Facing it

Nearly everyone is addicted to something, and probably more than one thing, whether it’s tea or chocolate or cigarettes or booze or crossword puzzles or The Archers or running five miles a day. Or of course the Internet in all its many guises, not least social media. I’ve never had a Twitter account and wouldn’t dare open one: I know I’d constantly be tweaking my tweets. In the pre- and post-referendum days I could feel myself sliding into a serious Facebook addiction: reading article after article on Brexit and its ramifications, more articles on the state of the Labour party, friends’ opinions (everybody seemed to have one) about the situation, not to mention all the other things that people post, like photographs, poetry successes, funny or sad little anecdotes about their lives, and pointless quizzes that tell you how much you know about British (sic) culture or the geography of the North American continent – oh, and poems, which I have to confess I haven’t always read, as it gets a bit depressing when I’m not writing them myself. For a while I’d spend hours a day, getting more and more involved and wound-up inside, pulled back to the computer as though I’d been tied to it by elastic strings and couldn’t move away without being pinged back again.

Eventually it eased off. Since then the addiction has surfaced sporadically, more like an outcrop of spots than a full-blown acne rash (to mix a few metaphors). I’ve noticed that the times when it does tend to surface are those when I’m feeling unhappy or anxious or upset and want to get away from it: to immerse myself in a brightly coloured, endlessly compelling virtual world. What it gives me is a way of connecting with people I may hardly know in real life, a community far larger than – and in some ways a substitute for – the community around me; but it’s also a never-ending source of distraction from what I really am (or could be) thinking and feeling. Which may be painful. For me, as for a lot of people, the feelings around Brexit were troubling and painful, so what better way of dealing with them than by funnelling them into comment after comment on article after article, or diverting myself from them with the myriad snatches of entertainment that other people post?

It would be disingenuous to say that the feelings I’ve been trying to get away from are only about the political situation. Not that what’s happening in the world isn’t important, but alongside the drama of external events most of us are also living through the drama of our own personal lives. Over the past few months I’ve been trying to process a situation that isn’t life-threatening or even all that terrible, by many people’s standards, but that for me has touched into some of the deepest places of pain and loss. Some of the time, through meditation and Focusing – less through writing – I’ve been able to open to the pain, even welcome it, but a lot of the time I’ve avoided sitting in meditation, choosing instead to busy myself with chores or – yes – start checking emails and Facebook. And it doesn’t feel good. The pain doesn’t go away; it just burrows its way underground and emerges as headaches or tension or that wound-up, overstimulated feeling that comes from too much hopping around from clip to clip and site to site, especially if I’ve been drinking tea as well – another escape.

At those times when I am able to sit with it the pain may be intense, so that I’m not able to stay with it for very long, but I’m there’s also the relief that comes from no longer running away. And, as I continue to let it be there, I sometimes come home again to the sense of the benevolent space around the painful feeling, and an acceptance of it that can deepen until it sometimes stops being ‘pain’ and becomes simply a feeling or sensation that in the moment doesn’t have a name. I can’t say that always happens, but when it does the  relaxation and even wellbeing is unmistakable. In fact I could say that in that sense feeling bad feels good: the more fully I can meet it, the more fresh and alive it is.

And of course it isn’t always like that. Sometimes it really is too much, and sometimes an anodyne seems to be the best solution, especially if I have things to get on with and people to see. But I know that in the end what eases the pain best is facing it, not Facebooking it.

 

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The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen

9781408858431I’m privileged to be part of a writing group that has some hugely talented published writers, as well as some who are just as talented but haven’t yet been published.We’ve been going strong ever since we finished our MA at Bath Spa University and I’ve learnt a lot from everyone. Our members include Jane Shemilt, author of two bestselling novels, Daughter and The Drowning Lesson, Mimi Thebo, whose whose recently published children’s novel Dreaming the Bear has been much praised, Victoria Finlay, author of two fascinating and successful adult non-fiction books, Colour and Jewels, as well as The Brilliant History of Color in Art for young people, Peter Reason, another non-fiction author whose book Spindrift is both a vivid description of a sailing voyage and a deeply felt and deeply considered meditation on our relationship with nature, and Emma Geen, whose original and enthralling debut novel The Many Selves of Katherine North has just been published by Bloomsbury.

The Many Selves is set in a near future where the technology exists both to print living replicas of animal bodies, known as ResExtendas, with a brain stem but no higher brain function, and to allow ‘body jumpers’, known as phenomenauts, to project their consciousness into them, primarily for purposes of research. Katherine North works for ShenCorp, a company that recruits children and young teenagers as its phenomenauts, since their brains have greater plasticity than adults’. Most of them don’t continue for long in the job – for reasons that become clear at the end of the novel – but Katherine, known as Kit, has been body jumping successfully for several years.

At the beginning of the novel Kit experiences being run over and killed while body jumping in a fox ResExtenda, or Ressy. She survives in her human body but is profoundly shaken by the experience and starts to question her identity. She also believes she has encountered another presence, in the form of a fox, which does not appear on any of the records. Buckley Maurice, her neuroengineer (body jump guide/technician) who has been with her on all her jumps, is concerned about her continuing to work as a phenomenaut, but Kit loves the job and at the comparatively advanced age of seventeen can still pass the brain plasticity tests. She is committed to ShenCorp’s research programme into species that are endangered or little understood and resists when the odious Mr Hughes, supported by Buckley, tries to manoeuvre her away from research and into body tourism. This is a commercial project where those who can afford it pay to body-jump into a species of their choice – or even a human Ressy – accompanied by an experienced phenomenaut like Kit.

If Kit wants to stay as a phenomenaut, she has no choice but to accept the transfer. She struggles to continue doing what she loves in a way that satisfies her, and this throws her into conflict with ShenCorp. As she tries to deal with the dilemma, her life begins to disintegrate and she feels entirely alone. Buckley seems to have turned against her and to be responsible for the other presence, and she doesn’t know where else to look for an ally. Leading a feral existence, part human, part fox, she is determined to understand what has happened to her and reclaim her life.

What stands out for me in this remarkable and poetically written novel are the descriptions of the body jumps themselves, into species as diverse as a spider, an octopus, a tiger and a blue whale. Emma Geen makes us believe completely what it would be like  to experience the world as another creature while retaining human consciousness, and we can feel the respect for other species that this would give us. The book’s questions about humanity, identity and the relationship between mind and body are far-reaching and universal, but at the same time it is a very human story of a teenager finding her own way of being in the world. The Many Selves of Katherine North is deeply thought-provoking and a very good read.

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A novel approach

I’ve still been spending far too much time on Facebook, reading all sorts of articles about the current situation – or situations; there seem to be so many things going on. And chipping in my own two penn’orth whenever I’ve felt moved to say something. Things are dire, there’s no doubt about it, and I’ve been singularly unimpressed by the Labour MPs who’ve been gunning for their leader ever since he was elected and even heckled him in Parliament. If they think it makes them look more electable, the magic doesn’t work for me. The Chilcot enquiry has only told us officially what we already knew: that going to war with Iraq was neither justifiable nor effective and Blair had no right to lead us into it. I was impressed by Corbyn’s apology on behalf of his party, but it can’t have gone down well with all of them. As for the Tory leadership candidates, Brexit seems to have given them a free hand to push the agenda frighteningly farther to the right –when they’re not too busy making themselves even less credible and appealing than they were before.

I’m not going to apologise for the blatant political bias: I’m not required to be impartial here. Perhaps the fact that I’m being this blatant shows how high feelings are running generally. I’d like to be able to stand back and take a wider perspective, but when push comes to shove (I do dislike it when people say that) there are certain things I strongly believe and others I strongly don’t. However, I can do my best not to be so attached to my point of view that I can’t hear anyone else’s, and I can even try – hard though it is – to have metta (lovingkindness) for all of those involved, not just the victims and the dispossessed but even those who got us into this mess. Lovingkindness doesn’t mean agreeing with or condoning what they’ve done; it just means not losing sight of the fact that they are human beings too, whatever I may think of them. Sometimes I can do that to some extent and sometimes I can’t. I have to say I didn’t rush to sympathise with Gove when a friend of mine described him as a ‘mutant haddock’.

Enough of that… In the parts of my life that haven’t been taken over by Brexit, I’ve been trying – yet again – to revamp the novel I wrote on the MA course. After some difficult feedback I thought it had bitten the dust completely, but when someone whose opinion I value said some encouraging things about it and asked if I’d tried to get it published, I thought perhaps it might be worth resurrecting. Last year when I worked on it I changed the narration from first person to third – no small task – and now I’m painstakingly changing it back again, as first person feels more real and immediate. As I’m doing so I’m beginning to see the parts of it that are clumsy and in need of rewriting, or else probably redundant, and I’m also finally starting to get what people have meant when they said it needed more plot. However good individual scenes or chapters may be, what a novel needs is a taut structure and a movement that impels it forward. I don’t think my novel is totally without these – it certainly has a story and the main character goes from A to B – but for any novel to work, it has to be more than ‘this happened and then that happened and then that happened’. E M Forster, in his classic Aspects of the Novel, is very clear about that: “Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist. That is the highest factor common to all novels, and I wish it was not so, that is could be different – melody, or perception of the truth, not this low atavistic form.”

Now I love stories and don’t regard them as a ‘low atavistic form’, but when it comes to writing a novel I wouldn’t say the plot was my priority. Nevertheless I would like this novel to work as well as it can. I would like there to be a clear sense of development and movement, and I would like the story to take the characters forward as well as the other way round. And I would like the characters to be interesting and engaging, the situations believable and compelling and the ending a satisfying conclusion. Of course I would – those things would make it a good novel. And I may or may not be able to do them. My main reason for doing this isn’t to get the novel published – though that would be very nice – it’s to learn how to go about writing a novel and how to craft it as exactingly as if it were a poem, where every word has to count and form and content have to work organically together. And that means looking at it on many levels, from tightening the language in places where it feels flaccid to taking out unnecessary scenes and chapters (or putting in scenes or chapters where the plot requires them) and thinking more carefully about the whole arc of the story.

Several of my friends are successful and much-praised novelists and a lot of this has become second nature to them – though often it isn’t achieved until a book has been through quite a few drafts. I’ve still got a long way to go, but I enjoy learning and don’t like to feel something has beaten me. And I have to give myself permission to fail. It may be that this novel will never be ‘the one’ – the one that I like and am satisfied with, the one that gets published. But I’m fond of the characters and have put a lot into it – and/or it has drawn a lot out of me – and I prefer not to waste anything that can still be used. So we’ll see…

What will happen with this novel is unknown but not likely to be catastrophic. What happens next in this country is also unknown. How catastrophic it is we have still to find out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Little me

Oh dear. For what was the United Kingdom, it seems the worst has happened. Not only have we voted ourselves out of the EU, but some of the people who voted Leave are already wishing we hadn’t. And Johnson and Gove, who it seems may have been gambling on the vote not going their way, aren’t exactly walking bundles of joy. Having shot himself and the UK in the foot, Cameron is stepping aside and letting his successors deal with the mess. Meanwhile both Scotland and Northern Ireland are wanting out, and without the Scottish vote England may well be condemned to Tory government for ever. As for those on the left who voted Leave, did they really imagine that without Europe we could somehow turn the clock back to the pre-Thatcherite, pre-EU days and re-empower the trade unions and re-nationalise the railways? If only… Leaving the EU is much more likely to give carte blanche to the neoliberals to dismantle even more of the welfare state, the NHS and all our legislation on employee protection and human rights. And of course the mendacious, rabble-rousing Farage is popping up all over the place and trying to get his oar in now that racism has stormed out of the woodwork. He’ll be putting his supporters in black shirts next.

I’m afraid that for the past week I’ve been spending an unconscionable amount of time on Facebook, reading articles, watching videos and hearing of people’s very real distress and concern. Of course the majority of my Facebook friends are middle-class lefties like me, so I’m only getting one side of the picture and not seeing such rejoicing as there may be, but if whole counties like Cornwall are already realising they are going to be worse off and asking the government to do something about it, it’s not looking good. There’s a huge petition going round – which I’ve signed too, though I don’t think it will do much – pointing out that the referendum isn’t binding and it’s for Parliament to decide, but the EU are already making it clear that now we’ve voted Out, they want us out as quickly as possible – and not on favourable terms. The pound has fallen disastrously, financial institutions are moving their operations from London to other capitals, and nobody really seems to know what the hell we’re doing. People are either disappointed by Jeremy Corbyn or fanatically trying to keep him in place, despite the fact that most of his parliamentary party won’t work with him and it’s not clear how Labour could form any sort of government in those circumstances. Sadly, he’s one of the few good men around in politics – everyone still says that – and what he says makes an awful lot of sense, to me at least. Perhaps the time has come for a new party that actually represents people. As things stand, there’s every likelihood that where there is an election the Tories will get in again (who do you fancy as leader? Michael Gove or Theresa May?), probably with a bit of help from UKIP who’ll mop up some of the disaffected Labour supporters.

The situation is there and it won’t go away, and its effect is huge and touches everyone. ‘The personal is political’, that great feminist slogan of the 1970s and 80s, isn’t around much any more, but what this whole referendum debacle is showing, in case we’d forgotten it, is that the political is profoundly personal. What’s happened to this country will affect all of us, whatever age and class we are and no matter if we’re immigrants or part of the indigenous population, i.e. immigrants from farther back. Whether we like it or not – and Margaret Thatcher didn’t – there is such a thing as society. We’re not just a collection of individuals and families all looking out for ourselves:we are members of smaller and larger communities and the way we relate to those communities both affects and is affected by the political situation around us. The actions of those in government set the parameters for our lives, and unfortunately we’ve seen all too clearly how self-serving and irresponsible those who govern us have been.

I’ve always been aware of politics. My father was a Marxist, though not a very active one , and I grew up believing the majority of politicians in this country had got it wrong. Later on, in my sort-of-hippie days, I almost got to a no-society-only-individuals place where I just wanted to do my own thing and be left in peace to do it. But even then I couldn’t not acknowledge that I was able to do my own thing because of the social and political infrastructure around me. And I’ve always protested, been on marches, carried placards – not entirely comfortable at being swept up in a mass of people shouting slogans but nevertheless feeling my presence counted.

In the 1980s, when I worked in Camden, I was surrounded by Militant Tendency supporters, but although I considered myself left-wing and was passionately anti-Thatcher, I never became one of them. The black-and-whiteness of their position, their contempt for anyone who didn’t wholly support them, put me off. I admired and respected Michael Foot but, man of integrity, orator and thinker though he was, it was painfully obvious that he couldn’t lead his party. (Unfortunately I can’t help seeing parallels here.) I remember hearing him speak at a CND rally, definitely the worse for drink, and feeling sad for him. Later, when Labour finally made it back into power in 1997, I rejoiced, even though I wasn’t sure what kind of political animal Blair was and thought Benn (Tony, not Hilary) talked a lot of sense. Then, as the Blairite project revealed itself for what it was and Blair took us into the terrible Iraq war, I became disillusioned. Politics in this country no longer seemed to represent me, or people like me, and even the Green Party didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I was busy getting on with my life and writing what I wanted to write, which on the whole wasn’t political.

Where we are now is a right mess, and I defy anyone to say it isn’t. A lot of the poets I know have been writing poems about it. Until the other day I didn’t feel able to, and then what came out was a song with the refrain ‘Oh, don’t you wish you’d voted Yes?’ (Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’m a middle-class university graduate, albeit of baby boomer age.) Most of the time I’ve felt too depressed and pissed-off to write anything, especially as I’d already been feeling depressed and pissed-off for other reasons. But I’m still managing to write about it here and keep posting little nuggets on Facebook, or replying to other people’s nuggets.

When it comes to more serious writing, I’m seeing clearly how much in poetry and fiction I tend to favour the personal over the political. I’ve written a few political poems and in a novel I’ve looked at issues of class and ethnicity, but it all tends to be in the microcosm – the ‘little me’ rather than the broader picture. Now I’m questioning that, just as years ago I came to question my ‘little me’ desire to drop out. If I’m truly part of society, if I’m affected by what’s going on, how can I not write about it? And how can I do so in a way that’s honest and real and stays in touch with the personal too? Perhaps that takes more skill as a writer than I possess, or perhaps what it takes is a willingness to open myself fully to the bigger picture, to be deeply affected by the suffering of the earth and the beings on it. To see myself, in fact, not as ‘little me’ but as part of everything: the refugees in Calais and the people being bombed in Syria and the Poles and black people suffering racist attacks here. And that hurts. I don’t know if my heart is big enough to do it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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You’ve never had it so bad

Warning: You are about to read a rant.

At the risk of being utterly boring I’m going to state here that, like most of the people I know, I’m voting Remain tomorrow. Having just heard a set of very cogent arguments from a professor of European law as to why Brexit would leave us in a total mess, I have even fewer doubts than I did before that it would be complete madness. The EU is very far from ideal in many ways – from TTIP to serious failings in democracy and transparency – but the alternative seems much worse. Do we really want to be run by a bunch of seemingly heartless neoliberals who want to demolish what little there is left of the welfare state and allow the rich to get even richer and the poor to get even poorer? Do we really want to cut ourselves off from the rest of Europe and go it alone when the consequences are so uncertain? Do we (the people of this country, not those politicians) really want to make closer ties with America just as it seems to be collapsing into mindless fascism?

As I lay in bed the other night I realised, in a horribly visceral way, just how easily all the above scenarios could come about. They’re not vague possibilities any more: people could actually vote for them, without fully realising what it would mean for all of us if they did. We can’t separate ourselves from what’s happening in the rest of the world and ignore our responsibility to the so-called ‘migrants’ fleeing from horror and destruction; and those of us who have a relatively comfortable life and enough to eat can’t ignore the increasing numbers in this country who don’t. My area has a food bank and people are generous about putting things in it, but every time I deposit my little offerings I’m outraged that I should have to do so – that there are people in my far from downmarket locality who simply don’t have the wherewithal to feed themselves and their families. Whatever Gove, Duncan-Smith et al may say, not having enough money to buy food isn’t a lifestyle choice. It means that you can’t earn enough, or don’t receive enough in benefits when you can’t earn, to allow you the luxury of eating.

When I was a child, in the Fifties, Macmillan’s slogan ‘You’ve never had it so good’ was often bandied about. Of course not everything was good then, or in the affluent, optimistic  Sixties. It never has been good for everyone, and in subsequent decades we began to see how not-good it was for some people, especially once Thatcher came into power. And all that prosperity based on fossil fuel was never going to be without cost. But until now I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong sense that things are getting seriously bad – so bad that people are making comparisons with the 1930s. I’m not just talking about Britain: the world as a whole is increasingly fractured by intolerance and extremism and the ravages of climate change are becoming evident. There is huge insecurity, and the more insecurity there is, the more people are ready to turn to extremist ideologies and simplistic solutions, which means a greater likelihood of war. Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, Trump would have been laughed off the political stage. Now there is more than a possibility that the United States, which is already doing its utmost to dominate the world, may be run by a xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic plutocrat who could rally America’s disenchanted millions behind him into God knows what misguided crusade against whoever happens to be the enemy at that particular moment.

Even if we stay in Europe, the fundamental flaws of the whole neoliberal project aren’t going to go away. A system that enables corporations (not to mention individuals) to profit without restraint from the earth’s resources and the disadvantaged mass of human beings is on a course heading for destruction – whether of the system or the entire world remains to be seen.

I’m slightly staggered by the pessimism of what I’ve just written. I’d like to hope there will be enough people of integrity and good intent to make a difference at grassroots level, but politically speaking the Jeremy Corbyns and Bernie Sanders of this world aren’t the ones who end up with the power – the corporation-driven media make sure of that. Nevertheless I’m happy to side with them: for good old-fashioned socialism – now seemingly a dirty word – for care for the earth and all its inhabitants, and for respect for all human beings, not only those who happen to have vast amounts of money. Things may be bad, but we have to try to stop them getting worse.

Rant over – for now.

 

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The belated blogger

When I look at the last time I wrote a Piece of Blogg, as Adelina insists on calling it, I see it was back in February. Now here I am making an appearance again, a very much belated blogger, wondering what to say and how to say it. It’s tempting to start with a catalogue of failures: my poetry collection wasn’t accepted by the first publisher I tried; my personal life hasn’t gone the way I hoped it would; I haven’t written much lately other than ruminations in my private journal; my garden has been seriously neglected. But it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. I’ve submitted my collection to another publisher, I’m slowly getting the garden back into shape, and blogging here is a step back into ‘writing’ as well as writing. As for the personal life – well, I’m doing my best to keep an open mind and an open heart, for other people, for myself, for the world at large.

I’ve recently been on a week’s retreat at lovely Gaia House, which isn’t far from where I live. During that week I had plenty of opportunity to reflect on what’s been happening for me and by the end I’d arrived at a place of much greater acceptance and equanimity. A lot of people don’t like the word ‘equanimity’ as to them it means not feeling anything, but in Buddhist terms it’s a beautiful quality of spaciousness and openness, a deep saying ‘Yes’ to life that can embrace everything. It doesn’t make the pain go away or ignore the world’s suffering, but it does mean that what I am – what this being and all beings are – is bigger than this. And of course on retreat, and in everyday life too, there are times when there is more space and equanimity and times when there’s less, just as there are times when there’s love and compassion for myself and the world and times when I want to tell it all to fuck off. The practice is learning to have compassion for the unkind and uncompassionate bits too, and it has its rewards. As the mind softens and slows what comes is a renewed sense of love and beauty and connection, and sometimes the kind of ‘Aha!’ moments that come – and often go again – when the tight sense of ‘me’ begins to loosen and the perspective widens.

It’s often hard to keep the practice going in ordinary life, but over the years I’ve come to value my meditation times more and more and feel that more percolates down from them into the rest of my life. I’m fortunate in that I work as a psychotherapist, which means helping other people to find that space in themselves and sometimes getting to hang out in it with them. I also Focus and teach Focusing, a wonderful way of being with whatever is there inside me at any given time. And despite all the above I still often fall into self-criticism and judgement of others and still have plenty of moments when I’d rather not know about any of it, thank you very much, and prefer to watch another detective drama on TV or do a crossword puzzle – though the attraction of those has worn rather thin lately.

It probably isn’t obvious why sitting still for an hour and simply paying attention to sensations – the rise and fall of the breath, a tight neck, the tingle of feet on the floor, the ache of sadness in the heart, the sound of birds or cars or someone’s mower, the faint smell of incense – can sometimes feel so joyful, but it can be as though you’re discovering them for the first time, and discovering that the ‘I’ who perceives them doesn’t in fact exist separately from what it’s perceiving and so is changing at every moment. I won’t go further into Buddhist understanding here, but there is plenty of material available for anyone who is interested. Some Buddhist traditions use the metaphor of the ‘sky-like mind’ to describe the way that thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions all pass in and out of awareness like clouds in the sky and are not separate from it. I spent a good deal of time on this last retreat looking at the sky and watching how clouds slowly move and change, form and dissolve as the light appears and disappears behind them. A friend of mine who used to be a glider pilot would know exactly what the clouds’ different shapes, positions and densities mean in terms of weather, but that wasn’t what I was interested in. I was simply taking them in and letting my heart and mind and body open to sky and space.

…And yes – ah yes – to come back to writing. I started off by saying I hadn’t been doing much ‘proper’ writing lately. Any writing I did on the retreat was definitely of the journal variety: chuntering on about emotional stuff, noting what I’d dreamt last night or had for lunch, reflecting in a rudimentary kind of way on my meditation practice. Somehow it’s been hard to come back to writing-as-writing, much as I want to. Some painful experiences seem to generate poetry and others to stifle it, and what I’ve been going through has been of the latter kind. Tentatively, though, I’m reaching back into writing again: a poem or two in a workshop and little tiny bits of the novel that I started some time ago and left when I started writing more poetry. I’m not sure why fiction appeals at the moment, but it does. What I write doesn’t really matter; the important thing is that the desire to do it and the belief that I can are starting to come alive again. A week or two ago I cut up some potatoes that had sprouted and planted them, not thinking they would grow. But already I’ve found little curled huddles of dark green leaves pushing up determinedly through the heavy soil. Plants do grow, given the right conditions, and so – amazingly – does writing.

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Happy New…

This year is already more than slightly used. In the way of all procrastinators, I had intended to write a post at the beginning of the year but let it slip… So here I am, more than a month in, having been through the secular New Year and just passed the Celtic festival Imbolc, with the Chinese New Year tomorrow. I’m not very savvy about Celtic festivals, but last year I went to an Imbolc ceremony where we reviewed the year just gone and contemplated the next one, so I assume that is what’s done then. In December I celebrated the Winter Solstice with a friend, and that too was a time for acknowledging the year’s achievements and setting down what we might be able to let go of. And around my birthday, in mid-January, I indulged in the usual reflections on ‘one year older and what have I got to show for it?’

All of which makes me wonder if another review, here in public on this blog, is perhaps somewhat redundant. Isn’t it time now to be getting on with things and never mind the past, especially now that today the sun is shining and the gulls who have found their way inland are letting us know they’re there? It’s good to see the hills unwrapped from the mist that has enveloped them, and in the garden there are primroses, crocuses and even the odd daffodil. Life continues to move forward, as it does, and I need to move with it, even if – as at my age I’m increasingly reminded – moving forward means moving nearer to the end.

My feeling is that right now I’ve got to a point where moving forward, however it happens, won’t be linear – supposing it ever is. Which way do I go from here? (I found this apt image on the BigBible Project website and mean no disrespect by using it out of context.)

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With my writing, as well as in other ways, I seem to be at a threshold – a place where things could be about to change. At the end of February I’m submitting the manuscript of a poetry collection to a publisher. There’s no guarantee of publication, but the possibility is there: the possibility that, like a number of my friends, I could become a published poet. Properly published, I mean, not just having had poems in magazines and anthologies. Of course this isn’t the first time I’ve submitted a manuscript – goodness knows I’ve sent my novel off to plenty of agents – but in this case the odds are a great deal shorter. The editorial board will be considering a certain number of manuscripts – selected after an initial submission – and from those will choose a few to publish. It’s like being shortlisted in a competition, but of course that doesn’t mean you’re going to win. This isn’t the first pamphlet or collection I’ve put together – I’ve entered several for competitions and a couple of times I have been shortlisted – but somehow this feels more actual, which suggest that the disappointment, if and when it comes, will be all the sharper. A dear friend of mine is submitting a manuscript at the same time and at least I know that each of us will be glad for the other, even if we ourselves aren’t successful.

And not getting published by this publisher wouldn’t necessarily be the end. I could submit the manuscript, or part of it, to other publishers and, having got this far, would stand a chance of being taken seriously. Many of the poets I know from the wonderful 52 project are now having pamphlets and collections published and it isn’t inconceivable that I could become one of them. Which would be amazing. And… But… that wouldn’t do away with the part of me that has always wanted to be a novelist. It’s ironic that at one time I thought I would have to be a fiction writer because I couldn’t write poetry. One result of that was that I came to love poetic writing in fiction and tried to emulate it – as I still do. What drew me to the novel, though, was much more than despair at my lack of poetic ability. It was and is a fascination with people and the way they (I should say we) think and feel, a fascination that, among other things, has also led me to become a psychotherapist. And it’s a love of stories, whether fictional or not, and a love for the way that novelists can create, or recreate, the world their characters live in. I was pleased when a poet friend, who is generously helping me put together my collection, said that my poems portrayed people vividly through the detail of their lives – something a novelist would do. According to Stephen Spender, Auden once said rather dismissively of Hardy that his poems were those of a novelist, but I don’t see what’s wrong with that. So long as the poems also work as poems, why shouldn’t the novelist contribute to them? Nobody thinks there’s anything wrong with poets who ‘bring poetry to the novel’, in Virginia Woolf’s phrase.

So here I am: a poet seeking publication and a novelist trying to resurrect my novel-writing from the ashes of previous failures. Whether I resurrect those novels or go on to write something completely new – and if so what – remains to be seen, just as I don’t yet know what kind of poetry, or how much poetry, I’ll be writing in the coming year. My sense is that in my writing, and in my life generally, new possibilities may be opening up, but I’ll be watching this space and finding out if they do.

 

 

 

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