findingtimetowrite

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Archive for the tag “creativity”

Three Book Reviews: A Matter of Empathy

Perhaps it’s a sign of growing older, but I find it easier to relate to something or someone in most books nowadays. I can even empathise with characters described as ‘weak’, ‘silly’ or ‘unlikeable’. Perhaps because I am that myself! At least part of the time… Perhaps we are all much more fragmented, at conflict, darker, ineffectual than we like to think. Perhaps there are masks which we never take off, even in the privacy of our own rooms, for fear that we have to face a gawping void in the mirror. So here are three books I’ve finished recently, and I freely admit that all of them contain elements that I can relate to.

Photo credit: Lisa Cohen, www.salon.com

Photo credit: Lisa Cohen, http://www.salon.com

Claire Messud: The Woman Upstairs

Nora Eldridge is full of anger: from the spilling, thrilling outburst at the beginning to the more constructive anger at the end of the novel. She spouts invectives and hints at bleeding wounds, but then the style calms down a little. She becomes once more the ‘woman upstairs’, which in the author’s interpretation is not the ‘mad woman in the attic’ (the uncontrollable feminine power), although of course it slyly references that. In this case, it is the unobtrusive, undemanding, invisible neighbour that you barely speak to, who never complains, who lives in the service of others. So this book is a revolt of the meek. No more little nice girl! Anger becomes a productive force, as, in the wake of disappointments, failures and betrayal, Nora becomes convinced that the best revenge is to show others what she is capable of.  She will discard the paralysing sadness and fear or cautiousness which has limited her life thus far. She has spent too long in the Fun House, hoping to find the exit to an authentic life, and seeing nothing but doors closing one after another. Nora will become as ruthless and single-minded as is necessary to pursue her artistic ambitions:

I’m angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough – finally, God willing, with my mother’s anger also on my shoulders, a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire in me – before I die to fucking well live. Just watch me.

While this life-affirming finale is uplifting, I can also see how the rest of the novel could be unappealing to an American audience. The weakness, ineffectual dithering and self-obsessed over-analysis of the main character with her rant of self-pity is a taboo in American society, with its emphasis on taking action, positivism, the ‘you are what you think’ outlook. Nora is not old, but she is starting to resign herself to an unproductive, unfulfilled life, especially in the stifling world of pretentious academia and modern art around Boston and Cambridge, Mass. The descriptions of her small shoe-box creations and the contrast to her friend Sirena’s grandiose, over-the-top installations are more than a little tongue-in-cheek. Are they really innovative, or just jumping on the fashion bandwagon? And the name Sirena itself: surely not a coincidence, reminding us of the dangerous, addictive song of the Sirens. To guard against it, Odysseas has to tie himself to the mast and plug his sailors’ ears with wax.

One other criticism of the book that I’ve come across is that, while it is beautifully nuanced and well written, nothing much happens, i.e. it is too literary. However, I found it exciting, beautifully paced in crescendo, with a dark sense of menace. Something bad is going to happen, but who and what will provoke it?

My-Criminal-WorldHenry Sutton: My Criminal World

This will have writers of all persuasions, but especially crime writers, squirming in recognition. Poor David Slavitt is a mid-list author, whose popularity is dipping, slaving over his latest over-due novel, intimidated by the successes of his academic wife and the disdain of her colleagues. Agent-pecked as well as hen-pecked, he goes about his everyday tasks, trying to sort out plot twists between bouts of laundry and childcare, balancing his anxieties about the required level of goriness in his novels with worries about his wife’s possible infidelity. At times his mild ineffectuality and ego are so exasperating that you are willing him to confront his wife openly about adultery. You find yourself hoping that he will act out on his murderous tendencies. The interviews at the police station, in which David is more concerned about his writing career than in proving his innocence, are absolutely hilarious.

‘We’re talking about Julie Everett, your literary agent?’

‘Yes. Though, frankly, I’m not sure for how much longer. As I think I implied earlier, my career’s not going brilliantly at the moment. I narrowly missed winning a big award. And Julie’s not very keen on what I’m currently working on. [...] She doesn’t think I’ve been promoting myself properly. You see, the market’s changed a lot recently.[.. .] And I suppose, to be honest, I’ve made a few mistakes.’

Although the ending felt a little forced and rushed to me, I found this to be a nuanced and very funny novel, not taking itself too seriously, yet with a rather profound underlying message about insecurity, delusion and reality.

StelaBrinzeanuStela Brinzeanu: Bessarabian Nights

You may wonder what I recognise of myself in this sad story about sex-trafficking of women by a Moldovan writer now living in London. It is not the beautiful Ksenia (the girl that is forced into prostitution while on holiday in Italy) that I identify with, but with her ‘blood sister’, Larisa, who is studying in England. Together with their third childhood friend, Doina, she moves heaven and earth to find out what has happened to Ksenia when she goes missing. Larisa represents a cultural bridge between East and West, feeling equally out of place in both worlds, repelled by the backward superstitions in her home country (described as a place where men are either drunk or violent or frequently both), yet not quite fully accepted or integrated into the new culture.

The British TV drama ‘Sex Traffic’ (2004) did a fantastic job of showing both the individual stories of two Moldovan sisters and the global tentacles of the human-trafficking business. However, not all that much has changed since then.  Human trafficking continues to be a major problem in Moldova and, although the government has recently cooperated more with NGOs to tackle the issue, it does not comply with minimum standards for eliminating trafficking. So this is an important story which needs to be heard. Again.

The title is a play on the ‘Arabian Nights’ theme, and Brinzeanu does come across as a Scheherazade of our times, eager to share stories about her little-known country on the fringes of Europe. This is a debut novel and the author is so brimful of stories that the book feels crammed with facts. The reader may well feel at times lectured at, even if it is disguised as dialogue. The book is at its most successful in those dream-like flashbacks describing the girls’ childhood in a Moldovan village where time seems to have stood still. Perhaps, like Scheherazade, the author needs to learn to select the most relevant scenes and polish those to perfection. There are a lot of gems in there, but they sometimes get lost in the multiple anecdotes.

So over to you, dear reader! Are there any books that have particularly resonated with you lately, any characters you have related to, or does an unlikeable character make you want to stop reading? 

 

 

 

 

Unsupportive Families

A while ago I wrote about the wry amusement I felt when reading about ‘supportive spouses’. Perhaps writers feel the need to make such a fuss over them (and other supportive family members) when they are endowed with such a person because they know how often that is not the case. Treasure your rare speciman (usually a speciwoman).

michele_robertsI attended a workshop with the very poetic, sweetly unassuming yet still fiercely feminist writer Michèle Roberts at the Geneva Writers’ Group this Saturday. In a private conversation, she too confirmed that family and close friends are sometimes the least supportive of our writing. Could it be that they fear they lose us when we enter that door into fearful magic and fluid morals through which they cannot or will not follow? Or is it simply more practical, immediate needs which they feel are not being met: cooking, cleaning, admin? I can understand the fears at the uncertainty of outcome or the financial constraints. But to belittle the writing, to see it as a time-consuming hobby, which you should set aside when the ‘real issues of the day’ crop up… that is hard to swallow.

Yet that is precisely what Jane Austen did, hiding her manuscripts when visitors dropped in, as they did so often. You can barely hear the frustration in her perfectly controlled prose, but there are scenes of satire (of garrulous and silly neighbours) in every one of her books, or spirited defence of novels in ‘Northanger Abbey’.

A novel I recently read, Henry Sutton’s ‘My Criminal World’, portrays the dilemma of writerly anxieties and insecurities, especially when faced with the indifference of far more successful spouses, from the man’s point of view. This insecurity may drive a mild, rather ineffectual crime writer to contemplate a real crime. The hurt is clearly visible, under the thick layers of self-deprecating humour, and I’m not sure I quite believe the ending of the book, because I have grown to dislike the writer’s wife so much.

womanupstairsOne of the extracts that Michèle Roberts read to us was the beginning of Claire Messud’s book ‘The Woman Upstairs’ and I was so struck by it that I bought it as soon as I got home. That unforgettable opening: ‘How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.’ I have yet to finish the book and see if it lives up to that opening, and I’ve certainly heard many readers have been put off by it. ‘Show don’t tell’, they bleat like Easter lambs, but is that because it’s a woman expressing anger, and that is still a taboo? When a man expresses anger, he is seeking to change the world. When a woman expresses anger, it’s hysteria. Of course, in Nora’s case, she is unmarried, and her parents are only vaguely unsupportive (or simply vague). So perhaps she really only has her own fears and lack of ambition to blame for her failure to have ‘Great Artist’ written on her tombstone. 

Yet there is something there that I can relate to, however unlikable some readers have found the main character. It is so difficult to believe in your own talent, to allow yourself wings and the daily practice to make them become more than cumbersome appendages. The minute you venture beyond your enclosure, rejections come thick and fast. Words and muses refuse to visit. Gnawing doubts set in. How much easier to go back in the box, to think small, to believe the incessant and insistent whisper of your dear family… I so wish I could be satisfied with a job, with making money, with a decent place to live and a ‘normal’ family life.

‘Keep fighting!’ Michèle told me as we parted. Thank you, Michèle, I will, because a life without writing is too unbearable, meaningless.

Lego Movie and Creativity

This weekend my children and I watched The Lego Movie and I laughed unashamedly throughout. There was the obligatory ‘everybody is awesome or special’ sentimental message, but most of it was pure satire, making fun of fast food, reality TV shows, following instructions and even capitalism. It may have been above most children’s heads, but I enjoyed the references to films such as ‘Brazil’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Blade Runner’.

Lego Movie Poster

Lego Movie Poster

I only hope that the humour contained a healthy dose of self-irony too, since the key message is that it is better to be creative rather than follow instructions blindly. Furthermore, it is better to move easily between worlds and cultures rather than seek to sharply compartmentalise and separate things. This felt a little contrary, given the increasing tendency of Lego to go into more distinct niche markets rather than just produce universal bricks anymore. In fact, they are using The Lego Movie to launch a whole new series of products… which supposedly encourage ‘free building’.

Personally, I do prefer cross-model building and I believe this message also applies to literature and that rather tiresome separation into genres. Surely it’s time we stopped quibbling about the merits or demerits of a particular genre (see the recent Isabel Allende brouhaha), did away with snobbery and labelling, opened our minds to anything original and truly creative. We don’t have to love it, we just have to give it a chance.

Those Words Again

Words have rusted in fingers and mouth

I rub their red roughness, they crumble and cling

to print-whorls

but lustre eludes and taste sharpens to metallic.

How can I restart the alchemical process?

Where can I find new words, fresh fords,

currencies not yet devalued?

Coins not rub-worn by collective wonder or greed?

I linger in surface,

afraid to leave skimming.

But dive you must to dig out pained treasure

in all its green-gold mottling

the metal out of its element now dried out to brittle snapping.

I’ve played too long with rhymes and prefixes

supped and sipped                   fêted and fated

but still I fail to breathe them back to life.

Then              when I forget to look

words ripen

thumb-grown, tendrils tumbling

from mouths in cascade of green.

Shoots spring forth

and I gape in amazement

surprise caught and filled

the wonder           the shame.

 

 

Poetry and Prose

Neuroscience is such a new and rapidly developing area of research that they are discovering fascinating new aspects of our brains every week or so. Most recently, I read that a different part of the brain is engaged when reading poetry and prose. Something that poets have perhaps always referred to as a different pair of eyes (poetic eyes) through which they see the world.

It’s a different brain

a sharper brain

which syncopates the rhythms

sees flash volleys of sounds

words cometing in the void

surprises neighbours out of their comfort

and wraps scalds in gentle gauze

to render palatable to others

what scrapes one soul to rawness.

.Do you find my brain? - Auf der Suche nach mei...

It is a brain with zoom lense

fast forwarding to galaxies

or else microscopically slow

switching on-off-on at random

a mutant caught in stasis

perplexity in motion

translation misdirection

and underneath the burning

forever contradiction.

 

 

A Man (a Writer) in Love

KarlOveKI had read about Karl Ove Knausgård (or Knausgaard, as he has been anglicised) and his scandalously candid and painful memoir ‘Min Kamp’ (My Struggle)before, but it was Tony Malone’s thoughtful review of it which drove me into its arms. I downloaded the free sample chapters from Amazon and read them in one go. I immediately ordered a paperback edition of the book – this was going to be a keeper. Not only did I laugh at the descriptions of my own family holidays and children’s parties, but I also shame-facedly had to admit that perhaps I shared some stylistic similarities with this writer. (Endless sentences, showing off one’s literary knowledge and fascination with trivia, anyone?)

Wry recognition: that was my first reaction to the sharp, witty observations of the daily struggle to balance creativity and family obligations, social life and the desire to be alone, the polarity between the compulsion to write and the frustration of daily chores.

Then gender loyalty kicked in. Wait a minute, what about his wife Linda? Maybe she wanted to be creative too, reignite her writing career? Maybe she too needs to be alone with her thoughts from time to time, or hates Rhyme Time singing with smug yummy mummies? I can recall all to clearly how lost I have felt at school gates, how much of an outsider at playgroups, bored to tears by all the talk about feeding and potty-training, and (more recently) about best schools and 11+ exams. Maybe well-educated women feel a toddler’s conversation is somewhat less fascinating and stimulating when they too could be spouting forth with friends about Hölderlin or the Norwegian/Swedish cultural differences over beer and cognac.

It’s not that most women are happy with or convinced by domesticity: but they simply are realists. There is no other way to raise children in a satisfactory manner. They are just as trapped as Knausgaard himself claims to be, a 19th century man caught in Scandinavian 21st century expectations. Perhaps there is a far more profound and chilling social statement he is making, namely that men in the Scandinavian countries, whom many consider to be a paradise for women and mothers, are experiencing a backlash. They are feeling emasculated by these expectations of equality, which to me feels like an admission of the greater selfishness of modern man (and woman).

The pursuit of happiness as a legitimate and valuable life goal is something quite new in the history of humankind. Our lives were previously so brief, our daily existence so precarious that any joy was a fleeting coincidence. Gritting one’s teeth and getting on with it, self-sacrifice, was the norm, even for my grandparents’ generation. But we are different now – we seek happiness, self-fulfillment, and we often equate that with comfort. That is why we complain so much about the demands of work (although it is often much easier than hard manual labour), the pressures of parenting, the difficulties of writing and creating.

AmazoncoverIt’s this kind of thinking which the book provoked in me, and it ultimately transcends any petty gender disputes. The reviewer from the Independent got it spot-on with the comment: ‘By closely examining his world, [Knausgaard] gives readers impetus to reflect on their lives. He reveals plenty about himself… but the people we learn most about … are ourselves.’

The book, to me, raises questions about the intrinsic selfishness of all true creators or inventors, anyone who is single-mindedly pursuing an artistic or scientific goal. Art (or science) is an exacting mistress, demanding so much of you that she leaves little room for anything else, whether you are a man or a woman. Darwin, Tolstoy, Dickens – those bearded patriarchs with large families, who ostensibly managed to have both – were in fact helped by stoic wives in the background, taking over all family responsibilities so that the man of genius could show his genius.

And, as fewer and fewer partners are willing to accept this background role (nor should they), I wonder what will happen with that fierce mistress? Will she cave in, become more sensible and puny, ease her demands? Or will all great artists have to resign themselves to a life of solitude or of dysfunctional families?

 

Effanineffable Name

This brief explanation of my pseudonym, dating from March 2012, first appeared on the storytelling site Cowbird, where I discovered manyNamepic wonderful personal stories and even shared some of my own.  The title is taken from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot (which goes to show that even the most serious poet has a fun side).

Marina Sofia is not the name I was born with. It was the name I wanted to give to my daughter. ‘Marina’ I associated with the sea, with boats, with feeling the wind in your hair and daring to sail forth and explore. I wanted my daughter to be a fearless pirate. ‘Sofia’ of course is wisdom. I wanted my daughter to be curious, informed, fair, learning from people and from experience.

So I waited.

And then I had a son. So I kept the name for my second child. And then he was a son too. So I learnt to love boys. I put the name up on a high shelf, out of sight.

But then, a few weeks ago, a wonderful thing happened. After many years of silence, a creative person inside of me started to break out. She was me and yet not me, she needed a different name. So I took a stepladder, picked up the name from the shelf, dusted it with one swift puff of breath.

And now it is so my own, I cannot imagine being without it anymore.

Still: Time and Distractions

There was a reason I named my blog ‘Finding Time to Write’.  18 months on, and this is still the greatest challenge for me.

I am ashamed that this should be the case. ‘First World’, ‘middle class problem’ and ‘mountain out of a molehill’ are expressions that come to mind whenever I want to write about this, even in the privacy of my diary. I feel humbled by stories of true courage in the face of adversity, such as Amy Good’s account of writing with aphasia  or a poet’s moving account of writing while caring for her invalid husband. I haven’t quite figured out why I can spend hours genuinely sympathising with friends who struggle to balance career, family and creativity, but am so bitterly unforgiving with myself when I dare to voice the same concerns. With others it’s justified and I take their arguments at face value. With me, it’s petty little excuses.

I chide Ice Queen Me for requiring so much space (both physical and mental) to write.  I try to reason with Ritualistic Me that a notebook, a pen and a corner of a table should be all that is required for my writing happiness.  I quarrel with Harridan Mum that absolute silence is not enforceable, practical or necessary for inspiration. And I do daily grim, wordless battle with Ms. Procrastinator, serving her a steady diet of frogs to swallow first thing every morning, before challenging her to a sword-fight.

Yet the numbers speak for themselves.

August: month of no children, family, work or social obligations.

Second draft of novel completed, 21 blog posts posted, 27 books read, 12 book reviews completed, 12 new poems written, 2 poems edited and submitted to competition.

Children came back 10 days ago.

treehouse1

Tree House Lodge, Costa Rica.

Since then, I have done zero writing or editing on my novel, 0 poems written, 2 blog posts (both cheats: one a poem I had written earlier, the other a simple list of reading), and 1 book review which I had half-written previously.  And I finished one book (which I had started before their arrival).

I’ve started reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Crosswicks journals and so much of what she says resonates with me:

Every so often I need OUT; something will throw me into total disproportion, and I have to get away from everybody – away from all of these people I love most in the world – in order to regain a sense of proportion.

It is almost frightening how content I was with the lonely life, how quickly I adapted to a day shaped around my writing, how nothing else seemed to matter. Yet, of course, now, when I clasp those bony knees and scraped elbows, making a bundle of them in my arms, trying to fit them still within my protective embrace… I know that something else does matter.  I don’t know if being a mother has changed me as a writer or improved my writing in any way. I fear not. It’s not just the spectre of time that is haunting me now, but also the Ghost of Courage Past. I seem less willing to venture out on that limb, with no thought of return. I need to find my way back. To them, my beloved millstones. Tell myself that old lie, which sometimes fails to comfort: that there is still plenty of time to progress, learn my craft, write and publish.

So perhaps I could have been a writer without being a mother, but I do know that I could not have been a mother without being a mother. Or without being a writer.

More Creative When Living Abroad?

Break the RulesIs it true that artists, composers and writers who live abroad are more creative?  There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for it:  Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Stravinsky, Nabokov…  The list just goes on and on.  And of course it’s received wisdom that travel broadens the mind.

In 2008-2009 a flurry of articles appeared, mostly co-authored by Maddux and Galinsky, examining the links between living abroad and creativity.  They talk about the dangers of allowing yourself to be limited by a single culture or worldview:

To the extent that culture consists of a set of preexisting, routinized, and chronically accessible ideas, it
may limit the generation of creative thoughts.

Multicultural living experience, meanwhile  - and by that they mean not just a tourist briefly visiting a place, but actual immersion for  extended periods of time in another country – has the following consequences:

1) it exposes you to many new ideas and concepts – the larger your pool of ideas, the more likely you are to come up with new combinations of ideas

2) you recognise that the same form or appearance can have different meanings in different contexts – sensitivity and ability to distinguish between surface and depth

3) even when you go back to your own culture, you may be more curious and willing to access unconventional knowledge

4) you become more comfortable with addressing contradictory thoughts, values and beliefs, become able to integrate them into your own worldview

Dressing up showIn other words, living abroad enhances the ability to ‘think outside the box’, to find novel approaches and solutions to problems, to notice and tolerate differences, to create new insights.  All of these elements are important in the creative process, going far beyond merely artistic creativity.These findings are unlikely to surprise us: they make intuitive sense.  The more diversity you experience, the more you are confronted with different values and languages, the richer your personal repository of sounds and pictures with which to decorate your new canvas.

Of course, there are some methodological and conceptual problems with the way this research was conducted.  The first, most obvious  caveat is that correlation does not prove causation.  Perhaps more creative people are naturally more drawn towards living abroad.   Perhaps they have a hard time fitting into their own culture and feel its limitations all too acutely.  Secondly, it is difficult to measure creativity – the tests the researchers used had more to do with creative problem-solving rather than real-life artistic performance.

Carnival maskWhat I did find interesting is that the authors claim you do not gain this richness of experience merely through travelling.  This is where I would like to see more research.  Can it be true that superficial impressions, no matter how strong for sensitive artistic types, are not as valuable?  In other words, it’s not all about motion and change, but also about stopping, digesting and resting. About allowing those changes to trickle through and forever change your interior landscape.

And yet, I wonder if a well-travelled artist might not achieve a more profound understanding of a particular culture than someone who has lived there a while but never made an effort to understand, connect and integrate.  I can think of some expats who only saw what they expected to find in their host countries. I can think of people who never stepped outside their bubble, and for whom living abroad only served to reconfirm their own beliefs and values.

 

Everything Has to Be Just So to Write?

There is an article in ‘The New Yorker’ that fills me with guilt: it is an essay by Roxana Robinson, novelist, essayist, short-story writer on how she starts writing first thing in the morning.  She sacrifices conversation with her husband, glancing at the news, a good breakfast and even (horror of horrors!) a decent cup of coffee in her desire to sit down and listen to her deepest thoughts and dreams.

BookshelvesI am full of admiration, but I also have to admit my own experience is so far removed from that, we might as well be living in different galaxies or parallel universes.  Not only do I have a family who conspires to destroy my gossamer of dream-thoughts even if I wake up at 6 in the morning to sneak to the guestroom to get some writing done.  But I am also a bit of an obsessive-compulsive (which means I need to have a clear desk), a coffee snob (which means taking the time to choose the right coffee), a perfectionist (I need to feel I have a clear mind, all the admin paperwork out of the way, my emails checked for any urgent messages) and… OK, I’ll admit it, a procrastinator (so I like to work up to things gradually, which means easing my way in via far too much Twitter or reading blogs or other stories etc. etc.).  It’s a wonder I ever get anything written at all! (But perhaps not so much of a wonder that I have yet to publish a novel).

So this blog post below is perhaps a fairer description of what happens in my house (I was unable to reblog this, so I am cutting and pasting it from the website of Abigail Kloss-Aycardi, which is well worth a visit):

I was listening to a lecture on creativity by John Cleese that is posted on Twitter this morning. I found it very inspiring and I agreed with all of his points.

I felt quite ready to get to writing some poetry….but I ran into some basic problems. This is not a poem, just the conversation I had with myself and the conclusion that I reached.

I can’t write with the door shut,
It’s too hot; I’ll suffocate.
“Then put on some shorts,”
I can’t write in shorts.
I just can’t.

I can’t write on my iPad,
I don’t want to “hunt and peck”.
“So use your laptop,”
It’s too heavy and it gets too hot.
I just can’t.

I can’t write in the bedroom,My husband’s in there.
“So what?”
I don’t write with anyone else in the room.
I just can’t.

“So what do you want?”I want an air conditioner in this room.

I want a thin, light-weight, cool-running laptop

And I want to shut the door.

“So what are you going to do?”

Go make some hummus,

The chick peas are almost ready.

I am sure I could write better in this library...

I am sure I could write better in this library…

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