So what is it that makes someone who writes paint?

Or someone who paints, make music? Or someone who makes film, write poetry? Or, for that matter, someone who designs buildings also write, compose, paint and take artistic photographs? Pretty obvious really, I suppose. For doesn’t it all come from the same source. Inspiration. That orgasmic, organic drive to create. It’s just, in some people, it works it’s way through to the solid world along many different channels.

And it takes a little navigating through the ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ way of thinking. Which can be true, but not always. Definitely not always. It’s maybe just a case of things taking a lot longer to establish when you’re one of those creatives, like me, who just can’t be tied down to a life of servitude to only one face of the muse. But if you’re trying to establish an income – trying to turn your creative endeavours into cash – it usually pays to stick to one area and carve your niche there. That’s life made a little easier. And, indeed, that sort of challenge can be very exciting. Putting your creativity into your strategic planning. Your brand. etc. etc.

I’ve thought about that. I’ve conversed with my business self many times and that part of me makes perfect, logical sense. (I have a very entrepreneurial spirit, after all). But, I get tired of logic, don’t you? And also the corporate-speak that is creeping into every facet of our lives, even creativity. (I shook my head in disbelief when I recently came across a corporate buzz-word ‘Kaizen’ used in an artistic setting. Homogenization horror!)

For deep down, and I mean really deep down – there is an urgency to create freely, no matter what. No matter if I’m not able to be successful. For that’s the thing. How do you judge your success. How do you measure it? For me, that’s easy. I judge my success by my own standards. I have my own agenda. My own philosophy. I’m happy to do what FEELS right. If that’s creating a short film – great. If that’s painting a series of large panels – great. If that’s writing story into play, or novel, or short story format- then so be it. If that’s exiling myself to a cave to express in reams of poetry… why not? It might not work for some, but for others, this sort of practice can cross germinate. One project or expression can inject a growth spurt into another. Or allow it time to evolve over a long period of time, while you turn your eyes away and rest them on another medium. It can keep you energised and moving. A creative fire, alive and burning rather than a growing heap of dust.

It can also keep you poor. For a potentially long time. Depends if you have that lucky touch of being in the right place at the right time. I’m not counting on luck though. I’ve tried the lottery a few times. Nothing doing. So I’m in for the long haul. I’m making a friend of time. A key component in all this, I have to admit.

So, that’s me! But how about you? Do you create ‘across the board’ or do you focus on one thing? Is there something you’d love to try in another art form other than the one you work in?

Bunking off school isn’t your usual precursor to a lifelong love of books is it?

Well no… but if I hadn’t made a habit of bunking off, I’d have never spent so much time in the local library. It was warm. Had seats. Plenty of nooks and crannies to hide in. What wasn’t to like about it?

And of course, there were the books. Lot’s of them. So, what did I do? Of course… I continued my education. On my own terms. An autodidact. For life.

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Why was I there, and not at school? Well, a couple of reasons. One I’m not telling, and the other was pretty much ‘school’ itself. If you’ve ever suffered from acute shyness then you know exactly what I mean. That whole ‘standing up in class’ to read from a book? What’s that even about? Not all of us want to be great orators. Not all of us want that much attention. Ok, so some of us might need a gentle push to take us out of our comfort zones in order to fulfil some future potential. But equally, some of us just like being left alone. And to continue that way, quite happily, into the future. So, it was quite a comfort to read Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet’. It actually put a voice, a very eloquent voice, to my thoughts and feelings on all this. Required reading for everyone, I think. Put it on the syllabus, I think. And that goes for teacher training literature and putting in the hands of school policy makers.

I mean, as far as education timetables go – doesn’t it seem odd that the very time of life that hormones kick in corresponds exactly with the start of exams? Surely the teenage brain can be put to much better, more creative and societally beneficial use for those few important years? I know there’s all kinds of scientific research backing up what most of us already know instinctively, about the teenage brain being different. But is it being put into some useful context yet? Jury’s out.

Anyway, at that age, I had my own ideas. And, thanks to that welcoming book infested library – especially the ‘do-it-yourself’ section – I knew I could acquire knowledge as and when required. Live by the seat of your pants stuff. (Perhaps no coincidence that I was developing at the same time as punk – here’s some of me ol’ mucker, Jon Lydon’s, thoughts on those times).

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But of course, those were ‘happy days’. Those ‘seat of the pants’ days. The ones where you could get a job simply by going in and asking for one. All you needed was initiative and desire to work. Where the impression you gave to the boss right there ‘on the spot’ might actually bag you a source of income. Middle management wasn’t such a big thing then. Bosses could actually make decisions. And walking in to ask for a job? Nowadays? It’s all ‘CV’s by post or email only please’. Followed by checking the internet for your digital audit trail… Oh yes, all that silly nonsense you might share on social networks (note to self – delete silly nonsense before big brother leaves a comment)…

All this reminiscing has got me wandering what’s going to happen in the years to come. I’ll watch, as always, with interest. Well, that’s when I’m not reading. Or writing.

So what was your experience with school? Did you love it? Have a teacher that left an amazingly deep impression on you? Or, like me, did you go your own way… if so, how did you survive?

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.

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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.

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‘.

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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…