3 things I never expected (about Oman)

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1. The PIN thing

A few days ago I was standing near the cashpoint in a shopping mall. There was a bit of a queue. A group of people were crowding around the machine.

‘What’s my PIN?’ Some guy calls out.

No! I’m thinking. I’m ready to block my ears and hum a tune but it’s too late.

‘2167.’ His friend replies at a volume vastly above the hum of the mall.

Later, I’m at the supermarket check out. I hand the cashier my card.

‘PIN number,’ she asks. Oh no not again. I think. I hold out my hand to take the mini card machine thing. Except she’s not handing it to me.  There’s nowhere for me to type. I look at her.

‘Can you tell me your PIN?’ In England she’d have practically been arrested. She’s looking at me like I’ve refused to pay.

Trained from early on in the UK to not even whisper my PIN, I stand my ground.  ‘No I cannot.’

British banks would have you believe it’s akin to handing thieves the keys to your car; 8 percent of data breaches in the world occur in the United Kingdom (we rank second after the U.S.A).

But here in Oman, sharing your PIN with a stranger is not abnormal. Maybe it’s the low rate of theft in this country, and the fact that everyone seems to know everyone. (Although, I have to admit that when it comes to PIN sharing, I have no plans to go native!)

2. ‘Wasta’ (Friends helping friends)

My week continues in a similar way. On my way out of a local clinic,  I get into my car, ready to go home. The car won’t start. I return to reception and ask them for a taxi. The woman at the desk calls out a name:

‘Sami!’ across the waiting room, ‘Sami!’

Sami is standing outside by the glass doors. They keep sliding open, then closing.He finally hears.

‘Yes.’

‘Can you call this patient a taxi?’

‘What?’

‘A taxi, please call a taxi.’

‘What?

By now, the woman has it down to a single word, on repeat, ‘taxi’ an international word, or so I thought. She’s saying it again and again. I’m getting dizzy. Sami is leaning over the receptionist’s desk with his head to one side as if the word is very complicated.

The woman is trying mime.

‘Taxi,’ she says again. ‘Ta-xi. Car. Drive. Patient.’ She points at me.

Patient, I am trying to be.

‘Ah,’ Sami finally understands. ‘You mean Texi. Why you didn’t say?’ and he goes off to find one.

Five minutes later, Sami gestures from the sliding doors. I walk into the sun and he points to another man. The Texi man and I head towards his car. But I can’t see the white bodywork of any taxi cabs. He turns to face me, ‘I am new in town. I don’t know the roads so you have to guide me.’

I have to guide the Texi.

I look at the way he is dressed like an office clerk, at the car park with no white cars. ‘Are you a taxi driver?’ I ask.

‘No. Not really,’ he admits, ‘But I have a car and I can drive you. No pay.’ He says it warmly, like it is the most normal thing for a lone woman to get into a stranger’s car outside a clinic by a freeway. Suddenly I am questioning my own understanding of this city. Perhaps this is Muscat’s answer to Uber where anyone can drive you. But for free. In their Texis.

Or perhaps he is a psychopath and I am his first opportunity.

I look at his face. He is smiling warmly, ready to drive me in his car. I  don’t think he is a psychopath, he just wants to do his friend a favour. Oman is like that. Full of people doing each other favours. Because the country feels safe, formality is bypassed.

I go to the highway and flag down a real taxi.

3. Benglish

Muscat is home to Omanis, Filipinos, Indians, Brits, North Americans; the language in common seems to be English – or on documents, websites and shop signs, ‘Bad English’ – or Benglish’- as my friend has renamed it. When I first arrived, the English teacher in me used to shake my head at the shop signs, but now I enjoy them. Here is one of my favourites. This is a butcher’s shop:

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The cat sat on the mat: plot’s magic ingredient

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Last week I read a brilliant book about making-up stories.  In it, Roz Morris explained how writers weave plot. There’s one thing, she says, that novelists often fail to factor in. It’s not death or drama, or even dialogue. The vital ingredient, she says, is conflict.

Reading  her guide to plot was like being handed an  X- ray vision potion. Unable to read a book or watch a drama the same way again, I found myself the other evening in front of Holby City. Conflict was all I saw:

A man walks into the hospital pharmacy. He leans over the counter and demands the pharmacist hand him a drug. He looks unwell, waving a needle, says he needs it. Now.

The pharmacist looks for the drug. She wavers, says she can’t give it to him, the computer won’t let her in. The man moves closer to the pharmacist, holding the needle like a weapon.

The pharmacist is now having an asthma attack. A doctor walks in, tries to talk the man round, the pharmacist falls as the needle-wielding man stands over her, she hits her head, blacks out

The scene had me gripped. Some say we are wired for it, the human brain poised to solve problems, buzzing with  ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. Conflict dramatized can be delicious in its intensity, reflecting back the brain’s need to resolve, cathartic in its climax.

In my own first draft I had tried hard to make the scenes ‘realistic’. But a novel is pure artifice. Tricks hidden beneath the story keep us engaged. One of them is surely conflict, pushing the characters to the limit, creating an electrical charge to power the whole piece.

Science fiction author Brandon Sanderson  advises new novelists in his filmed lectures, to begin with character,  setting or plot and to let the conflict come from any, or all, of those places. That’s where story begins, he says. His advice makes the blank page far more inviting; the doorways into plot are many.

As I research my second draft, watching reels of film from the 30s: the heart of Spain’s cities and valleys hardened to hand grenades, neighbour turned against neighbour, I am reminded that Conflict is a big word – war and fights most often come to mind.

But pick up any novel and conflicts abound. Everyday, normal decisions which might somehow spiral into plot or subplot. I think it was John le Carré  who said:

“The cat sat on the mat” is not a story. 

but…

“The cat sat on the dog’s mat”  is a story.

 

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to comment below. I’d love to hear of your experiences plotting (conflict-driven or otherwise!)

 

The stories only you can tell

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Writing a novel is hard. I’ve had surgery less painful, taught teens less tricky. It’s hard because it asks for everything you’ve got. Like trying to catch the world with a net: a lovely idea but daunting to know where to begin.

18 months ago I began writing a mystery set in Madrid. In January, I thought I’d done it. I closed the program, wrote a synopsis and sent it all to a publisher who had shown interest in my work at a Writer’s Festival .

I waited a month. No answer. I scanned through blogs which said ‘don’t nag editors and agents’ so I didn’t. Unwilling to take the rejection personally,  I thought, ‘Oh well, editors are  busy’, or ‘perhaps my novel isn’t up to much’. I worked elsewhere, convinced myself that once done, my book shouldn’t be revisited, after all I’d given it my best shot.

And then something strange started happening. Driving, teaching, chatting with friends, I couldn’t stop thinking about my story.  Not the plot (that’s a different problem!) but the thing I wanted to say, what’s mine.

I remembered the author Neil Gaiman said:

‘Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.’

And then I twigged. As much as I didn’t relish revisiting the novel I had put months of work into, I had no choice but to return to it if I wanted to air its story.

‘I’ve always felt you unearth story, like you’re on an archaeological dig’ wrote Stephen King in his seminal work, ‘On Writing’.

My story kept glinting from the earth, would not leave me alone. I couldn’t not write it.

So one morning last week, into my kindle,  like a kind of miracle arrived ‘Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel’ by Roz Morris, a guide so comprehensive that by the end of it I knew technically what I needed to do. I had a plan, a decision to go back to ground level, unearth the fossil of my tale and make it matter to a reader.

Writing a novel is hard, I’ve had surgery less painful, taught teens less tricky, but the alternative is keeping something inside that only I am in a position to share. My story.

What would you do?

 

Fly like Eddie

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You know it well, yearn for it, are driven by it. You even smile when you hear its name. You’ve chased it, occasionally found yourself in its flow.

Perhaps you’re a writer stuck at a strange juncture, or an artist on the border of showing your work. Whatever your passion, this thing you’re working on illuminates your world, matters more than almost any other thing.

When you got stuck and it seemed to leave your grasp, what did you do? Wait for its return, give up, walk away?

Eddie ‘The Eagle’, English ski jumper, was driven by a persistent voice when he decided to put himself forward for the Winter Olympics in Calgary.

‘Go,’ said the voice, ‘It’s what you must do’.

Eddie was a novice, a non-sporty child who had only recently gained full use of his legs. But the voice did not let up and neither did Eddie. He trained alone, travelled far, supported himself with other work, ignored the advice of detractors. Eddie kept his eye on the ball.

The film about his life makes much of Eddie’s outsider status. Socially, he drinks milk. Eddie has none of the fancy gear, nor the cultural confidence of his nordic counterparts. His ski-jumping coach has a questionable attitude.

But what Eddie possesses is tons of grit. He persists because he is absolutely in love with the sport. We see it in his eyes as he watches his rivals’ skill on the television. We sense it in the resolve behind his decision to leave England to train.

To have passion for something is wonderful, but to pursue that passion undaunted by setbacks can bring great beauty into the world.

The film ends with these words:

‘May the real work begin.’

The Real work. Passion’s tireless companion. May all people working creatively find a way to marry the two. The passion and the grit.  May we learn to fly like Eddie.

 

This post was in part inspired by the work of my blogger-friend David J. Rogers who writes for artists and writers about the psychological skills required for success.

 

The rhythms of Ramadan

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A city which is normally calm has turned drowsy.

At 2.15 in the afternoon, trails of vehicles drive their inhabitants towards the siesta. But even the rhythms of sleep, during the holy month of Ramadan are different, grabbed between prayers and the breaking of the fast.

In this city, Ramadan is a time for family. Evening Iftars do take place in the swankier hotels and club houses, but as the sun sets, most of the city’s dwellers head home.

Five years ago I spent Ramadan in another Gulf state and was overwhelmed by the sudden silence of the place. Here it is the rejigging of the days which surprises, recalibrates the system. The bank and gym close three hours early, cafes are out of action until nightfall. Suddenly this seaside town is populated by owls, eyeing menus into the early hours.

Sounds of the qu’ran recited float from car radios. The call to prayer has a different quality and smiles, common currency in this part of the world are even quicker returned, as if to keep on lifting that single chain which holds us all together, regardless of any other thing, Muscat’s residents joined by centuries old tradition.

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Love lessons

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A friend once told me that her job meant loving every person who entered her practice room. Her clients brought wounds and flowers, she loved them all. It made sense this four-letter word should be the mainstay of therapy, its natural pacemaker.

But a few weeks ago I was surprised to find that I had fallen in love with a school. A school? You may ask. Well not the building exactly. But the work, the place, its people, their process.

The building stands where the city’s edge meets jagged rock. Children from over 62 countries move from lesson to lesson without bells. The classes aren’t large.

I first taught there when I arrived in Muscat a couple of years ago . I remember overhearing two children discussing something. One of them asking the other:

‘What’s bullying?’

That. Right there. The reason I love this school. Because I had never heard such a thing from a child in an educational establishment. From a fifteen year old.

Or the girl who came to find me during break time, to tell me they had sold out of the origami boxes I had liked and she was very sorry. Seven years old, from the elementary section.

And the student from Grade 9 who had defied me so beautifully. They were writing science fiction short stories.

‘Avoid,’ I  had said ‘using the second person. It’s powerful but hard to do. I wouldn’t try it. Not yet.’

I should have seen her expression. Noticed her sit up when I suggested what ‘you’ might add to her words. The next day I received her story, it was directed entirely at its reader and its raw power brought tears to my eyes.

Another English teacher took me under her wing. Seeing I would need to learn a whole curriculum in a few days, she made herself available.

‘Just drop by,’

And I did, asking questions week after week until I got the gist of this half-taught unit another teacher had left for someone else to pick up.

Love sometimes is presence, for another.

The walls of the school have posters about the I.B. If you’ve every taught it or studied it you’ll know it’s rigorous and open, that students often emerge from the diploma caring consciously about the planet and its people. The posters use words like: integrity, diversity, willingness to take risks, caring, inquiry.

And it is these abstract nouns, I think, which grabbed my heart, in the actions of its purveyors, the children here, the staff.

 

How does love feature in your work? Please feel free to share your thoughts below….

Three tips to survive the Gulf heat

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Heat has enveloped the city. We are caught in its embrace.  The children I teach insist on cool blasts of air-con, non-stop during class. Donning skinny jeans and retro trainers, they hide in hoodies like adolescents anywhere. Except that here midday hits 40 degrees with ease and not a soul walks down the street.

By the time I step into the light after work, I am shivering from the fridge-like indoors. The steering wheel of my car has all the appeal of gripping a burning torch and I realise it may be possible to brew a cup of tea with the water inside the bottle on the passenger side.

So while Muscat’s barometers have sent even the mosquitoes packing, I have decided not to flee to the UK this summer. My survival strategy for the extreme heat follows:

*As I can no longer exercise outside (read: barely walk out of the front door), I have joined a gym. It’s cool inside and  I get to hear the PTs putting people through their pre-Ramadan paces.

*Driving is improved by a) parking in the shade whenever possible b) Tinted windows (which might look gangsta but help) c) Wearing sandals and cotton (which don’t look gangsta but help) .

*Deciding to enjoy what is. In this part of the world, as well as searing temperatures, May/June means date season: nature’s sticky cakes with a stone are fab with a cup of tea, a few minutes of sunshine, when I can bear it, almost feels refreshing after so much time spent indoors.

Occasionally, in the early morning as I close the front door and leave for work, the faintest scent of the sea reaches the air, birds caw, the heat hasn’t yet found the day. For a moment at least, I’ve forgotten it’s there.

Live somewhere hot? What are your recommendations to survive the summer?

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King Fu Dining

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You have to go in first, then give me five minutes and I’ll follow.’ 

My husband’s plan sounds complicated.

There’s a small takeaway, it looks ordinary but to the right is a door. Ask if you can enter. You’ll see some creaky stairs. Head for the upper storey.’

In a city of large malls and chain stores we are entering somewhere unusual. Chinese restaurants are rare in Muscat and this one, more like a living room for those in the know. I sit alone waiting for my husband. Dressed in Omani gear he is concerned they won’t let him in.

‘That’s ridiculous,’ I protest, but as I look around the underwhelming interior I notice that I am the only person who is not Chinese.

I am reminded of capital cities in the West with their exclusive nightclubs and restaurants, doormen and pass codes. Strangely, subtly this restaurant seems to be doing the same. It’s hidden behind the facade of a take away. As the woman who owns the place hands me a menu I feel a frisson of apprehension.

Muscat houses neither Dubai’s glitz nor Abu Dhabi’s up and coming status. It has beautiful scenery, easygoing people and a cautious political neutrality. Muscat’s social scene is far from exclusive.

I choose some dishes. Listen for creaks on the stair. What if my husband isn’t allowed in? The waiter brings steaming won ton soup, dim sum. I start to tuck in. Am transported to a country I have never visited by the vowels and chatter from the tables nearby.

Dishes arrive from the hands of the owner and when my husband eventually makes it up the secret staircase it seems that he and the owner already know one another. She had worked in the Chinese restaurant of a palatial hotel located in the mountains and quit when the management changed hands.

There is care in the way she describes dishes, handles her customers, the type of knowing which comes from learning the business then setting up from scratch. It’s wonderful to be part of a culinary secret but something tells me it won’t stay that way for long.

Kung Fu “Authentic Chinese Restaurant” is located next to Fun Zone in Al Qurum Street, Muscat 

(Be prepared to use the secret door…)

Anyone in Muscat have unusual restaurant recommendations?  Feel free to post below…

 

 

 

The ink of ideas: is ‘showing up’ enough?

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‘I’m against schedules. Write when you feel excited by the prospect.’ (Rick Moody)

‘Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.’ (Isabel Allende)

 

Who are we to believe? Those who make a muse of ‘inspiration’  or the grafters who turn up at the writing desk, rain or shine, like bank clerks to their counters?

Last year when I began work on my novel I joined the write-whether-you-feel-inspired-or-not school of thought, believing that if I waited for inspiration each day, I may never write at all. At least if I ‘showed up’ and didn’t like what I wrote, I could cut it later.

Sometimes ideas need to be caught before they fly off again, as Elizabeth Gilbert describes in this wonderful part of her TED talk: here (Thanks Mari for the reminder).

‘Showing up’ is the commitment necessary to make inspiration real. Without the grounding nature of routine, ideas, in my experience, stay floating, like untethered balloons. Last year, working on my novel occasionally felt dull or really difficult, sometimes both (!) but as long as I still cared enough about my initial idea, it fueled what I wrote each day.

I still subscribe to this routine although – I imagine, like anyone who makes things –   I can only ‘show up’ if I already have an idea, not a plan of the minutiae of everyday writing but a bigger concept which carries the work through. (Short of a big idea, I’ll do something else for a while.)  For when inspiration arrives, it becomes like a flock of birds moving in formation. The job, then, is to get that divine pattern down on paper, typing daily until it’s done (‘show up, show up!’)

Ideas are writing’s ink, its flow, the breath which supports movement. If there is ink in the well, the pen will find a way to keep on writing.

What part do ideas and ‘showing up’ play in your creative life? Please feel free to comment below…

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I will write about this one day

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‘Beginnings are difficult,’ I remember some years ago a friend from Bavaria trying to cheer me up. I was battling at the start of a secondary school teaching post. It did get better, mainly because I learnt to don invisible armour each morning along with my sword of triple-strength coffee and shield of practiced one-liners.

Beginnings are difficult but so are endings. I just finished reading the wonderful Me before You by Jo Jo Moyes and was dawdling so long on the final pages that my kindle almost switched itself off.

I’m reaching the end of editing my first novel. The final process has felt like fashioning a table from wood, carving each detail, then flinging it via mortar to the stars. The publishing world can be brutal. Agents take on few authors each year. Many publishers won’t accept manuscripts without an agent involved. ‘Have you thought of self-publishing?’ a writer-relative asked me recently. We exchanged a series of emails confirming that I will probably persist with the traditional route.

After the first three chapters have been sent, they say that waiting can be the trickiest part. ‘Start working on something else!’ chorus the writer blogs.

Elizabeth Gilbert in her book, Big Magic describes how she thinks up new stories. Her view is that ideas are floating about looking for someone to grab them and commit them to language. I’m not sure I would give them this level of agency but her attitude to making novels is life-affirming and contagious.

And if an idea doesn’t come soon? There is always the writer Clive James’ approach (again from Gilbert’s book, abridged):

Following a commercial failure in the West End…

James’ young daughters[ …]asked him if he would please do something to make their shabby old secondhand bicycles look nicer[…], he hauled himself up off the couch and took on the project….The girls grew impatient for him to finish but James found that he could not stop painting stars [on the bikes]. It was incredibly satisfying work. When at last he was done, his daughters pedaled off on their magical new bikes, thrilled with the effect…The next day, his daughters brought home another little girl from the neighbourhood, who asked if Mr James might please paint stars on her bicycle…as he did so, something was coming back to life. Clive James at last had this thought, I will write about this one day. And in that moment he was free, failure had departed, the creator had returned.

I love Elizabeth Gilbert’s assertion that in doing something else we are freeing up the channels of creativity because the pressure is off. ‘Einstein called this tactic “combinatory play” – the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another.’ Beginnings are still difficult, but somehow less so when starting out is couched as play.

Is creativity its own reward? What is your experience of writing/making art/music and posting it off for publication? I’d love to hear from you below...

If you enjoyed this post feel free to get in touch via Twitter here , and you can follow this blog by going here and clicking on ‘Follow Muscat Tales.’