My bedside table…

Each issue of Mslexia ends with an interview with a writer, journalist, poet etc. The prompts take a standard format and I thought it would be interesting to ponder my own answers…

The Table

An awful metal and plastic trolley that screams disability. Chosen because it can be moved easily, it can be easily reached without having to stretch and it does have a lot of space on it. Books also litter my bed.  And everywhere in my flat, you can stretch you arm out and grab a book.  I find it very comforting to be surrounded by books.

The Costume

Comfy pjs. Soft, stretchy bottoms and a t shirt. Preferably enough like lounge wear that I can get away with wearing when I leave the house.

The Method

Because of my disability, I read most of my books on my tablet and like to have both the audio and kindle versions so I can move between them as my health dictates. I have a foam triangle covered in non-slip netting that I use to prop up my tablet or book so I don’t have to bend my neck too much. In the past I’d have been laying on my side, propping up the book on a bear.

The Books…

Right now. I always have many books on the go… The main fiction book right now is Owlknight by Mercades Lackey, the last of a trilogy which makes me sad as I really like the characters. That said, there are other books set in the same world so I have more to move onto. There’s also Lady Killers by Tori Telfer and Stiff by Mary Roach.

Couldn’t put down. Pretty much anything by Robin Hobb definitely applies here. I also devoured Lucy Cookes’ Unexpected Truth About Animals over the summer. As a child, everything in my local library was unputdownable and included sweet valley books, Enid Blyton, Helen Forrester, E. B. Nesbitt and so many other books… Reaktion books are really interesting as well.

Gathering dust. I have so many books that many are literally gathering dust. Metaphorically, if I’m struggling with a book, I’ll leave it a while and return to it when I’m in a different mood. If I try this a few times and get nowhere, I’ll give it to a charity shop. Life is too short for bad books. My disability already reduces how much I can read so I’m not inclined to waste that on books I’m not enjoying…

Changed my life. This is a really tough question! I’d probably have to say all of them, but especially the books I read as a child and teenager. They gave me a way to escape, they showed me what was possible, they gave me friends and they inspired me. The Tamora Pierce books were very memorable and stood up to being read as an adult. They are an interesting take on gender and a recent twitter thread highlighted them as one of few books that mentioned periods…  And on that note, there were also the Judy Blume books…

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Nature and writing project: An update

So I’ve had a busy few months and whilst I’m pleased I’ve still been blogging, my nature and writing project has been paused.  A combination of going to Stanmore for three weeks, resting and recovering, and also getting used to having a lot more care.  With this in mind, I put my nature and writing project on hold – it had a summer holiday!

This means I will start getting back into it now that the summer holidays are over and the school year has begun again!  Expect more tarot and animal spirit posts as well as I’m planning – long term – to work through all my animal allies cards, my animal totem tarot cards with a focus on the animals.  I’m also planning – very long term – to work through all the tarot cards, having been inspired when I started with the ten of swords.

There are so many directions to take the nature and writing in and I think this is partly why I’ve not done much recently.  I was really clear about the different topics for the different months and now I’ve covered a lot of these, or at least touched the surface of them, and I don’t know whether I want to return to a topic or go with a new one!  So many choices and so little restrictions!  I think that’s why I’ve been doing the tarot and animal allies posts because then I’m not having to decide what to focus in on!

Animal Allies wise, I have the following to look into:

  • Bighorn sheep
  • Boar
  • Canary
  • Coyote
  • Mountain Lion
  • Opossum
  • Rat
  • Skunk
  • Squirrel
  • Turkey

As well as looking forward, I wanted to look back. I’ve been retired for over two years now and whilst I retired in May 2016, it was the September when things finally started to fall into place so I could have a life.  I decided that September 16-17 would be a bit of a ‘gap year’ for me.  I was overwhelmed at retiring, at having lots of things I wanted to do with my life and unsure what and how much I could actually do if I wasn’t destroying myself working.  It felt like there were so many directions I could go in and yet I didn’t want to commit to just one.  In the end, the gap year involved a good mix of things; art, Saturday classes at the university, writing and reading.  It was January 2017 when I started on my animal spirit posts and it was from there than I formed my nature and writing project.

I had a feeling before but now I know for certain that I am a lot happier when I have projects like these which are long term but with smaller short term chunks (the entire deck of oracle cards but also each individual post).

I have also finally found the kind of writing that comes naturally to me at this stage in my life.  As a child I wrote a lot of stories and created magazines and newspapers for fun.  As a teenager I wrote an awful lot of (probably quite awful) poetry.  I was a prolific poet and it just streamed out of me without much thought or effort.  As an adult I have tried to recreate the stories and the poetry but its felt forced and definitely didn’t flow as it once did.  This year whilst I was reading and writing and learning, I came across the term creative non fiction and it felt like a validation that my posts about animals, about nature, are creative and they do count as creative writing.  Because they are non fiction I had essentially dismissed the creativity in them.  And because they weren’t in a voiceless, facts only style I had dismissed them as non fiction. It wasn’t until I found the term creative non fiction that I was able to figure out what my writing is and from there I can learn more about the style and how to improve and explore different techniques.

There have of course been lots of other realisations and discoveries in the past year of my nature and writing project but the thing I am most proud of is that despite having 6 months of being incredibly ill, I didn’t give up.  I had to change goal posts and I had to instil patience in myself because I wasn’t physically able to do what I wanted.  I also had to spend my energy fighting for help when I wanted to be doing my nature and writing project instead.  But despite this, since I started it last September, I have written over 165,000 words and 186 blog posts.  I have carefully researched the topics I talk about and have done some really interesting reading and watching of documentaries to fuel what I am writing about.  For a year which involved six months of starvation (literally… I couldn’t swallow much food…), I’m pretty proud of myself.

I couldn’t possibly chose a favourite topic or post but the one I find myself telling people about more than any others is the post I did in October about the very real and very serious cases of animals in court on trial.  If you read nothing else I’ve written (except obviously some of this post to reach the link…), read that.

Illustration from Chambers Book of Days depicting a sow and her piglets being tried for the murder of a child. The trial allegedly took place in 1457, the mother being found guilty and the piglets acquitted.

How to write nature, from nature writers

Having got back into reading following my stays in hospital, I’m back to collecting titbits about nature writing including hints about what makes for successful pieces.  By this I mean writers and readers sharing their ideas rather than what I am gleaming from my own reading and writing.

Robert MacFarlane as always have excellent things to say on the topic.  In An Antidote to Indifference, he writes about the resplendent array of reading we have available to us today.  That “a twenty-first-century culture of nature has sprung up, born of anxiety and anger, but passionate and progressive in its temperament.”  He quotes Ali Smith as saying “the place where the natural world meets the arts is a fruitful, fertile place for both” and goes on to tell us how powerful writing can change the reader, and through the reader, the community.  It can help shape our relationship with the natural world, and with place, instilling in us a consciousness and conscience about both.

“The best of this recent writing is ethically alert, theoretically literate and hyper-wary of the seductions and corruptions of the pastoral. It is sensitive to the dark histories of landscape, and to the structures of ownership and capital that organise – though do not wholly produce – our relations with the natural world.”
– Robert MacFarlane

This leaves the potential nature writer facing a challenge of Everest proportions, seemingly as difficult as plunging to the floor of the Mariana Trench.  But he also cites Alice Oswald as saying that poetry can save the planet by “putting our inner worlds in contact with the outer world”.  A much more handle-able task, one we can turn in our palms and caress with our fingers.  More like a beautifully cut, lovingly polished gem than a conquered mountain.  No less difficult but not quite so overwhelming, keeping Oswald’s words in mind we can make the first move, rather than standing paralysed by the trial, or trail, ahead of us.

When I was reading about the Canal Laureate, I came across some advice from Jo Bell:

“The most important thing is to look at it with your own eyes, not those of previous poets. Sit or walk by the canal and really pay attention. Use the five senses – what can you hear, smell, see, touch and even taste? What are the nearby buildings or trees like? Be specific – if you can see a bird, tell us what sort of bird it is. If you can see a building, is it concrete, brick or stone? Details help your reader to share in what you are seeing.”

This is excellent advice, known by most writers, but not always followed.  I have an exercise where I split the page into five and in each bit I make notes about different senses; what I hear, smell, taste, touch, and see.  Whilst I will never have much under smell (I have a terrible sense of smell), I will at least remember to think about it when I’m taking notes.  Similarly with taste, on the whole we don’t literally taste nature, but it brings in different metaphors and helps you see things in a more holistic way.

She also has a great youtube video about permission, not at all related to nature but great for writing and writers:

In writing Nature’s Architect, a book about the return of Beavers to Scotland, Jim Crumley gives us a glimpse into how he writes.  Towards the start of the book, he quotes Margiad Evans:

“If you want to write with absolute truth and with the ease pf a natural function, write from your eyes and ears, and your touch, in the very now where you find yourself alive, wherever it may be.  Carry your paper and book with your and conceal yourself in the fields.  Watch and be in what you see or in what you feel in your brain. There is no substitute even in divine inspiration for the touch of the moment, the touch of the daylight on the dream.”

In his search for beavers, Crumley finds himself in less familiar territories, telling the reader that when this occurs it takes time for him to become accustomed to a place, that he walks slower, listens and looks harder, being still more often and through this he begins to build a familiarity, an intimacy, with the landscape.  It is this relationship that allows writers to convey a habitat with such precision, with such knowledge, as though the land or nature herself were a friend they know well.

“The simple way in was to listen.  Thirty years of writing about nature for a living have taught me how to put my ear to the ground, especially where there is something quite new afoot… [by experiencing an animal for oneself it] becomes more alive, more vivid, more captivating in the eye of the beholder and in his imagination, and the insights are deeper and truer, when they are gathered in silence and solitude.”

It can be frustrating to read nature writing in which the author has been able to go to far flung, inaccessible places.  Places where my bank balance and wheelchair cannot take me.  The same is true when I turn to photographers.  But the best nature writers and the best photographers can see what is right on their doorstep.  It just requires time and effort to built the relationship with your immediate environment, time and effort that most of us forgo as we head out the door, get in the car and travel off to somewhere more traditionally considered nature.  I am just as guilty of ignoring the road as I head off to the park.  And this is something that I want to work on over the next few months.

Writing about nature from your bed is something that Elisabeth Tova Bailey has done incredibly well and I will be posting about her book, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, very soon.

100 ways to write a book: The Helen method

Mslexia has a regular feature called 100 ways to write a book.  They interview a particular female writer and in addition to that, we get an insight into how the author writes.  For example, in the Dec/Jan/Feb 17/18 issue, Sarah Perry who wrote The Essex Serpent is interviewed and The Perry Method includes advice such as “If an idea occurs to you that makes your scalp tighten, it’s a sign that it will make a good story”.

In a similar vein, the creative nature writing guide I’ve mentioned also has a section about method.  It discusses use of journals, seasonal diaries, jotting down ideas on scraps of paper, dictating notes to a voice recorder, starting at the end, working on multiple projects and so on.

DSC_0610 levels

There are so many different ways to write and the important thing is that you find the one that works for you.  If you look online or in a bookshop, you’ll see pages and pages dedicated to teaching you how to write.  These generally aren’t about technique or style, more often than not they are about getting you to actually put words on paper.  And this is what the 100 ways to write a book column tends to be about.

I could not even entertain the idea of telling anyone how to write.  I am a retired, disabled, 31 year old woman with no children and no housework.  I am in an unusual situation.  I have all the time in the world to write but I also have limits imposed by pain and fatigue and brain fog.  But over the last year or so I have honed my way of writing.

I know I ebb and flow through the day and I know mornings tend to be the most reliably productive time so I try to make use of this.  Your own rhythms will be different to mine but I wanted to share my approach in case any of it is of help.  It has also been a helpful exercise in self reflection and I think a good reminder for when writers block strikes!

So, here is The Helen Method:

  • Write in a personal way, you chat to your reader, you befriend them and in doing so you build a relationship.
  • Even though you desperately want to write a beautiful novel, you can’t right now. The time may come but today you are a poet and a creative non fiction writer.
  • Always have word open on your laptop. You have significant hand pain and so you need to type, despite longing to be able to sit with an elegant fountain pen and inspiring notebook.
  • Write little and often. This helps with pain management but also creativity begets creativity.  Writing little and often makes it habit and means you don’t try and hold ideas in your head…
  • Which is important because your memory is not what it used to be. Keep a notebook at hand and a pen in sight and scribble down words and phrases before they are lost to brain fog.  But do not write any more than that by hand, see previous point.
  • Read lots.  Read often.  Read variety.  Non fiction and fiction.  Kindle and audiobooks.  Poetry and prose.  Magazines and articles.
  • And once you have devoured the contents of other people’s writings, ruminate. Go quiet.  Switch off Netflix and let the information swish around inside you. Feel into it and find the angle, find the hook.
  • Don’t try and tell the reader everything you know about a subject. Unused facts and details are not wasted.  They will be used elsewhere.  They helped you to understand.  The reader doesn’t need to know everything you know.
  • Similarly, stay focused. In your excitement about a topic, you are likely to head off on too many tangents and lose the narrative and the reader.
  • Go back to all those words and phrases and half started poems that you always mean to finish.
  • Most importantly, write because you enjoy writing. Write for no other reason than it brings you pleasure.

What tips would you include in your writing method?

The spirit of the sea

There are many plants and creatures that live under the sea and I’ll be unpicking them and our relationship with them as this month goes by.  In the meantime, if a particular creature is of interest to you then you might find my spirit card posts interesting:

Fairytale Forests

As we saw in the history of forests, woodland has been influenced by humans for many a year.  Indeed, whilst many refer to the great time of a forested England, in reality, by 1086 only 15% remained wooded.  This decimation of our forests would have an important psychological impact on our cultures.

When forests were much more widespread, there was a familiarity with them that started to disappear.  People were living in villages, towns and cities and the way of life was no longer connected with the trees for most people.  This detachment would have a profound impact on our literature.

2017-04-22_07-16-07.jpg

Enter the enchanted forest, the fairy tale wood.  A non specific place but one which we are all familiar with.

“The mysterious secrets and silences, gifts and perils of the forest are both the background to and the source of these tales”
– Sara Maitland

Crossing into the forest

From a practical perspective, travelling, back in the day of fairy tales, often involved going into a forest.  When you enter a forest, you are traversing a barrier, crossing a line, moving from civilisation to wilderness.  You are entering a different realm.  Whilst individual trees in fairy tales tend to be positive characters (in the grimm’s version, cinderalla has a tree which grants her wishes) a wood full of trees may not be…

A forest is darker and colder; this is a different place, a more sinister place.  You step from the wide open fields with many choices about how you pass through them into the wood with its designated paths and a sense of something ominous that keeps you to them.  You cannot see ahead of you, there are twists and turns and crooked paths and unexpected surprises, be they good or bad.

Dangers

And dangers there are.  There is the danger of getting lost in this dense environment where you cannot see the sky and you cannot see the horizon.  They are chaotic places with twists and turns and none of the orderliness of civilisation.  If it’s that easy to get lost, then it’s also easy for danger to hide.  There are wild and violent creatures – wolves, bears, werewolves, witches, felons and outlaws – all just waiting for you to come along and, in most cases, you will be eaten!  Think Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood.

The ease with which these beings can hide also suggests elements of secrecy, disguise and distortion.  The forest can hide things from you and show you things which are not there.  It conceals and deceives.

The forest of the fairy tale is often a reflection of the character’s inner self, but even if it’s not, forests are places which remind us that we too are animals.  We are closer to beast in the midst of the woods.

Retreat

“Of course you can get lost in the forest, but you can also hide in the forest… Forests are good places to hide.  Slip away between the trees, lurk in the greenwood, vanish into the thickets of wild wood: step outside the laws that bind you to the present and you become the out law”
– Sara Maitland

Why would you retreat into the forest?  Well you might step in on an errand as with little red riding hood, but you might also be running away from something much worse.  Often in fairy tales, this is an abusive family or situation…

For some characters, this retreat into the forest is the start of a reclamation of their power.  Or for younger heroes and heroines, a journey which sees them stepping into their personal power.

This place outside of adults creates an opportunity for children to step up to responsibility and to test themselves and their skills.  This is also seen in more recent literature such as the adventure stories of swallows and amazons and other tales of self-sufficient children.

“Forests became the pure place of primal innocence where children could escape from their adults, get away from the order and discipline of straight roads and good governance, and revert to their animal origins”
– Sara Maitland

Abandonment

Of course, not all characters enter the woods willingly.  We have Snow White who is abandoned by the huntsman who is supposed to kill her, we have Rapunzel who is locked in a tower in a forest as well as Hansel and Gretel and Sleeping Beauty who is hidden away in the forest.  Here the forest as savage and uncivilised is more prominent.  These children have literally been left in the wild by people who are supposed to love them, how much further can you get from civilisation?

Even in those stories where abandonment isn’t a feature, there is a sense of the character feeling abandoned when they get lost or lose their sense of self.  There is nothing that can be relied on in the dark, wild forests.  Civilisation itself has abandoned you.

Transformation

Within the forest, magic happens.  Whilst this might involve a witch or an enchanted tree, it can also be that marvellously mortal type of magic that transforms who you are and what you think.

With the forest as a metaphor for feeling lost, for depression and anxiety, characters can use their time to find their way, to find ways of seeing the future and ways back to who they truly are.  In the dark, tangled woods, where you can’t see the sky or the edges, you can be sure to see your authentic self.  So long as you keep going and face the challenges which come your way.  They will be hard, but they are not insurmountable.  The hero or heroine never die in the forest.  It is not a destination, it is a part of your journey.

In the forest, you may find you have to veer from the path, or discover you have lost the path, in order to find your own, unique way through.  You will face tests and trials as well as the horrors and dangers of the woods.  But this is a liminal state.  This is the space you need to grow, to become wiser and stronger and to build yourself back up to all the wonder of your true self.

“Coming to terms with the forest, surviving its terrors, utilising its gifts and gaining its help is the way to ‘happy ever after’
– Sarah Maitland

The type of challenges you face in a forest, tend not to be life threatening ones.  Instead they are the sort which stretches you and shapes you and requires you to put in work to get through them.  In England where we have no wild animals to kill you, the real threats of a forest are few.  But instead, you face horrible things which help to teach you how to cope and that you can cope.  That you will get through tough situations and you will come out a better person for it.  They build resilience.  And our stories of these forests remind us all that “intelligence and knowledge and love allow a person to overcome the worst disasters and be better off for it” (Sara Maitland).

“It is where you travel to find yourself, often, paradoxically, by getting lost.”
– Roger Deakin

Often, characters get lost in fairy tale forests and this aides the narrative by reflecting their internal state.  The heroines or heroes are untangling their own secret selves whilst also untangling the secrets of the forest.  And they leave the forest with a strong sense of self and truth and a sense of a path forward.

Within the framework of looking at universal archetypes, Jungian scholars have posed the fairy tale forest as both a place of trials, as we’ve discussed, but also a place for retreat, reflection and healing.  When discussing the tale of the handless maiden, Jungian scholar Marie Louise von Franz says:

“She has to go into deep introversion…. The forest [is] the place of unconventional inner life, in the deepest sense of the word.”

Sharon Blackie echoes this duality when she says:

“to enter into any wood is to enter into a realm in which transformation seems inevitable; the particular brand of transformation you’re heading for depends heavily on the nature of the wood.” 

She goes onto explain how the woods of northern Europe, often shadowy, dark, dangerous places represent a world outside of human experience, the world where there are witches and monsters and wolves.  Whereas the lighter, broad leaf forests allow more light in and tend to be settings for fairies and enchantment instead.

Perhaps the forest is also a reminder that there is space for reflection and enchantment even in the darker places.  That there, in the forest filled with fear, the light of your own magic shines brighter and stronger.

Another common theme of transformation is that of coming of age, the forest as part of an initiation into adulthood but I think I’ve already written more than enough for now… Perhaps I shall revisit this topic again one day…

Further reading

There is so much more reading that you can do but I’m going to include a few links to different forest based fairytales which come with interesting commentary and I highly recommend Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest.

October – my writing

Just in case you were going to comment unconstructively, I’m not in the mood… I shared a poem in an online context recently, with the note it was unfinished, to illustrate an idea I was discussing.  Instead of engaging with the idea or adding something constructive I got a fairly unhelpful comment about my assonance… Had this person given examples of what was meant and where in my work this was I would have found it very helpful but as they didn’t, it just felt rubbish…

Virtually nothing I post on here is a final version and if I tried to do that you’d not get October inspired poems in October.  Given the current structure of this project, I feel like it is more helpful for me to share unedited work that is relevant to the month’s topic as they will share ideas about approaches and exercises.

I also, inevitably, have some words about autumn but I’m going to look at that in a different post.

Prompted by the structure of Larkin’s ‘The little lives of earth and form’, I wrote a sextilla:

Granite strong and chalky soft
To this land, my hat I doff.
Jagged peaks and silky sands;
                A contradiction
                This composition.
A feat unmatched by human hands.

Whilst line two has issues, I like the contradiction in the poem and in nature and it fits with the idea of nature not being less than us.

One night this month, I lay awake.  Well actually, many nights this month I’ve lain awake.  But this particular night was raining and surprisingly my neighbours were quiet so I listened to it from my bed at 3am, thinking of rain words.

The crackle of rain
On the window pane

Tip tip tap
Tip tip tap

Each drip drop crashes
Into sleeplessness
Pittering
Pattering

Tip tip tap
Tip tip tap

Clock ticking, tocking
Droplets plip, plopping

Tip tip tap
Tip tip tap

Trashing in the night
Insomniac’s fight
Tossing and turning
Running from morning

Tip tip tap
Tip tip tap

Tip tip tap…

And we have to have one poem about humans and animals, after all, it is the theme of the month!!  Whilst I declared at the start these are all drafts, this one very very much is a draft.  I like the idea and I know it needs work so constructive criticism welcomed!

Roll up!  Roll up!
For The Greatest Zoo On Earth!©
Roll up!  Roll up!
For your last chance to see…

Our antelopes and badgers,
Crustaceans and dancing deer!
Elephants and flying fish
You may even see a reindeer*!

*Seasonal attraction only, no guaranteed sightings, no refunds available.

Goats and hippopotamuses
Iguanas and jaguars!
Kackling Kookaburras™
And lots of leaping leopards!

Meerkats standing guard, new newts,
Orangutans and peacocks.
And don’t forget to see all
The happy, smiling quokkas!

Roll up!  Roll up!
For rats, raccoons and Rudolph™
See the seals, snails, snakes and skunks
Turtles and terrapins too!

Umbrella birds, vampire bats
Weasels and X-Scape Monkeys™.
You can see it all right here
At The Greatest Zoo On Earth©

Closing soon.