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What is this life if, full of care ...

WH Davies was the kind of writer you don’t get so much now. No writers’ groups for him.  No self-promotion on Twitter.

Born to a poor Welsh family in the late nineteenth century, he became apprenticed to a maker of picture frames. Bored and wanting adventure, he started to take casual work and travel, sailing to America in 1893.

There, he spent six years as a tramp – a hobo. He stole free rides from freight trains, took bits and bobs of casual work, begged door to door. He worked on cattle ships across the Atlantic. Occasionally he passed his winters in a series of Michigan jails (by agreement with those jailing him; they profited from the arrangement.)

In 1908, in London, he heard about the Klondike gold rush and sailed to Canada. He jumped on board a freight train, hoping to cross the continent on it, but slipped and was caught under the wheels. He lost his foot immediately, then his leg below the knee.

He never made his fortune in a gold mine. He left his life of tramping behind him.

He returned to Europe, to London, and started to write poetry. He still had no money, and lived in hostels for the homeless, and in those places writing poetry was something to be done strictly in private. To raise the funds for his first self-published book of verse, he had to save some cash. That meant leaving the hostel to spend six months tramping the countryside, living in barns.

In 1905, he published his work, and sold it by pushing his 200 copies through the letterboxes of wealthy literati, asking for payment if they liked it.

And –

Enough of them did.

Some high-minded journalists and other opinion-formers gradually got behind his work, and Davies gradually became a bestseller and a fixture (albeit an odd one) on the London literary scene.

He’s best known now for his memoir of those years a hobo – Autobiography of a Supertramp, a book I strongly recommend. And also for this:

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

And so on.

He’s right, isn’t he?

I’m signed up to some self-pub-oriented newsletters, and one of the things that I find permanently daunting about those things is the sheer damn productivity of some writers. Books, four or five of them a year. Ads on three platforms, expertly created, tested and monitored. And newsletters. And conferences. And podcasts. And – blimey.

Those guys probably work out four times weekly, arrange amazing date nights, and have everyone’s Christmas presents already bought and wrapped.

I’m not like that. Nor, most likely are you. Nor do you actually have to be like that to succeed.

And yes. I’m a big believer that the activity of “writing a book” needs to involve time spent at a laptop, hitting keys. If you don’t do that, you’re not a writer.

But the best ideas don’t always come from screentime. Sometimes you need to take the dogs for a walk. Or go for a swim. Or walk under green trees and watch where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

I’d say most of my biggest ideas have come that way. Never in isolation, of course. You also have to read your research. To start mapping your ideas on paper (or screen, or post-it notes, or an assembly of well-trained labradoodles.)

But still. That melting place in your brain where you are considering a problem without quite knowing that you’re considering it. That place where the light comes in sideways and finds new things to illuminate?

That place is precious, and we writers should treasure it.

Davies’ poem ends:

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

So that’s the message for this week. Take your phone or laptop and hurl it, right now, into the nearest duckpond. Walk until you see some wild clematis or a squirrel on manoeuvres.

Think of your characters, then forget them.

Let the magic happen.

And how about you? Is the nearest duckpond full of your expensively acquired electrical gadgets? Do you have to walk a very long way to find wild clematis? And where do you get your ideas? What do you do to encourage sweet inspiration to bless your endeavours? Let me know below and we'll all have a Heated Debate.

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Comments (11)
  • Great post, & great advice from Davies! Thanks! You started my wheels turning; here's the result (although I'm far from a prime example of walking the walk):

                   Away from the Desk

    Visit the clouds and catalogue the sights.

    Track the full moon on clear and star-strewn nights.

    Admire flowers, forgetting not to smell:

    Bilingually they’re wont to cast their spell.

    Be charmed by sunlight filtered through a bug,

    And cheered by bare feet on a thick-piled rug.

    In winter, gaze at ranks of barest trees

    And wait for them to reinvent the leaves.

    Record all this, if you should have the time.

    Try not to fret the stray imperfect rhyme.

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    • WH Davies certainly had an interesting life. The problem we all face is that we have no choice but to use computers to write.

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      • I've learned a lot about living out of a backpack over the last few years, and there is something magical about waking up in the morning, throwing it together and heading out - who knows not where.  These last few days I've gone back to it, for the first few I couldn't stop freaking out about my life, and then I went back to one day at a time.  The thing is, following my heart I end up in all kinds of inspirational places, and then I turn and find a note that this is where Oscar Wilde lived and wrote, or Rielke, or the lovely Virginia Wolf... and so I am a big fan of geomancy - of wandering off and listening to the earth - but it's not learning how to write, it's learning how to live, which when you are a writer means that you cannot deny the voice inside, the words and stories and you end up serving the truth.  Hope that makes sense, if not maybe read one of the 10-50 books (depending on if you count the 4 audiobooks I've recorded on my iPhone and photographic ones as well as the text only versions and cut downs...) I've written in the last 3 years, mostly on the move.  You can get a lot done when you don't have to do housework (I do have to do laundry though - sometimes I go to a hostel with a machine for a treat!)  (I've also consulted on two books other writers have self-published, mentored another author to get their poetry book into consideration with a publisher and have another three books I'm working on as a consultant now.)  Oh yeah, and become an Amazon Best Seller in twenty six paid categories, and I'm going to start recording the free categories too.  I don't say this to brag (much) but for goodness sake, stop making excuses - we have one life each, one day each day, twenty four hours in each, and many of the most successful people I know have had the humility to stand and hand out flyers or stick stuff through people's letterboxes.  But rest assured, I'm still poor and have had to do some other really crappy jobs.  But I sure am living.

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        • I would love a little more nomad in my life - but the reality of four children and a very practical partner mean I'm terribly domesticated! 

          One day I'll escape for a writing retreat to a hut on the tip of a Scottish island, or a lighthouse in Iceland, or a caravan in deepest Peru!

          Then I'll write something excellent...that's how it works, right?! 

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          • Sending you a little nomad. Please take care of him. Hope your partner gets on with him.

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          • Stung by a cuffing bee on Saturday. Sod nature! 

            Bee pollen

            Leg swollen

            Weekend stolen

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