Slow crux

This past month, in the process of changing my blog’s look and adjusting its focus, I uncovered a lot of essays on slow reading. An essay by Dave Bonta, another by Teju Cole, one by Fiona Robyn, and lots by me. I decided to put the best of them in one place.

I’ve done something like that before. Three essays I grouped two site renovations ago amounted to an introduction to slow reading. The ten essays I selected this month take on the subject from more angles and more writers’ perspectives.

Sorting through these old posts made me wonder why I had never asked John Miedema, a Canadian blogger and the author of Slow Reading, for an essay. John and I live just outside our respective nations’ capitals, and he represents to me a kind of slow reads completion, his yin (which, after all, literally means “north slope”) to my yang. We met online five years ago tomorrow when both of our sites landed on the same MetaFilter page celebrating the Slow Movement.

Today he said yes. “Slow reading” was his blog’s first post, and he feels it still summarizes his views on the subject. The post exemplifies John’s usual depth and succinctness, and I’m grateful he let me republish it here as part of the core.

Slow reading has its social, creative, educational, oral, literary, spiritual, poetic, and sensual aspects, and I hope the core posts open some eyes and ears. Links to the posts appear in the left margin’s slide-out side panel under “The specials.”

My relationship with words

I’m feeling nostalgic. The last piece I wrote for slow reads was ‘Conversations with Poems’, in 2006. Five springs ago I was in a different house, in a different place, with a different faith, with a different partner, with a different job. Is anything the same?

Everything is the same, and everything is different. I am still having conversations with poems. I’m still making the same old mistakes. And I am still deeply in love with words.

Since 2006, I have had three novels published and I have launched a new company, ‘Writing Our Way Home’. Along with my partner-in-crime Kaspa, I have encouraged people to join our ‘river of stones’ and write something every day. We have also edited and produced the ’river of stones’ anthology. But this version of the story misses out all the important bits.

What are the important bits? What is important is the small ways in which we’ve helped people to begin or to deepen their own relationship with words.

My ego, as egos will, has got in the way. I keep stumbling on it. I still waste time checking my blog statistics. I still get seduced by the thrill of selling my books. There are even new versions of this old compulsion as our company gets bigger – counting new members at our writing community, and signing people up to e-courses.

So have I learnt anything at all?

…it is spring once more with its birds / nesting in the holes in the walls / its morning finding the first time / its light pretending not to move / always beginning as it goes

W. S. Merwin knows how it is. It is spring once more. But spring (and everything) is always beginning as it goes.

Everything is the same, and everything is different. I still make the same mistakes, but my writing keeps telling me the truth, over and over again. One of these truths is how deeply human I am. It feels more important than it once did to let some light in, to expose my most shameful flaws to others. I do this for my own benefit, and hopefully it also reminds others that they’re not alone. It reminds them that we are loveable, despite (and sometimes because of) our deepest wounds.

And this relationship with words still brings me an inordinate amount of pleasure. Revisiting writing that becomes more familiar and reliable with each reading, taking a collection from a newly discovered poet out into the sunny garden, crafting a near-perfect sentence…

As I knew five years ago, my readers (and the pleasure they get from my writing) is pure gravy. I’m already sufficiently nourished by the act of writing, by the act of sending my words and my love out into the world.

Fiona Robyn is on a mission to help people connect with the world through writing. You can read more in her free e-book, How to Write Your Way Home, and find out more at her community, Writing Our Way Home.

A year to slow down

A week more of summer, and then the new year.

I’ve always felt inside that autumn should be the first season, but I’ve dismissed the feeling as school-year conditioning or the product of my love for Yom Kippur.

Fiona Robyn’s new book, A Year of Questions: How To Slow Down and Fall in Love with Life, helped me understand what I may have sensed all along at some level.  The seasons model a soul’s progression, and the soul’s journey starts in something like an autumn.

Fiona’s book is like that: it’s full of realizations that seem to come from within me and not from her.  Fiona is a therapist, and her book is good therapy.

We prepare in autumn.  We clear space, we start to take care of ourselves, and we let ourselves become curious.  Curiosity helps us find out who we are, Fiona concludes.  Winter is the hard side of transformation, when we learn solitude and face our fears.  Spring puts self-discovery into action.  We take risks based on what we’ve learned about ourselves.  Summer is life at its fullest.  We learn to slow down and to live in the present.

Each of the book’s seasons has three monthly themes and thirteen weekly emphases.  A week may be a tribute to a disc jockey who selects music he really wants to share or a story about gifts of a meal and flowers that reminded her of how easy it is to reach out to others.  Each week has questions for reflection, suggestions for activities, and thought-provoking quotes.

Fiona is a poet as well as a therapist, and A Year of Questions mixes a poet’s delight in language, story, and irony with a good therapist’s sympathy, guidance, and light touch.

[picture]Fiona’s language moves from the general to the gentle, from the abstract to the image that captures an idea for both the head and the heart.  I’ve skipped to week 43 (I think she understands readers who ignore her chronological format).  For that week, Fiona introduces us to Dave, who has been gardening for 63 years.  Dave has never made much money, and almost no one understands what skill and labor is required for him to maintain the private gardens for his employers.  But she concludes:

He works because he loves to.  Because he’s still learning.  Because he has high standards and takes pride in seeing the results.  Because a robin has recently taken to perching on his wheelbarrow and getting a free ride.

Fiona’s writing is at once grounded, imaginative, humorous, gentle, and gracious.  She’s never above her reader.  She’s open about her own struggles, but she’s never self-deprecating. Even her acknowledgements are a work of art and examples of real gratitude. Her book’s presentation and writing style is as peaceful and joyous as its content.


Conversations with poems

Reading Poetry

What do you think about when you hear the word ‘poetry’? That it’s mostly written by dead white men about things that mean nothing to you in a way that makes them difficult to understand? I’m hoping to persuade you otherwise.

I first felt an inkling of what poetry could do for me at school. We were studying Philip Larkin, and I noticed the pleasure with which our teacher read ‘This Be The Verse’ with that shock word in the first line to describe exactly what our parents do to us. It felt grown-up, it felt naughty, it felt real. Larkin was saying something to me that was very specific – and I felt that I knew what he meant. This to me is what poetry is all about – it wants to communicate something specific to us, something important.

Reading a poem for the first time can be pleasurable – it might speak to us directly, we might get drawn in by a single phrase. But poems really come into their own when we get to know them, move past the small talk. Have you ever watched a film over and over until you know what’s coming next, and the jokes just get funnier? Or known the words to a song so well it seems as if the singer is speaking directly into your heart? This is what it’s like to carry a poem inside you whole.

There are poems that have stayed with me and become a part of how I make sense of the world. When I think of fathers, I think of Adrian Mitchell, and how he takes the hand of his three year old, Beattie, at the top of the stairs. As they descend he ‘. wish(es) silently/ That the stairs were endless.’ Louise Gluck describes a feeling that – ‘.fought like netted fish’ inside her – I know that feeling, and the poem labels it for me. Sometimes when I feel glad to be alive I think of Denise Levertov and her poem ‘Living’, ‘The fire in leaf and grass/ so green it seems/ each summer the last summer’.

Poems can also be taken as medicine. When I am needing to be reassured I read Christopher Logue who urges us to ‘be not too hard for life is short/ And nothing is given to man’. When I want to get closer to a certain type of grief I am feeling, a poem can help me to do this – as Stewart Conn faced a dying, breathless parent, he remembered the orange stains of fish under the ice in his garden pond and wished it was ‘simply a matter of smashing the ice and giving you air.’ He’s known true helplessness, and the more you read this poem the more you know it too.

And here’s the truth of it – poems ARE hard work. If you want a poem to truly inhabit you, to change you, then a quick read won’t do it. Poems demand to be struggled with a little. There are parts of some poems I didn’t understand for years, and the coming of meaning came like a shaft of light. And there are others that I still don’t understand – not completely – but the poem asks me to try, and gives me hints, and sometimes that’s enough. We don’t always understand everything in this world. It’s the trying that matters. I urge you to give poetry a chance – it wants you to listen to it, it has important things to tell you. And above all it wants you to listen to yourself.

All of the poems I’ve quoted above can be found in ‘Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times’ edited by Neil Astley. If you buy one book of poems this year (or ever) make it this one – and find a poem in it, any poem that catches a sliver of your interest on first reading. Read it twice every day for a week – first in your head and then aloud. After you’ve done this the poem will be a part of you, whether you want it to be or not. It will become alive.

Writing Poetry

I’ve been writing poetry for over 10 years now. I’ve spent more money on it that I’ve made, I’ve written hundreds of poems that have ended up in the bin, and I still feel like I am the beginning of my apprenticeship. So why do I continue to write? What keeps me going? how can I persuade you that writing is worth it?

What I love most about writing is the sheer pleasure of putting words together. There is nothing like fiddling around with a phrase until suddenly it rings like a bell – and says exactly what you’ve been trying to say. When Ted Hughes describes the “sudden sharp hot stink of fox” it’s not just the meaning of the words that strike us, but the sound of them. Say them aloud and you’ll see what I mean. Swap smell for stink and the whole thing collapses.

Sometimes it’s a single word that makes a line sing. Mary Oliver’s stars “burn through the sheets of clouds” – they’re not just showing, we can feel the heat. And sometimes the words are all simple every-day words, but when you put them together in a certain order they become something magical. David Constantine leaves us in one of his poems with “Sleep. Do not let go my hand.”

As well as the joy of playing with language, I also love the fact that being a poet helps me to pay attention to the world around me. Selima Hill once said to me that poems are just the by-product of being a poet, and she’s right. Looking at the world as a poet means noticing things and wanting to share these things with others. Writing poetry is one way of doing this – I suppose others choose paintings as their “by-products”, or music, or any other creative work that involves the communication of something more important. Writing poetry, and more importantly, being a poet, keeps me on my toes.

One thing I don’t find is that writing is cathartic – that it helps me to “off-load” my emotions. I’m sure some people do. But I keep this type of writing to my journal – simply because I’ve found that muddled or extreme emotion doesn’t make for a good poem. Once I have some distance from an emotional experience, writing a poem about it can be the best form of “closure”, especially if I can get really close to recording exactly what the event meant to me, the essence of what happened. Beware broken hearted poetry.

So how do you start to write? And how do you carry on? If you want to write seriously, I have three pieces of advice to get you started.

Firstly you’ll need plenty of raw materials to fashion into your poems. Your subject can (and must be) anything that interests you. Keeping a journal can give you a useful place to find seeds for poems. I’d also recommend that you buy a small notebook and carry it around with you everywhere. Use it to write down the things you notice that make you think “oh!”. It might be the colour of a flower or the way a man speaks to his son. Don’t forget to read too – read whatever you can – poetry, fiction, factual books.. think of it as feeding your muse.

My second tip would be to start practising the discipline of writing. As well as writing when you feel like it. Put specific time aside to write – at 5 o’clock on Thursdays, or first thing in the morning for ten minutes. Write during those times whether you feel like it or not. If you feel what you’ve written isn’t very good, then learn from it. What didn’t work? How could you improve it next time?

And the third, probably most important bit of advice would be to create a support network around you. Writing can be a lonely business and our muses need both encouragement and feedback so they can learn and carry on writing. There are huge amounts of support available on the internet and I’ve listed some places for you to start below. Nothing beats a face to face workshop group – try a couple locally until you find one that suits you. And make the most of other resources too – “how to write” books, courses, writing coaches and colleagues.

Copyright © 2006 Fiona Robyn. Used by permission. Fiona Robyn is a published novelistpsychotherapist & creativity coach. She is the author of The Most Beautiful Thing. She blogs at Writing Our Way Home.