from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Saturday, 23 April 2016

the words on words post

...Or Friday. Or even Saturday. Just as another 12 people, newcomers to this course on Iona, are going to join me for a week's writing and depth exploration (and to the two of you who can't come, if you're reading this, I hope you can join us next year).

It's been – well, rhapsodic; and hard to be indoors.

But I'd said I'd write about writing, so – tearing myself away from more azure epiphanies – I shall do that. Mostly, I'm going, in a fairly random way (being off, if not with the fairies – though those too in this thin place – in my imagination with the puffins and ringed plovers still) to quote other writers.

First, I need to declare that, despite being a romantic, unlike every woman writer in the media at the moment, it seems, I'm not a huge fan of Jane Eyre. I know Charlotte Brontë, whose bicentary we are celebrating currently, achieved something huge, and as a woman as well as a writer I'm glad of that. But I think Mr Rochester (along with Heathcliff) has a lot to answer for in terms of young women's expectations of men. So this is not about the Brontës.

I'm unravelling some ideas about creative writing in general, first; fiction next, then poetry after. (Novelists, take heart from Mantel's words.)


Coaxing wild animals
A friend left me a novel to read – light relief from all the worthy non-fiction that weighs my luggage down – and at the end of Anna Raverat's Signs of Life (exquisitely written and full of recognisable moments for lots of women, I suspect, about, really, a doomed relationship with one of those Rochester/Heathcliff damaged men) I found this little paragraph:

'All I have is my feeling for the story; a feeling about what belongs and what goes where. Writing starts with a feeling. This feeling lives in the ruins at the back of my head, along with other wild creatures. I have to coax it out, invite it to show itself. It is necessary to be quiet and open, to listen as I try to bring it forward. As it comes, it changes. There is something in its mouth. The creature comes almost into view, drops whatever it was carrying and leaps back into the dark.'


Hilary Mantel on writing fiction (The Guardian Review, Saturday 16 April 2016)
'... fiction makes me the servant of a process that has no clear beginning or end or method of measuring achievement. I don't write in sequence, I may have a dozen versions of a single scene. I might spend a week threading an image through a story, but moving the narrative not an inch. A book grows according to a subtle and deep-laid plan. At the end, I see what the plan was.'


Mary Oliver and me on Body, Energy, Purpose: making a poem
Mary Oliver, in a little essay on a poem of hers ('The Swan', in Wild Geese), says that she sets herself three rules in the writing of a poem: 'It must have a genuine body, it must have sincere energy, and it must have a spiritual purpose.'

Here, working with a group of experienced poets last week, we looked at what those ideas might mean. My relationship to Oliver's three requirements goes like this:

A poem needs to be rooted in the rich imagery of the concrete sensory world.We remember, for instance, visual details more than we remember abstract ideas, and such imagery makes for deeper entry into a poem. In addition, the poem needs to be a 'thing', somehow; a whole and complete body occupying its own space in the world, even as it partakes of – well, everything.

'Sincere energy'? – I understand this to mean that, if it works, it will have and convey a sense of authenticity that will drive the poem forward even if, crucially, the poem is a 'fiction'. A reader needs the sense that the writer is drawing from a depth of their own experience, from the well of their own knowledge. Given that, the poem permits a reader to do the same thing.

'[It] must have a spiritual purpose' is quite hard, incomprehensible, even off-putting for many readers in our secular post-postmodern materialist culture, and this idea is worth examining.

What it does not mean, in my view, is 'a religious message'.

My own take on this – and I'd agree with her on the necessity for it – is that the poem has as a subtext, or gestures towards, the human need for meaning and the existence of subtle levels of being and experience that might inhabit but lie behind the material. Consciousness, in other words. What I really admire in a poem is vivid attentive recollection and portrayal of physical details of the world in and of itself, but always with the sense that there is more vibrating behind these details, and the physical life of the poem.

So a poem is and needs to be more than a description, no matter how deftly and sensitively the latter is conveyed. And a good poem will demonstrate an awareness of the large and universal in its own small and particular story.

Perhaps Oliver means something like that, or perhaps not; for myself, this is what I take away from her suggestions.


Tuesday, 19 April 2016

putting it off

I've been putting off writing this. One reason is because – well, when you can walk, and sit, and dream, in paradise, in the sun... And another is because I find it hard to write anything about the Hebrides, and my annual experience (16 years now) of leading my courses on Iona with the beautiful people who come to share them, that isn't, frankly, rhapsodic, ecstatic; and therefore is new. 

Also, the more I do this work up here, work that engages and feeds the soul (however one understands that), as in any good love affair, the deeper the experience becomes, and even I find it hard to be endlessly voluble about a process that happens at a non-verbal level.

I've worked out the chief ingredients that make the retreats up here so utterly magical and where inspiration runs freely, like water.

1 the location (obviously), and its edgeness
2 the long and complicated journey, in its pilgrimage nature
3 the disruption of habit and routine
4 the kind of people who are attracted to this little island (three-and-a-half by one-and-a-half miles) on the edge of the earth, and the nature of the work we do in our week together – so much more than 'just a writing course'
5 the people on the island who make us so welcome: the hotel staff, Davy the boatman who takes us to Staffa, and in fact everyone one meets
6 the experience of being, in some way, scoured, broken open, by the island, the synergy of group and individual depth exploration, immersion in land-sea-air and the other-than-human; and then put back together again, refreshed, restored, transformed, healed, even, as participants often say
7 the early-established warmth and mutual trust; this is a safe and intimate space created, where we find our imaginations fired and a freedom to speak deep truths
8 the fact that I run a kind of bootcamp, where excuses, apologies and procrastinations have no place
9 the food
10 oh and the dedicated time for writing, often in unfamiliar and unexpected ways.

For many people who come here (I mean on such a course), there's a kind of thirst, a bone-deep thirst, a dryness that comes from our accelerated techno-oriented sometimes rather dislocated lives. In a speedy materialistic culture, what's valued is surface, briefly gratifying, acquisition or achievement.

As writers, the thirst is worse if they find themselves, in their daily lives, short on writing time or writing inspiration; and surface writing, surface anything, rarely satisfies. (That's not just true of writers, clearly.)

I'm not sure if the thirst, then, is for writing per se, or if it's a more deep-seated thirst for connectedness – to self, to other, human and non-, to the whole great cosmos – that writing, and depth groupwork, allow one to explore, express and assuage. I am sure that it is assuaged more completely on this island, and more swiftly, than one might imagine possible. 

And people write. And write.

Well, what I was intending to write about was the process, experience and requirements of writing, from other writers' perspectives, but already my non-rhapsody is running away with me. So maybe I needed to indulge it just a tiny bit; just one very small glass. Really. 

Tomorrow, or Thursday, perhaps, I'll tell you what I want to tell you about writing. If this currently-very-erratic machine doesn't fall off its internal perch, and this currently-blissed-out writer decides to switch it on to see.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

isle of iona: the news from here

Sound of Mull
Rain ushers us over and in
drops its veils behind us
the island floats


The Bay at the Back of the Ocean
An afternoon of that glass-blue light and my feet tingling from the barefoot walk on the turf of the machair with its galaxies of tiny white snail-shells and the little cove calling where I climb the turfy ridge over Torridonian sandstone pincushioned with thrift and look out on islands; think of that secret bay on Mull where I went the day my aunt died, built a cairn for her and for my mum so recently gone, and watched my daughter, the new generation, claim her place in wind and sun, lean lurcher leaping round her like a wave


Port Ban
… wander in a blue daze to the bleating of lambs in a cloud of newly-arrived house martins down to the inner sanctum, temple of the White Bay with its shining chalky sands, parabolas of bladderwrack, periwinkle, topshell, limpet, and I stretch full length in April sun below the machair’s marram grass and oh this this this where the sea’s voice and the birds’ blend with the island’s many voices, and the ancients from all times and places have gathered here to lean over us to whisper, to offer us the refuge of this only now now now and here


The Nunnery
Last night the silent walk back from the dusky Nunnery, sky lilac-pale, our wordless fluid tai-chi-stroll-dance, Elisabeth, Miriam and me, the rooks behind us grumbling in their sycamores, jetty awash with borrowed light, space station above smaller than a bird, calculating vastness, and the earth tumbling us on towards ocean and darkness. We stopped at the voice of some small unnameable bird, its whispered wheezy squeaking seeming full of longing and abandon, heading out over our heads to sea, knowing its way. I, who don’t, hitched a pilgrim lift in its wings, am flying out still.


Sunday, 3 April 2016

the power of story

My major focus on this blog, as in my work for a while now, is frequently on the connections between the world of imagination and our place in the rest of the natural world, and how we sit at the axis linking the two.

Specifically, I'm interested in how the imagination can help us revision our relationship to all that is, and appreciate the enchantment that is, arguably, a natural part of that relationship to each other, this amazing planet, and the cosmos.

So often, the imagination in relation to the outdoors takes the shape of poetry or a poetic response (the latter being applied equally to a worldview and to other forms of writing, not just poetry). This is, of course, partly because of my own passion, and partly because the kind of attentive looking and listening and being still that is required for a soul relationship lends itself most easily to poetic exploration and expression.

And then I come back to story, which is a kind of bedrock. It sits at the heart of much of the work I do with others, and obviously is integral to the novel writing course I've been leading since the early 90s (my first 20-session face-to-face course was featured in The Guardian some time last century). As far as we know, humans have always woven story from their experience of being alive; orally before writing; pictorially, perhaps, alongside.

I have written many many times, probably on here and certainly in various of my articles and books, on the healing power of story; the way it can help with our struggles to learn and integrate and grow.

I believe that the act of telling a story, even if its genesis is not (obviously) in our own life, is in itself a healing act. The act of telling a story from our own life magnifies the healing potential 10, 20, times. If we then take the time to write it, reflect on it, digest it, some psychological wisdom is invited in.

My early workshops in 1991, just after I'd finished a counselling training in Transpersonal Psychology and incorporating work I'd done with archetypal motifs in myth, specifically Celtic, in my degree course, were called 'Personal Mythology – myth as metaphor'. The intention was to identify and move beyond the unconscious pull of patterns of belief, or specific experiences, that held us back from being all we are capable of being.

In them we worked with the stories of our lives by discovering archetypal themes that allowed us three things: to put our own stories in a larger collective context; to gain enough perspective on a story to enable us to see how we limit ourselves and also, conversely, the strengths, or gifts, we have; and to rewrite the stories of our lives. 

Some call this kind of work narrative therapy. Indeed, it is; but it's more than that, for me; it's soul-work (or the task of the growth-oriented psyche, if you prefer). Through it, we compost, sow, nurture, feed, weed and prune our inner gardens, gently choosing the shape we want our lives to take.

Storymaking (the name of my novel course, but I mean this broadly here) is a way of digesting, processing, incorporating, the events of our outer lives so that they become, and feed, healthy aspects of our inner lives.

Jungian James Hillman says: '...a simple narrative, just a story, is not enough to make soul... An event becomes an experience, moves from outer to inner, is made into soul, when it goes through a psychological process, when it is worked upon by the soul in any of several ways...' He goes on to say that a story remains 'only the outer history of emotional events, like a crowd of yellow daffodils, unless it be recollected in tranquillity, put through a psychological operation, such as the soul itself compels to.'

Speaking the story is one way. Writing it out is a second. Making a complete story, a poem, a piece of music, or a piece of art, is another, as is dreaming, daydreaming, around it. Letting the images in it speak their individual story offers another way. Entering psychoanalysis or some forms of psychotherapy is beneficial.

The creative imagination can ferment the raw starting point into a fine wine from what would otherwise be decaying fruit.

I was reminded of the importance of all this, all the ways of working with story, specifically our own story, at a day workshop I led in Cornwall recently. Rather desperately trying to connect the disparate needs of a mixed group of poets, novelists and people who just wanted to write, I thought I'd work with personal life stories partly fictionalised. 

Once upon a time I used to lead weekend workshops called 'Stranger than Fiction', and I took some ideas from this. To start, I asked people to share a particular story, a dramatic incident, from their own lives with one other group member, who then 'reported back' to the larger group. Each member then took the story that had most affected them, and reworked it as fiction.

I had forgotten the enormous potency of this kind of work. At the end of the session, everyone was flying: moved, inspired, uplifted and encouraged by this process of sharing and recreating. I didn't use this word, but it seemed to me that a group healing had taken place: no one was speaking in tongues but the inner fires were palpable!

For me, it was a delight, especially during a time when I have been doing some battle behind the scenes with environmental campaigning which seems at times just absolutely bloody hopeless against the entrenched collective selfish focus on the profits of corporate greed, and individual narcissism wedded to personal comfort no matter what the cost – and of course we all fall into that trap in our materialistic culture – to see such positive responses, and to remember that some ailments, some ailments of the soul, individual and collective, can be addressed by those of us willing to do the work. We each have the power to explore and start to heal our own ailments through a very simple act: that of looking at our stories. Then, then, maybe we have the chance of adding our paltry drop to the bigger ocean.

So I have decided I need to put more of these kinds of narrative therapy, stories from life, workshops into my programme, beginning, I hope, with two non-residential days in Devon in the autumn. More on that anon; but meantime, I invite you to write out an incident from your own life; try writing it in the 3rd person; give it a beginning, a middle and an end; and, if you can, share it with someone you trust.

NB: the counsellor in me needs to add: please don't do this with deeply traumatic or upsetting material unless you are certain you can cope with it, or preferably have professional support. In any case, if you are at the moment feeling sensitive or vulnerable, either save this practice for another time, or make a contract with a friend to do this together; OR choose a 'happy' incident that will remind you of the gifts in your life.


* The beautiful horses in the picture above are in the stunning painted caves of Pech-Merle in Southwest France, a place I find enormously inspiring every time I visit. There is a story upon story here, though you have to look and listen with the right eyes and ears. The image comes from their website.

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