We are the words, we are the music

Stray sheep

Etchings by Bill Yardley

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

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

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

Sheep and lamb, reunited.

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

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

So simple. So true.

The gate to O'er Hill

Le Guin adds this at the close of the essay:

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

Sheep in the shade

Old stone wall

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

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

A stream on the Commons

Hound and stream

Waiting

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

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

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


The writer as wizard

Bluebells 1

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

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

Bluebells 2

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

3

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

Bluebells 4

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

Bluebells 5

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

Bluebells 6

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

Bluebells 7

Bluebells 8

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


Creative alchemy: experience transformed by imagination

Lady of the Labyrinth by Kristin Kwan

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

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

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

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

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

Lacemaker by Kristin Kwan

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

Painting in progress by Kristin Kwan

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

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

Preliminary sketch by Kristin Kwan

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

Sketchbook pages by Kristin Kwan

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

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

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

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

Preliminary sketch by Kristin Kwan

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


The stories in the air around us

Field 1

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

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

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

Field 2

Field 3

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

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

Field 4

Horse pen

White horse 1

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

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

White horse 2

Hound

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

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

"As an artist, you trust that."

White horse 3

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


Look, learn, remember

Ponies 1

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

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

Ponies 2

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

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

Ponies 3

Ponies 4

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

Ponies 5

Ponies 6

Reflecting on her own work, Cooper writes:

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

Ponies 7

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

Ponies 8

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

Ponies 9

Ponies 10

Ponies 11

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

Ponies 12

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

Ponies 13

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

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

Ponies 14

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

Pony watcher

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


Morning Prayer

Bluebell tree

"A writer -- and, I believe, generally all persons -- must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art."  - Jorge Luis Borges

Edgewood

This morning's prayer: May we have the skill to work with the raw materials we've been given, the clarity to understand their best use, and the tenacity to weave even thread spun from nettles into cloth that is beautiful and strong.

Hound and bluebells

Bluebell treeThe Borges quote is from Twenty-four Conversations With Borges: Interviews by Roberto Alifano 1981-1983 (Grove Press, 1984). The poem in the picture captions is from A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2oo3). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


The Writing Life

Hillside 1

From "How Can You Create Fiction When Reality Comes to Call?" by Carolyn Chute (author of The Beans of Egypt, Maine):

"This is a very personal and uplifting story of my life as a writer. I will include intimate confessions. The following is a typical day in my life.

"Eyes open up. Birds singing outside window. Oh, yes, and there is the husband. X-rated stuff happens. (Delete details.)

"Must go out with dogs. They have a dog door and a half-acre fenced in with trees and a little brook, but that isn't good enough. ... No, they have to have me go with them, so we can be a pack together.

"Typewriter with page 1,994 of novel screams from another room: I WANT YOU.

Hillside 2

"I am scrambling to get dressed because the dogs are waiting at the foot of the stairs for the pack thing, which hasn't happened yet. They are hopping up and down. These are Scottish terriers with short legs, big heads, beady eyes and beards, and when I look at them, I melt and will do anything they want.

"But at this moment I am still scrambling to get dressed, and the typewriter is starting to really scream and kind of whimper from the other room. A truck pulls up in the yard, a member of our political group, one of those working-class politics groups you hear so much about.

"Bang! Bang! Bang! This is knuckles knocking on door.

"Dogs charge the door.

"Cuckoo clock coo coos six times.

Hillside 3

"Husband is now scrambling to get dressed.

"Phone does not ring. Its bell is broken. It never rings. Thank heavens.

"Typewriter is starting to gasp and moan.

"All dressed, I race down the attic stairs and the pack is racing around, the dogs throwing themselves at the door behind which the guest stands.

"The dishes heaped in the sink make no sound. No screams. No barking. But they have one of those profound presences. I am a person who can't teach writing or make a living in any public way, as I get confused when interrupted or overstimulated. In a classroom or crowded room, I all but blank out.

"So my only income is from novels. This should explain the absence of dishwasher, clothes dryer, running hot water, electricity in all rooms, health insurance and other such luxuries. The Scotties we got through friends. So don't go rolling your eyes about those 'expensive Scotties.'

"Husband opens front door for guest, as I head out the back door with the pack.

"Pack does its thing, racing around, checking chipmunk holes, sniffing guest's truck to see what the news is from the outside world. It is a beautiful morning, and everything smells sweet.

Hillside 4

"Returning to the house, I close dogs in another room, so they won't bother the guest, who is sitting in a rocking chair with tea and telling about how upset he is with the latest bad thing the corporations and government (same thing) have done to us. (I will delete all his words here in order to keep this an uplifting and cheery article.)

"Upstairs the typewriter is squealing and howling...."

Hillside 5

Eventually Chute's house quiets down.

"By the time there are 10 coo coos, guest has left," she writes. "Dogs are lying around on the rockers. Husband has gone to town for the mail.

"I finish hanging the laundry and go up to the typewriter and sit there, holding my head trying to quiet my head. You see, I can't just switch from life mode to writer mode. Usually it takes three days to get into the writer mode. Three days of quiet non-life mode, lots of coffee and no interruptions.

"Writing is like meditation or going into an ESP trance, or prayer. Like dreaming. You are tapping into your unconscious. To be fully conscious and alert, with life banging and popping and cuckooing all around, you are not going to find your way to your subconscious, which is a place of complete submission. Complete submission.

"I open my eyes. I look at the page. I type a couple of lines. Pop! The 'n' breaks off the daisy wheel.

"These daisy wheels are $30 apiece! My old well-made typewriter had one daisy wheel, which lasted 11 years. But this is a new typewriter. The cheesy typewriters they make now use three daisy wheels a day. My mind abandons writer mode. I am now in crisis mode again....

Hillside 6

"U.P.S. truck pulls up. Dogs hurtle out the dog door into their pen and throw selves against the fence wire to show the U.P.S. man what will happen to him if he comes in the house. I run downstairs and out, so I can sign for the packages. Eight galleys from eight publishers wanting eight blurbs. Blurbs are those little positive-sounding quotes on the backs of books. I am not much of a reader. No time. It takes me two to six months to read a book, so these guys are definitely barking up the wrong tree.

"U.P.S. truck heads out and down the long dirt road and away.

"I start back up the attic stairs to the gasping weeping typewriter, and husband arrives home with mail. Three more galleys in the mail, plus 20 letters and cards, most of which are urgent, or at least requiring a letter in return. Not many bills. Just our one huge mortgage on the house that we had to take out in order to eat.

"Clock coo coos."

And so Chute's writing day goes on, and no writing is actually done.

Hillside 7

To read Chute's essay in full, go here. It's pretty funny, in a rueful kind of way, since most of us have had those kinds of days -- even writers who switch from life mode to writing mode more easily. And keep in mind that the piece was published back in 1999, before email exploded and the internet became such a ubiquitous attention-breaker.

For myself, I keep returning to this quote by Saul Bellow, which I've written on the wall close to my writing desk:

"I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.”

Hillside 8Words: The passage above is from an essay published in The New York Times (September 27, 1999). The poem in the picture captions is from Earful of Cider (August 2011). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Early morning on Nattadon Hill.


Returning to work

Tilly in the bluebells

Lately it's been one thing after another keeping me away from my desk: life and art tugging in two directions instead of pulling in harness together. I'm not such a delicate flower that I can't work without perfect peace and quiet, but when daily life makes too many demands and keeps me out of the studio altogether, I start to feel oddly unmoored (if you'll excuse the pun) -- as though the deep focus of creative work is what roots me in the Devon soil. I'm a sociable person, I love my family and friends, but I'm also an introvert by nature; and we introverts need solitude the way plants need rain. We wilt without it.

Devon bluebells

Today, I am back in the studio, drinking in the silence of early morning and feeling my parched soul turn green again. In the woods and fields, wildflowers are blooming and their abundance seems miraculous. I am grateful for the quiet, and the bird's dawn chorus. I am grateful to be back among paints and books. I am grateful for the hound snoring beside me, and for the wildflowers brightening my desk. I'm even grateful for the things that pull me from my work -- for they challenge me, stretch me, keep me from being too self-absorbed and self-contained -- but I am doubly grateful when let me go, allowing a return to the moss, brambles, and daydreams of my natural habitat.

Tilly in the bluebells 2

All of us have different needs, however. The solitude that invigorates me would be dull or stifling to an artist of a different temperament -- my husband, for example, who thrives on the collaborative nature of puppet and theatre work, or urban friends who need the pace of a great city to keep their creative juices flowing.

Here's K.M. Peyton (author of the Flambards trilogy) with a charming description of her work/life balance, from an essay published in 1975:

"When I get frustrated by the demands of other commitments deflecting me from the writing, I console myself that they are the lifeblood of what I am writing about, and the ivory tower, attractive as it may appear at times, would not suit. The [stereotypical] writer, quiet in his room with coffee and lunch served, the interruptions deflected by a devoted wife, is at times my great envy; but at other times I feel that the very frustrations are somehow a part of my driving force. My most difficult book to date, A Pattern of Roses, was written through the winter when a forty-foot boat was being built full-time in the garden and a constant stream of nautical maniacs was in and out of the house at all times, drinking coffee and needing a labourer's meals, as many as twenty-four one weekend.
Horse drawing by William Heath Robinson

"I have no help at home, and consider myself fully occupied with the normal ferrying of schoolchildren, housework and looking after five horses (since, in desperation, cut down to two). It was during this winter that one of the horses, lent by a farmer from the village three miles away, used to get out of the field and and go home, sometimes taking the other four with her, at a flat gallop. When this happened in the middle of the night my husband used to turn over in bed and remind me, as we listened to the departing clatter of hooves down the lane, that the horses were my department; his was the boat. But out of these calamites, nice cameos remain: creeping through someone's back yard with headcollar in hand, dressed in long nightdress, anorak and gum-boots, and being speared by torchlight from the bedroom window, or returning home in the car with my daughter riding the mare ahead in the light from the headlamps, cantering fast along the verge with only a halter for tack, and me thinking, 'Oh, God, if she falls off the mare will go all the way back again....'

At the edge of the woods

"I think now," Peyton concludes, "if I only had a book to write, and nothing else to do, I would just sit and stare into space. To know that on Tuesday, for instance, Fred will call for coffee and chat at half-past ten, the butcher will interrupt and want to know what I shall want next Friday, and that I've got to get to the nearest shop, three miles away, to buy a loaf before it shuts at one, concentrates the mind wonderfully. My mother needs to talk to me at length twice a week at least, a pony needs shoeing (five miles there and five miles back and an hour in the middle), and in the summer the garden and the field are a full-time job (mine). It is no good at all pleading my vocation, for my only local claim to fame is not in writing but as Secretary of the Pony Club, and when this keeps me almost fully occupied throughout the summer months I console myself with the richness of material I am building up in this direction. The fact that ponies are now out of fashion, a relic of the nineteen thirties and forties, will not deter me from embarking on this saga before long, so eagerly does the spring bubble up. Where would I be without my interruptions? Still staring at a blank sheet in the typewriter."

Rock, moss, and flowers

Prowling through the bluebells

Stalking the bluebell fairies

Likewise, Katherine Paterson (author of Bridge to Terabithia) reflects on the problems of work/life balance in the early part of her career:

"I had no study in those days, not even a desk or file or bookcase to call mine alone," she recalls. "It might have happened sooner [the writing of work worthy of publication] had I had a room of my own and fewer children, but somehow I doubt it. For as I look back on what I have written, I can see that the very persons who took away my time and space are those who have given me something to say."

Dog in a bluebell patch

Whitebells

"The great thing, if one can," said C.S. Lewis, "is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one's 'own,' or 'real' life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one's real life."

Wildflowers on the deskThe passage by K.M. Peyton is from "On Not Writing a Proper Book," published in The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children, edited by Edward Blishen (Kestral Books, 1975); the passage by Katherine Paterson is from Gates of Excellence (Puffin, 1981); all right reserved by the authors. The C.S Lewis quote is part of a passage from a letter to Arthur Greeves, 1943. My "Writer's Prayer,"  in the picture captions, has appeared here previously but seems appropriate for re-posting today. The drawing is by William Heath Robinson (1872-1944).


Talking to the moon

Hillside 1

After writing about kindness yesterday, I've been thinking about the ways in which the lack of kindness propels some of us into the arts: not only as way to retreat from pain, or to cope with it, or to attempt to understand it, but also as a means of creating (to quote Anais Nin) "a world in which one can live."

For example, here's a passage by British novelist Catherine Storr from her essay "Why Write? Why Write for Children?" (published in The Thorny Paradise). Storr describes her parents as loving ones who did not mean to be unkind, and yet her own open-hearted nature was viewed with deep suspicion:

"I am a compulsive writer," Storr begins. " I suppose that before I'd learn to write without too much difficulty, I was a compulsive talker. This is borne out by the memory of hearing my parents say, 'Catherine never stops talking.' I think I went on talking too much until the awkwardness of adolesence overcame the habit. But before that I'd discovered writing; and though it didn't immediately cure me of talking too much, it did provide an outlet for the need to communicate.

Hillside 2

"What I needed to communicate was feelings. We were a very buttoned up family as far as the emotions were concerned. I don't remember ever doubting that my parents loved us, but they never said so in so many words. They also weren't at all physically demonstrative; you had to be in considerable distress before you got picked up and hugged. Kissing was something you did before going to bed or saying goodbye for a longer period. This restraint didn't come naturally to me at all, and besides being told I talked too much, I was also frequently told I shouldn't ask for displays of affection. It was recognized in the family that Catherine was sentimental, and that this should be discouraged.

"Until I was ten, these reprehensible feelings had to be repressed, or carefully monitored so that they didn't offend my parents' austere standards. I can still remember attributing one particular enthusiasm to my doll, so that I wouldn't be held responsible for it. It was a marvelous day in the country and I was aching to say so to someone, but I knew if I did I'd be laughed at, so I said, 'Ruthy is feeling sentimental. She says, "How blue the sky! How green the grass!" But even this ruse didn't work. I was laughed at again.

Hillside 3

"What happened when I was ten was that the door suddenly opened. I was lying in bed with the curtains undrawn and I saw a huge white moon looking at me through the branches of the aspen poplar tree which stood about forty feet away in the garden opposite my window. It must have been spring, I think, because the branches were bare. I got out of bed and wrote a poem to the moon with a blunt pencil on a sheet of manuscript music paper, which was all I could find. It was blank verse and until that moment I'd had no idea that I could write anything more ambitious than rhyming couplets. It was a very exciting moment. Probably all the more exciting because it was forbidden to wander out of bed after eight o'clock. Then next morning I read the poem through and was rather impressed by it. It was a great deal better than I'd have expected."

That little girl grew up to become the author of over thirty books for children and adults (as well as a medical doctor and psychologist), writing right up to her death at age 87. Having raised three daughters, Storr was often asked if her childrens' books had been written for them. Well yes, to some degree, she said, but mostly she'd written them for herself:

"William Mayne, when asked for whom he wrote his books, said: For the child I once was. I'm sure this is true of many writers for children, but  I think it is also true that that one writes for the child one still is."

Hillside 4

The Thorny ParadiseThe passage above is from "Why Write? Why Write for Children" by Catherine Storr, published in The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children, edited by Edward Blishen (Kestral Books, 1975). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine (October 2012). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


Cycles, seasons, and daffodils

Wild daffodils

Spring is truly here, at long last. The earliest flowers in our garden have done their work to wake the land from sleep: the primroses and grape hyacinths, the purple aubretia climbing up the stone walls, the columbines that have seeded themselves and run riot on the hillside. The cherry trees have burst into bloom, with the apple and plum trees soon to follow. The woods behind the studio are golden with wild daffodils, which in turn will give way to the smaller pleasures of cranesbill, sicklewort, and bluebells.

Coffee break with hound and daffodils

The movement of the landscape through its seasons reminds me of the energy and vitality to be found in cycles and circles...and as someone who works in the narrative arts, I find that I need that reminder.

Narrative, in its most standard form, tends to run in linear fashion from beginning to middle to end. A story opens "Once upon a time," then moves -- prompted by a crisis or plot twist -- into the narrative journey: questing, testing, trials and tribulations -- and then onward to climax and resolution, ending "happily ever after" (or not, if the tale is a sad or ambiguous one). In the West, our concepts of "time" and "progress" are largely linear too. We circle through days by the hours of the clock, years by the months of the calendar, yet our lives are pushed on a linear track: infant to child to adult to elder, with death as the final chapter. Progress is measured by linear steps, education by grades that ascend year by year, careers by narratives that run along the same railway line: beginning, middle, and end.

But in fact, narratives are cyclical too if we stand back and look through a broader lens. Clever Hans will marry his princess and they will produce three dark sons or three pale daughters or no child at all until a fairy intervenes, and then those children will have their own stories: marrying frogs and turning into swans and climbing glass hills in iron shoes. No ending is truly an ending, merely a pause before the tale goes on.

Coffee and daffodils in the woods

As a folklorist and a student of nature, I know the importance of cycles, seasons, and circular motion -- but I've grown up in a culture that loves straight lines, beginnings and ends, befores and afters, and I keep expecting life to act accordingly, even though it so rarely does. Take health, for example. We envision the healing process as a linear one, steadily building from illness to strength and full function; yet for those of us managing long-term conditions, our various trials don't often lead to the linear "ending-as-resolution" but to the cyclical "ending-as-pause": a time to catch one's breath before the next crisis or plot twist sets the tale back in motion.

Relationships, too, are cyclical. Spousal relationships, family relationships, friendships, work partnerships: they aren't tales of linear progression, they are tales full of cycles, circles, and seasons. The path isn't straight, it loops and bends; the narrative side-tracks and sometimes dead ends. We don't progress in relationships so much as learn, change, and adapt with each season, each twist of the road.

Hound and notebooks

As a writer and a reader, I'm partial to stories with clear beginnings, middles, and ends (not necessarily in that order in the case of fractured narratives) -- but when I'm away from the desk or the printed page (or the cinema or the television screen), I am trying to let go of the habit of measuring my life in a strictly linear way. Healing, learning, and art-making don't follow straight roads but queer twisty paths on which half the time I feel utterly lost...until, like magic, I've arrived somewhere new, some place I could never have imagined.

I want especially to be rid of the tyranny of Before and After. "After such-and-such is accomplished," we say, "then the choirs will sing and life will be good." When my novel is published. When I get that job. When I find that partner. When I lose ten pounds. No, no, no, no. Because even if we reach our goal, the heavenly choirs don't sing -- or if they do sing, you quickly discover it's all that they do. They don't do your laundry, they don't solve all your problems. You are still you, and life is still life: a complex mixture of the bad and the good. And now, of course, the goal posts have moved. The Land of After is no longer a published book, it's five books, a best-seller, a major motion picture. You don't ever get to the Land of After; it's always changing, always shimmering on the far horizon.

I don't want to live after. I want to live now, moving with, not against, life's cycles and seasons, the twists and the turns, the ups and the downs, appreciating it all.

The Hound in spring

Today, I walked among spring's first flowers, chose a few to bring back to the studio -- where they sit on my desk in a pickle jar, glowing as bright as the sun and the moon. At my desk, I work in a linear artform, writing words in a line across a ruled page -- and the flowers remind me that cycles and seasons should be part of the narrative too. Circular patterns. Loops and digressions. Tales that turn and meander down paths that, surprise!, are the paths that were meant all along. Stories that reach resolutions and endings, but ends that turn into another beginning. Again. Again. Tell it again.

Once upon a time...

Wild daffodils on my deskThe poem in the picture captions is from Bitter Angel by Amy Gerstler (North Point Press, 1990); all rights reserved by the author.