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.

Friday 9 October 2009

Coping with Rejection

There cannot be a writer, and the exception will only prove the rule, who has not had to cope with rejection. The only way to escape your work being rejected is to keep it in your drawer or on your hard disk, not even trying to find a reader for it. For some of us, this may be how we want it. Others, and I am one of those, want to be read. To be read you need to find a publisher. To find a publisher you need to find an agent first. To find an agent you need to steel yourself for rejection. Once your rejection letters are in their double figures you will stop counting them, or at least I did. I can only tell you that they are numerous.

What I want to talk about here are the effect they are having on the writer and her work.

The first rejection letters arrived while I was still in a state of innocence about the life of a writer. I had picked out some names from the Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook and full of hope sent out the synopsis and sample chapters of my first novel, convinced that it wouldn’t take long until somebody would be persuaded by the brilliance of my writing to take me on. I don’t remember how long this state lasted but by the end of it I was ready to enrol in an MA in Creative Writing, accepting that I probably had to learn a bit more about my craft.

I decided not to rewrite the rejected novel on the course but to start a new one. While writing my second novel I sent out the first one to a few competitions, and encouragingly, it was short-listed for prizes. At that time I was too busy to cope with the course and the death of my mother and the illness of my mother-in-law to send it out again to agents.

At the end of the two years-long MA course I had finished another novel, and a few of the agents and editors who had been invited to a reading of the students’ works, were very interested in taking it on. This caused a state of euphoria in me that I distinctly remember. I was on a high, hardly needed sleep, and started to polish the novel with the help of an editor from a big publishing house. When in the end she didn’t take it on, something inside me switched. It is difficult for me to say whether this was purely the effect of rejection, as I was also dealing with grief at the time and a seriously ill mother-in-law who was living with us and needed care. The fact was that I stopped sending out my work. As far as I remember I didn’t make a conscious decision not to put myself through the ups and downs of this process. I simply concentrated on the other areas of my life which was not difficult at the time. I also stopped writing at this point, except in my journal. I have always written journals for myself, therapeutic writing, as I call it, but I never confused this with my fiction. I firmly believe that fiction is not the place to deal with undigested emotions. I am not a champion of the misery memoir or turning your life into a novel. I believe that writing has to be a creative act of the imagination, using your experiences but not being dictated by them.

I can’t remember how long that state lasted, somewhere between two and three years. All that time a character would frequently come to me and ask me to tell his story. He called himself Ayyub and told me that he was Iranian by birth. I successfully ignored him because I had never been to Iran and I didn’t want to write another novel.

After my mother-in-law had died, and the house had been renovated to incorporate her half of the house into our half, I felt empty. There was nothing to distract me from the fact that I still had a yearning to write fiction. Ayyub was insisting that his story was worth telling. I played deaf.

Then I saw an advert in a writers’ magazine for a residential course that would give me the skill of editing my own work. Part of me thought, ‘How ridiculous is this, you have passed your MA with a 2:1 and don’t know how to edit your work?’ Part of me thought it was too much money, after I had already spent so much on the MA without getting anywhere. And part of me, the one that won, said, ‘If your children can spend money continuously on school trips that go nowhere you can spend three days with other writers without feeling guilty.’

To take part in the course we had to submit chapters of our novel which were then used to teach us the skills we needed. I chose to work on my first novel. It had been written so long ago, I wanted to see whether I could still stand behind it. In the end one of the partners in the literary consultancy liked the novel so much that she tried to find me an agent for it. This had always been part of the deal, that she would try and use her contacts for novels that she thought good enough to be published. Now the serious rejections started to come. They were not generic rejection letters where only the name of the author and the title of the novel had been changed. They were e-mails to the literary consultant and giving good reasons for the rejection that she kindly forwarded to me. Let me quote a few.

I can see exactly why you love this. Fatima has a rare talent, knowing and understanding her characters intimately, and leading us effortlessly into their emotional lives....Yet for all its brilliance, the novel felt sparse at times, and a part of me was hoping for the concessions to style and narrative that would clinch its chances of commercial success...
I think Fatima is a wonderful writer and I love the setting of the novel. Karl positively makes my stomach turn. I do wonder if it is a little bit too quiet and whether the pace should be worked on more.

So, I have agonised over this overnight and I think I am going to pass. I love Fatima’s turn of phrase, her Germanic tone, the sparseness of the sentences. This book feels definitely European and also somehow other worldly and she is certainly a very skilled wordsmith. That said, I just can’t fall in love with any of the characters.

That should be enough to make my point. Whenever you receive a rejection letter from an agent, and chances are you won’t receive detailed ones like these unless via a literary consultant, remind yourself of one thing. Tastes are completely subjective. One agent loves my sparseness, the other dislikes it. One can’t fall in love with the characters, the other one does.

You may not be surprised by now to hear that I still haven’t found this elusive person, the agent who loves my characters, my writing style and the story. I guess it is a lot to ask for. The consultant gave up trying to find me an agent after about ten rejections. When she heard that the novel won the Muslim Writers Awards in 2008 she gave it another shot, equally unsuccessful.

This time the rejections did not have the same effect on me as after completing my MA. Maybe I was stronger emotionally. Coping with grief helps one to put things in perspective. I think what helped me most was the fact that with every rejection there also came praise. I was lucky in that. The only way forward as a writer is aiming for that balance of knowing your weaknesses and your strengths.

I am also part of a writers’ group. We are five women who met during the MA course and felt that we needed the regular feedback of others. We aim for a monthly meeting, mostly to share our writings, but also for comfort, encouragement and advice. Because we respect each other we are honest in our feedback. Often enough I have left one of our meetings in despair. Yet the next morning, trying to rewrite the chapter after digesting the remarks of my friends, I realised how kind they had been. They hadn’t torn apart the whole scene; they had given me tools to make it clearer, subtler, livelier, more believable, whatever it needed. And most of all, not once did I think they were wrong.

If you only get rejection letters from agents, try finding a writers’ group whose members take their writing seriously, who aim for publication rather than treat writing as a pastime. There’s nothing wrong with writing as a pastime. I can’t imagine anything more satisfying than spending an hour writing. Why should we not encourage that? Does anybody think that playing the flute for pleasure is wrong? Yet if you want to perform and ask the public to part with good money to hear you play you will have to commit yourself to daily practice and to frequent rehearsals.

How have things worked out for me? As I have said, I am still looking for an agent. In the meantime the Arts Council have sponsored a Print On Demand version of my first novel. The copyright stayed with me and I am still hoping the novel will find a home with a proper publisher.

Ayyub finally won and I told his story in my third novel. This novel was written with the help of brilliant mentor. There were many reasons why I chose to work with her. I wanted to be forced to write regularly. I had trouble making space in my day for writing. I wanted somebody to be able to comment on the whole of the novel, the way the story unfolded, something that the members of my writers’ group were not able to do. We simply haven’t got the time to read more than a few thousand words for every meeting. The novel has been written and the first rejection letters have arrived. I hear my mentor’s words in my head every time I read one, ‘This novel is very good. Trust my verdict. It deserves to be published and it will be published.’ ‘In sha allaah, God willing,’ I added in my head at the time and I still do.

Ultimately this is where my real strength comes from. I know from a deep place that God has given me this skill with words. I can’t think of anything else that I could do with the same sense of achievement and satisfaction. I am talking of course here about the area of my life that is concerned with work and my place in the world and in a certain degree with my relationship with God. For the time being I know that this is what I am meant to do, the rejections are part of this work, there must be wisdom behind it.

You never know, one day I might be writing a blog entitled ‘Coping with Success’, in sha allaah.

Thursday 30 July 2009

The Enemies of Writing

For the last session with my writing mentor, after having finished a whole novel under her care, I was asked to write a list of ten enemies and ten allies of my writing.

I found it very difficult to name ten enemies because an enemy is somebody who wishes you harm, or a thing that is bad for you. However, it is perfectly possible to be an enemy of Fatima, the writer, while at the same time being the beloved of Fatima, the wife or mother.

After compiling the list and looking through it, it turned out that most of the enemies were given power by none other than myself. In a sense, I am the worst enemy of my writing.

Why have I come back to that list now? I have just finished a novel and although I may not be ready to start writing another one I am ready to start researching another one. My next novel is going to be a historical novel, God willing, and the sooner I start the research the sooner I will be ready to write it. Yet making time for research is no different from making time for writing. The same enemies are attempting to hinder serious work. I shall be listing them here now in the hope that looking at them with the eye of reason will take away their power and give me back the time and discipline for writing.

I am at heart an intuitive and spontaneous person who likes to be busy and active but prefers doing things in her own time and according to her own rhythm. This worked very well for me while I was single and a student. Everything changed when I got married and had children. I had to function according to the rhythms of others, and I had to plan certain activities in advance. When you have got three children under four you better go shopping when there is still some food in the house, not the moment they are hungry and you realise that the fridge is empty. Shopping, cooking, washing, going for walks, everything was now planned. I started to make lists because I felt overwhelmed with all the responsibilities. From domestic chores to doctors’ appointments, classes for the children, exercise for me, my part-time work, guests, everything and everyone was put on my lists. These lists have been with me for about twenty years now, and although the children are grown-up and can buy their own food if the fridge is empty, I still write the lists and I still want to tick everything off before I go into my office. Of course by the time I have ticked everything off I am either too exhausted to focus on creative work, or there isn’t enough time left of the day to get started. Because after my lists the next enemy of writing is the idea that it is not worth starting unless I have at least three to four hours uninterrupted time. How many days a week do I have this long empty stretch of time in my day planner? Hardly ever. I have been back from my annual holiday in Austria for over three weeks now and I had two or three magical days like that. I had a week of catching up on housework, a week of guests, and lots of other minor interruptions. This is quite usual for me and I will have to learn to accommodate these events into a writing routine. Guests must learn not to expect constant attention from me. Most of my guests invite themselves, because we have space in our home, we are near airports and near London, and I hope they also like our company. What they don’t do is ask whether the time of their visit is convenient. As they don’t ask they should not expect to be treated like special guests. I know that they would not mind if I disappeared into my office for a few hours a day but I find it difficult to do. It seems rude to me. Yet my husband will disappear for the whole day without feeling guilty. His activities are called work. That excuses everything. When necessary I shall have to call my writing work too. This is the only way forward.

Not only do I need uninterrupted time of a few hours, I also can’t focus and concentrate on my writing when other people are in the house. Most of my writing in the past got done when my children were at school and my husband at work. Two years ago my husband moved his main office into our home. He is at home a lot these days. His physical presence makes me aware of his rhythm, when he wants lunch for example. It just seems too mean to make myself a nutritious salad and not share it with him. Or to ignore his comment, ‘I’m going out at 1.30,’ which translates as ‘I would love lunch before that’. Don’t get me wrong, my husband is no tyrant. If I don’t leave my office before 1.30 he’ll make himself a quick sandwich, even bring me a cup of coffee, before disappearing. I alone am to blame for interrupting my writing to have lunch with him.

The same need for quiet and solitude prevents me from writing when workmen are in the house. In a big old house like ours they seem to be permanently stationed here. No sooner had we painted the windows this summer, damp problems appeared in the loft. A bathroom needs redecorating, and so on. Two to three months without workmen are the most I can ever expect it seems. Again, the workmen will not enter my little office. They only interrupt very occasionally to ask a question. My husband has learned that I will not communicate with the workmen; that is his job. All I have to do is to ignore the noises and get on with my writing.

Having a big house to look after, and an obsession with healthy home-cooked food adds another pressure on my time. I never had a cleaner while the children were young, for the main reason that I believe everybody should clear away their own mess. This was no major problem while my mother-in-law, who lived with us, was alive and looked after her half of the house, and later when my children were old enough to help with the weekly clean on Saturday mornings. Now my daughters are at university and my son works full-time, we have added my late mother-in-law’s half to ours, and I am left in sole charge of cleaning. Maybe it is time to change my mind on this topic. Maybe all these cards put through my letterbox, of Polish women looking for cleaning jobs, are a sign that having a cleaner does not necessarily mean that I am selfish and exploitative. Maybe these women would rather clean my house than go back to Poland where work is even more difficult to find. I could see myself letting go of the cleaning, handing it over to somebody else, but never of the home-cooking. This is non-negotiable. I like freshly made food, from healthy ingredients, and as my husband jokes, my repertoire includes only dishes with a preparation time of less than twenty minutes. Surely these twenty minutes will not hamper my writing.

Likewise I don’t feel like giving up my charity work. It may take up two half days a week but since the death of both my mother-in-law and my mother I have hardly any contact with people older than myself, apart from seeing my father and aunt and uncle when I am on holiday in Austria. Working for Age Concern keeps me in touch with the outside world and the world of the generation above me.

After listing all my writing enemies it is only fair to acknowledge that the list of my writing allies is longer than the list of enemies, and that I am thankful that I have all this support in my life. I am helped by prayer, by long walks, by yoga, by my husband’s and son’s patience when I ask them to solve my computer problems, by my women writers’ group, my freedom to go on retreats and to travel, by having my own little office, by all the other writers whose books I read, by the cups of coffee my husband serves me (his espresso is the best!) and last but not least by my husband’s financial support. As a Muslim he considers it his obligation to look after the financial needs of the family, and never once has he made me feel self-indulgent for having opted for the life of a writer. Surely this army of helpers should be proof to me that the enemies of my writing have no chance. I will not let them stop me writing.

Friday 8 May 2009

A Sense of Place

Clockwise from top left; The Imam Mosque in Esfahan, an Iranian tourist family we met in Shiraz and Esfahan, Abbassi Hotel Esfahan during the day, and again at sunset. Photos by Al-Qasim Martin

Most fiction writers will at some point have to engage in research about the place or places they set their novel in, unless you set your novel in a place that you know very well or the place exists only in your imagination, whether in a realist or science fiction format.

Every writer is unique in the way she brings forth her novel. At workshops and talks writers often struggle to articulate that process, but more often than not they admit that at some point it is a matter of trust, of blind faith, that somehow or other that novel will get written. Some writers start with ideas, others with places, others with plot. I belong to the group of writers who are motivated by characters. The characters of my novels are not so much products of my imagination but independent beings who will pursue me and ask me to tell their stories. Once I have agreed to sit down and write them they will let me know what has happened to them, what it feels to be them, but they don’t usually tell me about the place where they are coming from or where they are living.

Unfortunately that doesn’t mean I can just put them anywhere. One of the main characters of my third novel insisted he was Iranian. I told him that wouldn’t work; I had never been to Iran. I suggested all kind of Middle Eastern countries I had visited in the past, but the man was unmoveable.

Because I liked the character I started reading travel books on Iran. I found them fascinating, I enjoyed myself; but I postponed writing because of my lack of first-hand knowledge of Iran.

I am a member of a writers’ group. We have been meeting about once a month ever since we finished our MA Writing course seven years ago. All the while when this Iranian character pursued me I was embarrassed coming to meetings without having written a word since the last meeting. I watched with envy how one of my colleagues had the courage to throw a whole manuscript into the fire and start the project afresh with the help of a mentor.

‘I need a mentor,’ I told myself, but a mentor costs money, and as an unpublished writer I felt I couldn’t justify that expense.

Then my husband bought me a bread maker for my birthday. I had a perfectly good one and used it regularly. Why would I want another one? “Our daughters keep asking when you get a new one, so they can have the old one,” my husband justified his purchase.

In no time I had found myself a mentor, openly claiming that she was my husband’s birthday present. My husband did not deny it. She told me right at the beginning of our year together that she would expect me to write about 10,000 words a month. I panicked and wanted to travel to Iran immediately, but of course that was not possible, and instead I sat down and started writing. To my surprise I had no problem to write the scenes set in Iran. All my reading had provided enough background knowledge for a first draft.

When nearing the end of the first draft, however, the yearning to go to Iran came back. I wanted to see with my own eyes that the things I had described from online images, after reading other people’s impressions and listening to people who had visited Iran, were accurate.

I persuaded my teenage son to join me because I didn’t want to travel on my own and my husband was too busy. We applied for a visa. My son was granted one, I wasn’t. I applied again. Again my application failed. So I went to a travel agent who promised a visa, against additional payment of course. This time the visa arrived.

The trip to Iran with my son was only a 12-day event, far too short yet long enough at the same time. We arrived in Tehran during the holiday time of Noruz, the Iranian New Year, and at first I was disappointed because I needed to see Tehran at its worst, not quiet and without traffic. At the same time however it allowed us to explore the town in a relaxed manner. We walked up the Elburz Mountains, we saw some of Tehran’s splendid gardens, we visited the quarters of the rich and the poor. We flew on to Shiraz, a place not featuring in my novel but a place I wanted to see, its Bazaar and the tomb of Hafiz, a 14th century poet and mystic whose poetry many Iranians are still able to recite by heart. About 70km northeast of Shiraz we visited the ruins of Persepolis, an ancient city that quite a few Iranians called one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is not one of them, but it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Finally we travelled to Esfahan, the city where my character’s family comes from and where he returns to with his daughter. I fell in love with its mosques, its beautiful square, its gardens and courtyards. We stayed in the Abbasi Hotel, a five-star hotel that we were forced into because all the cheaper hotels were full. It had been impossible to book hotels from the UK. Being an independent traveller had its disadvantages. The disadvantage was purely a monetary one though; everything else was perfect in the hotel. We sat in its magnificent courtyard that was once part of a caravanserai, looking at pools and the lovingly planted beds of flowers, their scents becoming intoxicating in the late afternoon just before sunset. Above the wall surrounding the courtyard we admired the view of the turquoise tiled dome of the adjacent mosque. Birds would fly in and out of the trees and shrubs, and for moments I felt quite literally in paradise.

The indoor swimming pool was single-sex, with different times for men and women, which suited my Muslim and feminist sensibilities.

Was the trip necessary to finish my novel? I think so. I had to rewrite quite a few scenes because I pictured them as if they happened in one of the Middle Eastern countries that I had visited when Iran was in fact different. In Iran smoking in public places is forbidden. The airports are modern and not crowded at all. I had no idea that you had separate entrances for men and women. Many of the beautiful mosques are no longer used for communal prayer. I was unaware that Shia Muslims, like the Iranians, pray only three times a day, and that you will hear the call to prayer only three times, not five times like in the Sunni countries. I imagined the cities full of huge billboards with photos of the ayatollahs, akin to the portraits of the royal family in Saudi Arabia lining the roads, but the portraits were much smaller than expected, and not at all ever-present. These may only be minor things, and the average novel reader might never have spotted the mistakes, but to me they were important.

After coming back from Iran I had this renewed energy that allowed me to finish the novel. It still needs further rewriting, this time in the context of character development, but at least I feel that I have done my best concerning the sense of place. In a strange sort of way, the visit has also helped me to understand my characters better, and to see much clearer the road they are travelling on during the timescale of the novel.

Friday 24 April 2009

I am a Slow Blogger

When my daughters first heard that I wanted to write a blog they were not convinced.
‘What would you write about every day?’ they asked me. ‘Nothing ever happens to you.’

I was outraged. Many things happen to me every day but of course my children consider them neither newsworthy nor exciting. Or maybe they think that shopping, cooking and cleaning and offering telephone counselling when they are low, usually around exam times, are all I do most days. Nevertheless, their comment kept me thinking that maybe I hadn’t quite got the idea right what it meant to write a blog.

I started the blog anyway and put on a few postings. Then, one day I came across an article in the Guardian about SlowBlogging.
I was fascinated. Immediately I recognised myself. I am a slow blogger, no doubt. I don’t want to churn out a daily stream of trivia. I agree with Todd Sieling, who invented the term SlowBlogging and wrote up a manifesto, that SlowBlogging is a rejection of immediacy. It is an affirmation that not all things worth reading are written quickly, and that many thoughts are best served after being fully baked and worded in an even temperament,...(Slow Blogging) is speaking like it matters, like the pixels that give your words form are precious and rare. In fact, I cannot understand why anybody would want to give a constant running commentary on his daily life online. Who are the readers that are interested in these details? No matter how famous a person, why would I want to know what they did yesterday or this morning? If it’s important, I’ll probably read it in the paper, if it’s gossip, my life’s too short to worry about strangers. There are too many people in my life that I really care about and want to be in touch with. I'd rather write a letter or e-mail to a relative or friend than reading up on what Alistair Campbell is doing today. He is mentioned here because according to the Guardian he contributes daily to his blog.

Sieling asks us to share our own SlowBlogging manifesto with him. Here are my thoughts on the topic.

The fastest growing plants in my garden are the weeds. They need no attention or care, they’ll just appear. Trivial thoughts will almost write themselves. SlowBlogging means asking yourself a few questions before you share your thoughts: Am I saying something good? Will it benefit people? Is it important enough to spend time on it? If you answer no to any of these questions, then censor yourself. Use your time in a more meaningful way or go out and talk to family or friends face to face. Or accept that membership to the slowbloggers club will be denied to you.

Thursday 23 April 2009


What has illness got to do with writing? you may ask. I will give you an answer in a minute.

I am a person who is very impatient with sickness. My children were sent to school no matter how tired or pale they looked. If they had no temperature they could go to school. Occasionally I would get a phone call from the school, ‘Mrs Martin, your son really is not well. He complains of a headache. He didn’t want lunch. Can you please pick him up.’ Of course I picked him up, and of course by that time he had a temperature. Did I feel guilty for sending him to school? No, because 9 out of 10 times it turned out the other way round, that he was fine once he was at school.

I was never a mother who fussed over her children when they were sick. Okay, I made sure they were neither too warm nor too cold, had enough liquid to drink, but after that I expected them to stay in bed and sleep. For this very reason my children never pretended to be ill, nor did they want to stay at home when they got better. It was just too boring. Sick children weren’t allowed TV or running around, or eating sweets and biscuits.

My husband more or less gets the same treatment when he comes down with flu. I will serve the regular lemon and honey drink and otherwise ignore him.
I don’t seem to possess one ounce of nurse material.

Likewise I don’t like being ill myself. I try not to stay in bed unless I absolutely have to. I resent every day spent without energy, yet I know recovery can’t be forced, no matter how hard I try.

And here comes the answer to the question: What has illness got to do with writing? Sometimes the creative energy is as low as the physical one. I feel sick in a different way, but helpless quite in the same way as if struck down with flu. No matter how much I want to finish that chapter/that story/that novel, it cannot be forced. The character doesn’t let me know what is going to happen next. I have to wait. I can try and force a move-on by engaging in activities that will enhance creativity (in my case I will opt for walking in nature, doing yoga, reading Qur’an, listening to music) but quite often that will only help to calm down my impatience rather than speed up recovery. The advice of many creative writing tutors, to just sit down at the computer and write, even if it is rubbish, doesn’t work for me.

It has just taken me over six years to finish telling the stories of nine of the twenty-five prophets mentioned in the Qur’an. This doesn’t mean that I wasn’t writing other things, but this project had me sick a lot. You can compare it with having an injury. You hurt your ankle while running. The doctor tells you not to run for a while. He tells you to swim or cycle, but no running. You simply have to wait until that ankle is healed.

The waiting, the recovering, the healing, is the most difficult part in writing. It means trusting the creative process, trusting your ability as a writer, and trusting that the story will be told eventually. Just because you are not running now doesn’t mean you won’t be in a month’s time. Keep trying but don’t blame yourself if you fail.

Friday 13 March 2009

Brenda Ueland: If you want to write

I am trying to figure out why this book that was first published in 1938 has had such an uplifting impact on me.

The author, a writer, editor and teacher, who was born in 1891 in Minneapolis and died in 1985, says nothing that is new to me. I guess the joy of reading this book is the joy of discovering that there are other people out there who believe art to be about beauty, about the divine self within us, and who are convinced like me that real creativity comes from the truth within us, from the imagination and love that we all can find within.

Her first chapter heading reads: Everybody Is Talented, Original and Has Something Important to Say
Again and again she returns to this truth. We must not judge, discriminate art in any other way but for the honesty in expressing what is within. She won’t fall for style, education, intellect or anything else.

Imagination is the Divine Body in Every Man is how William Blake expressed it. He thought that we must keep this creative power alive all our lives. It is our duty to make time for its manifestation. Ueland stresses more than once that writing is not the only form of expressing this divine power. It can be expressed with anything that you love doing or making, from painting, making music, dancing, gardening, cooking, sewing. The possibilities are endless, but the expression has to be honest.

The simple thing of cooking comes to mind. People have lost the ability to express their truth in this way today. They eat out, buy ready-made food, or imitate TV cooks.

I have always cooked. For me it is part of giving the love to my family. My adult daughters, who are at university now, still come home for a cuddle and for a shared home-cooked meal that tastes of me, when they are in emotional turmoil. They prefer to eat at home rather than be invited out. My cooking contains my essence and my love, and that’s what they long for when they are stressed or unhappy, or even when they are deliriously happy, because too much luck or good fortune can also take its toll on the heart.

Blake wrote poetry and painted endlessly but he never had ambition, or worried about being published. He burnt most of his work.

I should be sorry if I had any earthly fame, for whatever natural glory a man has is so much detracted from his spiritual glory. I wish to do nothing for profit. I wish to live for art…
Ueland defines the creative impulse, in her case writing, such: an impulse to share with other people a feeling or truth that I myself had. She promised herself never to fall into those two extremes (both lies) of saying, I have nothing to say and am of no importance and have no gift or The public doesn’t want good stuff.
As writers we might do well to join her in this promise. The majority of us are neither bland and boring nor geniuses but ordinary human beings trying to do their best in making use of the gift they were given.

Is it ethical for Writers to fictionalise Family or Friends

Julie Myerson’s book, The Lost Child, not in the bookshops yet, has created a lot of pre-publication excitement, not because of its literary merit, nobody seems to talk about that, but because Myerson admitted that it dealt with the drug problem of her oldest son.

The son says he didn’t want the book to be published.

The critics not only blame Myerson for disrespecting his wishes for privacy but also for her actions, which she details in the book, throwing her 17-year old out of the family home.

I personally belong to the group of writers who judge it unethical to use family or friends as characters in their fiction. A fictional story has its own flow and rhythm and can never do justice to the life of a living human being. Autobiography and biography may try to achieve a complete picture of a person but I don’t believe for one moment that they can ever succeed and capture the whole story.

On the other hand I completely understand that a writer deals with emotional upheavals by writing. I do the same but I distinguish between writing as therapy and writing for publication.
When I write because I can’t cope emotionally or spiritually with what is happening in my life I first of all change the way I do it. I use paper and pen rather than the computer. I have many notebooks full of letters to human beings, to God, to my deeper self, as well as descriptions of my states. Nobody is ever allowed to read these notebooks, not even my nearest and dearest. I am well aware that they contain material for a few novels but I wouldn’t dream of using it, or shall I say not directly, in its raw form.

For example I coped with caring for my terminally ill mother-in-law, with whom I had a very difficult relationship, by writing. My writing was fuelled by anger, by self-pity, by exhaustion, and many other more fleeting emotions. Years later I have used her death – she died at home – in a novel. A character in my novel dies of the same illness she died of and I used my memory - I didn’t need the notebook - to describe the moment of his death. The character and his son go through completely different struggles from the ones my mother-in-law and I faced, and the emotional side of my real life-experience was not touched upon in the novel at all.

At other times I might use an emotional experience for a novel, but not the actual story. A broken heart, being jealous of a sibling, getting married, becoming a mother etc. are universal experiences that many of us go through, and yes, sometimes our fictional characters will mirror our own way of dealing with these emotional issues. At other times however I enjoy creating a character that does what I can’t do. In Julie Myerson’s case I might have written about a mother who does not kick out her son, who finds another way of dealing with the situation. I appreciate that this is not easy to do while you are going through the trauma.

I believe that if you want to use real-life traumas as themes for a novel you have to wait until you have fully digested the whole experience. The writer can’t afford to be emotionally involved with her characters. She needs a coldness in her heart while writing. All the characters must be equally precious to her. She can’t take sides with the character that sees the world like she does. Many people say that at least seven years have to pass; some say ten, before you should use events from your own life in fiction. Experiences have to lie fallow and fade in importance before they can be turned into successful fiction.

And what about the motive of warning others, of trying to raise awareness of an issue, you may ask. Campaigns have no place in fiction. They belong to non-fiction.