Have you ever looked at a painting or a photograph and had the overwhelming urge to break through the canvas and climb into it?
Ever since watching Julie Andrews demonstrate it could be done (if only with Mary Poppins’s aplomb), I have gazed onto many a Turner landscape and thought, all it would take is one bold, matter-of-fact stride to be there, inside the canvas, on the flip-side of the looking-glass. Grecian rays caressing my skin, the calm waters caressing my feet, and the gallant cries of Ulysses filling the air. The gallery, with its white-wash walls and stony gazes, would be the picture inside the frame, an artist’s impression of a future world.
Alas, the legal and financial consequences of making that stride have deterred me every time. However, I have since discovered another way to immerse myself into other landscapes, real or imagined, past or future. It still requires Poppins-esque tenacity, but not the risk of lifelong bankruptcy.
Immersive practice is an exercise we teach on Bristol Wellbeing College’s Writing with Memory workshop. It is used to help participants develop their writing skills for memoir, however, it could also be used to cultivate imaginative places as well: vivid alien landscapes, or your favourite painting.
It involves four steps:
- Take a moment to sit with your chosen memory: take some deep breaths and conjure that memory in your mind’s eye
- Engage your five senses and ask yourself: where are you? What’s around you? What is the quality of light? Colours? Textures? Odours and sounds?
- Broaden your perception: take a walk around that memory. What’s further away? What’s behind you? What happened in the minutes before and after? Treat it with the same curiosity you would have for exploring a garden or castle for the first time.
- Pay close attention: pick up any items that exist in the memory, examine facial expressions of the people present. Perhaps they are hazy – be patient and see if they become clearer. Use as much sensory awareness as you can… and permit yourself artistic license!
Of course, there is no venture gained without risk. When it comes to our mental health, re-immersion into memory can posit obvious risk factors. Participants who come to the Writing with Memory workshop are aware of this, and while some feel ready to revisit their past, others choose a different approach, as revealed in the two pieces below.
The first revisits a moment that is not bound to place or time, as many memories are, but to a feeling, immersing the writer and reader in a state of mind. The second resurrects a person rooted in the past, but it also goes further, inviting us into a place we cannot visit without its author – her inner ‘fortress’.
A Light Within/ Or Garden
Concrete scenes of days gone by are scant and fragmented now, but I can smell him still. Taste his scent in my airways, just as he was then. An embrace of overwhelming, all consuming devotion that reeked of his bitter sweet sweat.
Wrapping round me like a salty, over zealous, friendly octopus. One of those bizarre Japanese illustrations that are always sulkily swimming round ‘well drawn’ women. Tentacles entering their crevices, cutting off your air supply and defiling mum behind closed doors.
Even then I knew his vulnerable emotions were duties for me to protect. Parentification came with that special treatment. But I was only 3 years old and the citadel of masculine neediness that he built corridors and labyrinths to inside of me remains under siege to this day.
Smothering the foundations that once mapped my own fortress, one of feminine freedom and authentic expression. That land once had a crude moat of my own making and I swam there before I got scared of the sea. Before I went into hiding.
That land was once an open place without the great walls he helped lay. It was once a land where the people inside me danced naked with innocent abandon. Smiling deeply and openly into the eyes of others. The many parts of me that grew to protect that smile, to protect my land.
I’m just starting to push past them all, able only now to begin to recall that inner world of mine, as I wake up from this psychic coma, coughing up his sweet sweat and my own putrid, pale algae.
Yes, I do remember… but… only just. I swam and danced there once. I gave that smile as though it were free to give, with an open heart. Yes, that’s right, I once owned this place inside of me… I once owned and shared my heart.
Once, but no more.
Yes, we risk inevitable ‘noise’ as we delve into our memory and imagination seeking peace. But the above pieces show that in creativity – be your outlet writing, art or music – peace and noise may coexist harmoniously, and become so entwined as to question whether they are not one and the same.
Featured image by Acorn