In the bleak mid-winter Frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone; "A Christmas Carol" by Christina Rossetti
This was one of my favourite carols to sing at the service we attended at Durham Cathedral each Christmas Eve when I was a child. I was always disappointed if it came up in the programme as "choir only".
It took me twenty years to discover that the words had been written by one of the few pre-1950s British female poets who ever make it into "best loved" or "classic" anthologies.
It feels, more than ever, that we are in a bleak mid-winter. Debt, economic crisis, massive wealth inequalities, climate change, animal and resource over-exploitation, species loss, human suffering, the list falls like the snow in Rossetti's poem. And the only answers offered are: consumerism, a "me first" attitude to rights and war. It seems the last part of the carol is missed:
"What can I give Him. Poor as I am? .... Yet what I can I give Him. Give my heart."
As a child I would fill with tears singing those lines. As an adult who does not believe in a "Him", I replace Rossetti's word with "the world" and I still feel like weeping.
A word which is appearing more and more often in our sore times is "efficiency". We will get through this bleak "blip in our prosperity" by being more efficient. What is disregarded is that as humans we are not made to be efficient, and, indeed, the moments when we are least efficient are when we are the most human. The health professional who sits with the elderly woman for five minutes, perhaps holding her frail hand, and listening, to a long drawn out story which is confused and has nothing to do with the "presenting problem", is not being efficient. Yet would we want to be without these moments of connection?
Being efficient also squeezes out creativity. Our creativity relies on having the time to day dream, to play, to explore without direction and to make mistakes. These are not activities which sit easily along-side "efficiency".
I would propose less efficiency. Yes, perhaps we will have to do without as many things, wait longer for responses, put up with more glitches in the system. On the other hand, would we not feel compensated by the nurturing of relationships and the gifts of creativity?
When I was about thirteen my art teacher told me I was rubbish at his subject. And I believed him for a very long time, still do in some ways. However, over the last few years, I have been exploring collage, using torn up paper, found items, oil pastels, felt tip pens and watercolour. More recently I've been combining this with my poems.
I enjoy the process of writing and then seeing it visually before creating the poetry-collage. I've had some good feedback now that I've tentatively started to show the reseults to a trusted few. But is it art?
I've had no training since those torturous classes at school. I can't draw anything which looks like anything in reality. Yet I have a sense of form and colour and produce pieces which do have impact. Is that art?
There's a BBC2 series on at the moment, School of Saatchi - reality TV for the pretentious as a student of mine put it - which follows a number of unknown contemporary artists through different set tasks, the prize being the patronage of Charles Saatchi. One of the questions artist Tracey Emin, and some of the other judges keep asking is: "but is this art?"
And sometimes that query whispers in my brain as I sit down to work on another collage. Then I think, does it matter? Maybe not, I comfort myself. Yet, I do think the discussion, is this poetry? a valid and an important one, so perhaps I am letting myself off the hook too easily.
Keats wrote that hope is a healing balm, a shining star, yet some become paralysed when trying to write about it. For others, Keats's words remind them how little hope there is, or has been, in their lives and this leads to sadness, anger, depression. When I offer writing about hope to my therapeutic group, I am reminded of this once again.
Hope is a sparkling cloud in the clear blue. Patiently it takes on the shape of a flower, or a bird, or a loved one, whatever we need to see.
But is it no match to stormy weather pulling the shutter across.
Sea Creature The last time I came, there were fisherfolk here and nets, the smell of fish, fresh and drying. It was Summer. It would have been Summer. I watched the red lobster pots being tossed from small boats. I came out of the sea, a harvest of kelp draped across my back, salt encrusting my lizard skin as the water dried. I had not drowned as the legend said.
Why should I have done? I have the lung capacity of a whale. I had spent years upon years laid out on the icebergs, waiting for death. It did not come. Why should it? A life force like mine would see death itself perish. So I knew I would find my way home.
Only I was weak after so many decades of the cold and the white. I gorged myself on turtles and sea lions and bears before submitting to the womby waves. I followed the silver lightship through the sea's midnight, an ocean of memories spun out before and behind leading me to this one beach.
Here once, long ago, we scribbled and scrabbled, two rabbly creatures, birthed, then cribbed, then torn apart.
I have been running therapeutic creative writing workshops for people with depression and anxiety for about six years now. I enjoy the work, particularly the diversity of people that I come to meet and the journeys we take together. However, my experience over this time has brought me to question more and more the funding of mental health services.
Mental health provision has been called the "Cinderella" services, left behind in terms of money and commitment because of the stigma attached to mental ill-health. More recently the government pledged £173 million to improve access to psychological therapies on the NHS in England. This funding was announced in 2007, to be rolled out during the three years until 2010. Now, though, there appears to be a question mark over whether this money is "ring-fenced" or whether, as the public purse gets squeezed, it can be syphoned off to other services.
Often governments behave as though there isn't a table of priorities when it comes to spending, but, of course, there must be since budgets cannot be finite. And what I see happening is that paying for expensive drugs or treatments to prolong people's physical health is far more popular than committing resources to improving people's mental health.
I believe that "mental illness" are still seen as dirty words, something not quite acceptable in our society. Add to that the tendency to suggest that those with mental health issues should really just be able to "pull themselves together" - even though those with physical illnesses are not expected to heal themselves - and the undermining media image of those who suffer from psychological problems, and no wonder mental health services are so poorly supported.
I am glad when what I offer - two hours of creative writing a week - can help people to face their lives with greater purpose. However, I am deeply saddened when I see that it is the only substitute for services which ought to be - but are not - there.
During one of my groups we asked the questions: what is creative writing? And what is it not?
We had been reading Kama Kamanda's poem The Poet's Poem for inspiration. It begins: "Words gush out of his wrung soul's roots, and wrap life's to a stranger's pains." (from the song atlas edited by John Gallas, Carcanet, 2002).
I wrote, "Creative writing is one stranger talking to another in the search of this truth thing through word sounds and rhythm without rhyme or reason."
When turning to what creative writing is not, one my students said, it is not for the faint hearted.
I'm reading Andrew Motion's biography Keats (Faber & Faber 1997). What I find interesting is that even this well-known name suffered terribly from a lack of confidence in his own abilities. In a draft for a preface for one of his epic poems he writes: "So this Poem must rather be considered an endeavour than a thing accomplish'd; a poor prologue to what, if I live, I humbly hope to do."
A therapist colleague suggested that creativity and anxiety must always go hand in hand, since to be creative we must be open, and, therefore, vulnerable, to our own internal workings and to the external world. Keats was surely buffeted by doubt throughout his short life and his creativity was often stymied by it. Would he have preferred not to experience his misgivings, if it meant not having his poetry?
I sometimes ask myself the same question, when the clouds descend and I begin to question everything I am doing with my writing. I try to be more forgiving of this fragile side of me these days, see it as a part of me which requires gentle nurturing. Because yes, I do now recognise it as an essential part of my creativity.
We had some Spanish students staying with us in September and their description of where they lived reminded me of our visit to Almeria, supposedly the driest place in Europe. I wrote this flashfiction after that trip.
By this time, the river that had become a memory, then a story, then a myth, had become a dream. The rich alluvial earth on the valley floor, patterned by jagged lines of deep crimson and dull jade, was so different from the light sand of the higher slopes. It was enticing to the villagers fed up with scraping a vegetable patch out of scrapes of the desert. It took only the application of water for the deep soil below them to yield crops of tomatoes, courgettes, asparagus, peppers. Enough to eat and sell as well. At first allotments were tentatively staked out, but soon there were huts for the Summer, then houses and, why not? A hotel in its majestic flowering gardens, perfumed by wild rosemary and eucalyptus.
For the tourists were coming. More than the lone back packer who had strayed there in search of the real. At first they came in cars, then coaches, until an airport was built not far down the coast and another hotel was needed in the bed of the river that had become a memory, a story, a myth and then a dream.
There was a Fiesta each year when folk would dress up as all kinds of watery animals and mythological creatures. A River Princess was chosen to wear a beautifully embroidered cloak of every tone of blue and green. Why? the tourists asked, this is the driest, the hottest corner of the continent. It's the tradition, explained their guides. Our ancestors did this to ensure our two days of annual rainfall. Ahh, said the tourists.
It was Frederico who first noticed the difference. The keeper of the town's solar power plant, he welcomed the visitors there every day of the week except Sunday and Monday. He proudly showed them the explanatory DVD, the model of the control room and, his greatest joy, the demonstration area. Here the sun's energy, concentrated by mirrors, lit up coloured lights, span sparkling wheels and heated water to boiling point. Ahh, breathed Frederico's little gaggle of guests and he smiled his generous smile.
Then the thunder storms came. "It's not normal," Frederico said to an English couple who had turned up for a tour. "This weather, it's not normal." With the heavy hail, the demonstrations could not be done, Frederico shook his head dolefully. He offered to show them the DVD, but only a few minutes in, a bolt of lightening connected with something electrical and the screen went blank. "It's not possible today," Frederico said, his brown eyes behind his round glasses as shiny as the paths he carefully tended outside. "You come back tomorrow and I show you everything for free. Today it's not possible."
The couple left laughing. Frederico could not see the joke. This was the fifth day this year when it had not been possible and it was not the rainy month yet. He talked about his worries to his wife, his lovely Almaria and she spoke about it to her mother, Cacendra, who was also the Mayor. And being the Mayor, she cared deeply about the town, knowing it built its reputation on being, above all, hot and dry. She was also the owner of the oldest, most expensive of the two hotels. She shook her head and said to her daughter that she must not encourage Frederico in repeating his nonsense.
Frederico took little notice of his mother-in-law. A trait which Almaria viewed as fearlessness, and it had been this which had eventually endeared him to her despite his portly shape and the mop-like tangle of dark curls on his head. He continued to voice his concerns to anyone who would listen and some even took him seriously. If there was more rain, there would be less visitors, perhaps some of the more precarious roads would slide or houses would slip. Should something be done? The Mayor listened and nodded. She paid for experts to be consulted, some said one thing, others another. She encouraged her electors to recycle and use more efficient light bulbs. But, after all, they were the only town on the continent to be solar powered. What else could they do? There were times when she heartily wished Frederico would talk less or that her daughter had instead accepted the local businessman who had tried to woo her. No-one thought of the river that had become a memory, a story, a myth, and now not even a dream.
So three years passed. The corner of the continent with 363 days of sunshine counted seven, then ten, then fifteen days of rain. And the river came back.
At first only a trickle beneath the houses, insinuating itself into cracks, widening fissures, gathering the faint whiff of sewerage as it went. A stream appeared in some people's back gardens, the hotels' lawns were soggy even when left un-watered. It was welcomed, this unassuming, playful dewiness amongst all this dryness. Miniature water-wheels and pottery frogs fishing were added to flowerbeds and the tourists took all the more photos.
There was a flood, once, out of season, shifting mud, trees, cars and the less stable buildings at such a speed, everyone was afraid, for a while. Then the sky cleared and the debris was tidied up, carpets replaced, the smell neutralised and the visitors welcomed back.
So it was one day Frederico begged and begged Almaria not to help at her mother's hotel and his wife found it easier to defy her husband than her mother. And it was that day the river which had become a memory, a story, a myth, a dream, became a river once more, then a torrent, then an unstoppable wall of water spewing before it a slurried mass of roots, tangled metal, broken concrete and unidentifiable carcasses.
I've recently had an article accepted by Therapy Today and I've just sent off another to be considered by Groupwork Journal. Both are what I consider to be creative non-fiction with the mildest hint of poetry. Now, though, I feel like being more playful, less audience oriented. Taking up again the Minotaur's Mother poem and beginning to illustrate it - though it is still unfinished - with collage.
It is a step forward that I am writing this blog in the evening. It's hard not to give into the temptation of lying comatose on the sofa, but these darkness hours are surely also made for creativity?
I wanted to write a Haiku about Blackpool but it turned into a rhyming stanza instead.
What is creative writing? asks a student. He means, as opposed to any other kind of writing, and behind his query is a concern that his might not be creative enough.
It's not an easy question to answer. It is certainly not to do with subject matter, you can write creatively about a computer chip and equally un-creatively about a sunset. It has more to do with how the writing is constructed; whether there is attention to rhythm, word sounds, sentence or paragraph length, whether there is descriptive detail, emotional appeal.
But there is something additional to this. Something visceral, which comes from the core of the writer and speaks to the core of the reader. An authenticity, an honesty to the writing voice.
Now that is more difficult to define and explain, as it is so much more noticeable when it is absent.
My first week "back" so to speak, with all my courses and workshops up and running. I'm teaching two evenings a week this academic year, so that's a bit of a challenge as I am more of a lark than an owl. I have to remember to conserve a bit of energy for the night time.
One of the modules I'm teaching is looking at the creative process and how it differs for each person. I recall when I was in my twenties I would work a full day and then come home and spend hours on my novel (still be in bed by 10pm, of course!) I couldn't do that now. It feels like my creative brain begins to switch off about three in the afternoon. Perhaps it's just that I've got out of the habit and I could go back to it.
As a starting point for the module we had a go at characterising our creativity: lots of images of water and growing or living things, lots of energy - frenetic, dangerous, joyful, frustrating. We'd read WS Graham's "A Note to the Difficult One", a poem to his inspiration. And I realised my creativity isn't difficult, it's just a bit shy sometimes, needs nurturing. I had a strong image of something I'd seen on a recent TV documentary, a tiny oak sprig being protected by a plastic tube to allow it to grow.
A note to the timid one. Sprout, unfurl, grow, you won't be crushed, I will protect you from predatory teeth and careless hoof. You do not trust me to stand up for you, you are afraid I will not be strong enough to defend you. Expectations have sharp edges.
I'm reading Jeffrey Meyers' biography of the poet Robert Frost (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, New York, 1996). Frost talked about his creative process as being like sliding down a hill on a sled. Though, even if he claimed to write poems at one sitting, he would take his time in revision, focusing on the sounds and rhythms (pages 82-83).
He also said that some of his poetry became inspired by "little voices like hallucinations, many going around you. You begin to phrase your feelings... Words haunt you." (Page 83).
I have two voices now for my Minotaur poem, the Minotaur's mother and her slave. I hear them both, their different cadences, I can even see an image of how the two women look from how they speak. I'm thinking the Minotaur's mother will use disjointed free verse, imprisoned as she is in her dark cavern, while her slave will use the more studied rhythms of epic poetry.
"So praised once in heroic couplets, blank verse will have to suffice this long day to tell her story, to chart her demise. I was once slave to a beauteous queen, now I am merely maid to the Minotaur's mother."
Warning: a poem still under construction!
I am surprised to find that Frost emphasised the emotional connection wrought by poetry. "If you wish me to weep, you must grieve yourself," Frost wrote. "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." (Page 85). This sentiment doesn't quite seem to fit with his formal approach (and criticism of free verse) nor with his era, but I am very glad to read it.
There is definitely an Autumn tang in the air and I feel like hibernating. Yet this is a very busy time for me as the teaching gets under-way again. I've often wondered why the academic year starts up, just when most normal mammals would be heading for their caves.
At present I am finishing off the project which didn't quite recruit in the Spring, I am running three creative writing workshops for a group of women who suffer from Persistent Pelvic Pain. I have a frighteningly robust physical constitution, but interestingly on Monday I got the most excruciating gut-ache which bent me double for at least ten minutes. It was, of course, nothing serious, but I can't help connecting it with the work I am doing with the pelvic pain group.
Yesterday we did an exercise describing an emotion using all the senses. We all wrote down an emotion and answered (as un-thinking as possible) questions such as: what does this emotion taste like? Smell like? What temperature is it? Where does it live? What feeds it? Then we spent five minutes playing with the words we had on our paper.
I chose "joy":
Cool joy hides in meadow sweet, sucks over-ripe mangoes until juice-drenched. It is malign, not always there when I need it. Though bigger than a tractor, lighter than pollen, it slides under stones when the field is churned.
I've had a grizzly bad press. Taking little girls and killing off old grannies. As if. Yeah, I'm no good, but that don't make me bad.
We're not liked, our family, it's the smell mostly and 'cos there's a whole pack of us. But I'm a bit of a loner. If I'd stuck with the others I wouldn't be in the trouble I'm in. Being on my own, that's how I witnessed it. Saw and heard, nothing more. That's on my mother's grave if she had one, which she doesn't; we found her stripped skeleton after the snows cleared.
Along comes Ms Red in her long bright cape, that bit, at least, they've got right. She wasn't skipping, though, are you kidding me? Too many Kentucky Frieds meant Ms Red was apt to saunter, under protest, to her Grandmother's house every Sunday. And who could blame her? Granny Red wasn't what you might call sweet, whatever they said in her obit.
So I heard it. Granny Red screeching, "You're ugly. No-one loves you." Then the silence, which I would later call "awful". Though it was what happened next which was awful. Granny Red got the iron poker embedded in the back of her skull, her scrawny grey hair lathered with blood and brain.
Then I saw her. Ms Red running. And she must have seen me.
Luckily most people get another bit of the tale wrong as well: my punishment. Though drowning might have been preferable to being eternally condemned to representing the archetypal evil doer. Like that? Yeah, I've had some education since coming in here. And I've had a lot of time to think. And what I think is that not all hoodies are wolves and we have plenty enough of a wolf inside each of us.
Where does a poem come from? William Blake believed in divine intervention, but also that all that was divine resided in our (or only his?) imagination.
I am playing around with a poem about the Minotaur's mother. I can plot its development fairly clearly. I went to an art exhibition where there was a kinetic sculpture of the Minotaur. Alongside it was a potted version of the myth which stated that the Minotaur was conceived when his mother had an illicit affair with a prize bull, after which she was condemned to live in the labyrinth with her off-spring. Now this sparked something in me. A woman, a mother, giving birth to a monster and then imprisoned to watch him grow. How interesting.
I began to note down some ideas. And I was reminded of Jo Shapcott's 'Mrs Noah: Taken After the Flood', as well as some of Carol Ann Duffy's 'The World's Wife'. I liked the idea of taking on the voice of someone lost to "history" and I wanted to infuse my poem with the subtle sexuality which Shapcott so expertly manages.
At the moment this poem is just notes in my writing journal. It is becoming attached to thoughts around being caught, mazes, watching love turn into a terrifying creature. In terms of form, I am considering something more epic than I usually write, with mythic language to echo its origins.
Meanwhile, I am buzzing creatively, with a number of projects on the go. It is exciting. It is invigorating.
'The stern Bard ceas'd, asham'd of his own song; enraged he swung His harp aloft sounding, then dash'd its shining frame against A ruin'd pillar in glittering fragments, silent he turned away, And wander'd down among the vales of Kent in sick and drear lamentings.'
I've been reading Peter Ackroyd's biography of William Blake (Vintage Books, 1995) and the above is quoted on page 71. It is somehow comforting to read Blake's own testament to his fearsome frustrations with his writing and his experience of what must have been almost writer's block.
So even the most famous, prolific and spiritually fuelled, sometimes doubt. And, of course, in his lifetime, Blake did not have the recognition he got after his death. He was sustained by friends and a few connoisseurs, furthermore, he believed his creativity was God-given.
What am I sustained by? I don't subscribe to Blake's God, but I do have a compulsion to keep writing, to continue experimenting and giving my ideas free rein. I am also encouraged by good friends and, like Blake, I am moved by nature. At the moment, I am fascinated by trees, how tall and abundant they grow, their colours and shapes. Though sometimes I study them and think that there is little point in trying to replicate what so magnificently exists in reality.
The words I thought of
are undeniably gone,
flown back to the muse.
The other morning I woke at 2am with a perfect line for a Haiku. It formed into a complete little verse and I thought I won't leap up and write that down. It is only three lines, 17 syllables. I will remember it. I did not. I know the middle line had the words "undeniably gone", but apart from that the rest has evaporated.
Here then is something I wrote many more moons ago.
Fragment with inspiration from Emily Dickinson In a moment a life is conceived, in a tortuous age is it extinguished, in a silent moment hangs all the soul can breathe.
In dashes - in after-thoughts - she spun verse - a trust in - a creator, too huge for her sentences, too small for her vision.
Psychotherapist, Donald Winnicott (1896-1971), said that creativity was essential for us to become fully alive and to nourish our mental health. He also linked creativity to playfulness, saying that a child's play was about the making of a potential space, or, as I would argue, a space for potential.
It's difficult to remain playful. So much encroaches. Daily tasks and worries (especially around making enough money to live on). The "what am I doing this for"s and "is this good enough"s? The sense of fun oozes away.
On a comedy quiz show someone made a self-deprecating joke about how his art was at the level of colouring in books. But why should this be funny? Why do we have to leave colouring books behind when we step into our teens?
I caught some of BBC1's Imagine last night which was looking at federal schemes to fund artistic endeavours in the US during the depression of the 1930s. The programme mentioned visual artists, composers, musicians, playwrights, actors, prose and song writers, all paid from the governmental purse. It didn't mention poets. And yet there was a time when a fool-poet was an essential part of the entourage of those charged with the governance of this country at least.
Here is another offering from a contemporary fool-poet. I'm rather partial to it, but it's had mixed reviews.
No Angels There's nothing celestial here amongst the flesh and bone, the fractured and the fragile.
There's no angels here, she says, in amongst the clatter of the trolley, the bang of the bin, the blare of the alarm.
There's no angels here, I know, only a quiet word, a grasped at touch, a hurt heard and understood.
I'm writing this blog instead of working on one of my articles. Is this a limber up or an avoidance?
A friend of mine was runner up in a poetry competition. I am very pleased for her, even as the old jealousy kicks in. And that chunters on even as I list my own achievements over the last six months and tell myself again that publication is not the be all and end all of writing. Being creative is. Being true to myself is. The vagaries of the publication/competition world are the racks I may choose to torture my spirit on, but they are not the final judge of whether I am a good enough writer.
The sun is shining outside, would it be an avoidance or a nurturing to go and sit in it and ponder the world as it glows?
I was watching Breakfast on BBC1 the other morning and they had an item about a new woman only apprenticeship in construction. The business reporter said that it was the first in the country. That might be so, but back in the early 1990s, I was involved in developing taster courses in construction for women with my boss at Cranford Training Group and Wimpey. It's taken twenty years for the idea of tasters to blossom into full apprenticeships.
What was more disheartening was the attitude of the business reporter. He insisted on talking to the female apprentice about what she was wearing. And then to round it all off he said, and you're a single mum, so now you're surrounded by eligible men.
She was speechless, as I was, and I hope every other woman watching was too!
The Passing A year ago today, I came to you. But was I heard? Words dropped on arid ground bloom not, not even once, they are as dust, old ashes in my mouth, to stop me up. For all your charm and wit, you fed me stones. The waters of the North would have been warmer. Yet even ice melts so the young may drink, the strongest oaken bough knows when to yield. Not you, no! You were granite. Yet I know. The burrowing worm sees what you still hide. The Aspens whisper sins that you don't dare to voice, the small thrush sings it, every morn.
A year ago today, I chose my truth, you chose unkindness. We broke. We parted.
The other evening I had my supervision. Supervision is a requirement for most counsellors and counsellors in training. It is my space for exploring my client work in an open and - this is particularly important - non judgemental way. It is more about going into my feelings around what I've done than about some kind of assessment of the actions I have taken.
Recently I've had a number of conversations about other professions - teachers and nurses mainly - who are charged with equally complex caring roles, but who rarely have access to this kind of supportive over-view. For them, more often than not, supervision becomes about criticism and target reaching. This can't be healthy for the practitioner, nor for the adults and children who come into contact with them.
At the Lapidus training day it was hypothesised that some of the difficulties we, as writers, encounter from staff when we go into educational or health settings, may stem from this lack of nourishing back-up. The "something different" that we offer becomes, at best, a bother, or, at worst, a threat. Yet without the means for looking at themselves, the practitioners do not even know where their responses are coming from.
Freud said that we are mostly guided by our unconscious. I have an image of us all as icebergs, the conscious part is the tip above the waves, but it is the stuff below the water line which really causes the damage.
I attended a Lapidus training day last week. I had hesitated over going, it all felt too much on top of everything else, but I'm very glad I did.
Lapidus - creative words for health and wellbeing - is a national organisation. It brings together people from many different grooves of life who are interested in creative writing as a conduit for self-reflection and personal growth and within health settings. Its meetings are always a vibrant mix of health professionals, educationalists and writers, all passionate about writing and the importance of creativity in our lives. It's a place for me to go to be inspired, re-sourced. I had forgotten that.
I had also forgotten about Julia Cameron's "writing dates" (from her The Artist's Way), days out with the sole purpose of replenishing our creative store. Time has been a big issue for me recently, the feeling of being overwhelmed by work and commitments. Now I have blocked off one day in the week for my writing and creative work all the way through to September, I suddenly see space, and opportunities to keep some writing dates.
I'm also a little disconcerted. For over six months my life has been ruled by where I had to be next, the choice of, well I could go there or there, or just stay right here with a cup of tea, leaves me unbound and free-falling. And I kind of like that.
I got a call the other day from a health professional asking whether I had any guidance for him because he was thinking of offering creative writing as an activity for his clients. My first question to him was: do you write? Well, no, I dabble a bit, nothing I would want to share, was his reply.
Am I being too precious here in thinking that in order to encourage others to write creatively, we must first immerse our selves into that world? And if we are proposing others share their work, we must be up for that too?
For me, therapeutic creative writing, much like counselling, is not something to be done unto others. It's an exploration, I as guide, facilitator, however you want to frame it, invite others on. I am in the midst of that journey, in the swamps and on top of the mountains, not looking in from the sidelines. When my caller asked me if there were any worksheets I could send him, I nearly cried. Did Picasso get asked for worksheets? Now, perhaps, I am being too precious.
"And Some There Be" On the road to Cap del Pinar a plaque reads: "Victorious engineers 1939", to those who dug, blasted, pinned, tarmacked, built this precipitous way. And I thought how often do we commemorate the men and women who quietly, gloriously, create, not destroy. The triumphant cleaner, the undefeated carer, the conquering call centre clerk, the broadbacked brickie?
And lest we forget there's a carved stone in a plaza in Paris which honours those society brands as failures for whom poverty is the only prize.
I wonder whether in amongst the celebrity, the influential and the hero, there's room for the mediocre, for the does their best, for the not quite good enough?
Where indeed stands the marble memorial to the ordinary,
to the majority of us?
I did read Listening In by Kevin Chandler while I was on holiday, and I enjoyed it. The portrayal of the therapist was authentic, engaging and pleasingly witty. I recognised the dilemmas and the way clients , and the process of counselling itself, can get under your skin.
It also made me think about the two novels I have written which sit (unpublished) on my book shelf. I have actually produced five novels, but only these last two are up to what I would consider publishable standards. I am re-reading them, which I haven't done since they were written in 2002 and 2005. And they compare favourably to Listening In. If it deserves a publisher's stamp of approval, then so do mine.
This is not easy for me to write, nor for me to hold onto. It sounds arrogant, boastful. Yet is it so wrong of me to say that I can create characters, a plot line, a setting, which hold up well over 60,000 words? And to feel just a little aggrieved that no publisher has been interested in this?
There was one TV programme which, I think, caught the essence of therapy and therapists. That was Help, the comedy series with Paul Whitehouse and Chris Langham. It sunk without trace, of course, when Langham was sent to prison for ten months for downloading child porn.
Langham's acts upset me. It brought into sharp focus once again, that those who abuse, and those who look at child porn (who must know the abuse behind it), are ordinary - often troubled - guys (yes I know women abuse children sexually, but the vast majority is perpetrated by men). Langham has done his time, should he be rehabilitated? How would I feel watching his wonderful portrayal of the dilemmas of a therapist now?
An article in the most recent (April 2009) Therapy Today perked my interest. 'Turning Tricks' by Kevin Chandler suggests commonalities between therapy and prostitution. It reminded me of a poem I wrote a number of years ago about my own therapy which some people thought was about visiting a prostitute.
A Stranger Kind of Intimacy You said you would walk with me yet you never held my hand you said yes this is a kind of love an intimacy yet you never gave me complements or flowers you watched me cry and never reached to comfort me you held me together without ever touching me i told you all i had to tell yet i never knew you and finally as i lay naked exposed while you sat in your suit and tie you said your time is up for this week yet you never even kissed me goodbye.
I sent the poem to Kevin and he was kind enough to reply, saying he'd been moved by it. I am always surprised when people say they are moved by my poetry. It is a wonderful thing to be able to move others and I am blown away that my cold words on the cold page are capable of doing that.
Kevin has written a novel "of therapy and real life" called Listening In. I have got it to read and shall be intrigued to see whether (and how) he manages to represent the world of the therapist in a dramatic and authentic way. I'm usually disappointed by the films and TV programmes I've seen featuring therapists which have gone for the drama at the expense of authenticity.
I've been reading In Search of Memory, The Emergence of a New Science of Mind, by Eric Kandal (WW Norton & Co, New York, London, 2007). It fascinates me that the same process which allows a snail to "learn" to withdraw its tail when a sharp pin prick is applied, also allows me to write. My creativity, my imagination, is merely the movement of protein within nerve cells and then between them through synapses.
As the snail "learns" to associate a loud noise with the pain of a needle and then to withdraw its tail at the sound only, that synaptic connection reforms and grows stronger. And the more I am creative, the more I write, the more my neural pathways undo and re-tie themselves to increase and concentrate the imaginative links and leaps which fuel what I am doing.
We are complex beings made up of many, many simple chemical reactions.
Kandal posits that the connections between neurons is genetically and developmentally determined, but it is experience which specifies whether these contacts will flourish and become robust. "This view implies that the potential for many of an organism's behaviour is built into the brain, ... however, a creative's environment and learning alter the effectiveness of the pre-existing pathways, thereby leading to the expression of new patterns of behaviour." (Kandal page 202).
Which confirms in scientific speak what we artists know in our soul, we become creative by being creative and by taking risks which break the "shoulds" and "have to" neural pathways imposed by others.
A woman who attended some of my poetry workshops sent this poem to me recently. It was heart-warming to read and also reminded me why I do the work I do. I reproduce it here with her permission.
Coming Out I came out in class today. It was quite a revelation. Something I thought I'd never do, Was share my inner thoughts with you. I wrote alone, in the dark, behind the closet door, Putting pen to paper and writing words Which were never meant to see the light of day. Or be revealed to anyone other than myself alone. I thought I'd never be able to say the words out loud. But today, I found my voice. I thought I'd never show you my bare throat Or expose my anguish for public gaze. I thought it would be easier to remain within the closet. But you have shown me that it is good to share And that we all have something worthwhile to say. And that is why I came out today.
I do, however, write about my own experience of counselling. This was a poem I wrote some years back about my relationship with my then therapist. It echoes, of course, with the poetry of the wonderful Anne Sexton.
Mr H with inspiration from Anne Sexton
I call you comfort because you comfort me, I call you guide because you guide me. I call you Mr Rescue Inc as well.
And you call me?
I need you. I lack the required hope. My weaknesses unfold, a child’s picture book with clever devices to hide and then reveal and then hide again.
I call you companion. You came with me to the water’s edge, held my hand as I paddled, flung out the life buoy.
We snapped crab claws do you remember? Searched for pearls in the seaweed. You must recall that.
I fell at the rocks sliced my hands and feet so there were pools of blood amongst the star fish.
Are you unstained by our journey? No salt tides on your suit?
Why do you never slip? Unsoiled, ungrazed by our voyage through grime.
Each time after I scrub myself pink with a cruel brush, comb silver fish from my hair, drag eyeless eels from my ears, anoint myself with the heavy oils of myrrh, rub myself with lime, wrap myself up in purple and silver to cover over the debris.
I have you under my fingernails whispering in my head.
Unmoved, untainted, I call you Mr Rescue.
And you call me?
The Lapidus Pilot Project finally, tentatively, got off the ground this week. Recruitment has been difficult and yesterday only one woman turned up. She was engaged and willing, so the session ran smoothly, but we'd obviously hoped for more participants. And I'm not sure what it will all add to our understanding of the therapeutic value of creative writing.
I have butted up once more against one of the tensions between my self as writer and my self as healer. When I was solely a writer (was I ever that?) the world, and every person in it, was available to my pen. These days I wonder, at what point does my interaction with someone, my response to those I meet, become enough of my own property, to be expressed in my creative work? It is not an easy question to find an answer to. I notice I do not write about my counselling clients here - even heavily disguised - though I carry them and their concerns with me in my everyday life. But I do write about those I connect with when I'm working as a poet in a therapeutic environment. Have I found the right place for that fine line between me as (trainee) counsellor and me as writer?
Sitting here talking about death with a man who is dying. "Life is precious," he tells me. How can I disagree? "It's worth holding onto," he says.
Though I want to say: Not always, not for everyone, not necessarily. How can I argue with someone who is dying?
We chat about deaths, good ones, bad ones, as if about the weather. I feel his expertise, a deference to his experience, though I suppose - later - that we are all dying by degrees.
I am startled by the puddles of purple and white which are suddenly appearing under the trees, and by the little parades of trumpeting yellow. As I drive down to Hull, I marvel at the gathering of giant metallic irises rising out of the flat green and brown landscape. I want to capture their strange alien beauty, their arms outspread to capture the wind or in some bizarre sign of sacrifice.
I have written this blog entry many times in my mind and dream of the technology which would see what I concoct in thought being transmitted onto my computer to be edited and crafted later. How much easier this would make keeping up with my emails.
Landscape Adjustments The world changes after a storm, trees become bonsai, telegraph poles, fence tops.
The old lady oak in her pleated serge cloak has a mirror now to gaze at herself in and weep, for her once straight spine is crooked, her arms bent, too heavy to embrace the sky.
Sheep stare warily at the creep of water, ducks rejoice at new possibilities.
Their view is for ever altered; they’ll remember pasture as greener than it really was, less bogged in manured mud.
Oak, sky, sheep, duck watch the waters recede their field no longer – quite - as they recall it.
There is a library, a monumental library with majestic pillars, zig-zagging black and grey marble. The windows are high up, square squints which change colour with the hour, the day, the season. And somewhere on a bees-wax polished shelf marked 803.96 EVA are my discarded selves.
The ones I don't want or need anymore, or the ones I didn't take up. There's the straggle haired girl who rouged too often, too ferociously. The mother I never was. The bold war correspondent I once dreamed I wanted to be.
I imagine them as lifeless rag dolls, but perhaps they are not. Maybe they are already breathing, examining their nails, counting backwards from a hundred. Waiting. Endlessly. Waiting for me.
For now The Peasholm Magic Lantern and last year's residency has drained me, creatively as well as physically and emotionally. I don't want to rush into the next thing - and this is so new for me - I want to stand and stare and be proud - of me!
On Saturday I visited some of the art exhibitions I have been meaning to see and ran into an artist I know. She put on four shows last year and told me she was "taking a year off". She said she was creating visual and poetic journals of journeys she was taking, for herself, and perhaps for later development. I like that idea.
I also want to find other venues to show the Lantern. Though at the moment, the energy isn't there even for that.
I am still in shock. Despite a massive snow fall two days beforehand and all the health and safety shenanigans, the Peasholm Magic Lantern went ahead at the weekend as part of the Coastival festival. And we had 300 visitors over the two afternoons. Yes, 300, I have not added an extra zero by mistake. I had expected 30, and we had ten times that number.
Not everyone stayed for the 20 minute duration of the digital loop, though the majority did, or, at least, for a substantial part of it. And, of course, not everyone liked it, but most responses were favourable. For many it was the experience of coming onto the island in the middle of the park and climbing the hill to the garden and pagoda at the top - perhaps bringing back happy memories of doing the same in the past - which added to the enjoyment. One girl had just "done" Haikus at school so was excited to see them "at work".
Here are some extracts from the comments book: “Really enjoyed it – lovely concept of poetry with music.” “Brilliant.” “The best performance piece of the whole festival.” “Very nice – makes you realise what a nice park we’ve got.” “Very tranquil. Enjoyed it and could have sat for longer.” “Beautiful experience. Meditative/brilliant.” “Interesting use of the building. Enjoyable. Different.”
I thought things were going too smoothly. My art installation is at risk of getting snarled up in health and safety fears. Parts of the site are being worked on, but even with barriers up, the powers-that-be are worried visitors will leap over them and injure themselves.
Surely to goodness a barrier saying "Keep Out Danger" is enough warning? There seems to be this idea that if people ignore signs and barriers, they are still not responsible for harming themselves. This must be an urban myth. And if I wasn't up to my neck in risk assessments, steward rotas and hi viz jackets, I might take the time to check the case law.
The Government has announced a Dementia Strategy which will mean the setting up of memory clinics. I imagine these to be huge stores with racks and racks of lost or misplaced remembrances. I have worked with people in various stages of dementia over the last few years. I am saddened when I watch them struggling, but at the same time I am fascinated at how little bits of self seem to dissolve with the fading words and memory.
"My husband is coming to collect me," Gloria says.
Her memories are snapshots dropped to the floor. "My husband is coming, he'll be here." The visceral connecting tissue, the tendon, has let loose the bones which clatter out of pattern. "I don't have it." Time shifts from her grasp, hides inconsequentially in her handbag. She searches for it. "It's not here. Do you have it?" She looks for a moment like a little girl scared of being told off.
"When is he coming, my husband?" Gloria asks.
Another frenetic week has whizzed by. I had been thinking of applying for a commission as a poet for a public art project in Durham. In the end, I decided I could not do it unless I went back on some of my commitments locally, and being seen as reliable and consistent to people here became more important. I am disappointed. I wonder whether I should have gone for it in any case, to see if I could have got it, but then even the thought of driving over for the interview made me want to weep. Do things happen for a reason? Is the fish that got away always the unpalatable one? Or should I have pushed myself?
On a brighter note, I have tried The Peasholm Magic Lantern on site now, and it looks good. What a relief that I don't have to do any more tweaking and have something I can be proud of, even if not everyone is going to appreciate it, I am sure.
Then looking up into the night sky:
Moon, taut silver sail, guided by the tended flame Venus holds for all.
Grant me a cloud's grace, a slow imperceptible metamorphosis.
January is running away with me. I'm back to my regular teaching and counselling commitments, in addition I'm doing some hours at the hospice and I've had paperwork and preparation to do for work coming up in a few months time. Then there's the admin role I'm in the process of taking on. This week I've been questioning myself whether I have left enough space for my creativity.
Of course, a lot of this is short term and/or building for the future, and it is all, for me, enjoyable and satisfying.
For the moment I've been pouring my creativity into The Peasholm Magic Lantern; the art installation I am doing for Coastival (http://www.coastival.com/), consisting of a digital loop with Haikus, images and music. The elements are all coming together excitingly, though the technical issues around making sure the marrying of the three is effective, are fiddly and time consuming. And I have yet to try it out in the place where it is to be displayed, I imagine that will throw up other questions and the need to tinker.
I went to see the film The Reader last night. A veritable treatise on shame: individual; communal; common or garden; beyond-the-ordinary. The young Michael is a text book example of how shame accumulates from the petty to the sort that stops you sleeping at night. His parents, archetypal "shamers", set him up for a life-time of turmoil (see also Shame. The Power of Caring by Gershen Kaufman (Schenkman Books Inc, Rochester, Vermont)). No wonder he is drawn towards Hana who carries the burden of societal shame as well as her own.
Don't be put off by Kate Winslet's truly awful performance at the Golden Globe awards, she is magnificent in this film. But for me, David Kross's portrayal from innocent adolescence to tortured manhood should get far more plaudits. This is a complex film with few glimmers of hope. And I do think the elder Michael could come up with a better "surprise" for his long-lost daughter than taking her to a rain drenched graveyard so that he can start to unfetter himself from his chasms of shame.
I went back to the hospice today. I cycle up there with my poems in my backpack, a peripatetic bard. One of the men I'd met during my time there last year had died, on Christmas Day. I feel sad. Then I remember his suffering and wonder about words like release and relief, though perhaps I am just searching for comfort for myself.
The atmosphere is as ever upbeat, and, I sense, genuinely so. I ask for favourite words; "smile", "contentment", "lovable", "flowers" come the replies. Still I search for the shadows, for the demons, for the hurt, shoved into the corners, such is my habit. Death lingers, I feel certain, and not all ghosts are benign.
Taking refuge in a local hostelry from the biting wind, I began to idly peruse You magazine. According to an article entitled 'Therapy at a Click', by Jane Alexander, the AOL Blog Trends survey "reported that nearly 50% of bloggers see blogging as a form of self-therapy". And further that, "six times as many people prefer to write their blog than seek counselling from a professional".
At first I thought, well, this is only an extension of using journaling as a means to mental well-being. On the other hand, perhaps not. When introducing the idea of keeping a reflective journal in my workshops, I emphasise the importance of safety, of not making ourselves vulnerable by sharing too much too quickly with people we are not sure we can trust. I have noticed that people who are suffering from depression, particularly if it stems from unhealthy relationships in the past, are prone to re-traumatising themselves through regurgitating their pain in ways which are almost impossible for them and those around them to assimilate. They don't get the response they want because it is all too much for their listeners, and they feel overwhelmed because they see their audience becoming scared or switching off.
A blog is a very public arena for showing our hurt. And the comeback cannot be relied upon to be a useful one - as was pointed out later on in the article.
In the journaling I advocate (and use myself), there is also a search for insight and understanding, an attempt to notice patterns and processes. Yes, there is the catharsis element, but beyond this there is the endeavour to make sense and break out of blind alleys and unwholesome loops. I wonder how much of this takes place during the "self-therapy" blogging?
Which is why, of course, I am saddened that seeking professional counselling is so shunned. Bloggers are beginning to express and explore feelings, trained counsellors can offer them the safe, boundaried sounding board which could move them on, further towards a greater understanding of themselves.
Happy New Year! It's something we say or hear a lot around now. Is it meant as an aspiration, a statement of fact or an injunction? Sometimes it feels like a bludgeon over the head. There are so many for whom this New Year is anything but happy.
Janus, the Roman god with two faces, one looking back, the other forwards, gave its name to this month. It is time for me to fix my eyes on what's to come rather than on what has been. And there are some exciting prospects. More work at the hospice. An art installation with music, images and poetry for a local festival. A creative writing project with a group of women who suffer from chronic pelvic pain which is to be credibly evaluated; another step in giving credence to what I do. Plus the teaching, the facilitating and the counselling which gives me so much.
Yes I am ready for the next turn of the seasons. For myself I want to continue to notice the joy in small things. For the world, I yearn for peace.
Pathways Through Writing Blocks in the Academic Environment
A new book by Kate Evans exploring creative ways for overcoming blocks to writing especially for those working in the academic environment. Aimed at students with essays, theses and reports to write, academics with articles or books they want to get out there and supervisors supporting anyone who is having a hard time putting words on the paper. See http://www.sensepublishers.com/ & www.amazon.co.uk
Healing Words: six linked one day workshops exploring creative writing
Aimed at writers working in therapeutic environments or with vulnerable groups or health professionals who want to bring writing into their practice. Themes covered: storytelling; poetry; metaphor; embodied writing. Dates: Saturdays in 2013, 9th March, 1st June, 27th July, 21st September, 23rd November and 18th January 2014. Participants can do all six or choose to attend specific ones. Workshops will be held in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. Continuing Professional Development hours will be awarded. Tutor: Kate Evans, writer, UKCP registered counsellor and Lapidus member. For more information, please contact Kate on email@example.com.
All the poetry & writing in this blog, copyright Kate Evans, unless otherwise indicated. All rights reserved. For comments, questions or permissions please use email from my website: http://www.writingourselveswell.co.uk/.
Photos by Mark Vesey
Many of the names used in this blog have been changed and the dates & places of events have been disguised in order to preserve confidentiality.
I am a writer and a UKCP registered psychotherapeutic counsellor. I facilitate writing workshops. I am personally and professionally interested in the link between creativity and good mental health.
Visit my website: www.writingourselveswell.co.uk
Poetry The Peasholm Magic Lantern, Coastival 2009
Haiku & photo exhibition, Nutmeg Cafe, 2010
Words in My Head, Woodend, Coastival 2011
Books Contribution to Writing Works, a resource hadnbook for therapeutic writing workshops and activities eds Gillie Bolton, Victoria Field & Kate Thompson. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2006.
Articles The Poetry of Therapy, Therapy Today, December 2009 (reprinted Counselling Today NZ)
Outside Life: Edith Sitwell, Poetry News, Winter 2010
Writer's Block: a reflective literature review, The European Journal of Qualitative Research, Summer 2011
The chrysalis and the butterfly: a phenomenological study of one person's writing journey, Journal of Applied Arts & Health 2011
'Finding the unexpected': an account of a writing group for women with chronic pelvic pain (co-authored with Dr Lesley Glover), Journal of Poetry Therapy May 2012