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.


The stories that shape us

Ponies 1

"As a child I preferred fairy tales to all other stories," says novelist Alice Hoffman (in a short essay for Waterstones). "Fairy tales seemed to trust that even as a child I could understand major concepts of good and evil, fear and cowardice, and distinguish the difference between the truth and a lie. Children realize that there are beasts who wish to do good in the world, and adults waiting in the woods who may be dangerous, and paths that should be marked, whether by bread crumbs or tears, so that we can find our way home again. In the world of fairy tales, the amazing is recounted in a matter of fact tone. One ordinary day there is a knock at the door, a rose that refuses die, a spindle that must be avoided at all costs.

Red Riding Hood by G.P. Jacomb Hood"It was the melding of the magical and the everyday that was most affecting to me as a reader, for the world I lived in seemed much the same. Anything could happen. People you loved could disappear, through death or divorce; they could turn into heroes or beasts. Such stories are perhaps the original stories, tales told by grandmothers to grandchildren from the beginning of time, an oral tradition later captured in print by authors such as Perrault and the Grimms.

"I began to read novels that, like the great traditional fairy tales, incorporated the real and the magical. Every child reader knows that magic equals power and possibility. It is the recourse of the young, the neglected, the orphaned, and the brave. Why are children attracted to magical literature? Magic contains a story within a story, the deepest truth within a thrilling tale. A child can build his or her own understanding through the symbols and language of magic as if connecting with a secret code."

Ponies 2

In a longer piece for The Washington Post, Hoffman also discussed the importance of fairy tales in shaping the particular contours of her imagination:

"I read fairy tales early on. They terrified, delighted, disgusted and amazed me. They were far more grown-up than any other children's books I read, scarily so at times. Like most children, I could feel the disturbing aspects of the stories even if I couldn't intellectually understand or articulate their underlying meanings. Still, I knew. I thrilled to them. I learned. Everything in them rang true: the unspoken sexuality  (a woman loves a beast, a girl is nearly eaten by a wolf, a frog wishes to be the husband of a princess), the violence (bad mothers, absent fathers, foul murders), the greed (the house of candy, the cage of gold). I didn't realize it, of course, but the tales were allowing me to examine fear, anxiety, desire, sorrow. It was a dangerous world, but truer to reality than anything else we were allowed -- those safe books with their happy endings....

Ponies 3

Ponies 4

Ponies 5

"My initial exposure to storytelling, even before I read fairy tales, came from the stories told to me by the most down-to-earth woman I knew -- my grandmother. The two of us might have been in the market or on the subway, we might have been walking down Jerome Avenue or drinking tea with cubes of sugar in her overheated apartment, but we were also in Russia. We were dropped into her childhood, stuck in a snowstorm, running for our lives. When I heard about the wolves that howled all night, about the rivers where the ice was so thick it didn't melt until May, about men who worked so hard that they sometimes slept for a month in the winter, like bears, I was hearing the deeper truth of my grandmother's life, the complex universe that she carried with her, a very personal once-upon-a-time. This was the beginning of my life in the world of storytelling. And, perhaps, it was not unlike the very start of storytelling itself.

Ponies 6

"Do people choose the art that inspires them -- do they think it over, decide they might prefer the fabulous to the real? For me, it was those early readings of fairy tales that made me who I was as a reader and, later on, as a storyteller."

Ponies 7

Ponies 8

Words: The Alice Hoffman quotes above are from  "The Rules of Magic" (Waterstones, March 6, 2015), and an older piece on fairy tales first published in The Washington Post (alas, I no longer have the date). The quotes in the picture captions are from a wide variety of sources including Jane Yolen's Touch Magic and Marina Warner's Once Upon a Time, both of which I recommend.  All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The photographs are of Dartmoor ponies grazing on our village Commons. (Tilly is very good with these wild pony herds: she loves to watch them but doesn't chase, and she always keeps a respectful distance. ) The illustration is "Little Red Riding Hood" by G.P. Jacomb Hood (1857-1929). 


The Muse of Fantasy

Cold Wind by Rovina Cai

From "The Flat-Heeled Muse" by Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007):

"The muse in charge of fantasy wears good, sensible shoes. No foam-born Aphrodite, she vaguely resembles my old piano teacher, who was keen on metronomes. She does not carry a soothing lyre for inspiration, but is more likely to shake you roughly awake at four in the morning and rattle a sheaf of subtle, sneaky questions under your nose. And you had better answer them. The Muse will stand for no nonsense (that is, non-sense). Her geometries are no more Euclidean than Einstein’s, but they are equally rigorous."

Fake It Till You Make It by Rovina Cai

"The less fantastic it is, the stronger fantasy becomes. The writer can painfully bark his shins on too many pieces of magical furniture. Enchanted swords, wielded incautiously, cut both ways. But the limits imposed on characters and implements must be more than simply arbitrary. What does not happen should be as valid as what does. In The Once and Future King, for example, Merlyn knows what will happen in the future; he knows the consequences of Arthur’s encounter with Queen Morgause. Why doesn’t he speak out in warning? It is not good enough to say, “Well, that would spoil the story.” Merlyn cannot interfere with destiny; but how does T. H. White show this in specific detail? By having Merlyn grow backwards through time. Confused in his memories, he cannot recollect whether he has already told Arthur or was going to tell him. No more is needed. The rationale is economical and beautiful, fitting and enriching Merlyn’s personality.

"Insistence on plausibility and rationality can work for the writer, not against him. In developing his characters, he is obliged to go deeper instead of wider. And, as in all literature, characters are what ultimately count. The writer of fantasy may have a slight edge on the realistic novelist, who must present his characters within the confines of actuality. Fantasy, too, uses homely detail, but at the same time goes right to the core of a character, to extract the essence, the very taste of an individual personality. This may be one of the things that makes good fantasy so convincing. The essence is poetic truth."

Bridge Encounter by Rovina Cai

"Fantasy presents the world as it should be. But 'should be' does not mean that the realms of fantasy are Lands of Cockaigne where roasted chickens fly into mouths effortlessly opened. Sometimes heartbreaking, but never hopeless, the fantasy world as it 'should be' is one in which good is ultimately stronger than evil, where courage, justice, love, and mercy actually function. Thus, it may often appear quite different from our own. In the long run, perhaps not. Fantasy does not promise Utopia. But if we listen carefully, it may tell us what we someday may be capable of achieving."

The Chase by Rovina Cai

The wonderful imagery here is by Rovina Cai, from Melbourne, Australia. Born in 1988, she studied at the University of Melbourne, and at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Her publications include illustrations for Tintinnabula and Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan, the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire, and Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.

"My work is often inspired by the past," she says; "from myths and fairy tales to gothic novels, these stories resonate with me because they bring a little bit of magic and wonder to the present day."

Please visit Cai's website to see more of her work.

Tom  Thom by Rovina Cai

The passages above are from "The Flat-heeled Muse" by Lloyd Alexander, published in The Horn Book (April, 1965). All rights to the art and text reserved by the artist and the author's estate.


The Night Sea Journey

The Fisherman by Edmund Dulac

"The creative act is a letting down of the net of human imagination into the ocean of chaos on which we are suspended, and the attempt to bring out of it ideas. It is the night sea journey, the lone fisherman on a tropical sea with his nets, and you let these nets down - sometimes, something tears through them that leaves them in shreds and you just row for shore, and put your head under your bed and pray.

"At other times what slips through are the minutiae, the minnows of this ichthyological metaphor of idea chasing. But, sometimes, you can actually bring home something that is food, food for the human community that we can sustain ourselves on and go forward.

- Terence McKenna

The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac

"The artist who goes into himself most deeply -- and it is a painful journey -- is the artist who touches us most closely, speaks to us most clearly.' "  - Ursula K. Le Guin

"There's stories and then there's stories. The ones with any worth change your life forever, perhaps only in a small way, but once you've heard them, they are forever a part of you. You nurture them and pass them on, and the giving only makes you feel better. The others are just words on a page."  - Charles de Lint

Beauty & the Beast by Edmund DulacThe art above is "The Fisherman," "The Little Mermaid," and "Beauty & the Beast" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953).


The shimmer of morning

Nattadon Hill 1

"Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature."  - Vladamir Nabakov

Nattadon Hill 2

"My job as a human being as well as a writer is to feel as thoroughly as possible the experience that I am part of, and then press it a little further. To find out what happens if I ask, 'What else, what next, what more, what deeper, what hidden?' And to keep pressing into that endless realm, in many different ways.''  - Jane Hirshfield

Nattadon Hill 3The Nabokov quote is from Lectures on Literature (Mariner Books, 2002). The Jane Hirshfield quotes above and in the picture captions are from an interview in The Atlantic magazine (September 1997).  The Mary Oliver quote in the picture captions is from "Morning Poem," published in Dreamwork (The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


The art's heart's purpose

Conversation by Sophie Ryder

From an interview with David Foster Wallace (1962-2008):

"I've gotten convinced that there's something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn't have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent....Talent's just an instrument. It's like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn't. I'm not saying I'm able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art's heart's purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It's got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.

Sitting by Sophie Ryder

Kneeling Hare by Sophie Ryder

Hugging by Sophie Ryder

"I know this doesn't sound hip at all...But it seems like one of the things really great fiction writers do -- from Carver to Chekhov to Flannery O'Connor, or like the Tolstoy of 'The Death of Ivan Ilych' or the Pynchon of Gravity's Rainbow -- is 'give' the reader something. The reader walks away from the real art heavier than she came into it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can't be for your benefit; it's got to be for hers. What's poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out."

Which is precisely why this kind of work is necessary. Especially here in the mythic arts field.

Bending, Crouching, Kneeling, Standing Figures by Sophie Ryder

The Minotaur and the Hare by Sophie Ryder

Girl Hugging Dog by Sophie Ryder

The marvelous sculptures and drawings today are by English artist Sophie Ryder. Born in London in 1963, she was raised in England and the south of France, studied at the Royal Academy of Arts, and now lives and works in an enchanted hand-crafted farmhouse in the Cotswolds. Ryder's world "is one of mystical creatures, animals and hybrid beings made from sawdust, wet plaster, old machine parts and toys, weld joins and angle grinders, wire 'pancakes,' torn scraps of paper, charcoal sticks and acid baths."

Her hare figures, she says, "started off as upright versions of the hare in full animal form, and now they have developed into half human and half hare. I needed a figure to go with the minotaur -- a human female figure with an animal head. The hare head seemed to work perfectly, the ears simulating a mane of hair. She feels right to me, as if she had always existed in myth and legend, like the minotaur."

Luigi by Sophie Ryder

Wire Dog by Sophie Ryder

Ryder's dogs (whippets crossed with Italian greyhounds) also appear frequently in her work. "I have been breeding these dogs since 1999," she explains, "and since then have achieved the most perfect companions and models -- Elsie, Pedro, Luigi and Storm. Now we are a pack and they are with me twenty-four hours a day. We run, work and sleep together -- although they do have their own beds now! Living cheek-by-jowl with these dogs means that their form is somehow sitting just under my own skin. I can draw or sculpt them entirely from memory. They are my full-time companions so I am never lonely. The relationship between the Lady Hare and the dog is very close, just as is my bond with my own family of dogs."

To see more of Ryder's art, please visit her website; or pick up Jonathan Benington's book Sophie Ryder, published by Lund Humphries (2001). There's an interview with the artist here, and delightful pictures of her farmhouse here.

If you'd like to know more about the folklore of hares and rabbits, go here and here.

Drawings by Sophie Ryder

Sophie Ryder working on Curled Up Number 2

All rights to the art, video, and text above reserved by the artist, filmmaker, and the author's estate. An interesting related article is "David Foster Wallace Was Right: Irony is Ruining Our Culture" by Matt Ashby & Brendon Carroll.


Handle with care

The Teignbrook


Words
by Anne Sexton

Be careful of words,
even the miraculous ones.
For the miraculous we do our best,
sometimes they swarm like insects
and leave not a sting but a kiss.
They can be as good as fingers.
Julianna SwaneyThey can be as trusty as the rock
you stick your bottom on.
But they can be both daisies and bruises.
Yet I am in love with words.
They are doves falling out of the ceiling.
They are six holy oranges sitting in my lap.
They are the trees, the legs of summer,
and the sun, its passionate face.
Yet often they fail me.
I have so much I want to say,
so many stories, images, proverbs, etc.
But the words aren't good enough,
the wrong ones kiss me.
Sometimes I fly like an eagle
but with the wings of a wren.
But I try to take care
and be gentle to them.
Words and eggs must be handled with care.
Once broken they are impossible
things to repair.

Boat2Sheep at Chagford Show
Pictures: The illustrations are by Julianna Swaney, who finds inspiration in nature, children's stories, fairy tales, and history. Poem: "Words" is from The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). Further thoughts on the power of words are tucked into the picture captions (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artist and the authors. Photographs: By the Wallabrook on Dartmoor.


True names

Tilly on Nattadon

Continuing our discussion of the "language of place" with another passage from Robert Macfarlane's fine book Landmarks:

"The extraordinary language of the Outer Hebrides is currently being lost. Gaelic itself is in danger of withering on the tongue: the total number of those speaking or learning to speak Gaelic in Scotland is now around 58,000. Of those, many are understandably less interested in the intricacies of toponymy, or the exactitudes of what the language is capable of regarding landscape. Tim Robinson -- the great writer, mathematician and deep-mapper of the Irish Atlantic seaboard -- notes how with each generation in the west of Ireland 'some of the place-names are forgotten or becoming incomprehensible.' Often in the Outer Hebrides I have been told that younger generations are losing the literacy of the land....

Tilly and the pony

Dartmoor pony

"What is occurring in Gaelic is, broadly, occuring in English too -- and in scores of other languages and dialects. The nuances observed by specialized vocabularies are evaporating from common usage, burnt off by capital, apathay and urbanization. The terrain beyond the city fringe has become progressively more understood in terms of large generic units ('field,' 'hill,' valley,' 'wood'). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé about place, in the sense that Georg Simmel used the word in his 1903 essay 'The Metropolis and the Mental Life' -- meaning indifferent to the distinction between things.

"It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. The enthno-linguist K. David Harrison bleakly declares that language death means the loss of 'long-cultivated knowledge that has guided human-environment interaction for millennia...accumulated wisdom and observations of generations of people about the natural world, plants, animals, weather, soil. The loss [is] incalculable, the knowledge almost unrecoverable.' Or as Tim Dee neatly puts it, 'Without a name in our mouths, an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts."

Dartmoor ponies

One question I've been pondering lately is: How can fantasy writers use the metaphorical language of our form to strengthen our relationship to place, and to ameliorate the "language deficit that leads to attention deficit"? How do we re-enchant the land, in art and actuality?

 More on that tomorrow.

More on that next week.

Dartmoor ponies

Dartmoor ponies

Dartmoor dog

Words: The passage by Robert Macfarlane is quoted f rom Landmarks  (Hamish Hamilton, 2015; Penguin Books, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from The Cloud Collector: Poems & Tale in Scots & English by Sheena Blackhall (Lochlands, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Tilly encounters Dartmoor ponies on the hill behind our house.