‘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 it’s 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?

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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?

The treat of a broadsheet: how I became a fan and forgot about fiction

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Oman has a vibe so chilled, I sometimes have to ask myself if I’m awake or asleep. It’s strange because the media portrays the Middle East as a war zone (and of course some parts of it are) but this place is about as warlike as a flotation tank.

Driving home from the gym, I yearn to take a photo. In the time between 5 and 6.30 the sky turns yellow, then a deep red. At the time of day they call, in Arabic, Maghrib, the air stills, a sense of expectation hovers and then, very quickly, the sun is gone.

This said, like for all foreigners in another land, certain parts of living here are hard to swallow. These complaints are usually swapped, like wrapped boiled sweets, with a friend who feels the same. We confine our grumbles to a car journey and then invariably perk up.

In Muscat, it is easier, for example, to buy frankincense than an envelope.  Trying to send something to England last week I had, in the end, to put the letter in a jiffy bag. It was that or hijack a Hallmark Valentine’s card for it’s scarlet covering.

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As for anything bookish or or paper-based, forget it. The malls here sell sugar and abayas and scent. Sometimes they set up book fairs for kids beneath the shopping centre escalators and I want to simultaneously cheer and cry. The reading revolution in Oman will happen, I reckon, through its children, but not while the stalls are still screaming 1970.

So it was with surprise one day that I found my favourite weekend newspaper tucked away in an ex-pat part of town. It was still crisp, a familiar peachy-colour. There were only two copies which somehow made the drive worthwhile. I looked one way then the other, and grabbed it fast before Muscat’s two other FT fans could elbow me aside. I could barely wait to get it home.

I had been reading the FT weekend since I moved to London in my twenties. A glamorous friend leafing through it at my kitchen table, said: ‘If you like good writing, this is the thing.’ 

A weekend treat and ritual it became. Whatever troubled my working week could always be overcome with an FT on the horizon. Following the thread of every editorial, I bored my friends and family with its merits.

One particular column had grabbed my eyes. The columnist, Susie Boyt took every day normality and imbued it with intricate meaning. She wrote of cakes and show tunes and disappointment. She described the space between the way we’d like to be and who we really are.

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She had once upon a time written a book about Judy Garland where she revealed her lifelong love of the former child star. I realised then that I had become the fan of a fan. Like being at the end of a conga or an endless hall of mirrors. To invest such joy in a person you’ve never met holds a certain kind of light. So easy to admire a stranger, we see the best bits, of them, of ourselves, the soaring of their art.

Yesterday I found a slice of the FT Weekend from 2011 stuck into a scrapbook. The column was called ‘In the mood for medicocrity’. Susie Boyt wrote:

‘In a crisis, the second-rate has a great deal going for it. You need porridge, light grey clothes, repeats of comedy shows where you can say the lines along with the characters. When Jane Austen and the first blossom seem almost more visceral than you can take, caution is everything. People you quite like are possibly more use than people you are crazy about. When you need catharsis, reread Herzog, listen to Bach; but when it’s distraction that you want, something lower middle-brow (the back of a Cheerios box, even), can be comforting in the extreme. Read it slowly, memorise it even, but do try not to think too much, or you’ll be sunk.’

‘In the mood for medicocrity’ Susie Boyt, Financial Times, April 2/3 2011

Like the very best in literature, her column opened doors to places I thought that only I had seen. Reading her words each week, it became okay to not always feel okay. Her self deprecating one-liners snuck up on you until you couldn’t help but smile.

But when I got my copy home last week, and opened the Life and Arts section, the room went dark. For inside it said that Susie Boyt was packing up her FT pen. No longer would she grace the salmon pages. I would have to make do with her colleagues. Sure I liked their work. Of course I did. It just, well it wasn’t the same.

Fanhood is a fabulous thing. Projection of the most flattering kind. It’s easy to read the work of a person you have never met and think that you are truly privy to their life.

The same is true of a country you’ve only been to on holiday. ‘Live with someone to know them,’ my grandmother used to say. Before I moved to Oman, I visited for a week. Saw sunsets, moon-like mountains. I bought frankincense and bottles of Oud. We visited a village with a waterfall where a tree-frog yelped like a dog.

I didn’t try to buy an envelope.

I didn’t know that there are campaigns to encourage Omani children to read for fun, as well as at school. That it may take decades but slowly, this country is returning to its bookish roots.

I thought imagination was so close to truth that it might just make a steady substitute. But there’s nothing like the dust of life . No replacement for the grit and grind of everyday, its comforting refrain.

And heroes are sometimes best left where you saw them last, swerving on the football field, pirouetting on a stage. Framed by a column that in six years of weekly delight may well have inspired you to start to write.

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Susie Boyt’s next novel: Love & Fame will come out in the autumn.

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, the 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. Revisiting her work two months ago brought me to my own recovery.

Who might like this?

Foodies, healthies, people with food intolerances, health googlers

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 overcrammed with human care if only we would let the light fall there.