ROUTINES: A DOOR TO INCREASED CREATIVITY

I’ve spent the past month yearning for time to write, to dive feet first into a pool of creativity and find truths in made up worlds. Today, with the kids back at school, London visits behind me and chores done, I climbed the stairs tentatively to the attic we have set up as my writer’s studio. It’s a calm, beautiful space, away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the house. I sat at the great expanse of my dad’s old mahogany desk and realised that the urgency I had felt to write had disappeared, only to be replaced by fear.

This cycle is so familiar it’s painful. Do you find that falling out of a writing routine is destructive for you? For me, it causes a disconnect from the psyche of my characters. The breath of reality can fill up our creative wells, but it can also interrupt our focus. It can be the prelude to a slow creep of crushing self-doubt. Writing is an introspective process; no amount of external validation can replace the need for self-belief. We are reliant on ourselves to find our rhythm again. I’m starting to realise that it pays not to interrupt that beat.

Perhaps that’s why Stephen King writes every day including his birthday. Or why Haruki Murakami mesmerises himself with a strict routine of early rising, writing and physical exercise when he is working on a novel. Or why Maya Angelou wrote daily in the writing hideaway she created for herself in a hotel room. Masters of the written word find the routine that works for them and deviate from it with great reluctance. They know the value of the dream-like, meditative state which aids creativity.

You may hear the word ‘routine’ and think of chores, repetition and drudgery. Creativity shouldn’t be a straitjacket. It’s freedom, a rush of pure oxygen, a fleeting bubble of awareness. Routines bypass fear, doubt and indecision. They put you on automatic pilot. A routine makes creativity part of your lifestyle, not just a hobby to tinker with. A creative routine is an affirmation that you are more than just a consumer. It makes it more likely that you will act on your creative impulses, rather than let them pass you by.

I choose to make writing a part of my routine because I don’t feel grounded without it. Words anchor me to thoughts which would otherwise pass through me unheeded. Words are a weapon against a disposable society. They allow us to examine our choices and make sense of the unfathomable. Words on paper are unhurried. They are both a luxury and a necessity. They connect even the loneliest people to each other. They build understanding. Without expression, we are merely empty vessels.

Writing is not a business of overnight successes. Whatever success means to you – finishing your writing project, a loyal readership, critical acclaim, financial independence, awards, fame, your name on book sleeves – to get there you’ll need to put in the work. Whether you’re at your desk, on a park bench or sprawling on your bed, writers write. I used to think talent was the key to success, but without perseverance we fail without even having started.

I’m still sitting at dad’s old desk. Its surface is marred by peeling paintwork. I find comfort in running my hands over the roughened wood. Autumn is on her way. A biting breeze has slipped through the balcony doors and has carried in a hum of cars from the road. The mountains are shrouded in cloud. It suits my mood. I’m going to delve into the stillness in me and work on a short story. When autumn comes, she’ll bring relief from the mosquitos, and fiery hues of burnt orange and mustard yellows. By then, I’ll be back in my writing routine, and this time I won’t be letting it slip.

‘Inside you there’s an artist you don’t know about…say yes quickly, if you know, if you’ve known about it since the beginning of the universe.’ – Rumi

‘It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.’ – Seneca

‘I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.’ – Duke Ellington

VIOLENCE AND COMPLICITY

It is a joy to lose myself in fiction most days and sometimes it is a relief. Today, it just felt like frivolity. A blanket of darkness has settled on the world stage. It feels as if social structures are crumbling around us, yet still we carry on with our daily lives as if in a bubble.  In the West, by accident of our birth, we are privileged and safe, for the moment. We are faceless armies of men and women who tumble out of bed in the morning, put on the uniforms of our employers, earn a living and care for our families. But others aren’t so lucky.

I have been alternately avoiding and immersing myself in the news lately. As I grow older, the inclination to hide from the headlines increases. With the amount of media we are exposed to daily, you’d have to be living in a vacuum to have missed how fraught with danger the world is right now. It is easier than ever to obtain accounts of conflicts from around the world. All it takes is a click. But shocking headlines no longer have the power to move us. We have become desensitised to the vast number of deaths. We are so fatigued by the endless reports of death on our flickering screens that our empathy has been castrated.

We project our own truths but armour ourselves against perspectives that are not our own. We have become bellowing isolationists. Tragedy has become part of our global consciousness. We accept it, welcome it even. It serves to reinforce our sense of what is right and what is wrong. Reports from across the globe bring momentary despair. Then we shake off our leaden thoughts and try to forget that somewhere the blood of men, women and children not unlike us is seeping into the earth. There are exceptions. Twitter and Facebook are awash with calls for action in conflict zones and solidarity with the victims, but how effective is this armchair activism and can we find ways to translate it into concrete outcomes?

I have begun to feel complicit in the shady morality that allows acts of violence that we are currently witnessing to continue. Tell me, is it anything more than a happy coincidence that we are born into conflict free zones? What right do we have to tranquility while shells rain down on the people of Gaza? How can we sit by while political strife escalates to such a degree that hundreds of thousands of Syrians are displaced from their homes? In what world do people kill or maim in the name of religion or force others to submit to their faith? Surely history has taught us that we have a responsibility to intervene when minorities are being systematically persecuted? How can it be acceptable today for one country to annex part of another?

In truth, even in established democracies, we are only ever a few short steps away from civil unrest. Take the London riots of 2011, for example, after the death of Mark Duggan, or the events in Ferguson, Missouri. In what kind of civilised society is an unarmed man shot dead when he is in a defensive position? We may convince ourselves that these troubles are not on our doorstep, but we are not immune to conflict.

I’ve been very aware, for example, that anti-Muslim sentiment is gaining ground in the West. I am a Shia Ismaili Muslim. Since September 11th, on the rare occasions I’ve discussed my religion I’ve felt the need to explain how liberal and progressive we are. I don’t wear a headscarf (as if that should matter) and was free to decide who I married, you know. In actual fact, I’m proud of my religion. I’m especially proud of the development work Ismaili organisations such as AKF and AKDN do. But the term Muslim has become synonymous with inequality, zealot and terrorist. 2001 was the last time I hung prayer beads from the rearview mirror in my car. Over a decade later, in which the 2005 London bombings occurred, Lee Rigby was killed (2013) and violent Islamist factions have been increasingly active, I find I am still unable to state my religion in unfamiliar company without caveats.

Only now it seems that apologies and explanations are expected of Muslims in general, that is, from the peace-loving kind. Haven’t you heard? If it is indeed a peaceful religion as we claim, liberal Muslims shouldn’t be hiding in the shadows. We should be denouncing the actions of jihadists. What you forget is that the West is my home too, and I have 100 per cent more in common with you then I have with Islamist extremists. I am not the other. Religion is only part of my identity. Yes, I stand with you against the violent actions committed in the name of Islam, but you are mistaken if you think I hold any sway with the perpetrators. You see, I am more hated by him than you. I suffer with you. I bear the shame for his deeds although he twists my religion to serve his purpose and to manipulate his followers.

Complex historical and sociopolitical factors created the environment for the global conflicts we see at play today. Difference continues to drive a wedge between communities in even the most sophisticated societies. The world pulses with fear and greed, yet surely all most of us want is to be loved, to be safe from harm, to have food in our bellies and the chance for our families to flourish. Who needs complexity when it can be that simple? There is enough disease, poverty and environmental disasters for us to tackle without us fighting each other.

I wonder how much our collective consciousness could achieve if we acted as one, if we checked our egos and power play at the door and tried to rediscover our humanity. No one has the right to take another’s life. There is no absolute power. We are all answerable for our actions and that includes members of the establishment who make the wrong call. And it certainly includes the madmen in our midsts.

HELLO NEW LIFE

It’s been almost two weeks since the children and I arrived in Geneva. J had been living with a tiny amount of rented furniture in what was to become our new family home. It felt odd at the time he said, imagining what the house would feel and sound like when it was filled with our things and the sound of the children. It turns out that family life is quite noisy, especially if you happen to buy a second-hand washing machine which sounds like it is taking off during the spin cycle. I digress.

The truth is, I’m not sure Geneva will ever feel like home, or at least, not soon. I miss the old walls of our Edwardian semi in London. I miss our family and friends. We met our new Swiss neighbours last week. They were perfectly wonderful, and invited us into their garden for a glass of wine. They had seen a succession of rental cars that J had been using and had wondered if the house was being used as a CIA safe house. They were relieved to meet us. They told us about the different nationalities of people who live in the neighbourhood and that almost everyone has cats. The cats have territory wars and almost all of them wear little bells around their necks to help the birds escape. There are lots of birds it seems, especially singing outside our bedroom window first thing in the morning. In an irritable half-awake state I considered doing something drastic but think I may opt for ear buds instead.

We let the cats out today. They were free to come and go as they pleased at home, but needed time to get used to their new environment here. We didn’t want to risk them making for South London. Our female cat was cautious when we opened the doors. Her brother, a voracious hunter, quickly got over himself and set off, and now they’ll be British moggies mixing with the ginger toms and Birmans I’ve seen wandering around. It’s like our own situation in a microcosm. I wonder how aware they will be of the change in their surroundings. They will have realised the change in domestic setting, of course, but will they instinctively know that we are far from home?

The soil was rich when I was digging in the garden yesterday. The sun is strong and the air is crystalline, free of London’s smog. Just beyond our house we can see Lake Geneva. Everywhere you go, the Alps and the Jura can be seen. The views are breathtaking, so all-encompassing that after a while I imagine you don’t even perceive them anymore. To appreciate the magnificent, don’t we need the mundane in contrast? The vistas, certainly where we live, twenty minutes from the centre of Geneva, are unfettered by high-rises. As a result it seems there is a huge expanse of sky above us, with candy-floss clouds hanging low, ready to be plucked and consumed.

There is no aggrieved eye contact or menacing body language between drivers here. Congestion seems to be rare and therefore London’s on road aggression has been bested by a calm, measured pace. I can almost hear the Swiss drivers whistling an eerily jolly tune as they wait patiently at junctions. Come 6pm and Sundays, with the exception of late night shopping on Thursdays, retailers are shut. It is then that I miss cities that never sleep. Sundays are strictly family/no work days here. I’ve been told a woman was admonished by the police for ironing on her balcony on a Sunday.

It seems as if our courtship with Geneva will be a slow one, and perhaps that’s no bad thing. I was beginning to wane in London. Cities demand ceaseless energy from us, to power themselves, reminiscent of the heaving metropolis in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film. They are wondrous in the opportunities they present but they are also relentless beasts. I’m tired of wrestling the beast for now. Instead, I’ll embrace this slower pace and allow my mind time to clear. It’s in the quiet moments that stories take hold and refuse to let go. For a moment, I’d forgotten how to be quiet.

FAREWELL LONDON: A NEW STORY AWAITS

The clock has just struck noon and I can hear the spin cycle of the washing machine downstairs. Its rhythm and the summer heat are lulling me into a state of relaxation. It’s humid here in my parents’ living room. Their house pulses with heat even when the radiators are off: a blessing in winter, stifling in the summer months. I’ve not blogged for a few weeks as the whirlwind of moving preparations has taken hold. The logistical arrangements of car selling, renting the house, closing down utilities, packing and goodbyes reached a peak a week ago when the movers came in. It seemed to me that they were like anteaters: sucking up the remnants of our London lives with supreme efficiency.

Since then I’ve been with the children at my parents’ house. J is in Geneva already. We’ll be leaving for the airport in an hour. The cats, whose baskets have been liberally sprayed with pheromones recommended by the vet, will be travelling with us in the flight cabin. I feel like a cross between superwoman, a sad clown and the mad hatter: capable, emotional and increasingly unpredictable. It’s a relief to return to the blank page at long last, to draw calm from it. Already it feels that the strain is pouring from my fingers onto the page as I type. The blank page: a mirror, a sea of acceptance, a promise of renewal.

Tiredness is heightening my emotions at the moment. Geneva is just over an hour’s flight from our family and friends in the UK and we have no doubts about choosing this move. It will be a wonderful adventure for our family while the children are young. Still, however open we are to it, change is unsettling. It stretches us uncomfortably. Depending on the nature of the change, we are forced to adjust to new patterns, support networks, cultures and expectations. Was there ever an easy goodbye?

London will always be my home. I miss its vibrancy, architecture and spirit already. This city feels determined and resilient. It is both alien and a friend. I can walk the streets and disappear into its melting pot of cultures. The grey skies and murky river are home. The chimney stacks of the skylines near our house are as familiar to me as the lines on my palm. My story is etched in corners of this city, in its parks and art galleries, its restaurants and theatres, in the homes of our family and friends.

I will always return to you gladly, London, but for now, farewell. There is a new story waiting to be written in Geneva.

ARE YOU A DREAMER OR A TIGRESS?: SETTING GOALS TO GET AHEAD

I’m going to be 33 years old in a few weeks. Hardly any age at all perhaps, although the white hair springing up around my temples would tell you otherwise. I remember how at 14 years old those in their thirties seemed to me to be dinosaurs. As a child I was sure that by my mid-twenties the confusion of youth would have dissipated. I would arrive at my successes by design rather than by accident. The truth is that many of us feel our way through life from the starting line to the finish.

I look with envy sometimes on those who discovered their passions in childhood. Do you, like me, mourn lost time? Oh the hours I whiled away as a teenager. Back then, all I wanted to do was to fall into novels and let them swallow me whole. That time devouring books was wonderful. I wish though that I had picked up my pen sooner. Imagine little Johnny Robinson, barely four foot tall, practicing drop shots on the neighbourhood courts as the light dims. Or Leila Coombes, her fingers perpetually blackened by lead from the pencils she has been sketching with. Or Samir Khan, who can play the sax, piano and violin to grade eight standard by the time is 12 years old. Those kids start clocking up their Gladwell hours from childhood. They jump-started their careers.

For many of us it takes a while to realise where our talents lie. As we get older we are less prone to outside influences. We stop robotically doing what is asked of us and begin questioning our reality. We find our courage and our drive. This extra time isn’t a bad thing. It always seems strange to me that in the UK we ask our children to take crucial decisions about their path in life at the tender age of 16. With life expectancy on the rise, what’s the rush? In the UK in 2014, a woman can expect to live 82.5 years, up from 58 years in the 1930s; UK men are at 79.5 years and 62 years respectively. We have time. The world is more fluid, we can exploit international opportunities and many of us will work in more than one professional field.

Besides as a writer, each new life experience strengthens our creative muscles. Age matures our story-telling abilities. That niggling feeling you get as a writer, that feels like you haven’t done your homework, the one that feels like a heavy weight in your gut? Let’s just ignore that. The muse will appear eventually, shining in her sheer robes and looking at us benevolently, right? The thing is that you and I both know that when we switch into neutral gear, we are doing ourselves a disservice. It may be that we work into our nineties, hunched over our desks as we squint into the distance envisaging the fate of our protagonist. Even so, it would be foolish to ignore the sense of urgency we feel. Writing is, after all, a time-consuming occupation. We only have a finite amount of time in which to breathe life into our stories.

I am happiest when I am productive, aren’t you? The demons of idleness sing their mournful lullabies and we succumb, sacrificing endless hours at their altar. In the cold light of day we know it is the work that nourishes us. We leave our laptops languishing in the corner of our rooms because we are running away from ourselves. I know. It’s been two months since I resigned from my job at City Hall ahead of our move to Geneva this summer and I have yet to establish a regular writing routine. We are governed by fear. We live half lives in love and our careers because we don’t want to be vulnerable. We let our dreams escape through our fingers like ghosts because to fail at something we want badly would be painful.

Newsflash: ambition is not a dirty word. It is up to you to pull your dreams into the blazing sunlight. Don’t let yourself be consumed by the hazy twilight, that half-way house where you know what you want but are too fearful to go after it. We are bound by our conflicted natures. Shrug off that dusty mantle of doubt. The path to success is paved not only with talent, but with perseverance, commitment and labour.

I recently read an article in Forbes by Ashley Feinstein who advocates writing down your goals. In her article Feinstein mentions a survey of Harvard MBA graduates (class of 1979): ’Only 3% had written goals and plans, 13% had goals but they weren’t in writing and 84% had no goals at all. Ten years later, the same group was interviewed again […] The 13% of the class who had goals, but did not write them down was earning twice the amount of the 84% who had no goals. The 3% who had written goals were earning, on average, ten times as much as the other 97% of the class combined.’ The Harvard research only takes earnings into account as a measure of success, but it still shows how powerful it can be to write goals down.

Whether you are a pantser, planner or fall somewhere in between, here is a list to help you get started if you wish to have a go at some written goals:

  • Summarise your overarching vision including both personal and career goals e.g. I will write a novel, I will learn the guitar etc.
  • Set yourself up for success by creating achievable goals e.g. I will focus on improving my dialogue writing in the next three months, I will find a critique partner within six months.
  • Break down your goals into short, medium and long-term e.g. I will practice my guitar chords for ten minutes a day over the three months, I will have learned how to play three songs within six months, in a year I will perform for my family.
  • Each goal should be include a time-frame and should be measurable e.g. I will query my book once a week until there is a reason not to.
  • Turn larger goals into smaller steps e.g. I will write five pages a day.
  • Don’t forget to celebrate your successes. I promised in a previous post to upload a video of me dancing in the style of Hugh Howey and Ksenia Anske once the first draft of my novel is complete.

As for me, I prioritise my life according to my passions and the needs of my loved ones. I have never been the type to go obsessively after goals. I get distracted, pulled into family life. I dream. But there is a seed of urgency in my belly that is growing, and I am no longer happy to relinquish my ambitions. Often the needs of my loved ones come out on top but to be whole I need to give my writing ambitions a real shot. Tomorrow seems more fragile than ever before. To that end, I have been working on a list of written goals to clear my mind of clutter and focus me. There is something to be said for planning your course (my husband is German, after all) while factoring in some flexibility (that’s the Indian in me talking). The list will provide me with armour against the guilt I feel when I say no to loved ones because I want to concentrate on my writing. Now I am working from home, it will also allow me to see and celebrate my progress. I’m not going to view my list as concrete cladding, rather a loose framework that can be amended. Perhaps I’ll show you it when we know each other better.

In the meantime, let me end with a story about Jim Carrey you may have heard. In 1987 he was 25 years old and a struggling comic. He drove to a spot overlooking LA and wrote himself a check for $10m. The check was dated 1995. Carrey wrote on the stub that it was ‘for acting services rendered’. In actual fact, in 1995 his price for a movie was $20m. All that matters is that we continue chipping away at our dreams, that we have belief and drive. Happy writing, folks.

MY FIRST ATTEMPTS AT ORIGAMI

A few weeks ago @raishimi read my article on the disappearing art of handwriting and mentioned that she sometimes includes origami gifts with letters. It was such a wonderful idea, I decided to have a go myself. I spent £15 on a simple guide and a small stack of origami paper in bright hues. My favourites were the squares in sugar pink and bruised plum. I took my time choosing the paper for each design. There is a sensuality about origami paper, smooth to the touch, interspersed with foils.

I didn’t know much at all about origami until recently. As paper degrades quickly it has been difficult to establish where origami originated. Japanese origami came into being after Buddhist monks brought paper to Japan in the sixth century. Paper folding traditions seem to have sprung up independently in Europe and East Asia. Paper was so expensive that origami was used only in religious ceremonies. In China for example, traditional funerals include burning folded paper, usually representations of gold nuggets. In Japan, Samurai warriors are known to have exchanged gifts adorned with noshi, a good luck token made of folded paper. Origami stories in Japanese culture include Abe no Seimei making a paper bird and it coming to life.

Perhaps the most famous Japanese origami design is the crane, which symbolises peace. The crane also entered popular imagination through Sadako Sasaki’s story, who was exposed to the radiation in Hiroshima when she was an infant and died of leukaemia a decade later. Japanese legend that says that if you fold a thousand paper cranes, your deepest desire will come true. Sadako managed to fold six hundred and forty-four cranes. Today, a statue of her stands in Hiroshima Peace Park. Wreaths of cranes are left there in her honour.

Some modern origami artists have been influenced by Bauhaus design. Designs by the most gifted artists today have moved away from linear design and experiment with materials other than paper and foil.

20140603_114654As for me, even the simplest origami designs were harder to follow than I had expected. It turns out origami is all about symmetry, dexterity and focus. It teaches patience. I had trouble finding my inner zen while I was folding and pinching the paper. I’m not much of a linear thinker. I left blunt edges where there should have been crisp folds. I manipulated the paper so that stems and limbs went awry.

Still, I thought you might like to see my first attempts. I made: a fox that won’t sit properly because I made a mistake folding his bottom; a butterfly which resembles an aeroplane; and a tulip with a droopy head. The fox is for @raishimi, along with her favourite bottle of whiskey, for when we meet this weekend.

 

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CAN MICRO FICTION EVER HAVE THE IMPACT AND APPEAL OF THE NOVEL?

Ever since @amicgood founded #FridayPhrases last year, many of us have been spending a large part of our Fridays crafting and reading micro fiction. For those of you new to the phrase, micro fiction is a very short story, usually prose.Although Twitter has helped it gain in popularity, micro fiction has in fact been used imaginatively and effectively for close to a century. It is said, for example, that Ernest Hemingway wrote ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ Why is it then, that very short fiction still has a whiff of being a gimmick? Is it capable of rivalling traditionally recognised forms such the novel?

An evolving form

Sales of micro and flash fiction collections currently amount to a tiny fraction of book sales but who’s to say that they won’t become a firm fixture in our reading lives in the future? We operate in a fast-paced world, in which our attention spans appear to be shortening. Meandering thought is often seen as irritating rather than desirable. Smartphones have become the norm in the West, increasing the demand for information that is succinct and easily digestible. In developing countries, smartphones are accelerating access to news and literature, improving education and opportunities. In this climate, it makes sense that micro fiction should flourish alongside longer works.

The author Julian Gough wrote, ‘My generation, and those younger, receive information not in long, coherent, self-contained units (a film, an album, a novel), but in short bursts, with wildly different tones. (Channel-hopping, surfing the Internet, while doing the iPod shuffle.) That changes the way we read fiction, and therefore must change the way we write it. This is not a catastrophe; it is an opportunity. We are free to do new things, which could not have been understood before now. The traditional story (retold ten thousand times) suffers from repetitive strain injury. Television and the Internet have responded to this crisis without losing their audience. Literary fiction has not.’

Abandoning a false dichotomy

But let’s not set up a false dichotomy. I don’t know about you but my reading tastes are varied. My bookshelves are home to poetry, history books, atlases, short story collections, critical essays, children’s books, travel literature, craft books, biographies, joggers manuals (that never did work out), art books, genre fiction, literary fiction and books that I simply liked the look and feel of. Cinema and theatre exist side by side; likewise, television and radio. There is room for different art forms alongside each other.

Still, if we are going to ensure that reading continues to have mass appeal a recalibration of the hierarchies of literature is important. To instil a love of reading in the young, both creators and sellers of fiction need to be open to change and innovation. In recent years there seems to have been a resurgence in the popularity of short fiction. In 2013, for example, short story writer Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and ebooks have allowed short fiction to flourish when previously it may not have been a financially viable option. It would be foolish to write off a very short fiction as a gimmick prematurely. If we are to encourage love of the written word in younger generations, who communicate in new ways, we will need to dispense with our condescension of non-traditional forms.

A genre with unusual merits

Fiction now competes with multiple forms of entertainment, and while I will always be an advocate of the long form, we cannot deny that the world is changing. More interactive forms of entertainment are popular with the young, such as computer games and social media. It could be that micro fiction’s greatest strength is that it is interactive, and above all, accessible. Compared to other forms, there is less investment in crafting micro fiction, which is perhaps why those precious about the sanctity of art are sometimes disdainful of it. For me, micro fiction is a door into creativity. A pupil in a school library will pick up War and Peace and wonder whether she has the stamina or intelligence to read it. The same pupil will read a few lines of micro fiction without a second’s thought and be inspired to write some of her own.

This innate accessibility has other advantages too. Novels – forgive me, as a reader and writer they remain my form of choice – are too clunking to react quickly to other creative works. Their very length prevents immediacy. It takes years for the links between novels to transpire, usually because the author is still in a writing cave in the depths of Minnesota transcribing his soul. In contrast, using social media as a platform, micro fiction suddenly has the opportunity to interact in real time. Take the #FridayPhrases community, for example, where there is cross pollination between authors and you can almost feel the creative synapses sparking across the ether. Or when a world event occurs, such as the death of a public figure or the Olympics and suddenly timelines are filled with micro fiction honouring those events.

The art of reading and writing micro fiction

You may wonder whether it’s worth writing a couple of lines of very short fiction, but micro fiction is by its very nature memorable. The writer Grace Paley noted that very short stories ‘should be read like a poem, that is, slowly.’ Some of the #FridayPhrases community have noted how the structure of micro fiction can be very much like a joke with a punchline. Certainly, the genre has a resonance that is disproportionate to its footprint, and readers are likely to reread micro fiction. According to the Russell Banks ‘it’s intrinsically different from the short story and more like the sonnet or ghazal—two quick moves in opposite directions, dialectical moves, perhaps, and then a leap to a radical resolution that leaves the reader anxious in a particularly satisfying way. The source, the need, for the form seems to me to be the same need that created Norse kennings, Zen koans, Sufi tales, where language and metaphysics grapple for holds like Greek wrestlers, and not the need that created the novel or the short story, even, where language and the social sciences sleep peacefully inside one another like bourgeois spoons.’

Can micro fiction ever be literary fiction?

So is micro fiction capable of rivalling traditionally recognised forms such the novel? Many of us still equate literary fiction with the novel, but what precisely is literary fiction? It tends to be identified by a character-driven narrative and a subtle plot. While a literary novel may entertain, it is predominantly concerned with revealing truths about the world we live in. A few weeks ago as part of its genre debate, The Guardian ran an article by Elizabeth Edmondson, who asked whether the term literary fiction is it merely a marketing ploy to elevate certain novels and cast doubt on whether Jane Austen novels works would have been labelled as such if she were writing today.

Certainly, for me genre has become irrelevant. I view it as more about discoverability rather than a guarantee of enjoyable writing. It is secondary to clarity of ideas, originality and skilful expression. The very nature of micro fiction compels the author to exercise these skills, in addition to uncovering the truth and focusing on character. Just like a novel, it can have a lasting resonance, and is all the more memorable for its fleeting beauty. Even if it fails to attract the attention of a wide readership and the literary establishment, writers will continue to pen micro fiction illicitly behind closed doors. Writing is a compulsion, not a market calculation.

LOSING AND FINDING STORIES

There is a frail old lady in our neighbourhood, who wanders the streets in the afternoon dressed in a sari. The saris are always tatty and loosely worn. The old lady passes fellow pedestrians without acknowledging their presence. It is as if she does not see them at all. If you say hello, she barely wakes from her reverie. She responds almost unwillingly in a voice which reverberates with melancholy and then continues her slow progress up and down the street. Sometimes she sits on a garden wall to rest. The corners of her mouth are downturned and her stare, straight ahead, is always blank.

I think of this lady sometimes. Perhaps it is because she is Indian. She could be my grandmother. Mostly it is because I’d like to know what her story is. I’d like to understand the lines on her face, the reason for her sorrow and what would make her smile. I would like to know whether she chooses to wear her sari like that or whether her fingers are no longer dextrous enough to manipulate the material while she is dressing. I’m curious about what she chose to do with her life and whether she has any regrets. I’d ask her if she feels at home in this largely white suburban part of London. I’d ask her what home is to her. I would listen to her story, as a voyeur, a psychologist and as a daughter. I’d record her story. Then I’d distil my version of her truth by peppering it with fiction.

How do we decide which stories are worth recording? I see love, hopelessness, joy and betrayal in every face I encounter. We collect our impressions of one another as if they are collages: snapshots of each other’s souls taken from a fleeting conversation, a misunderstood expression, the way we dress or how easily we smile. The knowledge we acquire as we age is often untransferable, lost in translation and given up to the universe when we depart. We love and are surrounded by those who love us in return, yet still we are strangely alone. Even the best communicators cannot impart the web of their thoughts from their own mind to another’s. However connected and accepted we feel, however honest we are, our understanding of another person’s story is filtered through our own perceptions and experiences. There is no plug in and download function. Thankfully.

What this means is that each individual story, in its truest essence, gets lost. This happens all the more if we are too self-centred or busy to ask how other people are really doing, and to listen. I know time is a factor. We can’t listen to everyone or record every story. We can, however, choose to give a few minutes of real attention to those we love. One of my biggest regrets is not speaking enough to my granddad about his experiences of leaving Uganda in the 1972 exodus after Idi Amin kicked out the East-African Asians. Nana was the head of one of many families, which became political refugees overnight and had to build a life from scratch elsewhere. I was in my early twenties when we realised nana did not have much time left, but by then, on his death bed, he was no longer interested in telling his story. He was a wonderful man.

There are stories all around us. We drove across the country to visit friends in the village of Friesthorpe last week. There was a small church, which would have seated perhaps eighty people. Inside the church there was a small pulpit and electric heaters hanging from the ceiling. The pews held oblong tapestry cushions that showed images of special occasions or had been donated in memory of lost loved ones. At the front of the church were an enormous Bible and hand annotated prayer book dating from the 1800s. I leafed through the ageing pages guiltily, surprised the books weren’t behind glass. Afterwards, we took our time wandering through the graveyard outside, reading the worn headstones. One gravestone marked the place where a former church Reverend and his thirteenth daughter, a poet, had been laid to rest. A plaque inside the church revealed that the same family had lost five sons in the Great War. To me it is comforting to walk through a cemetery, reading the names of dead strangers and working out how old they were when they died. The individuality of headstones reflects how different we are in life. The engravings tell a story.

If only inanimate objects could talk. Can you imagine what the paintings on your walls have seen, what the tree at your window could tell you about the lives of the people who previously lived in your house? All the joyful and sordid details of our lives, played out in plain sight but hidden from all once we are gone. So writer, write. Choose your stories wisely. Write the truth of your life and those around you. Don’t hurry. Do your stories justice. But don’t ignore the sense of urgency you feel in your belly either. Every moment you wait to pick up your pen, there are stories fragmenting, spinning out of your reach into the depths of the universe, never to be heard of again.

IN PRAISE OF SLOWNESS

I’ve been neglecting my writing practice of late. We’ve had a whirlwind few weeks with visitors and getting our ducks in a row ahead of our move to Switzerland this summer. My husband has been offered a job there and we are looking forward to the adventure. Right now, I’m sprawled across our bed, watching the yellow light flicker on the leaves of the oak tree at our window. It feels great to have a moment’s pause to put pen to paper. Already the cloud of thoughts in my head is refining as it prepares to filter through my fingers onto the page.

We spent a few days in Geneva last week to visit schools, nurseries and houses. It was my first visit. What struck me most, beyond the beauty of the environment with its vineyards, gleaming lake and snow-tipped mountains, was the pace of life. We arrived on Sunday and spent the day driving through sleepy villages around Lake Geneva, trying to get a feel for where we would like to live. Most villages had little more than a church, a post office, a butcher and a bakery. The roads were empty. The few cars we did see were driven leisurely, with none of the haste intrinsic to life in the Big Smoke. On the Monday we had a packed schedule of appointments before our flight home. The very air in Geneva seemed still and heavy, as if it was nudging us to take our time and savour the strangeness of this new culture.

That evening we returned to London in the pelting rain. Exhausted, I ran late getting our daughter ready for school the next morning. I rushed the children to compensate. It would have taken too long to let my son walk. He grumbled as I hoisted him onto my hip and strode along the familiar route to school with my daughter scooting along beside us. His smile reappeared only on the way home when he was free to amble along at this own pace. At one point he stopped and pointed in wonder to a flock of birds passing overhead. I hadn’t even noticed.

Too often we rush through life as if we are ticking off a to do list. Our daily responsibilities are undertaken in clockwork fashion. Each night we lay our weary heads on our pillows and wake to a new dawn when we do the same all over again. We get pushed along by life’s currents, living as if we are running a track race, hurdling over obstacles and looking to the future like blinkered robots. We forget that it’s the quiet moments that steady us. They allow us to recoup, connect and contemplate what we have to be grateful for. Often it’s the quiet moments that bring us our eureka ideas.

Why is it then that we live our lives at an increasingly fast pace? We are so proud of how well we multi-task. How clever of me to change my son’s nappy while holding the phone under one ear and keeping an eye on the telly in the background. I text, read and email while I walk. Sometimes I am too focused on getting chores done that I zone out the children’s chatter. At times, food becomes more about refuelling than enjoyment. I wolf it down and am packing the dishwasher before I have finished the final mouthful. There is no time for smell and texture in this speeded up ritual.

It’s not just me. I notice this furious scrambling in almost everyone around me. If science would allow, it is not a big leap to imagine that many would resort to food pills à la The Jetsons. ‘I haven’t had time to brush my teeth this morning,’ says my mum. Hidden beneath her complaint is pride at how much she has achieved. It is often past lunchtime before she has time to eat a single morsel. Her body, tricked into thinking it is either feast or famine, is at risk of diabetes.

When was the last time you had a shower and concentrated on the feeling of the water pounding your body rather than planning your tasks for the day? When did you last go for a purposeless walk and take in the faces of the homes and the shape of the landscape around you? How often have you bruised yourself and not even been aware how it happened? How many times have you read a paragraph but can’t recall what it says, locked the door but forgotten that you did or driven a route and not remembered the journey? In our pursuit of happiness and success we perceive everything but ourselves.

I’m afraid that we convince ourselves as we grow older that we understand the meaning of life, but perhaps children understand it better than us. For our children, life is about simple pleasures: a walk in the rain in their wellies; a trip to the park; a jam sandwich and jelly; a bedtime story. When is it that we forget our sense of wonder? Is it possible to rediscover our joy in simple pleasures, to prune back our lives and give priority to a few things rather than a superficial attention to many things? Have you seen Banksy’s Mobile Lovers artwork? We have forgotten how to be present. We document our lives in pictures, videos and social media anecdotes, removed from living our experiences first-hand by the lens through which we view ourselves and the alternate realities we create.

Our minds are filled with a myriad of thought pathways competing for attention. The problem is that unless we focus on what we are doing, our attention is splintered and the rewards are fewer. Our happiness and success depend on how clearly we perceive and how skilfully we negotiate the world around us. Why is it then that as the information available to us reaches saturation point, we are more blind to the world and each other than before? How can we feel so deeply about crime or losses on both domestic and international stages only for them to be wiped from our memories a moment later?

I used to worry that my memory has worsened. In fact, there is so much information available today that the mind sends that which it deems unnecessary to its deepest caverns. It’s also likely that I don’t listen as well as I used to. Take song lyrics for example. As a pre-teen I could listen to a song a few times and would know the lyrics off by heart. Nowadays I rarely focus on a song long enough for that to be possible. My mind has become so used to endless stimuli that it is as if there is an anchor missing. We have retrained ourselves to leap consistently onto the next most interesting thing at the expense of taking value from anything.

I don’t buy that we have to live our lives at a rate of knots to be successful. That seems to be fool’s gold. Life sweeps us along until we make a stand. But I have a newsflash: Life. Can. Be. Slower.

Slowing down can be more meaningful.

Slowing down can be more pleasurable.

What could you achieve if you set your own pace and direction?

ON BEING FRESHLY PRESSED AND WHY WE WRITE

This is my first post since being Freshly Pressed and I’m still feeling giddy at all the attention. When I initially received an email from Cheri at WordPress, I had to Google what the term ‘Freshly Pressed’ means. For those of you unfamiliar with it, WordPress essentially picks a handful of posts each day to feature on their website. It’s a great way to reach new audiences. As there are only a few editors tasked with picking posts to be Freshly Pressed, and millions of blogs, it in no way shows your work is superior to anyone else’s but it is a fun ride. Now I’m on the other side of it, I have what can only be described as stage fright. Can this post measure up to my last one? What if my new readers followed me by accident? What if they don’t stick around to read the end of this sentence? I’ve now sat on those little demons of doubt so I can get on with telling you about the experience.

In terms of the number of readers it reached, my post on The Joys of Longhand Writing has been my most successful piece of writing yet. I’m very lucky that WordPress Editor and Story Wrangler Cheri (awesome job title, and almost as brilliant as a friend’s who is a forensic scientist specialising in explosives…imagine that on your business card) discovered it. It helped that she is currently using handwriting to help get unblocked. The writing we are drawn to often reflects our own thoughts and that helped me to be found.

The most exciting part has been the interactions in the comments on the article. It’s been a thrill talking to new readers. I loved reading the descriptions of how people feel when they are writing longhand. It seems many more people miss handwriting than I’d previously thought. I was also very excited to be placed next to my friend @akmakansi on the Freshly Pressed page. What are the chances of that?

There has also been a remarkable, likely short term, effect on my website stats. I’ve been blogging nearly a year. In that time, my average daily views have been about 25 (with the exception of a guest post which generated about 100 views) and my posts have been getting a maximum of a dozen likes and a few comments. I had 149 followers. In the two days since being Freshly Pressed I’ve had an additional 1700 views, nearly 400 likes on that particular post and about 150 comments. Notifications are still coming in. My follower numbers have more than doubled to 421. That is huge for me, so thank you. There are lots of words in the world, so thank you for sticking around to read mine.

The experience has in many ways made me think about social media etiquette. Is it polite to follow back those who follow you? Auto follow back probably makes good business and marketing sense, but I’m not sure that’s what I want. I’d rather rummage through other blogs slowly, taking in the new ideas and quirks of expression at my leisure. That way, reading each other is a joy and not a chore. Forgive me if it takes me a while to stop by your online homes, or if I don’t at all. I don’t want you to be another item on my to do list, governed by the rule of reciprocity. Let our relationship be free of pressure. That way, next time we meet and have a virtual cup of tea together and discuss books, ideas or our thoughts, we’ll know that each of us is exactly where we want to be.

I’ve also been thinking more widely about why we write. Perhaps it is just the stage I am at personally with regard to my writing ambitions and the increased opportunities that come with self-publishing and the reach of social media, but I think recently I have lost track of why I write. I mentioned in a past post that without readers, words aren’t alive. That is both true and besides the point in some ways. It is wonderful to have readers. We want to feel valued. But we write, because we have to. Even in a void, on a desert island, on a distant planet without the slightest chance of being read, we would write.

I write because I feel rushed when I speak, a pressure to get to the end of the sentence and let someone else have a turn. Writing allows me to explore my ideas in my own time, to pick precisely the right word to express my innermost thoughts. It gives me balance. I am sure I would be a frustrated wreck without it. So write, write for the joy of it, for the clarity it brings you, for that sense of immersion and wonder, even if there is noone around to read it.