Feeling Voices, Feeling Lucky

What legitimates us as writers?

One of my students recently submitted an essay on this question, or the variation: when can I call myself a writer? He took four approaches: the professional, the published, the trained, the psychological. Is it when you’re earning money, simply published, having taken a course such as a Creative Writing MA or PhD, or is it a matter of intrinsic estimation; something you know about yourself?

It is when we feel legitimate as a writer that we call ourselves writers. Sometimes that certificate, or publishing deal, or acceptance for a magazine, are the little stones we step along while we’re crossing the river of self-doubt. What is clear from research is that those who call themselves writers (or the artists who call themselves artists) are the ones that thrive. As Sylvia Plath said, ‘your worst enemy is self doubt.’ For Natalie Goldberg: ‘doubt is torture.’

Sometimes the feeling comes as a calling. Continue reading

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Filling the wobbly vase at 40

potteryHello. Happy New Year.

I’m working on a fun idea for my 40th year. A few months ago, while engaged in conversation with a student, we spoke about time-limited-oriented blogs, such as ‘400 Days until 40’, which is one that my student used to read. It freaked me out a little that he mentioned this on the exact day that I had 400 days until I was 40. Anyway, after a few weeks of pure fear of aging and dying, I then went on a friend’s 40th birthday, we spoke about it, and I got over it.

And now I’m starting to see other friends, acquaintances, bloggers, all with their excellent ’40 before 40′ lists (going up in balloons, singing in public etc). Other people have lists or acts that are more closely linked to their everyday. A poet I know is learning 40 poems off-by-heart before she’s 40. (She’s a wonderful performance poet.) I liked that idea. In fact, I liked both the wild and the everyday.

So I started with one idea–a blog about transitioning to veganism before I was 40. I am already a vegan and have been for a year, but there are a few moments, and a few belongings, that still need to change/go, such as a reliance on chocolate when tired, my old leather satchel, not checking labels of all new foods.

And I began it in the spirit of one of the most important books I read last year,  Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run. In that book the mantra is ‘just do things. always.’ It’s a mantra Scott learnt from his father. In the book he talks about his ultra-marathon career. It was very much stimulated by his parents. His mother’s unconditional love and support (‘you can do anything’) and his father’s conditional love and encouragement based on effort (‘get on and do things. always’). And it helped Scott become one of, if not the, greatest endurance runner known. Continue reading

The benefits of an imaginary owl as totem and muse

Tuesday 26th November, 803am, Café Nero

‘Why can’t you write?’

‘I just can’t!’ (Said with real failure, falling back, fainting.)

‘Why not?’

‘Because I’m worthless! Everything I write is worthless! It doesn’t contribute to anything. It doesn’t feel connected in any way, a career, a book, a life.’

‘What would it take to feel connected? Is that in your writing or in yourself?’ said the wise owl.

He wanted to reply in the manner and tone of his friend who is always dramatically cynical, but he found that would be an evasion.

‘Yes. I see this. That the feeling of worthlessness is core, below the writing, underpinning it and most things I do. And say.’

‘But not all?’

‘No, not all.’

(It’s good having this immediate feedback, he thinks. The wise owl is welcome, now.)

‘So when do you feel that you are worth something?’

‘When working for others, in fact. When writing for others.’

The owl pondered this for a moment.

‘Is that enough, though? You know you need to do it for yourself, too. Doing things for others is fine, and good, and worthy, in fact. But as you have learnt, I think, from Marion Milner and from Ann Cvetkovich, and from many others, writers too, that the thing itself is the important thing. I’m here to tell you, as you will tell others, how important and worthy you are, as yourself, not for doing anything, but for having a life that is worthy on its own, for its own sake. It’s what you say about the animals such as me, isn’t it?’ Continue reading

Small minded

sarmiento_constructions_for_web_23I am very small minded at the moment. I notice it in the interstitial moments of waiting for buses or metro trains, in the small gap between eating dinner, washing up and going to bed. I notice it less when I am busy or moving, but it is still there. Or rather, I am still inside it, this limiting constraint. Even to notice is not to step outside of the boundary line of the small minded. It is rather to bounce like a squash ball, hard and fast and dangerous to the eye that notices, unless one can get one’s racquet to the hit.

Small minded. It’s a description of being unable to think ‘big’ thoughts (kindness, patience, creative – all are ‘big’ in that they are big-hearted). Thoughts have a shape and it is trigonometric. Or rather thoughts have space into which you allow them to take shape and this space has a width, breadth and depth. It also has a time stamp, a double relation to time. The immediate of the thought, and the longer mood in which the small minded lingers.

Sometimes you can allow thoughts to expand. And other times you keep them in a box. I read an amazing piece of writing once about The Man Box. The Man Box is the box in which all other species live. It is a violent, small space, at its worst. At its best, it is still defined by the male of the human species, and for men, it is a better fit (although still violent, still small) than all others, including women, nonhumans, trees. The Man Box is white, of course (blood red on the inside). The Man Box believes, like the Tardis, it is somehow limitless, powerful, mythic, expansive. But the Man Box is a trick of the eye (of the mind).

Behind the man box, though, is the box of tricks that is the mind. It is strange, not quite funny, but sometimes incomprehensible, how the same mind can be such a different size, can be so wide and expansive, or so narrow and restricted. A thing this allows one to notice, if one can notice, at least, is that the mind is constructed, as are all perceptions. How ugly things can be seen as beautiful (for example, the ‘Boring Buildings’ in Jeffrey Sarmiento’s glass work, currently in exhibition at the National Glass Centre, I visited yesterday).

This small mindedness is the most limiting of all afflictions short of serious illness. Even then, it is somehow worse, guileless, restricting in ways that are fundamentally disappointing and achingly bad, more so than any long-term physical disability. I’ve ‘cripped’ my own opportunity and vitality, the disability scholars such as Garland-Thomson might say.

Small mindedness is anger. But not even that. Not as powerful as that. It is frustration with late running busses. It is frustration with overrunning speakers at the fortnightly seminar series. It is rigid scheduling. It is a tremolo fear of starting (anything). It is the tick of the second hand as something that irritates. Small mindedness is filled with the small emotions. Irritation. Frustration. It is sitting facing away from the window. It is fake plastic wood to run your finger over, imagining the real grain, dust, splinter. Even a splinter would be better.

It is not enough to change your life over. It is Charlie Brown’s sighs. It is far, far from the Madding Crowd, among the mass-produced vases and plastic plants of a Costa Coffee on a nameless high street. It is a reason not to mark one’s sights on sky above. It is a summary, not the exegesis. It is X-Factor, not the Greek Chorus.

The cure for a small mind begins, in fact, in the stomach. Space needs to be made in the physical body, and the first place to begin is to empty oneself out of the ingested, to regain a sense of lightness. This is only a preliminary, though, a warm-up, the fast is the trigger or can be a key to the door which needs to be pushed open. This is how fasts are used, they are utilities towards giving the mind some play of energy, some freedom.

And once the fast has begun in the body, then one can begin with the mind. Perhaps one becomes small minded by taking in too much, weighing down the thought space, filling it up. Expelling words is a good way to get the flow moving again. Writing, singing. A small mind is thinking that sounds like a car not starting. Once the engine is running again, a flow begins. Get things flowing out, feel the mind begin to be fluid again. Fluid or gas (gas is more meditative, fluid is more expressive. Fluid comes first, before it can be turned into the gas or air of thought space.)

Write. Sing. Don’t try to think too much. Imbibe sencha or bancha, sip only. Follow the ritual. Sit without crossing the legs. Drop the shoulders. Don’t try to remember too much either. The four most important words for flowing: let’s see what happens. Rub the palms of the hands around the balls of the knees. Feel how they fit. Feel the smallness of the space, the gap, between the perfect spooning grip of your hands on your knees. And then lift the hands, splay the fingers, feel the space. Now do this with your mind. Close your eyes. Roll your eyes upwards as you move the hands. Drop the shoulders again. Breathe. Always breathe.

Don’t try to think a thought that you have expanded the space for thoughts already. It is a much slower process than this, and thinking that thought—looking at the interior wall-space of your mind to check it’s dimensions as if you were measuring for curtains—simply closes the space back in. Trying to think bigger thoughts cannot make the space in which your thoughts exist bigger. This is the tricky part of changing thought space: the space for thoughts being your mind, of course.

But it also shows you that your mind is not your thoughts. The mind is only the space in which your thoughts exist. Perhaps the mind is tired of the battering it has been getting. Perhaps it is flagging, folding in, shored up over time by the struts of habit and identity you’ve thought into place, held there with nails and dovetails. The thoughts that aren’t even yours but inherited, like wallpaper, like the furniture you carry around with you everywhere. Rather than try to keep all of this standing, try to keep your mind standing, why not let it fold in, collapse, let the walls come down. What’s outside that’s scaring you? What’s necessary about walls? If you are afraid of insanity, take a peek outside the window first. I promise you, there are no dead faces looking back in. This is not a Hollywood film.

21Soul2 diamond3

Perhaps your mind can be more like a marquee (this could be a half-way house, a half-house). It has only a top for essential protections. You can hear the rain on this when it falls. That beautiful chaosmos of a million unplanned drops of which you were one, once, touching you without invite. The sides are open, the wind, the pungency of the pines, the animals that scratch at your tent in the night (small minded, you kicked out at them, remember?) can all walk in, through, mingle with the life going on there, your myriad insights and ideas and interventions.

Over here: multiple memories around the campfire. Over there: your ideas map. There: the whirling egg, black, impenetrable, all the things you’ve stored away and tried to forget, dining at your campfire like a welcome guest. And there: the animals and other creatures (even some humans) who find shelter in your thought space. When the walls of your thought space come down, this is what happens. Your thoughts breathe, remain open. The night is outside. You can always see the moon. You sleep to the rhythms of the world as it whips you around time.

So begin. Begin not by thinking your mind bigger, but by perceiving your thought. Take notice of the size of the thoughts. Intuit from their size the size of the space that must be around them. And imagine. Perceive. Turn towards the window. Breathe bigger breaths. Draw, sing, write. Let the river that runs along the bottom of the valley outside of this big marquee lull you to peace. Out of that peace, begin to see a mind without walls, only open sides, a welcoming space, one that does not need defences. This is where you dwell. This is where you sleep.

Image of building (c) Jeffrey Sarmiento

What would it have felt like…?

4 of pentaclesThe question – what would it have felt like to have lived? It is the question that drove Marion Milner to challenge the practices of her life at the age of 26, and begin to write her diaries that led, in the end, to her books A Life of One’s Own (1934) and An Experiment in Leisure (1937) and then, at the age of 40, to begin work as a psychoanalyst. But psychoanalysis was only ever for Milner a tool to that thorny tangle of the human experience, never the sole “cure” or means to make things better. Her book On Not Being Able to Paint (1950) for example combines her own self-analysis, artistic theory, psychoanalysis and a simple love of life to explore what it might mean to have lived in one’s everyday practices.

It is a good question. What would it have felt like, when one throws oneself into the future, looking back on one’s life, to have seen there a life well lived? A life well felt? It would have felt as if the life you had lived (are living now) would be full of love, and achievement, and that you would have found purpose in practice through listening to one’s own desires, rather than listening to the “mass-produced hand me down mythologies” as Milner called them of popular culture. Most of all, it would have been a life lived according to one’s own images and myths, not the myths of others. It would have been a life found through experimentation and present-moment-mindedness, not through strict adherence or, as Lauren Berlant puts it, “too much sense of a future”.

So it would have felt like:

  • always doing both ordinary and exceptional things aligned with one’s values
  • making things real in the world out of the ideas you have for them in your head
  • doing things consistently and in a focused way, so that it felt that, while you were working on that thing, it was all you did
  • developing strong, close bonds and relationships with people that are both lifelong and comfortably and happily social, and nothing more, as the situation demands;
  • understanding that grief and loss are the payments we make for love and commitment
  • making a difference and seeing those differences
  • making/building a home, like Paris and Andru and their ecosocialist farm in Galicia
  • receiving recognition for the things one does; being excellent at those things

And, so, which of the above are intrinsic and which are those driven by the social world, or, more to the point, the social self?

My friend did a Tarot reading for me on Saturday night. It was my birthday. We were having some Cava and getting ready to go out to dinner. Tarot for me is a language of imagery and mythology that is so open to interpretation that it allows one to reflect on where one’s life is at present, what is going on. It is not predictive nor does it provide symbolic answers. As with all imagery, such as dreams and advertising, the interpretation is what counts, is what is created between the world and the reading (or querant, as is the proper term for someone making a query, an archaic and lovely word in itself). When approached like this, with clarity on Tarot as merely a set of representations, saying Tarot is meaningless is like saying the media is meaningless; which is why you should never trust anyone who suggests the academic practice of media studies is a mickey-mouse degree. They are denying the whole world of representation through which power is created and imposed.

So, the key card on which my mind has lingered, certainly in relation to this question, was the Four of Pentacles. It is a card of control, of holding on to what one already has so tightly that it blocks the energy for anything new to come into one’s life. It is about the opposite of generosity in one’s work, the giving away of oneself into the work and into the world. It is the opposite of the list above.

No, that’s not true. It is not the opposite. Sometimes it is right to focus on what one has, and to work with it, than always be casting the net around for something/someone new.

My life at the moment, and for the past couple of years, has been one of temperance, of stability, of staying put, of taking less risks, of evolution not revolution, of working hard, of keeping and making things of what I already have, rather than reaching for the new. This has been true in most areas of life: work, creativity, relationships. I’ve been single for well over two years. I’ve worked on one project, to completion (my PhD, which is in fact two projects, really, the creative novel and the critical element).  I’ve stayed in one place in one job. In one flat.

I’ve grounded myself a little. I’ve held on to what I had. This has brought me a lot: reduced debts, the completion of a novel and a move towards a more creative life. But with all things, the repetition of one set of actions (holding on, focusing inwards) leads to energy blocks and stagnation. It is how I have been feeling–stuck, blocked, lacking the confidence to move forward. But also not quite yet understanding how to move forward or what this stagnation means, or what generosity might mean in this situation.

Generosity came from my friend’s response to my question–what would it have felt like to have lived? For her, it is about the letting go of anxieties, and making real–leaving fantasy behind–of the things she wants. For me, it is about finding ways to give more of myself. As one commentator puts it, if there were any symbol that encapsulated the cliche of “if you love something set it free” then the Four of Pentacles is that interpretation. (okay, okay, there’s a modicum of symbolisation in Tarot… but it’s still consistently useful for me, living, as I do, in this world where symbols and representation mean something, often everything).

The 21 Soul process (which I am re-engaging with after six weeks away, finishing the PhD) is about this–how to live in generosity, how to give away more of oneself through loving engagements and creative action. The reason why it is not clear to me how to do this, is because I’m afraid. It’s not that I don’t know how, although I may not be crafted or practiced at it. No. The knowledge is there… (it is, it is, it is… about… aaargggh…! I can’t articulate it! bloody language… bloody fear…). I am afraid of losing what I have to gain the new. Afraid of what? Rejection. Not living up to the ideal image I have of myself. Afraid of loss and commitment.

Ah, and yet, and yet… those are the prices you pay for loving and for creativity. This is the point of the Four of Pentacles, then. Am I willing to pay the price for a life that felt as if I had lived?

Or, moving away from the pecuniary metaphor, moving away from my well-practiced defences of using my intelligence to hide my fears, why am I not willing to be vulnerable?

There you go. You always know when you’ve said something true and painful when that feeling begins to move again in one’s chest. Towards tears, often, and towards release. Why am I not willing to be vulnerable?

Because, in truth, and Milner knew this, as do those people who get to the end of their life and who have not made their life’s goal to be surrounded by material wealth and security, but to be surrounded with love and feeling, those people know that they were vulnerable, made themselves vulnerable, and lived anyway. Created anyway. Loved anyway.

Or, to put it another way. I will feel as if my work and writing are true to me when I make myself vulnerable and put that vulnerability into the work. It is no good simply wanting, as Henry Miller did, to “create myself in my writing” if there is no courage to actually create.

Digging deeper into love

0_exuberanceOne of the exercises that I’ve practiced over the past few years is from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, which is to write out a list of your obessions. They are, after all, the things one comes back to over and again, to write about, to obsess about. The obsessions are those, if one can give yourself to them, also the things that will bring you greatest joy. (The healthy ones, at least!). I’ve combined this with something taken from Marion Milner’s book On Not Being Able to Paint: that is, to actually divide these into what one loves and what one hates. Hate is a hard, painful word and sensation. But I think there is no doubt that within us there are mixed senses of things we love, are drawn to, and those which we are also drawn to that cause immense pain, to us, or to others in the world, and things we perhaps do hate, and would like to see the end of. Both in the general (injustice, alcoholism, biodiversity loss, cruelty to animals) and also in the particular (Michael Gove’s attacks on educators, my father’s alcoholism, ash die back disease, bear bile farming).

I’ll leave the development of thoughts around love and that other word, hate, for another post (stuff around accepting one’s destructive urges). But for now what I wanted to do was dive deeper into the generalities I’ve put on my list of things I love. It is detail that makes the artist, the writer. Observation of detail, uniquely told or made. So I’ve practiced some free writing (another of Natalie Goldberg’s, or Julia Cameron’s, practices) on the topics from my list. So I’ve not tried to define or lead where the writing goes. Sometimes it feels creative, other times more essayist. I’ve just gone with the feeling.

First up: feeling healthy and full of energy. Continue reading

Three Times Around: creative response

There’s a question in Steve Thorp’s 21 Soul module two material that simply asks: “What is something three times round?’ It connects with the material there of thinking of the self as an egg, with its three layers (shell, white, yolk) and the layers through which one has to travel, sometimes, to reach one’s inner sense of self, feeling, soul, call it what you will. This was my gut response to the question.

What is something three times round?

mount-fujiThe grass outside the room in which we wrote was wet. She was there, stretching. I joined her. We began to stroll around. I remember how we spoke about the things we had come for: writing, work, to ensoul a sense of place. I remember her blue jumper, her bright eyes. She carried her cup of coffee, one each morning, it reminded me of an old housemate with blonde hair, surf water in her ears, forgetful sometimes of the fact she had a boyfriend, relying on her cup of coffee to help her remember (three times round in my head the Chemical Brothers’ song: Sunday morning, just woke up / can’t even focus on my coffee cup). We walked three times round one way, and then, I believe I said, that we needed to balance ourselves by walking the other way three times as well. I walked on the inside, and I remember bowing down a little to hear. I walked on the inside like I hug the steering wheel, like I sit close to walls and get tucked into tents. Like I sleep on the inside when sharing a bed.

When I was a child I moved my bed three times around the room into its different corners. By the window, along the wall next to the hall corridor, along the wall next to my mother’s bedroom. Trying out each new position for a few months, perhaps a year, keeping things feeling as if my dwelling were always moving, as my bones were growing, as my life was spreading out. I never, though, placed the bed in the middle of the room against the chimney breast, under the picture of the Oldsmobile rig splashing through surface water on a dark racing track (a boy’s room poster). Having the bed in the middle of the room would have felt alien; unprotected; a poor use of space. The idea of a bed in the middle of the room, as, I noted last night, it is in Frasier’s bedroom (on the TV series) worries me a little.

Each turning of the bed offered a different perspective, looking out as if from a crow’s nest onto a new glaze of bedroom-sea. No particular vantage was my favourite; they all brought different angles, sometimes peace, a thrum of excitement. I hoped each new position would bring me different dreams. I was not wrong. The one that reappears in my dreams now, the position from which I view my history, is with the bed by the window. It is there I remember having teenage sex with M; slightly older teenage sex with L; where I remember Sylvester biting my toes, coming in to sleep with me one more night before I went off to Australia, when I left home.

boy in bedI have memories of the bed being in the other locations. Of going to bed with my headphones on listening to ELO on the Sony Walkman, waking up hours later with sore ears where I’d slept pressed into the headphones (the old, metal headband and out of ear, poorly covered earpieces wrapped in thin foam). And sometimes waking up around 4am and listening to Capital FM before school. Did I wake up purposefully to listen to the music, or did I wake at 4am because I didn’t sleep well and needed something to ease me? I cannot really be clear about that now. The feeling is one of enjoying the music and of the dozing and even enjoying the stomach aches from being so hungry because I’d been awake for so long.

Fantasies or memories are from that time when the bed was by the window. I was very young; the memories have all my toys in bed with me. A cosy time, wrapped up against the elements (wind and rain on the window) but also a time of hiding from the outside, the demons that came twenty-five years later and tore me from my sleep; memories, and dreams—the stretch of garden by the side of the house being a dark and frightening plot, not like this open, light, occupied square that I share with her, as we walk three times round each way, and talk.

So I am back with her in the garden. We turn and walk the reverse way. We are wrapping something up here, tying up some present for later; beginning to weave a thin line of thread around a path and an experience, writing a trace in the grass. Three times around speaks to me of traces, of a path being laid down, enough so that it is memorable, just enough, three times is all that is needed. Once is the novelty of newness, the excitement, the freshness. Two times round is a statement: we have done this before, now we begin to establish that we want to do it again, are doing it again, we know the way, although it is not something we are yet familiar with. Three times round says: yes, this is the path I want, this is a way I want to remember.

Three times round is intent and memory. It is divination also—of making manifest an internal wish to have remembered something. It is an incantation—the beginnings of a trace and a trance of habit that is not yet habit. It is at the cusp of embodied knowledge. Three times round a garden, three times round in a bed as a magical vehicle for moving one’s dreams on when they are hurtful.

There is an old Japanese saying: ‘A wise man climbs Mount Fuji once, a fool twice.’ But what about the person who does it three times? She is a soothsayer, who has an articulate wisdom beyond what the ‘wise man’ or ‘wise woman’ understands. Spread out over twenty or thirty years, a lifetime to travel three times round, it becomes a choice and a wisdom. It is going beyond. It is believing in the old sayings (the Japanese revere Mount Fuji as the place where they can get closest to heaven and the Shinto gods; but it is now little more than a tourist trap, littered with paper fans and soft drinks cans).

Three times round speaks of a belief in old ways and old sayings, of a belief in being in step with a deeper and more whirling world. Three times round is being spun by the wind and not being thrown out, not clinging on, riding swirls and tempests. Three times round is strength and determination that is also softness and pliancy, learning to move—yes, this is how we passage—rather than a holding, a struggle.

Three times round says to me: this way, and you did not know this way, could not know this way, until you had experienced it three times out of your own will to do so.

Image of Boy in Bed (c) the wonderful illustrator Hannah Carding