Thursday, October 30, 2014

How Well Do We Really Know Each Other?

Meeting new people and making new friends is weird. Society's pressure to "fit in" requires that we do what other people do, laugh at their jokes, make our own, talk to people, and maybe get to know them. Fitting in requires either finding people who are like you, or adapting to the status quo of social paradigms. That, or spend your days alone.

Those are the options, right?

What if I told you that, for the past six weeks, I've worn my passions on my clothes? What if I told you that, despite not knowing a single person in my Masters course, I wore t-shirts with Final Fantasy VII characters, Guardians of the Galaxy references, and Harry Potter icons on them? For all I knew, I could have immediately alienated myself from the class group.

The big question still remains: have I been myself? While I've been unironically enthusiastic about a lot of different things that aren't exactly "normal" (a word that loses all meaning when personal expression is the aim), and while I've exposed a lot about myself to my classmates, I certainly haven't been myself, not 100% of the way.

This is no reflection on them. I don't feel like I can't be myself around them. I don't think they would think any less of me if I showed my full palette of colours. However, like everyone else with an insecurity issue or two, it's not always a matter of whether the other people will accept me. The problem isn't that I can't be myself, in the sense that I would be in intimate, private situations, but that, maybe, I shouldn't be myself.

My reasoning is simple, maybe to its detriment: emotional baggage.

My formative years weren't the best for developing social skills. I take jokes slightly too far. I don't always read people correctly. I have trouble shutting up. These consequences of my youth - say, age 12-15, give or take - are obvious after spending a bit of time with me. But the reason why things turned out that way, that remains a secret except to those who probably don't realise the lasting effect those years have had on my life.

I certainly haven't spoken at length about those years with the majority of the people in my life. This isn't a trust issue, except maybe in the sense that I don't trust myself not to dump every modicum of emotional baggage I carry on those who don't know how to deal with it. Put simply, I don't think I can volunteer that information to anyone any more.

And just by that decision, I'm hiding part of myself. But the fact is, if I felt like I could trust someone, and if they really wanted to know, and if I could feel it from them that they wanted to know for more reasons that sheer curiosity.

I hide my secrets under masks, masks carved from personal truths. I wear masks that say I'm a nerd, that say I like to bake, that say I like to stay on top of college work and the little intricacies of information that fly about in emails. I wear masks that tell people who I want to be when I'm in public, to hide the person I don't like to be, the person who panics, who stresses out, who succumbs to fear and doubt and dread.

The evidence has been made clearer to me over the past six weeks than ever before that I'm not the only person who does this. We all hide things about ourselves, little interests, stories from our pasts we don't share, opinions on the world around us. Everyone does it, because there's a prevailing fear of the intimacy of personal knowledge about other people, and letting them know more about us than we care to admit.

Bad jokes, nerdy t-shirts, enthusiasm, anger, curiosity, baking; these are the masks I wear, to hide the rest of what makes me up. It's all true, it's just not the full truth.

Any friends or family who may end up reading this, here's the thing: the next time you see me, if it really matters for you to know something about me, just ask. The thing about masks is that eventually, they have to come off.

Monday, October 20, 2014

What's New(s)?

As I begin week five of my Masters, I'm faced with a unique and oddly vague assignment: make the news.

The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary defines news as:

- new information or a report about something that has happened recently
- information that is reported in a newspaper, magazine, television news program, etc.
- someone or something that is exciting and in the news

It's the definition supported by Google, and it doesn't really help.

By the very notion that "news" is merely "new information", then this blog post becomes "news". For some, it certainly is. An account of what I'm currently doing in life, about what's different, adheres to one definition of "news".

Given the gap between this post and my last, back at the time of Robin Williams' death, a lot really has happened. While I have many good intentions on setting up a dedicated site to tell all about my new college life, an exploration of events to date does, by the definition of "new information" require something to written about here.

So, what's new?

For one thing, my cinema experiences. Regular readers will know that I have formed a habit of attending the cinema on a weekly basis. That hasn't necessarily changed, but recently, college life has forced upon me the option of attending something a little more...arthouse.

The Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield, on a monthly basis, hosts a series of short films. At the start of my second week in college, myself and a few of the others in the course were in attendance. We barely knew each other. We weren't regular attendees of short films. We had no idea what to expect. But I did bring cookies with me, and that certainly made things that much easier.
That hasn't changed. Baking, whether it's cookies or brownies, has continued to serve as suitable tender for friendship. Mostly recently, brownies have made a presentation on Susan Sontag's On Photography that much easier to get through. That baked goods still manage to put people into a good mood is not news.

They did, however, appear as a bribe for class rep nominations. I use the word "appear" intentionally here; no one really wants to be take up the role. The fact that I shrugged in response to the proposition essentially secured my nomination (which became official when, last week, the head of the course took note of it during our Multimedia Imaging lecture.)

And that is news. That's something I haven't announced on social media. That's something that's so far only known to the twenty-odd other people in the course. It's a new role in my life, and whether that's of interest to anyone is inconsequential. Not everyone finds interest in every news story by the traditional media.
On top of the changes in cinema viewing, the types of books I read have changed drastically. Dropping the last book I had been reading, I was required by sheer time limits to read exclusively from the reading lists and module assignments as they presented themselves on a weekly basis.

This has meant turning to books like Nicholas Mirzoeff's An Introduction to Visual Culture, with the additional text Visual Culture Reader to turn to when I eventually work my way through the first tome.

On top of that, the beginning of my Masters has required an in-depth look at art and photography in very particular and specific ways. Susan Sontag's On Photography and John Berger's Ways of Seeing became books for the bedside locker. While the latter had an accompanying series of documentaries on art to make digesting the text that much easier, Sontag's book was a 180 page collection of essays that insisted on being supported only by intuitive thinking.

It was on Sontag's book that I was required to make a presentation, with a week to read and prepare a 20-slide piece on the subject of The Selfie.

I have never been so fed up with The Selfie as I am now. But that's just an aside point.

The advantage to reading such texts is that I was forced, by sheer reading requirement, to learn more about photography. The importance became evident when I began work on my photography project. Portraits were suddenly on the table.

While I would love to say I'm an expert in the making, that would be stretching the truth. But I have been practising, and I at least feel as if I have a fair enough understanding of portraiture and photography (at least in using the camera) to take a few half-way decent pictures. I have no doubt that many of them will be dismissed almost instantly by my lecturer. I wish that was a joke.

While my photography project is still a bit up in the air, with about four weeks to pull it all together, and a few hundred more photographs to take to really get there, my audio project received a warmer welcome. That is to say, aside from the sheer workload involved in it, my lecturer agrees it fits the project brief.

That's a start. It was also the call-to-action that led to my writing of an extensive and incomplete check-list. For my project, I'll be writing and producing an audio drama, tentatively entitled Love at First Date. And that, I think, is something newsworthy in relation to the context of this blog. It only took a few hundred words.

Beginning a Masters was, a few months ago, a very exciting proposition. Exciting, but terrifying. I had no idea how much my life would change as a result of a decision I made last February, except that I wouldn't know anybody. And that was worrying. I'd had enough of not knowing people. But I'm glad to say that, on top of approaching new subjects and new ideas, I'm getting to make new friends. That, though, is the topic of a whole other post.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Remembering Robin Williams

I held back the tears from the moment I heard that Robin Williams had died, in what had been an unconfirmed report of suicide. I held them back while I was with friends, and while I was in public, until I was too tired to cry.

He was a man whose movies had helped shape my childhood. I knew him for Mrs. Doubtfire, for Patch Adams, for Jack, for Jumanji. He was a father, a healer, a misunderstood child, a lost hero. He was the boy who was never meant to grow up, a teacher, a doctor.

In the end, he was a husband, a father, a comic genius, and he was suffering.

Depression takes people to strange place. For some, it can mean the difference between a productive day, or staying in bed until the sun sets all over again. For others, it can mean sadness at every incident in the day, tears held back only for as long as someone else is looking. For others still, it can cloud the mind to reality, blocking out the bright lights of family and friends and loved ones, until the person gives in to something bigger than himself - alcoholism, drug abuse, suicidal ideation.

It can happen at any moment in our lives. It can affect teachers, doctors, lawyers, builders, actors. Whatever form it takes, depression leaves a path of ruin and wreck in its wake, a path that's visible only in hindsight in many cases.

No one could have predicted that Robin Williams would die by suicide.

Let it just be said: someone who dies by suicide is not being selfish. From idea to act, it is cruel to everyone it affects. From a mind plagued by the thought of it, to the family left behind after it, suicide hurts. Anyone who dares to say otherwise who has never suffered from suicidal ideation is only contributing to the hurt of loss felt by the mourners and grievers.

In many ways, Robin Williams was a lucky man. Though he met a tragic end, he gave the world the greatest gifts any human being could ever give. He gave us hope, and laughter, profound joy and wisdom in equal measure. He was adored by millions, and I have no doubt that he knew it, and he will be missed sorely.

He will be missed while people watch a lonely man attempt to reach out to his family again. He will be missed while a medical student plays a clown in an attempt to alleviate the suffering of his patients. He will be missed when a young boy in a grown-up's body makes friends and comes to terms with his mortality. And he will be missed when a man ripped from this world tries to protect those who brought him back.

Robin Williams was - and still is - many things, to many people, and it is only right that when we think about him, we remember his work, the joy he brought to so many people, the smile on his face and the twinkle in his eye. His death is tragic and terrible, but if we are to focus on it, it should be in light of making the world a better place for other people who suffer from a mental illness. Like a star in the night sky, Robin Williams light can still shine on for years to come.

At this time, we are right to mourn, and the world needs to give his family that opportunity, and its support.

Rest in Peace, Robin Williams.

Helplines: (Courtesy of thejournal.ie, amended)
Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org 
Console 1800 247 247 – (suicide bereavement)
1Life 1800 247 100 or text HELP to 51444 - (suicide prevention)
Aware 1890 303 302 (depression, anxiety)
Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie - (suicide, self-harm, bereavement)
Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Two on the Go!

I'm a reader. If you don't know that by now, you really don't know me. I love books - which is a good thing, too, considering I work in a bookshop - and I often find that one is never enough.

No, I have to have two on the go at all times. That's how I do it. One novel or memoir, and one book of non-fiction - usually one on business or writing or personal development. (The latter being an incredibly vague descriptor for a genre. Some are total mindset books that lead you to take action, some are totally practical books that attempt to alter your mindset through method, some rely on spirituality - the variants are seemingly endless.)

The main thing is that I don't attempt to juggle two stories at the same time. Anecdotal stuff in a non-fiction book is fine - it can help to illustrate a point - but I prefer not to mix the stories up in my head while reading them.

Here's how I do it:

The story I'm reading - at this moment in time, It's Kind of a Funny Story, is reserved for my lunch breaks in work, and bus journeys, when I'm not too tired to read. When I start college, that guarantees me two hours of reading per week, when I'll only work weekends. That's a minimum, because I'll probably make more of an effort to read on the bus when I love the extra day in work for reading.

I use this time for reading stories because I enjoy the escape, and I like to unwind with them. But there's another reason, and it's why I read the non-fiction books at home, in my personal time and space - I don't feel like I'm wasting time by reading non-fiction at home.

Let me clarify - fiction is not a waste of time. But when I'm at home, I'm presented with an option - my fiction, or someone else's. It's a better use of my time when I use it for (a) writing or (b) developing myself, my writing knowledge, or my business knowledge.

When I read non-fiction, my current book being Get Sh*t Done! by Niall Harbison, I think of it as investing my time in learning something important. In the case of my current read, it's using someone else's life lessons to develop a means towards living the life that I want - not the life other people want for me.

That's a different lesson to the previous book on my list - Creativity Inc. - which shed some light on how to run a creative business. This was, of course, in the context of a company with employees, and not a solo operation. However, there's something to remember here, about education and learning: while authors and teachers have their own intended learning outcomes, students may come out of the experience learning something else. In my case, how to better work on a creative team.

Why is that important? Well, my college course will require a lot of creative work with other people, people from different backgrounds, people I haven't even met before.

Do I have a book on how to better improve my people skills before then? Yes. Of course I do. I also have a book on how to feel more alive, one on dealing with change, one of being more effective, and one on public speaking - just in case I need to make a presentation. Those lessons are all valuable uses of my time, and I wouldn't be surprised if I found myself dedicating a lot more time than usual to reading them in an effort to draw some inspiration before my course begins.

But I won't just be reading those books. I'll be juggling some stories, like Maureen Johnson's The Last Little Blue Envelope, or Josh Sundquist's Just Don't Fall, or David Levithan's How They Met, or Darren Shan's Zom-B Clans - that's one novel on love and growing up and stuff, one memoir on growing up (with, and then without, cancer), one collection of short stories, and one zombie novel. Those are just the ones I think I can finish before college, comfortably, before I tackle Clash of Kings by George RR Martin.

This type of reading isn't sustainable, of course. There will come a time when I'll be forced to choose one or the other - and switching between the two as it suits me - because I'll have to read specific titles for college. But, while it's an option, it's the best one for me. Diversity in reading is important, and when I see people purposely choosing to avoid books that (a) have a story or (b) don't, I wonder if they've ever really given it a shot. I like to learn something new, and usually about something I wouldn't ever study in school or college (because, frankly, I don't think it's possible to grade somebody on something like personal growth), and I like to expose myself to new stories all the time.

Stories help us to develop a sense of empathy and understanding. That's one type of valuable lesson, and it's why I still write fiction when the truth of it has been revealed (the truth being that it's very difficult to make a living from writing fiction) - I believe that people can get something from reading lots of different types of stories, and that the exposure to new ideas and new people (albeit fictional ones) allows us to live a more open life.

At the same time, I believe that if we want to change our lives, we should. Society has this weird stigma attached to being different, and even when so many people read what are broadly described as "personal development" or "self-help" books, many people still look at them and wonder why they're reading something like that. (I used to. I'm speaking from experience here. My perception changed when I realised that I needed to.) Why do personal development books matter? Why should people care about what different people have to say about how to live life, or be happy, or run a business? Because we all live different lives and we can all learn from each other

If you don't know how to escape the 9-5 job, someone else has probably already written a book about it. If you don't know how to influence people towards your way of thinking, someone else can probably explain how they do it. If you don't know how to do more with your life that you actually want to do, someone has probably written a book about it. (In fact, books do exist on those three topics - The Four Hour Work-Week, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and Get Sh*t Done! being the prime examples!)

I'm a reader, and while I still have the option, I'm going to continue taking on two books at a time. I'm not doing it because I think it'll make me a better person - I can change as a person, if I follow the lessons in the book, not just by reading it - but because it makes me a happier person. Reading is a pleasure, and whether I'm learning something new, or meeting new characters, I'll always find joy in a book (or two.)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Clean Up in Aisle 11!

Facts for context:

1. I still live at home with my parents.
2. At 23, still living at home with my parents, I still sometimes act like a teenager.
3. Teenagers aren't always known for tiny bedrooms.
4. I moved from the biggest bedroom in the house to the smallest.
5. I made that move in a day.
6. At one point, I had no floor-space because everything was dumped in the room.

All of that in mind, you will be please to know that I have actually tidied my room! This might not seem like such a big deal, but when you look at how I was living up until a few days ago, you'll see why this is so important for me.

For me to access my desk - which is where I sit when I'm using my laptop to write, or record/edit videos, or do anything else laptop-related - I had to:

1. Move everything off the floor and onto my bed, to access the chair. This included: a laptop bag, a backpack, two cameras, a portable DVD player, three boxes (two of which were empty!), a pile of books, a bag of stationary, a pile of folded up jeans, a pile of sheets and printed articles, and a birthday present.

2. With my access to the chair secured, I then needed to move a laptop tray from the chair. However, on this laptop tray was a pile of: magazines, notebooks, newspaper supplements, folders of various sizes accessories for the DVD player, and a belt. This required moving two, increasingly wobbly, piles of items to the bed.

3. With the chair cleared, I then had to move a pile of notebooks from the desk to - you guessed it - the bed, so I would room on the desk for just about anything else.

All in all, it took at least five minutes to do it, and I had to put it all back at the end of the night to get into bed. That's not good. That's very much not good. The amount of effort it took to access my desk meant that I didn't even bother half the time. Translation: I didn't use my laptop an awful lot of the time. This is the primary reason I didn't finish my novel last month, because I had created a physical obstacle to work.

So, I fixed it. I still have the laptop tray on my chair, but it now only holds the cameras and the DVD player. One easy move. If I want to clear the floor, I only have a couple of bags to move - one of which contains the birthday present, which won't be around for much longer. I can now easily access my laptop. But I didn't stop there.

Because I had to clear the way to the laptop, it meant I also had to put a lot of stuff away. Every magazine is now stored properly under my bed. In fact, everything that didn't belong in the open, has been put away, and my bookshelves have been re-organised.

The process took me just over an hour - because I was rushing to finish by noon yesterday - and it means I can now easily find my books on business, personal development, writing, and mental health. Plus, all the fiction I want easy access to is either on the main shelves, or on the easiest to of the secondary shelves at the end of my bed. (Those books can't really be seen, because of how close the shelves are to the bed. Which is where a lot of the books I wanted to access were stored!)

All in all, the room feels cleaner, I can relax more easily in it, and I know that whenever I want to read a book from my shelf, I don't have to look very hard to find it. I may still sometimes act like a teenager, but finally I'm starting to treat my bedroom like I'm an adult. And by bedroom, I mean bedroom-cum-office. I think I'm going to need a bigger room.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The End and the Beginning

Operation Overdrive has come to an end. Sort of.

I started this month with a big idea: to write a 75,000 word novel, posting daily blog posts, poems and videos. 31 days to do an awful lot of work, whether I did the novel or the daily posts. Attempting to do everything, that was where I fell behind.

And, life got in the way. But that's okay. That will happen.

I don't consider Operation Overdrive a failure, however. Quite the contrary. I think, with everything I did, it's been a success of sorts. I've managed to get back to blogging in a way that makes me happy. I've managed to put out a lot of poems, some of which were quite popular as far as my little poetry and prose blog is concerned, and I've managed to get back my confidence in front of a camera for my YouTube channel.

I've also discovered that I can't force myself to write a book if I only end up feeling guilty about not doing anything else.

Is this a problem for the dream of being a writer? No. It's a problem for any future attempts at NaNoWriMo in any way, shape or form. At least, not when the word count target is set to 150%.

The issue, you see, was trying to balance the workload when I was finding myself at my busiest, when I was working more hours in the bookshop, and when the sun was actually shining in Ireland. (Honestly - we had a weird summer.)

I know that I can write a novella in a week.

I know that I can write a non-fiction book using all of my spare time during a busy period.

I now know that I cannot dedicate a whole month to a book, while doing everything else in my life that I don't have any control over - like work, or babysitting, or burning up in the heat - because I will only tire myself out.

Part of the issue, for me, has been sleep, though. I haven't gotten much lately. We're talking the past couple of months. Since the sun started shining brightly in the morning, I haven't been able to sleep on past six most of the time. But this is after going to bed at twelve. I was drained, and that made me too groggy to start work earlier. The end result was guilt. Guilt at doing anything that wasn't writing. Guilt that carried over into the book. Guilt at trying something new.

And that last one? That's where the biggest issue for me was this month. I bought a new camera, my first DSLR. I wanted to take photographs. I wanted to practice, to get better, to really improve upon the very basics of photography that I had. And every time I did that - guilt.

Bad. Very bad.

That's why I left the book behind. I made a conscious decision, when I found myself incapable of writing the book because of how badly I felt for not doing it as much as I should have, to drop it. Not forever. Just until I get a couple of things in order. I have other books to write. I want to practice my photography more.

Operation Overdrive finishes today, officially, but the aftermath is this:

I want to write blog posts more often. I want to record videos more often, and I want to put more effort into them than a direct upload. I want to write poems with greater purpose for ParagraVerse. I want to set up a photography blog - and a business - and I want to get out more to take photographs. I want to write a couple of books that have been on my mind for a long time, and I want to continue to write my novel.

The month is over, but the desire to create, and the aspiration that I began with, they've only grown stronger.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Why I Self-Published

In 2012, when I was preparing to write Balor Reborn, I had to make a decision - write and prepare a book for publication in a week, or do the whole thing by myself. The first option would have only been exciting if (a) I had written a full-length novel that (b) was accepted by a publisher in (c) a short period of time after the writing.

The second option at least allowed me to publish by the end of week.

But that wasn't the only reason I decided to self-publish. It wasn't just a time issue. It was also a case that there weren't, at the time, many publishers of novellas that excited me. There was no one there to take my book seriously, that I knew of, because of its length.

I was aiming for short and snappy, and I could only provide that publishing service myself.

The same reason stands for why I continue to self-publish some books, and why I don't self-publish others. At the end of the day, I still want my first full-length novel to reach publication to be through a traditional publisher.

However, self-publishing, for the time and books that are in it, is ideal for me. It gives me complete control over everything I want to do with particular stories, and allows me to figure out what does and does not work in an actual marketplace - not just in terms of what books sell and what books don't, but also which marketing methods I can pull off, how I can run a business, that sort of thing.

All in all, I like the control I can get from self-publishing, and I like that I can bring certain stories into the world without going through a gateway.

This isn't to say I don't appreciate the work of publishers, because I do appreciate it, but when it comes to new projects that require particular care in terms of pacing and publication, I'd like the risk of not meeting publication deadlines to be entirely on me, and not down to a department in a company not being ready to deliver, or doubting the decision to publish at a particular time.

(Some context: I plan on releasing a series of books with publication dates at very particular times of the year - several books per year. Only big-name authors can get away with that in the traditional publishing field, because of the cost involved in printing the books. This is why I'm sticking with ebooks, for the time being, too, because I don't have to worry about finding the right price from a printer, while trying to balance several other aspects of life.)

All in all, the decision to self-publish comes down to my lifestyle. I work three days a week, and mind my niece every week, too, and this is on the back of spending my entire week either in college or working. I have a limited amount of hours free in the week, one way or another, and that's all about to happen again - I need to know that the deadlines are mine to impose, around everything else I've had to do in my life for the past few years. To be perfectly honest, I'm still striving for the right balance in my life. I'm not ashamed to admit that. But I'm getting there. I'm figuring things out. And at least I get to do it on my own time.