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.

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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.

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"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.

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"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.

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

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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.


The landscape of story

Riverside 1

From "The Dreaming of Place" by Hugh Lupton:

"The ground holds the memory of all that has happened to it. The landscapes we inhabit are rich in story. The lives of our ancestors have contributed to the shape and form of the land we know today -- whether we are treading the cracked cement of a deserted runaway, the boundary defined by a quickthorn hedge, the outline of a Roman road or the grassy hump of a Bronze Age tumulus. The creatures we share the landscape with have made their marks, too: their tracks, nesting places, slides and waterholes. And beyond the human and animal interactions are the huge, slow geological shapings that have given the land its form. Every bump, fold and crease, every hill and hollow is part of a narrative that is both human and prehuman. And as long as men and women have moved over the land these narratives have been spoken and sung.

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"This sense of story being held immanent in landscape," Lupton suggests, " is most clearly defined in the belief systems of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. In Native Australian belief everything that is not 'here and now' is described as having gone 'into the dreaming.' The Aborigines believe that the tangled skein of remembered experience, history, legend and myth that constitutes the past -- that is invisible to the objective eye or the camera -- has not gone away. It is, rather, implicit in the place where it happened, a potentiality. It is a living memory that is held between a place and its people. It is always waiting to be woken by a voice.

Riverside 3

 "I remember the Irish storyteller Eamon Kelly once telling me that in the parish of County Clare where he grew up, every field had a name, and every field name was associated with a story. To walk from one end of the parish to the other was to walk through a landscape of story. It occurred to me that the same was probably once true for any parish in Britain.

"But today we are forgetting our stories. We have been forgetting them for a long time. Few of us live in the same landscape as our grandparents. The deep knowledge that comes from long familiarity has become a rarity. Places are glimpsed through the windows of cars and trains. Maybe, occasionally, we stride through them.

"What does it mean for a culture to have lost touch with its dreaming? What can we do about it?

Riverside 4

"It seems to me that as writers, artists, environmentalists, parents, teachers and talkers, one of our practices should be to enter the Dreaming, that invisible, parallel worl, and salvage our local stories. We need to re-charge the landscape with its forgotten narratives. Only then will it regain the sacred status it once possessed. This might involve research into local history, conversations with elders in the community, exploration of regional folktales, ballads and myths...

"And then an intuitive jump into Imagination."

Riverside 5

Riverside 6

Words: The passage by British storyteller, folklorist, and novelist Hugh Lupton is from EarthLines magazine (Issue 2, August 2012). The poem in the picture captions is by Scottish poet Judith Taylor, first published in The Interpreter's House (Issue 59, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Tilly in our local river (the Teign), and me (snapped by Howard) with a very wet dog. Related post: on place and the importance of local stories, "Wild Neighbors."

 


Midsummer's Day

Riverbank


Night in Day

The night never wants to end, to give itself over
Arthur Rackhamto light. So it traps itself in things: obsidian, crows.

Even on summer solstice, the day of light’s great
triumph, where fields of sunflowers guzzle in the sun -
we break open the watermelon and spit out
black seeds, bits of night glistening on the grass.

  - Joseph Stroud


Chagford Bridge

Happy Summer Solstice, everyone!

It's been a week of gloriously warm weather here, and the hound and I have been down to river for a swim every morning since it started. These pictures of a very wet and happy Tilly were taken on Sunday.

Testing the water

Plunging in

River

"Green was the silence, wet was the light, the month of June trembled like a butterfly."

- Pablo Neruda

River

River

Leaves and waterThe poem above is from Of This World: New and Selected Poems, 1966-2006 by Joseph Stroud (Copper Canyon Press, 2009); all rights reserved by the author. The drawing is by Arthur Rackham.


The beauty of bogs

Bog 1

"As doors to the next world go, a bog ain't a bad choice. It's not quite water and it's not quite land -- it's an in-between place."   - Ransom Riggs (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children)

Bog 2

Bog 3

Bog 4

Bog 5

Today's recommended reading: "Love Letter to a Bog" by  Sharon Blackie (Caught by the River).

"A bog doesn’t give up its secrets easily," Sharon writes, "but it calls you to uncover them nevertheless. The lure of a bog-pool, which beckons you over to look down on its bright mirrored surface, the perfect blue of the sky an antidote to the relentless black of the peat. But when you stand over it (if you make it that far) all reflections disappear; there is only you, and the dark. Reach down with your fingers if you dare. Who knows what you might touch? Who knows what mysteries you might uncover? To love a bog is to love all that lies buried beneath the surface, buried in its rich, ripe flesh."

Bog 6

Bog 7

Bog 8

Further reading: The spring issue of EarthLines magazine is out, filled with wonderful writing, art, and photography once again. Edited by David Knowles & Sharon Blackie, who are based in Ireland, EarthLines is "an active and passionate project to transform the relationship between humans and the rest of the world."

Also, if you haven't yet found your way to If Women Rose Rooted (a study of the relationship between women, myth, and landscape), you have a treat in store.

If Women Rose Rooted & EarthLinesThe poem in the picture captions is from North by Seamus Heaney (Faber & Faber, 1975); all rights reserved by the author's estate.


Water and flow

Waterfall 1

Waterfall 2

"Be wild; that is how to clear the river. The river does not flow in polluted, we manage that. The river does not dry up, we block it. If we want to allow it its freedom, we have to allow our ideational lives to be let loose, to stream, letting anything come, initially censoring nothing. That is creative life. It is made up of divine paradox. To create one must be willing to be stone stupid, to sit upon a throne on top of a jackass and spill rubies from one’s mouth. Then the river will flow, then we can stand in the stream of it raining down."  - Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Waterfall 3

Waterfall 4

Waterfall 5

Waterfall 6

Today's reading recommendation: "If Your House in On Fire," an interview with Kathleen Dean Moore by Mary DeMocker (Sun Magazine). The subject here is climate change, but it's not as despressing a read as you'd think -- and though the piece is from 2012, Moore's contemplation of political and environmental activism couldn't be more relevant now.

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"I don’t pretend to know what a writer’s duty is in these times," says Moore. "And nobody wants to write something that breaks people’s hearts. But I did want to help others see one possible future, a world without owl calls and frog song. If we can’t imagine what probably lies ahead, how will we gather the courage to turn in a different direction? Maybe more writers should tell stories about possible futures, the beautiful ones and the ones that will break our hearts. It’s cowardly to shy away from sad stories. As songwriter Leonard Cohen says, even when our hearts are broken, we have to sing the 'broken hallelujah.' "

Waterfall 8

Today's book recommendation: Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America  by Jon Mooallem (Penguin, 2013).

Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem

Waterfall 9


Guest Post: Tenderness, the Breaker of Curses

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My apologies for missing this week's "Monday Tunes" post. I had computer problems yesterday, and spent the day sorting it out -- but all is well now and I'm back online again.

Today's Guest Post is by my friend Briana Saussy, based in San Antonio, Texas. Bri is a writer, teacher, counselor and community-maker deeply rooted in the myth & fairy tale tradition. One of the many ways she spreads magic in the world is through her wonderful Lunar Letters, sent out on the full moon each month. I love Bri's writing, and these missives are invariably wise, insightful, and enchanting.

Like many around the world, I am still in a state of shock from the American election result -- a horror compounded by the fall-out from the EU Referendum result here in the UK. Speaking to my husband after the election, he reminded me that fearfulness of the future can make us draw in and close ourselves off when what we need to do is the opposite: open our hearts, step out into the world, carry the light forward when the world is dark around us. Briana's latest Lunar Letter is helpful in this regard, so I asked her permission to share it here. Her subject this month is "Tenderness, the Breaker of Curses."

Circe Invidiosa by John William Waterhouse"To be cursed," writes Briana, "is to be dried up, devoid of moisture and suppleness, brittle and lacking the essential ingredient of life: fresh, circulating water. The most harmful afflictions of body, mind, spirit, and soul are those that seek to take away, ignore, and otherwise exploit our ability to be tender towards ourselves and towards one another. The remedy for this affliction may take many different forms, but always includes blessing what is tender within you.

"In many different cultures, the evil eye is understood primarily as a 'drying' condition, one in which your money dries up, your health dries up, your fertility and verve for life also dry up. In opposition, to be blessed is to be moist, supple, full of flowing water, clean, bathed, and tender like new shoots of grass, tender like fresh green wood sprouting forth from a tree, tender like the water filled skin of a newborn baby nestled up safely in your arms.  Losing one’s tenderness, therefore, is tantamount to losing one’s life.

"The loss of tenderness and thus of life is not difficult to achieve. Let yourself be taken over by anger, envy, jealousy, hatred, and fear, and you will know how easy it is to do. You can observe for yourself the negative consequences of being taken over by these emotions, how they cause a withering and a contraction in your life and relationships. But even so, we may come to doubt the need for tenderness. Why be tender in a world and in a time that seems so often to only reward the tougher-than-nails? How does one cultivate tenderness in the face of violence, bloodshed, and injustice? What is tenderness other than one more vulnerability, easily overcome by those who are 'stronger'? How do we stay tender in times such as these and how do we bless our tender places?

Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse

"We bless our tender places by calling in the waters. We call in the waters so that we might cry good and salty tears, make nourishing soup, wash the dust off our clothes, and irrigate the seeds we have planted. So that we may drink of the waters and bathe in them, washing ourselves clean, literally renewing ourselves. We call in the waters from within, reaching deep and accessing the sacred well that may be blocked or polluted, but is simply waiting to be set free, waiting to be cleansed so that it can run, rush, and spring forth from the solid ground of your very life.  

Mermaid by John William Waterhouse"Tenderness -- and the circulating life waters corresponding to it -- points to the deepest parts of our resilient nature. Resilience is a power, and it is what makes for much needed hardiness of life and soul. 

"Sometimes it seems that there is no water to call in, no source of nourishment, of life-celebrating and life-protecting magic. But finding the water, finding the sources of life and nourishment, is not an easy task. Especially not when you look around and all you see is hard, sun-baked rock, packed gravel, and too much asphalt.

"I have lived most of my life in desert regions, and so I know from firsthand experience the water that is there, hundreds of feet under the ground and flowing in madly rushing rivers or collected in fathomless lakes. You don’t see it, but it is there. When the territory around looks most inhospitable to tenderness, then you know that you are in exactly the right spot to fill yourself up with all that gives life, all that keeps you supple, all that keeps you tender. You may have to dig for it, you might have to learn to collect it drop by drop from precious rainfalls, you may end up going on a pilgrimage to find it; but it is there, waiting to be called upon.

The Charmer by John William Waterhouse"To bless tenderness is also to protect it. In desert areas that are hot, arid, and dry, the culture is one of toughness, and even the plants with their prickles and thorns seem to just be waiting for their chance to chew you up and spit you out. If you neglected to look closely, you would be forgiven for thinking that toughness and hardness is all that matters. But soulful seekers do look closer, and what we find are that the plants with the best boundaries are the same that have the most tender, water-filled skins. They give us the blessing way. Find the water, find the sources of life, and when you do, keep them safe; build a good boundary around them. Don’t just let anyone access your tenderness, choose actively and with discernment who and when and where receives the privilege of your softness.

"To bless our tender places is to ask for and gladly accept help. In many cultures there are Gods and Holy Helpers who bring the waters of life, bring the rains, bring the thunderclouds that roll in with their big noise, making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and reminding you that you are very much alive, creating with every breath you take, holding an infinite cosmos within your very body. We are not islands meant to do it all on our own. We have two-legged and four-legged, winged, clawed, fanged, and finned relatives who are here and ready and willing to help point us in all the right directions; so we look to them and we listen.

Ariadne by John William Waterhouse

"Finally, tenderness is meant to be shared. Like water, it requires a solid vessel, the boundary of the cacti, to keep it stored up safely; but once we are filled up with it we cannot help but overflow. The overflow happens in many ways -- through tears and laughter and deep kisses and long touches, through creative work and vibrant dance, and the sweet sound of the saxophone or drums under the stars. These are all medicines, results from the blessing and safe keeping of your tenderness, that literally spill forth and out into the world much like water, nourishing much like water, and restoring so many that are on the brink of death back into life.

"Tenderness is no small thing. It is, in truth, a source of the greatest strength. It is not the weak spot or the pain point to be covered up, but rather a sign post, the tracks in the snow, that carry you forward to your own headwaters, no matter where it leads. So remember that anytime the flow feels blocked, anytime your skin feels shrunken and life feels too dry, relationships too brittle, and your broken places too yawning and jagged; remember when you feel raw and exposed, vulnerable, or too tender, remember what lessons tenderness has to teach you about your own hardiness, your own deeply resilient nature. It may be time to bless your most tender places and call forth the waters once more."

Miranda by John William Waterhouse

If you'd like to sign up for Briana's Lunar Letters, you can do so here. I also recommend her Daily Blessings, charmingly illustrated by Cassandra Oswald.

For more about the myths and folklore of water, see my previous post "Water, wild and sacred." And for a beautiful piece on creating art during troubled times, see "Time and Silence, Color and Light" by Edith Hope Bishop.

The paintings today are by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), an English artist in the "Second Wave" of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Destiny by John William Waterhouse


The Otter Woman

Suspension by Kate O'Hara

Today, I'd like to spotlight a thoroughly magical piece by the Irish poet Mary O'Malley, which draws on old Celtic legends of the otter woman (or otter wife). This is a classic "animal bride" figure, similar to seal maidens, swan maidens, crane wives and other half-animal/half-human creatures, trapped into marriage by mortal men who steal their animal skin sor cloak of feathers. Such stories usually end when the skin is found again, releasing her back into wild....

Otter Sculpture by Ian EdwardsThe Otter Woman
by Mary O'Malley

He never asked why she always walked
By the shore, what she craved
Why she never cried when every wave
Crescendoed like an orchestra of bones.
She stood again on the low bridge
The night of the full moon.

One sweet, deep breath and she slipped in
Where the river fills the sea.
She saw him clearly in the street light -- his puzzlement.
Rid of him she let out one low, strange cry. . .

Otter photograph by Mark Hamblin

The lovely painting above is by Kate O'Hara, an illustrator based in Reno, Nevada. The otter sculpture is by Ian Edwards, based here in the West Country. (He's best known for his figurative work, but you can see more of his animal sculptures here.) The otter photograph above is by Mark Hamblin, a fine nature photographer based in Scotland. The photograph below comes from a news article on otters, and was, alas, uncredited.

If you'd like to know more about "animal bride" legends go here. For more about shape-shifting otters go here. And for more about Mary O'Malley's beautiful work, you can listen to a good interview with the poet on American public radio here.

Newborn otter pup"The Otter Woman" by Mary O'Malley first appeared in The Southern Review (Autumn 1995). O'Malley's poetry collections include A Consideration of Silk, Where the Rocks Float, The Knife in the Wave, Asylum Road, The Boning Hall, A Perfect V, and Valparaiso; highly recommended. All rights to the text & imagery above reserved by the author and artists.


Writing as a spiritual practice

The oak

From an Interview with Terry Tempest Williams by Jana Bouck Remy (Irreanteum, 2002):

"I do not write every day," says Williams. "I write to the questions and issues before me. I write to deadlines. I write out of my passion. And I write to make peace with my own contradictory nature. For me, writing is a spiritual practice.

The hound

Rowan, oak, and birch

The stream

"A small bowl of water sits on my desk," she continues, "a reminder that even if nothing is happening on the page, something is happening in the room -- evaporation. And I always light a candle when I begin to write, a reminder that I have now entered another realm, call it the realm of the Spirit. I am mindful that when one writes, one leaves this world and enters another.

The entry

The words

"My books are collages made from journals, research, and personal experience. I love the images rendered in journal entries, the immediacy that is captured on the page, handwritten notes. I love the depth of ideas and perspective the research brings to a story, be it biological or anthropological studies or the insights brought to the page through the scholarly work of art historians. When I go into a library, I feel like I am a sleuth looking to solve a mystery."

The stream

The flow

The writer

A little later in the interview, Remy asks: "How did you become a writer? In what ways do you think you've developed as a writer during the course of your career? Are there things you can do now that you don't think you could have pulled off successfully when you were first starting to write? What do you do to keep developing as a writer?"

"These are tough questions," Williams answers. "How does anyone 'become' a writer? You just write. I have always written, I have always kept a journal, always loved to read. Perhaps as writers we are really storytellers, finding that golden thread that connects us to the past, present, and future at once. I love language and landscape. For me writing is correspondence between these two passions.

The pen

The paper

"It is difficult to ever see yourself. I don't know how I've developed or grown as a writer. I hope I am continuing to take risks on the page. I hope I am continuing to ask the hard questions of myself. If we are attentive to the world and to those around us, I believe we will be attentive on the page. Writing is about presence. I want to be fully present wherever I am, alive to the pulse just beneath the skin."

The muse

The waters of the imaginationWords: The quotes above are from "An Interview with Terry Tempest Williams" by Jana Bouck Remy (Irranteum, Summer 2002), reprinted in A Voice in the Wilderness, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The poem in the picture captions is from Sixty Odd: New Poems by Ursula K. Le Guin (Shambhala, 1999). All rights reserved by the authors.
Pictures: Writing by the little stream on our hill, with the hound at my side. The water is low and green grass has turned gold aftter weeks of unusually dry weather. I'm loving the heat and sun, but the hills need rain.


The wild path

On the path

In a 2011 interview on the late, lamented Bookslut site, Luís Alberto Urrea (an old friend of mine from our respective Tuscson days) was asked if he ever got stuck as a writer:

"I do get stuck! I think everyone gets stuck!" he answered. "Here's the thing: this is a part of my belief system that continues to grow over the years: I have to thank the ancient Chinese poets and writers, and especially the Japanese haiku poets. Writing is not a product, but a process. Writing is a life style, a life choice, a path. Writing is part of my process of sacredness and prayer even. What I do is writing; that's how I've chosen to understand and process the world, as a writer.

River 1

River 2

"When I feel stuck," Luis continued, "then that season has taken a bit of a pause. The garden has already grown many different blossoms, and my task is to know when not to force something more. It would be a mistake to do battle with the writing spirit. Writer's block is like a stop sign; it's a warning. So sometimes I just think for a while, sometimes I drive cross-country, sometimes I read something. That's the time to do something fascinating that's outside of myself, and there's always something fascinating going on. If I get all wrapped up in myself, I'll grind to a halt eventually. If nothing else, I'm just not that interesting.

"The world is full of hilarious, upsetting, entertaining, disturbing stuff out there – that well just never runs dry. That's a great gift for all of us. We just have to go out and look."

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I often remember this useful advice from historical novelist Hillary Mantel

"If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient."

River 7

River 8

"Be wild," says storyteller and curandera Clarissa Pinkola Estés; "that is how to clear the river. The river does not flow in polluted, we manage that. The river does not dry up, we block it. If we want to allow it its freedom, we have to allow our ideational lives to be let loose, to stream, letting anything come, initially censoring nothing. That is creative life. It is made up of divine paradox. To create one must be willing to be stone stupid, to sit upon a throne on top of a jackass and spill rubies from one’s mouth. Then the river will flow, then we can stand in the stream of it raining down."

River 9

River 10

Tilly is good at reminding Howard and me to "be wild," no matter how busy our days can get. Then we're out the door and down the path to the river, the woods, the hills, the moor...and soon whatever is stuck becomes unstuck. The blood is moving. Ideas are flowing.

Then it's back home and back to work once more, bringing the whole wild world with us.

River 11

Blackberry blossomWords: The  Luis Urrea quote is from an interview by Terry Hong (Bookslut, December 2011). I highly recommend his fiction, nonfiction and poetry, which I've talked about previously here and here. The Hillary Mantel advice is from "Hillary Mantel's rules for writers" (The Guardian, February 2010).  The passage by Clarissa Pinkola Estés is from Women Who Run With the Wolves (Ballantine Books, 1992). The poem in the picture captions is from Candles in Babylon by Denise Levertov (New Directions, 1982). All rights reserved by the authors.
Related posts: Ben Okri on "The magic of the writer's craft," Susan Cooper on "When the magic is working," and reflections on art as "Gift exchange."
Pictures: Husband and hound on our walk by the river yesterday afternoon.


One last post on the magic of water

Morning coffee

This morning, in a pause between rain showers, I took my coffee break out on the hill with The Last Selchie Child by Jane Yolen in my bag and the hound at my side. This lovely little edition from A Midsummer Night's Press contains poetry rooted in fairy tales, folklore, and myth -- including five gorgeous selchie poems, and one based on The Little Mermaid. I recommend it highly.

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