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Grief, Loss and Creativity

Dead Poets Society

Yesterday the world lost an incredibly talented comedian and actor. He was a man who saw me through my childhood, teens, twenties and beyond with an equal measure of thought-provoking moments and good humour. But it was no surprise to hear that the star of Dead Poets Society and Goodwill Hunting had also been battling severe depression.

I felt stunned by the news of the death of Robin Williams because he was part of the fabric of my childhood and teenage years, through what I watched and through what those films taught me about life. It was his remarkable ability to bring characters to life that has entertained millions of us through the years. And I believe that comedy and acting quite possibly provided the escape that he needed, an escape from the darkness of his own mind. Depression is a very hidden issue and it is often misunderstood. Scientists have been fascinated by the possibility of a link between depression and creativity for years. In this interesting article on the link between the two, we learn that Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, wrote the following diary entry: “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

Early studies found that creatives often suffered from depression: Charles Dickens, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Hans Christian Andersen, Leo Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf. Sylvia Plath also sadly took her own life.

Why am I discussing this here? Because I believe that writers have an innate ability to tap into the pain of grief and loss; to take the experiences which they encounter, and to illustrate the difficulties of anxiety and pain. They are able to translate these emotions into the lives of their characters, allowing the reader to tap into their own difficulties and to rise above them.

I often hear people talking about finding solace in books. Some readers say that they find particular books healing. The talent of a creative who is able to paint, act, write or create music lies in their ability to mold their own suffering and angst into a form that is universally understood. Where it might be difficult and overwhelming to face certain situations head on art, books, film and music allow a release of emotions and allow people to reach into the painful aspects of life and engage with issues that can be difficult to discuss.

Writers and artists are often accused of being oversensitive or overly analytical, as though these traits might be weaknesses, but I would argue that this is exactly where their strength lies, and where their empathy and ability to connect with difficult emotions helps them to write a character with flaws, a character who experiences setbacks and difficulties. Interestingly, the body releases natural opiates as a result of the creative process. Harvard Professor, Shelley Carson, says that “creative endeavors are intrinsically rewarding, and you get shots of dopamine in the rewards center of the brain.”

What are your thoughts? Are you a writer with any experience of depression? Do you find find solace in reading or writing?

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Sirens – Flash Fiction Magazine

One of my short fiction pieces, Sirens, has just been published in Flash Fiction Magazine. Here is an extract…

Flashing their upper lashes with the allure of Sirens, they compete for his attention; mythological creatures, femmes fatales. The attention of a man in his thirties with eyes drooping at the edges hardly seems worth the effort.

‘Katie, can you give me the answer?’ he asks, pointing to the blackboard. Chalk dust scatters to the ground with the excitement of a single indoor firework.

I look up, half listening, ‘four thousand two hundred and eighty six, Sir.’

‘And I thought you might be somewhere else. Good.’

Three of the creatures turn and glare, determination fixed on their perfectly manicured faces. I glance at the magazine. He hasn’t noticed it resting on my school girl knees; he is filling their heads with knowledge. Knowledge is power, Dad had said, unoriginally, at the dinner table. No, I wanted to say, knowledge is freedom, but it was not worth the effort. He was already on to the next topic and facing my brother. You become invisible at the ends of his sentences, left to linger like an old piece of scenery pushed to the back of the stage, or tucked away behind the scenes.

You can read the rest of the story in Flash Fiction Magazine. Feel free to leave comments on their site and to share the story.

 

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Interview with Author and 1000words Editor, Natalie Bowers

100words

I met Natalie when my short fiction piece, North Norfolk Coast, was published online in 1000words at the beginning of July. 1000words publishes flash-fiction of up to 1000 words in length, written in response to an image. I have been impressed with the site and the quality of the work for a while. Natalie’s response to my submission was really professional and friendly, and I have enjoyed reading some of her own fiction (more on her work at the end of the post). I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview, so thank you for joining us, Natalie, and for answering some questions that I think authors often ask, or want to ask.

When and how did 1000words begin, and what inspired you to start gathering flash fiction?

1000words began in 2012 as part of the first National Flash-Fiction Day. I’d just finished an online flash-fiction course with Calum Kerr, the brains behind NFFD, who’d said he was looking for people to organise events, online and off. I’ve always had a secret desire to run my own fiction magazine, so this seemed the perfect opportunity to start one. I also love photography, so what better way was there to blend my two main interests and fulfill an ambition than by starting 1000words?

 What is flash fiction, for those who are new to the form, and how is it unique?

There are as many definitions of flash-fiction as there are people writing it, but for me, flash-fiction is simply a very short story. Although at 1000words we accept stories of up to 1000 words in length, I actually prefer reading and writing stories no longer than 500 words. When it comes to flash-fiction I like to be punched in the gut. I like flash-fiction to be short, sharp and to take my breath away.

 The idea of using an image prompt from the Pinterest page is very creative. How do you decide which images to use?

I go with my instincts. If I see an image and find myself immediately making up a story, I pin the image. I’ve pinned quite a few of my own photos on our Pinterest boards too, as I always have a camera on me and am constantly on the lookout for story ideas.

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There is a wonderful range of stories on the site. How do you chose what will be published, and what are you looking for in a piece of fiction?

Again, I go with my instincts. If the opening few lines grab me, I know I’m likely to enjoy the whole piece and will most likely publish it. What I’m really looking for is a consistent narrative voice. It doesn’t have to be a confident voice, but I need to feel as if the narrator is a real person and believes in the story they’re telling. I’m also looking for something special: a surprising simile, a poignant observation, a subverted cliché, an old story told in a new way, or a new story told in an old way. It’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.

Is there anything that will automatically send work to the rejection pile, and are there any submission tips you can share? 

There’s nothing that will automatically send work to the rejection pile. If I decline to publish a story, it’s usually due to a combination of factors such as an inconsistent narrative voice, unnatural sounding dialogue, cliché imagery or plot or over-explaining (not leaving enough to the reader’s imagination). If a story has a lot of grammatical mistakes and doesn’t look as if it’s been proofread properly then I’ll probably turn it down, as it’ll be too much work to prepare it for publication. One of the biggest turn-offs for me, though, are stories with a twist ending where the twist hasn’t been sufficiently foreshadowed or where it’s been so obviously sign-posted that I’ve guessed it before the end. It’s a difficult balancing act, and one I struggle with myself.

Tell us a little about yourself and your own writing?

I’ve always written stories in my head, if not on paper. I remember writing and illustrating a book for my little brother when I was about ten. It was a complete rip-off of the children’s TV series Jamie and His Magic Torch, but I put my heart and soul into it! In my early teens, I graduated to Star Wars fanfiction, but I didn’t write much at all in my late teens and twenties, I was too busy with school, university, work and then babies – I did science A-levels, a degree in Biochemisty, a PGCE in secondary science education, taught for a few years and then gave it all up to raise two lovely children. I’d had depression and anxiety after the birth of my daughter in 2005, and the doctor advised me to find something with which to occupy my brain. Writing seemed like a good idea, so in 2007, after a bit of dabbling, I took The Open University’s Start Writing Fiction Course, and I haven’t really looked back since. I’ve written quite a few short stories, but flash-fiction is where I feel most at home and I’m pleased to say that I’ve had a fair few pieces published here and there. Right now, I’m working on a collection of summer-themed flash-fictions and in September (if I get enough punters) I’ll be teaching my first ever writing course in the adult education department of my local secondary school. Bit scary!

Are there any short fiction authors who are a particular inspiration? 

Loads! I have a ‘Recommended Reading’ page on my website where I list lots of my favourite authors and stories, but if I had to name just a few, they’d be: Calum Kerr, Nik Perring, Kevlin Henney, Shirley Golden, Cathy Lennon, Lorrie Heartshorn, Angela Readman, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Elmore Leonard, Annie Proulx and Kate Atkinson. These are the people whose work I rush to read. (That was more than just a few, wasn’t it?!)

Friends of 1000words are flashandzoom, Paragraph Planet and Stories with Pictures. Can you tell us a bit about each of them?

flashandzoom is a photography and poetry project run photographer Jaime Hill and a writing pal of mine, Zoe Mitchell. The aim of the project is to provide a fresh perspective to photography and poetry, and to create art that reaches people on a number of levels. It’s been a bit quiet of late, but what they’ve produced in the past has been beautiful.

Paragraph Planet publishes a 75-word paragraph (fiction and non-fiction) EVERY SINGLE DAY of the year, which is an amazing feat. You can also read author interviews and there’s a sister site called ‘Writing Workout’ where writers can do all sorts of writing exercises. I’ve had a couple of pieces published on Paragraph Planet and intend to send more soon.

Stories and Pictures is a site that brings writers and artists together in collaboration. It’s chock-full of beautiful stories accompanied by beautiful pictures. Some of the stories have been inspired by pictures, and some of the pictures have been inspired by stories. I’ve had a story and a photo published there too.

  natalie 2 Natalie Bowers, along with Heather Stanley, is the editor and publisher of 1000words online flash fiction magazine. She lives in Hampshire with her husband, two children and a growing collection of ukuleles. Natalie has a degree in Biochemisty, a PGCE in secondary science education, and has taught Science and A-Level Biology. Her short stories have appeared in print and her flash-fiction has been published in various online journals. You can find a list of her publications on her blog, and she is a fellow Ether Books author. You can follow 1000words on Facebook and Twitter.

 


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The Man Booker Prize Longlist 2014 Announced – Were There Any Surprises?

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As I write, the longlist for the Man Booker prize 2014 has just been announced. It is the first year the prize has been opened up to novelists from around the world, as long as the books are written in English. Previous rules limited Publishers to Commonwealth authors only. Previous winner, Eleanor Catton, says,  “I think it’s a really great thing that finally we’ve got a prize that is an English-language prize that doesn’t make a distinction for writers who are writing from a particular country.”

The longlist this year has proven controversial for several reasons. You only have to look at the #ManBooker14 Twitter hashtag to see the questions people are asking. Literature professor, journalist, author, and one of the 2014 Man Booker judges, Sarah Churchwell said, “As inevitable debate and criticism develop, do bear in mind that what we longlist is defined by what publishers submit to us.” It’s a helpful reminder that, although people are quick to criticise the judging panel, they are very much bound by what is submitted.

Publishers this year are navigating unchartered waters, and are finding their feet with the new rules. The longlist comprises 13 books by four Americans, six Britons, two Irish writers and one Australian:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)

The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)

J,  Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)

The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)

The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)

Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)

The Dog, Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)

Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)

How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

 

Howard Jacobson, a previous winner with The Finkler Question in 2010, is not a surprise; neither are the two previously shortlisted authors, Ali Smith and David Mitchell.  But some are asking why Donna Tart’s Goldfinch is missing and why Ian McEwan’s The Children has also missed the list. The Guardian predicted that it might meet the mark because the “novel is about a female judge dealing with a religious young man who wants to opt out of life-saving medical treatment,’ citing that it may appeal to the chair of judges. David Nicholls’ book, Us, has surprised some by making the list. His previous novel, One Day, was turned into a film, but he would not usually be seen as a writer of Literary Fiction. I feel refreshed by the thought that genre is now less of an issue than, possibly, it used to be. Don’t you?

 

A crowd-funded book has appeared on the list for the first time: Paul Kingsnorth’s debut novel, set in 1066, was published by Unbound, which asks readers to give money towards publication in exchange for having their name included in the credits. This is a really interesting new development.

 

We will never know how or why the judges chose the books as they did, but I suspect that they were looking for a good range of stories as well as wonderful writing, and were avoiding anything too overtly political, especially given the current political climate.

 

Previous winners have included Hilary Mantel, Julian Barnes, Howard Jacobson, Ian McEwan and Yann Martel and John Banville. The shortlist will be announced on 9th September with six titles and the winner on 14th October. The judges for this year’s prize are Sarah Churchwell, Daniel Glaser, Jonathan Bate, Alastair Niven and Erica Wagner, with Anthony Grayling as the chair.

 

I very much look forward to the shortlist and to reading some of the longlisted books. Has anyone read any? What did you think?

Here are some interested extracts and related works by the authors:

David Mitchell’s Twitter Story “The Right Sort” Collected.

The Wake has been crowd-funded by Unbound. You can read all about it here.

Bloomsbury have an extract of The History of the Rain by Niall Williams for you to read.


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Very Inspiring Blogger Award

Thank you so much to Rebecca Bradley for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. It feels undeserved but I’m really grateful. The truth is, very much like writing, I would still blog even without readers because I really enjoy it. The process helps me to order my thoughts, and I’m the kind of person who thinks through my writing, in other words the ideas come to me as I write. I find inspiration everywhere and I enjoy the interaction with other bloggers and hearing from readers. For me it is a really interactive community. So, thank you to Rebecca. You can find her Crime Writing Blog here.

 

Inspiring

The award comes with the following instructions :

  • Thank and link to the person who nominated you.
  • List the rules and display the award.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 other amazing blogs and comment on their posts to let them know they have been nominated.
  • Optional: display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated you.

So, here are seven facts about me that you might not know:

  1. I love acoustic guitar and live concerts, and am seeing one of my favourite singers in Vienna LIVE tonight! (A FREE eBook of my novel or two of my short stories goes to anyone who can figure out who I’m going to see.)
  2. I live for a steaming hot coffee in the mornings. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee just makes my heart glad; a coffee shop is even better.
  3. I’ve flown in a helicopter. Yes, a chopper, and I really enjoyed it. I would go again in a flash. The fact that you can just lift off and fly at an angle, the openness and the view from them is awesome!
  4. I can windsurf and water ski. It’s hard to know which is more difficult, but I prefer the speed and the adrenalin rush of waterskiing.
  5. I shook hands with the Queen when she visited our home town. I was at primary school and we lined up outside Colchester Town Hall to see her.
  6. I never imagined being a writer or ever writing a book. I wanted to be a vet (until I discovered that you have to actually operate on animals). I then wanted to join the Police! I think there was a part of me that wanted to help people (or animals!)
  7.  I can play the piano, clarinet and guitar, but I spend more of my time singing.

Now to pass on the award to some inspiring bloggers who you might also want to follow:

Elizabeth Craig

Elaine Aldred

Avril Joy

Jen Harvey

Vicky Newham

Belinda Pollard

Ruth Hunt

Shirley Golden

Tania Hershman

Sarah Hilary 

Paul McVeigh

Susi Holliday

Natalie Bowers

Carys Bray

Vanessa Gebbie

 

 

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