Seasons’ Readings – and Returnings…

There’s something I’ve noticed about my reading in recent years. I seem to move through phases. Like the moon. Or the seasons. Quartering the year with rolling colours of moods; kaleidoscope changes that meld thoughts, like fragments of stained glass, into patterns – never exactly the same twice, but falling loosely into the same corner of the year; same time, same place.

I’ve noticed that around the autumn – September through to November – the excitement of the turning globe, the tightening drawstring of migration, the freefall of the trees – and the belt-loosening outbreath of the land as it settles down beneath its knee-blanket of frost – all turns me outward.  I want to be outside, or by the window – to be watching, noticing, swept up in the passing. I want to take records, to ponder, to be a naturalist, a citizen scientist; to look for the tiniest detail on a goldfinch’s wing; the last glint of a dragonfly on a leaf; the bloom of fungi in rotting wood.

For a short while, my reading turns almost wholly towards nature writing, natural history, landscape, sky. I immerse myself in it. Storing for the inner times. I pick up another book, and see the pages ahead as another portal into the grass, water, trees, mountains, clouds; the slippery cloak of the eel winding its way around me – delivering me into animal worlds.

And then, the season will turn. The kaleidoscope shifts. Nearing Christmas, maybe around solstice, the pattern gathers around light-gleaming colours of gold, green, red – firesides and indoor-coddled trees, laden with glittering reflection. Worlds within worlds; glimpsed, hidden.

My thoughts turn to Magic, Imagination; to back-of-the-wardrobe doorways whose frosted hinges crack open into eerie, snow-covered enchantment; to the silence of the forest; witches on brooms; armoured bears; goblets of fire; signs of power; hobbits dodging dragons with trickster words.

The pattern also traces its way into dark, mud-splashed streets, to crumbling houses filled with mystery; their gables and chimneys jutting jaws of stubborn secrecy. Ghosts and memories haunt these places, hovering close to their traditional places by the winter hearth. Clustered in this corner jostle stories tinged with the Gothic, with explorations of rooms behind locked doors, the creaking stairway; the chilly breath that extinguishes the candle.

Or, conversely, the tales invited to the hearth will beam with congenial mirth, placing around my shoulders a blanket against the freezing winds outside. Or best of all, the cosy and the mysterious will take turns by the firelight, mixing their roles within the very same tale.

During Christmas 2013, with the clan gathered together, there was little opportunity for private reading – but we pocketed ourselves away in those safely muffled days, and watched in shared contentment the season’s offering of films, many of them the stuff of the stories above. At the cinema, my daughter and I travelled amongst dwarves and wizards to meet the Elven King (via The Hobbit, Part Two, The Desolation of Smaug); and at home, the whole family journeyed, via television, to Narnia and into the world of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart.

A wonderful, spontaneous ‘Family Story-Gathering’ occurred one day when, happening to check the Radio Times, we saw that, in tribute to the late Joan Fontaine, Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was about to begin on TV. Instantly, we bunched up on the sofa, ready to dream of returning to Manderley again…

2013 had its ups as well as its downs, but was generally a very difficult year, filled with worry and strain. The ever changing reading-kaleidoscope was still pulling my thoughts in various directions – but, each pattern was no more than glimpsed before it had to be shaken loose. There wasn’t much time, or spare mind-space, for actually sitting down to pause, calm the mind and open a book.

On my bedside cabinet there is a tower of unfinished volumes, left suspended at moments when my attention was scattered and my energies were needed elsewhere. At the turn of the New Year, I needed to re-gather and to rest. I needed to read. I hadn’t realised how much I needed to read; how unwell in myself I’d begun to feel without that natural, meditative rhythm the turn of the page gives as the year and days go by. Back in November, reading Julian Hoffman’s beautiful book The Small Heart of Things had been a glorious re-aligning of an inner, homeward compass. And, for a while, I’d also been carrying with me a very timely reminder gifted by the pages of Valerie Davies’s wise and wonderful blog – and I knew I needed to slow down what hours I had available, and to seek some ‘Hestia moments’ of proper, deep solitude…

I selected a volume from the ‘tower’ – slipped into a book-enclosed space – and all the fragments of my scattered self began to return; each one fitting, piece by piece, into its home-place.

I’ve already read more books in the last couple of months than I managed to complete during the whole of 2013 – and it has done me So Much Good. Whole books finished! Not experienced in halted fragments, not stalled by the thought that I should be blogging about one before I move on to the next. My reading has returned to the natural undercurrent of thought-flow, and to the wayfarer tug of change. Some of that reading will float up towards the surface of this blog – soon, or eventually; whenever the time is right. Some may stay deep amongst the fish-haunted rocks and not need to blink in the light to make its presence felt.

I’ve also been spending some time just ‘Being amongst my Books,’ drinking them in, dipping in –

A Section of my bookshelves

 

‘There is also that kind of reading which is just looking at books. From time to time – I can’t say what dictates the impulse – I pull a chair up in front of a section of my library. An expectant tranquillity settles over me. I move my eyes slowly, reading the spines, or identifying the title by its colour and positioning. Just to see my books, to note their presence, their proximity to other books, fills me with a sense of futurity.’

Sven Birkerts, Notes from a confession (1987)

‘I am quite transported and comforted in the midst of my books: they give a zest to the happiest, and assuage the anguish of the bitterest, moments of existence! Therefore, whether distracted by the cares or the losses of my family, or my friends, I fly to my library as the only refuge in distress: here I learn to bear adversity with fortitude.’

Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – 79)

Oh, yes!

So, in between daily family stuff, I’ve been in a kind of metaphorical cave; in retreat. But, it’s been far from an idle time. It’s been a returning. A regaining of energy and focus, allowing me to be more useful to those around me – and more productive too! I’ve found my way back, through paper, pen and daydreaming to unearthing old rhythms; finding space to let the patterns form and shift towards new ideas and inspiration. I’ve swum my way (over and around various mind-blocks) back into concentrated and determined working on writing projects which I’ve been longing (for a lifetime!) to follow through to fruition.

‘There is renewal in retreat.
This is where you refill the cup.
This is how a writer comes home.’

‘Creativity is a voracious animal. It needs to be fed regularly. If you leave it untended for too long, you run the risk of starving your passion and diminishing your spirit.’

From The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb.

Seasons-of-the-mind always seem to lay trails to follow – pearls made of serendipity and the gritty rub of the subconscious, gleaming their way from book to book, thought to thought.  Tales of selkie folk seem to be tugging me towards a certain roll of the waves. From Berlie Doherty’s beautiful Daughter of the Sea, to the enchantment of Heather Dale singing The Maiden and the Selkie, via a reading (many years ago now) of Susan Cooper’s Seaward, I see ripples behind me that have helped drive me back into the water and towards productive creativity.

One of the books I’ve been dipping into since starting to write this post is Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, published by Rider (Random House Group)

Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, published by Rider (Random House Group)

With the current kaleidoscope turn of my mind already on the lookout, my eye was drawn to Chapter 9 – Homing: Returning to OneSelf. There, Pinkola Estes explores the selkie/ sea maiden stories – and tells Sealskin, Soulskin, her version of these ancient tales ‘told among the Celts, the Scots, the tribes of northwest America, Siberian and Icelandic peoples.’ From Pinkola Estes’ explorations, I could pick out dozens of quotes that chimed for me – and which I’m sure, though the book focuses on women, are true for men’s experiences too. Here’s a handful:

‘The psyches and souls of women also have their own cycles and seasons of doing and solitude, running and staying, being involved and being removed, questing and resting, creating and incubating, being of the world and returning to the soul-place. When we are children…the instinctive nature notices all these phases and cycles. It hovers quite near us and we are aware and active at various intervals as we see fit.’ (p.255/6)

‘Home is the pristine instinctual life that works as easily as a joint sliding upon its greased bearing, where all is as it should be, where all the noises sound right, and the light is good, and the smells make us feel calm rather than alarmed. How one spends one’s time in the return is not important. Whatever revivifies balance is what is essential. That is home.

There is not only time to contemplate, but also to learn, and uncover the forgotten, the disused, and the buried. There we can imagine the future and also pore over the scar maps of the psyche, learning what led to what, and where we will go next…..

…..The most important thing I can tell you about the timing of this home cycle is this: When it’s time, it’s time. Even if you’re not ready, even if things are undone, even if today your ship is coming in. When it’s time, it’s time. The seal woman returns to the sea, not because she just feels like it, not because today is a good day to go, not because her life is all nice and tidy – there is no nice and tidy time for anyone. She goes because it is time, and therefore she must.’ (p. 284)

‘In the story, the seal woman dries out as she stays too long…… When a woman is gone too long from home, her ability to perceive how she’s truly feeling and thinking about herself and all other matters begins to dry and crack. She is on “lemming status.” Because she is not perceiving what is too much, what is not enough, she runs right over her own edges.’ (p.278).

‘Long ago the word ‘alone’ was treated as two words, ‘all one.’ To be ‘all one’ meant to be wholly one, to be in oneness, either essentially or temporarily. That is precisely the goal of solitude, to be all one. It is a cure for the frazzled state so common to modern women, the one that makes her, as the old saying goes, “leap onto her horse and ride off in all directions.” (p.292)

– From Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

Circumstances, and various mindsets, have kept me on the rocks for far, far too long (years and years!) The recent arrival of another birthday made me even more conscious of how Time and Chance need to be grabbed before the tide carries them away. And, having donned my sealskin/ soulskin (at last!), I feel quite shocked (in a liberating way!) how very covetous I am right now about keeping it wrapped around me. I’m back, riding the wave of the storyteller impulse, which has been rooted in a kind of ‘home season-of-the-mind’ for as long as I can remember. And, during this intense simmering-stage of creating longer pieces of writing, I feel a huge urge to hide away with my notebooks, to put an impenetrable tangle of seaweed around my section of sea, and to immerse myself there completely every precious moment I can. To write, write, write.

Opportunities to do that, and to research, read and to think – and to keep this blog going – all have to share the same very limited pot of time. I’ve already been away too long from my undersea “cave” (struggling over this ‘first-hurdle-post’ back into blogging/internet-mode has taken me an unbelievable number of days – leaving me feeling less like I’m running with the wolves, and more like I’m howling at the moon…) It’s been so, so hard to drag myself away from my notebooks, and I must get back. The Muse (always a tricky character) is drumming her fingertips impatiently – and I’m anxious to keep her by my side. But staying in touch with you, the lovely and inspirational blogging community, is so important to me too, and I want to keep on surfacing in the blogosphere whenever I can. As well as all the unfinished books, there are lots of half-written blog posts left over from last year; lots of fragments waiting to complete their full patterns…

I’ll do my best to keep Bookish Nature rolling along, but the shape of the blog may have to become a bit more quick-moving and streamlined for a while; a good adaptation, I hope, for darting in and out of different waters – and for making sure that blogging remains part of the sealskin/ soulskin adventure…

Thanks so much for sticking with Bookish Nature during my long silence.

More posts are on their way…

Spring is here – and a whole new season of reading is shifting into pattern…

Book Selection

Lesser celandine

More book treasures!

Wood anemone

 

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One day… (Liebster Award, Part 1)

One day – (a very long time ago now!) – Aubrey, of the utterly captivating Café Royal blog, very kindly bestowed the Liebster Award upon Bookish Nature.

Liebster Award

It arrived at a time when I was bleary-eyed and stressed, spending all my days and alternate nights on a hospital ward, taking it in turns with my husband to “sleep” on a fold-out bed alongside our son’s, whilst he underwent lengthy and arduous medical treatment. It was a wonderful boost to receive the award, and my thanks go to Aubrey for sending a spark from her shining star my way. Aubrey’s blog is a place of riches. Of stories and seeing, of intriguing glimpses into worlds of sparkling vision and imagination – a place to step into nature, history, art and into the inspiration of extraordinary lives and adventurous spirits through Time. It is a place of beautiful words.

And now it is midsummer – and unlike Puck, who can ‘put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes,’ I have taken the far more wandering route of a Scheherazade and her 1,001 nights…

Arabian Nights Stories - an old edition from the family bookshelves...

Arabian Nights Stories – an old edition from the family bookshelves…

Arabian Nights Stories - Detail from the "Come to Life Panorama"

Arabian Nights Stories – Detail from the “Come to Life Panorama”

….negotiating my way around physiotherapy duties, bouts of illness, huge backlogs of stuff-to-catch-up-on, teenage daughter’s GCSE exams and general family happenings – in order to gather time and stories, and fulfil the criteria of accepting the award, which are:

Give thanks.

Tell 11 things about yourself.

Answer to the best of your ability the 11 questions that are asked of you.

Nominate 11 other bloggers for this award – and let them know.

Ask the above nominees 11 questions of your own, or use the questions you were asked.

And so, we begin – at last! (My apologies for taking so long to finally release the Genie from the lamp):

Arabian Nights Stories - Illustration by H.G. Theaker

Arabian Nights Stories – Illustration by H.G. Theaker

Eleven things about me

One.

I hail from a family of storytellers. Word-weaving folk, who love to share the events of their days. Never in a simple transmission-of-fact-way, as in: “We did this, or saw that today.”

No; everything has to be told from its beginning.

"One January day..." Opening of 'Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the North Pole' by Alison Uttley. Illustration by Katherine Wigglesworth - 1970 edition (one of the earliest books I owned)

“One January day…” Opening of ‘Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the North Pole’ by Alison Uttley. Illustration by Katherine Wigglesworth – 1970 edition (one of the earliest books I owned)

“One day, I was walking by the old wood yard,” my grandad might begin. “And the wind wasn’t half blowing a gale – enough to whip my hat clean off my head! Whoosh,” (cue a brief mime to indicate the trilby’s astonishing trajectory) “away it flew! All the way down to that corner shop where old Smithy used to sell those wonky-handled brooms! Yes, you know the place I mean; next-door to where Mrs. Know-it-All… (her whose son danced the Highland fling after one too many beers)…made toffee so hard, your teeth would threaten mutiny just at the thought of it.” Here, Grandad would pause to whistle his sense of awe through his (false) teeth. “Yep, that wind was a big ‘un. Never thought I’d get my hat back – but, as I grabbed it from the gutter – who do you think I met…?”

That sort of thing.

Sometimes, the ‘one day’ of my grandparents’ tales would be just the previous week – sometimes it would be 1913 or 1930 or 1969…

Snippets of our personal and family histories have always been relayed in this way. Over the years, my mum has often unpacked, detail by detail, a ‘one day’ from when I was four years old, and about to leave nursery school. Mum relates how, on the cusp of that momentous step towards “Big School,” my nursery school teacher fell into a reverie of prediction:

“You know,” Mrs. M said, nodding towards me, “I’m sure, one day, that child’s going to be an actress or a writer.”

Apparently, Mrs. M would often hand over the last tale of Story-Time to me. We would sit on the floor, forming our magic circle around a chosen book – our portal into many worlds.

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

To hold that treasure in my hands, to be right at the hub of where the story’s spell was sparking, was like being a curator of a party of dreams. I loved to “read” to the other kids – to share the book’s jumping off places from where all our imaginations could soar, together.

Illustration by Katherine Wigglesworth, from 'Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the North Pole' by Alison Uttley (edition published by Collins, 1970)

Illustration by Katherine Wigglesworth, from ‘Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the North Pole’ by Alison Uttley (edition published by Collins, 1970)

I couldn’t actually decipher more than a few of the words on the page, but I had memorised the stories. And the illustrations were alive; filled with spellbinding detail, movement, texture, colour, light, shade and suggestion. As I “read,” I would add in all sorts of invention, theatrical effects and character voices. I’m told I used to entertain the other children enormously. Personally, I think I must have been a right royal pain! But this anecdote, as well as making me laugh, also fills me with a lovely sense of being found out. Someone else saw an inner something I held dear; noticed that it was there. Witnessed it when it was in the very act of seeking those moments of ‘best living,’ when the very self settles most comfortably, and is happy. But this story also makes me feel a little sad too – because, after I went to “Big School,” I became very, very shy; really quite withdrawn (when at school anyway – at home I was still that same girl).

But, Mrs. M must have been a very astute teacher – because, despite my later shyness, I continued to seek outlets for my inner performer in every school production and play, and went on to do Theatre Studies ‘A’ level.

And, ever since I first realised that books didn’t just appear by magic direct from Fairyland, but were created by someone known as an Author, I’ve always wanted to be a children’s story creator… Mrs M. saw my dream forming before I even knew what name to give it.

Remembering how all that felt has been a good lesson to carry with me. It’s been a constant fuel. A motivator to keep honouring that core wish to reach out through stories; to promote the richness that books hold in keeping us connected to who we really are, to other people – and to our moments of ‘best living.’

And, who knows… though, at this time, I don’t feel I can own that magician’s title of ‘Writer,’ (lots more learning to acquire yet) maybe Mrs. M will be proved right – one day…

…There you are, see what I mean? I couldn’t just tell you that I have a deep-rooted urge to connect to storytelling at almost every level of my life. I had to make a story out of it!

I must make my other answers less epic – or we’ll be here all day!

Two.

I love horses. (There; that was nice and brief) For those of you who also love horses, this will need no explanation. Here’s a beautiful clip that will make you heart sing. And, if you’re not already an admirer of all creatures equine – surely, after witnessing such enchantment, resistance to a conversion will be futile!

Three

Making bread pudding is one of my culinary specialities! It’s a family tradition, handed down the generations. I still use the same oven-proof dish my mum baked her bread puddings in when I was a child. It must be over fifty years old now – it’s certainly older than me.

Four

I’m a bit of a metalhead! Heavy rock music took root very early in my consciousness, due to an older brother who, during our growing up in the 1970s, filled the house with the glorious sounds of Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy, Jimi Hendrix etc. By the age of six, my musical tastes embraced an eclectic mix – from Purple Haze to Pinky and Perky! When I met my husband, the already powerful appeal of bands such as Metallica, Iron Maiden, Rush, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd et al – in all their big musical realness – became even more firmly embedded in the soundtracks of my life. And, from time to time, over-driven guitars play out for real in our house (whenever my Beloved can get the chance to recapture his youth via his Les Paul and Fender Strat!) Now, it’s our son whose favourite songs range wildly from Metallica’s The Unforgiven to CBeebies’ Postman Pat!

I know that heavy metal/ hard rock is not everybody’s cup of tea, but here’s a great video, courtesy of the sublime Bill Bailey, which I think has the power to connect anyone to the largeness of a genre which, on the whole, tends not to take itself too seriously. Everyone can rock out to this:

Enter Sandman (via Bill’s own inimitable style!) ‘…take my hand; we’re off to Never-Never Land!’

Five

As some regular readers at Bookish Nature know, I’m a huge Kate Bush fan – and, when I was a young teenager, I once stood just a few feet away from her (we both happened to be shopping in our local branch of Boots). When she saw my expression of astonishment, she smiled and said hello. She lived a few miles away from us at the time (late ’70s/early ’80s). I remember a dance I made up back then in the privacy of our living room – a wild, whirling set of moves to accompany my frequent listens to Kate’s song Babooshka (luckily, I didn’t feel the urge to unleash my inner performer in Boots that ‘one day’!)

Six

They say you either love or hate Marmite – and I’m a definite love it person. I could eat it by the spoonful! My husband shudders at my foolhardiness.

Seven

I remember reading in Marian Keyes’ warm and uplifting collection of articles, Under the Duvet, her tongue-in-cheek claim that women generally fall into one of two categories: those who love shoes – and those who love bath products. In her experience, the two groups tend not to overlap. It’s an either/ or thing. Whether this bears out as true or not, I have no idea – however I do own very few shoes (and find shoe shopping a tedious experience) – but I’m an absolute sucker for the scented delights of a bottle of mandarin and papaya bubble bath, or a strawberry and vanilla body wash – and other similar concoctions and little luxuries (all environmentally friendly and not tested on animals, of course!)

I trace it back to my mum being such a good Avon customer, and so spawning a childhood fascination with weird and wonderful perfume and bubble bath bottles of light-glinting richness of colour – some shaped like telephones or snowmen or turtles or bells, or pianos, peaches, doves, harps – all manner of surprising things. And then there were the soaps shaped like the seven dwarves, a bath brush shaped like a giraffe, a comb shaped like a caterpillar. And soap-on-a rope! Who could forget soap-on-a-rope? I still own bits and pieces from Avon’s “Small World” childhood range from the 1970s:

A small sample of various hoarded keepsakes from childhood - Avon children's range products, and one shoe I definitely treasure (an inherited ornament - from my grandma's dressing table!)

A small sample of various hoarded keepsakes from childhood – Avon children’s range products, and one shoe I definitely treasure (an inherited ornament – from my grandma’s dressing table!)

Every few weeks, an impossibly glamorous Avon lady would visit, carrying an intriguing blue check-pattern suitcase laden with such temptations. When its lid was unzipped – voila! – a stunning rainbow of tiny nail-polish bottles was revealed – like an array of magic potions. My mum’s dressing table was a place of wonder!

Eight.

Despite the influences of the Avon lady and my mum’s dressing table, I don’t like wearing make-up. I only ever wear it (grudgingly) on special occasions. I don’t feel comfortable not looking like – well… me. And applying and removing it takes too much precious time when I could be reading!

Nine

I hand reared one of my (late) dogs and her brother. They were brought into the veterinary surgery where I was working at the time, when they were just three days old. Their mother had been unable to feed them, and most of the litter had died or were dying. The owner didn’t want the surviving pups. So, I took on the job of round-the-clock feeding. Their lives hung by a thread at first, but we soon established three hourly feeds, using special canine formula milk. Weeks later, when it was time to find them both a home, I’d formed such a bond with the (utterly scatty) female puppy, I just couldn’t part with her.

My dog's early puppyhood...

My dog’s early puppyhood…

She stayed with us all her life, and lived to a good old age. She never quite lost her scatty ways (a friend of ours from Devon affectionately dubbed her “The Maze Hound”) – but her impeccable behaviour was a marvel to behold after my daughter was born (she transformed into an absolute model of canine calm and instinctive good sense in Bookish Nature Junior’s company, reverting to puppyhood when she wasn’t required to be the Wise Old Pooch of the West). We all miss her.

Ten

My hair is a kind of chestnut brown – but, when the sun shines on it, streaks of fiery russet come out from hiding (along with an increasing number of silvery strands nowadays!) There’s a history of red hair on both sides of the family. I like to think of my fiery highlights as a link to my hidden Boudica (complete with pony-drawn chariot… Did I mention that I love horses?) A whole section of my ancestors came from East Anglia, so maybe some kind of link to the Queen of the Iceni isn’t stretching the fantasy way beyond all plausibility!

Eleven

During my family history research online, I was astonished to discover the existence of a portrait of some of my ancestors! The portrait is unsigned and dates from circa 1830. Looking at various records, I found out that one of my several-times-great aunts married a portrait painter at about that time. So, immediately, my romantic storyteller mode kicked in – casting said aunt as the young woman in the family portrait, and the commissioned artist as the young man she eventually married. Maybe, when I look at that painting, I am witnessing a very significant meeting of eyes across the easel; love blossoming amidst the Kentish meadows… The portrait also revealed one of the sources of the red hair inheritance (there are several auburn mops amongst the children in the posed family group).

My sister-in-law did some investigating and found out that the portrait is kept in the archives of a museum in Kent – and that it is printed on notelets available to buy from the museum’s shop! A whole section of family history, which was never passed on via the inherited storytelling-habit, began to reveal itself. My grandad’s own stories were of growing up in a working class family, his father a jobbing gardener, his mother’s father an itinerant farm labourer. But I discovered a history I don’t think he knew about – that his dad’s father was the son of a gentleman farmer who owned 200 acres of land and lived in a moated farmhouse (originally the site of a medieval manor!) How that story unfolded is yet to be revealed – one day!

Part 2 to follow…

The Way of the Muse – A Feast of Honey-dew?

On her truly magical Mythic Arts blog The Drawing Board, writer, artist and editor, Terri Windling has offered up a delicious word-feast in which she explores artistic inspiration, the Muse, differing approaches to artistic creation (whether by planning or intuition, or both) – and the edgy, fine line that can hover between madness, and the otherworld of the artist/ writer/ poet as shaman. Her post was inspired by the equally wonderful discussion ‘Around the Table’ between Brian and Wendy Froud, Howard Gayton and Rex Van Ryn over on the John Barleycorn Must Die blog. I highly recommend a visit to the discussion – Part One and Part Two – it’s like attending a magical word-weave of the very web and fabric of creativity and our relationship to the land (why don’t such wonderful discussions ever happen around my kitchen table? If I had a kitchen table… but you know what I mean…)

The poet as shaman made me think of Ted Hughes (but that needs a whole other post to itself, I think!) It also led my thoughts to the incantation and invocation of tipping-edge inspiration in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan – where we glimpse visions brought to us by the precariously balanced seer, enclosed within his magic circle:

‘That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.’

Terri’s post was partly intended as a spark for a Moveable Feast; and additional delicious dishes have since been passed from blog to blog across the world, each serving up their unique and expansive insights and experiences to add to the table.

Feeling daunted and not quite up to the job – but nevertheless unable to ignore the persistent pestering of my muse to serve up something too – here’s my very slow-cooked offering for the after dinner platter:

(The illustrations are the produce of my fifteen year old daughter’s own muse, which is in wonderful, glorious, intuitive flight. They are all part of her work in progress, and are included here by her kind permission. Some are unfinished – all are characters from the current series of fantasy novels she’s creating).

As I’ve spoken about before, my own muse has only just begun to re-awaken after being asleep for a long time; too long. To tell the truth, I find it uncomfortable to talk about the reasons – mainly because it’s a story that doesn’t belong to me alone. I don’t want those reasons to sound like a negation of the whole story’s amazing positives. It’s just life – happening. As it will…

But, to give some sense of context, perhaps I need to do a little filling in. Eleven years ago, my son was born four months too early (at 24 weeks gestation) – right at the very edge of what doctors call “viability.” He was the most fragile and tiniest of human beings (weighing 1 lb. 11 ounces) but his spirit was as huge as the hills. I learnt something truly profound when I watched that spirit overwhelm the limits of the incubator; witnessed my son immediately react, with recognition, to the voices he’d heard in the womb (mine, his dad’s, his sister’s) and reach out to life and love, binding to us with an iron will. Over the months, his determination was stretched, again and again, beyond what seemed possible to endure. Constantly we were told to expect the worst. Every day, every minute…

In the long-term, such things take their toll. In the short-term, with no focus on anything but coping, the whole world shrinks to the size of a plastic box and a ventilator – the universe of the precious scrap of life they support. You fear he will never get out of there. You fear he’ll never feel the sun or see the wide sky, or be touched by the waves of the sea.

Though the glorious day comes when you can lift that baby to the sky, place his feet gently in the sea – watch his gaze as it expands to the wide horizon, and see the wonder in his eyes – all is still not well. Concerns crowd as you realise the childhood milestones are slipping by – and doctors frown and send you to endless consultations. Then the diagnoses pile in – cerebral palsy, epilepsy and a following list of stuff you have to look up, and stuff you don’t want to look up.

Life becomes family and surviving – nothing else matters. Deep-ingrained creativity still did its work, feeding into making sure the children flourished and were nourished by what’s important – but, for a long while, if I thought about personal creative expression at all, it was to realise that it had been shocked into silence, mangled by crisis; sent into hiding by lack of opportunity and energy, and by lost faith in life. As time went on, the Muse woke briefly for intermittent periods – but usually became overwhelmed by the need to just get what had to be done, done. Time came back into my grasp eventually, but mind-space and energy for creating fiction eluded; doubts and slammed-shut doorways of the brain rusted over. Moments when the Muse came back were wonderful, healing. But the fear of opening them up, only to have them slammed shut again, painted a more terrible prospect than not opening them at all, so the safer option seemed preferable.

But it wasn’t the safer option. It was the most self-destructive. For anyone who feels the creative urge, that tug to follow the Muse brings glimpses of an edge of doubts and peril – but I’ve learnt that to not follow leaves you closer to the falling-edge behind you. Only by answering that forward tug, can you get to the edge where you can fly. Sometimes you have to drag yourself there, crawling inch by inch. Sometimes, you can fling open a door, and a following wind lifts you through and hurries you forward, opening the wide sea ahead of you. Sometimes it seems very far away indeed, glimpsed through a keyhole. The Muse changes her mind – gets cross at interruptions. Retreats until ‘the readiness is all.’

But it wasn’t just circumstances that held me back – it was me. When I was a child I would write, write, write – sitting on my bed, notebook on my knees, scribble, scribble. Messy, almost indecipherable words would spill across the page, my aching hand trying to keep up with characters who rushed ahead on their story-paths, beckoning me on as they revealed their tales. I would enter the dreamtime, follow where it took me. But somewhere along the line, I read – and most importantly took far too much to heart – one too many writing guidance books full of market advice and a million and ones things to research and consider. Every time I got into a tangle with my plots, themes, characters – and anyone who writes, will always get into tangles (I know that now) – I would shrink back into those doubts and check lists. What was I doing wrong? What steps did I need to take – 1,2,3? I should have planned more! Wasn’t this or that element floating too wide of the mark of what was required? I began to slip out of engaging with the work itself – and instead, focussed on some kind of outwardly imposed framework that I was trying to hang it on. I got things the wrong way round.

I needed patience, not brow beating. I needed diligence and faith to keep going – and to allow myself to wait for things to unfold out of that deep valley between the two worlds we tread when we create. Stepping away from creativity – and wholly into the world of must-do, daily coping – protects the self only for so long. Getting stuck there withers something. I’ve never discovered what it’s like to step too far into the otherworld – to have dined too much on honeydew and drunk ‘the milk of Paradise,’ to become like Coleridge’s shamanic poet figure. I suspect I never will. I think that requires a level of talent I don’t possess. But I do recognise, to a certain extent, the state Zadie Smith describes in a quote Terri highlights:

‘…a kind of magical thinking takes over….. you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post – I mean there’s nothing in the world except your book…… The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time changes.’

In my twenties, when I made my first adult-years attempt to write what my heart most wants to create – a children’s fantasy novel, I was back in my happy place; the intuitive dreamtime, learning about writing in the best way possible – by doing it every day. Like everything, it has its flipsides – and during that time, I experienced that protracted feeling of not fully returning to this world, or not always paying proper attention to what was said to me – because the phantoms of my characters and story-visions were floating somewhere in between what might be and what is. I understand the Ancient Mariner’s ‘glittering eye’ – his scary, burning need to tell his story.

When I was commissioned by a big magazine publishing company to write children’s short stories for their syndicate sales abroad, I was right in the middle of becoming a mother for the first time. Of course I know now, this was one of the worst times I could have put so much extra pressure on myself. I must have been mad. I remember taking a call from an editor, my new-born daughter draped across my shoulder, trying to take down plot notes, whilst her tiny body hurled colicky howls down the phone line. I’d had a few other pieces of work accepted before, but this was my first chance to fulfil a dream of regular, paid writing work – and I was desperate to grab it whilst it was on offer. I kept on going, writing story after story – following guidelines and formulas the editors supplied. Sometimes the plot lines were theirs. Sometimes they were my own. Sometimes the Muse could stretch and feel fulfilled. Sometimes, my ideas broke out of the required mould – and had to be shaped and pared down beyond recognition. Sometimes the results were an improvement. Sometimes I felt that market requirement limits were shrinking something of integrity to a one size fits all. Some of the reader expectations the editors told me to play to dismayed me. What a shame, I remember thinking, if that’s really what those kids want, or have been taught to want. I wanted to give my young readers something that leapt in many directions; something expansive.

All this was such a valuable education, though. Those experience-wise editors, and those writing challenges, gifted me a lot of learning. But the practical Real World and the Muse World were beginning to collide in a way that was mutually detrimental. Muse World was no longer a healing dreamtime – but a snatched must-time. I was at home all day, fully focussed on the children, and when my husband returned from work to take over the childcare, I’d reluctantly drag myself off to write, painfully trying to switch my brain to otherworld whilst all my thoughts clung to Real World. Those times ate into our precious chances to all be together; whilst deadlines meant that, when a plot problem was knotted in my mind, I became irritable – tugged in different directions by the demands of the two worlds. In a last-gasp fit of madness, I tried to keep that writing opportunity afloat during all the difficult challenges of my son’s early years – but it led to burn out. In the end, wanting to be fully present for my family – plus changes in the children’s magazine market – flung me well and truly back into “Real” World.

Since then, there have been several attempts to get back to the otherworld – but too many hang ups about markets and requirements lingered on, prodding me mercilessly with doubts about my ideas and whether I was up to the mark.

Now I’ve decided that I don’t care if I never see another piece of my work published. I want to write for me; because it’s what I have to do to be me. I want to give myself the chance to achieve the dream I’ve held since I was a child – to write a long, sustained piece of work; to go back to that children’s fantasy novel – and to actually finish it. To know that I can do it. And because the characters are calling me back, insistent that they tell their story.

Then, I will print it off, stick it in a file – and it will be there for my daughter to read. I will have allowed something out that needs to take shape, and will have reached my most important reader. If it’s rubbish, then it’ll be part of an upward learning curve. If I decide it’s worth a punt to send it off for consideration for publication, then I will take that chance. But I won’t have that hanging over me anymore. I won’t let it. It’s like a sword of Damocles ready to descend and destroy something before it’s had a chance to come into being. I want the work to be the best I can do, because I love it; because I’ve engaged fully with the work, and what I expect of me and of it. I’m a tough task master – but the routes in my own brain are navigable in the way that some imposed routes from outside are not. If I don’t identify with the template, I’m never going to make the pattern fit. I can’t do stultifying second-guessing anymore. I need to submit to a more natural flow.

I can feel my muse smiling. She approves. She prefers the dreamtime. She loves the challenge of crafting-time and hard, creative demands too – but only after she’s laid a trail of magic; conjured the material to work with. Reading Terri’s wise and visionary post – and the inspirational comments and linked feasts that follow (so many words of deep insight and experience) – I realised more than ever that it’s okay to work the way I prefer. Okay to work intuitively. Okay to let the crafting be the follower and facilitator of inspiration, not its dictator, warder or potential executioner. And if I drink too much honeydew, sup too much of the ‘milk of Paradise’ (which, quite frankly, is unlikely – I think that’s the preserve of artists who reach a higher plane beyond my capabilities) maybe I’ll taste the other side of the perils of the Muse, and learn from that too. I’ve had enough of the perils of locking her out – and it involved too many draughts of something stagnant. A bitter brew that was not at all like honeydew.

My son has taught me much about life – its realities, its difficulties; the deep value of its smallest joys. He’s taught me to embrace and relax into what is, instead of fretting too much about what will never be. He’s my hero. Like all lessons worth learning, it didn’t come easy – and is on-going. Sometimes, without darkness, riches will never be revealed. Darkness can shed light on things in unforeseeable and unexpected ways. The Muse is a mistress of flipsides too – she’s taught me acceptance of her gifts, via the fears and difficulties. Waking her up, and benefitting from her healing, is getting easier, the more I recognise that.

Reading Terri’s post, the John Barleycorn blog discussions and the various moveable feasts, has prompted in me inspiration and crucial realisations. I realise I’m not alone, but on a shared path, full of turns that are familiar to many. I’m so thankful for that help. And I hope, in putting this out there, I can give something that will, in turn, resonate for others. Perhaps these lessons learnt may echo a journey someone out there needs to know can be resolved. And maybe too, those lessons might help my daughter, should she ever need them as guideposts on her creative path one day…

In the meantime, I’m weaving many, many wishes that her beautiful, intuitive muse will forever fly…

Kissing Frankenstein & Other Stories – Flash-Fiction South West

Today, 16th May, is the first ever National Flash-Fiction Day

…and I’m very proud to be involved in the West Country’s contribution to the celebrations:

Kissing Frankenstein and Other Stories is an anthology of flash-fiction by writers from the West Country – and includes a story forged in the creative writing notebook of Yours Truly, Melanie at Bookish Nature! The anthology’s editor, Rachel Carter (who has done the most amazing job co-ordinating and putting the book together) gives a brilliant account of the journey towards the creation of Flash-Fiction South West on her blog, A Voice Released, which is brimming with a wonderful selection of flash-fiction and other writing treats.

Much time and thought was put into the project by Rachel and the Flash-Fiction South West team, gathering together submissions, reading, long-listing, short-listing, editing, designing, publishing etc… And the result is a great website (where you can read the stories and find out more) and the very handsome and stylish anthology, packed with an entertaining and thought provoking variety of micro-fiction, from six words to 1,000 words long (or short!)

What is flash-fiction?

Well… it’s rather slippery in its habits, when chased by attempts at definition – which is all part of its appeal…

From the introduction to Kissing Frankenstein and Other Stories:

‘Flash-fiction is…’

‘Short’

‘Moreish’

‘A concentrated story.’

‘Like poison – effective in small doses.’

‘Maybe a cross between fiction and poetry?’

– a form ‘yet to be packaged up neatly into one definition with one set of rules.’

When I saw Rachel’s call for submissions on her blog, I was at a bit of a low writing wise, with so many projects left unfinished and interrupted by life events. I was just emerging from the other side of it all, getting myself back on track, and looking for ways to kick-start myself creatively again; and Rachel’s submissions call was exactly the spark I needed to tell myself to, “Go on – give it a go!” That night, I was amazed when the story suddenly came to me, ready written in my mind, as soon as my head touched the pillow…

Too tired to search for a notebook and pen, I drifted into sleep, repeating key phrases in my head in a desperate effort to retain them (I was convinced I’d forget the whole thing by morning). But, some sort of flash-fiction magic must have been at work, as I did manage to remember it – and the next day, out it flowed onto the page, mostly fully formed and very comfortable in its own skin (despite some later re-working and refining, it was adamant about the length it wanted to be and resisted morphing into any other shape.) In fact, I surprised myself by managing to turn in a story at only about 700 words long (usually, being over-verbose is my problem!) The story also told me it wanted to be called The Toll of Blue Sky Thinking, and all through the creative process, John Donne was winking at me from the corner of his poet-pulpit, telling me “No man is an island” over and over, to give me my theme…

Whether my Muse had suddenly jerked awake, full of a surfeit of creative dreams, or whether Awen, as Druids call it, was flowing – I don’t know; but it certainly felt like inspiration was writing it for me – and I’m hoping to hold onto that free, dive-in feeling – what the former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo describes as ‘entering the dreamtime’ – as much as I can in my creative writing from now on. I thought it was a mind-set I’d lost and would really have to struggle to regain, but I’ve found it again – and I’m very grateful to Rachel and the rest of the Flash-Fiction South West team – and to Calum Kerr, Director of NFFD and the original force behind the whole national flash-fiction celebration – for the opportunity to set it loose. It’s wonderful to be spreading my wings in that creative space again.

The Toll of Blue Sky Thinking was my first attempt at the flash-fiction form – but certainly won’t be my last (maybe, dear readers, I’ll subject you to more on this blog sometime… you’ve been warned!) Counter-intuitively, the smaller size and tighter word limits of flash-fiction revealed themselves to be, in some ways, more freeing than longer fiction forms can be – and was a wonderful, releasing exercise of thought-spillage. If you’ve never tried writing – or never read – flash-fiction, and would like to give it a go, there’s loads going on all over the internet.

In fact, to celebrate NFFD, there’s a veritable feast of writerly events taking place all over the country and online – all sorts to get involved in for both readers and writers… Head on over to the National Flash Fiction Day 2012 Website  and the NFFD Facebook page  to find out more…

Kissing Frankenstein and Other Stories can be previewed and ordered, at 30% off list price, at Lulu -and will be available to order from Amazon and as an e-book sometime in the future… (watch this space – and the Flash-Fiction South West website and facebook page for further news!)