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Where Books Start

Guest blog by Autumn Barlow

I sorted out my books this weekend. We’d added ranks of shelves to the alcove by the fire, and were able to finally give homes to about 300 books that had been teetering in piles since I moved in with my husband two years ago.
I was struck by how many pagan and alternative books I had, and how many of those I had forgotten about. The number I have read must double the number I own; books borrowed and books given away.

I was seventeen when I bought my very first book that could be considered “pagan.” I had read an article with a witch in a magazine and wanted to know more; the book suggested in the “further reading” panel was “The Complete Magic Primer” by David Conway. I was nervous as I ordered it in my local bookshop, and that nervousness was compounded when I gave my name to the bookshop owner and he stopped me before I gave my address: “it’s okay. I know where you live.”

Bugger.

After that, I went through Rae Beth’s “Hedgewitch” and Marian Green’s “A Witch Alone: 13 Moons to Master Natural Magic.” At university in Wales, I was distracted by other things and thought I lost my way.

Hindsight shows me I found my way. I became immersed in folk tales, culture, stories, myths and nature. But none of that involved circles and candles and spells so it “didn’t really count.”

The interest in magic matters reared up from time to time. Feeling lost and spiritually empty, I’d scour second hand bookshops and gobble up everything from Ly de Angeles to Caitlin Matthews. Alone in a cottage by a canal in the Midlands, I’d spend evenings on the internet, reading blogs that tended towards purple text on black backgrounds. The irony was lost on me. All I needed to do was step outside.
But it was cold outside.

I became an oral storyteller and I continued to grow herbs because my attempts at vegetables and flowers always failed miserably. I attended some moots in pubs and houses. I encountered a rather ill chaos magician and wandered into some online forums where everyone was a guru of their own universe and I was no wiser as to me, my place, or my point.
So I gave up. I stopped calling myself a pagan. I didn’t follow any of these books’ rules and I didn’t subscribe to any group and I didn’t have a membership card or anything. I clearly was one of those “dabblers” that are looked down upon so snootily. I had no path and no teacher and I didn’t even observe the Wheel of the Year with a homemade altar. I was just one of those “wannabees.”

Where Words End

As I moved around the country, I found solace in attending Quaker meetings. Here, the group sits in patient silence. Sometimes, someone might be moved to speak. Their words may, or may not, have resonance for others. Words are recognised as tricky things. Labels identify and deliminate – if “this” is good then “that” is bad. “This” is “here” and “you” are “there.” Marking the boundaries of our own experience with utterances that only really mean any truth to our own ears restricts our growth and our potential for connection.
“But it’s all we have to communicate,” I am told, “so we must make do with imperfect tools.”

I used to agree with that, and grow sad. The authors of all these books are struggling with all they have to share their visions and must be commended. It’s not their fault if we, the unwise reader, takes their words as – well, gospel, God’s spell – and follows them to the letter. They write with assurance but it doesn’t mean it’s true and what we take from them is our own business, right?

What nonsense. Of course we communicate without words and we have all had this, and it can be a truer experience than any poem or song or 500-page book. That glance. That shared sunset. That tear and that breathless panic. You don’t need words when you just know and this opens all communication up with everything.

No one can tell you how to communicate with a tree because firstly, it’s using words to describe wordlessness, like using cheese to make the sound of a trumpet. Secondly, no one can tell you how to communicate with a heartbroken child either.
You feel helpless, in either situation – tree or child – but you find a way. Somehow. Critical in both is pushing your own ego aside.

Behind Words

So I’ve put all those books up on the top shelf. There are nuggets in them; I’m not dismissing them. But I remember how I rushed from book to book, from author to author, searching for the one secret, the key, the wave of the wand that would reveal everything and make my life all wonderful and easy. It seemed easier to read than to do.

Nothing worth doing is easy.

The books on the lower shelf are far more useful. Fiction and non-fiction, here are the how-to books with not a word of confident instruction in them. Yeats and Charles de Lint, Angela Carter and Marina Warner, Alan Garner and the most prolific author of them all: Anonymous, who, through the centuries, has gathered stories and fables, recipes and remedies, in collections and reprints.

I still don’t go to moots. I still don’t label myself with any one path or grade or level. I read, I walk, I dream, I sing wordlessly, I listen, I dream a bit more, I work hard, I ride, I sometimes think a bit. If anyone asks me what I am, I fluster and change the subject – usually to the topic of bicycles.
My scepticism about words prompts my finger to hover over “delete” even now.

But look. This is just my way. Your mileage… as always… may vary.


A life made of stories

All autobiography is to some degree a construct. As soon as you start talking about your ‘real’ life there’s a process of editing, and as with all kinds of history-making, more is bound to be left out, than mentioned. I’m very conscious of this when blogging, because I write from my own life a lot. I pick which points to dwell on. I decide which experiences are important or interesting enough to seem worth sharing. Consequently my life probably comes across as a lot more engaging than it is. But then, much of the life of an author involves sitting down and churning out words, and that bit is no kind of spectator sport! All normal human life is full of dull but necessary bits, and unless the laundry is your art-form or you’re really into cleaning, it’s not easy to talk about that in engaging ways.

We all tell stories about our lives, whether we consider ourselves to be ‘storytellers’ or not. We tales of who we are and where we came from. Those tales can root us in land, culture, family, community and faith. Such stories can be powerful, grounding forces in our lives that underpin identity, sense of purpose, sense of self. We tell stories that explain things. These can be helpful. I’m claustrophobic because I had a bad experience in the London underground. I don’t have to feel ridiculous or irrational, I have an explanation. However, if my story is that I can never make friends because I was bullied at school, or no one will love me because I am fat, that story can become a toxic thing that prevents me from taking the risks needed in order to move on. If my story is that it is never my fault and people are so unreasonable wanting me to behave decently, then I’m going to be fairly psychotic.

The stories I tell are constructs. They are true stories, but just by making a selection, I change the effect. Most often what I do aside from missing out the boring bits, is remove from the story those people along the way who I haven’t much liked. They become vague allusions, unnamed, ill-defined. It is a power that I know causes offence because I’ve had some very specific feedback, from one of the few people I don’t talk about in detail. People only like me, she said, because I am so selective in the stories I tell, I construct a falsely good impression of myself. If you really knew me, you’d hate me as much as she did, she felt.

I think she was missing the point. I don’t write this purely in order to be liked. I write to be useful. I’m guessing most of you do not read this because you are interested in my life, per se, more because you are interested in what light stories from my life might shed on your stories from your life. That’s a good deal more useful all round. Used that way, it doesn’t matter how factually ‘true’ a story is, only how useful it is. My stories are limited by being from my perspective, but other perspectives are available and a few of those cast me as villainous, selfish, demanding and unpleasant. I don’t expect to be able to keep everyone happy.

What I have for you today is a story. It is a true story, except that I missed out the boring bits, and I pared the cast down to a few interesting figures. A lot else happened during the time frame I’m talking about, but for the sake of coherence, I left those bits out too. This is a story about spiderwebs and the tenuous strings of connection that hold my life together. https://soundcloud.com/cradle2gravestories/nimue-spiderwebs-allow
It’s hosted by cradel2grave stories, who make a habit of this thing – people telling tales from their lives. It’s a really interesting project, so do have a poke around!


Time, blogs and habits

I get the odd comment now and then about how I manage to blog pretty much every day. The short answer, is habit. It is easier to maintain just about anything if you can acquire it as a habit. Here I am, dead beat and late in the day, and sorely tempted not to write a blog, but this is something I do every day, and so I show up.

I’ve explored prayer, and meditation. Both are easier to maintain if I set aside a specific bit of the day for them. I’ve been a dabbler in music most of my life and I know that practice is easier to manage if there is a habitual pattern around it. Good sleep patterns are also habits, and I try to cultivate those with habits of behaviour at the end of the day designed to encourage sleeping. Exercise is most easily maintained through frequency and habit. So is housework. In fact the majority of things that take up our time can be structured into routines to ensure that we keep doing them.

The first issue this raises, is one of time. There are only so many hours in a day, and how you deploy each is now in question. If your habits are unconscious, then you won’t automatically know what time is devoted where. Television, facebook and computer games will easily suck up a lot of time without that being noticed. All too often, our habits of time use are not considered, and not serving us. However, once you consider how you deploy your time and what your habits are, you have to start weighing and valuing how time is used. How much time is spent commuting? How much goes on reading? What does cleaning cost you in terms of time? We only get to use it once.

The second issue, is of order verses chaos, and I don’t get on with too much order, which means I can’t live to a tight timetable.

Every choice to make something a habit and give time to it every day, is a choice that excludes other possibilities. It doesn’t matter whether we do that consciously, or not. If we do it consciously, we get to decide and that’s got to be an advantage. Every half hour I devote to writing a blog is not spent on writing fiction. Every hour on fiction is not spent on music, every hour of music is not spent on cleaning. There are balances to strike between needs of the body, the soul and the bank balance. The need for rest, the need for play and for more stimulating experience. Duties to honour, and inspiration to seek, and no minute replaceable.

There are no right answers, and the habits of time that would suit each of us best depend very much on our needs. I chose blogging, for at least a small fragment of my day. I don’t tidy up as often as I might.


Druid community (and beyond)

There are a startling number of you reading and following this blog. Some of you, I am delighted to say I know personally, or have at least met in passing. Some of you I’ve spoken with enough online to have a sense of. Many of you remain enigmatic, quiet mysteries…

I thought it would be interesting to invite you all to get in the comments section, and de-mystify a bit. If you are a blogger, put your link in and a few words about your blogging topics. If you do art, or music, or anything else with a shareable link, do the same for that. If you’d like to leave a few words about where in the world you are and what you’re up to, that would be splendid.

I can’t promise I’m going to be able to comment on every comment (if you all pile in there’s going to be lots) but I shall most definitely be interested to read. So, go for it…


Writer stuff, may contain subversion

Mark Lawrence is a writer I like and admire, and he’s also someone who has managed to get a big, shiny publishing deal for a fantasy trilogy, so when he talks about writing, I pay attention… http://mark—lawrence.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/rules-to-write-by.html It’s a fine blog, do have a read. It’s a fair depiction of the writing life, the uncertainties, insanities and challenges. If I had believed how crazy a business it is, I would never have started. But, I was sure I could do it and that what I had to say was worth saying, and more than a decade later I’m pottering along selling the odd book. Fame and fortune are rare in writing, most of us will stay obscure. If we get lucky, we get a niche audience and reason not to quit.

From Mark’s blog I learned that his first 2 attempts at novel writing did not make it into public spaces. Talking to other authors, and people who want to be authors, this is a normal, healthy, necessary part of the process. Odds are you won’t even finish the first draft of the first book, because you learn so much just by trying it, that by about three quarters of the way through you know that it sucks. No one would expect to write an opera starting from cold, or to design a shopping centre. Writing is as much an art form as every other art form; a bit of practice, experimenting, messing up and learning is required. Only by doing this, do we find out if we were good enough. Giving ourselves permission to mess up is essential for being able to try things, and to grow. So try it, and don’t worry about ‘failing’ because getting a couple of barely finished, unsatisfying books under your belt is part of the initiation process.

The internet lets us put our every thought in public, barely considered. It’s tempting to rush that first book over to amazon and self-publish it, confident that the world will rush in to buy it and it’ll be like 50 Shades of Grey all over again. Except it probably won’t. I think we all expect that somehow, by magic, that will happen to us. It doesn’t, and those apparently fluky stories of wild success are seldom quite as they seem to be. It takes years of hard work to become an overnight success.

I’d encourage anyone to write who felt inspiration to take up pen or keyboard. Writing for the love of it is a wonderful thing. Writing for the joy of sharing with some likeminded folk is well worth your time. Be it a blog, a local poetry group, or your offspring, writing to share is sublime. It is possible to write for money. I know a few people who actually do quite well at this. The reality is not overnight success, or wealth, or ease. It’s years of working hard for long hours and getting little pay, or holding down a regular job and writing when you can, and there are no guarantees. As Mark points out, there is no magic formula for fame and fortune. Bad reviews, hideous rejection letters, books that flop… it is an industry that will keep hurting you, no matter how good or successful you are.

But if I haven’t put you off, and you still want to write, here’s my 5 things to do…

1) Read everything you can, especially in the area you want to write in. This will help you avoid repeating what already exists, falling into cliché, and failing to understand the section of market. It will also help you if you ever need to try and sell your book to a publisher.

2) Be interested in everything. The world is full of ideas, inspiration, possibilities, events, people. A good imagination is nice, but the more you know about reality, the better able you are to imagine well and convincingly. On top of this, research what you’re writing about, it helps to get technical details right and gives you more material to work with.

3) Either write your autobiography, or write fiction. A thinly veiled reworking of your life in which you become a famous author, or turn out to have super powers, is not going to be a good read. Or, get it out of your system as the first book, safe in the knowledge that you’re never going to show it to anyone.

4) Write often enough that you can honestly say ‘I am a writer’ not ‘I am someone who has a fantasy about being a famous author.’ You’ll irritate fewer people, and actually get something written. I’m not an advocate of ‘something every day no matter what’ although I do blog most days. Just not when I’m feeling ill or really stupid.

5) Don’t do it for the money. There are lots of things you can do for money where there’s a decent chance of getting paid, and where the work you don’t won’t suffer from your desire to make a small fortune. Do it for some money, sure. It’s good to be rewarded for work. Write for paying markets, sell your work, but if money is all you care about, you probably won’t write good stuff. You’ll write what you imagine is going to sell, and there’s a lot of that out there already, and it doesn’t sell anywhere near as much as people think it will. Readers don’t want easily marketable, commercially viable books. Readers want, and buy, good books that interest and entertain them. Ironically, if you want to be a wild commercial success, you can’t afford to think about too commercially about writing.


The Quest for Inspiration

I notice over on her blog, Cat Treadwell is pondering inspiration – http://druidcat.wordpress.com/2013/06/30/the-joy-of-inspiration/. Here I am, dog tired, with a ton of things I need to be doing, struggling to get together a blog post. Yesterday there just wasn’t time. I try to blog every day because I think it is important to write every day. It’s like flexing more physical muscles, and keeping in the habit, helps. Making the effort to find a good idea and write about it, keeps my brain clunking along. This is rather a ‘cheat’ blog, because the reason for writing it is actually how short of inspiration I am.

Much of my mental energy at the moment is being diverted into getting the stuff from the boat to the flat – and all attendant stuff sorting. Quite a lot of my mind is occupied with trying to wrestle the Canal & River Trust into acting more decently. I am making progress, they want an in person meeting, but I am sore pressed for time. However, other boaters can and will go in my stead, so I may be able to pass the baton there. All well and good, but between the two, energy for wordy creativity on the blog is not what it could be. I’m so worn that finding the energy to work on typing up the current book (first draft was on paper) is an effort. So much for this being the high energy time of the year.

I have a good relationship with the awen most of the time. If I seek inspiration, it comes, and I do something – be that a poem, a blog, a blanket or an innovative meal. I don’t generally suffer from a shortage of ideas. Often the bigger issue for me is picking through the rush of possibilities to find things, or combinations of things, that will work. There are days when that just doesn’t happen, and this is one of them. I know what the problem is – if I try and run to hard and too long without resting, I lose the ability to manage the idea flow. If I do not nurture myself with good input, that also doesn’t help. I need more rest time, and more absorption time. I have been reading Jonathan Green’s excellent Pax Britannia books, and have read Craig Hallam’s Greaveburn and Meg Kingston’s Chrystal Heart, which have all helped keep me going. Tonight I shall curl up with Genevieve Tudor’s wonderful folk program (google it, you can listen online). Tomorrow, back into the maelstrom no doubt. In fact, this afternoon I have to get back under a bed to tackle the things that dare to dwell in such places… may the gods have mercy on me.

It’s not difficult to get ideas for books, or blogs or anything else you might want to do creatively. The world is full of ideas, old and new. The trick is having the peace of mind to be able to encounter those and reflect on them, the skill to separate good ones from useless ones, and the wherewithal to then turn that idea into a thing. And lo, I find myself somewhere over my target minimal word count, and possessed of a blog after all. Inspiration, it’s often just a case of doing the work and a lot less mysterious than it seems.


The grand blog-crawl

This is a bit of a cheat blog, because I won’t be posting a proper one today – I’m at the druid network conference in Birmingham, and anticipate being very busy and probably not having any internet to speak of. So, it seemed like a good day to tout about the links for a heap of other things I’ve been doing. I did a shout out for people who were willing to take blogs from me, helping get the word out about new books. The response has been great, and I’ve still got more blogs to write. These are not promo posts, exactly. Each one is unique, and each has actual content. This isn’t all of them, I’ve not managed to be organised enough about stashing links… (If I wrote for you and haven’t listed it, please, please stick the links into the comments section) Graphic novel romance http://tonivsweeney.com/tvsweeney@tonivsweeney.com/Blog/Entries/2012/10/11_Graphic_Novel_Romance.html – about the history of myself and Tom and love via a graphic novel! Interview http://towriteawrong.blogspot.com/2012/10/interview-with-author-nimue-brown.html Thoughts on the process of writing about Druidry… http://ravenwillowrunesroost.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/writing-druidry-by-nimue-brown.html Ancestors of land for those whose land is not, historically speaking, Celtic. http://ditzydruid.com/2012/10/23/ancestors-of-land-a-guest-post-by-nimue-brown/ I also blogged for http://earthshineephemeris.blogspot.co.uk/ and did not leave myself a note as to the topic. Yes, it’s been a long month… Words for Iva’s blog about the origins of Hopeless Maine… http://bornforcopper.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/inspiring-hopeless/ Marc Vun Kannon lent me his blog where I talked about having more than one ‘me’ for writing and the chaos this causes… http://authorguy.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/who-am-i-today/ I talked about ancestors of kitchen for the Kitchen Witch blog… http://www.kitchenwitchuk.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/kitchen-ancestors-by-nimue-brown.html I’m entirely open to requests. No site to small, no topic too weird (probably). If you fancy having something from me tailored to your site, or publication, or anything really, do ask. It’s a shameless bid to build the readership, but it does mean I’ll be sending people your way – spread the love and all that – and I like the challenge. Writing content for people is something I enjoy doing. And, to everyone whose links I did not manage to add to my file of links… I am really sorry, but I did tout you on facebook the day the blog went up, and I am a bear of limited brain….


A shout out for help

Hello, this is a somewhat different sort of a thing today.

 

I know that many of you reading this have blogs of your own – some of you I follow diligently. A number of you have been kind enough to reblog my posts in the past, and on occasion, enthused enough to write responses to my ponderings. I’d like to write you something, if you’d be willing and able to find it a home on your own site or another space.

I can do articles, poetry and flash fiction to order, I’ll try my hand at any topic, within reason. If you would like something for your blog, magazine, website, egroup or any other space, please just say. Let me know what sort of thing and what sort of length, and if its remotely feasible, I’ll do it.

If you were wondering why… Over the coming months, Tom and I have two books coming out. The long awaited first instalment of the Hopeless Maine graphic novel series is on the way. We’ve been working towards this moment for years. There’s also a much more recent project – Druidry and the Ancestors.

Now, the book industry, is a bitch. There are something like 250,000 books published every year, and some of them have advertising budgets and authors who are already well known and other such advantages. We are not in that position. We have publishers who can and will promote, but they aren’t massive houses with money to burn, and neither of us is terribly famous.

Tom and I will keep doing the stuff we do, but obviously, if we sell a lot of books, it’s going to make it easier to focus on the things that really matter to us. We also want to share the things we’re passionate about, and that means finding ways to reach out to people. This is why we’re asking for help. Word of mouth advertising works. If you like what we do (and, if you’re reading this, I assume we have that one covered…) and you can find one or two other people who might like it, and they can find one or two people… this is pretty much how 50 Shades of Grey just went viral. Advertising budgets of course are nice, but what really spreads the word about a book is people who like books, talking about them.

I spent a number of years writing custom fiction. I can still do it. I also write a lot of articles as it is. So, if there’s something you’d like to see from me and are able to put somewhere, it would be a great help if we could make that happen.

And, if you have a thing you want to raise awareness for, do ask, because I’m more than happy to post things here, and to do shout outs for other people. There are always slots here for guest blogs and I’m always happy to do email interviews for other people.


Meta-blog meanderings

On her blog this week, Cat Treadwell described blogging as a sacrifice, giving time and work freely for the sake of making information available. It had never occurred to me to think of what I do here as ‘sacrifice’. I do it because I want to, and it conveys a number of benefits. I feel almost morally obliged to point this out now. I also think it might be useful to explain what I get out of this and why.

I’m a professional writer and editor. Now, the editing side comes in steadily, but writing requires not only inspiration, but research, discipline, development of ideas and themes. That doesn’t happen by magic. So, when I’m exploring a topic, I use the blog to hammer out ideas as I go – a useful thinking space for me. It is important that I write every day – part of the discipline, and part of my sense of self. If I am not writing every day, I find it harder to relate to myself as a writer. In periods of creative block, the blogging has been a sanity saver. Finding a topic, and getting something intelligible out in a blog sized piece, is a technical process, and a good writing work-out. That helps hone my skills.

Putting thoughts into a public space like this enables me to test them and get feedback. This protects me from the risk of slowly vanishing up my own posterior, or getting delusions of grandeur. If I’ve not thought a thing through properly, if I’ve missed something, or the logic is poor, this is when I find out, which helps me a lot. If I’ve not explained well, someone tends to say. And further questions take me deeper into ideas – again, all win for me here. I am absolutely blessed in you folk who stop by to comment regularly. The richness of ideas that others post in response to my words is a daily source of delight, encouragement and insight. I float an idea out, and all kinds of new, inspiring and sometimes surprising things float back to me, and this is wonderful, and thank you. So I am nourished by that process.

Every now and then I write something that resonates with someone else, or that proves helpful, and I get feedback to that effect too. This is of course a source of joy and ego boost, but it also tells me I’m doing something useful. This matters a lot to me. I did not set out as a writer with the main aim being wealth and fame. I’d be writing much more conventionally were that the case. I want to put something good in the world. I want to inspire others. So the writing has to do something, it has to be more than amusing me. If I know I’m doing that, it keeps me on task. Also, I watch to see what feedback I get on my work, what people like, or respond to, what directions are the most response-inducing, and I learn from that, so it all feeds the process.

I enjoy the exchange, responding to other people’s blogs, to things in the news, hearing ideas from whole new perspectives. Writing can be a lonely business, but blogging is all about interaction, and that is good for the soul. I don’t feel like I’m one special person alone poised to change the world, I’m one person who is part of a vast discussion, one thread in a great tapestry of tradition. I know myself to be part of something, but I have a sense of perspective that I think does me a lot of good. Lonely authors in high towers can, by the looks of some of the biographies I’ve read, get a very inflated sense of their own usefulness in the world.

Last but by no means least, I write books. The blog may be free, the books aren’t. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that writing a book does not lead to instant success. Selling a book is a job in itself. There are only so many times you can intrude into a space and say ‘hey, everyone, buy my book, it’s great and you’ll love it’ before someone takes you outside and slaps you about the face with unwashed socks. And rightly so. That kind of thing is dull. Blogging makes me a better writer, and I do it in part to lure people towards the stuff that means I get to eat. I’m not going to pretend otherwise, and occasionally I do post ‘here is a thing you can buy’ blogs.

So as sacrifices go, this isn’t one. I assume if you’re here it’s because you get something out of what I post, and that’s as it should be. I don’t want anyone coming round to witness the martyrdom and mop up the blood. If I get a day when I can’t be hassed to post, or I’ve had a better offer, I go do that instead. In the meantime, have I mentioned that there are books you can buy? (so much for a stealth marketing strategy!)

I also realise that how other people understand sacrifice is very different from my perception. I have work to do, on that subject.