Spring in London, and The Kid Stays in the Picture

Spring in London is an astonishing thing: blossom among the grey buildings and pavements; green and blue and pink and white making us look up at it and then at each other and smile, us Londoners who spend most of our time walking around looking at the pavement (or the now-ubiquitous technology in our hands), making us open our mouths and say something to a stranger about the beauty all around us. The postman said, this morning, ‘It’s lovely isn’t it, all this sun? All this flowery stuff?’ Outside a city it would sound ridiculous. Outside a city the seasons still govern life’s rhythms. But inside a city we’re insulated, interior, isolated from the natural. Spring makes us look up and out and reminds us that: 

The Earth is like a child that knows many poems.
Rainer Maria Rilke in his Sonnets to Orpheus

And the thing I would love to have made in a world where everything is possible and time is infinite is Simon McBurney’s The Kid Stays in the Picture. It’s technically brilliant and breathtaking as Michael Billington’s review says here, and I who, unlike Billington, knew nothing about Robert Evans (the subject of the play and head of production at Paramount Pictures which gave us, among many, The Godfather, Love Story and Chinatown) thought it had everything to add to the story of Robert Evans’ life. It’s a play that’s, in the words of one of the folk I went to see it with, ‘Eight-dimensional’. And the actors take on several roles each, all brilliantly. The run has just finished but if you spot it on anywhere go and see it and be amazed at what theatre about film can do.

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A History of Britain in 21 Women, by Jenni Murray

This is both the thing I’m writing about this month and the thing I’d love to have written, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible:What an entirely brilliant and inspiring idea. It begins with Boadicea, not Boudicca, because:

To me … she will always be Boadicea because I was ten years old when I came across her, and she became the first woman to make me realise that the designated future of a girl born in 1950 – to be sweet, domesticated, undemanding and super-feminine – did not necessarily have to be the case.

After a bit of a trek round London, Murray’s first visit, she ‘got a little bored with the endless parade of statues which Dad proudly pointed out as REALLY IMPORTANT HISTORICAL FIGURES’, until she saw this:

Boadicea and her Daughters by Thomas Thornycroft

and noticed her carriage, the lethal blades sticking out from the wheels and her massive horses rearing. ‘She’s in complete control.’ And she liked Boadicea because of a love of horses instilled in her by her grandfather at the tender age of two. And so began Murray’s own journey which her education fuelled. She realised, ‘at a wonderful girls’ high school in Barnsley’ that ‘there were women who influenced history and challenged the assumption that a woman’s place was in the home.’

As a child of the Fifties myself I realised, rather later than Murray, that domestic slavery wasn’t the only course open to me, but I always felt it. Always I sensed there wasn’t any difference between women and men when it came to ability and intelligence, ideas and ambition. What was different was education, access and encouragement. What I realised was that, as a woman, I had to be willing to stand out and stand up whether in the domestic or the wider world. The personal is political, as women began to say in the late Sixties. My personal stand was not to marry (I worried I wouldn’t have the strength to ignore the daily chores or ask him to do them so that I could write) and I never have (married). But now that I live with my other half, we live in what what one of my sisters called ‘a very democratic household’ and I do write.

I haven’t led an army, I haven’t stood for Parliament, I wasn’t the first woman to write fiction nor am I a scientist, but I made my own stand in order to write fiction and the burgeoning feminist atmosphere that surrounded me as I grew up helped beyond measure.

Murray’s book is dedicated to ‘All the young people who need to know’. I wish it had existed when I was one of those young people but the fact that it does now, for them, is essential and right. The 21 are: Boadicea, Queen Elizabeth I, Aphra Benn, Caroline Herschel, Fanny Burney, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, Mary Somerville, Mary Seacole, Ada Lovelace, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst, Ethel Smyth, Constance Markievicz, Gwen John, Nancy Astor, Barbara Castle, Margaret Thatcher, Mary Quant and Nicola Sturgeon. Murray is eloquent about those she’s left out and why, in her Introduction and, at the front of the chapter about Mary Wollstonecraft and her Vindication of the Rights of Woman is Wollstonecraft’s:

‘I do not want them [women] to have power over men, but over themselves … It is not empire, but equality and friendship which women want.’

As Wollstencraft also wrote, ‘Their [womens’] first duty is to themselves as rational creatures.’ Thank you Jenni Murray for directing our attention to these remarkable women and so to our own remarkable selves.

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Anselm Kiefer and Heywood Hill

On the weekend we went to the Anselm Kiefer Exhibition at the White Cube in Bermondsey. It’s just closed, but if there’s any of his work anywhere near you do go and see it. He is the most imaginative of artists. He sees with a keen but compassionate eye: several of his works made me want to weep. There’s one in the just-finished exhibition of an iron bed with leadened coverings and an enormous boulder on the bed that makes it sag. It’s called San Loreto (I don’t know why … ).

San Loreto © Anselm Kiefer. Photo © White Cube (George Darrell)

Either side of the bed’s iron headboard are wings, also made of lead, which saddened me because how could anything fly when weighed down with such a boulder?

There was a long tall thin room with shelves to the ceiling filled with paper, messages, labelled boxes, old machinery, leadened reels of film with film spilling from them, food, books and everything you could imagine. It’s called Arsenal.

Arsenal - Anselm Kiefer - 1983-2016 - 121275

Arsenal © Anselm Kiefer and White Cube

I thought of it as an arsenal of the imagination, a necessary tool for each and every one of us in this often-far-too-utilitarian-and-sometimes-frightening world. And then, at the end of a sombre, sad, darkly desolate corridor lined with iron beds with leadened coverings called Walhalla, was a room filled with light and works of such size and intensity I could have stayed all day. It was as if a shaft of sunlight had pierced the darkness. This one’s called nubes pluant (from the Advent liturgy and meaning ‘Let the clouds rain’).

nubes pluant - Anselm Kiefer - 2016 - 119008

nubes pluant © Anselm Kiefer and White Cube

Go and find them if you possibly can (and thank you to the White Cube, Bermondsey, for permission to reproduce the images).

And the thing I would love to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is Heywood Hill’s A Year in Books subscription scheme. It’s a glorious idea. You can buy (or someone can buy for you) a subscription to 6 or 12 books a year, hardback or paperback. But the unique thing is that each book is a surprise. You fill in a form online (or you talk to the lovely people at Heywood Hill) and tell them about your bookish tastes: fiction, non-fiction, authors you love, authors you hate, ideas you’d like to explore or not and then, magically through the post (my first book arrived a couple of weeks ago complete with an elegant January bookmark) comes a book you might never have discovered for yourself. A Valentine’s present perhaps? Bravo Heywood Hill.

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John Berger, Ways of Seeing … and PEN International

John Berger, who died aged 90 on January 2nd, was a critic, novelist, playwright, screenwriter and poet and well-known to many. Occasionally, in his early writings according to this Guardian obituary, Berger’s ‘Marxist dialectic did force him into uncomfortable contortions’, but whenever I heard him or read his fiction I loved his originality and his extraordinary ability to make the complicated simple.

The Guardian obituary includes clips from interviews and a documentary and episode two from his 1972 programme, Ways of Seeing. I read the book, devoured might be a better word, but I never saw the programmes. This episode makes me wish I had.

In it he says:

A woman is always accompanied, even when quite alone and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself. While she is walking across a room or weeping at the death of her father she cannot avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually … because how she appears … and particularly how she appears to men, is of crucial importance to what is normally thought of as the success of her life.

And, a little later, he talks about the difference between being naked which, in Berger’s words is simply to be yourself, and being nude, which is to be an object to be observed. Thus, he says:

The mirror [in paintings of female nudes] became a symbol of the vanity of woman. Yet the male hypocrisy in this is blatant. You paint a naked woman because you enjoy looking at her. You put a mirror in her hand and you call the painting vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you have depicted for your own pleasure.

He goes on to describe paintings that are, ‘As personal as love poems’, by Rembrandt and Rubens and a couple of others, paintings that don’t exploit women but admire and love them. And then there’s a discussion among five women who watched the film. They discuss the interiority of women and the exteriority of men: how women tend to depend on men for a view of themselves; how men are confirmed in themselves by their achievements in the world. And, towards the end (it’s half an hour long) there’s an examination by the women of the difference between being nude and being naked. One of the women talks about a painting by Lorenzetti of a woman in a loose comfortable garment (see below) who is her idea of what a picture of a real woman (not an object) should look like. Interesting, isn’t it, that this painting was made in the fourteenth century but the woman in Ways of Seeing (made in 1972) didn’t – or couldn’t – cite a painting from the twentieth century.

The figure of Peace in The Allegory of Good Government

Depressingly, it seems we haven’t moved on much since 1972 either. Pirelli’s 2017 calendar advertising blurb boasts that its images of women have broken with tradition because the women are dressed. But they’re still objects: they’re not themselves. They are, in the words of the German calendar photographer Peter Lindbergh, ‘Nude while being fully dressed,’ because the camera has ‘stripped them to the very soul’.

How I wish you were still here to argue against that hideous statement, John Berger.

And the thing I’d love to have invented this month, in a world where time is infinite and all things are possible is PEN International, for its campaigns on behalf of persecuted writers worldwide. You can take action or you can donate money to defend freedom of expression and if you’re a writer you can email PEN International here and ask for their list of imprisoned writers and write to one. Imagine yourself being imprisoned simply for something you said or wrote: a letter might offer a little comfort, don’t you think?

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Dare Always Dare, and Guerilla Grafters

A friend pointed out to me a week or so ago that this: DARE ALWAYS DARE is written in neon above the foyer entrance to the Old Vic Theatre (no idea why I’d never noticed it before):

And so we should, if only we could, all the time. But I think it’s good enough to DARE SOMETIMES DARE. (Think how exhausting it would be if we dared all the time … .) It was  the founder of the Old Vic, Lilian Bayliss‘s favourite anthem.

And the thing I’d love to have invented, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible, is guerilla grafting : slide 4

A group of innovative San Franciscans are grafting fruit-bearing branches onto non-fruit bearing, ornamental fruit trees without official permission. There are many fruit trees in San Francisco, and all the world’s cities, but councils often don’t like fruit-bearing trees because the fruit, they say, falls onto pavements and makes a mess that has to be cleared up! But San Francisco’s Guerilla Grafters want free food for San Franciscans and the beauty of their technique is that it’ll be some time before the grafts take and the trees bear fruit and – in the meantime – it’s very difficult for any cruising civic authority to see them! Hurrah for the Guerilla Grafters.

Happy Christmas and 2017.

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Third novel, and the Reith Lectures, 2016

This month I finished my third novel. Finished to be interpreted loosely: there will be redrafts when I’m working with an agent and then with an editor. It’s working title is For the Love of Life. Rejoice. At least for now.

But now, while I do all the things I haven’t had time to do (updating my laptop with all those programmes it should have on it and hasn’t, and finding out which organisations might like to hear my Titanic talk – which I developed from my research for my second novel, The Dance of Love – to mention just two, since you ask …) I can’t help wondering about my novel’s fate out there in the big wide world. So many writers liken the writing process to childbirth. Some say the swimilarity (I meant similarity, obviously, but I rather like swimilarity) is in the forgetting of the pain, afterwards; some wonder whether the metaphor is apt if you’ve never given (physical) birth, as I haven’t; some say the two have absolutely nothing in common. But, whatever the parallels (or lack of them) I think this phase, the waiting-to-see-what-its-fate-will-be phase, is both a joyous one (the novel is at last a real, written, tangible piece of work) and an anxious one (for obvious reasons).

And the thing I’d love to have made and written (even simply to have had the clear intelligence to organise in my mind) – in a parallel universe where all things are possible and time is infinite – is this year’s Reith Lectures. Kwame Anthony Appiah

Image result for 2016 reith lectures

Image and more information from here: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/oct/15/this-weeks-best-radio-reith-lectures-incredible-women

Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, has been an eloquent and thoughtful lecturer on his themes of Creed, Country, Colour and Culture. He said, here:

We live in a world where the language of identity pervades both our public and our private lives. We are Muslim and Christian, so we have religious identities. We are English and Scottish, so we have national identities. We are men and women, and so we have gender identities. And we are black and white, and so we have racial identities. There is much contention about the boundaries of all of these identities. Not everyone accepts that you have to be a man or a woman; or that you can’t be both an Englishman and a Scot. You can claim to be of no religion or gender or race or nation. Perhaps, in each case, someone will believe you. And that is one reason why the way we often talk about these identities can be misleading.

It’s been fascinating and I highly recommend listening again if you missed them.

Next year’s lecturer will be Dame Hilary Mantel. Her subject-matter will, ‘Focus on the nature of writing about history and history’s hold on the imagination.’ Looking forward to those, Dame Hilary.

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Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata and Dioni Mazaraki’s silver jewellery

I’ve read all Rose Tremain‘s novels and I love the fact that they fail to fit neatly into any particular category (except the category of beautifully written stories about the way we are and how we become). They’re always and essentially different, one from the next. I read The Gustav Sonata on holiday and, perhaps because the usual daily distractions were absent, the novel struck me as a meditation on life and its horrors and joys; a distillation of the way the choices we make affect not only our own lives but the lives of (sometimes many) others and so, how much sorrow or joy, love or the lack of it, pain and memory we give or take, bestow or inflict, receive or reject. In this novel I was never conscious of something happening and then another thing happening (although much does happen) but more of the effect of what happened. The Gustav Sonata is exactly like a piece of music which, as we listen, gradually reveals its depths. I loved it.
'The Gustav Sonata' coverThe inspiration for The Gustav Sonata is the life of a police chief who commanded one of the Swiss border forces and helped hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Austrian Jews escape the Nazis, but who died deprived of his pension after his dismissal (see The Spectator review here). The effects of this man’s courageous act drip, like poisoned water, through the novel before we even discover what he did or how he did it. Do read it.

And the thing I’d love to have made in a parallel universe where all things are possible and time is infinite, is some beautiful handmade silver jewellery we found, a couple of weeks ago, in Corfu Town. Dioni Mazaraki isn’t just any old jeweller but a wonderfully original designer and maker. We saw her beautiful pieces spilling from the drawers of a small chest, through the window, but because we were in an Ionian town and it was four o’clock in the afternoon, her shop was shut.

So we went to have a cup of coffee and came back at five o’clock, but the shop was still shut. So we went to have a ginger beer (a Corfiot speciality, even though the British Protectorate ended in 1864) and came back at six o’clock, but the shop was still shut. So we went to have an ouzo and came back at 6.45 but the shop was still shut and we had to leave for the airport. But then, as in all the best stories, a man who’d been sitting at the bar diagonally opposite the shop watching us come and go, asked us, in perfect English (shaming my ten words of Greek) if we’d like him to ring the owner because he’d seen us a few times. (Why hadn’t we thought of asking him?) He rang her, she arrived and we bought these:
Corfu silver jewelleryIf you should be in Corfu Town the shop is at 48 Guilford Street (named after this fellow) just south of Theotaki Square (off to the right of this photograph):

Corfu town hall square

photograph courtesy of Corfu Travel Guide here https://atcorfu.com/

and Dioni Mazaraki has called her shop the fourth letter – although it doesn’t say that at the moment. There’s just this:Image result above the red-framed door, at least for now.

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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.

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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: https://goo.gl/abnmjJ

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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