Month: July 2015

The Knot

I suppose this is a reformulation of my previous post, but I’ve been digging around inside my struggle and think I’ve turned up ways of giving shape to what I’m pushing against.

In the simplest terms, it’s nothing revolutionary. It’s that hackneyed trope of mental health versus creative impulse, in that the two don’t always sit comfortably together. That in itself is nothing new to anyone, and not new to me personally – I started writing poetry at one of life’s low points, and watched my ideas dry up as my world got sunnier again. Which also says something about the kind of work I was producing: stream-of-conscious, self-involved, very profound for me but maybe not so much fun for others to read. And there’s an element of that to this blog as well; my mission was – is – to get myself writing and to write my way into a new place. If other people find what I say interesting or useful, that’s encouraging and starting to show me where I’m doing things right – so thank you! But really, it’s been for me. My space to write, to think, to become something else.

And it’s been working. I’m starting to turn my attention outward again, shifting my focus from writing for me to thinking about the fact that other eyes might be absorbing these words. Or that I might want other eyes to glance over my scribblings. This is the beginnings of one strand leading into the knot that I’m trying to untangle. One of the revelations I’ve had from getting into a writing habit after all these years of procrastinating is that my refusal to draw on my own experiences was actually stopping my writing. I kept fishing around for that perfect idea for a piece of fiction, waiting for the inspiration fairy to sprinkle the start of an astonishing poem or novel over me.

But fishing and fairies didn’t work, partly because I have a very low tolerance for clumsy fiction. McGuffins, forced plot lines, cheesy motives and morals, anything that shows the scaffolding propping up the scenery (unless it’s done deliberately – interesting . . .) exasperates me. So my own ideas for fiction have been exasperating me for years, to the point of preventing my pen reaching the page. Then, boom, revelation came – not from the inspiration fairy, but from making myself writing on a regular basis. Of course my attempts at fiction were frustratingly poor! How could I think they were anything but hollow, heartless efforts at ego-massage when real life had thrown much weirder, darker and more interesting things at me? How can anything I make up have blood in it when life’s given me experiences you couldn’t make up if you tried?

That has been a watershed, but it’s also left me the problem of translation, of transition. How do I turn real life into a fiction that means something to people who aren’t me? Or even more concisely, how do I turn life into fiction?

Which leads me to another strand feeding into the knot. How to be honest.

I’ve been to the depths these past couple of years. Both in terms of my mental health, but also in terms of losing the structures and faith that keep most of us going through the day. I know I’m not the only one. And I know a lot of this is now behind me. But it is a precious knowledge you gain from swirling around in the chaos beneath the day-to-day, precious knowledge that starts to dissolve or recede as ‘normal’ life washes in again. It alters you, yes. I’m just not the same person I was this time two years ago. But that alteration doesn’t necessarily preserve the knowledge, the wisdom you get from being in the dust-bowl beneath it all.

I can feel knowledge fading and I don’t want it to dissipate. I’m having mad urges to tattoo my entire body with symbols and slogans, snippets from the chaos, so that I can always keep it close; but I know it’s going and without it, those tattoos will be just ordinary ink. So I want to use this other ink to capture it, to pass on some of that precious knowledge. But it’s wordless, it’s chaos. It inherently lacks narrative and structure. And how the hell do you avoid stream-of-consciousness, self-involved, wallowing-in-my-own-agonies writing when it comes to trying to describe something like this? This is another part of my knot.

I have to push and pull myself through these questions, because I don’t have a choice anymore. I have to be honest. In a world full of bullshit, fiction has to be honest.

And then it comes back to my mental health. Trying to look at things honestly takes its toll. It doesn’t leave you much room for solace or self-compassion. And lurking with your darker experiences is perhaps best done under supervision. But then the thought of writing anything that is less than excoriatingly honest makes me drop the pen again. Another strand in this big fuck-off knot.

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Pigeon Residue

Into the heck

of my day-dream driven march

breaks this pigeon leg,

lying in the middle of the alleyway.

This livid-pink scaled foot,

camply poised, missing a counter-part

but counter-pointed by a gristly fan

of tendons, shredded body-meat, exposed bone.

Blood and feathers give me pause,

a moment with this residue of a bird,

a smear of a fantasy of flight

and the lost blue of possibility.

Amputated, grounded, wingless,

It’s just another addition

to the shit and wrappers

flapping in the alley.

I think this is where I will lay us down

so I can carry on into my day

unburdened.

Peace and writing

I haven’t been writing. Or to be precise, I’ve been producing scraps, disconnected fragments that work on their own but that won’t lead anywhere. There’s a quality of concentration that’s left me recently, about the same time that the irrepressible urge to get things out of me once and for all faded into something fainter and more manageable. At the same time, the spits and flecks of ink I get on to the page are lingering on moments that rapidly become too unbearable to tarry with: I can only consider these aching instances for so long before I feel like I am sadistically unpicking my own peace of mind. I keep coming back to the question ‘What is the good of poking this memory with a pointed stick?’

It’s frustrating, because writing brings with it a calmness that has been getting me through and it’s a form of calm that I haven’t found anywhere else. I get a clarity of concentration, a focus that can’t be replicated even if you’re trying – meditation, yoga, prayer, they can’t offer me the immersive solace that a good writing session can for me. I can turn over terrible, horrific events, images, ideas and feel their impact deeply, fully, to the point that I cannot bear it (an idea which I am increasingly fascinated by – bearing the unbearable) and at the same time, let these thoughts and emotions flow through me to create something. Creating out of pain, producing something from the void, sculpting the darkness.

It’s a method of acceptance, I suppose, but it’s not like any other form I’ve tried. Partly because it’s not about making a peace or a pact with the darkness. It’s more like I’m mobilising it in a different way, deliberately stirring it so that I can mould it to fit a purpose that’s half way between its agenda and my own. Because it does have an agenda; to eat away at my wellbeing, to creep around the edges of my life and then gently squeeze until I wake up one day to realise my world has once again become a tiny sliver of what it once was. Acceptance, or recognising that shadows are part of my day to day are key for starting to push back and open up my world again – but I struggle with the notion of acceptance as making peace.

Peace is an incredibly appealing idea. Being entirely at rest with yourself. Being completely alive to this moment now and not letting the moments before or to come press in on the pleasure of this instant. Being able to sleep and eat and be spontaneous without guilt or fear. And I know this, because I’ve had and have moments of peace, perhaps more recently that I’ve ever had before. But this is where I hit a paradox.

I get these moments dotted across my week, usually unexpected, vivid and often illuminating. But the greatest peace I experience comes when I am writing, and in the immediate aftermath of writing. It’s almost like fantastic sex, except the quality of the adrenalin is different. It’s not peace like any other; it’s absorption rather than acceptance, it’s giving yourself over entirely to what is passing through you rather than embracing and pulling things towards you. And I need that pointed stick to crack the crust of acceptance and stir things into motion in order to let things pass through me and beyond me onto the page. Which means my favourite form of peace comes from my pain.

Which can make things pretty unbearable, and the unbearable can leave you voiceless, silent, spitting fragments as your larynx splinters under the pressure.

I’ve got to figure out a way to live with this, because I’m not going to give up my pointed stick.