Author Archives: sallyamberantler
Here it is, Fiona 🙂
It’s been far too long since I posted anything on this blog. Been a very demanding year on far too many fronts. But here is a little something I wrote around 1am the other night. I think I need to keep on reading this, reminding myself over and over of the ‘practice’ of what i’m spontaneously calling ‘radical acceptance’. Which is what life/love is and does, really, left to its own devices. Deep gratitude goes to my friends Isaac and Meike http://www.isaacshapiro.org/, for the support to see all this a little more clearly over the past 10 years or so. ❤
Love it. Love this life. Love the worries, love the pain, love the resistance – so futile – love the love.
Love the shove, the strife, the living of this life … the struggle, the struggle, the struggle … the float … the resilience
The picked scabs…
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My first poem in a loooong time … a bit rough, fresh-hewn
Home Is A Place You Can’t Escape From
You wake in your soft bed
To find a weight, a presence
On your brow
You ask it its name
You try to find its story
It gives you clouds
That are treetops
And there are rooted, downward
Strokes that are trunks, swaying
In a silent wind
But they are also puppet strings
And so you are pulled from
Your soft bed
And into your shoes
And the outside
You walk hard and fast
Shed your wool
You aren’t exactly angry
And you’re beyond frustration
You chant your attempts
All that you wish away
And it’s a struggle
You surrender to
Reaching the corner
On the hill
The trees breathe darkly
You recognise them – treetops, trunks
A yellow ribbon flutters
from a branch
And the world is suddenly
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I haven’t posted anything in ages. It’s been a strange couple of months. There have been changes within and without. The inner changes are I think due to the fact that I am fast approaching the age of 40. A process of reassessment and taking stock has been taking place, without me actually going out and looking for that to happen. It’s kind of been foisted upon me, and it’s been raw and sore at times. And will continue to be for some time to come, methinks.
Anyway, so I haven’t felt I’ve had much worthy to share in the midst of all this messy rawness. Mindfulness has often felt desperately clung to and not very adequately achieved … if mindfulness is indeed something ‘achievable’.
Work (financial survival) and parenting have been taking up much of my attention, and sometimes I have felt quite distant from my home and the non-human beings around me … cut off, disconnected. I noticed this on my return from a flight to Melbourne to visit my sister and attend a Fairy Tales conference … and wondered whether the flight was what did it (superstitiously enough) … weeks and months have gone past and still my sense of at-homeness has not fully returned to me, my sense of grounded connection.
A few weeks ago I had one moment of choiceless connection and relationship. I was lighting the fire and I heard a desperate quacking coming from the creek. It took me a while of hearing it before I really listened beyond it being mere background birdnoise and heard the desperation in that voice. It prompted me to go outside and listen harder. That’s when I heard other voices, tiny, peeping voices, just as desperate as the louder quack. Quietly, quickly, I made my way down the bank to the creek’s edge and upstream a little way I spied five or six tiny, and I mean TINY baby ducklings … they looked freshly hatched. All striped and fluffy and being buffeted by the unseasonally strong stream (we’ve had another wet winter … and don’t get me started on THAT!). God, the motherly pang that kicked in my breast at the sight. The mother was nowhere to be seen or heard and I began to feel their desperation also. Maybe she was hurt, why were they separated from one another, what had happened? Was there a wild dog or cat nearby? I crossed the creek and got my sneakers wet in the process (was just about to head to exercise class) to see if I could spot the mother. Blundering like a great big troll, super-aware of how frightening I must’ve been to the ducklings but feeling I must try to do something anyway. Then all of a sudden there was a startled flapping and the mother emerged, doing that thing that mother ducks do – they act wounded so as to attract predatory attention to themselves and away from their babies. And I realised I was the predator, in her mind, and then I felt like even more of a great big noisy scary troll. But at least I was reassured that she was still there, and fine. I kind of knew she wasn’t really wounded. I just knew, and I quickly removed myself so they could reunite. But overall what I was left with was that sense of being seen as the predator, of not being seen as being friendly, connected in a good way. This sense of disconnect has been hanging around for weeks, as I said.
This morning I went to a breakfast at our local hall to celebrate the achievements of the Landcare group and their project on Branch Creek. My dear friend Emma has been instrumental and indefatigable in this work. Such an inspiring, deeply connected woman. I went to celebrate her as much as to celebrate their achievements. But celebrating connection and achievement when you yourself feel in the midst of disconnect and non-achievement, is a pretty tough gig. When someone asked me how I was, I honestly answered ‘Vulnerable, like most human beings’. I didn’t last there long, ended up walking home alone with the dogs, trying to honour my vulnerability, feeling fed up with my disconnect and aloneness, but not knowing how to bust out, whilst still honouring this truth of vulnerability and rawness.
On my return to the gate of home, I suddenly heard voices. Voices I’ve been hearing for days but haven’t really tuned into. Too busy, too caught up in my frustration and disconnect and aloneness and general busyness of life, getting by. I realised though, then, on hearing them, how quiet the walk had been and how noisy with life it was here, at my very own door. What a racket was being made and it was time I found out who was making it. Quietly I made my way down the side-path and squatted at the edge of the stand of bamboo, where the voices were coming from. There were at least three distinct voices, coming from different spots. And then I saw her, right in front of me, perched on a black, rotting, fallen piece of bamboo. Her throat was a beautiful rusty red, her wings a brindle of black and dusky browns and they shook as she shrugged her shoulders and belted out her piping song, that was being answered so fiercely by the others nearby.
She was a Logrunner. And for a moment I didn’t feel so disconnected. For a moment, I felt welcomed home, despite my largeness and human trollishness. For a moment, I simply marvelled at her beauty and boldness, making herself so heard, despite her smallness and vulnerability.
I know that there is a power in vulnerability, that is the message I’m starting to hear. It’s early days, early moments yet, but I am starting to listen beyond it being my own inner background noise, my own fierce, desperate inner voice, crying out and wanting to be heard, not ignored. I am starting to listen, I am trying.
More on Logrunners: http://www.birdsinbackyards.net/species/Orthonyx-temminckii
A Quick Writing Exercise
Ok, this is a riff off someone else’s writing exercise. I’m calling it 25 Answers. The original exercise was called 100 Questions and you can find a description of it here on my friend and early writing teacher/mentor Sarah Armstrong’s website: http://www.sarah-armstrong.com/writing-tips/how-to-rewrite-a-novel-staggering-over-the-finish-line/p/41
I tried the 100 Questions exercise and it was fabulous for busting me past my first, most predictable thoughts and further, deeper into weirder, wilder territories – the kind I often long to get to but often find I don’t. Now I know a way to, more reliably.
The 25 Answers thing is something I spontaneously used once I was in that weirder, wilder territory. There was one key, central question to the story I was working on that I really needed to explore more thoroughly, it kept coming up and I kept answering it evasively. I actually initially set out to write 100 Answers but in the end 25 was plenty. I found the best way to approach the exercise was to write quickly but not without depth, I mean, with a real intention to try and get more and more honest with each answer.
I also have to confess to a little bit of magic-business with this one. At one point a small moth landed right on the part of the page I was about to write on and so I had to stop. I almost brushed it away but then something told me not to. Instead, I watched as the moth crept up and across the page, finally settling on one word I had already written. It stayed there for some time. I could keep writing then, so I did, but I kept an eye on that moth. It stayed where it was until I was done, and then it fluttered off. I paid close attention to the word it had settled on, and I felt a little ringing inside, a resonance, a Yes. That word was key, and as I progressed with a full reworking of the story, it became even more obviously so.
So, I would add that along with your 25 (or more) Answers, you be open to mysterious, small, quiet helpers. You never know who might be whispering your most heart-sought answers.
I joked recently on Meg Vann’s facebook page that I think there should be a movement called Slow Writing, as there is the Slow Food movement that began in France when a farmer drove his tractor into a fast food restaurant in rebellion against a culture that is about immediate gratification, rather than about slow savouring and the conviviality of a shared meal.
But it’s not just a joke. It’s for real, for me. I am a Slow Writer. Which is kind of weird to come to realise, since I often write rather quickly; blurting words out in big, streaming puffs and blows. The slowness isn’t so much in the process of putting the words on paper, or typing to screen. The slowness is in what comes before and after. It’s in the opening and pondering and dreaming and stewing that comes before, and in the processing and digesting that comes after.
This all takes time. And time, for me, is space. This is something I’m still learning to trust. Being different, moving at a different pace, feeling like a slowcoach, can be hard to trust sometimes. You feel lonely, sometimes, when everyone is streaking ahead. Like the little caboose at the end of the train. Like the tortoise being left behind by the hare. The plod of your own steady footsteps your only company, until you recognise the ever-present company of space – the space you’re in, that you’re taking, that you’re held by, that you have and that has you.
This morning, after a long walk in the hills and valleys around my home, winding a wide circle down gravel road and orchard rows, across creeks, among trees, along fence lines, I came back and picked up my very first book about writing: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. This was apt, seeing as the thoughts that kept bubbling up on this particular walk had been thoughts of old friends, past relationships, memories. It’s an old book I don’t often turn to any more.
But it is such a good book, a kind book, a gentle and wise book. Maybe it is a book more for poets than for novelists. Maybe not. I don’t know. Maybe it’s not just for writers at all, because it has a lot of Zen Buddhism in it, and that can be for anyone.
I noticed this morning, while flicking through the pages, something I hadn’t noticed before. There is a lot of talk about space. About taking space, giving yourself space, opening to space. This morning, this is what seemed most resonant to me in her words. It was the same thing my walk had been telling me. Maybe it’s the same thing my whole life has been telling me.
Natalie Goldberg talks about haiku at one point, about how, when you read a lot of it, you start to see that there is a leap in it; “a moment when the poet makes a large jump and the reader’s mind must catch up. This creates a little sensation of space in the reader’s mind, which is nothing less than a moment’s experience of God, and when you feel it, there is usually an ‘Ahh’ wanting to issue from your lips.”
This is what being a Slow Writer can be then, this is what a Slow Writer might be doing, in the savouring of space. A Slow Writer might just be someone who likes hanging out with God.
Japanese kintsugi bowl. Broken crockery is joined with resins and then the cracks (spaces?) are accentuated by gold lacquer.
Here is Goldberg’s haiku exercise:
Write a series of short poems. You only have three minutes to write each one; each one must be three lines. Begin each one with a title that you choose from something your eye falls on: for example, glass, salt, water, the window. Three lines, three minutes. Without thinking, write three deft lines. Pause a moment, do another.
Here are some of mine from this morning:
Flag-like, moved by wind
Touched by air
And the private places of our bodies
Handled daily and nightly, still
Little ants bless you
Discarded, the busy hungry life
Has been eaten
I forget the wound that made
This slender line of light
Shining from beneath
There is another section in her book titled ‘Writing Is Not a McDonald’s Hamburger’. I guess this is her version of a Slow Writing manifesto, but being Zen-like, it’s not very manifesto-ish. In this piece she gently distinguishes the writer from the achiever. “We want to think we are doing something useful, going someplace, achieving something – ‘I am writing a book’”. When you give yourself space, she says, to learn to “trust the force of your own voice” it will naturally “evolve a direction and a need for one, but it will come from a different place than your need to be an achiever.”
I like this idea. It helps me to trust the Slow Writer I am, helps me to listen to her and to pay attention to the things she pays attention to. I can see that the achiever wants the things the Slow Writer is capable of making. What the achiever needs to learn is how to let go and let it happen.
This is something else she says in that piece, that takes me back to the haiku exercise: “Let go of everything when you write, and try at a simple beginning with simple words to express what you have inside. It won’t begin smoothly. Allow yourself to be awkward. You are stripping yourself. You are exposing your life, not how your ego would like to see you represented, but how you are as a human being. And it is because of this that I think writing is religious. It splits you open and softens your heart toward the homely world.”
Amen to that. Amen to space … the breath in between things, actions, thoughts, words. The room of it. Space holds, gently; a cupped hand. How fortunate I am, you are, to be held like this. Even in the tightest places, there are paths to tread, tiny alleys, ladders that lead to rooftops, and the sky.
I made a promise a while back I would contribute regular writing exercises. I’ve been pretty slack on that front. I hope this’ll make up. But bear with me. It’s kind of a book review with a writing exercise at the end.
I’m currently writing an exegesis to accompany a group (flock, herd, pack?) of short stories I’ve written for my creative writing Honours project. The ‘thing’ each of these stories has in common is shape-shifting – each tale has a central character that shifts form from human to other-than-human, or vice versa, or something in between. The theoretical bit I am in the midst of, looks at a bunch of stories (by more famous people than me) that also have a strong element of shape-shifting in them, and examines what kind of stuff gets opened up when metamorphosis is given such an overt presence.
Hathor – Susan Seddon Boulet
The thing about shape-shifting is, when you start to really think about it and engage with it, it opens up into an incredibly rich and ever-expanding territory. It’s big. It’s fun. There’s so much to explore. You kind of start out with these loose ideas about human/other-than-human relations and end up being taken on a wild ride through genetic engineering and poststructural cyborgs, through ecofeminism and postcolonial thought via fairy tales and mythology, and then deep inside the philosophy of phenomenology and finding yourself on the doorstep of animism, opening up to the inherently aware life of everything around us. Well, that’s what happened to me.
All along the way I knew that I wanted to speak about the way shape-shifting in stories is not something made-up and magical, at its essence (if it has one), but is a process inherent in all life, and when it happens in stories, it is addressing something both ordinary (in that it happens all the time) and profound (in that when we take it personally, we can see that it expands and connects us to EVERYTHING).
Ok, I’m being a bit abstract about all this, I know. I’m still forming these thoughts into something that can make some kind of sharable sense. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share the beautiful articulation of thought that I have found in a book called ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ by David Abram. This book is that rare thing – the one you start to read and shivers go down your spine. The one you read and you don’t feel like you’re being talked to so much as feeling like you’ve been plunged deep inside a reciprocal conversation, because each bit you read seems to be a direct answer to an ache that’s been in your heart since the time you first started to figure out how most people live in this world. It’s rare in a book, and even more rare in a theoretical, intellectual book.
And the marvellous thing is, the way the book does this, it actually embodies what it is speaking about, which is about perception being ‘an experience of reciprocal encounter’ when we pay attention to it at its most direct intersection with what it is we perceive ‘prior to all our conceptualisations and definitions.’
This recognition of perception as a dynamic exchange has a heck of a lot to do with writers and writing. Our perceptions are the base materials that we use in our craft, they’re what we paint with, weave with, build with and blend and bend into all the countless creations possible when words are turned into imagery. No matter how imaginative we are, no imagery is really pulled straight from our heads. It is from our experiences with the world, with things, with other beings, with landscapes and rooms and objects and voices and wavelengths and winds – all the myriad experiences open to the perception of the senses of our physical body, that this imagery is based upon, whether first-hand, or handed down over centuries from our ancestors.
Der, you might say. That’s obvious. And okay, maybe it is. But it’s so goddam obvious I think we miss the profundity of it much of the time.
Take this, for example: ‘… in so far as my hand knows hardness and softness, and my gaze knows the moon’s light, it is as a certain way of linking up with the phenomenon and communicating with it. Hardness and softness, roughness and smoothness, moonlight and sunlight, present themselves in our recollections not pre-eminently as sensory contents but as certain kinds of symbioses, certain ways the outside has of invading us and certain ways we have of meeting this invasion…’ They’re the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose major work was to investigate and elaborate the philosophical terrain known as ‘phenomenology’, which is the intellectual basis of Abram’s book.
There is something profound in recognising that what is ‘outside’ our bodies, can ‘invade’ us in the process of perception. As Abram points out in his book, Merleau-Ponty’s writing is full of such words. Throughout his work, all that we traditionally describe as ‘passive and inert’, is ‘consistently described in the active voice’, so that the ‘sensible world’ beckons, summons, ‘holds itself aloof’, expresses itself, takes possession and even ‘thinks itself within me’. Abram suggests that this isn’t just a pretty, poetic turn of language, but is an inevitable result of what happens when you try to speak about the world as it is directly experienced, rather than shutting off from it.
So here’s my writing exercise for those who are up for it (and the potential profundity it may reveal in the ordinary world surrounding you): write about the ‘sensible world’ in the active voice. Any bit of it, whichever bit of it presents itself to you. It might be a cup or the sky. It might be a cat or a rock, a breeze or a building. See what happens. (eg. I could write quite a bit about the persuasive powers of my bed in the morning! It frequently resists releasing me. I think it makes itself more comfortable and snuggly on purpose as soon as the alarm clock rings. Maybe they have an agreement…)
image by Miftah Fauzan
But if you remain unconvinced of the worth of this exercise for your writing (or your life), read this:
“We conceptually immobilise or objectify the phenomenon only by mentally absenting ourselves from this relation, by forgetting or repressing our sensuous involvement. To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies… Only by affirming the animate-ness of perceived things do we allow our words to emerge directly from the depths of our ongoing reciprocity with the world.”
So, go for it. See what happens when you open up to experiencing the world as awake and alive and active and then write from this openness. I dare ya.
Char sang out for a writing exercise this morning, cos the mojo wasn’t flowin’. I was happy to oblige. Bek reckons I should do a regular installment of such things on the blog. I reckon it’s a good plan. I’ll keep ’em short n sweet so’s I’m more likely to keep it up. So here’s the creative juice starter-upperers I prescribed for Char today. Feedback after usage most welcome!
Hmm. Okay. Something cathartic?
Put on music that suits where you’re at and write to it, for starters. One page, no stopping, no thinking, just write.
If you don’t feel ripe to go straight to that, maybe do a sorta zen exercise first – a page or 2 (I’m talkin hand-writing here) of paying detailed attention to your surroundings. Move through all the senses. Textures. Sensations. Then take that closer and do the same thing with your own being (mental, physical, all of it). Don’t stop and think, and sorta try to be objective, even scientific, non-attached and non-involved… (but not heartless!) Get intrigued by detail, the sheen of your skin, the spiderweb of lines in your hand, the buzz in your scalp … whatevs.
Ok, and here’s one from John Marsden:
‘Hell is the denial of the ordinary’. Do you agree? Design your own personal hell.
Not necessarily a scary monster, though I have met those kind, too. I’m picturing a Cookie-Monster kind of beast, but it eats words and phrases and scenes and scene ideas and not only that, all those lovely, empty moments in between things, like when you’re in the shower or on the loo or just after waking up in the morn or just prior to nodding off at night or driving to get some place … all those moments that used to spontaneously fill up with pondering (brilliant) thoughts about the current WIP, or even an old story or, best of all, a newly born idea … all gone, all snaffled up and chomped down by that hungry, greedy, albeit kinda lovable monster that used to be life as I knew it but has now morphed, Hyde-like into something far less tame and predictable.
And let’s face it, who wants a tame and predictable kind of life? Surely not us writers, who go in search of the wild and strange and unruly all the time, ‘cos ordinary life just isn’t enough. But maybe that’s just it … maybe we prefer it on the page, under the pen, where we can be the boss and decide on the happily ever afters or not?
Hmmm… that sounds suspiciously true, goddam it! Me, the free-wheeling hippy, a control freak, after all? Noooooo! But … yes. Sometimes.
And now Life has turned and changed, as it does, yet again. For me, it’s been the end of one day job and the beginning of a new one, in an entirely new, demanding field. I know others in the sisterhood have been tangling with the Writing-Monster, too. A new baby will do it. Or a move to another country. Change: it’s what life is made of, it’s what it does, and it’s what stories are made of, too. It’s just sometimes the living, breathing unfolding story/monster of Life takes precedence over the ones that we lure and capture into the cage of the page. Sometimes you just have to put the pen down and live a little. Let life live you.
So that’s what I’ve been doing.
I do, however, have a deadline to meet. So the monster and I are going to have to come to some sort of understanding, soon. This blog post is a start.