Born in Australia to an Australian father and Belgian mother, Earl Livings once scorned those who felt a need to explore their ancestral origins. Not anymore. He now calls Wales his spiritual home. Having just spent two months at Stiwdio Maelor, in Corris, North Wales, this is perhaps not surprising. But in truth, he stumbled upon the homeward path years ago.
I first met Earl as one of the tutors at Box Hill TAFE where I was enrolled in a Novel Writing subject. Earl taught poetry and a unit on myths and symbolism. When he turned up at the Melbourne Welsh classes it seemed the two disparate aspects of my life had collided. Another writer! With an interest in Welsh language and culture! Who lives in Melbourne! When Earl announced he was going to the UK for a research trip and would be staying in Dolgellau. I said:
You should meet my friend Veronica.
When Veronica set up Stiwdio Maelor, a residential studio for artists and writers, Earl and I jostled for a chance to be one of her writers in residence, Earl applying for a two month residency, me applying for a six month volunteer role. Our applications were both successful. Earl’s residency came before mine. I have therefore followed his writer in residence blogs with interest, plying him with a host of pressing and intelligent, questions like:
What’s the internet speed like? Does Maelor have a washing machine?
Now Earl is back in Australia, I thought it time to raise the standard of my enquiries. I asked him to flesh out what he means by the term ‘spiritual home.’
Here’s what he had to say on the topic:
“Although my father was born in Australia, of an English father and a Welsh mother, whenever people met him his demeanour and speech would lead them to believe he was English. I too was born in Australia, yet some people when they meet me think I come from Europe. This may be because my mother was Belgian and I inherited her darker skin, eye and hair colouring and her attitudes … However, when I was young I saw myself as Australian and couldn’t understand the need of some people to re-visit their homelands, grow their country’s flowers, and cultivate its culture. I was an Australian and I felt it our duty to embrace the land, its flora and fauna and its growing culture.
“Yet, alongside this national bent was a sense of otherness from this country. When I found out I was part Welsh, I felt a kinship I hadn’t felt before … Still, the national bent remained and it was years before I started to explore my British heritage … My exploration into my British roots (as opposed to my father’s English roots) began with a developing interest in the megalithic culture of Britain, in The Matter of Britain—the stories of Arthur, Merlin and the druids—and in Celtic poetry and poetics: W B Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Robert Graves (specifically, his The White Goddess). The more I read Celtic literature and myths, the more I felt at home in this tradition. When I first travelled to Britain and spent time in Cornwall, Wales and Ireland, I sensed an affinity with the landscape, more so than during trips to the Australian bush and outback. Subsequent visits have only confirmed this connection, as has my learning of the Welsh language, an activity and practice that always feels right for me, that always centres me.”
One of Earl’s more recent literary inspirations has been found in the work of Alan Garner. He uses the term ‘mythic realism’ to describe Garner’s weaving together of the everyday and the mythic. I asked him to explain his use of this term.
“The phrase ‘mythic realism’ in some ways was a throwaway phrase when I was thinking of Garner’s work in relation to my own and in comparison to someone like JRR Tolkien and his secondary world of Middle-Earth. Tolkien and others have been described by the phrase ‘mythopoeic’, but I felt this phrase was more relevant for those stories that are either constructions of a myth, as The Lord of the Rings can be construed, or use myths and mythic beings in a literal sense, as much of modern fantasy does. I wanted something to describe Garner’s approach of using myth as a foundation for a story that somehow enacts the myth and also presupposes the literal existence of the myth and/or its underlying metaphysics. Garner creates liminal fantasies, where the world of myth and the so-called ‘real world’ overlap…
Garner posits these mythical worlds as real and as impinging on our world. In some ways he says these worlds influence and support our world, and that the opposite also happens. His first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, use folklore based on Arthurian-type legends of Alderley Edge, but in his next books, Elidor, The Owl Service and Red Shift, he uses Celtic myths directly or indirectly. For example, The Owl Service uses the story of Blodeuwedd in The Mabinogion, with the three main characters being influenced by the reality of the myth, almost inexorably, and acting it out at the same time. The myth is apart from the real world, yet is in a process of being continual re-enacted in the real world …
In the situation of my return visits to Britain, my journeys through Celtic landscapes in Wales and Scotland have given me my own experiences of mythic realism, in that certain sites, such as megalithic tombs and stone structures and places associated with legend and myth, give off (at least to me) a palpable sense of their sacredness … Some of these places I intend to use in my writing, either as settings or as the basis of feelings and insights characters will experience.”
Earl is an academic. Can you tell? His blog posts lifted my considerations above such pressing matters as internet speed (though this does still concern me). He has urged me to see my time in Corris as a time apart. Although, ‘officially’ a volunteer studio manger. I will be writing during my residency. Earl suggested my priorities should be:
- My manuscript
- The studio
- Speaking Welsh
One of Stwidio Maelor’s owners and founders was present at this discussion. She said you may like to make you writing a priority but I think the studio will keep you pretty busy. After we had all gone our seperate ways I considered my list of priorities.
For me, speaking Welsh will come first.
I could have taken leave without pay to finish my novel in Melbourne. But, as wonderful as Skype is, opportunities to speak Welsh would have been limited. Part of my novel is written from the point of view of a nineteenth century Welsh storyteller (yes, I too am drawn by Welsh mythology). My ability to enter his consciousness, indeed, my right to do so, is grounded in my ability to speak his language.
But what of Earl? What were his aims for his time at Maelor? And does he think they were realised?
“Like many writers, both emerging and established, I have had the odd weekend (or longer) writing retreat and have enjoyed the benefits of focussing on one’s work for an extended time. A residency is just a longer writing retreat, with basically the same intention: get away from the commitments and routines of normal life and devote time and mental energy to researching a project, working at one’s craft, and/or writing and editing the text or texts of a project… My goal for the residency was to write the next draft of my dark ages novel…. What I didn’t count on was the effects of the mental space the residency gave me. Given this opportunity to sit back and think about the novel, I discovered problems in structure and story I hadn’t realised before. I thus had to spend time doing a structural edit (which isn’t finished yet) before throwing myself back into the content editing…
Even with the disappointment of not finishing the redraft, I was happy with the residency. By the end of my time in the UK I managed to edit and re-write around half of the manuscript, which itself had grown and will probably end up being about 150,000 words. I also checked out settings for the novel and learnt a little more Welsh, which I’ve been pursuing not only for myself but also for use in the novel.”
It sounds like Earl’s residency was worthwhile on a number of levels. As it is now less a month until I leave for Wales, you can look forward to hearing in nauseating detail about how volunteering, speaking Welsh and my own writing goals play out.
Earl Livings has published poetry and fiction in Australia and also Britain, Canada, the USA, and Germany. He also has read his work in many venues around Melbourne and in the USA, England, Ireland, and Wales. Earl has a PhD in Creative Writing and taught professional writing and editing for 17 years. His writing focuses on nature, mythology and the sacred and he is currently working on a Dark Ages novel and his next poetry collection. Earl lives in Box Hill with his wife and the seasonal owls, bats and lorikeets that love the trees around his home.