We are the words, we are the music

Stray sheep

Etchings by Bill Yardley

Last week we discussed Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" (an essay I recommend reading in full) -- examining the roles of experience and imagination in the creation of fiction.

There's one more passage I'd like to share. It begins with a quote by Virginia Woolf, from a letter to her friend Vita Sackville-West. "Sackville-West," Le Guin explains, "had been pontificating about finding the right word, Flaubert's mot juste, and agonizing very Frenchly about syle; and Woolf wrote back, very Englishly:

Sheep etching by Bill Yardley'As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words. But on the other hand here I am sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can't dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.'

Sheep and lamb, reunited.

"Woolf wrote that seventy-five years ago," notes Le Guin; "if she did think differently next year, she didn't tell anybody. She says it lightly, but she means it; this is profound. I have not found anything more profound, or more useful, about the source of story -- where ideas come from.

"Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention -- beneath words, as she says -- there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move. The writer's job is to go down deep enough to begin to feel that rhythm, find it, move it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find the words."

So simple. So true.

The gate to O'er Hill

Le Guin adds this at the close of the essay:

"Prose and poetry -- all art, music, dance -- rise from and move with the profound rhythms of our body, our being, and the body and the being of the world. Physicists read the universe as a great range of vibrations, of rhythms. Art follows and expresses those rhythms."

Sheep in the shade

Old stone wall

I'm reminded, in turn, of these words from Woolf's luminous essay "A Sketch of the Past":

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we -- I mean all human beings -- are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself."

A stream on the Commons

Hound and stream

Waiting

Words: Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" can be found in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014); it also appears, in an altered form, in Le Guin's essay collection The Wave in the Mind (Shambhala, 2004). Both books are recommended. The first Woolf quote can be found in The Letters of Vita Sackville West & Virginia Woolf, edited by Mitchell Alexander Leaska (Cleis Press, 2004); the second in Moments of Being (Mariner Books, 1985). 

Pictures: The etchings above are by Bill Yardley (1940-2012), an artist inspired by life on his Warwickshire farm.

All rights to the text & images above reserved by authors & artists, or their estates.


The writer as wizard

Bluebells 1

Today, another passage from Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" to discuss; and this time it is one that you might find a bit more provocative (especially for readers who love the Harry Potter books):

Fiction writers, says Le Guin, "are slow beginners. Very few are worth much until they are thirty or so. Not because they lack life experience, but because their imagination hasn't had time to compost it, to meditate on what they've done and seen and felt, and to realize its value may lie less in its uniqueness than in its giving access to an understanding of the shared human condition. This requires imaginative work; and [realist] autobiographical first novels, self-centered and self-pitying, often suffer from lack of imagination.

Bluebells 2

"But many fantasies, works of so-called imaginative fiction, suffer from the same thing: imaginative poverty. The writers haven't actually used their imaginations, they don't make up anything -- they just move archetypes around in a game of wish fulfillment.

3

"In fantasy, since the fictionality of the fiction -- the inventions, the dragons -- are right out in front, it's easy to assume that the story has no relation at all to experience, that everything in a fantasy can be just the way a writer wants. No rules, all cards wild. All the ideas in fantasy are just wishful thinking -- right? Well, no. Wrong. It may be that the further a story gets from common experience and accepted reality, the less wishful thinking it can do, and the more firmly its essential ideas must be grounded in common experiences and accepted reality.

Bluebells 4

"Serious fantasy goes into regions of the psyche that may be very strange territory to the reader, dangerous ground; and for that reason, serious fantasy is usually both conservative and realistic about human nature. Its mode is usually comic, not tragic; that is, it has a more-or-less happy ending but, just as the tragic hero brings his tragedy on himself, the happy outcome in a fantasy novel is earned by the behavior of the protagonist. Serious fantasy invites the reader on a wild journey of invention, through wonders and marvels, through mortal risks and dangers -- all the time hanging on to a common, everyday, realistic morality. Generosity, reliability, compassion, and courage: in fantasy these moral qualities are seldom questioned. They are accepted, and they are tested -- often to the limit, and beyond.

Bluebells 5

"The people who write the stuff on book covers obsessively describe fantasy as 'a battle between good and evil,' but in commercial fantasy the battle is all; the white wizards and the black magicians are both mindlessly violent. It's not a moral struggle, just a power struggle. This is about as far from Tolkien as you can get.

Bluebells 6

"But why should moral seriousness matter, why do probability and consistency matter, when it's 'all just made up'? Well, moral seriousness is exactly what makes fantasy matter. The made-up story is inevitably trivial if nothing real is at stake. That's my problem with Harry Potter; all the powerful people are divided into good ones and bad ones, all of whom use their power for mere infighting and have nothing to do with people without power. Such easy wish fulfillment has a great appeal to children, who are genuinely powerless, but it worries me when adults fall for it. In the same way, the purer the invention, the more important its credibility, consistency, and coherence. The rules of the invented realm must be followed to the letter. All wizards, including writers, are extremely careful about their spells. Every word must be the right word. A sloppy wizard is a dead wizard. Serious fantasists delight in invention, in the freedom to invent, but they know that careless invention kills magic. Fantasy happily flouts fact, but it is just as concerned with truth as the direst realism."

Bluebells 7

Bluebells 8

Words: The passage above is from "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, a talk for the Portland Arts & Lectures series, October, 2000, published in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014).  Pictures: Walking the bluebell path.


Creative alchemy: experience transformed by imagination

Lady of the Labyrinth by Kristin Kwan

Here's another interesting passage from Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" -- an esssay examining the mysterious process of "inspiration" when writing fiction:

Firebird by Kristin Kwan"I have written fantastic stories closely based on actual experience," she says, "and realistic stories totally made up out of whole cloth. Some of my science fiction is full of accurate and carefully researched fact, while my stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things on the Oregon coast in 1990 contain large wetlands and quicksands of pure invention. I hope to show you that fictional 'ideas' arise from the combination of experience and imagination that is both indissoluble and utterly unpredictable.

"In my Earthsea books, particularly the first one, people sail around on the sea in small boats all the time. They do it quite convincingly, and many people understandably assume that I spent years sailing around on the sea in small boats.

"My entire experience of sailboats was during my junior semester at Berkeley High School, when they let us take sailing for gym credit. On a windy day in the Berkeley Marina, my friend Jean and I managed to overturn and sink a nine-foot catboat in three feet of water. We sang 'Nearer, My God, to Thee' as she went down, then waded half a mile back to the boathouse. The boatman was incredulous. 'You sank it?' he said. 'How?'

"That will remain one of the secrets of the writer.

Lacemaker by Kristin Kwan

"All right, so practically all the sailing in Earthsea, certainly all the deep-sea sailing, does not reflect experience. Not my experience. Only my imagination, using that catboat, other people's experience, novels I'd read, and some research (I do know why Lookfar is clinker-built), asking friends questions, and some trips on ocean liners. But basically, it's a fake. So is all snow and ice in The Left Hand of Darkness. I never even saw snow until I was seventeen, and I certainly never pulled a sledge across a glacier. Except with Captain Scott, and Shakleton, and those guys. In books. Where do you get your ideas? From books, of course, from other people's books. If I didn't read, how could I write?

Painting in progress by Kristin Kwan

"We all stand on each other's shoulders, we all use each other's ideas and skills and plots and secrets. Literature is a communal enterprise. That 'anxiety of influence' stuff is just testosterone talking. Understand me: I don't mean plagiarism; I'm not talking about imitation, or copying, or theft. The stuff from other people's books gets into us just as our own experience does, is composted and transmuted and transformed by the imagination, just as actual experiences are, and comes forth entirely changed.

"If that were not so, if I though I had really stolen and used any other writer's writing, I certainly wouldn't stand here congratulating myself. I'd go hide my head in shame and wait for the lawsuit. But as it is, I acknowledge with delight my endless debt to every storyteller I have ever read, my colleagues, my collaborators -- I praise them and honor them, the endless givers of gifts."

Preliminary sketch by Kristin Kwan

For further reading on the role of "influence" in creative work, read Jonthan Lethem's excellent essay on the subject...or my mediation on influence, inspired by an interview with Didier Graffet.

Sketchbook pages by Kristin Kwan

The lovely art today is by Kristin Kwan, a painter and illustrator based in Nebraska.

"When I was growing up my family moved many times, and every new home held mysteries and secrets," she writes. "I knew there was a hidden stairway that led to unknown attics somewhere, or cellars underneath that held forgotten treasures. I knew I could get there if I just kept looking.

"That low door is still elusive, but when I pick up my pencil or paint brush, I know I can find it for a little while. When I paint I try to bring a little of that magic country back with me."

 To see more of her distinctive and magical work, please visit Kwan's website and tumblr.

Preliminary sketch by Kristin Kwan

Dragon Eggs by Kristin KwanThe passage above is from "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, a talk for the Portland Arts & Lectures series, October, 2000, published in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


The stories in the air around us

Field 1

Last week (in Thursday's post), Susan Cooper talked about inspiration, and where the ideas and themes in her books come from. Today, Ursula K. Le Guin approaches the same subject from a different direction:

"It's a big question -- where do writers get their ideas, where do artists get their visions, where do musicians get their music? It's bound to have a big answer," says Le Guin. "Or a whole lot of them. One of my favorite answers is this: Somebody asked Willie Nelson how he thought up his tunes, and he said, 'The air is full of tunes, I just reach up and pick one.'

"For a fiction writer -- a storyteller -- the world is full of stories, and when story is there, it's there; you just reach up and pick it.

Field 2

Field 3

"Then you have to be able to tell it to yourself.

"First you have to be able to wait. To wait in silence. Listen for the tune, the vision, the story. Not grabbing, not pushing, just waiting, listening, being ready for it when it comes. This is an act of trust. Trust in yourself, trust in the world. The artist says, 'The world will give me what I need and I will be able to use it rightly.'

Field 4

Horse pen

White horse 1

"Readiness -- not grabbiness, not greed -- readiness: willingness to hear, to listen carefully, to see clearly and accurately -- to let the words be right. Not almost right. Right. To know how to make something out of the vision; that's what practice is for. Because being ready doesn't mean just sitting around, even if it looks like that's what most writers do; artists practice their art continually, and writing happens to involve a lot of sitting. Scales and finger exercises, pencil sketches, endless unfinished and rejected stories. The artist who practices knows the difference between practice and performance, and the essential connection between them. The gift of those seemingly wasted hours and years is patience andf readiness; a good ear, a keen eye, a skilled hand, a rich vocabulary and grammar. The gift of practice to the artist is mastery, or a word I like better, 'craft.'

"With those tools, those instruments, with that hard-earned mastery, that craftiness, you do your best to let the 'idea' -- the tune, the vision, the story -- come through clear and undistorted. Clear of ineptitude, awkwardness, amateurishness; undistorted by convention, fashion, opinion.

White horse 2

Hound

"This is a very radical job, dealing with the ideas you get if you are an artist and take your job seriously, this shaping a vision into the medium of words. It's what I like to do best in the world, and what I like to talk about when I talk about writing. I could happily go on and on about it. But I'm trying to talk about where the vision, the stuff you work on, the 'idea,' comes from, so:

"The air is full of tunes. A piece of rock is full of statues. The earth is full of visions. The world is full of stories.

"As an artist, you trust that."

White horse 3

Words: The passage above is from "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, a talk for the Portland Arts & Lectures series, October, 2000, published in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014). The Catheryn Essinger poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine, June 1999. All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: A buttercup field on Nattadon Hill, looking over the valley to Meldon Hill; and the friendly white horse that lives in an enclosure at the base of Meldon.


Look, learn, remember

Ponies 1

As artists, although we can list a variety of things that serve to inspire us (places, experiences, interests and obsessions, other works of art, etc.), the act of inspiration itself remains mysterious and magical. Why and how does it strike when it does? Why this idea and not that one; why at this moment and not another?

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

Ponies 2

"Who knows where the ideas come from? Who knows what happens in the shadowy part of the mind, something between Plato's cave and Maeterlinck's Hall of Night, where the creative imagination hides? Who knows even where the words come from, the right rhythm and meaning and music all at once? Those of us who make books out of the words and ideas have less of an answer than anyone. All we know is that marvelous feeling that comes, sometimes, like a break of sunshine in a cloud-grey sky, when through all the research and concentration and slog -- suddenly you are writing, fluently and fast, with every sense at high pitch and yet in a state almost like a trance. Suddenly for a time the door is open, the magic is working; a channel exists between the page and the shadowy cave in the mind.

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

Ponies 3

Ponies 4

"Just one thing can, perhaps, be charted," Cooper adds, "and that's the kind of stories that are told. If only looking back over your own work after you've done it, you can find some thread that runs through, binding it all together.

Ponies 5

Ponies 6

Reflecting on her own work, Cooper writes:

"The underlying theme of my Dark is Rising sequence, and particularly its fourth volume, The Grey King, is, I suppose, the ancient problem of the duality of human nature. The endless coexistence of kindness and cruelty, love and hate, forgiveness and revenge -- as inescapable as the cycle of life and death, day and night, the Light and the Dark.

Ponies 7

"And to some extent, I can see its roots. My generation, especially in Britain and Europe, was given a strong image of good and bad at an impressionable age. We were the children of World War II. Our insecurities may not have been different in kind from those of the modern child, but they were more concrete. That something might be lurking in the shadows behind the bedroom door at night wasn't, for us, a terrible formless bogeyman; it was specific -- a Nazi paratrooper, with a bayonet. And the nightmares that broke into our six-year-old sleep weren't always vague and forgettable; quite often they were not only precise, but real.

Ponies 8

"We knew that there would indeed be the up-and-down wail of the air raid siren, to send us scurrying through a night crisscrossed with searchlights, down into the shelter, that little corrugated iron room buried in the back lawn, and barricaded with sandbags and turf. And then their would be the drone of the bombers, the thudding of anti-aircraft fire from the guns at the end of the road, and the crash of bombs coming closer, closer each time...

Ponies 9

Ponies 10

Ponies 11

"The experience of war, like certain other accidents of circumstance, can teach a child more than he or she realizes about the dreadful ubiquity of man's inhumanity to man. And if the child grows up to be a writer, in a world that seems to learn remarkably little from its history, that writing will be haunted.

Ponies 12

"Haunted, and trying to communicate the haunting. Whether explicitly, or through the buried metaphor of fantasy. It will always be trying to say to the reader: Look, this is the way things are. The conflict that's in this story is everywhere in life, even in your own nature. It's frightening, but try not to be afraid. Ever. Look, learn, remember; this is the kind of thing you'll have to deal with yourself, one day, out there."

Ponies 13

"Perhaps," she concludes, "a book can help with the long, hard matter of growing up, just a little. Maybe, sometimes."

I believe books can, and that they've done this for many of us.

Ponies 14

The pictures today are of our local herd of Dartmoor ponies, who often come down from the moor to the village Commons to graze and shelter their foals. Tilly loves them, but knows not to get too close, especially during foaling season.

Pony watcher

Words: The passage above is from "Seeing Around Corners" (Cooper's acceptance speech for the 1976 Newbury Medal for The Grey King), published in Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1996). The poem in the picture captions is from Love and Strange Horses by Nathalie Handal (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors.


The Long Tale

Catskin by Arthur Rackham

"[W]e have, each of us, a story that is uniquely ours, a narrative arc that we can walk with purpose once we figure out what it is. It's the opposite to living our lives episodically, where each day is only tangentially connected to the next, where we are ourselves the only constants linking yesterday to tomorrow. There is nothing wrong with that, and I don't want to imply that there is ... just that it felt so suddenly, painfully right to think that I have tapped into my Long Tale, that I have set my feet on the path I want to walk the rest of my life, and that it is a path of stories and writing and that no matter how many oceans I cross or how transient I feel in any given place, I am still on my Tale's Road, because having tapped it, having found it, the following is inevitable. Not easy -- it will probably be hard, and may be steep and thorny or wet and muddy or beset by badgers, but to not follow it is inconceivable because it is mine."   - Amal El-Mohtar

Nattadon Hill 1

The quote above comes from "Tapping the Long Tale," a lovely piece Amal wrote in 2011, which I recommend reading in full.

I'm thinking today about all the places I have travelled through (literally and creatively) as I've followed my own Long Tale...and wondering where it will take me next....

Where will yours take you?

Nattadon Hill 2

Nattadon Hill 3The illustration above is by Arthur Rackham.


The Muses of Rooms

Groundhog's Day by Andrew Wyeth

From "The Writer Herself" by Janet Sternberg:

"I'm drawn back to a room from my childhood -- the back room of my aunt's apartment. When my parents and I visited, I used to vanish into that room. My means of escape was the typewriter, an old manual that sat on a desk in the back room. It belonged to my aunt, but she had long since left it for the adjoining room, the kitchen. She had once wanted to write, but as the eldest of a large and troubled first-generation American family, she had other claims on her energies as well as proscriptions to contend with: class, gender, and situation joined to make her feel unworthy of literature.

Andrew Wyeth 8

"I now know I inherited some of her proscriptions," Sternberg contines, "but the back room at age nine was a place of freedom. There I could perform that significant act: I could close the door. Certainly I felt peculiar on leaving the warm and buzzing room of conversation, with its charge of familial love and invasion. But it wasn't the living room I needed: it was the writing room, which now comes back to me with its metal table, its stack of white papers that did not diminish between my visits. I would try my hand at poems; I would also construct elaborate multiple-choice tests. 'A child is an artist when, seeing a tree at dusk, she (a) climbs it (b) sketches it (c) goes home and describes it in her notebook.' And another (possibly imagined) one: 'A child is an artist when, visiting her relatives, she (a) goes down the street to play (b) talks with her family and becomes part of them (c) goes into the back room to write.'

Andrew Wyeth 6

"Oh my. Buried in those self-administered tests were the seeds of what, years later, made me stop writing. Who could possible respond correctly to so severe an inquisition? Nonetheless, that room was essential to me. I remember sitting at the desk and feeling my excitement start to build; soon I'd touch the typewriter keys, soon I'd be back in my own world. Although I felt strange and isolated, I was beginning to speak, through writing. And if I chose, I could throw out what I'd done that day; there was no obligation to show my work to anyone.

Spring Fed by Andrew Wyeth

Master Bedroom by Andrew Wyeth

"Looking back nowl I feel sad at so constrained a sense of freedom, so defensive a stance: retreat behind a closed door. Much later, when I returned to writing after many silent years, I believed that the central act was to open that door, to make writing something that would not stand in opposition to others. I imagined a room at the heart of the house, and life in its variety flowing in and out. Later still I came to see that I continued to value separation and privacy. I began to realize that once again I'd constructed a test: a true writer either retreats and pays the price of isolation from the human stream or opens the door and pays the price of exposure to too many diverse currents. Now I've come to believe that there is no central act; instead there is a central struggle, ongoing, which is to retain control over the door -- to shut it when necessary, open it at other times -- and to retain the freedom to give up that control, and experiment with the room as porous.

Her Room by Andrew Wyeth

"I've also come to believe that my harsh childhood testing was an attempt at self-definition -- but one made in isolation, with no knowledge of living writers. In place of a more expansive range of choices that acquaintance, particularly with working women writers, could have provided, I substituted the notion of a single criterion for an artist. That view has altered with becoming a woman and an artist."

Andrew Wyeth's studio

Andrew Wyeth dog sketch

The paintings today are by the great American realist artist Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), whose subject was the land, people and animals around him in rural Pennsylvania and coastal Maine. He was the son of the illustrator N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945); and his own son, Jamie Wyeth, is also a painter working in the realist tradition. To learn more, I recommend An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art by James H. Duff.

Watch Dog by Andrew WyethThe passage above is from "The Writer Herself," the introduction to The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg (Virago Press, 1992), which I recommend. The poem in the picture captions is "The Muses of Rooms" by Vern Rutsala (1934-2014) from Poetry Magazine, January, 1990. (Run your cursor over Wyeth's art to read it.) All rights to the text and art in this post are reserved by the authors and artist or their estates.


Beginning again

Nattadon Hill in Winter

At the beginning of a new year, it's a useful time to reflect on the process of starting new creative work -- for no matter what stage we're in at the moment (beginning, middle, or end), when the work is done, it's back to square one and we're facing the blank page once more. Experience only goes so far. Unless we're writing the same book over and over, or painting the same image time after time, we must re-learn our craft and acquire the skills to bring each new piece to life.

Upper Bench on Nattaton

Dani Shapiro, in her excellent book Still Writing, reflects on the crucial moment of beginning, and where we find our entry point:

The Black Bull of Norroway John D. Batten"For some writers, it's character. For others, it's place. What's our way into the story? When do we have enough to begin? If we're climbing a mountain, we need something to grab on to. We wedge our foot into a crevice in the rock and pull ourselves up. We are feeling our way in the dark.

"We have nothing to go by, but still, we must begin. It requires chutzpah -- the Yiddish word for that ineffable combination of courage and hubris -- to put one word down, then another, perhaps even accumulate a couple of flimsy pages, so few that they don't even start the smallest of piles, and call it the beginning of a novel. Or memoir. Or story. Or anything, really, other than a couple flimsy pages.

Writer's Dog, Notebook, & Pen

"When I'm between books," Shapiro says, "I feel as if I will never have another story to tell. The last book has wiped me out, has taken everything from me, everything I understand and feel and know and remember, and...that's it. There's nothing left. A low-level depression sets in. The world hides its gifts from me. It has taken me years to realize this feeling, the one of the well being empty, is as it should be. It means I've spent everything. And so I must begin again.

"I wait. I try to be patient. I remember Colette, who wrote that her most essential art was 'not that of writing, but the domestic task of knowing how to wait, to conceal, to save up crumbs, to reglue, regild, change the worst into the not-so-bad, how to lose and recover in the same moment that frivolous thing, a taste for life.' Colette's words, along with those of a few others, have migrated from one of my notebooks to another for over twenty years now. It's a wisdom I need to remember -- wisdom that is so easy to forget."

The Snow Queen illustrated by W. Heath Robinson

Of course, waiting for a new idea to take shape is not an excuse for avoiding the studio altogether.

"The advice I like to give young artists," says painter Chuck Close, "or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you're sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that's almost never the case."

Gold Winter Light on a Black Dog's Muzzle

Ann Patchett reminds us that in order to write we need to cross the line between thinking about creating and getting down to work:

"The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies," she warns. "It is the road on which nearly everyone who wants to write -- and many of the people who do write -- get lost.”

The Snow Queen illustrated by W. Heath Robinson

If creative anxiety is what prevents you from beginning, Barbara Kingsolver has this advice:

"Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer."

Dani Shapiro concurs:

"Remember, as you begin, that you are in a remote and exotic place -- the literary equivalent of far eastern Bhutan. It is a place where no one can find you. Where anything is possible. Where, for a time, you are free, liberated from the ideas and expectations of others. You are trekking, and vistas are infinite. This freedom is necessary whether you are working on your first book or your tenth. In order to create a world on the page, you need to push away from the world around you. You must forget its expectations and constraints."

A new year is beginning. At this moment, it is all potential. The vista is infinite.

View from Nattadon Hill

Words: The passage by Dani Shapiro is from Still Writing: The Pleasures & Perils of the Creative Life (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013); the quote by Ann Patchett is from The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing & Life (Byliner, 2011); and I recommend both. The Close and Kingsolver quotes have been reprinted so often that I'm afraid I don't know the orignal context of either one. The poem in the picture captions is from Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The first drawing is by John D. Batten (1860-1932), for The Black Bull of Norroway (a Scottish variant of East of the Sun, West of the Moon). The second and third drawings are by W. Heath Robinson (1872-1944), picturing Gerda's quest in The Snow Queen. Further reading: For more on the subject of creative anxiety, go here and here. On procrastination, go here.


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.


From the archives: Mud and the Muse

6a00e54fcf738588340176155c3993970c

When you follow your dog...

Mud 2

...into a wildflower bog...

Mud 3

...there's no help for it, you're going to get wet, muddy, and stinky.

Mud 4

But you learn to be agile in the mud and muck...

Mud 5

...and to find new ways to get where you want to go...

Mud 6

...and you discover things that you would have otherwise missed...

Mud 7

...like this lovely water garden at the end of the leat.

Mud 8

Following the Muse is like that too. Sometimes, in the middle of a story or a painting, you find yourself wallowing through the sticky, boggy bits...

Mud 9

...and you just have to keep on going, no matter where it leads.

But I'm ready for the journey. I'm wearing sturdy boots, and I'm prepared to get muddy. So let's go.

Mud 10

Mud 11Words: The poem in the picture captions is from Territories: Writing from Innu Assi, Québec and Scotland (Edinburgh International Book Festival/Scottish Poetry Library); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: A leat, a bog, and a wet, stinky dog.