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.

Remember to Forget

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You will remember Jonny Gibbings from his wonderful post here about the joys of surfing. But Jonny is much more than just a surfer. As well as being one of the nicest, most inspirational guys you could meeet, he is a fabulous author. His debut, pitch black comedy Malice in Blunderland, caused quite a stir. His new book, Remember to Forget, is very different, yet reflects the same passionate, emotionally charged, exuberance for life that infuses his writing wherever you find it. It’s a true pleasure to get to spend time with talking to him about his rocky road through social media, writing, his passion for animals, and generally shooting the breeze with one of contemporary culture’s few genuine heroes.

1. I first met you through your comments on the Guardian Books Blog – I was absolutely fascinated and somehow uplifted by your relentlessness and positivity. Care to say a little about that?

Well, with the Guardian, it amazed me how they kept taking themselves so seriously. They seemed to be like ants, following the same path to the same conclusions and same authors. What I have discovered and am trying to resist in myself is how when knowledge expands, perspective narrows. They didn’t seem to celebrate books, rather a narcissistic closed circle of certain writers. I know I’m late to words, both understanding them and writing them, but how can you not be excited by them? I’m like a kid who held his breath, but for near twenty years. Words encapsulate history, make you laugh, cry and simply say just ‘sorry’. With just a pen and paper you can create heroes, villains, worlds and make kids laugh at bedtime – what is not amazing about that?

2. In fact, you and social media in general…

Me and social media have a troubled past. Pretending to be the Prime minister on twitter and saying “Asprin won’t bring a dead hooker back to life” etc. Caused much hassles and a day in court. I have grown apathetic to it a bit of late. I love ow you can reach out and discover artists and writers, but it also annoys how so many use it like a megaphone rather than a telephone. I hate the term fans, fan page and all that shit. It’s why I’ve resisted a fan page, who am I kidding? I don’t have fans, I have people who have read my stuff and I like to know them, they are not anonymous and I have pseudo fame desires.

3. A lot of people are surprise by the change of tone in Remember to Forget – does that surprise you? I say that because, having read many of your blog posts, it doesn’t surprise me at all.

The reaction is a bit mental. Malice in Blunderland was written deliberately badly, with errors and such. I wanted it to feel like you had found the journal of a man in breakdown. Thing is, many thought the errors were real, even though there was a huge warning page. The thing that has amazed me is the reaction to the craft of the words used, the prose, as if they’d rather I remained a literary villain. The point though of Remember to Forget I guess is a prompt. I see so many chasing pots of gold that don’t exist. Those who have everything and don’t see it, and having come from nothing I still have a strong grasp on what is important. I know that me being home to read a made-up story to my kids every night will mean more to them than me not being there, and working to pay for a bigger house or a fancy car. Life is short.

4. Why do you think the media has such a problem with comedy?

It’s not that they have a problem with it, it’s just that it isn’t taken seriously… because it isn’t serious. Comedy is like Chinese food, it nourishes a need, but an hour later you are hungry again. Great emotional pieces stay with you. Laughter lightens moods and thus carries no weight. As for dark humour, we all like it, just that many pretend not to, So many times I’ve heard “Have you heard this joke? It’s in bad taste but…” whispered to each other.

5. What would you like to see done about it?

To be honest, I’m not bothered. I care little about recognition or what the industry thinks. I do have another comedy out at some point, probably around the time of the film, but as long as some laugh, it has fulfilled its job.

6. As you know, I’m passionate about my pets. Tell me about you and animals.

At the moment we have three dogs, having just lost one. We sponsor Boxer rescue and am active in the rescue, so one boxer. The profits form the film rights went to K9 angels, that rescues dogs from illegal meat markets in China, Thailand and Korea. We have one dog that wasn’t supposed to survive, so I called him ‘Food’, but fortunately he did, so we have a Thai dog, we also rescue dogs from Romania (street slaughter) so have a Romanian dog. We have an Arab horse, and five other horses we are fostering to re-home, and three guinea pigs I took from a home when rescuing a dog that were full of cigarette burns.

7. How would you like people to see you as a writer and as a human being?

I’m not sure. I don’t, if I’m honest care that much. I hope people like my work, and happy for the books to do the talking, but as for what they think of me as a writer? I think if that becomes important, you’ve lost the plot. As for a human being, I have a low expectation on humanity, from how I’ve been treated and how people treat animals, the work I do as a campaigner, vegan and animal rescuer isn’t for the media, or attention, it is because it is unjust to allow any suffering. I can’t believe I’d ever inspire anyone and I’m not trying to. The stuff I do for homeless charities is simply because I’ve been there and can help.

8. What I love about you is you are never afraid to bare your soul. I think there’s too much snobbery against the personal and the passionate. Love your thoughts on that.

Thank you!! I Couldn’t agree more. You have to be passionate, being reserved by its very definition means reservation, of what? What you think? Feel? It better not be about what you write, else why bother? I see little point in doing anything by halves. If you love some one, love them till it hurts. If you are going to commit something to paper then commit. Don’t fuck about thinking is it commercial, will I get a booker and bullshit like that. Passion lands, it’s felt. You want to hear passion and its power? I’ve seen my parter Sophie crying her heart out at boarder security. A van full of dogs rescued from kill shelters in Romania being sent back because of political reasons. They saw a little woman, who’d driven her own car from England, funded the van, crying her eyes out, yelling and screaming. She wouldn’t leave without those dogs. Something clicked, they felt her pain, her reason, it crawled under the read tape and touched them. Against orders, they let the van through. If something is wrong say it, else you are complicit. Passion is the by-product of reason, when people contest the Vegan thing I get, “The cows are humanely slaughtered” To which I reply, “That makes as much sense as kindly raped!” If some write for fame or approval, good on them, but that isn’t me. I feel sorry for the literary snobs as they live in a world of literature by proxy, a world pre-selected. Imagine how much fantastic work their narrow vision misses out?

Does The Death of a Celebrity Matter?

First, I will come clean. I am officially an emotional softie. I cried when Philip Seymour Hoffman died. Just as I cried when Amy Winehouse died.

And just as Amy’s death brought a huge and, sadly, inevitable backlash so it seems that Hoffman’s is doing likewise. Ranging from “why do we publicly mourn a celebrity when thousands die from overdoses every day?” to “addiction is a selfish thing” the backlash is as predictable as it is inappropriate and yet, for all that inappropriateness (which has a lot to do with timing), these are issues that demand an answer. In particular, the disproportionate way we treat the deaths of some and not others is a question we can’t sidestep in a world where marginalised majorities are increasingly demonised. And in a society that’s seen the damaging effects of “Paralympic syndrome” (in which those who happen on the one hand to be disabled and on the other to be supremely talented have those two attributes conflated so that those who possess the former without the latter are somehow seen as lacking or lazy), it is increasingly important to question the myth of the figure touched simultaneously by genius and torment as though those two traits went hand in hand rather than being simply two of the myriad strong pool of potential personality contents with which nature chooses to paint us.

There is nothing glamorous about addiction. Death by overdose is squalid, sordid, and truly, truly sad. Likewise there is nothing for those of us who are not by nature addicts, or whose addiction runs to something more socially acceptable, to be proud of for the fact that we have avoided such a fate. The judgementalism that acompanies the death of any addict (or any suicide, come to that) has as little a place in reasoned debate as the glamourisation that is its inevitable inverse correlate.

Back to the question of the celebrity death. Can it be right to mourn so openly and disproportionately the death of one person? Isn’t that an affront to those whose deaths on our margins go unaccounted every day? Well, that depends on several things. First of those is why it is appropriate to mark a death at all. Is it wrong to use the passing of someone who touched one’s life deeply as a moment to reflect on how they did so, to celebrate the way they did so and examine oneself and the complex series of narratives that makes up one’s identity? I don’t think so. Such reflection is, in and of itself, a good thing when done sporadically as it stops us placing ourselves too firmly at the centre of our own narrative.

Is it wrong to appropriate the grief of those who were touched in more direct and daily ways by a person’s death? That’s far more complicated and the extent to which it is solace and the extent to which it is intrusion for their loved ones will depend on many factors.

Is it wrong to use the death of a celebrity to single them out for the manner of their death? Yes. And no. Yes, because that is the beginnig of the path that leads to the creation of the tortured genius myth and its insidious correlate of the everyday junkie as wannabe or wastrel. Yes, because whenever we single out one person we silence a thousadn besides. When we make a single narrative representative of many we silence those many just as surely as the well-meaning “ally” who speaks on behalf of women or people of colour or those with disability and in doing so steals their words and, worse still, lets society consider itself to have done its necessary duty in their regard. So to take the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, or Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain or Billie Holiday, or your brother, or your sister, or your best friend’s lover, and make it representative of other deaths is a violence to those deaths.

And the last figures in that list every bit as much so as the first, a point that is often lost. What differentiates the person who starts a campaign in honour of a loved one from those who publicly mourn the passing of a celebrity who touched their lives? Simply that they started a campaign on behalf of others. The genuine grief of any one person for any one other person is unique, inexplicable, beyond judgement, and inevitably silences all other voices behind the deafening scream of the person they loved. That is the nature of the inward fold that grief creates, and the pressure of that inward fold creates a simultaneous and involuntary outpouring that is equally unique, inexplicable, and beyond judgement.

Judgement steps in, becomes appropriate, opens the way for logic, for discourse, the moment that involuntary outpouring ends and its voluntary counterpart takes over (and with it the corresponding inward motion that makes of our grief something calculated, thought through, eventually even staged).  And that is as true for those whose grief is for someone who lived and died on the margins of society’s orbit as it is for those who grieve for celebrities. Those whose voices cry out on behalf of the marginalised among us, whose grief becomes steadfastness becomes the desire to change becomes the determination to *speak on behalf of* can be as much guilty of silencing every other voice but that of their loved one, or worse still, every voice but their own, in the worst cases a voice whose cadence is calculated, as are those who use the death of a celebrity who touched their lives to catalyse their grief into action. The question, once the involuntary turns voluntary, is always the same – whose voice is being heard? Our own? That of a departed individual? Or those whose lives would otherwise go unnoted and unnoticed, given as a result of the outward fold of a particular grief, the most powerful thing any human being can be given – a voice of their own?

So no, I don’t have a problem with celebrating Hoffman’s life, and how it touched my own and those of others. I don’t have a problem with people’s reflexive outpourings of grief. Where problematicity begins is with what happens next. But, just as every death, be it of the singular celebrity or the marginalised millions, is equally worthy of marking, so there is an equal responsibility on those touched by all of them once the time of that marking has passed. Inasmuch, of course, as many more were touched by Hoffman’s life than will be touched by most lives, or deaths, so the responsibility to do something other than slowly forget in a nostalgic haze presses upon many more shoulders.

I want to end by linking to someone whose grief has made a difference in many lives. Katelan Foisy’s beautiful book Blood and Pudding is a wonderful tribute to the lives of two dear friends she lost to addiction. In the wake of its publication, she has done a lot of work in relation to harm reduction. You could do worse than read about what the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center does here.

Surfing Is Us

In my continuing fascination with the link between creativity and the lone, extreme physical pursuit, I am delighted to follow Lisa Scullard’s wonderful post on parkour with a piece from one of the most brilliant and original voices in the literary landscape. I first came across Jonny Gibbings when he undertook a one man guerrilla campaign on the threads of the Guardian Books Blog a few years back. No matter how many times his ingenious plugs for his gloriously unapologetic, anarchic, drop dead hilarious debut Malice in Blunderland he would be back, a few minutes later, with another one. I was fascinated and impressed by his unfailing sense of optimism and determination. The more I got to know him, the more I was won over not just by his style but by his talent and, most of all, the shining example he offers us as a human being. His article “a battle cry for the dreamers” is one of the most inspiring things you will find on the internet. Jonny isn’t just someone who writes about iconic existential figures, he is one. A committed vegan, animal welfare campaigner, and surfer, he is a man who personifies compassion, humour, and an icy determination. I’ll be talking to him soon about his new book, Remember to Forget, but here he is talking about his passion, surfing.

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Waves are the children of storms. They are the product of a collision between warm and cold air, a relationship that quickly spins into a violent rage, destructive and angry, the winds ferocious in spite of each other, growing ever more wild and on a journey of ruination until there is nothing left of what they touch or the storm itself. The waves like refugees flee for thousands of miles away from the violence, staring out raw and angry, yet over time the waves refine and calm, growing proud in shape, the wildness long since dead. The waves become confident and beautiful, ending their epic journey on shoreline in walls of lucent glass. I mirror this, I am a wave. The child of unspeakable violence, the wild anger and homelessness, rage, prison. It wasn’t until distance through time could I calm, learning to read and write in prison that turned the ugliness, the emotions, the embarrassment and pain into words. Yet I am not unique, the best and most creative writing comes from a heart that is wrought with scar tissue, and there are so many of us with shadows on the inside, and so many storms. If I go to the beach and there are no waves, I know I only have to wait, knowing numerous storms are out there and so much troubled water, that if not today soon there will be waves. Just as sure as there will be more great poets and new beautiful fiction.

The parallels between surfing and creativity doesn’t end at the waves themselves. Surfers are a few, and to those who know nothing about surfing it is difficult to explain. Surfing isn’t defined by the quickest time or a ball going into a net. Surfing doesn’t have a season. There is no right or wrong to surfing and once done, unlike playing tennis or squash, there is no winner. You play football, you play golf… you go surfing. Unlike the status of having expensive golf clubs or the fanciest football boots, surfing’s creativity doesn’t end with the riding of waves, the equipment is a varied and individual as the act itself. Boards of different shapes and sizes, some long, some high performance and short and each hand made by a craftsman. I often ride a crap old board made in 1972, and one of my favourite boards I made from insulation foam thrown out at a building site, the resin surplus from a boat builder, the fins wooden and shaped from an old table that was fly-tipped. The board free and truly recycled. I made it in the summer with my thirteen year old son in the yard as a lesson in ecology. It’s ugly, but unlike any other sport, we don’t get laughed at when using it, it provokes conversation and then admiration and so many times I get asked “Can I have a go?”.

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Waves present like naked paper, what you do with it is up to you, there is no right or wrong. Some like to draw long flowing lines on the wave, harmonising with the fast sections, turning in long sweeping arks and flowing majestically. Some like to vent their anger, hitting the lip of the wave, taking to the air with radical powerful turns, throwing water, sparring with the raw power of nature. Sure there are some rules, but these are basic and only exist to ensure you get the most out of surfing while not diminishing the enjoyment of others, but these are no more constrained than grammar. Surfing is all about interpretation, spontaneous and immeasurably creative because no two waves will ever be the same. A waves surface changes in micro-seconds, each breaking differently than the last, with different ‘pockets’, the term for areas of speed. Wind and tide constantly alter the surf. And so not every wave will create a rolling cylinder of water. Actually, not many waves create a tube, and when on a wave that does you have to be in exactly the right place at the right time and will only be able to arrive there by your investment in surfing and the ability to feel it about to happen.

It is the union between us and the water, the commitment to being at the coast to ride the last moments of storms and the freedom to express yourself with utter abandon that becomes addictive. Some say it is an healthy obsession, but it is much darker than that. I am a junkie that has peddled my drug to my children. As much as I imagine addicts of cocaine never set out to be an addict, more to have a good time, surfing can have consequences. It has cost me relationships, careers. The need to exist close enough to the coast to ride each storm often means less well paid jobs, driving a shitty car that always has the fuel light on. And while other peoples smart phones and tablets have twitter and facebook, ours have synoptic long range weather charts, wind forecasts and tide times. We surfers wake at 4am to surf before work, watching the birth of a new sun, often in sub-zero conditions, only to return again after work to surf and witness the suns last moments. Life burns, it hurts and it scars. Heartbreak, shitty jobs, recessions, worrying about my kids, war. The only thing that has ever made sense to me is surfing. It asks nothing of me, doesn’t care if I have an off day. As things I love left, surfing has always been there, my only true constant. One morning the sunrise painted the sky bright magenta, with clouds forming undulating lines of purple, it was truly beautiful. I caught a wave, gliding along its surface not performing a single turn on an ocean like glass, I became emotional, so lost to the beauty it brought tears. As some will know I’ve done some bad things, but surfing doesn’t judge you. Regardless of who you are it rewards you with days like this.

As with all addictions, surfing can have a darker side. The more you invest in time, the better you get, the bigger the waves you can surf and so the bigger the thrill the risk and the reward. Reefs where giant waves crash over solid rock tempt you. What you once deemed unridable become a challenge. Much like when we start to write, we mirror what we’ve read and liked. Soon you write like you. Yet for some they find themselves committing to paper brave and challenging words, performing them to a room of strangers. Some of us, we have to see how far we can go.

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When hurricane Hercules was heading to our shores, news reports were forecasting the worst storms for forty years and never before seen wave heights. As some abandoned their homes, and others barricaded themselves against the soon to arrive storm. I, like a few others headed to the coast, searching for a spot where the monsters are able to form a wave that I could ride. This turned out to be Wolf Rock, at the mouth of Salcombe. Waves so big that when they hit the cliff you could feel the vibration through your feet. Myself and two others climbed down the cliff face and threw our boards into the sea, then jumped in after them. We paddled for our lives into deep water where the waves were breaking. I sat for forty minutes in boiling wild seas waiting for the right wave. Three foot of water cubed weighs a ton, a forty foot wave weighs more than a double decker bus and moves at about thirty miles an hour. Every cell in your body, even reason screams at you to paddle away as the monster approaches, but you don’t, you paddle for it, trying to catch it. Soon you are being lifted to the sky as the wave begins to stand up, paddling so frantically to catch the face that it feels like acid is in your veins. It is like dropping down the side of a block of flats and trying to stand up as an avalanche of water detonates with a sound of thunder beside you, turning on a giant wall of water to outrun disaster. We get called adrenalin junkies, but that isn’t the adrenalin, it it’s the dopamine, the high afterwards. Pure euphoria as your body hits you with its home made heroin.

Nobody ever got into surfing to be famous or to be rich, they did it because their dad did it and they wanted to spend some time with him or simply just to have fun at the beach. No kid has ever been pushed into surfing to be the next Tiger Woods or David Beckham. At the extremes of surfing that I do, I have lost teeth, broken both feet, fractured two vertebrae and hit the reef so hard a rib snapped and punctured my lung. I have nearly drowned twice. Life though is about living with a story and a scar. Some say I will kill myself, but it is way beyond having a choice. Besides, it isn’t death I fear, it’s a life unlived.

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Collaboration and Clarity: Asking the right questions of your writing

spi cover draft 10
(available for your Kindle in the UK here, the US here, and from all other Amazon regions)

In the short space of time since I launched Self-publish With Integrity, it has been my great pleasure to have been asked to contribute to some wonderful websites where I’ve been able to talk about the book, and most important where I’ve been able to build upon the advice given in the book. (It’s also been a source of incredible pride to have picked up some truly marvellous reviews, which I have found both humbling and a vindication of what I have been trying to do with this book). I thought that this would be a good time to collect all of those pieces together in one place both as a useful reference tool and in order to introduce people here to some fabulous blogs. In keeping with both these sentiments, I have pasted the first couple of paragraphs of each piece here to give you a taste, and then linked to the rest of the piece.

Learn to Be a Bad Listener – at Author CEO

(Advice on how to ask the right questions of your beta readers and others so as to ensure you get the most helpful answers)

I followed an interesting conversation on a private authors’ forum earlier this week. It’s the sort of conversation you’ll hear every day of the week in such groups, and it’s a large part of the reason I wrote Self-publish With Integrity. A writer was looking for thoughts on the cover of a book she will be bringing out this spring. What happened next was one of those oft-repeated scenarios that makes you want to tear your hair out. A long thread quickly built a head of steam as people each contributed well-meaning advice – “the figure suggests erotica” (really?), “the colour suggests something much darker” (really?), “the texture suggests imprisonment” (REALLY?), “the font doesn’t work” (fair point).

And so on. The thing is that each of these pieces of advice would be useful in helping the writer to achieve a target. But they’d be different targets. And most of them wouldn’t be the writer’s! The problem with advice is that 90% of those who give it do so from their own experience and perspective, which may be very different from yours, and by extension very different from your readers’. The further problem is that some of the advice you get is actually really good advice (the font really did need work in the case outlined above), so throwing everything out, or not bothering to ask, whilst it might not land you in as much trouble or confusion as going along with everything, is hardly the optimum strategy. (read the full piece here)

Create Something Together: Artistic Collaboration in Action – at The Creative Penn

(How working with people in other fields of the arts can benefit your writing as well as your grow your – and their – audience)

I guess I was naïve when I started self-publishing, not really knowing many others who were doing it at the time other than the close group of friends I had at the Year Zero collective, which 22 of us had started up in January 2009 in protest at the publishing world’s lack of opportunities for new literary fiction, and Guy Gonzalez of Digital Book World, who when he wasn’t talking digital publishing was one of the US’ leading slam poets.

So I didn’t really know that writing was writing and other stuff was, well, other stuff. What I knew was that I loved indie rock music, the musicians I’d met at gigs shared pretty much exactly the same artistic ethos as I did, that one of the writers I respected, and still do respect, most in the world, Marc Nash, used to work at the iconic Rough Trade in Brick Lane, and that one of my good friends James Rhodes was currently taking pops at the Classical music scene by making his concerts more gig-like and doing rather well out of it thank you.

Which meant, when I came to organise the launch of my first book, which was to be my first ever reading, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to get in touch with my favourite acoustic musician (I had at least figured out that fully-amped and bookshop wasn’t a match made in heaven, though that would change in time…), the wonderful Jessie Grace. I borrowed a trick from James and made a minimalist and beautifully laid out set of A5 programme notes, and Jessie and I split the night between us, each with two fifteen minute sets, alternating music and reading. I should add, for those of you who only know me as a performance poet, this was a long time before I discovered poetry. This was prose at its prosaic prosiest. (read the full piece here)

Only You – with Lisa Scullard

(Why, if you want to do right by your readers, you should only ever write for yourself)

Spend a little time looking through advice for self-published writers and you will soon find yourself inundated by advice on what can best, if loosely, be labelled branding. How do I make myself discoverable? How do I appeal to the right readers? How will people respond to my cover? Am I saying the right things on social media? Does my writing hit all the points on the genre’s expectation list?

With respect (and in some cases with absolutely no respect at all), unless you are writing purely and simply to try and earn some kind of a crust, because having one day job isn’t enough you’d like two thank you (and if you’re only in it for the money 1. why would you be reading something I’ve written? and 2. following advice of people who made money but probably didn’t set out only to do that isn’t going to help), all of this is, erm, misplaced.

Most people who write are passionate. If not about “writing” per se, then about something – exploring the lives and worlds of a set of characters who’ve wormed their way into your head, connecting with people who share a fascination with a particularly kooky slant you have on the world, just reaching out to someone to let them know they’re not alone. Whatever it is they’re passionate about, all the best writers I know have that one thing in common – passion. (read the full piece here)

What do You Want from your Writing – with Jane Friedman

(publishing guru Jane Friedman was kind enough to post the first chapter of my book on her fabulous website)

Do you know what you want from your writing?

Yes? Good. Now take a pause, and a pen, and a piece of paper, and write it down. It shouldn’t take more than a few seconds.

The interesting thing I’ve found is that whenever someone asks me that, I think “yes, of course I know.” And then I try to put it in a sentence. And I end up with a thousand-word article that throws up a hundred tangents. And the easiest thing to do is shrug, convince myself “I know really, deep down” and carry on.

Which is the opposite of what I should do. This isn’t like a toothcomb edit that’s best put aside till the first draft’s fully down. If you don’t know what you want from your writing, what on earth are you doing writing anything? How can you possibly tell whether your words do what you want them to?

It’s actually not that hard a question. It rests on a more fundamental one. Why do you write? Only we think it doesn’t, because in our head we think we can separate them out. “I write because I have to” is what most people will say, then continuing, “but I’d like to make a living.”

That won’t do. Why you write is always the key to what you want from your writing. (read the full piece here)

spi cover draft 10
(available for your Kindle in the UK here, the US here, and from all other Amazon regions)

Opening Doors Inwards and Going Outside: Writing v. Parkour

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my experience of endurance rowing training, and the effect it has on my creative life. As I wrote, I found myself thinking about more and more of the creative people I know
(and those, most famously of course Haruki Murakami, about whom I know) who do something similar, training hard (I won’t indulge in transferene and say obsessively) at a particular kind of individual, repeetitive, non-competitive, endurance based physical activity. And I realised I really wanted to find out how it affected them.

And so I decided I’d love to have those people write for me about their experience. I am delighted to start with Lisa Scullard. Like many of my writing friends, I met Lisa on the writers’ site Authonomy about 5 years ago. We have since met in person several times and I have had the privilege of hosting her at a reading in Oxford. Lisa writes with the same flair and panache she shows for life, her deliciously devilish zombie tales an utter delight. She is the kind of person you come away from meeting feeling uplifted and inspired to go out and do more with yoru life. I am particularly delighted that the first piece in what I hope will become a series is about parkour, a pursuit I have loved watching for several years, whose philosophy of “always go forwards” fascinates and inspires me (I wrote about it here). Recently, I have started to research the parkour community more intensively in preparation for the novel I’ve been preparing for *far* too long and am now almost ready to start.

Over to Lisa.

Lisa on rings, Stonebarrow Manor 2009

It is possibly the knowledge that certain types of people won’t be there that means I appreciate training. It’s one of the reasons. If I was a man, it would be considered my ‘man-cave’ activity. Psychologically, it’s a neutral space for my brain to go into and focus on my own abilities, and find out if I’m making any personal progress. Free of the dependency of others on me.

My working day, as a self-employed editor and IT support, is full to the brim of clients’ needs and priorities. On those days, I am (among other things) a counsellor, formatter, publisher, a search engine, a dictionary, a thesaurus, an accountant, a researcher, a co-writer, plot brainstormer, PR manager, an address book, occasional driver, a dog placator, hardware engineer, software engineer, email wrangler, website designer, blog manager, video editor, screenplay editor, image editor, photographer, cover copy-writer, designer, historical advisor, current affairs advisor, social media manager, ebay/paypal attendant, press release drafter, and ‘celebrity’ career coach. For this small pittance, I also provide apparently ad hoc consultations on interior design, storage, medical issues, and the contents of the client’s fridge. Not to mention unlimited 24-hour support by email when in the comfort of my own home, watching Never Mind the Buzzcocks, while my daughter knits zombies and writes horror manga fan fiction through the night.

I decided a year ago that I wanted to have a physical outlet again, to re-establish my individual identity. My own sequels weren’t getting finished, and I kept being handed proofreading stuff and additional books that were outside of my interests ‘to take home and read’ on top of having done the same thing on site all day. I needed a bit of personal space. Rebuilding myself did take on a more literal form than I expected, though…

Today I had my first physio appointment. To get my erector spinae muscles fit and functioning again in my neck and upper back, I’ve been given a starter exercise which involves movement of less than two centimetres. I have to make sure the larger superficial muscles have a rest, which have been doing the job of holding my head up for the last 7 months, so that the deep muscles get stronger.

I do Parkour – officially for the last ten months, attending gymnastics classes. Enthusiastically, but not always well. My current progress should be described as ‘easy does it’. More on that in a second.

Unofficially, probably for most of my life, climbing playground equipment and hanging upside-down, as most kids back then did at the weekends before computers took over. Sometimes accidentally falling off buildings (saved by roof of stairwell, age 22), climbing up and jumping off abandoned lorry trailers in orchards (age 6), perhaps unwisely exploring a half-burnt-out block of flats with completely charred floorboards that I could see through to the inaccessible floor below (age 15), and seeing if I could cartwheel around the outside of Alexandra Palace at night all in black wearing a balaclava, and possibly with air-pistol and camera in pocket too, I always seemed to be carrying one around back then (I could, but only where accessible to do so – there was a nice long stretch of pavement on one side parallel to the road. Nobody came along. I was stopped on another occasion around then, only that time I was wearing perfectly innocent denim and with nothing more than a perfectly innocent skateboard, the reason being that I was using the skateboard in question at 4a.m. on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. Age 23).

Anyway. So far, in 2013 alone, having started formal training, I fractured my sacrum and tailbone in one fall (onto a beam) and my sternum and cervical vertebrae in another (I did an unsuccessful front flip, folded in half at the neck as I landed, and broke my sternum with my own head).

DIY brace for broken sternum, August 2013

It took a long time to diagnose and obtain the right x-rays and scans, as apparently folk with those injuries don’t usually get up again, let alone drive themselves home saying ‘ow’. Thanks to yoga practise from the age of three, my spine was more stretchy than most people’s, so for a while doctors convinced me that I was just bruised as they did not believe the fall could have involved that sort of impact. Over the following months, going back and forth for appointments with cardio-thoracic and spinal trauma consultants, it occurred to me that all of my bone-related injuries sustained in life have been sports-inflicted. Broken kneecap (steel pin still in situ) doing school high-jump aged 10. Blow to the side of the head with a cricket bat during non-stop cricket aged 14. Cracked wrist and collarbone doing martial arts. A few other small random prangs leading to untreated lumps and bumps or crunchiness for a few months – motorcycle, skateboard, quad-bike. And now ‘butt whiplash’ (as my daughter calls it) on the beam, an unfused sternomanubrial joint, rib and manubrium fracture, displacement and type III endplate and disc trauma of the cervical spine (neck) on the tumble track.

I’m definitely returning to individual form in that sense.

At school I was considered the slowest runner, the least sporty weed who was never picked for a team. From age 15 I was signed off sports altogether with Graves’ Disease, a thyroid condition that involves a sustained high resting heart rate, which made sports dangerous (mine resting was between 180-200 bpm). And yet, since leaving school and having had my thyroid removed age 19, I’ve done nothing but exercise. Besides writing to motivate my brain, yoga, martial arts, skateboarding, hula-hooping, and now Parkour are what motivate me to physically move. As a small child I had an extra-curricular ballet phase, and a horse-riding phase. As an adult, I also had phases including football, salsa, and basketball.

Sarah Bellum cover(go check out Lisa’s books here)

I have gym equipment placed randomly around my house, wherever there is a space to put it. I have just enough floor space to add a yoga mat when I want to stretch. My favourite spots are the twister disc under the coffee-table which I pull out and use in front of the TV, and the step-machine beside the worktop and small mirror where I brush my hair, from which I can also see the TV. Stepping enables me to improve the sciatic nerve signal lag in my left leg, an issue that accompanies other symptoms following my collection of spinal injuries from 2013.

Since giving up martial arts seven years ago (after twenty-two years of training on and off), I stick to non-competitive exercise. The challenge of Parkour is the available environment, whether that’s the gym, a playground, or the kitchen worktops (yes, I’ve used those!) and your own body’s experience and limitations. The challenge of writing in solitude is your own life experience and observations, whether incidental or through research.

While in a sport you learn to build a level of physical ability, it’s through writing attempts that theoretically, you should also learn the limits of your knowledge and improve them. But it’s not always the case, unless you have a qualified and canny editor looking over your shoulder, who is Googling the facts as you type. Gah… and I’m straight back to my job description again…

That’s one of my jobs in IT support that has become a sometimes alarming necessity – voluntarily checking the facts in true-life books by other authors before they unleash them as chapters or blog posts. I have to make the product ‘fit’ – in the context of physically able for the market it will face and audience it will have to stand up to. Something in a passage might strike me as unconvincing or unreliably obtained while I’m spellchecking and formatting, so I will have a sneaky look around online. Recently, the latitude of Moscow was nearly moved 165 miles south, in an anecdote about its supposed parallel location in the UK that the author had overheard from an unremembered source and was keen to share. I had to refuse the Moscow reference’s inclusion altogether, as the inaccuracy meant it could not be made relevant to the piece.

Without preparation and research in advance, a writer might only learn of their own suggestibility and gullibility if an expert on their chosen subject comes along with a scathing critical observation.

Meanwhile, a sportsman learns of their mistake the second they hit the ground.

Writers are by nature fantasists, at times of their own abilities, rather like some armchair sporting experts. Occasionally they believe they are imparting knowledge when their imagination has actually sneakily filled in the gaps for them, having drawn what is essentially an assumption. Or they have allowed someone else’s imagination to do so, and listened to a speculation fed to them as fact (sometimes second, third or fourth+ hand speculation) without checking it out thoroughly. In this sense, the main risk of a being a writer is of fooling yourself before anyone else.

Doing Parkour reminds me of the importance of dealing with what’s real and what’s in front of me. I’m a fiction author with a creative brain, and fiction-writing requires the ability to speculate at every turn to avoid becoming stale or stereotyped. But when facts are involved in any way, even small facts, I need to be aware of the difference between knowledge/experience, and long-held assumptions, in order to be the best writer I can be. Such as, have I ever looked up the meaning of that word I’m about to use? I’m about to put it into a piece of prose that might reach a worldwide audience. Could writing this particular thing down that I’m not fully confident about cause me to fall, metaphorically, on my butt?

Two days ago, reading a rom-com novel published by HarperCollins in 2011 and sold in good faith by Tesco, I learned that Rio is in Mexico. Who knew?! I hope for her sake the author hasn’t tried to book a holiday to her imaginary Mexican city… (HarperCollins, I want my money back!) There may well be various ‘Rios’ in Mexico, but it wasn’t the one that was implied in the passage I read. (In the same novel, a make-up artist was summoned with her powder-puff during a photo-shoot to ‘power the model’s boobs’ but I assume, in contrast to the relocation of Rio, that it was a typo rather than a research error on the alleged super-electrostatic abilities of make-up artists).

Lisa - early Parkour on Tenterden rec at night, 1995

In sports, you risk kidding yourself, taking on a new challenge or considering a new obstacle. Your eyes may be bigger than your stamina (or your muscles, or that gap between obstacles). But we learn the consequences through pain, very quickly. In my case, it motivates me to try and get fitter, to prepare more. After a motorcycle crash on my first day riding one when I was 19, I signed up for a year’s motorcycle mechanics course. Pain (and points on my licence, and everlasting guilt about the pedestrian’s broken leg) didn’t turn me into a quitter. It made me want to be more prepared and smarter than I was at the time.

Again, note – not in competition with others, or their knowledge or ability. I always aim to be smarter than my old self.

Writers don’t learn the fast way through pain, unless they have a particularly sadistic editor sitting nearby. (It might help). My constant reminders to author clients “Don’t assume facts” or worse “Don’t invent facts” even when I’m sitting right there, often fall on deaf ears (with very short attention spans* where criticism is involved) in the fertile imaginations of starry-eyed writers who are blinded by worlds of their own invention. Inaccurately outing celebrities as Christians comes to mind… I Googled for ages with no affiliation matches until the author saw a photograph online in front of me, and announced she had named the wrong actress/Christian she was thinking of altogether. The same author said to me yesterday ‘You know, Margaret Lockwood, red hair, enormous bosoms’ to which I replied ‘You mean Rita Hayworth?’ and Googled to show her a photo of the modestly-proportioned, brunette Ms Lockwood. (She did mean Margaret Lockwood, but had never looked up a picture of her. Apparently any given early 20th Century actress resembles Rita Hayworth in her imagination). But so far I haven’t resorted to inflicting pain as a teaching method.

*(One example of how short an attention span can be when processing facts in the mind of a creative writer – my favourite author client above was once convinced there was a lady named ‘Mrs Chapstick’ to reference in her latest book. It was in an email she had received that morning. I was suspicious. She opened the email to prove it to me. It was ‘Mrs Capstick’. I don’t have the time to even feel smug on those occasions. I might miss the next one in the deluge of supposed facts to check).

Perhaps writers who don’t do research, in preference to keeping their own erroneous assumptions pristine and in keeping with their imaginary reality, should be made to do push-ups every time a mistake surfaces. Holding a keyboard in their teeth. We’d all be a lot fitter.

Preparation makes you confident in writing in the same way that training makes you confident in sporting activities. Writing fluently exercises a set of intellectual ‘muscles’ and connections in your brain, exactly like in sports. When writing, try to remember that ‘facts’ and ‘anecdotes’ overheard in the bar or cafeteria (or occasionally, read in the gutter press, or imparted by elderly relatives) are about as convincing as a drunk person standing next to you outdoors at the dead of night, saying ‘I reckon you could climb up the outside of that building’ when the most you’ve ever climbed up are the stairs.

As humans, we learn our physical limitations quickly the minute they are tested, whether we are alone, or in front of others. But words on the page are not tested until others read them – or we stumble across the contradictions ourselves, having written them.

In both scenarios, doing sports and writing with limited facts at our disposal, two things can happen. One is helpful to us as individuals, and one is detrimental and further-reaching.

One: We acknowledge our shortcomings, and realise we’re not good enough for what we attempted. We go away and learn more, or we give up for now and try something more achievable.

 

Two: We fool our gullible audience into thinking we are experts, regardless of our inadequacies. This convinces us in turn of our ‘expertise’. Strange cults are formed to follow our examples and quote our doctrines. Our fans wonder why their friends don’t agree we’re the best thing since half-baked bread.

Remember – just because you can convince others of something, or that you’re good at something, doesn’t make it true. Or advisable, necessarily.

At the moment, the most painful thing for me to do is to sit upright at a monitor, working. Running around, training, and moving those injured muscles, getting some exercise endorphins, is more comfortable. Exercise is the next best feeling to propping myself all around with cushions and staring at the ceiling to take the weight of keeping my head upright off my neck and sternum. Even better than sleeping, where I have weird dreams, and wake up from strange spinal muscle spasms that induce me to go and vomit for no reason.

If I looked for deeper meaning in it, I would say my injuries are trying to get me into a better relationship with my body, and the real tangible and physical world instead of a virtual one, populated by unqualified opinionators and unconfirmed ‘facts’. I can train at home with my hula hoop or step machine, with my rechargeable cordless MP3 micro-SD card headphones on, and my imagination can wander in the safety of my own head, while my body recovers and gets stronger again. And that in turn makes me want to apply the same philosophy to my writing. I want to ‘get better’. I don’t want to wallow in thinking I’m stuck, or that I should get recognition for being a dud or a failure at anything. There’s still so much more to learn and to accomplish in life.

Accomplishment doesn’t have to be remarkable because it’s ‘in spite of’ one’s abilities or circumstances, physically or professionally. There’s a culture of celebrating limitation, which shouldn’t be a substitute for everyday hard work. An individual without physical or social limitations has to work just as hard to accomplish anything while being obscured in the fog of their otherwise ‘unremarkable’ lives. It’s just as likely to be achieved because of forward planning and preparation, and repair and recovery from any limiting circumstances without a fanfare of bells and whistles attached. People only think that plain hard work and effort is an unremarkable route because it’s the long-established one.

And we all have limitations, unremarkable or not. One person’s long walk down one set of stairs and up the other may be another person’s split-second double kong vault.

(You won’t catch me attempting that one yet. Maybe never).

Doing Parkour (which is all about taking the un-established route to get somewhere) also involves a lot of preparation. The good ones prepare hard, and train every day. They make it look easy. They’ve also had their fair share of spills.

Writers who make their work look easy subconsciously do the same thing – they prepare mentally, observe, check details, and have the ability to take all the information they’re given in life with a pinch of salt. They’re not afraid to question their own judgement, or the input of others. All of this is on autopilot, because it’s a mental attitude and discipline rather than a physical one.

Fiction writing is playtime, and as long as you don’t shuffle the geographical arrangement of the globe around, or mess with the laws of physics (if your stories are set in the real world) and laws of copyright, you have more freedom. You only need basic language and grammar skills, the ability to check any facts you do include, and you can let your imagination fly with confidence. Parkour is like playtime – again, once you have the skills and fitness to give you confidence.

There are of course still daily reminders of A World When Research Was All Crap. Like the time when a widely-held belief that the world was flat caught the imaginations of everyone on it, trying not to stray too close to the edges. Now the world is established as round, and we have a pretty clear concept of gravity, yet Accident & Emergency departments are inundated with drunken Parkour fans still keen to test it late at night at the weekends. And drunken martial arts fanatics. Like under-researched writers, they think it’s all bluff and bravado and you can convince just about anyone that you’re good at it after a good drinking session at the bar. Some things can make you embarrassed to be identified with them, when you’re trying to do the same sensibly and seriously, in a methodical, trustworthy and sober manner. Whether it’s research, writing, or a sporting hobby.

I do learn from observing the risks others take in both creativity and sports, where the ground is untested or the individual is pushing their own comfort zone. It works when the individual has the skills and qualifications, but less confidence. They know their discipline, they want to put it into more challenging practise, and they want to expand on strengths that they know they already have.

It fails where the confidence outweighs the skills and training. We’ve all seen the over-confident X-Factor auditionees who don’t understand or accept that they can’t sing in tune. It seems to be a completely different personality type – ‘learning/training’ is apparently beyond their comprehension, or they consider it unnecessary in proportion to the ‘star power’ of their ego. Whether this is because of a misplaced encouragement they’ve received, or some other form of self-delusion, it’s the same potential inner conflict that writers and sportsmen will confront at some point in their careers.

At some stage, an author or Parkour traceur able to avoid the emotional wave of self-delusion or greed for early achievement/attention, will be able to stop before they approach an untested subject or obstacle and say “I’m not ready/trained/fit/qualified to do that yet.”

For example, the next thing I want to try, sports-wise, is Capoeira, because I feel it could help me think more about the issues of rhythm and flow in Parkour, and provide some of the interaction of dancing, and martial arts without full-contact aggression. But after physio today, I was walking up the path thinking about the longer routines in Capoeira, and in particular the stance to maintain, and I knew my neck and sternum aren’t up to it yet.

And I thought “I’m not ready”. I have to heal first, and get stronger. Usually I would jump straight into a new sport. But this time, I do have extra work to do first. I recognised something similar before my first cross-country session on a quad-bike, years ago. I’d ridden one around a friend’s garden in Florida several years before, and recalled the best way to navigate bumps was to stand up. So for two weeks beforehand I hit the step-machine for fifteen minutes a day, watching TV, whatever I could manage, thinking about standing on the foot-rests of a wobbly quad-bike. It worked – I didn’t fall off. More to the point, my back and legs didn’t ache. My shoulders did – next time I’d include wrist weights as well, and maybe handgrip resistance trainers.

I’d admit the same thing if I was approached to edit a textbook about particle physics. I’m not qualified, but thank you. The idea would inspire me to do research, but I would acknowledge that it is possible I’d never be qualified to undertake such a project. I know my limits, and also the limits of reliable sources on that sort of subject for an amateur to trawl through.

When I want to learn a new sport, or look something up, I always hope to get good sources. I’ve had bad martial arts teachers in the past, who spent more time holding their own bleeding nose and then taking it out on their wife than holding the attention of the class. I have the same wary attitude towards questionable gurus who volunteer unconfirmed ‘knowledge’ for writing material. Or ‘research/advice’ picked up in the pub. I fondly remember a friend of mine breezing up to me in the club we both worked in (she was a barmaid, I was a bouncer) and with a huge grin she announced “How stupid am I? All my life I thought Champagne was a country, I’ve only just found out that it’s not!” and cheerfully headed off to serve her customers in VIP.

That’s something I love. Someone open to having their ‘knowledge’ challenged, and not afraid to admit it.

There’s a lot of armchair sports fans in the world, and a lot of armchair experts on any given subject. It’s possible to cross-check almost anything you’re told nowadays with the wonders of the interweb and the library, and I’m sure most mistakes are not contrived out of an evil desire to mislead the world, just genuine laziness, genuine gullibility, or a preference for the attractively unqualified expert at the end of the bar rather than going and doing any of the work oneself like a grown-up. They probably enjoy enough fun and flattery from flirting not to worry that the information they’ve gleaned isn’t worth the beer-mat it’s scrawled on. Often with a fake phone number too.

And a completely understandable fear probably stops most people from taking up sports or learning anything that could give them the kind of injuries I’ve got away with so far.

Makes me wonder what I’m getting out of it, when I practise Parkour, or train at home by myself. It’s not that I want to collect sports injuries. I want to get fit again and collect physical skills. Maybe I do just enjoy occupying a space that I’m not likely to encounter ‘those’ people in. The armchair experts. The gullible schmoozers, collecting unreliable resource material. I see enough of those people while I’m checking their books for mistakes. I finish work and I need the world to re-set to something much simpler, where all I have to deal with is what I can achieve physically, and focus on that and what’s in front of me. Not celebrity gossip, or conversation with equally unreliable people about world issues, public figures and politics, which makes me feel I need to be in reach of Google, and a dictionary to double-check all of that too.

I think that training, as well as being a physical outlet I’ve obviously enjoyed and played with all my life, is my barrier against having to deal with conversations with the pseudo-intellectuals I would run into if I went to local pubs, dinner party clubs or social groups instead to establish some new form of individual ‘identity’. Physical activity to me, even injured, is less taxing and exhausting than holding a conversation. I don’t want to have stressful intellectual conversations away from work (or away from my mum). I don’t find them fun, flirty or stimulating at all. Smalltalk and personal conversations I’m fine with. Those rarely involve checking facts of the sort that my lovely authors are preparing to blog, such as what year the aircraft was invented, where Nelson Mandela was born, who is currently running Europe or starring in Eastenders, and the precise laundry instructions of Nureyev’s tights. I’d rather have the quiet escapist nonsense in my own head, or switch off having to think altogether.

At least, I’d rather not have to be thinking of anything beyond how I’d rather land on the other side of the vault.

Lisa xxx

Being a Man Writing About Women’s Books

Diane Shipley asked us last week whether we would consider spending a year reading only books by women. The Year of Reading Women project has become a huge talking point, yet the Vida statistics show that in the accustomed snafu little progress has been made in balancing the media’s gendered coverage of the literary world.

lf3-print-trees(the book I’m currently getting excited about – Roz Morris’ literary dystopia, lifeform three)

For me, it is this that represents the real challenge – the representation of books by women in places like this rather than the actual reading of them. Putting the focus onto reading seems like a rather handy arrogation of responsibility on the media’s part.

I very much believe that where we find discursive barriers we should make ourselves into bulldozers. I have always tried, as a literary organiser and promoter, to create shows and programmes that go beyond the gender-imbalanced norms. On the other hand, the Vida statistics show not only the lack of representation of women’s books, but the lack of women in the media doing the writing about those books.

So, as a male commentator, I feel a natural conflict. Is it my place to write about books by women? Or is it my place to insist I am removed from public spaces and my place taken by a female commentator? I am very aware of the difficult position of “ally” in modern intersectional thought on diversity in all areas (and I’m extremely grateful to the author Christina Springer for sharing this great article. My own experience of being “on the receiving end” of allies comes in the sphere of mental health where I frequently come across organisations box-ticking their engagement duties by enlisting spokespeople to explain things on behalf of those of us who have mental health disabilities. I feel the bristle as they open their mouths and utter something that bears no relation at all to my experience yet leaves everyone seemingly contented that I have been duly “represented” with the result that I’m silenced twice over – by my “ally” and by the fact that their intervention means the space for further discourse is now closed. So I know that whenever I open my keyboard to tap out words on the matter of women in literature I am, at least in some part, not ameliorating but becoming part of the problem.

DesecrationSmall3D(the last book I read that I loved, Desecration by Joanna Penn)

So do I stay silent, or do I speak, or do I just shimmy round the subject and stick to the safer ground of writing about the things I’m expected to write about? The last of these is a non-starter. Experience tells me it’s a simple matter of taste that I prefer books written by women. It would be strange to write about books and omit so many those I love best in the spheres I write about most – the poetry of Vanessa Kisuule, Claire Trevien and Adelle Stripe, the literary fiction of Banana Yoshimoto and Elfriede Jelinek, the self-published surrealities of Lucy Furlong, Penny Goring, and Anna Fennel Hughes, the inspirational blogs and books of Viv Tuffnell, everything to do with the wonderful website For Books’ Sake.

(the brilliant poet, Claire Trevien, with whom I’ll be performing at this year’s Chipping Norton Literary Festival)

What I have done hitherto has been simply to reflect my tastes in my commentaries. I have promoted works I truly believe in by writers I love. I have talked about those works that provide taking off points for the themes and questions that matter to me. I have put on shows featuring performers whose words and style I love.

But Diane’s post has foregrounded a feeling that was always there, an inkling nudging me annoyingly in the shoulder going “oi, oi” and shrugging an “oh you know” every time I dare to shout “What?!” The feeling that I’m doing something political, and that it doesn’t always leave my mouth tasting of honey.

I have always known that what I speak about is political. It’s a choice. A choice made in a highly charged context of cultural discourse. It couldn’t not be political. And yet I have always sided myself loudly and overtly with those marginalised by mental health issues and let that whisper me sweet reassurances that I was doing it OK because mental health disability is an outsiderdom I’m firmly inside.

It’s comforting to construct these narratives for ourselves. If we close our eyes and listen to them (a telling metaphor in all its resonances) we can almost pretend intersectionality doesn’t exist. And yet it does. I am spoken for by those who silence my disability, and yet when I do speak I do so as a white male. When I write about women’s writing, I speak for them as those I resent speak for me. I can no longer pretend to myself that I’m just doing “good politics” and neatly avoiding “bad politics.”

So what’s the answer? I’m sure many readers will be wondering “what, you mean there’s a question?” Questions of intersectionality and allyship usually raise those responses. And they make the first part of my answer simple – if, next time an article like this appears, more people are at least aware that there’s a problem when men write well-meaningly about women and fewer people shrug “what problem?” then I’ll have done something right.

img_0246(Anna Percy, the brilliant poet who co-runs with Rebecca Audra Smith and Sara Ellis Stirred Poetry, Manchester’s fabulous night of pro-women inclusive spoken word)

The real answer, I think, is that just as it is impossible to speak unpolitically so it is impossible to speak from a position that is beyond reproach. We all speak from a privileged position of some kind. Our words will always exert power over someone, muffle the voice of someone. So the answer is not silence, or we would all be silenced. And the answer is not good intentions. Good intentions neither affect power networks nor the impact of our words. As much of an answer as I can give is to be as aware as possible of where we stand in these incalculably complex networks, to make way wherever possible for those voices our own voice silences, to acknowledge those voices that have shaped our own, and to create channels where we can for those voices to speak and be heard. Most of all I think the answer is for us not to believe we have the answer but to listen and learn to have the many possible answers spoken by those in a position to give.

I welcome any suggestions as to further answers to the issues raised. I also welcome any women writers whose works would interest readers of this blog to talk about them here.