Books on books

The Bed-Time Book by Jessie Willcox Smith

My own bed-time reading

Having spent the better part of the last couple of months in and out of bed again has been a bit of a blow for my writing schedule (the manuscript I thought would be done by now is still inching its way to the finish line), and my studio hours are still limited as I find my way back to health and strength. But when illness robs us of productivity, breaking down our usual routines, slowing time down to a crawl, it also gives us unexpected gifts -- and for me, that gift is the time read.  Okay, I'd rather be writing, painting, doing, not watching the world through a fever haze, or experiencing life through a printed page -- but on those days when my body fails I'm grateful to books, and to all those who write them.

Olvaso No by Berény Róbert

Reading having played a big part in my life for many reasons in addition to health, I have a particular fondness for books about books. Here are three I've read (or re-read) recently: The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford, Bookworm by Lucy Mangan, and Books & Island in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich. All three are memoirs, rather than literary studies; all three explore the author' s personal relationship with books; all three examine the ways that stories form us, effect us, and define us.

Books on books

Let's start with The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford.

I first read Spufford's book in 2002, the year of its publication, and what struck me then was the unusual nature of its composition: childhood memoir mixed with literary history, cognitive science and child psychology in relation to story. In the intervening years, writers of memoir have expanded the form in so many ways that the premise of the book has lost its radical edge; I find that I have to remind myself that Spufford's memoir was a pioneering text, with both the strengths and flaws of form that trail-blazing entails. That said, it is still a very good read. Spufford is roughly the same generation I am (unlike Lucy Mangan) and grew up with many of the same children's books on his shelves. He also has a taste for fantasy (Mangan largely does not), and discusses the genre with knowledge and love. Although his writing on fairy tales relies too much on the disputed psychoanalytic theories of Bruno Bettleheim, his passion for all things magical wins me over nonethless, along with his poignant exploration of a childhood in which finding doors into other worlds was merciful and necessary.

Here's a passage from Spufford's introduction  to give you a sense of the book as a whole:

When I Grow Up by Jim Daly"I began my reading in a kind of hopeful springtime for children's writing. I was born in 1964, so I grew up in a golden age comparable to the present heyday of J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman, or to the great Edwardian decade when E. Nesbit, Kipling, and Kenneth Graham were all publishing at once. An equally amazing generation of talent was at work as the 1960s ended and the 1970s began. William Mayne was making dialogue sing; Peter Dickinson was writing the Changes trilogy; Alan Garner was reintroducting myth into the bloodstream of daily life; Jill Paton Walsh was showing that children's perceptions could be just as angular and uncompromising as adults; Joan Aiken had begun her Dido Twite series of comic fantasies; Penelope Farmer was being unearthly with Charlotte Sometimes; Diana Wynne Jones's gift for wild invention was hitting its stride; Rosemary Sutcliffe was just adding the final uprights to her colonnade of Romano-British historical novels; Leon Garfield was reinventing the 18th century as a scene for inky Gothic intrigue. The list went on, and on, and on. There was activity everywhere, a new potential classic every few months.

Boy Reading by Carl Larsson

Instead of Sleep by Tatiana Deriy

"Unifying this lucky concurrence of good books, and making them seem for a while like contributions to a single intelligible project, was a kind of temporary cultural consensus: a consensus both about what children were and about where we all were in history. Dr. Spock's great manual for liberal, middle-class child-rearing had come out at the beginning of the Sixties, and had helped deconstruct the last lingering remnants of the idea that a child was clay to be molded by a benevolent adult authority. The new orthodoxy took it for granted that a child was a resourceful individual, neither ickily good nor reeking of original sin. And the wider world was seen as a place in which a permanent step forward toward enlightenment had taken place as well. The books my generation were offered took it for granted that poverty, disease and prejudice essential belonged in the past. Postward society had ended them. 

"As the 1970s went on, these assumptions would lose their credibility. Gender roles were about to be shaken up; the voices that a white, liberal consensus consigned to the margins of consciousness were about to be asserted as hostile witnesses to its nature. People were about to lose their certainty that liberal solutions worked. Evil would revert to being an unsolved problem. But it hadn't happened yet; and till it did, the collective gaze of children's stories swept confidently across past and future, and across all international varieties of the progressive, orange-juice-drinking present, from Australia to Sweden, from Holland to the broad, clean suburbs of America.

Children reading by Honor C Appleton & Mary Cicely Barker

Children's Classics by Holly Farrell

Felcia by Henry Lamb and Girl Reading by Edward Thompson Davis

Puffin editions

"For me, walking up the road aged seven or eight to spend my money on a paperback, the outward sign of this unity was Puffin Books. In Britain, almost everything written for children passed into the one paperback imprint. On the shelves of the children's section in the bookshop, practically all the stock would be identically neat soft-covered octavos, in different colors, with different cover art, but always with the same sans serif type on the spine, and the same little logo of an upstanding puffin. Everything cost about the same. For 17p -- then 25p and then 40p as the 1970s inflation took hold -- you could have any one of the new books, or any of the children's classics, from the old ones like The Wind in the Willows or Alice to the new ones that were only a couple of decades into their classichood, like the Narnia books (C.S. Lewis had died the year before I was born, most unfairly making sure I would never meet him).

"If you were a reading child in the UK in the Sixties or Seventies, you too probably remember how securely Puffins seemed, with the long, trust-worthy descriptions of the story inside the front cover, always written by the same arbiter, the Puffin editor Kaye Webb, and their astonishingly precise recommendation to 'girls of eleven and above, and sensitive boys.'  It was as if Puffin were part of the administration of the world. They were the department of the welfare state responsible for the distribution of narrative. And their reach seemed universal: not just the really good books you were going to remember forever, but the nearly good ones too and the completely forgettable ones that at the time formed the wings of reading and spread them wide enough to enfold you in books on all sides."

Reading by James Charles and Storytime by Jonathan Weiss

The Reading Boy by Joseph Fielding Smith

A little later in the Introduction, Spufford lays out the premise of his memoir:

"I have gone back and read again the sequence of books that carried me from babyhood to the age of nineteen, from the first fragmentary stories I remember to the science fiction I was reading at the brink of adulthood. As I reread them, I tried to become again the reader I had been when I encountered each for the first time, wanting to know how my particular history, in my particular family, at that particular time, had ended up making me into the reader I am today. I made forays into child psychology, philosophy, and psychoanalysis, where I thought those things might tease out the implications of memory. With their help, the following chapters recount a path through the riches that were available to English children of the 1960s and 1970s, and onward into the reading of adolescence. It is the story (I hope) of the reading my whole generation of bookworms did; and it is the story of my own relationship with books; both. A pattern emerged, or a I drew it: a set of four stages in the development of that space inside where writing is welcomed and reading happens. What follows is more about books that it is about me, but nonetheless it is my inward autobiography, for the words we take into ourselves help to shape us. "

It is a premise Spufford amply fulfills.

The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford

Bookworm by Lucy Managan, newly published this year, is constructed on similar lines, and yet is a very different kind of book. More on that in the next post.

The Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

A Book at Bedtime by Emma Irlam Briggs

Words: The passage above is from The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford (Henry Holt & Co, 2002); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The art is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) Related Reading: Previous posts that discuss The Child That Books Built include "In the Forest of Stories" (2013) and  "Built by Books" (2014).


A walk in the woods

A Walk in the Woods, copyright by by Alan Lee, all rights reserved

From The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit:

"Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

Plymbridge Woods 1

"These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtenances we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time. In the children’s there are inanimate objects that come to life, speaking statues, rings and words of power, talismans and amulets, but most of all there are doors, particularly in the series that I, like so many children, took up imaginative residence in, for some years, The Chronicles of Narnia.

Plymbridge Woods 2

Plymbridge Woods 3

Plymbridge Woods 4

"I read one in fourth grade after a teacher who barely knew me handed it to me in the Marion school library; I can still picture his moustache and the wall of books. I read it and read it again and then began to save up to buy the seven books, one at a time. The paperbacks came from Amber Griffin, the enchanted bookstore in the middle of town, whose kind proprietor rewarded me with the case in which the seven books fit when I had paid for the last one. I still have the boxed set, a little tattered though I think no one has ever read them other than me. When I took one out recently, I noticed how dirty the white back of the book was from my small filthy fingers then.

Plymbridge Woods 5

"Much has been written about the Christian themes, British boarding school mores, and other contentious aspects of the series, but little has been said about its doors. There is of course the wardrobe in the first book C.S. Lewis wrote, the wardrobe made of wood cut from an apple tree grown from seeds from another world that, when the four children walk into it, opens onto that world. Two of the other books feature a doorway that stands alone so that when you walk around it it is just a frame, three pieces of wood in a landscape, but when you step through it leads to another world. There’s a painting of a boat that comes to life as the children tumble over the picture frame into the sea and another world. There are books and maps that come to life as you look at them.

Plymbridge Woods 6

Plymbridge Woods 7

"And there is the Wood Between the Worlds in the book The Magician’s Nephew, which tells the creation story for Narnia, a wood described so enchantingly I sometimes think of it as a vision of peace still. It’s more serene and more strange than the busy symbolism in the rest of the books, with their talking beasts, dwarves, witches, battles, enchantments, castles, and more. The young hero puts on a ring and finds himself coming up through a pool to the forest.

'It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals, and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing. The pool he had  just got out of was not the only pool. There were dozens of others -- a pool every few yards as far as his eyes cold reach. You could almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots. This wood was very much alive.'

Plymbridge Woods 8

"It is the place where nothing happens, the place of perfect peace; it is itself not another world but an unending expanse of trees and small ponds, each pond like a looking glass you can go through to another world. It is a portrait of a library, just as all the magic portals are allegories for works of art, across whose threshhold we all step into other worlds."

Plymbridge Woods 9

Plymbridge Woods 10

Words: The passage above is from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2013) -- a simply marvelous book, full of musing on many things, including fairy tales. I highly recommend it. It also appears in Solnit's article "A Childhood of Reading and Wandering" (Lit Hub, 2017). The poem in the picture captions is from Toasting Marshmallows by Kristine O’Connell George (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The exquisite drawing above is "A Walk in the Woods" by my friend and neighbor Alan Lee, who is often inspired by the woods and rivers of Dartmoor. All rights reserved by the artist.


Losing and finding ourselves in books

Chris Dunn

"We use the expression 'being lost in a book,' but we are really closer to a state of being found," writes Carol Shields. "Curled up with a novel about an East Indian family, for instance, we are not so much escaping our splintered and decentered world as we are enlarging our sense of self, our multiplying possibilities and expanded experiences. People are, after all, tragically limited: we can live in only so many places, work at a small number of jobs or professions; we can love only a finite number of people. Reading, and particularly the reading of fiction, allows us to be the other, to touch and taste the other, to sense the shock and satisfaction of otherness. A novel lets us be ourselves and yet enter another person's boundaried world, share in a private gaze between reader and writer. Your reading can be part of your life, and there will be times when it may be the best part....

"We need literature on the page because it allows us to experience more fully, to imagine more deeply, enabling us to live more freely. Reading, you are in touch with your best self; and I think, too, that reading shortens the distance we must travel to discover that our most private perceptions are, in fact, universally felt."

Chris Dunn

In fantasy stories especially, writes Jane Yolen, "we learn to understand the differences of others, we learn compassion for those things we cannot fathom, we learn the importance of keeping our sense of wonder. The strange worlds that exist in the pages of fantastic literature teach us a tolerance of other people and places and engender an openness toward new experience. Fantasy puts the world into perspective in a way that 'realistic' literature rarely does. It is not so much an escape from the here-and-now as an expansion of each reader's horizons. A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child who has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged?"

Night-time Reading by Chris Dunn

The great James Baldwin once said: "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive."

It was the same for me.

Mice Carol Singers (from Wind in the Willows) by Chris Dunn

Bedside Visit and Autumn Scribe by Chris Dunn

The wonderful watercolour paintings today are by Chris Dunn, a young artist based in Wiltshire whose work I completely adore. Please visit his website and blog to see more.

Settling In by Chris Dunn

Just Married by Chris Dunn

The Carol Shields quote is from Startle and Illuminate (Random House Canada, 2016). The Jane Yolen quote is from Touch Magic (Philomel, 1981; August House, expanded edition, 2000). I'm afraid I don't know the original source of the James Baldwin quote. All rights to the text and art above reserced by the authors and the artis


News from another country

Inllustration by Lisbeth Zwerger

From Startle and Illuminate, a collection of writing about writing by Canadian author Carol Shields (1935-2003):

"The resolution to become a writer formed very early in my life, but it took years for me to to discover what I would write about and who my readers would be.

"Several layers of trust were required before I began to find my direction. I had to learn to rely on my own voice, and after that to have faith in the value of my own experiences. At first this was frightening. The books I had read as a child related daring adventures, deeds of courage. The stories took place on mountaintops or in vast cities, not in the sort of quiet green suburbs where my family happened to live. It was as though there was an empty space on the bookshelf. No one seemed to talk about this void, but I knew it was there.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger

"Gradually I understood that the books I should write were the very books I wanted to read, the books I wasn't able to find in the library. The empty place could be closed. My small world might fill only a page at first, then several hundred pages, possibly thousands. I could make up in accuracy for what I lacked in scope, getting the details right, dividing every experience into its various shades and levels of anticipation.

" Illustration by Lisbeth ZwergerI could write a story, for instance, about Nathanial Hawthorne School. About the school principal whose name was Miss Newbury (Miss Blueberry she was called behind her back). About the chill of fear children suffered in the schoolyard, about a suffering little boy named Walter who had an English accent, and whose mother made him wear a necktie to school. About human foolishness, and about the small rescues and acts of redemption experienced along the way. I saw that I could become a writer if I paid attention, if I was careful, if I observed the rules, and then, just as carefully, broke them.

"In the books I read -- and I find it hard to separate my life as a reader from that as a writer -- I look first for language that cannot exist without leaving its trace of deliberation. I want, too, the risky articulation of what I recognize but haven't yet articulated myself. And, finally, I hope for fresh news from another country, which satisfies by its modest, microscopic enlargement of my vision of the world. I wouldn't dream of asking for more."

The Tinder Box by Lisbeth Zwerger

The paintings today are by the extraordinary Lisbeth Zwerger, a mulit-award-winning book illustrator based in Vienna. I highly recommend her many illustrated volumes (especially her fairy tale renditions), and the lovely collection of her work from North-South Press: The Art of Lisbeth Zwerger.

Studio

The passage above is from Startle and Illuminate: Carol Sheilds on Writing, edited by Anne and Nicholas Giardini (Random House Canada, 2016). All rights to art and text above reserved by the artist and the author's estate.


In praise of small things

Small radiant souls

"In the Author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story," said C.S. Lewis in an essay on writing for children. "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."

Although readers today have a marked preference for novels, there are still many of us who love short stories for their different but equal pleasures, and there are tales inside us "pawing to get out" which belong in that form and no other. "Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams," Neil Gaiman explains. "They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner."  

 

Small guardians of the field

Just because stories are shorter than novels doesn't mean they take any less skill to write. In fact, some believe they require more:

"When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant," Truman Capote once said. "Whatever control and technique I may have I owe entirely to my training in this medium."

"In a rough way," contends Annie Proulx, "the short story writer is to the novelist as a cabinetmaker is to a house carpenter."

Small companion

Jonathan Carroll describes the difference like this: "A short story is a sprint, a novel is a marathon. Sprinters have seconds to get from here to there and then they are finished. Marathoners have to carefully pace themselves so that they don't run out of energy (or in the case of the novelist, ideas) because they have so far to run. To mix the metaphor, writing a short story is like having a short intense affair, whereas writing a novel is like a long rich marriage."

"Short fiction seems more targeted -- hand grenades of ideas, if you will," Paulo Bacigalupi suggests. "When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them. Long fiction feels more like atmosphere: it's a lot smokier and less defined."  

on a small hillside

Emma Donoghue notes: "The great thing about a short story is that it doesn’t have to trawl through someone’s whole life; it can come in glancingly from the side."

Haruki Murakami tells us enchantingly: "My short stories are like soft shadows I have set out in the world, faint footprints I have left. I remember exactly where I set down each and every one of them, and how I felt when I did."   

Small paw print in the mud

But in the end it's George Saunders who describes why I love short fiction best:

"If they ever get around to building The Short Story Museum, I think they’d better carve this over the doorway: ‘A short story works to remind us that if we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention.' "  

Small frost-rimmed beauty

Or maybe it's just that I love small things: small ponies, small tales, small treasures of nature, small moments, small ideas, the small hound close beside me. In an interview some years ago, Sandra Cisneros reflected:

''What I didn’t know in my twenties, but am certain of now, is that there’s lots of miseria in the world, but there’s also so much humanity. All the work we do as writers is about finding balance and restoring things to balance. You need to consider the daily choices you make to create or destroy with every single act, whether it’s in words or in thoughts. The older I get, the more I'm conscious of ways very small things can make a change in the world. Tiny little things, but the world is made up of tiny matters, isn't it?''

Small tales

Small, study, and large of heart

The books above (recently read or re-read) contain small gems of mythic fiction, fairy tale retellings, and fantasy literature. They are: The Bitterwood Bible by Angela Slatter; The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen; The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke; Wonders of the Invisible World by Patricia A. McKillip; The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, edited by Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe; On Becoming a Fairy Godmother by Sara Maitland; and Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins by Emma Donoghue.

The passage by C.S. Lewis is from "On Three Ways of Writing for Children" (Of Other Worlds: Essays & Stories, Harvest Books, 2002). Related posts on the beauty of what's small: "Daily Myth" and "The Small Things."


Vade mecum

Girl Holding a Book by Gwen John

Robert Macfarlane's "Word(s) of the Day" is one of the delights of Twitter (a medium that swings from soul-enriching to soul-crushing, depending on how you curate your Twitter feed). Yesterday Robert offered vade mecum: a Latin term, he explained, meaning: "literally 'go with me'; figuratively a book that one keeps by one’s side or close to hand -- so that it may be readily consulted for guidance or inspiration. A lodestone text to which one returns. What’s your vade mecum?"

Study for The Convalescent by Gwen John

Despite my fierce passion for books, his question is one I find difficult to answer. There are just so many books that I return to again and again -- from fantasy to realist fiction, from folklore studies to nature writing, from artist and writer biographies to poetry. To chose a single lodestone text is impossible for me: influence and inspiration is everywhere. As soon as I come up with single title, a dozen others crowd close behind it, and then a dozen more.

I like these words by British novelist Ali Smith, who was posed a similar question in an interview last year:

"What book has most inspired me? The question just made my brain explode into fizzing little pieces. I can't choose one. There are so many. I think I've been by everything I've ever read one way or another, and I don't mean just books, I mean things on hoardings, things on the sides of pencils, things that catch your eye on the sides of buses, the words FRAGILE BREAK GLASS on the front of a firehose cabinet in an Italian hotel. My partner Sarah just said, stop being inspired by everything. Is this piece of newspaper really inspiring to you? Yes, I said, so don't throw it away. (She threw it away anyway, but that was inspiring too, because it inspired me to write this paragraph.) Inspiration is everywhere. It's as everday as what it means, which is literally in-breath, the act of breathing in. If we think about it like that, inspiration becomes not just natural, first nature, but how we live, how we stay alive -- a matter of heart, blood, rhythm."

Indeed.

Tabby cat by Gwen John

What do you think, dear readers? Do you have a vade mecum (or two, or three), and if so, what? 

Or does the question make your brain go into meltdown, as it does to mine? 

Interior of the Artist's Room by Gwen John

The imagery today is by the great Welsh painter Gwen John (1876-1939), who is one of my all-time favourite artists. I wrote more about Gwen back in the autumn of 2011. You can find the post here.

Gwen John by Susan Row

Girl Holding Cat by Gwen JohnWith thanks to the good folks at #WomensArt, who reminded me today of my love for Gwen's work. And, of course, to Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places, The Lost Words, etc.


The making of a writer

In the Golden Days by John Melhuish Strudwick

"A common question asked of writers is, 'When did you decide to become a writer?' The answer of course is that we didn't decide anything. It was decided for us. I firmly believe that mythical godmothers make appearances at our cradles, and bestow their gifts. The godmother who might have blessed me with a singing voice did not show up; the goddess of dance was nowhere in sight; the chef-to-the-angels was otherwise engaged. Only one made the journey to my cradle, and she whispered, 'You will be a storyteller.' " 

- Mary Higgins Clark ("Touched by an Angel")

The Gift That is Better Than Rubies by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale

"People always want to know when and where you write. As if there's a secret methodology to be followed. It has never seemed to me to matter to the work -- which is the writer's 'essential gesture' (I quote Roland Barthes), the hand held out for society to grasp -- whether the creator writes at noon or midnight, in a cork-lined room as Proust did or a shed as Amoz Oz did in his early days.

"Perhaps the questioner is more than just curious, yearning for a jealously kept prescription on how to be a writer. There is none. Writing is the one profession for which there is no professional training. 'Creative' writing courses can teach the aspirant only how to look at his or her writing critically, not how to create. The only school for the writer is the library -- reading, reading. A journey through realms of how far, wide and deep writing can venture in the endless perspectives of human life. Learning from other writers' perceptions that you have to find your way to yours, at the urge of the most powerful sense of yourself -- creativity."

- Nadine Gordimer ("Being a Product of Your Dwelling Place")

Readers by Albert Moore and Valentine Prinsep

"My love of writing grew out of my love of reading, with which my very life is identified. I can't imagine a mental life, a spiritual existence, not inetricably bound up with language of a formal, mediated nature. Telling stories, choosing an appropriate language with which to express each story: This seems to me quintessentially human, one of the great adventures of our species."

- Joyce Carol Oates ("The Importance of Childhood)

Poetry by Simeon Solomon

"Writers learn their craft, above all, from other writers. From reading. They learn it from immersing themselves in books....Perhaps they will have been encouraged along the way by a single, pivotal person; perhaps they will have learned perseverance after much rejection; perhaps they will get the recognition of readers and peers. Come what may, they must go to their desks alone."

- Marie Arana (Introduction to The Writing Life)

Beatrice by Maria Spartali Stillman

I find the sentiments expressed above interesting because they express my own experience: I am, by nature, a solitary person when it comes to writing (although not for visual art, which seems to draw on an entirely different part of my psyche), and have learned my trade through reading and practice, plus the quietly intimate work of editing novels and stories by other writers. Yet here in the fantasy/mythic arts field, as well as in children's literature and folklore scholarship, many people I know have gained valuable professional training through classes, workshops, and MA programs; and/or they keep their skills honed through membership in writing groups. There is no right or wrong way to become a writer; it's a matter of finding out which method of learning the craft (and continuing to learn it) works best for each of us.

An illustration from Heidi by Jessie Wilcox SmithThis aspect of the creative temperament is a subject that comes up often in our household, because my husband and I are very different. Howard works in the collaborative field of theatre and thrives when creatively engaged with others; the hardest parts of his work are those (like grant writing and admin work) that require him to sit at a desk alone. I am entirely the opposite. I crave silence and solitude, shutting out the clamour of the outside world in order to hear the quiet voice of my own imagination; and have a much harder time integrating the social aspects of my profession (and of life in general) with the hours and hours of solitary labour required to produce a book. Each of us needs a different tempo of life to do our best work, and creating a household that works for both of us is one of the challenges of a two-artist marriage. (There are different kinds of challenges, of course, for the single artist; as well as for artists with small children, artists in partnership with non-artists, etc..)

What makes a writer? Reading, reading, reading -- yes, I agree with the writers quoted above that reading widely and voraciously is the first and most important step. But the world we build around us is also what makes us artists, for good or ill. The ways we learn to write, and to keep on writing, do not happen in a vacuum: they're affected by the lives we lead, the commitments we have, the compromises we make, and the people we are.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject, and your own experience.

Post script: For those who prefer their work spaces to be quiet and isolated (like I do), I recommend "What Great Artists Need: Solitude," in which Danish writer Dorthe Nors reflects on lessons learned from Igmar Bergman (The Atlantic, 2014)

Reading Aloud by Julius LeBlanc Stewart

Pictures: In the Golden Days by John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937); The Gift That is Better Than Rubies by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale (1872-1945); readers by Albert Moore (1841-1893) & Valentine Cameron Prinsep (1838-1904), Poetry by Simeon Solomon (1840-1905); Beatrice by Maria Spartali Stillman (1844-1927); Heidi and Peter Reading Together by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935); and Reading Aloud by Julius LeBlanc Steward (1855-1919).


What fiction does

Ponies on the path 1

From "Looking for the Spark," an essay on the writing life by novelist Joanna Trollope:

"I have a couple of tattered little quotations that lie about my desk and that become only more valuable to me as time goes on. One is from the English critic Phillip Toynbee: 'The definition of moral progress is the realization that other human beings are fully as human as oneself.' Quite.

"The other is something from Trollope -- the real Trollope. It comes from his autobiography, that peculiar, cantankerous book, published posthumously, which did his reputation such acute damage because the late Victorians could not bear his refusal to be high-minded about his art. He said many remarkable things in this book  -- including the accurate observation that 'nobody gets closer to a reader than a novelist, not even his mother' -- but my own particular favorite is on the subject of the novelist's central preoccupation. Trollope was not so much concerned, he said, with the landscape of the grand passions (was he thinking of Tolstoy, whom he much admired and who admired him in return?) as with something else, something less glamorous perhaps, but just as intense and certainly more universal: 'My task,' he wrote, 'is to chronicle those little daily lacerations upon the spirit.'

Ponies on the path 2

Ponies on the path 3

Ponies on the path 4

"I feel a thrill of recognition every time I read that, or even think about it. Yes. Yes. Speaking absolutely personally, that is what the writer's life is all about, for me. The point of it is to emphasize that we are none of us immune from longing, or disappointment (much under-rated, in my view, as a force of distress), or frustration, or idiotic hope or bad behavior. What fiction does, in this difficult world, is reassure us that we are not alone, nor are we (most of us) lost causes.

Ponies on the path 5

Ponies on the path 6

Ponies on the path 7

"There is a theory -- Puritan in origin, no doubt -- that suffering strengthens and elevates us in a way that joy can never somehow do. I'm not so sure about that. Isn't it just that we have, on the whole, so much more suffering than joy that we have resolved, out of our great surviving instinct, to insist that something worthwhile must be made of it? And isn't fiction a handrail, of a kind, which we can all grasp while we blunder around in the dark?"

Indeed it is. At least, it is for me.

Ponies on the path 8

Ponies on the path 9

Ponies on the path 10

Autumn leaves

Tilly on the path

Words: The passage above is from "Looking for the Spark" by Joanna Trollope, published in The Writing Life, edited by Marie Arana (Public Affairs, 2003). The poem in the picture captions is from In Broken Country by David Wagoner (Little, Brown & Co., 1979). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Dartmoor ponies met on the path to the village Commons during a morning walk with Tilly.


Running with writers

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

In his essay "Childhood of a Writer," E.L. Doctorow describes how his passion for fiction ignited when he was eight years old:

"Back home [from an appendix operation], and more or less on my feet again, I took out of the library the two great dog novels of Jack London, published together for my convenience in one sturdy binding, The Call of the Wild and White Fang, the one about a civilized dog who is kidnapped and enslaved as a sled-husky in the Yukon and, under the brutal pressures of human masters, finds freedom and self-realization in reverting to the primeval wolf ways of his remote ancestry, the other about a savage wolf who, under the ministrations of a decent human being, becomes a civilized human-friendly dog. On such tales as these he became the most popular writer in America, and he is still widely read around the world, though he sits at literature's table below the salt while the more sophisticated voices of modernist and postmodernist irony conduct the conversation.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

"The tests and trials to which Buck, the dog in The Call of the Wild, is subjected, and the way he meets them and learns and grows in moral stature, make Buck a round character, while the human beings in the book are, in their constant one-note villainy, flat. This is irony too, a fine irony. Furthermore, this little speed-readers' novel, written at the level of a good pulp serial, is in fact a parody of the novel of sentimental education, not only because the hero is a dog, but because his education decivilizes him, turns him back into the wild creature of his primordial ancestry. I appreciate that now, but then I only knew that Jack London was different from the picture-book writer Aesop, he was not tiresome as Aesop was, he took animals seriously, granting them complex character as the veterinarily incorrect Aesop never did. The moral of the Jack London book was not something you knew already without having to be instructed. But it was there and it was resonant with my own life.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis"Every day, it seemed, old men knocked on the front door to ask my mother for money to help bring Jews out of Europe. Playing with my friends in the park, I had to watch out for older boys who swept up from the East Bronx to take at knifepoint our spaldines and whatever pocket change we were carrying. My father, the proud owner of a music shop in the old Hippodrome theater at Sixth Avenue and Forty-Third Street, a man who knew the classical repertoire inside and out and stocked music that nobody else had, a man whom the great artists of the day consulted for their record purchases, lost his store in the 'little' Depression of 1940. My ancient grandmother, growing more and more insane each day, now ran away to wander the streets until the police found her and brought her home. We were broke, what the newspapers called war clouds were growing darker and more ominous, my brother was of freshly minted draft age, and The Call of the Wild, this mordant parable of the thinness of civilization, the savagery bursting through as the season changed in the Bronx and a winter of deep heavy snows, like the snows of the Yukon, fell upon us, the whole city muffled and still, made me long to be in the wild, loping at the head of my pack, ready to leap up and plunge my incisors into the throats of all who would harm me or my family.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

"At one point I must have realized the primordial power belonged not to the dog, or not in fact to the dog, because around this time -- I was perhaps nine years old -- I decided I was a writer. It was a clear conviction, not even requiring a sacred vow; I assumed the identity with grace, as one slips on a jacket or sweater that fits perfectly.

"It was such a natural assumption of my mind that for several years I felt no obligation to actually write anything. My convalesence had left me flabby, out of shape, with less energy for running around. I was more disposed than ever to read or listen to radio stories, and I was now reading not only to find out what happened next but with that additional line of inquiry of the child writer who is yet to write: How is this done? It is a kind of imprinting.

"We live in the book as we read it, yes, but we run with the author as well -- this wild begetter of voices, this voice of voices, this noble creature of the wild whose linguistic lope over any sort of terrain brings it into being."

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

Photographs by Paul Croes

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

The extraordinary imagery today is by Belgian photographer Paul Croes and his studio assistant Inge Nelis. Please visit their Behind Eyes Studio website to see more.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis


Home is Imaginary: depression, imagination, and the power of stories

Woodland gate

This week has a dark significance: it is the time of year, statistically, when the most suicides take place; and the majority of those suicides are related to depression.

Depression is on a sharp rise in the West, increasingly afflicting our young people -- and young men in particular. Several conversations with friends this last week have centered on what we -- as writers, as artists, as members of geographic and artistic communities -- can do to support younger generations to grow into lives that are mentally healthy, balanced, grounded in values beyond the marketplace, and connected to the physical, natural world, to the numinous, and to each other.

Art plays a role in this, of course, for the imagery we put out into the world helps to shape it, for good or for ill..and each of us is responsible for our small part in the collective creation.

Through the leaves

Here are some useful thoughts on the subject from an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for compentence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive.

"When children are taught to learn the central literature of their people, or, in literate cultures, to read and understand it, their imagination is getting a very large part of the exercise it needs.

Leaf and moss

"Nothing else does quite as much for most people, not even the other arts. We are a wordy species. Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no art or skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.

"Through story, every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people and members of their people -- Hmong, !Kung, Hopi, Quechua, French, Californian....We are those who arrived at the Fourth World.... We are Joan's nation.... We are sons of the Sun.... We came from the sea.... We are people who live at the center of the world.

Rock hound 1

"A people that doesn't live at the center of the world, as defined and described by its poets and storytellers, is in a bad way. The center of the world is where you live fully, where you know how things are done rightly, done well.

"A child who does not know where the center is -- where home is, what home is -- that child is in a very bad way.

Rock hound 2

"Home isn't Mom and Dad and Sis and Bud. Home isn't where they have to let you in. It's not a place at all. Home is imaginary.

"Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can't get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it -- whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.

Through the leaves again

"All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people....What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense to us and allow us freedom, and listen to them. Not hear passively, but listen.

"Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence.

"Reading is an act of listening."

Entangled

The quote above is from "The Operating Instructions," an essay I recommend reading in full. You'll find it in Le Guin's latest collection, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books, 2000-2016 (Small Beer Press, 2016).

Related reading:

* Danuta Kean's recent article "Library cuts harm young people's mental health services" (The Guardian, January 13, 2017)

* Jane Yolen on the value of fantasy in "Children, reading and Tough Magic" (Myth & Moor, August 26, 2016)

* My own thoughts about early storybooks in "The stories we need" (Myth & Moor, February 25, 2016)

* Jay Griffiths on children and nature: "In the forest, the child. In the child, the forest" (Myth & Moor, June 11, 2015).

On the hillside

Words Are My MatterThe text above is from "The Operating Instructions," a talk given at a meeting of Oregon Literary Arts in 2002, and reprinted in Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016). All rights reserved by the author.