Category Archives: Heroes

It’s OK to be Different

bowie

Bowie as Ziggy

I guarantee this is not the post you are expecting.

In fact, I suspect its probably going to be the most contraversial post I have ever written.  But I’m going to write it anyway.

David Bowie died today.

Amidst the media hysteria and blanket coverage, amidst the tidal wave of mourning on social media, I ask you to spare a thought for those of us who are different.  For those of us who, while recognising that he was a cultural game-changer whose contribution to altering the way society views androgyny and the transgender community was incalculable, just never really liked the music.

(Cue cat calls and howls of disgust.)

I was not one of those teenagers who lay on their bed in the dark, listening to his music and wanting to be him.  He did not appeal to the need to be different in me, mainly because I didn’t have one.  I was too repressed. I didn’t like his voice and I found the majority of his songs rather boring.  I still feel that way.

OK, I like ‘Let’s Dance’.  But Major Tom left me cold, and lets not even go into the whole gnome thing, however satirical.  When ‘Ashes to Ashes’ came out, I remember the misery and boredom of it being at the top of the charts for week after week after week.

On the other hand, I do have an important Bowie memory, one that in many ways affected my life.  It happened in 1986.

Before I go on, I want to explain a little bit about my life before that time.  It was only four years after the Falklands War.  I lived in a Naval town, and most people I knew at school had fathers in the Services.  All my parents friends were in Naval jobs of some sort.  I knew people whose fathers were killed in the sinkng of HMS Sheffield.  I knew boys, whom I had grown up with, boys from my street, who came back from that war irrevocably changed.  While other British kids were struggling with the issues of poverty and unemployment created by the Thatcher government, I was worried about war.  We lived  between two major installations which we had always known would be prime targets in the event of nuclear war.  That sharpens the senses of a sensitive child no end, let me tell you.

One day in 1986, I was in the art studio at my college.   I was working towards my art A level.  The radio was on.  We heard news of the US air attacks on Gaddafi’s Libya.  The air went still.  You could feel the fear.

The lad whose cassette radio it was switched the radio off.  He rummaged in his bag and pulled out a tape.  He put it on.  It was David Bowie’s greatest hits.  And yes, it even included the gnome song.  We played that tape all day, only breaking off to listen at the top of the hour to the news.  We worked quietly at our paintings, and we listened to Bowie over and over again.

That experience taught me two things.

One was how music can transcend fear, can bind a group of people together and rescue them from their worst worries about the future.  Because yes, we really were afraid that Armageddon was about to begin. (Remember, this was a time before America was habitually involved in wars in the Middle East.)

The other thing it taught me that Bowie, however trendy it was to like him, however much I was told I SHOULD like him, sounded a bit boring to me, and I didn’t much like his music.

This latter fact I have hidden, along with not liking Kate Bush, throughout my life, for fear of relentless torment by the trendy and the snobs.

But now as I reflect on his life, I suspect that Bowie would have championed my difference.  After all, he stood for those who stand up to society, for those who are unashamed of diverging from Society’s norms.  He was truly a great cultural icon.

I just didn’t really like his music, that’s all.

 

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Losing myself amongst the ‘Woolves’

Virginia Woolf as a young woman.  I keep a copy of this portrait on my desk.

Virginia Woolf as a young woman. I keep a copy of this portrait on my desk.

So I spent Monday in London, escorted by my wonderful fangrrrl niece Amelia, at the ‘Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  And it was wonderful.

We saw innumerable portraits and photographs, but I think the personal papers were the most moving.  There were pages from her diary describing the bombing of Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Tavistock Square home in October 1940, the original manuscript of ‘A Room of One’s Own’, love letters from Leonard written before their marriage,  and most moving of all, the little note she left for him when she set out to drown herself in the River Ouse in 1941.

One of the things that particularly struck me was that Woolf bound all her own notebooks and manuscripts, having taken bookbinding lessons in her teenage years as some kind of therapy for her mental illness.  The result was that she could make the perfect notebook for her own needs – which is, for a stationery addict like me, absolute nirvana.  Her books are big, too, slightly larger than A4, leaving plenty of space for her to explore her ideas.

Another interesting detail for me was that the page from her diary about the bombing had no crossings out on it at all.  My diary is a veritable Somme of scribblings-out, but she wrote a stream of consciousness with a self-assurance that seems absolute.  She had no doubts about what she was trying to convey.

The original copies of her books, published by the Hogarth Press, which she ran with her husband, still with their book jackets designed by her sister Vanessa Bell, look crisp and radical even now.  Amelia (a bookseller) and I both commented on the fact that the many editions of the novels for sale in the gallery shop had an assortment of different covers, none of which were so attractive, expressive, and frankly Modern-looking, as the originals.

Woolf is my writing hero for so many reasons.  She battled mental and physical illness, misogyny, and childhood sexual abuse to become one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, reinventing the novel form in a way that would be emulated and built upon in succeeding decades.  She was self-educated, too, and could read Greek and Latin, despite the fact that her parents refused to send her to school as they did her brothers, a fact she railed against.

She is often criticised for being classist and racist, but I would argue that she was a product of her time, and it is to her credit that she did so much to counteract the snobbery and distrust of the working classes, which she inherited from her social millieu, through her political work.

Virginia Woolf was a great writer and feminist, a patron of the visual and applied arts, and a creative giant,  as well as a truly great human being who overcame enormous adversity to achieve what she did.  If you cannot get on with her novels, I wouldn’t judge you, but I urge you to dip into her enlightening and often witty diaries for inspiration on how to live a creative life despite so many difficulties.

Happy Creating,

EF

Smorgesbord

sleep sketchI usually try to post on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but this week’s Wednesday post got missed because I was ill.  I’m still ill, but my brain is slightly clearer today and I am giving myself to thinking time.

Thinking about future posts for this blog.  Thinking about writing and notebooking.  Thinking about art.  Thinking about clearing space in my life for more creativity.  Its a luxury I have to lie in bed and consider which direction I am going in creatively, and I recognise that.  Few people get that option.  I may be feeling terrible, but I’m enormously grateful I can use this time to be present with my work.

I thought I’d share a few things I have been mulling over with you.

Here are the thoughts of Elmore Leonard on writing, an enormous inspiration.

Here is Stephen King, saying illuminating things about both ‘The Shining’ and about the attitude of critics, something I really needed to hear this week.

Talking about critics, Jack Vettriano has been savaged by the art establishment over the years, but now he’s having a retrospective at the Kelvingrove.  Oh, the irony!  (And lets just remind ourselves that this man is self-taught, which may be why critics hate him so much.)

If you are interested in art, check out this site.  I love its brightness and enthusiasm.

I want to do this course next.

And to end, a little light reading.  I’m pursuing a new project of short stories and vignettes which explore life inside an established relationship through fanfiction.  The series is called ‘Geography of a Shared Life’.  You can read my latest piece here at A03, and here at FF.net.

Happy creating,

EF

The Writing Life: Literary festivals

Finding your tribe as a writer, or in any kind of creative endeavour, is an important thing to do.  Being around other writers provides support and inspiration, and I think it’s a crucial thing to do.  Writing can be a very solitary activity, and its no surprise to find that many writers suffer from depression.  You try sitting on your own every day for six months of the year and see how it affects your mental health!  Its important to get out.

Literary Festivals and author signings are a really good way to fill your well and get affirmation for your work.  Maybe you won’t be able to present what you’ve written to other people, but being around those who are interested in the same things as you, undergoing similar challenges, really helps.

As a writer, you also need to gauge the market and be aware of your contemporaries’ work.  Reading is an important thing to do, and if you really love writing, you will love reading just as much!  Literary festivals give you a chance to be exposed to books you might never pick up otherwise, to hear authors speak about their work, and to ask questions about their writing process.   Think about it – a huge reservoir of inspiration and knowledge out there, just waiting for you to tap into it.  Why would you not?

Your local bookshop will probably have readings by authors scheduled, and these are worth attending because they are more intimate, and allow you more personal access.

Check the culture and review sections of newspapers, and the ads in writing magazines, as well as noticeboards in libraries, for details of the bigger events and festivals.  Some music festivals are starting to have literary strands too, so keep your eyes peeled.

My nearest festival in the one at the University of East Anglia, but its slightly different from a three day or week-long event, in that it studs two university terms with readings by authors, playwrights, poets and journalists.  This gives a wide variety of speakers over a six month period, and allows me to attend where I want, and to absorb what I learn over time.  And because it is such a prestigious centre for creative writing, it attracts some seriously big names.

I have attended events with Arthur Miller, Jeanette Winterson, Rose Tremain, Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney, Iain Banks (need you ask!), Rachel Cusk, Alan Hollingshurst, Isabelle Allende, Richard E Grant and many others.  I went under sufferance with a friend to see Ian McEwan, whose writing I hate, only to be utterly charmed and instantly determined to reread everything he has written.  And I saw Doris Lessing the week after she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  She was feisty, fascinating, and marvellous despite obviously being in terrible pain, and she tore the rather pompous interviewer to shreds, which was very satisfying.  At the end she received a spontaneous and heartfelt standing ovation, and I actually found myself crying.  You can’t find better inspiration than that!

Be warned, however.  Sometimes your idols can prove to have clay feet.  I went to see Graham Swift, whose books ‘Waterland’ and ‘Last Orders’ I had adored.  He read so badly, and was so miserably boring, that I felt insulted enough to vow never to read another one of his books.  And I haven’t.

Brett Easton Ellis was a writer whom I had worshipped since reading his work for my degree.  I clamoured to get a ticket to see him.  And now I can’t remember a thing about him, not even what he looked like, and certainly nothing of what he said.

I generally come away from these events feeling inspired and excited about doing new work, full of ideas and hope for the future.  It can be a dangerous game, however.  Be prepared, if you go to an author reading, to feel insignificant, and that you work is poor and will never be published.  It happens sometimes, though less often the more you write, and it will pass.

The important thing, however, is to go.  Attend events with even the least known authors, since they are often the ones who will inspire you the most.  (And one day, you might be up there too, so it adds to your own karma to support other people!)  Ask questions, and read the books.  This will enrich your own work, as well as introducing you to writing you might never have experienced otherwise.

Challenge yourself.  I don’t really do poetry, but went along with a poet friend of mine to see readings by several poets, and was enchanted.  I’ll never be a poet, but this form has opened my mind to the possibilities of language, and I’m so grateful.

Finding your tribe, and being amongst other writers is important.  It helps you feel part of a joint creative endeavour, but it also feeds your Muse.  There is a whole world of wonderful written joy out there, and literary festivals area an easy way into it.

Happy listening!

EF

Inspiration Monday: Heroes

Iain Banks

Iain Banks

Life is what happens when you are making other plans.  Today I am once again deviating from my plan because something momentous happened yesterday.  The Scottish novelist, Iain Banks died, aged 59.  He was the author of ‘The Wasp Factory’, voted one of the Great Novels of the Twentieth Century, as well as ‘The Crow Road’, a book which begins with the immortal line:

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

Iain Banks, The Crow Road, Scribners 1992.

Surely, this is the greatest first line of any novel since Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’, and Orwell’s ‘1984’.

Regular readers will know that Banksie was a hero of mine.  I went to see him speak several times, as he was a regular visitor to Norwich, near where I live.  He was best described in three words, in my experience:

Angry.  Talented.  Funny.

He introduced me to a Scotland that I fell in love with, and to a way of writing that is spare, funny and insightful.  He was extraordinarily productive and his work covered a wide range of subjects, genres and styles.  When you opened a new Banksie novel, you never knew quite what you were going to get next.

If you want to read the best of Banks’s literary fiction, I recommend ‘The Wasp Factory’, ‘The Crow Road’, and ‘Complicity’.  I can’t comment on his science fiction, for which he was also justly famous, because I never managed to get through one.  Space operas aren’t really my thing.  But as I have said before,  his ‘Raw Spirit’, a book about whisky, driving, Scotland and being a writer, is one of the most charming I have read.

It is sad that a writer so talented and prolific has been taken from us so young, but why am I writing about this?  Because Banksie was a writing hero of mine, that’s why.  A writer I admired and wanted to emulate.  Like Virginia Woolf, his photograph hangs in my study to inspire me.  He taught me that protagonists don’t have to be likeable, and that little memories from growing up can serve as icons of our internal psychology.  He taught me that you should keep at it, and write what you love.  And that it’s okay to be funny, and a bit geeky.

Creative Exercise:

Who are the people that inspire you?  Whose work do you seek to emulate, or admire?  Whose biography have you read for a better understanding of the creative process?  Who are your artistic heroes?

These people are your creative ancestors, and you must always acknowledge where you come from.  Take time in your notebook to name the people who inspire you, whether it is their life struggle from which you take courage, as I do with Woolf and Frida Kahlo, or their creative process which fascinates you.  Perhaps it is their politics, or religious faith you admire, or their down-to-earth attitude.  Perhaps it is simply the creative work they produced.  Whether your hero is Steven Spielberg, Gandhi, Maya Angelou or Picasso, explore what they mean to you, what their example says about where you want to take your art.

Happy Creating,

EF