Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Is Your Fiction Autobiographical?

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s article in the Guardian’s Review section (May 26th, 2012) has inspired me to explore what some of the ideas that he offered mean to me.
        The article is trying to answer the four most unpleasant questions (Franzen’s words) that novelists often get asked.  The first three questions and his answers to them you can read up yourself, I am concentrating on the fourth one:  Is your fiction autobiographical?
        When I was interviewed in Turkey for the launch of the translation of my first novel this was one of the most asked questions.  I meekly answered NO, before conceding, almost apologising, that the novel was emotionally autobiographical, and also was partly set in a city that I knew very well, Vienna, where I had studied.
        Franzen says that he experiences this question as the most hostile of questions.  I can sympathise.  Although I wouldn’t go as far as to call it hostile, it is a question that can’t be answered with a straightforward Yes or No.  It makes me nervous.  It feels invasive, as if people want to judge me according to the characters in my book.  Did you really do all that?  If you asked me which of the scenes in the novel had really happened in my life, I could point you to two or three.  However, if you asked me whether I experienced any of the emotional turmoils that my characters went through I would tell you that all my characters have benefited from my own life.
        If I agreed with Franzen’s statement that “the greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer’s work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the writer’s actual life” I can honestly claim that I am progressing steadily on the way to becoming the most autobiographical writer.  The novel I am working on at the moment is set in seventh century Arabia, and the characters’ exterior lives have nothing in common with my life whatsoever.  And yet, their inner world is the world of human beings; and by the time I will have finished writing the book I might well recognise and admit that it is my most autobiographical novel so far.
        Franzen wants the novelist to take risks when she writes, to take an adventure into the unknown, to solve a personal problem.  Coming from a spiritual tradition I would say that the writer has to find out something about herself while writing the novel, has to go through an inner transformation, move on a step on the way to self-unfoldment.  Let me quote Franzen,  ‘And if you do this, and you succeed in producing a reasonably good book, it means that next time you try to write a book, you’re going to have dig even deeper and reach even farther, or else, again, it won’t be worth writing.  And what this means, in practice, is that you have to become a different person to write the next book.  The person you already are wrote the best book you could.  There’s no way to move forward without changing yourself.  Without, in other words, working on the story of your own life.  Which is to say: your autobiography.’
        Franzen then goes on to tell us the story of The Corrections, and that the first thing he had to do, to free himself for writing it, was to get out of his marriage.  That may sound cruel and selfish, but when you read the article you will not judge him harshly.  It was the right thing to do for him.
        Yet most of us, or maybe I should speak for myself here, do not want major upheavals in our lives before embarking on the next novel.
        I am working on my fourth novel.  The first one was probably the one that resembled my actual life most, although when I started to write it, I was writing about a character over ten years younger than myself, a fictional version of a self that I had definitely outgrown by then.
        My second novel I wrote as part of my MA Writing course.  The story of its heroine was far removed from my own, until she ended up struggling with three young children in a foreign country, away from family and friends.  These were my struggles at the time, too, in a different context and with a different outcome.  Writing the novel helped me explore my own ambivalence about being a stay-at-home mother, and ultimately may have helped me to find out that this was what I genuinely wanted, rather than what had happened to me because I gave birth to three children in less than four years.
        The third novel focused on a middle-aged couple, whose only daughter had left for university.  My two daughters had left for university around the same time.  Although my son still lives at home, I missed my daughters when they moved out.  In the novel I followed the father’s and the daughter’s story.  The fictional daughter has nothing in common with my real-life daughters.  I think I used her to work out the relationship between parents and children in that time of semi-independence, when one minute they are adults, the next minute children in need of money and emotional support, and utterly oblivious to the needs of the parents.
        I am fascinated by these last two paragraphs.  I have never before looked at my novels in that light.  I certainly wasn’t aware when writing them what I was doing.  I think this is a good sign.  If you were aware at the writing stage it would be too easy, too dishonest.  Your conscious self probably would want to censor and manipulate events.  Even if my life depended on it, I couldn’t tell you what I am working through in my current novel.  It is a true journey of discovery, and I am confident that it will turn out that change has happened somewhere in my life.  A new chapter of my life must have started without me realising it.  This gives me great motivation.  For somebody who can’t produce a book every year, not even every two or three years, it is a great consolation to know that a book worth writing may have to wait until your autobiography has caught up with your writing, until there is something new that will be the starting point for your writing.
    I am aware of a paradox here.  On the one hand I believe that the author has no real power over the story of her life.  We may think that we are in charge of our lives but in truth nobody has ever chosen illness, grief, disappointment, failure in relationship or career.  We have some kind of freedom how we deal with what life throws at us, that’s all.  On the other hand I am asking the writer to work on the story of her life before writing her next novel.  It is as if I were asking for difficult times to come her way to enable the next book.  That sounds clearly too extreme for my taste.  I shall assume that it must be enough to have experienced an inner change, an emotional growth spurt, a change of how we look at the world, to justify the start of the next novel. 

Friday, 9 September 2011

Found in Translation

I have been trying to write this post for the last three weeks, ever since I came back from Istanbul where my novel “When the Mountains are scattered as Dust” was published by Kaknüs in Turkish as Hakikati Arayan Kadin. For some reason I struggle to express clearly what I feel about this unexpected recognition.

Let me start with the easy task of telling you how the publication came about. If you are a believer like me you will probably agree with me, after hearing the story, that God is the best of planners. I couldn’t possibly have orchestrated the whole affair. If you don’t believe in a Higher Power, then you will call me lucky. Here is what happened.

I have been working on a novel set in 7th century Saudi Arabia for over a year. This was the time when the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, emerged with his divine message amongst his people. I have been desperately searching to find literature in English or German that gives me details of daily life during that time, be it amongst the desert Bedouin tribes or the city dwellers of Mecca and Medina. While trying to find material online I came across an English website dedicated to the life story of the prophet Muhammad. I e-mailed them and asked for help. I got a reply from a woman, telling me that she knew of no English resources available, but that she had had a look at my blog. She was interested in reviewing my book. Could I send her a copy? I did. Only then did I find out that the editor of the website was based in Istanbul. In the end she didn’t think the novel suitable for a review on their website but she liked it so much that she passed it on to publisher friends of hers who eventually decided to publish it in Turkish.
All the negotiations were done by e-mail, the contract posted by snail mail. I didn’t actually meet the publishers, or the translator and editor, until the book was launched during Ramadan, three weeks ago.

This is the story on the outside. Very straight forward, no headaches whatsoever. Just before leaving for Istanbul I started to watch myself closely, taking note that I was getting excited about the prospect of spending a week in Istanbul, especially during the month of Ramadan. This is a holy month for Muslims that we spend fasting during the daylight hours. Fasting in this context means no food or drink is allowed to pass your lips. I did not mind getting excited about spending part of Ramadan in a Muslim country, what I got worried about was whether I was getting excited about the publication, about the attention I would get as an author. I judged myself as level-headed and neutral. In fact I had to force myself to tell people why I was leaving for Istanbul so suddenly. The publishers had not given me much notice. I think the real reason I was not letting myself get excited about the publication was the fact that I had been told that I would have to give interviews. Rather than worry about interviews I pushed the whole affair to the back of my mind. I can honestly say that I did not think about the issue until I sat opposite the first journalist who wanted to hear my story. Only when I was told how many interviews I had to give over the next three days, and that they were with national daily papers and weekly/fortnightly magazines, did I acknowledge the tremendous effort that my publisher had made to draw attention to my book. I was amazed by what they had achieved. I was, after all, an unknown first-time author.

They were a husband-and- wife team who were not only excellent in their field of work but also kind human beings who made sure that I was at ease, who welcomed my husband and daughter as much as they welcomed me.

To my surprise I enjoyed talking to the journalists. Most of them did not speak English and we depended on a translator for communication. The only downside was that I had to repeat my personal story, how I became a Muslim, over and over again. I found this very tiring and sometimes I let the translator tell the story. I joked that she will soon know my life story better than I do.

What worried me a little was how many people thought that the novel was my autobiography. It was my first novel, and yes, the emotional journey of one of the main characters was similar to my own, yet the story line was fiction and all the characters were fictional. Some people reacted with disappointment when they found out that none of the Turkish characters were “real”. ‘Not even the shaykh?’ they asked. ‘No,’ I had to say, ‘I have never met a Turkish Sufi shaykh in my life. I have never visited a tekke in Istanbul.’

All through the days of the interviews I was fasting. I think this fact, and the fact that my husband and daughter were around, helped me enormously not to get too excited and too joyful. This felt really important to me. If I failed this test, to stay level-headed when success came my way, I could no longer claim that writing was my prayer, that I was writing because I had to, because it was what I did well, what came from a deep place within me. The student on the spiritual path aims for serenity, for a way of coping with the frequent ups and downs of life. Her ultimate goal is not to be violently tossed about by the storm of life, but quietly sitting in its eye, surrendered to what it brings.

I am back home now, and I am pleased to report that my life has not changed. I am still paralysed as far as the novel I am working on is concerned. Maybe my next blog will deal with writer’s block. My home is still a mess more than three months after a fire (don’t ask, this is another story where sitting in the eye of the storm is demanded of me), yet despite everything I feel nothing but gratitude for what is, and a gentle curiosity about what God is unfolding for me from one moment to the next.

PS: I promised my publishers to put up the links to the Turkish media coverage of the book. If you speak Turkish, have a look. My Turkish is non-existent, but I hope that the articles are honest summaries of the conversations I had with the journalists.

Fatima Martin in Turkey
Links of Coverage of Hakikati Arayan Kadin in Turkish Media:
Interview on Kitap Cafe

Monday, 28 February 2011

The 5 Languages of Love

I started reading The 5 Languages of Love by Gary Chapman for personal reasons. I wanted to understand my husband better. We have been married for twenty-five years but every so often the same issues of disagreement and resentment flare up, leading to exhausting and fruitless discussions. My husband and I are committed to our marriage, so usually call a ceasefire immediately after a battle. Recently we both agreed that it was time to broker a proper peace deal. What took us so long? Mainly the fact that our battles were too infrequent to seriously disturb family harmony, and to a lesser degree that we are in a phase of our lives where the children have grown up and there is more time and energy available to focus on our relationship. Anyway, when we were looking for help in achieving a peace deal the above mentioned book was suggested. I read it almost in one sitting.

Chapman’s theory is that every one of us knows all the five love languages vaguely but most of us are only fluent in one or two of them. However, if you want to convey love and affection to your spouse, or children, or in truth to anybody you have to deal with on a regular basis and you care about, you better learn to speak their language. Chapman promises that learning it and choosing to speak it will transform your relationships, and will also make you feel truly loved.

So what are the five languages of love? Before I start describing them I want to mention here that the author believes that when you fall in love you instinctively speak the other’s love language, because you are completely focussed on the other; everything is exciting and it is easy to give of yourself in every way. Yet this blessed state doesn’t last forever. Studies have shown that two years down the road both partners will have returned to their monolingual state. To have a successful long-term relationship will involve actively choosing to speak more than one language. The languages are mentioned in no particular order, they are all equal as such, but the individual will have a primary love language. If not spoken to in that language she will feel rejected and unloved.

Language No 1: Words of Affirmation
These are words of praise, compliments, pointing out the good in the other, thanking her for support and help. A dialect of this language (yes, the love languages have lots of different dialects) is encouraging words. It is saying, ‘You will play that piece perfectly one day, have you forgotten that you couldn’t play a single tune two years ago?’ to the child who is jumping up from the piano stool declaring ‘I am rubbish at the piano’.
Another dialect is kind words. It reminds me of the advice the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, gave his companions,
‘If a person loves his brother, he should tell him so.’
As somebody who has yet to learn to speak that language fluently, who finds it easier to point out flaws than give out praise, I have chosen as my first challenge to refrain from criticism, hoping that at one point the ensuing silences will fill up with words of affirmation.

Language No 2: Quality time
The most difficult aspect to take on board about this language is that talking to somebody and focusing your attention on her does not necessarily mean quality time. Yes, it is a prerequisite to focus. You are not spending quality time with your children when you sit beside them while they watch a cartoon and you text your brother. Quality time is talking to them, or playing with them, and not doing anything else. But sometimes talking is already too much. Listening to your partner/child could be the real quality time. Most people, when they tell you about a bad day at work or school, don’t want to hear advice, don’t need the problem solved, all they want is to let go of it, to find their own solutions. You can help by watching their body language and say things like, ‘That must have made you feel angry,’ giving the other person a chance to explore her feelings. But don’t say that you wouldn't have put up with that situation; you would have told your boss immediately about that inappropriate remark of your colleague.
A dialect of quality time is quality activity. Sometimes people enjoy the same activity. In this case it is easy to spend quality time together, like walking or cycling. But what if only one of you enjoys visiting galleries? Well, you can choose to visit a gallery once a month with your spouse, in return for him browsing in the second hand bookshop with you for an hour or two. Again, it is the active choice to speak in your partner’s language that is the crucial point here.

Language No 3: Receiving gifts
I am always amazed when my Palestinian friend stays with me in the UK, and I watch her shopping frantically before her departure.
‘Who are you buying all these presents for?’ I ask her.
‘For everyone,’ she says, ‘my brothers, my auntie, my children, my brothers’ children…’ Her list is endless. Giving gifts seems to be one of the culturally imposed love languages in Arab culture.
Personally I hardly speak that language. I was grateful when my children were old enough to buy their own birthday presents. All I had to do was transfer the money. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t giving anything to them. I gave in a different way, as the next language will show you.
According to Chapman, if your partner’s or child’s love language is receiving gifts it is important that you give, no matter how tight finances are. The monetary value of the gift is irrelevant. They want a visible token of your love, maybe it’s a card you made, or a flower you dried for them. Chapman thinks that it is one of the easiest love languages to learn.
I made all my children do the test on Chapman’s website to find out what their primary love language was. It is perhaps not surprising that they speak only the languages fluently that their mother and father speak, and receiving gifts isn’t one of them.
However, I am quite fluent in one of the dialects of this language, what Chapman calls the gift of self or the gift of presence. It means going to the funeral of your friend’s father, it means picking up your sister from hospital after her operation and making sure that she is all right, and it is very close to

Language No 4: Acts of Service
This is the second of the two languages that I am fluent in, a very close second to my primary love language of quality time. It comes naturally to me to cook for my family, to keep the house clean, to sort out everybody’s problems. Most wives and mothers have to learn that language to a certain degree, yet it is not necessarily their language of love. If it isn’t you’ll do the things that are necessary. You’ll feed the children and not worry that it’s take-away pizza or ready-made chicken nuggets for tea. If acts of service is your love language, however, you will cook fresh meals; you’ll want the children to have a taste of you rather than Pizza Hut. It also means that you want to be shown love in that way. My husband, who doesn’t speak this language well, still can’t understand, after all these years of being married to me, why I insist every day that he makes me an espresso after supper; on the weekend I will even ask for more than one a day. It makes me feel loved, I recently told him, after he asked me yet again why he had to make it for me.
Beware though that this language has dialects too, depending on the importance of the act of service. Many husbands think that the fact that they work and spend their money on the family counts as an act of service. Not for most wives. It is not something that you do solely to show your love to your wife, unless before marriage you were an idealistic and broke artist, who finally took on a boring job for the sake of the family. For most wives it’s that cup of tea brought in the morning, the nappy changed, the dishwasher emptied, the washing hung up that counts. For most men whose primary love language is act of service it’s the clean house, the meal cooked that makes them feel loved.
Speakers of that language have to watch out not to make themselves into a doormat. The doormat no longer gives out of love; she will sooner or later resent her giving.

Language No 5: Physical Touch
No, we are not talking sex here. Touch is the most basic sense, the one sense that all of us are able to use, as far as I am aware. People may be blind, deaf, and not able to smell or taste anything, but no matter what, you will have skin that can be touched. Studies have shown that babies who are neglected, who are not touched and hugged and kissed enough, develop emotional problems later on in life.
In times of crises a hug is an instinctive gesture and communicates that we love that person.
Most men will say that their love language is touch because they connect it with sex. You have to ask them the question, ‘If you can have regular sex, whenever you want, how important is it for you to be given a hug, to hold the hand of your spouse, to say good-bye with a kiss?’ If the answer is, ‘not very’, your primary love language is not touch.
My primary love language is not touch but I learned to speak it when I became a mother. It seemed the most instinctive and natural way to express my love for my children when they were babies. I am glad I learned it, because it is my husband’s primary love language. He is not very happy when I travel without him. As a married man with grown-up children he relies on me to speak to him in this language. He will agree to two weeks without me; any more than that and he starts to feel unloved and lonely.
I volunteer for Age Concern and one of the most common laments we hear from our elderly clients is that they are never receiving touch in a loving way. Yes, the staff in the home wash them and dress them, but it is not the same as being touched for affection, out of love.
By now you may either be bored to death or at least asking yourself, ‘What has all this got to do with writing?’ The reason I thought of it as important for the fiction writer is the fact that knowing about these languages we can make our characters different in quite subtle and consistent ways. We can create a scene and ask ourselves, ‘How would somebody, whose primary love language is touch, react to that?’ For example being groped or slapped will feel much more hurtful to her than to somebody who doesn’t relate touch and love quite in the same way. It is another tool to help us portray the world of our characters in a rounded way, not only through their thoughts or senses but the way they express love.
As I am still working on recognising the primary love languages of people and haven’t actually started using the knowledge in my writing I cannot say much more about it. I am, however, excited about giving every character of my novel in progress a primary love language.
Maybe the most fascinating aspect of the idea of love languages is the fact that we can actively learn a language that doesn’t come naturally to us, that we can actively make a decision to do something out of love. It gives the human being a tool to own their love, to make it an active choice based on commitment and loyalty. For me love as this magical force coming over you, falling in love and falling out of it, making the human being a victim of forces outside her control, has always sounded fake, an excuse to act selfishly and ruin the lives of other people in the name of love. Love is giving of yourself, with no expectations of anything in return, not only when it is easy but when you would rather withdraw or walk away.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Is there a Medicine for Doubt?

It is always a difficult time for me when I am starting a new novel. Although the one I have just started to work on is my fourth, the truth is that only two of the three I have written so far have been polished to the best of my ability, and none of them have yet been published with a mainstream publisher. In fact, I am still looking for an agent. Although both manuscripts are with an agent at the moment, for consideration, a sense of doom has entered my heart. I am trying to figure out what it means and why it should feel so much heavier than all the times before when I have been in the same situation.

I think it was triggered by something I read. Every so often I convince myself that I am not doing enough to find an agent/publisher and go off to the library to read yet another book about how to get published. This time it was Harry Bingham’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook Guide to Getting Published.
I shall quote his damming verdict ad verbatim.

‘You should aim to come up with a list of ten to twelve names, and send your work to them. Some of those people will reject your manuscript for essentially random reasons: the book you’ve written just doesn’t happen to be their sort of thing. But not all dozen. If you send your work to ten to twelve agents and they all reject it, then your work isn’t good enough. It’s that simple. (Or almost – we’ll talk about some complications in a moment.)’

You probably guessed that I have had rejections from at least double the number of agents mentioned above, and of course I haven’t read on to see whether Harry Bingham covers my case when talking about the complications.

At the moment I am in the research phase for a historical novel, a first for me, set in seventh- century Saudi Arabia. I am desperately trying to find out details about daily life of that period, to give a sense of place and time. What did they eat? What did they wear? How did they build houses, cook, sew? I seem unable to find any literature about it in languages that I speak. I know about the social system of the seventh- century Arabs, about their religious beliefs, their battles, their economic situation, but nowhere can I find out how the women baked bread or what dyes they used to colour the wool.

Of course this creates doubt by itself. Maybe this novel is not meant to be written. With my last novel I had a similar problem. The main character insisted that he was from Iran, a country I had never been to. After reading too many books on Iran and still lacking the confidence to start writing I tricked myself into action. I promised myself to visit Iran after finishing the novel, and I did. I didn’t have to rewrite the novel on my return but I remember rewriting a few scenes that I thought I had got wrong.

I have been to Saudi Arabia for Umra, the minor pilgrimage, and I know that nothing of the seventh century is left there except the desert and mountains. Unfortunately landscape descriptions hardly feature in my writing at all. Harry Bingham’s careless comment came at a time when doubts where already assaulting me. Now the doubts were no longer confined to the question whether this particular novel was meant to be written, rather whether I should continue writing at all.

I thought I had clarified all these questions for myself; that writing was prayer for me, that when writing I was doing what I thought I was good at and what I was meant to do. Now I wonder whether I am deluding myself, and whether, on the day when I am going to leave this world, I shall regret not the fact that I am not published but the fact that I have spent all this time writing when God wanted me to do something else. But what? I am doing a lot of other things, and when you look at the reality, I am not spending that much of my time writing. I feel guilty when I write and I feel guilty when I don’t write. When my children were young, I had no doubts about my main focus. I was a stay-at-home mother by choice, doing a bit of teaching and translating on a very part-time basis. Now the children are adults. Only my son is still living at home, not needing me except for occasional reassurances of my love, keeping the house and his clothes clean and the fridge stocked up. I am involved in voluntary work with a charity helping the aged as well as in community mediation but I am reluctant to make a career out of it. I wouldn’t be good at it on a full-time basis. What would I be good at on a full-time basis? Why is my answer always writing?

I know quite a few mothers like myself who had stayed at home to bring up the children and decided not to go back to work when the children were older. Some of them spend too many hours a day in the fitness studio; others have now elderly parents to look after. This phase in my life has passed. My mother-in-law, who lived with us and who I cared for at the end of her life, died seven years ago. The only surviving grandparent of our family is my father. He lives in Austria and, should he ever need care, will most likely be looked after by my siblings who live close to him.

Some mothers do voluntary work like me, and others enjoy their hobbies guilt-free, from gardening to golf, quilt-making or painting. Others are already grandparents and have started looking after children all over again. Nobody I speak to seems to feel guilt. They do what they do, some of them stressed and under time-pressure, others finally enjoying a slower pace of life. The only women who still seem to struggle like me, who never feel quite right whatever they do, are the ones whose marriages broke up, or whose children have major problems, or who are tired of their jobs. They envy me. ‘Don’t envy me,’ I want to say. ‘I wish I could claim that serenity and peace have entered my heart.’

Of course I am old enough to know that I am blessed. I have healthy children, all talented and doing what they want to do. My marriage has survived a quarter of a century, and hopefully we’ll work out how to enjoy each other’s company for the next quarter, if God wills. To let Harry Bingham unsettle me seems immature and shallow, and utterly destructive.

So here is what I think is happening. I am a writer, and when I am actually writing, I don’t want to do anything else. I am absorbed in the task to the point that I forget myself and the world. It is bliss. I will do it even though I am not paid for it and I don’t care whether my novels will ever be published or not. Unfortunately these times of writing are far and few between. Most of my time is spent reading, doing research and rewriting.

The real reason why I am in such a station of doubt right now is the fact that I haven’t written creatively for over a year, since when I finished my last novel. Writing is the cure to my misery, not reading books on how to get published.
I better heed my own words and sign off here and open a new file headed ‘Chapter One’ and start describing the tent in the desert that is the home of my main female character.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Are your Characters loveable enough?

Two writers of my writers’ group were recently given feedback from their agents regarding their just finished novels, and the feedback they received was almost identical, ‘Your main character is not engaging enough, we don’t warm to her enough, she is too cold.’ Although we writers always yearn for critical feedback when it is given our first reaction is to question it.

'Do readers really only want to read about loveable women? Does every heroine have to be “toasty”?’ my friends asked. After giving suitable expression to their understandable disappointment they moved on and agreed that the only way forward was rewriting. We had a long discussion, during a meeting and later by e-mail, what it actually means, as one agent put it, “to warm up your character”.
My first thought was, ‘Ladies, be grateful that you’ve got an agent who gives you feedback. I wish all I had to do was warming up my character.’ The more I thought about it though, the more I realised that this was no easy task. The two novels in question are historical novels, set at the beginning of the 20th century, and the heroines are part of a social class that does not encourage women to express their emotions or opinions freely.

Before our brainstorming session on solutions we questioned whether “loveable characters” are only demanded of unknown/unpublished writers, as we could all think of numerous novels by famous authors whose characters we didn’t like or care about. Some novels we finished reading despite disagreeable characters because we were gripped by other details in the book, others we abandoned. For example I have never managed to finish a Rushdie novel for the very reason that I don’t care about his characters; his showing off of his intellect and the flights of his imagination hold my attention for a limited time only.

We also realised that we did not agree at all about whom we loved/hated in fiction, so the whole question seemed so subjective that for a moment we thought it might be easier to change the agent than warming up the character.
When we finally settled down to the task in hand we came up with the following points of how we could achieve a “warmer” character. I list them here for those of you who might find themselves tackling the same task.

1)The reader must be shown the feelings the character goes through, even if we are writing in the third person and can’t enter her head. One writer of our group quoted the American poet Robert Frost as saying, ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader; no surprises to the writer no surprises to the reader.’ The writer has to suffer during the act of writing, has to give herself completely to the emotion, be it extreme pain and loss or extreme joy which is just as difficult to convey. For some writers this may be impossible if, for example, the character goes through experiences that the writer went through in her own life but has not completely digested yet; or if they are too far removed from any experience the writer ever had in her own life. If the latter is the case, I suggest using your imagination. Just go there and kill the self that watches the character so that you can become her. Let the character speak, not your self.

2)If your novel is set in a time that represses emotions and elevates good behaviour and honour to the most desired qualities in a human being, the writer who sticks to the current mantra of creative writing courses “show, don’t tell” will have a difficult task at hand. Nevertheless, human beings are human beings, and they have always found a way of expressing their emotional state. Music, poetry, literature, or any art for that matter, of the time the novel is set in can point towards the inner life of the character if she engages with it. Or the writer may have to let the character transgress at least some of the boundaries of her culture. In the end it may not be necessary to portray her as loveable at all; just giving her an emotional reality will engage the reader. She could be selfish and rude and arrogant, in a passionate way, so that the reader can hate her passionately and wants to read on for that reason. Boredom and not caring for the character is the one thing that makes us stop reading.

3)Bear in mind that the reader wants to experience change, a transformation. If the book tells only a story, an episode in the character’s life that leaves her emotionally and spiritually unchanged, we will not be interested in it. Maybe in genre fiction this is not an issue. The detective in the crime novel doesn’t need to change. The heroine of a romantic novel will be good at the beginning and at the end. Her happiness depends on overcoming the obstacles of the outer world. In literary fiction the reader however expects to be going on an emotional and spiritual journey too.

Last week I read a quote by Alan Sillitoe, who was in the news for having moved on from this world,
‘The art of writing is to explain the complications of the human soul with the simplicity that can be universally understood.’  I think that sums up the whole issue very neatly. The reader wants to be enlightened, but in an entertaining and easy manner. We want to be sure from the first chapter that following this character will teach us something about ourselves, no matter how far in place and time we live from the world portrayed in the book.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Herta Müller - Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2009

Having just finished reading “Herztier”, Herta Müller’s most praised novel, in the original German, I was awed by her ability to create extra-ordinary verbal images by using simple German words and sentences.

This is not going to be a book review, however; I mention her novel only because reading it motivated me to find out more about Herta Müller. I found an interview with her on the official Nobel Prize website. For those of you who speak German, you can listen to it yourself.

For the rest of you, I am going to tell you about it, because she deeply moved me in her humanity and humility. She starts the interview by saying that she believes that literature cannot be ranked, cannot be marked or measured.
‘There are so many different varieties of literature. You can’t really compare them, in the end you can only choose between them. In this respect I was fortunate.’

She goes on to say that luck or fortune is not something that one can earn.
‘If you have known misfortune, you recognise fortune,’ Müller says. She has a way of detaching herself from what others would call her achievements. When asked what the Nobel Prize means for her, she answers,
‘The prize was given to my books’, as if she and her books were two completely different things. I like her for that statement because this is very much how I feel about my writing and my books. There is me, and I exist without the books, and there are the books independent of me, having their own voice, their own message.

All she will admit to is her pleasure that the topic of dictatorship is being given attention through her winning the prize. She stresses that there are still too many dictatorships around, be they left or right or theocratic. Whatever they are, they all have the same effect on the individual, namely its destruction.

When I first heard Müller speak in the interview I was slightly puzzled. She didn’t sound completely like a German native speaker. She grew up in a German-speaking village in the Romanian countryside. Her parents were German; her father had joined the SS at 17 and fought for Hitler like most of his Romanian contemporaries. After the war, when Romania changed allegiance to the Soviet Union, this part of the history was written out of the official version. Only the German minorities were suddenly the ex-Nazis. Later on in the interview Müller explains that German was her only language until the age of fifteen. They were taught Romanian at school as a foreign language but their teacher was a German himself whose Romanian wasn’t very good. I was fascinated when she said that her first foreign language was in fact Hochdeutsch, the written German taught at school, because at home they spoke a strong dialect. This was exactly my own situation growing up in Austria. My parents were working class who spoke the local dialect, and on my first day at school I was confused that the teacher was speaking to us in a strange way. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand her; rather I knew I couldn’t talk like that myself.

Müller learned Romanian when, aged fifteen, she went to live in the city to go to grammar school. She tells the interviewer how she loves the Romanian language, its idioms and poetry, how it is much closer to her emotional nature than the German, but that she could never have written her novels in Romanian. She just wasn’t confident enough. She admits though that knowing Romanian has enriched her German, because subconsciously there are two ways of looking at the world inside her head. She gives as an example the name for lily of the valley. In German it is called ‘little bell of May’, in Rumanian ‘little tear’.

When the interviewer talks about her beautiful German, Müller explains that in art we use the world beautiful when we are touched, although quite often what touches us is almost unbearably painful.

I have taken a different path from Müller and write in my second mother-tongue, English. There are several reasons for this. First of all, it lets me explore many things much freer and without baggage from the past. Besides that I never felt completely at home with Hochdeutsch. Although I had to use it at school and university, and it served me well to express intellectual concepts and ideas, when I wanted to talk about matters of the heart I didn’t feel comfortable talking in Hochdeutsch. Even before I married my English husband and moved to the UK, even before I spoke to my children in English, I preferred speaking English to speaking Hochdeutsch in certain situations. My husband, whose German is not very fluent, and who only knows Hochdeutsch, is always surprised how often it happens to him that Austrians switch to English, even when their English is no better than his German, as soon as he asks them to speak Hochdeutsch.

I wholeheartedly agree with Herta Müller when she says that it is an advantage to have more than one way of looking at the world in one’s head, no matter how subconscious it is. Recently I have spent a lot of time reading the Qur’an in Arabic. My knowledge of classical Arabic, a mostly passive one, as I was taught it at university as if it were a dead language, is good enough to understand the Qur’an, at least the first layer, the obvious meaning. I cannot claim to have knowledge of the 70,000 inner meanings of every verse. Sometimes images from the Qur’an suddenly come to the forefront when I try to figure something out. In recent weeks one verse has haunted me, where God says of the unbelievers,
‘We have put yokes round their necks, right up to their chins, so that they cannot bow their heads.
And We have put a bar in front of them and a bar behind them...’
(Sura 36,8-9)
Was it an arrogant banker that first triggered the image? Or Richard Dawkin? It was definitely somebody who annoyed me and whose behaviour angered me. Yet that image softened my heart. As soon as I saw them as enslaved by their own ignorance and lack of vision I almost felt pity. What a way to have to walk through life.

When Müller is asked whether she tried to forget her memories of Romania after she emigrated to Germany, she is emphatic that forgetting is not an option when your friends have been murdered or imprisoned or simply collapsed and became mentally ill under the strain and burden of living under the regime. However, she conceded, memories are always reorganised within a human being.
‘Writing tames memory,’ she insists. ‘In fact every kind of work that takes you out of your existence, that makes you forget (I think she means the past and the future, leaving only the present moment), tames memory.’ For her, and for me, that is writing.

Monday, 16 November 2009

The Role of the Self in Arts Practice and Spiritual Practice

A while back I was invited to give a talk with above title to members of an artists' group who are all actively travelling on a spiritual path. Unfortunately the talk has been cancelled but having thought about the topic for some time I want to put my thoughts on paper, or rather screen, because many times I don’t really know what I think until I write about it, and the topic is no doubt of great interest to me.

Maybe I should start with sharing the nature of my spiritual practice. I am a Muslim who follows a particular Sufi path, the Shadhdhuliyya tariqa, which goes back to the 13th century beloved of God, Shaykh Abu l-Hasan ash-Shadhdhuli. He was known for only accepting students who had learned a trade and were able to make a living in the world. He wanted his students to live in the world like everybody else while their hearts were permanently turned towards their Creator. As a Muslim I perform the five daily ritual prayers- their times are fixed according to the cycle of the sun – and I fast during the month of Ramadan. There are of course many other obligations upon a Muslim but most of them are not unique to Muslims, like the display of mercy, compassion, patience, forgiveness, generosity, kindness; virtues that are demanded in all spiritual traditions. Although I try and perform my daily prayers in a state of surrender and humility, quite often the main struggle is to stop what I am doing and get up and pray when the time for prayer has arrived. It can happen that during the whole five to ten minutes of the prayer I am not really focussing on God but am preoccupied with something else, and yes, even with mundane things like the shopping list. There is a joke, or maybe it is a true story, that one day in the mosque the Imam prayed only three rak’as instead of four during the evening prayer. A rak’a is one cycle of movements that will be repeated twice, three times or four times, depending on what prayer of the day it is. The community was quarrelling how many rak’as had been prayed. One man finally stood up and declared, ‘We only prayed three rak’as. I know for certain because I have four shops and in every rak’a I go through the earnings of one of the shops in my head. I had not come to the forth shop yet.’ God does not say that distraction during the prayer makes the prayer invalid. He is the Merciful. As long as you stand on the prayer mat for His sake He will reward you.

On the spiritual path, however, the shaykh or teacher will ask of the student a greater commitment. He wants you to remember God more often than five times a day, and in different ways. There is a silent solitary remembrance, dhikr, as well as a communal one that often is accompanied by movement and voice. Many of you may have heard of the whirling dervishes of the Mevlevi tariqa for example.

My silent dhikr is the repetition of the Name of God, Allah. We are asked to repeat it on a daily basis, sitting on the prayer mat or wherever we can. I usually fall asleep when sitting or kneeling on the prayer mat, be it in the early morning or in the evening before going to bed. For me the best way to be in the remembrance is during my walks. The moving and silent repetition of the Name puts me in a state of receptivity. My sense of hearing is heightened. My mind is still and I can hear God, if you want. Not as a voice of course, but He can speak to me nevertheless, and guide me, and show me the answer to questions that have been troubling my mind.

The resulting inner state of this spiritual practice is very close to the state I am in when I sit down to write a novel. The characters of the novel will have visited me for a long time beforehand; they will fill my head with ideas. They will tell me who they are and where they are from, and they will insist that I write down their stories. I have written three novels so far, and in every case the characters pestered me for years until I was ready to write their stories. They usually know that they are winning when I start reading up on the background information that I need to tell their stories.

When I feel that I know enough about the background of the story I will sit down at the computer and get into that state of receptivity. I can’t tell you how I do it. It is a kind of killing of the self for the duration of the writing. It is difficult to come out of that state when I am interrupted. For that reason I prefer to write when nobody is in the house. Recently that has become a problem because my husband has moved his office to the home. It is not that he has a habit of disturbing me but his physical presence makes it more difficult for me to enter this state of complete surrender of the self.

I have just finished reading Sara Maitland’s Book of Silence. She has committed herself to a life of silence and prayer, and has found that she has stopped writing fiction. Her explanation is that when you seek silence, when you give yourself over to God, your goal is the extinction of the self. In fiction, however, you need a strong self, a self that is creating, almost putting herself beside God. This is obviously not how I experience myself when writing. If you asked me whether there is a difference between writing and dhikr, I would say no. In both cases I am turned towards God. I have no other goal but to be His slave, to surrender, to let go of my self and to manifest what God wants to manifest. I don’t believe for one moment that what I write are revelations. What I aim for is that the story I am telling is told without interference of my lower self, my ego. I don’t want to show off, neither my knowledge nor my way with words, nor make a point, or preach. I only want to tell a story, from my heart to the heart of the reader. I want the story to be true. Not a true story, like all the misery memoirs or autobiographies that are so fashionable at the moment, because most of them are not true in the sense I understand the word. Truth is eternal and unsentimental and lifts the spirit. It points to God who is the Truth, the essence within every human being that unites us all. I want my novels to be pointing to the divine within, no matter how weakly and timidly.

I have a simple test when I am writing. Usually before I continue writing on a story or a novel, I read what I have written during my last session. Most of the time I don’t remember anything of it. I read it like somebody else’s work. If I can remember it, I pay attention. It is very likely that my “ego-self” has interfered and tried to manipulate the story. Of course there has to come a point when this self is allowed to voice her concerns. After all we want sentences that are clear, we want the narrative to be flowing, the characters well formed; we want to have a sense of place and time. I am not a writer who overwrites, rather the opposite. I am more likely to be too sparse with my information. Adding some extra colour and flavour is often the task of my “ego-self”.

After having told you all of the above I have to be honest and admit that what has worked well so far is not working any more. No characters are visiting me. Nobody wants me to tell a story. At the same time it doesn’t feel like writer’s block because another yearning has taken hold in my heart. I want to immerse myself in a different time than the one we inhabit at the moment. I want to explore a time when one of the prophets of God walked on earth, want to imagine how it could have felt to have such pure light in one's midst. Having studied Islamic studies the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is the one I know most about, and about whom numerous historical sources exist. Never having written a historic novel before I will be grateful for all the background material easily accessible that I can use in my research.

The characters prove to be a challenge this time. Some days I want to write about a historical figure and fictionalise her life. Then I have doubts and wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to let a fictional woman experience the time of the arrival of the last prophet, let her meet some of my heroes of that time. I am in the stage of conception. I don’t know yet what the outcome of it will be. Unlike my spiritual practices my writing does not happen on a daily basis. Some writers sit at their desk every day for eight hours, or so they claim in interviews, making the likes of me feel bad. I compare writing to giving birth. While you are pregnant you don’t do much to make the baby grow. You get on with daily life and wait. When the time is right the baby will be born. The giving birth stage, the writing down of the story, lasts usually a few months with me, but the pregnancy can last for years. To not give up hope during this time of pregnancy, to trust that everything will come right, is the most important quality the novelist has to hone. Premature births often don’t survive. Patience is the only way forward. Only patience allows you to taste those elusive and rare moments of bliss, moments where you touch eternity, whether they be during a writing session or during prayer or dhikr. During these moments the self has disappeared, but in both cases it will have to be resurrected again. “After the ecstasy the laundry”, as one Buddhist traveller on the path put it. Writing is no exception. The laundry is the rewriting, the ordering of the chapters, the editing, the weeding out of all the scenes that impede the flow of the story. Like on the spiritual path the self that is needed for this task in its best form is the self that is cleansed from its selfish desires and has surrendered to a greater authority, in the case of a novel the wisdom and heart of the story that is being told.