Tag Archives: Creative Writing

Breaking Bard

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Going for a drive in the country

‘The chemistry of poetry…’

Yo, listen up! This is how it goes. A world-weary creative writing teacher called Graham Gray discovering he has a case of terminal boredom decides to venture into the sleazy world of rhyme. He enlists the help of a unpromising student, Gwion Pinkman. Together they compose batches of illicit verse, which they disseminate among the poetically-starved. Haiku is the gateway drug to this dark underbelly. One ode and you’re addicted. Graham Gray is forced to maintain a respectable front – a muse and home to support – while all the time transgressing in realms of the imagination. Writing to the edge, he becomes hooked on breaking literary taboos. Gray and his accomplice at hounded by the threshold guardians of the establishment – the Dull Enforcement Agencies of the status quo – keeping one step ahead. Each week we thrill at their escapades. Gray’s condition worsens – he’s de-composing. Undergoing rhymotherapy, the Chef of words loses his ‘flashing eyes and floating hair, which identify him as a Romantic. He is forced to become a Realist and write painfully self-aware novels about his so-traumatic childhood and the Way The World Is. The laudanum had unfortunate side-effects anyway.

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The Fascination of the Worm

Dracophilia...  My latest book - due from Compass Books soon!

Dracophilia…
My latest book – due from Compass Books soon!

Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm.’ JRR Tolkien6

 

Twentieth Century Professor of English and novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, who perhaps more than any other single author has brought alive worlds of Fantasy in his vast Middle Earth sequence of stories, as a child ‘desired dragons with a profound desire’:

 

Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in my neighbourhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.’7

 

If we read this as a yearning for Fantasy, (that is, the experience of such, as opposed to the genre – although we will dignify both with the capital in the hope that one will encourage the other) then I do not think he is alone in this, as the huge popularity of Fantasy in books, films and computer games prove. There seems to be an endless appetite for it: The Lord of the Rings, Dr Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, TheTwilight Saga, Avengers Assemble, and no doubt more ‘franchises’ await to hit the big or little screen. Despite a distinctive post-9/11 trend for ‘real life stories’, gritty realism, and tales of hard luck and ‘winning through adversity’ (spawning shelves of ‘misery lit’; or ‘trauma memoir’) the world, it seems, is hungry for Story, especially of the fantastical kind.

Why is it so many seem to ‘desire dragons’, as Tolkien did? What purpose, if any, is there to Fantasy? Is it just make-believe for grown ups, or does it serve a more profound function? This brief excursion into Fantasyland endeavours to explore, if not answer, these questions, and perhaps the very act of asking questions – curiosity, or the quest for knowledge – is at the root of all this ultimately. The desire to know has led humankind from the cave to the moon. Wishing to know what lay over the next hill, and the next, beyond the borders of the familiar, over the sea, over the horizon – following the journey of the sun, our constant companion of consciousness, throughout the day, into the unconscious of night – this has driven humanity on, and fuelled most of its fantasies. The unknown provides a vacuum for the subconscious, for the Shadow, the Id, the other. We populate the night with our own.

And we probe the shadows with a thrill of fear and a desire to know.

Tolkien, in a witty reply to a letter in The Observer (16 January, 1938) signed by someone calling themselves ‘Habit’, requesting more background about ‘the name and inception of the intriguing hero of his book’, (The Hobbit, published 21 September1937) responded thus:

 

Sir, – I need no persuasion: I am as susceptible as a dragon to flattery, and would gladly show off my diamond waistcoat, and even discuss its sources, since the Habit (more inquisitive than the Hobbit) has not only professed to admire it, but has also asked where I got it from. But would not that be unfair to the research students? To save them trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing.’8

 

Despite Tolkien’s claiming not to ‘remember anything about the name and inception of the hero’, he gave a typically conscientious and erudite reply. His letters show the fathomless quality of his learning (his scholar’s mind akin to the Mines of Moria) and provide a plethora of portals to explore – enough for a lifetime, and thus he has not robbed research students of their existence, but thrown a gauntlet down to ‘curious Hobbits’, who are intrigued by the mysterious origins of such wonders, in what smithies were they forged, and whether the alchemical secrets of the wordsmiths trade can be gleaned, used, and passed on.

I must disclose my own interest in this realm of the imagination – with my five-volume epic, The Windsmith Elegy9, I could be categorised as an author of Fantasy, although I prefer the term ‘Mythic Reality’ (for that is how it feels to me – more of which we will discuss later). As a writer of ‘Fantastical Fiction’ (as it once used to called) the genre, as a whole, holds an obvious appeal to me, but more so the mysterious impulse that drives us to write and read it, and beyond that, the act of creation itself.

The central thesis I would like to forward here is that the roots of Fantasy go deeper than sometimes the genre suggest – that there is more to it than mere ‘Sword and Sorcery’, and the endless rehashing of Tolkienesque tropes. What if Fantasy is not merely a form of escapism (although that in itself is not ‘wrong’), but a way of exploring imaginative possibilities?

In the purest expression of Fantasy, something more fundamental is at work. Could Imagination serve as a gateway to other realms, other possibilities – a kind of ‘Quantum TV’ – with different bandwidths showing glimpses of ‘that which does not exist, but could’, and sometimes does, in our imagination?

Many beginner writers who attempt to write Fantasy do not seem to understand the genre. They copy the shadows on the cave wall; without having a full gnosis of what drives their creation (as someone who has taught and assessed creative writing since 2003 I can wearily attest to this – although I am occasionally astounded by what my students produce). There is often a gulf between idea and execution, which is frustrating. It feels as though I am receiving a poor signal from a distant land.

The craft provides the Transatlantic cable, but I do not wish to lay it down here – many others have done that. Rather than simply provide a list of techniques, I believe it would be more useful (and better for the writer) to explore the ‘biology’ of Fantasy, and our motives for writing it.

  • Where does the impulse to write Fantasy come from?
  • What takes place in the act of writing, i.e. the creative process – specifically in the creation of works of Fantasy?
  • What benefits are there, if any, for the writer, as well as the reader?

And so I begin this essay with these questions in mind – and a sense of unknowing.

A quester, armed with his question, is a good place to start.

 

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring, 2013

[Extract from Desiring Dragons: Fantasy and the Writer’s Quest, published by Compass Books – contact them and order an advance copy now]

Another Earth part three

I’m floating in the blood-warm waters of the bay – the pellucid brine holds me as I literally drift off. I repeat to myself a mantra I came up when I discovered the knack of ‘sleeping on water’ in the Red Sea of Egypt:

I am nothing,
nothing,
nothing.
I am everything…
I am nothing.
I am everything…
I am nothing.
Everything
is nothing.
Nothing
is everything…

(‘In the Lagoon’, The Immanent Moment, Kevan Manwaring, Awen 2011)

This helps to remind me of my insignificant place in the grand scheme of things – I’m just a drop in the ocean. Yet we are connected to the great Web of Life, however humble – from the tiniest microbe and ant to the mighty elephant, the redwood, the blue whale… I like this feeling of shedding the skin, the layers of ego and veils of personality. Although perhaps it is impossible to truly escape. However far you go you always end up meeting yourself. Travelling to the far side of the planet (relatively speaking) I felt closer to my loved ones, and more attached to my neck of the woods – I was missing my true friends back home and the kind of landscape I can have a conversation with. However paradisal this place is I simply don’t speak its lingo. I will only ever be a tourist in anywhere but the west. Northern Europe, a temperate climate, the beautiful melancholy of autumn and winter – something about it agrees with my soul. As our English Orpheus Nick Drake once sang:

I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Brighten my northern sky

Yet still, as I floated there, the sun glinting on the waves, flashes came of things I have seen …. ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion (well not quite – the arclights of squid boats illuminating the night sea like UFOs outshining constellations maybe…). Nevertheless, there have been moments of wonder and madness …

Starting my writing workshop on the beach in a grove of palm trees only to be drowned out by a deafening dusk chorus of mysterious birds…
Visiting the spirit houses that every dwelling here has – with their offerings of rice, liquor, tobacco to effigies of Buddhist saints, the King and Queen – with toy cars and other objects of desire iconically placed around them.
Giant turtles swimming stately in their tanks like geriatrics doing lengths – on Turtle Sanctuary island (bequeathed by the Queen for their protection) – the pattern on their backs, a rorschach patina, the ultimate depth psychology.

The acrobatic fire jugglers on the beach – young boys playing Prometheus-like with plumes of flames, pois spinning hypnotically in the hot night.

The intense trill of the cicadas as I ran through the forest barefoot on ‘Robinson Crusoe island’, wearing only my swimming trunks – a Tarzan moment!

Swimming under a full moon by myself – dancing with my moonshadow in the sea.

Being shaken to bits on a speed-boat as it bounced along the waves.

Reading on the beach before cooling off with a dip or a cold beer.

Savouring the taste of papaya as I breakfasted at sunrise, sitting under a palm tree.

The list goes on … but I won’t! Somewhere I can hear a hundred monkeys clapping and its time to get out of the water. (‘Come in number 78 – your time is up!’).

There were moments of connection – though they were sporadic. Friends or allies on my Hero’s Journey cropped up in unexpected places; whileas those I expected to connect with I didn’t at all. I am certainly partly to blame (let mea culpa be tattooed on my brow). Spending a couple of weeks with 14 people is challenging for the likes of me. I’m happy to socialise if I can have my space. I need my solitude to preserve my sanity and I grabbed what I could from the busy daily schedule. I was missing my good friends back home, my partner. A decent conversation with a kindred spirit.

On the final night a couple of participants (bi-focalisers, I called them) organised a ‘Love Cabaret’ (as it fell on St Valentine’s Day). I performed a small set of poems, and other chipped in an ode, a song, or a skit. We had a torchlit ‘last supper’ on the beach, waves lapping at our feet like the last days of Atlantis. There was a ritual dimension to it – we were asked to write what we wanted to let go of on a piece a paper which was burnt in a stoneware vase, which cracked (to pressure of too much catharsis in one go!). Then we wrote our prayers and blessings on a floating lantern, which we sent up into the sky. Its lift-off was touch and go, but eventually it floated free of the trees – into the night.

Relieved it was all over, I walked along the beach in the dark, letting the waves caress my feet.

Whatever marks we mark in the sand, the sea comes and smooths it all a way again. The sighing waves soothed away the internal (eternal?) dialogue, as I drifted off – succumbing to the Sandman.

Something about going away makes you really appreciate what you have. I looked forward to the quieter pleasures of home. Thailand is a riotously camp assault on the senses – part of it is very kitsch, a plastic fantasy (reality shrink-wrapped, a fake one at that). It often feels like you’re getting a pirate copy of the real thing (from designer fakes and ladyboy dance shows to bland cheese slices in film; insipid Yellow Label tea; & several dodgy brands of lager all vying to be Thailand’s answer to Duff Beer). Yet life is there – in all its messy, smelly, squalid actuality. Somehow amidst it all, life thrives.

The whole experience was quite unreal to be honest. Did it really happen? I don’t have much evidence. A rapidly fading tan and jetlag. As well running out of money two days early (I couldn’t use my card on the island – but broke, I still gave my last Baht to a Buddhist monk, trusting in the universe to carry me home: it did) I also lost my camera on the last day – an old battered one, but still – just when I decided to go for a walk around the island, taking souvenir snapshots.

Some things are to be preserved with the camera of memory.

At the end of a rickety pier a ramshackle boat was moored. I was ready to jump aboard and see where it took me.

After a fortnight on ‘Fantasy Island’ I was ready to leave – where was that dwarf and Ricardo Montalban when you needed them? ‘De plane! De plane!’

It was only in the lift back to Bangkok that my ears finally popped. Did someone turn the volume up to eleven?

Another Earth part two

I was waiting for my ears to pop. They hadn’t sorted themselves out since we’d landed. Crossing the short distance to Koh Samed – the small ferry nosing its way across the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand on a perfectly blue sunny day, (temperature about 35 degrees C) I was beginning to feel relaxed. The sea-breeze, the warm sun on my face, the tang of breeze, and the prospect of a couple of weeks on an island paradise was beginning to take the edges of my road-weariness. And yet, my ears-valves refused to open fully. It made for an interesting acoustic. Conversation was muffled, but audible. It sounded like me head was in a cloth-bag. Still, I was feeling good – I love boat trips and ferry crossings to small islands in particular. As Koh Samed came into view against a sunset, the words of Cavafy’s poem came to my once again (‘May you enter harbours you are seeing for the first time’). I was last in Thailand seventeen years ago, backpacking around on a budget with my half-Italian, half-Iranian girlfriend of the time, Emily. We spent time on some of the Thai islands further south (Koh Tao and Koh Nang Yuan stand out) but not Koh Samed – so this was a ‘new harbour’ for me; and I was returning as a guest tutor for Skyros: flight, accommodation, food and expenses included. How my fortunes have changed! Yet this time, I wasn’t on holiday or a journey of self-discovery – (Siddhartha and all that) it was effectively a business trip. I would be running my Life:Fiction course every day – two four-day stints, with one day off in the middle of the session. Since it was smack bang in the middle of OU term time I also had marking to do – groan! However much I was loathe to take ‘work’ with me, this was the only way I could negotiate this excursion. Online marking of term papers is pretty much the same, wherever in the world you do it – although being able to pop down to the tropical beach for a swim has its compensations!
On making landfall (toes sinking into warm white sand the texture of demerara sugar) our bags were carried up to our rooms by nimble Thai lads. We had a chance to freshen up before the first meal. The room was spotless and comfortable with good air conditioning – essential! I felt better after a shower and a change of clothes. There is something psychologically reassuring about unpacking. It is good to finally arrive. I was looking forward to exploring the island and getting to meet the participants properly…
We had a brief ‘briefing’ followed by a lovely welcoming meal provided by the sweet staff of Samed Cabana – the beach-side resort we had colonised for the duration (enriching the demographic of Swedish and Russian families – many of whom had brought their small children to this safe and picturesque island).
The schedule was bashed out in time for the official start of the programme the next morning – and my daily routine became as follows:
Sunrise meditation and swim
Breakfast on the beach
An hour of writing (working on folk tales)
Demos – the community meeting from 9am
Ecos – staff/participant groups
Then I was free (by 10am) to crack on with my marking – oh joy! I set myself a quota of a couple a day, which would allow me to plough through them within the 12 days.
Lunch on the beach was at 1.30pm
After lunch I usually chilled out on the beach with a book (or a MSS or screenplay…), going in for a swim when things got too hot.
Around 4pm I prepared for my class – browsing my notes over a cuppa.
5pm my writing workshop – held in the resort restaurant.
7pm – free time! Dinner with group, or a quiet one.
Optional evening activities included dancing and the final cabaret.

So, that is the shape of my day for a couple of weeks, with the odd variation. Hardly gruelling, though in the heat it was hard to do any marking or teaching – especially late in the afternoon when the natural tendency is to have a siesta, or a cold bottle of beer and a swim.

Highlights that followed include swimming under the full moon, the day out to the Turtle Sanctuary and the pilgrimage to the white Buddha … Watch this space for further dispatches from Fantasy Island!

Making Bread

21-28 Feb

Another busy week… Busy is good, I suppose, but …

A storytelling friend of mine from Chagford (a creative little community on the edge of Dartmoor) Austin, a fabulous puppet-maker and keen baker, once said to me: ‘If you’re too busy to bake bread, you’re too busy.’ It’s true. Boy, how I wish I had time to bake bread – alas, I’ve too busy making dough – but at least this week I managed to do a couple of things to just nurture myself (my Shiatsu masseuse said I should treat myself – so I did, with a shiatsu massage). I also went for a much-needed haircut – my annual crop – my barber was a friendly young guy with an Elvis tattoo called Joe. We talked enthusiastically about films and books. He’s very fond of the Gangster genre (The Godfather series; Scarface, etc). Eastern Promises, (Kronenberg’s London Russian gangster movie starring Viggo Mortensen) we both agreed, was unjustifiably neglected (Viggo has recently done another star turn in The Road – which has incredibly lost out on the gongs so far). At one point he was singing the praises of American Psycho while wielding a cut-throat razor behind me… Anyone with a nervous disposition might have felt justified in worrying at that point, but all I left with was a great barnet, my head considerably lighter!

Apart from the ubiquitous OU marking quota, there was the following to keep me out of mischief…

Monday was my last session with the Saltford Older Learners (a six week stage two course entitled ‘Keep Going in Creative Writing’).

Tuesday it was my novel writers. It’s going well, but there’s the inevitable tailing off of numbers – a fact of life in the Adult Education sector. It always baffles me why people who sign up for these courses – parting with good money – often drop out. It shows a real lack of staying power. Their writing dreams are hardly likely to manifest with such poor self-motivation. How many hours of practise did our local Gold-winner Amy Williams put in? An inspiration to young and old alike. If you want your dreams to come true you have to work at them – hard.

On Wednesday Susan Mears, literary agent (and, as it happens, mine), was the guest speaker at Bath Writers’ Workshop, which I co-run with David Lassman. Susan gave fantastic, informative, practical and inspirational talk about the Business of Writing.

I gave a one-to-one consultation with a woman working on a screenplay. Her comments were positive afterwards:

I felt your feedback was constructive and has helped me sort out the starting issues. I came away thinking the project’s achievable, worthwhile and could work very well as a 90 min feature.

I was sent a link to the short film Rob Farmer made of the Bardic Picnic at Delapre Abbey – my old haunt – last Summer in Northampton. I was one of the judges and performed the opening set. It was a creative, successful day – made especially poignant being in the place I spent much of my childhood, where my fledgling bardic self was born. It shows what can be achieved when folk work together – a testimony of the vision and effort of the 3 J’s – Justin, Jimtom and John – well done guys!

Thursday, it was my evening class in Trowbridge – riding home in the lovely lashing rain!

Saturday I ran a creative writing dayschool for Wiltshire College in Devizes. It was a lovely run and back again in the Spring sunshine and it was nice to browse in the local bookshop during my lunchbreak.

The week ended with another great night at Chapel Arts Centre – the new programme is out and looks very impressive. Looking forward to the next Garden of Awen there, in a week’s time. Here’s to the green fuse!