How I came to write a doctoral thesis on Alice A. Bailey

It was 2001 and the twin towers had fallen the month before. 9/11 marked an event in my own personal story as my mother chose that day to migrate back to Australia, leaving me alone with my twin daughters in the UK. I was a high school teacher at the time, and that year I was teaching a small group of students A level Religious Studies. For the coursework component, they all chose to write an essay on the New Age, or alternative spirituality, as it is now known. They had no idea the woman teaching them was an esoteric thinker with a profound interest in Theosophy and the occult, and one figure in particular: Alice Bailey.

New Age

A Turning Point

I was dedicated as ever to being the best teacher I could be, but while I worked hard at my job something nagged at me, some part of me that remained unfulfilled. I wanted to strive for higher things, maybe teach at tertiary level. I thought I would undertake a PhD. I could study part time and somehow fit it in to my already overloaded life.

I searched for universities with a progressive religious studies department offering distance education and ended up emailing my old university, The Open University, where I gained a First-class Honours degree many years before. I received no reply. Then I was told there was a fault in the system and would I re-send. I did. Still nothing. I sent another email. Silence. I waited. Months passed. I had just about given up on the idea. Then, one day in February 2002, I took my students to Warwick University to research their coursework essays. We visited the library and then browsed the bookstore.

On a bottom shelf, looking a bit battered, was a book on alternative spiritualities, co-edited by a Dr Marion Bowman, based at the University of Bath. Realising its value to my students, I bought the book (scoring a discount because of its poor condition) and we all went home.

Marion Bowman

I still have the receipt!

 

That afternoon, in my inbox was an email from the same Dr Marion Bowman. To my astonishment she now worked at the OU! She said she had received my email but she couldn’t open it and would I re-send it. I did, going into a ramble about how I wanted to research something on the nature of god, throwing in Alice Bailey as an afterthought. She emailed me back within the half hour. Then came the phone call. Alice Bailey, she said, you must do a PhD on Alice Bailey. She urged me to study full time. Apply for a scholarship. I could scarcely believe it. I gazed at the row of Blue Books on my shelf. It felt like fate.

A Crisis

But the workings of fate are mysterious and not always straightforward. I did apply for that scholarship, but before I could tell my school what was happening, the OU contacted them for a reference. Ouch. By now it was March. The headmaster was understanding but my head of department was not. It was Mother’s Day when she phoned me and gave me a piece of her mind. She was so angry I had to hold the phone away from my ear. As she ranted, something in me snapped. I had been putting up with her shenanigans for years.

I went on stress leave. I contacted my union. I was about to put in a grievance. I wanted to quit and study but the scholarship was a pittance and I would never have survived. I was in a real quandary. Then life started intervening and everything went wrong. My whole back fence fell down in a storm. I had problems with tax. My daughters missed their grandmother and one was especially unhappy. Everything was pointing to me returning to Australia.

A life-changing decision

I arrived in Australia in May 2002. An old friend put me onto the School of Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney who offered distance education. I contacted them, found a marvellous supervisor in Dr Lesley Kuhn, applied, and secured a handsome scholarship, far in excess of what I had been offered in the UK. It almost made up for the sadness I felt at leaving my home, my career, my friends, my life – all of it, especially my A level students. I still have the farewell card they gave me (the school kept the true story quiet and word went around that I was ill).

I have never been sure if I made the right choice leaving England, but that first university residential school in Sydney I was walking on air. Everything about it was surreal. The people I met, the friendships formed, the chance encounters on the long journey there and back – the entire experience had a definite charge to it. I felt endorsed, sanctioned and somewhat revered as those who knew of Alice Bailey also knew what an enormous undertaking I was embracing. (My thesis, The Texts of Alice A. Bailey: An Inquiry into the Role of Esotericism in Transforming Consciousness, is available online)

In 2007, a year after I received my doctorate, I secured a job working for a high-profile literary agent. It was Mary Cunnane who urged me to write a biography of Alice Bailey. Instead, years later and after much hesitation I wrote The Unlikely Occultist: a biographical novel of Alice A. Bailey. The novel is a labour of love and service, in honour of a truly remarkable woman who deserves to be far better known and appreciated.

Alice A. Bailey

 

Your Inner Editor is Waiting in the Wings

Delighted that my piece on creative flow has been published today on the Authors Talk About It website!

Girl silhouette sunshine2

 

It was my daughter who put me onto flow. I could attribute the insight to my old hippy boyfriend back in the 1980s, for he was always telling me to ‘go with the flow’, travel along with life unfolding, but what he really meant, as I soon learned, was I had to go with his flow. Whereas my daughter alerted me to another sort of flow altogether.

Elizabeth was pointing to creative flow. Although she didn’t call it flow at first. That came later when she was introduced to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book called Flow. Elizabeth is a pianist and composer and she knew about flow because she’s shaped her life around it. And as a teacher she sees how others struggle with flow. Students who find it hard to reach a point of being at one with the music they are playing. Or when they struggle to sustain it.

What is flow? I’m not going to attempt to regurgitate Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas. Instead, I’m offering my own. In essence, flow is a meditative state, an awareness turned inwards: open, receptive, poised. In flow, there is no doubt, no hesitancy no critical judge. The inner editor is passively waiting in the wings. Flow is staying in the Now. For writers, it’s as if another entity has charge of the pen, as if you are channelling, in some sort of telepathic rapport with some paranormal being deep inside.

That inner being is of course the muse. In his insightful book, On Writing, Stephen King describes his muse as a fat man smoking a cigar in his inner basement. My muse is a woman in a red gown. She has wild hair and likes to run barefoot through castles. I call her Scarlet.

I regard the muse as an inner voice born of creative impulse. The muse speaks and the writer writes. The muse hums and the composer hears. The muse draws and the artist sees. The muse shapes and the sculptor feels.

Maybe psychologists would say creatives suffer from a fragmented personality. Some part of us has split off and developed a life of its own in the unconscious. Maybe that’s true. Or perhaps creatives have some sort of portal within, one that enables ready access to an inner creator. Maybe. All I know is that creativity is mysterious. We’re all in some measure and manner creative. It’s what makes us fully human. Not so many of us develop a relationship with the muse.

I think the muse is easily crushed. Not so much by others, although put downs from loved ones and family members along the lines of ‘get a real job’ or ‘your priorities are all wrong, you should be paying more attention to your kids, your husband, your job’ don’t help. The real crusher is your own ego. The ego seeks to take ownership, to control and dominate. The muse won’t be owned or controlled or dominated. Writers have to learn to put their egos in a box and set the muse free. Really, it’s the first step. Until it’s taken, the writer is hampered by a lack of flow.

I’ve been writing fiction for about seven years. I’ve a few novels and short stories under my belt. I’m self-taught, although to begin with, I had the luxury of a dedicated and attentive mentor. My writing process is simple. An idea excites me. I brainstorm a basic story.  I conjure a few characters; give them bones but no flesh. I come up with a theme without working it through. I do minimum plotting and storyboarding. When I have enough I grab a pen and notebook and find a comfy chair. I wait, poised, listening. When I hear the voice I write. I write a paragraph and I don’t change a thing. There, the muse has spoken, the narrator has manifested. I cede control. I read over the words. I ponder. More words come. The pace quickens. Characters, plot lines, themes, they all emerge and develop in the flow. I don’t look backwards or forwards. The muse has the reigns and I go with whatever she throws up. There’s plenty of time later for knocking it all into shape.

It wasn’t always like this for me. I was a novice and creative flow is something that novice writers struggle to maintain. At first, a few phrases would come, maybe a whole paragraph of utter genius, then nothing. It was all just a sudden gush and the tap turned itself off. Here’s how I learned to keep the tap turned on.

First, I had to push aside the ego, with its doubts and insecurities, its envy, its defeatism. Replace all those inhibitions with faith, with self-belief, with passion. Fortunately I have oodles of passion. I’m 54 and I’ve waited a long time for this.

All aspiring writers face the challenge of stocking the toolbox, equipping the muse with the techniques of the craft. I taught myself by reading some great books by great authors and studying how they do things. I kept a notebook and copied out turns of phrase for future reference. I copied out good examples of description, dialogue, reflection and action. I studied how different books are structured and explored different points of view. It’s all rudimentary stuff as taught (I hope) in any creative writing course.

Thirdly, I got to know my muse and learned to let her be who she wanted to be. She has a voice so I let her speak. I choose not to be afraid and I don’t judge what comes out. About ten years ago, I found myself in a creative writing workshop, the only one I’ve attended, and we were given an exercise. We had to write a short scene based on a few words we’d collectively brainstormed. We had to use those words, or some of them. One of them was ‘cave’. I was off. I wrote a piece that was defiant and dark and shocking. The voice was so strong it was confronting, even for me. When I read it out to the group there were gasps, and some were as shocked as me. The muse had bared her all, and that little piece of mine stuck out from the rest like a beacon. I felt awkward and embarrassed. I wanted to disappear.

Going with the creative flow involves developing the capacity to focus.  Otherwise all you end up with are isolated paragraphs and half-finished poems. The advice given to me is the advice I give here. Write. Write every single day and aim for three hours. Make it a ritual. Pick a nice time of day that works for you. Mornings are good, before the mundane tasks of the day kick in. Stephen King says when he writes he listens to ACDC loud. Maybe his cigar-smoking muse likes Aussie pub rock. Might go some way to explaining how he came up with works like The Stand. I like peace and quiet and a comfy chair. Scarlet likes the pre-dawn hours, which I have to say I’m at odds with.

I always keep what I write: all my half-baked ideas, scraps of plot, storyboards that never came to anything. I wrote a single sentence in 2009. It was meant to be the first sentence of a novel but my ideas fizzled and I shelved the project. Three years later that first sentence ended up forming the beginning of a different novel. I’ve had short story ideas that have turned into flash fiction, and others that have become parallel narratives in book-length works. I have found the muse to be non-linear, atemporal and contrary. Yet I have found entering into creative flow and allowing her to speak to be the most satisfying state of being. I don’t know if that’s the same for everyone. It would be fun to find out.

Let my tell you about my muse

What is a muse? One of nine goddesses presiding over the arts, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Or a woman, or a force personified as a woman, the source of inspiration for the creative artist.

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Using this latter definition, I can say that my own daughter Liz functions as my muse, as she certainly inspires me. But I prefer to think that she has a direct line into me, or that my muse, Scarlet, has a direct line out to her.

I named my muse Scarlet long ago, back when I had no idea who she was. All I knew was that she existed in my psyche and she was dangerous. Who is she?

I hold with Stephen King’s depiction of the nature of the muse in his memoir, On Writing. He describes his muse as a fat guy in the basement, smoking a cigar. Which all seems stable and almost businesslike, although I think that guy would be a controller. Just like Scarlet.

Here’s the story of Scarlet. I’m a survivor. Back when I was very small things happened that so terrified me that bits of me went into hiding, while other bits of me learned to cope. The first bit of me to flee was my muse, that inner self that lives deep in the unconscious, right in its centre, whose only purpose in life is to create.

The muse is the synthesiser, the one who puts all sorts of things together and comes up with something new. She or he is the bearer of inspiration and enormous joy. Those aha moments belong to the muse.

Without her, I was a creative cripple.

Scarlet fled into a dark corner of my psyche and over the years I locked her in a cage. I locked her in a cage because she could behave like a banshee. She had so much energy and it manifested as blind rage. I couldn’t deal with her. Frankly, she was embarrassing.

Every now and then she’d burst out of me and I’d write something, but I was ashamed of what I wrote. I had no confidence, no self belief, and the feedback I sought from others was not good.

She was persistent. Whenever there was a still moment in my life she’d rattle her cage. I’d feel compelled. I’d pick up a pen. Only to rip up or even burn the outpourings of song lyrics, poetry, stream of consciousness writing or part chapters of a novel.

Of course the life of a survivor is not an easy one. I had a lot to deal with both within myself and with the people I attracted into my life.

I battled with an absence of self worth. I even got a PhD thinking that would help, but it didn’t.

Thankfully I got some good advice along the way. And some of the therapy I underwent to make myself whole again was amazing. Through it I learned to recognise Scarlet and understand her needs. I found her to be a wild voluptuous woman who wore a long red gown as if she’d come straight out of Wuthering Heights. The crown of thorns she insisted on wearing a blatant statement of her suffering. Meek was not in her vocabulary.

Sometimes I visited the cage but the circumstances of my life meant I had to keep her under lock and key. I had no choice but to deal with the vicissitudes that had befallen me. She waited. The years rolled on. Then, in the forty-seventh year of my life, Scarlet had had enough.

On the day she broke out of her cage and roamed free I felt an upsurge of energy. Ideas for a book flooded my mind. I became edgy and impatient for change. She’d begun a revolution.

Before long she took over my decision making. She cleared out all the dross of my life. She demanded my full attention. I found her reckless and obsessive. But I let her have her way.

Now I’m fifty-four. I’ve lived for seven years with Scarlet’s ruthless resolve.

The entire contents of me have realigned themselves around this new creative centre. I feel her energy. She has me up at dawn. She has me writing every day. She has me pushing away everything that does not serve her needs. She sucks me inwards, into her realm, and I have become her slave.

In some ways I live a life out of balance. But in the scheme of my whole existence this extreme, out-of-balance way of life is simply bringing me to equilibrium. I would have it no other way.

Love you Scarlet.