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’.
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.
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.
I 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.
It’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?
This brief explanation of my pseudonym, dating from March 2012, first appeared on the storytelling site Cowbird, where I discovered many 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.
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.
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.
Is 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
In 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.
What 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.
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.
I 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):
WordPress wished me Happy Birthday today. Yes, it’s been exactly one year since I created this blog, although (ironically, given its title) I did not find time to post anything until the 7th of February, 2012.
I was not new to blogging. I had been writing a blog on my professional website for 2-3 years. But it was professional, neutral, business-like… bar an occasional foray into the vicissitudes of expat life. It was a blog I was very keen to promote and market, as it was a way to let prospective clients know what I was doing.
This writing blog was something I was very reluctant to share with anybody else. I started it mainly as a personal challenge. A means of holding myself accountable for giving pride of place to the thing that means so much to me in my life. Namely, writing. That thing which I have, nevertheless, always placed last in my list of priorities. Perhaps because I love it so much (even when it is painful and difficult), that it feels like sheer self-indulgence to be dedicating so much time to it. How could I possibly be selfish enough to write, when there are so many other claims on my time: money-making, laundry, children, husband, parents, friends, acquaintances, schools, society, the wider world?
So this blog was my little stake of selfishness that I drove into the permafrost of obligation and strict scheduling that my life had become. And I have been selfish in the way I present this blog: whatever comes into my mind, with no rhyme or reason, posting whenever I can and feel like it, following no rules.
Anything else – being read, receiving comments, making friends – has been a surprising and wonderful bonus.
For those who like facts and figures, here are some of the stats which delighted or dismayed me this past year:
I have had 10,500 views over the past year. Many, many more than I ever expected.
I have received 1,477 comments (well, OK, probably most of them are mine, replying to your comments) – but it is humbling to find that people take the time not only to read and ‘like’ something, but also to provide such insightful andor supportive comments.
I have had visitors from 106 countries – so exciting for a global nomad such as myself! – with the most visitors from the US, then UK, France, Canada, Greece and Germany.
My most popular post was certainly not what I expected – the rather snarky, opinionated post entitled Most Overrated Books. Meanwhile, my poor little anti-Valentine’s Day poem only got one view. So, should I understand that my readers are hard-nosed realists and critics, with a hidden romantic tremor?
But what these statistics do not show is my gratitude to all of you, who have given me such a wonderful sense of community, who have put up with far too frequent postings followed by long periods of silence, who have stayed with me despite a lack of consistent theme. It’s been a wonderful first year of blogging, and thank you for making it just that!
I am always a little wary of statements beginning ‘we writers’, as I feel it is wrong to believe that my sentiments and bad habits are universal. So let me revise that to: ‘this particular writer is sometimes plagued by self-indulgent behaviour, laziness and self-pity’. When I am in the mood to whinge about how busy I am and how I have no time to write, I remind myself of the amazing creativity in the face of adversity of French playwright Molière. Then I shut up about my own minor niggles…
What is so amazing about Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name Molière? He was born in 1622 in a rather wealthy bourgeois family and was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps in a career in public service. Instead, he chose to become an actor and join a wandering troupe of players – the equivalent of running away to join the circus. Back then, actors were considered somewhat disreputable – in fact, they were not even allowed a decent burial in church grounds. Yet Molière chose to face this public and family disapproval to follow his passion.
Here are some other things I have learnt from him:
1) Writing is hard work – you need to be disciplined and persevere. Never complain about lack of time. Molière overcame bankruptcy, censorship, fickle court fashions, disapproval by powerful clerics, ill health, an unhappy marriage, and still wrote more than 30 plays in 14 years, whilst also holding down a full-time job as a theatre director and performer. He also had to please his royal patron, the Sun King Louis XIV, and make himself available for the daily formal ‘waking up’ ceremonies. The King occasionally demanded a new play in less than 48 hours and the public would not offer any applause or feedback until the King himself showed his pleasure for a certain performance.
2) You may reach the height of glory and still descend to the pits of despair and end up forgotten. In other words, you’ve got to do art for art’s sake, not just for money or glory. Although the King backed Molière for many years, and even was the godfather of the firstborn son of the playwright, his support could never be taken for granted and he withdrew it on several occasions, which meant works such as ‘Tartuffe’ or ‘Don Juan’ were banned. In the end, the King abandoned him and never attended a performance of Molière’s final play, ‘Le Malade Imaginaire’.
3) You love your art to the death. Molière is notorious for being so dedicated to his art that it actually killed him. During a performance of ‘Le Malade Imaginaire’, he suffered a coughing fit and haemorrhage (it appears he was suffering from tuberculosis). He insisted on finishing his performance, but died a few hours later as a result of these superhuman exertions.
4) You play to your strengths. Personally, Molière appears to have been fonder of playing tragedy and would have liked to write tragedy as well. However, he very quickly realised that his real talent lay with satire, mockery and comedy, and that this was what his public wanted from him.
5) You can have depth in any genre. Despite having to please a difficult courtly audience, who liked their comedy broad and farcical, Molière proved that, if you are a good enough writer, you can be funny and still layer in universal and profound questions about hypocrisy, falseness in human relationships, pretentiousness and truth.
6) You don’t have to be perfect. French language purists argue that there are lots of errors, padding, grammatical inconsistencies and mixed metaphors in Molière’s work (much like the criticism made of Shakespeare). Yet French is known nowadays as the ‘language of Molière’. Corneille is the greater writer, Racine has the more profound tragic sentiment, but Molière is the most performed and the most quoted French dramatist. His plays have been continuously performed for the past 350 years and the public has always loved him, even when critics, philosophers, religious leaders etc. tried to diss him.
7) Learn from others. In the early years, Molière met with Corneille and even collaborated with him on a play. He also encouraged Racine in his artistic endeavours, although the troupe never performed a play by the younger writer. His most famous collaboration, however, was with Jean-Baptiste Lully, the founding father of French opera and ballet. Together they created a new genre known as the comédie-ballet, perhaps the forerunner of today’s musicals.
8) We don’t care about his private life. Yes, he was a bit of a ladies’ man. Yes, he married the illegitimate daughter of his lover. Yes, he wrote extremely well about being cuckolded, so it might have been based on personal experience. Do we care? No. His work stands on his own merit, much like Shakespeare’s, about whom we know even less.
As an interesting footnote, there are some who doubt the authenticity of Molière’s work and attribute at least some of his plays to another playwright (in this case Corneille, in Shakespeare’s case Christopher Marlowe). It seems that readers will always need to invent complicated theories to fill in the gaps. So perhaps I should rephrase again from the ‘we’ to the ‘me’. Do I care about Molière’s private life and his failings as a human being? No. He still has so much to teach me.