Surrounding yourself with creativity

Recently, I found myself in a creative slump. I wasn’t motivated to write anything – the ideas for the novel I’m working on were still ticking over in my brain, but I wasn’t actually writing, and I hadn’t even considered writing a poem for months, other than those I had to write for my seminars, and they were turning out flat and lifeless. I lacked motivation, I lacked inspiration, I lacked drive.

And then I went to my local poetry night at the local pub.

It was like a switch was flipped; I got home and immediately wrote two (admittedly godawful) first drafts of poems, and I wrote two more today. Just being in a creative atmosphere made me want to write again. I got my drive back.

It’s worth noting as well that I think it was partially that I was so invested in writing this novel. Not that I don’t want to write it, but I think after being so focused on one thing – especially when it’s taking so long to write given my lack of free time – I needed a little break from it to allow some of the other ideas I’d had in the mean time to work their way out.

So if you’re feeling like you’re in a bit of a writing funk, all I’m saying is that it might be worth stepping back from what you’re working on, and surrounding yourself with people who inspire you with their creativity. Easier said than done sometimes, I know, but it just might be what you need.

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My favourite books: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern 

As I haven’t been able to read many new releases recently owing to my rather extensive university reading lists, I thought I could start a series this week, talking about my favourite books, in both my experience with them and why I love them so much. So this week: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

The Night Circus is the book I say in response to the ‘What is your favourite book?’ question from anyone, and though there are many books I enjoyed and appreciate just as much as The Night Circus, so few people I know have read it that I can’t resist the possibility of telling someone about it so they may read and enjoy it too. 

I first read it as a loan from my uncle, who gave it to me as a book he’d read, mildly enjoyed, and thought I might like. I will admit, it took me a while to get into. When I boarded the plane for a family holiday to Barcelona in 2014, I was around 40 pages in. A day and a half into the holiday and I had finished it. I got swept up into the story, invested in every character, unsure of what was going to happen, that I could barely put it down. I have since forced many of my friends to read it, and I still live in hope that the production company that bought the rights will make the film someday.

The premise sounds strange when described, and it is so difficult to describe. There’s a circus that ‘appears without warning’, is only open at night, and disappears again. The Circus is in fact a stage for a duel between Marcus and Celia, both bound at birth to be engaged in a duel of magic until one of them wins. And every character within the Circus has a role to play.

One of the key reasons I love this book so much is its characters. You care about every single one, no matter how many are introduced as the story progresses. I think one of the reasons this is is Morgenstern’s masterful use of a non-chronological narrative – the story leaps forwards and backwards in time, with headings on each chapter to tell you where and when you are each time. Through this, you see the world of the circus introduced to the different characters, and see how they fit it in with the wider narrative.

The premise of the novel seemed so unique to me as well. The idea of young and old arguing as to whose way is better is obviously ages old, but the framing of the Night Circus, open only for a few days, arriving unannounced, was just so enticing. As a reader, you are like one of the many normal visitors to the circus who are described in a few vague chapters dotted throughout the novel. You walk around with the other people, admiring these things that you could never dream of appearing so vividly in front of your eyes as Morgenstern’s words come to life.

The ending of the book also worked really well – it did not feel forced, it was very satisfying, and it still left me in tears.

The Night Circus is almost as magical as its namesake circus is itself, and that’s why it remains firmly in my list of my favourite books.

Reflecting on my first year at uni

Having just finished my first year at university, I thought it might be good to reflect on it and share some of my tips for people who are in the position that I was last year – terrified, excited, and almost completely clueless as to what they’re going to face come September.

There’s not much that I can say in terms of workload that hasn’t already been said a million times over – university learning is self motivated. No-one is going to chase you up if you don’t do it, it’s your loss, so discipline is super important – although the occasional nap (or daily in my case) won’t hurt you. At least it won’t if you do a low contact hour subject like I do!

Also, if you do the reading for the lectures, you will understand them far better. Granted, there is some reading that is a little redundant, but it is far better to do it if you have the time to start off with, and then later use your time doing more useful things. Just try to do the reading – you don’t want to be the person that turns up to the first seminar absolutely clueless. Like I said before, university is self-lead teaching to an extent, so get as much out of it as you can by doing the reading.

Realise you’re not necessarily going to get a first. I have a lot of friends who were very high achieving students at school, and they got to uni, got a 2:1 for a piece of work, and were really upset. I’m not saying you’re not going to get a first, you might do, and well done you if you do, but a first is not the be all and end all, and even if you don’t do so well in first year, learn from it. You’re there to learn, after all, so see a lower grade a chance to improve yourself. Go and ask for help if you don’t understand your marker’s comments, and if you need it, ask for help with your essays from the services that are available at your uni. Friends can be invaluable for this, especially with creative writing. Exchanging work and reading through each other’s helps both of you, both in proofreading and in seeing how they responded to the same prompt.

Make sure that you know where you can go if you need help – I have been in the fortunate position not to need any help this year, but knowing where those services are can be really helpful in those times of stress and panic, so you – or someone else – can do something about it.

Here comes another cliché – don’t be afraid to try new things. I started Ballroom and Latin American Dance this year through university, and it has honestly been one of the best experiences of my first year at uni. You don’t have to commit to everything that you sign up for – I signed up for four or five societies after my uni’s societies fair, but I now only regularly attend two of them. And the societies expect this dropout – it’s far better to try these new things and then decide you don’t like them than to not try anything at all and wish that you had come March. Most societies even offer a free trial session, or don’t require you to pay membership until a few weeks in, so you might as well give them a whirl. Societies are also one of the best places to meet people, as you’ll be with people with similar interests to you, and you’ll meet people from across the uni, across departments, across years, postgrads, undergrads… Basically, socieites are great, so sign up for them if you can.

But also remember that it is okay to say no. I was feeling a bit rough the first few weeks of uni, especially in Freshers’ Week, so I went to two quiz nights and one night out. My flatmates asked me if I wanted to go out every night, but as I don’t drink I was quite daunted by the prospect of going out with a large group of complete strangers, so I stayed in my room instead, and I was far happier for it (as was my bank account!). I’m not saying don’t go out, all I’m saying is that if you really don’t want to do something, you don’t have to do it. Try to do new things, but if you’re really not feeling it, no-one is going to hate you for saying no. I’m still good friends with my flatmates, so if my experience is anything to go by, there’s nothing to be feared in saying no.

On the topic of flatmates, remember that you need a little give and take, but at the same time you can’t be a doormat. If you have a 9am you have to get to, or like me have to get up at 4am to get ready for a dance competition, and they’re hosting pres, blasting music and yelling at the top of their voices, just go in and talk to them. If they’re decent people, they will offer to move pres (it’s not like there’s likely to be a shortage of accomodation in walking distance that they can use). If they don’t, just remember to make as much noise as you can getting ready in the morning. (I joke, of course). Do your washing up, tidy and clean up after yourself, take the bin out, but don’t let your flatmates leave you to sort the state of the kitchen or any other shared areas in the flat. I was really fortunate with my flatmates, we’re all quite clean and tidy people. I do, however, have friends who live with flatmates who use their stuff and leave it disgustingly dirty, ruin it, or (the worst flatmates I’ve heard of) don’t take out the bin, rather taking out the full bin liner and leaving it on the floor until it spawns maggots. So basically, good luck with flatmates, and try to be a good flatmate yourself.

Chat to people. There is never an easier time to meet people than the first few weeks of uni – everyone is out to make friends, no-one knows each other. I walked up to someone because I saw them wearing a Welcome to Night Vale t-shirt in freshers’ week, and we’re now really good friends. Granted, some people I spoke to in freshers’ week I now only see on occasion when scrolling through Facebook, but I didn’t lose anything in talking to them. And if you aren’t making that many people during Freshers’ Week, it’s not an issue. It becomes so much easier to meet people once term properly starts, and you have lectures and seminars that force you with groups of people.

Don’t try to pretend to be someone you’re not. The best way to make the best friends is to be yourself, as you’ll end up with friends who are like you. That’s kind of general life advice, but from what I’ve experienced, it’s especially true at uni.

My biggest piece of advice to anyone who isn’t enjoying uni within the first couple of weeks is to at least stick it out until Christmas. What will you lose by staying at uni for a few extra months that you would gain by dropping out after a few weeks? It’s a rollercoaster of emotions – you’ll feel fine for a bit, then you’ll feel a bit wobbly, then awful, and fine again – not necessarily in that order. As I said in my previous post on change, I would quite happily have not gone to university the morning of travelling up, and I would have quite happily gone home many a time during the first few weeks. But now I’m home for the summer, I miss uni terribly. I miss my friends, I miss the city, I even miss my lectures and seminars. So give it your best shot, it can feel really hard at times, but before you know it, it will be the Christmas holidays, and if you don’t feel better by then, then uni probably isn’t for you. Which there is no shame in, uni definitely isn’t for everyone. But at least you would have given it a good go, and you know for sure.

On a more practical note: budget. I sat down with my mum a few weeks before uni started and we worked out what allowance I would need on top of my maintenance loan and the savings I had from working over the summer. I opted for uni accomodation with an en suite, which was expensive, I’m not going to lie (it worked out ~£700 a month, bills included, on an 8 month contract), but I am personally glad I did. I then had to budget a lot, because my loan didn’t even cover my accomodation, so I had to watch my pennies. My recommendation would be to cook as much as you can, if you’re going to be on campus all day, take a packed lunch with you, and find the cheapest place to shop locally. I’m lucky in the sense that I am a vegetarian, and vegetarian food from the supermarket is so much cheaper than meat in my experience. I didn’t go out very much, and when I have gone out I’ve never paid more than £5 for a ticket to get in, and never buy any drinks once I’m out. I also don’t drink alcohol (a personal choice), so I didn’t have that to pay for either. I would add at this point that you don’t have to drink if you don’t want to, you can drink occasionally, no-one really cares. I was convinced prior to going to uni that there’s a massive drinking culture at uni, everyone drinks, and you’re considered weird if you don’t drink, and whilst yes, there are a lot of people who like to drink a lot at uni, they don’t care if you drink or not. It’s your business. And, at least at my uni, there are a lot of societies opting for more non-drinking events – laser tag, bowling, and trampolining, to name but a few. So if that’s a concern of yours, don’t worry.

I hope this has helped someone, and I wish everyone going to uni in September the best of luck, and I hope that you enjoy the experience as much as I do!

The Value of Comedy

After being set yet another text to read on my degree course about dark, depressing topics, I began to wonder why it is that we never study anything happy. This is not the first time I have considered this – my course mates and I actually asked the lecturer we had for the first half of this term whether she would set any short stories with an upbeat tone. She thought about it, and admitted that no, she hadn’t set any happy short stories, and the fact that this was not a conscious decision made me think about it even more.

There is a general trend through the study of literature to study texts that explore darker themes, with sad endings. In my sixth form, I studied a total of twelve texts, and one of them – The Importance of Being Earnest – was a comedy. The rest consisted of five tragic plays, two novels with murder as a central, recurring action, two poetry collections exploring the futility of life and the sad state of society today, and one graphic novel about the Holocaust. Delightful. Then at GCSE, it was Of Mice and Men and An Inspector Calls that we studied, To Kill a Mockingbird before that, etcetera, etcetera. But why is this? It seems as if we almost give texts that are tragic a higher value, but why?

It could be considered that texts that are comedies are seen as having less value, as they aren’t necessarily texts that we think about afterwards. When the curtain goes down at the end of All My Sons after the gunshot, the audience are left thinking about the morality of the characters’ actions, and how they could have reached a less tragic conclusion to the one that they have seen. But when the curtain goes down at the end of The Importance of Being Earnest, the audience are left smiling, maybe talking with the people that they are with about the hilarity of some of the scenes. This difference does not mean that Wilde’s play does not include explorations of themes related to humanity, but instead that these explorations are not as often noticed. In this instance, the only way to give more value to comedies is to give them literary value, in a sense, by studying them more widely.

Do we feel that if we take simple enjoyment from a piece of art, it is worth less than something that leaves us churned up inside? This idea could be less wacky than it sounds – think of popular fiction. More often than not now, a text being ‘popular’ means that it is less valuable, ‘popular fiction’ is used as a derogatory term by some literary scholars and snobs. But how does that make any sense – surely a text being more popular means that it’s better?

Or is it simply that we view comedy as trivial? To do this would in itself be stupid – it will be the comedy produced now that will clearly portray to people of the future the attitude towards politicians, celebrities, and culture at large. Think of the representations of Donald Trump seen on Saturday Night Live and the Tonight Show in the USA, and how so many of our most famous comedians have used Brexit and the US Election as fuel for their latest routines. It is this that are the clearest representation of the populous’ current opinion of the state of the world, and whilst that can be taken from tragedy, comedy, at least today, has more immediacy than its counterpart.

One of the comments that I remember in our lectures on Shakespeare last term was made by our lecturer comparing A Midsummer Night’s Dream to other Shakespeare plays. She pointed out how cleverly crafted the whole play is, how the characters have to be on and off stage at just the right times for the doubling of roles that more often than not occurred. It was clear how planned the play was, and how it also made points about members of Shakespearean society. Hamlet, by contrast, is a train wreck. There is no way that Shakespeare started off with a plan in writing it, better to just kill everyone off. Now whilst I’m not in anyway saying that Hamlet is not a good play (I love it and the characters more than you can know) it is strange that it is studied so much more than the masterpiece that is A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the latter is more of an ‘introduction to Shakespeare’ play that you study in year seven and never consider again, moving on as you mature to the more ‘serious’ topics.

Whilst I don’t deny that the darker themes explored within a lot of tragedy need to be shown to the world, it would be strange to say that comedy cannot also explore these themes, and sometimes in a very interesting way. Why not study a tragedy, and compare it with a comedy that contains the same themes, and see how the two different genres explore the themes differently? Surely that’s more interesting that comparing two explorations of a theme from the same genre – but I may be speaking too subjectively.

My brother actually gave up studying English Literature at A Level because ‘everything was too depressing’. I’m not saying that we should completely cut out the tragedy, but some variety would be nice.

And hey, as a writer, I know how difficult good comedy is to write. So can we please just give it a bit more of a chance?