Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Limen

The delicious inbetween.
Many inbetween things are yummy, right? Like the icing or jam in between two layers of cake. What's inside the sandwich, rather than the boring old bread. The juicy bits of grass that grow up between paving stones.

Inbetween spaces are fun, and maybe a bit scary. Revolving doors have always given me the willies. Take that South African stalwart bit of architecture - the Stoep.
Magical compared with the inside front lounge or the street outside. People sit on their stoeps and watch the world go by. They comment, or are commented on, they drink beer and misbehave, just a little, because here they can be seen, so they are almost public, but have more courage because they are more home than public. Ne?

In between times are fascinating too. Crucibles of transformation. When we undergo rites of passage we are in a liminal zone. After the rupture, the separation from normal life, we are thrust into the inbetween place where we will be thrashed about, skinned, taught lessons, made to dance til we drop, pelted with confetti, circumcised, whatever...you get the gist - transformed. Until we are spat out on the other side, reborn, presented to society as new beings with new status.

Stories are no good without a liminal space, a transformative ordeal of some kind. A crossing of the threshold of ordinary life into the world of the adventure, where normal rules don't apply and fierce tests and ordeals will strip the hero to her core so that she may find out what lives there, blazing or glimmering underneath her defences. We know this. This is the stuff I teach. Joseph Campbell, the mythologist writes plenty about the stages of the Hero's Journey. Most Hollywood movies follow this monomyth structure.

Teaching and reading about it is one thing. Going on your own journey of transformation is quite another.

Birth is such a journey, naturally. For the one burrowing out of womb and into world as well as for the vessel that needs to cross the river and bring the cargo safely back to this (now other) side. Like all rites of passage, there will be mentors and guides, those that have made the journey before, and can show you where but, ultimately, can't come with you.

I'm not there yet. I'm in another kind of inbetween right now.
I've passed through the preparation phase. The period of debate and struggle, denial and refusal. I've had wonderful mentors. Tricksters that have unwittingly tried to waylay me with their gruesome tales. The villain - my iceberg shadow fears (and oh how they multiply). The trusty sidekick who appears at just the right moment. I've chased the dragon right up to his den. And now I'm waiting. Not planning. Not dreading. Just waiting.

I am ready but I'm not impatient. I'm alert but I'm not scared. There's something delicious about this moment. Like gooey jam spilling out the cake. I'm licking up shiny drops of anticipation. I'm letting go of the rehearsals and scripts in my head, even the positive hypnobirthing programming. Doing yoga, breathing, working (yes, still working, but gently). Not planning. Not any more.

It reminds me of that Buddhist story - the man who is chased by a tiger and stumbles off a sheer cliff, with the roaring sea beneath him. He catches himself on a ledge, grabs onto the root of a tree. Above him a snarling tiger. Below him the crashing sea and jagged rocks. On the ledge next to him, a strawberry grows. He picks it. Smells it. Puts it to his lips. How delicious it is!

I have also updated the mommy blog

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Is that you out there? Can you see me?

Hey I remember this place! I dreamed of something just like it once. There were words and stories. Friends dropped in to visit. I used to have a place like this. It's all coming back to me.

And then I was inarticulately pregnant, for months on end. No words to spare except for the ones needed for work, and that was a stretch. I was teaching applied drama, up in an airy sunlit room on the 15th floor of a building in town. I barely turned my computer on, for, well months, really. A heavy teaching schedule. A sweet collection of young facilitator-dramatists in the making. We played games and had earnest chats about theatre for development and character development and visual metaphor. And they watched my belly grow. And the games got less energetic. And the distance from sitting cross legged on the floor to standing on the feet got further and further. And the struggle to find parking close enough to my teaching venue made me more and more foul-mouthed.

Until one day it was over. It stopped, just like that. No more teaching. At 36 weeks, I believe it was. Though the pile of marking still scowls at me from my desk. But here I am, 38 weeks pregnant and a lot of blogs to catch up on, aside from my own. (Why did I start another one? What was that all about?) And a big restless baby twisting and turning like a twisty turny thing within me, trying to trampoline off my bladder to kick my solar plexus.

And there it is, the dull desire to write, which was thudding against my cortex like a Should knot, suddenly untangling into actual words again. Even sentences. Even in a sequence and everything.

Hello everyone. Are we still friends?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Readiness is all (Part II)

So much of what we call good theatre these days is polished and slick. Performances that display impressive emotional virtuoso, sets that are tricky and conceptual, interpretations of the classics that leave you nodding sagely and going 'hmmm', because its all so clever. This is what we want to see, right?

Or is it? Sometimes, I go to an opening night of a new offering and I think its like the Emperor's New Clothes. Everyone's saying how marvelous it all is and everyone's all sweetie dahling and congrats but I can't shake a deep feeling that its just not quite enough. I want something more - dangerous. More raw, more naked. Not so pat and rehearsed. I'm talking about a particular kind of theatre - the kind that fills the mainstream theatres in this country. And don't get me wrong. Much of South African theatre is moving and transformative, very alive and very very innovative. But even so, why does it always feel so.... safe? Maybe I'm just hard to please.

But now something has come along that really rocks my boat, lights my candle and peels my onion.

My friend James told me about it first - he'd seen The Seagull in London, performed by The Factory theatre company, and put through the cauldron of their unique method. What they do is they take a classic text, and everyone in the company learns several parts, really really well. There are no sets, no costumes, no character as such, and certainly no clever conceptual interpretation (as in, "I'm setting my Macbeth in a despotic African country and its, like, its going to be a comment on dictatorship and ambition in a postcolonial context..." blah. None of that.) On the night, in front of the live audience, they flip a coin to see who will play who. You may have prepared Hamlet, Claudius and Messenger, but you won't know which part you'll play, or which Ophelia you'll be up against, until seconds before you do it.

Then James spoke to Lucy and Lucy had seen them too and she thought they were pretty cool too and the Next thing we knew, we had a group of talented gung-ho passionate big hearted actors in Jozi ready to give it a go. We're doing Hamlet. Lucy managed to persuade the goodly boys from the Factory in London to come and teach us how they do it. They spent a week with us, and we all swooned at how delicious and gung-ho and marvelous they are. (Come on boys, you know you did too). And then, armed with a set of exercises to apply to iambic verse and a whole new philosophical outlook on our craft, we gave up every Saturday morning this year to mess around with Shakespeare.

Oh my word, it has been fun.

So the thing is, in a way, to undo the training that taught you to create a character. ("I think Ophelia is anorexic. She's a Virgo...") To resist what the goodly Factory people call being "on the bus" - what actors do when they feel a particular emotional choice has worked and so they stay there for longer than they should. ("Oh, it worked to play that bit angry. Angry works, lets stay with angry...") To strip everything that is acting and just live the truth of each moment, of each offer you receive from your fellow actor. Be a vessel for the story, and let all your acting be about the other person, not about you. To be utterly and faithfully and generously and ego-lessly in the moment, every moment.

Oh my word, it is so much fun.

We'll be having our first public showing in Grahamstown at the National Arts Festival. Not a performance as such, coz we're not ready. But a demonstration, sort of master class, directed, or facilitated by Tim Carroll in front of a live audience. I've prepared Gertrude, Ambassador and Francisco. It is going to be So Much Fun.

Terrifying? Well, why? Because so much can go wrong? But that is the point. That is the fun. That's what the audience gets out of it, too. Things do go wrong, will go wrong. And that's ok. And there will also be moments when you will look at this text with the newest eyes ever, coz you just never saw such sparks happen between a bunch of actors and these words before.

Its a dream come true. And the best part is, each show is totally unrepeatable. By definition.

Read more about The Factory's Hamlet here.
or check out their Facebook page.

The South African group is called the Framework.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Readiness is all (Part I)

Ever since I can remember I have had dreams about theatre. There's a recurring dream with variations:

I am prepared. I know all my words. I step onto the stage and open my mouth to say my line, only to realise that I am in the wrong play. This is not the one I prepared for. Everyone else is performing a different script.
The audience is gathered. They are waiting outside the venue. I go inside to where the actors are. We have no play. We have only minutes to put something together. I sort frantically through ideas surging through my head, and issue some hasty improvisation instructions to the cast and we are off. We somehow pull it off, usually with the help of some beautiful colourful cloths and cast members who really know how to move.

In these dreams my roles change. Sometimes I am director. Sometimes I am performer. Sometimes I am designer (fantastic sets, great big clam-shell sails and reticulated carriages that can traverse the stage and collapse in on themselves - but then the director doesn't want them).

In my patchy career I have toyed with these three alternating roles, and also experienced the lung-crushing anxiety of feeling hopelessy underprepared.

There was a turning point though. About a year ago I had one of those dreams - big festival venue, big cast, big audience gathered outside, including my mentor-gurus from varsity days. Play not ready. So I say to the cast - its ok, we'll each have a copy of the same text (from the Jungle Book, apparently. I hand out copies) We can work from this and do our thing. But the text is wonky and blurred and the lights too dim. So I do something I have never done. I go outside and I cancel the show. I tell the waiting audeince that sorry, we are not ready and there will be no performance tonight.

The show does not have to go on if it means that it may wreck your constitution, or may be really really bad.

I think that turning point dream was the day I grew up.

Now, I've had to do it for real. I applied for my show to be on the fringe of the National Arts Festival in January. This is the blurb that's the in the booking kit for Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth:
Goddess of many names: Inanna, Ishtar, Queen of Heaven and Earth. This rare production takes an ancient Sumerian myth and transforms it into a powerful healing journey for the 21st century. Part therapeutic workshop, this ritual theatre experience will transport you into a shadowland of image, poetic text, movement and story.

Dreamed up before falling pregnant (why do we say falling? Is it really a fall?), before the trauma of Seka Theatre's trip to Cape Town and all the funding disasters that accompanied that. Before many other other potholes that have loomed at me since January. I know its the best decision, to withdraw this show from the programme and wait til it has "come to term" and has been deeply worked by the goddess-hands that will collaborate with me. I know there's no time to do the proper job it requires, to realise the gorgeous visions that have arrived here everytime I apply my dreaming mind to this project. I know all that. But it still hurts to see Cancelled Show next its name on the website. Before, I would have stubbornly clenched my jaw and ploughed on anyway, despite not having the right team together yet, the right funding together yet, etc. Just because I said I would. I can't do that now. And that's fine. Even though part of me is panicking that "its my last chance!"

However, there is something else afoot. Something so frantically, furtively exciting, so in keeping with all the dreams I have about the stage and being ready, or not. Something dangerous and sexy: the kind of theatre where everything can go wrong, and that's ok, coz that is just the point. I'll tell you about it in the next post.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

branching out

For those of you that may be interested, I'll be blogging about the belly over here.. There's one up at the moment, and the usual transmissions will resume here shortly, as I feel the block may be shifting.

But for now I am in Lusaka, relishing a few days of sun and family time. Back to the bright lights tomorrow.

Until then.

Monday, May 3, 2010


At first, the words dried up completely. Or I thought they had.

Two pink lines in a tiny window on a plastic stick splattered with wee. Watching them darken.

Nodding. Smiling. Not telling.

I'm an iceberg now. If an iceberg can have a molten centre. The bit everyone can see is still sticking upright into the world, trying to get stuff done. Teaching, driving, shopping, organising painters, paying bills, organising actors to travel from Zambia to Cape Town for a festival, taking sick cat to and from the vet. But underneath, this growing bulk, still invisible to the untrained eye. A creeping, cumulative other consciousness that even I'm barely able to access, let alone share.

No, the words didn't dry up. Or freeze. They just went underground. Banking down into the earth, rooting, delving. Seeking some other place of renewal that I won't see or understand til they filter up again.

And until then I'm a sporadic blogger.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

No, Minister

Dear Minister

Many of my blogmates have taken to letter writing as a quiet form of protest lately. For example, Shiny, who writes to correct certain undesirable forces in her universe, or Mud, who gently questions the strange things she finds in her new home.

I too have decided to take up this form. I have a few things to say to you. Actually they are quite serious things and I do hope you are listening.

Dear Ms Xingwana, you have been appointed as the Minister of Arts and Culture. Clearly they didn't brief you properly. Your job is not to censor artists. Your job is not to take your petty puritan morality and project it onto the works of art that cause you discomfort.

Minister, your job is to take the pair of scissors and cut the ribbon, to open the exhibition. Not pass your judgement and tell artists that their work is 'against nation building.' I may have to check my facts here, but I think another aspect of your job may be to protect our constitution. Remember? The one so many people died trying to uphold. I don't think they gave you licence to decide that some people were more free than others to express themselves. That would be going backwards a bit.

Minister, we artists have a rule of thumb to ascertain whether our work is effective or not. Its to do with the function of art in society. If a work has the effect of making people talk, or causing a little discomfort, (I know this will seem strange to you) we generally see that as a good thing. It means we have made people think about an aspect of society that needs thinking about. There is a word for works of art that confirm or impose ideologies espoused by powerful ruling agenda. That word is propaganda. Mostly, artists are not so comfortable being a mouthpiece for the state. They like to interpret the world around them for themselves. They like to create and celebrate beauty, or turn the mirror on ugliness when necessary, so that they can provide a balance against the misery they see in the world around them.

Minister, perhaps you are concerned about the high rates of rape, sexual abuse against children and women in this country. For this reason you are uncomfortable about public exhibitions of pornography. This is what you have said. Minister, allow me to explain how to recognise pornography. Usually, it is an image where there is an uncomfortable level of dominance or a power imbalance in the sexual act. Minister, tell me, in the images below - do you see anything violent? Do you see anything other than love, tenderness, sensuality?

Minister, is it because, as some have suggested, there are black African women displaying love and tenderness towards one another? Dare we use the word, lesbian? Minister, I know this may come as a shock to you but there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that lesbianism has been alive and well on this continent for centuries, and that it was the coming of the white man, bearing Queen Victoria's flag and the Christian Church's moralities, that brought this prurience and intolerance to your continent.

Minister, allow me to draw to your attention some real concerns that you can get busy with. It is 100 days until we become the Fiefdom of the World Cup. Artists, theatre-makers, musicians and cultural activists are wondering why there has been so little invitation to share their works on public platforms so the world can see how talented we are. And what of those rumours about the R150 million that kind of disappeared, that was supposed to be for World Cup arts projects?

Minister, a friend of mine, a well respected choreographer received a grant from the National Arts Council recently. Two weeks before her work was due to be showcased, she still had not received the money in her bank account. This was a great threat to the integrity of her work. When artists get grants, generally they need the money before the work, you see, because unlike government officials they are not using that money to reward themselves or buy nice cars, they are using it to actually buy materials in order to make the work. I can't quite understand why it took the administrators of this important national institution so long to process a small bit of paperwork. Its not like there was a very long list of grantees. Please could you facilitate some sort of forum so that we the artists can communicate to those the bureaucrats what our needs actually are? We really don't want to fight with you.

Minister, every year we lose a national treasure, an artist of great talent and brilliance. We are losing these people not to old age, but to common preventable diseases of poverty, or to crime. We have actors and musicians who have worked their entire lives listening to the Muse, unmotivated by wealth or fame, who cannot afford medical care, who have no form of unemployment insurance. Make no mistake Minister, these are real 'nation builders.' We have graduates with artistic training, young people of great promise who are working as administrators and car guards because there is no vision from your department on how these creative minds could feed into the economy.

Minister, while I am at it, and I know I am going on a bit now, would you consider talking to the Ministers of Education (both of them, please) about how to improve creativity training in schools. I know there is an Arts and Culture lesson in the curriculum, but do you know how many teachers use this period to clean their classroom? I know maths and science are important, but consider the value of enabling young minds to be creative and literate as well. It has been well documented that this kind of education is essential in producing well rounded learners, and even in helping them to develop that much vaunted sense of morality that your people keep talking about. Let's not go back there.

Minister, audiences in Paris, Oregon, London, New York, are being wowed by South African artists. When these artists return to theatres in their home country, they struggle to cover their costs. Please, help to build an environment in which artists can just do their jobs. Don't tell them what they should be creating.

There is that small matter of the Constitution to uphold.

Thank you, Minister, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to read this. If you would like any other reading matter that could point you in the right direction and help you carry out your public duty, please let me know, I would be happy to assist.

yours sincerely concerned,

Hungry Nation Builder.

Monday, March 1, 2010

elephant whisperer

[photos by Freya Reder]

And then in this other dream, I had discovered the ancient secret of communicating with elephants.

Oh my, it was a beautiful space to be in.

I'm busy reading Caitlin O'Connell's The Elephant's Secret Sense, which along with Silent Thunder by Katy Payne, goes into the whole thing of how elephants pick up infrasound using spongy pads in their toes. That low rumble that just sounds like the earth curdling underfoot, rumbles they can hear for kilometres.
Its a fascinating document - some stuff I didn't know, and lots that I had just kind of guessed, having spent a lot of my younger life in the presence of these enormous ghosts. But this was different.

This was me sitting with a cache of actual manuscripts: ancient, paleolithic translations of elephant speech. Oh, and I was the chosen one who was going to be able to transmit to the world the messages of these wise old beasts, and what's more, teach people how to talk to them so that we could solve this so-called 'elephant problem' once and for all. Oh so that's what I'm here for.

And I did it. I had full on conversations with a wrinkle eyed old elephant mama crone. Words of such wisdom and depth. Not words, no, just - thoughts. Bytes of knowledge, transmitted not through the brain but the heart.

It was so cool.

I can't remember a bloody thing she told me.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


It didn't seem strange. I was there for a reason. Even though I barely knew his dad, it was right that I should be there for the funeral. It was a low-ceilinged house like those ones built in the 70s in Lusaka - complete with oatmeal and mustard tiles in the kitchen. You know those tiles, the kind that someone must have found beautiful once - a collage of several vomity looking surfaces that together sort of make up a set of mushrooms or roosters. Or wild horses running, their manes all stiff and jagged, like they've been coated in a lot of hairgel.

I remember thinking, huh - they still have the same decor.

But in reality, I have never been to this house. Nor did I ever meet his parents. This old flame of mine. Let's call him Gavin. But here, in this crisp and detailed world, I have come to mourn the passing of his father. His mother is distracted, her hair unraveled. But she says she is pleased to see me. There are ducks on the lawn and everything is tranquil.

And then, the weird thing. His girlfriend.

We hug, but there is nothing left of the old passion that used to lock our bodies together. Just a gentle warmth and that funny kind of ache you get for what could have been, but its ok that it didn't be.

She, though, is pissed off. She seems to actually hiss at me. I think,
huh, how weird. what's she worried about.

Then she turns into an octopus.
Seriously. A huge, pale, throbbing octopus with winding tentacles and a luminous, translucent head. Her eyes are terrifying but kind of seductive too. One of those restless milky tentacles wants to wrap around me. Wants to drag me down to where she is, this place of jealousy and rage.

I wake before she gets me.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Room of One's Own

It was not an impressive building from the outside. It stuck out in the landscape, like a tired figure with a slight limp. One of those structures that should have been knocked down but no-one could be bothered to do it. Or perhaps it meant something to someone and there were plans for its renovation. It looked as if it had staggered forward, but caught itself before it fell.

Who was I with when I went inside? I don't remember. I had company, I'm sure. Or were they straying on the path, telling me to go on ahead, bored with my interest in sad old abandoned places.

The door swings open to a world of bright light, high ceilings and a vibration, the sound of a cello, struck once. I hear wings flapping. A huge triple volume room, flinging the eye upwards to a wooden level like a loft. I climb the staircase that seems to be strung from cables but is solid, and lifts me gently up. Once on the level, more like a big shelf really, I tiptoe over to the window and look down. I expect an outdoor view - the bluegums in the distance, fields, cows. Instead - another room, the size of the one I just walked through. Curious. The place is bigger than it seemed.

Look down on the remains of an old pottery. Sealed bags of clay, stacks of powdery greenware, and packets of mysterious powders and glazes, spilling onto the shelves. Something has cranked alive in me. Like an old Lister motor that takes a while to spark, I am now chugging with excitement. My heart is whirring like a toy windmill.

Looking back, behind me, the warehouse-like room I entered now seems anything but a run-down derelict building. It's a treasure house, its vaulting white walls are crowding with images, projections, possibilities, sculptures, pots spilling out stories.

Next thing, I am flying - no, zooming with a zipping noise, first on cables that are strung about the ceiling (A great theatre this will make, this is where you'll hang the lights - wahaay - woohoooo! Steady on) I am truly flying, even out the window now, and loop back in, figures of eight, tight circles and swoops. Fantastic.

I want this place. Its broken concrete where the weeds grow through, its sagging bags of clay and glazes, and its mysterious way of materialising another room every time you look through a window.

Someone appears. A sort of estate agent type of someone. They tell me that William Kentridge has booked the place.

How much will it cost to secure it for myself?

R25 000 a month. I understand, deeply, that this figure is not how much it will cost, but how much it is worth to me. I understand the difference.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Here be dragons

[Disclaimer: This post is full of complaint and whining sarcasm and offers no advice of any real value.]

I can hear my myself think and its not pretty
The tricky part of course is what you hear when you start to listen. Because long before your brain quietens enough for you to take in the angels' noisy trumpets, or the soft shuffling of their slippered feet, long before your spaghetti thoughts are lubricated by inward breath and untangle themselves, there's a deafening din that will put the entire Gauteng vuvuzela orchestra to shame.

Oh, the voices. Oh, the thinks that one thinks. The rattle and shout of criticising schoolteachers, we-know-better aunts and uncles, parents who in their loving blindness seemed to be pointing you down strange and nonsensical paths of self-regard. All the pieces of crud that you sucked up as a 7 year old, in all your eager porousness and wanting to be a real functioning member of the world. You took it all on, and somehow, somewhere, the cracked logic still runs through your psyche like faultlines.

Its been a noisy old week in this head of mine.

Because as most of you have figured out by now, living a life of authentic integrity, allowing your own voice to be heard, if not by everyone then at least by you, is the hardest dem task we have appointed ourselves. Most of us find it far easier to live the path we think our tribe / parents / zookeepers want us to live. And often that is not an explicit path at all, its just the way a whole lot of information fell into the vaccuum and was picked up and rearranged by the child wanting to please, wanting to be part of the pack, learning how to belong. This is how I am supposed to be. This is how they will love me. Most of us simply find it too difficult to listen to what the other path might be, to do as Joseph Campbell advises and follow your bliss. Or even figure out what that bliss might be.

Some of these crusty old imprints are obvious, and can be dealt with the old fashioned way, same as how you deal with cranky beasts such as dragons: stare them down, point at something on the wall behind them and when they turn around, grab the treasure and leg it. Others are sneakier, and wrap themselves around your lungs when you're not looking.

Yip, its been a noisy old week in this head of mine. A week of protest and name-calling. A week where Ms Serotonin took a sudden holiday and Mr Calvin wagged his worm-eaten finger at me.

You can't make a living from being an artist. That's not a real job. You need something to fall back on. To be a contributing member of society. Don't you have a responsibility to your family / community? To the economy? Shouldn't you be pulling your weight?

It is a real job, dammit!

It must be nice to spend all day doing creative things, I've had people say to me. It must be nice to be able to do what you want all day. Yeah. Its great. Aaaalll day, I'm doing that lovely arty farty stuff. I especially love the hours spent in the bank trying to convince paperclip pushers that I am in fact an ordinary citizen with a viable income, even though I don't have an actual salary slip. And sitting in long meetings that I can't invoice for, planning projects that have a 40% chance of coming off the ground. People with jobs love meetings, coz it keeps them away from their desks and their actual work. People who work for themselves prefer to keep these meetings short and snappy. You're giving me the job? Great. Can I have 40% of the budget up front? Thanks. Toodle-loo. Um, I'm not sure its necessary to have another meeting. It did take me an hour to get here. Climate change, you know. hahah. We can do the rest by email, seriously.

Live by the word, die by the word. Pay by the word
Writers /artists do what they do for the love of it, you see. Nothing else. Somehow, the logic goes that if you are doing something meaningful to you, that should be reward enough, and you can make do with less than those engaged with real commercial enterprise. Interesting that. Does it follow that if you are getting paid well your work is not meaningful? Hmm.

I wish there was an inversion we could do on our word count invoicing. I can do you a 2000 word article, no problem. But if you want 500 words, its going to take me that much longer. Is that so hard to understand? Come on, Writers guilds, isn't this a good plan?

"Remember," she said darkly, "all wealth comes from the earth."


And then lastly, that unhelpful bit of myth about the creative temperament: artists and creative people are depressive. Prone to long bouts of alcoholic binge, followed by feverish bursts of activity followed by 'mooning about for days.' We are forgetful and can't be trusted to pay the bills. We commit suicide and adultery and drink too much and do our best work during bouts of insanity. We are dangerous to ourselves. Electro shock therapy has helped some.

I guess I may be proving that stereotype nicely round about now, but honestly, where did it come from, this prickly bit of pigeonholing? Those bloody Romantics have a lot to answer for. Does this have to be my sentence? Why do we buy into this, what does it serve us? Is it ok with you if I just have a quietly productive life, stable moods and a secure income? Or won't you take my work seriously if I'm not a raging depressive eccentric?

Don't answer that.

Anyway, if we are prone to such things? Is it too much to understand that this has less to do with some artistic gene and more to do with the fact that its a hurty world out there and those of us who are good at our jobs are a little sensitive. Born without a skin, the mess of the world gets in. We are the dying canaries in the coal mine, people. And we say, Remember: all wealth comes from the earth.

As the big man said,
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and watch?

Right, I'm off to hunt down some endorphins. I believe if you swim with them they heal all your pain.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Inspiration series III: Listen (and other acronyms)

Being silent is an attitude. Its a state of surrender. Its giving the busy mind permission to not do and just be.

Do it intently. Which means, don't do it. Just find a place of quiet acceptance where what is (all around and also within) will offer itself to you without any pretending.

How long does it take, before the sounds just become what they are, and the busy filter of your mind stops trying to do something with them?

For me, writing is an act of listening. The story is always there. The words are always jostling, trying to get to the front of the queue. It's like sorting out a noisy squabble between children: just listen, and the fight may unravel itself, even though its an intolerable clamour at first. But can you resist imposing your adult authority on the situation?

Gail Sher, in The Intuitive Writer, has some simple and insightful things to say about Listening, about cultivating what she calls an Imagining ear. Training your imagining ear is the same as training yourself in the ability to allow peace, richness, joy, 'harmony plus inquisitiveness'. Its to allow basic goodness to flow from within to without and back again.

'For a writer, developing an imagining ear is the work of a lifetime. It involves deepening her relationship with herself and everything that crosses her path. Enhanced by non-doing, anonymity, self-sacrifice, ultimately it is about her awareness of the world – her commitment to hearing it day after day with a beginner's mind.'

'Writers listen slowly,' she offers. 'They listen inward, outward, then around the world in the four directions.'

Its important to create gaps around each 'hearing event'. By creating space around what we hear, we allow our fears a bit of room to unravel themselves. Those same fears that create deadness and blindness when we write.

She also says,
'Hearing is also a kind of sacrament. Through this body, through these ears, the universe is able to hear itself.'

This, incidentally, is similar to what Rilke means in the Duino Elegies, when he says, in the Ninth Elegy,
'Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window -
at most, column, tower...But to say them you must understand
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing.'


Be Silent.
Hear the earth.
Hear your heart.

Be heart.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Inspiration Series II Things that go dump in the night

There's a wonderful book by Edward Hirsch, The Demon and the Angel, which is a quest for 'the source of artistic inspiration'. He distinguishes between duende, that earthy and mysterious force that Lorca would invoke, and which the Flamenco tradition acknowledges as its driving impulse, and the other more airy force, the angel brand of inspiration. Duende is dangerous and consuming. It takes over and blinds you to all else but the creative act, fueling you along with its dark fire. I'm guessing it's what seized Kerouac, and Ginsberg when he wrote Howl. And, no doubt, Strindberg had a fair dose of it as well. The challenge with duende is to channel it without letting it burn you up. No wonder so many writers medicate with whisky: when you ride the duende spirit you will need a way down. Or up.

Angels, no less terrifying, seem to come from above. The duende is definitely an earthy force, it uncurls from its dark caverns, where the guardian muses may have soothed it into sleep, and charges upwards through the base chakras. Angel fire is much brighter. And the authority on this type of visitor is Rilke, as he sets out in the Duino Elegies.
Every Angel is terror. And yet,
alas, knowing you, I invoke you, almost deadly
birds of the soul.

Of course, if you are going to invoke Angels you need the constitution to deal with what arises. You need to have a stomach for beauty,
For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us.

Terrifying indeed.

And even if one were to suddenly
take me to its heart, I would vanish into its
stronger existence.

If you're going to invoke Angels, you need of course to understand suffering for the gift that it is, we who are such “squanderers of suffering”. How would it be if we allowed ourselves to feel all that, to take delight in each thing that we encounter, for all its terror, its threat to overwhelm us?

Angels. Daimons*. Are they inscrutable beings, indifferent to our wracks and ruins? Of course not. They cannot resist us. If you call them, they will come:

See, I was calling my lover. But not only she
would come......Girls would come from delicate graves
and gather.....for, how could I limit
the call, once called? The buried always
still seek the Earth. – You, children, a single
thing grasped here is many times valid...
Being here is the wonder

Have you ever downloaded a story, a poem, seemingly from nowhere? Have you ever received a payload in the middle of the night, and sat up, grasping for pen, word, paper, and watched the mist melt from your brain as the four walls of your room came filtering back at you? Things that go dump in the night. I've never quite managed to hold onto any of those. But my feeling is that the worthwhile stuff leaves a flare mark somewhere in you. As long as you are in a good practice of doing your morning pages and writing down your dreams, then some of it will stick.

Am I a regular recipient of this kind of night time delivery? No. Aside from the fact that I am blessed with the most technicolour stereoscopic dreamlife, no, not really. But then, would your identity really survive a fully conscious angel download?

Not that you could withstand
God’s voice: far from it. But listen to the breath,
the unbroken message that creates itself from the silence.

And there's the thing you see. Maybe we have it wrong. Maybe, instead of listening in the night for the muses, angels, whomevers to bring us these fruits from beyond the veil, maaaaybe, its far more valuable for us to send them messages from here. Describe this world to them. Find the right shaped words to tell them about where you live and what lives in you. The colour of that leaf you saw. What plastic bags do when the wind lifts them. That's where the inspiration really lies.

Praise the world to the Angel, not the unsayable: you
can’t impress him with glories of feeling: in the universe,
where he feels more deeply, you are a novice. So show
him a simple thing, fashioned in age after age,
that lives close to hand and in sight.
Tell him things. He’ll be more amazed: as you were,
beside the rope-maker in Rome, or the potter beside the Nile.
Show him how happy things can be, how guiltless and ours,
how even the cry of grief decides on pure form,
serves as a thing, or dies into a thing: transient,
they look to us for deliverance, we, the most transient of all.

Well, there's lots more to say about angels and daimons*. But I have said quite enough and this is a really long post and I have some more Rilke to read.

*Daimon, as you know, refers to that voice, that higher presence famously described by Socrates, a sort of imp sitting on your shoulder giving wise counsel and inspiration. I'm sure Malcolm Gladwell or someone else has a robust neurological explanation for this phenomenon, but I'm happy with Daimon, Duende, Angel.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Inspiration Series I

I suppose I've always been a little preoccupied with understanding the creative process. Ever since I went to Real School and someone told me I was Very Kreative and I was puzzled as to why they thought this about me. Isn't everyone? And then for Geography once I drew a forest. Also at Real School. A deep dark forest, with milky greenish white tree trunks and dark spaces in between the tree trunks. Because that's what forests look like, right? the gaps between the trees are dark, coz there's no light in the forest. Murky. And then my Geography teacher wrote in red pen next to my forest 'tree trunks must be brown.' And then I started to understand. Some people aren't lucky enough to have parents who give you a whole wall next to your bed that you are allowed to draw on. Some people are told they must not go over the lines when they colour in. Some people have their imaginations vaccuumed out of them quite young, poor souls. Some people forget that we are all entitled to call ourselves artists, because making stuff is just a normal part of being a well rounded human. Isn't it?

And then there's that weird phrase they tell you: '1% Inspiration, 99% Perspiration.'

Well its true I spose. Kingfisher wings flash at you only once in a while, but ants toil to get their kingdoms built. There's a shitload of gathering and ferrying of pollen before the honey oozes.

This blog started as an attempt to take seriously those ladies who love watery grottoes. Honouring the Muses. Sounds pretty trite, but having been deserted by them before, I do take em seriously, and will make the necessary libations. Its true that there are certain conditions that need to be in place if you want the kingfisher to swoop malachite and turquoise at you once in a while. The one I'm most interested in is this link between wild spaces and the creative heart. For me they are intrinsically connected. As we box in our wildernesses and burn our forests for burgers, aren't we also collectively desertifying our imaginations? That's what makes me go all chilly in the night.

I teach young aspirant creatives, aka drama students. I also teach teachers how to nurture creativity in the very young. I'm always a little shocked by the attitude that inspiration is something mysterious, that Creative is something you either are or you aren't, like you don't have to work for it. Drink, take drugs, and let the Muse strike when she's ready. Er, sorry pal. She's got better things to do.

I'm also often engaged in the task of raising start-up money for creative projects and I'm equally shocked by how both 'The Arts' and 'Nature / Environment' are so low on the priority lists, how they are something 'over there', nice to have but not as important as dot dot dot, those other things old Maslow said are more important. And how we artits (spelling unintentional but I'll keep it)all participate in our own grovelling. (I swing pendulum-like on this issue: sure I believe I must be paid my worth for the creative work I do. But if the money's not there its not going to stop me doing it).

I don't believe in Writers Block by the way. But I do believe that anyone can become creatively bankrupt, burned out, stale, flat, blah, polluted. And I do think you can suffer from some kind of internal terror, a kind of page fright where you are so concerned with the Other, the Audience, the Big Scary, your Grade 3 English teacher or whoever it is that whispers in your ear that your words are Not significant /too self indulgent or whatever else may be your personal creative Tippex.

So, mindful of the fact that I've been an infrequent blogger of late, I'm giving myself a map. Some musings (yes, I know) for the year ahead. Talking points, you know. For when I have nothing to say, or when I'm saying it all somewhere else and forget to pop in here.

With apologies to Julia Cameron, lets call it The Muses' Way. Some proposed route markers in this conversation:

Angel or Demon (Or, Things that go dump in the night)
Silence (or, You can't hear the stars if the TV is on)
Food (or Eat your artist's dates)
Water (Seriously though)
Vantage Point (or, mapping, or having a nice view)
Company (or, Get the hell out of my space)
Pollen (or, Group sex behind the wild irises)
Privacy and exhibitionism (or, Do you want to see me naked?)
Procrastination (or, Ooh look, a recipe for pickled garlic)
Composting and Recycling (or, How do I get rid of all this old crap?)
Harvest (or, Don't forget to say thanks)
Theft: Steal, but don't lie
Forest/trees, chaos/order, left brain/right brain (and other mythical dualisms)
Curiosity (did not kill anyone, not even a cat)

Not that I am announcing all future blog topics here. Good God no. I need to leave space for the unexpected odd ramblings, rants and reasonings. Nor am I offering any words of self help how-to for the creatively malnourished. Sorry. No fountain of wisdom here. Hopefully, just some points to trigger questioning. Coz when the curiosity goes, that my friend, is the day you have become a frightful old bore. So, which one shall we talk about first?