As (some of) my children become teens, learn to develop relationships with others, forge their ideals and identity and face various challenges, I wrote this (along the lines of the wonderful Desiderata) as a guiderail for their journey.
My last post mentioned the Serendipity of social media and the internet and the interesting, informative and wondrous aspects of life it can put us in touch with. Having been working through some difficult times I’ve come to realise that Serendipity can be a source of great comfort and inspiration, bolstering resilience and nurturing spirit when life throws rubbish at you. Amidst the difficult there are always, in this world, glorious and astounding things that can reach through and set the heart beating fast once more.
Help, Thanks, Wow
Anne Lamott’s book Help, Thanks, Wow is a book for those who are flailing in times of crisis. In the Help section she says “There’s freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting you’ve reached the place of great unknowing. This is where restoration can begin, because when you’re still in the state of trying to fix the unfixable, everything bad is engaged: the chatter of your mind, the tension of your physiology, all the trunks and wheel-ons you carry from the past. It’s exhausting, crazy-making.” Whether you are religious or not you can just stop and utter that word, that prayer to the universe ‘Help’. Things may or may not work out but you can just wait and know that the universe, or friends, or beauty will give you something, some kind of sustenance, some kind of peace. (You can read an excerpt here
The ‘Thank’ element of her book is one we’re familiar with. A philosophy of gratitude or marking the positives in our lives and relationships and exchanges helps to slant our worldview back towards the hopeful. The Wow part of her books is what I’m talking about here with this idea of Serendipity, where serendipity is the lucky happenstance that reveals the worlds wonders to us. It has elements of surprise, awe, luck, appreciation and excitement. Again, it enlivens the blood.
Wonders found through Serendipity
Throughout our lives we all happen upon fascination, either on line or in the ‘real’ world. In newspapers, in the street, in the homes of our friends and family, in the garden, on trips abroad. We hear of astounding medical miracles, we hear of bad luck made good, or we watch extraordinary nature programs or visit astounding caves or gorgeous national parks. We hear gorgeous music, admire art and fashion, taste incredible food, watch movies that change our lives, read books that enter our blood.
And chains begin, an artist who learned from another, a collaboration between a singer and an author, a book that refers to another, an artist, or musician or author or scientist or doctor or architect whose work fires up something in you or speaks to you and leads you down the path of their work and thus to their influences, opening and opening up the world further and further.
At the moment I am in the world of my ongoing novel Eat! It’s core theme is how we fill the spaces of loss and need within us in different, somethings unhealthy, poignant ways. Secondly I’m seeing how as we become more and more ‘inside people’ the comfort and intimacy we have with nature is lost. As a child who grew up with an intimate knowledge of my local landscape, I can see how, living in increasingly urban areas, my children do not have the same intimacy and knowledge of the natural landscape – although of course they are more au fait with their landscape of concrete and brick. Some of my characters explore a yearning to get back into the natural landscape while others shy away from it within the backdrop of the recent housing boom, where ‘buildings sprung up from the ground, rampant like weeds.’
But I ramble, like a rambler on hills…My serendipity in exploring the themes of my book began with my discovery in a newspaper of a review of Robert MacFarlane’s book Landmarks, whose aim is to create a glossary of words for nature, words that are beginning to be lost, words that help provide us with that intimacy with the natural world which many of us are losing. I will save the details for another post but this book has put me in touch with many other books on the same theme and thus has already deepened and informed my exploration of this natural theme.
To bring it back full circle (as I love to do). My Serendipity posts each Wednesday will share with you fascinating books, articles, sites, places I have found by chance conversations or browsing (both online and offline). I would also beseech you to share your fascinating finds in the comments, things wondrous and beguiling that might inspire and uplift others.
The Dust Motes Appreciation Society
In the spirit of serendipity and wonder, I recently set up on Facebook, The Dust Motes Appreciation Society. Originally a reaction to a literary editor’s wry exasperation with the number of dust mote mentions in short stories, I wanted to celebrate bothe the beauty and metaphoric power of dust motes. The aim of the society is to share appreciation for everything tiny and wondrous in the universe, particles, petals and persons and to celebrate dust mote mentions and appearances in literature and art. In practice it means that the page is a place that you can go throughout the week to find inspiration, wonder and joy.
Don’t forget also that the Head Above Water Facebook page has more regular posts and links to inspiring articles on writing, creativity, resilience and mental health than I’m able to provide here.
Links to creativity and resilience
I hope you explore some of the books and pages I’ve mentioned here which will lead you to further wonders. I look forward to the fascinating links, articles, books, movies, programmes and so on that you can share with us that will enhance all our experiences. Thanks so much.
I’ve just finished Douglas Coupland’s Eleanor Rigby, a very touching book about human condition and it’s made me understand what I want to do as a writer. It’s not just about me finding a way to unburden and express myself but it’s also important to me to pay witness, yes to speak for the ordinary people or speak through the mouths of ordinary people and to touch others. When I wrote Housewife with a Half-Life I felt it was a touching book and that it said some human things and with its follow up and the other books I’m working on I want more than anything to continue that, to make entertaining books but those that at their heart are about people just trying to find their way.
I think that’s what I saw in Douglas Copeland and what I need to say over and over is this generation is all about finding ourselves and being who we need to be and not sacrificing ourselves for others and yes it is so hard when we reach out and care for others and when they don’t reach back or sometimes do even more, turn against the care and twist it round and make it nasty. Or when society deals unfair blows, lets banks destroy lives, take away supports from those who need them most. But turning outward and finding the joy in that is what really sustains us, and turning away from the idea of the troubled artist to one who wants to connect and testify to life is what can give us a more sustaining ambition.
I heard a lovely piece on the radio about Alice Munroe who recently won the Nobel Prize for writing. All she wrote all her life was local stories about ordinary human things. She didn’t try and follow the market or trend, she could not explain her stories she said, she just reached in to what was real and did it. The writing and the witness was the thing, for her and how lovely that her writing was, in the end, recognised at the highest level.
What I want to do, have always wanted to do is to spread some comfort and to express what is uplifting and admirable in the world against the juxtaposition of the struggles we face. This is exactly where books such as Eleanor Rigby, The Fault in our Stars and the Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry are pitched, loneliness, connection, disaster and optimism side by side.
To try and stay true to exploring these human fundamentals is a more humble aim for our work. It takes the worry and the hype away from writing because if you stay true to that thing, that idea of humanity that that you want to get through, this is the purpose of the books, the focus of it, then that will give a path through. Technically I want to make characters in the book real, I want us to care about the people more that the ideas behind the books, I want the human to come through – even when I talk in certain books, about possible aliens and UFOs, it’s still all about humans. Motifs such as Voyager travelling out of the known universe now with all these human artefacts on board, going just to see what’s there are very relevant and striking to me. We are all Voyager, travelling across our human lives and carrying the markers of our lives with us.
We like the idea of this cabin away from the world without society beating in because society and it’s preoccupations and inequalities becomes a fog, creates chains, keeps us from the quietness of the things that are important. I want my books to be cabins that people can go into and find these human stories, stories about our frustrations and concerns, our strange psychologies. Life is the thing and the writing bows down to it. It is a more humble starting place, it may be a more vocational philosophy that others trying to develop a writing career are comfortable with. It does not preclude all ambition to be published though or to be known, but it’s main focus of making and testifying takes, in every instance of writing presence and practice, the external worries away. It’s then about you and the clay and the shapes you want to make, not whether others will like them just now.
Related: Dan Holloway’s new book Self-Publish with Integrity helps you explore what you want from your writing
More thoughts on maintaining the Integrity of your project https://alisonwells.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/taking-the-time-for-the-book-you-want-to-write/
Today I’ve written an article including some Tolstoy quotes sent to me by a writer friend, exploring how to really take the time we need to write the book we really want to write. I talk about incubation, deep reading, George Saunders’ view that this slow writing demands a greater focus and integrity than our quick flit modern world encourages as well as the music and resonance of Kirsty Gunn’s ‘masterpiece’ The Big Music. I also consider two possible approaches in publishing – that of the set brand (with thanks to Elizabeth’s Baines) versus the writer as developing artist. Here’s an extract
We’ve talked before about the importance of incubation, giving time to a project to let disparate ideas coalesce into something whole, layered and original. The first Tolstoy quote says:
Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.
We start out with a wealth of ideas and associations, everything is fascinating but making good story often means finding a true and strong thread through those ideas. Like panning for gold or, as my friend said ‘digging and digging before washing’ to ‘string together nuggets’. An artist friend of mine advised me with my own work on The Book of Remembered Possibilities to take it and ‘shake out the detritus of work progress,’ until I could see clearly it’s ‘colour and shape’ and clear away more until “the beat , the rhyme and reason, the poetry is plain.”
George Saunders in this excellent article talks about writing, about how new devices have had a neurological effect that makes the mind leap from one thing to another, become discontent faster. He talks about how writing faster, working on a number of things such as screenplays, travel journalism etc as well as touring, doing TV shows began to make him feel ‘quesy’. Not that he was denigrating those activities but “I really craved the feeling of deep focus and integrity that comes with writing fiction day after day, in a sort of monastic way.” He adds ‘And twitter doesn’t come into that’.
You can read the whole article here and I hope you comment here or there to tell me what your thoughts are. I’m not advocating an arduously slow approach for every project, rather suggesting that where space, time, ambition and courage are required, we need to find ways of holding onto those to maintain the integrity of the project.
Jan 1st 2013. We get out of bed and we want to do things better this year even though we might just slide back into the old ways, we’re starting with resolve and a heightened optimism. As we stare out the window and think, yes, i should get out there we know that we need to galvanise that wish into something more focussed. Our minds are wimps really, they need goals and encouragement and a kick up the…
As I writer I’m well aware of the swings between enthusiasm and doubt, as a parent of young children, one of whom has aspergers, I know about trying, about joys, failures, frustrations, exhaustion, delight, about getting up from setbacks over and over and keeping going. Across the world the recession has hit families badly and here in Ireland a harsh budget will bring massive trials and difficulties to already stretched people.
When I started this blog Head above Water meant mainly being able to juggle the demands of at that time, a very young family while finding headspace to write. Now I want to broaden that to incorporate the range of demands people find themselves under.
Note: As this series goes on I’ll add the 31 links to this post so you can access all other posts from here, so you’ll get the full 31 by the end of January.
Day 28: Take Heart
HEAD ABOVE WATER
The dictionary definition of keeping head above water says:
The transition from childhood to adulthood involves a mental development that allows for more abstract reasoning, logical complexity, a greater awareness of consequence and an understanding of the nuanced dynamics of human relationships. However there are ways that childlike thinking can get us back to the basics of life and enhance our creative endeavours.
Babies and very young children are absorbed in the moment to moment awareness of their surroundings and the stimuli around them. The parents of young children often bemoan the snails pace at which a walk somewhere has to be undertaken but a key memory for me is when my youngest son was eighteen months and on one of his first walks in the big outside world. He became absolutely fascinated with a pebbledash wall, he looked at it, touched it, ran his fingers along it, went right up close. The other day I helped my daughter make daisy chains. To do so, we sat right down on the grass, feeling it under our fingers, surrounded by a galaxy of daisies, some fully open, some pink tipped. We selected the correct stems, just thick enough, made the delicate slice in the stem, threaded them through. There was a light breeze, bird sounds, occasional traffic, the concentration of the threading action. This slowing down and careful examination of things can bring us into the heart of a story or emotion. When describing a scene we can open it up around the mind of the reader by including the smallest of details, a cigarette butt, a shiny bottle top, a half-open fushia bud, the angle of a business man’s tie.
Children take things at face value; they make broad comparisons based on ‘similar’ or ‘different’. Only as they grow do they learn to make more nuanced distinctions. While the nuance is what differentiates a truly great writer from an adequate one, when we first introduce a character in a book, we need to use the broader brushstrokes, to give us a handle on the person, a hook. While it may not be politically correct; as humans we always make an initial judgement based on looks, similarity to ourselves, race, colour or accent. In our books our characters will make assumptions about one another based on initial impressions. These might later turn out to be incorrect. In writing, we can use the transition from the broad strokes to nuance to explore a developing relationship or an increasing or decreasing understanding between characters.
Fearlessness and Free thinking
Small babies have no depth perception and no sense of the danger of falling. Terrifyingly young children will run out onto a busy road with no sense of danger. Even older children, teenagers and even young adults carry with them a sense of invincibility. While many children invent rules for their games, there is a greater sense of freedom, where ‘let’s pretend’ means a car can fly or a giraffe can talk. As writers we need fearlessness to write at all and to take chances with our writing. We need to ‘run into the road’ into topics or subject areas that we find difficult to deal with in order to exercise our skill as writers. We also need to stretch our imaginations while making sure that our stories have their own internal logic.
Curiosity and Interest
Is a crane bigger than a whale?
Being party to my children’s homework, I realise how many facts they become aware of in a short space of time about history, mythology, geography, music, art, science. Browsing through their books I discover quirky interesting facts that are absolutely gripping. One of my favourite short stories ever is A Stone Woman by AS.Byatt. She writes about a woman who literally turns to stone, but what stone! She is made up of so many different types that characterize the veins, the skins, the face, the limbs. The manifestations of stone also become more intricate over time. Stone happens to be one of my favourite things. In this story it was intrinsically fascinating, due to the level of detail employed but it also worked as a powerful descriptive device and metaphor. One of my sons knows everything there is to know about astronomy and I have used his knowledge in my work to provide an extra layer of interest in my stories. Facts are hooks that if used appropriately can inject life into writing.
Fundamental questions, fundamental themes
Why are we alive? Are you going to die?
The parents of young children hear these sorts of questions every day, and often at bedtime when the impending darkness and separation may whirl up anxieties in the children. It is poignant to hear these existential questions from the mouths of babes and very often we don’t have the answers. But these questions can remind us of the archetypal themes that underpin all literary endeavours. It is commonly known that so called ‘children’s’ fairytales deal with dark themes. But these are the themes that are eminently and poignantly human. Whatever the style or genre of a book, whether its tone is light and fluffy or serious, the undercurrent of the archetypal concerns and themes will still be there. Often as adults we bury the fundamental fears and concerns under the flurry of everyday life. As writers we have to expose and deal with these raw terrors. These concerns translate into our characters’ complex motivations, make people take
unusual decisions and do extraordinary things.
The child that you were and in some ways still are has special access to both wonder and fear. This child makes judgements and takes risks and sees things with fresh eyes. Use those qualities to create writing that has an extra edginess and magic.
Note: I wrote this article originally in 2010 as a guest post for children’s author Olive O’ Brien.