There is a part of me that wants to write, A part that wants to theorize, A part that wants to sculpt, A part that wants to teach…. To force myself into a single role, to decide to be just one thing in life, would kill off large parts of me.
Kill off large parts of me? As a young man fresh out of college, I thought: Why in the world would anybody want to do that?
When I first read these words, I felt as if I had just been given license to be myself, and not who everybody else wanted me to be. Not seeing the irony in my ways, I kept that epiphany a secret for a long time. I felt that if I told anyone about all of these different “parts” of me, they would tell me how foolish I was being.
“It’s not the domestic model,” they would say, “so you’d be a fool to stray too far from the plan that you – and we – have had for you all along. Such distractions are unnecessary.”
Sometimes, I feel like those of us who were coming of age in the eighties were the last generation to feel tied to the rules and mores of the past. We were still too eager to honor and please others, and we felt tremendous guilt if we strayed.
But maybe it’s wrong of me to brush such a broad stroke. Perhaps it is just in my character to please, to resist the disappointment that I feared I would feel from others.
And, maybe, still fear.
Yeah. that’s probably all on me.
I remember my friend Ginny telling me about her father, who was quite the artist, and how he had kept that part of him inside all his life because his wife would not allow him to live fully as that artist. Ginny said to me that the artist within him was too strong, and no matter what anybody did or said to suppress that artist, it was going to manifest in some way to leave his body. In this case, it was cancer. And it took his life — and his art — swiftly.
When you stand in your authenticity and truth, you make space for others to do the same. Especially those closest to you. What rebellion are you trying to enact? Inner? Outer? Or that place between?
After I let those words sink in a bit, I realized that, ironically enough, one of the things that stands in the way of our authenticity is social media. I’m reminded of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and how so many of us keep wearing that face that we keep in the jar by the door. The only difference is we’re wearing those masks for the world to see.
Behind them lies the individual desperately seeking authenticity and truth – not to mention validation – in all the wrong places.
On days like this, when I am pondering the balance I strike between the artist and the domestic, I go back to Prather’s words and remember what it was like as that 22-year-old kid feeling liberated, but keeping it all a secret.
I’ve been balancing that irony all my life.
The path less trod for me has been an internal journey, and I know that I am speaking for so many others as well. I’m talking about people who are just like me who have lived a quiet, creative life, suppressing so much of who they really are, for the compromise of a safe, domestic life.
Is it too late to change any of that? Of course not. Do I have the courage to do it? That’s an entirely different story.
So I believe this to be more like the path more trod, because I think that many of the people reading this will identify with that struggle to become a person.
So what do we do? We carry on with the rules we have established for our lives; we don’t wallow in some melancholic waters of what we have not done (but honestly, how soothing is that!). We continue to fuel the parts of us that want to write, to theorize, to sculpt, to teach. We do what we are doing here at The JAR Writers’ Collective. We create portals for our creativity to flow more freely.
And we stand as best we can in authenticity: for ourselves and for others, as we continue along our paths more or less trod, but our paths nonetheless to call our own.
The road not taken? The path less travelled by? More like trolling generations of poetry students and Instagram influencers.
There were always two paths.
There was always at least A path.
It just so happened he happened to take the one with more leaves on it.
Others have been there before you.
Someone has always been there ahead of you.
And that’s ok.
I’m definitely ok with that.
You don’t have to hack your way through uncharted territory because there wasn’t a way there before. There’s probably a really good reason why the path doesn’t go that way. The path of least resistance is a good starting point as a writer. Why make it harder for yourself?
I walked a writer’s path starting out with brief sentences and paragraphs. It was where I wanted to learn how to craft something. I spent a year writing flash fiction and getting feedback via a writers’ website. I wrote blog posts, worked collaboratively on projects, before feeling comfortable to write alongside someone and work on a novel. Still feel like the novel is beyond me whereas a novella is more in line with where my writing sits. A novel could be further down the path.
If I lay out my current projects on the table, what path would I take? Can I come back to something or will it be left behind?
Part Two – Personal Anecdote
There is a creek down the street from where I grew up, and where my parents still live, and I spent many hours down by the water either by myself or with my younger brother and our dog.
A dirt track ran beside the creek and we would often follow it until we could go no further. Then we climbed down the rock faces and kept boulder-hopping down the creek.
No phones. No recourse should we get injured. Mum said she wasn’t worried unless the dog came home alone.
I had the freedom to walk the same path over and over and over again: through summer heat keeping an eye out for snakes (this is Australia, after all), winter coldness, and during and after rainfall when the trickle of a waterfall turned into a brown rush.
It was my querencia of solace and familiarity. This was my happy place as a solitary explorer. I could walk the path over and over, knowing where I was at each turn and curve even, as storms and nature put obstacles in the path or branches hung lower. There was always a path visible, even when it was overgrown and almost forgotten about.
I used a setting from one area of the creek in a short story, The Cicada Clock, first published in Tincture Journal.
I took my daughters down there recently, and it was the first time I’d been down there in perhaps fifteen years, maybe even twenty years. We walked the path, at times hidden by long grass or fallen trees, and explored together. For me it was revisiting a space I inhabited so much as a child and teenager, and a chance to introduce my girls to a location meaningful to me. I lead and they followed. Or one of them would go ahead to see what was around the corner or over the rise or behind the tree.
We shared the path.
We may never return there.
Part Three – Comic Juxtaposition
One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the LORD.
Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand: one belonging to him, and the other to the LORD.
When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand.
He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints.
He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life.
This really bothered him and he questioned the LORD about it:
“LORD, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why when I needed you most you would leave me.”
The LORD replied:“Sand people always ride single-file, to hide their numbers.”
Part Four – Personal Application
Standing on the shoulders of giants involves learning how to climb their backs; to scramble up the terrain of their legs, back and shoulders, and clamber around their head to get a good seated position. Only then can you see further.
I’m not a leader, an innovator, an intrepid explorer; so many others have been there before me. Instead, I will follow. I’ll be following you on social media, making notes of your wisdom and insights. I’ll ask questions on occasions; watch your mistakes and know I’ll probably make them myself. I’ll be the one tagging along, just a little behind and looking over your shoulder (when I’m not perched on it), to work out how it’s done.
And while we’re travelling along the path, whether it’s a dirt track, a paved footpath, a broad highway, there is always a place to leave graffiti. Footpaths, overpasses, highways, tunnels.
But on my path, I learned a valuable lesson. I learned to say, “Yes.”
Yes, to making the decision to write.
Yes, to writing pieces of flash fiction.
Yes, to writing a blog.
I said “Yes” to opportunities.
Yes, to writing a blog for a writers’ website.
Yes, to contributing to thematic anthologies.
Yes, to the idea of an epistolary novel.
Yes, to another collaborative novel.
Yes, to a writing cooperative.
Yes, to trying something a little different through our writers’ collective.
Not all opportunities are correct. Sometimes it is important to say, “No” or to let a project be relegated to the rubbish.
Every writer’s path is different. The best we can do is leave notes along the way to say, “This is how I, or we, did it. It’s up to you to work out your path.”
Choose how you pave, forge, or ignore the path.
And give a knowing wink to Robert Frost as you cross paths.
In husbandry, when farmers raise sheep for commercial wool production, any sheep less than pure white is cut from the flock so as not to taint the clip. Just one strand of non-pure white wool can decimate the price of a bale, jeopardise an entire shipment and a farm’s projected income.
If I look at my natal astrological chart, without being fatalistic or deterministic about it, I was always going to be happiest living on the perimeter of my family, society and anything that vaguely hinted at conformism. To look at me you’d have no idea that I am a homebirth mamma, that non-monogamy is my preferred relationship dynamic, that I am aphantasic and psychic. Yet these are all profound and life-changing aspects of who I am. They shape the way I see (or in the case of aphantasia – don’t see!) and engage with the world, what brings me joy, expansion, opportunity and authenticity. They also have a major of impact on what I write and how I write.
Yet I was slow in coming into my Black Sheep Self.
Christmas Day (1995) delighted with glow-when-you-press-his-belly Barney,
If I had the opportunity to send one simple message to Younger Me it would be to simply revel in being single; to hoover up every opportunity not beingattached to someone afforded. Because what happened was, Perpetually Single me was Perpetually Miserable™ because I was absolutely positive I was missing out on something, that I was less than because of it and I was sick of being the brunt of jokes – my family referred to the men whose spheres I shifted in and out of as ‘flavour of the month’ (I guess it could have been worse; one of my friends had a mother who told her point blank she was nothing without a husband!). That’s probably when the cracks with conformity really started to shift through me, as in my early 20’s, friends met the loves of their lives, got engaged, married (and divorced three years later). I couldn’t keep a man if I bolted him to the ground (and let’s be honest, when you live on a house on stilts, that’s not even really an option). Later I stayed in an abusive relationship to prove I ‘could do a relationship’.
I’ve never married, and I quite likely never will. There is something about the institution of marriage that just doesn’t appeal to me (nor my partner) and a friend who is an astrologer took one look at my chart years ago and said: wisest decision ever! That’s not to say I’m anti-commitment or anti-responsibility. My life-partner and I will celebrate 17 years together this August. We have a 15-year-old son. A 30-year mortgage. I just don’t need to publicly declare my love once and get a certificate to prove I turned up and said the right words. I try to live it every day, instead — for better or worse!
‘Oh, you’re so brave. I could never do something like that.’
Nearing midnight and not far from welcoming our son into the world. (June 2004)
The biggest leap into the ‘fuck-you’ of the path less travelled was choosing a homebirth in 2003, to welcome our son in 2004. This was the first time I confronted the emotional cost of doing something outside of the expected. I was blasted with fear – standard assumptions that childbirth is inherently dangerous; childbirth outside of a hospital was tantamount to infanticide and a woman who took this route was ill-informed and not fit to be a mother. Family, friends and strangers all projected their own trauma stories onto me. I had no idea at the time, just how deeply this was important for me.
It turns out my own birth story from 1973 is littered with human impatience, medical negligence, two nights of heavy sedation drugs, and obstetric ego resulting in a caesarean section when major abdominal surgery accounted for less than 2% of all births. My Mum almost died of septicaemia post-surgery and carried horrific deep scars from what was meant to be a joyous and empowering experience. In stepping outside mainstream perspective and what ‘everyone else did’, I found a new strength and conviction, an inherent trust in myself, my body, and my ability to make life-affirming decisions. The unexpected expansion from this was I became part of a rich and vibrant transgenerational community, and through that I became an editor of the state homebirth magazine. It was the skills and experience gained here, collecting and publishing birth stories and women’s wisdom that ultimately lead me to taking the risk of starting my own publishing house. It was also a continued commitment to birth activism that inspired me to first write #birthpunk.
PUBLISHER BE THY NAME
My first foray into the Literary Mixed Tapes imprint, in its beautiful final iteration. Cover illustration Andrew McKiernan (June 2012)
“I couldn’t do what you do.”
When I started to meet other small press owners at conventions and we shared stories, they were all aghast at how I went about putting together anthologies, and just generally running the business. I was not interested in reading slush. And not surprisingly – open submission and slush piles were not even congruent with the way I wanted to do business or grow creative projects.
The conceptual anthologies I envisaged required a small group of people who believed in the idea and lots of trust in growing, developing and weaving the stories in terms of Chinese Whisperings, and later working as a group toward a quality publication via Literary Mixed Tapes. And as the years and the anthologies unfolded, I was very clear that I wanted to invest my time in helping writers forge brilliant stories, in supporting writers to be the best writers they could be and fostering projects that had a deep base of community. As Tom Dullemond said to me years ago: what you do is collective submission, not competitive submission. To me, slush pile reading was wasted time.
I’M NOT A VISUAL WRITER
‘If you close your eyes, and I say dog, what do you see?’
Walking the beach of my soul, unstoppering psychic channels and making peace with aphantasia (May 2016)
I had been saying for years that I wasn’t a visual writer without really grokking what it meant. It was a random text message in 2016, from one of my oldest friend’s Kim, that brought the word Aphantasia into both our worlds. Aphantasia means ‘blind in the mind’s eye’ which in essence means when I close my eyes I can’t visually imagine anything. I also can’t conjure the taste of garlic, or the smell of roses. I can’t imagine the soft plush of velvet. Even the voices in my head have a somewhat monotone (I’ve heard it referred to as ‘milk voice’) cadence to them. When my psychic channel opens, it is the enunciation of the message, rather than a distinctive voice, that tells me who I’m connected to.
I will be honest. When I realised that most other people (it is estimated that around 2% of the population have aphantasia) could actually visualise memories like movies, or had an imagination that visually fleshed out dreams or fantasies, I felt utterly ripped off. People ask how I read a book. I guess it is like a lot the whole aphantasia experience – I engage via concept – and I can probably hear rather vividly the dialogue (I prefer books with a fast pace, lots of dialogue and minimal description). It is what it is, and until someone pointed out that my experience was somehow ‘wrong’ or ‘distorted’ or fundamentally ‘less than’ I had never thought to consider it that way. My experience was just my experience.
My suspicion is that my short- and medium-term memories are a little on the fucked side because my memories are stored more like a ship’s log; like rows of code. I might be able to tell you that earlier, when we had lunch, you were wearing a blue dress, but I can’t for the life of me bring that up and see it when I close my eyes. I will be able to tell you what we spoke about, ate, who else was around, but it is all coming from that list, which pretty quickly disappears and is lost.
This means several things for my writing. It possibly accounts for my fascination with concept (I joke that I ‘see’ in concept; Kim says she sees in a spatial way, using gestures and her hands as a way of kinesthetically navigating out what she can’t see; another writer I know ‘sees’ via emotion.) It has meant the heart of my writing is dialogue – I hear the story, transcribe it, and then over successive chapters flesh out the visual aspects. When I see something incredible in the real world I always stop and try to work out how I would convert what I see into words, often leaving fragments of observations in my phone’s notes app. It is something I have had to work hard to master, and it is something I do truly celebrate when I nail it. Diversions into poetry and screen writing have strengthened the visual part of my writing, by offering new ways to engage in visual/imagery-heavy mediums. As has working with people who have provocatively inspiring use of visual elements in their writing.
There is still a weird little tic when I refer to myself as psychic. By flip, I almost never refer to myself as poly.
‘What is that?’
My spiritual awakening came in two parts beginning in August 2015 with an energetic healing a friend shared with me after she’d come back from a spiritual retreat. She brought through a message for me that said to ‘trust your heart’. Ten days later the doors of my life were flung open when a man arrived serendipitously via a mutual friend’s birthday party. In fact, I almost missed him – it was only the fact I was very slow at drinking my final beer that I was still around when the booth seat emptied out and I slid in and sat next to him. This was the start of a very rough eight-odd months, where everything I thought I knew or felt was turned on itself head: what I thought about intimate relationships and societal expectations of them; my relationship with honesty and speaking my truth came up time and time again; what it meant to love and be loved, to surrender and have faith.
Healthy, happy and utterly in love with life and the two men in it (May 2017)
In September 2015 I asked my long-term partner if we could open our relationship, if we could ‘practice polyamory’ (consensual multiple committed loving relationships of which there are as many different iterations and configurations of as the imagination has breadth to create!). It had been on my radar for several years, but I was afraid to venture any where outside an intellectual exploration of it. To do so risked everything. At the same time, I knew there were parts of our relationship that were unable to be healed by couple counselling. I had entered into our relationship with deep wounding and considerable trauma, which in turn damaged certain parts of our relationship. Asking someone you love to commit to celibacy for the term of the natural life of your relationship is no better than forcing your partner into a sexual relationship. Telling someone you love that you love them but are no longer attracted to them – it is honestly the hardest thing I have ever done (in the real or fictional worlds I reside in).
And so my view of the world – of how people interact with each other, engage in deep connective relationships, open to love and communicate fiercely – has transformed wildly in the past few years. And now I don’t see myself or my experience represented anywhere in everyday media. In novels. In movies. There was the incredible Wonderlust last year on Netflix with Toni Collete, focusing entirely on a couple’s journal into the ecstasy and pitfalls of opening a long-term relationship, and there have been passing positive mentions of polamory on Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, but it is something that’s just not part of mainstream consciousness, much less open to conversation (though there are more and more articles appearing about non-monomagy, like this article in the New York Times magazine). People are afraid of it though. It is one of those things that people take genuine personal offence at. People worry it is viral; and I think there is definitely something in that as we are raised to believe there is only one path to relationship – to share your life with one person (even if it’s less ‘until death do us part’ now than it has even been). And so my writing is changing to be authentic to my experience, to be representative of the life I live (chuckling here a little at ‘write what you know’) and to bring something in the shadows, out into the light, in a healthy and positive way.
I always joke that people are okay (side-show curious at their most ambivalent or throwing air crosses at you at worst) with anyone being psychic, but please don’t talk about being poly! Being psychic is far more acceptable than being intimately in love and committed with more than one person is. Being honest about being poly (especially when our son was younger) risked him being ostracised from his friends by their parents, and on the subject of parents, not all our parents know about our non-conventional relationship because of what it is likely to bring up for them and then projected onto us. Everything around poly feels like a calculated risk, so when someone in a group I am part of was open and honest and said they were, it gave me an opportunity to do the same. I have always been brashly honest about my parenting experiences and how much of the path of mothering I have hated, and I hope that being honest about the warts and all experimentations on this path will give others the opportunity and courage to talk openly about their relationships and what they really want (and could actually possibly have!). To ask: are there other ways in which we can love authentically? And to extend the very narrow definition society clings to as love.
‘I don’t read futures or tell fortunes.’
In the same way poly opened out my world, the second part of my spiritual awakening in April 2016 showed me a world I had almost been curious of – but felt removed from. I bought my first set of tarot cards to celebrate my first Mother’s Day and immediately loved them dearly, but they always felt a little distant for someone reason. I felt I needed to have memorised the entire book to be proficient at using them ‘properly. I had been drawn to goddess work, had a life-long love of astrology, been fascinated by aliens, time travel and history. In April 2016 a door opened and I felt and heard clearly something for the first time which was quite obviously not of my world or the fictional worlds I was used to tuning into.
Cards as soul calling. Cards as doorways to transformation. (And yes, these were just randomly drawn to flesh out the photos for the article!)
And it turns out all the listening, all that transcribing, all those easily evocated conversations in stories, of writing from a heart of dialogue, had developed a strong clairaudient channel in me. And, as I investigated further, there was also a proclivity for claircognizance (which is beautifully expanding and blossoming the more I open to it). What really changed for me, though, was not stepping up into the role of a tarot reader and teacher, or even into the space as oracle. The game changer was beginning a life-long commitment to heal myself, to deepen my understanding of energy and its influence on the world and to be an emissary for Love and Light. To welcome in the truly deep soul work and to be in service to others who want to do the same. Time will tell to the degree it flows on into my writing, but from what I’ve seen (it has been a major evolution in my poetry) I imagine it will have a deep impact but perhaps not be so obvious on the surface. I have seen how it’s shown up in what I have been writing with Rus and Adam – who to their absolute credit – they have always followed when I have beaten down a crazy path narratively. It turns out when you are personally prepared to take risks – and then actually take them – it is both encouragement and an invitation (permission if we want to be really blunt!) to do the same.
THE PATHS I MIGHT NOT HAVE TAKEN
My creative space is filled with fragments of wisdom (April 2019)
Without the experience of homebirth I would not have had the real-world experience, nor the passion to create #birthpunk. Without the powerful grassroots experience of community, I may not have seen the delight and joy in collaboration and collective endeavours. And from a purely practical level, without the opportunity to produce Down to Birth magazine, I’d have missed out on the publishing and layout experience as well as the confidence to have the audacity to seed what ultimately became eMergent Publishing and it’s three imprints. Without that early cynicism of love and relationship, I may have written less complicated and tangled narratives or not been drawn at all to the darker side of humanity, where I found so many other incredible authors to create and learn alongside. Without aphantasia I would undoubtedly have written very differently and that bridge between worlds would not have been formed. The additions of a spiritual perspective on life and an expanded intimate world provide the same future opportunities, as those earlier decisions to walk less conventional tracks. Without these two awakenings, I may not have been able to turn up to be one third of what we are creating here in The JAR. The further I go through shadow work, in seeking joy and authentic expression, I see the artificial divides in life closing and how closer everything becomes to being One. I feel in throwing our lot in here, at The JAR, several of those divides are disappearing.
RETURN OF THE BLACK SHEEP
People generally think of sheep as stupid creatures. Herd animals without the capacity to think or care for themselves. This is perhaps the case with domesticated animals. In the wild they have an incredible capacity for survival. They are known for being sharp, hardy and very adaptable.
Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s Three of Wands in the Shadowscapes Tarot (2010)
Any of us who have been on the ‘wrong side’ of convention will know there is a certain type of survival-will needed to navigate to, through and beyond the electric fence of conforming, to find somewhere to roam with freedom and ease. Perhaps those of us with the black sheep gene know we can ultimately trust ourselves to provide the exact circumstances to not just survive but thrive.
Standing on the cusp of it now, it is so deliciously exciting and terrifying, which means I am exactly where I am meant to be in this moment. Like the three of wands in the Shadowscapes deck – I step into the void knowing faith will put solid ground beneath my feet, and the land bridge created from this faith will extend a little further into the unknown for those who follow.
For those of us who hike, or garden, or take long bike rides, we are deeply aware that there are two types of hikers, gardeners, and cyclists.
The first type is in it for the destination, whether that be a summit 26 miles away, a synchronized garden that maximizes each hour of sunshine without taxing the soil too much from its neighboring plants, or the end of a century ride that takes you around some of this world’s greatest natural wonders.
These types have their head down and are focused on what awaits them at the end of the journey. They are immensely happy (and proud) of their accomplishment, as they should be. They talk about what they might do differently to shave off a few minutes, or maximize the oxygen for the snap peas. It’s all about destination, and they are proud of crossing that finish line, regardless of the form it might take.
The second type is in it for the journey. They meander through the woods, observing the different bird calls, the tracks on the trail, and the variations of vegetation to discern exactly what kind of wildlife are nibbling at its branches.
The gardener embraces the feel of the soil on his finger tips as he digs a hole for a new seedling. He might even talk to it, breathing a little security-blanket oxygen its way.
The cyclist knows she has until 8 p.m. to reach her destination, so she wanders through the small towns, talking to the locals about what makes their little communities so personable, so resistant to the buzz of the bigger cities around them.
In short, this second type savors every step of the journey, and when they finally reach their destination, they are rich in telling stories about what they experienced along the way. There is no talk of the next trip or what they could do differently. To them, they are too immersed in the now, holding on to the words they shared with once-strangers.
When it comes to writing and discipline, I’ve been a little of both, and not necessarily for the right reasons.
The first type of disciplined writers have deadlines; they are focused, and they “put butt in chair” when they are supposed to. They turn in their work with confidence that they wrote a good piece, but they equally allow a smile to linger, knowing they made their deadlines — their destination — on or ahead of schedule.
Head down, do the work, meet the deadline. All good.
The second type of disciplined writers, however, don’t really do any of the things the first type does, except make (most) of their deadlines (more on this a bit later). These creatives are highly disciplined, but they are also a little scary. Let me explain.
It takes great discipline as a writer, as a creative, to “let go” in the journey of writing or creating, where there is room to wander with the characters or the image to see where they (or it) will take you. You remain fully immersed, disciplined, and focused; getting to the destination, however, might take a little longer than anyone might have liked.
And to you, that’s just fine.
Being disciplined in our writing, our creating, does not necessarily have to have that “get the job done” mentality. There is great and wondrous discipline in staying immersed in your work, expending insurmountable amounts of energy with the characters, and seeing where they take you in the story.
Ultimately, it’s being mindful enough to strike that balance between the two.
I’ve done solo projects with each approach, and I’ve learned from these experiences that there is nothing black and white about discipline when you are creating.
When our heads are down, we’re missing the little nuances that lead us to greater discoveries; likewise, when we let go entirely to see where the characters take us, we often find ourselves too far away from where we began, and with little hope or direction of finding our way back on to the blazed path that leads us to our natural and eventual home.
Understanding the deeper significance of our discipline allows us to let go, play, but stay close to the trail that leads us to our story’s natural conclusion. We need to be aware of what type of discipline we use in our crafting, and when.
And, as important, we cannot allow one form to tell the other that it is the lazy way out, or the wrong approach, or the wrong time. It’s important to get to the end, but it’s equally important to be deeply mindful of the journey along the way.