Writing and the End Times

Recently, I have jokingly told people that we are living in the End Times. As with all jokes, there’s a kernel of truth buried within it and for me that truth is the feeling of suffocating under the dire global news.

I don’t want to write this post to doomsay or make you feel worse about anything so I won’t dwell on the issues themselves, but I think it is important to acknowledge that those things are going on in the world and equally the effect they might be having on us as individuals, certainly on me as an individual.

This post turned out to be a bit of a ramble, so please do feel free to duck out now and do something fun, I won’t be offended! But if this is something you’ve been worried about then maybe this could help you too.

Partly I’m writing this as a reaction to Tim Clare’s ‘ramble’ podcast ‘Why Write At The End Of The World’ which mirrors some of the feelings that I’ve been having recently and partly to address the mental health struggle I’ve had over the past few months. And partly I’m writing this for me, to clarify my own thoughts and feelings to myself, but I hope that this might help you too.

(side note: if you haven’t listened to Tim Clare’s podcast both he and it are brilliant. Maybe don’t start with that episode though… here’s a link to a wonderful critique of a writer’s first page)

With the looming cliff-edge that is Brexit, the increasingly hot waters of climate change, and – on a more personal level – a faltering sense of purpose in my day-job I’ve been struggling with my mental health and staying positive. As a way to try and deal with it I’ve taken a step away from news and social media (including unsubscribing to various political organisations’ accounts so that any time I did log in I wasn’t bombarded with the issues I felt overwhelmed by) and sporadically been trying to be a positive person in the writing community.

Listening to Tim Clare talk about writing in the face of the seeming apocalypse was in some ways reassuring for me as I realised that I’m not alone in feeling overcome by these issues, but it also made me want to clarify and offer my own thoughts on the importance of storytelling and why we should keep doing it.

I’ll be using the term ‘stories’ or ‘storytelling’ here in place of ‘writing’ as for me writing has been intrinsically tied up with novels and short stories but recently I’ve been finding great joy in playing Dungeons and Dragons with friends and watching Critical Role. I think that roleplaying games or any other form of storytelling is just as important as any other as long as it helps people to enjoy themselves, forget their troubles for a while, and/or foster a sense of empathy and goodwill to all.

Firstly, I don’t think we’re done telling stories for everyone. To use superhero films as an example, it seems that there are some people out there that starting to feel exhausted with all of the superhero films that are out there.

I get that. There are a lot.

But we’re not done with them. I’m glad that we are still getting new superheroes that can inspire a whole new generation of people, especially when they’re different than the heroes that came before them.

When I was younger and Spider-Man came out, the first one with Tobey Maguire I was totally enthralled and excited by Spider-Man. I saw reflections of myself in him. My almost-teenager-self saw another kid who would rather read books than go out and play sports and he was the hero. Spider-Man remains today one of my favourite superheroes and I hope that with the Spider-verse film other children are as inspired by him as I am.

Part of seeing Spider-Man as a reflection of myself is that he was just that – he’s white, he’s male – like so many superheroes. Now we’re seeing new stories for a much wider range of superheroes from all backgrounds, all ethnicities and creeds. That means all children can be just as inspired as I was. I hope everyone gets a superhero they can see themselves in, see themselves becoming, and I hope it inspires everyone to tell their own story.

For me, stories are also important because they present you with a (usually) completed plot, or at least the promise of one. A story, and here I am leaning on completed things like books, movies, games, is a neat collection of issues that should be tied up by the time you’re finished. The characters aren’t worried about Brexit or how fulfilling my job is. They’re driven to complete their own goals and there’s something liberating in that. As long as you’re reading, watching, playing this story then that’s all that matters. Sure, some of our problems might be reflected or paralleled, but by the end of the story they should be resolved. We can let out the breath we’d been holding. For me, that’s a wonderful form of release.

I guess my point here is that having a bundle of issues wrapped up in a narrative that we can escape into isn’t a bad thing. Yes, we should be wary not to totally disengage from the world, but I’m sure we can all stand to take an 80,000 word trip on a space ship.

If we can offer someone an escape for a little while, an adventure in space or against a dark lord, then isn’t that enough?

I’m not saying we should put down the stories that are closest to our hearts and instead create stories we think we should write. That way madness lies. We should try and write the stories that set us on fire and light up our eyes. I recently re-read one of my favourite books, Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson, and no one’s going to say that’s a happy book. But because I have already read it and loved it, it felt like curling up in a well-worn armchair. It was the sigh of returning home and the comfort, the relief of revisiting a favourite story. I loved every second of that book even though I knew it was going to break my heart.

And for me, that’s the crux of it.

I’ve seen a few articles online citing that it might be that scientists will save us, but it is the arts that keep the scientists sane. And surely that’s true for the rest of us too?

Stories have kept me sane. They’ve been my buffer against burnout numerous times and they’ve been my ticket to wondrous places and amazing people. When I think about why I should write right now and start feeling overwhelmed by the news I try to remember what stories have done for me. I think about that and hope that maybe what I’m working on will help someone else in the same way.

I can’t say for sure if it will, but if there’s even a slim chance then I’m going to try.

Stories are unbridled joy, empathy, new experiences and comfort. They are sorrow and heartbreak. They are fear and love and everything in between.

There are stories in me that no one else can tell the same way. There are stories I’m excited to roleplay with my friends so we can tell them together. There are stories I can’t even begin to imagine right now but I’ll hear someone else tell them and fall in love with them.

Stories are important to me and I hope that we all keep telling them.

The Joy in Nature Writing

Recently I’ve been pushing my nose into books about nature. A little as a way to escape the skyscraper shadows of central London and also to try and connect myself with the country side that I get glimpses of on the way into and out of work.

I just wanted to write up a quick blog post to rave about a couple of the books I’ve read and found have begun a slow-burning ache in my chest to get ‘back to nature’. I think that part of this ache is in part due to the wonderful writing of these books.

First: Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane.9780241967874

This is the first book that I’ve read by Robert MacFarlane, an academic and travel writer, and I think for me it might have been the perfect one to start with.

The book is a collection of glossaries of place words; words and phrases that have very specific meanings and definitions related to the natural world. The glossaries are split between the kinds of terms, for example a glossary for the ‘flatlands’ or ‘uplands’, ‘coastlands’ and ‘wetlands’.

Robert MacFarlane’s writing captures, celebrates, and defends the use of these place terms and their enchanting specificity. Accompanying each glossary is an essay exploring one or two other nature writers who have written something on that particular subject (which has also added a sizeable list of books to be purchased) and here Robert MacFarlane comes into his own with his absolutely fantastic prose.

I absolutely urge everyone to take a look at his book and here are a couple of links to give you a sneak preview:

Listen to a preview on Audible

Or on the Penguin website

And a (now ended) competition shows some of the definitions 

 

The second: Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson (translated from the French by Linda Coverdale)

consolations-of-the-forest_LR

This book is a journal for Sylvain Tesson as he lives on the edge of Lake Baikal in southern Siberia. Tesson begins his stay at the edge of the lake, living in a cabin on his own and miles from any other person, in March and continues through to July. The writing is broken up into journal entries for each day which provide a mosaic view of life nestled in nature where the influence of civilisation is minimal at best and non-existent almost everywhere else.

Tesson’s writing really captures the magnificent power and dangerous beauty of the natural world (and here I would like to also comment that Linda Coverdale has done a wonderful job translating as the magic of the phrases still shines through). There is clearly some resentment for the busy, technologically saturated modern world which feeds into how the entries are written but they really convey the wonderful feeling that can come from solitude in the wilderness (along with perhaps a wary caution of spiralling into a comfy stupor inside a warm cabin with a large supply of vodka).

The beauty in this books comes, not only from the prose, but in the glorious simplicity of a life reduced to its core components. I think that the entry from the fourth of April sums it up very well:

4 April

Today I read a lot, skated for three hours in a Vienesse light while listening to the Pastorale, caught a char and harvested a pint of bait, looked out of the window at the lake through the steam of my black tea, chopped up a tree trunk nine feet long and split two days of wood, cooked and ate some good kasha, and reflected that paradise was right there for the taking in the course of my day.

A link to the publisher’s website