Thursday, 20 November 2014

Writing from the Body

Graduate school...a lot of talk in the Literature Department about writing from the body. What did we mean? Discussions were curiously heady, as if bodies were a lesser derivative of the mind. Feminist theory came close, since it was often about interventions beyond the page: there was a definite link between writing and bodies. But these were usually bodies in flight or fight; bodies that had been abused or denied; bodies that sought justice. 

Earlier this month, I enjoyed a yoga retreat with Angela Farmer - someone who has spent a lifetime in intimate dialogue with her body. She shared stories about her progression from seeking a perfect outer form (impressive looking yoga poses) to exploring a balanced and harmonious relationship with her body from inside. As we moved various parts of our bodies - paying close attention to sensations, feelings and subtle shifts in our whole body system - I began to wonder about the relationship between bodies and words. How do our words shift when our bodies are aligned? How do our words shift when we have a compassionate and conscious relationship to our own and other embodied forms?

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Tempest that is Kate

This month, I saw and heard Kate Tempest perform from her most recent poetry collection on the final day of the short story festival known as Small Wonder. The festival had reached out for something different, for something beyond the traditional semi-spontaneous conversation between author and academic or the quiet reading of prose work by introverted short story writers. Kate Tempest (along with an irreverent moderator in Damian Barr and the shy but talented Irish writer Colin Barrett) was that something different.  

Kate's star is rising, soaring, exploding…she reaches across class and gender; she touches people as she touches on human concerns. Here she was at a highbrow literary festival just being herself. She walked in confidently with signature jeans and blue sweater, shoulders a little hunched, hands in pockets, her mane of golden hair untroubled by any constraint. She made herself comfortable on a stage with unsympathetic lighting. She just did what she does. The crowd loved her.

Here she is reciting part of a poem last year in an interview situation; despite being seated, despite the absence of a typical audience, despite the apparent sterility she gets into performance mode and conjures up lives, relationships, feelings…go Kate!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

What plot are you living?

A quote from the writer Jill Ker Conway:

"As a young person, it is important to scrutinise the plot you've internalized and find out whether it accurately represents what you want to be, because we tend to act out those life plots unless we think about them."

Questions to ask yourself:

Am I the main character in my own story?
Do I like the setting?
Do I enjoy my relationships with the other characters around me?
Does my story need updating?

What genre am I predominantly living - drama, tragedy, comedy, mystery, epic?
Is it a page-turner?
Does it hold my interest?
Are there enough twists and turns?

You get the picture...


What fragile strong beauty - potential not yet fully realised. We bud, we burst open and then we bloom.

There is continual movement too fine for the human eye, too subtle to grasp. There is no separation between seed, pod and flower.

Safe in the pod until it is time to come forth - a natural breaking of the barrier. It is the birth and realisation of each creative act. The seed holds the completion.

We trust nature. Do we trust ourselves?

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Thirst Quenching

A friend writes: "Writing quenches the thirst…" It does. I feel that also. 

When I write, I ground into myself and feel the deliberateness of my creation.

When I write, I am no victim of circumstance but rather an explorer of life.

When I write, I am having a particular experience at a particular time and it is temporary.

When I write, I am on track and not veering off like a runaway train.

When I write, I feel myself in connection with all that is.

When I write, my breath slows and deepens.

When I write, life is laced with curiosity, nuanced by observance, enriched by deep presence.

Writing is the ritual that always brings me home.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Things I need to Hear

Coaching others in their writing process is a clever way to remind myself of things I need to hear. Here are five nuggets that  I have revealed to myself in recent sessions:
  • "Your writing matters."
  • "Whether you get published or not, writing has a profound effect. The act of creation causes ripples of energy. Creation creates vibrational shifts."
  • "Writing is alchemical. You transform yourself in the act and process of writing."
  • "Writing takes place first in the invisible realms; once you have created there, it is a matter of bringing words to the page and crafting them."  
  • "You can build a relationship with a writing project before it is visible in material terms."

Sunday, 15 June 2014

A Novel Abduction

    "What follows is a record of where Meadow and I have been since our disappearance." 

     So begins a beguiling novel that is seemingly about child abduction but actually about the ways in which repressions, denials and dishonesties can distort our capacity to love. Schroder by Amity Gaige, brings us into the warped yet somehow endearing consciousness of a father on the losing end of a custody battle with his estranged wife. As the court nips away at his visiting rights, and as he fears being revealed as a fraud, Eric Kennedy aka Schroder takes his six-year-old daughter on a trip. 

     "'We're hitting the road!'"  I said.
     She tilted her head.  'We're hitting the road?  With what?'
     'No, no, no.' I laughed. 'We're going driving. We're going on a trip. A spontaneous trip. You and me. How does that sound?'"

     While Meadow responds with a child's enthusiasm, Gaige encourages the reader to feel a strange mix of growing unease mingled with affection for this father who is so woefully unprepared to either take care of his daughter or abduct her:

     "That morning, before her arrival, I had packed myself a small bag (swimming trunks, a toothbrush, some reading material), letting this small bag flirt with my own desire to flee, but not with the clarity of premeditation. It was more with a desperate flourish that the last thing to go into the bag - after a slight hesitation - was my passport. Just in case! You never know!"

     Gaige does not let us forget that Meadow is a vulnerable child - we are made to feel the potential danger of Eric's benign neglect - but she also gives us glimpses of the deep and redeeming love between father and daughter that might have been possible if only things had been different. It is unusual to be in the mindset of the abductor versus the terrified mother whose child is missing. Thoughts of Nabokov's Lolita flitted occasionally through my mind. How do you measure danger? How do you measure love? 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Pleasures of Writing

     A great deal has been written or spoken about the anguish of writing - the blocks to creativity; the long hours spent sitting alone in a room; the blank screen; the drivel that comes out of most writers before they write something good; and the pains of rejection once a manuscript leaves the safety of home and tries to make it in the world. This is all familiar territory.

     Just as important, is to pay attention to the pleasures of writing - the intimacy with one's text that develops slowly like a really good love affair; the deep wells of patience and commitment that grow more readily through writing than in actual love affairs; the self-belief that sustains you; the rich sensations of swimming in words; the curiosity about where the story is taking you; the power and wonder of creating worlds.

     I am working with some personal stories at the moment, hoping to turn them into palatable fiction. It means I am delving into relationships that shaped and impacted me during my 40's. Most of us leave the terrain of relationships that did not end well with some measure of relief and a promise not to go down that road again. Writers who choose to scour their lives for insight and meaning get to re-live the past, see it from new perspectives, examine and laugh at the blind spots and dead-end alleys. It makes life richer.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Self as Source (part two)

     One sunny May morning, as we were preparing to co-teach "The Self as the Source of the Story" - a five-day writing retreat on Whidbey Island - I turned to Christina Baldwin and said: "You don't teach writing; you skilfully create the environment in which great writing can come forth. Self as Source is  an incubator."

    Over the course of the next five days, as we delved deeply into the material of this wonderful retreat, I paid close attention to the process of fostering an ideal writing environment - an environment that develops simultaneously in the material world and in the inner life of the writer.

     Self as Source weaves a safe web, one that is grounded in the principles of circle practice and Christina's deep knowledge of writing and story. Within this web, people discover and pick up the threads of their personal narratives and begin to write the stories that need to be told. As Christina reminds us in Storycatcher, "We record unspoken experiences in the mind and body, but unless we can story it out, experience remains inside us shrouded like fog hanging over water" (81).
     It was inspiring to join with Christina, lay my knowledge next to hers and enjoy the back and forth of dialogue as we teased out the craft of writing and the power of story. I look forward to bringing this workshop to the UK in 2015.

     And finally, on a day that marks the death of a great storyteller and liver of life, Maya Angelou, it feels fitting to honour the craft and process of writing. Maya Angelou was one who understood the power of story and the enchantment of writing with every ounce of her. I will miss her voice on this earth. 

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Self As Source

I am on Whidbey Island, a spot of heaven in the Pacific Northwest of America. Through a picture window, sun-rippled water extends towards the snow-covered Olympic mountains and the sky is defiantly blue despite the island's reputation for changeable weather.

Today begins my experience of co-facilitating a writing retreat aptly named "The Self as the Source of the Story" with writer and educator Christina Baldwin. Self as Source is an inspired five-day writing retreat designed to help people move beyond journal writing to "tackle a portion of their life experience by writing memoir, autobiography, essay or fiction." Christina Baldwin - creator of this retreat, author of numerous books on writing, and co-creator of Peer Spirit -  has agreed to mentor me in the process of learning to teach Self as Source so that I can bring it to the UK.

Before I write any posts related to this experience, here is a taste of the setting. The first photo gives a glimpse of the Olympics, and the subsequent photos show the retreat setting of Aldermarsh.


Saturday, 12 April 2014

Resonance of Words

I am currently reading True Story: The Life and Death of My Brother by the Canadian writer Helen Humphreys. Do not be put off by the rather obvious title in this English version produced by Serpent's Tail. The Harper Collins imprint, published in Canada, has a far more evocative title that reflects the tenderness of this memoir: Nocturne.  

Nocturne because the brother who leaves too soon was a skilled pianist. Nocturne because his leaving is a darkness, a closing in, a silence that is thick like the night and full of sound. Nocturne because memory and loss come in short sharp bursts of music.

Humphreys makes me taste language. A phrase, an insight, a feeling pulled from the deeply lived experience of the writer demands equal presence in her reader. I pause, lay the book down, gaze out of a window and allow the shape and texture of words to find their resonance.
The shock of her brother's death stimulates a rich turning over of their shared and separate lives. Humphreys is writing to him "one last time." She lets him in on secrets, reveals how she is dealing with his death, and reflects on the similar solitudes of writer and musician. She sings her grief in the way she knows best: 

     "To have you gone - you, who went clear to the bottom of my world - has thrown everything off balance, has left me wandering like a ghost in my own life" (58). 

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Words and Bodies

Writers gathered at the British Library recently to discuss their craft and answer questions. I attended one session, drawn there by a favourite writer and a top-notch mediator who moved with warmth and verbal dexterity between expert and crowd.

Inevitably, I was disappointed. My writer was oblique and mysterious; she was filled with wise-sounding quips that chased each other, slippery tigers, around the stage. She made me laugh and left me hungry. The magic, after all, was in her books and not necessarily in her person. And the three-person panel, writers laid bare in front of a hungry audience, is not a natural formation. Those on the panel who actively taught writing fared better. Paid to elucidate, they got into the meat and potatoes of writing and they had student examples up their sleeve.

It's the exchange, the fusion of writer and reader that is so mysterious. When we read great books, we access so many dimensions. We get involved. Why is this not accessed during a conversation about books or even during a question and answer session? I think it is too polite. Our bodies are locked in chairs, our imaginations stifled, our questions limited by a fear of appearing foolish or ignorant. If we were circled around a fire in the dark, reading books aloud and letting our feeling run loose, it might be different. But how can one shake off constraints to the imagination in the British Library?

I left the library, where first editions are marvellously preserved and also held captive under dimly-lit glass, and caught a tube to Waterloo. I walked then ran along the embankment in competition with the Thames. The water moved lithely on this spring-like day. Crowds mingled outside restaurants and clustered more closely around the buskers and hip-hop dancers who sang and flexed their wares. I arrived breathless at my destination: Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Center.

Inside a darkened auditorium, on a stage that was bare except for tattered rows of seats in an imaginary bus angled on one side, five women and one man give testimony to the rape of a young woman in Delhi, India in 2012. The performance morphed between this central violence and the testimony of four other women who had come forward to share stories of sexual abuse and violence. This was testimonial theatre at its most effective - shocking but also galvanising. In one scene, the four women enact a ritual washing and burial of the young woman's body that moved many of us to tears. Words were embodied, and, as witness, my own body felt implicated and involved.

The play is Nirbhaya:

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Why We Write

A relative slips me an envelope, mumbles something about it being self-evident, asks me to read it later. Inside, a card alludes to something he is writing about our family. There is a reference to my "stimulating book" (a memoir he found difficult to read) and one sheet of writing that appears to be a prologue to something longer.  In this prologue, he mentions my father and then offers several general paragraphs in praise of my mother. Kind words, broad words, words that tell little. It gets me thinking about our various motivations for writing. Family history can reveal or obscure; dig the dirt or smooth the surface; stimulate or assuage. Who are we writing for?

When I began my memoir about family, about my father whose suicide created or revealed family tensions as well as evoking strengths, my motive was personal. I wrote to discover, uncover, reveal; my primary audience was my younger self. I wrote to reclaim and to make whole whatever felt shattered.

My secondary audience was perhaps my father - a way to create relationship with a man who was not physically there - and my mother who was implicated in the shattering. After that came the rest of my family and anyone else who stumbled on my book.

If you ever feel lost within a family, or a job, or a relationship, keep a journal. Write the truth - your truth. Remind yourself that you are the creator of your own life as well as the main character.

I wanted to write myself into existence and hear my own voice. Writing can do that.

Return: (Re)membering a Family Life is available at and Amazon

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Memoir: In All Its Truth and Beauty

     I have long been fascinated by writers who delve into emotions, tell the truth as they see it, and touch something universal through the specificity of their one life. These explorers who face the winds of fear or grief, who set their compass by human joys, who excavate the humdrum and reveal the extraordinary become touchstones in our lives. In their resolute willingness to sit day after day honing their words and refining their meaning, they provide wormholes into our humanity. 

     These days, the art of memoir sometimes gets lost amidst celebrity tell-alls or diminished by that dismissive moniker “misery memoir”; in the same way that informed personal and historical perspectives of identity might be dismissed as “politically correct” something precious is overlooked in this muddying of distinctly different waters. 

     A central challenge in writing memoir is establishing a distinct voice that captivates the reader. Imagine going into a bar for a quiet drink only to be cornered by an intoxicated individual who divulges endless personal details about his or her life. Memoir writers must skillfully pitch their story with enough detail and colour to build interest and with a tone that inspires trust.

     When Jeanette Winterson published her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal in 2012, she covered some of the same ground as she had in her 1985 semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Despite this, her memoir feels fresh and insightful. There is a fascination in the way Winterson has re-worked her material, revealing what was true or fictional in the first book, and in the subtle shifts in perspective that a quarter-century must bring. But it is her narrative voice that pulls you in  - the witty, observant, satirical voice established in the first several paragraphs:

                    WHEN MY MOTHER WAS ANGRY with me, which was often, she said, ‘The  
          Devil led us to the wrong crib.’
                    The image of Satan taking time off from the Cold War and McCarthyism to 
           visit Manchester in 1960 - purpose of visit: to deceive Mrs Winterson - has a  
          flamboyant theatricality to it.  She was a flamboyant depressive; a woman who 
          kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. A woman 
          who stayed up all night baking cakes to avoid sleeping in the same bed as my 
          father. A woman with a prolapse, a thyroid condition, an enlarged heart, an 
          ulcerated leg that never healed, and two sets of false teeth - matt for everyday, 
          and pearlised set for ‘best’. 
  As readers, we know there is meat to her story, and we trust her to navigate us through its particularities. We sense that we will learn much, feel more and enter a world that is different from our own yet has points of intersection. Through her narrative skill, Winterson places us in intimate relationship with the young girl who seeks identity and meaning in a confusing, unpredictable world.

Other good reads: A Three Dog Life - Abigail Thomas; Autobiography of a Face - Lucy Grealy; The House on Mango Street - Sandra Cisneros; Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place - Terry Tempest Williams; Truth and Beauty - Ann Patchett; The Woman Warrior - Maxine Hong Kingston.

                                                                                     © Julia Doggart 2014