Thursday, 8 June 2017

Connection: Writing as Magic

I subtitled Offerings from the Wellspring, ‘A blog about creativity and connection in a living world’, for an important reason.

‘Creativity’ is self-explanatory. This space is both creative tool and outlet, where I can share my writing, my art, my attempts at living creatively.

As for ‘a living world’, of course, this world and everything in it is alive, sentient, capable of communication and relationship. My ideas in this area have been particularly influenced by David Abram’s extraordinary and mind-blowing books, which explore, academically and poetically, the concept of animism (in terms of language, perception and embodiedness). I try as much as I can, to think and act from this animistic perspective. Not very well, I freely admit, but perhaps that is a story for another day.

But it is the word ‘connection’ that I am led to explain further. I have mentioned it before, in a piece I wrote for Writers in the Mist last August, in which I said: 

The word ‘connection’ has three meanings in this context: (i) the interconnectedness of everything, and the necessity of forming relationships, not just with humans, but also with nonhumans and the earth (principles I try to keep in mind as much as I can); (ii) the connections and friendships that can potentially be formed by sharing my work with other bloggers and readers from all over the world; and, (iii) the connections that I love to find in my writing and other creative work, such as when a resonant concept in a nonfiction book I have just read pops up in a novel, giving me something to explore and write about; or when a series of separate ideas or events join together to form a story.

And of course these three meanings are … ahem … connected.

It has been important to remind myself of this because I’ve been doing a bit more writing lately, flooding pages in my notebook with words, when for several months the words had only been coming in drips and drops. As I began to enjoy the process once more—no matter the quality, or lack thereof, of what I was producing—I started to realise that what I have been missing and craving is connection.

I wrote a poem not long ago—which I am holding safely under my wing for the time being—and that poem emerged from many connections: a feeling, an intriguing word, a few sentences I had written down a year ago, word meanings, synonyms and etymology … words leading to other words … images accumulating … until the poem surfaced, whole. I am proud of it.

There is something about the creative process which thrives on, requires, connections. Perhaps that is all it is: finding connections, and expressing them. Words strung like pearls on a necklace, threads of imagery woven into larger pictures, thoughts catching hold of other thoughts. When ideas are coming thick and fast, and I find my way from nothing to something, I feel so very alive, so very wild, like I am dwelling within a magical—yet entirely natural—process that is unfolding because of my engagement and interactions with it. 

Then I think of this: ‘Modern sickness is that of disconnection, the ego unable to feel an organic part of the world, except via chemical and popular culture addictions.’ (1) Yet we are an organic part of the world, our bodies and souls made of the very same stuff, from stardust to birdsong. That we forget this, or are no longer able to perceive it, is one of the tragedies of modern life. We are disconnected, and made ill and unhappy because of it. 

I often think of this quote from Abram: ‘… we are human only in contact and conviviality, with what is not human’. (2)

Though we are human, and think in (usually very limited) human ways, we do not exist in a vacuum, surrounded only by what is human, only by our selves. It can be easy to think this sometimes, living as we do in square-walled human constructions, with human-made (thus unnatural) conveniences like electricity and running water; or living only in our heads, in a disembodied intellectual state which we have come to believe is normal. In these ways we are physically (and psychically) disconnected from the weather outside, from fresh air, from other creatures, and from the natural world as a whole, with its cycles and transformations. We’re also disconnected from our own bodies. Thus, life ends up feeling static and empty of meaning, and we turn to the ‘modern addictions’ to alleviate this, merely making the problem worse.

We can only define ourselves as human by differentiating ourselves from what is not human, what is not us. Everything that we perceive and experience—the wind whipping our hair about, the shape and solidity of a tree, the velvety ears of a dog or cat—serves to tell us what we are not, what our bodily boundaries are. I think this is part of what Abram meant in the above quote. Yet there is so much more to it, for ‘contact’ is connection, and ‘conviviality’ is friendliness, relationship. We can’t just define ourselves as human based on what is ‘other’, but must connect with those others, those nonhuman beings and landscapes. This implies a need for engagement, observation, interaction and, importantly, empathy. In doing this, we learn how to be human, how to exist as part of, not disconnected from, the more-than-human community; how to speak with and learn from nonhumans and the land, and hopefully, how to be better humans. 

This is why we need what is not human, for it is the nonhuman world that creates us, not to mention the fact that nonhumans are, literally, our kin, and meant to be our teachers. This knowledge should humble us. And this is why the extinction of every species, the destruction of every natural place, is so great a loss. As we diminish the diversity of the earth, we diminish the family of life and ourselves, lessening our chances of becoming fully human animals.

I should say that this idea of contact and conviviality applies to nonhumans as much as it does to us. A wild creature is not just the body that contains it, but the sum of all of its interactions with the world: with its habitat, with others of its kind, with predators or prey, with earth or treetop, water or sky. Divorced from that wild context, and say, put in a zoo, a wild creature ceases to be what it is. And tamed and held captive in our houses, perhaps we are the same. Disconnected. Hollow.

While we do have a physical boundary, that of our skin, which contains us as a discrete person, a certain shape in the world, and a personal mind or consciousness, at the same time I believe we can, and do, extend ourselves beyond this dividing line. This is part of what animistic perception is about: letting the rest of the world in, and projecting ourselves out into it, physically and psychically. With each inhalation we let air (Spirit) into our bodies, with its myriad scents carrying the essence of other beings—the perfume of violets, the scent of coming rain, the musty decay of autumn leaves. Sounds enter our ears and cause physical and emotional responses, whether it be a memory arising from hearing a favourite song, or a slammed door making us jump. We feel gloomy on an overcast day, or have a sense of expansiveness and freedom when standing at a high vantage point. I believe that even thoughts, ideas and dreams cannot be claimed as merely human phenomena, as they come from elsewhere, perhaps given to us by a place, a tree, a bird, a feeling which was engendered by something outside of us (and who’s to say that nonhumans don’t think and dream too?). What we see, hear, feel, smell, experience, walk through, play with, eat, and so on, gives rise to who and what we are.

It is often said that language is what separates humans from nonhumans, though this isn’t quite true. Language, that is, the ability to communicate, exists independent of words (and independent of humans too). Though there is something in the notion that human language, particularly the written word, is one of the key things that has severed our connection with the natural world; Abram deals with this idea throughout his book, The Spell of the Sensuous. Yet, though he believes that a return to oral culture is greatly needed (and a return to living in our sensuous bodies also), his conclusion is not that writing is bad. It is, in fact, its own very concentrated form of animism. He said in an interview:

Everything that we speak of as Western civilization we could speak of as alphabetic civilization. We are the culture of the alphabet, and the alphabet itself could be seen as a very potent form of magic. You know, we open up the newspaper in the morning and we focus our eyes on these little inert bits of ink on the page, and we immediately hear voices and we see visions and we experience conversations happening in other places and times. That is magic!


I'm not trying to demonize the alphabet at all. I don't think the alphabet is bad. What I'm trying to get people to realize is that it's a very intense form of magic. And that it therefore needs to be used responsibly. I mean, it's not by coincidence that the word "spell" has this double meaning — to arrange the letters in the right order to form a word, or to cast a magic. To spell a word, or to cast a magic spell. These two meanings were originally one and the same. In order to use this new technology, this new play of written shapes on the page, to learn to write and to read with the alphabet, was actually to learn a new form of magic, to exercise a new form of power in the world.

But it also meant casting a kind of spell on our own senses. Unless we recognize writing as a form of magic, then we will not take much care with it. It's only when we recognize how profoundly it has altered our experience of nature and the rest of the sensory world, how profoundly it has altered our senses, that we can begin to use writing responsibly because we see how potent and profound an effect it has. (3)

Writing is magic. I feel this is so, based on what it has done for me, bringing me from a nowhere/nothing place, back to life. It has helped me to heal, to find myself once more. Creativity itself is a spiritual practice, and therefore necessary and meaningful. Thus, in not writing for some time, really delving deep into my inner life, my wellspring, I began to feel disconnected, from myself as well as the world. Without writing, I wasn’t finding the connections that enliven me, that bring meaning. 

I’ve said before, I want to write myself back into relationship with the world, to let my imagination spill out of the boundaries of my own body, yet to write in a fully embodied way too. When I am unable to go out into the world, I can at least invite the world to come to me. I want to write for and from the earth, not just for and from myself, and this implies responsibility. And if everything is interconnected—and it is!—then the connections are already there, always there. It’s just a matter of opening up to them. This means that writing itself is about connection, about engagement with the world—intellectually, intuitively and sensuously—even though, paradoxically, the life of a writer may seem, from the outside, so very full of solitude and withdrawal. 

And so here I am at the end of a long and rambling essay, because I started writing, and connections found me, and wanted to be written. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to say, or where I was going to end up, and perhaps this doesn’t make as much sense as it should, filled as it is with my sometimes vague philosophical musings. Yet this needed to be said, the connections forming on the page, and reminding me—writing is magic.

1. Monica Sjöö & Barbara Mor, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, second edition, HarperOne: New York, 1987, 1991, p. 29
2. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, Vintage: New York, 1996, p. ix
3. Scott London, ‘The Ecology of Magic: An Interview with David Abram’,

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