Late November. The weather seems to have sucked the color out of everything. I’m living among shades of grey. But I dream in color.
I wander across Miradouro de Santa Lucia, the terrace overlooking Alfama and the Tagus river. Where street players and singers gathered every evening. Where I’ve waited for sunrise. Where I’ve stood silently at night, listening to a song together with other passers-by. A moment of connection created by a human voice and a guitar.
Then I continue on to Portas do Sol, the larger square from which numerous streets branch out downwards, to the river, or upwards, to Castle Sao Jorge.
There’s a small coffee shop, right here on the corner. They open really early and they serve coffee and pastel de nata. They only speak Portuguese but we understand each other in the universal language of people in need of caffeine.
The few other clients are locals taking a few minutes on their way to work. I am the only outsider here, sipping my coffee outside while the owner is still cleaning up and arranging the tables. But I feel like being where I should be.
The sun has risen right in front of me. I have this whole morning ahead, like drinking spring water with your bare hands, like virgin snow on the mountain. Everything can still happen. I’ve lost so much and I’ve lost myself so much, but here at this small table with its cheap tablecloth I feel like everything is still possible.
“Obrigado”, I say to the coffee shop owner. I continue in English, telling him how much I loved the pastel. He’s nodding and smiling. He doesn’t have a clue what I’m saying but understands it’s a compliment.
I go off the main road into narrow back streets that zigzag uphill. Beco de Maldonado, Rua dos Cegos, Calçada do Menino Deus… It’s like going back in time. I could imagine myself walking these streets 30 or 50 years ago. Nothing would need to change to account for the passage of time.
There’s nobody outside but the houses are alive. There are voices inside, there are noises of people cooking, cleaning, just going about their normal lives. The first fallen leaves of late summer are blown away by the breeze.
There’s something in me that would like to cling to this moment, that would like to stay frozen in this snapshot like a fly caught in amber. I’ve always had a hard time letting go of things that I love. Accepting that they come and go.
But right here, surrounded by pigeons flapping their wings in the sun, I just leave things be and I let go.
The train won’t be on time. It won’t arrive ever again.
Its ghost is chasing through the woods. The vegetation is slowly taken over.
I’m standing here as the sun goes down and this incredibly warm light washes over me. In the background, everything lits up like a giant bonfire.
I discovered these abandoned train tracks somewhere on the border between Belgium and The Netherlands. Most probably, they were used to transport coal from Limburg towards the nearby industrial cities. This former mining area is now a national park.
Three elements that set good writing apart — and how they are all rooted in honesty.
Neil Gaiman says in his Masterclass course that a story is anything fictional that keeps you turning the pages and doesn’t leave you feeling cheated at the end. It’s a brief but surprisingly comprehensive definition.
The first part — writing that makes you turn the pages — is about what happens. About characters, conflict, resolution — all the things that bring life into the story and make it move forward. Everything that makes the reader ask what every storyteller wants to hear:
And then what happened?
But it is the second part that I’d like to focus on. What does it mean for a story not to leave you feeling cheated at the end?
As a reader and writer, my answer is this:
First, it is a story that does not promise things that it doesn’t deliver. It doesn’t promise fireworks only to leave you with burnt matchsticks.
It does not start with engaging dialogues that do not go anywhere. It does not develop complex characters that, for the rest of the text, feel like puppets manipulated by a skillful puppeteer. It does not promise a fascinating adventure only to end up lecturing the reader and moralizing.
As a reader, I would expect a story that lives up to what it (implicitly) promised it would do, no matter how modest that promise. I would prefer an understated start that slowly builds up in strange, unexpected ways, rather than a spectacular intro that gradually grows out of breath and lifeless.
Second, it is a story that does not pray on your readers’ psychological needs just to keep them going through the text. It does not play with the characters in order to create artificial drama and conflict. It does not twist the plot unnaturally, just to satisfy the reader’s need for closure.
Obviously, stories often develop in unexpected ways, just as life does. But they can do so convincingly, in ways that are consistent with the internal flow and logic of the story. Or they can do so in ways that are transparently doctored to elicit certain reactions and emotions. It’s not the story that leads naturally to this or that course of events. It’s the author messing with the flow of the story.
Referring to how he develops characters and dialogue, Neil Gaiman speaks about the importance of listening to your own characters and paying attention to what they would say or do. Do they sound genuine? Are they believable? Or are you constantly trying to impose yourself on them?
Isn’t this what sets great stories apart — the feeling that they take on a life of their own and carry you along with them? This is the flow of the story. Once you’ve set it in motion, it becomes larger than you.
Third, it is a story that you, the author, care about. You are personally invested in telling the story — and telling it honestly.
If you’re going to write… you have to be willing to do the equivalent of walking down a street naked. You have to be able to show too much of yourself. You have to be just a little bit more honest than you’re comfortable with…”
If the story does not talk about something that is important for you, as a writer and as a human being, no amount of technical skill will turn in into an interesting piece.
If the story is not written truthfully, it will show up sooner or later. Writing in honesty may be or may not be a moral principle for you as an author, but it is also a pragmatic principle. Before we can cast a spell on others and invite them into the story, we need to make that story credible and engaging for ourselves. Writing truthfully is the simplest, most direct way of doing that. It not only provides an intrinsic motivation to keep writing, but it also ensures consistency of approach.
Don’t promise what you cannot deliver, don’t twist the story to score cheap points, write truthfully about what matters to you.
At the end of the day, all three points are about honesty. Honesty towards yourself, your own writing, and the reader.
We live within stories. It matters what those stories are. They can make or break us. And they can be changed.
Take a moment and remember a time when you’ve been living as if under a spell. When you were hooked on thinking or feeling things that, in hindsight, were clearly out of touch with reality. Maybe you were obsessed with your own failures. Maybe you couldn’t stop caring about a manipulative or abusive person. Or maybe you were stuck in depression without knowing why you got there and what to do.
What were you telling yourself at that time? How were you trying to justify it, normalize it, explain it away? What was the story you were telling yourself?
Sometimes we have a hard time recognizing stories as stories. There are folk tales, bedtime stories, short stories, novels, plays, movies, video games. But there are also national myths, collective stories of greatness, and mental scripts we keep telling ourselves. And they can greatly influence how we behave, think and feel.
Through stories, we try to make sense of what is going on, find meaning, cope with problems. Through stories we find the power to push through.
But there are also stories that reinforce fragility and weakness. Stories that keep us captive into various fictions about that we desperately need, what we fear, what would make us happy or unhappy. Stories that keep us stuck in fear and dependence.
“I am not worthy of love”, “I am defective”, “we need to defend the purity of our race”, “our civilisation is under threat”, “my political opponents are brainwashed idiots” — all these are not isolated statements.
They are part of a wider web of beliefs, values and practices that define who we are. Believing in your essential defectiveness can lead to personal tragedy. Believing in a looming threat to the purity of the race can lead to war and genocide.
Learning to tell a different story
Self-narratives are part of our sense of identity. We become what we came to believe about ourselves, whether or not it was true to begin with. Ideas of self-worth, competence and ability and embedded in our narratives. Getting rid of a toxic idea means dealing with the story it is part of.
Toxic stories are persistent and powerful. Part of the reason is that it takes time and effort to realize their toxicity when you’ve been living with them long enough. It takes a shift of perspective, a degree of critical detachment, to start seeing them for what they are.
But even then, realizing their toxicity will not be enough to get rid of them. No matter how harmful, we may choose to hang on to the story because giving it up feels like giving up part of ourselves. It feels as if we don’t have anything else to hang on to.
Toxic stories are powerful, but they are not invincible. They can be undermined by learning to tell a better story. A kinder, more forgiving story that starts from the same basic facts but frames them differently.
One powerful way of telling a better story about yourself is to tell it as if you were speaking to a dear friend. Somebody you care about. You are not blind to their faults and weaknesses, but you see through them. You see the suffering, the struggle, and the humanity of it all. “I failed again” becomes “You did your best. It didn’t work out this time. It happens to all of us.”
Self-reinforcement works. Once you’ve practiced a bit and proven to yourself that it works (and that it’s less difficult than you thought), it gets easier to continue doing it.
Another way of reframing the story is to identify the hidden assumptions of your self-narrative and question them. It may be that you’re feeling responsible and guilty for everything that didn’t work out. It may be that you’re unable to accept and forgive yourself. It may be that you have a deep-seated fear of loneliness or failure. Once you start seeing behind the curtain of the drama playing continuously in your head, the drama starts losing its edge.
In cognitive-behavioral therapy, we are encouraged to identify our cognitive scripts (the self-narratives) and question them, put them to the test, play with them, and find alternative scripts. All this is meant to create some distance between us and the story we tell ourselves.
Once there is enough detachment, we recognize the story as a story. An artifact. Something that was made and can be unmade.
Toxic stories can also be undermined by simply paying attention to what others are going through. Gaining perspective. Getting out of our little bubble of misery and making space for compassion, empathy, and a sense of shared experience.
Focusing on others shifts the attention away from our suffering, which changes our perception of how intense or pervasive this suffering is. More importantly, however, it also offers perspective and insight into our situation. We recognize ourselves in the struggle of others.
Through them, we can look at ourselves from the outside. We see ourselves as human beings going through grief — but we are not identifying anymore with the grief.
Through them, we sense that all this hurt is not only ours — it’s a common human experience. And there are so many who had it way worse than us. There’s a certain humility that comes from detaching ourselves from our own suffering. Even in our suffering, we’re not that special. The world has not conspired to hurt us. It’s just the ebb and flow of life.
I am walking through a patch of wilderness that opens towards the North Sea. I want to get to the seashore before sunrise.
The horizon is intense orange slowly turning into gold. I can hear the sea through the breeze, like a white noise softening every other sound on earth. I’ve scared off a few rabbits on my way. The bushes are full of movement and sound. The sand dunes are full of life.
I move along and I stumble upon a flock of sheep. The sun has barely risen above the horizon and the horizontal light turns the sheep into golden snowballs. It smells of dozens unknown plants and flowers, of sea and of animal life. It smells of all the journeys I could have taken and, for some reason, did not take. Of all the unlived things.
But there’s no sadness or regret here and now. Everything is happening so fast. There’s so much to see, so much to feel.
The sea is really close now. I hear the waves close by. One more dune that I struggle to climb, my feet sinking into the sand. Then, all of a sudden, the horizon punctuated by fortifications from the Second World War. I’ve made it just before sunrise.
People have fought and died here just a few decades ago. They have probably sent a letter to their spouses days or hours before the fight. They have probably shared a cigarette with their mates before the shooting and shelling started. It’s all quiet now.
There’s barely enough light but I see the graffitis on the concrete structure in front of me. One word stands out in the dark, in white paint: resist.
In three hours, the sun will be way up and tourists will start entering the dunes to take shelter from the heat. And mankind will once more be all-present and all-powerful. Gloriously leaving behind it plastic garbage, taking selfies on the fortifications and crushing the delicate blue flowers of the dunes.
Then the tide will come in and wash it all away. Wildlife will hide away and stay silent, waiting for the dark. And life will go on.
As parts of the world are going into a new period of isolation to fight the pandemic, I look at how life has changed and the upside of isolation.
As we withdraw from each other in the flesh, we may begin to appreciate better what we had until so recently: friendship and love made manifest by being together, simple gifts like a shared joint, a head resting on your shoulder, a hand squeezed, a toast raised. And in this sudden stop, we will also hear the sounds of nature — as our economic machine pauses for a moment and the contest for status or fame or money is canceled for just a while. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” Pascal said. Well, we’ll be able to test that now, won’t we?
Well, we may be forced to redefine that list. And maybe realize that some things we thought we need are dispensable. Or even that we are better off without them.
For all its disadvantages, isolation gives us the opportunity to pause and just notice. To see the aimless agitation, the moments when we’re simply not there.
We’re not there because we are too busy distracting ourselves.
The first step is to recognize that some of what passes for activity is just distraction. The second one is to ask what we’re trying to distract ourselves from. This may take a while, because it’s about facing things what we fought to keep away at all costs. It’s about facing one’s demons.
Is it loneliness? Anger? Shame? Old wounds that never healed? Lack of purpose and meaning? Whatever it is, it’s haunting us. Did we ever turn back to face it?
In one of her books, Pema Chodron talks about a friend of hers who had frequent nightmares. In her dreams, she was repeatedly chased by monsters. Often, in a desperate attempt to escape, she would enter a room and close the door behind her, only to hear the monsters break down the door and get closer. She was waking up screaming. This happened over and over again.
Pema asked her friend how these monsters looked like. To her own surprise, her friend realized that she could never bring herself to turn and look at the things chasing her.
But this realisation stayed with her and it slowly permeated into her dreams. The next time she found herself trying to get away from the monsters, once she entered the room where monsters were usually following her she turned around.
The monsters were there. For the first time, she could observe each of them. They were jumping up and down in front of her, but they were keeping distance as if held back by an invisible force field. They were scary but somehow not nearly as scary as they seemed before, when they were just a menacing presence without a face. In fact, the more she was looking at them, the less frightening they seemed. She remembers saying to herself in the dream that they look a bit like cartoon characters.
“You cannot get rid of your shadow”, she thought while driving. It was 5:30 am. A chilly December morning. Definitely not the kind of morning when you’d jump out of bed at 5 and take a ride in the dark. And still, there she was.
What was she looking for? Behind the wheel, she was asking herself exactly this – and it was hard to find a good answer. It was more of a compulsion. When she woke up that morning, after few hours of sleep, she just couldn’t resist it anymore. She felt that she had to return to that place.
As if you’d been running for a long time, trying to leave your shadow behind, and now you finally give in and turn back. Your shadow is there all right, glued to your feet.
She had not been to that place in a while but she knew it well. In fact, it’s where most of her dreaming took place. It’s where he brought her for her birthday, in what now seemed like a different life. It’s where they laid down in the tall grass, watching the hypnotic shapes of the clouds backlit by the setting sun.
What was he saying back then? She could not quite remember. But his words were like flashes into the night, illuminating the sky for a split second. Burning her on the inside, one flash after another. She remembers feeling as if she was there, completely present with that moment, and at the same time watching the whole scene from outside. Watching his lips move in slow-motion and the tall grass dancing in the night wind. Telling herself “this moment will pass and never come back”.
That cold December morning, she felt compelled to return and look for that fleeting moment and the echo of his words. Look for him, knowing full well he won’t be there. Look for her, as she used to be back then.
Like being stuck in a dark room and searching for the door, where you know the door has always been. But the door is not there any longer. Everything you feel is uninterrupted wall on all sides. There’s no exit.
The wind picked up and brought her back to the present. She had been staring at the spot where, in a different geological time, they’ve set up the tent and listened to the sounds of the night. Owls, foxes, dogs and many others, impossible to identify.
Behind her, the long black shadow cast by the streetlight is pointing towards the place where the sun should have already appeared. It’s dark with just a hint of light on the horizon. An aborted sunrise. The thought that all this may well be a dream, one of the many dreams that took her back to that place, is strangely comforting.
As she is standing there, an invisible camera moves away from her and goes up for the final shot. She looks around as if she wants to take it all in. Then she slowly walks away, her shadow getting incredibly large, like a giant finger pointing towards something far away, across the fields.
She gets smaller and smaller into the picture. Just a spec, a pixel in a noise of pixels. And everything else – the places they shared, the forest, the muddy fields, the farm at the end of the road, the village nearby – is getting smaller and smaller. The world wakes up and all the colors, sounds and smells of life get into the picture as the camera moves away.
The girl dragging her feet and her long black shadow have disappeared completely.
The noisy tourists have finally disappeared. They must be having a late dinner in one of the newer, fancier restaurants of the neighborhood. Or having cocktails in a bar overlooking the city. The streets are deserted, apart from the occasional couple walking slowly and holding hands, or an old lady walking a dog.
At night, city streets live a different life. Like a nocturnal animal, they wake up to different sounds, smells and movements. Freed from the layer of agitation and noise brought by humans, they are breathing again.
The locals are living their quiet home life. There are voices and smells of home cooking, but everything is slowly dissolving in the breeze.
From time to time, the breeze picks up. It carries smells of ocean and seaweed, of deadwood floating away to nowhere. Boat lights are flickering on the Tagus river, each of them carrying its own story.
This ancient hilly quarter of Lisbon, where people have left on the ocean never to come back, where lives and loves were lost to famine, plague, fire and war, is not my home. But I feel so much at home here. So much in touch with the thousands of stories slowly unravelling around me.
A cat comes to caress himself against my hand. He looks at me and then he goes away into the dark. Am I accepted into this hidden, almost invisible street life? I am not felt as an intruder? I stay silent and let things be. It’s almost as if I’ve become part of the landscape.
I hear the sound of a cruiseship horn far away. I’ve never been on a cruiseship but it hits me violently. It brings back memories of travelling to unknown places, leaving behind what I love, being left behind by a loved one.
Are these my memories or have I become part of this place and now I am dreaming its dreams? I cannot tell anymore.
Narrow streets are leading down towards the river like torrents on a mountain after a heavy rain. The wind has stopped and everything is still and silent, as if frozen in a picture frame.
There is an imperceptible movement somewhere, the water molecules are rolling downstream in slow motion. But to the naked eye everything seems frozen.
It’s early autumn and the first colorful leaves are slowly gathering on the water. The Great Falling of Leaves has not started yet.
I’ve stopped for a minute to have a drink of water and watch the sun playing its hide-and-seek through the branches.
It’s cool down here. It’s a good place to rest and stay silent.
Panta rhei said a Greek named Heraclitus about 2500 years ago. Everything is in flow.
There are hundreds of books, articles, movies, plays and paintings building on these two words. Panta rhei. You cannot step in the same river twice. Everything changes constantly.
Right here, although there is a small waterfall upstream, the silence and stillness are overwhelming. The water rushes down the waterfall and all of a sudden calms down as it zigzags between the rocks.
I’m sitting there and the stream is still on the outside but is moving through me. And it carries with it all the sorrow, clarity, regret, realisation, depression and hope of the recent past, like leaves on the water.