Tag Archives: literature

The Benefits of Looking the Other Way

While I’m in the in-between state of ‘writer-hiatus’ (with thanks to Alex Josephy for the term) I’m letting my mind mull on the next book in the trilogy. I wrote recently about how new material often comes from dreams or from the trance-like state that walking can induce, but yesterday it came from looking the other way – simply not trying to think about the characters, how they would fit together, what parts of their stories need to be captured or how the overall narrative should be structured.

22140837_1950033865259925_7268270551098052420_nInstead, I was preparing for a Cinnamon Press reading at our local bookshop, the wonderful Hen Bost. Afterwards there was to be a ‘tapas and drinks’ get together for 12 people round our kitchen table so the whole day was spent cooking, accompanied by Lana del Rey and Leonard Cohen.

Somewhere in the midst of making Spanish tortilla, chilli prawns, garlic mushrooms, humus, crab cakes, ratatouille and bean stew, tomato and feta salad and spiced roast nuts, the structure of the next book, For Hope is Always Born, crept up on me and quietly revealed itself. It’s still fragile, but it reminded me that we must stop and do something completely different sometimes in order to let creativity breath.

One of the writing prompt tools I often use for journalling (and which I also used to inspire the poems in the pamphlet Turn/Return) is Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies card. They were developed as quirky ways out of an impasse, particularly creative impasses or team projects. On my way to catch a train today I picked out a card that said, ‘Do we need holes?’ Yes! We need holes in our schedule, spaces to look the other way, to walk or dream or cook for a whole day. We need space to change environment for ten minutes or half an hour or a day or more in order to make ourselves look the other way and find that, when we turn our gaze back again, the perspective has already changed.

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Advice from Kafka

Over the last few weeks I’ve gone through draft five of A Remedy for All Things. This draft was a slow, meticulous read through looking for the tiniest hint of cliché, the odd rogue space, the distant scent of an inconsistency, typos, missing commas, over-writing and anything that could in any way snag. I was, as always, amazed at how much I found, given how many times I’ve read the manuscript already, but I’m also certain that there will still be errors, some of them so glaring that by this stage I have no chance of seeing them. I’m far too close to the narrative now. I feel in my bones that that people I invented lived real lives, perhaps because one of them is a fictionalised version of a historic character, whilst another lived a life that many endured in that particular political context. Or perhaps because reality is in any case such a disputed notion that in writing the trance becomes where we live.

And then it ends, at least for a while. There will be another draft, but not until a thorough and trusted reader has gone over this draft to root out all those snags and errors that I can’t see for myself. So I’m in that strange period of hiatus. It feels itchy. The spell has been broken and for a while I have nothing to write; a restless, unnerving gap, but an essential one.

kafka headKafka famously had a sign over his desk that simply said, ‘Wait’. It’s not advice that writers often want to hear. We’re more liable to be keen to get on, keen to finish, keen to find a publisher, keen to … We don’t live in a patient world, but a slow writing movement might be as timely as the slow food movement. Waiting, sending the manuscript off to be commented on and positively critiqued, or just putting the file away for a period of time, has all kinds of benefits. It ensures that the glitches are more likely to be caught and the final draft will be one that is as polished as possible. And it pulls us out of the trance so that the next time we encounter the manuscript we’re not so emotionally involved with the characters whose lives had started to invade our dreams.

Feeling creatively restless is both uncomfortable and inspiring. On the other side will be the final stages of the second book in the trilogy and the beginnings of the third. To allow the new ideas to flourish there has to be some time for germination, for the loamy underground imaginative processes to push towards the surface. While that’s happening it’s essential to WAIT.

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Draft after Draft after …

I’m endlessly fascinated by how various writing process can be between one writer and the next, but however idiosyncratic these processes might be there are certain stages that have to be negotiated. It has to begin with ideas. For me, these often come from dreams or from the trance-like state that walking can induce – the link between walking and writing, the process of flaneurs like Baudelaire and Benjamin makes complete sense to me. These ideas begin to assume more and more shape – notes and jottings, bits of research, character sketches, hopes of something amazing and doubts that it is ever going to take shape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt this stage, some of it starts to form. Maybe you write a timeline. Perhaps you write chapter summaries. You might be someone who writes detailed character sketches or even has a list of questions to ask each character. For me, it’s all about research at this stage. I look up the weather of the time and place I’m writing about. I research the politics, the social climate, the architecture of the streets, the landscape, the local food, historical characters who might turn up in the novel. Before beginning to write This is the End of the Story I read several academic tomes on Don Quixote and several novels that has a Quixotic structure. For the current novel, A Remedy for All Things, I read everything I can find about Attila and all of his poetry that’s in English translation. I also unearthed several interviews with Attila’s family members and with the sculptor who made the most famous statue of him. Then I read several books about the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and as much as I could find about Budapest in the early 90s. From these copious notes some rough sketches of actual story began to be written and the opening, which had been in my head since the first dreams of my new protagonist, Selene.

From the mass of dreams, ideas, characters, places and research notes, something new has to emerge. Writing This is the End of the Story, I had several vivid incidents that needed to be written. I had them clearly in my head so I didn’t outline anything and I didn’t think about what order to write them in. Each piece emerged and only later did I order and re-order and then go over the whole to make sure the way they fitted together was consistent, even though the narrative was non-linear.

Writing A Remedy for All Things has been completely different. I’m juggling three characters each in different time periods – 1937, 1959 (with flash backs to 1952-9) and 1993. What unites them is that the two main characters, Catherine (Cassie from This is the End of the Story) and Selene are dreaming each other’s lives on successive days in November to early December, days that were the last 28 of Attila József’s life. So the dates impose an essential framework on what would otherwise be a chaotic narrative and each date has two short chapters – one in 1993, one in 1959. With this framework it seemed sensible to outline early so I wrote summaries of each chapter and this enabled me to wrangle a sprawling plot into something manageable and accessible. I don’t believe there is a one size fits all way to write a novel, but certain stories let us know what they need – form and content begin to match if we attend to the material we’re working with.

In this case, with an outline in place, I wrote a first full draft. It was full of typos and inconsistencies. It was too obviously researched at some points (it’s skeleton showing through its skin), but lacking in detail at others. The prose was clunky and some of the chapters were little more than bridging passages, but I had a whole novel. It was time to get a clearer vision of what I might be working towards and to do that demanded that I stop for a while.

With the constant programme editing, events to organise for Cinnamon Press and admin to keep the press running, taking time off from my own writing isn’t difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to find the time to write at all, which is why having writing blocks courtesy of the Arts Council, has been such a blessing with this novel. But whether we have scraps of time or luxurious amounts of it, there are interludes when we need to stop and stand back. Time to get some distance from the first intensely immersive process. Time to dream and wander again. For a week or a month or however long you need (but not so long that it becomes remote from you), let it rest. Don’t read it and don’t let anyone else read it. It’s too early in the process and too vulnerable to being derailed at this stage. (If you have a trusted reader or a mentor, bounce ideas off them, talk in broad terms, get ideas about overall process, get encouragement and support, but don’t second guess the fragile first draft just yet).

I did keep reading everything I could find about Budapest in the right periods while I was letting the first draft settle. And I also had fascinating conversations about the place and events, about Attila József’s poetry and about some of the bigger ideas I was exploring, but I didn’t open the files.

I started the second draft once I knew I was going to be able to visit Budapest to hone the research and really bring the book to life. My aim was to revise the narrative so that any thin passages were fleshed out, so that the research was carried by story, dialogue and character, rather than cluttering the surface. I wanted to improve the prose, kill any darlings, rid the story of inconsistencies, smooth the pacing and keep the conflicts tense. The second draft is a good point to address any structural issues, and for me a key issue was how to use particular objects that revealed connections not only in this novel, but also pointed back to the first novel and potentially forward to the next, For Hope is Always Born.

When I finished the second draft, not long after arriving in Budapest, I immediately went back to the beginning and started editing again. The third draft saw a mixture of changes. Having gone through the structural issues I could concentrate on finer details. But, being in the place where the novel is set and with access to generous people who’d lived through some of what I was writing about and knew Attila Joszef’s work so much more deeply in its original language, also meant I could revisit some of the key ideas. In the third draft I completely changed my mind about one of the most pivotal events of the book, thanks to a conversation with László Kúnos of Corvina Publishers. And I was able to add details about József’s life and about the places that Selene would have known only because I was able to visit important museums and sites and talk to people.

The fourth draft was a thorough edit of all of this, again reading for consistency as well as for every stray comma, typo or missing word. Drafts two, three and four came hard on the heels of each other because I had an intense time set aside to work in Hungary, but there were breaks, even if just for a day, and lots of conversations, as well as long walks and plenty more dreams to fuel the process.

And then I came home, got back into work and didn’t look at the manuscript for several weeks. Another rest is no bad thing and having worked on redrafting, editing and editing again, it was useful to get some distance. The hardest work to see objectively is always our own. I can spot tics and flaws in other people’s writing that I’m oblivious to in my own. If you get to this stage and want another view on the whole thing now is a good time to hand over to a trusted reader or work with mentor.

After all of this, it’s time to hone. This is where I am now – going over every chapter very slowly, realising that even in a fifth draft, there are typos, missing punctuation, phrases that don’t quite work, some glaring bits of overwriting. I’m in the last stages of honing, maybe a week to go and then it can go off for a full overhaul by an objective and very trusted reader.

When it comes back from that, I’ll be onto the final draft (or drafts) and then it will begin the editing process ready for publication. And, of course, the last stages of writing are only the first stages of having a book that needs to make its way into the world … a whole other process.

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Emerging from the Rapture

remedy front cover

Kafka apparently had a large sign over his desk that said: WAIT. It’s good advice – putting a novel away and coming back to it with fresh eyes makes a huge difference. So, having worried about the hiatus in writing after returning from Budapest, I’m now glad of having taken that space and I’m slowly making my way through the final draft, amazed to find that, despite thinking that draft three was almost ready to go, there are a myriad tiny details to deal with as I go.

What is interesting in this read-through, is that the book feels like it arrived in the universe from who-knows-where, with very little reference to anything I did to make it happen. I’ve been talking to a writer friend who feels the same about her poetry pamphlet coming out next year – wondering where it all came from and did she really write it. It’s a sensation that seems common among writers. But what is it that makes us feel that our own writing simply happened, that we can hardly reconstruct the process in retrospect?

While I was putting together a writing workshop today, it occurred to me that this sensation of discontinuity is related to what John Berger recognised when he talked about writers as witnesses. When we write, we become porous to other places, other lives. If the writing is working, we are totally immersed in a process that is ‘other’ so that we emerge into the quotidian blinking and surprised. Virginia Woolf described writing as rapture and I’ve heard poets, when asked why they write, say they write for the trance.

No wonder we have to wait. Having been in a dreamlike-world of our own creation, we surface into a different atmosphere – one in which every comma and space has to be right; in which every sentence has to be weighed and measured in case it is found wanting. It’s a very different aspect of the writing process and it needs a different kind of concentration and attention, one that is certainly assisted by having taken some time away from the novel after the initial magical process of writing in Budapest.

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From literary to historical to …

This is the End of the Story is, amongst other things, a literary novel for Teesside. Cassie and Miriam are immersed in the politics, weather, music and mores of the 70s; the culture and geography of 1970s industrialised Teesside, but they are also Quixotic – Cassie playing Sancho to Miriam; a ‘Quixote’ who pursues truth and justice even when the fight cannot be won, and who insists on the power of perception, imagination and dreams.

There are other literary and artistic influences in this first novel in the trilogy – from Dostoevsky to Madame Bovary; from Elisabeth Bourton de Trevino’s Casilda of the Rising Moon to the Canadian folk music of Gordon Lightfoot. The literary novel is a melting pot of ingredients, and so too is the historical novel, which A Remedy for All Things is, at least in part.

The last month of Attila József’s life is well documented and the ‘forradolam’, the ‘boiling over of the masses’ in the twelve days of uprising in 1956 has inspired many books, both fiction and non-fiction.

So once again there has been lots of research, this time involving not only delving into Cervantes, E.M. Forster and poets like Endre Ady as well as Attila József himself, but also into articles, interviews and works of non-fiction, from Thomas Kabdebo’s Attila József, Can you take on this awesome life? to Victor Sebestyen’s Twelve Days, Revolution 1956. All of the reading has been essential, but unlike 1970s Teesside, Budapest, in any era, was completely outside of my frame of reference.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATravelling there made a real difference, thanks to a generous grant from ACE, but even that would have been less effective without some key conversations with people who are part of the place. Conversations at the Hungarian House of Photography, and at the Attila József Museum were crucial. Similarly, meeting Lászlo Kunos, Director of Corvina Press, not only gave me a much more nuanced perspective on life in both 1950s and 1990s Budapest (something I wouldn’t have picked up from books or even from visiting merely as a tourist) but also helped me make key decisions about how my character, Catherine, thinks about Attila József’s final days and state of mind. And meeting the novelist and poet, Gábor Schein, again enriched my perspective on this remarkable city, which has been through so much, and yet is a relatively young city, with Pest in particular becoming populace only at the end of the nineteenth century.

There is an element of writing that is essentially solitary, especially working though draft after draft of a novel or sifting through other novels, essay, interviews, non-fiction works and newspaper reports to find exactly the right details. But there is another element that demands not only activity, but immersion. A Remedy for All Things is part literary novel, part historical novel, but above all it is a novel of characters – of people and of a city that lives and breathes and to write it has demanded that I share a tiny bit of that breath.

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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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An Extraordinary Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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