The Stories People Tell

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Stories are a major subject of all my novels and I am currently toying with the idea of writing a story devoted to a person who is stuck in a very unpleasant story told by a sinister author.

“Stories are an important part of our life,” someone once claimed, pleading for the importance of novels, but the truth of the statement goes way beyond that. Stories, often very short ones that we tell ourselves, are an essential ingredient of our understanding of ourself and the world.

So what do these micro stories do? They tie together the fragments of what is going on around us so the world makes sense. They inform our actions.

There are stories designed to prepare us for an uncertain future, the difficult interview, the prospect of a dressing-down, the physical challenge of a race or a combat, repeated unendingly in the hope that doing so will influence what happens.

There are stories that are for our own personal satisfaction or glory, like walking into a crowded concert hall, sitting down at the grand piano and playing the most brilliant piece of music, despite having never played piano before, only to get up and walk away, not even acknowledging the astounded audience. Or there are more sinister imaginings that creep up on us unbidden. The out-of-control car that mashes into us as we walk along the side of the road, or the dog gone wild that leaps up at us, its jaws wide, its teeth ready to maul.

Of course, if our story strays too far from reality and nothing sets us right, we could be in for trouble. I remember admiring a girl I saw every morning at the bus stop as I walked by. I was a pupil, working on a building site during my school holidays. I imagined chatting with her and even us going out together. When I finally got up the courage to say “Hallo”, she shied away and my story came clattering down around my ears.

The above example illustrates how interpretations get between us and other people when we falsely believe they are drawing us closer together. Here’s another example. A healer has an intuition about the person he’s talking to. His whole practice relies on trusting such intuitions. The person looks absent, as if her soul had taken leave of her. He knows she has recently had an accident, so he asks, “Did you black-out during your accident ?” Startled, she replies, “No.” His ‘story’ and the related interpretation get between him and his patient.

But the vast majority of such micro stories weave themselves into the fabric of life almost unseen, but not unheeded. It is they that make sense of the world for us, that link together the disparate to create coherence and meaning, that allow us to interpret, to anticipate, to act. But they are still stories, fiction, or at best embellished reality. They are based on our guesswork, our imaginings or our desires and fears. The might become reality, but they are not it yet.

Such micro stories are not always helpful. They can be a source of continual conflict between people, especially in couples. Here’s an example. The husband gives the headlines of news heard on the radio about the plans of a large tobacco company to end the production of cigarettes. Not waiting for further information, his wife attacks those who criticise people without good reason. Her behaviour is familiar to him. He is furious that she always defends the opposing side. On a deeper level he feels trapped by a vision of himself that he doesn’t like and which he doesn’t agree with. He is not the character in her story, but how does he escape? We are all both the heroes and victims of our own and other people’s stories.

A new end, a new beginning

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As a writer, you know you are drawing near the end of the novel you are writing when ideas start to surface for the next book. The other day I passed the 100.000 word mark on Forget Me Not, having finished chapter ten. Ideas for future books include the sixth and final book of The Storyteller’s Quest; A possible sequel to In Search of Lost Girls; and finally a completely new idea about someone trapped in a story…. an exciting prospect. I’m tempted to go with that first.

Here’s an extract from the draft of the end of chapter ten of Forget Me Not.

Ethy staggered against the table in the potting shed, causing several pots to tumble to the ground and smash. Clutching the wooden surface for support, she felt as if her head were spinning but her stomach couldn’t keep up. Could it be an earthquake? The table still rocked where she had jostled it, but the packed earth beneath her feet remained motionless. No. This was in her. More likely it was a virus or something she’d eaten. She felt weak and queasy. Of course, it could be this place catching up on her, finally getting its revenge.

She’d been lucky so far. Not only did she not get lost like all the other girls who ventured out, but she suffered none of the distractions or delirium that had made lumbering vegetables of many of the girls, Beth and Maria included.

She glanced at the others. Beth was huddled in her wheelchair oblivious to the world. Maria in comparison looked alarmed. Her head swivelled in every direction as if in search of an explanation but her expression spoke only of incomprehension. Both Anju and Tricia looked green, but maybe that was only the light reflecting off so many leaves. (…)

Traces – an ultra-short story

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Out walking every morning before breakfast I take photos and have ideas for my books and stories, but this morning was the first time I composed a complete ultra-short story (or is it a poem) on my phone while I was out. Called Traces, it begins as follows:

On my walk, crossing so many traces of stories yearning to be told.
A misplaced golfball close to a golf course, its owner lost in the search… (read on)

Blinded by inspiration

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I attended a workshop given by the poet Laura Kasischke (in the photo above) organised by the Geneva Writers Group. It was all about images, or rather metaphors … and the importance of the senses as the source of all perception of the world. There were many writing exercises amongst readings and the occasional discussion. Based on the juxtaposition that underlies metaphors, each exercise strung together a description anchored heavily in the senses and a question or judgement linked to a different context. Here are a few of my pieces sparked by this jostling of disparate worlds.

Derelict house

Rain ran over her bald head and dripped from the faded red dress which hung torn from her sagging form. Ivy had crept up her legs and over her body, its deep green leaves in stark contrast to the pale ivory of her skin and the prominent bluish veins. She sat in the ruins of an armchair, unleashed springs sprouting around her as she stared out over the abandoned garden. Despite the heavy makeup, cracks ran down the side of her face, threatening to reveal the bones that jutted out. Her chest heaved in one long drawn-out sigh and she turned the page of the book resting in her lap, slowly, ever so slowly. The ink on the page had long been washed into a grey-blue blur and the paper buckled in the rain. Curving her index finger, she dug the long nail into the soggy mass, and, tearing downwards, left a deep gouge in the body of the book that the rain hastened to fill.

The White Room

The double bed fills most of the room, its covers folded down with hospital precision. Slippers slink side by side, their toes peeking out from under the bed. On the dresser, each tube of lipstick, each bottle of perfume, even the paper hankies, are aligned in neat rows. The wicker wastepaper basket, mostly concealed beneath the worksurface, is empty. Not an odd angle, not a rough edge, nothing to get hold of. I round the bed, cross the plush carpet, feeling it’s softness ease between my toes, and pull at the wardrobe door. It resists. I pull harder and it flies open. Crying out, I jump back in alarm as a host of empty cardboard boxes tumbles out on top of me.

 Vulnerable

You step out from behind the lectern, smoothing the folds of your dress as you do. Smoothing your nerves too. So many people watching, listening, sizing you up, row upon row of them awaiting the impossible, drooling in expectation, on the look out for the slightest miss step. Your eyes are wide, your jaw set, your arms snake around your chest, clasping you tight, crushing the breath from your lungs. Whatever you do, don’t let it show. You know the routine. Throw up a rampart of words. Plough on. Let the words tumble over the waiting audience, hurry, out run them, knock the breath from them, eliminate them before they do you.

 

In the hands of writers

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Hands are like faces, they tell stories, but are maybe not so easy to mask.

Since I began attending the Geneva Writers’ Group I have taken a number of photos in attempts to visually capture the group work. Those photos reflect the frontal nature of conferences and workshops with anywhere between fifty and ninty people aligned in rows in front of the workshop giver. Today, thanks to the capacities of my new iPhone, I tried a different approach at a workshop jointly run by Susan Tiberghien and Jason Donald.

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If it fits in a box, sell it!

In an article published Oct. 11th entitled Publishing risks ‘becoming irrelevant’, warns Penguin Random House boss, the Guardian quotes Tom Weldon, chief executive of Penguin Random House UK, as stressing the need for greater diversity in the origins of books being published.

While I hail the call for diversity championed by Penguin Random House in their new #WriteNow project, it seems to put people into recognisable boxes the same way the industry has done with the books it publishes. Just like sci-fi, fantasy, crime, YA, etc are convenient saleable categories, so LGBTQ or BAME (black, Asian, ethnic minorities) or people with disabilities are also marketable packages.

The Guardian article recognises that it is not because you are black or from Scunthorpe that you necessarily have to write in a way that is directly identifiable with your origins or ethnic background. In other words, it is the writer that fits the category and not the writing. Although the journalist does underline that origins will necessarily influence the writing, suggesting a coherence between an author’s books and her origins. In addition, Weldon insists that such a shift in policy will require a change in staff, no longer requiring employees to be university graduates and reflecting the type of authors being targeted.

But what of those who don’t fit into categories? Those whose identity lies in straddling boundaries. Those for whom convenient boxes are a nightmare everyone tries to shoehorn them into. Those who are subsequently rejected because they don’t fit other people’s categories. Those strange people who can’t do otherwise than flirt with limits and often suffer greatly for it. Their necessary fluidity, what is seen as a stubborn refusal to fit, makes others uncomfortable if not angry. Yet it is these misfits, in daring to stray beyond the confines of rigid communities and god-given categories, that afford the possibility of change and innovation for everybody.

Steve Reich in live video on Facebook

The Guardian’s use of FaceBook’s new live video feature in bringing us a performance of Steve Reich’s Different Trains with a film from Bill Morrison was really refreshing. Apart from individuals broadcasting lengthy snippets of their daily life which are of dubious interest, the use of live video on Facebook has been limited to the tired efforts of some media to imitate talkshows or live reportage. Because of the nature of the set-up, these attempts lack the tension and the rigour that TV can pull off and as a result cannot hold the audience’s attention. The presentation of Reich’s work, in comparison, gives us a privileged place next to the stage during the performance of a key work. The impression of being present, unless of course we cannot stomach Reich’s music or the difficult subject treated, has us captivated. At the same time, the set-up enables us to exchange impressions and ideas with those watching. Despite a lot of self-congratulatory chatter, this exchange contains some intense and meaningful moments both during the performance and the subsequent interview of the composer and filmmaker. This bringing of culture and contemporary music to Facebook in such a striking way is a really promising development.

What clothes are saying?

Elle Fanning in About Ray
Elle Fanning in About Ray

The silence of clothes

“There can be no silence in the language of clothes,” said Soline Anthore Baptiste during a conference about the history of clothing at the Club 44 in La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland. Her pithy statement came as a challenge for idle minds. What about the absence of clothes? Could nakedness be taken as silence? Socially it is hardly a quiet affaire. Then what about clothes that deny personality, that deny identity, that set out to deny humanness? The sinister uniforms of the emaciated prisoners in the concentration camps whose own clothes had been taken away and burnt. While there is a deathly silence about those uniforms, there is also a penetrating scream that reaches out to each of us.

From being seen to seeing

Soline Anthore Baptiste mentioned the British psychoanalyst John Carl Flugel (1884-1955) who wrote a book entitled The Psychology of Clothes (1930). He postulated that what he called the great renunciation, when men gave up flamboyant clothes in favour of staid grey and austere forms, went hand in hand with a refusal of feelings on the part of men. This ties in with the metaphor of men shielding themselves from attacks that underlies Soline Anthore Baptiste’s explanation of the evolution of men’s everyday clothes. The introduction of armor led to chests being padded against the shocks of battle, a fashion for men (of a certain class) that spilled over into society. According to Flugel, this shift from the colourful and the ostentatious to the dull and uninspiring forms and colours in clothes ultimately led men from a desire to be seen to a desire to see. As I have not read his work, I do not know how he justifies this conclusion. Apart from the suggested mutual exclusiveness of these two which strikes me as dubious, I am reticent about a theory that seeks to shore up what is clearly a stereotype of masculin behaviour.

 Being seen or not seen

That Flugel should think of men in terms of a drive to see (women) in terms of that which is concealed is not surprising. Psychoanalysis, and Flugel in particular, put much emphasis on clothing, on the part of women, as a tool to attract men by alternately concealing and revealing that which is seen as erogenous. This psychoanalytical obsession with the erotic and the belief that women exploit it as their chief commerce fails to see the importance of other major factors such as gender, identity and well-being, not to mention belonging or its counterpart, rebellion. In comparison, men’s clothes were seen by Flugel more as an expression of hierarchy and social status. So men are not interested in being attractive, what Flugel called ‘being seen’, but only in power and recognition. While this might be true of some men, it is a blatant charicature when applied to all of them.

Reforming dress

Along with other colleagues, Flugel created the Men’s Dress Reform Party which was active from 1929 to 1940. In their attempts to liberate men’s fashions they failed to realise that, in part at least, clothing is a language, and as such its unwritten rules are determined by social convention not by the dictates of a small political group. Yet at the same time, history illustrates that, unlike our spoken and written language, the way people dress can be influenced by various external forces. A powerful institution such as a hospital regime or education authorities, for example. But above all, the powerful persuasion of the fashion industry backed by a successful advertising campaign, coupled with the complicity of the media.

Piecing together the past

Flugel’s interpretation conveniently fits the stereotypes of what is man and what is woman. Such far-reaching interpretations leave me sceptical, especially when they lean heavily on a binary vision of gender that constantly opposes and contrasts fixed ideas of male and female, forgetting that these too are changing social constructs. There are many ways to weave together fragmentary evidence from the past to form a narrative that has a smattering of coherence and a zest of seduction. Both Flugel’s, but also Anthore Baptiste’s narrations are just a couple of plausible examples amongst many.

Postscript: Clothes and transgender

What clothes have to say about gender is one of the key variables in the life of transgender people along with bodily appearance, behaviour, sexuality and ultimately a feeling/idea of self in relation to gender and the acceptance of that vision by others. For everyone, their choice of clothes makes a statement about who they are or are not, often unwittingly so. But for those who are transgender it is what clothing explicitly or implicitly says about gender that is central to their choices. At any give period, items of clothing carry ‘gender markers’ that are interpreted as masculin or feminin. These markers are composed by transgender people to display (and also feel) an image of themselves which situates them with respect to gender.

The paradox

Paradoxically, and no criticism is meant here, only surprise, clothes and the related identity are thus defined in terms of that very binary division that the non-binary seek to transgress. These individual markers, rooted in a binary lOvid of gender, are then mixed and re-mixed like a pallette of colours in an overall tableau that ventures beyond binary divisions. Confronted with this way of painting an identity, the central difficulty of mainstream society lies in a desperate, if not fearful, need for coherence and unicity in line with a rigid division between two monolithic genders as enshrined in our language: he or she, and never the twain shall meet.

See my two novels about the adventures of a boy who wanted to dress as a girl and see how he fares in a world hostile to any ambiguity of gender or sexuality: Boy & Girl and In Search of Lost Girls.

The Dream Class

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It’s all about learning, but don’t let that distract you from the story. 

The Starless Square, Book 3 of The Storyteller’s Quest opens with a policeman challenging An, who, unbeknown to him, hails from another world, “Shouldn’t you be in school, Miss?” An laughs, thinking that ‘school’ is the last place she’d go to learn. Later, teasing the policewoman who is interrogating her, she asks why they keep harping on about school, to which the woman replies, “Because school is compulsory.” With all the naivety she can muster, An asks, “Why go to a place to learn when you can learn everywhere?” knowing full well that the woman, along with most of the inhabitants of this world, would be stumped by such a question. So saying, she expresses one of the unwritten tenets of the group she belongs to, The Dream Class. Learning can and does takes place everywhere and not just in a privileged building with privileged teachers.

The term ‘The Dream Class’, was first coined by Professor Rafter at the end of The Reaches, Book 1 of The Storyteller’s Quest when Sally suggested teaching her friends the ground-breaking skills she had learnt in her travels to another world. Here then is a second tenet of the Dream Class. Learning is best propagated by sharing what you have experienced with your peers and others.

When describing The Dream Class to another girl in the heat of action in Forget Me Not, Book 5 of The Storyteller’s Quest (currently being written), Sarah says succinctly, “We learn to do weird and wonderful things thanks to our adventures.” That adventures are potentially an ideal context in which to develop outstanding new skills and abilities in difficult situations is another of the tenets of the Dream Class.

As Sally puts it, talking to new students at the beginning of Forget Me Not, “Unlike the university with its set curricula and predetermined ways of working, we adopt a more experimental approach. Our experience has been that the best way to learn is by adventure.” Of course, the original members didn’t create adventures but stumbled into them. The challenge in extending the Dream Class to outside participants is to create the conditions in which an adventure might take place even if there is no guarantee anything will be learnt. Gauging risk is important.

Later in Forget Me Not, confronted with the enthusiasm of new students gathered on a deserted island off the coast of Scotland, Jenny tells them that they should “learn one thing at a time”, adding as an afterthought “if possible”. Learning through adventures means that learning cannot be served up in convenient, pre-digested packages. It’s messy, sometimes chaotic, often dangerous. Circumstances invariably require mastering several new things at once and the skills to be learnt can’t be decided in advance.

Although writing The Storyteller’s Quest has been an adventure in itself, the outcomes of which were not predetermined and often surprised me, certain ideas expressed here find an echo in my earlier writings about education on Connected Magazine, in particular an article entitled, Nine lessons of schooling … or why school isn’t what you think it is.  Note that much of what I wrote at that time on Connected was constrained by the need to work from within the school system. Of course, that limit no longer applies in the world of the Storyteller’s Quest.

Further reading

The Reaches – The Storytellers Quest Book 1

The Keeper’s Daughter – The Storyteller’s Quest Book 2

The Starless Square – The Storyteller’s Quest Book 3

The World o’Tales – The Storyteller’s Quest Book 4

Forget Me Not – The Storyteller’s Quest Book 5

Nine lessons of schooling … or why school isn’t what you think it is, Alan McCluskey, Connected Magazine, August 2007.

Healing from within – learning from writing

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It seems so strange to our eyes, but at the time they couldn’t see things otherwise (…) They came at the body from the outside. It wasn’t simply that they didn’t have our techniques to enter the body with their minds. All their knowledge was buried in books, in scientific papers and in data gathered by machines. They kept new healers away from people in need of healing. They would have been horrified if anyone had tried to heal others without all that knowledge, whereas, in reality, it blocked access to what they really needed to know. Inside out, Alan McCluskey, April 2012.

One of the greatest difficulties with improving long-established systems, like the one we call Health Care, is being able to step outside the system and, from that unaccustomed vantage point, explore new possibilities that go beyond what is currently thinkable. Freeing ourselves from familiar logic is hard to achieve, rather like stepping through the mirror for Alice. It can be liberating, but more often than not, it is a frightening and disorienting experience.

What’s more, the moment you venture out, a chorus of expert voices intones from the safety of comfy armchairs, You can’t do that. It doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t, in their logic. If we listened to them there would never be any major breakthroughs. Transgressing social norms and the fixed mind-sets of our institutions can be explored in inspiring ways through fiction, especially Sci-Fi and Fantasy. All that is demanded of the author is plausibility, a quality that can be built up over time as a novel moves forward.

In writing Boy & Girl, speaking mind-to-mind was a first step in creating a bridge between two worlds, between two people, Peter and Kaitlin. Travelling mind-to-mind followed on quite logically, making it possible for my young protagonists to lodge in each other’s minds and to see and feel the world through their eyes and their senses. What I did not anticipate, as I began writing, was that being able to travel to the body and mind of another had deep-seated implications for health care. That healing could better be assured from within than without, that the body knew exactly what it needed to be healthy, that healing could use this knowledge to counter illness and accident. All this became apparent as my characters affronted challenging situations.

These perspectives struck me as so important, I wrote a separate short story called Inside out that explored, under the guise of fiction, what might be possible in health care from such a standpoint.

Further reading

Inside out

Boy & Girl

In Search of Lost Girls