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?’

‘Yes. I understand. Help yourself before you can help others, otherwise it is martyrdom. Otherwise it is just filling the hole.’

‘And this is where you’re at, isn’t it?’

He sighed. His back was sore from all of the pelvic girdle exercises. She said (his chiropractor, who has a pet rabbit and runs for Morpeth) he had a weak pelvic girdle and he doesn’t want to have poor posture anymore, he would like to write about posture, postures, and the pain of it, and the way we posture to ourselves and other people, pose, don’t let things in, or rather, don’t let things out, postures lead us to closed systems. He wants to be seen as mature, grown, having a good pelvic girdle. Looking after himself. Anyway, yes, he had to conclude, this is where he was at. Where were his daily practices? Where had they gone?

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes. This is where I’m at.’

The owl smiled, or rather, the owl looked at him with a smile somewhere hidden within the feathers, which is always the best kind of smile, the gift, the one you know is there but doesn’t need to be on show (not a Hollywood smile, this one). The owl sometimes changed colour; today it was a marvellous snowy white. The owl stood on one leg and stretched the other, twisted his head half-way-around, twisted back. He could not help but smile (and why should he? Why should he help himself not smile? He found himself doing this a lot when his friend visited. They were watching Pema Chodron, and she was funny, but he didn’t want to laugh, his miserableness was a safe defence against opening up and feeling, he could stay stuck in that, if he had to lighten up he would have had to be more honest, he would have had to cry, perhaps, break down, be weak, or weaker but in a compassionate way. Compassionate to himself. The episode/video they watched was about unconditional friendship with oneself. But he couldn’t even laugh. But then he did. He did, anyway. And it was okay.)

‘So let’s get back to things. Why can’t you just sit down and write?’

‘Because it’s not a part of anything! Because it’s not part of a book or a career! It’s not leading to anything! It’s not connected! It’s not worth anything if it’s just me just writing, is it?’

‘That depends on your judgment of worth. How do you want to spend the moments of your life?’

He didn’t answer. Too many answers and none, whirling around his mind.

‘Do you love writing?’ the owl asked. ‘Forget about Mark Ravenhill saying writers who write about writing should look the fuck outside themselves. Forget about the troubles in the world. Forget about the troubles in yourself, that your back hurts, that your life feels small, that you are having trouble disentangling from wanting justice served on that person who you feel manipulated and used you. Think about this: you have been writing for 17 minutes. And the distance between this you and the you then, 17 minutes ago, is quite considerable. You are open. Your mind is more compassionate. You are thinking of potential and friends. You are still feeling the aches and pains, but now you consider that you might be compassionate towards them. It seems writing is kind to you, and most kind, perhaps, when it is not connected to anything, such as…’

‘Such as…?’ he asked, although he already knew what the owl was going to say. Ambition. Purpose. Need.

The owl turned away, studying its tertials as if they were fingernails with something stuck underneath.

‘Now,’ said the owl, ‘Mark Rowlands writes about running for its own sake, its intrinsic value. Many people think of writing in the same way. Can you? Is it important for you to do so? It’s something you teach your own students. Hmmm?’

His mind had drifted back to teaching, and then the person who had hurt him, and another fantasy of justice, which was really just revenge. Hurt for hurt. That was no use. Although it was fine to explore in writing, he thought. And in a way he had to thank the person for showing him how much it hurt people to be taken in and trusted and wanted, and then thrown away, shown to have been used. At least he understood this now. Hadn’t he done it to others? He would not do that again. Whatever had been hard in not being with people, he would not do that. If he did not have the courage to be with someone, yet, or even people, more, then he would have at least the courage to say so, and not be like her, a coward. (And anyway, he thought, he would work on his book proposals on relationships, and write a chapter on her, and all her affairs, and get back at her… oh… the owl was looking at him with scorn, and it hurt. He looked like his grandfather.)

‘And what would your grandfather say to you about this?’ asked the owl.

‘About this?’

‘Writing, of course,’ said the owl, but he knew it was not about writing.

‘My grandfather,’ he said, dissembling, buying time. His grandfather had loved his grandmother, who had had an affair during the war with an American GI, who wanted to go to America with the GI, but who was left behind, and married my grandfather, and seemed to live a miserable, bitter life, and died early, aged 65, and had wanted to die for much longer, and my grandfather put up with it all. Just got on with it. And never let his love for the rest of us be clouded by not being loved properly himself. He was a good guy. And so what would he do? He would just get on with it. He would not let his grandfather down. He would disentangle himself by taking on board Pema Chodron’s lesson.

‘And that is…?’ asked the owl, as if he could read minds. (As if! It was if the owl was his very mind, or rather, a permanent resident in the eaves, catching bad thoughts like mice, although he didn’t want to think too much about what the owl ate…)

‘To realise that one’s first impulses are often the very things that get us more entangled.’

‘Ah,’ said the owl, preening. ‘And what would your first impulses be? In this situation.’

‘To somehow make things just.’

‘And what is the scale of balance on which this injustice is currently weighed? It’s not your feelings, is it?’


‘Although you know, of course, having read Steve Bearman’s work on the trans-rational, as well as taking part in Steve Thorp’s 21 Soul programme, that although we must acknowledge and respect our embodied senses, our feelings do change, over time, and often in one day. To act solely on the judgement of our feelings would lose our ability to witness ourselves as actors with agency in our own lives.’

‘Well put.’

‘Thank you.’ The owl gave a little nod. ‘And so…’

‘And so…’

‘You don’t need me to tell you the next bit. Go on. Is “justness” your only first impulse?’

‘I guess not. Okay. When I get hurt, when I feel that hurt is incredibly unjust (isn’t all hurt? Probably not), when I see that person getting away with it, well, it’s a rather universal feeling, isn’t it, so many crime thrillers, film and books, are based on this sense of justice within us. How to be good? How to not let my grandfather down. My impulse is to strike out, even worse, my impulse is to create stories in my head about the revenge and putting it right, my impulse is to create stories in my head! Oh, oh, oh, shit, what…. But help!’

The owl, this wise owl, this visitor, this part of him, simply wore the question in its eyes.

‘Thirty-seven minutes you have been writing now, my friend. And you have reached something of an important truth.’

He sat and ran his hands up and down his thighs. His quad muscles were not well. The right adductor was sore and tight, and the groin was a little torn, there was scar tissue there, he had not been running, one of his Five Pillars of Life, had been crumbling around him, along with a few of the others (and yet he was still standing; existing, perhaps, but still alive; yes, that pillar metaphor didn’t work).

The owl jumped from one leg to the other.

‘Do you remember where you began from? That 37, ah, 39 minutes ago?’

‘That I could not write.’

‘Hmmph,’ said the owl. He poked his beak forward. ‘No. That you felt worthless.’


‘And now?’

‘Well,’ he said, or rather squeaked, rubbing an eyebrow, trying not to smile, as if he had been found out hiding in a game, pleasantly uncurtained. ‘Not so much.’

‘And why?’

‘Well, because I see that I am a naturally creative person—’

‘—whose impulses are beneficial to the world, even if the channels are rutted towards the wrong outcomes and goals, such as revenge—’

‘In all cases?’ he interrupted.

‘Yes,’ said the owl, but with a little, he thought, discomfort. The owl picked up his wings and shook them. ‘No. You are right. I will not be dogmatic. That,’ the owl leant forward, ‘is something of the famous feathered wit of the owls.’

‘Ha,’ he replied, although he smiled more with his eyes.

‘So let us reconsider,’ said the owl. ‘Please go on.’

He sat up. He pulled in his pelvic girdle, much stronger now, he thought.

‘My impulse is to create stories out of the material of my life, and of the world,’ he said. He said it clearly, thoughtfully, as if it made sense, and as if, he realised, he was saying it for the first time. Which he was. Like this. It had always been about writing, about communicating, about making a mark, about changing things; but it had always been done with a need to be important; to be worth something; to gain recognition. To say something important about the important things in the world. To be important! To be worth something! What he realised was that these ends had made writing purely utilitarian. A means to an ends. Work. He was not writing, or had not been writing, or doing anything in life, in fact, for its own sake. Not in a cumulative way that might add up to having felt as if one had lived.

But this was different.

There were Christmas songs on in the café, he realised. A choir singing about toffee pudding and good tidings. He looked around, up, but there were no eaves in the café. The owl? Where had the owl gone? And of course the image that he saw now was of his granddad, the last time he saw him (in the hospital) and other images, now a collage, of breakfast together (Cumberland sausage, poached eggs, bramble jelly), working in the shed, growing runner beans, sitting playing cribbage, hearing the stories of Norwich and the fens, seeing his granddad shave in the blue marbled mirror above the kitchen sink, using the old shaving brush to wipe on a thin layer of cream, cooking chicken noodle soup, letting Scruffy rub up against his stubble, as he did now with his own black cat, cats loving, it seemed, to scratch their soft noses on their companion’s chins.

His mind was quiet now. He knew there was a long day of work ahead. But he had done something important. He had sat down, and “putting the problem into the work” as one of the tutors at his university had instructed… her, in fact, and she had passed on the tip… he had done something good, for its own sake. He had written, simply, without goal or purpose. Or not one that was driven by anything other than his own impulses. That felt like a weak ending to an important moment. But the owl was not around to guide him towards a deeper truth. Perhaps, he thought, this act, this daily ritual, this practice and habit of simply writing, did not need to be converted to anything more ‘important’ to be of value. Perhaps he would have to work that out on his own.

Perhaps he had.



  1. Wendy

    I’m a fan of muse conversations – both mine and others’.

    I’ve long been a writer of “nothings” and felt some kind of shame for that – that I wasn’t a career writer, doing something “legitimate.” Somehow I’ve moved past that lately. If I want to, I can do something with those written pieces, share them in some way or not. But I cannot write to serve a career – only to serve that which I must voice, out of the heart of my life.

    Perhaps it says as much about me as it does you that this stood out as I read: “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?”

    That’s a very, very kind thing (and a true one and a difficult one) that your owl friend said.

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