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Lending an Eye


I recently watched the premier of Peter Jackson's ‘ They Shall Not Grow Old’ live streamed to our local Odeon. It is an amazing film that makes the record of the war suddenly contemporary. It is wonderful and devastating. I am not qualified to talk about the war, its dehumanising violence or its vivid intensity, but I was very interested in the preamble to the film. Someone whose name now eludes me, talks about Peter Jackson allowing us to borrow the eyes of the protagonists in that war. It is true we see every film’s story through its director’s eyes just as we see every novel’s story through the eyes of its writer. It is not an original or even a particularly profound thought, but it does go to the heart of what I love about the arts. To borrow the perceptions and thoughts of someone else, however briefly, is the most amazing gift. It shows us both our differences from others and our essential commonality.

When I was a child in a small northern provincial town, novels which showed me the world through others’ eyes both informed and reassured me. They revealed something about how other people apprehended the world, what it felt like to be someone else and that both excited and validated my own perceptions (as real life in the playground never did.) Yes, I was a bit weird but there were other weirdos out there. It is hardly surprising that so many of my friendships derive from a shared love of certain books: a shared experienced of a world seen through some much loved author's eyes, that makes us in some fundamental way fellow travellers who have traversed an imagined, but psychologically real, fictional landscape.

One of the most satisfying and terrifying things about being a writer is the awareness that anyone who has read your books has had access to your own real, unmediated self. Whatever we write about - and I never write about my life - it is my view of the world that is there on the page, my understanding of people, my sensory perceptions, my philosophy, my world.

I am also aware that when, as a teacher, I critique another’s work what I am doing is nothing less than lending them my critical vision. Like all teachers I offer a student the disorienting out of body experience which allows them to see their own writing through another individual’s eyes. At its best that can be illuminating and transformative. I know because it has happened to me. Someone else’s response can flood your brain with new understanding, offer a sharper, brighter light which allows you to see your own work in an entirely different way. Ever after you will carry their insights with you, their critical vision a lens through which all your work is refracted.

I have critiqued a lot of work in my time, taught a fair few students and nothing gives me greater pleasure than to hear of their success. Recently, I have heard from three now successful, about-to-be -published writers and nothing makes me feel prouder than to think that lending them my eyes has helped them in their writing careers. So, this blog post is for them and for the many people whose eyes I have borrowed over the years. To my former students, good luck, and to my own teachers, editors, and friends, thanks for the loan of your critical, occasionally devastating, but always honest and discriminating vision.