In this tiny stone cottage in a small wood by the river, I am fortunate enough to have a big room all to myself to work in. It is lined with books and prints and contains only things that I know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. A bleached dolphin skull found by David on the beach where we used to live on Lewis; a small stone relief plaque of Cerridwen stirring the cauldron which contained the potion of inspiration, or awen; three Hopi kachina figures: Meteor, Butterfly and Wolf. A miscellany of other objects which nourish me and remind me of who I am or want someday to become.
In that room is a very fine alcove, once a nook for a bed, where I usually work. It has a computer with two screens, essential for detailed design and layout work on EarthLines. It has a comfortable chair, and shelves and storage and easy access to all the things I need to write. Except that, curiously, I can’t write there. I can work there, interact with friends across the world by email, Facebook or Skype, but I can’t seem to write there. I figured out finally that there are two reasons for this: first, that it is a space associated mostly with work focused on other people. Other people’s writing, for EarthLines; other people’s writing, when I’m commenting on coursework from ‘Beyond Nature Writing’ students. And it seems that I can find there little room for my own. Second, although it’s a lovely cosy space as well as functional, it’s in a dark corner of the room, and I can’t see outside. In this old, unspoiled, typical Irish cottage we have tiny windows, and the light doesn’t travel very far into the rooms. (One day we’ll splash out on solar light pipes, but it won’t be this year.)
My solution was simple enough: to create a separate, special space by the window where I could sit and write on a laptop which I don’t connect to the internet, and that is physically removed from the place where the clutter of the rest of my life rests. A light place, in all senses of the word. As well as the laptop, there are just two other items which permanently inhabit that place, both recent gifts from women friends. One is a stone carved with the Irish word ‘Suimhneas’, which means ‘serenity’, or ‘tranquillity’, which weighs down the pages of, so holding open, recalcitrant books. And over the back of the chair, or worn on chilly days when the fire doesn’t quite reach to the window, its opposite in intent: a beautiful, soft pashmina scarf in brightest cerise – a colour I may finally have grown into. Tranquility crossed with boldness: the perfect merging of the apparently contradictory, out of which inspiration may emerge.
It has worked. Walking away from my desk, going to sit down at that table, is the beginning of a ritual of space-clearing which is a necessary prelude to the act of writing. Clearing and simplifying my outer space has opened up the possibility to clear my inner space. I am one of those writers who needs to have all her pencils sharpened before she can unclutter her head sufficiently to enter into that light and airy but sharply focused space from which inspiration comes. I envy those who can construct masterpieces in busy cafés, but I will never be one of them. Writing is a ceremony, a leap of faith, an act of intense vulnerability, something like a love-making. It’s impossible for me to do it in public.
Ten years ago, I used to teach classes and courses for writers, focused on the therapeutic creative imagination techniques in which I specialised as a psychologist. Techniques derived from my training in clinical hypnotherapy and narrative psychology. Making a ceremony of the act of writing was the first technique I used to teach. Clearing the outer space, just as you would for any ritual. See it as creating a sacred space – why not? ‘Sharpening the pencils’, if you ‘d rather. Mindfully entering into the place – wherever it may be – where the act of writing will occur. And then a clearing of the inner space: a meditative technique, a sharp focusing in to achieve a state of mental clarity, to remove the clutter. And finally, a visualisation which helps to launch you directly into the world of your writing, whether it be fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. A way of entering into the state of mind or place you’re writing about; a way of putting yourself inside the head of a character – this latter almost an act of shape-shifting.
In Ireland in the old days, imbas (similar to awen, in Welsh) was the word for poetic inspiration: a special, almost visionary, kind of poetic inspiration which came direct from the Otherworld. (And interestingly, the earliest Irish stories suggested that the achievement of a state of imbas forosnai, or prophetic poetry, was a specifically female accomplishment: see the end of this article for a reference.) A state to aspire to, and unlikely perhaps to be achieved without a little mindful space-clearing, and ceremony.