Saturday, 10 May 2014

Dyslexia and Creativity

Dyslexia and creativity is a contentious juxtaposition. Large numbers of dyslexics work in the creative industries. That isn’t disputed. But there is a stark difference of opinion about why. Do they work in creative roles because they are ‘disabled’ by the condition and thus can’t find any other jobs? Or does dyslexia cause them to be more creative?

Educational Psychologist Martin Turner is quoted as having said: “Dyslexics go into the visual arts like sheep head for a gap in the hedge. They aren't more creative, they are more stressed.”
But according to the Yale Centre for Dyslexia and Creativity: “Dyslexia is often spoken of as a hidden disability. What is not at all appreciated is that dyslexia can also be a hidden source of great abilities and frequently unrecognized powers.”

The question at the heart of the debate is this: is dyslexia a disability or a difference?
Having taught creative writing for many years I have worked with several students who believed they were not creative. And yet all of these self-identified ‘non-creatives’ came out with many creative story ideas (much to the amusement of the rest of the class). Whenever their creativity was pointed out to them, they said: “That’s not creative! I didn’t make it up. I just put together a couple of different things that really happened.”
To me, such juxtaposition is the essence of creativity. But to them – because they could understand where the ideas were coming from – they regarded the process as not creative.
Every new thought must have an origin. But some of us are less able to track back in our minds and understand the process of formation. Some processes happen under the spotlight of our conscious awareness. Others happen on the shadowy edge. And some happen beyond that in the deep dark of the unconscious mind.
Trains of ideas are sometimes divided into the sequential and the lateral. The sequential thought process goes in a straight line from A to B to C. Lateral thoughts seem to be sideways jumps with no obvious direct origin – though in reality there must be a connection of which we are unaware.
The degree to which we a person has lateral thoughts is sometimes used as a measure of their creativity. Lateral thoughts are the hallmark of the creative mind.
In the diagram below, the conscious thought connections are shown as arrows. The unconscious connections are shown as dotted lines.

Sequential and Lateral Thinking
The creative person seems to be having new ideas, apparently unconnected to the previous thought. This leads to a series of lateral jumps.
But in my opinion, people who claim to be uncreative also have these lateral jumps. The difference is, they are quickly aware that they have strayed from the direct line. Thus they make a conscious effort to pull themselves back. And they are able to do so because they hold the original line clearly in their working memory.
The people who we regard as creative may simply be the ones who are content to abandon the original train. Alternately, if they have poor working memory, they may try to jump back but discover that the original line of thought has already faded. Thus they may have no choice but to stick to the new line.

Working Memory Problems Interrupting Sequential Thought Trains
This could offer another explanation for the abundance of dyslexics in the creative industries. If poor working memory pushes people towards a more lateral style of thinking, then dyslexics, who typically have working memory problems, would appear to be naturally creative.

Seen in this way dyslexia and creativity might indeed be related.
Having said all the above, these thoughts have no stronger basis than my own observations of myself and my students. I would be very interested to hear other people's ideas on this question.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Bullet Catcher's Daughter - cover reveal

Cover reveals were subject of a recent post on this blog. Well, the Bullet Catcher's Daughter cover has now been revealed. There was a really lovely article on the Tor website about it, including several designs that were not used and an explanation of the design process. It is well worth a read.

And here - for the first time on my blog - is the winning cover itself.

The Bullet Catcher's Daughter
The Bullet Catcher's Daughter - cover design by Will Staehle

I don't want to comment on it in detail at this point, except to say the obvious - that I am delighted with it and full of admiration for Will's work.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Cover Reveal

I’ve never been involved in a ‘cover reveal’ before. But that’s what the lovely people at AngryRobot are about to do for my next book, the Bullet Catcher’s Daughter. (I feel I need to say ‘lovely’ because if I just said ‘Angry Robot’ it might give an entirely different impression to those who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting them.)

My previous covers with other publishers were revealed, of course – in that there must logically have been a moment when they were seen for the first time. But that moment passed un-noticed.

So, when I received an email from AR last week to say they were almost ready to do the cover reveal, my first reaction was to say ‘what’s that?’ My second reaction was to feel a rosy glow of self-satisfied pleasure. They’re doing all this for me? Self-satisfaction is a dangerous feeling for a novelist. It encourages the erroneous belief that we are special in some way and thereby kills the hunger to improve. It is also rather ugly.   

Had I been quicker witted, I would have realised immediately that the cover reveal is not a celebration of the author. It is a hats-off to the artist who designed the thing. In this case that is Will Staehle, a Seattle based designer whose excellent website you can find here.

And... although the cover has not yet been ‘revealed’, I can tell you that Will has done an amazing job for the Bullet Catcher’s Daughter.
More of that later. But for now, I'm just off to rehearse the trumpeters.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Dyslexia Debate

The Dyslexia Debate is a new book by Professor Elliott of Durham University. The mass of publicity surrounding its launch has suggested variously that dyslexia is a 'myth' that it is a construct by middle class parents whose children are not learning fast enough and that giving dyslexics extra help is an injustice to other students.

This has caused distress among a group of people who are already suffering. So I thought I would lay out one of the many reasons that I believe the concept of dyslexia to be useful.

Some process has selected a group of people and given them the label 'dyslexic'. I'm one of them. Whenever I get together with other adults labelled in the same way, we discover many levels of similarity that other people can't even understand.

  "Do you get that thing where...?"
  "You too?" 
  "I thought I was the only one in the world who did that!"

We can all read and write. We are all well practiced at hiding the difference - though it is stressful and we don't always manage it. But when we get together it is as if we have found a family we never knew we had. All those little quirks and stresses that make us feel out of step with the world - in that company they are gone.

I didn't choose the word dyslexia. I didn't choose what family background I came from. But something deep down on the level of cognitive processing is different from the mainstream. It made learning to read and write agonizingly difficult. I did learn, but reading still takes a lot of concentration for me and my spelling is all over the place - even though I am now a novelist.

They can argue about the name. And they can argue about the best method of helping. And they can argue about disability legislation and funding for special needs education. But my experience tells me that there is a real phenomena here and that the process of identification is selecting a group of people with very similar issues.

Perhaps it would be more comfortable for some people to believe that because the problems are invisible from the outside they can be ignored. Just get the kids to read and write and the difference has 'gone away'?

I'm sorry. It is still here after we have learned to pass ourselves off as non-dyslexic. Something about the dyslexia labelling is working. For the time being it is the only thing we have to enable us to find people with the same differences.

Please don't try to destroy the label unless you have something better to replace it with.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Under the Skin (2013)

Under the Skin (2013) is a film that divides opinion. When friends heard that I intended to go and see it they, variously, told me that it was: “A breakthrough in cinema” “The most disturbing film ever” “Misogynistic” “Remeniscent of Kubrick” and “Unimaginably boring”. Could all these descriptions be true?

Phoenix Square in Leicester was showing it yesterday, so I went along to find out.

Under the Skin is a film about... Well, here I run into my first problem. Nothing is obvious. Even by the end, I couldn’t tell you definitively what the story is. We watch as Scarlett Johansson, clothed in a stolen identity, drives around Glasgow at night. In turn, she watches the people on the streets around her. Sometimes she stops and talks to one of them. Sometimes she offers a lift. And all the time, we, the audience, are playing detective, trying to find a story behind these apparently random interactions.

Scarlett Johansson - Under the Skin (2013)
Scarlett Johansson - Under the Skin
Anyone who has seen the trailer will already know that a disturbing fate awaits a man, enticed by her sexuality to enter a surreal black, featureless lair. Then we are back to driving around and watching.

The shots are cut long, giving the film a deliberately slow pace. The camera lingers over everything. And without a clear thread of story to hold onto, the pace feels doubly slow. For many people, it has clearly crossed the fine line that separates ‘enigmatic’ from ‘boring’. And yes, I can see that point of view.

Several things kept me on the enigmatic side of the line. First and foremost was Scarlett Johansson’s presence. Her face is endlessly fascinating in passivity. And her abrupt switches to other modes of expression were disturbing and entirely believable. I hope her performance is not overlooked when the awards season comes around again.

The second reason the film had me hooked were the occasional surreal scenes, which seemed to take place in another reality. They were visually extraordinary. I have not read the book, but it would be very interesting to know what these are the visual representation of in prose. They are certainly a triumph in film making and it is in them that the Kubrick comparison felt most meaningful.

The third reason I stayed with the film was the naturalistic acting style, at least part of which came from hidden camera filming of ordinary people going about their lives. This dissolving of the wall between documentary and fiction did much to heighten the disturbing effect of the film overall. When something bad happens, it feels as if we are watching reality.

I have to address the suggestion of misogyny, which almost put me off going to see the film. I can understand that a story about a woman stalking male victims might be seen as such. But I did not take it that way. For me the character played by Johansson, though presenting female sexuality, was in fact alien from the concept herself. Thus, ironically, her true character seemed androgynous.

However an interaction between a male and a female character at the end of the film – which I can’t describe because it would be a significant spoiler – did leave me very uneasy in this respect. It left issues unresolved – which I think was the intention of the film makers, but which I can imagine it receiving criticism for. It is a fine judgement, but I think that sequence was justified by the story.

Under the Skin is not a film for everyone. Hurrah for that! The astronomical cost of film making naturally pushes producers to try to satisfy the largest possible audience. That isn't a complaint. It is just economic fact. But the net effect of a million economically necessary decisions is to make the film industry institutionally conservative and risk averse.

Here we have a notable exception. Congratulations to all the funders for getting behind it. And to Scarlett Johansson for taking the risk.

Yes, Under the Skin gets a thumbs up from me. But it leaves me with a question - are a strong story thread and this kind of quality mutually exclusive? In other words - good as it was, could this film have been better?

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Britons, Saxons, Vikings - who are the English?

“Who are the English?” That good question was put to an audience in Glenfield Library last Saturday by novelist Marianne Whiting. “The Scots seem to have an idea of who they are,” she said. “So do the Welsh. But not the English.”

Novelist - Marianne Whiting
Anglo-Saxons perhaps? Only partly. Drawing on recent genetic research, Marianne told us that in DNA terms, the English population is far more Ancient Britain than Anglo-Saxon.

If this all sounds technical and academic, I am giving the wrong impression. Marianne is an entertaining speaker. Her talk was funny and filled with anecdote as she delved into our mysterious Dark Ages history. Women warriors featured prominently. There were also snake pits and vengeance aplenty. And not to forget the Battle of Brunenburg in 937 AD. Too many people forget it, Marianne said. It was the battle where the idea of Englishness “came of age”.

At the end of a very enjoyable hour, the audience crowded round to buy copies of Marianne’s excellent novel, ‘Shieldmaiden’.

I can thoroughly recommend both the novel and the talk.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Document Map, Microsoft Word and Plotting Novels

How to plot novels and other forms of long fiction is a burning question for many of my writing students. I mentioned The Plotting Problem in a blog post a couple of weeks ago, and how it relates to the plot being more than a head-full of information. 

Document Map in Microsoft Word is helpful to me in tackling this problem - particularly in the stage where I have already written some tens of thousands of words but do not yet have the whole structure clear in my mind. I use it to provide a map of the chapters and sections of the novel – presented in a side bar at the edge of the computer screen. Armed with that visual overview I find the emerging structure easier to comprehend. 
Clearly, this system won't be appropriate for everyone. But I thought I would share it in the hope that it might be useful to some.

Document Map as a novel writing tool
Screen-shot, showing Document Map enabled
In this screenshot you can see my setup for novel writing using Microsoft Word. The first thing you will probably notice is the colour tint in the background of the page. Background colour can be defined as part of the page setup. Like many dyslexics, I get a certain amount of visual stress when reading black text on a white background. Having an ivory, amber or straw-coloured background is far more easy for me to work with.

The document map can be seen down the left hand side of the page. Every bit of text in your document that is defined as a heading will appear there. I use the ‘Normal’ style for the body of each chapter, the ‘Heading 2’ style for chapter headings themselves and the ‘Heading 1’ style to mark out my act structure: Part One, Part Two and Part Three - or more if necessary.
Styles are accessed under the Home tab at the top of the page in Microsoft Word. Document map is enabled by checking the appropriate box under the 'View' tab.
Styles on the 'Home' tab
In the screenshot, I have clicked ‘Part One’ in the document map to open out that section, revealing all the chapters within it. I could similarly collapse it down with a click and open up any of the other sections.

Document Map close-up
To assist me in navigating the document, I the chapters names. These are memory joggers to help me know what is in each chapter. But once the novel has been written and edited, I remove the names. They are like scaffolding - taken down after a building has been constructed. The act structure markers are also removed at that stage.


The screenshot is from the opening page of my novel The Bullet Catcher's Daughter, which is being published by Angry Robot in September.