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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…

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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:

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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.

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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…

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How to kill perfectionism, find joy and write

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In writing, as in any area of life, perfectionism is a killer. Writing is a wonderful metaphor for life. Writing matters. It illuminates, witnesses, takes us deeper into the experience of others, connects us with nature, humanity, ourselves. As in writing, so in life.

Writing is powerful and we want it to be brilliant. No writer should be content with dull prose clogged with adjectives and exposition. No writer should be happy with didactic, sentimental poetry. No blogger should want to bore people. But it doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it can’t be perfect.

Perfectionism relies on a plethora of false premises:

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Failure is not an option

Of course it is. And failure is a great teacher. In the inimitable words of Samuel Beckett:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

If we fear failure we will never take the risks that lead to real progress.

You are not worthy

Feeling inherently not ‘good enough’ can lead people to making supreme efforts to fit in, find acceptance and love. The underlying thinking is that ‘if I’m perfect I won’t experience rejection’ but it’s false thinking. We’re all flawed and the writing we do will have flaws. It doesn’t make you an unworthy person.

You can never rest

On the one hand perfectionism leads to procrastination. We can’t fail at what we never begin. On the other hand it leads to a permanent state of anxiety in which we drive ourselves on, never able to rest.

Creativity, writing, any activity in life is unsustainable without periods of rejuvenation. You can and must rest.

Life is a puzzle with a solution

Writing in Psychology Today, Jennifer Kromberg says:

…being a perfectionist isn’t about things being perfect; it’s about thinking things need to be perfect and vigilantly pursuing it. Emotionally, this means that instead of living your life in a place of self-acceptance, perfectionists are on a continual treadmill chasing the elusive feeling of having everything in their lives be ‘right’.

You can do it all

As David Allen says in Getting Things Done:

You can do anything, but not everything.

We all have to make choices. If writing is essential to you, then you need to prioritise it, but that might mean you have to lower your standards in other areas. In Writing Wild Tina Welling talks a lot about lowering standards in order to do what she loves: write.

She suggests areas for lowering standards might include the car you drive, how much money you want, the clothes you wear, the amount of housework you can do… You might have to cut down on social media or phone apps or answering every email. You might have to miss some social opportunities…

It’s okay. You don’t have to do it all. To quote Annie Dillard:

It’s endearing how people think writers have time to dust.

Welling suggests we make a sign of this and hang it where visitors will see it.

Instead of falling for these false notions, we can replace the urge to perfectionism (in writing and in life) with progress, joy and kindness:

Craft not perfection: …

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In an insane world, write fantastic fiction

windmillsAt any given moment, life is a mess of contradiction. It seems to be true that it’s always the best of times and the worst times. A new baby is born and a good friend is facing appalling illness. A loved one is celebrating, yet the political landscape looks grim.

In the midst of joy and loss, I’m also in the midst of a trilogy of novels. finished a novel. The first book in the sequence has been simmering in me for over 30 years. The actual writing was more recent, but some of the events that informed it and later became reshaped and fictionalised have very deep roots.

In a world crying out for global solutions, what business have we writing stories and poems? There are so many reasons why writing, or any art, is vital, no matter how uncertain the times. It has many functions, including:

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12 powerful ways to have more time

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The (wo)man who has lived the most is not )s)he who has counted the most years but (s)he who has felt the most life.

Jean Jacques Rouseau

Einstein tells us that time is not as linear as we imagine. The separation of past, present and future is illusory, if compelling in an everyday sense. If, like me, you’re not a physicist, this timeless view of the universe might tie your brain in knots.

What I experience, however illusory, are 24 hours each day and sometimes what appears to be an overwhelming scarcity of time. To make it more complicated, the physicist Julian Barbour tells us:

If you try to get your hands on time, it’s always slipping through your fingers. People are sure time is there, but they can’t get hold of it. My feeling is that they can’t get hold of it because it isn’t there at all.

What Barbour argues is that it’s not time that is a measure of change, but that it is change that creates the illusion we call time. In his view, we live a succession of whole, complete moments called ‘Nows’, all of which exist simultaneously.

As Josh Richardson sums up:

We generate time’s flow by thinking that the same self that ate breakfast this morning also started reading this sentence.

So how does this apply to creative people trying to carve out time for their most passionate quests?

1. Live by kairos, not chronos

The most important feature for everyday life seems to be that time, like so many things, is not an absolute. Time, like other experiences, is as qualitative as it it quantitative, if not more so.

In a former incarnation as a theologian, I’d have explained this as the Greek concepts of kairos and chronos. Chronos is the ticking of seconds on a clock, chronological. But kairos is ‘the right time’, it is ripeness, the moment of truth.

Kairos time FEELS different — those experiences when time seems to slow down or stop. Having a perfect life is unrealistic and perfectionism can be toxic. But having perfect moments is possible and time-expanding.

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14 reasons why writers need to read

It’s depressing as both an editor and a writer when I hear writers (or more usually aspiring writers) saying they don’t read. Getting books out into the world is difficult. It’s a huge amount of work for both publishers and writers and the only way it’s possible is if there are people out there who read. If you are a writer who doesn’t read the work of others, what would make you imagine that others would want to read your book?

Writers have to read:

1. Because reading is your world

Imagine a chef who hates to eat, an artist who’s never been to a gallery. It’s not credible — neither is a writer who doesn’t read.

2. Influence is good

Sometimes writers tell me they don’t read because they don’t want to influence their work. This is the height of arrogance and flawed thinking. No one creates ex nihilo. No one is that original. Of course you shouldn’t be copying others or never finding your own voice, but what has gone before you is a treasure trove. Tradition and inspiration are all around you in books. You can learn structure, technique and so much more by reading. We become innovative by building on the past, not by writing it off.

3. For the love of language

Great writers are those who have found wonderful ways to use language Their language might be supple or taut and honed. It might be rich or lyrical. It might be rhythmic or urgent. You will discover an infinite kaleidoscope of vocabulary and style in the pages of books written by others.

4. To encourage imagination

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You have to switch off to switch on creativity

Creativity is deep, attentive work. Whether you are solving a maths problem or painting a picture, writing elegant code or a novel, you have to be attentive, focussed and in flow. You need to be in an optimal peak state to create and that means setting aside the distractions for key periods.

This isn’t easy. There are so many things clamouring for our attention, but if we don’t find a way to step back, creativity will be one of the many casualties. Among the attention-grabbers that we need to take breaks from are:

1. Technology

Long bouts of social media or aimless internet surfing can leave us feeling ragged. We end up with our thoughts fractured and innovative thinking out of reach.

There’s no doubt that technology has changed our lives and, in many ways, for the better. The access to like minds across the planet, the ability to communicate across distances, the tools for writing, research and so much more, can be mind-expanding. But there is also the anxiety that the smarter out phones get, the dumber we become. There are many people who check their phones 85 times an hour, that’s more than once a minute. How do they get anything done?

Why this knee-jerk checking? It might signal a population unable to cope with ‘doing nothing’ for short (or longer periods) or uneasy with being alone with their own thoughts. It might also be that sometimes our devices deliver a reward. We find a great article, get news of a book deal. So we check in case we’re missing something. As Sharon Begley puts it:

Such low-cost, occasionally high-reward activities are catnip to the brain.

People who are compulsive about checking phones can feel enormous unease if prevented from doing so. Psychologist Alejandro Lleras such phone use as a ‘security-blanket’ staving off anxiety. An Illinois study noted that 70% of the group studied used texting as a way to disengage from stressful situations.

The internet also encourages a fear of missing out (FOMO). Cut off, people in various studies describe their state as anxious, ansty, miserable, jittery… For some, not being online is tantamount to not existing. The existential rage against obliteration is a strong human compulsion. No wonder people are distraught at the thought of being ‘cut off’. The online life taps into the human psyche.

But the cost is that we do miss something. We miss the ability to be alone with our thoughts. We miss focussing on someone who is with us in person. We miss building up a deliberate practice that builds our skills with deep work.

The practice of always checking together with myth of multitasking takes away our focus. It’s may not be that attention spans are falling per se, but that trying to multitask destroys this focus. Our brains receive thousand of stimuli and the ability to sift for what’s important and ignore the distractions is vital.

When we try to attend to a stimuli the brain has to move that piece of information to the frontal cortex. If we are doing three things at once, the constant switching (it isn’t multitasking) takes time and leaves us feeling fragmented and fuzzy-minded.

Our attention is quite capable of holding up. Think of losing yourself in a great novel or film. Think of the total absorption of a parent of a new baby. But we can’t sustain focus in the face of a thousand distractions or when our attention is being divided.

Sometimes we have to switch off social media, messages, calls, apps … to switch on the creative flow.

2. Productivity

If your work and your art are of a piece there’s less conflict, but many of us do one thing to hold body and soul together and pursue our art in addition. You might love your work, as I do, but that doesn’t mean you want to be available to it at all hours seven days a week. …

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