How travel feeds creativity – the sea that swims around us

How travel feeds creativity – the sea that swims around us

Today I have the honour of hosting a post by Roz Morris, whose latest book  “Not Quite Lost” came out a week ago today. I very much enjoyed this tale of travels (mostly around Britain) and recommend it as a light-hearted but thoughtful type of memoir; beautifully written and full of humour and pathos, it’s just the kind of book to enjoy this autumn.

Over to you, Roz!

 

How travel feeds creativity – the sea that swims around us

I’ve always kept a notebook. I can’t go anywhere without wanting to doodle a thought about what I’m noticing, or an unsuspected angle on the book I’m writing. Creative people – not just writers – always have bursting minds.

But they don’t always burst to order. We all know that sitting at our desk can sometimes be paralysing, like being locked under an interrogator’s spotlight.

Which is where the environment comes in. A moving environment, particularly. Travel – as defined by the period of making a journey. I love driving a familiar route in my car. While muscle memory handles the motoring and motor functions, a brain is free to unspool. The train is particularly intoxicating. It is a lullaby. An instruction to just sit and be. There can’t be anyone who doesn’t know that JK Rowling dreamed up Harry Potter as she idled on an intercity.

Travelling under your own power is good too. I’ve always liked running. Correction: it’s not the running that I like, as in getting tired while going somewhere. I admit I enjoy the occasional burn to a blasting piece of music, but more usually I get bored once I realise that strenuous movement is also uncomfortable. But I really like what running does to my mind.

Fatigue, the need for determination and the knowledge that I’ll have to endure it for an hour seem to squeeze my thoughts into a concentrated channel. While my inner exercise mistress says we must do the allotted time, the writer mistress grabs a random piece from a storyline or character and frets it to death.

A run inevitably turns into an aggressive problem-solving session, with a focus that I simply don’t get at other times. Sometimes these are problems I never even saw until my trainers started trotting. I do exercise classes too, and get infuriated with the repetitive exercises to brainless music. But I seem to split into two halves. Exercise mistress pumps out the reps with a resentful eye on the clock. Writing mistress brings up an urgent flaw and storms it until the final cooldown. When I flail out of a 45-minute Body Pump, I’m usually gasping for a notebook.

These are my go-tos for grappling with the routine work on WIPs. But we also need to add new stuff.

And this is the great thing. Go away and the brain drinks in new things. Not just the big, obvious features like a famous mountain or an ancient palace. Away from home or familiar environments, everything is reinvented. The texture of chairs in the waiting room of a station. The distinctive regional accent that flavours every word you hear. The smell of a country as you step off a plane. (Singapore: mangoes. Mexico: diesel and drains.)

That last point makes it sound as though I travel abroad a lot. Actually I don’t. I’m not that well organised. Anyway, I’m so easily entertained by any differences that I’m just as happy to sling a suitcase in the car and head for the motorway. Even staying in a friend’s house makes you renotice the things you tune out of everyday living. No two places have the same night sounds – jumbo jets in one place, a trickling stream in another. Your host’s coffee mugs might invite you to draw conclusions about them. What writer doesn’t always make sure a trip to a friend’s house includes a visit to the bathroom, regardless of whether it’s physically necessary? Be honest now.

A notebook is essential travel gear, of course. I have a special one I use when I’m off home turf. It’s an old leatherbound book embossed with the name ‘visitors’ – because it is the book I write in when I’m a visitor. (And now it’s just been published in its own right, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction. But that’s another story.)

Ideas are all around. An invisible current of them, like the phone signals, wifi and remote control instructions that swim around us all the time, all the minutes of the day. If we’re not the intended recipient, we don’t see them, but still they are there. Travel – whether a deliberate trip or a simple state of being in motion – might let us turn the receiver on.

 

Roz Morris is an award-nominated novelist (My Memories of a Future Life; Lifeform Three), book doctor to award-winning writers (Roald Dahl Funny Prize 2012), has sold 4 million books as a ghostwriter and teaches writing masterclasses for The Guardian. Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is her first collection of essays. Find her at her website https://rozmorris.wordpress.com/ and on her blog https://nailyournovel.wordpress.com/ , contact her on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RozMorrisWriter/ and tweet her as @Roz_Morris http://www.twitter.com/roz_morris

Links

My Memories of a Future Life https://rozmorris.wordpress.com/my-books/my-fiction-me-as-me/my-memories-of-a-future-life/

Lifeform Three https://rozmorris.wordpress.com/my-books/my-fiction-me-as-me/lifeform-three/

Not Quite Lost https://rozmorris.wordpress.com/my-books/not-quite-lost-travels-without-a-sense-of-direction/

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Message in a Bottle

Message in a bottle

On Friday I managed to tick off an item on my bucket list. Except I don’t have a bucket list, but you know what I mean: a much cherished hope, dream or ambition. For some my little tick would seem a bit tame but for a book lover or any author, it was a real thrill. I went to a bookshop. Not just any bookshop but a world famous bookshop.

Shakespeare & Company in Paris, less than fifty yards from Notre Dame cathedral has been on my personal radar for some years now. Working in Paris several times a year for umpty-ump years, I’ve never had any personal free time where I’ve felt it was possible to slip away for half an hour. Not even for five minutes to just take a photo and look longingly at the window like a kid at a sweet shop.

But last Friday I did. I managed it. You aren’t allowed to take photos inside so I must tantalise you with a shot or two of the exterior.

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They have a Lucky Dip selection where for five euros you can buy a book, sight unseen, boxed neatly in a cardboard box with their famous stamp on it. Books are more expensive in France than in the UK, so taking a risk for a small sum was all right. Alas, my Lucky Dip was not (for me) lucky, as I got a James Joyce.

But I went in and had a browse. Floor to ceiling shelving, slightly dishevelled by the number of customers who have taken books out and put them back only to pounce on the next offering, and the lovely smell of books old and new: paradise. I heard customers asking for specific books: “Do you have a copy of The Prophet?” “Yes, I believe we do!” “I’m looking for The Bell Jar…” I catch the eye of the assistant and ask sotto voce, “Do you supply it with Prozac?” and she giggles discreetly as she goes to help the customer find it.

I looked, and found I was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of brilliance, of skill with words and with ideas, of the authors whose works surrounded me. I wanted to buy a book, a proper book, something I’d never normally find. Something different. After only a tiny bit of scanning of shelves I found a novel by George Sand, a little known work called Laura: the Journey into the Crystal. I had only a very short time to decide, so I bought it and the Lucky Dip and returned to my working day.

Yet a part of me remained with those shelves of books, those repositories of voices, some long, long dead. It made me realise my own voice was there, too, somewhere, on the shelves of those who have bought my books, and on the virtual shelves. George Sand would not have imagined that her books would still be being read more than two hundred years after her birth; she would surely have been delighted to see a modern woman seizing with delight one of her lesser known books.

My books are my messages in bottles, cast into the vast ocean of literature. Where they end up, I will never know. I’d like to think that they will pitch up somewhere rather than sink to the bottom of the sea. The act of casting a message in a bottle into the sea is an act of faith, and for the finder, an act of grace.

Perhaps I need a little more faith to keep chucking them out there, and believe that they may wash up on the right beaches, one day.

Raven & Vulture perform the funeral rites

Raven & Vulture perform the funeral rites

I look out of the window to see that a black dress or long shirt has been laid out on the lawn, much in the manner of old, where laundry was dried on grass for the bleaching and cleansing effects of sunshine and grass on cloth. I think, the day is drawing to a close so I better bring it in before it becomes damp with the falling dew. As I look I see birds landing; two black vultures and two ravens. They approach the garment, and after looking at it for a moment, they ceremonially start to fold it up, and I see that there is something lying inside the fabric. It looks like a white dog or pig, but I cannot see its head or feet to be sure; it may be a lamb. The birds wrap it as if they are putting it into a shroud for burial, much as I have done with beloved pets on their deaths, wrapping them in their blanket or a towel.”

This was my dream a few nights ago, and I have been haunted by it ever since. While I was away in Austria, I saw my first ever raven in the wild, flying across the valley, kronk kronk kronking as it flew. The village where I was staying has a raven in its coat of arms, a raven holding a diamond ring, from a folk tale or legend of the area, and the book I was reading while away, Marie-Louise Von Franz’s Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales, mentioned ravens several times. Both raven and vulture are associated with the Shadow, and with death, rebirth and other themes. But even knowing this, I am baffled by this dream and deeply disturbed to the point that I am scared.

A Curate’s Egg ~ 2015 That was the year that was

A Curate’s Egg ~ 2015 That was the year that was

You probably know the term a curate’s egg and if you know its origins in a very old cartoon of a much-downtrodden young curate attempting to eat a boiled egg that is clearly so far past its sell-by (if they had such things when the cartoon was drawn) and saying in response to his employer sternly querying whether the egg was bad, “No, sir, it is excellent in parts!”, then you’ll also know that it’s about making the best of a bad job. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curate%27s_egg 

Personally, 2015 wasn’t a bad year, though. It was excellent in parts. The trouble is that the excellent bits don’t quite make up for the bad bits. The other trouble is that being honest about the bad parts tends to make people switch off. The whole positivity bull has become so engrained that a bit of plain speaking is dismissed as negativity and is demonised. So I’m in a quandary: if I write of the good things without mentioning the bad ones, I’m being dishonest to myself, and if I do mention the less than stellar bits, people dismiss it as moaning. I’m going to try to have a brief run through of some of both.

Good bits:

Books: I managed to get Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking (first in a series of themed collections from his blog) out. It took far longer because I’ve been in the grip of depression this year. It’s got some wonderful reviews and feedback but so far hasn’t reached as many readers as I believe it needs to. Other books have garnered more reviews, though sales have been fewer than previous years. But I am still selling, if slowly.

Travel. I rarely blog much about my travelling job, for a variety of reasons. While most trips go very smoothly and the people I work with are smashing, sometimes things don’t go as well; personality clashes happen, though it’s extremely rare. Sometimes things don’t go as planned and on extremely rare occasions things can go wrong. It would be unprofessional of me to talk about this type of thing. I often chuckle to myself that no-one would believe some of the things I’ve experienced and seen on trips, anyway. It truly is a job of absurd extremes. Needless to say, I make mental notes of it all and perhaps things might filter through in fictionalised form one day. This year I have done a goodly number of miles for the day job. Admittedly, it’s stressful and exhausting but it can also be fun. I go to interesting places and I meet interesting people. Some are absurdly demanding but charming. Some are kind, lovely people I’ve made friends with, like the lovely lady in the small Austrian town who gave me her finger-less gloves when I admired them. There are some truly fabulous people in this world.

Home. In the wake of losing Tiko the Magnificent, tiny tyrant of the kitchen (our guinea pig who loved watching costume dramas on the TV with us. Poldark will never be the same again) we adopted first Blackberry (a year old female guinea, an unwanted pet) and then babies Rosehip, Cinnamon and Anise. They have become possibly the best of mood enhancers, just as Tiko was.

Writing. I have managed to write at least 70 thousand words of fiction this year. Thirty thousand longhand for a sequel to Square Peg, about another thirty thousand for another work in progress, and perhaps ten thousand in short stories. I’ve done perhaps another five to ten thousand on another piece but since that requires me to be in a state of trance, I haven’t done that much. I’ve also published over 70 blog posts this year, according to the WordPress stats monkeys.

Bad bits

Health: despite my best efforts, I’ve been gripped by low mood virtually all year, sometimes paralysed by depression so entirely that simply staying alive has been a huge struggle. I’ve also been in a lot of pain, and fatigue has been crippling. I’ve done my best to stay fit and active, attending the gym several times each week, and having a weekly class of Tai Chi and doing as much walking as I can manage. There is no sense of improving fitness despite doing all this (as well as daily physio exercises) which is frustrating. I have replaced the core muscles I lost because of the parathyroid tumour (removed in 2014) which has been helpful, but I’ve had four quite bad injuries this year because of my wonky joints. I did my ankle on New Year’s Day, wrist in March, shoulder on April Fool’s Day (of course) and I damaged my hip doing the splits on a slippery floor (by accident I should add). Each injury took a long time to recover and caused a lot of pain. Fibromyalgia pain is debilitating at the best of times, and injury adds to it.

Writing: yes, I know I put this in my good bits. I’ve found it very, very difficult to write. I feel I have lost faith with myself, lost the ability to just trust my own inner processes that had served me so well in the past. I have lost connection with the me that basically says, “let’s see where this goes, shall we?” and charges off on an adventure, and is rewarded by a flood of narrative that sweeps me away. Part of the reason for this is I am no longer naïve about the publishing side of things; I’ve seen what sells and what doesn’t and it has seeped into my consciousness and has nibbled at my confidence in my own talent to the extent that I now doubt it entirely. There is an immense ocean of books out there that grows daily so why, oh why, does the world need more? I should add (to pre-empt comments about writing for myself etc) that I have never regarded writing as a hobby, a pass-time, or even a career, but as a kind of vocation, a raison d’etre, something that comes from beyond me as well as from within me. I harbour the probable delusion that my stories matter, that they are more than simple entertainment or diversion, and in this sea of books, what hope is there that mine might find homes? I might add also that my faith in there being a purpose, a destiny, in all this, has also taken a battering. My faith generally has never been at a lower ebb.

Family: seeing family (and close friends) with health issues that are crippling and horrible to live with.

The World: what can I say? There have been many, many terrible things this year that will never mend, never heal.

That’s enough to be going on with, though.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Five

Day 5

Winter bus ride

Blue sky with scudding clouds, pink tinged by the morning sun but dirty with threatening rain. Bare trees casting long low shadows across fields like the rib bones of some enormous extinct beast lying fossilised in the landscape. The bus chugs up hill, climbing out of the river valley- Norfolk is not pancake flat, there are some small hills. The road winds, except a few straight stretches that would gladden to hearts of those poor Romans who found our ways so baffling. But these are narrow country roads with passing places, and water-logged ditches on either side, so on occasion cars coming the other way have to reverse hundreds of yards back up the road to let this bus through. The driver is cheerful but determined not to back down, and after a short stand-off, we are on our way again. Ploughed fields gleam with standing water that reflects the sky, and the silions look like the ridges of chocolate icing on a Yule log cake.

The way is lined with sparse villages, houses dotted sometimes half a mile from the village proper; ancient cottages that might be five or six hundred years old stand side by side with bungalows built in the last ten years. Place names are evocative; we pass a hamlet called Silver Green- is that not charming? Each village has a church or two, depending on your choice of flavour; the original old one is usually flint built, the foundations probably Norman at least, if not Saxon. Some of these places have had a church on the site since the eighth century. The workmanship on some is breath-taking and the skills lost. No one can fathom how some of it was done; no one can knap flint like that now. We pass through one village that dates its own founding from 894AD.

We pass my favourite field, home to a flock of rare breed sheep, kept as pets, black sheep (though there is a single white ewe). The adults who were sheared in the spring have coats that are darker than the unsheared lambs, now fully grown; they are a rich shade of chocolate rather than the dusty black of the older sheep.

Further on, the earth ramparts of the old Roman town of Venta Icenorum come into view, along with a small amount of stone work. Most of the stone was robbed out, and some is used in the church that stands within the long fallen walls. I often wondered if it stands on the site of the temple of Mars that all Roman forts and towns had, along with shrines to local deities. The Iceni worshipped Andraste, a fierce warrior goddess whose totem was a hare. I have looked for hares today but have seen none; they are surely lying low amid the winter wheat and in the hedgerows rich and heavy with fruit like rose-hips and tiny sour wild apples and crab apples. The place hardly remembers the Romans, for the town lasted only a few hundred years at most and when the people left they took everything of value they could carry. They went probably to where the city of Norwich is now, and I know that I am not far from journey’s end. Other passengers sense this too, and conversations seem to change tone, to excitement and expectation. Most, like me, are going in to shop for Christmas; some are getting another bus to go elsewhere. It’s been an interesting hour or so of observing the countryside but now I must get ready for the crowds of the city.

*Cities that never sleep*

Cities that never sleep

Last week I went to Paris.

Whenever I say that the reaction is almost universally, “Lucky you!” and I concede that I am grateful that I get to go but I’ve never quite figured out why people get so excited by cities, however famous, beautiful or supposedly romantic those cities might be.

Since I was heading out on an early Eurostar train, I’d been billeted in a hotel next to Euston station in London. I got there in plenty of time so I had a little walk down to the British Library and down to St Pancras also, before heading back to wash my hair, eat my dinner and get an early night. I’d hoped to find some ear plugs but failed. I regretted it. The window in my room was defective and wouldn’t shut properly. It wasn’t a cold night, but the noise never abated to anything less than a dull roar all night. I got up at around 4.30, unable to snooze more than an hour at a time. It’s not so much the noise as the continuous low level vibration. Everything shakes ever so slightly, ALL THE TIME. I suspect you get used to it if you live there. But for a visitor it was unsettling. I felt all the time as if I were shaking, and it made me more nervous and uneasy.

When I left the hotel at 6am, London seemed to be already in full motion. The night buses had been replaced by the normal day ones, the pavement shook with the rumble of underground trains and the constant passing of traffic. There were more people visible on the streets at that time than I see normally in the course of a week or more. At no point did the city ever seem to sleep.

Paris comes to life at night too. As the sun sets, the lights come on everywhere, and people head out. Going up the Butte of Montmartre for a meal at the artists’ square, it was still quite quiet. By the time we came out to do some sight seeing, the place was heaving. The steps in front of Sacre Coeur were filled by people sitting enjoying the view, the company and a drink or two. Inside the basilica, an oasis of peace and tranquillity, the nuns were about to sing the office of Compline, the last office of the day before sleep. But Paris too never sleeps. Even in our quiet hotel at the edge of the city, traffic thundered past most of the night.

I’ve lived in a couple of cities in the past, sometimes close to the centre, sometimes in the suburbs, and while the amenities and so on are great, I’ll never forget when we first moved to deep countryside, miles from anywhere. We’d brought sleeping bags and a few bits with us, ahead of the removals van, and that first night, without a plate or fork to our name, we walked through fields to get to the next village and the nearest pub to get our dinner. The sun set as we ate, and when we got back out, full of dinner and a few drinks, we headed out confidently to follow the little paths back through the countryside to our new house. Half a mile on, it dawned on me that it was VERY dark indeed. There were no street lights in our village at that time, and the fields and copses were utterly black. Above us, the stars shone like diamonds on a jeweller’s velvet, and a sliver of moon. We found our way home, cautiously, and when we crawled into sleeping bags, and lay down to sleep, I realised that with the window open, it was almost silent. It was quiet enough to hear the wind blowing the half grown wheat in the field behind our house. The sound of owls, and once or twice the guttural cries of foxes, and very, very faintly, the occasional car passing. and then close to dawn, cockerels, were the soundtrack of almost every night after that.

I learned to walk the woods and fields in almost total darkness, using the glimmer of starlight on the tip of my dog’s tail as a guide, or the bright white glow of moonlight. I learned to tell different sounds apart, so that the call of one owl was different to that of another of the same species. I listened to nightingales singing, and heard the huff of distaste when a deer came upon my scent in the middle of the night as I walked alone but for my dog.

Some people are city people. Some people are country people. I wonder if you can guess which I am.

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The Magician’s Nemesis

The Magician’s Nemesis ~

I have a very special knack of getting things wrong sometimes. Really, really wrong. I sometimes unconsciously pick up on the underlying currents of relationships and somehow come out with the precise remark that was either in the mind of the other person, or the very thing they would rather never hear. I do it a lot, and sometimes it’s a little spooky and sometimes it seems to be enough to topple a whole house of cards. I’m working at becoming a bit more conscious and censoring it long enough to consider what I am saying. But when I get tired, ill or stressed, it seems to happen even more and things can go wrong.

I also have a knack of being in completely the wrong place at the wrong moment. At school, I was a great fielder at baseball and rounders because I kept getting hit by stray balls. Over the Easter weekend I was at Phantasialand near to the city of Cologne for work. The group I was with all loved roller-coasters and rides, so it was quite a lonely day for me. Added to which it was so cold and snow kept drifting down, and I was suffering with an ongoing migraine attack that meant I was hazy and unfocussed, and the cold had got to my kidneys(which are somewhat scarred after infections), making them ache like crazy. I loathe roller coasters; they make me ill and I simply cannot see the point of them, so there was no way I was even going to go on any. I’ve tried enough in my time to know I’m never, ever going to enjoy them and I’m not going to do something that will make me ill just to prove something.

But one thing I did really want to go and see was the magician. I love magic. Even knowing it’s all fake makes no difference. I love watching even when I know how it’s done. There’s something so incredibly clever about it all. Christian Farla’s Sieben show was superbly Gothic, with elements of steam-punk and delicious costumes. I was a little late, and was the last person into the theatre, scurrying to the back where I thought I’d seen a spare seat. But when I got there it wasn’t spare at all, so I sat on a box at the back that I thought was probably something to do with storage. Almost as soon as I sat, the show started.

Mesmerised, I watched. But about halfway through I was startled to find a man in black coming down a ladder next to me and informing me (in German) that I wasn’t sitting in a good place, and needed to move, now. I shifted off my box and sat on the floor, feeling horribly embarrassed. Ten minutes later, the escapologist act that involved a giant, steam-punkish scorpion and a circular saw showed me why I had been sitting in entirely the wrong place. The box was where Mr Farla descended from the gods once he had escaped from the fatal scorpion. Had I not been moved, he’d have landed on me. I felt a complete idiot. Perhaps I am.

Or perhaps I am simply The Fool. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fool_(Tarot_card)#Symbolism That person who does and says the things that exist behind the serene surface of what we think is reality, that dark underbelly that most are oblivious of. That person who taps into what’s really going on and like the small child in The Emperor’s new clothes, actually blurts it out to the horror of all who would prefer to keep a lid on it all. That person who instinctively knows that things are not as they seem and somehow manages to blow the whole illusion sky high, showing all the naked flaws and ugliness beneath the masks.

Perhaps.