Recommended Reading

Leisure by William Worcester Churchill

I haven't posted a list of Recommended Reading in a while, so here are a few of the things that caught my eye over the last couple of months:

"Misogyny in Fairy Tales" and "Old Women (and Some Old Men) in Fairy Tales," two of Katherine Langrish's best fairy tale essays yet (Seven Miles of Steel Thistles)

"Grimmer Than Most Fairy Tales: Five Retellings of Bluebeard " by Rachel Ayers (Tor.com)
For a history of the fairy tale, see my essay  "Bluebeard and the Bloody Chamber"

"John Crowley's Little, Big: A Fantasy Masterpiece Turns 40" by Jonathan Thornton (Tor.com)

"Neil Gaiman's Sandman taught me to be courageous in writing" by Susanna Clarke (The Guardian)

"Puck, Dreams and the Devil" by Rob Maslen (The City of Lost Books)

"Once, Twice, Thrice Upon a Time," three fairy-tale-inspired picture books/comics reviewed by Ben Hatke (The New York Times)

Lettura Patricotic Reading by Alcide Davide Campestrini

"On Mistaking Whales" by Bathsheba Demuth (Granta)

"Thirteen to One: New Stories for An Age of Disaster" by Marie Mutsuki Mockett (Emergence Magazine)

"The Stories I Haven't Been Told" by Jamie Figueroa (Emergence Magazine)

"Perth Poetry Festival Keynote Speech" by Annamaria Weldon (WA Poets Inc)

"Make It a Love Story" by Sophie Strand (FB post, 14 Sept)

"Atascosa Borderlands" by Jack Dash and Luke Swenson (Emergence Magazine)

"The Other House: Musings on the Diné Perspective of Time" by Jake Skeets (Emergence Magazine)

"Remember" (poem) by Joy Harjo (Emergence Magazine)

"Take Place" by Terry Tempest Williams, on the work of N. Scott Momaday (Paris Review)

"Hiraeth and Hwyl," a series of lovely essays curated by Pamela Petro (The Clearing)
...follow the link and read from the bottom post upward

"As the Seasons Progress: the Wood Engravings of Claire Leighton" by Angie Lewin (Caught by the River)

"On Stealing Time to Make Art in an Overcrowded Life" by Jackie Morris (LitHub)

"In Praise of the Meander" by Rebecca Solnit (LitHub)

Schoolgirls Reading by Nikolai Petrovitch and Josephina Reading by Antonio López

And some Recommended Listening:

"Happily Ever After: Escaping the Forests of Loneliness," with Jack Zipes, Paul Quinn, and Maria Tatar (Apostrophe

"Kinship: Belonging in the World," a conversation between Robin Wall Kimmerer, John Hausdoerffer, and Gavin Van Horn (Point Reyes Books). You can also read a transcript here (Orion Magazine).

"Kinship & Belonging in a World of Relations," a conversation between Gavin Van Horn and Rowan White (Cultivating Place)

"Connecting to the land through traditional tales" with storyteller Lisa Schneidau (RestoryingTheEarth.com)

"From Spare Oom to War Drobe," Katherine Langerish discusses her new book about Narnia (All About Jack: A C.S. Lewis Podcast)

"The Infernal Riddle of Historical Fantasy," a terrific conversation between L.J. MacWhirter, James Treadwell, Fraser Dallachy, Rob Maslen (The Centre for Fantasy & the Fantastic) ...and in relation to the discussion of creating systems of magic when writing fantasy, I also recommend this 2012 post by N.K. Jemisin and the conversation in the comments below (recently brought back to my attention by Charlie Jane Anders). Also Lev Grossman's 2015 lecture at Tolkien's old college in Oxford: "Fear and Loathing in Aslan's Land."

"The Hare - Old Turpin, Fast Traveller," a folk music playlist of songs about the folklore of hares (Folk Radio UK) For more on hare magic: The Folklore of Rabbits & Hares and Following the Hare. For an audio drama based on Fay Hield's song "Hare Spell" go here.

A Student, Paris, by Ethel Pennewill Brown Leach

The art above is "Leisure" by William Worcester Churchill, "Lettura Patricotic Reading" by Alcide Davide Campestrini, "Schoolgirls Reading" by Nikolai Petrovitch, J"osephina Reading" by Antonio López, and "A Student, Paris," by Ethel Pennewill Brown Leach.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Lady Playing a Lute by Bartolomeo Vento (1502–31)

On a cold and quiet morning here in Devon, let's start the week with the music of Renaissance composer, lutenist, and singer John Dowland.

Above: Dowland's "Now, O Now I Needs Must Part" (from The First Book Of Songs Or Ayres, 1597) performed by Les Canards Chantants (Sarah Holland, Robin Bier, Edd Ingham, Graham Bier). The group was founded in England in 2011, and is now based in Philadelphia. 

Below: Dowland's "Can She Excuse My Wrongs" (from The First Booke of Songes or Ayres, 1597) performed by Vivid Consort (Christine Gnigler, Sheng-Fang Chiu, Lorina Vallaster) with lutenist David Bergmüller. Vivid Consort is an Early Music trio based in Vienna.

Above: Dowland's "Lachrimae" (fromLachrimæ or seaven teares, 1604) performed by Christopher Morrongiello, a British lutenist and music scholar based in New York. The video was filmed in the Chapel from Le Château de la Bastie d’Urfé at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Below: Dowland's "Go Nightly Cares" (from A Pilgrimes Solace, 1612) performed by Amarylli (Hannah Grove, vocals, and Elizabeth Pallett, lute), a fine British duo specialising in the repertoire for lute and voice from the 16th and 17th centuries. 

Above:  a modern interpretation of Dowland's "Come Again" (from The First Book Of Songs Or Ayres, 1597) performed by singer Lena Kuchling and electric bassist Georg Buxhofer, both from Austria. The video was filmed at Schloss Pielach in Melk in 2020.

Below Dowland's "Tarleton's Jig" (written in memory of Richard Tarleton, a comic actor of the Elizabethan age) performed on baroque oboe, baroque violin and baroque harp by Spirit & Pleasure (Monika Nielen, Christoph Mayer, Johanna Seitz), from Germany.  

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

The art above is "Lady Playing a Lute" by Bartolomeo Vento (1502–31) and a book decoration by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).


Gracious acceptance

White Tower by William Bailey

Yesterday we were reflecting on creativity and the art of gift-giving ... and the other side of that coin, of course is the art of gift-receiving. If we're to have a balanced, creatively fecund life we must practice both with equal skill. But as Alexander McCall Smith points out (in his novel Love Over Scotland), the act that he calls gracious acceptance is "an art which most never bother to cultivate. We think that we have to learn how to give, but we forget about accepting things, which can be much harder than giving."

"Until we can receive with an open heart," notes psychologist Brené Brown astutely, "we're never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help."

"Human life runs its course in the metamorphosis between receiving and giving," the German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote -- and art-making, too, thrives in the space where giving and receiving dance in partnership. We take in the gifts of inspiration, shape them to our purposes, and then pass those gifts along through our stories, paintings, and other creative works.

Ceremony by William Bailey

To be skilled in the art of "gracious acceptance" is to be wide-open and receptive to the gifts the muses bring, and this skill, it seems to me, is helped or hindered by one's perception of the emotion of gratitude. There are those for whom gratitude is an uncomfortable, weakening, even shameful feeling; while others of us experience gratitude in a warm and positive manner, perceiving its ties as chords of connection, not heavy chains of obligation.

The narrator of Elizabeth Berg's novel Open House is clearly in the latter camp: "I made cranberry sauce," she tells us, "and when it was done put it into a dark blue bowl for the beautiful contrast. I was thinking, doing this, about the old ways of gratitude: Indians thanking the deer they'd slain, grace before supper, kneeling before bed. I was thinking that gratitude is too much absent in our lives now, and we need it back, even if it only takes the form of acknowledging the blue of a bowl against the red of cranberries."

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Mary Oliver, too, is a writer who seems to follow Meister Erkhart's dictum that "if the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough" -- for every poem she writes is a hymn of gratitude for the commonplace marvels of daily living. Take her 1992 poem "Morning," for example:

Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stretching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.

Still life by William Bailey

Art-making, like gift-giving, requires two separate actions: giving and receiving, both of them equally important. We breathe in the world and push it out again: inhaling, exhaling; the cycle kept in motion; never resting for too long on one side and not the other. The perpetual giver, like the perpetual receiver, is an artist (and a person) out of balance, in danger of draining the creative well dry. It's hard work, and it's humbling work, to master both roles equally, including whichever one we find the hardest -- but that's precisely the task that art (and life) demands of us.

"The reality of all life is interdependence," notes cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. "We need to compose our lives in such a way that we both give and receive, learning to do both with grace, seeing both as parts of a single pattern rather than as antithetical alternatives."

Still Life by William Bailey

''It is easy to love and sing one’s love,"  writes author and critic Hélène Cixous. "That is something I am extremely good at doing. Indeed, that is my art. But to be loved, that is true greatness. Being loved, letting oneself be loved, entering the magic and dreadful circle of generosity, receiving gifts, finding the right 'thank-you's, that is love’s real work.''

Indeed it is.

Still Life by William Bailey

The quietly beautiful still life paintings here today are by the American artist William Bailey, who died last year at age 89. Born in Iowa in 1930, educated at the University of Kansas, he served in the Army in Korea and Japan and then came home to study under Josef Albers at the Yale School of Art. He then went on to teach at Yale, Cooper Union, the University of Pennsylvania, and Indiana University. A major exhibition of his work was mounted at the Yale University Art Gallery in 2019/2020: "William Bailey: Looking Through Time."

Still Life by William Bailey

"Morning" by Mary Oliver is fromNew and Selected Poems(Beacon Press, 1992). All rights to poem, quotes, and art above reserved by the authors and artist.


In the gift-giving season

Gifts

Every year about this time I get requests to re-post this piece on gifts and creativity, so here it is....

I've been thinking a lot about gifts lately, in all the various meanings of the word -- prompted, of course, by the season of holiday gift-giving that is upon us.

Bunny GiftsHere in Covid-ravaged Britain, where work and money are increasingly scarce for those in freelance and arts professions (which are precarious even at the best of times), a truly frightening number of people are struggling just to put food on the table and keep the lights on overhead. And then comes Christmas, with its lovely old traditions but overwhelming modern expectations; with its roots planted in the good soil of family, community, folklore, and sacred stories, but its leaves unfurled in the toxic air of commercialism and over-consumption.

Some of us cherish the holiday; some of us simply cope with it and then sigh with relief when it's all over; some of us re-shape it into something more nurturing and reflective of our own ideals; some of us turn our backs on it altogether; and some of us weren't raised with Christmas at all, but simply watch while the rest of the Western world goes crazy for a few weeks every year.

I love the spirit of Christmas gift-giving, but not the commercial pressure to shop and spend -- especially in these lean financial times when life is hard, even desperate, for so many. I also prefer to view gift-exchange as a daily part of life, not something confined to the holidays. We gift each other with meals prepared, with gardens tended, with the chores that keep a household running, with kindness, patience, care, attention...a constant giving-and-receiving that starts at home and extends into the world through friendship, community, and activism.

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Making art is a form of gift-giving, made wondrous by the way that some of our creations move outward far beyond our ken, gifting recipients we do not know, will never meet, and sometimes could never imagine. And I, in turn, have received great gifts from writers, painters, musicians, dramatists and others who will never know of my existence either, and yet their words, images, or ideas, coming to me at the right time, have literally saved me.

The paradox inherent in making art, of course, is that it's an act involving both giving and receiving. Like breathing, it requires both, the inhalation and the exhalation. We receive the gift of inspiration (inhale), give it shape and form and pass it on (exhale).

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 The word "gift" itself is commonly used to describe artistic talent: she's a gifted cellist, he's a gifted poet. But where does that "gift" of inspiration come from? In semi-secular modernity, we tend to be politely vague about such things -- but in her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert has an unusual answer to the question:

"I should explain," she says, "at this point that I've spent my entire life in devotion to creativity, and along the way I've developed a set of beliefs about how it works -- and how to work with it -- that is entirely and unapologetically based upon magical thinking. And when I refer to magic here, I mean it literally. Like, in the Hogwarts sense. I am referring to the supernatural, the mystical, the inexplicable, the surreal, the divine, the transcendent, the otherworldly. Because the truth is, I believe that creativity is a force of enchantment -- not entirely human in its origins....

"I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a dis-embodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us -- albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human's efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the material world."

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Rationalists will scoff at Gilbert's words, but there's enough mysticism in my own beliefs that her concept of creativity doesn't seem so very far-fetched to me; indeed, my only quibble with the paragraph above is that I'm not entirely convinced that those ideas necessarily require a human partner. (Perhaps animals and others with whom we share the planet have art forms of their own that we don't yet perceive.)

A little later in the book, Gilbert writes about creative work in terms that even the rationalists among us might recognize: "Most of my writing life, to be perfectly honest, is not freaky, old-time, voodoo-style Big Magic. Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous, disciplined labor. I sit at my desk, and I work like a farmer, and that's how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least.

"But sometimes it is fairy dust. Sometimes, when I'm in the midst of writing, I feel like I'm suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks you find in an airport terminal; I still have a long slog to my gate, and my baggage is still heavy, but I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force. Something is carrying me along -- something powerful and generous -- and that something is decidedly not me....

"I only rarely experience this feeling, but it's the most magnificent sensation imaginable when it arrives. I don't think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state, except perhaps falling in love. In ancient Greek, the word for the highest degree of human happiness is eudaimonia, which basically means 'well-daemoned' -- that is, nicely taken care of by some external divine creative spirit guide."

(We've discussed the Greco-Roman idea of "creative daemons" in a previous post. Go here if you'd like to know more.)

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C.S. Lewis, writing from a Christian perspective, also noted the mystical quality of creative inspiration:

"In the Author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not.  When these two things click you have the Author’s impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring  into that Form as  the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar. This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It’s like being in love."

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"The artist's gift refines the materials of perception or intuition that have been bestowed upon him," says Lewis Hyde in his masterful book on the subject, The Gift: Creativity & the Artist in the Modern World. "To put it another way, if the artist is gifted, the gift increases in its passage through the self. The artist makes something higher than what he has been given, and this, the finished work, is the third gift, the one offered to the world."

Madeleine L'Engle was of a similar mind. In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art she wrote: "'We, and I think I'm speaking for many writers, don't know what it is that sometimes comes to make our books alive. All we can do is write dutifully and day after day, every day, giving our work the very best of what we are capable. I don't think that we can consciously put the magic in; it doesn't work that way. When the magic comes, it's a gift.''

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“If," L'Engle added, "the work comes to the artist and says, 'Here I am, serve me,' then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist's talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, 'Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.' "

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"One of the things we continue to learn from Native Peoples," says Terry Tempest Williams, "is that stories are our medicine bundles. I feel that way about our essays, our poems, our fictions. That it is the artist who carries the burden of the storyteller. Terrence Des Pres speaks of a prose witness that relies on the imagination to respond to the world as we see it, feel it, and dare to ask the questions that will not let us sleep. Imagination. Attention to details. Making the connections. Art -- right words to station the mind and hold the heart ready."

The gift of paying attention, of witnessing others' lives and passing the "medicine" of their stories, our stories, from generation to generation is the particular gift required of us as artists. Not only of us, but especially of us; in whatever artform we chose to work in.

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Jane Yolen puts it most succinctly. "Touch magic," she says, "and pass it on."

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The quotes above are from Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (Riverhead Books, 2015); "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's To Be Said" by C.S. Lewis (The New York Times, November 18, 1956); The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property by Lewis Hyde (Vintage, 1983); Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L'Engle  (WaterBrook, 2001); a conversation between Terry Tempest Williams, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, and Mary Hussmann (The Iowa Review, Spring 1997); and Touch Magic by Jane Yolen (Philomel, 1981). All rights reserved by the authors. The painting above is my "Bunny Gifts."

Related posts: On the care and feeding of daemons, Knowing the world as a gift, Telling the Holy, and Daily grace.