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The (wo)man who has lived the most is not )s)he who has counted the most years but (s)he who has felt the most life.
Jean Jacques Rouseau
Einstein tells us that time is not as linear as we imagine. The separation of past, present and future is illusory, if compelling in an everyday sense. If, like me, you’re not a physicist, this timeless view of the universe might tie your brain in knots.
What I experience, however illusory, are 24 hours each day and sometimes what appears to be an overwhelming scarcity of time. To make it more complicated, the physicist Julian Barbour tells us:
If you try to get your hands on time, it’s always slipping through your fingers. People are sure time is there, but they can’t get hold of it. My feeling is that they can’t get hold of it because it isn’t there at all.
What Barbour argues is that it’s not time that is a measure of change, but that it is change that creates the illusion we call time. In his view, we live a succession of whole, complete moments called ‘Nows’, all of which exist simultaneously.
As Josh Richardson sums up:
We generate time’s flow by thinking that the same self that ate breakfast this morning also started reading this sentence.
So how does this apply to creative people trying to carve out time for their most passionate quests?
1. Live by kairos, not chronos
The most important feature for everyday life seems to be that time, like so many things, is not an absolute. Time, like other experiences, is as qualitative as it it quantitative, if not more so.
In a former incarnation as a theologian, I’d have explained this as the Greek concepts of kairos and chronos. Chronos is the ticking of seconds on a clock, chronological. But kairos is ‘the right time’, it is ripeness, the moment of truth.
Kairos time FEELS different — those experiences when time seems to slow down or stop. Having a perfect life is unrealistic and perfectionism can be toxic. But having perfect moments is possible and time-expanding.
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You’re a writer when:
1. you write
Don’t dream of being a writer or plan to be one one day. As Jeff Goins says:
Believe you are what you want to be. And then start acting like it.
You don’t need permission. Be it and do it.
2. you start a project and work at it
It’s so easy to get stuck on what you should be writing. We all have abortive projects and failed experiments. That’s fine. It’s how we learn. But if the problem is that you can never commit to any project that’s not so fine. If every time you think of something to write, you decide it’s not good enough to begin or follow through with, that’s paralysing.
Don’t let fear whisper in your ear that you need a better idea, that you have to walk the dog first, that you need to do the laundry before you sit down to write… Nabokov has it right:
Just when the author sits down to write the monster of grim common sense will lumber up the steps to whine that the book is not for the general public, that the book will never, never — and right then, just before it blurts out the words, common sense must be shot dead.
Don’t let fear whisper in your ear that you need a better idea, that you have to walk the dog first, that you need to do the laundry before you sit down to write…
I hope you’d like to read on – you can find the rest of this post here
It’s the time of the year when we begin making resolutions. By the end of January lots of those resolutions will be waning and by Spring most will have been forgotten. Why? Because lots of resolutions are not things we desire, for a start. So often we focus on things we ought to be doing, whether it’s dieting or writing the magnum opus rather than things we want to be doing. This stacks the odds against us before we begin. Or we set off armed with willpower and good intentions, thinking we can resolve to do a hundred things a day (preferably before breakfast), but find that willpower is an exhaustible trait. We end up overwhelmed, achieving none of the resolutions on the list. At other times, we fail to set up environments that nurture success or don’t leave any time for looking after ourselves. How do we break through this self-defeating pattern? How do we move beyond the kind of resolutions that we admit we have no confidence in from the outset?
1. Keep your list focussed
You don’t have to have twenty resolutions, or even five. How about a couple of big priorities? Or one important project? As David Allen says:
You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.
When we are overwhelmed we give up. If we try to expend energy in lots of areas, then even if we make progress it’s likely to be by increments. To achieve an important goal takes focus and attention so the more you hone your resolutions the more likely you are to stay with them. If you want to write that book this year and you also need to get fitter and lose weight, of course you can do both, but try making one of the goals the key priority for the first 90 days of the year to get the rhythm established. Once you’ve given it the time it needs you are likely to be able to keep the diet going while you prioritise the next big goal for 90 days. And while you are majoring on overhauling your nutrition you can be planning the book. Then, when you are ready to refocus, gather your notes and drafts and work on the creative project.
2. Make your environment work for you
If your environment is full of distractions, it will be much harder to achieve your goals. It doesn’t matter whether you are trying to write a novel or learn to dance, you need to focus. If you are serious about your project, having a routine that gets you into the right head space is vital. It might be meditation, journalling or listening to particular music. It might be eating protein for breakfast or sitting with a bowl of mint tea. It might be starting your day with a walk to find the creative flow, as Virginia Woolf describes in her 1953 diary:
I walk making up phrases; sit, contriving scenes; am in short in the thick of the greatest rapture known to me.
Or as John Berger describes when walking:
Everything was shifting. The three pear trees, their hillock, the other side of the valley, the harvested fields, the forests. The mountains were higher, every tree and field nearer. Everything visible approached me. Rather, everything approached the place where I had been, for I was no longer in that place. I was everywhere, as much in the forest across the valley as in the dead pear tree, as much on the face of the mountain as in the field where I was raking hay.
(From Our Faces, Our Hearts, Brief as Photos)
There are lots of ways to find the luminous moment or the state of flow in which to create. But it’s unlikely to be through from Internet surfing, checking your friends’ Facebook updates or sending tweets. It’s unlikely to be sustainable if your phone is six inches away and pinging to let you know you have a new message, a new text or that five apps need updating. Whether you’ve resolved to do daily yoga, read for an hour every day, improve your photography skills or write and post three blogs a week, you need uninterrupted, undistracted time.
A creative environment will eschew the endless noise in favour of something deeper. In the words of T.S. Eliot:
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
3. Eliminate the small stuff
Achieving goals takes time and energy. Focussing on a couple of important aims and creating an environment in which you won’t be distracted make a huge difference, but you also need time. That book won’t write itself. A great way to make time is by saying no to many calls on our attention that land in our inbox. If you’re a people-pleaser this can be hard — some of us feel we should say yes to every request. But that way lie frustration and breaking promises to yourself. Being in reactive mode is draining, not only in time, but emotionally, leaving us scooped out and in no state to be creative.
You need to think about how you use your time. We all have important commitments to family or work or simple life processes, but there will also be things we do that could batched into one time-efficient block to. I now answer emails at one time each afternoon. It’s still a timely response to those who email me, but it prevents me go from and back and forth to the inbox all day, wasting time in the process. Some tasks might not even need doing at all. I used to reply to every email. Now, I no longer respond to emails sending unsolicited manuscripts for publication. Many of these arrive while we’re closed to submissions and contain genres we don’t publish. The senders have no sympathy for the press or they would have taken the time to find out anything about Cinnamon Press so I delete the emails. It was a big step for me to do this. It felt ungracious and harsh, but it makes me less distracted and ragged with more energy for essential Cinnamon work and my own writing. As Greg McKeown says in Essentialism:
To eliminate non-essentials means saying no to someone. Often. It means pushing against social expectations. To do it well takes courage and compassion.
4. Nurture yourself
It seems obvious, but a lot of busy, creative people forget to look after themselves. I’m not talking about being selfish, but we do need nurture to achieve our goals and to make a contribution to the world. Quoting Greg McKeown again:
If we underinvest in ourselves, and by that I mean our minds, our bodies and our spirits, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution.
If you don’t get enough sleep, if you can’t remember the last time you laughed, if you haven’t done some relaxing activity in the last week or month or … (for me it’s long hot bubble baths) then achieving dreams is going to be harder. If your nutrition is poor or your diet is full of sugar, you’re likely to be more sluggish and less focussed. And the same applies to the way we choose relaxing activities. Several hours of low-quality TV every evening only serves to sap time and energy. A challenging film that makes us think, a great book or taking up fencing or yoga … is much more likely to be relaxing. And high quality relaxation feeds the mind and body, making us more energetic, more full of ideas, more creative.
5. Find a partner in resolution
Trying to goad ourselves forward through a major project is demanding and if we have only ourselves to account to we’re more likely to give up. When I was writing the poetry sequence Slate Voices, I had a co-writer who was writing a sequence about the Scottish slate islands while I focussed on a tiny Welsh valley. If I hadn’t kept up the writing, I’d have been letting down another poet. The current trilogy of novels I’m working on, beginning with This is the End of the Story, has a publisher. I have a commitment to an editor and to Liquorice Fish Books. This year I’m working within a mentoring programme that includes small groups of people with similar goals. We aim to hold each other accountable. I also see the value of this when working in my capacity as a writing mentor with Cinnamon Press. Goals that are public and shared are much more likely to be sustainable.
You might find a mentor or agree with a friend or small group that you will keep one another accountable. However you do it, make the promise to yourself bigger than your own willpower.
6. Break the big goals into manageable steps
If you need to lose 40 pounds it’s going to take time. You will have to make a lifestyle shift to a sustainable long-term diet, not starve yourself for a month. If you are going to write three interlocking novels, you need to think about what to do first. Are you the kind of writer who starts with character studies or a seed for the story? Do you plan chapter outlines or dive in and restructure it later? Will the books need a lot of background research?
In the last couple of days I’ve broken my 2018 goals down into tiny steps and hand-written them into a diary with an entry every day. I’ve got a plan for how many words per week I need to write for novel 3 whilst finishing the editing and beginning some promotion for novel 2. I have a morning routine of journalling and yoga, which I’ve entered daily. And I’ve written in deadlinees to plan trips, buy train tickets and book accommodation for travel to research and write. The problem with a lot of New Year resolutions is that we make them as though we are making three wishes or asking Father Christmas for new toys. It’s not surprising that they fail to materialise. As Antoine de Saint Exupéry says:
A goal without a plan is just a wish.
7. Choose goals you care about
Resolving to do things we ought to do or things that others expect of us won’t make for lasting goals. The truth is that if you have no intrinsic motivation you’ll give up. On the other hand, if you choose goals that you are so zealous about that you have to do them, then you are setting yourself up for success. Your goals should be your passions and, if they are, then it will no longer be a matter of forcing yourself on by dogged willpower.
Writing about home education (home schooling) in the book, Doing it Their Way. I argued that intrinsic motivation is the key to real education. Children learn best when they are engaged with the learning, when they are making choices and pursuing their passions. We are no different as adults. The most important way to transform your New Year Resolutions into plans that you will put into action is to ask yourself what you most want to achieve. What is it that’s so important that you have to do it in 2018?
I’m going to prioritise my writing in 2018, completing the third novel of a trilogy for publication in 2019 and publishing at least one blog each week. I’m going to take some time out to travel for research and writing. What is it that you absolutely have to do in 2018?
Call to action
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In a world teeming with the rhetoric of consumption, authors have to play a part in getting their work into the world. But in the eagerness to see our books find readers, it’s tempting to overwhelm the writing with promotion. Does every author have to blog, spend hours on Facebook, run a website, tweet, be active on LinkedIn, Instagram and Pinterest, secure literary festival engagements, organise a reading tour and get promotional flyers printed, preferably before breakfast?
Some of those activities might be useful or apposite for an individual writer. Blogging, building an email list of interested readers and the occasional tweet feel like the right fit for me. But the more worrying concept that underpins our anxiety about needing to be everywhere, doing everything, is that each of us ought to be styling ourselves as a ‘personal brand’. This thinking makes not only what we write just another consumer product, but also makes the writer into a ‘product’.
So what’s wrong with that?
Writers want to find readers. Even given that a lot of what we write never makes it into the public domain (journals, notebooks, aborted stories and poems…) somewhere along the line we want people to engage. Writers work with a reader in mind and communicate things that matter to them. If things go well, the end of a particular writing project will be a beautifully-produced book that you want the world to know about.
The book is a product and if you care about it you will promote it. The hope is that you can do so without getting distracted from your main purpose: being a writer. This might mean getting some expert help. Or it might entail finding ways to support your book that don’t overwhelm you. It shouldn’t mean that you, the writer, become a ‘personal brand’ and this is why:
1. We don’t respond well to anything that has designs on us
Writing to John Hamilton Reynolds in 1818, Keats noted:
We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us — and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle or amaze with itself, but with its subject.
The same is true of any writing. When a piece of writing is didactic and beats us over the head with its convictions, we tend to resist. But when an article or story communicates something of significance, it gets under our skin. It convinces without brow-beating.
What is true of our writing is true of writers. We resist writers who do nothing but try to sell to us. That’s not to say we should never try to sell, but no one likes to be sold to constantly. When writers are more ‘brand’ than ‘person’ then they become both unattractive and counterproductive.
2. Authenticity speaks louder than sales pitch
If you don’t love your book and care about it getting into the world, it’s likely no one else will either. That doesn’t mean you have to be in permanent marketing mode. Passion communicates itself. If you love what you are writing, care about what it stands for, write well and communicate well, the authenticity will shine through.
At its simplest, promoting writing demands a transparency to the work that is infectious. You don’t come across as genuine by being a brand. Rather, people soon tire of someone who hustles them, suspecting that a person who packages herself is little more than:
a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5)
3. You’re a person, not a commodity
Being a personal brand is about creating yourself as a ‘package’ that gives a particular impression. It’s a static image that limits you and needs to be constantly maintained. Of course, we all present ourselves in a myriad of ways; the self is fluid and we have many roles. But the notion of the brand has an ‘acted persona’ at its heart. It creates an image that appears ‘on stage’ but which may not be congruent with our values or our writing. What matters most in establishing a brand identity is self-promotion.
As D. J. Lair has argued in ‘Marketization and the Recasting of the Professional Self: The Rhetoric and Ethics of Personal Branding’:
success is not determined by individuals’ internal sets of skills, motivations, and interests but, rather, by how effectively they are…branded.
The self becomes a commodity and not necessarily and honest one.
4. You’re an individual, not a thing
A brand is an object that is perceived in a certain way; not simply the product in itself, but a whole complex of product, logo, promises, expectations and lifestyle allusions. That’s not my definition of a writer.
A brand can also be a mark left on property — it’s a mark of ownership; a practice associated with cattle or slavery. A branded item is a commodity bought and sold. That’s definitely not my definition of a writer.
Don’t be a brand, be yourself — be honest, be passionate, have values you are zealous about and want to share, tell the world what you do and keep your soul. Don’t become a brand, become a different story.
Want to become a different story?
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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
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.
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
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.
But 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.
‘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.
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.