Fighting fire with Fire: Hunger Games & Creativity 101

Hearts and minds: Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson.

Watching the second instalment of the Hunger Games film franchise was a curious experience, more so than the original.

I’m not familiar with the Suzanne Collins source novels, so I’m coming into the series free of any expectations. What struck me more than anything this time around was the sheer extent with which the franchise appears to be playing a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too game with its viewers.

It’s a critique of our entertainment structures, of course: the idea of kids forced into televised gladiatorial combat is disturbingly close to what we see on reality television.

But there’s thrills and enjoyment to be had in watching our protagonists attempting to survive.

I’m feeling generous, so I’ll say this is actually a reminder of how good, compelling stories should be about that immersive experience: about riveting your attention, thematic paradoxes be damned. Stories aren’t uni-directional messages. The good ones have a capacity of altering their shape in whichever way they deem is best for their survival.

Often, they’ll latch onto classic predecessors. In the case of Catching Fire, Francis Lawrence made a very wise decision in this regard. He channelled one of the most vaunted, enduring ‘middle chapters’ from sci-fi/fantasy: The Empire Strikes Back.

Come the end of Catching Fire – mild spoilers ahead – the ‘rebellion’ is dispersed, and our heroine has been physically compromised (see: Luke sans hand). Worse, her partner-in-justice has been captured (see: Carbonite Han Solo).

But apart from this narrative puzzle-arrangement, a pervasive darkness is also allowed to settle over the entire film – the feeling that things have to get worse before they can get better.

There’s no dictum, no Creativity 101 cliché I like more than ‘Whatever Works’. Zeitgeist-prodding satire married with classic Joseph Campbell/Star Wars riffs definitely works for Catching Fire.

I wonder how much of this is deliberate; a strategic narrative positioning for maximum effect. A film adaptation, I suspect, would be more invested in that kind of thing – particularly a film adaptation of this size and financial girth.

But from my own experiences of writing fiction, I know that it’s virtually impossible to remember what your original ingredients were. Once the stew starts to simmer, it all tends to coalesce into one colour.

Again, only if the story is good. Only if you’re being honest, if you’re letting – or training – yourself to tell the story as consistently as you can, if you’re giving it all the attention it needs. Only if you’re using the right ingredients, at the right time.

When it’s late

Cisk at the Newsroom

Working 12-hour shifts at the newspaper gives the night a particular edge, after it’s all over and you slump back home.

The exhaustion is expected, implicit even. But your sleep can’t be blissful: you’re too tired to shower, your brain is stuffed with news stories, with reams of digital copy the likes of which you’ve seen over and over again, week in and week out.

But there’s something democratising about this feeling. All glamour is stripped away after the 11pm mark hits, and you still find yourself at the office. At your desk, midway through a story, or waiting for a report to come in.

When you’re that tired, you should be sleeping. But if you’re deprived of sleep at that juncture, the dream world will seep through regardless. The belt that holds sleeping and waking is unbuckled, and just like that – while still firmly seated at your desk – you’re floating.

That same strange concentration, that same pinching together of thoughts and feelings happens, sometimes, when I write. My novel was probably borne out of just such a moment, and for all the necessary slogging, such moments are what I keep coming back for. What you keep coming back for.

But what you keep coming back to work for is something else entirely.

Which is to say, I need to make more of a habit of jotting things down. Lord knows how many of these fugue states have gone to waste clicking away on Facebook while waiting for a story to be wired in.

We should do our dreams justice.

Albert Camus

Albert Camus would have been 100 years old today. 

What I remember: Reading The Stranger at Sixth Form. Hating the sterile Everyman edition I found at the school library. Loving the equally austere but slightly more stylish silver-grey Penguin edition, with the footsteps in the sand.

He was a softer version of Nietzsche, to me. Nietzsche pummeled me. Camus let me in. I could see his philosophy working, somehow: absurdism felt both sexier and more managable than nihilism – or raging anti-nihlism… guess it depends who you ask. 

It’s his short stories that remain etched in my memory. I’ll never re-read The Myth of Sisyphus. I doubt I’ll ever re-read The Stranger or The Plague either. But The Exile and the Kingdom felt friendlier… more humane than anything I’d ever encountered from his oeuvre. The sweeping intellectual make-up of ‘Sisyphus’ and The Plague; the blunt, macho minimalism of The Stranger… there’s none of that in The Exile and the Kingdom. 

The fact that someone so intellectually flinty and sharp could allow themselves sentimentality to seep through; the fact that he showed himself to be artistic, to be open to occasional, experimental bouts of emotion in prose… 

It was to be the last time I engaged with Camus, but it felt like a good way to round off the relationship. (Of course I could still get into his writing again, of course I could dip into the books every now and then and still derive pleasure for them. But what I mean is that the ‘phase’, the fevered season of devouring them wholesale, was gone.)

Feeling the pull away from the core of his work, I moved on to Camus but took some of the absurd with me. I’d like to think it’s still with me, anyway. The scepticism of any definite moral or philosophical impositions. The framing of human endeavour against something ultimately unpredictable, but not necessarily malevolent or cold. Acknowledging our passion as something fiery and real and justified in every way, even if we’re not sure where it all comes from, and where it’s all going… 

This could all just be projecting. My memory of Camus’ work and its implications could be faulty (and, of course, it could be that I never quite grasped if fully in the first place). But that’s what I remember when I think back on it. 

A solitary figure – alone but not lonely. The world spinning on regardless, and you jumping on the carousel.

The Quiet Halloween Mind-Feast

While my teenage sister was out on the town rocking a Wednesday Addams get-up (her ‘bff’ went as Morticia so they stalked the small island nightlife scene with old-school-goth panache), I had no Halloween party to go to.

That’s a lie, actually: I could have very easily – and very lazily – donned my stock Dracula cape and multi-purpose 18th century broach, waxed my moustache and tagged along with my younger sibling, to revisit the local rock club for some Halloween fun, as well as a healthy dollop of nostalgia.

But in what is probably another sign that I’m getting old before my time, I opted to stay in to read instead. Fridays are hard work for me anyway – so that there’s a distinctly non-Halloweeny sense of dread looming over every Thursday evening.

The reading was as ritualistic as I could make it though, so some sense of commemoration was kept. I indulged in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death‘ for umpteenth time; it’s a story that I keep returning to for its visceral and visual impact, but would you believe that I have yet to fully conjure up an image of Prospero’s castle in my head? Maybe that’s why I keep returning to it.

The fact that Gabriel Byrne did a brilliant reading of it some years back helps too, of course:

After I was done, I got the urge to revisit what is probably one of my favourite literary tributes of all time: Laird Barron‘s ‘Strappado’, published in the Ellen Datlow anthology Poe, released in commemoration of the macabre master’s 200th anniversary. It’s a glorious mash-up of both ‘Masque’ and ‘The Cask of Amontillado‘ – probably my second-favourite of Poe’s stories, and updates their most horrifying elements in a way that makes my skin crawl.

Though Lovecraft – my second choice for the evening’s reading – is perhaps more vulnerable to this than Poe due to his stylistic excesses, the visual furniture and 19th century narration that fuels Poe’s tales can sometimes soften their impact (if not all that substantially). Barron’s story doesn’t have this problem. I don’t want to write a detailed crit of it – I like it too much anyway – but do check out the anthology if you can, it’s got a few other gems in store.

My reading of HP Lovecraft’s ‘He‘ was cut short by my drooping eyelids. However, I returned to it after a ranging storm woke me from my slumber… which I appreciated for providing some holiday-appropriate mood, if nothing else. But the story is truly one of Lovecraft’s lesser works, any terror undermined by its ridiculous antagonist and the logorrithic miasma that works much better in the Cthulhu stories than it does here.

Re-reading can be far more pleasurable and rewarding than reading something for the first time. It has the ability to etch stories in you like incantations, like prayers that remind you of who you are. If the stories and the storm congeal into something meaningful for my writing, that would be truly great.