Monthly Archives: August 2015

Weaknesses of the Flesh

In my tribute to Eugene and Pieter, I spend some time introducing the nature of the environment in which Eugene and I were brought up. In order to understand my brother, his experiences and the type of person he was it is necessary to understand the environment which shaped him in so many ways.

A number of events this week reminded me just how deeply the culture of our immediate environment contributes to our behaviours. Their influence will more often than not determine the choices we do or don’t make. We had a strict upbringing that advocated moderation in every way other than work. Our Calvinistic envirPlessixonment meant that working hard was seen as honorable. This philosophy was possibly taken to extremes by a further belief that considered idleness to be avoided at all costs. An idle state was seen as leading to all manner of bad behaviours that will eventually get one into trouble. However, the result was that one was forever driven to be active and suffered feelings of guilt when indulging in any time for relaxation.

Coupled with this need to avoid idleness was the exercise of constraint over impulses including that of joyfulness. Tears were expected to follow too much jollity. A family of four children on holiday in our village with their parents once again reminded me of this saying. Our house in France faces the village square. This means we are very much in the heart of the comings and goings of the village. Opposite our house is the second home of a family living in one of the large cities in France, which they normally rent out during the summer months

The family holidaying here at the moment came across as a very jovial and joyful lot. They spent hours playing and chasing each other in the pool, accompanied by what I thought at times to be excessive shrieks of laughter (or was this my own cultural values of constraint kicking in?). I reflected on how rarely I have encountered such a happy family with parents clearly enjoying every minute with their children. However, today saw an equally vocal argument between the parents with a visible distressing impact on the younger boy. Of course every family has disagreements, but I was reminded of our cultural admonishment that just as night follows day, tears would inevitably follow laughter.

A few days ago I read a very moving posting of a fellow blogger who is sharing her experiences of coping with terminal cancer. Having responded to treatment for a period of time, her cancer returned with a vengeance. Her oncologist confirmed the inevitable, but guaranteed she would at least have the summer months. She decided to delay the treatment she would need to help with the increased pain for two months and have a final summer with her family, travelling to the States for a holiday they had always planned for ‘one day’. Unfortunately, that ‘one day’ never came as she took a sudden turn for the worst.

This triggered in my mind the debate between delayed vs instant gratification. Again, there are no hard and fast rules. Exercising constraint where gratification is concerned teaches us self-discipline and helps us to achieve our goals. Plessix2On the other hand, seeking instant gratification can have negative consequences for both the individual as well as others. An example that comes to mind is the greed of the bankers and their addiction for immediate gratification, which has resulted in the collapse of many economies. The repercussions of their pursuit for instant gratification have had significant and long-term consequences for many people around the world.

How does all this relate to Eugene and his journey with terminal cancer? In the first instance, his work ethic meant he continued to work in a stressful environment despite the pain and side affects from his treatment that he had to endure. The positive of this was it helped to take his mind off coping with cancer and everything that went with that. On the other hand would he have had more time and energy in the early stages of cancer to allow himself to indulge in things he denied himself because they may have been seen as too indulgent or frivolous? Having delayed gratification until later in his life, he had run out of time, health and energy to enjoy the things he had always dreamt of doing once he retired.

My conclusion is that it is ultimately about maintaining a happy balance without having the pendulum swing too far from one side to the other.

The Creative Inspiration of Growing Tomatoes

I discovered this week that growing tomatoes and creative writing have a lot in common. TomatoesMy mother had a passion for plants and she successfully grew many exotic species, including an abundant supply of fruit and vegetables. In order to share her interest, my father decided to try his hand at growing some tomatoes. In keeping with his approach when embarking on a new adventure, my father spent time researching to find at all he needed to know about growing tomatoes.

These were the days before modern technology and the Internet and research involved visiting the local library to find the relevant books. He spent many evenings pouring over his chosen books which offered advice on the most appropriate soil, which tomatoes grow best in what climate, the required amount of water and light and so forth. Finally, and with exasperation after a few days, he asked no one in particular, just how is it possible for any tomatoes to actually make their way to the table? Despite all the advice of how to grow tomatoes, there was equally an overwhelming amount of information on how to avoid the many diseases and insects waiting to sabotage your tomatoes from reaching maturity.

I remembered this story when making a tomato salad for lunch one day this week. F&VDuring the summer months we are blessed with juicy, sun drenched tomatoes in France. I always think of my mother and how much she would have loved the many varieties of fruit and vegetables we have to choose from this time of the year. The supermarkets overflow with mountains of bright, colourful displays of melons, peaches, nectarines, apricots, aubergines, peppers, to name only a few.

The anecdote of my father and his tomatoes resonates with me as I am grappling with the endless advice on how to write creatively. Unlike my father, I have infinite access to information on the Internet, a multitude of blogs filled with advice, not to mention all the rules to abide by if you are ever going to get anywhere near being a mediocre, not to mention, a successful creative writer. Many a day I find myself wondering whether I have bitten off more than I can chew. I spend almost as much time on learning how to write as the actual writing itself!

One of the challenges of speaking more than one language is that you don’t necessarily speak any one perfectly. I am always conscious to avoid translating from one language into another, especially the translation of metaphors. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to translate meaning accurately from one language to another. Not to mention the endless rules on grammar, guaranteed to kill any spark of creativity or inspiration. In my case I have to pay more attention to the use of grammar than a native speaker might have to do. Another example of the many rules you have to bear in mind when writing is that of split infinitives. The rule against split infinities appeared in the 1800s, yet language is a living thing and continues to evolve. Should we therefore be gagged and bound by rules dating back hundreds of years? I have no doubt that the purists among you will say with passion and conviction that of course we do!

All the many dos and don’ts of writing seem to imply that they separate those from who can write from those who can’t. Is writing therefore merely about mastering its many rules and the more capable you are of doing so, the more successful you are at writing? What about inspiration and creativity? Where do they fit in? Creative writing allows us to entertain, create awareness, express ourselves and share emotions, feelings and thoughts. Losing sight of the purpose of writing and getting side tracked by too many rules is in danger of derailing the creative process, especially as a novice.

I was therefore relieved and comforted when I came across the statement of Alan Gillespie (@afjgillespie), which reads: “I always tell students that there are no set rules for writing and they can write whatever they like.” However, he goes on to say that there are two rules he encourages students to use, namely “show, don’t tell” and “all adverbs must die”. I concur that there are many “rules” which will enhance the product of our writing. However, from personal experience I suggest this is not the place to start when building your confidence as a creative writer.

So, just as with my father’s challenge of growing tomatoes, there are many rules for me to take into account if I am likely to do justice to the tribute for Eugene and Pieter.

Emotions and Creative Writing

A hangover from my days as a researcher and writer for academic publications is the fact that your voice doesn’t count. On the other hand, creative writing is all about your own voice. As an academic writer your responsibility is to prove something or to develop a “thesis”. This is achieved through reasoning and providing evidence by referencing the research of others. Conducting your own research will further aid your objective of proving or refuting a hypothesis.

Words associated with academic writing are objective, focused, conservative and neutral to name but a few. As a writer your opinion doesn’t count either; your ability to construct arguments do. Statements without the support of evidence will never reach the stage of publication. Furthermore, explicit use of emotional language is equally a taboo in academic writing, not to mention the use of expletives! I am also conscious that my upbringing to abide by the rules of society to be polite and to mind my Ps and Qs are also factors influencing my style of writing. An understanding of, and abiding by the social graces of the culture in which you find yourself, is crucial if you are interested in developing meaningful relationships in that culture. Subconsciously I continue to censor my voice so as not to offend the eventual readers of my book by being perceived as too emotional or controversial.

However, my tribute to Eugene and Pieter is unashamedly emotional; it cannot be anything other. It was therefore with great relief when I came across the blog of Jamie Lee Wallace of @suddenlyjamie, and her recent posting entitled, Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Embrace your Darker Side. Creative writing is dependent on the emotions and passions of the writer. After all, it is the deeply held emotions about a particular subject that spurs us on to write about it. If I had not felt passionate and deeply touched by the journey Eugene endured through living with terminal cancer or the poignant impact of Pieter’s selfless love and support to Eugene, I would not have embarked on the journey of writing their tribute in the first place. And yes, their lives were interspersed with prejudice being a gay couple and were significantly influenced by the society in which they lived and loved. Writing about these issues will be controversial and will no doubt evoke strong emotions in others.

Readers are attracted not only to what we write, but also how we write. The how is dependent on the passion we bring to the particular subject or issue. EmotionsThe tension we create through the use of emotions, conflict and controversy is what attracts readers to our writing. Writing that inspires, captivating the imagination of the reader, requires writers to embrace and acknowledge their darker side. Writers need to dive into the deep, dark waters where emotions live. Only then will they be able to take the reader on the emotional journey of the characters, whether they are fictional or real.

It takes courage to open the Pandora’s box, especially if this darker side has been kept in check for a long time. I am also aware that the pendulum shouldn’t swing too far to the other side. The use of emotion and passion should be used when appropriate and not just for its own sake. It is a fine balance to maintain and one way of achieving this is to become conscious of emotions as they surface. The writer needs to feel the emotions in order to stimulate the same emotions within their readers.

Through emotions the reader is drawn into another world and for a brief period of time they become someone other than who they are, sharing experiences that are different from their real world. For a few hours the fictional world becomes real. The use of emotions allows the reader to share the adventures of the characters in the book. Although the experiences may be fictional, the emotions are not.

Again I return to the benefit of building an intimate relationship with my muse. It is she that will provide me with the route into my emotions, allowing the characters of Eugene and Pieter to become vivid and alive to the reader.

Why Blog?

I offered an introduction to the purpose of my blog when I first embarked on this journey a few months ago and this post is therefore to pause and reflect on my initial thoughts. It is also a good time to reflect on the journey hitherto and whether I have been true to my initial goals for the blog.

Having spent nearly 20 years as an academic and executive coach, I decided to take an indefinite sabbatical nearly a year ago. The reason for such a drastic step was to devote my time writing a tribute to two very special people. They are my brother, Eugene and his partner of 23 years, Pieter. Like millions of other gay couples around the world, they got on with living their lives until the day Eugene was diagnosed with terminal prostrate cancer. The privilege of bearing testimony to their love and support for each other was the prompt for taking the radical decision to take time out from my career and to publish a tribute in their honour.

The purpose of this blog is therefore to share with you my personal journey of writing this tribute. Although I have published in many academic journals as well as a number of academic books, I have found this is a very different style of writing. My blog is a way of reflecting on the journey of (re)discovering a new way of writing and the trials and tribulations I encounter along this journey. The blog will also serve as an extension of the book I will eventually publish in honour of Eugene and Pieter and serve to reach out to others in a similar position.

Since embarking on this adventure, I am fascinated with the many detours it is leading me on and who knows where it will eventually end….

The Rituals of Writing

It struck me this week that I have certain rituals I engage in before I actually start the process of writing. It got me thinking about the role of rituals and their possible benefits and contribution to the writing process. Where do they come from and why do we engage in rituals in the first place?

We associate certain activities with the ritual of writing, which may include words, gestures and objects incorporated into a set sequence. Rituals go beyond individual actions and are to be found in many group activities. Every culture has its own rituals associated with important events, such as wedding ceremonies, celebratory events, funerals, worship as well as rites of passage. In time these rituals are woven into the very fabric of a society and form a key part of the culture and traditions of that particular community.

Most athletes, either as individuals or teams, have their own rituals they engage in at the start of a game or race. Ritual 3The example that immediately springs to mind is the blood curling sounds of The Haka performed by the New Zealand rugby team. It was traditionally a war cry or dance and is used by the All Blacks to get the team psyched up for the game and at the same intimidate their opponents; intimidate it certainly does!

What about writing rituals? What purpose do they serve? It would appear that writing rituals involve the environment in which we write, time associated with the process and, of course, our behaviours. It is vital for our environment, or nest as some writers refer to their writing space, to be conducive to the act of writing. A common theme shared by many writers is that the writing envitonment has to be a consistent space. However, I have also found that changing the space facilitates a different experience and therefore different ideas. It might also be due to my wandering lifestyle that I have learnt to first and foremost create an internal writing space irrespective of my physical environment. The writing environment also includes various objects, which may seem to us as though they possess some magical powers necessary to the ritual of writing.

Rituals associated with time include the time of day we feel at our most creative, whether that is early in the morning, late at night or certain times during the day. Associated with time is the need for beginnings and endings. Without boundaries time becomes intimidating and even paralyzing whereas defined chunks of time for writing are manageable. We do not always have the luxury of selecting a specific time for writing and we may therefore need to write whenever we have some spare time, even if it is less than the ideal time or space.

Finally, there are our behaviours associated with writing, which may seem not only eccentric but also bizarre to anyone observing our behavioral rituals.Ritual 2 These behaviours are normally repetitious and may seem unrelated to the actual process of writing. These actions, even though mundane, serve to set the scene and get us into the right frame of mind for creative thinking. Writing rituals help to reduce the anxiety of writing and engender a sense of being in control of the activity of writing. Furthermore, it also creates discipline and structure without which there would probably be no creative output. One of my all time favourite examples of eccentric writing rituals is that of the poet Friedrich Schiller who found inspiration from the smell of rotting apples underneath his desk! It reminded him of when he was young and very much in love, wandering through the apple orchards.

To begin with, RitualsI always make a pot of coffee before sitting down in front the computer. The making of coffee is, of course, a ritual in itself. I also need silence so that I can hear the whisperings of my muse. The silence also allows me to read out aloud what I have written so that I can hear whether it makes sense or not. It also helps to bring my writing to life. However, there are times when I find that the sounds of soft classical music or opera help to stimulate ideas. Today is one such day and as I’m writing the exquisite, haunting melody of violin strings playing the theme of Schindler’s List fill my writing space. Eugene was passionate about music and the soft sound of music revives my memories of him, bringing him into my writing space.

In previous postings I reflected on the nature of our muse and I believe that ritual in all its many forms, is the domain of our muse. I also think they are essential if we are to entice our muse from her resting place and to deliver an award winning performance on the creative stage. No doubt you have your own rituals of writing that is necessary for you to begin and maintain the creative process of writing.