Tag Archives: literature

How to fly with imagination and inspire new life

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

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

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

So, how do we train the imagination?

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

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

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

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

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

That is a powerful tool with vast potential.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagination fosters autonomy

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12 things I’ve learnt while travelling and writing

 

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

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

1. Exhilaration changes us

Abraham Maslow describes peak experiences as:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The elements of hope:

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

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

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

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

  • clear
  • desired
  • believed
  • expected
  • invested in

Attach to nothing

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

Expect everything, attach to nothing

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

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

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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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Saying Au Revoir to Attila József

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picture by Adam Craig

Part 3 on Writing a novel trilogy

While writing and researching in Budapest last year, we ate a couple of times at a local restaurant that takes enormous pride in its food and service (Kispiac) and went there for our last evening meal before leaving Budapest.

The owner asked us about our time in Budapest and whether we’d like to return. Before we left, he came out with a bottle of Hungarian sparkling tokaji as a going away gift. Whilst Hungarians are rarely effusive, we found them helpful and generous — I can’t imagine that kind of gesture from a London restaurant after a couple of visits.

Budapest is an extraordinary place — there’s a quiet kindness in so many people — unshowy, but vital. There’s also deep melancholy — a history replete with suffering and ongoing political corruption and extremism.

picture by Adam Craig

It’s a place where beautiful Art Nouveau buildings are sometimes fading and uncared for. There are architectural gems are so in need of restoration that chunks of masonry fall into the street (we saw two passers-by almost felled by falling stone). And yet there’s also pride in good service and good food, in art and architecture, in being humane.

When I arrived, one of the themes in my novel was the debate over whether Attila József committed suicide or died in a tragic accident. The preponderance of opinion has always been that his death was by suicide, but I wanted to leave the question open, to stay with the ambiguity.

A conversation with László Kúnos of Corvina Press convinced me otherwise. Sad as it is to believe that this exceptional man chose to kill himself, the more I read the poetry and biographies, the more I realised that there is an internal logic to the life and death.

This is a scene when I’ve explored this in the novel:

She walks back slowly. She will go to the place where he wrote when editing the magazine, Beautiful Word, another day, but the statue on the Danube near the Parliament building is only a short detour on the route to her apartment.

József sits, coat thrown down beside him, hat in his hand, watching the river, the epitome of contemplation and lament. He looks as though he’d spent the day walking across this city searching for something, Catherine thinks. The lines from ‘By the Danube’ are in a facsimile of József’s handwriting: Mintha szivembôl folyt volna tova Zavaros, bölcs és nagy volt a Duna — As if it flowed straight from my heart / Troubled, wise and great was the Danube.

How was it that Székely translated those lines? Catherine asks the statue.

As if my own heart had opened its gate:

The Danube was turbulent, wise and great.

She thinks of the conversation with Margit and András, how a thing mutates between languages, but even in one language how every action, every nuance is open to interpretation.

Catherine sits on the bottom step beneath Attila, looking towards the Danube with him. When she begins to feel stiff and colder she walks towards the figure, touches his hand.

There is such melancholy here, she tells him. Suicide seems to be everywhere, your language is unlike any neighbouring country’s, your borders have changed, to say there has been one too many invasion is an understatement and even your national anthem talks of pity and sorrow. So much sadness and I have endless questions for you that you can’t answer. Did you kill yourself? I’m minded to agree with Margit and András that you did. Why didn’t you take another route? And the strangest question of all — Did you know a woman called Selene Solweig Virág?

I hope you will read on over on Medium. Thank you!

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Environment is hard to overcome, even in fiction

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Part 2 of Writing a novel trilogy

Character is 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 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.

Where we are is who we are

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 issues that she has to face in forming any sense of identity.

Cassie shares my own background, though fictionalised. But memory is a tricky thing so I still found myself doing lots of research — songs I thought I’d heard; fashions and news items. 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 major 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 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 travelled to Toledo that I felt confident of this part of the writing.

When I stood in a tiny mosque that Casilda might have stood in 900 years earlier, or visited a tenth century Islamic cave-house, I felt a sense of place that I couldn’t experienced from books.

One of Cinnamon Press’s novelists, Landeg White. who passed away at the end of 2017, was someone who knew a great deal about ‘place’ and the writing of place. He remarked that going to a place to do in situ research was ‘absolutely necessary’. He was re-reading George Eliot’s Romola at the time, and admiring the way she took the trouble to find out things instead of making it all up.

Places are characters …

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There’s a remedy for all things, except…

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Part 1 of Writing a novel trilogy

This is the End of the Story is not the end of the story.

It’s the first book in a trilogy — a novel that raises questions about perception and identity, about friendship, love, loyalty. About the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us. Belief is Cassie’s gift, and for some time she believes others when they tell her who she is. But Cassie reaches her own resolution about who she is 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 is more resourceful than those who try to tell her who to be realise.

A remedy for all things

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In A Remedy for All Things, my protagonist, Cassie (who now uses her full name — Catherine) has come a long way. This is how the book blurb puts it:

Belief is Catherine’s gift. Or it was once.

After a miscarriage and marital breakdown, her life is on course. Her new relationship with Simon is flourishing and she has a commission to research a novel about the poet, Attila József.

But when Catherine arrives in Budapest in winter 1993, she begins dreaming the life of a young woman, Selene Virág. Imprisoned after the 1956 Uprising, Selene finds she is dreaming Catherine’s life in turn.

Obsessed, Catherine abandons her research to find out who Selene was. Why does Selene believe Attila József was the father of her daughter, Miriam, when Attila died in 1937? And what became of Selene?

Most importantly, how do the lives of Catherine, Selene and Attila fit together?

Disquieting and compelling, A Remedy for All Things challenges our ideas of time and identity, as truth, fiction and political realities collide.

When Catherine meets Simon, she appears to be in a new phase of her life. She’s a confident writer and editor, about to undertake a trip to Budapest to research the life and death of the 1930s poet, Attila József.

But once in Budapest, during one of the coldest winters on record, Catherine finds herself disturbed by dreams. In them she relives the life of a woman imprisoned at the end of the 1950s after the Hungarian uprising, Selene Virág. As Catherine begins to investigate the woman, she becomes more drawn into this other life; one that has a strange a connection to Attila József.

As the month progresses, tracking the last days of József’s life and Selene’s imprisonment, Catherine again begins to question her own identity.

The questions of perception and identity become more intense when Simon, Catherine’s new partner, joins her is Budapest. And as the date of József’s suicide approaches, the tension mounts.

Will this be the end of the story?

I hope you will read on at Medium and also take a look at the book offer on A Remedy for All Things and This is the End of the Story.

Thank you.

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Who are you? Writing virtues into the writing life

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‘Virtue’ is a word we don’t hear a great deal. There’s an anachronistic ring to it. It can also sound smug. A problem with over-focussing on self-improvement is that it can make us seem remote, self-satisfied and self-centred. An irony if we’re setting out to be kinder or more patient. We become rather like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby:

Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

In Cultivating Virtue, philosopher Christine Swanton suggests that instead of cultivating ourselves, we concentrate on doing virtuous actions. The first step toward virtue is to act as if you have that quality. We then hope that through feedback and reflection, growth follows without self-obsessing. Or as Aristotle puts it:

(Wo)men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a particular way… you become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.

Who we are is fluid. We don’t come written in stone. Humans are adaptable. The environment we live in makes a huge difference, as do the choices we make. There are things we have little or no influence over in life, but we have the capacity to change, to become the person we want to be.

One of the joys of being a storyteller is that it’s not only about fiction. I can also write myself. But it has to go further than narrativising — my journal is a good place to plan and reflect, but it also has to translate into action. …

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With this in mind, at New Year I invested in a tiny book. And I set about a long journalling exercise around what 13 virtues or qualities I should action this year. Why thirteen?

Because I’d read an article about Benjamin Franklin who chose 13 virtues and focussed on one each week. Choosing 13 meant that each quality would get four weeks of attention over the year. That seemed feasible. And I like the idea of revisiting each quality whilst not obsessing about one or two things constantly.

A ‘year’ of course can start at any point, so if it appeals, you can begin at any time.

Thirteen qualities for the year

These are the 13 virtues or qualities that emerged for me over several journalling sessions:

I hope you’ll read on on Medium and clap the article there if you enjoy it …

 

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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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