Creative solitude: an alternative view

Nattadon Gate 1

After recommending Dorthe Nors' article on the value of creative solitude yesterday, I'd like to follow it up with an essay that takes a very different point of view: "How Not to Write Your First Novel" by American novelist Lev Grossman.

Fresh out of college and intending to be a writer, Lev headed West to find a lonely little town where he could "hunker down and get some real work done" -- and ended up on the coast of Maine. (For UK readers, this is like heading for Devon and ending up in the Shetlands.)

"I can't overstate how little I knew about myself at 22," he says, "or how little I'd thought about what I was doing. When I graduated from college I genuinely believed that the creative life was the apex of human existence, and that to work at an ordinary office job was a betrayal of that life, and I had to pursue that life at all costs. Management consulting, law school, med school, those were fine for other people -- I didn't judge! -- but I was an artist. I was super special. I was sparkly. I would walk another path.

"And I would walk it alone. That was another thing I knew about being an artist: You didn't need other people. Other people were a distraction. My little chrysalis of genius was going to seat one and one only."

Nattdon Gate 2

Lev found the isolation he craved in a rustic (i.e., barely habitable) apartment down a long dirt road -- but isolation proved to be a less romantic and creatively fecund state then he'd imagined.

"I'm not even sure I understood how lonely I was. I had friends back in the real world, but I never asked anyone to visit me. On some level I still didn't believe that I could be lonely, even though it was staring me in the face, all day and all night. I genuinely thought that because I wanted to be a writer, that made me different from other people: mysterious, self-contained, a lone wolf, Han Solo.

"But by the end of November my sanity was starting to sag under the weight of all that solitude and empty time and creative failure. I wrote less and less and liked less and less of what I wrote. I felt like I couldn't go to bed till I'd accomplished something, anything, but usually that just meant I stayed up till dawn and then collapsed from exhaustion....

Nattadon Signpost

Nattadon Gate 3

"Maine was trying to teach me something, but I was a slow learner. I thought I'd gone to Maine to face my demons and turn them into art, but it turned out that I couldn't face them, and not only that I couldn't even find them. I was trying to write about what I knew, which in itself probably wasn't a bad idea, but I was mistaken about what that was. I thought that what I knew most about was myself, but I could not have been more wrong. I didn't know the first thing about myself, and Maine wasn't going to teach me. You don't learn about yourself by being alone, you learn about yourself from other people."

To read the essay in full, please go here.

Nattadon Gate 4

And while we're speaking of Lev today, I also recommend his fine essay on C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: "Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy." And his 2015 Tolkien Lecture at Pembroke College, Oxford University.

Nattadon Gate 5

Nattadon Gate 3


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).


On becoming a writer

Gladys Holman Hunt by William Holman Hunt

From "A Real Life Education" by novelist, playwright, and screenwriter Susan Minot:

"I never wanted to be a writer. That is, I never had the notion I wanted to be a writer. I started the way other people did, writing compositions in school. I liked doing that; it pulled at my imagination with a sort of elastic tension I enjoyed. The same thing happened when I made up games with Fairy Tales by Mary L. Gowfriends or put on plays with my brothers and sisters. There was something about elaborating on the world that gave great pleasure.

"But I also also enjoyed art class -- art wasn't even like a class it was so good; you got to make things with your hands -- and I liked science. Who wouldn't? We got to go outside and collect pollywogs in the pond. We got to dissect frogs and see the secret goings-on inside. If I had a thought about it, which I didn't because I was not practical, I would have pictured myself as an artist. I could picture painting in a studio with easels and brushes, or, even better, out in a landscape with a box of paints.

"But a writer? I had no picture in my mind of what being a writer was. How could I aspire to that? I'd never met a writer. What did a writer actually do? What did a writer have, words? I did not come from a literary family, despite the fact that two siblings and one step-sister became writers too. (And I would not be surprised if there were more to come.) My youngest sister, Eliza, who is a novelist, believes that part of it was our having to relay information among the siblings -- there were seven of us and a lot going on -- which encouraged our putting things into words."

Portrait of Katie Lewis by Edward Burne-Jones

"When I left home for boarding school," Minot notes later in the essay, "I began to write on my own -- prose poetry, journal writing. It was the first time I had a room of my own, and I found that writing was a way both of being alone and of finding what was going on inside of myself. Instead of doing homework, I wrote pages of stream-of-consciousness long into the night.

Elisabeth Siddal Reading by Dante Gabriel Rossetti"The novelist Jim Harrison has said that he is suspicious of any budding writer who is not drunk with words. I was completely inebriated. I was compelled to write; it became a compulsion. I wrote out of desperation. In the great turmoil and gloom and euphoria of adolescence, I found there was nowhere to express the chaos of the emotions I was feeling, nowhere but in words. I began to rely so much on writing that I was living a double-life -- one in the world and one on the page. The one on the page was more intense, more satisfying and for a long time much more real....

"I am very fortunate to make my living by writing, though I feel I got to this point through no more design than having followed an often bewildered instinct and by simply always writing. I believe that what an artist needs most, more than inspiration or financial consulation or encouragement or talent or love or luck, is endurance. Often the abstraction of using only words frustrates me -- I write on paper with a dipped pen and ink, and type on a manual typewriter in order to have some three-dimensional activities with my hands -- but again and again I discover how far words are capable of going, both in the world and on the page. The fact is, this side of the mind, nothing goes father than words. With words I am able to do those things that first intrigued me when I was young, those things that made me feel most alive -- I am able to paint pictures, collect things from muddy ponds, dissect insides, make things up, put on costumes, direct the lights, inspect hearts, entertain, dream.

"And, if it goes well, I might convey some of that vitality to others, and so give back a drop into that huge pool of what other artists have, as strangers, given me: a reason to live."

Portrait of Winfred Robers by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale

Pictures: A portrait of the artist's daughter, Gladys Holman Hunt, by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), a founding member of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; "Fairy Tales" by Mary L. Gow (1851-1929); a portrait of Katie Lewis by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898); a sketch of Elisabeth Siddal reading by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, PRB (1828-1882); and a portrait of Winifred Robers by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale (1872-1945).

Words: The passages above come from "A Real Life Education" by Susan Minot, published in The Writing Life, edited by Marie Arana (Public Affairs, 2003); all rights reserved by the author.


Doing it for love

Love is Enough

From "Doing It for Love," an essay by novelist, poet, and memoirist Erica Jong:

"Despite all the cynical things writers have said about writing for money, the truth is we write for love. That is why it is so easy to exploit us. That is also why we pretend to be hard-boiled, saying things like: 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money' (Samuel Johnson). Not true. No one except a blockhead ever wrote except for love.

"There are plenty of easier ways to make money. Almost anything is less labor-intensive and better paid than writing. Almost anything is safer. Reveal yourself on the page repeatedly, and you are likely to be rewarded with exile, prison or neglect. Ask Dante or Oscar Wilde or Emily Dickinson. Scheme and betray, and you are likely be be reward with with wealth, publicity and homage. Tell the truth and you are likely to be a pariah within your family, a semi-criminal to authorities and damned with faint praise by your peers. So why do we do it? Because saying what you think is the only freedom. 'Liberty,' said Camus, 'is the right not to lie.'

"In society in which everything is for sale, in which deals and auctions make the biggest news, doing it for love is the only remaining liberty. Do it for love and you cannot be censored. Do it for love and you cannot be stopped. Do it for love and the rich will envy no one more than you. In a world of tuxedos the naked man is king. In a world of bookkeepers with spreadsheets, the one who gives it away without counting the cost is God."

Love is Enough

When I first read these words by Erica Jong, I was feeling a bit cynical myself. " 'Do it for love, not money,'  " I grumbled to Tilly. (I admit it, I talk to my dog.) "Well, that's easy for her to say when her very first novel was a best-seller. She's not fretting about electricity bills or putting food on the table."  But in fact, Jong's essay is not about the business of earning a living through art; it's about the deep, complex, mysterious feelings that cause us to make art at all. And when I ponder her words from this different perspective, I couldn't agree with her more.

We do it for love, of one kind or another. Love of the work, of the practice of our craft. Love of the painstaking process of bringing interior visions out into the world. Love of the various tools we use: ink, paper, paint, clay, fiddler's bow, photographer's light, the finely trained bodies of dancers and actors. Love of the solitary trance of creation, or the buzzy give-and-take of collaboration. Love of the first idea, of the rendering process, and then of the final product...followed by a reader's, viewer's, or listener's engagement. Love of completion, success, and achievement; and the harder love of set-back, failure, rejection, and all the things they teach.

Doing our work, with commitment and focus, is what makes us writers, painters, performers -- not the size of the pay check our art-making earns. Most of the writers I've edited over the years (and these include well-known authors with multiple books, devoted readers, and prestigious awards) don't make enough to life on by writing alone. I wish they did. In a better world they would. They are writing for love.

Tulip and Willow

And yes, most writers write with the intention of being published and read -- which usually means putting on our business hats and venturing out into the marketplace. This is the part of the art-making process that separates "real" artists from amateurs -- or so, in a hyper-capitalist, transactional culture we are led to believe. When I meet someone new and they learn I'm a writer, often the very first thing I am asked is: Have you published anything? Followed by: What name do you write under? Would I have heard of you? And sometimes, baldly: Does it pay?

No, I say gently, you probably won't have heard of me...unless fairy tales and myth-oriented fantasy happens to be your cup of tea. This generally ends the conversation. My querent's suspicions are now confirmed: I am not a "real" writer after all. Or else I'm just not a very good one, since I'm neither rich nor famous. I could protest that I've published many books and essays, won awards, been translated into ten languages. But I don't say any of this of course. A list of achievements isn't what matters. It isn't what makes me a writer.

I am a writer because I love words, and the process of shaping words into stories. I am an artist because I love line, color, and the process of pictures growing under my fingers. I am a writer, artist, and anthologist because I took the time, over many years, to learn the technical skills these crafts require; and because I work at them seriously and persistently. If you do too, then you are qualified to call yourself a "real" artist too.

The money I earn through creative work matters each month when bills are due; I won't pretend that it doesn't. And it buys me the time to make more art. But it doesn't measure the worth of my work -- and it is not the measure of yours. I've made art, in one form or another, for as long as I can remember: good art, bad art, successes and failures. Art that paid the rent, and art that cost me money. I do it out of love, and out of need. I do it because it is who I am. I do it because it's what I do best, and I'm not well suited for anything else. I do it because the tales I hold inside me want to be passed on.

Pomegranate

"I never remember a time when I didn't write," says Jong. "Notebooks, stories, journals, poems -- the act of writing always made me feel centered and whole. It still does. It is my meditation, my medicine, my prayer, my solace. I was lucky enough to learn early (with my first two books of poetry and my first novel) that if you are relentlessly honest about what you feel and fear, you can become a mouthpiece for something more than your own feelings."

I know this to be true.

"People are remarkably similar at the heart-level -- where it counts," she adds. "Writers are born to voice what we all feel. That is the gift. And we keep it alive by giving it away."

Indeed.

Honeysuckle

The artwork today is by William Morris (1834-1896), a man who has long been a hero of mine not only for his vision (rooted in nature and myth), and the astonishing range of creative endeavors he mastered, but because Morris firmly believed art belongs to everyone, rich and poor alike. As a leading figure in Britain's early Socialist movement, his writing and art was entwined (like the intricate vinework in his designs) with his tireless social activism. He left the world a better, kinder, more beautiful place. May we all do the same.

Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris

Willow design by William Morris

''Sweetbriar'' pattern by William Morris

Pictures: The "Love is Enough" book cover design by William Morris, with gold stamping on a forest green cloth (via The Victorian Web). The "Love is Enough" pattern by Morris reproduced on cloth. Morris' "Tulip & Willow," "Pomegranate," and "Honeysuckle" designs in progress. A photograph of Ned (Edward Burne-Jones) and Topsy (William Morris), best friends since their university days. Morris' ''Willow" design; and the "Sweetbriar" design, with quote.

Words: The passage by Erica Jong is from "Doing It for Love," an essay published in The Writing Life, edited by Marie Arana (Public Affairs, 2003). All rights reserved by the author.


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.


The work we're called to

King stone at Scorhill

From Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorne Deming:

"'Natural forces and human forces have intertwined,' writes geoscientist Paul Crutzen in defining the new geologic epic of the Anthropocene, 'so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other.' The enormity of this change in the history of Earth places a new challenge before the human imagination in defining ourselves and the nature of the work we are called to. Communicating information has hardly brought the forces of greed, guns, and gutting of the planet to their knees. Information doesn't change people. Ask the alcoholic or the addict. Sometimes passion changes people. Sometimes empathy does. Sometimes the unconscious yanks you up by your heels, turns you upside down, and gets you straight with reality. Sometimes social cues ripple out from an event or a scientific finding and a cultural norm becomes abnormal. Sometimes the cue is grief. Sometimes the cue is love. Bothe tell us what we can't bear losing and create a resonance that can harden into conviction.

The Walla Brook, Dartmoor

The Walla Brook, Dartmoor

"This brings me to art. Adam Gopnik writes that 'art is a way of expanding our resonances, civilization our way of resonating to those expansions.'  Art has been in the kit of adaptive strategies for at least thirty thousand years of human history. The late Pleistocene. That's when the great animal paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet were made, were carved with mammoth tusks. In truth, art's time horizon is probably much more deeply buried in the mystery of the past. I Ancient hand ax, Norfolk, Englandhave a photograph taped above my desk, a photograph of a hand ax, a hefty tool meant to fit into the palm for carving flesh from bone. This flint is from Norfolk, England, made by Homo erectus some 250,000 ago. The flint has been carefully flaked to create the utilitarian shape, but the maker has fashioned the carving to highlight a fossil mollusk in the center of one face of the teardrop-shaped ax. There sits the small scallop shell, rays fanning out in an arc, as if a little sunrise had been inlaid in stone.

"What hand caught this anomoly in the rock? What hand mastered the craft to chip away the surrounding stone, mindful of the beauty and mystery the fossil shell gave to the object in hand? At least three other hand axes are known from Europe. Archaic hunters spent artful hours getting the symmetry and edge and heft just right. The statement of beauty made by this object tranlates easily across the geologic eras. The skill and love of beauty are all the more impressive, as Denis Dutton illuminated in his rock-star TED talk 'A Darwinian Theory of Beauty,' when one considers that such hand axes were being made by hominid ancestors before language had developed.

Stone wall, between Scorhill & Kestor

Stone wall, Dartmoor

"So what might art, this primal skill set, have to do with our adaptation to climate change? Climate skeptics sway public opinion because they appeal to emotions of fear of change, anger at authority, and denial of grief over loss. What good is a poem in a world of weapons and wounds and wastefulness? Art takes up such feelings as a given. Athletics provide a ritualized way for people to act out violence and competition while doing minimal harm to one another. Art provides a ritualized way to choose beauty over use, to use dissonance as as way to find harmony, to express something in a way that will draw a community together. Art cleanses the spirit of toxins that have weakened it. Art lets one inner life speak to another across vast spans of time and distance. It's not art's task to convey information, though it may interrogate the usefulness or truthfullness of information. Art is empathy. Empathy gets in the way of objective science, which is not to say that a scientist does not feel empathy. But scientists do not cultivate their empathy as an instrument to employ in their professional practice. Art tries to do just that. It weaves connective tissue between fact and feeling, self and world, individual and collective good. Art in a time of radical loss is an elegy. It teaches us how to mourn, whether in the context of family loss or the larger losses brought about by the extreme sport of anthropogenic climate change.

Moorland sheep

"Art can use the power of grief to speak to the depth of one's love for what we would protect and sustain. It can expose the failure of the old myths and raise appetite for new myths that can guide us."

Bog cotton on the moorWords: The passage above is from "Owl Watching in the Experimental Forest," in Zoologies by Alison Deming Hawthorne (Milkweed Editions, 2014), which I highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is from The Cleansing of the Knife by Naomi Mitchison (Canongate, 1978). All rights reserved by the authors. Horizontal pictures: The king stone at Scorhill; the Walla Brook; stone walls and sheep in the Dartmoor hills. Vertical picture: Paleolithic hand ax, flint knapped around a Cretaceous fossil of the bivalve Spondylus spinosus, found in West Tofts, Norfolk. (Photographer unknown.)


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


Bringing ourselves into our work

Encounter

From "Fail Better" by Zadie Smith:

"It is deeply unfashionable to conceive of such a thing as a literary duty; what that might be, and how writers might fail to fulfil it. Duty is not a very literary term. These days, when we do speak of literary duties, we mean it from the reader's perspective, as a consumer of literature. We are really speaking of consumer rights. By this measure the duty of writers is to please readers and to be eager to do so, and this duty has various subsets: the duty to be clear; to be interesting and intelligent but never wilfully obscure; to write with the average reader in mind; to be in good taste. Above all, the modern writer has a duty to entertain. Writers who stray from these obligations risk tiny readerships and critical ridicule. Novels that submit to a shared vision of entertainment, with characters that speak the recognisable dialogue of the sitcom, with plots that take us down familiar roads and back home again, will always be welcomed. This is not a good time, in literature, to be a curio. Readers seem to wish to be 'represented,' as they are at the ballot box, and to do this, fiction needs to be general, not particular. In the contemporary fiction market a writer must entertain and be recognisable -- anything less is seen as a failure and a rejection of readers.

"Personally, I have no objection to books that entertain and please, that are clear and interesting and intelligent, that are in good taste and are not wilfully obscure -- but neither do these qualities seem to me in any way essential to the central experience of fiction, and if they should be missing, this in no way rules out the possibility that the novel I am reading will yet fulfil the only literary duty I care about. For writers have only one duty, as I see it: the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world. If that sounds woolly and imprecise, I apologise. Writing is not a science, and I am speaking to you in the only terms I have to describe what it is I persistently aim for (yet fail to achieve) when I sit in front of my computer.

Encounter 2

Encounter 3

"When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world. This is primarily a process of elimination: once you have removed all the dead language, the second-hand dogma, the truths that are not your own but other people's, the mottos, the slogans, the out-and-out lies of your nation, the myths of your historical moment -- once you have removed all that warps experience into a shape you do not recognise and do not believe in -- what you are left with is something approximating the truth of your own conception. That is what I am looking for when I read a novel; one person's truth as far as it can be rendered through language.

Encounter 4

"This single duty, properly pursued, produces complicated, various results. It's certainly not a call to arms for the autobiographer, although some writers will always mistake the readerly desire for personal truth as their cue to write a treatise or a speech or a thinly disguised memoir in which they themselves are the hero. Fictional truth is a question of perspective, not autobiography. It is what you can't help tell if you write well; it is the watermark of self that runs through everything you do. It is language as the revelation of a consciousness." 

Encounter 6

Encounter 6

Words: The passage above come from Zadie Smith's wonderful essay "Fail Better" (The Guardian, Jan. 7, 2007), which you can read in its entirety online here. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The hound and I have bovine encounters during our morning walk on Nattadon Hill.


A river of words

Belstone

From Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"In workshops on story writing, I've met many writers who want to work only with memoir, tell only their own story, their experience. Often they say. 'I can't make up stuff, that's too hard, but I can tell what happened.' It seems easier to them to take material directly from their experience than to use their experience as material for making up a story. They assume they can just write what happened.

Belstone 2

Belstone 3

"That appears reasonable, but actually, reproducing experience is a very tricky business requiring both artfulness and practice. You may find you don't know certain important facts or elements of the story you want to tell. Or the private experience so important to you may not be very interesting to others, requires skill to make it meaningful, moving, to the reader. Or, being about yourself, it gets all tangled up with ego, or begins to be falsified by wishful thinking. If you're honestly trying to tell what happened, you find facts are very obstinate things to deal with. But if you begin to fake them, to pretend things happened in a way that makes a nice neat story, you're misusing imagination. You're passing invention off as fact: which is, among children at least, called lying.

"Fiction is invention, but it is not lies. It moves on a different level of reality from either fact-finding or lying.

Belstone 4

"I want to talk here about the difference between imagination and wishful thinking, because it's important both in writing and in living. Wishful thinking is thinking cut loose from reality, a self-indulgence that is often merely childish, but may be dangerous. Imagination, even in its wildest flights, is not detached from reality: imagination acknowledges reality, starts from it, and returns to enrich it. Don Quixote indulges his longing to be a knight till he loses touch with reality and makes an awful mess of his life. That's wishful thinking. Miguel Cervantes, by working out and telling the invented story of a man who wishes he were a knight, vastly increased our store of laughter and human understanding. That's imagination. Wishful thinking is Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich. Imagination is the Constitution of the United States.

Belstone 5

"A failure to see the difference is in itself dangerous. If we assume that imagination has no connection with reality but is mere escapism, and therefore distrust it and repress it, it will be crippled, perverted, it will fall silent or speak untruth. The imagination, like any basic human capacity, needs exercise, discipline, training, in childhood and lifelong.

Belstone 6

"One of the best exercises for the imagination, maybe the very best, is hearing, reading, and telling or writing made-up stories. Good inventions, however fanciful, have both congruity with reality and inner coherence. A story that's mere wish-fulfilling babble, or coercive preaching concealed in a narrative, lacks intellectual coherence and integrity: it isn't a whole thing, it can't stand up, it isn't true to itself.

Belstone 7

"Learning to tell or read a story that is true to itself is about the best education a mind can have."

Belstone 8

Words: The passage above is from "Making Up Stories," published in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from High Country (Sandstone Press, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: A walk by the river near Belstone on Dartmoor, with Howard and the hound.


Harvesting stories

Flowers and hills  Corrary Farm

From Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"Gary Snyder gave us the image of experience as compost. Compost is stuff, junk, garbage, anything, that's turned to dirt by sitting around a while. It involves silence, darkness, time, and patience. From compost, whole gardens grow.

"It can be useful to think of writing as gardening. You plant the seeds, but each plant will take its own way and shape. The gardener's in control, yes; but plants are living, willful things. Every story has to find its own way to the light. Your great tool as a gardener is your imagination.

Corrary Farm

"Young writers often think -- are taught to think -- that a story starts with a message. That is not my experience. What's important when you start is simply this: you have a story you want to tell. A seedling that wants to grow. Something in your inner experience is forcing itself towards the light. Attentively and carefully and patiently, you can encourage that, let it happen. Don't force it; trust it. Watch it, water it, let it grow.

Polytunnels  Corrary Farm

Organic vegetables

"As you write a story, if you can let it become itself, tell itself fully and truly, you may discover what its really about, what it says, why you wanted to tell it. It may be a surprise to you. You may have thought you planted a dahlia, and look what came up, an eggplant! Fiction is not information transmission; it is not message-sending. The writing of fiction is endlessly surprising to the writer.

Corrary Farm  turf-roofed office

"Like a poem, a story says what it has to say it the only way it can be said, and that is the exact words of the story itself. Why is why the words are so important, why it takes so long to learn how to get the words right. Why you need silence, darkness, time, patience, and a real solid knowledge of English vocabulary and grammar.

"Truthful imagining from experience is recognizable, shared by its readers."

Howard in the yurt cafe  Corrary Farm

Welcoming committee

Words: The passage above is from "Making Up Stories," published in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from Circles on the Water by Marge Piercy (Knopf, 1988). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Corray Farm on Scotland's west coast, near Glenelg, photographed on our trip north in June: polytunnels, turf-roofed office, Howard reading in the yurt cafe, and the four-footed welcoming committee.