Sunday, 30 December 2007

Journey at a word's notice

Gala_flamenca I relish research. That’s a confession. It’s one of many aspects of writing I love getting lost in. There’s something exciting and adventurous about exploring a word or a phrase or a reference and suddenly finding yourself in new territory: rediscovering ideas, concepts; tracing their origins; charting the passages between one place another; creating connections and making these new places your own---anything that broadens the horizons.

For example, when putting together an early draft of The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore, I used the word ‘flamenco’ to suggest a style of dancing that takes place in one scene. Though only intended as a passing comment, the moment I wrote it I wasn’t sure if it was really appropriate or not, and whether I could leave it in or not, and so, before I could say ‘Burke and Wills’ or ‘Dr Livingstone I presume’, I'd reached for the reference books and was engaged upon a major expedition that I haven’t yet returned from.

My trusty two volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary noted the first recorded use of the word ‘flamenco’ in the English language as 1896 and identified a connection with the Spanish for ‘flamingo’ (which made a kind of sense with the bird’s ‘bright scarlet plumage, long and slender legs and neck’). It also noted that it’s a ‘Spanish gipsy style of singing or dancing’. However, my Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary made the more popular qualification that the word derives from ‘Flemish’ (and a belief that gipsies were Flemish in origin). Regardless of this, I’d begun browsing now and couldn’t help but notice a few convenient definitions for the word ‘flame’, which was sitting comfortably nearby in both books:

  • ‘The condition of visible combustion’;
  • ‘A bright beam or ray of light’;
  • ‘A burning feeling or passion’;
  • ‘The object of one’s love’;
  • ‘To move as or like flame’;
  • ‘To kindle, inflame, excite, animate’.

All this was good stuff and felt relevant to the way the story was heading at that time, but I hadn’t learnt much about the nature of flamenco dance---the rhythm, the gestures, the mood, the music----and so I left the books behind and set sail across Google.

Three days later ... well, I won’t take you through the initial stages of the journey, but from many sites I visited along the way I learnt this form of dance grew from song, and that the songs originally recorded tales of the oppressed and the under-dog, and that the passion and the fire and the mournfulness were all an integral part of flamenco and had been through the centuries, and that the song was often accompanied by guitar. The site http://www.answers.com/topic/flamenco was a particularly useful place to visit and a fine staging post to other sites, such as http://www.flamenco-world.com/magazine/about/que_es_flamenco/indice11112004.htm . The more I discovered, the more I wanted to listen to flamenco music, to click my fingers and shout “Olé” along to the tune of it, to eat paella and tapas, olives and soft cheeses, and to spend time in Andalusia. And some of that I’ve done, and some of that I’m yet to do.

Went to see Gala Flamenca perform in Melbourne a few weeks back, on tour from Spain. They were stunning, colourful, fiery, passionate, mournful, seductive, entertaining, and left me feeling content that I’d taken a closer look at the meaning of the word ‘flamenco’ when I was working on that early draft, even if it was only a word to use in passing. Olé!

This excerpt is taken from a film by Carlos Saura, which I haven't yet seen, and which I only discovered whilst putting this post together (another journey), but I'll be looking to get hold of a copy now. Thought it was a nice example and I hope you enjoy.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Of A Sea Lion

Sea_lion_and_pod I’d fully intended this post would be about the books I’ve read recently, and started getting my thoughts together on this, when these best laid plans went happily astray. Life got in the way.

Jogging along the beach this morning, I came upon a sea lion. At first I thought he was dead, because he was flat out and because we occasionally get dead seals, stingrays and fairy penguins washing up, particularly after a storm, and because he wasn’t moving. So it goes. However, although he mightn’t have been feeling crash hot, he took a deep breath as I looked at him and he blinked an eye to get rid of the flies swarming his face. Beached, injured, dying perhaps, but still alive. A magnificent beast from a different world and a sight to behold.

It’s put everything else out of my head today and reminds me how much I enjoy living close to the sea where such things occasionally happen. More than this, it also reminds me of what I find important in the stories I enjoy reading and writing: where the extraordinary rises to the surface of the ordinary (so that what is extraordinary seems ordinary, and what is ordinary seems extraordinary). At one extreme, it’s why I enjoy the surreal diversions in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, or Murakami’s novels, and, at the other end of the spectrum, why I enjoy Tim Winton’s stories so much.

To my collection of such experiences, I’d love to add something my son witnessed a few months back: a killer whale (very rare in these waters) leaping into view a hundred metres off the lighthouse and then diving again. Or the pod of dolphins my wife watched one afternoon. But I can claim the occasion a New Zealand friend was staying with us and saying how she’d never seen a kangaroo in the wild, when one went hopping down the street a few seconds later (the first time we'd ever seen one so close to the house). However, and just to prove there’s an urban equivalent to these moments, I’ve held onto the memory of something I observed when I was in Melbourne last year: a blind woman---dark glasses, white cane tapping the pavement in front of her---wheeling a bicycle at her side. It stopped me in my tracks, and I waited to see if she’d mount the bike and start pedalling down the street, tapping the cane in front, but she never did.

I’ll never find out the rest of her story, although I wonder about it sometimes, but I was able to follow through on the sea lion. As soon as I reached home, I phoned a wildlife emergency number, and within fifteen minutes they’d returned the call to let me know that a vet had previously been called out to look at him, that they suspected he was suffering from a hernia or a tumour, but that they’d continue to check up on him. Later, I’ll head back to the beach to see whether he’s still there or has found his way back into the sea.

C'est la vie.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Cornerstones of writing

Duchamps_mona_lisa_lhcooq_2 Over at The View From Here, Mike is running a competition. He's in the process of posting a three-part interview with Helen Corner of Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, and is offering a prize for the best answer to the question: What do you think the four cornerstones of good writing are? This got me thinking and playing around with a few ideas, and of course it's always a challenge to know what to include and what to leave out when you're limited to four observations. How to prioritise? Why choose one thing and not another? Anyway, I had a go, and I've enjoyed the process if only because it's forced me to articulate my thinking about something that's an essential part of who I am. So here they are (rip them apart or suggest alternatives in the Comments box below, but put an entry into the competition at The View From Here too):

ENJOY. Write because you’re passionate about writing and because you get an addictive kick out of shaping ideas and images and stories from the written Sophocles word ... and from the silences created by the absence of the written word. Hopefully, such passion will sing and dance and grieve and shout from every word that’s written, which in turn will infect and affect the reader. Furthermore, try and discover all the reasons you want to write, and be wary if fame, fortune or revenge appears in any great measure.
READ widely (and wildly). Read everything, from ancient literature to contemporary literature; read the good, the bad and the ugly; read newspapers Will_shakespeare and graphic novels and poems and plays and telephone directories and bus tickets; read other people and read yourself (and call it observation, if you like); read the weather, read politics, read the critics. And be critical: of what you read and how it’s written, and of what you write or choose not to write, of how people think and communicate and fail to communicate. Read and be critical of language and form and convention, and what works at a given point in time, and what doesn’t work, or no longer works, and why.
SHOW, don’t tell. This may well be an over-stated cornerstone, but it makes it no less true, no less significant. If I were to have anything tattooed on my forehead (in mirror-writing of course) it would be: llet t’nob ,wohS . The most obvious of lessons, but the hardest thing to maintain.
KNOW that there are no new stories, only new ways of interpreting and retelling old ones. I find this a liberating and empowering cornerstone of Duchamps_mona_lisa_with_will_shakeswriting, because instead of struggling to invent a unique sequence of events that will force characters to interact in a unique way, I can focus instead on the telling of the story. I believe it’s important to know that it’s okay to borrow the basic dynamics of an idea from history or folklore or fairytales or whatever, from Shakespeare or Sophocles or whoever, because all storytellers build on borrowed stories. Stories reflect our cultural heritage and, whilst they often seem to end up in similar places (in terms of the resolution of conflict, and the growth of characters, or the view that’s presented of the world we’ve created for ourselves), it’s the adventure and the path we take towards each of these places that should be the most unique, interesting and compelling part of the journey.

PS. In searching for an image of Billy Shakespeare and Smiley Sophocles for this post, it struck me that dear old Will's portrait bore an uncanny resemblance to Marcel Duchamp's 'Mona Lisa with a Beard (L.H.C.O.O.Q.)', which is why she too appears here.