I often find I have a significant river in my life. Growing up it was the Dart, in London it was mama Thames, and here it is the Walkham. She and I are fast becoming close friends. I tell her my secrets and she soothes away my worries. She also helps me with my creativity. Walking her banks I am processing my latest writing work, plotting, rehearsing, and preparing myself to dive into the depths of another book (my sixth).
Those of you have met me in the classroom at any point will know that over the last few months, I’ve been teaching practical elemental magic at Treadwells. This has coincided with a few other events-one is completing my PhD thesis novel, and the second is beginning this next novel. We are also currently living in a third COVID lockdown, and having moved back home to Dartmoor last year, my spare hours (such as they are) spent walking the hills, and finding suitable bits of water to plunge myself in. I’m one of those cold water swimmers, although when I grew up here it wasn’t called ‘wild swimming’, it was just swimming.
I’m spending a lot of time immersed in the elements in nature at the moment, Dartmoor rains like nowhere else on the planet, when she’s not shrouded in mist. This winter we’ve had every form of weather you can think of, and more often than not, when I look out of my study window, it’s a grey skies and heavy rain.
That being said, I know I’m in my natural element. And that’s making me think all the more about the four elements (Earth, air, fire and water in the western mystery tradition), and their fifth step-sibling aether or spirit, and how they relate not just to my spiritual life, but to my creative life also.
How is your spiritual life, and how is your creative life?
My classes often start with the question “how is your spiritual life?” For people for whom a spiritual life is a new idea, that question can sometimes throw people. We’re not all used to thinking about that part of our lives, unless you’ve been brought up in one of the world’s religions. If I’m ever faced with a blank expression and a sense of confusion, I rephrase the question to say “how is your creative life?” To me creativity and spirituality are born of the same thing - a connection to a higher power (whether you see that as divine or not really doesn’t matter) The desire to reach a flow state (where you lose time, and focus only on the moment and the task in hand) and the desire to feel good. Both a connection to the divine and the ability to immerse yourself in your favourite creative activity (no pun intended, but take one if you will) feels really good.
Working with elemental energies
Each time I teach one of the elements, we spend a workshop focusing on that one element – its history, where it comes from, how it relates to the world of the occult, how it relates to human understanding of the world around us. We even look at divine element, which deities are associated with it, and therefore who you might be working with if you choose to immerse yourself in it. In my witch training (before I entered into a coven I had to undertake training – please see my previous posts) myself and my witch siblings each spent a period of time immersing in each of the elements. We would tend an alter to that element, wear its colour, work its magic, eat its food, work with its herbs, crystals and oils. When you take on a relationship like that with a magical entity, it can become all-encompassing. You literally exude it from your pores. My witch siblings and I noticed some commonalities - each of us met someone new while working in air. We fell in love in fire, married in water, and inevitably broke up in Earth.
Of course, working with the elements doesn’t have to be that extreme - we had surrendered to working with them in that intense way as this path was our way of life. The second quest, later in my magical career, had me thinking about the elements internally, not necessarily immersing myself physically in great bodies of them, but seeing how they manifested in my life and in my body. At that point, for various reasons I didn’t have access to bodies of water, or a fire pit, or to mounds of earth, so I went on an internal quest, and immersed in each one as it manifested in my life - air, my thoughts; fire, my creativity; water, my emotions; earth, my body and my physical
home. It is a well documented ted idea that each one of the elements is associated with a different set of qualities, and magical areas of work.
Creating with the elements
It’s not really a huge leap to discover that working with the elements can be a really useful model for creativity. If I think back to each of my books, or other creative projects, I can see that they go through before fold process of emergence. This is what I’ve discovered so far:
1. Air element
In air, we find the initial inspiration for the idea. The word inspiration is literally rooted in the Latin Inspirato, which roughly translates to meaning ‘the breath of God’. Ideas flow like air. In circle we associate element with thoughts, ideas, movement, travel, and inspiration. Liz Gilbert has written extensively on ideas around creativity in her book, Big Magic. (If you’re a creative person and you haven’t read it, I would urge you to. I would also recommend The Artists Way by Julia Cameron.) If you’re a writer, you’ll be familiar with the concept of ideas circling above your head a bit like birds. Sometimes they land, and sometimes they keep circling. Sometimes they roost and stay with you until you’ve created that thing, other times they take flight again disappearing as quickly as they arrived, leaving you wondering what on earth happened to the idea of a painting or any other piece of work. So it’s useful to get to know the elements, how to work with them. How can we harness an idea so that it stays and roosts before it flies away?
2. Fire Element
Fire is the creative spark. Once you’ve had an idea you need a spark of creativity to make it happen. I like to think of this as the Dr Frankenstein principal. You’ve built your creature (perhaps only in your head) and now we need to bring into life. You need that lightning strike to animate it. This is why many creative ideas born in air, never make it to reality. The owner hasn’t managed to breathe life into the project will give it the fiery energy of actual creation.
3. Water Element
Water, in simple creativity cycle terms, is the emotional depth that the project needs in order to appeal to other people. If you’re a writer, the story or book that you’re writing has to have some kind of emotional depth, something for the reader to latch onto and be interested by. In creative writing courses we often talk about needing to engage all the senses. This doesn’t just apply to writing of course, the same could be said for a painting or a photograph. Human beings love, and need, storytelling. It’s intrinsic to our emotional well-being, it enables us to learn through other peoples experiences without the need to stick our hand in the fire ourselves. Our unconscious mind doesn’t really know the difference between yourself and a fictional character when you are reading. This is why stories need the watery element of emotional depth. Without it we fling the book to one side after a chapter or two, we stop watching the series for episode three, or we click on by.
4. Earth Element
So have your inspiration, you have the creative spark that’s waking you up in the middle of the night making you want to create, and you have your emotional depth. What you need to do now is bring it into physical reality. I want to remember very dear teacher telling me that when they were working on their PhD thesis, they got into trouble with the University, because at an annual review board when they were asked, ‘how is your PhD going?’ Their response was ‘it’s all done, I just need to write it down’. The number of times people say to me ‘ I could’ve written that book’ or, ‘I’d love to be a writer one day’, and then they say, ‘but I just don’t have the time/money/motivation’. Anyone can write a book in their heads, is the easiest thing in the world to do. What’s not easy is the physical act of sitting at your desk day after day crafting your words. When you’re writing, it’s about 25% inspiration and actual writing, and 75% editing and refining. If I’d known that when I wrote my first two novels, I can promise you they would’ve been a much better read.
So Earth element brings with it a big dollop of good old-fashioned hard work. This is the part where you spend time every day working on and crafting your piece of creativity. Well other people (outside of the Covid pandemic) might be going off down the pub, watching EastEnders, or having a lie in, you will be there slogging your proverbial guts out working on your piece. This is the difference in what it takes to live the creative life, or the witch’s life. Both creativity and witchcraft require a level of dedication, hard work, and good old-fashioned blood sweat and tears. If you’re not prepared to do that you’re not prepared to be a writer or a witch. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. It’s taken me 20 years to become the writer I am today, it’s also taken me 20 years to become the witch I am today. I am still learning. As my teacher so often told me during my early years of training, in this life we all die beginners.
If you’re on the outside looking in, if you’re watching what other people have in their life and wanting to have that for yourself, it’s worth remembering that mastery takes practice, and if the person you’re watching make something look really easy, inevitably there will be years of hard work and practice they’ve gone into that. Mastery doesn’t come overnight, and it doesn’t come easily, even though it looks easy. If you’re serious about being a singer/writer/witch/artist/photographer, or indeed successful anything that you love, it’s going to take hard work and dedication over a period of time to get there. The media loves to tell us stories about overnight sensations, but very few of us are born with excellence at our fingertips. It’s taken most people years of study to get there.
However, that journey towards mastery is one of the most rewarding path you may find. When I look back over the last 20 years of my trainings, I enjoyed every stage of them. I was keen to get there thoroughly, but not quickly. If I get hit by proverbial bus tomorrow, or run down by a herd of cows, then the one thing I will tell you on my deathbed is that I’ve enjoyed every second of the way.