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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…

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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:

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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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The Objects that Speak of Us

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Part 5 on writing a novel trilogy

Researching A Remedy for All Things in Budapest, I was been aware how vital artefacts can be in communicating something about a person. The thought struck me on a walk along the Danube, confronted by a simple and heart-breaking installation along the bank — pairs of shoes in memory of Jewish citizens herded to the river in 1944 and 1945. There they were made to take off their shoes by members of the fascist Arrow Cross party, and shot. Their bodies washed away by the river while the shoes remained, empty.

The imprint on objects

Another author, Nigel Hutchinson, who is an artist as well as poet, remarked that shoes are particularly affecting because of the way a foot shapes a shoe to itself, so that each one bears the unique imprint of the wearer. This is certainly the case. And other artefacts can also speak volumes as I noticed when I visited the Attila József Museum. Not only were examples of his hand-writing on display, but other personal objects. The retractable pencil that he wrote with. A facsimile of a rocking horse that was his only toy as a young child and which he gave to his mother for firewood when they had none. And a small change purse.

The purse went into a scene when the Attila of my novel first meets Selene:

No, don’t think that, she reassures. I can’t explain how I’m here, but I am real. I was about to make dinner for my mother. I sat down for a moment and thought I was getting a migraine, but then I heard a train and … I heard a train last time too.

You are still feeling sick?

No, the pain didn’t come. I get this phantosmia — of oranges usually — then lights and darkness over half my vision, but both times I’ve met you … the symptoms have started, but no headache — I hear a train and … here I am.

Phantosmia, Attila repeats, as though savouring the word. You are hungry? There’s a taverna on Szoladi útca with good food. I might even have a few worthless pengő with me.

Selene smiles, reaches into a pocket for her small purse. If we eat it will have to be you who pays, she says, holding out coins — forints and fillérs. My currency that will be meaningless in 1937.

He pulls a well-fingered, small, square change purse from his pocket. It’s stiff brown leather creaks a little as he eases the flap from underneath the cross-strap and peers inside. He nods and smiles. So, I will buy you dinner.

But you … I don’t think you can afford …

A special occasion, he insists.

He holds an arm and she links it as though they are old friends.

Objects as connection

picture by Adam Craig

And other objects assumed even greater importance in communicating themes through the novel. Catherine wears a small necklace that first appeared in This is the End of the Story. She find is by her bed when she is in Toledo searching for traces of the 11th century Casilda and dreams that her friend Miriam is with her:

When I step out of the shower, the flow of blood has ceased.

Here, Miriam says, enfolding me in a white towel. And this, she adds. She holds out a white knitted shawl that I’ve never seen, but know from the pages of Casilda of the Rising Moon, pulls it around me. It’s a cold night, she says, get under the blankets. I’ll make you some mint tea.

I slide between white cotton sheets, drowse.

When I wake, the sky is dark, sharp stars dazzle through open shutters. On the bedside table of dark wood and mother of pearl, a silk cord of palest blue, strung with a tiny hamsa: the hand of Miriam in damascene black, silver, gold. Beside it a turquoise glass of mint tea has cooled.

The hamsa becomes Catherine’s link back to Miriam and to a time of a more visionary sense of the world. And later it also becomes a link to Selene, who, imprisoned at the end of the 1950s, seems to be in possession of the same talisman, carefully hidden.

… I hope you’ll read on over at Medium – where you can also ‘clap’ for the post. Thank you for reading and for your support.

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How to forget balance and embrace the magic of rhythm

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Writing is the perfect metaphor for life in so many ways and when it comes to finding our flow, especially so. Writing relies on rhythm rather than balance and that’s a good guideline for life too.

How often have you heard that your life needs balance? Particularly a ‘work-life balance’ (as though work is not part of life). A quick internet search will reveal hundreds of blogs devoted to the quest for balance, promising such things as:

how to establish the perfect work-life balance through setting healthy boundaries

while another urges employers to ensure that their employees have:

a satisfactory work-life balance

Intriguing that the first, aimed at those taking control, goes for ‘perfect’, while employees get ‘satisfactory’. But the message is consistent: balancing is an essential skill that you neglect at your peril. Is this the case? Is life a tightrope walk?

It doesn’t have to be. The idea of balance assumes that there are a lot of equal calls on us and we should be treating each to the same time and attention. But life is much messier and more interesting than this. And it can be much less stressful. Remember:

You can do anything, but not everything

Follow your quest

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Life is too short for ‘to do’ lists. We need quests. And If you have purpose then work life and personal life begin to integrate as part of a whole, rather than being warring factions.

If you have work that energises you rather than drains you, the idea of striving for balance is unlikely to occur.

If you are a writer and have the luxury of writing for weeks or months as your main activity, you’ll be ecstatic, but you won’t have balance.

Great artists and musicians are rarely balanced — they put as much time as possible into their art.

Attend to where you are

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In Your To Be List, James McMahon and Lauren Rosenfeld aim:

To be engaged at whatever I am doing, whenever I am doing it. What I do wholeheartedly energizes me, no matter what that is. It is only when I get into the pattern of getting through one thing in order to get to the next thing that I feel exhausted and overwhelmed.

When we live in the moment and pay attention to the project we’re working on, the food we’re eating, the book we’re reading, the person we are with … we’re more fulfilled and less stressed. But it isn’t balance: it’s savouring one thing at a time.

Get into flow…

I hope you will continue reading on Medium

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How to kill perfectionism, find joy and write

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In writing, as in any area of life, perfectionism is a killer. Writing is a wonderful metaphor for life. Writing matters. It illuminates, witnesses, takes us deeper into the experience of others, connects us with nature, humanity, ourselves. As in writing, so in life.

Writing is powerful and we want it to be brilliant. No writer should be content with dull prose clogged with adjectives and exposition. No writer should be happy with didactic, sentimental poetry. No blogger should want to bore people. But it doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it can’t be perfect.

Perfectionism relies on a plethora of false premises:

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Failure is not an option

Of course it is. And failure is a great teacher. In the inimitable words of Samuel Beckett:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

If we fear failure we will never take the risks that lead to real progress.

You are not worthy

Feeling inherently not ‘good enough’ can lead people to making supreme efforts to fit in, find acceptance and love. The underlying thinking is that ‘if I’m perfect I won’t experience rejection’ but it’s false thinking. We’re all flawed and the writing we do will have flaws. It doesn’t make you an unworthy person.

You can never rest

On the one hand perfectionism leads to procrastination. We can’t fail at what we never begin. On the other hand it leads to a permanent state of anxiety in which we drive ourselves on, never able to rest.

Creativity, writing, any activity in life is unsustainable without periods of rejuvenation. You can and must rest.

Life is a puzzle with a solution

Writing in Psychology Today, Jennifer Kromberg says:

…being a perfectionist isn’t about things being perfect; it’s about thinking things need to be perfect and vigilantly pursuing it. Emotionally, this means that instead of living your life in a place of self-acceptance, perfectionists are on a continual treadmill chasing the elusive feeling of having everything in their lives be ‘right’.

You can do it all

As David Allen says in Getting Things Done:

You can do anything, but not everything.

We all have to make choices. If writing is essential to you, then you need to prioritise it, but that might mean you have to lower your standards in other areas. In Writing Wild Tina Welling talks a lot about lowering standards in order to do what she loves: write.

She suggests areas for lowering standards might include the car you drive, how much money you want, the clothes you wear, the amount of housework you can do… You might have to cut down on social media or phone apps or answering every email. You might have to miss some social opportunities…

It’s okay. You don’t have to do it all. To quote Annie Dillard:

It’s endearing how people think writers have time to dust.

Welling suggests we make a sign of this and hang it where visitors will see it.

Instead of falling for these false notions, we can replace the urge to perfectionism (in writing and in life) with progress, joy and kindness:

Craft not perfection: …

I hope you will enjoy rhe rest of this article over on Medium where you can applaud the post 🙂 Thank you.

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All you have to do is write one true sentence

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One of the things I’m involved in as an editor at an indie press is adjudicating fiction in our competitions. This year we’ve amalgamated the fiction prizes into one so that people can submit across prose genres — short stories, novels and novellas.

Every year there are pieces of fiction that jump out as strong contenders but trip themselves up along the way. What is it that Cinnamon Press is looking for in a story? a young friend recently asked me. What makes a good story?

Don’t tell me…

It’s often easier to start from what doesn’t work.

The stories that tell me what is happening (sometimes several times to make sure I get it) but which don’t ‘show’ me anything so I am never drawn in rarely work. Telling has its place in bridging passages, in some forms of first person narrative, but for the most part I’m with Chekhov on this:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Other stories fail because they drown in adjectives or (even worse) adverbs. Descriptive passages can sing off the page, sometimes with a rich seasoning of adjectives thrown in, but only if every word has earned its place. And some words never earn a place — really, just, suddenly, somehow… As says Ursula Le Guin in her invaluable guide to prose writing, Sailing the Craft:

Nothing happens somehow

Please read on on Medium – this is a post particularly for writers and if you have a novel or short stories that would be eligible for our fiction prize, take a look at that too – thank you for reading.

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14 excellent reasons that compel writers to write

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Why do we do it? The reasons for writing are as various as writers, but among them are common threads that unite us.

1. For the trance

I can lose a whole day writing. I forget to eat or drink. I come round hours after beginning and discover I’m cold. Writing takes us into an inner world that is endless and extraordinary.

In Our Faces, Our Hearts, Brief as Photos, John Berger describes one of those luminous moments when an ordinary place takes on luminous, otherworldly quality:

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.

When we write, we’re opening ourselves up. Writing takes us into another space. As Virginia Woolf described it:

I walk making up phrases; sit, contriving scenes; am in short in the thick of the greatest rapture known to me.

I hope you would like to read on – the rest of the article is on Medium and if you enjoy the post, please clap there 🙂 – thank you.

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In an insane world, write fantastic fiction

windmillsAt any given moment, life is a mess of contradiction. It seems to be true that it’s always the best of times and the worst times. A new baby is born and a good friend is facing appalling illness. A loved one is celebrating, yet the political landscape looks grim.

In the midst of joy and loss, I’m also in the midst of a trilogy of novels. finished a novel. The first book in the sequence has been simmering in me for over 30 years. The actual writing was more recent, but some of the events that informed it and later became reshaped and fictionalised have very deep roots.

In a world crying out for global solutions, what business have we writing stories and poems? There are so many reasons why writing, or any art, is vital, no matter how uncertain the times. It has many functions, including:

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