Reading Jan Fortune's book, Writing Down Deep.
I have no time for stories that lie. I don’t mean stories that are imaginary or fantastical. I mean those that deliberately mislead, that sell hatred and division or promote the myths of fascism or greed.
Cards on the table, I am not reviewing this book, at least not chiefly, and it is written by my mum. If I were to review it, I would recommend that you go and acquire a copy immediately. That is, perhaps unsurprisingly, I would wholeheartedly concur with the many five star reviews about its value and originality. Instead, this piece is intended more as a reflection on my time with it and some of the ideas that are explores. But more than that, it is a reflection on how the readerly experience is suggestively guided along highly rewarding lines.
I first finished Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life in ‘22, but have subsequently returned to it this year in a different way (and very much in the spirit of New Year and resolutions). This is a book about writing and about living as a writer, it is a homage to the journal and to creative outlets in general. It was fascinating to read cover to cover, and during the process I discovered so much about my mum’s thinking as well as seeing much that we have discussed and shared over the years, rendered here in a powerful and articulate form. For example, an extensive look at virtue ethics that includes examples of worked out systems of virtues and elaboration on why they make sense.
There are numerous great observations that are made. I nodded along to my mum’s excoriating of the ‘cruel myth’ of multitasking; ‘that we can do two (or more) complex activities at once is a lie.’ We live in an age that holds up distracted attention as being an achievement to which to aspire, but the approach to life, writing, and journaling here (the three key priorities of the book) is precisely the opposite. The attitude being developed in one of kairos, as my mum herself clarifies: ‘Chronos is the ticking of seconds on a clock, chronological. But kairos is “the right time”; it is ripeness, the moment of truth.’ This is an attitude of attentiveness, of being alongside one’s own experiences.
So many of the themes I have found myself dwelling on in this very blog also come up again and again in Writing Down Deep. My mum writes of how: ‘Collaboration enables us to be generous and outward-looking.’ While I too wrote of the vital sociality of story-making in a piece on the benefits of creative collaboration. She writes of how myth is tied to meaning, that, ‘its death is bound to bring social turmoil until new sustaining myths arise.’ While I wrote of the need for new myths and the dangerous politics of (un)dead ones. She cites philosophers we have in common as vital points of reference: Nietzsche, William James, Husserl, and more. Many of whom I draw upon in my theoretical work. It was fantastic to see our thinking mirror in this way, but also to see how we charted our own courses through the same themes.
Something else I enjoyed considerably was the use and choice of quotations. I keep a document of everything I read, and much of it goes to quotes to which I believe I might return. I know my mum does the same in her journals, and quite often quotes would crop up that are also among my own favourites. There are so many wonderful examples of these, but to give just three of them that I particularly liked:
I am taking up my Journal again after a long break. I think it may be a way of calming this nervous excitement that has been worrying me for so long. (What makes Heroic?—To face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope.)
When life seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams—and this may be madness…—and maddest of all to see life as it is and not as it should be.
We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle or amaze with itself, but with its subject.
I mentioned above that I find myself rereading the book; and in a sense I am reading it properly now for the first time. I tend to treat books linearly, reading them chapter by chapter. Generally, I am even loathed to stop reading something I do not enjoy (rare exceptions to this would include the tedious The Catcher in the Rye, and I would have put down the A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, or the utterly callous We Need to Talk About Kevin had I not been studying them). All of which is to say, I treated Writing Down Deep as I would a novel or standard nonfiction. But in truth it is something else.
The layout includes interludes with journal exercises (most of which I have yet to try) that are based on the seasons (given specific dates). And among the rest of the content are sections for specific usages, such as writing prompts or self-reflections. The subtitle invokes alchemy, and every chapter of this book is about process and transformation. (As a perhaps heterodox marxist I love such themes; the Hegelian emphasis on process, inherited by Marx, has its roots in European hermeticism.) This, as a work of seasonal transformative writing to be dipped into, is how I find myself reading my mum’s book now, and it has already provoked wonderful journaling exercises on the theme of abundance (apt for this time of year) and on how to recalibrate things to achieve writing ambitions.
A short time ago another book arrived unexpectedly in the mail. Just 42 pages, at world's end, begins draws on many of my mum’s core ideas, although this time in poetry rather than meditative nonficiton: the cycles of nature, the meaning of life events, grief and renewal, hope and reflection. That it tackles such sweeping notions without a hint of the sentimental—even in the most personal and intimate moments—is a testament to her skills and the approach she takes, the approach she cultivates in readers of Writing Down Deep.
In this collection she charts her move to France, which like her previous residence in Wales is another place—another old house—is in proximity to the brute facts of the elements. The Nature of these poems is no sweet or cute thing, but harsh and dangerous and even inconvenient, just as it is also abundant, awe inspiring and ultimately life granting. It is understanding the totality of the world into which we are so thrown as to be inseparable from it, of it, and yet at a level of awareness that is unique These poems so frequently carry the rich, textured weight of a long-fought for truth in human being in the world.
This notion of cycles and of Nature is evident in Writing Down Deep too. It is evident at the level of the explicit text. But it is perhaps more evident in the layout of the book, which like the poems is tied to specific points in the year: the way that it encourages its reader to think alongside the shape of time, to allow it (not as abstracted or measured time, but the time of the world and the self-in-the-world) to shape your thinking.
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