Batching Your Tasks

As mentioned in previous blogs, I’ve recently started my doctorate. I’m presently enrolled fulltime, but the completing of this research investigation is hardly the only project on my plate. (Who the heck has ONE project on their plate anyway?)

Over the years, I developed a time blocking schedule where I worked towards the completion of tasks/goals by spending a little bit of time every day working on each task or goal. This meant that I shifted between 3-5 different projects every day and I would spend 1-3 hours on each task. Although I was constantly shifting gears, this system worked because I was strategic in how I organised the completing of these tasks.

For instances, I’m a morning person so my mornings were always spent working on high priority projects or projects that required a greater amount of cognitive or creative clarity such as novel writing, reading and analysing journal articles, or drafting/revising assignments. My energy is much lower in the afternoons, so I usually spent this time working on lighter tasks such as marketing, administration or research.

In between these tasks, I would frequently check my emails, ebook sales (published under a pen name), tend to domestic tasks (laundry/baking/candlestick making) or run personal errands.

For years, this flittering between tasks worked for me. I enjoyed the variety that came with each day and the satisfaction of daily, steady progress. This system suited me and my temperament and I had no problems winding down and switching off at the end of the day.

Then something changed. With no warning at all, the system that I had used to organise my life stopped working. Shifting between 3-5 tasks every day no longer felt invigorating or satisfying. Instead, I felt scatterbrained and overwhelmed. What made matters worse was that I could no longer switch off. I was waking up at 12am to the sound of my inner taskmaster reading out my to-do list. I had worked hard to train my brain to focus intensely on one task for a short period of time before switching to another task and now my brain didn’t know how to switch off.

The system that worked seamlessly for years was defunct. I needed to find a new system!

I first heard of ‘batching’ a couple of years ago, but I never gave it much thought. After all, I already had a system.

If you haven’t heard of this time managing technique, here’s the low down:
Batching is when you organise your day, week or month to the completing of one task or the completing of similar tasks. For example, my blog posts are written in real time. I spend a few hours every Thursday writing and revising a blog that is then posted on Friday. Rather than writing one blog every week, I could batch this task by dedicating one whole day to writing and editing enough blogs for a whole month.

This intense focus allows you to stay in the one headspace for an entire day/week/month rather than flittering between multiple tasks that require different levels of skill or concentration.

When it comes to batching, you choose the time frame and the task. You may want to dedicate a whole month to the completing of a major project, or you may dedicate a whole day to writing. Some tasks don’t require a whole day but you still want to stay in a similar headframe. If that’s the case, you could group similar tasks together such as domestic chores: houseworks/errands/bills or marketing: content creation/social media posts/ads/copywriting.

At the top of this post I mentioned how I used to constantly check my emails. While ‘batching’ a task like emails isn’t feasible for me, I have decided to dedicate one hour every day to this task. I’m not going to lie, it takes a lot of will power to do this. Checking my emailing became something I did whenever I needed a mini-break from whatever task I was working on. Email is disguised procrastination. It seems like you’re being ‘productive’, but usually you’re just wasting time. Don’t get me wrong, mini-breaks are good! Just don’t spend your mini-break in front of a screen checking email or social media. If you’re taking a mini-break, actually have a break. Stand up, move around or stare out the window.

How about you? Do you use the batching method or a different technique to get your tasks done?

 

 

 

The Rise of the Hybrid Novel

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog that listed my favourite reads of 2018. Of the six novels that I listed, five could easily be described as literary hybrids.

A hybrid is a novel that can be identified as literary but that also contains the tropes typically associated with genre fiction. For those of you who may be a bit lost, literary fiction can be described as intellectual narratives that explore ideas and themes through the vessel of story. For example, the rape trial depicted in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is not about Atticus Finch defending Tom Robinson, it is about racial injustice and the loss of innocence.

Literary fictions tell the reader a story, but the story is not the point. You can enjoy a literary book for its ‘plot’, but the purpose of literature is to communicate a bigger idea or to contribute to a cultural/political/social discussion. Imagine the story as a monster costume and it is your job as the reader to find the zipper and to peak underneath.

Genre fictions are stories that use similar elements, tropes or structures. Horror, science fiction, romance and crime are considered the largest genre categories, but beneath these umbrella terms lies a multitude of subgenres. Readers of genre fiction have set expectations of how a novel from a certain genre will handle elements such as plot, character and setting. If you select a novel from the crime section of your local bookstore, before you even crack the spine, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what that story is about. Obviously, not all crime books are the same, but readers of crime fiction would expect the novel to be about a crime told through the perspective of the person whose ‘job’ it is to solve it. Note: The character may not get paid for solving this crime (detective, lawyer), but instead have a personal motivation (victim).

At their best, literary fiction is seen as sophisticated and highbrow; they are the types of novels that get nominated for awards. At their worst, they’re considered elitist. Genre fiction can be described as entertaining, exciting and engaging, but their (supposed) lack of originality can mean they are perceived as ‘childish’ or ‘books for dumb people.’

And yet, five of my favourite novels from last year are literary hybrids: smart novels that use genre tropes.

Australian authors Angela Myer, Jane Rawson and Emily Maguire have all chosen to include genre tropes as part of their literary explorations of feminism, technology, ecology, sex and violence. American author Carmen Maria Machado’s collection of short stories Her Body and Other Parties combines horror and science fiction tropes as she explores the themes of women’s bodies, sex writing and queer writing. George Saunders identified himself as a science fiction writer, yet critics consider him a hybrid author due to his literary voice and his 2016 win of the Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo only further solidified this title.

So, why are literary authors suddenly using genre tropes?

Literary fiction is often described as realist fiction, by which I mean, no aliens or monsters. Of course, there are examples of literary novels that are told via otherworldly perspectives. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is narrated by Death and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is narrated by a deceased teenage girl following a brutal rape and murder. Though these novels are told through the perspective of mystic beings, they are not considered hybrid novels as they do not use genre tropes.

Perhaps literary novelists are including elements from genre fiction as a way to test their skills as a writer and to stretch the boundaries of their own genre. It takes a high level of skill to use supernatural creature or futuristic technology within a text that can also be described as intellectual. Realism, as a mode, is somewhat limiting. Perhaps literary novelists are enjoying the innovation and possibilities that can occur when realism is blended with elements of the fantastical.

Interestingly, this trend also goes the other way as authors like Stephen King, who is typically described as a horror author, won the medal for American Letters in 2003 and the National Medal for Arts in 2015; an award previously won by Ray Bradbury, Harper Lee and Maya Angelou.

Considering that genre fiction is sometimes described as Popular Fiction, i.e., fiction for general audiences, the sceptic in me wonders if literary authors are simply trying to get in on the market. In general, genre books outsell literary fiction. With publishing houses merging (Penguin/Random House) and book deals becoming harder to secure, perhaps literary novels are doing what they can to appeal to both genre and literary readers.

Regardless of the motivation (author or publisher), hybrid novels are successfully bridging the divide between these two camps. And more importantly, they make for a ripper read.

Writing and Music

Like good literature, music can invoke powerful emotions, imagery and even inspire spontaneous insights. A bad day can be turned around, even if only temporarily, by listening to an upbeat song or by reading an inspired piece of writing; whether that be poetry, prose or non-fiction.

Whenever a group of writers get together, there’s a series of questions and topics that inevitably come up. One such question is ‘Do you listen to music when you write?’

Authors such as Ted Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Haruki Murakami and William Faulkner have all commented on the influence music has had on their writing. Kerouac told the Paris Review that jazz influenced his poetry to such an extent that he used the size of his notebooks to govern the length of each line of poetry the way musical bars determine the structure of jazz composition. Murakami also cites music as a powerful influence, stating that the chords, melodies and rhythm of blues music help him during the writing process.

Early in his career, Stephen King stated that he always had pop music playing in the background while he wrote and that the rhythm of the music influenced the pace of the plot. In more recent interviews, he is quoted as only playing music during the re-reading and editing stage and not during the initial draft.

Jenna Moreci, a self-published author with over 100, 000 followers on YouTube, has made several videos that document the influence music has had on her most recent publication. When Moreci listened to music, she sees her characters acting out a scene as though she were watching a music video. The unfolding of certain scenes is so closely inspired by particular songs that Moreci can describe the exact moment a dramatic action or gesture links up with a line of dialogue, time signature change or crescendo.

YA authors such as Veronica Roth and Cassandra Clare make public playlists on their websites. These playlists include songs that inspired the writing of particular scenes, that have a similar mood to the book or are personal favourites of the authors. This trend is limited to YA novels and has quickly become a clever marketing strategy as it assists in the building of the authors’ online community.

When I was completing my undergraduate degree ten years ago, I used to listen to music (metal?!) while writing assignments and studying for exams. These days, I prefer the less invasive melodies of classical music or white noise (ambient-mixer.com – you’re welcome!).

In researching for this blog, I found that most literary writers prefer to work in silence. Dani Shapiro, Zadie Smith, Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Stout work at libraries (Smith) or in their home offices – preferably when no-one is home. When it comes to genre writing, especially horror, fantasy and science fiction, it was hard to find a writer that didn’t listen to music! Jay Kristoff, Deborah Harkness, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King and Terry Pratchett are all quoted as writing while listening to music.

Perhaps this trend is not all that surprising. To speak generally, literary work is concerned with exploring internal space while genre novels are concerned with story-telling. Genre narratives tend to have a more visual focus, so it is little wonder that the emotions and imagery invoked by music compliment this form of literature better. To add a small disclaimer, I read literary fiction and genre fiction and I see this division as a marketing strategy and not as a means for determining quality.

Whether or not music forms a part of an authors’ writing process is beside the point. The only thing that matter is that each author discovers for themselves a routine and process that works for them and their project. Now, over to you. Does music influence your writing process? Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what kind of music?

 

 

 

A World Worth Writing For

Unfortunately, writers guilt is all too common. When we are working on a project, we feel guilty that we aren’t doing something more practical or useful – even if that task is nothing more than basic domestic chores. Ironically, as soon as we leave our desk to carry out said useful task, we feel guilty for abandoning our project. “I should be writing!” is the familiar, tedious mantra that plays in every writers’ mind.

Lately, though, I’ve been struck by the other type of guilt creatives suffer from. Perhaps you are familiar with it? The “Is my art doing anything?” guilt.

Part of me believes in art for art’s sake. With so much ugliness and helplessness in the world, I believe there is a place for aesthetically pleasing art. What harm can come from admiring something that is beautiful? What’s wrong with reading fun, frivolous fiction and indulging in the escapism it offers? Then there is the other part of me. The part of me that scorns this irresponsible reader. This placid person who chooses to read the latest bestseller while soaking in a tub of Epson salt as the world burns outside their window.

A vision that spurs the question: how can reading and writing contribute to solutions?

The “civilised” world has never been perfect. For better or for worse, technology’s omnipresence means we can no longer remain ignorant of our imperfection. In the face of these serious and urgent global issues, how can writers contribute to the crafting of solutions? Do their story-telling and communication skills offer anything of value?

Some argue that the publication of books reflecting current global issues is vital. Of course, these people tend to be authors. Ann Patchett (author) recently stated that she has moved away from reading classic literature in favour of contemporary texts. She believes that the accountability and challenging themes presented in recent works have once again made reading a political act.

To contradict Patchett’s point, I recently started reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and I have been shocked by the timeliness of the commentary. Many of Esther existential concern remain relevant today.

“I felt now that all the uncomfortable suspicions I had about myself were coming true, and I couldn’t hide the truth much longer.” (31)

“A million years of evolution […] and what are we? Animals?” (87)

This modern classic was published in 1971. A fact that saddens me slightly, as it illustrated how little we have evolved in the last 47 years. As an aside, I bought my copy of ‘The Bell Jar’ from a second-hand bookstore. The previous owner had unlined the above passages (and others) in pencil.

I wondered why someone who loved a book enough to read it with a pencil in hand would ever part with said book. This question was immediately followed by the thought, “Maybe they died?” Given the sombre tenor of these passages/the whole book and the former reader’s obvious identification with them, I hope their ending was happier than Esther/Sylvia’s … That being said, I was constantly impressed by Plath’s ability to clearly articulate what depression felt like. I’ve never experienced depression (though the evening news does test me…) but Plath’s considered descriptions of Esther’s mental state bridged that divide. I got it.

If nothing else, this is what writers can do. They can communicate ideas. They can shape messy and complex emotions into tidy sentences. They can shatter binaries and expose hidden nuance. They can repackage complex problems into comprehensible forms. But. Is this the only irrefutable claim that writers can make? That they can present readers with information?

As the saying goes, if information was the solution, we’d all be happy millionaires with ripped abs.

You can write about the issues that trouble you, but you can’t make people read your work and you definitely can’t make them do something. While the publication of cli-fi and other challenging literary works are appearing more and more, the market isn’t exactly flooded. (No pun intended).

In a recent episode of The Garrett Podcast, Jennifer Mills, author and literary editor of Overland said that while the magazine has been successful in the publishing of marginal voices, few submissions address our present-day issues like the Anthropocene (humans impact on non-humans). Instead, most of the submissions received are concerned with relationship dynamics.

Is this because readers want escapism or because writers do?

Mills, who has published her own Anthropogenic work, Dyschronia, says that she intentionally constructed a plot that offered little in the way of solutions or action because that is what she sees in society: passivity. An observation that is no doubt reinforced by the submissions she vets.

Information is key. Without it, people may not understand the depth of a problem or how to fix it. Historically, the publication of good writing has played a vital role in the mobilizing of populations and the igniting of revolutions. Within our current culture, the problem is not a lack of information but our passivity and denial in the face of it.

Perhaps this is where our writerly self-consciousness stems from. Words are the tools wielded by skilful writers, but are we simply hiding behind our profession? Perhaps we should accept the fact that the gap between information and action is too wide? That our culture is passive. That a challenging book is likely to achieve little more than a 3.5 star rating on Good Reads. That it is time to close our laptops, start a biodynamic farm, become vegan and trade our cars for bicycles…I’m not being facetious; sincerity rests in this hyperbole.

It is true that the grandiosity of the world’s problems is overwhelming, but none of these issues occurred in isolation. We are all driving cars, drinking takeaway coffees, shutting our mouths instead of speaking up, lying to our kids about where the steak on their plate came from and buying caged eggs because they’re a dollar cheaper.

We need to do better. We need to do something.

Writers can offer solutions in their weekly columns and fiction. They can encourage readers to re-evaluate their opinions and behaviours by holding up a mirror. While a single blog post cannot change the world, our combined voices do have the power to shift culture.

Together, we can aspire to create a new culture. A culture that carries re-useable cups, that walks to works and eats ethical, sustainable food. A culture that votes. A culture that allows minorities to have space without slipping into fear that they are ‘taking over.’ A culture that questions why education hasn’t changed in 150 years. A culture that swivels its gaze away from the individual to focus on the collective. A world that is less about stuff and more about substance.

That, my friends, is a world worth writing for.

Author Interview with Jay Ludowyke

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Dr Jay Ludowyke is an author and academic with a research focus on narrative nonfiction, objects and artefacts. She holds qualifications in writing, history and library services. Her writing has appeared Meniscus, Visible Ink and TEXT. Jay’s debut novel, Carpathia, was released earlier this year by Hachette.

Carpathia is a dual narrative that follows the Carpathia‘s legendary rescue of the Titanic survivors in 1912 and the discovery of the ship’s wreck nearly 100 years later.

Jay and I met two years ago at a writing saloon on the Sunshine Coast. At the time, she was completing a Doctorate at USC and I was completing a Masters. Jay’s intelligence, talent, and enormous generosity are obvious. Hearing about her debut novel Carpathia, I knew I wanted to have Jay on the blog. Being the generous person that she is, she agreed.

What drew you to the story of the Carpathia?

Jay: I first heard about Carpathia while watching an episode of Antiques Roadshow, a British television program where people bring in artefacts to be appraised by an expert. The program featured a commemorative medal presented to a crew member who served aboard Carpathia during the rescue of the Titanic’s survivors. The expert told the story of how Captain Arthur Rostron diverted steam from the ship’s heating and lighting, sending it back into Carpathia’s engines. Then they sailed full speed through the black night, directly towards icebergs, desperately trying to reach the stricken ocean liner.

Carpathia’s rescue mission was brave and heroic, but few people know this story, despite its connection to the most famous maritime disaster of the twentieth century. I have never liked tragedy, but I have always been drawn to heroism and nobility and romanticism, and Carpathia brings these elements to the Titanic story — at least for me. Her rescue mission captured my heart.

This year marks the one-hundred-year anniversary of the sinking of the Carpathia. Why do you think now is an important time for people to learn the story of the Carpathia?

Jay: We seem to have a fascination for centenary anniversaries — perhaps because so few humans reach this milestone. Carpathia was sunk by a U-boat while leading a convoy out of Liverpool during the final year of the First World War. Five men were killed that day — 17 July, 1918. In addition to the rescue of the Titanic’s survivors and her war service, Carpathia was built when the shipping industry was still transitioning from wind power to steam power, which coincided with a period of intense immigration from Europe to the United States. She was also one of Cunard’s first holiday cruisers, traversing the Mediterranean. In 2000, after several failed attempts, the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) located Carpathia’s wreck and she was subsequently dived by a group of amateur technical divers in 2001 and again in 2007 during an artefact salvage expedition, in one of the deepest ever UK wreck dives. Any one of these elements warrants mention in the historical record and their cumulative effect makes Carpathia a significant artefact of the twentieth century. So, the one-hundredth anniversary of her loss is the ideal time to commemorate her.

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Your book alternates between the early 20th century and 2007 as you explore the history of the Carpathia and the recent discovery of her wreck. Was it difficult to construct a voice that could move between these two-time periods? Is that why you chose to use a narrative voice rather than a “standard” non-fiction voice?

Jay: I did have to contend with one significant issue of narrative voice while writing Carpathia. This was caused by using both an historical and contemporary timeline in alternating chapters. I felt that each timeline deserved a voice that accurately reflected the period and people within. For example, the historical chapters are written in a style that favours a lyrical voice, with a significant degree of detail and world building that gives verisimilitude to depictions of Edwardian society and life aboard steamships. However, the contemporary chapters dial back the lyricism, particularly since the protagonist here is a down-to-earth, plain-speaking firefighter from Manchester. It would have been a disservice (to him and to readers) to depict Ric Waring and the other men who dived Carpathia’s wreck with the lyrical voice used in the historical chapters — inauthentic to who they are and the way they speak. The key was to find a balance so that the two voices harmonised.

I used the genre of narrative nonfiction to write Carpathia because I wanted to tell people a story – albeit true. One that would captivate them. Too often, the ‘standard’ nonfiction voice to which you refer fails to engage a reader’s mind and emotions, because it focuses on recounting facts, figures and dates. That’s easy. Enlivening nonfiction is much harder.

Can you tell us about the research that was involved with this book? Both the historical research and your interactions with Ric Waring and his diving team.

Jay: So much research! Too much to list it all here, but among other things it involved reading

reference works (at first, with a dictionary in one hand to look up all the nautical terminology), locating primary sources, reading historical news accounts, contacting Titanic experts and maritime archaeologists, and interviewing the divers. I even visited Las Vegas specifically to attend a Titanic exhibition, and in New Zealand I went for a cruise on TSS Earnslaw, the only remaining coal-fired passenger ship in the southern hemisphere (where they allowed me into the normally restricted engine room and let me throw some coal in the boiler’s furnace, and to visit the bridge and steer the ship!)

I also went on a research trip to the United Kingdom, which was funded by the University of the Sunshine Coast. This involved visits to multiple information repositories. The major ones included, in London: The National Archives, and the National Maritime Museum; in Liverpool: the University of Liverpool, and the Merseyside Maritime Museum; in Newcastle: the Tyne and Wear Archives, and the Segedunum Roman Fort and Museum; and in Belfast: the Titanic Belfast Museum and Slipways. Because it was winter in England, the nights were long and it was always dark when I entered and exited the archives. For weeks, it was like living in perpetual night. While researching Carpathia, I remember missing the sun for the first time in my life.

In Manchester, I stayed with Ric Waring and interviewed him about his experiences diving Carpathia. Ric was very patient with me, because at that stage I knew next to nothing about any kind of diving, much less technical diving – the kind of deep diving required to dive Carpathia – which is highly specialised and very dangerous. The rest of the team also shared stories with me, but because they were spread over the UK, Italy and Germany, I focused on Ric, who was the 2007 expedition leader. I was quite nervous about meeting him, but he was welcoming and very forthright about his experiences — the good, the bad and the funny.

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What were some of the most interesting facts you uncovered during your research?

One of the most interesting archival documents I located was a letter written by Charles H. Marshall to Cunard, concerning the naming of Carpathia. This was quite extraordinary because Marshall was actually a passenger aboard Carpathia when she went to rescue the Titanic’s survivors, amongst whom were three of his grown nieces!

I also found records and photographs indicating that 2,000-year-old stones from Hadrian’s Wall, a UNESCO world-heritage listed Roman site, were displayed in a glass case aboard Carpathia. In the book, the stones are portrayed as her sunken treasure. Previously, I’d only ever seen brief mentions that the end of Hadrian’s Wall had been found in the shipyard while Carpathia was being built — never that the stones were placed aboard her.

Finally, after a great deal of time and effort, I uncovered the real name of the baby born on Carpathia’s maiden voyage and heretofore known only as ‘Carpathius’ —  but I’m not going to spoil that scene by revealing the name here!

What challenges did you encounter while writing a historical non-fiction narrative?

I love history and I wanted to tell the reader absolutely every interesting thing I discovered. And I thought everything was interesting! When I send an early draft to my supervisor, Dr Ross Watkins, he, very constructively, told me it was boring. I’d forsaken the story in favour of reciting facts — the antithesis of what I was trying to achieve when I chose narrative nonfiction as my genre. When I became aware of the problem, it was still incredibly difficult to resolve because I struggled against privileging my desires over the needs of the narrative. In the end, I had to reconcile myself to writing drafts that were factually overwritten. I could only resolve this kind of overwriting during the editing process, after giving myself time and distance so I could evaluate the text more objectively. Only then, could I ‘kill my darling’ extraneous facts.

Can you tell us a little bit about your routine? Are you a morning person or night person? Do you write every day? Do you research and write at the same time? Do you outline? 

Jay: I won’t start writing until I’m satisfied I’ve done enough preliminary research — that’s not to say all the research will be done before I put fingers to keyboard – far from it, but I’m a plotter and I need to know my organising structure (or at least the beginning, conflict, climax and ending) before I begin. This gives me direction. Once I start writing, I’m still always researching, but then I’m seeking the type of information needed to construct scenes and create verisimilitude. I work best during the day, which can be a little difficult since I’m also a night owl. When I’m at the writing stage of a project, I treat it like a job and do it every day.

There are two strategies I found particularly useful for writing historical nonfiction. During the research stage I created a detailed timeline of events relating to Carpathia. I compiled the information from the many sources I consulted, adding fact after fact to create a more comprehensive history of her than any single source offered. It was extraordinarily useful to have a chronological timeline that I could refer to, even though the book’s plot is not structured chronologically. The timeline was fully referenced so that I always knew from where the information came. Then, when writing the book, I used footnotes (always intending to remove them in the finished version) to continue to maintain that link with the original source. This was a huge help when my editor was fact checking, and I had to confirm the validity of something that was being queried.

I usually only do a written outline if I have a limited word count. I’ll note what I need to achieve per 500 or 1,000 words, so that I don’t hit my limit and discover that I’m only half done with no words left. If there is no word limit (or its several tens of thousands), most commonly, I just begin writing. This is because by the time I’m ready to begin I always have a mental plan and know where I’m going to start. Things usually flow organically from there, because of the mulling I’ve done beforehand. Then, at about the halfway mark, I’ll assess what I’ve done, make a list of scenes I still need to write (I have a better idea of them by this point) and continue. After completing a chapter I’ll often do a one-paragraph summary so that I don’t forget what I wrote in that chapter or what threads I’ve left hanging. Excepting major plot points, I usually work out the details of a scene during the act of writing. It’s part instinctual, but always informed by that preliminary research and mulling.

If you would like to find out more about Jay, all her contact details are below. Carpathia is available in bookstores now or can purchase directly here.

Dr Jay Ludowyke

Email: jay@jayludowyke.com

Website: www.jayludowyke.com

Twitter: @JayLudowyke

Facebook: JayLudowykeAuthor

 

 

 

 

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Why You Should Reread Books

I love re-watching movies. Well…to clarify, I love re-watching movies that I love. Unsurprisingly, I also love rereading books that I love. Though, to be honest, rereading a beloved book from start to finish is a rare event. I certainly have done this – ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Heart of Darkness’ have both had three complete read-throughs –  but I am far more likely to reread a favourite scene or to follow a story thread through multiple chapters.

Similarly, I don’t always re-watch movies from start to finish, but since movies are typically 2-3 hours long whereas a novel can take 6-30 hours to read, depending on word count and complexity, the time required to watch a movie is far less.

Part of the value of re-watching a film is that you will notice things you missed the first time. Given that film is a visual medium, there is so much information contained within each and every shot. The first time you watch a movie, your attention will be on the foreground action, but by re-watching a film you can choose to pay closer attention to dialogue, character mannerism, the set, background action and so on. For example, a character may make a seemingly through-away comment and it is only through re-watching that you realise it was actually clever foreshadowing.

This is what re-watching offers, the ability to see all of the small details that the creators have both intentionally and perhaps unintentionally placed within the narrative. Of course, this same witnessing and pleasure also occurs when rereading, however, the effect is slightly different. There will inevitably be occasions when you zone out while reading or you miss a snippet of information, but when you’re reading, your attention is solely on the text itself. Of course, in the same way that film contains multiple levels of action, so do books. Beneath the foreground action and story beats lie layers of foreshadowing, theme, double meanings, concealed information and character motivations.

You don’t have to look beneath the hood, you can enjoy the trip from A to B, but it is through the process of close reading and critical thinking that a book will ignite. If you give a book the attention and consideration it deserves, then it will last you a lifetime.

You may not realise this, but books and films are time travel devices.

Temporal narratives are a genre all their own, but I would argue that all books and films are time machines. Whether you consume this content for the second, third or umpteenth time, the story remains the same. As you may be aware, time travel is not possible – yet! – but revisiting a beloved movie or book is a type of time travel.

I can never go back and re-experience the first time I met my partner, but I can read about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s first encounter whenever I want.

I will never again pass through the chain-link fence of my high school (not that I’d want to…), but I can reread the prom scene from ‘Carrie’.

There are two ways in which movies and books act as time travel devices.

The first is that they can transport you to times and places you would otherwise not be able to access. I can cross the Tudor court while reading ‘Wolf Hall’ or dive into a WWI trench while reading ‘Fall of Giants’. Historical novels allow me to travel into the past and to access the knowledge that only comes with personally lived experience. I can travel into the far future by reading science fiction or travel to another dimension or world by reading fantasy.

Books and movies have the power to turn your couch into a time machine. They allow you to step out of linear time and into other spaces and places, but they also provide the opportunity to re-experience a moment, in real time, exactly as it first occurred.

There are a handful of days in my own life that I’d do just about anything to re-live. Yes, it’s true that you can attempt to re-experience a memory but returning to the physical place with the same people, but time has passed and you aren’t the same. You can close your eyes and recall the memory. You can pretend to feel the Californian sun, to hear the crackle of leaves and to smell the Malibu spray mingling with fresh cut chips and chardonnay, but it’s not real. You can never authentically re-experience a moment from your past, but books and movies are different. The way a character’s life unfolds, the adventures they go on and how they feel about those experiences never changes.

Though your opinion of the art may change over time, though you may sometimes feel disconnected from the story or bored by its familiarity, the story itself hasn’t changed. Sometimes though, when the stars aligned and you are in the exact right mood and the craving for a particular experience hits, you can crack back the cover of a book or hit the play button and know that the story will meet your expectations exactly. And that feeling is pretty sublime.

It is true that you can only read a book for the first time once, but you can re-experience the story again and again, whenever you want and for as long as you want. It’s a small, humble pleasure yes, but it’s a relief to know that while I cannot go back to that Californian day, I can cross the moorlands and visit Wuthering Heights, I can feel the weight of stone in Jack Builders hand, and the sting of Alma Whittaker’s heartbreak. I can experience these memories in all their authenticity, any damn time I please.

How to Produce Art when the World is Falling Apart

Sir Philip Sidney stated that poetry was “the first light-giver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk little by little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges.” Ezra Pound believed that “The arts, literature, posesy are a science, just as chemistry is a science. Their subject is man, mankind, and the individual.” And yet, still, sometimes, we struggle to justify our creative practice.

If you’re in the middle of a personal crisis, it’s unlikely that you will have the energy or the mental bandwidth to produce art.

If you stop to consider big problems like climate change, terrorism, refugees, our shrinking job marketing, rising house prices, the privatisation of health care and a multitude of other issues, sitting down to work on a short story or novel can seem self-indulgent and pointless.

What good is a novel when the world is falling apart?

It’s important to acknowledge these feelings of inadequacy because simply ignoring them won’t do anyone any favours. However, it’s equally important that artists continue to produce work despite this feeling of inadequacy. Art itself may not be able to solve our complex, incomprehensible social, economic, political and educational problems, but artists must continue to use their skills and ability because we need art, even if the world is falling apart.

At their most basic, novels provide a space for escapism and entertainment. At their best, a novel can inspire us into action by forcing us to confront our own behaviours and beliefs. We may ask ourselves why we do the things that we do, whether our behaviour is contributing to the solution or to the problem, and how can we change for the better both individually and as a society.

Stories don’t have to change the world. If you want to write stories for the sole purpose of escapism, both for yourself and your reader, then that is an honourable use of time. We need a little escapism. We need books that we can read at the end of a long day; books that offer comfort instead of further confrontation. It’s okay to read funny books or adventure stories or mysterious. Not only is it nice to escapes into a different world with different people and different problems, it is also nice to see those problems get solved.

Here’s the thing though, even nice books have value beyond mere entertainment. Whether consciously constructed or not, narratives contain the observations and reflections of their author. They are stories about people living with other people. They contain insight and knowledge about human behviour, our relationships with ourselves and others, our desires, strengths, and weaknesses. A novel is a response to the experiences an author has had and the observations they have made. They contain magic, and though this magic is unlikely to reverse climate change, novels can still teach us something about ourselves and the world we live in.

Novels have purpose.

A well-crafted and thoughtful novel that asks hard questions may not alter the general public opinion, but it can cause a shift within a reader. You may choose to write a dystopian novel based on scientific fact about where we’re heading environmentally, or you may write a speculative fiction novel about what the world would look like if women became infertile (The Handmaids Tale – Margarett Attwood), or if we intentionally used clones as a means for organ harvesting (Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro). Stories such as these act as a type of role play. They allow us to ponder and explore potential future spaces. If we continue to remain passive about particular issues, what will happen? Additionally, they provide a container for our personal and social fears. Not only is the writer able to unburden themselves, but it also allows the reader to experience their innermost fears while remaining within the safe, imaginary confines of a story.

The world may have a lot of problems, but when has it not.

If you’re still struggling to justify your need to create art, perhaps my final point will convince you. When we looking back on the type of art that was produced at any given moment in history, we can see the prominent concerns of that time through the themes, structures, and styles that are repeated across different works by different artists. We need to write stories that capture this moment in time. That explore our societal concerns. That showcase our collective psyche. Artists need to make their contribution to the historical record because we have skills that scientists and politicians don’t have. We can take incompressible problems and present them in a consumable format that will make you feel something, and that is a very special skill indeed.