It’s a morning in May 1993, I’m 16 years old. I step out into our garden after breakfast. Beyond the garden fence, there is an orchard and then a steep, treed slope down to the river Thames. It is spring; I can hear skylarks and boats chugging lazily up the river. There is still dew on the grass. Somewhere between the flowerbeds of giant poppies, Love in a Mist, and Borage, I am struck by a feeling of “at-one-ness” that I have never forgotten – everything seems stitched together. There have been several moments like this in my life (another one was in a pool of light under a streetlamp in Reading one rainy night), and I often feel closer to them at this time of year … Spring.
Quite soon after this intimation, I stitched together a naive poem that I still don’t really understand but which seemed to fix that moment in the garden like a photograph for me. I grew Nigella damascena (Love in a Mist) in my flowerbed when I was a youngster, and it is probably my favourite cultivated flower.
Here is an audio of the poem, “Love in a Mist” by my 16 year-old self, read by my 20-years-later self. This is followed by “A Daydream”, written the following year while I was travelling in Africa – somehow the two always seem to have come from the same stable in my psyche. Both seem to be haunted by a mermaid of some sort …
Liu Xie (c.470-539 AD) was a literary critic during the Liang Dynasty, a time and place where to become a writer was a matter of a long apprenticeship in courts or monasteries and even bureaucratic documentation was a work of art. His great work “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” captures both the mysticism and asceticism of the writer’s craft in all times and in all places. Although this work is about fifteen thousand years old, I go back to it repeatedly for a fresh vision and, at times, a stern talking to, in the great tradition of far eastern masters.
My translation (by the brilliant Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang) is in a rare volume of assorted prose and poetry from the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties, published in Beijing by Panda in 1986. I found this book and appropriated it from my parent’s bookshelves a long time ago. It still contains scribbled marginal notes in my 15-year-old’s handwriting – from my Buddhist phase.
The tract as good as opens with these fine words, enough to bring anyone back to the page with fresh expectancy:
“Thoughts shaped in silence can reach a thousand generations to come.”
Liu Xie is a proponent of an immersive, intentional and disciplined approach to writing that involves every level of an author’s being:
“A man should cleanse his heart, purify his spirit, amass knowledge to store up learning, use reason to increase his capabilities, study things carefully to improve his powers of observation, and train himself in the use of the right phrase. Then the mind, pre-eminent, can seek out rhythm to guide the pen and like a skilled craftsman give fitting form to ideas.”
He goes on to give “fancy” its rightful place as “the prime requirement in writing”, assuming that the previous stipulations on spiritual purity and training have been fulfilled, of course:
“When we give rein to our fancy, innumerable paths open up ahead; we plot any course we please, inlay any invisible pattern. Would we climb a mountain? Our spirit soars above it. Survey the ocean? Our ideas reach over the sea. Whatever talents we have seem to race with the wind and the clouds; we take up a pen, inspired beyond all telling, but the work when written may express only half of what was in our hearts. This is because an idea not yet formulated may easily seem striking but it is hard to set down skilfully in so many words. Thoughts pass into ideas, ideas into language, sometimes corresponding so closely that no discrepancy exists, sometimes so loosely that a thousand li stretch between. An argument may be at hand while you seek it at the horizon; an idea may be hard by yet hid from your mind as if by mountains and rivers. So to improve his writing a man should train his mind and not count on simply cudgelling his brains. Once he knows the right way to express himself, no undue exertions are needed.”
Next, he suggests that some thinkers are slow and spend years conceiving, executing and polishing their work, while others are quick and discharge treatises between waking and taking breakfast. Wherever you fall on the spectrum between these extremes, you must embrace it.
I am very thankful to be closer to the fast end: I’m already almost bored with writing this post (in my lunch break). In a few minutes, I’ll hit “publish” without reviewing it, and I’ll move on to the next thing. I’ll probably never produce a great work like Zuo Si who spent a dozen years on his essay on the Three Imperial Cities, but I can live with that.
I get the impression that Liu Xie is telling us that, as long as the work of studying the classics, “delving into changes in style, and understanding the forms of literature” has been done “, we can “give birth to new ideas and fashion striking images” according the speed of our thought, but almost unconsciously.
Learning to write well is like learning to drive skilfully, it becomes a matter of muscle memory and reflex, with long practice and deep immersion in the canon of all ages.
Later in the work, he attacks those who “counterfeit feeling” for the sake of art. He points out that the composers of old folk songs genuinely gave voice to their anguish but that many later poets feigned sentiment for the sake of a dazzling turn of phrase. It’s a timely reminder of the need to write what we know, from the heart. This is absolutely one of my values as a wordsmith; when we tell lies, we do it with words, and yet we also propagate truth, clarity and revelation with words.
There is a sense throughout “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” of the office that writers hold and the service that writers provide to society, and of the seriousness with which this must be taken. This was ever the way in less literate times and places, where even the ability to reproduce and comprehend the shapes of alphabets and pictographies was for an elite. In spite of the great syndication of the scribe’s art that has taken place since Caxton, I think there are still those who are entrusted with the continuation of this special role in relation to how humanity thinks aloud about itself … on paper.
“We cannot meet the men of old face to face, but by reading their works we can see into their hearts … A man of deep understanding and keen observation will have the same pleasure in his mind as a crowd of revellers on the terrace in spring or travellers stopping for good music and food. Just as the orchid, king of fragrant flowers, becomes more fragrant when worn; so books, which are sovereign flowers too, reveal their beauty when studied and analysed. Let men of discrimination ponder this!”
So Gillian over at skybluepinkish tagged me in a desperate bid to get me to blog something.
Thank you, Gillian, you have done me a favour!
This tag is part of a global blogfest encouraging writers to let everyone in to their current work in progress. I’m not sure mine is “the next big thing” but I would like to have it done by the end of this year.
Cue the tape … here goes:
What is the working title of your book?
It’s called “The Coat and Ring”, which, in the great tradition of Grimm’s fairy tales, does what it says on the tin – a coat and a ring being major players in the life of the protagonist. Theologians may notice a tenuous reference to the return of the prodigal son in the title, too:
“Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.”
This wouldn’t be entirely coincidental.
Where did the idea for your book come from?
The whole thing was mapped out in essence in a dream I had while resting on my bed one afternoon about six years ago. I often take a nap in the afternoon and this is a good time for dreaming. Soon after that I used it as a tale to tell friends on long walks. When I came to writing it down (intending a short story) it sort of grew beyond control.
What genre does your book fall under?
Romantic Faerie Phantasy (not romance, fairy or fantasy)
Which actors would you choose to play characters in a movie rendition?
The protagonist is told from the first person. He’s in his 20s and grappling with the transition into adulthood. He’s just a kid, really, who finds himself boxing way above his weight. His origins are a bit mysterious. He needs blue eyes. He is James Mcavoy!
Then there’s the avuncular “Terrence”, an epicurian patriarch who presides over a year-long banquet in his mansions, which are built over an oasis. He is Donald Sutherland.
There’s a merchant turned adventurer called Selwyn.
“His eyes were set deep in a wrinkled, nut-brown face, glowing out at me with a couple of pinpoints of reflected light that nevertheless seemed to come from inside him. The edges of his ragged moustache concealed the corners of his mouth which, by the laughter in his eyes, must have been turned up in a friendly grin – although it was difficult to be sure. Like a man who has been in the sun all day and who through the night gives off the radiance of what he has absorbed, I felt a strong glow from him. It was impossible to tell his age for his skin was well weathered by the elements rather than age and he gave off an air of rude health”.
Finally there’s the girl. She’s descended from a family that made its living from the sea and she is rumoured to have a dash of mermaid blood in her veins. I need someone suitably ethereal, oddly otherworldly. This was tricky but I’m casting Lily Cole:
Next question …
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
An inheritance was a blessing, and then a curse, and a blessing once again.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
For me the arguments weigh in favour of going the indy route.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I’m a year in but I don’t think I could call it a first draft just yet.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Who or what inspired you to write this book (story)?
The authors mentioned above but probably George MacDonald more than anyone else. I spent the best part of 2010 immersed in his work and still feel as if I have only just scratched the surface. He had a comprehensive understanding of the thin veil between our waking reality and the mythopeic unseen that is mediated through our imaginations.
The story has also become a receptacle for a lot of observations and thoughts garnered from my surroundings while I have been out walking the dog so it boils down to GM and my dog, really.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
If you have ever felt like a doormat, become resentful that others have taken advantage of your generosity and grown fat upon your labours, then this story is for you. If you have gone through life burdened by the magnificence of your family’s good name or the perceived expectations of your parents and forbears then this story is also for you. If you long to throw everything to the wind and start afresh, then it is for you, too. If you have a colourful imagination and can let yourself go into a strange world, then you’ll be ready to read “The Coat and Ring” – just as soon as I finish writing it 😉
This month, I have the joy of working with 300 year five and six pupils from Durham City schools to turn their ideas into One Big Story: an epic and imaginative tale that will be published in paperback in October.
This one of the most exciting things I have done for a while; it ticks about a hundred boxes for the things I love doing: creative writing, stimulating other people’s imaginations and helping them to realise their creative ideas, being able to say the magical word “story” about 50 times a day and share my passion for the written word.
I’m working as part of a team alongside Christina Maiden (Off The Page Drama) and Robyn Trainer (Floral Footsteps), running whole day workshops in primary schools, getting children to invent and develop ideas for stories and working collaboratively to forge them into a coherent narrative.
Remarkably, it turns out to be quite possible to take the ideas of 30-40 children at a time and guide them into creating a story together as long as you think on your feet and prepare yourself for almost anything to happen. Not to give too much away, but we are half way through the project already and have five out of ten chapters mapped out. The children have taken us beyond our own imaginations into their own world where there are a lot of fights involving food and an awful lot of ghoulish characters in which the malevolent and comedic are theatrically blended.
It has been very encouraging to see that literacy is alive and kicking in every school we have visited so far; I’m the one getting educated.
In less than a month, we will be holding the book in our hands and you, too, will be able to read what happens when children create the sort of story that they would like to read … watch this space …
I have a folder with maybe an hundred poems in it; most of them were written between 1994 and 1999 and covered the span of time from GCSEs to my final year at University. In the last thirteen years my poetic productivity has died to a trickle. I have lost my way a bit. I feel embarrassed by the panting romanticism of the early stuff and the technicolour emotions and tangible intimations of immortality that fueled my late teens are not as keenly felt as I approach my mid-thirties.
When I was at school, I was surrounded by poetry. There were three of us in my A level English Literature class where poetry was inescapable, there was an annual poetry prize, there was even a Dead Poets Society and there was a library with a well stocked poetry section. With some friends and some support from the English department, I started a small literary magazine called “Apex”. These days I have to fight to make space in my life for reading poetry, let alone writing it, but there has been a modest output. Here’s one I wrote for a friend a few years ago:
there’s a person i know i could be
theres a woodsman and a soldier in me
a weather beaten soul that’s rarely seen
i know he’s there because he’s been in my dreams
there’s a monk called brother somebody
who leaves his cell to cross the sea
he doesn’t fear and he doesn’t flee
but stands on the weatherdeck scorning the lee
i have felt his anger and desire to be free
his feelings and mine always agree
his indian name is strong-man-going-boldly
god’s breath must be in him or he couldn’t breathe
a strong man this woodsman must be
to fell the hulk of my family tree
a bold soldier too and armed to the teeth
gallantry and loyalty stirring beneath
his bayonet gouges mediocrity
and the monk steps out on a distant beach
salt on his lips that are burning to preach
and he speaks of my soul and who i could be
More poetry postings from this blog can be found here.
I’m currently reading C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Children – a collection of the personal letters he wrote in reply to numerous young fans who wrote to him between 1944 and 1963. It’s an uncut little gem of a book. I’m struck by the trouble Lewis took over his correspondence. It was a daily discipline that took a few hours every morning after her rose at 7.15. The other thing that strikes me (with my copy editor’s hat on) is Lewis fast and loose approach to grammar. Of course, in letters, one is less careful of grammatical niceties, but these words to a young fan are revealing, too:
… Don’t take any notice of teachers and textbooks in such matters. Nor of logic. It is good to say “more than one passenger was hurt,” although more than one equals at least two and therefore logically the verb ought to be plural were not singular was! What really matters is:–
1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
I have had a long absence from both reading and writing poetry. It is hard to identify when or why it began but it has been a chunk of my life rather than a couple of years out. The why, I suspect, does not reflect me in a pleasant light and probably has something to do with me turning into some sort of snob.
Lately I have started to creep back, though, gently prodded by other bloggers who are unashamed to post poetry of their own and of other people (namely Barbara Lane and Robert Rife) and by others who advocate enthusiastically for poetry (Xe Sands and Marly Youmans). So I have been listening and reading again, and writing a tiny bit.
When I was younger and more prolific in the poetry department, it was one of the main ways I made sense of the world around me because it enables us to capture and hold something in a cage of words without destroying it, defining it or curtailing its mystery. The kind of poetry that I really connect with is the stuff that brings elusive, ephemeral, intimated truths into focus and holds them for a moment, leaving the afterglow of an impression rather than the proof of a fact. Some things in life are like that – they will never stay still long enough for us to get them under a microscope, but that doesn’t make them any less real.
I need to recapture some of that stuff. Then, there’s the other thing I had forgotten: Poetry is fun. It is safe to experiment. It is a sandbox of words. So I don’t need to be so uptight about it. In the past, I have always written stuff that needs to be read aloud to be put in its best light, but this one probably only has any chance of making sense when seen on paper:
Six years passed the grass has grown and been cut
Over this house although it never was this long before
Six seasons of spring mornings the same dew has perspired
Just like this one upwards still the relentlessness
But the thing that of laundry and dishes on the
I awakened to under today’s sideboard has been
Sun was that one day was all I can manage these
Too much like the others rhythms this cycle pinioned
What has happened to this house
What has changed for six years?
I cannot say.