Tag Archives: awen

Bardic: Performance and the Awen

The awen (a Welsh word) is invoked by Druids in ritual, usually by chanting it. This is one of the traditions we owe to revivalists, not to ancient history. However, the experience of flowing inspiration is something that can and does happen – during periods of creativity, but also sometimes when performing.

For me, it’s a sensation of being completely taken over by what I’m doing and being able to do it in a totally different way – with more drama, intensity and depth than usual. On rare occasions, it’s had some very odd effects indeed. I recall a ritual when three of us spontaneously improvised music together, and another ritual where I re-wrote one of my own songs as I went to better fit the situation. I had no real memory afterwards of what I’d sung.

Awen is something that turns up when it does – it cannot be summoned by force or will. You have to be open to it, welcoming of it, ready for it, and also perfectly able to keep going if that other level of magic doesn’t happen. Sometimes it comes as a trickle, adding a sparkle to what you were doing. Sometimes it’s a tidal wave that will wash you away.

When it comes, it is best to let that flow direct things rather than trying to control it. If you want the kind of magic controlled by will and personal intent, this is not something to try and court. If you are willing to be a flute the awen can play its own tunes through, it may do just that.


Three Drops of Inspiration

This piece is somewhere between a chant, and a shanty. I wrote it with the intention of finding something it would be easy for people to pick up and join in with, and having tested it – this is so! It also tolerates harmonies, which is good for group singing.

My son James is singing the melody line, I’m singing harmony, as is my husband Tom. I don’t always look quite this tired!

Although there aren’t many words, those words are loaded with implications, so here’s a quick breakdown.

The drops of inspiration come from the cauldron of Cerridwen in Taliesin’s myth. The three drops confer knowledge, insight and magical gifts. In the Taliesin story, the young boy Gwion is set on a transformative journey to become a great poet, by the three drops, imbibing a magic that was not intended for him.

Into the forest… because Druidry is so much about trees, so you can think about ogham, Druid groves, and the such. Druidry is sometimes described as being like a vast forest through which we make our own journeys.

Fire in my head – a reference to Yeats going into the hazel wood with a fire in his head. This image has been absorbed into modern Druidry as a symbol of being inspired, having the poetical fire burning in your head (Taliesin has a shining brow). This is the Awen at work.

Drink from the cauldron – we’re back to Cerridwen again, brewing inspiration in a cauldron, although magical and transformative cauldrons and cups crop up in lots of stories.

Salmon in the well – another inspiration story in which nine hazels grow around a sacred well, dropping nuts which the salmon eat, and the salmon become super-wise, so eating a salmon from there will bring you great gifts. There’s a parallel story to Taliesin of a young man cooking a salmon for someone else and getting the hot fat on his hand, and all the wisdom of the salmon goes to him. I suspect this is why Yeats was going to the hazel wood.


The essential muse

For every creative person out there, the exact method that creates ‘ping’ moments of magical insights, varies. Druids like to call the fire in the head ‘awen’ but this is by no means the only term in town. For the ancient Greeks, the flow of creativity came from 9 muses – all women – whose business it was to inspire men to creativity. As a female creator this is not an image I can easily work with, but in modern parlance, ‘muse’ is often used just to describe that which inspires.

Much of my inspiration revolves around people. Other people’s creativity is essential to me. I don’t write well if there isn’t an audience, and if that audience interacts with me so much the better (thank you, lovely blog-following people, for giving me reasons to keep doing this.) People I can write for specifically, make worlds of difference, too. That I write for Tom Brown is a key part of how Hopeless Maine works for me. I write it for him, and because of him, and his responses are essential. In much the same way, I wrote my sections of Letters Between Gentlemen for Professor Elemental/Paul Alborough. Of late I’ve been writing comedy Druid poetry for Aontacht, and having editor Lisa’s enthusiasm and responses has made that possible, where otherwise it would never even have occurred to me. I’m going to name check John Holland of Stroud Short Stories, and Paul Mitchell of Mad Magdalene as being other important influences at the moment.

Regardless of the form you prefer to use, being creative is always a process of putting a bit of your soul into the world and asking other people to interact with it. Not everyone will love what you make – for all kinds of perfectly good reasons. Finding the people for whom your creativity is a blessing, is such a powerful thing to do. Being able to take what you do to someone who loves and values that makes it possible to keep creating. Even if no one is buying, even if the rest of life sucks, those threads of valuing make all the difference.

For me it tends to work best when there’s a flow of some sort. Unlike the ancient Greeks, I don’t hanker after a muse who sits round being pretty so that I can do things because of them, and that be it. I do a lot better when inspiration moves back and forth between people, when one creative thing sparks another. I don’t believe in the idea of the lone creative person in their garret / ivory tower/ bat cave. I think we all do a better job of creating when we do so in community, when we make things for and because of each other and share that goodness around.

Thank you, all of you, for reading and being part of my creative life.


Seeking inspiration

Inspiration, also called the awen, is a key part of modern Druidry. While this has obvious relevance to the bard path, inspiration is a necessary part of life for all people in all things. Without inspiration, all we can do is what we’ve always done, or what we are told to do. Innovation, stretching, experimenting, and exploring all require ideas. Thus the quest for awen matters to everyone, Druid or not, bard or not.

Those of us who work in deliberately creative ways have something of a canary in a coalmine function. It used to be that canaries were taken underground because if they got into trouble, or died, the men could get out before the gas present killed them. The more sensitive, delicate creature becomes the early warning system. If your canary stops singing, there’s a problem. I suggest that a culture where the creative professionals are routinely hurting is probably hurting everyone.

How do we seek inspiration? This is an ongoing issue for me. You’d think, as I get older and more experienced in life and craft alike that I’d have more insight, more ideas, more to write about. I find it harder to write now than I did ten years ago. Compared to twenty years ago, what I could do ten years ago seems half hearted. Why? Because ideas and inspiration need time. There has to be free thinking space to play with voices and concepts and tease them out into a story. If I try to go at that in a deliberate and workish way, the outcome is drab, and flat. If I have to write like a machine, I am not a good author. I’ve been trying to be a machine, and I’m now stopping that.

Of course if being an author full time paid the majority of authors enough to live on, there would be space for thinking, daydreaming, reading, researching and poking about. Only a tiny minority get this space. There are only so many hours in a day, and the necessary day jobs take up mental energy and attention. In recent years it’s become the case that authors at all levels have to do a lot of work selling their books, and that takes time and attention too, and reduces the brain space for thinking about things that might one day be stories. And because the creativity is key to what I do, I notice, and so do other creative people.

Of course it’s not just creative industries folk. No matter what your job is, the pressure to do more at greater speed is probably part of your life. Is there time or space for you to innovate at work? Even if it’s your job to innovate, the answer could well be ‘no’. And when you’ve worked, and commuted and shopped and sorted out your home, how much time and energy is there left for being creative, or thinking about what you might do differently? All too often the answer is ‘none’ leading to the grateful plop into a soft chair and some kind of passive distraction until sleep and then repeat. If you don’t see yourself as a creative person, you might not notice this. We all have the capacity to be creative, and we should all have the space to think.

If all we have time and energy to do is ‘the things’ then we don’t stop and think about what we are doing. If we don’t have space to wonder, question and imagine, our lives are made up of what we’re told to do and what we’ve always done. If you can find time to pause and look around you’ll quickly see that neither people nor planet are benefiting from this. We need radical change, but that’s hard at a grass roots level when everyone is too busy and too tired to seek inspiration or imagine something different.

Look around at the multitude of TV spin off books, the films that are re-boots of something else, the manufactured pop music and industrialised creativity churning out more of the same. Many of the canaries have stopped singing. Sooner or later, the poison will get everyone if we ignore it. So we can choose to keep doing what we’re told and what we’ve always done, shuffling forward exhausted and ever more brain-dead, being the zombie apocalypse, or we can stop. We can fight for even the smallest fragments of time to think, question and wonder. We can seek inspiration. We can resist and we can choose differently, but not while we’re running like crazy on the treadmill. To be a Druid is to be taking back the time and space for thought.

(And to round up that metaphor, ask who benefits most from canaries and workers in coalmines, because it isn’t the canary, and it isn’t the miner.)


Daydreaming and meditation

With thanks to Rachel Patterson, who caused me to sit down and think properly about what I’ve taken to doing over the least year or so.

Daydreaming is a very specific skill, and an essential one for any kind of creative work. To daydream well is to be able to open the mind to loose associations and possibilities, while crafting enough coherence around that to come up with something usable. It is the fine art of ‘what if’ and it can be used as much to figure out where we are emotionally, what we want to be doing and other life issues as well as being the jumping off point for art.

I’ve been meditating for a long time, such that I drop into contemplative states of mind readily. While I use very deliberate meditation practices sometimes, they have limited appeal to me because I know what I’m going to get. While deliberately calming the mind is useful, I get bored easily and am also more interested in trying to open up my options, rather than narrowing them down.

What I’ve been doing for the last year or so, is sitting out – how long depending on weather and what my body can tolerate, usually. Sometimes there’s a view, sometimes I’m just working with the shorn grass outside the flat – and both are equally workable. I take time to settling myself, to slow my breathing and be aware of my body. I focus on being aware of the place I’m in, and then I ask of the place, or of the awen, or perhaps something else, to share with me. I sit and wait, not trying to focus or control my thoughts thereafter, seeing what comes up.

Where this takes me, varies. Sometimes it results in insight into my emotional state, some making sense of my life as those loose and free flowing associations bring something up or clarify something. More often, by being very present I witness something that is happening and as my daydreaming mind has space to play with those experiences, some kind of wider insight emerges.

Over the weekend I sat with a stream, and became aware of how light and water combine in an incredibly generous and forgiving way, turning building detritus into little sparkling gems at the bottom of a stream. I saw that currents within the main flow of water are only visible when something is caught up in them, and that life is most evident when you notice it moving against the flow. Deliberateness, and self determination being important to me. I sat on the hill and saw the ancient sea bed that made the limestone and held some tenuous awareness of time, of how brief and irrelevant humans really are, and this thought consoled me. I saw that for the bird or the fox, what we build has no meaning as a human construction, it is just potential resource, habitat and challenge, while for the ant in the grass we do not exist at all. This also comforted me.

To adapt to human environments does not make a good or a bad fox. There is only the fox, doing what it can with what it has, and I take something from this about my own relationships with wild and urban spaces. There may be no inherent virtue or failure in how I relate to either.

For me, inspiration (awen) is at the heart of my Druidry, and much of what I do involves seeking it, and working with it. Using meditation to hold a space in which my daydreaming can be inspired, and can allow me insights and respite, has become really important to me over the last year. I hadn’t really thought about what I was doing, but a recent comment from Rachel Patterson about the relationship between daydreaming and meditating caused me to sit down and really think about this, and recognise that for me, there are some important relationships between daydreaming, meditating and inspiration.


Sharing the awen

Like many Druids (it’s never all, nothing holds true for all…) I consider awen, inspiration to be a sacred force. That creates a context for any situation where I find awen present. People who inspire me in an ongoing way hold positions of great significance in my life. People who respond to what I do by seeming inspired, I also recognise as being in that awen-shaped relationship. I live by my creativity, not just in the sense of paying the bills, but in how I approach life, how I deal with depression. Without the flows of inspiration, my life is grim.

My two most obvious collaborations to date have been www.hopelessmaine.com with my husband Tom, and Letters Between Gentlemen with Professor Elemental. There have been other shared projects along the way. What’s also important to me is the working relationships shaping spaces – so Trevor Greenfield, publisher at Moon Books has a key role in my creative life, and increasingly so does Simon over at www.nerdbong.com

Some sharing of awen is about being involved in the same work, or just happening to be affected by another person. To sit down and do it deliberately is a whole other thing. For a start, it means exposing my process. I don’t usually put work in front of anyone else until it’s at a level I feel is ok. However, to make room for a collaborator, it is necessary to let someone in far earlier than that, when the flaws and holes in a piece are still very present. It means letting go of control and being willing to see things change and not be as I imagined them. I am continually surprised by how the island of Hopeless looks, but it’s way better than anything I would have come up with. But, you have to trust a creative partner to surrender something to them.

So, what is it that I look for? What am I trusting when I set out to share awen with someone? Their brilliance, for a start. The Professor hadn’t written anything book shaped before, but I trusted his wild imagination, humour, and skill with words. He in turn trusted me to hold the shape of the project and guide him through the more technical bits. I trust Tom’s technical skill as an artist and I trust that his visual imagination knocks spots off mine. He trusts me to make sense of things and handle plot arcs – he’s great at setups but can’t plot his way out of a paper bag… while my visual imagination is poor. And so we bring both weaknesses and strengths to the table, holding both honestly. It’s an emotional exposed and exposing sort of process. You have to be able to negotiate, and let go, and no one gets to be entirely in control of what happens.

In my experience, control and inspiration don’t go together very well anyway. Letting inspiration in as a solitary Druid or creator, is an act of relinquishing control. The inspiration does not always do what you expect or take you where you intended to go. Awen flows most freely when you don’t try to direct the flow but instead allow it to direct you. There is an aspect of surrender to all religions and forms of spirituality, and whether working alone, co-creating or when sharing ritual, whether you are willing to surrender to inspiration, and whether that turns out to be a good idea, can define so many things. Surrendering, it must be recognised, is not reliably a good thing, inspiration doesn’t always lead to ideal outcomes, eureka moments do not always hold the key to true understanding. We can get all of these things wrong, so letting go has to be tempered with a bit of wisdom.


The Awen Rug

IMAG0386For some weeks now, much of my time away from the computer has gone into making a rag rug for my son. He’s very fond of the awen symbol, and of the squishy beneath the toes quality of rag rugs. This is the second rug I’ve made this way, and there’s been a lot to learn about textures, fine tuning methods and techniques, and working out the colours (not perfectly captured in this image but you get the gist). I still have a lot to learn on how best to handle colour. It’s a bit like pointillist painting only the colours are fixed by the fabric you have, and they go down in rows so you have to be thinking ahead. You can’t do fine detail, that’s clear, but I think I could do far more than I’ve done here…

For scale, those are Tom’s toes at the bottom of the image!

The backing was a peanut sack, my local pet store otherwise throws them out, but is happy to give them to me instead! I opened it out and hemmed the edge before starting. Every strand of fabric in there was cut by hand, worked into the hessian by hand – it’s very labour intensive, very rhythmic work that creates  a lot of thinking time. All of the fabric in this rug is stuff that could very easily have otherwise gone into the bin – small scraps, off-cuts, faded, damaged, stained, worn-thin materials from clothes and bed linen. None of it could be re-used in anything like its original form, but a rag rug transforms what is otherwise rubbish into a cheerful and snuggely addition to your home.

I put down the awen first. That meant most of the time I was working in the space an awen creates, which has given me many hours of pondering the space created by an awen, and seeing things about the nature of that space that I had not seen before. The shape of where an awen is not, is also really interesting. So much New Age thinking talks about being free from edges and boundaries, defying limitations and so forth. An awen is only itself because of its edges, and only makes sense because there are places it is not.

There’s a trancelike quality to any rhythmic and repetitive crafting. There is space to think – and that too is an interesting absence created by the shape of the thing in your hands.


Turn with the year

I wasn’t planning this chant at all. I was pottering about in the kitchen doing something else entirely, when it happened to me – most of the words and most of the tune simply landed in my head. Full on awen, and considerable surprise!

Turn, turn, turn with the year, turn with the seasons, turn with the earth.

Turn, turn, turn with the tide, light into darkness, death to rebirth.

It’s rather short, and singing it three times as it is would be dull, and still rather short – and this is so often the problem with chanting. However, I knew the tune would take harmonies. There is only one of me, and I do not have headphones suitable for recording with. So the only way to do this was to write the other lines singing against the idea of the tune in my head, record them one after another and shunt them about in garageband. I also did a bit of a round. I like messing about with chants in this way when there are other people to sing with, and most chants can be played with. What I’ve done here is by no means the definitive ‘how to do harmony on this chant’ more some examples of the kinds of things that can be done, to this one, and to others.

In chanting, remember, there are two kinds of harmonies. There are the warm, familiar affirming harmonies, and there are the spiky, unexpected and exciting harmonies. And with that philosophy, there are no ‘bum notes’.

 


Always be drunk

“You should always be drunk, with wine, with poetry, or with virtue as you choose.” – Baudelaire.

The first one is easily achieved, and it’s worth noting that gods of grape and sacred insobriety turn up all over the place. Alcohol warms the body and eases the mind, makes us more sociable, relieves the pain of aching muscles and helps us to be merry. We shed our fears and inhibitions and are more open to having a good time. The Romans had ‘in vino, veritas’ – in wine, truth. That which slips out when we’re pissed may be a lot more real than our closely guarded lips would normally allow. But don’t always be drunk with wine, you’ll develop a tolerance that lessens the impact, and you’ll wreck your liver, and some things work better when you can walk in a straight line…

Drunk with poetry, with inspiration, vision, the fire in the head – this is awen, and the quest for it is very much part of the bardic path. Be drunk with wonder, and with beauty. Let all that is glorious infuse your spirit so that you are floating on it in an altered state of mind. Seek out exquisite things, or create them, and let the natural highs of your inspiration carry you away. Except also bear in mind all those folklore stories about places you can sit out and either come back a poet or a lunatic – because if you try and set up camp permanently on the high plateau of poetic insobriety, you will go quite entirely mad. Now and then you must come down from the mountain to wash your socks and deal with all those other necessary, earthy issues.

Drunk with virtue, with the perfect awareness that you are acting in honour, that right action and right thoughts have brought you to a state of grace. Knowing that even if it is hard, the sheer virtuousness of doing the right things for the right reasons is worth the price. The intoxicating qualities of virtue are, oddly enough, the least socially acceptable. We are used to those who are drunk on wine. We can be amused by the tripped-out poets, or impressed, if they create anything good, and we expect creative folk to be a bit mad anyway. But virtue? Oh, dare to be drunk on virtue and expect the distaste of those you encounter. ‘Smug’ and ‘self righteous’ are the words we keep for people who dare to be off their faces on the joy of doing the right thing. Of the three, it may also be the most dangerous, the one most likely to have you courting hubris and hypocrisy. It’s essential not to be perpetually drunk with virtue, or you risk buying into your own PR and becoming the exact opposite of what you set out to be.

Fall from alcohol and you’ll have a hangover. Fall from poetry and you can be sorely depressed and disorientated. Fall from virtue, fall from saint to sinner and you will lose so much more in your own eyes, including the respect of anyone who has seen you in your elevated state. Cast yourself as a saint, and those inevitable feet of clay will leave the odd dirty print.

Be drunk, as you choose, but I do not think one should always be drunk. It all seems to work so much better if you surface for air now and then and some alternative perspectives, the washing of socks, the eating of the sandwich, the recollection of the feet of clay…


Honouring the inspiration

Inspired by Talis Kimberly, I find myself thinking about how we manage the flows of creativity, and what constitutes an honourable response to inspiration. For some, the awen is hard won, and the finding of ideas is a difficult process. For others, awen is a constant fountain of possibility. I suspect most of us move about between those two points, depending on other variables in our lives.

If you believe in the awen as a sacred force, then when inspiration comes, it does so as a divine gift, as a moment of significance, a spiritual engagement with the universe. To ignore that (as Talis pointed out on facebook yesterday) is a kind of blasphemy. Awen does not arrive to be a fleeting amusement or an opportunity to feel smug about how clever we are. It arrives with purpose, and to do something.

But, to do what?

Over the years I’ve found that those original flashes of inspiration are very seldom the whole. It’s like a door opening a crack. Often there then follows a process in which I have to work out how to open that door a bit further so that whatever wants to come through, comes through. Simply taking the first moment of inspiration and writing a song, a poem or a short story would be leaving the door just that crack open and never finding out where it went. This is all very personal, other people will work in other ways.

While I work in all kinds of forms, fiction and non-fiction, from tiny haikus through to epic novel series attempts, the novel was always my form of preference. Novels are not just one good idea. They are lots of ideas. The first flash of possibility isn’t going to turn into a novel all by itself. I have to wait, to seek more, to give the first ideas time to ferment and grow. Sometimes they wither away instead, and while that’s not a comfortable process, I’ve come to find it inevitable.

For me, the process of working with the awen involves quite a lot of time just sitting with it, being with the ideas and the possibilities until I start to see lines of connection between them. Taking the raw clay of an idea and playing with it to see if it might turn into a teapot or a really nice urn. Taking the sparks of inspiration and seeing if I can light a fire big enough to burn down half of my old ideas, and boil a kettle while I’m at it.

What I have seen, plenty of times along the way are people who do not take their inspiration forward. Folk who will devote hours to reimagining political systems, but who won’t put that anywhere more than a couple of people can see it, and would never muddy their hands with actual politics. People who imagine writing novels, but never put pen to paper. But then, for the greater part these have also been people who have never considered the idea of inspiration as inherently sacred. I should not, I know, judge too harshly, but it frustrates me nonetheless.

We only get this one life in any way we can be wholly certain about. Why wander round in a cloud of daydreams but never do anything to manifest the ideas that come to you?