Feeling Grateful for Bookish People…

It’s events like these, Geneva Writers’ Group Meet the Agent and Publisher weekend , and people like these

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From left to right: Jo Unwin, Joelle Delbourgo, Kathy Bijleveld, Karen Sullivan, Eric Ruben, Christine Breede-Schechter and Susan Tiberghien.

who make me happy to be alive and talking about books. I have tweeted some of the pearls of wisdom these guests have shared with us under #GWGlit, but my favourite insight – manifesto, almost – comes from Joelle Delbourgo: ‘We are not just sellers of books, we are purveyors of culture.’ Thoughtful words and diversity of points of view are more important than ever nowadays, so a huge thanks to these wonderful people who keep the passion and the flame alive.

And. of course, the backdrop couldn’t have been lovelier. The place I called home for 7 of the past ten years does not disappoint.

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But there were some important lessons I learnt too as an organiser and writer:

  1. You have to be present yourself professionally as a writer, not just as a creative individual. That means respecting the publisher or agent’s time, following guidelines, meeting deadlines and keeping your appointments. It also means not changing your mind several times about what you are submitting and then expecting them to read the latest version overnight. It might mean not signing up for one-to-one feedback sessions in the first place if you think there is a chance you might not be able to attend, since there is a long waiting-list of participants who have been turned down because you took that place. I know life gets in the way at times, but would I dare to behave like that with my corporate clients? No. So why should I behave like that with literary people, just because I assume they are nicer and more forgiving on the whole?
  2. It isn’t easy to write a great first page, but it is far easier to write a great first page than to write a whole novel. And it really helps if you do have the whole novel to send to the agent when they get excited about your first page, otherwise the magic might be gone by the time you finally finish your manuscript… (this one reeks of bitter experience)
  3. We all secretly hope they will love our writing, recognise us for the geniuses which our families don’t think (or do think) we are, but in most cases there is still work to be done. Even if you get accepted by an agent or publisher, there is still work to be done. Don’t get so defensive that you refuse to listen to any advice or feedback that these busy, busy people are giving you with the best of intentions. Writing is a life-time job of learning and self-improvement. You have to be humble and willing to learn, even as we all admit that no single person has all the answers or God-given right to judge. We are unlikely to please all people all of the time, but when more than one person tells us we are over-writing or trying too hard to be literary, maybe we should listen.
  4. There is no point in complaining, sighing and fretting that it’s all about commercial interest nowadays. Of course it is, it always has been. Agents want to sell your oeuvre – otherwise they don’t make any money. The commissioning editor then needs to sell it to the marketing and finance team, the publisher then needs to sell it to the media and booksellers, the bookshops need to sell it to the readers. It is impossible to win literary prizes until you have jumped through a few of these hoops. You don’t have to write genre or sell hugely, but someone at some point in the process must have been ‘sold’ on your idea. Don’t make it too hard for them to pass on this vision – you are planting the seed of something which they and others can get excited about. We can have debates about just how diverse publishing is and how many mediocre books are getting published, while more worthy ones are sinking without a trace, but… that’s the game. Harsh but true: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, but don’t lament that cooking is all fast food these days. You can only change things from within.
Gratuitous shot of the Jura Mountains, just in case they were feeling neglected...
Gratuitous shot of the Jura Mountains, just in case they were feeling neglected…

Max Weber and Durkheim in an Age of Over-Sharing

The more the modern world surprises and worries me, the more I turn to the classics of sociology, who experienced their fair share of major social and cultural shifts. My two favourites are Max Weber with his stark warnings about politics and power and Emile Durkheim on anomie.

Max Weber
Max Weber

It was actually not Weber but Georg Simmel who coined the phrase ‘sterile excitation’ to describe what many of us feel at the moment: a tumult of anxiety and passionate feelings when watching the news, but feeling powerless to do much about it. However, Weber publicised the term and warned also of the dangers of so-called charismatic leaders who unleash a ‘following’ they cannot control. Gripped by a need to increase their ‘likes’ (as Weber would say nowadays, looking at social media), these leaders are willing to court controversy and deliberately incite hate-talk and violence from their followers (while denying any personal responsibility). These followers think they are romantic revolutionaries but they are in fact driven by the basest of motives (adventure, booty, power, spoils) and, after victory, usually degenerate into nothing more than looters of all descriptions, claims Weber. It’s this ‘adventure’ item which I see in the cult of celebrities nowadays: a fantasy that they are leading the life we would like to lead if only… Harmless when it’s merely wishful thinking and daydreaming, but it can be used for nefarious purposes too, just like Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympic gods were used to both inspire and divide German society in the 1930s.

emiledurkheimMeanwhile, Emile Durkheim talked about the tension in any human between individual needs and our social roles.

There are in each of us two consciences: one which is common to our group in its entirety…the other represents that in us which is personal and distinct, that which makes us an individual

Contrary to most contemporary mantras of ‘be yourself’, ‘you owe it to yourself to develop to your full potential’, ‘follow your own path’ and so on, Durkheim actually thinks the social self contributes significantly to the development of an individual character:

Because society surpasses us, it obliges us to surpass ourselves, and to surpass itself, a being must, to some degree, depart from its nature—a departure that does not take place without causing more or less painful tensions.

He warns against the dangers of excessive individualism:

Our purely individual side seeks satisfaction of all wants and desires. It knows no boundaries. The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs. Instead of asking “is this moral?” or “does my family approve?” the individual is more likely to ask “does this action meet my needs?”

It’s when the gap between individual and social needs becomes too unbridgeable, or when one deliberately decides that one has had ‘enough’ of society and will only follow individual desires, that ‘anomie’ sets in.

What strikes me when perusing social media nowadays is this desire to overcome ‘anomie’ by connecting online.

I know some or all of these are Kardashians, but I have no idea who is who, sorry...
I know some or all of these are Kardashians, but I have no idea who is who, sorry…

We are no longer afraid of sharing our most intimate moments or thoughts, sometimes carefully curated, it’s true, but sometimes deliberately self-flagellating, as if in a competition who can hit rock-bottom first. I’m not criticising others for it: I have done it myself. I used to keep a diary to wrestle with my thought processes and feelings, but now I frequently find myself musing out loud online. Perhaps I get more feedback and support from my online friends, with whom I interact nearly daily, rather than from my real-life friends, whom we don’t really get to see all that frequently. Sad but true!

This sharing of stories has enabled us to not feel alone with our anxieties, sorrows or troubles. Others have felt alone, have experienced depression or oppression, ill-health or bereavement, have advice or comfort for us. This is the positive side of the internet and I love it.

However (aside from the more obvious dangers of trolls and shouting at each other over an ever-widening abyss) the plethora of discourses has also resulted in a state of permanent sterile excitation. At least in my case it has. And it’s keeping me from producing worthwhile work, because I see the futility of it all…

If awareness of the situation is the first step towards improvement, may the next steps be close behind, please!

Any chance of bridging that precipice? From Vancouver Sun, a fearless (or foolish) slackliner.
Any chance of bridging that precipice? From Vancouver Sun, a fearless (or foolish) slackliner.

Friday Fun: Chateau Location Scouting

Some grand old manor houses look good by day or night, and here are some which would make a great backdrop for a film or a book. Any additional suggestions of appropriate films or books would be much appreciated.

Chateau owned by Catherine Deneuve, from Le Matin.
Chateau owned by Catherine Deneuve, from Le Matin. Suitable for Netherfield Park in French version of Pride and Prejudice?
Another beauty near Poitiers, from Le Figaro property section.
Another beauty near Poitiers, from Le Figaro property section. Cyrano de Bergerac might be hiding in one of those bushes.
Chateau near Rouen, from
Chateau near Rouen, from Selectimmovexin.com. I could see the Three Musketeers hiding here and bewitching the lady of the house on their way to new adventures.
Chateau d'Artigny. Wouldn't this be a great location for Gatsby's famous parties? in the Loire valley, from winerist.com
Chateau d’Artigny. Wouldn’t this be a great location for Gatsby’s famous parties? in the Loire valley, from winerist.com
Chateau in Provence, perfect for a Russian aristocrat forced into exile with all of the family jewels. From Maisonsavendre.fr
Chateau in Provence, perfect for a Russian aristocrat forced into exile with all of the family jewels. From Maisonsavendre.fr
If Tintin ever does decide to get married at Captain Haddock's chateau, this Chateau Buffemont would be it. From French Wedding Style.
If Tintin ever does decide to get married at Captain Haddock’s chateau, this Chateau Buffemont would be it. From French Wedding Style.
Finally, for thirsty pirates landing in the Bordeaux region, the cellars of Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron might prove irresistable. From Wikimedia.com
Finally, for thirsty pirates landing in the Bordeaux region, the cellars of Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron might prove irresistible. From Wikimedia.com

 

The Writer’s Eternal Promise

Tomorrow and Ever After

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Tomorrow I will sit demurely

wrestle words down to the ground

with a flicker of my lashes

flash of sopweed from the Bard.

 

Tomorrow my characters will come alive:

fight each other, bicker, woo.

Plotholes will hang their grimey faces,

poems stop barking at the moon.

 

Tomorrow I’ll use post-its in coloured gradations,

fill spreadsheets and schedules, submit with method.

Each sapling of wisdom, each stray pun I will corral

till the gravity of the day after arrives with a thud.

 

But maybe not just yet. I will be off to Geneva this coming weekend for the Meet the Agent event which I helped organise, then delivering some training to a UN organisation (my freelance work still seems very much in demand, even if no one wants my talents on a more permanent basis), also wrangling with the French tax office, who still don’t seem to have understood the messages I’ve been sending since August 2016. If I ever do finish my WIP, it will be dedicated to them for their ‘contribution’.

Friday Fun: Alpine Babies

Cute baby animals are just what the doctor ordered and part of my self-soothing programme. NB: when I say Alpine, I take it to mean any mountain range in Europe – Carpathians, Jura, Pyrenees etc.

Alpine Marmot sunning itself.
Alpine Marmot sunning itself. From Wikipedia.
Alpine bouquetin goats
Alpine bouquetin goats, from prenond.fr
Romanian bisons, from monitorulcj.ro
Romanian bisons, from monitorulcj.ro

 

Baby goat with a jumper.
Baby goat with a jumper, from modernfarmer.com
Lynx in the Jura, from ConiferousForest website.
Lynx in the Jura, from ConiferousForest website.
Another lynx mother and cubs, because they are my favourites.
Another lynx mother and cubs, because they are my favourites. From jura-tourisme.com
Wolf and cub, from zoo.ro
Wolf and cub, from zoo.ro
Wild boar piglets only a few days old explore their surroundings in the wildlife preserve near Ravensburg, Germany, on April 3, 2013. AFP PHOTO / FELIX KAESTLE GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read Felix Kästle/AFP/Getty Images)
Wild boar piglets, Photo creditLFelix Kästle/AFP/Getty Images
Orphaned bear cub and his rescuer, from ccplus.ro
Orphaned bear cub and his rescuer, from ccplus.ro
Even peregrine falcons, one of the most fearsome hunters in the world, are cute as babies.
Even peregrine falcons, one of the most fearsome hunters in the world, are cute as babies. From Pinterest.

The Beauty of Technology

I’ve been experimenting with some new poetic forms recently, because I’ve never been too comfortable about prose poems. What makes it different from experimental prose? I struggle to understand. Also, I’m amused by the marketing patter on some of our electronic devices, so they gave rise to this…

Innovation is advancement but not precursor of success, pervades our daily lives, frustrates us with its complexity and unreliability to the extent that globalisation enables us to embrace new products and services.

Is ‘carriage return’ now obsolete? Has sense-making ceased to matter?

We crave tangible products, satin-coated sensuous curves,

Chick-lit metallic moulding our systems

Augmented realities and playfulness

Passive-aggressive well-modulated female voices

That we can shut up in an instant (unlike our wives)

To understand the music of the should, we need sentiment analysis and emotion management, we need to move past utility to ease of use and access all hours. Oh, and playful surprise! Please entertain me. It’s all about the image, the swoosh of light around the globe in an instant. Encompass, integrate, unify in the twilight glow of sameness. Susceptible like all the others, you reach out to grasp and bind my gaze to ever-recurring shape-shifting values.

From CBS Local, Houston.
From CBS Local, Houston.

 

Coffee Shop Haibun

In an attempt to escape the chill in my house and save on heating bills, I took my writing to a café recently, which finally gave rise to some lighter verse. Over at dVerse Poets Pub, we are focusing on ekphrasis, combining art and poetry, allowing them to complement and lift each other. So, instead of a photo of a current Viennese coffee house, I will show you a picture by an anonymous painter showing the first coffee house in Vienna, The Blue Bottle, and acknowledging the Turkish legacy of the brew.

Zu der Blauen Flaschen, from www.dorotheum.com
Zu der Blauen Flaschen, from http://www.dorotheum.com

There is a constant buzz in the air and I can’t help but catch random nouns, fleeting storm of verbs, wondering about the beginning or end of a story. Here once men (and only men, save for serving-wenches) met for important discussions, philosophy and politics, courtly tricks well played. Nowadays it’s families, business meetings and angsty writers. Spoons clink, raucous slurps, children roll playfully under the table. The names of the beverages seem to change daily, as do the baristas: soy-free double cortado, skinny flat Americano… I need a dictionary. Foam and coffee stained, my cup stands a forlorn witness to my frantic scribbling.

Warm my hands on mug
Waiting for inspiration:
Caffeine soaring lark.