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Archive for September, 2011

So,… what’s the chicken telling me here?

I’m half way through reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love at the moment. I watched the film (twice) and enjoyed it both times, but even as I watched it, I was wondering to myself to what extent it differed from the book (which I’d not read) – because films always do that, don’t they? They miss a huge chunk of the real story out because it doesn’t fit into the cinematic way of telling things. Anyway, a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a link to You Tube of the author speaking about the writing process and the idea of the personal daemon, or muse, and was at once captivated by her wit and the marvellously easy way she was able to put across some of the very difficult concepts I’ve been wrestling with for years now:

So, after listening to that I no longer had any choice: I simply had to read the book! I found a ridiculously inexpensive Kindle edition on Amazon, and I’ve been enjoying it in snatches for about a week now.

The difference between the book and the film is perhaps no surprise (and there are some significant differences). I think the film glossed over a lot of the deep and meaningful stuff, a lot of the nitty-gritty that you just can’t get at with dialogue between photogenic characters or intimate voice-overs. You need that most timeless and basic of mediums: a page of text. You need a skilled journalist capable of peeling back the layers of themselves and one who’s capable of seeing themselves reflected in their surroundings, or rather one who is capable of reading what the universe is telling them, in a metaphorical way, simply by what’s in front of their eyes – and setting it down on paper in an accessible way, a way that makes your reader go aha!!

For those of you who don’t know, “Eat, Pray, Love” is the true story of an American journalist (Elizabeth Gilbert) whose life falls apart, and how she rebuilds it. Put simply, she does this by travelling, first to Italy, where she eats, to India, where she prays, and then to Indonesia, where she finds love. The real story is infinitely more complex than that of course, and you really need to read the book. It’s the story of a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage, and a psychological voyage into what Jungians would call the dark night of the soul.

I was thinking though that no matter how inspirational this book is to me at the moment, many of us travel through life without quite getting our lives turned to rubble. The black tide of depression comes in now and then, and washes up around our doorsteps but without quite drowning us in shit. We’re able to take shelter in the upstairs rooms for the night, but come morning, we’re just about able to stare down our demons and steer the car back in the direction of our day-jobs. We lack the intellect, the finances, the personal freedoms, or just the sheer balls to take ourselves way across to the other side of the world and immerse ourselves in something totally unfamiliar. Or it may be that we’d quite like to quit everything and devote a year of our lives to a cathartic experience of travel and inner soul searching. It may be that we think we’d really like to spend some time in an ashram in India, but,… well,… things just aren’t quite that bad, and that cataclysm we’re half expecting to overwhelm us just,… doesn’t. Not quite. So we don’t go.

Does this mean we’re not that serious about understanding our lives and our selves after all, not that serious about understanding what God is? Well, possibly, it does, but worse, does our timidity in the face of our life’s circumstances mean we are excluded from any chance of experiencing God’s grace – just because God didn’t destroy our lives and then kick us half way around the globe?

I think on this latter point the answer has to be no. Studies of religious or spiritual awakenings show they are a fairly egalitarian phenomenon – open to all. All right, the man in the street may not experience God’s presence as often nor so regularly as a genuine Yogi, but once we know how to listen, I think God or “the universe” can find all sorts of ways of getting his/its message across to us personally.

Which brings me to the rather goofy picture at the top of this post. It was raining this morning, and I was in a contemplative mood. I happened to notice a rather colourful display of late summer flowers on my patio. They were like sunshine laughing the face of the overbearing greyness of the day and I wanted to capture the mood of them through my camera lens. I know,… I keep trying this and it hardly ever works, but then sometimes you get more than you bargained for, if you can only look at things in a different way and perhaps broaden your perspective.

I was only notionally aware, as I focused in on those flowers, that I was focussing through two objects on either side, on my window-sill. They were just “foreground interest”, but I wasn’t actually interested in them in the slightest. I thought the main picture was somewhere else – like in the middle. But in the end the camera focussed itself on the raindrops on the window and blurred the flowers out, bringing my foreground into a more significant focus. The first of those foreground objects, on the left, is a rather ornate soap-stone incense burner. I use it when I’m meditating, or just chilling with a glass of wine, but its aura is undeniably one of spiritual contemplation and – well – navel gazing. On the other side of course there’s rather a cheeky chicken who’s been hanging around since Easter, never having made it back into his box in the attic, and which I can hardly look at without wanting to smile.

So, what’s the universe telling me here?

Well, you can read this many ways of course, and in some respects having a metaphorical perspective is simply a question of reading just about anything from anything. But to me it’s saying chill out Michael – don’t take yourself so seriously!

I reach for the Kindle and spend the rest of the day in the company of Elizabeth Gilbert.

Great stuff.

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Having studied Wattpad, and come to the conclusion that you’re on a hiding to nothing if you’re the downhill side of seventeen, and at the risk of appearing ridiculous, I decided to hand over the reins to a much younger version of myself. He’s called Mickey Gee, quite a handsome devil, I think, a bit of a dark, roguish look about him too, and Mickey Gee sounds much less like my grandad than plain old  Michael Graeme. All right – he looks older than seventeen. I grabbed his picture from Second Life where we’re all about twenty five and have no difficulty with the idea of shapeshifting to suit the prevailing conditions. Anyway, Mickey Gee (love him already), is currently posting a serialisation of a college romance/mystery/thriller on Wattpad called “Watching over Zara” and it starts like this:

So, it’s lunchtime and I’m sitting here staring across the dining hall at Jayni Johns. Why am I doing this? Is it because she’s easily the hottest girl in college with her long blonde hair, her peachy ass, and those hug-me dimples? Or is it because she’s just picked up her ‘phone and is about to do something really stupid?

All right, so I’m reminiscing. I was young once you know! And I have a good memory. It’s the vernacular that’s going to let me down, mine being about thirty years out of date.

Mickey Gee’s not exactly a deceit. Anyone with a Google box  can find this post and learn the awful truth. I may fall flat on my face, but I’m enjoying the story so far – a bit of a bare knuckle ride to be honest and the prose is more cat’s tongue than baby’s bottom, but we’re up to ten thousand words already and I’ve no idea where it came from. The muse is letting her hair down, and it’s good to see her enjoying herself. 

We’ll see how it goes.

Currently, the first three chapters of “Watching over Zara” are up to 24 reads, while Michael Graeme’s “The Man Who Could not Forget” remains flat-lining at 12.  Go, Mickey Gee!!!

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Well,… not much actually. I put my short story “The Man Who Could Not Forget” on there last night and by morning it had been downloaded 10 times, which isn’t bad at all*. Looking at the download figures for some of the fiction on here I’m very impressed -well over the million mark. But that has to be a mistake, surely! I’d thought “the Man Who” was doing well on Feedbooks at about 85,000, after three years, but I’m feeling like an amateur now.

One thing I’ve noticed reading through the material on Wattpad is that there’s a lot of stuff written, I’m guessing, by young teens – a lot of young romance stuff, vampire stuff, and fan-fiction, set in scenarios familiar to young teens – i.e. school or college. I don’t think this is a deliberate policy of Wattpad’s – it’s just that this particular demographic finds the service attractive, has moved in on it and is making good use of it.

However, if you’re an older writer like me, you tend to be writing for older people and I’m not sure you’re going to be finding many of them hanging around on Wattpad. I don’t mean this in bad way – I’m both heartened and surprised to discover so many youngsters writing creatively. I’m just hesitant to endorse it as a viable market – even a non-paying one – for the older writer. It strikes me that your biggest audience on here is going to be on the young side, and I’m not sure if those young ‘uns will take to stories with characters who have wrinkles and stretchmarks.

We’ll see. If “The Man Who Could Not Forget” tops a million downloads this side of Christmas, I’ll gladly eat my words.

The other thing you need to be very careful of here, as a writer, is Wattpad’s age-rating system. To reach the widest audience you need a “general” age rating, and for this your story can’t contain anything you’d be nervous of sharing with your mother or your young teen daughter, which means all good clean fun and no swearing. However, if your work slips over to the naughty side now and then, you’ve got to give your story an R rating, which almost puts it on a private list.

R rate your story and you’re going to severely restrict its distribution. Having said that, I still managed to find a lot of rumpy pumpy in those teen authored stories – not that I was looking. I may have misunderstood the requirements, but I’d still be mortified if I put, say “The Lavender and the Rose” up there, only to have it deleted because it was considered obscene.

There are some rude words and bare bosoms in my story “The Man Who Talked to Machines”, I recall, so I’ll load that up, 13+ rate it, and see how it goes.

In the mean time, to all those teenagers pushing material out into the cloud with Wattpad, I say well done.  

* I spoke too soon here. “The Man Who Could Not Forget” flatlined at about 12 downloads and hasn’t moved all week.

Updated July 2016: I pulled the Man Who after a couple of years. It never did much after those 12 downloads. Instead, I’ve found it a useful platform for putting up my novels as works in progress, one chapter at a time, say a chapter a week. Downloads are a bit of a mystery – you can get tens of thousands while having just a few readers, so I’m not sure how that works, but for the writer, knowing you have even just a few readers waiting on the next chapter aids in the writing process. Use Wattpad as a tool. It’s the story that’s important. Don’t use Wattpad if you’re thinking of eventually getting into print and for money. What’s up with Wattpad? Nothing, so long as you’re not expecting miracles.

 

 

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Authors who want to self publish their work online have a number of options worth exploring now – all of which cost nothing, and that, as far as I’m concerned, is the only option. Rule number one of indy authoring – or indeed any kind of authoring – is you must never ever pay anyone to publish your work. Rule number two is, if you can’t find anyone to publish it, it’s okay to give it away.

So far I’ve “published” work on Lulu.com, Smashwords and Feedbooks. Of the three, I think Feedbooks still stands out in terms of the sheer exposure it grants your work. It’s amazing to me that I can load a story on Feedbooks in the evening, and by morning it’s been downloaded fifty times. This is by no means unusual and has happened consistently with each of the, thus far, nineteen stories I’ve uploaded. All right, this download rate will decline over time as your story sinks deeper into the ever growing pile of indy material, but even after a couple of years, I’m still achieving between five and ten downloads per day for an average work.

The important factor here, I believe is to go for a service that makes your work available on hand-helds – either a portable e-reader like the Kindle, or on a multitasking device like the iPhone, or an Android. People fondle these devices. They’ve only to be still for a minute – say sitting in a cafe, or even standing in the chip-shop queue and out comes the ‘phone. So if the self publishing platform you’re considering has an “app” for getting at stuff either wirelessly or via 3G, it’s worth a look.

Feedbooks then (embedded in the Stanza app), is my gold standard, the one I consistently recommend, and the benchmark against which I measure anything else I come across. Which brings me to Wattpad. I know Wattpad’s been around for a while now, and maybe I’m a bit slow but I’ve only recently looked into it. Out of interest, and by way of experiment, I put my story “The Man Who Could Not Forget” on there this evening. The signup process was painless – just username, e-mail, then pick your password. The interface was clean and slick and easy to use. It appears to be ad- supported, and that was a bit annoying, but we’ll see how it goes – they have to make their money somehow or there’d be no service for us freeloaders to enjoy, I suppose. From signup to “world-wide publication”? About ten minutes. Very impressive.

I’ll check my downloads in the morning and report back here.

(it was ten, not bad!)

(it was still ten three days later, which isn’t quite so good)

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My thanks go to all the readers who have downloaded Push Hands from Feedbooks. You’ve been reading it on your iPhones, your iPods, your iPads, your Androids, your Sonys and your Kindles. And I especially thank those of you who have taken time out to say how much you’ve enjoyed it. Your comments on Feedbooks and your private emails have been a joy to read. I loved writing Push Hands, and your reaction to it has been most uplifting, most encouraging. I long to write something similar in the near future. I originally put it up on Feedbooks in December 2008, at the start of my indy author crusade, and since then it’s achieved about 10,000 downloads, which is wonderful. Thank you all again.

I’ve reviewed it a few times since 2008, most recently over the last few evenings, with the aim of  sweeping up still more typos that eluded me in previous scannings, and for which I apologise profusely. I am my own editor, and I’m clearly hopeless at it.

I do still enjoy reliving the story of Phil and Penny, and hopefully my love of these characters will ensure that  future re-readings will capture the typos that remain.  Still, the vulnerable side of me wonders if I did Phil and Penny justice, and I hope they can forgive my shortcomings. But hey – there are a lot of writers out there. They didn’t have to pick me – but I’m glad they did.

If you have an e-reader, and you’re keen on blagging some free fiction, feel free to check it out on Feedbooks – you’ve nothing to lose after all. The story is complete and free to download, about ninety odd thousand words – or around six hours of reading, a couple of evenings or a week, depending on your hunger.

If you’re a guy, I want you to fall in love with Penny, because I’m a guy too and she’s a truly magnificent woman – stomach like a roll of suet, hair like straw, magnificently huge derrière, and thighs cratered with cellulite – and if that puts you off you clearly don’t deserve her. If you’re a gal I want you to fall in love with Phil, with his balding head and his tinnitus, I want you to hold that head against your bosom, and tell him everything will be all right, and if you don’t like the sound of that, then you don’t deserve him either.

Intriguing? Well I’m sorry, but middle aged people have love lives too, you know?

Regards,

Michael.

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Pondering life, love, and meaning in  the Far Eastern Fells

I had a run up to the Lakes on Friday, just me and old Grumpy. I went to Hartsop, an idyllic hamlet where, in imagination at least, I spend the better part of my life in a sturdy little cottage, tending my garden – also writing, walking and pondering the meaning of it all. But in a denser level of reality known simply as “real life”, I was simply drawn back by memories of a walk I did from here twenty five years ago.

All of my Lake District walks exist outside of any normal time reference. I can remember each one as bright and shiny as the day I walked them, each sitting together in my mind in no particular order. So Hartsop Dodd and Stoney Cove Pike back in 1981, are every bit as relevant to me as that same walk last Friday, the revelations of each informing the other. The Buddhists would say I’m misguided in this, that the Michael Graeme who first passed this way in 1981 no longer exists, but I’m not so sure. I’ve only to come up here to find him again, and even across the gulf of a quarter of a century, we still recognise one another, still connect, and exchange notes.

 So, anyway… Hartsop Dodd was the first objective of the day, at just a shade over 2000 feet and about a mile away from where I parked old Grumpy, but the fells here are as steep as they get and the climb took me an hour. The weather wasn’t promising to begin with. I had rain and dark skies, and a mist that thickened as I climbed. I used to be afraid of conditions like this – the first hint of mist and wet sending me back to the mother-comfort of the valleys. But I think you’re fairly safe on the Dodd, and these days I’ve got GPS for an emergency fix if I should ever get hopelessly lost – also, while my self confidence at dealing with what I suppose I must call “society” has declined markedly as I’ve got older, here among the mountains, where I’ve only ghosts for company, I’m much less concerned now by impending disaster.

My legs were hopelessly sluggish as I made my start on the Dodd. I’d had a late night and rather too much of a potent red wine, and found it impossible to get going, but then I remember that time in ’81, I felt pretty much the same. Still, I thought years of Tai Chi training, and, more recently Kung Fu had built up the strength in my legs and the breath in my lungs like never before, but there was nothing there under the throttle on Friday. If you want to tackle the hills with a spring in your step, Michael, get and early night, and don’t drink so much.

 Anyway, as I made my pitifully slow progress, the mist began lifting ahead of me, and the rain stopped. It seemed my luck was in, so I pressed on. The landscape here is dramatically lovely from the valleys, gloriously desolate from the summits, a rough grassland speckled with crags and small tarns. There was no one else up here,… just me with my aching legs, and I was able to drop out of time, to reunite myself with that other self, the one who passed this way in ’81.

We were like brothers, I suppose, both looking for something – looking for love, I think – the kind of love that banishes an inner desolation to which I think many writers and poets at heart are prone. Back in ’81 I mistook it for human love and duly sought my cure in human places, but my older self realises that the desolation, that profound bone-deep loneliness, is a question that requires a different kind of answer, a different kind of connection. Yes, we all need human love, and I’ve been fortunate enough in finding it, but for the Romantic, human love is never going to be enough and it’s important not to confuse it with what, in the end, is a supernatural phenomenon, one that can only be found in supernatural places, places whose reflections we glimpse only at the frontiers of human influence, in the liminal zones. Seek it in life, in flesh, and you can be sure only of your own immolation and the ruin of everything you hold dear.

But what is it, this dangerous thing?

As you near the summit of Hartsop Dodd you pick up the line of an old drystone wall, which you can follow in any sort of weather, all the way to Stony Cove Pike. Your fears of going astray in the dark mists are groundless then,… there’s a reliable guide, but the way wends for ever upwards and you need strength to follow. It’s about another mile to the Pike, which sits at a shade over 2500 feet.

I caught up with the mists here. The fells rise up like a barrier between north and south and I’ve often noticed that foul weather gets held to the south while the northern valleys bask in sunshine. To the east of Stony Cove Pike, there’s a deep cutting called Threshthwaite Mouth, a dramatic pass through which the wind howls up from the south. You get drops in atmospheric pressure on the northern side of it and eerie mists forming as the air reaches dew point and the vapour precipitates out of it – classic mountain conditions that add a magical touch to the land.

My plan was to cross the mouth, a descent of some 600 ft, then up to Thornthwaite Beacon sitting atop the fells opposite Stony Cove Pike, on the other side, exactly like I’d planned in 1981.

For a while, the mists hid the depth of the mouth, also the enormity of the climb on the other side, but as I began picking my way down through the dripping, greasy rocks, the mist cleared and I was awestruck by the scale of things, also intimidated into settling for a safe descent and a return by the valley of Threshthwaite.


It came back to me as I struggled down from Stony Cove Pike, how I struggled in ’81. How my legs were like jelly by the time I reached bottom. I got crag-fast at one point. There’s a bad step on the route and I couldn’t work out a way down. But I’d committed myself to such an extent I could’t work out a way back up either. The pack was bulging with my wet-weather gear, and my walking poles, stowed on the back of it were grinding against the rock as I flattened myself against it for security. It was ridiculous; there is no bad step on this route, or least Fell-Meister Wainwright was never bothered enough by it to consider it worth a mention. Eventually, I worked out that it was just a question of dropping the sack six feet and hoping the camera didn’t break, then sliding off and hoping I’d enough spring in my knees to catch myself at the bottom without breaking a leg. I’ve had scarier moments in the fells,… but not many.

I made it in one piece, but felt suddenly very old and slow. Surely at one time I would have been down here like a rat down a drainpipe. It was enough. The mists enclosed Thornthwaite Crag, and the thought of that massive ascent was too much, so I turned north, and headed for the decent into Threshthwaite Cove.

What is it? This sense of desolation. Where does it come from?

Your first steps northwards from the mouth reveal desolation aplenty in the stupendous sweep of the cove. This is a world of inaccessible black crag, and coarse, acid grassland, frequented only by the hardy Herdwicks. It’s horrific in its scale and makes you focus in on little things, anything to give your universe a more benign face. I found several such things on the way down: a rock, a wind-blasted tree, a sparkle on the waters of Pasture Beck, and I photographed each one, playing with the exposures to give the right amount of contrast and framing them with an eye for the golden composition. But looking back at those pictures now I realise I failed to capture it. My pictures are pathetic, and I see in them now only what they appear to be on the surface: a rock, a wind-blasted tree, a sparkle on the waters of Pasture Beck. What I felt then, last Friday, as I descended on aching legs and bore witness to these things, whatever it was that granted me redemption in this wilderness,… came from inside of me.

There were ghosts here. I’d been inviting their company since setting out that morning, because I like talking to them, but they were keeping their distance. I wondered if it was my fault, if I was too agitated, too tired or if they felt I was simply too full of myself. I’d see them as a shadow off in the periphery of my vision, something moving but, when I turned to welcome them, they’d morph into a tree or a rock. I felt one take my arm for a moment, but she was a silly, light headed thing and didn’t have much to say for herself, except that I should forgive her silliness and take myself less seriously too, or I would never find it.

 But what is it?

What is the meaning of life? It’s a strange question. Does there have to be any meaning? There may not be of course, and the evidence of all the rational philosophies tells us that any talk of meaning is simply a delusion born out of a fear of death. Still, I’d like to think there is a meaning, but for all of my research, the nearest I can get to it is that our lives are a quest. We are navigating a way through our respective isolation, our personal wilderness, looking for things that reveal our connection with something, with it, We are looking for things that dissolve the desolation and make us feel deeply loved, deeply touched by the value of our apparently isolated and meaningless self, amid such epic vastness as the universe seems to present.

So,… this meaning,… You cannot buy it. It does not bear a label, and you will not find it in another person, nor in a place, no matter how holy. Like my ghosts, what it is is an aspect of our own nature, our own being. What we see when we look out at the world in this way is an image of our own self staring back at us.

Twenty five years ago, I hadn’t read a single book on metaphysics. I would have laughed at the thought of consulting the I Ching, or seeking the answer to life in the aphorisms of Lao Tzu. Maybe back then I thought the highest form of love was to be found in the soft valley of a sympathetic woman’s breasts. But I also descended the valley of Threshthwaite that day with my heart aching, aching for an unspoken and disembodied love, a love I saw reflected in the subjective details of this timeless desolation. I was aware of something other, something underlying the world.

 And now?

Now I’m older and I’m thinking the sages are right. The answer to life’s greatest mystery, isn’t really a mystery at all and the truth’s been known for hundreds, indeed probably for thousands of years, since the first conscious men and women sat down and looked seriously inside of themselves. What they found in there beggars belief, but you can’t just take their word for it and it’s no use them telling you about it anyway because it’s a thing so extraordinary it’s impossible to grasp it intellectually. You have to travel the miles, undertake the quest, weather the decades of your life,… the mists, the storms, the glorious summers, and the bitter winters, and then you begin to realise they weren’t mad, or that maybe you’ve finally become as mad as they, or at least mad enough to accept that there is no it, in so far as it is something separate from yourself. You come to realise that you are it, and it is you. And it’s a simple step, then, to the ultimate realisation that you are what you are looking at. And the biggest miracle of all is that while I am it, so are you. You are it too, you see, which means at some fundamental level of reality that’s impossible for me to grasp, we are the same, you and I.

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