The opportunistic writer

Here’s a confession: I don’t write every day. I don’t follow that most cherished piece of advice from writers much more successful and no doubt better than myself. I don’t apply my bum to my chair every day and work on my craft. Not for a moment do I think that it isn’t possible for me to find the time every day. I could. I simply choose not to.

Sometimes, 24 hours aren’t enough. Not enough to do well at the day job, to eat, sleep, relax, and then also to write. I am very fortunate in that I’ve got a job I enjoy, but this also means it can be hard to turn it off at the end of the day. It means I’m frequently so engrossed that I work long days, leaving little time for anything else. Certainly, little time for anything that requires more brains than a remote control and a sofa at the end of the day. Add a strict writing regime to that, and it can become a bit much.

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I have tried to develop the habit of daily writing, adopting quite a few strategies to force myself to carve out a writing-shaped piece of the day. A notification app to remind me to write? The app was too rigid and my day too fluid, and when my writing invariably decoupled from the notifications the whole exercise turned into one of pointless nagging. A set time for writing? That was swallowed by early-morning experiments, surprise lunchtime meetings and late-night broken equipment. I still wrote, but I felt bad about not writing at the right time. NaNoWriMo? Nope, November is deadline month in my field. A writing group? Ate my best writing hours, and filled it with talk of writing.

Every strategy was sub-optimal, frustrating or downright counterproductive. Tools are no substitute for will. And by squeezing myself into a daily regime, that will dwindled and was replaced by guilt and frustration. I found that it hindered more than helped. So I don’t write every day, at a set time, like a professional. Instead, I write as and when it works. I just make very sure it works a lot of the time. I know which times are likely to work, and I aim for them, but don’t beat myself up on the days that I fail.

I am a contented opportunistic writer. I’ve got a lightweight laptop, a notebook and no schedule. Some days, they gather dust. That’s okay – I just write when the deadline has passed or the conference is done. Or before, after or in between. There’s always an opportunity. It may take me a bit longer to finish a book, but I always finish it.

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How do you find time to write?

Horror, death and isolation

The more I read horror, the less I think of it as genre fiction. Sure, there are things that go bump, there are tentacles and fangs and clowns, but horror to me is not about monsters, it’s about the monstrous. So what is the monstrous, if not some alien beast wanting to devour the terrified protagonist? On the surface, what is and isn’t monstrous will probably differ from person to person, but there appears to be some universal themes. Death, for example, and isolation. Both are inevitable and inescapable, and if we dig deep down, they frighten us. They are part of a bigger pantheon of ‘ultimate concerns’ (according to existential psychotherapy), which also include gems such as meaninglessness and absence of external structure (dubbed ‘freedom’). Horror stories that tap into these anxieties work on an existential level, and may, in addition to terrifying us, help us process these unsettling topics in a safe setting.

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Let’s start with death. We have an instinctive fear of death. It may be conscious or unconscious, but most if not all of us possess a smidgen of death anxiety. It may not be something we think about every day, but it is there, ready to raise its ugly head if the situation calls for it. The loss of a loved one, a threatening disease, an accident – anything that reveal how thin the film of life truly is can bring about death anxiety. A few years back, I read Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy, which is a tome on the theoretical and practical aspects of the same. It was a surprisingly interesting book given how dry the cover looked. In it, Yalom spends a great amount of time discussing death, fear of death and denial of death. “The fear of death plays a major role in our internal experience; it haunts as nothing else does; it rumbles continuously under the surface; it is a dark, unsettling presence at the rim of consciousness”, Yalom says 1.

Horror deals with death like few other genres, from the (usually) imminent death of the protagonist to the perversion of death in your average zombie, ghost, vampire or undead monster. We get the fear of death as well as the denial of death in one neat package. Typically, we also see the avoidance of death as the story tends to permit the survival of the protagonist. A fascination with horror often emerges in teenage years, which incidentally is when most first experience anxiety about death. Horror may thus be a way to contemplate and familiarise ourselves with death – a ‘safe’ venue to experiment with it and analyse it. Even a place to ridicule it, in some genres of horror. The role of stories in dealing with death is nicely put in the following quote:

“When we are young, we deny death with the help of parental reassurances and secular and religious myths; later, we personify it by transforming it into an entity, a monster, a sandman, a demon. After all, if death is some pursuing entity, then one may yet find a way to elude it; besides, frightening as a death-bearing monster may be, it is less frightening than the truth — that one carries within the spores of one’s own death.” 2

Horror may, in short, be a way to process death without having to break down the dissociation between intellectually knowing death is coming and truly being aware of the end. It is a way to deal with death without having to stare into its abyss, with all its associated dread and terror.

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Then there is isolation. When referring to isolation, I am not talking about the trope of exploring the scary basement alone, although I am sure there is a relatively blunt metaphor in there. Existential isolation is more than just being temporarily alone. It is the awareness that there will always be an unbridgeable gap between yourself and others, even in their presence. We are born alone, and we die alone.

Horror is very rarely a rousing exercise in team building: the final chapter usually sees the protagonist alone in the face of terror. Isolation and alienation play key parts, sometimes building towards the end, sometimes existing from the first page. In Richard Matheson’s terrific I am Legend, the horror of the protagonist is both being preyed upon and the unbearable knowledge that he is completely alone. Without spoiling the ending of the book, isolation is a thread that runs through the entire novel and becomes almost beautifully poignant in the final chapter. Kafka’s The Trial is a tour de force of isolation (although arguably not horror in the strict, classical sense). Even the tagline of Alien, “In space, no one can hear you scream”, might not have been half as effective if the horror of isolation was not such a familiar one. In the words of Joseph Conrad: “We live, as we dream, alone” (Heart of Darkness).

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While these themes are prominent in horror storytelling, they are of course not restricted to the genre. However, what horror brings to the table, that other genres may not, are elements of fear and disgust. Horror deals in these elements as a rule and not as an exception. Fear/disgust can act as a shortcut, bringing the reader of horror closer to the anxieties of death and isolation than other genres typically do, such as sci-fi and fantasy. It can also provide a buffer or tool for dealing with such anxieties. Fear, unlike anxiety, is something that can be faced and conquered. By putting these ultimate anxieties front and center, surrounding them with fear and disgust to allow the reader to feel a visceral reaction that is close (but yet safely removed) to the edge of the abyss, horror allows us to be just scared enough. We can play with death and isolation, analyse them and inspect them up close (in a safe setting), before we personify them (using whichever monster that strikes our fancy) and kill them off. Horror, to me, is thus not so much niche genre as a natural part of the human condition.

 

References:
1. Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (1980) page 27
2. Irvin Yalom, Love’s executioner and other tales of Psychotherapy (1989) page 5

Salieri the villain

“I will speak for you, Father. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.”

If I had to choose a favourite film, it would be Amadeus, almost solely because of my appreciation for Salieri. It is Salieri who carries the story, Salieri who narrates, Salieri with whom we identify. Salieri is the protagonist, and Salieri is the villain.

I have pondered this film often enough to figure out why I love Salieri’s brand of villainy so much, and have narrowed it down to four reasons.

First, Salieri and Mozart are similar. They share their love for music and their ambition to compose and be applauded. They occupy the same niche, even as Mozart is vastly more talented than Salieri. A relationship, even an antagonistic one, is built upon similarities as well as differences. The shared traits are amplifiers of the conflict. Without such parallels, the hero-villain dynamic becomes a simple black and white affair, but with them, we get nuances of grey. It is in these patches of overlap that relationships become interesting, but to achieve that, there needs to be common ground. Salieri is hopelessly fascinated with Mozart’s music, adores it like no other in the film. He is touched to the core by reading the sheet music for Serenade for Winds, and while he engineers the failure of The Marriage of Figaro, he attends all of its limited performances in secret. This fuels his hatred for Mozart but also creates complicating moments of sympathy between the characters.

Second, Salieri and Mozart are different. We see Salieri in the beginning of the film, a respected composer with reasonable talent, likable, civilised: a fortunate, content man. Enter Mozart, a loud and crass man, and from Salieri’s (and therefore the audience’s) point of view undeserving of his talent. Where Salieri is reserved, Mozart is boisterous; where Salieri is knowledgeable, Mozart is ignorant; where Salieri is manipulative, Mozart is naive. Interestingly, this is perpetuated throughout the film, but increasingly in reverse. As Mozart’s flamboyance, braying laughter, thoughtlessness and tactlessness give way to a much more subdued and arguably more sympathetic character, Salieri becomes aggressive, overtly nasty (see the scene with Mrs Mozart) and cruel.

This balancing of Salieri’s villainy with the tempered Mozart is crucial to allow the two characters to stay at opposite ends of the spectrum as the story progresses. It maintains the diametrically opposite relationship and forms the contrast against which Salieri’s descent can be more clearly seen. At the same time, the love for music tethers the increasingly villainous protagonist and his increasingly sympathetic antagonist to each other, never allowing them to drift apart.

Thirdly, Salieri’s justification is clear. From Mozart’s introduction and his tactless reworking of Salieri’s welcome composition in a public and humiliating manner, we understand Salieri. Who has not felt mediocre, envious, and bitter at the success of others, and presumably with less cause? His every petty thought is relatable on some level. Upon Mozart’s arrival, Salieri’s talent is instantly dwarfed, his self-image and ambition crushed. He is humiliated and insulted. It is no great stretch to see that he wants retribution. Maybe even deserves it. Unlike weaker villains, Salieri gives us someone with whom to identify, leading us every tiny step of the way into the role of villain. It is a well-crafted slippery slope, each move so easily justifiable almost until the end. Particularly since Salieri’s jealousy is ever tempered by his love for Mozart’s music. Even in his final deceit, Salieri supports the composition whilst working to destroy the composer.

Finally, Salieri is unable to win. Even though Mozart dies, poor and almost alone, Salieri still loses and destroys himself through his own inadequacy, jealousy and rage. If the story had ended with Mozart’s burial, the film would have been a much simpler story of one man destroying another. Instead, we are given the final scene: Salieri wheeled away, old, mad and bitter, having endured a front-row seats to his own destruction for 32 years, watching himself judged by time and found lacking. All to the tune of the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor.

“Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you all.”

Exit stage.

Painting the North

Kaare Espolin Johnson (1907-1994) depicted the nature and culture of northern Norway better than any other artist I know. He would typically start with a black surface, then scratch white lines in the pigment, and sometimes overlay this with paint and further lines. The result was dramatic: oddly dark and atmospheric, maybe even a bit eerie, but undeniably strong. The unusual technique sprang from a lifetime of poor eyesight, rendering his world in lights against shadow, rather than shadow against light.

I have visited galleries containing his work on several occasions, and have always come away with a sense of awe. Perhaps unintended, I have also left with the sensation of secrets and undercurrents, of history and stories untold. There is something visceral about the paintings that makes me want to pick up the pen and start writing.

It may be due to superimposing white on black rather than the converse, but these paintings tickle my love for horror. Not in the sense that I think they depict horror – they do not – but from a feeling of seeing things the wrong way around. It is that unusual, almost uncanny, quality that resonates with me. The uncanny is staple fare of horror fiction, and typically linked to representations of the self. Ghosts, twins, dolls, even zombies – they may all inhabit the uncanny valley. With Espolin Johnson, however, it is not the depicted humans or scenes I find uncanny, but the observer. Me. When I look at these paintings, it is my gaze that is the wrong way around. I find that much more interesting.

The Pyramid in the Arctic

Is there anything more fascinating than abandoned towns? There’s a sense of drama in a hollowed-out building that is hard to replicate. Horror novels are full of them, dystopian fiction and sci-fi have seen their share, and post-apocalyptic fiction is nothing but the shells of yesteryear.

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Pyramiden (the Pyramid) was a small coal-mining town on Svalbard, which is an island in the Arctic Ocean. Swedish-built in 1910, Pyramiden was bought 17 years later by the Soviet Union and kept in business until 1998, when the coal ran out. At one point, the town had 1000 inhabitants, a petrol station, swimming pool and a library with Tolstoy and Dostojevsky. Now, the streets have been empty for nearly 20 years, save for the odd polar bear.

Houses were left in a hurry. They remain much the same as in 1998, decay slowed by the frigid climate. There are long-dead flowers on the windowsills, faded posters on the walls and rusted swings in the playground. The old coal mine is still in place, with its buildings, coal cars and tracks. It could remain like this for decades, if not centuries, if left undisturbed. The cold keeps the town preserved.

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While Svalbard is Norwegian territory, Pyramiden retains the feel of a Russian outpost. Signs are written in cyrillic and latin script, and an old bust of Lenin is silently surveying the settlement from the front of the old culture house. Tolstoy and Dostojevsky are still on the shelves.

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Pyramiden is named for the pyramid-shaped mountain by which it lies. It is 50km north of the nearest city, Longyearbyen (which is the world’s northernmost settlement with more than 1000 inhabitants), and there is a research station with 30-130 inhabitants about 100km to the west. Transport is by snowmobile or boat, weather permitting. And the weather does not always permit.

Part of the appeal of this place is its location, miles from everything else, tucked away amidst freezing water and held in the grips of permafrost. Svalbard holds vast expanses of glaciers, a fair share of mountains and fjords, and populations of arctic foxes, reindeer, whales and migrating birds. Much of the land around Pyramiden is protected in the form of two national parks: Nordre Isfjorden (which roughly translates to Northern Icefjord, see photo below) and Sassen-Bünsow Land National Park. I’d probably go for the landscape and wildlife alone, even without the added attraction of a ghost town.

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There is a small, recently opened hotel in Pyramiden, so staying in town is possible. While it at first seemed disappointing to have a human presence in the abandoned place (although not a permanent settlement), a small haven for visitors is probably not a bad idea given the remoteness and climate. Also, there’s the polar bears to consider… I’m not an avid camper nor much use with a firearm, so Hotel Tulip may be just the ticket after all.

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A few days at the Tulip could spin enough ideas to fuel horror stories for a decade. Whatever your monster of choice, I’m sure this town can house it. A ghoul? Sure – it is a ghost town after all. Disease? Absolutely – imagine frozen contagions freed in a thawing landscape. Vampires? Of course – this is north of Barrow, Alaska, and darker than 30 days of night. Sea monsters? The waters are dark too, and cold. Land monsters? Already have those if you count the polar bears. Below ground? There’s the mines. Dystopia? Well, if you needed a place to hide from the horrors of the world, or stage the revolution, this is pretty far way. I might just put it on the wishlist for 2017.

 

(All images credited in title (hover for information and links). Photos from (in order) ser_is_snarkish, Frode Ramore, Bente Nordhagen, Bjoertvedt, Jerzy Strzelecki and google maps).

Book Review: The World Without Us

I read a fair bit of non-fiction and often find that these books can be just as strange as their creative counterparts. The World Without Us (Alan Weisman, 2008) is one such stranger-than-fiction book.

What would happen if all humans suddenly vanished? How long before wildlife reclaimed cities? How long would our buildings last? How long before all traces of us are gone? In short, what would the world without us look like? It’s a fascinating hypothetical and sounds like it should be more than a bit disconcerting, but the book itself is quite positive in its description of our impermanence.

There are examples of places on earth where sudden human abandonment has already happened, including the Korean demilitarized zone and Chernobyl.

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Pripyat, Ukraine, abandoned April 27, 1986, the day after Chernobyl.

“In Pripyat, an unlovely cluster of concrete 1970s high-rises, returning poplars, purple asters and lilacs have split the pavement and invaded buildings. Unused asphalt streets sport a coat of moss.”

In the wake of human disappearance, nuclear plants would eventually overheat, and the world might see Chernobyl after Chernobyl. It might also see the triumphant return of many endangered species. In Korea, the 4 km wide demilitarized zone is one of few remaining refuges for the Asiatic black bear with its white chest patch, the tusked Chinese water deer, and the exceedingly rare Amur leopard.

What about cities? The book uses New York City as an example. This is, as most other cities, a ‘tamed’ landscape. The land upon which NYC was built was once packed with streams, now replaced by the storm sewer systems and kept in check by more than 700 pumps. If humans disappeared, the pumps would stop, the streams flood the tunnels and streets, eventually carving out rivers as streets collapse. Flooding of the subway would take no more than two days, and the cave-in of streets only a few years. Post-apocalyptic fiction describing long-abandoned concrete cities still structurally intact might just be a bit generous, if truth be told.

“As Lexington Avenue caves in, it becomes a river. Well before then, however, pavement all over town would have already been in trouble.”

Wildlife already exists in our presence and would flourish in our absence. This new New York would see foxes and coyotes, deer and bears, maybe the odd domestic cat gone feral, yet cockroaches would die without heated buildings at these latitudes and rats might also not do well without our garbage to live upon.

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The abandoned High Line, New York City.

This is post-apocalyptic non-fiction at its finest. Old stone buildings linger, modern buildings not so much. Water seeps into cracks, freezes in winter and tears concrete and asphalt apart. Plastic and bronze, however, are the stuff of forever. Millions of years from now, bronze sculptures in our image could be staring blindly at the hypothetical visitor to our planet.

The World Without Us is nicely written, engaging and compelling. The first third of the book in particular is highly recommended. It does veer off a bit mid-way through the book, but despite these asides, it remains worth the time. An excellent book for any writer of post-apocalyptic fiction as well as science enthusiasts. This is a ‘what if’ that stays with you.

(free chapter here: http://www.worldwithoutus.com/excerpt.html)

 

The Royal Albert conundrum

I like to play the piano. I’ve always liked to play the piano. From the first time I sat down, immersed myself in the music, I knew this was something I enjoyed. When I tell people I like to play, they tell me which instrument they got for their 7th birthday, discuss what type of music they enjoy, ask me if I prefer rock to classical, treat me to an anecdote of their brother, a violin and the neighbour’s two cats, or admit that they just bought a drum kit to their nephew. Not once have I been asked if I’ve played the Royal Albert Hall yet.

I like to write fiction. I’ve always liked to write fiction. From the first time I sat down, immersed myself in the story, I knew this was something I enjoyed. When I tell people I like to write, they ask me if I’ve been published yet.

Why is writing measured solely by publishing? My piano-playing skills will never take me to the stage or studio, yet I doubt anyone will ever think that my lessons and hours spent over the keyboard were wasted as a consequence. So why is that the case for writing? What’s so inherently different between writing and other art forms that we presume the former is only validated by external approval, and the latter hold value in and by themselves?

Any thoughts?

(Royal Albert Hall, courtesy of Wikipedia. Why are you not playing there yet?)