Literature as Play

As far as I can make out there is only one rule to the game of literature that we can say with any degree of certainty. That rule is play.

Play consists of saying much without really saying anything. It is not the job of poetry to clarify. Poetry should suggest and ambiguate. To play with words, to juggle with concepts and ideas is the business of the poet. And freedom is the condition necessary for this kind of activity to flourish.

This is not to say that literature can’t have a message. Only that the message be conveyed in a way that isn’t direct or obvious. And that that message not be the only message.

All good literature is an interplay of light and dark.

Play is omnipresent in our language, in the way we communicate on a daily basis. We don’t always talk in a clear, transparent way. We suggest, allude and insinuate. They say this notion of play is at the heart of our Post-Modern society and culture, but the truth is it has been with us since the beginning of language and certainly since the beginning of literature.

Probably the best examples of literary play are in dramatic works, hence the name ‘play’. The best plays are those that don’t have a direct message. This is the difference between literature and propaganda. It is fascinating to witness how the drama works itself out. The dramatic work of Samuel Beckett is probably the best example of pure play there is. Waiting for Godot is an astonishing achievement of pure dramatic play: a play without any message at all.

Why is drama the best literary form for playing in? It is because drama mimics our own everyday speech. Our monologues and dialogues. And, as we have already pointed out, play is inherent in our language and the way we communicate. It is part of the human condition and the human condition is every poet’s concern.

There are rules to every game. These rules change over time. All except that one essential governing principle: to play. Once you start playing, you are on the road to making good poetry.

Descent, Retrieval and Return: An Archetype for Writers

Many of you would be familiar with the Greek myth concerning Orpheus and his journey to the underworld to bring back his recently deceased wife, Eurydice. A similar journey is undertaken by Odysseus in an episode of the Odyssey. Instead of searching for a person, he is on a quest to find information about how he is going to get home to Ithica. In 14th cent. Ireland an anonymous author committed to paper a story about a ship that appears in the air over a church in Clonmacnoise. An anchor is lowered to the ground amidst a group of monks. Then a man leaps from the air ship and, swimming in the air as if it were water, he retrieves the anchor. In JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Gandalf goes down into a chasm in the mines of Moria to fight the Balrog. He returns later in the book, transformed into a new, more powerful Gandalf: Gandalf the White.

Noticing a pattern?

Yes, all the stories are about descent, retrieval and return. They are all versions of the same archetypal idea. There is much we can learn from this archetype, especially us authors if we draw a correlation with the process of creative writing.

To write convincingly, writers must dig deep. We try to access the sub consciousness and retrieve something. What is this something? Of course, it is truth. The truth about ourselves. The truth about the universe. Whoever said that writers are liars was wrong. Or at least they were wrong about genuine writers who try to give their readers something real. The ego lies but the sub conscious id never does.

Let’s take a closer look at one of the stories I outlined earlier: the voyage of Odysseus to the underworld. Odysseus visits Hades as he is trying to get home and needs directions from the seer, Tiresias. Before he meets Tiresias, he must confront the ghosts of his past. Someone once said that all writing is autobiographical. This insight supports the analogy I am trying to make. When we write, what else are we doing but confronting our own past? But Odysseus’ quest is to find out how he will get home. He needs Tiresias’ prophecy to discover this knowledge. How does this fit into our analogy? We’ve made the point that the writer confronts his own past but there is a huge chunk of the creative process we haven’t mentioned yet: the imagination. To see into the future, we need imagination. To get home, we need imagination. And the writer is lost without it just as Odysseus is lost without the prophet Tiresias. The fact that Tiresias is blind is significant. As is the tradition that Homer, the author of the Odyssey, himself was blind.

So, the two major resources of the creative writer are memory and imagination, ghost and prophecy. And these things bring truth. I won’t force this analogy any more.

Again, we learn from the ancient Greeks. Mythology and archetypes are there to help us achieve self-awareness and self-knowledge. One of the guiding maxims of the ancients was to ‘know thyself’. This is also the goal of psychoanalysis – to make the sub-conscious conscious.

The next time you put pen to paper, remember Odysseus and the underworld or the crewman from the air ship or Gandalf fighting the Balrog. If you want to write powerfully and convincingly you must take a journey into the unknown. There is no way around it. No detours.

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

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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

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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.