Category Archives: Bardic

The writing of chants

I’ve been writing chants for a while now, with varying degrees of success. I started because the chants I was encountering didn’t do what I wanted them to do. I wanted seasonally specific material that connects directly to my landscape. I find chants difficult to write because my inclinations are to use more words than anyone else can easily pick up, and to write tunes that aren’t easy to sing when you’ve never heard them before, so I’ve had to push back against that.

For chants to be available to people who haven’t had weeks to learn them, they need to be simple. Not too many words and plenty of repetition. Tunes need to be simple enough that less confident singers won’t be put off by them. However, chants that are dull don’t inspire people, so there’s a balance to find here.

For ‘Turn with the year’ I used the repetition of the word ‘turn’ to give something easy to latch onto. There are some significant intervals between notes here, but I think they’re the kinds of gaps that make immediate sense to the ears of western, northern hemisphere folk. It’s also a tune that’s very forgiving of people singing something else alongside it – which is often where harmony lines come from.

For my recent Beltane chant, I relied on echoing a song I think a lot of Pagans will know from The Wicker Man – Summer is acomming in. So I think it feels familiar, and apart from one line, the tune is really simple. When I tested this one on friends, they picked it up in a couple of goes.

The folk tradition has a broad and deep history of songs designed for people to pick up quickly and join in on. These are often more complicated than the Pagan chant. They depend on one person knowing the words, and an obvious pattern – there might only be one or two new lines in any given verse. I was thinking about shanties when I wrote Three Drops. The line ‘Fire in my head’ repeats three times in every verse and every verse ends with ‘three drops of inspiration’. There’s one new line at the start of every verse – three drops, into the forest, salmon in the well and drink from the cauldron – people get the ‘fire in my head’ sometimes even in the first verse on first hearing.

So, the questions to ask when writing a chant are, I think – what do you need to say? How can you say it in the fewest possible words? How can you make it easy to pick up? How singable is it? How interesting is it? Will people enjoy joining in with it?

I don’t think the point of a chant should be to send people into a trance born of boredom and monotony. Chants should be about the power of raising our voices together, the feeling of involvement and togetherness this brings. A good chant uplifts and inspires people. If you can hum a tune and string a sentence together, you have the key skills to try writing your own.

Advertisements

Videos for May

I made these two videos for the Pagan Federation online disabilities festival in May.

This first one I started much earlier in the year, charting the growth of the garlic – I haven’t got the final part of the process where it dies back.

 

This second video is a chant. I wrote it specifically for the event after Debi asked whether anyone could do one.

 

 


Keeping creative

Over the years, I’ve tried all kinds of approaches to creativity, and the only thing I am sure of is that different people, at different times in their lives will find they have different needs. How best to serve those needs will be individual. There’s a big aspect of self knowledge in finding ways to be creatively effective.

Some people respond well to deadlines and are suddenly able to work like demons as the deadline looms. I am not one of those people. I meet deadlines, but I dislike them and they don’t really motivate me.

I benefit from feeling at least a bit accountable to someone else. Rather a lot of you show up to read this blog day after day, which gives me a reason to make sure that there’s a blog here for you to read, or in your inbox as you prefer. I’m finding the Patreon stuff works the same way – I put up a small piece of new writing (usually a poem), a longer piece of fiction (usually Hopeless Maine related), an excerpt or a video, and a newsletter week by week, cycling round that each month. This has proved sustainable and feasible and I deliver. I’m hoping that sending physical stuff to people is going to open up some new ways of working, too. (Patreon stuff is here – https://www.patreon.com/NimueB )

Other accountable things have worked less well – I once wrote a novel in about eight weeks, and when offered the chance to keep doing that for about a thousand pounds a go, I declined, because the first one left me so burned out, sleep deprived and jittery that there was clearly no way I could keep working at that pace. I know other people who can, and for whom it works – all power to them, but it’s not for me.

During the period when I went to a folk club every week, I learned new songs regularly and I practiced music more often. I’m not as motivated to do that if I don’t have somewhere to go. At the moment, I have access to a regular poetry gathering, which means I’m writing more poetry than I used to, because I have somewhere to share it. Yes, I’m a sucker for the applause. It gets me moving. I don’t create well in isolation.

Much of my best work happens when I have someone to create for. Often if I’m working on a wordy project, I’ll have specific readers in mind. People I want to impress, or amuse, or delight.

For me, creativity works best when it feels like part of a dialogue with others. When I’m responding, sharing, participating in something that is more than me and not just about me. This is no doubt part of why I love working collaboratively – when you work with someone, they are there to be created for, I can try to impress them, I get feedback from them and the inspiration that comes from seeing what they do.

I know for a lot of creators, the process is far more private, and exists between them and their muse. There are of course no right answers here, no correct ways of working, but it helps a lot to figure out what sort of person you are and what enables you.


Changeling, Changing

Three days after the birth, faeries emerged from the wood

To steal the baby, leaving in its stead a thing fashioned

Of mud and twigs and old, dead leaves.

 

At first, no one noticed. It was a quiet baby.

It slept a lot.

Years passed before they realised the truth,

Felt the texture of bark and leaflitter

Under the illusion of baby skin.

They meant well, and so raised the changeling,

The baby that never was. Raised the twig child,

Telling it gently of its nature.

 

The twig child watched the wood margins,

Waiting to be taken home, expecting one day

To fall apart into mud, and twigs, and old, dead leaves.

 

Years follow years and the twig child continues,

Cannot explain itself, feels its difference, grows

Looking human but feeling twigs, mud, dead leaves.

Meets its reflection in a woodland pool, surprised

To see lips and eyes, cheeks and soft hair.

Like some proper human.

Wonders long, and uneasy

At changeling tales, sees no twigs, no mud.

Crawls into human skin for the first time,

A lost child, coming home to itself.

Wondering if there ever was a stolen child or why

It had been told such stories, considers

It may no longer be an it.

It could have a name.

It could be a person.

 

It could be a me.


How to be a poet

Creativity starts long before you sit down with the tools to make a piece. For the sake of coherence, I’m going to focus in this post specifically on what needs to happen before a poem is written.

A poet needs a love for and skill with language – I would say more so than any other kind of writer. A poet needs to be alert to the sounds, shapes, and rhymes of words. They also need to be conscious of the implications and possibilities each word they use may hold. Sensitivity to language and to the way it can be used is something to be involved with every day.

Poems tend to be smaller than other forms of writing. They call for precision. To be precise, you have to know what you want to get across. To do that well, you need to understand what the most important features are, or what will most readily evoke it. That in turn requires paying attention.

I think I can tell the difference between a poet who had an idea and sat down to flesh it out, and a poet who starts from keen observation and then whittles it down into a piece. The second instance produces poems that are richer and more surprising, because there’s an alertness to detail that you can’t have unless you’ve been working on it all along.

Any experience has the potential for poetry in it. The person who lives in a state of awareness, noticing the details, the nuances, the processes, is well placed to draw on that wealth of experience.

The person who only looks at their own experience, and does so in a fairly superficial way, tends to write poetry charged only by the feeling of the moment. What they won’t necessarily know how to do is make that accessible to other people. If you work only at the surface, you get the hot anger and the cold resentment, soft feelings of love and hollow feelings of loss… but there are many, many poems out there that talk in superficial metaphors about common human experiences. To have something new to say, you need to know more than this.

Poets also need to be people who read poetry. Other reading certainly helps, but encountering – as text or performance – really good poetry makes a lot of difference. Poetry can take many forms, and exists in many cultures. The shape of the piece is often part of where it comes from and what it needs to say. What you’d try to express in a Japanese haiku is not what you’d be trying to express in Icelandic rap, which is not what you’d find in the rap styles of urban America. Slam poetry has its own rhythms and purposes, but has a different flavour to poetry inspired directly by beat poets. And so on, and so forth. Know the form you mean to write in, and get to know as many other forms as you can, because it all helps.

You should be able to read back your finished and edited poem and justify every word and comma in it. You should know why each is there and why it couldn’t possibly be replaced by some other word, or a colon. You should be confident that no word could be taken away without harming the whole and that equally, no word could be added, without it causing more harm than help. You should reach this point confident that your poem does what you intended it to do, and that a reader or listener will be affected in the right way by it.


How to create

There are silly numbers of blogs out there offering advice for writers. They say clever things like, if you want to be a writer, write! Write every day. Write a set number of words every day. Write what you know. No one would say the same thing to a musician. Want to be a guitarist? Just get a guitar and play it every day! Want to paint? Try to paint at least fifteen square inches of canvas every day! Want to make craft items? Make what you know… It doesn’t work, and why and how it doesn’t work is pretty self announcing when we talk about anything other than writing. No one thinks that everyone has a found objects sculpture in them.

To create, it helps to have a body of knowledge about the possibilities of your preferred medium and what people already do in it. If you’re excited about a form, then obviously you want to know about it. You want to read it, look at it, wear it, sniff it – as appropriate (or not!). You’ll need some of that insight before you start, and then you keep working on it as you go along. You also look for relevant content from other disciplines. A songwriter might decide there’s stuff to be learned from reading poetry and going to gigs in other musical genres. A violin player might decide to broaden their understanding of music by learning the piano as well.

Learning skills is essential. If you want to choreograph, you need to learn how to dance, and learn how people express dance to each other in written form. Whatever you’re making, there will be tools available to you and you need to know how best to use them.

You need feedback as you go along. Yes, the idea of vanishing into the creator cave and emerging, blinking into the light a year later with the perfect, finished thing is appealing, but it doesn’t work like that for most people. Trustworthy people to share with can save you from going off the rails. We all need peers, and mentors. Even if those people aren’t doing exactly the same thing, it is good to have them in the mix. Feedback can keep a person going when it all starts to get tricky – which it will, sooner or later. Sharing the challenges, lessons and insights can be a great advantage all round.

You need to know what your creativity is for and where it is going. You may be just doing it for yourself. That’s fine. Don’t, however, think that you can make it purely for yourself and then put it out into the world and magically find that everyone loves it. Building an audience takes time, and work, and if you don’t actively seek people to share your stuff with, they will not manifest out of the ether when you need them.

There is no point in this process where you get to stop studying, learning, experimenting and practicing. If you’ve finished with all of that, you’ve finished developing, finished being relevant. You might get some mileage repeating yourself – we can all think of authors who have essentially written the same book over and over. In the short term it can make commercial sense to stay in your niche, doing what people expect you to do, but for most creators, this will turn out to be the beginning of the end. If you aren’t excited about what you’re doing, why would anyone else be excited about it?


How to tell a story

Humans are drawn to stories, but the ability to tell them is not innate. This blog was prompted by seeing author Mark Lawrence on Twitter yesterday pointing out that if telling stories was easy, we’d never be subjected to boring retellings of other people’s dreams. This connects, for me, with two recent incidents of reading comments about how children can’t tell you what they did at school today because they do not know how to tell their stories.

There are many situations in which we need to relate stories from our lives to other people. Much of that is social and about entertaining others through anecdotes. You may need to tell your story to the police, or to a jury. You may need to tell your story to get funding, keep your job, or get a new one. A well told story can be a powerful tool. There are of course no simple tactics that will work for all circumstances, but here are some places to start.

  1. Think about your audience. What do they want and need from you? What kind of story do they want to hear? In a legal or professional context, it has to be relevant and appropriate. In a social context, stories exist to amuse, or to share something personal with someone you trust. Oversharing, and making people listen to you for a long time can be antisocial and defeats the object.
  2. Unless you are talking to a counsellor in a counselling session, assume that people do not want to play the role of your counsellor. If you are going to tell that sort of story in a context that is not already involved in sharing difficult stories, at least ask if it’s ok before you start. Do not assume that people want to do emotional labour for you by hearing about your bad stuff.
  3. How does the audience need you to tell the story? If you’re talking to the police, they need a blow by blow account with all the details you can remember. If you’re telling a story in the pub, the gist and the punchline are likely to work better. In most normal situations, people do not want to listen to you trying to remember who said exactly what and when. Less is often more. Rehearsing the story in your head can help with better delivery.
  4. The longer a story is, the better a teller you must be to sustain interest in it – even if it’s a good story. Brevity is the soul of wit. If you’re just trying to be the centre of attention, this will show, and people will learn to leave for the loo when you start a tale.
  5. Being spontaneous and off the cuff can seem like the best and most natural way to share a story. If you don’t normally tell stories, then relating your funny work anecdote or strange dream won’t come naturally. It pays to rehearse. If you think something is worth sharing, run it through in your head. Figure out the order to tell it in before you open your mouth. Be alert to key events and work out what, if anything, makes the story potentially attractive to someone else. This can also weed out boring, pointless stories before anyone has to sit through them.
  6. Try and remember who you’ve told your stories to already. If the story about how you made a walk in wardrobe was dull and annoying the first time, that’s nothing compared to how much people will hate it when they’ve heard it half a dozen times already.
  7. Listen and be a good audience. People who insist on leading all conversations back to themselves and their stories are not enjoyable company. Story sharing has to be a process of exchange in order to work. If you’re going to say “that reminds me of…” then it had better be a good link. The more tenuous it is, the weaker your story sharing feels.

Hopeless Sinners

I’m excited to announce the arrival into the world of Sinners, the next volume in the Hopeless Maine series. It’s been a bit of a journey – having been picked up, kicked into the long grass and then dumped by Archaia, we found the awesome home that is Sloth Comics. But, it made sense to reboot the series and put the first two books out again. It’s been a long wait to get something new out there.

Let me mention at this point that Personal Demons and Inheritance were the Archaia titles, now gathered into one volume at Sloth called ‘The Gathering’. When we left Archaia they sent us a letter to say they’d stop selling our books, but those books are still being sold and we get no money for them. I’ve no issue with people moving second hand books about, but the length of time Boom (who took over from Archaia) kept them out there was dodgy to say the least. Also, while it says on Amazon that you can buy these – it doesn’t always turn out that there’s one to buy. People trying to buy old versions have had problems.

Sinners picks up with the characters who survived the first two books and continues their stories. By this point they are young adults. You can jump in here without having read the first two stories. I’m confident about this, because Sinners was the first thing I wrote for Tom. He went to a comic con, saw the power of the cute and wanted to do a young Salamandra story, which is where the first two books – written as prequels – came from.

Getting comics out into the world makes merely trying to publish a novel look very easy. A graphic novel – or fat comic – represents six months to a year of full time work (ten hour days, five and six day weeks) for the artist. We’d have to sell tens of thousands of copies for that to turn into the minimum wage. We can realistically expect to sell a few thousand. The only way to do something of high standard as an indy comics creator, is to be willing to accept poverty as a consequence. A lot of people are making that choice because they want to tell their stories and put beauty into the world. For comparison, Tom has worked for larger publishing houses and on projects that paid advances, and even then, he wasn’t on minimum wage when we figured it out by the hour. The book industry in the UK alone is worth billions a year, but creators are treated as disposable by the companies with the most money.

These are issues across the creative industries. People have to work part time at something else to pay their bills. We want nice things, but we don’t pay for them. The internet makes it easy to have nice things at no cost – and in many ways this is a good thing. Creators are not the only people wrangling with poverty, and lack of financial power should not mean a life devoid of good things, I feel. It’s one of the reasons I’m happy to put time into this blog every day. I want everyone to have good stuff.

I work part time as a book publicist to pay the bills, and I create with what time and energy I have left. I buy books, art, tickets for live music, CDs. I have no desire to exploit other creators, but I also have limited funds to pay them with. If those of us who can pay a bit here and there do, it helps keep creative people going. Part time comics artist is not a realistic trajectory when it can take a whole year of work to create a single book. If you’ve only got a couple of hours a day, it could take more like a decade. As a part time artist you don’t have the opportunities and time to develop your craft or much time to create anything.

And on that merry note, here’s a pre-order page for the new Hopeless Maine book https://www.bookdepository.com/Hopeless–Maine-2/9781908830142 

Here’s The Gathering https://www.bookdepository.com/Hopeless-Maine-Nimue-Brown-Tom-Brown/9781908830128

(you can get them anywhere that sells books)

And here’s my Patreon page in case you can spare me some small change every month. https://www.patreon.com/NimueB


Inhabiting the song

If you have a decent memory, it’s possibly to learn songs, tunes, poems and stories at a fair speed, and thus to perform them from memory. For some purposes, that’s enough. Storyteller Martin Shaw in his various books talks about a much more involved process. Sitting with the story, living with the story for a year or two, telling it to the landscape it came from, telling it to wildlife and working up to sharing it with a human audience. In this approach, it isn’t enough to know the surface of a tale, you have to climb inside it and enter the heart.

Something changes when you undertake to make a piece part of yourself. I’ve found it with tunes and songs, and I’ve found it with the stories I’ve carried with me though my life. They become points of reference, they develop new meanings, and carry with them the resonance of where I’ve sung or played them, who I was with, and so forth.

I have a whole set of seasonal songs, some of which I’ve been singing at their proper time of year for more than a decade now. The process of singing them year on year builds associations and insights that go beyond what a single year of singing can do. This isn’t necessarily a clever and thinky process, it is more often a body knowledge of song and season, memory and place. Sometimes I come up with new interpretations of songs I’ve known for a long time because life experience shows me something that gives the song a different sense.

Singing with other people changes my experience of a song. This may be practical – different versions of tunes and words, different pacing, unfamiliar harmonies. Another singer may bring new meanings to the song simply by how they use their voice. Sometimes, a different voice changes the feel or even the meaning of a song. There’s also a thing whereby if someone nails a powerful harmony line, a song can come alive for me in an entirely new way.

For me, an important part of the bard path is this process of forming a deeper relationship with the material. It is in part the process of being shaped by the material. The O’Carolan tunes I’ve played since my early teens have settled into me, in ways it is difficult to describe. The songs I’ve sung since childhood are part of my sense of who I am. The occasional songs I write are partly a consequence of what I’ve internalised, and what I need to express that I can’t express with existing material.

 


Of novels and graphic novels

One of my longstanding projects – Hopeless Maine – is a graphic novel serious, devised and illustrated by my other half, Tom Brown. He lured me in to write it for him long before we thought about living together. It is a big part of how we’ve ended up married.

Initially, I was intimidated by comics writing. You have to mostly focus on dialogue and there’s not much text on any given page. I felt naked and exposed without a narrator. It’s a totally different way of telling stories, much more stripped down and focused than novels. To get a story in a hundred or so pages of sequential art, is a very different process from novel writing. Inevitably we can lavish much more attention on what things look like.

What I can’t really do as a graphic novel author is spend a lot of time inside the heads of characters, exploring their feelings, history, motivations, and so forth. Whole relationships may have to be defined in just a few facial expressions and physical gestures. One of the things I’ve always liked doing as a novelist is taking journeys into people’s heads. I’m as interested by inner process as I am by action.

At the moment, I’m working on a Hopeless Maine novel – which is going to be illustrated. With an illustrated novel, there’s more room to write, and the art supports and enhances that, but doesn’t have to do the bulk of the work. This has the added benefit of requiring far fewer hours of art to make it viable. There are two Hopeless Maine novellas already – set in the lead up to, and the same time frame as The Gathering. Those will emerge into the world eventually.

Novel writing gives me a chance to dig into the details. Hopeless Maine has a lot of details in it that I’ve not been able to explore. We’ve only seen a tiny portion of island life so far. What goes on outside of the main town? What do young people do for fun? I’ve worked out a story that will give me more Hopeless grandmothers, and some scope for narrative mapping. I started working on this book with an aim to make it a bit like Around the World in 80 Days, only around the island. As the story has found its own shape, I’ve moved away from the Verne, and the feature of the original scheme I am most likely to keep is a hot air balloon, which Verne didn’t have. The principle of exploration remains, and for exploring the way islanders, and by extension, the rest of us, talk about landscape.

I re-read Around The World in 80 Days last summer as part of my warm up to doing this book. It turned out not to be an adventure story, but a tale about a man obsessed with timetables. Verne’s hero doesn’t really want to see the world, and thus the author is largely spared from having to describe anywhere he’s not visited. It’s rather clever, and I found it funny. As a child reader, I’d missed that entirely. There’s a definitely charm in having a main character who is looking the wrong way or interested in the wrong things. Will I carry that idea into this novel?  Don’t know. I don’t plan books in too much detail because for me, the pleasure of writing is the act of exploration, not the business of sticking to the timetable.