Mystical Circles, Emotional Charge on the Spiritual Journey – How Life Itself Inspires an Author

Over the last few months, some readers have been asking me, “What inspired you to write ‘Mystical Circles’? And, as I have just issued a revised edition of the novel on Kindle with a new cover design, I thought now would be a good moment to answer some of those questions.

"Mystical Circles" new revised edition published on Kindle June 2012
“Mystical Circles” new revised edition published on Kindle June 2012

The story evolved out of a number of different influences & experiences covering several years of my life. I was inspired for the setting by the strong contrast between the calm beauty of the Cotswolds landscape, and the complexity of the emotions and psyches of the fictional characters I imagine living there.

And although the characters are a composite of many people I’ve met, there’s also a little bit of me in every one of them. The setting and events of the story arose from my own experiences:  a writing course at a college in Kent; a symposium on “religious renewal in the modern world” at Hawkwood College, near Stroud, Gloucestershire; a Buddhist retreat in a school on the south coast; a poetry course at Totleigh Barton, Devonshire farmhouse owned by the Arvon Foundation.

Inspiration came too from people I met at the Relaxation Centre in Brisbane, Queensland, and courses I attended there on “The Centre Within”, “Personal Growth” and “Dream Yoga”.

Additionally, I learned new things from the sannyasins who followed the guru Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh, when I spent a couple of days observing activities at their UK-based community, especially their practice of Dynamic Meditation. And I drew, too, upon my experience with the local community mental heath teams in Leamington Spa.

And why did I eventually settle upon the genre of mystery romance to tell this story? Firstly, the very nature of mystery is to unravel human motivation. And romance because I’ve often found that a key charismatic figure stands at the centre of any body of teachings. The language used by such a person excites, moves, inspires, and arouses the emotions; the personality of this leader is a powerful influence; and – in my experience & observation – love, romantic/sexual feelings, and emotional charge cannot be separated from the spiritual journey.

I hope that has answered some of your questions. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve had your own experiences on the spiritual path. Or perhaps you  have very different views of this. Either way, please leave a comment!

Mental and Emotional Byways, Complexes and Hang-Ups in Fictional Characters

Having just read an interesting blog post about depression,  I was led to reflect upon how easy it is  to allow your own “principles” to override compassion, empathy and honesty about the reality of human life. This applies to all of us, but there is a special challenge here for those of us who write stories, and need to create convincing characters.

 We won’t get very far as writers if our fictional characters come over as wooden or contrived or artificial. To guard against that,  authors needs a basic understanding of psychology. That can come either through study, or through personal experience, or through observation. As I’ve mentioned before in posts on this blog, I feel that a knowledge of Jungian psychological concepts is useful. Here for example is Carl Jung’s theory of Complexes.

A complex, as developed in the writings of  Jung, may be defined as “a core pattern of emotions, memories, perceptions and wishes in the personal unconscious organised around a common theme such as power or status.” The notion of a “complex” may even be misused in common speech: we may too readily hear of someone described as having an inferiority / guilt / martyr complex. But this can be fruitful for a creative writer; though it has to be handled with care.

1. An inferiority complex may lead your character to interpret everything in the light of this set of notions: “I’m not good enough,” “my opinions don’t count”; “I’m afraid to put myself forward”. Take P.G.Wodehouse as an example; see Jeeves and The Inferiority Complex of Old Sippy among numerous other stories. Here we often meet shy young men attempting to battle those who are louder, bigger, better-looking, more powerful and more self-confident, to win the girl they love.

2. Often,whether a fictional character displays a certain complex can be a matter of interpretation by the reader. I suggest a martyr complex may be behind the outlook and actions of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Tess behaves like a heroic martyr sacrificing herself. Many readers may feel Tess casts herself in the role of victim.

3. The guilt complex is used extensively in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Many characters experience intense guilt; but the exception to this is Smerdyakov who murders Fyodor yet does not blame himself; though he’s the only character technically guilty, he feels the least liability for it. Thus the author sheds light on some of his own religious questions and doubts.

So there’s plenty of inspiration here for fiction writers, as we  develop characters who will inspire love, pity, fury or even soul-searching in our readers. Our job is to create characters we know and care about as much as ourselves. As crime writer Martin Edwards says in his article on “Developing Characters and Their Relationships”,  “characters in books don’t exist in a vacuum, just as real people don’t. To create characters that seem to live and breathe, taking care over how they relate to other people in the story isn’t just a sensible idea. It’s absolutely vital.”  And if we try to let “principles” stand in the way of compassion & empathy, we can be sure our own stories will find us out!

On the Outside Looking In, Royal Barges, Rowing Boats, Glimpses, Panoramas and Artistic Vision

As I watched The Diamond Jubilee River Pageant on TV and tried to work out whether I wished I was there, or whether I was glad not to be, I remembered these words in a radio interview several months ago. ‘I have always felt myself to be on the outside of everything, looking in.’

I was listening to a bestselling novelist speaking about his recent success in winning a major book award. Among the many things he said which touched and amused me, the most striking was this reply to the interviewer’s question, ‘Now you’ve won this prestigious award, do you feel you’ve arrived? Do you now feel you’re on the inside?’

Then, looking at the Queen and her immediate family on the royal barge, I found myself thinking, “I wish I was on the royal barge, watching everything pass by for my benefit.”  And in the same moment I wondered whether William, Catherine and Harry felt slightly wistful and wished perhaps they were out there on the river, rowing some of those boats instead of standing on a floating version of Buckingham Palace being gracious and removed and “on the outside looking in”.

Would I have liked to be hanging over a bridge in the pouring rain catching perhaps a two second glimpse of a white figure amongst gold and crimson? Or was it much better to be viewing the entire panorama from a warm dry living room and hearing all the commentaries and flashing back and forth between different viewpoints as we do sometimes in a great novel?

We rarely strike the balance between the excitement of real moments, and the  enjoyment of long perspective, and full appreciation of whichever situation we are in.

We cannot always be outsiders looking in. Sometimes it’s necessary to get involved, and come alongside. I believe both can co-exist simultaneously. There is in fact never a time when a writer is so fully involved, he or she cannot at some future time stand back and write about it. Every experience, no matter how negative or difficult, can prove raw material for a writer because in the act of writing a story you are often drawing upon unconscious material.

In the world you have to participate. But you can also observe. The truth lies in paradox. Thus the most successful creative people can literally be, in the eyes of the world, on the inside. Of course they have arrived! And yet they can sometimes feel they are always on the outside looking in, whether that be from the glamour of a royal barge, up on a bridge, or in a temporary TV studio.

What are your thoughts on this? As ever I love to have your comments!

Offerings to the Water Spirit

If there is magic on the planet it is contained in the water” (Loren Eiseley – American anthropologist, philosopher & natural science writer).

I’m led to reflect on this every time I come upon a pool of water in a public place – whether that be the pool in the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew, the weir at the Saxon Mill, Warwick, the fountains in Trafalgar Square, or even the pool inside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. All have one thing in common.

They all have coins thrown in them. 20p, 50p and £1 coins; pennies and 2p and 5p and 10p pieces… Deep in the human psyche, folk religion demands that we offer up at least a nominal amount of what we most value to the water god in the hope that this will transform our lives.  Coins are thrown into the water, because, reaching back through the roots of our pagan heritage, many of us still need to pay tribute to the world of Faerie.

I am fascinated by our pagan roots, and by how they blossom again and again through time. I’m currently reading “The Wine of Angels” by Phil Rickman. Rickman of course, as his fans know well, loves to explore the desire and longing found in many English communities for ancient traditions, landscape mysteries,  and folk religion, as he draws it all together into a crime mystery set on the Welsh border, presided over by Merrily Watkins,  local Ledwardine priest and deliverance expert.

Anthropologists at the University of California tell us that virtually any pool made accessible to the public qualifies as a wishing well. Offering money to water is an old tradition that can be dated back to Roman-British or Celtic mythology. Since then it has evolved from a religious ritual into a fun, yet superstitious cultural practice… which can be most effectively explained by relationships with the supernatural.

The River of Life, we are told in the Book of Revelations, runs through the Holy City.  And back right at the beginning of the Bible, the Spirit of God moves across the face of the waters.  Jesus spoke of bringing water of life. He told the Samaritan woman whom he met at the well, “I can give you water of life so you will never thirst again.” No wonder she replied, “Give me this water!”

C.S. Lewis knew the powerful symbolism of water when, in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” he created that fearful image of a sea which turned to gold anything that fell into it – combining in one image the sharpest possible contrast: between the fulfillment of our greatest dreams and of our worst fear – limitless wealth, or death.

How do you feel about water? – about pools , rivers, and streams? Do you relate to them in a spiritual way? I’d love to hear your stories!

People of Inspiration Part 3 – Susan Boyle, Who Made a Choice to Use the Gift God Had Given Her

As the third personality in my mini-series on People of Inspiration, step forward Susan Boyle.

Susan Boyle onstage at the end of I Dreamed a Dream musical

In the musical “I Dreamed a Dream” , which I saw at the Birmingham Hippodrome, I learned much about this gifted singer  and deepened my knowledge of her life-experiences and background. The show starred Elaine C. Smith in the role of Susan Boyle.

Probably the words which stood out for me in Susan’s story were these, spoken near the end of the show: “I realised it was my choice, to use what God had given me. I didn’t have to do it. But my mother made me do it.” Her mother’s words were the deciding factor for Susan: “God has given you a gift for you to use.”

In November 2010, backstage at the Rockefeller Center, New York City, as Susan cried and raged and shouted and faced the consequences of not going on stage to face a massive audience, she was told by her manager: “You don’t have to go on. You don’t have to do it. I’ll go out there and tell them you won’t be coming on. If it does this to you, it isn’t worth it.”

Susan then had to answer a question for herself: “If it does this to me, is it worth it?”

Before Susan’s famous big break in “Britain’s Got Talent”, there were always factors in her life which held her back. The doctor’s words to her mother shortly after her birth: “Don’t hold out too much hope for her.” The fact that she dealt with her nerves with flippancy and fooling around. The sarcasm and bullying and jealousy she met. The low self-esteem, the lack of self-confidence, the boyfriend who never was, the mother who asked her to “do something with your singing instead of staying here looking after me.”

To me the most outstanding thing about Susan as a person is that she felt the fear, and did it anyway – because of her mother’s words.

Right at the beginning of the musical these words were spoken: “We all have dreams. But as we grow older we let them  go. We lose them in the sheer business of just getting through life day by day. I think that’s sad. We should hold onto our dreams.”

The message in Susan’s story is that you need words to hang onto when you’re on the edge, and about to go into meltdown. Words like: “You will get there… I’ve always taken you seriously…. I have every confidence in you.”

And words like the ones that finally got Susan through: “God has given you a gift for you to use.”

I’d love to have your comments! Have you seen Elaine C. Smith in the musical, or listened to Susan Boyle on stage? Are you, like me, a fan of her sweet, rich and powerful voice?

People of Inspiration Part 2 – Rabbi Lionel Blue, Wise Man, Humorist and Much-Loved Jewish Raconteur

Rabbi Lionel Blue 6 Feb 1930-19 Dec 2016

I was sad to learn of the death of Rabbi Lionel Blue on 19 Dec 2016 and here is my tribute to him, as originally published on my blog:

As the second personality in my mini-series on People of Inspiration, step forward Rabbi Lionel Blue.

Rabbi Lionel Blue
Rabbi Lionel Blue

This much-loved man of wisdom and hilarity and spiritual insight first came to my attention when I worked at the BBC in Religious Schools Radio a few decades back. My Jewish friend in the office had brought in a magazine, and I was leafing through it and attracted by an article headed up: “Rabbi Lionel Blue and His Luscious Latkes.” I was captivated by this article, in which this delightful rabbi in his chef’s apron described his favourite recipe (the famous Jewish potato cake) and the massive numbers of latkes he produced in order to feed the hordes. His sparkling humour and impish personality came out in that article. He intrigued me.

Over the years he has popped up again and again in my life. I’ve read and loved his books, I’ve listened to his stories and his classic Jewish jokes on “Thought for the Day”, and I’ve seen him on more than one occasion in “An Evening with Rabbi Lionel Blue”. The more I’ve listened to him, the more I’ve found in him – of poignancy, truth, discernment, spirituality. He courts controversy with his witty  observations of life.

A few years ago I went to see him at a retreat house in London E14. Most of the evening was taken up with tales of his childhood in the East End, and his mother. We were kept in fits of laughter, throughout. But woven through his picaresque tales is such psychological and spiritual depth, leaving us with a  more open and a freer view of ourselves and our place in this world. He doesn’t often say overtly philosophical things, being largely a storyteller. But when asked about his view of the afterlife he made this observation: “eternity is all around us. Part of us inhabits it already.”

Another observation that remains with me is one he made in his autobiographical account: “I learned that my religion was my spiritual home, not my spiritual prison.”

I’d love to have your comments!

A Spiritual Journey Starting on a Perilous Mountain Road in Queensland

a view of the Macpherson mountain range
a view of the Macpherson mountain range

On the border of Queensland and New South Wales, behind the Gold Coast, you may find the Macpherson mountain range, part of the Great Dividing Range – one of the places I love. The road leads from Southport via Nerang up through Mount Tamborine to the town of Canungra where you may continue your journey to one of two mountain resorts: Binna Burra or O’Reilly’s. I was negotiating the mountain passes on the way to O’Reilly’s. In the passenger seat was my18 year old niece Caroline, who was visiting Australia for a month (where I lived at the time).

Caroline had mentioned that she and her friend Jo (her fellow traveller to Australia) had gone to Sydney to stay in a house of students who they knew nothing of. And discovered that they were all committed Christians – just like Caroline and Jo. Caroline found that wonderful. I said, “Well, like attracts like” – for me as a New Ager I believed that this apparent coincidence was the operation of the Universal system / the principle of  “reality follows thought.” But Caroline was having none of this. “No, it was God,” she said.

I didn’t want to argue with her. Especially as I was driving up a perilous mountain road at the time. My own beliefs were a mixture of NeoPaganism, Pantheism and Eastern Mysticism. I pursued gurus, tried Buddhism, practised eastern forms of meditation and various esoteric philosophies, teachings and techniques.

I prepared to go into “indulgent tolerance” mode whilst we climbed higher up the mountain range. It was because of that very black-and-white “certainty” that I had long mistrusted evangelical Christianity.

But Caroline then launched into a full exposition of the gospel and of the fact that Jesus Christ had come to bridge that divide between God and humankind; and when we reached our cabin in the resort, she drew for me a picture of a cross bridging that chasm. All the time I was in tolerance mode. I didn’t need evangelising. I considered myself knowledgable about the bible, & had been good at R.K. at school. So I just let Caroline do her thing, until she at last got distracted by a  snake lying in the path.

For the next year I continued in my usual way, following my own spiritual interests, occasionally thinking of this episode. OK I hadn’t liked being evangelised. But I was impressed by her conviction, by her belief that her religion wasn’t a private matter, it was to be shared; and by her courage. I thought, “I wouldn’t do that.” It’s a personality thing too, but I actually believed everyone has a right to their own beliefs & it was no business of mine to try and convert someone else to my beliefs. But Caroline believed she not only had a right but a responsibility to tell me what she believes. I was impressed by that. But I didn’t do anything about it until 1991 a few months after I’d returned to live in England, with my parents in their Kent village near Tonbridge – and it changed my life.

Have you ever changed your life as a result of a conversation with one person? Or was it a long process, involving several people, covering a number of years? Please share your own stories with me!

Places of Inspiration Part 7: Memories, Dreams, Reflections Among the Kookaburras on an Australian Mountain Lookout

Margaret Silf wrote a book called Sacred Spaces in which she explored the various stages of our life-journey in terms of geographical locations. Everything has a symbolic meaning – bridge, crossing place, lake, wood, ford, spring, river, well  – in the ancient Celtic view of the world. And I believe many of us find that the value of a special place lies not only in itself but in the extent to which our memories, dreams and reflections are threaded through it.

So it is for me with Jolly’s Lookout – number 7 in my mini-series Places of Inspiration. Halfway up a mountain near Brisbane in Queensland, Australia, it’s a place where I’ve meditated, socialised, and reached turning points in my life. Jolly’s Lookout is equally loved by picnickers and kookaburras.   It holds memories and has inhabited my dreams. For me, past and future coalesced here. The view has it all, in terms of “soul space” – a valley, a city, a bay, distant mountains. All these hold a symbolic power, a special symbolism for the life-journey.

 

Tourist Map of Australia
Tourist Map of Australia

You can see where Brisbane is here on this map of Australia.

Jolly’s Lookout  – so named after William Jolly, the first Lord Mayor of Greater Brisbane – is a place of happy times  – lunchtime picnics, night-time barbeques, gatherings of local groups who come to eat together then play games afterwards.  In 2007 I was able to take my 12-year-old daughter there and she has shared my love of this inspiring mountain viewpoint ever since.

My daughter Abigail at Jolly's Lookout
My daughter Abigail at Jolly’s Lookout

This lookout is in open eucalypt forest. If you continue up the road from here to Mount Glorious, you may hear bellbirds, and enjoy walks through subtropical rainforest.

a possum in a tree at night
a possum in a tree at night

At night it is the haunt of possums, their bright eyes shining in the torchlight as  visitors come to hang their storm lanterns from the overhanging branches and prepare their barbecues.

A close up of a goana
A close up of a goana

And often if you come at dusk you will find a visiting goana, also keen to share your picnic.

kookaburra
kookaburra

It is likewise home to numerous kookaburras, who love their opportunity to swoop and snatch from a hapless visitor’s fork perhaps a nice chicken breast or piece of steak, foolishly lifted into the air, and held there for a split second before the mouth of the picnicker can close around it.

The view from Jolly’s Lookout is breathtaking. It takes in the Samford Valley, the city of Brisbane, Moreton Bay, and beyond that, further north, up towards the Sunshine Coast, the bizarre and fascinating shapes of the Glasshouse Mountains, so named by Captain Cook purely from the impression they made on him as he sailed past in 1770. During the time I lived in Australia – four and a half years between 1986 and 1990 – I visited Jolly’s Lookout many times.

picnic table at Jolly's Lookout May 2012
picnic table at Jolly’s Lookout May 2012

Is there a special place where you have happy memories, perhaps of wandering alone, or a place where you were part of a social gathering or party that comes vividly to mind whenever you think of the place? Are your memories, dreams and reflections threaded through it? Please share your thoughts about your special place, in the comments below.

People of Inspiration Part 1 – Paul McCartney, Muse, Minstrel and Keeper of Dreams

Today, opening a new mini-series on People of Inspiration, I offer my first choice: Paul McCartney.

Sir Paul McCartney in Mexico show Fri 11 May 2012
Sir Paul McCartney in Mexico show Fri 11 May 2012

He was my childhood hero. I first fell for him when a schoolfriend put a souvenir programme into my hands and I saw a picture of him singing “Yesterday” at the Royal Variety Command Performance, a few years after that performance.

Keeper of Dreams. This is a phrase which sprung into my mind in 2010 while I sat in the audience at the Cardiff Millennium Stadium watching Paul in his Up and Coming Tour. 

I watched and listened to him with my husband and teenage daughter and son, and all of us were captivated by his music and charisma. 

Paul has reinvented himself a number of times – a gift possessed by all those who persist in a career in the public eye for forty or more years. But to me he is poet, minstrel, storyteller, observer and interpreter of life, all in one.

His fellow Beatles mocked him for the sentimentality of “Yesterday” – yet for millions this song came to define the point where the establishment’s narrow presumptions about the Beatles radically shifted.

The appeal of Paul McCartney isn’t solely in his skill as a showman, and his personal qualities, but in the effect his words and music have on those who hear them.  Profound, moving, haunting, cryptic, puzzling, bizarre, touching, quirky, intriguing, beguiling, poignant, playful –  every mood and emotion can be found among his songs.

Although he is an international rock star and pop icon he makes his audience feel as if they’re in the pub with him having a singalong. Synthesis of special and ordinary – no-one can doubt that who has visited his mid-terrace childhood home at Forthlin Road in Liverpool – yet international superstar, you’re sharing a seat with him on the bus at Penny Lane, you’re standing with him looking down at Eleanor Rigby’s grave, you’re beside him on the Mull of Kintyre gazing over to Ireland.

How do you feel about Sir Paul? Have you been to his concerts?  Have you admired him for years, or are you a new fan? I’d love to have your comments!

Places of Inspiration Part 6: The Saxon Mill, a Writer’s Delight by the Mill-Race on the River Avon Near Warwick

In each one of my places of inspiration I have found spirit of place : in India, at Ayers Rock/Uluru in Australia, in London, in the White Garden at Sissinghurst in Kent, and in Sydney Opera House.  But today, I return to a place very close to home – it’s the Saxon Mill on the River Avon, just outside Warwick – and five minutes walk from where I live.

The Saxon Mill, Warwick
The Saxon Mill, Warwick

The Saxon Mill is a romantic building, which feeds a writer’s imagination – especially for those who write historical fiction. And just down the river is the gaunt, atmospheric ruin of Guy’s Cliffe House. I cannot walk along the river bank here, and stand opposite and gaze at it without imagining all sorts of stories – tales of romance, tragedy, ill deeds, ghosts…

Nearby, on Blacklow Hill, in 1312 King Edward II’s favourite Piers Gaveston was dragged by the Earl of Warwick’s heavy-gang, to a spot now known as Gaveston’s Cross, where he was savagely murdered. He was Edward II’s lover, and exerting much too much power over the kingdom for the Earl of Warwick’s liking. Even a grim tale like this can add to the romance of a place – separated as those events are from us by 700 years.

But what completes the delight of the Saxon Mill for me is its location on the River Avon. Tables and benches are set out overlooking the mill-pond; the old water-wheel may be viewed here too. I love the smell of it; dank, moist timber, full of darkness and age and mystery…

Further along is the footbridge over the weir.  White water gushes down, foaming the river. The terrace overlooking the mill-race is filled daily with people eating and drinking and chatting and laughing; it’s a popular gathering place for locals and those who come from a greater distance.

Saxon Mill weir and footbridge
Saxon Mill weir and footbridge

We went there in the heavy snow of December 2010 to photograph the river and trees, looking like Wonderland.

The Weir at the Saxon Mill 26 Dec 2010
The Weir at the Saxon Mill 26 Dec 2010

Beyond the footbridge you may find a track which traverses the fields to Old Milverton Church – another path much enjoyed by walkers and dogs alike.

I associate the Saxon Mill with happy social gatherings, with a writer’s inspiration, with romantic wonderings… Very close to home, it has that unmistakeable spirit of place.

Do you have a favourite place, near to home, that inspires your imagination? I’d love to hear your stories and comments!