Thursday, 19 May 2016

Writing - Never too young (or old)

Since I began writing seriously I've received a wide variety of comments from friends and relatives about what I do, not all complimentary. Occasionally, there has been a reference to age and how long I have been writing. In point of fact it doesn't matter.

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Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was merely 18 years of age when she began penning Frankenstein. It was in 1816 in the Villa Diodati near Geneva and at her tender age she could never have foreseen what a massive influence her story was going to have on popular culture.

The circumstances that brought Mary Shelley to the Villa Diodati were worthy of a novel in their own right. She’d travelled to Switzerland with her young lover, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
They’d been invited here by Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who’d eloped here with another brilliant poet, Lord Byron – notorious for his numerous love affairs, most infamously with his half-sister (he’d been forced to flee abroad to escape this scandal, and the rabid interest of the British press).
Byron came here in the footsteps of his hero, Genevois writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And now the Shelleys followed Byron, kick-starting the Swiss tourist trade.
Like Byron, Percy had left a wife - and two children - back in Britain. Mary had also borne Percy two children of her own. However instead of ending up on the Georgian equivalent of the Jeremy Kyle Show, Byron and the Shelleys channelled the charged emotions of these tangled trysts into art.

Some would say that to write well one has had to have experienced extreme emotions in their own lives and for three of the foursome that was certainly the case. I would say that all is required is an active imagination. 

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It reminds me of a reported conversation between Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman when making the film Marathon Man. Hoffman had stayed awake for three nights so that he could portray being exhausted. When the great old man heard the explanation of why his co-star was looking so dreadful he responded with, 'Dear boy, why not try acting?'

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It wasn't just the presence of the two great poets that inspired the girl but also the place. The village in which they stayed was spectacularly beautiful surrounded by mountains and greenery, when the sun shone, but when the weather changed to stormy as it frequently does in mountainous locations, the location became spectacularly bleak and violent. 

In fact 1816 was known as the year without a summer. There were several reasons for this one of which was the eruption of a massive volcanic eruption in Java which threw billions of tons of dust into the sky. The weather was so bad that the quartet were stuck inside for days and Byron suggested that they write ghost stories. None of the resulting efforts were particularly good apart from Shelley's Frankenstein.

If you only know Frankenstein from the movies, Mary’s novel is a revelation. It’s a compulsive page turner, but it’s also brimming with ideas. Her father, William Godwin, was a leading radical. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had been a feminist pioneer. She’d grown up surrounded by artists and intellectuals. Her writing wrestles with the great philosophical issues of the age.
Strictly speaking, Frankenstein isn’t actually a ghost story. There’s nothing supernatural about it. Like all the best Science Fiction, it’s about the here and now. Subtitled The Modern Prometheus (after the Titan of Greek mythology who stole fire from the Gods) it grapples with ethical dilemmas which still trouble us today.

Do we have the moral right to create artificial life? Are scientists creating a brave new world we can’t control? Mary anticipated the danger of separating science from morality. In 2016, the genetic engineering she foresaw has become everyday reality. Blade Runner is a direct descendant of Frankenstein.

So it doesn't really matter about your age, your location or your circumstances, what does matter is responding to those external stimuli that trigger your imagination to see things that are otherwise everyday and mundane, in a different light.

God Bless