Tag Archives: literature

Why disruption makes us more creative

panorama-2580527__340For twelve years I’ve been running an independent literary press. I love it. What began as a one-book project became a prize-winning indie with a great poetry and fiction list. After a funding crisis in 2012, well-wishers flocked to make sure we survived. Since then, the press has developed a list of 30 titles a year, a book club, competitions, residential writing courses and a mentoring scheme. In 2015, we packed our tenth anniversary with celebrations, looking forward to the next decade.

Success or burnout?

Yet two years later, we were feeling the strain. Why?

We have volunteer help from authors, including our wonderful office manager. We continued to love the books, the events, the places we visit for launches and the people we meet. But despite this, we were always running to stand still. Fatigue was beginning to set in and then …

The shock of changing gear

We got the opportunity to take time off. While founding and running Cinnamon Press, I’ve continued to write. But, although I’ve published novels and poetry collections, the writing was squeezed into the margins of a packed schedule. When I started work on a trilogy, I knew it would demand much deeper concentration and focus. I was fortunate to get an Arts Council grant to travel to Hungary to research and write. The time in Budapest was extraordinary. Draft after draft of the novel flowed and I learnt a huge amount from writing in the place where the novel is set. I was able to talk to authors, editors and museum curators , who kindly gave me their time. And the writing benefited from being able to walk the streets, taking in the place for an extended period.

Peak experiences change you

I came back changed. Peak experiences do this. Experiences that interrupt our well-worn cycles, that give us chance to wonder and thankful, result in shifts in how we see the world. It also made me question how I want to use my time. I came back knowing that I could no longer marginalise my own creativity and expect to be an enthusiastic editor and writing mentor. And I came back eager I to reclaim the vision of Cinnamon Press as innovative, outward-looking and independent. My ideal has always been to focus on excellent literature and I wanted to take stock of that.

In the first twelve years, two things had conspired to create an overwhelming ‘to do’ list. My determination to keep Cinnamon Press going in difficult times had led to taking on more and more work. And my tendency to find it difficult to say ‘no’ exacerbated this. I was spreading myself thinly while allowing expectations to escalate.

It was time to stand back and review. This process is ongoing — we began by looking at everything we do as a press as well as personal and use of time. It was clear from the outset that we needed to examine the publications list. When you say ‘yes’ too often, you end up taking on projects that don’t quite align with your original values. We’ve now put in a plan to lower the number of publications by 2020. A list of fifteen titles a year will still be a significant number for a two-person (plus volunteers) indie press, but it will be more sustainable. We’ll review it again once we’ve achieved this, especially in the light of our own writing goals.

Next we worked to create a series of resource sheets for authors. The aim was to produce clear guidelines, make the way we work more transparent, and to give authors tools to promote their work. It’s early days, but it’s a big step towards not having to reinvent the wheel to answer recurring questions.

The next step was to look at the balance of tasks. I made a list of every job imaginable, grouped them into sections and drew up a weekly cycle of time blocks. Relegating emails and reactive tasks to one period each weekday was liberating. an meant we could prioritise tasks like editing or mentoring. It was a shock to realise that I’d been spending over 40% of my time on reactive administrative tasks. The goal is to get this down to 10% of my time, releasing energy for creative work.

What I’m learning is that it’s possible to ask for help and that routine tasks don’t have to become distractions that expand into all available time.

Reconnecting with the vision

Making these changes has also meant taking time to re-visit the original vision and values for the Cinnamon Press. It’s important that the list focuses on diverse, distinctive voices and remains independent and outward looking. Above all, we want to present a different story, one that isn’t found in mainstream publishing. Reconnecting with this vision has given new vitality to my own writing: becoming a different story is at the heart of my creative process.

Taking a few weeks out this summer proved to be disruptive to my work and my priorities and that’s a great thing. Now I’m looking forward to more creative disruption.

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Don’t find your purpose, create it

The notion that we are here for some pre-ordained purpose is a pervasive one. We’re sold the idea that all we have to do is discover this one thing hidden deep in our souls to know why we exist. But the secret of ‘what we are on earth for’ is often elusive or turns out to be so general it becomes meaningless. Too often ‘finding your purpose’ seems to go hand in hand with generic slogans. And slogans don’t translate into motivation or enable us to live intentional lives. How do actually go about living ‘to bring peace to the world’ or ‘to radiate light’? And if we were born to fulfil some god-given, determined goal, how come it’s not obvious and clear? Why do we need to search for something that we are born for?

I remain unconvinced that I or anyone else has been ‘put here’ to fulfil some need in the universe. So is life meaningless? Does it not matter one jot how we live and whether we are purposeful? Quite the contrary. This life is everything we have, it matters completely. But that doesn’t mean we are puppets put here for some hidden purpose. As Hazel Markus and Elisa Wurf point out, we are ‘active, forceful, and capable of change’. (The Dynamic Self Concept: A Social Psychological Perspective). Each of us makes meaning by the stories we tells about ourselves and the world.

As Joan Didion put it, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ But sometimes these stories can limit us. At their worst, we retell stories that make us more fearful. We weren’t clever/ quick/ pretty/ determined/rich enough last time, so we won’t be in the future. I grew up in a household were the saying ‘It’s not for the likes of us’ was more frequent than meals. (‘It’ being anything good in life, from holidays to hope). Even when I moved to university, I carried these limiting stories with me. And later I had someone in my life whose mantra was: ‘It can’t be done’.

And yet we know that neither people nor stories are set in stone. Stories communicate values, share mores and understanding, but they are still only stories. We can create other stories. In the same way, we can imagine ourselves different, make daily changes until we are different. We don’t have to believe we have a mission planted deep in our souls for us to discover meaning. We can create purpose. So how do we go about it?

How to create purpose

This isn’t an elite activity. Everyone can do it, but writers are particularly well placed, especially through journalling.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau says:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear…

I don’t live in woods, but at the foot of a mountain. It’s rural, but not as remote as it seems. It’s only a click away from a world-wide-web and a short drive to larger places. But, in this sanctuary, journalling creates a space where I can make sense of life. It’s the place where I can be both realistic and optimistic or work towards crafting a story. It’s the space where I can experiment, work out my values, discover my goals and create a vision for the future.

A useful exercise to help with this comes from David Hieatt in Do Purpose. He tells us to draw three intersecting circles. They represent

what you love doing
your skills
how you perceive the times you live in (the zeitgeist).

Where the circles overlap, says Hieatt, is where you find yourself most alive.
Purpose with passion

What do I love? New places. I love to immerse myself in somewhere unknown. And I love words. I write novels and poetry, I journal at least daily and I read voraciously. I sometimes believe I don’t know what I’m thinking until I’ve written it down. When I’m writing, I’m in another space, lost in the trance of it.

What are my skills? I’m a creative person who sees both the minutiae and structure in writing so I work well as an editor. I’m an enabler, a teacher and a performer. I’m organised, can hold a lot of disparate information in my head and I’m good at solving logistical problems. So running a small press and being a writer, editor and mentor work for me.

The type of press we run and the novels and poetry I write come out of passion and skills, but also from the zeitgeist. Context always has its effects. How do I perceive the world? We live in a time when there is crushing pressure to conform. Too often the lowest common denominator grabs the most attention. There is too much mindless consumerism and way too much distraction. We sleep-walk into political and environmental disasters and there is fear of difference. We don’t deal well with ‘the other’. And yet there is also extraordinary generosity, resilience and honesty in the world. There is so much that gives hope, a great deal to celebrate and witness to. There are oases of imagination and courage.

So, the books we want to publish at Cinnamon Press are those with passion and purpose. As Adam Craig says when writing about our Liquorice Fish Books imprint:

We live in a time when we’re led to believe our options are limited. …

Our world is shrinking because we are being told there is less here than meets the eye or heart.

Our aim is to encourage and foster new writing that is vibrant, playful, transgressive, radical and beautiful, wherever it might be found.

And the books I aspire to write are those that move and challenge readers. By this, I’m not talking about books that preach and browbeat. Rather, writing that is humane and extraordinary, that is never mediocre or bland. I’m currently reading Anne Michael’s poetry collection, All We Saw, and it’s a perfect example. The writing is exquisite. It’s personal and poignant with stunning flashes of subtle insight. It makes a difference to have read it. I want to publish and write books that, like Michaels’ work, believe in life. As Adrienne Rich puts it:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power
reconstitute the world.

The story you want to live

I’m currently writing the second book of a trilogy. A Remedy for All Things is set in Hungary in the late 50s where political injustice is extreme. Yet much less extreme situations can also trammel individual and community life. The first novel, This is the End of the Story, is set in 70s Teesside. It was a time when industry was failing and hope eroded. The stories have distant echoes of one another. Not only do they share a central character, but also share a veiwpoint based on a quote from Don Quixote:

The unreason of the world is more insane than any fiction.universe-2742113__340

In short, my characters are asserting that ‘reality’ isn’t always reasonable. And when this is the case, we can remake reality. But the novels are not didactic. They are the stories of people exploring how to create meaning in spite of circumstances. When time fractures and identity is uncertain, the characters persist in imagining. In writing these novels I want to write a different story, not to churn out what might be safer or more comfortable. In my fiction writing I’m exploring how we can create purpose. By telling a story in new ways we can make meaning.

In life I use journalling to the same end. Doing Hieatt’s exercise with three circles was one way to reflect on the purpose I want to create. I’m alive when I’m buzzing with words, fizzing with a story that I have to get written. I’m alive when I confront pessimism or conformity. I’m alive when I’m working with the words of other writers I admire or helping emerging writers. And I’m most alive when I can combine these passions with being in new places. Unfamiliar places challenge me not to get too comfortable. I wasn’t put on earth to be a semi-nomadic writer, editor and mentor, but this is the story I’ve created now. It’s the story that I currently want to live with purpose.

What would you put in your three circles? What do you love? What are your skills? How do you see the world? Get out your journal. Take some time to think about the questions and fill your circles. Look at where they overlap and set about creating your purpose.

First published on Medium

 

 

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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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