Discernment and the absence of dinosaurs

There’s a quote in Eric Maisel’s Fearless Creating (Tarcher, 1995) that I turn to often: “You choose to do something challenging not because you expect a worry-free experience but because you want the experience so badly that you accept beforehand the new anxieties you are about to encounter.”

Recently I’ve been pondering the prospect of attending Swanwick Writers’ Summer School again this year. In brief, I’ve decided against. I will be sorry to miss poet Roy McFarlane’s new four-part course, and there are several other tasty offerings but… much as the necessity to do so frustrates me, I need to factor in the “local conditions”. These include public transport stress, inevitable social overwhelm, the likelihood of frequent hunger on account of the insufficient and inadequate (from a vegan perspective) food provision, and poor sleep; all contributing to mental, emotional and physical exhaustion. Last year I was excited to go. This year there’s not enough of a pull to offset the risk of a meltdown/shutdown. I’ll consider it again next year. For now, I have other fish to fry (beans to boil?).

After an epic bout of Olympic-standard over-thinking, I decided to raid my savings and enrol in Art2Life‘s 3-month Creative Visionary Program. That’s an encounter with impostor-syndrome right there! Creative Visionary?! Who am I kidding? I like to sketch in a half-arsed, don’t-know-what-I’m-doing kind of way. There are serious artists on this course! But I think that’s part of the appeal: to do something I enjoy without the pressure of expecting myself to be any good at it. This week we have been making inspiration boards. Mine is all birds, books, and blue, tea, swimming and the sea. I feel buoyant when I look at it. And yet, as it was nearing completion, I was struck by grief for the things I hadn’t the space to include. Where are the walks in the woods? Where are all the flowers? Where, I ask you, are the crocheted dinosaurs? Of course, I could make a second board for these and other things. I remind myself that my inspiration board is not actually a lifeboat on the Titanic (and yet, and yet… the way “things” are…). I sat with the sadness a while and contemplated this middle-aged species of discernment: it pains me that there is not “world enough, and time” to immerse myself in all the things that might hold my attention. I must choose.

Writing is for life, not just for Swanwick

“What do you do?”
“I write.”
“Oh! So you actually make a living from your writing?”
“I make a life from it.”
“But it puts food on the table.”
“Tea, perhaps. Ink.”

What do you do? Even at a writing school this is the question I am invariably asked by new acquaintances, before they ask my name. As if even here people must be sorted according to, and validated by, a recognised economic activity. If that is so, I am in-valid. Do I believe that? Sometimes, yes. (Keeping me hungry, sleep-deprived and in fear of the shared air we’re breathing certainly fosters that belief.) Amongst writers it’s beyond depressing: I mean, where’s the imagination? Where’s the curiosity?

What do you do?
I sit alone in a small room, gazing at the sky, muttering rags and tatters of phrases.
What do you do?
I spend hours in the company of people I know do not exist. (And, while we are on the subject, I struggle to accept the belief that the people in Tescos are more real.)
What do you do?
I am told “No” a lot. I wrestle constantly with the Great Doubt (and occasionally with the Great Faith.)
What do you do?
I walk the path of failure. Even the best poem is a muffled echo of what I originally heard, a distorted reflection of what I saw. And if it were any better, it would replace that “revelation” with itself; a small neat murder, the way a memory is supplanted by the story one makes of it afterwards.
What do you do?
I persevere.

***

From writing to reading. Perhaps it is the pull of the tide of the new school year, but I’ve been compelled to acquire a bilingual edition of Virgil’s Aeneid  thirty years after Book 2 was my Latin A-Level set text. I’m reading a handful of pages each day. It has rapidly become something I look forward to. Of course, it is gratifying to discover that I’ve “still got it” (with the help of a vocab. list and quick glances at the, distinctly archaic, English translation when I get stuck), but the necessity of reading slowly rather than racing along at my usual clip is leading to a richer experience of the story. Juno is angry and attempts to shipwreck Aeneas. Who cares, right? But Juno is really feckin’ pissed off over repeated slights upon emotional wounds and I don’t blame her. Aeneas has been through ten years of war, his homeland has been destroyed, his people murdered or forced into slavery; he would rather share their fate than be in this boat breaking apart in a storm in the Mediterranean.

What was I saying about people I know do not exist?

Actually, it is Dante’s doing. Last year I read his Divine Comedy (in translation) for the second time after a gap of thirty years. And less than a year later, I find myself reading him again, scribbling copious notes and responses. I do not pretend to understand what is driving me. I don’t especially need to know. I trust that it will become clear enough in time: for now I’m just following my nose.