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Marigolds and Motivation

Marigolds - not actually what this post is about but lovely nonetheless.

Marigolds – not actually what this post is about but lovely nonetheless.

Any writer with aspirations to call themselves ‘author’ hits a point where they have to start thinking critically about their own work.

I don’t mean ‘critically’ in the sense of disliking it, thinking little of it or holding it up to the very unrealistic expectation that the first draft will be anything like the polished work of our favourite published authors (it won’t be, of course, and you can be certain that the novel you’re despairingly comparing your own work against probably only vaguely resembles its own first draft).  I use the term to mean the process of dissecting and analysing one’s crafted words to find out why the left wheel is a bit wonky.

Let me say up front that I don’t like the process.  I don’t know many people who do (but I have heard such writers exist).

But what I do love is when I find something wrong about my writing that I know I can fix.

I was lucky enough, recently, to be introduced to a film that I now quite love.  It’s a love story, I suppose you could say – a story about finding it, losing it, fearing it gone.  It has some of my favourite actors in it and covers a few aspects about life that I think are perhaps lacking in many stories nowadays.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (for the Elderly & Beautiful) was released in 2011 and has an almost intimidatingly talented line-up: Dame Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Tom Wilkinson, Ronald Pickup, Dev Patel and the ever-brilliant Dame Maggie Smith.  Based on a novel I haven’t read called These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach, the story follows seven ageing English people who – for a variety of reasons – find themselves heading to a retirement hotel in Jaipur, India to spend their sunset years in what they think is going to be a lavish palace but instead turns out to be a dilapidated and poorly-run building owned by Sonny, the young Indian manager.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (for the Elderly and Beautiful)

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (for the Elderly and Beautiful)

I won’t spoil the movie for you.  If you’ve seen it you may understand why I enjoyed it so (Dame Maggie Smith’s performance only one reason of many, though certainly a compelling one).  If you haven’t seen it then I heartily encourage you to do so.

The reason I bring it up, however, is that it made me think.

As a brief overview, the seven principal characters are: Evelyn Greenslade (played by Dame Judi Dench), a newly-widowed housewife who also serves as the occasional narrator; Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy), an optimistic but hen-pecked husband; Jean Ainslie (Penelope Wilton), pessimistic and hard-to-please wife of Douglas; Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), racist and intolerant retired house-keeper being ‘outsourced’ to India for a hip replacement; Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson), a newly-retired High Court judge who lived in India as a boy; Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup), an ageing Casanova who desires to recapture his faded youth; and Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) who, sick of being a glorified babysitter to her grandchildren, is looking for new love – preferably of the rich and handsome sort.

Each of these characters has a history.  Every one of them has issues to face, realities to come to, wake-up calls to… wake up to.  Some of their stories are more thoroughly explored than others but the fact remains that they all have stories.

I’m currently writing a story about a girl in London (a city which, I hasten to point out, I have never visited).  There are friends, dangers, trials, triumphs, misery and loss.  It’s not quite half-way through and it looks like it’s shaping up to be quite a large book already.

The main character is also the principal focus.  It’s written from a third-person perspective but the action specifically follows her.  The reader sees the world largely on her terms rather than following the other characters about.  I might change that aspect but for the most part I’m largely happy with it.

Nonetheless, something has nagged me about it.  It’s a sense of wrongness, of artifice, that some writers can’t tolerate and others associate directly with treating writing as a craft as much as an art.  It’s a sign, the latter group says, that you’re treating your work as a work-in-progress, a made thing rather than your precious special baby.  I take it largely as a warning sign; if the activity within the story seems somehow forced or stilted then it rings false to me.

I was in bed last night musing all of this over when I had an epiphany: I write single-growth stories.

Dame Judi Dench as Evelyn Greenslade and Celia Imrie as Madge Hardcastle in 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel'

Dame Judi Dench as Evelyn Greenslade and Celia Imrie as Madge Hardcastle in ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’

One of the things that I’ve discovered I love about Marigold Hotel is something that I haven’t realised I’ve been in love with for a long time.  All of the characters have a story to tell, a lesson to learn, something to teach, personal growth to go through.  This is true of more than the principal characters, too – Sonny and his girlfriend Sunaina have growing to do, as does Sonny’s mother.  Even Sunaina’s protective brother has a realisation or two to come to terms with.  Growth is everywhere in that film.  It’s a regular forest.

In my writing, however, the growth is generally restricted to one character – the character I’m placing at the forefront of the tale.

This isn’t a unique issue.  I’m sure most – perhaps all – writers go through it.  Some published authors seem plagued by it (no, I’m not going to point the finger – you’ll spot them on your own) so I know this isn’t something that I alone suffer from.

But it is something I can address.  It’s not a symptom, it’s a cause.  I can work with that.

That’s the part I love and, though this post seems largely devoid of advice or even wisdom, that’s the thing I hope readers might take from this: yes, the process of analysing your own writing can be a pain in the backside at times.  It can seem like a dull chore and it can even scare you into thinking that you’re going to end up hating your own writing as much as you (probably) hated writing book reviews in high school.

Don’t let that stop you from doing it.  Don’t let it prevent you from appreciating, enjoying, loving when you find an issue with your writing that you know you can work on.  If you can’t see a way to work on it, look deeper.

Maybe you’re looking at a symptom.

NaNoWriMo 2013: After-Thoughts

book001The month has come and gone with surprising speed.  To be fair, though, that’s the nature of time.

As you’ll know if you read my previous post on the matter I’m a big fan of the (inter)National Novel Writing Month.  It’s a hard slog at times and serves to illustrate exactly how much life can get in the way of writing but it’s almost always a rewarding experience.  The benefits definitely, in my opinion, outweigh the disadvantages.

I can’t quite remember when I determined to go through with NaNoWriMo this year but I did, a fact that I’m glad of.

Here are my thoughts on this year’s effort.

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Musings: The Ballad That Is Amanda Palmer

I’m coming to terms, little by little, that a blogger (bloggist? bloggerator? bloggoid? blogsbody?) is not what I am by nature.

It’s my nature to write long, rambling posts on matters that are, for the overwhelmingly larger part, of interest only to me.  I’m not that way out of selfishness, it’s just how it turns out.

And so, most of the time, I don’t do it.  I play a guilt-game with myself about it, upset that I can’t think of anything to write that people might find worth reading, wishing to write about some topic that I’ve made into my latest obsession (oh yes, I’m one of those types, the sort that have a hundred half-finished projects lying around the house).  I tell myself that it’s not worth putting words on the screen, that people will be angry, that people will be bored.  Feedback from my stories and poems has been surprisingly good; feedback on my blog posts is almost non-existent.

But you know what?

Fuck that.

I don’t use that term lightly, and not just because my mother sometimes reads this stuff (though, I’ll be honest, that is one of the reasons).  I’m using it now for a couple of reasons: firstly, because there’s a certain level of conviction that is most easily portrayed with profanity; and secondly because of Amanda Palmer.

Amanda Palmer performing in Auckland, 2006

Amanda Palmer performing in Auckland, 2006

I’ll explain.

For those of you who aren’t aware, Amanda Palmer is a singer, songwriter, performer, activist, feminist, visionary, ex human statue and downright inspirational person.  I became aware of her existence through the wonderfully quirky, charming and heartbreaking song, Coin-Operated Boy, performed during her days as half of the ‘Brechtian punk cabaret’ duo, the Dresden Dolls.  Her quirky style, open heart, sense of humour and incredible drummer (Brian Viglione, yeah, the same one from the Violent Femmes) caught my attention immediately.  The robust song about heartbreak, loss and disappointment tugged at my art-strings.

I should point out that I don’t listen to a lot of music.  I catch the songs that drift by me and consume them avidly but I don’t go out of my way to hunt them down.  I’m a music scavenger, not a music predator.  So when I find something that really makes me sit up and go ‘Wow,’ I don’t take it lightly.

I don’t own any of Ms Palmer’s albums.  I catch what I can in passing and, in a strange way that may not make sense, I feel them to be all the more special for that.  They drift in and out of my life, challenging me at particular times, like bra-clad leaves wielding ukeleles.

I follow Ms Palmer’s Tumblr account and find her words, her courage, her strength to be inspiring.  She was given a crochet doll of herself recently, along with one of her husband Neil Gaiman, and in her typically rich sense of humour she almost immediately began posting photos of them in interesting positions – talking, sitting with their heads in each others’ laps, arguing, sleeping, making love (despite the Neil Gaiman doll’s clothes not being removable), and so on.

And then, scrolling down…

There’s one of them in which the Amanda doll is sitting on a window ledge.  The window is closed.  The Neil doll is on the inside, looking out, and the caption reads: NO AMANDA DON’T DO IT!  YOU HAVE SO MUCH TO LIVE FOR.

NO AMANDA DON’T DO IT! YOU HAVE SO MUCH TO LIVE FOR.

It’s heartbreaking, it’s real, it’s challenging and it’s intimate.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Amanda Palmer.  She will make you gasp and cheer, cry and curse, process and reassess.  She will stand before you in a kimono or a bra, a ‘FUCK TONY ABBOTT’ t-shirt or an ornate dress – or she will stand before you naked, clad only in music and sincerity.

But she will always – always – be Amanda Palmer.

She is bold and raw before you, she who stands proud in her armour of Self.

This blog post does have a point, though, and I’m getting to it.  I did say I ramble.

You’ll possibly have heard of the (extremely) recent clashes betwixt Irish-born singer Sinead O’Connor and the increasingly infamous Miley Cyrus.  If you haven’t, the summary is this as follows.

Miley Cyrus is the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus (the Achy Breaky Heart guy) and you may well know her as Hannah Montana.  Well, Miley has grown up and is now performing her own work the way she wants to perform it, something that’s got a lot of people somewhat perturbed.  Relatively recently she started displaying a tendency to stick her tongue out a lot and she’s experimenting with nudity in her film clips.  Most notably, though, was her performance at the MTV Awards.  It involved twerking, teddy bears, foam fingers and the aptly-named Robin Thicke – the point is a lot of people found it tasteless (at best).

I, for the record, think that if people are going to shake their heads in shock at a young woman sticking her tongue out and implying she has a sexuality and completely ignore the white dude behind her perpetuating rape culture with a horrid little song about ignoring consent (it’s called Blurred Lines, if you’re wondering; look it up on YouTube because I’m not going to contaminate my blog with its nonsense) then there’s something seriously wrong with society.

Miley Cyrus

Was the performance tasteful?  Probably not.  Some people are stating the performance was racist because there were black people in it dressed up as animals – and yes, I can see how that could be an issue, though I doubt it was anyone’s intention to be racist (from what I could see almost the entirety of the cast was black, Ms Cyrus and Idiot Thicke being the only notable exceptions).  Looking at a few of her other clips it seems pretty clear Ms Cyrus is attempting to portray herself as being, if you like, a bit of a ‘wigga’ (a term I don’t personally like at all).  She’s In With The Rap Crowd and yes, that area of music is dominated by African-Americans (and no, I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem).  She’s not the first white woman to do so and she won’t be the last, not by a long shot.

But the majority of the classist, misogynistic backlash from it seems based mostly around the Western world’s horror that a young woman attempting to break out of a childhood role and into her own art-space has had the audacity to proclaim her sexual energy and use shock tactics to get people’s attention.  Something that white male American radio shock-jockeys do verbally every day is somehow devastatingly horrid coming from Ms Cyrus.  Doesn’t that seem a little stilted?

She’s a young woman attempting to reinvent herself from a past in which she’s been shaped purposefully into, well, Hannah Montana.  If she seems like she’s going too far in breaking out of that role maybe, just maybe, she has a point.  So while her work isn’t to my tastes I can still see what she’s doing with her art and guess at why.

Sinead O’Connor

One of the people dismayed at her recent work, as mentioned before, is Ms O’Connor.  She penned an open letter to Ms Cyrus and that opened up a hell of a mess.

Whether Ms O’Connor’s letter was valid or not (and I believe it was both valid and missed several points) there’s no denying that Ms Cyrus’s reaction was out of taste and extreme.  She immediately began to mock Ms O’Connor over Twitter (and Amanda Bynes, for some reason), implying mental instability and so forth.  Ms O’Connor’s reaction to this was not as graceful nor as peaceful as her opening letter was, undoubtedly, intended to be.

Let me repeat that, in order to be clear: Sinead O’Connor started this.  Ms Cyrus may have brought the media to Ms O’Connor’s door by citing her as an inspiration but it was Ms O’Connor herself that started the (open) correspondence between them.  She did so with, I don’t doubt, the best of intentions.  She also implied that Miley Cyrus is being manipulated into behaving ‘like a prostitute’ and either completely missed or intentionally ignored the possibility that the image Ms Cyrus is portraying might be absolutely intentional on her behalf (does that make her choices good?  No, not necessarily, but it does make them hers).  Ms Cyrus reacted like a petulant teenager who’s been slapped on the wrist (sorry, but it’s true, her Twitter escapades were out of line, she could have handled the matter much more maturely and she chose not to).  Things escalated.  Offensive slights about mental illness were made (by Ms Cyrus).  Insulting comparisons were made (by both parties).  Legal threats were made (by Ms O’Connor).

I don’t want people to misinterpret my opinion on this (not that my opinion is particularly important, but it is mine): I’m not condoning Ms Cyrus’s actions in responding to Ms O’Connor’s well-intentioned letter.  Making fun of people with mental illnesses is never, ever okay (and being a person with a neurological disorder and a mental illness I am particularly sensitive to such matters).  It was heartless, cruel and low.  There’s a lot of backlash about that – some people are calling Ms Cyrus extremely unpleasant names over this – and I feel that she’s simply going to have to wear that.  She should definitely offer a full and public apology.  The world doesn’t need a second Justin Bieber.  I also feel that whether it was well-intentioned or not Ms O’Connor’s initial open letter was, in fact, somewhat patronising.  Again, I applaud her sense of concern, but I doubt Ms O’Connor’s belief that Ms Cyrus is being pushed into anything she doesn’t want to be.  She strikes me as the sort of woman who’d more than happily push right back.  So yes, I think she was patronising Ms Cyrus.  I think her heart was in the right place but her perceptions of the situation were (and probably continue to be) somewhat off.

In fact, the whole thing strikes me very much as a protective mother and a rebellious daughter.

Amanda Palmer, Melbourne, 2013

Amanda Palmer, meanwhile, crafted a letter to Ms O’Connor.  You can read it on her website here.

This is something I want everyone who reads this long-winded blog post to understand.  There’s a reason why I freaking adore Ms Palmer so much, a reason why she’s just as much an inspiration to me as her husband (though in a different way) and there’s a damn good reason why we need more people in the world like her.

There’s also a damn good reason why this blog post isn’t actually about Ms Cyrus or Ms O’Connor.  It’s about Ms Palmer.  The mess that’s unfolded over the last couple of days has simply pushed to the fore why, especially at times like these, we need more people like Amanda Palmer in the world.

At the core of everything, under the music and the make-up, the kimono and the bra, even under the flesh and the bones, Ms Palmer wants something very simple.

She wants people to be allowed and to be encouraged to be proud of themselves.

There are no words to describe how much that means to me, how precious it is.  She’s a golden heart wrapped in skin.  She’s made mistakes, she’s fought tooth and nail through a male-dominated industry, she’s battled record labels for her right to be herself, she’s battled depression (and no doubt still does; depression is a clingy bastard that won’t stop calling and leaving creepy messages).  She could be incredibly jaded, bitter, immutably and incurably cynical about the world – but she’s not.  She has hope, dreams and laughter aplenty for the world to enjoy.  While Ms O’Connor and Ms Cyrus were taking pot-shots at one another she was enjoying the company of young girls interested in music, looking and knowing the future was unfolding right before her eyes – and that the future is full of hope.

If she can look at the world with such wonder why can’t we all?

I am, as you’ve no doubt gathered, not female.  Nor am I a singer.  I barely even really consider myself an artist; I’m more some dude with a keyboard, a blog and a head full of doubts.  Ms Palmer doesn’t know me; very likely she never will.  Like most of my inspirations she’s a distant figure that my admiring mind irrationally thinks can accomplish miracles, a person who seems so alien and familiar to me at once, and who wouldn’t know me from anyone else should she see me on the street.  But that’s all right.  She’s in the world and that’s a valuable, important thing.

Back to the point, despite not being a female singer artist her open letter struck a deep chord within me.  This is an important lesson for anyone interested in any kind of self-expression.  Y’all should read Ms Palmer’s letter for the simple, elegant concept of an artist’s uniform.

It’s not just about clothes, of course, it’s about style, direction, intent, drive, passion.  Like many writers I spend a lot more time worrying whether my works will seem too similar to one or another of my muses.  I worry about whether my work is original enough and yet familiar enough.  Different enough but not too different.  I concern myself over which genre to work in (or whether to work in several), whether my style suits one more than another, which demographic to aim for so that I’m not just swinging wildly in the dark hoping to make some kind of connection.

And you know what?  It’s okay for writers to try on their own uniform, to change it now and then, to experiment and to play.  It’s okay for us to give ourselves permission to do that.  It’s okay for fine artists to go through a dozen mediums until they find the one that works (sculpting with plasticine?  Awesome!  Oil painting with your fingers?  Great!).  We don’t need to commit our lives to just one thing and we’re not failures if we find, halfway through something, that it really isn’t Us.  We are permitted to learn about ourselves.  We’re allowed to allow ourselves that and if it makes us better as artists, better as people, then there’s no shame in going, ‘Well, raffia didn’t work, guess I’ll give all this stuff away to the local school’s art department.’  It’s okay if my poems mimic English nursery rhymes, my stories are trite and my blog posts are boring.  And it’s okay if they’re none of those things.

That’s my TIL.  That’s the lesson I took from this fracas about women proclaiming each other to be acting like prostitutes, or to be crazy, or this or that.  One woman, in the middle of it, seeing both sides and calling for mutual support rather than mutual criticism.  One woman saying, ‘It’s okay to learn who you are.’

I feel deeply humbled and immensely privileged to be a part of a world in which the ballad that is Amanda Palmer continues to unfold.

— Scott Thornby, 4th of October, 2013


A short note about titles…

You’ll note throughout this blog post, and perhaps others that I’ve written, that I tend toward the formal ‘Ms’ more often than I use people’s first names.  This is meant as a mark of respect.  It’s a legacy of how I was brought up; I don’t tend to use people’s first names unless I’ve been introduced to them with only a first name, I know them reasonably well or they’ve explicitly given me permission to use their first name (or a nickname).  My apologies if it seems archaic or awkward.

As an aside you’ll notice I don’t afford Robin Thicke the same courtesy.  Yes, you can guess why.

Writing Exercise: The Rambler

book001Hello, folks!  It’s been a while since I posted.  I’ve been working on a few things.

One of the things I’ve been working on is refining my writing and working on ways to get past writer’s block.  Almost every writer get writer’s block and so I’ve decided to put up some writing exercises that I’ve been using.  If they’re popular enough I might continue to put more up so if you like this make sure to click the ‘Like’ button down the bottom of the page.

This writing exercise is called The Rambler.

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Doctor Who: the Saviour Conundrum

I’ve been thinking about Doctor Who. Big surprise, eh. This contains spoilers, by the way.  I’ll place the rest of this post under a cut – if you don’t want to read potential spoilers then fo’ srs, don’t read this.

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Now with 100% Added Influence…

book001A friend of mine recently put a comment on a Facebook post I sent, saying that the story she’d read (Faces, if you’re curious) reminded her of the works of Sir Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams.  I said that they’re both influences on my work, which I suppose came as no surprise to anyone.  It got me to thinking, however, about those real-life muses that have indeed impacted not only on my style of writing but on my decision to write.

I should note that this list is not all-inclusive, nor is it in any particular order.  I have a lot of different influences.  Here are some of the major ones, though – mostly literary.

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