Wisdom 2.0 and the growth of mindfulness

What would Christianity be like today if someone had videoed the Sermon on the Mount and put it on YouTube? Would Jesus get more views than Justin Bieber? Unlikely. But I believe that if such a video appeared today, our understanding of Christianity would be profoundly transformed.

We don’t have the Sermon on the Mount. But there are sources of wisdom available today via the wonders of the interwebs that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.

Wisdom is an underused word these days I think. We talk about intelligence and knowledge. But to quote from buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield from the video below – we are technological giants and ethical infants. If intelligence is the ability to build a nuclear bomb, wisdom is the ability not to use it.

Jack Kornfield and Jon Kabat-Zinn are two people that I would qualify as genuinely ‘wise’. Today I found a video of them speaking together at the Wisdom 2.0 conference just a few days ago. The video is over an hour long, so you might want to watch it when you have time to give it some attention.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/20411862]

The topic of their discussion is mindfulness. If any single idea is emerging from the viral spread of wisdom through the internet, it is mindfulness. It’s an idea that can be found in all the worlds spiritual traditions, but belongs to the dogma of none of them. It’s a simple idea. To be mindful is to be aware of the moment you are in, and through that awareness become able to make better, wiser decisions. And it is an idea that is quickly being adopted in medicine, psychology, education and politics.

I would argue that many of the problems we as a world face today – environmental destruction, economic collapse, the continued spread of warfare and violence – are not caused by a lack of intelligence, but a lack of wisdom. Maybe then the solutions are not to be found either in grand political ideologies, or in forceful revolution, but simply in every single one of us learning to be mindful of the moment we are in. The consequences of that might be truly revolutionary.

Here is Thich Nhat Hanh also talking on mindfulness.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/14176868]

Memory of Uncle Peter

I have received three truly memorable Chistmas presents in my life. One was a watch. One was an Optimus Prime transformer toy (memorable because I snaped the heroic Autobot leaders arm off three miniutes after unwrapping him and spent the rest of the day in tears). And one was a lump of plasticine.

My Uncle Peter was a rare visitor when I was young. I think I saw him three times as a child, and never met him as an adult. When I was a boy he already seemed incredibly old. White hair. A white beard. And a peaked denim cap. The kind many painters of a certain era wear.

Uncle Peter was one of those rare people born with a talent. A natural draughtsman, who could draw almost anything by eye. That kind of talent gives people a rare freedom. From his thirties onwards Peter travelled the world, drawing potraits of tourists to make a living, and making other, maybe more important artworks as opportunities came up. He was, in my uncle Roy’s words, a ‘supreme hippy’, a follower of the swami. Which I guess means he was a seeker in the Buddhist / Taoist / Hindu traditions, all those Eastern wisdoms that came to the West from the 60’s onwards.

I think I was about six, give or take a year or two, when Uncle Peter arrived home for Christmas. Home at the time was a wobbly concept, I think my family had been through several years of moving from place to place and temporary accommodation, so I don’t remember where we were living. From the stories he told during his visit, Peter had been travelling in North America, living with native Americans, and working the tourist areas of Israel. I can understand now the powerful mix of emotions travellers feel when they return home, and find home is no longer as they remember.

Peter arrived carrying a plastic shopping bag. In the bag where not just one or two, or even a dozen, but at least twenty packets of plasticine. The basic cardboard envelopes, each with a dozen stripes of coloured clay. The kind of present a man might buy at the last minute, remembering he is arriving at a house with a young child at Christmas. But also the kind of present a creative imagination picks, the kind of present designed to ignite the latent spark of creativity in a younger mind.

Uncle Peter didn’t mind about making anything from the plasticine. He helped me unwrap all the packets of clay, and then together we kneaded them ALL together in to one MASSIVE SWIRLING MULTICOLORED BALL OF RAW POTENTIAL. Simply, if I have ever come close to understanding why an Eternal Creator might bother turning chaos in to an ordered universe, it was while playing with that plasticine.

(clay in this state quickly becomes a hardened mass of dull grey brown nothing…the lesson being that you have to create while your material is hot with primal power, whether it is plasticine, words or the fundamental building blocks of matter)

I don’t know if Peter helped me towards becoming an artist that holiday. I was, to be frank, almost certainly corrupted from birth in that regard. But he took the time to share his creative spark with me, wrapped up in a big lump of plasticine.

Peter passed away earlier this week, in Pune, India where he had lived for many years, among friends I am told. He had been diagnosed with leukemia, but choose not to return to the UK for treatment. He was a traveller all his life, and while I never got to meet him as an adult, I hope I get to meet him in some future, wherever all our travels continue.

REPOST: The new world of New Weird

I have decided to repost my Guardian articles on this blog, simply because I want to keep a record of the full texts as published. I know it’s unlikely that the Grauniad will disappear any time soon, but stranger things happen…

Three years on from the original publication of this piece, and more than a year since I last commented on the subject, we are still waiting for the Next Weird. In early 2008 I was writing at what would prove to be the tail end of a remarkably innovative and exciting period in British SF publishing. Now the major UK imprints are caught in what seems to be a descending cycle of commercial conservatism. Let’s hope the pendulum swings back in the other direction, and we start to see SF as a home of literary experimentation again.

***

The new world of New Weird
Why is genre fiction now the real home of literary experimentation?

When M John Harrison started the debate that would crystallise definitions of the term “New Weird” in 2003, much of the creative energy that had driven the movement had already moved on. As editor Jeff VanderMeer says in his introduction to the first comprehensive anthology of the movement, the New Weird is dead. Long live the Next Weird.

Much of that early creative energy was generated in Britain. With the decline of Interzone magazine in the mid to late 90s, a space opened in British genre writing for a new approach. Into that space came The Third Alternative, intended by publisher Andy Cox as a home for writing that blended fantasy, science fiction and horror with an experimental edge. This collision of genres and the resurgent interest in horror among a generation of young writers became the defining aspects of the early New Weird.

In 2000, the nascent movement was catalysed by what is now widely acclaimed as the New Weird’s seminal text, China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. Miéville, who had already built a cult following with his short fiction, outspoken socialist politics and confrontational opinions on traditional genre fiction, scored both a critical and commercial success with his epic novel. Set in the violent, filthy streets of Bas Lag – a fantastic re-imagining of Victorian London, Perdido Street Station captured the gnarly essence of New Weird and combined it with a well-crafted pulp narrative accessible to a broad readership.

Alongside Miéville’s novel, Jeff Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, KJ Bishop’s The Etched City and Steph Swainston’s The Year of Our War’brought the New Weird fully into the world. While none replicated Miéville’s commercial success, each added unique new facets to the genre. Over the same period a number of British writers not directly involved with the New Weird produced work that shared some of its ambitions. Charles Stross’s Accelerando, Justina Robson’s Natural History and later Hal Duncan’s Vellum were at the cutting edge of a revolution in genre fiction.

But if the New Weird was revolutionary, it was a revolution that was playing out over decades. The revolutionary energy that drove the New Weird had manifested itself many times before in genre fiction. Way back in the 60s, a clutch of writers including the now legendary figures of JG Ballard, Thomas M Disch, Harlan Elison and Brian Aldiss achieved a very similar revolution around the Michael Moorcock-edited New Worlds magazine. In Reagan’s and Thatcher’s 80s the cyberpunk movement captured a new, darker vision and launched the careers of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling among others.

In fact, while frequently characterised as unoriginal and bland, the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres had been engaged in a non-stop process of revolution and evolution stretching back to HG Wells and Jules Verne, through Philip K Dick and Ray Bradbury and on to the writers of the New Weird.

So what is this revolution struggling towards? For serious writers of speculative fiction the prize has always been the belief that the unrealities of science fiction, fantasy and horror provide unique tools with which to dissect the realities of our world. Those tools have been so successful that the language of speculative fiction has become one of the most powerful forces in contemporary culture. You only have to switch on a TV or load up a video game to find yourself immersed in the worlds of sci-fi.

If the New Weird writers represent a turning point it is because they are the first generation of writers to grow up completely immersed in the culture of sci-fi. For such writers the language of speculative fiction is the first and preferred means of expression, because it is the only way to describe a real world permeated on every level with unreality, fantasy and fiction. Whatever the Next Weird may bring, it seems certain that the real experimental energy of literature will remain in genre fiction.

Wordcount – an overrated measure of progress?

As writers it is natural that we look for some measure of our progress, day to day, when it comes to the work of writing. And make no mistake, writing is work. Yes, it’s inspiration also. But in truth, most things worth doing require some element of inspiration. And they also all require work, the uninspired, often mundane act of placing one brick on top of another until the wall is built, and the great palace of the imagination completed.

So it seems like common sense to use a wordcount as a measure of work done on a piece of writing. From one perspective the word is the basic building block of writing, the brick from which we build our walls. It’s a common sense assumption popularised by the pulp writing ethos where words written literaly equated to pennies earned, and by participatory writing programmes like NaNoWriMo where just getting the words down on paper is the goal. I’ve grown up as a writer with the pulp ethos, and will continue to fail at NaNoWriMo as long as my fingers are able to type, but increasingly I wonder if wordcount is a counterproductive way of measuring our progress as writers.

In fiction at least, it is not the word that is the basic building block, but the scene. When I’m writing well, I’m not thinking about how many words I’m putting down on paper, any more than a draughtsman counts the number of strokes in a drawing. I’m thinking about what I need to do to make the scene at hand live and breathe. What do I need to say about the location? What narrative information do I need leading in to and out of the scene? What do the characters want, and what is going to change for them as the scene turns? Beat by beat the scene plays out on paper, and scene by scene the story is built.

Now I can sit down and write two thousand words and not write a single scene. Alternatively, I might spend the same amount of time and only write two lines of dialogue, but if they are two lines that turn a pivotal scene and bring the sory to life, I’ve made more progress. Or in the time taken to write that two thousand words, I might just sit and let my imagination flow and discover a wonderful new level of depth in one of my characters which I then capture in two hundred words and again, though the wordcount is less, the progress is greater.

Wordcount satisfies our most literal need to feel we have made progress with the work of writing fiction. But in satisfying that need, in pushing through to some arbitrary wordcount it is easy to neglect the space that the imagination needs to do the real work of creating a rich and meaningful story.

As alternatives to a wordcount I use two things. The first is a scene count. If I write a full scene in a sitting, including dialogue, description etc ec then I am happy. Alternatively, I like to put aside a block of time, usualy two hours, during whch I will work on the story. I might write three thousand words, or I might find the deep motivation of a character, or might just draw a little doodle. Its amazing how many times the doodle ends up as something more important than the three thousand words!

The imagination works in mysterious ways, and it’s wonders are not always best measured by counting words.

Great art is connected with courage and truthfulness

A quote from Iris Murdoch, interviewed in the Paris Review, that I want to remember –

To write a good book you have to have certain qualities. Great art is connected with courage and truthfulness. There is a conception of truth, a lack of illusion, an ability to overcome selfish obsessions, which goes with good art, and the artist has got to have that particular sort of moral stamina. Good art, whatever its style, has qualities of hardness, firmness, realism, clarity, detachment, justice, truth. It is the work of a free, unfettered, uncorrupted imagination. Whereas bad art is the soft, messy self-indulgent work of an enslaved fantasy. Pornography is at one end of that scale, great art at the other end.

And

It is one of the main charms of the art form and its prime mode of exposition. A novel without a story must work very hard in other ways to be worth reading, and indeed to be read. Some of today’s antistory novels are too deliberately arcane. I think story is essential to the survival of the novel. Stories are a fundamental human form of thought.

~ Iris Murdoch

Places I will be

Looking at my diary yesterday I realised that I’m doing a number of talks and public events over the next few weeks. This is exciting and , of course, a little nerve wracking. Most of us are drawn to writing as a way to spend large amounts of time alone, in our own imaginations, drinking tea. So it comes as a shock then that writing also involves loads of standing in front of people speaking about things! My next few weeks looks like this:

  • Wednesday 2nd March – Talk on Writing for Social Media and finding your online community  – Beyond Distance Reasearch Alliance, University of Leicester
  • Wednesday 3rd March – Talk on Speculative Fiction and workshop – Loughborough University
  • Saturday 19th March – Speculative Fiction as modern myth – States of Independence, De Montfort University
  • Thursday  31st March – Writing, A Portfolio Career – De Montfort University, Leicester
  • Thursday 3rd April – Writing a story in the window of Waterstones – Crawley LitFest

States of Independence and Crawley LitFest are both public events, so it would be great to see any of you out there at either.

This is not a recession, it is the end of an era

UPDATE : WordPress.com won’t let me embed the Prezi, so you’ll just have to make use of your opposable thumbs and click the link.

If you haven’t discovered Prezi yet, you really should. It’s one of the most powerful communication tools on the interwebs, and possibly a minor-revolution for the written word. But this isn’t a post about Prezi. It’s a post about one line of text in the rather wonderful Prezi below.

New Economy, New Wealth presents an idea that has been lingering in my, and I’m sure in many other peoples heads, for quite some time. Namely, that this thing we call ‘The Economy’ seems to have stopped working. And it’s showing no signs of starting up again. And it never made any sense in the first place, when you look at it in the cold hard light of the Post0Capitalist now. I’m not going to explain any more, because the Prezi below does it better.

The line to look out for is the title of this post, ‘This is not a recession, it is the end of an era.’ I think this is an important idea to start spreading, because it’s something we all need to wrap our heads around double quick. We aren’t just going to return to the consumer economy most of us are used to. We’ve tipped over the brink in to the information economy. This is a good thing. BUT. The transition is going to hurt in direct proportion to the length of time it takes us all to realise it is happening. In fact, this recession has really been caused by people who either don’t realise or are in active denial about the changes we are facing.

Anyway. Feel free to not believe me. Just remember in ten years time when you are living in an autonomous localised commune, printing musical instruments from your 3D printer and trading your compositions for Wuffy, me and the Science Fiction people told you so.

New Economy, New Wealth on Prezi

The SpecFic books I read again and again

Cover of "Consider Phlebas [SIGNED, First...
Cover via Amazon

John DeNardo challenged a number of writers to think about the speculative fiction they return to again and again. My response is bellow. I would love to see a similar challenge for the nonSF books that Sf writers are influenced by, that would be fascinating. Also, I seem to have declared the death of Science Fiction in my choices. A position I stand by.

***

I certainly have books that I come back to time and time again. As a reader these are the books that I love. As a writer they are the core influences that inspire my own work. And as a critic they are the touchstones that I measure new work in the genre against. Some are single books, others runs of work that represent the best of a particular author. I suspect that many of these books come from the Golden Age of SF, IE my late teens and early twenties. That seems to be the age when the ideas of SF have the most impact. But I am still finding books that leave me staggered and awestruck, but more and more it seems to come from outside SFF.

Neuromancer – William Gibson’s work is engraved in to the deepest parts of my subconscious. This and his short fiction are still books I refer to constantly, because Gibson is as good a structural writer as he is a futurist. What strikes me now about this work are its mythic elements, prototypical Joseph Campbell monomyth through and through. On top of his other achievements, Gibson was perhaps the first writer to signify the collapse of science fiction, and the rise of fantasy as the mode of serious discussion in speculative fiction.

The Sandman – not a book, but nonetheless Neil Gaiman‘s magnum opus, is arguably the most important work of speculative fiction of the last quarter of the 20th century. I might write an essay on how Neil Gaiman killed Science Fiction. But not here.

Iain M Banks culture novels from Consider Phlebas to Look to Windward – I might jokingly suggest that Iain M Banks titles two of these books with quotes from T S Elliot’s The Wasteland because that was the state of space opera and nearly all American SF at the time. A desolate, moribund wasteland of ill considered, poorly written libertarian posturing. Banks re-imagined space opera as a vehicle for intelligent, liberal discourse on the nature of utopia, while at the same time bringing a level of literary quality that still eludes all but a very few writers in genre.

One Hundred Years of Solitude – if there exists a platonic ideal of what speculative fiction could be, Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘ masterpiece of magical realism is it. Combining the traditions of Western realism, and indigenous South American magical narratives, the book does not so much create a fantasy world, as demonstrate how our own world is permeated with the magical and fantastic just beyond the reach of the rational / scientific worldview.

Earthsea – OK. Neil Gaiman did not kill science fiction. He just finished off the twitching remains left behind by Ursula Le Guin. If parents realised the potent mix of post-modern and Taoist philosophy Le Guin is smuggling in to the minds of little children, it’s quite possible these book would be banned in numerous states of America.

I could go on, but that is enough from me for now.

Some thoughts on teaching creative writing

I get to start this post with some good news which I have been sitting on for a while now. As of later this year I will be taking over as Course Director for the Certificate in Creative Writing at the Institute of Lifelong Learning, University of Leicester. I was extremely excited to be offered this role, partly because the course is aimed at adult learners (who are my favourite people to teach writing to) and partly because I’ve found a real love of teaching creative writing over the last three or more years of teaching the subject in various settings.

(You can find more details of the course here. I will be developing the curriculum and also doing a fair amount of teaching on it, alongside guest tutors. The course is very practically focused – a big tick for anyone wanting to develop real craft skills as a writer – and also allows you to gain a fully acredited qualification from a university with an excellent academic reputation. Needless to say, I highly recommend enrolling if these things suit your interests.)

Some writers go their entire careers without ever teaching, for others it is an integral part of their own development. I fit solidly in to the second camp. I am in many ways as interested in the process of writing as in the product. Understanding the dynamics of human imagination and the techniques of fiction are continually fascinating to me. What I have found most fascinating is how teaching writing pays back in to my own work as a writer. You never examine your own practice as hard as you do when you are trying to teach others (even if you only teach them what not to do…) and being in close contact with other writers is as enriching in a teaching role as it is in a workshop.

One of the perennial questions with creative writing is whether it can be taught. Clearly I believe that it can, and I have benefited from good teaching over more than a decade seriously studying the subject. The ‘writers toolkit’ can certainly be taught, from basics of grammar and style, to issues like viewpoint and narrative distance. I think it is also possible to help students develop their ability to harness their own creativity and imagination (and this is probably the most ‘transferable’ skill they can develop because it is useful in so many other areas of life). The area that can’t perhaps be taught is a writer’s insight in to the world, other people and their own self, which is ultimately what we look to writers for. But I do think that writing is in itself a way of developing those insights, and that is perhaps the most valuable thing any of us gain from studying it.

We need a National Library Service

I know the political climate is not good for encouraging large new public initiatives, but the current problems facing our local, community libraries, with an estimated 500 facing closure this year as a result of government spending cuts, needs to be seriously addressed.

As today’s National Save Our Libraries day protest demonstrates, libraries are among the nations most beloved institutions, with a perhaps one of the strongest grassroots campaigns of any service threatened in this period of government cuts. And yet, a vast national programme of library closures is underway. By the end of this year it’s entirely possible that half the nations libraries will have been closed. A few years further out, with the libraries crippled beyond repair, we may find we lose them all as they become an ever softer target for cost cutters and privatisers. But, no one actually wants this to happen. Even The Sun is in favour of libraries. But no one quite knows what to do about them.

The irony of the library closures is that no part of our nation’s political spectrum is in favour of them (it would be a bit like being in favour of selling grannies or kicking puppies). Libraries have fallen between the cracks of our political system. Local authorities are being faced with the very literal choice between closing old peoples homes or closing libraries. They can hardly be blamed for caving in to the short term expedient of keeping elderly people from starving on the streets. National goverment has washed its hands of the situation. So the national provision of libraries is being destroyed, even while everyone applauds the value of the service.

So. Along with the campaign to save libraries, we need suggestions, or possibly even demands, for how they are saved. I suggest they should be along these lines:

1. A moratorium on library closures until…
2. …national review of library services…
3. …sets a national strategy for library provision.

There are two things to consider with this. The first is that the strategy must at the very least establish a central agency for libraries, even if its remit is largely focused on supporting local communities in developing their own libraries. The second is that libraries are in need of reform, and where it does not compromise the campaign to save them first, the need for reform needs to be part of the discussion.

And until those suggestions are met, SAVE LIBRARIES!

The now of the book

Since I began writing, the book has been dying. No one has time to read any more. In our busy digital lives prose needs to readjust itself to fit in. It needs to be sliced in to ever tinier sections. The blog-post. The status update. The tweet. These things have their purposes, but they do not suit fiction overly well. There will never be a great, or even satisfactory, Twitter novel.

It’s one of those common sense fallacies that flash fiction suits our modern life better. No one has time to read anymore, goes the logic, except the occaisional five minute life-gap during the daily commute. Maybe, between emails and tweets, we might read a very concentrated burst of literature.

We won’t.

We won’t have novels with embedded videos either. Or sound-clips. Or RSS feed streaming content. And stories won’t be interactive. Most of all, they will not be interactive. Not that people will stop trying to do these things. They make perfect sense from a marketing perspective. The customer is always right. Prose fiction, says the marketeer, must adapt itself to the whims of the customer.

No. The customer must adapt themself to the demands of prose fiction. The book is defined by the fact that it takes time, and during that time you must concentrate on what you are being told. You do not get to lapse in to the zombie state of the television viewer. You do not get to choose what happens. The book does not change, the book changes you.

The book does not have a future. It is already the thing it needs to be. Fewer people may choose to test themself against it, in which case there will be more idiots in the world. Or more people will grow their minds and consciouness through reading, and the world will be a better place.

Is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon?

The Booker prize judges have yet to acknowledge the flowering of British SF and fantasy. Will 2011 be a breakthrough year?

Speculative fiction has produced many great works of literature. Even a partial list of SF’s canonical works could fill many blogposts. It would be difficult to talk seriously about the last century of literature without considering HG Wells, or George Orwell, or JG Ballard at the very least. And of the writers working today, how many owe something to the works of Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K Dick? In fact, the number of SF authors being retrospectively rolled in to the literary canon seems to grow exponentially year on year.

Read more at The Guardian