RUN, YOU GOIT.
Also, I absolutely love that you’re open minded on this. Gives me hope for much of fandom. :D
1. Be Kind. If this is the one thing I manage to do, I’ve done enough. Kindness may seem like a personality trait, but I think of it more as a...”
I thought I’d take the opportunity over the next few weeks to think about some of the books that I really loved as a child. Although the titles I’ll be talking about are some that are really close to me, I’ll try not to turn this into a nostalgia gush. The purpose here is hopefully to look at what these books have taught me about myself (and writing), and to work out which part of them has stayed with me. I’d love some of you to do this too (link or tell me in the comments below!) and perhaps a nice fundamental question to kick off the discussion could simply be: Why? Why does this book hold a place in your heart above others? You might start this in a really simple way, just by walking over to the bookshelf where the kid’s books that you’ve kept are, and grabbing the first one you feel yourself pulled towards. Chances are there is a reason that you’ve kept it, and that it’s close and accessible. Be careful of nostalgia, but don’t shy away from subjectivity. If you know that everyone hates this book except you, but it’s got one character, or one moment or line that just grabs at your gut, fine! Have a go at explaining that feeling.
I was eight when I first read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. When you’re a kid you really have no concept of what is socially acceptable, and when we went to visit the family in Hobart for Christmas I continued to read it throughout the stay. It was under my pillow when I went to sleep, and it was in my pocket when we went to my Great Aunt’s house. As soon as I was inside I quickly found a corner and I was quiet. Reading.
Without meaning to sound too hipsterish about it, part of the appeal the novel has for me come from a feeling of being an original fan. My brother discovered the book before me; his teacher had a review copy. Being exposed to the novel early meant that I saw it explode. I can remember it being important in a way that no other book had ever been: the movie was massive, but I had a Harry Potter pencil case long before that. The idea that this little book, my book, could become something so much bigger than words on a page has never really left me.
Reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as an adult I can see that it’s imperfect. It takes a long time to hit its stride, and there are issues that are glossed over. (Harry asks Hagrid why wizards don’t want humans to know about them, and Hagrid’s best answer is that “everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems.” Sure.) But J. K. Rowling’s real skill is world-building. She has taken all of the narrative tropes of fantasy and updated them. Owls delivering letters, Quidditch, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry itself – it’s easy now to take this things for granted, but they were, and are, brilliantly inventive. Rowling’s characters are more than just dynamic in themselves, they populate an entire world in which domestic life, sport, politics, economics and education are re-imagined in her own way, and in the centre of it all is a normal boy. I mean, how often do you even get a protagonist who wears glasses? From start to finish, and even another six books later, her writing is utterly mesmerising. Even now I can’t be long without reading a Harry Potter book because it is a world that I miss in the same way that I miss old houses and friends. It is, in my opinion, the most important children’s series ever written for that reason. Rowling makes the effort to re-imagine the world rather than just explain it. And the result is magic.
A couple of weeks ago I was asked to speak on a panel at the University of Tasmania, giving advice to students about how to help their Arts degrees lead them somewhere interesting and fulfilling after graduation. I am aware of the irony of this, trapped as I am in the postgrad period of sending applications, holding breaths and crossing fingers.
In the end though, I decided to go along. After all, the state that I am in at the moment is a totally legitimate and very terrifying position that all graduates go through, and I have also done some interesting stuff in the last 12 months that I wagered people might genuinely like to hear about. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, Actually, there are a few things that I would like to have been told four years ago when I started this journey. So I made my notes and went along.
If you ever need to return me to earth and humility, you can remind me what happened next. Friends of the internet, I am sorry to say, no-one came to the panel. No-one. Not even accidentally. This sometimes happens at UTas, and I consider karma partly responsible. In my years as a student I must have missed countless events just like it - work and life and sleep and study all coming together so that any chaff at the edges is quickly sliced away for an extra moment’s peace. It wasn’t personal, and the university staff who organised the panel were disappointed and also incredibly gracious and grateful. I left in good spirits.
But you know what? I had things to tell those damn Arts students! Chiefly this: Start now. The most important artistic decision I made during my time at uni began as soon as university started, and you’re reading it right now. This blog is the theory in practice. Early on in my degree I asked myself a crucial question: If someone was looking to discover you - really genuinely find someone who was doing exactly the kind of work that you are doing - how would you make that quest easy for them? I couldn’t answer it then, but since the beginning of my blog, I can. In the digital world someone who is serious about their craft has very few excuses. Start creating and sharing. Almost every piece of joy that I’ve had in my writing career so far traces right back to here. I don’t have to give my stories away for free, but I do have to give something so that the world sees me. Here it is, writ large.
The irony of discussing a “life after Arts” is that there is no life after Arts. There is only a life lived through Arts. And it starts now.
That’s what I would have told them, anyway. Or something like that. But as you know, nobody came. Now I can only hope that someone - Arts student or not - hoping to shake off a fear of failure will find encouragement here. And start to make.
This morning The Guardian, in an interview with Horrible Histories author Terry Deary, reported this:
I’m not attacking libraries, I’m attacking the concept behind libraries, which is no longer relevant,” Deary told the Guardian, pointing out that the original Public Libraries Act, which gave rise to the first free public libraries in the UK, was passed in 1850. “Because it’s been 150 years, we’ve got this idea that we’ve got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers. This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that,” said Deary.
These comments are significant, not because they haven’t been mentioned before (actually, it’s basically the textbook explanation for closing down libraries and spending the money elsewhere), but because this time its an author saying them. Many authors online have staunchly defended libraries, and it is rare to suddenly have one speaking out against them.
That I don’t agree with Deary’s comments is perhaps self-evident, but it doesn’t mean that I think he’s an idiot, or even wholly wrong. Deary argues that we now live in a world where people need to learn to pay for entertainment. He says:
People will happily buy a cinema ticket to see Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and expect to get the book for free. It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Books aren’t public property, and writers aren’t Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They’ve got to make a living. Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don’t expect to go to a food library to be fed.”
Ironic that Deary would choose Matilda as his example - a book so obviously smitten with the very idea of the library. (“Could I do it?” Matilda asks the librarian, shocked, when she is told that people sometimes takes books home. Soon Matilda has “travelled the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”)
Blyton is also hardly a woman “indulging a hobby” - a 600 million copy bestseller with more than 800 titles to her name. Regardless though, Dreary has a point. Although authors get royalties for their books based on how many times they are borrowed, why shouldn’t people be forced to buy the book if they want to read it?
Where I think Deary is making his biggest mistake is in his conception that a book borrowed is a book stolen, and that reading a loaned copy of a novel from a library is the end of the reader’s relationship to that book. Actually the issue is a whole lot more subtle than that, because, as with piracy, time has proven that the biggest borrowers are also the biggest spenders.
I grew up as a master of our local library’s holding system, and with a father that worked right near the library, most days saw me handing him my card and insisting that he remember to bring home the armload of books that I’d been called to say were waiting for me that day. These are not books I would have read otherwise. They were science fiction and fantasy - genres that rarely appeared in our house until I introduced them. In the stripped-metal shelving of the State Library of Tasmania I found all of the authors I now love, and the walls of my room are crammed with them. These days I would estimate I buy forty or fifty books a year and I’m still a student. Back then I was earning five dollars a week pocket money, but I bought the books I could, one every two or three weeks, with a list to remind me of what could wait a few months, and what was “I will never sleep until I know that story is somewhere close to me” urgent.
Those of us who defend libraries don’t do so out of practicality. Libraries, and their brilliant and skilled staff (there have been librarians who were, and remain still, like mothers to me) are expensive. They don’t provide a means to book “theft,” but they are like the ultimate book-lending friend. They have everything, and they know where to find it. More importantly though, they are bastions against exclusion. Money will not buy you better resources; lack of knowledge will not see you banned. They are one of the few enterprises that still remains in a perfect and selfless form of idealism: the right of every person to knowledge and story, equality to find brilliance and to be brilliant. Across the writers I love there is extreme deviation - they did not all go to elite prep schools or universities, they were not all born into high-class families or powerful neighbourhoods. Almost universally though, they seem to have been brought up partly by a library or two.
Libraries are not a freebie, but an investment, in the future of reading, and in the future of writing. If standing for them is a form of idealism, fine, call me an idealist. The library marks, for me, the ultimate expression of selflessness in an increasingly selfishly motivated world. It represents the freedom for all of us to experience the power of words and the worlds they open up inside our minds and our hearts.
It seems to me that Mr. Deary would much rather be rich than read, and that is his entitlement. But I stand proudly with the writers who ask their readers to pay for the books they love, but also defend their right to love them even when they cannot pay, and who trust the readers themselves to know the difference. Brilliant authors who believe in the natural meanderings amongst the stacks as the greatest means to discovering great writing, stumbling entirely by accident on those magicians who will make pictures in your head, force you to laughter, tears, or the cold midnight shivers of dread.
If you haven’t met these authors yet, I think it is safe to say, for now at least, that you can find them at the library. Terry Deary will be there too, somewhere. And whether he likes it or not, I think thats marvellous.
It seems to me that perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of the arts is that the creative mind only occurs in certain types of people. I mean, obviously there is a wide and scattered variety of perspectives within that field - so that one person might still love something that everyone else around them hates - but the group of “art-makers” is still comparatively tiny, and there are many people on this earth who will never find a book or song or painting that latches onto their brain and never lets go in that, “my life will never be the same because this is me being reflected back into my face” kind of way that art nerds so often like to talk about.
While there are always exceptions to the rule and I’d hate to tell anyone that they are not the sort of person who makes art, it seems to me that there is an ingrained personality type that is drawn towards creating in certain types of ways, meaning that there are disproportionately high numbers of novels and screenplays about writers, and a pretty noticeable lack of poetry collections about physics or medical science.
It seems to be widely acknowledged that it is an artist’s job to try and get inside situations way outside of their field, but even if the old “Write what you know” adage isn’t strictly healthy for an artist, it seems that it isn’t going away. Most creators apparently mentally spin a wheel of fifty themes whenever they sit down to create, returning again and again to varying riffs on the same ideas and styles they have held onto since their beginnings.
I seem to be spending a bit of time lately thinking about what the world would be like if the artistic temperament was more widespread. What sort of pastel drawings would an automotive mechanic draw? What sort of novel would an army sergeant write? What would the lyrics be to a beautician’s first acoustic single?
Some days I look at my book collection and think about how it is impossible to read even just the novels published within my lifetime. I think, there is probably too much art in the world. But then I think about all the groups and people who remain silent in the narrative that the artistic minds have created, and I am convinced that actually there is not enough and there are still yawning gaps that I long to see filled.
So, I don’t know if you noticed, but this blog kind of hit a standstill for a while there. And sure, part of it was being super busy, but that’s always been the case, and I feel like there was another part that was to do with me choosing to stop. And I’m worried about that.
I feel better after blogging. I feel better after clicking the “Create” button the way I feel better after a shower, a cup of coffee, or a run: lighter. But recently I stopped feeling good about this page and started feeling, well, kinda crappy.
People have said wonderful things about this site, and its clear that it means as much to them as it does to me. I’m almost the only one of my circle of friends that writes online like this, and while some of them couldn’t care less - which in many ways is comforting in itself - others check here regularly, and talk to me about what I’ve posted. More noticeable than the positive feedback though, has been a lack of negative feedback. I obviously recognise that not everyone likes everything I write, but it seemed like bad juju (even if it was just through a lack of readers who weren’t my friends) was something I’d never have to worry about. There have been offensive comments posted on this blog, but they have always struck me as pretty bold-facedly aggressive, not genuinely critical. The sort of thing that might be written by someone who has never actually read the blog, and perhaps never read anything, except maybe a dictionary of angry words.
But then I got some criticism. Not the “I didn’t like this post because” kind of criticism, but the serious, over-arching, “You write pretty pretentiously as a human being” kind. Which stings in a whole lot of ways, but mostly because obscuring ideas behind complex and over-intellectual language is something I really hate from my university studies, and as such it’s a total insecurity of mine that I do that. That I’ll be incomprehensible, or worse - boring. Worse than a guy with nothing to say - a guy with something to say, but that can’t say it in a way that people will understand.
It’s a concern a lot of creators are talking about, and it came up recently in Charlie McDonnell’s YouTube video, “I’m Scared.” Don’t get me wrong, I love the internet. But now the audience is so close to the creator, and that really is terrifying. I think that I stopped writing because I was worried you wouldn’t like what I wrote, that you wouldn’t like me, and that I was writing badly in a way I couldn’t turn off; that rather than not reading (which I could totally handle) you would continue to read, but hating me a little more each time. Consequently the posts in recent months have been a little less daring, a little less creative, and a little more distant. Safe.
I found the answer to my worries today in a book I borrowed from the library on Buddhism, filled with the teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn. He tells a story about a young man who follows a monk home, hoping that he can learn the secrets of Buddhism. The monk shows him into the kitchen, and instructs him that his first task is to fix a broken pot that has snapped and clattered off it’s stand, into the fire. The young man spends all day dismantling, mending and resurfacing the kettle, before calling the monk in to show him his handiwork.
“No good,” the old monk says. “Try again.”
The man repeats the process, this time being extra careful to impress the monk, making sure the pot hangs level, and filling it up with water to test that its perfectly flat. He calls the old monk in again to check what he has done.
“It is no good,” the monk says, tipping it over. “Again.”
By now the young man is at his wit’s end, and he figures that it must be that the kitchen isn’t good enough for the pot. He tears the room apart, rebuilding every section of it so that it looks brand new, fresh and perfect.
“You must approve of it now!” he says. But the monk again shakes his head, and tells the young man to fix the pot properly.
After seven or eight repetitions of this game, the young man has had enough, and he calls the monk in a final time.
“I don’t care what you say,” he says. “I have checked and re-checked this kitchen a thousand times. It is perfect.”
“Wonderful,” says the monk, smiling. The kettle is never mentioned again.
The lesson of the story is that the young man seeks the monk’s approval, when really his success is defined by his own belief in his work. Reading the story I was reminded of the very first blog post I wrote, now nearly four years ago, in which I declared that although I love those that read it, this blog is really for me. I wonder when that changed.
I don’t pretend to be perfect. I have no editor except my own biased self, and so I regularly get emails correcting mistakes in these posts, or pointing out sentences that don’t make sense, for which I’m very grateful. I’m also proud that this blog charts a journey, and that one day regardless of my success or what happens next, it will serve as the story of my life for those who care to know it. Some posts I am more happy with than others, but all of them are true when I write them, and none are so bad that I would delete them just to save my reputation now.
So to those who are critical of this blog, I’m sorry that I can’t make it what you want it to be, but as an alternative to the writer that you’d like, I will gladly be myself and bear the complications of that. The way I see it, the only other option is to stop doing something that makes me happy and that means something to me, and that is too much to sacrifice.
This blog is mine, and whatever else might be wrong with it, I am proud of it for being the portrait that it is, of a singular individual and the time in which he lived. I love it when you approve of me, but I must not allow myself to need that approval. Despite all else, it has been running for four years, and if you can work out what keeps something alive, you can often work out what makes it important.
This blog is important to me, for reasons of my own, and for my own sake. In my opinion, that makes it important enough, whatever anyone else thinks.
What Fats wanted to recover was a kind of innocence, and the route he had chosen back to it was through all the things that were supposed to be bad for you, but which, paradoxically, seemed to Fats to be the one true way to authenticity; a kind of purity. It was curious how often everything was back to front, the inverse of what they told you; Fats was starting to think that if you flipped every bit of received wisdom on its head you would have the truth.
J.K. Rowling was right when she said in her Australian interview with Jennifer Byrne that she had promised us seven Harry Potter books, and she didn’t owe her readers anything. She might be wrong, however, if she thinks that what she writes after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will not be read through cracked and sticky-taped Harry Potter lenses, and that the now-adult readers of her original series can ever hope to conquer the insatiable desire to search for traces of the childhood friend they’ve now lost in everything that bears her name. Hogwarts casts a long shadow.
Rowling has certainly tried with The Casual Vacancy however, to make sure this quest is soon proven fruitless. There is no touch of Harry here, as all the wide-eyed wonder of her children’s series is quickly abandoned for bleak and bitter realism. Those who, like myself, had come to read the heavily guarded details of the novel’s release as an indication of a kind of an Agatha Christie or Downton Abbey-eqsue idyllic cottage drama, will soon see that there is more bubbling under the surface than simple political competition in Pagford. In fact, there’s everything; my friends Bill and Isobel have contrived a game - what crime doesn’t occur in The Casual Vacancy? (Hint: There aren’t many. Yes, probably not even that one.)
There is swearing too; lots of it. By page fifteen I had to put it down for a moment and take a breather. Was this really J.K. Rowling? It took a good while for me to de-tune my interior monologue, which was always calling back to Potter and trying to reconcile the two versions of Rowling as a writer. In the end trying to tie my portrait of Rowling together was fruitless - as hard as it might be, the only way to fully get to The Casual Vacancy is to push it away from Potter.
Once you grapple with the world that you’ve entered - so much more like our own, so much less like Rowling’s other England - after a gradual warm-up The Casual Vacancy is an incredible novel. Dark and tragic, by the three quarter mark it grips with the hardened intensity and oblivious midnight page-turning that only Rowling can. It’s the kind of book that could, and perhaps should, win awards bigger than the Smarties prize. There will be an inevitable backlash from people who were hoping for a more gentle novel of course, and expect many abandoned copies to show up in second-hand bins and opportunity shops, as popular readers realise that they were tricked into buying a literary text, but I think that what Rowling has done here is more important than pleasing her old fans - she’s proved that there’s an extremely serious heart beating beneath the smoke and mirrors of the Potter series. Some of us have been arguing it for years, but The Casual Vacancy proves it: Rowling is a serious writer. I’d like to see some of her contemporary hit-machines, like E.L. James (who recently outsold Potter with her Fifty Shades series), write a novel as intellectually engaging as this.
My biggest fear about The Casual Vacancy though, is that it will be hard to keep it out of the hands of kids. As a 22 year-old I can rightly insist upon reading it, having (arguably) grown up from my own Harry odyssey, but it’s difficult to imagine that a 12 year-old version of me that had just finished The Deathly Hallows wouldn’t attempt the same. School libraries, I hope, will be wise enough not to purchase it for their shelves, and parents are encouraged to be vigilant: The Casual Vacancy has lashings of sex, drugs, domestic violence and hip-hop. There is an ugly side to this sleepy village.
For mum and dad though, I think Rowling’s done it again. She’s a writer at the top of her game, and once the initial shock wears off, she’s proven she can make that adult leap that many British children’s writers - A. A. Milne and Roald Dahl as two examples - haven’t successfully been able to. This is not a novel that everyone will latch on to, but for those who do love it, it will be an all-encompassing love; the novel defines and explores the problems of an entire generation. For some, The Casual Vacancy will ring a truly resounding note, and hold a special place in their shelves and hearts.
In that respect, perhaps it’s not so different from Harry, after all.
It’s the question that makes writers cringe: “Where do you get your ideas from?” I’ve heard of two writers who both came up with the pact that they would use each other’s names as the answer. Harlan Ellison used to announce that he bought his ideas in three-packs from Schenectady, which backfired when one reader at every signing would unfailingly ask for the address. Philip Pullman gave my favourite answer to the question: “I don’t know where my ideas come from, but I know where they come to. They come to my desk, and if I’m not there, they leave again.”
Ideas of course come from all sorts of places. They come from things that already exist, and sometimes from things that could but never will. They come from dreams and they come from reality. My favourites often aren’t even ideas in themselves, they exist in the confluence where two other ideas meet each other for the first time, the answer to the question: What if this met that?
The trick with ideas is to give them the time to come to you. Most writers I know have complained at one point or another that they can only write at midnight, and I suspect that the reason for this is that the moment just before you sleep is when you finally give your brain a chance to be creative. How often do you actually spend just sitting and thinking, without noise, worries or distraction? The problem with the question of where ideas come from is that the answer is probably drastically un-sexy: I was bored, and I started making something up… No author likes to admit that their beautiful and life-altering novels came to them because they didn’t have much else to do.
I am a notorious ideas hoarder, and have discovered it is an unhealthy pastime. I often sit on story ideas for months or even years, waiting for them to grow and get better. But the brain is like a bucket that needs to be tipped before it can be refilled. In the last couple of weeks I’ve written some pieces I’ve wanted to write for ages, and I find myself invigorated after letting them go. If you’re waiting until you can do an idea justice, my advice is to stop waiting and make it happen. You can always change or fix it later, but I suspect you won’t want to. You will have moved on to something better. The muse is like that, she tends to feed those who appreciate the banquet. Eat your fill - don’t let it spoil.
“Lyndon, do you know what the meaning of life is?”
“I’ve got an idea of what makes me happy mate, but I don’t think anyone knows the meaning of life, do they?”
“I do. It’s Chinese Checkers. And grapes.”
Whenever one of the students says something like this to me - something wild and surreal and impossibly funny - I write it down. Now I’ve got pages and pages of these hilarious anecdotes, some of which I could easily explain to you, like the Grade 2 who was mortified to find when playing a (very uniquely ruled) game of chess that his king had been taken, before he yelled triumphantly “OH YEAH? WELL I’VE STILL GOT ALL MY PRAWNS LEFT”; and some of which I could never paint a funny enough picture with words, like the two grade 4/5 girls doing their impersonation of The Voice, and slamming their desks to spin around on their chairs with huge dorky grins on their faces.
I have my suspicions that the kids have spotted me writing these things down, and sometimes - to their teacher’s frustration - are deliberately hamming up their behaviour because they know it gets my attention. But as a visiting writer I can’t help but get sucked in to these performances. While I’m here, these are my characters. And who could resist dialogue like this?
“I know! We should all get guns and shoot all the parents, and then we could take over the town!”
“I don’t know that I could shoot my parents. Could you?”
“Well they only gave me half a piece of toast this morning, so yeah…”
“…What I’d need is an army of me. Like, a million mes.”
“What would you feed them all?”
“I suppose they’d have to be cannibals.”
It’s no wonder that shows like Kid’s Say The Darndest Things can survive as long as they have with little more in the way of content than children just talking. Kids see the world in a way that socialised adults have long forgotten how to comprehend. I’ve now started my first classes in the secondary area of the school, and while the comedy is different here - devious, organised, and more challenging to authority - the comments are no less funny. When the 9’s and 10’s were told that as a “special treat” they could sit on the floor to work if they wanted, they exploded into sarcastic cheering and adoration. One boy cried out: ”Oh Miss, thanks so much! That’s the best treat EVER!”
It would be tempting to think that the teachers are desensitised to this, with their chiding comments about ‘behaviour’ and ‘maturity’, but actually I suspect just the opposite. You can hear them occasionally turn phrases and comments that have been picked up from their students in everyday conversation, and the staffroom itself is not vastly different from the wider schoolyard - it is a playground of its own, and the stories that turn up there are no less dramatic or amusing. It’s been interesting to discover this side of St. Helens. I remember when I was at school that even the worst teachers seemed like figures of infallibility. I couldn’t imagine any of them with a life outside of the classroom walls - let alone homes, friends, families and the occasional hangover. But now that I’ve had a chance to sit, observe, and watch everyone in the school more closely, I realise that all of them have a part to play in its story.
The vision statement for St Helens is to be “a supportive community where learning flourishes, confidence grows, and difference is valued.” I love this statement, because I think that it’s actually acted upon here. These are no cookie-cutter children, and individuality is not stamped out of them in the name of obedience and simplified learning. They are who they are.
And as I fill up another page of my notebook with the scribble: “The thing me and tortoises have in common is that once we lie on our backs we can’t get up again”, I realise that simply being allowed to be themselves is exactly what makes them worth listening to.
AIR2012 is an artist in residence program developed and managed by arts@work in partnership with the Australia Council for the Arts. You can find out more about the program here.