Writing A Bhikku’s Tale

A Bhikku’s Tale is steeped not just in mythology but story. Anyone who enjoys a good tale well told will find it satisfying, I hope.

Every day we encounter many stories: newspaper stories, TV and film stories, stories we hear from family and friends. We need stories to shape and understand both ourselves and the world in which we live. Stories take us on a journey, even if it is just a song heard on the car radio or a joke. Like all good journeys, the getting there is more important than the destination. Those are just some of the reasons why I am a fan of stories and mythology.

In writing A Bhikku’s Tale I wanted to play around with elements of Irish myth and ideas from my own imagination. The notion of play is often associated with the term Postmodernism but I wouldn’t hold it down to just this. In my book, all art comes from play. Always has and always will. There is plenty of work involved too but, essentially, it’s about play. I had such fun writing A Bhikku’s Tale! I hope that the reader will have just as much fun.

Two writers who have had a strong influence on my work are Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker. Both are master fabulists and both are Brits. I wanted to write a book about fantastic and mythological creatures, putting them into a modern context. A modern Irish context. I am 100% honest when I say that I have never heard of such a book being written in mainstream Irish fiction. Irish mythology is an absolute treasure trove of stories, ideas and characters that appeal to the imagination. Some people might frown on the way I use Irish myth and legend. They might see Irish mythology as sacred and not to be touched in any way. I believe that, like all other mythologies, Irish myth and legends have survived and grown through people retelling and rewriting them. Mythology is something that should be shared by everyone and all artists and writers should be free to use them in any way they want, in order to say what they want to say.

As mentioned earlier, I put quite a few original ideas and characters into the book. I’m a big fan of imagination. I believe that it is important not just for art but also for solving social and environmental problems, amongst others. I strongly believe the imagination can change the world or, at least, change the way we see it. But, getting back to the book, although there is lots of Irish and other mythology in there, you really don’t need to know much about it to enjoy the work. All you need is imagination and a love of story, two things we are all blessed with, even if you don’t know it.

Getting to the ‘Good Stuff’: the Art of Creative Writing.

They say there is prose and verse and you can have poetry in either. This williamblakeartstrikes me as true.

Literature is an art, not a science. Living is an art, not a science. This is why the term ‘Arts’ is often associated with, and even interchangeable with, the term ‘Humanities’.

The American poet, Jim Morrison, was once asked about the cross he wore around his neck at the Doors’ famous gig at the Hollywood Bowl in 1968. He said, ‘it’s just a symbol. It doesn’t mean anything.’ At first this might seem a contradiction: you might argue that a symbol is all about meaning. You might say that a cross is a symbol of suffering. That is its meaning. I think what Morrison was trying to indicate was the difference between a fact and a symbol. Facts have an exact meaning. They are scientific. Symbols don’t have an exact meaning. In fact, they don’t say anything at all. They suggest. They have multiple aspects. Symbolism is at home in verse but it should be present in prose also, or any prose that sees itself as literary.

Yes, there is logic and science in literature, only it should serve the symbolic, the imaginative and the poetic. I believe a writer achieves maturity when he comes into awareness of the symbolic. When he begins to manipulate symbols in order to suggest and play with possible meanings. The mature writer knows how to strike a balance between symbolism and logic. The concrete nature of symbols allows him to play with them in his art. You can’t play around with abstracts because they can’t be visualized or imagined. That is why too much abstraction is a flaw in literature – it goes against the imagination and the imagination is paramount in literature in all its forms.

Consider Homer, the first poet of Western Civilisation and then consider Seamus Heaney, one of the greatest poets of the last fifty years or so. They both worked with concrete. With that which can be visualized and imagined. They worked with symbols.

Life is mysterious and writers can only capture a portion of that mystery through symbols. Life is messy and mixed up and confusing an only the mirror of art can reflect this. A good story, just like a good poem, shouldn’t have a precise meaning. It should only give you something to think about. It should suggest, allude and indicate. It should never impose itself. It should never enforce. It should never moralize except in the most general of senses e.g. it’s wrong to take another life. Good literature is an invitation to play – play with the intellect, the feelings and the emotions. Only when you master this will you become a good writer. Some of us master it at a young age. Some of us have to wait a few years and some never master it at all. It is a mixture of imagination and intuition, two terms that are alien to science and even craftsmanship. No matter how much you read and discover, there is no formula for it. You must simply write to get to it, to get to the ‘good stuff’, and, if you are lucky, you will.

On Neil Gaiman

106px-gaiman

Well folks, I think it’s time I expressed my gratitude and indebtedness to the great Neil Gaiman. Without Neil Gaiman there would be no Chronicles of Dan Lee O’ Brien and no Bhikku’s Tale.

If you are unfamiliar with Gaiman’s work you really don’t know what you are missing. Gaiman writes fiction with a dark cast to it. It isn’t pure fantasy as it is rooted in the real world, not unlike the work of fellow Brit, Clive Barker, to whom I am also deeply indebted. Many people have said my work is original and fresh. This may be the case in the world of Irish fiction but it’s time I made it known that Neil Gaiman has been doing it for decades for millions of readers around the world.

So, what exactly is it that Gaiman does?

Well, a lot of it is playing around with mythology and legend, often putting them into a modern context. His is an inclusive, pluralist vision of not just the gods but society in general. The word postmodernism has been associated with him a lot and rightly so. Someone once described him as a mad chef putting all kinds of different ingredients into the cake mix.

My favourite work of his is the Sandman. An epic, ground breaking adult comic that ran to 75 issues in the 90s. What do I love about it? Many, many things but above all, its wisdom. The author Aldous Huxley once said that when he took LSD he got the feeling that all is well with the universe. There is no need to take acid to feel this: just read the Sandman.

There is such intelligence and perceptiveness in what Neil Gaiman does. His style is spare and deceptively simple and direct. Behind it there is a high calibre, very well read mind at work. Gaiman is obsessed with stories, and mythology offers a treasure trove of them. Whether it is Greek, Norse, Irish, Slavic or African Gaiman will find a use for it.

So, is there much Irish mythology in his work? There is a scene in American Gods where Shadow, the protagonist, gets into a fist fight with a Sidhe (Irish faery) named Sweeney. Gaiman makes the Sidhe very tall and thin, completely bypassing the conventional notion of the ‘little people’. I thought this was such a good idea that I made the Sidhe in the Chronicles of Dan Lee O’Brien predominantly tall and thin. There is another great scene in the book where Sweeney, after dying, comes back to life in the morgue and, speaking at his own wake, tells Shadow the histories of the Tuatha De Danann and other waves of settlers in Ireland as they are recorded in the Old Irish manuscript, The Book of Invasions. I was happy to learn that Gaiman had written a substantial portion of the book in Kinsale, Ireland.

Although there is much darkness and creepiness in much of what he writes, Neil Gaiman has a sweet voice as a writer – he just comes across as a very nice, decent human being. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying that. Many of his books are short and sweet. Many of his stories end happily but some don’t. The end of Stardust comes to mind immediately but I’ll say no more. Don’t want to spoil it for you.

Neil Gaiman has had a stellar career as a writer, going from strength to strength and picking up many awards and much praise and acclaim along the way. He deserves it all.

I just wanted to say thanks, Neil: it’s great having you in my life.

Know Thyself: The Autobiographical Nature of Writing

120px-gaelic_poet

Someone once said that all writing is autobiographical. I tend to agree with this. When we write, in any field, what else do we have to go on but our own knowledge and experience of the world? What else can you put into your writing other than yourself? No matter how hard you try to keep it remote from your own experience, all you are ever doing is writing about yourself. It’s inescapable.

This might seem negative and limiting but, looked at in the right way, it is actually liberating. Writing is often seen as therapeutic because it makes us more aware of feelings and thoughts that were buried or half buried in the sub conscious. If you dig hard enough you will get to this layer. Greater self-awareness can only be a positive thing in your life as it leads to a better understanding of your wants and needs. It helps us to see where we are going wrong and puts us on the road to a happier, more full life. The ancient Greeks knew this. One of their favourite sayings was, simply, ‘know thyself’.

An awareness of the autobiographical nature of writing leads us to an appreciation of how important it is for writers to seek out new experiences and gain fresh knowledge and understanding. The more experience you have the better for your writing. This doesn’t necessarily mean travelling around the globe or joining the French Foreign Legion. One of the things that sets a writer apart from the rest of society is a greater capacity for thought and feeling and a heightened sensitivity to the world so that he/she will get more out of an experience than a ‘normal’ person would. This is why Franz Kafka was able to write such great literature – the richness of his inner life allowed it. And there are many other writers that fall into this category. By inner life I mean thoughts, feelings but also, of course, imagination. Imagination is another power that is uniquely yours. It is a treasure trove for any writer or any person who wants to live a fuller life. Of course, there are also writers who have lived apparently full lives – men of action such as Ernest Hemingway, and this also contributes to great writing. The lesson is never to give up the quest for fresh knowledge and new experiences and become a more powerful writer through greater self-awareness. Self-awareness will give your writing more layers and depth. It gives you more command over what you are writing and this can only be a good thing. So, if you are writing just for therapy or you are aiming for something more literary or both, don’t be afraid of what you learn about yourself. Make it work for you both in your life and in your writing.

The Reflex: Writing in the Dark

120px-lighter_sparks_and_flame

The post is about writing and self-reflexivity or meta-fiction.

It seems to me that writing is naturally self-reflexive. Especially creative writing. Why that is I don’t know but it goes back all the way to Homer’s epics and the dawn of Western literature.

For those of you who don’t know, meta-fiction is basically fiction about fiction. It draws attention to its own conventions and rules and inner workings. It ‘deconstructs’ itself. Self-reflexivity is in the same cluster of associated words. It basically means a text that refers to itself. These are very crude definitions. You’ll have to forgive me if they need more explaining or, indeed, if you know the terms better than I do.

It is fascinating to me how writing can’t help but to look at itself, especially creative writing. This kind of narcissism is hard to resist. It can be a positive, productive look in the mirror or it can be a negative, counter-productive look. It is easy to get bogged down in meta-fiction, to become so self-conscious you are paralysed. However, self-reflexivity can also be a guide. A light in the dark.

Let me give you an example. In the book I am currently writing there is a scene in the Otherworld where one of the major characters enters a small, island dwelling called a crannog. He goes there as he believes that there is an entrance to the real world somewhere in it. When I was writing it I had no idea how this entrance would appear. So, I wrote that he was in the dark, just like I was with the story. Then I had the idea that he should use the flame on his lighter to light up the dwelling. There are tapestries on the walls and he tries to grasp their meaning in the hope that they will show him what to do in order to get back to the real world. The tapestries proved to be a guide for both the character and myself, not just for that scene but for a lot of what happens afterward.

There are many smaller moments of self-reflexivity. Little flashes such as when characters say, okay, what do we do now? Or where do we go from here? The kind of positive, constructive self-reflexivity which is to be trusted. Much of the writing I am doing at the moment is done blind. I only find out where I’m going largely as I write it: the self-reflex has proved to be enormously helpful.

So where does it come from? I have no idea and I don’t want to know. It is truly mysterious. It may be the god of writers or it may be something that is inherent in our neurological make up. Whatever it is, I am in its debt. I can’t speak for anyone else.

Why Does Ireland Produce So Many Good Writers?

celticharp

As an Irish writer, I hope you will forgive my vanity in asking the above question. It’s one of our claims to fame as a people. Mangan, Yeats, Synge, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney…the list goes on and these are only the great ones. Of course, I don’t place myself anywhere near this pantheon but these are the writers who inspired me to ask questions about my identity and what it is to be Irish. So here I am, trying to figure out what it is about Ireland that she should produce so many great writers? I’m sitting here at my computer trying to answer that question as honestly, if not objectively, as possible.

Creative writing is a solitary act. It is also the most autonomous and individualistic of all the liberal arts. It requires a certain separateness and apartness. Now I’m not saying we are a nation of solitaries but we do see ourselves as apart and separate. From what? you ask. Well, Britain. We have been cultivating this sense of otherness and separateness for many hundreds of years in the face of British oppression. But it goes beyond politics. Ireland is a part of the Celtic Fringe of Europe. The last stronghold of the fathers of the twilight, as they are sometimes called. Through her we can access the past of a great European civilisation. Of course, this makes us proud but it also helps to nurture that feeling of separateness which drives people to write.

Another common trait in those who write creatively is the capacity for mimicry. According to Nietzsche, all art comes from mimicry. Now, again, I’m not saying we are a nation of mimics. It is a universal human impulse, after all. What I’m saying is that we seem to be quite good at it. Joyce’s Ulysses is a book full of mimicry. He seems to celebrate it along with the wit and eloquence of his characters. Of course, Joyce, in writing the book, is the great mimicker behind it all.

Music is one of the sources of all good creative writing. If the sound and the rhythm are not right, then you may as well throw it away. According to Pater, all art aspires to the condition of music. Irish people are music lovers. So what? you ask. Aren’t all nations? Yes, but I think as far as expressing the national character goes nothing does it better than Irish music. Anyone who has been to a session of Irish Trad music in a pub will know the reverence people have for it. It is a reverence for its power to express something so deep that it can’t be expressed in words.

And, finally, all creative writing comes from a deep rooted need to express oneself. Since we lost the Irish language, be it voluntary or not, Irish people have struggled with an alien tongue and this is, perhaps, reflected in the national literature. You might argue that many great writers were Anglo-Irish, but these writers were as concerned with expressing the national character as Irish Catholic writers were. They were part of the same struggle. That the Irish people achieved a kind of mastery over the language is evident in many works e.g. in the plays of Synge, where the characters speak a kind of noble Hiberno-English. The Irish have not only mastered but adapted a foreign tongue and this is reflected in the astonishing amount of successful Irish writers over the last 150 years or so.

Of course there are other national traits which are conducive to producing good writers. A capacity for suffering is one. An aversion to pomp and grandeur is another.

Then again, maybe it’s all down to there being something in the water!

Whatever the case, the national literature is a source of pride and self-esteem to Irish people all around the globe. Long may it continue.