Begin. Open a space with your intent, like you do when you dream. Take all the care and love and unmet desire that you have, and right now in your mind’s eye roll it up into a tight ball as though of sharp-scented herb leaves. Now compress that for 40 million years, which will take the length of 4 breaths. Then see as it turns from coal to jet to diamond under necessity’s fierce pressure. OK, now you have a sharp, rough diamond and you can make a crack in anything with it. Including the edifice of ordinary mind, the brittle panes of racing mundane thoughts, or that stone case you get around your heart when your anger wields its cleverness like a club.
Here is a jewel. It is also a hammer to make those cracks. A vajra.
When I am writing here for you all, it is often gently quite ecstatic. I used to get this feeling making the lyrics leap like a long jumper in a song's sandpit. There's that oomph feeling and the spray as the words land, and looking round to see if you've done better than the last attempt. I could always tell by the faces of my bandmates, (who were the rest of that particular track and field association, I guess...) Now I just have my gut and your comments. The occasional message from a friend. In accord, mostly. Not always. And then there’s always Substack’s stats.
Oh yeah, and the Muse, I forgot.
This week I am dowsing a writing method that dreaming Caro can hijack and approve. I wish her at the wheel, as she sometimes is in my dreams, going somewhere beyond my ken. I do not want you to think that I only drive a bus on some pre-determined route, or that just anyone can come aboard. Some sentences are like tossing salt over my shoulder to keep the Devil at bay, or certain readers, or both. I am dreaming when I write from the Way and can see all sorts of things moving about at the edges, like dark foxes on the soft verge. I will always swerve to avoid killing something wild. It might look to you like I am driving into oncoming traffic. Not so. I am keeping faith with animal life.
Before Covid, I read a lot for pleasure. I was a reader, an amateur, an eater of good books and one day I will be again. Here's a thing though: a few writers, including Ursula LeGuin, don't explain what they mean, or what they want you to think, or how clever they are, or what you are meant to understand by their words. They induce the feeling they are writing. They can even induce the thoughts they are thinking. And this is what happens when I read people I know, I realise now. I have so many friends who are writers and it makes reading harder, often, because my heart minds. The very words chosen (compelled, perhaps) invoke the moment, and then it is a true dialogue and co-creation with the reader, as I am in turn compelled to live through what is written. This is why some people I know couldn't face The Parable of the Sower, The Handmaid’s Tale, or The Wake. If you truly read these, you have to understand something profoundly awry in yourself: the cannibal, the fundamentalist, the invader. Suddenly your psyche can and will contain the apocalypse.
Part of this writing-ecstasy then, and the rigour which is willingly applied to the sentence, must be because the pay-off could be so big: your feelings and thoughts in the heart and mind of another. That is some penetration. It relies on the work being read by another human, yes, usually by being published; but letters, email correspondence and small circulation writing, zines, online things, and so on, they all count. Graffiti counts, by these rules. Messages scrawled in the sand count, perhaps especially so.
When I read writers whose intent I have come to trust, I am entirely open, and as I am not well-read by the academic definition, I can just immerse myself, and not hang myself on the plastic cable tie nooses of critical theory. I am rather a devoted reader; I tend to read everything someone I like has written, until or unless they start to piss me off (like China Miéville, for example). So the combination of this immersive reading, combined with a great writers’ unparalleled feeling-invocation and induction, is how I can subliminally thumb the gilt-edges and see the lewd marginalia that only the scriptorium scribes normally see, when the inner abbot looks away.
This is quite exciting. It is also no different from magic.
What can’t be lived physically gets compressed into writing, or sometimes for me it is used to heat the alchemical furnace. In the end, of course, these are just different styles of doing the same thing: transformation.
I rarely use mechanical analogies, but it feels like a great music collection, a hugely powerful sound system, with a classic valve amp and amazing speakers. If we played our music as loud and as much as we’d like to, we’d shake the house down, fracture the foundations and all our neighbours’ houses would get cracks in the walls. That would be us trying to live out everything we write.
So we just play our music really quietly, but it sounds really clear, as there is so much power we are just not using. And that’s good writing.
Uncivil Savant essays are free to all readers, paid subscribers receive a monthly Chi Kung instructional video in addition. If you enjoy my writing and feel you could afford a paid subscription, I would deeply appreciate it. This spring, I am regularly taking care of young family members and cannot teach my usual amount of workshops, so my paid subscribers here are really making a difference to my family’s life and my ability to write both these essays and my next book. Thank you.
This week’s good thing: After 15 years or more bushcraft and wild work in the woods of Britain, I finally felt I’d earned a decent handmade knife, rather than my trusty Mora HD, (a very good Swedish mass produced model). I commissioned a knife from Joshua Westbrook after seeing his self-made everyday blade a couple of months ago. I asked for something similar, but sized for my slightly smaller hands. I am not a kit fetishist, but I appreciate good tools, whether in the studio, the kitchen, or the woods. It has a birch handle, full tang blade and a veg tan leather case. I love it already.
Over the coming months I will be teaching courses in UK, USA, Netherlands and online on how to make many things including natural inks and paints, cut quills from feathers, how to prepare pigments of earth, ethically forage, make sketchbooks, pastels, charcoal and all the other things any post - or indeed pre - apocalyptic creative soul could want. If you would like to know more, sign up to my occasional Found and Ground newsletter here and read my latest newsletter here. Thanks!
As a reader, I will put up with any weather good writing will throw at me. I am a landscape, and my rivers welcome the rain. Writers, if your words don't batter my cliffs with occasional gales, how will I make fine sand for the eels to writhe in, or pebbles for the longshore drift to carry?
This week’s main photos are of handmade stained glass that I commissioned for my first flat on return to London, now lost, and a red flower in my darkened dining room, all from 2008. For some reason, they spoke to me today and asked to be part of this post.
When I use the word ‘magic’ I do not mean tricks, prestidigitation or spells. The magic I mean contains awe, wonder and surprise; my atheist friends and family might call it fortuitous delight, inspiration or synchronicity, my religious or pagan friends and family might instead say blessings, grace or the miraculous. I don’t know what to call it, but it feels like all these things, so I am provisionally calling it ‘magic’. I am pointing to something genuinely good and natural for humans to feel, supramundane but not ‘supernatural’. (To a Taoist, nothing in the entire universe is supernatural, as Tao includes all things.) It is also what animates a great conversation, work of art or flash of insight. Its shape and speed are like lightning, and it often seems to come ‘from outside’. I cannot say where it comes from, only that it does, thank goodness, come.
Your offering today is like the visceral joy of spring stirring deep within the earth and vibrating in the bones of all. Enticing, exciting, energising, inspiring, uplifting. I want to throw myself in and just play with the threads and ripples of existence.
Caroline, You struck a chord today as you described the interplay between writer and reader. Beautiful ! D