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

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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?

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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.

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"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.'

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"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.

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"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."

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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."

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"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."

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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.

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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

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When you follow your dog...

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...into a wildflower bog...

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

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

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

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

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

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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...

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...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.

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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.


From the archives: Gracious Acceptance

White Tower by William Bailey

To continue yesterday's discussion on gift-exchange....

The other side of the coin from the art of gift-giving is the less heralded art of gift-receiving -- and to live a balanced, creatively fecund life we must learn to practice both with equal skill. But as Alexander McCall Smith points out (in Love Over Scotland), the act that he calls gracious acceptance is "an art which most never bother to cultivate. We think that we have to learn how to give, but we forget about accepting things, which can be much harder than giving."

"Until we can receive with an open heart," notes psychologist Brené Brown astutely, "we're never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help."

"Human life runs its course in the metamorphosis between receiving and giving," the German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote; and art-making, too, thrives in the space where giving and receiving dance in partnership. We take in the gifts of inspiration, shape them to our purposes, and then pass those gifts along through our stories, paintings, and other creative works.

Ceremony by William Bailey

To be skilled in the art of "gracious acceptance" is to be wide-open and receptive to the gifts the muses bring, and this skill, it seems to me, is helped or hindered by one's perception of the emotion of gratitude. There are those for whom gratitude is an uncomfortable, weakening, even shameful feeling; while others of us experience gratitude in a warm and positive manner, perceiving its ties as chords of connection, not heavy chains of obligation.

The narrator of Elizabeth Berg's novel Open House is clearly in the latter camp: "I made cranberry sauce," she tells us, "and when it was done put it into a dark blue bowl for the beautiful contrast. I was thinking, doing this, about the old ways of gratitude: Indians thanking the deer they'd slain, grace before supper, kneeling before bed. I was thinking that gratitude is too much absent in our lives now, and we need it back, even if it only takes the form of acknowledging the blue of a bowl against the red of cranberries."

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Mary Oliver, too, is a writer who seems to follow Meister Erkhart's dictum that "if the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough" -- for every poem she writes is a hymn of gratitude for the commonplace marvels of daily living. Take her 1992 poem "Morning," for example:

Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stretching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.

Still life by William Bailey

Art-making, like gift giving, requires two separate actions: giving and receiving, both of them equally important. We breathe in the world and push it out again: inhaling, exhaling; the cycle kept in motion; never resting for too long on one side and not the other. The perpetual giver, like the perpetual receiver, is an artist (and a person) out of balance, in danger of draining the creative well dry. It's hard work, and it's humbling work, to master both roles equally, including whichever one we find the hardest -- but that's precisely the task that art (and life) demands of us.

"The reality of all life is interdependence," notes cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. "We need to compose our lives in such a way that we both give and receive, learning to do both with grace, seeing both as parts of a single pattern rather than as antithetical alternatives."

"When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully," says Maya Angelou, "everyone is blessed."

Still Life by William Bailey

The quietly beautiful still life paintings here today are by the American artist William Bailey. Born in Iowa in 1930, educated at the University of Kansas, Bailey is now Professor Emeritus of Art at Yale University.

Still Life by William Bailey"Morning" by Mary Oliver is from New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, 1992), which is highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author.


Gift exchange (and the making of art)

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I've been thinking a lot about gifts lately, in all the various meanings of the word -- prompted, of course, by the season of holiday gift-giving that has just passed. Here in "Austerity Britain," where work and money are increasingly scarce for those in freelance and arts professions (which are precarious even at the best of times), a truly frightening number of people are struggling just to put food on the table and keep the lights on overhead. And then comes Christmas, with its lovely old traditions but overwhelming modern expectations; with its roots planted in the good soil of family, community, folklore, and sacred stories, but its leaves unfurled in the toxic air of commercialism and over-consumption.

Some of us cherish the holiday; some of us simply cope with it and then sigh with relief when it's all over; some of us re-shape it into something more nurturing and reflective of our own ideals; some of us turn our backs on it altogether; and some of us weren't raised with Christmas at all, but simply watch while the rest of the Western world goes crazy for a few weeks every year. At Bumblehill, we celebrate Winter Solstice and Yule rather than Christmas, and focus on feasting and doing things together as a family. Our gift-giving is the simple (but loving) act of distributing little packages of home-made kiffles: each cookie filled with the talk and laughter we share in the long day it takes to make them all.

I love the act of gift-giving (at any time of year), but not the commercial pressure to shop and spend, especially in these lean financial times when life is hard, even desperate, for so many. I also prefer to view gift-exchange as a daily part of life, not something confined to holidays. We gift each other with meals prepared, with gardens tended, with the chores that keep a household running, with kindness, patience, care, attention...a constant giving-and-receiving that starts at home and extends into the world through friendship, community, and activism.

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Making art is a form of gift-giving, made wondrous by the way that some of our creations move outward far beyond our ken, gifting recipients we do not know, will never meet, and sometimes could never imagine. And I, in turn, have received great gifts from writers, painters, musicians, dramatists and others who will never know of my existence either, and yet their words, images, or ideas, coming to me at the right time, have literally saved me.

The paradox inherent in making art, of course, is that it's an act involving both giving and receiving. Like breathing, it requires both, the inhalation and the exhalation. We receive the gift of inspiration (inhale), give it shape and form and pass it on (exhale).

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 The word "gift" itself is commonly used to describe artistic talent: she's a gifted cellist, he's a gifted poet. But where does that "gift" of inspiration comes from? In semi-secular modernity, we tend to be politely vague about such things -- but in her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert has an unusual answer to the question:

"I should explain," she says, "at this point that I've spent my entire life in devotion to creativity, and along the way I've developed a set of beliefs about how it works -- and how to work with it -- that is entirely and unapologetically based upon magical thinking. And when I refer to magic here, I mean it literally. Like, in the Hogwarts sense. I am referring to the supernatural, the mystical, the inexplicable, the surreal, the divine, the transcendent, the otherworldly. Because the truth is, I believe that creativity is a force of enchantment -- not entirely human in its origins....

"I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a dis-embodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us -- albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human's efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the material world."

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Rationalists will scoff at Gilbert's words, but there's enough mysticism in my own beliefs that her concept of creativity doesn't seem so very far-fetched to me; indeed, my only quibble with the paragraph above is that I'm not entirely convinced that those ideas necessarily require a human partner. (Perhaps animals and others with whom we share the planet have art forms of their own that we don't yet perceive.)

A little later in the book, Gilbert writes about creative work in terms that even the rationalists among us might recognize: "Most of my writing life, to be perfectly honest, is not freaky, old-time, voodoo-style Big Magic. Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous, disciplined labor. I sit at my desk, and I work like a farmer, and that's how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least.

"But sometimes it is fairy dust. Sometimes, when I'm in the midst of writing, I feel like I'm suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks you find in an airport terminal; I still have a long slog to my gate, and my baggage is still heavy, but I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force. Something is carrying me along -- something powerful and generous -- and that something is decidedly not me....

"I only rarely experience this feeling, but it's the most magnificent sensation imaginable when it arrives. I don't think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state, except perhaps falling in love. In ancient Greek, the word for the highest degree of human happiness is eudaimonia, which basically means 'well-daemoned' -- that is, nicely taken care of by some external divine creative spirit guide."

(We've discussed the Greco-Roman idea of "creative daemons" in a previous post. Go here if you'd like to know more.)

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C.S. Lewis, writing from a Christian perspective, also noted the mystical quality of creative inspiration:

"In the Author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not.  When these two things click you have the Author’s impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring  into that Form as  the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar. This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It’s like being in love."

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"The artist's gift refines the materials of perception or intuition that have been bestowed upon him," says Lewis Hyde in his masterful book on the subject, The Gift: Creativity & the Artist in the Modern World. "To put it another way, if the artist is gifted, the gift increases in its passage through the self. The artist makes something higher than what he has been given, and this, the finished work, is the third gift, the one offered to the world."

Madeleine L'Engle was of a similar mind. In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art she wrote: "'We, and I think I'm speaking for many writers, don't know what it is that sometimes comes to make our books alive. All we can do is write dutifully and day after day, every day, giving our work the very best of what we are capable. I don't think that we can consciously put the magic in; it doesn't work that way. When the magic comes, it's a gift.''

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“If," L'Engle added, "the work comes to the artist and says, 'Here I am, serve me,' then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist's talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, 'Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.' "

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"One of the things we continue to learn from Native Peoples," says Terry Tempest Williams, "is that stories are our medicine bundles. I feel that way about our essays, our poems, our fictions. That it is the artist who carries the burden of the storyteller. Terrence Des Pres speaks of a prose witness that relies on the imagination to respond to the world as we see it, feel it, and dare to ask the questions that will not let us sleep. Imagination. Attention to details. Making the connections. Art -- right words to station the mind and hold the heart ready."

The gift of paying attention, of witnessing others' lives and passing the "medicine" of their stories, our stories, from generation to generation is the particular gift required of us as artists. Not only of us, but especially of us; in whatever artform we chose to work in.

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Jane Yolen puts it most succinctly. "Touch magic," she says, "and pass it on."

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Chasing inspiration

Greenawell Ridge by Danielle Barlow

In her well-known 2009 TED Talk on the daemons of creativity, Elizabeth Gilbert relates the following story:

"I met the extraordinary American poet Ruth Stone, who's now in her 90s. She's been a poet her entire life. She told me that when she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. She said it was like a thunderous train of air, coming barreling down at her over the landscape, and she'd feel it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, 'run like hell.' And then she would run like hell to the house, chased by this poem; she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it, and grab it on the page. Other times she wouldn't be fast enough, so she'd be running and running but she wouldn't get to the house, and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it. It would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it 'for another poet.'

"And then there were times -- this is the piece I never forgot -- where she would almost miss it. So, she's running to the house, and she's looking for the paper, and the poem passes through her...and she grabs a pencil just as it's going through her...and then, she said, she would reach out with her other hand and she would catch it. She would catch the poem by its tail, and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact but backwards, from the last word to the first."

Woolfold 2 by Danielle Barlow

Owl and Hare by Danielle Barlow

Haruki Murakami (as mentioned in a previous post on this subject) is more likely to be chased by his muse than the other way around:

"A short story I have written long ago would barge into my house in the middle of the night, shake me awake and shout, 'Hey, this is no time for sleeping! You can't forget me, there's still more to write!' Impelled by that voice, I would find myself writing a novel."

Wolf Boy by Danielle Barlow

The Moth Magician and The Guardian of the Greenwood by Danielle Barlow

For Sylvia Lindsteadt, inspiration rises from the land, and her deep, daily engagement with it:

"I've always loved tales of magic, of other worlds, or other times. These are the stories, in one way or another, I've always tried to write. Stories where the edge between girl and tea-plant is thin. Where deserts reflect back dreams. Where women with heron-feet come into bedrooms on storm clouds and demand impossible things. But all through college on the East Coast [of America], so far from the native mountains and seaside of my California upbringing, I couldn't find my voice in those stories. I couldn't find that river-otter, lagoon-slick tangle of joy and purpose, sand-dune belly-sliding and all, that deep abandon, which accompanies the creation of truly meaningful work.

"Then, two summers ago, in the Big Sur mountains with my family, after just having read Gary Snyder's Mountains and Rivers Without End, and while driving past the Point Sur Lighthouse (a truly magical almost-island, fog wrapped and rough, with a lighthouse at the tip), I was knocked over the head with a sudden revelation. THIS place, the place I was born and raised, was my muse. THIS place, these redwood forests, manzanita and oak woodlands, coyote brush and sage chaparral, wild coasts, fire-roads dusty and wide, was my muse...

"[T]he muse is not something intangible that floats through the ether and grabs my shoulders from time to time, spilling inspiration. The muse IS the land. I write to bring stories of place -- that nexus of animal, human, plant, land and weather -- back into our literary and cultural landscape. I write to learn the land I live in and on more deeply, and I write to give voice to the more than human world, both as it intersects with our human lives, and as it exists far beyond, in all of its mystery, in all of its true magic."

Otter and Heron Girl by Danielle Barlow

Poet Marilyn Krysl explains the process of inspiration like this:

"Writing, whether fiction, poetry, memoir or nonfiction, isn’t something we 'do,' "Writing is something that happens to us.

"The word inspire comes from the Latin inspirare, meaning to breathe. The word means 'to blow upon, to infuse by breathing, to inhale.' So to be inspired is to be graced by inspiration. Where does inspiration come from? It comes from the windy, breathy air that surrounds us -- and without which we could not live.

"We don’t 'do' writing. We are each a 'place' on the earth where from time to time writing happens. How lucky to be chosen to be that place."

Indeed.

Blodeuedd and Exhaltation by Danielle Barlow

The beautiful watercolor paintings featured here today are by my friend and neighbor Danielle Barlow, whose Muse roams among the fields, farmyards, hedgerows and old stone circles of the Devon landscape. Please visit her lovely blog, Notes from the Rookery, to see more paintings, drawings, and fabric art, as well as magical photographs of her animals, paintings-in-progress, and Dartmoor through the seasons.

You can also follow her work on Facebook and Etsy.

Sheep at Hound Tor by Danielle Barlow

Between Times by Danielle BarlowThe passage by Elizabeth Gilbert is quoted from "Your elusive creative genius," a TED Talk filmed in 2009 and highly recommended. I confess that I don't remember which article the Haruki Murakami quote comes; I jotted it down when I first read it but didn't list the source. My apologies. The passage from Sylvia Linsteadt comes from her blog post "Of Otters and Words with Roots" (Indigo Vat, July 26, 2012). The quote by Marilyn Krysl is from the poetry page of her website. All rights to the words and pictures above are reserved by their respective creators.


On the care and feeding of daemons and muses

River 1

"If we go all the way back to the ancient world," writes Lewis Hyde in Common Air (2012), "to the old bardic and prophetic traditions, what we find is that men and women are not thought to be authors so much as vessels through which other forces act and speak. Norse legends tell of a spring at the root of the World Tree whose water bubbles up from the underworld, carrying the dissolved memories of the dead. Odin drank from it once; that cost him an eye, but nonetheless empowered him to bestow on worthy poets the mead of inspiration. Homer is not the 'author' of the Odyssey; he disappears after the first line: 'Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story....' Hesiod's voice is not his own; in The Theogony he has it from the muses of Mount Helicon and in Works and Days from the muses of Pieria. Plato presents no ideas that he himself made up, only the recovered memory of things known before the great forgetting we call birth.

"Creativity in ancient China was not self-expression but an act of reverence toward earlier generations and the gods. In the Analects, Confucius says, 'I have transmitted what was taught to me without making up anything of my own. I have been faithful to and loved the Ancients.' "

River 2

As Hyde explained in an earlier book, The Gift (1983):

"The task of setting free one's gifts was a recognized labor in the ancient world. The Romans called a person's tuletary spirit his genius. In Greece it was called a daemon. Ancient authors tell us that Socrates, for example, had a daemon who would speak up when he was about to do something that did not accord with his true nature. It was believed that each man had his idios daemon, his personal spirit which could be cultivated and developed. Apuleius, the Roman author of The Golden Ass, wrote a treatsie on the daemon/genius, and one of the things he says is that in Rome it was the custom on one's birthday to offer a sacrifice to one's own genius. A man didn't just receive gifts on his birthday, he would also give something to his guiding spirit. Respected in this way the genius made one 'genial' -- sexually potent, artistically creative, and spiritually fertile.

Riverside 3

"According to Apuleius," he continues, "if a man cultivated his genius through such a sacrifice, it would become a lar, a protective household god, when he died. But if a man ignored his genius, it became a larva or a lemur when he died, a troublesome, restless spook that preys on the living.  The genius or daemon comes to us at birth. It carries with us the fullness of our undeveloped powers. These it offers to us as we grow, and we choose whether or not to accept, which means we choose whether or not to labor in its service. For the genius has need of us. As with the elves, the spirit that brings us our gifts finds its eventual freedom only through our sacrifice, and those who do not reciprocate the gifts of their genius will leave it in bondage when they die.

River 4

"An abiding sense of gratitude moves a person to labor in the service of his daemon," Hyde concludes. "The opposite is properly called narcissism. The narcissist feels his gifts come from himself. He works to display himself, not to suffer change. An age in which no one sacrifices to his genius or daemon is an age of narcissism. The 'cult of the genius' which we have seen in this century has nothing to do with the ancient cult. The public adoration of genius turns men and women into celebrities and cuts off all commerce with the guardian spirits. We should not speak of another's genius; this is a private affair. The celebrity trades on his gifts; he does not sacrifice to them. And without that sacrifice, without the return gift, the spirit cannot be set free. In an age of narcissism the centers of culture are populated with larvae and lemurs, the spooks of unfulfilled genii."

River 5

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Stephen King takes a more irreverent approach to daemons and muses in "The Writing Life" (2006):

"There is indeed a half-wild beast that lives in the thickets of each writer's imagination. It gorges on a half-cooked stew of suppositions, superstitions and half-finished stories. It's drawn by the stink of the image-making stills writers paint in their heads. The place one calls one's study or writing room is really no more than a clearing in the woods where one trains the beast (insofar as it can be trained) to come. One doesn't call it; that doesn't work. One just goes there and picks up the handiest writing implement (or turns it John D Battenon) and then waits. It usually comes, drawn by the entrancing odor of hopeful ideas. Some days it only comes as far as the edge of the clearing, relieves itself and disappears again. Other days it darts across to the waiting writer, bites him and then turns tail.

"There may be a stretch of weeks or months when it doesn't come at all; this is called writer's block. Some writers in the throes of writer's block think their muses have died, but I don't think that happens often; I think what happens is that the writers themselves sow the edges of their clearing with poison bait to keep their muses away, often without knowing they are doing it. This may explain the extraordinarily long pause between Joseph Heller's classic novel Catch-22 and the follow-up, years later. That was called Something Happened. I always thought that what happened was Mr. Heller finally cleared away the muse repellant around his particular clearing in the woods.

"On good days, that creature comes out of the thickets and sits for a while, there in one's writing place. If one is in another place, it usually comes there (often under duress; most writers find their muses do not travel particularly well, although Truman Capote said his enjoyed motel rooms). And it gives. Some days it gives a little. Some days it gives a lot. Most days it gives just enough. During the year it took to compose my latest novel, mine was extraordinarily generous, and I am grateful.

River 6

"Okay," King admits, "that's the lyric version, so sue me. You'd lose. It's not untrue, just lyrical. It's told as if the writing were separate from the writer. It's probably not, but it often feels that way; it feels as if the process is happening on two separate levels at the same time. On one, at this very moment, I'm just sitting in a room I call my writing room. It's filled with books I love. There's a Western-motif rug on the floor. Outside is the garden. I can see my wife's daylilies. The air conditioner is soft, soft -- white noise, almost. Downstairs, my oldest grandson is coloring, and cupboards are opening and closing. I can smell gingerbread. Laura Cantrell is on the iTunes, singing 'Wasted.'

River 7

"This is the room, but it's also the clearing," writes King. "My muse is here. It's a she. Scruffy little mutt has been around for years, and how I love her, fleas and all. She gives me the words. She is not used to being regarded so directly, but she still gives me the words. She is doing it now. That's the other level, and that's the mystery. Everything in your head kicks up a notch, and the words rise naturally to fill their places. If it's a story, you find the scene and the texture in the scene. That first level -- the world of my room, my books, my rug, the smell of the gingerbread -- fades even more. This is a real thing I'm talking about, not a romanticization. As someone who has written with chronic pain, I can tell you that when it's good, it's better than the best pill.

"But there's no shortcut to getting there. You can build yourself the world's most wonderful writer's studio, load it up with state-of-the-art computer equipment, and nothing will happen unless you've put in your time in that clearing, waiting for Scruffy to come and sit by your leg. Or bite it and run away."

River 8

River 9Words: The passages by Lewis Hyde are from Common As Air: Revolution, Art, & Ownership (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) and The Gift: Imagination & The Erotic Life of Property (Vintage, 1983). The passage by Stephen King is from "The Writing Life" (The Washington Post, October 1, 2006). The poem excerpt in the picture captions is from "October" by Audre Lorde, Chosen Poems, Old & New (W.W. Norton, 1982). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The drawing is by John D. Batten (1860-1932). The photographs were taken a couple of weeks back on a walk with Howard & Tilly by the River Teign, near Fingle Bridge. 

Related posts: "Mud and the Muse," "On Artistic Inspiration," and "One of Those Days."


The magic of the writer's craft

Path to the woodland gate

For Day 3 of Ben Okri Week, some thoughts on the writing process from his essay "Newton's Child," with a walk through the Devon woods among bluebells, poppies, and other wildflowers. Tilly, once again, is the Animal Guide who leads us to Faerieland....

Woodland gate

"Some writing is forceful, ambitious, and immediate," says Okri, "it is all there, it is sensual. Another kind of writing appears simple, does not add up to much on the page, and performs no somersaults. We think one kind of writing is better, but we are sometimes wrong, and sometimes right. When they work, both kinds of writing are gifts, and both can be magical."

Woodland wall

Woodland wall with bluebells

"The best kind of books...have a delightful mystery about them. They inexplicably create powerful feelings, images, moods, worlds, and parallel narratives the farther away in time you are from the reading.  They grow in time. They keep re-creating themselves in your consciousness, they keep growing, they keep becoming other books, till they become part of your experience, like something lived, or dreamed, or loved, or suffered.

"Further encounters with such books make them more. There is no final point of understanding with books that live."

Woodland path with bluebells

"Their effects cannot be aspired to. And writers can never be altogether sure that they have indeed created this rare and living thing. For their mysterious effect can only be felt silently, in the secret chambers of consciousness, in the depths of sleep and forgetfulness, in states of being where the magic of the words can work unseen."

Wild poppies

Woodland bluebells

"The highest kind of writing -- which must not be confused with the most ambitious kind -- belongs to the realm of grace. Talent is part of it, certainly; a thorough understanding of the secret laws, absolutely. But finding the subject and theme which is in perfect harmony with your deepest nature, your forgotten selves, your hidden dreams, and the full unreasonated essence of your life -- now that cannot be reached through searching, nor can it be stumbled upon through ambition. That sort of serendipity comes upon you on a lucky day. It may emerge even out of misfortune or defeat. You may happen upon it without realizing that this is the work through which your whole life will sing. We should always be ready. We should always be humble. Creativity should always be a form of prayer."

Moss and bluebells

"You cannot write well when you have no feelings and no thoughts on the subject. Perhaps when we have to write to order the ill-used creative self, bored with the business of irrelevant and joyless tasks, will simply refuse to come alive when you really need it. You could call the business of developing faulty internal relations."

Woodland path

Among the bluebells

Bluebells

The Fairy Tree

"There is no need to panic. The intelligence that shaped the universe shaped you. There is an inner part of us, forever obscured, forever mysterious,  which is most alive during the process of composition. And that inner part, that inner glow, is timeless, and it functions beyond time. It drinks from deep waters. It has the stillness and the dance and the radiance of the firmament. When one is most absorbed in the act of creation one almost feels that one is wandering in the great corridors of all minds. Creativity makes us part of it all. "

Still life of wildflowers, coffee, and book

The bench beneath the plum treePhotographs above: A walk through the woods early yesterday morning; a still life of wildflowers, coffee, and book; and Tilly on the bench beneath the plum tree in the studio garden...posted on a day when rain drums on the studio's tin roof and keeps us quietly indoors. The poem in the picture captions come from Lisel Mueller's gorgeous collection of poetry The Private Life. Ben Okri's "Newton's Child" can be found in his essay collection A Way of Being Free, pictured above. A previous post also discusses the ways that good books unfold over time: "In praise of re-reading."