A many-mirrored mind

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I did a lot of thinking while I was waiting for news of my dad and not writing much, and I let myself go a bit, mentally. I got fed up with being the only person around here who cooks, does the shopping, pays the bills and cleans the place. I live alone, but still…

Kusama-Yayoi_Infinity-Mirrored-Room-Hymn-of-Life_2015_1500x1000-980x653Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room – Hymn of Life, 2015

The sole occupant of a life can have a tendency to over-think things, especially when so many other people inhabit their mind. When that person has mental health issues, those can become self-pollinating. And when the person’s a writer, some might think that makes things easier. It does and it doesn’t, because writers think more than average, they have a reputation to maintain in reporting those thoughts, and the more they think about the right prose, the more they’re obliged to think. It’s the proverbial vicious circle and yet another paradox in the life of the writer with depression. Sometimes I feel I should just go out and meet people. Then I remember, I don’t like many people and I don’t enjoy going out. My life, in a box, which I decided to take a look around.

Writing is a very lonely game anyway, more so when you’re someone with many different people in your mind. Some might think a writer with depression is a sadomasochist, but when you have anxiety too, it’s the only way to live. If I’m to keep living, I have to keep writing. It’s a self-propagating paradox.

I thought I’d found some kindred spirits in a few Facebook writing groups, then the one I favoured closed down because of an admin’s family bereavement, and paranoia tells me everyone I touch turns to shit. It’s a reflection of my real life, where I erect barriers to prevent anyone getting too close. Sometimes I let the barriers down but end up kicking people away, when they subsequently invade my personal space, inadvertently because they’re on my mind.

Some of the writing groups were challenge-based, and I’m stuck for words as often as I have too many to put into decent prose (very much the manic depressive, bipolar writer). Sometimes I set my own targets, and have nowhere to put them, so they go here. When I’m working freelance, I’m in charge, and with so many people in my head, it’s easy to find one to boss. Other times, I’m lost for words, let myself down, and simply lost in life.

I wouldn’t return to drink, as I never found myself there, only when I dried out. As well as losing all that I did before (and more, and on a more permanent basis), I’d lose this whole new brain function I’ve found, but which sometimes drives me to distraction or to switch off. I do have a drink to hand (I’m a functioning alcoholic), but I prefer a nice cup of French coffee and a croissant, sometimes with a cannabis joint, and I think some more. Sometimes, good fiction will arise, and others a full-blown existential crisis. My life in the mirror.

I’m 48 this year, which means I’ll have caught up with Douglas next year. I was born in May 1970, and it occurred to my reflection that in 2020 I’ll be entering my seventh decade: Conceived in the 60s, born in the 70s, grew up in the 80s, lived the 90s, married the noughties, and finally found myself in the teens. It was 2013 when I found myself on the streets, before becoming counsellor and friend to all those young strays who found the squat.

Last time I checked, there were only two or three people who truly understand real me: My kid sister, Courtney, and a couple of the young girls who adopted me in lieu of a father figure in their lives when I was on the streets. These are the ones the plastic police and defective detectives used to wind themselves up about, as they imagined what went on in the squat (if they’d bothered to come in themselves, like the real police used to, they’d be wiser). Those were mutual adoptions, which have proven symbiotic since. We remained friends, because I let my barriers down and didn’t feel a need to raise them again. These are friends I trust, because they placed so much trust in me, and who can read me as I can them. Courtney can listen to a list of perceived issues I have – A, B, and C – then suggest option D: That I’m being paranoid, and invariably she’s right. Those girls can somehow get me to look inside myself in a different way to my everyday.

There are barriers, of course, even if what we were once suspected of is legal now the girls are older. They’re still young girls, so it’s a one way street: I give a shit about them, but I don’t intrude on their private lives unless they bring them to me. It’s a life of ‘Do not disturb’ (I’m disturbed enough already), but I welcome the odd disturbance.

In writing, my peer groups are reflective of real life too: Never a core member of many things, but on the fringes of many more. Cyrus Song was me reaching out, when every day of guilt laden sobriety might cause a less occupied person to lapse. It’s a good job I have writing, but I need people to read, so that more might understand me and help me understand myself. All writers hope that what they do is worthwhile.

Barring another wobble, I have a lot lined up, if I can keep my mind on the job. I’ve got some short stories planned, and some already drafted or in process; I have a list of research projects for later blog posts; and now that dad’s on the mend, I can get back to the family history book, albeit now with a revised publication schedule.

I’m still a bit lost, in life and in writing, but both are the same, just as my real and virtual lives blur and merge. So I carry on in my writer’s life because what other is there? I seem to thrive in captivity, like a snake.

I was interrogating Captain Mamba, as I’m plotting Cyrus Song II as well. We discussed the snakes’ future plans for humanity, and as today is Valentine’s, we discussed snake and human birth control. We agreed that we both already employ an effective method: Being who we are as people.

The mind is a many-mirrored room when you look around it, then just write it down as you see it and read it back.

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These are the streets…

POETRY

On my head

Words © Steve Laker. Photo by Ellen Rostant. September in 2016 My London calendar (CafeArt)

The paradox of poetry

PROSE

I favour prose over poetry or verse, as I prefer to write free form. Although my poetry might be better than that of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings (or the Vogons), I don’t consider myself a poet first, but rather a writer who pens verse. Its an area I only dabble in, but I’ve accrued enough to encourage me to do more. Here’s one I made earlier.

IN A MOMENT…

In a moment3

This blog has wall sockets

THE WRITER’S LIFE | BOOK REVIEW

For a long time now, I’ve defined a typewriter as a musical instrument with keys. My keyboard of choice is my laptop, and it’s been a kind of living, retro-futuristic and steam punk device, in the various incarnations of The Unfinished Literary Agency, my fictitious writing bureau which tells the stories others can’t. Words and writing are art, just like music, and my typewriter made the Cyrus Song audible.

cat using laptop

I took a fearful plunge a week ago, when I decided to publish Cyrus Song as an eBook. Now I’m wondering why I didn’t do it before. I explained in my last blog post how I’m a traditionalist who reads books, but it was the Kindle and other devices which democratised publishing, and I was ignoring all those readers (sorry). Just like the answer to life, the universe and everything, it was under my nose all the time.

I’ve got old Cambridge Audio hi-fi separates and Mordaunt Short speakers for listening to uncompressed music. I’ll always prefer records and CDs over MP3, and I’ll still always prefer physical books myself, but I’ve democratised one of my own, because it’s the one I’d like people to read the most. I like doing things unplugged, and by unplugging Cyrus Song and plugging it into all those e-readers out there, I’ve made the novel I’d willingly be judged on as an author available to many more people.

My blog is where I come to be myself, and where expression is freedom. Right now I imagine I’m in a room, just as I am for 99% of my real life outside the blog. I’ve written before, Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: how do you get out? Assuming the subject would even want to, they could stop imagining. Or they could use their imagination.

The walls in this room definitely have ears, as it’s where I come to be heard, and hopefully liked and followed. Some people come here because they actually want to hear what I have to say. For a socially anxious writer, that’s the imagination required to get out of the room, to escape my physical self and all of its doubt, and occupy my virtual space instead.

This room also has a skirting board all around the perimeter, but in this virtual room, I don’t have to skirt around myself. I can use the plug sockets in those skirting boards to plug – on this occasion – Cyrus Song.

The book had reviews on Amazon and in Schlock web zine before it was converted to an eBook (and it’s always available as a paperback), and I’ve received a couple of email compliments in the past few days. Hopefully it’ll gather more reviews as the current readers finish it and still others pick it up. For now, the best and most informative review was the one in Schlock, by Stephen Hernandez, a translator and interpreter. Given that Cyrus Song centres around talking animals, there seemed no better professional critic to plug the book:


CYRUS SONG BY STEVE LAKER reviewed by Stephen Hernandez

The book begins with a bizarre, Kafkaesque occurrence. Although, in this book, the author would not be Kafka but Douglas Adams, the untimely late, famous author of ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, a book which is central to, and has a great bearing on this book – sorry, if this is all getting a bit complicated, but then we are dealing with ‘The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything’.

Simon Fry, the hero of this novel, is faced with perhaps the same problem as Arthur Dent, the hero in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: saving humanity from itself and discovering the meaning of life, which is, of course: 42. So, back to the bizarre occurrence: A writer [it is he, Simon Fry], is staring absent-mindedly at the page he has just written on his typewriter, whilst listening to Pink Floyd’s album, ‘The Division Bell’, in particular the ninth track: ‘Keep Talking’, and the quote contained therein by Stephen Hawking: ‘For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk…’ (the full quotation is also central to the theme of the book), when he notices two random marks on the page, a dot and a dash, which he could not remember typing. He notices the characters are moving across the page, seemingly in a self-determined fashion denoting some kind of intelligence. He captures the minute ‘creatures’ and takes them to a veterinary clinic [as one would].

The vet, Hannah [a palindrome] Jones, examines them under a microscope and makes a surprising discovery: The apparent microscopic creatures are minute warships, and are inhabited, or crewed, one by animals commanded by Black Mambas, and one by humans. It is then that the vet reveals to Fry, something even more remarkable [but entirely plausible]: she has invented a very powerful and unique piece of software called The Babel fish (after the translating fish in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), which interprets animal languages. She lets him use it in her clinic so he can ‘listen’ in on the patients, something she refuses to do as she feels it would take away her objectivity with regards to treating the animals.

In between listening in on animals and looking at alien spaceships through a microscope, Simon Fry manages, along with a Norwegian coastal tour guide and micro-palaeontologist named Gilbert Giles, or in shortened Nabokov terms—Gil Gil, to make a clone of himself (Simon Fry II), and also to take the Babel Fish out of the lab and into the wide world like a latter-day Dr Doolittle (which he is, in more ways than one).

The three of them form an unlikely trio, and with the Black Mambas’ help they attempt to somehow save the planet and mankind.

If this all sounds a bit weird, that is, because it is. But it all somehow works, and knits together in the manner of surrealist writers like Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, with a substantial nod, of course, to Douglas Adams, who can make the impossibly strange seem mundane and ordinary. Steve Laker pulls this extraordinary juggling act off admirably well, producing a very good, thought-provoking, page-turning, and also at times darkly comic read.

Who knows—if you’re looking for the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, you might just find it here, or in the ‘Cyrus Song’ of our planet. In the meantime, taking Steve Laker’s and Stephen Hawking’s advice, we all need to ‘keep talking’, and as long as there are books like these—keep reading.

It is indeed a very deep book, but it’s accessible and I’ve made it more so by plugging it in for e-readers. There really is a perfectly plausible answer to the ultimate question in that story.

The original review featured in Schlock web zine. Cyrus Song is available now.

Life in tablet form

THE WRITER’S LIFE | BOOKS

I’m feeling quite proud of myself, for swallowing some of the pride I was only just learning not to be ashamed of. I feel like Joseph, throwing off his dream coat: I published an e-book, which is far bigger news than it ought to be, but it’s why I did it that’s more important. It’s because Cyrus Song contains a perfectly plausible answer to the ultimate question, of life, the universe and everything; and because more people wanted to read it.

Life in tablet form

A few forays aside, I’ve not bothered the Kindle charts, partly through a kind of snobbery. The self-publishing independent writers who’ve democratised the publishing world are undeniably many and talented, but certainly in the e-book area at least, it can be somewhat overcrowded and claustrophobic with so many competing for attention. The printed book market is only slightly less so, but as one who’s always read printed books, I’ve eschewed the non-tangible ones. If nothing else, I’ve been somewhat foolish and naïve in denying myself such a market.

The writers I know personally are split roughly between three publishing camps: Printed books only, just e-books, or both. Some write different books for the two platforms, and others dual-publish both formats, sometimes offsetting the two (kind of like a cinema release and a DVD). I was only firmly pitched in the tangible book camp, because that’s how I like to read. So while I was talking to writers, I also consulted friends who read too.

Reading preferences are as varied as writing genres, and I had to conclude that I really was missing a trick by not publishing my books for e-readers.

The recent attention I’ve been getting as a writer, in peer groups, reviews and encouraging comments, has all reinforced what another writer said to me late last year: Don’t be ashamed to be proud of what you’ve done. Coming from where I have (on the streets four years ago) is indeed quite an achievement and this was recognition by someone else (a peer), which made me realise I should accept that I’ve done something quite – dare I say – impressive, especially when I’m so respected as a writer. It can be difficult to accept praise that you’re good at something when you’ve been such an arse in the past, but that’s just the guilt which must be borne by the truly penitent person, who sobered up when drowning personal demons might have been easier.

My recent personal paradox has been that of having a lot to say, but with social anxiety doing its best to silence me, so I write it all down. Like all writers, I crave an audience, but I shied from promoting myself too much, as I didn’t want the attention. And then it hit me, and it was something Simon Fry said, as I’ve carried on talking to my fictional character (see the last two blog posts).

I was a bad person once, who got drunk and hurt a lot of people, and there are very few (all now abandoned) who continue to judge my past, unprepared in some cases to accept that I’ve become a better person in myself, and better than many of them. That’s their problem, for not talking to me (or reading me). Some of that past is my shame and I still carry it. I have chronic depression, PTSD and a life-long guilt trip of sobriety as a hangover, so writing is my therapy. I’m pretty good at that, as there’s so much to write about, and I will be judged for what I’ve become.

I’m a writer now. People have to accept that. If they don’t want to read me, they can exercise consumer choice. If they want to find out what I might have been writing about them, they can do the same. My last two books are the ones I’ll be judged on, until I finish the next. Simon Fry is very good at saying these things for me.

I gave a few copies of Cyrus Song to close friends when it first came out, mainly the younger people I know: students to whom a book would be quite a significant financial outlay. I’ve written before of how I’m aware of this and other demographics, which is why my books can be requested at lending libraries.

One young friend lost her copy, another didn’t want to carry a book around, and a third simply couldn’t be arsed to read anything for longer than a few minutes. The latter was my adopted little sister and mum to my god daughter, Courtney. Typical of many her age, she has a short attention span (and she’s on the ADHD and autism spectra), and she’s somewhat at sea without her mobile phone. I ended up reading Cyrus Song to her, but I can’t do that for everyone, and even as I did, she was distracted by her phone. There it was, right in front of me: if she had the book on her phone, she’d be less likely to lose it and more likely to read the book in between social media.

Of course, others have known this for years, but I was blind to the obvious, even though it was in front of me then, and around me all the time. People do actually read e-books, even though I’ve read hardly any. After an autopsy of the situation, I had to conclude I was a book snob.

I needed more people to hear me, but it was something Courtney said which made me finally swallow the pill. Even though she’s prone to exaggeration, and although it’s a cliché, “Everyone needs to read this book” warrants a writer paying attention. To get more people at least reading my surrealist sci-fi RomCom, I had to make it more accessible. The really big thing I’d missed was the democratisation of the audience, through the very devices which opened up the writing market to so many authors like me. I’d also become jaded with some of the (at best) mediocre fiction offerings out there for e-readers, when it’s a completely free outlet (democratically and financially). Once, it might have felt somehow dirty, like I was selling myself out. But I’ve got a track record and a reputation now, and if you’re good, you’ll stand out in any size market.

Cyrus Song wants to be read, and it is a good book (see the reviews on this blog (on the bookshelf), and on Amazon, where I need more). Unlike its author, the novel decided to go out and be noticed, rather than wait to be found. Simon Fry suggested that, and it’s much more his book than mine. It’s a book for everyone, which is why I’ve made it more obtainable. It’s still available in paperback and always will be, for those who prefer a tangible book (and who might want it signed). But for everyone else, there’s now the Kindle edition (compatible with most e-readers, tablets, phones etc.)

It does still carry a cover price, because I’d be doing no-one any justice making it free. It’s £2.99 and it comes with 14-day lending rights to others. It can also be bought for 99p when buying the paperback, and borrowed for free with Kindle Unlimited. I’m not devaluing myself, as there are no costs (apart from my time) without print, so I make roughly the same royalties per copy, but hopefully in greater volumes now.

I’d like everyone to hear the Cyrus Song, and see that the answers really are all around and inside us, wherever they read the book, and even if they use tablets. The price of a coffee, to wash down the tablet version of the answer to the life, the universe and everything.

Cyrus Song for Kindle (other readers are available) is out now.

Making flans for Simon

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’d originally planned to spend the weekend making plans for Nigel, but when I realised I had no close friends called Nigel, my plans had to change. Instead I called on Simon Fry, my character, persona, and alter ego from Cyrus Song. We were having dinner and he’d asked me to bring dessert, so I’d made flans.

HHGG Deep ThoughtA poster on Simon Fry’s wall: a design sketch from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie.

I’d decided to speak to Simon because he’s the person most likely to understand me. Even though I created him, he’s a completely separate person, and any decent writer will tell you that’s a perfectly plausible statement to make.

Before Cyrus Song, I already had Simon Fry’s life story written down. It fills a notebook, which I still have, along with the one containing Hannah Jones. A very small percentage of what’s in those journals is in the novel, but the characters’ speech and mannerisms write more than the words on the page. It’s knowing my characters so well which allows me to bring them to life (convincingly, I’m told). Every writer puts a piece of themselves into their stories and characters, I’m perhaps slightly above and beyond with some of mine.

I have a deep understanding of the human condition (the critics and reviewers say), and I have many personalities in my head, so each of my characters is a mix of those, and of other people I know. I know how Simon talks, because I know how he thinks, but only as far as a poker player would another. Even though I created him, I can’t read his mind. He has so much of his own story in that other notebook, that he’s a strong enough character to not need me (it applies to Hannah too).

It’s handy to be able to do things like this as a writer, and as a socially anxious one, I really do make (as in, create) friends. It sounds tragic perhaps, but it’s actually very useful.

Doctor Hannah Jones is based less on me, but with elements of others I know well in the real world, within her (I’ve tested it out on some of those other people). With all of those people in there, my understanding of human thinking and inter-personal psychology, I can hold a perfectly convincing conversation with Hannah, just as I can Simon. I don’t know if this is proof of my writing skills or confirmation of multiple personality disorder.

It’s the best way I have of getting to know myself. Some would say it’s talking to myself, but it’s more like questioning different parts of myself, so that the whole can get along. We may disagree, but I favour debate over conflict, especially when it’s in my head. This is my coping mechanism, but it’s more my mental health management strategy.

I said after I’d written the book, how much I missed those people, because they’d become so real when they were around me all the time as I wrote them…

I put the flans in Simon’s fridge, and I noticed he had a can of squirty cream in the door. Then we both sat on the sofa, wondering who should speak first.

“I’m not going to be your counsellor am I?” It was Simon. “Because I’ve counselled myself on many things before and wondered why I didn’t get a second opinion.”

“To be honest,” I replied, “I’m not entirely sure how this is all going to go.”

“What did you expect?” Simon wondered. “Because things rarely live up to expectation.” I’d caught him on a pessimistic day (he has those).

“I don’t have any expectations,” I said, “just an interest.”

“Very wise,” Simon nodded. I thought he’d say that.

“What about you?” I asked.

“The same,” he replied, “but if we both sit here just looking interesting, it’s not going to get us very far. So can I ask you a question?”

“It’s not like I can stop you.”

“True, in part. But anyway, why me?”

“I needed someone to talk to, to make it easier for me to talk.”

“So that I can ask you the questions you want to be asked, so that you have an excuse to answer.” Simon is very perceptive.

“You’re right,” I replied (he knew he was), “because you’re the one I spent longest in, and where I found myself.”

“So you’re haunting me?”

“No more than I hope I’m on anyone else’s minds. But in you, I found ways for you to deal with things, which helped myself and others to understand things around themselves.”

“In Cyrus Song?”

“In that book, where a lot of other people might find themselves in those characters.”

“And you have the advantage that you can come round here and talk to one of them.”

“I consider it a privilege.” And I did. Because these words are not entirely my own.

“Well, I can tell you,” Simon said, “that you created a whole world for me to move around in freely, as you can see for yourself. Beyond this world, you’ve created others which you’re equally free to occupy, but you’re always welcome here.” I’m not sure he could really say anything else (I’d be a bit fucked, like humanity at the start of the book).

“Perhaps we could invite Hannah along?” I wondered.

“Yes, I wondered how long it’d take you to get round to that. Let’s see how we go,” which is how I myself usually tell people to chill out. “And let’s do that soon,” which is something I rarely say, for fear of intrusion into someone else’s life.

This was turning into a story in itself. A man who was after my own heart, had overcome a lot in his life, and especially in the two week period covered in our book. Although it’s a surreal and twisting science fiction yarn, and with a nod to Douglas Adams, it’s very much a book from my own heart, and with a dark inner soul of its own. It’s a story of two people, who with a lot of help, find out much they didn’t know about themselves and the universe around them. I’ll be talking to Simon again soon.

As a writer I have multiple universes I can visit, but as a socially anxious person, I felt more at home in Simon’s flat. Even the flans seemed like some sort of unconscious collaboration, an ever-present threat of potential comedy while we spoke, should either of us be inclined. But we’re far too grown up and introverted for that sort of thing.

Cyrus Song is available now. The prequel stories of Simon and Hannah (and Captain Mamba) are told in The Unfinished Literary Agency.

Simon said we should meet

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I suppose it was partly to do with my curiosity: my ongoing one, with myself; and the deeper one, of the human condition. When I sometimes find it difficult to separate fact from fiction, yet I find the latter the greater comfort; when I can occupy my characters, so that they speak more than their own lines; and when I know them better than many friends who are not myself, I thought it might be interesting to meet up with one of my leading roles. So I popped in to see Simon Fry, six months after Cyrus Song…

Meeting MindsFine Art America

I knew I was at the right place because it looked familiar. The man who answered the door though, didn’t look entirely as I’d expected, even though I’d written him. “Come in,” he said, beckoning with his head.

I was having dinner with Simon Fry, a character I created for Cyrus Song, and I wanted to know how all that had gone for him. His flat was just as I’d left it inside, as I always knew the furniture wouldn’t fit any other way.

I hadn’t given Simon sufficient recognition for his looks in the book, as he was a person very aware of his appearance but without a particularly high opinion of himself. Now that I saw him, he was quite striking. I wondered how things had worked out with Hannah since the book.

“Are you planning a sequel?” Simon wondered, which was one of the things I wanted to ask him about. “Because,” he continued, “I’m wondering whether to hang around waiting for you, or just get on with things.” I had to assume this was a shared sense of humour in an otherwise quite surreal situation.

“I wondered pretty much exactly the same,” I replied, “whether you’d just get on with life after I left you.”

“A strong character doesn’t need the writer to carry them along all the time. If the writer’s good enough, they’ve put enough into that character to make them come to life in a story.”

“Well I’ve got your whole life story in a separate notebook. Very little of it is in Cyrus Song but it was only by knowing you that I was able to convey your story so plausibly. It’s all in what’s not written.”

“Every story,” Simon said, “is where memories go when they’re forgotten.”

“Did you say that or did I?”

“Both of us I suppose. Strange isn’t it?”

“In a nice way,” I agreed. I wondered if it might be worth letting Simon flip the table on me, and let him write my story. I’m more comfortable inside one of my characters anyway.

“I suppose you’re wondering,” Simon wondered, “about Hannah.” I wasn’t sure if I was.

“How is she?” It seemed the most obvious thing to say. I didn’t know the answer to expect, let alone how to respond to any.

“Last time I checked, she was fine.” He seemed to be leading me.

“When was that?”

“I thought you might ask, seeing as her doctorate was in human psychology, before we started talking with the animals.” Funny that. It just goes to show what happens when you talk to a friend who can relate to you. They can give you the answer, without you having to ask.

So that’s the weekend sorted. I might carry this on, as it could help both me and Mr Fry work out how we use the perfectly plausible answer to life, the universe and everything in our book.

Cyrus Song is available now, and the prequel stories of Simon, Hannah Jones, and Captain Mamba are in The Unfinished Literary Agency.