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When Writing Stalls

Just over a month ago, the daily routine began in our local café, Póharszék, with a large bottle of water, black coffee and, occasionally, cold porridge or a croissant. If the day didn’t involve a trip to a museum or a meeting, we might be there till early evening, barring some time to walk, or we’d go off after breakfast for a research foray and arrive back for a coffee before dinner. It was our favourite place to work – homely, welcoming, a place of chance encounters and local life; a place with lots of regular patrons so that we felt part of the area very quickly. Writing a book that is embedded in Budapest, the local research and conversations and this sense of place gave me a connection that fuelled the writing. It was heady stuff. I arrived in Budapest with almost a first draft and left with draft three comfortably completed.

And in the last month? Nothing.

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This was partly deliberate. After being so immersed in the novel, I knew I’d need some time not looking at it so that when I read it again I see the glitches. But I’ve also noticed that I have hardly journalled since arriving home, something that I normally do daily and which is intrinsic to how I process life. And finding the time to next write at home feels elusive.

Mario Petrucci recently had an interesting thread on his Writing into Freedom page about how or whether TV prevents people from writing. We don’t have TV, just a screen that we can watch films on some evenings, so the distraction of apparent endless choice isn’t one that occurs here, instead the ubiquitous distraction is work. My home and my workplace are the same. It’s work I love, helping extraordinary writing to become books in the world, but it’s also highly consuming and, of course, emergencies crop up to add themselves to the constantly self-renewing ‘to do’ list.

The house is an ideal place to write – one that could be used for retreats – it’s quiet, has beautiful views and plenty of corners to sit in and lose oneself. But the study, which is the hub of Cinnamon Press, has a siren call and even at weekends, when I promise myself I’ll just do an hour of work, or just tidy the email folders, the whole day will suddenly vanish in work. Similarly it’s all too easy for dinner to get a bit later and later each day when there are deadlines or to feel pulled back to work late in the evening …

After a month of not being immersed in writing my novel, I feel ready to see it with fresh eyes and to work on a final draft, but the reality is that there’s a novel that needs to be published early for very good reasons and two mentoring students suddenly without a mentor that I need to take on (again with very good reasons and no one’s fault) and there are nine pamphlets that need editing and laying out and fifteen titles that need author biographies, pictures, descriptions and bibliographic information pulling together and we need new leaflets and postcards printing and the stock taking needs to be done and there is admin to do for the competitions and … Giving myself permission to write feels much harder at home than away from it, which is why, for me, my most intense creative periods happen when I am in another environment.

I’ve been reading a book about Morita recently, Playing Ball on Running Water, by David K Reynolds. I’ve read only a little about, but the key elements are accepting emotions as they are, but not allowing them to control our behaviour. We feel, but then decide what needs to be done (a purpose) and do it.

‘Morita therapy advises the patient to focus on behavior sequences, to persevere regardless of the mental interruptions of anxiety or fear, to be responsible for living a constructive, interdependent, non-self-centered life, even if beset by emotional difficulties.’

Koschmann, Nancy Lee.  Morita psychotherapy.  Monumenta Nipponica

Western critiques often see this as highly conformist – a way of getting individuals to suppress their own feelings and needs in favour of fulfilling society’s functions. Yet Morita himself was an eccentric by Japanese standards and Moritists object that the feelings are not suppressed, but transcended in favour of an outward approach.

Getting on with what needs to be done feels familiar from my perspective of keeping Cinnamon Press going, but the devil is always in the detail. What is it that NEEDS doing? The work? The writing? The housework/cooking…? The maintenance of relationships? In the crush of pressing and important ‘needs’, it’s easy for writing to fall off the edge of the list.

So what do writers do to maintain the creative energy and to actually write? Writing process is endlessly fascinating. Mine stops and starts. Sometimes it includes writing time every day, even if it’s an hour grabbed after midnight. Most often, it’s all or nothing (journaling excepted), which is why periods away from home are vital. How do you keep your writing process going and what do you do when writing stalls?

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Connection and the Unfamiliar

Writing my last Budapest blog for this trip at the wonderful little café, Pohárszék, I’m struck by how different the city feels after only a few weeks here. In the first few days it was quickly apparent that Budapest is not like anywhere I’ve ever visited – the impenetrable language, which has nothing in common with the surrounding languages and the sense of deep reserve and privacy, despite a high level of politeness and helpfulness, and the feeling that melancholy is a deep vein here, made us wonder if we would settle in to a writing period. Finding a place to work has made a huge difference to that process, particularly since the clientele of Pohárszék are a wonderful mixture of Hungarian regulars and local ex-pats – a friendly American screenwriter, and a young American couple with a collie dog at home amongst the many dogs that sup the water here daily, for example. This café; a couple of encounters with a generous locals, particularly a Hungarian publisher and a writer/academic; a local baker and the wonderful staff and pianist at the Spinoza café in the Jewish District, have given us just enough sense of connection to fall in love with Budapest, and to be feeling nostalgic for it as we prepare to leave.

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Some kind of connection has felt vital for the writing practice, particularly as I’m working on a novel set here in three key time periods (30s, 50s and 90s), but there is also a reverse side of this, in which the writing has been assisted by being out of my natural environment – a city rather than the foothills of the Moelwyns in North Wales; a language I’ve still only mastered a few words in; a political and cultural context that is far removed from my own. We’ve been aware of political slogans (and of some resistance with rather witty defacing on the posters); of the tiny Occupy presence on Andrassy utca; of the denial that there is a Romany population on the one hand, yet an interesting photo-exhibition of Romany life in the House of Photography and details of the project that the Massolit bookshop-café owner volunteers with, and of the campaign to save the Central European University from being closed due to political intervention, but there is a remoteness from these issues for us as observers and outsiders.

Meanwhile, we’ve also been aware of dire events back in the UK – the attacks in Manchester, Borough Market and Finsbury Park; the awful loss of life and homes at Grenfell Tower; the fiasco of the General Election and the insanity following it, including the vile Brexit negotiations. And although we’ve been worried about people living in areas affected and have felt the impact of mad politics, it has also felt much more remote than it ordinarily would.

So we’ve been able to find a sense of connection, yet simultaneously feel that we’re living in a bubble – outsiders to both this extraordinary city that has nurtured the writing and to the home we’ve travelled from. It’s an extraordinary combination – one which has given us a rare opportunity to step out of our ‘normal’ lives for a few precious weeks and to write and write … I’m eternally grateful to the Arts Council for making this possible – and to Budapest for being a gracious, unfamiliar place.

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Meet Me in Budapest

Hand of Miriam on the wall of the Toledo Museum of MagicCharacter is endlessly fascinating. When I’m writing fiction I can get lost in the people I’m writing, even begin to dream their dreams. The mysteriousness and opaqueness of others is endlessly intriguing, but so to is their context. Who we are, the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us, arise from a matrix of particular factors, amongst them time and place. In This is the End of the Story, Cassie comes of age in 1970s Teesside and her context helps to shape her: the industrial landscape, the decline of employment, the cultural expectations of a class, time and place, are all issues that she has to face in forming any sense of identity.

Cassie shares my own background in large measure, though heavily fictionalised, but memory is a tricky thing so I still found myself doing lots of research – songs I thought I’d heard at one time often turned out to be from a couple of years ahead; fashions and news items similarly. Despite that, there was a familiarity of place that informed me and gave the writing a significant grounding. When it came to Toledo, though, another main setting in the novel, I was on very different territory.

There was no way to visit eleventh century Toledo so I had to rely on archival material, translations of texts about Toledo at the end of a cultured and flourishing Muslim rule, and a novel I’d read as a child, Casilda of the Rising Moon. Books and the Internet were invaluable, but it was only after I was given a trip to Toledo as a birthday gift that I felt really confident of this part of the writing. When I stood in a tiny mosque (later made into a church, Cristo de la Luz) that Casilda might conceivably have stood in 900 years earlier or when I visited The Museum of Spanish Magic, housed in a tenth century Islamic cave-house, complete with an ancient hand of Fatima (or hand of Miriam) talisman imprinted on the wall, I felt a sense of place that I hadn’t experienced from any textual research.

I was recently corresponding with Cinnamon Press novelist, Landeg White. Landeg was lived and worked in the West Indies, Malawi, Sierra Leone, has been a professor of African Studies and has lived for a considerable time in Portugal, where his poetry output has included a translation of Luís de Camões, published by Princeton University Press in 2008. He is someone who knows a great deal about ‘place’ and the writing of place, and remarked that going to a place to do in situ research is ‘absolutely necessary’. He was re-reading George Eliot’s Romola, admiring the way she took the trouble to find out things instead of just sitting in her attic making it all up.

Places are characters and to some extent we can fictionalise them and imagine them, but if the real place is to be the jumping off point, complete with an atmosphere, a history, a complex culture of food, sounds, smells, rivers, architecture … then immersing ourselves in it can only enhance the writing process. Moreover, moving ourselves as writers so that we are out of place, out of our small comfort zones as we write, pushes at our boundaries, makes us more porous to influences larger than ourselves.

In 2012 the ‘Writing Britain’ exhibition at the British Library captivated me. There is something so powerful about an original manuscript or early proofs spattered with corrections; something intimate and epiphanic at once. All the books in the exhibition were united by a strong sense of place. I saw the hand-written last page of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm; Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (one of my favourite books from childhood and still one of the most powerful retellings of the Blodeuwedd story from the Mabinogi), a first edition of ‘Little Gidding’ — ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started‘ — and Kathleen Raine’s Northumberland journals in her own hand, ‘those abiding essences, the rocks and hills and mountains’ raising their voices to ‘utter their wild credo’ next to a bit that reads like my own journal, talking about cold rural houses in winter with no central heating and managing the logs.

I came out awed, dazzled and dazed. I had entered a trance in there among runes and spells, within the song lines of connection. When I left, the world felt too bright and sharp. This is why we write — surely — for this extraordinary intimacy with strong magic, the reverie of words that make worlds. And in this enchantment, why is it that place features so dominantly? Because location — whether it is the ‘nowhere’ of utopia, the precise smells and sights of a Paris street, a Welsh mountainside, an Indian market, or a Birmingham canal — and story are essentially linked. Writing takes us to a place – real and visceral, imagined and strange, dream or nightmare, anchored on a map or found only in the interior of a mind. Good writing takes us ‘somewhere’ even when the place is called ‘nowhere.’

Because it is in a place that we begin to narrativise our lives, and the lives of our characters. We tell stories to reconcile ourselves to time — to the huge events of cosmology, to the big and small and hidden events of history and to our personal journeys — and in doing so we inevitably locate those stories — somewhere, someplace.

Travel for research or to write in another location seems to me vital, but it can also be difficult to achieve – busy lives, constraints of time, money and commitments make such ‘writing away’ time incredibly precious, so I feel immensely privileged to have the opportunity to do some writing in Budapest for the sequel to This is the End of the Story.

In A Remedy For All Things, Cassie, now using her full name, Catherine, will be undertaking her own research and writing trip to Budapest in the footsteps of the 1930s poet, Attila József, who died in what may have been an accident, though is generally thought to be suicide. Set in Budapest in November 1993, one of the coldest winters on record, Catherine’s will interweave with the story of Selene Solweig Virág, a woman who, if she ever lived, took part in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and was subsequently imprisoned in horrific conditions; a woman who seems to have had her own strange connections to Attila Jozsef.

I can’t travel to the Budapest of the 30s, 50s or 90s, but I’ve been given the chance to soak up a sense of place for a month, writing, talking to writers and archivists in Budapest, visiting museums, walking the streets that my characters walked, in fact and in fiction. Place and political context make a huge difference to personal stories. The stories we tell ourselves and allow others to tell about us are shaped in no small measure by where we find ourselves. Meet me in Budapest as the story unfolds…

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It’s never the end of the story

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. Belief is Cassie’s gift, but coming of age in one period of political turmoil, Teesside in the late 70s, Cassie reaches her own resolution about who she might be and how she wants to live.

What really happened was that I was slow to learn. Belief wasn’t so much my gift as my curse.

Cassie may be more resourceful than either Miriam or Liam imagine and when she eventually visits Toledo, tracking down places where Miriam insists she may have lived in a former life, it is far from the end of the story.

After writing: This is the End of the Story, a novel by Catherine Anne McManus, she is adamant that she will never again be ‘Casilda’. No more Cassie. No more Kitty Brennan.

And when Cassie, now insisting that she be called Catherine, meets Simon, she appears to be in a new phase of her life – a confident writer and editor, about to undertake a trip to Budapest to research the life and untimely death of the 1930s poet, Attila József. But once in Budapest during November 1993, one of the coldest winters on record, Catherine finds herself disturbed by dreams about the life of a woman imprisoned at the end of the 1950s after the Hungarian uprising. As Catherine begins to investigate whether the woman, Selene Solweig Virág, ever existed, she becomes more deeply drawn in to another life, one that has a strange and inexplicable connection to Attila Jozsef.

As the month progresses, the dates tracking the last twenty-eight days of József’s life and Selene’s increasingly desperate imprisonment in 1959, Catherine once again begins to question her own identity and to question the stories Miriam had once told her. As her life becomes increasingly improbable she remembers Miriam’s insistence that ‘the unreason of the world is more insane than any fiction.’

The questions of perception and identity only become more intense when Simon joins her is Budapest and as the date of József’s apparent suicide approaches. But will this be the end of the story? ‘There’s a remedy for all things except death,’ Quixote tells us, but what of the next life and the next?

A Remedy for All Things is the sequel to This is the End of the Story – I’ll be finishing the first draft in Budapest in June and blogging about the writing process… the power of poetry… how political contexts impact on personal stories… the stories we tell ourselves and allow others to tell about us…

 

 

 

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A Small Time at Home

March has almost gone and since the last blog we’ve had a fantastic launch for Scan by John Fraser Williams (with a great supporting reading from Rhys Trimble) at the wonderful Palas Print bookshop in Bangor and a week long writing course at Ty’n y Coed Farm near Rowen in Conwy. The course was a superb week – not only did we have gorgeous sunshine in this very special place, but also a group of writers who were committed to pushing themselves – some were just starting out, others much more experienced, but all had the right combination of doubt and determination to challenge themselves and the result was a final night listening to a range of work that marked authentic creative journeys.

It was lovely to meet new people who were taking courageous steps  – the metaphor of the week was a blanket that was being crocheted by one participant that gradually appeared less and less and not at all at the end of the week as writing pushed out the crochet hook. It was also lovely to see people we’d worked with on earlier courses and a treat to meet up with Mavis Gulliver who, like me, is writing about slate – Mavis working on a long sequence about the Scottish slate islands as I work away at Cwmorthin. The resonances between the pieces, even the forms that the material suggests to each of us are remarkable and it’s probably the first time I’ve done any of my own writing while away teaching a course – snatched little bits, but with a sense of urgency as Mavis and I bounced ideas off each other.

As well as having a gifted poet to share the tuition (and cooking) with this week – Pete Marshall, author of AGOG, we also had a guest author to entertain us with poetry and prose – Professor Ian Gregson, from Bangor, whose latest book, the novel Not Tonight Neil, is funny and dark and poignant.

It’s been a rewarding and stimulating week, but I am looking forward to my own bed tonight – before going off early tomorrow morning to Glamorgan University for an evening event – Taste of Cinnamon – I’ve got an hour to talk to students about independent publishing, a session hosted by Professor Philip Gross, and then there is an open reading when Philip and I will be joined by Cinnamon poet, Kevin Mills and Cinnamon fiction writer, Shelagh Weeks.

So much packed into a small space of time – and very good indeed to have a small time at home in the midst of it.

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