I’ve come to the forest to write. For almost a month, our home will be a gite in a magical forest within the Parc naturel régional d’Armorique. The little gite in Brittany’s Finistere region has one room downstairs, a bedroom and tiny bathroom upstairs. It’s in a tucked away hamlet, a couple of miles from a slightly larger village with an excellent boulangerie.
Despite the rain, we’ve begun to explore. On our first day we found an extraordinary greenway down to a stream that runs into a cyst, the water bright copper-orange from the underlying clay and deposits of iron. This was once the place where the villagers washed their clothes, a bright glade surrounded by oaks and chestnut trees. There are lavish layers of ivy on the trees and ground, mushrooms of many types springing from the dark, damp loam and a whole orchestra of birds.
The courage to be
When David Henry Thoreau wrote in Walden about going into the wood to ‘live deliberately’ he also talked about sucking the marrow out of life. He simplified his life not out of some puritanical, self-abasing instinct, but in order to discover what was essential. He wanted to eschew distraction so that he could have a life that was both honed and rich.
It can sound idyllic but stripping away distractions can expose us to a huge amount of internal vulnerability and anxiety. As the days shorten and the darkness of winter nights lengthen, this internal journey and simplfiying can be both exhilerating and terrifying.
Slowing down, not giving away our time to social media, living ‘deliberately’ makes many people anxious, even evokes deep existential angst. In The Courage to Be, the existentialist theologian, Paul Tillich, wrote about facing this kind of anxiety. So often we stay busy and distracted, not only because we have so many demands and deadlines but because we are terrified that if we stop we’ll come face to face with a sense of emptiness or meaninglessness.
For Tillich the solution was absolute faith (courage) to believe in a “god beyond God.” I don’t share Tillich’s Christian faith, but I find his lack of nihilism refreshing and inspiring. I can’t claim to be so confident that stepping off the cliff into nothingness will always end well, especially when I think of those who are brave and still suffer terribly. Yet the decision to choose life, in the face of the most challenging adversities, is undoubtedly brave. And the decision to live in hope in an uncertain world is not foolhardy but essential, especially for writers and artists.
Surely, in fragile and difficult times, writers need to be those imagining a better world, those trying to live ‘as if’ this better world is possible. As writers we not only witness to the world but also imagine it into other possibilites, other narratives that we might share more fruitfully.
The courage to connect
Over the last few weeks I’ve written about writing the elusive self. We may never unravel the mystery of consciousness, but we have glimmers. We are bodies in time. We are language and memory. We are the narratives that we tell ourselves. But most profoundly, we are often most at peace and most ourselves when we realise how connected we are to all things. When we turn outwards, forget the ego and simply listen. When we allow the thrill of life contained in all things to hum through our veins, we touch depth both in ourselves and in how we connect to life.
The story of how connected we are is perhaps the most fundamental and vital one that we need to tell. This is a stroy that Jean-Pierre Weill unfolds in his extraordinary picture book, The Well of Being.
Having both the courage to be and the courage to connect is life-changing and radical. In Weill’s depiction connection is at the centre of the mystery of life. His beautiful and gentle watercolours prompt us to stay awake, live in generosity in each moment. Like the philosopher, Simone Weil, he urges us to pay attention. Be present, life is about being, not productivity, the quiet illustrations whisper.
It’s a message that resonates with the poet Mary Oliver when she writes about walking in woodland in the poem, ‘When I Am Among the Trees’:
When I am among the trees, especially the willows and the honey locust, equally the beech, the oaks and the pines, they give off such hints of gladness. I would almost say that they save me, and daily. I am so distant from the hope of myself, in which I have goodness, and discernment, and never hurry through the world but walk slowly, and bow often. Around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out, “Stay awhile.” The light flows from their branches. And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say, “and you too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.”
The courage to tell another story
Too often the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us are the wrong ones. They are the stories of not being good enough or not being able to … (fill in the dots). They are the stories of lack and fear. They are the stories of why we are unloveable or powerless or alone. They are stories that need to change. As Weill puts it:
I don’t say there isn’t much work to do, for there is. And some tracks lead to excruciating darkness, where a person can tumble from the sky on a clear September morning. Yet is the world not whole? Is it not beautiful? For now, let’s consider well-being a choice, something you can try on and wear. When we put on the hat and coat of well-being we incline towards joy without special occasion.
Having the courage to tell new and better stories, about ourselves, about the world, about how we might live together, is the beginning of myth-making. It connects and heals — people, communities, the world.
The courage to change
Sometimes, to find our way into those mythic and healing stories, we have to step out of our normal routines and perspectives.
The novel I’m working on is partly set in the legendary and ancient forest of Brocéliande, rich in neolithic monuments and Celtic folklore, much of it Arthurian. And each time I put myself into a new environment I find it not only enriches my writing but challenges me to see something differently.
This is true in capitals like Paris or Budapest or in beautiful mediaeval (or even older) cities like Zaragoza and Toledo, but it seems most concentrated in places of natural beauty.
So I’ve come to the forest to write. Not only because it’s a place and a character in the current novel but also because the pull to connect more deeply with life is a pull to slow down, to simplify, to listen more deeply, pay more attention.
We’re approaching All Hallows, a time of waning sun and finding our way into the dark before we emerge again next spring. It’s a good time to be quiet, to listen to the trees, remember those we’ve loved and feel grateful for those who are in our lives. It’s a good time to be attentive, to our bodies, to our journeys, to the deep connections between you and everything.
An invitation to become your story
Thank you for reading — I’d love to help you as you transform your story.
Sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. On the website, you’ll also find free courses, Setting Out, Giving yourself time to become a different story and Finding the rhythms of your different story as well as tasters for the paid courses so you can dip in and see for yourself. And while you’re there, please take a look at an exciting new project and resource for writers from Down Deep Books. There are lots of extra gifts for everyone who gets involved.