My goal this week is to finish the first edit my next novel. It sounds a good aim, but writing does not work like this.
The first six chapters were fine, with a few minor tweaks to the action or the description. Then I came to a chapter I knew did not work. The story didn’t flow, there was insufficient dialogue, the action didn’t ring true to the characters. There are techniques for dealing with this situation – writing as different character, or changing the tense. Researching more fully is sometimes the answer but in this case I had made the chapter over-complicated. Simplifying the narrative had a knock on effect on the surrounding chapters and I began to lose the thread.
Achieving my goal may take days, or weeks, or even months but I enjoy this aspect of writing, it is like solving a puzzle. Real life is not so simple because I am not in control of the narrative of those around me.
Being in relationship with someone is like having two people on a trampoline. The goal is to find a rhythm that suits you both. It is fun at first but difficult to maintain for the long haul. It helps if we bounce to the rhythm of the One who created us!
I have been moved by the D-Day commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the landing of Allied Forces on the French coast to free Europe from the German occupation. The well’th of Great Britain and other countries is dependent on the seventy-five years of peace that has endured in Europe since the ending of the Second World War.
On short term mission to South Sudan with Flame International I meet people who appear buoyant but their cheerful faces mask deep trauma from lifelong experiences of conflict. Hosted by the Episcopal Church of South Sudan we cover Bible based concepts of light and dark, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The hard mask of daily coping begins to falter and deep feelings well up. Three men from Darfur who had seen their villages destroyed and their families scattered were ebullient and harsh but as they faced the sorrow inside and forgave the perpetrators their expressions softened and they began to respond to those around them.
There are common strands between the three generations of conflict South Sudan has known and the D-Day commemorations:
facing trauma in the depths of our spirits brings sadness but release.
forgiveness involves genuinely letting go of our natural desire for revenge, and brings healing.
standing together frees the human spirit to rebuild.
First impressions are important, though not reliable. Giving our name is a significant step in our relationships, giving permission to be intimate, personal, and accepting of each other.
On short term mission in South Sudan with Flame International http://www.flameinternational.org/ my first job is often to ask the name of those attending as they arrive and to write it on a label and hand to them. For the attendees, particularly the women, who may never have been included in a workshop previously, it is a moment of pride, that they are included, and recognised. It is significant for me to, to be accepted into another group, to be welcomed and greeted as part of their lives. Usually the name people give is their baptismal name, usually taken from the Bible, Rachel, Rebecca, Rejoyce are common names for women and Amos, Peter, John for men. There are exceptions to this rule, I have yet to work out why Allison is a man’s name in this part of the world!
Names are important when writing because they are a signifier of aspects of the character we are naming. Here is my list of how a name informs:
Names indicate a place and period. Violet, Flora, Daisy were popular English names at the end of the Victorian period.
We can guess where someone originates from, though our guess may not be correct, Lee works in different ways in east and west.
Belief systems are indicated by the names we give our children at birth or in a ritual naming – Mohammed, or Mary.
Names can show family, allegiance or labour –Johnson, King, Mason. The Dinka name Maluak Kuol Kuol is Maluak, son of Kuol, grandson of Kuol. Traditionally Dinka are named after their cow.
We can change name, take a nick name or choose the name we use, which can reveal something about our personality. Most people in South Sudan have been given a tribal name at birth but few choose to use it at an international workshop.
Researching names for characters can be time consuming. Mission newsletters are a helpful resource or online case studies or blogs. There are many on refugees and migrants and even changed names are usually culturally relevant – but beware of Dinka names used only for twins!
There is one name, closely related to the Hebrew Joshua, that is significant in all times, places, families and contexts, Jesus the name above all names, the source of our words, our creator, and the inspiration for our characters.
I’m taking part in Five-Minute-Friday again and this week’s word is culture. We know what it is, but to write usefully on the topic is the work of anthropologists, philosophers, priests and art historians. What can I add?
At a session on ‘church planting’ recently we were shown a video on how to grow a church. We all recognised that the clip was ‘American’ and that the tips put forward would not work if transferred to Surrey.
Here is what I have learned about culture:
It is not an innate difference between peoples. Shakespeare’s Shylock nails this when he points out that we all bleed and we all want to seek revenge, but the way we express emotion is different – from the constrained politeness of Japan, perhaps a response to rapid cultural change, to the exuberant singing and dancing which mask deep trauma in South Sudan.
Culture is a framework that allows the wide span of human emotions and reactions to operate in a controlled environment. In Surrey differences in wealth are masked by a casual dress style, but accessories – shoes, jewelry, hair, are important and nuanced, they signal meaning in subtle ways.
Culture is layered. Western music has built from early codification of notes, through complex orchestration, to improvisation of jazz rhythms from Africa via the Americas, but it is a freedom that references previous centuries.
I saved some tomato seeds from last year’s crop and planted them in yogurt pots. They have all grown, but each is different. They will be better adapted to the conditions of my garden than if I had planted from a packet of seed. They do not look as ‘cultured’ as seedlings from the garden centre but I expect, given sufficient light, food and warmth, they will produce tomatoes, and the bees like them!.
Last Saturday I went on a course about Perfectionism, given by Chris Ledger, counsellor, author and speaker. She spoke of the damage we do ourselves when we allow driveness to take control of our lives. Making promises to ourselves that we will be perfect is damaging to our spirit. It can lead to anxiety, depression, OCD and eating disorders.
I make many promises to myself to finish my next novel by the end of May, to blog weekly, to practice my writing. These promises might bring me closer to excellence, but they also bring me out in a rash.
My new promises to myself are;
that I will catch those words – should, ought to, must, that I use to drive myself and others
I will focus on getting nearer to God rather than being perfect
I will adjust my expectations of myself in order to have a more balanced life style.
That’s it, time’s up! Now, how about listening to that new CD I bought.
Streams in the Desert, a series of ten minute films about work in South Sudan and other areas of conflict has been launched today by Flame International.
The films show the work of Flame International in communities afflicted by war, violence, abuse and persecution. Flame sends teams of trained volunteers to post-conflict arenas to share the Christian message.
The films have been produced by Gareth Barton, of https://www.spreadcreative.com/, a brilliant designer photographer and journalist. Over the course of 12 months he joined Flame teams working in Armenia, Uganda, South Sudan and the Middle East, to meet the people and to hear their stories of trauma and transformation.
I am visible 37 seconds into the South Sudan film in a drama!
I have tried three times to learn the piano, first as a child, then with my children when life was full of complexities and distractions. When a relative inherited a baby grand, with a beautiful soft tone. I was determined to try again. After four years of playing twice most days I am beginning to make a sound that is pleasant enough for family to listen to. No-one would let me loose in public at present but perhaps one day ………
Are there transferable skills for my writing?
I have found that practicing in the morning when I am fresh is better for learning new pieces.
I have undervalued the importance of kinetic learning, the repetitive physical action that slowly trains the hand to respond automatically.
I am not naturally meticulous but if I want to play well I have to note every detail of the key, speed, dynamics, length of notes, and style. There is so much to be brought together to get the correct sound.
And then there is the magic, finding the music in the notes, creating the experience that inspired the composer – the blues feel, the ragtime panache, the gypsy dance, the romantic love song. These cannot be written, they come in performance, in the interplay between musician and listener.
Is writing a similar process? I have learned that it helps if I write accurate prose that is truthful, (in the sense of integrity of the story and characters). Being competent across a range of techniques – dialogue, description, action helps to vary the pace and interest. But I need to practice finding that place of enchantment. I hear the quality of the silence when reading aloud to my writing group ‘works’. I know it’s absence when I sense I have lost them, but how do I improve? These writers for me have found that place of magic.
Virginia Woolf, A Room with a View
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, a children’s story about the imaginary becoming real.
The last chapter of ‘The House at Pooh Corner’ by A A Milne about enchanted places.
God has granted us infinite ways of putting words together. Languages provide rules and structures. The act of laying words down – whether electronically by hand, provides the kinetic link between our emotions and the page, but to give depth to writing we have to find the song within the story. To master this will require more diligent practice, I suspect, than learning to play the piano.
I have just completed a chapter in the sequel to ‘Lost Children of Cush’ which takes place in Juba during the July 2016 clashes.
It is still possible to find online reports posted at the time, and historical accounts such as Peter Martell‘s excellent ‘First raise a Flag’ give the context. Shots were fired last time I was in Juba. The reaction of my well traveled room mate was ‘probably just a birthday or wedding celebration’. The retired British Army Brigadier in the next room lay face down under the bed. I wondered if the next spiral into turbulence had started. Many countries have well rehearsed plans for disaster. South Sudan, the world’s newest country, does not have a civic plan so when terror comes people react instinctively. Some bar their doors. Others run.
three hundred people were killed in 6 days in Juba in July 2016
many more civilians were looted, terrorised or had their property destroyed
hundreds of thousands fled to UN refugee camps
A local journalist was killed at the Terrain hotel, and aid workers were raped and brutalised in a binge of vengeance on western powers, particularly the US.
The pastor who drove us through Juba in July 2018 hauled on his steering wheel as he drove along the cratered roads. The void of far was audible in his voice as he talked about how fighting spilled out from the Presidential Palace two years earlier.
My heroine and her friends stayed behind barred doors for six days. Imagining their experience and the turbulent emotions gave me a headache. What if I had really lived through fears about:
whereabouts of family
damage to business painstakingly built up, now reduced to dust
questioning of leaders – why? How did it come to this?
But if this turbulent experience of life is not articulated how can we understand the flows of displaced people across South Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia?
A depiction of Ethiopia’s ancient Christian beliefs in the British Museum piqued my curiosity about the country and its people.
The Wife’s Tale satisfied my curiosity. Edemariam writes of her grandmother’s arranged marriage when she was a child to her death in 1989.
the writing evokes the scents, the beliefs as well as the sights and sounds of the Gondar region of northern Ethiopia, and the capital Addis Ababa.
Edemariam describes through the impact on one family the rending of society during the revolution and Mengistu’s takeover
The influence of the church in feudal and imperial Ethiopia is tragically demonstrated through the growing influence of Edemariam’s grandfather, his betrayal and death.
The struggles of her grandmother, Yetemegnu, to build a marriage and a home, bear many children, and cope with the loneliness of releasing them to distant careers are lovingly described .
The life of Edemariam’s grandmother was heartrendingly difficult. She suffered but she also triumphed through steady determination, through service and through never letting go of things that mattered to her.
Can anyone recommend other evocative stories of Ethiopia?
The wide steps, double doors, twin towers, and stone facings are a product of their time. The building would not be out of place on the site of Guildford Cathedral.
The rear of the cathedral tells a different story. There are three tiled catafalques commemorating the archbishops of the Episcopal Church of Sudan
The first archbishop 1976 to 1992, the most reverend Elinana J. Ngalamu, who was buried in Khartoum and reburied in Juba in 2008.
The most reverend Benjamin Wani Yugusuk, archbishop from 1988 to 1998, who ‘slept in the lord’ and was buried in 2000, shown in the photo below
The most reverend Dr Joseph R Marona, 2006 to 2008, who ‘slept in the Lord’ and was buried in 2009
The plaques tell of local leaders, born in rural villages, trained in the Episcopal Church, and beloved by their people. The tinsel and heart are not Christmas decorations but a way of showing respect and grief.
The dates do not match up, did the engravers make a mistake or was there an overlap in the jurisdiction of Khartoum and Juba? Perhaps in the confusion of a fifty years war it was impossible to piece together the history of men who led their church when all else disappeared in the chaos of army rule and poverty?
I will probably never know but if you have the answers I would love to hear from you.