“So long as we continue to have such trouble telling each other what we really feel, there’ll be room for literature.”
– Alain de Botton
Everything is open to interpretation. That’s the beauty of things. There’s no right way or wrong way; we take what we can from what we experience. This series of posts is about the stuff that inspires me. I’m not trying to convince you – I’m just brain-dumping some fanboy love on to the page. Not everyone will agree. That’s ok.
This is one from back in the day – but it’s the ones that stick with you that can have the biggest impact. First off, try to put aside any preconceptions (misconceptions) you may have about R.E.M. This was their debut album back in 1983 and a record I first heard many years ago but after the band had reached global mammoth-ness with Losing My Religion.
The reason it’s so important to me isn’t just that I love the music and that it hit me at an important time of life – I also love what it represents. This is a true indie album. Produced by I.R.S. Records in Atlanta, Georgia, I think it stands up against any of the great indie debuts and, as the music scene has evolved in the last 30 years, I actually think it may have gained even greater recognition if it was released today instead of back in the 80s.
That’s not say that it was ignored at the time – released in the same year as Thriller and U2’s ‘War’, Rolling Stone Magazine still nominated it as their record of the year, which was pretty unusual for such a ‘small time’ release.
The band members were all around 20 years old. They lived, worked and studied in Athens and, like a lot of kids, all wanted to be in a rock band. But great musicians? Not really. Lead guitarist, Peter Buck, was such a novice that on many of the tracks Mike Mills actually plays ‘lead bass’ to make up for it. Buck learnt to play once he was in the band, not the other way round.
And Michael Stipes’ distinctive vocals that are intelligible, save for the odd recognisable phrase… was he intentionally distorting his voice? It seems as if he’s too shy to let his words ring clear and true: at this stage he’s the opposite of a confident, brash frontman. In the words of Mitch Easter, the producer:
“We put him in in front of a microphone and that was the sound he made.”
However, what they were saying was less important than how they said it. They had a raw urgency and edge that I don’t think they ever reproduced and I think few bands have achieved, while turning out such great songs too. Just like looking at a painting that you don’t entirely understand but that speaks deeply to you nonetheless, Murmur gets you on a subconscious level and doesn’t let go. Even 30 years later.
The temperature dropped,
Wafting the merest hint of snow,
Through the air,
Like dandelion seeds,
Then blown away,
To make you wonder if they were ever there.
‘She is faithful to her roots without being bound by them.’
Zadie Smith is the embodiment of a very modern writer. When I think about her writing, I think about a multi-ethnic, western world, where races are both very separate and completely intertwined at the same time. I think of vibrance and energy and intelligence and insightfulness. And very helpfully for this post, she exudes all of these in the way she looks.
The great photo is by Nikolai Failla
“What the budding artist needs is the privilege of wrestling with problems in solitude.”
– Henry Miller
A writer’s world can be a strange one: we desperately try to find moments of solitude but then, when we get it, often struggle to adapt to the loneliness.
The truth is that writing can be a lonely old business. It usually needs to be. And different people cope with that in different ways. What’s important is that we choose and embrace this solitude rather than feeling powerlessly cut adrift. I guess that’s the difference between solitude and loneliness.
I actually like the solitary nature of writing – but I’ve found that I’ve been at my most productive on writing retreats, where I’m surrounded by other writers. In it’s own way, this is still isolation: in a house in the middle of nowhere, with no distractions and nothing to do except write from morning till night. It’s inspiring to feel the energy coming from the other writers in the group – that was the additional motivation I needed – but I still had to find my own bubble to write in.
There’s also the ‘no-one else understands’ loneliness. Oh yeah. If you stick your head out the window right now you’ll be able to hear that wail from a thousand heads looking up from a thousand keyboards.
And it is true. It’s highly unlikely that anyone else (except other writers) will understand exactly what it is you go through every time you sit down in front of a blank piece of paper, knowing that you’re embarking on a process that will take months, if not years, to complete. Not only won’t anyone understand why you do what you do – but they may not understand what you end up writing either!
It’s not so easy to fit all this in to our day-to-day lives. We crave the moments we manage to find for ourselves: after work, before work, at weekends, when the kids are out, on that weekend away, on the train. And it’s never enough. But then we make the time and guess what?
1. We procrastinate
There’s always that friend you meant to email, the youtube clip you meant to watch, the washing-up left in the kitchen sink, that thing you had to do that you’ve been meaning to do and you should probably at least look in to how you go about starting to do it.
If only someone would ring on the doorbell, you’d invite them in for tea and cake.
And sure, you want to build up a social media profile, to update your blog regularly, to make contacts… but if you haven’t made peace with the solitude and put the time in to your writing then the other stuff is all for diddly squat (is that even a phrase or did I just make it up?).
Seriously, just ‘suck it up and get on with it’. If you want to be a writer then write.
I guess this is now a tough love post!
2. The pressure, the pressure!
We’ve found the time and the space to sit with our pen and paper or at our keyboard… but what if the words won’t come? What if everything I write is shit? It’s making me crazy!
You know what? Seriously, just ‘suck it up and get on with it’. If you want to be a writer then write.
Ok, I know I’m being harsh. There are plenty of techniques and exercises to help get the words flowing – I’ve suggested and discussed a lot of them since I’ve started blogging. But being a writer is tough, no matter how much we love doing it or how much we feel that we have a story that needs telling. We need to learn to make friends with solitude and be hard on ourselves. Think of it as a privilege to do what you’re doing, not a chore, no matter whether your friends or family understand. For me, it’s all about being continually surprised and excited by what I’m writing… and if I can stay in that place then I’m a happy man.
(Photo by me)
(One day I’ll learn how to write a structured article)
The coach headlights are thrown on full beam,
Illuminating a sandy stage,
As the dancing pairs,
Defy their age.
And though the evening is warm enough,
That coats aren’t required,
You still couldn’t have guessed at the inspired,
Choice of attire on display.
Sequins, sequins everywhere,
No colour to garish,
No trouser too tight,
An army against blandness,
Dressed for the fight.
Here, there’s no disgrace,
In a belly that struggles to remain penned,
By the buttons on a shirt,
Or a jowl that wobbles more,
Than a few years before.
It’s not about being airbrushed and pert,
Because the reality,
Is that this happiness comes more,
From enjoying the commonalities,
We find with other people;
More from appreciating what you’ve got,
Than what you had;
Not from being grateful,
Just from being glad.
Unimportant though it may seem on the anniversary of a tragedy of this scale, I want to pay homage to the power of words.
For those who don’t know, 24 years ago today, on 15th April, 1989, a football match was taking place between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. Soon after the game began, a surge of fans at one end of the stadium caused a massive crush in which 96 people lost their lives. 79 of them were 30 years old or under. Originally, the Liverpool fans’ behaviour was deemed the reason for the disaster. However, following a 23 year campaign for justice by relatives of the victims, an independent investigation concluded that no fans were responsible for the deaths and that the authorities had in fact attempted to conceal the truth about the negligent behaviour of the police, other emergency services and local politicians.
Peter Jones, a BBC sports radio broadcaster, came to work that day to commentate on a game of football. Five hours later, looking out over the desolate aftermath of the tragedy, he signed-off with the words that still make me shiver and my eyes fill, no matter how many times I read or hear them:
“The biggest irony is that the sun is shining now, and Hillsborough’s quiet, and over there to the left are the green Yorkshire hills, and who would’ve known that people would die here in the stadium this afternoon. I don’t necessarily want to reflect on Heysel – but I was there that night, broadcasting with Emlyn Hughes – and he was sitting behind me this afternoon, and after half an hour of watching stretchers going out and oxygen cylinders being brought in and ambulance sirens screaming, he touched me on the shoulder and said ‘I can’t take anymore’, and Emlyn Hughes left.
The gymnasium here, at Hillsborough, is being used as a mortuary for the dead – and at this moment, stewards have got little paper bags, and they’re gathering up the personal belongings of the spectators. And there are red and white scarves of Liverpool, and red and white bobble hats of Liverpool, and red and white rosettes of Liverpool, and nothing else. And the sun shines now.”
You can listen to it here.
(For reference, ‘Heysel’ is the name of a Belgian stadium where 39 fans had died, also during a match involving Liverpool, four years earlier).
Photo compilation from BBC.