Writers can be cerebral creatures. By its nature, writing is sedentary and we spend a lot of time in our heads. But when the writing loses all sense of embodiment it becomes remote and ineffective. Writing in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology Rosemarie Anderson notes:
Embodied writing seeks to reveal the lived experience of the body by portraying in words the finely textured experience of the body and evoking sympathetic resonance in readers
Our bodies matter. Despite being someone who will get so far into my own head that I forget to move or go to the bathroom when deep in flow, I also know that his has an impact on my writing, however subtle. When I write after doing yoga, adopt a better posture and get up between sections to stretch or walk, the writing changes.
So how do we become more holistic as writers?
Replace the dualistic model
To quote Rosemarie Anderson again:
Continuing to write in a Cartesian style seems no longer acceptable … Disembodied writing perpetuates the object-subject bifurcation between the world of our bodies and the world we inhabit.
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Stories are powerful. We don’t simply tell stories, we inhabit them. Since language began, we’ve been storytelling animals. Every time and culture has dominant stories that shape us, whether they are stories from religion, ideology or the market-place. Sometimes these stories have such a grip that it’s hard to see beyond them, yet alternative stories can change the world. In the words of Walter Benjamin in The Storyteller:
The wisest thing … the fairy tales taught is to meet the mythical world with cunning and high spirits.
Amongst the dominant stories of our age are several that are leading us down blind alleys or into destruction. In her retelling of the Ragnarok myth A S Byatt portrays the gods as stupid, selfish and short-sighted. They deserve to die. They can see the end of the world coming, yet they do nothing about it.
It’s a powerful warning of ecological disaster, but it could also be a story of soured relationships with others or with the self. It’s a call to change and, like all good stories, wakes us up.
So how do stories change the world?
1. Story makes sense of the world and those we share it with
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Going over the details of my novel set in Toledo I revisited the museum of magic, set in a tenth century cave that was an Islamic dwelling during the time of Casilda, a Toledan princess-cum-saint, whose story weaves through the trilogy. Back in the city after two years, spending time checking my memories of places, has raised several questions of how to do justice to the historical threads in my writing.
Weaving story from fragments or overwhelm
Much of the novel, For Hope is Always Born, takes place in the present, but a significant strand goes back to Moorish Spain. It’s a period that has proved difficult to research.
There’s a great deal of writing on the broad brushstrokes and there are certain characters who have captured imagination, like the slightly later El Cid. But there is a paucity of detail about ordinary daily lives, particularly in English. Despite the enormous amount of historical record across centuries and locations, it’s always the quotidian that is missing. Most history concerns the elites, whether of class or gender.
Internet searches on the history of this amazing tenth century home, with its two surviving hamsa images beside the slender entrance pillars, yielded nothing. I could only discover that had two-storeys, a well and courtyards. More ironically, two of Google’s top hits on this building were from blog posts I’d written myself on my last visit to Toledo.
At other points the problem has been in choosing the details to include. I’ve read several books on Islamic advances in learning, from alchemy to botany, from geometry to the best time and way to dig wells. It’s tempting as a writer to want to show off all this reading, but putting in too much detail is boring and distracting for a reader of story. The art is to get a sense of authenticity, to conjure the time and place with all the senses working, but not to let the skeleton of research show on the body of the narrative.
Weaving story from contradictory histories
Where there are descriptions of social arrangements, the accounts differ widely.
Some historians view Moorish Spain as a golden age paradise. In these accounts there was universal education, for girls as well as boys; well-lit paved streets; multicultural scholarship, religious tolerance and a high standard of living. Such is the view of historians such as John G Jackson and Ivan van Sertima.
The controversial Cordovan princess, Wallada bint al-Mustaki, is a prime example. Her dates overlap with Casilda’s and she was similarly a daughter of one of the last Umayyad caliphs. A poet who inherited her fathers estate when he died without a male heir, she had a reputation for teaching poetry and literature to all and sundry. Criticised for her unconventional dress-style, including a refusal to wear a veil in public, and for her outspokenness, as well as for taking many lovers, Wallada epitomises a golden-age history.
Other historians view the Moors as barbarous invaders who destroyed an existing civilisation. This view accuses the Moors of stealing from Visigoth culture and taking credit for its advances. Dario Fernandez-Morera, for example, claims:
under Islam the art of the Visigoth capital decayed, as the conquerors wiped out the traces of Catholic grandeur.
Such historians seem much less concerned when the Catholic church later persecuted Jews or turned architecturally exquisite mosques and synagogues into churches.
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I’m currently writing book 3 of the Casilda Trilogy.
Through the lives of Catherine, Selene and Miriam, the Casilda Trilogy explores the distance between myth and reality: the myths we live in, whether of personal fantasy, dreams or the political realities that exert stresses on individual lives. What is the nature of truth and where do we find it?”
Belief is Cassie’s gift, so much so that she believes herself to be whoever those in her life tell her she is — Cassie, Kat, Kitty, even Casilda, as her friend Miriam insists, an 11th century Muslim princess from Toledo who later became a Catholic saint.
Bound together by Miriam’s extraordinary internal world, Cassie’s belief and a traumatic incident on a beach, Cassie’s loyalty only strains when an act of betrayal propels her towards Liam, also waiting to tell Cassie who she really is.
But Cassie may be more resourceful than either Miriam or Liam imagine. And when she eventually visits Toledo, tracking down places where Casilda might have walked, is this the end of the story?
Exploring how one person might support the fantasy life of another, the novel is in Quixotic tradition. This is the End of the Story raises questions about perception and identity, about friendship, love, loyalty and the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us.
Like Don Quixote, the novel is in two parts. Part I has 8 main chapters interleaved by vignettes. The chapters follow Cassie (who eventually reclaims her full name, Catherine) and Miriam, both a coming of age narrative and an exploration of identity. The vignettes give insight into the political and cultural context of the story, the end of the 1970s in industrial Teesside.
Part II revisits and finished the story from Catherine’s perhaps unreliable viewpoint. Looking back, she is trying to make the facts as she sees them fit the story as she felt it.
Writing it, the process was one of creative chaos. At the core was a story I had lived with for thirty years, but I wrote the scenes rather as memory works — via all kinds of random associations and circuitous routes.
Piecing the individual scenes together was an extraordinary undertaking. I knew it would not be a linear novel, but how the parts fitted together was crucial so that the right clues came at the right times. And to ensure the reader could navigate the time switches. The process felt sometimes like making Frankenstein’s monster and getting the head under the armpit. It took several attempts, but suddenly it fell into place.
In addition to mirroring themes and structure in Quixote, I also wanted to work in allusions to Dostoevsky’s journals, as one of the main characters suffers a similar form of epilepsy.
And I added a further cultural allusion in the chapter titles. Cassie (Catherine) is somewhat out of step with her context. She doesn’t listen to the popular music of the day. She’s not much of a ‘joiner’. I signalled this by using song names from a Canadian folk singer who other teenagers weren’t following at the time, but Cassie was. Each title and the song it refers to says something about the events of the chapter.
The other literary allusion of this book is Elizabeth Borton de Trevino’s Casilda of the Rising Moon. Cassie’s close (and strange, Quixotic) friend, Miriam, is certain that the two of them have lived before, most notably as Casilda, an 11th century Moorish princess of Toledo, and Ben Haddaj, apparently a Muslim prince of Zaragoza. Casilda converted to Christianity and was later beatified and finally canonised.
In her life she became a hermit living near healing springs in the Castilian mountains and several miracles were attributed to her. Trevino’s children’s book, which I read in the 70s, is a marvellous sweeping romance that treats the Muslim, Christian and Jewish populations of Moorish Spain with great sympathy. It’s a story that had stayed with me and fascinated, but I wanted to write a more mystical and complex Casilda.
In the first book of the trilogy, the notion that Cassie and Casilda might be the same person across a century of history is ambiguous, but I dipped into Casilda’s story and it was a delight to do some research in Toledo. There is little trace of her, but there is a cave house from her time and a beautiful tiny mosque (later a church), Mesquita de Bab al-Mardum.
If this sounds complicated, I wanted the end result to be accessible and the reviews seem to support that I managed this. It was a lot of fun to write and the freedom to simply write scenes in any order and worry about how they fitted the shape later was liberating.
I hope you will read the rest of the post on Medium – the trilogy ends with For Hope is Always Born and the post discusses the challenges of writing trilogy, the power of place and objects in writing and moving on from the trilogy… Thank you for reading and for your support here and on Medium.
Becoming a Different Story
I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life and looking to connect with others, thinking about the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life sign up to my email list or just feel free to continue the conversation.
I’ve recently completed an extraordinary four weeks of research, writing and travel in Spain, ending in Barcelona after two weeks in Toledo, via a few days stay in both Zaragoza and Burgos. The pressure of unfamiliar places, the space to devote time to walking and soaking up the places, and writing, is perspective altering. A whole month away to dive deep into a passion is a privilege and a challenge and I can feel shifts taking place in how I view my use of time and the nature of my future work.
Life, David Henry Thoreau tells us, is precious. We do not want to find ourselves at the end of it having not lived. So how do we know that we are living, that we are sucking out the marrow of life?
For me it has to do with the courage to live as the person I want to become. That has made me think hard about my art and my work and about what I need to let go of in order to measure my progress.
The apophatic way
In theology, the via negativa (negative way) describes divinity by what it is not. This is the tradition of what must be absent for something, in this case ‘God’, to be God. So much of what consumes our lives and out time is inessential. We need a negative way in order to pursue great things.
The speaker Stephen Covey illustrates this with a large clear bucket. Into the bucket go the elements of our lives. One set comprises pebbles, which represent the thousand and one small demands on our time. The other set is big rocks that represent the important things: family, transformational relationships, meaningful work, passions… If we tip in the pebbles and then try to fit in the rocks, we will fail to make room for the things that matter. If we take care of the rocks first, the small things will fit around them.
Greg McKeown goes even further in the book Essentialism, pointing out that many of the small things could disappear without anyone noticing. And in Good to Great, Jim Collins says,
If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.
Taking time away from my normal environment and routines is a powerful reminder that what we don’t do, the things we don’t want to be, are vital.
What do you need to let go of to be the person you want to become?
For me, some of those things are qualities or mindsets that limit me. Things like:
making excuses for not keeping promises to myself
attaching to outcomes rather than to the hope, expectations and process
complaining instead of problem-solving
Other things that I’m acutely aware of needing to let go are those things that so many of us tolerate in life and that, once tolerated, set the tone of our days, weeks, months and more… Life is too short and too precious to tolerate:
I don’t mean day dreaming or rest or play or creative mooching. What wastes time (and our lives) is more often those small pebbles — hours on Facebook, demanding emails, inessential nonsense…
bullying and harassment:
Sometimes aggressive and difficult people can teach us a great deal about ourselves by how we react. I recently had an onslaught of demands and undermining from someone over quite an extended period. It made me reflect on lots of aspects of my internal response and the importance of doing the creative work I’m committed to and letting it speak for itself. And it also made me much more clear about setting boundaries and what none of us should tolerate.
Story is my way of making sense of the world. Narrative matters in every civilisation and era. Not only do I want to make Cinnamon Press more and more a home for excellence and not only do I want to push my own writing further but, even more fundamentally, I have no time for story that lie. I don’t mean stories that are imaginary or fantastical. I mean story that deliberately misleads, that sells hatred and division, that promotes the myths of fascism or greed. Story is too urgent for that.
The katophatic way
Having a concentrated period to be in flow state, writing and immersing myself in unfamiliar places, concentrates the heart. The tradition of katophatic theology deals in what we can positively say. We need to know what and who we don’t want to be; what we need to let go of, but we also need to know what we want to embrace.
What do you need to embrace to be the person you want to become?
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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
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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I’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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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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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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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
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
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.