Category Archives: Special Places

Walking Between Worlds

Practice-based research in writing Fantasy Fiction

 (presented at Performing Fantastika, 28 April 2017)

 

20140813_094912

‘Roots in two worlds’, Sycamore Gap, Hadrian’s Wall, K. Manwaring 2014

 

Firstly, to qualify the validity of practice-based research as a core methodology in my discipline, creative writing:

‘original creative work is the essence of research in this practice-led subject’  (‘Creative Writing & Research, 4.6 QAA Benchmark Statement, 2015)

‘Research in or through creative practice can provide a way to bridge these two worlds: to result in an output that undeniably adds knowledge, while also producing a satisfying work of literature.’ (Webb, 2015: 20)

My creative practice extends beyond the page but feeds back into it …

Creative Practice

As a storyteller, performance poet, host of spoken word events and fledgling folk-singer, I have used my creative practice to inform my prose fiction, field-testing material to live audiences.  In 2002 I co-created and performed in a commissioned storytelling show for the Bath Literature Festival called ‘Voices of the Past’. In that I performed a monologue as Robert Kirk, the ‘fairy minister’ of Aberfoyle. Little did I know then I was to undertake a PhD with him as a major focus, or that this kind of method-writing was to become a central practice of mine.

An Otter’s Eye View

In his 2005 article on nature writing, ‘Only Connect’, Robert Macfarlane describes the approach of Henry Williamson:

 ‘Williamson’s research was obsessive-compulsive – writing as method acting. He returned repeatedly to the scenes of Tarka’s story as it developed. He crawled on hands and knees, squinting out sightlines, peering at close-up textures, working out what an otter’s-eye view of Weest Gully or Dark Hams Wood or Horsey Marsh would be. So it is that the landscape in Tarka is always seen from a few inches’ height: water bubbles “as large as apples”, the spines of “blackened thistles”, reeds in ice like wire in clear flex. The prose of the book has little interest in panoramas – in the sweeps and long horizons which are given to eyes carried at five feet.’

‘Only Connect’, Robert Macfarlane, 2005

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/mar/26/featuresreviews.guardianreview33

As a keen walker, my experiential research seeks to experience the equivalent of Williamsons’ ‘otter’s-eye view’: to immerse myself in a landscape, to fully experience it in an embodied way that inhabits me and informs my writing and reveals countless telling details in the process.

As part of my ‘way into’ the world of my novel I have walked long-distance footpaths: Hadrian’s Wall (2014), West Highland Way (2015), Offa’s Dyke (2016), Southern Uplands Way (2017) …  walks exploring borders and debatable lands, And I have discovered my enjoyment of singing in the process … While walking WHW solo I started to pick a song each day to keep me going. For the Offa’s Dyke I created a deliberate songbook. These walks gave me an embodied sense of geography, of psychogeography, and plenty of time to think about Borders. Outcomes include a poetry collection, Lost Border; a performance at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, ‘Across the Lost Border’; a ballad and tale show; and of course, the novel itself.

Spoken/Written

In particular the two worlds of the ‘spoken’ and ‘written’ forms have cross-fertilized most of all in my creative practice and published works (a selection of which are seen here). Since I first started to write poetry, back in 1991, I have straddled these worlds – discovering that the performance of my words (initially at ‘open mic’ nights) was just as important as the writing of them, as a way of ‘getting them out there’, connecting with an audience, gleaning a response, starting a discussion. I soon realized that do so successfully required practise and sometimes a tailoring of the text for performance, focusing on its orality/aurality and factoring in mnemonic devices. I have made a study of these aspects and techniques (and the traditions that inform them) ever since. I collected my field-tested research in The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, published by Gothic Image 2006. In my folk tales collections for The History Press I rendered into prose fiction a mixture of folklore, folktale and ballad – culminating in the anthology I’ve edited, Ballad Tales. These, in turn, have been restored to orality in subsequent launch events – through either straight reading, extempore performance or song. In storytelling, the ‘performative text’ – not a verbatim transcript but the cluster of phrases, gestures, plot points and tropes the performer holds in their memory (Honko, 2002) can result in a different telling each time. There are many paths through the forest of the narrative, modulated by the feedback loop of performance, audience, performance space, regionality and topicality (‘The Gate’, Manwaring; Gersie, 2012).

The Novel

In my novel I have attempted to dramatize the creative process of cross-fertilization that occurs when song- and tale-cultures are taken to new lands, and sometimes back again: ‘diasporic translocation’. The focus of my research at the University of Leicester, (p/t since September 2014) has been: Longing, Liminality and Transgression in the Folk Traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians. After extensive time in key research libraries, the Scottish Borders and North Carolina, I have created the following story: Janey McEttrick is a Scottish-American musician descended from a long line of gifted but troubled women. She lives near Asheville, North Carolina, where she plays in a jobbing rock band, and works part-time at a vintage record store. Thirty-something and spinning wheels she seems doomed to smoke and drink herself into an early grave, until one day she receives a mysterious journal – apparently from a long-lost Scottish ancestor, the Reverend Robert Kirk, a 17th Century minister obsessed with Fairy Lore. Assailed by supernatural forces, she is forced to act – to journey to Scotland to lay to rest the ghost of Kirk and to accept the double-edged gift she has inherited, the gift of Second Sight: the Knowing. Janey, as my performer-protagonist, is the ideal vehicle for exploring notions of world-walking. She is of mixed heritage, being half-Scottish, half-Cherokee – a Meti hybrid, the blood of the Old and New Worlds run in her veins. She is a semi-pro rock musician who becomes, as a result of reconciling herself to her inheritance, a professional folk musician. Her down-to-earth sassiness counterbalances the otherworldly elements she encounters. She is kick-ass but also fallible, gifted but self-sabotaging. A hedonist who needs to learn to reconcile herself to a supernatural reality. Within her she contains the dialectical discourse of my narrative, though if you told her that she’d punch you on the nose.

Digital Performance

Through digital formats, my PhD project explores ways in which the reader ‘performs the text’ in their interaction with hypertextuality. The heteroglossia of my narrative (the voices of Janey’s ancestors, the supporting characters, the antagonist) suggested to me a different way of navigating the text could be more effective than a conventional linear one, and so in creating the ebook version of The Knowing, I tackled the various technical challenges of creating an interactive multi-linear narrative. This involved learning new software and grappling with coding. I created a series of motifs symbolizing the different characters. As metonymic representation was intrinsic to the narrative (the 9 McEttrick Women are connected to through their respective heirloom). Epitomizing the characters with motifs seemed satisfyingly apt and something as an artist I enjoy doing. Embedding these within the text, the reader clicks on the motif if they wish to discover the ‘hidden voice’. Rather than disrupt the flow of the main narrative with these subplots – either through inserted sections, chapters, or footnotes – a small hyperlinked motif enables the reader to choose, thus bestowing upon them the same agency as my protagonists who are all driven by their desire to know in some way. This chimes with the conceptual underpinning of my novel as an epistemological enquiry: what do we know? How do we know what we know? Why is some knowledge valued above other kinds? Can we ever know another, or even ourselves, fully? Can any knowledge be ‘solid state’ in certainty, or does objective truth disappear into contradictory details the closer it is examined? In a ‘Post-Truth’ age of Trumpian fake news, such questions seem timely (although I suspect they are perennial – such questions have been haunting critical thinkers for a long time). But to return to the notion of reader-performer: any readers ‘performs their text’, in reading of a line, the turning of a page, and the transforming of marks into meaningful narrative, but in an ebook with multiple pathways that performance seems more explicit (though paradoxically less physical). I liked the idea that each of my links is a kind of portal (a digital wardrobe to Narnia or a rabbit hole to Wonderland) taking the reader to another paradigm. The ebook makes the reading experience an acting out of the classic ‘Portal Quest’ Fantasy (Mendelhson 1999), although in truth any book can provide a trapdoor in reality. Recent works such as Iain Pears’ Arcadia (2016) augment those portals with apps and websites, but any reader with sufficient imagination can provide their own – whether through daydreaming, drawing, fan fiction, cos-play, gaming and so on. Initial Reader-Reception of the ebook has so far been encouraging:

 ‘this novel has an appealing plot and uses digital media in a clever way to bring other voices into the main narrative.’ Everyboy’s Reviewing [accessed 25.04.17]

‘Like the Fey and the plot, the e-book itself is full of cunning entanglements.’ Amazon.com review [accessed 25.04.2017]

‘The use of links within the ebook text to jump between narratives gives a real sense of the narratives being separate and ongoing outside what is written, while not detracting from the flow of the novel itself. It’s an interesting use of the technology that works really well in what it sets out to do: to give the reader the choice of reading the initially hidden narratives or to allow them to read the main narrative and then the related narratives afterwards. I feel the choice of the reader mirrors Janey’s choice to read Kirk’s Journal or not; it gives the reader a little taste of what Janey herself faces when she receives her ancestor’s contraband form of communication.’ Good Reads review [accessed 25.04.2017]L

Live Lit

One byproduct of my PhD research has been the ‘ballad and tale’ show called ‘The Bonnie Road’, a one-hour blend of storytelling, song, and poetry co-created with my partner, the folksinger Chantelle Smith, which draws directly upon the supernatural Border Ballads of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, and my research into Scottish folk traditions. This illustrates how it is possible to turn elements of a novel into a ‘live lit’ experience, one that is co-created with the audience in a slightly different form every single time due to the extempore style of delivery. It has been performed at festivals, small theatres, pubs and gatherings. Bringing alive the characters in the two ballads: (Thomas the Rhymer; Tam Lin; Janet; The Queen of Elfland) in some cases acting them, was an effective way of getting under their skin and finding a ‘way in’. Embodied insights which deepen my understanding of them, nuancing my depiction of them in fiction. This was augmented by a workshop I ran called The Wheel of Transformation in the US and UK in which participants role-played those 4, sometimes swapping roles and genders.

Feeding Back into the Novel

All this ‘research through practice’ has enriched my visualisation of the novel and deepened understanding of the characters. The response from the audience, discussion generated and comments garnered have helped create a fertile feedback loop. Furthermore, my archival research has discovered fascinating details (marginalia in the notebooks; poems; diary entries) which have been directly fed back into the novel – in characterisation and plot, which you can read about on my Bardic Academic blog [eg ‘The Remarkable Notebooks of Robert Kirk’].

Pushing the Boundaries

The Knowing has attempted to push the boundaries of both form and content – finding fertile ground in the creative tension between the Actual and Imaginary, as Nathaniel Hawthorne terms it (‘The Custom House’, introduction to The Scarlet Letter). I argue that true Fantastika lies within the negative space of these apparent extremes. I certainly choose to pitch my flag in this liminal zone where the magical and the mundane rub shoulders, finding neither straight realism (so-called mimetic fiction) or high fantasy to my taste. I have dramatized this transitional space as ‘The Rift’ within my novel, a place between the Iron World of humans and the Silver World of the fey – ever-widening after the cataclysm of the Sundering, when the Borders were sealed. Yet in my novel there are irruptions on both sides: characters and contraband slip through; and in the Trickster figure of Sideways Brannelly, a 19th Century Ulster-American who has become a ‘Wayfarer’ – a trader between the worlds – I have someone who acts out the synaptic cross-fire between these hemispheres. He smuggles the lost journal of Robert Kirk out from Elfhame, metaphorically mimicking the production of the actual text itself – the result of my own walking between the worlds. And in my career as a writer-academic I continually straddle the apparent ‘creative-critical’ divide, finding it a place of intense creative generation – a mid-Atlantic ridge for the black fumers of my mind!

Full Circle

My practice-based research continues to inform my writing. And in author events such as book launches (eg Steampunk Market, Chepstow, 22nd April) the ‘performance’ aspect comes full circle, as I sometimes ‘role-play’ characters from my novels (in this case, my Edwardian aviator Isambard Kerne from The Windsmith Elegy) to bring alive the storyworld for the casual browser, enticing future readers to ‘walk between the worlds’.

Notes:

  • Gersie, Alida, et al, Storytelling for a Greener World, Stroud: Hawthorn, 2012
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel, ‘The Custom House’, introduction to The Scarlet Letter, 1850.
  • Honko, Lauri (ed.) The Kalevala and the World’s Traditional Epics, The Kalevala and the World’s Traditional Epics, 2002
  • Macfarlane, Robert, ‘Only Connect’, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/mar/26/featuresreviews.guardianreview33 [accessed 25.04.17]
  • Manwaring, Kevan, The Bardic Handbook, Glastonbury: Gothic Image, 2006
  • Manwaring, Kevan, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2013
  • Manwaring, Kevan, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2013
  • Manwaring, Kevan, Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2017
  • Manwaring, Kevan, The Knowing – A Fantasy, Stroud: Goldendark, 2017
  • Mendlesohn, Farah, Rhetorics of Fantasy, Wesleyan University Press, 2008
  • Pears, Iain, Arcadia, London: Faber, 2016
  • QAA Benchmark Statement (draft) 2015
  • Webb, Jen, Researching Creative Writing, Newmarket: Frontinus, 2015
Advertisements

Wild Writing & Free-range Teaching

First published in Writing in Education Summer 2016

Kevan writing at Loch Maree Sep '12

Writing by the shores of Loch Maree, Highlands, Summer 2012

Imagine turning up to a lesson with no notes, no lesson plan, no ‘learning outcomes’ – just your years of experience, skills and writer’s imagination? By adopting a more fluid, sensitized, reciprocal approach (akin to what Philip Gross describes as ‘the discipline of indiscipline’ 2006) you, the lecturer, become the author of the moment. The act of creativity is restored to the classroom. The frisson of risk electrifies the process, as with one’s actual writing practice, when, in those precious hours snatched from the demands of the week, you sit down to do some of your own writing. Yes, you do the research, you make your preparations, but when you turn up at the page or the screen to write something else happens: a different part of the brain engages – a lateral process takes over. If we wish to authentically offer our students genuine techniques or practices, one’s we use ourselves in our craft, then where better than to start with this – the white heat of the moment –– when anything may emerge? As a writer it is this moment when I am freest and most fully alive. There is a sense of being an explorer in an undiscovered continent. This is the quality I wish to bring into the classroom. As Stephanie Vanderslice suggests, ‘it is more important than ever to draw back the curtain on the wizard and show undergraduates the many invention tricks writers rely upon to get started and to keep the well of inspiration at an optimum level.’ (2011: 32)

Alas, teaching (of the ‘factory farming’ kind: I’ve personally found this worse in FE than HE) can seriously debilitate the creative aquifer. Schemes of work … Lesson plans … Set texts … Assessments … The structures of creative writing as a taught discipline can stifle the very thing they are trying to nurture – resulting in exhausted, demoralized lecturers (as informal conversations at conferences suggest and the strikes of 2016 attest) and uninspired, disengaged students (re: the dreaded Student Survey). In this article I argue for a possibly radical approach (accepting that any writing teacher worth their salt probably uses some form of ‘wild writing’), but one that can still work in tandem with existing pedagogical systems. There is a place for the lecture, the seminar, the practical focus of a workshop, tutorials, assessment … for hard pedagogy – but also, as I would call it, for wild writing (following in the spirit of Roger Deakin’s ‘wild swimming’ (2000) and the other analogous activities his approach inspired). Wild writing empowers both the lecturer and students. It credits teachers with intelligence and resourcefulness. Wild writing encourages us to take risks, to go beyond comfort zones and familiar ways of doing things.

Although wild writing is a practice I have been intuitively cultivating all of my writing life – a cross-fertilisation of my storytelling, creative writing and teaching skills, I first articulated it as a practice when I was invited to North America in September 2015 to offer some workshops privately to a small group. Wild writing spontaneously happened as we toured Rhode Island and beyond. One time, a scintillating cove inspired some ‘reflections’; another time, it was the site of an old fun fair which unearthed long-buried emotions and memories. However, I will focus on the experience of devising my ‘Wild Writing’ class, which took place at Hawkwood College, Gloucestershire, in the Spring term of 2016. In doing so I do not wish to be prescriptive, but at best inspirational – so I won’t be offering detailed activities – for the very spirit of wild writing is to be in the moment, to draw upon the actuality of the workshop, the resources and experience of the group, and your own ingenuity. This accords with what Harry Whitehead describes as a praxis of ‘nomadic emergence’  (2013).

Faced with the relentless treadmill of teaching – my life measured out in Tutor-Marked Assessments and coffee spoons, writing workshops and marking – my original motivation was to devise a way of breaking free of this cycle and reinvigorate my pedagogy. If I am bored the students will be too. Rather than regurgitate the usual saws about using notebooks, showing not telling, et cetera – which can be found in numerous books, blogs and MOOCs  –  I wondered what new approach I could offer based upon my actual practice as a writer? My USP, to use that hissing serpent of a marketing term. I don’t want to be a Mr Potato Head teacher: change my distinguishing features and I could be saying the same as anyone else. The best teachers, the ones you remember, are always the ones who do things differently. Who break the rules in some way, even if it’s just in their ‘manner’. My favourite English teacher at school, Mr Alsop, would at the drop of a hat, sound off about his pet subjects: Rugby and Bruce Springsteen. His droll delivery was reminiscent of the late comedian Mel Smith. Somehow, through his raconteur genius he enthused the class with his love of literature. We enjoyed his class and so we paid attention. He engaged our interest. And there was a frisson of unpredictability about his lessons: that we could go ‘off-piste’ at any moment.

Play is an often forgotten element of learning, but one that the poet Paul Matthews advocates: ‘Writing can become very intense and inward at times, so play and laughter (as well as tears) are a vital part of any group work.’ (1994:7)

As I was teaching two Open University modules (A215; A363) and another Adult Education evening class locally on novel-writing, I wanted to try something different, something less technical and more spontaneous. This not only provided a personal ‘call to adventure’ to my own pedagogical ingenuity, it actually helped as a counter-balance to the other classes I taught. As I put it to a friend, one approach was ‘Apollonian’, the other ‘Dionysian’: left-brained and right-brained, if you will; although such crude demarcation of our mind’s complexity is flawed – a false dichotomy – as Gilchrist (2012) and others have demonstrated. The two approaches, the creative and the critical, cross-fertilise in the best workshops and writing practice – but for now, as an experiment, I wanted to separate the methodologies and see what would happen.

The first half of my week was dedicated to traditional pedagogy, but my Wednesday night ‘Wild Writing’ class became something I actually looked forward to: a safety valve from the assessment-focused pressure of the week. A chance to take a different approach; to turn off the SATs-nav.

Unlike my other classes, I deliberately did not devise a scheme of work for my wild writing workshops. I did only the vaguest of lesson plans – a hastily-scribbled idea which would emerge on the day of the class, usually while out ‘wild-running’ in my local woodland, allowing the birdsong, running water, sun-dappled shade, and green work its magic on my consciousness. Rather than forcing a theme or an activity onto the page or screen, I would allow things to emerge – by simply being fully present in a natural environment. Taking a leaf from WB Yeats’ ‘Wandering Aengus’, I went out to a hazel wood… Soon the fire in my head was lit.

In the first session I explained my ‘anti-outline’ – each week we will see what emerged. I might have a few prompts up my sleeve, just in case, but I was determined that the workshop would be an organic emergent process. To break the ice, I got everyone to give themselves a ‘wild’ epithet, an alliterative one which provided a useful mnemonic. This also encouraged them to ‘inhabit’ the wild paradigm, to feel the wildness inside themselves. I read out the course blurb, to focalize:

Are your words too tame? Your thoughts too feral? Do your ideas need liberating? Let them out of the cage, and allow them to prowl the page! This rule-breaking writing workshop is designed to encourage you to explore the untamed fringes of your desires and fears, to express that inner howl, to give voice to that long-denied cry. You’ll be supported in a friendly, safe environment to venture beyond comfort zones and tap into words that can electrify, shock, motivate and move. All you need is a pen and paper and a willingness to be wild!

I asked them to come up with their own definitions of ‘wild’ – writing suggestions on Post-its, and sticking them on the board. They came up with:

Raw

Unfettered

Free

Sensual

Vulnerable

Uncensored

Secrets

Passionate

Spontaneous

Edgy

Nature

Embodied

Fear/less

Landscape

Deep emotion

Out of the box

Undefined

Pure

Untamed

Energy

Down to Earth

From the unconscious

Climate

Nonsensical

Life going wrong

Experiential

Abstract/extreme

This was a promisingly wide-spread demarcation of territory. A freewrite on the theme also bore fruit – the very nature of that practice lent itself to the prompt perfectly.  The best freewrites are of course ‘wild’, that is ludic, non-linear, exploratory, transgressive, and syntactically feral. In the spirit of Natalie Goldberg, I encouraged my students to ‘lose control’ (1991:3).

The first lesson’s emergent theme was summed up by this in-the-moment acronym: SOAR (Sensuality; Observation; Awareness; Reflection), something of an OCD of mine! Being fond of creative acronyms and aware of the potential can of worms I was opening I created a ‘safety net’ for the workshops using my principle of MAC: Mindfulness; Autonomy; Confidentiality.

Mindfulness: being aware of the potential impact of what you are sharing. Not to censor yourself, but if the writing contains strong language, disturbing imagery, controversial elements, et cetera, just to let people know.

Autonomy: you always have the choice about what you share. No one is expected to share, although everyone is encouraged to do so at least once in the workshop.

Confidentiality: what is shared within the workshop is confidential. If you wish to share or discuss your own work outside of the workshop that must be your choice, but respect the privacy of others.

I also emphasised that the wildness should be focused on the page, and usual workshop etiquette applied. For such a class it was essential that ‘strong container’ was created to hold the participants in their process. My wish was to encourage my students to go beyond their comfort zones (in their writing). To try out new forms or genres. To go to the edge of what they think they ‘can’ or ‘should’ say, what they might be ‘allowed’ to write about. To inject their writing with some adrenalin, with strong emotions, with a bold, embodied voice. To have the courage to show up to the page and to face its nullifying whiteness, to shatter its silence, and defy those negative voices which might have inhibited in the past. As Whitman put it in ‘One Hour of Madness and Joy’: ‘O to have the gag removed from one’s mouth’ (1959:80). In response to my suggestion to recite this poem of Whitman’s out loud, outside, a student responded: ‘Just what I needed to shout right now. Thank you.’

Over the ten weeks I tried a range of approaches, using not only the usual examples of writing (‘wild writers’ such as Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, DH Lawrence, John Clare, Ivor Gurney, Gary Snyder, Nan Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane, Ted Hughes, Helen MacDonald, and Henry Miller) but also different media and methodologies. Beyond the usual triggers of art, music, movement and objects that any creative writing teacher might draw upon I tried out the following: Using different approaches to handwriting (writing without looking at the page; writing in different directions, e.g. from the edges of the page inwards, across the margins); Using what arises (my experience of storytelling has taught me to use whatever arises as part of the performance, so, if a phone goes off, include it in the oral narrative. I applied this approach to each session. If we were interrupted, e.g. by a fire alarm test – I saw it as a gift. A news item, or the weather – anything may trigger a creative response). The details here are not as important as the general approach: be wildly inventive. What I deliberately did not do was draw upon my usual repertoire of creative writing resources – my tried-and-trusted handouts, my go-to activities. I did not want to be teaching on auto-pilot. This forced me to invest creative energy into the actuality of the workshop – what I love doing best. This is when I feel I am firing on all cylinders as a teacher – plucking ideas, quotes, activities and approaches from the air. Not as a micro-managed teaching drone. As Freire puts it, rather than being the ‘anti-dialogical banking educator’, focused on recruitment, retention and results, I wish to emphasize the ‘dialogical character of education as the practice of freedom’ (1996: 74). Student and teacher should enter into a porous space where learning can happen in any direction – where both parties can feel a sense of creative liberty within the classroom, as sacrosanct as the white page or blank screen.

Student Writing

Much of what was written in class was ephemeral by nature – composed quickly in response to a prompt, shared fresh from the notebook, and then ‘let go of’ like Buddhist sand mandalas. A few pieces were brought in the following week after being worked on at home (e.g. the prompt to ‘write about a wild time’, triggered a visceral, kinetic piece of life-writing about seeing a punk band as a student in the 70s – something the student hadn’t thought about ‘in years’). The emphasis of the workshops was on process more than polished ‘artefacts’, but here is a smattering to give some idea:

Shooting Crows

I watched a man shooting crows.

I felt the recoil and fall.

I teased apart the feathers

and the little cracked hearts for answers.

All I found was the finish,

the filth and the spore.

There’s no meaning in dried eyes.

The resting of the carcasses

in the field down by the burn

where the ducks nested;

the sorrel greened on the blood.

Student 1 Prompt: write about the natural world.

Elephant in the Room                                                          

In our room there’s a jade green hippo

with carving knife teeth in a man-trap jaw

Baleful eyes bubbling from the brown

sluggish river of sewage and mud

Submerged in slurping bellicosity

it’s poised to drown me in the sloppy miasma

and amputate my manhood

Give me an elephant in the room

any vindaloo Taj Mahal tiffin

with trumpet voluntary to welcome me,

an embracing trunk to snuffle my neck

and never to forget we’re lovers

It would sprinkle me with cool paddy water

Whilst we swayed through orchards of pink mango

Student 2 Prompt: Write about something extremely improbable.

 

‘You want wild words’

You want wild words

Man made creations

Tamed by the intellect

I will show you wild Ness

In her bare foot bare faced

Nakedness

crouching low amongst the

Dank rotting earth

Student 3  Prompt: What does wildness mean to you?

 

Skep Skin

 

A hive in my hand

honeycomb hollow

oozing nectar

golden energy

gathered again and again

a lifetime’s work

in a teaspoon

stir into your tea

consciously

soothing the raw edges

of the day

sweetness delivered

by black and yellow drones

a sticky note

from the flowers

a souvenir of the sun

summer on the wing

an orchard on my tongue

Student 4 Prompt: write about what’s in your pocket right now (a small tin of Burt’s Bees handsalve).

Conclusion

I found running my wild writing workshop one of the most interesting and rewarding things I have done in recent years in terms of my teaching. As in all teaching I learnt just as much in delivering it as I hoped my students did in experiencing it. It was a continual learning curve which forced me out of any kind of pedagogical complacency. It was challenging and engaging in the right places – making me re-evaluate everything I usually do in a writing workshop.

From my experience of running these workshops, I would advocate the following: include a ‘wild writing’ hour in your weekly schedule – it’ll be good for you and your students. Suggest it your department: see what happens. Get out of the classroom – take your group into nature and write ‘on the hoof’. Allow yourself to go to the edge of your practice, of your writing, explore those uncomfortable places, give voice to the shadows, the songs of the maniacs:

He who approaches the temple of the Muses without inspiration, in the belief that craftsmanship alone suffices, will remain a bungler and his presumptuous poetry will be obscured by the songs of the maniacs. Plato (Flaherty, 2013: 63)

Institutional bureaucracy is inevitable, but when it actually impedes teaching and, as a result, impacts upon the sacred cow of ‘student experience’, then it must be questioned. Common sense would surely suggest that we only use systems that support what it is we are trying to do, rather than force ourselves into straitjackets that over-complicate, dessicate and demoralize. In recent years much has been written about the debilitating tendency in universities to focus on the financial aspects of the process (Warner, 2015). This mindset is counter-productive to the quality of teaching and research. Students are expecting guaranteed results as the pay-off of their ‘investment’. As student satisfaction is the gold standard that we are now beholden to, there is a worrying trend which those in HE are all too aware of (the thing that should not be spoken): reducing standards to ‘please the students’, because they ‘pay our bills’. Although I haven’t had to do this myself … yet … the notion appals me. When we compromise standards for the sake of student retention and satisfaction something is deeply-flawed. The baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. Surely we need to be less goal-driven and target-focused? The best writing does not emerge through narrow commercial imperatives or through a checklist of techniques, a dry naming of parts. We must create a culture of learning, knowledge, open-mindedness, exploration, and invention. Wild writing could be a small part of that: an oasis of creativity for creativity’s sake, mutually enriching to teachers and students.

NOTES:

Deakin, R. (2000) Waterlog: a swimmer’s journey through Britain, London: Vintage.

Flaherty, A.W. (2013) The Midnight Disease: the drive to write, writer’s block, and the creative brain, NY: Mariner Books.

Freire, P. (1996) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos), London: Penguin.

Goldberg, N. (1991) Wild Mind: living the writer’s life, London: Rider.

Gross, P. (2015) ‘A Walk in the Abstract Garden: how creative writing might speak for itself in universities,’ Inaugural lecture, University of Glamorgan, 10 December 2006, published in Writing in Practice: 1. http://www.nawe.co.uk/DB/current-wip-edition-2/articles/a-walk-in-the-abstract-garden-how-creative-writing-might-speak-for-itself-in-universities.html  [accessed 11.06.2016]

Matthews, P. (1994) Sing Me The Creation: a creative writing sourcebook, Stroud: Hawthorn Press.

McGilchrist, I. (2012) The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Yale University Press.

Miller, James E. (ed.), (1959) Completed Poetry and Selected Prose by Walt Whitman, Jr, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Vanderslice, S. (2011) Rethinking Creative Writing, Ely: Frontinus.

Warner, M. (2015) ‘Learning My Lesson: Marina Warner on the disfiguring of higher education’, London Review of Books, Vol. 37, No. 6.

Whitehead, H. (2013) ‘Nomadic Emergence: Creative Writing Theory and Practice-Led Research,’ in New Ideas in the Writing Arts: Practice, Culture Literature, edited by Graeme Harper. Cambridge: CSP.

Many more titles were used during the development and delivery of these workshops. For an extensive reading list of Wild Writing titles, or to offer suggestions or comments, contact Kevan: km364@le.ac.uk

Kevan Manwaring is a Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Leicester (Supervisor: Dr Harry Whitehead). Since 2004 he has taught creative writing for the Open University and is a Fellow of Hawthornden, The Eccles Centre for North American Studies (British Library) and the Higher Education Academy. He has co-judged The London Magazine annual short story competition and won an AHRC Essay prize for ‘The (Re)Imagined Book’. In 2015 he was a consultant academic for BBC TV’s The Secret Life of Books. He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic.

Wild Writing is currently running at Hawkwood College (May 2017). Limited places are available. Book here: http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/courses-and-events/arts/wild-writing—kevan-manwaring

 

Walking with Thomas

The sun used to shine while we two walked
Slowly together, paused and started
Again, and sometimes mused, sometimes talked
As either pleased, and cheerfully parted

                                                                                  The Sun Used to Shine, Edward Thomas

 

WP_20170409_11_09_23_Pro.jpg

Near Dymock, K. Manwaring, 2017

On the 100th anniversary of the death of Edward Thomas, poet, who died at the Battle of Arras, Easter Monday, 9th April 1917, after only two months in France, my friend Anthony Nanson (writer, editor and cousin of  the Edwardian editor and critic Edward Garnett) and I undertook a memorial walk around Dymock, Gloucestershire, where he lived for a brief while with his family at Oldfields, just over the field from his fellow adventurer in verse, Robert Frost.

WP_20170409_10_26_52_Pro.jpg

Setting off on the Poets Path, K. Manwaring 2017

It was a glorious Spring morning when we set off from opposite the Beauchamp Arms (where Frost and Thomas liked to sink a pint or two), the sun was shining as it did upon their famous ‘walks-talking’ (‘The Sun Used to Shine’), the sky was a freshly-scrubbed blue, and the fields were brimming with wild daffodils, daisies, anemones and bluebells.

WP_20170409_11_33_00_Pro

Reading by the Old Nail Shop, A. Nanson, 2017

We walked an indulgent ten hours, from 10am-8pm, at an ambling pace – stopping intermittently to read poems in situ – on a 13.5 mile route that took us around the old stomping ground of the Dymock Poets, as they became known (close to Frost and Thomas lived Wilfrid Gibson and Lascelles Abercrombie, who along with John Drinkwater and Rupert Brooke, formed the loose band of bardic brothers). We followed some of the Poets Paths (2 routes which take in the key sites, although in a poorly-signposted and badly-maintained way), but quickly struck out on our own way, a road less travelled, taking us via the Greenway crossroads, site of the Old Nail Shop (Gibson’s former residence) through Brooms Green and Bromesberrow, before striking out on the ridge up to southern tip of the Malvern Hills and our destination for the day, Ragged Stone Hill, another Dymock ‘hot spot’ (as marked by Gibson’s eponymous poem).

WP_20170409_16_49_06_Pro

The view from Ragged Stone Hill, looking backward towards Dymock, May Hill in the distance, K. Manwaring 2017

It turned out to be a hot day, so we took it easy, finding frequent excuses to stop, stand and stare (as advocated in ‘Leisure’ by WH Davies, a visitor to the Dymocks). Supertramp Davies was not only an epic walker (even with a wooden leg, having lost one while freight-car hopping in America) but also an animal lover (see his poem, ‘The Dumb World’), and he would have enjoyed the many encounters we had today – splendid pedigree horses; a whole colony of pigs, the sows feeding their litters of lively piglets; proud ewes with their sprightly lambs; frisky young bulls (a herd seeking to harangue us from one end of the field to the next until I waved them off). There must have been something in the air, because the livestock seemed to get increasingly frisky towards evening. At one point I had to fend off the challenge of a feisty black bullock with my walking stick.

WP_20170409_17_21_22_Pro

One Man and his Stick, Kevan on Chase End Hill, A. Nanson, 2017

Along the way we talked about many things – the writer’s life, lecturing (we both teach in universities), cabbages and kings and everything under the sun. We read out poems by Thomas and the Dymocks along the way – I choosing mine at random, Anthony selecting his from the contents page. Here’s what we shared:

Early one morning – ET (KM)

The Lane – ET (AN)

The Old Nail Shop – WG (KM)

May 23 – ET (KM)

The Bridge – ET (AN)

The Ragged Stone  – WG (KM)

Iris by Night – RF (KM)

Celandines – ET (AN)

But These Things Also ET (KM)

The Poets: ET – Edward Thomas; RF – Robert Frost; WG – Wilfrid Gibson
Readers: AN – Anthony Nanson; KM – Kevan Manwaring

WP_20170409_13_33_56_Pro

Anthony reads The Bridge, K. Manwaring, 2017

The views from the ridge were magnificent, looking back across the Dymock vale – May Hill in the hazy distance (another favourite jaunt of Frost and Thomas) – the vibrant shades of green upon the trees, the meadows festooned with flowers, every detail picked out by the golden afternoon sun. This part of England, where Gloucestershire meets Herefordshire, is so quintessential it is positively Arcadian (at one point we strolled through a handsome country estate where lambs hopped, skipped and raced about by the shores of a royal blue lake, a pastoral idyll that just needed a shepherdess to complete the picture). To connect the flat fields of Dymock with the dramatic peaks (or rather ‘Marilyns’) of the Malverns was satisfying – a transition that Frost and Thomas would have enjoyed, heading for the hills to get a perspective on their lives, away, for a day’s meandering, from families, bills, deadlines and looming war.

WP_20170409_12_01_02_Pro

Light and shadow co-exist in Thomas’ poetry. K. Manwaring 2017

The flanks of Ragged Stone hill have a Faerie quality to them – alive with Earth energy. Perhaps this is not surprising as it is said to be a nexus of ley-lines, as initially discovered the original ley-hunter, Alfred Watkins (who described his theories in The Old Straight Track). Next to it is the Whiteleaved Oak, said to be the site of one of the Three Perpetual Choirs (as cited in the Welsh Triads), along with Glastonbury and Ely. The harmony of the land was maintained by the choirs there, and to this day the Three Choirs Festival takes place in the area. In a way, perhaps the Dymock Poets, with their songs of verse, were also maintaining the land’s equilibrium. I really do believe that for a brief while they created, with their inspiring creative fellowship, a Little Eden in a quiet corner of England. And whenever kindred spirits gather together to share their stories, songs, verse, laughter and love, it can happen again.

WP_20170409_16_30_41_Pro

A well-earned rest on Ragged Stone Hill, only 4 hours back to the car! K. Manwaring 2017

As the sun set, the trees silhouetted by its evanescent golden after-glow, the ink of shadows oozing from the earth, we made it, foot-weary but happy, to the Beauchamp Arms, were we raised a pint in memory of Edward Thomas.  In Steep and Aldestrop there had been memorial events also on that day, but here in Dymock, Anthony and I, in our modest little way, had perpetuated the choir of the Dymock Poets with our walks-talking, in the spirit of Frost and Thomas.

frost and thomas

Elected Friends, Edward Thomas (left) & Robert Frost.

 

THE CASTLE OF WORDS

ON WRITING RETREAT AT HAWTHORNDEN CASTLE

20151119_131359

Hawthornden Castle, Midlothian, by K. Manwaring, 2015

The Retreat for Writers at Hawthornden Castle was founded to provide a peaceful setting for creative writers to work without disturbance …’ So begins the official leaflet describing the international writers’ retreat situated in Midlothian, the Scottish Lowlands, in the former home of the poet William Drummond (1585-1649). The original castle dates from the Middle Ages, but Drummond made alterations (dismantling some fortifications as though in defiance of its former status as a Border Castle, and adding a new range), and others were added in the 18th Century – the dining room, drawing room and additional bedrooms. Built upon a crag riddled with ‘Pictish’ caves, it dominates a dramatic bend in the river gorge of the Esk, which tumbles jauntily below. With its turrets, courtyard, balcony and ruinous tower, it is the very picture of a Romantic retreat, a fortress of quietude and literary industry.

20151116_080425

The Courtyard, Hawthornden, K. Manwaring 2015

Since The Alchemist playwright Ben Johnson walked from London to Edinburgh in 1619 to visit Drummond, who recorded their Conversations, Hawthornden has been a place of colloquy and inspiration. From its fastness the esteemed Hawthornden Prize is administrated (founded by Alice Warrender in 1919 for works of imaginative literature in poetry or prose by writers under 41 years of age, its prize-winners reads like a who’s who of wordsmiths from the last hundred years) and its magnificent library hosts many signed first editions by both winners and retreatants – the latter are invited to stay for a period of one month to work upon a literary project of their choice in the company of (usually) 5 other writers. Each retreatant (selected by the admissions committee based upon published works, references and project) is allocated a snug room named after presiding geni literati (Yeats, Shelley, Pope, Johnson, Bronte, et al) and adorned with the names of previous guests whose project has gone on to be published … Alasdair Gray, Kathleen Jamie, Andrew Greig, etc, etc … the roll of honour is impressive and a little daunting.

20151116_15394420151116_15391820151116_15402320151116_154003

After breakfast, retreatants are expected to spend the day writing. Lunch is brought up to the rooms in Fortnum and Mason hampers – delicious soup, sandwiches, fruit and the obligatory babybel, which became almost a bartering currency during my stay. There are no phones and no wifi. Any research needs to be done in advance or in the old-fashioned way – from books (the library has an extensive reference section among many enticing novels and poetry collections, art books, biographies, etc … one could easily spend hours if not days there and I half expected to stumble upon a skeleton of a former guest, bony digit forever pointing at a suitable epitaph). If not for dinner, when guests are expected to gather for a pre-prandial sherry in the luxuriant lounge, then make small-talk or exchange literary bon mots over beetroot soup or one of the Cordon Bleu chef’s famous fish pies or puddings, one could spend days without seeing another soul, or hearing another human voice. It is a profoundly peaceful place – with none of the white noise of the apparent world we anaesthetize ourselves to – traffic, roadworks, TV, CDs, youtube, ipods, phone-calls, neighbours, emergency services and parties. Hawthornden truly lives up to its motto: ut honesto otio quiesceret – to be at peace in decent ease.

20151116_123653

My desk overlooking the Esk. K. Manwaring, 2015

 

From mid-November 2015 I spent a month as a guest writer at the Castle to work on a 2nd draft of my PhD project, My Big Fairy Novel as I fondly call it. I was there with 4 other published writers: two poets (Irish; English), a playwright (American) and a short story writer (German). We were supported in our writing by being fed, watered and undisturbed in our rooms. Apart from dinners, no socialising was expected.

20151122_190304

Dinner is served at Hawthornden, K. Manwaring, 2015

 

Using the extensive feedback received from my supervisor, my partner, and an American friend I redrafted my novel dramatically. I began with a MS 146,396 words in length. After removing the last 100 pages (!), as Harry advised (never let it be said I can’t take feedback. I happily murder my darlings) the MS was 120,00 in length. By the end of my time at the castle, I had written an extra 40,000 words, and edited 160,000 words in total. To be so industrious was testimony to the powerfully conducive environment. To have such headspace and focused writing time was, in hindsight, a real privilege and rare luxury (as I know all too well, trying to write another novel in the midst of a busy academic term).

20151122_190234

Retreatants await the feast. Hawthornden 2015

 

On top of this, I wrote 3 new poems (The Corvine Tree; Snow Falling in a Scottish Wood; The Apprentice Pillar) to add to my poetry collection, Lost Border, which I copy-edited while there. It was published by Chrysalis upon my return in time for Yuletide, a two week turnaround. It seemed I had brought some of that focus back.

I also undertook extensive research in the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh Library. There I examined the original 17th Century archives of Kirk’s work: the various known versions of his 1691 monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies; his notebooks and Book of Hours. To hold these works was thrilling – to examine Kirk’s actual handwriting, his thoughts, musings and marginalia, was like looking down the well of time.

20151116_080237

The well in the courtyard, K. Manwaring, 2015

 

I appreciated being able to escape the ‘writing monastery’ of Hawthornden once a week for a trip into Auld Reekie, a 30 minute bus ride away. There I availed myself of caffeine and wifi whisky and good company! I performed stories at the Gude Craic Club (in its old home of The Waverley) and at the Story Café in the Scottish Storytelling Centre (an excellent resource designed to make a sassenach bard like me green with envy); attended a talk on the seminal author, scholar and folklorist John Francis Campbell (best known for his 4 volume Popular Tales of the West Highlands), and met David Campbell, a Scottish storyteller/tradition-bearer, as well as contemporary practitioners with whom I felt at home. Being away from ones friends and loved ones for over a month (I had presented at Literary Leicester and the NAWE Conference in Durham before going onto to Hawthornden) was a challenge – even for a habitual hermit like me – one can feel lonely and isolated, even in or especially in constant company (sharing two meals a day with five strangers can be a strain, however nice they might be individually – and sometimes the last thing you want to do after a day’s writing, is talk shop), but with my fellow storytellers I felt an immediate warmth and affinity.

20151201_191249

Tree of Life evening, Story Café, Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh, KM 2015

 

I delighted in visiting some of Edinburgh’s fine museums and galleries, cafes and bars, but ultimately the focus was always the novel and to it I would return like a dutiful husband to his spouse every day – my constant companion for a moon’s turning (and the rest – 3 years and counting). And the castle itself was the most evocative, ideal space for my project – which is partly set in a castle … in Scotland. It even had a dungeon, and caves within its grounds associated with William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Bonnie Prince Charlie (although most caves in Scotland seem to be). Only a brisk four miles walk away is the breath-taking Rosslyn Chapel, which inspired Dan Brown whose bestselling book, The Da Vinci Code, has helped to substantially boost its revenue and preserve it for future generations. Even genre, then, has its place at the high table.

20151122_131616

Rosslyn Chapel, K. Manwaring, 2015

 

The power of words echo around this ancient, atmospheric landscape – in its ballads and odes, sermons and histories, romances and novels. In an Age of Stupid, such civilised eloquence is an oasis. Long may Hawthornden resist the prevailing tide of barbarity and be a sanctuary for literary excellence, for works which expand and deepen our knowledge of the human condition, cultivate compassion for our fellow dwellers upon this planet, inspire future generations, and for all who wish to gather beneath its Corvine Tree (the ‘company tree’ which once stood outside the castle, where the poet greeted the road-weary playwright after his long journey north). As Drummond himself put it:

The world is full of horrors, falsehoods, slights;
Wood’s silent shades have only true delights.’

Thank you to the admissions committee, to Hamish our host, Mary the cook, and, of course, to Drummond!

20151118_134629

Memorial Plaque in Courtyard, Hawthornden, K. Manwaring 2015

 

Snow Falling in a Scottish Wood

(Written while Writer-in-Residence, Hawthornden Castle, Nov-Dec 2015)

 

20151204_092718

After the snow, Hawthornden, K. Manwaring, 2015

 

The news is given casually over dinner.

Not the bombing, but:

‘It is snowing.’ The first

Of the winter. I venture out.

A white and black world

A game of draughts.

The chill exchange of one mass

For another. Boots sink into

Two, three inches. The castle

Is illumined in fairy tale

Perfection. I hold my

Breath, not wanting to

Break the spell.

The forest beckons.

It is night, but the path

Is lit up by itself – silence

Is dislodged, a thousand

Muffled falls, as though

The undergrowth teams

With wildlife. It is the stuff

That panic is made of.

Risk perverse, I stray

beyond the pale.

The forest revels in its own beauty,

Every lineament delineated by

Kohl and crystal. A deadly

Glamour. This femme

Is fatal. An ice-bound cailleach.

The snow falls unconscionably,

White fists of rage,

A furious silence

Demanding to be shattered.

I slip and stumble

On the chancy footing,

Inches from the tumbling

Black Esk precipitously

Below. A splintering crack

Shatters the night –

Wooden lightning, a tree

Toppled by the weight of the

White nothing.

A cave mouth screams,

Empty eye sockets stare

As I pass. My impertinence

Goes unpunished.

The picturesque provides

a pleasant distraction

As bombs begin to fall

In Syria. There, snow

is ash, buildings, homes,

Skin and bone, up in smoke.

Lives vaporized by a passing tornado.

Whitehall shadow falling

In negative, an optioned winter,

Radicalising the earth.

 

Featured in Lost Borders, Chrysalis, 2015

 

20151203_201125

After the walk, Hawthornden, Dec 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Garden of Stones

derek-jarman-garden-prospect-cottage-dungeness_original

Prospect Cottage, Derek Jarman’s garden, Dungeness

If you have nothing then start with that. The best outsider artists do just that, working with whatever scrap materials are at hand. There are countless back garden Gaudi’s, pains-takingly raising their own Sagrada Familias; and numerous unsung Andy Goldsworthy’s, attempting their own landscape art (as on the Isles of Scilly, where the stone labyrinths known as ‘Troy Towns’ have spread across the archipelago after the first was apparently fashioned by pebbles by a bored light-house keeper). There is something about beaches that is conducive to art – perhaps not surprising when one considers the numinosity of liminal places. We have been drawn to make art and icons and leave offerings at such thresholds for millennia – as acts of propitiation against forces beyond our control (death, illness, war). Prompted by a diagnosis that he was HIV-positive, visionary film director Derek Jarman (1942-1994) moved to Prospect Cottage, a small shack near the Dungeness Power Station, in the late 80s. There he continued his film-making, celebrating his new location in a feature-length film, The Garden (1990), writing, and art, creating a sculptural garden on the shingle with small circles of flints, painting poetry onto the black timber (John Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’), and basically transforming a wasteland. Of his beloved garden, Jarman said: ‘Paradise haunts gardens, and some gardens are paradises. Mine is one of them. Others are like bad children, spoilt by their parents, over-watered and covered with noxious chemicals.’[i] In the shadow of a nuclear power station and his own terminal condition, Jarman’s garden was, and still remains, a poignant and brave act of creativity.

[i] http://www.gardenvisit.com/garden/derek_jarman_garden_prospect_cottage_dungeness [accessed 15.02.2016]

Previous: Finding TAZmania

Next: Towards Shamanarchism

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2016

This article was commissioned by Doggerland. An alternative version is available in print form in their latest issue, along with other thought-provoking contributions.  Check it out. Available from:  http://www.doggerland.info/doggershop

Keep in touch with Doggerland – an inspiring initiative by & for radical artists and writers.

http://www.doggerland.info/

 

The Sci-Fi Croft

wp_20160913_19_34_55_pro

Sunset, the Croft, Gairloch Bay, K. Manwaring, Sept 2016

 As I was up in Edinburgh doing research in the archives for a week I thought, what the hey, why not have a Highland fling? But instead of tossing the caber willy-nilly, so to speak, I decided my ‘fling’ would involve a 9-10 day solo writing retreat in a remote croft on the coast of Wester Ross. Boy, I know how to party! Actually, I can’t think of anything more pleasurable (solo). It would be my third visit to the croft – a private residence and long-time family shieling which I had the good fortune to gain access to through a chance encounter at a Resurgence Readers’ Summer Weekend, where I was performing five years ago. Belonging to a musician and eco-minded soul, the old fisherman’s cottage, nestled within its private cove at the end of ¾ miles of rocky track overlooking Gairloch Bay, radiates many a well-spent summer, family holiday and contentedly peaceful time simply looking out over the sea-loch. That view – from the conservatory – would be all mine for the next few days as I wrote at the desk there. Rush-hour at the croft would involve a family of sheep munching their way past (or, excitingly, a pine-marten hopping over the shore-line, a heron taking flight, a pod of porpoises breaking, a seal spyhopping, or a shy sea-otter ruckling the smooth membrane of the brine).

wp_20160910_10_43_18_pro

Rush-hour at the croft. K. Manwaring, September 2016.

Every couple of days the local fisherman would come and check on his lobster pots – perhaps the only person I’d see from one day to the next, unless I trekked the seven or eight miles into town to check my emails and recharge my phone at the Gale Centre, a fabulous community initiative located in the old tourist information centre, or savouring the soul coffee, ‘mountain scones’ and ambience of the hip Mountain Coffee Company, with its John Muir quotes and well-stocked bookshop. The croft has no electricity – only gas, for the oven, and, mercifully, shower. So I couldn’t rely upon my netbook to stay the distance. The last thing I wanted was for it to cut out half-way through a chapter. So I wrote long-hand, which I got into after the initial sluggishness melted away. I would heat a hot-water bottle in the day to keep warm when the temperature dropped (it was at times ten degrees cooler than the south) and fire up the log-burner at night. Gas-light and candle-light made some evening reading possible, but not much writing, so I mainly worked in the mornings, making the most of the light and a fresh-head (well, not that fresh after a wee dram or two for a night-cap). But a pot of strong coffee soon enabled my brain to achieve lift-off.

wp_20160906_09_36_20_pro

View from the conservatory at the Croft, Gairloch Bay, K. Manwaring, September 2016

For it was in this low-tech setting that I worked upon my new science fiction novel, which has suddenly found its way to the top of my ‘to do’ list after winning Literature Works’ One Giant Write SF novel competition, which I entered in the summer with three chapters and a synopsis, not suspecting I was actually going to win. I’ve entered so many such competitions, so I usually try and forget about them after I’ve sent off my entry. I literally discovered I’d won a couple of days before heading north, so rapidly had to prepare materials for my three-week trip, in case inspiration struck.

And it did! Well, I would say it didn’t exactly strike: I had to cosh it over the head and drag it back to the croft – press-ganging it into service on a daily basis whether it wanted to or not. Perhaps the Muse had other plans and was just about to gambol over the hill to shower her favours on some wandering poet. Instead I forced her into my chilly, hellish paradigm – subjecting her to long exposure to deep space and nightmarish scenarios. Poor gal! And yet she did oblige me, after some cajoling (i.e. Apollo levels of ‘rocket fuel’).

WP_20160913_13_43_52_Pro.jpg

The light across the bay was, at times, breath-taking, but perhaps distracting!                          K. Manwaring, Sept 2016

At first, sitting down at that desk, staring at that blank page, was, I have to admit daunting. There I was, ten-days in a croft, with nowhere to hide. It was like looking at a map of Antarctica. But, one step at a time, even the vastest continent can be crossed. And so I plodded on, pushing ink, dragging my sled of ideas. I find it can often take a day or two to get into the zone. At first it feels impossible to write – what an absurd notion! Who are you kidding? You’re not Hemingway, standing manfully at your Remington, hammering away, chomping a cigar, but a sleepy Slow Loris, gummy-eyed in your hammock of dreams. The page yawns. The impotent pen hangs there uselessly. One wades through the bog of ineloquence. But eventually, almost always, something happens, and you start to bog-trot, jog, run, and then, next thing you know, you’re flying.

I found my remote location, and the logistics it entails – long exhausting treks to the nearest town for provisions, lugging back groceries over the rocky track; lashing the cover to my bike in high winds; drying dripping clothes by the fire; going to the loo beneath profoundly dark skies slashed open by the bright wound of the Milky Way; the endless soundtrack of buffeting wind, rain rattling on the conservatory roof, big humanless silences – strangely apt and very conducive to my project.

WP_20160910_14_35_31_Pro.jpg

Running in the Torridons – not for the faint-hearted! K. Manwaring, September 2016.

There is something perhaps blindingly obvious about the massive, dramatic landscapes and seascapes of Scotland that makes you think big, outside of the box, beyond the human. Dwarfed by the mountains – in Gairloch’s case, the jagged peaks of the Torridons – the human presence on the face of the planet is put into perspective. We are less important than we realise. The fragile structures we create are shanty towns compared to the majesty and magnitude of the natural world. And yet humans are undeniably having a significant and long-lasting effect on the biosphere. The mess we have made of this, our one precious home, will outlive us for millennia. This is indeed the Age of the Anthropocene. The outlook does look bleak. Boltholes like the croft are certainly enticing when one thinks of things to come. Some have already gone off grid, or are skilling up for power down. It is enough to bring out the survivalist in all of us – but unless you have the skills, land and community to match, it is a delusional fantasy. And a misanthropic one. No man is an island. When one lives in such an isolated place one realizes how important human contact is, how vital a friendly neighbour. Paradoxically, the further away from people you live, the more you need them. To jumpstart your car if you have flat-batteries, to pick up some groceries if lacking mobility, some medicine if illness strikes, call a doctor, or simply to spend a few minutes chatting, asking how you’re fairing, maintain your connection with the human race.

wp_20160910_15_40_47_pro

The End of the Road? No, actually just the single-track down to South Erradale (admittedly, a road which terminates at Redpoint…). K. Manwaring, September 2016.

In contemplating bleak outlooks for humanity, I realised I was following, in my own small way, in the giant footsteps of George Orwell, who, during 1946-1949, spent time on the isle of Jura, at Barnhill, whilst working on his dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty Four. I can see why his location would have served him well. But I found myself seeing beyond the ‘boot stamping on a human face – forever’, as Orwell’s big brother imagined the future. Instead of a (predictable, default) dystopia, or a naïve utopia, I found myself envisioning something more balanced, or subjective, an ‘Ustopia’ perhaps, to use Margaret Atwood’s witty, hybrid term. One (wo)man’s utopia is another wo(man)’s dystopia, after all. And we carry our demons with us. A central idea of my novel is that: no matter how far in the universe we travel we will always have to confront our shadow.

WP_20160913_16_44_16_Pro.jpg

Lighting the darkness. View from Gairloch Sands. K. Manwaring, September 2016

The paradox of paradise is – if you find it, you destroy it. But I was determined not to leave this little Eden any the worse for my visit, which meant emptying the loo, replenishing the log-pile and packing out all my rubbish and recycling, as well as the usual cleaning, turning off of gas and water, ensuring all surfaces were free of mice-temptation, and any preservable food-stuffs sealed safely away. It reminded me of living on a narrow-boat. You had to take care of everything yourself – living lightly, leaving only diminishing ripples and good will in your wake.

I left the croft after nine nights and ten mornings with a third of my novel written (at least in ‘dirty first draft’ form). However squawling, red-faced and ugly my words at this stage, I had made a start. My last full day was blessed with golden sunshine and a glorious sunset. I girded my loins for the long ride south (over 600 miles on two wheels), but for one last evening, savoured the stillness, the silence and the solitude.

wp_20160910_10_54_28_pro

Croft-life. Out of this world. K. Manwaring, September 2016