On this day in 2009…

…I posted my very first blog post.

I’d had the idea in mind for the blog title itself before I even knew blogs existed, but Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking took a while to come into being. I joined a co-operative blog, Cafe Crem, first, and after a month, I was ready to go it alone.

When I hit publish for this post, my stats will tell me I have done 970 posts in the eight years since I began.  There have been almost a quarter of a million hits. Thousands of comments, likes, shares. It’s been a huge part of my life. It’s where I began to reach out and meet people who (I hate the term) are my tribe. I’ve met a few wolves in sheep’s clothing too, got burned, got hurt. I hope I have touched lives for the better. There’s even a little book, intended as a part of a series using the essays in this blog collected thematically. The first book is on depression. There will be more (one day). There’s posts about my books, stories, poems, rants, paens, authors I love. So much here.

So, wish Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking a happy 8th birthday. Having seen many blogs begin, flounder, die, and disappear, I know that keeping going is quite an achievement and one I ought to be rightly proud about. Blogging is not longer what it was, as Facebook has taken the place for many, as a forum for sharing, but I will persist and hopefully, you will too.

Bless you all (in the true sense, rather than the wonderful passive-aggressive semi-curse of the American south) and thank you.

Permission to rest?

 

Permission to rest?

It’s almost the end of January as I write this; Imbolc/Candelmas will be upon me in a few days and I was thinking, I ought to write something. I ought to do another Cave post. I ought to celebrate the slow return of the light and the changing of the season. But I’m not going to. Not today, anyway. I may change my mind in the mean time but right now, I’m not going to do it.

It occurred to me that it’s nearly six years since I last completed a full-length novel (the third in the Ashurst series) and since then I have limped along with a number of works-in-progress. One is over 60k words long. I had hoped/intended to finish it last year. But every time I thought about opening the document to work on it, I had this sinking feeling and I thought, “Why bother?” and couldn’t find the impetus to start. It’s the same with four other projects.

I am so tired, so bloody tired, and I can’t let myself rest. I keep thrashing away, trying to recover my inspiration and energy for writing; I write the odd short story, essay, poem or add a few thousand words to one novel or another. I’m doing corrections for the new novel, after the first proof reader has gone through it; I’ve done around a hundred of the three hundred pages. It’s like squeezing blood from a stone (well, not quite like that; the blood comes from injuring your hand, not from the stone. Maybe a better metaphor than I thought). I keep feeling that if I stop entirely I will never get going again and all the hard work I’ve done to create a writing career for myself will be for nothing. If I let go, do I stop being a writer because I stop writing, or can I be like an actor, who spends time doing other things and calls it resting? And what would I do, what would I be, if I did?

I want to rest but I cannot seem to be able to give myself permission.

Comfort Literature ~ the new trend for 2017?

I’m probably going to do a proper round-up post in a day or two but having watched a very bleak two-parter on TV (an Agatha Christie adaptation) that left me feeling even lower than before, it occurred to me that what I would like to see trending in the new year is literature that comforts. Not schmaltzy, saccharine candy-fluff books that pretend everything is nice and rosy but books that have a strong core of something special, something strong and real and comforting.

One of the books I read this year was Elizabeth Goudge’s The Rosemary Tree. It’s a comfort book, like all of hers I have read so far. It’s not light and fluffy but quite different. It’s about people coping with things that seem intolerable and finding ways to redeem the unredeemable. That’s what I mean about Comfort Books.

In view of this, for the end of this year and for the start of next, I have reduced the price of Away With The Fairies to £1.99 or equivalent worldwide. I’ve had many emails, reviews, letters and messages from readers about this book, on how it’s helped them cope with some very difficult times in their lives.

I’m hoping to have a new book out by Easter, and that too will be a Comfort Book. More information to follow soon.

If you have suggestions for other books we might all enjoy, please share them in the comments.

 

The Wave

The Wave

The Wave

Damp air filled with the tang of salt.

The light is grey, dead, heavy with storm.

Wind rising, beating the water,

Driving spindrift to shore.

Gull feathers & seal bones

Litter the strand-line,

Tangled with leathery weeds

Stinking with rot and mussels.

I feel the wave before I see it;

A huge pressure on my aura

Rearing like a stallion

Maddened by lust and fear.

The sound, a hundred trains

Condensed into one deafening roar

When I see it, it’s too late to run.

A mountain of water a mile high

breaks over my head

And I drown, crushed first

To a handful of pebbles

Rolling along the beach.

Shadow pebbles

Shadow pebbles

I wrote this poem over a year ago; the feeling had begun building back then and it became almost unendurable. You can interpret this however you like but for me, world events are at the root of it.

A Melange of Musings

A Melange of Musings

September is a funny month; even now, more than thirty years since I left school, I can’t help feeling that “back to school” vibe that makes me want to buy a new pencil case and stock up on stationery. I did indulge in a very luscious Peter Pauper journal for a project that reflects the images on the cover; can’t recommend this range more highly. It combines great beauty, practicality with superb value; my only problem is that it can take me a while to bring myself to actually write in one, for fear of spoiling it with bad writing.

Which brings me on to my first musing: bad versus good writing. I’ve had to restrain myself from reading the several thousands of posts that come out on this topic, because it gets frustrating and upsetting. The majority of such articles are written for (and possibly by) new writers, and they often have me raging at the screen. There is a vendetta going on against the humble adverb that has been added to now by an equally vicious smear campaign against the adjective. Followed blindly, this leads to what might best be described as Spartan prose; if you know anything about the real Spartans, you’ll know this is not a compliment. Come back with your shield or on it: not actually the best philosophy for life, and certainly not a template for good writing. Leave the damned adverbs and adjectives alone, for heaven’s sake; as a part of normal, natural language they have as much right to be in a piece of writing as any other part of language. Obviously, you can overdo them; your hand can slip and tip a whole jar of cayenne pepper into the stew instead of a pinch (and yes, I did this once. Only my dad, bless him, ate it). I’ll get off my soapbox now. For me (and I can speak for no one else) good writing is a balance between powerful, authentic characters who stay with you after the book is done, a clear, well-executed plot, strong, elegant prose that challenges the reader with twists and turns but which still reaches the end point succinctly, and a deeper level to the story that will keep you thinking about it for a long while afterwards.

Which brings me neatly onto the second musing: themes and “messages” in fiction. Truth is, I’m ambivalent about this. For a book to really win my heart, there does indeed need to be a deeper level to it, above and beyond the “he said, she said, he did, she did” of a basic story. There’s something powerful, sacred even, about the concept of Story; Pratchett postulated several times in his fiction that Story is a kind of symbiotic life form that needs us as much as we need it. Yet I become very uncomfortable when it is clear that an author has set out to write a book with a distinct message or purpose (we’re talking about fiction here), from a philosophical, or religious point of view. I’ve sampled some of these sorts of books and in 99% of cases, it’s badly done. The book is preachy, or worse, and the Story is ruined by the banging on and on of the Message. As someone whose books do indeed contain what I like to think of as “deep stuff”, it’s something I’ve become acutely conscious of. To set out to write a book about X Y or Z or for particular purposes is something to be very wary of. None of my novels were written to consciously to express any agenda or beliefs, but by a process of literary osmosis, my own “deep stuff” is explored and expressed within them. Story has to come first; one must trust that the core of any message a book might grow to contain will form and express itself during the process. You cannot shoe-horn a message into a book that doesn’t want it. And not every book needs a message. Summer has traditionally been a time for reading beach and airport reads that are intended to just be a bit of fun. I’ve never managed to write one, yet, but I’ve read plenty. Sometimes you need a bit of a break from what Tori Amos calls, “really deep thoughts”.

Third musings: the ocean of books and the problem of visibility. Yeah, back to that one. It ties in with the summer slump. I noticed that many of the books in the top 100 of books on sale on the might Zon this summer had extra long bits added to their titles. Sort of like a subtitle, I suppose. Now this was something that was banned a few years ago when I first began. You weren’t allowed to use these explanatory sentences as part of your book title. People got ticked off for it and their books removed. It really bugs me to read these titles: who says it’s a powerful book, or that it’s heart-warming or uplifting, except the person publishing it? It’s a blowing of one’s own trumpet that makes me cringe ever so slightly. What bothers me is that it’s clearly being done to increase visibility in the search terms. Should I rename my novels in this vein? (suggestions in the comments, please!). I think not. I’m not that kind of person. I don’t like being on show, or having to promote my stuff. Lots of authors go to signings they’ve arranged at local bookshops and events, but frankly, for me, this is a waste of energy and time. I’d have to supply my own paperbacks (often at a cost I can’t really afford) and the idea of sitting at a stand in a local event waiting for people to come over and engage makes me shudder. I’ve seen some of these; at a mind body spirit fair this year, an author of a YA swords and sorcery book had a stall and I noticed that people gave it a wide berth. Shelling out ten quid or more for a book you know nothing about is not something most of us will do; it’s just too much. I had a brief look, and found myself pounced on by the author whose hard-sell approach turned me right off. It smacked of desperation, and a bit of entitlement. I don’t know that there is a right way for unknown authors to attend events to sell books but for me it comes down to this: there needs to be a bloody good reason why I’d shell out a tenner (or more) for a book by someone I don’t know. That’s why selling e-books has the upper hand: a reader can sample 10% at their leisure without ever committing to buying the whole book. I don’t tend to tell people I’ve bought their book until I’ve read it and can whole-heartedly recommend it to others.

Final musing: hope springs eternal. To follow on the musing about how to sell books, the oldest and possibly best advice, is to write more and publish more. I’ve not brought out any new fiction since The Hedgeway, published for Halloween almost two years ago. If I cast my mind back, it did create a small surge in sales of other books. August was my worst sales month yet; deeply depressing, yet from what I gather, completely in keeping with what most authors have been finding. Despite having a nasty case of writers’ burnout (which is to writers’ block what influenza is to the common cold), I do have a good number of completed novels tucked away on my hard drive. My crisis of confidence has meant they’ve stayed there; I’ve been paralysed by the process and the thousands of posts about how everything must be perfect or you’re hurting other writers blah blah blah. But, having had a couple of trusted friends take a gander at one, I’ve decided I’m not a bad writer at all. I’ve had some reviews recently that have expressed bafflement that I’m not a famous writer of best-selling books already, and gratifying as that is, it does tend to rub in my own thoughts on the subject. So, as every author does, I’ve begun to hope that perhaps the next book might be the breakthrough one, and I’ve started the process of getting it out. I’ve got some cover art sorted, and the first proof reader has begun. I’m going to write some blog posts (and hope that there might be slots for them on other blogs, though I don’t intend to do a proper blog tour) and I shall polish up the blurb and the back matter till it shines, and drop hints here and there to whet the appetites of readers. I’ve accepted I’m crap at all this promotional nonsense, and that’s not going to change. I am what I am. In the end, they’re books: nothing more and nothing less. To distort my true self, to become one of those authors who can insert their book(s) into any and every encounter whether online or in real life, in the belief that somehow that’ll get them readers, well, it’s not going to happen. My writing is just a part of who I am, not the whole. In the grand scheme of things (whatever that means!) it’s not really terribly important that I sell lots of books. What is important is that I stay true to who I am.

Tales of the Wellspring 5 ~ the White Spring of Glastonbury

Tales of the Wellspring 5 ~ the White Spring of Glastonbury

Tales of the Wellspring 5 ~ the White Spring of Glastonbury

The first time I visited the White Spring, the truth is I didn’t know its significance or meaning but I think I might have sensed something, for the place made a huge impression in my memory. Set at the foot of the Tor in Glastonbury, the building itself was once a reservoir for water for the town, filling from one of the two springs that well up from the earth there. The Red Spring, on the other side of the road, is now surrounded by the beautiful gardens of the Chalice Well trust, though an outlet in the lane means anyone can collect the water at any time of day or night. The Chalice Well is where Joseph of Arimathea is said to have concealed the cup of Christ and the waters run red to this day. The water is high in iron and has long been drunk as a health cure; miracles have been ascribed to it. (it appears briefly at the end of Strangers and Pilgrims too) 

But the White Spring has been the poor relation of this famous wellspring. When I first visited, the building had been converted into a cafe, with a few tiny shops selling themed gifts. Water ran through the stone floor in a channel and on a hot day, such as the one we first went, not far off twenty years ago, dangling your feet in the cool refreshing water was a treat as you ate and drank. A couple of small shrines peppered the edges of the cafe, and candles and incense burned, but it was still only a cafe.

When I visited again in future years, it was shut. I found out the cafe had closed down, and the building was locked up and deserted, though people did still congregate in the tiny garden, where the water ran from a pipe outlet from the spring. On our first visit, there had been a man in this garden, who had with him wild creatures who stayed with him for love of him: an owl, a fox and a stoat, I believe. I never saw him; someone on the camp-site said he was there but by the time I got there, he was gone.

Each time I’ve been back, I’ve gone to look, a feeling of longing and sadness tugging my heart as I find it locked and silent.

But this time, it was not.

I’d known from reading their website that the spring was now open again, though the hours depended entirely on volunteers. I’d forgotten to check when it would be open before we headed to Glastonbury for a four day silent retreat. Serendipity was on my side that day, though. We’d been up to the top of the Tor, where the wind made me giddy and dizzy, and we took the shortly route down and found ourselves in Well House Lane, to find the White Spring was open.

There’s a notice as you go in, informing you of the no photos or filming rule, and various other guidelines. I’m glad you can’t take pictures because it would be intrusive and it might well undermine the breath-taking atmosphere of the place.

And I do mean breath-taking. When I came out, I had to remind myself that the building was just an old reservoir tank, built for nothing more than holding clean fresh spring water. You walk in, down some steps, and are transported to…somewhere else. It feels like an ancient temple or cave, the air filled with the scent of water, incense, candles and damp stones, echoing to the murmur of whispers and of water trickling. Candles burn on every surface, the reflections of the flames twinkling in the water of the pools. For there are several pools, including one huge deep one that (I believe) is about four feet six inches deep. You are allowed to bathe but you must inform the guardian first. If you bathe naked, you must be considerate of other visitors. One woman went in fully clothed, and with great dignity; I lacked the courage to do so. Shrines abound, to various deities, but mostly to the Mother, in her many guises.

A woman sobbed next to me as she made an offering in front of of a small shrine to a goddess figure I was sure was for child-bearing. Her partner comforted her silently, with a hand on her shoulder. People spoke, but in hushed respectful voices, and did not linger. You could not linger. The power was too overwhelming, emanating from the flow of the waters and the voices just below the threshold of hearing.

I emerged, blinking hard, into the bright sunlight of the lane, my face wet from my scanty baptism of hands splashed over face and head and heart, and took a long drink from the water spilling endlessly from the pipe on the outside of the well-house. There was refreshment and a tiny restoration; that I could sense a something here, though I could not easily name or quantify it, is a step forward, even if only a tiny one.

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Lammas at the Cave

Lammas at the Cave

Lammas at the Cave

The morning birdsong is over by the time I leave the cave; I have not had the energy to rise at dawn to see the sun rise as I should. I have slept in, lying on top of my bed-roll most of the night, for though the cave is cool, the nights have been humid, sticky and oppressive. It has been difficult to get anything done, for movement other than the most languid kind leaves me exhausted and sweating.

Cooler air greets me, laden with the scents rising from the forest below, redolent of the soft rain that fell last night, and of green growth and flowers and a hint of ripeness. I do not farm up here, so there are no grain crops to gather in, but other things are coming to the point of harvest. A willow basket is hooked over my arm as I head slowly down the path that leads steeply down from the ledge where I live. I do not know what I am going to gather, but it seems to me that I should take a basket just in case. For what seems like the longest time, I have lost interest in my home and my life; though I know the forest to be coloured with the most vivid of shades and hues, all I have been able to see has been an endless mass of greys.

Under the canopy of trees, the path is dark and were it not for the white rocks placed at the edges here and there, I might easily wander. That’s dangerous, for on my mountain there are precipitous drops that you can’t see till you are almost falling over them. It’s not a place for careless meanderings, yet again today I let my feet guide me, not my mind, and I find myself at the stream that tumbles down the side of the mountain. The path follows this, and the air is heavy with the cool moisture and the song of the stream.

I have to tread carefully for the path is narrow and hard on the feet, sometimes becoming slippery and I wish I had not come this way; I consider turning back. But I trudge on, shouldering the empty basket, tripping sometimes, which leaves me breathless with shock and fear. Eventually, the ground levels out, and I find myself somewhere I have no memory of having been before. A great basin of rock, wide and deep, opens out for many yards and the stream fills it before leaving at the far end, the water draining away in a series of beautiful little waterfalls no more than five or six feet in height. The noise of falling water is deafening, yet I do not move onwards. I put the basket down and find somewhere to sit, cushioned by lush moss, and dangle my sore feet into the water.

It’s icy and refreshing, and I realise I am sweating with the effort and with the heat, for the sun is now high overhead. I had not felt how time was passing, and passing so swiftly, that my morning is gone. The water is inviting, so I strip off my clothes and slide in, gasping with the shock of the cold. The pool is deep enough to swim in, though if I put my feet down, I touch the rock. I swim for a little while before dressing again, and sit back on my mossy seat, damp and chilled and panting. I do not want to leave here, either to go back or to go onwards. Despite the noise of the water, it’s a very peaceful place.

A dash of brightness catches my eye, flashing past and dipping into the water, a brief vision of intense, shining blue that reappears on the far side of the pool, its beak full of a silver wriggling fish that disappears down its gullet with little difficulty. I search my memory for a name: kingfisher. I watch it dive for another, and another, and the fierce, brilliant colours are like lightning in the night of my mind. Then, full of fish, it flashes away downstream, out of sight and I am left alone.

When I come to pick up my basket, to my surprise it is full of fish. Much larger than the ones the kingfisher was catching, these are salmon and trout, and they remind me that if I do not grow grain here, I must still eat in winter, and I lug the basket back to the cave where they can be prepared for drying and smoking.

As the sun sets, I sit out at my fire, and eat freshly roasted salmon, burning my fingers a little as I pick pink flesh off the bones, and feel the blessing of the fisher of kings.

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