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.


Finding the way, word by word

From At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald

From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens & Eugene Onegin by Alexander Puskin

From "Memory and Imagination" by essayist & memoirist Patricia Hampl:

"Is it possible to convey the enormous degree of blankness, confusion, hunch, and uncertainty lurking in the act of writing? When I am the reader, not the writer, I too fall into the lovely illusion that the words before me, which read so inevitably, must also have been written exactly as they appear, rhythm and cadence, language and syntax, the powerful waves of the sentences laying themselves on the smooth beach of the page one after another faultlessly.

From The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle & To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolfe

"But here I sit before a yellow legal pad, and the long line of the preceding two paragraphs is a jumble of crossed-out lines, false starts, and confused order. A mess. The mess of my mind trying to figure out what it wants to say. This is a writer's frantic, grabby mind, not the poised mind of a reader waiting to be edified or entertained.

From Persuasion by Jane Austen & Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

"I think of the reader as a cat, endlessly fastidious, capable by turns of mordant indifference and riveted attention, luxurious, recumbent, ever poised. Whereas the writer is absolutely a dog, panting and moping, too eager for an affectionate scratch behind the ears, longing frantically after any old stick thrown in the distance.

Early versions of her stories, in letter form, by Beatrix Potter

"The blankness of a new page never fails to intrigue and terrify me. Sometimes, in fact, I think my habit of writing on long yellow sheets comes from an atavistic fear of the writer's stereotypic 'blank white page.' At least when I begin writing, my page has a wash of color on it, even if the absence of words must finally be faced on a yellow sheet as much as on a blank white one. We all have our ways of whistling in the dark."

From House of Mirth by Edith Wharton & Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

From The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

From Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake & The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien

Pictures: The manuscript pages here are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) For modern manuscripts & writers' notebooks, go here for a wonderful post on the subject by Jackie Morris.

Words: The passage above comes from an essay published in I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory by Patricia Hampl (WW Norton & Co., 1999); all rights reserved by the author.


The language of moving

Goose Girl by Helen Allingham

The new issue of EarthLines (a magazine I highly recommend if you're not already a subscriber) is packed with treasures, including an insightful article on "The Language of Moving" by Alex Klaushofer. This captured my attention not only because I've moved many times myself over the course of my life (sometimes willingly, sometimes not, each move disruptive in its own way), but also because our daughter has recently moved back to Devon after several years of study and work in London -- and even such a relatively simple move, to a place already well-known and loved, has thrown up unexpected challenges, reminding me that there is a mythic quality to the act of pulling up roots and transplanting them. It's never truly simple, not on the practical level and especially not in the deeper, barely-conscious realm of dream, soul, and creative inspiration. 

In "The Language of Moving," Klaushofer's relocation from suburban London to the Cotswolds was one she'd chosen and long desired, yet the difficulty of the transition from one sort of life to another took her by surprise.  Moving, she says, "brought with it an uprooting, a displacing not acknowledged in the dominant discourse, especially not by those of my generation. Social talk about moving tends to focus relentlessly on the positive, with comments on the excitement that a new house and surroundings will bring. Perhaps not surpringly, since they come from a time when life was less atomized, it is older people who seem to understand the rupture involved in changing place.  My eighty-something godmother enquires solicitiously again and again as to how I am feeling: am I settling? Do I feel strange?"

Kentish Cottage by Helen Allingham

In the Spring by Helen Allingham

A little later in the article she comes back to the general absence of societal recognition of just how difficult moving can be:

"I'm coming to think that this absence is part of a broader lack in our language about our relation to place. Standard English has just one word for feelings of longing for a particular place: 'homesick.' The word implies a polarity: you are at home or away, and suggests the simple solution of going home; it carries no sense of the process of adapting to a new place or of mixed or complex feelings. Other languages of the British Isles do much better at capturing the range of feelings and experiences that make up the human attachment to place. Welsh has 'hiraeth,' a word that connotes a yearning for place that is lost or may not exist, a feeling of longing to be 'at home' in the sense of achieving a sense of belonging, of finding your paradise. Its cognate 'cynefin' denotes 'habitat' or 'customary abode'; the place which formed you, and with which you are most familiar. In a definition which encompasses cultural, social and geographical influences, Nicholas Sinclair describes it as 'the place of your birth and upbringing, the environment in which you live and to which you are naturally acclimatized.' The Scottish Gaelic 'dùthchas' conveys the collective nature of a heritage that connects people to a particular place, historically also the tribal system of land rights accorded to the members of a clan. The fact that the Scottish Gaelic equivalent of homesickness, nostalgia or longing for home, cianalas, has given rise to a genre of Gaelic poetry written by emigrees called bàrdachd cianalais is perhaps testament to how a profound sense of rootedness finds linguistic expression."

East End Farm by Helen Allingham

We think of moving as a straightforward proposition: the bags are packed, the house is emptied, the old door is shut and locked one final time, and then we're to the next adventure. Hey ho, here we go! We arrive in our new location: the suitcase is unpacked, the books placed in their new setting, morning coffee is poured into familiar cups but the kitchen window has a brand new view...yet after the relief that the move is finally "over" often comes a sense of...flatness. Of nameless anxiety. Of self-doubt and three-in-the-morning fears Dog and Hens by Helen Allinghamthat the move was a terrible mistake. This is all perfectly normal, we assure our daughter...and I remember friends making similar assurances to me after various uprootings. We don't move from one phase of life to another as easily and clearly as stepping through a door; there is a time of transition, a liminal space between there and here to be moved through as we re-form into the person who is going to live in this new place. The length of time is different for each move, but the one thing I've learned after all these years is that the mythic journey through the threshold of change is shorter, gentler, and less overwhelming if we remain aware of the transitional process, and accept it. Better still, respect it.

The Saucer of Milk by Helen Allingham

Klaushofer notes that we have more words in English for the various aspects of "attachment to place" when it comes to animals, not human beings. Such as this one from sheep husbandry:

" 'Hefting' describes the process by which a ewe learns, traditionally through its mother, to stay in one particular area; once 'hefted,' the hill farmer has no need to confine the flock with fences because it will naturally incline to one pasture.

"The existence of a word for the ovine attachment to place is a reminder that, in its sparsity, our language of place forgets that we too are animals, with a pre-cognitive, non-economic attachment to the places we inhabit. Like the fox I used to see patrolling the streets of south London at the same time and in the same order every day, humans also have their runs and routines, whether built around exercise, dog walking or errands, that reflect their attachement to their habitat. Yet in a post-agricultural society which fosters a belief in our independence from the earth we almost never think in these terms."

Apple Orchard by Helen Allingham

Settled in the Cotswolds, but not yet truly settled, Klausofer writes, "I'm aware that I haven't quite hefted, that I'm in the midst of a transition, the in-between time that goes unacknowledged in the dominant discourse about moving."

Hefted. That's a wonderful word, and one I will remember and use.

For further insights into the art of moving place, I recommend reading Klaushofer's article in full.

Beside Old Church Gate by Helen Allingham

The art today is by Helen Allingham (1848-1926), a Victorian painter, illustrator, and the first woman artist granted full membership in the Royal Watercolour Society. Born in Derbyshire, raised in Birmingham, Allingham was encouraged in art from an early age -- for both her grandmother and her aunt were professional artists, which was still unusual at that time. She studied art at the Birmingham School of Design, at the National Art Training School in London (now the Royal School of Art), and in night classes at the Slade -- where she met fellow illustrator Kate Greenaway, a life-long friend. Over the course of her professional career she illustrated books for both children and adults, and created art for national newspapers and popular magazines.

In 1874 she married the Scottish poet William Allingham (author of The Fairies: "Up the airy mountain/Down the rushy glen,/We daren't go a-hunting/For fear of little men..."). The couple moved from London to Sussex to raise their family, where Allingham fell in love with the rural landscape and began the work for which she is best known: watercolors of women, children, animals, and the country cottages of Sussex, Surrey, and Kent.

Although her work has largely fallen out of favor, castigated for its Victorian sentimentality, her gentle renditions of domestic life are known to have influenced many younger artists, including the young Vincent van Gogh (who found them in English magazines). In preparing this post, and thinking of artists whose work demonstrates a deep love of "place" and "home," Helen Allingham came immediately to mind.

Gathering Flowers by Helen Allingham

Wood Gatherer and Polly by Helen Allingham

Harvest Moon by Helen AllinghamThe passage above by Alex Klaushofer is from "The Language of Moving" (EarthLines: The Culture of Nature, edited by David Knowles & Sharon Blackie, July 2016); all rights reserved by the author. I highly recommend the article, as well as the rest of this excellent issue of EarthLines. A related post: Kith & Kin. A related article: The Folklore of Hearth & Home.


The hunger for narrative

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

In his great essay "The Power of Stories," Scott Russell Sanders explores ten primary reasons for telling and hearing stories. The first reason on his list is a simple one: Because they entertain us.

"Why else," he asks, "do we trade them so avidly, in myths and folktales, in poems and songs, movies and plays, novels and yarns, and countless other forms? Children tell stories spontaneously, exuberantly, even before they have enough words to fill out their sentences. Anyone who has made up a story for a child , or read one from a book, only to have the child beg for it again and again, night after night, knows that the need for story goes deep in us. Scheherazade kept a sultan from putting her to death by telling him stories, always breaking off in the middle of a plot at bedtime, leaving him eager for the next installment. You do not have to be a child or a bored sultan to hunger for stories, of course, nor a captive to be saved by them. We all hunger for narrative, from the simplest anecdote or joke to the most convoluted saga, as we hunger for bread or companionship or sunlight; and we all may be fed, and even restored, by a tale that speaks to our condition."

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Sanders goes on to note: "In all its guises, from words spoken and written to pictures and musical notes and mathmatical symbols, language is our distinguishing gift, our hallmark as a species. We delight in stories because they are a playground for language, an arena for exercising this extraordinary power. The spells and enchantments that figure in so many tales remind us of the ambiguous potency of words, for creating or destroying, for binding or setting free. Italo Calvino, a wizard of storytelling, described literature as 'a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary.' Calvino's remark holds true, I believe, not just for the highfalutin modes we label as literature, but for every effort to make sense of our lives through narrative."

The full essay can be found in Sander's essay collection The Force Spirit, and is highly recommended.

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

The art today is from a 1911 editon of The Stories of the Arabian Nights, illustrated by Edmund Dulac.

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Edmond Dulac was born and raised in Toulouse, France, where he spent two miserable years studying law before embracing art as his true vocation; he then studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse and the Académie Julien in Paris before moving to London in 1904. Obtaining his first illustration commission (for Charlotte Brontë's  Jane Eyre) at the age of 22, Dulac went on to become of one of the greatest book illustrators of his day, while also collaborating on various theatre projects (usually with his friends W. B. Yeats and Thomas Beecham) and becoming an expert in postage stamp design. He spent the rest of his life in England (changing the spelling of his name from Edmond to Edmund), became a British citizen in 1914, and continued to create his exquisite illustrations right up to his death in 1953.

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Night by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Nights by Edmund DulacThe passage above is from "The Power of Stories" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in his essay collection The Force of Spirit (Beacon Press, 2000); all rights reserved by the author.


Writers and readers

Hillside 1

Mossy oak

"A book, properly written, is an invitation for a reader to enter: to join with the writer in a creative act: the act of reading. A novel, it has been said, is a mechanism for generating interpretations. If interpretation is limited to what the author 'meant,' the creative opportunity has been missed. Each reading should a unique meeting, leading to a new interpretation. Nor should the writer's duty end at the text.

"Writing is solitary and isolate, but only in execution. I work alone, in an empty room; yet that work, though solitary, is not private. Somewhere, in another place and another time, which will become another here and another now, there will be a communication with another mind. My duty is first to the text, because the writer is, by writing, above all making a claim for excellence. In working the language, as a farmer works the land, we seek to strengthen it against abuse, to protect it against decay, to encourage it towards growth. We hope to leave the language a little better for our writing; and that writing is achieved only in isolation. Yet, at the end, there is always somebody, an unknowable 'you,' whom I wish to reach."

- Alan Garner (The Voice That Thunders)

Hillside 3

Hillside 4

The Voice That Thunders by Alan Garner

"The writer, functioning in a magical medium, an abstract medium, does one half of the work, but the reader does the other. The reader's mind becomes the screen, the place, the era. To a large extent, readers create the world from words, they invent the reality they read. Reading therefore is a co-production between writer and reader. The simplicity of this tool is astounding. So little, yet out of it whole worlds, eras, characters, continents, people never encountered before, people you wouldn't care to sit next to on a train, planets that don't exist, places you've never visited, enigmatic fates, all  come to life in the mind, painted into existence by the reader's creative powers. In this way, the creativity of the write calls up the creativity of the reader. Reading is never passive."

- Ben Okri (A Way of Being Free)

Hillside 5

"All sorts of pleasant and intelligent people read my books and write thoughtful letters about them. I don't know who they are, but they are marvelous and seem to live quite independly of the prejudices of advertising, journalism, and the cranky academic world. The room where I work has a window looking into a wood, and I like to think that these earnest, loveable, and mysterious readers are in there."  - John Cheever (quoted in The Writers' Desk by Jill Krementz)

Hillside 6

Hillside 7

"I can't write without a reader. It's precisely like a kiss -- you can't do it alone."  - John Cheever (Christian Science Monitor, 1979)

Hillside 8

Hillside 9

''Books. They are lined up on shelves or stacked on a table. There they are wrapped up in their jackets, lines of neat print on nicely bound pages. They look like such orderly, static things. Then you, the reader come along. You open the book jacket, and it can be like opening the gates to an unknown city, or opening the lid of a treasure chest. You read the first word and you're off on a journey of exploration and discovery.''  -  David Almond

The Writer's Desk

Wildflowers


The magic of the writer's craft

Path to the woodland gate

For Day 3 of Ben Okri Week, some thoughts on the writing process from his essay "Newton's Child," with a walk through the Devon woods among bluebells, poppies, and other wildflowers. Tilly, once again, is the Animal Guide who leads us to Faerieland....

Woodland gate

"Some writing is forceful, ambitious, and immediate," says Okri, "it is all there, it is sensual. Another kind of writing appears simple, does not add up to much on the page, and performs no somersaults. We think one kind of writing is better, but we are sometimes wrong, and sometimes right. When they work, both kinds of writing are gifts, and both can be magical."

Woodland wall

Woodland wall with bluebells

"The best kind of books...have a delightful mystery about them. They inexplicably create powerful feelings, images, moods, worlds, and parallel narratives the farther away in time you are from the reading.  They grow in time. They keep re-creating themselves in your consciousness, they keep growing, they keep becoming other books, till they become part of your experience, like something lived, or dreamed, or loved, or suffered.

"Further encounters with such books make them more. There is no final point of understanding with books that live."

Woodland path with bluebells

"Their effects cannot be aspired to. And writers can never be altogether sure that they have indeed created this rare and living thing. For their mysterious effect can only be felt silently, in the secret chambers of consciousness, in the depths of sleep and forgetfulness, in states of being where the magic of the words can work unseen."

Wild poppies

Woodland bluebells

"The highest kind of writing -- which must not be confused with the most ambitious kind -- belongs to the realm of grace. Talent is part of it, certainly; a thorough understanding of the secret laws, absolutely. But finding the subject and theme which is in perfect harmony with your deepest nature, your forgotten selves, your hidden dreams, and the full unreasonated essence of your life -- now that cannot be reached through searching, nor can it be stumbled upon through ambition. That sort of serendipity comes upon you on a lucky day. It may emerge even out of misfortune or defeat. You may happen upon it without realizing that this is the work through which your whole life will sing. We should always be ready. We should always be humble. Creativity should always be a form of prayer."

Moss and bluebells

"You cannot write well when you have no feelings and no thoughts on the subject. Perhaps when we have to write to order the ill-used creative self, bored with the business of irrelevant and joyless tasks, will simply refuse to come alive when you really need it. You could call the business of developing faulty internal relations."

Woodland path

Among the bluebells

Bluebells

The Fairy Tree

"There is no need to panic. The intelligence that shaped the universe shaped you. There is an inner part of us, forever obscured, forever mysterious,  which is most alive during the process of composition. And that inner part, that inner glow, is timeless, and it functions beyond time. It drinks from deep waters. It has the stillness and the dance and the radiance of the firmament. When one is most absorbed in the act of creation one almost feels that one is wandering in the great corridors of all minds. Creativity makes us part of it all. "

Still life of wildflowers, coffee, and book

The bench beneath the plum treePhotographs above: A walk through the woods early yesterday morning; a still life of wildflowers, coffee, and book; and Tilly on the bench beneath the plum tree in the studio garden...posted on a day when rain drums on the studio's tin roof and keeps us quietly indoors. The poem in the picture captions come from Lisel Mueller's gorgeous collection of poetry The Private Life. Ben Okri's "Newton's Child" can be found in his essay collection A Way of Being Free, pictured above. A previous post also discusses the ways that good books unfold over time: "In praise of re-reading."


The love of poets

WOOD 1

Wood 2

From "While the World Sleeps" by Ben Okri (from A Way of Being Free):

"The world in which the poet lives does not necessarily yield up the poetic. In the hands of the poet, the world is resistant. It is only with the searching and the molding that the unyielding world becomes transformed in a new medium of song and metaphor.

"It is not surprising therefore that poets seem to be set against the world. The poet needs to be up at night when the world sleeps; needs to be up at dawn, before the world wakes; needs to dwell in odd corners, where Tao is said to reside; needs to exist in dark places, where spiders forge their webs in silence; near the gutters, where the undersides of our dreams fester. Poets need to live where others don't care to look, and they need to do this because if they don't they can't sing to us of all the secret and public domains of our lives."

Wood 3

Wood 4

"The acknowledged legislators of the world take the world as given. They dislike mysteries, because mysteries cannot be coded, or legislated, and wonder cannot be made into law. And so these legislators police the accepted frontiers of things. Politicians, heads of state, kings, religious leaders, the rich and powerful -- they all fancy themselves the masters of this earthly kingdom. They speak to us of facts, policies, statistics, programs, abstract and severe moralities. But the dreams of the people are beyond them, and would trouble them. The harder realities of the people would alarm them. It is they who have curbed the poets' vision of reality. It is they who invoke the infamous 'poetic license' whenever they do not want to face the inescapable tragedy contained in, for example, Okibo's words, ' I have lived the oracle dry on the cradle of a new generation.' It is they who demand that poetry be partisan, that it take sides, usually their side; that it rises on the backs of causes and issues, their causes, their issues, whoever they may be.

Wood 5

"Our lives have become narrow enough. Our dreams strain to widen them, to bring our waking consciousness the awareness of greater discoveries that lie just beyond the limits of our sight. We must not force our poets to limit the world any further. That is a crime against life itself. If a poet begins to speak only of narrow things, of things we can effortlessly digest and recognize, of things that do not disturb, frighten, stir, or annoy us, or make us restless for more, make us cry for greater justice, make us want to set sail and explore inklings murdered in our youths, if the poet sings only of our restricted angels and in restricted terms and in restricted language, then what hope is there for any of us in this world?"

Wood 6

"The antagonists of poetry cannot win. The world seems resistant but carries within it for ever the desire to be transformed into something higher. The world may seem unyielding but, like invisible forces in the air, it merely waits imagination and will to unloosen the magic within itself."

Wood 7

Wood 8

"The poet as quantum physicist, as healer, as angel and demon of the world cannot afford to disdain the world, cannot feel superior to it any more than the scientist can feel superior to thunder, to mountains, or to the constellations. There are no superiorities of function, only ascendencies.

Wood 10

"Their love shows in the quality of their dreams and their works. The deeper poets feel, the deeper is their exploration. The more we want to reconnect, the more we would follow poets in their quest for impossible transformations. They measure the heroism of the consciousness of any age. It is true when they say that poets are never ahead of their times. It is only we who are far behind ours."

Wood 9

Poets, aye, and also, I believe, the best of our mythic artists too.

Wood 11

Wood 12Photographs: In the woods, and on the overgrown woodland boundary wall, at dawn on a chilly spring morning, with stitchwort, primroses, wild orchids, and bluebells. Searching for poetry "in the odd corners."


The magic of words

Woodwords 1

In her essay "A Gift of Wings," Jeanette Winterson gets to the core of what makes Virginia Woolf's work so compelling, and in doing so she evokes the magic inherent in the arts of writing and reading themselves.

"Unlike many novelists, then and now, she loved words," notes Winterson. "That is she was devoted to words, faithful to words, romantically attached to words, desirous of words. She was territory and words occupied her. She was night-time and words were the dream.

"The dream quality, which is a poetic quality, is not vague. For the common man it is the dream, if at all, that binds together in a new rationale, disparate elements. The job of the poet is to let the binding happen in daylight, to happen to the conscious mind, to delight and disturb the reader when the habitual pieces are put together in a new way.

Woodwords 2

"Above all, credulity is not strained. We should not come out of a book as we do from a dream, shaking our heads and rubbing our eyes and saying, 'It didn't really happen.' In poetry, in drama, in opera, in painting, in the best fiction, it really does happen, and is happening all the time, this other place where, as strong and compelling as our own daily world, as believable, and yet with a very strangeness that prompts us to recall that there are more things in heaven and earth and that those things are solider than dreams.

Woodwords 3

"They may prove solider than real life, as we fondly call the jumble of accidents, characters and indecisions that collect around us without our noticing. The novelist notices, tries to make us clearer to ourselves, tries to set the liquid day, and because of this we read novels. We do hope to see ourselves, as much out of vanity as for instruction. Nothing wrong with that but there is further to go and it is this further than only poetry can take us. Like the novelist, the poet notices, focuses, sharpens, but for the poet that is the beginning. The poet will not be satisfied with recording, the poet will have to transform. It is language, magic wand, cast of spells, that makes transformation possible."

Woodwords 4

The poet does this, yes, and the poetic fiction writer, and especially, I believe, the poets and fiction writers working in the field of Mythic Arts. Casting spells with language and telling tales of transformation are, after all, the very point of this alchemical genre in which elements of poetry, prose, myth, fairy tale, and dream are carefully combined, turning lead, and straw, and language, and life itself into pure gold.

Woodwords 5

As Ursula Le Guin said in her essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" (in a passage I quote often, because it's just so true):

"Fantasy is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not antirational, but pararational; not realistic but surrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud's terminology, it employs primary, not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes, which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe. And their guides, the writers of fantasy, should take their responsibilities seriously....A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like pyschoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you."

Powerful word magic indeed.

Woodwords 6

Woodwords 7

Returning to the essay "A Gift of Wings," Winterson describes Virginia Woolf as a writer who "is not afraid of beauty. She is as sensitive to the natural world as any poet and as physical in response as any lover. She is not afraid of pain. The dark places attract her as well as the light and she has the wisdom to know that not all dark places need light. She has the cardinal virtue of critical courage."

That, I believe, is what we, too, must strive for. The love of words shared by all good writers and all good readers is the magic that will show us how.

A Gift of WingsWinterson's essay can be found in her collection Art Objects (1995), Le Guin's in her collection The Language of the Night (1979). And speaking of the magic of language, I highly recommend Lisa Stock's photography series "The Nourishment of Words." It's simply delightful.


The power of words

In the studio

"To be read. To be heard. To be seen. I want to be read, I want to be heard. I don't need to be seen. To write requires an ego, a belief that what you say matters. Writing also requires an aching curiosity leading you to discover, uncover, what is gnawing at your bones. Words have a weight to them. How you choose to present them and to whom is a matter of style and choice."

- Terry Tempest Williams (When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice)

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"Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts."

- Patrick Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind)

"If you say a word, it leaps out and becomes the truth. I love you. I believe it. I believe I am loveable. How can something as fragile as a word build a whole world?"

 -  Franny Billingsley (Chime)

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''I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.''  - Emily Dickinson

Studio window


The eye and the ear

Wild daffodils

"Ancient man took in the world mainly by listening, and listening meant remembering. Thus humans both shaped and were shaped by the oral tradition. The passage of culture went from mouth to ear to mouth. The person who did not listen well, who was tone deaf to the universe, was soon dead. The finest rememberers and the most attuned listeners were valued: the poets, the storytellers, the shamans, the seers. In culture after culture, community after community, the carriers of the oral tradition were honored. For example, in ancient Ireland the ollahms, the poet-singers, were more highly thought of than the king. The king was only given importance in times of war....

"But the eye and ear are different listeners, are difference audiences. And the literary storyteller is one who must bring eye and ear into synchronization. But it is a subtle art. Just as the art of typography has been called 'the art invisible,' subliminal in the sense that it changes or manipulates the reader's perceptions without advertising its own presence, so, too, the art of storytelling in the printed book must persuade and capitvate. It must hold the reader as the spoken tale holds the listener, turning the body to stone but not the mind or heart."  - Jane Yolen (Touch Magic)

Tilly and the daffodils

"The difficulty for me in writing -- among the difficulties -- is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything. Now for that, one has to work very carefully with what is in between the words. What is not said. Which is measure, which is rhythm, and so on. So, it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power." - Toni Morrison ("The Art of Fiction," The Paris Review)

Wild daffodils

"One method of revision that I find both loathsome and indespensible is reading my work aloud when I'm finished. There are things I can hear -- the repetition of words, a particularly flat sentence -- that I don't otherwise catch. My friend Jane Hamilton, who is a paragon of patience, has me read my novels to her once I finish. She'll lie across the sofa, eyes closed, listening, and from time to time she'll raise her hand. 'Bad metaphor,' she'll say, or 'You've already used the word inculcate.' She's never wrong."   - Ann Patchett ("The Getaway Car," This is the Story of a Happy Marriage)

Wild daffodils

"I've always tried out my material on my dogs first. You know, with Angel, he sits there and listens and I get the feeling he understands everything. But with Charley, I always felt he was just waiting to get a word in edgewise. Years ago, when my red setter chewed up the manuscript of Of Mice and Men, I said at the time that the dog must have been an excellent literary critic." - John Steinbeck (Journal of a Novel)

Wild daffodils

Daffodils on the kitchen tableAbove: Wild daffodils in the woods, and in a jar on the kitchen table.