Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Power of Words

While strolling through my twitter feed this evening I came across a few tweets by Scott Kurtz, author and artist behind the online phenomena that is PVP. I have a great deal of respect for the man as a writer, an artist and avant garde internet mogul. However something he twittered tonight really jarred and I had to respond:

pvponline Gah! Reconnecting with my Aunts and Uncle has made them aware of my site. They are very catholic and don't like my bad language.

pvponline So now I'm getting emails about how God gave me this talent and he didn't do it for me to use his name in vain

pvponline I was straight with them. Told them I wasn't changing and that I resented them believing they knew what god wanted of me. God will TELL ME.

pvponline Scott, God wants you to stop cussing. Really? Cause I talked to him today and he said words were just words and he only cared about intent. (emphasis mine)

I appreciated that being browbeaten by relatives over ones art is not fun but I was bothered that someone who uses language to entertain and often to inspire would be so blasé about the power of words and so I responded thusly:

Phil73805 @pvponline Whether or not you choose to cuss I don't care but please don't pretend that words are without great power!

There we are, my perspective made clear, or as clear as you can get with 140 characters at your disposal; he may see it he may not but I've done my bit...and then, much to my surprise, he responded:

pvponline @Phil73805 Words are words. The intent behind the words have power.

I'm sorry Mr. Kurtz but that is empty semantics.

The written word though guided by intent is clearly open to a greater degree of interpretation, one only has to visit a message board or any online discussion to see how even the best meaning communication can be devastating when misunderstood regardless of the intent behind the words. I feel that this obligates people to be careful with the enormous power that the gift of language bestows.

Don't think that is only an issue with the written word. I have had psychotherapy clients return the week after a session and tell me that something I said had meant a great deal to them and it turns out that what they recall was not what I intended and yet it was no less meaningful to them for all that and indeed no less powerful. In fact there are times when I won't point out the misunderstanding because the message they walked away with has had therapeutic value that might be reduced by attempting to put my intent before theirs. They have been their own therapist and who the hell am I to argue? They've taken my words and used them to form a message that is of use to them, you'd be surprised how often that happens in day to day communication outside the therapy room.

We can all recall words spoken to us by teachers, some positive and some negative, and can recount many years later the impact those words had regardless of the intent. An off-hand compliment about ones ability in science drives the student into a lifetime career, for good or for ill. An angry retort from a stressed teacher leading a child and then the adult to believe that they'll never amount to anything. These are oft heard stories.

Words have enormous power Mr. Kurtz, yours often inspire laughter and even thoughtful reflection. Your humour regularly has a deeper message disguised with a smile. That is a tremendous gift. And a powerful responsibility. Like I said, cuss or don't cuss. I genuinely don't mind, in fact I'll go a stage further and say that sometimes the cussing serves to highlight your point with humour. Put more simply, it makes me laugh. But Sir, please don't attempt to belittle the power of words while fighting off holier-than-thou relatives.

In a world blathering on about the right to free speech we might forget the terrible responsibility that goes with it. Words can create and can destroy in equal measure.

Mr. Kurtz I doubt you'll even see this but if you do let me please say this. Your words and your art have given me great pleasure over the years for which I am truly grateful. My post here is not intended to be at all hurtful. It's just that words are deeply meaningful to me, as a teacher and a therapist some might argue that words are my stock in trade, and I felt that your words needed to be challenged even if it is only in this small way.

Monday, 15 February 2010

The Hardcover Conspiracy

Right, with that suitably melodramatic title in place let us begin. I remember a time, not too long ago, when publishers offered their customers a choice. Paperback or Hardcover. The paperback was released first and then after a while a 'collectors' edition in hardcover was offered to those who wanted it.

I'm not certain when this changed but what's happening at the moment is, when you look at it, rather disgraceful. The choice is now, hardcover or wait a year until they release the paperback. I'm not certain of the markup on hardcover releases but I suspect that the publishers make more money from them than the paperbacks and so the readers are forced to either buy the big, cumbersome and expensive hardcover or wait a long time to read their favourite author's latest literary masterpiece.

I'm certain that this is a relatively recent phenomena because when I bought the earliest books in my favourite series they were only available in paperback and so my collection took that form. Now I have to wait a year to get the next in the series in the same format.

I have it on good authority that people are generally reading less as evidenced by book stores closing at a disturbing rate. I suspect that this is largely because 'high street' bookstores can't compete with the likes of Amazon and co. but basically people are looking elsewhere for their entertainment. Maybe it's just me but a paperback is a far more convenient thing to both buy and carry with you as well as costing a whole lot less. So why would publishers limit your options to big, bulky and above all expensive hardbacks or nothing...for a while? The first rule of business, I would think, is 'make it easy for people to give you their money'.

So, publishers, make both hardcover and paperback available together. Those that like the size and importance that a hardback book conveys will buy that and those of us who prefer the smaller more convenient paperback will buy that. Make it easier for me to give you my money. Don't make me wait a year in the hope of forcing the sale of something I just don't want!

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Writing, for Fun and......Self expression.

I've been rather slack of late as far as this blog goes. There are friends of mine that check it regularly and to them I can only apologise. The little time I have for writing has been focussed elsewhere.

I've done two book reviews for them this week alone, though only one has gone live so far, and also managed to get an interview with Michael Marks, SF author extraordinaire, done and dusted. His answers to my questions really blew me away, so go and take a look. If you have a Kindle I can't recommend his new novel Dominant Species highly enough as my earlier review on this very blog made clear.

And now to the reason that I started this post in the first place. I was reading Wil Wheaton's blog the other day and in the midst of a really great post he said something that really sparked off a train of thought. He was talking about how Twitter had changed his world and allowed him to reach so many people in a way that would otherwise be impossible. I couldn't agree more, however, the point he made that really hit home was this:

"...I am compelled to create. I've tried to fight it - it's not the easiest life in the world, especially when you're responsible for a family - but I can't deny that I'm an artist any more than I can deny that I'm a human being. Most artists will tell you quite honestly that they would create their art for free. I know from personal experience that that is absolutely true." (emphasis added)

I thought about the work I do for BSC review and wondered, are book reviews art? I'll come back to that point but I then thought about the story I'm (slowly) working on and the strong creative streak that has always been a part of me. In one form or another I also feel compelled to create, or put another way, express myself creatively. No, that isn't just pedantics. I think that my creativity is always a communication of sorts. A way of reaching out and 'speaking' to people. Whether in the form of a tale I've crafted or a review in which I share my thoughts about a book I've read. This may well be the case for others but I can only speak for myself.

When I told friends and family that I'd been asked to write reviews for a great website the almost universal response was, "are you being paid?". Wow, did that take the wind out of my sails. It seemed that the only measure of my work was whether or not I was being paid. I know that what I'm about to say may sound very naive but before my friends mentioned it I hadn't thought of money at all. I thought, hey what a great opportunity to share with others my thoughts and feelings about the books I'm reading! I love reading, I love books and on bsc review I get to express that love in a creative and hopefully entertaining way. Yes, I think reviews can be an artform in themselves.

I have no illusions, it's a parasitic artform in that it is based upon the blood, sweat and tears of an author that has often worked for months or years on the book I'm reviewing. And yet, his or her work has moved me and I want to share why. To distill into words my experience of their hard work. Now, that's all very well when the review is positive. However, what about those times that I pick up a book hoping for a decent story and have those hopes dashed when it doesn't prove to be what I'd expected? I don't mean that the story wasn't what I thought it was when I picked the book up. To give a bad review in those circumstances is really not right. I mean that the writing, story and/or characters really fail on some level. Figuring out why a story doesn't work for me is harder than working out why I love a story. In those instances I feel obligated to make as clear as possible exactly what didn't work for me so that, should the author come across my review, they might take some useful feedback from it rather than a 'you suck' message that is neither entertaining nor useful...

...The truth is that I'm avoiding saying something that's on my mind. It's a little truth that struck me during the week. Writing reviews, while both enjoyable and potentially creative, is also the laziest form of creative expression available to me. It is harder to come up with an interesting blog post and much much harder to drive my story forward. When the inspiration for the post you're reading struck, it was the first time for a while that I'd been able to come up with anything and I quickly wrote down some thoughts in the notebook I've taken to carrying everywhere with me. If you make a living writing you can't afford to wait for the inspiration to strike, you have to damn well find it, pin it down and get to work.

While talking about the story I am writing with my therapist it soon became clear just how many personal themes were there at its core. My protagonist finds himself suddenly alone in enemy territory and slowly realises that his bravery and skills in combat are all in the context of the other troopers around him. It is only in relationship to them that he is the person he knows and respects. In effect the story is about learning some of the strength to be found in solitude though ironically this is learnt from another very different warrior and so in the final analysis is still about relationship and how we only exist as human beings within relationships even when we feel alone. Writing this story is intensely personal which makes it bloody hard work to push forward with. Is this the case for other writers? When they take a deeper look at their work do they become aware of their own issues expressed in their writing? Is that part of the challenge and will it get easier?

Well, one question I can answer. Yes, it does get easier but I don't believe it ever gets easy. In fact if it did I suspect it would cease to interest me. The second part of the story flowed far better and faster than the first part. Though there are certainly personal themes present it would be a mistake to let them swallow the story whole. Those themes must guide what is effectively a war story about very different styles of warrior coming together in desperate circumstances but the personal stuff cannot be allowed to overwhelm it, the background cannot become the foreground.

I'm starting to worry that I may have bitten off more than I can chew with this story. The longer I leave it as a work-in-progress the more it grows in my mind which only makes it harder to get down to business when I have some time. This then means that I'm more inclined to write another review rather than wrestling with myself to write the story. I'm hoping that talking about this out loud will help me get on with it by making clear to me what it is I'm avoiding.

When I do get down to writing the story, I enjoy it and yet also really struggle with it. As far as I'm concerned that only serves to highlight how meaningful the process is and therefore how much more I must devote myself to it. I hope I can get moving again. I think I will feel a tremendous and very real sense of achievement if I can get the story finished to a standard I can live perfectionist streak means I can't be 'happy' with it.

Writing for fun and no profit is deeply meaningful to me. I agree with Wil when he says that most of the artists he knows would happily do their thing for free, I'm also happy to do it for free.

Why? I think it's because, for me, writing is its own reward.