For years I have been a writer, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. Now I want to share some of what I have learned along the way. Write On The Fringes is a blog about the dangers, the disappointments and the rewards of writing. It's a record of the writing of a novel, from the tantalising first inklings of an idea, through to the final draft. But above all it's an exploration of the art and the craft of writing and the nature of story, as well as a search for the essence of creativity and the complex nature of truth.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Creative Pact - Honouring The Muse

 Australian Aborigines say that the big stories—the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life—are forever stalking the right teller, sniffing and tracking like predators hunting their prey in the bush.
Robert Moss, Dreamgates

Ideas come and go, flitting in and out of our minds. In order to realise these ideas they must be grounded. As Julie Cameron explains, ‘art is not about thinking something up. It is the opposite - getting something down.’  For me, it is usually enough to keep a journal in which to note a dream, a connection, a description, a quote. . .  anything to provide an anchor for my fleeting inspirations. But I have been guilty of neglecting my journal, believing that I would remember the ideas that came through the dreams that permeated my restless nights, or while walking on the promenade here in Aberystwyth, listening to the crash of the waves and the cries of the gulls. For a time the ideas came as they always have but I didn’t ground them and after a while they stopped coming because I had stopped listening. I forced myself to keep writing, not my novel, but other projects that demanded my attention. However, the flow had stopped, so that I was giving without receiving and in so doing, depleting myself. At first I just felt drained of enthusiasm which should have been a clear warning signal because enthusiasm, a term that originally meant an inspired connection to God, is a vital part of creativity. After a while I became fatigued and emptied of vitality. Instead of joy and vigour I found myself caught up in a deadening and monotonous day-to-day routine. And finally I began questioning my calling as a writer.

There have been a number of times in my life when I’ve questioned my reasons for writing but until recently I have never doubted that writing is my path in life, the form of expression best suited to me. This doubt proved to be a wake-up call, alerting me to the process that had been subtly eroding my creativity over many months. Since then, I have followed the advice I gave myself in my previous post and found a way to re-engage with my novel-in-progress. It is a tentative return though, a fragile agreement between me and my muse, and one that could be broken again at any time if I don’t keep my end of the bargain. And a bargain it is. For in turning my back on this novel I have, in a sense, betrayed the responsibility I carry as a creator of stories, a responsibility that entails being present for the creative process. . . listening. . . trusting. . . making notes. . . following the clues. . . asking questions. . . and looking at the world through seeing eyes. As Julie Cameron explains, ‘in dance, in composition, in sculpture, the experience is the same: we are more the conduit than the creator of what we express.’ To a certain extent then, our creative expressions are gifts but in order to receive them we must remain open (see Giving and Receiving). If we turn away we lose our connection and break our agreement.

At certain stages of the creative process, solitude and silence are vital. We descend into a quiet place within ourselves where we take stock and gather our energy, all the time listening and watching, waiting for our inspiration. I am reading a good deal now, both fiction and non-fiction, nourishing myself with the creations and ideas of others. I am walking too, more slowly, relishing the quiet and taking time to notice everything around me, to wonder at the mysteries of life, pausing joyfully in front of a bed of flowers, and watching intrigued as a bird gathers twigs for its nest. It will take time to refuel but I am on the way. Once again I am carrying my journal with me and already I can feel the excitement of unexpected links and the rewarding back and forth movement between my journal and the novel, as one inspiration inspires another.  As the process continues, a sense of playfulness grows, a tuning in to the imagination and a willingness to let go of expectations and allow surprises. Creativity demands this playfulness, allowing us to make the necessary leap into the unknown and retrieve our story (see Coming Unstuck). Ben Okri speaks of the ‘marriage between play and discipline, purpose and mastery,’ a marriage that produces ‘the wonders of literature’. For me this 'marriage' represents a perpetual movement between the heart and the head and the intuitive and the rational as I seek to maintain a harmonious balance between the art and the craft of writing.

Storytelling is a sacred skill and sometimes it is hard to meet its demands. The process is one of alchemy, taking the raw material and transmuting it into gold, finding the essence of meaning, exploring truth through metaphor and building bridges with words that will paradoxically enable us to escape the very limitations of words.  As in alchemy, the process is not purely technical. There is something else, a tremendous change that must be brought about within the alchemist or the story teller. In The Philosopher’s Stone, Peter Marshall writes that ‘at all times an inextricable link was recognised between the personal growth of the alchemist and the development of his experiments. Ultimately the alchemist is the subject and object of his own experiment.’ As with alchemy, a story always leaves its mark on the teller. Both writers and readers emerge changed but for writers that change is usually fundamental and the process sometimes frightening. For as novelist, Maria Szepes writes in The Red Lion, ‘by the laws of alchemy something has to die and decay before it can rise.’ If we deny the creative process, then we deny change and in so doing we deaden ourselves to life. But if we accept change we step into the unknown and while ultimately rewarding, it is not a safe journey and it is rarely easy.

In his essay, The Joys of Storytelling, Ben Okri describes ‘two essential joys. . . the joy of the telling, which is to say of the artistic discovery. And the joy of listening, which is to say of the imaginative identification . . . The first involves exploration and suffering and love. The second involves silence and openness and thought.’ As I make small forays into my novel, reacquainting myself with the characters, building scenes and developing themes, I find myself immersed once again in ‘the joy of the telling’. I can only hope that I am have been stalked by a ‘big story’, one that is ‘worth telling and retelling’.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:

Monday, March 18, 2013

Following The Clues - Research And Reflection

As for my next book, I am going to hold myself from writing it till I have it impending in me:  grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall. 
Virginia Woolf

When I began this blog sixteen months ago, I was just about to start work on a new novel. The blog was intended to map this journey I was undertaking in my writing and to begin with it did. However, life got in the way as it so often does and a different but parallel journey began to unfold with its own plot line, turning points and character arc. My life underwent one upheaval after another, and I found myself on a roller coaster of change. During this time I stopped work on the novel but despite this the blog found its own voice, always linking back to story and the creative process yet drawing from experience and the philosophies of esoteric traditions to explore revelations of self and individual growth.  

Now that the dust has settled I find myself in a very different place, physically, psychologically and spiritually. I have worked through a backlog of projects and been awarded a literature grant to assist with the writing of this new novel, Falling Between Worlds, so I can no longer avoid it. Indeed, as Virginia Woolf describes so beautifully above, this novel has ‘grown heavy in my mind; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall’. Yet now that I am here I am afraid all over again. What if it has become overripe, has already fallen and now lies rotting on the ground, irretrievable? What if I have grown out of this novel in some way? Alternatively, what if I have not yet grown into it? I am suddenly overwhelmed with all the potential novels I might write. Ideas flicker in and out of my mind, different approaches, styles, points of view. . . Then again perhaps I am following the wrong path altogether and there is another novel out there waiting for me to stumble over it and bring it to life.

Filled with all these doubts, I have sat in front of my five thousand words and read them over and over, seeing the faults (only the faults), even seeing where I might go next, but the words are not coming. I can’t continue exactly where I left off because I am not the same person I was sixteen months ago. It is always dangerous to stop and start a project like this because it becomes stale and we lose the magic and excitement of telling a story that is in part telling itself. I’m trying to find my way back in. I have been through my journal, marking all my old ideas, quotes, research notes, anything that might lead me back to my story. But I am detached from these ideas now.  Before I left Tasmania, as part of my field research I visited the forest protest site that will feature in the early part of Falling Between Worlds. Welcomed by the protesters, I was given the opportunity to see how it worked and to imbibe the atmosphere of the camp and the old growth forest surrounding it. An arsonist has since burnt down this encampment, though I imagine it will be rebuilt because these protesters are patient and committed in a way that is a joy to see. In the upheaval of the past year, this visit to the Upper Florentine Valley has become a distant memory and I have almost forgotten the intense stillness of the forest, the rich smells of damp hummus. . . Perhaps given time I can sit with the memory of it, re-inhabiting the experience and weaving it into my story. But I’m not yet still enough to sit with my memories, quietly waiting for a breakthrough.

I wanted to sit down at my computer and just start writing where I had left off but that has proven impossible. The commitment isn’t there yet and the words I need are missing. Somehow I have to find a way to step through my fear and immerse myself in the story again, reacquainting myself with the characters and their needs. To do this, I must engage in more research. In Story, Robert McKee wrote that ‘research not only wins the war on cliché, it’s the key to victory over fear and its cousin, depression.’ Research, enables us to find our way out of writer’s block and into our stories, helping us to establish a convincing setting, characters and plot. However, research is not an alternative to the creative process, a way of avoiding an engagement with the story. Ideally we fuse fact based research with our imaginations and our memories, drawing on what we know and what might be. This new knowledge allows us to step into the shoes of our characters and understand how they will respond to the story in which they are situated. As McKee wrote, ‘creation and investigation go back and forth, making demands on each other, pushing and pulling this way or that until the story shakes itself out, complete and alive.’

At its best, research will feed the story and the story will guide the research, a symbiotic process that is quite magical. At its worst, research will halt the creative process indefinitely, or take over the story; in the process squeezing it dry and leaving it wooden and formulaic. Nearly every story needs some factual research in order to construct convincing settings, characters and plot but the skill is in finding the right balance. When I was immersed in writing Gathering Storm I suddenly came to an abrupt halt and could go no further. Realising that in order to know my protagonist, Storm, I had to learn more about the Romany world from which she was descended, I reluctantly began researching Romany customs, history, language. . . making notes from books and the internet. Then just as suddenly the writing began again and my characters were enriched by my new knowledge, the information feeding into and motivating their actions, ultimately helping me to create a story that was convincing on many levels. During the writing of Flight, I also came to an abrupt halt just as I was introducing a major character in the story. He needed to talk but I couldn’t hear him. In this case factual research was no use; instead I had to stop and consider who this character was and imagine what motivated him. In the end I discovered a good deal about his past, simply by asking him questions. In listening to his answers I also discovered how he talked and once again I found a way forward. Remembering these examples of blocks and solutions reminds me that I have solved these problems in the past so it is likely that I will do so again with Falling Between Worlds. With that knowledge I can feel the fear receding.

Agatha Christie once said that ‘the best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes.’ The same goes for ironing, knitting, swimming (none of which I can do), walking. . . or anything that occupies our bodies and yet is relatively mindless, leaving us free and open for inspiration and mental planning. For me it is walking that provides insights into my writing. As Robert Macfarlane writes in The Old Ways, ‘the compact between writing and walking is almost as old as literature – a walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.’ When I am writing, walking helps me to find my way through the maze of potential pathways in my stories. It helps me to understand what I am writing, to solve problems and to make links between theme and plot, or plot and character development or motifs and theme.

What I am just beginning to understand is that I am trying too hard to reengage with Falling Between Worlds. Instead I need to slow down and read, muse, dream, make notes and walk, all the activities that in my new and busier lifestyle, I had begun to see as self-indulgent, as non-work rather than as research. I had almost forgotten that everything in life feeds us. We aren’t machines that can crank out stories on demand. If we don’t allow ourselves the time to meander and meditate, to read and to ponder, it won’t be possible to create anything that is not simply mechanical. So, I will slow my racing thoughts and begin listening once again to my intuition. And I will amble along the maze of pathways in this beautiful Welsh countryside, climbing over stiles and marching through the clinging mud, savouring the scent of gorse and sheep manure and wild garlic, as I follow the clues that will lead me back to my novel.  

Copyright (c) 2013 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Describing Place and Self

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’
Anton Chekhov

Despite the fact that I had always carried the knowledge within me that I would one day become a writer, for many years I also believed that I couldn’t write, or at least that I was incapable of producing any writing of value. Not surprisingly, this caused a deep conflict within me and some confusion. Looking for the reasons behind this fundamental lack of faith in my own ability, I could cite low self-confidence or even low self-worth, and to a certain extent this was true. However, the real reason can be found in the word ‘value’. I believed that I could not produce anything of ‘value’ because I was quick to measure my abilities against those authors I read and often loved in high school. My schooling had given me a clear sense of what was valuable and what wasn’t. Maths and Science were valuable, while Art and English were not. And in English, the subject I was most drawn to, some authors were valuable while others were not. At the time I didn’t question these hierarchical constructions. I reveled in the glorious language of the authors I was studying, and in the process became deeply engaged in exploring the underlying meanings of texts and excited by their philosophical and spiritual explorations. Yet, while enjoying these texts I also came to believe that I was not a good writer because I couldn’t match D H Lawrence’s vocabulary, the intensity of his passion or the richness of his descriptions; Shakespeare’s depth of understanding was beyond me, and while the philosophy of Euripides was tantalisingly wise, I was too young to embrace it.

I was only able to liberate myself from this belief when I began to understand that the depth of meaning I was seeking was not found in language itself but in the spells we cast with words, spells which create stories that reflect our experience and in the process enable us to access a deeper knowledge. During the long process of letting go of my expectations, I discovered that sometimes the simplest writing speaks the most profoundly and that crafting a story is as valuable as writing vivid descriptions. As Robert McKee wrote, in Story, ‘you may have the insight of a Buddha, but if you cannot tell a story, your ideas turn dry as chalk’. Over time I found my own voice as a writer and with that, my own place in the spectrum of storysmith versus wordsmith. Right in the middle. This has proved to be both a blessing and a curse, as my writing bridges commercial and literary genres, leaving publishers at a loss when deciding their marketing approach. Yet despite having liberated myself from the misguided belief that for novel writers, description is more important than story, and despite having my novels published, I am still astounded when reviewers and readers comment (as they sometimes do) on the powerful evocation of landscape in my novels or the vivid depictions of characters.

Description is one of the fundamental elements in storytelling. It is a tool or a technique and over time I have learned how to use it. As with any technique of writing, description is both a craft which can be learned and an art which can only be discovered. Description has a function or a number of functions and should be used purposefully.  It grounds and sets the story in place and time, builds character, mood, tension and suspense, shifts pace, adds plausibility, provides metaphors and deepens thematic exploration. In any story there is also a balance that should be sought, between action, reflection and description. Too little description and the story remains floating, ungrounded. Too much description and the story threads become lost. As Stephen King wrote in, On Writing, ‘description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.’ When and how to use description, and how much to use, is something we can only learn through trial and error.

It is not always possible or even desirable to separate the art and the craft of description, as the art is fed by an understanding of the craft. We can only access the art of description by inhabiting the scene we are writing, by living, breathing and tasting it, and by grasping its subtleties. What more is this scene trying to tell us? How might it act as metaphor, as an expression of a universal truth, a human emotion, a philosophical idea? The art of description lies in what we make of a scene rather than what we observe. Powerful description suggests so much more than the words themselves. Powerful description layers and deepens our stories and their themes.

V. S Naipul once wrote, ‘Land is not land alone, something that simply is itself. Land partakes of what we breathe into it, is touched by our moods and memories.’ A reminder perhaps, that it is not possible to be objective in our descriptions when even the decision to include or exclude information is a subjective one. What we see inevitably changes according to our mood and our memory. We see what we feel and we interpret what we see through our emotions, our memory and the ideology which frames us and forms us. The way we describe the world is a political act, always subjective yet more often than not, heralding itself as objective. Yet most of the time it is unconscious. Most of us can only see the world in the way we expect to see it, limited and framed by our ideology, by our personal and cultural history, by our understandings. Perhaps it is enough to be aware of the restrictions within which we interpret and describe the world, in order to begin breaking free of these restrictions. In any case, it is certainly useful to be aware of these restrictions in order to make use of them when we describe the world through the eyes of our character/s.

If we describe how ugly someone is but neglect to notice the beauty of their expression, then we have missed an opportunity to deepen a character and extend our understanding further.  If we describe walking into a beautiful landscape that is filled with the stench of death or sewerage, we would most certainly need to call on our other senses in order to explore the contradictions and build tension into our story.  We see, feel, touch, taste, smell and intuit the world around us (see Writing Between Worlds – Describing the Indescribable), and recording these sensations helps us to bring our stories to life on the page. We also react to our environment, and those reactions are personal as well as cultural. Stepping out into the cold may be exhilarating for one person and terrifying for another, particularly if that person carries a traumatic memory that relates to the cold, or is being exiled from home, or simply, doesn’t have warm clothes. Returning to a childhood home or an old school will arouse different emotions in us, according to the memories we carry from our earlier time in these places. One person sitting on an outcrop of rocks, high up on a hill, might experience a peaceful summer’s day, the warm air sitting calmly in the valleys below, friendly voices calling out to each other, the smell of cut hay, sheep dung. . . yet another person sitting on that same rocky outcrop, might experience a day full of sinister overtones, the shadows in the valley too dark, the voices of others harsh and unfriendly, the sun burning. . . Through considering emotion, reaction and memory as well as the physical characteristics of a place, we can begin to build the tensions, the conflicts and the contradictions that will feed out story and make our characters plausible.  

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote that ‘metaphors are a great language tool, because they explain the unknown in terms of the known.’  With metaphor we find ways of stepping beyond the limitations of language, of expressing meaning without reverting to cliché or telling the reader what really needs to be shown. If we describe a tiny plant struggling to grow through a crack in a concrete pavement in a busy city street, it tells us something about the power of nature over what is man-made. It also tells us about persistence and reminds us that strength doesn’t always lie in might. Perhaps too, it might tell us about a child growing up in a loveless family.

Nature acts as a powerful metaphor in storytelling. As Jung wrote in The Integration of the Personality, ‘all the mythological occurrences of nature, such as summer and winter, the phases of the moon, the rainy seasons. . . are symbolic expressions for the inner and unconscious psychic drama that becomes accessible to human consciousness by way of projection – that is, mirrored in the events of nature.’ In my novel, Flight, a journey into the wilderness in Tasmania is a metaphor for a journey inwards into the labyrinthine depths of the unconscious. Describing natures seasons in our stories also provides a deeper layer of meaning that links the cycles of nature to human experience, a link that reminds us of our connection to all life, and allows us to access and express universal truths.

We use description to provide information, to slow the pace, to build tensions, to provide texture, to break up monotony, to establish mood, ambiance and theme. But most importantly, description is a powerful tool that when used well, enhances and deepens our writing, helping us to create a convincing setting that transports the reader into the world of the story, enabling them to suspend disbelief until the end. Description isn’t easy but mastering it is worthwhile and rewarding. And the key to that mastery is in capturing detail, seeking simile or metaphor and avoiding self-indulgence. 

Copyright (c) 2013 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website: