Friday, 29 July 2011

"What if...?" -TWO WRITING WORKSHOPS (Part 2)

Linda Gillard writing again...

I began my two workshops with a disclaimer: that I wasn't a scientist and didn't really know much about science. (See my earlier blog about being the victim of an arts education.) In an attempt to justify my selection as Durham's CELEBRATE SCIENCE Author in Residence, I'd examined my novels and attempted to identify where the science occurs in them. I hoped I'd be able to read out chunks of accessible and interesting scientific information, in the same way that I can select readings to illustrate how I use dialogue or point of view, or how I write description.

This proved more difficult than I'd expected. I found I didn't actually write chunks of science, then insert them (which is what I thought I did.) I wasn't able to pull out the plums, like Little Jack Horner. I needed to separate the sugar from the flour, fat and water and I couldn't because it was all so blended and so changed, it had become pastry. From this I concluded that the science in my novels must be thoroughly embedded, not bolted on.

I thought that was probably a good thing. (But not if you want to impress a bunch of scientists with your scientific erudition and skill at communicating it to the layperson.)

In EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY I'd written about geology from the point of view of someone (my fictional heroine) discovering the subject for the first time. In STAR GAZING I'd written about geophysics from the point of view of a hero who worked in oil exploration. I'd also written about wildlife conservation, woodland regeneration, the night sky and the Northern Lights from his viewpoint. But none of these subjects was there in its own right. They were all just tools to help me tell my story (and that story was about ways of seeing, in particular how a blind woman perceives the world.)

One of the book’s memorable scenes is when Keir sends blind Marianne an audio recording he’s made which represents the Northern Lights – a recording made by hooking up a magnetometer to an audio recorder, so she can hear variations in the strength and direction of the geomagnetic field and thus have an aural picture of the Northern Lights. He says, "Give it a whirl. After a few plays you might find it grows on you. Like Pink Floyd. Personally, I like that ‘screaming swifts’ effect. If you can, listen on headphones and you might get a wee feel of the night sky full of random coloured lights. Like a cosmic firework display…” 

This is one of many examples where something scientific crops up in one of my novels, but it’s deeply embedded in the story and characters. Keir makes the recording for Marianne because he loves her, but doesn’t know how to say so, doesn’t even want to admit it to himself. He’s a scientist, so he uses his specialist knowledge to give her a rather wonderful gift that extends her limited experience of the world.

And as author, I got to extend the reader’s experience of the world by getting them to think about the phenomenon of the Northern Lights - without my having to describe them! (Though as a writer I’m quite interested in describing the indescribable.)

I don't really know why science topics crop up so often in my books. I'm certainly interested in science and, as I write mainly for myself, my novels are all repositories for the things I'm interested in. But I think the science might be there because it's a way of discussing ideas - big ideas, like time, space, extinction, the inter-connectedness of all living things - in a way that anyone can understand. 

As a mother and an ex-primary teacher, I spent a lot of years doing just that, long before I started writing fiction. I remember exasperating my children, pointing out the difference between knowledge and belief, explaining that there's relatively little we know about the world from our own experience. (Did men actually land on the moon? Do the Pitcairn Islands exist? Is Elvis really dead? We take so much on trust.) 

Many years later, my congenitally blind heroine had this to say in STAR GAZING: "For me the Earth is a conceit, something I’m told exists but cannot see – like Pluto or Neptune for you. Astronomers deduced that Neptune must exist long before they devised telescopes powerful enough to view it. They thought it must be there because something was affecting the orbits of the other planets. There was a gap in the galaxy where a planet ought to be and they trusted that there was. It was an act of faith: faith in mathematics and physics. 

"There is a gap in my life where the Earth ought to be. I have to take its existence on trust. I cannot see or feel the Earth, I am merely informed by my senses of the minutiae of its being. It’s much the same for you, but sight allows you to appreciate what others see, through a camera lens, through telescopes, from spaceships. Thanks to this second-hand sight, your world is much, much bigger than mine can ever be."

One of the physicists in the workshop was very taken with my reference to the "sound picture" of the Northern Lights and wondered where I'd come across it. I replied with the now inevitable "Google". Serendipity has played a large part in the composition of my novels. If I find something I like and want to share, I'll try to slip it into a novel somewhere.

Hubble image of Saturn's Aurora
 So I'm currently looking for an opportunity to share with the reading public the knowledge that Saturn has an Aurora too (why did I think it only happened on Earth?!) and that it too can be viewed as a "sound picture". So far, so interesting. Now comes the - for me - completely thrilling part: Saturn's Northern Lights "music" is completely different from Earth's and is just about the scariest thing I have ever heard in my life. It's sadder, weirder and more musical than Earth's.

I'm indebted to Dr Pete Edwards (who attended my workshop) for playing me this recording and showing me beautiful pictures of Saturn's aurora. In return I told him that the Saami word for the aurora translates as "audible light". (How did I know? Google, of course.) 

And if that isn't "encouraging greater creative dialogue between scientists and fiction writers", I don't know what is.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

"What if...?" - TWO WRITING WORKSHOPS (Part One)

Linda Gillard posting again...

I recently made the long journey from the Isle of Arran to Durham, to teach two writing workshops to scientists and those of a scientific persuasion. (Is an archaeologist a scientist?... Or is that as thorny a question as whether Prof. Brian Cox is an astronomer? I gather feelings about BC run high in Physics departments up and down the land.)

There were 32 participants in my two workshops, from students to Heads of Department and I worked them hard. We used my homemade photo packs to generate ideas for stories and develop characters. We looked at narrative point of view and concluded that you can tell the story of Snow White & The Seven Dwarves from at least fifteen different points of view, not including the apple’s. We decided the best characters to tell that story might be the ghost of SW’s dead mother or possibly the Mirror (which I suggested fulfilled the role of brutally honest, gay best friend, the one you’d take clothes-shopping).

LG teaching a workshop at Durham University
The tough part of the workshop was the Timed Writing exercises in which participants had to write without stopping, correcting, editing, or indeed thinking. Wielding a ticking kitchen timer (which always makes me think of the crocodile in Peter Pan) I asked everyone to write non-stop for five minutes in response to a trigger word, then for ten minutes in response to a mysterious and repetitive piece of music by one of my favourite composers, Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel. (Mirror in the Mirror.)

The point of this strange and taxing exercise is to write without trying to write well. Trying to write well is perhaps the greatest enemy of good writing. Perfectionism and an obsession with originality can be counter-creative. Elmore Leonard summed it up in one of his Ten Rules of Writing : “If it sounds like writing, I re-write it.”

This was the first time I’d taught this writing exercise to the sound of fingers tapping on keyboards. The noise drowned out the tick of my timer, but had the same desired effect: the incessant sound increased the pressure on the writers to write.

I borrowed the exercise from Zen Buddhist Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones and I’ve used it for years with all kinds of writers, from primary pupils to professional writers. Most people find the exercise as exhilarating as it is exhausting. For some the experience is revelatory as they discover what it feels like to write without regard to the quality of what they produce. Most people haven't done that since they were at primary school (and I speak as someone who feels a strange compulsion to punctuate text messages.)

“The aim,” says Goldberg, “is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel.”

Or, in the words of E M Forster, “How will I know what I think till I see what I say?”

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Writing Science, Metaphor and Story

This is Tom McLeish, physicist at Durham University and currently also Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research. At the best of times this is a very nice job that allows me a high-altitude view over all of the University's research "landscape", with occasional dives into the long grass of individual projects in the Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences and Sciences themselves. I love listening to and responding to the language and ideas that researchers use to describe and discuss their ideas and projects.

I'm enjoying reading the blog, and warming up to this year's Celebrating Science, and I'd like to push the theme of science and writing in some new directions, perhaps surprising ones from a theoretical physicist. I was not surprised to read Linda discussing the explanatory, rhetorical and communicative skill of good science writing. All these are vital. But more is true - as suggested by the E.M. Forster quote about speaking and thinking. Scientists know that articulation and thought are reciprocal. We also know that metaphor is one of the greatest tools of science, and once of its greatest gifts of enrichment to the community. When Samuel Taylor Coleridge was asked why he attended so many chemistry lectures (especially those of his friend Humphrey Davy) he responded, "To improve my stock of metaphors".

So I'm interested in two rather deep aspects of science writing and speaking (yes I think we ought to be exploring the oral tradition here too!):

(1) the function of language in the process of formulation in new science and scientific thinking.

(2) the enrichment by science of metaphor and meaning open to the wider writing community.

If you still think science is about knowledge more fundamentally than idea, imagination or metaphor then dont listen to me - listen to Einstein: "Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world." What I think he meant by this is the priority of imagination over knowledge for science: all experiment is driven by pre-imagined possibilities of truth. Suppose that the universe is pervaded by an intangible ether that supports the propagation of light but through which the earth moves as it ordits, then if I very carefully measure the speed of light in different directions I should be able to detect differences (the Michelson Morely experiment) ... Suppose that there really are atoms and molecules at a scale far too small to see, then if I can suspend micron-sized particles in a fluid they will come into thermal equilibium with the motion of these molecules and display a density gradient along a gravitional field (Perrin's expeiment in 1908 that finally established the existence of molecules).

In my own research, imagining the complex tangling of long string-like molecules, and what might happen when they are tugged and pulled in different directions, has always been an essential pre-requisite to casting this imagined microscopic world into mathematical form and teasing out the phenomena that might be observed if this picture were true.

I think that science is like poetry in so far as it rehearses the collision of imagination and form. Without form, imagination is unbridled and explosively impotent; I remember someone explaining to me once that the role of the sonnet was to direct the most powerful emotional imagination in such a way that otherwise uncontrolled effusion becomes directed into a focussed (perhaps sculpted?) and beautiful form. The greatest poetry emerges from the struggle of the most powerful imagination with the contraints of the strongest form.

If that is true, then how could science itself be other than the limit of poetry - for what more powerful imagination could there be than the conception of the structure of an entire universe? And what stronger form could there be than the constraint of the actual world we inhabit? If Einstein is right, then the scientist needs to feed the imagination continually, from every source possible, borrowing metaphor from narative worlds all around us. And let's not have any nonsense about the inarticulateness of mathematics. Listen to two pure mathematicians talking at a blackboard, or savour the delicious language they coin for the structures of their contemplation: "modular forms", "vector bundles", "transcendental equations", ...

Less easy to trace is the reciprocal gift of metaphor from science to literature. Sometimes one hears of the failure of the romantic poets' notion that this would happen. But I suspect that the seams are richer than appear on the surface. Narrative threads from science don't have to talk about electrons to find their way into poetry; perhaps they will weave themselves more deeply into our literary fabric if they dont. Coleridge again (from Eolian Harp):

Oh the one life within us and abroad
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythms in all thought, and joyance everywhere.

seems to encapsulate the imaginative process within us that "meets" the world, by borrowing from that very science, in this case the emergence of wave-theories of sound and light.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The Science of Words

I wish I had a penny for every time I’ve heard a science student say “It doesn’t matter if my writing’s a bit dodgy, it’s not as if I’m doing English.” Well, maybe a pound; I’d certainly be pretty rich by now if that was the case. And somehow by saying this, they’re completely missing the point. A very crucial point, if we’re going to be successful in engaging as many people as possible with the principles and, let’s face it, the sheer wonder of the science all around us.

Scientists, perhaps more than any other discipline, need to have the best possible communication skills. Language is how we, as a species, communicate our needs, our hopes, our dreams, our ideas. And that is what science is all about: formulating an idea, investigating it and then (most importantly of all) communicating it to others. I’m not necessarily talking about perfect grammar and spelling (although some spelling mistakes can be disastrous, especially if by changing one letter you change an entire molecule), but the ability to translate often complex theory into something that everyone can appreciate.

And yet language is often perceived as a barrier by scientists and laymen alike. The student viewpoint quoted above fails to take into account that it doesn’t matter how good your theory is if no-one else can follow it. It’s often said that you can only really pass on an idea successfully if you truly understand it yourself. That’s true, but once again, without the right language, the right words, you will never be able to make yourself understood.

Those outside the field often complain that scientists speak another language, and to some extent that’s true; the rules created to allow universal scientific communication can be daunting to those not “in the club”. Some scientists deliberately use obscure terminology to keep their work exclusive, using their language as proof of just how clever they really are. But to be a great scientist, you also need to be a great communicator, speaking many different languages. I don’t mean literally, of course, but you have to have the ability to adapt the words to make them fit for purpose, for the benefit of all.

One of the things I try to do with my students is to break down the meaning of words, to show them where they’ve come from. That way, when confronted by a word they’ve never seen before, hopefully I’ve given them the tools to work it out for themselves; a sort of scholarly detective mystery, if you like. With understanding comes appreciation, too, of how and why these words are used the way they are and how objects are related to each other.

In this age of instant access information the science of words, and therefore the words of science, are more important than ever. As many people have said over the ages, from French philosophers to comic-book characters, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Words are powerful, as is science. As practitioners, educators and enthusiasts, it is our responsibility to use those words wisely both to nurture and encourage those who follow in our footsteps.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

My First Visit to Durham

Dr Paula Martin of Durham University & LG
After exchanging many emails, I finally got to meet Dr Paula Martin, Durham University's Science Outreach Co-ordinator. Paula had come across my work via the estimable and we'd corresponded briefly about my first novel, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY . When we met in the Undercroft Cafe at the Cathedral (avoid this if you are on a diet) the first thing I wanted to discuss was, "Why me?". 

Now I'd finally fetched up in Durham and was meeting real scientists, I felt spectacularly under-qualified for the job of Celebrate Science Author in Residence. But Paula was reassuring and when we were joined by Kate Hudson of Beacon NE, both seemed keen on the kind of cross-fertilisation I hope will result from applying the various creative writing techniques I've used with writing students and which I use myself. In fact the more we compared how writers think and work with how scientists think and work, the more it seemed we had in common. (In a future blog we're going to look at "What makes a good scientist/writer?")

While I wrestled with the concepts of  Fundamental Physics (thank you, Dr Pete Edwards, for the explanation, which I very nearly understood), Kate and Paula grappled with the sci-fi concept of "The Writer has Two Brains". Well, ideally s/he should. The creative brain generates words and ideas randomly, without judging, then the editorial brain sorts them, weeds out the duds and attempts to impose order on chaos. 

These are two quite different processes. Attempting to do both simultaneously doesn't just slow you down, it encourages the Inner Critic to sit on your shoulder, hooting with laughter. This is one of the reasons why I always tell students we aren't going to share work during a session. (The look of relief on their faces is always a joy to behold.)

Talk of experiment and hypothesis led to our title for the first writing workshop, What if...? I explained to Paula and Kate that I usually do my research after writing my fiction. In other words, I try to imagine something (what it's like to be blind, blown up, or carried away in an avalanche) before I research in any detail. (I used to feel rather ashamed about just "making stuff up" until I read that Sebastian Faulks did this for his WWI novel, BIRDSONG. Faulks found that what he imagined was largely how it was

I've also had this experience - so often in fact that I'm inclined to think the version I make up might read more authentically than the version I'd write if I were steeped in research. (But I do research afterwards, to ensure I'm not embarrassing myself.)

Of course it's much quicker working like this and saves spending days in the British Library (tricky for me, living as I do on the Isle of Arran) but as a working method, it lacks credibility and defies explanation. However, any author will tell you it's always the bits you lifted from life that fail to convince, so I abide by the old journalist's motto: "Never let truth get in the way of a good story." (And it will, if you let it.) So as a novelist, one hypothesises like mad, but only readers can "prove" your hypothesis by saying, "Yes, that's true. That's just what it's like!"

Durham Cathedral
But I digress. Back to the coffee and cakes literary-scientific debate in the Undercroft... 

Kate, Paula and I agreed I should give the workshop participants new writing tools, let them play with them for a while, then send them away to perform their own writing "experiments". I like the idea of literary experiments. Setting out to write anything in particular is arguably counter-creative. (E M Forster is supposed to have said, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?") I sometimes talk to students about Michelangelo who used to go to the quarry to look for a suitable piece of marble for his next work. He believed the statue was inside the block and he needed to chip away until it was revealed, so he would examine the marble, looking for an inspiring block that said "Buy me".
LG and the Stanhope Fossil Tree

So I'd like my Durham writing students to just think, imagine, create, then (using their other brain) look at what they've got and decide what form it might take. This strikes me as more of a scientific model too - experimenting with no pre-determined idea of outcome. It also happens to be the way I've always written fiction.
The idea of experimental fragments seems to me a reassuring one for novice poets and authors of fiction. This was how I began writing EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY, how the poems emerged and became embedded in the novel. I was struggling to express certain things in prose until I realised they needed to be said in poetry because that's what my prose was straining towards.But could a novel contain poems and still work as a narrative? Readers said yes.

I set off for Arran with my mind buzzing and my voice ragged. It had been a stimulating and tiring day. The meandering drive home through the upland hay meadows of the North Pennines AONB was calming, tea at the Durham Dales Centre was reviving. 

Of course I had to pose (looking positively youthful in comparison) beside the 250 million year old Fossil Tree, a sandstone relic of a carboniferous forest from a time when birds and mammals had yet to evolve and the first dinosaur would not appear for another 100 million years. The fossillised trunk is elephantine, its age literally unimaginable. And that was quite something for a writer (one who thinks she can imagine what it's like to be blind, blown up, or carried away in an avalanche) to come across in a village churchyard: something that could be seen, even touched, but so old, its age could not be imagined.

Maybe that's why geology appeals to me. It really takes me outside my comfort zone.