The remote beaches and farmlands along the Wash were my formative landscapes. I grew up there, and they gave me my first sense of place: expansive and blustery, full of light and weather. A wide horizon met me whether I looked inland or out to sea and this created a sense of anticipation and curiosity — waiting for things to come into view. Boats on the tide, figures crossing a headland. An ascension of birds from the salt marsh or the tree line.
As a writer my working method involves detail, story, curiosity, empathy. I would call some of my writing loosely ecological in that I'm seeking to evoke places and appreciate their particular qualities while also thinking about the human imprint they combine. My work often takes something small — an artefact or action from the landscape — and explores its surfaces, substrates and allusive qualities. As a visual artist I work with painting, drawing and textiles. For me, writing and visual art embody the contemplative: a moment that deepens and extends to suggest other ideas and memories, even while the artwork itself might be sketchy or the poem or prose brief.
The workshops I teach grow out of my interest in the physical and cultural presence of rural landscapes. I'm interested in what the land is made of and in what is made of the land — changes wrought through natural processes of growth and decay and through land use for settlement and agriculture. How does land become landscape, a place capable of inspiring personal and artistic affiliation to its materials and to the emotional qualities it suggests? What is placed there, in fact and in imagination, by those who live, work or visit there? These are some of the questions that shape my thinking.
In a writing workshop, the idea of place gives us some common ground on which to meet each other. I find that if I say "tell me about a place where something important to you happened" it's more invitational, less overwhelming, than asking you to write directly about your thoughts and feelings. Writing about place offers us visibility on the page, a place to stand, without our having to be the main event. What's more, some of the best personal writing comes from writing about material other than the self. This is the alchemy of the imagination, I suppose — what appears to be not about us is, actually, deeply about us: how we see the world, how we understand what we see.
I'll often begin a workshop by inviting participants to re-locate themselves, through words and drawing, to a formative landscape. Sometimes these are places from childhood, but just as often they are recent places in which the writer has experienced change or insight. Beginning here allows us to connect to the physicality and language of a real place and to notice how a place makes a life particular. It is these particulars from which we can then start to create subject matter, questions, and a sense of purpose with which to make a piece of writing — the what, why and how of writing creatively.