‘Take your broken heart…’ What happens when tears fuel art

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The most common question people ask when I tell them I’m writing a book is:

‘What’s it about?’

So I say:

A journalist goes to Madrid and discovers that the death of a celebrity is not what it seems.

‘But what’s it really about?’ The bookish or the curious inquire.

Trying to describe a deeper ‘Story’ is much harder. Like hinting at the essence of a song.

‘It’s a Mystery. With some thriller turns.’ doesn’t really do it, for a novel’s ‘big idea’ is something like its soul. Hard to put into words.

Last week a relative asked me the same question. I managed, in the end, to share the idea.

‘My book, I hope, will be about mourning.’

Dear reader, before you close this page, run out the room or start yawning, there will -fear not – be a plot.

But what I had in mind, beneath the action, is this:

It’s about what happens when we don’t grieve our losses – not just of loved ones – but the smaller deaths of everyday: disappointments, old resentments, pains, misunderstandings. How something softens when we allow ourselves to cry, the walls inside come down. And generation by generation there may be no progress until we fully mourn the difficulties of our own – and collective – past. 

Sadness is not fashionable. Public crying in Western culture is still taboo. Last year I spent some time in the UK and I remember speaking on the phone while sitting in a cafe, with tears streaming down my face. My sadness was soundless but the couple on the sofa in front of me stood up like they’d sat on a scorpion. They balanced their newspapers and their lattes, awkwardness seeping from their brows, and legged it.

The idea of facing and feeling sorrow can frighten folk, but I like to think of our histories – however wonderful or painful (often both)- as a hidden alchemy.

Much of the time it stays buried, beneath our habits and opinions. It lodges with the child we left behind. But when acknowledged and used right, it can change lives. The Midas touch of tears has the power to transform past pain into the greatest art on earth.

During his long and creative life, the German composer JS Bach suffered loss on almost a permanent basis. Both parents died when he was young, then an older brother. And in 1721, his other brother, the one who had brought him up, fell ill and passed away.

His beloved wife Maria followed, leaving him with many young children.

What did Bach do?

He wrote the Goldberg variations. A language through which he felt and shared life’s joy and pain. A vehicle for his grief.

The novels of Thomas Hardy are not for the fainthearted but read his poetry and you’ll meet a different man. In his ‘Poems 1912-13’ on the death of his wife Emma Gifford, it’s Hardy’s tears which touch the reader.

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me

Saying that now you are not as you were

When you had changed from the one who was all to me,

But as at first when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then… From The Voice, by Thomas Hardy, December 1912

Grief has many guises. It is said that the Prophet of Islam would often walk with his face moist, that he cried easily. Babies and children don’t need to be told to let it out when they feel pain.

But what about men and women? I wonder what would happen if crying became not only socially acceptable but encouraged. After all, laughing is, so why not its watery cousin? How cleansed we might feel from our collective past. How avoidable the repetitions, addictions, tyrannies borne of buried grief.

Trapped unconscious energy makes us bend into weird shapes which aren’t who we are at all. In the world it burns bridges, fuels wars, builds walls so wide we cannot see each other anymore. We cannot see ourselves.

When traumatised holocaust survivors formed the state of Israel, successive governments unconsciously began the re-enactment  of a torture that they, or their parents had endured in 1930/40s Europe. The persecution of their fellow land-dwellers continues to this day because the personal work of the traumatised, the act of mourning has not properly taken place.

At the recent golden globes, Meryl Streep spoke about the tragedy for the Arts in the United States that is the new president. But fully mourning such ill-fortune could transform it to something else. It was her friend, Carrie Fisher who said :

‘Take your broken heart, turn it into art,’

Art could mean anything here: work, energy, scientific endeavour but it’s the process between the broken heart and its product that matters. It’s the very act of crying that opens the floodgates to renewal. The river which may take us – and those with us – to a very different place.

 

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How are you nurturing your creative mind?

chedi-table

Some months ago, after the holiday of Eid, my brother-in-law went away on a trip and my mother-in-law (who shares the building with him) stayed home. Omani culture likes to swathe ageing parents with visits and chat, and so my husband and I moved into her house for two nights.

I awoke on the first day feeling like it was a holiday. Sunlight poured through an unfamiliar curtain. The smells of morning were fresh paint, cleaning products, Eid desserts on a trolley.

A break from life’s routines.

People talk and write of ‘beginner’s mind,’. Something like this it felt. As though I had stepped out of habit and into a fresh reality to learn.

I don’t know what happens to brain cells when they are shown new places but it can feel, I think, like the opening of a parachute. The plodding walk of everyday takes flight, as though the mind has had to lift to learn what’s new and taken the whole self with it.

Beginner’s mind can be a tool for imagination.  Free from memory, there is the chance to test ideas, break rules, find untapped resource. So I have been asking myself how it might be used in the service of creativity:

  • go for a walk most days . But a walk with beginner’s mind awakened, as the M&S advert goes, is not just any walk. It’s headed somewhere new. With music, without sound, listening to the birds, taking a path up and off the normal track. Trying new things so the body and brain might enter a free space, to flick the switch which says experiment.
  • Travel can have the same effect. Finding new cafes, shops, spaces, meeting new people can also do the trick. Shaking the brain cells out of their collective habits. Sometimes really focusing on another person’s way of seeing the world can cultivate beginner’s mind for me. It too is a brand new place.
  • ‘Habit is the great deadener’ said Samuel Beckett. Certain routines are unavoidable, but I have found removing the ones which clutter the mind can create freedom. Habits which are relatively easy to quit and whose pay off I have found to be big in terms of mental space: Mindless phone/Twitter/Facebook scrolling, googling too much, saying Yes to things I don’t want to do. All of these can clog creative energy.
  • Taking photos brings in the here and now. A camera (or phone camera) can be a physical reminder to be present, to notice.
  • Trying new recipes has been for me one of the simplest ways to access beginner’s mind. The faith required to follow new instructions (or invent one’s own) can create tangible – often edible – results (!) and it’s a great break from writing.

We had barely driven for twenty minutes, stayed away 48 hours when I left my mother-in-law’s house with renewed purpose. Beginner’s mind is powerful, so open that ideas can’t help but wander in.

How do you nurture your mind to stay creative?

Sky high in Dubai: reflections on a Marmite town

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I never thought I’d love Dubai. But the first time I went I was curious. Years ago I had been staying close by but never made it. And now, living in Muscat, Dubai is our London. It sings a show tune across the mountains. How could we resist?

We reached the city late. Sand ghosts crossed the motorways, a reminder of what lay beneath. Towers lumbered, concrete dinosaurs. We saw swimming pools balanced on rooftops. The breeze blew our gaze across the most competitive skyline in the world. Tallest, Highest, One of a kind. A ski slope in the desert.

Dubai is the Middle East’s Marmite; visitors like and loathe in equal measure.

The city is a mimic. Big Ben’s replica stands like a gift from a cracker. New York’s Chrysler juts to the sky nearby. A post-modernist mickey take?  Or maybe all these buildings are just a loving tribute to the old metropolises of the world.

A giant Duty Free curated to entice. Dubai. Where they opened up the box of What Was Possible, used cash, brains, shiny western toys…I wonder, if like a cat, the city herself is secretly laughing into her whiskers.

What would Sheikh Zayed make of it? He who put the first stones in the sand, as progress spoke to him in easy signs. Did he, could he, guess at what would come?

A single road he built, across the swathes of desert dust. Need, no more to swat away the flies, the sand became not home but holiday. While Europeans wore flares and Beatlemania was almost passé, a desert rose was rising from the dunes, nurtured by  the leader, Zayed’s hand.

The city’s soundtrack is technology’s hum. Its people, visual chess pieces robed in black or white: uncommon doves, giant eyelashes fluttering like jazz hands.

We dine at the top of the tallest tower. The elevator rocks as the floors reach into the 100s. The staff guide us around a building shaped like a needle.  There is no pat down here, no airport style security.  I try to ban the zeitgeist from my mind.

The world has changed since Zayed built the UAE. I want to ask him what he thinks. Say that wars are fought on ground no more, but ideologically, illogically by computer grid, rocket, splinter group, so many hidden interests, when most are pleased with peace.

zayed

The building sways a touch. We focus on the menu. I shake a little like the tower, see swathes of lights across a sea of navy blue. Planes pass the building at our level. Horrified. Exhilarated. What were they thinking these architects?

Before leaving the city I hope to buy a lipstick.  Three people rush to help before I’ve even reached the counter. By the rack of plums and pinks I’m offered water, juice, ‘Shall I take your bags?’ Led to the counter as though I’m the only customer in the shop.  ‘This one looks nice,’ she holds out a brownish nude. I agree, head for the tills, ‘Special price, today,’ she smiles for commerce here is art.

Zayed was a reformer, a visionary who advocated dialogue above arms. In the second half of the twentieth century he brought schools, hospitals, basic infrastructure to a diseased people and harsh climate.

What would he say to Dubai’s commercialism, her bare faced architectural cheek? My guess is that were Zayed here today, he’d see the city’s skyline and he’d smile. Dubai innovates with flair, a whim in a world too filled with frowns. A city state of swaggering imitation, while at the same time, tongue-in-cheek unique.

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Have you been to Dubai? What’s your ‘Marmite’ take on it?

Story-writing, science and the grace of flight

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I started writing poems when I was twelve. Messages to myself, which aided, in the end, with adolescence. I would never, I vowed, show a soul and no one asked about them because nobody knew.

At university I saw the scribbled comments of a teacher on a set of poems and felt a rush of hope. He didn’t understand what I wanted to say, he wrote, but they seemed to be ‘about something’.

I didn’t know, then, that the reader sits strapped in and the ‘something you want to say’ is their experience. That writers open up doors inside so the reader may step in and find themselves there too.

I didn’t get this until I met the novelist, Jennifer Clement in Mexico who wrote stories like paintings. Every scene was a frame of colour, of life and I wanted to move inside her book, to live there indefinitely.

I thought it was art. All of it. I thought it spilled out like blood from a wound, that a writer was opening up their soul and that the gold of their literature came directly from the fabric of their cells.

A decade later I don’t think it works like this. I found this out when I started writing a book of my own and saw the blood spilling, canvass spoiled. For writing is a construction, closer to science or engineering than a kind of formless art.

It has, I think, as much in common with flight as artistic expression.

An aircraft is built to do a job, just as the plot of a novel is (usually) planned to allow a story to be told. The runway allows the machine to gain momentum, like plot points propelling a story forward.

When the airplane reaches cruising height, the story has taken flight and the readers or passengers are there for the long haul. If the thing has been built right it will keep itself propelled until the end. The landing is of course, the ending and readers, like passengers want a good one.

There are functional, physical facts which keep a plane flying. After coming to a standstill with my own novel and reading a lot of writing guides, I discovered that there is a system too in the building of a novel. Points in the plot when certain things should happen, like the flaps of an airplane moving to allow or suppress lift.

The parts a novel needs to fly can be numbered and maintained, that following these rules doesn’t guarantee a brilliant piece of work, just as keeping a plane in good condition will not make for a perfect flight, but it helps get it off the ground.

And in the end, beyond the engineering, a great novel has the elegance of flight, that grace which makes the reader wonder: How did that just happen? Part science part serendipity, something has taken place, something has moved.

What do you think makes a great novel? Writers, what helps you structure? Please feel free to comment below.

Let me count the ways: Five fabulous blogs of 2016

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With 2016 drawing to a close, I’d like to share 5 blogs which I’ve loved this year. Though their subject matter is varied, they are connected by high quality content and originality.

If you’re interested in any of these you might like to check them out. Please note I have not been paid (or asked!) to endorse these sites, they’re just some my personal faves. Enjoy!

1.Nail your Novel
nynmasthead                                                                             

How Do I love thee?

Roz Morris was interviewed by another indie writer, Joanna Penn, on Youtube, some time ago and it was from there that I discovered her blog.  Roz blogs about novel-writing. How to start, finish, plan, plot. A ghost-writer and indie novelist, she knows the troubles which assail writers and finds workable ways around the angst. Reading one of her how-to books got me out of my Draft one to Draft two swamp. Her blog is highly accessible and the comments section active and supportive.

Who might like this?                                                                                                                  

Writers

2. The Uphill

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How Do I love thee?

British Model and Youtuber Ruth Crilly writes with realism and comedy about lifestyle products, birth choices, motherhood and cosmetics. Time and again I’ve found her reviews of beauty/lifestyle items accurate and useful. One of my favourites of Ruth’s recommendations is this sumptuous bath oil which took me through last winter and made the house smell like a spa. Not cheap but oh so luxurious, and it lasts.

Who might like this?

New parents, beauty mavens, people amused by British humour

3. Mamanushka

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How Do I love thee?

This one’s a bit sneaky as two people – Sumaya and Aiysha – in fact write this blog so maybe I should have included it twice! Whatever the case it’s worth a look. Mamanushka is all about conscious, confident citizenship in a multi-faceted world. Child-rearing, learning through lifestyle, play, art, food and faith, all framed by eye-catching illustrated graphics.

Who might like this?

People engaged with any of the above. Lovers of beautifully curated content.

4. Healing Histamine

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How Do I love thee?

I first came across this blog while searching for nutritional advice and finding only elimination diets. Yasmina Ykelenstam a former journalist with CNN and the BBC tells an astonishing story about her health and how she reclaimed it.  Her philosophy of including wide and nutritious food groups, of listening to the body, of using her own skills of research and implementation is inspiring and profound.

Who might like this?

Foodies, healthies, people with food intolerances,

5. Conscious Transitions

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How Do I love thee?

I came across this blog in 2014 having closed my business, left a home in the UK, got married and emigrated to Muscat, all in the course of a month! U.S psychotherapist Sheryl Paul writes (outstandingly) about life’s transitions and challenges with sensitivity and expert knowledge. Every blogpost is a journey of transformation.

Who might like this?

Anyone interested in navigating change, personal growth, relationships, overcoming anxiety, healing.

I wish you a beautiful festive season bloggers, readers, all.

Which blogs have you enjoyed in 2016? 

The kindness of strangers

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In the first draft of the novel I’m writing, one of the main characters is a therapist called Lucie.  Trying to create this character, I was stuck. I live in Oman, interviewing UK therapists was not an option. I wanted Lucie to seem real. I wanted to know how a therapist would think.

I finally came across a  website called ‘What a Shrink Thinks’. A blog where a therapist in America shares her daily work:

 ‘I’d leave therapy drenched in sweat. As if I’d fought a dragon barehanded. Or wrestled with an angel all night long. I never understood why I’d leave so damp from exertion  until I sat in the therapists chair and watched my clients, one after another, search for their sticking place and screw their courage there committing staggering acts of bravery. Of will, of strength.

From ‘The Sticking Place’: https://whatashrinkthinks.com/page/3/

Spurred on by therapist-blogger Martha Crawford’s vision, I had something to shape into a character. So humane was her writing, that reading it was therapeutic in itself. I had, thanks to a complete stranger, found the holy grail of my research.

One afternoon last week I was driving to the bank in Muscat. The city consists of freeways which join communities, a bit like LA but the speed limit over here is a fantastical myth. The distances feel so vast that sometimes I  wonder if I’ve actually covered London-Aberdeen to pick up the dry cleaning. Roadworks are frequent so that occasionally the painted arrows on a re-directed motorway are still pointing back at you. It’s unnerving. A little thrilling.

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I had settled into a program on World Service Radio.

A man called Burhan Sönmez was talking about his time, decades ago, in a Turkish prison. Enclosed in a dungeon-like cell the size of a Persian rug, he shared the space with a number of other people. Routinely removed from their jail and tortured in terrifying ways, Sönmez was describing how he and his companions endured the situation.

It turns out they went for walks.

In a cramped prison?

What they would do is line up around the perimeter of the space, and they would start by arguing.

‘I want to go to the Bosphorus,’

‘But what about the park?’

‘We went there last time,’

After a while they would decide on their route and as they walked along each wall, they would comment on what they saw.

‘The sky is so blue today,’

‘It’s true. Do you know what kind of bird that was?’

‘Which one?’

‘The one that flew right past your nose,’

For a certain time each day the prisoners’ imaginations outstripped the ink of here and now; their hourly hell became a paradise of Turkish countryside. They had turned the lead of hardship into gold, just by walking, talking, telling tales .

I entered the bank with tears streaming down my face and later tweeted the man, who is now an author, to tell him how deeply his story had touched my heart. He ‘liked’ my comment’ and ‘followed’ me back and I couldn’t help but think of Tennessee Williams’ line about the ‘kindness of strangers’.

Our tools today connect us to distant corners of the globe. At the click of a mouse another different life can fill the frame. Despite the tide of hate on media, news and print, our ocean of humanity still makes its presence known.  The Turkish author, the therapist-scribe, our world so filled with human care if only we would let the light fall there.

 

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.’  

 

Speaking in bombs: Book Review – Song of Gulzarina by Tariq Mehmood

manc

After three years of studying (yeah right) at Manchester Uni I decided to stay on another year. I couldn’t get enough of the Northern drizzle: gobs of fumey water threatening to turn everything grey. Sometimes the sun would appear and a bright blue would cover the city, lighting up the red brick of the warehouses.

I arrived in 1996 when a bomb planted by the IRA had gutted the central Arndale Centre. Terrorism in England in the twentieth century was all about bins in railway stations, bombs in Wimpy Bars, the targeting of political buildings. Scary yes but somehow in parallel with normal life. Not at its centre.

Manchester is the setting of Tariq Mehmood’s recently published novel, Song Of Gulzarina, an absorbing read which travels between the North west of England and Pakistan along with the main character, Saleem Khan.

The story picks up pace at a mill, in an incident involving unsuitable toilets at Saleem Khan’s workplace. The Pakistani workers request sanitary facilities. The white British manager, Mr Andersen abuses the men:

‘You filthy Paki bastards always sticking together.’ Mr Anderson picked up another pipe and hit Salamat Ali Teka across the face.

This racist violence paves the way for Saleem Khan’s journey through pain, into war, loss and eventual expatriation.

Love features too as Saleem falls for Carol Anderson, the daughter of his boss. One of the most enjoyable parts of this novel is the way the writer has his characters speak. As Carol and Saleem chat, she responds to Saleem by speaking to an invisible onlooker:

‘How did you find out?’

‘How did I find out, he says,’ she said leaning back into the setee.

Her turn of phrase is real and affecting betraying something deeper than its outward flippancy. In fact I was originally drawn to review this book after Tariq Mehmood’s humour showed up on a mutual facebook friend’s page. Mehmood has a gift for pithy – often witty – dialogue switching between registers with pitch perfect precision.

A few years ago I attended a workshop on writing dialogue at the Winchester Writers’ Festival. The take-away was that speech in literature is artificial but you have to make it sound plausible; each character should appear authentic and different (try it – it’s not an easy task!) Tariq Mehmood gives his characters language which is earthy, often coarse and angry and it makes his characters visceral, believable.

The sense of place in Song Of Gulzarina looms large. Not just in Manchester where:

The white pigeon with a black circle around its left eye is now perched on top of one of the toll gates, oblivious to the cold Mancunian wind.

but also in Pakistan where the depth and sensuality of the detail reminded me of Aravind Adiga’s descriptions of Bangalore in The White Tiger:

‘Other than the smoke from the exhaust of a rickshaw, nothing hit us.’

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——-SPOILER ALERT——-

The final section of the book – please look away if you don’t want a SPOILER – takes the character of Saleem Khan to a darker place.

If the book begins with racist humiliation, it ends in exile. The distancing of our hero from his own humanity, hell-bent on revenge, his heart closed and life little more than an alcoholic blur.

Ravaged by the losses of his wife, girlfriend, cousin, the disdain of his daughter, Khan’s heartbreak has turned its face upon the world. He plans to avenge his disillusionment on the British ex Prime Minister, Tony Blair who has come to Manchester to speak. Strapped to Khan’s body are enough explosives to take out far more than the former PM.

In this last section, the reader is kept on tenterhooks as Khan wanders around Longsight and Wilmslow Road in this state ready to activate the mobile phone at any moment.

That our protagonist chooses Tony Blair as his target is unsurprising. There is a terrible irony that much of the IRA terrorism mentioned above was curtailed by an agreement in 1998 of which Blair played a significant part. Five years later, the invasion of Iraq and all of its rhetoric served not only an illegal war but a media machine which placed people like Saleem Khan in a cold and terrifying place.

Cast out by a British government acting with unspeakable hypocrisy, it is easy to understand why Fight or Flight became, for some, a way of life.  Add in the United States response in Afghanistan to the 9/11 attacks, and terrorism becomes a very real language. ‘We are here,’ cry the suicide bombers. ‘You thought you could ignore us. But: ‘Look at me. I’m the captain now.’

That Khan’s decision to blow himself up is not associated with his religious beliefs but a quest for social justice is significant. In fact he declares himself an Atheist, his faith has long since died. “Never contend with a man who has nothing to lose.” wrote Baltasar Gracian in the 17th century. Saleem Khan’s self-rejection is so complete, hope so long-gone that he will go to any lengths. His radicalisation has come not from religious rhetoric but from the sense that he has nothing left so nothing will be lost when he kills and dies.

song-of-g

For this is a novel about alienation, about looking for home and finding only estrangement. From the woman who treats Khan at Manchester Royal Infirmary and comments with horror at the amount of hair on his body to his close white friend who runs away as they watch the events of 9/11 unfold on the telly, Saleem Khan is left without sanctuary.

Mehmood skilfully navigates the nuances of Islam in the West. When Khan’s daughter Aisha is aggressed by men in a passing car, the Muslim youths outside the mosque stand impassively. Khan chastises them:

‘How can you just carry on selling books?’ I ask the bearded youth, pointing a shaking finger. ‘You saw what they did to your sisters.’

The youth replies that all will be taken care of in the Hereafter – a view which ignores traditional Islamic belief (which highlights the importance of balancing both Earthly matters and a spiritual focus on the next life) – and instead of helping his Muslim sister, uses fundamentalist religious rhetoric to do nothing.

Towards the end of the book, Khan remembers seeing a snake as a child and playing with it until he was urgently warned to move away. As he walks, in the present tense, through Rusholme with explosives strapped to his chest, he recalls his mother telling him of how casually he toyed with the serpent. The adults were afraid of the creature because they had experience but the child was safe in his innocence. Nothing had caused him to prejudge it, to antagonise it and the snake did not attack.

Tariq Mehmood has written a powerful tale and his voice in the current political climate is important. Through a strong sense of the spoken word, an under-heard narrative gains momentum. This book is pure entertainment but it is also a cautionary tale. A question embedded in a Song. What happens when people are ignored and suppressed for too long? Where does that energy go? It is the reader’s gain that this particular writer has put his own spark into Song for Gulzarina.

For more information about the book click here

 

Header photograph from the book Manchester, England (by Dave Haslam), by Aidan O’Rourke (www.aidan.co.uk)