Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The Secret Message in All Stories – Heather Dyer

According to Joseph Campbell, all stories contain certain elements – or archetypal motifs – in common. He designed a universal story structure or ‘mythic archetype’ that he called The Hero’s Journey.

Typically, the hero (whom Campbell is careful to say can be masculine or feminine) faces various challenges and meets archetypal characters who perform specific roles. The hero confronts a dragon or the equivalent, and either dies or appears to die in order to be resurrected. Only then does he receive a boon, or gift, which he takes back to the known world to benefit humanity.

The mythic archetype fits nicely into the other recognized ‘story structures’ such as the 3-act structure, the 5-act structure, and the 8-point plot arc. Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, recognized the pattern of The Hero's Journey in contemporary literature and film, and interpreted Campbell’s structure for use by Hollywood screenwriters. The Hero’s Journey, says Vogler, represents ‘the pattern that lies behind every story ever told’.

But if all stories adhere to this archetype – more or less – might there be an underlying message contained within this pattern, which remains consistent despite the content or theme of a story?

I am studying the mythic archetype for my doctoral thesis at the moment, and it occurs to me that The Hero’s Journey is in fact a metaphor for the creative process itself.

The Creative Journey

Look at the five-step process of creativity as described by people like Milhay Csikszentmihalyi:

1. a period of preparation, of ‘becoming immersed, consciously or not, in a set of problematic issues’
2. … followed by a period of incubation, during which ‘ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness
3. … which leads to one or more insights
4. … followed by a period of evaluation during which the person ‘must decide whether the insight is valuable and worth pursuing’
5. … and finally, elaboration, which consists of applying the insight or doing the work.

When Vogler studied The Hero's Journey, he said, ‘I came looking for the design principles of storytelling, but on the road I found something more; a set of principles for living’. I conclude that the principle for living is: ‘live creatively’.

In both the creative and mythic journeys, the hero or creative individual must first experience a sort of dissatisfaction with the way things are (often translated into a desire for something specific, which is often not what’s needed!). This desire motivates the hero or creative individual to leave the familiar behind, step off the familiar tracks, and venture into the unknown.

After a series of challenges and trials during which the tensions between opposites increase and the hero or creative individual gathers information and experience, there follows a period of incubation, in which the hero or creative person must defeat his or her own ego, since self-annihilation – or a deconstruction of the old self (or a letting-go of old ideas) is necessary in order to assimilate new knowledge. Once the gift of insight has been received, the creative hero must then bring the story full circle by returning to the known world and applying the new insight to benefit themselves and the world at large.

So, to live creatively like the hero we need to leave our assumptions and certainties behind, go bravely into that state of ‘not-knowing’, tolerate uncertainty and rise above our egoic fears and conditioned thinking in order to acquire new insights and expand our consciousness.

If we don’t do this, we end up enslaved by our conditioned thinking, defensive and insecure, stuck in our ruts, and intolerant of change. We can see this happening in the world around us now, and we have a choice: to grow, or die.

Only by adopting this creative mindset can we become the creative heroes of our own lives and of the world in general – which has been the message implicit in the archetypal structure of our stories all along...

Heather Dyer, Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Writers, can’t afford a holiday? Try awe instead – by Rowena House

Midway through August, and feeling disgruntled about not being able to get away this year, New Scientist came to the rescue with an article about the psychological, emotional and creative value of experiencing awe.
Apparently, feeling a sense of awe breaks down our habitual patterns of thinking, reducing the expectations and assumptions which otherwise colour our view of the world, and thus enables us to see better what’s actually going on.
“Feeling awestruck can dissolve our very sense of self, bringing a host of benefits from lowering stress and boosting creativity to making us nicer people,” says Jo Marchant in Awesome Awe (issue No 3136, July 29th, 2017).
Awe combines amazement, a hint of fear, and a sense of transcendence: that humbling knowledge of things beyond us.
Experiencing awe quietens regions of the brain normally occupied with self-interest and self-consciousness, increasing a sense of connection to others, and leading to more charitable thoughts and altruistic actions.
Astronauts are subject to awe so often when they look down on Earth from space that they’ve given it a specific name: the overview effect.
“Researchers have also reported increases in curiosity and creativity. In one study, after viewing images of Earth, volunteers came up with more original examples in tests, found greater interest in abstract painting and persisted longer on difficult puzzles, compared with controls,” Marchant says.
All of which reminds me of a conversation that creative writers often have with each other: what on earth should we do when inspiration dies?
Eating chocolate or cake are popular remedies. Taking hot baths or showers help a lot of us, too, along with walking the dog, meditation etc. etc.
The New Scientist article suggests that we’d be better off taking a daily dose of awe instead. (Controlled doses of psychedelic drugs seem to work as well, but I’ll leave it up to you to check out what the article has to say about that.) To benefit from awe, all we have to do is find out what triggers it in us, and do that as often as possible.
Maybe it’s taking time to absorb a sublime city skyline, or to lose ourselves in some great monument: a ruined temple of the Ancient World, a medieval cathedral or the Sky Tree in Tokyo. Staring into the branches of an ancient oak tree does it for me, or encountering a wild animal unexpectedly, or sitting by the untamed sea or under a starry sky.
One thing I miss most about not going on holiday is watching the churning wake of our ferry as we pull away from land, and the crying of gulls, which always leaves me with a liberating sense of surrender to the journey and the wider world.
This loss of self, with its accompanying connection to others, may sound like mystical mumbo-jumbo or pseudo-religion, but if awe is hard-wired by evolution into our brains – if it’s a natural, creative, mind-altering buzz – why not harness its power year-round?
Alternatively, we could max out on credit cards and go find some sunshine anyway.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Yet More Brilliant B's by Lynne Benton

Here are a few more great authors whose surnames begin with B. 

Elizabeth Beresford originally worked as a journalist but is now best-known as the creator of the Wombles.  The first book was published in 1968, and after its success on “Jackanory” the BBC decided to make it into an animated series for television.  With their strong theme of recycling, the Wombles became very popular with children across the world, and they remain her best known creation.

Angela Brazil was one of the first British writers of "modern schoolgirls' stories", written from the characters' point of view and intended primarily as entertainment rather than moral instruction.  In the first half of the 20th century she published nearly 50 books of girls' fiction, the vast majority being boarding school stories.  After WW11 books of this type became less popular, but she was still widely read into the 1960s.

Quentin Blake is perhaps best-known for illustrating books by Roald Dahl, but he has also written and illustrated many of his own books.  In 1999 he was created the first ever Children's Laureate, and in 2013 he was knighted.  One of his most popular books is Mister Magnolia.

Jeff Brown’s name is well-known around the world, but especially in the United States, as the creator of Flat Stanley.  Brown created Flat Stanley in a bedtime story for his sons. One was frightened by the possibility that the noticeboard above his bed would fall on him in the night. Brown dismissed the idea but joked that if it did his son would end up flat. The boys loved the idea, so he came up with more “what if” scenarios and eventually turned the stories into a book.  “Flat Stanley” was published in 1964, and was eventually followed by several more books about Stanley, though in most of these Stanley was not flat.

Anthony Browne is an author/illustrator, whose first, and most famous book is Gorilla.  It is the story of Hannah, who is so obsessed with gorillas that she dreams that her toy one turns into a real one, who becomes her special friend.

Judy Blume is another American writer, this time for teenage girls.  Born in 1938, she is credited as one of the first authors to write YA novels about difficult topics particularly relevant to readers.  Because of their subject matter (puberty, periods, masturbation and so on) they were often banned by schools and libraries, and some still consider them to be taboo.  According to Blume, "I wanted to be honest. And I felt that no adult had been honest with me. We didn't have the information we should have had." Perhaps her best-known book is “Are you there, God?  It’s me, Margaret”.

Antonia Barber wrote her most famous book, “The Mousehole Cat”, with beautiful illustrations by Nicola Bayley, based on a Cornish legend.  It is the story of fisherman Tom and his cat Mowzer, and what happens when a terrific storm prevents the fishermen from going out to sea, which means the village will starve.  However, Mowzer decides to tackle the great Storm Cat in order to save Tom and the village.

Henrietta Branford, who died of cancer in 1999, is best known for her book “Fire, Bed and Bone”, a historical novel set during the English Peasants’ Revolt in 1381.  After her death, the Branford-Boase Award for first-time writers was created in her name.

Robert Browning wrote one of the most famous narrative poems in the English language – The Pied Piper of Hamelin.  In 303 lines he tells the legend of a piper who is hired to rid the town of Hamelin of a plague of rats.  When he succeeds in luring the rats to their deaths in the river, however, the mayor refuses to pay him, so the piper lures the town’s children away, and they are never seen again.  Browning died in 1889.

I know there will be many more authors whom I haven’t mentioned, and I'm sorry if I've left out your favourite, but you’ll just have to forgive me.  Next time I’ll be going on to authors whose surnames begin with C.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Honor Arundel, YA Pioneer by Sheena Wilkinson

There’s a received wisdom that YA didn’t really exist until the last few decades, at least not in the UK. I don’t agree. I was a teenager in the eighties, and while there certainly wasn’t the choice of YA that there is today, nor is it true that we all went straight from the Famous Five to Margaret Drabble (via Jilly Cooper and Virginia Andrews).

In my local library in east Belfast there was a whole section labelled Young Adult. It wasn’t a large section, about five shelves, but it wasn’t all ‘Sweet Dreams’ romances. That’s where I encountered S.E. Hinton, Deborah Hautzig and early Jacqueline Wilson titles such as Waiting For The Sky To Fall. Many of K.M. Peyton’s books were there too – A Midsummer Night’s Death; Prove Yourself A Hero and of course the Pennington books.

my much-loved Honor Arundel books 

 K.M. Peyton was/is my absolute favourite, but there was another author whose books I returned to over and over again, which had a special resonance for me. Their settings – usually Edinburgh and the Scottish islands – felt much more familiar to me than the English or American settings which were more usual. They weren’t exactly contemporary: Honor Arundel died in 1973, aged only 54, and her novels dated from the mid-sixties to the very early seventies. Which means that not only was she writing YA, but doing so, like me, in her forties, not as a bright young thing.

The first time I visited Edinburgh I looked up at the impossibly tall old stone houses in the Old Town, and wondered which of them was the ‘high house’ where Emma lived with her artist aunt Patsy in the Emma series, probably Arundel’s best-known books.  On a recent visit I had exactly the same experience and came home and reread all my Honor Arundels. Hence this post. 

Keren David, another YA author who grew up with Arundel’s books, says, ‘I loved Honor Arundel because she wrote about a world that was outside my experience, but so interesting. In her 'Emma' books, Emma goes from a very conventional middle class home (much like my own) to live with her boho artist Aunt Patsy in Edinburgh. Every detail - food, clothes, art student parties, school - was memorable. And every time I get a well-timed cheque for freelance work I remember Aunt Patsy, and want to buy flowers and sparkling wine and chicken.’

As film critic for the communist Daily Worker, and married to a Scottish actor, the Welsh-born Arundel knew all about the freelance, artistic life, a world she explores most tellingly in A Family Failing.  A Family Failing isn’t an altogether successful book. Its structure is clumsy and it wears its earnestness just a bit too self-consciously (though as it is supposed to be ‘written’ by 18-year-old Joanna, perhaps this is Arundel being extra-clever?) But as the child of divorced parents I loved the way it dissected a family breakup, with the parents as real and vital as the teenagers, and actually, on a reread, much more nuanced.

Likeability is something that’s bandied round a lot in the teen book world. Is your main character likeable enough? Is she (I hate the word) relatable? And if she’s not, what dark trauma is she suppressing that gives her permission to be a bitch – it had better be tragic, and uncovered by a crushworthy love interest.  In 1971, with The Terrible Temptation, Arundel was much less squeamish and a great deal more original. Jan, the narrator, isn’t especially likeable at all: she is selfish, superior, determined to eschew messy personal involvements. And when she does fall in love with a crushworthy fellow student, she loses him because of how she is. And at the end of the book she does not get him back. There is a sequel, The Blanket Word, which is even darker – Jan is called home to her dying mother and is forced to reconnect with her family and her role in it. There are no easy solutions; no character transformations, but as a teen and again as an adult I was struck by the honesty, the bravery in presenting a character so unconventional and refreshing. And so self-aware. Lee Weatherly is another Arundel fan, who says, 'I especially love The Terrible Temptation and The Blanket Word, which show a young woman shifting from self-involvement to compassion. Yet there's nothing the least bit preachy in Arundel's work, and no easy answers are offered. Funny, touching and real, she portrays family relationships in all their messy, complex glory.' 

Jan is a student at Edinburgh University, and Eileen, in The Longest Weekend, a twenty-year-old single mother. Arundel’s books were genuinely young adult. In the last Emma book, Emma In Love, she is still at school but living in a flat with her brother, coping more or less alone with housekeeping and heartbreak. The scene where she sinks into depression, and thinks of ending her life, chilled me as a teen and still strikes a chord now. It was written in 1972.

For me as a teen reader, Arundel's books were profoundly aspirational. I didn’t want to be suicidal, but I did yearn to study in a beautiful old city (I chose Durham rather than Edinburgh), and to sit around philosophizing and to mix with artists and writers. And then to become one. Which I did, of course. I can’t give Honor Arundel all the credit, but she is certainly one of the authors who helped me on my way.  She’s also proof that YA was alive and well over forty years ago.


What other forgotten writers would people champion?

Saturday, 12 August 2017

A Good Old Rant – Ruth Hatfield

Last month I was invited to my old Sixth Form College, Hills Road in Cambridge, to talk to their creative writing group and the shortlisted authors in a short story competition they’d been running. I also had to judge the shortlist and select a winner, which was a job that sounded great on paper but was a bit overwhelming when it came to actually doing it – being responsible for raining on all the non-winning parades was a bit brutal. But the main dilemma I faced was that I don’t really talk much to older teenagers – my published books so far are all middle grade, and although I’ve written stuff for older readers it’s all now safely buried under tons of earth in the back garden making the worms happy.

The usual stuff about heroes and villains wasn’t going to cut it –sixteen year olds know a good about nuance and subversion, and have to face up to plenty of it in their everyday lives. And I know that teenagers’ lives have changed a lot in the last twenty years, so I suspect I don’t know much about what it’s like to actually be one, these days. What could I say that was relevant?

I floundered for a bit, then seized on it – this was actually brilliant! I could have a proper, emotional, political rant – the kind that usually only comes out after a beer or several. I’m terrified of being political in schools when talking to a younger audience, but the dark doubts of an author are often all-consuming, and at home I do tend to answer mine with the absolute conviction that creative writing is both personally helpful and of huge political importance.

It was easy to start and much harder to stop after that, and it felt so good to be able to talk about the things I really feel strongly about: the fact that art is so undervalued in terms of educational achievement (mainly because it’s hard to assess and mark, I guess); the fact that art is misunderstood, threatened, dismissed and discounted by authorities of all sorts; most of all, my own perception of the sad political situation we’re in now, where a hopeful ideology of any kind from any part of the political spectrum seems entirely absent. And the desperate need we have to counter this by remembering the value of new ideas, of imagination and of creativity.

I won’t replicate the entire rant here, mainly because I think in retrospect I could have said it much more succinctly by using those words of Emily Dickinson’s: “Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul/ And sings the tune without the words…” And just added: creative writing puts that tune into words. Words spread.

To those awful, unimaginative people who currently seem to make up the ruling establishment and hold our lives firmly by the throats, trying to tell us that the past was better, the best response can only be to keep writing about the beautiful future yet to come, to keep exploring and explaining our humanity to each other, in the certain conviction that we’ll be proved right in the end, even if we aren’t here to see it.

It was really, really great to be able to say that sort of thing not just to friends in the pub, but to an audience of strangers. Definitely another moment of feeling privileged to be a writer. I just have to work out how to say the same to year 6s now…

Friday, 11 August 2017

Of Borrowers and Borrowings - Catherine Butler

In an ABBA post last year the accomplished Clémentine Beauvais wrote about her experience of translating her young-adult novel, Les Petites Reines, into English as Piglettes. (If you haven’t read Piglettes yet, why not? It’s great! In fact, you should go out to the bookshop right now, buy it, read it, then come back and finish this post. You can thank me in the comments.) It was of special interest to me because translation is a subject I think about a lot, though not as a practitioner. In fact, I've spent much of this summer considering similar questions to those with which Dr Beauvais grappled.

You probably know (or know of) the classic 1952 Mary Norton novel The Borrowers, about a family of small people living in secret in the crannies of a large house. Perhaps you’ve also watched Studio Ghibli’s version of the story, Arrietty, named after the girl Borrower at the heart of the story? Naturally, Ghibli’s film was made in Japanese; the studio also moved the story from Bedfordshire to the suburbs of Tokyo. When it was subsequently dubbed into English, two versions were made, one (by Studio Canal) with a British cast and one (by Disney) with Americans – the latter being named The Secret World of Arrietty. Normally Ghibli dubs only exist in American English, something that can make for a strange experience when the original story is set in Britain (I’m looking at you, When Marnie Was There). Arriety's double-dubbing is unique, and it made me wonder what differences there might be between the two versions. So, I went and looked.

Having seen my own early novels Americanised for publication (paper rounds changing silently into a paper routes, a massacre of “u”s in words like “rumour”, an inserted sentence to explain just who Guy Fawkes was, etc.), I expected that the differences would be at this relatively low level. In fact, though, the English-language films diverge far more radically, and in a variety of ways.
  •         The American Arrietty is much sassier. Unlike her British and Japanese counterparts, for example, when her mother tells her to be careful, instead of promising she will she replies by teasing her: "Don’t worry Mother, I’ll get Papa back safely."
  •         Where the UK version follows Ghibli in leaving the ending of the film open, with the Borrowers voyaging to an uncertain new life in the outdoors, Disney adds a voiceover assuring viewers that they are going to be all right.
  •         An environmental speech about extinction was cut from the Disney film entirely, because (as the Disney screenwriter told me in an interview) environmentalism doesn’t play well with American audiences.

Even visuals are interpreted differently. For example, in the Japanese film (and British dub), Arrietty’s mother asks Arrietty and her father to take a cube of sugar from the house when they go borrowing. She then looks skyward, clasping her hands and anticipating the delicious taste of the drink she plans to make with it. In the American version of the film, this gesture is reframed as a Christian prayer…

"I could make shiso juice it’s delicious in tea." (Ghibli’s script)

"Oh, please God, please help them." (Disney script)

There’s much more to say about Arrietty in all its versions, but space is limited. Instead, I’ll add a tangential postscript and mention that last month in Tokyo I went to see Mary and the Witch’s Flower, the new film by the director of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Like the earlier films, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is based on a British children’s book, Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick (1971). Unlike them, however, its setting has not been transplanted to Japan. Judging by the architecture and landscape, the characters in Mary and the Witch’s Flower are living in England, indeed in Shropshire (the setting of the book). Of course, the characters still speak Japanese, which takes a little getting used to, but when they write things down they write them in English, which somehow seems even odder. Their clothes are plausibly British, too – with one bizarre exception. That’s Mary’s friend Peter, who in the book is the son of the local vicar. In Mary and the Witch’s Flower he wears a backwards baseball cap and a Varsity jacket, as if he had just wandered in from a college campus somewhere near Indianapolis. I really can't imagine why:

Can you?

Thursday, 10 August 2017

National Book Lovers Day by Jess Butterworth

As I write this, it is National Book Lovers Day, a day for bibliophiles to celebrate their love of books. This day always reminds me of Matilda, by Roald Dahl, and the feisty five-year-old protagonist who makes her life bearable by teaching herself to read, devouring books and surrounding herself in literature from her local library. It’s also one of my favourite books!

In my mind, Book Lovers Day isn’t limited to once a year, so here are some ways to celebrate your love of reading every day!

1.    Visit a library.

2.    Find a favourite spot to read, or make a reading nook.

3.     Try a book swap with a friend.

4.     Read blogs about books.

5.     Join a book club.

6.     Attend a literary festival or author event.

7.     Buy a new notebook to start your own story in.

8.     Write a review. It will make an author’s day and be valuable to other readers too.

9.   Visit bookshops. 

10.  Read aloud. 

Happy Reading!

Jess Butterworth 
Running on the Roof of the World is out now. 

Find out more about Jess on her websiteTwitter, or Facebook.