Category Archives: Writing

Dear Jim . . . (#23) Re: Pregnant in the Head-Brain

BY JON PILL

Dear Jim,

Fertilisation of the womb requires that sperm are deposited high in the vagina of a woman close to the time of ovulation, says my university physiology textbook. You did ask about the earliest point of gestation right?

Oh, reread your letter. That makes more sense.

Gestation as metaphor for art has a heavy pedigree. I’ve just been corralling the Oxen of the Sun in Ulysses for the second time and apart from the fact that reading that section feels like a labour of a different sort, it also gives us the subtle imagery of Joyce’s avatar Stephen spouting off about exactly this gestatory idea of art, while an actual parturient shits out a wee bairn (or whatever the Guinness-swillers call them) on the upstairs landing.

You are more aware of these things that I am, but presumably the whole thing goes back at least to Plato’s apology for pederasty in The Symposium – in which ideas are treated as spermatozoa and young minds as vagina’s into which the semen of wisdom is to be deposited. Less is said about exactly where the beloved’s literal deposits are going, but that may have just been prudishness on the part of the translator.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth [… … …] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

I think gestation is a rather grandiloquent word for what art is and does (imagine a carpenter discussing the ‘gestation’ of your dining table). I rarely go in with as clear a sense as you do when putting together a story; or at least am unclear in a different way (no musical touchstones or trees in the mist). Most often I have an idea or a voice or a form I want to play with and I just start a game. The mucking about continues until there’s enough of a sense of what can be done with it all. Then the mucking about becomes mucking in as I get a sense of direction. Most often this point comes when I know how the whole thing will end.

To be more specific I might have to look at a given story. The story that has left the clearest tracks in the snow is probably one called Switches. That story came from my reading a story on the New Scientist website about Boltzmann brains* (with one of the greatest headlines ever). As I began to write a stream of consciousness for one of these things from the point of it coming into existence.

It ran out of steam and I needed a new thread, and I was reminded of two things: I had also previously read about the China brain on Wikipedia and the two ideas bonded. The third part of the story came from a Brian Greene book on types of multiverses in a chapter of which he describes the universes we might simulate in a computer.

A little more batting around and I had my format, plot and ending. The rest is history (or will be when I can find a damn place to publish it) as I sat down to hammer out Switches.

He who sees everything and founded the land, who knows (everything) and is wise in everything.

But you can probably go further back on that story. Those two brains and a universe were harvested as story materiel because of the types of things I like to to write about. For whatever reason, non-human consciousnesses stimulate my creative prostate, I can’t get enough of them. The great apes, GM-animals, insect swarms, computers, human hive-minds, clockwork synapses, Boltzmann brains its all fabulous grist.

To keep following the tracks of the gestating story-fetus: some of that interest can be traced back to my teenage reading of Michael Crichton books; Prey and The Terminal Man in particular – maybe also Congo. They set me up to think of a person’s mind as mechanical and mechanical-minds as potentially persons. (In that vein I recently read the excellent Blindsight by Peter Watts – thanks to Laura Heron for putting me onto that – which can be read for free here).

Probably some of Dan Dennett’s TED talks, Richard Dawkin’s science books, and my various readings in psychology during A-level. All these things till furrows into the folds of grey matter, thickening the womb lining in preparation for the fertilised zygote which then metamorphoses into words on the page.

I want to speak of bodies, changed into new forms.

As well as the plottier ideas: formal conceits, voices and structures also come from external fertilisation followed by manipulation once they have accreted onto the original play-draft.

In Switches, the rhythms of the voices refer back to my other teenage obsessions: Fight Club and American Psycho, both of which have a particular kind of narrator, flat of affect and simple and direct in his sentences. Palahniuk also does a line in line-repetition that I have stolen and used in almost everything I’ve ever written.

Switches is particular marked by repetitions because of the voice but as well as stealing other people’s voices and moulding them into something new, there is also the more direct theft from Hitchhikers of the mind suddenly brought into being by chance and then being destroyed by its not naturally tenable position in the galaxy. The monologue of my Boltzmann brain is – ahem – very like the whale’s. Which is another case of  something being stolen and then redrawn in a fun-house mirror.

The end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

I feel like learning something new next week. Since you’re doing sondage on a number of topics lately, I’d like a letter on how you research for your fiction and how much getting the facts right matters to you.

Yours originally,

Jon

P.S. These are theoretical consciousnesses that must arise in an infinite universe in which quantum fluctuations are constantly producing matter at random in the void of space.

P.P.S. This is a theoretical brain made up by the population of China who are given walkie talkies to communicate with each other and specific instructions which, if followed, will mean they communicate with their compatriots the same way as a given neurone in a human brain. The idea is that this brain of people would be just as conscious as any of the brains in the humans that make the China brain up.

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Dear Jon . . . (#22) Re: The Lowest Hottest Place on Earth

BY JON PILL

EXT. DESERT – NIGHT

A figure stands in the desert, silhouetted against a bad moon, which rises from between two plateaus leaving a dark valley in which the figure is trapped.

MEDIUM SHOT – The figure, shot from behind, still in silhouette, standing in the middle of the prickly pears which line the valley. The night is so hot that we can see vast Fata Morgana’s forming over the blurred horizon where the moonlit soil touches the deep-sea darkness of the sky.

The figure turns and we can see it is you. But you have no eyes.

There are no eyes here.

BLETTER (v.o.)

This is the other extreme, says the voiceover. The shot travels low over vivid green pools crowded with strange almost coral-like formations. The shores of the pools are white, crystalline. Only the blue sky seems to confirm or suggest that this isn’t some other planet.

The shot does no such thing, ignoring the voice over and dollying in on you. Suddenly you are lit by a flickering glow.

You stare about the scene walleyed – you have eyes now, loads of them, at least fifty, a wall of wall-eyed eyes, there are loads of eyes here – and confused.

YOUR FACE

Where is this bletter speaking from?

The camera moves in close on the back of your head. We hear a CRACKLING fire from behind us on the surround sound.

BLETTER (v.o.)

The place, as the voiceover continues to say, is the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia – one of the lowest and hottest places on planet Earth. The footage, from Planet Earth, that flagship BBC programme of the 2000s. The voiceover, of course, David Attenborough.

This place patently is not. You spin around and are confronted with the lie. We see the look of anger on your face before we CUT TO:

POV – Your-eye view, just one of them there are so many now that this eye can see other eyes falling off and rolling away. It can also see a BURNING BUSH, 26, a multi-foliate rose of the desert. Bush speaks not with the voice of David Attenborough, but with the monstrous voice of the Bletter.

BLETTER/BUSH (v.o.)

For many people, perhaps particularly for those of our generation, this was one of those TV that sticks in the head, that stays with you…’

The flames freeze. The crackling stops. There is a RECORD SCRATCH and a sudden burst of light as the celluloid in the projector burns up. Then there is just the clatter of the maltese cross and sprockets, and the harsh yellow light on the screen.

TITLE CARD: CLICK HERE FOR THE REST OF THE BLETTER.

FADE TO BLACK.

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Dear Jim (#19) Re: Turning Heads and Changing Minds

BY JON PILL

exorcist

I understand that people think of “The Exorcist” as a horror film, I totally get it. You don’t have to worry about it, it’s only a horror film. But I think it deals with issues far more profound than what you find in the average horror film. To be frank with you, [writer] Bill Blatty and I never set out to make a horror film. The idea never crossed our minds.’ – William Friedkin, Director of The Exorcist

Dear Jim,

Advocate for something, you said. Sell you something. You don’t need to ask me twice.

I don’t know if I can necessarily swing your opinion on The Exorcist. You’ve seen it, and weren’t hugely convinced of its myriad qualities. But it is my favourite film. Perhaps at the very least, I can help you understand why I love it, even if if I can’t be categorical that you should.

But I can say I don’t think you should just be scared or disgusted or any of the visceral stuff that makes The Exorcist so entertaining. I want to talk about the other stuff that makes it moving and thought provoking. It is proper art, serious art. With serious intention behind it.

I watched it for the first time when I was fifteen or sixteen, having been raised in a house where we were never allowed to watch a film rated higher than our age. I had my DVDs of American History X, Fight Club, Silence of the Lambs confiscated, in the case of American History X I don’t think I ever got that one back. So watching The Exorcist was a taboo experience from the get go, ramped up by a genuine belief in the voodoo of the Church and its pitchfork-tailed opposite down below.

It was scary and disgusting and visceral, and also deeply uncomfortable: the blasphemy, the sordid sexual undertones, and the existential challenge of eternal damnation and priest without faith.

Demonic possession in broad daylight in an urban street felt close and real in a way a backwoods cabin doesn’t. Isolated characters are easy to see as vulnerable, easy to root for, but when you step out of the cinema onto a crowded street the film evaporates. The Exorcist happens in Washington and the victims are surrounded by people. The movie follows you home.

When I rewatched it, older, wiser and more skeptical of religion, I was struck by the diagnostics of the film. The House-like elimination of the alternatives and the fact that the Priest – himself struggling with his faith – is only called in as a form of hypnotic suggestion. The reading that suggests that it all might just be hysteria on the part of Regan and her mother seemed to live alongside the more straightforward superstition of the ‘real’ possession. I think one of the great things about the film is that it maintains ambiguities in just the right places to allow you cognitive dissonance. You can believe in the pit and in medicine, can fear God and fear madness, at the same time as you watch.

Around this time I also found a video* which makes the case for an undercurrent of sexual abuse that lends the film a different sort of dramatic intensity and a new different sort of discomfort.

New things occur to me each time I watch it. So much of the story telling happens indirectly, Regan’s desecration of the church – an act that could just be an atmospheric coincidence or sign of the evil spreading – is confirmed not by a line, but by drawing attention to Regan’s clay animals the design of which mirror the additions made to the Virgin Mary’s statue. The infamous masturbatory scene, is prefaced by the Mother removing the crucifix from the room, making its return all the more sinister. The whole film is full of this sort of detail.

The more I watch it the more I appreciate the technique of it. The special effects (you can see their breath in those final scenes because the set was an icebox), the make-up on Regan, the performances, and above all the sound design. My favourite piece of cinema is the first ten minute of this film, the almost wordless sequence with the ominous stopping of the clock, the one eyed man, the creepy old crone, and then the drive out to the statue of Pazuzu and the shot of man opposed with the statue as the wind howls and the dogs bark and fight.

It’s exciting, and unsettling and sets the scene perfectly for the transition to that chilly room on the first floor with the noises in the roof, and moving furniture, where something very old and evil waits.

A lot of what made me fall in love with this movie comes out in the re-watching. You’ve been talking about going back to re-read old books. That can be your topic for next time.

Yours faithfully,
Jon

P.S. It was while ranting about how great The Exorcist is to a friend that I was first put on to the BBC’s Flagship Wittertainment. Which seems as good a reason as any to say ‘Hello, to Jason Isaacs.’

P.P.S. * Watch the revamped version of that video here.

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Dear Jon (#18) Re: This Is Not For You

BY JON PILL

I am in a strange street, empty of people but full of voices. A light rain forms a mist into which the two ends of the street vanish. Neon signs hang and hum along with insect light-traps and one of them sparks as a moth meets its end.

The voices are under the street calling out a garbled message: ‘Dear Jon,’ they say. ‘Be gone buzz words. Buzz off buzz words. Bzzzzzzzt.

There is a pause and I step underneath a shop’s doorway to shake the earwigs from my cochlear canals they slither down a drain and the psychic audio bletter becomes clearer:

‘Let’s talk attitudes, because there’s another aspect to deal with. There’s one attitude which you talk about, I should read, listen to, look at x. One side of the groat there. The other side of the groat: but it’s not for me, it’s not for people like me, it’s for other people…’

The voice trails off. The sign above me reads: ‘CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST.’

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Dear Jim… (#17) Re: On Converting The Philistines

BY JON PILL

I think reversing one’s position, or changing one’s mind – or in this case, maybe the idea of an ‘aesthetic education’ might be worth discussing. But I’ll leave you to flesh that out…” – Jim

Dear Jim,

In your last letter you gave me the broadest of briefs. To throw out a few thoughts on changing one’s mind or – you said, as if the two things were obviously linked – ‘aesthetic education’. I’ll deal with the latter because although less interesting to me it won’t spiral into a ramble. A tight 500 is the goal. This bletter needs sending today and I left it all until the final countdown.

Cue music:

 

In terms of aesthetical edugogy, I think it’s a valuable thing for one to do to oneself. But I’d be tentative about getting super evangelical about it. While there are somewhat weak arguments about art engaged humans being better citizens, I think liking art is more of a self-help thing than a social responsibility. With that caveat in mind, here’s what I think.

The general goal of the court mandated aesthetic education, as put together by Minister for Art Appreciation for Jon Pill would be, I think, to get the student – i.e. me  – to think about art intentionally. I think this is what is meant by that buzz word ‘engage’.

The human brain can engage with art at all sorts of levels, but the zeroth level that we all do pretty instinctively will always be: Do I like it? And here is where it is easiest to stop. With the Yes/No answer.

I come from a family of readers, my Dad read to me before I could read and listening to him read remained a family activity, especially on holiday where The Hobbit and the Harry Potter saga often made short work of train journeys.

Reading for myself was encouraged and there would be a regular exchange of cheap second hand paperbacks between the various members of the family. Redwall and Alastair MacLean, Jack Higgins and The Phantom Tollbooth. Stuff like that.

So there were books. But there was also a general air of philistinism. The first question I am asked whenever I say I have read Classic Book X or Epic Poem Y to a family member is always: ‘But is it actually any good? Or is it just one of those books your supposed to read?’

The inherent assumption behind the word ‘good’ is that it be enjoyable*. There was no room for a book to be challenging, the unpleasant, the interesting, the beautiful, unless it came with a good plot. In a house full of Austen lovers, I am the only one who likes Emma [Edit: My Dad has corrected me on this. He also likes Emma. Like father, like son.]. People hate Emma because they dislike Emma. That’s was all it takes: an irritating character that rubbed you up the wrong way. Never mind that her irritating faults are the driving force of a series of engaging dramas, never mind the amusing ironies her faults breed, never mind the impressive skill involved in what is pretty much the invention of the close-third narrator.

That is a difficult attitude to shake. Because good = enjoyable is a massive barrier between art and artee. A key part of that aesthetic education is just shedding the idea that an immediate sense of pleasure is the only positive response to something.

So interrogating Do I like it? with intentionality would level one of converting the barbarians. Once you have your yes or no follow it up with: Why do I like/dislike it? What do I like about it? What is it making me feel? What thoughts is it giving me?

I never learned to ask these questions formally. It’s been a slow trial-and-error sort of thing mostly through talking about film with friends, and more recently through reading widely, going to galleries, watching plays. And I’m still not always great about thinking like this. But, you know, fail better and all that. #selfhelpisnotselflove.

There are, of course, a ton of other ways of engaging with art, but cultivating this kind of self-aware thoughtfulness is the basis for all the rest of it. The basis of a lot of living well. #unexaminedlives. We’re not talking about turning  into a – hold back the sick – literary theorists after all. Just helping them get a bit more out of swirls of paint or lines of ink.

What the next stage in an aesthetic education might look like I’ll leave to you, someone who has spent five years formally studying fiction-books, in your next bletter.

Yours appreciatively,

Jon

P.S. *This issue of enjoyment vs. other stuff, Greene’s entertainments versus novels, and genre versus literature is all something we’ll have to come back to some day. For now though, I will leave that can of worms on the shelf beside the baked beans and Spaghetti-Os.

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The Best Books For Writers – Part 5: Books on the Other Arts

BY JON PILL

Previously on… 

Part 1 – Books on Being Writerly

Part 2 – Books on the Craft of Writing

Part 3 – Books on The Writing Life

Part 4 – Books on Reading

This is the last and considerably latest, in this series on books to read if you’re a writer / into writing / want to write. This time looking at a grab bag of books that I and / or humans have found useful in our approach to writing that deal with other art forms topics.

There will also be another post coming soon about all the non-book resources people have found useful. So look forward to that, kidz.

Part 5 – Books On Other Art Forms

1. Silence by John Cage

This collection of lectures by experimental composer John Cage (he of 4′ 33″ in(fame)y), is a collection of lectures on various subjects. Unable to keep from experimenting even in the when typing up his lecture notes, the book is full of odd formatting and the occasional section of apparent word salad.

But as a creative guide it’s served a few of my writerly friends. It might well serve you to.

2. 7 Minutes. The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon by Norman M. Klein

This is another Interior Dasein recommendation, covering the history of the short American Cartoon, typified I guess by the work of Chuck Jones. There are parallels between the zany movies and the short story, and you can certainly learn a great deal from the discipline of the artists and the surreal and metamorphosable worlds they build.

For members of the straw poll, it was also a source of inspiration and permission to break the rules of our world in interesting and fun ways in their art.

3. The Artist’s Reality by Mark Rothko and 4. A History of Art by E. M. Gombrich

Visual art has inspired a great deal of poetry and a little prose, but it is also probably the art form with the longest history. Where the stories told by the cavemen at Lascaux are lost to time, their paintings live on.

The Rothko is a collection of essays on art and artistry, and the Gombrich a broad history of visual art from the ancients to us with a ton of colour plates and a lovely binding.

5. How to Read a Film by James Monaco

An overview of the mechanics, theory, business and history of film this book is readable intro to the medium. I consume a lot of story through television and movies, and having a better sense of how to watch closely and think critically about film has improved my ability to do the same for reading and in assessing my own writing.

It could do the same for you.

6. Logical Chess: Move by Move by Irving Chernev

Recommended by Jim MacDonald in an Absolute Write thread on the grounds that Chernev’s approach works for the creation of plots as much as it does check-mating your opponents on the board.

If nothing else, it will probably improve your chess game.

7. Measurement by Paul Lockhart

Measurement teaches maths creatively, and draws comparisons between the formal restrictions of poetry and the logical restrictions of maths. Paul Lockhart empowers the reader to go away and create maths on their own by focusing on the process and on proof. Having given the reader the tools to do maths, he then sets them off with a bunch of questions for them to look into and solve on their own.

The link with writing is pretty tangential but much of what makes maths beautiful is there in literature: those moments of realisation and discovery, and the revelling in patterns. The approaches to learning however, are perfect for the writer.

Enjoy.

If you have any favourite books that have helped you with your writing, especially if I missed them in this series, let me know in the comments.

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Dear Jim . . . (#13) Re: Fiction vs. Nonfiction

BY JON PILL

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”[…] In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments[…]” – The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your last bletter. Sorry this one is late, I blame everyone but myself.*

As to your question: What works of fiction do you feel has taken your imagination and expanded it in this way? the short answer is: None.

The longer answer is: None that I can think of but also I guess all of them sort of a bit but not really all of them dot com.

Which is to say, I don’t remember a work of fiction drastically changing my world view or granting me sudden insight into worlds hitherto unseen. To some extent every book does this a bit but I find the effect one of accretion, one book gives you a look at someone else’s point of view, another someone else’s. It all adds up, but I rarely have that flash of insight from a fiction-book.

So, I am not going all They Came Together** or denying the ability of fiction to expand one’s horizons, or to give one insight into – as in your examples – the life of a black Americans, but for me, it is always non-fiction that cuts new channels in my brain. The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans would be the books that did for me what Citizen and Invisible Man did for you.

Another book I would recommend for this reason is The Ruins of Empire which was a fascinating insight into the post-Colonial cultures of India, China, Egypt and the Middle East. That rendered the grievances more, to use that word again, more complexly and personally than I had previously considered.

Perhaps this is because, until a few years ago I didn’t read much serious fiction. I read nonfiction, I watched movies and TV***, and fiction was picked up for light entertainment.

Perhaps it is because non-fiction has a greater power for directed brain thrilling perspective shifts for me. Almost the books which I come back to over and over again in my mind are nonfiction. My intellectual biography could be written in The… titles****: The Theory of PokerThe Selfish GeneThe Problems of Philosophy. I remember where I was when I read them, and how they moved my brain in one direction or the other. I guess these sort of texts amount to a sort of personal canon.

But your question was more precise, about books that helped imagining Others complexly. On that score books like my A-level psychology textbook, played a role. And sections of The Stuff of Thought by Stephen Pinker, especially concerning the idea of taboo. The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt is another book that for many reasons was empathy expanding. Some of the Bhuddist literature I’ve read did the same thing in different ways and for different reasons: The Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness and Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner Mind. Their merits are probably fairly obvious, so the one I’ll pick out to expand on is Derren Brown’s Tricks of the Mind.

Tricks is an odd grab bag of a book, made up of chapters on each of the things Brown is interested in. It lays out his aesthetic theories about magic and misdirection, gives guides on lie detection and memory tricks, but also contains the science of – and his speculations on – the nature of hypnosis and influence.

The hypnosis chapter combined the science of influence (Milgram, Zimbardo, Ariely, et al.), the ability of the brain to trick itself, and ideas about intentionality and self-justification. The implications go far beyond hypnosis, every human interaction does to some extent the same thing that a Mentalist does with his ‘hypnotised’ subject.

It gave me a far better sense of how I and you and everyone else on planet Earth live their lives. We all do what we mean to do only a tiny fraction of the time, our brains seamlessly filling in the justifications afterwards. Our experiences are largely lies, memories even more so.

The world looks different when you realise no one is in control of even all their actions. That a missed lunch can have as great an effect as someone’s ethical code. It’s a little easier to forgive, and to see oneself in the same position.

I would recommend Tricks of the Mind to almost anyone, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to have the effect on them it had on me, I don’t think it would have had that effect if I had read it a few years later. Personal canons are exactly that.

I know in many ways your personal canon reflect the literary canon quite closely, and you have always a broad respect and interest in that trunk line of culture leading back inexorably towards Gilgamesh. But, I’d be interested to hear how your recent batch of reading all madcap and experimentalist has altered your views on the works of the past?

Yours hypnotically,

Jon

*I should also probably point out that ‘imagining others complexly’ is not my phrase, but John Green’s.

**

*** For example House M.D. was probably one of the biggest fictional influences on how I thought about other people, ethical questions, even epistemology. The way that show used its ensemble cast to create a dialectic on whatever the issue of the week was. There are few shows as entertaining as House that also have the intellectual heft of those first three seasons.

**** Also Michael Crichton novels.

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