Song Of The Week: Dancing In The Dark

I’ve had a really good weekend and in the process I think I’ve found my new theme song for the next little while – Dancing In The Dark. The song was made famous by The Boss, but a new version has come to my attention and sneaked into my heart and mind. I was meant to be away camping this weekend, but a mix of issues (social, financial, weather related) lead to the trip being cancelled. I was still able to have an awesome day out in the lakes with my friend Sammi for Beltane itself, and was able to go to my good friend Anna’s party that night. Beltane is a festival of fire – of passion, creativity, creation, fertility, of things coming to fruition and escaping from their bounds to make their place in the world. This was exactly the sort of boost I needed in my life right now.

The party was great. I’m not usually a fan of big social groups, but this one just hit all the right notes. Including people reading some of their favorite poetry, singing songs, performing, joining in together and making merry. I was very touched that Anna decided to read one of my poems and was pleased to share another of mine with the assembled company. But what really got into my heart that night was Ceri and Chris’ rendition of this song, Dancing in the Dark. It’s one of those songs that everybody knows, but not everybody has listened to the words. I tried to join in with the singing but had to resort to the lyrics sheet to actually know what the words were and I was stunned at how relevant they were to where I am in my life right now.

“I get up in the evening
And I ain’t got nothin’ to say
I come home in the morning
I go to bed feelin’ the same way
I ain’t nothin’ but tired
And I’m just tired and bored with myself
Hey there baby
I could use just a little help
You can’t start a fire
You can’t start a fire without a spark
This gun’s for hire
Even if we’re just dancing in the dark”

Those words echo my own feelings at times, and I see the same thing reflected back in my husband’s face when he’s at his worst. We’re so tired, and we’re worn out with ourselves. Sometimes it feels like all of life is work and sleep and we need something to get us out of this rut. But to do that you need something to light a fire under you. If you’re lucky in a relationship, you can do that for each other, but its hard work when you are both suffering. Sometimes you just need to keep going – even if you’re just dancing in the dark.

“Messages keep getting clearer
Radio’s on
And I’m moving around the place
I take a look in the mirror
Wanna change my hair, my clothes, my face
Man I ain’t gettin’ nowhere
I’m just livin’ in a dump like this
There’s something happening somewhere
Baby I just know there is”

Messages do come to me through music, that’s true, and it’s time to change everything. Time to wipe the slate clean and look at what’s in me underneath all the current stress and worry. I’m looking forward to getting started in the new job. I feel like this is the right one, I’ve not had this sense for a long time and I hope that it is going to be the bridge out of ‘making ends meet’. The thing is though, that there is more to life than just the job. Teaching might be a vocation for me, but it’s not the sum total of who I am. There’s more to me and I need to start embracing those other sides even though they might not be profitable in the short term.

“You sit around getting older
There’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me
I shake this world off my shoulders
Come on baby, the laugh’s on me”

You have to find the joy in life and keep fighting against this stuff that gets you down, otherwise what’s the point? You just exist until you get older and where’s the fun in that? You have to accept that the universe has a sense of humour and that yes, you’re the butt of the joke. But if you can share that joke with someone, then you’re on your way. The greatest joke in my life right now is that I am too busy to find the time to live and I am worried that life is just going to pass me by if I don’t get my head out of myself and stop to smell the roses and do the things I really want to do. This Beltane, I had a good talk with myself and finally admitted what I really want to do.

“Stay on the streets of this town
And they’ll be carving you up alright
They say you gotta stay hungry
Hey baby I’m just about starving tonight
I’m dying for some action
I’m sick of sitting ’round here trying to write this book
I need a love reaction
come on now baby gimme just one look”

At the Symbel at Beltane, I greeted an old patron in the form of Hecate, toasted to one of my great heroes and, finally, I raised my boast. It’s dangerous to ask for blessings from the Gods at this time of year, because it is the time of the tricksters and you never know what you might be granted wearing the shape of your heart’s desire. But I made my boast. My promise. It’s time for me to admit to myself which book I’m writing. Literally. I have three ideas for good novels and while I’m happy to talk about two of them, its the third that I have been writing steadily this year, to the tune of almost 28,000 words so far. It’s not the one I had in mind at Samhain, or at Yule, but it is the one I am writing and it’s time I got my head down and worked it out properly.

I started creating this world and formulating this story ten years ago. Looking at the dates on the original files really made me stop and think about that. This idea hasn’t gone away and while my first drafts might need massive overhauls, I am still working on it and I find myself thinking about it at quiet moments, plotting scenes and then writing them up like guilty pleasures.

It’s a romance story. Set in a fantasy world. And I’m almost ashamed to admit I’ve been embarrassed about that. Because it’s not the big literary story I had in mind. Not the sort of novel I would have studied or read at University as part of my literature studies. It’s not a set text, not something that will be remembered by exam boards in fifty years. But it is the book that I would like to read, more than once. And enjoy reading more than once. And perhaps I need to stop setting my sights on the approval of the academic market. Just as much as I need to let go of the negative opinions I got in response to the idea 10 years ago when I first spoke about it. I’m not in this for the praise, nice though it is, and this book is going to attract its fair share of criticism as well as hopefully getting some fans. But it is the sort of book I would like to read.

It’s not the book I dreamed of writing, but it is the book that I AM writing and that’s good enough for me. It might be good enough for other people too.

It’s worked before. Professor J R R Tolkien once wrote to C S Lewis saying “If they won’t write the kinds of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves.” He had a point. Nobody else has written this story and I want to read it, so I am going to have to put my mind to it and finish it. They aren’t the only people who have made such comments. Gaiman once commented when asked for advice on writing that people should “write the ideas down. If they are going to be stories, try and tell the stories you would like to read. 

I guess, when writing this book, that I need a love reaction from myself. I need to be open minded enough to enjoy my own writing, to admit which parts I enjoy and put my heart into them rather than holding back.

“You can’t start a fire sitting ’round crying over a broken heart
This gun’s for hire
Even if we’re just dancing in the dark
You can’t start a fire worrying about your little world falling apart
This gun’s for hire
Even if we’re just dancing in the dark”

So let them come with their poor reviews and criticism and the sneering notion that it should have been done differently or better. Because they won’t write the books I want to read and I have the stuff in me to do that. This is the book I am writing. It’s the one I want to read. And I am determined to finish it. Even if I am just dancing in the dark.

For this week’s Song Of The Week, I’d like to share a new version of this song. Everyone knows the version by The Boss, but this one is a cover by a singer called Amy MacDonald, and this live version was recorded with a full orchestra. It’s beautiful. Not so large and bombastic and 80s shaped as Bruce’s version, but there’s a certain tinge of heart and soul and passion in this one that speaks to me. The same qualities were there when my friend Ceri sang it at Beltane.

I hope that you will enjoy it.

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Are you listening Mr Gove?

So this morning I log in to Twitter to find that Michael Gove has decided that American classic novels like To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice And Men, along with classic plays just like The Crucible, are not good enough for the English Literature GCSE syllabus. He would prefer learners to read British texts instead.

To say that I think this would be moronic is an understatement. Of Mice And Men is a text that I have personally taught and it had a massive impact upon the teenagers who were in my class. I cannot say the same about every text I have taught to that age group. Austen would not have had the same reach. Nor would Charlotte Bronte. Nor would Charles Dickens. And I say that as a great admirer of all three of those writers’ works.

I made a quip to my husband this morning that if we’re going to focus on British writers, we should have Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis on the syllabus. After all they’re both highly successful contemporary writers, who work in a wide variety of media and who have both produced exemplary prose worthy of study.

On a whim I tweeted it. Then this happened…



For those who can’t see, it says RETWEETED BY NEIL GAIMAN

This is pretty incredible, given that I am a massive fan.

The 47 retweets and 82 likes that followed were also incredible.

It’s not often you find yourself at the centre of a zeitgeist.

This has been a great day, I’ve really enjoyed this whole thing. It’s been great getting tweets from other people with other suggestions too. Other writers that I like and respect like Jasper Fforde, Stephen Fry, Terry Pratchett and Alan Moore. Other successful writers like Grant Morrison, J G Ballard, Douglas Adams and Nick Harkaway were suggested too.

But it doesn’t really matter what I think.

Rather unfortunately, the crux of this matter rests with someone else.

And this matter is very important. We’re defining what literature the vast majority of 14-16 year olds in this country are going to be exposed to in their formative years. We’re deciding that lessons they’re going to be taught, what life lessons they’re going to be exposed to through their reading. What they read during these years will have  a massive impact upon whether or not they read for pleasure as adults or whether they regard reading as distasteful and something to be endured or avoided.

The texts that Gove is considering removing tackle massively important themes. Like Loyalty. Friendship. Love. Honour. Justice. Integrity. Equality. He regards it as a “disappointing statistic” that 90% of learners have read ‘Of Mice And Men’ which touches on the vast majority of these in a simple, direct and elegant way which still speaks to teenagers and young adults across decades and thousands of miles.

Incidentally – those themes I just listed? They are the ones I admire most in the work of Gaiman and Ellis. I adore Spider Jerusalem’s passion for the truth, his pursuit of the facts, his dedication to uncovering every sordid and hidden little political detail in his city. I still read and re-read Good Omens by Pratchett and Gaiman, which addresses the fundamental nature of Good and Evil in this world along with the notions of destiny, innocence and freewill.

I wasn’t kidding when I said that those writers should be included in the syllabus for study. These are the sorts of themes that our young people should be examining, deconstructing, discussing and ENJOYING. These are the sorts of texts that should be forming part of the gateway to the world of literature, wider reading and cultural awareness. Alongside those wonderful classics by Harper Lee, John Steinbeck and Arthur Miller. The advantage that writers like Gaiman, Pratchett and Ellis have though is that they are still alive. They are accessible. Reachable. Still talking. Still writing. Still working.

Michael Gove would rather that we go back to the tired texts that have been picked over, pulled apart and written about for decades. For hundreds of years. By people who carry more authority and more weight than the average fourteen year old will ever muster. Michael Gove would rather than we study texts where academics have already determined the right and wrong answers about the vast majority of the issues. Where people have already decided what opinions are acceptable to hold about those texts.

Michael Gove would like our young people to study texts which reinforce gender stereotypes, highlight the existence of class boundaries and promote the notion that Britain is a world economic and military power. He would like our young people to live in the past, to be shielded from the complex nature of this international world and cocooned within blind and outdated nationalism.

I always believed that Michael Gove was unfit for his post. This decision of his confirmed it.

How can someone who has studied English Literature at Oxford University believe that reinforcing nationalism is more important than exposure to the best examples of literature that the world has to offer? How can someone who is in charge of the education process for the overwhelming majority of this country’s youth allow his personal preferences and tastes in influence his policy decisions? How can someone with this level of influence believe that the past is more relevant that the present we are living in, or the future that our young people are going to build?

This man is not fit to be the Secretary of State for Education.

And it is this man whose opinion dictates what happens next.

Even on a day like today which has been filled with joy and excitement, the feeling which dominates me most at the end of the day is Fear. Fear about what else Michael Gove might come up with next. Recently I’ve been watching the hashtag of #weneeddiversebooks on twitter. Michael Gove would do well to read some of the responses and rethink his blinkered and narrow minded approach to education policy, especially when it comes to literature. But sadly, I don’t think he ever will.

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“Make Good Art”

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to go and see Neil Gaiman speak at the Peacock Theatre in London.

He spoke about the viral piece ‘Make Good Art’, based on a speech he made, which has been doing the rounds on the internet, including on Tumblr.

Someone in the audience asked him what we should do if we can’t make good art.

His response made me laugh and then made me think: ‘Make bad art. Someone will think it’s good.’

I have been a writer since I was 7 years old. I was praised for it at school and I had one teacher in particular that encouraged me. I attended a couple of seminars at Uni and went to one or two open mike nights where I read some aloud. I posted some on deviant art.

I quit writing for a long time. I hadn’t written anything serious in years. Not because I had lost faith but because I had lost time, I had no spare minutes or hours.

And then I had a breakdown. And a few years later, despite a long struggle to put things right, I finally lost the person who had been my closest friend, who I had loved from the bottom of my soul and had never thought would disappear from my life.

Quite simply – I didn’t know how to cope. So I started writing everything down, looking for phrasing which would make sense of it. Around this time, I read that comic and realised that Gaiman had a point.

I was making art. Whether it was good or not would remain to be seen, but it was helping and everything I was putting into that writing was real.

I posted some more on deviant art. Shared a couple on Facebook. Posted some on Tumblr. And sent some pieces off to various anthology publishers.

I had a mixture of reactions to it. Mostly apathetic. Some positive. And one which was extremely negative. It came from another poet who I met at University who made her intention quite clear that she was going to be a writer and an artist and she was going to get a publication contract. She described me in one of her pieces as a ‘passionless poet’. Given what I had poured into those pieces, this gutted me when I read it. I have never come closer to giving up on writing than I did when I read that piece.

A matter of weeks later I received three publication acceptance letters for my work.

Those letters restored my faith.

Hearing Neil Gaiman say ‘Make Bad Art – someone will think it’s good’ put all of that into perspective. Just because one vocal person was negative about it didn’t’ mean that my writing had nothing good in it.

Since those initial letters, I have had pieces published in 9 separate anthologies and a collection published as well. I am so glad that I did not give up for the sake of one negative opinion.

Rather than quitting writing, I quit that friendship and stopped judging myself against that person’s standards. Without question, that did me more good and has had a more positive impact on my life.

If I could give other writers one piece of advice it would be this:

If you are getting negative opinions from people who slate you and don’t care enough to give you constructive feedback – it is possible that you are writing for the wrong audience. Change direction and keep making art. Even if you think it’s bad art. You never know – as Neil Gaiman said, someone might think it’s good.

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