Monday, 31 December 2012

You've gotta have faith...

It's been that time of the year when I find myself reflecting on Christmas and what it all means. I wrote something some time ago sort of connected with this and I like to read it once a year to see if anything's changed. Enjoy...

You've gotta have faith...Or so the popular lines of a song would have us believe. But do you have to have faith? And what is faith? As I grow older I find myself reflecting on faith and what it means to other people. The dictionary defines faith as a strong or unshakeable belief in something esp. without proof. 

I don’t have faith. My parents and the Loved One’s mother have faith. It's a wonderful faith that compels them to worship every Sunday, not permitting them to linger over breakfast or to dig in their heels. Faith that moves them to say I’ll pray for you when one or other family member is in strife. Meanwhile, I chew my cuticles and wonder what I can do to help, envious of what appears to be perfect and humble knowledge that prayer is the answer.
I try to lead the kind of life people with faith define as being Christian. I help elderly people in supermarkets, I bundle up my family’s worn-out clothing and put it in the brotherhood bin, but neither of these gives me any sense of faith. Nor is it out of any sense of faith that I encourage our children to give thanks for the food on our table. Quite simply, I was brought up in Africa. I don’t pray if my family is in turmoil. I might have a few quiet tears. I might mutter Oh help! Or, Somebody, please help me. There is never a response to this of course, but putting the words out there seems to calm me. 

I admire people with faith, people who are sustained by a strength and well-being gained from somewhere in the face of negativity and wrong-doing, people who have forgiveness in their hearts. I wish I had that. Various people – complete strangers arriving uninvited on my doorstep – will tell me that I will find faith if I pray to the Lord and go to church. I don’t tell them that as a child and teenager I was forced to church with my siblings, with the result that I now very seldom enter a church and if I do it’s not for religious reasons. I don’t believe I am likely to find what they understand by faith, and, if by some miracle – I don’t use the word loosely  - I do, I am certain it won’t be in the places they suggest I look for it.

On Saturday, close to sunset, I walked our blue-heeler on the nearby golf course. A storm had recently passed through and the sky remained heavy with bruised and threatening clouds. The vast expanse of shorn wet grass was a dark luminous green in the queer half-light. Pale ethereal trunks of solitary gum trees loomed from the sidelines. Ahead of me in the distance occasional jagged remnants of lightning flared. What I experienced then – tightness in my chest, tears behind my eyes – cannot by the dictionary’s definition be faith. Some might say I was simply moved by a sudden and overwhelming love of nature; others will prefer to analyse differently. They may both be right. What’s important is that it seems to be enough to sustain me.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

The creative process...

I recently revisited an essay I wrote nearly two years ago for a uni assignment. It was an analysis of my creative process. At the time my creative process was something I hadn’t thought about. I wrote, badly mostly, and that was enough. I didn't need to know how or why I wrote.  And there was a part of me that didn’t want to know. I thought that by delving into how I write I might uncover something unnerving or, worse still, jinx the whole business.

The essay wasn't good. I talked around the subject. Waffled. Made claims regarding my style. Foolishly and embarrassingly compared myself to other (great!) writers. In my defence I don’t think I knew how to analyse the process of my writing. It wasn’t something I’d ever considered before. A part of me thought it was self-indulgent, an obsession with self, the “look at me” phase we seem to be in. 

But since then I’ve become more aware of my creative process. It’s drifted in the back of my mind, never quite going away. I've been watching and paying attention. And that today, far from pronouncing it as self-indulgence, I think it’s a good thing. It’s good because I see now that all the little things I do before I actually sit down and start typing a story – the little things I’m often impatient with, the things I saw before as procrastination – are actually part of a bigger cycle. 

I've been working through these things I do, and the one that comes first is allowing myself time to think.

Photo courtesy Peter George

When I say ‘think” I don’t mean thinking through a potential story. Or even a chapter of the story. I mean starting with the very basics. The first character. I put that character into my head, in this case he’s a he and of a certain age, and I let him sit there. And he does sit because, as I said, he’s of a certain age. I see the room he’s in, I notice the details of the weather outside, and what kind of landscape he lives in. But that’s all for now. I'm not sure yet what he's going to do. At the moment he’s sitting there not doing anything. He simply is. 

And you might say, What?

But this is what I’ve learned. This is how it works and I’ve got to trust myself. 

And him... 

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Lost in Translation

Yesterday a friend asked me if I was going to see The Life of Pi, which is due on the big screen soon.  No, I said, and went on to tell her why I have an aversion to seeing movies based on books I’ve read and loved. 

·      The characters in movies are mostly never as I’ve imagined them. Take Robbie Turner in Atonement. I saw him clearly in my head from the first day in the garden with Cecilia. He was tall and fair-headed. He had presence, but he was sensitive and confused. In the movie version Robbie is played by James McAvoy. James McAvoy is short and dark. Playing against Keira Knightley he seemed small and weak.  It just didn't work for me.


·      Once I’ve seen a movie I can’t get the movie characters out of my head, and my problem is I forget how my imagined characters looked and spoke.  I can’t seem to reclaim them. It's disturbing, no longer having access to my own idea of a character. I don’t like it. Is it some form of brain washing?  

Sometimes I’ve seen movies based on books for the simple fact that I don’t think I’m likely to read the book.  This often makes me read the book, which is a great outcome. See The Elegance of the Hedgehog. A wonderful movie. And an even more wonderful book.  Interestingly, I did not keep the movie characters in my head when I read the book. I’m not sure I know why.  

For years I’ve persisted in seeing movies based on books.  But I’m learning. Lately I’ve been making exceptions.  The Road, The Time Traveller’s Wife, The Kite Runner? I didn’t go.  I haven’t seen them.


Now I’m making a stand on The Life of Pi.  

Is this just me, or do others feel this way, too?

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Passage by Connie Willis

I never intended for this blog to be a place to review books, but every now and then a book comes along that I feel compelled to mention. 


Stunning cover. Tick.


Today this book is Passage by Connie Willis.  Published in 2001*, I have seen it described as sci-fi, but in my opinion it’s speculative fiction. What happens if... It covers a topic which will affect each and every one of us at some point in our lives: dying. It’s not so much about dying, or about grief. What it’s about is that time immediately before we die, and what happens in that space of time. Near-death experiences. Or NDEs, which, apparently, are remarkably similar the world over.  The feeling of being in a tunnel, of undertaking a journey, white light etc. 


But what if you had the opportunity to experience more than one NDE, and instead of hovering in the tunnel waiting to see what was going to happen next, you went down that tunnel and stepped beyond the light?  


The protagonist of Passage, Dr Joanna Lander, a psychologist at Mercy General Hospital, does precisely that and what she finds beyond the tunnel is... Well, you didn’t really think I was going to tell you, did you?  Let me just say that the premise of Passage is compelling. I take my hat off to the writer because it’s an incredibly well-structured and planned narrative. It abounds in metaphors and in literary quotations and references. The characters are convincing and credible, and it’s very moving. Distressing, in fact.  I think I cried so much because I was convinced that Joanna had discovered what happens when we die. I had to remind myself that it was only fiction. Nobody knows. Nobody has returned from the dead to tell us. 


I have two criticisms, which is a shame because otherwise this novel would be on my Top Ten List. One is that at 594 pages it was too long, and it didn’t need to be. We could have lost 100 or so pages and it wouldn’t have changed anything.  The other is, who is Connie Willis? And why had I never heard of her before?  That’s rectified now, but I thought it was sad that I almost missed out on her work. 


*How did I stumble upon this book so late in the piece?  I was Googling another very famous writer, and I came across her list of Top Ten Reads, and Passage was at number ten.  I could not put this book down, was what she said.


Monday, 12 November 2012

Getting the story down

As writers we all have different ways of getting the first draft of a story on to the page.  Some believe in writing it down without worrying too much about grammar, punctuation and scenery, while others like to fill in all the details - to get it almost perfect - before moving on.  (Sometimes the latter can be confused with procrastination, but as long as you can tell the difference between the two that's okay.)

We are, at present, in the month of NaNoWriMoI’m going right off the topic here but bear with me, this has relevance. For those of you who don't know, NaNoWriMo challenges writers to get down 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. And at least one writer I know (Go, Kerri!) is churning out thousands of words a day.  This NaNoWriMo phenomenon, coupled with the fact that I am busy revising and redrafting my completed manuscript, have together given me cause to think about how the words are put onto the page.  



When you type or write the words on to the page for the first time – and I’m talking fiction here, writing a novel or a short story – you create a scene that is fresh and original.  It hasn’t been seen or written before.  Let’s say, for instance, that the scene contains two children, a boy and girl, at the beach.  The house they’ve come from is up on a cliff.  The beach is secluded and there’s no one else there. The sea water sparkles and glimmers. The children squint into the sun. The tide is out and the sand glistens with moisture. Waves, edged by froth, push and pull at the shore’s edge. Occasionally the sand is decorated by a sea shell or a striated beach pebble. The boy has a stick. He’s bent over, concentrating on drawing lines in the hard wet sand. They’re going to run a race. The girl, her hands on her hips, watches him. She thinks the boy will easily beat her, but then she sees that he’s given her a head start, that she could actually win...and so on.



Now, if I were churning out this story, racing to get the words onto the page – as I assume the writers in NaNoWriMo are doing – I wouldn’t have all the detail I do. I would put the children on the beach, get the boy to draw lines in the sand, let the girl think she could win, which she does, and get them into the sea water, which is my goal in this scene. Once they’re in the water I probably would include more detail, because the boy nearly drowns and the girl has to rescue him. But then, in an effort to get the words on to the page, to get the story down, I would move on – to the next scene.  And let’s assume I wrote the whole narrative in this fashion, without thinking overly much about the scenery or the setting or what either of the characters were thinking.  


Fast forward to where I’ve got the entire narrative down, and I’m revising. Editing, redrafting, etc. I’ve gone back to this scene and I’m filling in the gaps – the colour of the sky, the texture of the sand, what the children are wearing.  But the scene is no longer fresh or original. I’m not seeing it for the first time. I’ve been here already. And because of this I can no longer see it adequately.  It’s all a little dull. A little muted. And it’s really hard work to get myself back into it, because the second time around I seem to be looking at it from an outsider’s viewpoint, rather than actually being in it. 



This is my experience as a writer. And this is why NaNoWriMo wouldn’t work for me. As it is I have a hard enough time slowing down and smelling both the roses and the weeds when I’m creating a scene. But I am learning from my mistakes. I know now that the most effective way for me to write is to dawdle in a scene the first time round, and not try and race through it in an effort to get the words onto the page.

I’d be interested to hear what other writers think…