The words ‘Cornwall’ and ‘paradise’ are often linked. And yes, Cornwall’s glorious light and wonderful coastal paths drew me to move here from London seven years ago, together with the fact that for less than the price of my one-bedroom flat in Chiswick, I could buy a four-storey Victorian cottage with 180 degree views of the river from every floor. Yet for the last four years or more I’ve been struggling with a growing sense of misery. People here look at me with non-comprehension. How can you – dare you – be miserable in paradise?
But I have been.
I don’t intend to dwell on the reasons, but on the growing realisation that this environment is not a ‘fit’ for me. It’s ironic. I moved here believing that my creativity would find a home. Cornwall, after all, is a hotbed of artists and writers. And I’ve met some very good people, particularly writers. But I’ve never felt like I fit. And a nasty little voice keeps whispering: you are so ungrateful. You have what so many people dream of.
Then I read a passage from David Whyte’s Crossing The Unknown Sea where he quotes from a Rilke poem, The Swan, comparing the awkward, lumbering way a swan walks on dry land to the wonderful moment when it lowers itself into the water, its element. Whyte likens this to the process of setting out to find his own element as a poet. I also read the old story of the Ugly Duckling, who flutters and lumbers from place to place until he eventually finds his ‘tribe’of swans.
I believe we all have metaphorical - and sometimes, if we’re really lucky - actual tribes and elements – places where we belong. To other people, they may appear to be strange places, strange activities, strange ways of being. But for us, they’re ‘home’. We can struggle to fit into other people’s worlds, which uses up a lot of energy and convinces us even more that we’re ‘wrong’ or misfits. Or we can pack our bags and head out into the unknown in the hope that we will find our tribe.
Perhaps you are wondering what this has to do with writing. Well, I’ve just been reading a wonderful blog post by a writer who floundered for four years, trying to write Young Adult. It was only when her (wonderful) boyfriend asked her what she most loved to read, and what she’d most loved to write, that she realised that romance was her element. Since when she’s got a job as an editor at a romance press and is sleeping, eating and writing romance to her heart’s (literal) content. She has found her element. For a different kind of writer, the very thought of this might be hell. For her, it’s paradise.
David Whyte had a similar experience. He was working in a corporate environment and getting more and more exhausted. In despair, he asked a wise friend for help. This is what Brother David said:
“You are like Rilke’s Swan in his awkward waddling across the ground; the swan doesn’t cure his awkwardness by beating himself on the back, by moving faster, or by trying to organize himself better. He does it by moving toward the elemental water, where he belongs. It is the simple contact with the water that gives him grace and presence. You only have to touch the elemental waters in your own life, and it will transform everything…Let go of all this effort, and let yourself down, however awkwardly, into the waters of the work you want for yourself.”
Whyte decided from that moment to do one thing each day that would move him towards his life as a poet. Within three months, he was on stage, ready to read.
I’ve no idea how long it will take for me to find my element, my home. But like that little Ugly Duckling, I’m setting out on a journey. Maybe one day I’ll find that water, let myself down into it and recognise my own reflection in it and in the others who live there. Wish me luck…