Noticing things differently – why creative nonfiction is like poetry

Apart from the occasional poem, most of what I write is nonfiction.  Creative nonfiction is a genre which is increasingly discussed – hard to define, but including narrative accounts, personal responses, place writing, reflection and imaginative explorations.  This is what I have written since long before I knew it had a name!

I have long thought that the two forms of writing I engage in – creative nonfiction and poetry – are two sides of the same coin.  That statement may make a bit more sense if I take you back to Wales in 1986, when I first started writing in an intentional way.

In a recent blog post I wrote about being fortunate to be part of a pilot for an A level creative writing course.  The exam board commissioned leading Welsh writers to run creative writing residentials for the students in the pilot because, as most teachers were used to delivering a traditional, Shakespeare-and-the-classics English Literature syllabus, teaching creative writing was something quite new to them.  Six of us from my school travelled with the Head of English, Liz Pugh, to Plas Tan y Bwlch (now the Snowdonia National Park Study Centre) for two days with, amongst others, Gillian Clarke.

A word here about Gillian Clarke.  Now aged 82 and something of a ‘national treasure’ in Welsh cultural life, she had at that point recently published her fourth collection, Selected Poems (although I didn’t read her work until later).  With decades of experience of teaching English and creative writing in schools and colleges, she was the perfect choice to encourage young people to explore the process of writing poetry.  From 2008-2016 she was the National Poet of Wales (the Welsh version of a Poet Laureate), and as well as her award-winning poetry she has created a fine legacy in the form of Ty Newydd, the national writing centre for Wales, which she co-founded in 1990.

Back in 1986, it’s a glorious spring day, with sunshine flooding into the big lecture room at Plas Tan y Bwlch. Huge windows offer panoramic views of the valley and the wooded hills beyond, but we aren’t paying much attention, because Gillian Clarke is speaking.  She has seated us – some 30-odd students aged 16-18 – in a large circle.  She has a basket beside her, and from this she takes a small object, about the size of an egg.  I’m going to pass this round the circle, she says.  Take as long as you like when it comes to you.  What I want you to do is notice.  What do you notice about this object?

The object passes slowly from hand to hand, as each student holds it, turns it over, gazes at it, frowns or nods in recognition, maybe runs a finger over a detail, passes it to their neighbour.  I watch them as the object makes its way to me, about two thirds of the way round the circle.  Then, it is in my hands – feather light, delicate yet curiously strong, like an eggshell.  The size of a small egg, and almost the same shape, with a hooked point at one end.  Smooth, with hollows divided by sharp, paper-thin membranes.  Notice, Gillian had said.  How should I notice?  I have looked at it.  I have turned it over and over and looked at it from all sides.  I have used touch to explore its textures and weight.  I’m not going to taste it!  But there are other senses I could use – maybe, if I hold it to my ear it will sing of the sea, like a shell?  No.  But how about smell?  Tentatively, I lift it to my nose – earthy, organic, and yet almost like stone.  I hear a soft hiss from Gillian – yesss.  I look at it one last time, and pass it to my neighbour.

Afterwards, Gillian tells us about the object – it’s a buzzard’s skull that she found on a walk, and she has written a poem about it.  But, she says, that’s not why she brought it today.  It’s just a way, she says, of getting us to notice things differently.  She mentions that one person went beyond looking and touching by listening and smelling (I squirm with embarrassment at this).  She’s delighted – this is what she was hoping we would do.  Now, she says, go away and write a poem.

As we move away, she calls me back, and we talk about the senses, and how important she thinks it is that a writer should notice differently – from a different angle, using different senses, and without what we think we know about the object getting in the way of our noticing.  She is enthusiastic, encouraging.  I take my notebook to a corner of the terrace and start to write – this is the poem.

The Buzzard’s Skull

This ritual is new, and yet
along the distance of my mind
I know that I remember.
The circle is held, spellbound;
the sacrament is passed from hand to hand:
a ceremony of initiation?

Blindfold and afraid, I hear
the holy word approach,
rhythmic, sinister,
along the chain.
The object is in my hands,
stirring a memory that
my fingers cannot grasp –
a forest or a beach?
My life,
or life that lingers in my mind,
beyond (my) memory?
My fingers’ eyes have been in the dark
so long,
they are blinded by this light,
and cannot see.

Although I never saw Gillian again after that residential, I followed her career and occasionally heard her on the radio.  I know that many writers were encouraged into writing by her, and I am always grateful to her for that hissed yesss that made me realise that I was on the right lines in how I observed the world around me, rather than just being weird.  She made me realise that I was starting to think like a writer.

And like a writer, rather than solely a poet – because the nonfiction I write is also about noticing things differently.   Poetry is about precisely that – a good poem leaves the reader thinking “wow, I never looked at it like that before” and can weave magic around the most familiar and mundane subject.  Creative nonfiction, I would suggest, has a similar role – to explore the homely as well as the exotic, looking with fresh eyes and an unexpected perspective, touching and listening and smelling and tasting, and telling the stories of people, places and objects with new voices.

Cover of Selected Poems Gillian Clarke

 

This week I have been mostly – researching

I was recently commissioned by a literary webzine to write a piece on Strata Florida Abbey in West Wales.  This was one of a number of possible ideas I had pitched to the editor, but I must admit I was thrilled that this was the one they wanted, as it’s a place that’s very dear to my heart.

West doorway of Strata Florida Abbey. Mono photograph.

When I was 17 (a very long time ago), I was at school in North Wales and doing an innovative A level English course which included a large element of creative writing – this was very cutting edge in the 1980s!  My group – there were just 5 of us doing the course – was taken on a number of field trips to provide inspiration for our writing, and one of these was to Cymer Abbey, near Dolgellau.  Cymer was a small Cistercian abbey (the Cistercians were the ‘back to basics’ order of monks which emerged out of the Benedictine tradition at the end of the 11th century.  They were into simplicity, austerity and self-sufficiency).  Cymer was founded in 1198 and dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536.  We spent a couple of hours there, taking in the peaceful location between the hills and the Mawddach river, beside a small farm, in the spring sunshine.  We learned about the silver gilt chalice and paten (vessels used in the Mass) which had been discovered in the 19th century, treasure which was believed to have been hidden by the monks to keep it safe from the king’s men when they came to close and ransack the monastery.  This is the poem I wrote:

Cymer Abbey

The ruins lie like a cracked skull,
empty arches like toothless jaws:
bare homes of stolen treasure.
Each stone is a tombstone for a soul
through the processions of the past.
Chants sound in the vacant roof,
scents of incense in the mists of history.
The pale, thin, golden light of dawn
upon the parchment walls –
the candlelight of centuries.

OK, it’s a bit ‘A level creative writing course’, but I can kind of see why I ended up a writer, and especially a writer who loves writing about place.

My next brush with the Cistercians was a couple of years later – I was at university in West Wales, and every October a group of students would go to Strata Florida Abbey to hold a service in the remains of the abbey church.  In practice, this usually meant a service in the little Georgian parish church next door, as the weather in late autumn in Wales was rarely conducive to outdoor services in the ruins!  The video of that first visit still plays in my head – the little coach winding past the vastness of Tregaron Bog (Cors Caron), the village of Pontrhydfendigaid and the sudden right turn into an insignificant residential lane.  The lane continuing out into the countryside and then, round a corner, the first sight of the abbey ruins – in particular, the iconic west doorway.  At that point, I hadn’t read about the abbey or seen pictures of it, so I had no idea what to expect, except that the people who’d been before said it was rather special.  They weren’t wrong.

Mono photograph of detail of finial on west doorway, Strata Florida Abbey.

The abbey nestles between the foothills of the Cambrian Mountains and the River Teifi.  Even with the later house built over part of the cloister, the farmyard next door, and the parish church and extensive churchyard beside it, Strata Florida has the peace and beauty characteristic of Cistercian sites, chosen as they were for their remoteness from ‘the dwellings of men’.  The west doorway is unique in its architectural style, the spiral triscele finials a nod to the Celtic culture of the generations of Welsh princes and bards who were buried here.  I decided that I would love to be buried here, too.

In the years that passed, I visited Strata Florida whenever I could (easier once I was a grown up with a car!), and a few other abbeys too.  In my 30s, I went back to university part time for a Masters degree, and two of the modules available were on the Cistercians, because a professor in the history department just happened to be one of the world’s leading experts on the Cistercians.  Inevitably, perhaps, I ended up doing my dissertation on the Cistercians, with the title Living Water: a study of Cistercian water management in the context of twelfth and early thirteenth century monastic water systems, with particular reference to selected Cistercian sites in England and Wales (including, of course, Strata Florida!).  I have explored the latrines, drains, troughs and water pipes of almost every Cistercian monastery in England and Wales where there are any ruins remaining.  I have even infected my partner, who is, as I write this, wrangling an essay for a module on the Cistercians for her Masters degree.

Mono photograph of detail of west doorway, Strata Florida Abbey

You would think, then, that I wouldn’t have to do any research for the article I’ve been commissioned to write.  But, frankly, any excuse to get the books out again!  And fact-checking (dates etc) is important.  Also, scholarship does move on.  There have been a number of archaeological digs and research projects since I last wrote about Strata Florida, and Cadw (the Welsh government’s heritage agency, who owns and cares for the site) now has a visitor centre and facilities, as well as an excellent web page.  My most recent visit was in late 2019, and I was able to take some photographs, to accompany the article and this post.

When the article is published, I’ll post a link to the webzine.  Meanwhile, if you don’t already follow this blog, and would like to have future posts drop into your inbox, why not follow TheThreeHaresBlog by email?  I post on average about once a week.  Thanks!

Colour photograph of books about Cistercians, and a notebook.