Tag Archives: writing

Writing about nature

When I first initiated as a bard, I pledged to use my creativity for the good of the land and for the good of my tribe. (Use of the word ‘tribe’ by white western Pagans is problematic to say the least, but that was the pledge nearly 20 years ago). The principle of making your art as an act of service is a good one, but how does that translate into action?

Writing about nature can be a way of engaging people with the natural world and inspiring them to notice it more and care about it more. If you’ve grown up urban, and never been taught the names of trees or butterflies or wild plants, then it can all be a bit of a mystery, and not in a good way. There’s quite a journey from seeing trees to seeing specific, individual trees with unique characteristics. Equally, it’s quite a journey from seeing some birds, to knowing a bit about those birds and how they live.

One of the things I try to do with poetry is to talk about nature specifically. Bandying the word ‘nature’ about doesn’t get much done – as this blog post already illustrates. It’s not a word that creates engagement. What seems to work best, is precision. A specific tree, an actual encounter, something personal, something experienced.

It can be tempting to make nature into a metaphor for personal experience, but that doesn’t do much to help the land. It fuels the idea of nature as a resource for humans to use if we deploy it in poetry as a way of talking about ourselves all the time. Equally, if the landscape is just a background framing human actors, it is still mostly scenery and mostly something we consume.

If you’d like any of my poetry, there are pdfs (pay what you like) on my ko-fi store – https://ko-fi.com/O4O3AI4T/shop

I was also a finalist in a recent competition to write poetry about urban trees – you can read that here – https://www.treesforcities.org/stories/our-poetree-winners

Beginning a creative process

There are some things I create in the heat of inspiration and purely because I want to. This is a perfectly reasonable way of working, especially for small pieces like poems and short stories. It’s not such a good idea for a longer project. It’s not realistic to expect to be able to write an entire book while in a state of creative fever. Granted, Jack Kerouac managed it with On The Road, but it isn’t how larger bodies of work normally happen.

To create something more than a heat of the moment outpouring, takes planning. There’s a process in moving from the initial rush of inspiration, towards a larger and finished piece.

One of the first questions I ask when considering a project is, who am I making this for? There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, it’s a helpful focus. Secondly, if you mean to put a piece out into the world, knowing who it is for is really important. You can’t pitch to a publisher without knowing that. You’ll have a hard time finding readers if you don’t know who your readers might be. It may be tempting to imagine you are making something for ‘everyone’ but that’s not focused enough so either it will be bland, or it will be self indulgent. Maybe both.

Being self indulgent is fine. It is important to know whether you are primarily creating for yourself or for other people because it has implications. I think it’s usually a mistake to imagine you can create something purely for your own pleasure and that this will automatically translate into something lots of other people will want.

I usually identify some larger, broader groups of people – I write non-fiction books for Pagans and Druids, for example. I write fiction for Goths and steampunks, and also for Pagans and animists. I usually also have some specific people in mind. I find that really helps. If I’m writing for just one person, the odds are it will appeal to more people than just that one person. It helps me avoid being too self involved and it helps me focus on what kinds of things those other people might enjoy.

This is also where my bar is set in terms of success. If I write a poem for someone and they like it, I have succeeded. The same is true of a blog post, or even a book. If one person finds it helpful, it’s done its job. This protects me from the inevitable bruises of an industry where the average book sells a few hundred copies, and all the focus is on the people who can sell hundreds of thousands of copies.

Water Witches

Water magic is all about healing, and emotions. You place bowls of water in the moonlight to gather enchantment, and take healing baths.

Slowly, you learn to listen to the water. You discover that the water is full of sorrow.

There is plastic in the water, and pollution of all kinds. Death flows where there should be life. There is thirst in the land and in its creatures. You stop wondering about how to use water for magic, and start asking how to do magic for water.

You become a water witch. You go to the edge of the desert to make desalination equipment out of rubbish you scavenge from the dumps. You set up camp at the edge of a poisoned lake and dedicate years of your life to fishing out the plastic, filtering out the oil, bringing the plants back. You make sand dams. You try to become a beaver. You make wetlands and plant reeds and dream about hippos.

In a land of intermittent rain, you build barriers across places where the water floods. Your back hurts all the time from bending and digging, but when the rains come you are ready, and some of your dams hold, and ponds form. The soil will not wash away this time, and some of the water will seep back into the earth rather than evaporating.

When you weep for all that has been lost and damaged, you understand that water is all about healing, and emotions.

(Art by Dr Abbey – these are concepts and sketches I’m playing with, but i think we’re going somewhere with all of this…))

Writing fantasies

A while ago, back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth and you could sit in a pub garden and be mansplained… A man sat near me in a pub garden and told me how he was going to make his fortune writing short stories. Not a living, a fortune. He was going to put some short stories online and there they would be found by someone important at Netflix, or Amazon. Films would naturally follow, and that would be his life all sorted.

I tried to explain to him that this is not how things work. He was having none of it. I mentioned twenty years of writing and publishing industry experience, and he was still confident that not even having written a short story yet, he knew more than me – but then, he was the one who had brought the penis to the conversation, and that’s always proof of superior insight for some people.

I hit him with some industry stats – that only about 10% of authors make anything from their work and that a good income from writing is about £10k a year and most of us will never even get close to that. He was unpersuaded that The Society of Authors might have meaningful industry stats in the first place, and certainly did not imagine any of that doom and gloom stuff applied to him.

I’ve had similar conversations before. I’ve heard from people who were new to writing, there was one, memorably, who thought her NaNoWriMo fantasy trilogy was bound for fame and fortune. After all, Water for Elephants started on NaNoWriMo so clearly she was going to have the same experience.

As is often the way of it in many aspects of life, we only really hear from the authors who succeed. We hear about the best sellers, the international hits. Most of publishing does not look like JK Rowling. 90% of writers earn little or nothing from their work. For the rest of us, £10k a year is hitting the big time. There are lots of factors – timing, luck, gatekeeping, who you know, how you come across, whether you have a following already. It’s much easier to get published if you’re already famous – it’s not a meritocracy out there. Most of my favourite authors aren’t famous and many of them are a good deal better, in my opinion, then many of the published mainstream authors. There’s more diversity, originality and surprise out at the margins.

I think it’s very normal to come to writing imagining that your originality, and skill and whatnot will shine through and lead to results. People will notice you. I was like that with my first published piece, many years ago. Only it turned out that the publisher didn’t really mean to promote it beyond putting it on their website, and there wasn’t much word of mouth advertising, and I started to see why other authors in ebookland were trying so hard to sell their work.  It’s ok not to know, especially when the stories you hear are only ever the success stories. It’s important to tell those other sorts of stories, too, so that we all have our feet on the ground and aren’t going to be unreasonably hurt by this dysfunctional industry.

I don’t know if the man from the pub garden ever got as far as writing stories and putting them online – he might have done, but I do know he hasn’t landed at Netflix deal yet.

The writing life

Like many writers, I knew from as soon as I could clutch a pencil that writing was a thing I wanted to do. As a child, I wrote poetry and short stories. I fantasised about what it would mean to be an author – I think that’s common too. As I sauntered into my teens, I spent more time thinking about what I wanted to write than thinking about wanting to be an author, and I kept writing the poetry and the short stories.

It may be worth mentioning that I wanted to be a musician, too. I wanted to be Batman, I thought teaching might be interesting, I knew from as far back as I could remember that no one thought ‘author’ was a viable and sensible career path and that I’d need to keep my options open. When I was a kid it was far more feasible to be a full time professional author than it is now.

I wrote my first novel in my teens – I knew it wouldn’t be good or publishable, I just wanted the experience of putting down that many words and to get to know what a novel meant from the inside. I studied Literature at Uni, and I kept writing, poetry, short stories, novels. By the time I was in my early twenties I had a rejection slip from every major UK publisher.

At about this time I became bored with writing versions of myself and started paying more attention to other people, and what I could learn about the world. I think this is a really important shift in the life of any fiction author, although it doesn’t happen to everyone. We all start by playing out our personal fantasies, but good books usually require more than that.

I had a lot of fiction published in my twenties – mostly as ebooks in what was then a fledgling industry. I’d have to make an effort to figure out how many novels I’ve written, but, it’s a lot of novels. And of course I had that fantasy that I’d write a novel and it would naturally find its audience and magic things would happen. It isn’t like that, and finding an audience has taken time, and I’m still very small and obscure in the grand scheme of things. Success is a heady blend of luck and persistence, assuming you have something people want to read.

I got into writing non-fiction in my thirties, first with blogging and magazine articles, and then later with Pagan books. That’s been interesting to add to the mix and I enjoy doing it, but fiction remains my main passion. I’ve sauntered into graphic novel writing, game scenarios, and film scripts, and have no real plan for how any of this is supposed to develop.

Like most writers, I don’t earn anything like enough to live in. A reasonably successful author – full time, professional and with a mid-tier contract at a large publishing house, can aspire to make £10k a year. This is not generally considered to be good money in any other context. So I write poetry, and short stories, novels, graphic novels, scripts, and all the rest of it, and I work alongside that to stay afloat. I’m greatly helped by Patreon support (https://www.patreon.com/NimueB ). I’m ok with not being affluent, I’ve never been affluent, I have infamously low standards and limited interest in material culture. But, it makes me cross and unhappy that arts industries are increasingly structured so that only people who are funded by other means can participate – people with good pensions, supportive spouses, inheritance, and the like. It keeps the poorer folk out, it makes it hard for anyone not well enough to work a day job and create as well.  I don’t want creativity to be a hobby for the rich, I want it to be a viable line of work for those with talent and passion.

Language, Culture, Celts

Let me start by saying that this is a speculative blog post. I’m a dabbler, not a historian and I am not qualified to hold much of an opinion on this subject! So, I’m just sharing some things that occurred to me, that might, or might not be meaningful.

Nomadic hunter gatherer people tend not to go in for writing. Writing calls for kit, and storing writing clearly isn’t ideal if you’d have to heft it all about with you. People who need to travel lightly tend to have oral cultures and depend on memory. Nothing controversial there.

Writing seems to go with keeping records. I’m not aware of any instances where we think a culture started writing because it wanted to keep its poems for posterity! Written records become necessary when you want to keep track of ownership and/or debt. If wealth is held in common, you don’t need records. You might need records in a larger and more complex community that is sharing resources – you might want to track that to understand what happens. So at the very least, writing represents organised and self conscious social structures, probably.

It’s very difficult to have tax without written records. It’s difficult to keep track of debt, or tithing or any other system where ownership and contribution are related. These can of course be very good things in a culture, making systems to share out the goods. But at the same time you can’t have functioning hierarchies without some kind of paperwork. Arguably the difference between a barbarian horde and a colonial project is whether you can follow through with accountants and tax the people you just rampaged over.

This leaves me with some interesting thoughts about the Celts. What are the implications of the Celts not having a written language? What does it mean about their social structures? How much of our sense of them as a hierarchical community depends on them having been depicted that way by the Romans, and by those later writing down their stories? The stories we have are full of Kings and nobles. But is that a fair reflection of Celtic peoples in Europe, or of their systems of interacting with each other? Here I am speculating, but I think it’s worth wondering about what the absence of writing might suggest.

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.

Putting the heart back into my creative process

One of the things that trying to work as a creative professional can do to you, is knock the joy out of the creating. When being taken seriously as a creator depends on earning enough, there’s a lot of pressure. How people see you – friends, family, people your life brings you into contact with – often depends on your earning power. The underpaid creative is often taken to be a hobbiest, lazy, incompetent, selfish… it can be a very unhappy experience. So you try to make it pay, to prove that what you do is worth doing.

When did I stop creating for the joy of it? Hard to say as it was a process, not an event. I used to be someone who wrote a lot, but that’s not been true in a while. I’ve struggled to be creative. Starting a patreon account a few years ago helped a lot, in no small part because of that economic component – if I was writing for people who were willing to pay me to write, that made it ok. Not irresponsible self indulgence. Not a failure to take care of my family and household.

As lockdown started, I realised I needed something to work on that would help me stay functional. There’s little point trying to be seriously economically active at the moment and that’s been liberating. So I’m writing a series called Wherefore – it’s a bit like a soap opera in that there’s no grand plan or over-arching structure. It’s on my youtube channel – https://www.youtube.com/nimuebrown I’m just doing it because I want to. It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything on those terms.

I have a collaborator in this – Bob Fry, who is also in my mumming side, and has a truly unusual mind. He’s been giving me prompts and ideas, and I started writing primarily for him. As it has gone along and other people have responded, I’ve started writing with them in mind as well, and so it is made out of love and the desire to entertain people who like what I do – and this is going well. For the first time in many years, I want to write for the pleasure of creating and sharing. Working with other people and having other people to create for is key for me. I don’t do this well as a solitary process.

Much of my difficulty stems from wider issues in the creative industries as a whole. Most creative people cannot make a living from their work. The question has always been about how to respond to that. Should I dig in and try harder to be ‘professional’ and economically viable? Or should I try and muddle along economically and create what I feel moved to create? I’m moving towards the second position. As a household, we are viable financially, and that will do. I need to put the heart back into my work. I need to create for the love of it, and for the love of the people out there who enjoy what I make. The worth of creating is something I need to measure in the joy it brings, not what I’m paid for it.

If lockdown has taught us anything, it should be that the value of the work people do, and what they get paid for it, are wholly unrelated issues. It’s true of the frontline essential workers, and it’s just as true of the creative folk who are keeping everyone amused and comforted – often just by giving work away. What we pay for, and what we need are two separate issues in our strangely structured society. I don’t have to keep on measuring my worth as a creator in terms of what anyone is willing to pay me. I can measure it in terms of what it does, and if I can delight a few people, that’s time well spent.

Writing my best animism

I’ve made an interesting discovery this week – I write my best animism when I’m not being serious. If I try and write serious spiritual fiction, or for that matter, certain kinds of non-fiction I feel uneasy and don’t reliably do a very good job. There are always those risks around ego and self importance, the fear of accidentally writing in ways that exclude rather than draw in.

I have a particular unease around giving people the impression I’m more spiritually adept than I really am. I’m an animist, but I don’t hear the voices of spirit in all things animate and inanimate around me. I’m not having big, important conversations with anything much.

However, when I stop trying to be sensible and open up to what might be interesting and amusing, I can write my animism in ways that I like. I could get into a deep philosophical wrangle about what this means, but, that would seem to defeat the object, so instead, here is a little bit of happily preposterous, not taking myself too seriously animism from the current Wherefore project – which is mostly fiction.

“There are yeasts who want to teach you the meaning of civilization and culture. Fungi want to talk to you about interconnectedness. The dried garlic wants a conversation with you about how you are mistreating the bacteria on your skin, and it also wants to chat with the people who live in your lower intestines and who are frankly much more spiritually advanced than you are.

The jam in your kitchen is waging a war for your soul against the influence of an edible foodlike substance made by a chemical company. There is something in your fridge that is trying to make contact with the elder race down the back of the cupboard. All of the eggs are dreaming about their past lives and there are a whole selection of magical beans waiting their turn to influence your understanding of reality.

That’s just your kitchen.”

You can follow Wherefore, in all its silliness on my youtube channel – https://www.youtube.com/NimueBrown


The Enemy of Art?

“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall” – Cyril Connolly.

“Ash is sitting on the potty doing a pencil drawing while reciting loudly and accurately from Fortunately the Milk. I have to go away and hide and write for two weeks. I am going to miss this little wood-elf more than I can say.” Neil Gaiman, twitter, this week.

As a writer who had a baby (I’m female-ish, non-binary) I had to figure out how the writing was going to fit around the child. As a relatively poor person I had to take care of the child, the needs of the child. I could not have ever afforded to take a couple of weeks off for writing while someone else took care of my small child. I regret nothing. I would not have done differently if I’d had the money.

What I hate, passionately, is this idea that to be a good creator you have to be cut off from life in this way. I hate it just as much as I hate it when Tory politicians speak with pride about having never changed a nappy. I hate the way we devalue parenthood, and I really hate the way we devalue fatherhood.

I hate the way in which Neil Gaiman has presented this like the only way he can possibly write is by going away for two weeks. It perpetuates the idea that serious work has to happen outside the domestic sphere and that for people (usually men) who are important, going away to do the important things is just what you have to do. This is bullshit.

It isn’t easy being a parent and anything else at the same time. Most of us who have children do that, though. We have jobs, and other responsibilities, and we figure it out as best we can and do what we can, and take pride in the work and the parenting. It isn’t easy finding the focus and energy to work on creative projects when raising a small child. Many of us manage, all the same. Many of us do not experience that managing as some kind of heroic sacrifice.

I have every sympathy with anyone whose economic situation impacts on their scope for parenting – that’s a very different thing. I have every sympathy for parents whose work involves travel, and for the challenges and juggling involved. I’m frankly tired of the affluent men who think that raising their small children is someone else’s job.