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{Sun 11 January 2009}   Story and Story of Story
Story and Story of Story

After submitting work to an Online Workshop for the Methods module of the Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media (MACWNM) at De Montfort University, students were asked to write a critical commentary describing their creative process in making the work and in responding to feedback on that work. Throughout the Methods module, several models and tools helped us understand the creative process while engaging in it. I was fascinated by the two different kinds of writing, storytelling and commentary, arising from one starting point. I determined to learn to do both well.

This response attempts to showcase this learning.

The Story The Story of the Story

Fruit and Veggie Stall by Monique Jansen

Fruit and Veggie Stall by Monique Jansen



{Thu 13 March 2008}   Reality and truth
Two things I read today seem to intersect – the first is this article by Elizabeth Pisani in The Guardian, Thursday March 13 2008 entitled “Spitzer’s true folly” and subtitled “A governor who pays for sex should know to mould social policies on reality, not morality”. Although light and not in-depth, it seems to me a very balanced and realistic view of the sex trade and I instinctively agree with the idea of regulation rather than the impossible fantasy of the elimination of the trade. I’m sure that when I think about it more deeply any number of caveats will arise, but essentially I’m not disposed to think of the women in that trade as any more “sinful” than anyone else and many of them may well be a lot more canny and a lot more grounded than most. There are some related thoughts in my post titled Overdoing Mistress Overdone in Washington.

The other thing is the little essay-in-a-booklet called On Truth by Harry G. Frankfurt which I picked up at a bookstore this morning. He argues that despite various consciously or unconsciously held postmodern positions on the possibility and accessibility of truth, most of us rely on our ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood in very practical ways in our everyday lives. He equates truth here with fact. For instance, no matter how skeptical you are about truth, you’ll probably give your actual name and address when filling in an application for something. In other words, you’ll tell the truth about the fact and you and the contracting party will rely on the accuracy of those details. If they prove false, the whole thing won’t work (at least not for long). Practically, truth is essential to large parts of our lives, and our trust in others and, most importantly, in ourselves, depends on it, so communities couldn’t function without it. Communities do sustain a lot of “bullshit and lying” too (apparently the subject of a prior essay by the same person), but we can navigate this if we have some ability to tell the difference between truth and falsehood (and most people do). Those who hold to falsehood as truth are crazy. Every time someone tells us even a white lie, perhaps in order to protect us, and we believe them, we enter into a world created by their words that is different from the real world experienced by those not exposed to the lie. Every time we do this, we become a little crazy and our trust in our own ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood is damaged.

My thoughts aren’t quite formulated yet, but I think where they’re going in pulling these two stimuli together is that the whole attempt to “eliminate” prostitution is based on a falsehood because it’s out of touch with reality (facts). This would lead to the conclusion (not new, but still shocking) that the church is a liar because it refuses to tell the truth about the way things really are (labelling all prostitution “sin” is not “telling it like it is” for everyone). Ergo, the church makes us crazy.

When truth is an ideal, it has little practical use, because it doesn’t relate to facts, or worse, tries to deny them. One could argue that it isn’t truth at all, just something that wants to be.

Postscript: Just read this really funny, outraged and outrageous response to the Catholic Church’s new seven deadly sins, by Grant Walliser in the Mail & Guardian: Catholics modernise their mumbo-jumbo. Worth a read for further thoughts on reality, truth and crazy-making.



{Wed 23 May 2007}   More on fine energies and fine thoughts in poetry
During my ongoing review of ancient scribblings by myself, I came across another essay that I very much enjoyed writing. Its subject matter, George Herbert’s 17th century anthology The Temple, is a wonderful example of “fine energies” being examined and released by “fine reasoning”, albeit inside a worldview that is entirely circumscribed by a belief in received interpretation of Christian scripture. Rereading it, I feel myself again seduced by the beautiful internal consistency of Herbert’s argument, won over by his sincerity, awed by his skill and respectful of his courage and his humility in facing his God.

It seems amazing that I wrote a 3000-word essay on a poem of just eight simple lines! Well, it was on The Temple as a whole, but as Dr. Ron Hall’s original question indicates, the themes of this great work are succinctly encapsulated in the tiny Bitter-sweet. This shows how powerful a good poem can be in stimulating and feeding meditation on huge life-changing subjects, and thus it should be no surprise, if one views the Bible as a poetic work (as argued in my previous posts Fine energies and fine (if erroneous) thoughts and Poetry and creativity in the press and in the Bible), that it has had the power to mould and move individuals and nations both to heights of achievement and, sadly, to depths of repression, as they reach for the perfection at which it hints.

I think that, as in the best poems, some of its power comes from its universality. Although I do not believe the Bible to be an accurate historical or empirical record of, nor a blueprint for, human development, I do believe that, along with many other writings of similar poetic power, it contains universal truths which attract those who experience their lives as a meaning-making journey, whether their medium be primarily that of the emotions or that of the intellect.

So… here’s my encounter with Bitter-sweet and The Temple:

Taking the poem Bitter-sweet as your point of departure, discuss the methods used in, and the effects achieved by, Herbert’s blending of “complaint” and “praise” in The Temple. (Dr R. Hall)

Bitter-sweet

Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.

George Herbert

After an oppressively didactic introduction in The Church-porch, Herbert opens the heart of his work with a series on the Passion of Christ. Despite the Judaeo-Catholic legalism of the preceding section, it is clearly these poems, with their Protestant emphasis on salvation by grace, that are intended to set the context for the major part of The Templei. The remainder of The Church is a meditation on the nature of the relationship with God exemplified in, and made possible by, Christ’s Passion. When Herbert imitates his God, as suggested in Bitter-sweet, he clearly has in mind the Christ who could complain to his Father, “…take away this cup”, yet in the next breath say, “…not my will, but thine be done”ii.

Read the rest of this entry »



{Wed 2 May 2007}   Fine energies and fine (if erroneous) thoughts
Well, I’ve just given in to an impulse to update the grammar in the essay on “The Priesthood of the Soul“, although I admit that it’s 99.999% likely that I’m the only one who would notice the difference (as it’s just about as likely that I’m the only one who’s actually read it). Anyway, it’s infinitesimally less poncey and slightly more readable due to some shortened sentences, use of the active rather than the passive voice, etc. I couldn’t do more without really settling in to rewrite the thing, but it was a good way of revisiting these thoughts.

Today, I was struck by this quote from Keats that I used in the essay:

Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine… (In the same way) our reasoning though erroneous…may be fine. This is the very thing in which consists poetry. (317)

I think this stood out to me because I’ve been re-engaging with theology and the Bible a bit in my new comments today on “The Nakedly Evil Origins of Ritual Oppression of Women“. It’s not a new thought that the Bible is poetic in nature and thus contains poetic rather than rational truth. The one is no less true than the other, but they are of a different order and arrived at via different processes. It is also not news that some very intelligent and highly trained thinkers believe that the Bible is rationally and empirically true. I think one reason for this may be that the “fine energies” in the Bible are so seductive that they attract thinkers capable of fine reasoning who sense its power but misinterpret its mode. Because these fine minds have a rational approach (and are not accustomed to seeing the poetry in everything), they insist on a form of biblical exegesis that requires reality to be modified in order to remain internally consistent.

This applies especially to the axioms on which the reasoning is built. Despite their intelligence, these thinkers simply cannot allow for any causes or conditions that do not support the extraordinarily finely structured house of cards that they have built upon their chosen foundations and on which they continue to labour lovingly day after day. Its very fineness, though erroneous, in its own way pays homage to the “fine energies” to which the thinkers are responding. Quite simply, it is too fine a thing to lose. And so mankind blunders on.



{Fri 6 April 2007}   The nakedly evil origins of ritual oppression of women

I’ve read three articles today on the oppression of women by patriarchal religions. It’s not news to me, of course, but the intensity of these outraged lists of the sins of human against human on the basis of genital differences forces me to face the fury and the fear that always lurk within.

Here are some examples of what in my view are blatantly evil and incredibly destructive religious precepts:

    “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a woman”
    (Sephath Emeth, p. 10).
    “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife”
    (Ephesians 5: 22-23).
    “Men are superior to women on account of the qualities with which God hath gifted the one above the other”
    (Koran 4:37).

What a disgusting “God” these quotes reveal! Who would want to worship, who could trust, such an insecure bully?

What on earth possessed the men who could institute a daily prayer thanking God that they’re not born female? How about not born stupid, or poor, or apelike, or with three legs, or something? Of course, any of these could cause offense to any being that happens to have these characteristics, so we’d not think of creating a new prayer like that now (at least, we wouldn’t do it in the UK), but because we’re so politically correct, we also wouldn’t challenge any religion that continues to promulgate this oppressive crap. Here’s a novel idea: how about thanking God for what you are, instead of for what you are not?

When one reads these, it is hard to understand how anyone can insist that religion is a good thing. The only people who benefit from it are men, and even this benefit is short-term and deceiving, because how can men truly be served by systems that encourage them to be less-than-human and that rob them of the possibility of living a truly fulfilled life that is enriched and balanced by the female principle, by honest, equal relationships with women?

The huge need to oppress women reveals an enormous fear of women. This cripples both sexes and ties us into continual battles with each other, when there are so many other issues on the planet that would benefit from our pouring all our energy jointly into their resolution instead.

Maybe there’s a poem here somewhere, but at the moment I just feel sick!



{Sun 25 March 2007}   The Priesthood of the Soul
I have just found in an old backup file some essays of mine on subjects close to my heart, which I had feared were lost. They were created in WordPerfect in 1992 and 1993 on my first computer – a 7.5kg whopper of a laptop which I abandoned in about 1997, I think. I have no idea whether these thoughts and approaches would be considered to have any validity now in any current education programme, but part of me doesn’t care. I just want to affirm and reconnect with my experience of “flow” at the time and also to reconsider now these influences which I know have formed and informed my approach to poetry.

As I read through them, and read the markers’ comments again, I am amazed both at the intensity with which my mind was working at the time, and at my concurrent inability then to absorb either the praise or the criticism that the markers gave. My relative maturity now enables me to see how much care was taken by the markers in their thoughtful comments and I am embarrassed to realise how little I valued them then. My driving need for approbation and reinforcement prevented me from realising that people were offering me exactly these simply by taking my writing seriously enough to offer me thoughtful feedback.

I have no record of the mark I received for this one, but the lecturer actually wrote a five-page response to this twelve-page essay which begins as follows:

The Priesthood of the Soul: The relationship between Imagination and Reason in Keats.

The Romantic obsession with the apparent dichotomy between Passion and Reason is given a new twist in Keats’s unique theology:

Call the world … “The vale of Soul-making”…. There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions — but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself…. Spirit-creation … is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years — These three Materials are the Intelligence — the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul… As various as the Lives of Men are — so various become their souls (Letter 123, 335-6).i

That Keats favours a chemical metaphor for the processes of both poetry and human experience indicates how much his rational and his imaginative faculties complement each other. In The Chemistry of the Poetic Process, Stuart M. Sperry minutely demonstrates how much Keats borrows from his scientific reading to develop his poetic philosophy.ii He shows that Keats sees poetry as a process whereby the material world’s beauties and travails are absorbed via the senses and distilled, through an inner contemplative-experiential mechanism called ‘intensity’, into an essence of thought. Such thought, however, cannot be equated with rational conclusions arrived at through logic. Sensation acted upon by the imagination (the agent of intensity) produces a fresh complex of sense-stimulating beauties which open up new avenues for exploration. For the reader, the poem then forms an acutely tuned part of his material world and invites him to a similar experience of intensification and distillation of thought. In consequence, the reader’s appreciation may differ from the poet’s. Keats’s own capacity for existing in uncertainty allows his readers to fashion their own souls as they choose. In one letter he asserts that poetry can lead man into contemplation and through it to an active awareness (by which he means sensitivity to potential pathways rather than any single, absolute conviction) which could transform humanity (48, 103-4). This is how the poet functions as priest of the soul in ‘the vale of Soulmaking’.

Read the rest of this entry »



{Sat 24 March 2007}   Green thoughts in green shades

Today, I was thinking of changing my presentation theme; then I remembered this stanza from Andrew Marvell’s poem The Garden that was a favourite of mine at varsity:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find ;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas ;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

In many ways, this is what I’m doing on this blog, I guess, so I think I’ll stick with the green shades! A friend last night suggested that I was possibly being a little over-enthusiastic in my intention to post something on my blog every day (a not-yet-achieved goal), and I do confess that the blogging I’ve done so far has possibly taken up a tad more of each day than I originally intended, but I hope that the annihilation of all that’s previously been made will make space for green thoughts that are fertile and bursting with life and potential! Meanwhile, in the other room, my hubby is creating far other worlds and other seas in Second Life… sigh… is that where all cyber roads eventually lead? An alternate reality?

For the whole poem, go to this lovely site: http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/marvell/garden.htm



{Thu 22 February 2007}   What do I believe?
Well, I was going to post another poem today, but I’m having trouble with the scansion so it’s not ready yet. In the mean time, I went to visit the blog of a very dear friend of mine, started to write a brief comment and looked up from a steaming keyboard several paragraphs later, realising that I’d begun for the first time to make a coherent statement of my (current) creed.

The post I responded to is on the subject of Universal Restoration (my friend gives a pretty good overview of this if you want to check it out at soundandsilence.wordpress.com), but that’s not strictly necessary in order to understand what follows. Our conversation there is a part of the much larger 25 years or so of shared and disparate experiences that have created our relationship, which is very precious to me. However, I realised that my response can largely stand on its own as a statement of my belief, given a couple of contextual nudges.

First, I responded to the suggestion that I am a “closet believer”.

“… re the closet – I have no reason to be in one. I’m not hiding anything (other than those things that are hidden from myself, in which case you can hardly expect me to admit to them!) As to a believer, well that depends on the supposed object of belief. I am not a believer in a masculine or a feminine God. I am not a believer in the doctrine of original sin. I am not a believer in a concept of The Elect. I am not a believer in any of the heavens or hells that were described to me during my time in the church. I am not a believer in the infallible authority of any (including Christian) scripture. I am not a believer in salvation through Jesus Christ, unless “salvation” is highly qualified (what exactly are we saved from?, what does the salvation consist of?) and “Jesus Christ” is used metaphorically to designate a general principle of being-action that we can seek to incarnate ourselves and that people may incarnate without knowing the name (ask me about that one another time!).

I am a believer in a universe in which the whole is usually greater than the sum of its parts, in which the beauty of the rose and the spirt of a person remain mysterious beyond any analysing of them, and in which any human statements only approach truth by degrees of approximation. I believe in the power of love and in the necessity of our taking responsibility to make meaning in our lives by loving and creating (which is an outflow of love). I also believe that any tiny expression of heaven-on-earth that we can make happen now is more important than any hope of restoration in the eschatological future.”

Secondly, I responded to this statement by another Commenter: ”…surely there can be no doubt of the psychological, spiritual and/or material “reality” that millions of people sense, of some kind of fall from perfection”.

“There may be no doubt that millions of people sense it, but millions of people also believe that HIV is a white man’s disease and that female genital mutilation is a good thing. Billions of people believe that women are inferior to men and many of them base this on scripture.

The number of adherents of a belief has never been an indicator of its truth. That it might be has been proven repeatedly to be in itself an erroneous belief. People are able to hold to not just iffy but demonstrably incorrect beliefs despite actual evidence to the contrary, when the implications of changing their minds are too much to cope with and particularly when the religious authorities in their lives oppose the change (witness how long it took for Copernicus’ ideas to gain acceptance).

It is hardly surprising that people can continue to hold to a metaphysical belief that lies beyond the realm of proof and is a determinant of the consequent logic of their entire faith and culture. The “fall from” really depends on one’s definition of perfection. If it is wholeness (a very possible option, scripturally), then this could just as well reflect a dialectical universe in which a deliverance from all evil would be a reduction to less than perfection. It also depends on one’s definition of evil. We normally define evil from an autocentric human perspective which proceeds from an extremely arrogant pre-Copernican view of the universe. Are earthquakes evil? That depends on one’s perspective as to what should and shouldn’t (be allowed to) happen in the universe graced with one’s presence.”

I realise that a lot of the above is about what I don’t believe, along with some critique of other beliefs. My questions and posits re definitions of evil and the value of a dialectical model of the universe are open-ended. I’m not sure about these and many other things, but to the extent that I can voice, and in this small way be congruent with, my own beliefs at this current point of understanding, I feel exhilarated. I wonder whether my poetry may begin to reflect some of this now?



{Wed 21 February 2007}   Affirmation: My Best Self
Last night, while reflecting on the creative surge and emergent sense of purpose that I’ve been experiencing recently, I recalled an affirmation that I wrote about twelve years ago. It was during an explosive period of personal growth, when the experience of inner healing through the creative arts was newly exciting to me. My home was filled with my colourful paintings and poems and other objects that were beautiful to me. I was riding a surge of hope that gave me the power to make dramatic changes in my life and risk everything to follow my own passion and choose a life path that no one around me could understand.

That path has since taken me through several homes and jobs in four different countries and turned out to be rockier and more lonely than I could ever have imagined. I have many times berated myself for spending months on end in a state of seeming stasis, despite the continual changes that external realities (which I have chosen) have thrust upon me. For some years, I forgot all about this affirmation, but as I read it last night I realised that it has had a shape in my soul all this time, and has fuelled my continuing conviction through the greyest days that I am in fact journeying toward wholeness.

In preparing the affirmation for this post today, I realised that I no longer agreed with some aspects of what I had written. I smiled to myself as I edited it, realising that in so doing I was expressing one of my convictions about humans’ capacity to know anything—that our grasp of reality is limited, and whatever absolute truth may be, it is not in our power to define it absolutely. The wisest course is a blend of humility and hope. In this spirit, then, I’m sharing with you not an accurate description of the person you might encounter if you met me, but an image of the one I am aiming to become.

Feel free to use any parts of it to create an affirmation for yourself if something resonates with you, but seek to respect and live consistently with your own truth above all.

Affirmation: My Best Self

I love myself. I will not abandon myself. I celebrate my individuality. I appreciate my inner and external beauty. I delight in and am energised by natural and artificial beauty. My creativity makes a real, objective contribution to the world. I contemplate my creations with pleasure. What I do is good. I am patient with myself as I discover the best media to express my gifts. I seek and receive feedback from others and from my universe to help me on my journey.

I respect the otherness of everything and everyone. At the same time, I celebrate the connectedness of all. I am part of a larger whole. I reflect something true about everyone. I acknowledge all of life, the totality of existence. I allow the spiritual to be as real to me as the physical. I value my intuition. I take time to listen to my inner voices. I exercise reason and judgement along with intuitive discernment.

I accept social responsibility as part of the whole. I develop my skills and train my talents in order to keep my promises. I focus seriously, consistently and joyfully on my work in order to add to the world. I look for opportunities to seed or build or contribute to vibrant, nurturing communities.

I listen to others. I affirm their emotional honesty by being there with them. I identify with their struggles even as I celebrate each person’s uniqueness. I express my own feelings to invite connection. I differentiate between my self and my feelings, and between my feelings and those of others. I wait patiently for the resolution of feelings. I act positively toward others. I take responsibility for my actions and responses. I recognise and rejoice in reciprocity.

I understand that the discipline of self is part of my contribution to the whole, because I can only care for others as I care for myself. I evaluate my values in terms of my growing understanding of universal laws. I submit to my evolving conscience in matters of morality and ethics. I incarnate my principles and convictions by acting on them.

At the same time, I am gentle with myself. I laugh at the incongruities in my thoughts and actions, and the paradoxes of my animal-spiritual nature, because I understand that I am always learning. When I teach what I am in the process of learning, I am aware that my truth is only an approximation of reality. With this awareness, I dive wholeheartedly into the mystery of life.



{Fri 16 February 2007}   Poetry’s Potential
I am so excited to have found, via Very Like a Whale, this exquisitely expressed post called “Defining Difficulty in Poetry” by Reginald Shepherd.

I highly recommend this post, but I do wonder about the impact of declaring that “poetry is difficult”! That is what so many of its potential readers fear. Of course, this is due to a basic assumption that it ought not to be; that somehow poetry, uniquely among the art forms, should not use techniques, devices, materials and skills that require knowledge and mastery to achieve or comprehend its effects. Stephen Fry suggests in The Ode Less Travelled that most people believe that because words are a universal currency, art made from them should be instantly, universally accessible:

“Unlike musical notation, paint or clay, language is inside every one of us. For free. We are all proficient at it. We already have the palette, the paints and the instruments. We don’t have to go and buy any reserved materials. Poetry is made of the same stuff you are reading now, the same stuff you use to order pizza over the phone, the same stuff you yell at your parents and children, whisper in your lover’s ear and shove into an e-mail, text or birthday card. It is common to us all. Is that why we resent being told that there is a technique to its highest expression, poetry? I cannot ski, so I would like to be shown how to. I cannot paint, so I would value some lessons. But I can speak and write, so do not waste my time telling me that I need lessons in poetry, which is, after all, no more than emotional writing, with or without the odd rhyme. Isn’t it?”

Like Mr Fry, I say No! Poetry is so much more than that. Poetry can be narrative and is usually (but not exclusively) emotional, yes, but it also uses visual and musical forms, as well as semantic suggestions which, in the best poems, enhance their meaning. It paints pictures and caresses or startles the ear. It engages the intellect and the imagination as well as the emotions.

Besides language, the poet must have something of the visual artist, the musician and the philosopher in her. The poet-artist appreciates the form of words, sentences and lines, and the value of negative space, for shaping a thought. The poet-musician revels in the sounds of words and letters, composing melodies from them, and feels the pulse of speech, drawing it out to make its many possible rhythms audible and compelling. The poet-philosopher understands the force of rational argument and the epistemological limbo in which truth eternally seeks a home, the subjective impulse toward individuation and the objective need for civil cooperation, the power of verbal accuracy and the pleasurable mysteries of contextual ambiguity—the thought-tangents that may open whole new worlds or parallel universes.

Poems written by such poets are worthy of “payment” for one’s enjoyment of them. People quite readily pay hard-earned cash for art gallery entrance fees or concert tickets when artists they value are showing their work. Could they not be encouraged to spend a little time learning the tools of poetry appreciation, which costs very little financially for something very rewarding?

Perhaps, to invite such readers to engage with all of poetry’s potential, rather than fearing it, some alternative semantics might be in order. Rather than referring to it as “difficult”, could we choose words like “challenging, intricate, profound, complex, sophisticated, rich, essential (of or relating to essence), multi-layered, nourishing, fertile, verdant, intriguing, fascinating, mysterious, stimulating…”?



et cetera