The intoxicant of choice…

…to boost creativity has to be… music. Well we can’t go on being the reckless wildchild of our youth forever can we? So no, the healthy option has to be music. That powerful memory cue (which can transport us back to those wild and reckless days), and a universal feature of human societies. And the perfect way as a writer, to immerse yourself into the heart of your character or the underlying emotional pull of your story. The unifying feel of it.

After all, isn’t music capable of evoking exceptionally strong emotions in us? Can it not be heavily relied on to affect our mood? It’s a well documented fact (for those of us that didn’t know by intuition), that music in Minor Keys evoke a sense of melancholy, while music in Major Keys evoke a sense of happiness – as a general rule. In fact, there’s a lot of scientific study around sound frequency/music and it’s affect on our brain and perception, etc. Quite interesting stuff if you have the inclination. So by choosing a musical piece (preferably an instrumental – as lyrics can interfere with the writing side of your brain) – in the right key, you will place yourself in the perfect frame of mind to express the underlying emotional theme of your story or character. It’s totally visceral.

21 Gram Film Poster

While writing The Ungecila Report – a short story about a man living in a future yet to be recognised as dystopian, and drawn into a conspiracy that saw his father murdered at the hands of a secret government agency – I played these 3 tracks on a loop the whole time. In this story, our man is a reluctant hero. My favourite kind. Take a listen to him…

Tazarine – from the film ‘Babel
When Our Wings Are Cut, Can We Still Fly? – from the film ‘21 Grams
Iguazu – also from Babel (and all 3 composed by the wonderful Gustavo Santoalalla)

Can you hear that sort of downbeat, heaviness? The hangdog melancholic pulled along by circumstance? Well, that was what I heard. Now, whenever I listen to these compositions, they have imprinted the desire to write him some more. He lives, breathes and suffers in these sounds.

If that sounds nuts… so what. It works. For me at least. But whatever your reason for listening, there’s no getting around it – music is a joy. Food for the soul and it’s creative spark, and don’t we all need a bit of that.

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Characters in conflict

Conflict. It’s around us every single day in one form or another. Maybe it doesn’t seem that way, but scratch away at the shiniest of lives and beneath the veneer there’s sure to be conflict. Can’t do without it. It’s the stuff of life. Of interesting lives lived.

Of course, people don’t necessarily like or invite conflict. Would you? No? Me neither. In fact I’d say I’m severely allergic to it – probably based on too much early exposure… A theme touched on in my current manuscript. But it’s conflict that changes us. Moves us forward. Forces our hand at big decisions. It’s what we respond to in Story. And it can take on many guises, for example:

In Patrick Suskind’s novella, ‘The Pigeon’ – (and if you haven’t read it, you really should. But if you need more convincing, check out this in-depth review http://jim-murdoch.blogspot.com.es/2010/09/pigeon.html) In short, the protagonist Jonathan Noel is living a quiet, orderly life in Paris. He’s found a level of contentment that he’s convinced himself he’s happy with. Then in the hallway of the apartment block he lives in, a Pigeon appears one day and throws our poor protagonist into an existential crisis and inner conflict, as he responds to an irrational fear of the trapped bird. He decides to pack and leave for work by means other than the front door and after a disastrous day at work, books into a hotel, thinking he will take his life that night. However, after a strange night of dreams he returns home to find the pigeon gone.

I love this book for it’s short but profound simplicity, which mainly focuses on the one level of conflict. But lets look at all three…

The extra-personal – conflict involving society at large, institutions or the physical environment for example.

The personal – conflict with co-workers, peers, friends, family or lovers.

The inner – obviously the closet level of conflict which see’s a mind in conflict with itself or it’s emotions.

Now, think of how sublime a story could be if you pitted your protagonist against all three of these levels of conflict. What would he/she do? How would they come out of that? Now, that kind of journey would rivet me to the spot, as indeed it has. I’m thinking of one of my all time favourite films, from the book by Hubert Selby, Jr – titled ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn‘.

Last Exit to Brooklyn dvd cover

Set in Brooklyn in the 1950’s against a backdrop of union corruption and violence, where we see Harry Black – only one of a host of characters – promoted from factory machinist to union official during a long strike (extra-personal conflict). He is a closet homosexual who is married with a child, and who regularly abuses his wife and gets into fights (personal conflict) to prove he is a man (fuelled by the inner conflict surrounding his sexuality).

Or another favourite ‘The Insider‘. A film based on an article written by Marie Brenner about the true events surrounding the life of Jeffrey Wigand – a tobacco industry whistle-blower in the early 1990’s, whose testimony leads to the industry paying out for tobacco related healthcare costs in 46 states.

Here we have a man pitted against a billion dollar corporation trying to ruin his reputation (extra-personal) to silence him. Who is faced with the breakdown of his marriage (personal) and in a state of turmoil over being forced into the spotlight by his conscience and anger (inner). Again, we see all 3 levels of conflict at work which make these stories and other stories like them stand out from the mundane.

And whilst I admit, these films don’t let you off the hook by giving you a nice, comfy cosy ending, they are about fellow human beings who are trying to navigate their lives through various degrees of suffering. Uncompromising at times, but true. So thank you to Uli Edel and Michael Mann for directing these two hugely satisfying films so well, and for the writers who inspired them to do so as well as the novelists of the past, present and future who place conflict at the heart of all the stories I have yet to discover. 

I’d love to recieve all your recommend films or novels that might fit the bill! Just leave me your suggestions – maybe your Top 3 – in the comments :0)

Cutting loose your character

Ever lived with a character for a long time before they finally make it to the page?

I wrote a short piece of fiction over 25 years ago. It was like the first draft of a poem. Raw. A little too personal. But I liked it that way. It was a kind of therapeutic expression, as writing poetry can often be. But, over time, those blood-letting poems need to be detached from you by the umbilical chord. Set free and, over time, evolved from the personal to the universal if they are to resonate with others. That is their survival technique.

Well, I am finally cutting that chord and giving this particular character her own life. She’s evolving into her own person, away from me. She’s beginning to write her own story like fictional characters are apt to do once they’ve been given a world to populate. And that’s just fine by me.

Oh, and her name’s Flowers. Just don’t call her Daisy.
Never, not ever, call her Daisy…