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Why I stopped writing

Madeleine Forbes
Madeleine Forbes
5 min read
Why I stopped writing
We have a new terrace! And a big pile of dirt!

Table of Contents

Fairly often, people I know ask me if I'm still writing. I tend to deflect the question for the most part. Depending on who I'm talking to, and how robust I'm feeling, I might laugh it off - oh, family life killed my creative dreams, haha.

Or explain that I'm taking a break from creativity to allow my experiences to compost; resting in the creative void for a little while.

Or mention the moment when, faced with spending another hour on my laptop sharing my observations of spring in the mountains, I decided the far preferable course of action was to get outside and actually enjoy the fucking spring.

And all of these are true. Life is busy. As a writer, I find it hard to maintain a constant output. And it is hard, especially when writing about life on a farm, not to want to simply close the machine and live that life, instead of writing about it.

But there's also another story to why I stopped writing, one which feels uncomfortable and vulnerable, and also takes a bit of time to explain. It's connected to all kinds of aspects of my life that I haven't written about publicly, and has forced me to awaken to some of the fundamental contradictions and inconsistencies of the narrative I weaved for so many years.

For that reason, and because I've been scared to write about it clumsily or get it wrong, or bore you senseless with circular self-obsessed musings, I've held back.

Wondered if I could quietly wait for this maelstrom to pass, and then get on with whatever came next. (Maybe I'd start writing about food! Or the local traditions of Portugal! Or motherhood! Or rotational grazing!)

Unfortunately, that doesn't appear to be the case. Deep inside, I hear the whisper that says until I've written about this Thing I Do Not Want To Write About, the stream will remain blocked. It's becoming the elephant in the room, the blockage around which nothing else can move.

When I first started sharing words from the hills, we'd only just moved to Portugal. If you've been reading for a while you'll have read my gleeful stories of connecting with the hills, of talking to the trees, of  noticing the way I became a part of the landscape, and how my body and my mind shifted with each turn of the seasons.

I wrote about swimming naked in the river, about fire, about loss, about home.

I wrote about giving birth and learning about plants and living in a tent.

But the big story I was writing was one in which I, the city-dwelling protagonist, moved to "the middle of nowhere", a place welcoming but also abandoned, where I rediscovered the power of nature and broadcasted it out to my eager readers.

(I'm over-simplifying, but I think it's fair to say that was a thread.)

After a while, a few things happened that started to change that narrative.

I began to settle; I put down roots. Roots beyond breathless journal entries and wild walks - things like a registered business, like giving birth, like friendships deep enough to begin to truly nourish me.

Central Portugal stopped feeling like "the middle of nowhere" and started feeling like a real home. A place big enough and vast enough I could explore it for the rest of my life.

And where I began to connect to a community; not only the rag tag bunch of unwashed hippies I'm honoured enough to call my friends (hey guys!) but the wider community, the villages and towns and people. People who weren't just National Geographic portraits to illustrate the "authenticity" of the place, but real, interesting, complicated, compelling human beings.

I started to see that, as well as the story of me "escaping" city life for rural idyll, I was also leveraging a political and economic power that most of the time I managed not to acknowledge. Coming from a wealthy, middle class family in a wealthy, Northern European country gave me freedom. I chose to use the money I'd inherited - both literally, and in terms of the education and opportunities I had access to - to buy land in a poor, Southern European country. Where land was "abandoned" because, to a large extent, systemic inequality and economic pressures forced many of the local people to move to places where there are jobs. Where they might, for example, become nurses looking after elderly British citizens. Ones I'd left behind in my pursuit of "freedom".


It was shortly after I'd begun to have these uncomfortable thoughts (go away! I'm trying to write about oak trees unfurling!) that I signed up for an online course called We Will Dance with Mountains, led my Bayo Akomolafe. It's hard to describe exactly what this virtual carnival involves. It's described as

"a matter of fissures, fault lines, cracks, openings, seismic shifts, endings, and fugitive marronage. The course (often described as an expedition or a wild adventure by previous participants) is about recuperating our connections with a ‘world’ that can no longer be seen as dormant, mute and passive. It is about coming to new senses, and co-generating new practices of place-making in partnership with the more-than-human world. In short, the course is about becoming with-nesses."

(Head down the rabbit hole here, if you're feeling brave.)

Moving through this expeience began to unravel the thread that had come loose from my story still further. I began to wonder about the ways in which I imposed myself on the land, and how much I was really willing to surrender to being changed by it.  

I met Sofia Batalha, on her own journey of untangling the legacy of colonialism as a Portuguese person. I read her work and my confusion and curiosity deepened. I thought about the trans-atlantic slave trade, and how the portuguese traded humans from africa in unthinkable conditions, and how the people working on the ships also lived in conditions unthinkable to me, entangled in the choices of others.

(Of course, I'm not suggesting that by not moving to Portugal I would have remained somehow morally superior. I don't really think there is a way to remain "clean" in this world. We're all sticky with the residue of war and exploitation and colonialism.)

And it's hard when you start to see it. Again. Because we've all seen it at some point, right? When we realise what our phones are made of, or who made our clothes, or what the real cost of our avocados are.

As I submerged myself into this different narrative, I started to wonder if writing about nature and life on a smallholding and living more simply was my way of commodifying my choices here. Of turning this place into a spectacle, into entertainment, for outsiders to observe.

Were my new friends and connections becoming curiosities? Was I mining the landscape to turn into "content" to keep people scrolling on Instagram?

I really don't want my beloved valley, this precious river, to be making money for Instagram. I don't want the story of my son's birth to be sent via a platform that tells me how much revenue that email generated. ($0.00)

And so... I stopped writing.

Just like that, the months and years of essays dried up. And after a while, I started wondering what on earth I felt I needed to add to the endless chatter of thought and opinion on the internet. It felt like noise. What I wanted was quiet. I wanted a private relationship with the oak trees and ther dirt, not a performance.

And now, I'm turning these reflections into a brand new book and podcast series, launching May 2023.

Not really!

I don't know what I'm going to do next. Maybe I'll start writing again. Maybe this really is the stone that's been blocking the stream, and getting it off my chest will release a flood of ideas and thoughts.

Maybe I'll quit the internet altogether, smash my phone with a hammer, go fully feral and become the full time goat herder I've secretly dreamed of being.

Most likely, something in between.

Anyway. There it is. Why I stopped writing, and the open question of what it might take for me to want to start again.

How are you?