I’m not a member of any organised religion but because of where and when I was born, the Christian symbols and stories are the ones I’m most familiar with.
Of all the Christian symbols, the blessed baby speaks to me most strongly. I very frequently dream about babies, and these dreams always carry a wave of positive emotion, along with a sense of magic and mystery.
A baby is a bright bridge to the future, something fresh and new. During politically and socially turbulent times such as these, we might look to the future with fear and apprehension, but the baby is innocence of the open, trusting heart.
Every Christmas, even though I’m not a Christian, I feel inspired by the archetypal energy of the blessed baby. I take time to contemplate and focus on celebrating every thing and every person that I love.
Family and friends, of course; people I’ve met and people I’ve yet to meet. Writing and teaching. Books, art exhibitions, theatre. The moors and coasts of Cornwall, where I live; the amazing cities I still have to visit.
This robin I can see right now, in the hedge outside my window. This coffee.
Every big and tiny thing we love reflects love back to us, warming and lighting our hearts.
My blog is both a big and tiny thing; it’s big for me, but tiny in the blogosphere. I love that some people come back again and again, until I feel I’ve got to know them, and some drop in from Africa or Hong Kong or Norway, giving me a sense of connection across the globe.
I haven’t had time to blog these last few weeks because I’ve been busy promoting my new book,Free-Range Writing, but I didn’t want to let Christmas go by without saying a warm seasonal thank-you.
Happy Christmas, and may you be touched by the archetypal power of the blessed baby, whether you follow any particular faith or none.
It’s easy to fall in love with writing, but can you take it to the next level?
A lot of people love the idea of writing, and hold it in their heart for years as ‘a one day when I’ve got time’ dream. And when they engage, perhaps in workshops or inspired by a book such as Writing down the Bones by Nathalie Goldberg or Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, writing does not disappoint.
Because it really is exhilarating to discover that all you have to do is open the door, and ideas will come pouring through. Characters, settings, stories… it’s astonishing and wonderful what you find inside that you never even knew was there.
This is the honeymoon period. It’s bright, fun and exciting, but it doesn’t last forever. You can abandon it for a while and then start all over again, with another course, another book, loving the romance but not committing, or you can surrender to it fully, and fall properly in love.
Love is not easy. As Khalil Gibran says in The Prophet, ‘Even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.’
When you fall in love with writing, just as when you fall in love with another person, your centre of gravity changes. You are not the only important thing. You are willing to learn, to strive and to make sacrifices in the service of your love.
Loving your writing means making yourself the best possible writer that you can be. It means studying and practising all the skills of writing, so that you can properly honour the wonderful flow of ideas you have found.
Sometimes it might mean giving up things you really liked – ‘killing your darlings’ – if a clever image you were pleased with doesn’t sit well in the larger piece, for example, or if a descriptive passage you’ve worked really hard on has got in the way of the action.
It means curbing your annoying habits, such as using too many abstract nouns or adverbs, or peppering your text with a few favourite words. What you like is not important; you want to do what the writing needs.
Writing is a labour of love – labour and love, both. When you have setbacks, as every writer does – a book idea that doesn’t work after months and months of trying, a rejection from a publisher or agent, an e-book that’s barely sold a copy – it’s only your love for the art and craft of writing that stops you walking away and giving up completely.
I’ve had times when I’ve felt like packing it in, but writing always brings me back. It’s part of who I am now, not just a thing I do. As Khalil Gibran says, ‘think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.’
What is your relationship with writing? Would you like to commit yourself more fully? Would you like to be able to walk away?
Stephen Fry kept saying in his recent TV programmes Out There ‘It’s about love.’ Today’s post is about love rather than my normal themes of dreams or writing, but I felt I had to write it. You’ll see why.
Last week-end I went to the civil ceremony of two dear friends. The venue was wonderful; the celebrations went on all day and deep into the night.
Watching these two beautiful brides make their promises to each other, I felt proud and grateful to live in a country where marriage is now an option for everyone.
Although some people argue against gay marriage on religious grounds, I’m personally pretty sure God enjoyed the occasion as much as me. I mean, as God is love it stands to reason that every expression and celebration of love is naturally attuned to the divine vibration.
Some people worry that gay marriage undermines our social values. Any change can spark a reaction of fear, which can turn into aggression, but this change is something we should not fear. Love is good news for society. It’s easier for people who love and feel loved to be generous and kind in their behaviour towards others.
All of us who believe in love, whether we’re gay or straight, need to speak up for gay rights because, as Stephen Fry warned in his piece about Russia, progress can be reversed.
In Russia, recent anti-gay legislation has lead to a huge increase in homophobic violence, and now they’re debating whether the children of gay couples should be taken away on grounds that growing up in an orphanage would be better.
Progress is a fragile thing. It needs careful nurturing in the early days. That’s why I wanted to write this piece today, and add my small voice of support.
Did you see Stephen Fry’s TV programme? What did you think?
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?
I work and teach in the practice school of writing. This means that rather than studying technique and trying to apply it, as we mostly learn to do in mainstream education, we start from just doing it and allowing our own unique style to develop through practice.
Obviously, this approach depends upon doing lots of writing and, as no-one keeps going for long with things they don’t enjoy, the first rule of writing is enjoyment.
If you can’t enjoy it, it’s better to take a step back and wait until the mood or the ideas or the psychological space for writing comes back.
Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy ~ Khalil Gibran, ‘The Prophet’
The paradoxical effect of this approach is that being prepared to wait means you never have to. When the impulse is pleasure, work is alligned with instinct, and you are flowing with life.
This is not to say you don’t have to work at your writing, but only that as long as you’re writing things which fully engage you, it’s work you want to do and therefore, however hard it may sometimes be, it never feels like a chore.
And what is it to work with love? It is to weave a cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth ~ Khalil Gibran, ‘The Prophet’
You may have noticed that although I normally blog every Wednesday, I’ve skipped a few weeks since Christmas. This is because I’ve been immersed in my work-in-progress and would have resented spending time on other writing.
I didn’t want to short-change myself, or you, or the spirit of writing by publishing something which felt like homework. So I took a break last week and the usual thing happened – lots of new ideas came into my head which are engaging enough for me to want to set aside other writing for an hour or so and explore them in the House of Dreams.
A friend of mine was really pleased with herself the last time I saw her because, after a lifetime of writing, she had finally stepped into that space and owned it. She had told an events organiser, ‘I’m a local poet.’
It reminded me of another friend who had written several novels which absolutely no-one else knew about. She had only told me because she wanted my advice about how to find a publisher.
Coming out as a writer doesn’t sound as if it should be hard, but I think for many writers it can be. We may have to do it bit-by-bit, our family and close friends first, before going public enough to maybe join a writing group or sign up for some courses. Having confessed we’ve been writing, there’s another coming-out to do if we decide to try and be published.
Since I had wanted to be an author from a very early age, my family always knew, and I actually foisted my teenage efforts on school friends for a penny a chapter. So the fact that I wrote was never something I felt shy about confessing, and when the time came for me to try and earn a living from it, I was happy for everyone to know.
I reckoned that otherwise they’d just have thought I was a slacker anyway, sitting around at home when all my children were in school or playschool. On the whole, it seemed better to risk looking like someone with unrealistic expectations, wasting a lot of time and effort which was doomed to failure, than someone who wasn’t making any effort at all.
It came as a complete shock to me, therefore, when my first books came out, to find that I suddenly felt exposed. It wasn’t only my family and friends who knew any more – now everyone would know, and what’s more, they could read what I’d written.
I couldn’t understand at all why I was having such a problem – I mean, wasn’t that the point of being an author, to have people read what you’d written? So when I found myself on a psychodrama day with a group of counsellors, I told them I was totally up for exploring the reasons why.
In psychodrama, I went straight into a cave with all my writing and flatly refused to come out!
It turned out that the essence of my anxiety was about having things out there that I’d written, which I might find embarrassing further down the line. This did happen, a decade later, when I was revising my adults’ book on bullying for a new edition. I had completely changed my mind on the subject of forgiveness, and I realised that there might be any number of earlier opinions in others of my books that I’d long ago left behind in my life.
I was reassured to read, in John Fowles’ preface to a new edition of his first book, ‘The Magus,’ how he had wrestled with just this difficulty. Much of what was in the book, he no longer felt or even liked very much. He said he considered doing a total rewrite, because he felt embarrassed about what he now could see were the book’s shortcomings.
But in the end, he decided to leave the text just as it was, saying
All artists have to range the full extent of their own lives freely. The rest of the world can censor or bury their private past. We cannot, and so have to remain partly green till the day we die… callow green in the hope of becoming fertile green.
A lot of the books I enjoy reading are essays, memoirs and opinion pieces, and I like writing that kind of book too. Perhaps that’s why this was my particular stumbling block, when it came to coming out as a writer.
An enemy of self-reliance is consistency – we feel we can’t contradict our former ideas and utterances – but that’s just conforming to other people’s idea of who we are based on historical evidence. We think we may be misunderstood – but so what? We need to live and grow in the present, not be tied down by the past. Ralph Waldo Emerson
The book I’ve just written about dreams is full of my own ideas, experiences and opinions, and now I’m writing this blog… I guess you could say that I’m over it now!
If you’re a writer, did you find it hard to tell people about your writing, or writing ambitions? Did you have a particular block when it came to going public?
Years ago, I had a dream I called ‘Landscapes of the soul.’ It was one of those dreams which doesn’t have a story, but just a voice.
The voice of the dream said, ‘The scenery your soul feels at home in never changes. The empty huge spaces of the highlands, always at the mercy of the elements, that is my soul scenery and will not change, but all the less important things have changed…’
It was after this dream that I started to notice the consistency of my dream landscapes, which are most often moors and mountains. In the workshops I do now, I find other people’s dream landscapes also have a surprising consistency.
I grew up in leafy Wimbledon, but immediately after university I went to Shetland for a holiday and simply couldn’t leave. It was love at first sight, for me, that wild windbeaten landscape of empty hills and wide horizons. I lived in Shetland for nearly ten years before moving to Cornwall, but I still go to the far North most years in the summer.
This week, I read a fascinating post by Abi Burlingham about her relationship with trees and woodland http://abiburlingham.wordpress.com/2011/10/21/21st-october/ It reminded me of my long-ago dream, and made me wonder if everyone is drawn so strongly to one kind of scenery, for pleasure, solace or inspiration.
When I came to writing after my last child started school, I experienced a sense of homecoming, as if this was the thing I had been born to do.
My first goal was to be a jobbing writer, someone who could turn their hand to anything, and I found the ideal place to learn that in educational writing, because there the brand was the publisher rather than the author, which meant I was free to try my hand at lots of different kinds of writing, both fiction and non fiction.
The two or three years I spent writing full-time for various educational publishers felt like a brilliant apprenticeship, and I carried the things I had learnt there into the next stage of my writing career, moving back into the high street as a children’s self-help author.
My 8 children’s self-help books were a mix of stories, jokes, quizzes, activities and ideas. They have all received 5-star reviews and enthusiastic reader-feedback. However, I soon learnt that earning your living from non fiction was even harder than from fiction.
So I wrote two children’s fiction series, the 6-book ‘Car-mad Jack’ and my new series, ‘By Peony Pinker.’ I feel very lucky to have had such a long, happy and varied writing career.
But underneath it all, from way back before I was ever published, I’ve always known I wanted to write an adult book about dreams, and for a couple of months in every year, before the latest advance runs out, I have returned to this labour-of-love book, experimenting with it at different times as a novel, workbook, memoir and non-fiction.
This year, I decided to finally put everything else on hold, and actually commit to finishing my dream book. I am experiencing even more of a sense of homecoming than when I first began to write. Not only, ‘Writing is what I was born to do,’ but also, ‘This is the book I was born to write.’
I wonder, does every author have a dream book – the special one they feel they were born to write?