Mastering the craft
Why one writes

When the magic is working

Dartmoor ponies on the Commons

From "Seeing Around the Corners" by Susan Cooper (1976):

"But of course, the whole process is a mystery, in all the arts. Creativity, in literature, painting, music. Or in performance: those rare lovely moments in the theater when an actor has the whole audience in his hands suddenly like that. You may have all the technique in the world, but you can't strike that spark without some mysterious extra blessing -- and none of us knows what that blessing really is. Not even the writers, who talk the most, can explain it at all.

A gentle encounter

"Who knows where the ideas come from? Who knows what happens in that shadowy part of the mind, something between Plato's cave and Masterlinck's Hall of the Night, where the creative imagination lies? Who knows even where the words come from, the right rhythm and meaning and music all at once?

Tilly and the ponies

Brown pony

"Those of us who make books out of the words and ideas have less of an answer than anyone. All we know is that marvelous feeling that comes, sometimes, like a break of sunshine in a cloud-grey sky, when through all the research and concentration and slog -- suddenly you are writing, fluently and fast, with every sense at high pitch and yet in a state almost like a trance.

White pony

"Suddenly, for a time, the door is open, the magic is working; a channel exists between the page and the shadowy cave in the mind.

"But none of us will ever know why or how."

Light brown pony

Like Cooper, I'm fascinated by the various ways one finds this state of trance, or magic, or flow, or grace (call it what you will). Discovering our personal methods for reaching it best -- with the least amount of struggle, the fewest obstacles put in our own way -- is surely one of the most useful skills we learn over a lifetime in the arts.


My husband is a director, performer, and teacher who specializes in mask theatre -- such as Commedia dell'Arte: a traditional form of slapstick comedy that is also deeply archetypal. As a teacher, he trains university-level drama students how to work with masks -- which requires finding that same state of trance in order to let the "mysterious blessing" come through to bring the masks fully to life.

Commedia masks

In mythic terms, he is the psychopomp, leading his students from one world into the next -- from time-bound daily reality into the timeless flow of performance art -- but the goal, when their classroom days are done, is to have the skill to cross over on their own, using their own best methods of travel.

The Servant - pyschopomp and trickster

Howard Gayton & Peter Oswald  rehearsal for ''Sorry About the Poetry''The masked Servant & the Poet in rehearsals for "Sorry About the Poetry"

Howard returning from mask stateHoward returning from "mask state" at rehearsal's end

The students are at the start of their creative lives, and I remember well what those years felt like -- when you think you know what art requires, and then the realization comes that you must go deeper and deeper still (if you're serious at all) into the unknowable, uncomfortable, vulnerable place where the root of creativity lies...which is to say, you must go deeper and deeper into yourself, which can be daunting indeed.

Even now, after all these years, I still have days of sharp (or anxious, or befuddled) resistance to this act of deep surrendering...but the joy of age is that I know my own process now, the daily habits, practices, and mindset that will carry me past each block and obstacle and back into the work of writing,

Every day I breathe deep, open up the heart again, and let the Mystery in.

Dartmoor pony

Words: The passage by Susan Cooper is from Dreams & Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1996). The poem in the picture captions is from River Flow by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Wild ponies grazing on the village Commons; Commedia dell'Arte masks in our livingroom several years ago (there's been a change of curtains and rugs since then); and Howard with Peter Oswald in an early rehearsal for Peter's Commedia-inspired play, Sorry About the Poetry.

This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in March 2014 (although the mask-theatre rehearsal pictures are new). My apologies for the lack of new post this week. I'm still recovering from flu, but hope to be back to a normal studio schedule by Monday. Fingers crossed.