Thank you for a Wonderful Ride: Why I’m Still Not Taking Yes For an Answer

Writing has been incredibly kind to me, given me more than I could ever imagine, most notably of all a host of wonderful friends. And self-publishing has been a trailblazing blistering white knuckle ride, glorious and gobby and uncomfortable and frustrating and infuriating and delicious. But it’s time to move on. From the self-publishing writing world. Not, I hope, from the friends.

In 2006, I started writing a novel. By the start of 2008, with a  thriller under my belt and a passionate desire to write something that pushed both my own creative abilities and readers’ minds, I set myself a goal – flabby and ill-formed but a goal nonetheless. Five years to see if I had what it takes. I had no idea what that might mean though I wondered if it might mean winning a Booker Prize, because I’d followed the literary world all my life and that seemed like the Big One.

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It was a typical kind of a goal for me to set myself. My life’s signature has been the “extreme, time-limited flit” to coin a rather ugly but very explanatory phase. Put in more regular terms, I find something I love, launch into it with absolute single-mindedness, and see exactly what I can achieve. I always over-aim. I always want to be not my best, but the best there is. I’m not hugely competitive in daily life. Not competitive at all, really, but I’m hugely ambitious when it comes to my hobbies. I think it’s for the simple reason that I enjoy myself more when I am pushing up against, and beyond, the limiter. My first such obsession was bridge. At school it was a mild obsession. By university I was up till 4 or 5 every morning practising with anyone who was interested. I managed to spend 2 or 3 years in the Great Britain juniors. Close, but not the very best.

After that, in my mid 20s, I migrated, still in the mental sphere, to mind sports. The Mind Sports Olympiad was just getting underway. The first year it was held, I went along for a laugh, and picked up a bronze medal in the World Creative Thinking Championships. I ended up winning the World Intelligence Championships and becoming the first ever “grandmaster” of intelligence. But that wasn’t the strongest year for the event, and unlike its sibling the World Memory Championships, it is no longer staged.

By my late 20s, I launched into my first physical obsession, strength sports. I ended up competing for my university’s athletics team. Good. But not exceptional.

It was in my mid 30s that writing, which had always been there in my life, from the love of literature instilled by my mother at the earliest age, through a teenage obsession with film and endless iterations of terrible goth poetry.

 

image copyright Sarah E Melville

 

Which is where we come back in. I soon realised that, having discovered thrillers were, in my case, for reading not for writing, the things I wanted to write weren’t the kind of thing publishers wanted to publish. And so, in late 2008 and early 2009, I got together a wonderful group of writers who felt the same thing, drawn from the darkest corners of the internet (well, from Harper Collins’ website Authonomy), and we set up Year Zero Writers, a collective intended to promote self-publishing writers who refused to compromise art for commerce.

At the time, self-publishing was far from fashionable, and it was relatively easy for a very vociferous, extremely dedicated group to cause quite a stir. We ended up in the unlikeliest of places like Nylon magazine, and eventually found ourselves performing live shows blending words and music at venues like Rough Trade and the Poetry Café.

 

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It was a really exciting time to be a self-publisher, and we had incredible adventures. But all the time the self-publishing world was changing. It was becoming acceptable. It was becoming commercial. The place allotted to a bunch of misfits who wanted to smash down the walls and accost the world with their misfittery was shrinking.

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I found myself struggling to stay on the outside. For every intimate, transgressive piece I wrote, every hand held out in the darkness to my fellow outsiders, there was a talk at a major publishing event or a piece in the Guardian or something that tried to mainstream me, to manipulate my content ever so slightly and make it just a little more palatable. I moved sideways, seeking out the wonderful outsider community of performance poets, started my own show, The New Libertines, and took it on tour to some incredible places, but acceptability seemed to follow me like a stalker.

 

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By 2012 I was spending more time writing blog posts about things that had as much edge as a buckie ball than I was writing anything that pushed me beyond my limits. What I loved was meeting wonderful writers, making incredible friends, and finding and championing some breathtaking work. But my own writing had stalled. And by 2013 it was clear my life as a slam poet was going nowhere fast.

 

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I gave it one last roll of the dice and produced a book I still don’t quite know how I wrote, the single thing I have achieved creatively of which I am proudest. Evie and Guy is a novel written entirely in numbers. It is an attempt to question the way we construct narrative at its most basic level. It is intended to make us question the way we represent our own lives to ourselves. I will always be deeply proud of it. Many of the reactions I’ve had  have been truly moving, and that feels incredible. But Evie and Guy feels increasingly like a horizon moment. The culmination of my journey to the end of the rainbow. There are many places fiction can go from there. But I’m not the person who can take it there. I have reached my limits for the time being – I’m a good writer, possibly a very good writer, but the world has plenty enough of those and certainly doesn’t need another – though who knows what the distant future will bring.

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I have also started to experience an increasing sense that I have been getting “comfortable” in the literary world. And, as anyone who has read my piece Never Take Yes For an Answer will know, nothing makes me as uncomfortable as getting comfortable. The final catalyst was being offered a consultancy by a self-publishing service provider. I am sure it would have been a wonderful opportunity, but I found myself seriously thinking about saying yes. And that pulled me up short. That is not the kind of comfortable opportunity that sits well with me. If I had become the kind of person who thought about saying yes to something that was so clearly saying yes to me, it was time to move on.

The thing with everything I’ve launched myself headlong into is that each of those pursuits has tapped into something that’s always been there in my life, simmering, waiting to explode. I’ve never had the sense that I wanted to be a particular thing in life, like a surgeon or a lawyer or an athlete. Just the sense that I wanted to push myself, that moving, straining, learning, excelling, discovering where the limits lay was the way I had to do everything. And each of the things I’ve tilted after in this fashion has stayed with me, left deep trackmarks of passion in my veins.

I wouldn’t be without any of them. And that in itself is the fatal flaw of the “too many aptitudes” character as Hank Pfeffer calls it in his wonderful article Danger: High Voltage (read it, I know so many of you for whom it will, as it did with me, create an “aha!” moment). I get really good at something really quickly. But I will never have the focus to get truly exceptional at any one thing. There are too many other things I’m itching to push at for that. Which is unfortunate, because I am also driven by a deep sense of competitiveness. I don’t really want to be “good” at something. If I take something on I don’t want to do it well. I don’t want to do it exceptionally well, and I don’t even want to do my best. I want to be the best there is. Of course, it’s a target one will never reach, but it stretches you to places you would never otherwise go, and it is that stretching that turns out to be the most important part of all. The journey is always, it seems, more important than the goal. A journey that has some very simple characteristics – the sense that you are always stepping foot in uncharted territory; the sense that you are about to blow yourself apart through effort and come out the other side as something transformed; and the feeling that you are always an outsider, that being accepted, that having a “home” in a traditional milieu would be the most horrifying thing of all, that “being on the outside, straining to escape even further” is my true home, that whenever acceptance comes in any form the shocked but appropriate response is to decentre, to run for the hills.

In my case, I am literally running for the hills. The final factor in my decision to withdraw from the writing world began last summer when I went for my “40-plus” health check. Despite being mammothly (adjective used advisedly) overweight and having a family history of heart disease and a long personal history of asthma, remarkably every single test came back clear. “So I can exercise?” I asked, without really thinking why I was asking. “Yes,” said my doctor. “Is there any exercise I can’t do?” “No,” she said. “Not even extreme stuff?” (which I qualified by adding “I should warn you that what I mean when I say extreme probably isn’t what other people mean.”) “No.” No “except”s, no qualifications. A clean bill and carte blanche.

That night I set myself a challenge. Not “get fit” or “be healthy” though those would be the by-products. I was going to do an indoor row. 100 miles. In one day. That was over a year ago, and I’m now just a week or so away – you can find out more about it and the wonderful Apopo, the charity I’m doing it for, here.

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The truth is I felt like I’d been given my life back. I’d always assumed I was a ticking cardiovascular time bomb. I wasn’t going to throw away all the opportunities that had just opened up in the discovery that I wasn’t. So that, and the knowledge that at 42 I am still young enough but won’t be forever, was the final step that has pushed me into endurance exercise. In the year since I made that decision I have already met some incredible people, mainly writers who also push their physical boundaries, I’ve read a vast amount on the subject, and I’ve rowed a lot of miles. A LOT. And I’ve fallen in love with another journey, pushing my mind and my body to places I would never have dreamed it was capable. I want to follow that path as far as I can while I am still physically able. My target, to run the Badwater 135 – 135 miles. Non-stop. Through Death Valley. In the hottest part of summer (though very recent health and safety events are casting a shadow over the event’s future). The aim is to achieve this before I’m 50. And I’m going back to mind sports, setting myself a similar kind of endurance target of competing at the world memory championships and mental calculation world cup in 2016.

Will I still write? Of course. I may even submit something – shudder – to a publisher one day, and I look forward to blogging about my new directions – writing and presenting non-fiction is one of my true passions. I will never lose my love of literature and I will never lose my longing to provide a hand held out in the darkest, loneliest part of the night to my fellow outsiders. I hope at least some of my books, such as Songs from the Other Side of the Wall or (life) razorblades included will continue to do that, and maybe my continuing journey will also be able to. I also want to devote myself properly to essay writing, developing the love of creative and critical commentary I’ve touched the edges of in blogging and journalism, and build on my teaching and speaking experience by doing some coaching and talking on decentring, the art of thinking and acting as an outsider.

I certainly hope to remain friends with the hundreds of wonderful people I’ve met through writing. And of course you may still buy my books. I hope you do, I’m extremely proud of them. It is with regret that I will be saying goodbye to the other parts of my writing life – reviewing, championing, beta reading, blogging, writing columns, first and foremost self-publishing new books – though the regret is more sadness that I wish I could do more for the wonderful writers out there than regret at a choice badly made. My ambitions for my writing changed somewhat along the way. What I really wanted, by the end, was to make a difference, if only to one person’s life. To let someone feel they weren’t alone through my words. I don’t know if I had the skills to achieve that, but I gave it my best shot.

I very much hope some of you will come with me on my new journey, that others will continue to discover my books, that others still will read the exploits of a crazy man and set out on their own journeys. It would be impossible to thank everyone here by name who has helped me on this remarkable literary adventure, and if I try I will leave out people who should be there, which would be unforgivable. But thank you all. Making literally hundreds of wonderful writer friends has been the most remarkable thing of all. I hope many of you will carry on being friends with me now I’m on civvy street.

A final piece of advice to the literary media, if anyone is listening – it is your duty to seek out the strange and unexpected, the unheralded and unknown, to overground the underground, and to champion what everyone else hates, and to do so because you love it and shrug off the ridicule. Please stop letting your readers down.

And to writers, and everyone else, I’ll leave you with what continue to be my mottos:

- As writers, it is often our duty to speak when with our every fibre we long to hold our peace, but as human beings, it is often our duty to listen when with our every fibre we long to have our say.

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- it is better to try to be extraordinary and fail than to try to be ordinary and succeed.

- never be afraid to draw a line and move on. People will tell you over and over “keep going, you’ll get there.” But most of us won’t. If the goal isn’t going to happen and the journey has stopped being a joy, sometimes the answer is to start another journey before it’s too late.

 

 

Cured Meat

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Last time, I argued that A Girl is a Half-formed Thing had thrown down a challenge that self-publishing would find it hard to meet. Little did I know when I posted that and faced the inevitable barrage on Facebook that within a few days I would read a book whose raw lyrical genius made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Cured Meat is the best book I’ve read this year. A dark urban semi-autobiographical retelling of The Odyssey it is one of those books that celebrates the glorious triumph of the human spirit on even the darkest of journeys. I cannot implore you enough – buy this book. Please. A perfect companion to Tony O’Neill’s Digging the Vein, Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys and the very finest films of Derek Jarman, this is what self-publishing should be – brave, beautiful, lyrical, edgy, daring, with an emotional punch that will leave you breathless. But first, let’s meet its brilliant author, Polly Trope.

Polly Trope. I get the Odysseus reference. But I’m also thinking of Poly Styrene and The Slits…

Polly Trope and you get the reference : congratulations, you’re only the second to notice. I think i was too geeky for my own good when I thought everyone would get it. But people have had a variety of wonderful and exhilarating reactions to the name, associations I never even thought of, such as polymers, and TV tropes.

2) The Odyssey is a story that still has an intoxicating appeal. Why do you think that is?

 Why does the Odyssey continue to appeal and delight — I think that is the question every classicist is secretly pondering. If you take a step back and think about books, literature, and possible plot lines, the Odyssey represents an archetypal kind of narrative that traces the return home from a faraway place, so it taps into nostalgia and a desire to go back to the past, but, like a surreal road movie, it features many monsters and snares along the way; it features magic, myth, monsters, gods and humans and it’s nautical tale, too, and ships, shipwrecks and the winds and the sea as imagery speak to almost everybody in some way. Also there is an element of the explorer’s bravado and a sense of adventure in this great tale of the great unknown that lies beyond the familiar ports, and the unknown is obviously a fascination– especially with the frisson of supernatural creatures, the high risks and narrow escapes.

3)  More specifically, how does the notion of home, wandering, rootedness and rootlessness resonate with you. You have moved about a huge amount in your life – at what stage did you feel as though you were lost and looking for home, and do you ever think you will feel that you have come home? 

it sounds cheesy but I think home is where the heart is. My heart is with the people I love.Already as a child, I grew up moving house and country a lot and I spoke three languages from the beginning. This has probably made me a very good linguist, but I never developed a strong feeling of belonging anywhere. It bugged me when I was a child coming into my teens, because I felt rejected for other reasons, too. But in the meantime, I’ve found people and activities to make me very happy indeed. Whilst I’ve acquired the ability to make myself at home in many different places, I am still wondering if there is somewhere really “right for me”, so to speak. I have high hopes for New Orleans, maybe, but I’ve never even been there.

4)  You have written very candidly about how your addiction began through your experience of mental health and the medication thereof. It’s a hugely divisive subject – sometimes it feels like a battle for control over someone’s body. How do you feel in general about the way we handle mental health and medication as a society? 

I feel awful about the way we as a society handle mental health and medication. But that “we” is really quite a broken down and splintered we, I’d say. I think, in society now there is simply less and less room for individuals to voice their inner feelings and, sometimes, inner desperation or anger, even though the desperation or anger might in many cases be quite legitimate. I think everyone nowadays is a bit stressed, and only very few people expend the time to take notice of their friends/relatives’ mental wellbeing or illness. And also, I notice many individuals are not listening to the early signs their own body and mind give them — they let themselves get over-tired, they over-do drink or drugs, or let bad relationships or bad situations of other kinds go on for too long. Ultimately I think this is how many people end up going crazy. I don’t think it’s very much to do with genes. maybe 5% is genes, the rest i would say is bad nurture. Because nobody really knows how to handle it, it gets sent to this obscure place, the shrink’s, where nobody really wants to look or see. I think that’s bloody lame. I think if an individual has a problem and goes psychotic, everyone who is in the surroundings of this individual and his circles and network, has a problem too. it’s just the one that’s pulling down the dirty curtains, but it’s not fair to say that’s the only person with a problem.

5) In fact, much of your story feels like a battle for control of your body. Does that resonate at all with how you feel, looking back, and do you feel now that you have reached a position where you have taken back control completely? 

a battle for control of my body — neat, I never thought of it that way. It is a battle of some sort. But I don’t know what for. For unsticking myself from society and its inane prejudices, and at the same time, to create something beautiful from the pain that could, in turn, be appreciated and understood. No, I’ve not taken control back completely, but I think people who do that die trying. Still, I try

6) Your storytelling technique is fragmentary. You say that you would like Cured Meat to be able to be read in any order. In a way this reminded me of David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide. Do you think the literary establishment is too hung up on narrative, linearity, and the need for things to flow in a recognisable arc?

 The literary establishment… Hmm. I don’t know. It probably is rather hung up, yes. The whole mainstream media — music, television, corporate youtube channels, bestselling books — is a major bore to me. But some writers succeed admirably within the given parameters. I’m an avid reader of the London Review of Books, the Irish Literary Times, New Yorker, the TLS, and things like that. And I love Hilary Mantel, just to name just one example. Still, I think I come from a different place in my mind and in my artistic wishes. Unlike some, I’m not intent on being popular as much as I want to give myself a sense of achievement according to my own standards. I wanted to write this book and do with it exactly what I wanted. I wasn’t afraid of failure. I would have tried again if this had not worked.

7) Which brings me in an, erm, arc back to the Odyssey, which is linear but also structured episodically, and compiled from many voices. I wonder if that’s also something that resonates with you, and how you feel in regard to Cured Meat. By that I mean, there is a sense in which it is both a collection of diverse voices telling different stories, and also something that has been compiled by a single redactor with a very singular purpose. Do you think of yourself more as a series of diverse narrators or as a single unifying editor? 

You got me! 100% . I love hearing other people tell stories from their lives. I love stories and words and my vivid imagination makes a gigantic technicolor fiesta out of a simple story told at the dinner table. Later, I write. Without my knowing or sometimes with my full knowledge, everything finds its ways into my creative processes. I work with poetic imagery a lot, much more than I can see/do in visual art. I think with writing, I’ve really found my medium, and I use it for my own life, for the lives of others, for a blur between the two…

8) Finally, the literary world needs more… And it needs less…

 the literary world needs more awareness that the reading habits of people are changing. And it needs less guys with a beard smoking a pipe.

Finally, a single book has changed the self-publishing debate

There are many reasons why the success of Eimar McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is wonderful news. It is a brilliant book. Quite possibly the best book to win a major literary prize in a decade or more. It will inevitably mean other publishers raise their eyebrows, and have a little “hmm, let’s have a think about that moment.”

But what interests me most is that it has changed, in a single, scalpel-sharp focused scything swoop, the discourse around self-publishing.

Many of us have long argued that self-publishing is of greatest value to readers because it offers daring, original, undefinable fiction they could not get elsewhere. We have pointed to the conservative tendencies of traditional publishers, the dropping of the midlist, the impossibility of getting the awkward and experimental even seen. By contrast self-publishing is an unfettered land of artistic freedom, burgeoning with a billion blossoms of brilliance.

Of late, many of us have had our original enthusiasm somewhat dampened by the incessant droning on on the one hand in the media about self-publishing’s bestselling icons and genre fiction superstars, leaving large parts of the landscape uncharted, and on the other hand by self-publishers themselves pleading that their books are “as good as those in the mainstream” as though the prospect of being as good as something already overly-abundant was somehow an irresistible, intoxicating prospect.

Where, we have cried out, is the art? Where is the recognition of the difficult, the experimental, and the groundbreaking? Increasingly I have felt that actually these things are more to be found in small presses and not in self-publishing.

What A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing has done is to throw down the gauntlet. “Publishers don’t publish…” is patently not true. What we need to show now is that “self-publishing does produce…” IS true. The new venture between the Guardian and Legend Press to find a self-published book of the month is a brilliant opportunity to do just this.

But it’s not just an opportunity. It’s an imperative. This is a competition that Legend’s Tom Chalmers, an indefatigable campaigner for self-publishing quality, has set up specifically to redress the balance of self-publishing coverage towards quality. He states:

“My concern is not that quality doesn’t exist, but that there’s no mechanism for it to surface; that a hugely talented writer without self-marketing skills could be missed in the sales clatter.

And it was with this in mind that we set up the Self-published book of the month”

That’s a wonderful objective. But it HAS to deliver. And it has to deliver not just books that are as good as those in the mainstream. If self-publishing is to continue to make the case that it is the true home of the daring and the experimental, then this prize has to deliver a book that can sit alongside A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. If it does not, then we have to have a post mortem that will conclude either “shame on the judges” or “shame on the writers”. But whichever we decide, it will be shame on someone.

So I make three pleas.

- Writers, please submit your boldest and most daring work.

- Tom, please make the rules more flexible in terms of the length of work to avoid missing things.

and most crucial of all

- judges and readers, please do your duty and foreground not the excellent and the polished, not the “good enough to be published” and the accomplished, but the daring and the sui generis and the flawed but brilliant.

Only if all of these converge can self-publishing hope to continue its claim to be the true home of creative originality.

 

Reading Out, Reaching Out: Notes from London Author Fair

Last Friday, I was privileged to be asked to give a workshop at the inaugural London Author Fair. Reflections on what was a fascinating event organised by the lovely people at Authoright will follow, though as a preliminary the highlight of these events for me is always the people – you can see three below it was a pleasure to catch up with, the brilliant authors (l-r) Alice Furse, Jane Davis, and Rohan Quine.

alice, jane, rohanThat said, it was genuinely inspiring to spend time hanging out with the people from Blurb, a company who make the kind of books I love and whose ethos fills me with passion.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to make my powerpoint slides and notes from my workshop, focusing on the ways all writers can learn from what poets do well,  available. The two main sections are on the increasingly important skill of how to read/perform your work, and how to expand both your creativity and your fanbase by working with people in other branches of the arts.

for notes from the workshop click here

for Powerpoint slides click here

 

Solidarity

In preparation for my 100 mile indoor row this coming September, I have been finding it hard to locate really good articles on training for and rowing on the day such long distances. So I’ve been reading a lot about training for ultramarathons, the 50, 100, and more mile on-foot equivalents. It was on one such internet trawl that I came across a piece called 10 Reasons Not to Run an Ultramarathon. I idly clicked through to the website of the piece’s author, Kristyn Bacon. There, I discovered that she had been a prize winner for the 2013 FEM Flash flash fiction contest. Looking a little around that website, I discovered that two of the judges were none other than the wonderful Kirsty Logan (author of the soon to take the world by storm The Rental Heart) and Jane Bradley, brains behind For Books’ Sake, officially the best thing on the web. Being a firm believer in the force of serendipity, this seemed like too good a chance to miss, so I specuilatively wrote to Kristyn to see if she might be prepared to contribute her thoughts as an award-winning flash fictioner and ultra marathon runner and produce a piece for what’s turning into a really rather wonderful series on creativity and extreme sports. To my delight, she said yes.

Solidarity

I thought for days about it and the greatest similarity that I see between creativity and endurance sports is the solidarity.  An ultra cannot be run by a team.  A crew is undoubtedly a great asset, but your crew isn’t going to finish your race.  Your crew isn’t going to chase away the ghosts, or give you extra strength in the last dark miles.  You are.  It’s the same in the arts; a team of people won’t paint a masterpiece together.  A team of people didn’t write War and Peace.  It was the artist left alone with their mind that created it.  It’s the ultra runner let out onto the trails that made the race.

 Andes(in the Peruvian Andes)

There’s a forest by my apartment.  It’s absolutely beautiful and huge and hilly.  The first time I went there, I was amazed at how many trails there were and it immediately became my favorite place to train.  Around the fifth time I went there, I saw the boars.  I was alone standing at the base of a steep hill when I heard a great noise behind me.  I turned just in time to see a herd of wild boars sprinting through the hills about twenty meters away.  It was incredible how fast and powerful there were.  It was incredible the noise they made.  They pushed through the trees, they stamped the dirt below them, they stayed together, and they were gone.  I stared after them, completely surprised.  I stared on until I couldn’t hear them anymore and doubted that I had even seen them, and then I ran the hill.  It was a breathless way to start the run.  After that, when I thought about the forest I thought of power, and unity.

A few runs later, I took a friend out to train with me.  I was excited to show her the trails and the route I had found.  I was excited to show her the hills and the narrow paths, and maybe to show her the boars.  The first thing she told me when we stepped onto the trail was, “This must be a really lonely place to run.  I’d be afraid to come here alone.”  That’s all it took!  It became my ghost.  Every time I left my house to go to this trail I thought, this is going to be so lonely.  I didn’t think about the boars and their power, I thought, this is going to be dark and lonely.  It’s embarrassing to admit, but I was hesitant in the mornings, putting on my shoes, when I knew that I’d go to this trail.  I went there less and less.  I couldn’t believe how little it took to change the tone of my run.  I couldn’t believe how empty the trails had become.  I couldn’t believe how quiet they were.

In the winter it snowed and I met the boars again.  I found their tracks in the snow, crossing the trails and continuing on into the low branches in either direction.  There were dirty, crowded hoofprints stomped into the ground, running a trail only six inches wide.  A line of grey disrupting the snow.  I saw the trails they made stretching across flat fields and I saw them tilting down steep passes, and then I saw the boars charging.  I saw the power of the group and the power of the run.  I stopped to watch and saw that, across the hill, another runner had stopped too.  Neither of us had fear, but we had enough respect to stand far out of their way.  When they were gone, we kept running our separate ways.  I thought about my races, thought of all the runs I had done alone.  I thought of the solidarity of the endurance runner and the quiet fight between herself and the trail, and I thought it wasn’t bad.  Running alone on empty trails isn’t lonely because I know there are other runners out with me.  I know in the middle of the night and in the middle of the race, as long as I keep running I’ll meet another headlamp, or I’ll see them bobbing beneath the dark trees.  If not, I’ll meet the boars.

 Ultra(Kristyn after her second ultra)

Like running, creativity is something best pursued individually.  If you put an artist alone in a room, you’ll get something back.  If you put an artist in a group you’ll get something different.  Artists perform and create for themselves and they find the inspiration on their own.  They each approach the creative process differently and they express themselves individually, as it is with endurance sports.  The race means something different to every runner and they perform in their own way.  Much like with works of art, when the ultra runners finish, no one else but themselves can fairly judge the race.  I love the solidarity of writing, writing with the door closed and writing at night when people are asleep.  I love the solidarity of running.  More doors are opened, I think.  More distances are possible, more mountains are scaled, when no one is there to tell you it’s far or it’s difficult or it’s not modern art.  Solidarity.  In the race and on the paper, solidarity sustains us.

In regards to Flash Fiction: sometimes it’s nice to sprint.

Also in this series

Opening Doors Inwards and Going Outside: Writing vs Parkour by Lisa Scullard

Surfing is Us by Jonny Gibbings

What I Think About When I Think About Rowing by Dan Holloway

VIDA Count

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So this year’s VIDA stats are nearly out. For those who don’t know, VIDA do the brilliant job of naming and shaming the culprits for the underrepresentation of women writers in the world’s big literary magazines by listing the percentages of reviews about, and by, women writers.

VIDA’s Jessica Reidy asked me on twitter to do my own VIDA count for this blog. It’s a truly excellent excerise. Everyone who blogs about books should try it, because it really makes you think. In fact, it made me think all the more because it’s only in the past couple of months that I’ve been doing much in the way of interviews and features on individual writers here – which means for 2014 there should be more readily minable data, but the information may be less revealing.

Because there was so little in the way of “this is obviously a review/interview” (there are, in fact, just two interviews – both with women, Joanna Penn and She Drew The Gun), I was left with more oblique things – references, recommendations, cited influences. In a way this felt more telling than simply looking at long features. Because it says more about my subconscious biases. Or maybe that just says something different. When I choose to review or feature something, I am making a very conscious choice – this is a writer who needs to be seen, heard, read. I weigh up a lot of factors of which their brilliance as a writer is a prerequisite but never the only one – the primary secondary consideration (as it were) I use is always “how likely are my readers to come across this writer elsewhere?” because, for many reasons, redressing balance, giving readers a truthful representation and, possibly most of all, giving would be writers the message that people like them can and do write books, brilliant books, is vitally important. It’s the same when it comes to selecting performers for my live show, The New Libertines.

But when it comes to references, recommendations, lists of influences and favourites, we (or I do, anyway) tend to think much less. I rattle things off and, as a result, these mentions are much more indicative of any unconscious bias in my reading behaviour. What I foundwas fascinating, and has given me real pause for thought. References to writers and artists on my blog’s 38 posts last year come in as follows – 39 women to 36 men (counting each person once for each post they occur in, even if that means double counting some, as that gives a better flavour of the overall terrain). That number surprised me. A lot. It is a lot closer to even than I would have expected. And that means I have a lot of thinking to do. Both about my actual, underlying tendency to bias my reading in one direction or another and ignore or dismiss writers unconsciously, and my tendency to reflect that in my blog, ignoring my duty to my readers and the arts community. What makes this exercise so valuable isthat it highlights our unconscious biases, and once it has done that they can never be unconscious again. Unconscious bias is still bias, and it is essential that it be corrected. But once that bias becomes conscious, we have the most important tool to make that correction.

It’s worth looking at how I make references. Perhaps a key article to serve as an excemplar is a piece I wrote not for here but the Guardian “Why Tao Lin’s Taipei can breathe new life into literature.” Leaving aside the mentions of Duffy and Lacan, this is an article that references five wrters, two men (Tao Lin and Brett Easton Ellis) and three women (Daniela Barraza-Rios, Penny Goring, and Paige Gresty). The point of the article was specifically to say that Lin himself isn’t very interesting despite the attention he gets but the three women mentioned really really are. Tick in my favour? Well, it doesn’t feel like it. Because it’s Tao Lin’s name at the top of the page. My one hand reassures me I wouldn’t have got the chance to highlight three amazing authors without using Lin as my in. My other hand tells me I shouldn’t allow myself to be part of a system that requires me to headline men in order to reference women. Where does the balance settle? I don’t know. I do know that looking back over that article made me feel more than slightly dirty in a way it shouldn’t have done (in a way my straightforward showcase of self-publishing excellence doesn’t). It raises questions that I can’t answer. But they’re important questions to be raised. One answer seems clear – I should write a follow up piece. After all, Penny Goring has a brilliant book out. It should be talked about. Let’s see if The Guardian will publish it without Tao Lin in teh title

Take home lessons for all bloggers? Simple. Do this exercise. Be honest when you do it. And be honest with yourself about the results. That way next year’s figures will be better.

First Person: The Hero, The Confession, and Dethroning the Divine

The hero has been a central cultural figure for millennia. Originally half human, half divine this paradigm has gone on to infuse both the deeply pagan tradition of Wolfram von Eschenbach and later Romanticism, and the transusbtantiating harmonies of Baroque perfectionism. Arguably the most overused word in the past 100 words, which I will henceforth avoid, “icon”, has its origins in the same blending of nature and supernature, in the human representation of a divine reality.

It is a tradition in which successive mythmakers have tinged their portrayal of humanity with the divine so that each audience member is enticed, through identification with the particular humanity so represented, to imagine themselves partaking in the divine. As such it is a highly problematic tradition, its emphasis on particular portrayals of the human as a means to access the divine creating exclusions that artists such as Chris Ofili have sought to redress by substituting different humans in the place of exclusionary paradigms. Even those manifestations of this tradition in which a particular human point of entry is absent, such as Tracey Emin’s My Bed or Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, rely on a carefully constructed nexus of cultural references to open the door to the garden of wonders that is the divine secret behind the base facade.

My thesis here is that it is not the particularity of this tradition that is problematic, but the use of those particulars to glimpse something more universal. Importantly, the problematicity remains even when the complicity in this hero tradition is unconscious, when it consists in partaking of a set of common references inexplicably associated with the promise of transcendence. I want to trace the hero-paradigm through some of its more obvious recent manifestations and look at the problems but also the possibilities that recognising its all-pervasiveness offers us as writers.

friedrichCaspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, painted at the height of the Romantic era, is one of the most instantly recognisable images of the modern age, and its iconography is instantly recognisable in everything from the hero-shots of urban exploration to the covers of a thousand lone-hero action novels. The brooding centrality of a figure whose face remains obscure openly invites the reader to insert themselves into the picture, to rise above their physicality and bestride all they survey upon a supernatural superhighway (reminiscent, as if we needed reminding of the link back to the courtly tradition, of Uther riding the dragon’s breath in John Boorman’s version of the Arthurian legend, Excalibur), the reality of the world below them becoming dreamlike as their dreams of superhumanity take the form of reality. This creation of a space that is at once blank, inviting us to fill it, and privileged, inviting us to consider ourselves above and beyond the “normal” or “the everyday” is Friedrich’s legacy to to modern culture. It is a legacy that appears to prefigure the death of the author and the absolute empowerment of the reader, but in fact the cult of individualism of which it forms part is a facade behind which the creator mythmaker reinserts themselves through the willing participation of their audience. Rather than individuals imagining themselves as emperors and empresses of their own preternatural empires, it is the artist who, like a Cyberman guard, strips the audience of their individuality before injecting them into a worldview of the artist’s creation. In doing so, in teasing the striving, questing, individual tendency form out the comlpex knot of our humanity, teh artist – willingly or unwillingly – severs us from our humanity and makes us an isolated pawn in their world.

In literature, the formal manifestation of this tradition (as opposed to the Romantic content of Goethe and Chretienne) is to be found in the first person narrative. Perhaps most interestingly, it is to be found in the most distinctive first person narratives, those that strive for particularity, those that seek to carve out a unique and distinctive voice. It is the attractive difference to be found in these unique voices and the worlds they inhabit, the portrayal of the different as exotic, combined with a first person narrative that allows the reader to elide their inner voice with the narrator’s own, that constitutes the allure of first person worlds from Naked Lunch to American Psycho. Behind these narrators is not a comfortable liminal narrative airlock awaiting the reader before propelling them into the sweetly fetid, unctuously exotic air of a world in which their hitherto trapped self takes glorious flight. Rather, too often there is the overwheening ego of an Ellis or a Burroughs, a Hemingway or Dali, with wing clippers at the ready before jettisoning willing prey into the oubliettes of their own imaginings.

PicassoGuernicaWhich brings me uncomfortably to my second image. I say uncomfortably because in the world of the twentieth century creator-mythmaker Pablo Picasso has few equals. With a bawdy machismo to rival Pollock, a chutzpah to rival Dali, and a self-chronicling streak to rival Hemngway, he imposed himself upon everything he came into contact with to the extent of almost bending a buibble of space out of shape around him as he walked. Yet, in Guernica, Picasso succeeded in creating a first person narrative in which the artist is utterly absent. With a grim prescience he perfectly captures the absence of God that Adorno would later describe in relation to the horrors of the Holocaust. By creating a reality so fractured we cannot possibly relate to it, he has made a tiny shard of the attrocity of the genuine fracturing of reality ice the hearts of everyone who witnesses it. Like the shattered mirror of Dionysus, this abnegation of the self-as-artist through the extreme exertion of the self-as-artist in simultaneous expression of subjectivity and oblation to subject matter, a tiny piece of something bigger – both subject matter and subjectivity – is lodged separately within each audience member, bringing them together in a genuinely shared moment of antiheroism, of self-emptying before the same reality that Friedrich sought to impose himself upon. When we experience Guernica, we become Picasso’s proxies not in the empire of his own imagination but in the moment of horror reflected in something beyond imagining. It is Picasso, not the audience, who vacates the scene, leaving his audience changed but themselves, connected to a reality from which they were previously separate.

RothkoContrast this with the twentieth century’s two great archetypes of absence, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol. I love Rothko. His work has had a transformative influence on my own. But I am under no illusions that the absence at the heart of his work is simply a non-figurative expression of Frierich’s Wanderer, the fuzzed outlines of his frames the mist above which the beckoning abyss imposes itself. Where Picasso’s ego hides a brilliant and genuine absence, Rothko’s stage-centre absence masks a gigantic injection of the self. As we feel our sense of self sucked out of us into the vacuum of these glassless and inviting windows, we fail in our headlong rush to notice that the void into which we are plummeting is one that is first, last, and in every way Rothko and teh Abstract Expressionist Dream he embodies.

wahol-campbell-soup-cansThe absence Warhol offers us is the absence that comes with ubiquity. No one, he tells us, is special in the world of the free market, because in such a world the poorest and most powerful each fill themselves with the same brand of packaged emptiness. OK, apologies, I have to use the word again, because whilst we think of Andy Warhol as the man who created icons in the everyday sense, he was actually, and disingenuously at odds with the consumer leveling he proclaimed, creating icons in the original Greek and subsequently Orthodox sense of bringing the divine down to earth and embedding it in the physical. By proclaiming that JFK and the man on the street both drank the same Coke, Andy was not offering his audience the reassurane that in the age of consumerism JFK truly was just one of us, a genuine primus inter pares. What he was offering them was the promise of a tangent, a point of contact however ephemeral, with their gods. If you eat Campbell’s Soup, the promise would be heard, you will create a moment you can share with Marilyn. Empty yourself by submitting to choice, and you can be like your idol (it is no coincidene, of course, that the Greek translation of Genesis’ assertion that God made humanity “in his image and likeness” uses the words eikon and eidolon), the idol served up to you as such by the parameters of consumerism as presented by Warhol himself.

Fast forward through Emin and Hirst, whose place on this spectrum should by now be clear – Hirst’s shark is a simple replacement for Friedrich’s Wanderer, for Rothko’s Void; Emin’s expression of the uniqueness of her suffering circumscribed by a double yoke of cultural references missing from Guernica – and you arrive at two fascinating contemporary works.

Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present is at once exquisitely quixotic and endlessly slippery. Its declarative, yet highly ambiguous, title (“the artist” – is that Abramovic or her audience, those who share the space with her; “present” – a gift, in residence, sharing space, a space from which she is otherwise absented, in which case isn’t it her absence elsewhere that her ephemeral presence here signifies?) aside, this is a quite brilliant work of momumental importance I still haven’t fully unpacked, and probably never will. Perhaps the best response is a series of disjointed thoughts. Abramovic clearly contextualises herself. To enter into the literal absence, the empty seat across the table from her, into which we are invited means placing ourselves into a time and place of her choosing not ours. Nonetheless, the clear physical and emotional effort of maintaining her presence throughout the course of the exhibition represents an act of exertion that is simultaneously expressive and oblative, expressive perhaps, of her desire to empty a piece of herself into each of her co-artists so that rather than build herself from their participation at their expense (though in cultural and reputational terms this is inevitable) she literally diminshes herself, allowing each audience member to leave with an enhanced sense of self-awareness and a shard of the artist that, taken together, form a commonality amongst audience members. That Abramovic’s pain remains given but unexpessed is a piece of artistic alchemy that seems at once to make her work confessional but egoless, inviting us to consider our own pain on our own terms, to fill the empty space not within a framework of her creation but within ourselves. This, it seems, captures something fundamentally important about being an artist.

Megan Boyle’s Live Blog is a work that makes me angry. In what is probably a good way and a testament to the fact it deserves its place here. Angry because even in the internet age it is unorignal (JenniCam predates it by 17 years), disngenuously conceived (Boyle promises to blog everything she does. Everything? Really? A fascinating idea to convert that to literature but that idea would manifest itself as “I am now typing the words ‘I am now typing'” and so on. Boyle promises everything and delivers her own framing of that without the admission), and overly hyped within some parts of Alt Lit who overplayed its originality greatly. Compared to Emin’s Everyone I Ever Slept With 1963-1995, which plays with a similar blend of confession and all-encompassingness, this feels very flimsy. But there remains an intractable feeling that it is important, in large part because this is the epitome of the practice of one group of internet practitioners who have a fascinating relationship between introspection and representation. Alt Lit’s subject is itself, and the subject of its practitioners is themselves. And that makes it a very transparent art form. Its foregrounding of the artist is never hidden. And yet the artist is always “in-relation-to” the audience. Even the art itself is mutable as it is added to and recontextualised by comments, image macros, and reblogs. What seems to be the epitome of the hero-tradition in whcih the audience enters the world as framed by the artist turns out to be more complicated. What we glimpse the other side of an artwork is never fixed, it is a world that is self-contained within the context of a community but subject to distortion by that community. The audience can displace not only the absence at the centre of the artwork but, much more radically, the parameters that frame the artwork so that the artist finds themselves pushing back against their audience. Neither party retains their subjectivity but neither surrenders it. Rather the process of contesting the ground for subjectivity becomes the art itself. We the audience are offered, in proportion to the artist’s vulnerability, an invittion to step inside the artist’s particularity which, through our stepping inside, becomes a shared particularity.

So, what does all this mean for first person narration in literature? Well, the first nagging thought I hope I’ve pricked into being is that we are part of something we may be unaware that we are part of. And, most important, our unawareness does not mitigate the effects of our participation in that something. When we write in the first person (and, of course, close third – but that’s another piece), we invite the reader in, we invite an identification, an insertion into the narrative. And the form that invitation takes will determine whether our work forms part of the disindividuating, imposing imperialism of the hero-tradition, or the strand of artistic self-emptying that leaves readers transformed versions of themselves, brought closer to and not further from both their own individuality and the other individuals who share their space. It is not enough for a writer to wash their hands of these matters and say they lie outside all that. No one, whatever they write, lies outside of literature’s discourses, and choosing to ignore them does not remove one’s work from them.

So, if we do care, and if we do want to give our readers their voice, to stand outside the subsumptions of the heroic paradigm, how are we to proceed? The key seems to me to lie in the paradox at the heart of The Artist is Present, Guernica, and to some extent Megan Boyle’s live blog. That paradox is to exert oneself to express oneself as an artist and yet at the same time offer oneself up completely to one’s subject matter. Where the hero-tradition fails is less in the specificity of its heroes (though there are massive issues of cultural appropriation that need addressing here) and more in the fact that they are offered to us as routes to something more, be that a glimpse of the divine, or simply the path to self-knowledge.

To oblate oneself before one’s subject matter seems to me to mean to forget everything but the subject matter. This need not mean setting out to create something deliberately jarring or alien, though the value in the discordant is that it reminds the reader that what they see is not intended to be familiar, or relatable, or FOR them, but is intended to be only itself. But it does mean forgetting the reader. It also means forgetting about the work’s meaning, beyond itself. And it means pouring oneself into that act of forgetting with absolute intensity, hiding nothing from oneself, not a single point on a hidden agenda of the ego. Which, of course, at once means investing one’s whole ego in te work, believing that yo and only you can tell this story, this story that is of infinite value precisely because it is for nothing other than itself.