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Nostalgia – or progress?

I am feeling for the characters in my book right now. Everything they knew is disappearing around me, building by building, brick by brick.

It was a strange experience going back to places I was last in over twenty years ago and finding that I recognised next to nothing there. Entire streets were gone, replaced by shiny new buildings that bore no resemblance to the places I had once studied or eaten in or just walked outside of. Admittedly, the new buildings have moved on a bit since 1950s East Germany architecture was being realised, but all cities change and after a while, we can often not even remember what was there before.

That’s one of the problems of trying to go back to somewhere we had an emotional connection to. I had to give up on anything much in Leipzig being as useful to me as photos of the city in the 1970s, but it reminded me that it is those personal associations which make a city for us. The buildings might go or change, but we remember what we did there, and with whom, and it is those memories which matter most. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t sad when what we knew is no longer there, and that’s one reason why there are some places I probably will never return to. I prefer them frozen in time in 1992 (Tübingen) when the restaurant underneath the town hall served huge savoury pancakes and we met an American couple on holiday, acting as (probably rubbish) tour guides for them for a day or two. The restaurant is (I am told) gone now, but in my mind, it’s still there and we can go there any time we like in our memory.

This one used to be a rectangular block of cement. But the new building means nothing to me. It’s just a building. In time, however, it will bring back memories for the students now at the university there, and that’s all as it should be. Nothing stays the same forever. I have my memories, and they have theirs, and maybe some time we can share our different experiences of the same place.

In the last six months, the last two buildings two of my characters worked in have either been demolished (cue heart sinking as I arrive at the spot and just know that hole in the ground is the building I wanted to see – the perils of thinking ‘I’ll go there next time’!)…

… or are losing their old occupants. The Berliner Zeitung newspaper is moving out of the building it has been in for decades:

As well as those two, this landmark university tower in Leipzig is now being used by a media organisation rather than the university:

I have the luxury of several sets of memories of these places, some of them even mine. And the buildings might go or change, but the memories stay and, in some cases, are captured in stories where they never disappear. But sometimes I am still sad to see them go because it feels as if a bit of me goes with them.

And it’s done…for now

There is a reason for my blogging silence for six weeks. That, it turns out, is how long it takes me to write the first draft of the novel from beginning to end, and it doesn’t allow for an awful lot of head space devoted to anything else.

Right now, I’m back in Berlin for a week. It gave me the total space I needed to do nothing but write and walk (not at the same time) for the first few days, eating when I remembered to and just doing one more scene…and one more…and just one more…maybe one more before I stop… then it was done.

I spent a long day walking through Leipzig reacquainting myself with the city where Natalie (all names you’re hearing for the first time are of characters in the book, and all bear no similarity to etc etc etc) went to university, and finding the place unrecognisable from when she was there (because it was unrecogisable from when I was there – they have been knocking down all the parts I knew over twenty years ago). I could still retrace her route between the two university building she was in, but as for the rest – too much has changed to be able to see where anything else happened, until, with an hour before my train back to Berlin was leaving and a 45 minute walk from the station, I finally found the place I needed, unchanged in forty years and exactly where she would have gone with…ah, no, not telling you that bit. The lights, I admit, are a modern addition, but this was what I had been looking for – the kind of thing you know when you see it:

Today, I walked for hours through Berlin tracing routes to make sure they worked, to see what became obvious only when I actually retraced someone else’s steps, and then I checked what I could see when I stood on the corner of a street I had previously only imagined, and saw that it was slightly different when I got to the spot. Ninety something percent will never get written down, but I will know that the descriptions I do include will be right, even if I am not going to start listing off every street name (seriously, some people do that, and when it’s set in Berlin and they get it badly wrong, I get pretty grumpy). 

I think I am finding that this part is also helpful to allow me to let go of some of the characters. I have way too much invested in them and spend too much of the last couple of days of writing bursting out into tears as I got towards the end. I’m sure I’ll go over it again and think, what was that bit meant to be about?, but right now, I’m just reliving events that happened here when I was only just born.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the process of getting this far:

  • No matter how good or bad any of this turns out to be (and everyone’s going to have an opinion!), it took me a lot longer to get it even this far than I had ever imagined. A lifetime – and a career – of writing non-fiction is not a good preparation for writing fiction, except for the part that means I get a kick out of the research!
  • Over the last few years, I think I have probably written around 500,000 words. That’s five times the length of To Kill a Mockingbird (told you I liked the research part) and most of it will sit in a folder stuffed full of handwritten pages or in computer files – but all of it was useful because all of it was part of the learning process.
  • In the process of writing all that, I gave up twice. As in, totally decided this was never going to happen and I should just accept it and move on. Then the next day, I decided to have another go. Dealing with the emotions of this kind of writing is part of the challenge.
  • You can spend a lot of time finding out how other writers ‘do it.’ Stephen King, for example, says write 2,000 words a day, no matter what, then leave it. It works for him, not for me. But what all successful writers say is read a lot and write all the time. It turns out that, for me, I scarcely read anything else once I’ve started for real, and all I do is work from beginning to end, getting down 8-10,000 words a day towards the end of each of the main sections because I just could not imagine stopping for anything. I had to find out what happened (there were some things which only came out towards the end, which answered questions I had been trying to figure out since the beginning) and I just had to get to the end of the story.
  • Plot it out. Oh my goodness did I fight against that one. Many, many times. Then I saw a plot outline which James Patterson did for one of his novels, and something clicked. It worked for me. I just opened up the outline and wrote what I had said happened in that scene. No worrying about whether it worked or not, because I knew I had already dealt with what came next, and that there was an ending it was all leading up to. I did change the odd thing as I went along, but that was more as I was finding out things myself. But even with that, I kept telling myself, I don’t know how this works out – then I went through all the scenes ahead of me and realised that I did know. It turned out that I actually plotted the whole thing while I was ill for two months and thought I had got nothing done at all, then I had a look and saw that, somewhere in that time, I had managed to get from beginning to end. I had just forgotten that I had done it.
  • Fast works for me. I probably already knew that, but I did try being disciplined, along the lines of so many words a day and then stopping. And it did help on the days when it just wasn’t working and I said, you just have to get it down and change it later. But I found that too many days were either, I don’t know what to write for this scene, or I don’t want to stop now. So I accepted that I was always going to have to up the intensity massively and immerse myself in it. It’s addictive. Deal with it.
  • Write every day. Sorry, family. Yes, on Christmas Day as well, but it was only about 1,000 words.
  • Yes, you will start to think and feel like your character sometimes. Note to self: stop writing characters who like cigars and French wine. It’s not my fault, it’s just who Theo was. And I dealt with Theo’s character not by drinking and smoking but by telling LoLo what Theo had said recently and judging whether it would stay or not by how much she laughed. When she said weeks later, ‘what was that thing Theo said?’ and laughed all over again, I knew I had at least one line that was a keeper. When your teenage daughter goes around quoting what one of your characters said…wow.
  • Delegate. Yes, seriously. I wrote a lot by hand until I simply could not write fast enough without every word looking like a line with a few bumps, and I paid the girls to type it up for me. They almost got it all done as well. As I said to them, at least someone is making some money from my writing. Pity it’s not me!
  • All those words I wrote along the way… there’s at least one other book in there and I figured out on my long walk today how I can use it. I have a good chunk of the next book sitting there, and it’s something I care enough about, I just needing to turn it into a proper story and written like that now. And then there’s the other book I plotted out in the course of a 14 mile run a few weeks ago. Running is good for that. Got the main character, got the set up, got an idea of how it might play out, and got the historical (1800s for a change) period it might mirror. Oh, and a title for that one. Emma. I tried writing a few scenes the other day to see if I had her voice, and I started to like it. So there’s a pipeline for the future.
  • The main thing I think I’ve learned is that it’s the story that matters, not everything you know. You want to show someone how much you have learned about the facts, write non-fiction. You want to tell a story which brings it to life? – write a novel. The remake of Battlestar Galactica was memorable for me for the writers’ comments on the final episode where they said something along the lines of, We knew it was all about the characters, and that final episode is just beautiful as a result.

So, first draft done, now it’s on to the editing. Which I keep saying to myself is ‘rip it all to pieces.’ I already know (because I peeked) that I am going to hate some of what I wrote at the beginning, and that’s fine. I have a better sense of the characters at the end than I did at the beginning, some things have changed along the way, there’s the odd plot hole I created later on that I need to fix now and I already have one character who is just going to disappear, that you will never know anything about. Sorry, Max, love you but you didn’t add anything I needed, and did I mention that the first draft is waaaaay too long for you to be in the next version? 215,000 words is too much. So now I get to be ruthless. I am so looking forward to that.

See you again in another six weeks when I’m through with the big edit. Then I get a holiday. Literally. In the meantime, I get to eat again. And read books. This is going to be weird…

9 November – Part 2

The backdrop to my childhood years is encapsulated in the Alphaville song “Forever Young” – “Are they going to drop the bomb or not?” The division of the world into East and West was just what it was, it had been in place for as long as I had been alive, and there was no reason to think it would ever change. Soviet General Secretaries came and went, American presidents came and went, and Erich Honecker had been the General Secretary of the East German party for almost all of my life. I’m still not sure if I like the fact that I was born while Walter Ulbricht was in charge, but he was. He was the one who said, just days before the first incarnation of the Wall was constructed, “Nobody has the intention of building a wall” – you can see him here.

When the Wall came down, I was living and working in Munich. I was washing dishes in a hotel there. We had a massive conveyor belt dishwasher for most items, but once a week it was our turn to wash the pots by hand. Three kitchens, a lot of cooks, none of whom had to clean up the mess they made. I still remember the first time I did it, I was far too slow, two of the kitchens were soon backed up and somebody probably had to rescue me. If you were the pot cleaner, you were there till you were done, which could have been well after the official 12:30 (am) finish time. By the time I finished working there, I was very, very efficient and looked forward to being the pot guy for the evening because I would get out earlier. Some of the German culture must have rubbed off of me. Or maybe it was just laziness.

Being 18 at the time, the end of the Wall meant I could travel to the Eastern bloc quite easily, and did so with three colleagues from the hotel in early 1990. There are two memories in particular which are still particularly vivid. The first is of driving through a forest at night to get to the Czech border (it was still Czechoslovakia back then). It was exactly as you imagine it from a spy film, no lights anywhere, no houses, snow on the road and the trees, and then you get to the border crossing where we and our car (an Audi 80, hired of course and standing out wherever we went in the East) were inspected. I don’t recall there being much conversation with the border guards, but they let us pass and we drove through a village which was as dark as the deserted roads we had been driving on. Prague was stunning, even back then. And of course incredibly cheap, even for a Western dishwasher. There were two prices in all the menus, one for the locals, one for the Westerners. It helped that the menus with the cheaper prices were only in Czech so we couldn’t have ordered from them anyway.

And then there was Berlin. I didn’t like it at all. We were staying in West Berlin and I hated it. Too over the top, too gaudy, too in your face. Even to this day, I tend to spend my time here in the Eastern part of the city. I don’t think it’s conscious, it just feels different. And we went across into East Berlin. Complete with the obligatory changing of Deutsche Mark into Eastern Marks (I so wish I had kept some of the Eastern money). We were warned against changing money on the street but there was no point in doing so anyway as there was nothing to buy and the restaurants would only accept our Western money anyway. For all the cliches about the East, it really did feel like a different planet.

At the time, it was just a trip with some friends, but when I look back on it now, I realise just how special it was. I was actually in the GDR. And we had to go to some government building in Prague to get our visas extended by a day or we would have had real trouble when we came to leave the country. I still have the passport with the GDR stamp and Czech visa in it.

To this day, I’m not sure what it was that took me down the academic line I took. I suspect the interest in ethics came from my Mum and Peter Singer’s book (which she recommended to me) Practical Ethics which proved that ethics is not just some theoretical discussion but something which affects real lives. Probably that appealed to my inherent interest in how to apply knowledge in practice. Goodness knows where the media bit came from. I had never met a journalist in my life. And, given my experience in Berlin in 1990, there was nothing pulling me back there to do my research. But I went anyway, and the Berlin I encountered bore no resemblance to what I remembered. Partly because it was a huge building site, partly because everything was changing around me, and partly because I had changed. But mainly because I got to know a good number of Berliners, from West and East, and the city was a proper home to me for the best part of a year. I found recently my notebook from when I was there. Apparently I met with a professor soon after I got to Berlin and recorded that he thought I wouldn’t get any journalists to open up and talk about their life before and after the Wall came down. For a while I thought he might be right. I got no reply to a couple of letters sent to Neues Deutschland, previously the flagship newspaper of the ruling Party in East Germany. I still remember going to their office building and speaking with the receptionist. Had they received my letter? Yes, and they had meant to get back to me. Could I meet with the editor? Yes – we set up an appointment. And from there, it snowballed. Another journalist there loved Scotland (the weather, of all things). And better still, he had been the editor of the main youth newspaper, a total hardliner, hated by the population in general. And I found them both to be thoughtful, reflective and open about their past, about their role in propping up the regime, about the sense of duty and commitment they had felt. They introduced me to other journalists, including at the Berliner Zeitung which, co-incidentally, is my favourite German newspaper, and within a few months I had spoken with over thirty journalists. All of which forms the basis of my book.

Unsurprisingly, the experience of living in Berlin as a twenty-something had an impact on me which far outlived my time there. One family in particular, from the East, and just a couple of years older than me, made the whole experience one of belonging in Berlin rather than just passing through. That feeling has never left me.

And now we are a generation older. Those of us who remember the Wall coming down are now middle-aged (allegedly). We lived in a time which is just history for our children. Things we grew up with are in museums. Including the GDR.

So, what is my fascination with the GDR? I’ve asked myself that over the years. My answer today might be different from my answer tomorrow. But for today, I think it’s because it wasn’t that different from what we still experience today, albeit in a different way. Last night, Klaus Wowereit, the outgoing mayor of Berlin, talked about the concrete walls and the walls in our head. The journalists in East Germany talked of the scissors in your head (die Schere im Kopf). To begin with, control of what they wrote was external, words or sentences would be changed or articles rejected in their entirety. It didn’t take long until they self-censored, knowing what would and would not be accepted. They no longer needed to be controlled, they did it to themselves. It wasn’t conscious, it just became part of who they were. They still tried to get things into the paper that were borderline, but it was small things. At the time, they seemed more significant because they were looking at it from the perspective of the walls in their own head which had limited their perspective.

And I wonder how different we are. I’ve written before about the ideology of the Scottish independence vote, and about the mindset which I might have implicitly adopted over the last few decades. Did I see that at the time? No. Did it limit my perspective? Undoubtedly. Can it be easily undone? That is perhaps the question I’m dealing with now.

It is a truism that we are shaped by our experiences, by our upbringing. School, religion, the values our parents taught us, mistakes we have made, paths we have gone down, choices we have made. They all contribute to who we are right now, and to how we view the world. It’s a gradual process and we don’t notice it. Remember the principle of the frogs? (skip this if you are squeamish) – if you throw a frog into hot water it jumps straight out again, but put it in cold water and heat it up and it will stay there until it dies. (As as aside, I really hope this is just a theoretical point and that nobody actually did it for real). So what does it take for us to make the big changes that we sometimes need but can’t always see we need?

In the case of East Germany, there were a number of factors. Gorbachev, running out money, Western TV, the ruling generation being out of touch with the population who were one or two generations younger. They all played a part. But I learned a new perspective last night from one of the speakers (as I predicted, there were speeches as well as music).

9 October 1989 (not a typo, a month before the wall came down) was the first unsanctioned demonstration in Leipzig, unsanctioned by the Party. Previous demonstrations had been smaller, this one included about 70,000 people.  The local population knew that water cannons were being brought in, the hospitals had extra blood supplies ready, the police and Stasi were out in force. And they went out anyway, knowing what could happen but knowing also that they had to. It was described as the day East Germany lost its fear.

And there it is. Losing our fear. I think that’s the thing that, however experienced and capable we are, holds us back again and again. Fear of what might happen, of what might not happen, of change.

And so, for me, the fall of the Wall, and what has become of Berlin, shows us what can happen when we lose that fear. It allows us to break through the limitations we have implicitly put on ourselves and discover something new, something better in ourselves.

The trigger, the thing that can push us to embrace something new rather than stay where we have been, can be external, but it always involves an internal choice. And, once again, I come back to my belief that books can be that trigger in our heads, give us a different perspective that allows us to see something new, or see something for the first time that has always been there. And then to decide to do something differently, to be better than we were before. Even when everyone says it can’t be done. Because until 9 November 1989, everyone said the Wall would never come down.


By the way, I decided yesterday during the concert that my novel needs to be written in the first person. I’ve been going back and forth on that for a long time and trying out different forms. Decision made.