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 in an unfamiliar place where the language is impenetrable (I’ve mastered ‘thank you’ — kösönöm) gave me a huge amount to process. But it also gave the second, third and fourth drafts of the novel much richer in detail and atmosphere.
Information is never neutral and, as an outsider, I had a lot of sifting to do, particularly when we visited the House of Terror at Andrassy utca, 60. This infamous building was the home of the extreme right-wing Arrow Cross. In power for a short time, this fascist national socialist party believed in racial purity.
It benefited when the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944 after losing patience with their allies for being too moderate. Within a year the death toll and deportation of Jews, Romanies and other ‘undesirables’ soared, with atrocities mounting.
After 1945 the Soviet regime took over the building. It became home to the communist secret police, the AVH, and the nerve centre of purges and terror campaigns against the population.
In my novel, Selene is held in the basement cells of this building, where many were tortured, sometimes dying of their injuries. It was somewhere I wanted to visit, because it’s part of the story. But it’s a controversial ‘museum’ as Péter Apor argues.
The Budapest House of Terror is one of the most notorious examples of abusing spectacular new media audiovisual technology to exhibit a politically and ideologically biased historical narrative.
…The institution is not only an eloquent example of how the careless use of ‘public history’ is able to manipulate the ‘consumption’ of history, (but) … represents another important agenda: many new ‘public history’ museums call themselves memory museums. Such claims (use) a dangerous strategy: the idea of … ‘collective memory’ is basically a denial of any rational way of obtaining knowledge about the past.
Memory is a slippery concept. I wouldn’t wholly follow Apor’s argument. Memory can be fraught concept, but is also ‘existentially rich’. Like Christian Karner and Bram Mertens in The Use and Abuse of Memory, I think it possible to find a position in which memory is neither neither the same as or opposed to to historical ‘fact’.
photo by Adam Craig
But cultural tourist sites that are laden with political stances are difficult places to interpret. Moreover, the House of Terror is a site of political controversy. Its wholesale backing by the right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán makes it suspect. This is especially so given that its opening was during an election period in which the socialist opposition was likened to the extreme Soviet past. So the place became a warning to voters not to vote socialist.
The house claims to examine both Nazi and Communist atrocities, but the balance is much more skewed to room after room on the evils of Communism. The terror and suffering in that era was considerable, but it is not the whole picture. And Jewish communities have objected that in concentrating on the Soviet era the Holocaust is down-played. (Tamara Rátz, ‘Interpretation in the House of Terror, Budapest’ in Cultural Tourism in a Changing World, Melanie K Smith & Mike Robinson)
Further problems are that the exhibit makes it appear that there was no ‘normal, daily life’ in Hungary in the Communist era. And it locates ‘evil’ as the ‘other’. It’s true that the names and photographs of those who collaborated with the two regimes are on a ‘wall of victimisers’. But this is also controversial given that we don’t know the level or context of involvement from names and photographs. And it’s contentious for a heritage site to set itself up as judge and jury. But the sense that ‘evil’ came from outside the indigenous culture nonetheless prevails.
Experiencing the museum was an interesting way to these controversies and questions. But most of all the visit was most powerful in the largely empty basement cells. The atmosphere there was chilling and inhumane. The horror was palpable without need of interpretation boards or video screens.
It gave me a great deal to think about as I wrote the novel. In A Remedy for All Things terror is not a spectacle, but an everyday fear for one of my three main characters.
The protagonist, Catherine, in Budapest to research the life of poet, Attila József, finds herself dreaming the life of Selene. A young woman who survived a Jewish ghetto during the War and is in prison after the 1956 Uprising against the Communist regime.
This is how it begins: …
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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:
Failure is not an option
Of course it is. And failure is a great teacher. In the inimitable words of Samuel Beckett:
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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While writing and researching in Budapest last year, we ate a couple of times at a local restaurant that takes enormous pride in its food and service (Kispiac) and went there for our last evening meal before leaving Budapest.
The owner asked us about our time in Budapest and whether we’d like to return. Before we left, he came out with a bottle of Hungarian sparkling tokaji as a going away gift. Whilst Hungarians are rarely effusive, we found them helpful and generous — I can’t imagine that kind of gesture from a London restaurant after a couple of visits.
Budapest is an extraordinary place — there’s a quiet kindness in so many people — unshowy, but vital. There’s also deep melancholy — a history replete with suffering and ongoing political corruption and extremism.
picture by Adam Craig
It’s a place where beautiful Art Nouveau buildings are sometimes fading and uncared for. There are architectural gems are so in need of restoration that chunks of masonry fall into the street (we saw two passers-by almost felled by falling stone). And yet there’s also pride in good service and good food, in art and architecture, in being humane.
When I arrived, one of the themes in my novel was the debate over whether Attila József committed suicide or died in a tragic accident. The preponderance of opinion has always been that his death was by suicide, but I wanted to leave the question open, to stay with the ambiguity.
A conversation with László Kúnos of Corvina Press convinced me otherwise. Sad as it is to believe that this exceptional man chose to kill himself, the more I read the poetry and biographies, the more I realised that there is an internal logic to the life and death.
This is a scene when I’ve explored this in the novel:
She walks back slowly. She will go to the place where he wrote when editing the magazine, Beautiful Word, another day, but the statue on the Danube near the Parliament building is only a short detour on the route to her apartment.
József sits, coat thrown down beside him, hat in his hand, watching the river, the epitome of contemplation and lament. He looks as though he’d spent the day walking across this city searching for something, Catherine thinks. The lines from ‘By the Danube’ are in a facsimile of József’s handwriting: Mintha szivembôl folyt volna tova Zavaros, bölcs és nagy volt a Duna — As if it flowed straight from my heart / Troubled, wise and great was the Danube.
How was it that Székely translated those lines? Catherine asks the statue.
As if my own heart had opened its gate:
The Danube was turbulent, wise and great.
She thinks of the conversation with Margit and András, how a thing mutates between languages, but even in one language how every action, every nuance is open to interpretation.
Catherine sits on the bottom step beneath Attila, looking towards the Danube with him. When she begins to feel stiff and colder she walks towards the figure, touches his hand.
There is such melancholy here, she tells him. Suicide seems to be everywhere, your language is unlike any neighbouring country’s, your borders have changed, to say there has been one too many invasion is an understatement and even your national anthem talks of pity and sorrow. So much sadness and I have endless questions for you that you can’t answer. Did you kill yourself? I’m minded to agree with Margit and András that you did. Why didn’t you take another route? And the strangest question of all — Did you know a woman called Selene Solweig Virág?
I hope you will read on over on Medium. Thank you!
I’m currently writing in journal number 124 in a 24-year-long run of journalling. There were journals before this ‘set’, some lost in a house move, others disappeared in my teens.
I write everything in these journals:
random thoughts and observations
notes on books I’m reading
how the day/the week /the month/the year went
to do lists
ideas for books, stories, poems, blogs…
The journals are beautiful. Many of them were handmade by daughter or have been gifts. Each one is an artefact. They’re also a problem in that they’re not written for anyone else to read, so what will become of them?
Nonetheless, I persist. I often feel I don’t know what I’m thinking until I write it down. It’s my act of processing. It’s also the fount of my creativity.
1. To practice
Great musicians practice. They go over scales and arpeggios, études and exercises. When tackling concert pieces, they go over and over particular phrases, gradually building speed and confidence.
Writing about the diaries Virginia Woolf kept over 26 years, she says:
The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments.
And, after her death, Leonard Woolf described the 26 volumes as:
a method of practicing or trying out the art of writing.
Writing is a muscle. The more we use it, the more flexible and strong it becomes. Whether you are writing morning pages in which you do 2 or three pages of a writing prompt or outlining ideas or setting down emotions, the more you write, the more confident your writing voice will become.
When I teach writing courses and set exercises for the group I’m working with, I do the exercises myself into my journal. It’s an interesting way to see how I respond the same pressure to write in the moment and one I can look back on.
Do you keep morning pages or use a journal for writing exercises?
I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life. I’m interested in connecting with others who want to explore 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 feel free to continue the conversation here and on Medium.
Character is fascinating. When I’m writing fiction I can get lost in the people I’m writing, even begin to dream their dreams. The mysteriousness and opaqueness of others is intriguing, but so to is their context. Who we are, the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us, arise from a matrix of particular factors, amongst them time and place.
Where we are is who we are
In This is the End of the Story, Cassie comes of age in 1970s Teesside and her context helps to shape her. The industrial landscape, the decline of employment, the cultural expectations of a class, time and place, are issues that she has to face in forming any sense of identity.
Cassie shares my own background, though fictionalised. But memory is a tricky thing so I still found myself doing lots of research — songs I thought I’d heard; fashions and news items. Despite that, there was a familiarity of place that informed me and gave the writing a significant grounding. When it came to Toledo, though, another major setting in the novel, I was on very different territory.
There was no way to visit eleventh century Toledo so I had to rely on archival material and a novel I’d read as a child, Casilda of the Rising Moon. Books and the Internet were invaluable, but it was only after I travelled to Toledo that I felt confident of this part of the writing.
When I stood in a tiny mosque that Casilda might have stood in 900 years earlier, or visited a tenth century Islamic cave-house, I felt a sense of place that I couldn’t experienced from books.
One of Cinnamon Press’s novelists, Landeg White. who passed away at the end of 2017, was someone who knew a great deal about ‘place’ and the writing of place. He remarked that going to a place to do in situ research was ‘absolutely necessary’. He was re-reading George Eliot’s Romola at the time, and admiring the way she took the trouble to find out things instead of making it all up.
What do you want from your writing? I work with authors all the time who want to get published. I’m a publisher, so I don’t want to play down the joy of seeing your work in print, but I’m also aware that publication is often not quite what people imagined and that it still leaves a hunger for something further.
It’s not that publication is irrelevant, but it’s far from the whole story and there are other aspects of writing that are vital and more overlooked.
So what do you want from your writing?
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It’s the first book in a trilogy — a novel that raises questions about perception and identity, about friendship, love, loyalty. About the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us. Belief is Cassie’s gift, and for some time she believes others when they tell her who she is. But Cassie reaches her own resolution about who she is and how she wants to live.
What really happened was that I was slow to learn. Belief wasn’t so much my gift as my curse.
Cassie is more resourceful than those who try to tell her who to be realise.
A remedy for all things
In A Remedy for All Things, my protagonist, Cassie (who now uses her full name — Catherine) has come a long way. This is how the book blurb puts it:
Belief is Catherine’s gift. Or it was once.
After a miscarriage and marital breakdown, her life is on course. Her new relationship with Simon is flourishing and she has a commission to research a novel about the poet, Attila József.
But when Catherine arrives in Budapest in winter 1993, she begins dreaming the life of a young woman, Selene Virág. Imprisoned after the 1956 Uprising, Selene finds she is dreaming Catherine’s life in turn.
Obsessed, Catherine abandons her research to find out who Selene was. Why does Selene believe Attila József was the father of her daughter, Miriam, when Attila died in 1937? And what became of Selene?
Most importantly, how do the lives of Catherine, Selene and Attila fit together?
Disquieting and compelling, A Remedy for All Things challenges our ideas of time and identity, as truth, fiction and political realities collide.
When Catherine meets Simon, she appears to be in a new phase of her life. She’s a confident writer and editor, about to undertake a trip to Budapest to research the life and death of the 1930s poet, Attila József.
But once in Budapest, during one of the coldest winters on record, Catherine finds herself disturbed by dreams. In them she relives the life of a woman imprisoned at the end of the 1950s after the Hungarian uprising, Selene Virág. As Catherine begins to investigate the woman, she becomes more drawn into this other life; one that has a strange a connection to Attila József.
As the month progresses, tracking the last days of József’s life and Selene’s imprisonment, Catherine again begins to question her own identity.
The questions of perception and identity become more intense when Simon, Catherine’s new partner, joins her is Budapest. And as the date of József’s suicide approaches, the tension mounts.
Will this be the end of the story?
I hope you will read on at Medium and also take a look at the book offer on A Remedy for All Things and This is the End of the Story.
We’ve all heard it before: writers write. Yes, but how? And what? And…
Writing isn’t easy, but it’s a skill. If you desire it you find the motivation to work at it. The more we hone our craft, the better we become. But it will consume you. If you are passionate about your project: read on.
Writing is a process. You won’t sit down and write a book. You’ll have ideas, make notes, flesh out parts of it. If you’re writing fiction you may have a timeline, character studies, chapter ideas. If your project is nonfiction you might start with articles, heaps of notes… In short, it’s small steps that build into something complex and inspiring. It’s consistency and work.
How obvious is that? Very, but how many people do you know who want to write, but… If you make a start, you’re already ahead of a lot of people.
So sketch out your ideas — make it concrete. Don’t only think about what will be in your book. Commit it to your journal or to a folder in Scrivener or to notes on your phone or a filing card.
There are so many calls on our time, so many distractions. Give yourself a chance. Have a regular writing time and deadlines and make it sacrosanct.
Get to the end
You might be a slow writer. You might take a year, or two or longer, but don’t give up. An unfinished book is another thing to beat yourself up about.