Of Speaking and Not Being Heard

I recently started work on a story that’s made me think about how we speak, what we say, and how and when we’re listened to. There’s an obvious disconnection between these two actions – how often do we way something, and then find out later that the person we were talking to heard something else entirely?

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see,” Henry David Thoreau said. Similarly, it’s not what you listen to that matters, it’s what you hear. And this is not some lament about how the 21st Century, with its mass communication and digital media, is more full of ‘noise’ than ever – the world has always been full of noise if that is what you decide to listen to – but rather a question of perspective.

We filter out so much of what we hear, choosing to focus on the salient points and receiving only the information that we want. The rest is discarded like packaging or decoration, nice to look at but not of any importance to us when what we really want is the goodness inside, the nutrients of whatever is being said.

But is this what our interlocutor wants? At times, yes, certainly: we need to know what time the meeting is, where it will be held and who will be there, or we want to know how much our shopping costs or how much the bill is in a restaurant. We require only the information, and anything else could be seen as a superfluous diversion from getting on with the day. Yet in the last of these, the restaurant, when a waiter or waitress asks us ‘Is everything okay for you?’ what he or she is really saying is ‘I’m just checking in because I have to, and if I do it in a pleasant and friendly way then I might get a bigger tip, and you know how much I rely on tips to boost my wages.’ When we automatically reply ‘Yes, fine thanks,’ we’re agreeing to the transaction, acting out our parts in what otherwise is a meaningless dialogue, at least in terms of the spoken language used.

If we ask a close friend or a family member the same question, however, and get the same reply, we are hearing far more than the words. We hear intonation, cadence, inflexion, tone, we receive body language and facial expressions. But do we always listen to those other forms of speech and react accordingly, or accept the phrase ‘Yes, fine thanks,’ and carry on going about our business?

Or, to put it another way, when you speak to someone you care about, would you like them to hear you? Are you so keen to tell them exactly what it is that ails you that you use a multitude of interconnected languages to try to get your message across? And if that person doesn’t hear you and fails to respond are you left unsatisfied, frustrated, uncared for in return? There’s a sense here of action and reaction, of point and counterpoint, of call and response. Imagine then how that cherished person would feel if the roles were reversed, and you didn’t hear what they were saying to you.

People choose to talk to us for many reasons, in many different circumstances, and through many different forms of communication. I’m trying to ask myself, in writing this story and thinking through my characters’ actions, how I’d like to be heard in those various situations, especially in the intimate, private moments when I need nothing more than for someone to listen carefully to what I’m saying. If I can manage that, or at least am able to consider some of those thousands of times when I’ve not listened properly, then perhaps I can be better at allowing others to be heard. I don’t just need to admire the decoration, important though such nuances may be, I need to hear the contents inside.


Reading in Manchester

Next Monday, 25th April, I’ll be reading averboset live literature night Verbose, at the Fallow Café in Fallowfield, Manchester.

Okay, nothing special so far – but I get to headline with two lovely poets, Anne Caldwell and Evan Jones.

Anne is currently a  Literature Programme Manager for The British Council, which perhaps makes her sound very important. Good. She is.  She’s also a dashed fine poet, and will be reading from her brand new collection, Painting The Spiral Staircase (Cinnamon Press).

Evan is Canadian, which doesn’t matter in any way except that it gives his voice that beautiful Québécois intonation, and gives his poetry a similarly melancholic and introspective tone. And it’s about time he brought a new book out, since it’s been four years since Carcanet published Paralogues.

I think – and this is only a guess – that I’ll be reading a story called ‘Safety Measures’, though I’ll need to check the timings. I hope so, though, as it’s going to be published  in issue 4 of The Bolton Review, so the publicity should help. I understand that some of the other nine published and up-and-coming poets and prose writers performing might also premiere work from The Review, ahead of its launch next Wednesday.

Since being relaunched in January 2015 by Sarah-Clare Conlon, Verbose has welcomed such luminaries of the North West literature scene as Jenn Ashworth, Elizabeth Baines, Sarah Butler, Aisla Cox, James Davies, David Gaffney, Jim Hinks, Sarah Jasmon, Tom Jenks, John McAuliffe, Ian McGuire, Fat Roland, Nicholas Royle, John D Rutter, Geoff Ryman, Graeme Shimmin, Scott Thurston and Emma Jane Unsworth. Man Booker Prize shortlisted author Alison Moore has also read.

What I’m saying, in a roundabout kind of way, is that if you fancy coming along to say hello and to hear some excellent live literature, then I’ll see you there – the  Fallow Café, 2a Landcross Road, M14 6NA. Free entry, and doors are at 7.30pm. See http://verbosemcr.wordpress.com.

Not You, Not Yours

There’s no real reason why you decided to write a second-person narrative. It just came to be that the idea you had, and the story you wanted to tell, needed to be told in the second person. That’s fine. It happens.

But then what do you do? How do you go about addressing the story to someone imaginary? Indeed, are you even writing to that person? It’s not simply a case of changing he or she or I to you, not at all – the work needs to be created with that specific addressee at the forefront of your mind, the focus of all the words and phrases and sentences. And who is this ‘you’, anyway? Are you writing to the character, whomever that may be, or are you talking directly to the reader, whether real or imagined, an individual or a collective entity?

There are things to consider, then. There’s the narrative voice, the pace, the extra dimensions of invasion or a skulking, insidious engagement with what might be private and intimate. There’s the locus and focus and hocus pocus of your point of view, hiding somewhere between over the shoulder and inside the brain, both limited and wide, both homo- and heterodiegetic, depending on the moment.

And there might be other choices, if you want to make them: you can step into and out of the story, commenting as much as you direct; you can infiltrate the most interesting corners of your character’s psyche and see how they react to what goes on around them; you can relate their perception to your own, or vice versa, stealing from them or yourself to fuel emotion; you can project yourself into their stories, responding, interpreting, recreating.

So many considerations to follow that first one. You chose to write a second-person narrative, to tell a story in that particularly instrusive way, with all its inherent complications and technical difficulties. Tell me again, why did you do that?

Of Cheques and Balances

springLast spring, shortly after my story, “Borders”, was published in issue 299.2 of The North American Review, I received a cheque through the post as payment for the rights to use the work.

It’s an odd thing, being paid for writing stories. It’s the same when I get royalty statements from my publishers for my latest novel, released last November. I know that I don’t write for money, naturally, but at the same time I feel that I should get paid for what I do – or, that literature has a value that needs to be measured somehow, and one of those ways can be pecuniary.

But it shouldn’t be. Art exists to make us realise what it is to be human, not to make us a financial profit; the profit we make is primarily cultural, and this exchange is the payment that artists get. It takes time and effort to produce work, and that time and effort needs rewarding: some say that reward should be in cold, hard cash…

There are various reasons why I choose which publications to submit work to: it might be that the magazine is particularly well-respected, or is international in scope, or is connected to a particular publisher or target audience. More often than not it’s simply because I prefer the style, content and editorial nature of one publication over another. ‘I like the work in here,’ I say to myself, ‘and I want my work to be in it too.’ It’s that simple.

Note that not one of these reasons has anything to do with payment, or not financial payment, anyway. The rewards I get for having my work published are cultural and artistic. If I wanted to survive only on the money I get paid for writing then I’d be writing advertising copy or promotional blurb for a living – the writer who survives on their creative output is a rare beast indeed.

And that’s okay. In fact, it’s better than okay. It means that folk (such as me) write because they want to, and write what they want to, rather than trying to second- or third-guess the demands of the market. Isn’t that how art exists, and why? Or am I just incredibly old-fashioned about this? Yes, I’d love my latest novel to sell a million copies, win all the awards going, and for me to be pestered to option the film rights, but it’s not going to happen and I’m fine with that. That’s not why I wrote it.

Similarly, I didn’t write “Borders” just to get it published in The North American Review and cash that cheque. I wrote it because I thought I had something to say, quietly, about leaving and returning, about being allowed to choose how to live. Once the story was finished I then thought about having it published – this story was that rarest of exceptions, the one which gets accepted by the first publication you send it to, and I was and am thrilled and honoured by this. I got to see my story in print, in a very good, very old, well-respected, influential and consistently interesting magazine. Do I need any more payment than that?

In front of me now, because I’ve just dug it out from my desk, is that same check that was sent to me when the story was accepted. Since I live in the UK it’s hard to cash a cheque in US dollars. It’s not a big check, either. And with so many magazines struggling to survive it seems kind of inappropriate to take payment beyond free copies or a subscription.

And besides, that’s not why we write. I’ve got the check to look at, if I want to, to tell me that someone thought my work was worth paying for. As an incentive to keep writing, that’s pretty good. When the cheques and royalty statements start adding up to the thousands, I’ll start cashing them. Until then, that fact that publishers and editors are willing to pay me, merely by considering the work for publication, is payment enough, thanks.

Great Writing 2015

Logo Sign

Just a few days until this year’s Great Writing conference – it’s odd to think that we’ve been doing this for 18 years now, and I’ve been actively involved in the organising, arranging and running this beast for the last eight years.

For the last four years it’s been held at Imperial College, London – which is one of the reasons that the range of countries represented continues to grow – this year we can add Brazil, Malaysia and Portugal to the ever-increasing list: we really must get a map sorted out so that we can stick pins in it to represent the many, many fine folk who’ve been and the many wonderful places they’ve come from.

Last year’s conference was an absolute cracker: many thought it the best GW ever, so this weekend’s fun has a lot to live up to. There are still a few places available if you want to attend – see greatwriting.org.uk for more details, or to register, but you’d better be quick.

For some reason I’ve managed to give myself the really difficult task of presenting for twenty minutes with no preparation – I’m part of a panel talking about plagiarism, process and pedagogy, so I’m deliberately aiming to steal, borrow or ‘be influenced by’ the words of my fellow presenters, and see what happens. It could be a disaster…but the GW folk are all fine, cheery people, so if it all goes pear-shaped then at least they’ll be supportive, and comment on my bravery/follishness. We shall see.

Creative Writing and Education

CWE coverOut now – a new book which explores creative writing and its various relationships to education through a number of short, evocative chapters written by key players in the field. At times controversial, it talks about issues, ideas and practices related to creative writing in and around education, with a focus on higher education.

Rob Pope (Emeritus Professor, Oxford Brookes University), who knows a lot about these things, says that “This is a tremendously stimulating and timely book. Global in scope yet sensitive to local conditions, this is a collection that will help recast the future of Creative Writing in Education at large. Teeming with expert dialogues and punctuated by synoptic commentaries, the volume is unusual in spanning school, college and university, and in exploring the relations between Creative Writing, research and teaching. I thought I had thought a lot about these things. It makes me think again – afresh.”

For more info, or to buy, click here: http://www.multilingual-matters.com/display.asp?isb=9781783093526. The publishers  are also currently offering a 50% discount on the whole New Writing Viewpoints series, so you can buy the lot! Enter the code NWV2015 at the checkout – valid for both print and ebooks.

Oh, and in a small way, I’m in it. But you’ve probably guessed that by now….

Brel, A Campaigner and a Review

Here’s a thing: I have a soft spot for Alastair Campbell. You know, the man who engineered Tony Blair’s rise and years in power. The spin doctor’s spin doctor. And I don’t mean what he did in those years (although you have to admire a man who’s so good at his job, even if you don’t agree with what he did.)

But since he resigned from the formal world of politics he’s been more active in his other roles – he’s still engaged with politics, writes a lot, runs even more, and does a lot of work for charity. It’s this last bit which interests me most, as he champions the work of mental health charities to remove some of the taboos about mental health issues. Having worked for MIND myself, and taught in various locations and at varying academic levels, it’s a topic which is dear to me – we see so many vulnerable, often desperate people, who cannot get the help they need. Speaking out loud is one way we can try to change this, and Mr. Campbell does so, very loudly indeed. You can read more on his blog, particularly a letter he received from a student who tries to use writing as a way to express herself, the way we all do: click here.

And personally, it’s his love too for Jacques Brel which strikes home with me. He made a radio show about Brel a few years ago which has always stuck in my mind, so much so that I sent him a copy of the novel to see if he’d like the way that Lucy sees Brel. He was, I’m delighted to say, not only keen to read it but also happy to review it, and here are his thoughts:

Words cover“I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, especially the use of Jacques Brel’s passion and desperation to communicate as an expression of Lucy’s all-encompassing need to speak and be heard amid the white noise of her life and relationships. There are a number of complex and entwining themes that will keep you interested and which reward the reader page after page, and the plot is unconventional and therefore doesn’t let you down. Highly recommended, even though personally I could have coped with yet more Brel in the story!”

Well, thanks Alastair. It’s an honour to have you read and like the book, and if I thought I could have got away with more of Jacques then I would have done. I’ll end with a quick plug for his own new book, Winners and How They Succeed, in which he explores what it is that makes people in all walks of life succeed.

Or, as Jacques would say, “Le talent, ça n’existe pas. Le talent, c’est d’avoir envie de faire quelque chose.”