Unshackling the unconscious: reflection on writing a cento and the I Ching.

In my creative writing class we recently did an exercise writing a cento. This is a poem made up from lines taken from other poets existing work, each line is taken from a different poet and the final product should make sense. Cento is Latin for patchwork and centos are sometimes called collage poems. Early examples were written by Homer and Virgil.

We used anthologies in the exercise. We were asked to choose our first line carefully as it will constrain your subsequent lines as you look for a topic or theme to emerge. The first line will have some appeal, perhaps resonates with a mood or a specific theme. Subsequent choices will be complementary in some way and the meaning of the poem, the objective, will crystallise. The lines are written down and re-ordered. Some minor modifications can be made, only a few words, to bring the tense into line or the gender of a protagonist.

The meaning has developed by the author/compiler and is given its full form in the reordering. Like in all poetry, readers will sense and fill in gaps with speculation and interpretation. The meaning of the poem will be constructed, forged or to some extent disinterred by the reader. It is what it comes to mean to him or her. Theirs may or may not be congruent with the meaning for the poet. It will depend on the mood, temperament, knowledge and experience of the reader. The poem will evoke images and feelings, immediate images and meanings but also others that are provoked to emerge from deeper levels of the unconscious mind and memory.

This process reminded me of the way the I Ching oracle works. It dated back at least two and a half millennia and uses a manuscript called The Book of Changes and a series of commentaries called the Ten Wings written and compiled by Chinese Confucian savants and philosophers. Traditionally yarrow sticks are thrown in the air and the resulting pattern is unpicked and interpreted. In modern times three coins are thrown multiple times to achieve the same end, to construct a series of six lines that form a hexagram which, on consultation in the book, will give you the answer to the question you were asking of the oracle and kept in mind while going through the process of constructing the hexagram.

Generally you do not use the oracle to ask yes/no questions. The interpretation and commentaries on the hexagrams are very abstract and do not offer you any truths. What seems to happen is that in the exercise of trying to apply the statement to your question you start to unpick the possible answers against a clearer idea of what the uncertainties and other factors are. It is your own knowledge, emotions and experience you are drawing on. You construct your own understanding and narrative account of the question, the meaning of the question, the factors and uncertainties that surround it and evaluation of various alternative approaches.

It occurs to me that something like this can be used to think about questions and make decisions regarding any situation where you are trying to construct a plausible and coherent narrative. The questions pose to the oracle could be about imaginary characters you are inventing for a story line, or situations you wish to develop and possibly resolve in the story. The I Ching could be used as a story generator or at least something to have a conversation with (although in practice the conversation is with yourself) about aspects of your writing.

This is the poem I produced in class. We were given about 20 minutes to complete the exercise.

I’m drawn to these places; already feel I belong,
It goes so deep, the anger and unspoken stories.

Through the night when we had nearly let go
We created a desert and called it peace.

When women howled in the street, men ran from their doors,
Brown, nude and stumbling, in the heat of death.

Malene Englelund. The Terns
David Harsent. Fire: End Scenes And Outtakes
Kirsten Irving. No Fish Are We Now
Sam Willetts. Caravagio

Exercise in micro-fiction

Micro-fictions are short stories of 100 words or less. I have three to write as this week’s homework for my creative writing class, all referencing in some way or another a door. I’ve found this to be a difficult task and it reminds me of something in a letter written in 1657 by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal: “If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Letter”. In only 100 words you cannot develop a back story or detailed characterisations. You are obliged to leave the reader with a fair amount of work to do, to speculate and fill in the inevitable gaps. This is par excellence an exercise in “show, don’t tell” a common creative writing course mantra. So far I’ve written five and I have until Tuesday to write more, refine them and choose three for submission and reading. Here are the five so far. Of these Julia likes the first three best.

The Clothes Horse

He has done the right thing she told herself after he walked out and hurt had given way to acceptance, even relief. She had never been able to take the place of the mother he always regretted leaving. It was after she had died that he disappeared. A month later she spotted his favourite scarf and jacket on the balcony of old widow Moretti’s apartment. She had smiled at this discovery. The widow missed her dead son more than her dead husband and now, presumably, she had found another son to dote on and he another mother to cling to. [100]

The Consolations of Dog Walking

There he was, as always, waiting expectantly outside the door, his lead in his mouth, eyes full of excited expectation. It was his children’s dog in theory but in practice, when it came to walks, it was his. Dogs live on instinct and automatic responses – wag, bark, fight, flee, sniff, scratch – a repertoire not dependent on reflection, analysis, or calculation. His dog gives him uncomplicated unconditional love. He in turn understands it completely. No second guessing, hesitant uncertainty or fear of being judged and found wanting. No questions or inconsequential conversation. Just the two of them, companions free to wander. [100]

I Baked You a Cake

She’d left the door ajar. The aroma of her baking, mingled with the honeysuckle perfume drawn out by the warmth of the evening sun, would greet him as he entered tired and hungry from work. She had some good news to tell and was preparing a special cake with love and care as a celebration. Only the best ingredients; Normandy butter, fresh vanilla pods, free range eggs. This had been the first cake she had made for him many years ago. The final ingredient would make it the last – a freshly brewed infusion of Jimsonweed to seal a fond farewell. [100]

God’s Door

Leaning on his stick, he knocked on the blue door, as he had done for over 50 years, first with his wife and, later, their children. Doing God’s work. The children eventually turned their backs on them and their religion. Then God, cruelly, senselessly, took his wife and, at a stroke, abandoned him too. If doors are answered now, he no longer talks of God and salvation. He just wants to exchange a few words, to see perhaps a smile, to see in someone’s face an acknowledgement of his existence. Salvation now is other people. Please God, open the door.  [100]


The old iron key turned in the lock. The ancient door yielded to the sound of groaning hinges, and the familiar musty smell of the church embraced her. As always, she was the first. This was the time she loved best, to process towards the altar, to climb the steps to the lectern, to address her imaginary congregation while putting up the numbers of the day’s hymns. Small in stature and bent, she shrank even more in the presence of others. But here, behind this door, alone under God’s understanding gaze, she found sanctuary from the rejection of the world. [100]

The bottle-green shoe

This was homework for my creative writing class for the 5th November. The theme was shoes. This is a true story told to me by a solid, down-to-earth Yorkshireman, the Brian in the story.

Brian and Sally had moved into the 18th century farmhouse early in their marriage. Once it had been surrounded by moorland but now it was enclosed and hidden away in the urban sprawl of Bradford. It was a low stone building under a heavy Yorkshire slab roof braced against the fetch of the westerly wind but now insulated by its thick walls and mullioned windows from the noise of the busy city. They took pleasure in just being in the house, feeling its tranquil solidity, imagining the lives of the generations who had lived, loved and died in it over the centuries.

The house had needed extensive repairs and they did their best to maintain its original features and feel. When modifying the massive fireplace in the living room to fit a modern stove they discovered a horseshoe embedded in the stonework. This was carefully replaced before being covered over again. They found the remnants of corn dollies under the broad roughhewn floorboards. Friends had joked that they should watch out for ghosts as there must be some lingering unquiet souls but they had never sensed the presence of malignant spirits. Far from it, they felt nothing but the warm and friendly embrace of the house, as the latest custodians in its continuing story.

A year after moving in they had returned from a New Year’s party in the early hours of the morning. Almost falling out of the taxi they went straight up to the bedroom where they partly undressed before diving under the duvet and falling into a deep inebriated slumber. Much later that morning they rose and tidied the clothes strewn around the room. But Sally could only find one of her new glossy bottle-green patent leather stiletto shoes. They looked everywhere, retracing their steps from the taxi. They rang the taxi company to see if the shoe had fallen off on the journey home. They rang their friend to see if she had left it there and can come home without noticing she only had one shoe on. The shoe could not be traced.

As the years past they forgot about the missing shoe, had a child and moved fairly harmoniously into comfortable middle age. Their daughter, Jackie, had grown up, left home and got married. They too decided it was time to move on. They were very sorry to leave the family home with all its memories but wanted to be nearer Jackie and an imminent grandchild. The old farmhouse had been their home for nearly 30 happy years but now they were entering a new phase in their lives.

All was packed except what had been stored in the roof space. The ancient vertical timbers supporting the roof were massive tree trunks untooled other than where branches had been sawn off. Remnants of bark still clung on here and there. The air under the roof was cold and dank and it felt somehow separate from the rest of the house. It was the most unchanged part of the building, the only area that was just as the first occupants would have seen it. Stepping into the roof space was like going back 300 years into the past. That is except for the bits and pieces they had stored there over three decades, most of which was old furniture and boxes of junk. Amongst them Paul found the old brown cardboard suitcase his father had been demobbed with in 1947. It contained some photos and letters and some campaign medals that he wanted to keep so the case was taken downstairs to await the removal van. He had never shown Sally this family memorabilia before so, while they sat around the kitchen table for a last cup of coffee, he prised open the rusted catches to lift the lid. There, in all its pristine beauty, was the missing bottle green stiletto shoe.

The Queue

Creative writing class homework of the 29th October 2019. The theme was telling lies.

He moved a few paces as the queue shuffled forwards. He’d been standing in it since midday. The light was fading now but he knew the doctors from Médecins Sans Frontières would keep going until they had seen the last. He shivered. He was wearing all the clothes he possessed but they were wet from the earlier rain. It was getting colder and the wind was cutting straight through. He knew there was a limit to what they could do but he was hoping they would take out a tooth that had been painful for several weeks and do something with an open wound on his hand that wouldn’t heal. It was this that prevented him getting work from the American gang masters when he joined hundreds of others early each morning hoping for a day’s pay in the fields. His wife was going to the Oxfam compound to get rice or flour to supplement what she had managed to forage. They had never expected to depend on charity but now they had no choice.

If only their children were still with them. When they fled the city to avoid the wars of the rival gangs and the predatory beggars their son and daughter decided to try their luck abroad and emigrate to Europe. That was over seven years ago and they had not heard from them since. He and his wife had joined the thousands who had walked north for days to escape the city and seek a new life in the countryside. Despite their poverty this had worked for a while but now the gangsters were in charge everywhere. The police were unwilling to deal with the gang bosses but in any case they were in the pay of the local politicians and their business backers.

He could now see into the old derelict barn that the doctors were using for their makeshift surgery. It wouldn’t be long now. He was not hopeful they could do much. Getting rid of the tooth would be a blessing but he knew there was little prospect of his hand being fixed. If it needed drugs or surgery neither of these would be available without money.

Bitterly he cast his mind back twelve years to when all their troubles had started. Where was the health service they had been promised once 350 million pounds a week would be spent on it, and Britain was great again?

My Happy Days Coat

This was my creative writing class home work for the 8th October 2019. We were asked to write about an item of clothing.

It was my therapist’s idea to get me thinking more positively and less about suicide. I’d mentioned that I’d had a tolerably happy childhood before the depression set in in my late teens. She suggested I focus on some aspect of my youth that made me happy. Could I think of, perhaps, an article of clothing that I could associate with fond memories? My mind went back to the coat I wore everywhere for about 5 years. I got it when I was 14. It was a white double-breasted trench coat as worn by film noire American private detectives. It had sculpted panels front and back and a collar that I always had turned up. The panels were embellished with brass rings. It had a broad buckled belt pulled tight round my waist. As I grew over the next few years the coat got shorter and shorter so by the time I was 17 it had gone from knee height to mid-thigh. Over the years it became increasingly grubby, by then a variegated pattern of dirty greys and dubious beiges. The belt and collar were frayed and some of the brass rings had disappeared. But I still wore the coat. My friends used to joke about it and it was often a source of friendly banter. My first casual girlfriends didn’t object to it and it became very much a symbol of my persona; happy-go-lucky, mildly rebellious and self-assured. I had many adventures with it – hitchhiking back from all night parties around London, sleeping on the beach at Brighton. I once traveled all the way to Kidderminster in the boot of a car for a party. I was always good for a laugh and usually somewhere near the centre of the action. As I recounted this a glimmer of a smile crossed my face, reflected back to me by an encouraging smile from my therapist. But then I remembered how devastating it had been when my coat and I got parted. It was not the loss of the coat as such but the traumatic circumstances. With a shock of realisation, I knew that this had been the beginning of all my problems. The coat became a reminder of everything I’d lost.


Autofiction, perhaps better called autobiographical fiction, has become a genre of writing in vogue. The term was coined in 1977 but the genre is much older. It is fictionalised autobiography, a piece of fiction that draws heavily on the life of the author. It is often written in the first person but can also use the third person. The author him or herself can be the named protagonist or this can be a made up term.

Arguably all writing is autobiographical to some extent in as much as it draws on experience and memory, things learnt and recognised influences. But it also draws on unconscious or taken for granted ideas and attitudes, the doxa of the day, within a culture, a social group, a time, a place that is taken for granted. So fiction is a mixture of the sociological and the personal, a product of the intersection of the life of the writer with the historical and cultural context of their lives.

I carry within and on the surface of my body the marks of my biography – scars from accidents, infirmities that are the developing result of those accidents as well as life-style choices, a psychology that’s the culmination, so far, of influences and education, a self-identity shaped by a history of experiences, roles played, groups and social networks belonged to. The result is a person who at any one stage of their life is a sort of collage, a gallimaufry, a multiple person. What I like about the metaphorical notion that a person is like a palimpsest, a document that bears the traces of past writings, is that a person is in some respects a series of successively emerging layers. Each of us is like a Russian doll where within us there are earlier versions of our selves – child, teenager, young adult, married person, and so on.

A palimpsest can be a piece of material that has had several unrelated texts written on it. The only thread that runs through the existence of the material is itself and the changing cultural context of the various otherwise unrelated texts that it has had layered upon it. A palimpsest can also have had texts written upon it that are related sequentially, perhaps revisions of the same narrative, or at least influenced and shaped by earlier accounts. It is palimpsest of this type, ghostly stories still existing in the current version, that I see as a metaphor for a life.

If it is the case that all fictional writing draws in some way upon the biography of the writer in that it draws on experience, memory, influences on self identity, attitudes and beliefs – the taken for granted aspects of the world as well as those consciously deliberated and reflected upon – than all writing is a product of the palimpsest that is the author. It is autofiction.

Drawn from life: why have novelists stopped making things up? [A Guardian article]. “Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Edward St Aubyn – authors are using their own life stories in their fiction. Does the boom in autofiction spell the end of the novel”?


New class has started. It is the sister course to the one I’ve done already but is longer established with a more experienced group many of whom are published writers. Unlike the previous course each tutor led session is interspersed with a self-managed session led by one of the more experienced members. This extends the course from 7 to 11 weeks.

One of the topics we will be covering is the writing of a novella-in-flash. I’ve not heard of this before but this article explains it pretty well. It looks as if it will be a format that suites me.

Michael Loveday: Novella-in-Flash 2020 Judge

A flash fiction novella, or novella-in-flash, may be a similar page-length to a novella and generally includes similar features such as a central character (or group of characters), and a sense of story or ‘narrative arc’. But the crucial difference is that the novella-in-flash is broken up into stand-alone sections, each generally functioning as an individual flash fiction – up to the 750 or 1,000 word length that is the typical ceiling for flash fiction, though sometimes as short as only few lines, depending on the type of story.

Each of the novella-in-flash’s stand-alone sections can be a ‘beginning-afresh’ – a new moment in the story, one that’s not necessarily picking up directly from where the previous chapter left off, not in that ‘continuous’ style one gets in traditional fiction. So the novella-in-flash’s sections may restart each time with a different situation, different narrative moment, a different character, or different physical location, say. Often, at the ending of each individual piece, there’s what I call a ‘resonating space’ – some unspoken invitation to pause, reflect and re-read or re-consider. This is exactly as usually happens at end of a one-off flash fiction or with any short story, in fact; but the difference with the novella-in-flash is that overall the individual scenes and moments (and gaps) accumulate into something bigger, something with a suggestion of a single cohesive picture. You can think of it as a process of tapestry and linkage (for both writer and reader), in enabling the individual flash fictions to add up to a whole, even though they can stand on their own too.

The Poet’s Revolt: A Brief Guide to the Prose Poem

When I restart the creative writing class this September I will be joining the advanced group. The first session will be on prose poetry in preparation for those that want to enter a poem for National Poetry Day, Thursday 3 October 2019. The theme this year will be Truth, appropriate I think in what has been called our post-truth age. I’m not that interested in writing poetry although I read and admire the work of some poets. However, I’m tempted by prose poetry as I think the discipline and techniques are invaluable for prose writing generally. The following link is to an article that defines it and gives some useful examples.

This is another useful link that makes some of the same points The Prose Poem

What is a prose poem? According to the Academy of American Poets, the form is traced to the French symbolist poets of the nineteenth century. The prose poem is a popular form of modern and contemporary poetry, composed in prose, not verse. Though it is composed in prose, it reads like poetry. To construct the poem, the poet puts into use the same poetic devices as those worked with to craft modern and contemporary poetry, such as free verse, and traditional poetry, such as the epic or blank verse poem.

The Barn

The Father Mackenzie looked up at the sky. Although it was only four in the afternoon on what had been a scorching hot July day, the black clouds rolling in from the West had obscured the sun and darkened the day. A few spots of cold rain dampened his face and he decided he and his little troop of pilgrims should find shelter. Their next stop, a hostel in a nearby village, was only about an hour’s walk so it made sense to shelter and see if the storm would pass. They were descending the slopes of the Pyrenees and were looking forward to some easier days on the Camino de Santiago.

The rain and chill wind strengthened, and he had difficulty in making himself heard as he pointed to an old stone barn further along the path. Those that were with him made haste towards it, bending into the wind and wrapping their jackets more tightly. He counted and knew there were four stragglers, the same four who had difficulty in keeping up every day. Three of them were not experienced walkers and were finding the daily distances hard going. The fourth was a professor of history who specialised in the Second World War and regaled anyone who cared to listen or could not escape with the details of various battles and atrocities wrought on local inhabitants if they were either members of the resistance or, in this area, involved in the business of sheltering and guiding fleeing Jews and communists across the border into Spain.

He walked back along the path, crouched against the wind and the increasingly hostile elements, and found them after about a mile sheltering in the corner of a walled field. The rain was almost horizontal now and their situation was dry and relatively calm. The professor was regaling them with an account of an incident that took place in the area towards the end of the war. A troop of German soldiers had raided a nearby village and flushed out some attempted escapees, a family of Jews, mother and father, a young child and a babe in arms. These, along with the others in the house giving them sanctuary, were dragged into the village square and summarily executed, shot through the head, and left to the villagers to dispose of them.

Most of the men were away on the route used for smuggling refugees over the mountains and others had seen the soldiers arriving and had run into the hills. A few of the men had not had time to escape and these were rounded up and shot. One of them pleaded for his life and agreed to take them to where the other men were likely to be hiding, a barn were refugees and their guides sheltered and waited for night fall before completing the journey over the border.

It was an unseasonably cold and windy afternoon and when the soldiers surrounded the barn they saw smoke from an opening in the wooden roof. They threw a grenade though a window followed by an incendiary bomb and machine gunned any of the still living who managed to run from the building. When they were satisfied no one was left alive, they shot their informant. They camped that night in the reflected heat of the funeral pyre and moved on the next morning.

After an hour the wind abated, and the rain slackened to a gently drizzle. The pilgrims still had time to make it to their hostel for the evening meal if they didn’t delay so Father Mackenzie and his stragglers walked the mile back to the barn where his main flock had sheltered. The sun reappeared and soon the evaporating rainwater was forming a thin mist that swirled gently in the breeze and obscured the way ahead. They turned the bend to where the barn was but all they saw in its place was a burnt out shell, blackened walls, cold sodden ashes all over grown with weeds and bushes. As they stood there the cold returned and the wind got up again, moaning in the bushes like the faint anguished cries of the dying.

Michael Borrowdale

I’m currently re-reading The Sea, The Sea, the 1978 Booker winner, Iris Murdoch’s 19th novel. I read it over 40 years ago! Since my recently completed creative writing course I now recognise that it is written entirely in the first person. I’ve written a short piece in this style, below, to see how it goes. It occurred to me as I wrote it that as an exercise and the freedom my chosen story line gives me I could use it as a vehicle to write about all sorts of things however rambling. It could make a valuable complement to the other exercise I’m doing, a growing document with 15 to 30 minutes random writing in it every day, whenever practicable. This is now 82 pages and 63,000 words long. I’ve been doing this for nearly 4 months and have accumulated over 100 short pieces of random writings some of which have already proven to be a useful resource.

My name is Michael Borrowdale and I am a recovering sociologist. There is more I could, and will, tell about myself but I’m not sure how much and in any case how interesting anyone would find it. This is the first paragraph of a journal, maybe a diary, perhaps a memoir, I really don’t know at the moment. I will be writing this as a record of some sort and no doubt time will tell if it eventually fits any particular confessional or revelatory genre. For the moment it is enough that I write if not regularly at least frequently.

Perhaps a good start would be if I described my surroundings. I’ve been in this house for about two weeks now. It has taken this long to settle in and get some sort of organisation. I have always been a city dweller and the rural location I have chosen to retire to is very different to what I’m used to. The house is detached and quite old, built in the mid-1800s, once a terrace of three cramped farm workers’ cottages but long ago knocked into one to make it a family home. The front of the house, on the northern side of a shallow valley, looks across a landscape of fields and the wooded slopes of distant hills. The remnants of the ancient drystone walls that divide the landscape into irregular oblongs are largely in disrepair, of varying heights where the top courses have collapsed and spread the stones to either side. At a couple of intersections can be seen stone barns, long disused and roofless. In the distance a few other inhabited houses are dotted about, none with close neighbours and none nearer than two miles or so. Behind the house, again wooded slopes but now bearing down more closely, keeping the back of the house in shade for most of the winter. It is mid-summer now and when the sun is up and visible some sunlight penetrates the gloom behind the house in the longer evenings. For this reason, and the view, I intend to live mainly in the front rooms overlooking the broad valley.

I’ll save describing the internal layout of the house for another time. As I said, I have no immediate neighbours. Most of the land I overlook is either over grown and fallow or, further away, used for grazing cows. The nearest village is three miles away and I have visited it three times so far, once on foot, once on my bike whilst exploring the area, and once passing through in my car on the way to the nearest supermarket, ten miles away in what just about qualifies as a small town. There is very little in the village – a small general grocery of irregular hours run by an elderly dame from a back room, a pub that doesn’t serve food and a church that was clearly built to serve a much larger community than it does now. The total population is probably no more than a hundred souls or so and the monthly services are no doubt sufficient. I won’t be joining the congregation. There is no school or post office so a trip to the town is required for either of these facilities. There is however a small post box built into the church perimeter wall next to the lychgate, two collections a week.

It’s a lovely evening, warm with a gentle south-westerly breeze, a clear pale blue sky shading to a deepening purple in the east, a few strung out clouds, cirrus perhaps but some are like a row of small balls of cotton wool, above the distant hills. In front of the house there is a good sized rather overgrown terraced garden, unfenced to the view, with a paved patio area partly shaded by a vine and clematis covered pergola. I’m not a gardener so I may need to get some help with this. The patio has a rusting barbecue in one corner and a few equally neglected iron round seated chairs and a small matching table. These will go and be replaced by something more comfortable. The first small terrace below the patio, there are three levels, has a broken-down picnic table of the sort found in beer gardens. This will be broken up for firewood and replaced with a canopied swing seat of some sort. I will finish writing for the moment and go and sit out with a glass of wine, I think a large sauvignon blanc on this occasion, and watch the shadows lengthen into dusk. Why I’m here and what my intentions are will be a topic for another day