The insanity of writing

A book editor I’m following on Twitter had a question for her followers yesterday, one I’ve reflected on myself from time to time.

I’m not sure I ever figured out why I write. There is the Maya Angelou quote I have as my tagline. It’s painful having a story inside me without being able to tell anyone. It’s hard to explain to outsiders why I keep doing what may look like insanity to them. Writing a book, getting it published, and achieving success is hard, as Keidi Keating pointed out, so why do we put ourselves through it? 

Personally, I find “I’ll show them” to be a great motivator. I used to get sad when people labelled me, or assumed things about me, but I have replaced that with a motivation to prove them wrong. It’s not just about them, but more about what I want to do. I don’t want limitations to stop me. I keep most of my personal life outside the garret, as that isn’t the reason people read my blog, but it’s no secret that life with nonverbal learning disability (NLD/NVLD) hasn’t been all fun. This disability isn’t fully understood yet, and there is some disagreement about causes, but Byron Rourke’s hypothesis from the late 1980’s (built on Myklebust’s one from the 1960’s) is accepted. He referred to it as white matter (brain tissue that transports messages), right hemisphere deficit. It isn’t quite that simple, but my point is that I’m motivated to succeed where people assume I can’t.

I’d be lying if I said that writing was about art and nothing else, that I had no interest in making money. There is an element of both, because I do dream about being able to make a living from writing. It may look like borderline mental illness to outsiders. After all, we continue doing something that hurts us. Some find writing to be easy, but it isn’t to me. I have long periods when it’s a lot of fun, but it also requires discipline, and sometimes the struggles for a solution to a particular problem can be torture. Considering some of the ridiculous diagnoses the American Psychiatric Assocoation has added to DSM, perhaps writing should be there as well?

I’m just joking of course. This is my preferred method of communication, and it seems to be necessary for thinking. I find many ideas to be elusive, but when I start writing, I’m able to identify and harvest them in a way I couldn’t before. Still, when I think about it, it doesn’t make sense that so many of us put ourselves through this.

I read a list once of successful novels that almost didn’t get published, and one of my favourite children’s novels was on it, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. She tried no less than 26 publishers before Ariel Books accepted it in 1962. I think many assumed children wouldn’t be able to understand the concept of evil. I believe J. K. Rowling also had some difficulties in convincing the publishers, and one of the objections to Harry Potter was the length of the manuscript. I think the last book in the series was close to 200 000 words, so young readers clearly didn’t feel intimidated by the thick book. On the contrary, whether readers are young or old, they don’t want their favourite books to end.

One of my local book shops had this rather strange gimmick. I’m not sure I’d buy a book with so little to go on, but authors are in a way in that situation, because how do we get publishers’ attention? How do we get a date with an editor?

I’m glad someone was willing to take a chance on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and A Wrinkle in Time. It makes me wonder how many good stories we never hear about, because someone didn’t think the target audience would accept them. I didn’t find it easy writing the first book in my series, and I never really thought about what would happen once it was completed. The real struggle is being told it’s not good enough, or worse, being rejected without any hint of what went wrong.

We don’t have agents in Norway, or rather, they have a different function. Oslo Literary Agency is the biggest one, but it’s owned by one of the old, traditional publishers. It’s meant for translated authors trying to reach an international audience. Norwegian publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts, which means they read a lot of them. I’m not sure which system is more likely to get the right people to read your mansucript. Personally, I like the idea of talking to the publisher directly. The manuscript I’m going to show them isn’t the final version, so I like the idea of a certain cooperation between author and publisher, but perhaps that’s a naive attitude.

Maybe the statement I ended my comment with on Twitter is the best reason for writing: Life is more when I write.

I’m rebuilding my world

Winnie the Pooh book cover.I love the characters in this book, but as a grownup I can also see how harmful growing up can be.
I love the characters in this book, but as a grownup I can also see how harmful growing up can be.

Whether it’s books or films I like to guide my daughter towards good stories. I was struggling with motivation as a child, and didn’t read much the first seven years of school. That just wasn’t a priority to me. I’m trying to lead my daughter towards stories I think she’ll be likely to stay with, and Neil Gaiman is her favourite at the moment..

We both like some of the books the critics recommend, but we also know it’s irrelevant what others think about the books and films. I watch or read books before I recommend them, and I think I’ll rewatch Goodbye Christopher Robin with her soon. I watched it alone last night, and it was quite sad. It makes me see Winnie the Pooh in a completely new light. Alan Alexander Milne didn’t really come back from WW I. I don’t know how close the film is to reality, but that’s what his wife said it in the film. Milne had post-traumatic stress and didn’t want to write the humorous stories his agent wanted. He wanted to write about how pointless the war had been, but then he developed Winnie the Pooh together with his son, Christopher Robin, and that changed everything.

Some have suggested that Milne gave the characters in Winnie the Pooh different psychological disorders, but this article in The Mighty gives another possible explanation. Milne wrote the book to his son, and the author of this article thinks it may have been a father’s attempt to explain post-traumatic stress to his son. Winnie the Pooh is a great story, but in this interpretation it’s also a book about what war does to people. I like this way of looking at it, because it tells us it’s ok to be sad, and to dream, and to do all the things men are not supposed to do. People hardly talk about it today; imagine how it was a hundred years ago.

The article in the Mighty referred to the film Christopher Robin starring Ewan McGregor, which was also a good film, but as much as I like stories warning me against losing my childhood, I wonder if Mary Poppins Returns would have been adequate. Those two films are quite similar. There’s a dark, tragic side to Winnie the Pooh. A. A. Milne didn’t really come back from the war, and maybe his son didn’t have the childhood he wanted. Perhaps he had to pay for the war as well?

Milne wrote two books about the characters in the Hundred Acre Wood, and this is how the story ended:

So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

Today I can’t help wondering if Christopher should have been allowed to play in the Hundred Acre Wood alone with Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, and the other characters. He shouldn’t have had to share it with the world. I think I would have felt better about it if the book wasn’t someone’s stolen childhood, but the loss of a childhood has always affected me deeply. I suppose that’s why I still think about the stories C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, A. A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, and J. M. Barrie wrote. It would be nice if growing up didn’t mean giving up, but there are too many people out there taking all the joy out of life. Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh should be our heroes in adulthood as well.

Personally, I found that I had to become something else than I was, and I wasn’t able to. I tried being what and who people around me wanted me to be, but the uncomfortable truth is that they all saw me as a failure. I couldn’t dream any more, because I didn’t have the skills required of me. I’m in my 50’s now and think I’m finally becoming the adult I always wanted to be. I’m sorry I had to leave the child behind so many years ago, but he’s returning. It took a life to build a life, to recover from the growing pain, but I see my world coming to life now. It’s as if I’m back in my own equivalent to the Hundred Acre Wood, and that’s a good place to be. The adventures I’ve had with my family will be just ours, though.

Breaking the habit

The Moon and Venus (behind the tree). Some find the silence from space to be disturbingly loud.
The Moon and Venus (behind the tree). Some find the silence from space to be disturbingly loud.

I’ve seen quite a few blog posts warning aspiring authors against basing a character on a real person, and especially themselves. I think some say it can be restrictive, but perhaps it’s rather the opposite? I frequently find it more restrictive to follow rules.

I wouldn’t create a character so close to reality it would be obvious to everyone who I based it on. There are a couple of famous examples from my own country. Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote the enormously successful six volume series My Struggle, but there was a high price to pay, not just for him. He talks about it in this interview in The Guardian. Another Norwegian author, Vigdis Hjort, published the novel Will and Testament four years ago. The main character was sexually abused by her father, and although the author insisted it was fiction, her sister wrote what media labeled a revenge novel. The Guardian wrote a review of Will and Testament too. I wonder how much of this would be all over the media if the families had simply left it alone, but perhaps that is beside the point.

I wouldn’t stretch it as far as these two did, but how could we possibly make interesting characters if they didn’t look like real people? Using traits we have observed clearly must be allowed, but I’d be careful about making it too obvious. The same goes for companies. The Brief History of the Dead is a dystopic novel where everybody dies, and as I recall the Coca Cola Company’s mention was less than honourable, but perhaps they are used to that.

Another rule is the adverb. I believe it was Stephen King who said that the road to hell was paved with adverbs, or something like that, but I find it too restrictive to focus on what I can’t do. It’s like the H & M billboards that popped up everywhere in the early 1990’s. They became a much debated topic, and some claimed it was a traffic hazzard when giant photos of Cindy Crawford and Anna Nicole Smith in H & M underwear tried to get our attention away from the road. It was probably an exaggerated fear, as we didn’t seem to have more accidents than before.

It wasn’t completely unfounded, because I have noticed how dangerous it can be to take your eyes off the road for even a second, but writing isn’t quite the same as driving. Sometimes breaking the rules or expectations can be a good thing. I must have taken the warning a little too seriously, because it was driving me crazy trying to write without adverbs. I tend to be a wordy writer. I’m decadent and overindulgent in my pursuit of words, but maybe I really am lazy? That’s the accusation against writers with a tendency to use adverbs.

I’m working on my first book, and although I’m pleased with the result, this is also my education. This book has taken a long time, because I’m also using it to learn how to write a novel. So perhaps I can learn to use adverbs sensibly? It remains to be seen. Imagine someone on the autism spectrum. These people may have some challenges most outsiders don’t consider, such as different kinds of sensory intolerance or sensitivity. I’ve never used the phrase “the sun shone loudly”, but I suspect it would be an accurate description if light is what you are sensitive to. I get the feeling many have found social distancing to be a challenge, and if you’re not used to being alone, I can see how silence screams loudly. Some have a smiliar feeling concerning space. The idea of being alone troubles many. I suppose I’ll try to keep it simple, and resist the temptation to be overly clever or fancy.

I think Stephen King may have been referring to dialogue attributes. He shouted is enough, and adding loudly wouldn’t be necessary at all. I have to remind myself of the word simple, but I like the idea of light or silence being too loud, and sometimes it is tempting to add the ly-suffix. It’s almost an automatic reflex. I’m writing a story that takes place in two time peiods, and the past doesn’t have contractions, but I find some every time I go over my story. It’s like my brain doesn’t want to edit what sounds perfectly normal. It’s so annoying having to obey all the time, and I probably won’t every time.

I travel between worlds

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live. J. K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

I sometimes miss the magic of childhood. I still appreciate a good story, and I still have moments when it feels like I’m in that other universe, but it’s never like it was. The grown up world, frequently shaded by an excess of seriousness and gloom, is stronger than the fantasy.

The best I can hope for is an illusion, a false perception for a short period. It’s a sort of controlled or disciplined muse. I can allow it for a brief moment, but never give myself completely over to the dream. I suppose that’s the only way to live, not completely in the world of fantasy and not completely outside it. It was something I found hard to accept growing up. I eventually realised it didn’t matter what I thought. Time moved forward no matter what I wanted, so I had to succeed, or not.

The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe book cover. I know Aslan is supposed to be God, but I sometimes wish I had the relationship with him Lucy had.
I know Aslan is supposed to be God, but I sometimes wish I had the relationship with him Lucy had.

I have been pretty successful, but it hasn’t stopped me from wishing there was a Narnia, a Shire/Rivendell/Harlindon, or a wizarding world (Harry Potter). I also recall fond childhood memories of times spent in the Hundred Acre Forest, Wonderland (Alice), the England described in The Wind in the Willows, Swallows and Amazons, and later when it almost felt like I was living in St. Mary’s Mead, Whitehaven Mansions (Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot), Meryton (Pride & Prejudice), or rural Oxfordshire (Lark Rise to Candleford).

Some of these are pure fiction, while others are the author’s description of a real place. They don’t exist any more, if they ever existed in the form we read in these stories. I’ve heard that J. R. R. Tolkien based the Shire on the places he lived in Worcestershire and Oxfordshire, and some have argued that what he really wanted to save was his England. I don’t know how much of that is true and how much is speculation, but I find it very sad. It’s a sentiment I can totally relate to, because I’m not at all comfortable with change.

That’s one of the sad things about the Covid-19 outbreak, because there are some saying this is the end of the world as we know it. What they mean by that is that things will change. It may not be extreme changes, but there will probably be things we have to stop doing or do in a different way. No matter what happens, there is a chance there’ll be a long-lasting sense of loss. That leads to grief, and how you deal with it is important.

I have always been a fighter and that won’t change. I live mostly in the real world, but I sometimes take excursions to another world. These voyages make me feel better, but as strange as it may sound, I even find joy in grief. After grief at least. Some stories leave me feeling sehnsucht, a German word C. S. Lewis used a lot. It’s a longing for something we may not be able to define, and it could be a painful feeling. This is a quote from his book Mere Christianity:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

I’ve always found it hard to fit in, and I may be one of those individuals who is sort of misplaced. I sometimes feel I was meant for a different time period, a parallel universe, or some other kind of different life. Being aware of this sometimes pains me, but it also helps me. I find joy in the world I live in, and when I don’t, my mission is seeking that joy. I still have a strong distaste for change, but once I’m done feeling miserable, I appreciate the things I couldn’t see before. I don’t have a Mary Poppins to magically make things right again, and I can’t spend my life by the river together with Mole, Rat, and the other delightful characters. I’ll never have tea with Miss Marple or see the England some of my favourite authors have painted with their words.

What I have is a family, and books, and a creativity I’m slowly developing into books myself. I’m living much like a chess game, where the strategy is to slowly improve my position. It’s hard for the best players in the world to win against each other, and it’s not uncommon to see ties after the computer gave one of them up to 80 percent chance of winning. It’s hard to take advantage of that strength, because what the computer sees as a path to victory, might require 30 accurate moves. It’s hard to see that far ahead, so the solution is to attempt being in a better position after you’ve made your move. That sometimes is enough, and sometines not.

It works for me. I don’t feel great every day. In fact, there are days when I feel lousy, but I’m still better off than I was in the past. That’s comforting, even if we all live in a story where there is a battle between good and evil. Things can change quickly, but I am the narrator of my own story. I can’t control everything, but I find that there’s a lot I can influence.

The accidental writer

My last remainng Harry Potter book.
My last remainng Harry Potter book

I’m starting with my last remaining Harry Potter book. I used to have all of them, along with a lot of other books, but I’m afraid I had to abandon them. My last employer paid for all our belongings to be sent 1 300 km from Telemark to Nordland county, but when I left I had to pay the $ 4000 myself. I couldn’t possibly afford that, so we sadly had to leave most of our belongings behind. That was six years ago, and we still haven’t been able to replace the books.

I’m calling myself an accidental writer of purposeful stories on Twitter. I more or less stumbled across writing, because unlike many of the authors I know about, it wasn’t obvious to anyone around me. I go through periods when I listen to podcasts, such as So you want to be a writer with Allison Tait and Valerie Khoo. Quite a few of their guests talk about how they read and wrote stories from early childhood. That wasn’t me at all, but the dream was there from the beginning. I had the imagination for it, but I always doubted whether I was the right one to tell the stories.

I worked in a very demanding job as a teacher, and I had to give my stories up for a while. I found I couldn’t do everything, so I had to focus on school and university for many years. My job as a teacher took absolutely everything I had, but as devastated as I was when I had to leave my career, it enabled me to start exploring some of my old stories. It didn’t happen over night, but the magic slowly developed, and it feels like I’m getting somewhere now.

I want to write an entertaining story, but I hope there’ll be something more. I wouldn’t go as far as a couple of schools I’ve heard about in Ireland and England. They banned specific childrens’ books for “being too simplistic, brutal, and banal.” Maybe I’m being too judgmental, but when I browse some of the most popular TV shows and music, I don’t find a lot of interesting stories. Still, it starts with entertainment. I had problems with writing and reading for a long time in my childhood, and it wasn’t morally elevated literature that motivated me.

Some would probably label two of my favourite authors, J. K. Rowling and Rick Riordan, as too simplistic, but there are so many good messages in their books. Percy Jackson for example grew up with a working mother, and his father was never in the picture (not that it would have been easy for him). This is real to many kids. Percy Jackson couldn’t stand seeing kids being bullied, and he didn’t just ignore it. Many of these YA books teach the value of friendship, courage, loyalty, and the fact that people aren’t always what they appear to be. Professor Snape was one of my favourite characters from Harry Potter, because he was so complicated.

It’s tricky writing an entertaining story with a certain morality in it. Tolkien may have written the ultimate purposeful book, because he saw The Lord of the Rings as a catholic book, while most people see something completely different. Jane Austen may have succeeded in writing the ultimate books on the other end of the spectrum. I’m a big fan of her books, but although you could read social criticism into her stories, I see them mostly as pure entertainment with missed opportunities. Sir Thomas in Mansfield Park for instance owned a plantation in Antigua, but as I recall, Austen didn’t really debate morality. There are also many examples of a double standard where men could clearly do whatever they wanted.

There was a lot of abuse in those days, abuse people knew about and condoned. We should perhaps ask ourselves whether feeling good is the correct response after reading some of the books from the Regency Era, or any other era, when we know it wasn’t like that at all in real life. Life was pretty horrific to most people. At least it should leave us with conflicting emotions sometimes. Yet, no one is talking about moving these books out of the library. Perhaps there are worse things we can expose children to than stories about children changing their lives?

A lesson from my character

We did not become. We did not change. But change must come. Risk must come. Sheri Tepper

I think I was around 14 when I started reading classic science fiction stories by authors like H. G. Wells, John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Philip Dick. I discovered Sherlock Holmes around the same time, and I accidentally ran into Tolkien at the library a couple of years later. I don’t think any of these authors were widely read in Norway at the time, but they more or less changed my life. I struggled with both reading and writing in school, and as a consequence my confidence was non-existing. It was pretty obvious I wasn’t going anywhere, but I think the turning point was when I found the motivation to read, and it started with science fiction, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and a growing list of fantasy.

I had periods when I lost momentum, and I went through a major one in my late 20’s and early 30’s, but then Harry Potter was published, followed by Percy Jackson and Magnus Chase. Things didn’t work out in my career as a teacher, and I lost sight of my dream during those difficult years. I sometimes wondered if the education I’d fought so hard to get was in vain, but when I came out on the other side of fear and darkness, I started thinking I may have been meant for something else. Incidentally, I wasn’t alone during those years, because J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Rick Riordan helped me a lot. I could see that my struggles had prepared me for the stories I’m writing these days. I did the work myself of course, but I’m not sure I’d pull myself together without the books that captivated me, and that started in 8th grade. I’m sure my parents and teachers tried to motivate me, but they didn’t succeed. I think it was Stephen King who referred to books as portable magic, and they have had that function in my life. They developed and protected/insulated me. They spoke to me across long distances in time and space, and they changed the outcome, which I think would have been pretty bleak.

I came across a question on a blog recently: What scares you?

It reminded me of a post I wrote myself once. My post was about Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who went blind on his first space walk. He held a TED lecture when he came back from the International Space Station, and he started with the following question:

What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?

His blindness was temporary, caused by the product they used to prevent the visor from fogging up, but he didn’t know that at the time. His own answer to the question was pretty obvious, but because NASA prepare the astronauts for anything that could go wrong, he didn’t panic.

He compared it to going through spider webs. Spiders are usually harmless in a cold climate. It’s one of the advantages of living somewhere cold, but many are still afraid of spiders. The perceived danger is a lot higher than the actual danger, and the solution he suggested was to walk through spider webs. After doing that a few times, you realise it’s not likely to harm you. In other words, expose yourself to the situation you fear. It doesn’t feel great, but that’s the recomended treatment for anxiety.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to conquer your enemy once. Fear and anxiety have a way of sneaking up on you. It’s easy sitting at my desk writing. Sending the manuscript to a publisher and waiting for the verdict from a totally ruthless reader is a lot worse. It would be a huge disappointment being rejected, but I’m trying not to think about the consequences of success. I’d have to give people the impression I do nothing but walk through spider webs all day, and there’s a lot of them.

Seeds sprouting Life starts.
Life starts.

When I get published it’ll be time for me to learn from my character. Heroes are usually the most unlikely person for the job. In fact, they are frequently weak, terrified, and remarkably unsuited for the mission. So why would they be the preferred candidate? Perhaps a weak or humble background is required for the learning experience, or perhaps the hero has to figure out what scares him/her, and then do it? No matter what the reason is, I find inspiration in fictional characters who became something they were not, or who showed people they were more than the world could see.

I can handle all the spider webs I’ve encountered so far. I have some of the scariest ones left, but I intend to expose myself to that danger as well. That’s an opponent I have a chance against, because I have already faced a stronger one. I used to fear failure, which is why it took me so long time to start writing. That was a big spider in my life, but it’s been defeated. Like I said, the enemy could come back, and some in my family also know the spider called bitterness.

I ‘m not immune to that, but I hope I have walked through enough spider webs to be spared. I want to be like a seed that is planted by the rivers of water (reference to Psalm 1:3). I have a history of killing plants, possibly my own spirit as well, but I’m trying to grow some seeds on my veranda this spring. It’s a reminder of the beautiful symbolism in nature, and in Christianity. I bury the seeds, and in a  sense they must give up life before they can produce life. That’s bascially what happens in nature every autumn, but what may look like absence of life, is just a period of rest to prepare for new growth. I have a feeling my spring is coming.

The butterflies lead me

two pillows with butterflies and text hope.
I’m with Ron Weasley, I want to follow the butterflies.

The previous owner of our apartment agreed to leave some of the furniture behind, which was very convenient for us, because it meant we didn’t have  to drag all our raggedy belongings across the mountain. We rented a van and one trip was enough. Our present sofa is quite new, but they don’t make furniture like they used to. This one looks cheap, like most things you find in Jysk (Danish retailer). I have shopped quite a bit there myself because it’s affordable, but everything seems to be grey or black these days. The sofa looked rather like Marvin (the paranoid android), but my wife decided to give it a cheerful disposition. I like the butterflies, but I’m a little more ambivalent to the word hope.

It reminds me of all the people telling me that hope and/or happiness is a choice. I can see their point, but it reminds me too much of the many people over the years that have told me success was a choice. In their view the only reason some people fail in work, or in life, is because they made the decision to do so.

My point is that it’s almost impossible not feeling despair and hopelessness sometimes, but of course staying there for a long time is another matter. We can make the decision to look for a way out, which for some people means therapy, but there usually is a reason our emotions are trying to tell us something. The same principle can be applied to the Covid-19 situation. There’s a lot of fear in the population at the moment. Some are angry at the strict laws and rules we have to follow, and some act like they’ll gladly load the rest of us on cattle cars.

I wish people would stop attacking others in social media. Some of the comments I’ve seen have targeted people who are desperate because they are struggling financially, while others are worried because they already have a serious medical condition. It’s easy for someone else to say that staying calm is a choice. I think we all do the best we can. We make decisions based on how we understand the situation, and some of us have to be extra careful because so many of the people we encounter are not. Many don’t feel sick, so they don’t feel a need to be careful. It’s like depression or the job situation, people who find life manageable, feel that everybody else should manage without help. Those that don’t only deserve ridicule. I guess solidarity is so last year (or generation).

I’ve walked past this cheerful sofa many times a day without looking at the pillows. Maybe it’s because the word hope troubles me, but it was standing out yesterday. I had one of those days when life didn’t feel great, but as I noticed the pillow I was thinking back on previous days like that, and what I had accomplished after that bad day. Suddenly it wasn’t so bad, because I knew it was just a matter of being there when the future arrived.

That future is today, and I’m ready to go back to editing my manuscript. I suppose choosing hope is also realising the negative emotions have a purpose too. Maybe I just needed a breather yesterday? I’m following the butterflies today, because they bring hope.

Multiple sources of inspiration

Some say news are stories, a narration, and I suspect they’re right. We are definitely a species that loves stories, but perhaps the news are not the best place to read or hear about us. I love a book with a message, and many of the great stories in science fiction and fantasy have them. Yes, while you thought you were just being entertained, the writer actually had a sinister plan of teaching you how to be a better person.

I grew up without a lot of friends. I had mostly my family, but discovered a teacher and friend in literature when solitude wasn’t a choice. I’ve only known the term “theory of mind” for around five years, and I came across it when I was researching Asberger syndrome. In theory of mind we’re trying to figure out what others are thinking and feeling when we interact with them. We can’t see or hear what’s going on inside their minds, so we have to  guess, or predict the most likely outcome. That’s why it’s called a theory, and people with a well developed theory of mind have a good chance of functioning socially. Still, knowing how someone feels isn’t the same thing as knowing how to respond to this, but there is some evidence suggesting that our ability to understand the unobservable increases with age. I think literature can only help.

Autistics may always have a deficit, but they can learn, and I find books to be useful. Authors like Mildred D. Taylor, Ursula Le Guin, Madeleine L’Engle, Cynthia Voigt, Sheri Tepper, Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Louis May Alcott, Rick Riordan, and Diana Wynne Jones gave me a view into a world I didn’t know. I could also add classic authors like Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot. These told me something about the human experience, also when I didn’t have real experiences myself.

Literature is a great tool for remembering who we are, and for exploring the unknown, who we may become. Neil Gaiman appeared in my Facebook feed today. It was an advertisement for an online class he’s teaching, and one of the things he said in this short video was:

Humans are story-telling creatures. We convey truth with stories. That is the magic of fiction.

Authors find inspiration anywhere. Diana Wynne Jones talked about a boy she met one time she was visiting a school. This boy said she should write a book about a moving castle. Maybe she would have created Sophie, Calcifer, and Howl anyway, but I like the story behind the story. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is a beautiful story, and that actually started with a house. It never occured to me to start with a house, but when I think about the many houses I’ve lived in over the years, I know there are some worth while stories there. I’ve lived in big houses that had been divided into 4-5 apartments, and I’ve seen some rather eccentric, as well disturbing behaviour over the years.

I’ve had a number of bizarre experiences, such as when different health care workers have tried to make me relax by talking about my interests. I’ve covered fantasy from all angles during these talks, and I’m pretty sure there will be some weird scenes in the future based on my medical fantasy chats. I have actually been to places in Norway and met some people that made me feel I was in a Neil Gaiman story, or in a disturbing David Lynch dream. I sometimes wonder about the reaction I get from people. I don’t get a particular reaction most of the time, but once in a while the person I’m talking to exhibits a behaviour I don’t know what to make of.

It can be a misplaced, recurring laughter I suspect is some sort of insecurity, and I sometimes wonder if the person I’m talking to think I’m completely helpless. It makes me wonder, is there something about the way I present myself that makes people anxious, and in the other case, do they think I’m a damsel in distress? I never saw myself as a fragile, delicate little thing, but you never know what goes on inside peoples’ heads.

I’m going to tell some of these stories one day, but there are so many of them and so little time. My present project has found inspiration from many sources. Some of them are from local history and some from my own life. I can relate to the many stories with heroes who found themselves in a difficult situation, but decided to do something about it. They made the decisions that transported them to a better place, and that’s a more desirable location than many find themselves in.

That’s how simple and complicated life is. We can create characters with the courage and strength we may wish we had ourselves. We sometimes do, but we fail our ideals too often. I still like YA literature, especially coming of age books. The world and finding my place in it was always hard, but there’s always help to find in books. I’ve found my people there, and they tell me it’s perfectly alright to be different, to not always know what to do. I sometimes would like to understand a little more of how I make other people feel, though.

I suppose that could be an inspiration as well, trying to understand what makes people tick, what my part in that is.

Golden moments

I love the symbolism of sunrise. It's an awakeing, a rebirth. In my case, it creates new characters, and perhaps makes me see my home in a new light.
I love the symbolism of sunrise. It’s an awakeing, a rebirth. In my case, it creates new characters, and perhaps makes me see my home in a new light.

“There’s always a sunrise and always a sunset and it’s up to you to choose to be there for it,” said my mother. “Put yourself in the way of beauty.  Cheryl Strayed from Wild: Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Mornings have always been golden moments to me. For some reason I wake up relatively early, and when I have to get up early, I still wake up before my phone alarms. I suppose 6-7 hours of sleep is enough, but it would be nice to sleep in occassionally. The upside is that I get some work done. I love my family, but living with two chatty girls isn’t always conducive to writing. The mornings are especially golden during the Covid-19 drama, because with my daughter home every day (school is closed), it’s hard to get the work peace I need. I guess power writing could be a thing.

I write the same way I read, which means 3-4 projects at the same time. I’m working on what will be a series of four books. The first manuscript is almost done, but I also work on number two and three whenever I have some ideas. I’m not one of those who can sit down and write 2 000 + words a day. It always puzzles me when I hear authors on podcasts like So you want to be a writer? (Allison Tait and Valerie Khoo) or The Worried writer (Sarah Painter) talk about how much they do every day. I decided I couldn’t let that stress me, because the words come to me eventually.

I have spent a lot of time in the Viking age lately, but I have revisited one of my future projects this week, which means World War II. People who have read this blog for a while may have detected a certain ambivalence when I think about my hometown. I loved her for a long time, but our relationship has been rather dysfunctional for a number of years. I have discovered my old friend in a new way now. I’m working on some ideas for a story that takes place during the 1940’s, and I’m thinking about the places my mother would have gone to. A neighbourhood usually has street names from the same group, and my mother grew up in a part of town where all the streets are named after kings. She was eight years old when her family moved to King Sverre’s Street (this king died in 1202) in 1948. This is also the street where I think King Fairhair (died 930) was buried.

I love and hate this neighbourhood. The school is in Queen Gyda’s Street, and she was one of King Harald Fairhair’s wives. According to the legend she refused to marry a man who wasn’t the king of the entire country, and he accepted the challenge. He also decided not to cut his hair until he had accomplished the mission,which is where the nickname came from, and when he had, she agreed to marry him. The oldest part of the school was built in 1897, and I went to the same school as my mother. We both had pretty mixed emotions about our years there, but the neighbourhood itself is beautiful.

They built some very nice houses in that area roughly between 1830 and 1930, and this is where I imagine my protagonist living. I’m having a lot of fun writing this, and I’m thinking now that I don’t actually hate my hometown. There are many possible lives or routes, and I sometimes wish I could have continued one of the many I had to leave. I could see myself living in this neighbourhood. The last life could have happened when my wife and I were viewing apartments in the area around this school, for several years before we left town. In the end we decided to try somewhere else, which turned out to be a good call.

There are some painful memories assciated with the Hauge neighbourhood, but I still think of the area that has been important to my family as home.

The painful books

One of the advantages of stories is also one of the disadvantages. We can’t live without feelings, and if we try, we’ll end up being miserable. I want books and films that make me feel, and although it can be painful to be reminded of things I want to to forget, it’s also useful sometimes.

I’m not big on love stories, but I like good stories. I haven’t read many books that were pure romance, and I think On Fortune’s Wheel by Cynthia Voigt has been the closest, although it qualifies as fantasy and YA .I want readers to feel an emotional connexion to my characters, and that’s one of the things I’m focusing on at the moment. The story is more or less complete, but there are some details missing, and these few added words may prove to be the most important ones.

It’s very individual what affects people of course, and when a well-known Norwegian author/painter committed suicide on December 25th last year, many expressed a strong public mourning. I don’t think I’m particularly cold, but I didn’t like this person, and I couldn’t feel sad. It bothered me more when the musician Prince, authors like Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, or other stars like actors from the Star Trek-series died, because they have meant something to me.

Yearning is essential to me, and something I hope to capture in my stories. The theologian G. K. Chesterton supposedly said that “any man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” That is perhaps not the first place most people would look, at the same time as it may be. It’s about longing for something.

I think C. S. Lewis expressed something similar when he wrote about sehnsucht. This German word translates to longing, and in psychology it’s used for what is unfinished or imperfect in our lives. Lewis said that if there was a desire in him that no experience in this world could satisfy, the most probable explanation had to be that he was made for another world. What can be more painful than longing for something we can’t find? So why do men go to prostitutes? The answer may be more complicated than primitive biological urges it’s hard to stop. It could very well be something deeper people are looking for.

Many have a longing for something they can’t define. We may miss the past, or long for some future change, or for a place we’d rather be. Personally, I’ve spent a lot of time pretending I was living in my favourite books. It’s my holodeck (from Star Trek). I moved away from my hometown Haugesund a couple of years ago, but it’s been hard to get that place out of me. There are some good memories, but there’s too many negative ones, so it doesn’t make any sense to have these visits of sentimental yearning, but I do. 

Bruce Springsteen described something similar in his song My Father’s House. According to the site Songfacts he drove past his childhood home, late at night, several times a week for a long period. He didn’t have great memories from his years there, so he couldn’t figure out why he did it. He went to a psychologist who suggested that maybe he was trying to go back and fix something that went wrong. That’s the problem with linear time; we can’t.

I guess all we can do is to make the future better, and learn how to deal with our emotions. The photos show some of my nostalgic moments/places. One of them is where I grew up, the house is a renovation project I was forced to sell when I moved across country for a job, two are associated with my daughter, the overgrown football field was my playground as a child, and the town by the sea is the home I wanted (to love, but I find that impossible). To paraphrase John Lennon, I was planning something else, and then life happened. There’s a lot of ambivalent feelings concerning the past, but literature is helping me deal with life.

Sometimes reading a book can be painful because of my own experiences, but I still want to read and relive. I think it’s because change is necessary, but not pleasant. No wonder we all long for something better.