A late summer morning in the Limousin. At Chateau La Creuzette, shafts of sharp sunlight pierce the tree canopies – the grand old cedar, oaks and chestnuts – and set the dewdrops on the lawn sparkling. Fire and water meet, an ancient symbol of alchemy. Will our class achieve this same kind of fusion, turning life experience into gleaming, golden words?
Over the reedy pond, an enormous dragonfly hovers, bulbous, an iridescent deep blue. This too is an old emblem of transformation, and there will be many more dragonflies coming and going during the week, bringing their own particular touch of magic in the garden. And as the day warms and the sun strokes the petals of the flowers, butterflies appear in the gardens to bask there: lemon, gold, cream and rust, mottled and marbled in colour. They alight, pause, and flutter on. Symbols of the soul. Libelulle and papillon, alchemy and the soul, dragonfly and butterfly.
At ten o’clock, our writing group gathers in the ‘cave’ – that means cellar in French , (it’s subterranean) but it might as well be an alchemist’s cave, a place where we prepare, brew and distill our word potions during the week. (take a look at the photo gallery at the end!) We’re here on a kind of quest, a journey of life writing. Some of the eight members have flown half way round the world to be here to take this course. It’s a big responsibility. so I’d better be alert – watchful like the dragonfly, sensitive like the butterfly. Will I be able to offer them what they need? Alchemy says: ‘Start with what you have, with what is often overlooked and thrown away.’ This is the way real transformation begins: making gold from what might be seen as dust. So we start with childhood memories; everyone has them, but they have a potency like nothing else. Find them in depths, fish them up and write them. Simplicity is best. Don’t elaborate, just let them be revealed in the light. Then they’ll sparkle like those dewdrops in the sun. We work thus at the dawn of the world, our personal world, where the seeds of creation are stored.
Later, we trek through the terrain of adult years, charting chronology, recording its peaks, its troughs, its moments of joy and terror. As a British tutor working with eight South Africans, I am in shock when some of them write about being hijacked, robbed, or having a gun put to their heads. But the dragonfly has to keep on hovering, not dip in the pool and drown. I too am learning from this. And so do they. The implicit question as people continue to write down their experiences, is, ‘Where am I in all this?’ Life writing is nothing without a degree of personal reflection. But, I teach them, a little goes a long way, like a powerful spice. Let the main ingredients – events, encounters, experiences – do the work of the telling, but add your own touches of philosophical reflection to give it that special flavour.
Life writing isn’t just about recording events, but is also a process of seeking knowledge. It can change the way we view our lives.
Our lives intermesh with others, and these too come into the scope of life writing, sometimes with intense significance. One of our number, Annette, is on a quest to understand the short life of her daughter, an accomplished, beautiful woman who died in her prime:
"Like a butterfly, freeing itself from its cocoon, she came into this world, gasping for air and struggling to free herself from the birth canal.......With the same effort to be born, it took three days for her to leave this world, slowly spinning herself away. On her birthday, 42 years later, almost to the hour, we lay her body in the ground. Her life as short as that of butterflies. My butterfly was flying freely."
She wants to write a tribute to her, and this butterfly symbol begins to take on its own life in the course. As the week flows on, we see butterflies everywhere –not only in the garden but at dinner, a (paper) butterfly clipped onto every napkin, in one of the astonishing table settings created nightly at La Creuzette dinners, and flying colourfully on scarves and jewellery and designs around us. There is no escaping the butterfly, and its implication of soul. The group becomes closely bonded, unafraid to share personal revelations, but always putting the writing and the journey first.
By the end of the week, I know for sure that life writing can be work for the soul. I have taught many classes of life writing, but the chance to bring a small group of committed people together, in these glorious surroundings (not essential, but it helps!) to connect and work together recording some of the most intense experiences of their lives, shows me that the process can be truly transformative. And the participants do this work for themselves. I am only the guide, frowning over my route maps, steering them along the way. I help them to keep walking on, but each person takes those steps independently.
Yes, there is a touch of magic to it, symbolised by the sorcerer dragonfly with his uncanny presence, and the delicacy of the butterfly with her elusive beauty of the soul.
At the end of the course, Annette buys herself a butterfly necklace. She knows her direction now, and is ready to travel further – quite literally, in one sense, on a Silk Road trip, which her daughter always wanted to do. And the class gives me a gift – a dragonfly pendant. I am wearing it now, as I write this.
Next year at La Creuzette, it will be a different journey, with different travellers. I will be unrolling my maps, but aware that even with the terrain marked out ahead of us, it will always be a venture into the unknown. And my job will be to help the group take this trip, moving forward as one. We will work together, as this year, dividing our time between the soothing dim light of our ‘cave’ at La Creuzette, and the brilliance of nature and sunlight around us, butterflies and dragonflies gracing the garden, when we step out to take the air.