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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.

… I hope you’ll read on over at Medium – where you can also ‘clap’ for the post. Thank you for reading and for your support.

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Of Terror, Memory and Controversy

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Part 4 on Writing a novel trilogy

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: …

I’d be delighted if you’d like to read on over on Medium and, while you there, please hold down those tiny hands till the number can’t rise any more 🙂 Thank you!

 

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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: …

I hope you will enjoy rhe rest of this article over on Medium where you can applaud the post 🙂 Thank you.

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How to make the journey your reward

bitsWhat 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?

Please read on and clap (if you like what you read) on Medium – thank you!

 

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How to progress from idea to completed passion

type.jpegWe’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.

First start

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.

Keep going

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.

Breaking down the start:

Please read on at Medium and please clap 🙂

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Who are you? Writing virtues into the writing life

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‘Virtue’ is a word we don’t hear a great deal. There’s an anachronistic ring to it. It can also sound smug. A problem with over-focussing on self-improvement is that it can make us seem remote, self-satisfied and self-centred. An irony if we’re setting out to be kinder or more patient. We become rather like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby:

Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

In Cultivating Virtue, philosopher Christine Swanton suggests that instead of cultivating ourselves, we concentrate on doing virtuous actions. The first step toward virtue is to act as if you have that quality. We then hope that through feedback and reflection, growth follows without self-obsessing. Or as Aristotle puts it:

(Wo)men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a particular way… you become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.

Who we are is fluid. We don’t come written in stone. Humans are adaptable. The environment we live in makes a huge difference, as do the choices we make. There are things we have little or no influence over in life, but we have the capacity to change, to become the person we want to be.

One of the joys of being a storyteller is that it’s not only about fiction. I can also write myself. But it has to go further than narrativising — my journal is a good place to plan and reflect, but it also has to translate into action. …

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With this in mind, at New Year I invested in a tiny book. And I set about a long journalling exercise around what 13 virtues or qualities I should action this year. Why thirteen?

Because I’d read an article about Benjamin Franklin who chose 13 virtues and focussed on one each week. Choosing 13 meant that each quality would get four weeks of attention over the year. That seemed feasible. And I like the idea of revisiting each quality whilst not obsessing about one or two things constantly.

A ‘year’ of course can start at any point, so if it appeals, you can begin at any time.

Thirteen qualities for the year

These are the 13 virtues or qualities that emerged for me over several journalling sessions:

I hope you’ll read on on Medium and clap the article there if you enjoy it …

 

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All you have to do is write one true sentence

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One of the things I’m involved in as an editor at an indie press is adjudicating fiction in our competitions. This year we’ve amalgamated the fiction prizes into one so that people can submit across prose genres — short stories, novels and novellas.

Every year there are pieces of fiction that jump out as strong contenders but trip themselves up along the way. What is it that Cinnamon Press is looking for in a story? a young friend recently asked me. What makes a good story?

Don’t tell me…

It’s often easier to start from what doesn’t work.

The stories that tell me what is happening (sometimes several times to make sure I get it) but which don’t ‘show’ me anything so I am never drawn in rarely work. Telling has its place in bridging passages, in some forms of first person narrative, but for the most part I’m with Chekhov on this:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Other stories fail because they drown in adjectives or (even worse) adverbs. Descriptive passages can sing off the page, sometimes with a rich seasoning of adjectives thrown in, but only if every word has earned its place. And some words never earn a place — really, just, suddenly, somehow… As says Ursula Le Guin in her invaluable guide to prose writing, Sailing the Craft:

Nothing happens somehow

Please read on on Medium – this is a post particularly for writers and if you have a novel or short stories that would be eligible for our fiction prize, take a look at that too – thank you for reading.

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How to harness the audacious magic of saying no

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For some of us, saying no is hard, even anathema. I’ve been a people-pleaser for over five decades, but the seeds of saying no were sown when I left a vocation. Not only was I assaulted three times at work, but those I worked for were anything but sympathetic and it was time to say ‘no more’.

But as a publisher and editor I soon slid back into my old people-pleasing ways. This may not sound like much of a problem, but it is.

Why always saying yes isn’t healthy

1. If you always say yes, what’s it’s worth?

When we agree to give time or skills or resources to something it should be of some import.

If you say yes to everything then nothing is more important or valuable in your life than anything else. The creative project that is your dream and passion, quality time with your family and friends — are these of no more weight than random requests or unreasonable calls to work more hours than a week contains?

2. If you always say yes you’ll end up in difficult situations…

Please read on here. And if you enjoy the article you can clap on Medium – thank you!

 

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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.

I hope you will continue reading over on Medium – and would really appreciate your support by clapping up to 50 times 🙂 – thank you

 

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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

I hope you’d like to read on and support the blog post on Medium

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