Monday, 25 June 2012

Sublimity is in the Details

Since reading Tessa Hadley's judge's comments in the current issue of Mslexia magazine (Issue 54, Jun/Jul/Aug 2012), I've been thinking more about detail. When reading the short stories submitted for Mslexia's annual short story competition, Hadley looks for 'those giveaway details which are unexpected and illuminating and true.' Truth being, in this case, emotional truth: something that resonates as part of our shared human experience.

Hadley points out that these details are the opposite of clichés and writers have to work hard to avoid the tendency of language to revert to cliché. I'm guilty of this - sometimes I'll purposely write a cliché in a draft and make a note to change it to something different, better and unique, but sometimes clichés slip through when I haven't paid attention to detail. Hadley's comments have served as a useful reminder that beautiful, accurate and enlightening details are an essential ingredient of good short stories. Like poetry, short stories have to project strong, vivid images the reader can absorb in a (relavtively) short time and which later echo in the reader's mind.

The more I think about it, the more I realise the truth of these observations. The most haunting short stories I've read all have at least one striking image. Often, they have several striking images of which or two are sublime. The woman's hypocritical accusations of unfairness at the end of The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. The ludicrous, identical hats in All That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor. The single, grey hair on the pillow in A Rose For Emily by William Faulkner.

Carson McCullers, in The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing, which is collected in The Mortgaged Heart, says 'Always details provoke more ideas than any generality can furnish.' I love her use of the word 'provoke' - short stories should be provoking, they should make readers look at life and humanity from a different perspective and discover something about their own lives.

McCullers also says 'Good prose should be fused with the light of poetry.' This can be interpreted in many ways, but for now I shall interpret it thus: stories, especially short stories, should be revealing and thought provoking, but should wear these properties with a lightness. A key way of achieving this is through the judicious use of illuminating details.

I find this very inspiring and intimidating. Especially as I work on the drafts of the short stories which will comprise my dissertation... Sublimity may lie in the details, but I'm wary that madness might lie in the work of creating these details!

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Developing Passion(s) for Life

I read this post by Stina Lindenblatt and it got me thinking about passions and life in general. For those who don't know, I have a mental illness and I've been assessing where I am and thinking about the future. This is a long post, but I think my story could help other people. It's important to talk about mental illness and people's experiences, otherwise the stigma will remain. See

The Void

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety several years ago, although I had been suffering symptoms since I was 14/15. Between the ages of 19 and 22, my life was extremely bleak. I was deep in depression and too scared to leavc the house a lot of the time. I withdrew from my friends and had to quit jobs because of the amount of time I needed to take off. I was suicidal, self-harming and regularly having panic attacks. I thought my life was over - I had failed to go to university, like my friends, and nothing I tried (including losing 60lbs by starving myself) made a difference.

Thankfully, medication and counselling helped me feel a little better and start thinking I might have a future. The NHS is wonderful. Sure, it's slow and under-funded and there are many other problems, but I would not be here without it. The support I got from some family members (especially my parents) and friends was also vital and invaluable. So I found myself, just having turned 23, frustrated that my life was so painful and empty.

One of my best friends was living in Valencia for several months and had invited me to visit her. The air fare was cheap and I could stay in my friend's room, so all I had to pay for was food and fun. I felt lonely, desperate and ready to make a change: I arranged a 10 day holiday at the end of July 2007. It changed my life.

The Candle Flame in the Cave

Looking back, I can't quite believe I did it. I'd only been abroad twice before and had never flown. The furthest I'd been on my own was the city 25 miles away, where I went to college. I spent a lot of time reading and thinking in parks, soaking up the sun when my friend was working. Education has always been important to me and, in my darkest times, films were my only comfort; so I decided to go to university and do a Film Studies BA.

I was still depressed and anxious, but had enough 'good' or just 'okay' days to make plans. I could attend the university in the city where I went to college, living at home and travelling to lectures by train. I would have my family's support and my parents charge considerably less rent than student housing. To prepare and get references for my application, I did an A Level Psychology evening class (at my old college!) and a short course in creative writing with the Open University.

This rekindled my passion for writing and gave me more confidence than I'd had since I was a kid. I decided to learn how to drive - something I'd been far too nervous to do before. Living at home and rarely going out (other than to lectures) made my student loan go a long way!

Rolling Down the Rockface

My first year at university was terrific. My anxiety and depression were more controlled than they'd ever been. Sure, my experience was far from the drugs, sex and rock n roll stereotype the media love to portray, but since I was a hermit 2 years ago, I was doing pretty damn well. I thought about what kind of future I wanted and kept coming back to writing.

So my plan had a next stage: do a Creative Writing MA. The only way I could afford this (and, frankly, cope) was to get a place at the same university. To prepare (and, again, get a more relevant reference than my film tutors could provide), I decided to do 2 year-long, part-time Open University courses in creative writing. They were both fabulous and confirmed my desire to be a writer. I could also get a diploma by completing them.

 The Jungle  

My mental health continued to fluctuate and then deteriorated. Despite doing well at university and passing my driving test first time, which meant I could drive to campus instead of taking the train - often a challenge due to my anxiety, there were still times when I wanted to die. I also realised I had problems with impulsive spending and had resumed self-harming. I knew I had what I wanted, but I still felt depressed and hopeless a lot of the time.

I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) a year and a half ago, at the age of 26, and everything made more sense. It explained my problems/behaviours that didn't fit into the categories of depression or anxiety. Some people find the diagnosis of BPD scary or isolating, since it's a complex illness with a range of symtoms and a name which doesn't describe it very well. I found it reassuring: I have an illness which makes it difficult to control my emotions and makes me react strongly to events I can't control.

The Lagoon

BPD is hard to live with, but I understand more about the way I am and can be more compassionate towards myself. I was disappointed that dropping 10 marks on my average in the last year of my BA meant I got a 2:1, whereas I'd averaged a 1:1 for the 1st and 2nd years. However, I am learning to accept that it's a great result considering the challenges I faced. Especially as I stubbornly refused even a deadline extension: I had learnt that real life doesn't give concessions and I wanted to succeed on my own terms.

I got a Distinction for both my OU courses and received my diploma last year - just before starting the MA. I hope to hit a Merit (there's little hope of Distinction with the grades I've already got) and that's fine.  I took some risks with my assignments, some of which didn't pay off, and I'm glad I pushed myself.

Doing the MA has taught me so much about my craft and about myself. It's been worth it, even if I fail - though I hope I don't! Writing is a learning process anyway and grades don't determine success: stories do.

The Waterfall

Which brings me full circle back to Stina's post about passion. I will hand in my dissertation at the end of August and that's the MA done. For the first time in 5 years, I will be left with no course to do and no plans other than 'work on writing and try to get published'.

I'm terrified. I look forward to spending more time on hobbies I've neglected, such as drawing, painting, baking, yoga, improving my French and learning Italian. It will be great to relax a little, without a looming deadline. I hope to manage my BPD and improve enough to get a job and pay off my credit card and overdraft quicker. But it's all so uncertain.

One thing I must cling to is the shard of hope I've been clutching since I booked my trip to Valencia. I still find living very difficult, but there are days when I can sit back and realise I'm passionate about life. There have been moments of joy among the pain and all I can do is keep trying, keep hoping the future will bring me happiness.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Man is Not a Machine!

Regular readers will be familiar with my constant battle between feeling lazy when I'm not writing a lot and recognising that much of writing is done through thinking - both consciously and subconsciously. So when I recently came across a magazine article on Be Excellent at Anything: Four Changes to Get More out of Work and Life by Tony Schwartz, Catherine McCarthy and Jean Gomes, I found one of the key concepts very appealing. The concept? That humans are not machines or computers; working a machine harder and for longer produces an increase in results, but not so for humans. Humans become exhausted and the quality of their work suffers - results decline.

So when I saw a copy of the book while browsing in WH Smith last week, I bought it. Note: I haven't read the whole book yet, so this post focuses on what I've learnt so far...

Humans don't run on electricity - they need periods of renewal.

Not only does this mean getting enough sleep at night, but taking time out during the day to meditate, nap, exercise, etc. Unfortunately, capitalism has led to people being treated as machines in many jobs (the few years I spent on a supermarket checkout springs to mind...), so it's difficult to implement if you have to work rigid hours with scheduled breaks. Fortunately, most writers make their own hours and can ensure that they take time out for re-energising activities.

90 minutes is the maximum amount of time that humans can focus on working hard without the quality of their work decreasing.

Remember teachers advising you to plan breaks when making revision timetables? This is the reason. If you keep concentrating for longer than 90 minutes, you will feel exhausted and your work will suffer. Mistakes will creep in. However, if you stop and re-energise by taking a power nap, grabbing a nutritious meal and/or going for a walk, you will be ready for another period of intense work.

So taking time 'out' during your working day actually increases the quality of your work.

And quantity, if you measure this in anything other than time. You don't need to feel guilty! I suppose I instinctively knew this already, but it's great to see confirmation. The book refers to many scientific studies demonstrating its points, to which I responded with many an 'a-ha!'. It also explains why I can sit at the computer for hours, stuck on part of a story, only to find the solution as soon as I hop in the shower!

So there you have it: if you can take the time to re-energise during your working day (without getting fired), you should. And this advice is particularly relevant for writers, since the nature of writing seems to necessitate intense periods of thinking/getting words on paper or screen, broken up with time to ponder/muse/watch the daisies grow.