The wild path

On the path

In a 2011 interview on the late, lamented Bookslut site, Luís Alberto Urrea (an old friend of mine from our respective Tuscson days) was asked if he ever got stuck as a writer:

"I do get stuck! I think everyone gets stuck!" he answered. "Here's the thing: this is a part of my belief system that continues to grow over the years: I have to thank the ancient Chinese poets and writers, and especially the Japanese haiku poets. Writing is not a product, but a process. Writing is a life style, a life choice, a path. Writing is part of my process of sacredness and prayer even. What I do is writing; that's how I've chosen to understand and process the world, as a writer.

River 1

River 2

"When I feel stuck," Luis continued, "then that season has taken a bit of a pause. The garden has already grown many different blossoms, and my task is to know when not to force something more. It would be a mistake to do battle with the writing spirit. Writer's block is like a stop sign; it's a warning. So sometimes I just think for a while, sometimes I drive cross-country, sometimes I read something. That's the time to do something fascinating that's outside of myself, and there's always something fascinating going on. If I get all wrapped up in myself, I'll grind to a halt eventually. If nothing else, I'm just not that interesting.

"The world is full of hilarious, upsetting, entertaining, disturbing stuff out there – that well just never runs dry. That's a great gift for all of us. We just have to go out and look."

River 3

River 4

River 5

River 6

I often remember this useful advice from historical novelist Hillary Mantel

"If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient."

River 7

River 8

"Be wild," says storyteller and curandera Clarissa Pinkola Estés; "that is how to clear the river. The river does not flow in polluted, we manage that. The river does not dry up, we block it. If we want to allow it its freedom, we have to allow our ideational lives to be let loose, to stream, letting anything come, initially censoring nothing. That is creative life. It is made up of divine paradox. To create one must be willing to be stone stupid, to sit upon a throne on top of a jackass and spill rubies from one’s mouth. Then the river will flow, then we can stand in the stream of it raining down."

River 9

River 10

Tilly is good at reminding Howard and me to "be wild," no matter how busy our days can get. Then we're out the door and down the path to the river, the woods, the hills, the moor...and soon whatever is stuck becomes unstuck. The blood is moving. Ideas are flowing.

Then it's back home and back to work once more, bringing the whole wild world with us.

River 11

Blackberry blossomWords: The  Luis Urrea quote is from an interview by Terry Hong (Bookslut, December 2011). I highly recommend his fiction, nonfiction and poetry, which I've talked about previously here and here. The Hillary Mantel advice is from "Hillary Mantel's rules for writers" (The Guardian, February 2010).  The passage by Clarissa Pinkola Estés is from Women Who Run With the Wolves (Ballantine Books, 1992). The poem in the picture captions is from Candles in Babylon by Denise Levertov (New Directions, 1982). All rights reserved by the authors.
Related posts: Ben Okri on "The magic of the writer's craft," Susan Cooper on "When the magic is working," and reflections on art as "Gift exchange."
Pictures: Husband and hound on our walk by the river yesterday afternoon.


Words, paint, and the power to keep going

Bluebells and hound

This has been a deeply unsettling week, a time of change and transition in our family life, while the horrors of the headlines throw shadows over all, even here on a hillside in Devon.

As artists, when we step through the studio door we must leave the world and its worries behind in order to center ourselves in our work...but what do we do during times like these when trouble clings to our skirt like burrs and each day's news is a song of despair? When the shadows loom large, and the work of words and paint seems small, even trivial, in their presence?  How to we free ourselves from the numbing paralysis of cultural despair, and find the spark of vitality, creativity, and hope that will keep us going?

As always, I turn for guidance to those who have walked such paths before -- if not this path precisely, then parallel paths through the dark of the woods. And sometimes what they offer is not a map that leads quickly and easily out, but a deeper understanding of the woodland itself.

Nattadon woods

Woodland wildflowers

Wild poppies

"By honoring our despair," writes ecologist Joanna Macy, "and not trying to suppress it or pave over it as some personal pathology, we open a gateway into our full vitality and to our connection with all of life. Beneath what I call our 'pain for the world,' which includes sorrow and outrage and dread, is the instinct for the preservation of life. When we are unafraid of the suffering of our world, and brave enough to sustain the gaze and speak out, there is a redemptive sanity at work.

"The other side of that pain for our world is a love for our world. That love is bigger than you would ever guess from what our consumer society conditions us to want. It's a love so raw, so ancient, so deep that if you get in touch with it, you can just ride it; you can just be there and it doesn't matter. Then nothing can stop you. But to get to that, you have to stop being afraid of hurting. The price of reaching that is tears and outrage, because the tears and the power to keep on going, they come from the same source."

Nattadon woods

Bluebells and hound

The transformation of despair into hope is alchemical work, creative work. And what all transformations have in common, writes Rebecca Solnit, is that they begin in the imagination.

Bluebells and hound

"To hope is to gamble," she says. "It's to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope."

Overgrown stone wall

Words and paints are small things indeed compared to the shadows that gather around us. But they are what I have, and what I will use. Once again, I choose hope.

Woodland edge

And the obligation to act that comes with it.

Fairy tree in spring

Loving houndThe Joanna Macy quote above is from "Women Reimagining the World" (in Moonrise, edited by Nina Simons, 2010); the Rebecca Solnit quote is from her book Hope in the Dark (2004). The poem in the picture captions is an excerpt from "What the Light Teaches" by Anne Michaels, published in her collection Poems (Bloomsbury, 2000); I highly recommend reading it in full. All rights reserved by the authors.


Re-kindling the fire within

The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo

Frida Khalo painting in bed(Information on the pictures here can be found in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to see them.)

In her beautiful Guest Post two Fridays ago, Nomi McLeod discussed the ways "The Handless Maiden" fairy tale spoke to her at a difficult time of life, and how the art she created based on the tale Tree of Hope, Remain Strong by Frida Khaloboth documented her journey through the dark of the woods and helped her to comprehend it. This is a subject that particularly interests me: the means by which writers, painters, and other artists respond to trauma, crisis, and grief, alchemizing hard experience into story, image, and other creative works.

There are so many different ways this occurs. Sometimes the transformation from life experience to art is immediate and direct: an outpouring of creative energy in the middle of the crisis as it unfolds. Frida Khalo's self-portraits are one example of this, sometimes painted from the confines of her sickbed; another is the "savage creative storm" that caused Rilke to write Sonnets to Orpheus upon hearing the news of a family friend's death. I had a similar experience once myself, after learning that my stepfather had died: working night and day for almost two weeks, I produced, unplanned and almost without conscious thought, my "Surviving Childhood" series of drawings. (These are very large charcoal drawings made on rolls of butcher's paper, and unsuitable for reproducing here.) The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde is another example of work produced in the eye of the storm; as is the art created by Henri Matisse after an operation left him bed- and chair-bound; Angelo Merendino's "The Battle We Didn't Choose," a photographic response to his wife's diagnosis with breast cancer; Hannah Laycock's "Perceiving Identity" series about living with multiple sclerosis; the final essays of Oliver Sacks, written in the last months of his terminal illness; and the work of Mohammed Al-Amari and other Syrian artists documenting the ongoing refugee crisis....to name just a few.

Henri Matisse working from bed

The Sorrows of the King by Henri Matisse

It is rare, however, that a serious illness or other crisis allows the time, space, and temper of mind required for art-making, and so the second category is a larger one: art in response to a crisis that has ended, but that still feels somehow unresolved. Through this kind of work, we return to the dark parts of our lives and transform our muddles of emotion and reaction into something more ordered, more comprehensible, more universal...perhaps even beautiful, if painfully so. Nomi's "Handless Maiden" falls in this category, as does the unflinching work of German artist Käthe Kollwitz in response to World War I, or the devastating "Hiroshima Panels" of Japanese artists Iri & Toshi Maruki. More recent example include Beckie Kravetz's powerful "Witness" sculpture installation; Meg Zivahl-Fox's "Nettles and Deliverance" collages (using fairy tale imagery in response to childhood trauma); Richard Johnson's heart-breaking "Weapon of Choice," a photographic series on verbal abuse and bullying (in response to his own childhood experiences); and CELL, a puppetry project exploring Motor Neurone Disease. (Two of the puppeteers behind the project lost family members to MND.)

Kathe Kollwitz

Kathe Kollwitz

Rescue, from the Hiroshima panels of Iri & Toshi Maruki

There are many fine examples in literature too, especially in the genre of personal essay and memoir, including If This is a Man by Primo Levi, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Dideon, One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro, Paula by Isabel Allende, Hillbilly Gothic by Adrienne Martini, Eating the Underworld by Doris Brett, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Early Spring by Tove DitlevsenWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Wintersen, I Want to Be Left Behind by Brenda Peterson, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, The Woman Who Watches Over the World by Linda Hogan, The Color of Water by James M. McBride, This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff, Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, and numerous others. When we turn to the field of poetry, there are almost too many examples to list, but I'll mention two that have touched me deeply: Jane Kenyon's poems on her battle with depression (found in Constance and Otherwise), and Jane Yolen's The Radiation Sonnets, written during her husband's treatment for cancer, and after his death. I also recommend "Finding Poetry in Illness," a moving article by Jennifer Nix.

Memoirs

Personal experience is often used in the creation of fiction too, of course, although here the alchemical magic is so strong that we're not always aware (nor should we be aware) of the ways in which strands of the author's own life may be woven with other material to create the tapestry of a novel or story. One interesting example is Jeanette Winterson's Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, in which the main character shares the author's name and some of the details of her life -- and yet this is a work of fiction, not memoir, with autobiographical elements skillfully juggled and altered in the service of art. Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina is another excellent book of this type, as is Heinz Insu Fenkl's gorgeous Memories of my Ghost Brother: published as a novel in one edition and as a "magical realist memoir" in another, but actually falling into the interstices between those two literary forms. A fourth example is Jo Walton's wonderful fantasy novel Among Others -- which, she is clear to note, is not straight autobiography with magical trimmings but a "mythologization" of her Welsh childhood and family dynamics, written (to use Rilke's phrase) in a "savage create storm" of 36 writing days.

From Witness by Beckie Kravetz

Although powerful work can be born of hard life experience, there are also times when calamity silences us: when shock, or grief, or sheer emotional exhaustion serves to snuff out one's creativity altogether. For those of us used to moving through life by breathing in the world and breathing out art, this silence is an unsettling, even terrifying thing. It is not quite the same thing as depression; it's more like finding the inner room where we go to create is now shuttered and bolted against us. It's like trying to speak without language. It's like living without breathing. It's not living at all.

From ''The Battle We Didn't Choose'' by Angelo & Jennifer Merendino

Perhaps the alchemical process of creativity has not stopped altogether at such times; perhaps it's still moving, but moving so slowly it does not appear to be moving at all. Our creative daemon has gone underground: not hibernating but germinating, like a seed buried deep in the frozen earth, gathering strength and preparing to break through the soil when the proper time comes. Meanwhile, the winter drags on and we move through our days unaware of things stirring below. Winter is bleak, and endless, and we worry: What if this time the spring doesn't come?

Stray by Jeanie Tomanek

I think of trauma as cold, and sharp, with edges that hurt when you bump up against it. It's the sliver of glass from the Snow Queen tale and the kiss that turns Kay's heart to ice, making him numb to love, to passion, to everything that he once held dear. And yet, even numbness has its use. In a crisis, sometimes we just have to keep moving, putting one foot in front of another, weighted with burdens too heavy to carry but which we must not put down. At such times, it can feel like a mercy to leave the weight and heat of emotion behind us. There are decisions to make and things to be done and miles to cross before we can sleep; there's no time for emotion, no room for it in the basket of boulders we carry.

The Angel of Moving Safely Through the Darkness by Terri WindlingThe problem here is that inspiration arises from an inner fire that feeds on all the stuff our lives: both the dark and the bright, our emotions included. Take emotion away and the fire diminishes. It sputters. It goes out altogether. Numb, like Kay, we may think we are fine, we may think we are coping magnificently... but we sit down to work and the fire just isn't there. And that's hardly surprising.

What is a surprise (or so it was to me) is that the end of a crisis and the thawing of the heart are two things that don't always happen in tandem. A long illness has ended, or a painful problem resolved, or grief has finally loosened its grip and we've emerged from the deep dark forest at last, ready to live Happily Every After...or at least to enjoy a hard-won period of calm and creative renewal. Instead, we just sit there, frozen and numb, not even moving forward now, creativity gone (and our sense of self with it), smiling tightly when dear friends say: At last it's all over! We're glad that you're back!

But in fact, we're not back, at least not fully. Spring is here, but our souls are still clenched underground. We must call them back up to the light.

Life Vs Death by Nomi McLeod

In an earlier series of posts, we looked at illness as a mythic/metaphoric journey to the Underworld and back -- and I'd like to propose that the journey through crisis or grief might be viewed in a similar manner. The process unfolds Cradle by Nomi McLeodin mythic time, or wild time, not on clock time, on schedule, on human demand. It's a journey as perilous as it is profound and it needs to be acknowledged. It needs to be honored. We cannot return from the mythic Underworld as precisely the person we were when we started, and we do not return as the same artist either. Coaxing the soul back up to the sun involves learning just who it is we've become, and what fairy tale gifts we have brought from below. This post-crisis process cannot be rushed; it needs quiet reflection, solitude, time. And yet time, in our pressured and fast-paced world, is precisely what we rarely have.

For those of us working professionally in the arts, the strictures of the marketplace require that work be produced in a regular manner. We spend years mastering the discipline required to create works of art Bunny Maiden with Scars by Terri Windlingto schedule and deadline -- and when that discipline fails us, when the fire's been dampened and the work just will not come, what on earth does one do?

I wish I had an easy answer to that question...or even a difficult one. But every artist is different, every journey is different, and each of us must discover our personal way of re-kindling the fire (though in a perfect world, a charitable foundation aimed at giving working artists the time and resources to do so would not go amiss). What does help, I think, is to recognize the process occurring; to be patient (both with yourself and with others' reactions); and to accept, without shame, the problems that arise when deep healing processes conflict with careers run on clock-time, not soul-time. It also helps to know that other creative artists have gone into the dark before us, and returned, and then burned brighter than ever -- often using the Underworld's painful gifts to enable their very best work.

The Tree of Doors by Meg Zivahl-Fox

One book I keep returning to lately is "An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms" by Elizabeth Knox: a slim volume containing an essay composed for the 2014 Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture. (You can listen to it online here, or obtain the print edition from Victoria University Press.) In this powerful piece, Elizabeth weaves the story of her mother's final illness and several other hard life experiences into reflections on writing, on the nature of genre, and on the work of her friend Margaret Mahy. The essay has been a touchstone for me not because it gives me concrete answers or instructions to follow in times of hardship, but because it shows how another writer, and one I respect, has grappled with such issues too.  I've re-read my copy so many times now -- usually on coffee breaks in the woods -- that it's worn, leaf-strewn, coffee-stained, and dog-eared at favorite passages...such as this one, in which Elizabeth relates a conversation with her husband, Fergus:

"A few weeks back I was trying to explain to Fergus how I see things differently now. How my world view has changed. It had been heroic, by which I mean that everything, obligingly, had a shapeliness -- everything fell into story -- and revealed itself that way, becoming beautiful, and habitable for heroes. Then I got sad; sad for such a sustainable period of time that my world view became an abject one.

"The context of the conversation was this: what the hell could I say in my Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture, with the tectonic plates of my world view still in motion? What could I say when, as I saw it, it was my job to be inspiring? How was I ever to find inspiration in my discouraged soul?

"In trying to communicate this to Fergus, I began thinking about what I learned from my mother -- and not from her death. What she tried, from my infancy, to consciously impart: the vital goodness of kindness and civility in life."

Kindness and civility, yes. Potent magic for the thawing of hearts.

The Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture by Elizabeth Knox, published by Victoria University Press

Crumbs by Jeanie Tomanek

Everyone goes through the deep dark woods at some point in life; artists are not unique in this. But the impact of the journey on the work we do, and even on our ability to do it, makes the questions we ask in trauma's wake somewhat different than in other professions. After a searing experience, how do we re-open ourselves to inspiration? How can we bear such vulnerability? And yet, if we stay protectively closed, how will we bear the alternative: living our lives with our fires banked and the door to art locked against us?

With these thoughts in mind, I came across the following passage by M.C. Richards, from her book Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. She's talking about love, but her words seem to me to apply to creativity as well. (For some of us -- and Richards is one, I think -- they are two sides of the same coin.)

Crossing an Iced-Over Stream by Gina LitherlandShe asks: "How are we to love [and how are we to create] when we are stiff and numb and distinterested? How are we to transform ourselves into limber and soft organisms lying open the world at the quick? By what process and what agency do we perform the Great Work, transforming lowly materials into gold? Love, like its counterpoint, Death, is a yielding at the center...figured forth in intelligent cooperation, sensitive congeniality, physical warmth. At the center the love must live.

"One gives up all one has for this. This is the love that resides in the self, the self-love, out of which all love pours. The fountain, the source. At the center. One gives up all the treasured sorrow and self-mistrust, all the precious loathing and suspicion, all the secret triumphs of withdrawal. One bends in the wind. There are many disciplines that strengthen one's athleticism for love [and creativity]. It takes all one's strength. And yet it takes all one's weakness too. Sometimes it is only by having one's so-called strengths pulverized that one is weak enough, strong enough, to yield. It takes the power of nature in one which is neither strength nor weakness but closer perhaps to virtu, person, personalized energy. Do not speak about strength and weakness, manliness and womanliness, aggressiveness and submissiveness. Look at this flower. Look at this child. Look at this rock with lichen growing on it. Listen to this gull scream as he drops through the air to gobble the bread I throw and clumsily rights himself in the wind. Bear ye another's burdens, the Lord said, and he was talking law.

"Love is not a doctrine, Peace is not an international agreement. Love and Peace are beings who live as possibilities in us."

After the Deluge by Gina Litherland

During periods when I've been unable to cross through the doorway into the room of creation, I've taken courage in knowing that others have also stood at that threshold and found a way in. Their entrance might not be one I can use, but I've learned I am capable of finding my own.

If you've been on that journey, if you are on it now, then this is the thing that I want most to tell you: You have my compassion, and you have my respect. The winter does end. Hearts thaw. Seeds grow. A spark hits dry tinder, and the fire roars.

Coyote Woman by Terri WindlingArt credits: (from top to bottom) "The Two Fridas" & "Tree of Hope, Remain Strong" by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), and a photograph of Kahlo painting while recovering from one of her many operations. "The Sorrow of the King" by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) , and a photograph of Matisse at work even though confined to bed."Hunger: Mother & Sleeping Children" and "Survivors: Widows & Orphans" by Käthe Kollwitz' (1867-1945). "Rescue," one of the Hiroshima panels of Iri & Toshi Maruki. Recommended works of memoir, poetry, & fiction. Figures from "Witness," a sculptural installation by Beckie Kravetz. A photograph  by Angelo Merendino from The Battle We Didn't Choose project. "Stray" by Jeanie Tomanek. "The Angel of Moving Safely Through the Darkness" from my Angel series of paintings. "Life Vs. Death" and "Cradle" by Nomi McLeod. "Bunny maiden with scars," from one of my hospital sketchbooks. "The Tree of Doors" from Nettles and Deliverance by Meg Zivahl-Fox. The Victoria University Press edition of the Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture by Elizabeth Knox. "Crumbs" by Jeanie Tomanek. "Crossing an Iced-Over Stream" and "After the Deluge" by Gina Litherland. "Coyote Woman" from my Desert Spirits series. Text credits: The passage by Elizabeth Knox is from An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms (Victoria University Press, 2014). The passage by M.C. Richards (1916-1999) is from Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (Wesleyan, 1989). All rights by Elizabeth Knox and the estate of M.C. Richards. All rights to the words and pictures above reserved by the authors and artists or their estates.


When the magic isn't working

One of those days

We all have them: the off days, the slow days, the dull days, the befuddled days, the days when nothing goes quite right. The days we forget how to write, how to paint, how to sing or sculpt or design or teach or cook or parent or do much of anything creative at all; when knowledge dries up, inspiration shrivels, and we reach inward but nothing comes out. I'm not having One of Those Days right now, mind you...but I certainly will again, and sooner than I'd like, no doubt. This is part of the creative process, too, and thus deserving of our attention.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad DayIn "Why I Write," Francis Spufford describes what a bad work day feels like for him:

"[T]here’s the gluey fumbling of the attempts to gain traction on the empty screen, there’s the misshapen awkwardness of each try at a sentence (as if you’d been equipped with a random set of pieces from different jigsaws). After a time, there’s the tetchy pacing about, the increasingly bilious nibbling, the simultaneous antsiness and flatness as the failure of the day sinks in. After a longer time -- two or three or four or five days of failure -- there’s the deepening sense of being a fraud. Not only can you not write bearably now; you probably never could. Trips to bookshops become orgies of self-reproach and humiliation. Look at everybody else’s fluency. Look at the rivers of adequate prose that flow out of them. It’s obvious that you don’t belong in the company of these real writers, who write so many books, and oh such long ones. Last, there’s the depressive inertia that flows out of sustained failure at the keyboard, and infects the rest of life with grey minimalism, making it harder to answer letters, return library books, bother to cook meals not composed of pasta."

Ouch. And yet, so true.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad DayThere are days, says Neil Gaiman, "when you sit down and every word is crap. It is awful. You cannot understand how or why you are writing, what gave you the illusion or delusion that you would every have anything to say that anybody would ever want to listen to. You're not quite sure why you're wasting your time. And if there is one thing you're sure of, it's that everything that is being written that day is rubbish. I would also note that on those days (especially if deadlines and things are involved) is that I keep writing. The following day, when I actually come to look at what has been written, I will usually look at what I did the day before, and think, 'That's not quite as bad as I remember. All I need to do is delete that line and move that sentence around and its fairly usable. It's not that bad.'

"What is really sad and nightmarish," Neil continues, "(and I should add, completely unfair, in every way. And I mean it -- utterly, utterly, unfair!) is that two years later, or three years later, although you will remember very well, very clearly, that there was a point in this particular scene when you hit a horrible Writer's Block from Hell, and you will also remember there was point in this particular scene where you were writing and the words dripped like magic diamonds from your fingers -- as if the Gods were speaking through you and every sentence was a thing of beauty and magic and brilliance. You can remember just as clearly that there was a point in the story, in that same scene, when the characters had turned into pathetic cardboard cut-outs and nothing they said mattered at all. You remember this very, very clearly. The problem is you are now doing a reading and you cannot for the life of you remember which bits were the gifts of the Gods and dripped from your fingers like magical words and which bits were the nightmare things you just barely created and got down on paper somehow!! Which I consider most unfair."

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Douglas Rushkoff points out: "The creative process has more than one kind of expression. There’s the part you could show in a movie montage — the furious typing or painting or equation solving where the writer, artist, or mathematician accomplishes the output of the creative task. But then there’s also the part that happens invisibly, under the surface. That’s when the senses are perceiving the world, the mind and heart are thrown into some sort of dissonance, and the soul chooses to respond.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day"That response doesn’t just come out like vomit after a bad meal. There’s not such thing as pure expression. Rather, because we live in a social world with other people whose perceptual apparatus needs to be penetrated with our ideas, we must formulate, strategize, order, and then articulate. It is that last part that is visible as output or progress, but it only represents, at best, 25 percent of the process.

"Real creativity transcends time. If you are not producing work, then chances are you have fallen into the infinite space between the ticks of the clock where reality is created."

My favorite reflection on the subject of Those Days comes from Dani Shapiro's Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of the Creative Life.

"When my son was little," she says, "he loved a book by Judith Viorst called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Poor Alexander. He woke up with gum in his hair, he ended up in the middle seat during carpool, his mom forgot to pack dessert in his lunch box, he had a cavity at the dentist, and just when he thought things couldn't get any worse, he saw people kissing on television. You can feel the momentum of a day turning against you, and if it does, sometimes the best thing to do is crawl back into bed and wait for it to pass.

6a00e54fcf7385883401a73dacf18d970dShapiro advises that writers (and other arts freelancers) must learn to be kind to themselves. "What we're doing isn't easy. We have chosen to spend the better part of our lives in solitude, wrestling with our deepest thoughts, obsessions and concerns. We unleash the beasts of memory; we peer into Pandora's box. We do this all in the spirit of faith and exploration, with no guarantee that what we will produce is worthwhile. We don't call in sick. We don't take mental health days. We don't get two weeks paid vacation, or summer Fridays, or holiday weekends. Often, we are out of step with the tempo of those around us. It can feel isolating and weird. And so, when the day turns against us, we might do well to follow the advice of Buddhist writer Sylvia Boorstein, who talks to herself as if she's a child she loves very much: Sweetheart, she'll say. Darling. Honey. That's all right. There, there. Go take a walk. Take a bath. Take a drive. Bake a cake. Nap a little. You'll try again tomorrow."

For some reason I imagine this in Delia Sherman's voice, perhaps because Delia is so wise and sensible.

Walk the dog. Read a book. You'll try again tomorrow.

And indeed, we do.


Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

The drawings above are from the American children's book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, written by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz.  I often mutter Alexamder's refrain of despair -- "I think I'll move to Australia" -- whenever  it's One of Those Days. My English husband, who doesn't know the book, always looks a bit perplexed...but it makes me feel better.


Taking Our Own Hands

Studio door

In her lovely book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, Dani Shapiro tackles a subject that will be familiar to many writers and other creative folks: the feeling that we somehow need "permission" to pull ourselves away from other tasks and sit down to do our heart's work.

"If you're waiting for the green light, the go-ahead, the reassuring wand to tap your shoulder and anoint you as a writer," she says, "you'd better pull out your thermos and folding chair because you're going to be waiting for a good long while. Accountants go to business school and when they graduate with their degrees, they don't ask themselves whether they have permission to do people's taxes. Lawyers pass the bar, medical students become doctors, academics become professors, all without considering whether or not they have the right to be going to work. But nothing and no one gives us permission to wake up and sit at home staring at a computer screen while everybody else sets their alarm clock, puts on reasonable attire, and boards the train....

"Sure, there are advanced degrees in writing and various signifiers that a career might be underway, but ultimately a writer is someone who writes. A writer who writes is someone who finds the way to give herself permission. The advanced degree is useless in this regard. No writer I know wakes up in the morning and, while brushing her teeth, thinks: Check me out, I have an MFA. Or, for that matter, I've published x number of books, or even, I've won the Pulitzer Prize. There is no magical place of arrival. There is only the solitary writer facing the page."

In the studio

"Whether you are a writer just mustering up the nerve to sign up for your first weekend workshop," Shapiro continues, "or filling out your MFA applications, or one gazing moodily out from a big poster in the window of your local Barnes & Noble, you are far from alone in this business of granting yourself the permission to do your work. Masters of the form quake before the page. They often feel hopeless and despairing. They may also fall prey to petty musings. They have days in which they simply can't get out of their own way.

"But when we give ourselves permission, we move past this. The world once again reveals itself to us. We become open and aware, patient and ready to receive it....We give ourselves permission because we are the only ones who can do so."

Studio desk

Shapiro's good advice actually applies to many things in life besides writing, for there are all sorts of ways we can hold ourselves back from the things we need most to be doing. Most importantly, we must give ourselves "permission" to be the person we truly are -- as opposed to who we thought we'd be, or were raised to be, or who others would very much like us to be -- and no one else can do this for us. Teachers, mentors, partners, friends can provide support in various ways, but permission has to come from within if we are to own our lives, and our art.

I started this post with a photograph of my studio door, which is where I write a favorite poem each month. (The gold ink washes off with white spirit, allowing me to change the poems as often as I want to.) Many of the poems Jane Yolen has shared on this blog have ended up here...including the one below, chosen for the month of March. It's been on the door before, but it's worth repeating, and it feels just right today.

Door poem 3

Tilly in the studioIn the photo above, Tilly looks out over the hills and waits for spring to arrive. The poem on the studio door, "Taking My Own Hand," is © 2012 by Jane Yolen, all rights reserved. The Bunny Girl on my desk is by Wendy Froud.


On giving ourselves permission...

Tilly in the woods, 1

"To allow ourselves to spend afternoons watching dancers rehearse, or sit on a stone wall and watch the sunset, or spend the whole weekend rereading Chekhov stories -- to know that we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing -- is the deepest form of permission in our creative lives. The British author and psychologist Adam Phillips has noted, 'When we are inspired, rather like when we are in love, we can feel both unintelligible to ourselves and most truly ourselves.' This is the feeling I think we all yearn for, a kind of hyperreal dream state. We read Emily Dickinson. We watch the dancers. We research a little known piece of history obsessively. We fall in love. We don’t know why, and yet these moments form the source from which all our words will spring."

- Dani Shapiro (from her new book, Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life -- which I'm reading now with great pleasure, and recommend)

Tilly in the woods, 2

Tilly in the woods, 3


From the archives: The Writing Life

Fairy Scribe by Alan Lee

"It wasn't that I couldn't write. I wrote every day. I actually worked really hard at writing. At my desk by 7 A.M., would work a full eight and more. Scribbled at the dinner table, in bed, on the toilet, on the No. 6 train, at Shea Stadium. I did everything I could. But none of it worked. My novel, which I had started with such hope shortly after publishing my first book of stories, wouldn't budge past the 75-page mark. Nothing I wrote past page 75 made any kind of sense. Nothing. Which would have been fine if the first 75 pages hadn't been pretty damn cool. But they were cool, showed a lot of promise. Would also have been fine if I could have just jumped to something else. But I couldn't. All the other novels I tried sucked worse than the stalled one, and even more disturbing, I seemed to have lost the ability to write short stories. It was like I had somehow slipped into a No-Writing Twilight Zone and I couldn't find an exit. Like I'd been chained to the sinking ship of those 75 pages and there was no key and no patching the hole in the hull. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, but nothing I produced was worth a damn.

"Want to talk about stubborn? I kept at it for five straight years. Five damn years. Every day failing for five years? I'm a pretty stubborn, pretty hard-hearted character, but those five years of fail did a number on my psyche. On me. Five years, 60 months? It just about wiped me out. By the end of that fifth year, perhaps in an attempt to save myself, to escape my despair, I started becoming convinced that I had written all I had to write, that I was a minor league Ralph Ellison, a Pop Warner Edward Rivera, that maybe it was time, for the sake of my mental health, for me to move on to another profession, and if the inspiration struck again some time in the future...well, great. But I knew I couldn't go on much more the way I was going. I just couldn't.... So I put the manuscript away. All the hundreds of failed pages, boxed and hidden in a closet. I think I cried as I did it. Five years of my life and the dream that I had of myself, all down the tubes because I couldn't pull off something other people seemed to pull off with relative ease: a novel. By then I wasn't even interested in a Great American Novel. I would have been elated with the eminently forgettable NJ novel."

-- from "Becoming a Writer" by Junot Díaz, who went on to finish his novel and win the Pulitzer Prize. Read the rest of this wonderful article here. His books are terrific too.

Fairy drawing by Alan LeeImages above: "Fairy Scribe" and "Small Fairy with Brush" by Alan Lee.


When things go amiss

Winter Stream

"When I'm writing," says Meg Wolitzer,  "I ask myself the question that a reader inevitably asks a writer: why are you telling me this? There has to be an erotic itch, a sense of book as hot object, the idea that what's contained in the book is the information you've always needed.

"If the answer to the question 'Why are you telling me this?' doesn't come quickly, if I'm writing without urgency, that's my first sign that something's amiss. When novels or stories feel like they're going nowhere, they've lost their imperative, their reason for being.

"Imperative is the kind of thing we associate with urgent, external movements -- say, with political causes. I also associate it with art. You know that something might be righted, whether its a social wrong or incomplete information. That's what art gives you: a more complete view, a view of corners you wouldn't otherwise have seen." *

Old Oak

But what if you've lost that imperative, gone astray in the dark forest of the creative process?

"Don't sit down in the middle of the woods," Margaret Atwood advises. "If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page."

"Don't panic," says Sarah Waters. "Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends' embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce . . . Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end. Leaving the desk for a while can help. Talking the problem through can help me recall what I was trying to achieve before I got stuck. Going for a long walk almost always gets me thinking about my manuscript in a slightly new way. And if all else fails, there's prayer. St Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers, has often helped me out in a crisis. If you want to spread your net more widely, you could try appealing to Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, too."

Hilary Mantel advises: "If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient."

The Muddy Path

"Never stop when you are stuck," cautions Jeanette Winterson. "You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether."

Helen Simpson agrees: "The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying 'Faire et se taire' (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as 'Shut up and get on with it.' "

The last word today comes from Neil Gaiman:

"The main rule of writing," he says, "is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter."

Winter Bracken

Tilly in the Bracken

* The first quote comes from Why We Write, edited by Meredith Maran (Plume/Penguin, 2013), published in aid of the 826 National youth literacy program. Please consider ordering a copy to support this worthy cause.


On Creative Burn-out: a final post

Autumn hills out the studio windowFrom the studio window: Meldon Hill in autumn, beneath a Maxfield Parrish sky

A few more thoughts on creative burn-out and blocks from writers who have walked this path before us:

May Sarton: "When one’s not writing poems -- and I’m not at the moment -- you wonder how you ever did it. It’s like another country you can’t reach."

Toni Morrison: "When I sit down in order to write, sometimes it's there; sometimes it's not. But that doesn't bother me anymore. I tell my students that there is such a thing as 'writers block,' and they should respect it. You shouldn't write through it. It's blocked because it ought to be blocked, because you haven't got it right now." 

Agatha Christie gives the opposite advice: "Write even when you don't want to, don't much like what you are writing, and aren't writing particularly well."

Maya Angelou concurs: "What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, 'Okay. Okay. I’ll come.'"

And William Faulkner: "I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o'clock every morning."

Clouds over Meldon Hill

Of course, there's no right way and wrong of getting through writer's block or creative burn-out. Like everything about the creative process, we each need to find our own natural rhythms and then to shape our lives in order to work with those rhythms and not against them. One last quote, which addresses precisely this subject, from Bernard Malamud:

"If the stories come, you get them written, you're on the right track. Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you."


On Creative Burn-out & the Practice of Swaling

Dartmoor

In Friday's post on artists' blocks and creative burn-out, I quoted the Canadian artist Jane Champagne as saying, ""Sometimes, if you just wait it out, and go on about your business without trying to force a solution, it comes - almost as if the old artist has to die before the new one can be born."

Australian artist Christina Cairns responded: "I especially like the Jane Champagne quote. It reminds me of the affinity between artist and Shaman, that a kind of death needs to take place for the new life to begin. And also of that need not just for solitude, but of 'fallow' time to allow the seeds of new ideas to emerge into the light in their own time."

This in turn reminded me of a JoMA article I wrote some years ago, called "The Dark of the Woods," which discussed the importance of journeys into darkness and despair in myths and shamanic traditions world-wide. Here's the opening passage:

"'In the mid-path of my life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood,' writes Dante, in The Divine Comedy, beginning a quest that will lead to transformation and redemption. A journey through the dark of the woods is a motif common to fairy tales: young heroes set off through the perilous forest in order to reach their destiny, or they find themselves abandoned there, cast off and left for dead. The road is long and treacherous, prowled by wolves, ghosts, and wizards -- but helpers also appear along the way, good fairies and animal guides, often cloaked in unlikely disguises. The hero's task is to tell friend from foe, and to keep walking steadily onward."

Dartmoor 2

"In older myths, the dark road leads downward into the Underworld, where Persephone is carried off by Hades, much against her will, and Ishtar descends of her own accord to beat at the gates of Hell. This road of darkness lies to the West, according to Native American myth, and each of us must travel it at some point in our lives. The western road is one of trials, ordeals, disasters and abrupt life changes -- yet a road to be honored, nevertheless, as the road on which wisdom is gained. James Hillman, whose theory of 'archetypal psychology' draws extensively on Greco-Roman myth, echoes this belief when he argues that darkness is vital at certain periods of life, questioning our modern tendency to equate mental health with happiness. It is in the Underworld, he reminds us, that seeds germinate and prepare for spring. Myths of descent and rebirth connect the soul's cycles to those of nature."

It's hard, however, to descend to the Underworld with equanimity. I have no fear of darkness per se, but what I hate is the feeling of emptiness that marks creative burn-out for me: a flatness, a lack of enthusiasm for paint or words or light or color or any of the daily, common things that usually fill my heart to bursting with beauty, wonder, and inspiration. It's a kind of death, living in that grey, muffled Underworld where I can see, but not touch, the bright world above. Each time I descend, I despair utterly, forgetting all that I know about myth, and life, and art. Forgetting that there's nothing to truly fear down here. The Underworld is not one's permanent destination; it's simply the mythic/shamanic/creative passageway to next part of the cycle, rebirth: the ascent to a new self, to a new stage of life, and to a new way of making art.

Going back to the "Dark of the Woods" article:  

"Rites-of-passage stories...were cherished in pre-literate societies not only for their entertainment value, but also as mythic tools to prepare young men and women for life's ordeals. A wealth of such stories can be found marking each major transition in the human life cycle: puberty, marriage, childbirth, menopause, death. Other rites-of-passage, less predictable but equally transformative, include times of sudden change and calamity such as illness and injury, the loss of one's home, the death of a loved one, etc. These are the times when we wake, like Dante, to find ourselves in a deep, dark wood -- an image that in Jungian psychology represents an inward journey. Rites-of-passage tales point to the hidden roads that lead out of the dark again -- and remind us that at the end of the journey we're not the same person as when we started. Ascending from the Netherworld (that grey landscape of illness, grief, depression, or despair), we are 'twice-born' in our return to life, carrying seeds -- new wisdom, ideas, creativity and fecundity of spirit."

Dartmoor 3

Yet it's hard not to panic when one finds oneself in an artistically fallow period; it's hard (at least for me) to accept, even to welcome, this part of the creative cycle. "I've lost my spark, my inspiration," I wailed recently to my friend and writing-buddy Wendy Froud. "I don't seem to even want to write anymore. What if I've lost the spark for good? I'll have to get a job at the hardware store...and I'll probably just suck at that too...." 

"Your muse will come back," Wendy assured me, laughing, "and she'll come sooner if you turn your back on her. Do something else. Take a walk. Read a book. This happens to me too; it happens to everyone. But I find if I do something else for a bit, inspiration comes back in no time."

"I've lost all my fire," I whined to my husband. "I've never felt this empty before."

"Sure you have," he reminded me patiently. "It happens whenever you're over-tired, or over-stressed, or when some new idea is gestating in the dark.  Listen to your body, listen to your spirit. They're both telling you that you need some time off. The fire will come back, it always does. And it will come back stronger than ever. "

He's right, of course; I have been through this before...and you'd think by now I would recognize the pattern. As Jane Champagne says: sometimes the old artist has to die before the new artist is born. And the "death" part takes as longs as it takes. It doesn't care about schedules and deadlines.

Plunging in

As younger writers or artists, with energy to spare, we often pushed ourselves to produce and produce and produce, living on caffeine and nerves and adrenaline...and that's fine, even fun, at a certain age, but not sustainable over a lifetime of work. Now, as a woman deep into her middle years, I know I must find a different rhythm -- one that is cyclical, seasonal, sustainable. To quote Christina Cairns again:

"Everything else in the natural world works in cycles of activity and inactivity, fallow and productive. Why should we humans think we are any different? And yet we push ourselves, or allow others (clients, deadlines, family and so on) to push us to keep going, not stop (or feel guilty if we dare to), and keep producing. No wonder the well gets empty, the creative flowering grows weaker and less beautiful. But it's not just in the arts, it's everywhere. I just noticed a headline yesterday, that Australian workers are working longer than ever hours, and yet are more inefficient than ever before...hmmmm, I wonder why?!"

Here in Devon, there's an old rural tradition of swaling: a controlled burning of overgrown heath land that clears out dead vegetation and allows for new growth. Perhaps creative burn-out can be viewed as an inner form of swaling, creating the space and enriching the soil where fresh ideas can germinate. A burn-off rather than a burn-out, clearing the ground for years of life and art still to come.

So here's a toast to creative burn-out and burn-off, and to the tender new growth that emerges from them. I'm emerging at last from my own fallow time (a period of weeks that has felt like years)...and Howard is right: the spark of inspiration is not only returning, it's coming back stronger than ever. But someday, I know, I'll return to the Underworld, or awake, like Dante, in the dark of the woods. And when I do, I'll try to remember not to panic. To remember that it's all part of the creative/mythic journey. And to move through it with just a little more grace.

Walking with grace

"Dark of the Woods: Rites of Passage Tales" was published in the "Healing & Transformation" issue of The Journal of Mythic Arts, Winter 2006;all rights reserved.