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A thought that has been going through my head for a while now is integrity.
But I need to start somewhere else, with writing. I think that, for me, writing is in part a way of exploring something, of thinking through a question in my head that has been bothering me. And it tends to be something which has caused a strong emotional reaction in me, usually because it has run smack bang into something that I believe to matter. This is exactly what has happened today with this blog (one of the reasons it’s a lot later than normal!). I just went somewhere I had not expected to when I was writing it – East Germany and religion – and I now need to refine my thinking. But I needed to put it down in writing to get that far. So I am about to cut the next twelve paragraphs (a sure sign I’m working something out) and will come back to them when I’ve got it right. I might even put them in a later blog entry. [The subtitles to this film would now say “Sound of paper being cut”].
At the moment, my head spends much of its time in 1970s and 1980s East Berlin. But I also know that the questions I’m wrestling with about choice, about truth, about integrity, have another context for me personally. I’m spending time inside the head of people who had no safe way of escaping a situation which was not of their making. But what really interests me is the processes which caused that outward set of restrictions to become internalised, because that’s what can and does happen to us all – and it happens to my characters. We talk about becoming ‘institutionalised’ after being part of an organisation for long enough (and sometimes it takes no more than a few weeks). First our behaviours and then our thoughts start to change to conform to the way the organisation operates, or the way we perceive it as operating. If we are lucky, we catch ourselves doing this, but much of the time it goes unnoticed.
So the other place I am in my head is how I deal with a situation that feels somewhat like that experience of being trapped in East Germany, but where I know I do have a choice. And I find that the choice is intellectually easy but emotionally a lot harder. And that’s a place I have to stay for a while because it’s helping me to understand my characters a bit better. I do at least know how it ends for me, if not for my characters. I just can’t get to that point yet because I need it to stay real for a bit longer. And then I can write about integrity. But not yet.
So why have I included this jumble of thoughts today? Welcome to the head of a writer.
This week, I’m going to do how poor customer service leads to two book reviews, a new family tradition and how baking bread is good for the soul. It’s all connected.
For many months, we’ve been getting our bread from a local farm we’ve been going to for years. The bakery that supplied them was also local and we loved their bread. Last week, we heard the first rumblings of the bakery maybe no longer existing or supplying them or some other reason for our order not being there. But nobody was quite sure. They would let us know… Yesterday, also no bread, but this time, the bakery had definitely moved and there would be no more bread. ‘Maybe we should have let you know.’ Maybe indeed. So we had no bread.
Intermission for first book review. There is one book I recommend more than any other one to people I work with who are interested in their self-development. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is the book I return to most often for some often harsh reminders of the things I could choose to do better on. And that element of choice is the basis of the first of his ‘Habits’, our ability to choose our response. What I really appreciate about Covey’s book is that he is very clear throughout that he is not trying to give us a series of ‘if you do these things, great things will happen’ tips or techniques. What I think he’s doing instead is trying to help us to be the kind of person we want to be, or could be. Which is never easy.
So back to the bread. Choice: get annoyed. Or do something about it. By which I don’t mean complain. It was one of those things and nobody could do anything about the bakery moving, and I’m sure the bakery had good reasons for relocating. But even if they didn’t, there was nothing I could do about it. So, while we were in town, we bought some flour, some fresh yeast, and started a new family tradition. Bake bread on Sunday afternoons. There is a recipe I grew up with which makes perfect bread, and involves a magic spell half way through. The magic spell was always very important when we were growing up, and I’m pleased to say that it has been passed on to the next generation successfully.
We ended up making about 60 rolls, with a significant proportion disappearing within the first hour of them coming out the oven. There’s nothing like fresh bread. And it’s fun to bake (confession – it helps if you have a Kenwood to do the kneading for you.)
I had forgotten that it doesn’t actually take long to bake bread, the vast majority of the time is just waiting while it rises. And that’s an hour to go and write. Everyone’s a winner in this new tradition.
Second intermission, second book. I was reminded of a character in another book which is in my top [insert random number] books. Jodi Picoult is a writer I have loved since before she became really really famous. Many years ago, before most of her books were available in the UK, we were on a family trip to Boston. I checked with the hotel in advance if we could have packages sent to us there, and had every one of Jodi’s books sent to me. It does mean that they look odd on my bookshelf because the US ones are a different size from the UK ones, not to mention the hardbacks.
But after a good few more books by her, my interest started to wane. Each book was beautifully written, everything was right. But they started to become too similar in style for me. I even stopped reading one halfway through and haven’t returned to it. But then came The Storyteller, which retains all the amazing things she can do with her characters and plots, but is somehow written differently. And it’s all the better for it. It’s the story of a woman who bakes bread – hence the association. And it’s the story of her grandmother, who was a Jew in Europe in the Nazi period. The characters are what makes the story. Their doubts, their loves, their fears, and their experiences and what they make of them. Each of them has to make choices and live with the consequences. It’s what we tell our children, isn’t it? You can choose what you do, but you can’t always choose the consequences.
Most of us are unlikely to have to face the kinds of choices people in wartime had to or have to today, but for our own development and for those around us, the choices we make can be just as important. And we do always have the ability to choose how we act. I hope that we’ve turned a relocated bakery and somebody forgetting to tell us into a new family tradition which is also the continuation of the tradition my mum started with us a long long time ago. So long ago that the recipe is in pounds and ounces. The poor man in the supermarket had to ask a colleague when I asked for two ounces of yeast and came back very apologetically to tell me they only sold it in grams. I had to laugh. The youth of today…