Friday 14 November 2014

where do we go from here?

"I am taking off my red coat. In its pockets are seeds, rosehips, bus tickets, notes from meetings. The coat has mud on its woollen sleeves where I have dug festival ditches and community gardens, stains where I have poured tea in church halls and slept in protest tents, where I have chopped wood in my garden, a badge on each lapel that says ‘we are the 99%’ and another that declares freedom for Palestine. We can turn the ship around, I have been writing these last six years, we can do it ourselves. We can repair, resolve, remember, restore, re-imagine the world we see before us falling apart.
(The Seven Coats, Dark Mountain: Issue 6)
For some time now I've been wondering where to go. Where do my words belong, in which direction do my feet need to walk? It seems like a long time, but maybe it isn't. Maybe it's the absence of something crucial that has made it feel so long. If writing can be defined as the excitement of stringing sentences together and putting them down on a page, then I could describe this state as 'writer's block'. The sentences did come sometimes, but they soon fizzled out and could not cohere beyond a paragraph. I would feel deflated, and no longer connected to what the words were saying. It felt as if my material had run out.

When I stumbled upon the Transition movement six years ago I found I had a vast treasure store of words at my fingertips, and I spent 2008-13 sharing them in over 400 posts and newspaper and magazine columns. There seemed no end of things to say to about powerdown: about giving up central heating and radicalising my store cupboard. About working in groups and searching for a new narrative. But after a while the collaborative writing projects I created began to run aground, and I found myself losing heart. As we used to say, the EROEI just didn't stack up anymore.

I thought at the beginning I was in Tranisition for the long haul. I thought it would shape my life and that I would make a livelihood from it and forge some deep and lasting connections with fellow activists. Then I realised my engagement was a transition in itself. It was a territory that needed to be encountered and navigated, like an ocean voyage, and my outpourings and photographs were its captain's log. Once I had understood the need to frame what I saw within the planetary ecological and economic drivers, from a social perspective (no longer stuck in a little individualist cocoon), I could move on.

I had a lot to be grateful for: immersing myself in community activism broke my own disenfranchisement, it broke my silence, it gave me a rough education and skills in areas I knew nothing about, from global finance to splitting my own firewood. But by 2013 I was coming up against certain limits. Some of these limits were in my fellow Transitioners, unwilling to forgo their conventionality, or face collective demons - which made working in groups very difficult. Some were to do with the governance of Transition itself, of having an organising network where all the funding and authorial voice is concentrated in one small place.

The main limit however was to do with writing, my trade. In 2012 at the national Transition Network Conference there was a moment when I realised my love affair with the movement was coming to an end: I was standing with my fellow 'social reporter' Teen (also an ex-journalist) in an imaginary High Street of the Future. Everyone in the Battersea Arts Centre was busy building shops and enterprises out of cardboard boxes along its chalk-etched pavements. Our printing house was the first to finish and we needed to find some custom. So I went to the Job Centre.

We only have people with skills here, I was told tartly, you need to go to the Bank. Teen went outside to  have a cigarette. I went into the lobby to email some recipes for a community meal I was organising. I left a preview copy of a new newspaper in our cardboard office.

That wasn't make believe.

the sentences

I write spurred by an urgency all writers feel: to voice the collective messages you wrest from your individual experience of the world. That urgency comes when you wake up at dawn with sentences spinning like fireworks in the dark, desiring you to put them into a meaningful order. You can't keep those kinds of sentences to yourself. You have to get them down, and then you have to get them into the fabric of the world somehow.

In the era of the Internet writers no longer have to wait for publishers and agents to sign them up. You no longer have to wait for a bored editorial assistant to reply to your 1000th email, telephone call, or book treatment. You can just go and ahead publish your work yourself. By 2009 I had become, like everyone else, a blogger. I was busy creating several Transition-based collaborative blogs to record our low carbon lives in a time of social change. After 14 unpublished years, it was a heady liberation.

But writing on line has a downside. Free words are not the same as words that are printed, paid for and given proper attention by an editor and reading public. Something about the transaction is not right. After three years on a continuous deadline I realised, though I didn't like to admit it, that the messages embedded in the stories were being ignored. They were at best a moment of "beautiful writing" that flitted across the screen and then disappeared.

I realised that no matter how many pieces I wrote, or projects I  co-ordinated, editorial skills were not considered important in this grassroots territory. Everyone can write blogs, so what is the big deal? 'Comms' in a corporate-shaped world is not true editorial, but a hybrid creature lurking somewhere between marketing and HR (and occasionally filed under 'well-being'). When I stood by editorial in these Transition transactions  I started to feel that invisible crushing force normally experienced in real High Street Job Centres or the bowels of US immigration:

You should do writing as a hobby/as a volunteer/in your spare time and get a real job.

"Why should you be paid for something you enjoy?" asked my (retired) neighbour at the community meal last month, as he argued against the Arts Council funding artists and their work.

Something in me rebelled that night. I have been editing a book about artists funded by the Arts Council for the last two years, so have some insight into how most artists earn their money and what they do to secure it. I saw the writing 'limbo' I had been in all these months was in fact some kind of strike. No matter how many stories I had up my sleeve, no matter how many great connections I had made, I couldn't keeping writing about a movement where people didn't care if their media makers earned less than £2 a hour, or where funders were happy to pay 'official' Transition staff decent salaries, but their cultural freelance activists, little or nothing.

After six years I realised my work as a 'citizen editor' was leading nowhere. The sentences no longer came to me at dawn. I hadn't used the camera for over a year. That's when I realised that the bitterness I sometimes expressed was not a sign of failure, or defeat, or envy for the better fortune of others. Like all bitter things it came from a place that was demanding my attention: it came from the heart.

the empty quarter

In the latest Dark Mountain journal I've written a story called The Seven Coats, based on the Sumerian myth of Innana. Unlike the 400 blogs I had written so blithely at dawn this one took weeks to finish. It is, in some ways, about the block.

In the story I stand in front of "the six coats upon their pegs, lined up like so many books on a library shelf: my life laid out in sequence" and consider what it means to let go of all the forms of writing I have known up to then. The seventh scarlet coat is the one that has kept me bright as I documented the bumpy terrain of Transition.

Even though I have been writing since the age of 14 and worked as a journalist in my 20s and 30s, I did once stop writing books and articles for six years and only keep notebooks. I was in those years charting a territory of dreams and plants and found I could no longer write as I had in my working and travelling years. Those sentences just wouldn't form. Every time I wrote I or We I shuddered from the sound of my own authorial voice.

Sometimes it's not a lack of material that stops you writing: but a call to change your position and see another world.

Dark Mountain is a singular territory: it does not argue for sustainability, or feel we can turn the ship around if we change our shopping or voting habits. It doesn't say business can go on as usual either, or insist that all life is brutish and without meaning, or that we cannot as a modern deracinated people find our place on Earth. Even though the writing and art Dark Mountain curates look unswervingly at the collapse of ecological systems, the works themselves cohere. The people who converge around this Project hold together at the edge of a space that has no words. In a harsh and fragmenting civilisation it allows, through its creative prism, a deeper intelligence and connection between us to shine through.

The Seven Coats is about going through the seven doors of the Underworld, to discover this space of upper light and air. At each door Innana is subject to humiliation and told to remove her clothes that represent her wordly powers. A professional ability to write and edit and bring a team of people together, was perhaps the last of my old world capacities I had to forgo. It was a hard and Hadean struggle. "Your self-esteem is tied up with this blog," railed one of my fellow Transitioners, as he tried to oust me from editing the project I had created. "You are a bad writer/ a communist/I don't want to hear you talk about money again!" yelled other comrades-in-arms.

Bitterness is taboo in this world. In the same way the ruling caste will accuse the disenfranchised of envy, without considering their own privilege, writers are often accused of self-pity or ego if they complain about the poor hand they have been dealt. Shame is heaped upon you if you dare to ask for payment for your work. You are supposed to do this for free!

However bitterness is a quality of the shadow heart. The heart demands we make a good deal. It is the superlative judge in all things that matter. The Earth is a complex matrix of exchange, and if our exchanges are not fair, then something is amiss. If you are bitter it is because your heart is telling you have been been tricked in some way.

The deal is not straight for writers or artists in this culture: the culture depends on our ability to see, feed back, transform, delight, inform, question, honour, celebrate and berate the world that is all around us, to transmit a hundred messages that arise from the deep void as colourful sentences at dawn. It depends on our feeling the urgency to create. If we can't tell the real stories of our lives, it means there is no story. And a culture without a story is on its way out.

When I arrived at the Uncivilisation Festival in 2011, I realised there were people who knew the value of words and who knew the story we need to be telling has yet to be written. It was in many ways like coming into harbour after a bad storm. What attracted me was not the "doom-mongering" that the conventional media accuses Dark Mountain of, but the creative project that deliberately holds a certain kind of space. Before a story can come together, space needs to be made to allow its structure and meaning to cohere. There needs to be what the great plant metaphysician, Dale Pendell, calls a Ground State Calibration.

When you hit dry land after a long voyage you need to recalibrate - to find the existential basis for all your following actions that lie deep inside your being. You have to locate the star by which you will navigate the next journey.  If we are really co-creating the future, as Transition and other optimistic narratives assert, I don't want that future world  - by which I mean human society or what we know as civilisation - to be the same one I have been painstakingly critiquing for 40 years only with a different vocabulary, with other More Important people in charge. To be worth working for it has to have certain basic conditions: it has to have real kinship with the Earth and it has to heed the creators who are in the room, each with their names and singular virtues. It has to value the bright words we forge in the darkness of ourselves. No less, no more. Otherwise there is no deal. The story won't get written.

Today I looked at the sea: it was big and rough and the light bounced all over it. It was alive. I was alive. It was a good feeling to be standing there on the edge of England, in November. This is a good place to begin, I thought, as out of nowhere a sentence began to take shape....

Images: cover of Dark Mountain 6 by Eunah Cho; Transition Town Totnes badge (Emilio Mula) from Transtion Free Press preview issue 2012; connecting the words at the Transition Network Conference 2012 (Laura Whitehead); butterfly shaped strange attractors in phase space; covering an Occupy Norwich assembly (Mark Watson); Feeding the Fiire from Below by Kate Walters (from Dark Mountain 6) light on the sea at Southwold (MW)