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?

I'm working on some answers to those questions; and when I'm ready, I'll post them here.

 

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.


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

Trotternish Peninsula

"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.


Art slips through

Path to the Commons

Encounter on the Commons

This week, while the UK government begins to negotiate our exit from Europe -- a severing that so many of us do not want -- here's a passage from Jeanette Winterson's fine essay, "What is Art For?" (2014):

"We live in a money culture," writes Winterson. "[There is] a general public feeling that if our economy is in good shape, the world is in good shape. And governments are praised not by their health and education provision, or their welfare record, or by employment or foreign policy, but by the robustness  -- or not -- of the central economy. Capitalism says that society must become richer and richer, that whatever the cost, economies must grow. Once we subscribe to money as the core value, what follows is a deregulated, 24-hour society, where the right to sleep, the right to peace and quiet, the right to human-friendly work patterns and human-friendly hours all become far less important that the right to make money.

"Against this golden calf in the wilderness, where everybody comes to buy and sell, art offers a different rate of exchange. The artist does not turn time into money; the artist -- whether writer, painter, musician -- turns time into energy, time into intensity, time into vision. And the exchange that art offers is an exchange in kind -- of energy for energy, intensity for intensity, vision for vision.

P1410689

"Can we make the return? Do we want to?" she asks. "When people complain that art is hard work, they really mean that our increasingly passive entertainments do not equip us for the demands that art makes. Art is not a passive activity. We have to get involved. Imagination always means involvement, and as soon as your mind is open to a different level of seeing, thinking, hearing, or understanding, you start asking questions. Money culture hates questions.

One of several foals born to the herd this spring

"Part of the triumph of capitalism has been to make itself seem natural -- not only the best way to live but also the inevitable way, the only way. Art asks questions. I don't mean directly, or politically, though that is sometimes the case. I mean that art, by its very nature, is a question. A question about who we are, about what things matter.

Foals

"Art stands as an eternal question mark at the end of money's confident rhetoric. This is partly because artists themselves cannot work in the way money culture demands -- that is, to order, with guaranteed results in a specified time -- and partly because art just can't be controlled. It doesn't fit in with any economic models. It can't be predicted. It can't be done away with or phased out or put on growth hormones. So either we ignore it and say it's not essential, not important -- might have been once, but isn't now -- or we indulge it and see it as a kind of charming charity, a sort of ornament to life the way that ladies were once ornaments to gentlemen.

"But art is not an ornament, or a charity, or a waste of time. It is a completely different way of looking at the world. At the core of art is an intensity of experience totally lacking from a money culture, whose purpose is to dilute every other value to below the value of itself. Art wants you to concentrate; money wants you to dissipate. Far from being about hard work, a money culture is about incredible waste of effort, as people labor for no other purpose than to make more of the same: money. You can waste your life, but money has to be saved -- because money is precious and life is not.

foal

"But what can art do for us, in a world of corporate culture? Isn't it just temporary relief, or escapism?

"When I sit down to read a book without interruption or to listen to a piece of music at home or in the concert hall, without interruption, or to look at a painting, without interruption, the first thing I am doing is turning my gaze inward. The outside world, with all its demands and distractions, has to wait -- not something it likes doing. As I turn my attention away from the world, I draw my energy away from the world. I'm not passive, but I'm in a state of alert rest, where the artwork can reach me with its own energies, very different energies to the getting and spending going on all around me. The creativity and concentration put into the making of the art-work begins to cross-current into me. It's not simply about being recharged, as in a good night's sleep or a vacation; it's about being charged at a different voltage.

Foal

"When I read Emily Dickinson or William Carlos Willams, I'm not just reading a poet's take on the world -- I am entering into a completely different world, and I don't mean a fantasy screen. I mean a world built from the beginning on different principles. William Carlos Williams wrote: It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.

Foal

"Art's counterculture, however diverse, holds in plain sight what a material world denies: love and imagination. Art is made out of a passionate, reckless love of the work in its own right, as though nothing else exists, and an imaginative force that generates something new out of disparate materials....

"For the maker, and later the reader or the viewer or the listener, there is no obvious reward. There is only the-thing-itself, because you want it, because you're drawn to it. It speaks to the part of us that is fully human, the part that belongs fully to ourselves, not mechanized, socialized, pacified, integrated, but voice-to-voice, across time, singing a song pitched to the human ear, singing of destiny, of fear, of loss, of hope, of renewal, of change, of connection, of all the subtle and fragile relationships between men and women, their children, their country, and all the things not measured or understood by the census figures and gross national product.

Foal

"Art slips through, and us with it -- slips past the border police and the currency controls, to talk as we've always wanted to, about matters of the spirit and the heart, to imagine a world not dominated by numbers, to find in colors and poetry and sand an equivalence to our deepest feelings, a language for who we are."

Foal

Words: The passage above is from "What is Art For?" by Jeanette Winterson, published in The World Split Open (Tin House Books, 2014); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: A quiet morning's encounter with our local herd of Dartmoor ponies. They often come down from the moor to shelter their foals on the slope of the village Commons. A related post: Art, the Marketplace, and Narrative Loss.


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.