Developing My Creative Practice – 4

On Bearing Witness

Zero Point #1 (acrylic on canvas) Fiona Mason 2014

Zero-point energy is the lowest possible energy that a quantum mechanical system may have. In this project, Zero Point stands in for the contradiction of the chaotic void, the intense single point of energy and the enervated vacuum of grief, whatever its source. Each painting represents a different expression of that experience.

Before I began to find the words to express my experience, I moved paint around on canvas; pushing, pulling, smoothing, disrupting. I was trying to get at the thing behind, beneath, between. I was trying to see it, feel it, represent it. I was trying to rend the veil between my outer, coping, resilient social self and my inner selves who were struggling in their various ways.

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005.

Her illness was ongoing when my husband became ill. She watched his terminal journey, fearing it might foreshadow hers: the brain metastases in particular. Daily life became dominated by one form of cancer or another. I felt surrounded by things I couldn’t see, confused by the two-faced otherness and sameness of rogue cells and unable to protect those I loved from their lurking, sinister and destructive squatters.

a breast cancer cell

I found myself drawn to the form of neoplasms as things in themselves. If encountered in a more benign context, the are complex, beautiful and extraordinary natural phenomena. As viewed under electron microscopy they’re like some kind of exotic seed or marine creature.

In their final weeks and days, I sat vigil at my loved one’s bedsides, in my mind’s eye trying to see inside; to imagine what was going on at that moment, the industrious, pointless replication of cells that would ultimately wipe themselves out in the process.

The paintings were attempts to capture this experience of trying to see.

I used to think that, philosophically speaking, language was bound to miss the mark when expressing experience – that words were conceptual containers of social-historical making that inevitably constrained thought and experience by what was permitted in a given lexicon. I felt that visual art maybe did a better job of communicating what it is to be in the world. But what does an abstract painting communicate, without a label or explanation from the artist? Would a viewer look at the four images in this post and understand them as views of the same scene through different windows?

As I explored the potential of metaphor and proxy and myth and narrative I found language to be far richer and more nuanced than I’d permitted in my earlier thinking. The right words in the right order allow us to look slantwise at life, revealing experience in richer, more layered, more nuanced ways. Words, language – these are not hermetically sealed containers for experience. The myriad combinations reveal conceptual boundaries that are porous and leaky.

In Zero Point #3 above, the dark point is a throughway, a liminal threshold to another hidden space. Life and death are thus. These images are physical, visceral experience re-worked into canvas.

In 36 Hours, I want language to expand and fill-out these attempts to see. And whether it’s a painting or a text, it’s about a viewer or reader bearing witness to the microcosm of my lived experience and extrapolating this to the macrocosm of the human condition. We all die, we all grieve, we all suffer. I claim nothing unique about my losses, but my experience of them is unique to me. Maybe in sharing them, others will find validation, recognition and some comfort.

A series of blog posts about my journey through my Arts Council England Developing Your Creative Practice project.

Developing My Creative Practice – 3

On The Project

LIANG SHAOJI 梁绍基 Beds/Nature Series No.10 1993

36 Hours  is a detailed account of a man’s last day.

The man, my late husband, died at home, just short of a year after a diagnosis of lung cancer.

I began writing the book during my MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths. It didn’t emerge until the summer term of the first year of the programme. I’d skirted around the topic, writing various pieces of fiction that felt like playing in the dressing-up box. As in, they weren’t really me, the language was not quite my own voice.

It was a Sunday afternoon in late March, around the anniversary of the death. I was sitting on the sofa looking down the hallway towards the front door. Memories flooded in, I picked up my laptop, and began to write.

I was almost a bystander in the process, observing myself with interest. It was six years since my husband’s death, and it had taken that long for me to reach a point where the experience permitted itself to be written. I’m not entirely sure why, given a long habit of keeping a journal, other than this was a different approach altogether – a clear and deliberate intention to write a complete work with a strong narrative structure.

The words tumbled out with urgency, each sentence making visible an interior experience of loss that until then had been hidden.

The form emerged spontaneously: writing in the first person present tense. The effect was to drop the reader unambiguously into the scene where the day could unfold without the distancing effect of third person and back story. 

I wanted to convey the intense feeling of claustrophobia I experienced – being isolated at home as a carer, knowing what the outcome would be, but not knowing exactly when or how.

As the work progressed, the narrative began to organise itself into hourly blocks, as I worked my way through 36-hours, beginning at 6am on the Monday and ending at 6pm on the Tuesday. The effect for me was an unfolding of memory – re-living each hour in vivid detail.

I shared the opening two hours with my MA workshop group and was moved and pleased by its reception. For the first time, I felt I’d found and shared my authentic voice. The work is an intensely personal and intimate account, which might be cause for holding back when sharing with strangers. Yet it felt liberating – bearing witness to my lived experience.

I completed the work during the second year of the MA, benefitting from a weekly life-writing workshop with Blake Morrison. The feedback and suggestions helped me shape and hone the structure and bring even more authenticity to the narrator (aka me).

The therapeutic impact of life-writing has been profound. When I weighed the printed, hard-bound manuscript in my hands, my MA thesis submission, with the title printed in gold along the spine, I thought ‘There. It’s out. I don’t have to carry it around in my head anymore.’ That’s not to say that I miraculously ‘got over’ my husband’s death, but rather, that I could permit myself to set it aside when the burden was too much to carry. The book became a container for my lived experience, something I could refer to if I wanted to, like one might pull a photo album from the shelf. The act of committing memory to text allowed me to reclaim some of the interior mind-space that had previously been swallowed-up.

This is why life-writing is so interesting to me – of course, I want the work to have merit ‘as writing’, but also the processes is philosophically and therapeutically potent. It reveals something of the human condition through an account of a particular moment, allowing the reader to bear witness to the writer’s experience.

Returning to the image at the top of the post, in Chinese conceptual artist Liang Shaoji’s work ‘the silkworm symbolises generosity, and its silken thread is emblematic of human life and history. Many of his sculptures consist of objects, such as the wire cots in Beds/Nature Series No. 10, around which silkworms have spun their cocoons’. Exhibited as part of Art of Change – New Directions from China, at the Haywood Gallery in 2012. I am strongly drawn to the literal, lyrical and metaphorical possibilities of threads, spinning, weaving, and mark making as a way into untangling, unravelling and revealing lived experience. 

A series of blog posts about my journey through my Arts Council England Developing Your Creative Practice project.

Walking the Line

Walks. The body advances, while the mind flutters around it like a bird. — Jules Renard

As Lao-tzu, the great Zen sage said: ‘A journey of thousand miles begins with a single step.’ This small, but profound idea is a call to simplicity, to breaking down the big daunting tasks of life into bitesize achievable chunks, and most of all it’s a call to starting somewhere. It’s a proverb that applies equally well to walking and writing.

The walkers amongst you will understand only too well the psychology of chunking, for what big walk can be started or summit reached without the incentive of snack and drink breaks at various points along the way? Of course, there are some walkers who thrive on the chase: the race to the finish, their competitive streak setting them in motion, propelling them to the top and back at breakneck speed. Whatever the process, no walk can be completed without it first being started, without one foot being placed in front of another, and on and on.

And so it is with writing. Just as every journey starts with a single step so too does every piece of writing begin with a single word. Step after step is walking. Word after word is writing. It’s a helpful thing to remember when giving yourself a hard time for not yet having written that novel or that memoir you’ve been meaning to craft about your grandparents. Yes, it’s breaking the task down into achievable chunks, but most of all, it’s about getting started, word after word after word.

it’s about getting started, word after word after word.

But the parallels between writing and walking extend beyond the helpful metaphor of getting started.

As Ferris Jabr wrote in the New Yorker in 2014 ‘Since at least the time of peripatetic Greek philosophers, many other writers have discovered a deep, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and writing.’ Not only does walking increase the blood flow to the brain, thereby aiding thinking, it is also requires little in the way of conscious thought, allowing the mind to wander and to stroll unhindered through the labyrinth of the imagination.

In his 2009 book, The Lost Art of Walking, Geoff Nicholson talks in depth about the relationship between walking and creativity. ‘There is something about the pace of walking and the pace of thinking that goes together,’ he says. ‘Walking requires a certain amount of attention but it leaves great parts of the time open to thinking. I do believe once you get the blood flowing through the brain it does start working more creatively.’

Writing in the 1850s, Henry David Thoreau waxed lyrical about the necessity of walking and the call that beckons you to both lose and then find yourself in the wilderness, not as something separate to the natural world but as an essential part of it.

Rediscovering that connection can gift us riches of understanding and creative imagination by helping us to break through the veneer of daily habit and tap into something deeper and more profound.

In my own experience, it is the steady pace and rhythm of walking that seems to act like an Archimedes Screw, drawing thoughts and ideas from somewhere deep within and delivering them to my conscious mind, unhindered by the trappings and distractions of the everyday. I can be similarly transported whether walking in urban or natural landscapes, but what is interesting to me is the quality of the thoughts and ideas that arise.

My wilderness walking conjures ideas that are often mythic or folkloric, I think about ancestors, the traces we leave behind, human connection to landscape and place. Urban walks conjure ideas about dereliction, dystopia, what is broken, what can’t be mended. The edges between these natural and urban experiences are soft and porous, so the wildwoods can also be fearful places full of dark metaphors just as the concrete jungles can be full of heart and home.

…’take your story for a walk’. It’s great advice, as long as you don’t overburden the walk with the story.

What seems to me to be most important of all is not to approach walking with the intention of creating. The advice sometimes given to blocked writers is to ‘take your story for a walk’. It’s great advice, as long as you don’t overburden the walk with the story. Instead, feel the quality of the ground beneath your feet, watch the kestrel hover as it spies its prey, listen to the wind rushing through the trees, observe a storm front building from the west, allow your hands to brush through sun-warmed shrubs of Rosemary and Thyme, releasing clouds of hungry scent, watch the small blue butterfly swoop in Us from flower to flower, staying just ahead of you as though a natural tour guide. Walk alone or walk with companions. Talk about nothing and everything. Have moments of solitude and silence. Just be.

From that place, the great thread of the Archimedes Screw will slowly begin to deliver riches from the deep. All you have to do is to be ready to receive.