As you know, I have taught writing for many years now and over a thousand students have sat at my dining table and shared their stories and their writing.
Many of my workshops last for a morning or two and that is fine for anyone who wants to learn how to do something, like, say, write a book, articles or blog effectively. They are what I call my ‘nuts and bolts’ courses. The ones that are crammed with information. But it is my other workshops that go to places the others cannot reach. At first these were my Becoming a Writer courses, that stretched over eight weeks and latterly the Write Your Life Stories classes, again, over eight weeks. And it is here that the real magic happens. It is here that real writers are created. And I think I know why.
It is only when we find a place of safety, a place in which we feel confident, that we can begin, like a baby duckling taking its first few tentative steps towards the water, to do the kind of writing that we were born to do. Just as that baby duckling gets its feet wet for the first time close to its siblings and its parents, new writers nee to ‘get their feet wet’ in a protective environment.
I’ve seen it happen many times, as a new writer tiptoes tentatively towards the edge, opens her notebook, clears her throat and begins:
“Look, I know it’s not very good. I wrote it in a rush. I have not really had time to edit it. I’m sure, I mean, I know, I mean um er, well, it’s probably rubbish. I probably shouldn’t be reading it at all, but, ahem,” she raises her eyes to the group, to me, and we all nod and smile encouragingly. ‘Okay then, here goes… “
And then she reads something that comes from deep in her gut, maybe from way back in her past, something that makes her cry when she sounds out the words, but something that she knew she had to write and so she grabs the tissues and carries on. Someone lays a hand on her forearm. Sometimes, she passes her text to someone else to continue reading, but always, always, she knows her story needs to be released, to get out there. And when she finishes, the room falls silent for a while before the praise begins.
In all my years of teaching I have only ever had one student who has refused to take those first terrifying steps towards sharing her work. And yes, S, I know you are reading this! But those who do dare to be brave, who summon up every ounce of courage and start to read are the lucky ones. No step is ever more daunting than that first one.
Despite more than 25 years as a professional writer now, I still belong to a writers’ circle. It is my talisman, my lifeline, my own personal place of safety. It is here that I dare to share the words that expose me and make me vulnerable. It is here, that, without doubt, I find my best work.
On Sunday I attended a seminar by Mansukh Patel called Manifesting Your Dreams. In this he invited us to write freely for five minutes on our own dreams.
“If you find yourself crying at any point, then you have found it,” he said. “You have found the things that matter most.”
I wrote furiously for those five minutes, desperate for tears to come and show me my life path. But nothing came. That evening, I thought back to the last time I had been moved to tears. It has been the previous week at a performance of singing, dance and poetry reading, presented by Operadans and called Sweet Solitude. The first poem, read by Ellis van Maarseveen, was one of mine and called Love Song of a Reluctant Expatriate. As the words rang out I was taken back to the time when I first wrote those lines. It was 1989. I was living in Dubai and I was homesick as hell. When I wrote it, I cried. When I read it aloud I cry and when Ellis performed it, I cried once more. Now I recognize that my tears are a bonus. We should welcome them, embrace them and see them as a sign. A good sign. The poem appears in my memoir, scarily all in verse, and called A Moving Landscape.
Love Song of a Reluctant Expatriate
I will always love you.
Despite time and distance.
For when I’m told to close my eyes
and picture a summer’s day
it is you whom I turn to.
It is you I paint with boldness
behind my eyes.
You I see
when I am lonely,
blue and emerald,
yellow with buttercups,
grey and mean,
scratched black with leafless trees.
You I see parcelled in snow
or brushed with the syrup
of morning sun.
You and only you
with scattered villages
plump, sheep-peppered hills
that dip and fold
like velvet flung aside.
I love you,
though you may be poor
diseased with deprivation,
sick with grief.
I love you.
Despite the tattered cloth
within your belt of green.
I love you.
With my family in your pockets,
my soul in yours.
I’ll be yours in time.
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