Wednesday, 9 November 2022

How Creativity Works, or 'The September Kingdom'

September man is standing near

To saddle up and leave the year

And autumn is his bridle

- From 'The January Man', Bert Jansch (written by Dave Goulder)

For a long time I had the phrase 'The September Kingdom' rolling around in my mind. It came to me earlier this year as I drove through the countryside to a backdrop of trees showing their first tentative flourishes of autumn colour. Naturally and unoriginally enough, this caused me to ruminate on the passing of the seasons and in particular the texture of the month of September, tinged like no other with feelings of melancholy, nostalgia, and the sensation that something important is somehow leaving.

This, in turn, put me in mind of the 'The January Man', a song which personifies the months in a cycle, and the way it captures this 'Septemberish' quality in its description of the September man 'saddling up to leave the year' - a perfectly apt and beautiful metaphor for the feeling I'm referring to. I found the song on Spotify and put it on. And instantly I began to envisage a D&D campaign setting made up of 12 different regions or 'kingdoms', from January through to December. I eventually discarded that idea as a bit hokey, but I was stuck with the impression that 'the September Kingdom' in itself would make a great title for a book.

September is always associated in my mind with the Suffolk coast, where my family used to holiday at the end of August each year - a tradition which I've resurrected for the last five years. The place is for me totally imbued with the feeling of transition from summer to autumn, and, again, with that sensation of leaving; of holidaymakers and tourists, myself included, gearing up for long journeys home. Migrating away with the summer itself, gone for another year. 

Last year, the cottage we rented had a huge poster on the kitchen wall displaying a zoomed-in Ordnance Survey map of the east of the county, and ever since I've harboured ambitions of putting out a hex-map setting of equivalent detail based on the region - detailing every settlement, farmhouse, bridge, pond, ruin - every fold of the landscape. The connection was obvious and totally fitting: the September Kingdom should be based on Suffolk. 

For months, though, that's where it ended. I had the title. I had a very rough, basic concept. But all I could do with them was knead them in my mind like lumps of dough - I had nothing to add to them to give them spice, and nowhere to put them to heat them up. 

It took until this afternoon to get a breakthrough. Sitting on the bus, I got a text message from a former colleague who I hadn't heard from in a long time, and I suddenly remembered that I had once lent her a collection of Shirley Jackson short stories, Dark Tales. The last story in the book, I recalled, was called 'The Summer People'. Set in a tourist town in, I think, New England, it concerns a holidaying couple who decide to stay a little longer after the season ends, and find themselves getting into hot water as a result. It's a beautifully chilling little story, but it also captures perfectly the sensation of summer drawing to a close and the cold weather and dark nights returning.

Now I have it: the concept is crystal-clear in my mind. 'The September Kingdom' is about a place with a mostly human population, but which for generations has been governed and protected by a race of powerful elves or fae. These fae entities have not only kept evil away, but have presided over an era of plenty - an (apparently) endless spring and summer of bounteous harvests and long evenings of drink and dance and frolics. Everybody thought this would go on forever. But it didn't, and now these supernatural guardians have left - and, with them, the good weather. Autumn has arrived. And so have the hostile, evil, cruel, cold things that have been kept at bay for so long. And they're hungry. 

Creativity is the result, mostly, of happenstance. It's a maritime salvage operation. Your conscious mind is like a small boat, buffeted around on the waves that the broiling subconscious churns up. You can't control any of this, or the flotsam and jetsam that bobs along your way. All you can do is stay alive and alert enough to fish it out of the water and hope it's of value. 


  1. Posts like today's are a part of your website's charm to me. I appreciate the window into someone else's creativity - even its most mundane aspects. I may have missed it over the years, but I'm curious about how you write. By that I mean your "process" (a word with no mystique necessarily intended) - even with how you organize yourself. You're someone with a lot of different projects in progress or varying states. I'm curious what that looks like. How do you capture these moments of happenstance? Do you rely on your working memory heavily? Etc.

    1. No process exactly. For a period of time I would wake up at 4.30-5am religiously and write for 1-2 hours. I was really productive doing that. These days because I have a small baby in the house I can no longer do it - I instead try to force myself to spend 1 hour in the evening, but it is much harder to write after a long day at work than before it.

      I like to write longhand with a pencil. For word processing I use Pages on my mac. Microsoft Word sucks. I find that disliking the software you use does affect how much you produce.

      As for balancing lots of works in progress... Christ, I really wish I had a method for doing that, or, even better, a method for focusing on one thing, completing it, and then moving on to the next. I have a serious logjam of projects at the moment and it's siimply because I've got too many on the go. Again, no real process involved. I tend to just follow my mood, but that's perhaps the worst way of doing it. Really, I need to get a lot better at just maintaining concentration and completing one project before starting another.

  2. It was unavoidable. I was to happen. This made me think of Ray Bradbury's books, many of which have titles in a similar vein, specially "The October Country". The title is so inspiring, for similar reason you write about, that I even wrote a collection of short stories under the title "El País de Noviembre" (The November Country) which was translated as "The Country of November". Elena Garro, Mexico's greatest writer, used to say that "in Mexico in the autumn, trees do not change their leaves, they change their green." I love autumn colors and mood from movies, books and other import media (Bradbury, again). That mood, which we really don't experience in Mexico, inspired me to write these stories. And an OSR setting using this aesthetic would be awesome!

  3. 'For some, autumn comes early, stays late through life where October follows September and November touches October and then instead of December and Christ's birth, there is no Bethlehem Star, no rejoicing, but September comes again and old October and so on down the years, with no winter, spring, or revivifying summer. For these beings, fall is the ever normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond. Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No: the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks from their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eye? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners.”

    1. My review of Something Wicked This Way Comes:

      "This is one of those classics that I had never quite got around to reading. I'm not entirely sure what to make of it now that I have, but what I certainly do know is that it was distinctive, enthralling, creepy, and deeply eccentric. Eccentric above all. Nobody writes novels like this nowadays, and very few if any did in 1963 either: this is like a horror story written by James Joyce, or even TS Eliot - astonishingly lyrical, each sentence so carefully constructed it's like each was etched into glass rather than written on a page. You don't need poetry with prose this good. But that may be its (slight) downfall, because at times it is so beautiful that it almost prevents you from connecting with the characters or plot - you find yourself standing back to admire it like a painting in a gallery rather than reading it as a novel.

      "What I kept thinking about again and again while reading it is that this novel is like a souped-up version of a Stephen King book. The basic story, characters, and baddies all could have walked straight out of a King novel. The difference is that Bradbury has the good taste to keep things brief and tightly plotted and the talent to make the writing soar above anything King would be capable of. I was deeply impressed by how taut this novel is: to be this well-written and at the same time so controlled really takes some doing.

      "Another thought that I've mulled over for some time is whether this is a children's book. Maybe it is too frightening, too preoccupied with aging and death, and too unrelenting for that. Or is it just that modern writers are much more squeamish about what they think children can tolerate or understand?"

    2. my own review would have been just 'thank god it wasn't written by SK' :D

  4. I tend to be a bit melancholic anyway, but I know well that feeling of "loss" that accompanies autumn. On especially beautiful autumn days it's especially present - sort of a last laugh before the dying. I think along with that loss there's a kind of yearning or longing - a sort of nostalgia, though I'm not certain for what, but a sort of ineffable sense of change. I tried to capture something of this mood in a fairly recent piece of fiction. Not certain how successful it was.

    The observation about being like a boat buffeted by the sea is very interesting. I find that to be true in the run up to creative output, as ideas seek a way to connect with each other in the brain. But I've observed an interesting shift once those connections are made, at least for myself. In some strange alchemy, I change from being the boat to being the ocean. I think this might be especially true in somatic creative modes like playing an instrument, or dance, or even sport, or certain kinds of meditative visual art. This connects with the kind of "flow state" that came up in your post about physical adepts. It can happen with writing as well, I think, but it is rare for me vs say, playing the guitar and I think that might be because of how intensely cerebral writing is for me.

    At any rate, fantastic post. Thank you for sharing - I look forward to seeing "The September Kingdom" at some point in the future!

    1. Thanks! You may be right about the "somatic creative modes", as you put it. I definitely think that's the case with sport or martial arts - you can zone out and almost lose conscious thought. A good place to be.