Caught by the River

Afloat on Shreen Water

Melissa Harrison | 4th September 2017

Words and pictures: Melissa Harrison

Sometimes words come easy; sometimes they don’t come at all. Sometimes – not often – I know what I’m going to write, or think I do, and all that remains is to get it down; more often, the blank page produces only avoidance and procrastination.

I’ve written about Shreen Water several times now, always with great pleasure, so when it was time for my annual fortnight in Dorset I assumed this year would be no different. Hell, I practically had this copy filed before I even got on the train west: a few months back the friends whose house and dogs I look after bought a little boat, so I pictured myself rowing up and down the sun-dappled stretch of river at the end of their garden attended by kingfishers and, if I was lucky, a water vole, perhaps with a book, and ideally a glass of wine. What could be more perfect for a Caught by the River piece?

Shreen Water was as beautiful as ever, the kingfisher was in position and while the boat – she’s called the Northern Lights – was trickier to handle than I expected, I found that I could manoeuvre her somewhat inelegantly upstream and down. Yet the rhapsodic piece I planned to write kept its face firmly turned away from me for the duration of my stay in Dorset, and although I waited and waited, I’ve been back home for over a week now and still it will not come.

* * *

What does it mean to be ‘creative’? As a mode of being, rather than a set of practices, is it available to everyone; is it innate, or can it be taught? If we are ‘creative’, can we control this facility – make it come when we call? Or is the most we can do create favourable conditions, and hope that inspiration strikes?

At book events and signings people often ask me where I get my ideas. It’s a simple enough question, but one that alerts me to a gulf of experience that is only ever unbridgeable, because there is no way to answer it that will make any sense at all to someone who thinks it can be met with a simple response. Less frequently, but still often, someone will say, ‘Oh, well you must have written stories all your life,’ or ‘You probably wrote all the time when you were a little girl’: not quite a question, but a statement they’re seeking a response to nonetheless. I haven’t yet figured out what it is that they need to hear, but I know from their diffident expressions that something is riding on it. For some reason, it really matters to them what I say.

For what it’s worth, I didn’t write all the time when I was a child – not creatively, anyway. I read voraciously, and because of that I developed a large vocabulary and a good ear for prose; in school I did very well at English, particularly, and found it easy to get top marks. And that’s all writing was to me then: a way of doing well, a way of being a ‘good girl’ and feeling positive about myself. If I’m honest, in terms of self-esteem it was pretty much the only route to it I had back then.

And that’s why I never took a risk. I never tried something new, unless it was an exercise set by a teacher, and only then if I understood the rules and could see how to do it in a way that would get me a good mark. I didn’t write privately, for pleasure, or for myself – apart from a horribly stilted and unimaginative diary I kept for a couple of years. I loved literature, but my relationship with it was mimetic: I didn’t make anything; in fact, I didn’t even understand that it was a possibility, and so I didn’t feel the lack. I was not creative, I was clever: a very different thing.

Getting into Oxford (see what a good girl I was?) just made matters worse. There, with no Latin or German, no formal understanding of grammar or syntax, no experience of proper essay-writing and none of the confidence of my privately educated peers, I had to find out what was wanted from me – which absolutely wasn’t creativity – and learn how to deliver it, fast. Somehow I managed it, and I’ll always be proud of how well I did, but it came at a cost. I would be 35 before I could bring myself to try, even secretly, to write.

* * *

It wasn’t hot and summery this August, as I’d been hoping. It kept raining, and when it wasn’t wet it was mostly chilly and overcast; I didn’t see a single shooting star when the Perseids peaked, as they always do on my Dorset trip. The wellies I borrowed to walk the dogs in were cracked and let in water, but if I didn’t wear them the bottom six inches of my jeans got damp. The younger of the two Labradors kept stealing unripe apples from a tree in the garden, and sometimes at night he became, let’s say, indisposed. I missed the chickens – the local fox had taken to removing them from the locked coop at night until there were none left – and because I’d only just finished my third novel I didn’t have a big writing project to sink into and lose myself in.

Sometimes, things don’t turn out like you thought they would; and sometimes it’s hard to adjust to that. Fretful, unfocused and increasingly irritated with myself, I spent too much time on Twitter, getting drawn into petty arguments I later had to apologise for. What’s wrong with me, I accused myself (rather than inquired); why wasn’t I having a nice time? And why the hell couldn’t I write my Caught by the River piece?

Perhaps I just needed to go out in the rowing boat more, I thought; perhaps something would happen on the water that would give me a ‘way in’. Reluctantly, I shut my laptop, put on my coat, collected the oars and rowlocks and went down to the riverbank again.

* * *

I can’t explain exactly what it was that moved me from a state of utter creative paralysis to one in which I had produced a novel. The truth is, it was a confluence of events, all deeply personal and therefore not of much use to anyone else. Writing Clay, though, was not the end result, but the start of a long process – one that continues to this day. Learning to write means learning how to live.

Creativity, to me, is nothing less than a belief that one can change the world. It means looking at the world as it is, and deciding, utterly audaciously, that it would be better – that it would be improved – by you adding something new to it. Creating something from your own innermost self and putting it out into the world is a transformative act.

But this act requires two things: first, an understanding that the world can be altered; that it is mutable, provisional, subject to change, and not the finished article, a fait accompli. Here, curiosity is vital; the ability to keep asking ‘But why?’, as children do – not just of the visible world but of shibboleths, taboos, assumptions, norms – should lead inexorably to the conclusion that nothing at all can be taken for granted, nothing is ‘just the way things are’. This is either empowering or terrifying, depending on your viewpoint.

Secondly, it means nurturing an inner belief that what you could contribute to the world is worthwhile: that you can express what’s inside you, that you have something to add, and are allowed to add it. In my experience, this is far harder to believe, and for many people it is a life’s work. You can go to all the art classes you like, or all the piano lessons; you can read all the lists of ‘writing tips’ you can find, but it’s not going to help if you don’t believe that your innermost thoughts and feelings, your enthusiasms and quirks, the things you have experienced and learned, are worth other people’s time.

And with this comes a further condition: you cannot put something new out into the world, forged solely from the fibres of your own unique being, if you do not know who you are. There may be craft, but there is no creativity, no genuine self-expression, if you are not willing to do the hard work of learning to pay close, kind, honest, ongoing attention to yourself.

* * *

Clumsily I flip the Northern Lights right-way up and fit the rowlocks and the slatted wooden seat that runs bow to stern. Laying the oars on either side of the seat I haul her to the muddy bank by the jetty, and making sure I have hold of the painter, push her down into Shreen Water where she drifts and bobs. I climb gingerly in, sit down, and push off from the bank with one oar.

Because the river is narrow, my friends have shortened the narrow-bladed wooden oars. That means that now they must be held at quite a steep angle in order to actually dip into the water – too steep an angle for the rather large, loose rowlocks to hold them in place. The usual, circular motion of rowing doesn’t work in this boat, I find; my lack of height and experience probably has something to do with it, too. The only way to get about on the water is to hold each oar almost vertically and paddle, rather than row. It sets up an ache in the shoulders and biceps that lasts for days.

It’s not warm, but the sun’s out, and the light on the water is beautiful. I sit for a while, then head upstream, collect a coke bottle caught in the bankside vegetation and inspect the holes just above the waterline that I hope very much are occupied by voles. Then I let myself drift slowly down again, past the jetty, to the half-fallen willow where last summer I watched a kingfisher perch and dive for fish; I find the faint marks of its claws on the branch, like the scratched tally-marks of all the days that have passed since last I was here. I rummage for my phone in my coat pocket and take a picture, and then I check Twitter, and my emails, and post a snap to Instagram with a warm filter that makes the weather look nicer than it is. It’s just so easy not to be present. I might as well not be in the boat at all.

Life’s been a bit bumpy of late, and I’m in flight from myself: that’s the truth of it. That ‘kind, honest, ongoing attention’ necessary to self-knowledge, and thus to creativity, has fled, taking with it even the recognition that it’s absent – just like when I was a child. Of course I can’t write my Caught by the River piece – unless I were to treat it simply as craft, or entertainment, or a journalistic commission, which I don’t want to do. And I won’t be able to write it until I can summon the courage and the kindness to get back in touch with myself and discover what’s going on inside right now; and from there, work out what I can write that will be truthful, meaningful, and worthwhile.

Back at home, chastened and regretful, struggling not to blame myself for losing sight of myself yet again, I begin.


Melissa Harrison on Caught by the River/on Twitter