Growing

Flowers are like ideas; they bloom when we aren’t watching. All of a sudden, they are there, where they weren’t before, sometimes just a fragile shoot, sometimes a flower fully unfurled. I wonder if it would be possible to witness a flower’s birth. If I had the time and the patience to gaze at a patch of ground, would I see the moment the shoot broke the soil? Perhaps this is one of nature’s private things, slow and hidden to allow the magic to get in. Like the idea that has germinated slowly in the soil of the imagination, but is suddenly there when you need it.

Quite suddenly, the rafts of vivid dandelions have become clocks. The road to the dene has sprouted clouds of cow parsley, peppered with dandelions and a little Herb Robert. The hawthorn unfolds bashfully, most blooms no more than ivory beads, but some boughs offering thick white blossom in contrast to the parsley’s lace. Pinpricks of purple from green alkanet brighten the gloom of the undergrowth, while stinging nettle and white dead nettle line the border between path and hedgerow.

In the upper dene blossom season is in full flow: rowans, service trees and cherries illuminate the banks of the burn. A few patches of bluebells sprout at the base of a sycamore. The stream trickles gently in places but is dry in others. Patches of meadow have been left to grow when the grass has been cut; abstract collections of dandelion, groundsel, ribwort plantain and wild grasses. An old tree stump, with gnarled silver bark rests on the edge of a circular patch of meadow, like a seat waiting for a storyteller. It has become one of those enchanted places in the landscape where anything might happen. From that perch perhaps I could witness the meadow grow.

The burn is crowded with bullrush spears and marsh marigolds. The small pond is green with weed and bulrush. As we cross the bridge to the main pond, past its goat willow guardian, we walk through a drift of down. The water birds are all in hiding. A small flock of feral pigeons pecks around the shore. A wood pigeon forages in a patch of dandelion clocks. Sparrows flutter and chatter between bushes and reeds. There is an orchestra of birdsong. I recognise the blackbirds, the robins, the chiff chaff and tits, but the rest is lost in a sweet cacophony. We sit by the pond for a while, shaded by the weeping willows, listening, watching the sparrows dance. I wonder how many ideas have been planted at the edge of this pond, ideas that will stay hidden until their time is ripe.

When my world is small and I stay close to home, ideas come slowly. Without input, they fail to germinate. Without those many small interactions with the world, the spark doesn’t catch. Movement releases them. Not only these walks in nature, but the casual stroll across the park to work, the view out onto gull-crowded roofs, the bus ride past fields and hedgerows, the dawn walk along the shore. We aren’t at normal yet. Restrictions are lifting, but the cases in our town are rising again. I have had both vaccinations, but I am cautious. My world is still smaller, but it is slowly expanding.

We leave the dene through an arch of blossoming cherries. The trees are noisy with the hiss of starlings. The birds hop from branch to branch, some preening wet feathers of blue, green and purple. For a while their chatter fills the air, until we turn for home and their noise fades. We pass a lone blackbird, perched at the top of a fence. The starlings’ song speaks of careless exuberance, whereas the blackbird seems to be singing for his life. With spring comes movement, both sprightly and serious. Already, the sparks begin to catch. I can’t see it, but the magic is happening, my mind is sprouting ideas.

Gathering

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October is the pause between breaths.  That still space where awareness will enter if you let it.  The harvest is in, but a few weeks remain until the celebration of the year’s end at Halloween.  October brings a taste of the darkness to come.  Mornings are haloes of misty light and frosted breaths in navy darkness.  But the days dawn brightly, reminding us that we haven’t yet reached the point of no return, that journey into the underworld where we’ll stay until the winter solstice.

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October is a skein of geese rising and falling like musical notes on a page as they come in to land for the night.  It’s a sandstorm whipping across an empty beach.  A windfall of sweet chestnuts, bursting from spiny cocoons.  Opulent berries studding leafless branches.

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I find myself in an acquisitive state of mind.  Not for things but for ideas.  Gathering.  Reading half a dozen books at once, dipping in and out as the mood takes me.  My reading is eclectic: trees, prehistory, festivals, bees.   I make notes, I underline, I follow a line of enquiry into something else.  At some point all this information I’ve gathered will shape itself into my dreams and passions for the coming year.

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When we consider our ancient ancestors, there’s usually an emphasis on hunting as the means to survival.  In fact, gathering is likely to have been just as important, if not more so, in keeping them alive.  Foraging for fruit, seeds and other resources supplemented their diet and was the only means of sustenance when no meat was available.  As a writer, there’s a time to ‘hunt’ a particular quarry for a specific purpose.  But, for me, now is the time to ‘gather’.  It’s in this way that I make new discoveries and forge new connections.  The purpose is never clear when I begin, but will eventually become so.

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And then, sweet serendipity.  A particular idea or theme will keep occurring.  I’ll read a book on a subject and suddenly that subject is everywhere.  Ideas that have always resonated suddenly gain new meaning.  Already, I’m beginning to notice things that may become themes for the coming year.  The pause before the year ends and I embrace introspection is an appropriate time to soak up ideas from around me that will take shape in the darkness.   And in the depths of midwinter, the pattern for a new year will be born.

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.

The idea of a journey

In the movie ‘It’s a wonderful life’, George Bailey says that the three most exciting sounds in the world are ‘anchor chains, plane motors and train whistles’. I agree completely with George’s sentiments and, although ultimately it’s an uplifting movie about being grateful for the life you have, I’m always struck by the tragedy that George is destined never to leave Bedford Falls.

George spent years growing the idea of a journey in his imagination: he read leaflets about interesting jobs in exotic locations and had picked out in his mind just the type of suitcase he’d want to take with him. But it was only the idea of a journey, without all the detail that would bring it to life. And in the end, the journey that George took was of a very different kind: into what life would have been like without him.

Close to my home, there’s a working river and international port. Every evening at the same time, I can walk to the end of my street and watch an enormous passenger ferry sailing by, as though levitating across the end of the road. Often, the air is filled with the hoot and buzz of ship’s horns, sounds that always make me long to be on the sea. Often, we visit the port to watch the ships berthed there. I never imagined that the world was filled with so many unique designs of ship: the sleek passenger ferries and cruise ships; the sturdy pilot and tugboats; the flat cargo ships piled with rusting containers; and the futuristic sub-sea construction vessels. I’ve taken to researching those that are particularly strange in appearance, to discover their purpose. Sometimes, I’ll look up lists of expected shipping: Sapphire Ace, Star Comet, Havla Phoenix, Pleiades Spirit, Ice Crystal – these are just some of the evocative names of ships shortly to arrive.

All journeys begin with an idea, but all journeys are a trip into the unknown. Even the short trips we take every day can become filled with unexpected events. I didn’t travel abroad until I was 21. Before I ever left the country, I yearned for travel, devouring travel programmes, collecting travel books and studying brochures. I planned trips and developed many ideas of journeys, just as George did. But they are only ever ideas of a journey – often seen from someone else’s perspective.

On the first trip I took, to Italy, I could never have imagined the reality of the journey, both good and bad. I couldn’t have predicted the coach breaking down in the Swiss Alps and the motion sickness I was stuck with long after the journey. Nor could I have anticipated the emotional reaction I had to the wonders of Rome, when I’d always imagined it was too familiar from TV and movies to inspire me with any kind of awe. But then that’s the wonder of a journey – you look forward to it because you think you know where you’re going, but the real excitement is that you don’t know at all.

For me, the idea of a journey is glamorous, exciting, full of anticipation and wonder; but there is also a touch of fear and the sense that I don’t want to leave the familiar environment of home. Often, once the trip is booked, I have a reluctance to discuss it and make any kind of preparations. This, I think, is because of the ambiguity I sometimes feel about the journey: longing to go, yet not wanting to go at all. The idea of the journey is much more comfortable than the journey itself.

Starting a story is similar to starting a journey. It’s still the idea of something, but you can’t imagine the ways it will develop on the way. There’s the same sense of excitement, of thinking that anything is possible. And there is also the trepidation – the fear that the words won’t come, that you won’t be able create the vision you’ve shaped in your mind. You may have a plot or characters, or both, but there’s always some part of the story that’s out of your control.

I never believed those authors who said that their characters did unexpected things, as though they were alive and decided to do the opposite of what their creator had planned. How could it be possible that something you’d created yourself was outside of your control? But then my own characters began to do things that were unexpected. My plots meandered off in surprising ways. And most startling of all, was that these unforeseen changes seemed to make the stories come together, as though they’d always been meant to be that way.

So you begin to write as you begin a journey: starting with an idea, which is an idea of how the story might go. But part of the frustration and part of the excitement of writing, is where the journey eventually takes you and what happens along the way.

Does the idea of starting a journey inspire you? Have your characters taken on a life of their own to change the direction of your story?