I watched the recent Imagine documentary about Edmund de Waal and his white and black pots (BBC1, 5th November 2013). How refreshing that he was actually throwing the pots himself.
He was preparing for his first show in New York and he came over as engagingly anxious and vulnerable; in other words, human. At one point he said ‘What’s the worse that can happen? I get a bad review? I don’t sell anything? The worst thing that can happen is that [my work] never leaves the studio.’
My husband, being of a more practical bent, suggested that the worst thing that could happen would be if all the pots got smashed in transit. However, philosophically, I’m with de Waal. For an artist, for a writer, the worst thing that can happen is that we never put our stuff out there and, thereby, never give what we have to say the opportunity to reach an audience. Today, as I was thinking about this as I swam up and down the pool, I admitted to myself that my audience may never be as large as de Waal’s (or as my ego would like it to be) but it’s still there and worth reaching out to.
I’ve been preparing for submission my latest ‘academic creative non-fiction’ article – a new genre category I’ve just made up – and, as part of this, I have been reading some pieces by phenomenologists. I am interested in the way some of them struggle with the tension between experiencing the moment and describing it, and what becomes lost (or perhaps found) in the process of putting a phenomenon into words.
Many qualitative (and maybe some quantitative) researchers acknowledge that in the describing the researched becomes changed, and how it becomes altered will be effected by the researcher themselves. So it is with writers. The moment I stop and think, ‘How would I describe the colour of the sea today?’ I begin to try to attribute language to the ineffable. I have to reduce it to the language that I have access to. I am no longer an experiencer, I am an observer, and the encounter between me and the waves is altered.
I believe writers write in order to communicate and they write from a place where their self meshes with the environment. The words I know, the social context within which I live and was raised, will hedge in how I am able to convey meaning. It could be argued that any portrayal I can give, however inadequate, increases possibilities for the reader. On the other hand, as I stare at the water and scrabble around for just the right expression, I am certain it will always be deficient.
A few weekends ago, along with a friend/colleague, I facilitated a workshop called ‘Writing & the Body, Alexander Technique and creative writing’. It was for our local Lapidus group (www.lapidus.org.uk) and so the participants were people interested in writing for health and well-being. We wanted to explore with them: how to write paying attention to our whole selves; what our bodies might be saying to us; and how being connected to our who self might effect our creativity.
We’ve had some good feedback from the day and we certainly enjoyed ourselves. It is part of our own continuing exploration of creativity and ’embodiment’. After maybe 250 years of segmenting the human (especially in health care terms) it seems like there is a movement now to try and fit the parts back together; recognising we are a whole (if very complex) organism and each piece is intrinsically linked to every other.
In parallel with this, however, the ‘re-connecting’ of the mind (perhaps even spirit) with the body is throwing up its own conundrums. With scans and the like we can begin to ‘watch’ the brain at work, we can see it as just another muscle or network of neurones and blood vessels. In doing so we risk missing the complexities of the individual. Our mind/spirit becomes a akin to a rose bush, which, if we prune judiciously and feed the right chemicals, will begin to behave ‘correctly’, ‘acceptably’.
I was reminded of this again when I watched an episode of Channel Four’s Bedlam. One person followed had received a diagnosis of ‘bi-polar’ and had been medicated accordingly over a number of years. Following several attempts at suicide, the psychiatrist changed his diagnosis to a ‘personality disorder’, stopped the meds and prescribed therapy instead. Low and behold, the suicide ideation and attempts disappeared.
I am not against medication per se – I take my fair share of pain killers when the need arises, and I know these pain killers are only getting me through, they are no cure for the cause of the pain. Nor am I against diagnosis, if it is helpful to the person and has room for the subtlety and nuances of human individuality. What I hope for the tide towards the recognition of the intertwining of mind and body is that it will help us hold onto complexity rather than be used as an excuse for reductionism. I strongly believe that what most humans crave most is healthy relationships – with themselves and with others – and we could go a long way by focusing on that.
Last week I spent a few days surrounded by the dramatic and ever-changing beauty of the Lake District. Though it was sometimes difficult to leave behind negative ruminative thoughts and the niggles of the every day, when I did walk in amongst nature in all her hues, focused mindfully on the present moment, it was inspirational.
It was miserable, therefore, to return to the news that I – or should I say, my writing, and sometimes it is difficult to hold onto that distinction – have been once more rejected. My novel did not win the competition being held by literary agents Furniss & Lawton. I don’t know if it makes it worse that they have decided not to award the prize at all this year. According to their website, the person who they wanted to win could not accept the terms and conditions of the prize. Which only evokes more questions. Why did this person enter in the first place? How come they can be so picky? And was everyone else’s work (including mine) so dreadful that Furniss & Lawton couldn’t bear to give another writer a chance?
I have been here many times before, and, even after these years of moderate publishing success and good feedback on some of my work, it is very difficult to pick myself up and keep going. However, to be a writer, that is exactly what I must do.