Tag Archives: writing

The writing of chants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Things I am up to

Thus far this year has not gone to plan. I’m increasingly fine with that. One of the things I didn’t get to do I’m glad I missed – the feeling of having dodged a bullet there. I’ve become involved unexpectedly in other projects as well.

I’ve just launched a new column on The Hopeless Vendetta – Mrs Beaten is judging you. Mrs Beaten is the sort of character who worries about whether the orphans are speaking proper English, and complains about their poor postures while ignoring the fact that half of them have rickets. She’s all about appearances. Writing satire always means the risk of people thinking I’m serious, and to make this even more exposed, I’m doing cartoons for it. Tom is now working on the next Hopeless Maine graphic novel and I really don’t want to take any of his time away from that. Mrs Beaten will be unleashed on Sundays, you can find her here –hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/category/hopeless-tales/mrs-beaten/ 

I’m still blogging alternative wheel of the year stuff for Sage Woman every month. I blog intermittently at Moon Books. I’m writing a regular Quiet Revolution column for Pagan Dawn, and I’m writing about tree activism for the Pagan Federation International.

Over on Patreon, I’m putting up content every week, including new poetry, and fragments of fiction that may eventually turn into a thing.

Alongside this, I’m doing a bit of online campaign work for The Woodland Trust and helping out where I can with The Pagan Federation Disabilities Online Team. I am behind on learning sign language, but I do have a chant written for the next festival.

I’m supporting a number of authors who are at various stages of trying to get their work into the world. I feel strongly that getting your work out there should not depend on being able to pay. I don’t want to live in a world where arts careers are only for those who have a lot of privilege to begin with. So, where people need help and can’t afford to pay for it, I do what I can. Which is, I fear, a very small drop in the ocean of what’s needed. One of the reasons I’m reviewing every week is that it’s an easy way of helping people make their books more visible. I only review books I feel largely positive about.

Quite a lot of my time goes into unpaid work. Donating via the ko-fi link, (thank you those of you who have already done this) and supporting me on Patreon (thank you!) helps me stay viable while giving my time and skills to other people. It helps me afford to continue with Tom not taking as many illustration commissions so as to focus on getting Hopeless Maine out there. It gives me time for my own speculative work rather than having to focus on the things that are definitely going to pay. It makes losing money on events less scary, too. Train fares cost a lot, and we need to get out there to meet people and promote our work, but in the short term it is all too easy to lose money on this.

Of course much of this is true for many creative people. Having resources to invest in developing your work can be really difficult if you’re barely scraping a living. Creating part time isn’t a good answer for many people and it brings us back again to only getting creators who are in good health and well resourced. If you support the creators you love – in any small way you can – you help keep them going. Review them, re-tweet them, tell a friend. And if you can throw money at them, know that it makes an enormous difference. A hundred dollars a month on Patreon can easily be the different between keeping going and not keeping going.

If you want to wave money at me, you can do so here.
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Creative Community

I have never liked the image of creator as lone genius, up in their ivory tower, making Art away from the influence of nasty commercialism, nasty popularity and actual people. For me, this is an image that goes with elitism, wilful obscurity, pricing most people out of the market and creative irrelevance. I’m equally not a fan of disposable, industrialised pop culture where people make pretty much the same thing over and over for it to be consumed by other people who don’t much care about it.

There are of course other ways.

At the moment, I am blessed with a creative community. There are people whose work I am involved with to varying degrees, and who are involved with my work. People who pass me their first drafts, and who will read mine. People I trade reviews with. People I go to poetry nights with. People I can learn from, and be influenced by and test myself against. People who inspire me and who sometimes, to my great excitement, are inspired by me.

I find it always helps me to know who I am creating for. Much of my fiction work is written with a few specific individuals in mind. I can’t write for everyone; that makes no sense to me. Writing purely for myself feels too indulgent and narcissistic.

Being part of a creative community means finding out what other people are interested in, reading, looking at, watching, listening to. I may not be much engaged with mainstream entertainment, but I am engaged with things that other people in turn find engaging.

Creative community means support for what I do, and people I want to see thrive. It’s easier to get your books in front of people when someone else can say they are worth reading, simply. It’s good not to feel alone as a creator, and community helps offset the crushing qualities of the industry.

There can be a downside to all this. A small and inward-looking community can become a bubble of dysfunction. It can give people illusions of importance that stop them from doing things that would help them. I’ve seen it happen several times in different contexts. Creative cliques breed arrogance and obliviousness. The solution to this is to be part of an extended network that maybe has some tighter knit groups within it. There’s no real gain in finding a small pond in which to be a large fish.

There’s a romance to the idea of the lone creator that some creators have played up as part of their marketing strategy. The truth tends to be more complex. Stand-out famous creative people tend, when you look more closely at their lives, to have people around them. Wordsworth, for all his claiming to wander lonely as a cloud was actually out on a walk with his sister, and used her diary account of the day to help him write the daffodils poem. The myth of Solitary Great Men abounds, but in creative community we can find natural, healthy antidotes to this where we can all be excellent people in relation to each other.


Landscape, and fantasy landscape

I’m currently working on a Hopeless Maine novel. Most of the Hopeless Maine stuff I wrote years ago, but as the graphic novels will be coming out steadily from Sloth now, I feel it makes sense to get back into that setting and write more. In the time since I wrote my last Hopeless book, I’ve read a lot of landscape writing and this has had some considerable impact on me.

When I’m writing for the graphic novel of course much of the landscape stuff is down to Tom and the illustrations. It’s his island, he knows what it looks like. However, I’m working on a novel, so I have to do all the backgrounds myself! It’s really interesting putting to use what I’ve learned over years of reading landscape writing.

One of the things I’ve learned is that I don’t like writing that focuses on viewing the scenery. It makes the person in the landscape into a tourist. I’m interested in ways of writing that place the person within the landscape, and that often comes down to how they interact in a bodily way with the place. It’s not just about looking, but moving through, smelling, tasting, touching, eating, and so forth.

In a novel, great reams of description can be dull and irrelevant and slow the story down, so I’m working to make the experience of landscape a key part of the story. It also gives me opportunities to have my characters interact with the strange creatures that inhabit the island. This in turn gives me chance to air another issue that is close to my heart – challenging the idea that human and nature are two separate states.

We’re got some decidedly fantastical things living on Hopeless Maine. In the graphic novels, they are mostly background and the stories are about people. I think that speaks to the way in which humans are so often oblivious to non-human things going on around them. But, I want to do something different with this

Reading landscape literature has changed how I think as an author of speculative and fantastical books. I’m only now finding out how that works because I’m using it. Fantasy fiction is so often seen as an escape from reality, but I’m seeing the scope to make it an act of re-engagement and re-enchantment.


How to create

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

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

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

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

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

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


Of novels and graphic novels

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

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

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

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

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

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


Inspiration and grind

Creativity depends more on effort than it does on inspiration. There’s the work you need to put in to develop your craft and study the forms you want to work in. There’s the effort it takes to go from original, brilliant idea to finished piece – planning, researching sketching, drafting, editing, revising, learning, practicing – depending on what you do. Without graft, that first spark of inspiration isn’t worth much at all.

But at the same time, without the spark of inspiration what does the grafting do? To my mind, when its just graft, what I’m doing is developing my skills, not creating something new. Sometimes that’s a very good thing – as with practicing a song, or looking at other people’s work in order to learn.

It is of course possible to set about something in a deliberate, workish way, and then have the inspiration turn up because you’ve made a space for it. Some people may find this an effective method, for others it won’t work as well. I find it works well for me to play with ideas in my head when the spark of inspiration turns up, and get it to the paper when I have time. I don’t have to be all fire in my head for the writing down part of the process, just for the ideas stage.

Some things don’t need full on fire in the head creativity. This blog doesn’t. Not every day. Today I’m working with what I have – habit and craft – rather than a flash of wild creative thinking to get things moving. There are quite a few things I can do from this sort of headspace. I can edit and work as a colourist, and I can write articles if someone chucks a topic at me.

I have in the past tried to write creatively when I’ve felt no real inspiration but just wanted to feel like I was still a writer, or had a deadline to meet. That approach doesn’t work for me. It leaves me feeling hollow and weary. The creative writing I produce when I’m just knocking it out is not work I tend to like at all. I do not get to access my best thinking, and there may be some very solid technical reasons for this.

If I use my conscious mind to knock out a piece – well, that’s fine for nonfiction, where putting together facts and ideas in an organised way is the main point. What I think inspiration means, when looked at mechanically, is that the less conscious bits of my brain have absorbed an array of things and put them together out of sight of my conscious, and it is now all ready to roll. If I’m working consciously, I will tend to do things that are obvious, less original, there won’t be that underlying flow of ideas moving me onwards. It all feels a bit constipated.

Very conscious, deliberate, planned writing allows a person to stick to traditional story shapes, and I assume traditional methods in any other art form. Creating unconsciously from inspiration rather than a plan can allow all kinds of previously unthought and unthinkable things into the mix. Often a balance of the two is called for, bringing skill, knowledge and discipline in to balance up the delirious outpourings.


Jack of all trades

Yesterday’s post featured a rag rug, with a design drawn by my other half. I know three ways to make rag rugs. There are a great many other crafts I can do a bit, numerous musical instruments I can play passably, and a vast array of other things in which I have dabbled over the years. I like to dabble, I get excited learning new things, and I get bored if I spend too long doing all the same things. However, while I’m pro dabbling and experimenting, it’s not without hazards.

If all you end up doing is learning new stuff, you can find you don’t develop anything properly, never get beyond beginner stage, never learning to push and never doing anything for long enough to have it bear fruit. It can be a way of avoiding dealing with happens when you commit. As a dabbler, you may never finish anything, never really achieve anything but there’s always a new exciting project to wave at people. All the attention, none of the exposure of making something people can experience for themselves, and maybe judge.

Without a doubt, the best creative work comes from a mix of inspiration and dedication. It means building a skill set so that when you have a fire in your head, you can make best use of it. It takes a long time to become truly good at something – the general estimate seems to be about ten thousand hours. The more time a person spends dabbling, the less scope there is to get to that point with any given skill. But on the up side, you can become an expert in learning how to quickly learn things, and there are plenty of times in life when being a Jack of all trades is more useful than being the master of one.

I find that when I dabble, I deepen my appreciation for people who do the things well. When I know more, I am better equipped to enjoy and appreciate. I think this is because I’m pretty good at staying realistic about my own skills and insights. If you do a single course, or a brief session and you think you are then an expert, that can have some seriously distorting effects on how you see other people’s work.

Dabbling enriches my understanding of the world, and anything that teaches me feeds back into my writing. It keeps me fresh, and interested, and hauls me out of ruts and gloom. If something isn’t working for me I will eventually stop banging my head against it and pick up something else for a while. Dabbling is play, and fun and often what I do with my leisure time. I like making things, I like exploring.

As a creator I’m increasingly interested in what happens when disciplines collide. Not just putting words and images together, as with the graphic novel work, but putting music and images together, exploring stories through craft, how I can use my body more in spoken word performance… I love stories made out of fragments and ephemera, and that means I need to learn how to make more of the pieces.

So, I advocate dabbling, exploring, and playing. Know that’s what you’re doing, don’t mistake it for having the same depth and breadth of knowledge as someone has when they’ve worked on a skill for many years. Don’t use it as a substitute for seeing a project to conclusion. Don’t require yourself to achieve at the same standard as an expert when you’re only playing with something. Don’t lose sight of your personal goals, vision etc in the muddle of trying to learn to do ten thousand things. Sometimes a new skill is just a shiny distraction from the things you need to be doing. Pausing regularly to take stock helps make it all work.


The courting of poems

Everyone who writes will have their own process, or more than one way of bringing words together. For some it’s all about jotting down notes, mapping out ideas, sketching, doodling, trying things and putting together the bits that work. It’s rare that a good piece of writing comes together fully formed and straight onto the page, even those of us who don’t do much development writing expect to have to edit and tidy up whatever emerged in the rush of inspiration.

For me, a poem usually begins with a seed idea. That can come from absolutely anywhere, so of course every single day is full of hundreds of things that might be poems. There’s an unconscious selection process that makes me latch onto some things and not others. A sense of possibility, of something I can follow and develop is usually part of this, and I notice it happening even though I’m not in deliberate control of it.

Once I’ve got that seed idea, I’ll hold it for as long as it takes. Usually a few days, but sometimes longer – months, in a recent case. I’ll think about the idea I’ve got, feel my way around it, see what it connects with. I won’t pick up a pen and risk catching it on paper before it is ready, and I’ve learned that it pays not to rush. I’ll play with word arrangements in my head, testing turns of phrase against the idea.

For example, I recently posted a poem called ‘The Use of Cauldrons’. It was a response to the OBOD work I did with Taliesin more than a decade ago, and to Lorna Smithers’ The Broken Cauldron, which I read last year, so I’d been gestating unconsciously for a long time. I simply woke up with a sense of how to write about cauldrons. It then took several days of just letting that wash around in my brain, and then I was able to sit down and write a decent first draft fairly quickly. I left it alone for a couple of days and then tidied it up. A second poem written recently was sparked back in the winter, I knew what I wanted to do but not how to do it. Again, there were unconscious processes, and then an invitation to read locally, and things fell into place.

For me, the process of creating a poem begins long before pen meets paper. I can’t manufacture those little seeds of inspiration that stand out, and have the potential to become something. They are a consequence of richness in my life – that can come from time spent outside, time with friends, time being inspired by other people’s creativity and anything else with that kind of depth and intensity. If I don’t deliberately make room for that kind of experience, then there won’t be the ‘ping’ moments that give me something to write about.


Notes on creativity

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know I’ve had ongoing struggles with creative work. The creative industries are a mess, austerity means many people can’t afford books, art or music. It’s really hard making a living at the moment. There’s only so much time and energy available to me. However, over the last six months or so I’ve learned a lot of useful things about staying creative, so, here’s what’s been helping me get moving again.

  1. Not using writing to pay the bills. It’s incredibly stressful and requires a rapid output, which I have found depressing and exhausting every time I’ve tried it. I am more likely to make money from writing if I write the things I want to write and then try to find a home for it, and not have making it pay be my primary concern. If I’ve got my responsibilities to my family covered, I feel freer in my writing, and other forms of creativity too.
  2. Peer support. Knowing it’s not just me, it’s not my failing but an industry-wide issue. Feeling recognised and respected by creative people I admire and respect helps maintain morale.
  3. People to create for. For me an art is only complete when it encounters someone else. A book no one reads is unfinished. People to write for give me a sense of hope and purpose. This blog helps me keep going, I’ve also felt really inspired as a consequence of support for my Patreon. It’s more about people wanting my work than the money, but the money helps.
  4. Making headspace. I can do the disciplined churning out of words, but to really create I need time to daydream, wonder, question and whatnot. I need time when I’m not directly using my brain for other things. I need to be ok with apparently doing nothing in order to make a space for inspiration to come in.
  5. Time to study. I need raw material to use creatively. This means reading, experiencing, learning. I need time to take workshops or lessons, time to pick up courses – not all of it directly about writing, either!
  6. Opportunities to be inspired. Other people’s books, live music, theatre, film, walks, good food, nights spent dancing, conversations with friends, beautiful landscapes… If I don’t feed my soul, all the time, then I can’t create. Get this right and I’m much more likely to be inspired.

Put that together and what you get are creative friends I can spend time with, whose creativity I can be inspired by and who are up for reading my stuff as well. People to walk with, cook with, hang out with, go to gigs with… and as there’s been a lot of that in my life in recent months, it turned out all I had to do was start making better spaces for myself, and putting down things that don’t serve me, and creativity becomes a good deal more feasible.