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.

Friday, January 31, 2014

A New Website

 It’s been some months since I have posted on this blog. Much has happened during those months: financial meltdowns, a house move, work on my novel and a non-fiction book, work with my students, research seminars, talks . . . much of it designed it seems, to take me out of my comfort zone. Well the result is that the paramaters of my comfort zone have broadened, and this finally gave me the determination to overcome ignorance and an economic downturn and design a new website and blog, the Centre for Story

Here I will build on the explorations I have undertaken in Write on the Fringes, as well as offer resources and my services as a mentor, editor, speaker and workshop facilitator.

Thank you to everyone who has followed Write on the Fringes and I do hope you continue the journey by crossing over to the Centre for Story. You can also follow the Centre for Story on facebook and on twitter.  

For anyone new to Write on the Fringes, there is much material here about story, creativity and the art and craft of writing, so please have an explore, but I would love it if you also took a look at the Centre.

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:

Thursday, December 20, 2012

2012 - Revelations

'The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.'
Albert Einstein

Earlier this year I wrote a post called Writing Through 2012. It arose as a response to the predominantly negative interpretation of the significance of 2012, and from asking myself if creativity is possible without hope? At the time, like many others, I had become focused on all that is wrong with the world in which we live, and as a result had sunk into a sense of bleakness and a dark depression. I had not understood the way our thoughts form what we fear and the way our fears become the focus of our thoughts – a  powerful catch 22 that traps us in a psychological prison that creates self-fulfilling prophecies.  

This has not been an easy year for many. Globally there have been heart breaking tragedies, injustices, betrayals and disappointments, but there have also been huge outpourings of compassion, peaceful demonstrations against violence, greater demands for transparency, integrity and honesty in government and the media. Humanity is beginning to change, beginning to seek a new and saner path and we are lucky enough to be a part of this change. 

‘The world is changing and the time has come to let go of the old ways, the ones that ensure the repetitions of history. Peace is a gentle thing that can no longer be fought for. Instead it will enter our hearts and spread from there like the ripples of a pebble dropped into a pond.'  These words form part of the epilogue to my novel, Flight. They are a cry of hope, a small force against the fearfulness that inhabits humanity’s collective consciousness, a fearfulness that is consistently fed by the negative focus of the media.  

The original post still speaks to the times we find ourselves in so I thought this a timely moment to repost it below. I wish you all a fearless, hopeful and joy filled festive season.  

Writing Through 2012
'The world is changing and we are changing with it. It is too soon perhaps to see how.'
Rosie Dub, Flight

It's only early March and I have already had a significant birthday, a new novel published and I've become a Doctor of Philosophy. There have been school holidays and guests, colds and overgrown gardens to attend to. Time seems to be speeding up, it's difficult (well actually impossible), to fit everything in each day. And not least of all, it's 2012; there are murmurings of dread in the air whispers of prophecies and predictions, the end of the world, wars, earthquakes, social disruption. . . . The news is full of injustice and upheaval, insane violence and corruption. 'The Apocalypse,' people are saying. 'The Mayans predicted it for 2012. It is coming.'

Needless to say, so far this year I've found it difficult to settle down and write, difficult sometimes to even credit the value of writing or to focus on anything positive. Because hope is what keeps us moving forward, it's what keeps us creating when around us is destruction. Without hope, we find ourselves sinking into a mire of helplessness and with that comes a shadowy inertness that becomes stronger and darker each time it is fed. Caught in this helpless spiral I found myself sinking quickly, and seeking more fuel to feed this hopelessness. I stared at the blank screen on my computer and found nothing to say, stopped writing in my journal, forgot I had a new novel to write, a new story to tell, something that sought harmony through chaos and beauty through ugliness, something that just might help provide a little nudge towards making this world we have created into a better place. I forgot why I had written Flight, what gifts it had given me and a growing number of readers. In short, I forgot the power of hope.

'We do not inherit the earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children.' I read this anonymous quote many years ago and at the time it shifted something within me, helping me to see from a different perspective, one that is not so much 'me' centred but rather 'world' centred, a perspective that reveals a bigger picture and a sense of responsibility. When I read this again recently, I realised that with three children growing into an uncertain world, it is vital for me to keep the flame of hope burning. In fact, it is my responsibility.

'Enough,' I said to myself and set about making a few changes. Firstly, I made the decision not to watch the news for a while, or anything else for that matter; no ruthless elimination shows, no violent dramas, no historical war documentaries and no flashy, inane celebrity shows. I went for a walk, then another, took up yoga again, made myself a vegetable juice, all the things I couldn't do when I was filled with hopelessness. Quickly I began feeling better. I looked at my journal again, went over what I had already written and once again began getting flashes of insights that I hoped would lead me back to my new novel. But all the time I kept wondering about this apocalypse business, wondering if it would be more useful to grow vegetables, put in a water tank, get off the grid, protect my children from the inevitable. . .

Frustrated, I looked up the word 'apocalypse' a term we associate with widespread destruction, with the end of the world as we know it. But in the definition I found something quite different. Apocalypse comes from the Greek word, apocalypsis, meaning a 'lifting of the veil' or 'revelation'. According to Wikipedia it means 'a disclosure of something hidden from the majority of mankind in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception'. Not an end then, far from it. Rather a time of change and a seeing through. A time perhaps when truth will be harder to hide. When humanity will look for different qualities in their leaders; integrity perhaps, compassion and honesty. Looking at it in this way, it is not an end but a possibility of a new beginning. With this definition in mind I can sit in front of my computer screen and find the words needed to create something new. Once again I have found hope and optimism and with it the possibility of action. And with that, the key to my new novel, Walking Between Worlds

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, December 10, 2012

Exploring Landscape and Belonging Through Story

‘Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.’
James Baldwin Giovanni’s Room

Recently I attended a storytelling festival in Aberystwyth and as I sat mesmerized by the unfolding story of Pryderi, the ruler of Dyfed, I realized once again the power of the ancient stories and the oral tradition of storytelling to connect us to history, to each other and to the land. In Women Who Run With The Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote that, ‘telling or hearing stories draws its power from a towering column of humanity joined one to the other across time and space, elaborately dressed in the rags or robes or nakedness of their time.’ Listening to this spine tingling retelling of stories from the Welsh Mabinogion, for a moment I felt myself balanced on this towering column and understood what it must mean for someone to feel rooted to the earth, to grow and develop in a country with stories that feed the soul with the wisdom of mythic times, and a landscape that is steeped in these stories.

While the stories we tell about ourselves form our individual identity, the stories we tell about our country form our national identity and for better or worse, these narratives act as roots to ground us to place, providing a sense of belonging and a definition of nationhood. I don’t pretend to be Welsh but my ancestral roots are closer to Britain than they are to Australia where my ancestors are not the indigenous Aboriginal people whose land was taken from them. It’s not always comfortable being a white Australian. We have no ancient claim to the land and no traditional stories to draw from, except the stories of conquering and overcoming the odds, and the legends of mateship and a ‘fair go’ that came with colonization and a persistent white Australian policy. These are stories that have become mythologized in Australia, forming a national character that often marginalizes the indigenous population and ignores the fact that Australia is now a multi-cultural nation and the majority of its population are or once were, immigrants.

There are a number of contradictions inherent in white Australians’ relationship to the land. Many of us are at once drawn to, and repelled by the outback, awed by its beauty and frightened by its dangers. We carry the guilt of the conqueror, a guilt that often stops us from claiming a real connection to the land. Our legendary heroes are the men who cleared fields of rocks, who dug canals to drain marshy land, who made the harsh land work for them. The Aussie battler has become part of our national character. Yet, despite this reverence for the outback, more than ninety percent of Australians live in urban environments, for the most part clustered around the edges of this continent, turned away from the centre which carries such a mystique. We romanticise the wilderness, but most rarely, if ever, experience it. Yet, deep within us there's such a longing for wildness, for wilderness and for the sense of real connection with place.

When I began writing my first novel, Gathering Storm, I had no idea how important a role landscape would play in it or how confused I was about my own relationship to the land. The story moves from the snow covered Malvern Hills in England to the harsh heat of the Australian outback, a dramatic contrast in itself, but then there are the contradictions that are deeply embedded in the relationship the characters have with the places in which they live, or once lived, or never lived, but still dream of. These are contradictions which I feel strongly, having grown up in the suburban wilderness of Adelaide, with its manicured lawns, neat fences and garden beds filled with roses and hydrangeas, all cowering under well placed umbrellas to avoid the worst of the baking sun. At school I learned European history in an education system that was still clinging to the comforting notion of a homeland. The only things reminding me that there was more to Australia, were the throaty laugh of the kookaburra, the eucalyptus scent of the gums trees, the fierce summer heat and the frequent dust storms that blew in from 'out back', turning the sky orange and clogging our lungs.

The word nostalgia comes from two Greek roots, nostos (returning home) and algos (pain). For most of my life I suffered from this affliction; a yearning to return home but no idea of where that home might be. This sense of alienation I felt goes some way towards explaining why I decided to make my main character English in Gathering Storm. This gave me the freedom to describe Australia through the eyes of a stranger, someone who doesn't belong. Storm is also part Romany – partly imbued with the blood of a nomadic people, and although her family have lived in England for nearly seventy years, she still doesn't fully belong there either. Storm belongs nowhere. She is torn between movement and stillness, restless but afraid, wanting to settle, but eager to move. Her sense of self is scattered between the cottage in the Malvern Hills, her boyfriend’s apartment, her art studio and her Kombi van. Then there's her romantic notion of a Bohemia she has never visited, her nostalgia for the Malvern of her childhood and her fearful retracing of her mother's footsteps in the Australian outback. And finally there's the traumatic cultural legacy of the past that plays havoc with her sense of self. Storm’s childhood is filled with secrets and silences embedded in the spaces between the stories her family reluctantly tell. Speaking of her childhood need for stories, Storm says, ‘I consumed them as if there were a great hollow inside me that needed filling and that once filled, their weight, the weight of my ancestors, would act as an anchor. . .’

For me, a sense of belonging is linked very closely to place and to the stories we tell that connect us to place. I was an adopted child and grew up steeped in a sense of my own illegitimacy. Like Storm, I felt I belonged nowhere, that no place was truly mine. And because this lack of belonging was a strong central theme in my own life, it inevitably demanded to be explored in the stories I told. Woven through both Gathering Storm and Flight, is this sense of dislocation and statelessness that can be felt and experienced personally, but also within a family a culture and a nation. Place gives us identity, a passport to belonging. But time does it too. In a sense, space and time cross when a family or a people have been anchored in one place for generations. Ancestors provide us with roots and so does place. As Storm asks: How long does it take? How many generations? Do we inherit place? Do we earn it? Or is belonging simply a state of mind? Exploring these questions through writing has helped me to resolve issues of belonging and identity within my own life. Like Storm I have begun to suspect that belonging is ultimately something we carry inside of ourselves. It is a realisation that comes when we are on the right path in our lives. Until then nowhere is ours, but when this realisation arrives, the world becomes ours. For as Joseph Campbell wrote, ‘our true reality is in our identity and unity with all life’.

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, November 12, 2012

Writing Between Worlds – Describing the Indescribable

‘The frontier of our world is not far away; it doesn't run along the horizon or in the depths. It glimmers faintly close by, in the twilight of our nearest surroundings; out of the corner of our eye we can always glimpse another world, without realizing it.’ 
Michel Adjvaz

Two months ago I arrived in Wales, a place of great beauty and wildness, a place laden with mystery and layered with history. Here it seems as if the veil between worlds is thinner than elsewhere, so that from the corner of my eye I see glimpses of other times - a flash of a man on horseback, the swish of long skirts. . . There are glimpses of other worlds too, as I discovered driving home one evening along a narrow country lane with a forest lining each side of the road. Ahead of me, I clearly saw a figure the size of a man yet not a man, moving across the road but high up, almost level with the canopies of the trees. Not wanting to make my children nervous, I decided not to mention it. Despite my precautions my son went strangely quiet and we drove home in silence. The next morning as we retraced the road through the same forest, I told my children that I had seen something the night before. My son stated that he had seen something too in this spot, but by the side of the road, just a little above the ground, a figure the size of a man yet not a man . . .

Real and yet not real. Imagination? Fantasy? It’s generally easy for others to rationalise these things away, as a trick of the light, a flight of the imagination, wishful thinking even. . . and yet when we experience something outside of the realms of what we consider normal or possible, then we know it with a deep and protective certainty. In my experience many people have seen or experienced something they cannot explain, yet most of them keep it to themselves in the knowledge that putting it to words generally reduces the experience, and in the fear that they will be ridiculed. In Weight, Jeanette Winterson wrote, 'Right now, human beings as a mass, have a gruesome appetite for what they call 'real'. . . Such a phenomenon points to a terror of the inner life, of the sublime, of the poetic, of the non-material, of the contemplative.' Perhaps we carry this fear in our genes, stamped by the horrors of history into our ancestors and passed down generation after generation. This has been reinforced by the successes of scientific materialism and the relegation of the non-rational to the status of superstition. Inevitably, over time we have become detached from the natural world around us and lost our own connection with the magic and mystery of life, handing control of the spiritual experience to the priests of organised religion and handing validation of our own experience, to their modern equivalent, the technocrats of science. We have been taught to hold the fear at bay by seeking certainty in the rational, the measurable, the flesh and blood physical world of the five senses, and in so doing we have passively watched the colour seep out of life. Perhaps it is fear that has led so many of us to consider as virtues the deadening qualities of scepticism and cynicism.

The best of religion is not blinkered and nor is the best of science. One of our greatest scientists, Albert Einstein, once said that ‘the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant,’ then went on to warn that ‘we have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.’ In so doing we have found ourselves limited by the constraints of the five-senses which have come to define the physical world, and yet there is so much more beyond these restrictions, so many more threads which connect all things and such a thin membrane separating the physical world from the invisible world. I have always been interested in treading the line between worlds in my writing, of finding ways to transcend the boundaries of time and space. Not by creating fantastical other worlds but rather by slipping back and forth between our everyday world and the worlds which sit beyond or within. Yet I know from personal experience just how difficult it is to translate extrasensory experience onto paper without losing its vitality, and for a time this difficulty led me to stay closer to the ‘real’ in my writing than I wished.

Stories themselves are not ‘of this world’. As Haruki Murakami wrote inSputnik Sweetheart, ‘a real story requires a kind of magical baptism to link the world on this side with the world on the other side.' With this in mind, I finally took the plunge and began breaking the rules of realism, playing with space and time, with cause and effect and with the line between life and death. In Eva Luna, Isabel Allende wrote that ‘reality is not only what we see on the surface; it has a magical dimension as well and, if we so desire, it is legitimate to enhance it and color it to make our journey through life less trying.” In a sense this is what I have done in Flight – taken my own experiences, many of which I hadn’t fully understood, and thrown them into the winds, letting them settle into place and form a story, whilst giving my imagination free reign to fill in the gaps. What eventually emerged was something more truthful than any material fact I could cite.

Writing that explores these boundaries between the visible and invisible worlds tends to be called magical realist but more often than not this title is applied to or claimed by only South American writers such as Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In truth, its roots are much broader, including among others, Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Salmon Rushdie, Franz Kafka, and  Haruki Murakami. For want of a better word, I will label my latest novel, Flight as magical realist, a genre I am drawn to for a number of reasons. Firstly, magical realism has a strong affinity with Jungian psychology, encouraging a sense of connectedness between all things and often drawing on ancient esoteric beliefs. Secondly, I believe that magical realism is a subversive genre. Whether or not we write directly about politics, our writing is always a political act because depending on our approach it defines, reinforces or rewrites our understanding of the world in which we live. To re-introduce magic into realism is a necessary political act, pushing back against the restrictive socially constructed boundaries of what is ‘real’. And finally, as Lois Zamora and Wendy Faris wrote in Magical Realism, ‘the supernatural . . . [becomes] an ordinary matter, an everyday occurrence – admitted, accepted and integrated into the rationality and materiality of literary realism’. In this genre, magic is a fundamental part of life, as ordinary and as necessary as the air we breathe. This gives us the space to write about our experiences without fear of ridicule, drawing on symbolism and metaphor to create the necessary bridges between one world and the other. In so doing we are finally able to describe the indescribable. 

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: