Why would You Write a Journal?

“One’s first diarist,” suggests psychotherapist and essayist Adam Phillips, “is one’s mother who links facts for one, holds the pieces together.” Forget the priest’s confession booth or your mum. There are more places than ever for confessionals today. Social media is a constant flood of inner thoughts memorialised. Still, the art of keeping a diary continues, despite a technological and social revolution that mean that both writing by hand and private introspection are fast becoming things of the past. Keeping diaries is an ancient tradition that dates back to 10th century Japan.

I found an old diary of mine recently. I had filled its pages about ten years ago, when I first met my husband. How young I seemed then. What a mix of embarrassment and wonder to rediscover who I was. I’m not a daily journal scribbler. I have a journal on my bedside table and use it when my head feels busy. It helps to spill my thoughts onto the page. I have no rules about what goes into it. I use it to hold myself to account with goals and for story ideas, which are starred and filed away in their proper place later. I remind myself to write a list of things to be grateful for, which I find really helpful to reread on the days I have had a disappointment and have lost my perspective. I have found myself journalling more this year in Switzerland, finding many trusted conversation partners far away.

So what is it that leads us to write diaries? There are some who say diaries are the preserve of the troubled. Once the seas are calm, the diary is relegated to the back of a drawer. A diarist its someone, who is self-important and secretly hopes to be read, who wishes to control, or who does not have the courage to voice their thoughts in conversation. S/he is someone who does not live in the present, who is fascinated by their own history.

Photo by Steve Loya

Photo by Steve Loya

While some truth may be found in the reasons above, it would be a shame to dismiss the benefits of journalling out of hand:

▪ Clarity. You can off-load and clear confusion by articulating your thoughts.

▪ Honesty. No-one has to read your journal but you. Your words are unfiltered, a stream of consciousness. You can strengthen your sense of self, show yourself in your wholeness, rather than the separate facets of ourselves you present to the world. You can say the unsaid.

▪ Presence. Too often, we get caught up in the needs of others and go through the motions of our established routines without self-assessments, but is the tiny adjustments to our evolving needs that leads to greater fulfilment. With a diary you are making time to pay attention to yourself.

▪ Freedom. There are no rules with journalling. It doesn’t have to be daily or grammatically correct. It doesn’t matter how long or short the entry is. Crossing out is just fine. Doodle. Leave a thought mid-sentence if that’s what you want.

▪ Creativity. Experiencing your unfiltered self in all its glory is disconcerting. For a writer especially, it can be wonderful material for a fictionalised character. Oscar Wilde once said, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”

Photo by Magic Madzik

Photo by Magic Madzik

▪ Reexamine. Work through difficult episodes. Write down your dreams and explore fantasies. The page is non-judgemental.

▪ Accountability. Track what is important. Map out your goals and progress. Keeping a diary reveals patterns of behaviour and builds self-knowledge.

▪ Recall. We process such a huge amount of information daily. Our lives are crammed full of experiences. It has become the norm to have hundreds of friends we keep track of in different ways. Is it any wonder we are forgetful? Our brains keep only the most important information. There are also physiological reasons why we might only remember the broad strokes of certain events. Take childbirth, for example, where there is good reason to remember the bonding with your newborn over the intensity of the pain of delivery. Use a journal to remember the details.

▪ Destress. The mental health benefits of journalling have been well-documented. It is therapeutic.

▪ Practice. It can be a good warm-up, in the style of Julia Cameron’s morning pages as detailed in The Artist’s Way. W.H. Auden once described his journal as “a discipline for laziness and lack of observation.” For writers journalling is a way to keep our instrument in tune.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 01.25.01Wonderful published diaries include those of Virginia Woolf, Anaïs Nin, Samuel Pepys, Anne Frank, Abraham Lincoln, Frida Kahlo and Sylvia Plath. Other famous diarists such as Evelyn Waugh and Philip Larkin burnt theirs. Whether you write regularly or not, in a leather-bound journal or scrappy exercise book, in ink or on an app, what happens in the pages of your diary is completely up to you. If you do not want yours to be discovered by someone other than you, just remember to keep it somewhere safe.

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Not for the Faint-Hearted: Using Critique Groups to Accelerate your Learning

Photo by Kean Kelly

Photo by Kean Kelly

In case you missed it, it’s Nanowrimo (I’m hearing trumpets, triangles and all sorts in my head right now). I’ve been writing my socks off and so far I’m on track. Tough spots are lurking for me around the corner though as I tend to get saggy middle of the month syndrome. Still, for now I am celebrating the fact that I am writing. My head and heart are fully immersed in my story world, my fingers are flying over the keyboard, I am untangling plot knots and getting excited. I even made my own rather rubbish first book cover (apparently, writers are statistically more likely to finish the month as a 50k winner if they upload a cover). What we all know though is that rewriting follows writing, especially fast writing. While I am embracing this seat of your pants ride, there will be plenty to fix come December. I mean, let’s face it, I am throwing words onto a page right now, and I’m lucky they are not throwing themselves right back.

Sitting at our desks, or in bed, or in that field of long grass, with your notebook or laptop, formulating thoughts, writing down those words…is what makes us writers. That is, first and foremost, how we learn what works and what doesn’t in story-telling. But how can we accelerate our learning? Craft-books, reading widely, online and in-person courses, writer blogs, book clubs, first readers, beta-readers (which I blogged about here), mentors, editors, fans all play a part. But what about critique groups? It is hard to judge our own work. Are critique groups – where writers submit their work to their peers for comments – a tool for increased self-awareness as a writer? Have you been brave enough to try one?

If you’ve been hiding your words away in a drawer or on your hard-drive and they are just for you and our loved ones, fair enough. If, however, you have plans for world domination, or say, domination of the publishing/reading world as a starter, it’s probably not the best idea to upload your lifetime’s work to the black hole of the internet without putting it through some robust scrutiny. If you do, you are likely to either end up sinking into the nether regions of the web without a trace, or your potential fans will not so much read your work with hallelujah choirs at their backs so much as devour it in a bloody frenzy, leaving a trail of one star reviews in their trail…(of course, you may be a ready-made writing superstar. There are always exceptions to the rule).

So, are you ready to go into battle Sir Knight and Lady Winalot?

Photo by Jon Jordan

Photo by Jon Jordan

The advantages of critique groups

  • The best critique groups will give you an honest appraisal of your writing. We are all a bit too close to our own work
  • Writing can be a whimsical adventure, but we sometimes need support to stop us stalling before the finish line. For those of you, who like me, enjoy Nano because of the sense of community, critique groups can give you both support and deadlines to keep you moving forward
  • They allow you to use the critique to polish your manuscript before you query
  • If you are open to listening – which is easier said than done when you are laying out your project, your baby, for criticism – critique groups are a great way to benefit from other people’s experiences, saving you time in the long run
  • Any hey, who’s to say your group even has to spoon feed you solutions? The best groups give rise to discussions about your writing, which help stir your imagination and unknot your own problems
  • It’s not just about you. But really it is. You will learn huge amounts by listening to the work of others and by hearing the criticisms they receive

The disadvantages of critique groups

  • They can lay your vulnerabilities bare and be hard for the ego. In fact, I would question whether they are useful if you come away each week with your ego intact
  • The biggest risk for me is damaging your confidence. Don’t risk attending a critique group if you are not ready to hear the criticism and it will affect your mojo. The last thing we want is to scare you away from getting the words down in the first place
  • You know those tried and trusted writing wisdoms?: ‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs’, avoid prologues, extensive descriptions, exclamation marks, regional dialect, the list goes on. There is a danger that we all consume the same wisdom and risk losing our originality. Let’s not turn into one giant symbiotic organism. Dare to break the rule, once you know them
  • The critique group only sees part of your work in progress. They cannot see inside your head and embrace your vision nor would you want them to (shhhh, else the magic will escape). For this reason their criticism of your novel is not based on the whole picture. Trust your instinct above theirs
Photo by Daniel Parks

Photo by Daniel Parks

Making the most of a critique group

  • Avoid disheartening misfires by choosing the right group to start with. Find writers with diverse backgrounds, careers and interests but with knowledge of the genre you are writing for
  • Don’t slack. If you have committed to bring work to the group regularly, shelve the excuses and deliver
  • Be generous in critiquing the work of others, but avoid providing solutions unless explicitly asked. You are not a co-author. You are there to light the way.
  • Avoid false praise and give constructive criticism without being personal
  • Make your own mind up on which points you will take on board for your edits. You don’t have to accept all the criticism (but don’t defend yourself at the group as your sessions will never end). If you find you are going home with no changes at all, you will probably find you are not being entirely honest with yourself. Write down the comments you receive so you can digest them in your own time.
  • Agree in advance how much time each member of the group will have to avoid Mr I Am Everything dominating the evening, you getting frustrated and/or feelings being hurt when you have to cut him down. Death by committee is no fun.
  • If you don’t click with a group or the advice is not delivered constructively, don’t hang around. Find a new one or set up your own (Nanowrimo forums are great for building friendships. What are you waiting for?)
  • The last thing you need is for your critique group to be a time suck. If it is not working, leave the group as politely as possible or use Skype as a way to connect without the commute

Setting up a group

Finding a local critique group was fairly easy back on my old haunting ground in London. But what if you are unable to find an existing critique group where you are and you fancy setting up your own? Here is what you need to think about:

  • Setting membership rules: who is the group open to?; who decides who is allowed to join?; how will you handle a member who is disruptive, dominant or overly critical?; how big is the group allowed to be (given you have limited time)?
  • Practicalities of a critique group: how often and where will you meet?; will the stories be read in advance or on the night in question (as a rule of thumb you are more likely to get better feedback if you read the stories in advance)?; how will the manuscripts be delivered and how long can they be?; appoint a time-keeper.
  • Critique guidelines: Line-editing is probably not a good use of a critique group’s time; clarifications of critiques allowed, but defending your story from a critique in an active session can lead to an emotional clash that takes up valuable time
  • Create a crib sheet of what is useful feedback. The writer in question may ask the group to focus on certain areas when circulating the story. For example, if s/he is after a big picture analysis, you might be asked if the characters behaved consistently and believably, if the story works for the target readership, whether the pacing kept you interested. If s/he is after a detailed analysis, you might be asked if the title is arresting or if you stumbled over any phrasing or imagery.

So what do you think? Would you try a critique group? There is a reason why admissions panels to many acclaimed writing programmes subject candidates’ writing to strong criticism before deciding whether to accept them onto the course. They are testing reactions to their challenges, whether you can defend your ideas and are open to learning. The question is, have you got the stomach for it?

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.

Losing and Finding Stories

There is a frail old lady in our neighbourhood, who wanders the streets in the afternoon dressed in a sari. The saris are always tatty and loosely worn. The old lady passes fellow pedestrians without acknowledging their presence. It is as if she does not see them at all. If you say hello, she barely wakes from her reverie. She responds almost unwillingly in a voice which reverberates with melancholy and then continues her slow progress up and down the street. Sometimes she sits on a garden wall to rest. The corners of her mouth are downturned and her stare, straight ahead, is always blank.

I think of this lady sometimes. Perhaps it is because she is Indian. She could be my grandmother. Mostly it is because I’d like to know what her story is. I’d like to understand the lines on her face, the reason for her sorrow and what would make her smile. I would like to know whether she chooses to wear her sari like that or whether her fingers are no longer dextrous enough to manipulate the material while she is dressing. I’m curious about what she chose to do with her life and whether she has any regrets. I’d ask her if she feels at home in this largely white suburban part of London. I’d ask her what home is to her. I would listen to her story, as a voyeur, a psychologist and as a daughter. I’d record her story. Then I’d distil my version of her truth by peppering it with fiction.

How do we decide which stories are worth recording? I see love, hopelessness, joy and betrayal in every face I encounter. We collect our impressions of one another as if they are collages: snapshots of each other’s souls taken from a fleeting conversation, a misunderstood expression, the way we dress or how easily we smile. The knowledge we acquire as we age is often untransferable, lost in translation and given up to the universe when we depart. We love and are surrounded by those who love us in return, yet still we are strangely alone. Even the best communicators cannot impart the web of their thoughts from their own mind to another’s. However connected and accepted we feel, however honest we are, our understanding of another person’s story is filtered through our own perceptions and experiences. There is no plug in and download function. Thankfully.

What this means is that each individual story, in its truest essence, gets lost. This happens all the more if we are too self-centred or busy to ask how other people are really doing, and to listen. I know time is a factor. We can’t listen to everyone or record every story. We can, however, choose to give a few minutes of real attention to those we love. One of my biggest regrets is not speaking enough to my granddad about his experiences of leaving Uganda in the 1972 exodus after Idi Amin kicked out the East-African Asians. Nana was the head of one of many families, which became political refugees overnight and had to build a life from scratch elsewhere. I was in my early twenties when we realised nana did not have much time left, but by then, on his death bed, he was no longer interested in telling his story. He was a wonderful man.

There are stories all around us. We drove across the country to visit friends in the village of Friesthorpe last week. There was a small church, which would have seated perhaps eighty people. Inside the church there was a small pulpit and electric heaters hanging from the ceiling. The pews held oblong tapestry cushions that showed images of special occasions or had been donated in memory of lost loved ones. At the front of the church were an enormous Bible and hand annotated prayer book dating from the 1800s. I leafed through the ageing pages guiltily, surprised the books weren’t behind glass. Afterwards, we took our time wandering through the graveyard outside, reading the worn headstones. One gravestone marked the place where a former church Reverend and his thirteenth daughter, a poet, had been laid to rest. A plaque inside the church revealed that the same family had lost five sons in the Great War. To me it is comforting to walk through a cemetery, reading the names of dead strangers and working out how old they were when they died. The individuality of headstones reflects how different we are in life. The engravings tell a story.

If only inanimate objects could talk. Can you imagine what the paintings on your walls have seen, what the tree at your window could tell you about the lives of the people who previously lived in your house? All the joyful and sordid details of our lives, played out in plain sight but hidden from all once we are gone. So writer, write. Choose your stories wisely. Write the truth of your life and those around you. Don’t hurry. Do your stories justice. But don’t ignore the sense of urgency you feel in your belly either. Every moment you wait to pick up your pen, there are stories fragmenting, spinning out of your reach into the depths of the universe, never to be heard of again.

On Being Freshly Pressed and Why We Write

This is my first post since being Freshly Pressed and I’m still feeling giddy at all the attention. When I initially received an email from Cheri at WordPress, I had to Google what the term ‘Freshly Pressed’ means. For those of you unfamiliar with it, WordPress essentially picks a handful of posts each day to feature on their website. It’s a great way to reach new audiences. As there are only a few editors tasked with picking posts to be Freshly Pressed, and millions of blogs, it in no way shows your work is superior to anyone else’s but it is a fun ride. Now I’m on the other side of it, I have what can only be described as stage fright. Can this post measure up to my last one? What if my new readers followed me by accident? What if they don’t stick around to read the end of this sentence? I’ve now sat on those little demons of doubt so I can get on with telling you about the experience.

In terms of the number of readers it reached, my post on The Joys of Longhand Writing has been my most successful piece of writing yet. I’m very lucky that WordPress Editor and Story Wrangler Cheri (awesome job title, and almost as brilliant as a friend’s who is a forensic scientist specialising in explosives…imagine that on your business card) discovered it. It helped that she is currently using handwriting to help get unblocked. The writing we are drawn to often reflects our own thoughts and that helped me to be found.

The most exciting part has been the interactions in the comments on the article. It’s been a thrill talking to new readers. I loved reading the descriptions of how people feel when they are writing longhand. It seems many more people miss handwriting than I’d previously thought. I was also very excited to be placed next to my friend @akmakansi on the Freshly Pressed page. What are the chances of that?

There has also been a remarkable, likely short term, effect on my website stats. I’ve been blogging nearly a year. In that time, my average daily views have been about 25 (with the exception of a guest post which generated about 100 views) and my posts have been getting a maximum of a dozen likes and a few comments. I had 149 followers. In the two days since being Freshly Pressed I’ve had an additional 1700 views, nearly 400 likes on that particular post and about 150 comments. Notifications are still coming in. My follower numbers have more than doubled to 421. That is huge for me, so thank you. There are lots of words in the world, so thank you for sticking around to read mine.

The experience has in many ways made me think about social media etiquette. Is it polite to follow back those who follow you? Auto follow back probably makes good business and marketing sense, but I’m not sure that’s what I want. I’d rather rummage through other blogs slowly, taking in the new ideas and quirks of expression at my leisure. That way, reading each other is a joy and not a chore. Forgive me if it takes me a while to stop by your online homes, or if I don’t at all. I don’t want you to be another item on my to do list, governed by the rule of reciprocity. Let our relationship be free of pressure. That way, next time we meet and have a virtual cup of tea together and discuss books, ideas or our thoughts, we’ll know that each of us is exactly where we want to be.

I’ve also been thinking more widely about why we write. Perhaps it is just the stage I am at personally with regard to my writing ambitions and the increased opportunities that come with self-publishing and the reach of social media, but I think recently I have lost track of why I write. I mentioned in a past post that without readers, words aren’t alive. That is both true and besides the point in some ways. It is wonderful to have readers. We want to feel valued. But we write, because we have to. Even in a void, on a desert island, on a distant planet without the slightest chance of being read, we would write.

I write because I feel rushed when I speak, a pressure to get to the end of the sentence and let someone else have a turn. Writing allows me to explore my ideas in my own time, to pick precisely the right word to express my innermost thoughts. It gives me balance. I am sure I would be a frustrated wreck without it. So write, write for the joy of it, for the clarity it brings you, for that sense of immersion and wonder, even if there is noone around to read it.

On Belonging and Individuality

Do you remember how it was when you were a teenager and you were unsure of who you were? Social situations were a clumsy affair whether at home or further afield. You wanted to be understood, but communication was not always your forte. You preferred to hide away in your room with your nose buried in a book, or the company of confidantes. Clashes of personalities, even in your loving home, fuelled flickers of annoyance or full blown rage. High-pitched giggles when you rounded a corner at school made you wonder if it was you they were laughing at. Then there was the way that clothes fitted your changing body. Are these trousers too tight? This top hangs in all the wrong places… You listened to Alanis Morissette or Nirvana, while your poor parents stuffed their ears with cotton wool downstairs, wondering when someone would finally get you. Oh growing pains. Then something magical happened. You started to feel more comfortable in your own skin. You gravitated towards those who had similar interests and you had more power to decide who you wanted to see and what to do with your time.

I left those feelings behind a long time ago but they resurfaced unexpectedly a few weeks ago. I found myself feeling like a teenager, prone to sulking and close to outbursts. It was sobering to walk in those shoes again. I’d like to think I know who I am, what my boundaries are and how to communicate effectively. So what did trigger my behaviour? I think the answer is that certain situations cause us to fall into familiar patterns we left behind a long time ago. For me, it was a holiday with my extended family. I have a wonderful family. They are loving, kind, generous and a little bit crazy. When we all come together it seems as though everyone is an extrovert. Nobody waits their turn to speak and the voices get ever louder. There is always huge saucepans on the stove filled with spicy curries my gran has made. The television is on in the background. Everyone sits in the same places around the dining table. The children run around and are fed sweeties secretly. My aunt and uncles tell Indian jokes that take ages to get to the punchline. There is spoon-playing and spontaneous singing. It is wonderful and almost always exhausting.

I am blessed to have a supportive family, but sometimes I don’t want the trappings of food and gifts or the roundabout of visits to one another. I want to say to them: stop. I don’t want the roles of mother, daughter, father, son, aunt, uncle, grandmother to dictate how we behave. Those are just layers we add to our core. My dad is more than a provider. My mum is more than a nurturer. My grandmother is more than a feeder. I am more than a daughter, wife and mother; I am the sum of all my parts. I don’t want to dig through layers of routine and social construct every time I meet friends and family. Next time you meet me, show me who you really are, not the role that has been prescribed to you by others, the one you accepted out of a desire to please and to serve. Let’s laugh together and just be, and reveal the whole. If we don’t, one day, we’ll realise that the mould we have filled will be too strong to break, and our true desires and thoughts will have faded in the background.

Slipping back into the murky waters of teenage insecurity was a reminder to me about how wonderful it feels to really connect. The world moves quickly and time is fleeting. That is all the more reason for us invest in those we love. Do you ask questions and really listen to the responses or are you like me, guilty of already mentally moving on to what you are going to say next? Do you look to perceive the truth at the core of your friends and family or is the image you have of them an assumption? I treasure the moments of complete connection I have with family and friends: finishing each other’s sentences, shared mirth at a joke, knowing looks across a table, a hand at my back, weighted with familiarity, those discussions early into the morning that you don’t want to end. We are, by our very nature, tribal.

Do you remember the stories after Avatar was released, about how it triggered depression in some of the audience members? They were so taken with the beauty of Pandora and how effortlessly all living organisms were connected, that the real world seemed grey in comparison. Belonging is associated with better self-reported physical and mental health; conversely loneliness and isolation can lead to depression. However wonderful belonging is, it should never be at the expense of individuality.

Owning Your Choices in Story-Telling and in Life

I am finding it really hard to pick a novel to commit to at the moment. My hard drive is littered with the promising beginnings of half a dozen novels, each of which is clamouring for me to devote my time to them alone. Last week, I announced on my Facebook author page that I would be writing a dystopic science fiction story about a girl whose father has gone missing. I love this story. It has started to take shape in my head. I have plotted the story arc and sub-plots, one character in particular has started to take shape on the page. But I find myself retreating into other story folders, desperately bouncing between them like a woman with many lovers, unable to decide which one is her one true love.

I recognise my old enemy. Fear is creeping its way into my garden of dreams, feeding on my doubts and blocking out the sunlight. It is natural that every now and then, we come across decisions that we agonise over. We overthink our options and worry about making the wrong choice. We wonder if there was a better path that we ignored. Our hang-ups act like perpetual boomerangs and sabotage our success. We are paralysed by doubt and indecision and make excuses about our reasons for stalling.

‘I didn’t write today. There just wasn’t enough time.’

Now what I really meant to say when my husband asked me how my day went, was that I did the filing and the washing to avoid writing, because I can’t decide which project to commit to. Why is it that we get so defensive when we are called out? Is it really easier to stay within the comfort of our own boundaries than to strive for what we want? How liberating it would be if we could be honest with ourselves and each other.

If your fears have become bogeymen lurking at the edge of your consciousness, whispering doubt into your ear, call them out. Join me in writing them down, together with your goals, in stark black ink on a pristine page and maybe they won’t seem as scary in the cold light of day. Hell, let’s draw some ridiculous doodles next to them to bring them down a peg or two. A bug-eyed monster with a goofy smile perhaps, or a frenemy with her knickers round her ankles. Whatever floats our boat.

What is it that is holding me back right now, you ask? Well I think bubbling underneath the surface is indecision about whether to commit to literary or science fiction. That’s all. My head is saying: what is the clever choice? I’ve read the genre advice, and it’s better for branding to choose one direction, right? One thing is clear, finishing novels across multiple genres is definitely going to find you more readers than never finishing one.

Nobody cares as much about our choices as we do. Twenty years from now it won’t matter whether we take a small step towards success today or a large one; all that matters is that we keep moving forward. And the way to do that is to own our choices. Dressing up our decisions for the sake of external perceptions and expectations is to erode our self-determination and to fall into the trap of believing our own pretty white lies. It hinders our happiness and success.

I’m not going to stress over which novel I decide to commit to. I’m working on a short story collection at the moment, and if I find that the stubborn, plucky girl from my science fiction novel keeps intruding on my thoughts I’ll know that is the one. I forget that to be a writer is to learn infinite patience. It means to chip away at a project bit by bit until its form starts to take shape underneath our inky fingers. With writing, as with other choices, the trick is to commit to investing time and effort until the finish line. Sooner or later, my girl will have a story. And even if the novel doesn’t work as well as I want it to, I’ll have more skills and learning in my armoury to help with the next story.

Wishing you luck on your writing journey.

 

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

Memory and Chickens

Memory is, by its very nature, flawed. We filter our past through the prism of our own feelings and experiences, making our memories unreliable. For years I thought that my memory was more unreliable than other people’s. As a creative type, I’m more prone to reimaginings than the average person, but I’ve realised there is something else. I don’t always remember the same details as other people. I am more likely to recall a feeling or a colour than specifics. I see a picture in my head and remember a feeling, and then more often than not build a story around that picture.

For all these reasons, I am not sure whether the story I am about to tell you is real, imagined or somewhere in between. You remember last week I promised you chickens. As mentioned, I am following one of Jessica Schmeidler’s prompts, part of her October blog challenge on The Write Shadow.

I must have been about eleven years old when we went on holiday to Tanzania. My dad is born there and was excited to show off its delights to us. I remember flashes of that trip. First, the preparations that included getting jabs in our bottoms. My brother and I shrieked with laughter when we learned that mum and dad were to be humiliated in the same fashion we were. We travelled with another family. My mum has an uncle has children of a similar age, and so the eight of us spent part of this holiday together. We played barefoot in the sand, had roof-top barbecues and rode in open-backed trucks while drinking coconut juice straight from the shell. It was wonderful.

ChickenMy aunt’s sister lived in Dar es Salaam and we spent a lot of time in and around her house. She had a live-in cook and a cleaner, who were patient and kind despite having four children underfoot. We felt free. We played on the street and in the yard, and the adults didn’t seem to pay much attention to what we were up to. We made friends with the chickens. They weren’t penned up and at first I was fearful of being pecked. I squealed if they got too close but after a few days it seemed normal to sit in the dust with the chickens passing close by. Each of us had a favourite one. The years have passed and I am no longer sure why I picked mine. Maybe she had intelligent eyes or was more beautiful than the others. Or maybe she seemed to like me more than the other children.

I’m not going to paint this picture too clearly for you. I am sure that by now you know what happened. There are not many reasons why people keep chickens. Later that week, we sat to eat a delicious meal together. The cook had made curry with fresh rotis. There must have been a dozen of us around the table. I can see a colourful table-cloth and at the head of the table the corpulent body of the lady of the house. She is throwing back her head and laughing. I am tired after a day in the sun and so are the other children. We take our leave quickly to go to bed, and I am already looking forward to seeing the chickens the next day.

It didn’t happen of course. In the morning I was sad that my favourite chicken wasn’t there. My aunt laughed as she explained we had eaten it the night before.  That day some of my childhood innocence was washed away.  My trust was broken. I’ve toyed with being a vegetarian on and off ever since. Logically, I know that the integrity of our food choices is tied to knowing where the food on our plate comes from. Still, even today I have an emotional connection to food, and I shut off certain parts of my brain when eating certain things.

As for the family we holidayed with, it was the beginning of a downward spiral.  In the years that followed, time and again I have been reminded of the dark and macabre in my interactions with them. One day maybe I’ll work those thoughts and experiences into a novel, and you’ll know that that novel was essentially borne of chickens.

Definitely time for me to end this post now, my husband is starting to make jokes about horses and lasagne…

What I See Project: What I See When I Look in the Mirror

This post was written for the What I See Project, which is asking women globally what they see when they look in the mirror.  It’d be interesting to hear male answers to the question too, but for now it’s women only.  You can find out more about the project and contribute your own video blog by going to http://www.whatiseeproject.com.  

mermaid

I see a body which is imperfect, but which tells a story: honest eyes and English teeth; my great-grandmother’s prominent nose; fingers that could have been a piano player’s – but aren’t; breasts that have nursed my children; knees that show I prefer sitting on the floor to the sofa; age starting to wreak havoc.

I see a hoarder of books, a greedy consumer of news, a woman who is socially engaged but tired of the lies and compromises of politics, who is warm, honest and generous, but exacting in her standards of herself and others, and capable of darkness.

I see a mother who tends her children lovingly and mourns every bittersweet passing moment, but whose dreams are waiting on the sidelines. A writer who waited too long to take her craft seriously, held back by fear and doubt. A woman who has moderate success and wants more, but is not always prepared to make life sacrifices.

I see the imprint of my loved ones past and present, a woman who wants to be many things, and just one. I see dishonesty cloaked in honesty, someone who is lost sometimes, but trusts and dares, who is unable to look at her reflection in all its truth, but who one day may be able to.

I see someone who is blessed to have been born into this family, with these opportunities.  Basking in this love.

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

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 

 

How Good a Listener Are You?

Last week, someone I love confided how in me about how low she was feeling.  We spent nearly an hour talking about her feelings, what she felt had gone wrong and how she could get to where she wants to be.  I walked away from the conversation hurting for her but when I replayed the conversation in my head, it wasn’t her voice that I heard, but my own.  The whole episode got me thinking that good listening skills are not only invaluable in every conceivable relationship we have, but also a key part of a writer’s toolkit.

Do you carry a notebook with you to jot down thoughts during the day or snippets of conversations you have heard?  What if you are missing out on little gems of writerly wisdom because you are not really hearing what is going on around you?  Could you be a better friend, parent or writer if you listened better?  According to research, most people only remember 25-50% of any given conversation.  That means that up to 75% of what we say is wasted effort.  So I’d like to ask:

  • how good a listener are you?
  • do you interrupt other people when they are talking?
  • do you know the answer before you have the full picture?
  • do you listen with an open mind?

For me, the answer to all those questions is sometimes.

External barriers to listening well

The world is getting louder and there are competing demands for our attention: the roar of road traffic, the constant buzz of the radio and the omnipresent glow of televisions in our living rooms.  Business, media and advertising continue to look for ways to hold our attention for a brief few seconds but we have become desensitised to all the tricks of the trade.  I’m as reliant as the next person on my mobile phone, but let’s face it, they are technically a pocket-sized on call and distraction device.  According to statistics published by the United Nations in March, substantially more (6 billion vs 4.5 billion) of the world’s population have access to mobile phones than working toilets.  Ironically, as the world has become more connected, we have learned to listen less.  How often is your mind on something else when you are listening?

Internal blockers to listening well

Let’s not just blame it on the big, bad world though.  I’m not going to pull any punches here.  Are there certain people who cause you to mentally fill your ears with cotton wool before they have even started?  The truth is that there are blocks to listening well from the very start. The words we hear are distorted as they are reflected through the prism of our own beliefs, knowledge and experiences.  Language itself is a subjective medium; words are not a precise instrument and may not be interpreted as we envisage. We have become huge consumers and producers of information, but our lives are busy and we tend to want sound bites.  The question is, what wealth of information and which subtle nuances are we missing out on?

violinThe art of listening better

I’m no expert, but for what it’s worth, here are my tips for listening better:

  • Take a second to distance yourself from what has been going on so you can give the speaker your undivided attention
  • Show that you are listening with your body language
  • Make a note of your internal motives for listening
  • Try not to interrupt and prepare for what you want to learn, not just what you want to say
  • Understand that you don’t need to fix everything

Listening as part of the writer’s toolkit

I don’t know any writer who would be happy with their characters being endless variations of themselves.  The truth is, to write well, we have to observe others and seek to understand their deepest motives and dreams.  So, listening well to others becomes an endless resource for our work.  Next time I’m listening to a friend or eavesdropping on a conversation out of curiosity or writerly ambition, I’ll be leaving my ego aside, stepping into a place of neutrality and open-mindedness.  Will you?

‘The great advantage of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listening to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is useful to a writer, you see – every scrap, even the longest and most boring of luncheon parties.’  Graham Greene

‘Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.’  Henri Nouwen 

The Ability to be Alone

daisyThis week, I got the chance to be in a quiet room by myself to focus on my writing.  Our son is eight months old, and the urge to write has been getting stronger now that he is sleeping better and I have more energy.  Some friends and I decided that each week two mums will look after three babies, giving the third mum the chance to have some time to herself. The thought of a few hours protected writing time is blissful but it turns out that making the most of it is harder than I thought.

The hamster wheel of everyday life

There I was with a few hours of writing time in front of me for the first time in months and I was unable to de-clutter my mind.  If you are anything like me, the moments of quiet in your life are few and far between.  The waking hours at our house are filled with playdates, chatter, song, giggles and whining.  If the kids are asleep, I am tempted to nap too or I switch on the radio and use the time to catch up on chores, touch base with friends or family or slump on the sofa with a book or my laptop.  I feel the constant pull of twitter, facebook and online news.  Do you, like me, reach for your mobile phone as soon as you wake and throughout the day to check messages?  Even my parents, who until a few years ago owned old Nokias, are now hooked on their smartphones and ipads.  It’s an addiction.  Life today is a whirr of constant interaction; it has become all-consuming.

Finding ways to centre yourself

Okay, this sounds a bit new age but I think we are losing the ability to clear the decks of everyday concerns and just be.  We fill every waking moment with gadgets and noise and somewhere in the midst of all the chaos we have begun to lose ourselves.  Or at least, I have.  Spending time with family and friends is one way of regaining our equilibrium.  Writing and listening to music centre me.  But it is equally important to spend some of our waking time tuning into our thoughts without any distractions.   The problem with sharing yourself with the world the whole time is that we are always in a state of giving or receiving.  We risk losing ourselves somewhere along the way.

The confidence to be happy in solitude

It takes courage to say no to family and friends.  It takes strength to resist the pull of media.  I have even begun to feel anxious when I am out of the loop.  Is this mode of always being busy – of which we are often so proud – fool’s gold?  Too much interaction is as much of a chain as too little.  Maybe we subject our minds to constant chatter because we are afraid of what thoughts will form when we are alone.  Are those who are able to sit in quiet repose the ones who really own their true selves?

Stilling your mind

You might say that you have no time to practice stillness.  I’m going to take it step by step.  Next time I shower, I’m not going to plan out what I have to do next.  Instead, I’m going to take five minutes to clear my head of everything that is going on around me.  Next time I go for a walk, I am going to leave my phone at home.  I’m not sure how successful I’ll be but every now and then, I might even try and get through my daily commute without a book or my ipod.

Wherever we are, time alone has the power to restore us.  I wonder how much stronger I would feel if I could do this regularly.  I wonder how much more clarity of thought I would have as a writer if I was more adept at clearing my mind of the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  If you had more time for yourself, would you have a keener sense of who you are, what makes you happy and how you need to get there?

Finding the balance

There is no doubt, my family and friends bring me joy and ground me; books, radio, television, smart phones and the internet enrich my life.  The sense of belonging that goes with being part of a community is an empowering feeling.  We feel loved and protected; it is good for both the ego and our sense of security; we grow.  But the truth and self-contemplation that emerge from periods of being completely alone are equally important.  Finding the balance that works for you between these two states is important for us all.

For writers in particular, to create something relevant and original, we need to be a part of the world but also be able to retreat to the periphery.  I will be practising the art of sitting in a room and being comfortable by myself there.  Will you?

‘We need society, and we need solitude also, as we need summer and winter, day and night, exercise and rest.’ Philip Gilbert Hamerton 

‘Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your won presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.’ Alice Koller 

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

 

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