Writing: Chekov and The Journal of Imaginary Research

I recently wrote a short piece in a very different style from my normal writing, mostly as a challenge to myself (see my previous post: The road ill-advisedly taken). Knowing it would be a learning experience, I tried not to be too critical of the final result. Completing it and then publishing it, even though it is in a small University journal, is victory enough.

The brief was to write a mock-science abstract, complete with introduction, methods, results and discussion, plus a fake author biography. I had just been to see Uncle Vanya at the Sheffield Crucible (excellent performance, by the way), and decided to give a nod to Chekov and a kick to the many egos of academia. Not sure if I succeeded in doing either, but it was a fun experience. The process showed me that I vastly preferred the text when reading it out loud, compared to simply reading it on screen, and I wonder if that is inevitable or whether it highlights the weakness of the text – i.e. what I could improve. There were also a few editorial changes that I did not agree with, but had little power over. The end result is below, if anyone is interested (the final version and my submitted version).

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My submitted version is as follows:

The eclipse – a loss for our fields.

Total eclipse is when our indispensable sun is overshadowed by the sterile, simple moon. This rare event could cause acute and lasting harm, yet has hitherto been ignored by scientists most ignorant.

For precision, my decision was conducting triple tests of soil and silt and sand. Within each field, my plants were measured carefully, and my professor’s lamp, holding a bright and polished bulb, selected as their ‘sun’. As for the ‘moon’, I chose a base, volcanic rock, presented me by my department’s new replacement, as a token of retirement: a simple thing but suitable. My lamp was lit upon the fields. And then obscured.

For every plant within the fields, the loss of light (my shrouded lamp) caused drooping stems and dying leaves. A swift return of light provoked reversal of the wilting, yet there remained regression next to normal fields.

My data shows, conclusively, that barren rock (the moon) may block the sun (my lamp) and damage fields in manners irreparable. Total eclipse is therefore not a spectacle, but harbinger of harvests lost, as was believed historically. In future work, a test to prove the same repugnant loss occurs when zealous youth replaces expertise and eminence, is well-advised.

Biography

Professor Serebryakov spent his finest years in Moscow’s Biology Department. Following a short sabbatical, he recently returned to active research in Krakow, where he is a founder of the newly established Putative Pontification Society for the Benefit of the Uneducated (in honour of his brother-in-law from his first marriage) and a patron of the Opera Krakowska alongside his young wife. His eagerly-awaited memoirs, describing the recent scandalous lack of support within his former Moscow department, will be published next year. 

Do you ever write in a different style? If so, how did you find it? Have you written in the spoken word type of prose, or do you write poetry? How does that influence your ‘regular’ prose? Are some types of prose best enjoyed when read out loud? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Love over Gold

Have you ever heard Telegraph Road? It is a 1982 song by Dire Straits about the building of America, spanning decades, following the rise and fall of a city built around the ‘Telegraph Road’. The song is more than 14 minutes long. Rolling Stone magazine called the entire album, Love over Gold, [an] “almost suicidal defiance of commercial good sense”. They weren’t wrong.

Commercial good sense it something any artist encounters, and accepts or rejects accordingly. This post is not in favour of either – they both have their merit – but I’d like to give a shout out to those going for the ballsy latter option: reject. Run the risk of not being heard or read, of being overlooked and ignored, of not being paid.

It is not an easy decision, and one has to be very certain of both oneself and one’s art to go down the route of Telegraph Road, knowing that there might easily be nothing but destitution and unemployment at the end. I’m impressed by those who do it, whether they succeed or not, because within that group there are movers and shakers and creators of novelty.

But there is another way of walking that road. It’s also walked by the hordes of people who have the fortune of being able to follow the sage old advice: keep the day job. And I like those too, for all that they might feel as if they are not ‘proper’ musicians, writers, artists and so on, just because they don’t live off of their artistic endeavours. Keep the day job and be free to try new things, knowing that they may never support you, that they don’t have to do so.

I like my day job. It gives me freedom. Freedom to throw caution to the wind, to aim for something that may be new and could be good. (Caveat: it may also be shit – you never know until you try.) Having not hinged my finances on my writing, I can write what I like and still have enough to eat. In short, there are no large penalties to lack of popularity. It’s a less perilous Telegraph Road.

Love over Gold succeeded, despite being weird to the point of failure. Why? Well, there is perhaps another lesson there, beyond any thoughts on the purpose of free art and whether or not financial security plays a role in supporting it. And that lesson is: write Love over Gold after Making Movies. There’s a lot to be said for having an album that sold to platinum in several markets in your backpack when you’re trying something new. But you’ll have to ask someone other than me for any inside information about that.

 

Podcast recommendation

I don’t listen much to podcasts and I am usually more keen on seeking out stories than advice on writing, but I have made an exception for Writing Excuses for quite a few years now. Writing Excuses is a podcast by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells and Howard Tayler, and it addresses story structure, genre, plot, pace – everything, really. Each episode is only 15 minutes long, so good for those of us with limited time or attention spans. To me, it is a short burst of no-nonsense, practical advice and suggestions that makes me sit down and write afterwards rather than pulls me away from the keyboard. It is always worth my time. I am particularly excited about 2018, as this will be the Year of Character. Should be very good indeed.

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard 2018 is our Year of Character, and we kick it off with a quick exploration of the differences between heroes, protagonists, and main characters. Beginning with addressing the question “wait, aren’t they all the same person?” Because that’s the elephant in the room. Or maybe it’s three elephants. Or…

via 13.1: Hero, Protagonist, Main Character — Writing Excuses

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Break coming up

So Christmas is coming up, and that means time off work. This year, the day job has been particularly time-consuming, and a large part of the work has been writing articles, grants, abstracts, presentations, more articles… This year, I have more often than not put the pen down at the end of the work day, not able to produce a single extra word. I am, and have always been, an opportunistic writer – one who writes when and if rather than at set times. This approach is particularly vulnerable to other tasks encroaching upon writing time. I have written much less than normal this year, which is annoying and depressing in equal measures. But Christmas is coming up…

Every year, I always hope to spend a part of the Christmas holidays catching up on writing (a futile hope, as the year is long and the Christmas break is short). This year, the hope is more desperate and more important. I know the day job will return in January with just as much, if not more, pressure, and the writing habit will need to be solidly in place by then. So this year’s Christmas writing is not just a band aid on a meagre output, but a tool to get the train back on track. Fingers crossed!

Wishing you all a nice run-up to the holidays, and here is a Christmas tune for the occasion:

(Why, yes, this blog post was partly an excuse to play the Darkness a few times. Thank  you for noticing, and keep those bells ringing.)

The road ill-advisedly taken

I have been given a slot to write a very short creative piece for a small publication as part of the Academic Writing Festival at my University. Exciting stuff, and I am looking forward to getting my teeth in, except… I am not quite sure how to go about doing it.

Not in the sense that I don’t know what to write. I could write the piece in half an hour with time to spare for editing. It would be a quasi-science mock-up poking fun at academia, because I have been in the business long enough to see the foibles and caricatures. Heck, I embody a great deal of the silliness I want to convey. Easy-peasy. No, I’m stuck because I want to write it differently. I want to try on a new hat.

I want to write it to be read as spoken word. Sadly, however, I am not a particularly experienced poet, and I have a strong suspicion that my talents (if any) lie elsewhere. Having read the feeble poetry written by my teenage self, I should possibly know better than to revisit this particular brand of writing. Nevertheless, I think it is useful to try something new every once in a while, if only to explore (and rule out) roads not yet taken, scary though they may look.

So, wish me luck?

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New places, new roads. What could possibly go wrong?

[UPDATE: I got the piece written and submitted. Not sure how well it worked, but am happy to post it here if anyone is interested in giving feedback]

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