Better to be safe than …

A friend took me to see the new Jason Bourne film last night. (I’m still not mobile.) It’s definitely a good watch, though I found I was more than a trifle concerned by the comment on the certification. If that constitutes ‘moderate violence’, then what on earth counts as ‘extreme’, I wonder.

That aside, the film explores some interesting questions, not the least being the idea of ‘safety’. This is a word I hear bandied about a lot at the moment – particularly in association with other words like ‘public’ and ‘national’.

The thorny issue of personal privacy apparently being a concept which sits in opposition to either of the above safety labels, is nicely highlighted in the plot, and the role of contemporary technology in enabling said ‘safety’ is brilliantly portrayed – to the extent that, by the end of the film, I began to feel I might eventually become the only untrackable human on  the planet! (I don’t have a mobile phone, choose not to frequent areas overseen by CCTV and only connect to the internet from my home address.)

I also found myself almost shouting at Tommy Lee Jones (how can a film fail to please with both Matt Damon and Tommy Lee Jones in it?): “What is it you want to be safe from?” The paranoid obsession portrayed by this fictional CIA Director, that the biggest threats come from somewhere ‘foreign’ or ‘outside’, that all basic human rights are automatically subordinate to the self-declared concept of ‘safety’ and that the only sane response is to annihilate the threats, is sadly, an illusion all too real and close to home.

I am, frankly, quite fascinated by the concept of safety. My parents used to major in it, attempting to lay restriction after restriction in order to keep their world safe – which gets a bit ridiculous when grown-up children are effectively asked not to live their lives because this, in some mysterious way, threatens the safety of the parents.

What, I want to ask, is so great about safety? When I look around me at people who want to place safety at the top of their list of priorities, I mostly see people who are afraid of life, rather than death. ‘Safety’ for them seems to constitute some kind of insulation that means they won’t have to face difficult situations, encounter life-changing challenges, experience other perspectives or feel any emotion outside their day-to-day fear.

And this doesn’t only get expressed on a grandiose scale. I know of plenty of writers who are afraid to step outside their comfort zone for fear of criticism, reprisal or rejection. Here, all too often, the words ‘public’ and ‘national’ are replaced with ‘financial’, followed closely by something akin to acceptability, as if writing anything that is not universally liked is some kind of sin. How very strange.

Surely, the whole point of being a writer is exploration and experimentation. ‘Safety’ is hardly going to be conducive to that. And the mistaken belief that there is some kind of externally verifiable standard, against which all pieces of writing can be measured, is … well, mistaken.

It is axiomatic that what one person enjoys, another will consider trivial, or what someone over here calls ‘genius’, another over there will describe as ‘tedious’. Thus, it is both impossible, as well as undesirable, to write a piece that will please everyone – a piece that is entirely ‘safe’.

I don’t believe the function of writing, from the writer’s perspective, is to please any specific audience. That function may, perhaps, belong to the bookseller or the publisher. The function of the writer is, surely, to communicate something, to express something, about who they are. To share something from their soul. I doubt that ‘safety’ is going to provide useful guidelines to doing that.

This is nothing to do with being deliberately provocative, obnoxious or titillating, although the resulting piece may end up being all of these. Indeed, attempting to be unsafe as a combative policy can be just as false and constraining as attempting to be safe.

This is much more to do with listening to one’s inner voice and identifying the demons that have sovereignty there. Entering a dialogue with them is a genuine adventure that others will recognise by its authenticity.

‘Safety’ is, in my opinion, vastly over-rated. It is generally a sad substitute for what one could have been, could have experienced and could have participated in. When I look back, at the of my life, am I really going to want to say: “I’m so glad I played it safe”?


Not content with being bitten by a dog …

…she decided to find out what it would be like to be kicked by a horse.

I am not one of those people who think of life as a linear collection of random incidents, most of which fall along a continuum ranging between miserable and disastrous. I’m sure that the ability to label unfortunate events with the aphorism “Things happen” can be a useful skill in helping one to move on, and it’s sometimes one I adopt temporarily, but mostly I choose to make the attempt to perceive patterns and meanings in the stories that make up my life.

I know people who think I’m foolish or mistaken in taking this approach. They question, in particular, how I can believe things without any proof, things that, in their eyes, are simply not true. I, in turn, often wonder how on earth they survive in their chaotic world and frequently admire their tenacity in continuing to make progress through the jumble. For me, there are always multiple perceptions available to us in how we interact with the world and I – as my affirmation for the week says – must speak the truth of my own heart.

For example, I am sitting at my kitchen table, writing in one of my notebooks with my favourite blue pen. (I always write everything by hand first.) My world is currently in my head, as I dream up each new sentence and test out the words that have appeared on my page. So the persistent, interruptive barking being dished out at my heels is a serious intrusion into my concentration. For Ro, however, the round, yellow, squeaky object which she has hidden under my chair, is inexplicably not moving and the woman sitting in the chair, who is responsible for making it move, is even more inexplicably, taking no notice.

See, different perspectives of the same world. We have each loaded the situation with our own understanding and priorities. And it’s this that gives our individual worlds, meaning.

Since writing last week, my life has changed dramatically. No longer a free agent, at least in terms of walking about or leaving the house, I have spent a strange and very uncomfortable week, watching my leg change shape, colours and size, each day. A mid-week trip to A&E, after my foot (not included in the original incident) turned a spectacular shade of indigo and doubled in size, declared no major injuries but I was given very specific instructions not to walk about for a while.

Consequently, one of the few activities I have been able to engage in as much as I’ve wanted, is sitting and writing – or sitting and typing (provided I get up at regular intervals to keep the circulation flowing). As I’m not allowed to do dog-walking, gardening, working on the allotment, spinning (as in using my spinning wheel), weaving or generally going out, I’ve done an enormous amount of editing, new writing and learning about KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) and publishing on CreateSpace.

Ever one to add new layers of meaning to my existence, I have also researched the shamanic perspective on horses. I love the shamanic way of understanding and being in the world. It has, at different times in my life, given me a real life-line to hang onto potential meaning when things appeared to be falling apart. The concept of power animals, in particular, is one I readily identify with. So opening up my books and reading about Horse was, for me, a natural step to take (as opposed to the one I was forced to take by being back-kicked in both legs simultaneously and landing on my back).

Horse is about power, movement and freedom. Horse can appear in your life when it is time to move on, take a new direction or explore the freedom to do things differently. If you are being constricted – either by yourself or someone/something else – Horse may turn up with a message to get moving. My slowness to get things moving in the publishing direction because of all the other lovely things in my life – despite my declaration to make this happen – has, apparently, been noticed by the universe, and it seems if you don’t listen to the gentle nudges you’re offered, Horse may give you a kick up the butt!

As one of my friends would say – “There now”.

Make It So

It’s been such a terrible couple of weeks for me – losing long-time, furry companions always is, not to mention being kicked by a horse to the extent that walking is currently a major enterprise – that I thought I’d like to lose myself in writing abut something different. I am constantly aware of the privilege of being a storyteller. If life doesn’t work temporarily, I have only to pick up my pen and I can be somewhere, some-time, else.

However, achieving that balance between reality and fantasy is never an easy task, I think. Even within the fantasy genre – of which I read lots in envy of the amazing creations on the page – the characters and scenarios have to have just enough elements of the world we live in for the reader to be able to connect with the story. And books that are supposedly about ‘true’ events and ‘real’ people must contain sufficient imaginary content to entertain.

There is, for me, a similar dialogue to be engaged in whenever I undertake any new enterprise. How realistic, for example, was it for me to consider setting up the annual Skills Share Day at the Weavers’ Guild (last Saturday), including tutoring a spinning workshop? A question which needs to be balanced with: what wonderful ideas which I’ve learned from You-Tube, can I convey to fellow-members, and entice them to have a go?

Any major or long-term achievement is inevitably going to include a unique blend of these two strands of perception. Dipping in and out of the Olympics over the last week or so, I have witnessed over and over, competitors who strive to achieve the unbelievable by believing in it – and then doing what it takes. The perfect combination of fantasy and reality.

When I started out writing fiction, just under three years ago, I began from a place mostly made up of fantasy. I went to a Creative Writing class because I wanted to see if I could do it. (Write fiction, that is; I’ve been writing academically for decades.) After a few weeks, a serious bout of reality kicked in. Completely unexpectedly, I found myself creating characters, relating stories and painting scenes – and I was told I was good at it!

Next bit of fantasy – could I complete a short story? An entire piece with a beginning, a middle and an end? the reality – I needed to create a discipline of writing every day. I discovered that by fulfilling the realistic part of the deal, the fantasy also became a reality. Wow, this is magic stuff!

So I tried a bigger fantasy. A novel. This concept was so far outside my realm of experience and aspiration that I couldn’t even address the work with that name to begin with. I called it ‘a longer piece of work’. What made it possible was sticking to the same piece of reality as before – writing every day.

It took me several  weeks to put that first chapter together, allowing myself to ‘play’ inside a bubble that neatly placed all realistic expectations outside consideration when I was actually writing. By continuing to enter this world of ‘unreality’ on a daily basis, I gradually began to compile chapters – though I had no idea where they were heading – until, round about chapter 6 or 7, I think, I began to lay claim to the title of ‘novel’.

The reality was, the more I committed, the more my fantasy materialised. Until I discovered, I had, indeed, written an entire book. And no sooner had I accomplished that than my imagination was tapping me on the shoulder with a second. This is a fascinating process, one which never ceases to feel satisfying, astonishing and blessed.

As I move further into the reality I discover I have created for my life, I am conscious of the depths that fantasy allows. If one insists in always being realistic, life can become thin, tedious and devoid of joy. If, on the other hand, you choose only to fantasize – perhaps, constantly dreaming of a ‘better’ future or getting lost in nostalgia about a ‘perfect’ past – then life is continually a disappointment.

It is a strange and delicate balance of both wishing and doing that brings us the life of our dreams.

To Boldly Go

Many years ago, I remember I watched an interview with a famous ballet-dancer. I don’t recall his name, now, but I do recall some of his words. He was asked about the roles he liked to dance and said he preferred to play the ‘baddies’ as they were so much more interesting than the good guys.

I remember, too, being shocked by his statement and wondered what it was he found so much more interesting about the villains he could portray than the heroes. Perhaps, looking back, he was actually revealing more about himself than about the characters but it triggered for me a life-long quest to understand the nature of good and evil – as my adolescent mind would have put it.

Were his assumptions generally accepted? Did society at large consider good people to be boring? And if so, did that work in reverse? Are boring people generally considered to be good?

With a brother who constantly delighted in teasing, humiliating and demeaning me, I was already more than a little intrigued by what attracts people to ‘the dark side’. Is it really so much more fun? And, if true, isn’t that considerably worrying?

As I spend my time nowadays writing the characters that arrive on my page, I’m constantly challenged to create realistic pictures by some of my readers. And for ‘realistic’, all to often read ‘flawed’, ‘nasty’ or downright ‘evil’. What kind of world do they live in, I wonder.

Sadly, it is all too easy to create characters that wish to do harm or exercise perversion. A few titillating phrases, a quick voyeuristic sketch, a splash of vomit or blood, and the general consensus seems to be that your story has ‘meat’.

It is much harder, I think, to write solidly inspirational characters. People who are willing to consider their way through a situation, or act with courage when they’re scared to their boots.

At the weekend, I caught part of the Star Trek fiftieth birthday celebrations on TV. One of the channels presented a feature-length programme about the auction of Star Trek memorabilia that took place ten years ago, for the fortieth anniversary. An enormous enterprise (pun intended) between CBS, Paramount Studios and Christie’s, it was – as well as a whole lot of fun – extremely touching to realise what the numerous series and films had meant to so many people, including me.

The comments shared by both fans and actors were an affirmation of an extraordinary man – Gene Roddenberry – who had a vision of how society could be. His wonderful stories of The Federation and the many other world visited, live on in people’s hearts precisely because they challenged the accepted mores of the time and dared to portray different ways of being and doing.

His hugely-admired characters created controversy by questioning the status quo with their version of inclusivity (gender, race and Klingon!), their prime directive of non-interference in the affairs of alien civilisations and their understandings of honour, truth and friendship.

I don’t know anyone who considers these ‘good’ characters to be boring, insignificant or ‘thin’. Are they unrealistic? Not for me. I feel they are magical examples of how humans can face the unworthy parts of themselves and ‘make it so’.

I can only aspire to this inspirational paradigm and hope that eventually some of my characters may have even a small portion of the creative impact on the world as his. This is not an easy task but it is a highly worthwhile one, and one which I trust I’ll always have the courage to pursue.