The Persephone Book of Short Stories

[This book review was first posted on Story Circle Book Reviews.]
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The Persephone Book of Short Stories was published to celebrate the 100th title in the Persephone Press canon. An independent publisher, Persephone Books specializes in re-printing the largely forgotten and neglected fiction and non-fiction works of women who wrote through the middle 20th century years. Perceived and marketed as “middlebrow” fiction, each book in the series is carefully chosen to offer a fresh and new perspective on themes of particular interest to women readers. Their books are neither so “high-brow” as to be deemed “literary,” nor are they what might be termed “commercial” writing, a sometimes pejorative label applied accusingly to books deemed to belong to the “chick lit” or similar category.

The Persephone Book of Short Stories covers a wider range of writing stretching from the year 1909 up as far as 1986. This handsome volume comprises thirty short stories, including the works of well-known authors such as Katherine Mansfield, Irene Nemirovsky, Dorothy Parker, Edith Wharton, and Penelope Fitzgerald. A works of a host of other lesser known women writers are also to be found within its pages, beautifully bound in Persephone’s distinctive dove grey jackets, the “fabric” end papers taken from roller-printed and screen printed cottons representative of the decades marking the earliest and latest stories in the volume.
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These stories all share something in common—they focus on the quiet, quotidian lives and events which mark a woman’s life. Essentially each of these writers describes a very ordinary life, steeped in domesticity and so-called normal daily living, the details of which are mostly forgotten. But not by these authors. Perhaps their greatest achievement is just this: to recall to mind and imagination features of times past, whose circumstances still resonate in the lives of contemporary women, albeit in the tones of the times when they were first written.

In fact, what struck this reader was the surprising relevance of many of these tales to modern life. From wearied and harassed mothers to fed-up wives and abandoned lovers, this volume covers the gamut of female relationships. Indeed, the cohesive threads which binds and gathers these stories together are the very relationships which, even now in the 21st century, still tend to demarcate much of the lived experiences particular to women. As a woman, I could identify with the humiliating and demeaning ordeal the author Georgina Hammick described in her story “A Few Problems in the Day Case Unit” (1986), when her ankles were strapped up, and her legs stretched outwards, like a crucified figure hanging upside down, her most private parts open to the scrutiny of a bevy of male medical students.

Following the publisher, Nicola Beaumam’s, advice to “compare and contrast,” I next turned to Susan Glaspell’s “From A to Z” (1909), a penetrating glimpse into the nature of altruistic love, a chastened and chastening emotion which evokes a kind of tender pain leading in time to a “blind, passionate desire” to watch over the beloved’s well-being. Previous interests and minor dalliances can be as nothing when held up against a canvas such as this love greater than all loves. Our hearts ache for the heroine as she watches “a panting human soul sobbingly fluttering down into something from which it had spent all its force in trying to rise….a mist which she could neither account for nor banish was dimming the clear hazel of her eyes.” Unanswered questions are scattered through this tale, musings mostly about what it means to love, to not love, to live a life chosen for oneself, or subjected to the will of another.

But not all the stories describe scenes from a daily life. Some, even after so many years, still send shock waves through the reader. Take, for instance, Norah Hoult’s “Nine Years is a Long Time” (1938), a tale of prostitution with a twist. Or, even more shocking, try Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948) for size, and see whether you don’t need to sit a while to recover. Short stories can serve as thunderbolts from the blue, blasting pre-conceived ideas and most especially, nostalgic reminiscences viewed through rose-tinted lens, into smithereens at the reader’s feet. They seem so small, innocuous, innocent almost, when first you pick them up, unaware of the grenade hidden in the white spaces between the words. Beauman is to be applauded for including these subversive stories in her collection as a reminder that in so many ways, we 21st century readers are not so different after all, from our former female compatriots.

As a publisher of books written “by women, for women and about women” (from their website) Persephone Books shares much in common with Story Circle Network. Indeed many of the books in their canon are memoirs and non-fiction titles. As portals into the lives of women living in England from early to late 20th century, these books are an invaluable resource for those of us interested in finding out more about how our foremothers lived, what our fore-sisters thought, and the dreams and desires our fore-grandmothers yearned to behold, not just for themselves alone, but for their daughters and granddaughters too. I cannot imagine a more pleasant way of whiling away an afternoon than sitting in a sofa curled up with a collection of women writers such as are found within the pages of The Persephone Book of Short Stories.



Reading Women: The Baily’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015

 

Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I’ve accomplished something, learned something,, become a better person. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.

-Nora Ephron

Image result for irish times poster of irish women writers

Last weekend ‘The Irish Times’ published a keepsake poster of 12 Irish women writers, having narrowed down the selection chosen by 40 writers and academics who were asked to nominate their favourite female author. They were also asked to explain the reasons for their choice in 180 words or less. In total, 62 short articles on the theme of Irish women writers have been published on their web site, irishtimes.com. Apart from the importance of highlighting the literary standing of many of our major female writers, and thus hopefully enticing those who have neither heard nor read their works yet, there is also the interest generated in the wider world of women’s writing in such a project as this. The importance of such initiatives cannot be underestimated.

BAILEYS Women's Prize for Fiction

One other such initiative of significance is The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Previously known as The Orange Women’s Prize for Fiction, the longlist was finally published on 10th March. Speaking about the longlist, which unfortunately doesn’t contain any Irish women writers this year, the Chair of judges, Shami Chakrabarti, says,

The Prize’s 20th year is a particularly strong one for women’s fiction. All judges fought hard for their favourites and the result is a 2015 list of 20 to be proud of – with its mix of genres and styles, first-timers and well-known names from around the world.

The following 20 titles now need to be culled back to a shortlist of six, which will be announced on 13th April. The overall winner will be announced on 3rd June 2015.

Rachel Cusk: Outline

Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart

Patricia Ferguson: Aren’t We Sisters?

Xiaolu Guo: I Am China

Samantha Harvey: Dear Thief

Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing

Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

Grace McCleen: The Offering

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star

Heather O’Neil: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

Laline Paull: The Bees

Marie Phillips: The Table of Less Valued Knights

Rachel Seiffert: The Walk Home

Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone

Ali Smith: How to be Both

Sara Taylor: The Shore

Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread

Sarah Waters: The Paying Guest

Jemma Wayne: After Before

PP Wong: The Life of a Banana

Doubtless we all have our own personal favourites which have surprised us by their omission. Mine is Lila by Marilynne Robinson, the long awaited sequel to Gilead and Home.

And if you’re interested in joining in the discussion of this year’s nominated novels, check out The Bailey’s Prize Shadow Panel 2015. Expect it to be lively!

Have you read any on the list? Which are your favourites? What do you plan to read next?

Right now I’m currently reading The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and hope to post a review of it very soon!

The Guest Cat

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, Picador, 2014 (translated by Eric Selland)

The Guest Cat

Though a work of fiction, The Guest Cat reads more like creative non-fiction in its tone, and even its structure, with its unannounced switching of settings, often from one paragraph to another. And yet, it works. Chapters are presented as gathered glimpses of moments in time, as if the narrator is holding up a mirror to the simple, quotidian events in his life, focusing now here, now there, each glimpse more like a vague, half-formed intuition that this might, maybe, harbour some sense of meaning greater than the sum of its parts. Not that the narrator, an author, ever intimates that he is seeking some over-arching grand scheme which might impose a kind of meaningfulness upon his daily life. This author simply wants to do what he feels increasingly called to do, or rather to be – he wants to write; he wants to forgo all paid employment and devote his time and energy to the pursuit of expressing himself through the medium of word smithing. And so he does. His wife agrees to his proposal, not because she believes that it is either wise, or financially prudent, but because she doesn’t really wish to disagree with him. Or at least so the author tells us. We only ever get to know his wife through his eyes. She is an intermittent presence throughout this short novel, making her appearance for an occasional word painting, but more background shadowy figure than fully fleshed character. And yet the sense of her constantly hovers through these pages.

Still it is the Guest Cat herself, Chibi who is the main protagonist in this tale, the one who determines the unfolding sequence of events in the story. Chibi is the driver of the plot, the force field which determines what happens next. The narrator names her ‘Lightening Catcher’ to delineate her true, wild, cat-like nature, the mystery of her being. As well as the narrator, his wife and the cat which doesn’t belong to them, there is also a big house, and a small guest house (for rent); an old woman (the landlady) and an old man (her sick husband), and a miniature garden with a view of the neighbour’s zelkova tree, symbolically the centre of the tale. Most of the action takes place in this enclosed setting where the mood is “so isolated from its surrounding as to produce an almost otherworldly atmosphere” – p 106]

There is a kind of hushed reverence, a graced simplicity, trailing through the chapters of this book like the be-ribboned clouds which cast their long white fingers across the canvas of the blue sky in its opening lines. And though the tale is told in a straightforward linear fashion, yet this reader was left with a sense of spinning outwards, as if each new event, each tiny telling of an apparently innocuous occurrence, spiralled towards a mysterious unknowing, instilling a felt sense of something good and deep and even, perhaps, holy. We sense the writer laying his language down carefully, gently, upon the waiting page. There is no sense of hurry or urgency left hanging as a distraction, or as a dimly dark presence hovering like a dark shadow behind the words, beneath its quiet sense of being. The writer moves soundlessly through his pages, leaving little trace of his self behind. His book wanders, trailing through the seasons, like the be-ribboned clouds which greet our inner eye when we follow the poet-writer over to his window, when we peep from behind his shoulder and see what he sees.

The effect of this book on the psyche and emotions of the reader can only be truly and deeply experienced if the book is read more or less in a single sitting. But this is not hard to do. For one thing, the book itself is hardly more than a novella. For another, each time you place the book down, something inside, something instilled by the sense of the presence of the book, the story, the words, calls to the reader to pick it up again. What happens next, the reader wishes to know, though the chapters in and of themselves seem to be little more than descriptions of the scene viewed through the eyes of the narrator. And yet, underneath the stream of events, the turning of the seasons, something is happening, changing, unfolding. Ultimately this little novel is less about a cat than the subtle events in our lives which gradually change and alter our perceptions. “When the cat stopped coming, it seemed as if the garden had changed into something dreary and drab.” [p. 95]

There are some wonderful scenes described within these pages, scenes which beg to be marked and read and re-read, over and over again. One such scene, reminiscent of a similar blustery billowing in The Great Gatsy, is painted on pages 22 and 23. The narrator opens a window in his little house

“and the wind came in from the south like an avalanche of snow. Then, one after the other, I opened all the other windows in the house. The window over the kitchen sink of course, and the glass lattice windows in the two bedrooms on the east side, followed by the bay window in the dining room and then the bathroom window. The house quickly became a hollow cavity for the wind to race through.”

These few sentences capture the essence of this gorgeous tale, which weaves it magic through the suggestively lyrical and poetic undertones, laid lightly on top of ordinary, daily occurrences, nothing forced or over-stated; on the contrary everything here is muted and quiet, easily missed if read in a rush. This book whispers its story, and the only possible way to hear what it is telling us, is by quieting our souls and listening with the ears of our heart. Then we can listen with the narrator when he first happened upon the guesthouse, noticing the calm atmosphere of the district:

The first time we entered the silence, a strange feeling of peace came upon me, as if a loving hand had placed itself gently upon my chest.” [p.18]

But perhaps, more than anything else, it is the fragility of humanity heard in this cry from the narrator’s heart which reaches out and resonates with the reader’s heart, this deep longing, an utterly intolerable yearning, which tears through the fabric of every reader’s soul, laying bare the losses each one of us has lived through.

But not only that, just by moving away, we also would be joining sides with those who forget – this was simply unbearable.” [p. 114]

And then there is the gift of the final pages of this beautiful and mesmerizing novel, but to share them with you now would be to give too much away. Anyway, to fully appreciate the gifts the author bestows it is necessary first to set out upon your own journey of reading. Bit by bit, detail by detail, the writer brings his readers to a new understanding of what it means to remember. Read this novel and experience the peace and tranquillity, as well as the pain, which only a true poet can bestow.

Writing True

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[This article was first posted on Telling Herstories, The Broad View, Story Circle Network’s blog.]

Mindful writing is not always easy. Sometime the mere thought of sitting down and trying to find words to express the inexpressible, is impossible, a task beyond our very human, utterly broken capabilities. I am not talking beauty here, I am not referring to those moments of near mystical experience when we try to capture a glimpse of the ineffable in rarefied language. No, I mean when we really cannot write. Those moments and hours, sometimes running into days and weeks, and G*d forbid months, when the words simply refuse to come, when language is like a sea of stormy waves roaring in our ears, a tsunami of terror threatening to overwhelm and drown us. How do we write then, when one word clangs as loudly and as meaninglessly as another? And if the words do come, they come crawling from a heart heavy with fear and dread, arriving stilted and still-born. Lifeless images collapse in a heap around us, burying us in the signs of our own ineffectuality.

So what do we do on those days when we feel as if we cannot write anything, when the Muse refuses to grace us with her presence, when in fact the Muse seems like nothing more than a silly daydream, the fantasy of former imaginings? Is this what is known as ‘writer’s block’? Perhaps it is, though it feels more like trying to scale a frozen wall of ice, no foothold on which to hoist ourselves up.

These walls, which seem to rise spontaneously, relentlessly, coming and going as they see fit, are part of who we are, they are those sides of ourselves we like to try and forget, or at least ignore, and our best attempts are our most favourite mindless distractions. Depth psychologists call these shrouded parts, our ‘shadows’. If we are writing mindfully as a daily practice, it won’t be long before we are forced to face these scary and hidden sides of our natures.

But how to write them into being if the words refuse to come? How do we acknowledge their presence if we can do little more than sit, stuck, staring at the blank page which blinks back at us accusingly, mocking our feeble attempts at openness and truthfulness?

Perhaps this is the point where our practice of mindful writing truly becomes a practice. Certainly it doesn’t feel like we are playing a game anymore. The veil of pretence is lifted. Now the work grows serious and deep, and scary too. The gloves are off. And so we do the only thing we can do. We go to our writing desk, pull out a sheet of paper, lift our pen, and begin.

Can we listen to ourselves in the silence? Can we sit and wait for the whispers of our souls to come creeping, slowly, falteringly, letter by letter, through our pens? Can we allow our truest selves to tell their stories through the gateway of broken language, a stuttering love poem to our deepest being, that part of us which we feel most intensely on the other side of feeling nothing, numbed by the weight of existence? What a paradox this life we wander though is, what a charade, a carnival of masks, a ballet where the dancers laugh and mock at us, and yet just there, just beneath the surface, pick at it and it will start to bleed, and in the bleeding will come the words, the agony, the truth, but only for now, only for what it is in this moment of mindfulness. Catch it before its gone, capture it in a jumble of letters, and when you’re done, screw it up and throw it away. Another day of practice is over.

We that are left by Juliet Greenwood

 

Honno, 2014. ISBN 978-1-906-78499-7.

[Originally posted on Story Circle Network Book Reviews]

We That are Left is Juliet Greenwood’s second novel set during the tumultuous years of the Great War, in a small village in Cornwall. Elin, the principle protagonist, is married to Hugo, a major in the British Army who suffered deep psychological wounds after serving during the Boer War. Though he may once have loved Elin, she can no longer find any vestiges of his love in her lonely life. But then, on a beautiful sunny day in August, a biplane piloted by an adventure-seeking young woman, paradoxically called Mouse, makes an emergency landing close to the manor, Hiram Hall. Elin not only makes a new friend on that portentous day, but is drawn ever more deeply into the intrigues and dramas of Mouse’s wild life and ends by making a new life for herself.

Juliet Greenwood is a rather unique author, one who succeeds in combining a variety of elements I enjoy in a novel. If she needs a label, or a shelf to be placed upon in the bookshop, I suppose her genre is romance, or perhaps the more all-encompassing genre of “women’s fiction with romantic elements.”

But being British, Greenwood has no need to worry about attempting to fit her novels within certain definitions, narrow or otherwise. The remit for English authors has always been wider, and deeper, than that, allowing (even within the confines of “genre” writing) for deviations and multifarious interpretations. In other words, an author generally has free rein to roam where her imagination might take her—although finding a publisher might take a little longer.

Juliet Greenwood is a quintessential English authoress. I use this word, not in any pejorative sense, but to acknowledge her long and illustrious heritage found within the covers of her novel-writing ancestors, many of whom are currently in the process of been re-published by small independent publishing houses, such as Persephone Press. Common themes in early 20th century women’s writing include strong female characters cast in an engaging socially-oriented fiction, elements much in evidence in Greenwood’s novels also. Like her forbears, Ms Greenwood is a mistress of storytelling. Her novel pulls the reader in from the very first page and drags her through a kind of potted history of women’s emerging consciousness and evolving dreams of freedom from the shackles which have long held them, and their mothers, and their mother’s mothers, in thrall to a destiny not of their own making.

Setting the “Prologue” aside for the moment, the story begins on August 1st, 1914. This tale, of almost epic proportions, opens with a sentence suggesting the devastation which can lie hidden beneath the apparent sweet innocence of the most delicate day in a rose-tinted English summer: “It was the day of raspberries and champagne, the day the world changed.”

Yet though the novel reads like something akin to a long film biopic, most of the action takes place over the few short, but terrible years, from 1914, when World War 1 began, to the summer of 1919. The book is flanked by a preface and a conclusion, both set in 1925. The preface is a setting for a protagonist returning to the scene of the crime, as it were, filled with a mixture of emotion encompassing both sorrow and regret, liberally laced with relief and a kind of hopeful anticipation. Indeed, the preface succeeds extremely well in setting the emotional undertones for the novel which is to follow. Juliet Greenwood is obviously a woman who watches without judging, a compassionate person who sees with a vision wider and more open than many of her contemporaries. Her novel reflects her deep consideration of many of the thorny issues which plagued not just her female characters in the story, but which continue to haunt many of her female contemporaries.

Throughout the novel, Greenwood throws a variety of difficult conundrums at her cast, and to her credit as a storyteller, she never allows herself to sink into the realm of authorial clichés. Her characters’ problems are often of a deeply moral nature, yet she never shirks from her responsibility to treat them with the deference they deserve. Over the course of the novel, Greenwood explores issues such as domestic violence, rape in times of war, the difficulties of procuring a divorce for a woman, the limited options for women before the First World War and the assumption, for many of a certain class, that all would return to the way it used to be once the Great War ended.

If you have a fondness for writing in the tradition of English women authors; if you enjoy romance but without the usual clichéd plots normally associated with the genre; if you treasure novels based upon well researched archives of women’s social history in the early 20th century; and if you love English period dramas made for television (such as the superb “The Crimson Field.” also set during the Great War and aired on BBC in early 2014), then I have no doubt whatsoever that you will simply adore Juliet Greenwood’s latest novel. I know I did!


After studying English at Lancaster University and King’s College, London, Juliet Greenwood worked in a variety of jobs, from running a craft stall at Covent Garden Market to teaching English.

Juliet began writing seriously about ten years ago, after a severe viral illness left her with debilitating ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for years. Juliet always says that M.E. was the worst, and the best, thing that ever happened to her. On the positive side, it made her a writer. As well as novels under her own name, Juliet writes stories and serials for magazines as “Heather Pardoe.”

When not writing, Juliet works on local oral history projects, helping older people tell their stories before they are lost forever. Visit her web site.

Tell Me What You See

Rose

[Originally posted on the Story Circle Network blog, Telling Herstories, the Broad View]

The full experience of a rose requires that we see with our minds the inner energy, the hidden origin, the radical form, and not simply the manifested colors, shapes, and proportions.
– Thomas Dubay

Let’s begin this month with a little experiment. Sit comfortably, back straight, feet on the ground. Allow your gaze to settle upon a single object right in front of you. This can be anything, your pen, the mug of tea you carried with you to your writing desk, the flower you picked this morning and placed in a vase upon your table, the tree outside your window, the rain dripping from your leaking gutter. Picking up your pen, describe exactly what you see.

When you have finished, put your pen down and sit comfortably again. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths, settling yourself into your body. Continue breathing slowly, gently, allowing your breath to breathe you into a space of stillness and quiet. Continue for however long it takes to let go of the world around you, to sink into the depths of your quietened mind, to become one with who you really are. When you feel fully rested and relaxed open your eyes and look again at the object. What do you see now, in the very moment when first you see it again? Can you try to describe what it is, what it looks like, not just its appearance, but its essence too. Try to see how its inner reality, its inner being, what Buddhists call its “suchness”, shimmering around the edges.

The purpose of this exercise is to encourage you as a writer to identify and understand the essential difference between writing as descriptive writing, and writing as mindful writing. There are not just worlds of difference between them, but universes, whole galaxies of intuited meaning, and not meaning as ‘truth’, but as spaciousness, vast landscapes, the vision or seeing of which can only be grasped by the inner eye, the quietened mind, the ‘weaned soul’.

Learning to see how things really are, not just from a superficial glance, but what they are beneath the surface of their appearance, takes time and practice to cultivate. Still you may be wondering, how do we capture this experience of the ineffable, that which we intuit as present but cannot find the words to describe? How often have we pulled back our curtains, still sleepy and warm from our night time dreams, only to be stunned into wakefulness by the beauty of an early morning sunrise? How do we even attempt to capture that immediate sense of shocked wonder, the sharp intake of our breaths as we are jolted awake and aware by the vision of beauty which we almost missed, and would have if we had lain on a few minutes more? Yes, we can describe the physical contours of what we see, but can we catch in words the way we felt when first we were surprised by this superfluous gift from the skies above?

Our presence to the moment means something; we feel it in our bones, in our guts, that this vision is more than a random array of colours brushed across a pale grey and icy blue canvas. We may feel a vague sense of frustration as we succumb to the silent muteness which accompanies some of our almost ‘religious’ experiences of the ineffable, what Nina Wise calls “the realm of sensed reality that refuses to be reduced to words.” [‘a big new free happy unusual life’]

Return to your writing desk and look again at the thing-as-it-is-in-itself. Breathe deeply into the present moment and take this thing-in-itself into the depths of your own being, until you reach a point where it and you are no longer subject and object, but all of a-piece, something single, unified, one. Peter Levitt in his marvellous book Fingerpainting on the Moon tells us that “the Sanskrit language came into being when the essence of each thing first made its sound known to human beings. When people heard these primordial soundings they realized they were witnessing the self-naming of the physical world, and so the sound each thing made became the word by which it was known.” The tree whispers to us that its name is “Tree”, by which it means “I am This.” And the stone tells us that its name is “Stone” meaning too that “I am This.” And so we listen to everything and we catch the whispers of the world as it tells us, one thing at a time, that it is This, that this is its name, its essence. And then, because we are writers, but most especially mindful writers, we pause long enough to look, listen and hear what the thing-in-itself is telling us, and we write it all down.

Mind, Give Me

Mind, give me
the exact name of things!
…that my word may be
the thing itself,
re-created by my soul.
So that all who do not know them
go through me
to things;
all who have forgotten
go through me
to things;
all those who love them
go through me
to things…..
Mind, give me
the exact name, and yours
and theirs and mine, of things!

-Juan Raón Jiménez

Why I Write

 

[Originally posted on the Story Circle Network blog Telling Herstories ]

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” –Rainer Maria Rilke

I do lots of things – I embroider, I spin yarn on my spinning wheel, then dye the hand spun in a vast array of hues, before knitting it into hats and scarves, sweaters and mittens for family and friends. I love crafting, losing myself in a universe of texture and colour, dreaming about what to create next. I love to cook too, rustling up dinners and treats for a family whose hollow legs always seem to be running on empty! Gathering the ingredients, peeling, chopping, arranging in little dishes, splashes of colour which I can’t help but set out like the spectrum of a rainbow, anticipating the promise of aromas floating through the house, waiting to greet the hungry travellers when they fall through the door, back into the warmth and security of home.

The days simply aren’t long enough to do all the things I like to do, which means I have to choose. Trying to choose between crafts and writing is like attempting to decide whether to engage with left or right brain based activities. Except that it’s not, because both types of pursuits incorporate aspects of each side of the brain. Still there is a difference. And that difference manifests in the ‘felt-sense’ of these very different activities. Much as I love the sensuous nature of crafts and colour, it is only when writing that I feel most alive. Then, it is as if my senses have become hyper-vigilant; mindfulness is no longer a word or a movement, it is a state of being.

Mindfulness is a concept which can apply to any aspect of life. It is more an attitude than a process. It constitutes a way of seeing, a way of being in harmony with the world as it manifests in both the inner and outer realms. That writing mindfully is a practice becomes evident when we approach it as a method, a set of precepts on how to ‘do it’. And yes, the process is important, the practices we incorporate develop into habits bringing with them a sense of rightness as the rituals gradually become embedded in our practice, one writing session at a time. The practice then develops into a kind of trellis, a supporting structure, a habit we can rely upon to carry us from the minutiae of everyday distractions to the heart of what lies directly in front of us. Still, important and even necessary as it is, the ritual of the practice can only ever be like a finger pointing to the moon. The essence, or juice, of the practice lies curled up within our intention as we sit at our writing desk yet again.

When we first begin to write mindfully we notice an ever deepening sense of catharsis. It is as if our souls slowly begin to trust that we are listening to them, and so over time, we discover something changing deep inside. This sense of catharsis bears only a passing resemblance to that experience of release we sometimes notice when we write say, our memoirs, divulging our darkest secrets and our pain to the waiting blank page, (though of course, in practice the two experiences often overlap). Mindful writing takes us to a different place, and it is because of this that we refer to it as a practice, akin to meditation practice. For mindful writing is indeed a meditation practice, like sitting practice in Buddhist meditation for example. The similarities become most evident in their effects, both dependent upon the attitude and intentions we carry into our respective practices.

Writing mindfully generates a kind of wondering about the world, about ourselves, about everything which surrounds us. From this pondering emerges a sense of something that has been closed and locked away which just now is opening, like the petals of the lotus extending outwards, reaching up to the aery spaces above. We feel as if our souls are enveloped in a lightness of being, as if everything is just as it ought to be. Questions emerge and then disappear; answers are neither sought nor required. Doubt and scepticism have slipped away, leaving in their wake the beauty of pure wonderment.

“Every day, every day I hear
enough to fill
a year of nights with wondering.”

Denise Levertov

It is as if our minds are floating in a sea of light-filled consciousness, as if our entire beings are resting in this unseen, but deeply felt, space of awareness. From this perspective we intuit what is ‘good’ and ‘right’ and ‘beautiful’. We may not be able to quite articulate in words what we are experiencing, but we ‘know’ with a kind of ‘womb-knowing’ that all is good, even if outwardly it may appear to be anything but! When we hit this ‘zone’ we know we have written our way back home.

Mindful Writing Prompt:

See this month’s prompt below. Take your time, read it a few times, listening to the sounds of the words as they roll around your tongue. Breathe into the question, slowly. Allow the question to unfurl its meaning, to roll in front of you, to offer itself to you as a gift, a grace, a gratuitous opportunity to lift the veil between what you think you see, and what is really in front of you.

All of life, all living is held within the space of a breath. To remain still, to sit in silence and solitude, breathing, just breathing, envelops our consciousness in peacefulness and an all-abiding sense of calm, peace comes dripping slowly, permeating each fibre of our being. Breathing mindfully into the present moment opens us to seeing with new eyes, which we can then carry into our writing.
Take a deep breath. What do you feel rising in you with each breath? When you look, what do you see? What changes? What remains the same?

The Transformative Effects of Words

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As a child and teenager I read voraciously. Finding a quiet place in my rambunctious household wasn’t easy with six children milling around, fighting, jostling for their own space. Yet somehow I always found a corner, a seat to curl up upon. Head leaning downwards towards the words which held my attention, I was lost to the outer world, immersed in another realm, a combination of the author’s imagination and my inner response to the magic he, or she, was creating. My siblings often wondered how I could lose myself within a book to the extent that harass me as much as they would, they failed to get my attention. I simply didn’t hear them. I remember when finally I raised my head , I was amazed to find I was still sitting in my living room, enclosed by familiar walls. It was disorientating to realize I wasn’t sailing the high seas with a pirate queen, or walking the moors in the company of a wild and tempestuous woman.

This ability to lose myself in a book is a gift I don’t always allow myself the time to indulge. I do want to try and make it a more regular part of my life again. Books written by authors in recent years extolling the benefits of a year devoted entirely to reading regularly, such Nina Sankovitch’s inspiring account of her decision to read a new book every day for a year in her Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, my year of magical reading, thrill me with their recounted tales of the transformative effects of reading. They remind me of how I used to read long ago.

But regularly or not, getting lost in reading remains a favourite pastime. Nowadays a new element has been added to my reading routine. Invariably reading the words of master writers impels me to pick up my pen and start placing my own words upon the page. I find myself responding to the authors whose works I love, by writing my thoughts down, generating a kind of dialogue with the book itself. Sometimes all it takes is an image or a phrase, and this is enough to set me off on a new journey through the corridors of my mind. Wherever it takes me it is always thrilling, as exciting as the days when I curled up in my parent’s house lost within the covers of my grandfather’s books. Mindful reading gives way to mindful writing.

Last month a reader of this blog asked for a list of recommended readings and resources for mindful writing. What follows is a compilation of the books and web sites which have informed much of my own attempts to write mindfully. Of course any one of these titles (or blogs or web sites) can only ever offer the perspective of a single practitioner. The best approach to any source is to read it (mindfully), consider its suggestions, reflect upon it, perhaps through writing, and most important of all, engage with it.

One approach is to read until you feel called to lay down the book and pick up your pen and write. What better hymn of praise to sing to an author, especially one who has penned a tome on writing mindfully, than to respond to her/his words with an equally mindful response. Undoubtedly you may begin with a thought gleaned from your reading, but very quickly you will find yourself in realms previously unknown to you, which up ‘til now, you had yet to explore.

Of course buying or reading any titles on this list is not necessary – the guidelines offered in these blog posts are enough to enable anyone interested in writing mindfully to do just that. Still the wider our reading, the deeper our perspective, and I have always been a great believer in dialoguing with the authors whose books I have devoured.

On the other hand, some of my own favourite sources don’t have a word to say about the act of writing at all. These include works of creative non-fiction, novels, and of course, poetry and haiku. Any book which sparks a response and invites you to ‘dialogue’ with it is perfect food for the transformative practice of mindful reading and writing.

For this month the writing practice I offer you is very loosely based upon an ancient form of sacred reading known as lectio divina.

1. Begin by choosing a book whose themes resonate with you. Select a paragraph or short section to read slowly and meditatively. Read the passage aloud, notice the rhythms and tone of the language, how the images and metaphors become alive in your imagination.

2. Keep reading the same section over and over (four times is often recommended initially) until a sentence or phrase begins to resonate with you. In lectio divina you don’t analyse why this particular phrase seems to call out to you, its words shimmering and overflowing with meaning. Instead you simply let the words wash over you, bathing you in their light. Feel your heart and mind expanding into the message. Sit with it for a while.

3. When you feel ready to respond, pick up your pen and begin to write whatever thoughts come to you, whatever it is that begins to emerge from the depths of your being . This may, or may not, have anything to do with what you have read. No matter. What matters is that you respond at some level. Allow complete freedom to whatever thoughts emerge from your heart and soul flowing through your pen on to the page.

4. When you are finished, often a cathartic experience of feeling utterly emptied and exhausted (which might take 5 minutes or 20) lay down your pen, close your eyes and breathe deeply into the space where your heart continues to resonate in time with the gift of the present moment.

And now for the promised list:

BOOKS:

The Pen and the Bell by Brenda Miller and Holly J. Hughes

The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the WritingLife by Dinty W. Moore

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg

The True Secret of Writing by Natalie Goldberg

The Intuitive Writer by Gail Sher

One Continuous Mistake by Gail Sher

Writing Begins with the Breath by Laraine Herring

The Writing Warrior by Laraine Herring

Writing Wild by Tina Welling

Fingerpainting on the Moon by Peter Levitt

Writing Your Way by Manjusvara

 

BLOGS AND WEB SITES:

Karen Maezen Miller

Writing Our Way Home

The Mindful Writer

Mindful Writers

The Pen and the Bell

 

Books I use regularly when writing in a form following ‘lectio divina’:

A Year with Thomas Merton – Daily Meditations from His Journals, selected and edited by Jonathan Montaldo

Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing, edited by Robert Inchausti

Love Poems from God, Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

[Originally posted on Story Circle Network Telling Herstories, the Broad View]

The Practice of Mindful Writing

 

Mindful writing is a practice, which straight away places it into a psychic space that overlaps with the practical. It’s not something we just think about; it’s something we do. But more than this, we do it intentionally. In many ways much of the work or process of mindful writing happens with the silent or verbal articulation of our intention. Without the intention to write mindfully we are simply journaling. Not that I am minimizing the benefits of journaling. They are far too numerous and well documented to be dismissed. But journaling is not mindful writing.

Writing mindfully is closely aligned with a spiritual orientation towards accessing the deepest, most hidden parts of our souls, that which is capable of becoming illuminated through other practices, such as meditation, or devotional practices, or prayer. However, although there may be many overlaps between mindful writing and spirituality, they are not co-extensive; neither is mindful writing a form of some new kind of religiosity.

To truly appreciate the benefits of mindful writing we first need to establish a commitment to the practice, better if its daily, but at least as regular as possible. And preferably in and around the same time each day. Somehow the discipline of establishing the practice via the setting of a specific time and turning up to a particular place, the same place and time where you arrived yesterday and will come again tomorrow, these constants set up a kind of expectation which becomes an anticipation, the silent articulation of our intention to sit still in silence and solitude and write mindfully. I don’t think I can stress this more strongly. If you wish to write mindfully, it is necessary to commit to the practice as a practice, to engage with it as a form of spiritual practice, the aim of which is to seek higher meaning for our lives through the medium of words. Words are powerful elements.

“They can be a great help – words. They can become the spirit’s hands and lift and caress you.” – Meister Eckhart

We choose to write mindfully for many reasons, including the desire to slow down, to discover inner guidance, to find our authentic voices and selves, to learn to recognize the meaning of our lives, to find our way back home. There are many forms of mindful activities we could choose to engage with, but because we are writers we have chosen to express our desire for mindful living through the medium of words. We are wordsmiths; we discover who we are through the laying down of words upon the white virginal sheets of our soul infused pages.

Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world waits. A world lives within you. No one else can bring you news of this inner world. Through the opening of the mouth, we bring out sounds from the mountain beneath the soul. These sounds are words.”

John O’Donohue, Anam Cara

Do you have a mindful writing practice? If you don’t what do you need to do to create one? Can you mark out a space in your surroundings where you can be assured of silence, solitude and uninterrupted writing time?

The amount of time required for the practice is not excessive. It is always best to be realistic thereby saving yourself from the ignominy of ‘failure’. We have a habit of always starting out with wonderful intentions and then when we fail to reach our own too-high standards we simply give up, berating ourselves for believing we could do it, that we dared to think we might somehow change the fabric of our lives for the better. Then we leave our dreams languishing behind us until one day something strikes us, some word or image, a line from a poem or a sentence from a writer we admire, and then we feel the desire rising again within. So we try again, and once more we commit the same mistake – we aim too high, too soon.

Far better to start small and slow, and see where our words may carry us. The point of a practice is that it is just that – practice, which is another word for process. The words are what they are, our writing means what it means – it is enough for today. For mindful writing is not about results, trying to make our writing count according to some objective standard.

Committing to a regular practice sends a message to your unconscious that you are serious about your new, life-enhancing activity, so that even on the days when you don’t feel like sitting and writing mindfully, still you drag your resisting feet to the table, you pick up your pen, find a prompt to start you off, or not, and write. Mindfully.

Natalie Goldberg recommends keeping a notebook, a sort of tally of your daily practice. In this notebook you jot down the date and the times you began writing and when you finished. No evaluations necessary, just a simple recording of time and place. Oh yes, and don’t forget to make note of the days missed, eg July 25th : missed! Whether we engage with the practice or not, recording keeps a continual relationship, Natalie reminds us.

In this way, our intention is always before us. This is why intention precedes practice, and is, in many ways, more important than the actual practice itself, or rather the practice has lost its juiciness if it is not illuminated by intention.

So what’s your practice going to be?

Remember – keep it simple.

Start with 10 minutes a day, 5 days a week. This allows room for fudging and adjusting to a new life practice.

Maintain a record of days when you did and days when you didn’t.

Trust the process.

Words are never just words. The range and depth of a person’s soul is inevitably revealed in the quality of the words she uses. When chosen with reverence and care, words not only describe what they say but also suggest what can never be said.

John O’Donohue, Beauty

[This post was first published on the Story Circle Network blog, Telling Herstories, the Broad View
http://storycirclenetwork.wordpress.com/2014/09/08/the-practice-of-mindful-writing/%5D

Waking Up, Writing Down

Last month we looked briefly at what it might mean to approach our writing from a ‘mindful’ perspective. This month we shall get down to some specifics. While there are many ways of engaging with the process of mindful writing, some styles are more conducive to meditative ruminations than others. Haikus spring immediately to mind.

Most readers, I’m sure, have heard of haiku, and know that they utilize a unique and precise structure. Traditionally each haiku consists of 17 syllables divided over 3 lines of 5 – 7 – 5. There is a marvellous freedom to be discovered within the confines of such a disciplined approach. Writing haikus is my personal preferred form of mindful writing, my go-to genre when feeling uncertain and perplexed. It never fails to ground me in a broader, deeper field of light-filled consciousness. Writing haikus lands me directly in the heart of the present moment, for a haiku is always a record of what is occurring right here, right now.

Here are a few of my most recent haikus:

Waterfall of rain,

curtain of transparent lace,

streams down my window.

*

Winter’s cold breath still

drifts over field’s feathered wisps,

farewell kiss of frost.

*

Transparent curtain

envelops world in grey shroud –

rain falling again.

*

Sudden summer storms

blustering across the fells,

orchestrated dance.

*

Hills etched like blue veins

horizon melts into mist,

gale squalls whipping up.

*

Torn buds, white and frail,

summer tries to show its face,

battered as it bloomed.

*

Blowsy blossoms fall

half-drunk with fragrant splendour,

summers whispered sighs.

Similar in brevity, though less rigid or formal in intention and technique, there is another, slightly different, approach to ‘mindful’poetry. Satya Robyn [http://www.writingourwayhome.com/], refers to them as ‘stepping stones’. Sam Green, in his poem ‘The Grace of Necessity’, prefers ‘small noticings’. Names may differ but intentions remain the same. A rose is still a rose.

To take the time to write a ‘small stone’ or ‘small noticing’ is to engage in a practice which helps us to focus and observe what is going on in our worlds, both inner and outer. We begin our practice by slowing down, allowing ourselves to find the still point of silence deep within. Using our senses we turn to that which we have decided to observe, and look, look closely, listen, touch, look again, waiting to hear with the ‘ear of our heart’ the first murmurings of our souls desires. Then, with senses saturated with sensual stirrings, we write down exactly what we have seen, heard, felt.

How much should I write? The answer to this is simple – as much or as little as you feel called to do. When I write ‘small stones’ I usually write something akin to the length of a haiku, eg a few short, descriptive lines filled with vivid imagery and luscious detail. But unlike haikus, I don’t restrict the structure of what I write to any pre-ordained or set order. Essentially ‘small noticings’ capture those moments when we are fully aware and engaged with the present. Nothing more, nothing less.

There are typically two main steps in writing ‘small noticings’ –

(i) Look and see, observing what is directly in front of you very closely, perhaps focusing on one particular aspect of the object. Be careful that you don’t rush through this step. Take your time.

(ii) Write down what you have noticed. Breathe into your noticing. Enjoy the sensual experience of conveying what you are experiencing through your opened senses on to the pristine white page of your mindful writing note book. Rest. Breathe.

And that’s all there is to it! As you engage in this practice, especially if you make it a daily practice, you will slowly begin to notice something else, something about yourself which perhaps you might not have realised before. Over time you may notice certain themes, symbols, images and metaphors which continue to manifest in your writing. Welcome them, sit with them, explore them. Most of all write your way into them. This is what it means to write yourself home.

Try and aim to write something every day. Remember this is not a practice which requires a lot of time. Indeed it may not call for much more than 10 minutes each day. But if you engage with it on a regular basis, you will notice a difference in how you see the world you live in, the everyday world which surrounds you and which you normally hardly notice. Writing mindfully, we are learning to see again with new eyes, new vision, so that everything old is new again.

· Let go of trying to direct your writing and the flow of your words. Let go of judging and worrying and criticizing your work. Let go of what you think your writing should be. Let go of all the ideas you have accumulated over the years about what it means to write. In mindful writing we just write.

· Especially for this awareness practice, I recommend that you carry a small notebook with you through your day and capture those small moments of heightened awareness as you move through the hours.

· Perhaps you might like to share some of your ‘small noticings’ in the comments section below.

There is nothing to achieve here, no goals to be reached. Mindful writing has more to do with deepening and enriching our daily lived experience than in producing a body of work, though of course it is more than likely that much of what we find ourselves writing here will serve as springboards to future works, whether these will be poetry, memoir, creative non-fiction or fiction. But for now they are simply small offerings, glimpses through the veils behind which lies visions and vistas yet to be seen or even imagined. Enjoy your mindful writing, and remember that ultimately it’s a practice designed to get us to slow down and notice the world we live in!

Check out the following website for lots of examples of ‘small stones’: http://www.ahandfulofstones.com/

- Edith Ó Nualláin lives with her family in a small village on the east coast of Ireland, snuggled between the mountains and the sea, where she reads, writes occasional reviews, and spins exotic fibres into yarn. Some day she hopes to learn how to spin straw into gold.

[This article was originally posted on the SCN blog Telling Herstories, The Broad View]

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