Sunday, December 7, 2014

How Did We Get Here?

I have a single week of lectures left in the first semester of my Masters. I'm still coming to terms with that one. How did we get here so quickly?

Let's go back, to before the Masters started. Let's go back to March. In March, I was acquiring copies of transcripts to be sent off as part of my application. In January, I moved from one bedroom in the house - the largest - to another - the smallest, and ended up misplacing a few things as I tidied up. I know where my original transcripts are. Unfortunately, there are also about three thousand other sheets of paper in that one place, and that may be an underestimation.

So, new transcripts, application completed, and I waited. I got an interview, I was offered a place, I almost cried (yep, that happened) and I paid my deposit. We've reached May. By July, I know how much the course will cost. I checked my budget, and I knew then that I could afford a laptop and a camera - specific ones that I'd had my eye on for a while. I practised with the camera. I got used to framing things, to playing with depth of field. I didn't know much about photography, except that depth of field was cool.

I was still shooting in Auto. Then: September.

The month dragged by after I paid my fees. I was waiting all the time. The day of my orientation, I met up with a friend of a friend, from Germany. The orientation was boring. It rained heavily as I walked home, and for the next two weeks I was sick. Brilliant start, right?

Well, yes. The first lecture was moved forward in a timetable change, and even then I didn't meet my classmates properly until Wednesday - everyone was in, and our lecturer encouraged us to meet up for coffee after the first lecture. And that lecture was, in itself, an ice-breaker. We went for coffee, we set up our own little Facebook group, we added each other, marvelled at how many people were from Galway, and at the little coincidences that seemed to pop up. I had a couple of mutual friends with various people already, and live near one of my friend's girlfriends. (By near, I mean she's essentially around the corner. And we've never met. Whatever happened to suburban values?)

Week two, lectures started.

So, we'll fast forward through this. We've been through this, mostly. I put together my audio drama, I took some photographs that I love, I gave a presentation on the Selfie, as understood from a reading of Susan Sontag's On Photography. Pretty early on, I considered many of my classmates friends. By Halloween, having only just parted from someone's company, I was texting to say I considered him one of my best friends.That was perhaps the most embarrassing thing to happen that night, and it's not really all that embarrassing. (I did try to teach people to do the Time Warp, but I'm not embarrassed by that.)

Foggy Path
The path became clearer the further I walked.
By the end of week eight, I was exhausted, stressed out, and feeling entirely comfortable in the company of my new friends. We were also getting ready to start our next projects, including creating a new soundtrack for a video - foley, dialogue, environmental noises, music, everything. By the end of week eleven - that's where we are now - we're getting ready to write essays, and complete reflective journals. We've met industry professionals who work as photographers, marketers, a social media strategist, a videographer, to mention just a few.

I can remember it all, yet I don't understand how we've gotten this far. We're almost done with our first semester. We've had several varieties of home-baked food. We've been to see some less-than-conventional films. We have our in-jokes. Some people have nicknames they don't want. We've gotten used to using ProTools - I even composed some music for it for my group's soundtrack in our second project - and we've been dabbling in various aspects of the Adobe suite. We've had to use Macs for everything, to the point that when I return to my Windows laptop, I scroll in the wrong direction way more often than I'd care to admit.

But see, it's more than all of that. I'm now at the point of wanting to produce short documentary pieces. I want to create audio dramas, to actually release to the public. Eleven weeks ago, I thought my main focus would be on photography. And while I love photography, while I still want to pursue it, to develop (ha!) my abilities further, I'm not restricting my options so much anymore. I want to work on sound design more in the future. I want to write about visual culture, and new media. I know that by the end of next semester, I'll be looking to learn more about multimedia authoring. I'm dying to learn more about video production already.

I feel like I've come a long way with a lot of amazing people, and I'm not entirely sure how I managed to get here. That said, I love it. I love every bit of it. Choosing this course was one of the best decisions I've ever made, and I refuse to apologise for getting sentimental over it, not after everything I've done in the past eleven weeks, not after the people I've met. I can't be sorry for that.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Learning by Doing

Week nine. That's how they define time in my college, by how many weeks into an academic year we are. By this point, I've been to see one night's worth of short films, one 3D museum experience, and one actual museum; I've read more for a single class than I think I did in my entire final year of my Undergrad; I've baked three times for friends in the course, and been out with them three times; submitted one photography project, and one audio design project, with artist statements for each, and; met some amazing people I am proud to call my friends.

The semester thus far has proven to me once again that I find it easier to learn by doing, by participating in the material, practising with Pro Tools and the Adobe Suite, and implementing suggestions from various and assorted guest speakers.

What has this meant, in reality? That, I think, is something best looked at across three areas: photography, audio design, and professional development.

Photography

For the sake of understanding how my understanding of photography has changed, we need to go back to before I started the course. To eliminate most of the history of my life with cameras, we'll start in July 2014 - when I bought my DSLR camera. Everything before that was with camera phones and standard digital cameras.

From late July to early October, I made one big mistake: I shot everything as JPEGs. They look great - the camera did a lot of the work, I just found things to photograph - but they're practically useless. That was mistake number 1.

The second mistake was in using Auto. Sure, you're guaranteed to use the best settings for the lighting available, but you have a lot less control over an image. In terms of learning how to take a good photograph, that's less than ideal.

The end of week eight - last week - marked the deadline for my first imaging project. Between week's four and eight, my understanding of photography, and ability with a camera and with Camera RAW, were put to the test. Thankfully, I took an approach to learning that my years studying Education suggested was the best option available: learning by doing. Practical work. 

I could read about taking photographs, or I could out with my camera and take and re-take photographs until I found one I actually liked. I could study Camera RAW meticulously, and watch dozens of videos online showing tutorials of how to use the program, or I could just try use it based on a couple of demonstrations to show me where the relevant sliders and editing tools were.

In the end, I had twenty six photographs to choose from, fully-edited to achieve the look I desired for the project. I needed ten. Thankfully, my classmates helped me whittle it down. I had thought maybe one person might help. I ended up with about eight people contributing ideas and thoughts while we waited for the Mac labs to open one Tuesday afternoon. Fundamentally, I feel like I could go out and do the project all over again, different idea, different concepts, and manage to do it in half the time, with less hassle. I understand the process a lot better.

Audio Design

Once upon a time, I took a class in college called Digital Storytelling. The course required us to figure out to use one programme particularly well; Audacity. Now, Audacity is great, but limited. Great in that it works, and it's free, and I have enough experience with it that I would have been extremely comfortable using it in college.

Instead, we were required to do all our sound editing in Pro Tools 10. A new interface to get used to, a whole other arrangement for tracks. New terminology. More complex. Not free - which meant I had to accustom myself to use of the Macs in college. (End result: scrolling in the wrong direction when I returned to my laptop.)

The learning of Pro Tools was just one part of the project I had to put together. I also had to record sound to actually edit, which, for me, lead directly into writing an audio drama. As I mentioned in my 'What's New(s)?' post, I wrote a short play called Love At First Date, which starred two of my former colleagues in the Mater Dei Drama Soc - the leads I had cast in our production of The Playboy of the Western World - Darren Lalor and Aisling Hayes.

Of course, I had problems with it. It wasn't just a script and some actors. It required me figuring out how to use the recording equipment, where to get the sounds I wanted, and then how to actually use them. Part of that included producing my own music.

I'm no expert at music. I listen to a fair amount - often albums on repeat - but I don't have any formal training that could have been useful in any way. In the end, I had to teach myself four chords on my six-string ukulele (that's apparently more difficult to play than a standard four-string, and therefore not suitable for a newbie - thanks Music Shop Guys all those years ago for not helping out with that piece of information!). Those four chords then formed the basis of the small piece of music that played during the drama.

Again, the best way to learn how to actually use Pro Tools was to dive in half-blind. We had done a project on it before, resulting in the reiteration of the word "Gatekeeper" on an almost daily basis. When volume is no concern, it gets even more fun. And that's the thing - the whole project was fun. Difficult at times - especially trying to get rid of wind from my dialogue tracks, or find a way to make the noise blend together well enough with my background noises to be less noticeable - but highly enjoyable all the same.

I feel like I could it again, with more interesting and daring ideas. Hearing everyone else's projects really helped provide inspiration to create more complex and entertaining pieces. Thankfully, people seemed to like my drama, something I was repeatedly surprised about to the point of failing to return the compliment (genuinely, too - some of them were frighteningly good!)

Professional Development

My course has three theoretical modules this semester - Visual Culture, which loans itself to the theory behind my entire Multimedia Imaging module; Communication Theory and New Media, and; Best Practice in Multimedia. The latter pair are vital for professional development in the mass-encompassing field of work that is multimedia. Communication Theory has, thus far, provided a step forward in the field of understanding the field, particularly with regard to any journalistic and creative-entrepreneurial endeavours. Various ethical concerns, concepts in the field, and case studies have been explored.

The end-result: a more involved approach to the content I'm producing. Now, I can't put it all down to this one module. I have wanted to work in this way for a long time. But what's important is that, about a month before my lectures started, I stopped updating this blog. I wasn't producing any content, good or bad. I put the theory into practice, and despite the notion that blogging is killing culture, I've been happier for doing it.

I've also been doing some work on some Brain Things that happened, but for the time being I don't have much to say about them. They exist as concepts, barely fleshed out, but they are the practical implications of a module that had, in its first half, required research and written content on a weekly basis.

When it comes to the Best Practice module, things get a little less consistent. That's no judgement on the lecturer, mind you - the guest speakers are booked according to their availability (and, obvious, field of work within the broader industry). The diversity of work represented by the speakers is astonishing, especially considering that several of them were graduates from the Undergraduate Multimedia course in my college (the students of which we share the module with.)

Each week, a speaker comes in, and we'll be assessed on journals written on reflection of the talks and topics. One very important question asked in the assignment brief is to consider the call-to-action from each session - what can we do to begin working in a particular field? Thus far, we've addressed Television, Videography and E-Learning, with speakers working in multimedia in IT and politics. Most recently, and most immediately implementable, a speaker from LinkedIn.

I've been in my current role as a bookseller for over seven years, so it shouldn't come as a surprise when I say that I've been updating my LinkedIn profile since that session with a mind towards future work. I don't plan on staying in a minimum wage, part-time job for the rest of my life. It doesn't make me happy.

Conversely, actually updating my LinkedIn profile, while not the most obviously enjoyable form of procrastination, has been a pleasurable experience. Taking into consideration a depth of work I've done, and my involvement across a broad spectrum of work, going into detail on teaching placements, too, I feel like I've actually done something with my life. What was once a relatively empty page is now a more vibrant history of my professional work. I wasn't entirely sure I knew how to begin, but eventually it all started falling into place.

Moving On

I feel like I've set a standard for myself for the future. For a long time, I've been a cram-as-study sort of person. That works for exams, but not so much for the long-term commitment of knowledge. So, I'm going to work out a self-learning methodology. I'm going to teach myself to study. This isn't just for college - I don't have exams as part of this course. This is for future learning, and for future work.

The inevitable conclusion to this is that the classes I undertake that have the least amount of student interaction are the classes I least enjoy. While we've had a couple of passive, take-notes-only sort of classes for some modules, there's a a greater balance of work and in-class theory in many of them than in others, and it's been in those classes that I've felt my learning has been improved.

We'll see where all of this takes me in the future. For now, I'm hoping the 'learn by doing' approach will get me through the rest of the semester, learning outcomes achieved.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

How to Get Better at Writing

During one of the many Deep and Meaningful conversations I've been having with a friend from college online during the procrastination sections of our assignments, I stumbled upon a realisation. Stumbled, and fell, mouth agape. I realised that my ability to write has improved over the years.

I feel as if this shouldn't have surprised me, like maybe I should have known that I was getting better as time went on. But no. Surprise. A bit of confusion. All the usual things that happen when I stop paying attention.

Here's what I think happened: I wrote so much stuff that was bad, like the first three-four years' worth of blog posts here, that I reached my quota. At that point, my brain decided I had to start doing things right, like maybe writing any old garbage just wasn't going to cut it anymore.

Or, the following advice I can now impart upon you in the infinite wisdom that comes from systematic procrastination, I got better with practice. Here we go...

1. Write more. I think there's still something to that whole writing enough bad stuff that there's none left idea. With enough practice, everyone begins to develop their own authorial voice. They figure out how they write, their idiosyncrasies, what they enjoy doing and how they can make the most of a bad situation when writing. (Exams became an easier experience as my writing ability developed - I knew how to write the way I enjoy writing, even when I didn't like what I had to write about.)

It's the standard advice given to every young write: write more, write often, and just keep writing, because you will get better. And it's true. If you don't believe me, look at the nonsense I wrote on this site back in 2009. Then, you will begin to understand the evolution of my writing.

2. Read broadly. Years of writing isn't enough. It never is. But it's one of a few necessary elements to developing your writing ability. Reading a lot also helps, and reading across genres and topics and authors is the best decision you can make when it comes to building upon your existing skills and vocabulary, which affect the way you write and think.

Just like you can't learn to make a movie by having seen a few and then picking up a camera, you can't write a book without having read a lot of other books, by a lot of other people. My advice is this: look for recommendations from people whose opinions you trust (or, look for a Staff Recommendations section in your local bookshop - independent bookshops are more likely to have them). Read across the board. Try some Contemporary Fiction, some Literary Fiction, some Classics, some Science Fiction, Crime Fiction, Fantasy, and yes, even try some Young Adult and Children's Fiction. Read a book on Business, on Personal Development, History, Biographies. Read newspapers, magazines, reviews, opinion pieces. Heck, even read those long Facebook status updates that are much easier to ignore.

Why? Because by exposing yourself to so many different types of writing, you force yourself to examine your own use of language.

3. Look for feedback. I know, the idea of sharing your writing with someone can be a terrifying experience. However, if you want to improve, you need to find out what other people have to say about your writing, and in a safe environment. Writing and critique groups are an essential part of many writers lives, where they can talk about their current works in progress, receive constructive criticism on the latest chapter they've written, and figure out whether or not an idea is working out.

Finding a writing group is easier today than it used to be. Facebook and Twitter are full of writers who write at different levels and across different genres. Even if sharing your material through email isn't to your fancy, you can still use social media to connect with writers you can then meet face to face.

(A note on meeting people online: public places are your best friend. Pick somewhere you know well, preferably somewhere with CCTV. It may seem paranoid, and things are definitely better now than they used to be - meeting people "from the Internet" is generally more acceptable than it once was - but there's no point taking unnecessary risks.)

writing

4. Leave the house. I know, it's a counter-intuitive idea if you plan on writing using a computer (or a typewriter, if that's more your thing). But here's the thing: most writing is based in the real world. If you don't leave the house and see some of that world, you don't stand a chance at really capturing what it feels like to walk through a park, or along a beach, or through a city in the middle of the night. You might just know how a school feels, or your workplace, or the usual haunts you visit with friends and family, time and time again.

I'm not suggesting a trip around the world - though, if you plan on writing a story set in a foreign city, it does help to spend some time there. I'm merely suggesting that rather than write in a house or apartment in a town (or near a town), you actually get out and see what it's like. Keep a notebook with you. Use your phone as a camera if you have to, to capture some images for reference later. Get to know the world in which you're writing.

Importantly, you can also get to know the Arts world around you. Visit museums, especially when there are short-term exhibits present. Look for events, like poetry readings, or storytelling nights. They do exist, if you look for them. Get involved with the community of artists that live around you.

5. Do your research. I've put this last for two reasons: if I'd put it first, it might have turned people off reading the rest of the article, and; "last but not least" tends to stick with people. So, last but not least, you need to do your research. If you're writing a book in which a character has "a terminal disease" - an example I'm using because of its frequency in writing groups - "that isn't cancer", you need to figure out everything about that disease.

Whatever your specific subject of choice, knowing something about it beyond the standard Wikipedia entry is a must, particularly if your novel deals with one of a number of greater subject areas in Science, Business, Politics, History, Sports, or Religion. If your protagonist is a rugby-playing, devout Muslim, student, doing research in Theoretical Physics while helping his father run in the local elections, while his sister is running "a successful business" and his mother is undertaking a Doctorate in History, you really need to know a lot about each of those five specific fields. More generally, if your character is an expert, or proficient, in an area of which you have little to no knowledge, you need to educate yourself.

How do you research? That depends on what you're researching. Sports are maybe the easiest thing to research, if they're regularly televised. Watch it. Ask a friend who's interested in it about the rules. Pick up a book on tactics, look up the official governing bodies, read what they have to say. Business, you need to be selective in what you study. Think about how much you need to include in a story. If you need to know more about the legalities of running a business, focus on that area. If you need to know more about marketing, there's your focus. The same applies for everything you might need to research.

A good rule of thumb is to research more than you need, but not so much you never write anything. Read books. Read articles. Look for YouTube videos. There are dozens of channels out there that specialise in educating their audiences in a number of different areas, from literature to sexual health, the American Civil War to the psychology of mental illness. Mashable kindly listed ten of them here: http://mashable.com/2013/04/04/youtube-education/

The reason research is important is that it gives your writing substance. It's not enough to try write a story with a modicum of information and a good idea. While the good idea is essential, good writing should immerse a reader into the story.

Plus, all of that extra reading nicely fits in with Tip #2. You're welcome.

***

Improving your writing skills is relatively easy. There's a lot you learn without a mentor or a teacher to tell you how to do it correctly. For the most part, I'm a self-educated writer. Yes, I turned to books on writing to pick up some advice, but I didn't have a teacher. I couldn't ask those writers questions. This isn't to put down participation in writing courses and workshops. I've taken part in a couple myself. They're incredibly useful and powerful experiences. But they're not the most important part of your learning experience.

By writing as much as you can, and reading as widely as you can force yourself, you're already ahead of the competition. Feedback will help you hone your skills, research help you focus on the finer details you wish you include in your book, and real life experience - both of activities and places - will help make your writing feel more authentic. You can begin now, easily and cheaply - even, it could be argued, freely, depending on where you live.

What's your best advice for people looking to improve their writing? And, for those who want extra help, what do you really want to know?

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.)