Just Keep Paddling

When I write a story for a book it’s always emotional. It’s as though the characters and the story aren’t really conjured by me. More as if they are people I’ve been introduced to, and they reveal their stories while I’m writing, sometimes writing through tears. A truly odd, but remarkable feeling. Like taking dictation. As a writer, I suppose it’s because I am not a plotter. That is someone who lays out a clear outline and takes their characters from one plot point to another. Not me. I am what is known in the trade as a ‘pantser.’ This is a writer who knows what the story is. Knows the ending and the arch, in general. But allows the story to unfold during the writing process. And it will surprise no one who knows me that this is pretty much my life philosophy. It just works for me.

While writing my finished novel The Grief of Goodbye, I became attached to the characters. Tess, Pen, Javier and Mateo. Selflessly-kind John and wise Inez. I missed them when I finished the final edits. I wanted to keep writing so I would be able to follow their lives. Finding myself thinking about them as I wandered around Valencia, wondering what they were up to. And my current book The Baker of El Mujandar, with Delores (Loli) and her husband, Xoan. Father Sebastian, and Hector, the village’s evil butcher. The elderly Cordoban baker and his wife have more secrets than loaves of Pan de Alfacar. And the weight of those secrets is heavy as Loli unfolds their story looking back over 50 years.

But when I paint it’s the complete opposite. Putting brush to canvas is never heavy and is always a joy. Yet, in this I am still a pantser. We recently had a friend to stay who didn’t seem to mind the lack of water pressure in the shower. Chris looked through my canvases and smiled. ‘You don’t have a definite style.’ And he is correct. Picasso had a blue period. Monet painted water lilies until the cows came home. I become inspired by something and I paint. I have no artistic school of thought. How it will turn out, even I don’t really know. Sometimes I sketch it first. Sometimes I don’t. Huge canvases. Or small ones – like looking through a window. It’s often complete crap, and I know I will paint over it. Other times, one painting will evolve into something else. Sort of like grafting a tree. If I didn’t paint the first painting I wouldn’t have painted the next part. I have learned not to judge. Often, it requires stepping back for a while. Taking the canvas off the easel and letting it sit. When I’m ready to do something with it, I will. Patience.

Moving into this house in Palas has meant I have walls upon which to hang my work. The turret of the staircase will be perfect for this. I was pretty prolific when I had my espacio creativo in Valencia, before Covid. Producing canvas after canvas. Inspired before the world crashed down. But I want to hang only the things that really speak to me. It’s better to have an empty space on the wall than to put something up that you’re not 100% proud of, or connected to.

When Chris was here he spotted a painting I had started three years ago and modified over time to its current state. He liked it so much I thought about giving it to him, but he had no way to get it home. Its titled Muxia. If you have never been to Muxia, it is a village on the west coast of Spain in Galicia, on the boiling ferocious seas of the Costa del Morte (coast of death). Known for consuming ships on its rocky shoals for millennia, it’s a stunning place with an energy that is indescribable. The waves pound the rocks, while the froth and foam recede to reveal blues and greens that defy the color spectrum. Standing on the edge of the world is like being inside a seashell. As though the sea is speaking to you visually. And you can feel the vibration of the sound coming up through the rocks in your feet. A truly special place.

My painting, Muxia, had floated around our apartment in Valencia after we closed up the espacio creativo during Covid. And since we moved to Galicia. It’s a wonder it wasn’t damaged as we settled in. Balancing on books on the bookshelf in the entryway. Landing on a shelf by the old fireplace before we ripped it out and replaced it with its current incarnation. Until Chris spotted it on that sunny day in October. And I realised this painting is one of those I am most proud of. It has movement and it speaks to me.

Yesterday, Jeff framed it for me. Then he strung the gallery cable over the fireplace and hung Muxia front and centre. I sit here now and I realize it is the perfect painting for our lives. And, as such, it deserves pride of place in our living room. Our life is an endlessly flowing, beautifully turbulent sea. Hmmm. It turns out my paintings are emotional after all.

As many of you know, Jeff is a water person. He loves nothing more than to be paddling a river. Over the years I have learned many life lessons from him when he has taken me out on the water. ‘If you want to stay upright, always keep one of your paddles in the water. If you do that you won’t go over. And when you hit rough water keep paddling. You’ll want to stop. It will be scary, but you just have to keep paddling.’ Very good advice, and not just when kayaking.

Our last week has been like paddling a raging river. You have no idea what is just around the bend. Or where the rocks might lie beneath the surface of the water. A ten foot drop will invariably take you by surprise. Sputtering and spitting out water. The splashes from the rapids will render you blind. But I hear Jeff’s words. And I sit here this morning looking up at Muxia and I know it will all be OK. ‘You just have to keep paddling.’

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