Coping with the Tide of Life

Photo by Richard Smith

Photo by Richard Smith

Today I feel lost and broken and sad. I’m sitting in the conservatory of the house we rent in Geneva. The doors are open and a light breeze is playing with the hem of my dress. The sky is a blue blanket dotted with wisps of cotton. I want to fly into it and disappear. I’d prefer dark clouds and cleansing rains. Black kites soar above me, casting shadows on our lawn, noisy and ominous as they search for prey. Just ahead, past the swing set, stands a tall lavender bush surrounded by splashes of colourful tulips. The beauty does not lift my mood. All I am conscious of is uncertainty and my own inadequacies.

I’m not sure what brought me to this place. A sense of having lost an anchor, perhaps. A mixed bag of niggling worries. Worrying, according to Buddhism, is a useless emotion, a waste of energy. Usually, I can identify the reason for feeling low. I find a solution or apply a plaster: a hug, tea and biscuits, sleep, write lists to keep from feeling overwhelmed, listen to music, dance in the kitchen with the kids. All of these usually help. But emotions are complex and cannot always be controlled, soothed or even recognised. Sometimes, they are just a murky mist of shapeless ghosts. A fog that eventually lifts.

I am grateful for the silent expression of writing, the soothing rhythm of my fingers as they move over the keyboard, that I don’t have to articulate my thoughts out loud. There is magic in surrendering to a blank page, of savouring the words which appear, a reflection of self. There is wisdom that comes with not rushing to analyse, of not having a conversation partner trying to fix you. Because sometimes a black tide of sadness comes in, and we have neither to make sense of it nor ignore it. What helps is just to be with it, to accept that the sadness will recede and we will find our footing again.

As a child, I was honest about my feelings, clear when I didn’t agree, unwilling to be artful. My parents sent me to a small primary school with a home away from home philosophy. They felt I wore my heart on my sleeve and needed to be protected. As an adult, I understand that there is both strength and fragility in baring ourselves to the world. Life is messy. It is nothing like the polished images we present of ourselves on social media. It twists and turns, and that is part of its beauty, the bright dawn against the night sky.

All we can do is cope in our own way, ask for help when we need it, do the work, make progress inch by inch, and remember what we are grateful for.

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The Gift

Photo by Shiv Shankar

Photo by Shiv Shankar

I dreamt of you when I was a girl
a hazy promise,
alien and enchanting
The vision bore fruit decades later,
a happy union of God,
luck and human biology

When the time came
you slithered out covered in vernix,
beautiful from the moment I saw you,
a part of myself I did not recognise:
pure, unmarred,
miraculous

Each sunrise brings growth and learning
though often it is you who are the teacher,
gracious when I disappoint myself,
encircling me in childish arms of forgiveness
before toddling off
to wear your sister’s pink boots

A boy whose character came fully formed,
already propelling away from us
into your future, where you will carve out
a small space in the corner of your heart,
that will always be mine
though I want more

My love is for you is a rolling beast,
the last of my own childhood
dispelled with the birth,
a baptism from which
faith was reborn and
a handmaiden and warrior emerged

Sometimes I dream
my hand on your brow heals,
that God has bestowed mothers with
not just nurturing hands but powerful ones
How we turn away from science in our fragility
preferring to cling to beggar’s beliefs

We are guardians not jailers
Though you were born of me
you are not mine to keep
First a thought, then a bean,
now a boy, and one day, I pray,
a man

And I will pray.
I will pray.

For your safety, and your health
That your passions sustain you
and do not burn you
That the war ravaged Earth
remains a haven for you
even if it does not for me

From the moment of your conception
I cannot envisage any other way
but for the soil to be my bed
before it is yours
Happy sadness, that though I rot
there is yet life in your bones

Still, I mourn the distance
that stretches ever further
from the day the cord was cut
under the bleak hospital lighting
when I heard your first wail
and I knew

That forever would not be
long enough to be with you

And we are at the mercy of fate.

A Smoking Gun and a Plea not to Jump to Conclusions

It’s a horrible habit, isn’t it? Waking up and before you’ve even stretched to reach for your phone on the nightstand. I do it daily, scanning the news headlines and social media before my eyes have even focussed. It’s the sort of action which removes you from your physical environment and throws you into the external world. There you think you’re a participant, but more often than not, you’re a bystander, a spectator, a voyeur with cotton-mouth.

The kids and I went to a friend’s house for a Halloween party today. There were fancy dress witches and wizards, crocodiles and pirates. It was Geneva at its best, an eclectic mix of cultures celebrating a tradition that none of really grew up with. The woman whose house we visited is Muslim, a lawyer, who like me married outside the faith. Her children eat chicken sausage rolls and go to Qu’ran lessons. It reminded me that religion at its best does not have to be at odds with modernity. Instead, it is an enabler, a source of comfort and enlightenment that provides a framework for lives in which we still retain choice.

I sent the kids for a nap once we got home and crept into bed myself. When we woke I reached for my phone and it was then I realised the world had turned on its axis again: there had been a shooting in the Canadian parliament. The breaking news came to me via The Guardian, but I soon turned to live coverage from @josh_wingrove, a Globe journalist in the midst of the action, as he reported his experience tweet by tweet. There’s something macabre about our appetite for immediate on site coverage of trauma and atrocities. It seems less about empathy and accountability than to do with a morbid enjoyment of the unfolding events which reinforce our own fears.

Solutions. The overwhelming majority of global citizens abhor the crimes we see playing out on the international stage. Why are we unable, as a collective body, to block out the evil? Am I the only one who dreams of a flash of white and for poverty and hunger, war and disease to be felled? Childish fantasies. We may never truly know if evil exists in the womb, pushed out into the world in a gurgling baby cooed over by its parents. In his excellent essay entitled ‘A Devil on Both Shoulders’, @jabe842 says ‘it would be nice to think that Evil was that anthropomorphised little demon on your shoulder, an impulse that could be swept away like dust on your jacket, but as we know it’s not that simple’. More likely evil is born of desperation, a sense of injustice, trauma and manipulation. What worries me is that we have begun, once again, to label the other as evil.

Have we come to a point in history, where for the first time a religion is being used as a cover for baser instincts? Do killers now become Islamist converts as a fast track to murder, not because of their beliefs but more because it has become a club for the disillusioned, for those who can’t find the joy and hope to quell the darkness inside them? As a Muslim woman, I have to ask myself, what is it about our religion that gives shelter to dangerous misfits and tyrants, and that allows the weak to be manipulated?

After I read the news I stood in our kitchen in Geneva, a political centre that somehow seems untouched by world events, and I wondered why it was that Canada was attacked. It’s a country that, after all, isn’t as gung-ho as some of its international counterparts and doesn’t seem to be an obvious choice for terrorists. Much like Switzerland (though I was surprised to find here that our house has a nuclear bunker and that Switzerland is said to be the only country in the world with the capacity to shelter almost all of its population in the event of a nuclear attack) it is seen by many to be impartial. That is, until it recently joined the coalition against the Islamic State. Was this an arbitrary act then (unlikely, given the target was a war memorial and parliament), a lone gunman fuelled by some unknown slight, or was it a more organised attack, one that has its roots in religious fundamentalism? Even for a Muslim, or perhaps more so for a Muslim, it’s hard not to jump to that conclusion after September 11th.

It’s too early to draw conclusions about whether this was a terrorist act. Perhaps it was a coincidence that the driver in the hit and run accident, which killed one soldier in Canada and injured another just before the heightened terror alert, was a convert to Islam. The intelligence services noted extra chatter online that contributed to the raised terror alert. But as I stood in my kitchen questioning why Ottawa was a target, I wondered whether the attack was fuelled by the opening of the Toronto-based Ismaili centre and Aga Khan Museum, a project that cost millions and seeks to provide a deeper understanding of Islam, a symbol that there is good in this religion, that good people are Muslims.

More than anything, what works in favour of madmen is fear. They don’t want to foster understanding of Islam. Fear turns us against each other. It ostracises. It helps fuel their rage. Are we arming terrorists with our fear? After all, you can have the biggest army and the best weapons in the world, but can you wage a successful war against a hate-based, fear-fuelled ideology? I emailed a friend with my theory. Were the Islamists punishing Canada, not only for joining the coalition against IS but for supporting moderates, for allowing the Toronto centre on their soil? A few sentences, the word ‘terrorist’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘be careful’. I pressed send and wondered whether those words, taken together in an internet message, were ones that could land me on a CIA watch list.

I am a writer. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a Londoner, and an Indian, and a European. I am a Muslim married to an atheist. I accept the layers which have built me. I do not want to assimilate to the point where my heritage disappears and all that is left is my skin colour to show a distant past. I may no longer hang prayer beads in my car but I will not leave behind elements of myself in this new world order. I will not allow fear to consume me, though it inevitably leaves its mark. I am proud of my culture and my religion. My watery curries reflect a lack of skill, not a lack of interest. I feel guilt that my children do not speak the mother tongue of their grandparents and that they are removed from the organised religion and supportive community I benefitted from as a child, because these are good things. There is goodness in their father’s German atheist background and in my Indian Muslim one.

For now, we won’t jump to conclusions about the impact of my half-baked prayers or whether this was indeed an Islamist attack. Let’s just watch and wait and be ready to recognise where evil exists and where it doesn’t, and where the lines blur.

Routines: A Door to Increased Creativity

I’ve spent the past month yearning for time to write, to dive feet first into a pool of creativity and find truths in made up worlds. Today, with the kids back at school, London visits behind me and chores done, I climbed the stairs tentatively to the attic we have set up as my writer’s studio. It’s a calm, beautiful space, away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the house. I sat at the great expanse of my dad’s old mahogany desk and realised that the urgency I had felt to write had disappeared, only to be replaced by fear.

This cycle is so familiar it’s painful. Do you find that falling out of a writing routine is destructive for you? For me, it causes a disconnect from the psyche of my characters. The breath of reality can fill up our creative wells, but it can also interrupt our focus. It can be the prelude to a slow creep of crushing self-doubt. Writing is an introspective process; no amount of external validation can replace the need for self-belief. We are reliant on ourselves to find our rhythm again. I’m starting to realise that it pays not to interrupt that beat.

Perhaps that’s why Stephen King writes every day including his birthday. Or why Haruki Murakami mesmerises himself with a strict routine of early rising, writing and physical exercise when he is working on a novel. Or why Maya Angelou wrote daily in the writing hideaway she created for herself in a hotel room. Masters of the written word find the routine that works for them and deviate from it with great reluctance. They know the value of the dream-like, meditative state which aids creativity.

You may hear the word ‘routine’ and think of chores, repetition and drudgery. Creativity shouldn’t be a straitjacket. It’s freedom, a rush of pure oxygen, a fleeting bubble of awareness. Routines bypass fear, doubt and indecision. They put you on automatic pilot. A routine makes creativity part of your lifestyle, not just a hobby to tinker with. A creative routine is an affirmation that you are more than just a consumer. It makes it more likely that you will act on your creative impulses, rather than let them pass you by.

I choose to make writing a part of my routine because I don’t feel grounded without it. Words anchor me to thoughts which would otherwise pass through me unheeded. Words are a weapon against a disposable society. They allow us to examine our choices and make sense of the unfathomable. Words on paper are unhurried. They are both a luxury and a necessity. They connect even the loneliest people to each other. They build understanding. Without expression, we are merely empty vessels.

Writing is not a business of overnight successes. Whatever success means to you – finishing your writing project, a loyal readership, critical acclaim, financial independence, awards, fame, your name on book sleeves – to get there you’ll need to put in the work. Whether you’re at your desk, on a park bench or sprawling on your bed, writers write. I used to think talent was the key to success, but without perseverance we fail without even having started.

I’m still sitting at dad’s old desk. Its surface is marred by peeling paintwork. I find comfort in running my hands over the roughened wood. Autumn is on her way. A biting breeze has slipped through the balcony doors and has carried in a hum of cars from the road. The mountains are shrouded in cloud. It suits my mood. I’m going to delve into the stillness in me and work on a short story. When autumn comes, she’ll bring relief from the mosquitos, and fiery hues of burnt orange and mustard yellows. By then, I’ll be back in my writing routine, and this time I won’t be letting it slip.

‘Inside you there’s an artist you don’t know about…say yes quickly, if you know, if you’ve known about it since the beginning of the universe.’ – Rumi

‘It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.’ – Seneca

‘I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.’ – Duke Ellington

Are you a Dreamer or a Tigress?: Setting Goals to Get Ahead

I’m going to be 33 years old in a few weeks. Hardly any age at all perhaps, although the white hair springing up around my temples would tell you otherwise. I remember how at 14 years old those in their thirties seemed to me to be dinosaurs. As a child I was sure that by my mid-twenties the confusion of youth would have dissipated. I would arrive at my successes by design rather than by accident. The truth is that many of us feel our way through life from the starting line to the finish.

I look with envy sometimes on those who discovered their passions in childhood. Do you, like me, mourn lost time? Oh the hours I whiled away as a teenager. Back then, all I wanted to do was to fall into novels and let them swallow me whole. That time devouring books was wonderful. I wish though that I had picked up my pen sooner. Imagine little Johnny Robinson, barely four foot tall, practicing drop shots on the neighbourhood courts as the light dims. Or Leila Coombes, her fingers perpetually blackened by lead from the pencils she has been sketching with. Or Samir Khan, who can play the sax, piano and violin to grade eight standard by the time is 12 years old. Those kids start clocking up their Gladwell hours from childhood. They jump-started their careers.

For many of us it takes a while to realise where our talents lie. As we get older we are less prone to outside influences. We stop robotically doing what is asked of us and begin questioning our reality. We find our courage and our drive. This extra time isn’t a bad thing. It always seems strange to me that in the UK we ask our children to take crucial decisions about their path in life at the tender age of 16. With life expectancy on the rise, what’s the rush? In the UK in 2014, a woman can expect to live 82.5 years, up from 58 years in the 1930s; UK men are at 79.5 years and 62 years respectively. We have time. The world is more fluid, we can exploit international opportunities and many of us will work in more than one professional field.

Besides as a writer, each new life experience strengthens our creative muscles. Age matures our story-telling abilities. That niggling feeling you get as a writer, that feels like you haven’t done your homework, the one that feels like a heavy weight in your gut? Let’s just ignore that. The muse will appear eventually, shining in her sheer robes and looking at us benevolently, right? The thing is that you and I both know that when we switch into neutral gear, we are doing ourselves a disservice. It may be that we work into our nineties, hunched over our desks as we squint into the distance envisaging the fate of our protagonist. Even so, it would be foolish to ignore the sense of urgency we feel. Writing is, after all, a time-consuming occupation. We only have a finite amount of time in which to breathe life into our stories.

I am happiest when I am productive, aren’t you? The demons of idleness sing their mournful lullabies and we succumb, sacrificing endless hours at their altar. In the cold light of day we know it is the work that nourishes us. We leave our laptops languishing in the corner of our rooms because we are running away from ourselves. I know. It’s been two months since I resigned from my job at City Hall ahead of our move to Geneva this summer and I have yet to establish a regular writing routine. We are governed by fear. We live half lives in love and our careers because we don’t want to be vulnerable. We let our dreams escape through our fingers like ghosts because to fail at something we want badly would be painful.

Newsflash: ambition is not a dirty word. It is up to you to pull your dreams into the blazing sunlight. Don’t let yourself be consumed by the hazy twilight, that half-way house where you know what you want but are too fearful to go after it. We are bound by our conflicted natures. Shrug off that dusty mantle of doubt. The path to success is paved not only with talent, but with perseverance, commitment and labour.

I recently read an article in Forbes by Ashley Feinstein who advocates writing down your goals. In her article Feinstein mentions a survey of Harvard MBA graduates (class of 1979): ’Only 3% had written goals and plans, 13% had goals but they weren’t in writing and 84% had no goals at all. Ten years later, the same group was interviewed again […] The 13% of the class who had goals, but did not write them down was earning twice the amount of the 84% who had no goals. The 3% who had written goals were earning, on average, ten times as much as the other 97% of the class combined.’ The Harvard research only takes earnings into account as a measure of success, but it still shows how powerful it can be to write goals down.

Whether you are a pantser, planner or fall somewhere in between, here is a list to help you get started if you wish to have a go at some written goals:

  • Summarise your overarching vision including both personal and career goals e.g. I will write a novel, I will learn the guitar etc.
  • Set yourself up for success by creating achievable goals e.g. I will focus on improving my dialogue writing in the next three months, I will find a critique partner within six months.
  • Break down your goals into short, medium and long-term e.g. I will practice my guitar chords for ten minutes a day over the three months, I will have learned how to play three songs within six months, in a year I will perform for my family.
  • Each goal should be include a time-frame and should be measurable e.g. I will query my book once a week until there is a reason not to.
  • Turn larger goals into smaller steps e.g. I will write five pages a day.
  • Don’t forget to celebrate your successes. I promised in a previous post to upload a video of me dancing in the style of Hugh Howey and Ksenia Anske once the first draft of my novel is complete.

As for me, I prioritise my life according to my passions and the needs of my loved ones. I have never been the type to go obsessively after goals. I get distracted, pulled into family life. I dream. But there is a seed of urgency in my belly that is growing, and I am no longer happy to relinquish my ambitions. Often the needs of my loved ones come out on top but to be whole I need to give my writing ambitions a real shot. Tomorrow seems more fragile than ever before. To that end, I have been working on a list of written goals to clear my mind of clutter and focus me. There is something to be said for planning your course (my husband is German, after all) while factoring in some flexibility (that’s the Indian in me talking). The list will provide me with armour against the guilt I feel when I say no to loved ones because I want to concentrate on my writing. Now I am working from home, it will also allow me to see and celebrate my progress. I’m not going to view my list as concrete cladding, rather a loose framework that can be amended. Perhaps I’ll show you it when we know each other better.

In the meantime, let me end with a story about Jim Carrey you may have heard. In 1987 he was 25 years old and a struggling comic. He drove to a spot overlooking LA and wrote himself a check for $10m. The check was dated 1995. Carrey wrote on the stub that it was ‘for acting services rendered’. In actual fact, in 1995 his price for a movie was $20m. All that matters is that we continue chipping away at our dreams, that we have belief and drive. Happy writing, folks.

On Passion and Integrity

My head has been a whirr this week, as my final day at City Hall came and went, amidst leaving cards and speeches and the sense that a significant phase of my life has come to an end. I was a school girl when I first became interested in politics. I’d gone along to a talk that Tony Benn, diarist, campaigner and Labour party politician, was giving on the sanctions against Iraq. I can remember flashes from that evening: a small, humid room, the shuffling of papers, the anticipation of the audience. Most of all I remember how moved I was by Benn’s eloquence and his ability to really connect with the audience. He had a clarity of expression that helped even the very young grasp complex issues.

On Friday, Tony Benn passed away at the age of 88. I am hugely saddened by his death and it was remarkable to me that the man who first inspired my interest in politics died on the day I stepped away from it. The death of a public figure gives rise to a wave of commentary about their person and deeds, and I have watched with interest how those across the political spectrum reacted to Benn’s death. Remembering someone’s life well in the immediate aftermath of their death is a difficult task. Sometimes nostalgia colours perceptions and characters are subsequently whitewashed; at other times poorly timed criticism verges on the distasteful. When we remember those who have passed away, we should strive to reveal them in vibrant technicolour, in all their complexity. Our behaviour and decisions as individuals are borne of circumstances that twist and turn, and no man is without his flaws.

How limited our control is over the memories of us which remain with our children, the imprint we leave on strangers and how history remembers us. For my part, when I remember Benn, I’ll think of the stories I’ve heard of party conferences where he could be found sitting cross-legged on the floor, his pipe in hand, surrounded by young people who hung onto his every word. I’ll think of the plaque that he put up to the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison in a broom cupboard in parliament, where she’d once illegally hidden. I’ll remember that he fought for the right to give up his peerage and how when he quit as a member of parliament in 2001, after serving as an MP for fifty years, he said he was quitting to spend more time on politics. And I’ll remember how he proposed to his wife after knowing her for little more than a week, and decades later tracked down the bench on which he proposed to her so that it could sit at their graveside after they died.

But what I will remember most about Benn isn’t his ideas or even his deeds, but rather his values. I did not agree with him on key issues – his opposition to Europe, for example – but I believed that he would fight tooth and nail to defend his principles, even if they were unpopular, and that he was wholly invested in making society a better place. There has been criticisms of Benn since his passing that he wasn’t very successful as a practical politician. Indeed, Benn’s latterly role outside the central political arena – he last served as a cabinet minister in the 1970s – allowed him to act and speak more freely than others who are constrained by the practicalities of senior positions. I found it joyful that his idealism wasn’t clouded by age. Our world of compromises and secret boardroom deals needs men like Benn, men of conviction and passion, who aren’t governed by fear or self-interest, and who dare to challenge the establishment, even when they are part of it themselves.

Regardless of what history may make of Benn’s politics, I’d like to think he had many qualities we should uphold. It seems that today’s society promotes a cardboard cutout version of success, that we applaud self-interest. In a world of technological prowess we spend too little time talking and listening to one another. I think we can all learn from the humanity and thoughtfulness that Benn showed until the end. We can go a long way with passion, integrity and commitment.

Fear of Change and the Promise of New Beginnings

Excitement is fizzing and popping underneath my calm exterior at the moment. Change is afoot, with its candy-scented promise of success. It’s not the type of change that happens out of the blue, when you are unprepared and unsuspecting; it is the sort I initiated myself.

You see, for a long time my career choices have been shaped by the fact we have young children. I valued a secure salary and flexible working options so I went back to my job at City Hall after the children were born. The problem is, I’m no longer the same person I was when I started working there seven years ago. The tussle of politics has lost its sheen and I crave more creativity. I’d been carving out small pockets of time around my job in London and childcare for both my own writing and building up my writing business, but there just wasn’t enough time in the day. More than that, I got more fulfilment from writing a small article for a client, than from delivering a big budget project in London.

My husband and I toyed with the idea of whether I should leave the day job. We did our sums and worked out that we can afford it and that now is a good time to concentrate on my fiction and expanding the writing business. Writing fits in beautifully around when one of us has to be there for the children. It also means I will be closer to home for school performances and those inevitable phone-calls telling me my child has projectile vomited across the room and needs to be picked up immediately. The thought of having more time to write is exhilarating but inexplicably, I found myself saying: ‘Security is so important. I should stay in the job a bit longer.’

Change is unsettling: it breeds fear. It is much easier to focus on what we lose through change than what we may gain. Why would you risk certainties for uncertainties? Isn’t it much better to cling to safety than to risk losing face? For me, it was about about realising that the status quo didn’t measure up any more. Uncalculated risks are foolhardy but so is continuing on a path that you know doesn’t allow you to live up to your potential.

Leaving City Hall was hypothetical until the first day back at work in the new year, the day on which I’m told most resignations and applications for divorce are submitted. I rolled out of bed that morning in the dark to gusts of wind and sheets of rain, and had no idea that I was going to resign. I sat down as my desk with a coffee, started up my computer and began catching up on the emails I had missed over the holiday period. It hit me that I was in the wrong place and had been for some time. I called my husband.

‘Can I resign? It feels right.’

‘Wow…Well, we’ve done the math. Sure, do it.’

‘Am I being stupid?’

‘We can make this work.’

After that phone call, I went upstairs and typed out a resignation letter. It still feels right to have acted as I did, but the fear remains. It’s daunting to be leaving a secure income behind. There is a lot to wrap up at work before I leave, so for the moment writing has taken a back seat. I can see the shadows of looming monsters at the edge of my consciousness begging me for attention, asking me to succumb to anxiety, uncertainty and regret before I have even started on my new path.

The truth is, uncertainty is part of life. Yes, I am taking a risk, but we have made sure this is viable financially. Although change is intimidating, I am buoyed by what I now know. Taking risks is liberating. Surrounding yourself with supportive and inspiring family and friends helps keep fear at bay. Success is not assured, but we learn though our endeavours, not by hiding. Resilience and courage can take you a long way.

I’ve dipped a tentative foot in the unknown. We’ll see what strange, beautiful creatures come swimming my way.

‘I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.’ Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point

‘Change, like sunshine, can be a friend or a foe, a blessing or a curse, a dawn or a dusk.’ William Arthur Ward

On the Courage to be Yourself

I remember reading interviews with famous women when I was younger where they talked about how comfortable they began to feel with themselves when they hit their thirties. At fourteen years old, thirty seemed a long way off.  I was an awkward teenager, full of doubt and eager to please others. The years have, of course, raced by, and at thirty-two now, I have finally learned what is most important to me. I am more myself now than ever before. While I still struggle with the weight of other people’s expectations of my behaviour and actions, I am more likely to do what makes me happy despite the push and pull from others.

The doubting years 

At school there were children who, even then, were brimming with confidence and able to express themselves freely. Looking back, I was filled with wonder at their seeming lack of inhibitions and at some level, their prowess reinforced my sense of inadequacy. Who knows, why some of us find it harder to find our place in the world? My best guess is that it is a combination of personality, culture, upbringing and opportunity. Finding happiness is after all a personal journey; the courage to be ourselves is often not something that friends and family can help us with. We can be surrounded by the most loving people, yet feel both lonely and suffocated. And there is no guarantee that we’ll hit our stride once the teenage years are behind us.

Taking responsibility for our own happiness 

I know someone who for many years has been deeply unhappy.  From time to time, she opens the gates to her soul and the unhappiness comes flooding out like a thick tar, sticking to anyone who will listen.  She has everything she physically needs: health, youth, food, clothes and a warm home.  She has a loving family, which supports and nurtures her.  The problem is that unhappiness, a natural part of life for everyone, has become such an integral part of who she is that she no longer knows how to be happy.

Her dreams, once so bright, have faded and escape like ghosts through her fingers.  She sees those around her moving on with their lives and instead of wishing them well, she is overcome with bitterness.  Her equilibrium is so fragile that a rain shower or a broken nail ruin her day.  Her weary family walks on eggshells, buffeted by her many rages. She has love to give and talent, but she is lost and it is everybody else’s fault accept her own. I see the toll she has on those closest to her.  I look at her elderly mother with her bent back and roughened hands from years of caring for her family, and I wonder if she will ever see her daughter find peace.  There is nothing this mother would not give to be able to wipe her daughter’s pain and bitterness away.  When does too much love become a liability, a paralytic agent that smothers self-determination? Is it ever right to walk away from someone so that they can find their own wings?

Moving forward

I’d like to think that soon enough this person will turn a corner.  She’ll be in a job she loves and on the road to building healthy mutually supportive relationships with those around her.  She’ll start to chase those long-buried dreams. It won’t be easy for her to regain her perspective or her confidence. It could be that she needs professional help to get there. When she is ready to listen I will tell her that there is something wonderful about turning a new page. A fresh page, smooth to the touch, before a first mark is made, is full of promise.  I will also tell her what little I know about happiness. Happiness is impossible without being comfortable with who you are. Setbacks are part of life. Just as we have talents, we all have limits and there will always be things we can’t control. And, learning to appreciate the blessings we already have is the most important lesson of all.

‘Happiness is a direction, not a place.’ Sydney J. Harris

‘Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.’ Mahatma Gandhi

Why Flash Fiction is Both Tough and Rewarding

Diversity Inspires Creativity by Purple Sherbet Photography

Diversity Inspires Creativity by Purple Sherbet Photography

Last week was my first time in the judge’s seat for Flash! Friday. I had a blast (read my comments on the winners here). It never fails to amaze me how one prompt can generate so many different stories, and it was again a lesson to me about how individual we are and how that translates into our craft.

On the days when familiar fears push their way through my armour to tell me I’m not good enough, I will remind myself that our thought processes, experiences and modes of expression are unique to each of us. If our words don’t make the page, they will be lost. So, writer friends, dig deep and write your beautiful, strange, sad, funny, horrific stories. I’m waiting to read them.

It’s no secret to you by now that I enjoy writing flash fiction, but this week my muse was flighty. It doesn’t matter of course. It’s the showing up that counts. This week though, I found the word limit difficult. Last year’s word counts for Flash! Friday were more generous, hovering at around 300 words. So far this year the word count has been 150. For a girl who prefers meandering to the point, exploring the little avenues of an idea before coming to the core, the new limit is a challenge.

I usually write to a skeletal plan, even for flash, but this week I was tired and pantsed it. What I ended up with was a story I liked but which I had to cut 60 words from. Those 60 words, once gone, meant that my language was so pared down, it had lost its beauty. Some of the ideas I wanted to explore had to exit the story and have become seeds instead for other works.

Flash is tough. It’s a skill that I’m still learning: how to choose ideas that give you just enough meat for the required word count; how to write with emotion but without verbosity; how to leave the reader with a taste of your world, with hardly any words at all.

Here’s that entry I was talking about. Next time it’ll be better.

There’s No Place Like Home (Photo prompt. Include time travel)

‘Andy, come back here!’

We’d spent an idyllic few days in the Croatan National Forest where we had a summer house. Until mom discovered my stash of beer. How else is a fifteen year old supposed to stomach a family holiday?

‘In for a penny, in for a…’ I thought, determined to escape mother’s wrath.

There it was – hidden in the bark of an enormous tree – father’s pride and joy.

‘Time for a spin, old girl. Been waiting a long time for this.’

Mother’s shouts floated on the still air as I climbed into the gleaming chassis. I pulled the lever, watching clouds spin past as the time-machine sped through the vortex to another time and place.

‘Where are we going?’

I turned with a start. George, my six year old brother grinned at me mischievously from the back seat.

‘How on earth?!’

Over the years we took in many sights, but we never made it back to mother.

Friday Phrases

150 words is difficult. Have you tried 140 characters? For those of you new to #FridayPhrases, which was initiated by author @amicgood, the idea is to tweet and retweet stories or poems in 140 characters with the hashtag #FP. Here are some of mine over the past few weeks. I’ve not written poetry since I was a teenager but tried my hand at verse this week.

27.12.13

She undressed on her way to the bath, leaving a trail of clothes for him to find. He’d had a hard day but she knew how to make it better #FP

He lived for Christmas. He was the queen of the panto. Out on that stage in his frilly dress he felt their adoration and it lifted him #FP

03.01.14

First her neck twisted then her back snapped & her arms grew leaden. She fled into the woods, only grunts escaping her once beautiful mouth #FP

He sat in silent repose as the winter sun warmed him. Outside the balding Christmas tree lay discarded on the street. New year, new start #FP

10.01.14

Her strait-jacket expelled

Freedom beckoned like a lost lover

Trailing its gentle touch down her arm

Her critics suddenly disarmed #FP

Love at 60

After a lifetime

Of waiting

Was not easy

The walls wore thin

Eventually

Now they sit

Feet entwined

Loneliness exiled #FP

Divinity and Self-Expression

When I was pregnant with my daughter a little over four years ago, I remember my mum bringing up religion with my husband, who is an atheist. ‘The moment you see the baby born, you’ll hear hallelujahs, I’m sure of it,’ she said, only half teasing. ‘You can’t witness something so magical without believing in God.’ After Hana was born, mum brought it up again. ‘So, do you feel any differently about religion now?’ she asked. ‘Errr, it was really special, of course, but no, not really!’ he said.

Which religion (or not) we grow up believing in is more often than not a matter of coincidence: my husband grew up in East Germany under communism where there was no room for religion. I am Muslim, but neither my brother nor I go to the mosque as often as my parents would like. There is no pressure to attend from them, although I know it would mean a lot to them if we were to show more interest. Growing up, I found their über-involvement in the community a little difficult to deal with and craved freedom to act away from it. I much prefer religion to be a personal form of expression than a communal one, but that’s just an individual choice.

I guess many Muslims would say that the way I practice my faith is lackadaisical. From time to time, I remember loved ones we have lost and I say prayers for them. I pray more since having the children as a way to say thank you for the joy they bring us and because I feel it protects them and keeps them safe. I recognise that for me as for most people, faith is not based on logic but reflects my upbringing instead. If I dissect my behaviour, I must admit that I act selfishly because although I believe in God, practicing my faith is tied to what’s in it for me.

I have begun to wonder though if there is a purer form of divinity open to everyone, one that does not discriminate between believers and non-believers. The sort that makes you catch your breath when you see the sun glinting on the ocean or when you feel a real connection with another person that serves to remind you just how special this world is. And there are the whisperings. I can’t be the only one that feels them. The tiny flashes of knowledge that pass through your mind when you are otherwise occupied, telling you to write that story, spend more time with that person, do that course of study, jack in that job, because something better awaits if only you open yourself to it and apply yourself.

If you dare to blink, these thoughts disappear as quickly as they appear, and  you are left with a remnant of brilliance that has escaped, leaving you to continue your usual trajectory. You can call these moments intuition, the whisperings of muses or even divine wisdom. Whichever camp you fall into, it seems to me that we should be listening out for those internal voices and giving them the credence they deserve. Too much of the way we live our lives today is about keeping up with the Joneses, of making sure we haven’t missed the latest trend to rock Twitter. We are buffeted this way and that, and in keeping ourselves so exhaustingly busy, we miss the signs that really count.

I’d like to make a tentative stand for keeping our eyes and ears peeled for the doors the universe opens for us, for the quiet hum of our muses and for the truthful voices we silence in ourselves. You see, there is something divine about the potential we all have. There is something holy about being true to ourselves. It is far too easy to ignore our talents and conform to the standard social templates around us. There is a time for logic and there is a time for reckless abandonment to our dreams, and who knows, maybe your dreams aren’t as crazy as you thought. Maybe, just maybe, they are exactly who you are supposed to be.

‘Every man is a divinity in disguise, a god playing the fool.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Benefits of Publishing Anonymously or Taking a Pen Name

Have you ever been tempted to publish your work anonymously or take a pseudonym? If yes, you’d be following in the footsteps of some of the literary greats, such as the Brontë sisters (Ellis, Acton, and Currer Bell), Cecil Day-Lewis (Nicholas Blake), Jane Austen (A Lady) and Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), who all decided for one reason or another to mask their true identity. Voltaire is thought to have used at least 178 pen names during his lifetime. But what is the difference between writing anonymously and taking a nom de plume, you might ask? Using a consistent pseudonym allows readers to group together your body of work. Publishing your work anonymously means that the reader has no context at all about the author, other than what is within the pages of that particular text.

So why do authors, often a vain breed (is it not presumptuous to believe that our ideas are worth reading?!), decide to take a pen name or remain anonymous?

  • If you have a name that is too similar to another writer’s, or if your birth name is Angelina Jolie, for example, you may wish to use a pseudonym to ensure there are no mix-ups and to create your own unique brand. Sometimes authors choose a name that is easier to pronounce or spell, or just sounds better than their own. American romance novelist Julie Woodcock (Angela Knight) writes under her nom de plume because her actual name is suggestive within the context of her genre.
  • Writers living under an oppressive regime may feel they have no choice but to hide their true identity if they intend to be critical. For example, Chinese writer, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, who has been imprisoned for dissident activities and whose writing is banned and considered subversive by the Chinese Communist Party, published many of his works abroad, and chose to take the pseudonym Lao Xiao when publishing in mainland China. Another example is the pen name Ibn Warraq, which has been adopted by various dissident writers critical of Islam.
  • History has been littered with examples of female authors taking male pseudonyms such as Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Nelle Harper Lee (Harper Lee) and Louisa May Alcott (A. M. Barnard), who opted for male pen names to ensure their work would be taken seriously.

anonymouse

  • Some authors want to branch out into other genres without jeopardising their reputations. Take J.K. Rowling (Robert Galbraith), for example, who decided to use a a pen name for her 2013 work ’The Cuckoo’s Calling’, when she was branching into the crime genre. On her website, she writes that she wanted to ‘go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre, to work without hype or expectation.’ In fact, Rowling chose to use her initials rather than full name for her Harry Potter novels because her publisher insisted that they would be more appealing to young boys if it was not evident that she was a female writer. Last year it was revealed that Russian crime author, Grigory Chkhartishvili (Boris Akunin), had taken additional pseudonyms, including the female one Anna Borisova, as he did not want to be confined to the crime genre. He even photoshopped an author photo of his female pen name by mixing his own picture with that of his wife’s.
  • If you have been tempted to write about workplace scenarios you may fall foul of your colleagues or employment contract if you divulge secrets. Remaining anonymous can be a better route but does not necessarily protect you from legal proceedings. Take David John Moore Cornwell (John Le Carré), for example, who began his work as a spy novelist while he himself was an MI6 agent. Or The London Paper’s City Boy column, which ran under a cloak of mystery for two years from 2006 until the author was unmasked as Geraint Anderson.
  • Series fiction, such as the Nancy Drew series, is sometimes published under one pen name although a collective of writers have ghost-written the books.
  • Sometimes, like for Stephen King (Richard Bachman), using a pseudonym is a way for writers to find out whether their work is successful on its own merit or because of their fame.
  • Some Indian authors used to publish works using a pseudonym or under the name of a deity because they believed it to be egotistical to publish under their own name. To this day, many early works by Indian writers are untraceable because of this practice.
  • And then there’s authors who choose anonymity or a pen name because it gives them the freedom they need to write without worrying about what friends, family or the world will think of their work. Perhaps they want to be free to recycle family history or let their characters be violent, deviants, or whoever they need to be for the story, without any raised eyebrows or backlash.

I used to wonder about taking a pen name. Mostly because it took me a while to take my dreams of writing fiction seriously, and it seemed too soon to share them with anyone but my closest friends and family. I wanted to hug that part of me close, like a secret, because it is fragile and special, and I’m not sure how it would stand up against the weight of their expectations. I wondered whether anyone reading my stories would assume that they are grounded in reality, that a part of the author must be in every character. I was afraid that anticipating their opinions would make me less free as a writer. It is sometimes easier to be yourself with strangers than with friends. The risk of personal judgement is higher with those who are in your daily life. But I am not willing to censor myself. So a pseudonym sounded like a brilliant idea. It sounded like freedom.

I’ve changed my mind though. My journey so far as a writer has taught me that I am stronger than I expected. Not everyone will like my work. And as long as I am true to myself, that’s okay. And actually, it’s quite freeing to finally be able to peel back the layers and let the real me breathe. The air was getting thin while I was wearing all that armour. I feel so much lighter now. And my name is just fine, thank you. Have you ever considered taking a pen name?

‘We live in an age where anonymity is growing in magnitude like a bomb going off.’ Jock Sturges

How Writing Challenges can Help you Make the Most of your Writing Time

This week I’ve been thinking about how the year has passed so quickly.  Do you remember that feeling when you were at school and the weeks seemed to drag? Or how it seemed that you were fifteen forever?  Every birthday took an age to come round and you really, really, wanted to be older, worldly, making your own decisions. How does the way we experience time change so fast?  As I sit here in bed with my husband snoring gently beside me underneath our still summer duvet, listening to the wind rattling the ageing windows of our Edwardian semi and picturing the autumn leaves turning red and gold, I know that another year is nearing its end.  And what a year it has been.  I have spent it mostly with our son, accompanying him on his journey from red, squealing newborn to the determined, toothy, almost-walking man-child he is now.

Fleeting time and conflicting priorities

Does time run away with you too?  For me, my dream of sitting by the sea, with the wind blowing in my hair and a notebook on my lap as the world melts away, just isn’t feasible right now.  My family needs me (thankfully not all the time!) and as I’ve said in my post on Parenthood, Creativity and Time, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Many of you have family commitments, day jobs, friendships and more, which dwindle your writing time.  If you’re anything like me, however happy you are doing things other than writing, there is always a part of you that is longing to get back to the page, impatiently waiting it out before you can close the door and get back to your train of thought, immerse yourself in the world you have created. The older I get, the more conscious I am of the finite amount of time available to us.  So how do we as writers maximise the time we spend on our craft when time is at a premium? From my experience, and as friends such as @West1Jess have found (find her excellent blog here), writing challenges are one way to crank up that word count.

What’s in a challenge? 

ChallengeWriters procrastinate.  Sometimes procrastination feeds our craft, allowing ideas to gain traction, to cross-fertilise each other and ripen until they spill onto the page.  At other times procrastination leads to uselessly whiling away hour upon hour, when your fingers could have been flying across your keyboard.  Hats off to the writers who have mastered the art of having their morning coffee and making it to their work station without going via facebook, the remote control, the fridge, Ikea, the fridge again (you get the gist). The thing is, I’m not one of them.  Not always.  Sometimes, when I am tired or my head is full of my real life, I need little tricks to get me in the right mindset to write.  And that’s when a writing challenge is just the ticket into my fictional world.

What are the benefits of taking part in writing challenges?

  • Honing your skills in unusual, unexpected ways
  • Increased self-confidence at trying new things
  • Taking part in the writing communities that often build around these challenges
  • Just like agents, editors, writing circles and competitions, writing challenges can help to keep you and your writing goals on track.  Not everyone has the self-discipline to write regularly without the input (or arse-whipping) of their peers and colleagues.
  • Do you remember doing dares as a child? Or that *uck it moment just before you step off the precipice and do something out of your comfort zone?  Some of the best challenges are just like that.  Act fast enough and your fears and doubts won’t have time to keep up.

My top 5 writing challenges 

  • Flash! Friday hosted by @postupak – there’s nothing quite like flash fiction to get your creative juices flowing when time is short.  This challenge consists of a weekly prompt, after which you have a day to submit your entry.  There are generous rewards for winners including an ebutton for your blog or facebook page, your own winner’s page at Flash! Friday and a feature article on you.
  • National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) takes place every November.  Whether you’re a pantser or a planner, the idea is to write a novel from start to finish of at least 50,000 words or more. The team behind Nanowrimo provide fun pep talks and there is a handy stats section so you can track your progress.  No Nanowrimo month is complete without hanging out in the online support forums, checking out the online shop (I have some gorgeous Nano prints adorning my walls) and going to a write-in where you can write your novel in the company of fellow Wrimos. 
  • David Morley’s Writing Challenges – Morley heads up the Warwick University Writing Programme.  I’m a little biased here as I went to Warwick for my BA (in English and German Literature) but seriously, these podcasts are a special find.  Morley has a voice which works well in this format, and he fills the podcasts with writing tips, challenges and food for thought.
  • #ThursThreads hosted by @SiobhanMuir – this is another flash fiction challenge.  The prompt is a line from the previous week’s winning tale.  Entries should be between 100 and 250 words long and there is a twelve hour submission window.  Winners receive a bright shiny badge for their websites.

This is by no means an all-encompassing list.  If there are writing challenges that you are aware of and have enjoyed, please let me know about them in the comments section.  As for my next challenge, I’ve decided to take part in Nanowrimo again this year.  I’ve not reached the 50,000 word mark required to ‘win’ in previous years, but upping my word count by 20,000 fairly decent words in four weeks both times was a huge confidence booster and I’m looking forward to burning the midnight oil again this year.  Will any of you be joining me?

‘Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill.’ Christopher Parker 

‘The greatest danger for most is not that aim is too high and we miss it, but rather our aim is too low and we reach it.’  Michaelangelo

The Danger of Pleasing Others

Do you ever feel that your life is not your own? Sometimes life throws a curve ball, which disrupts our plans and we have no choice but to deal with the fallout.  However, just as outside forces can limit our freedom, our own attitudes and behaviours can keep us imprisoned.  There is one trait that I recognise time and again in those around me: the desire to please others.  It sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it?  A good characteristic, even.  One that you would like to have in your friend, child, spouse or parent? Think again.

Compromising yourself

Making other people happy is admirable, but if you extend your generosity repeatedly to all and sundry, you risk burn out and compromising your own dreams.  By always agreeing to meet the demands of others, you risk becoming a shadow of yourself, a vessel for their projected desires.  Ultimately, your health is at risk, your uniqueness is diluted and with it your potential.

A female, Indian perspective

BarrenLooking at this through the prism of my own experience, as a woman of Indian origin, I am aware of the differing cultural expectations for men and women.  Even within our small Indian diaspora, we are subject to unspoken expectations and behaviours learned during childhood centring around honour and duty, which continue to be held up as virtues.  It is more acceptable for Indian men to display self-serving behaviour than Indian women. It is almost impossible for some Indian women I know to exercise freedom of choice without guilt. Strip away the people pleasing and little else remains but frustration and emptiness.  But what should that matter?  Duty. Responsibility. Good girl. Respect for others can be taken to the extreme and it should not mean disrespecting yourself.

Teaching our children to please others

Like in many other cultures, the Indian ideal of motherhood is based on sacrifice and servitude. Daughters in particular emulate this mode of being.  It seems to me, however, that in teaching our children to follow this example, to be obedient and please others, we are actually doing them a disservice.  It is important to teach them the difference between right and wrong.  All too often, however, we teach children not to question the established status quo and to do as they are told.  We school them to suppress their own desires, ultimately leading to less fulfilled people.

People pleasing as a writer

I like to be liked.  One of my hardest lessons as a writer, one which I am still learning, is being able to say no.  We have two young children, who are wonderful, and while it is sometimes hard work, we really enjoy our young family.  There are other relationships too, which are very important to me.  But I have learnt that we cannot be everywhere or do everything we are expected to do.  Time is too scarce and the little time I do have to write is precious.  In this way, people pleasing as a writer is impossible.  Sometimes, you have to shut the door and it has to stay shut.

Then there is the other writer problem. Readers, particularly those known to us, seek to make connections between our written work and our lives.  That novel, that short story, that poem, cannot possibly be a work of fiction… What material have we used from the real world? What topics have we addressed that should have been off-limits? As a writer, we cannot hope to please all our readers and it is even less likely we will please our immediate circle. While writers should make every effort to deal with their subject matter sensitively, they must tell the truth and examine human nature fearlessly, without being shackled by concern for the reactions of those closest to them, lest a far inferior work ensues.                                                                                                                                     

Putting your happiness first

So, why do some people find it difficult to assert themselves?  It may be because they worry about how they are viewed or fear being disliked.  Perhaps they are frightened of disappointing others or being alone. But always saying yes to your friends, family and colleagues isn’t the surest way to form lasting, mutually satisfying relationships. The more you commit yourself, the more you risk being taken for granted and the more pressure you will feel to maintain expectations.

If you struggle to set the boundaries needed for your own personal growth and happiness:

  • Set priorities.  Decide who exists within your inner circle and be firmer with everyone outside of this.
  • Practice being more comfortable with being disliked.  You cannot please everyone all the time.
  • Experiment with asserting your authority.
  • Realise that saying no to unreasonable demands of you is the first step towards greater success and happiness.
  • Choose to be with people who are supportive of you.

‘Women often have a great need to portray themselves as sympathetic and pleasing, but we’re also dark people with dark thoughts.’ Zadie Smith 

‘The art of pleasing is the art of deception.’ Luc de Clapiers 

This blog post also featured in the September 2013 First Friday Link Party for Writers on Carol Tice’s website Making A Living Writing

For My Daughter

Tonight Hana, I am lying here in bed at a childishly early hour writing directly to you because I can find no other way to process what happened.  Soothing words are little comfort, television is hollow and sleep is not possible, although I have tried.  As ever, the solution is to write, to pour all these feelings down onto the page in the hope that it will help.

We were having an idyllic afternoon out in London after a rushed start to the day.  The rain had held off and there was a glimmer of sunshine.  Daddy stayed at home with the baby so I could concentrate on you.  I didn’t have a nappy bag with me for the first time in months.  You had your scooter and were carefree and giggling as you rode along, your little legs working hard as they pushed off the earth, the wind blowing your hair in your face.  You loved the train ride into the city.  You were excited to see a road and some cars out of the window.  I smiled wryly at your sense of wonderment at something so common.

We were meeting family and decided to have lunch in the cafe at the Southbank Centre.  You proudly picked what you wanted to eat yourself, delighted by the child-sized cheese sandwich, grapes and sugar-packed drink you found.  We sat to eat, the five of us.  You insisted on sitting on a brightly coloured chair, not a boring natural wood one.  I turned to look at a picture on my cousin’s phone and suddenly became aware of your hands flapping.  Delicately.  Like a butterfly.  I looked up to your face and realised you were choking, and that your colour had changed slightly.  You, always a careful, dainty eater – you never needed bibs as a baby whereas your brother often needs a bath after meals – had this time, for an unfathomable reason, decided not to chew this grape, which turned out to be the perfect shape and size to become lodged in your windpipe.

I, we – this is where my recall is blurry – tipped you forward and began striking your back, hard.  The seconds slowed as we continued pounding and still you were struggling for breath.  One of our party was a doctor but she too was unsuccessful at helping you clear your airway.  We were all standing by now and I was calling out, repeatedly, ‘someone, help me please!’ and ‘can anyone do the Heimlich?’ So many people all around, and yet in that moment, I felt alone.  As if it were you and me, and I was failing you.  There were calls from my cousins of ‘someone call an ambulance’ and it seemed all were looking, but everyone was helpless.  An older woman approached, a Spanish nurse I later found out, and she pressed your stomach.  You vomited and I watched, my face crumpled, to see if you were ok, but still that ordinary green grape stuck fast.  We continued with the futile back slapping and I thought I had lost you. I saw myself walking home without you, broken, destined to always be broken because of the loss of you.  And then, miraculously, it worked.  The grape made its way up again into the world and you were no longer in danger.  You were safe.  And I was a wreak.

Let me tell you why.  I love you more than myself.  I would give up anything so that you could be safe and well and happy. You have been in our lives for four short years and you have made your mark so deeply on me that I will never be the same again.  You fill my life with bright colours, mischief and sweetness and in those few minutes that I thought you might not live, my heart filled with unbearable pain.  I will always feel like this about you, however old you are or however cross you make me, because I am your mum and my love for you is all-consuming and unconditional.

I will say my prayers more religiously now, in the hope that they can form a shield around you to protect you from wilful harm and accidents alike. And I will try not to let this episode colour my behaviour towards you. I will try to purge it from my mind and to curb my desire to keep you closer than ever and to be over-protective.  But one day, when you are older, perhaps you will read this and understand why my heart broke when you were four years old and we were standing outside London Wonderground and you said to me, ‘you thought I was going to go away forever, didn’t you?  But I didn’t.’

Feeling Like a Writing Fraud

It’s no secret to followers of this blog or my twitter account (@nzstelter) that I write.  I write daily.  I write reports, briefings, proposals and correspondence for my day job.  In my own time, I continue writing.  I journal, write stories or blog posts.  I invent stories for my daughter.  Writing allows me to crystallise my thoughts.  It’s always a thrill to feel the words come, to find the right expression, to capture the essence of fragile, fleeting emotion.  But here’s the thing.  I feel like a fraud.

You see, what I like to write most of all are stories.   I have been getting more down on paper since being more honest with myself and others about my fiction writing goals as described in my post on writerly arrogance. But I have something to tell you.  I have yet to finish a story.  There, I said it.  My writing folder is full of unfinished manuscripts.   I thought it would make me feel better admitting that out loud: ‘Hi.  My name is Nillu and I am addicted to unfinished manuscripts.’  No.  Not better at all.

Self-sabotage

It’s that persistent foe, fear, of course.  If I finish a manuscript, it would mean that it was ready for judging, not by my husband, but by an uninvested beta reader in the first instance, someone able to give real criticism.  And then, after drafts 2, 3, 4, 5, it would be crunch time.  Would the manuscript be sellable or will I end up with a drawer full of dreams?  So, I guess what I have (sub)consciously been doing for a long while now is not finishing stories.  Coward.  Yes, you.  You in the mirror.

Being the best version of yourself

A wise friend said to me recently that she believes we can actively create who we want to be.  We can let go of the parts of us we don’t want anymore, and take on new characteristics, new skills.  You say that this is compromising our authentic selves?  I think it is determining who we want to be, keeping or adding elements until we are the best possible version of ourselves.  The key is to keep moving forward.

parachutingEmbracing risky behaviour (within reason!)

Staying in a safe place is not always in our best interests.  Sometimes we are chaining our potential and living half lives.  So how do we embrace risks and move past fear?  This is what I have found:

  • Naming your fears and writing them down is the first step to beating them.
  • Take small steps forward into the future you want to live and you will get there sooner than you thought.  Try not to lose momentum.
  • Accept that you can’t control everything and that failure teaches us how to be better.
  • Don’t overthink.  Trust that you will find the right tools, skills and support to face whatever comes your way.
  • It is unhelpful to compare yourself to other people’s journeys.
  • You are never too old/silly/fat/thin/gray to try something new.  Push past your comfort zone.

For me, there’s only one thing for it, and that is to bite the bullet.   I will be a braver fiction writer by the end of next week. Next week’s post, I have decided, will be the completed first draft of a short story I have been working on.  No going back now.  Have you ever felt like a fraud?  What small improvements can you make to get closer to your goals?

‘When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.’ Maya Angelou

‘Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity.’ T. S. Eliot 

Should Writers Ever Self-Censor?

Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses

In 1989 my seven year old ears pricked up at the repeated mention of a name in our house.  My extended family are big film and music lovers and it would have been more in keeping for them to be discussing Bollywood star Salman Khan.  But it was Salman Rushdie who was the talking point.

“How dare he talk about the Prophet and his wives that way!”

“Why did he do it?  What is wrong with him?”

“He should have known better.”

Not one person in our immediate circle had actually picked up a copy of The Satanic Verses, yet there was an immediate ferocity of emotion against the author.  My family is Muslim and faith plays an important role for us.  Our particular strand of Islam has a modernist approach, which sometimes does not sit well with the rest of the Ummah.  Yet in that moment the entire Muslim world, the majority of whom did not support the Fatwa, still turned against Rushdie and said: you were wrong to choose that subject matter – some things are sacred.

It was years before I began to actually understand the huge attack on freedom the reaction to The Satanic Verses entailed.  It gained notoriety amongst non-readers in Muslim circles with breathtaking speed.  That book.  That blasphemer.  Fiction had intruded on reality and challenged the status quo, and there was no going back.

WomanWhy do writers self-censor?

I am no Salman Rushdie, but as I mine the caverns of my knowledge and experience for my writing life, I have begun to wonder whether some topics are off-limits.  What possible reasons might a writer have to self-censor?  History is littered with examples of artists being persecuted or punished by the state for their work in the interests of ‘security and castration’ (Jonathan Green, Encyclopaedia of Censorship).  The state has the power to contribute to the upward trajectory of artists, such as the patronage of Michelangelo or the support for Leni Riefenstahl in Nazi Germany.  But it can also seek to silence artistic voices.  Take Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, for example, whose writing, considered subversive by the Chinese Communist Party, is banned.  In England, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were both subject to obscenity trials.  Fear at such treatment might be one reason why writers curtail their creative vision.

Then there is not wishing to offend family and friends.  As a writer, you borrow, steal and explore the experiences of those around you.  Or you fear your loved ones will see connections to your own life or theirs where there is none.  How many of you have censored your language or the darker side of your imagination for fear of the reception a free artistic reign might receive amongst your loved ones?  Did Patrick Süskind think twice before writing Das Parfum or did Nabokov’s courage fail him as the publication date for Lolita grew closer?  With social media closing the distance between authors and their readers, do writers need to develop an even thicker skin to criticism?  Today, with the need for writers to engage directly with their readership, they leave themselves open to fans as well as trolls, and fear of criticism could well bring about a less brave editorial decision. As Salman Rushdie says, if a writer ‘is afraid of the consequences of his choice of subject or of his manner of treatment of it, then his choices will not be determined by his talent, but by fear’(On Censorship).

Self-censorship as self-protection

I also ask myself whether the exploration of certain thoughts is dangerous.  Have you ever stood at the edge of a cliff or a train platform and wondered for a fleeting moment what it would be like to jump?  Or stayed under the bath water for a few seconds too long, thinking what would it feel like to let the water obliterate you, wash it all away?  You then get up and carry on happily with your life, forgetting that you were momentarily drawn to the abyss. But art demands that you stay in dark moments, explore them, rinse them of their possibilities.  You cut yourself until you bleed onto the page.  You exploit the painful experiences you have long since buried for the sake of your writing.  Is that the sacrifice we must make to make lasting and memorable art? What if that isn’t good for you?  What if that turns you into a version of yourself that isn’t healthy?  Take Heath Ledger in Batman, Daniel Day-Lewis in The Gangs of New York, or Anthony Burgess’ and Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, for example. Does imagining the lives of psychopaths and the most heinous criminals make artists vulnerable, leaving an inescapable impact on their psyche?  

Are artists also partially responsible for vile acts committed by audience members who emulate the depraved scenes we imagine, like the killers of Jamie Bulger, who are said to have been imitating scenes from Child’s Play?  Many films, including Scream and even Robocop 2 have been blamed for inspiring murder.  Excessive violence or sexual content in films can have varying impact on audiences – including desensitisation and imitation – or no influence at all. To blame the writer or encourage him to self-censor for the greater good seems to me to be a step too far when there are so many contributory factors, which determine how people act.  It’s questionable that any one creative work is a significant influencer of how people behave.

Should writers ever self-censor?

In his brilliant essay A Severity of Conscience: Writers and Self-Censorship, Thomas Larson talks about how ‘government and other self-selecting demi-gods […] dictate what is consumable in hopes of ethically uplifting or expunging our thoughts.’   In a free society, if content is deemed to be undesirable, however graphic or offensive it is, then its impact should be negated through informed discussion about the work in question, rather than blanket bans or the persecution of its creator.  In specific circumstances, there may be exceptions to the rule, and as Larson discusses in his essay, the poet Nissim Ezekiel came out in favour of India’s ban on The Satanic Verses, stating that its publication ‘was an incendiary act in the Indian context, for it could lead to rioting and murder, and no book was worth that’ (A Severity of Conscience: Writers and Self-Censorship).

Art is freedom, and so it follows that censorship of any kind is anathema to it.  To my mind enlightenment comes from exploration, discussion and looking at different versions of the truth.  The more we censor ourselves as writers, the less our readers can relate to us, the more our voice falls silent to those who need it.  There are consequences to telling the truth, just as there are consequences to covering it up.  Every writer must decide for herself what she wishes to commit to the page.  The decisions she makes come down to her courage, environment and the risks she wishes to take.  Over time, the markers about what is acceptable change.  The lifetime of art exceeds that of its makers and ultimately, now and in the future, we don’t have any control over how readers interpret our work.  Just as it is the writer’s prerogative to create fiction without his vision being suppressed, it is for readers to decide what they wish to read.  As Salman Rushdie says, ‘original art is never created in the safe middle ground, but always at the edge’ (On Censorship).  He should know.

Arrogance: the Making and Breaking of Writers

The importance of being modest

If you’ve ever seen an old-school Bollywood movie, you’ll know that the heroine often hides behind her sari when faced with her true love.  In India, as in many other cultures, brash and brazen behaviour, is viewed as unseemly; modesty is celebrated, especially in women.  My family is originally from India.  My maternal grandfather came to the UK with nothing and worked hard to reestablish himself.  The achievement was staggering given his starting point.  When Nana died a few years ago, he left behind my gran, six children and nine grandchildren, all of whom share one characteristic: humility.  That, more than anything else for me, is my grandfather’s legacy.  He believed that regardless of success or good fortune, it is important to be humble.

The flipside of humility

This week, I’ve been thinking about the flip side of humility, that is, arrogance.  According to the Oxford Dictionary, arrogance is defined as ‘having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.’  But it seems to me that arrogance isn’t always a bad thing.  It can have a marked impact on success.  For example, research indicates that when looking for a new job, women generally put themselves forward if they meet a high percentage of the required criteria.  Men, on the other hand, are more likely to go for the job even if they fall short of the person specification, contributing to gender inequality at the highest levels.  So in this way, their exaggerated sense of their own worth contributes to their success.

PeacockArrogance vs confidence 

Of course, there is a difference between arrogance and confidence.  A confident person is aware of their value but articulates her achievements only if the situation requires it.  In a job interview, say, or in the dating game.  Or as a daily mantra – whatever.  The fact is that she isn’t as ostentatious and unpleasant as Mr Arrogant; Ms Confident knows when to broadcast her abilities, and when just to get on with her life.  Still, the differences between arrogance and confidence can be so subtle that they are sometimes confused with each other.  A pinch of too much confidence and the scales are tipped into arrogance.

A tool for success

But if your aim is not to be nice but to be more successful, is arrogance preferable to modesty?  If you are blind to your talents and do not celebrate them, why should anyone else?  In all walks of life, self-doubt is a game killer.  To give of ourselves, maybe we need to have a little self-love first, to be aware of our strengths and to acknowledge that we have unique talents that make us special.  Now, I can hear what you are thinking right now.  What is wrong with just being confident of my abilities?  Why do I need to be arrogant?

Arrogance – the making and breaking of writers

This is just for my writer friends, especially the ones who are just starting out and are still finding their voice.  As a new writer, there is an innate arrogance in assuming not only that you have something worthwhile to say but that you can express it in a way that readers will appreciate.  Writing can be lonely.  It involves long stretches of time without feedback and the road to finding readers can be a long one.  Without a touch of arrogance (new writers are unproven after all, how can you be so sure of your worth?), you may find that the path of the writer is too strewn with difficulties for you to persevere.  It is your self-belief, your arrogance, that propels you forward, that drives you to your computer, keeping your writing dreams afloat.  So, you see, arrogance is the making of emerging writers, but it can also be the breaking of you.  If your arrogance blinds you to the fact that all first drafts need editing, you will find yourself on the pulp pile.  Even geniuses need a helping hand.

Strange bedfellows: arrogance and courage

I’ll let you in on a secret.  I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a child, but I’ve always been afraid to give voice to my dream or call myself a writer.  Even now, when writing fiction has long become part of my daily practice, I still struggle with sharing that part of myself with those close to me.  Writers for me have so much power, they are god-like. It seemed arrogant to align myself with them.  But I grew tired of hiding.  I began to speak more of writing to those I trust and to make it a larger part of my life.  Strange things have happened since taking ownership of my writing ambitions.  I have been getting more words down on paper.  I feel more free to explore my creativity.  I am happier.  And if a little bit of arrogance is what has made this happen, sorry Nana, then it’s here to stay.

‘I’m an ambitious person. I never consider myself in competition with anyone, and I’m not saying that from an arrogant standpoint, it’s just that my journey started so, so long ago, and I’m still on it and I won’t stand still.’ Idris Elba 

‘The French have the reputation of being arrogant. I don’t think it’s arrogance but a certain authenticity.’ Simon Baker 

 

Leaving Fear Behind

sunsetAfter I published my first proper blog post yesterday I tweeted about it and sent the link to half a dozen family and friends.  The chosen few, as it were: those who have been supportive of my writing dream or at least know about it.   Not everyone does.  I didn’t share the post on Facebook.  My Facebook account is full of people, who have known me my entire life and that was a risk too far.

The courage to risk failure

This morning one of my trusted circle asked me why I had decided to blog.  She hadn’t seen my website or the piece yet.  The answer I gave surprised me because it differed from the reasons I give on my About Me pages.  The truth is, it takes bravery to reveal your true self and to admit to your dreams.  You risk criticism, or worse, indifference. You risk public failure.

Trust: seeing strangers as friends

The reasons I gave for starting this blog are still valid: said friend who shall remain nameless was a pivotal point, I would like to champion fiction and share my own.  But I wasn’t being wholly honest.  I hadn’t taken a quiet moment to look inside myself and really search for the true answer.  A better technique on my first attempt would have been to write down my reasoning thinking of you, my readers, as friends.  Instead, I saw a sea of strangers and that scared me.  I’ll tell you now what I told Lindsay.

The whole truth

I decided to blog because one day I want to be a novelist, but at the end of that process I don’t want to find myself too fearful to share my manuscript with you.  This blog is an exercise in risk-taking and vulnerability, a way to share my ideas and writing in baby-steps, to find commonality with readers and writers.  It is an exercise in understanding myself better and finding my way beyond your superficial layers too.  We all have them.  Post by post, this is my way of overcoming fear and building trust.  So I say again:  Welcome.  Nice to meet you.  Be honest.  Be yourself.

‘Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.’ Thomas A. Edison

‘A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.’ John Burroughs