The day is coming to an end. I’m sitting in my shed, reflecting on what, if anything, has astonished me today; what have I given my attention to, other than work and a trip to the supermarket. Seeking a spark of inspiration, I look up the word astonished in an online dictionary of etymology.
It comes from Old French. Astonien is “to stun, strike senseless.” Yes, I can think of a moment when I’ve been stunned like that today.
I was running in the woods this morning, plodding along very slowly with my dog, Luna, when suddenly there was a loud shout from behind: “Runner coming through, look out!” Then a puffing runner sprinted past me.
I was stunned by his shout. It was very loud; I was in a lonely wood; my mind was on other things. I jumped. More significantly – the lasting astonishment – was the stunning brazenness of it (from Old English: bræsen ‘of brass’).
Whenever I’m out for a run and find myself coming up behind someone moving more slowly, I’ve always coughed loudly, or kicked up some leaves, or given my dog an unnecessary whistle – anything to make a noise that will get the attention of the person in front, but politely and quietly. It’s never occurred to me that I could just shout at them to get out of my way. A small astonishment, but they all count.
What am I astonished by today? This notebook. I started writing it on Thursday, 20th October, 1988, which makes it the oldest notebook I have. It begins like this: “First day. A bad one. Things aren’t going well.” And that’s all I can make myself read. It just feels excruciating to look at any more of it, like an invasion of my own privacy. Is that an exaggeration? I just dipped into the middle pages to see if I could manage a few more words. No, I could not. So, back on the shelf it goes.
One day I might put all of the notebooks on my shelves into some sort of order. A few of them have dates on the cover, but most don’t. It’s the kind of easily put off sorting out I thought I might finally get done in lockdown. But it’s starting to feel too late. We are almost out the other side, heading towards…well, I don’t know what. So, that task can wait.
I’m also astonished by how many words there must be in all those notebooks. Millions, I’d guess. And there are millions more on my laptop. All just sitting there. Unread. Yet, perhaps, waiting to be read. Or at least, waiting to be turned into something readable, something worth sharing. Is this what happens when you lose your grip on Mary Oliver’s third instruction for living a life? You notice. You are astonished. But you never get around to telling about it.
Tidying my desk on a Sunday afternoon. I’m thinking about the question I asked yesterday. As we move through life, why does it matter that we ‘tell about it’ with words, specifically with writing? And when I say ‘we’, I mean ‘I’ as much as anyone; maybe more than anyone. Holding that thought, I pick up one of the books on my desk, ‘Writing With Power‘, by Peter Elbow. It’s a craft book, and a good one. But one of the most interesting chapters isn’t about writing, it’s about sharing writing.
This is what he says about sharing. “The essential human act at the heart of writing is the act of giving. There’s something implacable and irreducible about it: handing something to someone because you want her to have it; not asking for anything in return; and if it is a gift of yourself – as writing always is – risking that she won’t like or even accept it.”
Sharing takes courage and assertiveness, says Elbow. It’s not about asking for feedback or criticism or approval or permission to continue. “The point is that you are heard. It opens up a door for you and somehow helps you think of more things to write.”
And I’d add this: when you share your writing, you stand by your words. You take responsibility for them and say – literally, if you are reading them aloud – ‘this is what I have to say.’ That’s a big deal. As Elbow says: “When you only make marks silently on paper and don’t make noises with your throat, it is possible to withhold some piece of your self, to keep your fingers crossed behind your back.”
Mary Oliver was a wonderful poet. These are her instructions for living a life: pay attention, be astonished, tell about it. I shared those words at the end of a workshop last week about the power of words and how to make better use of them. I found myself stressing the importance of the third instruction, the one to ‘tell about it’.
It’s a powerful thing to notice your experience, to be more aware of your passage through life, and to do so with a mindset that seeks wonder and astonishment. And there’s something joyous about finding astonishment in the smallest of things, the most unlikely of places. But it’s also important to ‘tell about it’, to share with others whatever it is you are paying attention to and being astonished by.
Why is it so important to tell about it, even if nobody else is listening? I’m not sure why, but I feel it to be true. It’s a question I want to explore by posting at least something here each day for the next 30 days. What am I paying attention to? What am I being astonished by? What happens when I tell about it? Let’s see where this leads.
There’s a moment in every business writing workshop when the anxiety levels suddenly rise. People wince. Their shoulders hunch up. The sense of terror is palpable. It happens when you mention the idea of writing, or even just reading, some poetry. I call it ‘dropping the P-bomb’. It’s a shame.
Poetry shouldn’t be a thing for anyone to fear, but they do. Writer Gregory Orr says something has gone wrong with the way we think about poetry; we’ve lost touch with its value and purpose. “Many people I know feel that poetry is a test they can only pass if they are smart enough or sensitive enough, and most fear they will fail,” he writes. “Many refuse the test altogether – never read poetry – for fear of failure.”
The special thing about poetry, he continues, is not that you have to be exceptionally intelligent and sensitive to make or read it; quite the opposite. It’s that every culture on the planet today – in their 3,000 different languages – creates poetry in some form or other. And that’s been true since the emergence of written culture. There are Egyptian love poems recorded on scraps of papyrus 3,300 years old. That’s about 600 years before anyone wrote down the Iliad.
Why has poetry – and specifically lyric poetry that uses the first person “I…” – endured? Because it does something that other forms of writing doesn’t, says Orr. “Its function is to help us express and regulate our emotional lives, which are confusing and sometimes opaque to us.”
People have written personal poetry for thousands of years because it helps them survive “the existential crises represented by the extremeties of subjectivity and also by such outer circumstance as poverty, suffering, pain, illness, violence or loss of a loved one.”
The kind of crap that happens to us today happened in ancient Egypt too. When you make a poem of it, two things happen: you get some distance from it, by moving it into the world of language, so you can have a different perspective on it; and you get to actively (re)shape it, rather than passively endure it.
Orr talks about the day he first wrote a poem in English class at school: “It changed my life. I had a sudden sense that the language was magical , unlike language in fiction: that it could create or transform reality rather than simply describe it.”
To me, that sounds like a good reason for writing poetry. And to Orr’s list of traumas, I’ll add a positive turn. Poetry is also a way to notice and celebrate our capacity for delight, joy and love; of wonder at the world and our experience of moving through it.
We instinctively know that poetry has this special power. At life’s extreme moments – from births and funerals to birthdays and weddings – we use it to express what we feel but can’t find the words for.
And in that process of looking for, reading, hearing or writing just the right words, we can transform both what we feel and our capacity for feeling.
Now, imagine if we tapped into that power every day?
Yesterday I wrote something about the Dark Angels course I’ve just led in Aracena, Spain. I mentioned how it had got me thinking about the time, years ago, when I took the course myself, as a student not a tutor. Today, tidying up my study, I pulled a notebook from my shelf at random and opened it at random. By coincidence, I found myself reading some notes I’d made when I arrived in Aracena as a nervous writer with a sharp pencil and an empty notebook. I thought I’d write them up and share them…
Aracena, 2012. I remember reading about this place, this course, and wondering how could I possibly do that? How could I afford that? How could I invest in myself that way? And yet here I am.
I have my own room, with a temporary bed, two sofas, a piano, and several chairs. Double doors open onto a covered verandah of terracotta tiles and what looks like a croquet lawn. The rain drips from the gutter of the verandah. A church bells tolls in the valley. The chestnuts on the trees are weighed down with rain. The smell of… what? Jasmine? A herb? Maybe thyme? I don’t know, but it is beautiful. Birds sing all around and there is a low mist. I feel like I am in the Cameron Highlands. It should be sunny and ten degrees warmer, but I like it.
I’ve been for a run, shared a breakfast with everyone on the course – except one writer, who didn’t appear – and am now free until we start ‘work’ at 2pm. How will I use the morning? I could walk down into Aracena and hang out in a cafe. I could read a book – the small hallway outside my room is full of books. I could sit here and work on an article, or on some writing of my own. I could email some ideas to Frank.
The thing that I feel like I ought to do is the thing I want to do least of all – email some ideas to Frank. I am bored of writing for Frank, of that kind of work. I need to move on.
Well, I’m happy to say that I did move on. I stopped working for Frank (not his real name). Instead of pitching him some ideas, I decided to write something for myself. This…
The rain fell harder as the taxi made its way along the dirt road. Neither of them spoke the language of the driver. But his eyes and his grip on the steering wheel told them how much he disliked the lack of tarmac on these country roads. The beaded crucifix hanging from the rear-view mirror hit his windscreen with every rut and bump.
When the SatNav told him to pull off the dirt track onto an even rougher side road he stopped. It was clear that he would take them no further. A price was agreed with much gesticulation and their bags were lifted out of the boot and onto the red mud track. ‘You walk now,’ he said.
They used their mobile phones as torches and set off in the direction the driver had pointed, dragging their wheeled cases over the gravel and puddles, listening to the wind crashing through the trees, hoping it wouldn’t bring any branches down on their heads. The brochure implied that the weather would be better than this. He had brought t-shirts and shorts and a feeling of fragile optimism.
A lot has changed since then, but I remain an optimist. Several years later, Frank came on a Dark Angels course himself. He loved it.
I’m just back from Aracena, an hour’s drive from Seville. I spent the last week running a Dark Angels writing course with my friend Andy. This annual week at a finca in the sierra has become a highlight of my year. On the taxi drive home from the airport, I was making plans for 2020. Even though I’m still processing the 2019 experience.
As always, we had a wonderfully diverse group of writers. Some have been writing commercially and creatively for decades. Others are coming to the page much later in life. It doesn’t matter. We write together, try together, “fail” together, “succeed” together, and thereby learn together.
A long time ago, I took the same course in the same finca. Back then, I was a student, or participant – not a tutor. (And it really does feel a long time ago) As soon as I came home, I put my dog into the car, drove to Camber Sands, my local beach, and drew a line in the sand with the heel of my boot. I decided that on the other side of that line, my relationship with writing would be different. Then I stepped over the line.
On the other side of that line, life has been different. I have a new dog, for one. As I type this, she’s sitting under my desk, chewing a pile of Post-It notes from a recent client workshop. Two of my children have left home – one moved out for university while I was in Spain, and I was very sad not to be around to help her.
More relevant to the pledge I made to myself when I stepped over the line, the role that writing plays in my life has changed too. As it has changed, I’ve often thought back to that day on the beach. It was a simple action, but it has a symbolic magic for me.
Coming back from Spain this year, I felt the need to renew my pledge. So this morning my dog and I went to the local woods – there was too much rain for the beach – and I drew a new line with the heel of my boot. Then I paused, took a deep breath, and stepped over it, repeating a simple commitment to myself as I did so.
There’s no need to share what my pledge was. It’s a personal thing. The important thing is to have made it, and to have built a bit of ritual around it. If you’re reading this and want to renew your commitment to your own creative practice, I’d recommend performing a symbolic act of your own. Draw a line and step over it. Find out what life is like on the other side.
I led a workshop at London’s Hayward Gallery a couple of weeks ago, writing in response to the work of photographer Diane Arbus.
Arbus left a career in fashion photography to wander the streets of 1960s NewYork, documenting the lives of oddballs and outsiders, whom she affectionately called ‘freaks’. From Coney Island circus acts and strip club transsexuals to regular people who’d just lost their way in life.
other street photographers of the time lurked in the bushes or hid their
cameras inside their coats, Arbus wanted to meet her subjects face to face, to encounter
them as people and capture something about who they really were.
As the Guardian said in its 5-star review of the Hayward show:
“More than provoking mere curiosity, Arbus teases our imaginations. Looking at her images we invent backstories and narratives we can never be sure of. She makes us stop and look, just as she did.”
In our workshop, we wandered quietly through the gallery ‘meeting’ the people Arbus met and writing in response to some simple prompts:
Who is here?
Who is not here?
What brings them joy?
What is their dream?
What makes them sad?
What is their regret?
What do they want to say to you?
What do you want to say to them?
What could they give you?
What could you give to them?
As we went, we tried to keep our minds open and – at least to begin with – not project our own subjectivity onto the people in the photos. We tried to allow them to be who they are, then be open to what emerges as our imaginations work with what we see. Will anything emerge? Will we find a way to connect? Is there any kind of exchange taking place between the person in the photo and us, the viewers? As Arbus said:
“The thing that’s important to know is that you never know. You’re always sort of feeling your way.”
Eleven of us spent just over an hour in the gallery. We each made a close study of at least five photos. In the cafe afterwards we talked about the experience, and did a final exercise to help us process things. We were a mixed group. Some of us wrote regularly, others hadn’t tried any kind of creative engagement with words since school. But we all found it meaningful in our own ways.
Here’s what I produced, typed up straight from my notebooks…
I’m sorry I can’t help you
After: Girl with a pointy hood and white schoolbag
on the curb
Woollen hat. Three buttons on her knee-length woollen coat. A white case held tight in her right hand. Clothes for a week. Waiting by the curb. An expanse of pavement behind her. She loves her silk pyjamas. She dreams of a doll to play with. Her brother makes her sad. He took her doll; stole it and hid it. She says don’t look at me. Help me across the road. I want to say, come here. I will make you safe. But I know I can’t. She needs to go.
After: Old woman in a hospital bed, 1958
One arm folded across her chest. Sunken eyes. Everything is
white, then the black hole of her mouth. Is she alive? Mary is here, Harry
isn’t. He came but couldn’t stay. He couldn’t bear it. The nurse said it was a
comfort to Mary, having him there. He said he needed a drink. Birdsong brings
her joy. Birdsong in the square outside her window. At this time of year, nightingales.
Her dream is that Harry comes. Harry comes and stays a while. No children; that
was always the worst thing. She said it didn’t matter, they had each other.
They would look after each other. When she woke up the last time she felt his
hand in hers. I want to say he’s here now, Mary. Harry is with you. She gives
me her last breath. I breathe it in.
leaves town on the midnight bus to New York
After: Andy ‘Potato Chips’ Ratouchef doing his
Maurice Chevalier impersonation
Straw boater. Bow tie. Thumbs in his lapels. The microphone on its stand stands taller than Andy. There are only men in the crowd. I can’t see their faces. He likes Monday nights the best. It’s his night off. He never wanted to sing, but he loves the words. Andy dreamed of being a poet. His uncle had other ideas. Bert ran the carnival. Andy dreams of getting away, of living near Kerouac, in Greenwich Village. Beatnik chicks in black roll-necks smokingFrench cigarettes. But he’d missed his chance. This was his life now. He wants to say, hey fella, don’t stand there staring, sing along. I want to say Andy, get away, find your own life. It’s not too late. Take this money, get a bus out of town. Leave tonight. Head for New York.
me where the sun shines
After: Man yelling in Times Square
A giant body. Black wool coat. Snow on the ground. Clutching a
fist-sized hardback. A Stars and Stripes in the background. Stanley. Screaming again, out in the cold,
all alone. Stanley. Enjoying the pain in being alone, out on his own, ignored
but still screaming. Dreaming of redemption. For everything he’s not had the
courage to do in his life. This hole in his heart that is blacker than his
boots. He wants to tell me I am lost, damned, beyond all hope. Unless I join
him now, and feel the pain. Stanley, I’ll tell you this: I have my own street
corner, over where the sun shines, and I am not alone.
After: Man yelling in Times Square
We drove to the hospital on Christmas Eve
After: Xmas tree in living room in Levittown, 1962
An empty room, a room with no people. A Christmas tree, weighed down with tinsel. Too big for the room, it bends under the ceiling. Under the tree, eight presents, wrapped in squares. A TV in the corner, turned off. A sofa, one cushion. Draylon tassels. A lamp on a side table, its shade still covered by its cellophane wrapper. A clock on the wall says a quarter to one.Mary’s in the hospital. Harry’s at the bar on the corner. She can’t be here this Christmas. He can’t be here without her. There is joy in those presents, but they won’t be opened. He regrets not spending more on the gift he bought her. He regrets not telling her he loved her. He should have said it more often. He should have said it once. They would have said come in, sit down, have a drink, eat with us. I want to say to him, Harry, gather up the presents. He gives me his car keys; I give him a lift to the hospital.
At just about every workshop I lead there’s a point where the participants move outside of their comfort zones. Sometimes they boldly leap across the line that separates where they feel safe from where they don’t. Other times it’s a more tentative shuffle.
It always happens on a Dark Angels course. But it happens too in unexpected places – in a corporate messaging workshop, for example, where an innocuous question like ‘what does your organization really do?’ can take participants into a place where they’ve not been before; a place that can feel suddenly discomforting. Especially if their boss is in the room.
But never mind. I can make reassuring noises about the fact that everything will be ok; there are no wrong answers; nobody is being judged; anxiety is just excitement by another name, etc. And it’s true, nothing bad does happen.
Yet even so, it’s important for me to remember that, while it’s easy to say these reassuring words, it’s less easy to listen to them. The participants are the ones being encouraged to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’, not me. I know the fear will pass quickly, but that doesn’t make it feel any less real in the moment.
“I need to feel the fear myself, so I don’t forget what it’s like. I should take my own medicine”
This is why I think it’s important for me to get outside of my comfort zone every once in a while. I need to feel the fear myself, so I don’t forget what it’s like. I should take my own medicine. And that’s how I found myself last week at something called The Lab.
How to describe The Lab? Really, you have to go and take part to understand what it is. But here’s how its founder, the wonderful Steve Chapman, describes it. The Lab, he says, is “a not-for-profit place where people can experiment and be experimented on in service of enlivening human beings. It is a safe haven for creative expression and failing happy.”
For me, entry into that safe haven meant spending the afternoon in a Bloomsbury attic room with 20 other creative weirdos (they would wear that name as a badge of honour, I think). On arrival, I was asked to write on a small card the name of any ‘experiment’ that I wanted to perform. These were grouped into those that run for less than 10 minutes and those that could take between 10 and 30 minutes (But nobody really knows for sure, as none of the experiments has been tried before – that’s one of the rules). When it’s time to start, a card is drawn at random. The person who devised the experiment then takes charge and the participants basically do whatever they are told to. When the experiment ends, we do another one.
In the four hours of The Lab I did some crazy things – things that likely make no sense outside The Lab. I played a game that had no rules; punched a Boris Johnson dog-toy in the face and reflected on what it felt like with a partner who’d stood on Theresa May; squashed a grape into my forehead just because someone told me to; devised a short film to market the appeal of ‘humanity’, then acted it out with ten people; enthralled a group with my description of a photograph that didn’t exist; and started a revolution.
“There were times when I really wished I was somewhere else. But that was the whole point”
There were times when I had no idea what I was doing, and didn’t even know what I was meant to be trying to do. There were times when I really wished I was somewhere else. But that was the whole point. I’d gone so far outside of my comfort zone that if I turned around to look for it I would never have found it, so I just had to keep moving forward – which was also the whole point.
I had the chance to try out two experiments of my own. In the first one we played a game I’d made up called Frequently Questioned Answers. The second involved making a prototype of a ‘wisdom generator’ I’d invented called an Aphorismatron.
Normally, I put a lot of thought and planning into my workshop exercises. But these were experiments I’d only devised on the train that morning. I had no idea how they would work, or if they would work. That was scary.
When it came to the Aphorismatron thing, I had to make up a lot of what I was doing after I’d started doing it, because I didn’t have some of the things I thought I’d need. But I suppose that’s also the whole point of The Lab.
What did I learn? I am more confident, resourceful and resilient than I thought. But I need to keep reminding myself, none of it needs to have ‘a point’. There isn’t anything that has to be learned. The Lab just is. Which is why The Lab is so special. I’m still processing the experience, but this much I know: I loved it and will be going back.