Saturday, 27 July 2013

I've been thinking about words...

I love words. Anyone who knows me can testify to this. Words are in my blood. They inhabit my brain like a bunch of rowdy squatters inhabiting an old, beaten down building - until they get kicked out because the building is being renovated for another purpose, or it's just getting torn down. I've always loved to read; books are like food to my knowledge-hungry brain. And of course they are composed of those most beautiful notes; words! And for as long as I can remember, I've wanted to be a writer. When I was in therapy I would get told off for using too many words. I would get so caught up in the jumble of words that run and collide within my brain, and on their way out of my mouth, that I never quite got to the point. I've often been told that I am very 'eloquent' when it comes to my verbal communications. The same could be said of my written communications also. I have often been praised for my extensive vocabulary.

I am also often praised for my ability to recall and recite passages of other people's work; I have the great skill of being able to quote others. Given the amount I read and my ardent love of words, it's not really surprising that, when I come across an apt phrase - a string of words so connected in a way as to induce some kind of epiphany or even an immediate love affair - I have to store it away in the palace of my mind for future reference. And then, when my brain deems the timing to be appropriate - and often when it isn't appropriate - it will throw out one, or several, of these pithy quotations to sum up my feelings or opinions on the matter. However, as I cannot actually claim the words as my own - that would be called plagiarism, and is frowned upon within decent society - can I really claim them as expressing my own opinion? To quote (behold the irony) Oscar Wilde, "Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation." Everyone's thoughts and beliefs and opinions are influenced by others. That's life. Psychologists have spent decades arguing the 'nature/nurture' debate - only for most of them to take the diplomatic route of suggesting that both play a part in how people's identities are formed and developed. The 'nurture' side of the debate tells us that all of our thoughts and beliefs and even our actions are influenced by our environments as we grow up and develop. With this in mind, can anyone claim to have completely independent thoughts? Or are, as the good Mr Wilde so aptly put it - and why not use his words instead of my own, since my own are just someone else's anyway - our thoughts simply 'someone else's opinions'?

To continue on this path of quoting others rather than attempting to produce something approaching that ideal - 'independent thought' - Mr Wilde also says, of quotations, "Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit." Perhaps it is not that we are incapable of independent thought but rather that we believe other people's thoughts or opinions to be more intelligent or witty than anything we might come up with ourselves and so, instead of saying something unique but potentially incredibly stupid, we quote others in order to make ourselves appear more intelligent than we actually are. I am praised for my ability to recall quotations because it is believed to be a sign of one who is well read. Well, I stated that I love to read, and I do read a great deal, but that doesn't necessarily constitute my being 'well read'. Yes, I enjoy reading classic literature and I can quote the likes of Mr Wilde to make myself sound intelligent and distinguished and well read, but I am no more distinguished than any other person who can read something and remember it in order to use it later on in conversation. And as for being well read, I enjoy reading - often badly written - vampire fiction, which in the minds of most people hardly constitutes being 'well read'. In the minds of many, I'm little better than any pre-pubescent teenage girl who's read the 'Twilight Saga'. It's hardly cutting edge literature.

Oscar Wilde is one of the most quoted people in the world, which takes the irony of the quotes I have taken from him for this post to a whole new level, in my mind. I've actually heard people quote the second quote - "Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit" - in conversation, to belittle others who have quoted someone in the same conversation. It's almost laughable; the idiocy of some people.

I would like to think that it is, perhaps even only occasionally, possible for one to produce an independent thought. Whether it's unique is besides the point. Nothing these days is unique. Everything has been thought, said or done before by someone, somewhere. But thought that is independent in the sense that it is the actual belief of the person who comes out with it and not just them spouting the beliefs of someone else that they happened to hear somewhere. It would be nice to think that it were possible. Though, I suppose, independent thought, in the true sense of the term, as being thought that is wholly unaffected by external influences isn't really possible, because even if it's not quoted or approximated from anyone or anything else, it will still have been influenced by some aspect of one's experiences. I guess what I'm really saying is that I like to believe that genuine thought is possible, even if it is neither independent or unique.

As for unique thought. I said, in the paragraph above, that nothing is unique. It really isn't. There's a kind of joke that science-fiction only ever has seven basic story lines. Sure they might be portrayed in countless different ways, but the basic plot always seems to be the same. I figure that the same could actually be said for a lot of genres, if not for literature in general (though that may be stretching it a little far). Scholars believe that even Shakespeare, the great wordsmith, took the plots for many, if not all, of his plays from other works by other people. Many are disappointed to think that Shakespeare, of all people, might have been, to some extent, a fraud. But if no one is capable of producing completely unique and independent ideas, is it really fraudulent? Many writers are also readers. They get ideas and inspiration from what they read. I find myself reading some amazing works of literature and wishing and praying that I could write as well as that particular author. Or that I could have written something as amazing as what is on the page before me. I get ideas and inspiration from so many places. But I hardly ever actually write them. I have this ideal in my head, of writing something completely unique and wonderful and it being completely loved and adored by all who read it. Of course the latter half of that dream is impossible because literature is personal and people have different tastes. Not everyone is going to love the same thing. And so not everyone will love what I write. And I'm beginning to realise that, perhaps, the first part of that ideal is also completely unrealistic, because my thoughts and ideas are influenced by what I read and by the things I experience, and nothing is unique, so how can I expect myself to write something completely unique?

The inspiration for this post came from a song by Damien Rice called 'Delicate'. There's a line in the song that says, "Why d'you fill my sorrow with the words you've borrowed from the only place you've known?" I don't know what Damien Rice's intended meaning for this lyric was, but to me, within the context of the rest of the song, it speaks of a lover being unable to express their feelings in their own words; only expressing their emotions and their love through the words of others. I figure most people find it rather romantic to have things quoted to them - depending on the content of the quote obviously. And, being a massive fan of quotations, as I think I have demonstrated, I used to hold the same opinion. But now, understanding the fragility and rarity of genuine personal thoughts and opinions, I would find it more romantic if someone were to tell me how they feel in their own words, even if those words lacked the appearance of elegance or flowery vocabulary. It is a sorrowful thing indeed if someone can't find their own way of telling you that they love you.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Why I love literature!, and, Learning about writing from 'The Angel's Game' by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

'The Angel's Game' by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a brilliant example of 'Metafiction'. "'Metafiction' is the literary term describing fictional writing that self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self-reflection." (quote taken from: 'The Angel's Game' is Metafiction as it acknowledges the existence of the author and the reader and of it's own existence as a piece of literature. This is made evident through the frequent dialogues between the protagonist, a struggling writer named David Martin, and his mysterious, and down-right creepy, publisher, Andreas Corelli and between David and his young assistant, Isabella. 

The novel is a kind of ghost story, following David Martin's journey of self-discovery and his attempts to uncover the mystery behind the death of another author, Diego Marlasca, who once owned the house in which David now lives, and the connection between this mysterious death and his strange publisher, Corelli. Underpinning the purely fantastical plot is a running dialogue or commentary regarding what it is to write and to be a writer. The discussions, between David and Isabella especially, are somewhat reminiscent of the book, by Rainer Maria Rilke, 'Letters to a Young Poet', which is a record of the correspondence between Rilke and an aspiring young writer who writes to Rilke asking for his critique and how one becomes a writer. Rilke's response is this, "Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write"; basically telling the young writer that, if all he can think about is being a writer and feels that he might die if he is denied the ability to do so, then he is a writer. 

David's journey through the novel shows him, first, losing his physical existence to his writing. His labours in producing novel after novel for a disreputable publishing duo see his physical health decline rapidly to the point that he is on the verge of death because he has worked himself, almost literally, to the bone. But then, he is approached by Corelli who, in some kind of modernist Faustian deal, commissions David to write a religious text; or rather to create a religion, which then sees David lose his mind and even his soul to the work he is producing. One of the settings for the novel is a bookshop called 'Sempere and Sons'. The owner of the shop, Senor Sempere, is a literary sympathiser. He has known David since he was a young boy when he frequently visited the shop to read and buy books without his illiterate father knowing. Senor Sempere supported David's passions for reading and writing and is known for holding the belief that an author leaves part of their soul in their writing; that the work they produce is a part of them. This is clearly evident in the case of David and this book he has been commissioned to write, by Corelli.

When Sempere requests that David take on the young Isabella as an assistant and to teach her how to become a writer he is displeased. But he takes on the young woman and begins to try to teach her how to become a writer. Among the lessons he teaches her, one of the first is how to procrastinate; something all writers are experts at. I myself can find any excuse under the sun to not write. Another lesson he teaches her, this time consciously, is this; "Inspiration comes when you stick your elbows on the table, your bottom on the chair and you start sweating. Choose a theme, an idea, and squeeze your brain until it hurts. That's called inspiration." This is a lesson I need to learn. My usual excuse for not writing is that I lack inspiration. I have been aware that, for some time, I have been lacking discipline in my writing and I have been wanting to change that and wanting to write more. But still I complain that I have no inspiration and I give up; far too easily. But I find that if I sit for long enough, and concentrate really hard, I can usually come up with something. This post, for example, is something that I have been toying with for a few days now but I have lacked the discipline to actually make myself write it. But tonight, when I forced myself to sit down in front of my laptop, and not move, I have managed to produce something close to what I originally intended. I guess that's another excuse; I am never satisfied with how my writing turns out, especially if I have a pre-conceived idea of how it should be. But I guess the aim of the exercise isn't to produce something perfect (that's what editing is for) but it's just to produce something.

I like to think of myself as a writer. I've always loved to write and always wanted to become a writer but I've never had very much discipline. Reading books like 'The Angel's Game' always inspire me and make me wish I could write like the authors of such wonderful pieces of art. But the truth is that the inspiration is short-lived and I may never write like these authors, but I certainly won't unless I have discipline in my writing. I'm returning to University in September to study English Literature with Creative Writing - my two great loves - and I want to be more disciplined by then, because if I'm going to study Creative Writing, and have to produce creative portfolios, I'm going to have to become a disciplined writer and the earlier I start, the better. Also, every vocation requires some kind of discipline and if I am really serious about being a writer then I need to get on board. And seeing as I am currently among the ranks of the unemployed, I have plenty of time with which to develop this discipline. So hopefully this is the first of many bouts of 'inspiration' of the kind that David Martin talks of in 'The Angel's Game'; of just sticking my elbows on the table; my bottom on the chair; sweating and squeezing my brain until it hurts!