Category Archives: Music

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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Inspiration Monday: Silence

pat oxburgh b&w

Husband sitting in the partially ruined church at Oxburgh, Norfolk

I was reading the chapter on silence in Christina Baldwin’s book ‘Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as Spiritual Practise’, and it immediately rang bells for me. I have a particular reason for this. Let me explain:

One of the symptoms of the chronic illness with which I live, ME/CFS, is sensitivity to noise. Some days are better than others, but there are everyday sounds in modern life that can create physical agony for me. And no, I’m not kidding.  I mean, I get actual pain. A cold electric current feeling up and down my spine and a nauseating icy pain in the back of my skull. Unpleasant to say the least.

For the first three years of my illness, I couldn’t listen to any music with a beat at all. Every thud of bass was like a knitting needle jabbed into my neck. No pop radio, no rock, no hand jiving in the car to the Stone Roses or the Pet Shop Boys. No Elvis.  No Beatles.  Nothing.

I couldn’t listen to anything much. Mozart and Bach worked, a little Handel mixed in. Beethoven proved too noisy, as did anything after him, although I did find I could handle some Vaughan Williams. Opera was right out, so goodbye to my favourite tenor, Placido Domingo. I just couldn’t bear to listen to him anymore.

Most of the time, though, any kind of noise was painful.

So for three years I avoided places where the music was piped, and had to ask friends who listened to music perpetually to turn down their stereos, which was mortifying because they just didn’t understand.

I adjusted to a world without music.

I learnt a different way of listening.

I listened to the birds, the ones that make pretty sounds, and the ones that don’t. I learnt I could set my watch by the rooks in the tree opposite the house. (They all get together and start shouting at one another at 3.30pm, no matter what time of year it is.) They’re funny, like one of those noisy markets where everyone is shouting about their wares.  I’m rather fond of rooks now.

I learnt to hear the vegetation around me too, the creaking trees and rustling shrubs, the fresh new spring leaves and the rattle of the dried autumn ones.

And the animals. The scuttle of mice in the undergrowth, the mewling squeaks the rabbits make, the scrabble of the squirrels on the roof tiles. The buzz of the mason bees under the window in the summer, the drone and thump of the hornets throwing themselves against the window, attracted by the light, in autumn.

I came to realise how much noise pollution we endure, day after day, the constant onslaught of a life lived with continual racket, the radio, the TV, the iPod, the piped music, the slot machines, even the roar of conversation echoing in the cavernous, sound-reflecting spaces of shopping malls. And how much we use recorded sound to blot out our minds, to stop us thinking too much.

The Christian mystics said that prayer is talking to God, but it isn’t much use if you don’t listen for when He speaks back. To hear the Divine, we have to be in silence. This is just as important when the voice that speaks inside us is the big, blousy, shriek as when it is the almost inaudible whisper. The practise of creativity demands that we listen. Sometimes, we have to listen hard, and without distractions.

When did you last spend time in silence? Do you make space for a little quiet time daily? Do you relish that moment when the kids are in bed, and you can sit down at the kitchen table with a glass of wine, take a deep breath, and just listen to the noises the house makes around you as it settles for the night? Or do you fill every waking hour with a constant cacophony to drown out the voices inside your head that are telling you the life you are living is not fulfilling you?

Out of the quiet comes not only spiritual fulfilment, spoken of in all religions, but human creativity. Out of silence come the stories we tell, the fantasies and day dreams that grow into novels, plays, paintings, films, concertos and ballets.

When we cultivate stillness, when we listen, we give our brains space to breathe. And yes, sometimes we then have to face up to the uncomfortable truths of our lives. But often, we have the opportunity to tap into wells of creative inspiration previously unknown to us. Our Muse’s voice can be heard.

You don’t have to take a vow of silence to benefit from stillness, and I’m not saying you should give up the joy of music. (I’m back on it now, and believe me, its one of my greatest inspirations.)

Listen to yourself.

What I am suggesting is that you take time daily to be in stillness. To listen to the sounds of the world around you instead of filling the void with canned synthetic noise. To listen to yourself. It may only be ten minutes, or the time you spend in the bathroom every morning, or half an hour before bed without the telly on. You don’t have to meditate, although that is good too. No, this is a different idea, a way of being quiet with ourselves, a way of listening for the inspiration to come. I know you lead a busy life, no doubt, and that quiet in a city is hard to find. But I assure you, it is there. You can find it. And when you do, immerse yourself in its balm, as often as you can, and allow it to feed your creative life.

Happy Creating,

EF

Preparing for a Writing Retreat

I’m so excited.  I’m going on a writing retreat!

This weekend, my writers group is convening at a nearby conference centre for a weekend of writing and eating and talking about writing and eating some more, and maybe a little bit of dozing or walking, and then some more writing.

We normally do this once a year, but this year, we enjoyed ourselves so much we thought we’d do it again at the end of the year.  So here I am, thinking about a weekend spent solely with my friends and the Work.

Over years of doing this, I’ve found I need to do a few things to prepare myself so that I get the most out of the time:

Plan:

I usually like to sit down with my writers notebook or my journal, and think about two things:

  • where I am, and
  • where I want to be.

This year I am thinking about the goals or intentions I have set myself for this website, for my publications, and for moving my writing on to the next level.  Its one of the few truly extended, uninterrupted periods I get to just write, so I like to choose a project that I can get my teeth into, but also one that really needs to be tackled.   Something pressing.

This year, I am toying with the idea of doing NaNoWriMo, because I want to crank out a novel as fast as possible.  So I have decided to lay the groundwork on this new idea, and throw myself into it, immerse myself in it as much as I can.  In previous years, I have redrafted novels or short stories, polished specific sections of a novel, worked specifically on character, or redrawn a dodgey plot.

My goal this year is especially fuelled with the knowledge that I need to be writing something original, something other than fanfiction.  Nothing wrong with fanfiction.  Its given me marvellous confidence in my work, and I love writing it.  I just think I need push myself, to do something new.

Manage expectations: 

I’m not going to finish an entire novel in a weekend.  I may even get no further than writing 500 words.  And I am okay with that.

When I first started going on retreats, I had HUGE expectations of myself and what I could achieve.  I thought I could crank out 20,000 words in two days, a third of a novel.  I thought I could create publisher-ready prose.  The truth is that even on retreat, there is only a limited amount of time, and making really good prose takes time.  A lot of time.  I have only learnt this with experience.

There have been several retreats where I have slept badly on the first night, or felt ill, and as a result have really been unable to do anything much at all apart from eat, sleep, talk with my fellow writers, and be.  Sometimes that is what a retreat is for.  I have gained from those experiences.  These days I am ready to allow my retreat to be whatever it needs to be, and to trust that whatever happens is part of the process.

So I make plans, but I don’t get too attached to them.

Be present:

Being aware of my physical wellbeing is very important on retreat, and not simply because I suffer from chronic illness.  I need to be present in my body, so I do yoga and meditate, go for walks, stand in the shower and feel the water on my skin, and take naps.  (One friend uses the annual retreat to undulge in long, hot, scented baths because she doesn’t have a tub at home!)  This might all seem time away from writing, but it is crucial.  Self care is part of retreating.  Doing these things allows me time to think about the writing, to form scenes and sentences in my head.  But it also allows me to come to the laptop refreshed afterwards.  So it is an investment in my writing, as well as my body.

Packing: 

As a result, packing right is really important.  I always make sure I take warm, snuggly clothes, my yoga mat and yoga clothes, a hot water bottle, walking boots and, on occasion, even a teddy bear for cuddling purposes.  And because I have weird dietary issues, I make sure I take an extra supply of good, healthy foods and my favourite herbal teas too.  The centre staff are really great in catering for my diet, but there are those in-between-meals moments, when what you really need to fuel the Muse is your own favourite brand of chocolate!

Be absent: 

I get very anxious when I am away from home.  I need to be grounded in my safe environment in order for my imagination to work properly.  It helps that we have been going on retreat to the same place for years, and also that it really isn’t very far from my own home, so I feel like I am on home turf.  Other people find their imagination is stimulated by unfamiliar territory.  Mine just shuts down so that my emotional system can cope with the panic attacks.

To counter this, I take music and listen to it doggedly in order to transport me to safe psychic territory.  I put on my headphones, close my eyes and fly away.  And then I can write.

It is a major diffence to how I normally write, which is in silence.  So part of my preparation ritual is to gather music around me.  I make playlists for different characters, delve into iTunes and my CD collection,  choose music that evokes particular memories or landscapes for me, or none at all.

Allow it: 

Going on retreat is supposed to be calming, an activity to feed your soul.  Its supposed to be downtime from your usual life.  As a result it is easy to get really wound up about how good it is going to be, and then find yourself disappointed.  To feel like you just aren’t calm enough, or getting enough done, or maybe even that you are wasting time that should be spent looking after the kids, doing the washing or writing that sales report.  This harks back to managing expectations.  But it also has a deeper meaning.

you are allowed to have time to yourself

You aren’t being selfish.  Leave all your SHOULDS and OUGHTS at home.  You deserve to have this time spent solely with yourself, doing something you love.  I continue to struggle with this.  I tend to make retreat a time which is about productivity rather than identity – about being myself and giving myself what I need.  When you accept retreat as a gift to yourself, managing expectations becomes easier.  And that precious dimension of writing that no one seems to talk about – moodling – becomes possible.  Have a weekend’s moodle.  Because you are worth it.

I heartily recommend going on a retreat if you can manage it.  Maybe for a day, or even overnight.  Maybe just for an afternoon.  If you are looking for ideas and guidance, I also recommend Judy Reeves’ wonderful ‘A Writers Retreat Kit:  A Guide for Creative Exploration and Personal Expression’, which I ordered recently from Amazon in preparation for this weekend.

Now I had better get back to my packing!

Happy writing (and moodling)

EF

A Little Melodic Inspiration

Where do your ideas come from?

That is the question most writers dread.  Or rave about.  Iain Banks rants about it at great length in his glorious book, ‘Raw Spirit‘:

“Leaving aside the obvious, ‘Class A drugs, actually’ or, ‘A wee man in Auchtermuchty’, I’ve sometimes wondered what sort of answer people really expect to this.”

(‘Raw Spirit’ by Iain Banks, Century Books London, 2003 p255)

And so he goes on. I asked him at a signing once about how he dealt with getting stuck in the middle of a novel, and he obviously interpreted it as me asking The Question, and didn’t take it well!

But in my mind its a reasonable question for one thought alone, and it is this:

Maybe we don’t know where the ideas come from, but how do we get our minds into the right place for them to arrive? 

Its about putting lots of mulch in the ground to make it a rich, fertile place for new things to grow.

I have an assortment of answers to this problem, but today I thought I would share one of them with you.

Music.

I make a playlist for every novel I write.  When I am sitting down to work on a scene, or with the characters, I play the playlist on my headphones, and this gets me in the mood, gets me in touch with the characters, the environment, the colours and sounds through which they move.  Often, particular characters end up being associated with specific tracks.

And sometimes, it is just one piece of music that I hear that sparks a story, or gets me in the mood to write.

Here are some to try:

Richard Hawley – Standing at the Sky’s Edge

(This is the core soundtrack for a novel I am working on at the moment)

Suede – Asbestos

(This is the ‘title theme’ for a novel about my favourite character, Evenlode.)

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughn Williams

(This last one I listened to for six months pretty much continually while I was writing the climactic scenes for my first novel, which was set on the South Downs in Pre-Roman Britain.)

Writing Exercise:

Get out your CD collection, or your iPod, or fire up youtube, however you listen to music.  Listen to a few tracks and see what mental images are conjured up.  What landscape can you see?  What kind of people inhabit this world? Can you see their faces?  What challenges are they facing?  Who do they love?  Who do they hate?

Get out your writing notebook and begin to set down what you can of these images.  You may need to make lists of ideas or words, or you might like to write passages of description.  You might even draw!  Note everything that comes to you, and listen again, as many times as you need to in order to get out as much as you can.

Don’t forget to write down the piece of music and the artist whose work generated the images you have found.

This exercise may prompt a whole new story, or you could use your descriptions to feed into something you are already working on, or something you have yet to write.  Nothing you write is ever wasted – it can all be recycled into new work.

Happy listening – and writing!