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.

The Reflex: Writing in the Dark

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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 You Should Read Alan Moore!

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Hello all! Apologies for neglecting the site for so long. It’s been a busy year for me. In fact, it’s been one of the busiest and best years of my life so far. I’m aware that it’s not been the best of years for the world in general, what with Brexit, Donald Trump’s election to the Whitehouse and so many greats dying on us. After Trump’s victory, it occurred to me: what would Alan Moore make of what’s happening in the world today?

If you don’t know Alan Moore, you should! He’s one of the greatest writers of popular fiction in the world today. He writes comic books. Intelligent comic books. Real intelligent comic books. You might have heard of the graphic novel, Watchmen? Yes, he’s the guy who wrote it. Anyway, after Trump’s election Moore came to mind. He is outspoken and extremely articulate, and these qualities, together with the man’s great intelligence, make me want to defer to him. Politically he’s an anarchist. He despises racism. These things are evident in his writing. But I won’t try to guess what Alan Moore would say about the state of the world today. What I would like to do is talk a bit about his comic books.

Why do I enjoy reading Alan Moore’s comics so much? I’ve already mentioned their intelligence. Watchmen brought a new level of realism, especially psychological realism, to comic books but at the same time it is incredibly well structured. People often compare it to Citizen Kane but it is also like Joyce’s Ulysses. Much of Moore’s work is obsessed with form and is densely allusive, just like Joyce’s masterpiece. Watchmen is like one great mechanical watch: everything is connected. It is a true masterpiece of popular literature.

In most of Moore’s work there is a sense of something going on in the background. Something hard to grasp. Again, like Joyce. Such is his intelligence. But he also knows how to tell a story, how to entertain, how to take us on a journey. My favourite aspect of Moore’s art is his dialogue. His command of dialogue puts him almost into a league of his own as far as comics go. The only other writer to come close to him is Neil Gaiman. Moore’s characters are very articulate but also very real. They are not just mouth pieces for his personal views. The dialogue is just so fresh. It is always so fresh! When I open an Alan Moore comic book it’s like opening a door to let fresh air come in. As mentioned earlier, Moore’s political views can be easily discerned in his work. He is adamant that art should have a message. That it should be involved in the world, not set apart from it as pure escapism. And yet his characters are so real and convincing. He doesn’t allow his work to become propaganda. In this sense, he is a true artist.

Another quality is that he never repeats himself. Repetition is the enemy of true art. The artist should always be breaking through – finding different things to say and different ways to say them. Moore constantly plays around and experiments with the comic book medium. And yet you don’t have to know this to enjoy his stories. Again, there is that sense of something going on in the background. Something that will be grasped only if you read the book more than once.

Finally, Moore’s ability to entertain us is second to none. He doesn’t shy away from extremes of human behaviour, from violence and horror. There is no taboo which has been left unbroken in Moore’s work. He knows what we want and he gives it to us but he also knows what we need and he gives us that too.

Even if you’ve never picked up a comic book in your entire life you should check out Alan Moore. His importance as a writer of popular fiction is undeniable. Try Watchmen or Promethea or From Hell and experience some of his magic. You’re in good hands with Alan Moore.

Facing The White Bull: The Discipline of Writing

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Anyone who has written a book will know the importance of discipline. Getting up at roughly the same hour every morning and sitting down at the computer to ‘face the white bull’ as D.H. Lawrence called it.

Every writer has their own way of doing things. Dark fantasy author, Clive Barker, always writes the first sentence of a new chapter at the end of his working day so’s he isn’t starting from scratch the next day. Some writers do not hit the word processor when they get up in the morning (or afternoon). Neil Gaiman waits until around midnight to start writing. Everyone approaches the white bull in their own way. Here is how I do it.

  1. Be disciplined but not machine like. You don’t have to do a 9 to 5 day every day. When you feel you’ve done enough work, save it and turn off the computer. We know how writing is hard work, right? So you don’t have to feel guilty about finishing up in the afternoon. Also, you might want to return to your book later in the day. Be structured but keep it loose and flexible. Good writing is a mix of hard graft and inspiration.
  2. Put your thinking cap on. The book won’t flow out of you from beginning to end. There are periods when you have to put your thinking cap on. When you need ideas, in particular for plot lines, if your writing fiction, you have to stop writing and start thinking. You have to be obsessive about it. You have to go to the edge. No one knows where ideas come from, right? So in a way it’s like fishing. This implies relaxation and ease but we know how hard it is even if others don’t, so, again, don’t feel guilty.
  3. One line at a time. Remember that half the job of writing is making one line flow from another. You might have so much to say but you don’t know where to start. Well, just write a sentence and think of nothing else but the next sentence, how it will flow from the first. This is essential to the craft of good writing. Be patient. In time you will say everything you want to say. Trust in your mind.
  4. Self-belief. It’s important to keep motivated. Make sure you read over what you’ve written so far so you can remind yourself of how good you are! Believe that you are capable of writing the best book you can. If you are just starting out get feedback from others. Self-belief is at the core of good writing. Consider Samuel Beckett, a writer who only achieved the recognition he deserved when he was in his 50s. Think of the self-belief and discipline he must have had to keep writing. If you don’t believe in yourself, there is no point in getting up to face the white bull every day.
  5. Treat it like a journey. Writing, just like reading, is a journey: it’s important to finish it. Finish everything you start. Abandon nothing. Think of yourself as sitting in a pilot seat, making a journey every day until you reach your destination. Think of your readers as taking this journey with you. You have the responsibility to get them home.

So be disciplined and it will pay off. The joy of writing is in finding inspiration as you work. This is the ‘zone’ of creative writing. Trust in your mind and trust in your fingers and they will take you there.

 

 

Why I like Clive Barker So Much.

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Quentin Tarantino once said that Clive Barker is the ‘Beatles of fiction’. High praise indeed from a creator who is on a par with Barker as a writer and filmmaker. The comparison works for many reasons. Like the Fab Four, Barker was born and bred in Liverpool. His books are loved all around the world and have sold in their millions, just like the Beatles’ records. His greatness as a writer of popular fantasy fiction, or the ‘fantastique’ as he calls it, cannot be denied. Like Lennon and McCartney, he will be remembered as a master of his craft.

I discovered Clive Barker in 1990 when I was fifteen years old. I bought the Books of Blood omnibuses on the recommendation of a certain Stephen King. From the very start I was hooked. The stories were so original and full of imagination and, of course, well written. This was something new. A sensibility I had never tasted in a book before. I wish I could describe the way the books made me feel. The best I can do is to say it was a revelation. The sheer imagination was mind blowing. I got so much joy out of those omnibuses that you can imagine my elation when I discovered he had more works published. I remember reading Weaveworld and The Great and Secret Show and thinking this just gets better and better. He turned down the horror and turned up the fantasy and this suited me fine. I went through a fanboy period when I bought everything with his name on it.

So that was me back in the day, feeling blessed to have this writer in my life. This name that was synonymous with originality and imagination. This world weaver who I never got tired of reading.

What does Clive Barker mean to me today? Well, I’m not a fanboy anymore but I still love his work and I know I’ll be reading him for the rest of my life. Some books, when you return to them after a long time seem limited and shallow: you feel you’ve grown out of them. Not with Clive Barker. He’s just so goddamned good!

My favourite Barker book is probably Gallilee. There is a scene in the book where the eponymous hero burns incense on a fire on a beach in order to attract the female protagonist out of the holiday home she is staying in. For me this is a good metaphor for the attraction of the book and, indeed, all Barker’s books. There is something potent and intoxicating about them. Barker pleasures us like no other writer can and he does it by accessing the deepest parts of our psyche. ‘Exotic’ is also a good word to use in relation to his work. I can’t think of any other writer who combines such a powerful imagination with the ability to write like an angel. This is not the place for a critical analysis of his work but he certainly deserves to be studied and researched. There are many themes and aspects to his work which will stimulate academic research. The Faustian pact with the Devil is one. Redemption is another. The character of houses in his work is also a potential area to be explored.

So that is why I like Clive Barker so much. I wish I could express better how his books make me feel but it is beyond my poor powers as a writer. I met the man once in Dublin when he was promoting Everville and I’m glad to be able to say that he is just as great a person in the flesh as he comes across in interviews, both filmed and written. To return to the Beatles, like they were, he is totally down to earth and handles fame extremely well.

If you are new to Clive Barker, I envy you for what you have in store if you decide to bring him into your life: a contract made in Heaven and Hell and everywhere in between.

Writing The Chronicles of Dan Lee O’Brien

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The Chronicles of Dan Lee O’Brien was written over a period of four to five months in 2015. It is fair to say that it flowed out of me. Reading it now I’d say the best quality is the dialogue. It seems to capture the rhythms of speech successfully as well as facilitating the discussion of ideas. One of my favourite creators is the film maker Quentin Tarantino. His dialogue is, above all, lucid and intelligent and I’ve tried to emulate that in the Chronicles. However, the writer I am most indebted to is undoubtedly Neil Gaiman. The whole idea of putting gods into a modern context comes from him, especially the Sandman comic and his novel, American Gods.

When writing the book my overall aim was to play with the Irish myths. To make them more fun and accessible. I also wanted to use them to talk about the power of the imagination which is, perhaps, the dominant theme of the stories. I tried to keep the stories clever and humorous and ensure they have a broad appeal. My favourite story is probably Gungnir, as the concept of the story is clever but it also has a strong autobiographical element, so it is close to me.

The character Dan Lee O’Brien came about as I wanted to create a protagonist or anti-hero who was both old fashioned and cool: a pipe smoking, bike riding old man who is a magician and investigator of the supernatural. He is like an older, more laid back John Constantine. I also tried to put in strong female characters, both goddesses and humans. This seems to have paid off as most of the positive feedback I have gotten has come from women.

I also wanted to give people things to think about e.g. the need for imagination to bring about social change, the power of music and the idea of being haunted by ghosts of the past. I tried to put a lot of ideas into the mix to create something complex and multi-faceted.

All books are a journey. I hope those who choose to take the journey with me will find it both entertaining and stimulating.

 

Reflections on the Imagination

For this writer the hardest part of creating is coming up with ideas. Imaginative ideas. It takes up so much mental energy that I have little left for the writing part. But when my energy is restored I find that putting words on paper and giving shape to my thoughts and ideas is a lot easier than that initial imagining. I usually lie down on my bed for the initial imagining stage and it is by far the hardest work you can do whilst lying down on your back. A line from Yeats’ Adam’s Curse comes to mind:

…and yet

Be thought an idler by the noisey set

Of bankers, school masters and clergy men.

The ancient myth about the birth of Athena is typical Greek brilliance, an insight into the nature of the imagination. The myth goes that Athena just popped out of Zeus’ head, suddenly, from out of nowhere. The imagination comes, seemingly, from out of nowhere and therefore it is a mystery on a par with music and wine. That the myth refers to the imagination is perhaps confirmed by the role given to Athena in Homer’s Odyssey. She gives Odysseus ideas for getting out of trouble and getting back to his home on Ithaca. She is like a personification of the imagination. In the poem she is often referred to as ‘the goddess of the flashing eyes’. What could be a better metaphor for the imagination, for the inner eye?

So the imagination is hard work and it is mysterious. All I can add to this is that it is stressful. It seems to come about by mental chafing in the same way that fire is started by rubbing wood against wood. We can bring in another myth here. The myth of Prometheus, who gave the gift of fire to man and was punished for it. Is fire another metaphor for the imagination? For the imagination in all its power and mystery must be the greatest gift that man possesses. All original thought comes from the initial spark of the imagination. Every invention, every great work of art is the offspring of the imagination. All civilisation and progress owes a debt to the imagination.

So the next time you are dreaming with your eyes open, remember that you are not an idler. Or if you are an idler then it is an important idleness. You are partaking in an activity which has lifted humanity to its very summits. You are partaking in something divine. For the writer who must come up with an original idea it is hard work but once it happens and the words begin to cascade and flow no writer will deny that it is worth it.