How to approach quietness

Let yourself be loud, be loud and busy and jumpy and unsettled.  Let yourself fizz and pop and bubble.  Let the sparks of adrenaline light a bonfire. Let the clouds and rain of drama storm across your fields. Let the din of the living resound without apology or restraint.

And when the flames turn to embers, when the sky clears, when the echoes stop ringing, start to draw away from the flitter, flutter, chitter, chatter.  Take slipper soft steps from centrestage and find a seat in the darker recesses of the auditorium.  While watching the bright acts unfold, feel the dark folding its corners around your shoulders, wrapping a woolen blanket to muffle the noise, blur the action,  soften the edges.

With each exhale, a few more feathers become unruffled, the blood moves more slowly, the heart feels less need to beat its drum so loud and fast to hold your attention.  The muscles in your thighs unclench and you sink into purposeful drifting, where you can follow an idea wherever it takes you, unencumbered by the rattling tin cans of thinking.  Into labyrinths of possibility, across unexpected bridges, you trail ghosts of suggestion.  And now, with a hush, you can breathe quietness into being.

This post is the first in a new series that I’m calling ‘present not precious.’  I’m looking for a way to practice fluidity,  to get more writing out of my notebooks, but not be so precious about the words that they never fly off the page.  I’m hoping the posts become a middle ground between freewriting and crafted work.  The idea is to write it, post it, and move on.  I intend to be present, but not precious.

 

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Writing Circles – A few things I’ve learned so far

It’s been quiet here in the forest, but my pen has been busy this autumn!  I just finished facilitating the first round of my Writing Circles programme.  I’m loving the challenge of creating a weekly programme, getting to know and responding to new writers, and writing along with them myself.  I’ve written about some of the things I’ve learned so far over on the Writing Circles news and notes.

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I think my forest is  growing – we’re making room for foxes and tigers. (Art by my seven-year-old artist in residence)

I’ve been thinking about shifting the tone of One Tree Bohemia again.  I have a lot of raw material written in notebooks and another category of writing that is part of a larger work in progress (almost 20,000 words), but I feel the blog needs something in between.   Perhaps it can become a playground or halfway house for writing that isn’t sure yet what it is going to be.  Stay tuned.

 

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Moon hunters

Who can find the moon? I ask at dusk.
We walk across the meadow, down the path,
hedges and brambles studded with crimson,
a dove flaps over bare furrows, rising above
hay bales, dried and stacked, whiffs of captured sunshine.
Near the river, we tug and pluck haw berries, rose hips,
toss handfuls from the bridge, plop, plop, plop,
lean over the side, waiting for the scarlet baubles
to bobble under our feet, flow away, to the Wash, to the sea.
Going home, the scent of manure like a creeping fog on the fields,
a bonfire – crackle, crackle, spit, pop, spark, hiss -
and the moon, large and luminous, coloured by flame.

I worked on this today in preparation for my Writing Circle this week.  We’ll be looking at revision, meaning seeing again. Revision isn’t so much about fixing as it is seeing differently,  from another angle, or more fully.  This started as a journal entry written after a walk with the kids when last month’s full moon was rising.  Today I took it through a few versions and it has turned into a poem. Still thinking about punctuation…

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We will sail pathless and wild seas

The two ships on the left are caravels, the one on the right is a nau.  Galleons were developed later.

The two ships on the left are caravels, the one on the right is a nau.  Image credit: “Ships from da Gama’s 2th voyage 1502″ by D. Jorge de Sousa (?) – Livro de Lisuarte de Abreu. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

We visited Lisbon for a week this summer. I loved it. The bright southern Iberian light, the azulejos (blue tiles) on the buildings, the clattering trams and winding streets. But of all the things that captured my imagination, the one that surprised me the most was the Museu de Marinha, the Museum of Maritime History. In particular, I became fascinated with the caravel, a Portuguese sailing boat, developed in the 15th century.

Caravel. It’s a gem of a word. To me it suggests grace and elegance. These small, lightweight boats were prized for their speed and manoeuvrability. Galleons were fighters and naus were cargo ships, but caravels were explorers and scouts. The Portuguese mastered the art of sailing caravels into the wind so that even with opposing gusts, they could still make headway in their chosen direction.

And how did they choose their directions? What did those sailors, those first adventurers use for guidance? I’m pretty sure they didn’t have GPS. Reliable measurements of longitude were still a few centuries way. Maps? Not really. They were the mapmakers, defining and drawing the boundaries of a world that had only recently ceased being flat. What did they have? Stars, wind, each other, faith and courage.

Look what they did: On Vasco da Gama’s 1497-1499 voyage from Lisbon around the horn of Africa to Calcutta and back, they established the first sea-route to India, destabilizing the old world order. They started the ‘Age of Discovery,’ whose spirit still propels many of our innovations and global connections. With ports along the African coast, in India, and deeper into Asia and South America on further voyages, Portugal became a world power. Granted, these explorations were also fuelled by greed and ambition, rival monarchies grasping after spices and slaves. As well, there remain legacies of imperialism, colonialism, and other ‘ism’s that haven’t always showcased the best possible behaviour of humans towards one another.

Still, I’m drawn to those who actually boarded and sailed the boats. Despite the harsh conditions and vast unknown, there must have been moments when the sheer thrill of the possible made those sailors whoop with joy. I’d like to think so. Adventure bewitches me. This is probably why I live in a different country from where I grew up and why I have a habit of turning pay-checks into plane-tickets faster than I can pack my bags. The desire to see more of this world than a known set of boundaries has always been a driving force behind so many of my own decisions.

Yesterday was the initial meeting of Writing Circles, a writing programme I’ve spent the last year dreaming into existence and the last few months getting ready to set sail.

After we settled in with teas and coffees and introductions, we got busy with the first burst of free-writing. I looked up and saw 8 open notebooks, being filled with possibilities as I filled the middle of the writing table with prompts. A little later, we went outside to collect sounds with our pens. I recorded footsteps tapping on cement, shuffling through fallen leaves, crunching across gravel. The footsteps faded as the writers wandered through the glebe towards the church. I waited on a wooden bench in the company of a drunken bumblebee, who buzzed the praises of late summer blooms. Footsteps and voices grew louder again as they returned. Back in the hall, the community room rang with people speaking and listening as they gave voice to some of their fledgling writing ideas.

Watching the group come together, I thought again of Vasco da Gama’s crew and fleet. We, too, are sailing forth. We are on a six-week journey to lands unknown, charting and mapping the paths of stories as yet untold, weathering the storms that toss our caravel or taking refuge in the calms that lull it. With the wind and high spirits to guide us, we have begun our own voyages of discovery.

‘We will sail pathless and wild seas
We will go where winds blow, waves dash, and the Yankee clipper speeds by under full sail.
Allons! With power, liberty, the earth, the elements!
Health, defiance, gayety, self-esteem, curiosity;
Allons!’
–  Walt Whitman, from Song of the Open Road
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Shall we gather by the river?

It would have been so easy to say no.

A month earlier, Elaine Westwick asked if I would play my cello during her pilates and Qigong inspired movement class. She suggested ‘flowing music to play by the river.’ This was a new challenge. Aside from auditions and cello lessons, I hadn’t played a solo since high school. Even during high school, I only played solo pieces a scant handful of times.

I looked at the date she proposed: I’d have to miss the school awards assembly. I looked at the time: I wouldn’t be able to get back to my village before the school run and I’d have to arrange childcare for the kids. I thought about being the only musician instead of being buried in an ensemble of 80-100 players: People would be able to hear me and any of my mistakes, hesitations, sour notes. I could have said the time and date don’t work for me or I prefer to play in orchestra or honestly, that would be way too scary.

I said ‘Sure, I’d love to, thanks for asking.’ Then put it out of my mind for a few weeks.

But knowing I had made a promise, I started practicing and getting ready for the day. I chose the first of J.S. Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Almost every cellist plays from these suites at some point. To play them is to join in a conversation with other cellists that stretches across time and distance.  Although the first suite is technically more straightforward than the others, it isn’t trivial, and I never tire of this music. I always learn something from it each time I play. By practicing Bach, I could drown out my nerves about playing in public.

When I wasn’t practicing and my mind wandered to the upcoming day – only a week away, only a few days away, just under 24 hours to go – I wondered if there was a graceful way out.

Even up to the morning of that day, the universe teased me by handing me really good excuses to back down. Respectable, responsible reasons: My daughter wasn’t well, sent home from school the day before, and she was staying home for an extra day of rest. The heat would be too much for my instrument. I didn’t have a good folding chair that would be easy to carry over to the river.

But, like I said, I’d made a promise. And something I’ve learned over the past few years is that every time I make and keep a small promise to myself, I trust myself more that I can make and keep another small promise, take another small step. It is about taking risks, but also recognizing that small risks build muscle and courage for bigger risks, other adventures.

So, on a hot Friday afternoon in July, I was walking across the Great Shelford cricket pitch with no shade, heading toward the river, carrying my cello on my back, lugging a clumsy wooden chair in one hand, and holding my seven-year-old daughter’s hand with the other.

‘I’m scared,’ I told her. ‘I’m scared because I’m going to be playing my cello in front of all these people and I don’t know them and they don’t know me and they’ll hear me. And there will probably be someone who knows every note of the piece and who can play it better and will hear all my mistakes.’

She squinted at me through the sun’s glare and I noticed Elaine coming across the field to help us with the chair. ‘But I’m going to play anyway,’ I continued. ‘I’m going to play because I said I would and I know and love these songs. I’m just going to think about the music and enjoy the chance to play outside. I’m glad you’re here with me and I’ll play for you, because I know you’ll be listening.’

During the session, she settled on the grass just to my side, behind a big tree, sometimes sitting with her arms around her knees, sometimes lying down and looking up at the leaves. I could feel her eyes watching, her ears listening. I smoothed over my nerves and began to play Bach for her.

I love the feeling of keeping a promise. It feels so good to say I’ll do something, and then do it, however it turns out – maybe too rough, with mistakes, a bit out-of-tune here, a wobble there, a couple of missed notes.   What matters more than a litany of faults is that I was there; I played my cello by the river, the breezes through the leaves provided an accompaniment. The people in Elaine’s class moved to imagery of trees, moons, suns, and the earth. I soon became absorbed in responding to their movement with the music. As their arms rose in a particular motion, I paced my notes to try to reach the peak of the line when their fingers were at the highest points. When they rested in the shade, I did, too. Then, when it seemed right, I played the Sarabande, a movement I have always found to be profoundly meditative. We were present, imperfect and intentional.

Afterwards my daughter told me, ‘I liked hearing you play outside.’ She asked if she could practice her violin outside that day. We did. We played in the back garden and she, too, had the experience of playing al fresco, to the neighbourhood cats and butterflies. This was the surprise icing on the cake of choosing to say yes.

There are always good reasons to say no to doing something that stretches you, that scares you. Moving outside our usual spheres of expertise isn’t always comfortable or easy. There’s always the chance of losing face or feeling a failure.

But there might be even better reasons to say yes. And the thing is, I often find that the most precious rewards of saying yes are never known beforehand when I’m weighing up the pros and cons of a decision. Instead, it’s the doing that delights me and the unexpected ripple-effects that make me glad I took the risk.

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Of Grand Masses and big messes.

By the end, I am always smitten.

It never seems to start like that, though. Instead, I’m like a sceptical Midwestern farmer: ‘Haven’t heard you, haven’t heard of you, don’t know you, don’t know if I like you.’

Berlioz, Grande Messe de Morts. At first glance, the title suggests a big mess. And, as with so many of these massive orchestral pieces I have been fortunate to play, at the very beginning I am in a state of confusion and uncertainty.

What? Four brass bands? Two hundred voices? What? Violas trading chords with the wind section? What? Coupling flutes and trombones? How many timpani? How many bassoons? Are you sure that’s not a misprint?

Nevertheless, we show up to rehearsals and learn the notes. ‘What is this?’ players in my section ask one another after the first read through.  Week on week, the music emerges. It is not a big mess, but a grand mass, a requiem, a tribute to fallen soldiers in the French Revolution of 1830.

I not only learn the notes, but learn to listen to the music’s story, finding meaning in the melody. The constantly changing key signature of the Dies Irae stops being a nuisance and becomes a musical metaphor. Yes, on the day of reckoning, it would be hard to know just what ground you stand on. Of course the keys are constantly shifting underfoot. Following directly on from the Dies Irae is the Tuba Mirium, where the four brass bands make their entries like the four winds, each playing from a different section of the cathedral, the calls combining and colliding in the middle like a fountain of sound.

After an ethereal, acapella Quarens Me from the chorus, the strings come staggering in to the Lachrymosa with lopsided grace. Is there any other kind for those of us with feet of clay?

Of the Offertorium, our conductor says: ‘Imagine this as a three members of a string quartet, knowing they will never play with the fourth again.’ This idea takes my breath away. What is the complex narrative of such sadness?

‘I don’t care what backstory you make up for this music,’ he says at the end of our final rehearsal, ‘but don’t play a single bar without imagining it as part of something staged, some story to tell.’

The backstory. This reminds me of my piano teacher, who would ask, ‘what’s the story in the music?’ for each piece I learned by heart for a recital. I would make a story to hold the beginning, middle, and end together. Knowing the story made it impossible to forget the music because I always knew what happened next.

One of my traditions with the concert in Ely Cathedral is that during the long break between the final rehearsal and the performance, I go to Topping Books and choose a book.   I spend as long as I like looking at all 3 floors of books, nosing through philosophy, fiction, travel, poetry. My bounty in years past has included The Elegance of the Hedgehog, The Sorrows of an American, and Let the Great World Spin. One year, I bought the Life in UK Test – Official Study Guide. It was a necessary evil (the book, the test). The next year, I got a copy of A Moveable Feast. That took away any bad taste lingering from the previous year’s choice.

This year, I found The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. I was delighted to learn the title is taken from Georgia O’Keefe. ‘From the faraway nearby’ is how she would sign her letters written from New Mexico. Yes, New Mexico is my faraway nearby.

I opened the book and the first sentence asks me:

What’s your story?

Exactly the question I have been asking myself for the past month or so. She continues:

It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.

I had found my book for the year.

One of the themes of the book is story as a conduit for empathy, for connection.   Another theme is story as coming home to one’s own place in the world. These themes resonate deeply with me.

Which brings me back to the concert. Although the music somehow always assembles itself into a story by the time we perform, the beginning of learning is inevitably a mystery and a struggle. How are we going to pull this one off? This one, I think, this will be the one that undoes me.

But I’m proved wrong again. It doesn’t undo me. With practice and faith in the alchemy of process, the Requiem steps out of the fog and into its own majesty. It ends with an echo of the beginning, an older version of itself revisiting a once familiar place. It closes as the strings pass arpeggios from section to section like a giant harp, the entire orchestra a single instrument. Requiem. Peace.

As I said, I am smitten.

You might think that after eight seasons with the Philharmonic, I’d get used to this transformation. But no, not really.   Like the coming of spring, it astounds me each time. I hope it always will.

What does this have to do with story as a conduit for empathy, story as coming home?

The experience of playing these monumental works, of journeying from unfamiliar black marks on white pages to heart-rending music is what inspires me to write stories which seem beyond me at the beginning. In early drafts, I often don’t know what a story is about.  That’s why I’m writing it: to find out. I’m not sure what it’s all leading up to, but I keep turning up anyway. And slowly and surely, just like the Requiem, the whole becomes clearer and I see a way. A way to understanding another, a path to finding my way home.

In that spirit, I’m starting something that feels big for this autumn; I’m starting some Writing Circles, where we begin from the blank page and work our way to telling a tale that matters to us.  We will write together towards stories that will teach us empathy, stories that will lead us home. The Grand Masses and big messes of music have taught me that with faith and practice, we can create something bigger than what we think we know. Want to join me?

Registration for Writing Circles now open. Visit here for details.

Click here for photos from our concert in Ely.

Posted in Music and art, teaching and learning, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

My creative process in 7 words

I promised you a few words on my creative process last week. So, here they are:

  • Show up.
  • Move words around.
  • Take risks.

That’s 7 words. Leigh Chambers, who wrote about her creative process here and passed the baton to me, suggested about 700. I’m 1% finished. Hmm….perhaps I can expand.

***
Show up

Showing up at the blank page – I prefer mine to be unlined in an A5 journal that fits into my bag, thank you very much – is something I try to do every day. Some people write morning pages; others write evening pages; I’m sure there are those who write mummy-has-locked-herself-in-the-loo-to-hide-from-the-kids pages. As with so much writing, the adjective is less important than the subject-verb-object construction: I write pages.

Musicians spend hours on scales and etudes to become fluent on their instruments. This is what showing up at the blank page is for me: it’s a way of becoming fluent in my own language, learning how to sound like myself. When I get to the point where I let the words come without being precious about them, then, yes, I generate nonsense, but I also generate possibility, something to work with, to work from.

Showing up requires time and attention. Two natural resources to use with care.

Move words around

I move them across the page. I shuffle them in their sentences. I transplant them from story to story. I sweep them into the bin.

People cite ‘kill your darlings’ as a golden rule of editing. I say splice them up. A phrase here, an image there – they don’t all need to be centre stage. Sometimes, a sentence doesn’t do itself any favours being in a particular piece. Instead of trying to make it fit, I’ve learned to move it elsewhere. In a garden you don’t want all the flowers to bloom in the same place at the same time. Why would you in a story?

Once I have a workable draft, I aim to reduce the word count by 30%. It’s an arbitrary number, but it makes me interrogate each word. I ferret out those that are hanging around, not doing much. Some of my usual suspects: most adverbs, passive verb constructions, just, and, the, so, also.

I change tenses, shift points of view, flip the order of events in a story or stanzas in a poem. I’m playing LEGO with the bits and pieces of the writing. I want to see what they look like in different configurations.

Take risks

 Sharing writing feels risky. For all of my blank books filled with words, having a public voice is new for me. I started this blog using a pseudonym because I wasn’t sure how to claim words that no one else had asked for. Now I use my own name because I got jealous of the attention that fictional person was getting! My blog has been a way to meet people, to experiment, to build community. Itinerant readers and writers come and go. I like to think of my forest as a pausing place for busy travellers on the web.

Another risk is submitting pieces for publication. Sure I get rejections. That’s part of the game. But the rejections are getting nicer. And I have a fund: for every rejection, I pay myself £5. I’m saving up to do an Arvon course.

I’ve joined a writing group. It makes writing and being a writer much more real. They are a fantastic bunch. Still, though, when I share something, it’s scary. We use the rule that the writer can’t talk during discussion of her/his piece. I love this rule. It removes the impulse to explain. Instead, I take the responses as indications of what the writing transmits on its own.

When I comment on another’s work, instead of taking the easy route of simply saying ‘I liked it’ or ‘I didn’t like it,’ I challenge myself to articulate why something does or doesn’t seem to work. I try to make specific suggestions in terms of craft or technique that could be helpful feedback while respecting the writer’s vision.

Lastly, I’ve been finding opportunities to get others to write and share their writing. I’ve had a ball leading writing workshops this spring. I’m planning to do more in the autumn. Watch this space.

These are unnecessary risks. I don’t have to do any of these. Each one makes me feel exposed. Every time. But they are also the choices that keep the process alive and make it worthwhile.

***

There you have it. My writing process, in 698 words.

I’m fascinated not just by writing processes, but by creativity in general. So I’m pleased to share with you the creative processes of some marvellous friends. Below you’ll find a short bio for each with links. I find these women to be inspiring, funny, powerful, and generous. Do treat yourself by clicking through to find posts about their creative processes. Notice that not only will you be jumping across countries (UK, US, Australia), you will also be roaming through different fields of creativity!


Sue Ann Gleason

Sue Ann Gleason

Sue Ann Gleason, creator of Chocolate for Breakfast, the Well-Nourished Woman, and the Luscious Legacy Project, is a lover of words, a strong believer in the power of imagination, and a champion for women who want to lead a more delicious, fully expressed life. Sue Ann has been featured in Oprah and Runner’s World magazines and numerous online publications. When not working with private clients or delivering online programs, she can be found sampling exotic chocolates, building broccoli forests in her mashed potatoes, or crawling into bed with freshly sharpened pencils and pages that turn.

Click here to read Sue Ann’s thoughts on her creative process.  You can also connect with Sue Ann in a number of other places. Go on, take look! Delicious freebies await you!
joyful eating | nourished living | wise business |Facebook


 

lynne

Lynne Cameron

Lynne Cameron loves change and being in different places. Each new space offers fresh ways of seeing, and its own opportunities for making a home. Basic needs include a kettle for making tea, poetry books, paints and brushes. She is an artist, painting colour-rich abstracts grounded in the natural world. She has been a professor of applied linguistics; a teacher of children and adults; a trainer of teachers. She’s written books on complexity, metaphor and empathy, some of which won prizes. She runs training workshops for women who want to progress through academia, and for businesses who want to understand how empathy can work for them. What does Lynne think about the creative process?  Find out here. See Lynne’s paintings and read her art blog at lynnecameron.com. You might also enjoy reading the Empathy Blog or visiting her facebook page. If you tweet, Lynne’s Twitter handle is @lycameron


 

Emily Gubler

Emily Gubler

Emily Gubler suspects John Wesley Powell would say she is over encumbered by unnecessary scruples. She spent a decade traveling the country as a wildland firefighter and another half working in the back of an ambulance–and was thrilled by the number of poets and artists she met in each field. Currently Emily lives on a Colorado hillside, writing short stories and personal essays and delighting in Western Tanagers, Great Blue Herons, and Golden Eagles.  To see what Emily has to say about the creative process, click here.  Her writing can be found at www.ordinarycontradictions.com.


 

 

Narelle Carter-Quinlan

Narelle Carter-Quinlan

Narelle Carter-Quinlan embodies the Body-Land. She is a global leading exponent on yoga with scoliosis and the lived experience of spinal anatomy, illuminating the complex with reverence, humour and story. As a Photographer, her work is a benediction of communion; our inner and outer terrain. As a dancer, choreographer and artistic director, she is currently researching House of the Broken Wing; a performative, image and written exploration of moving within a scoliotic landscape. She is also a Transformer; true story.  Narelle’s thoughts on the creative process are here. Visit Narelle at embodiedterrain.com to view her Embodied Ecology Photography© and blog, and to hear more about EASS-y, her upcoming e-course exploring the embodied anatomy of scoliosis and yoga.


And what about you? What are your thoughts on creative processes? Please join in with your thoughts or add your link in the comments, I’m curious to hear what you have to say.

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