Downtime/The Nexus

The two short exercises below were created as part of a homework assignment to create a ritual and describe it from the point of view of a native familiar with the ritual and then the point of view of an unseen observer who was unfamiliar with the same ritual.

 

Downtime

It’s funny how it’s always the same people who go into Downtime at the same time as me.  There’s the ‘office guy’, the grungy ‘alternative’ girl, the bookish student who always seems unsure of what she’s doing and of course, the ‘big dumb jock’.  I guess in our private little Breakfast Club, I’d be the loner, the guy who never quite fits in.  ‘Fitting in’ is a thing of the past now though, of course.

We all arrive at the booth at more or less the same time.  Dumb Jock is always last, dragging his feet in reluctantly.  He always has some smart mouthed comment for one of us, we always ignore him.  I like the booths, the beds are comfy, the sheer white of the walls makes me feel kind of pure, like after every Downtime I’m born again.  There’s still no better way of connecting to the Link.  This way has worked for years, with only a few neural overloads to speak of.  Acceptable losses.

It happens, as it always does, when we lie down on the beds.  The ‘trodes snake their way out of the underside of the bed and slide gracefully into the ports on our collarbones.  I love the tingly feeling you get as the connection is made and the reassuring click of the ‘trode into the port.  Office Guy doesn’t seem to like it much.  I guess he was an Original, he’s old enough to be one.

I can feel a woozy grin on my face as I slip down into the Dream, like I’m the happiest drunk in the world.  Everything goes dark for a moment as I close my eyes and feel the data begin to stream out of me.  Nothing else matters except the Stream now.  I feel the grin widen as I remember the TV ads; ‘Stream into the Dream, because caring is sharing!’

I’m dimly aware that something is wrong in the room, Bookish Student is convulsing.  There’s something wrong with her Stream.  Her gurgling and choking is the last thing I hear before the Dream hits.  Acceptable losses.

 

The Nexus

As I watch the feed on the camera, four people enter the small pod, followed a little later by a fifth.  They all seem like ordinary people; there’s an office worker, three students and another guy who thinks he’s a student or some kind of non-conformist anyway.  They don’t have much interaction with each other, aside from the male student saying something off colour to the girl in the ripped cardigan.  She flips him the finger before settling down on her cot.

That’s when it gets strange.  All five of them lie down, each one like the limb of a five pointed star, their heads close together in the centre of the structure.  I watch in confusion as wires seem to move from under the cots, as if they were alive and aware somehow.  These wires then move with purpose until they are pressed into the collarbone of each person.  At first I thought they had stabbed their way into the body, in the manner of a needle, but I was wrong.  In fact the wires entered the body through what appeared to be an access port on the bone.  I had no idea what to make of this.  Were these people actually machines?  Some kind of cyborg?

I continue to watch, fascinated and horrified at the same time by this spectacle in front of me.  This connection to the wires doesn’t seem to be harming the five of them, in fact they all look happy, peaceful almost, as the wires settled against their bodies, like a snake resting on a branch.  Then something begins to happen to one of the girls.  She tenses up, her whole body held tight for a few seconds before she begins to flail around, her hands unconsciously pulling at the wire.  She begins to foam at the mouth, and the foam begins to turn bloody as she bites into her tongue.  None of the others move or show any awareness.  No alarms sound.  While I’m still trying to take in what I’m seeing, the feed goes dark.

After the Crowd Have Gone/After the Crowd Have Gone – Unreliable Narrator

Written as part of an exercise in my Building the World class, the work below experiments with building a single room based on the stereotype of a faded sports star.  The work below the line is the same room, described by an unreliable narrator (Someone who is biased in some way and cannot be trusted to give a truthful description).

The room was a shrine to nostalgia.  Through afternoon light, dust motes danced in the shafts of sunlight breaching the hallowed place, reaching in like adoring fans used to do; begging for an autograph, a chance to touch the champ.  The floor, wooden and once polished to a spectacular sheen, was now rough and coarse in places, years of varnish peeled away in others like ancient skin on decaying bones.

The air was musty, smelling faintly of Mentholatum.  It lingered, recalling days gone by, when aching muscles were a consequence of action and competition, instead of a cold wind or sleeping uncomfortably in a chair.  Accompanying that bitter smell was the hushed smell of dust.  It whirled through the sunlight, infecting every corner of the room with forlorn memories.

Along the wall hung posters, each heralding a triumphant clash of wills.  All faded by time and neglect, their colours muted, the bombastic boasts silenced by the weight of years.  They were joined by a punching bag.  Heavy, leather and old, worn down through use.  It now hung limply from its bracket, useless to the arthritic hands of the one who owned it.

A shelf graced the other wall, gathering dust like everything else in the room and displaying trophies and statuettes, all covered in an ever present blanket of neglect.  They resonated with a melancholy that reached back from a better time.  Even the newspaper clippings, tacked so lovingly underneath the shelf, were yellowed and curled but spoke of fitness and youth and vitality.

In the middle of it all, he dozed; a relic in a reliquary of his own making.  A small, faded man.  His face worn and wrinkled by time and a thousand punches.  His hands, once strong and powerful, now nothing more than claws, warped by arthritis.  He sat and he slept, dreaming of a boxing ring long ago and a young man who was somebody.


This room smelled old.  As soon as I walked through the door, all I could smell was stale old, muscle gel.  The light was very dim, as if this whole place was from an old movie or one of those vintage photographs.  Everything was covered in dust, it coated all of the trophies and shelves like an old jacket.  Posters lined the wall, ranging in age from really old to just plain old.  They advertised fights and fighters I’ve never even heard of, much less care about.  The old guys trophies sat on a shelf, I think they might have been golden once, but now they were the colour of weak piss and not very impressive.

He even had a punching bag in here, a huge one that looked black, but I think might have been brown.  It looked like heavy leather.  It hadn’t been touched for decades, I was tempted to go over and give it a smack, but I was pretty sure it would fall off if I did.  Under the trophies, the old guy had newspaper clippings from his glory days.  Catchy headlines that told of his wins and the power of his punches.  Didn’t have any relevance to me, this guy couldn’t teach me anything anymore.

Speaking of which, there was the old guy himself.  He was sat in the middle of all this crap, like a crusty king on a throne of dust.  His hands were all twisted and looked like claws and his breath wheezed out of him as he dozed.  He was tiny, not the guy I’d seen in those old film clips.  It was as if someone had dropped him in a washing machine and shrunk him.  The champ?  Once, maybe.  Now though, he was just a lonely old has been.

Review of Chronicle of a Death Foretold

This novella by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, who won the Nobel prize in Literature in 1982, paints a picture of life and death on the coast of Colombia in the mid-twentieth century. In doing so, he gives us a glimpse at the culture and attitudes of his home country at the time. If you can get past the impassive way it is told, then there is much to be discovered between the pages of this book.

First published in 1981, Chronicle of a Death Foretold tells the tale of the murder of a wealthy Colombian man by the vexed brothers of a woman he has allegedly deflowered. This man, Santiago Nasar, goes about his day unaware of the danger that the deflowered bride, Angela Vicario, has placed him in. Through interviews and conversations with the residents of the village, we are guided through the final hours of Nasar’s life and shown the multitude of ways the murder could have been prevented.

Nasar is somewhat of a lothario; Good at running his ranch, interested in firearms, drinking and has more than an eye for the ladies. Because of that, it is easy to see why no questions were asked when he is accused of deflowering Angela Vicario. The way information is relayed to the reader about Nasar is unreliable and contradictory. For instance, Victoria Guzman, the cook says, “He was just like his father … A shit.” The narrator’s sister, on the other hand, speaks favourably about him: “I suddenly realised that there couldn’t have been a better catch than him” and “Just imagine: handsome, a man of his word, and with a fortune of his own at the age of twenty-one.” This makes it hard to get a definitive idea of the character and feels like a barrier to having empathy for him. Nevertheless, by the end of the book I did feel sorry for Nasar due to the brutal nature of his murder and the number of times the death could have been prevented.

Angela Vicario, by comparison, is initially presented as quiet and beautiful, a little socially awkward and a little immature. It is her fear of her mother and brothers’ rage that causes her to utter Nasar’s name and by doing so, set the tragic events in motion. As potential antagonists go, Angela is subtle and not entirely irredeemable but because it is never revealed whether her accusation is true or not, she serves well in her role.

Thematically, the piece explores the nature of honour, as it existed in that society in the mid-twentieth century. It does so by showing how the villagers could have prevented the murder and stopped the brothers, but chose not to, preferring to believe that the brothers were justified in seeking retribution. While the novella has a historical setting, honour killings are still very prevalent in modern society, whether in Colombia, the United Kingdom, India, or anywhere else in the world and so the theme of the novella is still as important today as it was both when it was set and when it was written.

Márquez’s use of repetition, constantly bringing the awareness of the reader back to the murder with lines such as, ‘On the day they were going to kill him’ and ‘until he was carved up like a pig an hour later’ helps to heighten the shock and brutality of Nasar’s murder. His presentation of everything as cold, hard facts serves the narrative well and keeps the plot rolling along, despite its nonlinear nature. Personally, the shock of the murder was removed for me by a detailed autopsy scene halfway through which seemed out of place and took away a lot of the impact from the later scene.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold is powerful, darkly humorous and descriptive, though the dispassionate nature of the narrative sometimes jarred with the colourful and poetic descriptions of the village and its people. It also seems as if the villagers react in an unrealistic way when confronted with evidence that the murder will take place, such as when the butchers in the meat market are told by Pablo Vicario, “We’re going to kill Santiago Nasar” and even though they can see the brothers are sharpening knives, nobody seems even slightly concerned.

Yet, today in the media, we see inaction by witnesses and bystanders, content to record and capture on their smartphones, rather than step in and stop a tragedy from occurring, as seen in 2009 when a fifteen year old girl was assaulted and raped outside of a homecoming dance in front of more than fifteen witnesses. With this in mind, the themes and questions explored in this novella seem more relevant today than they did in 1981. Put down your smartphone, read this book and ask yourself, what would you do?

Just keep swimming!!

So, the second week of university is over and our third week is about to begin!  Last week brought with it new challenges as well as some surprising revelations!

I guess you could say that last week was the first time ‘shit got real’ at university, as our tutors gleefully threw tons of information at us and chuckled as our heads

Someone catch my brain!!

Someone catch my brain!!

revolved (I might be embellishing that a little).  We did suddenly find ourselves with lots to think about and lots to study; it’s hard to know where to start, but start I must!

Even though there’s work to do, the reading part of it doesn’t really feel like work and as I read books written by authors I’d never heard of, in styles I’d never consider reading, I find myself enjoying it.  It really is amazing how much you can learn by getting out of your comfort zone and reading things you wouldn’t usually.  I found myself initially confused and disliking Dan Rhodes’ writing style in Anthropology, but by the time I’d finished it, I’d come to love those little surrealist vignettes of his and I will be seeking out more of his work.

Another surprising thing I discovered was how much I’m actually scared of

Scriptwriting in a nutshell...

Scriptwriting in a nutshell…

scriptwriting!  Before I started the course, I thought it was easy, but after our first four hour (yes, four hours of scriptwriting each week!) class, I was petrified by the

technical complexity of scripts.  Hopefully as the weeks go on, I’ll be able to get it straight in my head and I think that ultimately, I will enjoy scriptwriting.  Still, it was scary, eye opening stuff!

For me, the lesson of the week has to go to Building The World.  We were spoiled by having it as our very first class and it was so much fun!  Everything else was struggling to match up to it.  We started easily enough by discussing what secondary worlds were and why we create them.  We then had to imagine what our world would be like without a single invention.  It was fascinating to imagine the possibilities that could exist when just one essential invention was removed from the world.  Although I have to say to some of my classmates, who imagined a world

It's early days in World Building...

It’s early days in World Building…

without the internet, that I remember that world very clearly already!  Jokes about my age aside, the whole lesson was fun and thought provoking.

So we start week three with a good idea of how our lessons are going to go and a very real idea of the amount of work we have to do.  Even with all of the work, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else right now and I’m so happy I have a great bunch of people to go on this journey with!

#EHUFreshers

So, here we are, my time at Edge Hill University has finally started!  That means that from now on, this blog will be getting regularly updated as I keep a journal/blog/personal rant of the things that I’m learning here at university.  I would have posted on Monday, but the only thing that happened was a tour of the campus and while that was fascinating for me, I doubt those of you who read this would have been enthralled to learn the opening times of the library!

The face of someone who listened to my library tour tale...

“Oh my god, he’s talking about the library again!!”

As enlightening for me as Monday was, Tuesday was the real deal.  I finally got to meet my department tutors and the other Creative Writing students.  We had our Creative Writing Programme Induction in the morning.  This was, as our Programme Leader said, just to get the nuts and bolts of both our course and university life out of the way before the real learning starts next week.  It was really interesting overall, from both a student point of view and from a personal one, I felt that the personalities of our tutors shone through and they seem to be a likeable, relaxed group as they talked us through some crucial (but, admittedly, a little boring) pointers about how our time here will run.

We were told the times of our seminars/workshops as well as a little from each tutor about what these would include.  Those of you who know me well will know that my particular interests lie in Speculative Fiction and Writing for Games.  It bodes well, I think, that the tutor for those particular workshops came across as very friendly and approachable (ultimately though, they were all very nice!).  Best of all, the whole course kicks off with ‘Building The World’ next Wednesday.

Tuesday afternoon saw us in a lecture hall, getting a talk from the English Department head and from Student Services.  It wasn’t interesting enough to warrant a breakdown on this blog and so I’ll spare you the details.  Suffice to say that it served to make me feel glad that we won’t be spending too much time in big lecture halls.  Those places make me so sleepy it’s untrue!

"Must...take...notes...zzzzz"

“Must…take…notes…zzzzz”

The rest of the afternoon was spent getting to know some of the other mature students who are studying in the English Department, as well as a chance to have a chat with the tutors.  I also had a couple of really interesting chats; one with Peter, who will be running our Building The World class, about RPG’s and tabletop games and other with one of the history lecturers, whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten, about how a good knowledge of historical research can be useful when creative worlds for your fiction to exist in.

Finally, the rest of the English/History/Creative Writing students joined us for a few drinks, some snacks and a fun little quiz which saw us put into groups of six, fighting it out for a grand prize of Book Tokens!! (Remember: writers are readers who write!)  Unfortunately, we missed out on third place by one point, but were satisfied with being the highest of the also rans!  It’s the taking part that counts, right?

So that’s more or less my first week at university.  Apologies to those of you who thought it was going to be a rambunctious tale of wild drinking and partying,

Not pictured; me tucked up in bed...

Not pictured; me tucked up in bed…

which you probably remember from your own Freshers Week, but you have to remember, I’m 38 and the last thing those 18 year old kids want is some creepy guy twenty years older than they are hanging out with them.  I’m happy just to be doing this course in the first place!

I look forward to next week and getting my teeth stuck into the course properly.  Watch this space for further exciting tales from academia!

Feelings

I feel like I want to write shit poetry
That no-one wants to read.
I feel that the alcohol in my system,
Is the wisdom that I need.

I feel like I could fuck
For a thousand years.
When the reality
Is probably just one thrust.

I feel like love is a fairytale
Told when I was young.
That happy ever after
Is a lie; a song unsung.

I know that obvious rhymes
Are all I have to give.
That at times my feelings
Are just too strong to live.

I feel like when I’m gone,
The world will move on.
Barely remember my light
And how dimly it shone.

The Watchmen.

Living in the worst of times,
We’re piling up the dead.
We see it on the TV screens,
in black and white and read.

Facing our extinction
With an apathetic gaze,
Revelling in the chaos
As we face our end of days.

Now the future is the past
And it never stood a chance.
Distorted and aborted,
Without a second glance.

Those who would be kings
Are nailed to their thrones.
Committed to the violence;
Spied upon with drones.

Corporations profit,
From the madness of the show.
Lining oily pockets
With the suffering below.

And politicians sleaze
Through the alleys late at night.
power in their fingers
Gripped around a throat too tight.

And we watch it all unfold
Like a story never told.
And we let it all explode,
wrap up warm against the cold.

And we watch it all unfold,
blame the young or the old.
And we feel it all implode,
A black hole in our soul.

And we watch it all unfold,
We watch it all unfold.
We watch.
But we refuse to break the mould.

But is it art?

When you think about art, what’s the first thing that comes into your head?  I guess for many it’s the classic idea of painting or perhaps drawing.  A colour spattered painter holding a palette, stood in front of an easel.  That image isn’t incorrect of course, painting and drawing are art, but for me, that three letter word encompasses so much more.

Bob Ross, a genuine legend.

Bob Ross, a genuine legend.

You see, far too often I’ve had discussions with people who’ve boldly claimed that they don’t like ‘art’.  Now that concept is alien to me and to be honest, I have a hard time believing that it’s true.  I guess that somewhere in the world there must be someone who doesn’t like art at all, but when people say it to me, I’m more inclined to think that they just mean paintings, museums and things like that, because otherwise their life would be very shallow.  Music is art, so does that mean that someone who doesn’t like art doesn’t like music?  Who doesn’t like music!?  Television programmes are art, so are movies, books, magazines.  Even buildings are art.

I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that a creative mind isn’t just something monopolised by artists, writers, poets etc.  I personally believe that art is anything created by a person that causes you to have an emotional reaction or response towards it.  It doesn’t matter to me if that response is positive or negative, the only requirement (for me at least) is that it makes you feel something.

I just want one.  I can't even drive.  I.  Just.  Want.  One!

I just want one. I can’t even drive. I. Just. Want. One!

With that said, in my eyes, a hell of a lot of things can be considered art.  I’ve already mentioned buildings, I love a good building, especially one that’s of an interesting design or has some kind of unique architectural quirk or construction.  I think that cars can be art, too.  Some of the better looking supercars out there in the world today have definitely made me have an emotional reaction to them (mainly jealousy towards whoever was driving it, but it counts!).  Trains, planes, boats, all of these things can be beautiful or well crafted enough that they make you have an emotional reaction.  Bear in mind I’m not talking about making you fall over weeping at the beauty of it all, but even if it just manages to stir something inside of you, however slightly, then it’s done its job.

I am quite an emotional person anyway, which is probably the reason that I love the arts so much.  I expect that not everyone would agree with me that a car or a plane is a form of art, but think of the construction and the technical know how that’s gone into constructing these things, the intricate way the parts all fit together and work in perfect harmony.  That sounds a lot like art to me.  I especially love it when something someone else created makes me want to know why the creator made it, what was the thought process behind it?  What does it mean to them?  What do they think of what it means to me?

But is it art?

But is it art?

I’d love to know what your own perception of art is, leave me your thoughts in the comments section below and let me know?  For now just consider it the next time something moves you, even just a little inside, and ask yourself ‘but is it art?’

A day in the life…

Darkness closes
Like a cocoon.
Second skin,
This flesh imposes
Trapping me within,
And

Suffocating.
Suffocating.
Suffocating.

A strangle grip around my throat.
My voice silenced.
Confidence stripped.
Expression stifled.

Isolating.
Isolating.
Isolating.

The mind turned upon itself.
Plans disrupted.
Dreams burned.
Thoughts corrupted.

Segregating.
Segregating.
Segregating.

Loneliness pervades.
Drives me to despair.
Plaster on a smile.
Live the charade.
And all the while

Suffocating.
Isolating.
Segregating.
Me.

You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here…

Before I get going with this post, I feel that I need to offer a little disclaimer.  I am not a student of Psychology or Sociology and have no qualifications in these fields, so the opinions that follow are my own, uneducated observations, unless I link directly to something written by someone with a greater knowledge in the field of the mind than I.  With all that said…

Creativity and Mental Health

 At various points in my life, I’ve had conversations with friends, colleagues and even some strangers about the links between creativity and mental health.  The image of the ‘tortured artist’ is prevalent in society to the point where it has become somewhat of a cliché.  Are we all tortured though?  Do we have to be mentally ill to write, paint, sing, compose, draw or do anything creative?  Obviously, the answer is no.  I am pretty sure that there are plenty of creative people out there who are of sound mind and body.  There is some interesting evidence linking mental health to creativity out there though.

Douglas Adams knew what he was talking about...

Douglas Adams knew what he was talking about…

Some of you reading this will know about my own personal battle with depression that’s been going on for years now.  It’s not an easy illness to live with and it can make me not only suicidal, but incredibly self-destructive too.  Despite all the drawbacks, I did find that while I was in one of my lowest phases, I was writing an awful lot of poetry.  Yes, the poetry was dark and sometimes depressing, but it was helping me to express how I felt in the only way I knew how.

There have been a few studies done over the years to try to establish if there is a link between mental health problems and creativity.  Most notably one conducted in Sweden, which found that creativity and mental illness do not necessarily have a link, with the possible exception of Bipolar Disorder and the possibility that writers tended to suffer from depression more than other creative types.

The problem with these kind of studies is that the notion of ‘creativity’ can be very subjective.  The Swedish study didn’t properly define what they considered creative, except to say that scientific creativity consisted of doing research and teaching at universities.  Furthermore, they didn’t specify a difference between artistic creativity with the exception of writers.  Finally, even if they had specified between artistic creativity, their idea of what that creativity is might not necessarily be the same as everyone else’s.

The creative brain.  Squishy and encased in glass.

The creative brain. Squishy and encased in glass.

The American neuropsychiatrist, Nancy Andreasen conducted a study of the writers of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  She conducted first person interviews with them regarding their personal struggles with mental illness.  She discovered that the idea of the ‘tortured artist’ wasn’t necessarily true, that these writers had become successful despite their mental illnesses, not because of them.  They overcame their struggles and even mentioned that while they were in a period of depression, they found that their creativity was stifled by the illness.  Andreasen documented her findings in the book ‘The Creative Mind‘.

So what does all of this mean to me?

Since the Andreasen study seems to show that the Iowa writers overcame their mental illnesses in order to become successful, I think it’s fair to say that the ‘tortured artist’ cliché is just a myth.  It’s certainly true that at first, my own depression was adding fuel to my creativity, inspiring me to write quite a few poems in a short space of time.  I think though, that for me this process was a cathartic one.  It helped me to take stock of and understand the emotions I was going through at the time.  By interpreting those emotions into words and putting them down on paper, I was able to look at them, analyse them and see what was going on in my mind.  Sort of like an emotional ‘selfie’, which I guess most poetry is anyway.

The thing that stands out the most to me is that after that initial flurry of creativity, I stopped almost completely.  Perhaps, as the Iowa writers attested, my mental illness had become a barrier to my creativity once I had poured my feelings out.  Certainly my attempts at writing since then until now have been half-hearted.  Now that I know that my mental illness has this effect on my creativity, maybe I won’t be so hard on myself in the future if I’m feeling down and finding it hard to write.  If that’s the case, maybe that can help me in controlling my depression by introducing another positive thought into my CBT bat-belt of tricks.  That can only be a good thing, I think.

Creativity - Like having the whole world in your hands.  I'll stop now.

Creativity – Like having the whole world in your hands. I’ll stop now.

In conclusion, while nothing that’s been said above can definitively answer the question regarding the link between mental illness and creativity, I think that, wherever your creativity comes from, whether you’re artistically creative, scientifically creative or creative in business, as long as you’re taking risks and dreaming your dreams, that’s all that matters.  So while the answer to our question may remain ambiguous, it does seem that you don’t actually have to be mad to work here, but in some cases, it might help!

.