A funny thing happened on the way to the Writing Retreat

I was looking forward to being the guest speaker at The Writing Retreat a few weeks ago and giving a workshop the next morning, not least because the venue looked amazing and the organisers seemed very friendly, although I had never met them.

The coast at Lamorna, close to the Writing Retreat at Rosemerryn
The coast at Lamorna, close to the Writing Retreat at Rosemerryn

I was looking forward to it, but with that slight feeling of trepidation I always get when I’m about to speak in a new place or teach a new group. However, as often happens, those feelings were blown away by a funny dream a few days before the event that made me wake up laughing.

I shared the dream on Facebook with one of the organisers, Jane Moss.

I dreamt the group included Steph and Dom from Gogglebox, a Bear Grylls lookalike, the young playwright I chatted to on the beach yesterday and two mums with half a dozen unruly kids between them. My workshop had to take place in a bus shelter in the grounds because Jane and Kath were teaching a group of local children a musical dance routine in the main room, and Kath was dressed from top to toe in vibrant aquamarine silk, with matching bandana. The workshop went pretty well, all things considered!

This dream planted bright funny images in my mind which I recalled whenever I thought about the upcoming event; it put me in a happy mood, because there is nothing like laughter to relieve stress and anxiety and, as someone has commented here on the blog before, even if you can’t remember the detail of a dream, the emotional tone can stay with you for days.

I used to have stressful dreams in the run-up to potentially stressful situations, dreams in which I was unprepared or distracted or trapped. The received wisdom is that those dreams prompt you to make sure you’re properly prepared. Maybe that’s why these days, when I generally do feel properly prepared, my dreams in the run-up to new events more frequently give me a laugh than a warning.

If you’ve had a dream that made you laugh, do share!

Can a dream really change your life?

When you tell acquaintances and strangers that you write and teach about dreams an interesting thing happens – the polite, interested look disappears, their faces light up and they straight away tell you about a dream they’ve had…

This is the first sentence of Writing in the House of Dreams and I wanted to tell you about recent example, when a complete stranger told me this story.

He said that as a young man in his teens he had experienced intense suicidal feelings, and he happened to be going out with a girl who felt the same way.

They talked very seriously about suicide and he was in no doubt that they would indeed end up killing themselves.

Then one night he dreamt they were waiting for the last bus near a roundabout on the edge of town, after an evening out. Everything looked orange under the street lights and there was no-one else around.

When the bus finally arrived, the dreamer saw through the windows that all the passengers were skeletons.

‘Don’t get on the bus!’ he said, grabbing his girlfriend’s arm. ‘We don’t want to get on that bus!’

When he woke up, he thought the dream had been about her, and that he should tell her not to think about killing herself any more, but then he realised it was actually about both of them.

He thought, ‘If we’re not getting on that bus, we need to think of good reasons for living. We need to find out what we want to live for.’

From that day, the dreamer stopped obsessing about suicide and started to live purposefully, and at times in later life when things felt hard, he remembered that dream, and stayed off the bus.

As I write this, I’m struck by the curious fact that decades after the dreamer had this dream, there’s now a website for people considering suicide that uses the term ‘catching the bus’ to mean killing yourself.

I’ve heard lots of stories about people who have had a life-changing dream at a time of crisis, like this man, but sometimes a not-at-all epic-seeming dream can change the way we see the day-to-day things we’re going through, and help us over a hurdle.

For example, I had a dream that coloured balls were pouring from the sky as if someone was emptying a giant ball-pool. They were bouncing off the ground and landing all over everything.

I thought, ‘This isn’t right! The balls all belong in one place. They should all be landing in one box.’ When I woke, I knew it was about a situation that had been making me feel annoyed (it was ‘a load of balls’) and realised I had been  judging everyone according to one person’s behaviour.

That dream didn’t change my whole life forever, but it did change the way I was handling a passing situation. Big changes, little changes – dreams can provide an opportunity to consider things from a different angle when our conscious mind is going round and round, stuck in the same groove.

There’s another great story of a life-changing dream on Tzivia Gover’s blog 

Have you had a life-changing dream, or has someone else told you about theirs?

Money from self-publishing – it’s not just about how many books you sell

Just after I self-published Writing in the House of Dreams I blogged about my financial outlay in Self-publishing: What are the actual costs? Five months on, I thought you might like a progress report.

I initially registered the book in the amazon Select programme, which meant I couldn’t publish through any competing outlets for at least 90 days. The benefit of Select is that you can offer your book either free or on a sliding scale of reduced rates in a promotion which, while not making you any money, should make your book more visible and improve its amazon sales ranking.

I didn’t realise that you could only do one promotion in the 90 day period, and I don’t think the one I did really achieved anything for my book, so I wouldn’t personally enrol a book in the Select programme again.

As soon as the 90 day period was up, I took Writing in the House of Dreams out of the programme and made it available as an ebook via all the major online retailers, including Nook and apple, as well as amazon.

I’m thinking of publishing the paperback through Ingram Spark as well as Createspace (which is part of amazon), though I haven’t investigated whether amazon allow this (does anyone out there know?) I’m happy with the quality of the paperback, but apparently some bookshops are reluctant to sell books published by amazon. Happily, I have had orders from several independents as well as book wholesalers Bertram’s and Gardner’s.

Sales have been slow, and that hasn’t come as a surprise because the very reason the book didn’t secure a traditional deal was that publishers deemed writing about dreams as a creative resource rather than from the psychological angle ‘too niche to achieve bulk sales.’

But I’ve had some wonderful emails from readers and a big boost in demand for workshops, which my agent predicted would happen. The book includes lots of writing exercises I use in my general writing workshops, not just the ones which involve working with dreams.

I’ve also hand-sold a fair number of copies through events and workshops. All in all, I’ve recovered less than half my costs through book sales so far, but I’ve had enough extra workshop bookings on the back of it to make up the difference several times over, as well as an article on creative image-work for authors in the next edition of Mslexia.

This reflects the fiscal facts of being traditionally published, because very few authors indeed can make a living from royalties these days. Most have to supplement their income from books with some kind of day job, or spin-off work on the back of their books, such as teaching and speaking engagements.

I’m hoping sales will gradually build, through workshops and word of mouth, but I don’t want to annoy my twitter and facebook followers by over-promoting, so my strategy now is to bring out a second much more mainstream book on writing as soon as possible. If readers enjoy either one of these two books, maybe they might take a punt on the other.

Writing and dreams
Writing and dreams
Just writing - no dreams!
Just writing – no dreams!

This second book is called When a Writer Isn’t Writing: How to beat Your Blocks and Find Your FlowI’m going straight to self-publishing with it because

  1. it’s much quicker – I can bring the book out in September this year
  2. I can create a brand look with Writing in the House of Dreams
  3. I will only need to sell a fraction of the number of copies to make the same amount of money as I would if the book was traditionally published, and i have plenty of opportunities for hand-selling at writing events and workshops

Speaking of workshops, check out these pics from last week’s residential at The Writing Retreat in beautiful Lamorna, where I was invited to speak and teach a session on writing dialogue. Good times!

Rosemerryn - The Writers' Retreat
Rosemerryn – The Writing Retreat
Writing dialogue round the table at Rosemerryn
Writing dialogue round the table at Rosemerryn

The mysterious geometry of writing

In Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brande points out that it isn’t only themes and characters that emerge from the unconscious mind through writing. She says the unconscious is also ‘the home of form.’

So as well as trusting the flow of ideas if we open our mind by entering the ‘writer’s trance,’ we can also trust that the ideas will organise themselves into the shapes of books and stories.

I definitely find this in my own work.

When I’m writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I start with a sketchy plan and head off from Start in the general direction of Finish, wondering how on earth I’m going to get from one to the other, until suddenly I begin to see the shape of the whole thing in my head like a geometrical figure or a pattern of numbers.

At that point, I become fully engaged. I dash along like a mad thing, joining the dots to make the beautiful shape of the book I’m creating.

This means all my books have a sort of symmetry in the contents – the four Peony Pinkers, for example, all have 17 chapters. Why 17? I’ve no idea, only that that was the number they needed, and I knew each story was on the right track the moment I could see how it could make 17 chapters.

 

The Peony Pinkers - 4 times 17
The Peony Pinkers – four perfect 17s

Writing in the House of Dreams came out as four parts, each part having three chapters.

4 Parts, 3 chapters each in the House of Dreams
4 Parts, 3 chapters each in the House of Dreams

My brand new book, The Binding, has three parts and each one seven chapters.

The Binding - 3 parts, 7 chapters each
The Binding – 3 parts, 7 chapters each

This mysterious geometry is very marked in my own writing practice but not all books divide so obviously into a balance of parts, so it can’t be exactly the same for all writers.

Still I imagine there must come a time for everyone when something clarifies in the mind; you see the finished shape of the whole book, and the writing steps up a notch to engage with it.

If you are a writer, do you recognise what I’m talking about, or am I just weird?!

It’s publication day!

Today is publication day for my latest children’s book, The Binding. 

'A tense, compulsive exploration of the effects of secrets, authority, boredom and fear.'
‘A tense, compulsive exploration of the effects of secrets, authority, boredom and fear.’

I started thinking about the idea ten years ago, after witnessing an unsettling incident in a remote part of Scotland.

I was walking past a ruined crofter’s cottage when I heard a commotion inside and went to see what was going on. I found four children, out of breath and flushed with excitement, the biggest one grasping in his fist a baby bird.

They flashed each other a guilty look, before the big boy rallied, took the chick to the nearest window and opened his hand. It fell to the ground.

‘It was stuck in here,’ he said. ‘We were trying to catch it so we could help it to get out.’

We all knew that wasn’t what they were doing, but the bird was free now, and I stayed there watching it limp away to the nearest cover while the children ran back towards their houses.

I got to thinking, how would it be for a child to live in a place where there were few other children, and virtually no adult supervision?

Then, in the wonderful way that fiction works, that little nugget of an idea began to layer up with other ideas. It resonated with memories from my own childhood, particularly the secret club I had with my three siblings, which we called ‘the meeting.’

My big sister was in charge of the meeting. She it was who made the box which contained all the secret business of the meeting. She decided the tasks and set the penalties.

On the less serious side, we had the mischief club, where I was in charge, being the second oldest, but it burnt out long before the meeting because it didn’t have the same magic and I lacked the power to hold it together.

My own childhood memories, stories other people had told me and new fantasies were called into my mind by this seed idea, and transformed in imagination to fit into it.

I love this process. It makes me feel energised and happy. And when, as occasionally happens, it also grows into a publishable book, well that’s just the icing on the cake.

 

 

The dark place, sad dreams, antidepressants and creativity…

Looking back over my blog stats for 2014, I discovered the three posts that got by far the most views were:

  1. Do antidepressants help or hinder creativity?
  2. The dark place where talent leads
  3. How can a really sad dream be a really good thing?

This surprised me at first, but when I thought about it, it seemed less surprising. The people who call by the House of Dreams are almost all dreamers and writers, and dreamers and writers are acquainted with their own inner darkness, and know how powerful it can be.

When you first engage with the darkness, it can be terrifying, and you may look for reassurance that you will not come to harm.

As you explore further, you find the darkness is full of meaning, and then you may look for other explorers who will understand your experience.

Carl Jung said that he stopped trying to cure people of depression when he realised that the way to make your darkness less dark was to accept it and inhabit it.

When creative people and depressives, and dreamers like me, are called to the darkness, that is a gift of opportunity, even though it is a gift nobody wants.

The sick man has not to learn how to get rid of his neurosis, but how to bear it. For the illness is not a superfluous and senseless burden, it is himself.

CG Jung

The darkness holds the keys to the self, and more. On the other side of meaning, where both the dark and the light are dissolved, all is energy and possibility, and we can experience pure creative freedom.

I believe in this journey. It can be long, and bewildering; it can feel unbearable. But if we can learn to bear the darkness, there is treasure to be found.

I hesitate to write about depression because it may sound as if I don’t understand how terrible it can be. I do. I suffered from  depression for many years before I stopped fighting it and, paradoxically, began to win.

These three posts about the darkness brought a wealth of wisdom and experience in the comments, which I hope you will take the time to read.

Has depression or the creative journey ever brought healing and insights for you? 

 

From which the sky may be viewed

Jenny Alexander:

I’ve blogged about dream places here in the House of Dreams, so I was delighted to find this recent post by Victoria Field on her Poetry Therapy News, which is one of my favourite blogs. I was double delighted when I found that it includes a lovely mention of my book!

Originally posted on Poetry Therapy News:

ststephens    baretrees

Most Sunday mornings, I cycle home from a zumba class soon after ten.  After crossing the railway, I tentatively signal right, cross the traffic, and then follow a path around what was once the village green of St Stephens, Hackington. It’s now a suburb of Canterbury, just under a mile from the cathedral.  The green is bordered by an old wall, giant beech trees, with a little playground next to the church on the side away from the main road. The Sunday Eucharist is at 10.30 so, as I pedal home, the church bells are usually ringing.  And I often end up making a little video on my phone of the trees, variously bare, or in the full leaf of early summer, or the glory of autumn, or just looking splendid against the sky.

Why do I like this little patch of earth so much?  What is it…

View original 363 more words

Creative dreaming, creative writing

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