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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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The Right Place to Write

The romantic notion of café culture, of places where writers and artists meet, where they can sit for hours over one cup of coffee lost in their writing, is one that holds a lot of attraction. But the reality is often rather different. I’ve loved some of the cafés I’ve visited in Paris, particularly a little tearoom on the Isle Saint-Louis, La Charlotte de L’Isle, which does wonderful hot chocolate and is friendly and unhurried, yet I’ve never written more than a few notes there. In Toledo, researching scenes for This is the End of the Story, we found a tiny bar that did superb coffee in the daytime and had lovely staff. We could sit comfortably with one coffee for a very long time, but the music whilst eclectic — ranging from funk to jazz — somehow wasn’t conducive to writing. Bruges was exquisitely beautiful, but the cafés seemed keen to keep customers moving at a brisk rate and Lisbon felt similar, and had the added complication of generally loud music with a heavy beat, though we passed through so quickly that perhaps there are many café gems we didn’t discover.

Last year in Prague, the dream café seemed closer to existing. The tiny ‘Bakeshop’ just off Mala Strana, near the wonderful Kafka Museum, did great breakfast pastries, coffee and chocolate, and was completely unhurried despite having only two tiny tables plus a little side counter with a couple of stools. And, on the riverfront, the Bella Vida Café was full of bookcases with old books, wonderfully mismatched old furniture, and a relaxed atmosphere that encouraged lingering with a book to read or something to write. If there was music, it wasn’t intrusive, but such a lovely place was popular and we couldn’t always find a seat.

So we came to Budapest thinking, again, how lovely it would be to have a place to write where we could also take in the local culture, rather than closeting ourselves away in an apartment, but also not expecting to find the place that by now had become an unrealistic idyll. And we were, happily, wrong.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALarge portions of A Remedy for All Things have been written at a local café, Póharszék. Within a couple of visits the lovely staff have started preparing our order as we walk in, a large bottle of water and two black coffees, that last us for hours before topping up. Occasionally, there’s a glass of wine in the early evening or a slice of quiche at lunchtime and the staff are slowly educating us in Hungarian wines to take home to go with dinner. There’s relatively quiet music inside, but the tables along the pavement have become ‘home’, where I can immerse myself for hours in the writing while Adam people-watches, makes notes and turns them into compelling stories of character and place.

We haven’t quite taken up residence at Póharszék. We’ve had trips to museums, to meet a Budapest publisher who helped fill in lots of details about life in the 50s and 90s, to an artists’ town along the river and we’ve walked and walked, or occasionally taken trams, all across the city. But most days we manage some time here and some days, great stretches of time. Other regulars nod and smile to us now; we know several local dogs and have had a fascinating conversation with an American screenwriter working in Budapest on a TV series with a Welsh actor. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We’ve even added another couple of writing venues to our itinerary — Csiga is a high-ceilinged, larger café in District VIII, a district with a reputation for being run-down and rough, but the edge of it is also attracting students and artists. Csiga is slow service, in the sense of being deliberately unhurried and laid back, an interesting place to gather characters and the gentle music is quiet enough not to interfere with the writing. Even better is Massolit Bookshop Café in District VII, the Jewish district. It’s cozy and quirky, full of English-language books and attracts lots of students, studying hard, fuelled by cookies, coffees and pastries. The music is kept very low and there’s no rush to leave. When we visited, one student was deep inside revision for an exam and another was working on watercolour sketches.

So it’s in Budapest — not Paris, the City of Lights, with its reputation for café culture, nor Prague, a fairy-tale full of architectural gems and the spirit of Kafka in it’s mythic streets — that we have found the most homely and welcoming cafés that are conducive not only to creativity, but to chance meetings and a world of observations. Very quickly after arriving in Budapest, I was struck by the sense of melancholy here and soon found that I wasn’t alone in feeling that. There’s not a great deal of effusiveness here, but there is graciousness and helpfulness and, as we visit particular places more than once, especially Póharszék, a sense that behind the reserve, the welcome is genuine and not merely a sales pitch.

Finding a place to work that is embedded in the culture of a few blocks with regular patrons has made us feel much more connected to this place for a few short weeks and connection is at the heart of any writing practice.

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At the Attila József Museum

Yesterday we took a tram to the south of the city to the IXth District. It’s the most run-down area we’ve visited and a shock after the picturesque tram-ride along the Danube. It was a blazing hot day and we were glad to find the museum after only ten minutes walking. The opening hours are long and articles I read about visitors in the days before it was refurbished and made more interactive and informative told me that it was well attended. Yet the door was locked and there seemed to be no way in. I looked up the telephone number and the curator, while assuring me that she understood even though she couldn’t speak much English, clearly didn’t get that we were on the pavement outside. I tried explaining using words of Hungarian from the notice-board outside (which was in English and Hungarian) and she so wanted to help, but we weren’t making progress until I realised that one of the other notices, written only in Hungarian, must contain the intercom code. I rang that and she politely asked if I could hold the phone  while she answered the intercom. It was a huge relief to both of us when she understood it was me on both lines and we were let in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe weren’t charged the entrance fee and had the museum to ourselves for nearly two hours. Before 2015 the museum was basic, with a few pictures and artefacts in the two rooms that had once been the apartment where Attila József was born into an impoverished family. Having been able to sometimes live from his writing during his lifetime and achieving some important critical acclaim, József went on to be recognised as a major voice of the twentieth century after his death and not only did academics and fans visit the museum in the early twenty-first century, but people also regularly left wreaths of flowers at its door to commemorate this extraordinary man who took his own life at the age of 32.

In 2015 there was a significant investment in the museum and the photos and artefacts were matched with audio guides – the one in English was extensive and superbly done – a mixture of biography (told first person) and poetry with details I hadn’t previously found in any of the English language accounts I’d researched. There are first edition copies of his collections, the pencil he wrote with, notebooks, letters, a copy of his birth certificate and an extraordinary interactive digital screen shaped like the base of a felled tree, marked with tree-style life rings, each one with points that could be touched to flash up life events on the screen. One screen also made a ring of women’s pictures – the important women in József’s largely unrequited and always difficult love life.

The curator was endlessly helpful and clearly delighted to have visitors. All this investment and care and no-one there. It made us think seriously about how poetry can so easily become distanced from people’s lives, even poetry that is integrally linked with lives of struggle.

Today I’ve used the notes from the visit to rework one of the early chapters – an excerpt from which is given below. Attila could fall in love in minutes and does so with my character, Selene, who never appears in the histories or photographs as she is not from the same time as Attila, and perhaps is imagining her relationship with him during the trauma of her imprisonment after the 1956 Uprising. Or perhaps not? Either way, she fits the pattern …

Catherine sets out with a map marked with sites. She will start at the little apartment on Gát útca 3, where József was born. She heads towards the river to the tram stop near the parliament buildings, diverts to say good morning to József’s statue, solid and sad. She notices how she is constantly comparing this unfamiliar, melancholy city to Paris, but there too poets have ended their own lives. Margit has told her it’s too far to walk to Gát útca, more than an hour across the city, and too cold to walk so far in November. Even for the short walk to the tram Margit has told her to make sure she has layers of clothing beneath her wool coat. She has put her cashmere jumper over a vest and long-sleeved shirt, but pulls open the coat as she walks. The air has no bite and there is only a gentle breeze. Despite the clouds, it feels almost spring-like. The yellow tram takes her along the riverfront, past the beautiful Erzsébet Bridge and later under the Szabadság bridge, traffic rumbling overhead, the Corvinus University on her left before the cityscape changes to riverside warehouses. It’s a ten minute walk from the stop on Haller utca to Gát útca in District IX, where József was born. With each turn the next street is more dowdy and tired. Lenhossek utca is strewn with litter, the windows of apartments covered in chipboard beneath broken glass , the facades of buildings crumbling. She feels uneasy and conspicuous, wonders how run-down it must have been when József was born here, in poverty, in 1905. She turns left onto Gát útca and the location is signalled by a wall plaque beside which are bunches of flowers and wreaths, as though someone had recently died here. The inscription proclaims, in socialist-realist style, that József was the ‘great poet of the Hungarian proletariat’. Catherine smiles, thinking of József expelled from the Communist Party for his liberal views, but he was certainly from an impoverished home. She rings the intercom next to the green door.

Ah, Catherine? the curator asks. I am with you.

Márta Tákacs appears moments later and Catherine holds out her hand to shake. They walk through a small courtyard and into the ground floor two-roomed apartment, Marta tall and elegant, her fair hair held behind a blue band that matches her eyes.

People come from everywhere, Márta says as they enter.

The walls are covered in black and white photographs. Catherine notes the picture of József’s father in military uniform that she has a copy of and one of his mother that she has not seen previously. Borbála is young and pretty, with soft features. Another image shows a house further along the street where the family lived when József was a toddler – It says: Papa disappeared from this flat, Márta says, translating legend.

By the door a map shows another nineteen apartments that the family lived in after Attila ran back to his mother from the foster family at Öcsöd, who set him to work as a five-year-old swineherd.

They were constantly thrown out for not being able to pay the rent, Márta tells her. Attila was lucky that later his brother-in-law paid for his education so he didn’t have to go on sell newspapers for a living. In his childhood, he’d already known work – collecting coal, selling paper whirligigs that he made from scraps to better-off children. In the war he’d queue all night to buy food for the family, only to find that the cooking lard had run out and there was nothing to be had by eight in the morning. He was only fourteen when his mother died and Makai sent him to the Makó boarding school. They tried to send him to a seminary too, but he left after a week, telling them he was Orthodox, not Catholic. He got good grades at school, but he was already suffering with depression and tried to kill himself when he was only sixteen. I will leave you to look, she says finally, but I’m in the next room if you have questions.

There are copies of József’s poetry collections on a small table, beginning with Szépség koldusa, Beauty’s Beggar, written when he was seventeen. Catherine lingers over each picture, each book, but feels no sense of Attila in the rooms.

After a while Márta reappears with a set of pictures. These were his women, she says. This one was the daughter of the director of his boarding school – Márta Gebe. He was very young, but she inspired several poems. Then Maria Esprit, this time his landlord’s daughter. And this one is most interesting.

The black and white picture is of a beautiful girl, aquiline features, large eyes, her close-cut bobbed hair under a fashionable cap.

Luca Wallennsz was the daughter of Gitta Genes, a very fine artist and ceramicist. There are beautiful works in the National Gallery. Her husband wrote novels and poetry. Very refined Jewish family. They gave salons and many famous names were there, but Gitta met Attila first in the park. He sat next to her on a bench and declared his love five minutes later. He was only nineteen and she was a mature woman, beautiful, but thirty-six. They became close – not what we would call an affair, but a relationship still. He wrote poems for her, of course, like ‘It was summertime’ and then her daughter, Luca, became interested in the salons and Attila fell in love once more. He wrote her many excellent poems, mostly in ’28. Very beautiful – ‘I bless you with sadness and happiness’ is best known of them, set to music often.

He fell in love often, Catherine notes.

Indeed. And he loved Gitta and Luca at the same time too.

Ah, Catherine says, thinking of Attila loving Flóra and Selene simultaneously.

You will know this one, of course.

Catherine holds the picture of Márta Vágó. Yes. The first serious love of his life, perhaps.

Márta nods. They wrote every day when she first went to London, but the distance was too much to sustain. I think that’s what her parents hoped for. They were wealthy intelligentsia, he was the son of a soap factory worker and a peasant, after all. Márta pauses. And this one –

She hands Catherine an image of Judit Szánto.

I always think the most sad, Márta finishes. She lived with him six years, tried to make a place of security for him. He was very broken after the relationship with Márta Vágó ended. But he said it was ‘not love, but an alliance’. Particularly harsh from a man who loved easily. He wrote one poem, ‘Judit’ and a few scraps that never became poems, that was all. While he was with Judit he met Edit.

Márta hands her the photograph of Edit Gyömrői. She was his doctor and he became … she searches for the word … fixated on her so that another doctor, Robert Bak, had to take over.

And then one day he saw this girl, Márta Márton –

Catherine studies the beautiful young face.

He didn’t know her. He saw her and decided he was in love. He wrote the poem ‘Ode’ for her, an exquisite love poem, and when Judit realised that she was not the muse of this poem, she tried to kill herself. They’d already tried to part earlier, but broke apart after this.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And finally –

The last picture is of Flóra Kozmutza. No picture of Selene, Catherine thinks.

They met at Anna Daniels apartment in February ’37 and were engaged by April, but it was never to be of course.

Catherine nods. Thank you. They’re all so beautiful.

Yes, lovely and sad, Márta adds.

 

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Strong Magic

The Writing Britain exhibition at the British Library is a wonderland of song lines and astonishment on your doorstep. There is something so powerful about an original manuscript or early proofs spattered with corrections; something intimate and epiphanic at once.

I saw the hand-written last page of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm (my son, Seth, has a line from it on his email signature – ‘highly sexed young men living on farms are always called Seth or Reuben’); hand written pages from Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (one of my favourite books from childhood and still one of the most powerful retellings of the Blodeuwed story in the Mabinogi); a 1750 handwritten copy of Gray’s ‘ The ploughman homeward…’; of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest; first editions of Far From the Madding Crowd; A Shropshire Lad: Greenwitch; Edward Thomas’ notebook open at ‘Yes I remember Adlestrop’; letters from Elizabeth Gaskell on the Industrial Revolution; a 1974 lithograph copy of Auden’s poems illustrated by Henry Moore; Auden’s notebook discussing ‘my sacred landscape’; Ted Hughes’ letters and notebooks; a first edition or Little Gidding – ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started’ and Kathleen Raine’s Northumberland journals in her own hand, ‘those abiding essences, the rocks and hills and mountains’ raising their voices to ‘utter their wild credo’ next to a bit that reads like my own journal talking about cold rural houses in winter with no central heating and managing the logs, and Emily Bronte’s notebook in the tiniest hand imaginable and Sylvia Plath’s notebook on Hardcastle Craggs.

I have seen the original manuscript of Jane Eyre in Charlotte’s hand; a first edition Sherlock Holmes and the manuscript of Lorna Doone, which always takes me back to schooldays and my inspirational headmistress and A level teacher, Lorna Clish and Richard Jefferies After London beside the typed (by himself) manuscript of JG Ballard’s The Drowned World; a page of Wordsworth’s poetry scratched out and Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal; Coleridge’s notebook and a letter from him and a first edition of Lewis Grassic Gibbons’ Sunset Song; a long letter from Keats and a massive book handwritten by Burns; GK Chesterton’s notebooks and drawings and handwritten Ballard drafts; an unpublished handwritten poem by Evelyn Waugh and letters and poems by Betjamin.

I have read the first page of Katherine Mansfield’s ‘A Suburban Fairytale’ from the book she first wrote it in and an extract of Conan Doyle’s Beyond the City in his own hand, a beautiful, flowing script. I have seen Hanif Kureshi’s writing journal and marked typescripts of the Buddha or Suburbia; James Thomson’s tiny notebook of the poem ‘City of Dreadful Night’ and one of Blake’s notebooks, minutely written and much crossed out; Joseph Conrad’s manuscript of The Secret Agent and original works by Alan Moore and RL Stevenson; a Tom Vague volume on psychogeography; Mrs Dalloway written a huge book by Virginia Woolf; a book of Edgar Alan Poe and an illuminated facsimile of Chaucer from the early 1400s; a Daphe du Maurier notebook containing the first plan of Rebecca; Hardy’s handwritten Tess of the D’Urbavilles; Pinters’s scripts in his hand and Joyce’s notes for Part 13 of Ulysses, nearly every slanting line crossed out in red, a few in blue; Larkin’s ‘To the sun’ hand written in his notebook and the original To the Lighthouse written in columns in a sturdy. Woolf hand; facsimiles of Persuasion and of Alice’s Adventures Underground and Kenneth Graeme’s notebook of Wind in the Willows and Elliot’s Mill on the Floss in her hand.

I came out awed, dazzled and dazed. I had entered the trance in there among runes and spells, within the song lines of connections and the world felt too bright and sharp when I emerged. This is what we do it for, writers and publishers, for this extraordinary intimacy with place, with characters… this strong magic, the trance of words that make worlds.

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