Saturday, September 8, 2012

For The Love Of It


They say write about things that you love or are passionate about. They say write a story that moves you, a story that you would like to read. Pick a research topic that you want to jump into etcetera, etcetera.

I think most writers know this. It only makes sense. You won’t find me writing about the internal workings of a frog or the process of assembling a microchip. I was never that good at science and I totally flunked computer programming. Those subjects were just not interesting to me; not to say they wouldn’t be riveting for someone else.

However (yes, here’s the ‘but’), what happens when you get sick of something you enjoy so much that you just have to walk away? It happens to all of us. Whether it is a research paper, work of non-fiction or a novel, there comes a point when you can have too much of a good thing. We don’t want to admit it, perhaps because it feels like failure or that it ignites the self-doubt that has been held at bay? Much of the time it is due to outside influences, roadblocks to our success, negativity or lack of support.

This happened to me several years ago with my own Master’s thesis which was a look at the archaeological, historical and toponymic evidence for the site of the base of operations of the historical Arthur – ie. ‘Camelot’.  Arthurian studies has always been my specialization. I have always been fascinated by anything related to the period in Britain from when Rome quit her shores to the time of the Battle of Catraeth when the Britons made a valiant last stand against the Saxon invaders. The period is a maelstrom of both the ancient and medieval periods, a time of mystery, heroism, romance and of course controversy.

South Cadbury Castle, Somerset
When I decided on my thesis of course there were sniggers from the academics about me, even though a huge amount of academic work had been done over the years on the period and my subject. Still, I persisted because I loved the subject. I travelled to sites around Britain, camera and sketchbook in hand. I wrote a book outlining the various theories and my own thesis. I had peer reviews done, made changes, all the usual editing. My subject had been accepted by my professors and supervisor and so, having completed all the work, I handed it in. It felt good, I had really accomplished something. At least I felt so until it was handed back to me for rewrites, big ones. The academics who had approved the subject and outline and had read drafts throughout the writing process decided to change their minds.

This was not good. All the months of work that were rejected birthed a giant ball of academic rage. I may have strode out to the West Sands of St. Andrews to yell at the North Sea. I can’t remember but I don’t think distraught graduate students were an unusual sight. Anyhow, long story short, after a few pints of Guinness I hunkered down and gave them what they wanted, got my degree and pressed on with life.

But there were wounds to lick and because of that experience I became fed up with Arthurian studies. Yes, blasphemy indeed. I couldn’t go near anything remotely Arthurian for several months and so plunged headlong into the ancient world which, as it turns out, opened new doors. The point is that even though I loved the subject, I couldn’t take any more for a long time. I just couldn’t enjoy it. It was like the lingering taste of blood in my mouth after a fight.

After months of ignoring my beloved Arthuriana however, I decided that enough was enough and began to go back to the roots of what I loved about it: the mystery, the romance of the legends. My wife and I moved to Somerset (where I have my own roots) to live just outside Glastonbury. We took weekly walks in Insula Avalonia, climbing the Tor, drinking from the Chalice Well and once more climbing the ramparts of the hill fort at South Cadbury Castle. We even took our long-awaited trip to Cornwall to see Tintagel, Slaughterbridge, Dozmary Pool and Arthur’s Hunting Lodge on Bodmin Moor. The magic had returned and so had my love of the subject but it would not have happened if I had not done anything about it.

Arthur receiving Excalibur
Stepping back was good, I think. I needed to take a break to let the academic grease leach away. There is a lot to be said for the philosophy of being like grass in the wind or water in a brook. We all face challenges to our work or art, opposition to the things that we believe in with force and passion. Of course we can’t all agree, we’re human after all. History teaches us that much!

So what can we do to throw a lifeline to the things we are passionate about when our love of them is drowning? For history-related subjects (after all, that is what this blog is about), I always like watching inspiring movies or listening to my favourite soundtracks (see the Eagles and Dragons playlist on Facebook - May 17 post). Emulate the habits of past people (obviously, not all would be a good idea!) such as lighting some incense or swinging a sword around – go on, have fun! Or, throw a feast for friends on an ancient or medieval (pick your period) theme using recipes from your chosen period cookbook. Grilled meat, thick candles and lots of wine in clay goblets is always a good time. Or put on that toga and recline to a meal of olive-stuffed chicken, fruit and burgers invented by Apicius himself. There is something for everyone. If sheep’s head and stuffed sparrows are your thing, go for it. You can top it all of with music - there are some great recordings of period music out there too if flute girls or lute players are not readily available. Have an actor friend? Get them to recite some Catullus!

I've gone on a bit, I know. Basically, as we create the art we love and try to make it work, fit it in, enjoy it, we need to ensure that we do not lose sight of why we started it in the first place. Every once in a while, when frustration begins to creep in, step back, take a few yoga breaths and remember what it was like way back when you looked at that painting or opened that book for the first time. Enjoy the feeling of standing on that windswept rampart watching crows wheel above grassy slopes where poppies bow about you as they did long ago for the people about whom you are writing.
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