I thought it would be fun if we blog hopped

My blogging badly needs a shot in the arm, nay an intracardiac dose, of blah-blah fuel, so it is with great pleasure I’ve accepted Rob Rife’s invitation to a blog hop.

Rob Rife - Ascendant Canadian Bard

Rob Rife – Ascendant Canadian Bard in Yakima Valley

Basically, it’s a writer’s pyramid scheme, blog-based chain letter, tasteful tag-fest thing. I’m one of three writers Rob’s asked to answer four questions about writing and the writing process.

It is hoped that this will entendril the blogging writersphere ecosystem with fruitful vines of interconnection, lead readers to discover new and lovely writers and give others an insight into what makes some of us tick.

Not only because Rob’s said nice things about me in his post but also because, in my opinion, he’s “one to watch” as he climbs steadily the ladder of latter-day bards, I really hope you hop back up the vine and check out his writing. I think it speaks for itself in a unique voice and it takes a lot make me think, as I do, “when that book comes out I’m buying it” whether the author is my friend or not.

So…

1) What am I working on?
When I’m not writing for others, I’m mapping the terrain between my subconscious and conscious realities, my dreaming and waking worlds, and dredging up short stories as I go. These are broadcast semi-regularly as a podcast at Stories from the Borders of Sleep. They are stories for hearing rather than reading, so any book that may come from them in the future will be more of a spin-off than a substantial target met.

Borders of Sleep illustration by Robyn Trainer

Borders of Sleep illustration by Robyn Trainer

This is a long-term project. I intend to continue it until the twelfth of never and would be quite happy to let it be my life’s work. It provides a creative discipline through the need to continually bring out new material and is immensely satisfying as I know it goes straight to an audience that, my stats tell me, downloads on average a hundred stories a day.

Alongside that, and not a million miles removed from it, I’m working on a book that probably sits in the ‘self help’ section. Broadly, it’s about using different parts of the body as a way of connecting inner reflection with outward action. If that sounds too wooky, then it could alternatively be described as a book about anthropology and time management.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I honestly don’t know because, with perhaps one exception, I don’t really read the stuff that might be similar. The exception is that I have derived a lot from the works of George MacDonald. He occupies the high points of mythopoeic romance to which I can only aspire.

To feed myself, I study literary classics, folklore and history, watch TED talks and look for books in brooks and sermons in stones. I should probably be reading Paul Coehlo, Haruki Murakami, Susanna Clarke and Neil Gaiman, but I don’t have time.

3) Why do I write what I do?
It has always been the same motivation for me, that simple line from the screenplay of the film about CS Lewis, Shadowlands:

We read to know we are not alone.

Books have been my greatest comforters and companions in helping me make sense of this way between earth and heaven where we all have the temporary use of a body, a mind and some words. Therefore, put simply, “I write to let others know they are not alone either.”

4) How does my writing process work?
I need to work in long stretches of time so it only really happens when I have a few uninterrupted hours in the dead of night or the wee small hours. Saturday mornings are good, too.

I write standing up because I constantly need to fidget or walk away to calm down or let the kinks work out in my head.

Actually starting something is Mount Everest, everything after that is Cool Runnings (apart from editing, which is K2). Finishing something is a serious hit on my dopamine receptors.

I usually only need one or two ideas, the rest takes shape as I go along. So I might start just knowing I want to write about a couple of trees I saw with intertwined limbs. Then it’s just a case of letting my imagination play out and making sure I take notes and keep up.

That sounds easy but it takes quite a toll on me. I think I write in a trance – it’s a bit like getting drunk. I get elated, then I get hung over. Maybe a better answer to the previous question is just that I’m an addict.

And on to …

This is the bit where I tell you who to hop on to next … I’m still recruiting victims, but here’s my first:

Justin Lau – Writings of a Vagabond at Peace

When Justin first appeared in my life, I felt an immediate connection – although I suspect he has a gift for making most people feel like that. In spite of our very different backgrounds, our few conversations have got straight to the heart of the things that most interest me. We’re both multi-instrumentalists and we both love writing. We both see our creative calling as not fitting the box of one particular medium or art form although writing seems to be the brightest thread. We’re both gnawed by the great question of  ‘where is home?’ as people who have been geographically adrift among cultures from an early age. We’re both intrigued by Japanese culture – although he has more of an inside track on that. He introduces himself very well and explains why he’s a ‘Vagabond at Peace’ in this blog post.

Justin Lau's cheeky face

Justin Lau’s cheeky face

Justin describes himself as an ‘aspiring author’. That’s brave and honest. The title brackets him with millions of others who ‘hope to write a book some day’. The thing is, I think he just might be one of those who actually does. I dream with him that he’ll one day write the great Japanese novel. In the meantime he shows a flair for flash fiction, writes prolifically in search of his voice, studies English Literature at Durham University, has an eye for well-turned prose and an ear for a lyrical song.

Justin has recently restarted blogging (prompted by this post, in fact), and although there’s not a lot there yet, he’s definitely one to watch. You can literally watch him on YouTube and hear him on SoundCloud – but seriously … check him out!

One Big Story Part II

As a partial explanation of my failure to maintain this blog for the last few months, here’s one of the things I’ve been up to:

 

Creativity and the Edge Effect or “Yo-Yo Ma and Monkeys”

Earlier this week (8th April), Yo-Yo Ma delivered the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy the Kennedy Centre in Washington.

He called it “Art for Life’s Sake: A Roadmap from One Citizen Musician”, and it is well worth reading the transcript or watching the talk. As he champions the cultivation of collaboration, flexibility, imagination, and innovation, his vision of the future workforce is neatly echoed by a new study from Wikia and Ipsos MediaCT called “GenZ: The Limitless Generation”, which suggests these are the very strengths that Generation Z will bring to the table.

However, when Yo-Yo Ma articulates how a biological phenomenon, “the edge effect”, applies to the arts, you can hear the rubber biting the tarmac. This is not new, but he puts it well:

“In ecology, where two ecosystems meet, such as the forest and the savannah, the point of intersection is the site of “edge effect.” In that transition zone, because of the influence the two ecological communities have on each other, you find the greatest diversity of life, as well as the greatest number of new life forms.”

In my final year as an undergraduate in Anthropology, an interest in the edge effect drove me to spend five weeks studying Cercopithecus aethiops (the vervet monkey) in the wild.

Vervet Monkey

Vervet Monkey (Via Wikipedia)

This primate is virtually ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa, having even adapted to urban settings in some cases. They also have one of the most complex documented “languages” or systems of calls and vocalisations of any species. I had an inkling that, in some way, the complexity of their language would be matched by a fluidity in social organisation and driven by their occupation of marginal environments (edges) and, ultimately, the physical distribution of their food.

Without boring you with the details, in grossly simplified terms, a gorilla sits around and grunts a lot because most of his food is the same and in the same place. He also has a rigid social structure that has to do with who gets to sit in the middle, eat the good stuff and who defends the territory. The vervet, on the other hand, exploits a huge variety of foods, distributed almost randomly in a marginal environment with lots of space in between. He has to have a language to talk to his tribe fifty meters away and tell them where the good stuff is (or the bad stuff, like predators or anthropologists). He also doesn’t benefit hugely from eating in the same tree as everyone else, so social structure is more “easy-come-easy-go”.

Why does this matter? I asked myself that a few hundred times as I tried to follow the critters for hours through dense bush on mosquito-bitten legs. But it seems likely that innovations, such as language and walking upright, happened under very similar circumstances in the mysterious pre-prehistory of our own species.

Back to the Kennedy centre …

Ma brings on a series of artistes to illustrate the edge effect. What does it look like, for instance, when Lil’ Buck performs his own street-forged dance moves to “The Swan” by Saint-Saens?

He then points out that the pianist on stage with him, Cristina Pato, is also Cristina Pato the bagpipe player from Galicia, a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, who just released her first jazz CD.

“One might say she is an artist who creates her own edge effect!”

That fascinates me!

I don’t think we are particularly comfortable with polymaths these days. Fame, success means being the biggest fish in one pond, not the second biggest in two, or the third biggest in three ponds.

I’m not a Leonardo da Vinci and nor are you (probably), but what can I do to be less of a gorilla: to occupy and exploit the fringes where linguistic innovation flourishes and social interaction is open and uncharted?

Firstly, as someone who primarily wordsmiths, I don’t hang out much with other writers. I love you guys (and gals), hugely, but sometimes I feel mildly threatened because we are grazing the same patch. Hooking me up with a muso, thesp, calligrapher, or chef is more likely to bring out the best in me (with the exception of a mime, perhaps).

Secondly, I hate it when people wibble on about “getting out of your comfort zone”. This is probably because I’m very happy in my comfort zone, thank you, but I’m also very tired of the cliché. Is there a better way to put it?

  • Induce a creative crisis (go analogue for a week).
  • Go on an artist date (indulge in thrill-seeking).
  • Study a parallel discipline (photographers, pick up a paint brush).
  • Throw away the dummy (burn those notebooks, there are plenty of fresh ideas where those ones came from).
  • Move the furniture around (sit next to someone different at the next meeting).
  • Get into your collaboration zone (thanks to one of my favourite collaborators, noahsapprentice, for this suggestion)

Whatever it takes …

How might you create your own edge effect?

I’m just kidding about the mime, by the way.

One Big Story … Part I

This month, I have the joy of working with 300 year five and six pupils from Durham City schools  to turn their ideas into One Big Story: an epic and imaginative tale that will be published in paperback in October.

Scary? No, this is just my storytelling face (Photo: Robyn Trainer 2012)

This one of the most exciting things I have done for a while; it ticks about a hundred boxes for the things I love doing: creative writing, stimulating other people’s imaginations and helping them to realise their creative ideas, being able to say the magical word “story” about 50 times a day and share my passion for the written word.

I’m working as part of a team alongside Christina Maiden (Off The Page Drama) and Robyn Trainer (Floral Footsteps), running whole day workshops in primary schools, getting children to invent and develop ideas for stories and working collaboratively to forge them into a coherent narrative.

Remarkably, it turns out to be quite possible to take the ideas of 30-40 children at a time and guide them into creating a story together as long as you think on your feet and prepare yourself for almost anything to happen. Not to give too much away, but we are half way through the project already and have five out of ten chapters mapped out. The children have taken us beyond our own imaginations into their own world where there are a lot of fights involving food and an awful lot of ghoulish characters in which the malevolent and comedic are theatrically blended.

It has been very encouraging to see that literacy is alive and kicking in every school we have visited so far; I’m the one getting educated.

In less than a month, we will be holding the book in our hands and you, too, will be able to read what happens when children create the sort of story that they would like to read … watch this space …

This screen …

Dear friends,

It kills me that we can’t hang out together in real life.  I’m tired of reading your blogs; I want to spend these long summer days being where you are and talking to your faces. Offline life is quite absorbing at the moment and I feel as if some subtle re-consecrating and rearranging is going on that is really hard to articulate in pithy 500-word posts. In a roundabout way, I’m trying to say that I miss my blogospheric community and apologise for my recent lack of participation; you know who you are and I think of you often. I reckon I’ll find my groove again in the near future and look forward to picking up some trailing threads …

 

 

You Could Stay In and Watch Eurovision or You Could Come Out Dancing

Ceilidh in aid of "Handcrafted" Durham Town Hall 26th May 2012 with the Scrumpy Badgers

http://handcraftedproject.com/

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