Tag: writing

Politics and society in contemporary fiction – author interview with Ruby Cowling

Politics and society in contemporary fiction – author interview with Ruby Cowling

Ruby Cowling is one of the authors published in our collection of poetry and prose, I You He She It, published earlier this year. In this blog post she talks about how fiction writing can be an outlet for your own viewpoints, but also a way to explore societal issues.

Something to say? Tell a story

In my current work-in-progress, a novel, I have found myself writing about data privacy, corporate power, manipulative advertising, the mental health of young people and the ethical questions surrounding artificial intelligence. Put that way, it sounds as if I’m writing some polemic, banging a drum for a whole range of troublesome issues, trying to do with fiction something I could do better through journalism or social action.

Maybe it’s cowardice. This way I can afford to put my head just slightly above the parapet, because I always have the excuse that it’s fiction. It was the character that made me say it!

But then, fiction has always done this – acted as a Trojan Horse to smuggle in disruptive messages about us as humans, about our society, about things we should be questioning if we’re going to progress in a humane way. Storytelling’s oral tradition, in particular, has been one of the most effective and enduring methods of resisting repressive power. So the guise of entertainment is not, I think, an ignoble one.

That’s the difference, though, between polemic and storytelling. The entertainment value.

The holy grail for me – as a reader as well as a writer – is a great story laid on a bed of, for want of a better phrase, “serious issues”. Story is hard. With my work-in-progress, I’ve actually found the story much harder to bring out than those issues, and have had to fight to prioritise it when the many “serious themes” have been falling over each other to be heard. But I knew I didn’t want to end up with some rant. I want readers to have a good time, first and foremost. Two spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine go down.

A note on the medicine

I think contemporary British society is particularly under-addressed in our (contemporary British) fiction. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but there’s a tendency to avoid referencing the enormous changes we’re going through – and a trend in publishing for nostalgia and “the known” (historical fiction; books based on true stories or real people) – and the risk is, we’re creating a cultural gap.

With technological and societal change affecting us so profoundly and so rapidly, our modern world is bewildering, it’s true. Further, I understand that for a huge number of people reading, as a leisure activity, is an escape; I appreciate that they want to be taken elsewhere, not forced to relive a printed copy of the tough day they’ve just had.

I mean, I’d love to be able to write poetically about the idyllic worlds of yesteryear, simple folk pursuing lyrical lives in the fresh air and so on, but apart from the fact I don’t have that skill, it just doesn’t seem honest. Instead I keep finding myself back chewing over the messy stuff we’re dealing with here and now.

Ironically, that often means I write speculatively about a very-near-future or just-slightly-alternative-present – as in the novel I’ve been working on. But that just takes us back to the storytelling tradition. Don’t tell it straight, or it risks being a rant. (And, it’s important to mention, in some societies it risks the wrath of the powers you’re questioning.) Twist it, reshape it, douse it in story. Make it an allegory, a metaphor, an glorious adventure. Ideally, the reader will come away saying Wow, I had a great time with that story – and it really made me think.

You can also purchase a print copy of I You He She It here.

Ways in which a writer approaches poetry

Ways in which a writer approaches poetry

Ford Dagenham is one our authors published in I You He She It – a collection of short stories and poems developed out of the Grist project. As part of #OAWeek we asked him to discuss his writing processes and and how he keeps himself on track when writing poetry.

You can read the Grist collection online, open access here.

You can read more around the author on their blog.

The Poetry Process

(readings prose submitting etc are another story)

I write poetry waking up. Not weekends. Days off are ok.

After a day or two off I get the itch. Without being dramatic, who I am unravels.

I post the mornings poem on the blog then I pat myself on the back.

I keep notebooks for poetry and story ideas. I use Notes in my iphone. People assume I am another addict to the glass. I enjoy this misconception.

I look OUT and IN.

I wrote rules down. Its like a blueprint, a distilled list of elements.

I often ignore it.

If I write something that feels dead, it probably is. Its unlikely to merit a funeral.

I resuscitate dead work. Halve its word count. Then its bones show. Then I add flesh and hats.

The delete key is liberation. Often a way out of the swamp.

I repurpose bad work. A bad line ON PURPOSE is ok, even funny.

I delight in accidental rhymes.

Rhyming on purpose is a forced endeavour, lending an expectation that can destroy natural flow.

I find a neighbours minutiae a gift on dead-end mornings.

I stop and start something new. Freshness is spring air and old work can improve like ignored wine.

Distractions can be material. Also they are distractions and inevitable.

Better to not read others work at all, than read it with a mental red pen.

Beware the vacuum, tho it can be informative, like a mirror.

If I write just bare branches, then I add flowers and leaves.

Sometimes a poem is done before you are. Notice this.

I try to be universal and personal. Brand names, song lyrics, ad tags are reality.

I sometimes try for a new language, which sounds poncy.

I enjoy a good typo.

I use no punctuation. When I do use punctuation, its either like a day at the seaside or a horrible school trip.

Writing is a state born of continued trying.

Writing is HEALTHY. That tortured genius lark, I don’t buy it.

My blog says ‘a poem or pic a day until I die or don’t’. This gives me discipline and flexibility.

My blog is the one most important thing that keeps me writing.

I write for me and my dozen regular readers and occasional zines. This is enough.

Moving water is good for inspiration. Like fire. Constant motion. The bath counts and washing the dishes.

Rejection letters/emails are difficult for editors to write. Have empathy. I thank them for a good rejection. I been read. Good.

Rape yourself with kindness.

I dig deep. I skim light.

If I go stale, its often because the music has stopped.

Read poetry. Lots is just guff. Read anyway. Broadly. Dart and prod. Reading poetry on the toilet one morning (counts as running water) I wrote six poems none of which was shit.

I try to be aware of my thoughts. They are journeys.

Songs stuck in my head get new words for the melody.

If I borrow or steal, I credit it in the poem or in the title.

I try not to judge. If I judge I make it clear I’m judging. Then I judge myself.

Have an opinion. Don’t be blind to other opinions.

I have realised I am writing this in the voice of Alan Partridge.

Beware of voices in your head. Or be aware of voices in your head. They are not all for you.

I think in my gut. Head-space is chaotic, don’t spend all day there.

Rarely am I writing the worlds most important poem. But I try to.

There WAS a thousand excuses to not sit down and tap anything out.

There IS a thousand reasons TO sit down and tap something out.

I try not to write about writing. Sometimes I of course do.

I attempt authority. Probably it is fake. We are not all Moses. Its important to believe what you write. Or how will the reader? Don’t be Dan Brown.

I don’t worry about titles. I make it up at the last minute. They can be changed.

If you have a good line that won’t fit, there’s your title.

Use the first line as the title, then the reader hits the ground running.

No title is fine.

A number as a title hints at a secret order.

A title of a COLLECTION is more important. Be understated. The work will fly higher.

Imbibe what you need to. But its YOU that writes, not blended chemicals.

Today I am a sober poet. No one has ever done a harder thing.

I keep calm. Too angry is fine. I wrote one of my best poems when angry with the council housing office.

I read Ferlinghetti’s 2001 inaugural address.

Exploring concepts in fiction writing for #OAWeek

Exploring concepts in fiction writing for #OAWeek

Martin Nathan is an author published in our Grist collection of poetry and prose: I You He She It. As part of #OAWeek we asked Martin to talk about the theory underpinning some of his current work. In this post he discusses the concept of narrative, or psychic distance, and how it can inform his writing.

I have been exploring John Gardner’s concept of Narrative Distance or psychic distance recently.  He includes it in his section discussion common errors by writers in ‘The Art of Fiction’, but I have found useful throughout my writing, both as something to be aware of when reviewing drafts, but also as a device to be aware of and control during in the initial writing.

His concept of psychic distance is essentially the closeness of the narrator to the action that they are narrating; how much the narration is in their head, so to speak, and its importance is that

jolts in this distance will disrupt the narrative from the reader’s perspective and should be avoided.    Point of view is who carries the narrative observation.  Psychic distance is how much they can see, know and how much they are emotionally involved in the narrative.

His examples of different levels of psychic distance are:

  1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
  3. Henry hated snowstorms.
  4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul

Obviously, the psychic distance is reducing as you go down this list.  There is a shift to second person in the fifth in these examples but this is not inevitable.  Similar lists can be devised with all in the first-person.  In this, the lowest position is a stream of consciousness.

Using a photographic analogy, the psychic distance can be considered similar to focal length; you can observe a scene from a close-up view, or you can be a distant telephotographic perspective.  But it is important to be aware that there are other elements buried in this concept.  There is also the degree of participation in the action – they can be a non-participatory observer, or a heavily involved participant.  On top of this, there is the interpretive level – if they are closely involved in the action they may have little power to analyse and understand events.  There is also an emotional closeness.  Gardner does not separate these elements out, but I find that there can be an advantage in this. Each can shift independently.

Gardner’s concern is about sudden shifts in psychic distance, but this does not mean they cannot change.  It is a matter of being aware when you want this shift and you may want to control the change and shift it gradually.  If you want to trigger a sudden shift, it may be more effective to provide a trigger – some reason in the narrative, or just a clue to the reader that the change is happening.

As I indicated, I have been using it as a conscious decision to set up patterns of psychic distance.  Variety in the psychic distance can provide a relief – an extended period at a single extreme point can be wearing.  Selecting an appropriate level or pattern of engagement through psychic distance can be helpful in differentiating characters; fourthly, a novel is about a controlled release of information, and consciously setting the psychic distance gives you this means of control.

My current project is an epistolary novel based on a divided family in Malaya and England.  A problem with letters is that they impose restrictions in terms of interaction – and their communication is divided by time as letters went by sea.   By consciously manipulating psychic distance, subdivided as I have described, I set up a call-and-response between the correspondents, either accepting or rejecting level or pattern of levels offered. Whether Gardner would recognise this as his original concept, I don’t know, but for me it works.

Often the body of a letter will start with a fairly distant description of an event, but will then get drawn into their emotional response to it.  The respondent will then respond at that close level and try to draw the level back, diffusing the emotion.

An important element in a novel is the controlled release of information, and the exchange of certain types of information will only occur at the appropriate level.

I am using letters between the three daughters and their parents, and for each of them I consciously set patterns of psychic level and the jumps in level as defining character.

A letter is interesting because it makes you think about these levels, and often sometimes the correspondents are trying to shift each other’s level, either getting them to engage more closely with events around them, or drawing them back when it gets too close to be comfortable.

To summarise, there are, for me, the following elements which can be buried within psychic distance:

  • Observation distance
  • Involvement in action
  • Emotional involvement
  • Interpretive level
  • Time span of the moment within the narration (is it the immediate undigested experience or a longer processed time frame).

It can be advantageous to separate these out, and manipulate them independently, and thinking about and analyzing them.

I am not trying to push my interpretation of this generally, but I would advocate reading Gardner, and more generally around this subject and see how other people have interpreted this, and working out what is useful for your writing.

It is also worth reading Genette’s Narrative Discourse and checking what he says narrative or diegetic level and being clear on this in relation to psychic level.

To read further about psychic distance, see John Gardner – the Art of Fiction and Emma Darwin’s blog.

Martin’s novel, ‘A Place of Safety’ will be published by Salt in spring 2018.