The Great Spring

Natalie Goldberg, one of the greatest writers on freewriting, began as a student of Zen Buddhism.  It involved long hours of sitting meditation, disciplined timekeeping and mundane tasks, all in the spartan environment of the zendo (meditation centre). At the same time, she was beginning to write poetry, inspired by the idea that her own life in all its particularity and ordinariness could be material for poems.

In collaboration with her Zen master, Katagiri Roshi, she developed a way of using writing as her Zen practice.  As with meditation it was timed, she did it in a disciplined way and it honoured her actual life.  Her “writing practice” involved the attempt to capture thought as it occurred in the mind by writing it down for a set period of time without stopping or censoring and then repeating this activity daily.  The practice could have been anything, but because Natalie was a writer this is what she chose.  It was a way of observing the mind with detachment, and it also helped her develop as a writer.

The result of her practice was Writing Down the Bones (1986) a writing guide that has influenced thousands, maybe millions of people in America and across the world to take up writing practice and work with a form of freewriting as a spiritual activity and/or as a way to train as a writer.  Natalie Goldberg’s latest book is a wonderful collection of essays about her writing life and continued practice of Zen called The Great Spring: writing, Zen and this zigzag life.

No matter what you think of Zen, or indeed freewriting, Natalie is a compelling essayist.  Far more concerned with the truth than with selling her ideas, she talks more about failure than success.  The discipline of her practice and the humility and openness fostered by meditation has produced an inimitable style of precision and honesty.

She begins The Great Spring with a succinct expression of her core beliefs and her intentions for the current book: “I have searched through these stories,” she says, “to find answers — if answers are ever possible — about who I am and who I have become […] driven by the practice of Zen and writing”.  This attempt at total clarity was provoked, it seems, from being diagnosed with breast cancer (happily, I believe she is out of danger now) and in true Zen style, the book is made sharper and rawer by an awareness of mortality: “we are here,” she writes, “but not forever”.

From the Zen monastic tradition, Natalie has derived three important principles that have kept her going through a “long writing life”:

  1. Continue under all circumstances.  No excuses.
  2. Don’t be tossed away. If your kid falls and needs stitches, write in the waiting room. […]
  3. Make positive effort for the good. […] Positive effort doesn’t mean hauling a mountain to Iowa. Sometimes it just means getting out of bed and brushing your teeth.

The last of these principles was enormously helpful to me when we were going through a recent family illness and death.  In fact it seems to help in any situation.

And from Jack Kerouac she cites four principles for writers:

  • Accept loss forever
  • Be submissive to everything, open, listening.
  • No fear or shame in the dignity of your experience, language or knowledge.
  • Be in love with your life.

It might seem from this these lists that Natalie is in the business of neat self-help advice based on her own triumphs over adversity but The Great Spring is quite the opposite.  Each chapter wrestles with questions thrown up by broken friendship, the awareness of mortality, conflicts with family, or the problems of being well- (or not so well-) known.  A stand-out essay for me was “On the Shores of Lake Biwa,” which describes a trip to Japan in which all of Natalie’s illusions about the Zen tradition are shattered: no one “likes” Zen or has much time for it and the monasteries are mostly known for harbouring homosexuality.

Some of the best moments in the book are when Natalie struggles without success to solve the Zen riddles called “koans” that are designed to explode the rational mind (the most famous being ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’).  In “Blossom” she is at a Zen retreat and can’t even grasp what koan is being asked.  In the traditional one-to-one with the Zen master, when the student is supposed to try to answer the koan, her master (also a friend) assaults her in a possibly sexual manner.  On the way home when her car breaks down she is recognised by the car mechanics and actually asks them “who am I?”.

The experiences don’t add up but are placed in relation, and tension, with the story of Joseph (a Zen student in the 1970s) who realised that the answer to the supposedly easy koan “How do you manifest your true nature when chanting?” was to simply chant.  But when it came to it, Joseph was overcome by the memory of a teacher from schooldays telling him he was tone deaf and he could only manage to croak a few lines.  His teacher says “pretty good,” because, after all, the aim of the koan is to dismantle the individual’s habitual reliance on the illusion of certainty.  Natalie presents these scenes (her own and the story of Joseph) with brightly-lit pitch-perfect description and searing honesty and offers them to the reader without a resolution.

Instead of an exalted, mountain-top wisdom, the study of Zen and writing practice leads Natalie to experience and re-access in arresting detail her moments of complete disintegration as a person, such as the time when, going through her divorce, she has no option but to allow her parents to see the extent of her despair.  She describes the huarache sandals she wore on a visit to see them and the way her father’s put-down (“what are those, horse hooves?”) was the final straw.  She has a tantrum and leaves immediately.  But when her parents catch up with her on the road, she writes: “I uttered three words: ‘I am lost.’  I had no energy for a cover-up.  Those words came from my core”.  And despite the fact that this was clearly a significant moment for her, there’s no Hollywood ending: her parents are embarrassed and the whole incident ends with banality (“Now can we go eat?” says her father, “I’m starving”).

Natalie explains that, in Zen, “the great spring” is a way of describing enlightenment and that this is a shattering thing involving the hard and painful “acceptance of transiency”.  Paradoxically, writing practice, which is all about observing and recording experience, is her route to letting go and breaking through.  She says that her book is an “invitation to notice […] moments that move us forwards”.

I recommend reading this and all of Natalie’s books; she will inspire and provoke new approaches to both writing and life.  Here are some questions that I believe are thrown up by The Great Spring.  You might try to answer them using writing practice (set a timer, write continuously without reading back, go for the jugular, and be specific).  This is not a woolly, mystical quest.  It’s urgent and stark, because: “we are here, but not forever”.

Questions:

  1. Who am I?
  2. Who have I become through writing/gardening/skiing (fill in whatever you do to seek something beyond yourself).
  3. Is my writing/gardening/skiing a spiritual practice and if not, could it be?
  4. From whom or what have I derived the most important principles for writing and/or life?
  5. What have been the most important turning points in my life and how, precisely, did they feel? What was I wearing/eating/thinking at those moments?

 

Picture credits, public domain:

Kodo Sawaki sitting in zazen meditation

Zendo

 

Posted in freewriting, writing exercises, writing inspiration | 2 Comments

Surrealist novels?

Can you name any Surrealist novels?  I don’t mean books with surreal elements such as magical, illogical or dream-like ideas or events, I mean novels about Surrealism as a movement or depicting Surrealist artists.  No?  That’s because there are very few.

When I conceived the idea of a novel about the mysterious woman at the centre of Breton’s 1929 book Nadja I was quite prepared to find it had already been done, but my research turned up nothing at all.  Great, I thought, I’ll write a Surrealist novel about Nadja.  But is a Surrealist novel simply one in which Surrealists appear or must it be Surrealist in a deeper sense?

In Nadja, Breton attacks the novel as a form of literature, even though the book he’s writing has many things in common with a novel and is often referred to as a novel.  His view (which held sway in the Surrealist group he led) was that the novel was a bourgeois form  of literature and in the service of oppressive conventionality.  The realist novel, which attempts to show life as it is in a faithful reflection of reality, is the absolute opposite of Surrealism’s aim to corrupt and explode normality in every way possible.  In particular, Breton writes in Nadja that he doesn’t like books with “keys”, in other words where characters are recognisably based on real people.

Of course some Surrealists of the early movement did write novels, such as Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant (1924), and Angela Carter, for instance, wrote an incredibly interesting surrealist-influenced novel called The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman in the early 1970s, but I want to talk about two recent Surrealist novels: one published in the 1990s and the other just a couple of years ago, as well as mentioning my own, which has yet to find the right publisher.

Robert Irwin’s The Exquisite Corpse (1995) and China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris (2016) take completely different approaches to the thorny problem of writing about Surrealism in the novel form.

Irwin’s book is squarely in the realist tradition (apart from the final chapter which I’ll mention again later) and gives a wry, ironic account of the British Surrealist group in the late 1930s and beyond.  The main character is Caspar who is not, I think, based on any real person although some figures connected with British Surrealism like Conroy Maddox are mentioned by name, as is the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley.  Caspar is an artist and meets Caroline, a conventional middle-class girl who works as a typist.  Her ordinariness enchants Caspar, who is entirely habituated to his life as a Surrealist (their first meeting occurs when he is conducting a Surrealist experiment by travelling around London blindfolded) and he falls in love.  Caspar’s obsession with Caroline (who finds him faintly ridiculous) structures the novel and he finally suffers a complete mental breakdown, accelerated by his experiments in mesmerism.  Caspar is in Munich as the Nazi threat is rising and some of the novels most original observations are on the way that the Nazi command actually takes Surrealism seriously.

 

The menace of Nazism is also the main feature of China Miéville’s book (which is billed as a novella).  The Last Days of New Paris, in total contrast to Irwin’s The Exquisite Corpse, is a Surrealist narrative in which Surrealism has infiltrated the story itself, but even the Surrealist events and altered reality of Miéville’s book are told using the usual techniques of the realist novel: a chronological tale with character, dialogue, action, back-story and so on.  (In fact it’s an open question as to whether as truly Surrealist novel could still be a novel at all: logical connections and a recognisable reality are surely vital to the novel as a form.)

In The Last Days of New Paris, a young man called Thibault is in Nazi-occupied Paris, in a parallel timeline.  In this Paris, Surrealist imagery has manifested (as “manifs”) meaning that actual incarnations of Surrealist painting, writing and games (from real historical artists and writers) are everywhere.  For instance, an exquisite corpse (a picture created from a paper-folding game like Consequences) made by Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Yves Tanguy in 1938 has manifested as a sort of robot three metres tall and is roaming the streets.  Phenomena such as this have come about because of an accident with a machine that was powered by Surrealist energy and exploded, causing an “S-blast”.

Miéville’s novel is hugely original and exciting but it suffers from a deluge of action sequences which mean there is very little time to grow to care for the central characters (Thibault, and an American photojournalist called Sam who turns out not to be who she says she is).  The part I enjoyed most was the long set of notes at the end in which Miéville details the original Surrealist works of art and writing which, in the story, have become manifest.

In The Last Days of New Paris it turns out that the narrative has come from an eye-witness to the events and that he has told his story to the author (who then supplemented it with more research on Surrealism).  This is metafiction, where a fiction comments on itself as fictitious, and Irwin’s novel does the same: it turns out that the story Caspar writes is a book he has published so that Caroline will find him again (and it works, they are reunited many years later).

My novel Swimming with Tigers also works as metafiction by presenting a novel within a novel.  It’s closer to Irwin than Miéville and recreates the Surrealist group in Paris in the 1930s using composite characters made from real figures (Breton would have hated it!).  My characters see, dream, make, and sometimes even become, versions of works by Alberto Giacometti, Meret Oppenheim, Leonora Carrington, and many others, but I don’t alter reality in the way Miéville (who writes in the fantasy and sci-fi genre) does.

In the earlier stages of writing, I did experiment with allowing Surrealist elements to break through and shatter the realist style.  I experimented with passages in which works of art came to life and so forth, but these were unsuccessful and seemed mannered and artificial.  In the end I staked everything on the ghostly in-between state of the Nadja figure herself.

The novel within the novel is about a woman called Suzanne and appears to tell the true story of Breton’s Nadja by someone who knew her.  The narrator of the frame story, however, suspects that Suzanne might be merely the fictitious creation of the novel-within-a–novel’s author.  I tried very hard to hold these two possibilities in balance and produce a Surrealist double image: not one thing or another, but both.  By mixing the historical figure of Nadja (who some people regard as fictional anyway) with a fictitious history of her I hoped to create a richly ambiguous portrait worthy of this mysterious Surrealist mythic muse.

The challenge of writing a novel about Surrealism, for me, was to neither capitulate to the realist bias of the novel form, nor to end up in the territory of fantasy or science fiction.  After all, Surrealism is not the flight from reality into fantasy; it is the weird and unsettling merging of the real with the unreal.

Do tell me about any other recent novels about Surrealism that you have read: there may be many more that I have missed.  And do let me know what you thought of Irwin’s and Miéville’s stories if you’ve read these too.

 

Posted in publishing, Surrealism | Leave a comment

Hopewell Ink on Radio 3

Instead of a post this month, here’s the link to the Radio 3 programme Exposure featuring my band Hopewell Ink at Neuadd Ogwen in Bethesda, North Wales, broadcast last Thursday.

We are on first, and there’s also a short interview in which I explain how these spoken word and music pieces started off as freewriting exercises.  Hope you enjoy it!

Exposure 29th March

 

 

 

 

If you would like to buy our CD, which is called The Cure for Silence, please go to the Hopewell Ink page here

 

 

Posted in freewriting, original writing | Leave a comment

Hopewell Ink – Exposed!

Since 2013 I’ve been part of a band called Hopewell Ink and we’ve performed in local venues around North Wales.  Hopewell Ink consists of spoken word, and various instruments including drums, harmonium, and slide guitar.  The words are written and performed by me, and the electronic or acoustic music and sounds are created and performed by my partner, David Hopewell.

On Wednesday March 14th BBC Radio 3 are hosting a gig at Neuadd Ogwen in Bethesda and Hopewell Ink will be performing at 8 p.m., followed by two other bands. Link to Neuadd Ogwen The gig will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Thursday March 29th at 11 p.m. on “Exposure” which is a monthly programme that showcases music from different parts of the country.

We perform pieces that range from descriptive landscape poems (such as “Curled Slug and Scaffolding”) to cheerful, almost danceable numbers (like “Hard Heart”).  Some tackle big topics such as what heaven might be like (if it existed), while others are less grand: one is about an annoying, unidentifiable noise.  There are soundscapes of the natural environment and word-portraits of cities, people and daydreams.  We even try to tune in to the whispered words of dead spirits.

There’s a CD in production called “The Cure for Silence” (named after the title track) and we’re hoping that copies will be available on the night, and as downloads at  https://hopewellink.bandcamp.com/album/the-cure-for-silence.

I compose all the words for Hopewell Ink and every piece I’ve worked on has started out as freewriting.  It will have been a ten-minute freewrite on a random topic, perhaps, or something I’ve written when away from home in response to a new place.  I then take the kernel or even a whole passage of freewritten material and develop it, by addition or subtraction, into a finished shape.  Usually what I produce has a beginning, middle and end, but sometimes it will bear the trace of the associational nature of freewriting and work more like a series of loosely-connected images, which is how Still Life with Old Shoe ended up.  You can listen to that track here

To get another view on Hopewell Ink, I thought I’d interview my band member David, NME-style.  Below are my questions (“me”) and his responses (“him”):

It’s Sunday lunchtime and we’re sitting in the kitchen.  David’s just made some soup.  He’s wearing a Captain Beefheart T-shirt and is finishing off the dregs of a bottle of brandy.  He seems somewhat reluctant at first to answer my questions, so I start with the easy ones:

Me: How would you describe Hopewell Ink?

Him: Spoken songs?  Or maybe art music.  Sound art, perhaps.

Me: Would you say it was experimental?

Him: Not exactly experimental.  Unusual.  It’s unusual because it has spoken word with specifically composed musical backing.  Not many people do this.  The late Jayne Cortez, who performed with Ornette Coleman was one. [here’s a link to Cortez performing with her son]

Me: What would you say is the usual format, then, for spoken-word and music performance?

Him: Rap.  But rap is street music and we’re coming from a different context, which I suppose is poetry on the page.  Rap is the route most people go down, like Kate Tempest.  It’s aggressive, in-your-face, and we’re more contemplative.

Me: You come from an environmental sound recording background.  How does that connect to what you do with Hopewell Ink?

Him: Well, if you remember [I didn’t!] the first incarnation of Hopewell Ink was in one of my long pieces of environmental recordings called Surfaces [here’s the  link ]

In Surfaces I used hydrophones, contact mics on fences and Aeolian instruments [instruments played by the wind].  You added some spoken words but they were just one element and added after the other parts were put together, whereas now the words are the focus.  Back then, when I was doing the original recordings at The Spinneys [a bird reserve near Bangor] or by the river [in the Ogwen valley], you were freewriting at the same time, in the same place.

Me: How important is the environmental sound aspect in Hopewell Ink?

Him: Not very.  But we do have it on one track: Newborough.  We might use it again in the future but it would be a different balance between the spoken and field recordings because the focus is on the words now.  And we have shorter pieces.

Me: Would you say what Hopewell Ink does is “difficult” or “inaccessible”?

Him: No.  Generally people like listening to it and find it interesting, and moving.  It’s very accessible.  Some spoken word is very formulaic and stylised but I think Hopewell Ink is more accessible because there’s more going on.  The aim is to add additional elements to the spoken word format and give it more depth.

Me: Can you sing along/dance/take drugs/have sex to Hopewell Ink?

Him: Sing? No.  Dance? Occasionally.  Take drugs?  I’ve heard it’s happened.  Have sex?  Well, the one about the dead people might put you off.

Me: Is it any good to put on in the background, at a party, maybe, or while working?

Him: Terrible idea.  You wouldn’t want it on at a party, unless you want it to sound like there’s more people there.  And it’s definitely not background music.  It invites active listening.

Me: What’s that?

Him: Active, or deep listening as Pauline Oliveros calls it, is where you consciously bring attention to something rather than a more passive approach where you already know what you are going to hear (like Abba’s Greatest Hits).

Me: Improvisation is one of your other musical interests.  Do you improvise as part of the process for Hopewell Ink?

Him: All the music and sounds for Hopewell Ink are improvised at the composition stage and some elements are improvised on stage.  I have a basic structure but I never play exactly the same thing twice.  I do use some loops, though.  They are either recorded in advance or during the performance, then I set them to run as a backing.

Me: People might be interested to know if the words or the music come first.

Him: Words more often come first but not always.  I had the concept for Electronic Voice Phenomenon [a piece about the spiritualist idea of being able to hear the voices of dead people in electronic white noise] and you produced the words.  Most often I’ve had a musical idea and you’ve offered a piece of freewriting to fit it, then we’ve worked on it together.

Me: What’s the best and worst thing that’s happened during a Hopewell Ink gig?

Him: Best: when we got Electronic Voice Phenomenon to work properly and everyone was surprised, and a bit spooked, to find the room filling up with whispering voices.  Worst: major technological breakdowns almost every other time we’ve tried to perform Electronic Voice Phenomenon.

Me: Like the time the echo wouldn’t work and the loop had a recording of us arguing on it that we couldn’t switch off?

Him: Yes, that one.

Me: Where do you see Hopewell Ink going next?

Him: I’m guessing you mean artistically.  We seem to be producing simpler things.  Shorter, and snappier, like “Ticking” rather than the older stuff like “Still Life with Old Shoe” that’s longer and more complicated.  But it all depends what inspiration strikes next.  It might be a concept album!  One of my favourite pieces of music recently was “Sleep” by Max Richter and that lasts eight hours.

Me: Hmm.  We’ll see.  Finally, what’s your rider for our gig on 14th March?

Him: It’d better be another bottle of brandy,  I’ve finished this one!

Posted in original writing | 2 Comments

Finding Your Voice

Some artists have an utterly distinctive voice.  Within a second of hearing one twisted, mournful note, I can recognise the great Johnny Marr of The Smiths.  In the same way, the weirdly uncomfortable but perfect half-beat-off of Emily Dickinson’s poetry springs out at me before I have had time to check the quotation is hers.  Like Marr’s whining, piercing sound, Dickinson’s skewed verbal rhythm is as recognisable as her photograph.

How do you “find your voice”?  It stands to reason that each one of us is a unique physical incarnation of humanity with an unrepeatable set of experiences and reactions leading to a collection of beliefs, knowledge and memories which, taken together, are unlike anyone else’s. To find an individual style (in words, music, visual art and so on) is surely a case of using that medium to externalise or embody our uniqueness.  Sounds easy?  I’d say it’s the hardest thing a creative person has to do.

My championing of freewriting is bound up with my own attempt to do this: I believe that if I think about how to be uniquely myself while writing then it’s likely to be strained, self-conscious and, paradoxically, imitative.  But if I can forget myself (and the speed of freewriting is what helps here) the “real” me can come out, a bit like when I’m with people I know and love versus in a formal, highly judgemental situation: the chances of saying something original and genuine are much greater on a walk with my son than at a job interview where I’m trying to make a good impression.

Natalie Goldberg  has a great story about voice in her book Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft (p.137-40).  It’s about a friend and student of hers called Barbara Schmitz who began by writing obscure, avant-garde, oblique poems which were seemingly at odds with her character and background.  Natalie was less than impressed with the work and advised her instead to “write what you know” but Barbara, to her credit, kept ploughing her own, odd, furrow.  Some years later, Natalie received a poem from her and was astounded at its brilliance.  It was off-centre, original but also unmistakably rooted in her friend’s life and personality.  “You finally matched yourself on paper,” Natalie told her friend on the phone (I love that part!).

It seems that the student had to inhabit a very alien style and register in order to finally ‘express’ herself.  But these terms I’m using are beginning to make me feel uncomfortable.  I have taught and studied in university literature departments for over thirty years now and even when I started out as a wide-eyed idealist, the tide of ‘theory’ was creeping up to drown such naive ideas as an essential self which pre-exists language and waits to be expressed in art.  Poststructuralist theories (thrillingly French, wreathed in cigarette smoke) made us question what creative writing teachers, then and now, impress on their apprentice writers: find your voice, express your authentic self.

For instance, when it was explained to me that it was impossible to write a novel or a sonnet, or anything else that counts as literature, without having first read one (not just unwise; actually impossible) I accepted that language did indeed “speak me” and not the other way around.  And yet.  And yet.  Still I yearn for it to be true that something written by me could be evidence of my complete originality; as seemingly expressive of a unique self as the nudes of Pablo Picasso or the novels of Virginia Woolf.

It might be best to concede the poststructuralists their victory and admit that what we create will be a version of what we have seen other artists produce and that in the end we all have the same palette of colours, scales and meanings.  But the combination: yes! and the skill in mixing and selecting and searching out the right fit, all of that can be done by will and determination.  In the end, maybe a unique voice can be constructed rather than found, pre-existing within, by sheer hard work.

 

Credits:Dickinson, and Where’s Wally? world record attempt images: Creative Commons, Thunder and Lightning cover: fair use
Posted in freewriting, writing inspiration | Leave a comment

Dieting for the Unconscious

New Year is the time for dieting but what is the best way to feed the creative mind?  A diet of high-energy, fast entertainment and hectic socialising is all very well for a short time and a change is as good as a feast, but very soon it will be time to return to a more sensible routine. If, by chance, you have the desire and the opportunity to engage in creative work at the beginning of this new year then having a quiet, disciplined approach and withdrawing from the din of people and the distractions of (social) media will probably help to accomplish what you set out to do.

This is all very well, but many would argue that the source of creative ideas and solutions is not the willed, conscious, disciplined mind but somewhere else entirely: the unconscious.  The rational, intellectual and analytic part of the brain is not the origin of real sparks of inspiration.  Instead, there seems to be another “place” or level which contains the really good stuff.  Ideas emerge unbidden.  They come as a surprise and often at inconvenient times, such as when you are working on another project entirely.  Then, as in Stephen King’s wonderful analogy of the story idea as a fossil that must be dug out of the ground without damaging it, the trick is to interfere as little as possible with the image, character or entire plot that has been apparently gifted out of nowhere.  You don’t have to be a writer or an artist to recognise this: it’s the stroke of genius that comes out of the blue, the solution to the problem you’ve been chewing away at for days.

Dorothea Brande, in Becoming a Writer, is most insistent that deliberate intention is wanted only in the planning and editing stages of writing.  “The conscious mind,” she writes, “is meddlesome, opinionated and arrogant”.  Brande argues that the intellect will supply hackneyed material such as stereotypes or over-literary characters if allowed sway during the writing process.  So her ideal model of composition is one in which the unconscious and conscious take turns to be in the ascendant: the unconscious writes, then the conscious edits.  “Hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm,” she advises.

This, however, is a step too far for many people, writers included.  Heather Leach, in The Road to Somewhere, is wary and sceptical of writers claiming to be in touch with the semi-mystical realms of dream and the unconscious and she finds the idea of the creative process as not fully conscious as “nerve-racking”.  “If something is not in your control,” she says, “how do you develop or improve it?”

I am persuaded, by experience rather than the arguments of Sigmund Freud and others like him, that there is a higher, more organised wisdom beyond my selfish, distracted and limited ego and there have been moments when some other intelligence has taken over from me during composition.  There’s also the very mysterious phenomenon of going back to freewriting and not recognising it as your own work, even though you know you did indeed write it.  But I have no idea, apart from spending time in silence and solitude, of how to induce or invite this other, better source of art to provide me with material.

As Leach continues to puzzle over the apparent unwieldiness of the unconscious, she comes up with yet more questions:  “how does the unconscious learn and develop?” she asks, and then: “what does it eat and how can we feed it?”

Well, even if I am unsure about the truth or otherwise of the unconscious as a player in creative work, I can recognise a good writing prompt when I see it!  My students and I had a great session writing on the topic of “What does the unconscious eat and how can we feed it?”

Why not try it yourself?  Sit down for ten minutes and banish all logic and sense.  Resolve to waste time and paper and freewrite on what your unconscious really needs and wants to be fed.  Also, attempting such a nonsensical task might push that meddlesome intellect out of the way for a while.

At this time of year especially, it’s possible that you’ve been eating all the wrong things, and I’m not just talking about all those chocolates and cakes that have been bad for your waistline.  If you can figure out the right regime, why not put yourself on a diet for your unconscious this new year and see how much more creative you can be.

Posted in writing exercises, writing inspiration | 2 Comments

It’s time for Surrealist Games!

When people get together for Christmas or other festive events they often play games.  There’s Charades, especially for when a few drinks have been taken, or board games (often ending in family arguments).

Then there’s the one where you have a post-it note with a name stuck to your forehead and you have to guess who you “are” (and which led a dear friend of ours to declare he would never come to our house again if he was going to be made to play games, which was duly noted).

For the Surrealists, games were a very serious business, providing the conditions for spontaneous creativity and the element of revealing self-exposure, which might throw up new truths.  The fun, pleasure, playfulness and random co-incidence of games were at the heart of what the Surrealists were trying to do: overturn normal society and liberate the imagination.

Everyone knows that play is part of art-making, and the fun that the artist or writer has in creating art can seem a little suspicious in our economically-driven, status-obsessed world.  It was precisely the subversive aspect of games that the Surrealists liked so much.  To play is to abandon the adult world, pleasure is the aim and there is no material reward guaranteed.  Playing means ignoring what is serious, or urgent, or economically productive, and it is a great leveller.  It conquers time, too, because a game ends only when the players are ready to stop, meaning that normal life or work is suspended.

Artists play with their materials: paint, colour, line, brush, knife, wood or stone.  Writers play with stories, words, and the sound of words.  To be creative is to play; it is to work at playing in the sense of doing on purpose, and in a sustained way, what the child (if happy, healthy, etc) does spontaneously when alone or with others.

In the creative writing course I ran for the now defunct Lifelong Learning at Bangor University we played a lot of Surrealist games and the sense of freedom and permissiveness created a mood and space in which laughter and creativity were blended together.  The group were brought together by the games played in teams and the risks that were required in terms of individual contributions.  Unfortunately when I tried to induce the full-time students to play games in class they seemed to be, at 19 or 20, unwilling to throw off the dignity of adulthood (unlike my “mature” students who were game for anything!).

Most of the games played by Surrealists, from the days of the Paris group in the 1920s to the very recent Chicago group were never recorded, but much survives in various publications and manuscripts.  One of my most treasured possessions is “Surrealist Games” by Alistair Brotchie: a wonderful box of delights which contains a book, board game, Surrealist dictionary and what seems to be an iron-on transfer.  In it, after an excellent introduction by Mel Gooding, are instructions and examples of Surrealist games grouped together under headings such as “Language Games,” “Visual Techniques” and “Re-Inventing the World”.

The best-known collective game is The Exquisite Corpse which grew out of the game Consequences.  On a piece of paper, write “a” or “the” and an adjective (such as “exquisite”) then turn down the top of the paper to hide what you have written and pass it to the next person.  He or she adds a noun (e.g. “corpse”), hides it in the same way and passes it on again.  The next person contributes a verb, then it’s “a/the” plus an adjective and finally another noun.  The paper is then unfolded and read aloud and curious “poems” are discovered to have been collectively written, such as the first which was “The exquisite/ corpse/ shall drink/ the new /wine” which gave the game its title.  Visual “Exquisite Corpses” can also be made.  Here is one from 1927 by Yves Tanguy, Joan Miro, Max Morise and Man Ray.

There are other “chain games” in the Brotchie box which have the same method of writing then concealing what you have written then passing it on, and the idea is that a sort of collective unconscious takes over.  We certainly found that a sort of synchronicity was occurring in the classroom with either weirdly “logical” collective creations or unexpectedly beautiful combinations.

Conditionals is a chain game using the folded-over technique that’s easy to play (and I have a scene in my novel where it’s played by the characters).  There are only two stages.  The first person writes a sentence beginning with a hypothetical idea starting with “if” or “when” and turns down the page.  The next person writes a sentence beginning with “then” or casts it in the future.  Here are a couple of the ones in Brotchie so you can see how it works:

“If there were no guillotine

Wasps would take off their corsets”

 

“If octopi wore bracelets

Ships would be towed by flies”

The game of “One Into the Other” might be one you could play at Christmas parties.  You need at least three players, more is better.  Here are Brotchie’s instructions:

“One player withdraws from the room, and chooses for himself an object (or a person, or idea, etc.).  While he is absent the rest of the players also choose an object.  When the first player returns he is told what object they have chosen.  He must now describe his own object in terms of the properties of the object chosen by the others, making the comparison more and more obvious as he proceeds, until they are able to guess its identity.  The first player should begin with a sentence such as ‘I am an (object)…’”

Here is Benjamin Péret who chose the Milky Way as his object and was asked by the others to describe it in terms of a breast:

“I am a very beautiful female breast, particularly long and serpentine.  The woman bearing it agrees to display it only on certain nights.  From its innumerable nipples spurts a luminous milk.  Few people, poets excepted, are able to appreciate its curve.”

Not all Surrealist games require a group of players but the playful aspect of group games permeates Surrealist art and writing that has been created by individual effort.  Automatic writing is the pre-eminent Surrealist game-for-one and you can find instructions at http://www.freewriterscompanion.com/howtofreewrite/.  Brotchie includes another of the many possible ways of doing automatic (or free) writing in the game Simulation, much beloved by Salvador Dali, in which you write as if in an unusual mental state.  Dali liked to simulate madness but what about trying to write as if in the grip of illness, drunkenness or zero gravity?  As an animal, or object?  Or even as another person.  After all, that’s what fiction is all about…

Making a story or poem can be turned into a game by following the Dada cut-up procedure.  Take a magazine, newspaper or book (if you can bear to destroy it!) and cut out parts of printed sentences.  Put them in a bag and shake them up.  Draw them out of the bag and construct a new piece by placing them in the new order as they emerge from the bag.  Or you could try a digital Dadaist poem like this Wikipedia Dadaist poem in which I cut-and-paste at random from Wikipedia pages on Beauty, Truth and Love:-

A Dadaist Wikipedia poem

An “ideal beauty” is an entity  people and landscapes considered beautiful  thus associated with “being of one’s hour”  localizing the processing of beauty in one brain region  computer generated, mathematical average of a series of faces  the opposite effect was observed when the alleged crime was swindling, perhaps because jurors perceived the defendant’s attractiveness as facilitating the crime

Some philosophers view the concept of truth as basic  it is still a metaphysical faith on which our faith in science rests  by adulthood we have strong implicit intuitions about “truth” that form a “folk theory” of truth  as Feynman said, “… if it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong”  when one says ‘it’s true that it’s raining,’ one asserts no more than ‘it’s raining’

the love of a mother differs from the love of a spouse differs from the love of food  romantic attraction determines what partners mates find attractive and pursue, conserving time and energy by choosing  the altruistic and the narcissistic  the “feeling” of love is superficial in comparison to one’s commitment to love via a series of loving actions over time  Mozi, by contrast, believed people in principle should care for all people equally

In such a serious world, the openness and joy of play, with its potential for new ways of thinking and new ways to solve problems and be creative, and especially in the trust that is created by playing games with other people, surely Surrealist games should be played by all.  I hope you have an imaginative, play-filled winter holiday.

 

Illustration credits:

https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/surrealism/tapping-the-subconscious-automatism-and-dreams

http://gameonfamily.com/how-to-play-charades/

Posted in writing exercises | Leave a comment

The Surrealist Muse

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a muse as “a person (often a female lover) or thing regarded as the source of an artist’s inspiration”.

Here is one of the muses of Surrealism:

The image appeared on the cover of the group’s journal La Révolution Surréaliste in 1927 and the title is “L’Ecriture Automatique” (automatic writing).

This is the muse as a sexy schoolgirl, dressed in a mix of school uniform and contemporary fashion and, peculiarly, legless (although the white flesh of her knees shows enticingly through her clothing).  She is in a trance, taking dictation from the unconscious, with dark eyes and rosebud mouth.

To say that the Surrealists’ attitude to women was complex is something of an understatement.

On one hand, Surrealism was the first art movement to include women as artists in significant numbers.  For the women artists themselves, on the other hand, the ideal of Woman as childlike, close to nature or in touch with other realms, did not always help them when it came to living and working as active, creative artists.

The male Surrealists were inspired by the ideal Woman’s desirability, irrationality, and mystical rapport with dreams and the unconscious and they admired the bold freedom of the girl child in particular (as shown by the image above).  But the function of the Surrealist feminine was to give access to the surreal (or the “Marvellous”) for the male artists, functioning as a muse is supposed to do.

A photomontage  (see below) from a 1929 edition of La Révolution Surréaliste shows the Surrealists with closed eyes arranged around a painting by Magritte which contains the words “I do not see the …. hidden in the forest”.  The word ‘woman’ is replaced by a conventionalised fine art nude.

This image neatly illustrates the sexual politics of the 1920s Surrealist group.  The men are recognisable individuals (such as the leader André Breton, poet Paul Eluard, filmmaker Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dali); the woman is an archetype.  They are clothed; she is naked.  In fact there were no signed-up women members of the Surrealist group at this time and the position of Woman was as in this picture: a muse, inspirational ideal, and stand-in for male creativity.  She also seems to represent the male unconscious.

Then, in the 1930s, there was an influx of young women into the Surrealist group, such as Meret Oppenheim, Leonora Carrington and Lee Miller.  All three joined the group as friends or lovers of the established male artists and were some ten or fifteen years younger than them.  It was as if the sexy schoolgirl muse of automatic writing had come to life!  There was even a real schoolgirl, fourteen year old Gisèle Prassinos, who wrote poetry which the Surrealists considered with great seriousness.

So the image of the femme-enfant, or child-woman, came more and more to the fore, sometimes connected to Lewis Carroll’s Alice.  The femme-enfant was a sexually attractive young woman with childlike freedom and distain for rules, and indeed for women like Carrington, who had fled from her stifling upper class upbringing, a rebellion against family and propriety was the only possible route to becoming an artist.  But the image of naive, sexy child is a male invention, serving masculine needs (and now, of course, we are more likely to question such images as paedophilia, in particular, Hans Bellmer’s La Poupée series http://www.thesurrealists.org/hans-bellmer.html)

Feminist writers on Surrealism are divided over the femme-enfant.  Whitney Chadwick regards it as an “albatross” around the neck of the actual women artists and says that it worked to “exclude women artists from the possibility of a profound personal identification with the theoretical side of Surrealism”.  Catriona McAra, on the other hand, stresses that curiosity (Alice in Wonderland’s greatest asset) is a wholly positive attribute in Surrealism, and that the femme-enfant seeking knowledge has been an inspiring model for women.  Likewise, Penelope Rosemont says:- “from the surrealist point of view, childhood is not a demeaning category…Far from being infantilized and helpless, the surrealist child-woman is a proud and defiant being who refuses to surrender the child’s boldness, curiosity and spirit of adventure”.

Defined as muses and depicted as children, how did women artists respond?  Whitney Chadwick remarked back in 1985 on the prevalence of self-portraits by women surrealists.  It is as if the women needed to define their own image in place of the male-authored abstractions of them.

Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington’s brief, intense and transformative relationship contains elements of the child-woman pattern.  Aged 20 to his 46, Leonora was the third younger woman in his life.  In his Preface to her collection of stories “The House of Fear” (1938) he writes of her as “the bride of the wind”:

“Who is the bride of the wind?  Can she read?  Can she write French without mistakes?  What wood does she burn to keep herself warm?  She warms herself with her intense life, her mystery, her poetry.  She has read nothing, but drunk everything.  She can’t read.  And yet the nightingale saw her, sitting on the stone of spring, reading.”

Here again is the child-woman of Surrealism.  Carrington, like the schoolgirl writing automatically without will or understanding, is invested with magic and the ability to grant access to the Marvellous.

The uncomfortable truth is that without her association with Ernst, Carrington’s stories and paintings might not have been received, but the price is to be presented as a sort of infantile idiot savant.

Carrington’s self-portrait from around the same time, “The Inn of the Dawn Horse,” contains a child’s toy: a rocking horse.

It also features a lactating hyena, which has been conjured up by the Carrington figure out of a puff of smoke (or is it ectoplasm?).  The toy rocking horse is echoed in the wild, free horse that gallops outside of the confines of the room and Carrington, with her wiry mane of hair, is sitting (manspreading?) on a chair with exaggeratedly feminine arms and feet.

She is dressed for riding the horse across open country, and not for remaining in the room of children’s toys.

 

 

image credit: “Inn of the Dawn Horse” https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/492697

other images public domain, see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_R%C3%A9volution_surr%C3%A9aliste,_n09-10,_1927.djvu for the muse of automatic writing as part of the cover of the journal

Posted in Surrealism | Leave a comment

The Makeover

This month’s post is a fairy story I wrote some years ago (all rights reserved, folks!).

I hope it will amuse everyone and appeal to writers especially.  See if you can identify the different writing gurus, they are all connected with freewriting.  If you spot any resemblance to TV personalities or shows of the past, these are entirely co-incidental.

The Makeover by Kathy Hopewell

Once upon a time, a woman called Charlotte sent in her video tape.  On the film were pictures of her dressed as normal.  She wore Peter Pan collars, ugly brown glasses, and the most hideous beige skirt with a fallen hem, but secretly she had always wanted to be a novelist.
— Help me! she wailed, like a desolate child.

In the studio, the style guru is on the sofa watching Charlotte’s video.  She beams with anticipation as it comes to an end and swivels round to face the camera.
— Well, we thought we could help, she says, and we picked Charlotte out of two hundred hopefuls to come in and give herself up to us, body and soul. We started by showing her exactly what she’s been doing wrong all these years.

Cut to Charlotte herself, looking sheepish in her baggy grey underwear.  She steps into the magic room of mirrors to confront her misshapen and bulky outline.
She is prodded and spun on her heel.
— It’s such a waste!  The style guru shakes her head.  You’re simply not making the most of yourself.  And she puts an arm around her pale, wobbly waist.
This unexpected kindness brings out Charlotte’s tears.

Then it’s time to show her some new looks on shop dummies.
The first model is an American poet living in an adobe house in New Mexico.  The style guru explains that the way the skirt flows over the body, skimming the hips and giving the impression of slenderness, is achieved by completely letting go of the internal censor and writing whatever comes into your head without stopping for ten minutes.
— But do you really think I could get away with this? asks Charlotte.
— Yes! Yes! she shrieks, Just try it!  Try it and see!

The second model has confessed in the past to hiding under a baggy alcohol addiction but now gets up every morning to three clean sheets, which she covers with her hopes and fears.  After that, she knows exactly what to put on for the day.  You can see the clarity and sense of direction in the strong lines of her suit.
— But I don’t have a lot of time in the morning, says Charlotte.
— Oh for goodness sake, do stop being so negative! scolds the style guru.
Charlotte looks doubtful.

— You always wanted to be a writer, didn’t you?  Ever since you were a child?
— Yes, says Charlotte, Yes, I did.
— So what stopped you?
— Well, the truth is I didn’t think I could ever show my legs.
— That’s so common!  We hear it all the time!  But Charlotte, what’s the worst that can happen?  Are you afraid that someone will think you are too old, or too slutty?  Well you’re not and you’ll just have to trust us on this.  Do you trust us?
— OK, she says.
— Well done, Charlotte!  You won’t regret it.  Now, off to the shops!

The next day Charlotte clutches her pen, hoping she can afford what she wants.  The choice is amazing!  There are brightly-coloured chick-lit books, elegant and exclusive poetry collections and row upon row of horror novels.  She desperately tries to remember what she’s looking for, but her mind goes blank.  She is saved by the shrill descant of the style guru approaching.

— No, Charlotte, not the black!  Didn’t we say ‘no black’?  You have to give up this ‘do or die’ attitude, it’s too dark for you.  Look, before you try for a whole outfit, you need to get the underlying approach right.  Did you know that two out of three women are wearing the wrong underlying attitude?  And it shows in the way that they hold themselves.  Once you get that right, everything will look better on you.

They go to an exclusive boutique.  The walls are lined with shelves of frothy lace and shiny satin, and when Charlotte pulls one out, it is the most intricate and beautifully-designed quotation she has ever read.  By chance, she has picked up her exact cup size.  She reads: I shall not Reason and Compare: my business is to Create.
— Charlotte!  It’s just right for you, and William Blake is the best.  It’s always worth risking that extra bit more.
— Try it on!
So she does, and it fits perfectly.
— You can come here whenever you want, there’s lots more pieces you’ll like.  You must try a Chekov some day.
— But what about the owner?  Charlotte feels a bit strange just helping herself.
— A genius! So sad to lose her.  She had the best eye in the business, and she even developed her own lines.

The style guru pulls out a drawer labelled Idleness and inside is something that will cure the drooping that you get when you feel guilty about doing nothing.  It is cleverly designed so that the rounded shape of the imagination is restored, and the lace is very forgiving.
— And look, she goes on, here’s one of her really racy black numbers.  She holds up the quotation in front of Charlotte’s entranced face: Be careless, reckless!  Be a lion!  Be a pirate! Write any old way.
— Oh, I want that one too! cries Charlotte.

After this, finding the right things is easy.  Charlotte moves instinctively towards the muted greens of Virginia Woolf and prefers double-layered constructions, always in the well-tailored limited omniscient: she’s too heavy around the hips for the first person, apparently.

Finally the day arrives when Charlotte must reveal her new self.  She is sent to the hairdresser for the finishing touches.  John is quite severe and he won’t allow her to wear her long style any more.  He proposes to cut, dramatically.

— Well, all right, I’ve come this far, says Charlotte, looking for the last time at her haphazard, plentiful curls and embellishments.

He smoothes and snips and divides her scruffy tangles.  He brushes a last ink-black lock into the sleek shape of a comma.  Now, the strong lines of her cheekbones come out and it’s as if her real personality has emerged for the first time.

At last Charlotte stands in front of the covered mirror.  She feels a sort of fizz in her fingers.
— Ready? asks the woman, fidgeting with anticipation.
Charlotte shuts her eyes and thinks the word ‘eagle’, then nods.  Off comes the cloth.  Her knuckles prickle, and feathers start to appear, wetly snapping out from her hands and elbows.  Her back feels tight and uncomfortable; something is trying to grow, very quickly, from her shoulder-blades.  At last she begins to beat her large, new wings.  The style guru is speechless, which has never happened before.  With a deafening sound like falling rubble, Charlotte flies to the open window and away into the sky.

A few weeks later the style guru is on the sofa once again, armed with the remote control.
— So let’s see how Charlotte got on, after her transformation.  Has she kept to our rules or is she wearing those awful slippers again?
She shoots her remote at the screen like a gunslinger and Charlotte appears, resplendent in gorgeous caramel and vanilla plumage.
— Wonderful! See how she’s mixing and matching and creating her own look!  Then the woman leans in close to the screen.  Hold on a minute, what’s that?  I think it’s an egg!  Well, she’s done magnificently to lay that all by herself.

The egg is small but robust.  Charlotte has had to sit on it, to keep it warm, pretty much all of the time, even when she’d rather have been watching television.  Suddenly, a crack appears and a corner pokes out.
— My goodness!  It’s a paperback! exclaims the woman.
It takes quite a while to ease it out of the rigid shell, but soon the pages are dry and Charlotte beams with maternal joy.  She cradles the young book.
— I just can’t believe it! she says, See how bright and glossy it is!  And it’s all mine!

Posted in original writing | 1 Comment

The End of an Era

School uniforms and new pencil cases are in the shops and this is the time, every year since 1989, when I look forward to meeting my new students at Bangor University’s School of Lifelong Learning.  But not this year.  Lifelong Learning closed on 31st July.  So although we’ll be teaching out all those who want to complete their qualifications via different parts of the university, there is now no dedicated centre, staff or courses for mature and part-time students at the university.

It’s such a loss.  A loss to the community.  A loss to the families of the students who might have been.  And the greatest loss of all is to the individuals themselves who might have dared, heart in mouth, to step forward and enter higher education and have their lives transformed as a result.

And what a loss to me!  The people I’ve encountered through teaching literature, women’s studies and creative writing have immeasurably enriched my life.  And Lifelong Learning has enabled me to devise and deliver modules that would have been unlikely to fit into mainstream degree courses, such as the one on freewriting that I’ve mentioned more than once in this blog.

When I heard the news that Lifelong Learning was being axed due to financial cuts I turned to my notebook and began to freewrite.  Out came a whole host of voices and stories from these past 28 years.  Once edited, they became the prose poem below: a series of first-person statements based on the real students I’ve taught but each one a mixture, a composite, of many different people.

I hope that these voices celebrate and commemorate the great achievements (and heartaches) of the last three decades of the “extra mural” project at Bangor University and show in some measure what has been lost by allowing money to be the ultimate determinant of the value of education.

 

Cost Effective Lifelong Learning by Kathy Hopewell

I run a local charity.  Before going back to study part time, my cancer diagnosis had stripped everything from me: marriage, work, hope, confidence.  The course was a lifeline, literally.

I am a schoolteacher and my evening classes at the uni are the only times anyone asks me what I think.

I’m agoraphobic but once I’d registered, my desire to learn about psychology was greater than my fear of going outside.  Now I’m thinking of going into social work.

At work, I was the one who stayed late to lock up and the one who cleared up spillages.  After I got my degree, things changed.  Now I do the orders, now I have a section under me.  Now I have enough to put some money by.

I’m disabled and having the classes spread out was the only way I could have got through a whole degree. 

I was an old-fashioned salesman with a briefcase and a business card.  My degree was the best thing I could have done because when the company went under, I didn’t, and now I’m self-employed.

I never used to speak to anyone after my wife died.  Now I get together with my classmates to talk about the assignments.  I suggested they came to my house next time.  The doctor’s taken me off the anti-depressants now.

I’ve worked in retail all my life.  Getting to grips with social theory was the first time I’d used my brain in years.  I reckon the two things together will really give me an edge: it’s like seeing the world with completely new eyes.

Before I came on the course I honestly didn’t know that I felt so strongly about social justice.  Now I’m running a drop-in centre and it’s all paid for by an application that I put together.

I’m in recovery but in class, people see something more interesting in me than my addiction.  In fact, I don’t even think about myself much anymore, instead I think about the next time I can get into the library and what I’ll say during the session next week.

Posted in original writing | 1 Comment