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Wednesday, May 28, 2008


The new mental hospitals?

Here's something interesting: the novelist Hanif Kureishi has remarked that university creative writing courses are 'the new mental hospitals'. 'One of the things you notice is that when you switch on the television and a student has gone mad with a machine gun on a campus in America, it's always a writing student.'

Apart from Cho Seung-Hui, I wonder who he's referring to? Anybody know?

Kureishi actually teaches creative writing himself; his main objection seems to be that writing courses give the expectation that a writing career will inevitably follow. That, of course, may be the case - people generally don't join writing classes unless they're at least hoping for a writing career - but in a way, there's an upside to that. A writing course that explicitly promises fame and fortune is telling porkies, but a writing course that lays too much emphasis on the poor chances of publication is only going to discourage the students, including, possibly, talented ones. Of course, there's an old saying that if you can be discouraged from writing, you should be - but that doesn't free anyone from the responsibility not to be careless with people's feelings. I once had a teacher reply to a comment about being stressed by saying, 'Well, not everybody's cut out for the writing life,' which depressed me but didn't put me off; on the other hand, my writing did take a bit of a dip for a while afterwards. A teacher who's overly discouraging may actually hurt the pupil's progress. Ideally, you want a course where the emphasis is on writing as well as you can, for the sake of writing well rather than for career reasons; publication and writing are two separate things. It's helpful to be realistic about your chances of publication when you're sending the manuscript out, but if you're too grittily realistic while you're writing it, chances are you'll have a much tougher time finishing. There's a time and a place.

What I'm really curious about, though, is the 'mental hospitals' remark. It doesn't tally with my experience, and I've been on quite a lot of writing courses. I met one guy who was bipolar and wrote a lot during his manic phases, but that was about it - and that was in an adult-ed centre, not a university. For that matter, the only reason I knew he was bipolar was that he mentioned it when introducing himself; his condition was under sufficient control that he was perfectly able to act well throughout the course. The sickest person I met during a writing course was a housemate who, in retrospect, I'm fairly sure was suffering from undiagnosed depression; that person was a nightmare to live with, and eventually moved out accusing us of plotting against them, but they were taking an entirely different course that had no creative writing component at all.

I'm genuinely curious about Kureishi's different experience. It doesn't seem impossible; for one thing, artistic types are often at greater risk of things like depression (which, along with selective mutism, seems to have been Cho's problem, though it's worth pointing out that mentally ill people are statistically less violent than average, not more). For another, sick or unhappy people often do want to express themselves through art - and indeed, the concept of art therapy recognises that this can be very beneficial. If that's the case, then an arts course might naturally attract a higher proportion of sick students - and the best thing a university can do is be aware of that, make sure the teachers have a good relationship with an on-campus psychiatrist and tell them to keep an eye out for kids who need help. Some problems might get picked up and treated that way, which could only be to the good, given that most mental illnesses work by convincing the sufferer that the way they're feeling is entirely rational, and hence identifying the disease can be difficult.

I saw a documentary about Cho Seung-Hui a while ago, and writing does seem to have been part of it. He began with a degree in business information technology (what's the proportion of illness among engineers, I wonder?), but switched to English, where, almost unable to speak, he poured out his anger in some incoherent plays. After the documentary, I read one of them online, 'Richard McBeef', and while it's notably bad, even by slush-pile standards (and I've read more than one slush pile in my day), what stands out most is that, presumably because of his crippling social anxiety, the boy had no idea how people actually talk. It's an isolated piece of writing, the work of a boy overwhelmed by emotions he couldn't understand. His writing was definitely not saleable, and according to the documentary, a piece he sent to a publisher was rejected a little while before the massacre. Cho's graduation date was approaching, it looked like he wasn't going to make it as a professional writer and his selective mutism made for poor prospects in most other careers; it seems not unlikely that his murder spree was at least in part the extravagant suicide of a boy who couldn't think what else to do with his life.

None of which is any excuse, of course, but it is an example of a sick young man choosing a writing course because it gave him the chance to express emotions that he was unable to express directly. It seems as if the professors did try to help him, but in the end the sickness won - with help, of course, from laws that allow people whose mental health is in question to buy guns, a state of affairs that seems utterly unbelievable to anyone not raised on that right-to-bear-arms rubbish. The writing course caught his eye, but it didn't solve his problems, and thirty-two people were murdered.

So what can writing teachers be expected to do about this? Writing is by no means unique in attracting sick students; there are students on every kind of course, students are people, and people suffer from mental illnesses. (In fact, the statistics on depression alone suggest that 1 in 4 people will suffer from it at some point in their lives, and I've heard even higher estimates; depression is commoner than pneumonia, and is one of the most woefully under-taught issues in modern life; most people can't even recognise the symptoms properly.) In that sense, a writing teacher's responsibility towards sick students is no different from any other teacher's; people may debate how much a university should intervene, but I'd suggest that their responsibility is fairly high, even if students aren't a danger to others: many mental diseases can go undiagnosed for years, they tend to be exacerbated by stress and universities are stressful environments, and a teacher in loco parentis could save a kid a lot of pain if they send them to a doctor at the right moment.

Writing teachers face a particular difficulty, though: the illness may well show up in the work they're supposed to be assessing. Assuming a student isn't too sick to work at all, which should be obvious whatever course they're on, different kinds of brainwork can hide brain dysfunction to varying degrees. A sick mathematics student can probably do his calculations correctly even if he's contemplating suicide. A sick history student may turn in essays with a dark view of human nature showing through the analysis, but at least she has some facts to work on. A sick writing student, though, turns in work that's entirely patterned on the content of his or her own mind. Disordered thinking and damaged affect can't but be evident. In that situation, a teacher faces a number of problems. First, a decision: is this student unwell, or are they just unskilled? (Poor writing can make even sane people seem irrational, and there's a strong taboo against calling people crazy.) Second: assuming the student is sick and I can see it in his or her behaviour as well as the writing, how on earth am I supposed to grade this? Because here's the thing. Grab a maths student who seems to be sinking, and you can say, 'Your work's fine, Jimmy, but you look like you're dreadfully unhappy all the time. Have you thought of seeing a doctor?' But tell Jenny the writing student that she seems terribly unhappy and her writing shows signs of disordered thinking, and what she's most likely to hear is, 'The teacher doesn't like my work. I'm no good.' And that can lead to more despair and less help-seeking - because, after all, Jenny wanted an opinion on her writing, not her mental health, and that's what she was listening for.

If mental health really is a problem in writing courses, what teachers need are clear guidelines. Universities can be expected to have a policy on mental illness among the students, and those should be applied to creative writing courses just like every other course. Education about mental illness in general today is thoroughly inadequate; it's my view that the basics should be taught in school, at about the same age that kids get sex education - after all, the odds of a kid at least meeting somebody mentally ill during their lives are at pretty much the same level of them having sex, and ignorance can lead to non-diagnosis and tremendous, unnecessary suffering. If writing teachers are in a position to spot signs of sickness in their students, what they most need is a clear method of dealing with it. Teachers aren't psychiatrists, and can't deal single-handedly with a mentally ill student, but they're undoubtedly capable of dropping by the relevant office and saying, 'I'm concerned about so-and-so.'

And come to that, there are plenty of published writers, most famously J.K. Rowling, who have suffered from depression, and that hasn't stopped them from having writing careers. Mental illness doesn't preclude good writing; it's more a pastoral issue than a teaching one, in the end. And in that way, writing classes are no different from any other university course.

But are writing courses really full of sick students? Or was Kureishi speaking hyperbolically and just thinking about Cho Seung-Hui? I'd like to know - though, if he's observing teacherly confidentiality, I suspect I may not find out.

Monday, May 26, 2008


The Mikalogues continue

Mika: Kiiit! Mika needs you!

Kit: Whatever's the matter, darling?

Mika: World not right! Fix it!

Kit: Oh, poor Mika, you're all wet. Did you go out in the rain, honey?

Mika: Yeeess! Outside is throwin water at Mika! Make it stop!

Kit: I'm sorry, sweetie. But I can't do anything about the rain.

Mika: Can too. Can fix bein light or dark, can fix bein wet!

Kit: Well, I can switch lights on and off in the house, honey. But I'm afraid the weather is outside my control.

Mika: But Mika is weeet! World is pickin on Mika! Sad, sad and weeeet!

Kit: Poor little girl. Come and get a cuddle.

Mika: Ew, is strokin wet fur and rubbin wet onto skin. Makin it worse. Pleese turn off water. Can do it in shower!

Kit: I know, darling, but that's indoors. I can't control outdoors.

Mika: Pleese? Mika will be very good.

Kit: Honey, I really, really can't. Honestly.

Mika: Must to lick self dry. Is a sad world for little Mika.

Friday, May 23, 2008


The Man of Vengeful Peace

An interesting discussion is going on at Slacktivist, talking about the way the Macho Sue myth is used to argue that any kind of political negotiation is tantamount to treasonable appeasement. It's intriguing, and I'd urge you to go and check it out.

It's also got me thinking of something else, to do with fiction rather than politics: the problem of male role models in today's movies.

Men watch the action film, right? Images of masculinity are all over the cinema and always have been - but there's something that stands out. Who, among these male leads, would you actually want to be? Not just for the duration of the adventure, but for your life, for your self, who would you choose to be?

My boyfriend and I were spending last weekend with some married friends, and the two men - both of them decent, unaggressive, masculine people - got into a discussion about how men seem to be presented in current films. There's the ultra-macho action man, typified by 300, a film I never stop hating on - but 300 itself is problematic: the ethos of it is so exaggeratedly macho that it ends up looking thoroughly camp. Slightly less extreme films may look less camp, but they still suffer from a basic problem: very few people in any way resemble Jean-Claude van Damme, any more than they resemble The Incredible Hulk in a green mood. The manhood of such extreme action heroes is so exaggerated that it becomes almost abstract, symbolic, a world of cartoonish absolutism that has no connection to real life. Such films are hardly the place to look for role models.

The other fella, who reads more science fiction than me, commented that there's been a rise of 'strong female characters' in that genre since the 1990s, which can't be bad, but in terms of male role models, it's not uncommon for the men in such set-ups to be goofy sidekicks, again, hardly a great model.

Where are the men, we asked? And then our friend pointed out something interesting: that in the more intelligent action films of late - the Bourne movies, Casino Royale - you have men who are undoubtedly strong, but who are also in some way damaged. A man can be masculine, competent, and capable of winning a fight, but only if the film-makers added in some emotional problems.

And thinking about that, I had a realisation: of course there's a problem. The terms of the discussion are all wrong. Because here's the thing: if you're capable of sustained and repeated violence, you do have something wrong with you. But that's what films present manhood as being.

I'm not talking about boxers or martial artists, to be clear; I'm talking about people who can use lethal force. Most people can't. It's not because they're weak, it's because normal people have a strong aversion to killing members of their own species. Studies have found that, without strong conditioning, soldiers have a time-honoured, secret custom of firing into the air, each probably convinced that his comrades are firing at the enemy, but each, whatever his intentions, finding himself simply unable to pull the trigger and send a bullet into a living man. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in his valuable book On Killing remarks that there are four reactions under stress: fight, flight, posture and submit - and that the vast majority of people prefer to posture than to fight. You fire your gun and make a lot of noise, or you wave your spear and yell, or you deliver non-injurious shoves to the shoulders saying, 'Yeah? Yeah? Come on then, come on!' ... and basically you crack antlers, establish dominance, and the issue is settled without anybody getting badly hurt. Grossman remarks:

That the average man will not kill even at the risk of all he holds dear has been largely ignored by those who attempt to understand the psychological and social pressures of the battlefield. Looking another human being in the eye, making an independent decision to kill him, and watching as he dies due to your action combine to form the single most basic, important, primal, and potentially traumatic occurrence of war.

After all, he points out, battlefield surgeons are often in just as much danger as the soldiers, yet soldiers suffer much greater psychological injury from the stress of battle. The only difference is this: the surgeons are not expected to kill. They may be expected to die, but the risk of death seems to be easier to heal from than the risk of becoming a killer. The sudden, compelling resistance in your trigger finger is an almost universal trait, and you break it at your peril.

There are exceptions. But they're not happy exceptions. Some people can kill without trauma: these are sociopaths. There's something profoundly wrong with their empathy, their ability to feel emotions, their capacity for consideration or remorse. And there are others, too, who are able to kill, to fight rather than posture, under pressure. People fond of that lousy dogs-wolf-sheep analogy regard them as the dogs protecting sheep from wolves (in a battlefield, if you think about it, the odds are that you have dogs fighting dogs while the political wolves slink around the edges, ready to pick over the carcasses); others refer to them as 'warriors'. An oft-cited example is the much-decorated veteran Audie Murphy, who famously answered the question of how he found the courage to fight an entire company of German infantry by the simple statement: 'They were killing my friends'.

But, though Murphy went on to a career as a movie star and public hero, he was not a happy man. In Stiffed, Susan Faludi describes his perpetual inability to settle to peace, searching the streets for thugs he could beat up, sleeping with a gun under his pillow, plagued with insomnia and nightmares, and struggling with feelings a hero wasn't supposed to express:

He wrote that he had 'shed the idea that human life is sacred.' Finding himself in the ruins of the Riviera on the day of Germany's surrender, Murphy recalled his mood among the revelers. 'In the streets, crowded with merrymakers, I feel only a vague irritation,' he wrote. 'There is VE-Day without, but no peace within. Like a horror film run backwards, images of the war flicker through my brain ... It is as though a fire had roared through this human house, leaving only the charred hulk of something that once was green. Within a couple of hours, I have had enough. I return to my room. But I cannot sleep. My mind still whirls. When I was a child, I was told that men were branded by war. Has the brand been put on me? Have the years of blood and ruin stripped me of all decency? Of all belief?'

Murphy himself said that the 'nasty business' of war was 'not the sort of job that a man should get a medal for. I'll tell you what bothers me. What if my sons try to live up to my image? What if people expect it of them?'

Audie Murphy was brave, self-aware and intelligent - but there was something wrong with him, and he knew it: he was capable of violence. This is the problem with male action heroes we face today. What in reality is a flaw, a crack in the ice that may only harm others in the case of a psychopath, but will harm the hero as well if he has any virtues, is being presented as the essential quality of manhood.

But where are the alternatives? A favourite hero of my boyfriend's, and mine as well, is Juror Number Eight, the man in the white suit, played by Peter Fonda in 12 Angry Men. This man - Davis by name, as we learn at the end - is unquestionably masculine. The references to his personal life are scant but successful: he's an architect, a profession both artistic and technical, with three children - not merely two, like many couples, but a slightly above-average fertility. Davis is fairly ordinary, even down to his name, but at the same time, he's heroic. 'This man has been standing alone', a sympathetic fellow-juror remarks, naming the quality of heroes everywhere. But Davis's virtues are about moral and intellectual strength, not physical. He keeps control of his temper, he forges relationships with others in the room, he holds to his principles, he strives for fairness, he works out the logic of the case and encourages others to do likewise, and what he ends up saving, in microcosm, is the whole ideal of justice. Notably, we never find out if the boy he saves from the chair actually did commit the murder, and that isn't the point. It's not about being right, it's about trying to fulfil your civic duty. As another juror says, 'You can't send a man off to die on evidence like that!', and that's the point: you may or may not be right, but as long as you're not sure, you hold to the principle of innocent until proven guilty, and thus civilisation stands.

Davis, in fact, is entirely free of violence - the jurors who get angry and show violent feelings are presented as wrong, not just disagreeable but neglectful of their civic duty because they can't control a personal mean streak. It's only by avoiding conflict that the issues gets solved. Davis is a maintainer, not a frontiersman, and offers the kind of heroism that a reasonable person may aspire to.

Realistically, most people don't get into fights very often. There are all sorts of masculine virtues that don't involve violence - most of them virtues women can have as well, but nobody rational considers that men and women are such opposites that no quality can be possessed by both sexes. Decency, patience, self-control, stability, competence, integrity, creativity, stamina, honesty ... these are all qualities that daily life calls for far more often than the ability to win a punch-up or fire a weapon. And they're all qualities far more likely to lead to the kind of lives that most men actually want.

But we can't quite get past that violence. Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson remark in Raising Cain: 'Popular movies aimed at boys seem to prize only one kind of courage: standing up to a physically larger opponent.' This is why He was a man of peace ... until they came for his family! is such a compelling storyline. Most men are not naturally violent, and don't really want to fight anyone. What they are good at is loving their families, because men are people and people do love their families, and a man who's a good husband and father makes a tremendous contribution to the happiness of the world. But at the same time, men are supposed to be fighters. So a gentle man may end up saying to himself, 'What would I actually be prepared to fight for? Well, I guess if someone threatened my wife and kids...' The Man of Vengeful Peace is someone whose life resembles the majority of his audience's at the beginning of the story, but who is given a set of circumstances that, however improbable, push him into acting like the template action hero that the men of the audience do not, cannot, need not resemble.

But where are the men who make things? Where are the men who teach, or guide, or innovate, or improve? Not in the action movies, that's for sure - and that's the only genre particularly aimed at men. Romance is the genre aimed at women, and many women enjoy a good love story just as much as many men enjoy a good high-octane thriller - but women tired long ago of being offered no other heroic role than that of the swooning, rescued bride. The romance heroine by herself is not a malign figure if she's done well, any more than the physically brave hero is inherently wrong if he's done well, but it insults and stifles an entire sex to be presented with only one model of heroism. All of us deserve better.

And the world needs better. We find killing difficult, On Killing explains, but there are degrees of difficulty. Killing a man with your bare hands is harder than killing a man a knife's distance away from you, is harder than killing a man at bayonet range, is harder than killing a man the distance of a bullet away, is harder than pressing a button and dropping bombs onto an undistinguished blur of houses below. If we measure manhood in willingness to kill, but most men are not killers, what are we going to do? There are two choices. Either we must redefine our notions of manhood, recognising the virtue of the man who quails to kill his brother, or we must find ways of preserving the fantasy. To preserve the fantasy, we need killings, to prove that we have men who performed them. And how to do that? Training that overrides the soldier's natural hesitation is now a common part of the army, but you cannot train out the trauma that follows. The rate of suicide in army veterans currently stands at the highest figure in nearly three decades of record-keeping, and a third of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans - over thirty thousand souls - are suffering from some kind of mental illness. The lists of the psychologically wounded are rising, men and women who did things they were never born to do. And what's the other solution? Engineer situations in which killing is as easy as possible. A bomb dropped from a plane may cause less hesitation in the pilot, but it kills a lot of people below.

It's time to separate manhood from violence. It insults men, and endangers us all.

Friday, May 16, 2008


Gay marriage has been ruled legal in California!

Hooray for California!

In commenting on the blog Slacktivist, I found myself typing something so important to me that I'm reproducing it here:

Denying marriage to same-sex couples oppresses everybody, not just gay people. And as marriage is one of the most fundamental and pervasive institutions in our society, it is a dire and dreadful thing to have oppression so woven into it. If gay people can't marry, that curtails everyone's freedom.

Legally, I'm one of the lucky ones: I'm heterosexual and always have been. I don't want to marry a woman. So why do I feel liberated by same-sex marriage?

I feel liberated because if I can choose to marry a woman, it recognises the free choice I make in marrying a man. And I feel liberated because I hate being co-opted, by reason of my sexuality, into an institution that is being used to enforce second-class citizenship. I don't want to have to choose between never marrying and joining the let's-exclude-the-queers club, but as long as marriage is straight-people-only, those are my choices. And I don't like that.

I don't like my freedom to marry being dependent on my sexual preferences rather than my fundamental rights as an adult, a citizen and a human being. Such fragile rights oppress me as well as others. Either I have a right because I'm a citizen, or I have a right because the government temporarily approves of my lifestyle; such approval can be taken away. The denial of marriage to gay citizens is the inheritor of the woman's-role-man's-role theory, and I know I'm not going to come out of that deal well. People should be allowed to marry because they're people; nothing else protects us from repression and control by those who do not have our freedom at heart.

I don't like rights available to me being used as a stick to beat innocent people.

I don't like feeling that if I decide to marry, I'll be held up as an example to people in no way inferior to me.

I don't like a personal commitment to be twisted into an unavoidable act of pulling rank on my equals.

Keeping marriage illegal for gay people is using it as a means of excluding them from the mainstream of society, and I don't at all like feeling that marrying the man I love would be, through no wish of my own, accepting a place in a system that oppresses my dear fellow-citizens.

Because if you can only marry because you're heterosexual, how free are any of us?

I don't like any of it, and I'm delighted that the law seems to be moving in the right direction. If you're living in California and intend to take advantage of this new ruling to marry your beloved, many congratulations, and let's hope it carries on this way.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


The cat flap is confusing some of us

Mika: Me out! Me out!

Kit: What is it, Mika dear?

Mika: Me out! Go scout! Garden is Mika's and the hour of the prowl is noww!

Kit: You want to go out in the garden?

Mika: Yesss. Should listen more. Mika out!

Kit: But the catflap isn't locked, baby.

Mika: Open sesamika!

Kit: Mika honey, you're puzzling me. You know, we decided you were big enough to push on the door instead of us taping it open every day...

Mika: Mika big! Tape open door!

Kit: No, sweetie, Mika's big so we don't tape open door.

Mika: Makes no sense. Portcullis up! Noww!

Kit: No, honey, we can't have it open all the time. And we showed you how to push it open, you remember? We pushed and it opened?

Mika: Pushed with hands. Hands is for waiting on Mika. Paws is for catchin mice with sticky clawws. Mika the mighty!

Kit: But then Daddy showed you with his head, you remember?

Mika: Yess! Was revelation! Mika the brilliant! Daddy pushed flap with his head, so Mika perceived, in moment of genius! Mika could push flap with her head, and it opened. Mika takes a bowww.

Kit: But what I don't understand is this, sweetie. You've worked out that you can open the door by pushing on it when you want to get in. But when you want to get out, you can't seem to understand the principle. You come and mew at me instead.

Mika: Mew? True. Have to tell you what to doo.

Kit: But if you just pushed it with your head, like for outside, it would open.

Mika: You posts Mika.

Kit: I know. We keep posting you through the flap. We were hoping you'd get the idea that way.

Mika: You posts Mika. Scowwwl. Mika frowwns upon you. Me out!

Kit: You have a very specific and concrete kind of intelligence, don't you sweetie?

Mika: Yess! Mika's brain massive and weighty! Withowt a dowwt! Now let Mika owwwt!

Kit: Okay, hon. But that does mean it's posting-time, I'm afraid.

Mika: Mika not appreciated in her own ti - mmf...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Writing and danger

As perhaps some of you know, I hang around a website called Slacktivist, posting under the name of Praline (for no particular reason, I just like the sound of the word - though somebody there suggested that praline is sweet, crisp and mixes well with ice cream, and as I'd like to be all those things, I'm going to pretend that was the reason), pontificating on life, politics, art and such. (Also making critical remarks about the writers LaHaye and Jenkins of Left Behind fame, which is one of the site's long-running attractions; ordinarily I don't slag off other writers in detail, because I feel it's unprofessional, but as LaHaye and Jenkins are more tract-writers than novelists, I consider them a separate category.) And a charming commenter called Nenya made the following remark, which has got me thinking:

Speaking of your book, Praline, I'm a chapter or two into it, and the weird thing so far is that my brain doesn't connect it to the Praline who posts here. Maybe later in the book it will start to sound like you? Or maybe I'm just not used to thinking of you in connection with someone in so much emotional and physical danger as the story's main characters.

That's a very interesting thought. I suspect a lot of it comes down to different personae.

Posting on the Internet, I have a particular persona - the usually-delightful person you read before you, in fact. In real life, I'm somewhat different. And in writing, I'm different again. Probably most people are the same; I know some people who are shy in real life and downright suave in e-mails, and others who are dreadful correspondents and voluble in company. The thing about my writing voice is, it's a lot sadder than the rest of me.

Why should this be? I can think of several answers.

The first is simply imaginative-practical: sad situations get my mind working. Different people have talents for different moods, and to me, there's so much potential in difficult situations with conflicted emotions that I go back there, again and again.

Another reason is probably to do with personae in a broader sense. You show the different sides of yourself in situations where it's safe to do so. Most crudely, if you drag around like a wet week in real life, nobody wants to be friends with you - but more precisely, there are emotions you can work out in different ways. I feel like a shy person inside, for instance, but I generally don't act like one; it gets in the way of things I want, such as having friends and getting on with people. There are other emotions that I feel which I don't necessarily put out into the world, because the thing is, other people have feelings too, and you have to accommodate them if you want to get along. And I do; I want to be liked, I want those around me to be happy, I want life to be pleasant and agreeable. For that to work, you have to make space for other people. Your own feelings can't rule the world. But in fiction, they can. In fiction, nobody has feelings but me, because everybody who has feelings is created by me. I can vent dangerous feelings safely.

And that's kind of the key to writing, for me at least. I wouldn't say I was one of those writers who exactly enjoys writing. To me, it feels like a race across a tightrope over Niagara Falls: the scenery is beautiful, but you wouldn't do it for relaxation. When I go without writing for a few days, I miss it, but not the way I'd miss a friend or a hobby. What I miss, what writing gives me, is a sense of danger. Life is too safe when I'm not writing; it's a risk, an intellectual extreme sport.

Hence, writing-me and everything-else me are different; writing-me is halfway up a mountain and the rest of me is making tea in the base camp...

Friday, May 09, 2008


Torture and lies

We live in an era where the powerful of the world are going to considerable lengths to convince us that the torture of prisoners is a) completely necessary, because they wouldn't reveal their secrets without being made to suffer, and b) not likely to cause them suffering anyway. There's a lot that can be said about that contradiction, and about the general horror of having people in charge who think torture is okay, but I'd like to produce something from history instead.

Friedrich von Spee was a Jesuit priest who, in 1631, had published a book entitled Cautio Criminalis, or 'precautions for prosecutors', one of the first great arguments against the use of judicial torture. The story is that Spee was a confessor to people tortured into confessing to witchcraft and heard a lot of accounts from people who were shortly to be executed; the grief of this job turned his hair prematurely white (which may or may not be literally true, but he certainly grieved for the tortured) and he went on to write a magnificently humane and sensible attack on the fallacy that torture is any way to get the truth out of anybody. His points are numerous, but one particular case I'd like to draw attention to is this: torturers and prosecutors back then, just like today, had a habit of declaring that torture didn't really hurt the victims anyway. They came up with different excuses, but the denials were the same. Nobody, it seems, really wants to believing they're hurting someone, even when they're standing over them with a stick in their hand.

So, copy-typed below, are some of his arguments against these ridiculous assertions. It was the habit of prosecutors in the day to insist that the Devil prevented victims from feeling pain during the torture, but theology doesn't have to be a part of it. The main point is this: for centuries, torturers have been denying that they hurt their victims. Reading this stuff from the seventeenth century, you can hear how ridiculous it sounds. How will today's torturers sound to future generations?

Spee says...

You will say, but if Titia feels nothing during the torture, if she laughs, if she goes silent, if she falls asleep, if she does not bleed when beaten, are these not sure signs of sorcery and thus new evidence?

I answer that they certainly are not. In order to prove this we should begin a new Question.

Question XXVI. What are usually alleged by the malicious and ignorant to be signs of the sorcery of silence?

Sign I. They say that some feel nothing under torture but merely laugh. I have heard this of course, but I say that it is completely false until they prove it, that is, until sworn witnesses affirm it. I cannot adequately grasp this itch to lie, for they are almost all lying. I say almost all, so that he may know that he is the exception who can swear that he has studiously observed it to be certain and say that it is true - such a witness I have not yet seen. So if any suspect is able to steadfastly endure the pain in mind and body, with his teeth clenched, lips drawn, and breath and voice sucked in, as usually happens in any great effort to resist pain, those savage men shout, with the torturer skilfully leading the way, that he does not feel anything, but is laughing and mocking them with an upturned, grinning mouth. That is the real meaning of the phrase. But woe! What sort of cruelty is this? And they immediately spread this around among the common people quite freely, and finally they bring it before their completely gullible rulers themselves. I know what I am saying and can testify to it, and if the rulers heard me then they would firmly punish such false liars. But they themselves ought to fear that God will punish them someday for not being aware of these and other similar things.

Sign II.
They say some go silent and fall asleep. But that statement is equally trustworthy. Indeed, they can go silent, but I cannot believe that they can fall asleep, unless sworn witnesses testify to it. Once again my opponents lie. I have endeavored to understand their phrases; why have not the prince's counsellors, whose business this is? Particularly since through ignorance of these kinds of things, zeal breeds in everybody's mind which in blind fury carries off the innocent rather than the guilty. Thus I am not at all afraid to say what I have said before, namely that I am very worried that those princes who today are led to move against witches without any caution place their salvation in the most immediate danger. What does it help them if they free the entire world of weeds, as they think they are doing, but at the same time endanger their own souls? But back to the subject at hand.

First of all, I know that many have lost consciousness under torture. Wicked men immediately call this sleeping.

Next, I also know that others, having resolved to hold their tongues completely, struggled for a long time with their eyes squeezed shut with all their strength mustered against the pain. Then finally beaten by their suffering, their heads hung, and with their eyes still closed they gave themselves up as defeated and rested, their energy having been exhausted. But is this sleeping?

Moreover, some doctors and philosophers grant that it can naturally occur that under extreme pain, especially on the rack, a person can be paralyzed so that he appears to be overcome by sleep or even dead. The poets wanted to depict this in the myth of Niobe when they recount that she froze into stone in pain. Our judges want to call this sleeping and feeling nothing? I will add what I recently heard. When he was present at the torture of a suspect, who was hanging with his eyes closed and did not want to or was not able to answer the questions put to him any longer, a certain chaplain suggested a plan to the inquisitors to convince them that the prisoner had fallen asleep and therefore was being helped by the devil. They should finish the business they were conducting, namely interrogating him and encouraging him to confess, and immediately begin to discuss something else among themselves, something funny, dealing with a completely different matter. Once they had done this the hanging suspect noticed that the storm of questions had suddenly stopped and they were discussing something completely different, he gradually opened his eyes in order to see what this change meant and whether he should hope for a release from his suffering. Immediately the priest, as if he had accomplished his goal, said, Look, now we are speaking about other things, he wakes up. When it was a matter of saying he was guilty, he slept. Can we doubt that this is sorcery? This villain could not have endured the pain unless the devil numbed his senses. Therefore we should order some exorcisms and roll the dice again later. Truly a wonderful deed and one worthy of a priest! If it could be done without injury to his estate, that priest should be led off to prison immediately and be exorcized twice with a rod by the torturer, since he is possessed by a double spirit: Ignorance and Cruelty.


Sign III. They say that some, when they are hanging on the rack, do not bleed after they have been cut with the rod. Several people recently spoke this way. But this is not true either. Once again I will deny it until sworn witnesses testify to it or I see it myself. And when I press them, finally I squeeze out of them that they are actually saying that not much blood flowed. Not much, then, is none for them. I think they were hoping for showers of blood!

Thursday, May 08, 2008


Mid-book blues

An interesting experience, that I'm starting to realise I've had with every book I've yet written. Who knows if it'll continue? But I've been reflecting on it, and something occurs to me.

The way it works is this. Beginning a book is exciting. Finally, you have an idea that looks like it'll work, it could be great, you're ready to go! So you begin the book, and start setting out the stall. This is particularly satisfying: little enough has been written yet that it's easy to keep it all in your head; you can block things out, tour round the situations you need to set up, set out a bold diagram from which you can build a story. Everything you write creates something new, and you can create by fiat, because everything you say establishes rather than violates the parameters of the story. It's hard to contradict yourself when you're only two chapters in: everything is establishing, rather than harmonising. The main sensation, I find, is this: quick, get it all down, write, write, write!

Finishing a book is scary: after all that effort, the finish line is distantly in sight. But how far? You don't know. What ends do you have to tie off? How can you make it come good, make it satisfying enough to do justice to all the work you've put in? That's intimidating - but it's also rewarding. You can have climaxes, surprise yourself with ways to knot plot strands together, explode story arcs like fireworks. The payoffs come thick and fast. As you close down one subplot after another, you begin to experience the same thing you had at the beginning: you're down to limited enough tasks that you can keep them all easily in your memory; your goals are clear and straightforward; you're exercising writer's authority and declaring that things will go this way, and not that. That moment is in sight where you'll sit dazedly in your chair, a little breathless, saying, 'I just wrote a book. I just wrote a bloody book!' And then you can get up and dance.

The middle, on the other hand ... oh, the middle. That has many advantages of its own, in fact: the story's sufficiently underway that it looks like a proper book; you've established enough story to keep things moving, but you're not so close to the end that it's time to start worrying about what you're going to do next. But there are some difficulties in the middle as well. I've been wondering why, and I think I've finally identified it.

What the beginning and end have in common, and what the middle lacks, is a sense of being finite. There are only so many chapters you've already written, or there are only so many strands you need to tie off before you can stop. Which is to say, you can keep it all in your head. There's no need to read over your timeline or check your notes: you can just sit down and write, and that'll be enough.

In the middle, though, you're dealing with a tremendous amount of verbiage. My current project, for instance - which is far from finished - has topped eighty thousand words this week; that's already the length of a short novel, and involves too many scenes to have every last detail memorised. Every now and again, I think to myself something along the lines of, 'So, that scene I was thinking of with so-and-so - have I written it yet, or did I just plan to?' Some things are in my head because I wrote them, some because I just thought of them and possibly made a note about them somewhere, and it's hard to be certain which. The only way to be sure is to go back and check.

And that's a problem. Because, you see, that involves the organising part of your brain. Writing doesn't come from that place. The subconscious does have a sense of structure, probably a sounder one than the conscious mind, but it doesn't have a senes of fact-checking. The subconscious is about expanse, innovation, possibility; fact-checking is a yes-or-no mission, the worst possible state of mind for writing.

So back you go, looking to see what's what. And this is what happens to me: I read over the scenes, trying to find a vital fact ... and I start being an editor. The editor looks at the fiction, and goes: 'Wow. How on earth did I write that?'

The answer is: you didn't. Because it wasn't the editorial side of my brain that wrote it. It was a different me; my subconscious, my talent, my inner artist, or whatever else you want to call it. It's not the side of me that usually shows; people are often surprised at the difference between my fiction and my normal behaviour. The writing self is only present in the writing. Reading the writing in the wrong frame of mind, I start to wonder where it came from - which is a sure sign that, whatever bit of my brain it came from, it's not the bit I'm using right now.

... And that's the killer. Because what it creates is a sense of inability. I don't know how I did it, so I don't know how I'm going to do more of it. As long as I'm trying to get a grip on the structure with my conscious mind, I probably can't.

The thing to do, actually, is relax. My most productive day this week was the day I decided that I wasn't in as big a hurry as all that, and took a detour through the local park so I could walk through the wet grass in my sandals and admire the daisies. I came in, sat down to write my usual three pages of free-association warm-up, and found, to my amazement, that ideas for the next few scenes were unfolding all over the place - and unfolding easily; there was no sense of struggle, I just kept thinking of new stuff, because I'd cheered up a bit and moved into a more playful frame of mind. The writing bit was starting to surface.

But the block demon, the bit that doesn't want you to write, is very good at telling you that if you don't get control of the structure, if you don't read it all carefully and align all your facts, then you'll never finish.

That's not true, of course. You can finish fine without having all the exact details, and then clean them up later; that's what editing is for. The worst block I had while writing Bareback, I actually solved because of a change of plans separated me from the rest of my draft: I went to visit some friends, ended up staying longer than expected, and found myself working during the day without my computer or notes. There was nothing to do but plunge in at roughly the right place, saying, 'I'll link the two bits together when I get home', and move forward, and as a result, I managed to fix a problem that had been bugging me for weeks. Tangling details beyond recognition creates problems you have to solve, but being too anal about them is worse, because it means you get stuck, and then you don't even have anything to improve.

I've gotta say, being on the third book rather than the second helps a lot with this; when you've done it twice, it's much easier to say, 'Ah, I'm just having mid-book blues, I'm sure I'll solve them eventually' than when you've only done it once. But if anyone else is having mid-book blues right now, take my word for it: things usually work out in the end, and they tend to work out sooner if you stop fretting about them. Go pick some daisies while they're in season.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Dancing and romancing

One reason I love old Hollywood musicals so much is that the dance numbers. Well, really it's the reason, but there's something particular about those dances that you don't see in modern movies so much, even in many modern movie musicals: the restraints of the era, which prevented any serious intimacies between the characters barring the odd stylised clinch, means that the dances take the place of sex scenes. While being completely decorous, they're also completely physical - and in the interactions of the dancers, a wonderful and various chemistry takes place, that expresses a great deal about the burgeoning romances.

Take three particularly fine examples: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in Singin in the Rain, and Judy Garland and Kelly again in Summer Stock.

The chemistry between the actors is completely different. The relaxed, tender naturalness of Kelly and Reynolds is entirely unlike the sparky, spiky playfulness of Astaire and Rogers; Astaire flirts with Rogers, teasing and tapping at her, while Rogers sneaks up to him just as he's sneaking up to her, matching his steps in a sly refusal to be outdone; conversely, the deceptive simplicity of Reynolds' and Kelly's steps, almost like a traditional ballroom waltz in places, is graced by perfect synchrony and a locked, romantic gaze. When Kelly draws Garland out in dance, on the other hand, a different kind of flirtation is taking place, a struggle for propriety on her part combined with a mischievous invitation on his, more engaged than the mischievous showing-off of Astaire that Rogers rises to: Kelly is tempting Garland more than teasing her, and she flares up in self-assertion, only to give way to overjoyed exuberance on her part that leads him almost racing to match her in impressed delight. The Astaire-Rogers and Kelly-Garland dances follow the same basic structure: man begins the dance, woman joins him and matches his steps, and the two end up dancing together, but the knowing, humorous undercurrents of Rogers and Astaire's flirtation are entirely different from the outbursts and reunions of Garland and Kelly's.

I'm having a busy week, so I don't have much more to add, but go look at those clips; they're a real treat...

Thursday, May 01, 2008


Ex-gay ministries

Here's a long and interesting article called Youth In The Crosshairs, researching the impact of 'ex-gay' pseudo-treatment programs. For those of you who haven't heard of them, they're a part of the Christian Right in America; they regard homosexuality as a mental illness (despite the fact that the American Psychiatric Association declassified it as such in 1973), and work on 'curing' it in teenagers. Predictably, their promises are misleading, their methods unethical, their handling of definitions is slippery and the harm they wreak is considerable.

One interesting thing the article points out is that the parents who send their kids off to be de-gayed are not necessarily as hateful as you'd think; they're misinformed. Trusted sources tell them that gay people have a far higher chance of domestic violence, abusive relationships, drug addiction, depression and all sorts of scary things that no loving parent would want their child to go through. In the absence of better information, parents are liable to believe liars who tell them 'Your son will be dead by thirty if we don't help him now', and send the kids to these dreadful places much as a better-informed parent might send a drug-addicted kid to a detox clinic. (Tragically, of course, the child's risk of depression is actually much greater for having been put through 'conversion therapy' than if he or she had just been left alone, but parents aren't told that.) Homophobia's in there, but the real motive, apparently, is misplaced fear for the child's life.

The article is very long, but very memorable. Have a look.


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