Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Wrongs and Rights Unknown

By 1998 in the United Kingdom, not a single peacetime offence was punishable by death. The final execution had taken place in 1964, during a five year trial spell when the death penalty for high crimes such as murder, was abolished. Certain crimes, such as treason, were still punishable by death up until the close of the millennium. In many countries, death remains a punishment. Whether it is the lethal injection, beheading by sword or even stoning, people are still being killed for committing crimes.
            Death naturally surrounds everyday life. Not only is it the end of a person’s physical manifestation (not necessarily the spiritual one, I hasten to add), but in many cultures, my own included, death has a very stark label stuck upon it. A label it cannot shake. Indeed, when people have recently passed on, they aren’t always honoured properly. The topic is almost glossed over. People seem flushed by the expenditure such a conversation might require. Disappointing in my opinion. Across the globe, death is received in many different fashions. Not all cultures permit a person to mourn the loss of somebody. To mourn is to be filled with negativity. When loved ones die, their life should be celebrated, for in that celebration, they shall be immortalized. In other places, mourning seems to be the only thing that happens. So much mourning, so much despair and dejection until the living mourner’s spirit has died, too; then, all that remains is a living animation of death itself, a festering personality driven mad by grief and anguish.
            In these moments, when the grief is a raw slice on the person’s spirit, blood red and howling with agony, the individual recoils. Humans are wont to seek attention because our emotions are often more powerful than we anticipate. Emotions which, therefore, we cannot control. However, at times, when the despondency is rife within a person, and they need to be able to feel a presence, something palpable and full of will and able to offer a light at the end of the tunnel - sometimes, we are bound and wrapped up too tightly by this pain, and we wince, flinch back, retreat away. Sometimes it is less about the death and more about a cocoon of self-sympathy.
            I wonder if, with the abolition of the death penalty, the United Kingdom’s perceptions of death have changed. Initially, it seems that there is one clear argument against this suggestion. The argument being that, with immigration, continuous procreation and the dying of the older generations, eventually the population will no longer contain anybody who was alive at the time of the last execution. All that will remain are historical reports and textbook writings. The closest examples will be of other countries who maintain a death penalty. The United States, in two thirds of the fifty states, no longer use the death penalty. In those which still incorporate methods such as the lethal injection, gas chamber and electric chair into the punishment system, there remains much debate over the ethical and moral issues.
            One of the biggest problems with a state-wide death penalty is that ultimately every single case will have different circumstances and occurrences. As with the interminable debate over abortion being right or wrong or neither and simply the individual’s choice, there is no conclusion. A woman who has been raped by a man she feels nothing except hatred towards is unlikely to want to bring a child by this man into the world, is she? There are special circumstances in some countries for victims of rape, and so there should be. Procreation is not the only duty of humanity, this in itself is evinced by the growing liberty towards same sex relationships, and this social and individual freedom is, in and of itself, an expression that we are more than simply reproductive animals. We feel emotions which we pursue, which we feel in our very core. If a person does not want to procreate, then why should they? If a person is gay, why should that be a problem?
            This woman, raped by a man she hates. What do we feel for her? Sympathy, fear, even an understanding among some of us. In the child, she will have a psychologically pernicious memory biting at her. The gelid, icy recollection of the outrageous crime against her freedom, her choice, her body. Might it freeze her internally? Make her hate herself as she sees that, by having this child, she succumbed to the insemination of this criminal who has sought to blindly hurt her for his own momentary pleasure? All of which created this child and, no matter how strong the love for that child…it would be hard for her. So hard that she might decide to abort beforehand. Some risks aren’t always worth taking.
            Certain cultures and religions dictate that members and practitioners abide by strict codes of procreation or the opposite. There can also be the issue of whether the pregnancy has occurred outside of a marital circle. What of the situation and circumstances the child will be born into? Could poverty be a strong enough reason to abort a pregnancy? What of the parents. Two students in their second year at university, indulging in a night of lust, which goes a little wrong. Where do they go with their unfinished education?
            Abortion and the death penalty both focus on the taking of a life. A lot of debate still exists, too, on at what stage abortion becomes the killing of a child rather than a foetus. A week, two weeks, ten weeks, twenty-four weeks? Is mercy itself more merciful in the earliest stage? Quite possibly.
            Life, and death. Centuries ago, crimes, wrongdoings, social affliction from one house or family to the next might have been settled by witnessed duels or hired assassins or thugs. Still, on the eve of 2014, there exist areas of the world (more tribal areas) where these customs might still subsist. Tribes spread across Africa, Eastern Europe, South America (particularly the Amazon) no doubt have cultures differing from the cultures of Western civilization. The Pakaa Nova of Brazil practise ‘compassionate cannibalism’ upon the death of a loved one, which ultimately includes roasting the body towards the end of a three day ceremony and urging the attending relatives to indulge. Do they practise such a method following feuds and so forth? I do not know, nevertheless, their system seems far less complicated; and this, this word, complication, is the fulcrum of why, I think, it is safer to govern a democracy without a death penalty. Why it is safer to ultimately allow abortion as an option if people so desire it. For every ten abortions which were required by a couple who simply were too caught up to use protection, there would doubtless be a victim of attack or poverty, and as beautiful as procreation is, might there be a time and a place to raise a child?
            Life, and death. I’ve talked about vengeance and justice in other articles; the blur. The internal blur which can consume us in the way paroxysms of rage consume us, until we know no more what the right outcome is. To experience the brutal murder of a friend or loved one would drive raw hate through a person, wouldn’t it? And the criminal, that person would argue, would deserve nothing more or less than death in kind. But do two wrongs make a right? Are they even two wrongs? Perhaps the second question is a better one. I’m still unsure.


Un-riddling Some More

they are whispering to me,
imploring me to return, taunting
me because I can’t.

Start with the first line. We have 'they' which might be referring to the rock, stone and/or silt; however, for this metaphor to work, there must be a subject driving these objects onwards, such as water or wind, to create a rationalization of a rock 'whispering'. Wind might seem more likely, because of the exploration of whether 'rock' is being employed as a noun or a verb. However, the beauty of poetry is that the verb and the noun can both be present, really. We interpret as we read, constantly, and in our interpretations, we are bound to discover things we didn't know. Things perhaps we didn't even want to know. Does this not happen in life, too?
This they is ‘imploring’ and ‘taunting’. The imploration is to return. Naturally the reader will ask: return where? Again the poem and the narrator are aware of more than the reader. In poetry, fiction, films, there might be a big reveal towards the end. Is the poem following suit? The final part of this stanza is the crucial part. There has been a climb of speed, of tension and emotion. Whispering. Consider the many times you’ve heard a whisper. The thin, eerie whisper of the wind through a barely lit alleyway; the frail, gravelly whisper of an old, dying person; what about, say, temptation. The deep, lustful whisper of a calling lover. What happens when they try to become a little more persuasive? While whispering, they are imploring. The narrator is being called to return. Yet, whether or not the narrator desires to return, he, she or it declares I can’t. A heavy ask, admitting incapability. With it, the threat of humiliation. Can’t. Not won’t, for that is different; it implies that the capability to act might exist, but is refrained from nevertheless. Can’t. That’s the word we, all of us, don’t want to know about. A society-wide taboo. Sensitive beings, humans. Easily embarrassed, more easily upset. Agreed? In your mind, answer these questions. Have you ever been given a job by a parent, teacher, employer, and not known quite what to do? Have you been given instructions and, following them, accidentally got a part wrong? Forgotten to complete something in the right order, broken a piece of the puzzle? Have you then had to tell your parent, teacher, employer, that you have messed up? The guilt bubbling inside you, desperate to break out? Your stomach knotting for fear of the consequences, despite the consequences themselves being unknown? Falling short of expectation is frequently perceived to be failure, and many people fear failure.
However. Getting something wholly wrong is one thing…what about pure incapability? Can’t. It reverberates back through the stanza. Whoever and whatever are imploring the narrator to return, and to wherever…these things barely matter, for it cannot be achieved regardless.
Thus, the humiliation; the taunting.

Left more to my thoughts now,
invaded by the slaughtering juggernauts:
Anger and Jealousy, they feed their

In this first line alone, the curtain is sliced back a little more than it has been so far. Solitude and cognizance have slipped through the elliptical net, and the stanza has a feeling of thought and coherency. The narrator reveals they are left to their thoughts. However, these thoughts remain secreted from the reader. The second line, beginning with invaded, reinforces the refulgence and importance of the word ‘thoughts’ in this stanza. Ever been overwhelmed by your own thoughts? Why? The words invaded, slaughtering, juggernauts are not necessarily words that can be found in everyday jargon if one goes to the shop or passes a neighbour in the street (unless, of course, you live somewhere subjugated by juggernauts). They are powerful, aggressive words, yet they have a feel of sophistication, nonetheless. When something is outside of ubiquitous use, it is more jarring. All three words are packed into the same line; striking outwards. Longer than the previous lines of the poem, ending with juggernauts. The line itself is a juggernaut. Pervasive and unwanted in its presence on the page.
            Imagine a scenario where this poem is read aloud, and the audience have no written copy in sight. The slaughtering juggernauts, Anger and Jealousy, feed—
            The poem reads ‘their’. However, orally and acoustically, one might hear the word ‘there’. And without the enjambment, it would suggest that the metaphor goes on a different track, with Anger and Jealousy feeding on the narrator’s thoughts. The thoughts becoming so vast and tangled that they are both a landscape and a carcase to be devoured. Consider. That every thought one might have, is fed on by two ugly emotions. Two emotions bound up in corruption and darkness. The corruption of the soul. To be jealous can often mean to be angry. What provokes jealousy? The absence of ownership of something which somebody else has? What has happened to the narrator? That, there, is the big question.

vigour through my absences, as I
shuffle on this swaying beech,
infected with rot and decay.

The narrator is in a place of solitude, and the solitude is symbolized by the secrecy of the thoughts, yet the reader is invited there, increment by increment, via the small revelations (shuffling, swaying beech, rot and decay). We are shown that it is a pernicious solitude. A festering solitude that the narrator, suggested by the "feed"-ing of Anger and Jealousy, is succumbing to.
            There are absences. Absences which feed the vigour of Anger and Jealousy. What absences are these? Still the questions pile up, unanswered. And more questions. The narrator shuffles; does this diminish the chance of the narrator being human? Why would a human being shuffle? It is an animation we wouldn’t normally associate with human legs. An animal, perhaps? An inanimate object?
Beech, the type of wood, rather than a beach, sways. The beach is not mentioned yet ever persists, described through the waves and the rock and the silts. What then, is this swaying beech, infected with rot and decay?
Next part: next week.


Thursday, 19 December 2013

Stage Two

My science fiction short story, The Thinking Men, deemed a First Class piece of work by my university tutor, was my first First, as I said in my last post.
            Perhaps the obvious sequence of events, following on from this revelation, includes a new bout of unmatched, never-before-reached inspiration and focus, coupled with constant results and a perpetual feeling of euphoria. Perhaps I was meant to see this moment as the turning point in the early stages of a nascent writer’s career.
            Perhaps, but not quite.
            Two further assignments have been required of me in the last two weeks. Both projects falling under the creative writing side of my degree. Considering my recent breakthrough, they should have been a piece of cake, yes? The muse should have been flowing from my brain to my fingertips with the profluence and fluidity of an all-powerful wizard. Agreed?
            I do not know what should and shouldn’t have happened in this period. When a breakthrough occurs, perhaps a promotion or new high score or some form of actualization that has eluded the human mind until this moment, what is the protocol? Does everything that has come before cease to matter? Will this new benchmark be the basecamp for all future progress? I wish. It can be very easy, I believe, to achieve success once and then rest upon it. Examples are rife the world over. In the recent film Rush, two Formula 1 world champions are portrayed. One, Britain’s James Hunt, is a man who (so James believes) epitomizes everything that is brilliant about British people; the willingness to stare danger and worse in the face, simply to achieve success. The determination to see something through, whether the tribulations of the quest leave one bruised, scarred, even paralyzed. For James Hunt, winning the F1 World Championship is all about proving to himself and others that he can do it. Portrayed in most scenes with a beer, cigarette or glass of whiskey in hand, James is that sudden rush of fresh wind on a dry day. He is that feeling that anything can be achieved. Impossible odds can be defied and, in that final moment, when this success is realized, there will be glory, happiness, and the human race will acknowledge itself yet again as the most ambitious species on Earth.
            Hunt’s counterpart in both his F1 career and the film — Niki Lauder — is the complete opposite. Composed, subtle, and pragmatic. A season is not ‘do or die’; it comes with statistics and percentages. Failure comes replete with a host of its own reasons. Reasons which can, and must, be rectified in order to enter the next season in a better condition. In order to win.
            The same principle can apply to any sport, any activity or anything generally. It is a great accomplishment to achieve something once; it is a superb accomplishment and a true test (and, if you succeed, demonstration) of your resolve, to not simply rest on some plinth of success. Consistency is a trait which illustrates the values of a human being just as much as a short stint of drive and determination does, if not more. To wake up for five days in a row with the motivation to achieve something is one thing; to keep this motivation rolling for weeks, months and even years, is wholly another. People often remember the one hit wonder with hints of regret, with faint undertones of sorrow as people recall legends of motorsports, athletics, film, music, anything. In those undertones ever remains the question, what if? Eager, waiting on the tip of everybody’s tongue. Unspoken and yet…palpable.
            When the time came, to sit down and begin the first of two short stories, I froze. The idea for this first story was planned vividly in my head. I understood where I wanted to begin; I understood where I wanted to get to. This in itself was slightly unusual for my writing process, as I tend to be a beginning and middle writer, allowing the piece to grow organically, with the ending something of a discovery…a journey. In workshops and seminars a lot of people bring pieces that start well and end a little weakly. When this happens, what tends to follow is a declaration that the writer hasn’t fully mapped out the middle section. The development, the problem, the interaction, the growth. In the last three months, some very powerful openings have come forth. Beautiful descriptions of landscape and creation. Great plotlines have been hinted at. Then, jumping to sections which would end the story smoothly, there have been some truly poignant, well-written scenes; however…if only they knew, and could give us a hint at how that ending was reached, then the conversations, the discussions, the workshop itself, could all benefit. There is a substantial gap in their plots. Ultimately, this is not something disastrous in a workshop. The purpose of the group is for people to analyse the work in front of them and offer one another critiques. For the first time in a long time, I had an ending in my mind. I knew where this story ended before I even sat down. I had the characters in my head, the relevant backstory which could justify the story. I had a revelation for my protagonist and the finale was all floating around in my brain. I had the middle. I basically had the whole story. So I sat down and sought to write it.
            The story could be no more than 2200 words long. Not a great deal of freedom to move around in the scheme of things. The story involved multiple themes: exile, friendship, faith and sacrifice. There were family histories hinting at a fantasy culture and asides which would better suit a much longer structure. Once I’d written what could be considered the opening scene, 1700 words had been spent. Sitting at my desk, wondering, I dug out the sci-fi story I’d scored so well on. I read it slowly, carefully, trying to temper myself back into the psyche of this moment of creativity. I studied the pace, the dialogue, the fluidity between long and short passages.
During this lucubration, I stared at my own success, and froze.
This story I was working on, it was too long. I’d figured that already. Partly I was afraid to truly admit this, fearful of the encroaching deadline which waited, only a week and a half away. Opening a new document, I started over. A fresh idea. Same fantasy world, new city. New characters, new themes to explore; hubris, the sibling bond, deception. I finished the story in just under four hours. There were moments when I found there to be humour, moments when, suiting the tone, I felt sad, downbeat. By the end, while staring at the finished product, I couldn’t escape a nagging itch that what I had produced simply wasn’t good enough. Perhaps it was because I’d written so quickly, so smoothly. I realized, finally looking at the word count, that I’d tripped over the wire and stumbled into the 2500 words realm. 300 words needed hacking away. But those words, they wouldn’t go. They were needed. Finally, when I surrendered to the need for this story to be longer than the limit I was under obligation to adhere to, I was close to being a shaking wreck. Two stories attempted, two stories left in a folder. No progress on either assignment.
Where was I going wrong? Again and again, I went back to The Thinking Men, seeming to expect some mystical source to embrace my mind. I waited. I drank coffee, I slept. I read as much short fiction as I could to keep the structural requirements in my head. I pushed down as much of the character philosophy as I could without jeopardizing my style.
I’d won that first title, and in the process of defending it and attaining a second, I was drawing a blank. Again, and again.
The deadline for the two stories was 13th December. That I’m alive to write this is a testament to me eventually handing in two stories I had written which, A. adhered to the specified word limits, and B. I was happy enough with (mainly because I ran out of time…I would probably still be working on them otherwise) to hand in.
Looking back, I wonder if I paid too much attention to The Thinking Men. Continuing success is not simply replicating the first big achievement, I see now. The hard work is necessary more than ever. Your successful assignment, sports season or new promotion doesn’t simply hold your hand once you’ve got it. It sits back and watches you try to do it again, only, this time, you have to trust yourself. Until now, I had been writing hoping to score my first First Class essay; each time hoping what I produced was tantamount to the accolade I sought. Now that I had it, it was all about trusting myself to slowly feel my way through. To put aside the achievement and stumble around again, still with hope, still with fear, but with the extra help of having the confidence in my own abilities.
I’ll find out whether I succeeded in January.


Saturday, 7 December 2013

The First Return

On Monday afternoon I was handed back an assignment. I’d submitted it about three weeks ago and, while I was curious (and more than a little nervous) about the score and feedback I would receive, I was surprised when the lecturer announced in the seminar that he had with him the marked and analysed copies to return to us.
            In my first ever post here, Destiny’s Implacability, I briefly discussed the possibilities of a system of, I suppose, pre-recorded and pre-ordained existences. For example: has life already been woven unto the largest tapestry ever, a tapestry interminably growing? Is there an omniscient God, spirit, or physical format controlling everything that has happened, is happening right now, and is going to happen? Seems very dubious. Much of what human beings do is determined, I think, by needs, wants, tastes, ambitions. One person’s personality can be starkly different to the next. One person might believe in a utilitarian greater good, another might fully support the ‘here and the now’, might even be a proponent for individual liberty.
            This particular assignment offered me the chance to look through the eyes of a prisoner with regards to liberty and collectivism.
Art — books, films, drawings, plays — is a channel, composed by one person (or a group), which can be used as a vessel to centralise a theme, an emotion, or a situation. Sometimes novels can be criticized for being too didactic. Excoriated for lacking real character development, for having a deficient plot; for focusing too intensely on expressing moral philosophical arguments through the channel of fiction. To a large extent, I agree. There are other methods available to encourage people to be thinking solely about the state of humanity. Blogging, philosophical writings, debating societies. Short videos on the internet. They can all be very efficient and powerful in sending a message. I believe that, if a theme is to be properly represented and expressed in fiction, it must be portrayed through strong characters who are shaped, often inexorably, by a plot that — at times — a character must be almost powerless towards. At times, never always, otherwise everybody would die.
            A human being in this world (which we term the real world), is as susceptible to the vicissitudes of life as a fictional character should be to a story’s plot. This is where the point of people being realistic comes in with regards to the process of writing. People have weaknesses. Everybody does. If somebody can look me in the eye and tell me they don’t have a single weakness, well, then you’re in for one hell of a future, my friend.
            People have weaknesses, and people can respond to weaknesses in others. We can place a hand on somebody’s shoulder and tell them, ‘I’ve been there, too,’; ‘I’m scared of heights as well, sucks, huh?’; ‘I know what it’s like.’ We can say all of these things. If characters in films and fictional writing can be like this — somebody who, in our heads, we can make eye contact with and share that moment which anneals an abstract friendship solely between oneself and the character, then the characterization has succeeded on some level. Our wants, needs, and ambitions are shaped by our experiences. A romantic weekend in Paris with your spouse during a time of financial stability and general happiness would be an experience uplifting to behold. It would be a time of joy and mirth, of laughter and joviality. A return to Paris on business, two years later, with the spouse six months deceased…how does the whole frame change? The recollection of the streets — once glowing with freedom and the sweet melodies of birdsong. Now strung taut with memories that tug at the heartstrings. Tug tighter and tighter until they snap. The violins and the open balconies; now just noise and nosey window-watchers. We are life and life is us. The world, as far as humans are concerned, can often be shaped by perceptions. Perceptions ever shifting as we go through emotional stage after emotional stage. The difference with fiction is that our imagination can empower these people. If the story is a crime novel, the writer has the power to ensure that eventually, the murderer makes a slight error. The detective stumbles across the right clue. Subtle details that mean life or death, unjust escape or just imprisonment. A fantasy novel, perhaps — magic, dragons, other weird and wonderful creatures and forms of the other which can endow people who (in the real world) would otherwise suffer, to rise up and make themselves heard. What about a romance story where the writer, through his or her belief in how events would play out honestly, composing the final chapter in such a way that there isn’t necessarily a gross ‘happily ever after’, but so that the characters have taken something from the experience. The tapestry might not be pre-woven. It might be wholly under the control of every one of us. As we live, we each contribute to that tapestry, until certain paths collide. Some might never collide — just think…seven billion people alive right now. How many will each of us never, ever, meet, befriend, and feel passion towards? At least three quarters?
            Themes do not need to be boldly smeared across the pages of a book, nor the screen of a film, as long as characters are identifiable on some level. The characters don’t even have to be human. More and more research continues to come to the fore about the intelligence and, perhaps, sympathy that certain animals can feel. And what of magical and wondrous creatures so many imaginative artists come up with? Is there anything to stop these other non-humans from feeling something humane? If the opportunity to reproduce exists among a species, might there be the possibility of intercourse for pleasure rather than to simply reproduce? And, following on from that, can these creatures, like humans, feel a passion greater than sexual lust? Characterization can enhance any story. It can allow us to see the themes (be the theme love, the sister bond, the brother bond, hatred, vengeance, death, birth, fear, cowardice, justice) through experiences that can be written or performed in an honest manner. Honest — by characters who vividly represent humanity.
            The assignment I received back was a science fiction short story entitled The Thinking Men. The story is set far into the future on an Earth which has destroyed itself by testing enhanced plasma weapons on the moon, thus rupturing Earth’s only satellite and triggering seismic earthquakes and mass flooding. The story homed in on a mainland village thriving upon a collectivist philosophy, led by a man who has been imprisoning intellectuals and scholars in order to prevent individualistic, liberty-driven thoughts from challenging this leader’s attempt to recreate a society that can function on a ravaged world like this. For reasons related to plagiarism, I’m unsure yet if I can post the story on here; however, if I can attain permission, I will offer it up, for any of you still riding this rollercoaster, to read.
            Why? Why should I do such a thing?
            Well, in Destiny’s Implacability, some of you might recall I discussed my essay collection process. Walking to the English and Creative Writing department to pick-up an essay or portfolio. Going through the different scores I might have attained; the moment when I’d tell my father I scored a 2:1, and how I’d only missed a First Class by only one or two marks.
            Well, The Thinking Men scored a First. And that got me thinking — was I destined to score my first First in the Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy module? Needless to say, I’ve been given a lift, and if we are our own arbiters with regards to this tapestry, I’m going to be trying my damned hardest to score more Firsts in the weeks and months to come.