Tag Archives: skills

Fire in my head

The lack of fire in my head has been a problem for many years. I used to dream, plan and create from places of intense inspiration. I used to go there a lot. What happened to me is no great mystery – economic pressures, exhaustion, not being able to get anywhere much with my creative work, becoming demoralised and all that sort of thing. What I have kept going with to this point is largely discipline – that’s how I get this blog written. This is how I tackle Wherefore twice a week, how I’m writing Druidry and the Darkness.

I’ve spent most of my life writing. I have skills and experience and I know enough about putting words together that I can do a decent job without being on fire. A few weeks ago I was, for example, asked to write a poem about a gatehouse, for an event. It’s not a location I’ve ever visited, but, I know how to work, and it’s a decent piece.

I’ve missed the fire. I’ve missed writing from a state of passion and putting words down because I have to – for me, not for some economic goal or to do someone else a favour. I’ve missed being on fire. I’d got used to at best having the occasional tiny bursts that might make for a better than average poem. I’d got used to feeling like I am mostly ash and embers in the place where the energy of my inspiration used to burn brightly.

This year has been all about re-enchantment for me. I’ve been able to reclaim, and have been given back a great many lost parts of myself. It’s been intense and surprising, and there has been a single catalyst for all of this. None of it has taken the kind of shape I might have expected. It has been a strange, challenging time, and I’m certainly not through it yet. I’m in a process with massive implications for my sense of self, and that will, one way or another, very likely define much of my future.

This week, the overwhelming emotions of the last month or so coalesced into the need to write. It doesn’t matter if I write a whole book, or whether I fail. It doesn’t matter if anyone else much reads it (almost unheard of for me). It doesn’t matter if it’s any good (again, not a normal way to be feeling). It certainly doesn’t matter if it’s publishable (more usual). I have to write. I have to write this story. I have to sit down with it every day and put pen to paper. I haven’t written like this since I was a teenager.


Building anything up is hard work – be that a skill, a fitness level, a project, or anything else you might decide to invest in. Rebuilding is a whole other thing. Rebuilding means doing again something you have already done once and then lost. While there may be advantages from the experience of the first time, emotionally speaking it can be really tough.

If you have to rebuild, it is usually because something went wrong. Illness or injury may have stopped you in your tracks. Someone else may have pulled the rug from underneath you. Perhaps you were set back by misfortune, or by external pressures demanding you put time and energy somewhere else. Perhaps you lost your nerve, gave up on yourself, decided your goals and dreams were stupid and unreachable. Whatever stopped you when you were building, will have to be faced in some way as you rebuild.

It is utterly frustrating having to revisit things you could once do and now only do badly, if at all. It is a real loss to contend with. It may seem easier to give up entirely and avoid the emotional pain that comes from facing what you’ve lost. It may be hard to figure out how to do a reboot, and you may well struggle because you think you can run when in practice you can now barely walk – literally or metaphorically. You may feel awkward dealing with other people who have seen you better able to do the things you can’t now do. There may be anxiety and shame to deal with alongside the rebuilding. You may have no confidence that you can make it work this time, either.

Try to be patient with yourself, and to treat yourself kindly. Whatever experience you gained the first time round will be valuable. Consider whether you can realistically get back to where you were and if it isn’t an option, look carefully at the options you do have. If you aren’t going to be able to climb mountains, maybe you need to think differently about hills.

Ask what you are re-building and why. Is it about pride? Identity? Refusal to be beaten? Are you making a heroic choice to keep going or a foolish choice to not recognise that you really are beaten? Are you doing this for you, or for someone else? What, if anything, do you need to prove? What do you need to get back? Can you afford to compromise? There are no right or wrong answers here, but it is a good idea to know what your answers are.

My grandmother always said that if you fell off a horse, you had to get back onto the horse as soon as possible or you might lose your nerve. The longer it takes to get back on the horse, the harder it can be. She applied this to a great many things that weren’t horses. Sometimes getting back on the horse is hard, painful, scary. What meaning you give to that, is entirely up to you.

Bardic Skills: focus or diversify?

It’s impressive to do something well, and it is more impressive to do many things well. Thus the temptation can be to try and develop a vast array of skills, to write and recite poetry, and tell stories, and sing, and play four different musical instruments… Over time, having a broad skills base is a wholly realistic aim, but how much and how soon is worth pondering.

There are more advantages to diversifying than just looking good. If you just sing, a cold can wipe you out. Musical instruments do not benefit from going out in the rain. If there are four storytellers and you, choosing not to be a storyteller that day will help you stand out.

One significant risk of diversifying is that you end up being the sort of person who is forever starting new things, but never getting any of them anywhere. Picking up a new skill can be a way of not risking exposing yourself. You throw everything at the new thing, but never take it out because before you do, another new thing has come along. It can be a means for being really self-defeating while feeling like you’re making lots of progress and doing good work.

There are lots of very good reasons to focus on just one thing – not least being if you love that thing above all else. The person who invests all the time at their disposal in one discipline will move further and faster than a person with a more scattered approach. However, not all of us are psychologically cut out for that sort of focus and devotion – I’m not, I get bored easily, and so I can play several instruments passably, I can sing well enough, I’m an adequate sort of poet and a mediocre storyteller. But, I can usually find something to suit the situation, and I mostly get away with it.

It’s important to know who you are – obsessive or procrastinating, a one trick pony, an old dog with a hunger for new tricks… Who you are is the single biggest factor in deciding how much to focus and how much to diversify. That said, I recommend having one thing you’re invested enough in to feel confident and relaxed about, and at least one thing up your sleeve to cover for the times when what you normally do won’t really work.

Bard skills: Many things to practice

When you’re rehearsing a piece of material, you’ll undoubtedly practice the obvious bits. There are however a few less obvious things that it pays to practice as well.

Practice breathing. This is especially important if any part of the performance is coming out of your mouth, and not irrelevant for non-mouth-based things as well. Anxious people don’t breathe well, and not breathing well can compromise any performance. If you learn to breathe with what you’re doing, it will increase your resilience.

In any mouth-based performance, breathing affects the phrasing and flow. Work out where you can breathe without damaging the flow, and where you need to breathe and practice the piece with the breathing in your chosen places. You may find in situ that you perform faster, or use more air to make more noise, but even so, having practiced with breathing in mind you’ll be better off.

Practice what you’re going to do with your body. If you intend to perform stood up, practice standing up. Think about where your feet will be. Explore how movement and stillness impact on your performance. Experiment with hand gestures and facial expressions if relevant. What happens with your body in performance should not be incidental, but part of the whole. That doesn’t mean you need to choreograph the whole thing, but it pays to have given it some thought.

Think about how you will frame the piece with words and actions. Don’t get bogged down in this or deliver a script, but think about what people might most need to know. That could be a simple ‘please join in’ or ‘this is a song by…’ If you are very new to performance, don’t apologise – that just makes your audience nervous too. It’s ok to say you’re new to it – that can make an audience more sympathetic and supportive.

Think about all the things that might realistically go wrong for long enough to have a plan about what you will do if that happens. It could mean a copy of the words stuffed in a pocket, being ready to laugh at yourself, or a backup piece of material you feel more confident about.

Practice while visualising the audience and the space you’ll be in. If you don’t know what to expect, just guess, it’s still helpful. Practice how you are going to feel in the performance space – consider your nerves, but also consider how excited you might feel and how euphoric if it goes well. Practice while feeling euphoric and like it’s going well. Imagine yourself doing an excellent job. It’s useful to be prepared for the worst, but in expecting the best and building that expectation into your performance, you’ll likely do a better job.

Bard skills – Being a good audience

Being a good audience may not seem like an essential skill for a learner bard, but it absolutely is. First up, you will learn more about being a performer from listening to other performers than you will by any other method. You can learn material, presentation skills, technical tricks of all kinds, from the close observation of others.

Secondly, a developed ear and good listening skills work in a great many contexts, to deepen your awareness and insight. If you want to perform, you have to be able to listen. It also means you will be able to listen to yourself as you practice, and sometimes as you perform, to see how to improve, and to strengthen your abilities. In becoming a good audience for others, you become a good audience for yourself, and help yourself develop. By listening, you deepen your relationship with all things bardic; with individuals, with performance in the moment and with the tradition as a whole.

As a bard, obviously you want an audience that will sit attentively and focus on your performance. If you totally invest in listening when in a performance space (or in joining in where appropriate, if that makes more sense) then you invest in the space. You support a receptive audience. If you’re chatting at the bar until it’s your go… if you’re part of the open mic culture that rocks up, does its slot and leaves… why are you going to be treated any differently? It’s possible, in the moment, to get an audience to behave like an audience, and focus. Oddly enough for bands, getting up and dancing can be the best way to make this happen. In most spaces, attentive listening and applause can help draw others in to listening more attentively.

We’re collectively used to passive entertainment where our engagement isn’t called for. The TV doesn’t care how little attention we pay. Recognising that being an audience for live performance is a whole other thing, is really important if we want to make bardic spaces thrive.

What’s the point?

It’s easy to fall into habits, to do what is expected or wanted by others. As a consequence it pays to stop every now and then and ask why you’re doing something. What is this for? Where am I going with it? What is it costing me (and I don’t just mean money)? What am I achieving? Is this even a good idea?

We’re taught to think about ambition in terms of worldly success, money and status. However, our hearts and minds respond to all kinds of things. Being ambitious is really, really good, but only if you’re doing it on your own terms. So, what are my terms?

I’ve spent weeks with these questions recently, needing to make some significant life decisions. I learned a lot. I will start by asking whether something is of practical or economic benefit to my household, because I have to factor that in. I will consider the environmental impact, or benefits, and think about wider social implications and who is benefiting, or paying for the idea. Beyond that, my absolute preference is to pick the jobs no one else can do, because I can take real pride in that.

Sometimes, the jobs no one else can do are all about my unique skills set and experiences. Last month I had the honour of getting to proof read the third Matlock the Hare book. Who else could edit who knows Dalespeak? Who else can make the time for some 200,000 words of fiction having read the other two books so as to be alert to continuity? It was a joy to do.

Sometimes it comes down to my unusual capacity to stay focused on long, fiddly, tedious jobs. At the community allotment, I’ve spent mornings picking stone out of the ground to make way for plants. I once spent a month painting all the exterior woodwork at my son’s school because it needed doing, and there was no money to do it, and this is not the kind of job you can usually get volunteers for. It doesn’t have to be glamorous. There are a lot of really important things that need doing, which do not confer status or wealth on the person doing it. Picking up litter, being an obvious one. I will be there for those jobs, not because I am uniquely capable, but because I am willing.

If there are lots of people who can and will do something as well, or better than I could, I’ll probably step back. Those jobs rapidly lose interest for me. I don’t want to be interchangeable. Plus there’s every chance someone else has a unique skill set that would transform the work, elevate it, bring in some new dimension. I don’t want to get in the way of that.

It’s possible to do anything well, with style, creativity and in a way that makes the task more valuable than it first seemed. For some people, the kitchen can only ever be a place of drudgery. For others, it’s the place of witchcraft, magic and delight. We are all likely to be happiest in the spaces where we find our own personal magic, where we can make contributions uniquely our own. When we put down the material-wealth-based ideas about worth and start looking at what we find intrinsically valuable, life changes.

And so I have laundry to handwash, a cake to make, and books to review. I have rubbish to upcycle and pages to colour. In knowing what I do best, and where I fit I am able to work happily, and not to feel irrelevant, or interchangeable, or insignificant. There is significance in moving the stones to make way for plants, which supposedly more glamorous jobs for which I am unsuited, would not give me.

Just a hobby

Three small words with which we can crush people. Calling something “just a hobby” is often a way of degrading things which don’t make a lot of money. As though money is the only measure of worth. ‘Hobby jobs’ are simply those someone else considers not lucrative enough. If you make enough money (sum unspecified) you can be taken seriously no matter how pointless and worthless your actual contribution to the world is. Volunteers can be told they have ‘hobby jobs’ – it is a refusal to give respect, often tied to an unwillingness to treat them well. You don’t need help or support, this is just a hobby for you.

I’ve seen brilliant, talented, acclaimed people hit with the ‘just a hobby’ line. It isn’t just about belittling people who are starting out, it can be used to undermine anyone who does something they love and attempts to make a living by it.

The word ‘hobby’ tends to imply the trivial. It’s what you do in your spare time, to relax – to call something a hobby is to suggest it isn’t useful, and that it is instead an indulgence. Cooking, gardening and crafting are all described as ‘hobbies’ by people who do not consider this to be a good use of your time. Forms of exercise –  essential to wellbeing – are also called hobbies, and again their value is degraded by this. Being healthy should not be considered an optional leisure pursuit available only to those with too much time on their hands. Reading is described as a ‘hobby’ not a process of education, self development, inspiration and joy.

And then, if you get depressed you may get some CBT paperwork encouraging you to ‘get a hobby’. Distract yourself from the miseries of your real life with some pleasant trivia!

We need to reclaim crafts, skills, exercise and community activities as being essential to life, not some kind of distraction or bonus extra. We need to resist anything that measures worth in terms of scope to earn money from it, too. There are other ways of making life better for ourselves and each other. Don’t talk about hobbies. Talk about passion and dedication, life skills, community, resilience, creativity, inspiration, health, relaxation. Talk about quality of life.

Also, pause to imagine what would happen if we started to treat collecting money just for the sake of it (rather than to use), with the same wry, indulgent humour that we currently tend to treat the collecting of stamps. Money, we can argue, has a discernible use in the world where a stamp collection does not… but stamps were useful once, and money that has simply been collected with the aim of having a big collection of money, serves no purpose at all. It just sits there, helping no one. Perhaps money collecting is the one thing that truly deserves to be denigrated as a mere hobby.

Life skills and Druid values

There are a lot of things I’m good at. I can bake and brew, I’m good with textiles and at all manner of make do and mend techniques. I can tell different kinds of wood apart, even from bits lying on the ground and I know how to use them; what can be burned and what cannot, and how to make a fire. I can make a blanket, mend a sock, cook a meal from scratch over an open fire, I have a wealth of stories and songs to keep the people around me amused, and a grasp of first aid. I am good at problem solving and at reasoning things out. During most of human history, this skills base would have stood me in really good stead, making me a valuable part of any community. Not so now.

Our ideas about what is a useful and valuable contribution have changed a lot. I think this is because access to resources is now entirely about money, and has little to do with skill or prowess. How else could a man who does not understand that all children cannot be above average end up running the education department? We’ve come to assume that wealth and utility are one and the same. Someone who does nothing but pick up their dividends, is treated with respect, while someone poor, no matter how much good they do, is woefully undervalued.

I think in turn this is a consequence of no longer living in ways that connect us to our neighbours. When your individual success impacted directly on friends, family, fellow workers and neighbours, I think we all had a much clearer sense of who was useful and to what degree. What you did, and how well you did it was of far greater relevance in terms of everyone’s wealth, than your pile of gold. In a famine, that pile of gold may be entirely worthless. I think we also used to be a lot better at finding ways for everyone to be useful. The habit of consigning large numbers of people to the trash heap, is very modern indeed.

The more basic and essential a form of work is, the less we pay people to do it. The more abstract the work is, the more we value it. Thus toilet cleaning is not well rewarded, but you can lose vast sums for your bank, as a banker, and still expect to pick up a bonus. In some areas of life, we actively reward failure, with handsome pay-offs.

The more complex our systems are, the harder it is for anyone to understand them or have oversight of them. The more complexity we have, the more we seem to believe that we need ever greater levels of complexity. We must have guards to guard the guards who watch the watchers, and someone must be employed to manage them, and someone else must manage those managers, and a third party will be needed to make sure that the managers who manage the managers are doing so in accordance with a complex set of rules and requirements. And yet we have rising incidents of malnutrition in the UK. We don’t take good care of our elderly. Our roads are full of potholes, our prisons full of illiterate people, and our positions of power populated by idiots. All that work, and so little of any obvious use going on. But it is almost valueless to be able to cook a meal, or fill in a hole.

Whatever the answer is, I am certain that every greater abstraction and complication isn’t it. I remember reading a piece by Marx about how being a small part of a production line alienates workers from their work, and turns us into machines. We’d barely got started when he explored those ideas. We’re ever more obsessed with turning ourselves into the machine, and ever more oblivious as to where that machine is going.

Pauper arts

art gearThe twentieth century saw some radical cultural shifts for the western poor. We moved away from self-sufficiency, and towards consuming low cost goods. We stopped cooking from scratch and bought processed food. Many of the skills that had historically been essential for paupers, became lost to the vast majority. We’d ushered in a new era of prosperity and ease, and no one would ever have to cut worn bed sheets in half again to re-sew them for a re-use.

Now, many people are finding they don’t have the money to support the lifestyle they’d once taken for granted. It comes as a shock. Being poor is very hard if you have no idea how to do it. Let’s just consider food. If you can grow your own veg and fruit, make jam from the fruit, keep a few chickens, if you know how to re-use your leftovers, how never to waste anything, then you can eat for very little cost. It takes time. We’re used to throwing away a third of the food we buy. There’s a huge distance between those two ways of being, and the pauper arts are not reclaimed over night by people who find they need them.

The twentieth century taught the western poor to want all the same things the rich were getting. Of course we want fairness and equality, but we didn’t pause to ask on what terms we were getting it, or what it meant. Nor were we encouraged to, because turning us into an avidly consuming class drove the economy along. The more we can be persuaded to want, and the more willing we are to go into debt to have those things, the more vulnerable we are. We’ve been sold the idea of comfort and convenience, and now we have to work ever longer hours to pay for it, or the money dries up and we suddenly can’t afford to eat.

The cheap boom of the twentieth century was underpinned by low cost goods from abroad. The environmental cost of cheap food is huge. In another country, people are working in dangerous conditions for little pay to put cheap consumables in our shops. That’s a very high price, and just because we aren’t the ones paying it, does not entitle us to be comfortable. We can’t go on consuming at the current rate or in these ways.

What we need to do is stop being seduced by advertisers and junk pedlars. We need to stop accepting that we need everything done for us, by someone abroad, or by a machine. We need to reclaim the pauper arts that truly can allow us a better quality of life for less money. Much of that knowledge is still out there, and much can be re-invented. The important thing is to know there are options.

If you know how to do a good job of being a pauper, a little money goes a lot further. There is a sense of power and achievement in self-sufficiency, in being able to repair clothes, mend useful items, convert one thing into another. There’s a lot of use in cooking with leftovers and making compost out of kitchen waste. No one is going to pick all of this up overnight, but thinking creatively and imagining solutions is a good place to start.

In front of me on the table is the sorting and storage system for Tom’s art gear – an old, unwanted metal tea set, bought for a pound, and doing the job very well. Next to it is a plastic sweet box that I cheered up by collaging it with paper from old calendars, and am using to store my sewing kit in. We had fun with those, they will serve us well for a long time, and they cost very little. They kept a few things out of landfill, too. We’ve got a draught excluder made from a pair of worn out jeans. Bags made out of old curtains. Old curtains cut down to be smaller curtains suitable for these windows. It adds up.

What we all need is a new aesthetic; a sense that clever re-use is chic. If we only collectively decided that ‘make do and mend’ is a great look for this year, it would be easier for a lot of people to tackle poverty whilst feeling good about it, and to step back from the over-consumption that is pushing our planet to the brink. We need to declare re-use the sexiest thing imaginable. That it currently isn’t, is just a trend, and trends can change.

Being Judgemental

One of the things I’ve learned in the last few weeks is that I’m a seriously judgemental person. When it comes to entertainment in all forms, I’m really fussy and get cross about time given to things that weren’t very good (by my subjective standards). I can be fairly judgemental about people, too. I know there’s a significant social movement towards holding up being non-judgemental as an ideal, because it isn’t nice to judge people, or what they do.

I think it’s really important to be able to judge. If you cannot say when something is rubbish, you also cannot meaningfully say when it is good. I think that’s too great a loss to countenance. I want to know where my work could be better (it could always be better). If I let myself think everything I do is good enough, helped by nobody judging me, I am not going to improve much, nor have any sense of improvements if I do achieve something. If I cannot say a person is cruel, unkind, violent and unreasonable, I cannot protect myself from violence or other forms of abuse, or warn others.

Being non-judgemental can in fact be incredibly lazy. One thing is not as good as another, more often than not. Where there are real needs, like nutrition, a bowl of sweets is not the same as a bowl of fruit. Ultimate value-judging can also be lazy – the kind of attitude that says ‘all comics are worthless’ has not bothered to find out whether all comics are the same (they aren’t) or what impact comics actually have on people. We need to be very careful when making sweeping judgements about things we have no direct knowledge of – there’s another judgement.

Often it is easiest to be judgemental of broad trends, ideas, swathes of people. I hate television, which is unfair because there probably is some good stuff in there somewhere. We will be most unpopular where we judge specifically – this book and that comment. The broad trends are easier to dismiss. If I hate fantasy as a genre (which I don’t) and you love it, you can just dismiss me as the sort of idiot who does not value fantasy. If I hate your favourite novel, that’s starting to feel a lot more personal. If I hate the novel you wrote, that’s about as personal as it gets. There is a school of thought that says I should not offend you by making it known that I do not like your stuff.

What is the alternative? Lying by omission, and a strange language inflation in which ‘like’ can start to suggest ‘actually do not much like’ and anything short of rabid praise starts to sound like damnation. That’s no kind of win.

Judgement is impossible to bear if we need to be loved universally. It is horrendous to find someone disagrees with us, if it is our belief that everyone should feel the same way we do. If our loves and labours are so fragile that any dislike of them will crush us, and them, we’ve got some work to do. This isn’t about the person who judges us, this is about us.

It is possible to be judgemental without being rude or destructive. Not liking a thing does not make it ok to pile on the abuse. I do not like television, but that doesn’t mean I am entitled to belittle the people who do, or to rubbish the people who work in the medium. My tastes and preferences are not the ultimate measure of quality. There is a difference between saying ‘I do not like it’ and ‘it has no worth’. Unfortunately, many people will hear the former as the latter, which is unhelpful. Not everyone has to like what we do. It is ok not to have universal love and approval, and if we’re looking for that, we’re going to get badly bruised, because there are plenty of people who are perfectly happy to hate you for what you do, no matter what that is.

If you are surrounded by people who only say how great you are and never mention when you mess up, your views become sorely distorted. If, through tantrums and vitriolic responses, or even violence, you make it impossible to criticise you, then you cannot learn and instead give yourself a free hand to do as you please. Totalitarian regimes make cultures where no one is able to judge them. Abusive lovers do the same thing, for the same reasons. The people who know they are shoddy but do not want to face that truth will build webs of lies and further abuses to protect themselves from judgement.

Judgement is a good thing. Used well, it undermines abuse and stupidity. Used well, it gives people chance to do better and go further. Applied specifically and with sense, it helps us improve the qualities of our lives by focusing on that which we most benefit from. Knowing what to judge, and what to let go of, what to challenge and what to shrug over is a good Druid skill. Knowing what is dangerous and what is less so, what needs taking down and what needs a quiet word to point it in a better direction. These are skills of diplomacy and insight, and it would serve us all to hone them.