February already. Life can be frittered away, S was saying on the phone last night, and as I was saying to H in my letter earlier yesterday. We need to challenge ourselves not to rest too long with the container we create in the first half of life, and think about what it is we want to fill that container with. The largeness of our actions is created not by the ego but by the soul. I realised speaking to S that I want to am challenging myself: to progress as a professional writer, to be an animal advocate. Not everything needs to be a challenge; but I am not content with having lived a passive life.
Passively curious. Passively engaged. The narrator in my most recent novel is passive. There is a great difference between passive and active curiosity/living. The narrator in my new novel is active. He wants something. And yet what he wants and what he needs are not the same thing. What he gets, something else entirely.
A friend asked me an interesting question yesterday. In the new novel I’m currently sketching out, my main character, David, is writing a secular bible for the future. What does this bible in the novel mean to me, my friend asks?
For my protagonist David, it means he is being active—actively writing, actively not giving up on the future. He writes in the hope (and sometimes despair) that words can change things. He writes because, like most writers, there is a compulsion to do so. But he writes as well because in his world, words are the posts of a fence that he is trying to put up around a safe space where he, his partner, and their animals can find safety. It is perhaps one of the reasons why people have always told stories and, later on, marked those stories down. What he discovers is the unpredictable nature of written words. They are never secure in themselves, not good as fence posts. They always mean something else, there is always a gap in the border you want them to make. They always make something other than you’d hoped for happen. Greater, lesser. You can follow a line, but that does not mean it is solid stone. That’s the alchemy.
For me, the author, I want to interrogate this idea. Because I’m often torn between beliefs that to write is to act, and to write is not enough. Not now. And yet writing is the only thing I do, as Gloria Steinem said, that “when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”
It doesn’t mean one can’t be an advocate or activist. But then what one writes about is body, and writing is host.
The bible in the book. It is not so much about the religious connotations of it being a bible; that in the Beginning was the Word. And yet I am also interested in the power of ritual; as a secular society one of the things we have lost are the rituals that are so important to indigenous cultures and which mark and help us through the passages of life. Both Richard Rohr and Geoff Mead, if I read them correctly, believe we are a much poorer culture for the loss of meaningful ritual to help guide our souls towards largeness. Don’t become lethargic, as James Hollis says. Honour the rituals you have inherited, and keep your ancestors close.
The bible is also a means for my character David to work out what went wrong (the “wrongness,” as Margaret Atwood has put it in The Year of the Flood) with the world, and to think about how it could be better, how it could be put right.
For me it is about words as activism, words as change. Writing as an act of enough-belief. I do not want to create a parody, without any real meaning, as Atwood has done. I am not keen on her sci-fi books at all—certainly in comparison to Le Guin.
And yet I continue to struggle with this idea that writing will change things; that it is a valuable thing to do; I suppose I need David to wrestle with that idea so he can teach me something about it, the struggle. He writes out of… faith? Perhaps. And yet in the collapsed future he inhabits, what good will it do. ‘No cities,’ says Apollo in the very last episode of Battle Star Galactica when the wanderers, the refugees, finally find Earth. What he means is no civilisation, no institutionalising of beliefs. No books. No rules, no guides. They are always co-opted, always bureaucratized. But David has a compulsion to write, to do this. As I do. It is a risk that your words will engulf you.
And yet the calling to write won’t get any louder than this. This is the act; this is the calling. I write everyday, and so does David. It feels good (not always easy). To write feels to be in service to what I hope for the world. A world with less suffering, and a world where the Great Mistake of humankind—to think we are apart from and above nature—to think only with our egos—is overcome. To be a New Nature writer. To be an advocate for animals. To write stories that charge people to think of the present moment. Writing as beacon. David believes it is, and Esther believes in David, and together their animals and homestead trust them. So they must be doing something right.
And so how did I do this week, in the utopia of writer’s habits that is my 40before40 challenge? I realise that documenting the whole process will be rather boring for readers; hence why it may generally come at the end of something that seems to me far more interesting.
In commitment to active writing, I found pleasure in writing by hand, as I wrote letters to H (x2), Nish for her birthday, and to my friend Jill Clough, while also having an afternoon doing nothing. I submitted three pieces of work to competitions and submissions: a flash fiction ‘Soil’ to the Tube Flash project, and two extracts from the novel, noted above, to Myriad Editions and Unpsychology magazine.
In commitment to what one of my favourite authors, David Mitchell, refers to as omnivorous inspiration (the only thing omnivorous in my life), I thought about sentinels, inspired by Stevie Ronnie and Susannah Pickering’s poetry launch, and saw John Challis’ debut as a playwright with The Next Train to Depart. I also listened to two new albums, William Basinski’s Garden of Brokenness and Jonsi and Alex’s Riceboy Sleeps, without distraction, while seeing the RIFF/T exhibition at Baltic 39 with my friend K.
I finished two books on the mid-life (Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward and Geoff Mead’s Coming Home to Story)—reviews to follow. And I read two poetry collections, The Point of Waking by Cora Greenhill, and the as yet unpublished manuscript What Things Are by Agnieszka Studzinska, coming out this April/May, I hope. Oh, and I’ve watched three short films – Aisha’s Song, Minka, and the work of Toronto Pig Save on their channel.
In commitment to my social self, I met a new person, a 74-year-old Pete Doherty, who’s a runner, and whose story that he’s going to run the Newcastle Park run on his 75th birthday has inspired a new piece of flash fiction. I’ve had three proper conversations, with my friend E on her plans to do a PhD, with K, and with my friend S on not frittering away your life. And I’ve removed one thing (old towels) from my home. I’ve also given five presents: a book on insomnia to a suffering friend, the found poem for Nish, candles for my neighbours to apologise for a noisy dinner party, and the collected short stories of John Updike for H’s birthday (belated). And a picture frame for K’s art.
In commitment to others, I donated $5 to the fund to pay for Bonny the dog’s medicine, to Sea Shepherd and Toronto Pig Save. And I had five friends round for a new vegan recipe (black bean burgers from Isa Moscowitz’s Isa Does It), made a present (a found poem, ‘Dolabella’) for my friend Nish’s birthday.
In commitment to my soul self, I gave up one fantasy of a different life, handing back some goods from a friend who lent them to me which were talismans for that misplaced life. I took one walk with the ecological self around the Newcastle Town Moor, I’ve gone eight days without alcohol, and begun meditating, and committed an hour to Steve Thorp’s 21 Soul process.