Strange Happenings in Yangzhou

Whilst doing research on my forthcoming book, A Book of Changes: Sixty-four Chance Pieces, I came across a curious little tale in The Dream Pool Essays (Mengxi Bitan / 夢溪筆談), written in the eleventh century by Shen Kuo (沈括). The tale was about the miraculous appearance of a celestial pearl, and is an entertaining and intriguing read.

My interest in the story was provoked when I was reflecting upon a curious encounter I had back in 2010 with a man in a coffee shop in the city of Baoji in China, a man who swore that he was an alien (you can read the story of this encounter here)… So, although I have zero confidence in the veracity of tales of extraterrestrial visitors, I thought I’d have a stab at translating the passage.
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Productivity and Failure with Éireann Lorsung

For all those who are concerned with their writerly productivity, you absolutely need to listen to this terrific talk by the writer, Éireann Lorsung, given recently at the University of Iowa. It’s a hugely thoughtful reflection on the problems with the issue of productivity, the obsession with publishable outcomes, the importance of dormancy, and the role of failure in life and writing.  “I’d encourage you, if you can, to try to conceive of periods of low productivity, or of not writing… as times where the work you are doing is invisible, rather than nonexistent.”

So put your to-do list to one side, put down your manuscript, take a break, and have a listen. It sounds like there’s also some great doodling taking place on the blackboard as the talk unfolds: but the talk is only audio, so you’ll just have to imagine the doodles!

(Incidentally, the image accompanying this blog post is called “Idleness Opening the Door for the Lover” and dates from 1405. I like the idea that what I take for idleness may actually be opening doors. Find out more about the image here).

The Art of Staring into Space

I spent much of my schooling staring out of the window. This was not because there was anything interesting happening outside; instead it was because of a certain detachment from the world around me, a tendency to daydream. In fact, I wasn’t really staring out of the window. I was looking at some indeterminate point in the middle distance (I discovered early on that you need a window, and a sense of far distance, if you are to find the optimum point in the middle distance at which to stare). At the time, this was considered a serious moral flaw, of course. There were more pressing demands upon me, after all. But looking back, I think that there was considerable value (and still is) to be found in staring into space (see, for example, this article).
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A Book of Changes

I’m very pleased to be able to announce that I’ve just signed the contract on my novel-of-sorts, “A Book of Changes: Sixty-four Chance Pieces” with the excellent Earnshaw Books, purveyors of all good things China-related.

The book should be out some time in the first quarter of next year, and will be available in the UK, USA and East Asia. This project has been a long time in the making — it started out seven or eight years ago with an interest with Calvino’s literary experiments, and the idea of playing with the I Ching (易經) as a literature machine capable of generating new and surprising stories: because what is divination, I asked myself, if not the creation of new and surprising stories? Read more

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