Geneva Writers’ Conference

Centers of Wisdom, by Olivia Wildenstein

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Conferences are hubs of knowledge and talent. They fuel the imagination and broaden social networks. They are important for every trade, but especially for writers, since writing is such a solitary job.

In Geneva, on the weekend of the 19th of March, a large group of authors and agents came together at Webster University to discuss writing and publishing. It was an exciting weekend, jam-packed with workshops and Q&As that shed light on how to transform your manuscript into a gripping masterpiece, and land that coveted publishing contract or self-publish it with success.

The first time I put a book out into the world, Ghostboy, Chameleon & the Duke of Graffiti, I did it without a master plan. I just wanted to publish my story, because I loved my characters and thought they deserved better than being locked up inside my computer, along with all the others I’d made up over the years. Also, I wanted to be able to say ‘yes’ when people asked if I’d published anything. I wanted to feel like a real author. Now, after the conference and the months of work I put into the launch of my second novel, The Masterpiecers, I realize that I should have had a master plan. Not because Ghostboy wasn’t received well—it was—but because it took me a year to slip it into the hands of more or less five hundred readers.


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At the conference, I gleaned new strategies from other self-published writers like Jill Marsh, who emphasized the importance of finding your tribe, because they are the people whose criticism will be the most constructive and whose encouragements will be the most sincere. Where do you find your tribe? In targeted Facebook groups, at conferences, in writing groups. In today’s ultra-connected world, the possibilities are endless. Even if you live in the most remote town in Switzerland, you can join websites dedicated to people who write in the same genre as you do.

Liz Jensen’s workshop was not to be missed. Her novel, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, is currently being turned into a film. She wasn’t exuberant in her way of ‘teaching’, and she didn’t throw around big smiles to charm us, but she explained the mechanics of storytelling in a way that made you want to pick up a pen and write the best book of your life. She used examples like Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Experiment, where children were all given a marshmallow and told that if they waited, they would get a second one. Some ate it, some waited. Forty years later, the people organizing the study looked up these children. The ones who’d waited had been more successful in life than the others. Jensen used the example to demonstrate that giving your character a desire, but not fulfilling it on page one, will create greater gratification for the reader at the end.

Then we played around with different plot techniques to raise the stakes in a story. Your character needs to get from point A to point B, but things keep happening that hinder his journey. Here’s the example Jensen used: you need to go to the hospital because your mother is ill. There’s a traffic jam. Then you find yourself involved in a car accident where you’ve hit a person. A mother and her child. The mother dies. When you search for papers to phone the baby’s next of kin, you realize she was an immigrant, and therefore carries no papers. There’s no one around. This will create a great dilemma for your character, and dilemma is essential to a terrific character arc. “Put your protagonist through hell,” advises Jensen.

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The other author whose workshop I attended was a prodigious show-woman and storyteller: Ann Hood, author of The Knitting Circle. Unlike Jensen, she used her workshop hour to explore a selection of short stories, such as Raymond Carver’s Popular Mechanics and Alice Walker’s The Flowers. Studying writing is essential to writing, which made the time well spent. We analyzed how writers can create tension and satisfaction using very few words. The other memorable moment of Hood’s workshop was when she shared with us something she’d heard from author Grace Paley: “No story is one story. There’s the one on the surface and the one bubbling beneath. And the climax is when they collide.”

So once you have that great story written down in a neatly edited pile of words, what do you do with it? Enter the agent. You hook one, they champion your work and sell it to a major publishing house, and then you’re gold. Although part of this is true, it’s a simplistic view of the publishing system. There is still a lot of work involved on the author’s part: social networking, building a mailing list, accumulating reviews and entering competitions. An agent will help with some of this, but they won’t do your job for you. And that mammoth publishing house won’t either. Very few books are even allotted a marketing budget. But you do have a team to assist you with cover design, manuscript edits and placing your book in brick-and-mortar shops and libraries. Those are not trivial parts of the publishing process, but in a way, for having done it twice now, they’re the easiest part.

Conferences will challenge you, unlock new prospects and instigate key relationships. But most importantly, they will make you a wiser writer, and wisdom is tantamount to success.

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Olivia Wildenstein lives with her husband and three children in Geneva, Switzerland, where she’s an active member of the writing community.




SWAG is a new online magazine about the literary scene in Singapore. Its Events Calendar brings all the writerly happenings to one convenient place, while the quarterly journal features author interviews and new writing. Its editor, Jo Furniss, dives in to share the SWAG.

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While criss-crossing from one side of this small island to the other, there’s a building I often see which has a single word emblazoned on its side in giant illuminated letters: CREATE*.
This is a snapshot of Singapore. Ever since Sir Stamford Raffles peered up the Singapore river in 1819 and thought, “Hmm, free trade? That could catch on!”, the city-state has been a boom town.
While the drive to create has long been focused on business and science, a recent concern with fostering creative thinking has led to a boom in the arts. As always, Singapore puts its money where its mouth is: this year’s inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize paid out S$20,000 (USD15,000) to winning Singaporean author O Thiam Chin, the Singapore Writers Festival has positioned the country as a regional literary hub, and the National Arts Council supports projects that would otherwise prove uncommercial in Singapore’s relatively small domestic market.
While SWAG may not have an invitation to this financial banquet, the morsels tumbling from the table put the fire in our bellies to start a magazine: all this zeal for the arts means there are so many literary events going on in Singapore—workshops, book launches, critique groups—how can a writer keep across it all?
My lightbulb moment: an online events calendar that incorporates all the disparate venues and groups would benefit the writing community. A quarterly magazine would allow me to potter about and speak to interesting people. I could even dust off my old BBC microphone and podcast my interviews.
My colleagues at the Singapore Writers Group (900+ members and counting) were supportive and funded the new website. The name SWAG came to mind, partly as a grateful nod to SWG, and also because I like the idea of literary loot; the magazine is a curious collection of our begged, stolen and borrowed riches.
I also reached out to Jill and Libby (The Woolf’s co-founders), having followed The Woolf’s tracks long after leaving Zürich. Their enthusiasm was energising and, perhaps more importantly, their practical advice made the project feel achievable. Like The Woolf, SWAG will be quarterly, themed, rangy.

Image courtesy Swag Literary Journal

The first edition is about BEGINNINGS. As well as interviews with two very different Singapore-focused writers, we have an in-depth feature on three ways to get started in publishing. We look at Late Starters – writers who bloom after 50. And Singapore’s publishing houses also forecast the literary weather for 2016.

And we’re running new fiction: submissions are open to all, though we prioritise pieces that have some connection (however oblique) to Singapore. I’m also open to being told what to do—events or editorial—all contributions are welcome.
Find us at:
We’re on Facebook:
And Twitter: @swag_lit
* CREATE is really the Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise at the National University of Singapore, in case you were wondering.



Notes from the Unexpected: Les Millionnaires

Images and text by D.B. Miller

On a prim cobblestone lane that makes nearby Bahnhofstrasse look like a strip mall, there is a showroom. It stands out a bit, what with the kaleidoscopic marble arches and golden sweep of letters announcing, in case there was any doubt, that those who enter have arrived. Inside, however, the hush and impeccable glass cases suggest a typical Old Town affair—for about a second.

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NFTU - Les Millionnaires 2Les Millionnaires. This is the jeweler steeped in the tradition of turning Zürich’s discreet aesthetic on its head, yet appealing to folks who, if held upside down, might start raining coins—to adapt an image furnished by co-founder Urs. But long before the acclaim, international expansion or foray into watchmaking, Les Millionnaires boasted just five rings and an ironic name. That was over 30 years ago, when Urs, designer Francine and goldsmith Ernst were sure of only one thing: they had no idea what they were doing.

“We’re a little crazy, all three of us,” says Francine, not without a hint of pride, while trying to recount exactly how jewelry inspired by fairytales, the animal kingdom and the dark sparks of their imagination took them this far.

Les M by DB Miller

The first three Millionnaires: Ernst, Francine and Urs

“My designs can’t always be sold,” she goes on, happy enough to defer to the experts, in particular Ernst. With his magic hands and years of experience, he is better placed to work out which ideas can be painstakingly brought to life for a limited series, one-off, or not at all. I think of the startling sculpture with the snail perched on an olive-sized stone—around here, called “a ring”—and have to wonder what never made it past the cast. Are there limits as to what can and can’t be done?

NFTU - Les Millionnaires 1 BW“No,” she says, right before Ernst quips, “Yes.” And then they laugh in the way people who have spent hundreds of thousands of hours working together, might.


In the atelier across the river, five craftsmen hunch over precious metal. They hammer and file, one thumbing through a plastic tub of diamonds, just as other Old Town jewelers once did before striking out on their own. In this métier, timeworn techniques die hard, even if they are now accompanied by tinny pop music and the stops and screeches of machinery.

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NFTU - Les Millionnaires 1Just off the basement workshop lined with tarnished rods and helmets, Urs weaves past the floor-to-ceiling shelves. They overflow with a jumble of twine, scraps and crates stuffed with the makings of Les Millionnaires’ offbeat displays. Elsewhere: dusty cases of champagne, swaths of iridescent velvet and wooden gift boxes, each carved by hand.

“Everything we’ve ever done,” says Urs, “comes from the gut.” 

We are a long way from the sleek and sterile—from creativity that can be deconstructed or cloned in bulk. Every glittering beetle, seahorse and gargoyle is birthed in this bunker. Every dream and walk in the woods lives in metal and stone. A geometrically imprecise shape is sometimes the most perfect, and a patch of shadow can split into a thousand tiny stars.

“The eye,” says Ernst, “tends to linger on what it can’t work out.”

*, Storchengasse 13, 8001 Zürich

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DB Miller is a writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter

Notes from the Unexpected: Zürich’s one and only lake speaks up

by D.B. Miller

On certain days, it’s uncanny: the turquoise shallows, cobalt drop and unrelenting shimmer for as far as the neck can crane. The Mediterranean, you could swear it—with a squint and some imagination, maybe even a cove around St. Tropez. Toss in a few gulls and those Boesch motorboats that cost as much as a watch, and you’re living the dream.


Except the dream is right here, in a landlocked country, fertilizing the shores and giving the lucky people who live on them something to look at. On this, the locals and transient folk agree: Zürisee is the city’s crowning asset. Once an international trade route, today a playground, but still: 88 square kilometers of alpine aqua pura are reason enough to be proud, if not a bit punchy.

Because some have the nerve to call it small—but tell that to the gent who couldn’t quite get to shore on a morning swim. While it was traumatic for that poor girl, wading into his corpse at the Badi, he had to go! When you’re classified as potable, you have a reputation to uphold.

And is “banana-shaped” really the best the guide books can do? Show me the banana that can hike up rents, wow UNESCO and host spaghetti-themed cruises without irony. Show me any fruit that can turn from green to purple to steel in an hour, creeping to the edges like silence or a thousand little blades.

Mix it up, keep them guessing, show them who’s boss. Kick up the surf and blame the boats. Turn up the temp and call out the fleas. For every record-breaking heatwave, there’s ice in living memory. For every preening swan, a coot squeaks like bicycle brakes and never gets the bread. The banks that now teem with people once swarmed with disease. Come in, the water’s fine, but the parent who loses sight of a child for one second ages five years.

Postcards lie, but nature doesn’t. You just keep moving—east to west, glacier to river, liquid to cloud, surface to floor. You’re more than a pretty picture: you’re as deep as the darkness 136 meters down. So the next time your eye skips over the void to gaze at the twinkling hills, remember: lights seem brighter when they’re mirrored in black.


DB Miller is a writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter

Gallery of Zürisee images from @libby_ol‘s Instagram.

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Bringing Legend to Life

By JD Smith

One of the beautiful things about legends is that they are inherently shrouded in mystery, stories passed down through generations, twisted and changed and retold. They are history and at the same time they are fire-side stories, propaganda and bending of truth to favour the side of the storyteller.

old script by @libby_ol

To adapt a legend going back hundreds or thousands of years is to change history once more and bring a new angle to an old tale. We storytellers do it without thinking because we are born to explore characters, places and what might have been. We tread the path of the unknown, weaving our findings in and around knowledge recorded in poems, songs and books which have been passed on and retold through the ages.

Tristan and Iseult Cover MEDIUMTristan and Iseult is one such legend, made popular in French poetry during the 12th century. It may or may not have been a true story. It is the romance and tragedy of Cornish knight, Tristan, and Irish princess, Iseult, retold many times and influencing many stories to follow. It predates Arthurian legend and is considered to have been the basis for the love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot as well as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

The legend first appealed to me when I read Bernard Cornwell’s Arthurian trilogy, where he weaves into the story all the hallmarks of what makes Arthurian legend what it is, including Tristan and Iseult and their love for one another, but in a way that is truly believable, even the magic of Merlin. His masterly skill showed me there were ways yet to retell old stories in new ways, and a few years later I took up the challenge.

I went back to the heart of what makes Tristan and Iseult the people they are and stripped away the myth. What did we really know about these two people? What is the essence of their story? Tristan was nephew to King Mark of Kernow (Cornwall) and Iseult was the daughter to the Irish king Donnchadh’s. We know Lord Morholt seized control of southern Ireland, and we know he was defeated. And we know Tristan and Iseult loved one another, but that it was a forbidden love.

From there I wove a tale I believed in, a tale of simple love that echoes across the centuries. The characters would never speak the word but they would feel it and show it and know what it is to find a person they want to spent their life with but unable to because life doesn’t always happen that way. Love is not always easy and it is not always kind. Sometimes it is a sickness and we believe the other person to be the cure when really, only time and distance can starve the fever. The question for me was would love fade to nothing?

fade to grey by @libby_ol

I wove into this simple story other elements I found on my research travels; mentions of Iseult of the White Hands, Tristan’s mother, his cousin, the war against the Saxons, struggles against the Irish, and the mention at the very end of hazel and honeysuckle that features in some sources, but again, it is a hint of other tales and my own take on them.

For me, the tale of these two lovers was poetic and yet I am no poet. I took instead the immediacy of first person present tense for a legend over a thousand years old, bringing it rapidly into the here and now. Above all I am a cynic and I couldn’t write a story with an obvious love conquers all ending, although in some ways it does. My exploration of Tristan and his Iseult was not one of researching historical facts and discovering the truth of events and actions, but finding the true nature of love and loyalty and how it makes us the people we are.

Jane_12_LARGETristan and Iseult is a finalist for the Historical Novel Society Indie Book of the Year Award 2015. The winner will be announced in June.

JD Smith is the author of Tristan and Iseult, The Rise of Zenobia and The Fate of an Emperor, editor of Words with JAM and Bookmuse, and the mother of three mischievous boys.


Zürich is full of creative, imaginative, cultural nomads for whom adaptation is a way of life. Change and learning how to fit in means something different to all of us. It’s awkward, painful, enlightening, hard work, liberating and funny. Here, some Woolf readers talk about their own journeys of adaptation, growth and imagination.


By Gabrielle Mathieu

Image: Your imagination can take you anywhere Creative Commons

Consider this: You’re raised by a former New York artist and a Swiss actress, who then converts full-heartedly to Hinduism. Your older half-sisters live in Brooklyn with their Jewish mother. Your older Swiss cousin absconds to Thailand, your younger Swiss cousin moves to Greece. You have no siblings or relatives nearby to show you the ropes as your tiny family moves all across the globe.

Now it is 1975 and you’re a bewildered teenager in the U.S.A. You do not know who Sonny and Cher are. You’re forbidden to wear blue jeans. Your schoolmates laugh at you often, and not from your own instigation.

You become an informal social anthropologist. You develop a life-long fascination with parsing cultural signifiers, including clothing styles, media preferences, and body language. Just the body language of a region can yield many observations: do people merely purse their lips when they are displeased, or will you get a tongue-lashing if you step in it? How long should you hold eye contact? What’s merely flirting, and what constitutes a blatant come-on that will get you in hot water?

And yet, the more you observe, the less you crave a full-scale adaptation. Certainly, you concede, a quick nod to cultural norms is indicated. You will not bare your midriff in a church, you will not laugh like a braying donkey with your Swiss friends, you will not be reserved and chilly on your vacation in Ireland. But the more you travel, the less you care about fitting in. You have never fit in, you will never fit in; you could never squeeze all your multicultural experiences under one hat.

Local community thrives on continuity and provides security, but it exacts a price. You cannot reinvent yourself, you must plod through the steps of being who you are, there are expectations and webs that wind themselves around you.

Remain free.

The world is full of people like you: born one place and living in another. That is your community. Those who adapt, and adapt again, but remain true to what’s inside.



Images and text: Hilarie Burke

Hilarie in Kindergarten Off and running.

I am an extrovert. I was born in Japan. My education started as the only non-Japanese among 30 Kindergarteners.  We moved to three Asian countries for 2-4 year stints before settling in the US at age 12. Additionally, I was a cross-eyed, toe headed dyslexic with glasses and eye patch. I learned, right off the bat, that I was a person among people, not part of the clan. I would never fit in, an early if unconscious realization that freed me from the agony of trying. Being open to the people around me, led me to folks of like mind, our energies matched. The idea that I might ever be able to actually ‘fit in’ never entered my mind, except to yearn for the impossible—thick, black Asian hair. I gained a broad sense of what community means. My good friends in each country were native to that country; an adaptation practice that goes a long way. Self worth could not be measured according to the approval of others. Paying attention to my own disapproving thoughts became an adaptive tool.

pakistan, hilarieWhen I listen to the conversation about immigration and the need for immigrants to adapt, I wonder. What does that mean? Ok, finding and keeping a job, and generally living by the laws and norms of the society one lives in. But even second-generation immigrants will always be part of the culture they came from, especially if there is a racial difference. It helps to recognize that they add great cultural wealth to the host country. Resistance to change is treacherous. Adaptation is core to the process of evolution. Integrating into a global society is a survival tactic.

I remain comfortable as an outsider living in Switzerland, and muddling through German. Knowing I will never be Swiss is liberating. If I have a clan, it is the international community. We share a big thing in common. We are all outsiders.



Notes from the Unexpected: Backstage at Kaufleuten

Text and images: DB Miller

Reflections Kaufleuten-styleUnder the glare of tube lighting, down the stairs off backstage left, the casualties from the weekend wait their turn. A red velvet stool rests on a table, its foot glued and clamped. Above a tangle of broken chairs, three chipped disco balls sag like rotting fruit. If the furniture could speak, oh, the tales! Then again, it’s just another day here in the Kaufleuten workshop—another reminder that for all the excitement of a Kaufleuten night, there’s always a morning after.

Kaufleuten“Something’s usually not working,” says Corina Freudiger, laughing but wary of the crystal chandelier that has been temporarily jacked up between a ladder and a speaker stack. The head of Kaufleuten’s cultural events and I are now in the concert hall, one of the lush spaces she and her team aim to fill—at least before bedtime. The Kultur department isn’t responsible for the nocturnal shindigs of the famed club, but rather the 200-odd concerts, author readings, cabarets and heady discussions the venue hosts each year. Ever since Lenin, Joyce and the Dadaists graced the stage nearly a century ago, Kaufleuten has been pulling in a mix of hotshots, rookies and loose cannons. And then there are the performers.

The Kaufleuten touchFrom Patti Smith and Cat Power to Michael Ondaatje and Amélie Nothomb, Kaufleuten has a knack for booking legends, sometimes before they’re called that, but anything can happen when the lights dim. Meltdowns, mutinies and flashes of soul-searing perfection are possible on any given night, even the same night. Wing nuts in the audience, an impromptu striptease on stage—Corina has seen a lot over the years and, clocking in at over 40 events, so have I.

And yet, there are no regrets. It’s part of, as Corina puts it, the “magic of the live moment,” if not the strategy. Kaufleuten, after all, is a business.

“We’re here to entertain people at a high level,” she explains, but later cracks a smile and adds, “I would like to experiment more, especially when it comes to the readings. I think a writer’s words are between the reader and the writer, but how you present the writing is important. It doesn’t always have to be the author on stage, telling the audience ‘the truth’ … I mean, when people come here for two hours, something has to happen.”

Corina Freudiger and the Kaufleuten touch

Corina Freudiger and the Kaufleuten touch

The urge to liven things up also goes for concerts, and not only to compensate for the glut of backstage requests for vegan and non-alcoholic fare. Audiences are changing too and, for some, maybe an old-fashioned rush of euphoria no longer cuts it. This could explain the rise in themed events, such as the open-air literary festival in the Old Botanical Gardens (co-run with the Literaturhaus) and the new three-day offshoot of Zermatt Unplugged.

Kaufleuten moodAll good, so long as I can still get my swirl of velvet, brass and beer straight from the bottle while art—or someone’s vision of it—unfolds and explodes across the room. Corina says just as much: “Glamour is part of the Kaufleuten myth, but messy is interesting.”


By D.B. Miller
Writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter

Adapting to Happiness

The Woolf’s resident scientist, Iida Ruishalme, approaches happiness from diverse angles, looking at how her ideas may have adapted to her circumstances over the years.

For the bigger part of my life I accepted the idea that the most important goal in life was to be happy. The happiness-concept neatly encompasses everything else, doesn’t it? Perhaps it does not say anything about money, fame, or success, but those kinds of things can all be had without any happiness involved. Money and success may have their appeal and, depending on the circumstances, may contribute to our feelings of satisfaction—but it seems that those goals alone aren’t sufficient, they aren’t the vital intrinsic stuff that a good and fulfilled life is made of. Happiness still triumphs.

buttercups Perhaps it’s no wonder that I thought more about my perspective on life goals after having children. Isn’t it natural that a good parent wishes simply for their children to grow up to be happy? I believe I have uttered that phrase myself. So, for a change of perspective, I wondered how satisfied my own mother should feel in that regard. Could she feel reassured that the life she has nurtured into adulthood has landed safely in the realms of happiness?

Am I happy? I tend to experience a rather wide array of emotions. I’m prone to sadness, apathy, enthusiasm, frustration, merriness and so on and, like it or not, I engage in all my emotions with gusto. This variety has by no means been dampened by having two little children (in a foreign country far from the support of extended family). A lot of the time it’s been hard. In fact, there is research to support that having children will not make parents any happier. On the contrary.

Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard made a chart that summarised results from four studies on the effect children have on marital happiness (quite closely aligned with general happiness) in his book Stumbling on Happiness. His chart was presented in its below form with the more appropriate title: The Most Terrifying Chart Imaginable for New Parents in a TED-talk, Let’s talk parenting taboos, by Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman, a couple who run a parenting website, babble.

gilbert graph

Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness, and the now infamous graph otherwise known as ‘The most terrifying graph imaginable for new parents’. Image original source unknown.

Griscom and Volkman argue that the most dramatic change brought by children is not the shift in the average happiness, but that the satisfaction curve turns into a roller coaster, surpassing even the variety of adolescence.

This does somewhat match many people’s experiences on the topic, including mine. Before children, life had boring moments. Now I don’t really remember what that felt like.

Professor Gilbert was on similar lines in an interview on babble, where he argued against average happiness as the most important measure:

Being a parent lowers your average daily happiness. But average daily happiness isn’t all there is to be said about happiness. Indeed one could make the case that average happiness across a day isn’t what we’re trying for. As human beings, it’s not our aim. It shouldn’t be our goal. What we should be looking for is special transcendent moments that may even come at the cost of a lower average.

Ahaa! It’s the amount of transcendent moments that matter then, not happiness per se. Perhaps a life is a full and a good one if there are enough transcendent moments present.

To really focus on what we are talking about here, let’s look at some of the (more mundane) definitions for the word. For transcendental, Merriam-Webster gives:

  1. going beyond the limits of ordinary experience
  2. far better or greater than what is usual.

Huh. This still leaves me wondering. As nice as it is to have extraordinary, special moments—and I would much prefer a life with them to one without—I don’t know if I would use their frequency as a primary means of determining the make-up of the best kind of life.

Do I want my children to grow up to have lives with as many transcendent moments as possible? Or should I still go back to the happiness factor? And if happiness is the most important angle, would I want them to feel as much happiness as possible? Or is there such a thing as enough happiness, or too much?

I get the feeling that something is missing in this line of thinking. To get to the bottom of that, I tried to see if I could imagine scenarios with as much transcendence or happiness as possible, but which I would actually not wish on myself or my children.

I can imagine a kind of madness for instance, marked by a profound disconnect from reality, painfully apparent to everyone else but the person themselves. That person could still be experiencing a state of, say, perpetual transcendental bliss, without knowing anything of the outside world. Not a bad place to be, perhaps, but not my preferred one. Or how about a less extreme but more chilling kind of a prospect—let’s imagine a sociopath, a person wholly incapable of empathy. They could commit atrocious acts and still be perfectly happy. Not an impossible scenario at all, and a terrible one at that.

dark days by @libby_ol

Moving away from the extremes of mental illness, I would still argue that happiness as a goal has serious shortcomings. Let’s say that a cultural minority would become cruelly and permanently oppressed in our society—would I wish for me and the people I care about to simply continue being happy? Clearly there are other important factors to consider. We do not exist in a vacuum, after all. Our lives play out in a close relation to the world around us. It’s not only about how we feel, but what we do, and how that relates to others.

A comment from Tony Karon in the babble interview on parental happiness touches on something that, while it may seem like a poor comfort if we consider happiness the number one goal in life, illuminates that ‘something missing’:

By the measures that you used to determine your happiness before you had children, you’re completely miserable. That’s probably why so many people are so scared of it—because they don’t have access to another paradigm. But as soon as you have your children, those first moments of holding your child, your whole sense of what’s important to you changes, of what your place is in the world.

This comment seems to bring in something to the discussion that falls outside of happiness, this sense of what is important, and it’s definitely something I want my life to have—meaning. I wish for my children to lead lives that will feel meaningful to them.

But this is still something that is inside our heads—it’s just a feeling.

Is the important stuff in life all about feelings?

What about the people who struggle with life and can’t boast a particular aptitude on the merry feelings agenda? Firstly, psychology studies have shown support for the adaptation level theory which is the idea that even drastic life changes—ending up in a wheelchair or winning the lottery—merely shake our level of happiness temporarily, and we end back up our personal ‘normal’ level of happiness, calibrated to match our circumstances.

Secondly, there is growing body of research to support that the level of happiness we experience may to a large degree be innate. We may simply be born more or less prone to happiness! As reported by Time, there’s:

… a growing body of evidence that factors like genes and age may impact our general well-being more than our best day-to-day attempts at joy.

In one study, researchers at the University of Edinburgh suggest that genes account for about 50% of the variation in people’s levels of happiness—the underlying determinant being genetically determined personality traits, like “being sociable, active, stable, hardworking and conscientious,” says co-author Timothy Bates. What’s more, says Bates, these happiness traits generally come as a package, so that if you have one you’re likely to have them all.

Should the mothers of people who do not have this ‘ happiness package’, and don’t naturally overflow with joy, feel disappointed?

“Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs” by FireflySixtySeven. Own work using Inkscape, based on Maslow’s paper, A Theory of Human Motivation. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I would not like to give the idea to a melancholy child that her life was somehow worse than that of a more carefree sibling. I do wish that my children will experience a wide range of emotions; enough happiness not to despair; enough empathy to be sad about the suffering of others; and a feeling of agency to enable them to make their own personal mark on the world. No one state of being has the decisive importance over others. Some happiness, like good food and a solid roof over your head, sure are good things to have, and can make living a lot easier – happiness as a need, perhaps falling somewhere along “love and belonging” and “self-esteem” in Maslow’s pyramidal hierarchy. But like with money: having more is great, but having a lot falls short of being a primary goal. Life is neither about a static state of having nor being. Life is doing.

What is it that I put above happiness? Learning. Caring. Understanding. Creating. Growing. Doing those things, I may not always be happy. Sometimes I may be downright miserable. Hopefully I will feel that I’m doing something I want to do—at the very least, figuring out what it is that I want to do. I will seek until I have a sense of purpose. It’s more important for me to be happy about what I am doing than to chase some hard-to-define degree of being happy for another hard-to-define (sufficient?) portion of my time.

Certainly it’s a worthy to goal to find enjoyment in life, and the searching as well as the finding will occasionally cause me (and others) moments of happiness. But that’s all those are—moments among others. The more crucial goal, as I see it, is instilling in yourself and others that wish to keep on searching and having those moments, transcendent or not.

… there must be an intrinsic value in how we relate to this world

late summer

Apart from all the things that go on in our heads, there must be an intrinsic value in how we relate to this world. I don’t want my children to live in a bubble, no matter how happy a bubble it may be. I want them to care for that what’s around them in some form—humans or animals; philosophy or construction; nature or culture—some aspect of this universe.

I want them to want to engage with the world, preferably engaging and challenging themselves in the process. None of us are ever finished. We are always on the verge of becoming someone slightly new. Becoming what we can be—what we want to be—not ceasing to change, now that is a worthy goal.

Whether my children wish to engage in the world through learning something, helping others, expressing themselves, or developing new ways of seeing beauty in the universe—engagement and drive, more than just happiness, help make living mean something.

party party party

Happiness is a bit like confetti. It’s something nice and colourful to go with the moments when we enjoy the results of our engagement, our participation in something that is worthwhile. But even if there is no festival of happiness along the way or even at the end of a task, doing will carry a sense of accomplishment that has meaning. It will keep me going. Happiness is secondary. It’s doing, changing, developing, taking part, that makes all the difference.

Even the research tells us that doing good deeds—volunteering, practising generosity and kindness, interacting with others in need of support—has a marked effect on our joy and happiness. Altruistic deeds can even improve health and prolong life. The beautiful conclusion from a review of volunteerism and civic engagement:

… because being useful to others instills a sense of being needed and valued.

I could manage to get through a lot more misery, knowing that I am needed and valued. So I’ve changed my mind about happiness as a life goal. Being happy in life is not as important as being happy about life, and even that is not as important as the will to do something about if and when I—or others—are decidedly unhappy. I’ll trade happiness for doing something I believe in.

I think I can live with the secondary happiness of that choice.


Iida Ruishalme is a cell biologist, a science communicator, and a fiction writer. She is also a contributor to Genetic Literacy Project and Skepti-Forum. She blogs at

Notes from the Unexpected: The floating venue with heart

Text and images: D.B. Miller 

Just up from Sechseläutenplatz, where 110,000 blocks of superior Vals quartzite can be trampled underfoot, there is a boat. It is spired, asymmetrical and, weighing in at 85 tons, as aerodynamic as a gingerbread house. But if it’s bobbing on water, it must be a boat. 

Herzbaracke by land

When November comes, and the “Herzbaracke” arrives via tugboat for its four-and-a-half-month Zürich run, any Alemannic reserve goes right out the tinted window—at least, once the 40-odd people constituting a full house come aboard for dinner and a show. On land, it can still take the “captain” a little time to re-adjust. “Even last night,” says Federico Emanuel Pfaffen, “I was told, ‘Don’t talk so loud! Don’t laugh so loud!’ I am so sick of all this uptightness,” he barks, unable to finish the mock tirade in his chair.

Image @libby_ol

Image courtesy: Libby O’Loghlin

Mostly, though, this is a story of love that seeps out of the plush quarters where every nook is spoken for (just ask the taxidermy owl), and love that pulls in the crowds. They cross the gangplank for jazz, classical and folk, for Piaf, tango and swing, or maybe because they can. Nearly two decades ago, after all, Herzbaracke was just a late-night, genie-in-the-wine-bottle vision—but not for long. Getting permission from the authorities for a do-it-yourself, Belle Epoque-themed floating venue was, to hear Federico’s account, a no-brainer. Just another one of his impossible projects made possible by a rather poorly-concealed weapon: “I really like people,” he confesses, stopping there because, every once in a while, less is more. 

Nicole and Federico

Nicole Gabathuler and Federico Emanuel Pfaffen

The “people” embraced by Herzbaracke not only include the cool-headed Zürich types who, undone by the kitchen’s famous soup or the blues in such close proximity, have been known to break character. Federico and co-director Nicole Gabathuler haven’t forgotten about those further down the lake, or out there yonder, who just don’t feel the need to grapple with Waiting for Godot or some such high culture, thank you very much. Different people, different problems—but no matter where the anchor drops, they manage to find each other and, under the right conditions, grow, thrive and create something much bigger than the upright piano dwarfing the stage.

For Federico, it’s just ecology. “We’re not event organizers,” he says. “We’re a biotope.”

“Or a habitat, like a pond,” adds Nicole, in a measured tone at odds with her art. For seven years, she has created the graphics that bring the Herzbaracke aesthetic to life—a burst of swirling waves, butterflies and sighs, an existence unfettered by logic. Over the faint cry of gulls, she says, “It’s a shame there isn’t more room in this culture for the unpredictable. On the other hand, it’s given us the clean design, the typography …” And, as Federico is the first to admit, the boatloads of Herzbaracke fans.

“Around here,” he says, getting worked up again, “everything needs to have a function. People don’t see the point of something that has no point … But,” he is smiling now, “that makes us exotic.”

As one half of tonight’s entertainment tunes his cello, Federico fiddles around on stage. A couple pops in for a look, taking a minute to get their bearings. Then the boat rocks, someone breaks into song and the lure of solid ground, in all its enduring, enlightened beauty, slips away.

In Stäfa, Zürich, Rapperswil and Thalwil

(In Zürich until mid-March)

By D.B. Miller
Writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter
 Herzbaracke by 'See' 2

Notes from the Unexpected: The voices of Radio LoRa

Text and images: D.B. Miller

It’s Friday morning, just after nine, and the 31 trolleybus lurches down Militärstrasse into parts of Zurich not featured in guide books. As a man rushes past with an open can of Feldschlösschen, I think, Welcome to the neighborhood, until it occurs to me that the ladies at the Bürkliplatz market are probably knocking back their first flutes of Prosecco. At least he has somewhere he needs to be.


This scruffy sense of urgency is just as palpable steps away, at the studios of Switzerland’s first and Zurich’s only community radio station, Radio LoRa (a derivative of “alternative local radio”). The station, on air well before its first licensed broadcast in 1983, is still hell-bent on Continue reading