Thursday, 10 November 2016

This Strange Agency of the Soul

Back in August 2014 I was lucky enough to attend An Evening with Jeanette Winterson at the Sydney Opera House, and a couple of months ago I reminded myself of that night by watching the video of the event. 

In her insightful and very entertaining speech Winterson spoke of the great importance of books and stories—indeed, all art—in opening up ‘emotional resonances’ within us, feeding our souls, and showing us new possibilities and ways of living; and therefore, that reading should never be considered a ‘guilty pleasure’. It is, in fact, a vital necessity. 

She also emphasised a very interesting idea: that there is no such thing as linear time in storytelling (which, as a writer, I find a very exciting concept); and the same applies to the reading of stories. When you are reading, dwelling within the space of a story,

then you are actually stretching time. There’s more happening than can possibly happen when you are watching the clock, when you’re racing around … Stories seem to me to be a great challenge to the way that we live our lives. And in there, not only do we find different ideas, different experiences, different emotions, different possibilities, we find a direct challenge to this hustle and hassle culture of the 24/7 economy. (1)

Indeed, in the modern world, time itself has become a commodity, and anything that is not deemed to make productive use of it (such as reading or daydreaming), is thus considered a waste of time. This is where reading, as an escape from clock-time, and as a soul-nourishing activity, rather than an outwardly productive one, is a challenge to the modern world, a subversive, rebellious act. 

The modern world is Time’s fool. Art is master of itself. (2)

For me, reading is also a haven, a retreat in difficult times. When my health is at a low ebb, sometimes reading is almost all I can do, so many books have been keeping me company over the past couple of months. I know, of course, that there is much more to life than books (this is one of the lessons that I tried to explore in my story The Pear Tree). Yet books feed me with life, for when I cannot go out into the physical world as much as I would like, I can go into the world of a book instead. The world of the imagination has its own reality. And in exploring the world imaginatively, I can imagine myself back into relationship with the physical world too. At least, this is what I hope and strive for, in my writing as well as my reading.

I had intended to read less this year in order to make more time for writing, yet I have slowly come to realise that reading is not something I can just put aside. It is an integral part of my gathering of ideas and inspiration, my own nourishment. I never know when something I read will spark a thought, an image, a story. Put simply: I need to read in order to be able to write. The two activities are intertwined and inseparable.

In the end, as Winterson says, ‘by making the time for the book we are actually making time for something much larger, which is this strange agency of the soul’. (3) And this strange agency of the soul is, I believe, intertwined with and inseparable from the creative life, so it cannot, must not, be ignored. And thus I read—books, blogs, articles—and I digest, store away, ponder, take notes; I nourish my imagination, and it grows inside me, fed on stories of flying girls in rural Wales, of Frida Kahlo’s complex and colourful Mexico, and tales of magic and love in old Erin. And from this inner space interacting with the outer world emerges life.

Art does not imitate life. Art anticipates life. (4)

Perhaps today, of all days, when such fear and uncertainty has been unleashed on the world, we need art more than ever. 

So, dear readers, what books have been nourishing your souls recently?

2. Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, Vintage: London, 1995, p. 90
4. Art Objects, p. 40


  1. Reading and daydreaming are such important parts of my life, I think I would become quite ill if I wasn´t able to spend time daydreaming or reading every day. I want to thank you for this wonderful reminder of how important it is and that I am not just wasting my time (like some people want to make me believe).

    (At the moment my soul is being nourished by the amazing If Women Rose Rooted.)

    1. Thank you so much, Hilja. And you are definitely not wasting your time, despite what other people may say. The life of the imagination is so important.

      I read 'If Women Rose Rooted' earlier in the year, and loved it (and must read it again soon). It was, in fact, one of the reasons I started this blog.

  2. At the moment I am dipping into several tomes. I have been revisiting 'How To Make Gravy', a memoir of sorts by Paul Kelly. The intricate exploration of storytelling through song fascinates me, along with the cross-pollination of ideas. I am reading 'Dear Writer' (Revisited) by Carmel Bird, and I've also been enjoying 'Green Mountains' by Bernard O'Reilly. His awareness of the natural world around him is expressed with such joy and admiration that it is contagious. Broad pickings, I know, for my magpie mind. Reading is nourishment indeed.

    1. Thanks, Jane. I think reading widely is so important. Enjoyment and inspiration can come from so many different directions.

  3. I won't list them, because they are little escapist books. >,-) But we each read, what works for us, at specific times.

    Luna Crone


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