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Don’t find your purpose, create it

The notion that we are here for some pre-ordained purpose is a pervasive one. We’re sold the idea that all we have to do is discover this one thing hidden deep in our souls to know why we exist. But the secret of ‘what we are on earth for’ is often elusive or turns out to be so general it becomes meaningless. Too often ‘finding your purpose’ seems to go hand in hand with generic slogans. And slogans don’t translate into motivation or enable us to live intentional lives. How do actually go about living ‘to bring peace to the world’ or ‘to radiate light’? And if we were born to fulfil some god-given, determined goal, how come it’s not obvious and clear? Why do we need to search for something that we are born for?

I remain unconvinced that I or anyone else has been ‘put here’ to fulfil some need in the universe. So is life meaningless? Does it not matter one jot how we live and whether we are purposeful? Quite the contrary. This life is everything we have, it matters completely. But that doesn’t mean we are puppets put here for some hidden purpose. As Hazel Markus and Elisa Wurf point out, we are ‘active, forceful, and capable of change’. (The Dynamic Self Concept: A Social Psychological Perspective). Each of us makes meaning by the stories we tells about ourselves and the world.

As Joan Didion put it, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ But sometimes these stories can limit us. At their worst, we retell stories that make us more fearful. We weren’t clever/ quick/ pretty/ determined/rich enough last time, so we won’t be in the future. I grew up in a household were the saying ‘It’s not for the likes of us’ was more frequent than meals. (‘It’ being anything good in life, from holidays to hope). Even when I moved to university, I carried these limiting stories with me. And later I had someone in my life whose mantra was: ‘It can’t be done’.

And yet we know that neither people nor stories are set in stone. Stories communicate values, share mores and understanding, but they are still only stories. We can create other stories. In the same way, we can imagine ourselves different, make daily changes until we are different. We don’t have to believe we have a mission planted deep in our souls for us to discover meaning. We can create purpose. So how do we go about it?

How to create purpose

This isn’t an elite activity. Everyone can do it, but writers are particularly well placed, especially through journalling.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau says:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear…

I don’t live in woods, but at the foot of a mountain. It’s rural, but not as remote as it seems. It’s only a click away from a world-wide-web and a short drive to larger places. But, in this sanctuary, journalling creates a space where I can make sense of life. It’s the place where I can be both realistic and optimistic or work towards crafting a story. It’s the space where I can experiment, work out my values, discover my goals and create a vision for the future.

A useful exercise to help with this comes from David Hieatt in Do Purpose. He tells us to draw three intersecting circles. They represent

what you love doing
your skills
how you perceive the times you live in (the zeitgeist).

Where the circles overlap, says Hieatt, is where you find yourself most alive.
Purpose with passion

What do I love? New places. I love to immerse myself in somewhere unknown. And I love words. I write novels and poetry, I journal at least daily and I read voraciously. I sometimes believe I don’t know what I’m thinking until I’ve written it down. When I’m writing, I’m in another space, lost in the trance of it.

What are my skills? I’m a creative person who sees both the minutiae and structure in writing so I work well as an editor. I’m an enabler, a teacher and a performer. I’m organised, can hold a lot of disparate information in my head and I’m good at solving logistical problems. So running a small press and being a writer, editor and mentor work for me.

The type of press we run and the novels and poetry I write come out of passion and skills, but also from the zeitgeist. Context always has its effects. How do I perceive the world? We live in a time when there is crushing pressure to conform. Too often the lowest common denominator grabs the most attention. There is too much mindless consumerism and way too much distraction. We sleep-walk into political and environmental disasters and there is fear of difference. We don’t deal well with ‘the other’. And yet there is also extraordinary generosity, resilience and honesty in the world. There is so much that gives hope, a great deal to celebrate and witness to. There are oases of imagination and courage.

So, the books we want to publish at Cinnamon Press are those with passion and purpose. As Adam Craig says when writing about our Liquorice Fish Books imprint:

We live in a time when we’re led to believe our options are limited. …

Our world is shrinking because we are being told there is less here than meets the eye or heart.

Our aim is to encourage and foster new writing that is vibrant, playful, transgressive, radical and beautiful, wherever it might be found.

And the books I aspire to write are those that move and challenge readers. By this, I’m not talking about books that preach and browbeat. Rather, writing that is humane and extraordinary, that is never mediocre or bland. I’m currently reading Anne Michael’s poetry collection, All We Saw, and it’s a perfect example. The writing is exquisite. It’s personal and poignant with stunning flashes of subtle insight. It makes a difference to have read it. I want to publish and write books that, like Michaels’ work, believe in life. As Adrienne Rich puts it:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power
reconstitute the world.

The story you want to live

I’m currently writing the second book of a trilogy. A Remedy for All Things is set in Hungary in the late 50s where political injustice is extreme. Yet much less extreme situations can also trammel individual and community life. The first novel, This is the End of the Story, is set in 70s Teesside. It was a time when industry was failing and hope eroded. The stories have distant echoes of one another. Not only do they share a central character, but also share a veiwpoint based on a quote from Don Quixote:

The unreason of the world is more insane than any fiction.universe-2742113__340

In short, my characters are asserting that ‘reality’ isn’t always reasonable. And when this is the case, we can remake reality. But the novels are not didactic. They are the stories of people exploring how to create meaning in spite of circumstances. When time fractures and identity is uncertain, the characters persist in imagining. In writing these novels I want to write a different story, not to churn out what might be safer or more comfortable. In my fiction writing I’m exploring how we can create purpose. By telling a story in new ways we can make meaning.

In life I use journalling to the same end. Doing Hieatt’s exercise with three circles was one way to reflect on the purpose I want to create. I’m alive when I’m buzzing with words, fizzing with a story that I have to get written. I’m alive when I confront pessimism or conformity. I’m alive when I’m working with the words of other writers I admire or helping emerging writers. And I’m most alive when I can combine these passions with being in new places. Unfamiliar places challenge me not to get too comfortable. I wasn’t put on earth to be a semi-nomadic writer, editor and mentor, but this is the story I’ve created now. It’s the story that I currently want to live with purpose.

What would you put in your three circles? What do you love? What are your skills? How do you see the world? Get out your journal. Take some time to think about the questions and fill your circles. Look at where they overlap and set about creating your purpose.

First published on Medium

 

 

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An Extraordinary Tour

The six weeks of travelling and researching have been exceptional – discovering new places, meeting writers and publishers in Europe, particularly in Budapest, and having intense time to write completely away from work and from my normal environment have enabled me to put lots of creative pressure on the next novel, which follows on from This is the End of the Story. It takes place during the timespan of the first novel, during one month in 1993 (a month we don’t hear about within This is the End of the Story even though its last chapter is set in June, 1994). It follows the protagonist of the first novel, Catherine, and is set in the early days of post-Communist Hungary, specifically in Budapest, where Catherine is researching the poet Attila József for a novel based on his life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut during her time there, her sense of confused identity comes back to haunt her. Having worked to establish her perception of reality as linear and quotidian, she begins to dream the life of a young woman imprisoned after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Moreover, in alternate chapters, this woman, Selene Solweig Virág, dreams Catherine’s life. Selene’s life is further complicated by a relationship she has on only one day in each of six successive years, a day when she slips through time to find herself with Attila József. (Whether the dreams — either Catherine’s or Selene’s — are ‘real’ and whether Selene (if she exists) actually moves into another time period or only imagines it as part of a stress breakdown in her life is of less concern than the interweaving of periods of political turmoil and personal perspectives on reality.)

It’s not a novel about time travel or reincarnation (is Catherine merely dreaming about Selene’s life or did she once live it?), but about alternative notions of identity as a metaphor that challenge insularity and the institutions that imagine they can crush people. Running under the narrative is an insistence that governments and power brokers cannot crush the soul of life and humanity and all that connects us. It’s also about alternative perspectives on time.

Einstein wrote that the ‘past, present and future are only an illusion’ and in Greek there are two words for time — Chronos is the everyday, linear sense, the time of clocks, but Kairos has a more qualitative sense — it is the right moment, the Now. In this vein, the existentialist philosopher, Kierkegaard, distinguished between living temporally and finitely and those rare moments when we suspend finite living and become aware of existing so that for an instant we are outside of time and ‘stand in relation to the eternal’. And Spinoza similarly talks of ‘timeless moments’, as John Berger points out in his brilliant book of radical essays, Hold Everything Dear. These are moments when the ordinary is made luminous, not in some showy fireworks-and-flashes way, but by providing a transcendent vision of the everyday so that eternity breaks into the present.

Such moments can be found in mediation, on a walk in a beautiful place, or simply in some unlooked for instant going about routine tasks and they can also be found in art and literature. Proust and Joyce both wrote about epiphany in this way and Proust’s notion of an involuntary memory containing the past has this sense of the eternal breaking in, of another kind of time that is qualitative and belongs to an eternal present. The best poetry contains this transcendence — as Berger points out, every pause in an Emily Dickinson poem is redolent with eternity.

The impulse to write something in which the transient and the contingent becomes one with the sublime and numinous, with all that connects us and all that takes us beyond the illusion of past, present and future, occurs constantly — and if anyone achieves it there will be nothing left to say. What more can be added to such epiphany? But, as exquisite and profound as some literature is, no one has yet taken us to this place of silence and so writers keep writing, keep circling the Kairos.

It’s something I’m striving to negotiate with in A Remedy for All Things — how do we make the life of poet who despaired enough to kill himself, the lives of those who took on an unwinnable fight in the Hungarian Uprising (many losing their lives), the life of a writer who struggles with personal loss and grief, the lives of anyone who resists living the life handed to them by institutions and powers, matter? One way is perhaps to use fiction and imagination to mess with the notion of linear time, assert with Cervantes’ Quixote that ‘The unreason of the world is more insane than any fiction’ and we will resist the unreasonable, limiting, conventional world in favour of timeless moments.

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A Literary Novel for Teesside

Jan reading to an audience

‘Literary’ can sound pretentious, but is it any more than simply owning the influences that have helped to shape it? Nothing comes from nothing. This is the End of the Story is unashamedly Quixotic – but the characters are not cyphers, they are young women coming of age in a specific place at a particular time – the politics, weather, music and mores of the 70s; the culture and geography of 1970s industrialised Teesside are as much influences as an archetypal Spanish novel. Nonetheless, Cassie plays a role akin to Sancho, whilst Miriam resonates with Quixote – the pursuit of truth and justice, even when the fight cannot be won; the power of perception, imagination and dreams; the reality of giants who would destroy us; the grace of religious and ideological tolerance and the harm of hatred and prejudice all feature, but, I hope, always lightly.

This is a novel of characters who are self-conscious of their influences. Miriam suffers from epilepsy, but looks to Dostoevsky to articulate the experience of her episodes, drawing on his diaries to give a visionary edge to her suffering. Like Quixote, she despises popular romance novels and romantic bards (steering Cassie away from the Canadian folk singer she listens to in favour of high opera, but with only partial success – so each of the chapters is the title of one of Gordon Lightfoot’s songs), but she will overlook her dislike of romance when it comes as French literature – and so Madame Bovary, itself influenced by Don Quixote, features as a metaphor for Miriam’s fear of betrayal.

And then there is Casilda of the Rising Moon, a novel for young teenagers, written by the Catholic writer, Elisabeth Bourton de Trevino – a novel that brims with knights and princes, saints and healers, unrequited love and religious fervour – an interpretation of the life of Casilda, about whom we know only a few ‘facts’. The facts and the story have merged and it’s impossible to know where one begins and the other ends.

So it should be with a literary novel – the news of the day, music once heard, books once read, great novels, intimate diaries written by literary masters and paperback romances go into the melting pot as ingredients to make something different – something also influenced by a time and a place, by memory or invention or something between the two.

What the literary novel asserts is that it’s never the end of the story.

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February 8, 2017 · 7:14 pm

Experiencing Poetry

What does it mean to read poetry? In Beautiful and Pointless, the poetry critic for the New York Times, David Orr, argues that there is no ‘ought’ in reading poetry; there is no answer to the question of ‘Why read poetry?’ except that if you do read poetry you will find that it is worthwhile; it makes a difference not only to how we respond to the world, but how we negotiate the world. Rather than arguing about whether poetry is alive or comatose, Orr is concerned with how people experience poetry.

That experience is at the heart of Cinnamon Press’s goal to publish poetry that is innovative and independent, whether in our collections and anthologies or in a poetry journal like Envoi. Many of the poets we publish write about ordinary life events – a seaside holiday, birth, death, relationships, the impact of economics or religion on everyday life… Many of the poems that don’t make it to publication are on exactly the same subjects, but what distinguishes those  that do make it is that they help us to negotiate this everyday world. At its best poetry assists us to pay attention to our perceptions and expectations so that the quotidian does not simply remain ordinary and familiar, but becomes the context for moments of epiphany or ecstasy; moments when we step beyond the familiar to gain new insights. At its best poetry allows us to experience the deep connections between language and seeing, a point eloquently made by Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei in her fascinating book, which I’m currently reading – The Ecstatic Quotidian: Phenomenological Sightings in Modern Art and Literature.

I have also just been finishing off the selection and editing for Envoi 163 and reading The Ecstatic Quotidian has no doubt influenced the choices I’ve made, going for a diverse and rich selection of poetry that pushes us to see differently, to find strangeness in the everyday. It’s a pleasure to include poets like Susan Richardson, whose linguistic deftness takes on environment, mythology and personal identity; at once familiar yet strange; to immerse myself in David Olsen’s ‘Seaside Nocturne‘, a commentary on language itself,  and the failures of language, in a beautifully controlled single metaphor that is resonant of the everyday, yet takes us deeper with wonderful phrases like ‘I invigilate the dark’; to admire Ted McCarthy’s struggle with the gap between language and objects, the subtle playing out of William Carlos Williams’ ‘no ideas but in things’ in the poem ‘Underfoot’, in which ‘each thing answers itself’; to join Roger Elkin, flying a kite with his dad, so everyday, yet so resonant with what is other and yet to come; to explore the universe with Daphne Gloag and Jonathan Taylor or journey with Bob Beagrie to unfamiliar cities that shift our perceptions not only of place, but of self.

Sadly, the reach of poetry may be small, but for those who experience it there is so much to delight in and be stretch by.

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The Author’s First Book

The Author’s First Book.

thoughtful review of Mark Charlton’s excellent non-fiction debut, Counting Steps

Counting Steps

find it at

http://www.cinnamonpress.com/counting-steps/

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Lacking a heart without dichotomies

I’m on my travels again for Cinnamon Press. Last Thursday the launch of Sue Hubbard’s exquisitely lyrical novel, Girl in White, a fictionalised interpretation of the life of Paula Modersohn Becker told through her daughter’s search for her mother on the cusp of Nazi Germany (Paula died of an embolism six weeks after giving birth to Mathilde). It’s a story full of human contradictions – the clashes between loyalty and betrayal, the flashes of integrity and the accommodations that are made along the way. Above all it’s a highly particular story and I was reminded of that forcefully, reading the last third of Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist on the train on the way to the launch. Leo, an academic mentor to the main character makes the point that,

As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify, but to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction … to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow for the chaos, to let it in.


Literature disturbs the organisation … because it is not general …the intrinsic nature of the particular is to fail to conform … Keeping the particular alive in a simplifying, generalising world — that’s where the battle is joined.

Leo sees the world in clear camps, and I would want to nuance some of his own certainties, but I resonated with his analysis that the antagonism between political solutions to suffering and narrative treatments of suffering often revolves around this dualism (perhaps false like so many dualisms) between the general and the particular. In particular the main character, Nathan Zuckerman, who appears in several Roth novels, is unable to make the final leap to side with left wing influences in his life and join the revolution because, as he says of himself,

I lacked …a heart without dichotomies.

Of course a heart that is over-abundant in dichotomies can be reduced to a murky pool of liberal guilt and sentiment unwilling or unable to take any stand, but a heart with none would be ill equipped to empathise with Paula Modersohn Becker’s story or any human story. As a writer and publisher I hope to go on lacking a heart without dichotomies.

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But the chickens have light

In the little wooden house in the garden live my neighbours chickens: Salt, Pepper, Tommy and Twm (all female). Tonight they are the only residents in Tanygrisiau with lighting. The first bad weather of the autumn, torrential rain that seems excessive even in this little microclimate it he highest rain in the UK, and the power lines are down. The house is littered with magnetic lights running LEDs on batteries and torches in every room and the power cut came after we’d Skyped with Seth in South Africa, but it’s my least favourite feature of life in this remote village – the all-too regular power cuts. But a line of fairy lights and a cluster of blue flashing lights around the hen hut continue to twinkle on and off, powered by their own batteries to warn off foxes.

It’s been a bad day. Cottia, Jake and I dismantled and emptied my wardrobe to get into the loft (silly little hatch in a stupid place) so that we could store away some of Cottia’s boxes while she’s home for a year doing a post-grad certificate in mental health care. The boxes never made it up there. Jake discovered instead that he boxes already stored are all piled in one spot on boards that haven’t been properly laid on the joists – one of the bodged jobs that Meirion House suffers from that we inch towards righting year on year. We did get a rather gorgeous book cover designed and chatted to Seth briefly – I was about to transfer some money for him when I noticed a large bank account transaction for some sound equipment I’ve never even dreamt of buying. Two extremely long phone calls later and bank card blocked and destroyed I’m looking forward to filling in fraud forms and trying to puny account back together. I managed a bit more conversation with Seth before the lights went out.

I’ve just finished reading Booker short listed novel, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. It’s exquisitely lyrical prose, bitter-sweet and never loses sight of ambiguity. One key phrase is, ‘Tomorrow’s rain is already on the horizon.’ It is. But even with the rain pouring down, the power cut and the darkness deep, the chickens still have their lights.

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