The Writer's God is Mercury

Skye 1

Skye 2

I was sad to learn that EarthLines magazine has come to an end after an excellent run of 17 issues -- although I understand the need of its editors (Sharon Blackie and David Knowles) to move on and make time for their own writing, as this is precisely what Midori Snyder and I did when we ended our Journal of Mythic Arts after a decade of publication.

I recently came across the very first issue Earthlines, published in March 2012 from a remote croft on the Isle of Lewis -- not far, as the crow flies, from where I was staying last week on the Isle of Skye. One of the issue's treasures is an interview with Jay Griffiths, whose brilliant work (Wild, Kith, Pip Pip, etc.) takes up a fair amount of space on the Favorite Books shelf in my studio. In an exchange that seems even more timely now (in our current political climate), Sharon asks the author:

"How can you bear to see what is happening to the wild places of the earth that you see so clearly and love so much? The places, the ways of life that you write about with such passion in Wild, and that are threatened -- do you feel powerless because of the nature of the threats; does it instead force you to action (and if so, what's the source of the energy needed in that action -- anger? Desperation? Love?) Put simply, how do you live with it?"

Skye 3

"It is an injured, limping world, yes," Griffith responds. "Its vitality is reduced, yes, as if the full spectrum of the rainbow is being painted out with grey. The extinctions of this era -- extinctions of culture and of species, extinctions of minds and philosophies and languages -- will haunt the future in bleached and muted reproach, yes. And yet, and yet, and yet -- I want to paint the rainbow, as far as I can, prismatically, through language. You cannot ultimately break a rainbow, you can only fail to see its myriad, shattered beauties. And I believe in beauty as I believe in goodness, that people are profoundly good in spite of it all, and that when people know about a situation they can care about it.

"That is where the role of the writer comes in. The writer's god is Mercury the messenger, speaking between worlds. We listen to the world we can hear and see, and we speak to the other side, to the world of the reader."

Skye 4

Skye 5

"What do you make of the new growing interest in writing about nature, place, and the environment?" Sharon asks. "Do you see it as part of a process of change, a good thing, a vehicle for transformation -- or does it just refect a passive nostalgia for the things people have already given up on?"

Skye 5

Griffith answers: "When the tread is thinnest...when we sense the tragedy of endings...when life and grace is threatened by deafness and ugliness...when tenderness is bullied...when fences of enclosure overshadow the last scrap of commons...then, which is now, comes a ferocity on the side of life, to protect, to cherish and to envoice what cannot speak in human language."

It is my belief that this is a task that belongs to writers and other creators in the Mythic Arts field as well.

Skye 6

The first and last issues of EarthLines

Words: The passages above come from EarthLines: Nature, Place, and the Environment (Issue 1, May 2012); all rights reserved by Sharon Blackie and Jay Griffiths. Back issues of the magazine are available here, and well worth collecting. Pictures: The photographs were taken last week on the Isle of Skye. Descriptions can be found in the picture captions.


In the space between the imaginary
and the concrete

Ponies 1

From "305 Marguerite Cartright Avenue" by Chimamanda Adiche:

"As a child, books were the center of my world; stories entranced me, both reading them and writing them. I've been writing since I was old enough to spell. My writing, when it is going well, gives me what I like to describe as 'extravagant joy.' It is my life's one true passion. It is, in addition to the people I love, what makes me truly happy. And like all real passions, my writing has enormous power over me. There is the extravagant joy when it is going well, and when it is not going well -- when I sit in front of my computer and the words simply refuse to come -- I feel a soul-crushing anxiety, and I sink into varying levels of depression.

Ponies 2

Ponies 3

"Most times, in response to this, I read. I read the authors I love -- the poems of Derek Walcott, the prose of John Gregory Brown, the poems of Tanure Ojaide, the prose of Ama Ata Aidoo -- and I hope that their words will water my mind, as it were, and get my own words growing again. But if that doesn't work, I take to my bed and eat a lot of ice cream....

Ponies 4

Ponies 5

"I write because I have to. I write because I cannot imagine my life without the ability to write, or to imagine, or to dream. I write because I love the solitude of writing, because I love the near-mystical sense of creating characters who sometimes speak to me.

Ponies 6

Ponies 7

 "I write because I love the possibility of touching another human being with my work, and because I spend a large amount of time between the imaginary and the concrete.

Ponies 8

"My writing comes from hope, from melancholy, from rage, and from curiosity."

Ponies 9

Words: The passage above is from an essay by Adichie published in The World Split Open (Tin House Books, 2014). The poem in the picture captions is by British novelist and poet Helen Dunmore, from her collection Glad of These Times (Bloodaxe Books, 2007). Dunmore recently died of cancer at much too young an age, which is a great loss. All rights to the text above reserved by Ms. Adichie and the Dunmore estate.

Pictures: Dartmoor ponies who have strayed down from the moor to shelter their foals on our village Commons.


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.


Hiraeth

Footpath signpost

Footpath gate

Here's another interesting passage for our on-going discussion of 'writers and place" -- from an essay by Susan Cooper, the British-born author of The Dark Is Rising series:

"When I was twenty-six years old," she writes, "I left every aspect of home: place, friends, occupation, nation -- the lot, and I married an American and came to live in the USA. If put back in the same situation, I should probably do the same again, but I wouldn't say it was a reasoned choice. When you are uprooted in this way, and leave home completely and suddenly, what you leave is not a place only, but the whole fabric of life. You leave the sights and sounds and smells of your native environment, familiar and reassuring; the particular patterns of day and night, climate and weather, roads and rivers, and above all, people, all the different layers of relationships. You lose things you had never realized you possessed: a way of thinking, an ingrained pattern of assumptions and prejudices, and of delights felt never so acutely as when they are no longer there. Of course, you gain things too, but they don't fill these particular holes, because they are a different shape."

Bluebells 1

A little later in the essay, Cooper adds:

"I can tell you a lot about homesickness; I am an expert on the matter of living and loving across a divide, on the kind of ache that is bearable only because its absence would signify emptiness, the loss of all feeling. The Welsh call this ache hiraeth, and by that word they mean something more than homesickness: they mean a kind of deep longing of the soul. They guard the value of the word, and are contemptuous of those who use it lightly....My Dark is Rising books were written out of hiraeth, the longing; it infuses every image and description in them.

Bluebells 4

"Like many authors published for children, I've often said I don't write for children, but for myself, and in the case of these books it's especially true. It's true, that is, of the last four of the five books in the sequence, which were written after I'd lived for more than ten years in the United States. These four are quite different from the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, which was written when I still lived in London. (For one thing, they're better books, and I should hope so after ten years of practice. The worst thing you can ever say to an author is, 'Oh, my favorite of all your books is the first' -- it's like telling him that his whole life has been a downhill slide.) Those last four Dark is Rising books are layered with Englishness and Welshness, the two sides of my mongrel British nature; they're full of the history and geography of the British Isles, their time and place, their people and weather and skies and spells, all echoing to and fro. I couldn't live there in reality, so I lived there in my books. Perhaps the sequence put hiraeth to rest, in its most painful and acute form, because I seem not to have written anything about Britain since, except for three small retellings of folktales.

Bluebells 2

"Everyone leaves the first home. Time passes, nothing stays the same. We all leave childhood behind, even though that process may take decades, and not really be completed until our parents die. It's not an easy process; perhaps there's no such thing as easy growth, unless you're a dandelion. It isn't easy because you have to fight all the way against the pull of home.

Bluebells 3

"Not all the aspects of that world are warm and cozy," Cooper cautions; "there are many that are sinister. There's home as octopus, home as snare; home as Venus Flytrap, home as black hole. Home can be the place you can't escape from, or haven't the courage to leave or replace; the womb you have never really left. This is the dark side of home, and we should never lose sight of it, in a romantic haze of nostalgia.

"If one is to grow, home has to be replaced, over and over again, in a progression through life."

Pathway

Woodland Gate

Credits: The passages above are from "Moving On," published in Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children by Susan Cooper (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1996). The exquisite poem in the picture captions is from Selected Poems by Gillian Clarke, who is currently the National Poet of Wales (Picador, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors. Related posts: Kith and Kin and On Loss & Transfiguration. (For more on the subject of stories, place, and home, click on the "home &  homelessness" link below.)


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.

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"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...."

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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....

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"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.

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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.