Tag Archives: writing

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 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 Courage to Create

the courage to create‘We are called upon to do something new, to confront a no man’s land, to push into a forest where there are no well-worn paths and from which no one has returned to guide us. This is what the existentialists call the anxiety of nothingness. To live into the future means to leap into the unknown, and this requires a degree of courage for which there is no immediate precedent and which few people realize.’

The Courage to Create is not a new book but it is most certainly an extraordinary one. It was first published in 1975 though some of the chapters were developed from lectures given up to twenty years earlier. Rollo May, who died in 1994, was an American existential psychotherapist and an author of a number of books, such as Man’s Search for Himself and The Cry for Myth. In the prologue to The Courage to Create, May mentions his initial reluctance to publish this collection of lectures because they felt to him, incomplete. When he finally agreed to publish them it was because he realized that ‘this ‘unfinished’ quality is ‘part of the creative process itself’.

rollo may 1 In this far ranging exploration of creativity, May identifies courage as the most essential ingredient of the creative act. What is courage? he asks in the title chapter. He then goes on to explore what it is not in order to bring our focus towards what it might be. No, it is not the opposite of despair nor the absence of despair but rather ‘the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair’. Courage, he says, ‘requires centeredness within our own being’. It is not rashness or bravado and neither is it a virtue or a personal value, but rather it is ‘the foundation that underlies and gives reality to all other virtues and personal values.’ May goes on to explain that the ‘word courage comes from the same stem as the French word coeur, meaning heart’. 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

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Making Ideas Happen

Moving from being inspired by an idea to actually acting upon it is not always easy but any successful creative entity must be comfortable alternating between these two creative phases: ideation and execution.

Scott Belskymaking ideas happen quote

After a year of struggling to prioritise my writing over other duties, a couple of months ago I bought a time management book called Making Ideas Happen:Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality. I have to admit that I was not expecting it to make much of a difference to my life and I also felt slightly embarrassed by the idea of time management; as if I had anything to manage, as if I was a CEO or some sort of entrepreneur with a busy meeting schedule. And anyway, my days were already so full I couldn’t see where to squeeze anything else in without letting go of something – paid work, exercise time, family time, or even sleep; all of which I treasure. I was desperately tired and was already pushing myself too hard, ending each day with a feeling of failure because I hadn’t achieved everything I set out to do. Each day I wrote a to-do list and each day it grew longer. Write novel was always somewhere on that list but rarely was it crossed out. Once again my writing had been put on the back burner, becoming an increasingly distant dream, and unless we’re lucky enough to make a good living out of our writing, this scenario is most likely a familiar one for many of us. As Philp Roth said, ‘The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.’

So I bought Scott Belsky’s book and sat down with a cup of tea and a good dose of skepticism. Within minutes I was hooked, despite the fact that for the most part, the world Belsky described did not resemble my own. Nevertheless, the ideas were practical and useful and possible to achieve. According to Belsky ideas only happen with organization and prioritization. In a sense this is pretty much stating the obvious but like most of us, I had never thought of the obvious. Belsky successfully tailored the obvious into practical applications that made it possible to begin making changes. I was already familiar with motivational material  – books by other writers that invariably inspired and enthused me temporarily but I had never been able to translate this ‘just do it’ inspiration into just doing it.

In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm… in the real world all rests on perseverance.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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A Way of Being Free

‘The worst realities of our age are manufactured realities. It is therefore our task, as creative participants in the universe, to redream our world. The fact of possessing imagination means that everything can be redreamed. Each reality can have its alternative possibilities. Human beings are blessed with the necessity of transformation.’A Way of Being Free 1

Collections of essays by authors are generally intriguing, providing an insight into the mind of the author, their perspective on the world and of course, their perspective on writing. A Way of Being Free by Booker prize winning novelist, Ben Okri is one of my favourites and one that I refer back to whenever I am in need of soul nourishment. It’s a collection of twelve essays, of which my favourites are ‘The Joys of Storytelling’, ‘The Human Race is Not Yet Free’ and ‘While the World Sleeps. Together, the essays explore inspiration, creativity, religion and the power of storytelling in a beautifully lyrical way.

 ‘Beware of the storytellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art: they could unwittingly help along the psychic destruction of their people.’

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