from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Monday, 8 October 2012

'beachcombing – bits of blue plastic'

As a holding post, here's an essay from my book Writing the Bright Moment. I hope you find something useful in it...


Beachcombing – bits of blue plastic

Crow spraddled head-down in the beach-garbage,
     guzzling a dropped ice-cream.
Ted Hughes

Every writer I know has a bulging tinderbox of one sort or another stored away somewhere in their imagination. In here are crammed tiny pieces of flammable or fissile material that we’ve collected over a lifetime. These scraps are sparks-in-waiting.
The imagination is like a magpie, and every writer is a kleptomaniac. We gobble things up, or squirrel them away; nothing is too dull, or too difficult, or too sacred, to save for a day when we need a little fire – because we’re arsonists, too.

I talk elsewhere in this book about the fact that the writer inhabits a kind of twilight or threshold zone much of the time; that territory which sits between conscious and unconscious processes. Norman Jope speaks of the writer as a kind of psychopomp, whose task it is to move, and mediate, between different realms. This is, amongst other things, the realm of the imagination.
I think of this threshold zone as a tideline. (Like Andy Brown in his chapter ‘Shifting Arenas’ in this book, I find shorelines, real and metaphorical, endlessly intriguing.) On a beach, even a privately owned one, I believe that the area known as the ‘no man’s land’ between high and low water is recognised as being beyond human ownership. It’s a shadow zone; marked at its (changing) upper limit by the tideline, repository of all manner of flotsam and jetsam.
Just as the tideline itself changes on a daily basis according to the moon and the varying heights of tidal ebb and flow, so do the deposits on it: some objects are reclaimed by the sea, new ones wash up. Haphazard amongst the bits of rope, single flip-flops, ring pulls, condoms, Coke cans, rubber gloves, washing-up bottles and garish bits of plastic are sea-glass, mussel shells, cuttlefish, limpets, gulls’ corpses, sea urchins, winkles, dead fish, faded driftwood, spars from boats, kelp, bladderwrack, mermaids’ purses of empty egg-cases (whelk? Dogfish? Whichever I want them to be.). On my childhood beach in North Devon we would occasionally meet with a whole storm of spider-crab shells, or a fleet of jellyfish, thrown up after wild weather; both species inviting, curious and slightly menacing in their quantity and unfamiliarity, as well as their spines in the case of one and stingers in the case of the other. My elderly and eccentric childhood-next-door-neighbour was a connoisseur of tidelines: he and his wife spent most of their days beachcombing, and their house (and garden) was an Aladdin’s Cave of detritus. As a child I was fascinated in a slightly ghoulish way by the sheer quantity of unexploded mines, left over from WW2 that he found. (Although these didn’t end up in his garden, the bomb disposal people practically lived in his house.)
The tideline is unchoosy; and so, to some extent, is the writer. There’s nothing we like better than to pick through disparate fragments in the jumble sale of the mind. I suppose we are looking both for harmony and for the means of disrupting it; for order and chaos; for patterns, contrasts and random felicities.
The imagination is caught more by juxtapositions than by the expected. This is what sets light to the tinder: the roughness created by difference rather than the smoothness of the predictable.
Though, as a lifelong country dweller, my own imagination turns most easily on the natural world, everything in a tideline holds my interest. I think it’s important, when you’re beachcombing, whether that’s literal or, as in this case, metaphorical, to sift through without too many preconceptions about what makes beauty, what has potential. So although I might be more discriminating about what I bring home – or work up into a piece of writing – initially I try to let everything have a voice.

Friend and workshop participant Julie-Ann Rowell writes lucid, sinuous, delicate poetry that runs through my veins like whisky. She has a strong innate sense of the power of imagery; the magic that ‘ordinary’ objects hold. Coupled with this, I think, is the awareness – conscious or otherwise – that too much harmony may be aesthetically pleasing but does not, in the end, hold a reader’s attention in the way that something that jars that harmony a little might do.
She has two instincts in particular I admire: one is the willingness to bring together light and dark; the other her assured use of concrete detail. In her poem ‘Crossing The Dart’, you will see the undercurrents and transitions of which she is speaking; the movement, apart from anything else, away from the world of childhood towards the darker waters of the adult world.

            Crossing The Dart

            The black tongue of the river
            lured, and we tumbled to it
            losing our blue beaker in the gorse.
            The wind scalped, we plunged on,
            a rabble of dirty-faced kids
            blind to the zinc-white sky, down
            to the lip of the rapids that gorged
            through granite. We attempted to cross
            roped together by our hands
            and we might have been lost
            but achieved the virgin side
            we wanted to trample, conquer,
            raise our flag, plant our emblem.
            It was me, the youngest,
            who stumbled upon the dead lamb –
            my first carcass, ribs extant,
            eyeless, splayed, wool rotted,
            fly ridden. I was nudged to turn
            its skull with my toe, a trophy
            on the dead side of the river
            I wished we hadn’t crossed.
This poem has many things to say, and all of them skilfully handled; but for me, somehow, that ‘blue beaker’, with all that it doesn’t say, makes the poem; and is the image I remembered for months after Julie-Ann first read the poem out in a workshop – even more than the felt shock of the dead lamb, which is somehow more expected, given the geographical and emotional territory.

I’m also thinking about an afternoon I spent with a group of writers with whom I was working on Port Ban, a wonderful crescent of white shell-sand on the Hebridean island of Iona. Port Ban is known for its swarms of miniature shells – tiny cowries and mussels, minuscule yellow periwinkles (or are they whelks?), miniature flakes of lacy coral.
As a break from writing, we were playing. Actively working with the other senses nourishes a writer’s creativity, so we were collecting and assembling these minute shells, and backing them onto double-sided sticky tape on strips of card – a neat way of making patterns as well as a record of a place and a time (an activity I think originally devised by Earth Education as a ‘learning about nature’ creative tool for children).
Most of the group members were sitting patiently and obediently collecting the most beautiful shells and sticking them, completely immersed. Maggie, however, who is a champion of the art of irreverence, was wandering alone at the tide’s edge. When she eventually joined us, she said (being Maggie), ‘I can’t be bothered with that kind of arsing about’ – and simply dunked her cardboard strip upside down in the sand, then plonked a shard of bright blue plastic at random about a third of the way along the strip. Well, while Maggie’s was not the most beautiful strip, it had a vigour and vitality that none of the others had, due not so much to the lack of patterning but rather to her instinct for the surprising, the unexpected: the incongruity of the juxtaposition of that small acid-blue jagged bit of plastic with the natural objects.           
So allowing oneself to be surprised, to be nudged or thrown into unexpected directions by allowing those disparate objects from the tideline in your imagination to rub up against one another seems to be a good prescription for creativity.

And let’s not forget Crow in all this. We’re scavengers. We may love things of beauty, but we don’t mind riffling through rubbish bins, either, getting our hands dirty, mixing ice cream drips and beach-tar. We’re not fussy. Everything’s pepper to our grinders; and we’ll feed our imaginations in any way we can. Ted Hughes has us down pat: after the majesty of the eagle, and the delicacy of the song of the curlew, and the grace of the swallow, and the shyness of the bullfinch, and etc etc, comes crow, spraddling, scavenging.

Starting point

A well-used household object, such as a mug, soap-dish or teapot
Something ‘natural’ – a stone, or shell, or feather, or lump of coal, a twig
Something very ordinary that you would normally throw away: a used postage stamp, a tin lid, a plastic carton
Something belonging to/originating from someone else: an item of clothing, or a letter they wrote you
Something you associate with yourself in some way: your toothbrush or pen or reading glasses, even a shopping list
Something at random: something you had forgotten or to which you pay no attention
A phrase that you like, or that moves you – yours, or someone else’s. Don’t be afraid to lift it from a song, a book or a newspaper (but do remember to credit it if used in the final draft).

A couple of lines on each: follow your imagination and its first promptings, no matter how apparently absurd and disconnected; and do allow in specific associations or memories.

Find ways of interleaving some of these lines and ideas, looking less for smoothness of ‘fit’ than for things that will throw others into relief, and offer surprise

Then, adding and subtracting as necessary, work this into a new draft, with no agenda for the outcome. Allow the subject and associations/relationships to suggest themselves and the writing to be bizarre if that’s what happens.

What is this piece of writing really about? Find a way to title this obliquely rather than face-on.

PS: after posting this I thought: 'Oh, that looks like quite a good exercise; maybe I'll try it some time!' OK, maybe I did, but it would have been many years ago, when I devised it. If you do it and are pleased with the result feel free to add a comment or a piece of what emerged...

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