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What do the Secrets of the Australian Swagman Have to Say to Creative Writers?

“Ashes are much hotter than flames”.Picture of an Australian swagman by George Washington Lambert - Sheoak Sam, 1898This is an observation I heard online a few months ago, and you’d think, OK, what does that have to do with creative writers?  Well, let me take you to the Australian Outback to explain.

The ‘swagman’ of Waltzing Matilda fame traditionally goes walkabout through the Outback of Australia with only 3 basic foodstuffs in his tucker bag: onions, flour and golden syrup.  That’s so he can bake the essential carbs portion of his diet, damper, in the ashes of his fire, (to eat later with syrup) and also the onion, an indispensable companion to the ‘jumbuck’ that he’s poached from whichever sheep-station he happens to be passing through.

Here is the process of making damper, demonstrated by a honorary ‘bushman’ / exponent of bush-craft (alias a friend of my sister’s then living in a caravan in Stanthorpe, Queensland), a process which my daughter Abigail photographed while we were in Australia in 2007:

So what does this have to say to creative writers?

Simply this: writing a novel can be like making damper from scratch in the Australian bush. You gather together your basic requirements; wood for a fire, pot to make your damper in, flour and water, and off you go.  Your fire must be just right; no more flames, but nice hot ashes, ready for the cooking. The pan is placed on the ashes and heated up ready to take the mixture, and for the lid to go on. Then the pan is covered with hot ashes and left to cook. the hot ashes are later swept away with a sprig of greenery. Every stage of the process requires careful attendance and skill. And finally you have your delicious result, ready to be devoured. But first you make it more palatable by putting golden syrup on it.IMGP0807 eat and enjoy!

Just so do you gather your raw material for a novel in your mind, your life experiences and observations, your characters, their life-histories, your plot, your skill with words, and then you go about mixing them all together, through several drafts, each stage  carefully attended to, so that your end result is just golden brown, and not burnt nor soggy. And then even when it’s perfect, it may be it needs that extra touch, with the syrup on top ie. the final polish.

 

 

 

What the Tide at Lindisfarne Has To Teach a Creative Writer

During my visit to The Holy Island of Lindisfarne last year, I sat on the shore by the Lindisfarne Causeway and watched the tide come in and cover the road.20160821_150524

Here are my insights – and a few images – from that experience.

Sitting at the end of the causeway and watching the tide come in is one of the activities suggested for you here Give Yourself a Retreat on Holy Island by Ray Simpson.  It has many benefits and can be quite amusing as you watch cars driving along the road well outside the safe crossing time, and wonder whether they’ll soon be floating away. This too can be a good prompt to reflect upon the quality of patience.20160821_151028

It’s also a challenge to your ability to sit quietly for an extended length of time and meditate; to some it can become boring. We sat with several other people, some of who left early, but we stayed till the water was surging across the road.

I found myself thinking of the High Tide of God; sometimes it comes flooding in over the road and then you may not pass. At other times, it is out, and your way along the road is free.20160821_165105

Of course, you can interpret the tide differently, reversing the meaning.It all depends upon the viewpoint you take; whether you see yourself sitting on the shore, or whether you see yourself as a boat, or as a bird skimming the waves.  Instead of equating the tide with a signal that you must patiently wait, you can equate it with a time for fruitful action. That is how Shakespeare interpreted it when he wrote:  There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune. 20160821_165650

So even non religious people can sit here at the end of the causeway and take from this their own reflections on life.

Whichever way you view it, the whole experience is full of symbolic meaning, which you can also explore in this book: Sacred Spaces by Margaret Silf.20160821_170245

My personal reflections for my own life, work equally well when applied to the current world scene.

I believe, with Tolstoy (see my previous blog post here) that “the times produce the man”; and currently, those who voted Trump in as President hold the moral responsibility for elevating him into a major role in their society. The tide in the affairs of men, that Shakespeare referred to, has thrown up this situation… and though many hold different views, perhaps we must just wait for the tide to recede, taking with it all the flotsam and jetsam.20160821_172909.jpg

Curiously, you can apply this principle to the writing of novels too. Sometimes you find you have a major character in a minor role, and vice versa.  This can underlie problems with story-writing when you get stuck, and perhaps you can’t initially work out what you’re doing wrong.

And also you can equate creativity with the tide; the high tide of ideas. As the tide surges in, so can our ideas – but only if we get to work.

And lastly we, as writers, can see the tide as Shakespeare did: a tide of fortune. Are we boats, or birds, or perhaps merely foam on the crest of the waves? We may be a beautiful beached fish, just waiting for the tide to sweep us up again.  However we see it, we can learn many things from sitting patiently at the end of the causeway, and waiting and gazing.

 

Boxing Day Entertainment by the Kenilworth Lions at Kenilworth Castle and Abbey Fields

The English love to do fun – and some might even think silly – things on Boxing Day.20161226_113145

Perhaps this is a relief from all the stress of preparing for Christmas. It’s also the opportunity for people to gather together in the fresh air and enjoy themselves with traditional English entertainments.

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Here are a few fun things that took place in one of my favourite places, Kenilworth, on Boxing Day – at Kenilworth Castle and Abbey Fields.

The events were organised by Kenilworth Lions who not only give people a lot of fun and enjoyment, but also provide tremendous support to local charities through their fundraising.20161226_111614

The entertainments included Morris dancers, Punch and Judy Show, and the best dressed dog contest at Kenilworth Castle…20161226_112701

 

 

……..and the annual duck race along the brook through Abbey Fields – an event which attracts a huge crowd.  We followed this with another very popular local activity – a walk through the fields behind Kenilworth Castle, through the area once covered by the Great Mere, filled with pleasure boats, out to the former site of Henry V’s “Pleasance in the Marsh” and back again to the Castle….

May I take this opportunity to wish you  a happy New Year and for all of us the chance to play our part in making the world a more compassionate, caring and loving place for us all, one in which people may come together in a spirit of mutual tolerance, acceptance and good will, so in many more countries people may enjoy being together as shown on the pictures in this blog post.

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Garden of Significant Inspiration and Curious A-MUSE-ments at Shakespeare’s New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon

O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

So wrote William Shakespeare in the Prologue to Henry V –  and a few days ago we were in the garden at New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, site of Shakespeare’s former family home – infusing marbles with the power of that same muse.new-place-stratford-upon-avon

In case you’re thinking that sounds eccentric and zany, you’re right – and through the path of the eccentric many of the greatest minds have found both inspiration  and ideas that have changed the world.  Below is an approximation of what Shakespeare’s family home would have looked like. No picture-of-an-approximation-of-shakespeares-new-place-his-own-family-homehouse currently exists at New Place, but is instead represented by a series of gardens is where we embarked on a “Muse Catching” journey with the United Nations Board of Significant Inspiration (otherwise possibly understood as a group of artists / creators / thinkers / acrobats / inventors / actors whose goal is to awake the imagination, fill the mind and heart with fresh possibilities, and raise up the muse for members of the public who choose to visit).

Our purpose: to each take a marble and catch in it some of that muse Shakespeare wrote about, through the four elements of earth, fire, water and air.

The journey itself is full of fun, wonder, laughter inspiration and delight – and at the bottom of this wonderful, quirky, fanciful Art Happening, is a profound question and a fascinating subject for research: is there a correlation between place, time and lightbulb moments?

Shakespeare’s family home no longer exists because it was demolished by a character Shakespeare himself might have created. This “Art Happening” as I like to describe it, was based upon the idea that “the muse” is somehow present in the location where Shakespeare lived and wrote.  Many of us are familiar with the idea of certain places having a high level of inspiration. Often it seems to be present in the air, or lie hidden in the fabric of a special building, or within a natural phenomenon or feature of the landscape. But does it perhaps emanate from the ground? This is the idea played with and embodied by the UNBOSI at New Place this Christmas.  In the roundel at New Place, several information boards explored this, noting that many world-renowned geniuses had their lightbulb moment by doing very silly things – or by having very silly things happen to them.

So let us be inspired by the fanciful, creative, quirky and even silly… for along that path may lie greatness.

 

 

 

The Writing Process for Creating a Novel In Less Than a Month

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) begins today for 2016 and I will be once again taking this challenge – completing the first draft of my new novel “Director’s Cut”. nanowrimo-2016-participant Here is an article I wrote when I was 3 weeks into the 2011 challenge, in order to write the first draft of my second novel “A Passionate Spirit”. Everything I said then still applies now; and my extra challenge is to take my own advice! I hope some of you who are setting out on this challenge today will find it a source of inspiration.

The task is: write a novel of at least 50,000 words in a month; and by the word “novel” we must mean, of course, “the first draft of a novel.” For I have not yet ever created a novel in a month; but in nine days time I will have done that very thing; and therefore I consider myself qualified to write the article.

Here are three tips to have that completed first draft of a novel in a month:

1) Do your preparation work before the month begins. Ideas will have been hatching in your mind for the last couple of years, perhaps; and now you have a ground plan. You have created a one-sentence storyline, and expanded it to a blurb and a synopsis and perhaps you have drawn up a list of scenes for your novel. Not everybody needs to have done this before they begin writing the novel. Some like to plunge into the writing with two or three characters and a conflict in mind, and let the story emerge. But I had already been thinking about my characters for a year or so before beginning my novel. And I know from experience what it’s like to allow your characters to take over. Characters will do that anyway, even if you have a plan. But I now believe having a plan is a very good way to start, even if the plan is radically changed by the time you’ve finished your first draft.

2) Begin writing, and don’t go back to edit. Control your desire to look over previous chapters and assess or improve them. This needs great discipline. Just keep writing even if you suspect what you are writing is rubbish, because you are going to go back over your manuscript anyway after the month is up and use it as the basis for your second draft.

3) Don’t fall into the trap of slacking or subsiding or falling away because your novel feels as if it’s sinking in the middle. Introduce something crazy or bizarre that occurs to you; just follow that instinct, introduce it into your plot, set your characters the task of dealing with it and keep on writing.

Those who find their minds go blank at the prospect of producing a full-length work of the imagination should remember this one thing: creating a first draft of fiction requires only motivation and courage. It requires you to forget everything negative you ever believed of yourself, and to believe in whatever ideas come to you, believe in them enough to incorporate them in your first draft. When you read your manuscript through in a month’s time, you may be amazed at what you came up with apparently “out of nowhere.”

 

n.b. this article, first published online in 2011, forms part of my upcoming non-fiction book, Perilous Path: a writer’s journey

Research in Southwark for Setting for New Novel

Last Saturday I was in Southwark, London SE1, researching locations for my new novel.

To me, the setting for a novel must have a strong emotional connection. My first two novels were set in the Cotswolds, near where I now live. My next novels will be set in London, near where I was born and brought up.

What a  fascinating part of London Southwark is, rich in layers of history, the medieval squashed in with the 21st century, sparkling new towers, majestic cathedral, paupers graveyard and bustling market and Dickensian street names and eccentric pubs all crammed in together – and one of London’s most colourful and stimulating walks, along Bankside, from More London right through to the London Eye…..

But what I’m interested in isn’t just the tourist sites; it’s the atmosphere, the pubs, the unexpected small parks and gardens, the odd corners and street names. Here’s a selection from the many photos I took. And I’ll be back again, absorbing the feel of the place, and imagining my characters into it.

What does Eadfrith, artist-scribe of the Lindisfarne Gospels, have to teach creative writers and artists today?

Nothing much, you may think – because Eadfrith was a seventh century monk in a monastery on an island, and we live in the fast, materialistic, time-pressured world of 2016.

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sunset on Lindisfarne

I’ve just spent three days on Lindisfarne (otherwise known as Holy Island), just off the Northumberland coast, where Eadfrith sat in the monastery scriptorium and scribed and decorated the Lindisfarne Gospels every day for two years between  696 and 698 AD, in order to commemorate the elevation of St Cuthbert’s relics. 

So why is it that the book he created is so revered and has such a hold on our imagination now? – apart  from its age and the wonderful fact of its survival?

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Display in the Lindisfarne Heritage Centre, Holy Island

I believe it’s because of the dedication, the patient concentration and the painstaking artistry that breathes out from the pages, and because of what inspired its creation: love and devotion.

Eadfrith created it “for the glory of God and St Cuthbert”.

St Cuthbert himself inspired so much reverence because he was a holy man, at one time bishop of Lindisfarne, who died as a hermit in 687 on Inner Farne (which I recently visited), and around whose body many miracles occurred.

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Sculpture in St Mary’s Church Holy Island, showing the monks who carried Cuthbert’s body to escape from Viking raiders

The astonishing story of his body, which failed to decay for many years, records how he was carried for several decades by faithful monks around Northumberland, to escape Viking attack, before finally it was laid to rest in the spot over which Durham Cathedral was built. You can visit St Cuthbert’s Tomb in Durham Cathedral, a place which has a strong spiritual resonance and atmosphere of holiness.

The glorious book which is the Lindisfarne Gospels is a testament to patience, concentration, love and devotion. preface to St Mark's Gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels

For us now, to gaze at, or to work with, the patterns Eadfrith painted is a pathway to peace and joy – hence the popularity of Celtic colouring-in books for adults, partly because the act of colouring-in forces you to pay close attention and eliminate all distractions. Celtic designs based on the Lindisfarne gospels pop up everywhere20160829_112732 – here’s an image of my lovely metal bookmark displaying Eadfrith’s designs – notice particularly his ornamental birds (Lindisfarne has long been a paradise for birds, so Eadfrith had plenty of them to model his designs on).

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Detail from the Lindisfarne Gospels, in St Mary’s Church Holy Island

In creating the ornamental designs, Eadfrith needed to pay minute attention to the geometrical foundations and symmetry of the overall design – very little was left to chance or the “inspiration of the moment.”

The book he created is now revered not just for the beauty and skill within its pages, I believe, but because that beauty is a physical representation on this earth of a spiritual reality – goodness, peace, patience, holiness and love.

Eadfrith had to source, prepare, or make from scratch everything he used – the parchments of vellum; the pen from a thick reed or quill feather; the ink, from animal, vegetable and mineral raw materials, ground to a fine powder and then mixed with egg white. I have personal experience of something of this latter part of the process at least, because I did an icon-painting course a few years ago and we mixed artists’ pigment with egg-white to paint our own icons on pieces of wood we had ourselves prepared – see the photo here of my own icon of the Archangel Gabriel.20160829_123557

After Eadfrith had created the Gospels, he left the scriptorium and as far as we know he never painted or wrote anything else – not that I’m suggesting this is a model for creative writers of today!

I find his story awe-inspiring and uplifting because it gives me an image of a patient, devoted person sitting alone in a quiet place concentrating absolutely on a work of art, to the exclusion of all else. It makes me think of many others who have created great works in similar circumstances – those who have been perhaps in prison, like St Paul, or Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote, two amongst several examples: or those who have deliberately chosen to go apart into an isolated place like Eadfrith in the scriptorium, free of distractions.

To be free of distractions and able to fully concentrate and devote yourself to the task in hand is such a luxury now, such an ideal for writers and artists to aspire to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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