A meeting with a fox

Yesterday the field contained 58 rolled bales of hay and one bottle of Italian lager, unopened. This morning, nothing. The farmer has taken it all away. It’s a shock, climbing over the style, coming into the field and finding it empty. Standing there, paying attention to its emptiness, and wondering whether this will be what I write about today, I notice that the field is not empty. There’s a fox. A cub, I think. Too far away to tell. A beautiful foxy-story-book red.

Whenever I see a fox, I’m reminded of Birthday Letters, the Ted Hughes collection. It includes the poem, Epiphany, in which the poet, who is a new father ‘slightly light-headed with the lack of sleep and the novelty’, describes a meeting on Chalk Farm Bridge with a ‘young fellow’ who has a fox cub inside his jacket. The fellow’s plan is to sell the cub for a pound to whoever wants it. The poet declines the offer – and who wouldn’t? – and gets on the Tube. Then he regrets it. “If I had paid that pound and turned back/ To you, with that armful of fox – /If I had grasped that whatever comes with a fox/ Is what tests a marriage and proves it a marriage –/ I would not have failed the test.”

I don’t know why this poem in particular comes to mind when I see a fox. I must have read other poems that involve foxes. But taking the collection off the shelf now – a lovely hardback – I remember that it was the first book of poetry anyone had bought me as a gift. It would have been a birthday present – ah, Birthday Letters! – and was from my wife. She’d signed it, and added three kisses. Looking at the date, it must have been my thirtieth birthday. Which means when I first met that fox I too was a light-headed, first time dad, giddy and a little overwhelmed by the novelty; my eldest would have been just six months old. I’ve surprised myself with this discovered connection. All because I paid some attention to an empty field. Astonishing.

#6 of 30

Already getting it wrong again

Resting against a bale of hay, a bottle of Italian lager, unopened. This caught my attention, while out for a morning walk. It didn’t seem worthy of a mention here, so I walked on, confident that I’d find something ‘better’ to write about later. But then, why not this bottle, unopened, resting against a bale of hay, in a field of 58 – I counted – other bales of hay?

Mary Oliver’s first instruction is simply to pay attention, not pay attention to interesting things, or remarkable things; just be aware of what you are aware of. So, I walked back to the bottle and took a photo of it, had a closer look at it, noticed only then that it was unopened, and counted the number of hay bales in the field.

How quickly I judged my noticing. It’s only day five of this experiment and a voice, that ever-present inner critic, is already appearing in field of bales of hay to tell me I’m not doing it right; other people – more observant, more sensitive people – would be noticing more interesting things; other people would be doing this properly. Well. There we are. It’s astounding.

#5 of 30

Something to shout about

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.

#4 of 30.

What am I astonished by today?

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.

#3 of 30

The point is that you are heard

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.”

#2 of 30

Let’s see where this leads

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.

#1 of 30

The sound of hope

This poem is my contribution to 26 Leaps, a collaboration between writers’ group 26 and London’s Bloomsbury Festival.

The project celebrates people associated with Bloomsbury who have made a great ‘leap’ of some sort – in science, the arts, politics etc.

I wanted my contribution to celebrate young people in the area; children who haven’t made a big leap yet, but who carry our hopes for the future.

I worked with Christopher Hatton Primary School and its inspiring head teacher, Gwen Lee.

One lunchtime Gwen asked a series of children, what do you want to see happen in the world? And why?

We transcribed their answers, which gave me hundreds of words of inspiring stuff. I then set about turning their words into something that had the power of a poem.

I didn’t add any words of my own. But I changed the pronouns – from I to We. So, this is their voice.

Thanks to Gwen and the children who shared their hopes and trusted me with their words: Amelie, Bilal, Elizabeth, Ishaan, Julia, Kate, Khadeja, Maram, Mariam, Samuel and Tallulah

Why bother with poetry?

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?

Memory and coincidence

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.

Life on the other side

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.