Guest post – Roy McCarthy

This week, I’d like to introduce Roy McCarthy, who is my very first guest here at Harvesting Hecate.  I was introduced to Roy back in January, when I read his post about Lillie Langtry and since then I’ve been treated to wonderful writing on a variety of subjects, including reading, writing, running and Jersey’s fascinating sights and history.  Having thoroughly enjoyed Roy’s books, which seem to have the things he’s passionate about running through them, I wanted to know a bit about what inspired him to write them and what his next book will be about.  So, over to Roy:

It’s a big responsibility, being asked to contribute to someone else’s blog. Even more so when that blog is of the quality of Andrea’s Harvesting Hecate. Andrea’s wonderfully descriptive writing, inspired by nature and given depth by hints of other worldliness is a class apart, and I always look forward to it.

Andrea has asked me to write on the topic of inspiration – what has inspired my own writing. So first, my three self-published novels.

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Barry The original vanity novel which I was delighted to write and have printed with my name on! Coming to the sport of running somewhat late in life I was inspired enough to write a chapter on the subject. Barry, a former champion runner, gone to seed, making a comeback. This first chapter sat there for at least two years. Then, at a dismal time in my life I decided to set myself targets, one of which was to complete Barry. In doing so I found myself enjoying the creative process and, within the confines of a full-time job, have continued to write ever since.

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Tess of Portelet Manor I loved the research for Midsummer and I loved Tess, one of my 1935 characters. I therefore decided to follow her story through and beyond the German Occupation (1940-45) with the assistance of the wealth of material available to students of that period. I’m very happy with the result.

All of the above are available for Kindle here

IMG00138-20140404-0836A West Cork Mystery Over the years I have spent a lot of time in Ireland, particularly Cork and the west. On a quiet, misty day and in the evening, as the dim shadows fade altogether, it is easy to feel the spirit of Ireland’s past all around. The country is replete with myth and legend just waiting to be captured within the cover of a book.

SAMSUNG CSCBut it was Australian author Dianne Gray who provided the spark for this story. She and her husband are renovating an old building which has had a number of uses down the years, one notably as a rugby clubhouse. In stripping back the layers of paint and paper its past has been slowly uncovered. What memories might have been trapped in that building, if they could be revealed?

So this is Dunmurry House in West Cork. The story is complete but needs an extensive rework after which I hope that it might be a commercial proposition.

My thanks once again to Andrea and I hope to be featuring her work over at my place soon.


Thank you to Roy for sharing his thoughts on inspiration.  I hope you enjoyed reading about Roy’s books and the inspiration behind them as much as I did.  Visit Roy over at http://backontherock.com for more.

The call of the Nightjar

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On this still, windless night the forest is silent.  The trees watch, like inscrutable sentries.  Moths flutter past silently, gossamer scraps pale against the darkness.  Bats swoop soundlessly, dusky shadows whose voices are beyond our hearing.  It seems that the creatures that stalk the night woods are mostly unseen and unheard.  But the forest isn’t quite silent.  There is a whirring in the air, something that you wouldn’t really notice unless your attention is drawn to it.  Something that sounds alien and a little eerie.  It seems to be coming from the trees – all of the trees, as though the air itself is singing.  Listen, and you’ll hear it too…

This is the sound of the dreaded goatsucker, the corpse fowl.  It is said that this creature steals milk from the udders of goats.  That it sheathes the souls of unbaptized children, haunting eternity.  And kills calves by giving them puckeridge disease.  It flies only by night, resting on the ground in daylight, protected by its camouflage.  Each year, it makes the long journey from Africa to sojourn here, a nocturnal shadow to the day-time swallow.  It is a creature of myth and witchery, yet in reality it is only a bird: the enigmatic Nightjar.

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A European Nightjar flying. A lithograph of a painting by John Gerrard Keulemans. It is captioned with its old names.

The Nightjar’s reputation is beguiling but untrue.  It feeds on moths and insects and it is thought that its notoriety as a milk snatcher originates from its habit of nesting on the ground around livestock.  Puckeridge disease is caused, not by the Nightjar, but by an insect.  But the Nightjar is rarely seen, due to its nocturnal nature and don’t all creatures of the night deserve their own myths?

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On this night, we walk darkened paths, the pines looming in front of us darker still.  We have night vision telescopes, which illuminate the darkness in a square of sickly yellow light.  So much light soaking the eyes makes it difficult to see once you look away from the telescope and my vision is blurred by the end of the walk.  We can see in the dark, but we don’t see the Nightjar.  Despite all our technology, perhaps we aren’t meant to see what lurks in the night.

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John R. Neill: Peter and the Princess, Lighted by glow worms, the fairies were dancing, 1920 link

But there, in the hedgerow, is another kind of light.  Cold, green pinpricks, so bright they shouldn’t be natural.  As bright as fairy lights and indeed, these are the creatures that the fey carried as lanterns, so that they could dance through the night.  But the light of the glow worm isn’t meant for the fairies or for us.  It is the lure of the female, who will glow for just a week or two until she has attracted a mate and laid her eggs.  Once this is done, she will put out her light and die.

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Perhaps some things aren’t meant to be witnessed by human eyes.  We conjure myths from half-seen things and unexplained sounds in the darkness.  And this is part of the magic of the world.  That they exist, but we can know only a fraction of their mystery.  That we can create stories to comfort us in our lack of knowing.  I’m glad I heard the call of the Nightjar, but in a way, I’m happy I didn’t see it.  Instead, the mystery is intact, sailing on into the darkness.

Greeting the dawn

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We slip out in the half-light of solstice morning and head for the sea.  It’s the beginning of the longest day and our purpose is to greet the sun as it rises.  We head for our island, our soul-place, to watch the dawn.  Already we can see that the sun is in hiding behind thick cloud and the signs are that it won’t be visible all day.  The clouds are blue-grey and pink-blushed.  A small slash in the clouds seeps orange light.  It’s chillier than it has been all this hot, humid week.  As the dawn progresses, we still don’t see the sun, but narrow shafts of light fall from sky to sea creating a luminous path across the water.

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Sunrise and low tide are within fifteen minutes of one another today.  This seems appropriate, for the solstice is the tipping point when the sun stands still for a moment in time, before the year begins to ebb and low tide is a point when the tide stands still just before it turns.  We create an image of the sun, using shells and kelp so that we’ll leave nothing permanent behind us.  It’s a transitory image that will be washed away by the next high tide.  An honouring of the sun at the height of its power, but also an acknowledgement that this power is transient and will soon begin to fade into shorter, colder days.  Alone on the beach, two women and a dog, we welcome the sun, thanking it for its light, which gives us life.

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The luscious spring is giving way to summer.  Spring has seemed limitless.  So much abundance of life, prompted by the warm weather and rainy start to the year.  The landscape is changing every week.  Right now, it’s the season of meadows.  There’s something blithe and joyful about meadows: slender, delicate flowers and feathery grasses blurring into a mass of colour and texture.  I smile as I walk along paths bordered by meadows.

Summer is bright, expansive and open, but it is also the season of tiny things.  Things that flit across our path so quickly we don’t know what they are.  Things that hide in the undergrowth and buzz among the leaves.  Creatures that have their own miniature beauty if we take the time to study them.

And it is the season of babies, emerging into the wondrous and perilous world.  The gull nesting across from my office is now guarding two fluffy chicks.  Baby starlings click and hiss in parks and on pavements.  And at the ponds, the ducklings have appeared.

It’s the season of empowerment, when we use the height of the sun’s energy to replenish and charge our batteries for the autumn that will come soon enough.  And a time when we turn outwards, to seek worldly success.  For me, it’s a season of unwinding.  Many of the writing goals I set myself are well on their way to being achieved.  And once my book went out to query and stories out for submission, it was like a natural stop.  This time for me is less about the ‘work’ of writing and more about fun and exploration.  So I’ve been taking a rest from fiction to blog and paint, which feels like the right way to re-charge my creative energies for the harvest to come.

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And like a glorious omen, our solstice morning ends with delight.  My novel, The skin of a selkie, is set on this island with seals featuring strongly in the story.  But although I know that they occasionally visit, in all the years I’ve come to this place I’ve never once seen a seal on the island.  Until, that is, this morning.  There, out on the rocks, half a dozen grey seals, at rest.  We watch them from a distance so as not to disturb them    To be here, on solstice morning and to see those seals with my book out there awaiting its fate, well, it feels like a gift just for us.

The small, wild things

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When I was a child, I was given a book about becoming a nature detective.  By today’s standards for children’s books it was uninspiring: filled with dense text and black and white photos.  Still, it captured my imagination and I longed to be able to track and investigate the natural world in the way the book described.  But I was an urban child and I thought the experiences the book presented were out of my reach.  I’ve always lived in towns and cities, while longing to inhabit the wilder places.  I wish I could look out of my window and see open spaces instead of my neighbours’ houses.  The sea has always been my local untamed place, while I believed that the town had little to offer in the way of nature.  But years after I dreamed of being a nature detective, I’ve learned that even among brick and concrete, it’s possible to live the change of the seasons and to find the wild in the everyday.

At the end of my road, there is a small park.  It’s little more than an expanse of grass and a children’s playground, a space that has been cultivated and tamed.  But I’ve walked this park nearly every day for two years and I’ve noticed its secrets.  There are five species of trees here, most of them old, including three wild cherries that burst into blossom each spring.  There is privet and hawthorn, offering cover to songbirds.  You’d be forgiven for thinking the only wild plants that grow here are daisy and dandelion.  But look closer: ragwort and ivy leaved toadflax cling to walls.  Hart’s tongue and maidenhair spleenwort grow in the shady spot under the trees.  There is a small clutch of bluebells, red dead nettle, thistle and cleavers.  Field mushrooms, glistening inkcap and King Alfred’s Cakes fungi fruit in the darker, damp patches.  The obvious birds are the seagulls and the crows, but listen to the dawn chorus and you’ll know there are many others – great tits squabbling in the trees, blackbirds, thrushes, starlings and woodpigeons.  A dunnock has been singing an audabe from the privet each morning and, just once, I saw a greater spotted woodpecker high in a sycamore.

Just a little farther from home and here is the Dene, one of many deep valleys cut by streams that flow into the North sea.  This park too has been tamed, but not altogether.  Cowslips, marsh marigolds, yellow flag, water avens and shaggy inkcap all grow in the damp ground.  The pond, fringed with weeping willow, is home to mallards, tufted ducks, moorhens and the occasional heron.  I glimpsed a fox once, at the side of the road, but I’ve been told scores of them visit the Dene at night.  This week, I watched a pair of mute swans mating – he balancing precariously on her back, followed by a brief dance, where they raised their bodies and necks high out of the water and pressed them together.  Then it was over, off she swam into the rushes and left him circling the pond alone.

 

And then there is the business park where I sometimes work.  Dominated by office blocks, traffic and scores of people.  But look past the buildings and the tidy, cultivated plants and there is a host of nature here.  Follow one of the paths and you’ll come to areas tangled with trees and wildflowers.  Ponds with resident moorhens, coots, tufted duck and geese.  You may see a hare, a grey heron, or even a deer.  I’ve sat in meetings and watched rabbits at play outside the windows.  A weasel once crossed my path.

But nature always clings to the edges.  The smallest patch of waste ground is rich with possibilities.  The horsetail colony, like a strange clutch of aliens at the edge of a crane hire yard.  In their fertile form, they appear like burnt stalks, later, they turn green and feathery  The froth of cow parsley on the side of a main road.  The gull, minding her nest on a chimney opposite my office.  The bulrushes beneath the pylons.  Herb Robert poking through a fence.  Mayweed, Green Alkanet and Shepherd’s purse by the roadside.  There is a small path nearby, no more than five metres long, a narrow short cut to a housing estate, flanked by a school on one side and a tangle of waste ground on the other.  Along this short path I’ve seen a whole clutch of wildflowers that I haven’t found elsewhere.  Now, alas, it has been ‘tidied up’ and all the wildflowers poking through the fence cut down.  But they’ll be back.  Sometimes, there is a particular kind of beauty to the nature at the edges, in the contrast between the ugly and the beautiful.  And no matter how we try to tame it, it always returns.

Towns and cities distract us.  They urge movement, rarely inviting us to be still.  Their attractions draw us away from noticing the small, wild things that are with us every day.  Nature is less obvious, but it’s there.  Even a weekly, regular walk to the same location will make a nature detective of you.  You may also have to change your view of what is interesting.  The commonest flowers are no less beautiful because they’re common.  When did you last look closely at a daisy?  Have you ever noticed the tiny lilac paws of the ivy leaved toadflax or the miniature heart-shaped seed pods that give the Shepherd’s Purse its name?

Only a year ago, I was blind to what lay around me.  Now, I’m building a mental nature map of my neighbourhood.  As each season passes, I add things to the map.  I know where to go to find a particular wildflower or fungus, the best place to see a hare or a heron.  I know where to watch the seasons change.  And I’ve barely scratched the surface.  I learn by experiencing nature at first hand.  There is nobody to tell me what I’m seeing.  Instead, I look carefully, noting colours, shapes, habitats, until I can put a name to what I’ve discovered.   There’s always something new to notice.  This week on my trip to the Dene, the buttercups have taken over.  The clover and yellow flag are beginning to bloom.  Hoverflies are everywhere and the spittlebugs have been hard at work creating their foamy dens.  I still long to live in a greener place than this, but I’ve learned that wherever I am, I can always find a little wildness.

Through the fog

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We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships…a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was:…a voice  that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door, and like trees in autumn with no leaves.   A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore.  I’ll make a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls…’ The Fog Horn – Ray Bradbury

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At the end of the north pier, where the river transforms into the sea, the fog horn dwells.  Housed in a squat, brown lighthouse on the pier that took more than fifty years to build because the waves kept breaking it down, beyond the Black Midden rocks where so many ships saw their end; there the fog horn dwells.  At night, I can hear its moan, seeping in the windows. That deep, melancholy howl is one of my favourite sounds in the world.  Sometimes, I hear it in daylight, if the air is quiet, often accompanied by the honk of ships’ horns.  But it’s a sound that really belongs to the night, when it speaks to the loneliness within us all.

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The world is a softer, more mysterious place when it is wreathed in fog.  Fog blurs the landscape round the edges.  It makes the air feel hushed.  The world around us is altered or no longer there.  In the park, as others sleep, we walk mist-blurred paths, lit by fog shrouded lamps.  The river is gone, everything south of it lost in a foggy haze.  Before work, I’m alone in another park.  To the pond, where the trees are damp and laden with dewy spiders webs.  Canada Geese and mallards float lazily, as though the fog makes them slower.  Beyond, the distant trees blend into the horizon, the buildings behind them invisible.  Fog is not unusual here, where it rolls straight off the north sea.  A drenching, gossamer fret that leaves droplets on the skin and a freshness in the air.  The week before last, the fog barely lifted.

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Fog is perfect for tales of mystery and suspense.  It distorts and bewilders.  It cloaks dastardly deeds or monstrous creatures.  Its mystery lies in what it might conceal.  Until recently, my favourite fog fiction was the 1980 movie The Fog, in which a town’s history comes back to haunt it.  I love the movie probably more for its atmosphere than its story.  But then I discovered Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Fog Horn, with its conjuring of the ancient mysteries of the deep and the aching loneliness of the horn that calls to it.

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Fog is really nothing more than droplets of water suspended in the air.  Yet the science does no justice to the wonder of experiencing it and the emotions it evokes in us.  Where I feel delight, others feel fear.  The word ‘fog’ is synonymous with confusion and gloom and murky evocations of Victorian London would not be the same without descriptions of the smog caused by a lethal mixture of soot and fog.  But usually, fog is transient.  Just like that, the fog is gone and the world is no longer enchanted.  We’ve come through the fog and everything is clear once more.

 

 

 

 

 

Clearing the decks

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Quite unexpectedly, spring has given birth to winter.  Through the trees, a milky mist appears to cling to the land.  In fact, it is an illusion.  The meadow, sloping upwards from the river, is sheathed in frost.  We slip out, keen to see the effects of this wintry dawn up close.  Frost covers roofs, fields, fenceposts, trees.  It is a washed out, pearly landscape.  We can’t see the sun that is rising behind the hills, but we see its light, casting a bronze reflection on the trees.  As nature fights for balance, approaching the spring equinox, winter and spring wrestle for dominion.

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By the time the sun has fully risen, spring once again rules.  The forest is filled with life.  The robin that greeted us on our arrival is trilling loudly at the peak of a spruce.  Like a liminal messenger, the bird of winter announcing spring.  Bold and fierce, the sight of a robin always makes me hopeful.  Songbirds are plentiful in the woods: blue tit, coal tit, great tit, blackbird, chaffinch.  The tits and the robin come singly, the blackbirds in a pair.  But the chaffinches arrive as a gang – unruly, squabbling acrobats accompanied by the soft whirring of wings.

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The birds jewel the trees, one on each branch, a feathered heavy-mob trying to intimidate us into giving them food.  There is movement everywhere: birds fluttering down to the veranda, hopping and flitting across the forest floor.  A treecreeper shuttles up the tree outside the window and then spirals down to begin the ascent once more.  Large crows shadow the smaller birds, keeping to the heights.  The jay, a colourful assassin, is a distant visitor.  We hear the woodpecker before we see its monochrome plumage through the trees.

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There are pheasant living nearby, fat colourful characters with their long tail feathers.  Strutting across the ground, perching on piles of wood chips, or scuttling across fields.  Their harsh, barking alarm call is a regular sound.  And the grey squirrel, who seems to have forgotten he can climb trees, sinuously stalking the forest floor in search of seeds.  The roe deer, with his fledgling antlers who wanders past each morning, given away by his white, fleecy tail.  In daylight, we wander along damp and muddy paths, dappled with sunlight, overlooking sunlit fields, our thoughts turning to picnics.

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But at night, spring sleeps.  The sky darkens into a crisp, cold night with plunging temperatures.  The moon is a bright, waxing sliver and the stars are clearly visible, Jupiter shining brightly beyond Orion.  I walk out onto the veranda one evening, just at the right time to see a shooting star sear across the sky between them.SAMSUNG CSC

This visit to the forest is a last tranquil week before spring truly unfolds and brings with it the call to action.  My thoughts turn to clearing the decks, preparing the way for new projects to grow.  I’ve spent hours de-cluttering my creative work – unearthing old drawings and writing.  Surprised to find stories dating back to when I was 17 or 18 and at college, as well as the beginnings of at least three novels.  Novels I’ll never finish – too immature in theme and style.  But it’s interesting to read these old stories and note how they are permeated by the interests I had at the time – vampires, new age travellers, saving whales, cities in the sand.  Interesting too to see the places I spent my time used as locations for the stories.  Life weaves itself into fiction without us even meaning it to.

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What is also clear is the lack of importance I gave to this work – piled haphazardly into a box, scrawled in old exercise books and on pieces of paper, drawings rolled up and torn at the edges.  No wonder it took me some time to work out what was what.  That I’d started three novels, when I could only remember one.  That the character I clearly remembered from one story was from another altogether.  And while this work isn’t important for what it is, it has value for the pedigree it gives to my work now.  This is my writing before I took it seriously, but it’s also the writing that made me the writer I am now.  And so I’ve begun the process of organising and preserving it.

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The equinox is about balance, before the sun comes into its own and works its magic.  For me, this week of repose and all the creative spring cleaning leading up to it, is about creating a balanced space out of which action can come.  I’ll be taking the ideas that have germinated into stories and sending them out into the world, hoping that they will bloom.

Cycles of creativity

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Each day has its rhythms.  Each month, each season, each year – all have their own character and pattern.  We forget, in this modern world, when nature’s cycles are drowned out by noise and concrete, that there are hidden energies at work on our bodies and our minds.  But recognising how these daily and monthly cycles affect our creativity can help us to create more effectively.

Even before I began to pay attention to my creative cycles, my daily rhythms seemed obvious.  Evenings are the times when I am at my most creative.  I’ve always been nocturnal, staying up until the early hours and getting up late.  At night, I plan, daydream and cultivate ideas.  I look forward to those quiet times before sleep when I can take advantage of the creative mood.

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By contrast, mornings are always difficult for me.  Having suffered from depression on and off throughout my life, I sometimes struggle to meet the day.  I’m often anxious and reluctant to face the world.  Mornings are my doubting times – when the ideas and plans from the night before seem silly and I don’t have the enthusiasm to do anything about them.

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Knowing the rhythms of my daily cycles means that I can make them work for me creatively.  I know that ‘morning pages’ or getting up earlier to create will never work for me.  Finding ways to create once the working day has ended will be much more successful.  But I’ve also found ways to make my mornings more productive.  For some time, I practised yoga, which both calmed and energised me.  Now, you’ll find me in the park just after 6am, walking the dog.  First thing in the morning, visiting with nature, is a good way to begin the day.

Weekly and monthly cycles can be more difficult to recognise, so for eight months now, I’ve been recording my daily levels of creativity, comparing them to my moods and the phases of the moon.  I would have expected that my creativity would increase with the waxing moon, becoming strongest at the full moon and fading as the moon waned.  (In magic, waxing moon energies are generally for growth, while the waning moon is for banishing).  In fact, I am more likely to feel creative during the waning moon.  I almost always feel creative at the full moon, but quite the opposite at the new moon.  But as you can see from the chart below, my creativity is capricious – there is no gentle pattern of waxing and waning, rather there are myriad peaks and troughs.

Cycles of creativity

For two thirds of the time I’ve monitored my cycles, I’ve felt some level of creativity.  November and January were my most creative months.  The weekend is my most creative time of the week – Sunday, followed by Saturday, then Friday.  This is understandable as I’m freed from thoughts of work to focus on the other parts of my life.

But creativity isn’t just affected by natural cycles, it is affected by mood.  I’m most likely to feel creative if I’m in a positive mood.  But that doesn’t mean I’m not creative if I’m sad or anxious.  The number of times I was creative or not creative when feeling sad or anxious was equal, so it could go either way.  And moods, of course, are affected by what is going on in my life.  So during difficult times in the year, I often felt little creativity, whereas when I’m on holiday from work, for example, I’m more likely to feel creative.

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Recently, a women’s writing magazine carried out a survey and asked a question about how hormones affect writing.  There were a number of complaints from women objecting to the question, in the belief that we shouldn’t be defined by our hormones.  I am a feminist and don’t believe hormones prevent women doing anything.  But I know that for a few days in the month, usually around the new moon, I will feel crushingly depressed.  This is probably the reason that new moons are usually so creatively unproductive for me.  During my period and just after, I’m more likely to be creative than not, but just before, I’m much less likely to be inspired.

I’ve written a lot about the creative cycles of the year, but life is awash with cycles.  Without paying attention to them, we can feel pulled in so many different directions that we may never know when creativity will appear and feel disheartened when it doesn’t.  By paying attention to it, we can know when we’re most likely to be effective (for me, a weekend evening around the full moon, is probably the optimum time) and when we’re not (for me, on a Tuesday morning around the new moon).  Creativity can seem capricious, but in actual fact, perhaps it isn’t as erratic as we think, we just need to tune in to the rhythms that affect it.

A creative journal

SAMSUNG CSCA diary is hope, measured in blank pages.  It is all the possibilities of the year, waiting to be recorded.  Whether the most exquisite notebook or the simplest planner, it is all the anniversaries yet to be celebrated, all the friends to be met, the meals to be eaten, the holidays to be taken.  It is all the things that might happen as well as the things that must.

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My reading this year has been illuminated by the minutiae of other women’s days.  Susan Wittig Albert’s explorations of writing, place and climate change; Alice Walker’s memories of The Color Purple; Valerie Davies’ sensual descriptions of life and landscape; Joyce Carol Oates’ philosophical musings on writing.  Through their journals, I have peered into their lives, if only for a moment.  I have always loved reading diaries, generally those of women and preferably accounts, not of great achievement (though the women may be highly accomplished), but of the more prosaic events of their lives.  Through fiction, we can experience a thousand imaginary lives, but through journals, we can glimpse the truths of those lives.

SAMSUNG CSCWhile a new diary is full of hope, a completed diary is life with all its joys and disappointments.  It is a snapshot of who we are at that time, because we don’t know any better.  Whereas memoir has the benefit of hindsight, a diary just is.  There may still be an element of self-censorship or invention, particularly in those that go on to be published.  But a journal is perhaps the truest of our writing about ourselves.  It lays bare our darkest thoughts, our bitterest comments, our silliest fantasies.

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I have kept a diary for as long as I can remember.  Sometimes diligently, sometimes sporadically.  There have been times, in recent years, where I have made only a handful of entries.  I love buying that new notebook for the year, love the potential of those blank pages.  My younger diaries faithfully recorded the events of each day, as well as hopes and dreams and lists of things I wanted to do in the future.  My more recent journals are less concerned with transcribing events, and more about my view of life as it happens.

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Sometimes, I find my journals disappointing.  Filled with uneventful days and things not achieved.  Sometimes, they delight me, with the quality of the writing or memories I had forgotten.  Diaries are a record of life, so whether they disappoint or delight is dependent on how that year was lived.  Recently, I tried to re-read my teenage diaries but had to give up, because I cringed at the things I had documented.  Yet the person who wrote those diaries is the person I used to be.  If I wrote my life story, I could edit out the bits I no longer wanted to read.  With a diary, I can’t do that – I must accept myself as I was.  In this past year, blogging has become a journal of sorts.  There must be a temptation for some to publish online all the thoughts they might once have written in a diary – I’m glad that temptation didn’t exist when I recorded the immature concerns of my younger self.

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There are as many kinds of journals as there are reasons for writing them.  This year, I have taken a different approach to journaling.  I began just after Halloween, at the turn of the ancient year.  This year, I am not diarising my life, but my creativity, focussing on the cycles of nature and how these influence the way I create.  The events of my life will come into it, of course, like the times of stress that curtail inspiration, or those joyful creative maelstroms.  Already, I am more aware of the patterns of my creativity and am clearer about my creative goals.  The pages of this diary are not filled with hope, but with certainty that the stories not yet written and the pictures not yet painted will be born before another journal is complete.

Re-connection

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January has been a month of dis-connection.  I’ve felt detached from the season and disengaged from the creative spark.  Though I’ve produced work and developed new ideas, my creativity has lacked enthusiasm.  January has been a drab month.  The sodden ground, patches of mud and still-rotting leaves make the world reminiscent of the morning after a party, the sad leavings after the festivities of Yuletide are long forgotten.

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Last year, January was dominated by snow, before rain and gales ushered in Candlemas.  This year there has been mud.  Not the crisp, quiet winter days I hoped for.  Nor the glitter of frost on the ground.  Just mud.  January has been the wettest on record in some parts of the country and areas in the south have been flooded for weeks.  The rain and gales have arrived once more to herald the new season, but there have been few lovely winter days to precede them.

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Walking the dog in the hours before dawn, I’ve experienced the best of January.   At this time, the world is silent, except for the racket of the blackbird, whose voice is amplified in the darkness.  The sky is a glowing royal blue, the stars and planets still visible.  It’s a time of potential, when the thick darkness hides imperfections and the day might go any way it pleases.

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But there have been other moments of connection.  A Monday morning walk, hinting at spring.  The air is cold but radiant with sunshine.  I hear the grating call of the magpie, a robin trilling on the path ahead of me, the high pitched cries of Little Gulls.  I watch the clumsy shuttle of a Moorhen and mallards floating leisurely or curled among the reeds.  It’s a peaceful, sleepy day holding the promise of what is to come.  And then, a Friday morning, the most beautiful sunrise of the year so far:  mackerel clouds lit with bright swathes of colour.  And then, walking in the drizzle, under a misty sun, listening to the hollow patter of rain on the trees.  And then…

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Re-connecting with nature at this time of year is about paying thoughtful attention, looking closely to see buds on the trees, plant stems studded with tiny new leaves, shoots among the mud.  It’s seeing the signs of spring in the drear of winter, like the husk of a nest in the skeleton of a tree.  It’s having patience and sensing the beauty that exists beneath the mud.

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Candlemas begins at sunset tomorrow, when we emerge from the cocoon of winter and re-connect with the living earth growing beneath us.  Witches commonly call this festival Imbolc, an old Celtic word thought to mean ‘in the belly’, but I’ve always found the Christian term of Candlemas more evocative.  The name derives from it being the day in the year when all the church’s candles were blessed.  And here too is a connection, in the recognition of the importance of the return of the light.

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Re-connection is also about re-dedication.  Candlemas is a festival for initiation and re-dedicating yourself to your chosen path.  All of the festivals are a way of re-connecting.  We might forget in our daily lives, but these days are points on the calendar to remind us.

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This month, I’ve written two new stories, but I’ve also re-connected with some that were forgotten.  Stories that began months or years ago.  Some are just a couple of sentences, others a few pages.  Left neglected, either because I couldn’t see a way through them at the time, or because other projects took over.  One of the joys of writing is to return to something you’ve written and be surprised by how good it is.  Each of these stories has potential.  The ideas for where they will go and how they will end are already re-igniting my enthusiasm.  Candlemas leads us into the incubating time, when we plant the seeds of the ideas we honed after the winter solstice and plan how we will nurture them.  The fragments of the stories I’ve rediscovered are some of the seeds I’ve sown.

The creative maelstrom

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Often, without warning, my dog bolts around the house at great speed for seemingly no good reason.  It’s a different type of motion to the playful, leaping run when he’s outside on a walk.  This is a frenzied sprint, ears back with the force of his speed.  He’ll tear back and forth along the hallway, or invent his own circuit, over sofas, under coffee tables, onto chairs, as we watch, wincing, fearful that he’ll crash into something. It’s a frenzy, but it appears to be an exhilarating, joyful outburst that he relishes.  Then, it’s over.

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As 2013 came to an end, I felt something like my dog must in one of those moments.  It was as though the gales that have battered us on and off for the last couple of weeks had given birth to a storm of inspiration and creative energy.  In the last ten days of the year I wrote two short stories, entered two competitions, created five pages for my blog, wrote two blog posts, completed a painting, defined my creative goals for the year and incubated ideas for three new stories.  In the midst of my own creations, I devoured the creations of others: movies, books, music, diaries.  The first few weeks in December were a fallow period for me.  As usual, I didn’t worry about that, and this was my reward – a creative maelstrom.

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I love periods like these.  The level of creativity I experienced isn’t commonplace.  It may happen only a few times a year as strongly as this and that’s probably just as well, as I couldn’t sustain it all year round.  Because as well as the joy of it, there’s also a kind of insanity.  My mind jumps from one thing to another – composing a story in my head while trying to read, pausing to write something in my notebook, turning on the laptop to capture something.  Just as my dog tears around the house – fast, focused, steely – so my creative brain is engaged.  I don’t want to sleep, because I want to do more.  I’ve written and I’ve painted but I still want to cram in a movie and some reading before bed.

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I reaped the rewards of the fertile darkness, when I embraced the dark weeks after Halloween to conjure my dreams.  Those dreams were born from the midwinter solstice and the midwinter storms.  Like the act of birth itself – messy, painful, joyous, chaotic – so my dreams for the year have been born and started making themselves felt, like babies screaming for sustenance.  The maelstrom is difficult to resist or to retreat from.  And I don’t want to retreat – I’d happily drown in it.  The only way to approach it is to surrender to the current until eventually it subsides, as it will.  Because just as there will always be another fallow period, there will always be another maelstrom.  Dizzying, wonderful, fast, frenzied and productive, but fleeting.

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And then, just before the year ticked over into the new one, the storm abated.  New Year’s Day brought a new moon, usually a time for optimism and new projects, but for me, new moons are often challenging.  I was left restless, the excitement of creation gone and a feeling of emptiness in its place.  But this is another lesson in how to use those cycles of creativity – the harder work is what to do with the fruits of the maelstrom once it’s over.

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I write this with a black eye and half my face swollen to twice it’s normal size, mouth drooping in the way it did when I had Bell’s palsy as a child.  This isn’t the result of a new year punch-up, but of a rare reaction to something much more prosaic –  a root canal.  I’ve begun 2014 confined to the house, loaded with painkillers and dodging pain.  It hasn’t been conducive to creativity.  But perhaps it has been a necessary counterpoint to the maelstrom that ended the last year, a period of enforced rest that will help me to hone the ideas that came up in the storm more effectively.

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There are only four weeks remaining of the time I think of as the honing period, that space between the solstice and Candlemas (Imbolc), when the first signs of spring tentatively appear.  It’s the time when I will take hold of all those birthed ideas and refine them, so that when it comes to Candlemas, I can plan their fruition.  How you hone is in the way that is best for you.  For me it involves pondering, making lists, writing about them.  But as with all magic, it’s about how you keep the intention within you.  So, as I go on my winter walks, I’ll be looking for keepsakes that will remind me of each goal, like the sprig of ash seeds blown from the trees in the storms, objects that I can charge at Imbolc to keep these goals always in my mind.

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Storms still rage around me.  Large parts of the UK are flooded and all around is a flurry of new intentions.  You have to go with the tempest when it strikes, but it’s not only how you weather the storm that counts.  Always keep a little focus in the back of your mind, so that when it’s over, you’ve saved the treasures, not just the wreckage.