Monday, May 05, 2014

You have a star to follow

My first ever journalism was environmental; the novice that I was made up for inexperience with passion and dedication. Also the world was a different place back then.

My journalism career has been a long and winding one; all over the place it went as I followed my interests and strove to put food on the table. In that process through the wilderness I lost my environmental voice and perspective. I also on many occasions forgot that I was following a star (we self-trample all the ambitions we had when young, especially when students, also the promises we make never to compromise our ideals and dreams; that's life. Only some awaken before it seems too late).

I'm in a different space now: the ageing process, which I'm a great champion of, has seen me look into many mirrors...only to see my ego behind me, as opposed to the Reaper; I'd prefer to meet my reaper any day than to live on the stake of my ego.

Each day I strive to distance myself from my ego, a large part of which has most recently been achieved by the simplyfying and streamlining of my life. With self-consciousness, read enlightenment if you will, I've sought  a meaningful and experiencial way of life as opposed to cluttering my life with possessions; the route of throttling the life out of myself via materialistic accumulation.

Right now I'm in a clearing of my life's forest. Here two paths have crossed:  after a good few years of unclarity and mere struggling to survive doing what I thought I was going to do for the rest of my life, my path is taking a new direction. Although it's still unclear, except for the dappled light and a quietly bubbling passion I've discovered right here, in this particular clearing.

While I've not written anything environmental or Earth-related in two decades, I'm understanding that I have a role to play to here, a mission (but more about that another time). And while I most unexpectedly occupy a professional teaching space (for just short of a year now), and have every intention of continuing to occupy it, another of my personal-professional focuses has shifted...namely from a Journalistic focus to that of a Writing one.

My new environmental heart and my new writing heart are currently melding; my eyes are open and I'm watching this development with great, but for now neutral, interest.

In the serendipitous way that the world works, I've been introduced to the writing and philosophy of environmentalist and writer Paul Kingsnorth via a feature last month in the New York Times.

My consequent visit to his website has helped clarify this fledgling environmentalist and fledging writer's (I purposefully used fledgling twice) approach to writing,  especially where the two paths meet.

There, in his On Writing page he gives some of the best advice I've ever read about writing, which has helped me enormously. I understand that on the other side of my ego, to write is a calling. In the humblest sense.

What follows are some snippets from that page:

"Writing is not a 'career'. There is no salary, no job security, no promotion, no pension, no guarantee of work, no guarantee that anyone will ever notice what you do. Writing is a calling. If you are called, answer. Prepare for a life of intense work at curious hours, likely obscurity and regular self-doubt, punctuated by periods of wonder that somehow make it all worthwhile. If this doesn't appeal, try local government.

"Let fate and posterity be your judges. Ignore the market. Ignore the bestseller lists. Ignore the prize nominations, or lack of them. Ignore any friends or contemporaries who are making more money than you or appearing on Newsnight Review while you toil away in your garret (you'd be better off staying in the garret anyway.) All of this is easier said than done; try to do it nonetheless. You have a star to follow. Don't be distracted from it by the rise and fall of fashions or fortunes, including your own. You have no idea how valuable your work is, and you probably never will. What you can be sure of is that value is not to be measured in sales figures or notoriety, attractive as these can certainly be.

"This is the poet W. S. Merwin, writing in his poem Berryman of his youthful encounter with the older poet and the advice he received:

"I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't

"you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write"

Kingsnorth writes that when you feel like giving up, don't.

Best of all he says you should "enjoy it!"

"If you can achieve anything close to what you want to achieve with your writing, you are a lucky human being. If you can get someone to pay you for it, you are a very lucky one. Remember that the next time you can't feed yourself, and remember also that hunger is good for you – metaphorically at least. Don't allow yourself to get too full or satisfied. Stay outside, stay keen, follow your star. That's all."

As a fledgling writer past my life's halfway mark (not a single regret), I believe my obligations are the following:

1. To turn up at the page every single day;

2. To spend as much time alone and in stillness, as well as much time alone in nature as possible, because that's where I have always most clearly heard the "quiet, still voice" that guides me, that keeps me focused on my particular True North.

I have had this Gore Vidal quote stuck to the wall in front of my writing desk in Waterval Boven, Mpumalanga for most of the years that I lived there alone in silence, stillness; I took it down in January and brought it back to Cape Town with me:

"Many writers who choose to be active in the world lose not virtue but time, and that stillness without which literature cannot be made."

[The stitched photo with this post I took on Friday evening, as I passionately trawled around the city welcoming the cold front and Winter in; it's of Wembley Square, close by to where I work.

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