Category Archives: Rosie Dub posts

Exploring Landscape and Belonging Through Story

GS front cover jpg‘Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.’  James Baldwin Giovanni’s Room

Recently I attended a storytelling festival in Aberystwyth and as I sat mesmerized by the unfolding story of Pryderi, the ruler of Dyfed, I realized once again the power of the ancient stories and the oral tradition of storytelling to connect us to history, to each other and to the land. In Women Who Run With The Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote that, ‘telling or hearing stories draws its power from a towering column of humanity joined one to the other across time and space, elaborately dressed in the rags or robes or nakedness of their time.’ Listening to this spine tingling retelling of stories from the Welsh Mabinogion, for a moment I felt myself balanced on this towering column and understood what it must mean for someone to feel rooted to the earth, to grow and develop in a country with stories that feed the soul with the wisdom of mythic times, and a landscape that is steeped in these stories.

While the stories we tell about ourselves form our individual identity, the stories we tell about our country form our national identity and for better or worse, these narratives act as roots to ground us to place, providing a sense of belonging and a definition of nationhood. I don’t pretend to be Welsh but my ancestral roots are closer to Britain than they are to Australia where my ancestors are not the indigenous Aboriginal people whose land was taken from them. It’s not always comfortable being a white Australian. We have no ancient claim to the land and no traditional stories to draw from, except the stories of conquering and overcoming the odds, and the legends of mateship and a ‘fair go’ that came with colonization and a persistent white Australian policy. These are stories that have become mythologized in Australia, forming a national character that often marginalizes the indigenous population and ignores the fact that Australia is now a multi-cultural nation and the majority of its population are or once were, immigrants.

There are a number of contradictions inherent in white Australians’ relationship to the land. Many of us are at once drawn to, and repelled by the outback, awed by its beauty and frightened by its dangers. We carry the guilt of the conqueror, a guilt that often stops us from claiming a real connection to the land. Our legendary heroes are the men who cleared fields of rocks, who dug canals to drain marshy land, who made the harsh land work for them. The Aussie battler has become part of our national character. Yet, despite this reverence for the outback, more than ninety percent of Australians live in urban environments, for the most part clustered around the edges of this continent, turned away from the centre which carries such a mystique. We romanticise the wilderness, but most rarely, if ever, experience it. Yet, deep within us there’s such a longing for wildness, for wilderness and for the sense of real connection with place.

When I began writing my first novel, Gathering Storm, I had no idea how important a role landscape would play in it or how confused I was about my own relationship to the land. The story moves from the snow covered Malvern Hills in England to the harsh heat of the Australian outback, a dramatic contrast in itself, but then there are the contradictions that are deeply embedded in the relationship the characters have with the places in which they live, or once lived, or never lived, but still dream of. These are contradictions which I feel strongly, having grown up in the suburban wilderness of Adelaide, with its manicured lawns, neat fences and garden beds filled with roses and hydrangeas, all cowering under well placed umbrellas to avoid the worst of the baking sun. At school I learned European history in an education system that was still clinging to the comforting notion of a homeland. The only things reminding me that there was more to Australia, were the throaty laugh of the kookaburra, the eucalyptus scent of the gums trees, the fierce summer heat and the frequent dust storms that blew in from ‘out back’, turning the sky orange and clogging our lungs.

The word nostalgia comes from two Greek roots, nostos (returning home) and algos (pain). For most of my life I suffered from this affliction; a yearning to return home but no idea of where that home might be. This sense of alienation I felt goes some way towards explaining why I decided to make my main character English in Gathering Storm. This gave me the freedom to describe Australia through the eyes of a stranger, someone who doesn’t belong. Storm is also part Romany – partly imbued with the blood of a nomadic people, and although her family have lived in England for nearly seventy years, she still doesn’t fully belong there either. Storm belongs nowhere. She is torn between movement and stillness, restless but afraid, wanting to settle, but eager to move. Her sense of self is scattered between the cottage in the Malvern Hills, her boyfriend’s apartment, her art studio and her Kombi van. There there’s her romantic notion of Bohemia, her nostalgia for the Malvern of her childhood and her fearful retracing of her mother’s footsteps in the Australian outback. And finally there’s the cultural legacy of the past that plays havoc with her sense of self. Storm’s childhood is filled with secrets and silences embedded in the spaces between the stories her family reluctantly tell. Speaking of her childhood need for stories, Storm says, ‘I consumed them as if there were a great hollow inside me that needed filling and that once filled, their weight, the weight of my ancestors, would act as an anchor. . .’

For me, a sense of belonging is linked very closely to place and to the stories we tell that connect us to place. I was an adopted child and grew up steeped in a sense of my own illegitimacy. Like Storm, I felt I belonged nowhere, that no place was truly mine. And because this lack of belonging was a strong central theme in my own life, it inevitably demanded to be explored in the stories I told. Woven through both Gathering Storm and Flight, is this sense of dislocation and statelessness that can be felt and experienced personally, but also within a family a culture and a nation. Place gives us identity, a passport to belonging. But time does it too. In a sense, space and time cross when a family or a people have been anchored in one place for generations. Ancestors provide us with roots and so does place. As Storm asks: How long does it take? How many generations? Do we inherit place? Do we earn it? Or is belonging simply a state of mind? Exploring these questions through writing has helped me to resolve issues of belonging and identity within my own life. Like Storm I have begun to suspect that belonging is ultimately something we carry inside of ourselves. It is a realisation that comes when we are on the right path in our lives. Until then nowhere is ours, but when this realisation arrives, the world becomes ours. For as Joseph Campbell wrote, ‘our true reality is in our identity and unity with all life’.

 

If you’re interested in reading Gathering Storm here’s a link to Amazon. Kindle only at present but the print version is on its way.

Reading Between the Lines

A tale, fictitious or otherwise, illuminates truth.  Jalaluddin Rumi

Reading is fundamental to living in our society, to meeting the demands of everyday life and to discovering the magic contained within books. Yet in this increasingly fast paced, hi-tech society we run the risk of losold booking that magic. We have become impatient, finding ourselves drawn to abbreviations rather than elaborations. Facebook and twitter reduce our news to paragraphs and sentences respectively, micro-fiction is blossoming, the pace of our stories is increasing, as is the speed with which they are delivered, until there is little time for contemplation, for pausing over a beautiful passage in a story, for allowing stories to seep into us and change us from within. And yet stories are vital. More than mere entertainment, they tell us who we are and they help us to find ourselves.

As Ralph Waldo Emmerson once said, ‘I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.’ Each of us is the product of the stories we tell ourselves, the stories our culture, our society, our family, our friends, our teachers, our filmmakers and our authors tell us. Story is what forms our identity and our opinions. But stories can do something else too. They can be truly revolutionary. When we read heroic myths, or novels which tell of the coming of age of a character, then we find that these stories can also help to free us from an identity that has been constructed by others and to see through the ideology in which we are immersed. Reading can and should help us to learn how to live as individuals within society, by encouraging us to reach inwards and explore ourselves and showing us how to reach out and connect with others. Continue reading

The Patterns That Bind Us

‘. . . I spend a lot of time in my garden, seeing the larger patterns reflected in the smaller patterns that I, in my small way, help to sustain. There are ponds with lilies, and tadpoles which drop their tails, grow legs and eventually emerge as frogs. There are tall ferns in the shadows, arching their fronds across the sky like wings, and trees that drop their leaves in winter, carpeting the ground and protecting it from frosts. There are bulbs that lie dormant through autumn and winter, then in spring, at some mysterious signal, push their way through the hard ground towards the light. There are flowers that bare their heart to the sun each day, following its path, their petals closing each night to embrace the darkness. There are trees whose blossoms become fruit that ripens and weighs down the branches, sending summer scents into the hot, still air. There are bees that lift pollen from the flowers, winds that lift seeds from their source, worms that labour underground, enriching the earth, food scraps that become soil. Everywhere in my garden are the patterns of life. I have only to use all my senses, to watch and listen, smell and touch, to taste, and to intuit. I have only to do this and I know what I need to know.’       Flight, Rosie Dub

It seems to me that there are two types of patterns and we are bound by both for different reasons – to the first because we carry a responsibility and to the second because we are imprisoned by them. The first are the natural, harmonious patterns that are repeated throughout the universe, as seen in the movement of the planets and the cycles of nature. As Omar Ali Shah writes, ‘Everything is cosmologically related to movement in a harmonious, balanced and equilibrated way.’ It is when we stray from these patterns that trouble begins. We have only to look at the world around us. Wherever there is imbalance it is because harmony has been broken. The second type of patterns emerge from this, the ones that form around a sense of isolation created due to our breaking away from equilibrium – fear, hate, violence, arrogance, abuse of self and others . . . rippling outward as conflict within an individual becomes conflict within relationship, becomes conflict within society and conflict between societies. Paradoxically, stories carry within them both sets of patterns. They  explore conflict and chaos but their structure and the journey of their characters hints at something more – a reaching out to the harmonious patterns from which the majority of us have become isolated. Continue reading

The Alchemist – ‘Dreams are not Negotiable’

‘At a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.” The AlchemistThe Alchemist

Recently the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala, was interviewed by the New York Times and asked to name her favourite author. Her answer? Paulo Coelho. When asked the name of the last truly great book she had read, Malala said, ‘The Alchemist’. She went on to explain that she liked The Alchemist because ‘it is hopeful and inspiring. It tells the story of a boy who embarks on a journey to find a treasure, but as he goes along, he learns from every part of his journey and every person he meets. In the end, he finds his treasure in a very interesting place. His story tells you that you should believe in yourself and continue your journey.’

Paulo Coelho receives a lot of flak, despite, or perhaps because of, the popular success of his books. It’s fashionable to despise both the author and his writing, and an astonishing number of those who do, have not actually read any of his work. Perhaps it is because despite its beauty, Coelho’s writing is not always perceived as ‘literary’, in the sense that many of his stories are told in an allegorical manner. More likely it is because his work is defined as New Age, a term that has been used and misused so often it has become a cliché. Over time the spirit of scientific rationalism has permeated all of society and in the process has defined what is orthodox and what is heretical. Now it has become fashionable to sneer at what is immeasurable or illogical, to dismiss it as New Age, light weight, wacky. . . and in so doing we disregard its potential to provide us with another kind of knowledge. As Coelho wrote in The Alchemist, ‘When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed.’ Continue reading

The Art of Description – Writing Place and Self

Description-begins-in-theDon’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Anton Chekhov

Despite the fact that I had always carried the knowledge within me that I would one day become a writer, for many years I also believed that I couldn’t write, or at least that I was incapable of producing any writing of value. Not surprisingly, this caused a deep conflict within me and some confusion. Looking for the reasons behind this fundamental lack of faith in my own ability, I could cite low self-confidence or even low self-worth, and to a certain extent this was true. However, the real reason can be found in the word ‘value’. I believed that I could not produce anything of ‘value’ because I was quick to measure my abilities against those authors I read and often loved in high school. My schooling had given me a clear sense of what was valuable and what wasn’t. Maths and Science were valuable, while Art and English were not. And in English, the subject I was most drawn to, some authors were valuable while others were not. At the time I didn’t question these hierarchical constructions. I revelled in the glorious language of the authors I was studying, and in the process became deeply engaged in exploring the underlying meanings of texts and excited by their philosophical and spiritual explorations. Yet, while enjoying these texts I also came to believe that I was not a good writer because I couldn’t match D H Lawrence’s vocabulary, the intensity of his passion or the richness of his descriptions; Shakespeare’s depth of understanding was beyond me, and while the philosophy of Euripides was tantalisingly wise, I was too young to embrace it. Continue reading

The Editing Process: Taking Our Stories to the Next Stage

The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.

Terry Pratchett

While editing is not a particularly inspirational topic, it is no doubt a useful one. It is also a topic that is on my mind as I recently completed a first draft of my novel and am about to embark on the long process of editing.

Lots of people despise editing, some fear it, others enjoy it. I belong to the ‘enjoy it’ camp. Editing is part of the creative process but there is less uncertainty involved. It’s safer because the outcomes are already known, though inevitably with the safety comes a reduction in the magical process that unfolds in the first draft as we find our story. The roller coaster ride of the first draft becomes a merry-go-round in the second draft and I find this a welcome chance to catch my breath after all the excitement.

When I am writing a first draft, I politely ask my Editing Self to leave the room because it inhibits the writing process by undermining finding the storymy confidence and forcing me to stop and start as I check for imperfections. My Editing Self requires me to question too early the value of a scene rather than trust that it is there for a reason. And it insists that I get caught up in the intricacies of vocabulary and sentence structure instead of concentrating on the broader sweep of theme and story and character. For me the writing process is predominantly intuitive and I follow my nose, allowing one scene to dictate the next, one character’s actions and reactions to lead the plot and a theme to emerge and then weave its way through the story I discover along the way. Continue reading

The Seeds of a Story

“An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.”

Charles Dickens

The ideas that come to each of us do so for three reasons. Firstly, we are listening. Philip Pullman said, ‘I don’t know where my ideas come from, but I know where they come to. They come to my desk, and if I’m not there, they go away again.’ My ideas are rarely this polite. Instead they arrive at their own convenience, demanding to be heard and threatening to leave if they are ignored or treated badly. So if we are to capture ideas we must be there, waiting to receive them with gratitude and accept the responsibility for their maturation.

Secondly, we are the one person who can bring that particular idea to fruition at that particular time. In his book, Dreamgates, Robert Moss tells us that according to the Australian Aborigines, ‘the big stories—the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life—are forever stalking the right teller, sniffing and tracking like predators hunting their prey in the bush.’ Each of us has a unique combination of experience and skills, of themes that resonate within us and dreams that draw us onwards and inwards. The ideas that come to us do so because somewhere in the fusion of all that makes up our selves, lies the possibility of creating something harmonious that speaks beyond our limitations. A big story. Continue reading

Taking Off With Our Stories

birds treeThere is a saying that in order to fly you must first be willing to fall. Some time ago I saw this illustrated first hand in a row of terrace houses just behind the castle ruins and the busy promenade in Aberystwyth. With the sun bright in the sky and the sounds of children splashing and squealing in the water it was hard to believe that a life and death drama was unfolding in the form of a fledgling crow learning how to fly. I have watched it flapping its wings awkwardly, only to find itself sliding down roofs, bouncing into bushes and eventually sleeping exhausted on the tops of parked cars, while mother and father crow shout their warnings from rooftops and fly down in quick forays to nudge their baby back into action. For a few days I was woken at 4am by harsh cries as the parents fought pitched battles with prowling neighbourhood cats that are always on the lookout for an easy catch. Then one morning all was quiet and when I looked out of my attic window I could see the fledgling crow perched proudly on a rooftop before lifting gracefully into the air, delighted by its new found skill.

There is an art, or rather a knack to flying.  The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. 

Douglas Adams, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxybirds 1

Whether it is learning to fly or writing a novel, starting a business or choreographing a dance, the creative process demands risk and good timing, openness to discovery and a lot of hard work. As Stephen King wrote, ‘amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.’ He is right of course but inspiration is important too, the first step in a much longer process that requires a constant and often unconscious shifting back and forth between intuition and intellect, heart and head. Inspiration is the mystery behind the creative process, the spiritual element that is such an important balance to the practical slog of day-to-day work. It is a gift, the spark that sets our creative juices flowing, the moment when an idea descends and we know beyond doubt that we can bring it to fruition if only we could find the courage to step into the abyss and spread our wings. We must hold onto that moment because almost immediately the doubts will surface, niggling away at our confidence so that it can become a battle against ourselves just to begin, let alone to finish.

‘Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.’

Leonardo da Vinci

Continue reading

To Plan or Not to Plan: Storytelling versus Plotting

acorn

‘I do not plan my fiction any more than I normally plan woodland walks; I follow the path that seems most promising at any given point, not some itinerary decided before entry.’

John Fowles

Recently I’ve found myself immersed in discussions about the pros and cons of planning a novel before embarking on the writing of it. These days there are endless numbers of story planning tools, maps, checklists and even software designed to help us plan our stories. Many of these tools are no doubt very useful and I know a few writers who swear by them. People write in different ways, according to their character and preference. Some write haphazardly with no story in mind, then cut and paste, creating links between sections until a story emerges. Some plan everything before sitting down to actually write a story, mapping out chapters and scenes, character traits and biographies. Others plan very little and simply trust the process. There are dangers and rewards in each of these approaches. Too much knowledge of a story can set the boundaries so tightly its natural growth becomes restricted. Too little and the story might never be found.

‘Of course, the writer can impose control; It’s just a really shitty idea. Writing controlled fiction is called “plotting.” Buckling your seatbelt and letting the story take over, however… that is called “storytelling.” Storytelling is as natural as breathing; plotting is the literary version of artificial respiration.’

Stephen King

Continue reading

Welcome to the Centre for Story

Sunday afternoons are for relaxation; a walk perhaps, or a book or film, but today I am restless. Through my window I can see the river rising, its muddy water flowing increasingly fast as it tumbles over itself in a race towards the sea. The wind is howling too, the bare branches of the trees lining the riverside are swaying wildly against the grey sky, and the day is punctuated with gusty squalls of rain. Despite all this there are hopeful signs; daffodil bulbs are sending their shoots up and I noticed the first delicate snowdrops this morning.  All day, I’ve considered going for a walk, knowing that once I rug up and step outside, the elements would not seem so unfriendly.  Instead I’ve made hot soup and too many cups of tea, I’ve watched a James Bond movie and the grand final of the Australian Open, and I’ve circled the computer, unsure how to approach writing my first blog post yet knowing I must.

It seems as if only yesterday I was seeing in the New Year, welcoming 2014 with open arms, a hopeful heart and too many resolutions, and yet already January is over. In that time there has been a polar vortex in the States, Australia has experienced the hottest weather on earth and Britain has faced storms and high tides that have pounded the coast and destroyed much of the promenade in Aberystwyth where I am living. It has been a dramatic start to the year.

In the end I have kept to some of my New Year resolutions but not others. I didn’t give up the occasional glass of wine or the pleasure of chocolate bars, but I did start working on my novel once again and this has reminded me of the great joy and satisfaction that comes from the creative process. With the help of my eldest daughter, I have also set up this new website, the Centre for Story. I have wanted to do this for some time now but I had created a narrative around it, a self-limiting story that focused on the impossibilities – lack of time, lack of money and a distinct lack of expertise.  Or perhaps it was simply that the timing was not right.

What I have discovered is that developing a website is rather like writing a novel. It’s a process that takes one step at a time and in which each obstacle and problem is dealt with as it arises. Like a novel, there are blocks and back turns, turning points and questions that arise. There are moments of despair and moments of triumph, and like a novel, there is no certainty about the outcome. And finally, just like a novel, a website requires input from others, suggestions and comments that will help it to grow and evolve.

The Centre for Story is not complete; in fact it is only just beginning and while I have ideas about the direction I would like to take it, I am also aware that, like a novel, at some point, it will acquire a life of its own, following a path that is different from my initial expectations. The Centre is part of a journey, whose beginnings date back many years before the creation of the website and whose end is not yet visible. The blog will host guest bloggers from a range of backgrounds and I will post my own thoughts, as well as reviews of books, websites and articles and links to informative and inspirational talks. For those of you already familiar with Write on the Fringes, this blog will build on and replace that one.  You can also follow the Centre on facebookand twitter.

I hope you will follow the Centre on this meandering path that will celebrate the power of story to promote positive change within each of us and ultimately in the world around us.

 

You are welcome to share articles as long as copyright and contact information are always included.  Thank you for your courtesy.  Rosie Dub

www.centreforstory.com  www.rosiedub.com      Copyright © 2014 Rosie Dub All Rights Reserved