no value. Worthless.

Work hard they say, follow your dreams. Yet if your dreams lead you to pursue a passion structurally valueless to a society that revolves around monetary economics, you’re worthless. Deserving of nothing. Trapped by a system that does not value you as an individual.

You are poked and prodded in one direction or another, pulled back to family by obligation and necessity against your better judgement. You have no choice, no option, no freedom.

You question your freedom, the very concept of freedom.

You realise, there is no freedom; you define it in its purest form, yet others are content to accept limited freedom. They have it wrong, you think. Perhaps even you have it wrong, you accept. Freedom is a word defined by others. Nomenclature; classification; labels. Words we use and yet cannot fathom the reality of.

Oh! How little we understand.

Human folly, for sure.

To think we have all the answers. That everything we know and understand about the world is unchanging, static. Forgetting that once we thought the world was flat and that the Sun revolved around the Earth.

Human arrogance, more like.

Question everything, redefine everything. Do not accept what you have been told, unlearn what you have learned. It is flawed to its core – only human after all.

Traitor: A Philosophical Journey

An examination/review of the New Jedi Order: Traitor novel, with a focus on its philosophical underpinnings, its literary devices and the author’s other works. I plan to return to many of the themes explored here in future essays as part of my Creative Writing BA.

As the thirteen novel of nineteen in a long story arc set within the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Traitor can be both enjoyed as a stand-alone novel and as a pivotal moment within the New Jedi Order series as a whole. The reason for this is two-fold: first, it is devoid of the majority of main characters readers are familiar with, with a cast of only three characters from the rest of the series and a guest appearance from one minor character, and so new readers could settle into this with little prior knowledge of the universe; second, whilst this is the defining moment in one character’s story arc, it is a microcosm of the larger tale being told – that of the New Jedi Order’s philosophical progression as a whole from beginning to end.

Taking this idea then, the series as a whole can be viewed as Campbell’s classic Hero’s Journey through the development of Traitor’s central character, Jacen Solo, and his relationship with the New Jedi Order. As Jacen undergoes his metamorphosis, so too does the Order. At the onset of the series, the Order is fractured philosophically in its view of the Force, with two factions having emerged. Similarly, Jacen Solo is undergoing his own internal schism, often plagued through early novels in the series by inaction and doubt.

Having been captured by the series’ central antagonists – the fanatically religious Yuuzahn Vong, who cannot be sensed within the Force – after a suicide mission to destroy the enemy’s most lethal weapon and losing his younger brother in the fight, Jacen undergoes mental and physical torture. Leading the Solo Project, the plan to turn this Jedi hero to the True Way of the Yuuzahn Vong, is the enigmatic Vergere – a former Jedi herself – and Nom Anor, an agent provocateur and master manipulator.

In Vergere, Matthew Stover provides Jacen with a Socratic mentor, who challenges Jacen to learn for himself through the use of paradoxical questions and rhetoric – “If the Force is life, how can there be life without the Force?” Vergere represents a myriad of views regarding the Force, having been self-exiled to live with the enemy for fifty years and developed her own personal philosophy. At times it has been compared to that of the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, and yet there are even teachings of the Jedi Master Yoda. In attempting to get Jacen Solo to see his own truth, to reach his own understanding, Vergere strips him of everything that makes him who he is – she takes away his ability to sense and use the Force. Her message is clear, Jacen Solo must – in the immortal words of Yoda – “… unlearn what, [he has] learned”.

Once he has been reduced to being simply Jacen Solo, human being, Vergere proceeds to impart lessons in epistemology – although she suggests that she would not presumed to do so to a Jedi, this is undeniably what she is doing, as her own logic would reveal. She tells Jacen a number of half-truths and lies to get him to think for himself, notably “Everything I tell you is a lie…” and “… you will find no truth in me…” If this is indeed the case then Vergere does presume to teach epistemology to Jacen, and yet this is only a half-truth; she says ‘Jedi’, and by her own actions she strips Jacen of the one thing that makes him a Jedi, thus giving truth to her words.

Jacen’s Hero’s Journey is one that progresses over the entire series and yet equally takes place within this one novel. Each of the main stages can be identified for his character and the whole New Jedi Order across the series, and for his character alone in Traitor. Within the pages of the novel we witness Jacen’s departure from the world of the living – having been stripped of the Force his family would presume him dead; we witness his initiation and faux conversion to the True Way – ironically he finds his own ‘true way’; and finally we witness his return to the living and his eventual escape from his captors. By the end of the novel, Stover brings us full circle. In the Socratic vein, Verger repeatedly poses the question throughout the novel, “Is it what the teacher teaches… or what the student learns?” Alone together on a ship bound for safety from the Yuuzahn Vong in the final pages, Jacen imparts some of his own new-found wisdom to his mentor, and Vergere is delighted:

 

“Jacen, I am so proud of you,” she whispered. “This is the greatest moment in a teacher’s life: when she is surpassed by her student.”

Jacen found himself blinking back tears of his own. “So is that what you are, finally? My teacher?”

“And your student, for the two are one.”

 

With regards to Stover, Campbell’s monomyth and philosophy, it is worth mentioning that Stover also wrote the novelisation of 2005’s Revenge of the Sith. This itself is another part of a Hero’s Journey – that of Anakin Skywalker, Jacen Solo’s grandfather – and it is also a tragedy in the classic sense. Ironically, Jacen’s path eventually leads him toward darkness as his grandfather before him, and so they both share the Hero’s Journey and the tragic end. The beauty of Stover’s prose in Revenge of the Sith is his ability to shift narrative points of view to get inside the mind of his characters; Stover’s understanding of the human psyche and philosophy is striking in all aspects of his work, including his own original Acts of Cain series, which provide social commentary on issues such as violence in video games, global resource usage, police states, caste systems, destiny, guerrilla warfare and references to the Israel-Palestine conflict.