I am in love with stories, as is evident in my writing. Narrative is how I understand myself. By writing my story, I imprint myself on the universe. The late and wonderful Oliver Sacks wrote, ‘each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’, this narrative is us.’ Similarly, cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner states that, the ‘self is a perpetually rewritten story. In the end, we become the autobiographical narrative by which we ‘tell about’ our lives.’ We are storytellers, and we are the narratives we write, the stories we read. Philosopher J. David Velleman says, ‘we invest ourselves… but we really are the characters we invent.’ Another American philosopher, Daniel Dennett, says, ‘we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour… and we always put the best ‘faces’ on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.’ This is why I love stories, fiction or nonfiction, literary or film. We story ourselves, and we are our stories. It enlivens a divine power of creation in us all, when we are aware that we can rewrite our stories, choose how the tale unfolds, and decide how to influenced by the stories of others. This is not only a literary concept, but also one used in psychotherapy to connect the notion that self-narration is necessary for autonomy and a fulfilled human existence. Of course, not everyone shares my passion for stories, and not everyone believes that we can story ourselves. True, the ability to write your life story may not be a universal human truth, it may not apply to some cultures, some political circles, some constructions of the psychologically ‘normal.’ Above all, narratives are subjective, and the stories we tell of ourselves may not even be accurate. Despite this, there is a Narrative which is an essential part of all human beings – I say Narrative with a capital, as the universal concept that all people are disposed to experience their own life and existence in a narrative way, as a type of story or anthology of stories, and to live in and through this conception. That is not to say that even our own recollections of our stories are true, as the deliverance of memory of humans is disordered and temporal, and life is in a constant state of flux and chaos. In addition, the one fictional character we story ourselves to be is in fact a collection of characters, and it is difficult to find some control of the self or hold emotion of authorship regarding our thoughts. Philosopher Marya Schechtman states that the narrative and constituting one’s identity through self-narration is ‘implicit and unconscious’, in fact removing any feeling of autonomy from us fallible humans searching for control and meaning. Schechtman says, ‘persons experience their lives as unified wholes’ beyond the awareness as separate individuals, but maintains that ‘we constitute ourselves as persons… by developing and operating with a (mostly implicit) autobiographical narrative which acts as the lens through which we experience the world’.
John Updike said, ‘I have the persistent sensation in my life… that I am just beginning,’ and this is a line which resonates with me. I am continually evolving, a constant self-in-process, always writing and rewriting my narrative. I am always being born and reborn, each day into a new world, with new eyes and new approaches to existence. Psychologist Erik Erikson writes, ‘various selves… make up our composite Self. There are constant and often shock-like transitions between these selves… It takes, indeed, a healthy personality for the ‘I’ to be able to speak out of all these conditions in such a way that at any moment it can testify to a reasonably coherent Self.’ This is how I feel about myself – I am one but also many, and while I gather identities and concepts of who I am, I do not attempt to organise or integrate them. They are all me, they are all characters in my story. Likewise, British author W. Somerset Maugham mused, ‘I recognise that I am made up of several persons and that the person that at the moment has the upper hand will inevitably give place to another. But which is the real one? All of them or none?’ Yet even by analysing the idea that we story ourselves is dissecting our own lives, our identities, and essentially rewriting them. Perhaps we cannot dissect something without killing it – is one fictional character in my story dying at this instant? Am I searching for clues about what my unconscious self is scribing, as that elusive second author? Do I allow what other people are writing to bleed through the pages of my own narrative? I remind myself never to look for answers in someone else’s story. I will only find happiness in my own pages, written by my hand. If self-doubt approaches, I can write new words. I write what I want to feel and leave out the rest. This experience of writing my narrative demands presence, a constant engagement with myself and my activities. By way of being present only to the story I am writing, I find a way to live into it. I trust the next page, because I know it is one which I will write myself. I choose to author, and my story is written into my radiance, traced in the stars, and drawn from the magic of the universe. I do not read the past pages, as they are already written. I read only the words I write in the moment, freeing myself to know what to write next.
Regardless of whether we are fully aware of the stories we write, I have learnt the importance of trusting my voice and my narrative. Natalie Goldberg said, ‘No one will know what has passed through me… I write because there are stories that people have forgotten to tell, because I am a woman trying to stand up in my life… I write out of hurt and how to make hurt okay; how to make myself strong and come home, and it may be the only real home I’ll ever have.’ Whatever I feel should be written, and whatever I envisage could unfold on my parchment, I trust in the reason and meaning behind it. I construct an integrative narrative of my identity, selectively recalling past memories and anticipating a future to provide my life with purpose, certainty, and unity. I internalise this writing as my personal identity, an evolving life story which I continue to write until my final days. I do not know who I truly am until I understand my narrative identity – and yet I may never understand it entirely. It is the search for purpose and truth which makes life worthwhile. English philosopher Mary Midgley cites Doctor Jekyll in saying, ‘we are each not only one but also many… Some of us have to hold a meeting every time we want to do something only slightly difficult, in order to find the self who is capable of undertaking it… We spend a lot of time and ingenuity on developing ways of organising the inner crowd, securing consent among it, and arranging for it to act as a whole. Literature shows that the condition is not rare.’ By choosing the fictional character in our narrative to act in particular circumstances, we gain a better understanding of ourselves and the person we wish to become. Yet perhaps the unstoried life is the one uninhibited by memories of our past – the narrative we write only moment to moment, which is the only life which truly matters. If we write in an unpremeditated life-writing style, it affirms that self-knowledge is also knowledge of the fallibility of past memory and acceptance of self-ignorance. Memories can leave us in fragments, some ugly, trivial, confusing, or unable to be connected other than chronologically. This disconnection is found in life itself, as there is no unified existence, only fragments. Pieces of ourselves are always falling through our hands – but it is the pieces we hold on to which we can choose to write out story with. I find comfort in knowing that however confronting and disconnected the world may seem to be, when I put pen to imaginary paper and story myself, I am creating a pastiche of stories which will some day form the whole, the narrative of my life.
Anais Nin commented, ‘We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.’ I, too, see myself as multitudes of stories, mismatched pieces of paper, and a constellation of unique stars. And there is nothing wrong with that. Life is not a series of lamps arranged in symmetry to light a path with ease. It is a luminous halo, a conglomerate of galaxies engulfing us from the moment we gain consciousness until our final breath. I write to find meaning, but never to make sense. Nietzsche himself said, ‘How can man know himself? He is a dark and veiled thing; and whereas the hare has seven skins, the human being can shed seven times 70 skins and still not be able to say: ‘This is really you, this is no longer an outer shell.’’ I know I can never trap my true self on paper. It is dangerous and agonising to dissect myself in that way, to damage myself beyond healing by attempting to shape my essence into a beautiful arrangement of words in a story. It is the process of enquiry, of allowing my young soul to reflect on itself and ask what made it happy, and then formulate a plan for future chapters of this story to replicate such a state of bliss and purpose. This is the fundamental law of my true self. Self-knowledge may come to me in fragments and incoherent pieces, but the sequences of the narrative allows me to construct a life, wherein that narrative is me. My advice is to never stop writing. Start now, and write as if your life depended on it – because you truly are storying yourself with this writing. Alan Wilson Watts expressed a similar thought, ‘Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone.’ I write myself on paper. I embrace my Narrative and my essence. And through these stories, we know we are not alone. Narratives connect humanity, and somewhere in the universe, your story lights a star which will shine brightly until the end of time.
As Meghan Daum comments, ‘life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally – and sometimes maddeningly – who we are.’ Your older self may even stumble across your younger self on your travels, and you may exchange words of wisdom, acting as luminaries to each other. Dear future, you might say to your older self, you have seen me struggle, you have witnessed the pain I carry in my heart, and you have seen all sides of me. We meet here on this abandoned pathway of my soul, as I story my life on faded parchment, and you meet me with arms wide open, a gentle reflection encouraging me to say yes to life and live fearlessly, to take risks, and become the best very of myself. You are a poetic manifestation of the unloved parts of me, a eulogy to my old self, a love letter to my soul, a haiku to my unseen beauty, a manifesto to the unborn me. You remind me that, as Pema Chodron said, ‘the future is completely open, and we are writing it moment to moment.’ Leave the door open from whence you came, younger self, because that is where I came from, but open the door to the unknown into the dark, because that is where I will go. That is what I would say. This is a fictional exchange between two sides of the same protagonist in your story, a glitch in the space-time continuum of personal identity, the moment when your younger self realises it is a work in progress, and your older self reminds you that you are never finished. Any dividing line between our past and present selves is shifting, a conglomerate of impressions and memories clustering to form our present identity, yet having no part in our future. This is the fluidity of our personhood, the reassembling of ourselves on a daily basis. Neil Gaiman has been labelled one of the greatest living postmodern authors, although much like ‘fantasy’ and ‘fiction’, postmodern is difficult to define. At the core of Gaiman’s writing and his worldviews, are his stories, and the most important part of his writing is essentially his storytelling. He is not concerned with the character construction and subject of his narrative, so much as the theme and the message which binds his word together. He writes, ‘if Sandman was about one thing, it was the act of storytelling, and the possible redemptive nature of stories.’ He recognises the importance of stories to society and individuals, where narrative is the core of all existence. We create ourselves and the world by the stories we tell. This is the beauty of Gaiman’s writing and that of the postmodernists – the historiographic metafiction; its pastiche, intertextuality, metanarratives, relativity, and self-reflexiveness. There are stories about stories within stories. To understand society, we must understand the stories it tells, both the fictional and the ‘real’. We engage with these stories about the past, the world, and ourselves to better understand the meaning of existence. Even if it is only existential sense which we make of our circumstances, it allows us to thrive in life, promoting self-creation in diverse elements such as the relational ontology of self, the psychological fundamentals of creation, and the morally significant connection between our past selves and the future we endeavour to write for ourselves.
Yet in writing your narrative, in forming a connection between yourself and the world, remember to question the difference between meaning and truth. What is truth, in the land of stories? It is ephemeral, and you cannot ever know the truth of all the interwoven narratives of the world, only the truth you write for yourself. Jean Rhys in the book, Good Morning, Midnight, writes, ‘You imagine the carefully pruned, shaped thing that is presented to you is truth. That is just what it isn’t. The truth is improbable, the truth is fantastic; it’s in what you think is a distorting mirror that you see the truth.’ This resonates with me and my desire to shape my own narrative, beyond the myths of culture, politics and social anxieties. We remain on edge, in a constant state of evolution and innovation, if we question the truth we are presented with. It is in the distortions, in piecing together the fractures of the world and ourselves, that we can find our own truth. After all, what are we, if not aware of our own truth? And what are stories but a collection of words we tell ourselves? It is our responsibility to create the narrative we wish to read, and to continue creating until the end. Even then – is it truly an end? There is no real ending, just the place where at some point we must cease writing. The world is left with the stories we told, the enduring memory of the mythical self we created – and perhaps, if our words were spoken with enough conviction, the narrative which changed the way others see the world. Jess Walter writes in her novel, Beautiful Ruins, ‘All we have is the story we tell. Everything we do, every decision we make, our strength, weakness, motivation, history, and character – what we believe – none of it is real; it’s all part of the story we tell.’ I suggest otherwise. Certainly, we are narratives and our life is the journey of writing these narratives, yet this should not be reduced to the realm of the unreal and imaginary. It may be our innate creativity, our desire to evolve into a significant version of ourselves, and our complex imaginations, which allow us to form these stories, yet they are not merely fiction – they are as real as we believe them to be. By manifesting our dreams and fantasies, by writing our own myths, we can transcend the elusive unreal and engage with the world at an intimate level. The self a pastiche of identities, and we are constantly uncovering them. Anthony Doerr states in The Memory Wall, ‘You bury your childhood here and there. It waits for you, all your life, to come back and dig it up.’ We need not view our childhood with a nostalgic longing, glorifying it as a distant and better era. It need not be buried at all beneath the thousands of pages of our own narrative. The only truth I know is that there is no other truth than my own. And here is my truth – my past is not one which I have buried, it is one shard of my identity, one chapter in my own novel. The truth of the future brings meaning where I find it, and while I cannot go back in time, I can return to scenes in my memory, the places where I exist in another life. These are the immortal pages of my narrative. They are part of a tangible landscape in my mind’s eye, my shrouded memories, and I am constantly both becoming them and moving away from them. I know they exist, yet the difference between knowledge and truth is paramount. This is the foundation of the human condition, in recognising that thinking and knowing, truth and meaning, are dichotomous.
As in life, narratives are an art, the process of illumination, transforming the darkness into light. Margaret Atwood states, ‘there’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story.’ Why is it that we feel the urge to omit pieces of ourselves from our stories? Why are fiction writers always asked if the story is real? Of course it is real – in some sense, it is a palimpsest of fiction, nonfiction, a monomyth, fantasy, the imaginary, memory, our collective pasts and individual futures. I will draw on poetry here to illustrate how I engage with my own narrative, and how we can use stories from the past, present and future – from all edges of the universe – to better understand ourselves and each other. A favourite poet of mine is T. S. Eliot, in particular The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Wasteland. My adoration of poetry has allowed me to embrace literature, and in turn realise that my own narrative has limitless potential. The infamous mistress Monica Lewinsky herself referred to ‘Prufrock’ as life-changing for her. In the 1999 biography written by Andrew Morton, Monica’s Story, he mentioned how in the midst of publicly humiliation, she had ‘begun to feel fixed and formulated by the eyes of the public, the prosecutors and the media.’ This reminds me of the despairing character Prufrock, who feels ‘like a patient etherised upon a table,’ with watching eyes leaving him ‘pinned and wriggling on the wall.’ This is the feared gaze of society, and the pressure to write our narratives in conformity with the norm. By emerging with our own stories, by choosing our own truth, we can ‘dare disturb the universe,’ although tragically Prufrock was not quite so brave. He ‘measured out his life in coffee spoons,’ never daring to become Prince Hamlet and shape the future. Poetry transcends reality, it transports us beyond the meaning of words on paper, and can become a mantra for our own life, if we choose the poem which resonates with us. Damian Lanigan has deemed ‘Prufrock’ to be ‘the battle cry for legions of bookish virgins, the supreme validation of the neurotic soul.’ I beg to differ – it is a battle cry for all those who crave creation, innovation, and to build something new from nothing. This is not triumphalist, it is agonisingly personal, an exploration into the crevasse of my mind, and by some strange accident, I have universalised my story. History is not separated from my life in the present, but it is distinguishable, much like the phantasmagoria in Eliot’s beautiful writing. We need not wait, like Prufrock, ‘till human voices wake us, and we drown,’ but instead we can engage with our truth, our narrative, and allow the universe to speak to us as we define the coming pages of our future. It is worth mentioning another favourite, The Hollow Men, and its final lines – ‘this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.’ Poetry is an object for meditation upon my own narrative. My drive to continue writing with a series of ‘bangs’, never succumbing to conformity and the whimpers of what might have been. Literature whispers in my ear, it guides me, it is comfort for a restless soul, echoing its passages in my memory, transgressing boundaries of time and culture, and existing in my imagination – as I am one who disturbs and dares. When you are writing your narrative, choose to disturb the universe. Write your name in the night sky and it will illuminate the heavens for eternity. Salman Rushdie said, ‘we crave permission openly to become our secret selves.’ Do not wait for permission. Write your own story, define your truth, and live your authentic life.
I believe that every child deserves a champion. We all need someone in our corner reminding us that we have unlimited potential. Yet to me, the current education system is broken, not fostering creativity, leaving children behind, and neglecting to realise the importance of educators and teachers in bringing society forward. Civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe, and we must rebuild education to build a bridge to the future. I will never forget the two teachers who shaped my life, who ignited in me a spark and love of learning, encouraging me to become my best self, and I owe them much of what I am today. Ysenda Maxtone Graham said, ‘It does seem that it is often in those years between 8 and 13 that a tiny spark is lit by a teacher telling you or showing you something, and that if you’re lucky, that spark keeps alight and gradually becomes the glowing fire of your lifelong passion and career.’ This is the importance of educators – to light that spark. John Steinbeck similarly commented, ‘I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.’ Yet, if we teach today as we taught yesterday, will inevitably rob our youth of tomorrow. Education must involve disruption, innovation, play, passion and purpose, cutting through fear, participation in creation, embarking on the hero’s journey, and every child knowing they deserve someone who is crazy about them. Education is not about standardised testing, conformity, compliance, and linearity. Life is not linear, it does not follow a narrative course – it is obtuse and creative. We should not teach on the premise that other people know better than you do about what’s best for you. The seat of empathy is imagination, and creativity is the next step in building that capacity to imagine and implement. It is the process of having ordinal ideas that have value, of making the future and transforming the world around us simply by gaining a deeper sense of the world already within us. Are children taught the art of self-inquiry, of self-acceptance, of mindfulness and love? Or are they taught to read a book because they must, to complete their homework within the lines, and to colour the sky blue because someone told them it is? Human communities flourish with individuality, with our youth learning that they are unique, not part of a flock, and that imagination, creativity and possibility will enrich their futures.
The classroom should not be an arid wasteland of standardised learning with no impulse to grow and develop. It is about climate control, not command control, about change and adaptability, to create a culture where children learn to voice their ideas rather than fearing failure or rejection. Sir Ken Robinson, arguably one of the greatest advocates of education reform alive, mentions a historical event which I find relevant to this discussion. In Death Valley, nothing ever grew. But in the Winter of 2004, it rained. Come Spring 2005, the floor was carpeted with flowers. Death Valley was not dead after all, but dormant. There are seeds of opportunity and possibility just waiting for the right conditions. It is up to us as educators to encourage our children to blossom, to erase those seeds of doubt and latency, and allow them to bloom from the tight bud we have enclosed them in. We can be intellectual entertainers, a plethora of knowledge to share with children, to become the pulse of the class. It reaches far beyond one classroom, or one school. A passion for education, a commitment to make the world a better place, a desire to help solve these challenges, a dedication to learning, a pledge to lead fearlessly and love hard. Is it idealism? I think not. This is how we change the world. All young people out there – you were never part of the flock, and you were never meant to be. By being different, you have the ability to influence profound change, evolution, and transformation in this world. Your journey of discovery commences the day you are born, but it is up to you – and us as your supporters – to allow you to take steps forward toward your true nature, to risk how far you are willing to go. Are you the black sheep? That’s okay, too. The black sheep may be lonely and frightened at times, but it embodies the concept of expanding mindsets, creative inspiration, courage, choice, new perspectives, evolution, freedom, and difference. What is your cause, dear black sheep? Students are not data, they are humans in constant evolution, spiritual embryos and seeds of potential. Teachers are not data either, and one day when we are not in the classroom, we will remember the students who thanked us for nurturing them, and we will trust that we helped those who did not say it aloud. For some children, we are their only light.
There is an inspirational story of a woman who posed as a teacher in North Korea. Suki Kim risked her life to penetrate the constraints of the North Korean education system in a futile attempt to open the eyes of naïve male students in the process of army training. All classes where monitored, all texts prescribed, no social interaction beyond their own classmates, and no personal connections to be formed with teachers. Her quest was to teach truth and critical thinking, yet their closed-frame mindset, indoctrinated from an early age by the suffocating jaws of the government and community, prevented her from achieving her goal. The students were incapable of writing their own opinions, of thinking creativity, or acting collaboratively. Yet, one task she set weekly did reveal some dormant part of their souls, of the quashed student imagination – a personal weekly letter to a family member, which would never be sent or read, but revealed a true part of their identity, their dreams, passions and hopes for the future. Lying in wait, in those repressed youth, were seeds of magnificent potential. How heartbreaking that they will never be planted in the correct climate to foster growth. From the wasteland of oppression, these young men would live out their dreams in their imaginations only, in the secondary world, entirely independent from reality and the planet in which they could have made a difference. H. G. Wells said, ‘we all have our time machines, don’t we. Those that take us back are memories, and those that carry us forward, are dreams.’ I wish these students could have access to books that name their hearts, to knowledge which could unleash their potential and transform society. I wish I could show them that poetry is about being surprised, that they can love and live the soul of it in its wonderful abstractions. I wish I could teach Sylvia Plath, and writers who look and sound nothing like them, to be their activist, to inspire with Thomas Pynchon, Mary Shelley, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’Connor, Susan Sontag, Stephen King, J. R. R. Tolkien and everyone in between. I would tell them that maths is language. Physics is language. Language is maths. Language is physics. I would tell them the classroom is a safe space for confusion and the unknown, for being wrong, for expressing creativity, and learning to try again. I wish I could share this quote I adore, by Astrid Lindgren: ‘a childhood without books – that would be no childhood. That would be like being shut out from the enchanted place where you can go and find the rarest kind of joy.’ Then I would ensure no child is ever locked out of this enchanted imaginary realm.
There is spirituality in education and look – I am still teaching myself to live. No, you cannot attend this class of mine. These pages are my definition, not my confessions. I transform myself into a city of books, a cemetery of libraries, and I become a collective casualty of the love of learning. Like the wind will extinguish a candle flame yet excite a raging fire, reading and learning and sharing this bliss with the world is my constant education. I won the right to exist, and through my insomnia my memory becomes a map of this fight for positive difference. The scars I bear are the psyche of calligraphy, painted in my mind. Teach me more, again, I ask. I am invisible still, and only as I drum the distance between lightness of being and knowledge to share, do I return to myself. I arrive just outside my reach, but it leads me to strive for more. Emerson spectacularly said, ‘character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary.’ Education’s greatest task is to cultivate incredible souls, to allow them to be radical, and to use their intellect to the point of absurdity. Parker Palmer said that education fosters a ‘pain of disconnection,’ where teachers teach through a passion to connect, not for fame or fortune. He further said, ‘We feel deep kinship with some subject; we want to bring students into that relationship, to link them with the knowledge that is so life-giving to us.’ Yet, tragically we now have education alienating the life of the mind, removing the heart of learning, creating a command control rather than community. Spirituality in education does not obstruct learning, but encourages inquiry. The goal is not to shape students to templates by the end of their formal education, but to allow authentic connection and spirituality to open them to the truth, to any truth, and follow the path less travelled. Any path walked with integrity will lead to knowledge; there is no right or wrong, only diversity, confusion, collaboration, and paradox. Education is not about dictating the ends. Palmer says that education should truly be about, ‘examining and clarifying the inner sources of teaching and learning, ridding us of the toxins that poison our hearts and minds… An authentic spirituality of education will address the fear that so often permeates and destroys teaching and learning. It will understand that fear, not ignorance, is the enemy of learning, and that fear is what gives ignorance its power.’ We must cultivate this creativity, spirituality, and love for learning and teaching – empowering both our educators and our students, as this is how we come to know reality. Audrey Hepburn insightfully commented, ‘A quality education has the power to transform societies in a single generation, provide children with the protection they need from the hazards of poverty, labour exploitation, and disease, and give them knowledge, skills, and confidence to reach their full potential.’ To all the children and youth out there – to anyone feeling as though they have been robbed of an education: know that it is never too late. You can still be great. Live out your potential.
I am certain that teaching the liberal arts, literature and language is one of the greatest careers I could pursue, and above all it fulfils my desire to live out my purpose and contribute to society myself. I can demonstrate what is possible, what is useful, what is growing, developing, ever-changing in the world of the arts so often perceived as static and backward. Literature, to me, is the intersection of fantasy and creativity, a way to understand myself, humanity, and this world. I emotionally invest in my learning, my creative writing, and my ideas – they are parts of me, and I could never imagine any child evolving in a world without books, reading, and writing. Through it, we engage with ourselves, even through play and childhood activities, our exposure to childhood fantasy traces our earliest imaginative endeavours. Freud insightfully suggests, ‘Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or, rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him? It would be wrong to think he does not take that world seriously; on the contrary, he takes his play very seriously and he expends large amounts of emotion on it. The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real.’ Yet while the opposite of this play may be outside the secondary realm created by this fantasy, it can equally be applied to reality. By assimilating the narrative and character development into their own lives, children can learn to become autonomous beings, to experience a range of emotions, and implement both personal and social change simply through literature.
While the rise of technology certainly plays an increasingly integral role in the classroom, there are abundant opportunities to engage with literature, even online or through audio learning. Perhaps I am nostalgic for the days of paper, but I prefer reading from books. ‘Tsundoku’ is the Japanese word for the act of constantly buying books yet never reading them – my library is awash with books I collect, not with the intention of leaving them untouched of course, but because the enormity of the literature available for me to consume often overwhelms me. I crave a world in which this love for learning can spread like wildflower amongst our youth. They say Umberto Eco’s library separates its visitors into those who exclaim how large it is, over thirty thousand books in fact, and question how many he has read; and the second group who understand it is a constant learning and research tool, rather than an ego-boosting appendage. Essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his classic, The Black Swan, second I believe only to his final text, Antifragile, comments on the importance of knowing our limited knowledge. He says, ‘the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.’ Eco similarly wrote an encyclopaedia of imaginary lands, and perhaps even this act of writing illustrates humanity’s compulsion to fill knowledge gaps with concrete objects, even if they are produced entirely by our imagination. To me, the library is a collection of treasures, yet not as physical possessions, but a chest of ideas, interpretations, new realities which I have yet to uncover. This is the beauty of literature.
It is not only the beauty, however, but the enduring ability of literature to extend through generations, traverse boundaries, exhibit progressive potential, and be the greatest tool in education for today’s youth. To quote Franklin D. Roosevelt, ‘Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny. In this war, we know, books are weapons.’ Of course, this was spoken during World War Two in the context of exposing truth ‘frankly and boldly,’ and his belief that ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ However, Roosevelt recognised the importance of education – indeed, even commenting that, ‘freedom to learn is the first necessity of guaranteeing that man himself shall be self-reliant enough to be free… Such things did not need as much emphasis a generation ago, but when the clock of civilization can be turned back by burning libraries, by exiling scientists, artists, musicians, writers and teachers; by disbursing universities, and by censoring news and literature and art; an added burden, an added burden is placed on those countries where the courts of free thought and free learning still burn bright.’ This was Roosevelt in his element, speaking at an address to the National Education Association on the 30th of June 1938, a fiery advocate of learning, reading, and entirely opposed to the escalating list of banned books, censoring of literature, and repression of ‘eternal truths of the past’ by preventing educational opportunities for the free people. Even today, many countries harbour lists of banned books, yet it is this writing which should be most accessible for our younger generations. I will at least acknowledge that institutions which ban books must recognise the importance of literature in shaping worldviews, and its potential to reimagine a reformed future.
There remain those select few who champion the irrelevance of books, pushing for a post-book world, the integration of technology into all aspects of living, and an education for children without the beauty of literature. Can you imagine a world without books? An iPhone changes each year, but a book is eternal – we need these wondrous lands of fiction, or non-fiction, captured on paper to refresh our ability to learn, grow, and go forth into an unknown world. With this, we can transcend the tyranny of time and humanity itself. Our youth need stories just as they require an education – human beings need mythologies of creation, not a society which segregates science from the humanities, or forget that creating a visual representation of water on a screen is not the same as touching, experiencing, feeling real water. Might I even question whether democratic education can survive without a democratic imagination? If we are not exposed to cultures, taken to worlds we have never experienced, and permitted to engage with the power of curiosity, how can we be truly uncovering our unlimited imagination? The danger is in complacency in education, although conformity can be particularly loud in its unquestioning silence. Through education, our youth can begin to conspire towards a better future, both at a personal and societal level. They can learn to ask questions which adults cannot, that monsters may not appear in monstrous shapes, that commercialising the imagination is backwards not futuristic, and that the power of imagination is challenge authority. At a more personal level, I have learned, as Honoré de Balzac said, ‘reading brings us unknown friends.’ Whether this be affiliation with characters in a novel, or connection with other readers who share our passion, the unknown friends I have uncovered are invaluable. Literature is education, but it is so much more than that. It is the timeless medium through which we can learn about ourselves and the world.
Importantly, children must learn to enjoy their education, to not fear failure, and to discover their passions through exposure to a variety of subjects, teaching methods, educators, and literature itself. One of my favourite writers, David Foster Wallace, wrote the beautiful book Infinite Jest, which I have seen described as: ‘Impractical ramblingness + audiovisual media + drugs + characters full of trepidatious braggadocio created by a confidently unsure author + competitive sports + dystopian LOLs + addictiveness in and of itself + maths = U. S. of A.’ If a collection of words on paper can be described in such a way, I believe there is no limit to the enduring educational potential of literature. Anais Nin, in a diary entry from 1949, comments that ‘educators do all in their power to prepare you to enjoy reading after college,’ and that ‘it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar, unwilling to explore the unfamiliar.’ I believe that educators should combat this insecurity, or safety in the known, by encouraging minority literature to be read, to refute absurd comments such as ‘the death of the novel,’ and to highlight that trends in literature evolve and change over time. Artistic experimentation with learning, writing, and creativity should not be answered with hostility and suppression, but rather a salvation from death, a faceless robotic life, from boredom, from stagnation, and from self doubt. Anais Nin also notes, ‘Under the most rigid conventionality there is often an individual, a human being with original thoughts or inventive fantasy, which he does not dare expose for fear of ridicule, and this is what the writer and artist are willing to do for us.’ Is it not tragic that even our youth believe the conventional structure must be adhered to, that children cannot appreciate the joy of learning due to the expectation of conformity, and that their indispensable imaginations are held back for fear of failure and the unknown? Who knows what repercussions there might be if we repress education. Nin said, ‘If we suppress the adventure of the spirit, we will have the anarchist and the rebel, who will burst out from too narrow confines in the form of violence and crime.’ Freedom of imagination and the spirit is the only answer, and oppression will only breed eventual violent revolution, rather than a movement of creativity and wonder. Children should not learn to fear failure, and understand that feeling like a ‘failure,’ does not correlate with actually failing. Adopting a narrative of failure is a construct of society, and most people have failed thousands of times yet continue to innovate – it is the only way forward. The feeling of failure is a story, a story we tell ourselves because it is one the world tells you. Success is not the antidote, but creativity. Engagement with the learning process, with our imagination, to speak out and never be afraid to voice our authentic self – that is the cure to the fear of failure. Each person is a clean slate of potential. It is the role of education to engage with literature, with children, with a diverse range of learning opportunities, to uncover the seed within us all and allow it to grow. Teach them how to create magic, but let them wave their own wands.
I have insomnia. Rather than viewing this as a problem, I have learnt to embrace it as a part of myself, a way of exploring life to an even greater extent, and indeed tapping into my creativity at all hours. I find it useful, as a writer, to imagine worlds beyond daylight, to seek solace in the light of the moon, and to gaze at the stars when in search for words. Further, insomnia is a metaphor for engaging with life, to be awake at all times to the wonders of the world. Henry David Thoreau wrote, ‘we must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake… Only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life.’ I find this comment extraordinary, not merely in the beautiful poetics, but in the heartfelt appeal to reawaken. The imaginative terrain of writers is not exclusive – it encompasses poets, scientists, children, teachers, or any person who seeks to experiment with existence in everyday life, to extend reality to new realms of the once unthinkable. Einstein used writing to engage with science – in fact perceiving the poetics in a beam of light, and its imaginary flight led to special relativity. Parallel lines will impossibly meet when we combine the arts of existence, merging into a singular cosmic creation, where time halts and space is infinite – much like black holes, the overwhelming metaphor of how little we know or understand about this universe. This is what I ponder during my long periods of sleeplessness, as I stare at the stars and imagine the Hubble Telescope’s oracle eye shining light into the edges of all that exists, all there is to know or ever exist, and my eyes adjust to the dark. Milton and Galileo, in their blindness which so many others would view as a curse, learnt to see with other eyes. They were truly awake, illuminated and illuminating.
How do we become fully awake? How can I rejoice in my sleeplessness, when surely I am increasingly on autopilot through exhaustion, sleepwalking throughout the world in a trance of quasi-productivity? I am awake because I remain in awe at everyday miracles, I find unexpected beauty in dandelions in the street, I notice shapes in the vast expanse of clouds overhead, and I know that life is far more elusive than my dreams. This is wakefulness – to be attentive to existence, to manifest curiosity at all times, and to know that the nocturnal sanctuary of dreams is only temporary. Thoreau said, ‘to be awake is to be alive… I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavour.’ I am awake, and I do not seek mechanical aid or drugs to send me into the deepest of sleeps. While I do not suggest that insomniacs are fortunate at all, I do use my affliction as a way of reminding myself that life is fleeting, and I would rather be awake than asleep. There is a fine line between the benefits of constantly being awake, and the detriment of never resting to revitalise the body and mind. Of course I desire a more adequate balance, but since I am awake, I remember to be fully awake, to practice mindfulness in every moment. It is about finding wakeful aliveness, and by all means, sleep to recover, to rest, but do not sleep for the sake of unconsciousness. Transcend mediocrity, reach new levels of intellectual wakefulness, and with eyes wide open become a luminary of this age.
To describe insomnia to those who have never experienced it may sound harrowing, a rollercoaster of exhaustion with extreme depressive troughs and exhilarating highs of alertness and productivity. Yet to me, I merely experience a sense of ‘ongoingness’, a blending of memory, beginnings, ends, time and space. Perhaps I initially ceased to sleep in fear of my past, of the trauma which would be recounted in my nightmares, or the dread that one day I would simply never wake with the dawn to live out a new day. Perhaps my mind was over-active, I could not press the ‘shut-down’ button in my system, and would lie in bed contemplating events of the day or ideas for the future. Perhaps there is simply too much life in me, and I’d rather not waste a single moment of it. Sarah Manguso reflects that, ‘Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing,’ and in her diaries she agonises over the perception that time was escaping her, claiming ‘The trouble was that I failed to record so much. I’d write about a few moments, but the surrounding time – there was so much of it! So much apparent nothing I ignored, that I treated as empty time between the memorable moments.’ While Manguso suggests that time is not made of moments, but contains moments, I instead believe that time is an evolving series of moments, and we only perceive them as individual events with gaps in between if we are not fully awake and mindful. By practicing attentiveness, we do not stumble from moment to moment in a trance, but rather recognise the importance of the ongoingness of time, the ever-unfolding moments which formulate our existence. When we become mindful, the fullness of the moment can be appreciated. Life for me is a rolling system, where I do not fret over omissions or events I forget, but thrive in those I do remember, taking care not to lean forward too eagerly as I anticipate the next moment, rather, waiting for the one I am in to reach completion. Manguso similarly regrets her impatience with the present moment, stating, ‘All I could see in the world were beginnings and endings: moments to survive, record, and, once recorded, safely forget. I knew I was getting somewhere when I began losing interest in the beginnings and the ends of things.’ It is a largely Western affliction, I believe, to become intolerant and impatient with life. Forward momentum is important, yet not if a sacrifice of authenticity, self, and life itself is involved.
Time is stable – it will continue far beyond our existence. It is our own impermanence which should encourage us to love the moments, to record the memories, and to avoid missing each one with a chronic fear of amnesia. Perhaps my insomnia is a way of warding off amnesia, and perhaps I fear that with sleep will come loss of memory, an inability to recollect my life. Is this fear grounded? I prefer to advocate living each moment, to write my own story as I desire it to unfold, rather than focusing on the past and the fallibility of memories. Yet, while I treasure memories, I abhor photographs. There is a mnemonic violence to photography, a process of crystallisation and spectatorship, a ruination of the moment by attempting to encapsulate part of myself through shutter openings. Memories are summaries, never the real moment. The originals are irretrievable, and that is the wonder of life itself – this is why we must be awake to each moment, as no memory or photograph will ever truly recall it. I worry about reliance on photography as a self-defence mechanism against forgetting, the same as fear of mortality – perhaps even the same as my reluctance to sleep. I prefer to acknowledge indulging in some nostalgia, yet not retain the memory of my entire life as if seeking to control the sensations of its itinerary. Manguso deems it is fear that ‘in a hundred and fifty years no one alive will ever have known me. Being forgotten like that, entering that great and ongoing blank, seems more like death than death.’ I agree, yet surely that is the beauty of being awake, alive, and mindful – the ability to inhabit time differently, and ensure we are remembered through the stories we write. As Mary Oliver said, ‘attention without feeling… is merely a report.’ Wakefulness encourages us to embrace life, to live each rolling moment rather than merely observing it in a trance-like state of existence. Our brains are designed to forget, and surely this is a reminder to embrace life and dance through the beginnings and endings of moments against a backdrop of eternity. I continue, I am ongoing, and through my insomnia I find unity with existence.
Being awake constantly allows an enchanting medium to be found within the disparate realms of death, life, desire, imperfection, love, and art. I can witness the very fabric of the universe, the beauty of the cosmos supporting this blink of a human life against a backdrop of eternal darkness. Irish philosopher and poet John O’Donohue notes, ‘we live between the act of awakening and the act of surrender. Each morning we awaken to the light and the invitation to a new day in the world of time; each night we surrender to the dark to be taken to play in the world of dreams where time is no more.’ Although some of us may not experience the awake-asleep regular schedule, it is true that with the light brings an invitation to engage with life, and the act of awakening can be likened to our very birth, when we are awakened to the world in its entirety. Yet unlike sleep, the surrender to the transcendent realm of dreams, this is not the surrender of death when we finally become invisible – it is a temporary state between frailty and beauty, wherein anything is possible, but the new day will always come. Again, for some of us, sleep may not come and the surrender is unnecessary. Indeed, perhaps the time for sleep is the moment when the human soul, hungry for inspiration and beauty, can experience a homecoming, an emotional connection with the heavens.
Some may suggest this constant wakefulness leads to boredom, but I find it as an ongoing opportunity to learn, to grow, and nurture creativity. Walter Benjamin said, ‘If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.’ Apogee here I interpret as an extreme point, the point of orbit when we are farthest away from ourselves. Benjamin seems to recognise the importance of actively engaging with moments of boredom to draw forth our dreams, our experiences, and relax the mind to allow our imaginative self to emerge. The mind and body are complex entities, biologically and chemically intertwined, yet nights of sleeplessness and hallucination may suggest there is another ‘self’ waiting, dormant, if only I could uncover her. What if I leave my body during sleep, and another lost soul begin to inhabit it in my absence? What if my true self is desperate to be free of this vehicle, to explore the cosmos in the dreams which never come? So I attempt to be wholly awake and engaged at all moments, to ensure this ‘self’ I can perceive never suffers from boredom or craves sleep, but is set free in each moment, through my embrace of ongoingness.
Am I missing an essential part of living by not sleeping? What is the science behind dreams – and are they are necessity? I always believed I need not sleep to dream; that my waking dreams will foster creativity and mindful imagination, rather than an unconscious experience which I may forget. Are dreams an in-built nocturnal therapy for humans, or are they the deadly sirens’ call to slumber? Freud states that, ‘the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.’ Alain de Botton notes in ancient times ‘people believed that our dreams were full of clues about the future.’ While Anaïs Nin believes, ‘the earth is heavy and opaque without dreams.’ Are these the dreams of the night, the unconscious? Or could they also include daydreaming for creative purposes, to meditate upon existence, almost a waking REM sleep rather than the deeper trance of the unconscious? Of course, Freud’s theories have been debated extensively, particularly his premise that the symbolism of our dreams encodes our subconscious desires, usually of a sexual nature, yet there have not been many viable alternatives offered by theorists. Calvin Hall extensively recorded people’s dreams during the 1950s in an attempt to uncover the mystery and definitively counter Freud. Over fifty thousand dreams were analysed, and he viewed each as a short story, recording the setting, characters, dialogue, and plotline, in addition to details of the dreamers themselves. Hall found that many dreams did not consist of symbols and mystery, but were fairly predictable – he could forecast the narrative with some accuracy. He concluded that dreams are not a sublime realm, a surreal land in which our imagination operates at its peak, but rather they were explorations of everyday life and barely differ from our reality.
This is comforting for me, and I suggest that while night dreams may be of value, active daydreaming better engages with our creative self, allowing the most room for development. Alternatively, Ernest Hartmann suggested that dreams are form of therapy, where the ‘mind takes what is new or bothersome and blends it into what the brain already knows, making the new information seem less novel or threatening.’ Hartmann placed high value on dreams, and sleep itself, to address the traumas of life and restore emotional balance. Hence I find an entirely alternative theory which, for me in particular with my own background, suggests that sleep is a vital part of emotional recovery. Perhaps to sleep, and by chance to dream, allows my emotional subconscious to accept the trauma and allow my brain to digest it. For me, however, my history manifests as recurring nightmares, which is a hallmark of post-traumatic stress disorder. Is there a way to control my dreams? Or is my insomnia indeed a blessing in disguise? I find sanctuary in my daydreaming, my wakeful state, guiding my imagination through an exploration of myself and the world, and no solace in the darkness of my occasional dreams. On the occasion I do sleep and experience my personal dreamland, it is no adventure in wonderland. I much prefer to live with eyes wide open, and only at the end of my life will I fully embrace the eternal sleep.
I do find the concept of controlling my dreams, at least those waking dreams, appealing in the sense that it may foster creativity. Stephen King himself claims that ‘creative sleep’ is his most powerful writing tool, and notes, ‘In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.’ It involves engaging in a self-mesmerism which, as King writes, ‘produces the paradoxical alchemy of disciplining our minds into unleashing their unrestrained creative potential.’ Like King, I believe creativity and imaginative processes associated with my writing are often best explored in a creative dream-like state – although, not sleep and dreams themselves. Sleep may indeed unleash our minds into greater potential, but for me it is only a wakeful dreaming, perhaps better described as a retreat into my imagination and the repressed parts of my mind. Freud similarly believed that daydreaming is integral to creative writing, and psychologist Jerome Singer delved into greater research in the 1950s regarding the styles of daydreaming, published in his 1975 text The Inner World of Daydreaming. Singer distinguished between ‘positive constructive’ daydreaming, being a free, vivid, and wishful imaginary experience of creativity; ‘guilty-dysphoric daydreaming,’ combining personal desire, ambition, and conflicting fantasies of failure, heroism, and trauma; and the third as ‘poor attentional control’, the distracted musings of failed concentration.
Singer’s theory was developed by Scott Kaufman and Rebecca McMillan, exploring the concept that mind-wandering is essential in the creative process and personal empowerment, and exposing the paradox that daydreaming prevents us from entirely inhabiting the present moment although we engage with it so often. This is courtesy of our ‘default mode network’ (DMN), which allows the brain to be at ‘wakeful rest’ rather than focused actively on the world. Singer found that frequent daydreaming increased creativity and storytelling capacity, also positing that it developed personality, fluency, attention, divergent thought, curiosity, and problem solving ability. He labelled such people ‘happy daydreamers,’ able to assimilate their daydreaming, imagination, fantasy, and curiosity into future planning and a fulfilled mental life. Kaufman and McMillan suggest the presence of an idealised dream-state, a romanticism to the wandering of the mind, stating, ‘we mind wander, by choice or accident, because it produces tangible reward when measured against goals and aspirations that are personally meaningful.’ Yet, I must note that while daydreaming is appealing to me, as an insomniac, I also caution against living in the world of the waking dream. As Annie Dillard notes, ‘how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.’ The process of living can be distinguished from imaginative processes and the art of writing itself, as life is more than a dream. We must actively engage with the world, and remain awake to its beauty, rather than withdrawing into the imaginary. It is about balancing the two worlds – dreams allow us to unlock the creative capacity of the limitless human mind, but then we must live and evolve in order to emulate and assimilate these dreams into reality.
Sleeplessness in itself has a variety of forms for me, including daydreaming, waking, being, and mindfulness. There are philosophical challenges arising from the dichotomous default view of awake-asleep, and I have often turned to Eastern perspectives, particularly the Indian approach using Advaita Vedānta theories to assess the subjectivity of sleep. There is lucid dreamless sleeping, white dreams, diagnosed insomnia, subjective insomnia, cross-cultural dreaming practices, and various interpretations of consciousness and meditation. My engagement with the present is permitted by my constant wakefulness, and I endeavour to study how I can optimise this ongoingness in my life. Evelyn Waugh said, ‘Sometimes, I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.’ This is a problem in contemporary society, with our anxiety regarding future possibilities or the re-enactment of past events often having a parasitic impact on our ability to exist in the present. Perhaps through different states of consciousness, we can better understand how to overcome these anxieties and engage with each moment as they unfold. Evan Thompson is a cross-cultural dreaming and waking philosopher who acknowledges that ‘neuroscientists and philosophers of mind describe dreamless sleep as a blackout state in which consciousness is absent,’ and indeed this is not a new concept – Hume and Locke believed that our awareness simply disappeared during sleep.
In the Indian tradition, Advaitins and Buddhist philosophers believed that some form of awareness remains even in a deep sleep, although Nyāya philosophers (Nyaiyāyikas) state that it is entirely absent. The debate between the two schools of thought is complex and might be discussed at another time, but it is unmatched by any other philosophy. I focus on Eastern philosophy and yogic teachings to learn about intensification of my attention and awareness through meditation, which is the calming of the mind and the practice of sustained attention in the waking state. Sleep can similarly provide an opportunity for this sense of heightened awareness, by watching what occurs in sleep phenomenally as various stages including falling asleep, the hypnagogic state, dreaming, and the deeper sleep, and identifying the sense of insight we may feel during lucid dreaming. Somewhat paradoxically, there have also been benefits cited by Even Thompson regarding lucid dreamless sleep, where lucidity is ‘in being aware of the phenomenal edge or borders of the state from within sleep’. Similarly, white dreams involve the awareness that we did dream, as it leaves an impression on our subconscious, but we are unable to recall any details of the dream itself. Finally, subjective insomnia is a misperception of being awake, which Jenny Windt describes as ‘maintaining a pre-reflective awareness of ongoing sleep while mistakenly conceptualising it as a state of wakefulness.’ Is it the case that I am in fact asleep when I believe I am lying awake? Unlikely, but the possibilities and theories surrounding wakefulness, quasi-sleep patterns, and deep sleep are fascinating. Sleep science is still in its embryonic phase, and the door is wide open for philosophical discussion.
Evan Thompson is interesting, as he advocates Indian philosophy as the key to understanding the science of sleep, which has become increasingly ‘Westernised’ in my opinion. He labels the participants in current studies as ‘WEIRD’, meaning ‘Western, Educated, and from Industrialised, Rich Democracies.’ Humourous at the outset, although unfortunately true. The philosophical issues surrounding consciousness itself are far broader than American and European studies, and I believe a cross-cultural insight is required to learn more about the science of wakefulness, meditation, sleep and existence. Early writers such as William James saw the conscious state as continuous, while some Indian Buddhist philosophers view it as discrete, occurring in rhythmic pulses – hence we have two forms of consciousness, one of cognitive access and one of experience at a subjective level, or phenomenal consciousness, encompassing dreams and some meditative states. Perhaps this in itself leads to the deeper question of whether the self is an illusion or a construction – can we take a nihilistic viewpoint and suggest that the self is just a fabrication, an illusory perception of our brain itself? Indeed, even as we refer to ‘I’ and ‘me’, our sense of self shifts throughout states of consciousness, and I personally find I can almost become a different entity depending on my state of wakefulness, dreams, subjective insomnia, or dreamless sleep. Meditation is a valuable tool I will delve into in another post, to fully explore the beauty of silence and stillness, and the philosophy behind the benefits of this ancient practice. The Westernised concept of meditation is not so much focused on awareness and mental cultivation as is the tradition, and more with a brief ‘time-out’ to escape the chaos of reality. Meditation at a philosophical level involves a level of sustained attention and reflection on a chosen topic, which may be deeply complex such as the very nature of awareness, the existence of suffering, or the elusive concept of happiness.
Research into meditation and its benefits is a particular area of interest to me, and it is curious to address how Indian epistemology can inform modern theories, Buddhist logic, metaphysics, moral psychology, Chinese cognitive science, and meta-ethics theory. A discussion for another time, I believe – as I have digressed from my focus on insomnia. A final note however, is in the value I find in yoga itself. It seems paradoxical to suggest that meditation and yoga are an optimum form of wakefulness and engagement for me – in particular as they are often associated with a state of the subconscious or semi-awareness. Rather, they instil in me a particular sense of focus beyond the everyday, despite the practice itself also operating to calm overactive brains. Psychologists in cognitive therapy have found that anxiety, being future focused, can be treated with yoga and meditation as it holds us in the moment. I focus on the feel of my body as I hold an asana, and the movement of each individual breath. We cease to fret over possible outcomes and uncontrollable futures, instead cultivating mindfulness and an emotional distance from unhealthy thoughts. Indeed, advanced MRI studies have shown that after mindfulness meditation, patients have activated the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which acts to dampen worrying feelings. Simultaneously, activity increases in the anterior cingulate cortex, governing thinking and emotion, suggesting that rational thought has displaced worry. Further research shows that yoga can affect levels of GABA in the brain, which is a calming neurotransmitter linked with neuronal receptors targeted by the antianxiety benzodiazepines. Without delving into the multitude of research centres and institutions conducting similar studies, or the daily yoga and meditation practices now assimilated into psychiatric treatment, there is no doubt that for me, at least, it is highly beneficial. Of course, my insomnia itself may be my mode of meditation, even if as an originally unwanted condition. Again, I am not suggesting that no sleep is the way to live the healthiest and most engaged life. Rather, I have learnt to use it as an opportunity to practice true wakefulness, embrace this feeling of ‘ongoingness’, and ensure that no moment passes by unnoticed.
I have heard many people claim that academics and writers suffer from lack of sleep, to the point where it is an epidemic in the world of literature. Any selection of studies will suggest differing numbers of hours of sleep required for optimum functionality, although I believe it is largely dependent on the person. The important factor is finding your personal point of exhaustion, and learning to function either before or indeed beyond that point, rather than remaining at its peak. Interestingly, William James wrote about energy levels in his creative process, and learning to function without sleep. He states, ‘The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed.’ Many insomniacs may be familiar with this sensation, and we find power in a new level of consciousness – perhaps it may be likened to a dream-state, yet I find it is more than daydreaming. It is a source of energy resulting in extreme focus, a deeper stratum beyond the surface of basic concentration. I have no doubt that most people on this planet do not push to their own resources to the extremes of their capabilities. Perhaps we fear breaking beyond repair, and while this is possible, we should never forget how incredibly versatile and adaptable humans are as a species. Of course we all have up and down days, and James himself notes that, ‘on any given day that there are energies slumbering in him which the incitements of that day do not call forth, but which he might display if these were greater. Most of us feel as if a sort of cloud weighed upon us… Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake.’ On these days, we operate below our maximum potential, accepting the habit of inferiority of our true potential. There is a transformation I learn to undertake, to admit my wider potential range of wakefulness, and push the barrier of exhaustion further away, to find solace in an ephemeral level of being. William James again advocates this personal development away from self-imposed limits, stating that the transformation is a chronic one, where ‘the new level of energy becomes permanent,’ and we have uncorked ‘human nature’s reserves of power.’
My point is that the challenge of exhaustion may be entirely a matter of perception, a creation of our smaller self which can indeed be broken, allowing us to transcend our pre-conceived notions of our limits. James states, ‘Despair lames most people, but it wakes others fully up. Every siege or shipwreck or polar expedition brings out some hero who keeps the whole company in heart.’ I may have digressed from my original point that insomnia may be a blessing, but I am attempting to apply the principal of being constantly awake to the idea that exhaustion, in turn, has an unnecessary taboo attached to it. For in experiencing exhaustion, often in the form of difficulty and despair, we can question our own limits. Carl Sagan memorably said, ‘try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours,’ and similarly William James said of our own minds: ‘One thing that ideas do is to contradict other ideas and keep us from believing them… Our philosophic and religious development proceeds thus by credulities, negations, and the negating of negations.’ My point here is that, merely because you have a hypothesis that your optimum functionality is with eight hours of sleep at a given time, or that daydreaming is for the directionless, it may be worth questioning your own will – conversions of the self will permit your energies to be set free. Waking, being, and dreaming are all the necessities of life, but is this routine you have formulated your only way of existing? Or is it a self-imposed limit, which you can reshape simply by changing your mind? Question yourself and these limits, and perhaps you will find a far greater capacity for power, creativity, imagination and human potential within your soul than you ever believed possible.
Neil Gaiman, legendary storyteller of the contemporary world, states that stories ‘are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.’ This is a train of thought I have often advocated in my own writing. Writing allows us to open the door to creativity, and in the process, to create ourselves. Stories, like humans, are a life-form which follow the same fundamentals of genesis, recreation, and survival. Life includes the capacity for growth and ongoing change until the very moment of death, which in essence is the same life which stories live out. Stories mature, grow, change, and reproduce with the use of people as vectors. They inspire other stories, and if these in turn can reproduce, then the story itself will never die. Is this not the same as our own human spirit? The gene for the soul? Escapist fiction is a magical form of writing, and only our creative selves can fully engage with and appreciate it. Susan Sontag mused that, ‘writing is a little door… some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.’ This suggests that writing can never fully capture our imagination and creative self, at least on paper. Yet by expressing this creativity, and endeavouring to bring stories to life, we are creating ourselves – and this is a door which is always open. Good stories change a person, just as people can change stories and themselves. There is a difference, of course, between stories and books. Writing takes the form of a book, eventually, but it is the metaphorical writing of our creative self which can transform existence. Books are only one mechanism in which stories are stored; people are the other.
We are vessels of stories, time capsules of memories, a pastiche of written words which can never be encapsulated on a page. Alone, as individuals, we are one self, vulnerable and exposed. With the accumulation of human knowledge through stories and processes of information transferred over millennia, we can connect the dots. Life is not about collecting the dots, but connecting them. At the end of life, what matters is not how many dots you store in your repertoire, but how many of them you managed to connect – to form your true self, and to contribute to your fleeting moment of existence in the universe. Creativity does not necessitate fiction, although I believe that fiction allows us to look at the world through the lens of a secondary, imaginary world. Even in this non-existent realm, we are reminded that we exist as part of a web of stories, each one informing the next, just as we are all connected as human beings in our existential search for self and meaning. There is a symbiotic relationship between us and our stories, and we are the byproduct of stories we both read and breed. Neil Gaiman further comments, ‘it’s the stories that are the life-form — they are older than us, they are smarter than us, they keep going.’ Yet they need humans to survive and reproduce, and they continue to give back across generations. We use stories to become more than one person, to become any person. Through our stories we communicate essential values and attitudes of the current cultural, political, religious, philosophical, and ethical climate. They allow us to advance.
Stories are the genes of the soul, and writing allows us to form a sense of belonging, to inhabit our own identity. However, this quest for creativity and creating the self should not be chased to the point of unhappiness. French writer Amin Maalouf explores the ambiguous creation of personhood, critiquing the commonalities of human experience and our fears of the divisive Otherness in culture. We have multiple identities, and seeking to create one through stories and writing is a nihilistic endeavour. He suggests we have many allegiances, all equally strong, and all components of our personality – individually, they may exist in many people, but the specific collection is entirely unique. As we create, as we change our stories, as we formulate our own myths, our personal identity undergoes an enigmatic evolution, which is the mystery of connection between our present self and our childhood self – we are the same person, a spiritual embryo. Maalouf calls it the crucible of our identity, stating that a person ‘is not himself from the outset; nor does he just ‘grow aware’ of what he is; he becomes what he is. He doesn’t merely ‘grow aware’ of his identity; he acquires it step by step.’ I ponder whether this is a simple acquisition which occurs inevitably, just as an egg in boiling water will cook even if we pray it never does, or whether it must be an active process of creation. I would like to think that by engaging with my imagination and creative self, I can choose the myth I unravel and the words I write. My identity is tightly stretched pattern on parchment, to touch just one part of it will send a ripple effect across my entire being. I am not an assemblage of separate parts or a mismatched patchwork quilt, but rather a complete whole. Linking the concept of engaging with self and connecting with the world, Maalouf also notes, ‘I no more believe in simplistic solutions than I do in simplistic identities. The world is a complex machine that can’t be dismantled with a screwdriver. But that shouldn’t prevent us from observing, from trying to understand, from discussing, and sometimes suggesting a subject for reflection.’
Further, we have a sense that it is our obligation to create an identity, to tell a story worth sharing and remembering, and perhaps this places undue pressure on us as growing, evolving souls. Of course we have the capacity to create, but we must never confuse our acts – what we do, for our essence – what we truly are. The blind pursuit of creativity may indeed be damaging to our inner self, leading us to manufacture identities founded on mythical aspirations, rather than stories we choose to write. We may be subconsciously affecting our happiness simply by adhering to modern myths of identity creation which do not permit a conflicted concept of identity. Jerome Bruner muses over the myth of identity and creation, defining myth as, ‘at once an external reality and the resonance of the internal vicissitudes of man.’ Yet he advises against confusing ‘the grammar of experience and the grammar of myth,’ as they are complementary, not opposing. Myth is a projection, much like the stories we write and share. We externalise our myths to engage with the external world and better understand our internal self. These myths represent a pre-written narrative, a cast of protagonists with set identities. Only by writing our own, by creating an imaginary realm wherein our personal stories can be written, will be find our true self. It is the internal clash of identities, our own stories and those of others, which can threaten our happiness and ability to express ourselves creatively.
I suggest that our society is indeed no longer shaped around traditional myths of good, evil, religion, culture and politics, but rather a plethora of realities, a conglomerate of the stories we share, write and rewrite. There is an idealisation of creative wholeness, yet this wholeness is never truly attained – and why should it be? The process of creation, like the stores we write, is ongoing. As humans, we continuously evolve and wholeness is a Sisyphean endeavour. Perhaps we can create a myth and emulate it spontaneously, like some historical literary characters. However, I prefer to think that we are ageless, endless, and always creating, each of us with our own unique capacity to express our imaginations creatively. Bruner comments that, ‘It is as if, given the demise of the myths of creation and their replacement by a scientific cosmogony that for all its formal beauty lacks metaphoric force, the theme of creating becomes internalized, creating anguish rather than, as in the externalized myths, providing a basis for psychic relief and sharing… All that is certain is that we live in a period of mythic confusion that may provide the occasion for a new growth of myth, myth more suitable for our times.’ I wonder whether we are all in a state of confusion, as Bruner suggests. Or perhaps it is only some of us who seek wholeness and lack the desire to continually evolve. For me, and hopefully for you, there is no state of mythic confusion, but a series of moments which shape who we become. Life is a constant journey into uncertainty, and we cannot see the future even as we write our stories and imagine a secondary world for our characters. We settle into the fog, not confined to a mental prison, but adventuring fearlessly on our narratives, not attempting to be the marionette, but engaging with the moments which define us and leave our legacy in writing.
In contrast, Parker Palmer advocates the opposite – that we as humans should all seek wholeness, to wilfully pursue a story rather than write our own, to let your life speak rather than ignoring our calling, which may indeed be an act of violence towards our true self. Palmer says, ‘the life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me,’ and that ‘before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.’ I find this concept perplexing – perhaps I see a conflict between waiting to see if your life will ever actively speak to you, and engaging with the world to create your own life and tell yourself which story you will write. While I would never adhere to ideas of what I am ‘supposed’ to do with values, attitudes, philosophy and my own story, and do not support a form of moralism which reduces an ethical life to a check-list, I would similarly never wait for life to speak to me. I will honour the truth of my self, but perhaps I must create this self in order to even discover its truth. Palmer does seem to touch on this, however, stating that, ‘I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live – but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.’ Who knows how or when, if ever, our life might speak to us, if we do not speak to it first. I must choose to love all of myself, my strengths and my shadows, to gather information about my human soul and choose how to respond to what I learn. Palmer uses the metaphor of a wild animal: ‘The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.’ This creates a beautiful image of the search for the self, but if it were me, I would rather crash through the wilderness, stampeding my own path, and choose my own journey while accepting that my identity is not a wild, mythical creature – it is a constant creation. I set my own limits and boundaries, and I define who I am. I do not live in a space of whispers and waiting, of validation and approval. I exist in my creativity, my authenticity, the stories I conjure and the words I write. As T. F. Hodge said, ‘the sky is not my limit… I am.’ I choose to be limitless.
As a writer, as the Author of this life, I must choose the pen which speaks to me – it begins as a test, to see what kind of writer I am. When I finally choose the writing device which resonates with my heart, the time has come to take on the most important role in both the imaginary worlds and the real – to release myself from the trap of the pages, and use the pen to write my story in the sky. Quill and ink can only recall the story it has created, and the memories cannot be adjusted. We write a new world to rewire a past I would rather not remember, to write a new one where I can become the hero by the end, while assessing the true meaning of the fairytale words ‘the end’. Neil Gaiman said, ‘As a storyteller I keep craving shape. I want to give things shape. I want to make things feel like they make sense. Which is, of course, the beautiful illusion of fiction, that everything makes sense and that there was a purpose, that there was a point to it all. And that’s the best possible lie because it may even be true.’ Perhaps nothing is a lie, though, and instead what we believe can indeed become true, in the ceaseless creation of our mythic selves. In our hyper-rational world, it sounds wishful to say that sometimes we must believe it in order to see it, rather than the reverse. What if our goal is to see the world as it could be, rather than as it is? It is impossible to innovate in this world or our own lives if we stand with folded arms and are reluctant to grow. The art of the possible is the essence of fertilising the human imagination. This impulse to create meaning from nothing, to build something new, often begins in a tunnel of silence, and each piece of writing breaks this silence with a new song.
The role of mapping our own narratives translates to a broader responsibility as writers to remind society that art is a form of truth, and that we can make contemporary language the equivalent of contemporary fact. The poet Adrienne Rich writes that, ‘our past is seeded in our present and is trying to become our future,’ yet that in our increasingly troubled society, there is the problem of ‘unnamed harm to human relationships, the blockage of inquiry, the oblique contempt with which we are depicted to ourselves and to others, in prevailing image making; a malnourishment that extends from the body to the imagination itself.’ In our capitalist, consumerist society, the freedom of writing and creating a mythic self, an imaginary world and projecting this utopia into reality, is feared and demonised, resulting in contempt and self-contempt. The world seeks to stifle this creativity, to reduce, not expand, humanity’s intellect, expressiveness, and authentic rebellion through creation. The relative creative freedom of any writer now depends on the condition of society and current worldviews. But what if we could transcend this? To quote Rich again, ‘For what are we, anyway, at our best, but one small, persistent cluster in a greater ferment of human activity – still and forever turning toward, tuned for, the possible, the unrealized and irrepressible design?’ This is what we search for as writers, creators of our own myths and narratives – the power and freedom through forming, shaping, telling and naming the as yet unimaginable. By removing ourselves from the noise of society, by studying the silence, we can realise that is missing both in ourselves and culture, that which has been rendered unspeakable or unthinkable. Writing makes its way through these invisible holes, for the authentic whispers of ourselves, for the repressed, for the disempowered, the fearful, the rebels, the revolutionaries. The question we ask in poetry, for instance, as Rich comments, is ‘what kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?’ I have learned not to be afraid of the silence, or the voices which emerge from it – only to have the courage to write my stories and create the fantasy worlds within which my mythic self can thrive.
As Elizabeth Gilbert asks in her manifesto on creativity, ‘Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?’ Courage is not the absence of fear, I must always remind myself – it is instead acting in the face of fear, vulnerability, and doubt. This is the power of possibility, the progressive potential of writing our own narratives, and its pursuit is a lifelong commitment to creating a story within which we can thrive and develop. The mythic self requires courage to pursue, to go on the hunt for the words which resonate with your narrative. It is the journey, where we are Joseph Campbell’s hero of a thousand faces, all diffused into one essence, which is creative living. It is being brave enough to realise our own capacities, to live beyond the limits of culture, society, politics, religion, and the escalating violence of reality, to shape a vision of a future we can enact in our story and in the lives of others. This is why above all I do not emphasise teaching how to write, but rather why to write – because composing your own symphony of words, your own story and self, is the joy of living. Fear is a barren wasteland, a boneyard where our dreams a scorched and desiccated under the fires of doubt. Writing, becoming, evolving, daring to enact a reality we may have believed was a myth, that is courage.
This life is loud. It is amplified. It is expanded beyond possibility. Fear and doubt have one volume, and only chant one word; their song is unchanging and those dangerous sirens draw us away from our potential. We must realise that while our story may not matter to others, it is part of a web of narratives shaping who we are and what the world can become. I am not suggesting we need not be afraid on our path to create our mythic self – indeed, fearless people are few and far between. Fear is part of survival, and necessary to ensure we continue to thrive. As Elizabeth Gilbert writes of nature, ‘If you pass your hand over a petri dish containing a tadpole, the tadpole will flinch beneath your shadow. That tadpole cannot write poetry, and it cannot sing, and it will never know love or jealousy or triumph, and it has a brain the size of a punctuation mark, but it damn sure knows how to be afraid of the unknown.’ Like Gilbert, I am a tireless advocate of overcoming fear of the unknown. I believe the bravery to journey into the unknown, to conjure from silence and existential questioning a narrative of our mythic self which we can project into reality, that is truly living. Amanda Palmer, in her ode for the creative life, writes, ‘when you’re an artist, nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand.’ The creation of your self is up to you. The pen with which you choose to write your story is waiting, a reflection of your true self, and as you hold it as the Author, it will illuminate the paper with your words.
Ps. As part of my Master of Teaching degree, I’ve started another blog on ICT in the classroom – weekly updates. Feel free to visit here: www.missbrittlit.edublogs.org
I do not think that surviving life unscathed is a sign of strength. Like the crashing sea smooths the stone, the difficulties in life strive to make us soft and strip us of who we are. No, our damage is evidence we stood against the tide, and found the courage and resilience to go on living. Listen to me, my dear readers, your body is not a temple. Temples can be destroyed and desecrated. Your body is a forest – thick canopies of maple trees and sweet scented wildflowers sprouting in the underwood. You will grow back, over and over, no matter how badly you are devastated. Our feelings are manageable and mentionable. Let your heart sing its bleeding song to the world, and I hope we can elevate ourselves above the stigma long enough to hear you, and help you. You are beautiful, you are raw, you are a unique combination of fifty trillion cells and you have something left to give. Speak up, silent soldiers. I will hear your call. I wish for them a rigor samsa, a psychological exoskeleton to protect them from pain and anxiety – yet in its skeletal form, it will crack over time or from inner pressure. It may grow back, time and time again, until it develops into a mature emotional structure, supported by a strong spine, a fortress, rather than a cluster of flimsy treehouses. One day, soon, I’ll emerge, with my silky wings ready for flight. For now, my pomegranate-stained lips smile, as I play along in this dance of words across the fine lines of invisible rules. Because I have no choice but to be. Me.
Is anger passion? Can I be passionately angry in advocating a cause? I am angry about the unison of voices questioning their inner beauty. About the young adults relegated to ask a faceless entity without a soul or eyes to place a numerical value on their worth. About the girls learning self-harm, cowardice, doubt, donning masks, and hiding behind protective superhero capes in futile efforts to alter the foundation of their being. Of placing aesthetics above the mind. Valuing a pout more than intelligence. Instagramming thigh gaps more than feminine curves. The body is a child, a vehicle for your eternal self, and it must be trained, fed and loved like any child. I am angry that mental health is stigmatised. Ten thousand girls per month ask Google ‘am I ugly?’ One in ten children in Australia, as young as age four in some cases, have mental health struggles, which include self-harm, anxiety, depression and eating disorders. The average age a child begins dieting now is eleven. One of every ten of these children is male. Eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness in young females, and anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. The average duration is seven years. Those who recover are unlikely to return to normal health. Within the past year, 560,000 children have experienced some mental health disorder, and one in thirteen children between the ages of twelve and seventeen will contemplate suicide. One in twenty confess they have chosen where and how they will perform the act
How can there be stigma surrounding such a prevalent illness, particularly in children? What drives these playful souls, in the most idyllic time of their lives, to such inner turmoil? How are children’s emotions socialised in our culture – how does the cognitive construction of their self-in-process become so lost? How I wish these girls could see their true reflection, not stare in smudged mirrors and fall through the looking class of communal condemnation. I miss their smiles – the real smiles, the full laughter, not the frightening smiling clown dancing for the parade, whose bright red lips droop when they turn away. If you have a broken leg, you never would continue to walk on it. Would you tape it together yourself and hobble on in pain and silence? Why do we expect people to speak out about their broken legs, but never their broken minds? These damaged souls tape themselves back together and carry on, the suffering warriors, afraid to be judged if they can’t fix it themselves. I remember the wise words of Thich Nhat Hanh: ‘To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.’
Who is the person in the shattered mirror? What do those glass fragments say about your life? Even in pieces, know that you are enough and you matter. Nobody knows me like my body does – she should be my best friend. When I look at her from my heart, I realise she is not flawed, ugly or incomplete. I see her from my heart, and gradually my distorted image becomes clearer – I look with my eyes now, and I see myself as I am. Whole, enough. She has been with me through everything, and she is the only home I have to live in. Ignore the implicit and explicit messages ingrained in society that beauty is the most important attribute young girls should strive for. Our media culture denigrates women who fail to meet beauty standards, it turns women on each other, and allows men to offer evaluative commentary on appearance. This chronic emphasis on beauty directs young people away from the more important purpose of life. This beauty sickness prevents women from changing the world, as they spend countless hours at pains in front of a mirror. Self-objectification means holding this mirror between yourself and the real world, never truly engaging with life. Daniella LaPorte, blazing a trail for self-love, said, ‘Love your face the way it is. You don’t have to paint it and stuff it. You can have an empire without commoditizing your body. Rock your sexy – for-fucking-sure, it’s part of your power and your whole package – but you are the opinions and ideas that you bring to the table. You are the love and the energy that fills the room when you enter it. You are the strength of femininity, which is all about inclusivity – and discernment.’
Your body is your tool for exploring the world. Use it. How is it that only 2% of women find themselves beautiful? Collectively, we must be aware of the images we share with the world – the body is not a marketing tool for Instagram or Twitter; it is your home. The vehicle which carries your unique soul on this journey. ‘Selfies’ are no longer authentic expressions of self-love, but exaggerations and reflections of desperation. Despite good intentions, the media perpetuates a culture of body dysmorphia. It requires awareness, action and empathy to instigate change. Redefine this global vision of beauty – become your own model, and role model. Validation and self-worth comes from within, not out there. Reclaim your body and image as your own, and do not relinquish these rights to someone else. Express yourself as who you are, not who you are not. Practice wabi-sabi – find your magnificence in your unique imperfections. You don’t need to find your life in Japan to be recognised for the wabi-sabi, as more than damaged. See your beauty and know your magnificence. Claim your wabi-sabi.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is a disease infecting 1% of our world’s population. It is otherwise known as ‘imagined ugliness.’ These people see themselves as grotesque, regardless of the reality, and the mirror is the worst enemy. BDD will often lead to other disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, social anxiety, depression, or obsessive compulsive disorder, and many sufferers resort to alcohol and drug use to blur the detested reflection in the mirror or dull the voices of hate in their minds. Sadly, BDD may result in severe eating disorders which truly do morph the external beauty of the body, leading to an endless cycle of self-hatred. While I am a staunch believer that beauty is in the heart and the mind, not the body, I know that an aesthetically beautiful person can become ‘ugly’ in the conventional sense of the word through extreme health issues. An understanding of this problem can be gained in Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, where Dorian became obsessed with beauty and youth, afraid of human flaws in appearance, of the inevitable process of ageing. His hedonistic outlook was all-consuming, and he sold his own soul to ensure that a painting of himself, rather than he, would grow old. It is only in his increasingly hideous portrait that his amoral existence and soul-destroying sins are recorded. The mirror consumed him, and was ultimately his downfall.
I believe there is a tendency for all people to seek beauty, and further, a tendency to believe it is only in appearances. The poet Keats wrote, ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on Earth and all ye need to know.’ But really, what is true? How do we define the ‘truth’ of beauty? The only truth is that which you choose for yourself. The only beauty which matters is that you are beautiful in your own unique way, that you realise you matter, and strive to become the best version of yourself. I am on my own journey, and I endeavour to continue to both discover and reveal my beauty, on my own terms. I awaken my heart to my unlimited potential, the gifts I have to give, and my struggle treasures beauty as a fragile ornament deep in my heart, beyond superficial glamour and romance, past shallow interpretations. My true beauty is the voice of my soul, the infinite pulse of my heart which longs to create a masterpiece from the threads of my life, the fractured imprints of various identities and stories I desire to write. My new perspective of beauty allows me to realise my potential, to alter my self-portrait, and set myself free. It is a calling I have answered, to unite myself with the world. Will you answer it now, with me?
Rumi said, ‘Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.’ What is the invisible hand holding us back from writing our own story? It is only ourselves. Young adults want to know how to be happy with themselves, not what to wear to suit their body shape. This is the radical self-love revolution, and I can campaign to instigate this movement as I have been on the flip side of the coin – of radical self-hatred. The toughest person in the room is the one who loves with their whole being, relentlessly, to find the truth of this worldly experience, without any conditions – loving themselves and others as they are. So you can dance like nobody’s watching. Remember that no matter what people call you, there is no truth other than what you allow to be true. Marie Elia writes, ‘What people call you shapes how you see yourself, and teaches you how to navigate the world. But the moment you name something, you limit the possibilities of what it can be.’ This was long a problem of mine – allowing others to label me, to name me, and thus to restrict my authenticity, my potential for growth. If we listen to these names, these expectations and societal norms, we will never truly blossom into the unlimited potential lying dormant in our souls. Only the name you call yourself matters, and even that name can be rewritten. Use your own myth to determine your world. As the talented Neil Gaiman wrote, ‘Myths are the waves we use to make sense of the world and the waves we use to make sense of the world become the modern myths.’ How you define your world defines your own mythology. You need not follow the faith or stories of any other being than your own.
Refuse to be defined by society’s myths. Choose only your own myth – yet do not let it waste away as a script of history; act on the myth if you wish it to be real. Myth might be beautiful momentarily. But beneath the haze of surrealism and the sublime, it is nothing more than a myth. A fairytale, a charade of reality, always one step removed. If you could live forever, would you want to? Do you live in dreams or move forward with open eyes? What makes you a hero? What is your future in one word, one image? Just as I refuse to allow widely accepted myths to define me, I strive to eradicate the chameleon, to find the true colours of my soul. To be comfortable in one skin, to burn the masks, to love my own face even if reflected in shattered glass. Life rushes through us like the blade of a guillotine; our pulse is percussion and our blood is music; our monstrosities are beautiful as the archangel may sometimes be the centaur; I breathe a violet ethereal over the dusk of our memories. I choose to paint my own picture – it is no virtual playground, and I am no myth. Write your own story, and decide on your own name. Naming is powerful, it can be a gift or a burden. Embrace your inner infinity, and do not settle for names. As Joseph Campbell writes, ‘Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning.’ Ask yourself today – what meaning are you bringing to your one precious life?
My advice? Embark on a psychological kintsukuroi. Glue yourself back together with liquid gold, and see how beautiful you truly are. Practice self-love – keep a journal and write down everything you love about yourself daily. Your radical self-love manifesto will liberate your soul, and allow you to say yes to the adventure of life. When I embraced myself, all that I am, I finally saw the true ‘me’. Who was that girl in the mirror looking back at me? I hardly recognised her, as at last I saw myself for what I was, I saw the beauty and the light rather than only the dark. As in the ‘true mirror,’ when two mirrors reflect back at each other, you never look at yourself. You look for yourself. The mirrors reach to infinity; you are limitless as you search for yourself. Confusion and interruption, layers of history and myths, of truths and mystery, a pastiche of your identity. Your angle determines your outlook, but if you gaze closely, you will see the markings of a masterpiece. It never ends, nor does it begin. Your reflection and your essence, all-encompassing and whole.
There is an old tale wherein a Cherokee teaches his grandson about the struggles of the self in life. He says, ‘a fight is within me. It is a terrible battle between two wolves. One is evil, filled with anger, regret, green, arrogance, self-pity, lies, ego, and resentment. But the other is good, and he is joy, hope, kindness, love, truth, compassion, and faith.’ The grandson asked, ‘which wolf will win?’ And the old Cherokee replied, ‘the one you feed.’ From this fable, it is important to realise that we all have this battle raging within us, and both sides of our selves form our identity – yet it is our responsibility to decide which parts we let shine. Hiding is a progressive act. The moment we realise we are different is the moment we attempt to conform, and this eventually strengthens the evil wolf. Our silence has life or death repercussions – accepting yourself and living within an accepting community will improve life expectancy simply by feeding the good wolf. Further, never let the evil and its negative voice impact you. As Charles Bukowski states, simply ‘drink from the well of your self and begin again.’ When your self-concept is questioned, threat defense syndrome leads you to attack yourself. Choose authenticity, your own truth, and feed the good wolf.
Not sharing who you are, your good qualities, your hopes and dreams and radiance, contributes to atmospheres of discrimination and even has social consequences. Don’t be afraid. There are more frightening wolves on the inside than the outside. Explore and embrace yourself. You can hibernate, and hide your true self. You can adapt, which may lead to conformity and masking your authenticity. Or you can migrate. Move to an environment which supports you, where you can grow and thrive. Even if this is an internal relocation, not external. It’s okay to struggle with yourself, but it’s also okay to show all sides of yourself. It’s okay to be different, and to fight for it. This is the battle for your soul. It is heroic. It comes with extraordinary power and responsibility. Reveal everything there is about yourself, and let the chips fall where they may. Tell me your story. Do not mute your colours or dim your light because another has sensitive eyes. Do not lose your flavour or dull your spice because another palate needs a different taste. Do not dilute your soul or water down your essence simply because another has no thirst for that drink. Do not calm your waves because another seeks shelter from your storm. Do not remain in silence or censor your speech because another has no appetite for your words. Do no subdue your love, your passion, your fire, simply because another cannot handle the heat. Never let anybody diminish you or reduce you. And while you are handing out pieces of your heart to those who deserve you, don’t forget yourself.
Ralph Ellison wrote in The Invisible Man, ‘I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.’ This is the problem with contemporary society. We see things as we are, not as they are. If we took a moment to step back and observe life, appreciate individuals, and understand their essence, we would no longer be an alienated, faceless conglomerate of invisible people wandering through the world without connection or meaning. By choosing to become visible, we choose our own narrative and claim our voice, a radical affirmation of the self, a yoking of our higher awareness to our beasts and to each other. There are choices that we make which define us, and there are moments we hope never will. Focus on those choices, and realise that what you want to be, you already are. Do not justify new scars simply because you love the person holding the knife. Yet accept that, to reach this point of acceptance, perhaps we must break apart.
To know the truth strength of things, sometimes we need to break them and test them, stretch them to the corners of the universe and see if it can reform. The common phrase, ‘don’t touch it, you might break it,’ is of course the opposite of the oftentimes equally true statement, ‘touch it, you can make it better.’ Is it better to fear change, to avoid impact due to the anxiety we will break? Or is it better to touch it, to engage with yourself and your anxieties, with the knowledge that only by touch and change can it become better. Of course we are scared of visibility, of revealing our true selves, of writing our own myths, paralysed with the fear we may not be good enough or beautiful enough or whole enough just as we are. Don’t tell me you are scared. Show me your heart climbing from your chest, the trace of cold sweat on your brow, what the darkness of fear tastes like when you are forced to swallow it, and what the breeze is murmuring in Sanskrit through the trees, while the sunlight feasts on your skin. Then, when you are truly exposed and broken open, tell me who you are.
This is the concept of being ‘antifragile,’ in which I so strongly believe. I am taking the ingenious term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Like the esteemed Taleb, I believe that resilience is not an appropriate term for those rare people who in fact gain from disorder, chaos, and adversity – who become stronger throughout trials, rather than remaining the same. Resilient implies that you can withstand adversity, but antifragility is improvement as a result of this adversity. To be antifragile requires me to be in a continual state of growth, of becoming better, responding to threats, unexpected tribulations and challenges with strength and emerging as a more complete, even better human being. My aim is to approach life with antifragile attitudes, to remain strong within my own essence, to believe in my authenticity, and become greater even in the midst of chaos and hardship. From this, I will forge my ideal life. I will shape meaning from these tests, and I will become an even more incredible version of myself than I ever imagined possible. My vision is for all of you, my readers, to share in this concept. All of you, no matter where you have come from, or what you have been through, know that you can be great. Not only that, but your past does not define you – it refines you, and an antifragile response to the twists in your journey will shape your eternal self. I must be the mythological Hydra – who in fact becomes more powerful through battle. Chop off one head, and two will grow in its place. If anguish, fear, anxiety, society, or judgment threaten to render us headless and invisible, respond with dedication and determination, solidify your identity by growing back stronger. And somewhere through the turmoil, you will come to appreciate the term kairosclerosis, the moment you realise you are happy, and savour the feeling, analyse it, put it in context, and preserve this state of being. ‘Kairos’ means the opportune moment, and ‘sclerosis’ means hardening. Karois, to the ancient Greeks, was a qualitative version of time, referring to indeterminate and sublime moments, when a door is left open between one minute and the next. Harden your shell, savour the opportune moment to build your identity, and rejoice in your conscious choice to become antifragile. The phoenix must burn to emerge.
Sarita Jethania comments, ‘Your wings, which you know exist with you, are real and have already proven your ability to fly. Once again you’re standing on that cliff, on the edge. Free-fall. Die or live.’ Sometimes, I believe, allowing myself to fall is the only way I can learn to be courageous, and to believe in my ability to shape my own wings. As the wonderful J. M. Barrie writes in, Peter Pan, ‘The moment where you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever being able to do it.’ Self-doubt is crippling, and I struggle with it daily, attempting to muster courage under the shroud of uncertainty regarding my worth and potential. Fearlessness is not the complete absence of fear, it is the courage to face risks, to be strong when you are vulnerable, to expose all parts of yourself and know that your dreams are within your grasp. That you matter, and you are enough. Free-fall into the unknown, and write your own beautiful love song as you dance to the rhythm of life. Yet remember that there will be troughs in the flight, as well as great heights. Haruki Murakami writes, ‘where I’m living is not a storybook world. It’s the real world, full of gaps and inconsistencies and anticlimaxes.’ This is what makes the narrative of your life beautiful – because it is real. It can leave you raw and open and vulnerable. The unknown is frightening, and society may attempt to fill the gaps with paradigms of living, with pedagogical tools to instruct you on the ‘best way’ to write your story. Be absolutely true to yourself – that is real freedom. Do not limit or label yourself – you’re not a jam jar. We are perfect the way we are, and we are exactly where we have to be right now. There is no single person in this world who has the permission to tell us that we are either not enough or too much. All we tell each other is just kind of a monologue with ourselves. How do you want your monologue to be? No story will ever be written as you write yours in this moment. I was once told just to be me. So here I am. This is me, all of me. You can be you, too.
As a trainee teacher, I have found such liberation in the realisation that for the first time in my life, this path is the one I was destined to walk. I have never felt such passion and dedication to the sole purpose of sharing my knowledge with students. These are brilliant young minds which I have the privilege and responsibility of being exposed to. To you, my dear students – you are in the process of writing your own life stories. While you write your story, remember that it’s okay to be lost for a while. Not all those who wander are truly lost, and it is the journey which will lead you to discovery of your authentic self. It is who we are when nobody is watching that truly defines us. Rebecca Solnit in ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost,’ comments, ‘there are those who receive as birthright an adequate or at least unquestioned sense of self and those who set out to reinvent themselves, for survival or for satisfaction, and travel far. Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis.’ This is the cathartic act of freeing yourself from the shackles of society and writing your own tale. You are never really lost, just searching down different paths which all appear unfamiliar. You know where you are, but some elements are missing – the world is broader than your concept of it, than your pre-conceived knowledge of its existence. This is where the imagination and power of narrative becomes important, in those constant moments of arrival, realisation and discovery.
Occasionally, as they embark on this journey, the teacher becomes the apprentice and learns more from the mechanics of the student mind than anticipated. While I had written another piece to post this month, I would like to instead publish a guest piece here for the first time. It is a reflection response from one of my Literature students. Please enjoy this unedited snippet of brilliance below. My students are my raison d’être. What is yours?
Hello Miss Jane,
This email is in response to your reflection task; a list of seemingly simplistic questions about Literature which has sent me staring off into space on an exciting adventure into my own galaxy of thoughts and feelings on the subject. To ask why I should choose study literature is to ask why I should choose to study at all, what education means to me, and what it is like to breathe and eat and blink and live. To me, literature is a bottomless bowl in which to grab into, in search of purpose, discovery, ideas and even the articulation of our inner most unexplainable feelings. The only border is the rim of this bowl, and it expands and stretches the more you dig and claw down, hungry for more.
Reading and writing may be the most important duality of human kind. Some of my favourite authors include Anne Lamott, Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, Helen Garner and Steinbeck. I read a fair bit, not as much as I wish I did. I am interested in your recommendations. My favourite book is To Kill A Mockingbird and I think I’m the only person who is characterised by this. I enjoy reading autobiographies. Mostly written by comedians. There’s a complex understanding of truth that comes with comedy. Comedy is the Art of Honesty. Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Patti Smith (who’s not a comedian but still) all authors who write with the perfect delicious blend of honesty, cultural observation, poetic imagery and clever humour. These women are all simultaneously wonderful and infuriating. Its infuriating to know I do not write as well as these ladies, and that they can make me smile like a goofball to myself whilst reading on a train, and receive glares from the strangers sitting next to me.
Speaking of infuriation, I have read your blog and it has elevated me to enraged. I would finish an essay and realize my eyes were stinging, whether with the overwhelming sensations that come with relating to writing and staring into the face of talent, or my own pure, unadulterated jealousy. I cannot and may never write like this, at least not without a prior 17 hours of self-resentment, temper tantrums and refreshing emails. I feel as if your writing should be the one quoted and perhaps one day it will be.
As for my goals for this Unit, I shall be honest. In the beginning, I had hoped to absorb every morsel of wisdom Ms C had to give, and pack it all up into my head and skip away to some university. However I was wrong for two reasons. Firstly: this goal is impossible. I can try to wring the knowledge out of her into a water bucket, like a sponge, parched and hasty, but every time I feel the cloth is drying out she says something even more thought shifting, and the sponge becomes heavy again. Secondly: I now disagree that this would be a correct way to approach literature. I’m no longer interested in obtaining but discovering, using original thought and my unique imagination and creativity to nurture ideas. I find that as I continue to discover, my peripheral vision becomes increasingly clearer. I fear that in my old age I should have lived a life so full of discovery, that I would grow a row of eyes, new perspectives, all along the circumference of my head.
Sylvia Plath, Sojourner Truth, Anne Sexton, Maya Angelou, TS Elliot, Emily Dickinson, E. E. Cummings, Edgar Allen Poe, Hughes, Anna Akhmatova, the list goes on; I will enjoy almost any poem you put in front of me, because every piece is a new idea, new words formed and new perspectives, and I’m a firm believer that words are like organisms that need to collaboratively be breathed into. Art must be perpetuated by discussion, and ideas are relevant whether you disagree with them or not. I don’t want to read tamed thoughts and feelings, or talk to those who swim in the shallow end anymore. I want to read the poets who show me their squishy tender flesh and bare their teeth. I want to drink from their life well! These are the people I want to learn from. Blake, whom as you know we are currently being introduced to, may be my soul mate- separated in the space-time continuum, he was born too soon. The Romantics are proving to be a mirror held up to my psyche and I’m interested into delving deeper into the theology of the poems. Theology, sociology, philosophy and literature- as well as theatre- are all things I’m interested in studying and pursuing.
Our class is small, cozy and opinionated, with incubating passion. I hope that you enjoy teaching us and I know that we have a lot to learn from you.
(The outspoken blonde girl in the front)
PS. This letter got long, I apologise. Literature is also ostentatious.
To all my students, to those who doubt yourselves and your talents – you will find your calling. Alexandra Trenfor said, ‘The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.’ What you choose to see makes you unique. Eyes are windows to the soul, yet also the means by which you absorb the universe. Shaping our own meaning, refining the truth, actively thinking and engaging rather than presuming to know or not know, are all acts of resistance derived from the desire to create something new. When you give a person the chance to tell their own story, it empowers them. Walk the few extra miles on your journey, take a different trail, the road less travelled, do not follow the compass or the map, and do not be afraid to wander across a ghost time where you know nobody and nothing but your own biography. You will find yourself at home, in your own skin, your body as the vehicle for your journey, and even when you are lost you will know where you are.
For the first time in my life, I know that the path I have chosen is the right one. It all began with a parasite in my mind, crawling across the synapses, challenging me to acknowledge it. The most resilient parasite on earth is an idea. For me, the idea that I could be something more. Once fully formed and understood, this idea can allow the brain to build cities, transform the world, and rewrite the rules. This is the power of words used as suggestions, to plant seeds and form conceptions, instigate transformation after a desperate search for the self and meaning. Think of the film Inception – an entire world formed around an idea, the planting of a thought in another’s mind. We form ideas from experiences, from our own awareness, despite the fact that the past is a term for events which are no longer happening and do not exist. Our mind confuses the data we call memory with reality, and we are blind to the notion that the event is not like our record of the event. This is the power of rewriting the brain, to become positive, to overcome trauma, and to move forward with renewed abilities to write our own story based on a simple idea and vision of our future. The science, skill and art of the inception of positive epiphanies is neglected in contemporary society. Yet it can lead to instant, radical, life-changing transformation through ideas in our minds, words on our bodies. The famous words, ‘I have a dream,’ are so much more than a dream. It is an idea which could transform your life. Ideas provide inspiration, wherever you are, whenever you are. Liberated minds lead to elevated thinking. Do not be afraid of this parasite – the idea will lead to your greatness. How to give birth to ideas, then? Reading, learning, writing, interaction. Reading is the inner imagination of our mind; we must create the world of the book within the confines of our mind; we must make the fiction realm accessible through our own ideas and creations. After reading, there is writing. Writing is the highest form of self-expression, the enshrining of ideas on paper, the ability to share and connect over a story which differentiates our species from all other creatures. It is how we make sense of the world, and the foundation upon which all cultures are formed. Speak through your pen and put your voice onto paper. Project yourself into another world, the world of the story, and allow your ideas and fantasies to resonate with those who read it.
With your idea as a weapon in hand, do not say ‘not yet,’ and doubt your future. ‘Not yet’ is an imitation of immortality, that all is about to become, that we strive towards efficiency, perfection, satisfaction, and innovation – waiting for the elusive moment in time when all conditions will be perfect to act. In the meantime, our bud of an idea dies. This is the contemporary relationship with time, unlike the Renaissance conception of time, which was a period of hierarchical complementarity, where everything was related and answered to some overall truth which may be obscure to us but is nonetheless present and palpable. This presumption of harmonised time no longer exists, and we have become a culture afraid of waiting, or the absence of doing, believing we must do to be – yet not realising that we can be without doing. Like Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, we measure out our life with coffee spoons, unaware of the irony that in this time we never have enough time, and we never make time to think about time to understand ourselves better, with the excuse that ‘we don’t have time.’ Through ideas is the possibility of a new beginning, while also remembering our ending, they are a poetic momento mori of the people we strive to become. Do not kill your darlings, do not let your ideas wither away while seeking perfection or the ideal condition. Let the idea flourish, identify with it, and place a part of yourself in it. Become invested in this idea as contingent upon your actions and defining your future. Do not fail to appreciate where you are now, yet make progress towards this place ever-promised, this elusive future encapsulated in the gem of your idea. Do not sacrifice your integrity by killing the parasite. Do not dislike who you are because you’re not yet who you’ve been told you could be. Do not become trapped in the current time machine of the perpetual ‘not enough.’ Eliot said the purpose of our journey is to return to where we began and know it for the first time. Embark on the journey, and along the way this parasite of an idea will grow into something more beautiful and wondrous than you ever imagined. And when the journey ends, you will finally know yourself for the first time.
Moreover, an idea should not have the life of a temporary tattoo. The type they sell at fairs, which young boys with soft hearts have imprinted on their shoulders to feel tough. A temporary tattoo is ephemeral, impermanent by definition, and inauthentic to a life committed to purpose. Of course, life may surprise us and cause us to revaluate, perhaps leading to regret for that permanent tattoo, wishing it could fade into something new, improved or merely different. The spirituality of impermanence is intoxicating, and the law that life is in flux at all moments leads us to believe that all aspects of our life should be temporary, as life itself is temporary. A permanent tattoo is a branding of the self, a declaration of identity, the ability to reconcile our impermanence with the permanent marker writing inscriptions of self on the soul. We are all tattooed, but the question is whether we are content with the temporary or seek the permanent. Are your permanent tattoos those imprinted by society and marked by pain? The tattoos of laws, traditions and culture, representing the way we ‘should be’ and leaving a damaging mark? If so, seek the laser to remove that ink, do not fear the pain of starting again with a tattoo of your choice. Find the courage to endure the pain of change. Take a breath and cling a little less to the constructions of society and culture, disregard the certainty of identification tags you have allowed to define you. Question – who are you really? Why are you scared to choose your own permanent tattoo? Life is a not a fading charade, a wander through uncertainty to ensure we feel safe in the oblivion of life, with our blinders on and pretending the stars will still be there to gaze upon when morning breaks. Venture outside of the illusion with a parasitic idea that you can shape your own life and influence the world. Ask the big questions to make you quake in your boots, and never stop looking until one idea resonates with you. Ideas should not be thrown in a draw with a collection of temporary tattoos. Wear them on your skin proudly, and as they define you, they can shape the world. The idea you choose may fade, but the part of you which formed it will never die – open the door to possibility, to discovery, to adventure and courage. Believe in yourself more than tradition; allow your faith to be objectless and trust in your ideas for your future. That’s what life is about. It may be impermanent, but this is no reason to hide. Leo Tolstoy said, ‘For man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.’ Connect your idea, your meaning, with the infinite lightness of your soul, with its indestructible connection to the universe. And from there, forge meaning and step forward bravely into a new day.
Here’s a secret to treasure. You are the writer and editor of your life. You cut and paste daily beauty and pain with the sharpened scissors of your mind onto the canvas of humanity. You tell untold stories with your soul. We as humans assimilate the world through learned perceptions, and we can train our perspective to become aware of both the light and dark of the world. We can absorb or disregard, and learn to filter vision through the eyes of our chosen truths. We are living collages of images, experiences, emotions and memories. Art is synonymous with life, and to continue as an evolving work of art, we must exist to our greatest potential as our own incredible masterpiece. What comes out of us is already secondary to what is within us. Your ideas, those resilient parasites which shape you and may change the world, are part of your essence, the eternal oneness you radiate as you engage with life. Do not edit your ideas, your passions, your identity, just as you would never censor your words to remove a piece of yourself. Emotions such as pain, rejection, betrayal, sadness and anger are not prisons, nor justifications to taint a non-existent future or past – they are merely doors leading back to you. Parts of life are painful, others are beautiful and intelligent and all are entirely homemade. Avoid nothing and seek everything. Curate reality and communicate it in your own words, with your own ideas. Do not seek the shortcut, but walk across smouldering stones if it will lead to fulfilment. Jump off a cliff, and choose the highest one, using your own heart as a parachute as you fall and then fly. Fear is a biodegradable fuel, and it can be recycled into passion, motivation, and inspiration. The human experience is an indivisible whole, connecting the grand Us to each Me and You. The human elements should not be segregated, hidden, divided or punished. Our heart and minds must connect, and find a home within this vehicle, this body through which we can live out our dreams. Existence means co-existence, within yourself and with each other. Beyond your own unscripted tale, you are part of a larger, universal story being written each day with actions and thoughts. Hold a torch to yourself. Offer the world the vulnerable, open truth of yourself, and light the burning, revolutionary flame within to illuminate the darkness and share with the world.
The problem with ideas, and our fear of the judgment of others, is that there are no definitive guidelines on what constitutes a good or bad idea. I strongly believe that all ideas are worth voicing, as in the end – it is the product of our unique imagination, our own plethora of identities meshing to form a strand of creativity which comes to life in an idea. Nietzsche said, ‘there are no facts, only interpretations.’ This can surely be applied to ideas – it is an interpretation of our own reality, of our essence and the world we live in, and if it has value in our own minds, there is no counter-argument which can factually disprove it as a ‘bad’ idea. Susan Sontag similarly argues ‘against interpretation,’ often presenting penetrating insights into the human experience, on courage and resistance to consumerism and fact, and relentlessly fighting against the constructed identities which threaten to imprison us. Our culture may be well-intentioned in its search to endlessly interpret and define boundaries, to adhere to rules of the current society, yet it presupposes a definite meaning to not only the world and our ideas, but people themselves. Perhaps it has good intentions, to preserve an old and previous text by repudiating and refining it, but the interpreter cannot do this without changing it. By over-interpreting, we destroy the story and alter the idea – the most powerful parasite in the world is forced to morph, to evolve in order to survive, rather than being permitted to thrive in the environment it was born into. Sontag comments that ‘the modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys.’ While objectivity and definitive answers may be liberating for some, I cannot support a culture which stifles creativity and the imaginary, which revises and revalues and violates, rather than appreciating the origin of the idea. When applied to the arts, humanities, and writing, an idea is so beautifully delicate that any quest to categorise and interpret will obliterate it. So we find that while ideas may be resilient, in their embryonic stage, they are highly vulnerable to changes in climate, to trauma, and to the moulding of new hands. It seems Sontag shares my view – she condemns interpretation as ‘the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.’’ I agree. Writing, stories, art, and ideas should not be conformable; they should not be reduced to their content, to their bare bones, to a commodification scheme of our tragically material culture. The ideas we create essentially claim our souls, and I know that my ideas, my imagination, and my projections of creativity are a part of myself, a sensory experience which is alive with the latitude for change and growth. The idea may be a fantasy, a product of my imagination, but it is the unlocking of this unique skill – to conjure ideas which have value, which contribute to society, which can then transform the world. The past, present and future of myself and the world I live in are strung together, on the thread of the idea running through them.
There is liberation in shifting our perspectives and allowing our curious minds to roam – and once they begin to stumble forward in baby steps, the resilience of our imagination and the ideas we create will take shape. Italo Calvino, beloved twentieth century author, calls this ‘lightness,’ and cites the novel by Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as providing not only lightness, but clarity and immediacy. However, both these authors refer not to ideas but to existence, and Calvino suggests that the unbearableness of the lightness is ‘a bitter confirmation of the Ineluctable Weight of Living,’ a situation of oppression and desperation with the human condition. Lightness becomes valuable when we change the way we see ourselves and the world. As Calvino comments, ‘Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.’ He is taking a positive slant on Kundera’s novel, and I believe he is suggesting that if we allow this lightness to become our nature, it no longer exists merely in dreams, to be dissolved by the reality of the present moment and unknown future. It becomes a way of living, and I am sure that this lightness, this liberation, is where ideas are born. For me, it is about praxis, or the translation of theory into practical action. It is the ability to find that parasite, and rather than theorising over which breed it may be or how long it may live, I drag it through fire and water to test its resilience, to transform it into a more evolved being, and in turn to shift my perspective. For Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, everything is able to transform in some way, and to truly know the world means to dissolve into the world itself. That is the beauty of an idea, is it not? You can carry as many as you like, and even as they grow with determination and precision, they have a lightness about them, a hope, and a weightless eternal well of potential. We know the weight of an object, yet the entire world is composed merely of weightless atoms. All that we create is born from ideas, similarly weightless and unlimited. Not only unlimited, but eternal. Who has the power to destroy your idea, other than your own mind? Choose to let it live – to innovate and leave a legacy. As one of my favourite authors, Chuck Palahniuk, states, ‘We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.’
Calvino believes the value of lightness is not only in literature, as of course I would suggest, but in uncovering existential meaning, and he says, ‘literature is an existential function, the search for lightness is a reaction to the weight of living.’ He draws a unique connection between literature and this search, stating, ‘I am accustomed to consider literature a search for knowledge. In order to move onto existential ground, I have to think of literature as extended to anthropology and ethnology and mythology. Faced with the precarious existence of tribal life … the shaman responded by ridding his body of weight and flying to another world, another level of perception, where he could find the strength to change the face of reality… I think that the deepest rationality behind every literary operation has to be sought out in the anthropological needs to which it corresponds.’ This is a brilliant idea, and I would build on it by suggesting that the shaman, while not physically travelling at all, embarks on a search for meaning, and only through embracing the possibility of lightness is he able to find solace. As I perpetually advocate, literature is much more than words on paper, and by recognising its value as a symbol, a tool, and not only a search for knowledge but a search for ourselves, can we uncover the most promising ideas. To me, the shaman’s journey represents the flight of ideas, and the resilience of the imagination in its ability to transcend temporal or geographical boundaries. The art of levitation, achieving weightlessness, is symbolic to me of liberation of the mind. Fear of flying must surely be a fear of liberation? A fear of success, even? Or is it a fear of eventually falling? I like to think of Icarus in this situation. People often forget that Icarus built his wings, and before he fell, he flew. I do not think Icarus failed as he fell – he simply came to the end of his meteoric success. Even the greatest of ideas must be reshaped or replaced by new ones, and they all have potential to be as resilient as the last. Yet I will also speculate that even ideas which result in incredible innovation, achievement and discovery, are not created to solve all problems. It is the process of seeking betterment which provides the most fulfilment. I will quote Carl Jung here, who claims, ‘The serious problems in life, however, are never fully solved. If ever they should appear to be so it is a sure sign that something has been lost. The meaning and purpose of a problem seem to lie not in its solution but in our working at it incessantly. This alone preserves us from stultification and petrification.’ I concur – without ongoing challenges, opportunities to grow and evolve, are we ever truly alive? We grow as our ideas grow. The parasite has a symbiotic relationship with our mind, and through each other, we become resilient.
It is the concept of inception, the planting of an idea, which I value in the process of discovery far more than the actual art of invention. Perhaps the talent is not simply innovation, in creating a previously unknown object, but to find what has been shrouded from view, a hidden wonder which may have remained in a dark corner of the world had it not been for your own imagination. As French physiologist Claude Bernard said, ‘those who do not know the torment of the unknown cannot have the joy of discovery.’ However, I believe it is not in the unknown that we should feel tormented, but in stasis, stagnation, and lack of intellectual exploration. We should thrive in knowing that there is so vast a world of the unknown waiting to be discovered, lying dormant until that one parasite, the idea we bring forth, leads to discovery and revelation. Psychologist Jerome Bruner similarly argued that the art is in the discovery process, that the task is not to ‘learn about’ something, but to uncover a mystery, just as there is ‘a tendency for the child to work with the autonomy of self-reward, or, more properly, be rewarded by discovery itself.’ The prizes of using the imagination and creativity to give birth to seeds of ideas allows us to delve into the puzzle of existence itself, to tightrope-walk across the crevasse of the unknown, yet not fear falling or momentary failure. It can be a hazardous journey, to learn to cut losses while also persistently testing an idea, to engage in inquiry while not stubbornly waiting for evidence to materialise. David Foster Wallace, whom I absolutely adore, wrote in The Pale King, ‘Learn it now, or later – the world has time. Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui – these are the true hero’s enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed. For they are real.’ It is this battle against the potential boredom of existence which leads to the greatest creation. Simply existing is not adequate, we are then wasting space on this precious planet. What are you doing with your one unique life? Wallace further writes in his final novel, ‘Like so many other nerdy, disaffected young people of that time, I dreamed of becoming an ‘artist’, i.e., somebody whose adult job was original and creative instead of tedious and dronelike.’ Of course, Wallace became one of the greatest literary artists of all time, and our tragic loss of his life may be a reflection of the true dangers of boredom and tediousness. I so wish he had not been so brilliant, so restless, so imaginative, that he would have been able to bear those brief moments of existential questioning, between his creative sparks which became literature-changing ideas. To stop this creative process, for Wallace, literally was death. Meg Wolitzer, in her novel, The Interestings, writes, ‘Stopping meant you’d given up and turned the keys of the world over to other people. The only option for a creative person was constant motion – a lifetime of busy whirligigging in a generally forward direction, until you couldn’t do it any longer.’ Do not hand your power to other people, through doubt or fear or the unknown. Persevere, as a beautiful anomaly, and maintain a life of motion.
How then, are we to avoid the tides of questioning and despair, which often come hand-in-hand with absolute brilliance and creativity? Even the most resilient parasite, the idea, will not thrive in a barren wasteland of doubt and boredom. It feeds from our own imagination, and if our minds cannot remain engaged with existence, I fear the resilience of these parasites will deteriorate. How can we ensure they are given the potential to evolve? Step into your life with courage and determination, not waiting for the misguided parable of the ‘a-ha moment’, but by consistently questioning the creative process, the zigging and zagging through life, and acknowledging the long moments of doubt and uncertainty which may precede that precious moment of revelation and epiphany. Ex-trial lawyer Denise Shekerjian suggests that ‘staying loose’ is the key to creativity, and Rilke says it means ‘living the questions.’ Henri Poincaré said that ‘to invent is to choose,’ and Shekerjian builds on this by suggesting that ‘creating form from chaos is at the heart of art.’ Break free from restraining social norms, cultural expectations, and political jargon. Look beyond a singular frame of reference – listen to music while writing poetry, or meditate amidst the wonders of nature before painting a masterpiece, or simply give yourself permission to wander and ramble through the influences of the world. Allow yourself to be a child once more. As Julian Barnes wrote in Levels of Life, ‘Perhaps the world progresses not by maturing, but by being in a permanent state of adolescence, of thrilled discovery.’ The moment will come, if we do not fear temporary meaninglessness, when absolutely everything changes. I often have these moments of insight while writing or reading. Nothing changes at all, yet simultaneously everything does. I see the world differently. Jonathan Franzen in his text, The Corrections, comments that he has such moments: ‘You see things more clearly and you know that you’re seeing them more clearly. And it comes to you that this is what it means to love life, this is all anybody who talks seriously about God is ever talking about. Moments like this.’ The extrapolation that clarity of purpose leads to appreciation of self and further to a deep love of life is integral in our journey.
What’s more, I believe, is that ideas are contagious. Laughter, passion and inspiration are likewise contagious. If you put a lonely child in a room with others, all passionate about their learning, full of creativity and inspired to grow, this child will blossom and catch their disease. Children begin to believe, ‘I can.’ I can change the world. I can make a difference. I matter, my ideas matter. The parasite is resilient with these children, who have yet to learn that culture may not accept their brilliance. Why is it that not all people can become infected with this incredible disease? Can we consciously allow ourselves to become infected with the contagious power of imagination and ideas? Learning for young people, when connected even remotely to a real-world context, can blur the boundaries between the classroom and their lives – the children become aware they are on a journey, they appreciate their capacity to grow and lead a revolution. The mindshift to ‘I can,’ in believing that their ideas matter, is a process which can be nurtured and energised in the right climate. To empower children, young adults, and anyone on this planet, we need only spread the concept that all ideas matter. All imaginations are glorious, beautiful works of art in themselves – this is the parasite of the idea, the resilience of creativity when encouraged to blossom. It is about learning the value of our own ideas, and giving part of ourselves to them. Henry Ward Beecher said, ‘every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.’ How can we exist without exposing parts of our soul to the world? Stretch deep into the story of our body, the twisting through past chapters, the re-writing of the future, strengthening the poetic verses of our DNA. Lengthen the haiku to the depths of your heart, do not attempt to summarise your idea and epic life into a lovely epitaph. Look upon the blank paper before you, the empty pages your pen has yet to touch, and allow a playful, passionate declaration of a fraction of your creativity, your beauty, and the imagination dormant in your soul.
Our world is changing and evolving at near frightening pace. Each generation is exposed to new technology, social changes, and cultural upheaval. The importance of a holistic education cannot be emphasised enough. How to prepare our youth for a world which even we cannot envision? Through the development of capacities for creativity, imagination, resilience, sensitivity, and original thinking. Self-directed learning, allowing children to walk their own paths, to read a plethora of genres, to write whichever way they desire, to play and create, are the new personalised tools for education. Language, the arts, poetry, writing, classics, contemporary, fantasy, autobiography – books are alive, a thriving, evolving species just as children and young adults are a continual self-in-process. Do not die with your song still inside of you, your story, your words, your ideas and full potential which could be unlocked through education. William Wordsworth said, ‘fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.’ Surely, this is the purpose of literature – to capture a part of ourselves. Words are merely the shadows of what we feel, audible connections piecing together entirely inaudible feelings, passions and purposes. The liberal arts remain relevant today, and the importance of literary is profound. Consider poetry, for instance, which I believe has the power to save lives. Take a poem apart if you are a words person, or listen to the lyrics if you are not – I understand the world best in words, not pictures or numbers, but this is my own personalised way of experiencing and feeling. The word ‘poem’ is Greek, and simply means ‘a made thing.’ How beautiful is that? It is a way of shaping the world and making patterns for emotions. To teach a child the techniques of ‘making a thing’ will allow greater expression, more creation, and the realisation of feelings beyond the face of the words. Poems are only made of words, but they are etched with personalities and particularities which distinguish poets from each other, and indeed even readers from one another. As Roald Dahl poetically said, ‘So, please, oh please, we beg, we pray, go throw your TV set away, and in its place you can install, a lovely bookcase on the wall.’ Fill your bookcase with poetry, with timeless literature, with moderns, with classics, any genre, any identity.
Through poetry, I want to be alive, and I want to show others why and how to becoming alive in one place at one time in one culture simply through words on a page, or even the spoken word. My favourite poet is e.e.cummings, and through his writings I can meditate on the past, the future, life, death and beyond. His line, ‘i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)’, illustrates to me the connection between all individuals, the inherent identification of our essence with each other, and the significance of love to piece together otherwise disconnected webs of our universe. His words show me that somebody else thought about what it is like to be a person, a work in progress, a spiritual embryo experiencing a multitude of emotions and conflicts at once. E. B. White said of New York City, ‘a poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.’ Poetry is marvellous in its ability to compress all life onto paper, to create flow and lyrics, to spin the wheels of the internal engines of the mind. Yet, at once it is all-encompassing, so much more than a simple compression into words. A poem is the greatest human accomplishment, I believe, as it concentrates all existence into language, at once magically comprehensible to all readers, yet its full meaning shall always be elusive. This makes poetry personal, durable, and ephemeral – it is both inside and outside at once, addressing the internal and external of our existence. T. S. Eliot, another favourite of mine, recognised poetry as the ‘anatomy of inspiration,’ celebrating creativity and the mystical quality of words. Eliot writes that poetry undergoes ‘a long incubation,’ although ‘we do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on.’ I believe that children are like poetry, like stories, like narratives. They are in an incubation phase, with mystical qualities and creativities and an abundance of imagination, and much like after incubation results in an outburst of words on paper, children can evolve through learning and emerge to blossom beyond our expectations. Through teaching, I dream of sharing the vitality of dynamism of life, that anything can arise in our own narratives, both insubstantial due to its fleeting existence, and miraculous in the sheer fact of its existence. Buddha described existence a being much like a rainbow, a dream, an echo, a flash of lightning, and magic show, a phantom, bubbles in a stream – it all happens yet nothing lasts. Literature lasts. Books, stories, words, they last. Through education, children can learn anything and exist in harmony with ongoing change. They can grow for life itself, to recognise their existence is not within a random, accidental, chaotic universe. Through learning, we can attain freedom, enjoy the moments of life, believe in our ability to transform the world, and become open to greater wisdom and fulfilment.
There are all types of writers, genres, and ways to appreciate literature. Patti Smith recently released ‘M Train’, which The New York Times described as ‘achingly beautiful.’ This is the type of book I hope young adults can read and appreciate, to experience the wonder of a book so beautifully composed it becomes a lyric, an ache, a living being which captures and memorialises moments in life, where the creation is so grand that the book becomes art, a souvenir for the reader’s memory. The use of beautiful words, strung together in a musical rhythm, if applied with thought by the author, can illustrate the sorcery of literature. Patti Smith is a model instance of such a magician, with her vivid imagery ranging from melancholia being a mood she can turn in her hand ‘as if it were a small planet,’ to a description of her Cat as ‘an Abyssinian runt with a coat the colour of the pyramids.’ Literature as memoir is one genre which I believe has incredible power to transform the mind of young children, instigating a drive for personal development and belief in social change. By assimilating narratives drawn from the recesses of an author’s memory and imagination, the child reader becomes in tune with dreams, passions, ideologies, and ways to challenge the cultural norm. The winner of the 2015 Global Teacher Prize, Nancie Atwell, is a prime example of an educator advocating the power of literature. She declares that a classroom full of books is the most powerful teaching tool, and that ‘book reading is just about the best thing about being human and alive on the planet.’ Children should not be left to their own devices to accidentally discover the joy of literature, but should be enticed by a magical collection of various levels, genres and tastes. Why is it that nearly one quarter of children will fail to meet minimum levels of literacy at school? Children must have choice in what they learn, Atwell suggests. With choice, engagement will follow. Similarly, I invite all children to fall in love with reading and books as I have done, to learn voraciously and then reap the benefits of a passion for literature. Through this love of reading, we can then learn to marvel at the benefits of writing. This is why I write of this now – to share my passion for writing, reading, literature, teaching and transformation.
Can writing be taught? Of course it can. All people can develop a blazing instinct to write, and all can appreciate literature as an art, become an apprentice to these arts, and eventually artists themselves. Writers are not outlaws or outsiders – the individual writing process is a secret even to ourselves, until we find it and define it. While literacy may be an issue for children, we are far from the Dark Ages, when the first illuminated manuscripts could only be read by a select few. Now there are many opportunities to read, write and learn, and we must embark on this artistic process to find meaning, to understand, and practice as a subversive act. Choosing language actively, emotionally, and expressing dreams in narrative form – that is the beauty of literature. It illustrates the complexity of truth, not imitating reality but creating a secondary world, a reality of broken pieces which alter and play with the perception of readers. In reality, emotions may seem dangerous, melancholy is angular and sharp, violence is brutal and static, hope is meaningless. In reality, the past is a fog of subjective confusion, the present is confronting and chaotic, and the future is cast in mere shadows. Through language, we can defy this. Language exists simultaneously with time and place, it cuts through experiences and dreams with a surgeon’s precision, shaping meaning either through a soft glow or a thunderous firework. The placement of words and lines in poetry, for instance, can appear like music notes on parchment, or jewels in a queen’s cabinet. Each stanza is a pattern, an equation, and time melts away like Salvador Dali’s fallible clock. I dream of teaching writing in this way, to engage in its process, to create the sublime, and encourage the realisation that only literature is timeless – only words and language can transcend the archaeology of society and live their own myths. Writing is life. Writing is also death. It is a transformation embarked upon by reader, writer, and culture through the narrative. Literature is universal. Jayne Anne Phillips suggests that ‘the alphabet is a dimensionless dimension. Space and time are inside it, yet every written memory, history, invented sentence, flies in the face of erasure.’ And it is we, as writers, who can intervene and prevent this loss, create meaning, and deeply believe as teachers that our ability to share our passion for literature can create meaning.
Literature is limitless, and certainly should not be adapted for children. It was E. B. White, himself a writer of children’s books, who said, ‘anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.’ The literature I teach to children or indeed write myself would never be a one-dimensional oversimplification of reality, but a narrative journey through which the uncertainty of life, the complexity of emotions, and the transformative potential of characters can be engaged and deconstructed. Even Tolkien, in a brilliant essay ‘On Fairy Stories,’ which I will delve into at another time, claimed that there is no such thing as ‘writing for children.’ I believe we must never allow society’s limiting misconceptions about children’s stories translate to limiting the children themselves. While there is a difference between literature for children and adults, and authors will inevitably choose a target audience, it does not follow that all children’s books are for children, or that all adult writing is for adults. Literature is universal, and can be engaged by any person, regardless of space, time or age. E. B. White comments that children ‘are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.’ For instance, with Charlotte’s Web, he gave them a literate spider, and they accepted that. Not only did they accept it – I believe they needed it. Children need exposure to alternate worlds, imaginary realms where the power of possibility can be engaged, and this is only possible through literature and art. For writers who choose simple words for children, White counters, ‘I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention.’ Literature should be uninhibited, and the writer should not be a puppet to societal expectations. A writer must live a vision, become an authentic artist, lift people up, not by reflecting life, but by informing, transforming, and reshaping life.
The unique beauty of each piece of literature depends entirely on the reader and the writer – often the question to be asked is why the writer writes. David Foster Wallace said it was about fun, Charles Bukowski said it ‘sprang from the soul like a rocket,’ Joan Didion said it was access to her own mind, while Michael Lewis believes ‘a little delusional thinking goes a long way.’ Joy Williams is my personal inspiration, the embodiment of an authentic writer who shares my appreciation of language. She says, ‘language accepts the writer as its host, it feeds off the writer, it makes him a husk,’ and that a ‘good piece of writing startles the reader back into Life. The work – this Other, this other thing – this false life that is even less than the seeming of this lived life, is more than the lived life, too.’ I agree here – literature is the ‘other’, but it is also life itself. I write to contribute, not for myself but not for the reader either. I teach the beauty of literature to serve others, to allow our collective psyches to vibrate in harmony with a deep passion for the enduring power of words. Williams echoes my passion, in that she ‘writes to serve…something. Somethingness. The somethingness that is sheltered by the wings of nothingness – those exquisite, enveloping, protecting wings.’ I invite all educators, writers, readers, and human beings to engage in this wondrous art, the ephemeral painting of words on paper. Do not shelter children. T. S. Eliot is magnificent – teach The Wasteland not as a wasteland but a work of art; read them The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock as a reflection of life. Read The Brothers Grimm, adapted by Neil Gaiman who said, ‘if you are protected from dark things, then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.’ This comment embodies the potential of literature. Show children that they can be victorious, in achieving literacy, in personal development, and in social change. Fairytales exist to show us that the dragons can be defeated, regardless of whether the child believes dragons are real. Tell stories fearlessly, and teach literature fiercely.
Even your name is a poem, it is the first story you tell someone when you meet them. I am not a praying person, in that I dislike the idea of giving that amount of attention to an audience I cannot guarantee is listening. It is terrifying – the silence is so loud it becomes impossible to hear anything else. Poetry on the other hand, the spoken or written word, is beautiful in that it speaks into the silence. Our lives are poetry, and we have a poem within us each moment of each day – the trick is to identify the good ones and save them before they are drowned by the world’s chaotic silence. Even simple word association, repeating a word, breaking down the syllables, playing games with language by using forms of synaesthesia. This poetic device is when the brain uses one sensory pathway to navigate another sensory pathway, crossing one of the five senses with another. Of course, this is deeming poetry scientific, and many need not view it as such. However, even if poetry is warm, if the word itself calms your mouth as you speak it, the concept of writing a poem is inextricably linked to all other learning areas – the senses, mathematics, chemistry, biology, all the wonders of the universe. Patti Smith said, ‘Every human being has a creative impulse, and we all have the right to exercise this creative impulse.’ Through poetry and writing, we can discover and use this impulse. Even though my name is a story written by somebody else – the name is a tale of where I have been, where I come from, it is incomplete, it is a history and much like all histories, it was written without my consent. Often people use their names as self-fulfilling prophecies, and history then repeats itself. Often we convince ourselves that names are static and genetic – but this can be changed. I learned all of this through poetry, by embracing the power of language, names, words, by allowing my entire body to be on fire with the beauty of literature. Then I realise that my name is a poem, with its own universe within one word, with its own personality, its ability to change, respond to the greater story I am endlessly writing of my life. It is not fictional, but neither is it set in stone. As Tim O’Brien said, ‘that’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.’ The key is authenticity, to simply say something, to reflect on reality and the imaginary with openness and curiosity.
Poetry is the ‘in between,’ the space between silences, a place where we can ponder existence and rename ourselves. To discover our innate creative impulse can give an author great power – the ability to transcend cultural and political norms, to speak against repression, to combat a mono-ethical and mono-focal view of the world, and to expose the truly versatile strands of human nature. Further, literature allows us to seek that which is different to our present reality, an alternative nature. Creativity is ultimate, it is dictated to by the piece you are writing, and is not repeating any previous work. It is born anew with each fresh word, each line, each letter is arranged in a way which is different to before. Consider the diversity of Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Salman Rushdie – there is no ‘one voice’ in literature. I fear the literature of consumerism will diminish the creativity of our writers, who view the creative as a static, conquerable purpose. To educate in literature from an early age, to appreciate the liberal arts, and the freedom writing entails, can overcome the Western notion of ‘created creativity.’ As a writer, I deconstruct and reconstruct reality, I challenge myths and propaganda, I write original narratives born from my soul, from my inherent curiosity and creativity. I want to know more about myself, about life, about language, appearances and the hidden. I unravel it all. That is why even a simple haiku poem can compress the world into three beautiful lines, seventeen perfectly placed syllables.
To quote C. S. Lewis once more, ‘A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.’ I believe that stories are written to teach the philosophy of emotions, of love, loss, loneliness, and to challenge limited thinking all the while providing a hero’s journey and a land of fantasy for these adventurous minds. A passion of mine has always been medieval studies, the Arthurian legends and imaginary lands of fantasy, not an escape from reality but an alternative. If only young adults could love the medieval as I did, and realise it is not a backwards, nostalgic encounter with a primitive time, but a historical era which can be reimagined in the future through literature. It can make you uncomfortable, challenge you, question what we have been taught and how. Teaching the Middle Ages, the Romantic era, the Renaissance, any era which has come before, all create insights into who we are, how our world has been shaped, and allows imaginings of a new future, a utopian vision. Teaching history belongs to everyone, not a monochrome few. Teach Game of Thrones and question its ideologies; read Richard Coer de Lyon and love the cannibal Crusader ruler; watch Black in Camelot and understand the racial undercurrents of some narratives; read T. H. White’s The Once and Future King and revel in his historical anachronisms as he reinvents the life of Arthur’s childhood. Teach Rushdie, for all his subversions; read Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and understand its allusions; teach the Prioress’ Tale and tackle anti-Semitism. Move along the timeline – read Thomas Hardy and understand the optimism in late Victorian writing, despite the near misses with tragedy such as Wuthering Heights and Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. Conjure an alternate ending as a creative exercise – Charlotte Brontë’s Villette in fact gives the reader two endings, one tragic and one comic. Dickens changed the ending of Great Expectations to allow the hero and heroine time together. Even texts ending in a somewhat muted manner, such as Middlemarch, can be loved for their faith in reforming the human spirit.
Learn to be uncomfortable, to question, to challenge, to develop and grow through literature. Let us address the cult of ignorance surrounding the beauty of the liberal arts and literature. Isaac Asimov said, ‘The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ Do not live blindfolded, never appreciating the wonders of language, reading and writing. Never settle for ignorance over knowledge. The purpose of art is to edify, particularly in an age of social and political unrest. Freud comments that fiction, and fantasy in general, exists to ‘correct the blunders of an unsatisfying reality.’ I agree to some extent – but it need not be dissatisfaction which drives us to literature. It is simply the wonders of writing and reading which can be appreciated for what they are. Even to those disenchanted readers, or the writers of dust jacket editions promising only a shard of hope amidst a dystopic world, we can love literature for its unique ability to transport us to the imaginary. In Saramago’s book, Blindness, a group of characters who had inexplicably lost their eyesight have their vision restored just as suddenly at the conclusion of the novel. These sightless characters had journeyed through darkness, endured the narrative, and emerged into light. This is the transformative power of literature. Share the light.
The message is that even in the midst of the unknown, in the chaos of society and the flux of existence, literature allow both an escape from and a reminder of reality. Author Alice Dalgliesh comments in The Silver Pencil, ‘What the future held for her she didn’t know. Of two things only she was certain. There would be children – her own or other people’s – and there would be books.’ To take this another step, I am certain that the two are inextricably connected; children and literature should have a symbiotic relationship, feeding from one another to allow endurance and growth, to engage in the progressive potential of humanity and personal development. A book is a living creature, the story is an evolving organism nurtured by writers and sustained by readers. Just as we can write our own narratives, so our reading of other stories allows them to continue in existence, to transcend the corroding sands of time. Creative writing is both about self-expression and cultural analysis, it is not personified as the creative yet not particularly intelligent younger sibling, or a refuge for weaker students in classrooms. Creativity is the foundation of all literature. Similarly, literary studies and the humanities are not the metaphorical older serious sibling who is far too bright to partake in creative writing. The problem is that the older sibling is too serious, and not many people want to associate with her, while the younger is perceived as a creative clown without respect. I prefer to view creative writing and literary studies as non-identical twins, different in appearance, yet genetically similar and both intricately attune to one another.
Reading fiction from a variety of authors can open doors to new ideas, diverse realms, and allow readers to engage in thought processes outside of the box. For instance, reading postcolonial literary theory may inspire a writer to respond creatively from the position of a marginalised character. They participate in praxis, the application of theory into practice, through creative writing. Theory and creativity are both constant works of ‘becoming,’ much like children. Writing is a self-in-process, and I often wonder whether a text is ever truly finished, or simply lying dormant, waiting to be revisited and revised. The Norton Anthology of English Literature has a chapter of ‘Poems in Progress,’ to show that even the most influential writers did not implement their vision of poetry all at once, but that it involved study, revision, imagination, and ongoing rewriting before the poet considered it ready to reveal. To return to a personal love of mine, medievalism, this can be applied by learning medieval texts, contemporary culture’s reception of medieval writing in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien or Marion Zimmer Bradley or T. H. White, the literary theory underlying the rise of neomedievalism and a hybrid fantasy genre, and literary studies of cultural heritage. The possibilities are endless. Literature can take many forms – we may consider reading literary theory of the great Slavoj Zizek and then watch The Matrix to understand his concept of the Real, or engage with Shakespeare by delving into the various representations of Romeo and Juliet, in writing, on stage or screen. Or even if you love Clueless, become familiar with Jane Austen’s Emma, the book which the film in fact reimagines. Writing is always available to be rewritten. History can also be reimagined. Much like medievalism is becoming a universal concept, a reimagining of history into the present and projecting an imaginary future, so is literature itself a timeless artefact, intertwined with contemporary culture and social anxieties. Even further, just as medievalist writing is more concerned with depicting hope and reform, a utopic future beyond the chaos and control of history or the present, so are all readers in the process of becoming, of constantly evolving into the future self they can imagine.
Perhaps I am simply optimistic. Perhaps I place excessive value on literature and learning. Is there a banality to optimism? Can my ideology of hope be understood on a scientific basis? Probably not. Optimism is hope, but it is stronger than faith. It is a personal commitment to believe in the possibility for personal and social betterment, which I can envisage through literature. Philosopher William James presents a contrastingly saccharine question, ‘Is the last word sweet? Is all ‘yes, yes’ in the universe? Doesn’t the fact of ‘no’ stand at the very core of life? Doesn’t the very ‘seriousness’ that we attribute to life mean that ineluctable noes and losses form a part of it, that there are genuine sacrifices somewhere, and that something permanently drastic and bitter always remains at the bottom of the cup?’ I see optimism in his words – perhaps the word ‘no’ is at the core of life, but if it is, the word ‘yes’ exists there concurrently. Only by saying ‘yes’ to life can we truly live, and it is our fear of the ‘no’ which drives us to evolve. Literature is not a form of escapism, but a means of engagement with the universal questions of existence. Reality is not simply the pessimist with treasonable words, the unpleasant truth, and a perspective that optimists are indistinguishable from those with mental illness. Literature is reality, just as it is shaped by and responsive to the world, so the world is informed by our writing. Optimism is not a naïve form of hope, a degenerate happiness disguising self-indulgence and denial. Nor is it pure contentment – it is an understanding that the world, and the self, are works in progress, and there is always progressive potential to evolve.
The Book of Ecclesiastes notes, ‘a man of no understanding has vain and false hope.’ This is true – yet optimism is not false hope. My belief in literature comes from a deep understanding of its importance, and an acceptance that my identity, my authenticity, the books I read, and the world I live in, are in a perpetual state of flux. Terry Eagleton writes that, ‘like pessimism, optimism spreads a monochrome glaze over the whole world, blind to nuance and distinction.’ I believe that it is impossible to view the world through rosy lenses, nor is it possible to perceive only the black and white without the shades of grey. All that I am, all that I will be, has been written by my hand, and will be immortalised on the paper of my own narrative, changing and being rewritten as the future unfolds. It is not optimism, it is my reality – and I dream it can become the reality of all children as they undergo their transformation into adulthood. Helen Keller wrote Optimism, published shortly after her autobiography in 1900. No woman was perhaps better placed to write on optimism than Keller, left deaf and blind after illness at only nineteen months of age. Yet she persisted in becoming an influential writer and social activist, insisting that all men have the indisputable right to be happy. She said that people may look for happiness in any place, and for her it was in the achievements of art and literature, the exploration of her own mind, and a search for knowledge. She further writes, ‘I who cannot hear or see have every reason to sit in a corner with folded hands and weep. If I am happy in spite of my deprivations, if my happiness is so deep that it is a faith, so thoughtful that it becomes a philosophy of life, if, in short, I am an optimist, my testimony to the creed of optimism is worth hearing.’ My happiness is in literature, learning, and becoming. It may be optimism. Or it may be something more. All I know is that the value of literature is timeless, ephemeral, magical, and it is the foundation of all that I am.