writing Archive

An Animal Diary, Animals

The Pigeon

pigeonMy running partner saw the pigeon first. It was flapping a broken wing to try and right itself, stuck inside an open front gate of a house on the road we were running along to the Saturday morning’s Park Run. We stopped to see what we could do. There was a large gash in the pigeon’s back. It’s feathers were an anaemic blue, the blue of a watercoloured sky, the blue of the shirt I am wearing now, a birthday present from a friend.

It was obviously a fledgling, having leapt and not flown. Unable to return to its nest. Injured somehow, it didn’t occur to me how. I bent down to pick it up, but it tried to get away. I didn’t want to damage it any more. It limped away, flapping one wing and dragging the other. I finally managed to get a grip of it, both hands around its body, thinking momentarily of the image of pigeons as ridden with germs, rats with wings as some people call them, and moved it to the back of the shrub that took up most of that house’s small front garden. I wanted to leave it in a place where it could die quietly. What else could we do?

Once I put it down it flapped and limped away again, thinking itself in danger from us. It moved into a corner, flapping into the wall, unable to get further away. Then it stopped. And we had to continue to where we were going.

I don’t know of many species of creature that are more vilified and treated with such contempt. Children chase and kick at them, and their parents laugh. But the rock dove was brought into human captivity around nine thousand years ago for food and sport, and the reason we have pigeons today was because some escaped from our captivity. They have adapted to our overcoming of the world. When we pigeon hole people we are referring to the holes made in rock caves, not where the doves originally lived but where they were kept for food. It is not a flattering comparison. We look at them as if they are vermin; dirty; scavengers; ruiners of the pristine; wanters of nothing more than the waste we produce for them. There is mass, collective projection going on here, as I look at the parents looking at their children chasing and kicking the pigeons. There is one that feeds halfway down Northumberland Street, and it has a club foot. Its talons are missing; instead there is a thick, gelatinous lump on the end of its leg. An infection? A defect? It is clearly painful to walk on that foot; the pigeon feels this pain. The children run after it and try to kick it.

Later, I went back to the injured bird. I couldn’t think of that pigeon there on its own suffering. The right thing to do was go back and help. I had a hire car for a few hours, so drove there. It was a quiet road, with only one entrance and exit, so no through traffic. When I returned, the pigeon was in the middle of the road. And behind it were two cats. Sitting and waiting. They had been chasing and playing. They were the source of the deep gash in the pigeon’s back. So I got out, took my sports towel I’d carried with me in my rucksack, and chased the cats away, and finally managed to capture the pigeon in the towel, wrapped it up tight, and got back in the car. Holding the pigeon tied up with one hand, I drove home—to the veterinarian’s at the end of my street. There was nothing the vet could do, said the nurse, other than probably euthanize the bird. I left the pigeon with them. For those last moments it was calm in my grasp. I held it, and stroked its beak. Let it know that it was okay. It was better than being eaten by cats.

Now I wished I had brought it home and nursed it back to health in my garage. But I did not know how to do something like this. My knowledge of caring for pigeons or injured animals is non-existent. Not everyone dislikes pigeons. Some people fancy after them, train and fly them in competitions. Recognise their abilities. Homing pigeons use sound to image their route, to find their way back. They have superb low-frequency hearing, and make acoustic maps from the sounds emanated from the earth and oceans; they get lost if there is interference in these sounds (such as when the Concord jet flew over during a pigeon race).

A question was asked of me: How far do we go to interfere with ‘nature’—that is, cats hunt birds. Pigeons are populous, wild animals; should we concern ourselves with saving one suffering individual? This last point an argument that pattrice jones unpicks and rejects in her book The Oxen at the Intersection; that if we think only of a species then we forget that animals are individuals, and each is worthy of not suffering, and has a desire and want to live. The first point—are we interfering with nature to save a pigeon from cats?—is something I am unclear upon, in regards to a fully worked out argument. But how can my instinct to save an animal from suffering not be a part of that ‘nature’? As natural as domesticated cats, anyway. Thinking of Jean-Christophe Bailly’s small book The Animal Side, I know which side of the question I fall upon, and it is the animal side. It is the side that feels to me like the low-humming sound of home.

Image (cc) Heather aka Molly

Blog, Writing Blog

A word on motivation for writing a novel

When do you know you’re ready to write a novel? I say novel, rather than book, because although other forms of book (creative non-fiction, journalism, academic work) can take just as long, and have their own difficulties and rigours, for me at least there is something deeply interior about the approach to writing a novel that brings up a blockage that the other forms of writing do not. As for Coleridge, it is my ‘chosen’ form that troubles me most (Coleridge famously complained he could write prose without a problem, but asking him to write poetry was like asking him to cut off a leg. Whatever ‘Kubla Kahn’ is, it is also a statement on the thwarting of the artist.)

I’ve written about this before. How when one integrates a particular form of work too closely into one’s ego boundary container (that keeps us safe; that we ‘show’ to the world) then we won’t risk its failing. And I believe I’ve passed that now. I wrote to a friend, another writer, recently that my trip abroad, my two month travels on a Winston Churchill Fellowship, has given me the perspective to be simply a ‘writer’ and one in service to others (stories, ideas, people, values) rather than having to be a ‘novelist’ in service to my ego (writing for all the wrong reasons, and not ‘succeeding’). It was something I needed to give up. I felt as if I would die giving it up. And yet now I have—the idea that if I never write a novel but follow my energy and heart, that is okay—I am free to actually follow the energy of whatever comes in front of me, or emanates from inside, which is, or could be—no, this time, is—a novel. It’s a love story, at its heart, one set in a collapsed future and one themed around the idea of maintaining one’s values (of being vegan) in a world that no longer, if ever, respected and recognised those values. How does love grow in such a situation? How does one keep one’s compassion?

How do I know I am ready to write this book and not the other books that I have in my ‘unfinished’ projects folder (the book about my father; the book about relationships; the book about the lobotomy). I guess it’s this. That as I am clear that the first half of my life ended a while ago, so went with it the first half of life preoccupations and motivations. Those books started at that time don’t have the same energy now for me to carry on with them. Well, some do, but not while I’m also doing a full-time job. Or maybe. Argh! Constantly this push and pull between projects… And yet this is just an excuse not to commit and get things finished. As my friend, the poet, said, to always feel lukewarm, never cold or hot.

Yes, I guess I’m working this out by writing it down. I have a motivation to change the world for the better, to reduce suffering. Do I truly believe that by entering my own space, descending into the tunnel of writing, and of writing fiction, that I will come out of this with something that will be useful in the world? A novel? Perhaps it has always been the case or is particularly pertinent to this precarious world we live in, that there is no time for fiction any more. That it is entertainment and escapism from the pressing problems of the world. And yet, as Elizabeth Grosz says (PDF) (and I’ve used this quote so many times in the past few weeks) isn’t art about presenting future possibilities? Making of the materials of the present moment a vision or image of what the world could be? And don’t we need art—isn’t art what we save the world for? What she says is that art is the affective energy where “properties and qualities take on the task of representing the future, of preceding and summoning up sensations to come, a people to come, worlds or universes to come.”

What I think I’ve figured out this week is the practical stuff of motivation. I’ve written plenty this week – an article for a running magazine, another one on running and veganism for a Canadian website, a short essay on the film The Ghosts in Our Machine, this post – and they’re all enjoyably short. These essays and articles, as well as the piece on DXE and direct action I’m pitching to a few magazines, are day-long pieces of work (and then of course the re-writing and re-writing follow-ups) but provide something of the instant external gratification that a novel will not provide. So I was moaning last night about the need for some external motivation for the major project, the new book. Hoping that someone would just come along and demand work from me, provide a structure and a deadline. There are mentoring projects, of course. And I just had the PhD. But in the end neither of those appeal because, having learned from the PhD, I really do not want anyone else to read sections or samples of my work until a whole novel is complete.

And so it is back to the intrinsic and internal motivations. The real reasons why we stick with things.

It’s actually good to be thinking of motivation at the beginning of a new project. Do I care enough about this to see it through over a long period of time? It’s much better to be deliberative at the beginning. It’s a long-term commitment. What seems to me a very good indicator of motivation is what comes naturally. I’ve always fought this, being good at things (such as non-fiction, reflective writing, journalism) that I never wanted to be good at. My ego was always so attached, for some reason, to fiction. Perhaps because I loved fantasies and novels so much as a child (and yet I didn’t really begin reading until a little more grown up, maybe 10 or 11). I’m unsure now, now that I come to unpick this. I began writing stories at six or seven. I remember that moment when everyone was invited to write and most of the kids wrote a half-page story in massive handwriting. I was still going 16 pages later. I was so excited I interrupted my teachers’ conversation and got told off. And yet I was still excited, and carried on writing stories. I asked for a typewriter. I wrote whatever I felt like. Poetry, stories, a novel at the age of 15, also journalism, also creative non-fiction (I remember the report about work experience, written about working at, of all places, a women’s magazine, where I wrote an article for them on, of all things, astrology).

I think in terms of motivation I am a little too self-aware now of what comes with writing the novel. Although I have not been through the whole process of the previous one: getting it published, promoting, etc. But I do know what effort it takes, the practical effort but also the psychological drift and step out of this physical plane. What I mean is, you need to properly go and inhabit that other world. I know you do with any book. It’s what Rachel Carson spoke about in the final months of writing Silent Spring. The book becomes your world. You have to want to be in that world. And this wanting has to be natural, not conscious. It’s a bodily longing to be there, I think. It’s what Mario Vargas Llosa writes about in his Letters to a Young Novelist. The single most important factor for being a novelist is the reward of the work itself. Not the product, the process. Sitting and writing fiction is its own reward for those for whom it is the right/only path. (What symbolic lesson is it for me that I cut up Llosa’s book to create a birthday card for a friend? Actually not much. I found the book a little basic and dull.) Oh, okay, that was my ego at work again—being afraid to “be a beginner again every morning”. To be a beginning I mistyped originally, but I quite like that idea (even if it sounds like something out of Apocalypto).

So what new beginning? I think before I wrote for the wrong reasons, and that is putting the fear of god into me for starting something new without figuring out the reasons why I am doing it, or want to stay with it for the next year or two (when also balanced with the rest of my life). But trying to be deliberative runs the risk of being overly-rational. Motivation is perhaps, or should be, more about listening to the body, and taking the peaks and troughs, feeling one’s way into the future, whatever world is to come. Art is an energy and a sensation. Making art is a flow of energy and sensations. And it is about taking materials and shaping them with one’s own energy to create in others the sensation of new possibilities.

It is also about feeling prepared. Feeling capable. As Adele Diamond, the neuroscientist and educator says, the single biggest predictor of educational success is not IQ or even EQ but simply believing that one has the capacity to do the thing. And that comes from confidence and preparedness. Commitment flows from these things. Motivation in essence is then unleashed, whereas before it was bridled, or enclosed. This is where education works at its best sense, as a ‘leading out’ (an e-ducare, in the Latin) from the enclosure, unleashing the motivation through preparedness and knowledge. So maybe one does not simply find the motivation. I know it’s already there to write this novel. The steps I need to take are actually about preparing myself for the journey. And I’ve done that work before.

Non-Fiction, Writing

Non-fiction piece published in Swamp 14

Pleased to have a piece published in the new issue of SWAMP writing, published out of the University of Newcastle, Australia.

The piece has gestated for a long while, so it’s very good to have gone back to it, edited, submitted, edited again with the wise guidance of SWAMP’s editor, Amy Lovat, and to see the piece out in the world. It’s about the relationship between fathers, loss, writing and especially writing a PhD, and is indebted to Professor Nicholas Royle and his novel Quilt.

You can read the piece here: How to gain a PhD while losing a father

Blog, Writing Blog

Writing in Iowa City

Saturday 29th March, 804am, Heirloom Java House, Iowa City

There are a couple of Japanese girls at the table next to mine getting exited about the dresses they’re looking at online. I can’t tell what exactly, they’re talking in Japanese. On the desk there’s a book: Wartime America. The subtle relations between book and laptop, past and present, seem to sit lightly in this place. A place for writers, more than anything, to interrogate connections. Normally, when I get to the café in the morning around 745am, I’m the only person in there with a laptop. Although this morning the Java House is not quite as busy, when I came here Friday at around the same time it was almost impossible to get a table. Each one was already filled by a young student or older writer, laptop up, drinking their coffees and waters and eating their bowls of oatmeal, already hard at work. The same happens in the evenings. When I came here for a vegan salad bowl, there was more writerly activity. One middle-aged and one elderly poet were looking over drafts, while another professor and a younger student were working through her script. This is a place for writers. It’s the café that is the microcosm of this writerly city, the UNESCO City of Literature, home of the Iowa Writers’ Centre, and to Prairie Light Books, a Midwestern city.

It’s been a delight to be here, to discover the city. To discover the Java House with its brewed coffee, its alt-folk music on in the background, its set up for writers. A delight, also, that I can run again, and have run up and down the Iowa River Trail, seeing more of the city than most walkers will, or most other people at the conference I’m here for.

Although to say I’m here for the conference is an ostensible reason. It doesn’t feel like the real reason at all. Why’s that? I don’t know—maybe that will reveal itself only later. The conference itself, although not yet over, has been…okay, with a strange energy that befits an Affect and Inquiry conference, perhaps, but the general consensus is there are a couple of badly behaving academics lobbing grenades to see what explodes. Although the initial senses of exclusion can only be counter-productive to what Jasbir Puar, from the Women & Gender Studies programme at Rutgers University, was calling ‘conviviality’, an attempt to live with the crises points that are being pointed to by the moments where affect is pushing at the edges of different disciplines to bring attention to for-too-long excluded questions, such as ‘what does being a woman of colour in the academy feel like?’.

There was a debate about the ‘sweetness’ of conviviality and the ‘disgust’ of the bleed/edge as two contrasting approaches to these questions of how to do research, how to explore the making of happening. That other sense of conviviality, its companionable enjoyment, was very welcome last night as I went to dinner with three medics from the local hospital who I met at Prairie Lights bookstore following a reading by the essayist David Lazar from his collection Occasional Desire. The three took me to dinner at Devotay, a Spanish tapas restaurant; they went out of their way to make sure everything could be vegan for me, as well as gluten-free for one of the medics. The evening was pleasurably free from academic infighting (“this isn’t a competition to see who is grieving most, is it?” one awkward moment at the memorial session for the critic Jose Munoz, who died awfully young) and full of talk about books, travel, dogs and jobs (not necessarily in that order), things that people should be talking about when they’ve only just met. My dinner and two bottles of Portuguese red was paid for. The finest hospitality from those grounded in workplaces of everyday life and death.

And this morning I’m bunking off the first session so I can come here and spend a little time writing. Just writing. The first session yesterday was from a wonderful presenter, Kerry Ann Rockquemore, from the National Centre for Faculty Development and Diversity, on addressing the pressures and resistances to writing in the academic role. It was very well presented, very generous, and yet if there was anything that I drew from the session it was how very well I have progressed over the last few years in developing my own writing practices. Although it is still always mostly hard work, the problems she was raising (three types of resistance, based on technical errors, psychological obstructions, and external realities) were all problems I had faced and in many ways dealt with, or developed strategies for dealing with, in the past few years. Writing every day. Check. Finding effective ways to motivate via recording and networking. Check. Breaking tasks down into chunks. Yep, etc. In that way, the PhD has been a very useful training ground, giving me the time and focus to learn how to work better as a writer.

Two key words she didn’t mention, and, if there had been time for questions, I would have raised. Identification, and play. She touched upon them, nearly. The presentation remained introductory, if useful for many if not most of the people in the room.

But what I wanted to know were here thoughts on how identification with a particular role (“I am an academic” for example, or rather, putting it into Byron Katie’s terms, the negative impact of beliefs such as “I must be an academic”) can be so strong and forceful, something so critical to one’s sense of self, that it paralyses, or certainly obstructs, fierce productivity and the ability to ensure a healthy work/life balance. Talking with another academic in the room who had been trained as a journalist, we both felt academic work was much easier than many others seemed to feel it to be. Not only perhaps because we had a more thorough understanding and set of tools to tackle the technical errors than many of the other writers in the room—in particular the need to simply let go of stuff on deadline for publication, having done it so many times we’re trained to do so. But also because, at least for me, my identification is not so strongly as an academic, but as a creative writer, and so academic work feels to me much easier. I care less about it, which means I can enjoy it a bit more.

[Talking of which; one of the Japanese girls is a photojournalism major and she’s just asked if she can take my photo for her class project. She’s sending me the photos she took of this place.]

Which leads to the other point. Play. When I write academic work, I don’t struggle with it so much. I play with it. I sit down and think about not just what I want to say, but how to say it. That’s not to say it’s always easy. It can be a challenge. But a good challenge. One of the conference organisers introduced a panel, and the conference, by talking about how we can enter flow in our dialogue as academics, and how really good critical debate can help us reach that high challenge-high skill place that characterises flow (that I’ve written about elsewhere in relation to running). And I’ve worked really hard, through writing every day, through addressing the heavy-laden psychological ‘need’ to be a creative writer/novelist and taking off some of that pressure, to bring more play (back) into my creative writing.

Which is why this morning I’m taking a break from the non-fiction book proposal I’ve been working on. It’s actually been a lot of fun to write. But over the last few days, with the conference, the jet-lag, and dalliance with strong coffee (a day spent sweating, palpitating—how is this stuff not contraband?!), I’ve found it a struggle, and I want to stop, give it some space, come back to it when I feel more creative, more playful with it. It hasn’t reached the hard-ass honing stage yet (I feel I may be adopting the tone of my temporary residence). There’s more to say, to play, before getting there.

And one more thing on writing. Another way of becoming unstuck, and a reason why I put away the book proposal. I was trying to work out how to link together some of the still disparate elements. I couldn’t think how. And now I can again, after five months, I went for a run. On that run, pushing myself enough so that my mind couldn’t really ask itself questions, after a while I found myself writing in my mind the introduction I needed to do for the panel I was chairing later that day. Ah! So the reason I couldn’t find the answers to how to knit together the disparate parts of my book proposal was because my unconscious was already working on/worrying out another thing that needed writing. It was a lovely lesson. Rather than pushing too hard against what was being crafted internally to try to fit an conscious demand, I let the mind rest, and let what was going on inside come out.

It’s very good to be running again, not least for the job it does in my writing.

I’ve just a few more hours in Iowa City, this city of writers, before I have to check out, see the last of the keynotes at the conference, and head to Chicago. And back to that question. Do I know why I needed to come here yet? Was it to experience what a writing city feels like? To meet the doctors, have fun, and make those connections? To have my photo taken by a journalism student? To learn that my writing habits are actually strong, healthy, advanced, developed? (Although not perfect, not that! Still always work to do.) All these things?

When will I find out. Perhaps I won’t. Either way, it’s been an Iowan delight.

Novel Writing, Writing

The vague feeling of love

(A short exercise in “putting the problem into the writing” based on a character from my novel.)

emotionally vagueThe vague feeling of love

And he knew somehow that the vague feeling was not love itself but only the thoughts he had about love, which is why it was not a true feeling, what the analyst William James was calling a primary emotion, but rather just a thought about it, masquerading as the real thing, for where the real thing ought to be, he supposed, was an absence. Thought loves a vacuum.

And yet what this vague feeling was, was definitely a feeling – he felt it, even if his feeling processes were disordered, and to feel it he had to see it as a fantasy, a story inside his head on the cinema screen that ran just inside his brow (and how did people imagine thoughts before the cinema?). Were thoughts not feelings too?

He knows they could be the interpretation of the feeling anyway. That was it. An interpretation. And quite simply he had not yet fully translated the affect, the energy he felt for her, into a story he could make sense of. That’s why it remained vague, like the ideas he would put into his writing – and why this sense of love, or love as a possibility, or more precisely, not love, but simply her, Marine, as the symbol of possibility, was so closely linked, in its vagueness, to writing as a process. Both were processes in formation. Both began as fantasy in the mind. Both had a number of possible outcomes, from the utopian (publication, marriage, sensualness, fame) to the disastrous, and then worse than the disastrous, the absent, the never-happened.

It was perhaps why he had so many relationships with women that ended rather badly—and also why so far his writing had not brought him the life he desired, and knew—or at least idealised that it would or could bring him. He would rather leap into the relationship with a new lover who had entered his fantasies than forego the chance of it ever happening. That loss—the loss of the fantasy constructed in his head—was too difficult to bear. The real loss—of the girl, of the love, of the relationship, was much easier to let go, although not altogether painless. It was also why perhaps much of his work had not yet found its way into print. He was too indiscriminate. He jumped into ideas before he was committed to them, and then his energies waned, and he let the stories go, unfinished, unpolished. He did not let go easily ideas that were not his to write. Rather, he wanted everything he thought to become real. This was the boundless child, he knew, who was magical, and at the centre of his world.

Although no, that was not true. Not totally true. Rather love and writing to him seemed complementary, or opposite in their attraction. Although, yes, the thought that they stemmed from the same source, seemed to him to be true. It all began with the imagined ideal, it all began with thinking “what if?” and then conjuring up scenarios.

Was that writing? Yes.

Was that also love?

The vague feeling returned. As did Marine with a coffee pot and two cups.

(c) Image via Emotionally Vague

Writing Blog

Read your work out, listen to who you are

It’s Susan Orlean’s number one tip for editing. It’s Joanna Penn’s must do for final review. And Hugh Howey (author of Wool) doesn’t think you’re taking yourself seriously as a writer unless you have done this on each finished piece (it’s not finished until you’ve done this).

And I do this now. I read my work out loud.

I used to read it out on paper print, edit with a pencil, and then later go back  to the screen. But I’ve found that editing on-screen while reading is actually much more efficient. It’s because as I read out loud I hear the sound of the sentence, its inner structural rhythm (or arhythmia), and have the words reverberating as I edit. If you edit on paper and then make the changes later, you can’t hear the words so clearly. The memory is weaker. It’s no longer an echo.

Kate Kiefer Lee says it helps her sound like a human. I’d go further. It helps you hear who you are as that human. Perhaps that’s especially because at the moment I’m writing creative non-fiction, and it’s autobiographical, and so I’m listening to myself tell myself who I was when I made certain decisions in the past, and who I am now reflecting upon it.

Perhaps this is also how therapy, especially ‘the talking cure’ of psychoanalysis works. So many of us interior people have narratives of who we are and what we can achieve (or can’t) running around in our heads. Perhaps hearing the actual words, rather than thinking them, changes their energy, their hold over us. And if it does that for us, it does it for our characters too, for our writing. When our characters are us, it changes us. (for simple things: winning gold medals; more complex achievements: peace of mind).

Writing is a formulation of the imagination. Reading that writing out loud tests the imagination in the crucible of the real world. It makes me think of Marion Milner’s hypotheses in On Not Being Able to Paint, regarding those who are best able to bridge the gap between inner imagination and outward reality, to create things we are happy with, proud of. Those of us who can manage and live with the chaos and the fear of never producing in reality what we can imagine, will always produce more, and better, than those who cannot handle those fears.

Perhaps reading work out loud, hearing one’s voice, listening to your own imagination as it is read back to you, is part of that bridging process. (I wonder how many of us do this for our blog posts?!)

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

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

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.

40before40, Projects, Writing Blog

Filling the wobbly vase at 40

potteryHello. Happy New Year.

I’m working on a fun idea for my 40th year. A few months ago, while engaged in conversation with a student, we spoke about time-limited-oriented blogs, such as ‘400 Days until 40’, which is one that my student used to read. It freaked me out a little that he mentioned this on the exact day that I had 400 days until I was 40. Anyway, after a few weeks of pure fear of aging and dying, I then went on a friend’s 40th birthday, we spoke about it, and I got over it.

And now I’m starting to see other friends, acquaintances, bloggers, all with their excellent ’40 before 40′ lists (going up in balloons, singing in public etc). Other people have lists or acts that are more closely linked to their everyday. A poet I know is learning 40 poems off-by-heart before she’s 40. (She’s a wonderful performance poet.) I liked that idea. In fact, I liked both the wild and the everyday.

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Writing Blog

It turns out Not-Writing is not Writing

I set myself the task of completing seven non-writing actions to move me towards a professional writing career.Here was the list that I set myself last week:

  1. Submit work to Material Magazine
  2. Sort out and revamp this site
  3. Set up Nature Stories website
  4. Make a list of other submissions to competitions
  5. Make a front cover for Obelisque to put on reading sites
  6. Make my five character pieces for 21 Soul
  7. Write each morning

So what I achieved off the list

Number 1 and 2. I submitted three short pieces of a series of flash fictions and one poem on food to Material Magazine. And I also began to revamp this blog and to start posting regularly here.

It wasn’t altogether easy. The deadline for the submissions was midnight on the 10th and I’d already switched the computer off, not wanting to linger in front of a screen too late into the evening. But I did go back, switch it on, and submit the pieces.

And writing here isn’t the easiest thing in the world either, so it seems. As I wrote about in the opening post, there is a sense that I should be farther along this path than I am. That is, of being a professional writer, having published books, novels, writing full-time. Overcoming that sense of disappointment in oneself of not having achieved this so far in life, and doing it publicly on record, feels like A Great Exposure. But I also know those feelings of disappointment with oneself—measured against an internally-held ideal—are also one of the largest blockages to fulfilling potential. So this exposure could, one hopes, become an exorcism instead.

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Writing Blog, Writing vs. The Ego

Writing vs. The Ego

‘The Ego,’ says Teresa Brennan, ‘always needs a plan.’

This makes all too much sense. Back into The Writing Schedule after a few weeks out and, with the major project finished, the whole arena of feeling and world lies open to write about. Which of my ideas would I select now I had the freedom? Could I set myself any Goldberg-esque prompt and let First Thoughts flow? Cue a stickiness like flypaper, and a chesty frustration. I could sense the Ego at work. Where was my Plan? What was the Project?! Didn’t I have a social world to fit into. Didn’t I need to prove myself?

It is the Ego at work when our discernment is rushed to a decision, and we make mistakes before we are ready. Other times we never get to a decision; our discernment is delayed, as, according to Brennan, the Ego, as well as needing a plan, is also always anxious about doing the wrong thing (having the wrong plan). And while the (good) ego may be useful for pastimes such as survival, for things as critical—writing—the (bad) ego can be no good at all.

A friend texts this morning:

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Novel Writing, Running, Writing Blog

Murakami on Writing, Running

The thing I notice most about novelist Haruki Murakami’s style is this: a sense that when I pick up his work, the story has already been happening without me, and when I finish it and put it down, life inside is carrying on somewhere without me too. The fact there is a page 1 and an end page is almost accidental to the story.

His first book that I read, Dance Dance Dance, is about an unnamed protagonist who makes a living as a commercial writer and, for me, typifies this style. There is no real explanation for much of what happens and the motivation for the action comes from what has already gone before, before we meet the characters. This is not about a novelist dropping us into a plot in medea res, however. It is about creating a sense of open-endedness in character, perception and affect, as well as storyline.

Perhaps this open-endedness is something to do with Murakami’s life as a ‘running novelist’ that he captures in his travelogue/memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I read this over the summer, often sitting on a beach, or during a long walk, often alone. For a running would-be novelist, the book captures a sense of discipline and learning that is gently acerbic in its understanding of doing things of value (writing, running).

The value of running is always open-ended. Murakami experiences this when running a 62-mile ultra-marathon (well—wow). Beyond a certain point, he explains, “the end of the race is just a temporary marker without much significance. It’s the same with our lives. Just because there’s an end doesn’t mean existence has meaning. An end point is simply set up as a temporary marker, or perhaps as an indirect metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence.” As for running, as for the metaphors of writing.

There are two key essences in the book that make it worth reading, beyond an appreciation of Murakami’s own style, his almost poker-faced honesty (perhaps to do with the translation between cultures).

First: instructions for novelists

What makes a novelist? Murakami says he’s asked this in every interview he ever does. “The answer’s pretty obvious,” he says: “talent” (p.76). But he also knows what else is needed:

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value… I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing.

And from there, the third requirement is, “hands down, endurance”:

If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed for a writer of fiction… is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, or two years.

Murakami then goes on to express this in a fundamentally embodied way:

You can compare it to breathing. If concentration is the process of holding your breath, endurance is the art of slowly, quietly breathing at the same time you’re storing air in your lungs. Unless you can find a balance between both, it’ll be difficult to write novels professionally over a long time. Continuing to breathe while you hold your breath.

According to Murakami, “fortunately, these two disciplines—focus and endurance—are different from talent, as they can be acquired and sharpened through training.” Sitting down at the desk every day and concentrating on what you are writing is, for Murakami, the same as getting up every day and making the effort to go out running. It is the same training—the same requirement for a bit of talent, focus and endurance, to become a long-distance runner or a long-form writer. “Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything,” Murakami explains, “he made sure that he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated… This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs. This sort of daily training was indispensible to him.”

Second: leading the curious life

The second essence, that is not written out so directly, is what brought Murakami, at the age of 33 (just a year younger than I am now) to begin his career as both a long-distance runner and a long-form writer of fiction. It was, in no small part, curiosity, and a curiosity about acquiring an openness to life, or even, I’d argue, an open-endedness to life.

Murakami went to college, ran a jazz bar, collected jazz records, got married, and had a whole host of life experiences before becoming a writer. On page 17, he says “By sticking my nose into all sorts of places, I acquired the practical skills I needed to live. Without those ten tough years I don’t think I would have written novels, and even if I’d tried, I wouldn’t have been able to.”

Curiosity then, “sticking my nose” into all sorts of things, to acquire practical skills to live. What are those skills? Murakami talks first and foremost about acceptance without judgement—one of the assets that Todd Kashdan describes of belonging to those ‘curious explorers’ who live fulfilled and happy lives. If we are open and do not close off judgement too soon – in Murakami’s words, “for now all I can do is put off making any judgements and accept things as they are” – then we are more able to see the potential novelty and meaning in any activity or moment, rather than searching for certainty.

For Murakami, this acceptance comes through the practice of concentration. Or, via running, through the “acquiring of the void” of a mental state where ideas do not fix themselves. As he explains:

I run to acquire a void… the thoughts and ideas that invade my emotions as I run are subordinate to that void. Lacking content, they are just random thoughts that gather around that central void…

The thoughts are like clouds in the sky… and like the sky, “it has substance and at the same time doesn’t. And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in.”

The suggestion is, to me at least, that it is this void, this ability to accept all ideas, thoughts and substance, that both is a practice of concentration and the thing within us that makes writing possible. Without that void, created by curiosity and what sounds a lot like mindfulness (“continuing to breathe while holding your breath”), writing long fiction is impossible. At least for Murakami.

And I feel for me. Writing, mindfulness, running, and an academic search for curiosity, decision and their relationship to literary acts: these are my ‘supplements’, so to speak. In Murakami’s words:

The methods and directions a writer takes in order to supplement himself becomes a part of that writer’s individuality, what makes him special.

Activism, Projects

Save Our Woods

Save Our Woods is a grassroots organisation that was born in 2010 to ensure that our public forest estate remains in public ownership. The people behind SoW (Hen, Karen, Nick and now also Pip) believe this is the best way to protect those woodlands for future generations, ensuring their access and biodiversity are maintained and enhanced, and their resources are managed sustainably and in the best interests for wildlife and local communities.

The campaign began when the Government announced plans to sell off up to 100% of the Public Forestry Estate. The campaign was incredible, and forced the government into a ‘Yew Turn’. SoW are now engaged with Government on formulating their response to the Forestry Panels’ recommendations.

Here’s my contribution to the Save Our Woods campaign via their website. I also wrote a number of academic papers which were presented at conferences and a final version of which will be published in the collection Environmental Crisis and the Media (edited by Libby Lester and Brett Hutchins). The chapter can be downloaded from my Academic CV page.