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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

The arts put man at the centre of the universe, whether he belongs there or not. Military science, on the other hand, treats man as garbage – and his children, and his cities, too. Military science is probably right about the contemptibility of man in the vastness of the universe. Still – I deny that contemptibility, and I beg you to deny it, through the creation of appreciation of art.”

Kurt Vonnegut -1970

Unless you’re already some sort of celebrity, it’s a well established fact the arts are no way to make a living. But what they do for the ordinary Joe and Joanna, is make living meaningful, or even just bearable. It brings each of us back to the centre of our universe. It may be there is nothing to life and death, nor anything beyond it, and all our stories to the contrary are wishful thinking. But the person who takes up a pen, writes a story, or a poem, paints a picture, sings in a choir, dances, performs in amateur dramatics, or even – as Vonnegut once also put it – makes a face in their mashed potato, performs an act of defiance. If there’s art, creativity, inside of you, you have to let it out. Do not deny you have a soul, or the soul will become a demon, and it will eat you.

Trying to write for money nearly killed my desire to write in the first place. It’s likely there’s a good reason my novels never tickled an editor’s fancy, but an inability to court the art-world or write like a Hemingway or a Vonnegut is no reason not to write. My novels have taught me, and shaped me in ways that would not have happened if I’d spent every night in the pub, or watching trash TV. I dabble in watercolours too. I’m no good at it, and can only marvel at the masters, but I do enjoy working with colour. Poetry, comes and goes. Photography is more constant. I spent a good bit of yesterday setting up a shot of a watering can and a garden fork, then waiting for the sky to turn interesting. I don’t know why. Art can use technology, too. It all depends on how you use it. The picture isn’t going to win any competitions, but it’s what I saw and felt, what I was looking for, and what I was trying to express that’s the important thing. And I don’t always have words for that. Nor does it have to please anyone else.

I mention this to illustrate how when we get stuck with one form of expression, we simply turn to another. There’s an endless list of creative means. I’ve just adopted the ones that appeal to me. Thus, we cycle. If we’re not performing for money, it doesn’t matter. The work gets done, effortlessly, and the work is about you. It’s about building you by whatever means come to hand.

I enjoy reading blogs. But the blogs I follow are of a particular sort. They’re not selling anything, and are written by people with no agenda, other than to give vent to their creative energies. And what interesting personalities they are, each of them worthy of a glossy, hard-backed biography on the shelves in Waterstones, and these individual perspectives have shaped me too. But, other than through the semi-anonymity of the blogging medium, these authors have discovered the secret of contentment in being unknown. They do it because they enjoy it, and seek no explanation for it. But they’re growing their souls, and mine, all the same. They are, to quote Kurt Vonnegut again, “becoming”.

I remember an old trades union leader telling of looking up at a monolithic block of Brutlaist flats. To others, it would have presented a grey, depressing vision of “the masses”. But behind any one of those hundreds, or thousands of little windows, he said, was a potential philosopher, mathematician, writer, actor, social activist, or an inspirational leader, and to deny them the opportunity of “becoming” is the tragedy of a regressive society. To treat people as contemptible, as trash, is to diminish all people, everywhere.

I like the way Vonnegut put it in that opening quote. Yes, maybe the materialists are right, there’s no soul, no purpose, consciousness is an illusion, and we’re all just robots made of meat. Who am I to deny it? Yet, I deny it anyway. The soul is a work in progress. The tools we use are the whole panoply of creative expression. And if you don’t feel yourself to be naturally creative, you can always feed upon the art of others. Read. Look at pictures. Watch a play. Listen to music. But try not to fall for what is shallow – you can usually identify it by the fact its purpose is more to empty your pockets for little return, or to make you hate. Try to go deeper, into the sublime, and feel it. And what you will feel there, that is the only reality. Yes, there is certainly a world, a universe, without a soul, where we can erase all feelings with a pill, but it’s one we’ve created. I never said we were perfect, and perhaps it’s integral to the human condition that when it comes to the journey of the soul, we will always have a long way to go. So be creative for its own sake. Every day. It’s good for you. And it’s good for everyone else.

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Until now, the value of a thing for sale has always boiled down to the availability of that thing, which is determined by how rare it is, or by the difficulty of its manufacture. And then there’s the demand for that thing, whatever it is. Things that are difficult to find, or produce, and are very much in demand, command high prices. On the other hand, things that are abundant or easily mass-produced, but for which there is no demand, say because they’ve fallen out of fashion, or have become obsolete, aren’t worth anything.

These traditional laws of supply and demand have held true, until now. But now, the digital age has begun to render things that are very difficult to produce worthless, by virtue of the fact that technology enables them to be re-produced instantly, and infinitely. A practical example of this, is the chess set I’m modelling.

In olden times, my chess figures would have been hand carved, and each chess set would have been unique. In the right market, a maker of such ornate pieces could reasonably expect to make a living from it. I’m in the process of sculpting them, digitally, using a piece of software called Blender. Amongst other things, it simulates very well the process of modelling in clay. The end result is a three-dimensional digital model of whatever you care to imagine.

But what use is a digital chess set, you ask? Well, having defined their shapes digitally, as computer files, one of the things we can do is print the pieces out, using machines like this:

When they first appeared, in the late 1980s, 3D Printers were the stuff of science fiction. They cost more than a house, and only big engineering companies ran them. Now you can get one for the price of a washing machine.

There’s a lot of modelling work in each of these chess pieces, hours and hours of it, but a set made by digital methods is essentially worthless, because, once finished, the technology of 3D printing renders it easily, instantly and endlessly reproducible.

3D Printed Chess Pieces – Crealty Ender 3

I’m going to gift the set I’m making, so its value in monetary terms is irrelevant, but my little hobby here also illustrates how seriously our technology is upsetting economic norms. Capitalists are starting to worry about it too, and they’re coming up with ideas to artificially inflate the value of digital assets. To this end, we now have the Non Fungible Token, or NFT.

You may have heard about these as the latest get rich quick thing, with people trading NFTs for large sums of money. What NFTs are, in essence, is a way of offsetting the infinite reproducibility of a digital asset by registering ownership of the original file. Then, like any other artwork, you can make as many copies as you like, but there will still only be the one original. I could register myself as the original artist of my chess pieces, which would make the files I hold unique, and any copies you hold, not. You can copy and paste your files as much as you like, but the originals, in theory, retain their value – if they ever had any – because there’s a ledger out there in internet land that says they’re the original. What you buy when you trade the NFT is, if you like, the title deed that says those files once belonged to me, the artist, and now they belong to you.

But here’s the thing I don’t get about NFT’s, and perhaps someone can explain it to me. For the NFTs to be worth anything at all, be they the data for my little chess set, or the original word-files for my writings, or a doodle from a digital paint program, I’d have to be a name by other means, and much trumpeted by the machinery of name-making celebrity culture. In which case, we’re no longer trading purely on skill – say in a work of art, or a piece of music. We’re no longer manufacturing a product at all, we’re manufacturing value.

The skill is still required, a product must be produced – there’s no getting around that – but no matter how well executed, the digital product, as a thing in itself, is not worth anything. What grants it any value at all is how easily a potential consumer can be persuaded the original creator is a name whose name is worth more than other names, or is at any rate a star that is rising, so an NFT, perhaps traded modestly to begin with, might one day be worth a fortune. But this is a very strange business, that we have come to value no longer the thing in itself, but its digital seed, and in fact just one seed in particular, when, for all practical purposes, it is identical to all the others copied from it.

The owner of an original painting can take pleasure in that ownership, in its display, its history. It can be gazed upon, and appreciated as a work of art. But one does not display an NFT. It has no aesthetic value, no line, no shape at all to the naked eye. It says nothing, speaks nothing to the soul.

Capitalists have embraced all previous industrial revolutions, but it seems to me, they’re not so keen on this one, whose business it is to blur the boundaries between the physical world, and the virtual. The creative types were among its first victims, but now it’s coming for the capitalists themselves, since the basis of “capital” is becoming less tangible, infinitely reproducible, and therefore materially worthless. I may be thinking about this all wrong, but the NFT strikes me as a dubious last ditch fix, a way of holding on to a decaying system of values, and a value culture, that technology would otherwise have little trouble sweeping away. That said, what the world looks like, if we let the machines loose from the NFT noose, is anyone’s guess. It would require at the very least, a fundamental restructuring of society, how we earn, and live in an equitable fashion, but thus far, that seems not to be up for discussion.

I could create an NFT for my chess piece data, but unless I make a name for myself, or have someone else make it for me, no one’s ever going to speculate on its value, so it remains worthless. Meanwhile, more marketable NFTs change hands for tens, or hundreds of thousands of pounds. In this privileged version of the world, NFTs might mean something, but it is a world that seems designed only to give the wealthiest something to spend their money on. Meanwhile, the food charity queues grow longer, and our escalating energy prices mean people cannot heat their homes.

In the latter world, which is a big world, and getting bigger by the day, NFT’s don’t mean anything at all.

Here’s a humorous take:

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To be a genius poet. To be considered profound. To be considered in touch with the very pulse of life, the universe, and everything. To be like John Clare, or Wilfred Owen, or William Wordsworth. How? Well, get your poem published, of course. Enter it into competitions and win! Who knows? And good luck to you.

Poetry is one of the most sacred of the creative arts and, judging by the amount of poetry on here, it is practised by many, myself included. But, along with the rest of the publishing world, the route to print is a bit of a dimly lit labyrinth, and not something I’ve the stomach for groping about in any more. You might spend years getting your piece into an obscure journal, much to your delight, but you’ll be paid in washers, if at all, and unless you’re attractive in some way, unless you are a story in yourself, unless your persona either chimes with or indeed seriously offends the mores of the day, you’ll find yourself an also-ran, and an awfully long way from the front page.

So, why bother with Visual Verse? What’s different about it? Well, Visual Verse is a sort of online poetry magazine. At the beginning of each month it puts out an image and invites a response – prose or poetry, it’s your choice. They want between 50 and 500 words. Also, to enter into the spirit of things, you’re supposed to spend no more than an hour on your creation. I’ve had a few goes at it, because I like to see what the image triggers, and I’ve had some responses accepted. They take about a hundred pieces a month, which is around half of the submissions they receive on average. So, whilst they won’t publish absolutely anything, they’re not as choosy as a paid literary journal. In short, Visual Verse won’t make you a famous poet. Oh, and of course, they don’t pay. But apart from that, what’s not to like?

Not all the images work for me. Indeed, many leave me stumped, and I certainly don’t respond every month because, well, there’s only so much altitude to be gained, and I’ve other stuff on the go that’s more important. But if you’re a poet, as I know many of you who follow me are, and you’ve not come across Visual Verse yet, why not give it a go? If nothing else, it’s a good way to trigger the creative juices.

You have until the fifteenth of the month to submit.

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A lone tree falls

Chapter One

Marsh Avenue, Marsden

This is the last garden in Marsh Avenue with a privet hedge, the last with a piece of lawn at the front, and flowering borders. It used to be like that from top to bottom. You could see the seasons change through the cherries in early spring, the laburnums in late May, and the deep greens of high summer. Now it’s all concrete, cracked pavers and white vans.

There were neighbours, too: Mr Williams, next door, a retired gentleman who, in my memory at least, always wore a white jacket and a bow tie. Sometimes he’d have dungarees underneath the jacket, if he was repairing bicycles. He liked old maps and cameras. Weekends would see him in a trilby hat, a second-hand Voightlander over his shoulder, setting through Durleston Wood. He smelled of pipe tobacco, and mushrooms.

His wife, a portly dame of indeterminate shape would arrive unannounced to camp my mother, and help out with the housework. Nowadays, this would be seen as an unspeakable intrusion. Back then it was more a kind of solidarity.

Then there was Mr Simpson, on the other side. His back garden was a wild profusion of blackberries and rhubarb, but he kept his front manicured. He had three mature cherry trees to mark the apexes of a triangle of lawn. When they blossomed, they were the pride and the envy of the neighbourhood. The lawn has gone now, and the trees were felled to make way for a pick-up truck. Loud music thumps out from the house all day, and late into the night.

The occupant is now a scar-faced man, who wears camo. He keeps a pair of barking bull-lurchers which, the story goes, he trains to kill badgers, and foxes. I don’t know if this is true, but he has dead eyes, like black pebbles. I have studied his sort before, and I can easily imagine it is so. When we are ruled in a more unambiguously totalitarian manner, he will be appointed the local chief of police, pulling out the fingernails of leftist dissenters until they too scream out their love for Big Brother. I have never spoken to him, so cannot call him a neighbour. His music is – well – decidedly unmusical, consisting at my end purely of beats. It jams my brain, so I cannot write when I am there.

Thump. Thump. Thumpety.

I did not intend coming back to Marsden, but I don’t regret it now, nor the circumstance that forced me. It granted time to see my father out, with grace and honour. It also eased his mind, knowing there was someone around to keep on top of the garden, keep it respectable, this being in the manner of his generation, who took pains to ease the minds of passersby that here at least, they were safe from assault and robbery.

“Remember to sharpen the edging shears before you clip round.”

“Yes, Dad.”

“The India Stone’s in the shed. I showed you how. Remember?”

I do remember. I was eighteen when we had that conversation. How long ago is that? Forty years? Except I swear it was Mr Williams who showed me how to sharpen things with an India Stone. It was also his India Stone I was always borrowing, because ours had grown concave with use. I am on the cusp of old age myself now, or late middle, or whatever they call it, but in my father’s eyes I was always a lad. I didn’t mind that. He always meant well, even when he was wrong, which, looking back, was often. It’s an important step along the path to maturity, I think, realizing your father could be wrong, and forgiving him for it.

Thump. Thump. Wackety. Thump. Thump.

He’d gone a little deaf towards the end, so he wasn’t as disturbed by the noise from next door as I am. Or if he was, he never said. He never complained about anything, even when he had much to complain about, like how the doctor hadn’t a clue what was wrong with him, until it was too late. Then his only apology was: well, Mr Swift, you’ve had a good innings.

The night he died, there was heavy metal coming through the walls as I sat with him. I’d not the courage to go round and tell the scar-faced man there was this old gentleman, my father, with a magnificent story of life behind him, a man blessed by his obscurity and his inoffensiveness, dying on the other side of the wall, and could you not for once turn the music down, let him pass into the next world in peace, and not be chased there by Banshees?

Funny, the things you feel ashamed about.

Boom. Boom. Boom.

He was a craftsman, my father, worked magic on a lathe, making valves, and far away fortunes for the oil and gas industry, yet a pittance for himself. Mr Williams was a labourer at the rubber works, Mr Simpson a retired collier with emphysema who hid black stuff he coughed up, in a clean while handkerchief which he kept there for said purpose. All were gentlemen, their wives, decent, resilient women. Their solidarity was like glue to us throughout the leaner years of growing up.

Oh,… you get the picture. Things just aren’t the same now. And perhaps there has always been this sense of decline, certainly in the north of my country, and since the Thatcher years, but lately it has taken on a more unabashed appearance, smelling of a thing more brazenly corrupt. And it’s my fault because I looked away, and let it happen.

The obvious thing to do, now my father has gone, is to sell the house, but a part of me is saying that would be to close the door on what I still believe to be a thing worth rescuing from the past. If only I could define the shape of it. But I cannot stay either, because the insult of that music, and the loss of gentleness, and the richness of colour is full of hurt for me. All I do when I’m here is scroll my phone for crass novelty, and wait for a change in tempo.

Boom. Whackety. Boom. Boom. Boom.

___________________________________________

I think this works as an opener. It sets the mood, anyway. We’re ten thousand words in, and it’s still giving, still connecting. I’ve done the cover, too. We may be on to something. Coming to a bookshop no time soon and never to be seen on Amazon, except possibly as a pirated version.

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We write a piece for our blog, or we post a photograph to Instagram. Then we watch the stats, the likes, the comments, for a reaction. We notice certain things get more attention, so the temptation is to do more of those things, at the expense of others. At this point, so the argument goes, our creativity is hitched to whatever algorithm the hosting medium uses to drive traffic. We’re no longer being broadly creative. Our ego is jumping for the jelly beans, chasing the little dopamine hits those “likes” bestow. We’ve fallen into the machine, become a part of it. And, by their nature, machines cannot be creative.

But while we do have to be careful using the Internet as our medium, creativity also requires an audience, a sense of connection. It’s as if what the universe sees fit to manifest in one mind, it requires also that manifestation be communicated, even if the creator is never to know who the receiver is, or what their reaction will be or, least of all, if the creator is ever to be paid for their troubles. And for most creatives working today, the Internet is the only source of an audience – both real and imagined. So whilst it’s a dangerous piece of machinery, it also comes with blessings, but only if we approach it in the right frame of mind.

There are many more creative individuals than is generally appreciated. Indeed, it’s a fair bet there were always more writers equally as talented as those whose names history has recorded. They simply never rose to notice, nor even modest professional status, due to the paucity of paid outlets and publicity machines to give their work wings. The Internet has at least provided a platform for those formerly unknown artists, but just because we can now publish anything, it doesn’t mean we should. We should always ask ourselves first, is this a piece of genuine self-expression, or am I merely jumping for the jelly beans?

For the creator, finding their way with such a challenging and dangerous medium, we must be accepting that the road to widespread dissemination and financial independence is as tenuous as it always was. But the machinery will at the very least find us an audience, however small. If that irks us, our Ego has already tipped us into the machine, and we’re done for. It will eat our creativity and leave us hollow. But if we can be a little more accepting, if we can say that today we may be writing solely for a lone man on a train, passing through a far away city, scrolling his phone for connection and company, and whom we will likely never hear from, then we have achieved the right balance. We are not posting for “likes”. We are not merely gaming the machine. We have made peace with our craft, and can use it effectively as an uncontaminated channel for the Creative Imperative.

Creative people have no choice in what they do. They are searching for something, but don’t know what it looks like, and no one else can tell them. That makes creativity a very strange thing indeed. There is no tool, no computer algorithm to explain the shape of it. To even approach any understanding we have to entertain ideas from philosophy, psychology, and from spirituality. We have to summon up the ghost of metaphysics.

My own beliefs on this have circled ever closer to the perennial philosophy. This tells us the universe is essentially a mental phenomenon, something akin to a dream. Everything is imagined into being, and there is no material world as such. This is an oversimplification of course, and no doubt unintelligible to most rational beings. It’s possibly also wrong, but it’s the nearest I can come to making sense of things, and I’m happy with it, at least for now, as a working hypothesis.

There is nothing beyond the universe, because the universe is nothing and, in a curious paradoxical twist, that nothing exists in the first place is the only way anything can be brought into being at all. It’s just that we misinterpret the nature of “being”. Another way of looking at it is through the idealist lens of the philosophers who tell us we can never know the universe as it is in itself, only indirectly by its manifestations. And what that teaches us is the prime imperative of the Universe is to create, albeit through the medium of the idea of the world.

As self conscious beings we find ourselves at the pinnacle of the evolution of this creativity. We are the universe becoming aware of itself, seeking to explain itself. Our minds being in the image of the maker, as its various alters, we too are possessed by the imperative to create. The universe does not create us for popular approval. More, it seeks connection and beauty of expression, which it defines by degrees of emotional feedback, by “feeling”. It knows when it has hit upon something good, because it feels it in our hearts.

Of course, my more speculative forays into the world of fiction may be very wide of the mark. Who can say? All I have to go on is the journey of my own art, which seems to be leading me down the same metaphysical path as many who have gone before. We begin with the sense there is something bigger than ourselves, something “other”, something mysterious at the root of the world. We may have had a vision of it in our dreams and waking reveries and, through our art, we seek closer companionship with it. That’s the nature of the journey, and it can be a long journey. The destination, I’m told is the realization that after all, there is no “other”, that we and “it” are the same. What we have been seeking – through our art, our writing, our paintings, our photographs – we possessed all along because we were it. All of us.

If you’re feeling discouraged over your art, if you’re asking yourself why you bother, remember you are not the first. Even those who make a name for themselves circle back this way more times than they would care to admit. So don’t be afraid to make your mark. If you’re creatively inclined, it’s what you were made to do anyway, and it’s important to learn how to handle it. And we begin by not doing it for the jelly beans. We do it for that lone man on the train, passing through a far away city at night, scrolling his phone for connection, for company. You’ll never know who he is, or what it is that draws him to your words. It was just fated that way. So be there for him, and for no more reason than because he is you, and you are also him.

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Hartsop old wayThe source of our creative energies is a mystery. All I know for sure is it’s not a physical thing. Provided we have sufficient strength at least to draw breath, stay awake and sit down at the work desk, it’s simply a question of opening the valve inside our heads for the creative steam to come gushing out with a vigour untempered even by age and infirmity.

But we can weaken it,…

I’m weakening it now by talking about it. It builds pressure over time and we can either nurture it, then let it out in a sustained, calculated burst and achieve something significant with it – a novel say, or a painting, or an epic poem, or we can be constantly leaking it off in short squeaks until there’s nothing left and we are reduced to a state of creative barrenness.

Bear in mind, once upon a time, words like these would have had no outlet beyond the private diary. In so keeping them within the bounds of a closed personal awareness, they would not deplete the source. Indeed quite the opposite, for maintaining an intimacy with one’s self is both to respect one’s self and also the daemonic forces within us. But now our heads are stuck inside this box and we’re venting words the hyperspatial vacuum, which does nothing but empty us of our creativity.

Listen, we can either do a thing, or we can explain to an imagined audience why we’re doing it – explain it through our blogs, our tweets, our Instagrams. But in explaining it, in chattering about it, and self justifying, we lose the point, the point being the thing itself, rather than the describing of it.

I have talked a lot about Tai Chi on this blog, why I do it, only lately to realise, actually, I don’t do it any more. Meditation – ditto. I talk about it, but I don’t do it. And if I’m talking about writing, I’m not writing. So I guess what I’m thinking about at the moment, what I’m exploring tonight, is the perennial problem of self-justification, of explaining ourselves to the imaginary “other”, when what we’re really doing is comforting our own egos.

We cannot help our insecurities. It’s human nature, this feeling some of us have of being pulled away from the tit too soon, and we assume the other person wasn’t. We assume the other person has no insecurities at all, that they are not the same lost child we feel ourselves to be when we close the door at night and face our selves, alone. Well guess what? They do. The problem then is one of self assurance, of reassurance that what we are is all right, that we need not explain ourselves, nor less try to impress others with how successful, interesting, cool, sexy or even just how extra-specially normal we are. To this end we wear a mask.

Everyone born has ample reason to simply be. It’s just that we aspire to be more than we are. More than what? Well, more than anyone else, perhaps – more cool, more insightful, more intelligent,… and just well,… more! This is what the mask conveys. But if we forget the mask, forget the usual external appearances, the difference between me and you is nothing much. We both arise from the same collective milieu of unconscious potential, like periscopes, each to pierce the surface of this, a somewhat denser and less yielding reality. Our uniqueness lies only in this individual perspective, our singular view of the world.

Knowing what that view is, is one thing, sharing it with others is only useful to point. We are all of us on a personal voyage of discovery, and it’s ultimately our own vision, our own private view that is the essential thing. It is the picture postcard we gift back to the consciousness from which we arise. It’s not important then to capture every thought we’ve ever had, to write it down and self publish it – just because we can do it now, doesn’t mean we should. The importance of the moment has already been captured by the inner eye.

It’s more important then we notice when the sun is shining, important we do not feel the need to take its picture all the time. It’s beautiful, yes, but there’s a limit to the intimacy with which the essence of such beauty can be shared, because beauty is a thing with our unique perception at the centre of it. The urge to share it is the writer’s bane of course, but one should always be mindful that in sharing anything, the essence is always lost, and no matter what our skill with words, no one can ever truly know or see the world the way we do.

So go easy on the media. Take a break from the Blog now and then, don’t feel the need to post on Instagram every day, and don’t you ever go tweeting to the world what you had for breakfast.

Save a little something for yourself. And keep it safe.

Think outside the box from time to time.

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writer pasternakGoodreads is an online social meeting place for the bookish. You read a book and you tell the world what you thought about it. You score, you rate and pontificate to your heart’s content. You even get to list the books you’ve read, are reading, or intend to read. Thus, like all good social media, it affords one a means of showing off to people who really couldn’t care less.

As for the writers among us, you don’t have to be a proper published author to be listed. Even self published ebooks, hastily cobbled and given away, are on there too, so it’s an inclusive, impartial and non-partisan catalogue, which has to be good.

But before signing up and contributing to the heaps of unsolicited critique already on there, remember Goodreads is an advertising platform aimed at selling you stuff you probably don’t need. It also, crucially, has a business model of which we, the bookish, are an integral part, providing a vast quantity of free content, both the commentary, and (in the case of us self published authors) even the stuff that’s commented upon. In return it allows us occasionally to “share” in the success of selected famous authors by engaging in online Q and A sessions with them, but again, remember, this sharing is a means of advertising the said author’s works, or at the very least maintaining their profile at our own unpaid expense.

In short, Goodreads is pure genius.

But it doesn’t quite work for me, and the main reason is this: I’ve never been comfortable critiquing the work of another author. True, I do have a Goodreads account and have “reviewed” books I’ve enjoyed, but it’s rare I’ll take out the hatchet, because I don’t feel qualified, and would rather not say anything if I cannot say something positive. To say a work is rubbish, as Goodreads’ army of unpaid reviewers often do, tells us more about the reviewer than the book. This is perhaps the reviewer’s intention anyway, though with the reviewer perhaps hoping it will make them appear more intelligent, when actually all it reveals is their ignorance.

There’s something crass about denigrating creativity, be it from the pen of a master, or a teenage amateur just starting out in college romances on Wattpad. We all have it in us to be creative, but it takes courage to expose one’s self to public scrutiny. Many are put off by fear of the snide intellect tearing their work to shreds, pointing out spelling mistakes, poor grasp of grammar, or generally berating them as a shrivelling worthless fraud.

My English teacher used to do it with great panache; but it was his job. His caustic red pen and his tartly encircled “see me’s” were intended (I hope) to raise my game, but we needn’t take criticism from anywhere else at all seriously, especially amateur criticism from the likes of Goodreads or Amazon, or any other public bookish forum where people basically think out loud without a care for who they hurt in the process. This is just noise. People like to moan, and the angrier and the more depressed they are by life, the more they will moan about everything else.

The creative sphere, becoming as it is, increasingly de-monetised, need no longer be a battle of Egos for market share. De-monetised – literally writing for free – it has become more a sea of ideas, reflective of the collective turmoil of human thought in which anyone with a genuine and sincerely felt point of view is of equal worth and quite frankly beyond criticism. What creatives are about is the expression of the deeper human condition, feeding a hunger that comes from so far beyond the usual pedestrian measure of these things as to be almost paranormal. To create is the finest and most satisfying thing a we can do. To sneer at another’s work is not, especially when you’ve not paid for that work, and your opinion has not been asked for.

I have no reason to complain of my ratings on Goodreads since my average is 3.5 out of 5, which I take to be the sunnier side of middling, but I also note my early works score more highly than my later ones – my later ones scoring nothing at all. Is this a question of advancing apathy on the reader’s part regarding the time-line of my bibliography, or is it more an advancing senility on my own? Am I, in short, losing it? I’d begun to wonder about that, especially as I struggle to find my way with the current work in progress, but there is no worthwhile analysis to be had from the noise, and for the writer such a plethora of opinion can only be, at best, distracting, at worst discouraging. And anything discouraging for the writer is best avoided altogether because we’ve got enough to worry about as it is.

Writing for free, we must not allow amateur “ratings” or even the lack of them to guide our hand, and we should remember at all times the only person we need to keep on board is our selves. Trust only that if we have connected deeply enough with a piece of our own work – sufficient at least to finish it – the chances are others will connect with it too – not everyone for sure, indeed probably very few, but enough to make it worth our efforts. By all means chatter away on Goodreads, list the books you’ve read to show your friends how bookish you are, but remember, at the end of the day, like all social media, it’s basically meaningless to those it purports to serve, and of tangible importance only to those who control it.

I have been a creator of things all my life, and in that time have noticed also how non-creatives are quick to assume positions of power over us, finding ways to exploit the creatives for gains they are unwilling to share, treating us as second class citizens, milking us as unpaid cash cows. Goodreads and its ilk are the product of two decades of internetification – an evolution of sorts. This goes for my work too, though we come from opposing ideologies. Goodreads is about making something out of nothing, while I and others like me, in all our nothingess, rise powerfully from something the non-creative critic or self styled amateur marketing copywriter has any concept of.

So remember, dear un(der)paid writer, if you’re still smarting after that last semi-literate review of your heart-felt autobiography, or the novel you were sure would change the world, but which has yet to score anything at all on Goodreads review system, or indeed anywhere else, write on regardless because it’s always been that way. Have faith only in what inspires you and never mind the rest. It’s not much encouragement, but it’s all you’re going to get, and as any writer of experience will tell you, looking for encouragement beyond oneself is to take the world of idle chatter far more seriously than it deserves.

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BullSo, my son says. You’re still trying to be a writer? Offspring can be very cutting with their casual remarks. No, I tell him. I already am a writer. What you probably mean is am I still trying to be a famous writer? and the answer is no. Or maybe you mean, am I still trying to be a writer who makes a living from his work? and again the answer is no. Fame is a matter for fate, and about as likely for any of us as a lottery win. It is not to be sniffed at, but hardly a thing to be surrendered to either without being fully cognisant of the consequences. As for making a living, the statistics don’t make for encouraging reading. They tell us very few writers make a living by writing, that in order to live, most writers need proper jobs as well.

I have just begun a new story – well, I’m about half way through it now, the first draft word count nudging up to 40K. And as usual at this point in the writing process, I think to myself, why should I give this one away? Why not try to sell it on that Kindle Publishing thing? After all it might sell enough downloads to fund a few modest purchases on Ebay. So I loop through the usual arguments, for and against, and come to the same conclusions as before, that actually it’s not as straight forward as one might think, having a paying day-job, and writing for money – at least if you want to keep on the right side of the law.

The question, for UK based writers, is one of tax. In writing for money you are trading, and the taxman wants his cut. So, I say, okay Mr Taxman, how do I pay you what I owe? But here, for a long time, the answers have amounted to vague mutterings that make no sense. I even asked this question on a forum for tax professionals. They talked loud and long, and in worryingly vague terms. They didn’t know the answer, at least not with any precision. Indeed many had trouble even understanding my question.

But how difficult can it be? You have a dayjob. You work in a factory, or an office, or a shop, or whatever, and pay tax on your earnings through the pay as you earn (PAYE) scheme. This means your employer deducts your tax and national insurance at source, and gives you what’s left. So what if I then have a hobby, like writing, and I want to explore the idea of selling copies of my books? I don’t expect to earn much, if anything. Is the taxman interested in my small scale scribblings?

Well, the only concrete part of the answer thus far gleaned is, inthe strictest interpretation of the law: yes.

So, I’ve trawled the internet at some length today and finally pieced together the answer to the elusive “how” part of the puzzle. Here’s what you have to do to pay the taxman:

Even though you’re employed and pay tax through PAYE, you must also declare yourself as self employed. You do this by contacting the Inland Revenue, and they give you a code that enables you to access their online tax service. You then go through the process of filling in an online tax return, listing your earnings from all sources – from your employer, any interest on savings, investments,.. and then in the “other earnings” section of the online form, you tell them what you’ve made from your writing. You do this every year.

This applies whether you’ve made a £100,000, or £1000, or £100 or nothing.

Neat, eh? I’ve finally solved the mystery! So why am I not setting up a Kindle Desktop Publishing account right now, instead of writing this? Well?

Personally, I’m turned off and not a little intimidated by the thought of going through this process in order to professionalise and monetise my writing. It may be that I lack confidence in my potential earnings to make going through the process worthwhile. It could be that I am mistaken in my belief that potential earnings from my writing can ever amount to more than pin money when compared with the regular earnings from my dayjob. It could be that I am over complicating the process in my head, and that actually it’s quite simple and people do it every day.

It would be easier for me if Amazon could deduct tax from my earnings at source, like my dayjob employer does. This would let me test the water, selling my stories, seeing what the potential was, but it isn’t possible. It seems I’m stymied by tax legalities. Or to put it in more prosaic terms, I don’t want to screw up my tax for the sake of a story that might not make any more than a couple of hundred quid.

I’m sure in the once upon a time, in the days of kipper ties, before the internet came along and we still relied upon the postal service, many writers simply took the publisher’s cheque and didn’t bother informing the taxman. They took the view that the taxman would catch up with them when he was ready, and that would be the time to put their affairs in order, that the taxman wasn’t interested in chasing up the coppers to be gleaned from hobby scribblers scribblings, and would only come calling when they made the big time.  And they might have got away with it too, existing all their non-careers in this legal twilight, but in a networked world where computers read your car number plate, and send you parking tickets automatically, is it really worth the risk?

I wouldn’t advise it.

So, after much deliberation, I have reached the unsurprising conclusion that my new story will not be appearing on Amazon, unless pirated of course. It will be free, like all the others, after I’ve exhausted the pleasure of writing it.

You lucky people!

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Burne Jones and WIlliam Morris 1874Eckhart Tolle is a spiritual teacher, and a successful author. His books “The Power of Now” and “A New Earth” have been devoured by a worldwide audience in search of that intangible “something” that is missing from our lives. Tolle brings together insights from all the world’s religious traditions and, for me at least, his success lies in his non-religious, transcendental approach to matters of mind, body and spirit, also to his humility and his engaging sense of humour. It’s no secret that Tolle has suffered from depression and anxiety, no secret either that his success is due also in part to the way he has dealt with his own mental illness.

In a society built on rationalism, determinism, and materialism, people who are mentally ill are not seen as reliable witnesses to the facts of life, at least not usually by those who control the gateways to employment, and financial remuneration. But if we think about it for a moment, the statistics suggest one in five of us have or will suffer from a mental illness. Then, since 80% of mental illness goes undiagnosed, this suggests very nearly one in five of us doing valuable work right now is already mentally ill, yet managing to hold the place together somehow – so we can’t be that unreliable either, can we? What’s even more interesting is that by implication, statistically, probably one in five of those people who hold mental illness low regard, are themselves mentally ill.

As a student in England, Tolle, suffered terribly from feelings of anxiety and depression. One night he lay down so overcome, he told himself he could not live with himself any longer. Sadly, this is the fate of many – an illness held in secret, ending suddenly with a tragedy that leaves others shocked by its unexpectedness. But what happened to Tolle was not what usually happens. He experienced an inner separation and an insight that was to be the catalyst of his life’s work. I’m paraphrasing here but he asked himself something to the effect of: who is the self that cannot live with my self any longer? The self he could not live with, he concluded, was the bit he associated with the pain, the egoic self. And he reasoned that the essential part of “Tolle”, indeed of all of us, was something else, something above, and not part of the pain.

He went on from this potentially fatal moment to become a teacher, counsellor, and an engaging life coach to millions. His teachings are all over the place – on Youtube, in books, DVD’s, lecture tours. I find in them much that explains the highs and lows of the lives of human beings, but the story of Tolle is itself an inspiration, demonstrating that mental illness does not invalidate anyone from playing a constructive or even a leading role in society.

Yes, we’ll sometimes have a hard time from ignorants and materialists who think the brain is a computer made of meat, and that a part of our brains have gone rotten. But our brains are not rotten. You cannot diagnose mental illness from a brain scan. Our brains are like everyone else’s. There are no bits missing. What mental illness does, however, is it puts us on the edge of something, thrusts us into the depths of an unknown, even at times a frightening inner realm, but the stories we bring back from that place are important – not only for our own healing, but the healing of others like us. So tell the Internet your stories. Use your creative faculties.Get a blog, get a Flikr account, and get busy.

I spoke last time about the three vessels of being – the physical, the mental and the spiritual – and how attention to any one of them can help maintain the others and restore us to ourselves. Creative expression is very much concerned with the mental life, and is the most natural channel for the otherwise jagged and ferocious energies of mental illness. So many artists and larger than life celebrities are mentally ill, yet they are also possessed of the most remarkable abilities. So, write it, journal it, paint it, doodle it, tell it in poetry, sculpt it, and learn by it. Through creative expression we turn something negative into something positive and, as we give external shape to what has up ’till now been only an internal, mental thought form, we realise it is not who we really are at all, that pain. It dwells within us, yes, and it looks like that, but it is not who we are.

The search for who we are is the same as the search for our life’s meaning, whether we are suffering from a mental illness or not. But that you suffer can be interpreted as a sign you sense there is something vital missing from the world, that your inability to fit in with it is more a reluctance to dance with a partner who is not of your choosing. Again, one in five of us will at some point suffer from a mental illness. It is not our fault if society has difficulty in accommodating that fact, or in facing up to the question it begs regarding the nature of society, and the direction it is moving in. But neither can we blame society for its ignorance if we do not tell it how we feel.

Do not say how can I live with myself? but say instead who is the self that cannot live with my self. And in separating yourself from the pain, go seek instead the self you want to be.

I leave the last word on this to Eckhart Tolle:

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moonThere’s a wealth of lore regarding the moon. It features in our ritual and our calendars, and there’s always been a belief in its ability to affect our mood. Until recently however respectable scientists have poured scorn on the idea, pointing out there is no known mechanism by which the moon can affect the mind. The only known force the moon exerts upon the earth, they say, is gravity, but while the moon’s gravity can indeed raise ocean tides, a scientist will assure you the gravitational effect it has on my brain is no more than the gravitational pull exerted by the computer I’m typing this into. It’s true – gravity is not the answer, but then respectable mystics no longer maintain that it is.

Personally, I’ve always held that the moon does have an effect on the psyche – perhaps not everyone’s, but certain sensitive individuals – and that it’s quite common, and natural, and I don’t mind that we don’t yet know, conclusively, what the mechanism is. My evidence is subjective and entirely experiential. I’ve simply noticed that the time coming up to full moon is when I’m at my most creatively and emotionally outgoing. It’s when things get done, and the energy needed for them just flows. Conversely, following the full moon I become gradually more contemplative, more inward looking, and less creatively active, with a definite hiatus around the time of the new moon when my brain floats aimlessly about like a boat that’s lost its anchor. Of course I still have to do what needs to be done, but it can be a real struggle to get my brain in gear and, regarding, the energy, it feels like I’m running on empty.

It’s interesting that my personal diary backs this up. Searches for things like: “disconnection”, “airiness” and “spaced out” all closely correlate with the period around new moons. This is a time for leasure-reading, for meditating, for dreaming, and for inviting syncronicities – not for actively seeking to influence outcomes in the real world.

Of course, it could be that I’m simply looking at the moon, seeing what phase it is, and adjusting my mood to suit, rather than actually responding to subtle earth-energies, and all that other new-age guff. That’s fair enough, in which case you might say I  I simply favour maintaining an awareness of the moon, and other aspects of the natural world, and aligning myself to its rhythms, like my ancestors once did. I am, in short, not looking to prove anything, either to myself or to others. It is what it is, and it seems to work for me.

But if it’s true, my suspicion has always been that the mechanism is tied up with the earth’s magnetic field and its perturbations resulting from the constant buffeting it gets from the solar wind. And, since the moon moves around inside this system of magnetic flux, it’s feasible it has a regulating effect, and that a lunar signature should be detectable in the geomagnetic data.

If you study the figures for daily geomagnetic flux levels, as published by NOAA*, put it all in a giant spreadsheet and apply some filtering, you can indeed pick out an effect, a rising and falling in intensity of the geomagnetic index with a period that correlates with the lunar phase. Other’s have looked at this too, including NASA analysts in the past (Stolov et al 1965), and come up with the same thing. There may be other space weather experts who can elaborate on it now, but, while fascinating, my understanding is this research has always been considered inconclusive, controversial, and somehow not a respectable field for any career conscious scientist to be associated with at all – dare I say because it sounds like lunacy?

But non-scientists, like me, have no difficulty with it, nor in suggesting we might be picking up on the earth’s lunar modulated geomagnetic “vibrations” through the pineal gland, a  pine-cone shaped organ located deep in the brain. It’s sensitive to magnetic fields, and regulates the body’s circadian rhythms – things like sleep patterns – through the secretion of melatonin. Again, scientists have long blown raspberries at this idea, but a recently published study has indeed shown changes in blood chemistry and sleep patterns correlated with the phases of the moon. It’s summarised as a news item on the BBC here. This is the first time I’ve ever read of any respectable research in this area that was not wholly sceptical. So maybe science is beginning to catch up with myth, with sober research data now pointing in the direction mystics have been indicating all along; that it really does make a difference what moon it is.

*NOAA – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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