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:
imagine the quest: What is it that you want to happen?
break the quest down into steps: How will you make it happen?
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:
Attach to nothing
But investing in something is not synonymous with attaching to outcomes. If we fixate on the end rather than on the process we lose the ability to respond with flexibility to whatever happens along the way. If we make the quest all about one specific outcome that must happen, then we will become cynical and disillusioned when other things happen along the way. Benjamin Hardy puts it like this:
Expect everything, attach to nothing
The quest is the decision you have made. It might be to complete a novel or sequence of poems. It might be about personal transformation or a decision to prioritise transformative relationships over transactional ones. It might be about changing your work or lifestyle. Whatever happens, you have changed the story of yourself. You have shifted perspective and whatever the specific outcome:
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Success and failure are slippery and complex concepts. Some types of failure, the simple antonym to success, can be devastating. A car fails and people die. A pregnancy fails with the loss of a precious life. Mental health fails leading to breakdown and suffering. No one sane wants to court this type of failure. As James Altrucher comments:
There’s this “cult of failure” that has popped up recently. That you need to fail to succeed.
This is not true. Failure really sucks. You don’t want to fail.
There’s also failure that arises from negligence. When we fail to live in the moment, when we don’t attend to something crucial, terrible things can happen. Anything from an oil spill wiping out ecosystems to emotional damage to a loved one who knows we’re not there for her.
There’s nothing attractive about this type of faiure. However much we manage to learn from it on reflection, it would always have been better to get the learning in another way.
Moreover, when we’re dealing with the type of failure that comes from our own negligence, it’s not appropriate to relabel it as ‘success’ or ‘learning’ to duck the responsibility. There are times when the things that go wrong are shouting out for us to pay attention and do some deep reflecting.
I’m completely in agreement, which leads me to thin that what we mean by failure isn’t a monolithic thing. And it’s this other sort of failure, the type that involves taking risks, that we can redefine as success. In this sense, you don’t need to succeed, that is you don’t need to realise every goal in exactly the way you’d envisaged it, be a success.
1. Inversion isn’t always failure
The common question, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’ is a useful shorthand for the Stoic notion of inversion. Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, practiced premeditatio malorum, or ‘premeditation of evils.’
The idea was to consider the worst outcomes of an action. What if this results in bankruptcy or losing my home? What it this leads to everyone disliking me?
The point of the exercise was to anticipate possibilities in order to plan better and think about how to manage worse case scenarios. And it was also a way to overcome fears. As Paulo Coelho says:
There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.
But inversion isn’t always about failing. Not only does this exercise help us to think about what might happen and prepare as far as possible, but it also provides an alternative way of thinking in general.
As James Clear points out:
Inversion is often at the core of great art. At any given time there is a status quo in society and the artists and innovators who stand out are often the ones who overturn the standard in a compelling way.
Great art breaks the previous rules. It is an inversion of what came before. In a way, the secret to unconventional thinking is just inverting the status quo.
And it’s not only art. A mathematician might invert a difficult problem in order to reach a solution.
Too often the definition of ‘success’ is being popular, going with the status quo, pursuing goals that everyone else values and expects you to aim for.
Inversion challenges this. What you end up with might not be ‘success’ in the eyes of the crowd, but it might very well be innovative, ground-breaking and exactly where you want to be.
2. Taking a chance is an antidote to perfectionism
Perfectionism is a kind of paralysis. On the one hand perfectionism demands of you that you can do everything: achieve ten goals before breakfast, produce a manuscript with not one comma out of place … On the other hand, it’s demands are so preposterous that you will stop in your tracks and procrastinate rather than risk failure.
Of course aiming high is good. Of course you should improve your craft. As an editor I’m a fan of putting in the work, making things excellent, stretching our boundaries as writers. But there is also a time to let go. And there are times when you need to take a chance. As Brené Brown puts it:
Healthy striving is self-focused: “How can I improve?” Perfectionism is other-focused: “What will they think?
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Take a scrap of paper and answer that question — don’t think about it too much, simply respond — Why do you write?
There are so many reasons: to bear witness; to tell stories; for the trance; because you have to… If you have ‘to get rich’ you might be in the wrong place (not that it can’t happen, but generally money is better as an offshoot than a direct aim). In short, there are many great reasons for writing.
Asked by Geoff Dyer what he saw as the ‘job of his life’ John Berger said”
Perhaps I am like all people who tell stories — storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people. Maybe when you look at their entire output you can see something that really belongs to that one person. But at any one moment it is difficult to see what the job of your life is because you are so aware of what you are lending yourself to. This is perhaps why I use the term “being a witness.” One is witness of others but not of oneself.
For Berger, this sense of witnessing involves total immersion and openness to other people and to other places.
Finding the rapture:
In Our Faces, Our Hearts, Brief as Photos, Berger describes one of those luminous moments when an ordinary place takes on an otherworldly quality:
Everything was shifting. The three pear trees, their hillock, the other side of the valley, the harvested fields, the forests. The mountains were higher, every tree and field nearer. Everything visible approached me. Rather, everything approached the place where I had been, for I was no longer in that place. I was everywhere, as much in the forest across the valley as in the dead pear tree, as much on the face of the mountain as in the field where I was raking hay.
When we write, we’re opening ourselves up in an extraordinary way. Writing takes us into another space. As Virginia Woolf described it:
I walk making up phrases; sit, contriving scenes; am in short in the
thick of the greatest rapture known to me.
The question for many writers is how to get to the ‘rapture’ without having to go by way of resistance. Some lucky people never have a problem but many will recognise this from Vladimir Nabokov:
Just when the author sits down to write, ‘the monster of grim commonsense’ will lumber up the steps to whine that the book is not for the general public, that the book will never — And right then, just before it blurts out the words,– commonsense must be shot dead.
So begin by shooting common sense dead and taking your imaginations off-guard.
The painter Paula Rego pointed out the importance of the ‘play’ element in her work. In writing we can benefit from ‘playing with language’, which permits us to relax our hold on imagination and memory. It lessens the pressure to produce a finished piece and we are more likely to catch that ‘peripheral vision’. This sense of play can also prevent the personal critic in our head from intervening, Too often this voice sits on out shoulder, frowning and muttering .
Chance and ‘the random’ take us to unpredictable places and enable different narratives. Working with chance allows the writer to challenge her unconscious assumptions about what a piece of writing ‘should be’. It also challenges the reader’s unconscious assumptions. Chance leads to surprise, revelation, the challenge of paradox and the springs of the imagination. It facilitates ways of finding subject, atmosphere and voice, and of realising the imaginative into life. Using random prompts helps to break down the chaos of possibility.
Think about these prompts and write — keep going even if you are writing the same sentence over and over or what seems to be nonsense.
She watches her sleep …
She remembers feet on white sand …
How long ago was it that …
Today they climb to the top …
sweat snakes down her face, she is paler with each second …
Even when we find the right headspace, the next question will be about the kind of writing you want to do. Writing involves making a lot of decisions…
Making it real
Understand that you can have in your writing no qualities which you do not honestly entertain in yourself.
Walt Whitman in his journal.
The adage ‘write what you know’ is often too simplistic. Not all writing is confessional or springs from the life we’ve lived. Cormac McCarthy hasn’t lived in early twentieth century America or a post-apocalyptic society. Nonetheless, he writes about both. He write as convincingly as Hemingway writes about war, which he did live through. Both are writing what they ‘know’, in the sense that the work is authentic. It reflects their passions, their values, the way they perceive and relate to the world.
If we care about what we are writing, then we owe it to the characters and places we are witnessing to, to ensure the writing is as polished as possible. ur writing will become: precise, sensory and take the reader into the moment we are evoking.
This is exactly what happens in the description in chapter 2 of The Great Gatsby of a poverty stricken urban area:
This is a valley of ashes — a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-grey men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight. … The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and, when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers on waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour.
Similarly, in my novel, This is the End of the Story the politics, weather, music are major influences that build the picture of a certain kind of reality.
Writing about Place
Even if you are working from the mind’s eye, you must keep your senses open — observe, be precise.
Chekhov puts it like this:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.. ur writing will become: precise, sensory and take the reader into the moment we are evoking.
We write one true sentence and then the next true sentence. Every detail counts.
Be wary of cluttering your writing with adjectives and adverbs. Hone them back — use them with care and precision. And cut out the qualifiers — kind of, sort of, just, very, really — they do no work — somehow, suddenly… follow close behind — nothing happens ‘somehow’.
People come in context — think of a grandmother or favourite aunt — you will think of them in a place, most likely. Places tell us about character — Gatsby’s ridiculous ice-cream coloured mansion. Don’t do the lazy announcement thing — ‘Manchester, 1977, a dark and gloomy night in a terraced house…’
Try this exercise about a place that reflects a person. You might not mention the person at all in the writing and they don’t need to make an appearance. The person can be real or fictional:
First choose your person. Make a few notes about them, think of the type of place that would reflect that character — it might be a whole house or a room, it might be a tent or an open field, a workplace or a boat…
Now describe the place in the present tense — make the description precise and visual, but don’t forget the other senses.
Make every line like a photographic frame — remember, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.’
Keep in mind that in writing about your place, you are writing about something you are not saying directly about your character, but you are pointing to.
Cormac McCarthy’s opening of Suttree is a fantastic example.
Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee of walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth highshouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors no soul shall walk save you.
Get into the habit of making notes about places and make every sense work overtime so that you begin to build place portraits the way a painter might. Every detail counts. You won’t use them all, but you’ll start writing more authentic settings. Put your characters into them to see how they react there, see where they fit and where they don’t fit.
Place as a Reflection of Character
Writing about place is powerful because places reflect character. At its most acute the theory of pathetic fallacy gives emotions to place and weather, as we see in Shakespeare’s King Lear:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! You cataracts and hurricanes, spout Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks! You sulfurous and thought-executing fires, Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts, Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder, Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world, Crack nature’s molds, all germens spill at once That make ingrateful man!
Similarly, the opening of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist features a violent rain storm that represents the dysfunction in the lives of Sarah and Macon.
When we write about places, it isn’t mere adornment — it isn’t only about adding description. The places in which we set our stories help to define our characters and events. A good sense of place makes a story real and authentic.
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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.
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.’
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?