Any art undertaken with commitment and seriousness becomes a metaphor for the artistic life and, I suspect, for life in general.
To remain hopeful, to not become cynical and jaded, is fundamental to becoming a different story. And the world needs different stories; those that are radical, transformative, challenging and nurturing. To evolve the stories, we have to foster hope and expect great things. But we should also be open to outcomes we didn’t expect, may not have desired. We have to be willing to learn, regroup and hope again.
The elements of hope:
- imagine the quest: What is it that you want to happen?
- break the quest down into steps: How will you make it happen?
- align your passion and your motivation: How committed are you?
Hope and intrinsic motivation go hand in hand. We only expect transformation and change when:
- we value the quest and welcome the process
- believe that the quest is possible
- believe that we are effective in the world and can make things happen
And we will only value and believe in a quest and in ourselves to pursue it if the aims are:
- invested in
Attach to nothing
But investing in something is not synonymous with attaching to outcomes. If we fixate on the end rather than on the process we lose the ability to respond with flexibility to whatever happens along the way. If we make the quest all about one specific outcome that must happen, then we will become cynical and disillusioned when other things happen along the way. Benjamin Hardy puts it like this:
Expect everything, attach to nothing
The quest is the decision you have made. It might be to complete a novel or sequence of poems. It might be about personal transformation or a decision to prioritise transformative relationships over transactional ones. It might be about changing your work or lifestyle. Whatever happens, you have changed the story of yourself. You have shifted perspective and whatever the specific outcome:
- you remain hopeful and expect good things whatever happens
- you won’t abandon the quest or allow defeat or success to sidetrack you
- you will keep moving and changing
- your values are not shaken by circumstances
We should set quests and pursue enormous visions with indefatigable persistence, recognising that it is the learning and the becoming that matters. When we do this we live in congruence with our values, always:
It’s certain that life will give us plenty to practice with. I recently spent three months making an application for a particular piece of grant funding for Cinnamon Press. The application was enormous and when the decision came back I learnt that I’d hit all the targets the fund wanted from an application. We also did not get the funding.
Oddly, given the huge amount of time I’d spent on putting the project together and filling in what seemed like interminable online forms, the decision didn’t derail us. Instead, I started to think about what it was that I’d actually wanted from the grant. What was important was not the funds but what those funds represented. So not getting the grant meant did not the end of the quest but a chance to reframe that quest. As David Schwartz says:
Strong belief triggers the mind to figure out ways and means how to.
I dug into the motivation and the values, into what it was about this project that would push me along the path towards who I want to become. I asked myself questions about what kind of press Cinnamon should aim to grow into. The real quest was to work deeply with a group of authors who push boundaries, whether of form or identity. The real quest was to focus on our values of innovation and independence, whilst freeing time for my own writing.
I became aware that this wholly unlooked for outcome meant I could be so much more inventive. And I realised that I now had the freedom to develop my own writing and creativity with more freedom and vigour in the absence of new external funding and its ties.
This was an opportunity to look for transformative relationships in my Cinnamon work whilst also shifting more hope and expectation onto my personal writing
Attachment is for people, for those we love and commit to, not for things and outcomes. When we internalise this, then, win or lose, we stay with the quest. Feeling positive about not achieving the outcomes I’d worked hard for was a great lesson in this, a moment of epiphany. And it came just before a major journey across France and Spain to research and write for a month, working on the third novel in the Casilda trilogy, For Hope is Always Born.
In a world that often throws obstacles along the path, we are more likely to keep hope and expectation alive when we retain a sense of wonder. For me, the combination of travel and writing is a great way to keep in touch with wonder, even when the travel doesn’t go to plan.
I’m writing this post on a train from Paris to Barcelona, en route to Zaragoza, the first stopping point for the research for the next draft of For Hope is Always Born. We were due to leave Gare De Lyon at 10.07 and arrive in Zaragoza at 6.30 this evening, but a French train strike changed those plans.
Now we are hoping to reach Zaragoza around 11 p.m. and then hoping the occult phone app that purports to let us into the building works. This isn’t the outcome I had in mind when I bought the train tickets, but here I am, writing, enjoying amazing views of France as we speed by, still hopeful.
I’ve learnt something about calm and flexibility today and a bit more about resourcefulness. I’ve learnt something about practicing gratitude and wonder in the face of the unexpected. As Sharon Blackie says,
Most of us experience moments that are rich with meaning in our lives; but how many of us feel that the very fabric of our lives is woven from such moments?
A life of wonder, that welcomes even the unexpected, makes us more grounded and gives us equanimity. Maslow saw wonder as key feature of peak experiences and a sense of wonder makes us know that more is possible than we might have imagined. Wonder, like hope and expectation, prevents us from becoming jaded in our thinking. As Kierkegaard put it,
Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved.
Cultivating wonder requires:
- a willingness to explore, play and create
- a narrative sensibility to weave stories as we grow
- always identifying as a learner
- the openness to observe, listen and move about the world with all our senses open
- receptivity to new experiences, to unfamiliar places and situations that stimulate creativity, thought and deep work
- trust in your own intuition
We hear a great deal about mindfulness, but living in hope, expectation and wonder requires something more radical and holistic. We need not to be mindful, but ‘bodiful’ instead.
It’s so easy for those involved in creative tasks, especially writing, to become cerebral and sedentary. But great art and great writing demand connections to the body and to the world. Travelling to places we write about is not always possible, particularly if we are writing about other time periods or imagined worlds. But writers need to find ways to connect; it is part of the witness and the process not to cut ourselves off, not to imagine ourselves as disembodied minds. The urgency of the times we live in, both politically and ecologically, scream against this.
- Breathe in
- Feel your breath reaching every part of your writing body
- Become tuned to its blockages, discomforts, tensions
- Walk in the world that feeds your senses that nurture your imagination
You are not a mind (subject) looking at body (object) but a whole creature tapping into the awareness that you — an intelligent body — have. You may not be as separate from the world as contemporary individualism has suggested.
The question of where the individual mind-body complex ends and the rest of the world begins is one that has exercised philosophers for generations. Husserl asserted that the lived body is the centre of experience, whilst Merleau Ponty said,
The world is not what I think but what I live.
We don’t understand the world from the perspective of disembodied mind. The body is the primary vehicle of knowing. Mind is rooted not only in body but it in the body’s interaction with the world. Ultimately, distinctions between mind, body and world are arbitrary. To quote Merleau Ponty again:
My body and this something that I’m touching are merging into one another because this touching that I imagine I am doing in fact is a mutual process which is being done to me at the same time.
Writers, creators, all of us, are enworlded bodies imagining quests, breaking down the steps, making commitments as we become the people we want to be, as we become different stories.
What is your quest?
How will unexpected outcomes along the way impact it?
Remember: Expect everything, attach to nothing.
The quest I’m currently on revolves around travel and writing. I’ve carved out a month away from email and editing and admin to be on this train from Paris to Barcelona and on to Zaragoza. This is Ben Haddaj’s city, one of the characters from my trilogy who will be making another appearance in unfamiliar guise.
After Zaragoza, the journey will move on to Burgos, where Casilda, the the 11th centrury Toledan Muslim princess turned Christiain saint, stopped on her way to a life of solitude, and where she was eventually buried. And finally to Toledo, where much of the first novel in the trilogy, This is the End of the Story, was based and where another Casilda will meet another Miriam…
This trip has been months in planning and is the first half of one of my major goals for the year, to travel for research and writing.
The travel is also an aim in itself, since travel shakes up my perspective, puts me outside my comfort zone and inspires. I have the first full draft of the third novel with me and aim to do at least a further two drafts, including enhancing scenes that need local research.
The first challenge of the trip was arriving at Gare de Lyon, Paris, to set off to Spain only to find the trains were on strike and so face a lot of disruption to onward plans. I expect to continue the quest whatever the particular outcomes. I hope to do so with a sense of expectancy and wonder, valuing the process. And I expect to do so by being bodiful, walking unfamiliar streets, taking in strange sights and tastes and scents and so much more. I expect to return as a different story.
Becoming a Different Story
I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life and looking to connect with others, thinking about the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life sign up to my email list or just feel free to continue the conversation.