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June 2012

On Artistic Inspiration

Millais_ferdy

Today's post on artistic inspiration was inspired by the conversation with Brian & Wendy Froud over on the JB blog -- which turns, at one point, to the delicate line between Inspiration and Madness. For those of us who work intuitively, as though the Muse is literally whispering into our ears (as I swear sometimes she does), that line can grow rather thin...and I'm always interested in hearing how other writers and artists view this odd aspect of our craft.

In the mythic tradition, both artists and shamans walk perilously close to the realm of madness; indeed, in some cases, their gifts specifically come from journeying into madness, or Faerie, or the Realm of the Gods and then back again. Elizabeth Gilbert, in her acclaimed TED Talk on nurturing creativity, describes how, to the early Romans, an artist's "genius" was a spirit or daemon believed to be attached to that particular artist, and not a personal attribute. The divine spark of inspiration came from the daemon; the artist's job was to be a worthy vessel for that spark. Today, there are still a surprising number of us who view creation much as the Romans did: as a mysterious, magical, alchemical process composed not only of skill and intent but also of ideas and impulses that come through us from some unknown and unknowable place.

Illustration from The Nightingale by Edmund DulacHere, for example, is the Japanese author Haruki Murakami describing his creative process: "A short story I have written long ago would barge into my house in the middle of the night, shake me awake and shout, 'Hey, this is no time for sleeping! You can't forget me, there's still more to write!' Impelled by that voice, I would find myself writing a novel."

He's far from the only writer to report that tales and characters sometimes just appear, large as life, demanding to be attended to and rendered into print. On one end of the spectrum are the logical, methodical artists who map their stories and paintings and performances entirely in advance, rarely deviating from the route they've set themselves...and on the other end are the purely intuitive artists who discover the work as they create it -- as though it already exists somewhere, waiting to be found and given earthly form. (The majority of us, I suspect, fall somewhere on the line between the two.)

"I did not deliberately invent Earthsea," writes Ursula Le Guin of her now-classic fantasy series. "I did not think 'Hey wow -- islands are archetypes and archipelagoes are superarchetypes and let's build us an archipelago! I am not an engineer, but an explorer. I discovered Earthsea."

Illustration by Arthur Rackham“In a very real way, one writes a story to find out what happens in it," says Samuel R. Delaney. "Before it is written it sits in the mind like a piece of overheard gossip or a bit of intriguing tattle. The story process is like taking up such a piece of gossip, hunting down the people actually involved, questioning them, finding out what really occurred, and visiting pertinent locations. As with gossip, you can't be too surprised if important things turn up that were left out of the first-heard version entirely; or if points initially made much of turn out to have been distorted, or simply not to have happened at all.” 

The creative process -- like any mythic act of world creation (which is what it is, even for writers of Realist fiction) -- follows different rules than ordinary living. And that's not always a comfortable thing to experience -- for the artists themselves, or for those close by.

“In the middle of a novel," says Zadie Smith, "a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical centre of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post — I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses.” 

While the world goes on wily-nily without us, we're off chasing visions down the hedgerows of the mind, living in a place where lines and landscapes and imaginary voices become more real than the keyboard under our fingers, the paint in the cup, the vibration of the harp string.

A Girl Mad as Birds by Rima Staines"I discover [my images] in the process of the work," says painter Rima Staines (in an earlier discussion on the JB blog). "I may decide where a figure will go in the frame, but it is rather loose. I am interested in the spark which happens when the image suddenly comes together in front of you and starts to work. It's almost as if, while I'm drawing the lines, what I'm about to draw next reveals itself to me. Maybe I will start to see a face in some loose lines...in the same way that you sometimes see a face or figure in the gnarled bark of a tree. I am not completely in control of the process...it's as though the characters in the image make themselves known to me. It’s like being in an altered state of consciousness. And it can take a real presence of mind to stay in that process. It often feels like walking a tightrope whilst you are creating; it is all too easy to come out of the process and look at your work as critic, or to go the other way and go too far with a particular idea."

"Artists often do live in two worlds," Howard comments in Part II of the JB talk with Brian & Wendy, "which is why we can seem a bit mad to other people. One foot is in the real world, where we have to feed ourselves and take on practical jobs to make money, and the other foot is in the creative world, which has a different time scale and demands different things of us: that when you sit down and draw, this is what you are going to draw, and how you are going to draw. Living this way can be both liberating and distressing I find, in equal measure." 

Sketchbook page by Brian Froud "When I was young, it seemed so much easier," Brian responds. "You just went for it. Youth has an arrogance. Now it’s more of a struggle, but there’s still that inner voice which, when I draw a line, goes: 'No. Rub it out, draw another. 'No.' And then, suddenly, 'Oh, yes!' And then I think: 'Where has that come from? Why is this the right line? While all these others, which to an observer would probably seem to be the same, were wrong?' "

“I think the mystery of art lies in this, that the artists’ relationship is essentially with their work," writes Ursula Le Guin; "not with power, not with profit, not with themselves, not even with their audience.” 

That tends to be true for the stories and images that I inevitably find myself most drawn to: art that has arisen from a deeply personal conversation between the artist and the work at hand. It is art that walks perilously close to the Edge, that crosses the river of blood into Faerie, that flies so high it is scorched by the sun, and then returns to tell the tale to us. It is art that needed to be written, or painted, or sung, or woven, or otherwise shaped. It is art gifted by the Mystery to the maker...and then, in turn, gifted to us.

"We're not mad," says  Sue Moorcroft, defending the peculiar habits of authors, "we're inhabited.”

Inhabited by the work. Inhabited by the lines, the colors, the characters, the stories. All clamouring to get out into the world.

'The stuff that dreams are made of' by John Anster Fitzgerald

Images above: "Ferdinand lured by Ariel" by John Everett Millais (1929-1896); illustration from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Nightingale" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953); illustration from the Child ballad "May Colven" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939); "A Girl as Mad as Birds" by Rima Staines; a sketchbook page by Brian Froud; and "The stuff that dreams are made of" by John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906).


Breathing room for the spirit

'Oncoming Traffic' by Sarah Howes

"I want to write books that unlock the traffic jam in everybody's head. "  - John Updike

Dartmoor Foal by Sarah Howes

“Whatever art offered the men and women of previous eras, what it offers our own, it seems to me, is space - a certain breathing room for the spirit. "- John Updike

Guardian on the Path by Sarah Howes

“What art ought to do is tell stories which are moment-by-moment wonderful, which are true to human experience, and which in no way explain human experience.”  ― John Gardner

At the Cottage Window by Sarah Howes

"If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic."  - Toni Morrison

The beautiful Dartmoor pictures above are by my friend and village neighbor Sarah Howes. From top to bottom: Oncoming Traffic, Dartmoor Foal, The Guardian on the Path, and At the Cottage Window.


Ripening like trees

The Rook Tree

"...Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one's own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist's life, in understanding and in creating.

"Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confidence in the storms of spring without fear that after them may come no summer."   - Rainer Maria Rilke (from Letters to a Young Poet)

The Faery Tree

"Stories are like wine; they need time. So take the time. This isn’t a hot dog eating contest. You’re not being judged on how much you write but rather, how well you do it. Sure, there’s a balance — you have to be generative, have to be swimming forward lest you sink like a stone and find remora fish mating inside your rectum. But generation and creativity should not come at the cost of quality. Give your stories and your career the time and patience it needs."   - Chuck Wendig (from his terrific list of 25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing)

Tilly and the tree elder


A taste of summer

3 year old springador

We've been deluged by rain this month in Devon, so when the sun comes out, we grab every single moment of it that we can. Here are some random pictures from a sunny Sunday afternoon here at Bumblehill...

Howard Gayton's puppets

When you live with a theatre director and puppeteer, you never know what's going to end up on the washing line.

Howard Gayton's puppets

In this case, it's a couple of Commedia dell'Arte puppets, and a complete set of costumes for Punch and Judy...

Howard Gayton's puppets

...being given a summer airing. My Pennsylvania Dutch great-aunts used to do that every summer with rugs and eiderdown quilts. Now it's puppets. My life has changed.

Foxglove, daisies and other flowers

The garden has been suffering under wind and rain, but it's an amazing year for the tall pink spires of the foxgloves, which are everywhere -- even the back patio, where they've seeded themselves right into the old stone wall.

Early summer on the patio

Patio June 2012 a

Joan Didion has said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live." I think we also create the lives we need for the stories we want to tell, and the environments we need for our lives and stories both.

"If we marvel at the artist who has written a great book," says Katherine Paterson (in Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children), "we must marvel more at those people whose lives are works of art and who don't even know it, who wouldn't believe it if they were told. However hard work good writing may be, it is easier than good living."

True words indeed...and so easy to forget as a writer, artist, or performer working under perpetual deadlines, often with little separation (physical or mental) between work life and home life. So on Sundays Howard and I try to turn the computers off, get out of the office, and concentrate on the art of good living. Some weeks we get it right, some weeks we don't...like any form of art-making, really.

Tilly, on the other hand, is a zen master in the art of good living, and in taking each day as it comes. So is Buju, the Costa-Rican-born dog who lives with poet/linguest Taiko Haessler (my good friend Midori Snyder's daughter) and her husband, artist Emilliano Lake-Herrera. I highly recommended Buju's hilarious new Tumblr blog, Adventures in Naplandia.

Now wait a minute, Tilly, that was my seat....

Tilly claims the seat

Tilly, a three year old springador


A second cuppa with Brian and Wendy Froud...

From Trolls, a new book forthcoming from Brian & Wendy Froud

Part II of the "Around the Table" discussion with Brian and Wendy Froud is now up on the John Barleycorn site. (Part I, if you missed it, is here.) The focus of the talk is on the process of creative collaboration, particularly as regards their forthcoming book on Trolls (above)...but there are also many good insights on the creative process in general, so do go have a look. Then pull up a chair, pour yourself a cup of tea or coffee, and  join in the conversation; the Barleycorn boys welcome comments from all.

"When we produce pictures of Trolls, you’re not just looking at pictures of Trolls. I would argue that actually you are looking at a landscape...literally the landscape of Dartmoor...because all of the shapes and forms are based on rocks and roots and trees, and it’s very localised. Then beyond that, not only is it a Troll, and a landscape, it’s also the World. When you are looking at a picture in terms of magic, and magical thinking, everything is encompassed in that one picture; everything!"  - Brian Froud


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Today tunes....

"Man on Fire" (above), the new video from Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, celebrating the various dancers of New York...

...which reminded me of "Be My Honeypie" (below) by The Weepies, which was also filmed in New York City. I've posted this sweet video before, but it bears repeating!

I hope these two joyous tunes get your work week off to a lovely start.

Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes The Weepies
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes; and The Weepies


Inspired by the land

Copyright c Jackie Morris

Today's recommendation: The Sisterhood of Ruralists, featuring the very beautiful art of  Hannah Willow, Catherine Hyde, Tamsin Abott, and Jackie Morris.  The name of the group riffs on the name of a an older group of artists, The Brotherhood of Ruralists (formed in the 1970s), which was in turn a riff on the 19th century's Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

The image above, "The Space Between the Hare and the Fox," is a watercolour painting (with gold leaf) by Jackie Morris.


The courage to be bad

Tilly in the woods copy

"Most people don't know what they want or feel. And for everyone, myself included, it's very difficult to say what you mean when what you mean is painful. The most difficult thing in the world is to reveal yourself, to express what you have to.... As an artist, I feel that we must try many things -- but above all, we must dare to fail. You must have the courage to be bad -- to be willing to risk everything to really express it all."   - filmmaker John Cassavetes

The path through the woods

"The first draft of anything is shit."  - Ernest Hemingway

At the woodland's edge

"A writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view, a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway."  - Junot Díaz

Tilly June 2012

"Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep."  - comic strip artist Scott Adams


And I call it breathing

Paris cafe life between the wars (a National Geographic photograph, photographer unknown)

 Here are the rules Henry Miller made for himself while working on Tropic of Cancer in Paris in the early 1930s (with the support of his writing colleague and lover, Anaïs Nin):

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to "Black Spring."
  3. Don't be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can't create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don't be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Henry Miller's typewriter

Henry Miller Paris notebook

We write, said Anaïs in her famous Diaries, "to heighten our own awareness of life. We write to lure and enchant and console others. We write to serenade out lovers. We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection. We write, like Proust, to render all of it eternal, and to persuade ourselves that it is eternal. We write to be able to transcend our life, to reach beyond it. We write to teach ourselves to speak with others, to record the journey into the labyrinth. We write to expand our world when we feel strangled, or constricted, or lonely...When I don’t write, I feel my world shrinking. I feel I am in prison. I feel I lose my fire and my color. It should be a necessity, as the sea needs to heave, and I call it breathing."

Anais Nin

Anais Nin and Henry Miller

I owe a huge debt to Anaïs Nin, because I fell into her diaries, essays, and collected letters in my Twenties and Thirties like a fish falling into water. She was, in some ways, a deeply flawed human being, and perhaps she makes a strange kind of hero for someone like me, committed to the ethical and spiritual dimensions of my craft as well as to the technical ones, but a hero and strong influence she remains nonetheless. I grew up at a time when feminism hadn't yet made much of a dent in university curriculums (even in a school as famously radical as Antioch), and in course after course in the Literature Department the texts I studied were by men, men, men. I also spent my late Teens and much of my Twenties in a relationship with an older, better educated man who was very much the dominant partner...and when I came out of that at age 27, I was determined to be my own woman, both in life and art -- but I didn't yet know who that woman was. I knew little about the work or lives of the women writers and artists who had come before me; I had no role models.

So I did what I always do when facing the unknown: I turned to books to guide me. I read every biography, autobiography, diary, or collection of letters by a woman in the arts I could lay my hands on. By happy chance, Anaïs's Diaries were among the first, and they completely captivated me -- for here was a woman asking the same questions that I was, trying to forge a creative life for herself as I was, and although she didn't always do it in ways that I entirely approved of (by which I mean the many lies and evasions she depended on to manage her dizzying number of relationships and affairs), still, I admired her determination to live life as fully, sensually, and intellectually as possible. Throughout her diaries and letters, passages like the one I've quoted here would stop me in my tracks, speaking across the decades from the cobbled streets of Paris to the cobbled streets of Boston (where I was living then).

Anais Nin and Hugo Gulier

Later, I would follow in her footsteps in Paris, searching out the places where she had lived, the cafes where she'd written or talked long into the night with writer and artist friends. But then, in Boston, it was simply her words I needed. The knowledge that another woman had asked these same questions, and found answers of her own. And I would too.

For a taste of Anaïs, go here to listen to her reading from her work (discussing writing with Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell), recorded in 1966.

Anais' writing desk in California

Images above:  A Paris cafe, in Montparnasse, frequented by writers & artists in the '20s and '30s; Henry's typewriter in Paris; one of Henry's Paris notebooks; Anaïs in Paris; Anaïs and Henry in their later years; Anais with her husband Hugh Parker Guiler; and  Anaïs's writing desk in California, in a house designed for her and her, um, second husband Rupert Pole (it's complicated) by Eric Lloyd Wright (grandson of Frank, and Rupert's half-brother).


The book of each of us

Collage: A Writer and her Faithful Black Dog

“There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.”
- Anais Nin

"I write to know what I think."  - Joan Didion

"In a real sense, I am constantly writing autobiography, but I have to turn it into fiction in order to give it credibility."  - Katherine Paterson

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