I’m a big fan of goals in life generally, and I always take a few days over New Year to consider what I want to achieve in the year to come, both in my personal life and my writing.
It takes a few days because it’s a broad field, if you don’t measure success only in terms of finances and career development, as we tend to do in our culture. There’s creative satisfaction, greater understanding, social engagement and every other aspect of life to consider.
So how do you narrow it down? Well, according to Alain de Botton on the radio this week, it helps to ponder your own mortality. Most people don’t really think about the prospect of dying until they’re in the 40s or 50s, but de Botton suggests we should all start to think about it from at least the age of 10.
Having faced the fact that you’re going to die, and it could happen at any time, then, says de Botton, it’s good to think about regrets. If you were to die tomorrow, what would you regret never having done? Maybe you’d wish you had travelled more, or read more, or written a book, or taken up a musical instrument, or learnt to fly. Or managed to master your temper better, or speak up for yourself, or say sorry, or tell someone you love them.
Whatever you would regret not having done in this life if you were to die tomorrow, those are the things you need to get on and do today. Even for things that are going to take much longer than just this coming year, you can still make a start.
Like any journey, once you start, you build momentum. You see the way unfolding ahead of you, and feel the excitement of working towards the place you want to be. It doesn’t matter whether you arrive or not – you will have extended yourself, and striven, and felt energised along the way. And discovered new goals to start going for, like unexpected signposts and turnings in the road.
So if you haven’t set any New Year resolutions yet, imagine the Grim Reaper were to come for you today – what would you wish you had done? Write a list of things you can do right away and things that could take a long time. Select two of each. With the long-term goals, make a start this week – write that email enquiry, make that phone call, start that conversation, do that search.
It feels good – and that’s why I’m a fan of goals and resolutions!
I’ve recently been having a chat in a linkedin writers’ group about why we write, and someone said the point for him was to leave something of himself behind after he dies.
I said I wasn’t concerned at all about people reading my books after I’m gone, and someone else said surely there’s no point in writing if we don’t want readers. Which was going off the point a bit, I felt. I mean, of course writers want to find readers.
Knowing your work will be read enhances the experience of writing, but for me it’s about enhancing it now; I don’t think it’ll do much for me after I’m dead.
And yet I do feel that writing gives us a kind of immortality, in that it expands our experience of living beyond the here-and-now limitations of ordinary life. Where am I when I’m writing? I still exist, but I’m not entirely here. My soul is going walkabout among different lives and times.
Dreaming is the same, an experience that is mine yet goes beyond ‘me.’ In dreams, even more deeply than in writing, the dreamer lives on after consciousness is gone.
Writing and dreaming are experiences of soul, which is conscious immortality rather than the kind that might or might not happen after we die, through people reading our books.
Do you think of writing as a way of leaving something of yourself behind after you die?
Last night, I dreamt about Anne. She was my closest friend in Shetland, where I lived for most of my twenties, and when I moved away we spoke maybe once or twice a year on the phone and met up every five years or so. That was enough to keep the connection alive, because it was a very strong connection.
When we first met, I had been estranged from my family for several years, and my big sister had recently killed herself. I was in the middle of a meltdown; Anne was warm and kind.
I’m sitting on the grass opposite a house, but rather than a road between us, there’s a channel of water. Two seals swim up to the house and a young woman comes out to play with them. For several minutes, I watch this magical scene.
The woman comes across and I ask if the seals will let me play with them too, and she says why not? So I go, and we play, and then she invites me into her house for tea.
Inside her house, the young woman is Anne. She gives me a long, lovely hug and I tell her I love her. ‘We go way, way back,’ I say to her new partner, who seems a bit wary of me…
The rest of the dream was our tea-time together in her chaotic house, with her children running around – just exactly as our visits used to be. When I left to go on with my journey, we hugged again, such a comfortable hug, and when I woke I could still feel the warmth of her body and the smell of her hair.
It took me several moments to realise it had been a dream, and several more to remember that Anne was dead – she died nearly ten years ago.
Then I thought, what a wonderful gift that dream was, because it was as real as if we had really met; it was just as pleasurable and loving as at any other time we were together. It was also a complete surprise. I hadn’t asked for this dream, or expected it – it was given to me, by grace.
When I first met Anne, those decades ago, I had no concept of karma or past lives, but I felt that I had always known her. It wasn’t a spark of interest and a getting to know, but a moment of recognition and a reconnecting.
Now, I probably see her once every five years or so in my dreams, just as we saw each other when she was alive, and I expect I’ll meet her in some other future life… if that doesn’t sound too mad.
Have you ever had a vivid dream about someone who’s died? Or felt a karmic connection?
Just across the road from where I live, there’s a piece of woodland where I often walk. This morning, when I reached the stile, I found warning notices that tree-felling was in progress, to clear diseased trees.
I was shocked when I saw the extent of the devastation, a long section of beautiful woodland around the path reduced to an ugly scar.
Something about the angle of the felled tree trunks reminded me of the Tower card in tarot, and that made me feel better.
The card traditionally shows a tower being burned, destroyed or blown apart, with figures tumbling from the top. Angeles Arrien, my favourite tarot commentator, says, ‘Because this card looks so violent, it has often been misinterpreted.’ She says the Tower is actually ‘the universal principle of healing, renovation and restoration.’
I’ve been experiencing the Tower lately in my writing, with a story I wrote and submitted over a decade ago. Back then, it went as far as acquisitions with several publishers and was only rejected on grounds that they had already taken on new books on similar themes.
So coming back to it, I knew the book was of publishable standard, and I wasn’t planning to do anything radical, just prepare the text for kindle. But on re-reading, I had a strong sense that I could write the whole thing better now, after this long delay of time.
I copied the file and started chopping out the dead wood and carving up the action; then I started all over again, strengthening the voice, deepening the characters and restructuring the plot.
For a while, I wondered whether I was actually just destroying a perfectly good story, but what’s grown from the wreckage is a far fresher, stronger and more satisfying novel.
Hopefully the woodland near my house will soon begin its own regeneration.
Have you ever had to ‘kill your darlings’ as a writer? Or been through a Tower time, when things have fallen apart but ultimately made way for something better?
My complete conversation with award-winning author Susan Price – she of the vengeful, spurned daemon – has gone live on her blog today. It’s got darkness and daemons, death and delight… all the stuff you’d expect in a chat about writing and dreaming. Take a look!
Plus the added bonus with Susan’s lovely blog, you get Blott 🙂
To round off my blog birthday celebrations, here is ‘the one that got away’ – an article about my spiritual path of dreams which was published on another blog earlier in the year
When people talk about dreams as spiritual experience, they usually seem to be thinking in terms of what Jung called ‘numinous’ dreams – that is, dreams which have an unmistakably spiritual quality, inspiring awe and wonder, and often bringing revelations.
These ‘big’ dreams do indeed feel like wonderful gifts from outside the self, and they stay vividly with you across the decades, lighting your life. But dreams which feel quite ordinary can also be a doorway to profound changes in consciousness.
For example, I once dreamt I was having coffee with my neighbour. I was fully aware that I was dreaming – lucidity is very common in experienced dreamers.
Normally, in lucid dreams, my waking ‘I’ might be there as an observer or commentator, and occasionally if I didn’t like the way things were going, I might intervene and change the action of the dream.
But this dream didn’t have any action at all. It didn’t have any narrative to distract me – I was just sitting there, drinking coffee, and I was bored. There was a silky cushion beside me, and I ran my hand absent-mindedly across it. I noticed how smooth the fabric felt; I ran my fingers along the hard ridge of the trim.
I thought, ‘Hold on a minute – this is a dream!’ Since nothing much else was going on, I went on testing the evidence of my senses and yes, I really could smell the coffee; I really could feel the crumbly biscuit between my fingers and taste its light vanilla on my tongue. I could hear my neighbour’s voice, talking to me. I knew it was a dream, but it felt exactly the same as ‘real’ life.
When I woke up, I could feel the quilt resting lightly across my body; I could see the light from the gap in the curtains ribboning across it; I could hear my husband’s gentle breathing and smell the warmth of our two bodies. But now I knew that my mind could create a whole different reality which felt as real to my senses as this one. So the senses were unreliable witnesses, and waking life a reality no more substantial than the dream.
When you read back over old dream diaries, you will also find that seemingly ordinary dreams can be precisely predictive, and you may find so many of these that it’s impossible to dismiss them all as flukes and coincidences.
According to our normal understanding of time, it should not be possible to predict the future, but the experience of predictive dreaming shows irrefutably that it is.
So gradually, actively engaging with dreams can dissolve the narrow rational and materialistic viewpoint, through which we normally understand life. In the words of William Blake, ‘man has closed himself up, ’til he sees things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.’
The practical, experiential path of dreaming can lead to a falling-away of ideas and illusions, and open you up to the mind-blowing reality. ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.’
I’ve had so much interesting feedback after last week’s post about depression, dreams and the creative life that I’ve decided to make a diversion from my usual themes of dreaming and writing, and talk about my own black dog.
He first showed up when I was a child and, by the time I was eight, I had a secret collection of things I could use to kill myself with. I couldn’t, of course, keep my depression secret. It involved whole days of crying, hiding or refusing to get out of bed.
The doctor decided the problem must be hormonal, so at the age of eleven I was put on the pill, to try and regulate my hormones. It didn’t help. I graduated to antidepressants in my mid teens, and a psychiatrist I saw briefly at nineteen added sleeping pills to the mix.
Nothing helped, and I didn’t doubt for one moment that sooner or later my black dog was going to kill me. Maybe he would have, if my big sister’s black dog hadn’t killed her first.
When someone close to you commits suicide, suddenly it isn’t abstract any more. You can’t tell yourself that nobody will care, or that they’d be better off without you. You properly understand the concept of never coming back.
My sister killed herself with prescription drugs washed down by wine – a fact that seemed proof positive of what I already suspected – the drugs were not the cure. I stopped taking them.
Then things got really scary.
I was in therapy with a psychiatrist for three years. It was a holding-space. The black dog hadn’t killed me, but he might as well have, because all that time focusing hard on every bad thing that had ever happened in my life, mysteriously failed to lift the darkness.
So there I was, clear of chemicals and all talked out with the talking cure; just me, all on my own, with this big black dog.
What happened next might surprise you – it surprised me. I discovered American self-help. It was all American in those days – here in Britain, the idea of self-help was eyed with suspicion as flakey, self-indulgent and unscientific.
What it boiled down to was observing your mind, understanding its behaviour and modifying it. And taming the mind turned out to be taming the black dog.
Now that science has caught up, these ideas have become mainstream, wrapped up in shiny new Cognitive Behavioural Therapy packaging. I’ve written a number of children’s self-help books based on CBT, because there’s nothing complicated about it; it’s mostly a question of awareness.
My black dog still shows up from time to time, but not very often and never for very long. I think that’s what happens with any dark thing in the soul – when you embrace the darkness, it becomes less dark.
I wish I’d been kinder and more patient with my black dog from the start but then maybe I simply wasn’t able to be – patience may be one of the gifts he has brought me.
This is just my story, of course. Other people will find prescription drugs and psychotherapy more helpful than I did, although both can have serious side-effects. I would add that, although my years in therapy didn’t help me handle the black dog, they did bring me benefits and insights for which I am grateful.
I’m permitting myself a wayhay today because my agent has read my manuscript… and she says ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ is a remarkable book!
So while my dream book is winging its way onto editors’ desks, I’ve decided to celebrate by sharing a short extract here, about what every five-year-old knows about dreams.
Life is resonant. Small events set up vibrations in the soul which still reverberate long after the event itself is forgotten. So it was with the ants on a hot summer day in 1955 which, two years later, were to bring me my first understanding of dreams.
I was making mud pies on the back step, scraping the dry earth into my bucket, adding water from the dribbling outdoor tap and stirring the mixture like my mother did when she made fairy cakes for tea. I spooned it out in sloppy dollops onto the hot concrete and by the time I had found enough small stones for cherries my mud pies were already drying out, going hard and pale at the edges.
My mother was at the kitchen sink doing the washing. The hankies were boiling on the stove and she had the back door open to let the steam out. My father was mowing the grass. I could hear the whirr-whirr of the blades behind me as he pushed the mower up and down. My big sister Susan was riding her bike, bumping and rattling along the path that ran down the side of the garden to the wooden gate at the bottom.
Our garden was a large patch of scrubby grass, featureless except for a washing-line and a compost heap in the far corner comprised entirely of grass cuttings. On one side, a chain-link fence separated the garden from next door’s identical one, and then another chain-link fence, and another, all the way to the main road. On the other side, a tall hedge hid the flower-beds and orchards that surrounded the big bungalow at the end of the close.
We heard Monica calling but we couldn’t see her over the hedge. Susan ran down to the gate. I ran after her. I always followed although Susan never asked me to and sometimes I ended up wishing I hadn’t. I hoped Monica wouldn’t have her doctor’s set with her because if she did, they would make me be the patient. They would take me to secret places and hold me down. Susan would wield the syringe, of course – she was the expert when it came to injections.
We went out the gate and clambered over the stile into the woods, where Monica was waiting impatiently.
‘I’ve found something!’ she said to Susan. ‘Come and see.’
I followed them along the dirt path under the trees. Monica was pulling a plank of wood along the ground behind her, tied to a piece of string. I didn’t know what it was for, and I didn’t like not knowing. Suddenly, Monica stopped.
There was a dead animal lying under the long grass at the side of the path. It had a dribble of dried blood stuck to its face where its eye should be.
‘What is it?’ Susan said.
‘I don’t know,’ said Monica. ‘But we’re going to pick it up and put it on my sledge.’
They both looked at me.
I was frightened of Monica. She wasn’t as big as Susan, but she had bright ginger hair, and her pale face was covered in freckles. She claimed she could eat the skin of oranges, and I had seen her mother do it, her bright red lipstick lips drawn back from her teeth. When I tried to do it myself, I couldn’t. Even the fleshy pith was too bitter.
I looked at the animal. I didn’t ask why we had to put it on the plank, or where we were going to take it. There were fat flies buzzing around it and ants crawling in and out of its fur. I wanted to run back along the path, but I couldn’t see the house from there and I wasn’t sure of the way.
My sister flicked at the flies with a bit of bracken.
‘Go on then,’ she said.
Monica put her hand on her hip, her orange hair gleaming dangerously. Susan’s hair was black, in thick curls around her face. They were both much bigger than me. I could feel the ants crawling in the rat’s wiry fur as I picked it up.
The ants crawled out of the rat and surfaced again soon after when I was watching a film on television with my father. The Indians buried the cowboys up to their necks and smeared honey on their faces.
‘Why have they given them honey?’ I asked my dad. ‘Is it to tease them because they can’t reach to lick it up?’
Before he could answer, the ants came and everything became horribly clear.
So the ants crawled out of the rat bringing fear and revulsion on their backs, and they came to the honey, and they hurt the cowboys, and then with fear and revulsion and cruelty they marched on. They caught up with me two years later, when my family had moved to a suburban street far, far away from the woods.
I was lying in a shallow ditch. I had no idea how I had got there. The earth underneath me felt warm and grainy, and the sun on my bare arms and legs made my skin tingle. I raised my head and looked down at my body. There was an ant on my leg. I stiffened. Suddenly, the ants were everywhere. I wanted to brush them off but I found I couldn’t move. I started to scream.
My mother came rushing into the bedroom.
‘Get them off me!’ I shouted. ‘Make them go away!’
‘What? Get what off you? What’s the matter?’
I couldn’t tell whether my mother was angry or scared, like me.
‘The ants! Get them off me!’
My mother said, ‘There aren’t any ants here. You must have been having a dream.’
What did she mean, there weren’t any ants? I could see them. I could feel them crawling all over me. I started to scream again.
My mother ran out and came back with my dad. He stood in the doorway in his pyjamas, bleary with sleep.
‘Get them off me!’ I yelled.
The ants were everywhere. They were nibbling at my skin. They were eating right through to my bones.
‘What’s going on?’ my father asked – my mother, not me.
‘Just tell her there aren’t any ants.’
He nodded, and pulled back the blankets. He said, ‘Look, Jennifer. No ants. There aren’t any ants.’
I couldn’t see them now, but I knew what I had seen, and I knew what I had felt. I knew what every five-year-old knows – that dreams are real. The only difference between the ants on the rat and the ants in the ditch was that nobody else could see the ants in the ditch. In dreams, you were on your own.
After my mother and father had gone back to bed, I lay there rigid, not daring to move in case the ants came back. Then I did what every child eventually does – I turned my face away from the dream towards the light streaming in from the landing.
I looked away and my dreams disappeared, as dreams will.
James Hillman, in ‘Dreams and the Underworld,’ describes dreaming in terms of sinking down, of dropping below the surface of things, into the realm of death.
In our dreams, we completely identify with the dream ‘I’, and the waking ‘I’ is no more; the assumption that we are ourselves within the dream is an illusion.
The dream ‘I’ is not the self as we know it. In different dreams, it may be a different gender from the dreamer, or a different age; it may have a different job and skill-set; it may even have supernatural powers. The dream ‘I’ is one of myriad characters which inhabit the ‘inner self.’
Writing fiction is similar to dreaming. We enter the ‘writer’s trance’ and ‘become’ our characters. We live in their lives, and grapple with their circumstances. But it is less intense because we are still aware of our own physical body, sitting at our desk, dipping in and out of the writing dream to answer the phone, pick up email or make coffee.
Choosing to engage with dreams is like a kind of suicide. We let go of the waking ‘I’ and willingly become the dream ‘I’, walking the underworld. In this way, the dream ‘I’ is like the soul – it lives on after ego awareness is gone.
Some of my guests here have described dreams in which they have been or become animals, and some of my workshop participants have reported dreaming in the ‘I’ of characters from different places and times, ages and genders. Have you had a dream in which it’s obvious the dream ‘I’ is not your waking self?
Well, I didn’t see it coming. When I finally finished my dream book last week, I was planning to break open the bubbly, but I just felt bereft.
Before I was ever published, I knew I wanted to write a book about dreams, and for twenty years, that book has been the heart of my writing life, at first a secret addiction, later an open obsession.
There have been various versions along the way, non-fiction, autobiography, novel, work-book… each new one rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the one before. I liked them all – my agents liked them too – but none of them felt exactly right.
The dream book defined me to myself, as a writer, far more than my growing body of children’s books. I’ve loved it, felt impatient with it, hated it in equal measure. I’ve wished I could put it down and get on with my proper writing career.
And now I can. It feels like a death, but all week, I’ve been dreaming about babies. This reminds me of the Death card in Tarot, which is sometimes called Death and Rebirth.
Death in Tarot is deep change. As one situation ends, a new one begins. I don’t know what kind of writer I will be now that a third of my writing life won’t be channelled off into this dream book any more.
So farewell and thank you, grand passion of my writing life, and hello and welcome dream-babies of whatever is coming next.
Bubbly wine, anyone?
Next week – great excitement in the House of Dreams – Katherine Roberts will be calling in on her ‘Sword of Light’ blog tour to tell us how a workshop session she did with me helped her to find the story