Weather and words

Cuckoo's Nest by Cecelia Levy

Paper art by Celia Levy

From Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane:

"Before you become a writer you must first become a reader. Every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write; this continues to be true throughout a writer's life. The Living Mountain, Waterlog, The Peregrine, Arctic Dreams, My First Summer in the Sierra: these are the books that taught me how to write, but also the books that have taught me how to see...."

Thistle interior by Cecelia Levy

"Books, like landscapes, leave their marks in us. Sometimes these traces are so faint as to be imperceptible -- tiny shifts in the weather of the spirit that do not register on the usual instruments. Mostly these marks are temporary: we close a book, and for the next hour or two the world seems oddly brighter at its edges; or we are moved to a certain kindness or meaness that would otherwise have gone unexpressed. Certain books though, like certain landscapes, stay with us even when we have left them, changing not just our weathers but our climates. The word landmark is from is from the old English landmearc, meaning 'an object in the landscape which, by its conspicuousness, serves as a guide in the direction of one's course.' John Smith, writing in his 1627 Sea Grammar, gives us this definition: 'a Land-marke is any Mountaine, Rocke, Church, Wind-mill or the like, that the Pilot can now by comparing one by another see how they beare by the compasse.' Strong books and strong words can be landmarks in Smith's sense -- offering us both a means of establishing our location and of knowing how we 'beare by the compasse.' "

Acorn by Cecelia Levy

Homeward Bound by Cecelia Levy

The art today is by Swedish paper artist Cecelia Levy. Please visit her website to learn more about her work.

Paper art by Cecelia Levy

Cup by Cecelia LevyThe text above is quoted from Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton, 2015; Penguin Books, 2016), which I high recommend. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


Reading and place

The Tooth Fairy by Su Blackwell

"Reading for me is inextricably tied to place," writes Scottish author Emma Tennant about the books she favored in childhood. It's my favorite of the charming essays to be found in Antonia Fraser's The Pleasures of Reading, for Tennant grew up in a house that seems to have emerged from a novel by Elizabeth Goudge, built by her great-grandfather:

"The Victorian Gothic house -- a 'monstrosity' to some, a 'folly' to others -- to all a decidedly odd place for a person to spend their formative years, cast its long shadow over the books I read. For years no book I read came from anywhere but the bowels and lungs -- and in some cases the twisted attics -- of the Big House that crouched at the end of a valley still then clad with the last shreds of the Ettick Forest. I read up and down the house, and I knew fairly early on that I would never begin to get through it all -- even with the help of the terrifying Demonologie, property of James IV of Scotland, with its turning paper wheels to aid with the casting of spells.

Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

"To begin with that ragged line of Ettrick silver birches outside my window. This was the Fethan wood, where James Hogg set fairy tales and metamorphoses: it was dangerous to walk there, to go up to the ring of bright grass and look down at the house through silver-grey trees. People came out transformed into animals -- or didn't come out at all, to be discovered years later as three-legged stools. I read the Hogg stories -- or they were read to me -- and years before I was able to go on to his great masterpiece, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the account of a man driven insane by Calvinism, by the dictates of the devil who sends him out to kill as one of the Elect -- I could feel the power of Hogg's imagination in the hills and woods and streams that enclosed the house.

Detail from Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

Another detail from Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

"The house could be said to be like an archaeological dig, with the basement providing material contemporaneous with the discoveries of archeologists Arthur Evans or Heinrich Schliemann, and just as startling for a child to discover as it must have been for the archaeologists to unearth the foundations of Knossos or Clytemnestra's tomb. Here were Henty and Ballantyne -- and, most important of all, H. Rider Haggard's She -- all in low rooms hard to find in a labyrinth of tiled passages, cold with a strong smell of rot. Here the strong and brave of the Empire fought their battles and had their impossible adventures; and here I lingered, in disused dairies and stillrooms, reading in a world which was a dusty monument to that vanished and glorious past.

The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

Detail from The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

Another detail from The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

"From the crepuscular vaults of the house there were two ways up. The back stairs led to the schoolrooms, where tubercular daughters had coughed over books of such spectacular dullness that I remember none of them -- except for the fact that some more recent incumbents had left a stash of historical romances by Margaret Irwin and Violet Needham. Here, in the abandoned schoolroom, I was drawn into a past (there were a couple of Georgette Heyers too) of phaetons and darkly scowling artistocrats and games of faro and the like, and for a while I stopped there, until the discovery of Alexander Dumas' The Back Tulip drew me down the stairs again and out into the garden. For the magnetic quality of that extraordinary book led me to search the grassy paths and flower borders for the elusive tulip -- and once I thought I saw it between two yew trees, at the entrance to the garden: a rich, gleaming black flower that would guide me somehow down the paths my own imagination was just beginning to try....

Gormenghast by Su Blackwell

"The attic had books in trunks that had split open with age -- books no-one wanted when they went off to war, or went off to get married, or had no room for anyway. Bees had once swarmed in the attic, and it's to the smell of wax that I remember finding the early Penguins: the Aldous Huxleys, a book called A Month of Sundays, which I have never since been able to trace -- and the odd Agatha Christie, which kept me up there until dark, amongst children's wicker saddles, pictures of dead aunts that no-one would ever want to look at, and a floor covering of dead bees."

The Snow Queen by Su Blackwell

The Luminaries by Su Blackwell

As an American child growing up in a series of unromantic mid-20th century houses, I longed for a Gothic pile like Tennant's, with rooms to explore and books to discover and pathways leading to fairy tale woods. It wasn't until I was grown that I finally lived in house full of history and ghosts: a Matilda by Su Blackwelllittle stone cottage, 400 years old, that I owned for two decades before I was married. That's a story for another day, however, as that was a place that shaped my adult self, not the child I was and thus the writer I became.

What house did you love in childhood? Or long for? Or perhaps still inhabit today? We've been talking about place and home this last week, and the houses in which our earliest years unfolded surely shaped our creative psyches as much as the land or cityscape around them. For me, tossed back and forth between the houses of various relatives, with occasional stints in foster care, the transient aspect of those years led to a deep obsession with the theme of "finding home, place, and family" that runs (whether I consciously mean it to or not) through all of my work. I'd be a different writer if my childhood had been stable and rooted. Not better or worse, just different.

Despite having no single place that was my home, I also associate the books I loved in childhood with places where I first read them, as Emma Tennant does in the delightful passage above. Re-reading such books can whisk us right back, for good or ill....

A potent form of time-traveling indeed.

Detail from Matilda by Su Blackwell

Another detail from Matilda by Su Blackwell

The art today is, of course, by the great British papercut artist Su Blackwell, most of it created in the last year.

”I often work within the realm of fairy-tales and folk-lore," she says. "I began making a series of book-sculpture, cutting-out images from old books to create three-dimensional dioramas, and displaying them inside wooden boxes. For the cut-out illustrations, I tend to lean towards young-girl characters, placing them in haunting, fragile settings, expressing the vulnerability of childhood, while also conveying a sense of childhood anxiety and wonder. There is a quiet melancholy in the work, depicted in the material used, and choice of subtle colour."

Visit the Blackwell's website to see her utterly amazing book sculptures and installations, and go here to see a video in which the artist discusses her creative process. She also has three lovely books out: The Fairytale Princess (with Wendy Jones), Sleeping Beauty Theatre (with Corina Fletcher), and Su Blackwell Book Sculptures.

The Shell Seekers by Su Blackwell

Out of Narnia by Su BlackwellPictures: You'll find the titles of Su Blackwell's sculptures in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artist. Words: The passage by Emma Tennant above is from The Pleasures of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992). All rights reserved by the author.


The books that shape us: 4

Flowering Plants of Great Britain by Kerry Miller

From an essay by Margaret Atwood in The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser:

"I learned to read before I started school. My mother claims I taught myself because she refused to read comics to me. Probably my older brother helped: he was writing comic books himself, and may have needed an audience.

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller"In any case, the first books I can remember are a scribbled-over copy of Mother Goose and several Beatrix Potters, from her Dark Period (the ones with knives, cannabilistic foxes, and stolen babies in them). Then came the complete, unexpurgated Grimms' Fairy Tales, which my parents ordered by mail, unaware that it would contain so many red-hot shoes, barrels full of nails, and mangled bodies. This was in the 1940s, just after the war. It was becoming the fashion, then, to rewrite fairy tales, removing anything too bloodthirsty and prettying up the endings, and my parents were worried that all the skeletons and gouged-out eyes in Grimms' would warp my mind. Perhaps they did, although Bruno Bettleheim has since claimed that this sort of thing was good for me. In any case I devoured these stories, and a number of them have been with me ever since.

"Shortly after this I began to read everything I could get my hands on. At that time my family was spending a lot of time in the northern Canadian bush, where there were no movie theaters, and Book sculpture by Kerry Millerwhere even radio was unreliable: reading was it. The school readers, the notorious milk-and-water Dick and Jane series, did not have much to offer me after Grimms'. See Jane Run, indeed. Instead I read comic books and the backs of cereal boxes. I tried 'girls' books' -- The Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope, The Curleytops series by Howard Garis, Cherry Ames, Junior Nurse -- but they weren't much competition for Batman or the red-hot iron shoes. (Anne of Green Gables was an exception; that one I loved.) I made my way through the standard children's classics, some of which I'd already heard, read aloud by my mother -- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, the Alice books, Treasure Island. Gulliver's Travels is not really a children's book, but was considered one because of the giants, so I read that too. 

"I read Canadian animal stories -- those by Sir Charles G.D. Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton, for instance -- in which the animals always ended up dead. Such books appeared regularly at Christmas -- adults seemed to think that any book about animals was a children's book -- and I would snivel my way through the trapped, shot and gnawed corpses of the various rabbits, grouse, foxes and wolves that littered their pages, overdosing on chocolates. I read Orwell's Animal Farm, thinking that it too was a story about animals, and was seriously upset by the death of the horse."

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller


Later in the essay, Atwood discusses her reading as an adolescent, ranging from pulp science fiction to Austen and the Brontes. And then, during the years her family lived in Toronto, she discovered the cellar.

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller"My parents had two vices which I have inherited -- they bought a lot of books, and they found it difficult to throw any of them out. The cellar was lined with bookshelves, and I used to go down there and browse among the books, while eating snacks filched from the kitchen -- crackers thickly spread with peanut butter and honey, dates prized off the block of them used for baking, handfuls of raisins, and -- one of my favorites -- lime jelly powder. The whole experience felt like a delicious escape, and my eclectic eating habits complemented what I was reading, which ranged from scientific textbooks on ants and spiders -- my father was an entymologist -- to H.G. Wells' history of almost everything, to the romances of Walter Scott, to old copies of National Geographic, to the theatrical murders of Ngaio Marsh. This is where I came across Churchill's history of the second world war, Orwell's 1984, and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon -- books which did, much later, actually have an influence on something I wrote myself, as The Handmaid's Tale emerged from the same fascination with history and the structure of totalitarian regimes.

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller"All this took place quite apart from school. At school I was practical, and saw myself as someone who would eventually have a serious job of some kind. The drawback to this was that there were only five careers listed for women in the Guidance textbook: home economist, nurse, teacher, airline stewardess, and secretary. Home economists got paid the most, but I was not good at zippers. This was depressing. I read more.

"In English, we were studying a Shakespeare play a year, a good deal of Thomas Hardy and some George Eliot, and a lot of poetry, most of it by the romantics and the Victorians. Writing -- unlike reading -- appeared to be something that had been done some time ago, and very far away. In those days the Canadian high school had not yet discovered either modern poetry or Canada itself; 'Canadian writer' seemed to be a contradiction in terms; and when I realized at the age of sixteen that writing was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, nobody was more surprised than I was."

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller

The art today is by Kerry Miller,  a British "book sculptor" who turns discarded texts into whimsical wonders.

"After many years of working in collage and mixed media," she writes, "I began exploring ways of using old, discarded books, experimenting with deconstructing and rebuilding them to produce unique pieces of artwork. The books are variously sourced and are carefully selected for their illustrations and character, whilst taking into account my perception of how the finished piece will look.

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller

"For each piece I work on, only the illustrations found within that particular book are used. Colour is added using inks or watercolours where I consider that they will enrich and enhance the final effect, giving a sense of depth and energy. These intricately worked 3D books provide tantalising glimpses into a rich past, becoming miniature worlds that allow the viewer to simply tumble into them.

"My work is a means of distilling the essence of a book, whilst releasing the images and allowing them to reach a new audience. I view it as a collaboration, a partnership with the past, giving new purpose to old volumes that may otherwise never see the light of day or simply end up in recycling. As technology threatens to replace the printed word, there has never been a better time to reimagine the book."

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller

The passage by Margaret Atwood above comes from The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992); I recommend reading the essay in full. All rights to the text and art above are reserved by the author and artist.


The Library of the Forest

The hill at dawn, 1

The Library of the Forest

From The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane:

"The library of Miquel Angel Blanco [in Madrid, Spain] is no ordinary library. It is not arranged according to topic and subject, nor is it navigated by means of the Dewey Decimal system. It's full name is the Library of the Forest, La Biblioteca del Bosque. It has so far been a quarter of a century in the making, and at last count it consisted of more than 1,100 books -- though its books are not only books, but also reliquaries. Each book records a journey made by walking, and each contains natural objects and substances gathered along that particular path: seaweed, snakeskin, mica flakes, crystals of quartz, sea beans, lightning-scorched pine timber, the wing of a grey partridge, pillows of moss, worked flint, cubes of pyrite, pollen, resin, acorn cups, the leaves of holm oak, beech, elm. Over the many years of its making, the library has increased in volume and spread in space. It now occupies the entire ground floor and basement of an apartment building in the north of Madrid. Entering the rooms in which it exists feels like stepping into the pages of Jorge Luis Borges story: 'The Library of Babel' crossed with 'The Garden of the Forking Paths,' perhaps....

A book-box in the Biblioteca del Bosque

"The Library of the Forest owes its existence to storm and snow. Between 30 December 1984 and New Year's Day 1985 a severe winter gale struck the Guadarrama Mountains, the sierra of granite and gneiss that slashes north-east to south-west across the high plains of Castille, separating Madrid (to the south) from Segovia (to the north). Thousands of Scots pines that forest the Guadarrama were toppled. For those tempetuous days, Miguel was trapped in his small house in Fuenfría, a southern Guadarraman valley. When at last the storm stopped and the thaw came, he walked up into the valley, following a familiar path but encountering a new world: fifteen-foot-deep drifts of snow, craters and root boles where trees had been felled, sudden clearings in the forest. As he walked, he gathered objects he found along the way: pine branches, resin, cones, curls of bark, a black draughts piece and a white draughts piece. When he returned home to his house he placed the gathered items in a small pine box, lidded the box with glass, sealed the glazing with tar, bound pages to the box with tape and gave the whole a cover of card-backed linen.

The hill at dawn, 2

"In this way the first book of the library was made. Miguel called that original book-box Deshielo, 'Thaw,' and it became the source from which a stream of works began to flow.

Dawn on the hill, 3

"His manufacturing method is unchanged in its fundamentals. All his book-boxes contain objects he has collected while walking; the results of chance encounters or conscious quests. The found objects are held in place within each box by wire and thread, or pressed into fixed beds of soil, resin, paraffin or wax. Thus mutely arranged, each book-box symbolically records a walk made, a path followed, a foot-journey and its encounters. And the library exists as a multidimensional atlas -- an ever-growing root-map, and a peculiar chronicle of a journey without respite."

Book-box by Miguel Angel Blanco

"Each of my books records an actual journey but also a camino interior, an interior path."
- Miguel Angel Blanco

The Old Ways & The Wild Place by Robert MacfarlanePhotographs: Early morning coffee break in the Devon hills; and Blanco's Library of the Forest.


The power of words (part IV)

Alexander Korzer-Robinson

"I tumbled for words at once....There they were, seemingly lifeless, made only of black and white, but out of them, out of their own being, came love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and all the other vague abstractions that make our ephemeral lives dangerous, great, and bearable."
  - Dylan Thomas (Notes on the Art of Poetry)

Steven McPherson

"Perhaps it is the language that chooses the writers it needs, making use of them so that each might express a tiny part of what it is."  - José Saramago (Ricardo Reis)

Donna Ruff

Ellen Bell

"A word leaves a smoke trail behind it that curls into the past. Every word is surrounded by complex energies. There are meanings underneath a word as well as its obvious meaning. Think of a word as a pendulum instead of a fixed entity. A word can sweep by your ear and by its very sound suggest hidden meanings, preconscious. Listen to these words: blood, tranquil, democracy. You know what they mean but you have associations with those words that are cultural, as well as your own personal associations." - Rita Mae Brown (Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writers' Manual)

"When I cannot see words curling like rings of smoke round me I am in darkness -- I am nothing."   - Virginia Woolf (The Waves)

Katerina Panikanova

"When we are young, the words are scattered all around us. As they are assembled by experience, so also are we, sentence by sentence, until the story takes shape."  - Louise Erdrich (The Plague of Doves)

"The words emerge from her body without her realizing it, as if she were being visited by the memory of a language long forsaken."  - Marguerite Duras (Summer Rain)

Ekaterina Panikanova

"The struggle of literature is in fact a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary."  - Italo Calvino (The Literature Machine: Essays)

"Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking." - John Maynard Keynes (The New Statesman and Nation, July  15, 1933)

M.J. Goerke

"You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write."
  - Annie Proulx (The Paris Review, Spring 2009)

"Words should be an intense pleasure, just as leather should be to a shoemaker. If there isn't that pleasure for a writer, maybe he ought to be a philosopher."  - Evelyn Waugh (The New York Times, Nov. 19, 1950)

Jodi Harvey-Brown

Louise Richardson

"We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out of control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed, yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us kinship where all is represented as separation."  - Adrienne Rich (The Best American Poetry 1996, Introduction)

Inspired by Louise Richardson

"I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all." - Richard Wright (Black Boy)

Thomas Wightman

Thomas Wightman

"The natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us."  - Ursula K. Le Guin (Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places)

12793280373_7dcb2a83cb_h

A Field Guide to Snails by Ashley Lamoureux

"I had lines inside me, a string of guiding lights. I had language. Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination. I had been damaged, and a very important part of me had been destroyed - that was my reality, the facts of my life. But on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel. And as long as I had words for that, images for that, stories for that, then I wasn't lost."   - Jeanette Winterson (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?)

Vally Nomidou

Date Due by Jody Alexander

Louise Richardson

"As readers, as writers, as citizens...[we] have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time."  - Neil Gaiman (The Guardian, Oct. 15, 2013)

"The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words."   - William Gass  (A Temple of Texts)

Drink Me by Jodi Harvey-Brown

Louise Richardson

Briar Rose by Terri Windling

The book art, paper sculptures and paper collages above are by Alexander Korzer-Robinson, Steven McPherson, Donna Ruff, Ellen Bell, Ekaterina Panikanova, M.J. Goerke, Jodi Harvey-Brown, Louise Richardson, Thomas Wightman, Ashley Lamoureux, Valley Nomidou, and Jody Alexander. Run your cursor over the pictures for individual titles and credits. The last collage is one of mine, and contains this poem by Delia Sherman.


The power of words (part III)

Jodi Harvey-Brown

"Here's what I mean by the miracle of language. When you're falling into a good book, exactly as you might fall into a dream, a little conduit opens, a passageway between a reader's heart and a writer's, a connection that transcends the barriers of continents and generations and even death. And here's the magic. You're different. You can never go back to being exactly the same person you were before you disappeared into that book."  - Anthony Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See)

Jodi Harvey-Brown

Jodi Harvey-Brown

"Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself."  - Rebecca Mead (My Life in Middlemarch)

Susan Hoerth

Justin Rowe

Justin Rowe

"I realize that people still read books now and some people actually love them, but in 1946 in the Village our feelings about books -- I’m talking about my friends and myself -- went beyond love. It was as if we didn’t know where we ended and books began. Books were our weather, our environment, our clothing. We didn’t simply read books; we became them. We took them into ourselves and made them into our histories. While it would be easy to say that we escaped into books, it might be truer to say that books escaped into us. Books were to us what drugs were to young men in the sixties.

"They showed us what was possible. We had been living with whatever was close at hand, whatever was given, and books took us great distances. We had known only domestic emotions and they showed us what happens to emotions when they are homeless. Books gave us balance -- the young are so unbalanced that anything can make them fall. Books steadied us; it was as if we carried a heavy bag of them in each hand and they kept us level. They gave us gravity."

- Anatole Broyard (Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir)

Su Blackwell

"Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness."  - Helen Keller (The Story of My Life)

"Books, for me, are a home. Books don't make a home -- they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and space. There is warmth there too -- a hearth. I sit down with a book and I am warm."  - Jeanette Winterson (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?)

2013_the_raven

"A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships." 
 - Jorge Luis Borges (Other Inquisitions)

"If literature truly possesses a mysterious power, I think perhaps it is precisely this: that one can read a book by a writer of a different time, a different country, a different race, a different language, and a different culture and there encounter a sensation that is one's very own."  - Yu Hua (China in Ten Words)

Book art by Mike Stiley 2

Book paintings by Mike Stilkey

Rachel Ashe

"I need words and print... I need print like an addict. I could live without it, perhaps. But I hope I never have to try."  -  Margaret Drabble

Cecilia Levy

Cecelia Levy

"Books may not change our suffering, books may not protect us from evil, books may not tell us what is good or what is beautiful, and they will certainly not shield us from the common fate of the grave. But books grant us myriad possibilities: the possibility of change, the possibility of illumination."  - Alberto Manguel (A History of Reading)

Louise Richardson

Su Blackwell

The book scuptures above are by Jodi Harvey-Brown, Susan Hoerth, Justin Rowe, Su Blackwell, Rachel Ashe, Cecilia Levy, and Louise Richardson. Run your cursor over the pictures for individual titles and credits.


The power of words (part II)

Acts of Love 5 by Ellen Bell

"She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams."

- Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient)

"I wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl through a fence and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fig-tree."

- Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar)

Act of Love 3 and Motherland 2 by Ellen Bell

"In the end, it is my belief, words are the only things that can construct a world that makes sense."

- Kate Atkinson (Behind the Scenes at the Museum)

Tree Stories by Ellen Bell

The images here are by Ellen Bell, an artist and writer based in Wales.

"I work directly with books, texts and paper ephemera to create drawings, installations and sculptures that pose questions rather than deliver answers about how we communicate within our familial and intimate relationships," she says. "The physicality of the books, the printed surface of the page and the design of the texts play an important role in the making of my work, as does the serendipity involved in the ‘finding’ of them – the musty smell, the grainy texture of the paper, the inconsistent heaviness of some of the type and the dated graphics of the book covers all play their part in seducing me into working with them."

Tree Stories detail"Words" by Anne Sexton was published in The Complete Poems, 1981; all rights reserved by the author's estate.


The language of fairy tales

The Raven Su Blackwell

The Frog Prince by Su Blackwell

From a discussion with Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat, etc.) in the current issue of  The Write Place at The Write Time:

"Traditionally, the role of fairy stories has been to articulate concepts too emotionally difficult or socially subversive to be treated in a more explicit way. Originally part of a matriarchal oral tradition, they became legitimized as a more patriarchal literary convention -- much in the same way that traditional magic (feminine) was later absorbed by the (primarily male) science of alchemy before shedding its magical elements altogether and becoming the science of chemistry.

"Elemental fears, subconscious desires, sexual taboos are all at the heart of the fairytale; initially intended for an adult, rather than a juvenile audience, enabling folk with bleak and often unhappy lives to come to terms with their monsters, both literal and metaphorical, as well as offering them the hope that sometimes those monsters could be overcome. Since then, much has been made of the deepening division between the literal and figurative view of fairytale (in the same way that the division between science and magic has now become definitive), but in my view, the basic need for these stories is as great as it ever was.

"Like our concept of the divine, which has expanded over 2000 years to fit an expanding world picture, our acceptance of the supernatural has changed -- at least, to a point -- although I would argue that even three hundred years ago, fairy tales were not intended to be taken entirely literally. Every age has its monsters, be they werewolves, vampires, terrorists, AIDS, crazed gunmen or pedophiles, and every age needs to believe in the ability of human beings to defeat monsters, change their lives and ultimately be saved by love.

"I would argue, furthermore, that every age has its magic, too -- although our concept of magic has adapted to fit a more rational world. We now have a need to rationalize our need to believe in magic, as our world picture and our understanding of possibility continues to expand. But as the science-pendulum begins to swing back -- with particle physics seemingly bringing us back ever closer to what once was called 'magic,' I think that the literal-figurative debate will become increasingly less relevant, as will the division between 'conventional literature' and the oral tradition. These stories speak to the irrational mind, and therein lies their power."

(I recommend reading the whole interview here.)

Sleeping Beauty by Su Blackwell

The Girl in the Wood by Su Blackwell

From a discussion with me in the same web journal a few years back:

"As with myths and folk tales, a good fantasy novel is literally spell-binding, using language to conjure up whole new worlds, or to invest our own with magic. The particular power of the fantasy novel comes from its link with the world's most ancient stories – and from the author's careful manipulation of mythic archetypes, story patterns, and symbols. A skillful writer of fantasy knows he or she must tell two stories at once: the surface tale, and a deeper story encoded within the tale's symbolic language. Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone (for example) is, on one level, simply an English boarding school novel with a bit of magic thrown in; but below that surface is a classic narrative of the Orphaned Hero archetype. This second, metaphorical story is the one that makes the novel's appeal so universal, speaking to all children (orphaned or not) who navigate the treacherous passage that lies between childhood and adulthood. I don't mean that children's fantasy should be didactic, with a subtext intended to inculcate moral lessons – heaven forbid! But the magical tropes of fantasy, rooted as they are in world mythology, come freighted with meaning on a metaphoric level. A responsible writer works with these symbols consciously and pays attention to both aspects of the story.

"Jane Yolen once wrote, 'Just as a child is born with a literal hole in his head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in his heart. What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow. Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart.' I believe that those of us who write stories for children or young adults should remember how powerful stories can be -- and take responsibility for the moral tenor of whatever dreams or nightmares we're letting loose into the world. This is particularly true in fantasy, where the tools of our trade include the language, symbolism and archetypal energies of myth. These are ancient, subtle, potent things, and they work in mysterious ways."

Cinderella by Su Blackwell

The Wild Swans by Su Blackwell

And from Ursula K. Le Guin's classic essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”  (1973):

"[Fantasy] is not anti-rational, but para-rational; not realistic but surrealistic, superrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud’s terminology, it employs primary not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things.  Dragons are more dangerous, and a good deal commoner, than bears. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity that naturalistic fiction is. And it is a real wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe. And their guides, the writers of fantasy, should take their responsibilities seriously."  

Your thoughts?

Out of Narnia by Su BlackwellThe sculptures here, of course, are by the UK artist Su Blackwell -- for no look at paper art this week would be complete without re-visiting her splendid work.  From top to bottom: "The Raven," "The Frog Prince," "Sleeping Beauty," "The Woman in the Wood," "Cinderella," "The Wild Swans," and "Out of Narnia." Jane's quote above comes from Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood.


A word on words

Susan Hannon

“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”  - Diane Setterfield (The Thirteeth Tale)

"'Some people say the best stories have no words….It is true that words drop away, and that the important things are left unsaid. The important things are learned in faces, in gestures, not in our locked tongues. The true things are too big or too small, or in any case always the wrong size to fit the template called language. I know that. But I know something else too….Turn down the daily noise and at first there is the relief of silence. And then, very quietly, as quiet as light, meaning returns. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.” – Jeanette Winterson (Lighthousekeeping)

Harriet Popham

"Colorful language threatens some people, who associate it, I think, with a kind of eroticism (playing with language in public = playing with yourself), and with extra expense (having to sense or feel more). I don't share that opinion. Why reduce life to a monotone? Is that truer to the experience of being alive? I don't think so. It robs us of life's many textures. Language provides an abundance of words to keep us company on our travels. But we're losing words at a reckless pace, the national vocabulary is shrinking. Most Americans use only several hundred words or so. Frugality has its place, but not in the larder of language. We rely on words to help us detail how we feel, what we once felt, what we can feel. When the blood drains out of language, one's experience of life weakens and grows pale. It's not simply a dumbing down, but a numbing.” - Diane Ackerman (An Alchemy of the Mind)

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”  - Emily Dickinson (Selected Letters)

Raymond Queneau

"Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain Beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you've spoken or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognise a well-tuned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skilfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language. When you use grammar you peel back the layers, to see how it is all put together, to see it quite naked, in a way.” - Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog)

"I once saw a small child go to an electric light switch as say, 'Mamma, can I open the light?' She was using the age-old language of exploration, the language of art." - Ezra Pound

Victoria Semykina 1

Victoria Semykina 2

"The struggle of literature is in fact a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary.” - Italo Calvino (The Literature Machine: Essays)

"Everything in writing begins with language. Language begins with listening."  - Jeanette Winterson

15th century book with paw prints

“As I train myself to cast off words, as I learn to erase word-thoughts, I begin to feel a new world rising up around me. The old world of houses, rooms, trees and streets shimmers, wavers and tears away, revealing another universe as startling as fire. We are shut off from the fullness of things. Words hide the world. They blur together elements that exist apart, or they break elements into pieces bind up the world, contract it into hard little pellets of perception. But the unbound world, the world behind the world – how fluid it is, how lovely and dangerous. At rare moments of clarity, I succeed in breaking through. Then I see. I see a place where nothing is known, because nothing is shaped in advance by words. There, nothing is hidden from me. There, every object presents itself entirely, with all its being. It's as if, looking at a house, you were able to see all four sides and both roof slopes. But then, there's no 'house,' no 'object,' no form that stops at a boundary, only a stream of manifold, precise, and nameless sensations, shifting into one another, pullulating, a fullness, a flow. Stripped of words, untamed, the universe pours in on me from every direction. I become what I see. I am earth, I am air. I amall. My eyes are suns. My hair streams among the galaxies.”
  - Stephen Millhauser (Dangerous Laughter)

"There is language going on out there -- the language of the wild. Roars, snorts, trumpets, squeals, whoops, and chirps all have meaning derived over eons of expression. We have yet to become fluent in the language -- and music -- of the wild.”  - Boyd Norton (Serengeti)

Jodi Harvey-Brown

"How monotonous our speaking becomes when we speak only to ourselves! And how insulting to the other beings -- to foraging black bears and twisted old cypresses -- that no longer sense us talking to them, but only about them, as though they were not present in our world….Small wonder that rivers and forests no longer compel our focus or our fierce devotion. For we walk about such entities only behind their backs, as though they were not participant in our lives. Yet if we no longer call out to the moon slipping between the clouds, or whisper to the spider setting the silken struts of her web, well, then the numerous powers of this world will no longer address us -- and if they still try, we will not likely hear them.”   - David Abram (Becoming Animal)

“Perhaps it is the language that chooses the writers it needs, making use of them so that each might express a tiny part of what it is.”  - José Saramago

Emma Taylor

Art above: A detail from a paper sculpture by Susan Hannon (US); "Narrative Dress" by Harriet Popham (UK); One Hundred Million Billion Poems" by Raymond Queneau (France, 1903-1976); "Ships" by Victoria Semykina (Russia & Italy); pawprints on a 15th century book, photographed by medieval historian Erik Kwakkel; "Bambi and His Mother" by Jodi Harvey-Brown (US), and "From With a Book" by Emma Taylor (UK).


The communion of the word

Book art 1

"A writer is, first and last, a reader. Who do you write for? Gertrude Stein was asked, and famously replied, 'Myself and strangers.' That self, the reader-self who is allied with strangers, may be a writer's better half, more detached, more trust-worthy, than the writing self who swaggers through a lifetime of prose. It is difficult -- and diminishing -- to separate the self who writes from the one who reads. Both acts belong to the communion of the word, which is a writer's life." 

 - Patricia Hampl (I Could Tell You Stories)

Book art 2

"As you read a book word by word and page by page, you participate in its creation, just as a cellist playing a Bach suite participates, note by note, in the creation, the coming-to-be, the existence, of the music. And, as you read and re-read, the book of course participates in the creation of you, your thoughts and feelings, the size and temper of your soul.”

 ― Ursula K. Le Guin

Book art 3

“I spent my life folded between the pages of books. In the absence of human relationships I formed bonds with paper characters. I lived love and loss through stories threaded in history; I experienced adolescence by association. My world is one interwoven web of words, stringing limb to limb, bone to sinew, thoughts and images all together. I am a being comprised of letters, a character created by sentences, a figment of imagination formed through fiction.” 

- Tahereh Mafi (Shatter Me)

Book art 4

From an interview with Richard Ford in The Paris Review:

Ford: "I want to write, partly at least, for the kind of reader I was when I was nineteen years old. I want to address that person because he or she is young enough that life is just beginning to seem a mystery which literature can address in surprising and pleasurable ways. When I was nineteen I began to read [William Faulkner's] Absalom, Absalom! slowly, slowly, page by patient page, since I was slightly dyslexic. I was working on the railroad, the Missouri-Pacific in Little Rock. I hadn’t been doing well in school, but I started reading. I don’t mean to say that reading altogether changed my life, but it certainly brought something into my life—possibility—that had not been there before."

Interviewer: "What was it about Absalom, Absalom!?"

Ford: "The language—a huge suffusing sea of wonderful words, made into beautiful, long paragraphs and put to the service of some great human conundrum it meant to console me about if not completely resolve. When I was old enough to think about myself as trying to be a writer, I always thought I would like to write a book and have it do that for someone else."

Yes.

Book art 5Images above: "Sequel" (and tree leaves from "Sequel") by UK artist Nicola Dale, book architecture by Dutch artist Frank Halmans, book sculpture by UK artist Emma Tayor, and details from "Proverbial Threads" by US artist Robbin Ami Silverberg.