Friday 29 July 2011

Where does inspiration come from?

Divine inspiration
Image source: Lviv Polytechnic National University
I've read a couple of great posts lately on the subject of writing, one here at Books and Bowel Movements and another at The New Dork Review of Books and Greg from The New Dork Review's reply to my comment got me thinking about something. All my life I have always had this idea that to write a great work of fiction in any format, you need to have a story bursting out of you, something almost alien that consumes you and takes over the function of your hands as you frantically type away, creating a masterpiece. To be honest I have no idea why I think like this because I know, logically, that writing is work. You produce the first draft, then the second and get feedback and rework it and rework it until it's something that you're willing to release into the world. I do this all the time with my non-fiction writing so why have I got myself in such a twist about the fiction writing aspect? Is this idea that all great novels start out as a story begging to be told within the author just a myth? Who started this myth?

I was reviewing my archive of bookish podcasts while I was pondering this when I had a vague recollection of something I heard a few years back from Alice Walker so I went back and listened to it.
"I prepared by changing my life almost completely. I was living in New York City, I was an editor at Ms. Magazine, I was married... and I knew that I could not write this story which started coming to me in the actual voices of the people... I knew I couldn't write it in the city because of the tall buildings, the noise...  I also knew that I could not remain with my husband because the world that we had was charming and good but not large enough for these people and he would not have been able to understand them and he would not have been able to understand who I was to write this, so I got a divorce... we sold our house, eventually got my half of the money from the house, moved here. The people of the story, they were very real to me. They loved the beauty of San Francisco... a lot. They didn't like the earthquakes though so I knew then I had to take them out of the city to the countryside." 
Alice Walker, speaking about writing The Color Purple
BBC World Service "World Book Club: Alice Walker"
Released as a podcast 18 November 2008

Small wonder, listening to this, that I have this embedded idea when I heard such a highly respected author saying she was so inspired that she had to get divorced, quit her job and move cross-country! Then I wondered if I had heard this from other authors and found this from J K Rowling...
Sue Lawley (DID presenter): I've heard writers before, Joanne, say that stories come into their mind and demand to be written. Is that how it was with Harry?
J K Rowling: Absolutely. It was, yes. I was 25 when I had the idea for Harry and I had been writing, if you include all of the embarrassing teenaged rubbish, for years and years and I had never been so excited by an idea in my life. I'd abandoned two novels for adults prior to that, actually the second novel I was still writing when I had the idea for Harry. For six months I tried to write them both simultaneously but then Harry just took over completely.
J K Rowling speaking about writing Harry Potter
BBC Radio  4 "Desert Island Discs"
First released 5 November 2000

If we consider here what Alice Walker and J K Rowling have said, then it really does sound like a story moves in from some other place and takes over. It's the divine inspiration idea that's been around for centuries. It's a perfectly lovely idea, of course for those who want an easy explanation of how and why art of any kind is created and why it is that some art affects some people more deeply than others does. However, for those of us sat in front of a blank computer screen with only a cold cup of coffee to hand and a defiantly blinking cursor tormenting us, it's not much comfort. What are we supposed to do? Sit around and wait for inspiration to strike? Where does this inspiration come? New York city, like Alice Walker? On a delayed British Rail train, like J K Rowling? Personally, I couldn't think of two more diametrically opposed locations in terms of potential for inspiration. What do we do in the meantime? 

I like to take comfort from this quote from Khaled Hosseini. To me, this is a more realistic tale of how a great book came into being. It started off with an idea from the piece of news that the Taliban were going to ban kite-flying in Afghanistan, something which was personally significant to Hosseini since he had loved to do this when he was younger. From there, he said, it grew.
"So then I sat down, and I thought I would just write this whimsical story about kite-flying in Kabul... and of course, stories take a life of their own and gradually what started as this little kite story became a 25-page short story about this kind of complicated friendship between these two boys, this doomed friendship. And it became a story about cowardice and betrayal and honour and guilt and forgiveness and so on. And then the short story sat around for a couple of years until the March of 2001 when my wife discovered it and read it... and then I revisited the story and realised that even though it was really flawed it had a big heart and maybe the nucleus of what could become a really interesting piece of longer fiction. And that was the basis for the novel."
Khaled Hosseini, speaking about The Kite Runner
BBC World Service "World Book Club: Khaled Hosseini"
Released as a podcast  27 May 2008

From an idea to an abandoned short story to a hugely successful novel. It took was his wife's interest and enjoyment of the story for him to realise that this story was one that had massive potential, that 'big heart' despite all of the flaws that he could also see in it. 

I know that all stories have to come from somewhere, but I'm starting to think that they don't have to necessarily be that lightning strike of inspiration. Perhaps not everything we write is going to be that number one bestseller or Booker Prize winning story. Maybe we need to write a bunch of so-so stories before we can write the really good one. In the same way that you would never imagine that you'd go out and run a marathon with no prior training, maybe I should reconfigure my view to think of all writing as training for the 'big event', that hoped for and dreamed of published book. I mean, seriously. Even J K Rowling said that she'd been writing for 'years and years' before Harry came along and do you think that Alice Walker never wrote anything before The Color Purple? Exactly. I don't doubt that they really did experience that extraordinary 'boom' of inspiration but looking at Hosseini's story, it doesn't seem like it is as necessary as I once thought it was. Sure you need an idea, but that idea can just as easily germinate from a small seed as it can be transplanted into your brain. 

Looks like I just need to get myself into training for when that idea comes along. 

How about you? What do you think of the "story that just had to be written" idea?

Thursday 21 July 2011

Where is home?

The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.  ~Oliver Wendell Holmes
Auckland City seen from the North Shore
Image Copyright: Kath Liu 2011

For me, this one quote perfectly sums up what it feels like to return to your country of origin, be it permanently or for a quick visit, after a period of living overseas. For me, it feels like something has grown and it no longer fits like it used to, like a favourite t-shirt you used to wear all the time that accidentally got shrunk in the wash. Of course, the process of change from being overseas is a lot slower and more subtle than an overnight laundry incident and you often won't even realise that it has happened until you go back for your first visit. The process of trying on your previous life for size, as it were.

When I'm asked where I'm from, it's a challenge to answer in absolutes. I was born in Cornwall, England but I did all of my teenaged growing up in Auckland, New Zealand. I was already a bit of a mutt before I moved to Taiwan but now I feel like I've morphed into something else entirely but goodness knows what that actually is. All I know is that when I went back home to NZ for a visit recently, I felt different. Stretched. Slightly misshapen. A little odd. There were the obvious things that happen that made me notice, like the fact that I forgot that in NZ you follow road traffic conventions and keep to the left on escalators (in Taipei it's the reverse and you stay to the right-hand side) and I was shocked and appalled by the cost of living and how it had risen since I had last been back - mind you I don't think you need to have left the country to feel like that when  inflation is 5-6% per annum and wage increases are 1-2% per annum.

But there were other things that made me feel weird, like after having had a couple of glasses of wine at the wedding I was there for, I found Mandarin phrases bubbling up through. I found myself nearly saying "為什麼?" (wèishéme?) instead of "Why?" and other strange linguistic anomalies. I found myself feeling unusually intimidated by hoodie-wearing youths even though I knew that they weren't at all dangerous. I found myself feeling like a stranger in a place where I used to be absolutely comfortable - feeling exactly the same way that I did two years ago when I first moved to Taiwan. I guess if I was going to be staying in NZ longer than I was you'd say I was experiencing reverse culture shock but since I was only there for a week, I'll just call it feeling out of place in a familiar environment. 

It's a fairly lonely experience too. There you are, feeling like a fish out of water and everyone else around you has no idea you're feeling like that. Why would they? You've come back home. It's natural for them to assume that you feel like you've just slotted straight back into your old life and everything feels comfortable and familiar.  So how was I supposed to tell anyone? If I responded to "I bet it feels good to be home!" with "Actually it feels really weird and I don't feel like I fit in here anymore..." then I run the risk of accidentally offending someone or making it sound like I wasn't enjoying the fact that I was back in NZ which I was, absolutely. Being back and seeing all of my dear friends and spending time with family was fabulous. The ability to shop in regular stores who carried my size was brilliant. Going to the supermarket and seeing more cheese than you could shake a stick at was lovely. Nothing was wrong with New Zealand, what was wrong was me.

Living overseas changes you, it has to - you have to adapt to a new environment, usually learn a new language and get used to all sorts of crazy things. I mean, this makes sense logically but the emotional reality of these changes can sometimes be harder to accept. Going back to NZ pointed out to me that I wasn't the same person who left in 2009 and that felt very strange. If I wasn't that person anymore then who was I? Where did I fit in? Where was home really at? There is something rather unsettling in not really knowing which country is your home but it's also kind of exciting because it opens up all sorts of possibilities. If I can count England, New Zealand and Taiwan as my 'homes' of various types then doesn't that mean that ultimately anywhere we choose to settle could be considered home? Life without boundaries can be terrifying but also freeing. Maybe that old t-shirt no longer fits but there are many more out there that will.

Have you ever had this experience of going back to a place you used to live in and feeling like a stranger? How did you deal with it?

Sunday 17 July 2011

Sunday Salon: Desert Island Books

As a kid, one of my favourite radio programmes was Desert Island Discs, a BBC Radio 4 production that has been running since 1942. The basic format is that a well-known guest is invited onto the show and asked to imagine that they will be stranded for an indefinite period on a desert island with 8 pieces of music, one book of their choice, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, the Bible or other relevant religious/philosophical work and one luxury item which must be inanimate and of no use to escaping from the island. In between explaining their music choices, the guests talk about their lives and since this programme is basically an institution, they've had just about everyone you can think of on there. Imagine my delight, then, when I found out that I could subscribe to the podcasts of current episodes AND access the archives all the way back to 1998.

Which got me thinking - how about the literary version? What if instead of music you had to choose books to take with you?

Book choice one: Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

This hardback book is a compilation of the first three Malory Towers books, one that I read many a time during my childhood. There was something magical to me about the escapism of boarding school stories. I loved being at school (the nerdiness started young) and thought that eating meals, being at school after the sun went down and then sleeping there with all of my friends would be fabulous. Now I'm a bit older and wiser I can see that boarding school would likely not have been all it was cracked up to be in my head but if I'm going to be stuck on a desert island, I figure escapism to a magical place of my childhood might be just what the doctor ordered.

Book choice two: Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose (selected and edited by Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi)

I'd always been one of those 'girls can do anything' kids and when I got to university and started studying for my Bachelor of Arts, I was exposed to a wealth of ideas about feminism. When I continued on to study Literature papers in my Grad Dip Arts (to make up for the fact that, oddly, I did no undergrad Lit papers in my BA) the interest continued and grew and I focused a lot on the literature of women. This book was a required text for one of my papers and one I really enjoyed for the fact that you could dip in and out of it and it always gave you something to think about. I know that if I'm going to be alone with nothing but trees to talk to for an indefinite period of time, I'll need something to keep me thinking to stave off the insanity!

Book choice three: Selected Poems of Anne Sexton (edited with intro from Diane Wood Middlebrook and Diana Hume George) 

Expanding on the point above, this book was also a required text. Sexton's poetry isn't exactly of the uplifting variety so it's more likely that I'll be reading it on the beach in the day time rather than by the camp fire at night but it's got a lot to it so will give me something to think about.

Book choice four: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Some books you can read and read and they never get old. For me, Wuthering Heights is one of those books and it's not because I wish that I could have a dark and moody lover named Heathcliff brooding over me. The main reason I love this book is the atmosphere, the stormy Yorkshire moors, the old stone houses and the creaking gates in the wind... *shiver*. Absolutely fantastic!

Book choice five: The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and the birth of Modern China by Emma Pakula.

I'm noticing that a lot of my choices are non-fiction and/or educational. This one is all about the wife of Chiang Kai-Shek, the first President of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Apparently she was something of a power-house and by all accounts, one helluva interesting lady so I thought why not take the time to learn something about the history and formation of my husband's country of origin from the perspective of one of the most powerful women at that time.

Gribbin Head Lighthouse
Image credit: Wild About Britain
Book choice six: Lighthouses by Jenny Linford

Growing up on the rugged and beautiful coastline of Cornwall means I have salt water running through my veins. I never feel more alive than when I'm standing on a cliff top, looking out over the ocean, preferably with a good strong breeze blowing through my hair. As a result, when I moved away from the Cornish coast to the more sedate (but still beautiful) coastline of Auckland, I became a little obsessed with lighthouses. My old office at Massey University was plastered with pictures of lighthouses, and since I worked in a Psych department there were of course more than a few Freudian explanations offered for this love of mine! Nothing Freudian about it, honest. I just find them evocative and beautiful and they remind me of romping along the cliff paths in St. Austell Bay towards Gribbin Head.

Book choice seven: The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

This book was recommended to me by a friend but I haven't read it yet. I figure that if there is ever a time I will need to be consoled, it'll be when I'm stuck on a desert island.

Book choice eight: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

My father read this to my younger brother and I when we were kids. I loved the book, I loved the movies and it's a massive book which means it will keep me occupied for a while. There's nothing like a bit of Mordor to distract from the fact you're stranded, right?

Luxury item: Unlimited supply of writing supplies.

What would some of your Desert Island book choices be? Luxury item?

Friday 15 July 2011

Expat Women: Confessions - Review

Expat Women: Confessions - 50 Answers to Your Real-Life Questions about Living Abroad
By Andrea Martins and Victoria Hepworth
Published by Expat Women Enterprises Pty Ltd ATF Expat Women
Published in May, 2011
ISBN-13: 978-0980823608

The Expat Women website ( is a website that aims to equip women living expatriate lifestyles with knowledge, resources and an online support network in the hope that this will enable them to live fulfilling and enjoyable lives at their various overseas locations. This book is a result of the compilation of fifty reader's real-life 'confessions' about their lives and the issues that typically plague those who live the expatriate lifestyle.

The book is split into six sections covering settling into a new country, questions of career and money, raising children abroad, relationship issues, other common issues associated with living abroad and of course the inevitable return home. Each question is given a positive and helpful response, focusing on plans of attack and solutions whilst still retaining a strong grounding in reality.

The questions covered range from the everyday struggles to the darker realities of life such as infidelity and teen suicide and although certainly not all of them will be relevant to all who read this book at one time, this seems to be an excellent resource to dip into on the occasion that you're feeling a little lost or in need of guidance. The most consistently made point in the whole of this book is need for a social connection. Going overseas to live may seem like a glamourous lifestyle to those we have left behind but in reality it can be isolating and scary, especially if you're living in a country where you don't speak the language or understand the culture. Meeting others who you can connect with and who can relate to your experiences is an essential part of settling into and living a meaningful existence in your new country which is one of the driving forces behind The Community Services Center - Taipei, were I work.

There is one issue that I had with this book, however. Despite its global reach of looking at the lives of women in loads of different countries, I felt like it was really focusing on one particular sort of expat woman, namely those who have moved abroad due to a corporate contract. Which isn't to say that this group is not worthy of focus but there are other women living lives overseas who don't fit this category. What about those who moved overseas to teach? What about those who are doing missionary work? What about those, like myself, who are 'foreign spouses'? What about overseas-born folks who have come back to their parent's home country to explore their cultural roots? Perhaps I'm asking too much for one book to be able to incorporate the views and experiences of such a diverse range of women but then again, aren't we all women who are expatriated even if we're not living what is commonly understood to be the 'expatriate lifestyle'? I think, in the spirit in which this book is written, perhaps the best solution based answer to this expat confession would be to suggest that there is room for a future book: Other Expat Women: Confessions Continued...

But despite the fact that one size doesn't fit all, there are plenty of people I know who will find this book a very useful addition to their bookshelf. Whether you're thinking about moving overseas, newly arrived or even been overseas for a while now this book will have something to offer. It doesn't matter where you are in your life, the main message of this book is that you can and will succeed and find happiness and that there are others out there who know exactly how you feel. 

Monday 11 July 2011

Amy Chua talks to the Guardian

I found this last night and thought you guys might find it interesting... Click here for the podcast. Having listened to it I'm not entirely convinced she's as 'self-deprecating' or 'humbled' as she claims... let me know what you think once you've had a listen!