Friday, October 31, 2008

Proust and the Squid, chapter 2

I'm still reading Proust and the Squid. I so want to love this book, because of the ideas it contains. But the language is unforgiving for a dyslexic reader. I'm on chapter 2 now, and have discovered that the only way for me to work my way through and hold it in my head is to read it out loud.

Ironic that I have to revert to a childhood form of reading in order to read a book which is about how we develop the ability to read.

I can't usually read anything if there are words in the air around me. One person speaking in a room can render me illiterate. I can't seem to keep the two word streams separate in my head. I have a similar problem when listening to someone speaking in a room where other conversations are going on. My hearing is fairly sharp, but I find that I can't follow the conversation as well as other people. My problem - I simultaneously hear words from all the conversations that are going on around me. I'm sure this is the same for most people, but perhaps to a slightly lesser degree.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Proust and the Squid

Writing friend Maxine Linnell put me on to a book called "Proust and the Squid", which is all about reading. From the hardwiring of the brain, and its plasticity, through to the historical development of reading. (Interestingly, the author writes about the origins of reading, rather than the origins of writing - which is the way I have seen the development described elsewhere).

Critically for me, the book has sections on dyslexia. The dyslexic is rather unflatteringly compared to a slow swimming squid. But the author nevertheless seems to favour the view of dyslexia as difference rather than disability - which won me over as I stood browsing the book in the shop. So I bought it. (See what a push-over I am in marketing terms. Just tell me what I already believe and I shell out cash!)

Though the author clearly warms to dyslexics, she writes in an unforgiving style. Non-dyslexics may find it easy to read, but it took all my concentration to get through the first chapter. I would not read on, but the content is so very interesting that I have to. I will report back when I have finished the book.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A "Gerald Ratner" moment for the BBC?

So Brand and Ross overstepped the mark. They've done it before. Given the chance, I'm sure they will do it again. That is the nature of edgy comedy.

Why the outcry this time? Why have the heads of government and opposition been driven to make statements? Whatever we think of the merits (or otherwise) of Brand and Ross, and however we take the event itself, it is surely worth asking how this has become today's top story in most of the British press.

Remember Gerald Ratner? A hugely successful businessman, he brought a business empire crashing in 1991, with one throw-away line in a public speech. Wikipedia, has an article on him which quotes his words more fully. Suffice it to say, he joked that his prices could be so low because his products were 'crap'.

An ill-judged joke. But I don't believe it would have been enough to cause his company's near collapse, if it didn't encapsulate something the public already believed. Not that the products in question were bad. Rather that the entire business elite were so out of touch that they believed they could openly insult ordinary people and that the public would be too stupid or too lacking in taste to realise. Ratner took the fall for the business community as a whole. If it hadn't been him, some other unlucky business leader would have made an unguarded comment and fallen into the same trap.

Back to Brand and Ross. It looks like the Ratner effect all over again. They bragged about Brand's sexual exploits on air and thus abused a woman's trust. They made a series of bullying phone call to an older man, who is much loved. And then they apologised with obvious insincerely - an apology that was only there to get more laughs. Thus, in one perfect-storm of ill-judgement, they encapsulated the widely held public opinion of brash, young celebs. Not that they are sexually promiscuous. Not that they abuse people's trust. Not even that they lack respect. Rather that they seemed to believe they are so far above ordinary people that they can do or say whatever they like, hurt whoever they like, and never need to feel sorry.

Strange how a few words can cause such a storm if they catch the zeitgeist. Or a few images, for that matter. Turn this idea around to the positive. Look at what Matt Harding has done with his dance (yesterday's blog entry). By showing the Earth to be one place, he has captured the real spirit of the age.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Where the Hell is Matt?

Having watched the dancing video of Matt Harding several times yesterday, I managed to find a rather better quality version. Much better that the Youtube link I gave in the previous post. So, if you want to see the world united in dance, with a rather crisper image, try this link.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Earth is but One Country

Over a hundred years ago, Baha'u'llah wrote the now famous words "The Earth is but one country and mankind its citizens." To this day, the human race is in the early stages of unpacking that sentence.

Its implications are vast.

But what about this for a beautiful restatement of that truth: Where the hell is Matt? It makes me smile every time I see it. And, if you liked that, what about this, which I only just discovered: Where the hell is Matt? (2008). Beautiful.

Have a look at the number of times it has been viewed. Eleven million and counting. Seems like I'm not the only person out there left with a big, warm smile. Thank you Matt Harding.


Dyslexic Strengths

When you ask someone to tell you about themselves, what sort of things do they choose to say? In all likelihood they will tell you about their work, their family, their hobbies and interests. The things that define them. The things they are positive about. The things they are good at.

What would we think if, on being asked about themselves, a person listed off all the things they were negative about and couldn't do well?

"You want to know about me? I've never been a good runner, that's a start. Was lousy at it in school. I'm not good at parties, either - introducing myself to people. Hate it. I'm a poor gardener too. Plants always die on me. And I can't stand coffee. Horrible stuff."

We'd think it was time for them to see a psychiatrist.

With that in mind, think of the tyranny of the word 'dyslexia'. 'Dys', as in dysfunctional. Lexia as in lexicon. Language. Vocabulary. Dyslexia - a problem with words.

The reality is that dyslexia, a difference in the hardwiring of the brain, conveys some advantages and some disadvantages. Successful dyslexics are people who manage to apply their natural strengths to the things they do. But we are still burdened by the negative term 'dyslexia'.

I'd like to hear more said about dyslexic strengths. In searching for 'dyslexic strengths' on google, I came across the website of artist Mike Juggins. Very inspiring. I particularly enjoyed the video on this page. Well worth a look.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Turkey Cafe

Leicester Writers' Club usually meets at the Adult Education College in Leicester. But last night the college was closed for building work. So we met instead in an upstairs room in the Turkey Cafe on Granby Street.

I love this building. So exuberantly ornate. So narrow and tall. And in terms of room hire, it was free.

My father used to say "Everything free is worth exactly what you paid for it". But in this case we had the use of a beautiful room. There were 21 of us and the room was full. So it is not quite big enough for our usual meetings - where we might have anything up to 30 on a regular manuscript night.

If you happen to be passing the Turkey Cafe on a cold evening, do pop in and try the white chocolate drink. Delicious.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

DVDs Delivered

Just a short entry today because I am very tired. Just to say that I picked up the YARN DVDs yesterday and delivered 120 of them to Alfreton Library this afternoon.

Not a huge drive, but some of the trucks on the M1 seemed particularly intense. In the 50mph stretch near Derby, one was menacing me in the next lane. But that was nothing compared to what it was doing to the car in front of it. The truck driver closed the distance to the car in front right down to 2m. Two metres! I am not exaggerating. On any day that is criminally irresponsible. On the day after a fatal truck accident on another British motorway, it is frankly unbelievable.

In that situation, I had to concentrate on driving and could put no thought to the novel plot I've been churning over in my head for the last couple of days. More of that later.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Documentary Making Guerrilla Style

Tomorrow, all being well, I will be able to pick up a couple of hundred DVDs of my documentary YARN.

Yarn was born as an idea a year ago. There was some money available at the end of the "Writers 2 Readers" project, which I had been involved with. What to do with it? The project organisers asked if anyone had any ideas. My idea was to make YARN, a documentary based around readers groups in the East Midlands.

But the money was limited. A few thousand pounds. Not enough to employ a film crew, let alone an editor. The solution was to strip everything back and do as much of it as possibly myself.

Filming things guerrilla style may mean you end up with a few ragged shots, but it sure gives you the freedom to take the camera where you would not be able to take it otherwise. And it makes the interviews more intimate. Just a couple of people talking. The fact that a camera is sitting on a tripod in the background is soon forgotten.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Can Creative Writing be Taught?

I've been thinking recently about teaching and the kind of things my teachers chose to tell me. Considering the amount of time they spent imparting information to us, and the importance they gave to us remembering that information, and the way in which we were graded for our roles in life on the basis of examinations , which tested our ability to remember - considering all that, it seems amazing that they never taught us HOW to remember things.

HOW to remember? Isn't that something we just know instinctively? If so, memory would be similar to what is often said about creative writing. You either have the ability or you don't. It can't be taught. In other words - the cult of literary genius.

Perhaps it is easier to think that the people who write great works of fiction were just born great. The alternative - that they to some degree acquired greatness - implies that we too could become greater writers if only we worked harder at it. More comfortable, perhaps, to worship from afar.

I don't believe the truth is that simple. Yes, people are born with areas of strength and weakness - relative to the rest of the population. But we can all of us work on improving. And it is surprising what the learning of techniques can achieve. I have a very poor short term memory. But I have taught myself a couple of well-known memory techniques and thus enabled myself to get around the problem. A couple of years ago, I could not have remembered a list of three or four things to get from the supermarket (not without a lot of effort). Since practicing the loci method of memorisation, I find I can effortlessly remember long lists of things to buy. All I needed was just technique.

But when we talk about creative writing in terms of technique, it starts to sound dangerously like a craft instead of art. What room is there for the cult of genius?

But consider this observation from the excellent novelist David Hood. Having spoken to many authors and asked them HOW they wrote, he noticed that each answered by describing the techniques that they had developed to get around things that did not come naturally to them. Plotting, perhaps. Or characterization. Or getting ideas for stories.

Why didn't they describe the things that they were naturally good at? For the same reason that the teachers never taught me HOW to remember things. These things came so naturally to them that they were not aware HOW. It just happened.

I do believe creative writing can be taught. But perhaps there is room for a little bit of genius as well.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Audio Books, voicing actors and authors

I received a treat in the post yesterday. The audio book version of The Mentalist. My first audio book. I walked around the house with a particularly stupid grin on my face, till I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror on the landing.

First, the cover design, which I really like. It captures the Victorian theatre feel of the story. Creepily, the picture is so like the theatre I based the story around that I had to look several times before I could convince myself that it wasn't that same building. I do believe the designer must have read the book. Come to that, perhaps my descriptive writing wasn't too bad either.

Secondly, the CD player, surely. I must have gone directly to listen to it? No. I was scared. What if it sounded different to the way I imagined it sounding? What if the voicing actor didn't understand the speech rhythms I'd built into the text?

It was several hours later before I dared to listen. I shouldn't have worried. It is beautifully read. A strange experience indeed hearing my own words come out of the mouth of an actor.

I know the opening almost by heart. I was constantly aware of the words that were about to come from the machine. Here and there, the actor had put slightly different stresses onto the words than I do when I am reading for an audience. Subtle differences. Improvements, all of them.

If you want a copy, the web address of the publisher is as follows

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day 2008 - Poverty

Ten thousand bloggers writing about the same theme at the same time. Like many really good ideas, it is simple. Have enough people thinking about the same issue at the same time and you can change the world. Ten thousand bloggers. Ten million readers. Brilliant. Thank you Blog Action Day.

I know very little of poverty. But silent is no answer, so I will tell you what I remember.

I remember picking apples as a child, the trees in the garden so heavy with them that I knew we could never eat them all. Hauling boxes of apples to throw on the compost heap. Watching images of famine on the news.

I remember travelling in the Far East. Eating tinned fish and bowls of rice because it was the cheapest way to keep going. But knowing all the time that people would lend me extra if it ever got to be too difficult. I had resources back in Britain, I was good for the loan.

I remember the founder of the Land Bank of Bangladesh explaining that traditional banks only loan you money if you already have money, and that uncounted millions lived in poverty for want of credit.

I remember some friends from down the street. A man, a woman and four children. No carpet. No job. Little furniture except for a big television in the corner of the room. Depressed and in poor health. No belief that they could ever achieve anything from their own volition. Waiting for help.

I remember manning a display on the seafront at Aberystwyth during a peace campaign. The stall just along from mine had the slogan: “When people starve it isn’t for want of food, it is for want of justice”.

I remember seeing a woman in North Africa on a television program. She was living in a corrugated iron shack with three children. She had no backup. No one to bail her out if things went wrong. She was thanking God for all the bounties He had given her.

I remember reading about Abdul Baha’s years of grinding poverty, persecution, exile and imprisonment. After release from prison (following the Young Turk’s Revolution) Abdul’Baha lived in service to the poor. He grew food for them, provided health care for them, helped them to get work, gave them money if they could not work, gave them the clothes from His body. And I remember being hugged by a man who was hugged by Abdul Baha. I felt that hug.

So, please, today, remember the poor.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Poetry Collections vs Individual Poems

At Leicester Writers' Club yesterday we devoted our meeting to National Poetry Day. Writers who usually work in other forms, read out poems. And to make the evening more special we had poet Marilyn Ricci introduce her new collection "Rebuilding A Number 39".

So here is my thought this morning - I have heard or read quite a few of the poems in Marilyn's collection before. But as individuals. I have enjoyed them. As individuals. But hearing a series of them from the same collection read back to back gave another level of experience.

Many of these poems have an autobiographical element, alluding to her life with Mum and Dad before she left home. When juxtaposed in this way they started to inform one another. Hearing each one, enriched my appreciation of, understanding of, enjoyment of the rest.

Many thanks Marilyn.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Writing Workshop and Spam Filter

Where would we be without spam filters? Wading through hundreds of dubious adverts, offers of easy money and promises of even easier pleasure. And being me, I'd miss the genuine messages in all the rubbish. I find it very difficult to scan text - something to do with my dyslexia, I guess.

Three cheers for the spam filter? Maybe not. Because once in a while mine swallows something important. Like the e-mail I was sent months ago, telling me that the writing workshop I was supposed to be leading tomorrow has been cancelled. Thankfully I found out today and didn't make the trip into the wilds of Nottinghamshire.

Ah well. I'll offer two cheers for the spam filter. But I'll also look forward to the day when e-mails start costing a fraction of a penny each to send. Because that would kill the spammers' business stone cold dead.

And what about the money generated? Any suggestions for good causes? Seems like a win-win solution to me.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Adventures in Screenwriting

I am not sure how much I am alowd to say about this. Safe enough, I think, to let you know that last week I had the chance to work with Director Chris Jones on developing ideas for a screenplay. The day at Ealing mentioned in earlier posts was the start of this. There followed a week of working on a treatment for the film. The unusual thing about the project was that all those concerned - and there was a team of us - knew that the film was definitely going to be made.

It was great fun and a privilege to work with Chris - who is one of my dyslexic heroes. (By this I mean that he is someone who seems to me to have put his dyslexia to work to his advantage. The creativity, the different way of looking at things, the willingness to think away from the mainstream, all these are things I associate with successful dyslexics. But I haven't had a chance to ask him about this. When I do, it is possible he will disagree!)

Where will the project go from here? My involvement has finished for the time being. Other writers are taking things forward to the scriptwriting stage. But I will let you know when there is more news. Look forward to a very creepy thriller hitting the screens in 2010.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Combining Treatments

Another short blog post this morning. I'll try and write something less diary like soon.

Yesterday I worked on drafting a treatment for the screenplay. At the same time, over the other side of the country, my writing partner was doing the same. Independently. In the evening we e-mailed the result of our labours to each other.

Now the tricky bit. We need to take the best bits from each treatment and combine them into one super-treatment.

Wish me luck.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Movie Treatment

This is going to be a short blog entry.

I'm racing to produce a first draft treatment for the movie. The deadline is this evening.

As usual, Act 1 is easy enough to hold in the head. But when you wade into Act 2, it feels like you are dealing with more than a head-full of plot.

I hope to post more on this tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Writing with the unconscious/subconscious mind

Over the next few days I'm going to be working on the framework of a story for a screenplay. I love this stage in the writing process - right at the beginning when all things are possible.

Writing involves all parts of the mind. Logical thought. Planning. Sensuality. Emotion. The random stuff thrown from the unconscious / subconscious mind. But different stages in the writing process seem to rely more heavily on different aspects. For example, writing close-in description is for me a very sensual process. By which I mean, I have to sense the scene that I am describing. If I am describing a scene in a field of long grass, I have to put myself into it so that I can feel the touch of the grasses, smell the air, be warmed by the sunshine.

And the process of writing the lead-up to the climax of a novel (Act 3, if you like) is one that relies on the conscious, logical mind. I know where the story is going. I am by that stage joining the dots. My subconscious mind may throw in strange ideas, but there is little opportunity to deviate from the existing plan.

Conversely, the opening of a novel or the first stages of planing a screenplay allow huge scope for the subconscious. And that is fun. You never know where it is leading.

There is one more stage to mention. The resolution of a story - after the climax. This is the place where we see how the events of the story have touched the surviving characters. When I am writing a novel, I don't usually know in prospect what will happen in the last half chapter. For that I have to rely on my emotions to guide me and I only know when I get there.