If…

I’ve been feeling a bit flat recently, although that’s not uncommon at this time of the year.

I know I’m currently craving solitude and simplicity, wanting to spend some time somewhere a little remote. An area of moorland, such as Dartmoor or the Pennines, would do me very nicely. Even better if there were some woodlands nearby, too. Although there would be no people around (ideally), there would be wildlife to watch and hills and valleys and those woods to explore. Maybe some interesting ruins nearby…

Simplicity, that’s what I’d want. Somewhere with no wifi, no TV, no phone signal or even radio. A decent supply of food and a few beers because, as Jerome K Jerome said, thirst is a dangerous thing. A fire to sit beside in the evening. Somewhere small and basic with no luxuries.

I’d take some books. Several sorts, so I could pick one up or swap to another depending upon my mood. At least one book of poetry, perhaps Stranger in the Mask of a Deer which I read for the first time a few months ago, and then re-read recently because it was so damned good. Maybe a Seamus Heaney collection, including the ‘Station Island’ sequence of poems, or a collection by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko for the marvellous long poem Zima Junction. Maybe I’d just take all of those.

I’d include some sort of detective novel for pure escapism, then one or two books by the likes of Robert Macfarlane – books that would inform me about the landscape I had decided to inhabit for a while.

I wouldn’t just be walking and exploring, or reading. I have a few poems I need to finish off, one about salmon and one about the Winter Solstice. In this environment I think I’d be inspired to finish them, hopefully write some more.

A week would probably do it.

Antisocial Media

I’m sure I cannot be alone in being unable to decide what I want my relationship with social media to be. One minute I determine I want as little to do with it as possible, then the next I’m commenting on Twitter posts and posting my own. It seems I simply cannot make up my own mind. I list all the positives – getting my work ‘out there’, networking, discovering interesting posts, finding new music and books, then list all the negatives – spending far too much time on there, getting distracted by stuff that doesn’t really interest me or, worse still, makes me cross and encourages me to engage negatively, and determine that yes, I’m going to limit my engagement with said social media to certain times, or types of interactions, but all too quickly I’m wasting hours on there.

So I then determine to have a break from it. Much easier, as it happens, and I enjoy having days when I don’t even open the computer. But sooner or later, for one reason or another, I’m back on there again.

In many ways, I would like to completely withdraw from it, but worry I would lose contact with many people I want to stay in touch with. Because this is the way things work now, I wouldn’t get to learn of so much new writing or music. I’d miss articles I very much want to read. In the past, I’ve written about my books and made sales that way, and should I ever get my act together enough to finish one of my current projects, would like to do so again.

But to many problems, of course, there is no perfect solution. I know I need more willpower, but even so I can never quite make up my mind exactly what I want out of social media. On different days I probably want different things, since on different days different sides of my personality come to the fore. One day I’m reading through my feed looking for posts on standing stones and myths, on another I’m looking at poetry magazines or music. Like all of us, perhaps, to a degree.

I’m not expecting anyone to come up with an answer to this, but if you also find it difficult to strike a balance between endless online trawling and complete cold turkey, just know that you are not alone!

Driven

I’ve written elsewhere how, like many others, I feel I write because I have to; ideas come into my head and I need to set them out and explore them, to bring them to a conclusion. Because I feel driven by these ideas.

I’ve also written of how the muse sometimes just ups and leaves and hightails out of town. Then I just dry up. But all that time, the ideas will still pop up, perhaps in broken form or just as hints – the odd phrase, a line or two, but refuse to meld with others to make a whole.

That, I would venture, is when you understand the artist within you. You don’t just say Oh, forget it! I’ll take up trainspotting instead! and ignore the tiny sparks that continue to force their way into your consciousness. You note down those ideas, and struggle to tease something – anything – out of them that you can use, knowing that sooner or later they will lead to something.

Yes, that’s when you know you’re driven.

It’s Difficult…

Bits of poems keep coming to me at the moment, but only in the form of phrases or the odd line. And nothing that relates to other poems I might be working on. Then when I attempt to tease them out further, the muse just disappears.

I think I’ve finished with A Good Place (the novel I’ve been working on for the last four years). That’s ‘finished with’ as opposed to ‘finished’. It’s just not a story I feel compelled to tell and on the basis of if you have nothing to say, then say nothing, I see no point in continuing with it for now. Anything I do feel I want to say at present can probably best be said in the form of poetry.

Even if I’m having trouble writing them at the moment.

There is a popular post that crops up on social media, invariably a variation on a photograph of a log cabin somewhere in a wilderness, with a caption along the lines of No TV, no internet, but plenty of books and all the food and drink you need. Could you live here for a month for $10,000? to which most people seem to reply Definitely! or Bring it on! or somesuch.

Leaving aside the interesting point that so many people say they would welcome that situation, it is certainly something that speaks strongly to me. Well, more than ‘speaks strongly’ – it jumps up and down waving its arms in the air and shouting ‘Oi! Look at me! Over here!’ Nothing seems to hold my interest at the present; I just feel I want to disappear into the wilderness and walk and walk and walk.

Maybe I’ll come across my muse there.

It’s the incessant noise as much as anything. Traffic. Aircraft. People talking or shouting into mobile phones in the quiet of the woods. Chainsaws, drills, and hammering. Unless you’re in the middle of Dartmoor or the Cairngorms, there’s no escape. And no guarantee of it even there.

Some Diary Extracts

April 10th 2022:

A few days ago I dug out all the pastel paintings I have hanging around and put them to one side, the intention being to chuck them all out. As part of managing to get my creative side working properly again, I feel I need to clear out the majority of my old work. I think it is simply preventing me from getting going again – as well as taking up space we don’t really have spare. I’ve always been a little reluctant to just destroy a painting I think I might be able to sell at some point, but that’s something that doesn’t matter to me in the same way any longer.

It’s much the same with writing. Nice if someone buys it and nice, of course, if someone reads it and likes it and, hopefully, gets something from it. But not important in the same way as it used to be. I’ve never wanted to be famous, or sell millions of books (much the same thing, of course), and perhaps this is part of that. If the poetry I’m currently writing is any good, I would like someone to publish it, and if a small audience appreciated it and thought it worthwhile, well, I’d be tickled pink. But it’s not that important.

If I paint again, or carve wood, it will be entirely for me. If someone likes a painting, then perhaps I’ll simply give it to them. I appreciate this isn’t a philosophy that most creatives could adopt, but it’s what I feel I should like to do at the moment.

Wall painting in Amberley Church, Sussex. It dates from around 1300AD, was whitewashed over around 1550, and restored in 1967.

April 11th 2022:

We’re off to Amberley for a couple of days. We should have been walking the South Downs Way at the moment, but Covid has left us too tired for that, so we cancelled our various bookings. But to give ourselves a short break, we kept the Amberley one and booked an extra night.

Yesterday I contemplated completely coming off the internet for a matter of all of about half a second. I find it a huge distraction and much of it incredibly annoying, but like most folk I’m in too deep to extricate myself. We’ve arranged our lives around it over the past twenty years especially, and in my own case I keep in touch with many people that way, I have my blog, which I don’t think I’m ready to give up yet, rely upon it for booking trains and finding train and bus timetables, use it for family research, writing research, and to find and order books and music. None of these would be insurmountable problems, but cumulatively it would just be too much hassle to do without.

But even when I’m using my laptop for writing, I get too easily distracted by the internet and I feel a little like those people who walk through lovely scenery staring down at their mobile phones.

April 15th 2022:

Sunny and clear this morning and the forecast is that the day will be warm and bright. Having had quite a busy day yesterday, I felt quite run down in the evening and this morning feel very tired despite having slept well. It is four weeks until we go to Coll and I hope I’ve got some energy back by then.

It is sunny and, dare I say it, warm all day and despite this being Easter Bank Holiday weekend, the forecast is that it will continue this way.

Strange powers are at work.

Yuck Time

Well, damn this blasted Covid.

March really isn’t going to plan at the moment. Having already messed up my creative plans for the month, even my Plan B has now fallen apart as we’ve coughed and groaned and generally felt sorry for ourselves. I did manage to write a couple of poems before the yuck set in, though, so all was not entirely lost.

We had plans to do some long walks, now the glorious Spring weather has finally arrived, getting ourselves ready for going away to walk some of the South Downs Way again next month.

At least we’ve got a sunny back garden to sit in, I suppose.

In the meantime, here’s an old photo randomly of a decorated window on a house in the Nepalese Himalaya I took in 1988.

Feels like quite a long while ago.

That Project – Into March, Now

February’s project was to finish the final draft of A Good Place. As you may have gathered from my last update post, this wasn’t going too well. By the end of the month, though, I had virtually achieved my aim. I’d chucked out some stuff that wasn’t working, rehashed what was left, and inserted a couple of ideas. It works, but I feel somewhat flat. As I said in that earlier post, it’s just not a story I feel particularly strongly about. If I hadn’t invested so much time in it by now, I’d just scrap it and be done with.

Actually, it’s possible I will do that eventually. I’ve put it aside and I don’t intend to look at it again for ages. Possibly not until next year. But March, I said, would be a month of painting and drawing. So what have I been doing? I’ve been writing poems.

Yes, writing poems. But before you all start jeering at me, hear me out. Our spare room is full of books and papers and God only knows what else. Bags and boxes of stuff that need sorting. To get it into some sort of order we need to get a new, large, set of shelves. But to make the most of the space we also needed to get rid of an old computer desk and a cupboard. That we’ve done, but that involved emptying said desk and cupboard, so even more stuff is piled on the floor and any other available surface.

So where on earth can you paint or draw?

Precisely! You see the problem! So, for the time being, change of plan. This month I’m fiddling around with some poems instead – you may have seen one effort on here last post – and leaving the painting for now.

Next month, then?

Um…not necessarily. I do have other plans for April. I’ll let you know what they are later.

A Warning To Other Writers

Oh, this sodding book.

I…no, first, a little bit of context.

Those of us who call ourselves creatives, why do we create? Why do we have this need to make things? I know the usual answer is we write / paint / carve / whatever it is we do, because we have to, because there is something inside of us that needs to find an outlet. But what is that something? In my case, as well as a storyline it is frequently a place where I have spent some enjoyable time. It provides me with a comfortable setting in which to tell a story.

Most of what I do, certainly the work I feel is my best, my most successful (in the sense of expressing what I want to express), falls into that category. My long poem The Night Bus, for example, was the result of a thirty year (admittedly intermittent) search for a way to record my experience of a long bus ride across Northern India into Nepal. I attempted prose and paintings without success, although through this I did develop a style of painting I went on to successfully use on many Indian paintings, and had long given up on the project when chance showed me a way into the poem. The poem I completed succeeds in conjuring up (for me) the impressions and feelings I had on that journey; I can relive the journey again by re-reading the poem. Whether it conveys anything of that to other readers, I naturally cannot know.

And my stories, too. I look through Making Friends With The Crocodile, and I am in rural Northern India again. I re-read The Last Viking and can easily feel myself on an island off the west coast of Scotland. This is not to imply any intrinsic merit to my writing, other than its ability to transport myself, at least, into the setting I am attempting to describe.

These stories are a composite of three basics: a setting, as mentioned already, a storyline – and again this needs to be something important to me, or I find it pretty well impossible to put my heart into it, and strong, convincing, characters.

It is useful, then, to know where lots of my writing comes from, and what shapes it, what drives it. I have long suspected that this is frequently nostalgia and, recognising that, have wondered whether this might be a bad thing. Nostalgia, after all, has a rather bad press…does it just mean I am living in the past because I am viewing it through rose-tinted spectacles? As a way of not addressing issues of today I should be tackling?

This yearning for nostalgia, though, is a desire for something we see as better than what we have now. To write passionately about something it needs to be something I feel strongly about. Obviously this can also be something we find frightening or abhorrent – dystopian warnings about the future or anger about injustices, for example – but even in those cases the familiar provides a cornerstone of safety, even if only by way of comparison.

This is also true when I paint. I am not someone who can paint to order – if I’m not inspired, it does not work. A number of difficult commissions have proved that point to me. I paint what I like, what moves me. After all, whatever I am creating, it should be foremost for myself.

That book, then…

I began writing it about five years ago for all the wrong reasons. I had self-published Making Friends With The Crocodile and decided my next story should also be set in India, and as a contrast decided to write about British ex-pats living in a hill station in the foothills of the Himalaya. I wanted to write about India again. The trouble was, I had no idea what story I was going to tell. I had no stories that might slot into that setting I felt in any way driven to write; it just seemed to feel appropriate at the time. I was pleased by the reception the first book had and felt I ‘should’ write this one.

What could possibly go wrong?

I spent time putting together a plot, with which I was never wholly satisfied, and began writing. Really, I should have seen the obvious at that point and bailed out. But I carried on, and twice reached a point where I thought I had the final draft.

My beta reader then proceeded to point out all the very glaring faults.

So twice I ripped out a third of it and chucked it away, then re-plotted the second half of the book and got stuck into the re-write. I’m sure you can see part of the problem at this point – I wanted to hang onto as much of the story as I could, instead of just starting completely afresh. And now here I am trying to finish the final draft for the third time, as my February project for this year. And it’s just not working for me. But at this point, after well over a hundred and fifty thousand words (half of which I’ve discarded) I just feel I’ve invested too much time and effort in it to abandon it now. Somehow, it has to get finished. I do have an idea for a couple of quite drastic changes which I’ll try this week, but unless I feel I’m making some real progress I’ll then happily put it aside for a while and concentrate on next month’s project: painting and drawing.

And, to be honest, if it eventually ended up as a story of less than ten thousand words, and if I felt satisfied with it, then I’d take that as a result, now.

And the moral of all this? I’m sure there was a point after a couple of months when I knew I shouldn’t have been writing this book. I should have binned it there and then and saved myself a lot of fruitless trouble, but stubbornly ignored the warning signs.

So, That Project…

January’s project was to tidy up the scrappy notes I had on my family tree and fill in a few of the gaps. Successful? I reckon so.

Parish Register from the eighteenth century – not one of my scrappy notes

It’s in much better shape than it was this time a month ago, and I feel I now have a developing narrative; I’m beginning to know a bit about the day to day lives of some of my ancestors, in a way that makes them real people rather than just a series of names and dates. Working class folk in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – poverty, sickness and, frequently, early death. Large families. Both rural and urban poor.

Then we had some milder, sunnier, days, and I guess I got a little distracted, going out and walking as often as I could. It was good to get some miles into my legs.

February’s project, then, is to finish the final draft of A Good Place ready for the final round of editing. Currently I’m reading through the manuscript and making notes, and will hopefully get down to some serious writing in a couple of days. I know what I want to do with the storyline, and it’s really just a matter of filling in some gaps.

Other than the editing, of course.

If all continues to go well, my project for March will be to spend the month painting and drawing. I’m not sure what the thrust of it will be, but at the moment I’m thinking skies and evenings and trees, or maybe a whole load of other things. We’ll see.

And then April? Whoa! Let’s not get ahead of ourselves!