Monday, 18 August 2014

some thoughts on writing and publishing...

Recent events have triggered an old line of enquiry in me; a search for an answer to something I’ve never fully understood.  Robin Williams’ death was one trigger and something that happened at work another.
I was told by the IT team at MMU that I needed to clear some of my emails from my inbox.  In the process of doing this I came across several from a former student.  This student, a young man, died and I am not sure of the reason for his death because it was never fully explained to me.  I suspected tragic circumstances.  I looked at these emails but couldn’t bring myself to open them.  I thought I would find it too painful to encounter again his customary jokey manner.  Also when I first understood that his death might have been suicide, the thought came to me that I hoped I wasn’t to blame; that something I’d said about his work had not contributed to his depression.
 I think this is unlikely: he was a good student.  But the thought must come to anyone who assesses creative work that at some point they might say something insensitive, ill-advised, or just wrong, that might do actual harm.
At the same time Robin Williams’ death hit the news (and my Facebook news stream) and caused similar, though more surprising, pangs of shock and pain.  Surprising because I do not know Robin Williams at all except in that imaginary ‘knowing’ fostered by the media.  But perhaps because the two experiences occurred so closely together it set me off thinking along an old track, about the supposed link between creativity and depression.
In fact the links between creativity, mental illness, depression and suicide have never been proven.  Are writers, for instance, really more likely to kill themselves than doctors or lawyers?  I don’t think the statistics have ever been fully analysed or compared.
However my thoughts on this subject led inevitably to Virginia Woolf.  Inevitably, because I'm a fan of her work and because I find her story fascinating.
I have three biographies of Woolf.  They suggest that her depressions, which sometimes led to physical incapacity, often coincided with the publishing of her novels.
This always troubled me. Why then?
Surely the worst period of difficulty is before publication; when the writer is either grappling with the process of writing, or with the pain of rejections from the publishing world?  Surely once the novel/ poetry collection etc. is published the writer might be allowed a moment of relief, gratification, even joy.
Obviously there is the problem of reception.  The work might be received negatively, or completely ignored.  The latter is the more likely scenario today; there are so many books on the market, people lead busy lives, reading is no longer the dominant cultural pastime.  Some writers are not reviewed at all; sales can be pitifully low.
It could be argued that this is worse than being vilified.  Because unless a book, or any work of art has an effect; unless it moves, surprises, delights or provokes some viewer/reader, in a sense it might as well not exist.
But surely the writer should just be happy that the book is out there in the first place?  It might be having effects that the author will never hear about.  It is a mistake to attach too much to what happens afterwards.  All religious or philosophical traditions teach us not to attach ourselves to results. Work should be undertaken for its own sake.
This is one of the precepts underlying the moral philosophy of the I Ching, for instance: to do without expectation.  It is found also in Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity.  It is probably somewhere in Islam, but I don’t know enough about that religion to comment.  It is a simple but profound doctrine about letting go that has far-reaching consequences.
But in my view, it does not necessarily apply to the writer.
Recently I wrote to a writer on Facebook that I write in order to forget myself and everything else; which is the same reason that I read as a child.  This is substantially true.
 If it was wholly true, for me or any other writer, there would be no problem, ever, with the publishing world. No difficulty with the silence that too often surrounds publication, or the various humiliations attached to marketing or publicity (the readings where no one turns up etc. etc.)  It would be enough to have finished the work.
The writer would be free.
Why is s/he not free? Why does s/he hand over power at this point, to be uplifted or cast down by the publishing world or the reading public?
The most simplistic answer to this is that it is because of his/her ego.  The writer is fundamentally a narcissist who needs his/her ego to be boosted at all times in order to continue.
I have always been suspicious of this answer.
It seems to me that writers are more likely to do without validation than people in almost any other career.  I am infinitely more likely to get positive feedback on a regular basis from teaching, for instance.  Some of my writing projects have taken years to complete, and even longer to sell.  And, as I have said, when and if it is sold, there may be very little response.
Was it Virginia Woolf’s ego that made her so ill whenever a book came out?
I don’t fully understand the mysteries of the ego.  But I have thought about this a lot over the years, and more frequently in recent weeks since my own novel has come out.  And this is my conclusion:
It is no use advising the writer (or any other artist) not to be attached to results.  The artist has to be attached to results because of his/her peculiar relationship to form.
By form I mean the ultimate form that the work will take, sculpture, book, symphony, painting.    The process of nurturing the seed, that has apparently arrived from nowhere, gives the artist’s  life meaning, but the final form is its raison d’ĂȘtre.  For a long time, possibly years, it will take shape in the artist’s mind and be perfect there.  But his/her life’s work will be to capture that perfection on the page/stage/canvas.
The problem is that no writer can see their own product clearly enough to know whether or not they have succeeded.  Writers need the eyes and ears and judgement of others to tell us that they have.  Or even that they have not.
When we watch the X factor and listen to those hopefuls who can't sing even one note in tune, we can assume that in their own ears they are hearing something different; the kind of music they aspire to in their dreams.  This applies to all artists.  They cannot see their own work clearly, because it is too much a part of them.  I cannot see my physical self clearly, as others see me, even through mirrors or photographs or film.  I can't have that 360 degree perspective, or know what impact, if any, I’m having on anyone else.
It is possible, therefore, that a different morality has to apply to the writer/artist; one that takes into account his/her relationship to form.
Once I was asked to attend a conference of librarians.  I was asked to send a list of my favourite books.  At the end of the letter it said ‘do not choose Lolita’.
I was outraged, of course.  Lolita was not, until that moment, my favourite book, but it got promoted.  How dare they apply such narrow parameters of meaning to such a great work?  I think it is a great work and I believe that Nabokov pursued his vision of it with absolute integrity.  That was his morality, - the act of producing the form that most perfectly corresponded to his vision.
Virginia Woolf’s pursuit of the perfect form led her to create her own publishing house, in order to escape the conventional restrictions, pressures and corruption of commercial publishing.  This was a woman who pursued autonomy and integrity to an extraordinary degree.  I think it unlikely that her depression was caused by the response to her work not being positive enough.  I think it was the knowledge that ultimately she would have to surrender this autonomy that drove her to despair.  She would, in the end, have to hand over power to the world, because  no work of art is fully autonomous.  
She could not, as all those metaphysical disciplines instruct, simply do the work for its own sake, without attachment to results.  Not because she was immoral or an egotist, but because she was an artist.
 I don't know if this was any part of the suffering of Robin Williams, or of my former student.  But I do know that it is a part of the creative process; one that takes all power away from the artist and leaves them absolutely vulnerable and exposed.  It seems to me that we owe all artists a debt of gratitude, because most of the time they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again.

And to those who don’t manage to do this we owe a particular kind of acknowledgement, for illuminating to us the most vulnerable aspects of ourselves.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Ten Reasons Why you Should Read Crimelines (and come to the launch)

1.  It is unique.  There exists nowhere else in the world another book of short crime fiction aimed at young adults by MA writers at MMU!
2. It looks fabulous - it is a thing of beauty with 21 original illustrations from art students at MMU
3. The stories in it are from our most talented writers.
4. Read it to find out why the MMU Creative Writing MA is the best!
5. The stories are wide-ranging from the comic to the scary and sad - something for everyone!
6. Every single one of these writers will go on to do amazing things in the literary world and you will be able to say you read their first published work.
7. It has been edited, proof-read, published and marketed by the very wonderful Iris Feindt and myself, her lovely assistant.
8. We have worked our rocks off.
9. Two very famous writers, N.M. Browne and Martyn Bedford are singularly impressed with this book - see cover quotes.
10. It is ludicrously good value at £8.99 and available from amazon.
come to the launch on Saturday, 5th July, 12.00 pm at the John Rylands Library, Deansgate, Manchester.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Better than sex

Ah what can I say about my new book? It has the smell of summer leaves or ripe corn and the touch of silk, the finest spun silk slipping though your fingers.  To touch it is to be reminded of all those childhood mornings when you woke up happy, just because the sky was blue and the wide, wide world was calling.  Visually it is a thing of beauty, and also truth, successfully combining the look of parchment, priceless manuscripts treasured and pored over by philosophers and scholars of long ago, with the jeweled artifice of exotic dynasties...
Did I mention that it's out tomorrow?
Also that you can read about it in the Independent 26th June 2014!

Friday, 6 June 2014

world domination stats up 0.000000000001% this week!

This is because I have put my bio on goodreads and the amazon site author central.  As my favourite mentee Iris has said, I have turned into a marketing machine!

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

of course, all good plans for world domination begin with alcohol and cake.  So I've managed that & am now feeling very optimistic about this project...

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Ok - so copies of my new book have arrived, look amazing and smell even better!  Now I have to decide what to do with them.  Of course, getting rid of free copies is never a problem.  There is Amazing Anna, for instance, who read the whole book for me in its earlier and much longer form, believed in it & comforted me when I was ready to lie down in the middle of the East Lancs Road at rush hour, and read it all over again in its present form - she definitely deserves a copy.  As does Ian-next-door-but-one, who resolved my many computing crises, my son who also read it for me, the aforementioned librarian who will promote it on her Time to Read website, a colleague who is going to interview me in the Manchester Children's Book Festival etc etc.  See what I mean?
Obviously I will have to order more copies.  While ploughing on through points 1 - 10 of my world domination plan.
Current world domination rating 568411702 934970.
Somewhere behind Obama and Putin.
While waiting for me to clamber into the no.1 spot, you might like to check out www.myindependentbookshop/livimichael
This is a project developed by Penguin/Random House in which authors are invited to create their own virtual bookshop, put their favourite books in it and review them.  I thought this was a great idea - see what you think.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Hello everyone.  Starting to blog again - mainly about my new book.  Because it's been a long time since I published in the adult field and everything has changed.  Specifically how books are publicised and distributed.  Looks like the author has to do more work.  So.  As some people will know, I have written many books.  This is not unusual in itself.  What is more unusual is that I actually seem to be less famous now than before I started writing. This is partly my own fault for opting out of everything in order to write Succession. When I wrote the first version of my novel and couldn't place it I developed  a 58-point plan for the regeneration of my career.  Subtitled: What to Do When You are Down and Out of the Publishing World in London.  Admittedly only points 11 and 12 actually worked i.e. writing it again and sending it to someone else - but I learned a lot in the process!  Now I have a new 58 point plan which I will publish as I work my way through it, with the intention of seeing just what, if anything is actually effective.
Watch this space...

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Test Blog

Test blog to see if this gets through to facebook like a nice, well behaved blog...