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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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The Influence of Film on Writing

The impact of art and film on my writing is, in part, due to the fact that I am a visual person, and when I write I imagine every scene as a film shot or a photographic image. Creativity fuels ideas and triggers thoughts which help me to write. See posts on Writing, Art and Outlining and follow the links at the end of this post. Some of my free time (which, as is the case for many of you, is limited)  is spent in galleries or watching films. I love the big screen effect and recently enjoyed The Great Gatsby in 3D, but I also regularly download films from iTunes to watch when I can.  I used to go to as many exhibitions as I could in London and in Vienna I go to both photographic and art exhibitions from time to time.

I wanted to write about the influence of film on writing because I believe it is important to look at mediums other than books, which affect the way we think and develop ideas. I have a Pinterest board with my music and film influences if you are interested but I wanted to touch on two films, in particular, that have had a lasting impact on me, both of which cover themes that now run through much of my work: The Lives of Others and Rabbit-proof Fence.

The Lives of Others:

This film is a beautifully crafted story written by a debut German filmmaker set in 1984 East Germany. Released in March 2006, it garnered a record breaking 11 award nominations, including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. The plot revolves round the monitoring of East Berlin by secret agents during the communist era of the Eastern Bloc. Although fiction, it is a chilling account of the intricacies of spy techniques used at the time and the destruction of trust and relationships. I watched this whilst writing about the effects of communism on the Czech Republic in my debut novel. The film gave me the impetus to keep going and helped me to create the sense of distrust and destruction within every day lives and relationships. It is a film that will stay with me for a long time to come. Its power lies in the detail and the clever plot twist towards the end. It leaves you with a sense of hope that, despite dire human circumstances, there is an inherent good to be found in ordinary people.

Rabbit-proof Fence:

This film is set in 1931 and is based on the true story of an author’s mother in the book, Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence, covering events of  ‘the forgotten generation’ of Aboriginal children in Australia. Released in 2002, the film follows three girls who have been ripped apart from their mother by authorities and taken to the Moor River Native Settlement. They escape and walk for nine weeks along 1,500 miles of the rabbit-proof fence, the longest in the world, to return to their community in Jigalong. A tracker is sent after them and tension runs high as they try to cover their tracks and throw the tracker off scent. The impact of this film lies in the separation of the children from their families and the injustice of their removal. What struck me was the endurance and tenacity of the children, their ability to remain untraced and to keep going as they trek through some of the most barren landscape. Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack adds to the impact and the heart-rending scenes along the way. I have added the long and the short trailers. The longer trailer is much better, but if you are pressed for time at least watch the second shorter one. It really is one not to be missed.

Both of these films, and many more, have influenced my writing in ways that are both seen and unseen. Themes of dislocation, injustice and separation run through the films and through many of my short stories, as well as the novel and my current work in progress. The impact of film on your writing, if you allow it, can be immense, giving you new perspectives on themes, plot, characters and, at a deeper level, on the difficulties in the lives of people in different situations, highlighting what the human spirit can achieve to overcome adversity. That, I believe, is the very essence of a good story. Both of these films are based on true stories or historical situations, but films of all genres can influence your style of writing and your thought processes.

Here are a few links to articles I have written that have been inspired by art, music or film:

Argo: What We Can Learn From Film About Not Overwriting

5 Top Tips for Finding Inspiration

What Do Authors Have in Common with Orchestra Conductors?


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Creating Believable Characters

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“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

― Ray BradburyZen in the Art of Writing

Character description is crucial to a good story that is both readable and convincing. For a reader to get inside your story, the characters have to seem real. They need to have characteristics which are compelling and hook a reader at an early point in the story. As writers, there are so many elements to plotting a novel which need to be considered, that it can at times be head spinning.

You have to focus on scene setting, dialogue, narrative, pace, story arc, point of view, voice and many other aspects. Without good characters, involving skillful characterisation from the author, the story will fail to bring the reader to the last page. So how do you pen characters who are enticing, captivating, abrupt, frustrating, lovable or frightening?

Study real people – Watch people’s behaviour, body language and conversations. Fictional characters need to take elements from real life. Even sci-fi has elements that can be observed from  every day life. Study human behaviour and you will be much closer to creating characters who resonate with the reader.

“By the end, you should be inside your character, actually operating from within somebody else, and knowing him pretty well, as that person knows himself or herself. You’re sort of a predator, an invader of people.” ― William Trevor

Watch films – They can be a good way of observing character traits and provide ideas for your characters. Look for what is not being said, look at the body language and each character when put into different situations and learn from great scriptwriters. Remember that you have to put together in words what a director will create with images and action. The two forms are similar but the difference is that you have a blank canvas with the reader’s imagination. Create atmosphere through your characters.

“As a writer, I demand the right to writer any character in the world that I want to writer. I demand the right to be them, I demand the right to think them and I demand the right to tell the truth as I see they are.” – Quentin Tarantino

Read books (classics, if you enjoy them) – The classics are still being read because they are timeless and because they contain characters who readers can relate to, characters they love and hate. This is the essence of good story telling.

“I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story.” ― G.K. Chesterton

Write character profiles – Imagine that your character needs a curriculum vitae for a job interview. What would you write for each one? Think about their individual skills and experiences. Push it further and consider locations or events which might have affected them and shaped their character.

“The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented.” ― Milan Kundera

Put together a pin board of images – this helps if you are very visual. I use Pinterest for this and I find it also engages readers who are interested in your work. Having a selection of portraits can help to remind you of features and posture, if you wish to use this method. Some people would rather writer freely with no prompts and therein lies the truth that no two writers work the same way.

“Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.” (Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886)” ― Anton Chekhov

Related articles:

Andrew Miller, Booker and Whitbread shortlisted author, wrote a Guardian article on Creating Characters.

Melissa Donovan has written a good blog post on tips for character writing.

Writer’s Digest wrote an article on How to Craft Compelling Characters.