Hunting happiness

Laura butterfly, Bristol ZooIn modern society we’re often encouraged to seek out happiness. We’re taught that it’s our (insert deity of choice)-given right, and that, somehow, not to achieve this mystical state is to fail at life.

Yikes.

Yet, and I know I’m not alone in spouting this, I’m pretty sure that the relentless search for joy sows nothing but spiky seeds of discontent – the very opposite of our aim.

Yet there is a way to court positivity in your life. Here are my personal recommendations.

1. Remember that happiness is often shy. The hunt of it will undoubtedly send it hurtling into the undergrowth, anxiety rolling down its woolly shoulders in waves.

Instead, simply pause for a moment and breathe quietly, close your eyes if you can without risk of being knocked over, and let your thudding heart slow down. Ask yourself, how do I feel? Tentatively examine the emotions rippling through your veins and I suspect that below the everyday stresses and annoyances and fears, a quiet little inner voice is mumbling its own merry mantra about who knows what?

See, the trick is not to hunt, but to pay attention, not to the outside world but to your inner self.

2. If you can, draw it to the surface, and give it a listen. More than likely it’s listing the things that make your heart sing.

And whilst a shopping spree or a Game of Thrones boxset may be in amongst that jumble of words, I’m pretty sure more mundane, affordable items are awaiting your attention. Just for instance, the opening refrain of your favourite song, a particular shade of blue the sky sometimes presents even in January, the smell of gently mulching leaves in a forest setting, the pleasure of swapping day clothes for pjs the moment you step through the door of your home, that first sip of your first coffee of the day which just happens to be the perfect strength and temperature.

Actually, that last one is more elusive than any of the others, but you get my drift.

The fact is that, despite its lumbering densely furred appearance, happiness actually has more in common with twinkling frilly winged creature. You’re better off using a butterfly net than a bear trap. Better still, your own two hands, cupped gently.

Best of all, sit quietly for a few moments, and see what alights.

3. Even then you must remember to allow your bliss to flit onwards once you’ve admired its iridescence, bright against the sky. Your instinct may well be to grasp that sense of joy with all your strength, but just consider Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and what happened whenever he held on too tight.

By relaxing your grip on happiness, you actually let go of the anxiety and panic that threatens to suffocate it.

What remains will be contentment, and that’s infinitely more satisfying in the long run.

Writing prompt – hinterland

Oldbury Power Station cr Judy DarleyI recently read and loved the atmospheric Country Life by Ken Edwards, a book set in the shadow of an immense power station.

I grew up in a similar setting, with Oldbury Power Station brooding quietly alongside the nearby River Severn, part fairytale castle, part menacing monolith, part wildlife haven to rabbits and migrating geese.

The conflict of this space is curious – is it a place of danger or of refuge? How might the presence of this edifice affect the people and creatures that live here?

If you write something prompted by this idea, please send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com to let me know. With your permission, I’d love to publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Theatre Review – The Light Princess

The Light Princess3 cr Farrows Creative

The Light Princess © Farrows Creative

Based on a 19th century Scottish fairytale by George MacDonald, The Light Princess tells the story of a princess cursed to have no gravity, either physical or emotional.

In Tobacco Factory Theatres‘ joyful interpretation of the tale, produced in association with Peepolykus and directed by John Nicholson, the princess (played with charming delight by Suzanne Ahmet), has been afflicted by her slighted aunt to drift away at the slightest gust of wind, and find the humour in every situation.

Suzanne Ahmet as The Light Princess cr Farrows Creative

Suzanne Ahmet as The Light Princess © Farrows Creative

While this may seem more a gift than a curse, the girl’s enduring frivolity is reducing the kingdom to a mockery as people are inspired to do as they wish, rather than what they ought. More worrying still, as her mother The Queen wisely points out, how can you ever fall in love if you cannot fall?

When the royal family take a boat ride on their lake, the princess takes to the air until a breeze blows her in to the water, where she discovers a wonderful thing - while she can’t stay earthbound, water gives her gravity, at least physically. But how will she find her emotional gravity?

Amalia Vitale in The Light Princess cr Farrows Creative

Amalia Vitale in The Light Princess © Farrows Creative

The seven cast-members play a remarkable assortment of comic, melancholy and evil characters, from philosophers to a trainee witch (the impressive Amalia Vitale, shown above) to court conductor Verity Standen who leads a capella harmonising that add such texture and atmosphere to the tale.

The Light Princess1 cr Farrows Creative

The prince and his horse, The Light Princess © Farrows Creative

Then there’s the serious, long-faced prince seeking a princess worthy of his love, who falls for the princess and ultimately finds a way to save her, and her kingdom.

No spoilers here, just a hint of a giant snake who gets crowned king, a talking horse (or is that a man dressed as a horse), some fantastic punnery and one of the finest water fights ever staged.

The Light Princess cr Farrows Creative

Richard Holt and Suzanne Ahmet in The Light Princess © Farrows Creative

Gorgeous costumes, family rivalry and abdication, puppetry, heart-breaking film footage and a grief scene as powerful as any Shakespearean tragedy, and you’ll be swept away by the action from beginning to end. Gloriously irreverent, inventive, and spilling over with colour (and water), this show is a visual, literary and musical treat.

At its heart, The Light Princess is a story about balance – light versus dark, and levity versus gravity. Because, as even The Light Princess must ask, can you ever be capable of true happiness is you’re unable to feel sad?

The Light Princess is produced by Tobacco Factory Theatres in association with Peepolykus. It’s on at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 10 January 2016. Book tickets and find out more at www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com.

Submit your island tales

Iona cr Judy DarleyFor their first issue of 2016, Brain of Forgetting invites work on the theme of islands.

There’s something so enticing about islands – the way they’re often surrounded by water, enveloped by mist or engulfed by storms. There’s potential for serenity or peril, and plenty of myths to dabble in.

The journal editors say: “Islands have always played a special role in literature and the popular imagination. What we’re looking for is work that interprets the theme ‘Island’ in an original way that engages with the past. Varying interpretations from international authors and artists are encouraged. In particular we are interested in work that challenges and redefines notions of insularity.”

Send up to four poems (100 lines max each), up to two pieces of flash fiction (900 words max each) or one short piece of creative non-fiction (1,200 words max).

For a taste of work they relish, see Issue 1: Stones, or Issue 2: Poppies.

Submissions are open until December 31st 2015, so you just have time to slip ashore before the tides turn.  The Island issue will be published in print in February 2016.

Find full details of how to submit at http://www.brainofforgetting.com/submissions.html.

Writing prompt – winter

The Downs at sunset cr Judy DarleyWith the mayhem of Christmas just around the corner (if it hasn’t yet begun!), now seems the perfect time to contemplate some of the other qualities of this time of year.

I recently had a chat with some creative friends about the importance of having a cabin in the woods, real or hypothetical. A space where you can allow your subconscious creatures to emerge from the walls and find their place in your imagination.

As water turns to ice and the sky fades to gold, consider the quiet of copse and field, and the small, busy noises that rise into the air. Who or what may be roaming this scene? What are they doing? What thoughts or preoccupations fill their mind?

If you write something prompted by this idea, please send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Lessons in storytelling

The Trip #9 (2015) cr Matt Henry, Short Stories

The Trip #9 © Matt Henry, Short Stories

They say an image is worth 1,000 words, and that the camera never lies. In Matt Henry‘s new photographic book, Short Stories, these hypotheses are tested to the limit.

Each of the scenes displayed in this beautiful and unsettling book offers countless possible narratives. Cast in vivid sun-drenched technicolour, they sing shrilly of a far earlier era, and yet each was snapped sometime between 2007 and 2015. Even more unexpected, the majority were staged on UK soil with a cast of actors and friends playing the characters apparently caught while going about their everyday lives. Powerfully, it suggests, the American Dream really is an illusion.

Alice (2013) cr Matt Henry, Short Stories

Alice (2013) © Matt Henry, Short Stories

“Everything was to play for in this era,” says Henry of 1960s and 70s USA. “Culture and politics fused like no other time. The tension between burgeoning liberal ideas and the stubborn conservatism of rural America is fascinating for me, and provides the most fantastic backdrop for storytelling.”

Phone Call (2012) cr Matt Henry, Short Stories

Phone Call (2012) © Matt Henry, Short Stories

There’s so much happening in each of the scenes – even empty rooms ripple with a sense of anticipation. Paranoia and hope sizzle with equal emphasis, suggesting that drama awaits at the every corner – and the direction each life will take could rest in the spin of a nickel. Any writer who can imbue their work with such palpable tension will be a master of their art.

Short Stories Matt Henry cover

Short Stories by Matt Henry is published by Kehrer Verlag and is available to buy from www.artbooksheidelberg.com or from www.matthenryphoto.com.

Join a different kind of book club

NSCRC children with Book Aid boxI always love giving books at Christmas time – there’s always that sense of offering up a whole world for your recipient to discover!

This year, why not give that gift to someone who will really appreciate it?

The Reverse Book Club was devised in 2007 as a means of directly connecting Book Aid International supporters with individual readers. It works exactly like your average book club, except you’ll never receive any of the books you buy – instead they’ll be sent on your behalf to people in the developing world, bringing all those page-bound possibilities, adventures and experiences to classrooms, libraries and minds hungry for them. Continue reading

The Sculptor – a short story

Unthology 8 coverI’ve been impressed by Unthank Books and their beautifully discerning and disconcerting Unthologies for many years. The tales they select and the books they produce inevitably stop me in my tracks. Right from the start, I yearned to see one of my pieces included among their number, and it’s taken a few attempts, some careful edits and just the right mix of narrative and imagery, but it seems I finally cracked it.

Quite simply, I’m thrilled that my short story The Sculptor is among the offerings of Unthology 8, due out on 28th January 2016. What a great start to the year! The Sculptor tells the tale of an ice sculptor coming to terms with her father’s semantic dementia.

I’ve already received my contributor copy  – an elegant black-sheathed volume crammed with fiction by Victoria Briggs, Kit Caless, Armel Dagorn, Sarah Dobbs, Clare Fisher, David Frankel, Rodge Glass, FC Malby, Amanda Mason, and other amazing authors.

Unlike many anthols, with Unthanks offerings it really is best to read the stories in the order in which they’re presented as editors Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones take care to curate the selection in a way that builds up and enhances the reading experience in the most exquisite manner. The book is now ready to pre-order from Book Depository, so if you want to treat yourself, just hop over to www.bookdepository.com.

If you sign up to the Unthank Mailing List (from Unthank’s website or Facebook page) you can get discounted copies and a discount on all other Unthank titles.

Here’s the write up from the publishers:

Live on a grand scale. Make deathless art. Scream paint. Sculpt ice. Let it melt and become a dynasty. Tarry with prophets and dreamers. Find joy in danger zones. Quit the stage of history. Tread the boards instead. Take a safari. Take a boat ride to the south of France. Work in the music biz, a chicken shack or cliff-top café. Fall in love, then out of love. Complete the jigsaw puzzle in a tiny room. Find yourself in a pris- on cell. Become a machine, loveable and servile. Realise that all the time, wherever you have been, whoever you’ve inhabited, you have been in a relationship with everyone there ever was or is yet to come and you can’t do one damn thing about it. Find fellow travellers here. Make friends with Unthology 8.”

I can’t tell you how excited I am to be a part of this.

Unthology 8, published by Unthank Books, is available from wordery.com and bookdepository.com.

Book review – Country Life by Ken Edwards

Country Life coverAny urbanite knows that the countryside can be a strange and sometimes disconcerting place, where choices are limited and people live by their own rules. Author Ken Edwards takes these impressions and pushes them to the edge (literally if you consider the coastal environment the majority of his characters live in), drawing us into a world of philosophising young men, creative frustration and angry musicians who’ll bottle you, or worse, given half a chance.

Edwards’ Peninsula Region is home to Dennis Chaikowsky, aka DC, house-sitting for his parents, and Alison, aka Wanda, the object of his ever escalating affections.

So far, so ordinary.

Edwards’ writing, however, makes it anything but.

While DC’s neo-Marxist mate Tarquin adds his own political pontificating to the mix and Alison’s husband Severin contributes an uncomfortable a waft of simmering rage, we’re quietly swallowed up by the landscape.

Continue reading

Writing prompt – war

Syria by Stu McLellanThis beautiful, heart-rending drawing was created by artist Stu McLellan. He says he created it “after hearing the story of a Syrian girl looking for her parents after her house was bombed. Regardless of who drops the bombs and their motives for doing so, it never brings peace.”

For this week’s writing prompt I invite you to write a piece from the point of view of this little girl, then a piece from the point of view of someone who believes those bombs should be dropped. Try to remain detached and objective as you write each piece, but give your characters all the emotions that seem appropriate.

If you are able, make the two have a conversation, and see what rises to the surface.

Find more of Stu’s artwork at www.stumclellan.co.uk.

If you write something prompted by this idea, please send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com to let me know. With your permission, I’d love to publish it on SkyLightRain.com.