I thought it would be fun if we blog hopped

My blogging badly needs a shot in the arm, nay an intracardiac dose, of blah-blah fuel, so it is with great pleasure I’ve accepted Rob Rife’s invitation to a blog hop.

Rob Rife - Ascendant Canadian Bard

Rob Rife – Ascendant Canadian Bard in Yakima Valley

Basically, it’s a writer’s pyramid scheme, blog-based chain letter, tasteful tag-fest thing. I’m one of three writers Rob’s asked to answer four questions about writing and the writing process.

It is hoped that this will entendril the blogging writersphere ecosystem with fruitful vines of interconnection, lead readers to discover new and lovely writers and give others an insight into what makes some of us tick.

Not only because Rob’s said nice things about me in his post but also because, in my opinion, he’s “one to watch” as he climbs steadily the ladder of latter-day bards, I really hope you hop back up the vine and check out his writing. I think it speaks for itself in a unique voice and it takes a lot make me think, as I do, “when that book comes out I’m buying it” whether the author is my friend or not.

So…

1) What am I working on?
When I’m not writing for others, I’m mapping the terrain between my subconscious and conscious realities, my dreaming and waking worlds, and dredging up short stories as I go. These are broadcast semi-regularly as a podcast at Stories from the Borders of Sleep. They are stories for hearing rather than reading, so any book that may come from them in the future will be more of a spin-off than a substantial target met.

Borders of Sleep illustration by Robyn Trainer

Borders of Sleep illustration by Robyn Trainer

This is a long-term project. I intend to continue it until the twelfth of never and would be quite happy to let it be my life’s work. It provides a creative discipline through the need to continually bring out new material and is immensely satisfying as I know it goes straight to an audience that, my stats tell me, downloads on average a hundred stories a day.

Alongside that, and not a million miles removed from it, I’m working on a book that probably sits in the ‘self help’ section. Broadly, it’s about using different parts of the body as a way of connecting inner reflection with outward action. If that sounds too wooky, then it could alternatively be described as a book about anthropology and time management.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I honestly don’t know because, with perhaps one exception, I don’t really read the stuff that might be similar. The exception is that I have derived a lot from the works of George MacDonald. He occupies the high points of mythopoeic romance to which I can only aspire.

To feed myself, I study literary classics, folklore and history, watch TED talks and look for books in brooks and sermons in stones. I should probably be reading Paul Coehlo, Haruki Murakami, Susanna Clarke and Neil Gaiman, but I don’t have time.

3) Why do I write what I do?
It has always been the same motivation for me, that simple line from the screenplay of the film about CS Lewis, Shadowlands:

We read to know we are not alone.

Books have been my greatest comforters and companions in helping me make sense of this way between earth and heaven where we all have the temporary use of a body, a mind and some words. Therefore, put simply, “I write to let others know they are not alone either.”

4) How does my writing process work?
I need to work in long stretches of time so it only really happens when I have a few uninterrupted hours in the dead of night or the wee small hours. Saturday mornings are good, too.

I write standing up because I constantly need to fidget or walk away to calm down or let the kinks work out in my head.

Actually starting something is Mount Everest, everything after that is Cool Runnings (apart from editing, which is K2). Finishing something is a serious hit on my dopamine receptors.

I usually only need one or two ideas, the rest takes shape as I go along. So I might start just knowing I want to write about a couple of trees I saw with intertwined limbs. Then it’s just a case of letting my imagination play out and making sure I take notes and keep up.

That sounds easy but it takes quite a toll on me. I think I write in a trance – it’s a bit like getting drunk. I get elated, then I get hung over. Maybe a better answer to the previous question is just that I’m an addict.

And on to …

This is the bit where I tell you who to hop on to next … I’m still recruiting victims, but here’s my first:

Justin Lau – Writings of a Vagabond at Peace

When Justin first appeared in my life, I felt an immediate connection – although I suspect he has a gift for making most people feel like that. In spite of our very different backgrounds, our few conversations have got straight to the heart of the things that most interest me. We’re both multi-instrumentalists and we both love writing. We both see our creative calling as not fitting the box of one particular medium or art form although writing seems to be the brightest thread. We’re both gnawed by the great question of  ‘where is home?’ as people who have been geographically adrift among cultures from an early age. We’re both intrigued by Japanese culture – although he has more of an inside track on that. He introduces himself very well and explains why he’s a ‘Vagabond at Peace’ in this blog post.

Justin Lau's cheeky face

Justin Lau’s cheeky face

Justin describes himself as an ‘aspiring author’. That’s brave and honest. The title brackets him with millions of others who ‘hope to write a book some day’. The thing is, I think he just might be one of those who actually does. I dream with him that he’ll one day write the great Japanese novel. In the meantime he shows a flair for flash fiction, writes prolifically in search of his voice, studies English Literature at Durham University, has an eye for well-turned prose and an ear for a lyrical song.

Justin has recently restarted blogging (prompted by this post, in fact), and although there’s not a lot there yet, he’s definitely one to watch. You can literally watch him on YouTube and hear him on SoundCloud – but seriously … check him out!

A Mysterious Message from Avebury

Last night, I had occasion to share my postcard collection with a room of some twenty people.

“Find me a picture that speaks to you of God,” I asked them.

At the top of the first cluster of cards I picked through was this:

Avebury

Avebury

Although this wasn’t the card I chose for myself in the end, it struck me how the sacred stone circles of Britain have played a part in my own journey towards Divine Mysteries. I flipped it over …

The back side of the card brought a flood of memories from my 18-year-old self, who sits like a lodestone in my consciousness and frequently pulls at my internal compass needle.

05-09-2014 11;38;03AM

Dear Seymour, We are sitting in a pub with our local draughts, (beer not women!) having journeyed to the sacred stones – and halfway back. Meeting bearded bards and chalkened travellers, Listening to tails From near and Far. Met the sacred guitarist of Avebury, Played a beautiful song to me as the moon danced upon the clouds and shone incandescent against the stones. LUV Owain, Meic, Rob Surtees :-) Robin.

I include a scan of the original to show how my messengers clearly passed the card around, each adding their own lines in the true spirit of the bards of old. They would have been excellent company: one of my English teachers (the biggest single influence on my education), his two sons (companions on many woodland adventures) and another pal from school (an occasional co-conspirator in mischief).

Ahhh … the summer of  ’95.

Review: Descent into Hell by Charles Williams

Descent into HellDescent into Hell by Charles Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On the back cover of this book, the Saturday Review states, “Reading Charles Williams is an unforgettable experience.” Its true. Coming away from one of his novels, the world always seems intensified, as mediated through his vision. He gives me a taste of reality that rings true and reawakens my deepest convictions about the way things really are.

I am sure I held my breath for entire paragraphs during the unfolding of this novel, almost afraid to break the spell of the words.

In Descent into Hell, Williams uses a play within a play, within a setting that is itself merely a shadow of the cosmos, to build a story that simultaneously pierces several layers of heaven and earth and pulls them into each other. The characters are recognizable and, as a reader, I was constantly trying to work out which one was me. This had the effect of the best kind of fantasy literature, enabling a vicarious exploration of all the “what ifs” of our possible selves and their choices that is both instructive and therapeutic.

If you like a story that processes your soul and opens your eyes to the darkness of dark and the lightness of light as well as the blueness of blue and the redness of red, dive in.

This is one of those few books I expect to revisit – just after I’ve read everything else he’s written.

View all my reviews

Fictional Literary Crushes

One of the highlights of my week is hanging out with the 14-17 year olds in our Church youth group on Sunday evenings. The little glimpses I get into the world of young people today are worth their weight in platinum. For instance, I learned from them that it is entirely unnecessary to tie your shoelaces – you can just tuck the trailing ends into the shoe. I have also had the opportunity to familiarise myself with Harry Potter fan-fiction lingo (do you know for instance, what “headcanon accepted” means?).

someecards.com - I'm sorry, but I only date fictional characters. In my head.This week’s insight bore down on me on the back of a couple of comments, overheard. Here’s a fact: a significant number of teenagers have an agonising, unrequited crush on Mister Darcy. This is definitely headcanon non-accepted stuff but it is real enough to invoke quite strong emotions.

I remember it well.

Yes, before I was old enough to have real girlfriends (and for a while after that, too), I confess I had a few romantic attachments to literary characters –  never to more than one at a time, which suggests that these were fairly serious relationships. So this blog post is a tribute to those unreal beauties I loved between the ages of 9 and … er … about 17 if I’m honest!

Arrietty Clock

Cover of "The Borrowers"

Cover of The Borrowers

(from The Borrowers series by Mary Norton)

Wow, this must have been the first cut; it still smarts to think about it. Arrietty was about 14, brave, redheaded with plaits and freckles. She kept a diary, she was an avid reader. She drove her parents crazy but I admired her adventurous spirit and she wasn’t judgemental about people. We spent hours together. I think it was awfully handy that she was small enough to fit in my pocket and knowing she was there sometimes gave me the chutzpah to scare my own parents by being adventurous – although I think my headcanon made a magical allowance for me to shrink down to her size sometimes too. I actually hit it off quite well with her parents, which was just as well.

I’m not sure how any of these “ended”, or even who came next, but at some point my heart moved on to …

Kira

(From Jim Henson’s “Dark Crystal“)

Although not strictly a “literary” character, Kira deserves a mention. I grew up without television and we went to the cinema about once a year so I never saw the “Dark Crystal”. In fact, I met Kira in 3D, on a set of view-master slides (that’s a thing I’ll bet the youth group have never heard of). I fell for her pale complexion, rosy cheeks and elfish ears, and her sense of adventure. I watched the Dark Crystal for the first time a few years ago and was amazed to discover that my gelfling childhood sweetheart also had wings! She kept that a secret. In fact I think there was always a distance in our relationship. As much as I admired and adored her, the gelfling-human thing was never going to work out, and there was always that scruffy “Jen” lurking in the background.

Perhaps I grew up a little at this point and realised I needed to date more human girls. But I couldn’t resist at least a little magic. Perhaps that’s why I gave my heart to …

Dorrie the Witch

(from Dorrie the Little Witch series by Patricia Coombs)

She was a young witch, as vividly illustrated in the books, with a crooked hat and unmatched stockings. It was her endearing clumsiness that won me over. Dorrie and I hit it off because we were both misfits who always ended up doing things differently to everyone else. In fact, she was a proper disaster area! Being with her was so exciting, I never knew what was going to happen next. She always meant well but her spells hardly ever did what they were intended to. In spite of this she always came out on top of the day. I seem to remember she had a spell that made my bicycle fly, and she used to ride on the back of my bike with her cat, Gink. It was flipping romantic (headcanon non-accepted)!

We were pretty inseparable, but we must have grown apart eventually. I suppose, these literary characters never age with us so, at some point we outgrow them and find more age-appropriate sweethearts such as …

Polly

(from “The Dean’s Watch” by Elizabeth Gouge)

Polly was a humble maid who served Mrs Peabody, the wife of Mr Peabody, the watchmaker. I wanted, so very badly, to be Mr Peabody’s apprentice, “Job” and to whittle beautiful birds from scraps of wood to give to her as gifts. I wanted to sit in the pew across from her at church and catch her eye, like he did. I became extremely interested in horology and wood carving, and possibly even in going to church, on the strength of my fascination for Polly. She was brightly optimistic, in spite of Mrs Peabody being pretty harsh (as I recall) and she was simply kind in her thoughts towards those whom others were inclined to mock or ignore. There is no doubt that the time I spent with Polly made me a better person.

cider with rosie

The same probably couldn’t be said for …

Rosie

(from “Cider with Rosie” by Laurie Lee)

Yes, well, ahem … This was definitely one of those coming-of-age crushes. I don’t think anyone can read that scene with the cider and the kissing under the hay cart and not fall in love with Rosie. I guess she still haunts my summers, whenever the hedgerows are hot and fragrant and the beech woods are filled with secret green light and the chaff-dust of threshed wheat hangs in the air …

How about you? Did you give your heart away to someone you found in a book? Or is it just me?

The Best of Borders of Sleep

Borders of Sleep Artwork is by Robyn Trainer

Since the beginning of March this year I have been podcasting my short stories/fables/fairytales as “Stories from the Borders of Sleep“. It has been pretty exciting to see the listnership grow as we (that’s me and my producer, Tim, and Illustrator, Robyn)  have started to put new episodes out on a fortnightly basis.

There are a variety of stories to be found on the Borders of sleep, from autobiographical sketches to fantasy and reworked fables and fairytales. There is a loose underlying theme of dreaming and the blurring between real and imagined or dreamed realities in all the stories.

Looking at the stats, it appears that our listnership has recently been doubling every week. This morning we just crossed the 3000 downloads threshold. We have plans for the future …

The next step is to move from fortnightly to weekly podcasts. This will be a great challenge to creatively sustain. In the future, I would also like to look at showcasing the work of other authors whose work would compliment the “Borders of Sleep” style. I’m also hoping to look at other ways of publishing the stories.

In the meantime, here are the top three all-time favourite stories (by number of downloads) so far:

The Prince and the Bird – this was the first episode ever but it remains one of my personal favourites. In a dreamlike garden that is an external mirror to a prince’s internal world, an unexpected shadow is discovered.

Tree and Stream – easily one of the very shortest episodes but also the most popular by far; a resting traveller eavesdrops on a conversation between two different types of water.

One Stormy Night – also very popular, although it is the longest episode so far, this story spans a couple of generations and switches between the waking and sleeping worlds as a father and son share a similar mystical experience at key moments in their life.

If you enjoy these stories, please subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or using the feed and please feel free to feed-back by commenting on the website at www.bordersofsleep.com

Thank you for reading (and listening)!

Nailing Fantasy to the Real World

A storyteller’s imagination draws down the silk of another world and nails it to certain real places and objects such that every experience, awake or asleep, real or imagined begins to resonate with the echo of one another and boil with significance. (Me)

During his time in Durham, C.S. Lewis is said to have been enormously inspired by the landscape, the Cathedral, the geography of the place and wove it into many of his writings. In fact “That Hideous Strength” is said to be set around Durham University where Lewis delivered a series of lectures in 1943.

Narnia Lantern in Durham

The Narnia Lamp in Durham

In fact, a bit of local apocrypha attributes one of the lamps by Prebends Bridge to be the very one that inspired the lantern standing at the entrance to Narnia. Today seemed like a good day to go and look at it. There are several street lanterns in the immediate area and many have been replaced with more modern ones but I fancy this old one is near enough.

As I wrote in an earlier post, “The Monstrous Awakening of Imagination“, the geography of the real world becomes resonant with the hinterland of dreams and fantasy if we just let our imagination loose.

For instance, I have been quite fixated on a pair of trees that stand in a field near my house. To my surprise, they cropped up in a story (excerpted below):

… Coming to a pair of oaks by the side of the road, the only shade for several miles of track, Malachi turned the horse aside and we dismounted to rest. I had another opportunity to study my companion, as he had very few words, and I hoped to find something more from his face. We sat opposite each other with our backs against each of the trunks. He had tilted his head back and let the shadows of the leaves play on his closed eyelids. I got little more than a sense that he was a man who was capable of being completely absorbed in whatever the present moment had to give – right now that was some shade and a natural wooden seat among the roots of an oak.

“What do you see?” he asked me dreamily, dropping the question like a key into the well of my thoughts.

“I see two trees.”

“Go on …”

Two Trees

Two Trees

I looked carefully at the two oaks. The one at my back was shorter and slightly stunted. One half of it had been torn away by a storm at some point, leaving what seemed like a mortal wound from which the tree had never quite recovered. The other was much healthier with a good spread of branches and an upright trunk, but not without it’s own wounds, too.

“I see two trees that have grown together in the same ground and yet they are unlike each other in the shape they have taken. The one has thrived better than the other. One is twisted, the other straight. One provides a good shade and the other is living half the life it could.”

“And what do you see?” he asked again, the simple question that unlocks the secrets of every present moment.

I see a choice of two ways that I could grow. Both trees have their wounds, nobody escapes that, but here is one that has become stunted and weak and failed to become what it could have been – a great shade for travellers and a home for the birds. After their own fashion both ways of growing have achieved something; but your tree over there has the better part. I was growing this way, but I think I have the choice to grow the other way.”

“And so you shall.” he said pleasantly, opening his eyes again …

The Monstrous Awakening of Imagination through Writing

A few weeks ago I set out to complete a series of short stories, little self contained pieces of narrative that had been turning over in my head for a while. Some of them were waking fantasies and other were remembered dreams. I thought getting about seven of them down on paper would be a couple of weeks work and might make a nice little book, perhaps with a few more collections to follow. I had no idea what a monster this would become.

I had no idea that as the stories began to be written that there would be more detail than I had first imagined yet only discovered along the way. I couldn’t have predicted that there would be intrusions from characters I had never met, who may have been introduced as essential aids to the plot but who then seemed to have more flesh and blood about them than the original hero.

High Window

Looking Out to Look In

I had no idea that I would discover that some of the narratives had a coherent geographical location and that some of them happened in the same place but maybe hundreds of years apart. I had no idea that there was a land here with a long history here and it was all inside me and I had only just begun to scratch the surface.

Suddenly my neat little collection of self contained “fairy tales” needed maps covering huge areas and timescales and geography that spanned both waking and sleeping worlds. I had no anticipation that it would be so very hard to enter the stories and do the writing, not least  because of the length and complexity of the paths between the real world and them. I didn’t want to go there for fear of not getting back. I didn’t know that places where I walk my dog and trees I pass under frequently would also suddenly appear in stories or that their real-world counterparts would begin to brood with meaning that came from another place in my imagination.

I thought I was opening a door to go into a room and found myself looking out onto a vast landscape from halfway up a high tower.

A storyteller’s imagination draws down the silk of another world and nails it to certain real places and objects such that every experience, awake or asleep, real or imagined begins to resonate with the echo of one another and boil with significance.

This is what the hinterland of imaginative writing looks like and it scares me so silly I have hardly been able to write anything this week.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,718 other followers