Dark Angels in Conversation Oct. 2016
It falls on me to start the next conversation in this blog series. And I’ve kept putting it off. The problem is this: the last one, between John and Richard, was so wise and intelligent that I don’t know how to follow it. They’ve set the bar high. Can you help?
Let’s not worry about being wise or intelligent or any of that guff.
‘It’ll shine when it shines’ as the title of an old Ozark Mountain Daredevils song went. Tell me, how did you find co-tutoring the advanced Dark Angels course this September in Spain?
Tutoring that course was a wonderful experience, humbling really. A group of people arrived as strangers – a little nervous, not knowing what the week ahead might involve. They left inspired and full of confidence. In quite a deep sense, they seemed renewed. And they developed this powerful bond, based on the writing and the experiences they’d shared. Here’s a confession. At times I felt a little jealous – seeing them stretching their writing in new directions, discovering things about themselves, surprising each other; I wanted a bit of that creative spark too. But then on the last afternoon I sat down and wrote a short story from scratch. So the energy they were creating must have been infectious. And how was it for you?
It felt a bit strange, even slightly unnerving, heading to Spain with the prospect of running the Advanced Course with two new tutors. For the past ten years John, Jamie and I have run the course together and have grown comfortable in our relationships and secure in the apportioning of teaching and pastoral responsibilities. I’d already had experience of teaming up with new tutors, Mark in France and Gillian at Highgreen, but I was aware that the inter-relationship dynamics with three as opposed to two was a multiple of six. (Happy to go through this higher math over a tumbler of Cruzcampo sometime. Anytime! Preferably in-situ.) As it turned out, it was fine. More than fine. It was great. I had to take overall responsibility not just for the delivery of the course content and its contextualisation, but also for the domestic and travel logistics. So there was a fair bit of mentoring, guiding and overseeing. It was more stretching than previously, which was good. There was also the chance to run exercises that had been John’s preserve before – especially the Shakespeare Sonnets, which I really enjoyed facilitating. But the key thing for me was that it felt really fresh running the course with you and Richard. We were blessed with a lovely group and late summer sunshine but your perspectives, new exercises and personalities rejuvenated the experience for me. I particularly like the twist you’ve taken on the Saturday morning research trip. This is the second time you’ve done it, having trialled it when you were ‘shadowing’ last year: share a bit about what this entails Neil. The Sierra de Aracena is a beautiful, magical landscape and walking out into it with a group is a wonderful way of engaging with it.
Good to hear you felt stretched, and that you enjoyed the experience – Dark Angels as creative yoga. Yes, it seems my walk into the countryside is becoming a bit of a fixture. And I’m very happy about that. The people who live in and around Aracena have a very close relationship with the land. The horse is still an everyday mode of transport. Many people own a pig or two. And it’s a landscape that is both beautiful yet unforgiving. There’s a scorched harshness to it that I like. On our walk, we find interesting, creative and sometimes rather strange ways of connecting with the different sights and spaces we encounter along the way. Sometimes we walk in silence, tuning our senses to the environment. At other points we sit and do simple writing activities. The aim is to seek inspiration – both from the land and from the experience of walking through it. Just to ask with an open heart and a curious mind, and see what we get back. Sometimes all you need to move your writing forward is a pencil, a notebook and a pair of stout shoes. As we walk and write, we’re connecting with a great tradition of wandering souls, from Wordsworth to Basho to Dickens – but our walks end with a cold beer. Perhaps the country walk is like a Dark Angels course in miniature. Now, since getting home from Spain I’ve had lovely emails from people telling me what an incredible time they had, how they plan to fan this spark they’ve lit in themselves. But there’s also a sense that some of them are trying to fit back in to the world of work and busyness. What might you advise, for the returning Angel?
Dark Angels takes you out of your ordinary working life. We deliberately choose retreat-like settings, whether these are in the Sierra de Aracena, the Northumberland moors or in a closed community setting like Merton College, Oxford. The retreat is from the hurly burly, to give you time and space to reflect and dig deeper than usual into your inner resources. The retreat is also into your self, of course. Along with every outer journey there’s an inner one. What you bring back from Aracena or any of our other venues is a greater awareness of yourself and your capabilities, expressed through language and story, for that is the medium we work with. In some cases this might, on return, constitute a challenge in the culture at work. In other cases there is often a greater sense of freedom and ‘permission’ to communicate more authentically. If the former, don’t panic, reserve that greater confidence in who you are for when it’s appropriate to show it. Seek out those opportunities. Make them happen. If the latter, step out, go forward. In either case, know that you’re now part of a fellowship of Dark Angels: so keep in touch, support each other, continue the journey.
Also published on Medium.