Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Wisdom from the Master

On the way home from France today, Germany’s Top Husband played us Tim Ferris podcasts including this lovely one with Paulo Coehlo. Here are some jewels that spoke to me on the subject of writing:

  • On walking: “Walking is for me, my way of thinking, my way of meditating. It is not that I am thinking, but in a kind of trance, totally connected with the present moment.”
  • On what writing means to him: “What I do is to have pleasure, to have fun, to have social responsibility towards my readers, my self and the world where I live.”
  • On the writing process: “I go into a tank and I can only leave this tank when I have finished the book.”
  • He takes notes at night to empty his head so that he can sleep, but the next day the notes are “totally useless”
  • On capturing ideas: he does not capture ideas, but the book “that wants to be written” makes itself clear to him
  • On starting: “When you discover the first sentence, behind this first sentence is a thread that takes you to the last sentence.”
  • “When you write a book, as it is written in The Alchemist, you connect, you connect to the soul of the world, you connect to this energy that I call inspiration”
  • “If you want to capture ideas, you are lost because you are not going to live your life, you are going to be capturing ideas. You are going to be detached from the emotions that you need to live fully. You are going to be an observer and not a human being that is living his or her life … I strongly encourage writers not to think about writing every time they do something. Forget notebooks, forget taking notes. Let what is important remain.”
  • On tools: “I use Word; that is all.”
  • On stories and story archetypes: “There are only four stories: a love story between two people, a love story between three people, the struggle for power and a journey.”
  • On style: “Don’t try to innovate. You can innovate on Twitter, Facebook, mobile, but not in storytelling. Storytelling is pure, it is the essence, since the dawn of time and it is magical … It’s like fashion. Style is the dress, but the dress does not dictate what is inside the dress. What counts is the person inside the dress, not the dress itself.”
  • On simplicity: “Keep it simple.Keep it simple. Trust your reader. He or she has a lot of imagination. Don’t try to describe things. Give a hint and they will fulfill this hint with their own imaginations.”
  • On acceptance: “Writers want to please other writers. They want to be recognised by academia, by the system. Forget about this. Who cares, you know? You should care to share your soul and not to please other writers … This is a weakness.”
  • On getting stuck: “You are fighting with me, book? Okay, I will sit here and not leave you alone until I have found my way out of this crossroads. And then it may take ten minutes, it may take ten hours, but if you don’t have discipline enough, you don’t move forward.”
  • On research: “If you overload your book with research, you are going to be very boring to yourself and to your readers. Books are not here to show how intelligent and cultivated you are. Books are here to show your heart, to how your soul, and to tell your friends, your readers, you are not alone.”


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10 Things I Have Learned

So long since my last listicle. Here’s one, on things I have learned:

1. The difference between react and respond. React is fast and emotional and (if written in e-mail form, at work, after a long hard stressful day) can earn you enemies. Respond is considered and thoughtful. Our power lies in choosing to respond not react.

2. I never, ever, ever, want to go on a cruise. The thought of being trapped in a floating village with 2,000 other people that I have not personally selected to join me on holiday strikes dread.

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3. New Year’s Eve parties are mini-cruises: being trapped at a party that you can’t leave until a certain time, where you have to kiss people you don’t know/like while drunken adults manage fireworks in close proximity to small children is a horror.

4. Clearly, the concept of feeling trapped is an issue for me.

5. I came back from South Africa recently with the feeling that the way I live is extremely sheltered. Then the Germanwings tragedy happened and I realised that bad things happen everywhere. We have to live each day as well as we can and keeping loving our people.

6. Easter eggs bought well in advance of their due date will only be eaten.

7. Parenting is a long, slow, painful journey of learning to let go.

8. Nothing motivates the workforce more than chip day at the canteen. Especially if it falls serendipitously on chocolate pudding day.

9. Loyalty is becoming one of my favorite characteristics – in a spouse, in a friend, in a colleague. Forget charm or wit. Loyalty is hot.

10. Avoiding writing is equally painful as just doing it.

Pic courtesy of Vesselin Kolev on Flickr


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Radical Acts of Empathy

I’m attending the 18th Time of the Writer festival in Durban, SA. The theme of the festival is writing for your life, and at the opening night, each writer gave a short address on what this means for them. Here’s mine:

I work at a computer company, where a lot of very clever people spend their days writing code for software applications. The code they write now is in various programming languages, all of which are based on binary code which is made up of nothing but zeroes and ones.

One of my theories about the trouble we’re in right now as a human race is the fact that we tend to think in binary: male versus female, black versus white, old versus young, gay versus straight, Muslim versus Christian, atheist versus believer, northerner versus southerner, local versus foreign, poor versus wealthy, rural versus urban, fat versus thin, abled versus disabled.

Binary ways of thinking make us feel safe. They define who we are – and who we aren’t. But they are also extremely lazy.

For me, binary is a spectrum. On the mild end of that spectrum, we get stereotypes. What stereotypes do, is allow us to assign a certain set of characteristics to a person whom we believe falls into a certain group. If you ever hear someone saying ‘they’ about a group of people and then making a reductive assumption about the characteristics of those people, then you know they are stereotyping. As writers we have to fight the urge to indulge in stereotypes, no matter how convenient they may be. To do so, we have to address our unconscious biases.

The other end of the spectrum from stereotyping is othering.

Othering means defining others by their difference to us and deciding that that difference means they have less value than us. In South Africa, we have intimate experience of the dangers of othering. Our previous government ran a huge, state-sanctioned, legally enscribed othering project called Apartheid. Germany, where I now live, ran a military-industrial othering project called the Holocaust.

Stereotyping is lazy; othering is lethal. And it is born out of fear.

What both reading and writing offer us is the insight to break this lethal cycle and see the humanity of others – in those of different faiths, in those with different skin hues, in those from other lands, in those who are female and not actually less human, in those who are citizens of countries our governments might choose to be at war with, in those whose circumstances are different from our own.

We all think and breathe and love and cry and sweat and bleed. We all dream and hope and pray for the well-being of our children. We have so much more in common than we allow ourselves to believe.

Writing forces us to reflect on the rich inner lives of others, even if they are unpalatable. Reading opens us to a world where people who seem vastly, almost unrecognizably different from us, are just as human on the inside as we are.

Reading and writing are both radical acts of empathy, that enable us to break the shackles of binary thinking and not other people out of our own fear of difference. They teach us that each individual life is rich and complex and nuanced, just as our own lives are rich and complex and nuanced.

When we read and write, we engage in radical acts of empathy that crack open our hearts. We stop saying ‘they’ and start saying ‘us’.


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Tis Christmas and the Season for …

… single writer binges.

I have just emerged from a six-book Liane Moriarty feeding frenzy. Why had I never heard of her before? Anyway, I hadn’t and then serendipitously, she turned up in both my real life and my online book clubs – in the same week. Moriarty is an Australian writer whose novel Big Little Lies (I read it) just debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. And I can tell you why: her novels are strongly crafted, but not too artsy; her characters are warm and witty and full of foibles that make you want to be friends with them; her plots are intriguing without being full of red herrings and obvious tropes. My only criticism, and it is a mild one, is that they are the most middle-class books I have ever read. Joanna Trollope has been ousted from the pillar of middle-classery. There is nary a poor person, nor a homeless one, nor one of colour in any of the novels. It’s a world of yummy mummies, intrigue at the school gates and shenanigans in the Sydney suburbs. However, and this is what rescues the novels and I’m sure what has shot Moriarty to the top of the bestseller lists, she writes with such teasing wit that her characters laugh at themselves being middle-class at the gates of Sydney schools – and you laugh with them. Comfort reading at its absolute best.

So having sadly finished Moriarty’s entire oeuvre, I wrote to an Australian friend asking if she knew her. She didn’t but she did recommend the next writer into whose work I am now diving – Elena Ferrantes. An Italian whose work was first translated into English in 2012, Ferrantes has become a writing sensation. Described as an angry Jane Austen (you had me at that), Ferrantes has caught the public’s imagination as she refuses to do any publicity or put a face to her name (and she writes superbly). According to Wikipedia, she has admitted that she is a mother, which means she probably is female. I am reading the first of her Neapolitan novels My Brilliant Friend, and have the second and third ready to go on my e-reader. Things are dark and dreary in Ferrante’s work, there is relentless poverty but there are souls that shine out of the darkness. There will be a binge, I can predict it.

Since it is Christmas and things come in trios (wise men, etc), I have a third writer in mind. Both my mother and brother have devoured the Patrick O’ Brian novels, and he has named his Lab puppy Jack Aubrey. In honour of the less famous Jack, I plan to read these next.

Do you have any writers upon whose work you binge?


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First Draft Emotions

Writing novels is not as hard as coal-mining or refuse collection or washing the windows of skyscrapers, but it does cause a roller coaster of emotions.

As I sit down to write my 1,000 words every morning, here’s a collection of things I feel and think:

  • Get off Facebook, right here, right now
  • Just do it
  • That scene is crap
  • Why the hell is she doing that?
  • Is it a problem that I still don’t know who the murderer is?
  • Just do it
  • Everyone is going to hate this because it’s a piss-poor pile of crap
  • Nooooo! No to Facebook
  • Fighting again, Maggie? Please act like a grown-up
  • I hate that character and I still can’t explain why the story needs him
  • Abject terror! I have no idea what the next scene is
  • Just do it

Which is why when I read this quote from Jane Smiley: “Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist” I felt calm again. I am going to write it in CAPITALS and stick it up in my writing corner.

All it needs is to exist. It will be the perfect first draft.

 


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Not the Stranger in the Street

In South Africa, violence against women has its own particular shape and colour, and the killing of Reeva Steenkamp made it absolutely clear that no woman, no matter how privileged, can presume to be safe in her own home. South Africa has extremely high levels of violent crime – this is what we are known for 20 years after the end of Apartheid. However, the most lethal threat that women face is not the stranger in the street. It is not an armed and dangerous intruder – that figment of a paranoid imagining that Oscar Pistorius apparently feared so abjectly. It is the man she loves and lives with; a woman is killed by her intimate partner every eight hours in South Africa.

Margie Orford, writing in The Independent. Read the full article here.

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