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To be a writer or a fighter

De tweede week van januari verzamelden 140 schrijvers, vertalers en literaire professionals in Brussel voor de aftrap van de tweede editie van het internationaal talentontwikkelingstraject CELA. Carmien Michels, alumni van de eerste editie, sprak de nieuwe deelnemers toe over de evolutie die haar schrijverschap doormaakte: 'CELA allowed me to above all be a writer again, instead of a fighter.'
Door Carmien Michels op 27 feb 2020
Literatuur & taal
Carmien Michels © Gaby Jongenelen

1. Martial arts class I: to fake time

Last week I could barely sleep. Possibly, my insomnia had something to do with the martial arts lessons I’m taking every Wednesday, the blood of refined aggression still pumping through my veins. Or did it have something to do with this keynote I was preparing and I was quite nervous about? Every ten minutes I woke up, put on my night light, and wrote down some urgent thoughts considering the question: “How and why to be a literary artist in the 21st century?


Although my thoughts seem brilliant at night, they usually reveal to be something else by daylight. I will not bother you with quoting them all, but this particular one I would love to share. I meant to write: “The true challenge is to take time for your own projects” but, because my pen was hesitating between dreamland and reality, I wrote instead: “the true challenge is to fake time for your own projects”.

Can you fake having time on your side? When I am abroad for a writing residency, strolling around, I imagine myself being this wild horse, stubborn, uncensored and free, tasting forbidden flowers and seeds, hopping around and running when feeling like it. I get this powerful feeling that together with my brain capacity time as well is extending.

2. From an explicit to an implicit impact on society


I remember the same expansion of time when six-year-old me was sitting under the desk of my mother, making drawings out of the endless numbers which were typed on the scrap paper she had given me. She had a stressful job, making long hours, managing the township’s expenses and fighting corruption. It was underneath that desk that I decided never to be an employee in my far, far future.

One day my mother quit her job because she lost all connection with what had driven her in the first place. Patiently she started investigating what she was telling herself. She volunteered sitting at the bedside of palliative patients and being a mediator between divorcing couples. By being in contact with people’s deepest sorrows on a daily basis, she got in touch again with her own deepest sorrows. This brought her to become a clown for people with dementia and mental deficiencies.

I see similarities between the choices my mother made and my evolution as a writer. At first, I wrote novels and became quite known as the Dutch and European champion of Poetry Slam. I wanted to fight corrupt things in the world through my performance poetry. I got great acclaim for it.

Although winning the European championship opened doors to literature, for some time, I could not write without this moral horse neighing in my hallway. Then this program came as a true gift on my way: Connecting Emerging Literary Artists. It allowed me to above all be a writer again, instead of a fighter. In the early years of my writing, I had doubts about how to take position in society. Now that I have taken position, I can speak out in a more subtle and implicit way: through my stories and characters.

Carmien Michels © Gaby Jongenelen

3. Fast and slow changing world


We live in this fast changing world of quick opinions, tweeting presidents, dualities, injustice and initiatives of all kind, demanding the literary artist to be up to date, to respond and to empower others.

Thanks to development programs and several cultural organizations a new generation of literary artists in the Low Countries can make a living out of a combined literary practice, connecting this fast changing world with the slow changing one: this world where all the numbers on the scrap paper underneath my mother’s desk became a story, a unity, an ongoing conversation between me and the world.


For a long time, I loved being a multitalented literary artist with a hybrid practice. A friend of me always joked I was so talented in creating my own job that I could even create a job out of a fart. So in the first years I combined lots of roles, circling around literature: being a performer, curator, entertainer, activist, teacher, researcher, director, moderator, editor, member of juries and boards, bridge builder, in short, an all-round artist-entrepreneur, and I was telling myself I should also specialize in screenwriting, songwriting, journalism and reviewing. I put my heart and energy in everything I did, but by doing so I was losing contact with my slow changing world.

4. Horses, dragons and CELA


Somehow, instead of a wild horse running free, I felt like this race horse running from a to b, crushing all possible weeds growing freely. I was not writing or creating for myself anymore. I was looking at my work, ambitions and craftsmanship with an outside eye, responding to the fast changing world, instead of listening to what made me feel connected. My race horse was constantly whispering: by working hard now, I’m saving money to be able to write in the future. Initially, I really hated the critical conversations I had with my CELA-mentor, Willem Bongers-Dek, because they felt like heartbreaks. Yes, I was able to create a job out of a fart. But, I was doing this because I was so damn afraid of something essential that I took every possible measure to disable myself to write.

There is this quote of Rainer Maria Rilke I carried with me, when I was writing my very first novel eight years ago: ‘Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps, everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.’

CELA invited me to approach my dragons. Although we had a writing deadline every single day during my first residency in Bucharest, it felt like I had a holiday for the first time in years. Later on in the project I met this special species of underexposed translators, who enable us to read Adichie, Rumi and Murakami in our own languages. I loved arguing and performing together with my Spanish and Romanian translators and now look differently to my texts thanks to their terrifying detailed approach. And then there were all these other quirky, authentic and stubborn CELA strangers becoming friends and family, sharing stories about their dragons.

It’s remarkable to be abroad with likeminded people of different backgrounds, sharing similar passions, inspiring each other’s readings and writings. I felt privileged not having to travel with a patronage like composers did in earlier times, not having to wait for an aunt falling of her horse to inherit a fortune like Mary Beton in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Her Own. Unlike the Turkish author Ahmet Altan, I was able to write whatever I wanted without being imprisoned. Taking all this in consideration, what the hell was holding me back feeling like a wild horse at home? What action did I need to take to empower myself?

© Gaby Jongenelen

5. Martial arts class II: to shut up confirmation


‘Shut up,’ I said in the martial arts class to my sparring partner, a muscled man of two meters tall. I looked him in the eye, brown eyes, preparing to smack him. It’s a very intimate thing to smack someone. This guy however, got me out of focus because he was looking above me whilst constantly talking, approving and disapproving my not-quite-on-point technique.
‘Shut up,’ I said suddenly.
It was situational. I was not devaluating him. He just had to shut up.
‘Am I bringing you out of your core?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ I said to this guy who was clearly afraid of intimacy.
‘So shut up and I will attack you ten times in a row. Okay?’
After the first combination of punches, he cheered: ‘Yes! Good. This is what I meant.’
‘Shut the fuck up,’ I said. ‘I do not need your confirmation at all.’
By saying this, something magical happened. My hips and hits became more and more precise, efficient and even artistic. The tall guy flinched by every move I made.
‘You’re okay?’ I asked.
He said: ‘Yes, I am just afraid of your power.’
I nodded.
‘Me too,’ I said.

We all have this deep rough power in ourselves that frightens us because it is beyond external approval and expectations, beyond any parental voice that will guide us. This power that might change everything we take for granted, from daily routines over long-time relationships to the perception of what society means today. This power wakes me up at night, feeling rebellious against the system, this power drives me to do stupid things just to get my story rolling, this power enables us to connect with each other regardless the limits of time and space, this power that power-hungry politicians are so afraid of. Yeah.

6. Amicable numbers and connecting my divisors


At last but not at least: ‘Did you ever hear of amicable numbers? They are like perfect numbers, but instead of being the sum of their own divisors, they’re the sum of each other’s divisors. In the Middle Ages, people used to carve amicable numbers onto pieces of fruit, eat the first piece themselves – and feed the other one to their lover.’ 1 I read this in a short story collection of Paul Auster. I love the thought of numbers that are not the same, like 220 and 284, that are connected through their own divisors.

CELA invited me to love my horses and dragons equally, to love all those things that divided me equally. So I brought my wild horse to the stables, for food and companionship, and my wild horse and my race horse started off a great conversation, like parents who disagree on all points but want the best for their kid.

To professionalize my authorship, I started working together with the literary agent Ellen Van Tichelt, to manage my horses. I cut down the variety of jobs I said yes to. I started renting a co-working space. I planned some free days per week and a sabbatical. I thought about me being almost 30, the upper limit for most young talent development programs, the age when an author like me gets the title ‘midcareer’.

On the very day that the last CELA residency in Bucharest ended, in May last year, my sabbatical of four months started. I did nothing but writing, travelling, learning, reading, all these things I really like. I took three questions with me on my trips: first, how can I create as much space and freedom as possible to work on my oeuvre on a daily basis, second, which role do I take in society and third, which are the specific themes I want to focus on?

Today, unlike before, I’m taking every possible measure to enable myself to write, read, learn and to have an open sight. That means: connecting my horses, the slow and the fast one, the short term and the long term, the local and the international, the moral and the uncensored, the moneymaking and the soul feeding one.

After the sabbatical, my race horse had calmed down. It said I had to invest in myself. It said I had to make more decisions, tough ones. It said I should not be afraid to leave good things behind, as long as I believed exciting things would be coming my way by clearing space. So I did.

I limited my engagements to organizations I was already supporting for years. I left my publishing house because I was loyal to it for the wrong reason. I decided to postpone conversations with other publishing houses so I would not be writing for them, but just for myself. And I contacted an extra literary agent to represent me internationally, as a lot of international opportunities are resulting from my participation to CELA.

By every decision I take, I feel more connected. Today, unlike before, I’m taking every possible measure to enable myself to write, read, learn and to have an open sight. That means: connecting my horses, the slow and the fast one, the short term and the long term, the local and the international, the moral and the uncensored, the moneymaking and the soul feeding one. I am not alone in this. I have my agencies, I have this great network of literary artists, I have my friends and family, and of course I have the support of my dearest dragons.

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