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Category: Writers

Moodscapes. Dreamscapes. Writing.

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘moodscape’ as a depiction or evocation in words, music, etc., of complex moods or feelings.

I’d say it has something to do with ‘dreamscapes’. I’m definitely left with strong feelings after my dreams but they are hard to ‘make sense of’. They defy ‘off the shelf’ lexicons of feeling and emotion because they combine so many elements. My own dreams are always very vivid and usually have a narrative, something like a bizarre film.

Like engaging with music, a film, a poem, a novel or a landscape, it is not straightforward to describe the feeling even to myself. I think an artist of whatever sort has to ‘translate’ into a medium, a translation which can never be complete.

There are films and novels, long poems and dreams, places and climates whose details I can barely remember if at all. I can’t remember plots, characters or narratives. Yet I remember deeply the feeling-scape. It’s years since I read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or W.G.Sebald’s Rings of Saturn yet the atmosphere, the desolation and melancholy of each are not simple: they are their own unique evocations of desolation and melancholy, produced by the writers’ art, their craft.

To think of Jane Austen or George Eliot is, more than anything, to make me smile – a different smile for each, for each of their conveying of writerly mood. Now plot, character, story increase the pleasure of reading them of course. But their siingular voices are the consequence of their deepest complexes of feeling that can’t be expressed literally. It all needs a slanting, a refraction,

There are writers, the large majority, who give me great pleasure. I like a villain and a frantic car chase as the next pulp fiction reader. I appreciate the artistry and skill of many writers as I read. But then I forget them. The pulse at the heart of a feeling complex wasn’t there.

Several artists have pointed out that their work is never completed but merely abandoned. They cannot portray more than hints, shadows, textures, whispers of the mysterious complex of feelings. Many writers spend their lives not telling the same story but trying to find another slant on the core complex that urges them to essay the attempt.

Alone at Christmas

Alone at Christmas? Yes, to my delight. Fully planned while my partner is on a fortnight’s retreat.

The ‘plan’ included doing nothing, much harder than it sounds. Ideas for books – fiction and non-fiction – keep filling the sky, often with flying machines from another planet. Yet, apart from watching a truly dreadful film, I have not only managed to do nothing, I have also – in doing nothing – allowed the creation of crumbs, dirty dishes, a slow diminishment of personal hygiene, books picked up then thrown to join their company in piles or not even that neat, abandoment to the God of Cheese, and many other affronts to health and respectability. Have I enjoyed it? No.

I fervently look forward to resuming work. I don’t think ‘relaxation’ is to be taken lightly, something that’s like getting drunk or feeling morally free to glut. I doubt I’d be writing this if I’d gone the way of mere hedonism.

Rest or relaxation are crucial to the writer. A writer, this is something so often forgotten, is first a human being. Truly, a human being can write copy for advertising or sentences for bestselling fiction in the same way that a politician can use stock phrases, penny-in-the-slot sentimental ideas, to control the masses. Such would be best advised never to rest, never to remotely consider what they do.

But a writer who is soul-body-creation and writes almost as a holy calling. also needs rest, retreat. To write with everyhting you have, all that you love and believe crucial is very hard and very lonely. The ideal rest, as opposed to the muddier one I described above. entails a discipline itself. To go away for a month ‘to rest’or ‘to recollect’ is pointless without discipline.

However we discover and shape rest, it is vital. Seneca reminds us:

The mind should not be kept continuously at the same pitch of concentration, but given amusing diversions… Our minds must relax: they will rise better and keener after a rest. Just as you must not force fertile farmland, as uninterrupted productivity will soon exhaust it, so constant effort will sap our mental vigor, while a short period of rest and relaxation will restore our powers. Unremitting effort leads to a kind of mental dullness and lethargy. Nor would men’s wishes move so much in this direction if sport and play did not involve a sort of natural pleasure; though repeated indulgence in these will destroy all the gravity and force of our minds. After all, sleep too is essential as a restorative, but if you prolong it constantly day and night it will be death. There is a big difference between slackening your hold on something and severing the link…

Well, that’s something that came my way yesterday via my friends who tal about Stoicism (something that interests me, not something I intend to purchase).

In an interesting article about the philosopher David Hume, Julian Baggini notes that

… in AnEnquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748): ‘The mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry.’ Philosophy matters, but it is not all that matters, and although it is a good thing, one can have too much of it. ‘Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit,’ says Hume, ‘and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you.’ The life ‘most suitable to the human race’ is a ‘mixed kind’ in which play, pleasure and diversion matter as well as what are thought of as the ‘higher’ pursuits. ‘Be a philosopher,’ advised Hume, ‘but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.’

I think that as writers we have first of all to be men and women, fully human and alive in the many worlds of society. To be fully alive is to look after ourselves and rest, to spare a salutary smile in acknowledgement that our writing life is a lovely dewdrop on being’s profundity. But then, so is football, David Hume and Seneca.

Writers with severe mental health problems

We all know of famous writers with severe mental health problems. Any creative type is usually hit with some neurosis or worse, the myth would have it. That is a myth, of course. Most creative people are sane. And most people with severe mental problems are sane too.

However. Writers like me are people first. People with a diagnosis are people first. I’m an elderly person. I have a diagnosis of moderate to severe and incurable bipolar disorder. And I’m a writer and a man and a football fan. I’m an old male writer with bipolar who likes football and wears a big watch with a skull on the face.

Right now I am down. Tired all the time, flat, weary. The list of things to do after getting up from 12 hours of sleep is terrifying. Coffee, Shave. Clean teeth, If I have cereal I have to wash a dish. The big one: I have to walk the five minutes to the shops to buy bread. Then the giant I’ve hidden from for weeks: I need to print out a returns label, pack a faulty item and walk all the way to the post office to post the parcel. Many of you will recognise this state. Add to it a visceral anxiety in my solar plexus. In my head a buzzing I cannot hear, a flickering I cannot see. It’s little, a minor annoyance. There are genuine agonies by the millions out there.

Humour and Irony

Don’t worry. This is normal for me, has been all my life. I have no desire to add to the literature of depression – or the memoirs about alcohol, a substance which until about fifteen years ago was destroying me.

I’m not a miserable person. Shy and introverted, I’ll never be the life and soul of a gathering but I enjoy company. I like to laugh and talk. That’s because the human urge to socialise is healthy in me.

The thing is, having accepted my depression and its not infrequent twin, high octane mania, I think I’ve learned to adapt. And it’s the basis of my creativity. While I am ‘in reality’ a pleasant, unassertive guy, my writing seems to pour from something like deep anger. Something ‘like’ I stress; I’m not aware of being angry about anything. Something like a furnace. My writing seems to have a life of its own. It’s often cynical but dancing with dark humour and irony.

Sometimes, I can’t write but just twitter and flutter and potter about. Most times though I do write. I enjoy the gravity of it, occasionally an epiphany that this writing stuff is a miracle, language is miraculous, being rather than not being is enough to head off any danger of wanderings to search for more than what is here. As Wallace Stevens wrote, ‘Let be be finale of seem’. That poet had his own finale and knew that ‘Death is the mother of beauty’.

You may have guessed rightly that I find solace in those beautiful voices over the centuries that resonate with the wonderful resonance of Death. I mean, I don’t expect Shakespeare anticipated people rolling in the aisles with laughter while watching Hamlet. My favourite reading is dark, dark, dark, much deeper and truer than the bright illusions which in the ‘real world’ sustain us.

Acting Normal

The great psychologist, William James, observed, correctly I think, that ‘the sick soul’ sees reality more truly than the healthy. I think the ‘depressive realism’ of ‘sick souls’ makes it impossible for them to fully join in with what passes for ‘normality’, though they certainly have enough acting skills to pursue the various roles we all must play to be accepted as ‘normal’, to hide in the light. The writers who gift us a vision of our psychic foundations help us grow, become more solidly human. Yet such writers and artists by and large cannot be spotted in ‘real life’. Contrary to the idea of creators being weird people, they largely live like any of us – with families, mortgages, suits from Marks and Spencer. But their real ‘real life’ that they gift us through the page lies often too deep for them to see or know with perspicuity.

Having queried the myth of creativity and ‘madness’, it shouldn’t be ignored that writers, in particular, do have among them more than their share of hard drinkers, alcoholics, drug addicts, depressives, suicides. But, to repeat, I think most writers are, like me, boringly ‘normal’ (I greatly hope nobody is puzzled about how somebody with a serious mental health problem can be boringly normal).

Anyway, let’s end with a little poem from a man who, very sadly, was not able to adapt to this Vale of Tears. From Edgar Allan Poe found feverish, probably drunken and in despair just before his death:

Alone

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring—
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone—
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone—
Then—in my childhood—in the dawn
Of a most stormy life—was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still—
From the torrent, or the fountain—
From the red cliff of the mountain—
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold—
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by—
From the thunder, and the storm—
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view—

 

 

What’s going on?

Yes, What’s Going On is a classic Marvin Gaye song. It raises interesting questions too for writers.

In the Liverpool where I grew up, the question became What’s the script? or What’s the dance? or What’s the score? Frequent questions because of our insatiable love of gossip. The latter is part of our need to feel we understand the world. On an everyday basis, we like simple answers to complex questions. We like to assign goodies and baddies to the right category or box. We enjoy the certainty our ‘understanding’ gives us. It keeps us safe.

Many writers work with this in mind and produce best selling books containing two-dimensional cut-out characters living in a two-dimensional world. And nothing wrong with that! I devour crime fiction for that good feeling, the pleasure of narrative which keeps things simple. True, after a crime there must be the questions of what went on or who dunnit. Journalists claim to explain what’s going on in the world. But we do like it easy and simple.

The philosopher Walter Kaufmann (in his introduction to Martin Buber’s I and Thou) has this to say:

Mundus vult decipi: the world wants to be deceived. The truth is too complex and frightening; the taste for the truth is an acquired taste that few acquire….

….The world winks at dishonesty. the world does not call it dishonesty.

Man’s world is manifold, and his attitudes are manifold. What is manifold is often frightening because it is not neat and simple. Men prefer to forget how many possibilities are open to them.

One way of reframing this would be to say we don’t really want to know what’s going on, don’t want to think, don’t want to see truth as complex.

Yet, it’s claimed, there is much truth in literature. The more ‘literary’ writers deal with philosophical and psychological issues that recognise the difficulties. What’s going on in an individual’s life, a family’s, a nation’s, a world’s is the raw material and writerly perception is the tool for extracting part of it, craft the tool for shaping it. For some writers, life is an immensely complex puzzle, always fascinating, never empty.

Great Advice for Writers

We had great advice for writers during an hour with Scottish author Karen Campbell.

I’d read Campbell’s ‘cop books’ three years ago, one after the other. These had a basis is in her five years as a police officer, a job that she felt she was always in danger of being found out as inadequate. She doesn’t read much crime fiction, and says these books are more about people, especially those who live parallel lives, usually invisible, to the majority of city dwellers. The police background is more a vehicle for exploring ‘what lies beneath’. Necverthelesss, Karen showed how one’s own life story can provide sources of fictional output. One of her earliest stories came from her time as a young PC, policing an Orange Lodge march while trying not to walk in step with the band!

She became involved with the Glasgow refugee situation; her husband works with refugees. Research and involvement with refugees led Karen to meet many of them and formed the basis of her novel This is Where I Am in which a widow, Deborah, develops a close relationship with a refugee, Abdi.

In Rise, her most recent novel, Campbell took an area of Scotland that fascinated her with its plethora of prehistoric standing stones and other icons, and against such a time scale and landscape interwove the histories of characters and their driven passions in the fictional village of Kilmacarra. I read the novel last week and am certain it’s in my category of very good ‘literary fiction’ – which shouldn’t mislead you into not understanding it’s a page-turning story with that essential element of being written by a storyteller.

Karen Campbell studied English at university but says the close analysis involved put her off books. Since both parents were in the police, and having no other career in mind, she joined by default. Afterwards, as a young Mum, she did the part time Creative Masters at Glasgow University, led then by the three professors Alisdair Gray, Tom Leonard and James Kelman.  She reckons only four out of the forty students went on to become published. Her own efforts to find a publisher then and agent introduced her to coping with rejection. By a twist of circumstance, a new-to-the-scene agent landed her a deal with Hodder, the first publisher she had submitted to a year earlier and been rejected.

The Business of Writing

Campbell said she was unprepared for the business side of writing (like so many of us). The Masters course helped because literary agents and publishers were brought in to impart their eperience and knowledge. She also observed, rightly I think, that most authors are shy, certainly shy of submitting work to an agent. We need to get over that – and learn to cope with rejection.

As to her own method of writing, it seems that all her content has a strong basis in personal life. For instance, a statue of a black soldier in Italy led to much research into the role of an all-black batallion in divided Italy during the second world war, a novel she’s working on. She spoke of a writer’s ‘antennae’ being sensitive to a nascent idea which grows thicker and more compelling over time.

Karen doesn’t plot her work beforehand. It’s always a surprise how a book ends. She spoke of the storytelling process as involving myriad forks. The choice to take one direction or another is never right or wrong.

On top of Dennistoun Library, where the talk was given is a statue of an angel with an opened book. Karen has used this image in a forthcoming novel (part of which she read to us) – but until last night she had never been to the library or seen the statue. Strange is the relationship between fiction and ‘reality’!