Friday, 19 May 2017

The Uneasy Chair

'How do you prepare yourself to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?'
Annie Dillard The Writing Life

The sea glitters like a mirror, the hedgerows are bursting into flower, the garden is running wild and it's time to get out there... but first a dispatch from the Lane!

Lately I've had my head down devising new creative works (book and performance) and working at the Dark Mountain depot, with a brief appearance as a heron and deep time instructor in Reading alongside my friend and co-curator Dougie Strang and his Spring Equinox ensemble. Somewhere along the way, probably with a notebook on the island of Portland (see above) I got the idea about a new teaching practice called The Uneasy Chair. Well, I say it's new but in fact I've been talking about it for a long time now. It's underpinned two Arvon courses I've run with Lucy Neal on writing collaboratively in difficult times, as well as grassroots media skill-share. You could say my whole life has been about sitting, or avoiding sitting, on this chair which is the paradox position all writers have to put themselves in in order to file good copy. You don't want to sit there of course, but you don't get the story if you don't.

Mostly you are so busy negotiating the chair you forget the deal you made when you fist made that move. Writers don't learn to write at school or university. They teach themselves from the words of dead writers who went before them. Writers devour books when they are young, and learn their trade 'on the job'. I learned to write as a young journalist with the clock ticking behind me. I realised a deadline and a word count are the best guidelines you can hope for in a topsy-turvy life and that sometimes the most unlikely people will pass you an unforgettable tip out of the blue.

And then one day you find yourself doing the same, editing pencil in hand, recommending rigour as the way to go. Or you find yourself, as I do now, with a lot of editorial experience and tricks up your sleeve, but you're no longer in that features dept. You haven't been for decades in fact, and the culture of blogging has left you metaphorically marooned in a submarine from a Tarkovsky movie, cut off from real time encounters and exchange which are the stuff of all good non-fiction work, your own voiceover echoing off the metal walls.

The Uneasy Chair is not really about teaching people to be professional writers, which god knows can be a tough and soulless way to earn your living in these days of spin and self-marketing. It is about writing as an existential practice, as a way of perceiving the world and your place in it, about putting your feet on the Earth and a crooked thing straight, about collaboration and time and imagination, and many other things besides.

Oh, and not forgetting the deal you make as a creator, which has everything to do with giving back and not much to do with having a quiet life.
The Bearers rehearsing The Night Breathes Us In, Reading, Spring Equinox

Now as the summer advances I'm keeping this practice in mind as I head out to a couple of events you might like to know about. The first one is at The Fire in the Mountain festival  in Wales with fellow Mountaineers (Dougie, Steve, Nick and Ava) where we are holding two experimental sessions within the Dark Mountain frame: 'Cafe Apocalypse - The Conversation at the End of the World' where we will discuss the latest anthology and what happens when we stop pretending everything is fine and 'Testements of Deep Time', a collaborative workshop exploring the ‘deep time’ underlying our moment-to-moment existence in industrial civilisation (with performance, song, storytelling and more).

The second is a weekend class in writing (creative non-fiction) and editing, organised by my old friend from Transition days, the musician and permaculturist Carol Hunter. She was keen to set up a practical intensive that was affordable and based in our heartland of East Anglia. So here is the low-down.

Reimagining the Future: A Writing-for-Life exploration

Do our words matter? Can the act of writing redirect the course of our lives? By activating our imaginations and speaking out, can we change the cultural stories and myths by which we live, individually and collectively?

This creative non-fiction weekend course is for all those looking to discover some key tools for navigating rocky times, from making meaning and broadening our collaboration skills, to laying down some tracks to restore the world and co-create a different kind of future.

During the course of the weekend we will explore how to listen to different voices (human and non-human), how to work with real life material, how to find our own 'medicine story', and how to sustain a writing practice in times of urgency. The weekend will include writing 'tech share' and exercises, myth telling and story-sharing, and combine group work around the fire, by the river and under trees and stars, with time for individual contemplation and writing.

Suitable for all writers who want to develop their craft, changemakers, artists, activists, designers and community workers. Bring your brilliance and your swimming costume!

Venue: The Grange, Gt Cressingham, Norfolk IP25 6NL 
Time: Friday 21st July 5pm to Sunday 23rd July 4pm
Cost: £150, including organic vegetarian food and accommodation.  
Booking: to register email
Further info: Carol Hunter

Meanwhile here is the front cover of a paperback anthology I've been co-editing for US publishers Chelsea Green with the Dark Mountain editorial crew (Nick, Dougald and Paul). Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times  is a potent mix of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artworks from ten of the Dark Mountain issues, The collection will be available from mid-August.