Steve Thorp Archive

40before40, Writing Blog

Writing a bible for the wrongness

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.

21 Soul Activism, 40before40, Projects, Writing Blog

The 40 x 40 list; a writer’s utopia of habits

I have a small silver box full of post-it notes. Written on those post-it notes are ideas I’ve had over the past five years while completing my PhD in Creative Writing at Newcastle University, the creative element of which is my novel Obélisque. Both are all but finished (the PhD just waiting for the viva; the novel finished enough for now to pass that viva; I’ve also had an idea for what I need to do next with it).

The box was a helpful idea for how to deal with all those ideas that arrive as exciting distractions, bundles of energy to ‘do stuff’, while already committed to a major project. I’d have the idea, write it down, put it in the box, and put the lid back on the box. Suffer a little of the sadness of not being able to jump into that new idea right away, and get back to the discipline of, as Neil Gaiman says, finishing things.

So one of the reasons for looking at a list of 40 things to do for my 40th year was about, now those two big projects are all but ended, taking that lid off, literally and metaphorically. It feels so good to have an idea for something new and be able to act upon it. Rather than diverting it onto a post-it note and putting it away.

So that’s Reason One for my 40×40 project, which began officially this week (forty weeks until my 40th).

Reason Two is because none of these things are bad things to do. In fact, they are the easy habits that I want my life to be filled with (as Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do…). And over half of them are all to do with honouring my commitment to write; either writing itself, or gaining inspiration to write about. A few friends have looked at what I’m proposing and warned me of not taking on too much. But these are all small, everyday things, rather than the large challenges some people set themselves (which are amazing and worthwhile in themselves, such as this XL challenge).

These are the things I sometimes fill my life with, and sometimes am too tired and lethargic to see through. Lethargy, as the Jungian analyst James Hollis suggests, is often the result of not grappling with the potential largeness of our life. To become is painful, and challenging, because it means change from the routizined life. So we often sink backwards away from even easy actions. It’s too easy to be overwhelmed.

Somehow, turning all of this into an aesthetic project feels a useful way to develop good rituals to replenish energy, rather than suck it away. It’s what the cultural theorist Ann Cvetkovich calls “the utopia of ordinary habit” that forms the ground from which energy for life can grow rather than become depressed. Heart-opening practices that will feed my writing and creative life.

Naming and visualising my actions also helps me commit to them. I have a very large 70cmx100m piece of art paper taped onto a piece of hardboard on which I am recording the activities as I do them. I’ll also do a weekly update for myself here about the most interesting things to come out of the project.

And there’s one last thing. When a friend questioned me on the size of the list, I replied by saying it was okay, I’m not being hard on myself, if I fail to do some of these things, so what? And yet I’ve wondered about that statement. I’ve wondered what it is about these everyday habits I’m okay with not doing, when so many of them are connected to the soulful sense of what I can achieve as a best self: as a writer, a vegan, a runner, a friend, a human being.

So I’m not okay with not doing these things. They are important, grounding, creative. And, as I’ve pointed out to a few people, “40 afternoons doing nothing” is high on the list.

So here is the list. With a couple of gaps still. There are a few ideas that, like all important challenges to one’s comfort and old habits, keep slipping away from my consciousness each time I think them. I’m sure I will pin them down at some point. And just creating this list has been an act of creative self-awareness, rewarding in that so many of the things I thought I wanted for myself—my professional career as a writer, my animal advocacy, my social networks—figure as central activities.

And finally, the sensation I feel when I read this list, or look at the board, which I have also begun to decorate with collage, is one of opportunity and energy. That tells me it’s a good thing to have done. And to see through.

Reading, Writing, Inspiration

  1. Read 40 books from my shelves
  2. Write 40 letters
  3. Spend 40 afternoons doing nothing
  4. See 40 performances
  5. Learn 40 Koans or prayers
  6. Plant 40 plants (and learn their names)
  7. Make 40 things
  8. Submit 40 pieces of creative writing
  9. Finish 40 bits of existing writing
  10. Listen to 40 albums without distractions
  11. See 40 exhibitions
  12. Write 40 new flash fictions or poems
  13. Review 40 books on the mid-life
  14. Contribute to 40 collaborative projects
  15. Read 40 random journal articles
  16. Learn 40 yoga poses
  17. Write 40 posts about being/going vegan
  18. Read 40 poetry collections
  19. Review 40 animal rights/ethics books
  20. Learn about 40 pieces of art

Feeding my social self

21. Help 40 animals
22. Friends over for 40 dinners
23. Run 40 races
24. Learn 40 new vegan recipes
25. Have 40 proper conversations
26. Remove 40 things from my home
27. Give 40 presents
28. Spend 40 hours learning French
29. Meet 40 new people
30.
31.

Looking after the self

32. Meditate 40 days in a row
33. Be alcohol free for 40 days
34. Be chocolate free for 40 days
35. Do a 40-mile run
36. Commit 40 hours to Steve Thorp’s 21 Soul activism programme
37. Let go of 40 things
38. Take 40 walks with the ecological self
39.
40.

Thanks to Viccy Adams, Ceri, Jill Clough, Susan Tonkin, Jo Montgomery, Rachel Fay, Steve Thorp and others for some stimulating conversations and ideas for things to go on the list.