Book Four in Caroline Allen’s Elemental Journey Series, Water, is set to publish with her new independent press, The Art of Storytelling, in October. Allen is also a visual artist and book coach. Courtney Harler, Masters Review Reader, recently corresponded with Allen about her growth as a literary artist. Amidst this current threat to our collective health, and as we still mourn those lost to us nineteen years ago on this fateful day, Allen calls upon all people, and all artists in particular, “to step into their voices and their power,” to try to heal our broken world.
In Water, your narrator states: “Here, this space, this folding table in this corner of this kitchen, is where the bitch can run free. Here. This writing corner. My writing is the only place I can truly say everything I think, everything I’ve learned, everything I’ve experienced in my journey. Somehow I wanted this life. Somehow I asked for it. Just because you’ve asked for something doesn’t mean you have to like it.” I think a lot of writers, a lot of artists, feel this way. The art is joyful, but also painful. We have to delve into the pain to find the joy. Your series’ protagonist, Pearl Swinton, resists the artistic life as much as humanly possible: In Earth, she recounts her farm girl days, her connection to nature, but seeks to escape the mythical landscape of her youth. In Air, she becomes a journalist in Japan; in Fire, a travel writer in Southeast Asia.
All the while she’s drawn to other creatives—painters and musicians and crafters. In Water, Pearl must face her own hidden talents. I don’t want to make the amateur mistake of conflating the narrator with the author, but I do know that this series is semi-autobiographical. In addition to the ideas you address in the books, as a writer and writing coach, what other notes would you give to emerging writers? How can those who wish to write, or even those who do not wish to write but feel compelled to do so, wrestle their own call to writing into some discernable shape? From my experience, that “shape” eventually involves some level of publishing, which is another level of strife. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what it requires to be a writer in today’s world.
I worked as a newsroom journalist at newspapers in Tokyo, London, and Seattle for years before giving it up to write fiction. Journalism required me to remain neutral and out of the picture. Fiction and memoir writing allows a writer to fully own both the beautiful and the ugly—the pain and the joy. All of it.
When I was living in London, I worked with a group of women novelists (one of whom was a writer for the BBC), and they taught me about owning the ugly. One of the women went through a divorce and spent a year on the floor in pain. When the fever broke and she stood up, around her was the equivalent of a chalk outline of a dead body, demarcated by the detritus of her woe. A box of tissues, wadded tissues, pack of cigarettes, ashtray, bag of weed, rolling papers, tea cup, remote, pillows, magazines, dog-eared books—all contoured like the scene of a murder. What an image! She was writing about her dead body moment, and passionately supported me doing the same with my past. Up to that point, I was trying to keep the beast tethered, and it was blocking me. The pain is the writing, as much as the joy. This same woman used to say: “Caroline, let the bitch run free over the wild Serengeti.” (I’ve incorporated that line into Water.) Don’t hold in the wild woeful beating of your heart. Let yourself feel it all. Be wild with the pain. Turn it into poetry. Purge it. Don’t “manage” it or “control” it. Don’t polish it. Don’t put a bow on it.
Just as I was a journalist and had to hide my true self, I’m now a book coach, and coaches are expected to be neutral at best and all-understanding hand-holders at worst. I struggle with this. Coaches are people, and the best book coaches are also writers—expecting a coach or mentor to fully put themselves aside for the client, it’s a lot to ask. As a coach, I’m also working with two therapists who are writing memoir. They were called to tell the truth about their lives, and they too struggle with the exposure. They want to be able to be fully themselves in a system that’s set up where they have to hide themselves.
To me, the system that trains therapists to hide is just one cog in an overall system that is undergoing profound change. Graduate schools for fiction writers and publishers can have restrictive expectations that do not fit all writers. We need to come out from under these gatekeepers and tell our truth. Too many writers are trying to twist themselves into what a publisher wants, instead of letting their souls speak.
You ask in your question: How can those who wish to write, or even those who do not wish to write but feel compelled to do so, wrestle their own call to writing into some discernible shape?
What I think is required of every artist right now is simply the ability to be authentically on the page. To not mold their narrative into something they think the system wants. You’re an artist, you’re the system’s changemaker! For those reading this who cannot seem to find a publisher or who have tried and been rejected dozens of times, keep writing. The system is changing. As we speak, it’s changing. Don’t get stuck on what “they” want, write your truth and let the publishers catch up with you.
When you talk about wrestling “their own call to writing into some discernible shape,” to me that is simply about discipline. I cannot stress enough the importance of a daily writing routine. For 20 plus years I’ve been writing for four hours a day, except when I’m going through the publication process, where the hours are more concentrated over a few days. I tell people I’m a “farmer/writer.” I was born on a subsistence farm, and you don’t—you can’t—sit around just thinking or talking about milking the cow. Let me ponder the milking some more. No. You just get up and milk damn cow, even if you’re sick, or it’s icy outside or you’re depressed. Just milk your damn cow!
To recap: Writing, visual art (I’m also a visual artist), and other types of art allow a person to express the entire range of emotions. We deserve the entire range of our emotions. By writing about the grit and gristle of a well-worn life, we’re able to simply be ourselves (something I think everyone is hankering for), and the readers who read our work are inspired to allow themselves to just be, as well. I think we all need to stop worrying what the publishers might or might not want, and be the change we wish to see.
After reading the first three books in the series, then embarking upon Water, I felt like I was finally learning what I’d wanted to know most—how Pearl harnesses her stories, how Caroline gets her say. Again, not to conflate in a way that would in any way dampen my appreciation of your writerly imagination, but I’m intrigued by the metafiction here—the writing about writing. In Earth, you write: “Stories weren’t just about the telling, but about who told them. Not just about who, but how. Not just how, but why.” You also write, “When you come from a family full of secrets, lying becomes your truth until it doesn’t seem like you’re lying at all.” I’ve often equated stories with lies, and I grew up in a household where truth shifted underfoot like sand. Hence, I don’t believe in Truth or even truth, only emotional truth. And when I write, as well, telling my stories or the stories of others is an empathetic act of love, but from afar, whether in space or time. My question for you—how do we bear to write a story that must be told, but that is too close to truth as others might conceive it? How do we bravely reconcile truth with artifice, or fact with fiction? And, who is to say which is which?
To break your question down: How do we bear to write a story that must be told, but that is too close to truth as others might conceive it?
Let’s start with “bearing to write a story that must be told.” As a coach and a novelist I have a whole slew of tricks up my sleeve for managing the process of writing about a difficult life, whether in memoir or fiction. You have to work outside the writing time to keep yourself centered and fit, and I actually do about a dozen things a day to maintain my center.
Meditation, yoga, exercise, walks in the woods on my property, journaling, therapy, spiritual work, veganism, whole foods—the list goes on. The more intense your story, the more work you’ll want to do outside of the writing time to keep centered and healthy. In case I’m sounding too politically correct here, I’m just talking about staying centered enough not to slip down the rabbit hole into a depression that lasts months. If I hadn’t changed my lifestyle—I stopped drinking and smoking (weed and cigarettes) and became vegan—I’d be plunged into a pit right now and unable to write. If you relate when reading these words, change your diet and get some exercise. Stop drinking and drugging yourself!
Water opens with a dark night of the soul, and I’ve had plenty of experience with the dark. I just prefer now to have tricks to finding the light, so I can get my book done (milk my own damn cow).
For clients writing a traumatic scene, I use a “get in and get out” method. I recommend they clear their schedule so they have nothing before or after the writing of this scene. Meditate beforehand, and then just sit and write it. And then get out. Do not linger in the morass. Bring yourself back to the present. You can polish it later. Watch for any PTSD triggered by the writing, and engage self-care techniques.
How do we bravely reconcile truth with artifice, or fact with fiction? And, who is to say which is which?
Writing our truth is a process. It’s an unfolding and not a stagnant bog. First, I wouldn’t start the writing process worrying at all about this. I would just write the story as I know and perceive it. As the chapters progress, as you explore the characterization and stories of the other characters, as you understand the cultural and physical setting that has affected the other players in your drama, your “truth” will shift. That’s fantastic. Let it shift. Write about the shifting sands. I’ll often to say to clients, or to my own family concerning my semi-autobiographical novels, “I’ll write my story. You write yours.” Of course their perception of events is going to be dramatically different from yours. That’s the spice of life, right there! They see through different eyes. They attach different meanings to different events. Of course they do; they’re different people. I hope they do write their version. It’s exciting that life is so full of so many versions and perceptions. It’s just like quantum mechanics, there are so many different ways to view the same event. Your role as writer is simply to tell your version as honestly as possible (and not cling to the idea that it’s the only version).
And yes, there’s no way to avoid the negative reaction to your version of events, especially from your family. Write your truth anyway! I’ve been through this with my own books and with dozens of writers whose families have screeched and hollered and had the vapors upon the metaphorical fainting couch. You’ll live through it. Have the courage to have your say. It will change your life.
Yet, sometimes the stories are too much, like when Pearl “attaches” to the pain of others, particularly when she reads tarot cards for them in Water. Being an empath is a gift, and a curse. To be very honest, I’ve always felt too close to other people’s pain, and it’s caused me to cut myself off from it to survive. I seem to have passed this gift/curse on to my children, as well. To be even more honest, when I first read Earth, it was too much for me. Too much like my hardscrabble upbringing back in Kentucky. Like Pearl, I also wanted to leave that type of subsistence-level living behind. I married a more suburban man, whom I knew would be stable and supportive. Together, we had children, then moved abroad and back for his career. In 2017, when I began to truly think and operate as the writer I was meant to be, our long marriage ended. I discovered that no matter how much I loved or admired my husband, we could never be happy because he was not as empathetic as I. He was a thinker, a logician, and our minds would never meld as lovers, though they might as friends. In 2020, it’s come true: We are great confidants, great co-parents. We don’t see the world the same way, but it’s okay now given our separateness.
More truth: After reading Fire, I had to take a little break from your series. Pearl’s depression triggered my own. I tasted ash in my mouth, and I needed a palate cleanser. I speedread some fluffy genre books, then picked up Sea Wife by Amity Gaige, which, naturally but also ironically, led me back to Water. The answers, for me, are in the books, in the stories. And, increasingly, as if returning to my childhood: in nature itself, in the unpredictable elements. Still—I feel like I am always asking other writers how they manage to survive their own stories, so I can learn to survive mine. In Pearl Swinton, I see a survivor, a fighter, but someone scarred. Someone still scared. I want to ask about Ether, Book Five, but I know I have to wait. You said the series came to you in a dream. Let me come to a point here, a question: How do we artists face the dream—and how do we continue to live as we do so? Not physically or financially or logistically—those riddles are solved by particular circumstances—but overall, emotionally?
Where you are with a story before you begin it, when it’s all still trapped inside your mind, where you are when you’re writing it, and where you’ll be after it’s been purged—these are all different emotional phases. You can apply different self-care techniques to manage the emotional upheaval in each phase. This is done step by step, and not all at once.
I write about in Water the first time I became a fiction writer. In truth (and in the novel), I’d given up my international jet-setting life as a journalist in Tokyo and London, and I was being called to do something else, and it took me years to realize what that something was. As a reporter, I’d spent years giving voice to the voiceless, and now I was being called to find my own voice. I was so overwhelmed by this prospect of telling my story, I was having panic attacks. I kept telling my counselor at the time, “I’m terrified of the monsters that will be released if I tell my story.” She suggested I build an actual cage, and put it beneath my desk, open it to let out the monsters just for my writing time, and close it for the rest of the day. This is all explained in Water. I built that cage. When I sat at the computer and opened the cage for my first ever writing session, I couldn’t stop sobbing. I sat at the keyboard and sobbed every day—for how long I can’t remember. Finally, snippets and vignettes emerged through my hands. Day by day, month by month, I started to let the monsters out on the page. Over the years, how I viewed my own story changed and morphed, transmuted and healed. Over the years, I learned different ways to take care of myself, to be gentle with myself, as I penned my stories. I wrote my truth by myself, with no one else reading it. At first, we do not even require other readers to heal.
I would say that it’s not facing the dream that causes writers difficulty. It’s just thinking about the writing and thinking about the writing that creates the trauma. So, first release it onto the page by yourself. When we put the writing out into the world, that’s another level of release, another level of healing. Each phase requires self-care. Read books on mindfulness. Do yoga. Learn meditation. That’s your job as a writer, to learn how to take care of yourself. As you face the writing and put it out there, watch an evolution of voice occur.
As a book coach, I’ve seen this again and again. And I’ve seen it in my old life. As you turn your story into legend, your pain into poetry, slowly, other creative talents emerge. After I finished my first novel, I “remembered” my visual artist side, and now am a fully-fledged artist. When I work with book clients, my focus is unearthing/excavating their authentic creative voice in the writing. What happens is they also unearth other creative passions. One memoirist is now a performance artist. One fiction writer dropped her first single. One writer remembered her love of dance and has become a professional dancer. We all “contain multitudes.”
The question of an individual sense of spirituality, and its ramifications, is key in the Elemental Journal Series. Some readers may not fully connect with Pearl’s specific brand of spirituality, but her particular experience is very powerful on the page, nonetheless. In fact, Pearl’s spirituality is her artistry is her humanity, but it takes her many decades to accept herself as an artist, as a mystic, as a healer. Most of us struggle with finding pathways to acceptance, of both ourselves and others, end then continue to struggle to follow those ways successfully. Some seek sobriety, some seek love, some seek personal power that buoys them in dark waters. Despite the dogma, some seek community in their churches, and some are even so desperate they fall prey to harmful beliefs or even cults. I grew up in a cult—and that’s a story I’m trying to parse for myself as an adult in my own writing—but with such a history, I am always skeptical. Yet, writing is an otherworldly act for me—I go somewhere new, somewhere mystical, in words. I guess I’d like to know what you’d say to a skeptic who is also an artist, to a very human human who also seeks and needs evidence of the divine.
As you’ve mentioned, Water is semi-autobiographical and I personally did resist every call to mysticism for many many years. I spent more than a decade in Catholic schooling as a child and had what some therapists call “spiritual trauma” from the experience. I wanted nothing to do with anything spiritual. As a journalist, I just wanted the facts.
When the call came to own the prescient dreams and intuitive awareness I was having, and to own that I was actually quite mystical, I wanted nothing to do with it. I had a jet-setting life as a journalist abroad. Even after giving up journalism and seeking my path, I preferred the label of artist or writer. Even as I became a professional psychic for people in Seattle (and ultimately all over the world), even as I read tarot cards, studied shamanism, became Reiki certified, studied past-life regressions—even then I had a hard time with the terminology, like “divine, “spirit,” and “sacred.” I felt like I was already on the fringe as an expat, already on the fringe as an artist, why push myself over the edge into the mystical? I worried publishers wouldn’t touch me. As everything falls apart, as systems fail, I realize I’m being led to a new way of being in a world that isn’t working. I would advise anyone reading this to follow where you’re being led into the alternative life with passion and courage. It’s the way of the future, whatever terminology we use.
I coach people all over the world with many different belief systems. People in the Judeo-Christian tradition, mystics, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists. How people choose to approach the “divine,” or not approach it at all, in their creative process is entirely a personal one. Again, I love the variety of perception, and that’s why I open myself to coach people in so many different areas of the world. The ways we as humanity seek meaning in a higher power, or reject it, is wildly fascinating to me.
To me it’s a personal journey. I definitely channel other entities when I write, including ancestors and past lives. I now call it channeling “spirit” when I write. But I’ve worked with people who would never go near that word, and use the term “muse.” Whatever works for you.
I do believe there is source energy that we can tap into. It’s inexhaustible and crazy wild energy. Even scientists talk about this core energy. Whatever you call that energy is up to you. If there’s past spiritual trauma, approaching it as the muse can help. Open to it fully and watch where it leads. It led me to my novels, and it led me to my visual art. The human capacity for creativity is mind-blowing.
Last question. Given recent events, this particular line really resonated with me as a person, and as a reader and a writer and a mother: “I wonder if the illness, the boredom isn’t some kind of blessing, the loss of the use of my arms isn’t some kind of miracle. My mind has never been so quiet.” During quarantine, I’ve felt a new, deeper quiet in my mind creeping up on me, and it scares me. I’ve always been a compulsive reader, a rapt consumer of story, and the quarantine has only intensified my urge to explore the written word. However, my usual urge to write is lessening as lockdown drags on. I’m afraid, I’ll be honest, to finish the first draft of my book. I’m afraid to go to that place of finality, even though I know it’s just the start of real revision. I’ve heard of a lot of writers blocked or locked this way, of feeling paralyzed during quarantine. The world needs stories now more than ever, and now we have the solitude to appreciate them, but we’re still so far from the stories—from the right stories, I think. I contemplate all the unrest. Pearl often says, “Everything is upside down,” but I am not sure any side “up” is correct, either. What do you think?
First, I do believe that there is an “up.” I believe that balance with nature (both the natural world and our inner natures) is the up we must seek now more than ever. My book series is called The Elemental Journey for a reason. In seeking this balance with nature, I don’t just mean my personal balance of getting out into nature and finding my purpose and owning my inner nature. I mean as a world, as a planet, we must rebalance. In Water, I call it rebalancing with the Divine Feminine or Mother Earth (but use whatever terminology works for you). We’ve so long been in the masculine “action” mode, and we’ve lost the metaphorical, receptive mode of the feminine, the gentle connection to self and nature, to creativity and cooperation, to community and sustainability. And we’ve lost this on a global scale. This is all expressed in fiction form in Water.
Any fear, the times you’re feeling locked up and unable to write—that’s absolutely a real and authentic reaction to a world so far out of balance with the natural world it’s shut the entire planet down! You are so right to be afraid!
What can each of us do individually? This is actually part of the next novel, Ether. Look at every action you take and ask yourself how close to nature, how connected with the earth you are with this action. We need a wake-up call to see how our individual actions are part of this greater global imbalance. The individual wake-up call can lead to greater collective change. In Ether, Pearl will be going vegan. It’s a spiritual call that I underwent after seeing the documentary Food, Inc., but also after really looking at a frozen turkey I purchased for Thanksgiving. What kind of life did this being have? What kind of death? Crammed in with thousands of others? Fattened so much it couldn’t function? I was an accomplice to abuse when I purchased that turkey. I took a couple of years to go vegan, first turning to vegetarianism. It’s the same for every product I eat. Was it farmed locally? Was it flown in from thousands of miles away? Who picked it? How was that person treated?
I’m not saying we have to change our diets right away. Sometimes it’s impossible to easily find locally grown produce in big cities, especially in a pandemic, and especially if you don’t have a lot of money. I’m saying: Let’s start the conversation. Let’s look at our individual actions and its effect on the environment. Let’s become a force for change. Let’s turn the upside down, right side up again. My hope comes from the fact that I think it’s absolutely and entirely possible to turn things around.
I believe the fear a lot of people are having around their creative voice is this imbalance that has led to a pandemic. Your fear is right on. What I do is take the scary thing and write about my views on it, so that I become part of the solution. Becoming part of the solution for me unlocked all my creative energies. What I recommend to book clients is to turn and face whatever is scaring you, whatever is blocking you, and write about the block. Write about lying on the sofa binge-watching Netflix. Write about going out in a mask and not being able to understand the cashier. Write about needing to be touched. Write about: “I don’t want to finish my book because….”
We all have the greatest mentor, the best healing tool of all time at our fingertips—the writing process itself.
Interviewed by Courtney Harler