Theresa May, the Queen and Boris Johnson and, more seriously, Kent Haruf

A friend of mine sent me this sometime after the Brexit Bungle:

The real reason Boris was appointed to the Foreign Office.

The real reason Boris was appointed to the Foreign Office

There’s not much else to say, is there?

On a much more serious note (and far wiser, kinder, more compassionate and life-enhancing), I read Kent Haruf (to rhyme with Sheriff)’s Our Souls at Night on holiday recently, on the recommendation of dovegreyreader and, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible, I would love to have written this exquisitely-beautiful novel. Its insight, wisdom, tenderness, economy of writing, humour and the fundamental understanding that life, loneliness and love; courage, compassion and companionship and other people’s prurient misunderstandings don’t stop in later life. Read it, I urge you.

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How dramatic stories change brain chemistry, and NOT the Booker Prize

Good strong stories, as we all know, transport us to other people’s worlds. So, when we’re reading fiction, even though we know the people we’re reading about aren’t real, if the story has a successful dramatic arc we’ll empathise with those imaginary people and their difficulties as if they were real. And now Paul J Zak, Director of the Centre for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, has worked out, neurologically-speaking, why we do this:

We have identified oxytocin as the neurochemical responsible for empathy and narrative transportation. My lab pioneered the behavioral study of oxytocin and has proven that when the brain synthesizes oxytocin, people are more trustworthy, generous, charitable and compassionate. I have dubbed oxytocin the “moral molecule” … others call it the love hormone. What we know is that oxytocin makes us more sensitive to social cues … . In many situations, social cues motivate us to engage [with] others, particularly if the other person seems to need our help.

Zak’s video also shows what prompts charitable giving which is less germaine to storytelling, but still makes the point about stories and the changes they cause in our brains and so in our behaviour:

And the thing I would love to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is Sam Jordison‘s Not the Booker Prize: so many wonderful books that didn’t make that other prize are listed here. If you read the list before 15 August you’ll see the longlist (actually you can still see it). After that, you’ll see the shortlist. Further developments will be announced by Sam Jordison in the Guardian from time to time, including reviews of the six shortlisted books and there’ll be a final vote on 17 October.

Posted in Creativity, Literary Prizes, Mind, Psychology, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Writers, Writing | 2 Comments

The UK Referendum, Brexit, and Meike Ziervogel on the importance of listening to other people’s stories

On 1 July Meike Ziervogel, founder and publisher at Peirene Press, published this:

Translation is Europe’s only common language.
Umberto Eco

It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece about the UK referendum, Brexit, and the importance of listening to other people’s stories. These are Meike’s words, not mine, but they’re published here with her permission. The whole piece set me thinking. I’ve emboldened the parts that make me want to do something and that I wish I’d had the wisdom to work out for myself:

At the beginning of the week [27 June 2016] I was asked by The Society of Authors to reflect on the UK/EU referendum result and the way ahead for translated works. Here is what I wrote for them:

In my weekly blog, The Pain and Passion of a Small Publisher, I have personified Peirene, the ancient Greek Nymph who also lends her name to my publishing house. In the blog entry from the 26th of June I describe what happened in our office the morning after Brexit. Peirene was so upset that she went straight back to bed. I spent the day sitting by her side stroking her head, worrying about her. Would she slide into a depression? Or worse: leave the country? But the next morning her fighting spirits had returned: ‘The referendum has made clear what we’ve always suspected: this country needs to learn to listen to other people’s stories, only then it will change for the better,‘ she told me. She continued: ‘We have an important mission that hasn’t yet been accomplished. We can’t give up half way.’

Needless to say, I agree with Peirene. But I’m also aware that if we are going to succeed, I too have to become better in listening to other people’s stories.

Recently an English novelist friend confessed to me that she doesn’t enjoy reading contemporary foreign literature in translation. She finds that, in comparison to English novels, translated books are often marked by impoverished language and stilted narrative. My friend is not alone. I have heard this argument from other readers before. Moreover, I can see where they are coming from. Because English possesses a larger amount of vocabulary than most other languages, our novels tend to be wordy. And because of the straight forwardness of the basic English syntax – subject, verb, object – English fiction writers are gifted in producing compelling, linear narratives. After all, the syntax influences how we organise reality.

It is therefore no surprise that a stark Finnish drama or a French novella where no word should be taken at face value, can present a challenge, maybe even an unpleasant reading experience. So why should we put ourselves through such ordeals?

Long before the invention of the phonetic alphabet, at a time when we were still hunter-gatherers, we humans developed the skill of ‘reading’ and interpreting the languages of others. And not only of other humans. We knew how to interpret the movement of the clouds in the sky, could read the animal footprints in the forests and understood the bird sounds above our heads. We knew we had to listen to what is outside ourselves – strangers, animals, the environment – telling their stories in their own way – because such engagement was vital to our survival.

Today, in every day life, we mostly consume stories we know and where we can identify personally. This is of course most evident with social media. But it’s also true for the books we read. What sounds strange or unusual to us, we tend to reject and often judge as ‘bad’, ‘uninteresting’, ‘boring’.

I’m guilty of that too. For example, there are no Turkish or Eastern European novels in Peirene’s programme, despite my best efforts to find some. Or so I claim. But no book from any of these countries has so far gripped me. I search for strong imagery, powerful characterization, tight plotting. My judgement draws from an appreciation of Western European prose. I’m more and more aware that I will probably never find anything unless I change my perspective so that I can begin to understand these different literary sensibilities.

The shocking victory of Brexit came about because the campaign tapped into people’s fears of foreigners and strangers. Fear is caused when we feel threatened. And we feel threatened when we don’t understand.

In our increasingly small, overpopulated, environmentally endangered world we need to collaborate to survive. But collaboration requires understanding and this is only possible if we are willing to engage with the narratives of strangers – narratives that might at first jar with what we know and like.

If I – a professional of the ‘story industry’ – resist leaving my comfort zone and only listen and read stories that sound familiar, how can I then expect others to have an open ear to new and strange tales? The Nymph is right, this country needs to learn to listen to other people’s stories, only then will it change. But we – writers, publishers, agents, critics, booksellers – have to be courageous enough to lead by example.

Thank you Meike and Peirene.

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Why Readers Stop Reading; Lisa McInerney’s 2016 Bailey’s win, and Penicillin

An interesting survey on why readers stop reading:

There’s more here. It’s published by Lit World Interviews (I found it on a TLC facebook post.) The conclusions are mostly what you’d expect to put readers off (although I particularly loved Unexpected Sex as a deterrent to reading on). But they’re a salutary reminder to us writers that what we must do, first and foremost and without which we haven’t a hope of beguiling our readers, is to write convincing, enthralling, absorbing stories peopled by characters who behave the way human beings behave, in all our complexity. Obviously, you might say. But reminders are good things. Our language must be the best we can possibly manage and there are always better words than swear words (Shakespeare invented his own: we can too). Our research must never show itself: it must seamlessly underpin the story and a piece is never properly finished without a writer paying serious attention to her editor. It’s also essential that our publishers employ pernickety proofreaders.

Lisa McInerney has just won this year’s Bailey’s Prize for Fiction with
The Glorious Heresies The Glorious Heresies - Lisa McInerneywhich sounds as though it’s done everything the readers’ surveyed above could hope for. Reviews include: ‘A big brassy sexy beast of a book.’ Irish Times and: ‘A spectacular debut . . . a head-spinning, stomach-churning state-of-the-nation novel about a nation falling apart.’ The Daily Telegraph. And it’s already in paperback so I’m buying a copy immediately.

And, finally, the thing I’d like to have invented (discovered) in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible, is penicillin. On Melvyn Bragg’s 9 June In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 I heard this: ‘Life is small pools of order in a universe of disorder. Life has an inside and an outside. And what a bacterium must do – and what we must do – is preserve internal order against an outside disorder … by ingesting and excreting.’ (From What is Life by Erwin Schrödinger (he of the paradox).) One of the things penicillin does, I heard, is to block this in and outflow through the pores in the cell walls, and so inhibit the harmful bacteria. Penicillin was, as of course you know, discovered by accident … just as aspects of character and ways to structure a novel can be, although not, just as happened to Alexander Fleming, until a process of thoughtful examination is already underway.

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Literary Prizes, Storytelling, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Writers, Writing | 2 Comments

brainpickings and mindset

I’ve just discovered a website called brainpickings. I was noodling around on the internet, trying to find out something for one of my characters (what it was escapes me now) but I recommend brainpickings for the heart and for the brain. The articles are written by Maria Popova and they’re about, to quote her:

Art, science, psychology, design, philosophy, history, politics, anthropology and more … . Above all [brainpickings is] about how these different disciplines illuminate one another to glean some insight, directly or indirectly, into that grand question of how to live, and how to live well.

brainpickings has been running for 10 years (I’m late to the party) and if you love what you find there you’re invited to subscribe both virtually and actually.

I discovered mindset at brainpickings. mindset is an idea of Carol Dweck‘s, a Stanford University psychologist whose research focusses on why people succeed and how to foster success (I don’t like the book’s title, subtitle or blurb: I’d never have bought it if I hadn’t read Maria Popova’s article about it). But don’t let the titles put you off. The idea is brilliantly simple and simply brilliant: it applies to every aspect of our lives and the way we live them. According to Carol Dweck the hand we’re dealt at birth is something we either:
believe we’re stuck with:
the fixed mindset
something we believe we can cultivate and change through our efforts:
the growth mindset

So, either we’re convinced we can’t change or we believe we can. I know where I hope I exist … .Maria Popova’s article was published in January 2014 but mindset has been around since 2006 (I’m late again!) but it’s never too late to change our attitudes to the hand we were dealt and, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible, I would love to have invented both brianpickings and mindset. They’re mind- and heart-fulfilling.

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Do you want Escape or Experience when you read fiction? And: from food desert to food forest

I found this definition of the distinction between genre and literary fiction here:

The main reason for a person to read Genre Fiction is for entertainment, for a riveting story, an escape from reality. Literary Fiction separates itself from Genre because it is not about escaping from reality, instead, it provides a means to better understand the world … [through] real emotional responses.

Reduced to one word I’d say: genre fiction offers an Escape from life; literary fiction offers an Experience of life. Steven Petite’s complete 2014 article for HuffPost Books is here.

Obviously genre and literary fiction overlap and such simplified one-word definitions are, well, too simple. But as a way of distinguishing one from the other, something I often struggle to do, it’s the most useful distinction I’ve found.

And the thing I would like to have dreamed up this month is Ron Finley‘s Can You Dig This? idea.

Finley has been turning a South Central Los Angeles food desert into a food forest. His idea is simple but, at first, it was treated as a crime. He turned the parkway outside his house (the strip of earth between the pavement and the road) into a vegetable garden and was cited by the City of LA for ‘gardening without a permit’. He started a petition to grow food on parkways and the City backed down. He’s turning an area better known for gangs and guns into an area known for its vegetable gardens. As he says:

I put a carrot in the ground and all hell broke lose.
If you ain’t a gardener you ain’t a gansta. Be a gangsta gardener: let a shovel be your weapon of choice

He’s given a TED talk about it all.

Even the homeless stop to admire the beauty of the plots springing up: his idea has sparked a food-growing revolution. There’s a film about it all too. Finley’s done remarkable things for awareness of nutrition (and the lack of nutritious food) in the area. He’s an astonishing and astonishingly far-sighted, courageous, innovative man.

Posted in Creativity, Gardening, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Writing | 3 Comments

Mindfulness, Fitzroy Square and Subversive (Guerilla) Gardening

A few weeks ago I did an Introduction to Mindfulness day at the London Mindfulness Project (whose rooms are in the astonishingly beautiful, Georgian Fitzroy Square, at No 6):

Fitzroy Square, London Mindfulness Project
No 6, according to the Georgian Society, has:

Over the years … become associated with high-end Bohemian residents many of whom had and have prominent careers in the arts. George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf and Robert Louis Stevenson all resided here at some point and the tradition continues with Ian McEwan who made Fitzroy Square the prime setting of his 2005 novel: Saturday.

Appropriate then that a ‘Powerful practice of training our attention’ should now have its London rooms at No 6 since, it seems to me, writing fiction is also a powerful practice of training our attention, both for readers and for writers. But, as I was thinking about mindfulness (I wrote a bit about it here too) and the difference it’s made to my daily round (it has, I do seem to be concentrating better, for longer, and I also seem to be less subject to stomach scrunching stress … long may it last … long may I practise) … but I was thinking, what proof is there that it works? I mean when you’re meditating you’re meditating; when you’re practising mindfulness you’re practising mindfulness. How can there be a control group, a placebo, to discover any changes in the brains between those who’ve mindfully meditated and those who haven’t?

Well, they’re on to this, at the London Mindfulness Project: in their Spring newsletter they include a report of an experiment that shows that mindfulness does work, does cause changes in our brains. The study reported:

Follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those who underwent mindfulness meditation. There was more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm.

The way they conducted the experiment is recorded here, in a New York Times article. What they don’t know is how long you need to practise mindfulness for before these changes occur (those in the experiment did three consecutive days) but essentially they managed a control group, a placebo, in which people didn’t know they were fake-meditating!

Half the subjects were taught formal mindfulness meditation at a residential retreat center; the rest completed a kind of sham mindfulness meditation that was focused on relaxation and distracting oneself from worries and stress.

One of the questions they asked after the mindfulness day I did was: how often to you stop to smell a flower? I can’t remember what I answered, but I do, at least sometimes, stop. These narcissii, pushing up in our small London plot, are smelling delicious at the moment:Garden in Spring 004

And then I discovered these which, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible, I would love to have made: they’re tools that attach to the nails of subversive (or guerilla) gardeners. Remarkable (and funny):

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A Valentine to Fear; and Visual Verse

In Elizabeth Gilbert‘s brilliant new book Big Magic (I reviewed it here) she acknowledges that we need fear in our lives, otherwise we’d be:

Straight-up sociopaths … [or an] exceptionally reckless three-year-old … . But you do not need your fear in the realm of creative expression.Big Magic

She also writes:

When people try to kill off their fear, they often end up inadvertently murdering their creativity in the process. 

So she suggests a way of keeping fear at bay (because it will always be there) that made me laugh, and made me decide to do exactly what she does. She says it, as a welcoming speech to her fear. I’ve written it down and stuck it on my writing-room wall:

Dearest Fear,

Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting – and, may I say, you are superb at your job. So by all means, keep doing your job, if you feel you must.

But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focussed. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way.

I recognise and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still – your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. You’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.

Thank you, Elizabeth Gilbert.

And the thing I would love to have dreamt up in a timeless universe where all things are possible is Visual Verse. visual_verse_logoIf you subscribe, each month they’ll email you an image, then you write something in response. The catch is that you may only write for an hour. But as a springboard for a story and/or a kick in the rear for fear, I know of nothing better. Images are powerful things. Here are my January and February contributions.

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Mistakes, for a new year

The first days of this new year have brought oddly mixed emotions. Happiness and gratitude that all those celebrations with friends and family went well, mingled with sadness for the absence of all those we used to celebrate with who are no longer alive. Memories of the dead weaving (wefting?) through the warps of our lives (and not always sadly).

Warp and Weft, from here:

And then a peculiarly niggling apprehension, an uncertainty, about plunging back into work. About whether it’s really any good. And then I found this, written by Neil Gaiman, that wonderfully versatile and prolific writer. He wrote these words at the turn of 2011-2012, but they’re timeless:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

I particularly love: ‘Don’t worry that it isn’t good enough.’ And, ‘Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.’ And, ‘Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.’ These words will be my mantra for the year (and for many years to come). They made me laugh and they’ve given me courage. Thank you, Neil Gaiman.

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Laurie Lee’s A Village Christmas, and other things

I read about Laurie Lee’s A Village Christmas and Other Notes on the English Year at dovegreyreader’s wonderful blog early in November and I’m hoping it will end up under our tree this year. I’ve already bought it for several friends.Laurie Lee's A Village ChristmasA perfect book for this time of year (Lee’s daughter Jessy discovered seven pieces by her father in the British Library archive: they’re published for the first time in this collection). As dovegrey said:

I can’t think of anything not to love about it.

And here’s a man whose courage, sense and sensibility I’d like to emulate in a world where time is infinite and all things are possible. Nicholas Henin makes sense (not war) by suggesting that if we give Syrians refuge and don’t fly over (or bomb) their safe areas we’ll show Isis that the ‘infidel’ is kind to and welcomes peace-loving Muslims and Isis will lose both their enemy and their recruiting ground.

A French journalist who was held hostage by Isis for 10 months has spoken out against air strikes in Syria, saying they represent “a trap” for Britain…

PS: My second novel, The Dance of Love, has found itself with a new publisher this month (new to the novel, not to the world of publishing) because of the sad demise of Robert Hale and so the imprint that published it, Buried River Press. The new publisher is called Crowood Press and the new distributors are Grantham Book Services. For a writer to lose one publisher (as happened with Speaking of Love and Beautiful Books) might be considered bad luck. To lose two is … well Oscar Wilde said it better, if in a – slightly – different context. Perhaps, when my third novel’s ready to be sent out into the world, my third publisher will prove lucky (for itself and for my novel). In folk tales, legends, myths and fairy tales the third attempt is always the time when things change … .

And I do hope that 2016 will bring you much of what you’d like and very little of what you wouldn’t.

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Leslie House, Fife; and the Daily Good

My great-grandmother Noël Rothes, whose life was the initial inspiration for my novel The Dance of Love, lived at Leslie House between 1904 and 1919.

Leslie House, Fife

The house was burned to the ground while under restoration in 2009. It’s been the subject of at least two planning applications, but now stands derelict. But as I wrote in an article for December’s Scottish Field:

Because it’s always possible to find hope among the ashes … I hope that an innovative alternative use for Leslie House – which stands bravely awaiting rescue and rebirth – will be found. At a meeting chaired by Fife’s Councillor Fiona Grant, Chair of the Glenrothes Area Committee, on 16 September, a meeting which Sundial Properties [the present owners]Historic Scotland and officers of Fife Council’s Planning Department attended, they agreed to produce a development brief for exactly that purpose.

One possible idea is that – because of my great-grandmother’s experience on board Titanic, it might become a Titanic Visitor Centre. But all innovative ideas are welcomed.

And the thing I’d love to have invented this month in a universe where time is limitless and all things are possible is a website called the Daily Good. Have a look. They only post news that inspires. Their categories include Generosity and Everyday Heroes. And you can subscribe or contribute.

DailyGood is a portal that shares inspiring quotes and news stories that focus on the “good” we can find in our world daily along with a simple action to continue that goodness. Since 1999, it has delivered positive news to subscriber inboxes for free by volunteers every day.

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What it’s like to write and what it’s like to imagine you might write; and Suffragette

In Edith Wharton‘s 1925 The Writing of Fiction 

Wharton, The Writing of Fictionin the section called ‘Constructing a Navel’
obviously a typographical mistake but one I like for its overtones of contemplation –
Wharton writes about the creation of character in a novel:

The creatures of that fourth-dimensional world are born as helpless as the human animal; and each time the artist passes from dream to execution he will need to find the rules and formulas on the threshold.

The rules and formulas, whether studied and learned or instinctively understood, are the invisible bricks and mortar of a well-constructed novel without which all is chaos (and unreadable). But I doubt there’s a writer of fiction who began writing thinking she’d like to become a bricklayer. I think we begin because we believe, with Janet Frame, in her 1979 novel, Living in the Maniototothat writing a novel will be:

Frame, Living in the Maniototo Like watching a fire running along a fuse, against time and life, to explode a once-buried seam of meaning along a disused word-face; and that anything else is ‘imitation’ writing.
Tantalisingly, she added: I still think so.

But it’s one thing to imagine being a writer; quite another to practise writing. Before I wrote a word of fiction, I knew it would be like watching a fire running along a fuse. Now that I am writing I know the rules and the formulas for my faithful allies.

And the thing I would love to have made in a parallel universe where time is infinite is Sarah Gavron‘s and Abi Morgan‘s Suffragette.

‘We’re half the human race. You can’t stop us all.’

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Mindfulness; 18 things creative people do differently and the ever-magical Elizabeth Gilbert

Mindfulness, according to The Mindfulness Project in London, is:

A simple and very powerful practice of training our attention. It’s … about paying attention to what’s happening here and now (sensations, thoughts, emotions) in a non-judgemental way. It can interrupt the habit of getting lost in thoughts, mostly about the future or past, which often generate more stress on top of the real pressures of everyday life.

Mind Full or Mindful

image from the Centre for Excellence

The Huff Post, in an article by Alexa Frey, one of the Mindfulness Project’s co-founders, warns about ‘forcing’ positive feelings and working without a teacher, but this is what attracted me to the whole idea: a video of a University of Wisconsin-Madison project made with the Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds. I love the young girl at the beginning who says: ‘I don’t know what we’re doing … why are they making us do this?’ And then a teacher: ‘We saw a transformation after two or three weeks.’ Especially when a hip-hop (yes, hip-hop) element was added. Do watch it: I defy you not to feel better.

It’s said that mindfulness can boost creativity and innovation (another Huff Post article by Bianca Rothschild agrees): a friend of mine sent me an article that describes 18 things creative people do differently. The first of the 18 things is daydreaming:

Although daydreaming may seem mindless, a 2012 study suggested it could actually involve a highly engaged brain state – daydreaming can lead to sudden connections and insights because it’s related to our ability to recall information in the face of distractions. Neuroscientists have also found that daydreaming involves the same brain processes associated with imagination and creativity.

A little king dreams

A little king dreams: from the 18-things article cited above

So now I can daydream without feeling guilty. Obviously, I’m working.

And the thing I’d love to have made this month, if time and everything-else allowed, is the mistress of exploring creativity and the whole resistance, guilt, difficulty and how-not-to-give-up-ness of it all, Elizabeth Gilbert‘s new book, Big Magic. It’s out this month. Here’s a favourite quote:

Don’t abandon your creativity the moment things stop being easy or rewarding – because that’s the moment when interesting begins.

Big MagicHere’s to holding on to the courage to hold on to interesting … .

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How incomprehensible unworkable things inspire

Joanna Briscoe and Grace Paley caught my attention this month. They’re very different writers but I’ve just read articles about writing by both. Grace Paley died in 2007 but a friend sent me her thoughts on writing recently. Here’s an extract from an article, reprinted here):

One of the reasons writers are so much more interested in life than others who just go on living all the time is that what the writer doesn’t understand the first thing about is just what he acts like such a specialist about — and that is life. And the reason he writes is to explain it all to himself, and the less he understands to begin with, the more he probably writes. …

In other words, the poor writer… really oughtn’t to know what he’s talking about. 

It sounds mad, but it’s entirely sane. Grace Paley called it ununderstanding and it’s essential: I don’t write because I know the answers to life’s difficulties and dilemmas, I write because I’m looking for answers. I write in the dark, groping towards the light.

Joanna Briscoe wrote this (the complete article is here):

Yet somehow, for all the agony, it soothes my soul to write. Festering psychological horrors are brought to light. Lives are invented and made anew. The shapes, concealments and twists of storytelling form a puzzle that brings great satisfaction in the solving.

Exactly so.

And the thing I would be proud to have invented this month in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is a solution to something that wasn’t working. Nineteen years ago Michelle Mone was at a party when the bra she was wearing got so uncomfortable she vowed to design one that wasn’t. The result was not one bra but many, from Ultimo, the hugely successful company she founded.

So, when something’s ununderstandable or unworkable, don’t give up: make something new.

Posted in Storytelling, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Women, Writers, Writing | 5 Comments

Ideas are NOT stories; and the Biblioteca Jardim

It becomes obvious if you write,
but perhaps not if you don’t:
ideas are not stories.

Before I wrote or, at least, before I finished a novel, I didn’t grasp this fundamental fact because ideas, when they come (and I’ve no idea where they come from) are so exciting. They’re the fuel; the energy; the surge; the thrill; the I’ve-got-an-idea-so-now-I-can-write part of writing.

But an idea is just that: an idea. It can be written on one line or told in a few seconds. It’s the elevator pitch. It’s not the story.

Stories are born, often during protracted years of labour, from the idea but the story fleshes out the idea through characters whose lives intersect and whose personalities make them do what they do and fail to do what they fail to do. Characters who love and hate and dither and wait. Characters who work and lie and comfort and die. Characters who misunderstand and hesitate and plunge in and necessitate … other characters to react. As Hilary Mantel writes in The Agony and The Ego:

If you make your characters properly they will simply do what is within them, they’ll act out the nature you have given them, and there – you’ll find – you have your plot [p38].

And as Neil Gaiman writes here:

The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. They’re a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.

I’ve been re-discovering this while writing my third novel: I’m about to begin again … .

And this month’s thing I’d love to have made in a parallel universe where all things are possible and time is infinite is: the Biblioteca Jardim in the Estrela Gardens in Lisbon.Biblioteca Jardim, Estrela Gardens, Lisbon

It was built in the 1920s, fell into disuse but was resurrected and it’s such a fine idea: there’s a choice of 1,000 books to borrow as well as magazines, newspapers and games. There’s shade to read them in and no need to weigh yourself down with your own book(s) or newspaper(s) while you walk. Just sit and surprise yourself with what you might read one sunny afternoon in the Estrela Gardens.

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Men and Embroidery, and a belated apology

Inspired by this post about John Craske and his delicate life and delicate embroidery in a new book by Julia Blackburn, at dovegreyreader earlier this week, I’ve begun thinking about men and embroidery. My grandfather sewed: tapestry, I think, for chair and cushion covers, but I thought, horrible child that I was, that it was an unmanly thing to do.

My grandfather suffered from depression and sewing may well have been a form of solace, even, perhaps, therapy, as it probably was for John Craske. But I’ll never know whether sewing helped my grandfather because I never had the wit or the wisdom to ask him. But I discovered, from Megan McConnell here, that during the First World War the Red Cross ran embroidery classes for men as part of their rehabilitation from wounds and shell shock. She writes:

Embroidery was taught to men who would otherwise be unable to work and many of them went on to produce skilled work both as professional embroiderers and hobbyists.

The same thing happened in World War II, although by then the need for professional hand-embroiderers had diminished but that didn’t stop embroidery becoming a hobby for many men, as it did for my grandfather.

The thing I would like to have done this month is be less blinkered (and idiotically sexist) about my grandfather’s hobby, but I wasn’t and now even the opportunity to apologise for my lack of appreciation of what he did is lost. But as is the way with lost things, they haunt us and I think this one will haunt me and find a way into my fiction. I’m already gathering threads, silks and blank canvases for a novel about mending broken things … .

And, by way of belated apology to my grandfather, here is a beautiful embroidered panel designed by one of the masters, William Morris, which I would love to have talked to him about:

Design for an embroidered panel with border by William Morris, 1878. Victoria & Albert museum number E.55-1940, part of the May Morris Bequest.





Posted in Artists, Design, Things I'd Love to Have Made | 4 Comments

Electoral Reform in the UK. And Inspiration.

On 5 May 2011 a referendum on electoral reform was held in the UK: 68% of us voted No; 32% (including me) voted Yes; the turnout was 42%. We weren’t collectively brave enough, or we were too frightened of change to vote Yes conclusively (or to vote at all).

Last Thursday, 7 May 2015, a Conservative government was elected with a majority of 12 seats under our first-past-the-post voting system: their share of the vote was 37% (or 11.3 million votes). Labour was defeated, but its share of the vote was 30% (or 9.3 million votes). The difference in seats between the Conservative party and the Labour party was 99 despite the 7% difference in share of the vote (the turnout was 66%). The first-past-the-post system doesn’t represent actual votes cast.

On 11 May Dr Henning Meyer, who writes about social democracy for Social Europe, wrote about whether or not proportional representation could save the United Kingdom. Here’s an extract:

A continental-style, more representative electoral system fostering cooperation rather than confrontation would in my view be a significant means to moderate the political forces ripping the Union apart. At the same time, such a system would deliver outcomes that have more legitimacy outside England as it involves a process of coalition and wider political representation … [and would] incentivise the creation of a unifying, countrywide politics rather than prioritising electioneering in specific target areas.

If the UK’s voting system was proportionately representative (and I know there are several possible systems) the difference in numbers of seats won by the Conservative party and the Labour party on 7 May would have been less than half what it actually was under what the Electoral Reform Society call a ‘fair voting system’. And of course the other seats would have been distributed more fairly among the smaller parties. One day, let’s hope, we’ll be inspired to make the change.

Talking of inspiration, on 22 April my sister Sue Tribolini and I talked about what inspiration might be and how to tap into it, on her Invisible Dimension radio show. We actually made the thing I’d love to have made, this month, together. I said jewels inhabit our unconscious minds, jewels formed from the things we experience (not just literally, but the things we read, discover, think and feel), but that we ‘forget’ these jewels. I said inspiration is the link we make between the ‘forgotten’ jewels (which form just the way minerals become precious stones before they’re mined) and our imaginations, through writing techniques like morning pages. (By the way Dorothea Brande in her essential Becoming a Writer talked about morning pages years before anyone else.) It’s just like mining, really, only without a torch and without the physical hardship or danger.

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103 years on, Titanic; and the things that come unbidden when you write

One hundred and three years ago today more than 1,500 people died in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic when RMS Titanic hit the iceberg and then sank, in the early hours of 15 April. My great-grandmother, Nöel Rothes, was one of the lucky survivors and this year YOU Magazine in the Mail on Sunday has printed an article I wrote about that terrible night, the things Nöel did to help the survivors and the bond she and the Able Seaman in charge of her lifeboat forged. You can read it here, if you’d like to. I also wrote about her and the tragic sinking on the 100th anniversary in 2012, here.

RMS Titanic leaving Southampton on 10 April 1912          (from Wikipedia)

The Dance of Love, my novel that reimagines Nöel’s life – as discussed here on the wonderful Shiny New Books – took a while to write, and to get right, partly because I’m a novice novelist (it’s my second) but also because it was my first piece of historical fiction so I didn’t recognise immediately, as Hilary Mantel so wisely put it:

You have to think what you owe to history, but you also have to think what you owe to the novel form. Your readers expect a story and they don’t want it to be two-dimensional, barely dramatised.

The Dance of Love by Angela YoungThe Dance of Love doesn’t faithfully follow the course of my great-grandmother’s life: when an image arrived unbidden one day I realised the story I was writing was emotionally linked to that image and not to many of the facts that made up her real life.

On 22 April my sister, Sue Tribolini, will interview me about things that arrive unbidden while writing. We’re going to talk about what isn’t anticipated, where these things might come from and how it might be possible to harness them. The station is called, it’s based in Toronto and Sue’s Invisible Dimension show is an hour long.

Chekhov said: A writer is a person who has signed a contract with his conscience.

The Middle English translation of conscience is inner knowing; the Latin is with-knowing/understanding. Sue and I are going to see what we can untangle of this inner knowing and it would be lovely if you joined us here, at 8pm on 22 April (or, if you’re in the US or Canada: 12 noon Pacific; 1pm Mountain; 2pm Central or 3pm Eastern time).

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A time when women weren’t persons … and other equally unequal inequalities

In 1927 a group of Canadian women’s rights activists, including Emily Murphy, who was born 147 years ago today

Emily Murphy, Women’s Rights Activist, born 14 March 1868, Cookstown, Ontario, died 17 October 1933, Edmonton, Alberta.

launched the Persons Case, which contended that women were qualified persons eligible to sit in the Senate. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that they were not (I wonder what the Supreme Court, in its wisdom, thought women were, if not persons?). But, on appeal to the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council, the court of last resort for Canada at that time, the women won their case.

It’s extraordinary to think that only 88 years ago such things had to be debated, that it wasn’t a matter of ordinary fact. That only 67 years ago the United Nations declared and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That only 50 years ago the Selma Voting Rights Movement led to the Voting Rights Act. And so much more that has (and still hasn’t) happened in terms of our humanity and equality. What is it with us humans that we feel we must segregate and divide ourselves? Why do we fail to find our curiosity about each other?

On 18 February, on her radio show The Invisible Dimension, my sister, Sue Tribolini

Sue Tribolini

interviewed Kass Thomas

Kass Thomas

who has her own show on the same radio station, (a Canadian internet station). They discussed how we might live without prejudice. Kass suggested curiosity was the way. If we ask, ‘What’s it like to be you?’ and ‘What’s life like for you?’ instead of assuming we know (and so holding on to our prejudices) we might begin to get somewhere: somewhere better than where we are now.

Those will be my questions from now on: no need for a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible this month: these questions belong right here, right now, in this world, where time and our humanity are the most precious things we have.

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The Brain in Love; and Jim Burge’s Burgeoning Promotional Videos for writers and artists

Dr Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, studies the brain, in love. She gave a glorious TED talk about it, here.

I particularly loved Walt Whitman: Oh, I would stake all for you.
and Emily Dickinson: Parting is all we need to know of Hell.
and Dr Fisher herself: Anthropologists have never found a society that did not have love.

Dr Helen Fisher, Biological Anthropologist at Rutgers University, talking about the Brain in Love.

Dr Helen Fisher, Biological Anthropologist at Rutgers University, talking about the Brain in Love.

And, Dr Fisher again, The brain system for focus, for wanting, for craving, for romantic love, becomes MORE active when you can’t get what you want.

Dr Fisher and her colleagues have made neurological studies of people who’d just fallen in love and people who’d just been dumped and they found the same brain centres were activated and the same brain chemical (dopamine) was ‘sprayed’ into other parts of the brain. This centre is also the place from which we take enormous risks for huge gains or huge losses … and in Dr Fisher’s opinion love is an addiction: a perfectly wonderful one when it’s going well and a perfectly horrible one when it’s going badly. But the thing that cheered me about all this is that when she was asked if all this knowledge had taken the romantic nature of love away, for her, she said it hadn’t: she said you can know all the ingredients of a chocolate cake and still, when you eat it, you can find yourself in heaven. Dr Fisher developed a personality test for based on our levels of dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and oestrogen: to tell us who we are and whom we should love!

She ends with:
Love is in us. It’s deeply embedded in the brain.
Our challenge is to understand each other

Happy Valentine’s Day!

And the thing I’d like to be able to do, in a parallel world where time is infinite and all things are possible, is to make the promotional films and videos that Jim Burge makes. At Burgeoning Media they make videos for writers to publicise both the writer and the work; for artists, for gallery owners: they’ll even make a film of your wedding, should that be your heart’s desire.

The brilliant thing about Burgeoning Media is that they take the time and the trouble to find out about you and your work so when you find yourself in front of the camera (a terrifying experience for must of us) you look and sound as if you know what you’re talking about, and you sound spontaneous because you’re answering intelligent questions about your work, not spouting something you’ve learned by heart (which always sounds wooden). I’d love to be able to make such captivating films. Here’s the film Jim Burge made of me talking about The Dance of Love … if you want proof of his ability (it’s all his, I promise you, not mine).


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