I have been writing from my experience of the sea and coast while sailing for several years now. I want to explore the ways in which constructing a narrative influences experience.
One of my earliest pieces gave an account of a twenty-four hour Channel crossing in which I stayed on watch on my own through the evening and night because my son Matthew was disabled with dreadful seasickness. The evening drew in with a moderate swell blowing in from the Atlantic. An endless procession of waves advanced rhythmically toward us. The low light glinted on the peaks so they reflected a metallic sheen, while casting deep shadows in the troughs between. Coral shouldered her way up to each peak, paused a moment, then slithered down into the trough, casting white water all around her. As she rose and fell in response to the swell, I stood balanced in the cockpit, now looking westward across the waves, now up at the sails. She was travelling very fast, and I wondered about taking in a reef, then wondered if I should see if Matthew was OK, but decided, no, neither was needed. I allowed myself to experience a simple joyfulness of the moment.
Do I remember the experience, or do I remember the remembering and the crafting of the narrative? Have I changed the experience, by writing about it (and now writing about it again)? And does it change the way I experience other moments that might be similar, but are subtly, even radically different? Is there a danger that when I write a narrative from an experience I create some kind of clichéd template into which similar experiences are forced? After all, the evening sun does often cast deep shadows on a moderate swell blowing in from the west.
Alternatively, does creating a narrative open awareness to fresh ways of seeing? When I asked my friend and fellow writer Miriam Darlington if she felt any confusion between experience and narrative, she responded
Yes, I have noticed something like this with my writing. What I have particularly noticed is something quite powerful happens when I have written a narrative of a particular place – somehow it has entered into me, or I have entered into it, actually both, and the porous relationship has deepened. It is as if the imagination has worked to blur or cross some boundary, and the connection to the place is sort of emotionally sealed. It is such a powerful feeling that I sense it physically, too. Then when I go back to that place, I often feel I am walking into my own narrative as well as into the place, and my body feels a certain “exquisite fit” as William Wordsworth put it, as if the imagination has opened some doors into place, into its nature, its particularity and wildness, which before were invisible.
I like that phrase: “the imagination has opened some doors into place… which before were invisible.”
My artist friends say the same about drawing. My artist wife Elizabeth and I have been inviting small groups of artists and writers to join us for a day to draw and write together. We chose stimulating venue and work in pairs, taking turns to point out things that attract our attention, and then draw or write (sometimes draw and write) a brief sketch in response. We meet over coffee and lunch to show and tell. The sketchy nature of the exercise allows us not to be too concerned about judgement and quality, and what becomes fascinating is the different qualities people see in the same objects and the imaginative responses these evoke.
In the last three years I have experienced four memorable moments while looking at the starry sky, exquisitely clear because in the middle of the sea there is no light pollution. Each time I have made audio recordings in the moment, listened and transcribed these when back at my desk, re-entered and re-imagined the experiences, drafted, then crafted my account. I have struggled to find the words that fit and do justice to both the phenomenon and the experience while avoiding cliché and fancy metaphor. Each occasion of experience and narrative has taken me into a deeper appreciation of the unfathomable infinity and mystery of the universe.
On another occasion I spent an hour taking pictures and writing about a little lump of thrift on a cliff top in Orkney, going deeper into the sense of the fragility of the plant, of the eroding cliff, of the whole island. When I stood up at the end, for a fragment of a second I experienced the whole of creation as a dancing process, similar, maybe, to that described by the Native American Black Elk. This writing became part of a little article in Resurgence & Ecologist, and now I never see thrift in the same way again.
So I think Miriam is right, it is the combination of experience with the imaginative process of crafting a narrative that opens the imagination to see what was previously unseen – and maybe unsee-able.
But I find I return to my original question: does the narrative in some way fix or reify what is ephemeral process, particularly when the experience touches on the mystical? Is there a danger of “spiritual materialism”, a term the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa used to describe how the most subtle experience can be used for the enhancement of ego. I worry when people respond to my narratives with an “Oh, wow!” tone in their voice. “What a wonderful experience!” they sometimes say, as if I have caught something out of this world. “No, no!” I want to cry out, “It was really special and completely ordinary!”
Two years ago I sailed to southwest Ireland and wrote about it in The Call of the Running Tide. This year I went there again, visiting some of the same places. At times, even though everything was so different – the time of year, my crew, the weather – I had the uncanny feeling that I was sailing through my own narrative. I was full of memories and stories from being there before. I think this was partly because the difficult weather made the actual sailing quite challenging, so the old stories had a rosy glow about them; partly because as a writer I wanted something new to say, to write a new book about new places; partly because much of the time I knew my way around without reference to the pilot books. But I am sure it was also because the carefully wrought narratives of the previous journey had themselves created a powerful attractor.
But sometimes novelty and contrast shocked me into new realizations. Two years ago I sailed into Dunmanus Bay for the first time in a sharp squall, and anchored in the lonely and dramatic surroundings of Dunmanus Harbour a little way in from the entrance. I was alone, and saw the bay as a wild and relatively untouched ecology, so that was how I wrote about it. This year my friend Steve was with me as crew. As we sailed into the bay, even though the weather was cold, the sun was shining, and we were met near the entrance by a pod of dolphins – they always raise the spirits. We went further up the bay, past Carberry Island, which shelters the upper reaches from the force of the Atlantic, and anchored by the wooded shores of Kitchen Cove. There we were closer inland, closer to Bantry and other holiday towns, so that at the pub we met up with English people visiting their holiday homes.
At first I was disappointed that Dunmanus Bay was not conforming to my image. Then I realized I was seeing it in a more complete way. Waterways like this connect the open wildness of the ocean to the relative shelter of the land. They constitute the ‘old ways’, to borrow Robert Macfarlane’s term, that reach from the open sea to the inhabited land, old ways not just for humans but for wildlife too. They provide a wide range of habitats, intermediate and intermingling ecosystems that are rich in variety. The “western edge” that I claim to be exploring reaches in to the inhabited as well as out to the wild.
So crafting narrative seems to potentially cut both ways: there is always a danger that the story reifies and comes to stand for experience; and there is also the creative opportunity that it allows us to look and look again, and to enter the experience more deeply with our senses and our imagination.
I think there is more to explore here, and would appreciate comments and responses.