Out of Winter – a booklet of haiku

33 haiku with illustrations

Out of Winter is a little concertina booklet that collects 33 illustrated haiku I made as part of a daily walking and writing practice. All of the creative work was done on the spot and in the moment. My brilliant mate Michael Gough turned them into this beautiful booklet.

I like to think that all the haiku are very different. But as the poet Billy Collins says, “Almost every haiku says the same thing: it’s amazing to be alive here.” And while I’m quoting poets, here’s something lovely from superstar Japanese haiku powerhouse Madoka Mayuzumi: “Because haiku are short and cannot be explained, the unsaid parts between the lines reveal the most important part of yourself.”

So, if you want to meet the most important part of me, this is the booklet to buy. You can get one here

Inspiration and new projects

I’m featured in the Dark Angels newsletter this week, answering questions about what I’m up to, what inspires me, what advice I have – that sort of thing….

1. Tell us about something you’re working on right now.

During lockdown I worked on a daily process of cutting up client drafts and recycling the words into things that looked a bit like poems. I was curious to see if anything meaningful emerged from the mess of paperwork littering my writing shed. It was a relief to let go of effortful ‘writing’; instead, I was just playing with the process of making new things with scraps of broken words and sentences. With hindsight, it was my own version of the Japanese art of Kintsugi, which I’m obsessed with. A designer friend liked what I was doing. Now we’re making a book together. It’s coming along nicely.

I’m also working on a project inspired by the wood that my house backs onto. Most days I take a pocket notebook into the woods and write haiku as I go. Some of these poems will be exhibited in London this October, alongside some simple drawings, also by me. The plan is to make this work into a book, along with some thoughts on why I like haiku and some suggestions about how to write them, for people who want to give it a go.

Another big project that’s just starting is a collaboration with the landscape artist Jason Hicklin. I’m not sure I can say much about that just yet, but I’m consulting ferry timetables so I can get to Skomer Island, in Wales.

In the commercial world, most of my work just now is about helping organisations to talk about sustainability. Outside of writing, I recently planted a herbal tea garden. It’s growing like crazy, so I need to work out how to dry the leaves. I’d like to have home-grown tea all year round. I’m growing lemon balm, camomile, hyssop, verbena, blackcurrant sage and two types of mint.

2. Can you recommend something for us to read?

I’d like to say: anything. Just read. But I’m probably preaching to the converted here. So, two suggestions: one old and one new. The old one is Writing Poetry From the Inside Out, by Sandford Lyne. This little classic is the most inspiring and practically useful book I own about how to write poems, and how entering the world of poetry can change your life. I dip into it almost every day, and I’ve underlined almost every line. If you buy it and don’t like it, please don’t tell me. It would break my heart.

The new book is The Art of Enough: seven ways to build a balanced life and a flourishing world, by Becky Hall. I’m often reflecting on what really matters to me, how I want to live my life, and how I connect with the world. This book is a thought-provoking, practical and profoundly radical guide to that process. I loved it so much that I wrote Becky a gushing fan email (I’m prone to that sort of thing). Then I realised we’re already connected via a mutual friend. I shouldn’t have been surprised: everything is connected.

3. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever read or received?  

My writing life started in newspapers and magazines. My first editor was the beautifully named Dick Garlick. One day he looked at a story of mine and declared, “It’s all sizzle and no steak.” I’m a vegetarian these days, so the metaphor doesn’t really work, but I try to keep the underlying message in mind: write something that has substance, something that matters. “Only connect”, as we like to say. About 99.9% of the words I write will never see the light of day. That’s fine, as those words wouldn’t matter much to a reader. But they matter a lot to me. And the process of writing them means everything. So, the most important piece of writing advice that I’m always giving myself is this: be selfish. Write what you want to write, and do it how you want to do it. As Howard Thurmon, the African-American preacher, said: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

4. Share one thing you do when you get stuck.

I don’t think I get stuck. Staring out the window, going for walks, dipping into books, meeting friends for coffee, strumming the guitar, interrupting my wife, doodling, making more tea, lolling about – this is all part of the process. The great gift of working as a writer is that everything you do contributes to the work. Let me pretentiously quote Carl Jung: “What did you do as a child that made the hours pass like minutes? Herein lies the key to your earthly pursuits.”

5. What’s your desert island book and why? 

There was a time when being stranded on a desert island would have been a dream. My book would have been a giant empty notebook, and my luxury would be an endless supply of Kitaboshi pencils from Japan. But things have changed over the years. I’m still a big introvert, but my desire for human connection grows with every day that passes, like my middle-aged waistline. So, I think I’d opt for a book called “How to build a raft out of pencils”, by Neil Baker. Chapter one is almost finished.

The Writing Sutra

I wrote a thing recently about myself as the gardener of my own creativity. The first draft was rather too earnest. With tongue gently in cheek, it became a fruitful metaphor…

Imagine that your writing practice is a garden, and you are the gardener. You plant seeds, see what grows, do a bit of weeding, give things space and time to flower or fruit. Like writing down one word and then another. You live a quiet, simple life in your garden: pottering about, doing what you feel needs to be done, when it needs to be done. You don’t seek fame or glory. There is no ego. Your drafts, like your flowers, flourish by themselves. An hour or so each day is enough, maybe a bit more at weekends, or when time allows. Whatever the weather, you’re out there doing something – gently continuing, in a state of Zen-like calm.

You have embraced impermanence. Plans and expectations are limiting. You let them go. You have an overall vision for the garden, but nothing is under your control. Some things will take root and flourish, then suddenly die: attend to your breath, the frustration passes. Other times something wonderful flowers and you have no idea what it is and no memory of ever having planted it. Accept this as a gift from the universe; try not to take too much credit.

Work with the landscape as it is, the soil as it is. Accept where the sun falls and where it does not. In the shade, plant things that enjoy the shade. Listen to advice, seek inspiration, exchange seeds and cuttings with other gardeners – but discover for yourself, through humble trial and error, what works for you and what does not. Know yourself. Know your limits.

Spend much time reflecting on the way that everything is connected. The tomatoes in your vegetable patch attract the bees that pollinate the marigolds that repel the bugs that would eat your tomatoes. Likewise, your writing projects will thrive in a strange harmony you’ll never fully understand. Just don’t get in the way. Allow your writing to simply happen, emerging like blossom on a spring day. No editing. No deadlines. No effort.

Never think that anything is or can be finished. There might be a fistful of carrots for the kitchen, some tulips for the table. But the joy of the garden is in its tending, in the work of the gardening. Seek no other reward. Do not boast about the size of your cucumbers. Shun the local horticultural show. Likewise, keep your drafts to yourself. Submit nothing to magazines or agents. Remember, all you want is the simple joy of being in the garden, getting dirt under your fingernails. It’s the pottering about that matters. Put that on Instagram.

There will be setbacks. Occasionally, Tinkerbell, the neighbour’s cat, will shit among your lettuces. This also needs to be accepted. Perhaps one day that same neighbour will give you a basket of delicous plums from her tree. You like plums, but they will not grow in your garden.

Creating a virtual community

Howard Rheingold published The Virtual Community in 1994. The internet then was about email listservs and dial-in message boards. Facebook was a decade away.

The blurb on the back says, “All over the world, people who have never met before are sharing information… and forming electronic communities, based on mutual interest rather than mere geography. In so doing they are redefining the very fabric of society, destroying old hierarchies.”

I remember feeling really inspired by that, back in 1994.

But in the introduction Rheingold offers this warning:

“The technology that makes virtual communities possible has the potential to bring enormous leverage to ordinary citizens at relatively little cost. But the technology will not in itself fulfil that potential; this latent technical power must be used intelligently and deliberately by an informed population.”

“More people must learn about that leverage and learn to use it, while we still have the freedom to do so, if it is to live up to its potential.”

“The odds are always good that big power and big money will find a way to control access to virtual communities; big power and big money always found ways to control new communications when they have emerged in the past.”

“What we know and do now is important because it is still possible for people around the world to make sure this new sphere of vital human discourse remains open to the citizens of the planet before the political and economic big boys seize it, censor it, meter it, and sell it back to us.”

In lockdown I’ve been experiencing a technololgy-enabled surge of creativity and connection. It feels like 1994, when I got a Compuserve account and became connected to a global community of writers and creators. Long may it continue.

Note: I’m inspired to write this in response to a request from Portland-based artist @ghirschart He asked me to take a photo of a book. Gary is 4,956 miles away from me. We met this week on Zoom.


How to make anything astonishing

I’ve been away and now I’m back. Whenever I go on holiday, the first things I pack are a notebook and pen. This time I also packed a sketch pad, some charcoal pencils, two oil pastels, an ink brush, various other art-making implements, and a camera. They were all left unused in my suitcase. Actually, now I think of it, I did use some of this stuff. I visited a quarry on Dartmoor and made some notes for a writing project. And I took lots of photos. How could I have forgotten? 

It’s easy for me to tell myself that I’m doing nothing at all and that I am, therefore, wasting my time. But I’m always doing more than I think. And ‘not doing’ is an important part of the creative process. And everyone deserves a holiday. How easy it is to slip into a narrative of failure!

None of this is what I thought I was going to write about. I’d planned to say something about what happened yesterday, when I looked up attention in an online dictionary of etymology. The word has two roots. There’s the Old French ‘attencion’ – the active direction of the mind upon some object or topic. And there’s the Latin ‘attentionem’ – to stretch toward. The dictionary added some interesting nuance to the definition: attention can be a show of observant care, an act of concentration, an interest that leads you to want to know more, an act of courtesy indicating affection, and an erect, motionless stance.

That led me to this observation. If you wander around looking for astonishing things to write about, you will likely be disappointed. Sometimes subjects do leap out and command your attention, but not very often. I can’t even think of one example. An amazing sunset, maybe? What actually happens is this: you pay attention to something, you concentrate on it, you show it observant care and a little affection, you stand and wait, you allow that interest to lead you somewhere, you let it call to you, and then suddenly – or gradually – it becomes astonishing. So, attention leads to astonishment. And that means everything is or can become astonishing, if you pay attention. Which I suppose is what Mary Oliver meant.

#13 of 30. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it

Looking for inspiration. Found this.

I’m working on a new writing project for 26 and the Bloomsbury Festival. The brief is wonderfully – and worryingly – wide. I’ve been allocated one square mile of London’s Bloomsbury district; I need to write something inspired by it. Max 500 words in any form, plus a haiku. The idea was that I’d wander around, flaneur style, moving from pub to cafe to street corner, looking for inspiration in the hustle and bustle of city life. But then lockdown came along: I couldn’t leave home; the bars and cafes were closed; there was neither hustle nor bustle.

Last week I finally ventured up into the City to do my wandering. It was quieter and emptier than I thought it would be. All a bit grim, to be honest. And it was strange to mooch about purposefully looking for something to pay attention to, to be astonished by, to tell about. From my notebook: “A depressing walk up from Charing Cross to Russel Square. A few shops are open, but nobody in them. Waiters standing in the doorways of empty restaurants, waiting.” And this: “There are 19 concentric circles of stone around the fountain, closed and marked by a cone. If you count them you will discover that you’ve wasted your time.” And this: “In the Caffe Tropea the tea flows, so does the Italian, but business is slow. A man reads a pocket German dictionary.”

So yeah, nothing really working, no inspiration happening. I want to go home. It’s too cold to be wearing shorts. I’ve walked all the streets in my square mile, except one: the Colonnade is an old mews that runs behind the tube station. I turn the corner, and bam! There it is, right in front of me, waiting on the corner. It’s obvious that this is my subject, my inspiration. I don’t know what it is, or what it’s doing there, but from the name alone, I know this is the place I’m going to write about: The Horse Hospital.

#12 of 30. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

Writing: four noble truths

Sitting at my desk at the end of a busy day. I’ve had too much client work to get through lately, but now I feel like I’ve got a bit more space. One thing that’s fallen by the wayside is my daily experiment with Mary Oliver’s instructions for living: pay attention, be astonished, tell about it. I’ve continued with the first two parts, but not the third. When I have made some time to write, to do some ‘telling about it’, I’ve found myself drawing instead, or doing more client work.

One thing that’s astonished me is how quickly the writing becomes difficult, once neglected. Although I shouldn’t be surprised. For years, I’ve noticed a three-day rule: If I stop writing, if, as my poetry hero William Stafford might say, I ‘let go of the thread’, it takes me three days to find it again, three days to get back into the flow. It’s true, for me, that the only thing more difficult than writing is not writing. Sitting here, I can feel the weight on my shoulders of all the things I was going to write about over the last few days, and they would all have been so much better than what I’m writing now, but… well, it didn’t happen. All I have is this.

And all of this makes me think of the Zen writer Gail Sher and her ‘Four Noble Truths’ of writing. Do you know them? 1.Writer’s write. 2. Writing is a process. 3. You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process. 4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is not to write. Yes indeed, those are more instructions to live by, but inadequately so. Writing, she says, like life, is one long and continuous mistake. You do it, you get it wrong – inevitably. And then you continue.

#11 of 30. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

Learning and failure

I’ve become a bit obsessive about figure drawing over the last few days. I tried my first life class last week, on Zoom, and I’ve spent hours sketching away since then. When I’m doing it, I forget everything else. I haven’t been thinking about whether my efforts were any ‘good’ or not. That didn’t matter.

Then yesterday, when I wanted to do a bit of sketching, I was distracted and allowed myself to be sucked into a stream of educational YouTube videos about how to draw better. Suddenly, my efforts felt crap, and I felt discouraged. The joy of making was gone.

I would like to get better at drawing. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I don’t want to confuse an optimistic desire to learn with a negative sense of inadequacy or failure. It can be hard to walk on the right side of this line. It takes attention.

Here’s a quote on this subject from Eric Booth, who wrote ‘The Everyday Work of Art’. It’s a brilliant book for anyone who wants to bring the practice of creative making into their lives:

“We must always remember what we tend to forget about the work of art. What is important is the doing of the work: not you, not the reception of the work, not the quality of the resulting products, not how you feel about the work or how the work makes you feel, not what others think of what you are doing, or what you are going to tell them about your doings. The engagement in the process is the whole enchilada: everything else is a fringe benefit.”

#10 of 30. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

Familiar yet strange

Today I went to a cafe for the first time in three months. A tentative step back into the life I used to live. Or is it forwards into the new? Something as simple as ordering a flat white felt strangely exotic; paying for something I can make myself at home felt wonderfully indulgent. But sitting outside the cafe drinking my coffee, I was uncomfortably aware of other people walking past my table, moving through my space, not staying two metres away. Viktor Shklovsky wrote that art makes the familiar strange so it can be freshly perceived. It seems that lockdown has the same effect.

Lockdown has also helped me to freshly perceive what it’s like to take a morning walk through the woods and fields around my house. There was a time – before ‘all of this’ – when those walks would have been runs, not walks; and they would not have been every morning, as there was always something else more important to do. Now I have the time, and running – even at my slow pace – feels too fast. So, I walk. And I stop a lot.

What catches my attention? The shape of hay bales, the newly shorn sheep, the wind moving through the grass. I’m also more aware of the edges and boundaries that divide things: gates without fences, fences without gates. Yesterday I noticed the spot on my lane where the driver of a lorry had pulled to one side to make room for a passing car, and sunk his wheels into the verge that is softer than it looks; his axel gouged a strip from the tarmac surface as he pulled away.

There’s no need to look for meaning in any of this. But I’m thinking about another quote, that I think is from Seamus Heaney, but a bit of Googling doesn’t give me a source, or the exact words. The sentiment is this: poetry makes the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. Sharing words about hay bales and boundaries would have felt very strange; now it feels familiar.

Testing boundaries

A gate with nothing either side of it. I suppose there would have been a fence here once, possibly a hedge. There’s no sign of it. Whatever was here must have been taken away a long time ago. But why did they leave the gate? Oddly, the gate itself looks reasonably new, and is in much better shape than many of the gates I negotiate on my walks.

There’s something very striking about this lonely, pointless gate in the middle of field – and it is a huge field. It feels like a remnant from another time, a different civilisation, one where there were things called boundaries; fences formed dividing lines, so people knew where they were; nobody strayed; access was only allowed through gates.

I walked around the gate a few times, taking it in. It was tempting to open the gate and walk through it, because it can’t have been used for years, just to see what might happen. It felt like it wanted to be a metaphor for something.

#8 of 30