Tag Archives: consciousness

When you say you love writing…

Reading brainpickings this morning (fantastic site – do check it out), I came upon a quotation from Dr Oliver Sachs:

I say I love writing but really it is thinking I love — the rush of thoughts — new connections in the brain being made. And it comes out of the blue… In such moments: I feel such love of the world, love of thinking…

That’s exactly how it is for me. I’ve always written, as I’ve always explored my dreams, for the joy of inhabiting more of my own mind, and in wonder at its curious workings. It isn’t that my mind is unusually vast and curious – everybody’s mind is, but through writing and dream-working, we become aware of that.

 

I think the fact that we all have this incredible vastness of mind is what leads to the feeling Sachs describes as accompanying our creative aha moments, the sudden rush of love for the world, and for thinking, which goes beyond the individual, and connects us all.

I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to earn enough from my published work and related activities such as teaching workshops to keep the wolf from the door, but I see that side of my writing as the job. It’s only a small part of the writer I am.

Writing brings me, again and again, to the edges of my awareness. It feels risky; it feels exciting, making new writing explorations, not knowing what I’m looking for, or what I might find.

Confronting the non-rational is unnerving. Here the unfettered mind suffers a      kind of agoraphobia, a fear of its own awesome spaces ~ Marilyn Ferguson

I would take it further even than mind, though. I feel that writing enables us to experience every area of our self more fully. The way we engage with the world through our senses, which can be quite unconscious until we need to pay attention to it in conjuring scenes and settings; the way emotion is not just something ephemeral, but anchored in the physical body, in blood and skin and muscle.

Our minds, our lives, are full of wonders, and when I say I love writing, I guess that really it is life I love.

What do you mean when you say you love writing?

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Why you should never read someone else’s journal

In the long hiatus between my mother’s death on October 19th and her funeral last Friday, I wasn’t able to focus on work much at all, and that felt OK and appropriate. I slept a lot, dreamt a lot, read non-fiction books and wrote in my journal.

I was working through some of the exercises in Change Your Story, Change Your Life: Using Shamanic and Jungian Tools to Achieve Personal Transformation by Carl Greer one morning, when it occurred to me that anyone reading my journal after I died might not understand, as I do in the writing, that it’s an experiment, and not a report.

Slow start warning: I nearly gave up on this book after the first chapter, which felt like puff and waffle. Glad I didn't.
Slow start warning: I nearly gave up on this book after the first chapter, which felt like puff and waffle. A few chapters in, I’m glad I didn’t.

Actually, my whole journal is a perpetual work-in-progress. Every page I write is part of a creative exploration. It isn’t me – it’s a kaleidoscope of all the possibilities of me, and I’m aware of that when I’m writing in it in much the same way as when I’m gathering notes for a work of fiction, knowing all the time that many of my ideas won’t fit the story and will have to be discarded.

A journal or diary is a first encounter with ideas and events, before you’ve had a chance to ponder and decide what you think of them. To get a true sense of a person’s life, I guess you’d need to read their autobiography, because there you have a completed work. Where a journal is a mess of notes, often contradictory or inconsequential, an autobiography is an expression of the writer’s identity, his or her choice of what’s important and how they understand what’s happened.

I was struck by something in Natalie Goldberg’s book on memoir-writing Old Friend from Far Away last week; she says we shouldn’t think we have to be old before we can write a memoir. We don’t need the whole story all in one go, at the end. We can write memoirs from time to time throughout a long life, and each one will be the most complete expression of who we are and how we understand our lives up to that point.

In that sense, I guess autobiography could be seen as a work-in-progress too, but the difference is that in autobiography we are writing what we know about ourselves and our life, whereas in journalling we are feeling our way along the borders of our knowledge, and what we find must be judged as me or not-me, accepted or discarded, as part of the process of becoming.

If you read someone’s journal – as well as the obvious problem that it is private writing and they did not intend it to be read – you will not find the person there, and thinking that you will could give you every which kind of wrong impression, like listening to someone’s dreams and believing you can interpret them. A good dream therapist will simply hold the dream so that the dreamer can look at it from different angles, because only the dreamer can find out what it means.

I love my journals
I love my journals

I include all sorts of things in my journals – dreams, ideas, experiences, book reviews, quotations, drawings, writing exercises and creative experiments. I love them, just as I love my dreams, specifically because they don’t define me.

With both, there’s a feeling of infinite possibility, a continuously forming sense of direction, so that even at the end of a lifetime of journalling and dreaming, I’m sure there will be no conclusion, because the conclusion is always up ahead.

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My children have strict instructions to burn my diaries without reading them when I die. What would you like to happen to yours?

Dreams of the places you’ve left

The last time I blogged I was still on holiday in the Northern Isles, and coming home from holidays can be hard, even if you love the place you live.

The first few nights back home, I had strange dreams which were like series of pictures from my holiday, framed as if they were in an exhibition.

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A Shetland sheep on a Shetland beach
The flight to North Ronaldsay, Orkney
The flight to North Ronaldsay, Orkney
Croquet in my daughter's Orkney garden - we're so posh!
Croquet in my daughter’s Orkney garden – we’re so posh!

These dreams reminded me of something my friend Anne used to say about depression, that it was ‘a chance for your soul to catch up.’

I was home, but feeling unsettled and wishing I was still on holiday – so my dreams gave me a chance to take a final look back and enjoy the wonderful memories. The fact that the images were framed gave them distance, so they felt like memories rather than events I was still involved in.

I wonder how often we dream about the places we’ve left, sweet dreams that bridge the gap between where we were and where we are now in the physical, like bridges for our soul to cross when it is ready.

Why enthusiasts share their enthusiasms

Driving back to the house I was staying in last week, after an afternoon walking the coastline of Shetland, I was listening to an item on Radio 4 suggesting that the wonderful natural history programmes we have these days are putting people off actually going out into the countryside and exploring nature for themselves. The contention was that the natural world feels disappointing compared with the close-up images we can see on our screens.

Walking the coast in Shetland
Walking the coast in Shetland

Chris Packham, one of the Springwatch presenters, was understandably put out by that argument. He said the motivation behind programmes like his was to inspire people to get out and discover the joy of being in nature, by showing how wonderful the natural world is, and all the plants and animals you might see.

I had just seen an otter walk down to the water across the stony beach right in front of me. I would have seen him better in close-up on TV but, having seen the footage of otters on Simon King’s Shetland Diaries a few years ago, I could fill in the detail for myself. I also knew how lucky I’d been to catch a glimpse of such a shy creature.

I’d barely started walking again when i came upon a group of seals lying on a small sandy beach. They were less shy, and allowed me to go down onto the sand and sit watching them. Again, in a close-up on TV, I could have seen every detail, but as Chris Packham said, that would not have come anywhere near the excitement I felt at being so close to the animals themselves.

Just as Chris Packham is an enthusiast for the natural world, I am an enthusiast for the inner world of dreams. Like him, when I share my own experiences, I want to inspire other people to make their own explorations, and I would hate to think it could actually be putting them off.

Not everyone has the time and dedication to devote to one area of experience and most of us like to dip the toe, as I do with my walks in nature. Devoting time and focus will always reap rewards. When I talk about the faceless ones, or numinous dreams, or lucid dreaming I know some people will not have had those experiences, but I hope that simply knowing they exist might inspire them to go looking, or at least recognise them if they chance upon one, and know what they’re looking at, like me and the otter.

How to get new ideas for life, work and dreams

I’m a great believer in holidays. When you’re away from home, you can see your normal day-to-day life from outside, and it gives you a different perspective. What are you relieved to be away from? How do you chose to pass your days when the constraints of work and other responsibilities are lifted? The answers to these and other questions can surprise you and offer precious insights into fruitful changes you might choose to make when you get home.

As a dreamer, one of the things I enjoy about holidays is that my dream life also shifts perspective. Holiday dreams usually have a different quality, and bring in new kinds of imagery. It was during a holiday many years ago that I first encountered the faceless ones, and began to engage with the archetypes, those images which Jung called ‘pieces of life itself.’

Holidays are times when you can wake slowly and really savour your dreams. You can carry them around with you during the day, and ponder them in quiet moments. The images you bring home with you will have the same sense of time and place as the physical souvenirs you buy.

As a writer, I find the same shift in perspective. Ideas I’ve been working on at home seem different from far away. Sometimes more exciting,  sometimes less. They form up in unexpected ways; they show different aspects of themselves to me. I’m sure that’s why so many writers go on writing retreats.

You don’t have to go to exotic places or spend a fortune in order to feel the benefits of going on holiday. In fact, like many other people, I usually go to familiar places I love. The point is simply to be somewhere else, to look at things from a different angle for a while, and come back to normal life feeling renewed.

Thinking creatively in shop-free North Ronaldsay recently - petits fours made from prunes and dark chocolate. Not something I'd ever have eaten at home, but surprisingly good!
Thinking creatively at the bird observatory hostel in shop-free North Ronaldsay recently – petits fours made from prunes and dark chocolate. Not something I’d ever have eaten at home, but surprisingly good!

Have you ever found that being away from home gave you new ideas about life, work or dreams?

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?!

Is writing a gift or a curse?

I think the main gift writing brings me is escape from what is happening in my life at the time… I create a fantasy world instead, one which I can control. If I am happy and living life, I don’t feel the need to write so much. If I am writing a lot, I am not really living. There must be a balance somewhere but the writing does take over sometimes… which makes it less a gift, perhaps, and more of a curse?

If you read the comments on this blog you might remember this one from my ‘Three gifts of writing’ series of posts before Christmas. (If you don’t read the comments, you could be missing some thoughtful and thought-provoking responses)

 

I absolutely relate to the experience of writing as creating other worlds to escape to when this one feels too hard. It’s been a great blessing for me particularly at times when difficult thoughts and emotions are stopping me from sleeping. Then, I get up and make some tea, turn on my computer and slip into the world of stories just as easily as I would normally be slipping into the world of dreams.

All writing takes you away from everyday life to some extent. You can’t socialise and write simultaneously; at times, the world of the story feels far more exciting and interesting than the real world.

But that doesn’t feel to me as if I’m ‘not really living.’ It feels as if I am living, and very intensely, but in another life. The experiences I have in imagination – whether in stories I’m writing or in dreams when I’m asleep – are real experiences.

As the dreamer in our dreams or the protagonist in our story, we access experience through our senses and emotions, the same as in ‘real’ life. We encounter new people and situations, and we are changed by them.

Writing isn’t only an escape from ‘real’ life but also an escape to other lives, and it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Because the story will always, like dreams, be related in some way to whatever is happening in our ‘real’ life, writing is an opportunity to explore and resolve our emotional and practical difficulties in imagination.

Story is always an experience of triumph over adversity. That experience can give us faith and strength to face what has to be faced, and often strategies to deal with it.

What do you think? Is writing a gift or a curse for you?

Mind-magic for writers – harnessing the power of the circle

The circle is an archetype for wholeness and integration, a universal pattern in nature and the human psyche which is also a template for the stories of life and fiction. You can use the  power of the circle archetype in writing, deliberately placing it in your mind by making mandalas.

The Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves ~ Black Elk

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Ice in a circular hollow

Stories naturally make circles. The protagonist sets off, achieves or learns something in the course of the action, and returns changed. Often the work of redrafting is about refining the beginning and ending to tie everything into a satisfying whole. The crafting of a story is a process of perfecting the circle.

Dorothea Brande (‘Becoming a Writer’) says the unconscious is not only the source of our creativity, but also the home of form. This is why, when you have plot problems, new ways of fitting things together can naturally spring up in your mind as soon as you stop consciously trying to force them.

When I’m planning or redrafting a story I will often draw mandalas while I ponder.

One of my working mandalas
One of my working mandalas

‘Mandala’ comes from the Sanskrit word meaning ‘circle.’ It signifies a geometrical pattern based on a circle, and it’s used in every spiritual tradition as a focus for contemplation, meditation, protection, healing or prayer.

In its most basic form, the mandala is a simple circle, and if you’d like to try making some you can start by drawing circles. I recommend you do this free-hand, although your first attempts may look like lumpy lozenges. Keep working at it until you can do one that looks reasonably round. The process of this will anyway help attune your mind to the archetype.

When you have drawn your circle, you can incorporate other geometrical forms into it and around it. You could put a triangle inside it, crossed by another triangle to make a six-pointed star. You could put your circle inside a square, or squares inside your circle.

Choose any geometrical shapes you like, but try to achieve balance, so that the sides and segments of the circle are the same. Drawing geometric shapes also settles your mind into the beautiful reality of numbers. 

Treat the whole process like doodling, not trying to create art, but simply to play and allow your mind to idle. Keep building mandalas until you get one you really like.

Shading or colouring your mandala is a way of staying with the archetype for longer, and allowing it to work upon you. When you have finished, bring the energy of the circle with you into your writing. Bear it in mind as a template for your story, and see whether it gives you a greater sense of direction and clarity.

 What creative activities do you use as part of your writing process?

Check out these lovely prayer-flag mandalas by Toko-pa Turner http://toko-pa.com/2013/11/29/mandalas/

Christmas archetypes – the dark intruder and the wondrous baby

I think of them as the nameless or faceless one – archetypal images which carry the pure power of a universal human experience. In pantheistic cultures they may be represented by gods and goddesses. In our secular world, we encounter them most directly in dreams.

A few weeks ago, I had a series of nightmares about an intruder in my house. I never saw his face because fear woke me up, but rather than feeling disturbed, I felt attentive, because like the Death card in tarot or the Tower, the dark intruder is a messenger of change.

Major changes are always unsettling and being unsettled is always unwelcome. Even if we’re actively seeking new ways of being and want to move forward into new areas of experience, there will still be resistance because change involves letting go of the familiar, and the outcome is never certain. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.

These dark intruder dreams were swiftly followed by a series of dreams about babies. Like the dark intruder, the archetypal baby provokes a powerful emotional response, but rather than fear and anxiety, it’s an outpouring of love, hope and happiness.

It occurred to me to wonder whether baby dreams often follow dark intruders; they kind of should, because they are both aspects of change, the one full of initial fears and the other moving forward into joyfully anticipation.

Our major Christmas archetypes are Santa Claus, the intruder who brings gifts, and the Christian symbol of the wondrous baby who brings redemption, light after darkness at the turning of the year.

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Happy Christmas everyone, and may all your challenges in 2014 bring blessed new beginnings.

The gifts of writing – 3

So Christmas is nearly here, this great celebration of loving and giving – the perfect time to talk about the third gift that writing gives us, the gift of empathy.

When I wrote my children’s book about writing, How to be a Brilliant Writer, I asked my friends in the Scattered Authors Society if they would like to send me a few sentences on what they loved about writing. This is what Enid Richmont sent me:

A writing game I sometimes play when I’m trying to bring one of my characters to life is body-swapping! I pick a stranger – in the bus perhaps, or the supermarket – then I try to become that person. I feel the wrinkles on my skin, I walk with a limp, I look at my long scarlet fingernails or I run my fingers over my shiny bald head. Right now, I’m being a squirrel! I like to think, as well, that ‘becoming’ other people, or creatures, also helps me to understand them.

In fiction, we create characters and give them big problems to deal with. There’s always going to be struggle, conflict, pain because if everyone’s happy there’s no impulse for change, no movement, no story.

As we imagine what it feels like to be homeless, or orphaned, or bullied, or bereft, we feel everything our character is feeling – we have to, because otherwise we can’t know how they will behave, and our story will feel hollow and unconvincing.

It takes emotional toughness to do this work, and everyone has to find their own way. I personally have usually opted to put my characters in situations that are difficult but not overwhelming, and I use humour to leaven the hard parts. If my reader – and I – feel like crying at times, I want to make them feel like laughing too.

Other authors I know are braver and tougher than me, going into dark areas of experience such as criminal gangs, drugs, self-harming, eating disorders, abuse – which are part of real life that older children need to know about, and reading serious fiction by responsible authors is probably the safest way of gaining this knowledge.

Writers are used to imagining another person’s story, looking beneath the surface, feeling their joys and pains.  We do it in imagination, and that spills over into real life. I think that’s why most writers I know enjoy hanging out in cafes on their own, people-watching.

I like to think, as Enid says, that ‘becoming’ other people might help us to learn to be less quick to judge and more aware that sometimes it can take real courage and faith to get through the vicissitudes of even an ordinary life.

So there they are – stillness, awareness, empathy –  the three greatest gifts I think I get from writing. What does writing give to you?