Walking the Cancer Rainbow
or If You want to Write, Play Memory Forwards
The Year Of The Ladybird is now out in paperback. You can get it here: http://tinyurl.com/p6ah33s It will soon be released in hardback in the US with the smart new title The Ghost In The Electric Blue Suit http://tinyurl.com/qhc8qap
I had a glorious walk with my family in Bradgate Park on Christmas Eve. I was so happy just to be allowed to see Christmas after my health difficulties of last year that I was maybe buoyed up by goodwill and in a fever of gratitude. We have this tradition of walking on Christmas Eve. It seems to have been forgotten in this country at any rate that Christmas begins at sundown on Christmas Eve, which is why the gift-giving happens at that time in many other countries. Even though in our family though we do the decent thing and wait until the next morning to unwraps gifts, Christmas Eve is the magical moment, perhaps because everything is suspended in a state of promise. Anyway on Christmas Eve in the deer park there was a squall of rain followed by brilliant flourish of sunshine and the most mighty rainbow I’ve seen anywhere.
There was also that heron that flew up unexpectedly. And the white hart that startled from behind the dry-stone wall.
I’ve always used walking to power my writing. So elemental a feature of my writing life is this that I couldn’t imagine not doing it. It started when I was younger and read that Dickens used to take high-speed walks throughout London in order to help him think through his novels. I thought that sounded like a good wheeze, so even though I had neither a top-hat nor a cane I seized on the idea and I found that it worked. It started with urban walking and then progressed onto the much more rewarding country walking.
I assumed that every writer did something like this. Wrong. Don’t assume, and all that. I was at a convention fairly recently when no less a cove than Brian Aldiss was asked for advice about writing. ‘Don’t go on a walk or any of that nonsense,’ he said. Well then, who am I to argue with a science-fiction grandmaster? Except that he’s horribly wrong.
He is for me, at any rate, and here’s why.
On the most basic level if you are a full-time writer you are living a sedentary life. It has to follow that as your fundament gets more shaped to the chair, your mind slows too. Yes, there are plenty of quick-witted slouches out there, but my argument is that they would be even more quick-witted if they did more exercise.
But walking takes the mind somewhere other, and it is in this other place that you tend to find the answers to what you need for your work. Let me be clear that by other place I don’t mean the historic canal tow-paths, or enchanting woods or fields of ridged and furrow. These kinds of places are merely marvelous and rewarding to walk in their own right. They deliver all kinds of geo-physical beauty and sights and natural activity such that a walk is a procession of sensual delight. But it’s not the kind of “other-placeness” I’m talking about here.
It’s true that Leicestershire, the county in which I live, just like Warwickshire, the county in which I was born, is choc-full of historical and archeological interest. You can’t get out in the country without tripping over a Bronze Age burial mound or an Iron Age fort or a Roman villa or a Saxon village or a Viking earthwork, and that’s before you even get to the Norman conquest and other new-fangled things. The British soil is abuzz with history, legend, myth and story, all of which you can encounter on a good walk if you know what to look for. But all of that psycho-geography is still not what I’m talking about.
These things are just the fabulously interesting furniture along the way.
It’s the way in which Nature can transmute into symbol or take on the luminosity of dreaming that I’m referring to. Walking for any distance becomes a kind of a meditation. After twenty minutes of changed breathing and repetitive movement the rhythms of the brain change. Alpha waves start to take over from the beta waves of general alertness. Yes, this has been measured scientifically, and there are Buddhist techniques for generating meditation-type rhythms (alpha-waves).
And when that happens a heron flies up. Or two elegant swans, without warning, fly up from the canal and relocate to the river just fifty yards away from the canal. Or a hare starts from almost between your legs. Or a kingfisher moves like an electric pulse along the length of the canal.
I’ve always been interested in auguries, which is interpreting the will of the gods by studying the flight of birds or the behaviour of animals. (Please relax: it isn’t cancer that has made me think this way. I’ve always been woo. Though you know that, having read my books.) No, I don’t think that auguries can predict what will happen. How could they? There is only what might happen. But it was the job of the augur to say whether this or that action might meet with the approval of the gods. That’s a very different thing.
The heron or the kingfisher, of course, are there whether you are present or not. They haven’t mysteriously appeared just because you have some figuring out to do. But the act of figuring them out has made you notice them in quite a different way to that which you would have done in a non-meditative state of mind. By walking without a specific destination or purpose, by walking at leisure, you have walked yourself into a corridor that exists somewhere between waking and dreaming. In that corridor the feathers of the kingfisher are a more vibrant blue, and the kingfisher himself has a more vivid meaning.
Just as with the Tarot cards the future can’t be predicted, a likely outcome, given the circumstances and the current course of action, can been seen by those with the insight and intuition to see it. It has all the scientific basis of dream interpretation, which is to say none. But it has a lot to do with wisdom, which as we know, quite often has very little to do with science.
It’s a curious and wonderful thing, this act of divination: like trying to make your memory work forwards instead of backwards.
A heron flies up, and the heron is traditionally both a messenger from the underworld and a bird of great good fortune. Make of that what you will. But as far as I was concerned, when a heron flies under a mighty arching symbol of hope, both have already delivered a wonderful Christmas that I never actually expected to see. Will it go on delivering? So long as I am able to see it.
But to get back to writing, if you have been working on a novel then your brain has been busy for so long on the subject that it will continue to work even without you knowing it. The question is, how to get to the rich mineral-ore of its workings? I’m not saying that going for a walk will deliver the resolution or the tricky plot-break of your novel. It won’t work like that. In fact I prefer to walk in company, so that I’m in conversation rather than furrowing my brow about those writing problems. It’s then that the extraordinary happens in the gaps between conversation. Without you even knowing about it, the alpha waves have generated the rainbow bridge between your conscious creative mind and your unconscious creative mind. Both the sun and the moon hang low in the sky at the same moment that you remember the future. As with divination, so with writing.
That, in writing, is what is meant by inspiration.