Category Archives: imagination

Alice and the Nature of Fear

Jonothan Miller's BBC Alice in Wonderland, who looks decidedly vampirish!

Jonothan Miller’s BBC Alice in Wonderland, who looks decidedly vampirish!

At our Writers group last night, my friend, the poet Heidi Williamson, read a poem she has written, inspired by the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ books by Lewis Carroll. (It’s a great poem, but then you would expect nothing less from Heidi!) We had been discussing the books themselves, and our various responses to them were fascinating to me.

My mother wouldn’t let the Alice books into the house. She had been terrified by them as a child, when her mother had attempted to read them to her, much as I had been when my sister tried to read me ‘Great Expectations’ when I was small – the phantom of Magwich in the marshes put me off Dickens for more than twenty years!

As a result, I came to Alice relatively late, in my early teens. I ploughed through a copy from the school library that combined both ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass’. It was a rather large tome, a bit like one of those novels adults read, so I was quite proud of having finished it. But to be frank, I didn’t really get it. It seemed horribly dated to a child who had grown up on the fantasies of Roald Dahl and the Goons. Mainly, it just didn’t make much sense to me.

Interestingly, each of the members of our group shared our memories of reading Alice as a child. One was not much bothered. One, an older lady, had loved it so much that her face lit up with the joy of childhood more than 60 years after she had first read it. It was still a delight to her to remember the feeling of identifying with Alice herself.

From Tumblr. A note written in blood?

From Tumblr. A note written in blood?

And one, like my mother, had been terrified. (Although, in truth, it was probably because the version she had contained the most sinister illustrations in a book intended for children that I have seen since my husband showed me his Victorian copy of ‘Struwwelpeter’!)

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear recently, in connection with my writing. I’m working on ideas for a new novel, trying to decide whether what I have is a ghost story, a horror story, or a work of supernatural romance – or something of each.

Our talk last night got me to thinking about the things that scare me. I have this theory that we all have one story in our childhood that scares us out of our wits, even into adulthood. For my mother and friend, it’s Alice. Even now, in her 80s, my mother shudders at the mention of it.

For me it was ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ which I saw as a TV cartoon in the early 1970s. The terror of the Headless Horseman has stayed with me ever since. Like every child I was scared of Dr Who, and I had nightmares about Dracula and Frankenstein (thankfully seeing Mel Brooks’ ‘Young Frankenstein’ sorted that out!), but it was Ichabod Crane’s encounter with darkness that filled me with wordless dread.

I had to read Washington Irving for my degree, and I made myself read the original text of ‘Sleepy Hollow’. I was scared. I could only read it in daylight. But I finished it, and that helped.

Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman in 'Sleepy Hollow' (Burton, 1999).

Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman in ‘Sleepy Hollow’ (Burton, 1999).

Years later, and certainly years after it was released in cinemas, I finally watched ‘Sleepy Hollow’, Tim Burton’s version. It was the exposition in that film that healed. The atmosphere Burton so superbly conjured up added to my terror, but in the end, finding out the ‘why’ of the Horseman’s predicament somehow took the sting out of the tale.

Because it is the not knowing that creates the fear.

When Lockwood hears the tapping of ghostly fingers on his window pane in the opening scenes of ‘Wuthering Heights’, it is not knowing what is making the noise, or who the ghost is, and why she is knocking, that is terrifying.

In the film, ‘The Haunting’ (the old version of course), it is the evil we can’t see, the unseen entity that makes the booming noises, that holds a girl’s hand in the darkness, that is so terrifying.

And the Master of them all, M.R. James, knew that what you don’t see is far scarier than what you do. His greatest ghosts and demons are faceless entities, the shifting surface of a bedsheet, the shadow on the staircase.

We fear the myriad possibilities of our imaginations. There is nothing in the real world, even created by Hollywood, which can match up to the nameless dread of our own minds’ creativity, of Not Knowing which monstrous solution is behind the curtain.

Looking back, I can see that my fear of the Headless Horseman was about Not Knowing. As was my conviction that Dracula might emerge from behind the cupboard door of my bedroom. It was that place of unknown dark potential that scared me. And in the end all good ghost stories and horror stories are actually detective stories, in which the hero or heroine sets out to discover what is behind the supernatural phenomenon he or she encounters – ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’  by Hammer anybody? (Now that one really scared me!)

So my challenge with my new work is to explore that potential of the Unknown – and perhaps the Unknowable, and see where it will take me. I need to get inside my hero’s mind, and look at all the potential horrors he can create in his head, and see which would terrify him the most. It’s a tall order, but I reckon I can probably refer back to the shudders induced by Alice and Ichabod to guide me.

After all, what’s the worst that can happen…

Happy Creating,

EF

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Books about Writing

 

Bookshelf

My shelves of books about writing.

I’ve made a big decision.

No, not that one.

I’ve decided not to buy any more books about how to write for two months.

Now you may not think that’s such a hard task, but I am the sort of person who likes to buy a book about a subject in lieu of actually doing it. I’m a big one for research. If I’m going to take up some activity, say, crochet for instance, then I am the one who will chug down to the library and take out all known books on crochet, in order to find out everything I need to know about the subject. For two days I read avidly and become an armchair expert, without even touching a ball of wool. And then I lose interest and the books gather dust on the coffee table until they have to be taken back to the library before I get fined, no crochet having ever been done.

I’m the same with books about writing.

Once every three or four months, or so, I resolve ‘to take my work more seriously’. This usually involves going in to work with my husband, who is a University lecturer, and settling down in the campus library to tap away on laptop undisturbed. (Never mind the fact that I really struggle to visualise and write in that library, but there you are!)

To get to the library, I have to walk past a bookshop.

(If you love books, you just know where this is going to end, don’t you?)

Add to this the fact that this University runs one of the first, and still best, courses in Creative Writing in the world, whose alumni include the likes of Dame Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan. You can imagine how good the bookshop’s section of writing is.

Let me tell you, it is hell to walk past.

This is the reason why the bookshelf beside my desk is so crammed with ‘How to Write’ books. I buy a book every time I decide to ‘get serious’, because of course, buying a book is a prerequisite of ‘getting serious’. I’ll read a few chapters. And then I get bored/move on/get ill/realise its shortcomings/decide I want to take up crochet instead etc. So now I have a bookshelf full of books about writing and how to write, many of which are very, very good, dozens of which come highly recommended by friends and in other books about writing, and almost none of which I have ever read cover to cover.

Just call me a butterfly.

Today is another of those ‘I’m going to get serious’ days. Today I am not going to buy a book.

This is partly because I am completely broke, and saving up for a new pair of spectacles because the ones I have got are close to useless and I’m fed up of having to take my glasses off in order to read.

But mostly because its because I need not to read about writing and how to write, but to actually DO it.

You can’t be a writer unless you actually write. And when you write, you learn far more about writing than you ever could from a book.

Books about writing are great. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got a lot out of them. But there comes a time when you have to leave them alone and learn by doing.

I’ll let you know whether I stick to my guns or not, though I have to say I don’t think my groaning bookcase can survive even one more purchase!

Happy Creating,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Commuting

I’ve written already about the wisdom of walking for the creative life.

No reason why I shouldn’t repeat myself, of course.  Especially now we are in a new year, with new Intentions and new opportunities.  I have promised myself I will walk more this year.  Sometimes, this is not an easy promise to fulfil.  There are appointments to be met, after all; there is the filthy English weather (and believe me, filthy is what it is at present), and then there are my physical limitations.

Yet, in spite of the mud and the commitments and my low energy levels, I am trying to get out most days.

And there are so many things to see.  Some of the best walks I’ve ever had have been the repetitive ones to and from work, or school, the continual plodding on the pavements that sets up a meditative rhythm.  This time of year, walking home in twilight is especially evocative.  Not only can you see into other people’s houses as you pass, because many people don’t draw their curtains too early, but the landscape changes when industrial lights are switched on.

As a teenager, my walk home from our nearest bus stop was a route that skirted fields and woods.  Behind those woods, though, lay a huge industrial area, lit by massive floodlights in the dark hours.  The entire night sky glowed with this statement of manmade power over the environment.  To me, it looked uncannily like one of those landing pads on strange planets from the Star Wars films, and it fuelled my imagination continually.

Walking is not the only way to travel home from work, of course.  Sitting on a bus is great for inspiration too.  You can see so much more from the height of a bus seat, and not just into people’s windows, and thus into little vignettes of their lives.  Tableaux of office workers frozen in time as you pass their workplaces will catch your eye: someone handing over a file as the recipient reaches out to take it over a low  desk partition;  a group of besuited workers sitting around a conference table working out details of a deal; a pile of files teetering in an in-tray.  What are they talking about, these people who are so busy?  Whose lives will be changed by the outcome of that meeting, for better or worse?  What details, sinister or otherwise, are contained in those files – the potential for a fraud conviction, or the much-cherished hope of an adopted baby?

On a train, disparate people gather together and ignore one another.  They listen to hissing music on iPods and phones, tap at laptops or iPads, read books and newspapers, stare out of the window or fall asleep.  Each one has a story.  Can you be Sherlock Holmes and deduce their tale?

Viriginia Woolf, my heroine of writers, snatched up just such an opportunity in her short story, ‘An Unwritten Novel’, in which the narrator sits on a train and tries to guess the tale of a woman sitting in her compartment.  If you have never read it, I enthusiastically recommend it, not only as an example of how you can take a moment from your everyday life and make a work of art from it, but also for its fine stream-of-consciousness style and its sheer wit.  People’s occupations on trains may have changed since it was written, but the way we react to them, I should hazard, probably has not.

Creative Exercise:

How do you travel to your daily occupation?  Do you take the bus, train or Tube?  Do you cycle or walk?  Whichever you do, you may view it as a necessary evil, a time to catch up on your email, or some extra sleep.

What about reframing that view?

What if your daily commute to work, college or school became a special time set aside for creativity?

You could take a sketchbook and a biro and draw portraits of your fellow commuters.  This might develop into a whole series of painted portraits that depict your daily travels and those who accompany you on your journey.

You could compose a story about them in your head, and use it as the basis of a short story or novel, as Woolf did.

You could even go all ‘Brief Encounter’ and come up with a passionate love story between two of your fellow travellers!

(Probably best not to do this so much if you drive.  A vehicle is a life-threatening weapon, so you need to be alert and aware when you are in charge of it.  But maybe at traffic lights, you could look into other people’s cars and see what they are up to – applying mascara, fiddling with the radio, texting or picking their noses!)

What do you see as you travel?  What landscapes or buildings do you pass?  What could be going on inside that floodlit brick bunker that looks like a government establishment?  What story is being lived out on each floor of that block of flats you stomp past every morning? (I recommend Alaa Al Aswany’s superb novel, The Yakoubian Building’, for an example of this.)

Take your writers notebook and make notes of the ideas that come to you.  Make this time a time for your imagination to be unleashed.  Make a chore, a daily misery, into the highlight of your working life.

Happy creating,

EF

A Letter to Darla’s Daughter about Fanfiction

Dear Darla’s daughter,

I’m really sorry, but when your mom left a comment on my website, she didn’t tell me what your name was, so I’ll have to hope you don’t mind my being a bit general.

Anyway, she said that you are 12 years old and that you like writing fanfiction, like me.  She also mentioned that she is trying to get you to start creating characters of your own, something you and I also have in common, because I am trying to do that too.  She believes this is important, and so do I, and I wanted to tell you why.

First, though, I want to say Yay for you!  You’re writing, and that is fantastic!

Writing, as I am sure you have found out for yourself, is great fun, some of the best fun, in fact, that it is possible to have.  And fanfiction?  Well, doing that just makes it even better.  You take other peoples characters and send them out into the world of your imagination.  You can make them do whatever you like, get them into all sorts of trouble, and get them out, have endless adventures with them – what’s not to like?  And then there’s the other thing about it.  You get to act out all your crushes on the gorgeous actors and pop stars that you like.  Yes, don’t blush, we all do it!

I was writing fanfiction at your age, although I was writing about actors and shows you have never heard of, and probably never will, and fanfiction didn’t even have a name back then!  It was something you did by the light of a torch under the blankets at night and didn’t tell your friends about.  A fantasy life all your own.  It was something embarrassing you did in private, like picking your nose!

Now it’s a recognised genre, although there is still a lot of snobbery about it, like there still is about all kinds of genre fiction, like crime and romance.  (Usually the people who criticize it are not writers themselves, though, so feel free to completely ignore their opinions because they invariably don’t know what they are talking about!)  Today, people recognise that most of the great writers have written fanfiction at some point, and popular and literary novelists are being paid to write fanfiction novels for the legitimate market.

Fanfiction is a great thing to do, too, because it allows you to practise, to test out your writing skills and grow them.  The more you write, the better you get, and if you are enthusiastic about the characters, you will write more.  You get to experiment in ways you just can’t with other types of writing.  And if you share your work online, there is a whole world of other writers willing to help, advise and support you as you learn.  So don’t ever let anyone tell you it is wrong to write fanfiction, or that its not ‘real’ writing, because it is.

But here is the thing:  using another writer’s characters can only take you so far.  And if you really like writing, if you really want to get good at it, you have to take the next step.  You have to make up your own original characters.

Why?

Well, here is the thing:  At the heart of every truly great story are great characters.  Look at Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, for example.  Both are full of fantastic, original characters, from Severus Snape to Frodo Baggins.  There are outstanding characters in every truly great novel.  Think of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind’, Willy Wonka in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ or even my favourite, the wonderful Sherlock Holmes.  In films, you might choose the shark fisherman Quint in ‘Jaws’ (which you are too young to have seen, I suppose, but that’s a treat for the future!), James Bond or Spock in ‘Star Trek’; on the stage, there is the villainous Salieri in Schaffer’s ‘Amadeus’ or the Phantom in ‘Phantom of the Opera’.  If you haven’t come across any of these yet, I encourage you to seek them out because they are tremendous.

All original.  Each loved by millions.  And each one has ensured their creator’s immortality.

So, to become a great writer, or even a good one, you need to have at the core of your work truly great characters.

But here is the really wonderful part:

There are only seven plots. Okay, yes, you can chop them up and interchange bits of them endlessly, but basically, there are a limited number of things you can do, plot-wise.

But there are as many original characters in your head as there are people on the planet.  And here is why:

No one, anywhere, even if you are a twin, has ever had the same experience of the world as you.

You are unique.

The way your mind works, what has happened to you, the things you think about and imagine, that you think are important, that you love and hate, are all unique.  There may be a few people quite like you, but no one, anywhere, has ever experienced the world exactly the same way as you.

And because you are unique, your imagination is unique.  No one else can create quite the same kinds of characters as you.

And once you start creating your own characters, they start getting up doing things inside your head that are completely exciting and unexpected and utterly amazing.  Believe me – I was writing a novel a few years back, and one of my main characters just upped and died right there in front of me, without any warning, and I didn’t know what to do because half of the rest of the book depended on her being there!  Help!  Okay, I fixed it in the end, but it was a scary moment.  And also utterly wonderful.

Once you start creating your own characters, your writing moves on to the next level.  That element of chaos as they take on a life of their own is only the start.

That is the moment when the wonderful thrill of story-telling hits you, and you open your wings, and take off, and soar through the air.

Fanfiction is great, believe me, but it is like being a sparrow when you could be an eagle,  And wouldn’t you rather be an eagle?

So creating your own characters isn’t just thing your mom goes on about because its what she thinks is important, even though you are having so much more fun making the pin-ups on your bedroom walls have romantic adventures through fanfiction.  She wants you to taste the real freedom of the imagination, as do I.

That is why I am going to write a lot less fanfiction this year, and concentrate more on my original characters.  I’m already having so much fun with it.  So why don’t you join me?

With Best Wishes from your fellow writer,

Evenlode’s Friend.

Word of the Year 2014

So, we have thought about intentions, and we have begun to consider the words that identify how we want to feel.  Those (five) words are the place from whence our intentions arise.  Because every day we can choose to do things that make us feel that way.

Clever, eh?

But there’s more:

You may have bumped into the idea of having a Word of the Year.  You can find out more about this habit here.

A Word of the Year is a kind of overall intention.  It gives you a direction, a way of formulating how you want to be in the world. It also has an uncanny habit of bringing into your life exactly what it says.

My word for 2013 was

Revolutionary

And oh boy, was it?!

This year has fundamentally changed how I feel about myself.  I have undergone a revolution in my core beliefs and my way of approaching the world.  I have turned my attitudes about my place in the world and, most particularly, in the world of work, on their heads.  In some ways, I have also revolved (the other meaning of revolutionary), coming back full circle to revisit issues that I thought I had dealt with before.

I have revolutionised the way I write and the way I feel about my writing.  I have set up this website and begun to dream new dreams about the kind of things I want to create.  It is exhilarating.

Let me tell you, revolution doesn’t have to be a violent upheaval that ends with tyranny and blood.

I have to confess that when the word first came to me, in the form of just revolution, (while I was still in the malaise of a serious bout of influenza which brought me close to being hospitalised), I was a bit scared.  I knew it was the word I needed, but it sounded frightening, as if I could be inviting an earthquake into my life.  Was I really ready for that much change?  After all, with limited energy, poor health and a susceptibility to anxiety and stress, it didn’t really sound a good idea to invite those kinds of energies into my world.  So I fiddled with it until it felt more friendly, more manageable.  And more appropriate to what I could cope with.  It became:

I AM REVOLUTIONARY

And this year, I have been.

So the question then becomes, what do I want to be next?

I don’t have to stop being revolutionary, of course, but 2014 needs a new word, something that allows new energies into my life, allowing me to blossom and grow in new ways.

I have been sitting with my five words and my journal and calendar, contemplating what I want to be and do next year.  How I want to build on the intentions and lessons that revolutionary brought with it?  I thought about kind, lovingkindness, courage, and strength.  The first two felt too soft, and the last two, too tough.  I needed something flexible, something I can grow with, something I can work with whilst still treating myself with lovingkindess.  And this is what I came up with:

DARE

Dare feels good.  It popped into my head at 2am on the way back to bed after a loo break (TMI), and I knew it was the right word.

Dare is about having a go, putting yourself out there, but not in a way that is perfectionist.  Not in a Nigel way.  Dare means trying something out and seeing if it fits.  It means trying something, and knowing that it doesn’t matter if I fail or if I don’t get it exactly right the first time, or even if it turns out to be the wrong thing after all.  At least I will have tried.  At least I will be in the arena fighting, as Roosevelt would put it.

Journal Exercise:

So, I invite you to take time to sit with your feelings words, with your creative and life intentions, and to consider what word might truly describe and inspire how and who you want to be in 2014.  What feelings and new adventures do you want to manifest in your life?  What energies do you want to invoke?

When you consider this, do it in the spirit of lovingkindness towards yourself.  Look at your life with a gentle hope, not in the spirit of forcing yourself into new contortions.  This is not some New Agey wishing, some pseudo-psychobabble soppy thing.  This is a life affirming way of moving yourself to new levels, of becoming more yourself every day, and of being deeply, affirmatively and satisfyingly creative.

Everyday life is a continual act of creativity.

When I say ‘sit with it’, I mean: allow yourself time to consider.  Allow ideas to filter, percolate and bubble in your mind.  Don’t force it.  It will come to you.  Let it happen.  You know deep inside what you want for yourself as a creative being.  Allow it to emerge.  And then rejoice in it.  Allow it to inspire every corner of your life for the whole year.

I guarantee it will take you places you can’t even begin to imagine right now.

Happy Creating,

EF

The Perils of Getting Lost

There is no SatNav system for the artistic life.

Most of the time, we creative people complain about the problems of not being able to get into the Zone.  Not being able to find the door into the imagination.  Not being able to make our art.

Or we complain about not being able to get out of our own way.  We get hung up on the avoidance tactics and displacement activities we use so we don’t have to think about the empty page, the blank canvas.

Be honest, how many loads of washing have you done to avoid that novel you’ve been meaning to write?  How many drawers and cupboards have you cleaned out as an excuse to get away from your easel or your desk?

Seriously, its amazing how interesting cleaning can become when you need to be doing something else.

However, one of the perils of the artistic life that we rarely talk about, let alone complain about, is that of getting lost.

Lost in your imagination.

Lost in that place where the stories never end.

Lost where the romance and the passion and the adventure and the danger go on and on, and there is never, never washing to be done, unless it is in a picturesque stream with the sun sparkling on its surface, and requires both hero and heroine to divest themselves of their clothes in as romantic/modest/passionate (delete as appropriate) way as possible.

Suddenly you will wake up one morning and realise that you have been trapped on the island of the Lotus Eaters, so lost in the pleasures of your mind that you have forgotten to live.

Marriages founder this way.  Bankruptcies are forged, friendships lost, loved-ones go unmourned.  It happens all the time.

We lose ourselves constantly.  Often it is complusive shopping, gambling, drinking, eating or other drugs that claim us.  Addictions can be apparently harmless.  Surfing the internet seems harmless enough, until you realise you have lost days and weeks of your life doing it.  We lose ourselves in meaningless busyness, in rushing round fulfilling empty tasks, in competing with friends and neighbours, in acquiring the latest TV, sofa, car, clothes.  Modern life encourages us to find an addiction to dull the ennui.

Being present is hard.  Its even harder if you have an over-active imagination.  It is so much nicer to be lost in a story than facing the reality of life.  Doing the work of living.  Being real.  It is so easy to slip away and not come back.

Lately I have been away.  In the last couple of days, I’ve realised that life is tugging at the hem of my skirts, wanting me back, needing my attention.  I’m fighting it.  I don’t want to come back.  I want to stay in my fantasy world.

But life needs living.  We only get one go.  The art needs making, yes.  But our lives are our art too.

Don’t forget to live as well.

Happy Creative Living,

EF

PS – You might like to know that I have a new story out, The Retirement Party, a ‘Lewis’ romance, which you can read here at AO3 and here at FF.net.