Tag Archives: art

How to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves

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Writers can be cerebral creatures. By its nature, writing is sedentary and we spend a lot of time in our heads. But when the writing loses all sense of embodiment it becomes remote and ineffective. Writing in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology Rosemarie Anderson notes:

Embodied writing seeks to reveal the lived experience of the body by portraying in words the finely textured experience of the body and evoking sympathetic resonance in readers

Our bodies matter. Despite being someone who will get so far into my own head that I forget to move or go to the bathroom when deep in flow, I also know that his has an impact on my writing, however subtle. When I write after doing yoga, adopt a better posture and get up between sections to stretch or walk, the writing changes.

So how do we become more holistic as writers?

Replace the dualistic model

To quote Rosemarie Anderson again:

Continuing to write in a Cartesian style seems no longer acceptable … Disembodied writing perpetuates the object-subject bifurcation between the world of our bodies and the world we inhabit.

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10 powerful reasons why change begins with the magic of story

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Stories are powerful. We don’t simply tell stories, we inhabit them. Since language began, we’ve been storytelling animals. Every time and culture has dominant stories that shape us, whether they are stories from religion, ideology or the market-place. Sometimes these stories have such a grip that it’s hard to see beyond them, yet alternative stories can change the world. In the words of Walter Benjamin in The Storyteller:

The wisest thing … the fairy tales taught is to meet the mythical world with cunning and high spirits.

Amongst the dominant stories of our age are several that are leading us down blind alleys or into destruction. In her retelling of the Ragnarok myth A S Byatt portrays the gods as stupid, selfish and short-sighted. They deserve to die. They can see the end of the world coming, yet they do nothing about it.

It’s a powerful warning of ecological disaster, but it could also be a story of soured relationships with others or with the self. It’s a call to change and, like all good stories, wakes us up.

So how do stories change the world?

1. Story makes sense of the world and those we share it with

I hope you’ll continue reading on Medium where you can applaud the post if you enjoy what you read.


And while you’re here – the blog will be getting a fresh look and lots of new features soon including courses for writers so watch this space by subscribing to my email list, which will also give you a substantial discount on the first new course I’ll be launching.

 

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10 powerful reasons why change begins with the magic of story

once.jpeg

Stories are powerful. We don’t simply tell stories, we inhabit them. Since language began, we’ve been storytelling animals. Every time and culture has dominant stories that shape us, whether they are stories from religion, ideology or the market-place. Sometimes these stories have such a grip that it’s hard to see beyond them, yet alternative stories can change the world. In the words of Walter Benjamin in The Storyteller:

The wisest thing … the fairy tales taught is to meet the mythical world with cunning and high spirits.

Amongst the dominant stories of our age are several that are leading us down blind alleys or into destruction. In her retelling of the Ragnarok myth A S Byatt portrays the gods as stupid, selfish and short-sighted. They deserve to die. They can see the end of the world coming, yet they do nothing about it.

It’s a powerful warning of ecological disaster, but it could also be a story of soured relationships with others or with the self. It’s a call to change and, like all good stories, wakes us up.

So how do stories change the world?

Read on at Medium to find out 🙂

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How to write historical fiction in the face of contested history

 

visigoth.jpegGoing over the details of my novel set in Toledo I revisited the museum of magic, set in a tenth century cave that was an Islamic dwelling during the time of Casilda, a Toledan princess-cum-saint, whose story weaves through the trilogy. Back in the city after two years, spending time checking my memories of places, has raised several questions of how to do justice to the historical threads in my writing.

Weaving story from fragments or overwhelm

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Much of the novel, For Hope is Always Born, takes place in the present, but a significant strand goes back to Moorish Spain. It’s a period that has proved difficult to research.

There’s a great deal of writing on the broad brushstrokes and there are certain characters who have captured imagination, like the slightly later El Cid. But there is a paucity of detail about ordinary daily lives, particularly in English. Despite the enormous amount of historical record across centuries and locations, it’s always the quotidian that is missing. Most history concerns the elites, whether of class or gender.

Internet searches on the history of this amazing tenth century home, with its two surviving hamsa images beside the slender entrance pillars, yielded nothing. I could only discover that had two-storeys, a well and courtyards. More ironically, two of Google’s top hits on this building were from blog posts I’d written myself on my last visit to Toledo.

At other points the problem has been in choosing the details to include. I’ve read several books on Islamic advances in learning, from alchemy to botany, from geometry to the best time and way to dig wells. It’s tempting as a writer to want to show off all this reading, but putting in too much detail is boring and distracting for a reader of story. The art is to get a sense of authenticity, to conjure the time and place with all the senses working, but not to let the skeleton of research show on the body of the narrative.

Weaving story from contradictory histories

Visigoth Museum, Toledo, Adam Craig

Where there are descriptions of social arrangements, the accounts differ widely.

Some historians view Moorish Spain as a golden age paradise. In these accounts there was universal education, for girls as well as boys; well-lit paved streets; multicultural scholarship, religious tolerance and a high standard of living. Such is the view of historians such as John G Jackson and Ivan van Sertima.

The controversial Cordovan princess, Wallada bint al-Mustaki, is a prime example. Her dates overlap with Casilda’s and she was similarly a daughter of one of the last Umayyad caliphs. A poet who inherited her fathers estate when he died without a male heir, she had a reputation for teaching poetry and literature to all and sundry. Criticised for her unconventional dress-style, including a refusal to wear a veil in public, and for her outspokenness, as well as for taking many lovers, Wallada epitomises a golden-age history.

Other historians view the Moors as barbarous invaders who destroyed an existing civilisation. This view accuses the Moors of stealing from Visigoth culture and taking credit for its advances. Dario Fernandez-Morera, for example, claims:

under Islam the art of the Visigoth capital decayed, as the conquerors wiped out the traces of Catholic grandeur.

Such historians seem much less concerned when the Catholic church later persecuted Jews or turned architecturally exquisite mosques and synagogues into churches.

I hope you will read on at Medium – where you can also ‘clap’ and leave feedback. Thank you for reading.

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How to use the fascinating twists of writing process

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Mezquita Bab al-Mardum, Toledo – Adam Craig

I’m currently writing book 3 of the Casilda Trilogy.

Through the lives of Catherine, Selene and Miriam, the Casilda Trilogy explores the distance between myth and reality: the myths we live in, whether of personal fantasy, dreams or the political realities that exert stresses on individual lives. What is the nature of truth and where do we find it?”

It began with This is the End of the Story

Belief is Cassie’s gift, so much so that she believes herself to be whoever those in her life tell her she is — Cassie, Kat, Kitty, even Casilda, as her friend Miriam insists, an 11th century Muslim princess from Toledo who later became a Catholic saint.

Bound together by Miriam’s extraordinary internal world, Cassie’s belief and a traumatic incident on a beach, Cassie’s loyalty only strains when an act of betrayal propels her towards Liam, also waiting to tell Cassie who she really is.

But Cassie may be more resourceful than either Miriam or Liam imagine. And when she eventually visits Toledo, tracking down places where Casilda might have walked, is this the end of the story?

Exploring how one person might support the fantasy life of another, the novel is in Quixotic tradition. This is the End of the Story raises questions about perception and identity, about friendship, love, loyalty and the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us.

Like Don Quixote, the novel is in two parts. Part I has 8 main chapters interleaved by vignettes. The chapters follow Cassie (who eventually reclaims her full name, Catherine) and Miriam, both a coming of age narrative and an exploration of identity. The vignettes give insight into the political and cultural context of the story, the end of the 1970s in industrial Teesside.

Part II revisits and finished the story from Catherine’s perhaps unreliable viewpoint. Looking back, she is trying to make the facts as she sees them fit the story as she felt it.

Writing it, the process was one of creative chaos. At the core was a story I had lived with for thirty years, but I wrote the scenes rather as memory works — via all kinds of random associations and circuitous routes.

Piecing the individual scenes together was an extraordinary undertaking. I knew it would not be a linear novel, but how the parts fitted together was crucial so that the right clues came at the right times. And to ensure the reader could navigate the time switches. The process felt sometimes like making Frankenstein’s monster and getting the head under the armpit. It took several attempts, but suddenly it fell into place.

In addition to mirroring themes and structure in Quixote, I also wanted to work in allusions to Dostoevsky’s journals, as one of the main characters suffers a similar form of epilepsy.

And I added a further cultural allusion in the chapter titles. Cassie (Catherine) is somewhat out of step with her context. She doesn’t listen to the popular music of the day. She’s not much of a ‘joiner’. I signalled this by using song names from a Canadian folk singer who other teenagers weren’t following at the time, but Cassie was. Each title and the song it refers to says something about the events of the chapter.

The other literary allusion of this book is Elizabeth Borton de Trevino’s Casilda of the Rising Moon. Cassie’s close (and strange, Quixotic) friend, Miriam, is certain that the two of them have lived before, most notably as Casilda, an 11th century Moorish princess of Toledo, and Ben Haddaj, apparently a Muslim prince of Zaragoza. Casilda converted to Christianity and was later beatified and finally canonised.

In her life she became a hermit living near healing springs in the Castilian mountains and several miracles were attributed to her. Trevino’s children’s book, which I read in the 70s, is a marvellous sweeping romance that treats the Muslim, Christian and Jewish populations of Moorish Spain with great sympathy. It’s a story that had stayed with me and fascinated, but I wanted to write a more mystical and complex Casilda.

In the first book of the trilogy, the notion that Cassie and Casilda might be the same person across a century of history is ambiguous, but I dipped into Casilda’s story and it was a delight to do some research in Toledo. There is little trace of her, but there is a cave house from her time and a beautiful tiny mosque (later a church), Mesquita de Bab al-Mardum.

If this sounds complicated, I wanted the end result to be accessible and the reviews seem to support that I managed this. It was a lot of fun to write and the freedom to simply write scenes in any order and worry about how they fitted the shape later was liberating.

It moves on to A Remedy for All Things

I hope you will read the rest of the post on Medium – the trilogy ends with For Hope is Always Born and the post discusses the challenges of writing  trilogy, the power of place and objects in writing and moving on from the trilogy… Thank you for reading and for your support here and on Medium.

Becoming a Different Story

I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life and looking to connect with others, thinking about the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life sign up to my email list or just feel free to continue the conversation.

 

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How to measure and not measure a life

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I’ve recently completed an extraordinary four weeks of research, writing and travel in Spain, ending in Barcelona after two weeks in Toledo, via a few days stay in both Zaragoza and Burgos. The pressure of unfamiliar places, the space to devote time to walking and soaking up the places, and writing, is perspective altering. A whole month away to dive deep into a passion is a privilege and a challenge and I can feel shifts taking place in how I view my use of time and the nature of my future work.

Life, David Henry Thoreau tells us, is precious. We do not want to find ourselves at the end of it having not lived. So how do we know that we are living, that we are sucking out the marrow of life?

For me it has to do with the courage to live as the person I want to become. That has made me think hard about my art and my work and about what I need to let go of in order to measure my progress.

The apophatic way

In theology, the via negativa (negative way) describes divinity by what it is not. This is the tradition of what must be absent for something, in this case ‘God’, to be God. So much of what consumes our lives and out time is inessential. We need a negative way in order to pursue great things.

The speaker Stephen Covey illustrates this with a large clear bucket. Into the bucket go the elements of our lives. One set comprises pebbles, which represent the thousand and one small demands on our time. The other set is big rocks that represent the important things: family, transformational relationships, meaningful work, passions… If we tip in the pebbles and then try to fit in the rocks, we will fail to make room for the things that matter. If we take care of the rocks first, the small things will fit around them.

Greg McKeown goes even further in the book Essentialism, pointing out that many of the small things could disappear without anyone noticing. And in Good to Great, Jim Collins says,

If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.

Taking time away from my normal environment and routines is a powerful reminder that what we don’t do, the things we don’t want to be, are vital.

What do you need to let go of to be the person you want to become?

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For me, some of those things are qualities or mindsets that limit me. Things like:

  • making excuses for not keeping promises to myself
  • small thinking
  • fear
  • attaching to outcomes rather than to the hope, expectations and process
  • complaining instead of problem-solving
  • self sabotage

Other things that I’m acutely aware of needing to let go are those things that so many of us tolerate in life and that, once tolerated, set the tone of our days, weeks, months and more… Life is too short and too precious to tolerate:

  • wasted time:

I don’t mean day dreaming or rest or play or creative mooching. What wastes time (and our lives) is more often those small pebbles — hours on Facebook, demanding emails, inessential nonsense…

  • bullying and harassment:

Sometimes aggressive and difficult people can teach us a great deal about ourselves by how we react. I recently had an onslaught of demands and undermining from someone over quite an extended period. It made me reflect on lots of aspects of my internal response and the importance of doing the creative work I’m committed to and letting it speak for itself. And it also made me much more clear about setting boundaries and what none of us should tolerate.

  • bad literature

Story is my way of making sense of the world. Narrative matters in every civilisation and era. Not only do I want to make Cinnamon Press more and more a home for excellence and not only do I want to push my own writing further but, even more fundamentally, I have no time for story that lie. I don’t mean stories that are imaginary or fantastical. I mean story that deliberately misleads, that sells hatred and division, that promotes the myths of fascism or greed. Story is too urgent for that.

The katophatic way

Having a concentrated period to be in flow state, writing and immersing myself in unfamiliar places, concentrates the heart. The tradition of katophatic theology deals in what we can positively say. We need to know what and who we don’t want to be; what we need to let go of, but we also need to know what we want to embrace.

What do you need to embrace to be the person you want to become?

I hope you will continue to read this post on Medium – thank you for your support!

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How to fly with imagination and inspire new life

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In a fantastic essay in The Wave in the Mind, ‘The Operating Instructions’, Ursula K Le Guin notes that imagination is humanity’s single most important tool.

She considers that while the concept of the ‘creative’ has become watered down, ‘imagination’ retains its power. It is a fundamental way of thinking, she argues, something that is innate but which we can learn how to use well, in a similar way to training the body.

During a period of travel around Spain, as I take time out of my normal life and immerse in imagining and writing, it’s encouraging to consider how vital imagination is.

So, how do we train the imagination?

Le Guin is adamant that we learn it best from literature, whether oral or written.

Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on … to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, there is nothing like a poem or a story.

Through story every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people and members of their people.

This is powerful encouragement to writer. As I work on a complex story that has at it’s heart questions of identity and how we transform ourselves, it’s timely to remind myself that flying with the imagination promotes

  • a sense of identity and renewed self-image
  • autonomy within community
  • deeper understanding
  • listening
  • alternative possibilities
  • a sense of purpose and quest

That is a powerful tool with vast potential.

Imagination gives you a sense of identity and renewed self-image

Imagination is fundamental to how we see ourselves. If you think about how you saw yourself as a child, it’s likely that imagination played a huge role in what you decided to do as an adult. We play with dolls to imagine parenting. We have pretend cookers, pretend surgical kits, write plays that we make our families perform … Imagining leads to decisions, to seeing ourselves as a doctor, teacher, priest, writer, mother …

As a writer, I’m fascinated by the intersection of imagination and identity. My protagonists in the Casilda trilogy have searching questions about where identity begins and ends, about how we make connections across time and culture.

Imagination and identity are both internal processes. We have to imagine who we are before there are any external processes. Being comes before doing. Spontaneity then becomes a vision that we hand over to the unconscious and let it do its work. Moreover, imagination is a safe place in which to take risks; we can imagine outcomes before trying them out.

The philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, sees imagination as productive and creative. Ricoeur argues that imagination transforms reality through creative acts. Moreover he considers that the imagination that helps us form identity is most clearly manifested through fiction, which creates meaning. Similarly, Sartre saw imagination and narrativity as necessary for the formation of a coherent and meaningful sense of self.

In short, the story of who we are is an act of imagination. As Kurt Vonnegut puts it:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Imagination fosters autonomy

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12 things I’ve learnt while travelling and writing

 

1-lwEieJZBj3vVaAOsqT-MLw.jpegI’m currently in Burgos, Spain, in the second week of a month-long writing retreat while travelling to research the third novel in a trilogy. Travel is an extraordinary thing. It makes us change gear, it takes us out of our comfort zones and normal routines, it makes us experience life as the outsider in some small sense.

In short, it teaches us a great deal that should make the writing stronger and deeper. I got a sense of this last year when I had the opportunity to research my latest novel, A Remedy for All Things, the follow-up to This is the End of the Story, in Budapest. But what I’m learning has been massively added to by this trip.

1. Exhilaration changes us

Abraham Maslow describes peak experiences as:

rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.

Experiences that interrupt our routine rhythms, that give us the chance to experience awe and gratitude, result in adjustments to how we perceive the world.

2. Time is precious, yet it’s possible to be time rich…

I’d love you to keep reading over on Medium where you can add a cheer or a standing ovation 🙂 … Thank you for reading and thank you for your support.

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How to live and write in hope and expectation without attaching to outcomes

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Any art undertaken with commitment and seriousness becomes a metaphor for the artistic life and, I suspect, for life in general.

To remain hopeful, to not become cynical and jaded, is fundamental to becoming a different story. And the world needs different stories; those that are radical, transformative, challenging and nurturing. To evolve the stories, we have to foster hope and expect great things. But we should also be open to outcomes we didn’t expect, may not have desired. We have to be willing to learn, regroup and hope again.

The elements of hope:

  1. imagine the quest: What is it that you want to happen?
  2. break the quest down into steps: How will you make it happen?
  3. align your passion and your motivation: How committed are you?

Hope and intrinsic motivation go hand in hand. We only expect transformation and change when:

  • we value the quest and welcome the process
  • believe that the quest is possible
  • believe that we are effective in the world and can make things happen

And we will only value and believe in a quest and in ourselves to pursue it if the aims are:

  • clear
  • desired
  • believed
  • expected
  • invested in

Attach to nothing

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But investing in something is not synonymous with attaching to outcomes. If we fixate on the end rather than on the process we lose the ability to respond with flexibility to whatever happens along the way. If we make the quest all about one specific outcome that must happen, then we will become cynical and disillusioned when other things happen along the way. Benjamin Hardy puts it like this:

Expect everything, attach to nothing

The quest is the decision you have made. It might be to complete a novel or sequence of poems. It might be about personal transformation or a decision to prioritise transformative relationships over transactional ones. It might be about changing your work or lifestyle. Whatever happens, you have changed the story of yourself. You have shifted perspective and whatever the specific outcome:

…I’d love you to continue reading on Medium and please clap (to 50:)) there. Thank you for your support!

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How to stop valuing relationships and make them gifts

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Economics is everywhere — we talk about the ‘value’ of relationships. If a friend gives us a gift, for the sheer joy of it, not because it’s a birthday, we begin to wonder if we ‘owe’ them something or feel uneasy about being ‘indebted’.

Transactions have run riot to such an extent that even children in nurseries find that ‘value added’ is the criterion measuring their education.

We hear people who are in love saying they don’t feel ‘worthy’ of the other person. When you are asking ‘Do I deserve this person’s love?’ there is no answer that makes sense because the whole question arises in an economic mindset. But that’s the wrong paradigm for relationships.

An overwhelming amount of relationships are transactional. Not only those that are set up as bald economic deals, but from work to marriages. Transactional relationships are all about self-interest and what you get. If conflicts arise, the goal is to win, not to resolve. In transactional relationships what matters are outcomes, not emotions; systems, not people.

Transactional relationships have been important throughout history in encouraging cooperation, whether between bartering individuals or nations. There is a place for transactional relationships, but ultimately they only work if the receiver will return the favours. They are quid pro quo.

And not only are they economic-based, but they are also scarcity-based. Transactions and fear are frequent partners.

  • Let’s make a treaty with that tribe so they don’t come in and destroy us.
  • Let’s do favours for these people because then they’ll be in our debt when we need something.

In a transactional relationship unconditional generosity is a scarce resource. We may not use money (unless it’s about buying a product or paying for someone’s time) but there will be trade and bartering taking place and a jostling to ensure that we get ‘good value’ for what we give. Transactional relationships involve:

  • competition
  • manipulation
  • negotiation
  • keeping a tally
  • winners and losers

Deep, meaningful relationships need another basis. They need a mindset of trust and abundance. These kinds of relationship are not transactional, but transformational. They don’t fizzle out when there is nothing to be ‘gained’. They go on energising because the power of collaboration changes people; together they can address intrinsic needs.

In transformational relationships there is a shared purpose. The relationship itself becomes the focus rather than competing egos. So why do we experience so few transformational relationships? And how can we shift from the economic model of transaction to the ecology of relationships as gifts?

Shift to an abundance mindset

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If we want have amazing relationships we have to be givers. What stops most people from being generous is not intrinsic meanness, but fear. People are afraid that if they give, others will exploit this and ‘take advantage’ (more economic thinking).

And it’s true, this can happen and it’s rife in many workplace settings. The people at the bottom often make the most value for a company and only to gain least.

And in personal relationships there are people who will see giving as a weakness that they are more than happy to use and abuse.

But despite this, generosity isn’t something that runs out. Generosity is something that multiplies with use, not diminishes.

… I hope you’ll read the rest on Medium and if you enjoy the post, please clap there. Thank you!

 

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