Category Archives: writing

I am an ostrich

I am an ostrich. If I encounter a problem academically that I can’t solve fairly quickly, rather than hunkering down and bashing the living daylights out of the problem until I get the answer, I stick my head in the proverbial sand and hope the answer jumps into my head all by itself. I’ve always done this – which may be a bit of a surprise considering I’ve gained the highest academic degree possible in a physics based subject – but trust me none of my degrees in astrophysics came easily nor was I at the top of any of my classes (firmly rooted in the bottom quarter more like it!). I am insanely jealous of my husband’s academic tenacity. When he encounters something he doesn’t understand he will surround himself with text books and resources and people ‘smarter’ than him and whack his head off the problem until he thoroughly understands it and can explain it to anyone. It is a big reason he is the quality of scientist that he is and it is certainly why he is developing into a much loved and respected professor. It is also a quality I truly hope our daughter has inherited from him – rather than my ‘meh, I’ll look at it again tomorrow’ stance.

Fortunately (or is it unfortunately) I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older that this trait comes from a place of insecurity rather than just being ‘dumb’. I get scared that I can’t ‘be’ what it is that I really want to be so rather than truly trying and failing I give myself the get out of clause of “well, I didn’t get an A cause I didn’t study enough.” I’ve done it in my personal life too – “well, that relationship didn’t work cause I didn’t throw myself into it.” From when I was eight I wanted to be an astronomer. Did I truly know what that meant? Nope – but it is what I wanted. I was good at maths and physics throughout high school and achieved the grades I needed to attend the University of St Andrews. It was here at the start of my (many, many) years of university study that I took on the persona of an ostrich as it is after high school that shit gets real when you are studying science. It is hard. Like, hard hard. And although throughout undergraduate studies there are still ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers in science those answers aren’t as simple as 4 anymore.

The MMTO where I worked for five years. source: mmto.org

The MMTO where I worked for five years. source: mmto.org

But I did persevere in my own way and though I never attained the highest quality of degrees (2:2 undergraduate for me!) I did complete and was awarded BSc, MPhil and PhD degrees. I went on to find my niche in the professional astronomy world and was offered a permanent position after my first post-doc. However, I never lost my insecurities nor my ‘fingers-in-ears-shouting-la-la-la’ method to deal with them and I know it held me back. Now that I have decided I want to ‘be’ an author those insecurities are rearing their ugly heads once again. And I have started to sidle into my comfortable sand pit in the corner in which I’m using my daughter’s bright-orange plastic shovel to dig the hole for my head (thankfully she is in there with me making the hole digging a lot more fun!)

The biggest insecurity I have when it comes to creative writing is: do I have enough stories to tell? It isn’t that I can’t put words into pretty/informative/invoking sentences by rather do I have enough characters and situations in me to create engaging stories that will build me an audience and keep them! I have only written two new pieces this year – both plays and both for class. They were sizable pieces of work that took all semester to craft but it was only two stories. I haven’t written any new fiction in over a year. That is bad. That is not how I make myself an author. That is how I fully morph into an ostrich, again, and hold myself back. But I am older now and I am certainly more self-aware (and less distracted by beer) and so fingers crossed I can ward off any unsightly transmutations by making myself do the hard things. So I’m off to try and tease out some more words on a new short story under the theme of ‘first meetings’ … wish me luck!

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Inspired by …

Last year I happened upon a small book sitting on the shelves of my local bookstore whose cover drew3619573 me in (yes, yes I know you aren’t suppose to ‘judge a book by its cover’ but hands up if actually don’t pick up books because you like their covers – anyone? anyone?) Flipping to the back cover to read the blurb I was sucked in even more and I duly headed to the checkout with book in hand. The book is The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway and it was the image painted by the first sentence of the blurb that convinced me to spend my pennies. The sentence is this:

In a city ravage by war, a defiant young musician decides to play his cello at the site of a mortar attack for twenty-two days, in memory of his fallen friends and neighbors.

What an image. What a story. I don’t recall at what point, before or after I started reading the book, that I learnt that this scene (and the catalyst for the novel) was inspired by the real musician Vedran Smailovic. Smailovic became renowned for playing his cello in ruined buildings during the siege of Sarajevo – many times playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor. Never heard the adagio? Go look it up – it is a hauntingly beautiful piece. Smailovic’s actions have inspired many artistic tributes including; a piece entitled The Cellist of Sarajevo composed by David Wilde and recorded by Yo Yo Ma, Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 by Savage and a folk song by John McCutcheon called In the Streets of Sarajevo. As far as I can gather all of these endeavors have been embraced by Smailovic himself.

Clearly, it was also an act/image that affected Galloway sufficiently to become the hinge of his book in which he considers a fictionalised version of the siege of Sarajevo which took place from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996 during the Bosnian War. Indeed, Galloway talks here about how it was a photograph of Smailovic printed by the New York Times that sat with him for a decade until after the 9/11 attacks that gave him an avenue into writing about what war does to people who are ‘not in the business of war’. In addition to the unnamed ‘cellist’, the novel looks at the siege through three fictional characters. It is not a sensationalist book, indeed it is surprisingly ‘internal’. It is also not dialogue heavy and although there are moments of violent action much of the book focuses on the thoughts of his three main characters. I don’t typically read books about war – indeed if a book is too ‘military-y’ I will stay clear of it – but I loved this book. I could ‘see’ this book playing out as a piece of theatre in my head as I read it (what a way to start a play … a solitary cellist playing the adagio surrounded by ruined buildings … my spine tingles just imagining it).

After finishing the book I started poking around the internet to learn more about Galloway and to discover if he has published other novels but what I found surprised me. It is very well documented, in many forums, that Smailovic despises Galloway and hates the success this book has brought the author. Huh. Why? A quote from a 2008 Times article in which Smailovic explains: “It was like the explosion of an atomic bomb, emotions of anger and pain. How is this possible? They steal my name and identity. Nobody can take the rights to that from me. It’s quite clear that it is me in the book.” Apparently Galloway contact the Times in response and he is quoted as saying: “I’m not sure entirely about in what way he feels that what I’ve done with his identity is different from the other works of art which have been inspired by him. I don’t use his name, I call my character the Cellist and he’s really only a character in the first five pages. It’s not really about him, it’s about the other characters and their reactions to what he does. … The problem is that Mr Smailovic took a cello on to a street in a war and that’s an extremely public act.”

I’m not intending this post to be a full (or accurate) account of the people’s feelings involved in this specific case – if you are interested a quick google search offers up lots of details – but it got me thinking, more that I ever have before, about if and/or what we owe real people for the inspiration they give us for creative/fictional writing. I’m sure there have been many people before me that have thought long and hard about this and as I go further into my writing career I’ll have to learn about the legalities but this is the first time I’ve sat down and thought about this. I could anticipate that if I used a copyrighted piece of art that there is a very clear path for financial compensation. But what if I’m inspired by a famous photograph that is in the public domain? Or a news article such as the story which hit today about the American dentist who killed a much-loved lion in Zimbabwe? What if I change the occupation of the American and tell the story from the point-of-view of a local child who never interacts with the hunter? Would I owe ‘something’ to the parties that originally inspired me?

What about family members? Obviously any writer’s life inspires what they write about and one day, when I am a good enough writer to be able to do them justice, I want to write about my Aunt and Uncle who both died a couple of years ago. If I were lucky enough to secure a publishing deal for a novel with characters that are inspired by them would I owe financial compensation to their estate – namely my cousins? It is a little daunting to consider these things – not just from a financial aspect but from a ‘pissing people off’ aspect. I suspect there are a lot of stories that writers don’t tell until their real life inspirations are long dead just for this very reason. I guess at the moment I have the ‘luxury’ of this being an academic thought exercise since I am a long way from making any sort of money from my writing but it is one I will carry closer to me having read about the contention surrounding Galloway’s novel.

Writing to a theme

To say my “career” in writing is in its infancy is an understatement in the extreme. So far my “body of work” consists of a smattering of short stories written for class, one semi-decent poem and a few more rubbish ones, and five unrefined chapters that I hope will one day will make a novel-length story. But since I’m trying to motivate myself to write more, and with it hope to become better, I keep one sleep-deprived eye, half-open for possible opportunities to submit pieces. But it is daunting. The sheer number of places you can submit work for publication and/or enter competitions is so overwhelming it is paralyzing. You also have to have the patience of a sloth (I’m assuming sloths embody patience?) as the speed at which submissions get reviewed for publication can feel glacier when you are new to the game. I’m learning it is best to submit something then just forget that you have done so until the rejection email pops into your inbox – saves you the energy of compulsively checking their submission managers. Competitions are a mixed beast for me – I’m pretty competitive in nature so the idea of winning a writing competition is extremely enticing, but then the realization that I’m unlikely to win any due to the greenness of my writing can feel deflating. But isn’t this the point of offering up your creative writing to an audience? So you can be scrutinized and judged and compared to others. And isn’t it just part of the process to become hardened to both the compliments and the criticism?

ContestFlyerFor me it is about lowering myself into the pool at a slow enough rate that the frigid water doesn’t take my breath away – at least that is how I like to approach cold bodies of water, others like to take a running dive-bomb in but I am convinced my heart will stop on impact if I try that. So I look for friendly places where I can expose my writing for digestion. One of those friendly places I have found is a local writing group where the people are constructive with their suggestions and are a lot of fun to spend time with. Sadly, due to some transportation issues (who would have thought living in America in your late thirties and not holding a driving license would be problematic!) I haven’t really been able to attend since my daughter was born. And so when I recently learned that they are running a competition for the first time I had the sense that I really couldn’t not enter! But there is a small catch that is slowing me down – there is a theme that the entries have to abide by, superheroes.

Typically when I start a new piece I start with an image. A single image that I then expand into a scenario, and then finally into a story. For example, the short story “News” started as an exercise in class where we had to write a less-than-three page story in 3rd person objective with the words “bomb threat”. I started witLittle Girl Superheroh the image of a man sitting in bed reading a newspaper and the story unfolded from there. I have been throwing images around in my head for ‘superheroes’ and to even come up with an image I like has been a struggle, far less an image I can unravel into a story. I don’t know why this theme is proving difficult for me, is it too general, is it too specific, does it relate too much to a genre of books I typically don’t read and I can’t find a way to connect? I finally landed on an image … that of a young girl dressed in a gold and black superhero costume surrounded by grownups in their best finery awaiting to attend the New York City Ballet opening gala. Now what? Something has to happen, right? A gunman starts shooting into the crowd and the little girl’s mother throws herself onto the girl to save her – blerugh, too much. A car crashes into a food cart and the little girl’s father rescues the vendor who is pinned under the car with superhero strength – blerugh, too clichéd. A homeless man … yeah, just blerugh.

My writing is at its best when I’m detailing small events, everyday events that can happen to anyone. It is what typically interests me in my reading too, ordinary people dealing with ordinary life. So what can I find in this image that is “ordinary” but engaging for a short story? I guess all can I can say for the moment is:  to be continued …