Fiction is the true alternative

by John Simmons

I cannot imagine that anyone reading this blog is a supporter of Donald Trump. The new president glories in the absence of books in his life, revels in his lack of reading. That might be the scariest fact about him, and it’s not an alternative fact. The adapted version of the classic Penguin 1984 cover speaks to me about the times we are currently enduring.

I’ve blogged here before that art and creativity have to be the best counters to dark forces like Trump. I’m just reading Colson Whitehead’s brilliant novel The Underground Railroad set in slavery-era America. It’s impossible to read that novel then support Trump. Fiction really is the most powerful antidote to Trumpism because it nurtures our empathy for other human beings.

Last week I was proofreading my novel Spanish Crossings that will be published in April. The story involves the 1930s rise of fascism, the Spanish civil war and the child refugees from that war. When I began writing it I had not anticipated that it would have such an uncanny relevance to our current times. If I had anticipated that, I might have recoiled in horror and become more polemical. I’m glad I didn’t because the novel – any novel – has first to be a human story not a political treatise.

Proofreading has given me this strange experience. I finished writing the novel nearly a year ago and since then I’ve been concentrating on other work (including another novel). So I came to the proofreading task with fresh eyes and open mind, and I read the book as if it had been written by someone else. It’s a very weird feeling. When I came to the ending I had tears in my eyes. Am I allowed to cry at my own book? I remembered Jamie Jauncey’s favourite quotation from Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Here I had been both writer and reader.

If you want to pre-order the book you can do so here >> I’m pleased to say early readers of proof versions have been very enthusiastic.

So 2017, for me, promises to be a creative year, my own antidote to Donald Trump and all his works. It is appropriate in a way that I will be running the first American Dark Angels course in New Bedford, Massachusetts in October. I’ll be doing that with my good American friend Richard Pelletier and you can read about it here >> The location has literary links to Herman Melville and Louisa May Alcott, fiction writers who linger in the minds of millions who have read them over the past centuries.

Out of the blue, and so appropriately, I was sent the image shown below by Anita Klein, who collaborated with me a few years ago on The angel of the stories. She calls this new linocut ‘Angel protecting an acorn’. It seemed to me the perfect image for our Dark Angels venture.

Dark Angels in Conversation Nov. 2016

Dark Angels student, Johnny Lyons at the Intensive Foundation Course in Cornwall
Johnny Lyons at the Foundation Course in Cornwall

John Simmons in conversation with Johnny Lyons

John to Johnny

You’ve been on two Dark Angels courses now. So obviously I’m interested in hearing things from your perspective because these conversations should involve the whole Dark Angels audience, not just the tutors.
But first, because it was first, I just wanted to ask you about reading. We met when I was doing some tone of voice work with AIB in Dublin. Our first proper conversation was not about writing but about reading. You recommended a book to me – Stoner by John Williams. The best book recommendation I ever received. I hadn’t heard of it at the time, few people had, but it then became a rediscovered classic across the world. What do you get from reading?

Johnny to John

There are so many things I get out of reading. But some of the bigger ones would include the way reading can take me beyond myself and my own limited thoughts and experiences. Then there’s the unique exhilaration that comes from reading a heart-achingly sad novel like Stoner or an intellectually mesmerising Platonic dialogue or a poem by Keats or Larkin that helps me feel less alone. I also like the way reading has the power to change me in interesting and unpredictable ways, the way it can both liberate and challenge my imagination.

John to Johnny

All those things, I agree. There’s also the obvious point that reading leads to writing. It helps us to become better writers if we become better readers. So, as you know, we do a fundamental exercise on Dark Angels courses – you’ll have done this in Cornwall on the Foundation, then the adapted version in Spain. The exercise leads to writing in the style of another writer. It seems counter-intuitive but, for me, that’s an important step towards finding your own personal voice.

What it does is liberate us: “You don’t have to write as you.” But of course that’s what people do, without realising. And they do it – hopefully with increasing regularity as they write more – by paying closer attention to the individual words and sentences as building blocks of longer pieces of writing. Recognising that ‘there’s a blaze of light in every word’ as Leonard Cohen put it. This doesn’t mean choosing exotic words, just trying to find the right word, dedicating yourself to that pursuit. Then, broadening out from that, trying to make every sentence an event.

That’s how I now approach writing – but it’s continually reinforced by examples in books I read. Does any of this match your own feelings?

Johnny to John

I remember that exercise well. We each wrote our own versions of a famous novel ending. The amazing thing was none of us guessed correctly from the choices written by each of us – they were all credible.

Your comments about the relationship between reading and writing remind me of something the author Stephen King said – ‘If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot’.  Yet while I was always a pretty voracious reader of history and then philosophy, for some reason this never helped me develop into a good writer. In fact, if I’m honest, I was so afraid of writing that I’d get a pit in my stomach every time I had to produce something.

Dark Angels broke this chronic spell. By doing exercises like the one above in the company of supportive and like-minded people and under the helpful guidance of the tutors, I managed finally to overcome my crippling phobia of writing. It literally happened over three magical days in Cornwall. So I suppose my main obstacle to writing was psychological, a lack of confidence and once I found a way of overcoming it the sunlit uplands literally opened up before me.

Since then, I’ve been reading far more fiction and poetry as well as writing with a degree of fluency and regularity that I couldn’t have imagined little more than a year ago. And writing, in turn, has helped me become a better and less intimidated reader.

John to Johnny

You went on the Advanced course to Spain after the Foundation in Cornwall. Recognisably a Dark Angels experience, we hope, but stretching you even further. The places we go to have a certain magic, whether that’s a stunning coastal location in Cornwall or the Andalusian national park. Did you find that the places helped sharpen your own receptiveness to the writing challenges? I often think that the location is like an extra tutor.

Johnny to John

I couldn’t agree with you more. Being somewhere entirely new and stunningly beautiful has a hugely invigorating and liberating effect. Being in an unfamiliar place can help us break free of familiar or habitual ways of thinking and writing. One of the exercises I particularly enjoyed on the Advanced course in Aracena was when we took a hike into the countryside which inspired us to write a wonderful play. Yes, place can be as important as people in inspiring us to write.

John to Johnny

Reading, people, place – all things that inspire us to write. But I think you’ve also identified the most essential: simply a greater confidence in the individual’s writing instinct. It’s so easy and so damaging to suppress it. With it we are better, more fulfilled human beings. Dark Angels’ aim is to bolster confidence, to boost the belief that you and your words can fly. But how do you maintain it?

Johnny to John

There’s a three-word answer to that one which I know you’re fond of – Just do it! And by that, I have taken you to mean keep writing, keep reading and keep talking.  I think the more you can connect writing with your own well-being or, at least, with your own sense of self, the more natural it becomes to develop and maintain the writing habit. In this way, to paraphrase John Keats, writing can become as natural a part of our lives as leaves to a tree.

Dark Angels in Conversation Sept. 2016

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John Simmons & Richard Pelletier

One of the founding Dark Angels, John Simmons, speaks with US associate partner, Richard Pelletier

Richard to John

13 years on – how do you feel about Dark Angels?

When Stuart and I first talked about a residential writing course aimed at business writers, we probably had quite limited ambitions. I guess we had in mind ‘copywriters’ and, coming from that background as well as ‘branding’, there were tricks of the trade we could share – as well as rebel a bit against the dead jargon of branding.

As it happened, particularly during our first course in Devon that I later described in one chapter of the book Dark Angels, it turned out to be so much more. What we discovered is that ‘writing’ is just a means – but what a means – to tap into the deepest emotional wells inside us. And by doing so you explore yourself and produce writing that connects powerfully with others – in business writing, in all forms of personal writing, and that actually the boundaries between those ‘genres’ are artificial.

John to Richard

Does that make sense from your more recent perspective?

I think so, yes. The curious bit about the whole experience is that it appears designed to invite ‘copywriters’ in for a fresh look at business writing and to travel into some other realms as a means of exploration. The beautiful thing, of course, is the point you’ve made. It turns out that the boundaries between personal writing and business writing are truly artificial. Whether it’s realised at the time or not, I think the power of the immersion is the lit fuse—the slow, steady dawning of a realisation. That in spite of the fact, we’re not ‘teaching’ per se, there comes a deeper connection to one’s self and others through words and writing. And this applies to every kind of writer. It’s powerful stuff.

Richard to John

Small bore political fictions have become massive whoppers. The 350 million per week going to Brussels; and the great fantasy wall across the southern US border are two cases in point. Epic lying is the new normal.

What do you think this might mean for how brands communicate? As writers, what should we be thinking about in terms of guiding our clients in a world where trust is so low, and the propensity for the gargantuan lie is so great?

It’s no surprise that the Big Lie works. The Nazis knew it was effective, and no doubt it will continue to be so. But personally, and from the point of view of brands that want to be liked and admired, truth is always the better option. The best brands are built on the authentic, knowing that it’s commercial disaster to be caught out telling lies – whereas politicians have a shorter term objective of winning the next election. As consumers, we respond to authenticity in a brand, which builds over time, and as writers, we should always aim for that, if only to sleep more easily.

John to Richard

It seems to me too that exercises like ‘Seven deadly sins’ that we do in Aracena are the best antidote to corporate humbug – just expose it by laughter. But other exercises tap into other emotions. Do you find that Dark Angels is about enabling people to explore a wider range of emotion – and to enjoy that in the words they use?

You’ve teed this one up rather nicely, John. Yes, no doubt. Although ‘enjoy’ might be a tricky word here. Dark Angels is kind of a lovely stealth operation. “We’d like you to write 10 lines that begin with…” and time and again, writers take pen to notebook and travel to the deepest, most tender part of themselves. With a bit of guidance, a few prompts, and some sensitive, caring souls, writers can surprise the hell out of themselves. I think this is why we keep hearing, “this was life-changing.”

Richard to John

David Whyte is an English-Irish poet, philosopher and a corporate consultant. His corporate work began when a CEO said to him, “The language we have in that world is not large enough for the territory that we’ve already entered.” At a recent Dark Angels gathering, you mentioned that David Whyte and his work may have inspired the creation of Dark Angels. Tell me more.

Back in the late 90s, I went to a couple of workshops by David Whyte, and I read his book The Heart Aroused, based on his time as a poet-in-residence at Boeing. I found his reading mesmeric and I took encouragement from his experience. It seemed there was a role for ‘creative writing in business’. I’d already started running my own workshops using techniques from fiction and poetry, and this seemed like validation of the approach. Now, 20 years on, I see it not as a possibility, but as an essential for a 21st-century business. After all, businesses now recognise the need for creativity to thrive in the current world. Words are the most available creative resource we have. All businesses can use them more creatively to connect better with all the people they need to connect with.

John to Richard

We’ve had a good few days in London. You’ve had your first experiences as an associate partner running a Dark Angels course in Spain and Strawberry Hill. As you now fly back to the US, what would you say to a corporate client – does this approach work? And because, as you know, I love a constraint, can you answer in no more than 50 words?

There’s no doubt about it. For any business, the clearest path to new relationships begins with a deep investigation into how they use words. Dark Angels helps corporate writers unleash the power of words—in an authentic voice—to serve the brand. Days of miracle and wonder often follow.