Tag Archives: Shetland

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.

When a writer needs to ‘go down to the well’

Just after Christmas, when I had finished my story set on a remote island, I had a brief hiatus, so I asked for a dream.

I’m in Cunningsburgh, in Shetland, but the coast is completely different. Instead of the wide flat apron of land around the voe, it’s high and mountainous.

Cunninsburgh, looking out towards the voe

We go to the top of the cliffs and start our familiar walk, down the narrow path which clings to the side of the steep slope down to the sea. We normally make this a circular walk, but when we reach the water and look up at the path ahead, it looks too long and hazardous. So we double back the way we came, and return to the top once again.

When I wrote the dream down, I knew I’d dreamt about this place before, and done the walk in other dreams; I also remembered that it almost always coincided with this stage in my writing, when I had finished one MS and not yet started another.

After I finish a book, I need a fallow time to rest and recover, refocus and regroup. I play with lots of ideas and then, just when I’m starting to feel impatient, one of them grabs me.

My dream of going down to the water reminds me of an idea I’ve read in books on writing, that writers need to take time out and ‘go down to the well’ to keep refreshing their ideas. Julia Cameron talks about it in her ‘writer’s date’ suggestion in ‘The Artist’s Way.’

Julia Cameron recommends taking time out every week, but I find my writing pattern is such that when I’m in the flow I just want to write 24:7 till I reach the end, and then take a chunk of time out to recover (and get some sleep!)

After this dream, and a period of rest, what eventually grabbed me was a return to the world of Peony Pinker, the protagonist of my latest published series. I guess that’s why I doubled back in my dream.

It’s only through writing down your dreams and noting alongside them the main things that are happening in your waking life, that you start to see patterns and parallels emerging. Certain themes and situations in your dreamworld may become familiar, as they reflect recurring themes and situations in your waking life.

I’ve just delivered my follow-up story to Peony Pinker, ‘Me and my big mouth, by Maddy Monday,’ so I won’t be surprised if I find myself walking back down to the water in my dreams these next few weeks.

If you’re a dreamer, are you aware of a recurring link between a dream situation and a waking one in your own life? 

If you’re a writer, how often do you ‘go down to the well’ – for a few hours every week, or for longer periods between writing projects?

Day-life, dreams, ideas – the music of the mind

Last week, I delivered a children’s book to my agent which I first conceived more than ten years ago. It had been through several complete versions, one of which a previous agent had actually sent to a publisher, as much as anything in the hope of getting some useful feedback, as she and I agreed that it probably wasn’t quite there, though we couldn’t see what was missing.

The book was set on a small island - research took me to Fair Isle in 2003
The book was set on a small island – research took me to Foula and Fair Isle in 2003

It wasn’t quite there, but it didn’t go away, and when I had flu before Christmas, it re-emerged quite unexpectedly, to announce that it was ready.

I had lost all my previous notes and versions, but I knew the story, and this time the planning and writing came easy and complete, like a jigsaw falling into place, all the missing pieces found.

Now, starting work on another new book, I’ve discovered that this story also took root in me more than a decade ago, and the same thing is happening. Where it once felt stuck and abandoned, now it’s emerging fully-formed, and all I’m having to do is write it down.

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Two versions, ten years between

Last night I dreamt I was at a Scattered Authors conference, talking to other authors about this moment in a piece of work, when the book is inside you, fully-formed, like a shadow book, and your task is to bring it out, not harming or disturbing it, but as whole, which it already is.

You change yourself, your face, your mouth, stretching it wide, until gradually the book emerges out of your mouth, transforming from shadow to solid and real. I demonstrate it. I say how exciting this is, knowing the book is there, then opening yourself up and allowing it to come into the world so that everyone can see what it is.

I thought, ‘What if a life is like a book? Already complete in shadow form, and gradually emerging into the world, a little misshapen in its birthing, perhaps, a few edges knocked off in its early years, but still… when nature is ready, the matter inhabits the shadow.

Jerome Bruner's thoughtful autobiography
Jerome Bruner’s thoughtful autobiography

Then I woke up and saw the book I’d been reading before I fell asleep, ‘In Search of Mind: Essays in Autobiography’ by Jerome Bruner, which begins with his thoughts about whether it is our history which shapes us or our destiny, and I smiled.

I love this layering-up of daytime activity, dreams and ideas. The material, the imaginal and the rational, playing alongside each other; themes and variations, music of the mind.

Have you ever had a book or story that took years between the first spark and the final realisation?