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.