Some ways of looking at light

13 03 2013

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Learning photography has made me pay more attention to light. As soon as the cloud lifts, I find my eyes drawn to my camera which has been sat in darkness for the past month. My photography teacher is uninspired and so am I. We’ve agreed to put lessons on hold for a while until the light improves. There was a bit of sparkle in the sea today and I felt my spirits lift. The season is turning, and spring is pushing up from the ground. A woman in Turn of the Tide, one of my favourite local shops, noted that the birds are sounding sweeter.  

I bought an emerald green scarf, jewel bright, soft. It’s still too cold to wear it, but I imagine lighter days will be here soon. People seem more open as spring approaches. March feels like it’s the true beginning of the year, the time when light grows stronger.

 I’m noticing lightness in people, too. The young woman in the co-op was only too happy to thinly slice ham for me even though she had never used the machine before. She took five minutes or so to get the slicer going and apologised all the way through the procedure: you must think it’s like being served by a clown. At one point the manager arrived to see how she was getting on. Clearly slicing ham was not part of her job description, but she was happy to have a go and make a hash of it, which was why I didn’t begrudge her the five minutes she needed. Her light-heartedness inspired me to be generous.

It’s only when people are light with each other that true generosity is possible. It’s only when people give up holding on to what makes them heavily important that they become people who inspire. As part of my professional life, I watch many presentations and have developed an aversion to the laboured point, the overly spelled out, the heavy emphasis, the worthy yet dull. I expect to endure presentations rather than enjoy them.

An inspired presentation by a professor from the University of Washington has got me thinking about the nature of shared ideas in scholarship. Too many academic presentations deliver theory like a hard brick of knowledge, built on the foundations of previously cited identical bricks; it is rare to encounter theory that lets in the light and air in the form of an invitation to comment and connect with pieces that may not precisely fit.

Perhaps I’m stretching the metaphor here, but a dry stone wall composed of irregular stones is a much stronger structure than a brick wall, and can last for centuries. Facts and data can always be quickly manufactured and will always feel flimsy. Knowledge built from ideas that have had time to ripen and season can feel like the beginning of a work of art.

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Doubt

25 09 2012

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When I started this blog I doubted that anyone would read it. Now I see that I have readers in India, the Philippines, America, Sweden and Switzerland. My doubts have been proved wrong. Even on days I do not post, people are reading.

When I started writing fiction I doubted that I would get published. My first novel came out and people enjoyed it and made a point of telling me that they felt it had been unfairly overlooked by the literary press. When I wrote my second novel I doubted that it was any good. The reviews were entirely positive, but I was still surprised by them. This weekend I met someone at a party who said her reading group had thoroughly enjoyed Hotel Juliet; one or two people had even said that it was the best novel they had ever read. I thought of this again today and I still do not believe it.

While I was working on my most recent novel The Beautiful Truth I doubted that I would finish it. I doubted that anyone would be interested in reading it and I doubted that it was any good. I didn’t doubt the ideas, the characters, the subject matter, the setting or the themes; I doubted only my part in delivery of them.

I couldn’t write without believing that I have something to communicate – what I cannot do is escape doubt.

It strikes me that doubt is integral to working on anything that matters. The Beautiful Truth mattered to me more than any book I’ve written and it was composed under thunder clouds of doubt. When I finished it, and saw that it worked, I felt immense relief. I had emerged from the storm and into the light.

Doubt is the cynical observer in the hoody that stands on the edge of the playing field muttering disapproval. When acknowledged, it will offer free coaching advice on other games it thinks I’d be more suited to. Sometimes it is so contemptuous of my performance that it doesn’t bother to show up. I have to go it alone then and push my ball about in a vast white silent space, which is somehow worse than working under its scornful gaze.

If writing without doubt feels so lonely, does that mean that doubt is a useful companion on the long-haul flight of the novel? Does doubt motivate? Certainly it gives me something to push against. It stops me spooling rubbish. It stops me from becoming complacent. It acts as a brake on my enthusiasms. It urges me to go carefully. That’s when it is controlled. Out of control doubt is crippling, as I know.

I won’t eliminate doubt. It’s been part of my working life for too long, and I can therefore accommodate it.  It is a sometimes entertaining passenger even as I cringe from it. The trick is not to let it anywhere near the flight deck.

For years I’ve loved photography, but I doubted that I could understand how to use a proper camera. My new Nikon stayed in its box for over a month. This morning I went out to see what the harbour looked like through my lens. The water was sparkling and calm. As I focused on my shots I lost all sense of doubt. I simply pressed the shutter. I know that is the key to writing well.

I simply write my sentence.  

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