Monday, July 11, 2011

40 Shades of Green

As an introduction, I believe I will begin two string of posts here. I'll comment on the story of my travels in these textual blocks. However, there are too many pictures I want to post for me to get back up to date. So, for awhile, I'll publish "life" posts every so often, with "photo" posts in the middle. I'll add explanations to those photo posts in the meantime, though, so they will be somewhat more interesting.

I think I left you prior to Ireland and somewhere in Switzerland, on an overview story. First, a few words about Ireland, and then about writing.

I loved Ireland. I loved the people, I loved the feel of the place, I loved how friendly everyone was. I loved the hostels there, the people I met in hostels, the people I met at Church, and going to Church there. I loved the history of poverty and rebellion. I loved the singing and dancing in the pubs. I loved the accent, I loved the sunlight and the rain, I loved the castles and the ruins and the countryside.

Northern Ireland was, to put it simply, one of the most (if not THE most) beautiful places I have ever seen. My pictures simply could not do it justice. It wasn't a grand sort of pretty, nor was it spectacular. Instead, the region swept me up in a kind of quiet magnificence that I could breathe in and breathe out again. It was the most brilliant kind of green.

One place in particular called out to me, which is strange considering that I only saw it from a distance. There is a particular island in the middle of the crossing between Scotland and Ireland at its narrowest point; it's visible from the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. I felt like that would be a good place to live for, say, six months, in order to write a book. It's secluded, its beautiful, and if I ever encountered writer's block, I could simply walk outside to the end of the island, sit down, and surely, something would come to me. The whole island is about 6 miles long and a mile and a half wide, which is, if I remember correctly, roughly the size of Rhode Island. Rathlin Island, the place in discussion, has about 90 permanent inhabitants, which would be about enough, I think, for a six month stint, or however long it takes to write and line edit a novel or two.

Speaking of writing, I promised readers in my last post to discuss that subject in greater detail. As I rode from Hannover to Milan, somewhere in central or southern Germany, I read part of a novel for my novel writing class, The assigned novels were all examples of good writing; the first was a stream of consciousness piece called "After You'd Gone," the second was a study in the first person narrative titled "Never Let Me Go," and the third was an example of multiple, complementary first-person perspectives titled "The Great Lover." Although none of these three were harlequin romance novels per se, each had far more sexuality than I am able to accept. For the first two, the sexually explicit scenes were somewhat minimal and I was able to skip them with relative ease. The third, however, included increasingly graphic descriptions of sexual behavior woven throughout the narrative. To some degree, I felt the sexuality WAS the narrative, and I closed the book, unfinished, in disgust. (Alas, to be an amateur photographer! I didn't quite straighten this horizon line. But I like the picture nonetheless.)

I had been pondering, earlier that day and during the previous days, why I wanted to write. I was sketching plot and character arcs and listening to a podcast on the craft of writing; to large degree my entire trip through Europe was an information gathering exercise in preparation for writing a series of novels (as I will discuss in greater detail when we arrive in Spain). But I am not planning on writing becoming my primary profession; indeed, I have long considered education reform to be my primary calling.

On that train in Germany, however, it struck me that if these were the novels my writing professor was prescribing me to read, sexuality must be such a common element in modern literature and fiction as to be unimportant. The treatment of sex I read in these novels was trying to allow the reader to experience life through a character's body; though that is a great means of establishing empathy between the reader and the character, it is also intensely immoral - even pornographic - when describing sexual behavior. (This probably also extends to many kinds of violence, and descriptions of violence).

Sex is one of only a few universal human activities. I came to the conclusion that authors seem to believe sex - graphic descriptions of sexual activity - are necessary to make good writing. And that is when I had my epiphany: I want to write to demonstrate that books can be powerful, important, enjoyable, and meaningful WITHOUT forcing the reader to compromise their moral integrity. I felt a moral imperative: whatever skill I have as a writer, I need to use it to counter the impression that good writing requires the reader to participate in sin.

As a moral crusade, this requires a few things of its own. I need to become good enough to make the point; shoddy writing will support the opposite cause. So, I need to become better as a writer, and I need to continue becoming better as a writer. The only way I know how to do this is through consistent practice. 10,000 hours of writing, to use Malcolm Gladwell's rule of thumb. Also, my writing has to be focused practice on getting better; it is not enough to write the same tripe over and over again. There are prolific authors whom I will not mention by name, who I feel write the same garbage repeatedly.

Second, when writing, I have to make sure that I am writing morally. Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (which I am still enjoying and finishing) has been called "a moral story about immoral people." THAT has to be my model. The Bible describes sexual behavior that would be abhorrent to nearly anyone (incest, bestiality, etc.); it remains a moral document, even in the passages described. I take it back - the Song of Solomon may be an exception. But the sections in Genesis and Exodus and Joshua and Judges describing sexuality, from procreation to incest, allow the reader to understand what is happening without requiring the reader to personally experience it or support it. (A note here - I'm not against sex in general. I AM against pornography, including graphic descriptions of sex tucked into literature.)

So, I am going to write on the side. It will take me a long time to get to 10,000 hours; I'd better start now. I'm currently working on a re-telling, or series of re-tellings, of the Pied Piper story, on a detective novel, and on a piece of historical fiction set in Morocco. (For the record, that last one is one I intend to go to Morocco for about six months to research and finish.) I've also charted out beginning plot lines for a story about cultural imperatives, and another about love (including sexual love) and forgiveness and patience set in early Catholic or Lutheran Missouri.

You've been very patient, so I'll provide some pictures on this post as well. Again, expect the next few posts to move through pictures of Ireland, Sweden, Germany, and Spain; I'll pick up the narrative again somewhere in Hameln.

I happened to be in Dublin during the World Outdoor Performance Festival competition finals. As a result, the streets of Dublin, especially certain parts of downtown, were teeming with different street performers. Human statues, clowns, musicians, and even a man juggling machetes on top of a thin, freestanding ladder were all part of the show. This man was the only bubble-maker I'd seen, though, and his creations gave the best photographic opportunity. But it was all a lot of fun.

I was reminded many times in Ireland that it was a poor country; apart from a brief stint as a "Celtic Tiger," it returned to it's impoverished status. One young man in an airport even told me that thousands of young Irish are again emigrating, this time to Australia, to find work.
That said, Ireland is incredibly rich in a lot of ways. One of those ways is in its architecture. Don't get me wrong: Cambridge is a place of stunning architectural wonders on every corner, and I will devote an entire post to the amazing architecture here (eventually). That said, I LOVED the architecture in Ireland. If I remember correctly, this was a Church on a street corner in Belfast, one bright morning.

This is a sculpture on the grounds of Trinity College in Dublin. Trinity was originally intended to be like Cambridge and Oxford - a collection of independent colleges together forming medieval university. However, unlike Cambridge and Oxford, no other colleges developed, so Trinity grew on its own. It's apparently quite prestigious, though it's primarily Protestant student body seems to have been historically a bit contentious in the middle of a Catholic nation.

The reason I came to Trinity was not, however, for this interesting sculpture. Trinity is also the safekeeping site for the Book of Kells, which is one of the primary reasons I came to Ireland. The Book is an illustrated copy of the Four Gospels written on vellum; I think it is one of the finest pieces of medieval art in existence. The detail work on the book is incredible - individual letters, on both primarily textual and primarily pictographic pages, would often be ringed by a series of dots, each the size of a pinprick. To provide some perspective, a person with 20/15 vision needed to lean relatively close to the glass to see these dots clearly.

Most impressive, though, was the general level of artwork in the Book. The art page open on the day I visited (they change a page each day) was of Christ sitting on a throne, in the middle of four quadrants of the picture. Alas, I couldn't take any picutres! - But I think you can get a general idea from this link: The Book of Kells. (In fact, I may have been looking at Folio 32, the second picture down on the right. Now look again, I think it may have been a similar picture rather than this exact one. But you get the idea.)

The Book was all I had hoped it would be. I think my trip would have been worth it just for that. I grew up hearing about this document, and I've imagined all my life that it must be wondrous. And it WAS wondrous to see.

This was part of a collection of tragic statues in a park near the river in Dublin, commemorating the Irish potato famine.
My guide for (free!) walking tour of Dublin (which was EXCELLENT, btw. I recommend the Sandeman's New Europe Walking Tours- fun guide, highly informative, tips only, great.) explained to us why this was such a central event in Irish history: fully one-fourth of the population starved to death. This statue, who seems especially emotive after the light rain, is carrying a dead child on his shoulders. Even more sobering is the claim that there apparently WAS enough food to go around, but the tenant landlord system allowed English-Irish landlords to withhold grain from their tenants and ell it at higher prices abroad; mismanagement and greed rather than a natural disaster appears to have been the primary problem. Little wonder, then, that some in the population became revolutionary. Though I didn't see anything about "Captain Moonlight" (as per "Far and Away,") I DID visit where that was filmed (future post) and that type of story was corroborated essentially everywhere i visited in Northern and Southern Ireland.

This is the entryway of the Irish National Archaeological Museum. Again, I state my case: grand architecture. I sadly only had time to literally run through parts of this museum; I would love to come back here and take an entire day.

A brief word about this picture: this was an Irish pub called St. Oliver O'Gougherty's (I think - I know the last name is right), and one recommended to me by several locals as a place with more than JUST tourists. I wasn't disappointed; there were lots of Irish people there as well. I tried Dublin coddle, a type of white soup with sausages, corned beef, and potatoes in it. I found it excellent, to be honest, though I was quite hungry.
More than that, though ,was I felt like there actually was a sense of community here, despite the corwds of people moving in and out. The live band took requests, people sang along for some of the songs, there was dancing in a corner (sadly, I didn't get to any of that because I didn't - yet! - know how to dance to Irish or Scottish music), and in general it seemed like a connected group of people. I'm not a drinker, but it seemed like the alcohol was primarily a means of connecting with other people, no matter what quanitities were imbibed. That said, I don't think alcohol was necessary to get that effect, but as an outsider, I felt welcomed here.
Some of this was certainly in my head - I was feeling very "outsider" until I made a conscious choice to relax, let things go a bit, and enjoy myself, at which point this place became happy, warm, friendly, and homey. But that's an Irish pub for you - I think those feelings are the point, and one of the big reasons people in Irish communities come back to the pub every night.


  1. Wow, Brett. The depth contained in this post truly changed my life. I don't know if I will ever view the world in the same way again.

  2. Ha-HAH! Now it looks like your comment about the "Coming Soon" post actually applies to my real, later writing. That'll teach you to be sarcastic! :-D