Riders on the storm

I am excited to write today’s post because it feels like something new is happening. And it feels like something new is happening because it is. There’s something brewing – like a powerful, magnificent, benevolent storm – and it’s coming in across the horizon. All I have to do is ride the wave, however high and wild it may be. That sounds exhilarating and terrifying in pretty much equal measure, which is how it feels, in truth.

So, what exactly am I talking about here, then? What is this storm?

It’s a storm of the new.

New developments, new energy, new projects, new people and new stories. (Some of which I’ll tell you more about later on in this post. 😊) All this new: it’s there, in reach, right now. To be fair, it has always been in reach, it’s only that I can see it now. I can hear it approaching, I can smell it on the air, fresh and clean and unexpected. And all these senses are opening up to the new because I have decided to let them.  

Where has this storm of the new come from? It’s come from all around, from inside and out, from up and down, from old books taken down from the shelf after years and from books so new, the ink is still wet. In other words – it’s come from everywhere. And, as I stand here, I can see it approaching from all sides and this anticipation is an almost indescribable feeling, as if there aren’t words yet to name it.

Why has this storm come now? When the student’s ready, the teacher appears; when the storm-walker is ready, the storm appears. How do I know that I’m ready? I don’t. That’s ok.

What does this storm look like? Wild. Crashing, sparking, tide-changing, tree-bending, transformational and silver across an old, grey sky. It also looks like new pages filling up with words, new songs being written and sung, experiments in new media and new paths appearing out of the thick undergrowth of thorns. Light. Broad. Free.

What will the world look like after the storm has faded? Now that’s a really interesting question and I’m curious to find out the answer, myself.

The crazy thing about all of this is that nothing has particularly changed in the external world. The same challenges, the same fears, the same material reality and many of the same characters of the old cast list remain in place. I guess that a lot of perceptions have been challenged, although even here, many of the old beliefs are still lingering, like those last guests at the end of a party, the ones who never seem to leave. It’s ok – I know how to speak to them now, they can even crash on the sofa if they want. All the changes that have invited the storm have been internal. That’s where this kind of power really lives.

So, new – a set of sensations that might have left me a bit breathless and dizzy in times before now – is, in fact, less surprising than any of that. It’s invigorating, for sure, and also comforting – totally natural.

What are all these new developments, then? I’ve got a satisfying list for you, thanks for asking. 😊

The new venture that Cordy and I have recently begun, Creative Wings to Fly, is starting to take form and take off. We recorded our first podcast this week, which was brilliant fun – I’ll let you know when we get it uploaded – and where there’s fun, hey, that’s where the gold is. We’ve been reaching out to new people, making new creative friends and re-connecting with old creative pals, extending our networks and having plenty of laughs in the process.

I have a new writing project germinating within me and a few other exciting collections coming together, too. Added to that, the song-writing has woken up again. As I type these words, I’m still a little bit amazed by all this, yet it’s all true. And our first in-person workshops are lined up for the new year, which might very well be the most exciting new things of all. I can hardly wait!

This storm is a massive gift. And it took all those heavy rainclouds to bring it forth. That’s a big thought; that’s an incredibly reassuring thought.

And, you know what? The external things – the worries and anxieties, the dissatisfaction with certain situations – are still there, they’re just not the stars of the show any more. That’s such a beautiful realisation. And I hope it’s an encouraging thought for you, too, if you need it. It’s absolutely possible.

If you’re wondering how all of this came about, especially those of you who have been following my blog for a wee while and know something of my story this past couple of years, it’s remarkably simple. Disclaimer – simple ain’t the same as easy, people… 😊

Firstly, most importantly, I started taking the pressure off of myself and did my best to accept the situation as it was. Added to this, a couple of slight tweaks to attitude – including how I chose to speak about things – and (even) more time spent outside in nature. (Therapy, too, has been a huge gift to myself, and I don’t suppose I’ll ever stop talking about how powerful it can be.)

This programme that Cordy and I have created didn’t come from nowhere and nothing. It’s come from our lives and our own experiences. It’s come from storms. I guess that’s why this new storm is over there, in the not-so-distant distance. It knows what it has to do.

And so do I.

I’ve got that song in my head now, Jim Morrison giving it plenty from the other side of the Doors, Riders on the Storm… That’s an electrifying soundtrack for this moment.

I look out the window from my desk here on this bright November Sunday and the sky is clear, cold blue. There’s no storm in sight. You can’t see it. But you can feel it.

Have a wonderful week, my friends – I wish you the weather you need right now, whatever that may be. Till next time.

Detail therapy

What’s your therapy? What do you do to help you through life’s challenges? We all have our methods of coping – some healthier than others – and, given that we’re still here to write or read this blog, they must have worked, at least up to a point, one way or another. Today, I want to share a particular strategy I have found to be really helpful for me and I want to show how it has made a difference to my creative and personal wellbeing. Maybe it might strike a chord with you, too.

A massive issue for me in the past (and also in the present, from time to time) has been creative block. That terrifying feeling of nothingness when facing the blank page or screen; it gets me right in the guts, even thinking of it now. I am such a believer in the fun side of art; block is the polar opposite of fun. I had such a problem with it that I had to write myself a book about it, which I know is a bit of a contradiction but is, nevertheless, the truth.

The roots of artistic block are very often sunk deep down into the mire of low self-esteem, poor levels of confidence, extreme criticism and toxic comparison. For me, this terrible block – one that kept me from writing for about a year – came from a big old mix of all of these poisonous ingredients and one specific incident that pulled the rug right out from under the feet of my writerly confidence. A critique that cut deep left me silenced. Or, to phrase it in a more honest and ultimately much more helpful way, I chose to silence myself because I got hurt.

The block that came out of this situation was really an expression of my emotions. Silence can be very loud. Instead of looking at those feelings and engaging with them, I avoided them. Writer’s block is a great way to avoid things and also give yourself a nice bit of wallowing in self-pity too, if you’re that way inclined. I certainly had my share of that.

I needed a coping strategy to deal with the situation and it turns out that, on reflection, the block itself was actually the strategy. Don’t want to face rejection or humiliation? Simple – don’t put yourself or your work out there. Uncomfortable themes keep coming up in your writing? Easy solution: don’t write.

Happily, this sorry state of affairs did not last forever. And, in the beautiful way life can have of working out, I’m enormously grateful now to have gone through this grim block. Our new venture, the Creative Wings to Fly company has come out of it, and the book of creative exercises and encouragement I wrote for myself became the basis of the courses Cordy and I work with. (Lots more information on this here.) It took the rain to bring the rainbow. 😊

Of course, one rainbow doesn’t mean it’s never going to rain again. And, although my writer’s block has – pretty much – left the building, or at least I know what to do when it comes knocking, life still throws up its challenges. These pandemic days have been extraordinary and extraordinarily tough for so many of us. Anxiety and trauma settled in my life, triggered by a fire and multiplied by events. The strategies I had successfully used to work through creative block were not enough in of themselves to help work through all these other challenges.

[This, by the way, is where I am going to mention in passing the amazing power of therapy therapy – the kind where you speak to a professional person about whatever you need to. Writing, like all the arts, can certainly be therapeutic, but it wasn’t enough for me. Therapy is, undoubtedly, strong medicine and, if you find the right person for you, I simply cannot recommend it enough. But hey, that’s not really the topic for today’s blog…]

With additional (external) support, I managed to get myself into a much happier, healthier, more creatively free position. Hooray for that! When I was strong enough again to really move forward in new directions – personally, professionally and creatively – I started using some mindfulness techniques to keep me on track. And this leads me to the main point of today’s post, my friends. Hooray for that, too!

Now, I promised you a strategy I have used to help out through these testing times and here it is. I call this detail therapy. Do you see what I did there? 😊

Noticing is a big part of mindfulness. Counting through breaths, feeling the ground beneath your feet, collecting colours in what you see, hearing the essential qualities of sounds rather than listening in to what you think they might mean – all that good stuff can be a massive help in keeping calm and keeping on keeping on in general. Specifics are excellent, here. And…here we go…specifics are excellent for working through artistic blocks.

Take an object or a place (the smaller the easier for this) and write or draw exactly what you see. Notice it. Be extremely specific, immersing yourself in the details. This kind of mindful writing or drawing is not only grounding in the moment, it also breaks through blocks in a very effective way. You’re not writing for an audience, you’re not drawing for an exhibition – you’re simply recording your experience of an object, place or moment – you are writing or drawing, though, right? The act of writing or drawing cannot co-exist with block. Your creativity has got you through it.

Another little feature of this detail therapy is that, from these mindful sketches, other work may indeed follow. You can always look back at your notebook or sketchbook and pick through the details to find artistic gold. While it’s not the main aim of the task and you certainly don’t want to put any pressure on yourself when you’re in the moment, it really is amazing how often inspiration can come – usually later – from letting yourself be completely focused on what is in front of you.

Here are a few lines of a recent poem built from some of my own detail therapy writing, fit for the season.

The sky pushes clouds away and leaves

Us copper-coloured

Chilled, watching beakfuls of berries, the

Blackbird and the bullfinch

The curving branches at the old broken gate

Could not keep summer in and never

Really tried

So why should we?

That expression about the devil being in the details might be true, but there are plenty of angels in there too, if you look closely enough.

If this technique speaks to you, give it a go and let me know how you get on. Meanwhile, have a great week, friends. Till next time.

Getting real

Hello again, friends. It’s lovely to be back with you after an autumn break. As a full-on summer fan, I often forget how beautiful this season is, getting hung up on the end of the warm days, preparing my head for the cold days ahead. Not so any more: I’m giving my full attention to the bronze and scarlet displays going on all around me right now.

How often we live in (a particular interpretation of) the past or else in (what is only a potential version of) the future, without even noticing what’s actually going on in the present. It’s a melancholy way to live, I think and, much as I love a bit of heartbreak or gloom in songs or stories, I prefer something much more upbeat for my real life.

In fact, on reflection, I realise that I prefer something more upbeat in my writing, too. I need a happy ending. I could take my characters through any kind of horrendous misadventure, put them through any number of perilous/tragic/terrifying situations and have them face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but I have to give them something good or worthwhile or meaningful (or all three of the above) at the end of it all.

It’s a philosophical decision to do this. Writing – I would argue any of the arts – gives us something outside of ourselves, but it has to come from within ourselves. Even those people who believe that their creative output comes through them, rather than from them (I am often in this camp, too, to be honest) still need to be present in themselves in order to let the work flow. We are in our work. There really is something of us in all our work, even if it could be a bit of a stretch to say that everything we write is autobiography, we are absolutely connected to it. I live in the worlds I write about as I am writing them. I live in the lives of the characters I write about as I am writing them. And, given the amount of power I am wielding here, I want to create something that feels uplifting – ultimately, at least – even if it takes a long way to get there.

Certain cultures are more prone to pessimism than others, perhaps; I do believe that the prevailing ethos in Scotland is more fatalistic than optimistic, or at least that’s my experience of life here. Don’t get above yourself, don’t hope for too much, be prepared to be disappointed, don’t tempt fate, et cetera, et bloody cetera… It speaks of a fearful view of life, where happy endings are not real life. Being realistic is gritty, grim and dark.

[It’s weird, because Scotland could and does have so much going for it, but that’s another post for another time altogether. 😉]

This is not to deny the difficulties and challenges of so, so many people, by the way. I’m not here to sugar coat the lived experiences of lots and lots of individuals who are having and have had a really hard time. But I don’t want to pretend that this genuine suffering is some kind of default mode for humanity. I don’t believe it is. And so I don’t want to contribute to that climate by writing more of it.

Getting real, the title of today’s post, doesn’t have to mean accepting false limitations. It’s every bit as real to write that novel you’ve always dreamed of writing as it is to sit back and not even try. It’s every bit as real to have success in your work as it is to believe you never would and therefore not even try. It’s every bit as real to find something new and creative that makes your heart sing as it is to think you’re past the age of starting over and…not even try.

Happiness is real.

Happy endings are real, too.

Me saying this does not mean that the opposite is not true, it simply states the fact that happiness is a possibility.

During tough times, the possibility of good times can be a life-saver – quite literally – for the people who write or tell those stories just as much as for those who hear or read them.

Redemption, recovery, renewal: all of these themes are powerful and worth exploring. I would say they’re worth believing in, too.

When it comes to creative recovery, or getting over creative blocks, it’s also worth taking a look at what your beliefs around creativity are right now. If you’re one of these people like I used to be, who thinks the best art comes from suffering – all that heartache, isolation, desolation and living a misunderstood life in a freezing garret somewhere – well, my friend, you’re giving yourself a pretty crappy set of choices. Either suffer and do great art or live a more comfortable/bland life and create, at best, bland art.

Given that unappetising either/or, I’m going to take a neither. It’s such a false dichotomy, anyway. Who says you have to suffer to make great art? It’s an excuse we can give ourselves for not trying, yes, but more than that, it’s simply not true. Some incredible art was definitely created by troubled people, fair enough; but equally, plenty of incredible art was created by relaxed, happy people. Being troubled is not a pre-requisite for being creative. 😊

Life is stripey, of course. Even the most contented people go through tricky spells. These are the trials and obstacles you can give your characters and let them work through them, however it works for you and for your work. This, by the way, is one way that creativity can be so incredibly therapeutic. The point is not to live in denial of difficulties, rather it’s choosing not to live in denial of possibilities. And that’s a big difference.

And, talking of possibilities, as I get ready to sign off for today, I’m looking at the calendar and seeing November approaching very very soon. I mention this because I’ve decided to give NaNoWriMo a go this year. This (slightly crazy) project challenges the participants to write a novel – or at least the first 50,000 words of it – in a month. How realistic is this? I’ll let you know as I go, but this much I know – it’s definitely possible. 😊

Have a wonderful week, friends. Till next time.

Building blocks

A title with a double meaning today, my friends. Building blocks are the little chunks of matter we use to create bigger constructions, the pieces we need to make up the whole picture. We can’t do without them. Building blocks of our creative work might be chapters in a book, lines in a drawing, individual words in a poem or stitches in an embroidery – whatever your work entails. How often we get caught up in celebrating, venerating the complete picture or the finished work, yet how seldom we notice the critical value of the incremental, sometimes tiny steps we took to get there.

The big projects we place so much importance upon are all made up of lots and lots of little projects, one on top of or after or joining with another. Precious individual building blocks build the whole.

But we are dealing with double meanings today (not just double entendres, which I do love, as any of my limerick readers will know…you might want to check out the depths of my Instagram feed for some more of this 😉), so what about the other meaning of the phrase?

How many blocks have you built between you and your projects? Writer’s block. Artist’s block. Collapse of confidence. Permanent procrastination. Nerves that are so overwhelming, they become a kind of paralysis. Imposter syndrome. Toxic comparisons. Rejections. Self-doubt expanding like cumulonimbus on your horizon. Avoidance. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Cultural preconceptions and internal false beliefs. Thinking you’re too old. Thinking you’re not old enough. Loneliness. Thinking no one will be interested. Health concerns. Financial concerns. Family concerns. Time pressures. Believing you’ve run out of ideas. Believing you’re too out there. Believing you’re too mainstream. Refusing to take your own wishes and dreams seriously. And…probably quite a few more building blocks of one great big block.

If any of this sounds familiar – and it applies in many spheres of life, beyond what we call creative pursuits – then you are most definitely not alone. The concept of (creative) block is such a powerful metaphor because it feels so solid, so impenetrable and so isolating. You’re not alone in feeling alone.

I know a lot about this subject because I have lived through it. The experiences I have had have pushed me towards reaching out to help other people with their own creative blocks, something I’ll expand on below.

Saying I have lived through this and, even more, come out the other side of it, is actually an exhilarating sensation. It doesn’t mean I never hear those old voices of doubt in my head, of course. Even today, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by a whole lot of obligations and conflicting demands, all knocking at my door at the same time. It happens. The difference for me now is that I have strategies to help me negotiate these tricky moments and point me back on track in a gentler, less pressured way. It is often the pressure that sets my building block reflex in motion, if I’m not careful.

Noticing is the key to all of this. Picking up on the signs before sitting down to work at my desk – am I feeling edgy, is there something else going on for me right now that might affect my writing? Usually/always, it’s nothing to do with the creative project itself at all. It just so happens that creative projects – because they are often so personal, because they come from inside of us – they are especially vulnerable to attack from the arrows of low self-esteem.

This is where honesty is your best friend. Blunt, maybe, but always on your side.

If you’re feeling blocked, it’s good to admit it to yourself. It’s even better to think about why you’re blocked.

It’s definitely not because you’re too old or too young or you’re making the “wrong” kind of art. You’re the perfect person – the only person – to make your art. Literally no one else can do what you do in the way that you, uniquely, do it. Those block-building building blocks I mentioned earlier are all, without exception, either completely untrue or somehow surmountable. Argue with me all you like, but we both know that’s true. 😊

How about this as a not-so-crazy idea: you don’t have to take those building blocks and make a wall; you can make a set of steps out of them instead. Use your blocks to help you. Look at them, even if it’s frightening, and turn them into those little pieces of matter we spoke about at the start of this post, those fragments we put together to construct magic, to write stories with, to paint pictures with. They can be a different kind of building block altogether.

And yes, it takes courage to look at our blocks, especially to look at them in a kind, gentle, encouraging way. Looking at our blocks without giving ourselves and our creative dreams a hard time is probably a pretty novel idea for many of us, so used to being hard on ourselves.

It’s a subject I keep coming back to because it has been such a defining issue for me in the past. But it is in the past. I use these old beliefs as stepping stones now and what’s more, I use these experiences to help other people who are going through similar stories with block. Lemons into lemonade!

So, if you are reading this and feeling some of those stuck, blocked feelings right now, I am 100% with you. I want to let you know that this does not have to be a permanent state of affairs for you, any more than it was for me.

Cordy – an outrageously talented artist who has gone through her own heavy blocks, too – and I have put together our first online course, designed precisely for creative people who are struggling with block. Both of us know just how debilitating this can be; equally we know how incredibly liberating it feels to move beyond those blocks and experience genuine creative freedom.

Our brand new website, Creative Wings to Fly – creativity coaching and courses is now – as of today! – live and it feels like a super-exciting step for us; we really hope it’s going to be super-helpful for other people, too.

The world can feel so overwhelming sometimes, particularly now, with events queuing up to persuade us that everything is all doom and gloom. Being creative and expressing our souls is a kind of vaccine against hopelessness. I feel so passionate about this project because the idea of people finding their voice is incredibly exciting – what is the world going to hear from you? What do you want to say?

We want to know! If this speaks to you right now, please do get in touch and take that first step today. The course is up and ready here:

https://creativewingstoflycourse.thinkific.com/

or you can get in touch to talk about it with me or with Cordy by commenting here, or messaging me on Instagram or Facebook.

Wishing you a wonderful week, friends. Here’s to your building blocks building something miraculous for you. 😊 Till next time.

Very first lines

I’m writing to you today from a place I’d almost forgotten about. I am currently in the land of winter viruses, swimming in a sea of mucus (charming, I know – sorry about that), coughing myself into a frenzy and comforting myself in a negative PCR result and a mist of Olbas. A cold. I’ve not had one of these pesky varmints in a year and a half and it feels a bit strange, to be honest. Funny how this pandemic has made all those things we took for granted feel weird, in the wrong key, unsettling.

It messes with the mind.

But that’s been the story of the last year anyhow, so, let’s just go with that messy mind and have a little meander through its corridors. Sitting on the sofa, as I am doing today, I am looking back through some memories of writing and it’s quite a therapeutic affair.

I wrote last week about finding ways to start a piece of writing (or any other creative work). And it got me thinking, in that way of one train of thought making a connection with another train of thought and then another replacement bus service of thought, till I ended up thinking about what my very first lines of writing were. Or wondering what they might have been, given that all the evidence is long gone.

School, I guess. Learning to read – maybe a bit before school – at least realising that those marks and lines had meaning and could create that magic of sharing ideas with other people. I have a memory of being in the back of a car, driving along the streets of Edinburgh and looking at advertising posters, noticing the word the and saying, to whoever was there or, probably, to myself, T H E – letter names, not phonetic sounds – and being amazed at how I could read. It felt every bit as exciting as knowing I could whistle, even if I could only do it on the inhale.

I learned to whistle on the exhale and learned to read, too. Other words, not just the.

Memories are jumbled up – before school started and after. Throughout both, I remember my Beatrix Potters and my Ladybird books with their incredible illustrations. I remember my Mum reading the same book to me over and over and over again for what must have seemed like ages to her, then me drawing over the words on the pages of the book, trying to copy the writing. I’ve still got that copy of The Green Umbrella, by the way, and I’m still incredibly thankful for those endless loops of repeated books.

School memories are different because they are tinged with the trauma of being forced into a big place with lots of people and the potential to get into trouble, something that terrified me. My first teacher was kind, though, and not scary. I must have written my first proto-stories then, aged five or six. Reading came first, I guess. We had little tins with flashcard words in them – I think they might have been tobacco tins, bizarrely, but I can’t be sure of this – and the single words from those tins could grow to become sentences.

Sentences could become stories. Imagine that. All the magical things we just do, we just take for granted. It makes me think of that scene in Jostein Gaarder’s classic Sophie’s World, when he says that if a baby saw someone levitate from their chair at the table, they wouldn’t be fazed. Babies see new and magical things all the time, that wouldn’t be any more magical than seeing what the inside of an orange looked like or playing peekaboo. So, when we’re little and – if we are lucky enough to live in a place where literacy is available to us – learning to read and write, we take the magic for granted and pretty much continue with that all our lives.

It’s only when you pause to consider how amazing it is to take ideas out of your head, put them down in a code someone else can understand and share those ideas for as long as that little piece of code survives. (Maybe longer than you will.) And that you can also access other people’s ideas using the same system. All those ideas, available to you. All that potential for sharing your own ideas. Wow.

Thinking back over my own writing history – my little foray into my personal literary archaeology – I have dug up some memory treasures. I remember being in Primary 3, seven years old and fascinated by the Ancient Romans topic. It’s from this time I recall the first piece of writing that made me feel that funny feeling that I could do something special on my page. I still get that feeling now. It’s when you put something into words that you didn’t know had words. Something that was a picture or a feeling or a vague sensation in your mind that you gave a shape to and put on to paper. I think it was something like the moment where I knew I could do this writing thing. That was a powerful feeling and I remember it well. (It does me good to remember it when I’m facing a blank page now… 😊) It was a report of the destruction of Pompeii, as seen from out at sea, I’m guessing based on Pliny’s account, as presented to us in class.

I started writing stories – a lot of stories – in the next couple of years. I had a teacher who encouraged me, which was another lucky stroke in the school stakes, come to think about it, given some of the less than encouraging teachers I had in later years. And then, when poetry arrived on the scene for me, there was no stopping me.

Looking back at these beginnings, I see the freedom I felt when I was surrounded by words. Learning new words, new languages and new concepts was endlessly interesting and exciting. There had been no rejections, no perceived failures, there was no sense of competition – it was only the free flow of imagination and play. I asked Cordy about her early memories of drawing and she describes it in a similar way, sitting with her crayons and pencils, drawing worlds of her own creation without limits or barriers. Free.

We gather so much stuff around us and our creativity as we go through life, it’s a lot for it to carry. That’s not to say that we can’t have those excited and free-flowing feelings any more as we practise and hone our craft. There are always new ways to find new ways. Nevertheless, it’s nice to remember the pathways that led us to where we are now. I’m still the same person who was looking out for all those the words on the hoardings. I’m still the same person who picked up a pencil to write that Pompeii story. It’s still magical.

What was your starting point? When did you discover your voice?

I’d love to hear some of your stories, too.

Meanwhile, as I gather my little mountain of tissues up, let me wish you a wonderful week. Till next time, friends.

First lines

The hardest parts of a story, I have heard myself say many times, are the title and the first line. It’s useful advice for someone sitting at an unforgiving blank page, worrying that there’s nothing to say or nowhere to start. Forget the title, I say, carefree as you like, come back to it later. And as for that first line, don’t stress over it – start in the middle of things and if you need to add something, come back to that later, too.

Good advice. Almost completely true. True enough to take the brakes off and get going.

Titles are useful, though. They’re like names. Someone says, when they hear the names your parents might have given you instead of your own, but that’s just not you – you’d never have been a Clarinda – but of course, if they’d only ever known you as Clarinda, that’s how they’d have seen you. Maybe you’d have been different if you’d been called Clarinda or Clarence or whatever other name you could have ended up with. It’s certainly possible that our names influence our lives and they definitely influence the way people think of us, at least until they get to know us.

So it is that our titles influence what our readers think about our writing – that’s pretty obvious – and, they influence what we think about our writing, too. What would that story have been like if it had been called something else? Yes, a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but would you feel the same way about writing your memoir if you’d decided to give it the title Granny by Gaslight as you would if you called it Chasing the Truth Through The Shadows (or whatever…)? I don’t think so…

But to get back to the original guidance here: honestly, if you spend too long cogitating about titles, you might well end up with nothing at all on your page. That’s why I still think it’s useful advice to let all of that go.

Come back to it later and call it Clarinda if you want, hey, call it Clarinda by Gaslight if you want: it’s your story.

As for the first line of the story – that’s another interesting consideration. That first line can have an awful lot of weight to carry. If it doesn’t set the scene, it can certainly set the tone. But where does that first line even come from?

Do you wake up one morning, with those words on your tongue, waiting to be written, as if something is dictating to you, letting the ideas come through you, not from you?

Do you simply show up at your computer or your notebook and write, one word at a time?

Does something you overhear spark a thought that lights a word that blazes into a story, one sentence burning up after another, until its done and there’s a little pile of smouldering dénouement lying there on your page or your screen?

Do you stretch your writing muscles with a bit of free-writing, your words circling the story until they form sentences from the negative space around the ideas you jot down, fast as your fingers can keep up with your thoughts?

Do you plan and plot and brainstorm and workshop and note-take and fill up a notice-board with Post-its, sharpen your pencil, reboot your laptop, with a flounce of your mane and one last crack of the knuckles before you set yourself off, like a pianist about to perform?

Do you set off with no clue of where you’re headed, letting the words come out however sounds best, die Reise ist das Ziel (the journey is the destination) and free flow your way to a title-less story?

However you start, you start.

That first sentence you write might very well not end up as the first sentence of your story. You might shift things around, you might add an extra sentence or page or chapter to fill out the beginning as you see fit. You might scrap that first sentence altogether, even if you love it, even if it’s the most beautiful, perfect sentence you’d ever written, even if it was the midwife sentence for the whole story’s birth. There’s an (unnecessarily violent) expression people use about killing your darlings, but I see it more as letting those stepping stones that took us over the marshy ground just sink back down. They were a bridge from one place to another; we don’t need that bridge any more because we made it over, from the world before that story had been told to the world where that story now lives, out in the open. We don’t need to kill anything – we simply let the old bridge fade and move forwards, grateful for what the darling let us accomplish.

Maybe that first sentence ends up feeling out of place anyway by the time you get to the end of the story. This has happened to me countless times. Often, that’s because it takes time to write a story, even longer to write a whole book, and by the time you reach the final edit, things have moved on: the first sentence is in a different key to the rest of the writing and it sounds plain wrong.

I realise that talking about writing first sentences (and titles, too) is a lot like talking about writing in general. In fact, it’s a lot like talking about creative inspiration in general; much of what I’m saying here could apply just as well in other fields.

The principal challenge with beginning is having the confidence to hear your own voice. Self-belief. What do you want to say? How do you want to say it?

(We could also get on to the thorny question of Who do you want to say it to? which can be a totally different stumbling block, but we’ll come back to that in another post, my friends…)

I want to end today’s thoughts with a bit of a practical suggestion, if I may. It’s very simple. If you’re struggling with beginnings, do a bit of join-the-dots to get you going. By that, I mean, think of a setting, a character and an action. Don’t worry if they weren’t in your initial thoughts, let them appear anyway. Note these three elements down as solitary words or phrases, then write a sentence to connect them. Let all concerns about what will come next be put on hold while you simply write that sentence.

By the time it’s done, your story has started and you can let it unfold as it will or as you choose; you don’t have to think about that empty page any more, whatever comes next – even if you delete it later.

Oh yes, and one last thing – one more last as my nephew Joe used to say when he was wee. That confidence issue: if you ever find yourself stuck for it, please, get in touch with me. I believe in you.

Have a wonderful week, friends. Here’s to new beginnings. 😊

Bird medicine

Not so many days ago now, I completed another year’s 100 Days project. You might have noticed me mention this just a few times… This year, my focus was on birds. Memories of birds, sightings of birds, the lessons learned from birds, the symbolism of birds. One wee handwritten haiku a day for a hundred days, each about a different bird I had seen, with an extra poem concealed within the words of the haiku, to be put together as a finale to the piece.

It was a powerful project for me because of the kind of times we’re all living through, generally, and because of the specifics of the times I’ve been going through, personally. From burnout through recovery to rise again and find my phoenix wings: this project let me explore where I’d been and think about where I was headed. That’s what a bit of poetic ornithology can do for a person.

Powerful stuff.

By the end of the project, I could see and understand that I was definitely feeling better. In the depths of the dark days when things were so bleak and apparently unshifting, I don’t know if I would have known what recovery or healing might have looked like. I think I was in survival mode and holding on was as much as I could do. Other than my little sudoku books, the other focus of my attention was the garden and the wildlife there. The birds. Always the birds.

I remembered those days when I was driving to work, to a job I hated and dreaded in equal measure, my journey taking me across a beautiful city park. Through the car window, I saw the crows come to land on bouncing branches at the roadside. I’d see the magpies streak across the low sky, trailing their long tails through my line of vision – my sorrow, their joy, according to the words of the rhyme, made extra-miserable by my own state of mind. Occasionally I’d see a kestrel hovering; often I’d see a few gulls circling; always I’d see those wings and wish for their flight.

I’d wish for that freedom.

And, in those burnout days after the fire, I’d glimpse those wings again and try to remember the idea of freedom. What could it possibly mean? Burnout combined with lockdown to push those freedom thoughts even further away. But still the birds flew. They flew and they landed, sometimes in the garden, right in front of my little window, an undimmable light in my darkness. An answer to a question I didn’t know how to ask yet.

Over time, the light grew stronger again. Healing was happening. I know, looking back, that there were several key factors at play: love and support (thanks, as ever, Cordy); therapy; my own determination and the power of nature, especially, the birds. A formidable combination.

Oh, it’s lovely to look back at this now, from the great after. It’s even lovelier to realise that I am now in the great after. Hooray for the great after!

The project – my Phoenix Flock – lived largely through memories. Now, it seems so clear that all these material things we think of as so important, like the many objects reduced to cinders in the fire, they are never really ours at all anyway, at least, not in any permanent sense. Memories, on the other hand, are much harder to burn and to bin. This, depending on the memories of course, can be a blessing and a curse. And yes, it makes the tragedy of people who lose their memories all the more poignant and all the more cruel.

Lessons learned.

Memories of birds, though – they were beautiful to take out from the shadows and look at again. The snapshots of these encounters each came from its own moment and each had its own significance. I look at them now and see all these winged memories and notice how they attach themselves to times of magic. Magic is a word I use a lot and I know I used it a lot during this project… It’s the right word.

Magic were those moments of quiet, being near a bird I hadn’t expected to see. Magic were those brave days of solo adventures and the feathered rewards for my courage. Magic were those hushed happenstances, shared with loved ones whose faces reflected the same excitement at spotting the unpredicted birds. Magic were those glimpses into the private lives of the birds, busy going about their days or their nights without any obvious regard for human observers. And magic were those  split seconds of connection – eye contact with the birds – what are we both thinking and who are we both seeing?

Finding these bird memories reunited me with memories of myself. I was there to see them all, to live through these incredible experiences. Acknowledging this was the biggest magic of all, I think, especially when it comes to the healing process, because where one flock of memories flies off, there remains the comfort of knowing new memories are simply waiting to be made. They’re just waiting to hatch.

A major component of this Phoenix Flock project was the (very obviously) hidden message within it. I used a word from every day’s haiku to form a final sonnet, detailing my personal journey through the fire and back out again – the unburned heart still beating. Clearly, I had to have written this longer poem first, in order to make the whole piece work. What I love so much about this process, though, is the fact that I wasn’t completely sure if my heart was unburned at the time I wrote that poem; I didn’t know for sure that those phoenix wings would actually be able to fly. I was taking a chance and hoping for the best. At the very least, it would be kind of a cool trick, even if it felt untrue.

As the days went by, the flock grew and so did my certainty that I was going to be ok. I’m going to call that magic too. 😊 The end result brought everything together in a way that only ever properly happens when there is a high degree of honesty involved. Honesty and vulnerability, too. The final video clip, revealing the “hidden” sonnet needed a soundtrack. I had written a song about birds a few years back and left it – along with all those other things I realise I leave in cupboards and drawers and hard-drives – to get a bit dusty on Bandcamp. But the words were perfect for this project – Poetry is limited by words, no boundaries can hold the sound of birds.

Poetry might be limited by words, but this project stretched my boundaries in ways I’m only now beginning to see.

I really was a phoenix.

The lesson of this, my friends, is your own to interpret as fits your own life and circumstances. Nature is healing, creativity is healing, sharing is healing, noticing is healing. Birds are healing. And we all need a bit of that medicine sometimes. Have a wonderful week, friends, and may your wings carry you wherever you want to go.

Big things in fewer words

A little bit of light musing for you today, my friends. And I have a couple of questions to get us started. Ready?

What’s the story of your life? Answering that might use some adjectives: happy, challenging, stripey, exciting, dull, fulfilling, frustrating, sad, delightful, lucky…

You might have a sequence of nouns, the places and people who mark out the locations and cast lists of your life. Maybe you are verb-y person, delineating your life in what you do and all your actions or lack of actions.

Probably you view your life as a bit of a mixture – most of us do, with the proportions varying according to circumstance and personal philosophy.

Next question. If your life is a story, who’s writing it?

Are you the author of your own story? Then you’re responsible for it. There’s a story of power, right there. If you’re not the author, then who is?

Is someone else writing it for you? The ghost writer of your book? Are you represented only in someone else’s prose? That’s pretty uncomfortable. All those opinions from other people, all those expectations and assumptions: a tough story, that one. Are you only visible in relation to someone else, the negative space between their lines? That’s very uncomfortable.

Of course, if you are someone with a spiritual kind of faith, the question of who is writing your story might be dealt with for you in terms of higher powers, the divine, the universe, call it what you like. Maybe you go hybrid here, believing in a bit of both – free will alongside the possibility of some kind of spiritual steering – like I do, as it happens.

(And if you believe in free will, then you are called on to accept that responsibility. But that’s another story, for another day… 😊)

Ok. The story of my life – by the way, also the title of Ireland’s Eurovision song from 2020 and a great track… I digress. The story of my life, or anyone’s life, is one thing. We’ve been listening to stories since we were tiny; we’ve been telling stories since we could speak. We know the format, the structure and the language. Beginning, middle and end. A bit of adventure, some peril, a few laughs, a few tears, maybe a wee bit of romance, a dash of mystery and suspense even, but always beginning, middle and end. Stories are stories.

What about the poem of my life?

I know that I’m coming at this – perhaps eccentric – question from a particular perspective, in that I’ve just reached the end of one project and I am currently in the strange miasma of another great before: that place where the decisions about what comes next are made. In other words, I’m thinking a lot about writing and stories at the moment. And, yes, I’ve been writing a lot of poems lately.

But this question really works for me. The poem of my life is much mistier than the story. Its edges are rounder, its themes deeper. Think about it – poems can have so many different forms and formats, they can follow or ignore or break rules. Poems can tell stories, sure, but they can also paint pictures. They can capture moments. They can hold feelings. They can mean a hundred different things to a hundred different people or even just one, single person.

I have read so many magical poems from so many poets and I keep many in my heart and a few even off by heart. I have studied their structures and tried to emulate their schemes. Some forms come more easily than others: finishing a collection of 100 haiku this week was a big achievement for me, but the strict form became more workable as I went along. I love writing sonnets and I’ve had a good go at the iambic hexameter beloved of Ancient Greek poets. It’s all fun and it’s all playing with images and words and ideas in a very free way, even when the rules are pretty rigorous.

So, the poem of my life can be much freer than any story.

What I really want to do is to live the lines of that poem. Stretch those words until they mean something new. Trim and re-write it as I see fit, make it as meaningful or opaque as I want. Learn it and sometimes share it, teach it, even, if the moment’s right.

Poems can say big things in fewer words. They can say things that words can’t express alone and I don’t really understand how that works, but it does. Which is why I love the notion of a life-poem: the inexplicable magic of it, the possibility of expanding the meaning of language beyond expectation.

And if one poem seems too small, then write yourself a whole collection. No one’s keeping count and it’s your life, after all. Why wait around? We spend so long waiting for the perfect cue for a new line, trying to squeeze a suitable rhyme in somewhere; who says the poem has to be perfect?

I have been thinking about these questions so much in the past year and a half – they follow me everywhere and in everything I do. Including housework. Here’s an example of where that takes me; it might not be the poem of my life, but it is a poem from my life and it’ll do for now.

At first, we’re so careful

Washing machine tumbling clothes

The dirt is swept away in a circular tide

Drained and gone, drained and gone

And all these words tumble in me

Round they go, the occasional hard button or zip

Knocking at the glass from the inside

The tide is turning and turning and turning

Washing the old images and words away,

Leaving only the toughest stains,

Scars and memories

At first, we’re so careful

The mark left on new jeans is aggravating

The bobbles on the jumper, letting it age

When we don’t want it to,

When we’re not ready for a new jumper

But still, round and round they go

Clothes and character

And it’s good to feel so clean

So good to feel so clean

Even if all that tumbling around

Leaves you dizzy

Speaking of which, I’ve got some washing to do. Thanks for reading, friends. Have a lovely week and I’ll see you next time.

Take a step

Some thoughts today on the benefits of boldness. Take a step and the path will appear. Even if you are stepping off what looks like a cliff-edge, take a step and the path will appear. Which, in many ways, sounds absolutely crazy, I know. We’re told, from such a young age, to be careful and to know that the world is dangerous. It’s useful for kids to learn a sense of caution, too, clearly: why would we ever want a wee person not to be aware of the potential dangers of sticking their fingers into the electric sockets, or eating those shiny red berries, or climbing so high up a shoogly tree?

Important information, indeed. Our ancestors (or, more likely, their comrades) learned the hard way which mushrooms were poisonous – why keep trying to relearn these lessons?

But, as adults, wouldn’t it be awful never to talk to strangers? Wouldn’t it be sad never to try something new, just in case it might be risky? Haven’t we learned enough by the time we’re adults that we know: anything can be risky. Riskier than many actions is the cost of inaction. Taking a step is much more rewarding than staying put; yet, there’s no denying it, taking an invisible step can be scary.

Reading Tara Mohr and her inspiring book Playing Big, (highly recommended, by the way), she talks about the idea of two kinds of fear, called, in Hebrew – “Pachad” and “Yirah”. I’m squeezing this into a quick interpretation of my own, here – fear-fear and excitement-fear. Cold sweat versus butterflies. Taking a step into the unknown, but in the vague direction of somewhere you want to go is not fear-fear. It just feels similar. In fact, it’s nervous excitement. Big difference.

After a long spell of anxious living, I had begun to get used to that sense of fear; burn-out can really do that. As I see it wane, somehow, a sense of spring even though autumn is approaching, I still have that nerviness, but I am looking at it a little differently.

So, I can understand why all of these fear/risk/boldness questions are live themes for me at the moment, as it happens, in my writing specifically and in my life more generally. Artistically speaking, I can sense that a new big project is waiting to emerge – a book, a collection, something else, I can’t quite see its details yet, though I can discern some kind of form on the horizon. And how will I find out what it is?

By walking towards it, moving forwards to meet it as it gets closer.

I’m at the point of working out exactly how to do this right now. It’s a lovely metaphor and, if you’ve ever read any of my other posts or come within a hundred miles of me you will know that I do love a metaphor. In practice, beyond the comfort of metaphor, what am I talking about here?

I’m talking about boldness.

Starting something is a great way to start something. Good old Goethe said it, Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. I am not going to argue with him. And so, with this growing awareness of a new creative project coming into my life, I will begin it. How does that look, in tangible terms? I’ll do some free writing and see what comes up. I’ll take a look through notebooks (see my previous post for more notebook chat) and maybe some old folders on my computer; it could be that there’s something there that might be interesting, something started but not finished in any kind of satisfactory way, or something that reminds me of an idea I had wanted to pursue but got distracted from.

I might then set myself the goal of writing this forward, a certain amount of time or words every day. Even if I end up deleting most or all of it, I’ll get more ideas from this part of proceedings. The project becomes clearer to me then, even if the words still seem a bit misty.

Another part of this stage of the process is listening in. Dreams can bring inspiration. Meditation in its many forms can give answers to questions you hadn’t thought to ask. Looking around at the natural world is a big help to me, something I’ve written about so much before… Then, a more pressing knowledge of what is trying to come out will begin to become clearer and, with a bit of luck and a favourable tailwind, I’ll be able to (1) know what I’m actually writing and (2) write it until it’s complete.

However the project comes into existence, the most important thing for me to remember is that is possible. I guess that every writer, artist or creative person has their own unique philosophy on the processes involved in their creative work; it doesn’t matter what the particularities are, really. What counts is that the work itself wants to live, so it finds a way, regardless.

Take a step and the path appears.

And this does apply every bit as much in other areas of life. A wise person told me recently that we need to retrain ourselves when we want to do something different or new. We can so easily become set in old ways, our brains think it’s too risky to try something else. (Cue the talking to strangers or toxic mushrooms advice…) She said that building new physical or metaphorical pathways requires the building of new neural pathways and this can feel uncomfortable at first. Weird. Do we even know ourselves if we go down these new paths? Well, I guess we won’t know till we try and, since no one else can do this work for us, the decision to walk our own paths, new or otherwise, is really up to us.

Myself, I feel like using that invisible genius, power and magic right now and beginning something. If that’s where you’re at too, look out for some exciting news in two weeks’ time. There might just be an announcement that could help you out. For the moment, though, my lips are sealed. 😉 Meanwhile, see you next time and have a lovely week, friends.

*Was immer du tun kannst oder zu können glaubst, fang an. In der Kühnheit liegt: Genie, Kraft und Magie, to quote the original German. I had a beautiful time researching Goethe quotes, by the way. What an incredible, towering figure the man was; if you’re not all that well acquainted with his works, as many of us in the English-speaking world aren’t, to be fair, do yourself a favour and have a peruse of some of the great man’s work. 😊

What are you looking at?

Recently, I found myself sitting in the car, waiting. It was a reasonably long wait, but, because I was expecting it, I had come prepared. Along with the everpresent phone and its worlds of endless distraction, I had brought a wee notebook and my new four-colour pen. It is the start of term, after all, and one needs new stationery. I’d thought I could write a few lines, sketches and ideas. I like doing this; it’s one of the classic pieces of advice writers love to give – taking a notebook everywhere – because it’s so valuable. And fun, too, of course. Better than a phone, in fact, because it doesn’t need wi-fi, it doesn’t need charging and it has no adverts. Relaxing.

What’s a notebook for? Whatever you like, obviously. Notes. Poems. A sentence that sounds like a story in waiting. Things that you dreamt about the night before that feel like they probably need to be remembered for some reason you don’t yet know. That concept for a show, those words for a song, that realisation of what something someone said three days ago really meant. Big stuff and small stuff, in other words, with no clear distinction between the two. (What the distinction between big stuff and small stuff really is never seems to matter, anyway.)

And.

A wee pocket notebook is also for observations. It’s fantastic for jotting down all those interesting, curious things you notice all around you. Eavesdropping is great. I’ve got a collection of poems made up of lines eavesdropped in different cafés and I so enjoyed making each one of those. Surreptitious writers often linger in places like that, harvesting details. No identities are revealed, though; we don’t bother with GDPR.

I usually take a notebook out into nature, too. If I’m with Cordy, she’ll usually sketch a drawing or two while I sketch a poem or some notes for later use. It’s a mellow, peaceful thing to do. It’s also a great way to connect with wherever you are. You look more carefully. You might think about what things remind you of. I love a nice metaphor and I can’t help but see them all around me when I’m out there, beyond ceilings and walls. A broken tree covered in fungi and lichen = the myth of death; a flock of pink-footed geese on their noisy travels = freedom, its dangers and its miracles; a moor covered in spider-webs made suddenly visible by the morning mist = the limits of our perception. You get the idea…

And talking of the limits of our perception, here’s a thought. When we are looking at anything – a forest, a cloud, a beetle, a stone – how much do we see and how much do we just think we see? I expect to see pink flowers on that willowherb, so that is what’s there for me, even if they’re actually white.

Very occasionally, I do little drawings in my notebooks, when the mood strikes. I’m not the world’s most confident artist, but every so often, I get the urge to make pictures with lines, rather than words and it’s satisfying in a different way. But here’s the thing that always strikes me when I do this: I am never completely sure of what I can see. I mean, what colour actually is that leaf or that roof-tile? Cordy, with her immense skills and painterly assurance, sees things very differently to me. I look at a tree-trunk and expect it to be brown or grey, so that’s what I see. I pick up the brown or grey pencil and it’s sort of ok. She looks and sees all the other colours I don’t expect to see, the purples, the oranges, the blues or anything. My pre-held idea of colour, sometimes even shape, limits my vision.

To a large extent, we see what we expect to see. Which means that we’re more or less looking at a projection, a fictional version of reality. Training ourselves to look – really look – expands our world beyond measure. Wow – that wasn’t what I was expecting at all! And once you’ve started questioning your perception of things, other, previously unimaginable possibilities emerge. Powerful medicine, that wee observational notebook.

I said before that sketching our surroundings (in words or pictures or whatever other form works for you) is a great way to connect with where you are and that’s true in more than one way. There is that mindfulness aspect, the grounding, the living in the moment and the place side of things. There is also the chance to connect with the inner landscapes and notice what is going on there, too. How do things look in there? Can you draw your mood? Can you catch the colours of your emotions and know which pencil to choose to describe them? Can you see something you hadn’t expected to see when you really look? Am I what I thought I was or who I thought I was? Do I need a bigger notebook or a different pen to write down what I can see when I take the time to notice and take off the expectation goggles?

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living – quite the thought when you consider he was being offered the choice of death or exile. I’d rather not choose either of those options, thanks all the same, but it’s hard for me to disagree with his statement. And once you start that examination, there’s no stopping it. Choosing to look away, choosing to see only the brown and the grey on that tree trunk, without daring to notice that cheeky splash of turquoise on the bark when it catches the sun; choosing to keep on walking the same old paths without daring to tread a new one: it’s like living in exile from yourself. I don’t think that’s a healthy way to live.

Give yourself a challenge today: look at a tree and work out how many colours you can see there. There might be colours we don’t even have a word for. And get into that sketchbook habit, while you’re at it, why don’t you?

Have a lovely week, friends. See you next time.