Monday, May 25, 2015

Redolent

Remember the days when everything was still simple? Yeah, me neither. But that is memory for you. The minute you start seeing the world in another light, suddenly events from your past become a lot more complicated than you had initially experienced them. In fact, memory is a tricky thing, and one I have recently become fascinated with. And this not only because I am currently going through yet another exam period, and am spending large chunks of my day stuffing my head with *cough*useful *cough* knowledge. It is also because, since I have rounded off my first novel now (still looking for a publisher, though I have been offered a contract, be it from a publisher which proved a bit too shady for my tastes), I am looking forward to new projects. Partly, I’m planning to start a second novel this summer, with an idea I have had for a very long time. But recently I’ve also been struck by a new idea for a short story collection. The way I’m imagining it, it will not just be a hodgepodge of stories, though, but a structured complex stories which interconnect in many curious ways (much in the way as my literary hero does it in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters). And my central theme, I have decided, will be memory.
    ‘Redolent’ is a wonderful word meaning ‘strongly reminiscent or suggestive of,’ always accompanied by the prepositions ‘of’ or ‘with.’ It also has two other, less used meanings, the first of which is ‘literary,’ and defines ‘redolent’ as ‘strongly smelling of’; the second my dictionary calls ‘literary’ or ‘archaic,’ and interprets the word as ‘fragrant or sweet-smelling.’ In its earliest form, it is found in the Latin verb ‘redolere,’ a combination of the intensive prefix ‘red-’ and the verb ‘olere,’ meaning ‘giving off a smell.’ In its present participle, this became ‘redolens,’ which in turn became ‘redolentem’ in the accusative form. It was this form which was taken over in French as ‘redolent,’ which is how it ended up in English in around 1400. I cannot express how grateful I am that Febreze never got ahold of this word. It would be forever spoiled. 
It seems an ambitious enterprise, writing about memory; I freely admit that it is. Which is why I’m reading up on this curious phenomenon, and I’ve come across various surprising and interesting facts which I think will serve as inspiration. ‘Redolent’ is in this context a particularly interesting word, because it reminds us that our memories are often triggered by sensory experiences. Think about the first sentence of Love in Times of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” What Dr Urbino’s particular association between the two is, the reader has to wait to find out, but immediately in that first sentence there is a sensory trigger attached to a particular memory. And isn’t that exactly how memory works? 
    Because I have already done some brainstorming about the matter, I have decided that, much like memory (and also much in the style of my literary hero), the way to tie these stories together is through association. And one of those associations I have made is with magic. Isn’t memory a mysterious thing? How you can remember some things, while other things disappear almost the moment you see them. How you can suddenly remember something you had forgotten for years, and how you can suddenly forget about something which occupied your mind for months. How memories often (always?) seem different when you look back at them later. Memory, I would argue, is like a stage magician: it forces you to focus on some things, and overlook other things. That is why things can sometimes take up entirely different meanings so many years after the facts, even though the facts haven’t changed. And all this happens because the brain, the seat of your memory, works by means of neural connections. If the connections change (and they do all the time), the memory changes. And at any moment, at any time, any type of memory might be triggered to your consciousness. To Dr Urbino, the scent of bitter almonds, redolent of unrequited love. To others, maybe a piece of music, as is so beautifully expressed in a song by Elbow, Bones of You: “When out of the doorway the tentacles stretch, of a song that I know and the world moves in slow-mo,” after which the singer is transported back into a memory, “And it’s you, and it’s me, and we’re sleeping through the day; and I’m five years ago, and three thousand miles away...” 
     At the same time, memory can be an escape. Who doesn’t like nostalgia? It has that appealing combination of fondness and melancholy. To address this side of memory, I’m reading up on Houdini, the great escape artist (and magician). The man who fascinated audiences worldwide with his incredible feats of escape, sometimes from seemingly unbreakable confinement, may well serve as a metaphor for memory, which allows us to retreat from the present, and escape into some kind of past. On the other hand, memories can also trap you, and then it is the memory you have to escape from. It is an intricate dynamic, and one which I am curious to discover. At any rate, I have identified my own sensory experience which is redolent of things past: chlorine. When my sister and I were small, we used to go swimming every Saturday with our dad. I liked swimming—I particularly loved diving, and keeping in my breath as long as possible—and because I now rarely visit a swimming pool anymore, any whiff of chlorine can transport me back to those halcyon days. How about you? 

Friday, May 8, 2015

Neoteric

I have been confused lately. While trying to get my novel published, I went through what you might call a literary identity crisis. It is nothing very serious, but it troubles me. Suddenly, for example, I wasn’t sure anymore whether my novel is good enough. Then I decided that it might really not be good enough for my standards, and then I wondered whether I can really publish something I don’t stand behind 100%. Of course, I realize, this might just be my subconscious playing on me its latest stratagem to trick me into self-sabotage. Partly, I still feel like I should at least give it a try, even though the novel doesn’t live up to my current standards anymore. On the other hand, my darn principles stand in the way. On the other other hand, it seems—given some of the novel’s peculiarities—incredibly unlikely at this point that I will ever be able to get it published at all (so why even try?). And this is what bothers me most of all, because it is not the experiment which bothers me; my concerns lie mostly with the plot. I actually quite like the (modest) experimentation I engaged in, but I fear that it will exactly be that which will scare off publishers. Because in the current publishing climate, it is extremely difficult to do anything that is really ‘new.’ 
   ‘Neoteric’ can be both an adjective and a noun. As an adjective, it means either ‘belonging to recent times,’ ‘recent’ or ‘new or modern.’ As a noun, it denotes ‘a modern person,’ or ‘a person who advocates new ideas.’ Its origins date back to the Greek adjective ‘neoterikos’ (‘youthful, fresh, modern’), which then inevitably prompted a Latin transcription, ‘neotericus.’ It was taken over in English in the 1590s, and since then its meaning has not really shifted. According to my dictionary, it is ‘formal,’ but of course that will not stop us from using it. Be neoteric, use ‘neoteric’! (Okay, it sounds like a condom advertisement, but you get what I mean.)  
   As most writers, I did not give a great deal of thought to how I saw myself as a writer when I started writing. I simply knew I wanted to be a writer; I did not right away consider what kind of a writer I wanted to be, what kind of fiction I wanted to write, and what kind of a message I wanted to convey with my writing. And I am very happy that I didn’t, because since finishing my novel I have been thinking about it, and it has thrown me quite for a loop. Since then, I have arrived at the conclusion that I don’t like my novel anymore. But more problematically, I am also still struggling with what kind of prose I do want to write. It is quite a dilemma. I want my prose to be readable (so not too obscure), but I don’t want to be deliberately sensational. I want to write realist, personal, intimate stories that focus on character, and the character’s psyche and emotions. Now, you might say that this description gives a pretty good idea of what I’d like my fiction to look like. But it is my last literary ideal which messes up the whole picture, because I also want to be original. I don’t want to rehash stories that have been written a thousand times before; I want to make a new contribution. In my ideal world, I would like to be a neoteric. But how does one do this, exactly?
    I have been studying Ulysses in my free time (I have no life, and strange hobbies). I’m still trying to find a way to read it, and I’m not sure whether I really like it, but for me it has one thing going for it: it is fucking innovative. And that not only requires vision, but also a lot of guts. And they are the kind of guts most contemporary writers simply don’t have. Moreover, the innovation wave of modernism has long since stranded, and publishers now aren’t esthetes who are willing to risk everything for ‘art’—they want to sell. In the current publishing climate, I don’t think Joyce would have been able to get Ulysses published. And yes, there are several ways to be a neoteric, and you don’t have to engage in Joycean experiment to be innovative. But when my editor tells me to ‘tie up the ends’ for my novel, or tells me you can’t make a certain stylistic choice, I get just a little sad, because I think you should be able to do your own thing, as long as the ‘deviation’ is a conscious choice. 
   But where is the line? Where do you distinguish between ‘doing your own thing’ and ‘accommodating the reader’? Because I admit that there are certain problems with my writing style, and I need to edit my stuff like any other person. And yes, I want to write accessible, readable prose. But some things I simply do because I like them, and even though they might make my writing just a little less accessible, they are what makes writing joyful for me. And it would make me incredibly sad not to be able to do them anymore on account of ‘reader accommodation.’ This last given should, of course, make the choice an obvious one: you only ought to write if you love doing it (that is the only right reason to be a writer, really), and anything which might cause you to stop loving it, ought to be out of the question. But I would like to get published at some point; I do want to be read. And what if making the neoteric choice would stop me from ever achieving that? That would make me sad, too...
    As you can see, dearest reader, I am much in doubt. I greatly admire Joyce, if not because I love Ulysses, then because I am in awe of his dedication to his experiment, and the sheer amount of guts it takes to do such a thing. It isn’t easy to make the neoteric choice. But it is a necessary one, I think. In a text by Flannery O’Connor she writes that these days, the market is flooded by writers who write competently, but whose prose is essentially traditional, and, in fact, boring. The democratization of the market, and the existence of MFA programs in America, make that 90% of what gets published today is probably well-written, maybe even good—but good isn’t great. And to me, of course, being good is simply not good enough. I would like to do something new. 
    But there’s the other rub: how can you still do something new? The history of literature is a concatenation of action and reaction. At one point, a new literary format rails against the established literature. The movement is hailed as neoteric and innovative. Then it becomes so popular that the ‘new’ format becomes the established norm. Then another new format arises in reaction to what used to be new. Etcetera. The point being, of course, that this has been going on for a couple of centuries already. And modernism has happened already. Postmodernism too. The literary avant-garde has passed, and it seems frankly pompous to even try to do something ‘new,’ because so many people have already done so, successfully. And I would like to be neoteric without being obscure, but what if that last stipulation makes me, in fact, really traditional? And what if my wish for innovation will make my work unpublishable? Two combating ambitions, you might say, and both are quite persistent. They are the cause of my latest concerns. As stated, they have thrown me quite for a loop, so if anyone has any ideas, don’t hesitate to let me know. This aspiring neoteric is having issues.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Neophyte

Dearest reader, it has been done. My book has returned from the editor, and after some minor adjustments, it is officially ready to be served to a publisher. I have been working on this novel for about two years now, and though I hear that this is about how long it takes for just about every author I admire, it felt like a very long time to me. But then, I am only twenty-three, so I guess two years of my life does feel like a long time. Anyway. After two years of imbedding myself in my self-constructed fictional world, I have come out again, and should now dive headfirst into the very real world of query letters, credentials, agencies and publishers. I admit that I am a little daunted—if not downright terrified. Because while after three years of writing, I feel like I have gained some proficiency in that area, when it comes to publishing, I am as green as I could possibly be. 
     ‘Neophyte’ is defined by my dictionary as ‘a person who is new to a subject or activity.’ In its original meaning, it (still) refers to ‘a new convert to a religion’ or ‘a novice in a religious order, or a newly ordained priest.’ It came first into English as Church Latin in the 1550s, at which point its predominant meaning was ‘new convert’; its derived meaning of ‘one who is new to a subject’ is first recorded in the 1590s. To go all the way back to its roots, it derives from the Greek ‘neophytos’, a noun use of an adjective meaning ‘newly initiated, newly converted’; in a very literal sense, though, it means ‘newly planted,’ from ‘neos’ (‘new’) and ‘phytos’ (‘grown, planted’), which in turn derives from the verb ‘phyein’ (‘cause to grow, beget, plant’). Though its use appears to be rare before the 19th century, one could definitely say that ‘neophyte’ is anything but a novice. Unlike, oh say, ‘twerk’ or ‘selfie.’
    My neophyte status in the field of publication is giving me, I admit, quite some anxiety at the moment. In the assumption that my novel is, right now, the best it can be, there are so many things that can still go wrong when submitting your manuscript to a potential publisher. Depending on what publisher you are submitting to, the tone and style of your pitch can either be just right or just wrong, and chances are that you’ll fall into the second category. For a young writer like me especially, it is not at all easy to be considered seriously for publication. When the submission guidelines stipulate that you should include ‘relevant writing credentials’ in your query letter, I have several times now looked shamefacedly at the feeble paragraph that flowed out of my fingers. When you’ve only been published in a student magazine, and all you’ve managed to do was to become ‘runner-up’ in a writing competition nobody heard of (yeah, that was a thing—I haven’t told you about that, have I?), and you, uhh, oh yes!, you have a blog!—then chances are that you’ll be passed over quickly. Oh yes, and I’m a student. And I live in Belgium. And English is not even my mother tongue. Shit. 
    Long story short, I have a lot of factors working against me when it comes to being considered for publication. The only thing I can really hope for, is that (the preview of) my novel looks appealing enough to them to have a serious look at it. And, of course, it is wise to search specifically for publishers who consider new, unpublished authors. An added problem, though, is that my novel isn’t just a novel you can put in a paperback, or turn into an ebook which you can purchase on Amazon (which I am boycotting anyway). Because I have added some experimental touches here and there, you a) need to have my book in print and b) its production might require more than the average printing press. Which is expensive. Which makes it risky. Which makes it even more difficult to be considered for publication—added to which is that my book is ‘literary’ fiction, and deals with philosophy and psychology and poetry and whatnot, so it is likely not to be enjoyed by a very broad readership. So. More shit.  
    To be entirely honest: I am not feeling very optimistic about this, and not just because I am a neophyte in the publishing world. My editor suggested that I look into self-publication, but the sad fact is that, being a poor student, I simply do not have the funds to finance such a project. And another obstacle, I suppose, is also my own stubbornness about this publication business, because I am adamant about doing it ‘the proper way.’ And this, to me, means that I go through the harrowing process of sending out letter after letter until I can’t write anymore, getting so many rejection letters that I can supply the local origami club for several evenings, until finally someone is willing to take a risk on me. That’s how the greats got there, didn’t they? Patience and perseverance. And I believe in the process. But that, alas, does not make it any easier. Pray for me, dearest reader. I will need it.  

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Quixotic

If you would have told me a year ago that in less than seven months I would have managed to assemble and install a fully functional poem dispenser, I would probably have laughed at you. A poem dispenser? Such nonsense. Intriguing nonsense, but nonsense all the same—certainly not the type of nonsense I would think of as a feasible goal. The very idea seems barmy. I do often exhibit an optimistic and hopeful attitude towards the future, mostly due to my large imagination, and may sometimes even be accused of bovarism, but when I first half-laughingly suggested the idea, I certainly did not think that this would be in any way a plausible, if at all possible, achievement. But dreams, it seems, can sometimes come true; one does not even have to travel past the rainbow. Even when the dream in question is really, really barmy.   
     ‘Quixotic’ is defined by my dictionary as ‘extremely idealistic, unrealistic and impractical’. The word belongs to, by far, my favorite category of terms—terms which have their roots in literature. ‘Quixotic’ finds its origins in Spanish literature, referring back to one of the first heroes in literary history: Don Quixote. The knight who went to fight the windmills is undoubtedly the epitome of distorted ambition and outdated ideals. But a bit of hallucination is sometimes not unhealthy, as it shows. If it were up to me, I would fill my life with quixotry (BAM, it rhymes).
    I did not have any windmills to fight, or giants, for that matter, but I did have a machine to somehow bring into existence; a machine of which the very premise is quixotry. The idea is simple enough: you take your average toy vending machine, but instead of putting toys in the little capsules, you put in poems. When I first encountered the concept (for the record, I did not come up with this idea; I stole it from Pinterest) I immediately imagined such an apparatus residing at my university, in the corridor where the English Department is situated. It would be nothing short of glorious. 
    What an idea! The tiny universe created in a poem, contained into a plastic shell, brought randomly to whomever is willing to be surprised by poetry. The idea appealed immensely to my literary idealism; spreading knowledge and wisdom, making it marketable, and therefore accessible to a wide range of people (people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in poetry)... A utopian fantasy, but one I did not imagine ever being able to bring to fruition. It was a quixotry: the department could not possibly agree with it, it would be impossible to finance, and the practicalities behind it all seemed like a cloying web of logistics, which I knew I was no good at. 
     I was never so happy to be wrong. When I first suggested it, my peers’ enthusiasm about the idea surprised me, and because some of these peers have connections inside the department, they laid the first stones on the path hence: the department’s approval. More than this: they agreed to finance it, which was more than I could have hoped for. And once this foundation was laid, me and two dear friends of mine have been collaborating to bring about this quixotic experiment. 
     Don’t get me wrong: it was a cloying web of logistics, and there were many issues to deal with before we got where we are now, but on the whole it went more smoothly than I could have hoped for. I found a firm which still sells these (pretty old-fashioned) vending machines, inquired after their produce, got information. Once the type of dispenser had been settled on, I took care of the correspondence, paid for the dispenser (I still have to get my money back from the department, but I am confident that this will happen soon enough), and made sure that it, along with a very big bag of capsules, was sent to one of my co-conspirators, a very nice girl who in the mean time had been taking care of the object on which the dispenser would be mounted: a multi-functional upcycled cabinet, with three drawers, respectively for (1) empty capsules, (2) poem suggestions, and (3) a tiny book exchange. The result, I daresay, is quite enchanting.
     I, in the meantime, had to concern myself with the poems, which took some doing, since to fill the dispenser, one needs to fill 173 capsules. Which equals 173 poems. Even with my literary education, I can not, off the top of my head, name 173 poems, so I borrowed greedily from both the internet and my father’s library. This also required a system, because to avoid entering the same poem twice, I had to carefully keep track of which poems I used in my selection. I never much saw the use of spreadsheets, but I am quite in love with them now (oh lord, I’m starting to sound practical). 
    Another annoying thing about the poems was of a more physical nature: the capsules in which I had to fit them are pretty small, and I had to make sure to make my papers compact enough to fit into these capsules in their folded state. This also caused some difficulties, but we ultimately settled on an A5 format (which, in turn, had consequences for the type of poems I could include in my selection), and a particularly light type of paper, which can be folded into a very small size. Finding the right printer took some doing, but this obstacle was eventually also overcome. The dispenser has since been moved to the department, and once I get my money back, it is ready for use. 
    Realizing the quixotic, then, was not as impossible as I had thought, but it took quite some toil to get there. The more so, of course, because this is not a project for which I could rely on the expertise of others—none of them had ever endeavored something like this. The process, on the whole, felt like a long protracted improvisation, with a lot of groping in the dark, every turn making me wonder what on earth I was doing. But the results are there. Incredibly. Quixotically. But truly. My next dream is to organize a flash mob. Though that might be just a bit too quixotic.  

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Denouement

Ladies and gents, it has been done: progress on my novel has been finalized, and my exams, thank god, are over. Results of both endeavors are yet to be received—for my novel, I am waiting for my editor’s judgement, and for my exams, I assume my professors are still grading. But for now, I am content. It always gives me a curious feeling, completing something: on the one hand, I feel great satisfaction. My personal motto is “if you do something, do it well,” and completing the task is certainly a part of that commission. And while in terms of quality, I have doubts about both endeavors, it is usually a good sign when during the aftermath, you feel justified lazing around all day, rather than fretting about the results. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t feel the need to make some kind of assessment of the (now finalized) process. This goes mostly for the novel; I have taken quite a few exams by now, but this is the first time I wrote a novel, and I feel like lessons should be drawn from it. And in many ways, I already have; I feel like I have learned a tremendous lot already in merely writing and rewriting the thing. But during the last rewrite some new considerations and ponderations flickered up on my cognitive control panel, and these, I do feel the need to weigh consciously. And thus, I am thinking, and writing, and thinking about writing, and writing about writing, and writing about thinking about writing—and, as one may expect during these mental peregrinations, getting hopelessly lost in the process.  
     The literary-minded amongst you might recognize ‘denouement’ as ‘the final part of a play, film, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved.’ This is the primary definition, and, as such, it is predominantly used as a term which refers (in one medium or another) to storytelling. However, there is also a second definition, which, more generally, defines ‘denouement’ as ‘the outcome of a situation, when something is decided or made clear.’ The etymology in this case is probably clear: it is a word which was taken from the French ‘dénouement’ (‘an untying’) wholly unaltered (except for the diacritic, if we’re being finicky about it). To unravel this thing further, the noun derives from the verb ‘dénouer’ (‘untie’), from ‘des-’ (standard negation prefix) and ‘nouer’ (‘to tie’ or ‘to knot’) from the Latin ‘nodus’ (‘a knot’). Absolutely riveting, I know. Speaking from experience, I know that linguistics can keep you tied up for weeks on end. 
   It has been about a week now, since I finished it, and during the denouement I have been putting some things in perspective. Sadly, I have to say that my novel as it is now, is not the epitome of awesome I would have wished it. For one, because it isn’t perfect (lol), but more than that, because some of its premises don’t rhyme anymore with what I consider to be ‘good literature’. Which is regrettable, but I don’t think it could have been helped. Since I started writing my novel back in 2013, I have thought a lot about what I consider ‘good literature’, and, more specifically, what kind of fiction I myself want to write. This mental odyssey has yielded some results, although I find to my annoyance that I still have doubts on a daily basis. But however my literary aspirations might fluctuate, there are some conclusions which have remained stable. As such, I have used this week of denouement to pen down a sort of manifesto, to remind myself of what I really want, and to make sure that I stick to it; during the writing process, all kinds of temptations pop up, luring the unsuspecting writer into making some decisions which they might regret later. Things which, during the kill-your-darlings stage of the process, become one hell of a nuisance. 
    I regret to say that I have given in to several of these temptations, some of which are difficult (if not impossible) to fix without bulldozering most of it. Feeling more than a little reluctant to do this, I have decided (uncharacteristically) to accept the novel’s flaws, rather than rewrite it again, and consider it a lesson for next time. Just to give you an example, here is one of my conclusions: “Your most important concern is always the story. You want to write fiction because you want to engage with real-life people, and realistic, detailed characters. Writing with abstract ideas is okay, but will only ever be secondary to writing believable characters. Fiction writing is not a way to make abstract ideas concrete, but should always stem from a desire to tell a story. It is a way to give shape to real lives, with real, contradictory, messy, incongruent people, who would only be reductions of themselves if they merely represented abstract ideas. Care of your characters should always be your first priority. People over ideas.”
    Sadly, this is something I lost sight of at several points in my story. I wanted to write with a theme, for my book to have a message, but if you shoehorn your characters into a thematic mold where they become representations of the message you want to express, that doesn’t do the character justice. Too often I found myself luxuriating in my own cleverness for thinking up complex patterns of abstract ideas which might be represented in such or such a way. And I like abstract ideas; I like playing around with them. But while you can play around with abstract ideas without getting people hurt, you can’t play around with (fictional) people and expect the same result. So I’m letting go of that by reminding myself that I want to write fiction in the first place because I love people. If you want to write about ideas, you can write an essay. If you want to write fiction, you should write about people. There are many other conclusions I wrote down, but this is number one. It is a mistake I sadly made, but one, I am glad to know, I apprehended during the denouement of this project. It is, I hope, not one I will make again. In the mean time, I am happy with the experience, and hopeful about the future. Let’s hear it for denouement...       

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Osmosis

One would sometimes forget whilst reading these blogposts, but between the writing acts, I am also a student. A student who is currently plodding her way through another exam period, which is getting increasingly tedious. This, partly due to the fact that my courses last semester were mostly of the kind you have to take but which aren’t really interesting (to me, at least), and partly because I’ve been going over the material so many times now that my vision is starting to blur at the mere view of the words. At the moment I am mostly assimilating everything into a coherent and accessible whole, which means, in reality, that I am just rereading things. The heavy memorization stage is over now, thankfully. But the heavy memorization stage did take a while, and it’s this stage which every student would no doubt like to skip. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if you could just read over your course a couple of times and everything would stick with you in neatly-ordered piles of knowledge? That would make life so much easier.
    ‘Osmosis’ is originally a scientific term, used in biology and chemistry to denote ‘a process by which molecules of a solvent tend to pass through a semipermeable membrane from a less concentrated solution into a more concentrated one’. It had to be mentioned. The word is more commonly (and more kindly to less scientifically gifted people) used, however, in a more general way, in which case it refers to ‘the process of gradual or unconscious assimilation of ideas, knowledge, etc.’ It derives from the latinized form of the Greek word ‘osmos’ (‘a thrusting, pushing’), from the verb ‘othein’ (‘to push’). This word was adapted into French as the word ‘endosmose’, where they added the prefix ‘endo’ (‘inward’), thereby adding to the meaning so it came to denote ‘the inward passage of a fluid through a porous septum’. This form was then shortened back into ‘osmose’, and then taken over by English as ‘osmosis’. The figurative expression is easily visualizable: the ‘fluid’ as ‘ideas’ or ‘knowledge’, gradually seeping through the porous membrane of your memory. Makes sense, no?
     As students, alas, we know that osmosis is, to a certain extent, a utopia—pragmatically speaking, at least, it is impossible to learn so much material in only a couple of weeks through osmosis only. Active effort is necessary. Osmosis is, however, frequently (though not under that name) given as writing advice. More concretely, one of the things every writer will tell you to do, is to read a lot. Some will tell you to read only the best (because reading second-rate literature? ain’t nobody got time for that), and only the genres which interest you; others will tell you to read everything, in every genre, of every quality—the theory being that you can learn as much (if not more) from seeing how one shouldn’t do it. Whichever you do doesn’t much matter to me. Personally I am inclined to only read ‘good’ literature (whatever that is), though the occasional bad book will sneak in now and then (hum-hum), and of course we all have our genre preferences. But the number one rule stays the same: if you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader first.
    I am not contesting this rule. In fact, I’m enhancing it. I think reading is the basis, but I don’t think it’s enough. The general assumption is that if you read good books by good writers, you will osmotically assimilate their qualities, and this will appear in your own writing as if by magic. Learning to write by literally copying others is actually one type of writing advice which I have occasionally encountered, and a technique which writers like Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson have actively used. Of course, writing out someone else’s writing is a much more focused process than merely reading it, and therefore I am not discarding this particular piece of advice. But just reading or just writing someone else’s text won’t make you a better writer per se. It will only work if you do it consciously.
    And this, I think, is key: as a writer it is important to read a lot, but it is also important to do so in a way that actively incorporates your reading activity into your writing activity. Don’t get me wrong: as a writer you can read purely for your own enjoyment; this is perfectly legitimate. But if you want to learn something, being fully conscious of what you’re reading is, I think, paramount. The trick is to learn how to read like a writer, and not just assume that lecture of good literature will osmotically infiltrate your brain. Reading good books certainly won’t harm your writing, but it may not necessarily do it any good. Reading like a writer requires a special degree of attention to details, and an analytical attitude. When I’m reading a piece of writing these days, and I see something I like, I often stop for a moment and think: what is the writer doing here, and why does it work? Or, conversely, what is the writer doing here which I do not like at all? The first observation is often that the vices of bad writing are easier to pinpoint than the qualities of good writing, mainly because weeding out common mistakes is usually the first thing writing guides will help you with. Determining what makes a sentence flow, or a text worth reading, is often more difficult to pull off, but as with all unattainable goals, the effort is valiant, and the goal worthy. 
    And therefore, I think, worth considering. I made it my reading intention this year to reread a lot of previously read material—both books which truly delighted me and books which didn’t so much delight, but rather intrigued me. And in doing so, I intend to be really conscious this time around as to what is going on in the text. The plot already being known to me, I won’t have to rush to the end (in case of a thrilling plot), and have more time to relish the writing. And I would like to not only do that, but also to actively analyze what I’m reading. I tend to be distrustful of osmosis. It’s a bit like falling in love, or indoctrination; you won’t realize what’s going on until it’s too late. And though I could think of worse things to happen to me than developing the ability to effortlessly absorb literary greatness, I prefer to do it consciously. Otherwise, where’s the fun, anyway? 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Hwyl

And here we are again, after another year of blogging. I am once again astounded that I’ve persevered doing this, but it has been my joy and comfort for yet another year. At times when other writing activities were, if not entirely dormant, at least pleasantly snoozy, it has been a constant motivation for me to continue practicing this exhausting, exasperating, and exhilarating craft called writing. And so, after another year, the common mindset seems to expand until our memory reaches back to the beginning of this year, and we make an evaluation. Has this year been good? If yes, why so? If no, why not? Once again we go about our annual task of respectively evaluating the past and building intentions for the future. I generally like to skip the second part, because while I find evaluation useful, I have always believed that, if you want to make things happen, you shouldn’t think about them too much beforehand. If I had been feeling more anxious and less trusting about the future, I might have felt the need to make a detailed plan. But for now, I trust on a remarkable feeling which has been building inside me all year, and which I’ve been experiencing quite a lot lately. I find that I like it. 
     ‘Hwyl’ is a marvelous little word denoting ‘a stirring feeling of emotional motivation and energy’. It is an originally Welsh word (could you tell?), which was used in reference to oration—you know how the Welsh are about their bards. Originally ‘hwyl’ was a nautical term, and referred to the sail of a ship, but was then metonymically reinterpreted as a ‘course’. In the context of public speaking, ‘hwyl’ came to denote ‘a sudden ecstatic inspiration’ which carried the speaker away on its wings, supplying him with burning words of eloquence which he would never have been able to find in a normal state. When the word was taken over by the English, it gained a broader interpretation, away from the specific context of public speaking. It is still stirring, though.
      Dearest reader, I admit to some anxiety. 2014 has been a startlingly fantastic year, and I fear that, when the clock strikes twelve on the 31st, I will, Cinderella-like, lose the luck which kismet seemed to have bequeathed to me on the 1st of January 2014. The fear that my good fortunes will turn their backs to me yelling ‘JUST KIDDING’ is very real. It is also howlingly superstitious, so thankfully I know how to rationalize it. After all, my perceived ‘turn-around’ at the beginning of 2014 didn’t come out of nowhere; I laid plenty of groundwork in 2013 already, and I think I did the same for 2015. If all else fails, at least I can say I came prepared. As it is, my anxiety isn’t a crippling one, and with my rapidly expanding hwyl as a battering ram, I aspire to barrel through the door of 2015, whatever it might bring.  
     Hwyl has been nestling in my bones the past couple of months. With ups and downs, of course, but I am happy with the progress. I feel motivated, determined and focused and it’s a state-of-mind I intend to keep. In order to do that, I have delineated three purposes for the coming year: first, to finish that goddamn novel and actually (try to) do something with it; second, to do well in school. And third, to enjoy the process. 
     It is this third intention which I feel ought to be my priority, but I fear that it will probably the hardest, because many people (including myself) make the mistake of seeing their goals as more important than their happiness. Plus, ‘enjoying the process’ sounds a bit vague, doesn’t it? It’s a lot easier to imagine what one has to do to get good grades and finish that goddamn novel. But ‘enjoying the process’? It is tricky, and it will undoubtedly remain so, but I have figured out two strategies I would like to keep in mind next year. 
     First of all, I think that, to maximize my personal hwyl, one thing I should strive for in my day-to-day business is flow. ‘Flow’ is a term from positive psychology, coined by a scientist with the unpronounceable name Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He describes ‘flow’ as a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Flow is a state of complete absorption, and while you’re in it you experience a feeling of spontaneous joy and even rapture while performing the task. The trick to getting into a flow is to perform an activity which is easy enough for you to feel competent, and challenging enough for you not to feel bored. It typically happens when you’re doing something you love (I’ve had it often while writing), but it can also happen during trivial activities like doing the dishes (balancing all those plates on a draining board can be challenging sometimes). During a flow-experience you feel optimal motivation, you are energized, and hours can pass performing the activity without you noticing it. It is one of the purest ways to happiness, I think, because it is not goal-drive but solely focused on the activity itself. And I have noticed that I like focus; I enjoy the feeling of being totally engrossed in something, forgetting yourself entirely. Not that want to escape myself, mind you; in fact, I think flow experiences can boost your self-confidence, which should make spending time with yourself easier. And I think that, if I can increasingly incorporate these moments of flow in my life, that should give a great boost to my hwyl. 
     The second intention is to hunt down and eradicate that pestilential animal, expectation. Only recently I caught myself committing the same mistake I warned myself about a little more than a year ago: to expect too much. But despite my precautions it sneaked up on me more than once this year. And, having ensnared me, it tugged along its little cousin, disappointment. Because that is often the product of expectation, and dammit, I want to get rid of it. If I can just chug along my merry way without worrying too much about the future and all its promises, I know I could be perfectly happy. And any frustration about writing (“UGH, bad writers are getting published and I’m working my ass off here and why won’t anyone publish meee?”), to name just one, would be blissfully absent. It’s a very Western idea, isn’t it? When you really want something, the consequence of that is the silent (often unconscious) assumption of entitlement. Surely, you think, if I want something this badly, I should have a right to have it? People who don’t want it as badly as I do are getting it, which falls straight into the so-not-fair category. But life and fairness, alas, don’t have a very high match percentage. And while it is perfectly okay to want something, the idea that such a desire gives you the right to have it (meaning that you have a right to demand it from the world, and be justified in your disgruntlement when you don’t get it) is, to only cover the utilitarian side of things, not very realistic. And so I came up with a maxim and stuck it on the cork board above my desk. This is what it says:


It’s an extension of the flow-principle, maybe. Expectation lies in the future, while real happiness (cliché alert) can only happen in the present. And if you lose the expectation, you can be as zealous, as motivated and as enthusiastic about something as you like; it can be an active expander of your hwyl, and need never be a source of frustration. Quite a liberating realization, that. 
     But enough psychologizing; it is time for wishes. My dearest reader, I thank you once again for your loyalty if you’ve been with me for a while, and for your curiosity if you just stumbled on this blog, and made it to the end of this post. I hope 2015 will be full of hwyl, joy and tasty food. I wish you good health, interesting books and pleasant company. And this, and so much more.