Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Only a fool writes for money

Blogging is the writing process in miniature. You get an idea, you mull over it, you write it when it’s ready to be written, and then you publish it. Writing a novel on the other hand is rather like walking through a maze in the dark with no guarantee that the maze even has a centre. You spend months if not years on your own bumping into walls and coming up against dead ends and then when/if you do ever finish the darned thing it may never get beyond the shelf in your study. That’s why blogging is so addictive and that’s also why, if I want to get on with my novel, I have to stop blogging. It takes up the space in my brain that I need for novel-writing. And, in the long run, like proper food as opposed to chocolate, novel-writing is much more satisfying and nourishing. When it goes well, there is nothing like it.
            And yes, thank you, the novel has been going well over the last fortnight since I stopped blogging regularly. I’ve written two new scenes and have ideas for two or three more. Another thing that’s helped is that, although I’ve told myself that I am going to finish the novel, I’ve also told myself that I have as long as I need to do so. Pressure and rush of any kind are, for me at least, inimical to writing.
Dr Johnson famously said that only a fool doesn’t write for money. Because of all the competing media and because of on-line piracy, I think you have to turn that on its head these days: only a fool does write for money. Most members of the Society of Authors earn less than £5,000 a year. If you set out to write in order to be rich, or even in order to earn a living, or even in order to earn anything, you are putting yourself under impossible pressure. Writing is writing and earning a living is earning a living. If you are lucky enough to combine the two that’s wonderful but the chances are you won’t. Now I accept that, now I’m not in a hurry to finish the novel, get it published and earn some money, I can relax, and I can write. (For the moment anyway.)
As part of the on-line novel-writing course I’m doing ( or ) I have to keep a dream diary. I have actually been keeping one for many years, since my forties when I underwent counselling and hypnotherapy. These days I tend to relate the dream to Frog (poor Frog) instead of writing it down, or as well as writing it down, as that fixes the dream in my memory and because he almost always comes up with a brilliant interpretation. The other night I had a dream I didn’t understand. There were two polar bears in the kitchen and they’d chewed through the safety gates that separate the kitchen from the rest of the house. As soon as I started telling Frog about it I understood it. The polar bears – ‘the most vicious predators on the planet’ as they describe them in wildlife documentaries – were Ellie (who lives in the kitchen unless we are feeling exceptionally well disposed towards her when she is allowed to come into the sitting-room with us and watch television – which she loves).
With the recent hot weather I have been baring my legs to the little beast for the first time since she came to live with us at the end of August last year. It makes me feel very vulnerable. However, apart from a few bruises where her teeth have clunked against my flesh – by accident or by mischief, I’m not sure – my legs are clear of wounds, so far.
Once a week she goes to a dog-minder and spends all day haring around with a gang of other dogs, coming home rather grumpy and completely knackered. Today is that blessed day and I took myself off earlier for an ‘artist’s walk’ – a goal-less amble to some quiet spot where I could pretend to meditate without having to worry about puppy going AWOL. I intended to empty my mind so that ideas for the novel could flood in. Instead, I started planning this blog.
Oh well.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011


Last night Frog and I were watching the film The Exorcist. Although it came out in 1973 (?), neither of us had seen it before. As I watched the two brave priests tackling the demon that had possessed the girl, I began to feel bad about my criticisms of the Christian Church (see earlier posts).* Many church people do good work, and I have been on the receiving end of some of it myself.
            When Frog and I decided to get married (thirty-three years ago) all hell broke loose on my side of the family. He was not considered suitable. One of the few adults who did support us however was the vicar whom we visited about having the banns read in his church (a different church from the one in which we planned to marry – long story). We didn’t say much but I think he guessed the opposition we were facing. I expected him to be on the side of my parents but he wasn’t. He took us seriously. That was a welcome change for me. As we left he said, ‘Look after each other.’ Those words have stuck in my mind ever since.
            Nearly twenty years later when we lost our baby we went to a special service at Exeter Crematorium for parents who had lost babies, for whatever reason. There were only us and another couple there and all four of us cried all through. Afterwards I spoke to the vicar, trying to tell him something of the guilt and sorrow I felt. I can’t remember what he said but the important thing was that he listened and he was compassionate. He made me feel better.
            Back to the film.
            The possessed girl, especially when she growled and lunged, reminded me of Ellie, and I wondered if the film had been written by a hard-pressed parent (or puppy-owner**).
            They say it’s the owner not the dog that determines a dog’s behaviour but in my experience that’s not entirely true. We’ve had three dogs and they’ve all been completely different from each other. Our last dog, Penny, a rescue lurcher, was an angel by comparison with Ellie. But then she was grown-up when we got her. Maybe Ellie will turn out all right in due course – once we’ve exorcised her demons.

* Frog says I should insert a caveat here - that was fiction and I'm talking about real life. I don't see the problem.
** I don't like the term 'dog-owner'. Dogs are not possessions. But I can't think of another word at the moment. 'Carer' sounds too white coated.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Lost and found

As expected, I found the book, the subject of the last post, after I’d finished writing the post. Or rather, Frog found it. It was in the box of paper for recycling. I’ve no idea how it got there.

I may go quiet for a while as I hope to do some more work on THE NOVEL. But do keep checking in.

Thank you to all of you who’ve been reading the blog and making comments. It’s so good to know I’m not writing in a vacuum. (And thank you too to all of you who’ve been reading the blog without making comments. You’re not forgotten.) Could I encourage some of you to sign up as a follower? Just click on 'Follow' on the left at the very bottom of the page. The benefit to you, as far as I can gather, is that a link to this blog will appear when you visit either the blogspot site or your own blog. Also, you may not be able to leave a comment unless registered as a follower. The benefit to me is ENCOURAGEMENT.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

New age genesis

UK and US editions

Around 1990 (dates are not my strong point) I joined my local Friends of the Earth group and started taking an active part in their campaigns. Mostly this involved standing in Exeter High Street next to a table of leaflets and talking to the public. I also wrote to the local paper on their behalf (and won a prize from the paper for my letter, of which I am still proud) and occasionally compiled the FoE local members’ newsletter.
            The Conservative government of the time, headed by the infamous Margaret Thatcher, was embarked on a large-scale road-building programme and one of the schemes involved building a motorway through Twyford Down near Winchester. This spot was an officially designated Site of Special Scientific Interest because of the chalk grassland and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the edge of what is now the South Downs National Park. What was the point of giving areas protection and then slapping a road through them? Thousands were protesting and a group of us from Exeter FoE decided to join them.
            The journey by car took three hours. When we arrived we were met by angry locals who wanted the road because it would take traffic away from their villages. We parked and walked up the site of the protest and then, because nothing seemed to be happening, turned to go home.
            As we walked back to the car in the dark I couldn’t speak. I was devastated and confused. Not only had the whole exercise been utterly pointless and possibly even harmful but how could we justify driving to a road protest? I couldn’t see the environment being saved by anything other than profound change in all our hearts. Some day, I thought, I must write about this.
            At the same time I was editing a lot of what are called in publishing circles ‘mind/body/spirit books’ – books on self-help, alternative spirituality and complementary therapies. I kept coming across words that I couldn’t check because they weren’t then in any dictionary. (They probably are now.) Words like feng shui, reiki, smudging, tofu.
            ‘Someone should write a dictionary of all these words,’ I said to a colleague.
            ‘Hmm,’ he grunted, not very interested.
            A couple of years later I realised that that someone was going to have to be me.
            Of the several publishers who were interested in my idea I decided on Robert Hale (and I’m glad I did as they’ve been thoroughly honourable from start to finish). I envisaged the book as a sort of Devil’s Dictionary – my take on the words, and not altogether serious. I decided to call it a ‘New Age’ dictionary because that seemed to be the term that the public used to encompass the topics and because I was already tempted by the idea of radical change.
Robert Hale however wanted to call the book an encyclopaedia. I agreed because I couldn’t see that it made much difference but as I started to research and write the book I realised that it did. An encyclopaedia had to be comprehensive and it had to be impartial. That was quite a tall order.
I scurried around, looking into everything from angels to zero balancing via Atlantis, crop circles, permaculture, quantum physics and vivisection, to name but a few of the three hundred-odd (and some very odd) entries. Even though I'd been exploring the area for many years both at work and at home (through complementary therapies, yoga and so on), I realised how little I actually knew, in particular about the term ‘New Age’ which, I discovered, originated at the turn of the nineteenth century with the ‘theosophists’.
The theosophists introduced Eastern philosophies to the West and revived the lost science of astrology. In astrology it is predicted that at the start of the twentieth century the world will move into a new sign of the zodiac, a new age, something that happens every 2,000 or so years.
Would this new age I wondered save the planet. Was this what I had been looking for on Twyford Down? And aren’t books funny things. As my sister says, you need at least two ideas to make a book, not just one. My Twyford Down experiences and my editing had fused to form New Age Encyclopaedia.
Many people are extremely scathing about New Age ideas. But why? They are so heartening and, even if some of them do appear to be fit only for novels, does that matter? Is the future not what we envisage today? Give me a new age – a ‘spiritual re-awakening within a golden era for humankind’ as it says on the back of my book (not written by me) – over the Christian heaven and hell any day. (And Christian ideas are pretty wacky too – we’ve just stopped noticing it.)
So, I finished the book, and collapsed. It had been a huge undertaking.
A couple of years later a man rang and introduced himself as Stuart.
‘I like your book,’ he said, ‘but I think it could be better. There are some gaps and you could make it more commercial. I only live a couple of miles away. Why don’t you come over?’
Stuart was not only a writer himself but his mother had been a theosophist and he was deeply involved in a programme of past-life regression and channelling with a group of others. (‘Channelling’ means receiving and passing on information from spirit beings – similar to what used to be called ‘mediumship’ but with broader intent.) I spent a day with him and he loaded me with notes on everything I’d missed out and lent me half his library.
In particular he told me how the planet was moving into another dimension – either a fourth or a fifth, depending on who was doing the predicting – and that this would be preceded by extreme weather conditions, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and the like. Humans would eventually undergo something called ‘ascension’, similar to what Jesus did, presumably. I was thrilled by these predictions, but I can’t tell you more because I balked.
The idea was that Stuart and I would write a new book together, but when it came to reading Stuart’s books, to starting research all over again, I couldn’t do it. Once was more than enough.
So why am I telling you all this now? Well, it’s because I have at long last made the effort and got hold of a book Stuart’s written called The Essenes: Children of the Light  which is the result of the regressions and channelling he was doing when I met him. It consists of first-hand descriptions of the spiritual group into which Jesus was born and first-hand accounts of meeting Jesus. However, just as I was about to get to the really interesting part of the book (not to say that the rest of it wasn’t) - witness accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection - the book disappeared. (I have scoured the house, and even accused Frog of nicking the book, to no avail. I wanted to finish it before writing this post but will probably find it now, after having written the post. I shall just have to presume that higher powers are at work and have temporarily hidden the book from me. See ‘synchronicity’ in New Age Encyclopaedia.)
In case you want to get hold of the book yourself, Stuart’s surname is Wilson. His co-writer is Joanna Prentis. They have also just produced a sequel called Power of the Magdalene which is about Jesus’ female disciples who were deliberately written out of the conventional story. Amazon readers in the UK have given it five stars (out of five) and left many enthusiastic comments.
            And yes, the road was built, but a couple of years later a government committee concluded that building more roads encourages more traffic and that a better way to ease congestion and pollution was to control car use, which was something FoE had been saying all along. When Labour came into power in 1997, most road-building schemes were scrapped.
            Had the protest achieved anything, or would this have happened anyway? Who knows.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Immanence and numinousness

I have a memory from childhood, or perhaps it’s the memory of a childhood dream. I am walking across an open grassy area, a sort of heath, and I know that the ground under my feet is alive and conscious. What’s more, it’s slightly malevolent. It doesn’t want me to be there.
            The scientist James Lovelock comes at the subject from a different angle. He says that the Earth is a living being because it regulates itself in the same way that living beings do. I can’t remember the details (as usual), as expounded in his book Gaia (named after the Greek goddess of the Earth), but roughly speaking the Earth disperses pollution and maintains a more or less constant temperature and balance of gases in the environment. However, he says, we are overloading its capacity for self-regulation.
            As you will know if you read an earlier post since deleted, I fled to Australia at the age of twenty-one having made a complete hash of my life (in my opinion then) since leaving school. One day, after I’d been there about seven months, done a few weeks’ grapepicking near the Murray River in the south-east, a few months' working in a hotel in the Flinders Ranges mountains near Adelaide, travelled around a bit and ended up working on an island off the Great Barrier Reef, I woke up and realised I was happy.
            As well as the glorious Australian people – open, generous, blunt, irreverent, democratic, funny, hedonistic – it was the land itself that had transformed me. It wasn’t just that it was beautiful – which it was, it wasn’t just that there was a lot of it – which there was, it was the fact that it was untouched. It was beautiful and powerful and alive in the way that a wild animal is. It was old. I felt connected to the beginning of life on Earth. It was a million times stronger than our puny human civilisation and it didn’t give a fig about us.
            You’ve no idea (or perhaps you have) how relaxing that is. It should be terrifying, like looking up into the night sky and seeing layer upon layer of stars, and to start with it can be. But then your perspective shifts. Perhaps it’s what some people call ‘surrendering to the will of God’.
            These days, I get that feeling in flashes only. In a soaring buzzard. In a bee on a sunlit dandelion. In the two Canada geese who flew over me, honking, when I was walking next to the canal last week. In the tadpoles I discovered yesterday in an old tin bath in the middle of a field. In the dolphins I saw a few years ago from a Greek balcony.
            When I first came to live in Devon thirty-five years ago, the county was poor. Fields languished uncultivated, barns crumbled under thickets of creepers, hedges sprawled. There were plenty of wild places left for me to hide in. Today, it has been spruced.
            Recently, I was sitting on the edge of one of my last refuges, a circle of ancient oak trees and scrub in a dip between two fields. Suddenly I felt frightened. I was not wanted. Something very bad was going to happen to me if I stayed in that place.
            In taming the Earth, turning it into an image of ourselves, we are shrinking our soul. And one day, the Earth might turn on us – if she isn’t doing so already.
            I don’t know what’s happened to Australia. I daren’t go back in case it’s changed too.
            Or, even worse, I might discover that Australia hasn’t changed but I have – irreparably.


Immanence and numinousness are two rather grand words that came to me in the middle of the night. I've not used them in public before. They encapsulate, I think, what I'm saying above, or at least the starting point.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Mother's Day

When Frog is at home he likes noise. If he’s not playing music or recordings of his own radio programme (broadcast on Exeter University student radio at the moment), he is listening to BBC Radio 2. Last Sunday afternoon he was listening to Johnnie Walker’s ‘Sounds of the Seventies’. When I say listening, I mean that he had it on in every room in the house into which he might venture as well as the shed, which meant that I couldn’t help hearing it too. (I like silence myself, as I don’t need to add to the cacophony already in my head. Luckily Frog goes to work occasionally and I can have things my way.)
            Last Sunday was Mother’s Day.
‘I’d like to remember’, said Johnnie, ‘all those women who aren’t mothers, who have maybe tried for a child for years and years without success.’
            ‘Maybe’, he continued, ‘you had seven children in a previous life, and deserve a rest this time round.’
            Frog and I never discussed children before we married but we turned out to be in accord: neither of us wanted any. We’d both had younger siblings to look after, four in my case and one in his. We felt we’d done our stuff. In any case, all we wanted was to be together. A child would have been in the way. Nor did we understand the urge to perpetuate one’s genes. I looked to the future, to the next stage of existence, whatever that was. I didn’t need to cement my earthly roots. I had environmental concerns too. No way did the world need any more people. And I’d seen how children trapped women. (Things aren’t so bad now, but women’s lib was only just starting in the ’70s.) What’s more, neither of us had particularly enjoyed being children. Why inflict that state on someone else?
            As we approached our forties however, we began to wonder if we might regret our decision and whether we should try for a child before it was too late. Because of our age, I researched everything I could about fertility - writing a book in the process. (It was called The Natural Way: Infertility because it fitted into a series about chronic illnesses, but it was as much about enhancing fertility as it was about treatment for infertility.)
            I was surprised to discover that men’s fertility declines with age, just as women’s does, even though they don’t have a cut-off point. Just as startling was the discovery that these days, because of pollution, in particular chemicals that mimic the female hormone oestrogen, men are as likely as women to be the cause of any problems that a couple might have conceiving.
            We sought the advice of a fertility charity who prescribed mega-doses of vitamins and minerals for both of us and after three months on the regime I was pregnant. I rang the charity to tell them.
            ‘Oh no,’ they said. ‘You should have been using contraception until you’d finished the course. You’ll probably miscarry or have a child with learning difficulties.’
            ‘You didn’t tell me that,’ I said.
            I was rather cross, at their tactlessness as much as their inefficiency, but I didn’t believe them. However, because of my age the hospital wanted me to undergo the gamut of pre-natal tests, and nineteen weeks into the pregnancy I discovered that the baby had Down’s syndrome. I decided on a termination.
            It wasn’t a pleasant experience (involving, at that stage, induced labour) and I don’t think I’ll ever recover from the sadness of losing the baby, but I don’t actually - so far - regret not having children.
            So all I’m trying to say, I think, is that childlessness is not necessarily something to be pitied. There are many reasons why people don’t have children. If you do want children, don’t leave it too late and be careful whose advice you take. Pre-natal tests are a double-edged sword, doctors don’t always know best and charities may not be professional.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Where I was last week

I was brought up a Christian, in the Church of England. That is to say, we read the Bible in classes at school and had prayers first thing. As a family we went to church at Christmas and Easter and occasionally in between. Christenings, marriages and funerals were religious occasions as well as social ones. My father served as a church warden. We never talked about religion however and it didn’t feature in our daily lives.
            When I was thirteen I joined a church youth group, not because of my religious beliefs but because I attended an all-girl school and wanted to meet boys other than those introduced to me by my parents. The group was evangelical and the leaders kept trying to get us to ‘commit’ to Jesus. But I couldn’t. I loved everything that Jesus said but the Christian Church stuck in my throat. It was just another straitjacket (and I had too many of those already).
            When Frog and I first met, thirty-three years ago, we decided for some reason (I can’t now remember why) to do a course on ‘human communication’ at our local Grail Centre which had a vegetarian cafe where we sometimes ate. The course should really have been called ‘human development’.
Humans develop through seven levels explained David, the leader, each of which takes roughly seven years, and each of which can be related to a colour of the rainbow. As we pass through the first level, red, we are learning about the physical world and about our family, our tribe. Then at the age of about seven we start to relate to others, to friends and teachers. The yellow level, ages fourteen to twenty-one, when we are at school and maybe higher education, is concerned with the intellect, with using our mind. Green is emotional and blue the level of responsibility, organisation and institutions. Indigo is intuition and violet, the last level, that of creativity and spirituality.
I was captivated. Here at last was a framework that made sense to me. I too put creativity and spirituality at the top. British society, said David, was stuck at the blue level, and I could see that so clearly. That was obviously why I felt at loggerheads with just about everything I saw around me, and in particular my father, who kept going on at me about ‘duty’ and ‘financial security’.
There were eight of us on the course and we analysed each other. We had to talk about ourselves and what was important to us and bring in pieces of music to play. I was pronounced a ‘tentative green’, to be expected given my age and the stage I was at – finishing education and thinking of marrying. Even so, I knew where I wanted to end up, and it wasn’t blue.
Each of the levels has of course a bad side which we have to learn to deal with. The negative side of the yellow - intellectual - level for example is to be unable to discriminate between ideas, unable to make our own minds up, or to be hell-bent on ‘experience’ for its own sake. (The typical student in other words.) Those grappling with the indigo level may live in the future and be unable to act. ‘Everything will be all right. Everything will get done in its own good time, even if I just sit here and let everyone else do the work.’ (The typical hippie.)
This colour model, I later learned, comes from yoga and its ‘chakras’ – points on the body where energy is taken in, processed and given out. Ultimately, we reach the white level, we become ‘enlightened’ as the Buddhists say, able to function on all levels, just as pure light contains all the colours of the rainbow.
My flaws have followed me through the spectrum, taking different forms at different times in my life, metamorphosing from anorexia in my teens and early twenties to migraines, through a host of other symptoms which I won’t bore you with at the moment. At best I see the flaws as the grit that forms the pearl. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t been looking for healing. It is my flaws that drive me forward. At worst, I think I’ll never be rid of them. I’ll always be a dysfunctional human being. I’ll never be happy.
One of the downsides of the violet level is depression. As ever, Tolkien has been there. As Frodo says, ‘No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire.’
Writing is my last weapon. I have tried everything else, or at least that’s what it feels like. So when I don’t know what to write, when inspiration has gone, there is nothing left.
David knew about that too. ‘The inspiration, the connection to spirit, is always there,’ he said. ‘You just have to believe it.’
As I walked a disobedient puppy in the cold drizzle early (too early) this morning, on a Monday, at the end of a holiday (yes, that’s where I was last week, on a canal boat), having read Roselle’s blog about her writing course on the magical island of Iona, I didn’t believe it. Everybody was inspired but me.
          But I feel better now I’ve written this.
          As they say, we don't see God because s/he's everywhere, even in the bad. And even the bad - or maybe especially the bad - is grist to the writer's mill.