A large part of this blog has been about writing, in one way or another – which isn’t surprising since that’s the overall theme. Some of the time I have referred to other aspects of my life, or of life in general, but on the whole there’s been more that’s to do with me as a writer. Even Adelina, when I’ve let her loose on the blog, has mainly been giving us her take on writing and publishing. And poetry, of course – or perhaps I should say Poetry.
However, it will come as no surprise that, like the great majority of people, I spend a considerable part of my time doing things that are not writing. First of all there’s seeing to the domestic side of things, which of course can take up as much time as I choose to let it. I don’t like to live in a complete mess and I do like to care for my garden, though it’s been sadly neglected of late. Then there’s my non-writing work, plus all that goes with it: admin and meetings and CPD. Not to mention singing in a local choir, seeing friends, going to the odd concert or film or poetry reading or folk dance, and taking myself off to Dartmoor or the lovely Devon coast. And I read – though not as much as I could do if I didn’t spend time on emails and Facebook and YouTube – which easily do become distractions from anything else I might be doing.
In fact it’s possible to see all the above activities as distractions from the uniquely difficult but uniquely satisfying work of writing. Sometimes they are definitely that: an excuse not to sit at the computer and face the task of putting words on the page – or taking them off, if I’m in revising mode. Yet, despite the juggling act involved in trying to write and also have a life, I don’t think I’d want to be the kind of writer who just sat in a room and did nothing else. I remember being told years ago that the Cornish writer D M Thomas – who wrote The White Hotel – never felt the need to go anywhere because his imagination could supply everything he needed for his writing – and presumably for his daily life too. (I have no way of knowing whether this is true.) On the one hand I find such commitment admirable; on the other it seems to verge on a kind of solipsism that I’m not sure I would want to emulate.
Apart from being enjoyable or necessary in themselves, I would like to think that my interests and experiences feed into my writing and make it more real. Sometimes what gets transposed from life into fiction is relatively unchanged; sometimes what appears is a melange of different places and people that has come together in its own inexplicable way but has nevertheless been fertilised by the life that has fed into it. Elizabeth Jane Howard says in one of her novels (I can’t remember exactly where) that it is easier for men to write entirely from imagination, while women’s strong suit is observation. I’m not sure if this is true in general – all sorts of exceptions spring to mind – but certainly one of the qualities I appreciate most in other people’s writing is the closely-observed description of people, things and places.
Which brings me to the one activity/non-activity that I haven’t mentioned: meditation. As much as I try to write something every day I also try to ‘sit’ – as meditators often say – every day. There are of course different kinds of meditation, but many of them involve close moment-to-moment observation, whether this is of a particular ‘object’, such as the breath, or all that happens to be passing through the meditator’s mind and body. This way of observing is neither completely detached nor completely identified with the object but holds it in a spacious and compassionate consciousness. It seems to me that artists and writers are often doing something quite similar. They may not call it meditation – though in China and Japan the making of art has traditionally been seen as a meditative practice – but in good art (and I include writing) the intensity of perception, the freshness of imagery, the uniqueness of insight all arise from a way of experiencing the world that is analogous to meditative awareness. And it seems to arise from an engagement with the world rather than a repudiation of it. Aldous Huxley said of D H Lawrence that when Lawrence swept a room, he did it so wholeheartedly you knew the room would be clean. Not for him, obviously, the idea that such mundane activity got in the way of his being a writer. When he was sweeping, he was sweeping. When he was writing, he was writing.
‘Mindfulness’ has become something of a buzz-word these days – as though it had only just been discovered. The fact that it is based on an ancient tradition of Buddhist practice and is known to other spiritual traditions often seems to go unnoticed. If asked, I would describe myself as a Buddhist – not that the Buddha ever put much value on labels and ‘isms’. I’ve been meditating, off and on, for something like thirty years and in that time have been on a good many courses and retreats, including a Buddhist-based psychotherapy training which has had a profound effect on my life – and to some extent my writing too. Coming at writing from that perspective I can sometimes find myself discounting in the opposite way: compared to spiritual practice and the imperative to do good in the world, surely writing is supremely unimportant.
As with the other dichotomy, between ‘writing’ and ‘life’, it’s less a question of either/or than both/and. There’s no reason why writing can’t be a path towards enlightenment and greater understanding, and if a piece is written with truthfulness and insight who knows what contribution it may make towards others’ perception of the world. And of course writing may be a meditative practice in its own right: teachers like Natalie Goldberg have certainly found ways of making it so. Aldous Huxley (in The Doors of Perception) says that for those who have known states that might be called enlightenment, spending time contemplating works of art (or literature, for that matter) is like making do with “the elegantly composed recipe in lieu of actual dinner.” It seems to me that this is the dichotomy again. The recipe and the dinner don’t have to be separate: both the making of a poem, say, and the reading of it can lead us towards those states.
I’m aware that in a small way I’ve been writing about territories that are often called spiritual. Many writers – novelists in particular – seem reluctant to venture into those territories, even when they are implicit in the writer’s ways of writing and seeing. Writers are usually taken to be intelligent people, and to a fairly large section of the public being an intelligent person means being an atheist materialist. Or at the very least an agnostic with one foot firmly outside the ‘spiritual’ camp. This latter doesn’t need to be problematic – the Buddha encourages us not to hold on to fixed views – so long as the other foot is allowed to stay inside as well. Poets seem to be given more leeway in the spiritual department, but then they aren’t as widely known and anyway being a poet probably means being some kind of eccentric. I know this is a caricature, but nevertheless when I introduced even the mildest hint of the spiritual into a novel one of my writing colleagues said it was ‘brave’ and ‘unusual’ to do so. I would very much hope that in order to be a writer whose novels are considered marketable I would not have to keep that aspect of life out of them, especially as this post has been above all about not breaking up the wholeness of experience.
It’s taken me a long time to get there, but I’m glad I’ve finally put my finger on what it is I’ve been trying to say here. If anyone should read to the end, I hope it makes some sort of sense.