Personal narratives are something we all construct, even if we choose not to share them. We invent them. Weave them. Like making up reasons for what we did after it’s already happened; as if there were some considered rationale or deliberate reasoning before it was done. Which there probably wasn’t. But we can be very persuasive after the fact. To ourselves, at least. Narratives are hooks. Necessary hooks on which to hang strings of causality, reason and meanings with no real meaning at all. Tissue-thin paper chains blowing about in the wildly unreasonable landscape of absurdity.
I don’t write anywhere near the volume of words I walk. In ink I check the details of description too closely. Edit the ideas too precisely. Wring the flow out of my own narrative until only the sharply punctuated creases remain. The end point is almost never where I initially thought I might arrive. And so I harbor this ludicrous notion of handing my fractured narrative back to itself and just letting it go. Like bubbles or dandelion seeds or feathers floating on the breeze.
I was contemplating a looser, stream-of-thought approach to the narrative – as a therapeutic creative process – whilst out walking with my dog the other day. Thinking how liberating it could feel, how freeing, how potentially bloody awful it might be. I was struck by genius several times over, as daydreamers often imagine they are, out there on the old colliery site, inspired by the reclamation of sump and wasteland by grasses and creeping meadows, birches and berries and dragonflies. The sky is massive out there and invites the lungs to drink it in.
Not so the sunken lake. Its sparkling surface of water lilies and skimmers belie its mine shaft origins. Contaminated at source. And gravity sucks the rains from the summit, dropped by clouds, carried from who knows where, over and through the ground where the munitions factory once stood, a century or so ago, concocting explosives destined for mines out in the oceans. Delivering death at sea.
The gulls encircling that inland airspace, these late August mornings, are drawn there by the old Massey Fergusons churning the top fields, upturning their agricultural bounties to the rolling seasons. I opened my palms to the rain and wondered if any of those water droplets had years ago been transpired out of the pioneer plants that were nourished by the ashes of the locals who burned to death there, or of the American aircrew who crashed down in their Canadian aircraft in 1942. How many times had those same droplets rained on that ground? Where else on this earth had they landed and into which rivers had they flowed? Were they violently propelled skyward, with unimaginable explosive force and ripped apart flesh, by a chemical reaction somewhere out at sea?
I thought some spectacularly profound and moving thoughts out there on the limestone grit, in the rain. I can’t recall the esoteric details now, obviously. Strange how often that happens. My dog was lost in his own thoughts, triggered by the excitable scents of voles, squirrels and carrion, no doubt, anticipating the trio of labradoodles around the next bend, whom we always hear before we see on account of their clanging cow bells, or the terrier, whose human whistles melodically on the easy, grassy descent but struggles to find a tuneful breath when climbing up to those hill top benches, set into stone-sculpted land art; memorials to a more recently deceased group of individuals who used to admire the view and liked inscriptions.
Narratives and landscapes have much in common and each partakes in the other. Neither can be articulated fully and both are subject to fiction and misinterpretation. The quarry chimney can be cropped out of existence forever with careful composition, a slight repositioning of one’s shoulders to the left and an increased focal length in one’s hands. So too the blots on our own historical landscapes need never make the page if we choose for them not to. Memories are tools. Problem-solving instruments. Those which are no longer useful can legitimately be left out as scrap. Those which remain are forged into and smelted out of our own evolving narratives.
Some stories meander with no obvious destination. Or point, seemingly. The narratives of those stories become their own end. Passages of time in which a stranger might stroll, tracing butterfly paths and listening for skylarks, whilst rolling plump, marble-like sloe berries between each warm forefinger and thumb until the opaque blue-grey surfaces shine indigo like the night. And to whom the past horrors of human tragedy, where cornflowers, not poppies, now bloom, might never have been imagined were it not for a small stone plaque, West of the railway line.
Lines of poems hang low on the brambles there – green, red and purple – inklings of ideas and fully formed thoughts, side by side. They could easily be mistaken for blackberries. If left to ripen they might actually write themselves. Words have limitless potential to do that, probably, if we dare to let them. How far do we trust ourselves to let go? Will my own cathartic excursions still look like a therapeutic release to me when I reread them somewhere, sometime down the line? I don’t know. That’s the risk you run if you ramble instead of craft. Rambling out there in the physical landscape, in quiet contemplation, where one’s harshest critic is a faithful four-legged friend feels altogether safer than sharing a sequence of strung together, stand alone stills of reflection in the common space of web logs, like some dilettante diarist. Never knowing around which right or left turn a new string of words might be stumbled upon, what ideas they may contain and whether or not it would be prudent to share them.
(This post also appears on Retwords.)