Shifting

It shouldn’t be this hot.  The view is grey.  A fret rolls off the sea.  The piers are  blurry in the mist.  The sun is at my right shoulder, a bright disc among grey clouds.  It shouldn’t be hot, but the humidity is unbearable.  It shouldn’t be bright, but the sun lasers through the clouds to pick out highlights on the water.  In the empty space between the piers I see mirages, columns of white that might be the sails of ships or distant lighthouses.

The tide is in.  Children play on a narrow slice of beach.  Gulls float on the calm water and huddle on what is visible of the notorious black midden rocks.  The massive autoliner carrying cars passes as we arrive and small fishing boats trundle past.  We sit on a bench overlooking the sea, my wife and I.  It is our anniversary, 25 years since we got together and we’re having a celebratory lunch of fish and chips.  25 years seems an unbelievably long time.  If we have been together that long then surely we must be old.  But we aren’t yet.  Not quite.

Even when you feel that there is no movement, the years steam on, until you wonder how you got here so quickly.  Something has shifted in the last fortnight.  I’m moving again.  Perhaps it was our short journey south through fields of gold.  Perhaps it is the shift in the air that follows.  Dark grey clouds gather like a dome.  Winds whip up and rain comes.  But in the end storm Ellen only caresses us.  In the dene it still seems like summer.  The burn is only a trickle, the cascades choked with weed.  A flock of mallards faces off against a flock of moorhens on the pond.

The police helicopter is hovering, its attention focused somewhere north of here.  I’ve spent a lot of time this year like that helicopter, stalled and searching for something to focus on.  But what has often felt like drifting aimlessly has in fact been an absence of the old ‘to do’ lists and wishing time away.  As the world re-opens and structure returns, I’ve been reluctant to embrace the way it was before.

So I shift slowly.  I start to edit my manuscript.  I use my sketch of a woman and cello to create a painting.  I submit some short stories.  It’s a trickle rather than a flood, just like the burn, but it’s a beginning.  The helicopter still hovers, but three swallows are closer.  Like tiny spitfires swooping over the grass.  There is a hint of yellow in the linden trees.  Rosehips and blackberries fatten in the hedgerows.  These swallows are the last of summer, propelling me forward as the seasons turn.

Line and colour

I watched the cherry blossom bloom and fall.  Then came the May blossom, until it too faded.  Dandelion petals shrivelled and became clocks.  The grass, uncut, flowered into lilac ripples.  Clumps of cow parsley unfurled and frothed.  It has rained only once in weeks of hot, dry days.  Plants yellow and crisp.  Leaves are seared from the trees.  Nature shows that time is passing, but there is little else to mark the passage of the season.  A sprained knee has kept me close to home and each day feels much the same.  Days blend into weeks.  The solstice is only a month away.  I’ve found I haven’t much to say.

I have moved from words to vision.  From letter to line.  I painted the songbirds that were my jewels of hope among the thorns of winter.  I drew life models along with thousands of other people through the BBC and had my sketch of a woman with a cello mentioned on the programme!  I imagined a version of ‘home’ in response to a theme on Grayson Perry’s Art Club.  I painted a portrait of Rankin with scores of others through Sky TV.  Now, I am painting illustrations for poems.  I have had nothing to say in words, but my creativity has flowed out in pencil and paint.

When I draw I try not to pursue perfection.  Too often when I want something to be good, it strips away the enjoyment, or stops me from doing it at all.  But there has been no higher purpose to my painting.  There has been just me, sat at the table with a drawing board, overlooking the yard, following lines and colours.   It doesn’t matter if they’re good pictures.  They weren’t made to hang on a wall.  Nor do they have any great meaning.  They are just shapes on paper or canvas that record, if anything, a slice of contentment in my day.

There is a movement towards recovery.  Lockdown is shifting.  We are allowed to go outside all we wish now.  There are dates for the re-opening of schools, shops and, eventually, libraries.  There are more cars on the road.  The grass has been mown in the park.  But mostly, movement is elsewhere.  It is not here, at my dining table, where I work and I paint.  It isn’t out there, where the washing sways in the sun and the plants could do with some water.  The children’s playground is still padlocked and tangled with weeds.  There are still queues to get in the supermarkets.  I’m not ready yet to leave this bubble.  I’ll stay here for as long as I can, in this place where creativity can flourish at its own pace.  

Meanwhile

Suddenly there are leaves.  Tissues of green illuminated by the afternoon light.  Dabs of lime like fireflies strung across dark branches.  Suddenly there are lacy florets waving from boughs of ash.  Spindly posies springing from maple twigs.  And suddenly there is blossom, wanton wild cherry blossom.  The trees have come to life and suddenly we will forget that they were ever bare.

There is a space in the town centre that was once a small bank.  Now, its empty rooms host abstract paintings and strange installations.  In the old, walk-in safe, a video plays of a buoy silently blinking Morse code over a dark sea.  Upstairs, artists work in makeshift studios.  Sometime in the future this will become a shop or a bank once more.  For now, it is known as a ‘meanwhile space’.  It is a pause between two existences: what it was and what it will become.  And in the meanwhile, it is a crucible for creation.

Lockdown is a ‘meanwhile space’.  A time between what we were and what we might become.  Our eyes have been opened to mountain vistas and clear waters, to clean air and wild animals roaming empty streets.  Amid the fear, uncertainty and boredom, many people are using this as ‘meanwhile’ time.  A time to do things they wouldn’t usually have time to do, or to prepare themselves for who they want to be when this is over.  We are baking, dancing, singing, writing.  We are learning and making art.  We have glimpsed the magic of what could be normal if we were to act as though we are a part of the world and not above it.

The physical world has shrunk again.  All the car parks have been closed along the coast to prevent people going there.  Life is something that happens nearby.  The life of my street is more important than ever before.  I pay closer attention to the Herb Robert flowering between the cracks in a neighbour’s path, the tiny hearts of shepherd’s purse in the gutters, the ivy leaved toadflax and dandelions growing out of walls.  The colony of sparrows on our street makes rowdy music as they flutter from the privet at the end of the lane, from roof to roof, all along the road.  Gulls glide over, wings lit up by the sun.  I can hear the crows’ soft caw as an undertone.  And in the night, foxes slink along the middle of the road.

Under the cherry trees in the park, bees hum and blue tits chitter.  The sun blazes white through white.  I sit against a gnarled trunk and feel the levity of the blossom.  The trees are parasols of light, voluptuous with snowy flowers.   It won’t last long, this perfect flowering, when the green of bud gives way to the burst of white.  After only a week there will be a tinge of brown to the blooms.  The ground is already littered with fallen blossom.

The grass hasn’t had its first cut of the season yet.  It is a shaggy hearth rug, patterned with daisies and dandelions.  Clumps of grass grow long and yellow at the tips.  There are whorls of cow parsley and tiny tree saplings that wouldn’t normally have had the chance to grow.  I watch my world from beneath the cherry blossom.  A recent poll showed that only 9% of Britons want to go back to ‘normal’ when this is over.  And yet we haven’t left the world behind, we have only left the way we normally behave in it.  I want to grasp this time, to wring from it anything that is extraordinary.  I want to be changed by it.  But meanwhile, there is cherry blossom and birdsong and the certainty of spring.

The slow work of the soul

August is a month of waiting.   Not the desperate waiting of winter, when you can no longer stand the darkness, but the sweet longing for something anticipated to come.  I look at the calendar and am always surprised that the month isn’t yet over.  There are days in August that seem poised on the edge of time.  Perfect days, like this one, when the sun is hazy and still low in the sky, giving a blurred luminosity to the light.  A day when the earth seems to be holding its breath.  When I feel myself expand out into the silence and every step is like a sigh.

The dene belongs to the birds: gulls, magpies and wood pigeons.  Mallards are motionless on the pond and a blackbird takes a leisurely bath.  A rat dodges two moorhens to reach the undergrowth and a grey wagtail bobs on a rock.  At the marina, the river reflects the hazy light so the world doesn’t feel quite solid.  Swallows chitter and swoop above my head while arctic terns scream.  I watch a gull pluck a crab from the water and devour it as a youngster looks on, crying for its share of the feast.

These are the dog days of summer.  When the hedgerows are lit by the purple and yellow beacons of wild parsnips, melilot, willowherbs and thistles and it seems that autumn may never come.  It is the month when the birds turn silent while they moult, adding to its sense of stillness.  I remind myself to listen for the exact day that their songs cease, but of course it is only afterwards that I notice I haven’t heard the chatter of the sparrows and the goldfinches for days.

Autumn is breathing on the neck of summer.  Already the festival of the first harvest has taken place and the spirit of the sun is captured safely within the corn.  The goldfinches have re-appeared and starlings gather on the chimney pots.  But August lingers and I yearn for autumn’s respite.

Lately I have been feeling the speed of the world.  I’m young enough to have used computers for two thirds of my life; old enough to remember when shops closed on Sundays, when letters were written by hand to far-flung penfriends, when, if you needed information, you had no choice but to visit a library.  Lately, the world often seems ‘too much’ and I long to return to what I remember as a slower time.

British artist Chris Ofili recently unveiled a tapestry The Caged Bird’s Song at the National Gallery.  I watch a documentary about its construction.  Four weavers laboured by hand for nearly three years to create it, unable to see whether they had captured the final image accurately until they had finished and the tapestry was unrolled.  The artist commented that he thought there was something about the slowness of the work that meant the soul of the weavers was woven into it.  I marvelled at their monumental patience and faith.  No wonder that over that period of time, so immersed in colour, line and thread, the soul would seep in.

I lack the kind of patience displayed by those weavers.    And yet, my writing has always taken its time.  Sometimes a story arrives fully formed, but more often it needs to gestate.  The words need to be chosen carefully and woven in the same way as a tapestry, with infinite patience and without knowing what it will look like at the end.  If you live with a story for a long time, your life is woven through it.  The story is who you are now and who you were then.   Some stories are those of an instant, completely of their time.  Others have lingered and breathed with you, absorbing experience and memory and more than a little of your soul along the way.  Creativity may be sparked in a moment, but to birth it is the slow work of the soul.

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.

When your creativity has other plans

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Do you have a vision of the type of writer or artist you wish to be?  Perhaps you’re confident that you’ve found your voice and all of your work flows from that certainty.  Or maybe you’re still wrestling with the kind of work you want to produce.

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I’ve always loved horror novels and for years I struggled with whether I should write horror or something more general.  It’s not that I think a writer can’t do more than one thing, simply that it takes so much energy and persistence to write a novel that, for me, it wouldn’t have been practical to do both.  In the end, I did write a horror novel of sorts, but I placed the manuscript in my creative bottom drawer and I have no intention of doing anything with it.  I love to read horror and to watch horror movies, but in terms of writing it, I don’t think that’s where my calling lies. Instead, I write stories that don’t fall into a genre, but always contain a touch of mystery or magic, and that fits perfectly with my vision of myself as a writer.

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What I’m less certain of, is my vision of myself as an artist.  For the past few months, I’ve painted portraits – some of animals, some of humans.  I have form.  When I was a child I drew endless portraits.  When people visited or we visited them, there I’d be with my pencil and sketch pad, drawing them.  But in my head, I’ve never wanted to be a portrait painter.   In my head, I’m a landscape painter.  I’m inspired by trees, the sea, the wild places.  In my head, I see visions of the landscapes I will paint.  Yet of all the paintings I’ve completed this year, most have been portraits.  I don’t want to paint portraits, but I can’t seem to stop myself. Everywhere I turn there are portraits: televised competitions, magazine articles – it’s as though my creativity is conspiring against me.

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It’s not that there’s anything wrong with portraits.  I can be just as excited about beginning a portrait as a landscape.  Yet there is something about a place that inspires me more than the human form.  Even in my writing, that sense of place is key and it is often the setting, rather than the characters, that first sparks the story.

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So what do you do when your creativity seems to be leading you in an opposite direction to the path you want to take?  Do you listen, or do you fight against it?  I strongly believe that life sends us messages.  When something seems to be everywhere you turn, it’s because that’s where you need to be right now.  It wasn’t until I’d written my horror novel that I finally decided that wasn’t the path I was going to take and I felt confident in where I was going with my writing.  So perhaps this flirtation with portraits is just a step on the road to finding my real voice as a landscape painter.  Perhaps I’ll find that portraits are where my voice lies after all.  Or maybe there’ll be space to do both.  Either way, the messages are too strong to ignore, so, until they tell me otherwise, I’ll continue to find inspiration in the faces that sit before me.

The fertile dark

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Though we’re not yet in the depths of winter, I can already feel the encroaching darkness.  I walk the dog in deep blue mornings, lit by the just-waning moon.  It’s already dark when I get home from work.  Even at the zenith of the day, the light is weaker, less distinct.  And yet the trees are now in full blaze, as though attempting to ward off the darkness with their colours for as long as possible.  The path is a mulch of luminous sycamore leaves.  It rains leaves as we walk.

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On Tuesday we had our first snow of the season.  Tiny, gossamer spots at first, that amounted to nothing.  Then, a blizzard of fat, stinging flakes that coated the ground.  An hour later, the sun appeared and it was as though the snow storm had never happened.

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As the nights lengthen, we move into what I believe is the most fertile time of year for creativity.  Darkness, for me, is comforting, electric, expectant.  I love the dark hours of the night, when the world is tinged cold blue and silence prevails.  It’s the time when anything can happen.  It’s the time when, if you’re struggling with fear or worry, your imagination can lead you down a desolate path.  But it’s also a time when ideas are wild and whimsical.  Until morning, when the thoughts of the night can seem silly or futile.  My best plans form when darkness has fallen.  So is darkness deceiving, fooling us into false dreams, or is it that we’re most ourselves in the dark, when the distractions of the world are hidden and we can think the things we truly would without its influence?

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The plunge into winter offers months of fruitful darkness.  Like anyone else, I’d prefer to turn over in bed on dark mornings rather than getting up for work.  I’d prefer to walk to and from work in the light.  Yet paradoxically for this introspective season, this is the time when I most desire to walk or visit nature, revelling in the desolation of a wintry coast or skeletal forest.  I feel animated in the dark months, restless to better myself.  This is the season of the hermit, but it’s also the season when if you do go out, your face, body and mind can be scoured clean.  When instead of the sticky, lethargic tiredness of summer, you feel like you’ve earned your apathy.  So I will go out and let myself be purified by the season.  I’ll wrap up warm, but choose somewhere exposed – a beach, a hillside – where the elements will divest me of all my stale ideas.

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Just because this is the dreaming season, this doesn’t mean that you have to stop creating.  My dreaming is about actively gathering ideas and inspiration.  I began this season with a series of darkness meditations.  I doused the lights and meditated with eyes open, confronting the darkness.  Thoughts and images came, which I recorded to use later as inspiration.   I’ll also use this season to stretch my creative legs and experiment: writing exercises, stream of consciousness writing and sketching, paying attention to my actual dreams.  I’ll record my ideas, thoughts and fears uncensored for future use.  I’ll also use the respite of staying indoors to try new skills, focus on my work, think about what I will do in spring.

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This is an ideal season to go on a writers’ or artists’ retreat.  As I can’t do that, I take inspiration from the Hermit and the Four of Swords in the Tarot to remind me that this is a season to hide, to repose, to plough and fertilise the soil of my mind.  I use some of the same principles as I would use in a fallow period – to bask in others’ creativity and simply absorb the world around me.  But I will also deliberately set aside fallow periods: creativity-free days, when I intentionally choose not to focus on creating.

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The dark season is an ideal time to really scrutinise yourself and your practice.  Though I won’t worry about how realistic my dreams are for the moment, in the honing season following winter solstice, I’ll sift and shape them.  That’s when I’ll use the truth of the darkness to plan my direction for the year to come.  And hopefully, I’ll emerge into the light of spring newly focussed and with an arsenal of inspiration to draw on.

A creative year

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At Halloween, the wheel of the year turned.  The energies of the old year waned, to clear the way for a new year with a fresh tide of energy.  There’s no need to wait until 1st January to make new year resolutions.  Instead, you might want to begin now, using the rhythms of the ancient year to plan and complete your creative projects.  Whether we realise it consciously or not, we are attuned to these natural energies and the cycles of the sun.  So it makes sense to plan our year around the hooks of the seasons.  One reason so many new year’s resolutions fail could be that we dive straight into them at a time when we should still be shaping our plans ready for spring.  Using the wheel of the year gives us the necessary prompts to begin our projects with the proper preparation and to give them the right kind of focus at the times that feel appropriate.

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It may seem strange that a year based on cycles of energy should begin when everything is dying.  More appropriate perhaps, to begin in spring, when the earth is vital and fresh energy abounds.  But there can be no spring without a period of rest and preparation and this is what the start of the year is about.   Think of winter as a dreaming time.  The weeks between Halloween and the winter solstice should be still and introspective.  They’re a time to dream, but to dream with purpose.  Don’t fritter away the hushed, dark months.  Use them to visualise what your creative dreams will be this year.  What will you write?  What will you paint? What do you want to harvest when autumn comes again?  This is not a time for realism, but for dreaming your biggest dreams of what your year could be.

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At the winter solstice, the sun and mother nature are reborn and the spark of creativity grows a little brighter.  Daylight slowly begins to lengthen after the longest night.  It may still seem like the dreaming time, but there has been a barely perceptible shift.  Think of this as a honing time.  Begin to shape and sharpen your dreams.  Now is the time to hone those visions into goals and projects you’re confident you can put into practice.

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At Candlemas, the first small signs of spring begin to appear.  It’s a depressing time for many, with the distractions of yuletide over and the days still cold and dark.  Spring still feels far away.  I think of this as the incubating time.  You’ve honed your ideas and now it’s time to sow the seeds of the year’s projects and plan how you’ll nurture them.  As the seeds start to germinate in the slowly warming ground, begin to gather the materials and tools you will need and decide what action you will take to put your plans into practice.

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Spring equinox heralds the growing time.  Now is the time for action.  You should be able to see and feel the signs of spring.  Though the weather is unsettled and the winds blow, they bring with them a point of balance followed by fresh energy.  After the equinox, the days will be longer than the nights.  Your spirit should feel lighter and ready for action.  It’s time to focus and put all your energy into making the projects you’ve dreamed about happen.

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By Beltane, you should be seeing real signs of progress.  This is a festival of joy, sensuality, fertility and self-expression.  It’s a time to revel in the act of creation and the effect this has on your senses.  After the preparation of winter and spring, your mind should be fertile with ideas.  Beltane is the beginning of the blooming time, when your projects begin to flourish.  This is also a good time for collaboration with others and communal celebration.

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Summer solstice arrives and the sun is at its height.  This is the longest day and you should be making the most of the warmth and light of summer to help your projects thrive.  This is a time of empowerment, when the time is right to pursue outward success.  You could use this as a period to show or submit your work, or to ensure it’s ready for you to do so.   But don’t forget that after today, the days become shorter.  So the solstice is also a reminder to make the most of what is left of the light, to boost your health and gather energy to prepare you for the winter.

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Lammas is the first harvest and marks the fading of summer.  This is the tide of transformation.  As the sun fades, its spirit is woven into the corn to preserve it through the winter.  Wheat is cut down but is transformed into bread and baked goods to feed us.  You’ve worked hard on your creative projects since the beginning of the year and now is partly a time to recognise the work you’ve done and the sacrifices you’ve made.  But you can still affect what your final harvest will be, so it’s time to reflect on what still needs to be done to achieve your goals.

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Autumn equinox leads us into balance once more, but this time darkness will begin to take over.  This is a time of storms and tension, as we accept that the light is dying and darkness coming.  We now turn inwards.  This is the harvesting tide, when you have your reckoning.  Have you achieved all of the things you wanted to achieve this year?  What could you have done differently to gather the harvest you would have wished for?  Whatever the outcome, you should make time to celebrate your successes and begin to consider the seeds you will sow next year.

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Finally, we return to Halloween, when we honour our ancestors, including the artists and writers who have gone before and inspired us.  We also try to divine the future and create a little mischief before retreating back into the dreaming time.  So if you think using the wheel of the year could work for you, it’s time to begin.  Don’t be downhearted by the encroaching darkness.  Instead, use it as an opportunity to dream bigger than you’ve ever dreamed before.

Click on the links for more information about the themes of each festival and look out for upcoming posts that will explore these ideas in more detail. 

(If you live in the southern hemisphere, the year may make more sense to you if you begin at Beltane.)

The first time

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Do you remember what it’s like to experience the world for the first time?  As writers and artists, it’s our job to help people to see the world in a different way.  At our best, we throw light on a part of experience that wows someone, gives them a moment of epiphany, encourages them to appreciate the beauty (or sometimes the ugliness) of the world in a way they’ve never experienced it.  We seek ways to describe things as they have never been described before.  We pay attention to the look, feel, taste and sound of things in a way that others don’t.  But as we go about our daily lives, how often do we view the world as though it’s our first time?

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Recently, my one-year-old dog met a horse for the first time.  I can only imagine what he thought as this enormous, strange-looking creature walked towards him.  As they first made contact, they sniffed one another gently, as though there was nothing curious about the situation.  Perhaps my dog thought it was just another kind of canine that he’d never come across before.  Or maybe there was something in the smell of the horse that made him realise this was something else altogether.  How would you describe a horse if it was something you never knew existed before you met one?  Would you explore it, as my dog did, with sight, smell, touch, until you had a concept of the animal in your mind?  How would you then put your experience into words, or describe it on canvas?

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Recently, my dog paddled in the sea for the first time.  He walked reluctantly into the water, lifting his legs awkwardly as he experienced the soft sand beneath his feet and the gentle pull of the tide.  He stood very still, not quite sure what to do now he was in the water and, despite encouragement, he certainly didn’t want to go any deeper.  Water has always been part of his life, but usually contained within a drinking bowl.  I wonder what he made of this water that went on as far as he could see and strangely, tasted nothing like the water he was used to drinking.  What would you do if you walked into the sea for the first time, never knowing it existed before you were in it?  Would you stand still, as my dog did, surveying the scene and exploring it by smell and taste until you could begin to understand what it might be?

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Recently, my dog travelled on a bus for the first time.  He climbed onto this odd-looking vehicle, that perhaps seemed just like a big room loaded with people, and it began to move.  When he climbed off, he was in a completely different place to where he’d begun, despite not walking anywhere.  How would you describe travelling on a bus, a metro, in a car, having never experienced it before?  How would you begin to understand the concept that it’s possible to travel from one place to another with no effort?

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Recently, my dog experienced thunder for the first time.  A huge storm rolled in, with mammoth claps of thunder immediately over the house.  He was unbothered by it, took it in his stride.  But I wonder what he must have been thinking about this enormous noise coming out of nowhere.  What if you didn’t know that thunder existed?  What stories would you invent to account for the phenomenon?  Would you be afraid, transfixed, awed?

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We forget what it’s like to experience things for the first time.  Life goes on and despite the odd chink of beauty, it’s easy to forget how mysterious and wonderful the world is.  To experience the power of a thunderstorm and not know what it is.  To meet a new creature for the first time.  To experience the limitless water of the sea, which is so different to the tamed water that comes out of the tap.  To start in one place and end up in another, without using your feet.  The world must be a baffling, astonishing place for my dog.  And if we want to be truly great at writing, at art, we must hold onto that sense of mystery, that feeling of awe.  Whether we’re describing the world around us, or describing a character in a certain situation, it can only help us to imagine that we’re seeing it for the first time.   To step back and forget that this is something we’ve seen before, done before and attempt to describe it as though it’s something we don’t know or understand.

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Living with a puppy has made me appreciate the world anew and consider how I begin to look at the way I create, literally, with fresh eyes.  How do you make sure you remember the mystery and wonder of the world as though you were seeing it for the first time?

Lying fallow

I’ve learned not to panic when my creative inspiration is gone.  Once, I would have strained to catch an idea or a wave of thought just to feel that I was creating something.  This is particularly pertinent, I expect, for those of us who have to set aside specific slots of time to create.  If we don’t use those periods productively, then surely they’ve been wasted.  But now, I accept that creativity works in cycles and the times when my creativity is at its most fruitful are punctuated by periods when it appears to be absent.

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Recently, I took a big step to focus on my creativity.  I reduced my hours in my job so that I would have one day a week specifically to spend time on my creative work.  Obviously this meant taking a pay cut, as well as shrinking the time I had available to spend on my job (since it didn’t get any smaller!), so it was a risk, considering I’m not yet a ‘professional’ writer or artist.  But, I saw it as a way to make a real investment in myself.  It was a statement that being creative was something important for me and my life, whether or not it leads anywhere.  This was something I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do at any time previously.  But, now felt like the right time to do it, and so I embarked on my creative Mondays.

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I knew that there would be Mondays that wouldn’t work out the way I envisioned them.  There would be times when I would have to use the day to run errands or complete chores.  There would also, no doubt, be Mondays when I would want to do nothing more than sit all day in my pyjamas and watch television.  But generally, I’ve found those days to be energising and productive.  In the morning, I take the dog for a long walk, perhaps along the river or to the coast.  This helps me to begin the day by absorbing sights, sounds and smells while thinking about nothing except my dog and our walk.  The walk stops me dwelling on worries or ‘to do’ lists and instead, gives me the necessary mind space to focus on my creativity.  Afterwards, I have the energy and motivation to immerse myself fully in writing or painting.

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But there have also been occasions when I have absolutely no creative inspiration to draw on.  After a week of dabbling, feeling moderately inspired, doing a little painting, a little writing, my creative day came and there was nothing there.  I tend to feel these times, not as a ‘block’, but as an absence.  I knew that I wouldn’t create anything that day, but there was no panic, no grasping for ideas.  I don’t view these periods as empty or blocked times, but as fallow periods.  In farming terms, by leaving a field unsown (fallow) for a season, the land is allowed to regenerate itself, to restore the nutrients that have been leached from the soil by overuse.

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This is a helpful way to view a period of ‘creative block’.  Rather than worrying about it, first, accept that there will inevitably be times when you don’t feel inspired.  Don’t force it, but think of it as a fallow period during which your creative fertility is restoring itself.  It may only be a day or a week, or it could, as in my own past experience, be a period of years.  You might find it helpful to think of your creative mind as that empty field.  Perhaps you’ll see it as bare earth, furrowed but unplanted, with mysterious processes taking place beneath the soil that will act as a perfect nursery for new ideas.  Or you might see it as a patch of land gone wild, colonised by beautiful plants that some would see as weeds and others as wildflowers.

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Following acceptance, the second step, for me, in making best use of fallow periods, is to indulge in what I think of as ‘passive creativity’.  So, I will use the time as a period of reflection, preparation and absorption.  What this meant for me this Monday was walking the dog as usual and snapping pictures just because I found them interesting: the wildflowers on the river banks, the fish quay at work, the shells on the beach.  I may use them to spark a painting or a story, or for nothing at all.  I wasn’t concerned about their quality or purpose.  I used them to observe the world around me without any creative agenda.

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Another aspect of passive creativity for me, is to absorb other people’s work – reading a book that I’ve read before, perhaps, watching a documentary about an artist at work.  I don’t believe that reading or enjoying art are always passive activities, but when I’m in a fallow state, this is what I want: something that won’t challenge me to engage with it too much, but will allow me to gently absorb it to help restore my own creative energies.  Another approach might be to do something you think of as completely non-creative, but for me, a different type of creativity is what works.

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‘Creative block’, or ‘writer’s block’, is only a label.  The words themselves sound harsh and unhelpful.  They hide a host of fears about failure and the sustainability of ideas.  Re-framing these times as simply fallow periods takes the stress out of them, evoking a sense of relief, an acceptance that you don’t have to actively chase your creativity all of the time.  It’s fine to leave your creative mind to turn a little unkempt for a while, to simply be receptive to whatever creative energy is out there, and to return, refreshed with a new crop of ideas.