Writers often say their work is a voyage of discovery.
In The Bonnie Road, an American is required, under duress, to return to Scotland, the land of her birth, only to find it a jarringly foreign country. One of the strangest of the townsfolk brings her the gift of insight through a Scots Border Ballad, in which the Queen of Elfland shows her lover three roads. The last of these is the bonnie road to fair Elfland, set apart from the mundane paths as the way of mysticism and magic; and, in the American’s mind, the way of the artist and of her sadly discarded vocation. Having seen the path, Rosalind is bereft that her past, her life, her choices and circumstances have rendered it impossible to walk. Can she make her way through the dark landscape to find her feet, at long last, on the bonnie road? And if she does, what then?
It’s hard to believe it’s been just over six months since The Bonnie Road was published. So many years of hard work went into its creation, followed by an especially busy year preparing for the publication date last Autumn. I had no idea how much work goes into collaborating with a publisher; and add to that all the things a contemporary author can do to help raise awareness, especially in the creation of an online presence. Not that I’m a good example whatsoever in that regard, but I did my best, and my dear daughter’s help proved invaluable, especially for things like the inner machinations of Twitter.
So how is it, now that the first blush is off the rose? Given that the contract for a first novel opened the door once and for all to a vocation I’ve been doing my dead-level best to realize across the chances and changes of this fleeting world, things are just fine.
The launching of the novel in its setting of St Andrews, Scotland was a whirlwind delight, and the readings and literary groups back home continued throughout the fall. I was truly touched by the appreciation I received from attendees and supporters. Upon which the attention to the novel shifted to the internet, with guest blogs and reviews, social media, and all that. Add the recording of an audio version of Bonnie Road to the mix, in my home studio- for which I’m currently editing the sound files, a meticulous and demanding job- plus the ever-ongoing research and notes for the next novel slipped into any remaining time, and there you have the past six months of the writing work summarized. It goes far beyond a full-time work-week, and there are no days off. I’ve joined the club of authors who have gone before, and am discovering the truths and patterns of their lives and discipline in my own.
What have I found? Most importantly a fierce joy in the work itself. If I were not compelled to do this, if it were not (finally! finally!) the hard-won expression of my vocation, the sacrifices and discipline would not be worth it; or perhaps worse, the end product would be a slog rather than a flight, difficult as the writing process is. It’s taken far too long to have finally been able to settle into life as an author, in my 58th year, and if it’s true that a literary novel takes, on average, 5 to 7 years to complete (which is my experience), that means that, given my age, I’ll be lucky if I can complete three more novels, assuming my health and mental acuity hold out. I do not look back, or a kind of grief descends. But then I shrug and figure ces’t la vie, nothing particularly unusual about my story, just as the American in the novel is a product of her time and place. Better late than never. I consider authors like Penelope Fitzgerald who began her writing career at 60, and am inspired. I also know perfectly well why and how it is for those countless souls whose artistic dreams could never be realized.
Yes, my feet are walking the bonnie road, like Rosalind’s, at last, at long last. I didn’t expect the plot points of the novel to be quite so apropos, but there it is, that voyage of discovery that you can’t comprehend until you look back, because life is shifting and changing as you write.
The writer’s success is not the actual books, as absolutely wonderful as they are, all that effort rendered into a handy object of pleasure; it’s the life those books manifest. Which brings me to the second major shift, the protection of this fragile crucible of creativity. When the work of writing begins first thing in the morning, and ends last thing before sleep, balance becomes the measure of success or failure in a day’s work. Everything is harnessed to operate at full capacity, which translates to health and focus. As writers and artists have done before, I keep sacrosanct the best times of day to create and write, the best time to take some exercise, with seasonal variations of course, such as a solo hike, during which I think out ideas for the work- (or as is the case now, joyfully dancing with two Morris teams in preparation for May performances, which adds the greatest pleasure of good company). Then it’s a cup of tea and a return to work, perhaps a change of pace given over to research or the mind-boggling array of the business side of things. And, finally, reading books that influence my writing one way or the other, before sleep.
I recently heard an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert on her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, and on the subject of winnowing out those things that distract us from the work, she said that it was hard enough to say ‘no’ to the constant barrage of requests and enticements from outwith our writing desks, but that it was equally necessary to say ‘no’ to our own habits and desires that break apart the writing flow. I had to ruefully agree. In my case, it’s, among other things, saying goodbye to TV, and replacing it with the reading that a writer simply must do. Because mobile-phone service is not available here, I am spared the temptation of whether or not to have a cell phone. It’s vital to have extended periods of quiet, or my work reflects a shallow or scattered attention. Easy for me to write that, difficult to do. Gilbert’s conclusion was, why on earth wouldn’t you give up your unhelpful little indulgences, since the work you are doing is where abiding joy is to be found? I’ll add to that the awareness of the fleeting time left as a powerful spur to self-discipline.
There is much more to tell as I commence the long walk along the beautiful and ferny brae that is the bonnie road, including how my relationships with others have decisively changed, going hand in hand with my relationship to myself. Of how my spirituality, which imbues every aspect of my life, is expressed and enhanced. Of the courage to be who I am, writing what I ought to be writing, not what I think I ought to be writing. But these are in process, and I will save any observations for later.
The Bonnie Road continues a steady readership and response, for which I am very grateful indeed. This acknowledgement, this vindication supports me in the audio recording, and in my work on the next book. That pleasure in the writing process, that walking the bonnie road, colors everything with joy. That’s what I want to convey, and in conveying it, hope someone reading this and searching for their own bonnie road will be encouraged to find the joy of it.
Mid-November, and the old oaks in the forest were some of the last to shed their leaves, in tandem with the beech groves. Ten days ago, on an unremarkable morning, one in a series of mild days, they shared an inscrutable signal and dropped most of their leaves at the same time, between dawn and noon, in a shimmering shower of gold.
The warm autumn weather enticed hikers out to the mountain trails, where they discovered the dry oak leaves were so slippery and deep, many had accidental falls. I didn’t fall, but I went careening down a steep slope, where the slick leaves hid flat rocks, with nothing between the trail and a six hundred foot drop down the Hemlock- forested cliffs. For the first time ever, I hesitated on the thin trail, realized that it promised to be an extremely difficult and dangerous solo hike, and turned back.
I suspected that once we’d had a good rain, the forest trails would be easier to negotiate, even if still invisible under the deep golden covering of fallen leaves, and I was right, but I didn’t know why. It turns out the tannin-rich oak leaves have a slick, shiny film that makes walking over them akin to sliding on ice. Once they’d had a good soak, maybe beginning the disintegration process, the forest was walkable once again, with caution and a proper hiking staff in hand.
Deep in the forests, moving through the bare trunks of late autumn, the old Northern Red Oaks convey a weighty presence. Many are remnants of the brief time in Southern Vermont around the 1840s, when the forests were cleared for Merino sheep, except for these same oaks, which provided shade and shelter. Now the forests have grown back, but it’s easy to spot the originals. They don’t grow close together, so when the unmistakable pillars of their trunks appear in the midst of lesser trees, they demand attention. I’ll put a hand on the rigid bark and look straight up the trunk, into the thick terminals of the branches, to see a few folded, clacking dry leaves still hanging on, way up there, and take pleasure in verifying that the charismatic tree is indeed an oak.
Every tree has its own personality, though really getting to know them through the seasons and years has been revealing in ways I could never had anticipated. Whether appreciating how the oak splits and dries and burns compared to other hardwoods, losing my footing on the rolling excess of fallen acorns, or growing miraculous shiitakes from the cut boughs, a new language arises. It’s not only the subtler secrets of the tree being given up, but the awareness of what was necessary in order for me to begin to hear it.
Part of this process is the releasing of beliefs that are so ingrained, they inhabit my mind and memory without my being aware. Was it from childhood, or folklore, or books in which the magical oak was featured? A strong part of my identity and heritage is tied up with the spirituality of old pagan Britain and Northern Europe, and the oak features prominently. It has found its way from its mythological past to the mind-boggling array of contemporary studies and advice, in particular among the various neo-Pagan communities. A mere glance online for “oak tree magical properties” will propel you into a universe you never imagined could be so vast.
I fear that from time to time I have been lazy and undiscriminating in my research and reading. Countless other things, like my thoughtless familiarity with the oak, have been taken up, inspected and tried, enjoyed or rejected, and put down, to be included in some strange treasury of accrued knowledge. When I see a particularly handsome oak, my mind, like a horrible computer, ticks through the list of all the notable and clever things I know about it. And that’s what I see, when I see the oak. But of course, it’s a fantasy, a construct of my own choosing.
There were two things that eroded away my superficial notion. One was simply existing in its presence, allowing it to come to me, rather than imposing my expectations on it. Living with the oak is not the same as visiting it with a purpose in mind, such as an intentional summons or entreaty to the oak to reveal itself; its resident spirit dryad, Sidhe Draoi, its attributes of power and strength. (And please do not think I do not do this- at one of the darkest times in my life, I stumbled home from a trip still not knowing if a beloved family member I thought I had lost, was yet to die, and without thinking, the only thing left to do was fall wordless at the feet of the great old oak and curl up there, heedless of the freezing temperatures, until I could function again.) And yet, even here, for the most part, with the best of intentions, there is a danger of self-delusion, of self-fulfilled projections which can too often lead right back to a solipsistic fantasy. Happily, the patient teacher of time in the presence of the oak snuck up on me all unawares.
The second is more active: when hiking in the forest, particularly on some trails that could be treacherous, such as with those slippery oak leaves, or testing the edge of a change in weather or light, one’s attention is forced to be on the task at hand. Wander off in your mind, and you are courting a sprained ankle or harsh fall. If the temperatures are especially low, the wind keen or the rain coming on, things get really serious. This stills the mind and clears the senses, so they can do what they are meant to do, concentrate on the surroundings, make quick decisions on how to keep danger at bay, and at the same time, be ever vigilant.
Then, the really interesting thing happens, which won’t surprise anyone who has experienced it; a feeling of bliss sets in from this heightened focus. It rushes in, it manifests simply as it is. I am with the oak, and the tree is released from my shallow ingrained perception, to emerge fully in its true presence. Perhaps the same thing is happening to me. This transcending bliss feels very connected to something far greater. Rather than being a novel curiosity, it’s more akin to opening up to something already there. Yet, it always surprises me, perhaps because I’m not looking for it. It’s a by-product of being in the natural flow. It eventually recedes as the cares of daily life pull the attention back to its fractured state, but it is by no means transient. The more it visits, the deeper a layer it creates across the days of my life.
The unfortunate conclusion about this process is that if the oak is any indication, I probably have self-created delusions around just about everything. The good thing is that it seems to be the human story of how we move through our lives, and even my self-delusion is endearing in its way, as is a child’s or artist’s unique way of seeing. It’s as if I’ve been given a fresh perspective of creation, and I have joined with countless others who have experienced this before me. Now, it’s up to me to honor the gift. Let me begin by writing this down and sharing it with you.