Award-winning poet, Sheila Templeton, is one of the people interviewed for Autumn Voices, due out in March. An extract from the interview with Sheila was posted on this blog last year.
Occasionally I find myself lamenting – wishing – I’d carried on writing as I did in my teens, the journal, the stories, the pieces of extra unsought work I would slide surreptitiously into the hand of my 6th Year English teacher. Who knows what kind of a life I would have had, or who I would have become? Then I give myself a shake, or a hug! And remind myself that if I didn’t have the self belief then to let anybody see my work, I was millions of miles away from even thinking about sending anything to an editor.
I don’t know how Jessie Kesson managed to nurture, not only her talent, but also that flame of self belief, which never dimmed, even when her life grew extraordinarily hard. I’m a huge fan of Jessie Kesson now, but I didn’t come across her…or Violet Jacob or Marion Angus or Flora Garry or Helen Cruikshank, until my early 50s. That was when I began to write and even more importantly, read poetry. The sad truth is that apart from a journal kept from the year I was fifteen, where I wrote mainly about love…usually unattainable…with occasional descriptions of meltingly beautiful sunsets…I associated writing with school and homework. And we didn’t ever read Scottish women writers, not at school, not at university. So I had no role models. There were certainly no MLitt degrees or creative writing groups then to encourage, or even normalise the desire to put words on paper.
The Aberdeenshire family I grew up in loved words. Stories were our bread of life. But poetry? Being published? Drawing attention to yourself? ‘Na. Na. Nae for the likes o us!
The 11th Commandment in our family was ‘Dinna draw attention to yersel’. And that meant good as well as bad attention!
So it’s not about time wasted, it’s about accepting ‘That was then; this is now’ and the right time for me to begin to pour out all the words I’d repressed for 30 years was the time it happened…the summer I got early retirement from my teaching career, the year I turned fifty-two.
I’ve said some of this before, in my interview with Robin, and again, in my joint interview with Sheena Blackhall, both being chapters in the forthcoming book Autumn Voices, because this link to my teenage writing days, cut short as they were, reminds me that we do things, we create…when the time is right.
I’m more certain than ever nowadays that it wasn’t until I had grown some self-belief that I could bear to put words on paper. I well remember that first writing group where, aged 52, I couldn’t get the simple words out ‘I’m Sheila. And I’m here because I like to write.’ I was petrified. A life time of keeping this a secret had been cracked open and it was terrifying. I knew that no matter what kind of creative writing I did, I would be exposing myself in some way. And that felt paralysing to any form of self expression.
You may well ask why I couldn’t just get on with this writing business quietly, privately, alone. Many other writers have done exactly that. Writers are solitary creatures, aren’t they? But I am not made like that. I need to feel part of something, part of the tribe. And it took me a long long time before I felt part of the tribe of writers. I remember going for the first time in 2010 to StAnza, the wonderful annual International Poetry Festival in St Andrews. By that time, I’d been published in magazines and anthologies, had my first collection out, I’d won several poetry prizes and awards…and still I didn’t feel like I had a place there. This I may say was all entirely in my head! I was welcomed, warmly welcomed. Indeed in 2014 I was invited to do a reading at StAnza as part of the official programme. But that old lack of self belief is a stubborn thing and lingered on way after there was any basis for thinking I somehow didn’t ‘have a place’ as a writer.
It’s only now, in my 70s, that I’ve begun to feel more confident and to believe that whatever I write, I have a place. Because that place, of course is feeling at home within my own heart…a process which is taking me my whole life. And I suspect that will be true in some version, for everyone.
David Donnison, who also has a chapter in Autumn Voices, has just edited and published a marvellous book of his late wife Kay Carmichael’s writings and papers. It’s called It Takes a Lifetime to Become Yourself. This piece of wisdom…that we spend our lives ‘becoming’ ourselves…or even more accurately ‘unbecoming’ whatever patterns we learned in childhood, makes it clear to me why so many of us, myself included, don’t take that step towards creativity until we are in the last third of life.
So being invited to be interviewed for Autumn Voices has been an opportunity for me to reflect on this process. When Robin asked me if I’d be willing to be interviewed for the book, I have to say that I jumped at this chance! Is there anything more delightful than being asked to sit and reflect/speak about one’s life? I’m being cringe-worthy honest here, as writing that down smacks of an ego out of control. But it’s the truth. I love telling stories of my childhood, my (on reflection) slightly odd upbringing, my struggles, my triumphs. The ‘how I got to here, me today’ unfolding in someone else’s presence, teased out by Robin’s thoughtful questions was a delightful process for me and gave me a lot of insights that were extremely helpful in looking at my own writing.
Reading back that last paragraph puts the final nail in the coffin of my once tender “don’t dare to own that I love to write” persona. I do now do dare to write. And I tell people I’m a poet. I’m a writer. It’s a liberating time of my life, these septuagenarian years…or septu-geranium, as one friend calls the seventies!
I also notice how many writers and artists I know in their seventies, who do some form of meditation, some form of spiritual practice. I don’t think this can be a coincidence. The poet e e cummings once said that ‘the artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.’ This resonates with me. I’ve been doing a daily meditation practice called Heartfulness for the last twenty-five years and I know it is at the core of whatever creativity I’m doing. It is very much about ‘unbeing’, about surrendering, opening up to who we are meant to be.
The poet Jane Hirshfield, who is a Buddhist, in her book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, also talks about how writers have to find their way, invent for themselves how to live always in the liminal, which for most members of a community is the point of transition, but for writers it has to be their dwelling place. Perhaps this explains why so many creative people have a daily spiritual practice to support living in such continuous transition of being present. Not that only creative people have a need for spirituality! Far from it. But it does seem to be a thread among creative folk.
And a final thought. I’ve been using the word ‘creative’ to describe acts of creativity eg writing, or painting. But my aspiration, my constant hope, aim, whatever…is to live every moment of my life creatively! Every moment.
I love this quote from the writer Ursula le Guin, who sadly has just left us. She said in her last book No Time To Spare, ‘The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time. In my case I still don’t know what spare time is, because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living.’ She goes on to elaborate on all her ‘living’…the walks, the reading, the playing with children, the travels, the talking with her husband, the naps, the writing…a full list of a full life. How else would we want to live our lives?